Escaping Certain Death: How the Jews of Treblinka Rose Up and Fought Back

During its year of operation, Treblinka extermination camp was one of the most deadly places on earth. Dr. Julian Chorążycki led a band of unsung heroes who helped put an end to these horrors, and gave his life for the uprising that brought Treblinka to its knees. In this article we commemorate the brave young doctor and the courage he showed in the face of the greatest possible adversity

Dr. Julian Chorążycki (right) and the Treblinka Memorial (photo: Adrian Grycuk)

In 1943, the fearsome Nazi Gestapo secret police published a series of adverts offering a “tempting reward” for anyone who could provide information on the escaped Jews of Treblinka extermination camp. Who were these fugitives and how were they able to leave Treblinka alive at a time when the only Jews who managed to exit the camp ended up in a mass grave?

This news item appeared in the December 31, 1943 issue of The Sydney Jewish News

The facility at Treblinka was opened by the Nazi regime in July 1942, becoming the third camp to be dedicated to the expressed purpose of annihilating the Jewish population and committing mass genocide. The vast majority of the Jews whose unfortunate fate led them to Treblinka would be robbed of their possessions and then taken straight into the gas chambers to live out their final moments. However, a few young and relatively healthy Jews were kept alive for a short while to do the guards’ dirty work. It was there that many of them would meet the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” – a bloodthirsty camp guard who would routinely torture Jews for fun before killing them (Ivan’s true identity has never been fully resolved. John Demjanjuk was suspected as a possibility and even convicted by an Israeli court before the verdict was later overturned).

Those Jews who were spared the gas chambers had to endure days filled by removing the lifeless bodies, hauling them off to be burned or buried, and searching the dead for any valuable items which would be dutifully looted by the camp guards. In the midst of all this, a small but mighty group of workers found a few stolen moments to hatch a plan of escape.

Dr. Julian Chorążycki – a photo portrait, part of a questionnaire submitted by Chorążycki to Nazi occupation authorities. The original survives in the Central Medical Library of Warsaw (via Wikipedia, enhanced with MyHeritage software)

Amongst this group was a Russian Jew, Dr. Julian Chorążycki. Born on August 19, 1885, he had been a revolutionary from a young age. He spent his pre-war life fighting for Jewish rights and the recognition and representation of people with disabilities. He also served in both the Russian and Polish armies during World War I, before finally settling down in Poland. Dr. Chorążycki lived by a strict policy of helping all those who came to him for medical aid, including those who could not afford to pay him for his services. When the Warsaw Ghetto was formed, Dr. Chorążycki decided that he would become the ghetto doctor and help keep the new ghetto residents as healthy as he could. In 1942, as Jews were being driven to their deaths by the thousands, he was packed into a cohort of Jews headed to Treblinka extermination camp. It was there that he spearheaded a plan to escape, and bring down Treblinka with him.

Shimon Peres, then Israel’s Minister of Immigrant Absorption, addressing an audience during a ceremony in memory of the victims of Treblinka, 1970,  the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Dr. Chorążycki formed a group of brave comrades and laid out the plans. The first step in the battle to escape involved stealing a key to the weapons storage used by the Treblinka guards. It took many attempts to break in undetected but when they did, the stores waiting for them were invaluable: rifles, grenades, knives and axes. As the rebels spent time collecting the goods, Dr. Chorążycki was caught with a wealth of resources and immediately taken into interrogation. Faced with the prospect of turning in his fellow Jews, Julian Chorążycki made the decision to end his own life and avoid releasing the details of the uprising and those involved in it.

Rachel Auerbach, in her book “In the Fields of Treblinka” says Dr. Julian Chorążycki was one of “the faces and personalities that distinguished themselves in a large anonymous crowd and gained eternal glory in the last hours of their lives as great Jews.”

Oyf di felder fun Treblinke (“In the Fields of Treblinka”), an audiobook by Rachel Auerbach, originally recorded by the Jewish Public Library, Montreal

Despite not making it out alive, Dr. Julian Chorążycki’s legacy lived on and the other Jewish prisoners continued to prepare for the uprising. In the middle of the afternoon on a stiflingly hot summer’s day, the guards went down to a nearby river to enjoy a swim and cool down. The Jews saw their opportunity and seized the moment. Around a thousand prisoners rose up, igniting explosives, burning buildings to the ground, and fighting their way into the surrounding fields and freedom beyond. “The fight lasted three hours and in the end, all of us who survived tried to escape” said Holocaust survivor Chaim Sztajer.

