Tag Archives: Napoleonic Wars

Jew of the Week: the Alter Rebbe

Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) was born in the shtetl of Liozna in what is now Belarus. A child prodigy, he wrote his first commentary on the Torah when he was eight years old. Shortly after, he was sent to the nearby town of Lubavitch to begin advanced Talmudic studies, and was sent back home at the age of 12 as he had surpassed the knowledge of his teachers. He married at 15, and around the same time was first exposed to Kabbalah by two Bohemian refugees that settled in Liozna. They also taught him math, astronomy, and philosophy. A few years later, Rav Schneur Zalman met the Hasidic master Dov Ber, “the Maggid [Preacher] of Mezeritch”, who was himself the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement. Rav Schneur Zalman became the Maggid’s devoted student, and when the latter died in 1772, was recognized as his successor. Unfortunately, there was still great opposition to the Hasidic movement at the time, most notably from the Vilna Gaon, who attempted to ban the Hasidim. Rav Schneur travelled to Vilnius in an effort to assuage the Gaon, but was refused a meeting. Despite the opposition, Hasidism flourished across Eastern Europe, and many Hasidic masters were emerging in towns large and small. Rav Schneur Zalman’s approach was unique in that he placed rationalism and thought above all else, and held by the mantras of “mind over matter” and “intelligent, not blind faith”. He therefore called his branch of Hasidism “Chabad”, based on the acronym for the Kabbalistic sefirot of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at, loosely translated as Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge. Rav Schneur Zalman would become known as the Alter Rebbe, the “Elder Rabbi”, the founder of Chabad. His magnum opus, known as the Tanya, is sometimes considered the “Bible of Hasidism”. The Alter Rebbe also put together a new Hasidic code of law, a prayer book, and multiple discourses on Hasidic teachings. During the Napoleonic Wars, he sided with the Czar, despite the fact that the Russians oppressed the Jews while Napoleon brought emancipation to them. He believed that while the Russians threatened the Jewish body, Napoleon threatened the Jewish soul, as his “emancipation” would lead to mass assimilation of Jews in Europe. History would prove him right. In 1812, the Alter Rebbe fled Napoleon’s approaching armies, and succumbed to an illness on the difficult journey. His disciples split among two potential successors: some supported Aharon Horowitz, based in the town of Strashelye, while others supported Rav Schneur Zalman’s son, Dov Ber, based in Lubavitch. Over time, the Strashelye branch dissipated, leaving the Lubavitch stream. This is one reason why the movement is still known as Chabad-Lubavitch. The organization has become the most successful Jewish outreach group in history, mainly due to the work of the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Today, there is a Chabad House on every continent (except Antarctica, for now), with over 1300 Chabad-run institutions around the world. Yesterday, the 18th of Elul, was the Alter Rebbe’s birthday.

A Secret History of Zionism

Words of the Week

A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.
– the Alter Rebbe

In a letter to his grandson, dated 24 Tevet 5583 (December 1812, shortly before his passing), the Alter Rebbe wrote: “I no longer see a table, a chair, a lamp… only the letters of the Divine Utterances.” As we read in the Torah, God “spoke” the world into existence, and all material things are only a reflection of their spiritual inner essence, composed of a combination of Hebrew letters, the building blocks of Creation. Like other great Kabbalists before and after him, the Alter Rebbe saw through the illusory material world, and beheld the spiritual “code” within, reminiscent of this famous scene from ‘The Matrix’.

Jews of the Week: Nathan Rothschild and Jacob de Rothschild

In honour of Jew of the Week’s 7th birthday this November, we will feature a month-long series on the most famous (and sometimes infamous) Jewish family of all time: the Rothschilds. This is part three of five. Click here for part one and here for part two.

Jacob James de Rothschild

The youngest of Mayer Rothschild’s sons was Jacob “James” Rothschild (1792-1868). He moved to Paris in 1811 and opened a new branch of the family bank in 1817. Jacob play a central role in rebuilding post-Napoleonic War France, and financing the empire’s industrial revolution. He financed some of France’s first railroads and factories, imported tea and other goods, and invested in mining and wine-making. He would become the richest man in the world, and his fortune alone (not including the rest of the family) is estimated to have been over $300 billion in today’s dollars. Jacob, too, was brought into the nobility (becoming “de Rothschild”, while his brothers in the Holy Roman Empire were “von Rothschild”). He served as an adviser to French kings, and was awarded the French Legion of Honour. Jacob also served as an ambassador to Austria. He was a noted philanthropist and arts patron, funding greats like Chopin, Rossini, and de Balzac. He and his wife were French icons, and symbols of culture and sophistication. (When King Louis XVIII refused to host Jacob’s wife because she was Jewish, Jacob stopped doing business with him.) The couple was admired by the French people, and Jacob’s funeral drew countless thousands.

Nathan Rothschild

By far the most famous of the Rothschild sons was Nathan Rothschild (1777-1836). He moved to Manchester in 1798 to start a textiles business before opening a branch of the family bank in London in 1805. In 1809, he switched his focus to dealing gold, and in 1811 won a contract to take care of British payments to their soldiers fighting Napoleon. Nathan won this contract because, unlike other bankers, careful coordination with his brothers allowed him to transport gold safely across war-torn Europe. By 1825, Nathan’s bank was so wealthy and successful that he single-handedly saved the Bank of England from a serious crisis. Nathan, too, was a philanthropist, as well as a social justice advocate, playing a key role in the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. At the time of his death (from an infection), he was the wealthiest man in the world. Nathan is infamous because of a myth that he made much of his fortune by speculating on the London stock exchange one day. Supposedly, he knew that the British had won the Battle of Waterloo before everyone else, and created a false panic by selling all his bonds as if Britain had lost. This led everyone else to sell their bonds, too, before Nathan quickly bought them all for very cheap right before news of Britain’s victory came and bond prices soared. Researchers have traced this legend to an anti-Semitic French pamphlet published ten years after Nathan passed away. It has no historical basis, nor does it make any sense according to both financial and historical experts. Accurate estimates suggest that if Nathan made any money at all from knowing about the Battle of Waterloo, it could not have been more than a million pounds. Nonetheless, the legend persists and is popular among conspiracy theorists. (Nathan did make a fortune in bonds some years after the war.) Interestingly, Nathan also played a critical role in Brazil’s independence from Portugal. His son Lionel, whose life we shall explore next week, continued to run the London branch, and it would go on to become the most successful of them all. Click here to go to Part Four.

Words of the Week

It requires a great deal of boldness and a great deal of caution to make a great fortune; and when you have got it, it requires ten times as much wit to keep it.
– Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild