In an earlier article, “The Sect of Skhariya the Jew,” we discussed how thousands of Russians rejected the Russian Orthodox Church towards the end of the 15th century and forged a religion that was closer to Monotheism and the Old Testament. A small number of them converted to Judaism. Three hundred years later, a similar episode began at about the end of the 18th century and has persisted until this day. How many of these people are fully fledged Jews is no simple question.
According to the historian Shimon Dubnow, the new Sabbatarian sect first gained the attention of Russian officials at a time when Russia was dreaming of a wholesale conversion of Jews to Christianity. Suddenly, the Russians found that huge numbers of Christians were embracing a doctrine closely akin to Judaism in the districts of Voronezh, Saratov and Tula. None of these towns had Jewish inhabitants who might have been accused of doing missionary work among them. The government noticed the faction in 1817 when a group of peasants in the Voronezh region addressed a petition to the Tsar that naively complained of “the oppressions they had to undergo at the hands of the local religious and civil authorities on account of their believing in the law of Moses.” Far from protecting them, the government swiftly issued orders to “examine most rigorously” the origin of the sect in order to prevent its further spread and to bring back the renegades into the Church’s fold.
The Russian Orthodox Archbishop of Voronezh investigated the phenomenon and reported back as follows:
“The sect came into existence about 1796 ‘through natural Jews.’ [Subsequent accounts dated the beginning of the movement to 1806]. It afterward spread to several settlements in the districts of Bobrov and Pavlosk. The essence of the sect, without being directly an Old Testament form of Jewish worship, consists of a few [Jewish] ceremonies, such as Sabbath observance and circumcision, the arbitrary manner of contracting and dissolving marriages, the way of burying the dead, and prayer assemblies.
The number of avowed sectarians amounts to one thousand five hundred souls of both sexes, but the secret ones are in all likelihood more numerous.”
Official Russian records from that time report that most Subbotniks (so called because they observed Saturday as a day of rest) practiced circumcision, observed their day of rest on Saturday, and had other Jewish beliefs and practices. Some even prayed from Jewish prayer books in Russian translation. However, their customs were not uniform. Except for resting on Saturday, their practices varied from community to community. The Russian Peasantry, a book published in London in 1894, went as far as asserting, “The rites and worship of the Sabbatarians of Russia proper contain nothing Jewish. On Saturdays they assemble in their houses of prayer, where their elders or teachers deliver a sermon, which is interrupted from time to time by the sacred songs of the congregation.” The claim that all Russian Subbotniks were like this seems unlikely and may be based on the limited number of communities the author heard of or visited.
Of Subbotniks living in the trans-Caucasus the same author gave a more ‘Jewish’ description: “The Sabbatarian colony in the Caucasus … have developed into a sect much more nearly allied to Judaism… They accept the Talmud, and they expect the Messiah in the guise of a king and conqueror, who is to appear at the close of the seven thousandth year, dating from the creation of the world (Mosaic style). They follow the Jewish ritual in the marriage ceremony and the burial service, and permit divorce; and they use the Jewish prayers in a Russian translation.”
An unknown number of Subbotniks eventually converted to Judaism, sometimes as individuals and sometimes as whole communities. Michelle Vincow, a Subbotnik helping her greatuncle with his memoirs recently reported that “he [the greatuncle] describes my family’s background as Subbotniks who became gerim after contacts with a rabbi… After they met a rabbi, my great-uncle’s ‘congregation’ of several families in Tsaritsin (Volgograd) was convinced that it would be best to more fully adopt Jewish practices. They were given Jewish names, remarried under a chuppah (even grandparents were remarried), and several of them learned to pray in Hebrew. At that time they began to be referred to by other Subbotniks as gerim. This change ‘visibly distanced’ them from other Subbotniks.”
After discovering the existence of this sect, the Russians found that it was spreading rapidly among peasants and merchants who explained that they yearned to return to the Old Testament and “maintain the faith of their fathers, the Judeans.” To deal with the threat, Dubnow reports, a Russian Committee of Ministers approved the following measures in 1823:
“The chiefs and teachers of the Judaizing sects are to be impressed into military service, and those unfit to serve deported to Siberia. All Jews are to be expelled from the districts in which the sect of Sabbatarians or ‘Judeans’ has made its appearance.
