I've heard that for instance, in the 1800s, the American rabbis in the South were pro-slavery, and the American rabbis in the North opposed to it. But what were the views towards America of the more-famous "Acharonim", rabbis from (in this case) the 1700s and 1800s, who are famous for their writings?

Did, say, the Noda Bihuda or Vilna Gaon comment (as an aside in any of their writings?) on the American Revolution?

Did R' Hirsch, the Netziv, Malbim, the Rebbe Maharash, Ben Ish Chai , or other great rabbinic thinkers of the 1800s (pick your flavor of Orthodoxy) comment on American slavery and/or the Civil War? (As Dostoevsky did, lehavdil?)

Was the development of the United States of America really "on the map" of these rabbis?

I realize that censorship may have been an issue in some cases, too.

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    The thing I could find was this Besides exploring the life and times of the Vilna Gaon, the 704-page book identifies, provides documentation for more than 20,000 descendants of the Vilna Gaon and his siblings. There is an index listing all persons in the book. The Gaon's descendants seem as diverse as the Jewish people itself, Freedman said. Some descendants were prominent rabbis and academicians. Some were involved in a rare agricultural settlement experiment in Russia, while others variously served in the American Civil War and emigrated to places like England and Australia well before the m Jul 23, 2010 at 13:53
  • From Here: avotaynu.com/gaonbook.html Jul 23, 2010 at 13:54
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    Fascinating; however, the fact that the Gaon's -- grandchildren or great-grandchildren I presume -- served in the Civil War (which side?) does not prove much about his views. People's grandchildren wind up in all sorts of different places -- even Bnei Brak!
    – Shalom
    Jul 23, 2010 at 14:07
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    @DoubleAA Is this on topic any more than say "did any rabbis comment on deodorant"? Is it too broad?
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 10, 2016 at 3:18
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    @mevaqesh as the "writings" asked about are presumably the Torah writings that the Acharonim are known for (and if that presumption isn't strong enough, the question can be easily edited to make it explicit, without meaningful loss of scope), this question is certainly on-topic. Maybe it's Too Broad; I'm not sure.
    – Isaac Moses
    Aug 10, 2016 at 4:36

9 Answers 9


Rabbi Yissachar Dov Illowy (Rabbi Dr. Bernard Illowy), a talmid of the Ksav Sofer, was the Rav of New Orleans at the time of the Civil War, and commented favorably on the right of the Confederacy to secede from the Union. For more information about him, see:

Bernard Illowy (Wikipedia)


"The Biblical View of Slavery, Then and Now: In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation," by Yaakov S. Weinstein, in Hakirah.

I believe Marc Shapiro has some source material about this as well, though I have been unable to locate it as of this writing.

  • 2
    This is great stuff! Thanks! I have some particular personal interest in this because I think it's likely to RDr Illowy knew my wife's forebears in New Orleans and because I happen to know the author of the second and third sources personally.
    – Isaac Moses
    Jul 23, 2010 at 17:58

I have heard - though I don't know of any written source for this - that the Divrei Chaim, R' Chaim of Sanz (1793-1876), was critical of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (or maybe more generally of his anti-slavery stance), seeing it as flouting Noach's prophecy as recorded in Gen. 9:25.

Apparently I had my facts doubly wrong:

  • This statement is attributed not to the Divrei Chaim, but to his son R. Yechezkel of Shinova (1813-1898) (as Yirmiyahu pointed out in his comment).

  • It is said that R. Yitzchak (Itzik'l) of Pshevorsk retold this story after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. However, this post states that the present Pshevorsker Rebbe, R. Leibish, denied that his grandfather ever said any such thing.

