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Subbotniks (Russian: Субботники, literally, Sabbatarians) are one of the Russian religious bodies known under the general name of "Judaizing Christian sects". On the whole, the Subbotniks originally differed probably very little from other Judaizing societies. They first appeared during the reign of Catherine II, toward the end of the 18th century. According to official reports of the Imperial Russian government, most of the sect's followers kept brit milah, believed in absolute unitarianism rather than the Christian Trinity, accepted only the Jewish Bible, and observed Sabbath on Saturday instead of on Sunday. According to the same source, however, some of them, as, for instance, the Subbotniks of Moscow, did not circumcise and believed in Jesus, regarding him as a saint and prophet rather than as God the Son. While other Subbotniks (like in Seattle Washington) believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and are awaiting the second coming. Other groups reportedly awaited the coming of the Messiah as king of the earth, in line with Judaism's view. Some reportedly revered the Christian Gospels, while others placed it on a lower level than the Jewish Bible.
Relation to other Jewish groups
Russian official sources from the period, however, cannot be trusted implicitly, since the Subbotniks, like other Judaizing sects, carefully concealed their religious beliefs and rites from the surrounding Christians. They did not act so guardedly toward the Jews, however, with some communities referring to themselves as "Jews". Over the course of the 19th century, some communities became indistinguishable from the Russian Ashkenazi communities, with whom they eventually intermarried. The Russian government carefully isolated the Subbotniks from the followers of either religion, but whenever the opportunity offered itself, the Subbotniks sought out Hebrew religious texts from the Jews. Apart from circumcision, they also slaughtered their food animals according to the laws of shechita wherever they were able to learn the necessary rules. Moreover, they clandestinely used tefillin, tzitzit, and mezuzot, and prayed in almost the same manner as the Jews; namely, in private houses of prayer, with covered heads, reciting their prayers from Jewish prayer-books with Russian translation. The cantor read the prayers aloud, the congregants then prayed silently; during prayers a solemn silence was observed throughout the house. On Saturdays, readings were also done from the Torah. Of all the Jewish rites and traditions, the Subbotniks observed Sabbath most zealously, whence their name. They were careful on that day to avoid work altogether; and they endeavored not to discuss worldly affairs.
According to the testimony, private and official, of all those who studied their mode of life in czarist times, the Subbotniks were remarkably industrious; reading and writing, hospitable, not given to drunkenness, poverty, or prostitution. Up to 1820 the Subbotniks lived for the most part in the governments of Voronezh, Oryol, Moscow, Tula, and Saratov. After that year, the government deported those who openly acknowledged their membership in the sect to the foothills of the Caucasus, to Transcaucasia, and to the governments of Irkutsk, Tobolsk, and Yeniseisk, in Siberia.
Under Alexander I and Nicholas I
Under Alexander I, due to his policies of general tolerance, the Subbotniks enjoyed a great deal of freedom. Nevertheless the Russian clergy killed about 100 Subbotniks and their spiritual leaders in Mogilev, including the former archbishop Romantzov. Romantzov's young son was tortured with red-hot irons before being burned at the stake. The Subbotniks, however, succeeded in gaining a measure of peace by means of an agreement which they made with the Russian Orthodox priests. In order that the Church not lose (from a material standpoint) by the defection of Subbotniks from their congregations, the members of the sect undertook to pay them the usual fee of two Russian rubles for every birth and three rubles for every marriage. The tsar then permitted the Subbotniks to profess their faith openly, on the condition that they not hire rabbis and not proselytize among Christians. These stipulations were not, however, always observed.
Under Nicholas I, a feeling of unrest developed among the Subbotniks. Many of them wished to embrace Judaism; and some of their number were sent into the Pale of Settlement in order to become fully acquainted with Judaism. Upon learning this, the Russian government sent a number of priests to the Subbotniks with the express commission to induce them to return to Russian Orthodoxy. The religious disputations and the persuasion of the priests, however, did not meet with any appreciable success, whereupon the government decided to suppress the Subbotniks violently. In 1826, the government decided to deport those who lived openly as Subbotniks to the above-mentioned regions in the Caucasus, Transcaucasia, and Siberia, at the same time, but for reasons quite opposite in the two instances, prohibiting the residence in their settlements of Jews and of members of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Zionism and Settlement in Ottoman Palestine
Subbotnik Jewish communities were among the earlier adaptors and proponents of Zionism. During the First Aliyah, at the end of the 19th century, thousands of Subbotniks settled in Ottoman Palestine, in the earliest wave of Zionist settlement in the region. Their descendants include Israeli Jews such as Rafael Eitan and Alexander Zaid. Former head of the Israeli Police, Major-General Alik Ron, is also from a subbotnik family. They Hebraized their surnames, and within a short period, the descendants of Subbotnik Jews who arrived in Eretz Israel in the late 19th century had completely blended and inter-married into the wider Hebrew-speaking Jewish population of Israel.
Unlike the Crimean Karaite Jews, Subbotniks in Nazi occupied areas of Ukraine were killed by Nazi soldiers and local Ukranian collaborators due to their Jewish practices and Jewish self-identification. During the Holocaust, thousands of Subbotnik Jews were killed by the Nazis.
After the War, the Soviet government ceased to recognize the "Subbotnik" ethnicity as a legal category, and instead counted them as a sub-set of the ethnic Russian population, since they were not recognized as Jews by any Jewish community. This has led to some difficulty for modern members of the community who wish to make aliyah under Israel's Law of Return.
Between 1973-1991, the majority of Subbotniks of Ilyinki immigrated to Israel. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a few thousand Subbotniks left Russia for Israel, as part of the mass emigration of over a million Russian Jews and their immediate family members. Recently status-related problems have arisen for some of the Subbotniks who remain in Russia. Using testimonies from members of the remaining 800 Subbotniks in Vysoki as a representative example, Shavei Israel (an organization dedicated to Jewish outreach to "lost Jews" and to communities wishing to become Jewish), has been working extensively on efforts to alleviate these difficulties.
It is impossible to determine the exact number of Subbotniks in Russia at any given time. The discrepancies between government statistics and the actual membership varied widely. Official data from czarist times placed the membership of the sect at several thousand, while the traveler and writer E. Dinard, who was in personal contact with the Subbotniks, stated that there were 2,500,000. It may be that Dinard included in his figures all of the Judaizing sects, and not just the Subbotniks. Regarding dress and lifestyle, apart from their religious rites, the Subbotniks were indistinguishable from Russian Orthodox or secular Russians.
- Kostomarov, Russkaya Istoriya, vol. i.;
- Entziklopedicheski Slovar, s.v.;
- E. Dinard, in Ha-Meliẓ, 1887, No. 75;
- N. Astyrev, Subbotniki v Rossii i Sibiri, in Syeverny Vyestnik, 1891, No. 6;
- Univ. Isr. 1854, p. 396.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.
- Jewish Encyclopedia's Subbotniki article.
- Armenian Subbotniks
- Articles from the Shavei Israel website:
- Ken sos los Subbotniks? "Who are the Subbotniks?" (article is in Ladino)
- The Subbotniki Information Exchange website