Interaction between the [Russian] Orthodox inhabitants and the sectarians is to be thwarted in every possible manner. Every outward display of the sect, such as holding of prayer meetings and the observance of ceremonies which bear no resemblance to those of Christians, is to be forbidden. Finally, to make the sectarians an object of contempt, instructions are to be given to designate the Sabbatarians as Zhydovskaya [a derogatory term for “Jewish people”] and to publish far and wide that they are in reality Zhyds [Jews], inasmuch as their present designation as Sabbatarians, or adherents of the Mosaic law, does not give the people a proper idea concerning this sect, and does not excite in them that feeling of disgust which must be produced by the realization that what is actually aimed at is to turn them into Zhyds.”
Tsar Alexander sanctioned these and other policies in 1825.
As a result, Dubnow writes, “entire settlements were laid waste, thousands of sectarians were banished to Siberia and the Caucasus. Many of them, unable to endure the persecution, returned to the Orthodox faith, but in many cases they did so outwardly, continuing in secret to cling to their sectarian tenets.”
Backlash on the Jews
The decrees had little direct effect on the Jews. Due to the restriction of Jewish right of residence very few Jews were found in those parts except for traveling salesmen or distillers. However, there was a severe secondary backlash. The Russian rulers were intensely annoyed that even as they were vainly trying to convert Jews, thousands of Christians were leaving the fold to practice Jewish customs. It was alleged that certain servants in Jewish homes had adopted Jewish customs and ceremonies and an opinion gained ground that the Torah enjoined Jews to convert everyone to their religion. This led to increased Jewish oppression in the last years of Alexander I’s reign. It became prohibited for Jews to keep Christian servants. And to prevent peasants from falling under the influence of Jews, the government nullified all krestentzya contracts whereby squires leased the harvest of a given year to a Jew who hired peasants to harvest grain and hay and do whatever other farm work was needed.
In addition, the government revitalized the expulsion of Jews from villages and hamlets that had been decreed by statute in 1804, but suspended when the cruelty of bringing ruin to tens-of-thousands of Jews became apparent even to the cruel government. In 1824, the Tsar issued a stern ukase to the governments of Moghilev and Vitebsk to nullify the leases of Jews with businesses in villages and to transplant the Jews of these two governments into towns and cities. Over twenty thousand Jews were driven from their homes.
As for the Subbotniks, their persecution continued until 1887 when they were allowed to conduct their own marriage and burial services. Aukase of 1905 abolished discrimination against them but stated they were not to be regarded as Jews.
Are They Jewish?
Subbotniks emigrated to a number of countries including the US where they mainly lived in towns on the west coast like Los Angeles. Many came to Eretz Yisroel during the early 20th century and their descendants are indistinguishable from the regular Jewish population. For example, a minor tourist attraction in the Galilee named the Dubrovin Farm was founded by Yoav and Rachel Dubrovin when they emigrated from Russia in the early 1900s. Most notable of Israeli Subbotniks are former Chief of Staff and Cabinet Minister Rafael (Raful) Eitan, former Police District Commander Alec Ron, and Alexander Zaid who helped found the Hashomer self defense organization in 1909 to defend Jewish agricultural settlements from Arab attack.
A large group of Subbotniks claiming to be Jews, arrived in Israel from the Caucasus in the early 90s as part of the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, and settled in Yitav, a settlement near Yericho. Over the past few years, many Subbotniks came to Israel from the Southern Russian villages of Ilyinka and Vysoky, and a large number of them live in Beit Shemesh near Yerushalayim.
In 2005, members of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee were urging Interior Minister, Ophir Pines-Paz to help bring 10,000 of the estimated 20,000 Russian Subbotniks into the country, complaining that despite suffering from anti- Semitism, Israel was not recognizing them as Jews. But there is reason to not grant them a blanket Jewish status. Four years ago, when a delegation representing Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar visited Subbotnik communities in Russia to check on their Jewish status, one emissary decided that the Subbotniks of Ilynka were fully fledged gerim, while Rav Amar ruled, based on extensive evidence, that the Jews of Vysoky were not. A thorough exploration of this question is beyond the scope of this article.
(Sources: Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russian and Poland. vol. II, 1918; Subbotniki.net)