Sunday 18 December 2022

410) Overview and character of Frankian ideology


Jacob Frank's passing in 1791


I have always been interested in possible areas of overlap between the three movements of Sabbatianism (under Shabbatai Tzvi), Frankism (under Jacob Frank) and Chassidism (under the Baal Shem Tov) which all emerged relatively at the same period in Jewish history. The last of these movements, the Chassidic movement, presented itself at the very zenith of the Sabbatian and Frankian storm. It is, therefore, important to understand some of this background because it is unlikely that movements suddenly emerge in a vacuum.

This article, based on previous and new research, explores the rather understudied movement known as Frankism.

Rise of Frankism

Jan Doktór (2018:261) describes the Frankist movement, founded by Jacob Frank (1726-1791) as emerging out “of the Sabbatean underground.” He questions some of the historiographies of the Frankist movement as commonly presented, and this is largely because the stories, as we shall see, are so strange. I use the term “Frankist” even though this designation was only in use from around the early nineteenth century. During the eighteenth century, they were still referred to as the “Maaminin” (Believers) just like the Sabbatians, and were considered synonymous with the “sect of Shabbatai Tzvi.” Very often the terms Sabbatian and Frankist are used interchangeably, although the latter was a radical mutation of the former.

According to Scholem, Jacob Frank, or Yakov ben Yehuda Leib was born in Korolowka, a small town in Podolia. His father is said to have been a “scrupulously observant Jew,” although Scholem suspects he may have had Sabbatian connections (Scholem 1987:287). According to Doktór, his name was Yakov Yosef Leib Frenk (later Frank) and he identified as a Sefaradi Jew who knew no Yiddish. Doktór maintains that he arrived in Poland, together with more than ten other sectarians, after being sent by the Koniosos of Thessalonica who were descendants of Sabbatian converts to Islam. Scholem maintains that during Jacob’s travels in Podolia, he was merely suspected of being a Frenk, the Yiddish term for a Sefaradi Jew, because he had spent about twenty-five years in the Balkans and he conducted himself like a Sefaradi and spoke Ladino in public.

The Frankist movement officially took hold on January 27, 1756. In the Lanckoron inn, during an international fair in an area close to Kamenetz-Podolsk, a Sabbatian-like event or “founding act” took place. Frank arrived to participate in a demonstration organised by the area’s church leadership. According to church records the gathering was to sing mystical songs while Jewish sources maintain it involved a woman (Doktór 2018:263).

“Later Frank claimed that he had deliberately opened the windows of the house in order to compel the ‘believers’ to show themselves publicly instead of concealing their actions as they had done for decades” (Scholem 1987:289).

The participants were assaulted by other Jews and then all were arrested, bar Jacob Frank, who was immediately released because it was believed he was a Turkish citizen.

“At the rabbinical court held in the village of Satanov many of the sectarians confessed to having broken the fundamental laws of morality; and women confessed to having violated their marriage vows, and told of the sexual looseness which reigned in the sect under the guise of mystical symbolism.”[1]

Many of the findings of the rabbinic inquiry on Satanov were published by the enthusiastic and tireless Sabbatian exposer, R. Yakov Emden. It emerged that the Maaminim (Believers) conducted themselves outwardly as observant Jews but inwardly (just like the Marranos before them) they adhered to their secret faith. They claimed that they were loyal to the ‘higher’ Torah deAtzilut (the Law of Emanation) instead of the ‘lower’ Torah deBeriah (the Law of Creation). It was, they said, only the latter that demanded adherence to ritual and Halacha.

As a result of the Satanov commission, the findings were sent to the higher court at Brody and a Cherem or ban of ex-communication was issued against the new sect. The Brody court also banned the study of Kabbalah and mysticism for those under a certain age forty years, for the study of Lurianic Kabbalah (Scholem 1987:289).

R. Yakov Emden advised the Polish rabbis to seek the assistance of the Catholic Church against the Frankists, because Frankism was technically a new religion, something that was not permitted by canon law. The plan didn’t go as R. Emden intended as Bishop Mikołaj Dembowski got involved and tried to resolve the dispute by staging a series of debates between the rabbis and the Frankists. This culminated in two main disputations in Kamenetz-Podolsk in 1757, and in Lvov in 1759, neither of which ended well for the Jews.

Meanwhile, Frank had made his way to Turkey where he converted to Islam but then returned to Poland and announced himself as the Messiah. He claimed to be a reincarnation of Shabbatai Tzvi. Because the Frankists were now protected by the Church and state, instead of outwardly portraying their adherence to Judaism as they had done in the past, they began to openly adopt Catholic practices. They sought even more protection from the Church because they claimed they were being persecuted by their Jewish brethren for their gratitude towards the Church (Scholem 1987:290).