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    Certainly not politically correct for our modern ears, but fascinating nonetheless.
    – Shalom
    Jul 23, 2010 at 19:45
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    I wonder if he would have also been critical of the Declaration of Independence: "we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal" (of course, TJ was a major slave owner, so he clearly didn't understand "all men" as we do today)
    – Jeremy
    Jul 26, 2010 at 19:33
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    Maybe he would have distinguished between a declaration of principles (which, after all, has no legal standing) and an actual proclamation that accomplished a certain act.
    – Alex
    Jul 28, 2010 at 5:08
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    Can you find the source? I have seen such a statement in the name of the Divrei Yechezkel, though it was a very late.
    – Yirmeyahu
    Feb 19, 2012 at 5:59
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    What does this story have to do with JFK? I heard that there was a curse on JFK's family from ??JJ Hecht's father?? Feb 27, 2012 at 22:51

Haym Solomon in a teshuva of the Pnei Aryeh

Haym Solomon of Philadelphia in an 18th century Dutch responsum.

also see here

The prayer service of Rabbi Nosson Adler's rebbe Rabbi David Tevele Schiff, printed in London 1793.

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    The responsum in PA (§41) has nothing at all to do with the American Revolutionary, it was merely about a question concerning a charitable donation by Solomon [of which the recipient no longer needed, must/can the donation be returned to the donor].
    – Oliver
    Feb 12, 2019 at 16:59

The guru of such American Jewish history questions is Jonathan Sarna:

Jews and the Civil War: A Reader

The American Jewish Experience

American Judaism: A History

Basically, at the time there were only a handful of rabbis in the whole country and none of them of any serious stature. Similarly, the other primary country affected by these events was England, but the Jewish community was very small at the time, especially considering that Jews were only allowed to naturalize as citizens by the Jewish Naturalization Act 1753.

Can't speak to any of the rabbinic figures elsewhere in Europe, but I would agree with prior assessments that it wasn't a burning issue of the day for the average shtetl-goer.


R. Hayyim Joseph David Azulai twice refers to the American Revolution in his diary. Both times he is talking about the negative effect the war was having on the finances of Jews in Amsterdam who had money invested in the London markets. He does not discuss whether the goals of the war itself were good or bad.

In the entry for March 9th, 1778 he wrote:

And all this when times were uncertain, and they were all suffering hardship because their activities were in shares and their capital was in London where the markets were at rock bottom — for London was in chaos as a result of the war of the Americanos who had rebelled.

(Cymerman translation)

In the entry for March 25th, 1778 he wrote:

At this time, with the English in so much trouble and involved with wars in America where they had rebelled against them, and Spain and France also in trouble, the Company [shares] had dropped to 150 and all the others from 100 to 60: this is a terrible loss.

(Cymerman translation)

  • 1
    I will add the original Hebrew when I get a chance later.
    – Alex
    Oct 17, 2020 at 23:45
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    Wow, what a great find!
    – Harel13
    Oct 18, 2020 at 2:54

Doubt he would be considered an Acharon by most standard but this is what Shir - Shlomo Yehudah Rapaport writes:

Further, at a time when the nations of Europe and America have recognized the evils of intolerance and have accepted the right of freedom of speech, how can Jews keep to the medieval ideas of hatred against all who think differently than themselves. It is only by recognizing and accepting the good laws of the nations that the Jews can become “a wise and understanding nation” as described in the Torah (Devarim 4:6).

pg. 120 - R’ Shlomo Yehuda Rapoport (Shir)

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    wolf2191, Welcome to mi.yodeya, and thank you very much for bringing in this fascinating source! Can you describe briefly who Shir was? Also, please consider clicking on register, above, to create your account. This will give you access to all of mi.yodeya's features and will allow you to take full credit for your contributions.
    – Isaac Moses
    Jul 23, 2010 at 17:39
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    Since wolf2191 hasn't yet had a chance to answer, I can do so: Shir is Shlomo Yehudah Rappaport (1790-1867), a son-in-law of the Ketzos Hachoshen (R' Aryeh Leib Heller, d. 1813). He served as Rabbi of Prague, and was a noted maskil (and a rather controversial one: the traditional Jews considered his opinions liberal and heretical, while the more radical maskilim thought him too conservative and orthodox).
    – Alex
    Jul 28, 2010 at 5:16