This news item appeared in the August 1, 1980 issue of the Australian Jewish News (Melbourne)


Chaim Sztajer, a survivor of Treblinka, pictured with a scale model he created of the camp. This image appeared in the March 6, 1987 issue of The Australian Jewish News (Melbourne), colorization by MyHeritage

Of the roughly 300 prisoners who managed to escape during the uprising, between 20-90 Jews are estimated to have survived the Holocaust. Their rebellion was not in vain. Shortly after the uprising, the camp was liquidated and by August 19, 1943, those who operated the well-oiled, efficient killing machine known as Treblinka had murdered their final Jew. Over 800,000 Jews were killed in Treblinka during its period of operation, a mere fifteen months. This is the story of the rebellion that put an end to its atrocities.

The Wise Men of Chelm: The Unfair Shaming of a Jewish Community

How did the Jews of Chelm, a city in Poland, acquire their reputation as a "town of fools"? Could Chelm have actually been a community of great sages? We set out in search of the true story behind this odd piece of Jewish folklore…

The Wise Men of Chelm. Cover illustration of the book The King's Golden Shoes (Hebrew). Adapted by Nurit Yuval. Illustrations: Shay Cherka

There is no wise man whose wisdom is as famous as the foolishness of Chelm, with the exception of the wisdom of King Solomon

—Yiddish writer Eliezer Bloom, a native of Chelm

The most famous story about the foolishness of the wise men of Chelm, and the one story that appears in every book about them, tells of how the town’s men attempted to move their neighboring mountain. Years after the town’s founding, as the people of Chelm married and raised children, the community eventually became overcrowded with young and old alike. Despite the rumors concerning their questionable mental capacity, the Chelmites realized correctly that their town had no choice but to expand as the population grew. There was a problem, however: the adjacent mountain was preventing the town from spreading out naturally.

For seven days and seven nights Chelm’s residents deliberated over the best way to solve the issue, until they decided to simply push the mountain out of the way. The next day, all the townsmen rallied together and gathered at the foot of the mountain to begin pushing with all their might. As the sun beat down on their toiling bodies, they became hot and sweaty, eventually removing their coats and leaving them in a big pile. Thieves who happened to be passing by noticed the pile of coats and without hesitating made off with the whole lot. When the people of Chelm finished their day’s work of pushing their mountain they turned back to survey the scene. With the pile of coats nowhere to be seen, they concluded that the mission had been a success and that the mountain had been pushed so far that their coats were no longer visible.

The city of Chelm expands. This is the version I read as a child: The Wise Men of Chelm, collected and adapted by Nurit Yuval. Illustrations: Dani Kerman. Inbal Publishers, 1986

Those who came across the humorous tales of Chelm as children could be forgiven for thinking that Chelm was a place of legend, a kind of Jewish Atlantis populated by Jewish fools. Yet a bit of historical research reveals that Chelm is not a fictitious place at all, but rather a very real location with an extensive and rich Jewish history.

The Jewish community in the town of Chelm in southeastern Poland prospered for over five hundred years. Its representatives were even quite active in the “Council of Four Lands” (Va’ad Arba Aratzot), the central administrative body of Polish Jewry from the 16th century to the 18th century. From the population censuses conducted in Poland, we know that at the outbreak of World War II, there were 15,000 Jews living in Chelm, accounting for fifty percent of its residents. The Holocaust did not spare the Jews of Chelm, some of whom were murdered in the town itself, though most were sent to the Sobibor extermination camp.

An image of the “Jews’ street” in the town of Chelm, Poland. The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard collection

Contrary to the widespread stigma, the town of Chelm actually produced quite a few proper Torah sages. One of the most prominent was Rabbi Solomon of Chelm, who became famous for his work Merkavat HaMishneh (or Mirkeves HaMishneh). According to his own testimony, Rabbi Solomon of Chelm also studied philosophy and science—a rare thing in his day—and he is considered one of the forerunners of the Jewish Enlightenment. In the preface to Merkavat HaMishneh, Rabbi Solomon prided himself on his broad secular knowledge, and even called on others to study secular subjects: “And the Bible stands wide open, ‘She has hewn her seven pillars’, and why do you not keep this on your lips, for ‘this is your wisdom and understanding to the nations’,” he wrote in reference to the seven liberal arts.

