At the end of the eighteenth century, during the same time Napoleon was struggling to seize the whole of Europe, the young Bohemian Jew Moses Porges-Spiro was struggling to rescue his soul from one of the most disreputable sects of Jewish history. He recorded the story in a Gothic German manuscript, later translated into English by his great-great-grandson, Arnold Von der Porten.
The beginning of the story finds Moses living with his ostensibly observant Jewish family in Prague, blissfully unaware that his home harbored a dark secret.
Secrets of the Zohar
“I was born on December 22nd, 1781 ,” Moses begins. “My father, Morenu Rabbi Gabriel Porges, was very learned in Judaism, a virtuous and righteous man… He was a pleasant, good man and he never used corporal punishment on his children. My mother was a kindhearted woman. She managed the business that supported the family. Father paid little attention to the business. He was a scholar and gave lectures. The business was the production of Rossoli [an eighteenth century liqueur] and the sale of brandy.
As was customary in those days, I was taught Hebrew and to translate the Bible. In my seventh year I was enrolled in the Israeli-German School. I left it when I was only in my eleventh year.”
A few peaceful years later, Moses got the surprise of his life when he discovered that his family was not like other families.
“Just after my fourteenth year,” he writes, “my father called me into his room and asked me in a solemn way if I believed that the Torah’s revelations contained all that was necessary for our salvation and eternal happiness here and the life beyond. Until this hour I had been quite a believing Jew… He told me in a solemn tone: ‘There exists, besides the Torah, a holy book, the Zohar, which reveals to us the secrets which are merely hinted at in the Torah and which challenges us and directs us towards spiritual completeness. It directs us as to how to achieve that goal.
“’There are many noble people who have devoted themselves to this new teaching. The salvation from mental and political pressure is their aim, it is their goal… To you, my son, everything shall be revealed. Mr. Noe Kassowitz, one of our own, shall instruct you.”
It turned out that the Porges- Spiro family secretly belonged to a Messianic sect founded decades earlier in 5511/1751 by Jacob Frank, who, unlike his predecessor, Shabsai Tzvi, was an almost total ignoramus. Surviving records of his teachings consist largely of a hodgepodge of simple parables and facile, ridiculous misinterpretations of Biblical verses.
His followers were called Zoharists as they not only abandoned normative halachah in favor of the esoteric kabala teachings, but also interpreted kabala in a way that sanctioned the most disgusting behavior.
After the excommunication of the sect in 5516/1756, Frank and many of his followers baptized and moved their base to the German town of Offenbach. By Moses’ time, Frank had died and the lucrative business of running the sect was taken over by his daughter Eve, assisted by two brothers, Roch and Josef. Although Moses yearned to make the trip to their Machaneh Kadosh (holy camp), as Frankists called it, due to his father’s strained circumstances he could not afford the 258 mile trip from Prague to Offenbach.
In the end, Napoleon Bonaparte forced his hand. Cannon fodder was required to repulse his conquest of Europe, and Moses was of prime recruiting age.
“When young men were being hauled out of their beds at night, it caused me to hide out at an acquaintance’s house (Salomon Brandeis),” he records. “To escape the danger [of conscription], it was decided after a few weeks that I should emigrate (sic) to Germany.
Since I could not emigrate legitimately, I was to accompany a merchant by the name of Katz to Teplitz. He was waiting for me in front of the Strachower Gate. When we arrived in Teplitz he directed me to an old Jew from Soboten who spirited me across the mountains along smugglers’ paths to Saxony. For this he wanted 2f., a ‘Species-Taler,’ which I gladly gave him.
“There I stood on the peak of Geiersberg [Vulture Mountain], a seventeen year old youth, absolutely alone, formerly accustomed to live surrounded by loving parents and siblings being cared for by my mother’s gentle ways. Forsaken by everyone, I stood surrounded by forest.”
At the beginning of his trek, Moses had decided to spend only 3 f. on travel expenses and retain 60 f. to hand over to the Frankists, even at the cost of going hungry or needing to beg. Now, this plan threatened to go awry due to the anti-Jew taxes of his time.
