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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 probably differed little from other Judaizing societies in their early years. They first appeared toward the end of the 18th century during the reign of Catherine II. According to official reports of the Imperial Russian government, most of the sect's followers circumcised their boys, believed in a unitary God rather than in the Christian Trinity, accepted only the Jewish Bible (Old Testament), and observed Sabbath on Saturday rather than on Sunday as in Christian practice. (Some were called sabbatarians for that practice.) There were variations among their beliefs in relation to Jesus Christ, the Second Coming, and other elements of Orthodox Christian doctrine.
Prior to the First Partition of Poland in 1772, few Jews had settled in the Russian Empire. The Subbotniks were originally Christian peasants of the Russian Orthodox Church. During the reign of Catherine the Great (1729-1796), they adopted elements of Mosaic law of the Old Testament and were known as sabbatarians, part of the Spiritual Christianity movement.
Subbotnik communities were among the earliest to adopt Zionism; a significant number settled in Ottoman Palestine in the 1880s as part of the First Aliyah in order to escape oppression in the Russian Empire. Their descendants included Israeli Jews such as Alexander Zaid, Rafael Eitan and Major-General Alik Ron. A 1912 census in Russia recorded 8,412 Subbotniks who "had fallen away from Orthodoxy"; 12,305 "Judaizing Talmudists"; and 4,092 "Russian Karaites".
Subbotniks, meaning sabbatarians for their observance of the Sabbath on Saturday, as in the Old Testament, rather than on Sunday, arose as part of the Spiritual Christian movement in the 18th century. Imperial Russian officials and Orthodox clergy considered the Subbotniks to be heretical to Russian Orthodox religion, and tried to suppress their and other Judaizing sects, which adopted some Mosaic practices, such as circumcision of boys. They also emphasized individual interpretation of the law, rather than accepting the Talmud or clergy. The Subbotniks concealed their religious beliefs and rites from the Orthodox Christians. The Russian government eventually deported the Subbotniks, isolating them from Orthodox Christians and Jews.
The Subbotniks observed the Sabbath on Saturday, and were also known as sabbatarians. They avoided work and tried to avoid discussing worldly affairs. Apart from practicing circumcision of boys, many began to slaughter their food animals according to the laws of shechita when they could learn the necessary rules. Some clandestinely used tefillin, tzitzit, and mezuzot, and prayed in private houses of prayer. As their practice deepened, some acquired Jewish prayer-books with Russian translation for their prayers. The cantor read the prayers aloud, and the congregants prayed silently; during prayers a solemn silence was observed throughout the house.
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. In 1912, the government Interior Ministry recorded 8,412 Subbotniks; 12,305 Judaizing Talmudists; and 4,092 Russian Karaites.
Under Alexander I and Nicholas I
Under Alexander I's policies of general tolerance, the Subbotniks enjoyed a great deal of freedom. But the Russian clergy opposed them and killed about 100 Subbotniks and their spiritual leaders in Mogilev, in present-day Belarus, including the former archbishop Romantzov. In addition, Romantzov's young son was tortured with red-hot irons before being burned at the stake. The Subbotniks came to an agreement with the Russian Orthodox priests and succeeded in gaining a measure of peace for a period. To compensate the Church for any loss of finances due to the Subbotniks leaving their congregations, the members of the sect undertook to pay the Church the usual fee of two Russian rubles for every birth and three rubles for every marriage. The tsar permitted the Subbotniks to profess their faith openly, but prohibited them from hiring rabbis or proselytizing among Christians.
Under Nicholas I, the Subbotniks began to feel restless. Some wanted to embrace Judaism and traveled into the Pale of Settlement in order to learn more about Judaism. Upon learning this, the Russian government sent a number of priests to the Subbotniks to try to persuade them to return to Russian Orthodoxy. When the priests did not meet with any appreciable success, the government decided to suppress the Subbotniks with force. In 1826, the government decided to deport those who lived openly as Subbotniks to internal exile in the above-mentioned regions in the Caucasus, Transcaucasia, and Siberia. At the same time, it prohibited Jews and members of the Russian Orthodox Church from settling among any Subbotniks.
Zionism and settlement in Ottoman Palestine
Subbotnik communities were among early supporters of Zionism. During the First Aliyah at the end of the 19th century, thousands of Subbotniks settled in Ottoman Palestine to escape religious persecution due to their differences with the Russian Orthodox Church. Their descendants include Israeli Jews such as Rafael Eitan and Alexander Zaïd. Major-General Alik Ron, former head of the Israeli Police's northern district, is also descended from some Subbotnik ancestors, as is the mother of Ariel Sharon, Vera Schneirov Scheinermann.
The Subbotniks faced hurdles when intermarrying into the wider Jewish population, as they were not considered Jews according to halakha. They were noted for often being more religiously observant than the mostly secular Jewish Zionist population in that period. They Hebraized their surnames to assimilate. Within a short period, the descendants of Subbotnik Jews who arrived in Ottoman Palestine in the late 19th century had completely blended and inter-married into the wider Jewish population of Israel.
