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Rebbe Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, Sermon for Chanukah 1941

Shapira Chanukah Sermon
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was among the most well-known Hasidic1 leaders in Poland before World War II. As an educator and author, he worked in the town of Piaseczno near Warsaw until his deportation to the Warsaw ghetto following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. There Shapira continued the Hasidic tradition of the Shabes tish [“Sabbath table”], a weekly occasion at which Jews gathered to sing and hear wisdom from their rebbe.

Preserved in the Oyneg Shabes archive and published after the war,2 Shapira's writings—including many of his sermons3—span roughly three years from the beginning of the war to the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto in the summer of 1942.4 The sermons are tailored to the fearful circumstances facing the ghetto and are rooted in reflections from the Torah addressing the despair his Hasidim continued to endure.5 Written during a period defined by a loss of faith and renewed piety among Jews in the ghetto,6 the great effort put into these documents make them remarkable examples of a religious response to the Holocaust.7

Shapira's writings tend to place the daily realities of the Warsaw ghetto within the larger picture of Jewish history and faith. In the sermon included here, prepared for Chanukah 1941, the rebbe draws connections between hardships past and present. He reminded his followers that Jews had weathered great disasters throughout their history and should remain faithful through the present calamity. Mindful of the situation facing the ghetto's population—more than 80,000 of its Jews would die of starvation between 1940 and mid-1942—Shapira drew on diverse sacred texts to interpret the world in a way that could give strength to his congregation. On the occasion of Chanuka, a holiday marking Jewish survival, Shapira promotes continued faith, selflessness, and acceptance of suffering. At the same time, the rebbe betrays flashes of self-doubt and hints at his own inability to offer comfort to his followers.

During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943, Rebbe Shapira was taken to the labor camp Trawniki near Lublin. He was murdered during Aktion "Erntefest" in November 1943.

Hasidism is a Jewish religious sect that appeared during the 18th century in eastern Europe. Hasidim, the followers of Hasidism, are organized in individual sects, each headed by its own leader, a rebbe. The rebbe is considered a spiritual authority. 

Rebbe Shapira wrote down and buried copies of his discourses shortly before the ghetto was destroyed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. These were discovered and first published under the title Esh Kodesh [“Holy Fire”] in 1960. For a recent translation, see Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury, 1939-1942, Deborah Miller, ed., trans. J. Hershey Worsch (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Press, 1999). Annotated transcriptions of Shapira's writings, printed in Hebrew and paired with facsimiles of the original manuscripts, are available in Sermons from the Years of Rage: The Sermons of the Piaseczno Rebbe from the Warsaw Ghetto, 1939-1942, Daniel Reiser, ed. (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2016).

Composed in rabbinical Hebrew, Shapira likely delivered his sermons in Yiddish. See Daniel Reiser, "Esh Kodesh: A New Evaluation in Light of a Philological Examination of the Manuscript," in Yad Vashem Studies 44, vol. 1 (2016), 66.

These discourses do not continue uninterrupted throughout the full three years; they are punctuated by silences lasting several weeks or months. The entries cease altogether following a  massive wave of deportations from the Warsaw ghetto, which sent roughly 265,000 Jews to their deaths in Treblinka from July to September of 1942. Though Shapira remained in the ghetto until his own deportation in the spring of 1943, his daughter Rachel-Yehudit—the only member of his close family still alive—was deported that summer.

In addition to the Torah—the central sacred text in Judiasm—the Rebbe's sermons drew upon the Talmud, a body of rabbinical writing and teachings describing Jewish ceremonial and civil law, as well as other sacred texts. The sermons are dated and can be contextualized with events occuring in the ghetto. See Henry Abramson, Torah from the Years of Wrath, 1939-1943: The Historical Context of Aish Kodesh (North Charelston, South Carolina: CreateSpace Publishing, 2017).

See Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 645-646.

Many of these sermons were adapted from versions written before the German occupation. For more on the role of spiritual leaders and Jewish religious thought during the Holocaust, see Steven T. Katz, Shlomo Biderman, and Gershon Greenberg, eds., Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses During and after the Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).


Reiser, "Esh Kodesh: A New Evaluation," 71-74. A note, appended to the Chanukah sermon almost a year later, suggests that events had changed his view of the situation facing Jewish people. See footnote 5 in the accompanying translation.

In the second century CE, the priest Matityahu (Mattathias) led the so-called Maccabee revolt to unseat Greek influence in Israel.

This part is from a prayer typically recited at Chanukah, "And about the miracles." In his text, Rebbe Shapira included only a reference  to this prayer reading: "In the days of Matityahu, etc. rose up, etc. to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress, etc." It is possible that Shapira could recite the prayer from memory, the crowd attending the sermon was familiar with the full version and reading it was not necessary, or a copy of the text was read aloud.

Hebrew: "The binding of Isaac." Refers to the passages in Genesis (22:1-19) recounting God's command to Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice.

Beitar, also spelled Betar, was the last standing Jewish fortress in the Bar Kokhba revolt of the second century CE, destroyed by the Roman army of Emperor Hadrian in the year 135.

