Tag Archives: Russia

Tisha B’Av: The Untold Story of Napoleon and the Jews

Tisha b’Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. This holiday commemorates many historical tragedies, most significantly the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. One of the most common stories heard on Tisha b’Av is about Napoleon walking by a Paris synagogue on this day, hearing the lamentations and loud weeping of the Jews. In the story, he asks what the Jews are crying about, and after being told about the destruction of the Temple nearly two millennia ago, apparently remarks something along the lines of: “A nation that cries and fasts for 2,000 years for their land and Temple will surely be rewarded with their Temple.”

Hearing this story immediately sets off some alarms. Firstly, Napoleon was no ignoramus, and was certainly well aware of the destruction of the Temple (after all, the Temple is featured in the “New Testament” and plays an important role in Christian history as well). More notably, Napoleon was a military man his entire life; his biography is the very definition of a tough guy. This man lived by the sword—it is highly unlikely that he would praise people for sitting and crying about something.

In fact, the myth of Napoleon and Tisha b’Av has been debunked multiple times (see here for example). One of the earliest known sources of the legend is a Yiddish article from 1912, later included in the 1924 American Jewish Yearbook, and similarly appearing in a 1942 book called Napoleon in Jewish Folklore. Here, we are given a far more logical version of the story: After hearing the weeping of the Jews in a synagogue in Vilnius, Napoleon points to his sword and says, “This is how to redeem Palestine.”

Napoleon and the Jews

An 1806 depiction of Napoleon emancipating the Jews

Napoleon would actually play a tremendous role in Jewish history, and might even be credited with starting the process of “redeeming Palestine”. It was Napoleon that ushered in the “emancipation” of Jews in Europe. Wherever he conquered, he would free the Jews from the ghettos, and give them equal rights. In France, he went so far as to declare Judaism one of the state’s official religions in 1807. Napoleon also famously sought (and failed) to re-establish the Sanhedrin.

These actions brought upon him the ire of many of his contemporaries, especially Czar Alexander of Russia, who branded Napoleon the “Anti-Christ” for liberating the despised Jews. Moscow’s religious authority at the time proclaimed:

In order to destroy the foundations of the Churches of Christendom, the Emperor of the French has invited into his capital all the Judaic synagogues and he furthermore intends to found a new Hebrew Sanhedrin—the same council that the Christian Bible states condemned to death (by crucifixion) the revered figure, Jesus of Nazareth.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe” (1745-1812)

Of course, most Jews were ecstatic, and relished their newly acquired liberties. It became common for Jews to name their children “Napoleon”, or adopt the last name “Schöntheil”, the German translation of “Bonaparte”. Yet, not all Jews were happy about this development. The Alter Rebbe—founder of Chabad, who lived during the times of Napoleon—wrote the following in one of his letters:

If Bonaparte will be victorious, Jewish wealth will increase, and the prestige of the Jewish people will be raised; but their hearts will disintegrate and be distanced from their Father in Heaven. But if Alexander will be victorious, although Israel’s poverty will increase and their prestige will be lowered, their hearts will be joined, bound and unified with their Father in Heaven…

The Alter Rebbe thus fled from the approaching French forces, inspired his followers to do the same, and even supported the Russian military. He was right about Bonaparte. Napoleon had no interest whatsoever in seeing the Jews flourish as Jews, or practice their religion proudly. His intentions were clear: the complete assimilation of the Jews into European society. It was Napoleon that first permitted Jews to serve in the military, openly stating that “Once part of their youth will take its place in our armies, they will cease to have Jewish interests and sentiments; their interests and sentiments will be French.”

As it turned out, opening the doors for Jews to serve in the French military would lead to the proliferation of the Zionist movement, and the establishment of the State of Israel.

France and Israel

1899 Guth painting of Alfred Dreyfus for Vanity Fair

In 1894, Theodor Herzl was a young journalist working in Paris. He was covering the infamous “Dreyfus affair”, where a Jewish captain in the French military, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly accused of treason. During this time, Herzl witnessed the extreme anti-Semitism of the French firsthand. He realized that no matter how much the Jews assimilate, they would still never be accepted into European society, and reasoned that the Jews must have their own free state. Thus, it was a Jewish soldier in the French military—what Napoleon so dearly wanted—which catapulted the Zionist movement.

Interestingly, Napoleon himself seemed to have supported the notion of a Jewish state in Israel. In 1799, before he was emperor, and while besieging the city of Acre in Israel, Napoleon issued a proclamation inviting “all the Jews of Asia and Africa to gather under his flag in order to re-establish the ancient Jerusalem. He has already given arms to a great number, and their battalions threaten Aleppo.” Ultimately, the British defeated Napoleon’s forces, and the plan never materialized.

Nonetheless, Napoleon’s role in igniting the flames of Zionism cannot be overlooked. Zionism was primarily a secular movement, its most fervent supporters being assimilated European Jews who, like Herzl, were frustrated that they were still hated and unwanted in European society. This secularism was a direct result of Napoleon’s campaigns. Without his spearheading of the Jewish “emancipation”, it is doubtful that there would have ever been a Zionist movement to begin with.

