Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On the Napoleon Tisha B'av legend - tracing it back in print to 1891.

Indefatigable medieval traveler Benjamin of Tudela recently posted about "Napoleon and Tisha Be'av Myth," or the story that Napoleon visited a synagogue in [usually Russia, but I've also seen versions which say Paris] on Tisha B'Av. Noticing the lamentations and expressions of mourning of the Jews, Napoleon asked the very question that a didactic folk tale would require him to ask: What's up with the Jews? It was explained that they are mourning for the destruction of their Temple. As per the requirements of the story, Napoleon asked when this Temple was destroyed. Informed that it was 1700 years earlier, Napoleon said that if indeed this people is mourning their Temple after 1700 years, such a people so attached to their history, will indeed be restored to their land and their Temple rebuilt. Or some such thing.

Benjamin of Tudela mentioned that in a search for the origin of this story, he came "across this very same question, posed to J. David Markham - President of the International Napoleonic Society . . . The noted historian of Napoleon answered that he had never heard that story. You can draw your own conclusions."

While there are many reasons why the story is probably only a story, it is a story, and the question is how old is it? And are there variations? To me it's a pity that the president of the International Napoleonic Society should have never even heard of the story, since I would think that the folklore and legends surrounding Napoleon should be of interest and known to him. And this is definitely a piece of Napoleon folklore.

Benjamin cited a book from 1954 which has the story, but has Napoleon not really getting it at all. In this version Napoleon is skeptical that mourning and lamenting will accomplish anything, but the author writes that he was mistaken - those who mourn the destruction will see it rebuilt.

In 1946 the YIVO Annual (Vol. 1) printed an English excerpt from the 1942 book Yidn in Frankraykh by Shmuel Zanvil Pipe called Napoleon in Jewish Folklore. The article contains 43 pieces of Napoleon folklore collected from "correspondents from all parts of Poland, as well as several from Palestine and one from Bagdad, Irak." It gives two versions of the Napoleon legend. The first is as I described, and the second is an elaboration of the 1954 version mentioned by Benjamin. In this version, Napoleon visits a synagogue in Vilna and cannot understand what wailing will accomplish. Seeing the lamentation, which he considers aimless, Napoleon points to his own sword and says "This is how to redeem Palestine."

Getting a little earlier - this article in the American Jewish Yearbook 26 (1924) pg. 306, translates a Yiddish article from January 1912 in a periodical called Warheit, and includes the legend - the version where Napoleon tells them that they will not regain the land by lamentation, but by force. This Yiddish article is all about how Jewish boys should join the Boy Scouts, mind you.

It existed in the 40s, it existed in 1912. Obviously the story was around. We cannot be sure of how old it is, and one version seems possibly to have been compromised by Zionist sentiment. To be sure, we cannot say if the Zionist version is the original, and the other version a pious retelling of that, or if the opposite is the case.

The earliest I have been able to find it in print is as an aside in an article on the Corfu esrogim controversy, in Hamaggid October 29, 1891:

In fact it is such an aside that the author of this piece doesn't even mention the contents of the story, only that he recalled Napoleon's words on Tisha B'av. On the one hand this is good. To be so flippant shows that it was perfectly well known in 1891, a cliche to the point that it only needed to be alluded to. On the other hand, we are unsure what Napoleon's words were, although if I had to guess from the context it is the version where Napoleon advocates force rather than passivity.

The Corfu esrogim controversy in this context refers not to the grafting issue, or high prices, but to the 1891 blood libel, which raised the issue of economically supporting antisemites.

In any case, the point seems to be that some version of this legend must have existed for some time, perhaps decades, before 1891. If an earlier source in print should turn up, I'll keep you posted.


  1. For what it's worth, someone at our shul last Shabbat told this story, but credited it to the composer Frederic Chopin, who compared the mourning of the Jews for their Temple and homeland with the Polish refugees of his day living in Paris.

  2. Very valuable post. If it actually happened at all, doesnt the version with Napoleon advocating force sound more in keeping with his charachter than the other?

    agav, you know anything about the Naploeon legend of him shooting of the hand of the Yad Avshalom monument?

  3. DF, yes, it does sound more in character. The problem with such legends is that there are so many questions, and many of them are only questions because of the particular version as it is told. For example, it is nonsensical that Napoleon had to ask which Temple, how recently it was destroyed, etc. But just because people say it, doesn't mean that in earlier versions he asked such stupid questions. Secondly, it's hard to divorce it entirely from all we know about his relations with and attitude toward European Jews, his attempt to conquer Palestine (which was preceded by his, probably insincere, broadside to the Jews promising to repatriate them) etc.

    There is also the issue that sometimes the unexpected and unlikely statements are more likely to be true (i.e., if Jesus the Prince of Peace is saying something mean, maybe it's authentic) and so on and so forth.

    The Yad Avshalom legend is definitely from the 19th century as well. I don't think it has ever been proven that there was even a hand on it. No traveler in history ever mentioned the hand, until the legend explaining that it was Napoleon who blew it off. The name of the monument probably gave rise to the legend.

