As Yom Kippur draws to a close, a nostalgic tune is sung in Ashkenazi synagogues around the world. While many Jews recognize this tune, most do not know that it was actually composed for Napoleon Bonaparte himself. So how did a Napoleonic marching tune make its way into our neilah prayer service?
You’re standing there with your mahzor close to your chest, constantly checking your watch – time doesn’t seem to be moving forwards. Your stomach is continuously grumbling and your mouth is dry. The room feels cold and you look around at the somber faces in the rows of seats surrounding you. Your fingers count the pages of the mahzor in your hands, and you try to figure out how many prayers you still need to get through. Then, the cantor opens his mouth and a tune fills your ears that shakes you to your very core. This is a tune that you’ve been hearing since you were a little child, hanging onto the strings of your father’s tallit. It evokes memories of your childhood synagogue, that particular smell of the final hours of Yom Kippur, the bitter-sweet prayers so filled with longing and tears. And suddenly time starts passing again, perhaps even too fast, as you immerse yourself in the emotional neilah service.
Neilah is the last prayer service of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year. The word neilah means “locking” in Hebrew. Coming in at hour 23 of the 25 hour-long fast day, this set of prayers is the last time to repent, ask for forgiveness for your sins from the previous year, and make requests for the upcoming year. Known also as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is traditionally seen as a serious day, full of rituals and prayer, on which we are judged by G-d, but in fact it is more than that: it is a chance to start afresh and a day on which, in Jewish belief, one can be incredibly close to G-d. It is also a day full of rules: no eating, drinking, wearing leather or gold, bathing, or touching the opposite sex. For many, it is a day in which the majority of the time is spent in synagogue, and some even take an oath of silence to honor the holiness of the day.
By the time neilah comes around, most people are hungry, thirsty, and emotional. There’s a mixed feeling in the room of wanting the day to be over so that everyone can return to normal tasks, but also of hanging onto the coattails of this holy time and desperately using each moment to atone before the heavenly book of judgement is sealed for the year. This is why it is such an evocative service for so many people, and why the tunes are filled with a significance reserved only for this service.
One of these tunes is well-known by most Ashkenazim, especially those whose ancestors hail from the Soviet Union. It is the tune that is heard in the Youtube video at the start of this article. In Chabad synagogues, the tune is not accompanied by words, and instead is chanted as a stand-alone melody at the end of the service. In other Ashkenazi synagogues, the melody is usually attached to one of the many piyutim of the service. It’s an iconic, upbeat, tune which really stands alone amongst the generally mournful melodies of the festival. This is because it was never written for the Yom Kippur service, it wasn’t written by a rabbi or scholar, indeed it wasn’t intended for prayer at all!
Napoleon Bonaparte had dreams of world domination and would stop at nothing to fulfil this quest. He was an astute and brilliant military commander who did succeed in colonializing many countries, expanding the French empire by magnitudes. He was known for his ability to motivate his troops by filling them with high spirits and confidence before going into war. One way that he raised group morale was by singing. He believed that if the troops sang upbeat and patriotic marching tunes as they rode into their next conquest, they would be more impassioned to fight for their country.
So it was, in 1812, that Napoleon was leading his army on horseback towards Russia. This would be one of his most ambitious campaigns, and little did Napoleon know that it would also be one of his worst defeats. We can assume that his soldiers were at least a little apprehensive, and Napoleon decided to use his tried and tested method for calming their nerves: singing. The tune he chose was an unknown battle march, written specifically for Napoleon and his conquests, and within a short time, his army was belting out this unnamed song with vigor.
At the same time, the Jewish people were playing out their own story across Europe. Mainly living in small villages and shtetls, Jewish life in the early 1800s could be incredibly difficult. Discriminatory laws and overt antisemitism plagued many of their communities, and common legislation entrenched prejudice against them. However, Napoleon was generally seen as a friend to the Jews. As he conquered different territories, local Jews were placed under the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which were a liberating set of laws that amongst other things, promoted religious freedom. As well as endorsing the right to practice Judaism openly, these laws would also allow Jews to work in many various fields rather than the few that they had previously been limited to – they would be able to trade, open legal firms and even become doctors under this new set of regulations! In addition, crippling taxes which were typically levied on Jewish people were abolished, greatly improving their economic status. Finally, Napoleon sought to outlaw Jewish ghettos and allow Jews to live in freedom amongst their fellow countrymen. In effect, Napoleon was promoting equal rights for Jews, and generally providing them a better life.