Here Shapira added a note: "Only such suffering and torment as those endured until the latter part of the year of 5702 were previously recorded in Jewish history. However, from the end of 5702 onwards, according to my knowledge of the writings of our Sages, may their memory be blessed, and of the history of the Jewish people in general, such bizarre torments, and evil, outlandish deaths, as those designed for us, the House of Israel, by these wicked, strange murderers, are unprecedented. May God have mercy upon us and swiftly save us from their hands. The day of the eve of holy Shabbat, 18 Kislev, 5703, the author." The Jewish calendar year 5702 corresponds to the period from September 22, 1941, and concluding September 11, 1942. The note is dated 18 Kislev, 5703, indicating November 27, 1942.

A Jewish leader and rabbinic sage martyred in the second century CE.

A daily prayer recited in the morning and evening.

According to the Hebrew Bible, the Ten Martyrs were ten rabbis murdered by the Romans in the first century CE.

Here again the author refers to the Chanukah prayer, "And about the miracles." See footnote 1.

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Chanukah 5702 [date listed using the Hebrew calendar; corresponds to 1941 on the Roman calendar]

"In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will.1 But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your Great Name."2 We should understand the phrase "to make them forget Your Torah, etc." not only as the problem of the Hebrews who were in trouble, but also as the problem of God. Why then is it said, “But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress"? 

In the case of Abraham the patriarch is, it is written, "And he believed in The Lord, and He accounted it to him as righteousness." Let us try to understand, at least little bit as our small brains allow us, why for Abraham belief was considered as a righteous act, but in the case of the Israelites who were in Egypt, it is only written "And the people believed, and they heard that the Lord had remembered the children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they kneeled and prostrated themselves," but it is not written that it was considered as a righteousness act. Seemingly, faith in God was harder for the Israelites in Egypt than it was for Abraham, as God did not speak to them directly, and they did not know God's name. As Moses said to God "…and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?"  The Israelites in Egypt were in such distress and suffering that later, as it is written, "…they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery." According to our meager understanding, as it is known from the sacred books, faith is not simply a substitute for a lack of understanding. Faith exists only because the light and Holiness of God is inside the Jew, and it is it that sees the sacredness of His brilliance, blessed be Him, bound and tied to the Jew. This sacred light is found in us since the days of our ancestors, and therefore we say in our prayers "Our God, the God of our fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…"  The fact that He is our God and we believe in Him has nothing to do with reason or logic, we are bound to Him through our ancestors. Therefore, only in the case of Abraham the patriarch, the first of the believers, it is written [that his faith was an act of righteousness. That was not the case with the Israelites in Egypt, as their faith was not considered as an act of righteousness since faith was found within them as an inherited trait. Also, in the case of Abraham the patriarch, it is written that his faith was righteousness while the Akedah3 was not considered as righteousness. Even though the Akedah was a tremendous ordeal, it depended on faith, the level of Abraham's faith. The stronger his faith, he worships God more devotedly, and is more willing to sacrifice himself, therefore it is only faith that is considered a righteous act. As Abraham had faith, it was only natural that he agreed to sacrifice Isaac at the Akedah.

Therefore, faith must be wholehearted and with total devotion; as all the strength of the Jews that is in their total devotion and self-sacrifice is derived from this same faith. If the faith is neither wholehearted nor in total devotion, how can it empower one to self-sacrifice? Total devotion means to continue to believe in Him even in times that He is hidden, and that everything is derived from Him, all good and just, and that all the torments are filled with God's love to His people, the Jews.

It is with deep sorrow that even amongst those who always believed wholeheartedly, there are now some individuals whose faith has been damaged. These individuals question God, asking, "Why have You forsaken us?" They argue that if we are being tortured to bring us closer to worship and Torah, how is this that the Torah and everything that is holy are being destroyed? If a Jew talks this way as a prayer or supplication, pouring out his heart before God, a good thing it may be. However, if, God forbid, this individual is indeed questioning, even if not God directly, it is then his internal faith that is damaged, God forbid, then may God protect us. Faith is the foundation of all, when a person's faith is, God forbid, damaged, then, God forbid, this person is torn apart and is distanced from God. Souls that are condemned to Hell return at the time of repentance. When they arise from Hell they are purified and cleansed. We hope to God that all those who suffer these torments will have risen purified and closer to God. However, someone whose faith is damaged is like a soul who has been tormented in Hell, God forbid, and has there added insult to injury. After some time when the soul sees itself within the same sins, it asks itself "what good was all this suffering if I am as filthy as before."

In all honesty, what room is there for doubts, God forbid, and for questions? It is true that torments such as those that we currently endure occur only every several hundred years. However, how can we attempt to understand God's actions, or having our faith damaged, God forbid, once we fail to understand them? If one blade of grass created by God is beyond our understanding, how are we to understand the soul, or even less so, how are we to understand an angel or the mind of God himself? How can we expect to understand with our mind what God knows and understands? 

