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The Fate of the Sabbatarians

I don’t often link to other articles online, but I read an article today that struck me as fascinating, well-researched, well-written, and which has many implications for those interested in Jewish genealogy.

The article, by Shay Fogelman in Haaretz, is titled Discovering Europe’s non-Jews who kept the faith and it discusses the fascinating history of the Sabbatarian community of Transylvania (Szekler Sabbatarians). The Sabbatarians were a community founded in the late 1500s by a Christian nobleman who, fascinated by the Bible and other Jewish writings, adopted many customs of Jews such as keeping the Sabbath (thus the name Sabbatarians) and keeping kosher, etc. He spread his beliefs to his court, which slowly adopted his beliefs, but it was his adopted son and successor who really spread this new belief-system by translating Jewish prayerbooks into Hungarian for the use of his followers. They were not Jews, they were not Christians, and that created no shortage of problems for them.

Bozodujfalu, center of the Sabbatarian community

In many ways they were persecuted even more than the Jewish community in the same region, because the Christian churches which dominated the region viewed Sabbatarians not as Jews, but as Christian heretics. By 1635 when they were forced to convert to one of the four major Christian sects in the region by the government, they counted their members at 20,000 people. Driven underground the religion persisted in hiding for hundreds of years, pretending to be Christian but intermarrying either amongst themselves or occasionally with the local Jewish community. In the mid-1800s with the emancipation of the Jews, the Sabbatarian community came out of hiding (although they were still persecuted as heretics) and half of the community converted en-masse to Judaism. The community, now half Jewish, continued to pray together in the same Synagogue as before.

When WWII started and the Nuremberg laws came into force, the Hungarians who controlled the region, and the Germans who eventually took over, were not sure what to do with the Sabbatarians. At first they considered them Jews, but after protests (including by local Christian clergy) some were exempted from the racial laws that sent the Jews into ghettos and eventually to the death camps. Some who were given the opportunity to leave the ghetto remained there as they decided they would rather share the fate of the Jews (if that was what God willed). Very little of the community seems to have survived the war, although some descendants of the community still live in the area, and even in Israel.

The story is interesting from a genealogical point of view because of the history of the community. While the mass-conversion of half the community occurred within a time-period that is well documented, the previous two centuries of the community is not well-documented, and the interaction between the Sabbatarians and the Jewish community is not well known. If members of the community intermarried into the Jewish community (presumably converting to Judaism beforehand), then that is in many ways reverse intermarriage compared to the much-more-common-at-the-time marrying out of the community. It would be extremely rare at that time to find large numbers of a non-Jewish community marrying into the Jewish community.

How is this influx of the local population into the Jewish population reflected the DNA of the Jewish population? If intermarriage really started in the 16th century, the number of descendants could in fact make up a large minority segment of the Jewish population from that area. What are the predominant haplogroups of Sabbatarians? Do those haplogroups exist in any large percentage in the Ashkenazi Jewish community? Some haplogroups such as Q1b1, which is a minority among Ashkenazi Jews (5%), but which is almost all Jewish, have been theorized by some to be a remnant of the Khazarian mass-conversion (the only other large-scale conversion since biblical times that I can think of), but perhaps the Q1b1 haplogroup derives from the Sabbatarian community? or another mass-conversion which we don’t know about?

It would also be interesting to document the connections between the two halves of the Sabbatarian community after the mass conversion in the 19th century – presumably there was intermingling between the two halves after the conversion (they still prayed together after all).

From the article in Haaretz it seems those Jewish descendants of the Sabbatarians identified by the author may not be interested in researching this history. We may therefore never know the full story of the Sabbatarians, and what their influence on the make-up of the Jewish people today is (perhaps significant, perhaps inconsequential).

In any case, I recommend reading Shay Fogelman’s excellent article and learning about this little-known non-Jewish sect which followed many Jewish laws (although not circumcision among others).

Out of curiosity, how many of you had heard of these Sabbatarians (Szekler Sabbatarians) before this post? If so, where did you hear about them?

Volunteer Opportunity at the JDC

Back in May, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as the JDC, or simply the “Joint”) launched an online archive web site called Our Shared Legacy which contained scanned documents from the JDC archives with over 500,000 names. Those documents included lists and cards that showed how the JDC helped Jewish refugees during and after the Holocaust to immigrate to various countries around the world (in addition to other relief efforts, including before WWII). See my article from the launch in May for more information on the online archive itself.

Since May the JDC has continued to scan and index more files from their physical archives and add them to the archive web site. In order to assist in getting these records up quicker, the JDC is looking for volunteer indexers who can contribute a day or half-day per week in time, in the JDC offices in either New York City or Jerusalem, to help with the indexing effort.

This is a really great opportunity if you’d like to help make these genealogically significant records available online. The JDC has really created a unique resource, going far beyond what most similar organizations have provided online. It is particularly impressive that they have made all of the high-resolution images available to download on their web site. If you live in or near New York City or Jerusalem and you’d like to help make these records available to people online, this is a great way to give back to the genealogical community and the Jewish community as a whole.

The full request for volunteers follows. Contact Naomi Barth at the e-mail address below if you’re interested in volunteering. Let her know you heard about it here.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is seeking Indexing Project Volunteers for an exciting opportunity to help with a forward- thinking archive endeavor to index historic lists. The volunteer will have the opportunity to engage with primary source material regarding The Joint’s work since 1914.

This project is perfect for those with an interest in genealogy, Jewish or general history, transnational migration, the non-profit sector, library science or archival work.

Position Requires:
• Interest in history and the treasures of the JDC archives
• Working as a reliable team player
• General computer skills
• Foreign language skills helpful but not necessary

A full day or half day per-week time commitment is required. Volunteer work must be completed on site at JDC’s NY or Jerusalem offices. All training and supervision will be provided.

Please send inquiries to:
[email protected]
Indexing Project Coordinator

Please enter “JDC Archives Indexing Project Volunteer” in the subject line.