The disputation of Kamenetz-Podolsk was held between June 20-28 1757. There were just a few rabbis against nineteen Sabbatian ‘anti-Talmudists’ who also called themselves ‘Zoharists’. The authoritative, virtue-signalling and mystically-laden terms of Maaminim and Zoraristim should not be lost on the reader. The problem was that the Frankists/Sabbatians were surprisingly well-prepared and scholarly:

“The spokesmen for the Shabbateans were also learned men, some of them being officiating rabbis who had secret Shabbatean tendencies” (Scholem 1987:291).

Bishop Dembowski found in favour of the Sabbatians and cartloads of Talmudic books were confiscated from Jewish homes in Kamenetz, Lvov, Brody, Zolkiew and burned in the marketplace of Kamenetz-Podolsk and hundreds of Jews converted to Catholicism (Doktór 2015:396-411).

Fate had it that Bishop Dembowski died during this time and the political tide immediately turned against the Frankists who were then persecuted by the mainstream Jewish community, many of whom took the Bishop’s death as a sign from Heaven. This continued until the Frankists turned again to the authorities and King Augustus III issued a letter on June 16 1758 offering safe conduct to the ‘anti-Talmudists’ because they were considered:

“near the [Christian] acknowledgement of God” (cited in Scholem 1987:292).

As a result, many exiled Frankists returned to Podolia and the movement gained momentum. The Frankist movement has been described as “a quasi-Jewish, quasi-Christian religion,” with Maria Theresa regarding it as a “disseminator of Christianity among the Jews.”[2]

 acob Frank then began to reject the Sabbatian Kabbalistic component of their theology and offered instead a new mythology that had no Kabbalistic references or terminologies at all. He said:

“The place to which we are going is not subject to any law, because all that is on the side of death; but we are going to life” (cited in Scholem 1987:294) 

The Frankists had lived as Jews and Moslems and now they had to put on the garb of Christianity. With a familiar ring to it, while presenting a face of Christianity, they were secretly followers of Jacob Frank the Messiah. Frank adopted Christian practices as a stepping stone to what he called the “the sacred religion of Edom” (Scholem 1987:298). Edom in rabbinic tradition represented Rome and Christianity. They were not to intermarry with Christians though. He appointed twelve “brothers” to be his disciples and twelve “sisters” to serve as concubines. Intriguingly from a theological point of view, they had no difficulty living a life of blatant licentiousness, but the followers were upset that they no longer had recourse to books on Kabbalah as Frank turned more away from ‘traditional’ Sabbatianism.

Frank and his followers then declared they would officially convert to Catholicism and they arranged for another debate with the rabbis, this time in the Cathedral in Lvov on 16 July 1759. They would debate, amongst other matters, the nature of rabbinic Judaism and raise the issue of alleged ritual murder. It was claimed that the Talmud requires Jews to use Christian blood and therefore, all those who believe in the Talmud are likely to want to fulfil this ‘rabbinic requirement’ (Scholem 1987:298). Their document read:

“we  wish  to  carry  out  a  second  battle  with the enemies of Truth, and to demonstrate openly from the Holy books the appearance in the world of God in human form, His sufferings for the nation of mankind, the need for universal unity in God, and to prove their godlessness, gross lack of faith, their worse than pagan desire for innocent Christian blood, its spilling and its abuse” (Awedyk 1760:26-27).

Frank claimed that five thousand of his followers were ready for conversion to Christianity, but they should be permitted to keep their sidelocks and wear traditional Jewish garb. They would observe Saturday and Sunday as their days of rest and would keep their Jewish names but adopt Christian names as well (Scholem 1987:296).

What strikes me as having a particular socio-theological bearing on Hashkafa (Jewish worldview) is that at the very point in Jewish history when the Chassidic movement was emerging, there was already a strong need for 1) mystical literature; 2) identification as “believers”; 3) maintaining external signs of allegiance through traditional clothing and Hebrew names; and 4) association with emergent groups and societies such as Sabbatianism and Frankism which were outside the framework of traditional social structures.