Why is that that one has his faith damaged by questioning God because of the suffering that Jews endure these days and not because of the suffering Jews had endured from time immemorial? Why would such a person have his soul damaged now, while it was not damaged when he read and heard about Jewish suffering throughout the years as described in the Torah, Talmud, or Midrash? Those who say that Jews never had to endure such torments and suffering are mistaken. Such torments were the fate of Jews during the destruction of the Temple, at Beitar,4 etc.5 May God have mercy and call an end to our suffering, may He save us immediately, from now and forever.

The reason today's suffering damages a person's faith more than the suffering endured by Jews in the past is that the present person’s own self and suffering matter to him most. If someone says that he flinches only in the sight of his fellows being tortured, while he may be genuinely worried and affected by the torture of other Jews, in fact, deep inside, this profound impression left on him is a fear of finding himself in the same horrible situation. It is this feeling that, God forbid, damages one's faith and causes that person to doubt God. Therefore, we have already said that one must be willing to sacrifice one’s soul, oneself, and relinquish all of one’s ties. Only then one’s faith remains perfect and one can wholeheartedly believe that everything is just and a result of God’s love of the people of Israel. 

Our current state may be reflected in the story of Rabbi Akiva:6 "When they took Rabbi Akiva out to be executed, it was time for the recitation of Shema.7 And they were raking his flesh with iron combs, and he was reciting Shema, thereby accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. His students said to him: Our teacher, even now, as you suffer, you recite Shema? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by the verse: With all your soul, meaning: Even if God takes your soul. I said to myself: When will the opportunity be afforded me to fulfill this verse? Now that it has been afforded me, shall I not fulfill it?"

If we simply look at this story, then the all-familiar question arises: How was it that the holy disciples of Rabbi Akiva asked their teacher "Our teacher, even now"? They were well aware that every Jew is willing to give his life to God. Moreover, why did the Rabbi answer them referring to himself saying "All my days I have been troubled, etc." rather than just citing the verse "With all your soul, meaning: Even if God takes your soul"? 

Following what was said above, this may provide us a hint to explain our own situation: The disciples of Rabbi Akiva experienced such sorrow at the horrible death of their Rabbi, that they were asking themselves the same question asked by Moses "Is this the Torah and is this its reward?" They were afraid that, God forbid, they will have doubts and their faith will be damaged, so they wanted their teacher, who was strong in his great faith to talk to them about his experience, and by doing so encourage their faith. Therefore, when asking him "Our teacher, even now," they meant to say, "Our Rabbi, can you be our teacher even at this time of horrible torture and death?" It may be that they chose not to articulate their question fully but only hinted at it with the saying "even now," as in the Talmud, God already replied to Moses on this question saying "Be silent. This is what I have decided."

Rabbi Akiva understood that his disciples asked him to inspire and encourage them with his faith, and thus he told them about his own experience with faith: "All my days I have been troubled by the verse… Now that it has been afforded me, shall I not fulfill it?"

In the days of Rabbi Akiva, as only the Ten Martyrs8 were sentenced by the Romans to torture and death, Rabbi Akiva's disciples asked they teacher to reinforce their faith with his words of wisdom. Now, that the evil decrees are aimed at all the Jewish people, God forbid, these decrees themselves should be the reason for our faith to strengthen. 

It is of the teachings of the Rabbi, may the memory of the righteous and holy be a blessing, that even the lowliest of the Jews, who cannot overcome his urge to commit sin, is willing to give his life to God when tested. When someone comes to extinguish the spark of his soul with heresy, God forbid, it ignites this spark and it grows stronger and intensifies, as it is well known.

Therefore, if everyone was to bear in mind that it is not because we robbed or wronged someone that we are being persecuted, but solely because we are of the people of Israel, bound to God and His holy Torah. It is not enough for them to extinguish only the spark of God within us, it is both the body and the soul of the Jew that they want to exterminate. If we could only remember that, our faith in Him and our devotion to His Torah would grow stronger. However, since we feel only our physical suffering, and we fail to recognize that the torment we endure is, in fact, an act against God and His Torah, and therefore, the faith of certain individuals weakens.

The Greeks also attempted "to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will," and they did this with tyranny and torture of Israel, as recorded by Josephus, and also by spreading Hellenic wisdom among the Jews of Israel. This reached the point that the Greeks ordered the Jews to "Write on the horn of an ox that you have no share in the God of Israel," as is cited in the Midrash. But then the Jews knew that the purpose of all the physical suffering caused to them by the Greeks was to "make them forget Your Torah and stray away from Your commandments" and this was their main concern, and their main source of suffering. Therefore, their faith grew stronger and God salvaged them because of their faith. As it is written in the Chanukah liturgy: "…rose up against, etc. to make them forget Your Torah, etc. but You, etc., stood by them in the time of their distress."9 The distress of the people of Israel was about the Greeks' trying "to make them forget, etc.", meaning, it was not the physical suffering that caused this distress, but rather the Greeks' effort to destroy their faith in God, and this is why: "You, God, stood by them" and saved them.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw
RG Number 15.189M
Date Created
Author / Creator
Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH), Warsaw
Warsaw, Poland
Document Type Religious Text
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