According to Chassidic lore, Napoleon’s downfall was precipitated by a shofar blast. Other versions of the story credit Napoleon’s defeat to a few well-chosen words of the Kozhnitzer Maggid.
Shofar or Mizmor Shir
The third Division of Poland in 1795 divided Poland among its neighbors and it ceased to exist as an independent country for the next 123 years. But Poles hopes arose when Napoleon conquered vast stretches of Poland and reestablished it as the Principality of Warsaw in 1709. His Napoleonic laws promised equal rights to all, including Jews. Many Jews regarded this as a sign of redemption. The emancipation of oppressed people seemed a harbinger of the day when the nations’ yoke would lift from Jewish necks. As Napoleon rode victoriously into Warsaw, the kehillah recited an extravagant paean of victory in his honor:
“Your hand stretches over the violent nations,
“The nations lying in the dust will dwell in your shade; your hand will raise them.
“The people who suffered wrath saw light in the firmaments,
“And Hashem said, Let light come on the earth in place of darkness, etc.”
Napoleon’s lightning victories convinced many that the wars of Gog and Magog were at hand. Some even gave an exact date of the geulah, claiming it would be complete by 1840.
While some tzaddikim were enthusiastic about Napoleon’s success, others were concerned that French emancipation would lead to Jews deserting the Torah. In addition, French forces were conscripting Jews into their ranks. This led to a spiritual battle between tzaddikim that decided the outcome of Napoleon’s campaign.
According to one version of the story, the spiritual contest was between the tzaddikim of Poland and Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi in Russia. The Chozeh of Lublin, the Maggid of Kozhnitz, and Rav Mendel of Riminov favored Napoleon, while Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi fiercely opposed him.
Rav Shneur Zalman expressed his opposition to Napoleon in a letter sent to his talmid, Rav Moshe Meizels.
“On the first day of Rosh Hashonoh before Mussaf, I was shown that if Bonaparte won, Yisroel would become wealthy and influential, but they would separate and their hearts would become distant from their Father in heaven. However, if our master Alexander won, even if Yisroel became poor and lowly, their hearts would become attached to their Father in heaven. This is the sign [that this is true]. Soon, your beloved one will be taken away and soon they will begin drafting Jews into the army.”
The spiritual contest began on Rosh Hashonoh of 1812 as the Maggid rose early to daven and reach teki’as shofar as fast as possible. Through special kavonos and yichudim, the teki’os would destroy Napoleon’s power. However, the moment he put the shofar to his lips he realized it was too late. Rav Shneur Zalman had blown the shofar before davening and ensured Napoleon’s downfall.
“The Litvak has preceded us and overcome us!” the Maggid cried out in despair.
A Second Version of the Story
Another version of the story leaves Rav Schneur Zalman out of the picture and portrays a conflict between the tzaddikim of Poland. The argument began when Rav Mendel of Riminov was baking matzos, crying out each time he thrust another batch into the flames, “Yet another five hundred Russians shall fall.” Rav Naftoli Tzvi of Ropshitz shouted in response, “Napoleon is tamei, and a tamei person is pushed away to Pesach Sheni.” In other words, due to Napoleon’s impurity, Rav Mendel’s matzah baking was powerless to help him.
Aware that he was no match for Rav Mendel, Rav Naftoli Tzvi fled to the Chozeh of Lublin and asked for his help. Some say the Chozeh refused to get involved and some say he sided with Rav Naftoli Tzvi. Rav Naftoli Tzvi then fled to Kozhnitz where the Kozhnitzer Maggid became his firm ally against Napoleon.
The spiritual battle began one Shabbos night as the Maggid of Kozhnitz was reciting Mizmor Shir Leyom Hashabbos.
“They say that the French have moved from Moscow to Berezina,” he said, “but I say, Lehishomdom adei ad; yispardu kol po’alei avon. V’atoh morome le’olam Hashem.“The next day he repeated this declaration and later, during Keri’as Hatorah when the baal korei reached the words, Nabol tibol, You will surely wear out (Shemos 18:18), he cried out, “Napoleon will fall (tipol).“
According to another version of the story he called out these words during Megillas Esther as the baal korei reached the words, Nofol tipol, You will certainly fall (Esther 6:13).
One way or another, Napoleon retreated from Moscow in the winter of 1813 and most of his army froze or starved on the long march back to France.
(Sources: Tzvi Meir Rabinowitz, Hamaggid M’Kozhnitz Chaiyov V’Toraso, Tevunah Tel Aviv, 5707)