Printing press – the Slovita controversy

In the summer of 5599/1839, the two owners of the renowned Slovita Press underwent the potentially fatal penalty of “spiessruten” – running the gauntlet between hundreds of soldiers armed with heavy knouts.

What was their purported crime? Why was Czar Nicholas I personally involved in their judgment?

Because the Slovita trial had been held behind closed doors, many of its details remained shrouded in legend until the February Revolution of 5677/1917, when the Czarist govern-ment’s archives in Petersburg were finally exposed to public scrutiny. One person who took advantage of this was a historian, Saul Ginsburg, who spent the next thirteen years until he left Russia in 5690/1930, delving into the voluminous documentary of the Slovita case – its protocols run over 4,000 pages.

He concluded that “the verdict of the Slovita matter had no parallel in the entire history of the Jews of Russia” – and, considering the centuries of Jewish suffering under the Czars, that is no small statement.


Nowadays, the town of Slovita where this story occurred is part of Ukraine. However, in the days of Czar Nicholas I (5585/1825-5615/1855), it was situated in Volhyn, a province added to southern Russia after the Poland partition. Russian Jewry suffered heavily from Russian officials, who knew only too well that the easy road to fame and fortune lay in persecuting Jews, and from anti-Semitic priests, who were angrily frustrated by the Jews’ persistent refusal to convert.

One of these priests, Michael Ben-derovsky, regarded himself as a Jewish expert, having perused a few Polish anti-Semitic books and possessing the ability to garble off a few Hebrew words.

For years, he strove to incite blood libels against Jews without success. His first attempt was in 5594/1834, when he encouraged a peasant, Prokop Kazan, to claim that Jews had cut off part of his tongue in order to use his blood for matzos. This attempt failed when the Volhyn Senate concluded that the priest’s accusation, that Jews had attacked Kazan in a public road in broad daylight, was too ridiculous to have any credence. Because of his lies, Kazan was sentenced to twenty blows of the knout. Czar Nicholas I himself ratified this verdict in 5597/1837, and Benderovsky was reprimanded.

Meanwhile, however, Benderovsky was already fomenting a second blood libel, involving himself in another ridiculous allegation: that Jews had wounded eight-year-old Daniel Mersky to use his blood for a Tisha B’Av ritual. This charge against four melamdim was quashed in 5596/1836.

Nevertheless, Benderovsky never gave up and kept his ears and eyes open for more opportunities to slander the Jews.


Decades earlier, in 5540/1790, the second son of Rav Pinchas Shapiro of Koretz, Rav Moshe, had opened his famous printing house in Slovita, which became famous for its beautifully printed seforim, now avidly sought after as collectors’ items. It was said that the Divine Presence rested on his artistically crafted lead print.

Rav Moshe was once celebrating a seudas Rosh Chodesh with friends when a worker rushed in.

“You are urgently needed at the printing works!” he shouted to Rav Moshe.

But Rav Moshe refused to budge. “The whole purpose of my business is in order to have the wherewithal to reach a moment of holi-ness,” he declared. “Should I now disrupt a moment of holiness for the business?”

As the years rolled on, Rav Moshe handed over the business to his two sons, Rav Shmuel Abba and Rav Pinchas in 5553/1793, and it expanded so much that almost everyone in town, both Jew and gentile, depended on it for their living.

The seeds of the Slovita tragedy were sown by denigrators of Jewish printing houses. These were of three types.

Some were frum opponents of Chassidic literature who denounced it to the government.

Others were maskilim who acted out of pure hate, like Wolf Turgenhold (5557/1797-5624/1864), a Czarist censor in Vilna, who submit-ted a report in 5591/1831 complaining that illegal Chassidic works raised the status of the rebbe far higher than that of the government as the true ruler of the world, and that Chassidic mystical literature was plunging Jews’ education and enlightenment centuries back into the past.

The third group consisted of Jewish apostates who, too, did their best to blacken the Jews’ reputation – like Zondberg, an employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who complained that many Slovita books made a “mockery of other religions,” and “implant within the Jewish youth hatred towards the Christian fatherland and infidelity to the government.”

