Sunday 5 April 2020


Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum 1868-1943.


There is almost no literature in English on Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum (1868-1943) who was one of the early ideologues of religious Zionism. R. Yitzchak Nisenbaum was a leader of the Mizrachi movement in Warsaw and he died in the Ghetto during the Holocaust.
Not wishing to dwell on politics, I shall ignore any political overtones (remembering that R. Nissenbaum passed away five years before the establishment of the State of Israel) and focus primarily on his theology and Hashkafa (world view) which is rich, refreshing and very relevant.
I have drawn from the research of Rabbi Dr Amir Mashiach of Bar Ilan University who presents us with probably the first academic study of R. Nissenbaum in the English language.[1]


R. Yitzchak Nissenbaum was born into a Chassidic family. His father passed away when he was still young and Yitzchak was raised by his uncle who was a mitnaged, an opponent of the Chassidic movement. With time R. Yitzchak also adopted his uncle’s worldview, although he continued to study Chassidic literature. Notwithstanding his connection to Chassidism, his writings reflect no elements of Chassidic thought, and he never quotes any Chassidic masters. In fact, his writings are void of any mysticism whatsoever.

He studied at Volozhin Yeshiva and when the government forced the closure of the yeshiva, he joined the yeshiva’s secret nationalistic association called ‘Netzach Yisrael’. The society demanded that all its members declare their allegiance to Eretz Yisrael.


R. Nissenbaum regarded R. Shmuel Mohilewer as his mentor, and he called him Admor (a term usually reserved for a Chassidic rebbe). R. Mohilewer, who received his ordination at Volozhin Yeshiva in 1842, is regarded as one of the founders of the religious Zionist movement.  R. Mohilewer tried to persuade the rabbis to "combine the Torah and [secular] wisdom as the time is appropriate."

R. Mohilewer was once refused funding - for creating settlements in the Holy Land - from a philanthropist, because the donor suggested that he would be creating “12th-century Jews” and not Jews who were capable of building a new country.

He responded:

“You are mistaken... we want to create...Jews who, on the one hand, will belong to the 30th century, but on the other, will hail from periods preceding the counting of centuries. Jews from the period of the Prophets and the Hasmoneans…”

Thus we see how R. Mohilewer was already thinking of a nascent model of Jewry looking towards the future but with precedent firmly rooted in the ancient - but not immediate - past.


R. Nissenbaum was also familiar with the writings and philosophy of another spiritual mentor, R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch (1808-1888), the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, who taught the principle of Torah Im Derech Eretz, and quoted from him with great respect. However, he felt that R. Hirsch had downplayed the notion of Jewish nationality.


The ultra-Orthodox camps especially during R. Nissenbaum’s time were averse to interfering with the anticipated redemptive process of the Messiah. R. Nissenbaum, however, was of the opinion that the redemption of the Jewish people lay within their willingness to create a redemptive era by their own actions. This was one of the reasons why he felt that creative work and labour was so important. The Jewish people must no sit by idly waiting for some miraculous event to take place but must do whatever is within their physical power to create the change they want to see.

Dr Mashiach writes very poignantly about how, as an overriding rule, passivity had actually become a 'Torah virtue' in post-Temple times:

“After nearly 2,000 years of exile and inaction, which had largely been dictated by contemporary realities, passivity had become part of the Jewish way of thinking, to the point where it was accorded a theological standing by Orthodox leaders.”

To best way to understand just how radical R. Nissenbaum’s view on taking Jewish redemptive destiny into individual hands, is to contrast his thinking with the views of another contemporary rabbinic leader, R. Shalom Dov-Ber Schneerson of Lubavitch. He was the fifth Rebbe of the dynasty and (surprisingly) an outspoken promoter of theological passivity!
R. Shalom Dov-Ber believed that any attempt at interfering in the redemptive process was certain to be futile if not have an adverse effect. He argued that any human interference could only be temporary as even Moshe and Aharon could not bring about a permanent state of redemption other than the partial process of the Exodus from Egypt. And even when the kings and prophets built Temples but they did not last forever.
Therefore the Jews should do nothing other than wait for the total Redemption which will be brought about through “the Holy One, Blessed Is He, Himself” without human interference. Only then will “our Redemption be complete” and everlasting.[2]

Dr Mashiach writes:

“The Rebbe not only argued against taking practical measures; he even placed a vehement ban on spiritual activism. He said that a believer is not permitted to pray earnestly for the coming of the Messiah, for in earnest prayer for Redemption, one infringes upon the prohibition against ‘urging the end.’ One is ‘not permitted to urge the end, to engage in extensive supplication about this, especially with bodily powers and stratagems.’”