These are just a few of the Hebrew books collecting stories of the Wise Men of Chelm

Indeed, the labeling of Chelm as a community of fools seems in itself to be quite silly. That is to say, it is not based on historical truth (how can it be?), nor even on a well-known group of fools who originated in Chelm. The accepted hypothesis for the origin of the mislabeling is much simpler. In his Hebrew book Mila Be’Sela (“Word in Stone”) writer and linguist Uri Sela writes: “In the Slavic languages, ḥolem means fool. And since the pronunciations of ḥolem and Chelm are similar, ḥolem became the city of fools in our treasury of proverbs.” In other words, an entire community was mislabeled due to a fluke of pronunciation, and that is a hard label to shake off.

The inhabitants of historical Chelm were well aware of the funny (in their opinion, misguided) stories concerning their intellect—or rather their amusing lack of it. In fact it seems they actively tried to dispel the stigma – the authors of the Chelm pinkas (the community ledger) recall their town as a place that was home to a great number of scholars. According to them, immediately after the six days of creation, angels set out from the spirit world with three sacks full of souls: one sack contained the souls of fools, another sack contained the souls of the wise and a third sack held the souls of great sages. The angels flew over the cities and villages distributing just the right amount of souls from their sacks. By the time one of these angels reached the skies over Chelm, he was already quite tired and didn’t notice the big tree growing on the top of the huge mountain next to it. The tree ripped open the sack containing the souls of great sages, scattering them over Chelm. And ever since then, the town has been full of extraordinarily bright and wise individuals.

The origin of the wise sages of Chelm. Illustration from The Wise Men of Chelm, collected and adapted by Nurit Yuval. Illustrations: Dani Kerman. Inbal Publishers, 1986

The idea of ​​a city populated by fools is not an originally Jewish one. The first historical city to be burdened with this unflattering stereotype was the ancient Greek city of Abdera. Although it was one of the great centers of Greek foreign trade as well as the birthplace of the philosophers Democritus, Protagoras and Hecataeus, Abdera’s citizens were known throughout Greece as being quite foolish. The Abderites were the Chelmites of the ancient world.

We do not know the exact origin of the tales surrounding the intellect of the Chelmites. Similar legends about cities whose inhabitants weren’t the sharpest crayons in the box were already popularized even before the Common Era. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore a question that has been troubling us since we began writing this article: Were the stories about the wisdom of the people of Chelm really intended to be meanspirited or did they have an ulterior motive?

Obviously, these stories were not typical tales of heroism and sacrifice. No wise man from Chelm ever saved a princess from a dragon or defeated a cruel enemy in battle. And yet, this is precisely their strength: the stories and jokes about the wise men of Chelm are stories “about the day-to-day, about regular folk and their naïve and occasionally ridiculous struggles to survive, to overcome adversity, to live”. This is how writer Adir Cohen, an expert in education and bibliotherapy, explains the humor of the wise men of Chelm.

The poet and literary scholar Israel Haim Biletzky, who recorded many of the stories, writes about another aspect: “The Chelm tale is silent where its wisdom commands it to be silent. Its eyes are wide open wherever the situation requires. It is charged with life’s tribulations. It is reconciliation with man and with God, it is not a clenched fist, ready for the punch. Those who are willing to, will treasure it.” In other words, the next time you need a pick-me-up, instead of watching the latest light-hearted comedy or stand-up special on Netflix, how about reading a story or two about Chelm and its wise folk? It’s guaranteed to make you smile

And we’ll conclude with a final Chelm story to brighten your day, this time about the building of Chelm itself. After the souls of the wise were scattered at the foot of the mountain, the Chelmites decided to build themselves a large and beautiful town to live in. They built their houses out of wood, cutting down the tries on the mountaintop. To transport them down the mountain, each Chelmite carried a large wooden log on his back.

One day, a Jew from another city happened by the construction site and asked the residents why they did not simply roll the logs down the mountain. When the Chelmites tried out his idea, they discovered that this was the wise and proper thing to do. Once again they convened the city council and debated the proposal for seven days and seven nights. In the end they concluded that it was indeed better to roll the logs from the top of the mountain to the bottom. As soon as the decision was made, the wise men of Chelm understood what they had to do – they proceeded to carry all the logs that already sat at the foot of the mountain back up to the top, and from there they rolled them all back down.