Ariel, thanks for the call out to my shiurim. This has lately been an interest of mine and soon I hope there will be posted two additional shiurim about R' Avraham Rice who also lived at that time. While I do not (yet) know of any 'classic' acharonim who commented on the Civil War anyone interested in the subject should take a look at R' Illowy's Milchamos Elokim (written by his son and available at http://hebrewbooks.org) and various articles from the Jewish periodical from that time called the Occident (which is available and searchable on a wonderful website http://jewish-history.com). There is also the 'Fast Day Sermon' given by R' M.J. Raphall (which is also found on that website and who was the first rabbi of NYs Bnai Jeshurun Congregation) permitting slavery, but not as it was practiced in the South, and agreeing with the right to secede (I talk about this in one of the classes). I'll be happy to update this if I find anything else interesting...

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    Yaakov Weinstein, Thanks very much for all of your great research and for coming here and sharing it with us! Please consider clicking register, above, to create your account. This will give you access to all of mi.yodeya's features and will allow you to take full credit for your contributions.
    – Isaac Moses
    Jul 27, 2010 at 3:56
  • It looks like the author of this answer later expanded his research into a full-blown article: hakirah.org/Vol14Weinstein.pdf
    – Isaac Moses
    May 2, 2017 at 20:39

Not really an acharon, but Moses Mendelssohn had a favorable attitude towards the ideas behind the American Revolution, see The Philosophical Roots of Moses Mendelssohn's Plea for Emancipation. "That he closely followed the events across the Atlantic is obvious from a footnote at the end of Jerusalem: 'Alas, now even the Congress in America rehashes the old slogan and speaks of a dominant religion.' This remark clearly shows that until this latest news reached him he had been greatly encouraged by the American example. He may have guessed that the setback was only a temporary affair. In the very year in which Mendelssohn wrote Jerusalem (1782), Thomas Jefferson wrote his Notes on Virginia, in which he expressed the view that a variety of religious opinions was in the best interests of progress and freedom; that the legitimate powers of government extended only to such acts as were injurious to others; and that nobody was injured by his neighbor's religious beliefs" (p. 200). See also Religious Liberty: The Congruence of Thomas Jefferson and Moses Mendelssohn. Another maskil/rabbi who took a favorable attitude toward the religious freedom promulgated by the Founding Fathers was R. Nachman Krochmal--see here for a fascinating illustration.

  • pruzhaner, welcome to the site and thanks for your information! I hope you stick around and enjoy the site. If you register your username, the site will be able to attribute all your contributions to you, and you will otherwise have a better experience on the site.
    – msh210
    Nov 13, 2011 at 20:46
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    THe father of reform Judaism is not one of the Achronim Nov 14, 2011 at 5:42
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    This comment indicates ignorance about Mendelssohn and about Jewish history. This Australian radio program is a helpful start abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2011/3318825.htm
    – wfb
    Nov 20, 2011 at 3:48

Barnett Elzas in his book "The Jews of South Carolina", pg. 219, wrote:

"The breaking out of the war [the Civil War] and the removal from the city of many of its members, however, put an end to its prosperity and caused the Synagogue to close its doors. Neither Congregation was now able to stand along and the way was thus paved for reconciliation and amalgamation. Of this we shall tell in a later chapter.

And he adds in a footnote:

"There is an interesting reference in the literature that probably belongs to this period. Naphtali Zevi Judah Berlin (1817-1893), the chief of the rabbinical school at Volozhin, was consulted by a Charleston Rabbi as to whether minors or Sabbath breakers might be included in the making of a Minyan (religious quorum of ten men). His answer, rather unfavorable to both, is to be found in his volume of Responsa Meshibh Dabar (Warsaw, 1894), Part 1, No. 9, p. 15. It bears no date."

While the Netziv himself doesn't refer directly to the Civil War, Elzas believed that this tshuvah can be dated to the time of the war and is referring to the situation in which there weren't enough congregants in the Charleston shul for a minyan.

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