“Overnight I rested in a village and around midday I arrived in Dresden,” he recalls. “Upon arrival I suffered unpleasantness and insult. I had to pay Jew tax [for Jews traveling through the town]. For the privilege of being born a Jew, just about everywhere in Germany one had to pay body duty, just like the dear cattle. Then my backpack was searched. The customs officer noticed that my sleeping cap had never been used. I had to pay duty on it and a fine. That exhausted my small funds.”
At last, Moses arrived in Offenbach, headquarters of the Frankist “Machaneh.” With tears of fervor, he entered the holy house, climbed a few steps, and pulled the bell cord. Several Maaminim (believers) surrounded him, and, as is common with such sects until our time, he was smothered with affection and attention. Finally, the great moment arrived when he was permitted to have an audience with the head lady, and privileged to kiss her foot. Afterwards, placing the bag containing his 60 f. prominently on a table, he sidled backwards out the door.
Moses was assigned the privileged position of helping serve the three sect leaders at table, which was not only an honor, but also included the bonus of eating their leftovers, nothing to sneeze at when the common herd were fed vegetables and inferior quality soup from a communal kitchen.
Meanwhile, the business of the sect went on; the three sect leaders reported their daily spiritual visions and having them carefully committed to paper, and followers reverently entering the “holy room” that contained the clothes and bed of the “Holy Father,” Jacob Frank, to pour out their hearts in prayer. In a token continuation of the Frankists’ ambition of taking part in the Messianic wars at the end of days, the young members were drilled every day by a Polish drill-master and trained in the use of firearms and sabers.
For Moses, disillusionment set in after a few short months. “In autumn that same year, my good father arrived in the company of Mr. Jonas and Mr. Aron Bur Wehli,” he records. “I was overcome with joy to see my dear, beloved father again.
The three highly respected and learned men were received solemnly and ceremoniously by every one of the Maaminim and the next morning they were received by the high Masters. They laid sacrificial gifts at the feet of the Chewise [Eve], the Wehli’s in gold, which was received most joyfully.
Both were rich people. My good father, who was not a man of means, brought a bolt of batiste [fine cloth].” Soon afterwards, Moses overheard one of the leaders, Joseph, make a mocking remark about his father’s modest gift and this sent his faith into a tailspin.
“This gift brought about the beginning of the diminishment of my fanaticism,” he records. “In the end I became convinced that everything about this place was a fraud and that several hundred well-meaning people were taken advantage of by faked religion, having been drawn here from hundreds of miles around, to become impoverished and unhappy.”
He was also shocked at the Frankist’s propensity to deprive followers of all their possessions.
“That same year,” he writes, “Mr. Salom Zerkowitz arrived in Offenbach. He had once been quite wealthy. He brought with him quite a fortune; however, he had to offer it up on command. It consisted mostly of Austrian State Papers, which I carried to Frankfurt where I had the old Rothschild convert them to silver. Mr. Zerkowitz was a good, honest man. He cried when he had to give up his last possessions.”
Moses was not the only one to lose his faith in the fraudulent system.
“Among the residents of my room there was a young man from Dresden by the name of Johan Hoffinger,” he writes. “He befriended me at this time and after some preparations and sounding, he allowed me to suspect that he did not agree with all of what was going on, or had gone on. When he was satisfied that I would not betray him, he finally confided in me that he had reached the conclusion, after long probing and reasoning, that a fraud of unbelievable proportions was being perpetrated here and that the believers, who had brought such great offerings, could not conceive of the idea that they were the victims of a massive swindle. Also, that they had been robbed of all means by which to return to their far away homes. Through such conversations, which we had quite often, we finally reached the decision to escape.”
At four a.m. one morning they deserted their sentry duty and made their escape.
“We leaned our muskets into a corner and entered the courtyard with our hearts pounding with the most profound excitement,” he writes. “We were exposed to the danger that the teamster or the stable help might catch us. From there into the garden, we climbed over a board wall and were free. This so-called Polish Court lay at the outskirts of the town. We ran towards the nearby forest.”
After a long journey, Moses made it back to Prague where he and his brother became the first entrepreneurs to use steam in cotton manufacture.
Within a few years of his escape, the Frankist enclave in Offenbach went bankrupt and most Frankists were absorbed among the local Catholics and disappeared.
Moses enjoyed a better fate. Thanks to his escape, his descendants remained Jewish many generations afterwards, including Jews who fled from Hitler and resettled in the United States.