The government’s animosity towards the Jewish printing presses was fanned higher by a controversy that erupted between the two great-est Jewish presses in Eastern Europe, the Slovita Press and the Romm Press of Vilna.

This started in 5568/1808, when the Shapiro brothers began the monumental task of printing a set of Shas that continued for eight years until 5576/1816.

After the magnificent set rapidly sold out, they printed a second edition between 5577/1817 and 5582/1822. Because of the vast expense, the brothers received haskamos from many famous rabbonim that forbade any competitors to print the Shas for the next twenty-five years.

However, in 5694/1834, the Romm Press in Vilna announced that it was printing its own Shas before the twenty-five year limit was up. About two hundred rabbonim were drawn into the subsequent halachic fray, including Rav Yitzchok Meir of Ger and Rabbi Akiva Eiger. The Grodno beis din finally ruled that the Vilna press could go ahead, on condition that they purchase all the Slovita Press’ unsold volumes of Shas.

However, even this psak was not unanimously accepted and the controversy continued to smolder. It was widely perceived that both the subsequent Slovita libel, and the huge conflagration that destroyed the Romm’s printing presses in 5600/1840, was Divine punishment for this controversy. In addition, the episode made the Czarist government even more determined to severely limit the scope of Jewish printing.


Meanwhile, in 5594/1834, the priest, Michael Benderovsky, had put his third and most dangerous plan into operation, when he informed a Czarist police official, Alexander Vasiliev, that he had made an ‘awesome’ discovery:

“‘Akum’ [in halacha] signifies ‘idolaters,’ those who prostrate them-selves to stars and planets, but the Jews also include Christians in this,” Benderovsky wrote to him. “This very command appeared so weird in my eyes that I extended my entire effort to compare it with the original text… As clear proof of all this, I send you a page of a book which is currently published in Slovita; this page was secretly provided to me through the intervention of the district physician of Zaslav, Grinberg the Jew. I send you also, two supplements which the same Dr. Grinberg wrote. Such discoveries do not come easily. I implore you that you turn in this page wherever it needs to go.”

This accusation was only the back-drop to the terrible event that hap-pened on 18 Sivan 5695/1835. At six o’clock that afternoon, Leib Tzenger, gabbai of the Slovita shul, could not believe his eyes when he opened its doors for Mincha. Hanging from a roof beam was Lazer Protegein, a long-time bookbinder of the Slovita Press. A non-Jewish physician, Dr. Bishlager, and a policeman found no signs of violence. After a commission of inquiry from Zaslav, led by Bailiff Grobovsky, heard that Protegein was a habitual sufferer from depression, aggravated by a recent fight with his wife that had led to his public humiliation, it was concluded that his passing was caused by his own hand.

Protegein was buried, and for all intents and purposes, it seemed that the case was buried with him. But Benderovsky had other ideas. He realized that, through falsehood and cunning, he could utilize this event for his own ends and close down the Slovita Printing Press once and for all!

On August 6, just over a month since Protegein’s passing, he sent a letter to his police friend, Vasiliev, giving a fresh version of events. He claimed that the page of Yoreh Dei’ah he had sent to Vasiliev earlier had been provided by none other than the Shapiro brothers’ worker, Protegein. Obviously, the brothers had discovered his crime and done away with him in revenge. And, just as obviously, the local officials had performed a cover-up to protect the important pair.

Impressed by this story, Vasiliev forwarded the story on to his superior, Count Benkendorf. A new investigation reported to Petersburg that “the first investigation was conduct-ed in a false direction. The Bailiff Grobovsky did not pay attention to important circumstances that would have been explicable immediately after the crime, and that he had apparently attempted to quash the entire matter. Therefore, [Grobovsky] did not discover the guilty ones and beclouded the entire matter.”

Czar Nicholas I personally perused this report and wrote on 5596/February 16, 1836: “In order to investigate the entire matter once again, accurately, on location, Lieutenant-Adjutant Count Vasilchikov should be sent. He should be given the right to arrest guilty officials and to send them to Kiev under secure custody. All those guilty in the matter should be turned over to the Military Court.”

A few days later, Count Vasilchikov set off for Slovita to launch what would become one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Czarist history.