  4. I have heard a version of the story set during Napoleon's campaign in the Ottoman Empire, set I think in Jaffa. I also had a vague feeling I had heard it set in Acre, but Wikipedia says Napoleon never conquered it, although I suppose that might not stop the story being told as if he did.

  5. Why do people seem to want the Napoleon story to be true? Is it validation of the promise of redemption? I don't know why people act as if Napoleon almost had ruach hakodesh or something.

    Same with the Mark Twain piece about the place of the Jew in history. Sure, Mark Twain is an American icon, but that's basically all the significance of the piece.

  6. First of all, I think many people simply assume that it's true, and if it's true then it's true and it's a good story to repeat. Personally I don't know why Napoleon's opinion is supposed to matter. He was certainly wrong about other things, not to mention a nasty sort of monster. But it's a good foil. Clearly the people in Europe, the masses, thought he was very very impressive. Talk about a man who was able to get stuff done. So it's not surprising that he was thought of as a man with good judgment and perception, even if I would point out that he was a megalamaniacal dictator who ultimately grabbed too much and grabbed nothing.

    I'm not sure why people like to hear that Important People agreed with them, but they surely do. In the 1830s Salomon Plessner, a young modern darshan/ rabbi in Posen decided to put together a compilation of praises of the Talmud from famous gentile scholars throughout the ages. It was aimed at a decree forbidding Talmud instruction in the schools, but its aim was also for Jews to read it and raise the prestige of the Talmud, to make people think "Gee, if Jerome and Buxtorf said that about the rabbis, maybe the Talmud is pretty good after all." Rabbi Akiva Eger thought it was a peachy idea too, and encouraged Plessner to publish this book, עדות לישראל. I'm sure not everyone falls for this kind of stuff (clearly you do not, as evidenced by your comment) but surely many people eat it up.

  7. Connection to this weeks parsha:
    כי הוא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים אשר ישמעון את כל החקים האלה ואמרו רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה
    I know it's not talking about gemara so chill out.

  8. actually, the mark twian piece is prob true. havent read his writings recently, but they are extensive, including his writing on jews and palestine, which he visited for several months (not ten days on the federation tour.)

    now, follow up with a piece on george washington and the chanukkah menorah (valley forge and wall street manhattan).

  9. Of course the Mark Twain piece is real (although it is taken out of context, slightly). I think we were talking about, why is it that anyone cares what he has to say for validation. Sure, he was bright, a wickedly good writer and an icon. But frankly, so what? The Jews aren't good or not good because Mark Twain admired or didn't admire them.

    George W and the menorah? That's a new one to me!

  10. Reb DF, no one is unbiased. They are not us, that's true. :)

    On the contrary, I find that we can often be honest about our flaws while they (at least those who are philosemitic, which is a fancy way of saying an unhealthy interest in the Jews, only without the hatred and unhealthy interest of antisemites).

    On the other hand, there's some truth to what you say as well re pointing out hard truths.

  11. S., here's the one about George Washington and Hanukkah. I only heard it about a year ago, but apparently it goes back to at least 1920 or so, and is (apparently) part of the Hanukkah myth for a significant sector of American Jewry:

  12. MarGavriel, coming from a Nasorean Rabbi... :-)

  13. "Personally I don't know why Napoleon's opinion is supposed to matter. He was certainly wrong about other things, not to mention a nasty sort of monster. But it's a good foil. "

    Were you thinking of Bilaam's "Mah tovu" by any chance? -- Phil

  14. MYG -- "Nasorean" = Jewish-Christian? I didn't google the author.

  15. Not just a Nasorean Rabbi, but the Messiah apparently

    "Under Baruch's guidance, the group rejected the Divinity of Yeshua, affirmed his Messiahship, and adopted the Didache as its constitution."

  16. Nasorean doesn't equal Jewish Christian. It, apparently, equals Judaizing Christian - but not just any Judaizing, but Dead Sea Sect Judaizing. They've got a helpful Aryeh Kaplan translation of Sefer Yetzirah on their web site, so you know that their theology is rock-solid. Learn something new every day.

  17. Ever think of a post about R. Aryeh Kaplan, now that you mention him? He impacted thousands of Jews. He sort of made Kabalah fashionable, or maybe accessible is the better word. Was the Berel Wein of his generation, maybe, for emerging religous Jews? I've always liked R Pinchas Stolper's statement about his early demise: God only wanted so much revealed, and no more. I was very taken by that notion when I was younger.

  18. Hmmm...Washington and the Menorah sounds like a good post in a few months time.

    And Napoleon really was a great figure in history, so his opinion should matter a little more then the average Joe's

  19. The legend repeated itself, according to the Artscroll book: "They Called Him Mike" when NYC Mayor William O'Dwyer (in about 1950) made a very similar statement as Napoleon's. See page 392 of that book. -- Phil



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