Besides the more recent adaptations there are also classics such as the book by Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Fools of Chelm and Their History


Further Reading:

Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Fools of Chelm and Their History, pictures by Uri Shulevitz, translated by the author and Elizabeth Shub, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973

אדיר כהן, “ההומור של חכמי חלם”, מעגלי קריאה 30, מאי 2004

אורי סלע, מלה בסלע, הוצאת כתר, 1990


Who Are the Jews Depicted in These Holocaust-Era Portraits?

“These were powerful images I saw – to give form to all that misery – to show it to the world – this was always my intent”. The artist David Friedmann produced hundreds of portraits during the time of the Nazi occupation in Prague. Surviving are only ninety-four portraits of members of the Prague Jewish Community from the years 1940-1941. Yet numerous subjects depicted in these artworks remain unidentified to this day. Can you help us solve this mystery?

A charcoal portrait drawing of an unknown subject, from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum

I was born in Israel in 1950, and named after my father’s first daughter.

In 1954, our family immigrated to America and settled in St. Louis, Missouri. I grew up immersed in the world of art and culture. One day my father took an album from the bookcase and there, at the dining room table, I learned more about his art and the great losses he endured during his life.

My father, David Friedman(n), was born December 20, 1893, in Mährisch Ostrau, Austria-Hungary, (Ostrava, Czechia). In 1911, he ventured to Berlin and studied etching with Hermann Struck and painting with Lovis Corinth. During WWI, he served in the Austro-Hungarian Army as a battle artist and returned to his Berlin studio after the war. He achieved acclaim for his portraits drawn from life and became a leading press artist of the 1920s, sketching hundreds of cultural icons such as Albert Einstein and Max Brod.

David Friedmann in 1936 in his apartment at Paderborner Strasse 9, Berlin-Wilmersdorf, Germany


The Nazi regime abruptly upended his flourishing career in 1933. Friedmann fled to Prague in 1938, with his wife Mathilde and infant daughter Mirjam Helene, escaping the Nazis with only his artistic talent as a means to survive. The Gestapo looted his oeuvre left behind in Berlin. In Prague, my father worked as an artist again, making it known he wished to produce an album. He received orders for portraits and sketched the leaders of the Jewish Community and officials of the Palestine Office, many of them prominent Zionists, later murdered in Auschwitz.

In 1941, David Friedmann was deported to the Lodz Ghetto with his family, and the Nazi authorities once again looted his works. He continued to depict human fate in his art, as a prisoner in the Lodz Ghetto, in the Auschwitz subcamp Gleiwitz I, and as a survivor. His wife and daughter were murdered.

Liberated at the age of 51, Friedmann believed he lived for a reason, as noted in his 1945 postwar diary [in German]:

“These were powerful images I saw – to give form to all that misery – to show it to the world – this was always my intent.”

The art series was titled, “Because They Were Jews!” In 1948, in Prague, Friedmann wed Hildegard Taussig (1921-1989) a survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Christianstadt. High-ranking military officers wanted his artwork for Prague’s War Museum. Defying an export prohibition, the couple fled communist Czechoslovakia to Israel in 1949, thus saving his artwork, albums, and historical documents.


Miracles of Survival

The album my father showed me many years ago contains 50 postcard-size portrait prints and photos amid other works produced throughout his life. Among the subjects are Jakob Edelstein, Dr. Franz Weidmann and Fredy Hirsch, but many are still nameless today. The serious faces reflect the stress of persecution and an uncertain future. I was captivated. At my request, my father entrusted this treasure to me at the age of 22 years. I wondered how he could part with the album, a profound piece of his past and the people he had sketched and befriended.

Fredy Hirsch, a portrait print from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum


My father added names and captions to numerous portraits — invaluable clues for the task ahead — to identify and learn the fate of each subject — and reconstruct the story. Thus began a decades-long project in 1994. I shared the portraits worldwide and several subjects were recognized by survivors.

Portraits were discovered at the National Museum and Jewish Museum in Prague, Beit Terezin in Israel, as well as in private collections. At the National Museum theater department, three identical postcard-size portraits of František Zelenka awaited me. The fourth is displayed in my father’s album along with duplicates of Dr. Leo Kraus and Viktor Popper. I wondered what was the significance of the identical duplicate portraits. The story continued to unfold.