(Part II)

Lazer Protegein, a bookbinder working for the Slovita Press of the Shapiro brothers, was found dead in a local shul. Realizing that this was a golden oppor-tunity to stir up trouble, a Jew-baiting priest, Michael Benderovsky, invented a story: A Jewish physician, Dr. Grinberg, who supplied the priest with a page of Yoreh Dei’ah that apparently denigrates the gentiles, had obtained the incrimi-nating page through Lazer Protegein, and the Shapiro brothers vengefully arranged Protegein’s assassination.


The priest’s accusation spurred Czar Nicholas I – already implored to persecute the Jewish Slovita Press by a conglomerate of anti-chassidim, maskilim and apostates – to send Count Ilirion Vasilchikov to Slovita to investigate. Like many Russian officials, Count Vasilchikov was more interested in using the case as an opportunity to advance his career rather than to uncover the truth. Wouldn’t the Czar be delighted to find the Shapiro brothers, the Jewish owners of the Slovita Press, guilty? But how to achieve this? Two earlier commissions had already concluded that there was not a shred of evidence that any Jew was involved in Lazer Protegein’s death.

The priest, Benderovsky, too, became nervous when the count demanded an explicit statement concerning whether and when the page of Yoreh Dei’ah had been received from the bookbinder.

“I implore you to explain specifically how you are certain that it was Lazer Protegein who gave the passage to Dr. Grinberg, and the reason why you are sure,” the count wrote to him. “Have you seen the translation personally or is there another cause that explains your certainty?”

Feeling that an explicit lie might put his head in a noose, the priest sent three evasive replies. The most he would admit was that this information “is known by Koranzky, the District Physician, his assistant, Blotsk, and the Assistant Procurator, Yanitsky, who also read my report.”

But all three men insisted that they did not know what the priest was talking about.

The count’s rescue came from Dr. Yaakov Lipps of Shepetovka, an antagonistic Jew who aided Priest Benderovsky. He gladly supplied the count with all sorts of rationales why the Shapiro brothers would feel that it was a big mitzvah to do away with their treacherous worker.

On this basis, the count arrested the two brothers and other Slovita Jews. Leib Tzenger, the gabbai who found the body in the shul, was bribed and coerced to give false testimony – that Pinchas Shapiro was near the shul and told him to delay opening it on that fate-ful day, and that he had spotted several Jews jumping out of a shul window shortly before the body was discovered, including two employees of the Slovita Press.

Considering that the shul faced several houses and was next to a public well, this implied that the crime had been committed in broad daylight! Nevertheless, the count was satisfied even though thirty Jewish and gentile workers swore, on oath, that Pinchas Shapiro was sorting rags in the factory at the estimated time of death.

Tzenger’s testimony was used even after he retracted and confessed that his testimony had been a complete lie.

To neutralize the previous commissions, the count threatened various Jews into “admitting” that they had bribed the officials and he even “discovered” a list of bribes in the home of a communal leader, Yashe Krimer. Four officials involved with the original investigations were put under lock and key.


In April 5596/1836, the count dragged his prisoners to Kiev and imprisoned them in solitary confinement in the infamous Kiev-Petsherer Citadel. Benderovsky joyfully wrote to a friend, “How far our plot has advanced! Praised and lauded be Count Vasilchikov!”

The Shapiro brothers were locked in the even worse “secret division,” and throughout their subsequent trial by a special military court, they were addressed as Number 7 and Number 14, after the numbers of their cells.

At the end of May, most of the intimidated witnesses sent written declara-tions that they had been coerced and begged that their testimony be invalidated. But Czar Nicholas I declared, “This is sheer calumny, a false accusation against Count Vasilchikov, since one cannot, under any circumstances, suspect him of such treatment. These very requests prove that the Slovita Jews have mounted a conspiracy, a communal involvement in the case concerning the hanging of Lazer Protegein.”

These witnesses, too, were placed under arrest.


Meanwhile, the Czar issued a decree that all Jewish books must be submitted for censorial inspection and, within a year, so many seforim were amassed that it was impossible to transport them to Petersburg for perusal. On November 27, 1837/5697, the order was given to consign them to the flames and many rare volumes went up in smoke among the hundreds-of-thousands of incinerated seforim.