And although there is much to criticize about Zionism, these mostly secular European Jews succeeded in re-establishing a free Jewish state in the Holy Land after two very long millennia. Yes, the Israeli government is unfortunately secular, and Mashiach has not yet come, and there is a great deal of work to do to restore a proper Jewish kingdom as God intended. However, the State of Israel allowed for the majority of Jews to return to their homeland, escape persecution, live openly as Jews, fulfil mitzvot only possible in the Holy Land, and travel freely to Jerusalem. Israel is undoubtedly paving the way for the Final Redemption, which is why many great rabbis of recent times have described it as reshit tzmichat geulatenu, the first steps of the redemption.

It is therefore fitting that the gematria of “France” (צרפת), where the whole process began, is 770, a number very much associated with redemption as it is equivalent to בית משיח, the “House of Mashiach”. Ironically, this number is most special for Chabad—the same Chabad that so resisted Napoleon and the French! (And at the same time, adopted the tune of Napoleon’s military band as their own niggun, still known as “Napoleon’s March” and traditionally sung on Yom Kippur!)

Most beautifully, it appears to have all been predicted long ago by the Biblical prophet Ovadia, who prophesied (v. 17-21):

And Mount Zion shall be a refuge, and it shall be holy; and the house of Jacob shall possess their heritage… And they shall possess the Negev, the mount of Esau, and the Lowland, with the [land of the] Philistines; and they shall possess the field of Ephraim, and the field of Samaria; and Benjamin with Gilead. And the great exile of the children of Israel, that are wandering as far as צרפת [France], and the exile of Jerusalem that is in Sepharad, shall possess the cities of the Negev. And saviours shall come upon Mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be God’s.


The article above is an excerpt from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book! 

How Jewish History Confirms God’s Promise to Abraham

Abraham's Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

Abraham’s Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

Lech Lecha begins with God’s famous command to Abraham to leave the comforts of his home and journey forth to a new beginning in the Holy Land. God promises Abraham (at that point still known as “Abram”) that he will become a great nation, and that God will “bless those who bless you, and the ones who curse you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). God’s covenant with Abraham passed down to his son Isaac, and then to Isaac’s son Jacob, who fathered twelve sons that became the twelve tribes of Israel. God confirmed his promise to the twelve tribes through the prophet Bilaam, who saw “Israel dwelling tribe by tribe, and the spirit of God came upon him” and he famously remarked, “how goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwellings, oh Israel!” before prophesying that “blessed be those who bless you, and cursed be those who curse you.” (Numbers 24:2-9)

Over three millennia have passed since that time, and as we look back though history, we can see how accurately this prediction has been realized. It began with the twelve sons of Jacob, whom the Ancient Egyptians welcomed to their land and initially treated exceedingly well (thanks to Joseph, who saved Egypt from seven years of extreme famine, and then made the kingdom very rich). As time went on, the Israelites multiplied and prospered in Egypt. In a pattern that would repeat itself countless times throughout history, the natives started to become a little weary (and jealous) of the foreigners. Israel was soon subjugated and enslaved. This brought God’s plagues upon Egypt, and the empire was destroyed. Ancient Egypt’s decline steadily continued from that point, and it would never restore its former glory.

Historians recognize three great ages within Ancient Egypt’s past; the last “golden age” was in the New Kingdom period (1549-1069 BCE), approximately when the Israelites would have been dwelling there. Once Israel left, Egypt’s greatness would soon evaporate, and it would be nothing more than a vassal for the rest of its history – to Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

The next major oppressors of Israel were the Assyrians, who destroyed the northern Israelite Kingdom and exiled its tribes. It wasn’t long before the Babylonians overtook the Assyrians. Once the Babylonians themselves destroyed the southern Kingdom of Judah (and the Holy Temple), their own fate was sealed, and it was just 70 years before the Persians took over. The Persian emperor Cyrus treated the Jews very well, allowing them to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. He was so good that he is described in the Tanakh as God’s anointed – mashiach! (Isaiah 45:1)

When Persian attitudes towards Israel started to turn sour, the Greeks under Alexander the Great quickly became the new rulers. Jews and Hellenists enjoyed very good relations for some two centuries. In the 2nd century BCE, the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) attempted to totally assimilate the Jews into their culture. They failed miserably – as celebrated during Chanukah – and soon disappeared from history, being overtaken by the Romans from the West and the Parthians from the East.

Ancient Empires, clockwise from top left: Assyrian Empire (with deportations of Israelites), Babylonian Empire at its height, the Persian Empire under Cyrus and his Achaemenid dynasty, empire of Alexander the Macedonian (Alexander the Great)

Ancient Empires, clockwise from top left: Assyrian Empire (with deportations of Israelites); Babylonian Empire at its height; the Persian Empire under Cyrus and his Achaemenid dynasty; empire of Alexander the Macedonian (Alexander the Great)

Relations with Rome were good, too, at first. During this time, Rome experienced its own golden age, beginning with the emperor Augustus. Unfortunately, Rome was soon busy quelling the province of Judea and destroying the Second Temple in Jerusalem. At the very same time, Rome was thrust into a difficult period of civil war. In the same year that the Temple was destroyed, Rome had its “Year of Four Emperors”.