Thirty-six postcard-size portraits surfaced at Beit Terezin. Among this collection are Franz Kahn, Leo Janowitz, and Otto Zucker. Seven portraits were identical to those displayed in my father’s album: Hans Löw, Stefan Pollak, Rudolf Leipen, Wally Bloch, Ernst Jelinek, Viktor Popper and Hannah Steiner. However, the Eureka moment was Elly Eisinger. The Jewish Museum holds the original pen-and-ink drawings on tracing paper mounted on paper of Eisinger and Weidmann. Somehow the larger originals were used by my father to produce his smaller-sized prints.

Portrait of Elly Eisinger, 1940. She survived. Pen-and ink-drawing on tracing paper, mounted on paper, the Visual Arts Collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague


Numerous portraits have dedications handwritten on the reverse side to Dr. Leo Kraus, the law department head of the Palestine Office in Prague. However, the Beit Terezin archive did not have the Kraus portrait or evidence he was the donor. Kraus was interviewed by Beit Terezin. At 98 years, he had no recollection of the portraits, but remembered the artist. It is still a mystery how the collection survived, but the provocative question remains – who donated the portraits to Beit Theresienstadt?

Dr. Leo Kraus, a portrait print by David Friedmann, courtesy of Dorit Gan-Mor


I contacted Dorit Gan-Mor, Kraus’ daughter, who searched among her father’s books and discovered his postcard-sized portrait, as well as Dr. Kurt Heller and Dr. Ruth Hoffe. I saw the identical Hoffe portrait print in the collection of Judita Chudy. Then, as fate would have it, the original charcoal pencil drawing of Hoffe emerged at the Jewish Museum. His tracings were made “after” the completion of the larger, original portrait drawing. To summarize: The drawings of Weidmann, Eisinger and Hoffe, are evidence they were used to produce the smaller postcard-size versions with the subject and artist signatures as part of the print. The portraits were ordered in multiples and exchanged between colleagues and friends, often with dedications on the reverse side.

Dr. Ruth Hoffe, charcoal pencil portrait by David Friedmann, the Visual Arts Collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague


Help Us Identify the Subjects – Can You Decipher These Signatures?

One of the starkest traumas of the Holocaust — people not only lost their lives, but also traces of their existence. A portrait may be the only image to remain of the victim.

Impeding a successful search are subjects who signed only their surname, eg., Batscha, Adler, and those with common names like Otto Löwy. Even if the signature is legible, one cannot always confirm the identity. In the case of the two victims pictured below, the signatures are unreadable, even among Czech and German friends. Klara is the only subject with a real smile, but only her first name warrants a guess. The second portrait reads D. or Dr. Hermann.

Klara? Portrait print of an unknown subject, courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


Can you decipher the signature in the portrait above?


Who was Dr. Hermann? Portrait print courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


A close-up view of the signature in the portrait above


Subjects lacking a positive match despite signing a complete name are Hans Kaminsky and Fritz Löwenstein. The ID photo is imperative for comparison. However, the complete name is necessary to search databases, testimony, documents, and deportation lists. Ninety-four meticulously portrayed subjects by David Friedmann are known to have survived.

The signature reads “Hans Kaminsky”, but a positive match has yet to be found. Portrait print courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


The signature reads “Fritz Löwenstein”, but a positive match has yet to be found. Portrait print courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


Name unknown, a portrait print courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


Can you decipher the signature in the portrait above?


Name unknown, a portrait print courtesy of Beit Theresienstadt, Israel


A close-up view of the signature in the portrait above


The portraits are a testament to the enormous loss of lives, creative potential and accomplishments of the Jewish victims. The expressions he chose, his ability to capture emotions, the attitude of his line, all show us his thoughts. The portraits give face to numerous known and unknown victims — historically significant evidence of a dynamic Jewish community destroyed by the Nazi regime. Additional portraits could still be in private collections.

The charcoal drawings below were not signed by the subject because the portraits were not intended for prints.

Name unknown, a charcoal portrait drawing from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum


Name unknown, a charcoal portrait drawing from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum


Name unknown, a charcoal portrait drawing from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum


Name unknown, a charcoal portrait drawing from the Album of David Friedmann, donated to the Yad Vashem Art Museum


I donated my father’s album to the Yad Vashem Art Museum in Jerusalem. My journey’s reward is the recognition of my father’s work as a valuable resource and contribution to Holocaust history, as well as the preservation of his portraits for future generations.

David Friedmann died February 27, 1980 in St. Louis, Missouri.