It was also decreed to close down every printing house in Russia, except one in Vilna and one in Kiev, so that the printing of seforim could be more closely supervised. For the next eleven years, the only Jewish printing house in the Russian Empire was the Romm printing establishment of Vilna, until a second printing establishment opened its doors in Zhitomir in 5607/1847.

This was the culmination of an evil plan that two Volhynia maskilim, Leib Merkel and Yaakov Bernstein, had suggested to the Ministry of Internal Affairs four years earlier – that, in order to assert proper censorship over seforim, the hundreds of printing establishments in Russia be closed down and only two be allowed to remain open. At the time, the Minister of Education, Uvarov, considered this measure too draconian, but now things had changed.

Who was Leib Merkel?

Rav Pinchas of Koretz, the grandfather of the Shapiro brothers, was unknown and poverty-stricken in his early years. Worst of all were the weeks preceding Pesach, when he rarely had money for matzos, wine and food. One year, however, he had no problems at all. What happened?

A wealthy, childless chassid, who had constantly pestered Rav Aryeh Leib of Shpola to bless him with children and was always rebuffed, until he decided that come what may, he would refuse to leave the Rebbe before receiving his coveted blessing. His plan was a disaster.

“Please leave me alone,” Rav Aryeh Leib insisted. “I am davening for the whole of Klal Yisroel and now is not a good time to grant an individual’s request.”

When the chassid still harassed him mercilessly, Rav Aryeh Leib exasperatedly announced, “I swear that you will never have any children!”

The chassid fled in terror.

Some time later, he wound up in Koretz, where he was favorably impressed by the ragged Rav Pinchas, and became convinced that he was gifted with ruach hakodesh. This was his chance!

Making his way to Rav Pinchas’wife, the chassid supplied all her needs for the upcoming Pesach, and Rav Pinchas was pleasantly surprised when his wife never bothered him for funds even once. On Seder night, he arrived home to find a beautiful festive meal prepared, replete with crisp matzos and sparkling red wine.

“Where did all this come from?” he asked his wife.

“From our guest here,” she replied joyfully.

Later, Rav Pinchas asked his guest why he had gone to all this trouble, and the chassid related his sad story.

“Please nullify Rav Aryeh Leib’s curse and bless me with children,” he cried.

“If any mitzvah of mine bears weight in Heaven,” Rav Pinchas promised him, “I swear that you will have a son this year!”

And, sure enough, the chassid’s wife was blessed with a son that very year.

Years later, Rav Yisroel of Ruzhin observed that that it had not been such a good idea to nullify Rav Aryeh Leib’s curse since a grandson of this son was the infamous Leib Merkel, who slan-dered the Jewish printers, the grandchildren of Rav Pinchas, to the Russian authorities.


Meanwhile, the Kiev military com-mission inquired into two of Priest Benderovsky’s major accusations – that Dr. Lipps had supplied him with twelve books and translated excerpts from Slovita seforim that were purported to have evaded Russian censorship or that expressed anti-monarchy and anti-gen-tile sentiments, and that Lazer Protegein was hanged because he had helped sup-ply an incriminating page from Yoreh Dei’ah.

The military commission sent the twelve seforim and Dr. Lipps’ translation to the Jewish censor, Wolf Tugenhold, in Vilna, and his reply destroyed half the case against Slovita. Except for two seforim printed outside the Russian Empire, all of them had passed censorship and any blunders were the faults of Christian censors who knew no Hebrew and relied on Jewish acquaintances who were unversed in censorship rules. Slurs against gentiles and the king were figments of Lipps’ imagination.

Concerning Benderovsky’s second accusation, the court discovered that, in the priest’s first letter to a Petersburg policeman, regarding the Yoreh Dei’ah page, in January 5594/1834, he never mentioned a word about Lazer Protegein, and only mentioned him in a subsequent letter, written in August, two months after Protegein’s death. In addition, a Slovita Jew, barber-surgeon Yechiel Leib Dukman, insisted that it was he, and not Protegein, who had supplied the page.

The court sent a request to Dr. Grinberg, who had meanwhile converted: “We implore you to answer: How did these specific papers come into your hands and who was the one that transmitted them to you, Protegein or Dukman?”