Coins minted by Bar Kochva

Coins minted by Bar Kochva

In 132-135 CE, Rome and Israel were at war again, with the latter lead by Shimon Bar Kochva. After mounting an impressive resistance, Bar Kochva’s rebellion was put down. Just 45 years later, Rome enjoyed the last of its “Five Good Emperors” (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who some identify with the Talmud’s “Antoninus”, the close friend of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi). Marcus Aurelius’ successor, Commodus, was a madman who ushered in Rome’s slow decline (as depicted pseudo-historically in the film Gladiator). The ancient historian Dio Cassius marked the year 180 CE – when Commodus took power – as the point at which the Roman Empire began to change “from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron.”

Silver coins minted by Bahram V

Silver coins minted by Bahram V

Many of the Jews who fled the Roman Empire moved to the Sasanian (or Sassanid) Persian Empire. The Sasanians treated Jews remarkably well, and were in turn blessed with prosperity and riches. It was during this time, in the “Babylon” of the Sasanians, that the Talmud was compiled. Jews were granted semi-autonomy within the empire and had their own representative to the government, known as the Reish Galuta, or exilarch. Sasanian kings even married Jewish women, and one of the most famous of Sasanian kings, the legendary Bahram V (r. 421-438 CE), was the son of the Jewish princess Shushandukht. Unfortunately, his successor, Yazdegerd II (r. 438-457), started persecuting religious minorities within the empire and force-fed the state religion of Zoroastrianism. (Some say he was motivated to persecute Jews because of a prophecy that Mashiach would come on the 400th anniversary of the Temple’s destruction.)

Sasanian and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires before the rise of Islam

Sasanian and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires before the rise of Islam

At the beginning of the sixth century, a Zoroastrian priest named Mazdak gained a large following and created a new religious sect that even attracted the king, Kavadh I. This thrust the empire into all sorts of religious turmoil, within which the Reish Galuta, Mar Zutra II, led his own rebellion and managed to establish an independent Jewish city-state in Mahoza. This did not last long, as the king captured Mar Zutra and had him crucified. The office of the Reish Galuta was disbanded at this point. Not surprisingly, the Sasanian Empire wouldn’t last very long after this. The office of the Reish Galuta would soon be re-established by the invading Muslim Arabs, who completely overran the Sasanian Empire.

The same pattern then occurred with the Muslims themselves, who initially treated the Jews of their domain quite well. Jews welcomed the Arab conquerors and saw them as “liberators”. Over time, persecution of Jews became more common. In 1040, the last Reish Galuta (and last of the Gaonim, “geniuses”) Hezekiah, was tortured and killed, and the position of the exilarch was abolished permanently. Hezekiah’s sons fled to Spain, where the Muslim rulers were more tolerant.

As is well known, Jews in Spain experienced a “golden age” of their own during this time. But here, too, they would be victimized by the Muslim rulers. The Muslims were soon driven out of the peninsula by the Christian kingdoms. The expulsion of the Jews by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella followed shortly after.

Sultan Bayezid II

Sultan Bayezid II

A large majority of the Jews settled in the Ottoman Empire, where the Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them. In fact, with regards to this the Sultan said, “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man but he is a fool. For he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.” Assisted by the influx of Jews, the Ottoman Empire flourished. Meanwhile in Spain, Isabella died and Ferdinand was unable to hold onto the kingdom. It was soon taken over by the Austrian Habsburgs.

In 1656, Jews were permitted to return to England, and it wasn’t long before the British Empire became the greatest the world has ever known. A similar fate awaited the United States, where many Jews found refuge. (And were instrumental in its founding and success. In fact, one of the main financiers of the American Revolution was a Jew named Haym Solomon.) It isn’t difficult to understand why the Soviet Union lost the Cold War against the U.S. so quickly and so dramatically, as Russia and the USSR never had much tolerance for its Jews, while the United States was just about always a safe place for them.

fuguOf course, history is far more complex than the simple narrative presented above, and there are many factors in the rise and fall of empires. However, there is indeed a clear pattern: Where Jews are treated well, the state flourishes and prospers; when Jews are persecuted and expelled, the very same state rapidly declines. This pattern is so obvious that in the 1930s, the Japanese came up with their “Fugu Plan” to strengthen their empire by settling Jews within its lands!

In analyzing the pattern, some scholars see it in simply practical terms, as Jews would bring their wisdom and wealth, skills, expertise, and business acumen wherever they would go, and thus contribute immensely to the success of the places where they lived. Others see far more powerful spiritual reasons, propelled by Biblical prophecy. Whatever the case, history undeniably confirms God’s promise to Abraham and Israel: “I will bless those who bless you, and the ones who curse you I will curse.”


The above is an excerpt from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!