Joseph Hertz

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Joseph Hertz in 1913

Joseph Herman Hertz CH (25 September 1872 – 14 January 1946) was a Jewish Hungarian-born rabbi and biblical scholar. He held the position of Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom from 1913 until his death in 1946, in a period encompassing both world wars and the Holocaust.

Early life[edit]

Hertz was born in Rebrín/Rebrény, Kingdom of Hungary (presently part of the village of Zemplínska Široká, Slovak Republic), and emigrated to New York City in 1884. He was educated at New York City College (BA), Columbia University (PhD) and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Rabbi, 1894, the Seminary's first graduate). His first ministerial post was at Syracuse, New York.

South Africa[edit]

In 1898, he moved to Transvaal, South Africa, to the Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation in Johannesburg. He stayed there until 1911, despite attempts by President Paul Kruger in 1899 to expel him for his pro-British sympathies and for advocating the removal of religious disabilities of Jews and Catholics in South Africa. He was Professor of Philosophy at Transvaal University College (later known as the University of the Witwatersrand), 1906-8.

In 1911, he returned to New York to the Orach Chayim Congregation.

Chief Rabbi[edit]

Rabbi Hertz in the late 1920s

In 1913, Hertz was elected Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire; he received 298 votes against 39 for Dayan Moses Hyamson.[1] His rival candidates had also included Lewis Daly,[citation needed] and Bernard Drachman. (Ironically, Hyamson took the rabbi's post of Orach Chayim in New York, which Hertz had vacated for the British Chief Rabbi appointment.)

Hertz held the post until his death. His period in office was marked by many arguments with a wide variety of people, mainly within the Jewish community; the Dictionary of National Biography describes him as a "combative Conservative". It was said that he was in favour of resolving disagreements by calm discussion – when all other methods had failed.[citation needed]

Despite his title, he was not universally recognised as the final rabbinical authority, even in Britain. While he was Chief Rabbi of the group of synagogues known as the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire, led by the United Synagogue, some new immigrants who had arrived since the 1880s regarded it as insufficiently orthodox. Hertz tried both persuasion and such force as he could muster to influence them; he added to his credibility among these immigrants by persuading Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky to become head of the London Beth Din.

Hertz antagonised others by his strong support for Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s, when many prominent Jews were against it, fearing that it would lead to accusations against the Jewish community of divided loyalty. Hertz was strongly opposed to Reform and Liberal Judaism, though he did not allow this to create personal animosities, and had no objection in principle to attending the funerals of Reform Jews.

However, despite all this, his eloquent oratory, lucid writing, erudition and sincerity earned him the respect of the majority of British Jews and many outside the Jewish community.[2][3] His commentary on the Torah is still to be found in most Orthodox synagogues and Jewish homes in Great Britain.

Although Hertz vigorously denounced the horror of the Holocaust (at one point relating an eyewitness claim that "German soldiers in football attire entered [a] stadium [near Kiev]. They snatched the infants from their mothers' arms and used them as footballs, bouncing and kicking them around the arena."),[4] Hertz was opposed to the Kindertransport if it meant Jewish refugee children would be raised in gentile homes.[5] Hertz saw the British war effort in the noblest of terms, wishing Prime Minister Churchill a happy 70th birthday in late 1944 with the message, "But for your wisdom and courage there would have been a Vichy England lying prostrate before an all-powerful Satanism that spelled slavery to the western peoples, death to Israel, and night to the sacred heritage of man."[6]

He was ex officio President of Jews' College, and Acting Principal, 1939–45. He was President of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 1922-3, and of the Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers. He was on the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Chairman of the Governing Body of its Institute of Jewish Studies. He was Vice-President of a wide variety of Jewish and non-Jewish bodies, including the Anglo-Jewish Association, the London Hospital, the League of Nations Union, the National Council of Public Morals and King George's Fund for Sailors. In 1942, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, Hertz founded the Council of Christians and Jews to combat anti-Jewish bigotry.

His daughter Judith married Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld.

His great granddaughter is the economist Noreena Hertz.

Calendar reform[edit]

In the 1920s, Hertz successfully organised international opposition to a proposed calendar reform.[7] The League of Nations was considering a calendar amendment, The World Calendar, such that a given date would fall on the same day of the week every year. This requires that one day every year (two in leap years) is not any day of the week but a "world day". Thus, once or twice a year there would be eight days rather than seven between consecutive Saturdays. Thus the Jewish Sabbath, which must occur every seventh day, would be on a different weekday each year. The same applies to the Christian Sabbath. Hertz realised that this would cause problems for Jews and Christians alike in observing their Sabbaths, and mobilised worldwide religious opposition to defeat the proposal.


Hertz edited a notable commentary on the Torah (1929–36, one volume edition 1937). Popularly known as the Hertz Chumash, this classic Hebrew-English edition of the Five Books of Moses, with corresponding Haftorahs, is used in synagogues and classrooms throughout the English-speaking world.[8] He also edited a Hebrew-English edition of the Jewish Prayer Book or Siddur (1946), and contributed to the Jewish Encyclopedia and the Encyclopædia Britannica.

  • Affirmations of Judaism, a collection of his sermons, was well regarded. He published a further three volumes of Sermons, Addresses, and Studies.
  • A Book of Jewish Thoughts (1917), a selection of Jewish wisdom through the millennia, was immensely popular and ran to 25 editions.
  • The Battle for the Sabbath at Geneva, an account of his work opposing calendar reform.


He was made a Companion of Honour in 1943.[9] He was also Commander of the Order of Léopold II of Belgium[10] and had a Columbia University medal.

A memorial plaque on his former London home at 103 Hamilton Terrace, Maida Vale was unveiled on 12 March 1996.[11]

Further reading[edit]

  • Harvey Warren Meirovich: A Vindication of Judaism: The Polemics of the Hertz Pentateuch. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1998.
  • Joseph Aaron Skloot: Moses of Hamilton Terrace: The Hertz Torah Commentary in Context and Interpretation. Thesis No. 19200, in fulfilment of the requirements for an A.B. degree in History. Princeton University, 2005.
  • Derek Taylor: Chief Rabbi Hertz: The Wars of the Lord. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2014.


  1. ^ "The Chief Rabbi. Result of election". Sydney Morning Herald. 18 February 1913.
  2. ^ P. Paneth, Guardian of the Law, 1943
  3. ^ Obituary, The Times, 15 January 1946
  4. ^ Hannen Swaffer (16 December 1942), "War's Worst Horror" Daily Herald
  5. ^ Gertrude Dubrovsky Six From Leipzig Vallentine Mitchell ISBN 978-0853034704 (2004) p. 122
  6. ^ Chief Rabbi Hertz, "70th Birthday Message to Churchill" The Jewish Chronicle 8 December 1944
  7. ^ Benjamin J. Elton (24 February 2012). "Calendar Reform and Joseph Herman Hertz". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Retrieved 9 September 2013.
  8. ^ Hertz, Joseph H. (1937). The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (one-volume edition). ISBN 0-900689-21-8.
  9. ^ London Gazette Issue 35841 Page 21
  10. ^ King George V granting permission to wear the badge of the Order of Leopold II
  11. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 16 July 2012. Retrieved 2011-07-07.

External links[edit]

Jewish titles
Preceded by
Hermann Adler
Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth
Succeeded by
Israel Brodie