In his reply, Dr. Grinberg insisted that he had nothing to do with Protegein at all! The Yoreh Dei’ah page had been brought to him by Dukman. He added that he could not be suspected of lying to help the Jews; wasn’t it he who had delivered the page [attempting to slander the Jews] to the priest in the first place?

Would the Shapiro brothers be let off the hook after all?

Part III

A virulently anti-Semitic priest, Michael Benderovsky, accused the saintly Shapiro brothers, owners of the Slovita Printing House, of assas-sinating an employee, Lazer Pro-tegein, because he purportedly sup-plied the priest with evidence that they were publishing anti-gentile literature. A Kiev military court found that the priest’s claim was unsubstantiated but would the brothers be allowed to go free?


The court’s decision was that Protegein had definitely been murdered. After a long tirade about Jews’ negativity towards gentiles, including citing a recent assassination of two Jews who had betrayed Jewish army evaders, the court concluded that “Lazer Protegein did not take his own life, but was killed by Jews because he had connections with the priest, Benderovsky, and had given him secrets regarding the Slovita Printing House.”

“True, the Jews brought arguments against this,” the judges admitted, “but, according to the laws of the Jewish religion, we can-not trust their explanations. All the circumstances surrounding the incident and the Jewish religion indicate that a vengeance murder occurred.”

However, when it came to blaming the crime on any specific individual, the court admitted that it was stymied, although the judges insisted that “if they had properly investigated the crime immediately after the murder, at the time of fresh traces [of incriminating evidence], then one could easily have discovered all the guilty culprits.”

They concluded that “Pinchas Shapiro, Yaakov Tsiprin, and Yaakov Barbash, whom the witness, Leib Tzenger, pointed out as participants in the crime, have not confessed and there has not been found any legal evidence and clear proof to establish their guilt,” nevertheless “all the circumstances, as well as the collusion of the chassidim with the Shapiro’s, and their efforts and tricks to cover the truth, all brings us to this: there falls on Pinchas Shapiro, Tsiprin, and Barbash, according to the criminal codex, a strong suspicion that they participated in the crime.”

This was the fullest extent of the brothers’ guilt. Although three Jews were strongly suspected of commit-ting the crime, there were insufficient grounds to sentence them.

So would either of the brothers be punished? They were, due to a peccadillo — the crime of libeling a Czarist official. As the judges wrote in their sentence:

“Pinchas Shapiro, Yaakov Tsiprin, and Yaakov Barbash, with reference to the murder of Protegein, to remain under strong suspicion; and for libeling Count Vasilchikov [Czar Nicholas I’s investigator of the case], claiming that the latter used physical violence against him at the investigation, to punish Shapiro with a sentence to political death [loss of rights and exile to Siberia]…”

This meant that although Rav Pinchas remained under suspicion of murder, he was cleared of this crime unless further evidence turned up. He would be exiled for the far less heinous offense of libeling an investigator. Rav Shmuel Abba would be released.


This milder verdict was, however, still subject to review by two higher elements: the ignorant, Jew-hating, General D. Bibikov, governor-general of Kiev, and the General Auditorium (the highest military court).

Bibikov was not as easygoing as the first judges. He stressed in his report that “the accused Jews belong the chassidic sect that is known to the government because of its harmful and vile laws; the father of the Shapiro’s, Moshe, was the senior rabbi of the sect.” After totally rejecting the Jewish testimony that had refuted the priest’s libels, he concluded that the court’s verdict was too mild and “the brothers … should be punished in such a manner that they serve an example for other Jews.”

Therefore, he overturned the court’s verdict, suggesting that both brothers be exiled to Siberia and, additionally, that they both be subjected to 2,000 lashes of the knout, a long stick, about an inch in diameter.

The General Auditorium was slightly more lenient and reduced the number of lashes to 1,500. Because of his advanced age, their father, Rav Moshe, would only be exiled to Siberia and spared a lashing – the court was unaware that he had already passed away. On June 15, 1839/5599, Czar Nicholas I succinctly approved the final decision with the words: “So shall it be!”

Needless to say, such a draconian punishment for merely disobeying censorship laws and maligning a Czarist official was unprecedented, even in Russia’s violent history.