Thirty rabbis led by R. Chaim Cohen Rapoport from Lvov, and about twenty Frankist sectarians attended the disputation. Scholem disagrees with the popular accounts that the Baal Shem Tov also represented the rabbis. Jacob Frank converted on 17 September 1759 together with a large number of his followers. After the conversion, Frank was watched carefully by the priests who had doubts about his motives. When it became apparent that both he and his followers considered him to be the incarnation of God, Frank was arrested, exiled and remained in “honourable” captivity for thirteen years. In 1760 there was another blood libel and many Jews were killed as a result. The wrath of the Jewish people against the Frankists, who were perceived as the accusers, began to grow. In 1765 when the local political landscape changed, Frank became close to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russians eventually freed him when they captured his town. He began to speak about revolution and wanted to see the Catholic Church overthrown. He established a military regime where his followers wore uniforms and went for military training.

Jacob Frank’s daughter, Eva was to become integral to the movement and she was the centre of attraction when “pilgrims” visited her father.  When Frank died, she took over the reins of the Frankist movement. However, Frank had claimed that Eva was the illegitimate daughter of Catherine of Romanov and that he was just her guardian. This claim was backed up by some members of the royalty (Scholem 1987:303). Either way, for some Frankists, Eva represented the completion of a type of Trinity involving her, Shabbatai Tzvi and Jacob Frank (Scholem 1941:323).

Frank produced more than two thousand dogmatic teachings which were compiled in a work entitled Divrei haAdon (the Words of the Master). This work was originally written in Hebrew but translated into Polish so that it could be understood by the coverts’ children who were no longer familiar with Hebrew. Originally this translation was a weak Polish which later had to be revised and refined.[3] This work was then distributed to the Frankist followers almost as a manifesto or what Scholem (1941:316) refers to as a “religious myth of nihilism.”

Scholem points to a similar early form of nihilism practised by the Carpocratian Gnostics of the second and third centuries, but:

“nothing that is known of them touches the resolute spirit of the gospel of antinomianism preached by Jacob Frank” (Scholem 1941:316).

The Frankists didn’t try to hide their nihilistic doctrines but preserved them with “boundless enthusiasm.” They believed Jacob Frank was the very incarnation of God. Paradoxically, Scholem insists that the followers of this doctrine were generally not people of wild abandonment as one might expect. Instead, they were fervent religious followers who were:

“without doubt largely men of pure heart. Deep and genuine religious emotion speaks to us from their words” (Scholem 1941:317).

Scholem describes their literature as a “mixture of primitive savagery” and yet with “a certain vigor of style and élan of thought” making it the “most remarkable ‘holy writ’ ever produced.” The Frankists developed a sophisticated blend of ideology and mysticism which can perhaps be described as a symbolic enlargement of the depth of the Sabbatian abyss into which one must descend to liberate evil.

New research

Important new research by Jay Michaelson (2017:338) radically revisits the common perceptions of Frank and his movement turning some of the ideas completely on their heads. He argues that Frankism was not an extension of the Sabbatian “redemption through sin” nor “opportunistic nihilism”:

“Frankist sexual ritual was not an orgy, but tightly controlled, limited in scope, and apparently quite rare the most famous instance of it may not have even occurred. And most importantly, Frankist antinomianism is neither Sabbatean nor nihilistic in nature” (Michaelson 2017:338).

Michaelson maintains that Frankism was a modern rejection of the supernaturalism of religion and an embracing of materialism as the only reality. Jacob Frank himself writes that:

“All religions, all laws, all books, which have existed until the present – he who reads them is like one who has turned his face backward and looked at words which have long since died. All this came forth from the side of death” (Divrei haAdon, no. 62).

In this reading, Frankist antinomianism was not Sabbatian nor a derivative thereof but instead anti-Sabbatian. Frank writes:

“The only reason I came to Poland was to wipe out all laws and all religions, and my desire is to bring life to the world” (Divrei haAdon, no. 130).

According to this teaching, Frank believed that by eradicating religion, humankind would be free of meaningless restrictive fetters and be truly free. Frank also writes:

“Break the barrel but keep the wine” (Divrei haAdon, no. 224).

He was trying to destroy the constraints of religion but wanted to maintain the wine which Michaelson (2017:342) says refers to the “secret wisdom.”

“Frank rejects religion not out of nihilism, but out of a positive belief that religion does not work… Frank belittles the arbitrary rules of religion in terms that might sound familiar today” (Michaelson 2017:343).

For example, Halacha (Jewish ritual law) permits the consumption of the contents of a pot of kosher meat even if a piece of non-kosher meat inadvertently fell inside, provided the kosher meat is sixty times more the volume of the non-kosher meat. Frank notes that those who are lenient will rely on this dispensation while those who choose to be strict will ignore it. In the end, it is all just a construct, and at least the lenient individual gets to eat. All should, therefore, not just be lenient but abandon these constructs entirely.