These teachings of R. Shalom Dov-Ber were published in 1900 and many rabbis began to view Zionism as a threat and a theological problem.
By contrast, R. Nissenbaum writes:
“Elijah, awaiting the day of Redemption together with the Messiah, is busy, according to aggadic midrash, writing Israelite history. But this is not the writing of our passive history: our troubles and our suffering, our affliction and our ordeals; our Redemption will not come of these. This is rather the writing of our active history, the deeds and actions performed so as to strengthen the spirit of the people and to bring closer its Redemption … all is as per the deed of the nation as a whole moving toward its Redemption and the ransom of its soul – so will the Holy Spirit descend upon it.”

Thus R. Nissenbaum extends his notion of the importance of work in general to the importance of work to end the exilic slumber which had taken hold of the Jewish people and to replace it with a pre-emptive approach. This was, in his view, the only way to escape the curse of the exile which was the belief in the necessity of Jewish passivity.

On the notion of work in general and its elevation to a noble and theological status, R. Nissenbaum believed it was a Halachic obligation for a Jew to work.[3] By work, he meant not just to make a living but even work for its own sake. Work was, as Dr Mashiach puts it: “[an] independent religious Torah value.
R. Nissenbaum wrote:
“The Torah of Israel detests idleness and loves work. In accord with this was Adam brought to the Garden in Eden, not to enjoy its choice fruit … but “to work and to guard it” [Gen 2:15]. The it is emphasized by the grammatical addition of the special dot in the letter heh at the end of each of these two verbs. The work is literal work, and the guarding is literal guarding.”[4]

Interestingly, R. Nissenbaum admits that work is not one of the 613 commandments. However, that fact does not deter him from maintaining that, nevertheless, by incorporating work into the first story of the humankind, it was clear that it was the basic vision of the Torah. Thus work, like breathing and walking, did not require a specific command. Humans had to perfect the world and bring it to a state of technological advancement.

R. Nissenbaum believes that, over time, we had lost the Torah’s original vision of work - to the extent that our Judaism as presented today is unbalanced and not reflective of the totality of Torah thought.

Although it was not a specific commandment, R. Nissenbaum argued that work still has a Halachic imperative because when the Torah mentions ceasing from work on the Sabbath, it writes:

 “Six days will you work and do all your special tasks, and on the seventh day is the Sabbath.”[5]

As Dr Mashiach puts it:

“Thus, in his view, according to the Torah and halakhah, work during the six days of the week is no less a positive value than refraining from work on the Sabbath.”


R. Nissenbaum does not mince his words when writing sharply about his coreligionists in his day:

“[T]he idleness widespread among our People, a large part of whom earn their keep
by the spirit alone, without any labor, is utterly in opposition to our Torah, for “just as the Torah was given in covenant, so was skilled work given in covenant” (Avot
de-Rabbi Natan 11).”[6]
Thus, according to R. Nissenbaum, it is the person who works and contributes to society, not the person who just ‘sits in learning’ who is closer to the original ideal of the archetypal Torah human being.
R. Nissenbaum positions himself somewhere between the secular left and the ultra-Orthodox right.
His theology obviously created waves within the traditional community of which he too was a part. He was openly critical of anyone who tried to separate the then secular Zionism from ultra-Orthodoxy – to the extent that he referred to both extremes as “assimilationists.” :
“The Left proclaims a religion of labor and sees work as the forefront of everything.
The Right proclaims a labor of religion and treats practical physical labor with contempt.”[7]
Dr Mashiach encapsulates this ideal as follows:
“[R. Nissenbaum] endorsed an approach of ’religion and labor,’ not ‘religion of labor.’