Subbotniks in Nazi-occupied areas of Ukraine were killed by Nazi soldiers and local Ukrainian collaborators due to their Jewish self-identity. They were relatively recent migrants to Ukraine from areas of Voronezh and considered outsiders by the peasants, who noted their practice of some Jewish customs. During the Holocaust, Nazis killed thousands of Subbotniks. By contrast, they did not attack Crimean Karaites, accepting the state's records that they were ethnic Russians (or Crimeans).
Post-WW2 to present
Between 1973-1991, the majority of Subbotniks of Ilyinki emigrated to Israel. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a few thousand Subbotniks left Russia for Israel. At this time, there was a mass emigration to Israel of more than a million ethnic Russian Jews and their immediate family members. Since that period, Subbotniks remaining in Russia have encountered status-related problems. The organization Shavei Israel, dedicated to reaching out to "lost Jews" and related communities, in the 21st century appointed a rabbi for the Subbotniks at Vysokaye, a town in Brest Oblast, Belarus. They intend to teach them Judaism, and encourage them to formally convert to Orthodox Judaism in order to be eligible for aliyah to Israel.
In the early 21st century there were complaints about certain members of the moshav Yitav, located in the Jordan Rift near Jericho in the territories. It was settled largely by Subbotniks from Georgia, Russia, in the 1970s; many had earlier created a commune in their town. In 2004 the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar ruled the Subbotniks were not Jewish enough and would have to undergo an Orthodox conversion. The Interior Ministry classified the Subbotniks as a Christian sect and ineligible for aliyah to Israel, because no one knew if their ancestors had formally converted to Judaism (and there is much historic evidence that they did not). The ruling was under abolished in 2014, with an attempt by the Interior Ministry to allow remaining Subbotnik families to immigrate to Israel.
It has been difficult to estimate the exact number of Subbotniks in Russia at any given time. The discrepancies between government statistics and the membership have varied widely. Official data from czarist times placed the membership of the sect at several thousand. The writer E. Dinard, who was in personal contact with the Subbotniks, said in 1887 there were 2,500,000. Dinard may have included in his figures all of the Judaizing sects, and not just the Subbotniks, as this estimate is not supported by any other historians. Apart from their religious rites, the Subbotniks were generally indistinguishable from Russian Orthodox or secular Russians in terms of dress and lifestyle.
- 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.
- Berdyaev, Nikolai (1999) . translated by S. Janos. "Духовное христианство и сектантство в России" [Spiritual Christianity and Sectarianism in Russia]. Russkaya Mysl (Русская мысль, "Russian Thought").
- Dynner, Glenn (2011). Holy Dissent: Jewish and Christian Mystics in Eastern Europe. Wayne State University Press. p. 358–9. ISBN 9780814335970.
There were very few Jews in the Russian empire before 1772 and there is no indication of direct contact between Jews and the early Spiritual Christians... Most dramatically, in the late eighteenth century, the so called Subbotniks or Sabbatarians - ethnic Russians from the central and southern provinces - even turned away from the fundamental Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the messiahship of Jesus to embrace the Mosaic law of the Old Testament. As the work of Aleksandr Lvov, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Panchenko, Sergey Shtyrkov, and Nicholas Breyfogle demonstrate, these Russian sabbatarians developed strong communities that survived the severe persecution of both the imperial and Soviet governments. Although the Subbotniks did not, as a rule, follow the Talmud, some of them began follow other practices of different Jewish communities, both talmudic and non-talmudic, even as they retained their separate ethnic identity. In the religious census of 1912, the Department of Spiritual Affairs of the Interior Ministry noted the presence of 8,412 Subbotniks who had fallen away from Orthodoxy, 12,305 Judaizing Talmudists, and 4,092 Russian Karaites.
- Dr. Ruchama Weiss ▪ Rabbi Levi Brackman, "Russia's Subbotnik Jews get rabbi", Ynet, 9 December 2010, accessed 22 August 2015
- Russia's Subbotnik Jews get rabbi Ynet, Published: 12.09.10
- Russia's Subbotnik Jews get rabbi Ynet, Published: 12.09.10
- Itamar Eichner, "Subbotnik Jews to resume aliyah" Published: 03.11.14, Israel Jewish Scene
- "Subbotnik Jews in Russia and Israel (Евреи-субботники в России и Израиле), Июнь 5, 2013
- Ari Ben Goldberg"'Abandoned' in the Jordan Valley", The Jerusalem Report, 19 November 2001, reprinted at Molokane website
-  Itamar Eichner Published: 03.11.14
- E. Dinard, in Ha-Meliẓ, 1887, No. 75
- Herman Rosenthal, S. Hurwitz, "Subbotniki", Jewish Encyclopedia (1906 edition)
- Armenian Subbotniks
- Articles from the Shavei Israel website:
- Ken sos los Subbotniks? "Who are the Subbotniks?" (article is in Ladino), Turkey
- The Subbotniki Information Exchange website (Cубботники, Subbotniks) ...preserving our Subbotnik heritage.