If you have information regarding the identities of the unknown subjects in the portraits above, please contact: [email protected]. For more about David Friedmann, please visit: or the “David Friedmann—Artist As Witness” Facebook page.

This article is based on a version titled, David Friedman Portraits of the Prague Jewish Community 1940-1941: A Timestamp in History During the Nazi Occupation, originally appearing in “Dapei Kesher,” the Beit Theresienstadt Newsletter.

A new Holocaust documentary, “Dear Miriam – The Art and Survival of David Friedmann”, by Emmy Award Winner John Rokosny, is currently in production.


See also:

The Nazis Failed to Destroy the Artist David Friedmann

The Chess Master Portraits That Escaped the Holocaust



The First Jewish Book Printed in England

With the return of Jews to England in the 17th century, the developing community’s members surprisingly saw no need for a Jewish printing house. The first printed book was published decades later and only in the wake of a controversial internal dispute…

An 18th century view of London. Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

Not many years after Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-15th century, printed books began to appear targeting Jewish audiences. In Spain, Italy, the Ottoman Empire and other places, Jews could enjoy scholarly texts and prayer books that were either printed in their own countries or imported from other places.

This important development skipped over England.

The Jews, expelled from its shores in the year 1290, were only allowed to return in 1656. Even after their return, primarily from Holland and Germany, there was no rush to establish a printing house to publish new or existing books for the Jewish community’s own purposes. For decades, Jewish books continued to be brought over from the continent.

A handful of works featuring Hebrew print were published in England before the Jews were allowed back into the realm, but these were usually individual words or brief Hebrew passages printed for Christian scholars who were interested in the language or in the early roots of Christianity.

The first book published in England to include Hebrew letters was Oratio de laudibus & utilitate trium linguarum: Arabicae, Chaldaicae & Hebraicae. This was a printed copy of a lecture given by Robert Wakefield, a scholar and lecturer at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. The lecture was delivered in 1524 and printed soon after in London. Later, books featuring Hebrew words were also printed in Oxford and Cambridge, among them several books on Hebrew grammar and language. The first complete Hebrew text to be published was a translation of the Book of Psalms in 1643. The next twenty years saw the printing in England of Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance, and the Mishnah tractates Berakhot and Yoma. All of these were intended for Christian scholars of one sort or another.

Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah in Latin translation, Oxford, 1655

The first publication in Hebrew intended for the Jews of England was only published in 1705, in response to an acute controversy that had engulfed London’s Sephardic community.

The community’s rabbi, David Nieto, was born in Venice in 1654. He studied medicine at the University of Padua after which he worked as a physician, rabbinical judge and rabbi in the city of Livorno. It was in Livorno that he wrote his first work entitled Pascalogia – a study in Italian that dealt with efforts to determine the date of the Christian festival of Easter and the differences between the Catholic, Greek and Jewish calendars. He dedicated the work to a powerful Italian nobleman – Francesco Maria de’ Medici, a member of the famous family from Tuscany. Throughout his life, Rabbi Nieto continued to grapple with matters related to the Jewish calendar.

Pascalogia by Rabbi David Nieto, 1765, the second edition, printed after his death

In 1701, Rabbi Nieto was invited to serve as the leader of the Sephardic community in London on the condition that he promise to not practice medicine there. Shortly after his arrival he had already composed and published a prayer for the success of King William III in Spanish.

Portrait of Rabbi David Nieto, 1654–1728

One Shabbat in November 1703, a few days before Hanukkah, Rabbi Nieto gave a sermon in which he stated, among other things, that God and “nature” are one. Even today, these words might seem provocative and even offensive to some, but for English Jews in 1703, most of whom had come to London from the Netherlands, the rabbi’s words had a particularly negative resonance.

Some who were present at his sermon must have been familiar with their Dutch Jewish compatriot Baruch Spinoza, a philosopher whose views were contrary to the principles of Judaism. Among other things, Spinoza (like other philosophers of his time) claimed that nature itself was the true God, not the spiritual entity accepted by Jewish believers. This worldview, known as pantheism, claims that God did not create the universe, but that the universe and the laws of nature are an infinite entity that creates and animates reality. According to this view, the concepts of reward and punishment, good and evil, as well as personal providence, do not exist.

For some listeners, Rabbi Nieto’s sermon was an expression of heresy, in the spirit of Spinoza.