Bodily practical work, then, was required as part of the national religious identity, the original Judaism:

[H]e promoted not another uni-dimensional notion of Judaism as ‘either … or,’ but one of ‘both.’

It is on this point that R. Nissenbaum parts theological ways with his mentor R. Mohilewer.

Dr Mashiach explains:

“Nissenbaum and Mohilewer’s views differ in essence: Mohilewer saw work as a means of sustenance, while Nissenbaum treated labor as a part of theology; in his view, making a living, however important, was marginal by comparison.”

R. Nissenbaum points out that in biblical times, Judaism incorporated both a component of physical and practical enterprise as well as a corresponding component of religious and spiritual endeavours. Jews were primarily traders and farmers who did not shy away from extreme physical activity.
However, as a result of the exile following the destruction of the Temple, that primary physical component was lost. With time, it was as if Judaism’s integral affinity and connection to the physical world had never even existed.
According to Dr Mashiach:
“As Nissenbaum saw it, exilic Judaism proceeded to develop with nothing but spiritual concerns.”
 R. Nissenbaum writes in his own forthright words in Masoret veCherut:[8]
“Little by little did the exile eat up not only the Jews … but also Judaism … instead of the complete, historical Judaism, a naïve religious Judaism arose before us, one which had nothing in its universe except for the God of Israel and His Torah.”[9]
And in his Ketavim Nivharim he writes:
“[In the exile, Jews] began to look on simple labor with disdain … and so it was that we came to neglect concern with the body.”[10]
In other words, as Dr Mashiach puts it, we have transformed from a Judaism which had a “bi-dimensional, physical-and-spiritual character” to a “uni-dimensional, or exclusively spiritual, exilic Judaism.
R. Nissenbaum wrote:
“[T]he nature of the body is now taking its revenge upon us for having abandoned it, and clipping the reach of our spirit.”

In R. Nissenbaum’s words, the original Judaism taught a “holistic worldview” with a “spiritual-material outlook[11] where work and spirit were two sides of the same coin. When R. Nissenbaum observed the Judaism of his day, he felt that it was missing a vital component – a positive attitude towards labour. Therefore Judaism was incomplete and no longer in balance because concern for the spirit had become the sole and dominant purpose of Judaism. For Nissenbaum, the attitude towards and involvement in the material world for its own sake, was just as important.
R. Nissenbaum writes:
 “’Jewry’ is a people living in the tradition of its fathers. But this tradition is not only in
the spiritual life of the fathers, but also in their bodily life … This we must remember
well. The first principle of this life was work: manual labor producing simple bodily
values. They tilled the land, raised sheep and cattle, worked in every trade and dealt
in commerce … and airiness was foreign to them...
Therefore the Jews committed to Jewry need first of all to arrange their personal
lives and raise their children on the basis of labor, constructive and productive work,
              like our fathers … as was the reality in olden times.”[12]

During the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, he refused to leave the city because he wanted to share the fate of Warsaw Jewry.  Apparently the Germans shot him on January 1, 1943, when he refused to stand in the wagons transporting the Warsaw Jews to Treblinka. He is said to have yelled out to the other Jews just before he died: “Do not go to Treblinka!

[For further exploration of this fascinating topic of religious passivity, see How Reality on the Ground Informs Perceptions of Heaven.]

[1] Amir Mashiach, Work in the Teaching of Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum.
[2] Holy Letters (Hebrew; New York: Kehat, 5742 1982]), Part 1, Para. 122.
[3] Imrei Derush (Homilies) 55-124.
[4] Imrei Derush 223.
[5] Shemot 20:15.
[6]Ketavim Nivharim 225.
[7] From an address to the Second Congress of Mizrahi Youth in Poland (1922), cited in Nehemiah
Aminoach, ed., The Religious Labor Movement (Hebrew; Jerusalem: Hahanhala Harashit
Shel Tnuat Torah Veʾavoda, 5691 [1931]) 89.
[8] Translations by Dr. Mashiach.
[9] R. Yitzchak Nissenbaum, Masoret veCherut (Tradition and Freedom), 17.
[10] R. Yitzchak Nissenbaum, Ketavim Nivharim (Selected Writings) 22.
[11] Ketavim Nivharim 19.
[12] Ketavim Nivharim 113.

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