The brothers accepted their fate with bitachon and equanimity. The night before their beating, they were visited by two chassidim, Rav David of Vaslikov and Rav Nota of Chaslivitch. After speaking enthusi-astically in Torah, as if nothing unusual was about to happen, Rav Shmuel Abba quietly told them, “Tomorrow, we will be beaten and it should be arranged that there is a minyan, a doctor, ice, and lemon juice [as an antiseptic]. Also, any blood or fragments should be collected.”

The two visitors recorded the impact upon them: “We stood there astounded. Holy fear overwhelmed us and we could not say a word. The impression was so powerful that it will never be erased from our memory all our lives. Before our eyes, we saw, as it were, Avraham Avinu before the Akeidah, totally devoted to do the will of his Creator, and Rabbi Akiva before they combed his flesh, without saying anything and without ruffling their tranquility a hairsbreadth.”


In those days, military beatings were administered by spiessruten (knouts), a punishment introduced to Russia by Prussian army officers. A more sophisticated method of administrating this punishment was “driving one through the stroy (line-up).” This meant running (or rather, being slowly led through) a gauntlet of two rows of 250 soldiers armed with knouts. Resultant death from heart failure or blood poisoning was not uncommon. To receive 1,500 blows, the brothers would pass between the rows three times.

As the two brothers approached the place of their sentence, they sang a special niggun, which is preserved until this day.

During the beating, Rav Pinchas Shapiro immortalized his memory by refusing to move on after his yarmulke fell off. Unable to go back and pick it up because he was being led along by two long ropes tied to his hands, he simply stood stock still as blows rained on his back until someone replaced the yarmulke on his head.

The two brothers regained consciousness on Shabbos and their first words were, “We must recite Kiddush!” After saying Kiddush, Rav Shmuel Abba washed and said Hamotzi, but was too weak to eat a morsel of bread. Whenever he recalled this incident in later years, he said that he was still sorry about this beracha levatalah.

It took them months to recuperate enough to begin walking in chains to Siberia and, by the time they arrived in Moscow, at the end of 5600/1840, they were too ill to proceed. After months of recuperation, officials petitioned that the brothers be permitted to return to Slovita, but Czar Nicholas I insisted that “if they are ill, they should be left in Moscow in a bogadelnia (old age home), but they must not be returned home.”

Even after fifteen years, the brothers were still not allowed to return to a normal Jewish community.

As Bibikov, now Minister of Internal Affairs, explained, “They can exert a harmful influence upon those Jews among whom they will settle and, in addition to this, it can also inspire in other criminals a hope for such types of ameliorations.”

The brothers’ only consolation was that, in 5607/1847, their sons won the tender to open the Russian Empire’s second authorized Jewish printing house, in Zhitomir. The first was the Romm Printing House in Vilna. All other Jewish printing establishments had been closed down.

The brothers were only released in June 5616/1856 by Czar Nicholas I’s more liberal son, Czar Alexander II, who is famous for his emancipation of the Russian serfs.

Surprisingly, Rav Shmuel Abba did not greet the news joyfully.

“I fear that I am now losing my freedom,” he moaned. “There, at home, when they greet us as martyrs, will my strength be sufficient to weather the test? When will they demand of us that we become gutten Yidden (rebbes)? I implore Hashem to protect me from that path …”

His fears materialized after Rav Aharon the Second of Karlin handed him a kvittel. Admirers insisted that he become a rebbe in Shepetovka and both brothers were revered as rebbes for the rest of their lives.

Nowadays, their memory is immortalized not only by their martyrdom, but also by their holy sefarim. As Rav Aharon Roth, the Shomrei Emunim Rebbe writes in his sefer, Taharas HaKodesh: “Therefore every G-d-fearing person should strive to acquire sefarim of old prints … especially from the print of Slovita and Zhitomir, [of the Shapiro brothers,] the grandsons of the holy Rav of Koretz, who were exaltedly holy men.”

(Chief source: The Drama of Slovi-ta, by Saul Moiseyevich Ginsburg, University Press of America, Inc. 1991. Translated from the Yiddish by Ephraim H. Prombaum)

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