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza, 1632-1677

Some members of the London community expressed concern and even anger at the words of their new rabbi. The climax came when a member of the congregation, Yehoshua Zarfati, refused to take part in a wedding attended by Rabbi Nieto on the grounds that he was an apostate. In response to the division and strife that arose in the community, Rabbi Nieto published his book De La Divina Providencia on the subject of divine providence. The book contains a dialogue between two Jews, Reuven and Shimon, in which one explains to the other the principles of individual providence and God’s relationship to nature. The book was published in London in 1704. It was written in Spanish and surprisingly, was never translated into Hebrew.

In his book, Rabbi Nieto claimed that the very use of the word “nature” (teva טבע, in Hebrew) was new to Judaism, in circulation for only a few hundred years. Before that, there had been no need for a word to describe God’s creation. It was only after Greek philosophy became known to the Jews through its translation into Arabic that the need arose for an appropriate term with which to contend and debate with those holding other scientific and philosophical opinions. Rabbi Nieto emphasizes that God and nature are the same and cites Psalm 147:

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving, make music to our God on the harp; He covers the sky with clouds, he supplies the earth with rain, and makes grass grow on the hills.

Nature’s meaning is “providence” and providence is divine. Those who claim otherwise, says Rabbi Nieto, are “Karaites and apostates.”

De La Divina Providencia, 1716, second edition, London

The book did not do what its author had hoped and the storm did not subside even after the rabbi’s opponents were banned and some members of the community expelled from the synagogue.

The community decided to turn for help to the prestigious rabbinical court of Amsterdam to rule on the matter. For various and perhaps not entirely innocuous reasons, the Amsterdam rabbinical court did not deliver a clear answer. The members of London’s Sephardic community then thought to turn to the Sephardic community in Hamburg, but that community was without a rabbi at the time, and so the leaders of the London community turned to Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi of Altona (in Germany), who was known as “the Hakham Tzvi” and was considered one of Europe’s greatest rabbis in his day. Rabbi Ashkenazi, who was born in Moravia, had served for a significant part of his life as a rabbi of Sephardic communities, and thus the Sephardic community of London also saw him as a trustworthy figure.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi (the Hakham Tzvi), 1656–1718, the Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

In August 1705, a letter arrived in London from the Hakham Tzvi, in which he placed his full support behind Rabbi Nieto.

In his answer, he quoted from 16th-century Italian preacher Rabbi Judah Moscato’s commentary “Kol Yehuda” on the Sefer HaKuzari (“Book of the Khazar”) by Judah Halevi.  Moscato explains that the Hebrew root teva – that is “nature” – also appears in the Hebrew word hatba’ah (הטבעה), meaning the act of imprinting or stamping. The context here being the stamping or imprinting of the seal and very essence of God, the Holy One, blessed be He, on all of His deeds and creations.

In his answer, Rabbi Moscato discusses the semantics of the Hebrew word teva, “nature” and the differences between general nature and individual nature in the context of divine providence. The issue was a theologically and philosophically complex one, but the Hakham Tzvi saw no point in delving more deeply into the matter since the purpose of the correspondence was mainly to hear his opinion about Rabbi Nieto. Hakham Tzvi reassured those who feared the use of the word “nature” in relation to God and noted that other great rabbis, such as Rabbi Isaiah Halevi (1555–1630), also used “nature” in this way in their writings.

The Hakaham Tzvi concluded his answer with the following words:

“We must give thanks to the wise and exalted Rabbi David Nieto for the sermon he preached warning the people not to let their hearts follow the opinion of the philosophers who speak of nature for this has led to many faults and rather enlightened them with his true belief that everything is by His blessed providence.”

This letter sent by the Hakham Tzvi was printed at a non-Jewish printing house in London and distributed by the community’s leadership among the Jews of London in 1705. Although comprising only a few pages, and not an actual book, it was the first publication in Hebrew to be published in England explicitly for a Jewish audience. Later, the letter was also printed in a book of Hakham Tzvi’s halakhic responsa (questions and answers about Jewish religious law).

The reply of the Hakham Tzvi to the matter of Rabbi David Nieto’s sermon, London 1705

The controversy subsided and the life of the London Jewish community returned to normal. In the end, it had all been either a simple misunderstanding on the part of those who had come to hear Rabbi Nieto’s sermon or an unclear explanation of a charged philosophical issue.

Two years later, two slightly longer books were printed in Hebrew. In this case as well, the books were published in the wake of a debate that arose in the community. Only this time it involved the Ashkenazi community of London, but more on that another time…