Because of this, the Jews would often aid Napoleon in his conquests, housing and feeding troops, acting as messengers or guides for his incoming armies, and helping out where they could. But the Alter Rebbe had other plans. Rabbi Scheur Zalman of Liadi, more commonly known as the Alter Rebbe, was the founder of the Chabad movement and wrote some of the most significant Jewish books of his time, including the Tanya and an updated version of the Shulchan Aruch. He was widely praised as one of the most important and respected rabbis of his era, and was often known as simply “The Rav” or “Rebbe” due to his preeminence. To put it in a nutshell, he was a man that people listened to.
On this occasion, he was also a man who sought to impact the political tide of Europe. The Alter Rebbe claimed that on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, as he was praying the Musaf prayers in the morning, G-d came to him to let him know that Napoleon wasn’t going to win this war against Russia. Whether or not this divine intervention actually took place, it is possible that the Rebbe was simply politically attuned and understood that the Russian army and terrain were a formidable match for Napoleon’s troops. Either way, he knew that the fate of the Jews was hanging in the balance, and if they ended up supporting the winning side, their lives would be far easier in the future.
The Alter Rebbe predicted that Alexander I, the Czar of Russia, would win this war, and if the Jewish community backed him up and helped hasten his victory, the Czar would remember their loyalty and treat them kindly in the future. He thought that as thanks, the Czar might lift some of the taxes imposed on the Jews, and rescind some of the rules entrenching the antisemitism of the region.
Thus, he instructed his large group of followers to support the Czar and be, as it were, on the right side of history, even as many other Jews continued to support Napoleon.
Against this backdrop, Napoleon’s army crossed the Prussian border, and the Alter Rebbe watched on as the troops marched confidently forward. They were still singing their morale-boosting song, and this uplifting tune stuck in the Rebbe’s head, becoming a core memory that he associated with the ensuing battle.
Sorry to ruin the ending, but the Alter Rebbe was largely correct in his predictions. The Czar won the war, with Napoleon’s forces suffering irreplaceable losses at the Battle of Borodino, just two days before Yom Kippur. In thanks, the Czar made the Rebbe an Honorary Citizen for all Generations – a very high award – and when the Rebbe passed away, his son (who took over as the next Rebbe) was given some land by the Czar in Cherson to build new Jewish villages.
In the year of Napoleon’s great Russian defeat, Yom Kippur was a celebratory festival for the Altar Rebbe and his followers. As the Rebbe stepped up to recite the neilah service, he wanted to mark this victory, and manifest its continued blessings for the year ahead. He quickly called upon one of his disciples and asked the student to remind him of Napoleon’s marching tune, which had become, in his head, the tune associated with the victorious battle. As he once again heard the rousing melody, he began to sing it loud and clear before his congregation.
Soon, all of his students and followers were joyously singing along, jumping up and down to the victory march, completely rejuvenating the somber service of Yom Kippur, and forgetting all about breaking their fast. It was a moment to behold, and took root in the hearts and minds of all the people in attendance. The next year, the tune was incorporated into even more neilah services across the country, and in the years that followed, communities all across Eastern Europe began rejoicing in Napoleon’s marching tune during the closing moments of their neilah services.
Today, this well-known tune is ultimately thought of as a victory song, marking the belief that G-d looks over the Jewish people and will protect us both in times of war and peace. We sing this melody in the hope that our prayers have been heard and accepted, and that G-d is writing our names in the book of good life – we have been victorious.
Once again, let me bring you back to the smell of polished wood and old books as we stand in the synagogue finishing up the neilah service. It has been a long day and you’re emotionally and physically tired. But as you turn the next page, your ears perk up as the congregation collectively breaks out into this joyous victory song and within seconds you know that your atonement has surely been accepted, that G-d is with you, and that all will be okay. The shofar is blown and a cheer breaks out as everyone lets out a sigh that they’ve been holding in for 25 hours. You take a moment to rejoice in the song “Next Year in Jerusalem” and you bask in the beauty of this long and historic religion.