“In this regard, Frank is no more “nihilistic” than the Holocaust survivor who rejects God because of the experience of radical evil, or the contemporary unbeliever who cannot square the notion of a just God with natural disasters” (Michaelson 2017:343).

In Divrei haAdon (no.18) Frank tells of how he went to a synagogue in Thessalonica, called Kahal Eliyahu haNavi (The Congregation of Elijah the Prophet). He demanded from the Shamash (caretaker of the synagogue) to see the prophet after whom the synagogue was named. The caretaker said his ancestor once saw the prophet in the synagogue, sitting on a chair and hence its name. Frank’s reaction was to become abusive to the caretaker who duly called the Turkish authorities:

“If a synagogue is ‘the congregation of Elijah,’ then Elijah had better well be there. And if Elijah is not there, the representatives of the synagogue should be beaten for lying about it. There is no place here for the metaphorical or the spiritual: only the material is true” (Michaelson 2017:345).

Divrei haAdon (no. 694) describes Frank stealing a length of string intended to be cut up and used as wicks in candles to memorialise the dead. With the stolen string he makes a bow. Symbolically he is disrespecting religious beliefs and replacing them, sometimes violently as in the imagery of the bow, but always for some practical or materialistic purpose (Michaelson 2017:346).

“All those who don’t have God, let them learn laws. God gave lands to Abraham, not laws” (Divrei haAdon no. 292).

Abraham was not Sinai. He did not give the laws but the land, which represents materialism and reality. Michaelson (2017:346) makes the point that contrary to much of the scholarship on Frankism this approach is neither nihilism nor Kabbalah:

“nowhere, for example, does Frank make use of the Sabbatean–Zoharic distinction between the Torah of the Tree of Life and the Torah of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or the Torah of Atzilut and Torah of Asiyah.”

Frankism is not mysticism but materialism:

“The whole Zohar altogether is not pleasing in my eyes and we have no need of books of Kabbalah” (Divrei haAdon no.1088).

Frank uses the word “treading,” as in treading on religion, traditionalism and sexual mortality, more than two hundred times in his writings.

“Frankism is indeed bawdy and grotesque…[but i]t is critique, not nihilism” (Michaelson 2017:355).

Frank encapsulates this idea:

“I do not look to heaven, that help might come to me from there, but I only look at what God does on the earth in this world” (Divrei haAdon no. 1089).

Michaelson’s ground-breaking reappraisal of Frankism may ironically be an extension of Scholem, who maintains that Chassidism came to neutralise Sabbatianism. One might also say it came to neutralise Frankism. Frankism, as understood by Michaelson, was a total breaking of law and tradition that was no longer relevant. Chassidism did just that. Although it did so very differently, and more in spirit than in actuality. In this sense, Chassidism may have been more influenced at least in theory by Frankism than by Sabbatianism.

Indeed, Scholem points out that within a short time, people:

“quickly forgot their licentious practices and acquired a reputation of being men of the highest moral conduct. Many Frankist families kept a miniature of Eva Frank…and to this day families honor her as a saintly woman who was falsely reviled” (Scholem 1987:308).

The reframing of Frankism in a more favourable light is also significant because future encounters and interactions with Frankists were not uncommon occurrences. The Chassidic rebbe, R. Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) was suspected of having had associations with Frankists. Hillel Zeitlin (1952:84)[4] concluded that R. Nachman visited the Frankists in Kamenetz-Podolsk in an attempt to return them to Judaism. Arthur Green (1992:66) strongly contests that position, claiming that it was unlikely that Frankists were living in Kamenetz-Poldolsk as late as 1798 when the visit took place. Yehuda Liebes (1995:109), however, shows numerous parallels between some of R. Nachman of Breslov’s Chassidic stories which appear to be remarkably similar to those told by Jacob Frank in his Divrei haAdon (See Kotzk Blog: 402) Was R. Nachman’s Tikun haKelali a ‘fixing’ of Sabbatianism?,).



Doktór. J., 2015, ‘Lanckoroń in 1756 and the Beginnings of Polish Frankism: An Attempt at a New Outlook’, Jewish History Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 255, 396–411.

Michaelson, J., 2017, ‘Conceptualizing Jewish Antinomianism in the Teachings of Jacob Frank’, Modern Judaism - A Journal of Jewish Ideas and Experience, 37:3, 338–362.

Scholem, G., 1941, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Schocken Books, New York.

Zeitlin, H., 1952, Reb Nakhman Braslaver, New York.

[1] Online source: Retrieved on 04 December 2022.

[4] An English preview of the Yiddish work of Hillel Zeitlin can be found in this online source: Rabbi Nachman--Hillel Zeitlin ( Retrieved 06 December 2022.

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