Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich   Letter 03   27-Sep-1997   Khmelnytsky Reconsidered
Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich
"Everywhere, classical Judaism developed hatred and contempt for agriculture as an occupation and for peasants as a class, even more than for other Gentiles � a hatred of which I know no parallel in other societies." � Israel Shahak

September 27, 1997

Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich
29 Shchekavytska Street
Kiev 254071

Dear Rabbi Bleich:

I will begin the present letter by demonstrating to you that the depiction in my letter to you of September 26, 1997 of the Khmelnytsky rebellion as a popular uprising against oppression is a depiction that is upheld by at least one prominent scholar, and is a depiction furthermore whose detailing should be enough to win any fair-minded person to the side of the Khmelnytsky freedom fighters.

Specifically, I will be citing passages from Israel Shahak's book, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, Pluto Press, London, 1994.  Israel Shahak was born in Poland, was incarcerated in Belsen, and emigrated to Israel in 1945.  The book's cover informs us that "He is a retired Professor of Organic Chemistry and a life-long human rights activist, writing on aspects of Judaism in Hebrew and English."  Gore Vidal in his preface to the book states of Shahak that, "He is the latest, if not the last, of the great prophets," and Noam Chomsky cited on the front cover of the book states, "Shahak is an outstanding scholar, with remarkable insight and depth of knowledge.  His work is informed and penetrating, a contribution of great value."

The first three passages from Shahak's book that I would like to bring to your attention set the scene for the Khmelnytsky uprising:

[There was a] debasement in the position of the Polish peasants (who had been free in the early Middle Ages) to the point of utter serfdom, hardly distinguishable from outright slavery and certainly the worst in Europe.  ...  The situation in the "eastern" lands of Poland (Byelorussia and the Ukraine) ... was worst of all.  (p. 61)

Outside the towns very many Jews throughout Poland, but especially in the east, were employed as the direct supervisors and oppressors of the enserfed peasantry � as bailiffs of whole manors (invested with the landlord's full coercive powers) or as lessees of particular feudal monopolies such as the corn mill, the liquor still and the public house (with the right of armed search of peasant houses for illicit stills) or the bakery, and as collectors of customary feudal dues of all kinds.  In short, in eastern Poland, under the rule of the nobles ... the Jews were both the immediate exploiters of the peasantry and virtually the only town-dwellers.  (pp. 62-63)

Everywhere, classical Judaism developed hatred and contempt for agriculture as an occupation and for peasants as a class, even more than for other Gentiles � a hatred of which I know no parallel in other societies.  (p. 53)

The following statement holds particular significance:

The peasant suffered worse oppression at the hands of both landlords and Jews; and one may assume that, except in times of peasant uprisings, the full weight of the Jewish religious laws against Gentiles fell upon the peasants.  (p. 63)

The particular significance to which I refer lies in the words "Jewish religious laws against Gentiles."  What were these "Jewish religious laws against Gentiles" and just what does it mean that the "full weight" of these laws "fell upon the peasants"?  Shahak details some of these Jewish religious laws against Gentiles whose weight fell upon the peasants, and I reproduce below a sampling of these laws:


A Jew who murders a Gentile is guilty only of a sin against the laws of Heaven, not punishable by a court.  To cause indirectly the death of a Gentile is no sin at all.

...  When it comes to a Gentile, "one must not lift one's hand to harm him, but one may harm him indirectly, for instance by removing a ladder after he had fallen into a crevice ... there is no prohibition here, because it was not done directly."  (p. 76)

As for Gentiles, the basic talmudic principle is that their lives must not be saved, although it is also forbidden to murder them outright.  The Talmud itself expresses this in the maxim "Gentiles are neither to be lifted [out of a well] nor hauled down [into it]."  Maimonides explains:
As for Gentiles with whom we are not at war ... their death must not be caused, but it is forbidden to save them if they are at the point of death; if, for example, one of them is seen falling into the sea, he should not be rescued....  (p. 80)

For example, suppose nine Gentiles and one Jew live in the same building.  One Saturday the building collapses; one of the ten � it is not known which one � is away, but the other nine are trapped under the rubble.  Should the rubble be cleared, thus desecrating the sabbath, seeing that the Jew may not be under it (he may have been the one that got away)?  The Shulhan 'Arukh says that it should, presumably because the odds that the jew is under the rubble are high (nine to one).  But now suppose that nine have got away and only one � again, it is not known which one � is trapped.  Then there is no duty to clear the rubble, presumably because this time there are long odds (nine to one) against the Jew being the person trapped.  Similarly: "If a boat containing some Jews is seen to be in peril upon the sea, it is a duty incumbent upon all to desecrate the sabbath in order to save it."  However, ... this applies only "when it is known that there are Jews on board.  But ... if nothing at all is known about the identity of those on board, [the sabbath] must not be desecrated, for one acts according to [the weight of probabilities, and] the majority of people in the world are Gentiles."  Thus, since there are very long odds against any of the passengers being Jewish, they must be allowed to drown.  (p. 82)


A Jewish doctor must not treat a Gentile patient.  Maimonides � himself an illustrious physician � is quite explicit on this ... that it is forbidden to heal a Gentile even for payment....  (p. 80)

In order to avoid any transgression of the law, there is a legally acceptable method of rendering treatment on behalf of a gentile patient even when dealing with violation of Biblical Law.  It is suggested that at the time that the physician is providing the necessary care, his intentions should not primarily be to cure the patient, but to protect himself and the Jewish people from accusations of religious discrimination and severe retaliation that may endanger him in particular and the Jewish people in general.  (p. 86)


Sexual intercourse between a married Jewish woman and any man other than her husband is a capital offence for both parties....  The status of Gentile women is very different.  ...  According to the Talmudic Encyclopedia: "... although a married Gentile woman is forbidden to the Gentiles, in any case a Jew is exempted."

This does not imply that sexual intercourse between a Jewish man and a Gentile woman is permitted � quite the contrary.  But the main punishment is inflicted on the Gentile woman; she must be executed, even if she was raped by the Jew: "If a Jew has coitus with a Gentile woman, whether she be a child of three or an adult, whether married or unmarried, and even if he is a minor aged only nine years and one day � because he had wilful coitus with her, she must be killed, as is the case with a beast, because through her a Jew got into trouble."  The Jew, however, must be flogged....  (p. 87)


Taking of interest.  Many � though not all � rabbinical authorities, including Maimonides, consider it mandatory to exact as much usury as possible on a loan to a Gentile.  (p. 89)

Lost property.  If a Jew finds property whose probable owner is Jewish, the finder is strictly enjoined to make a positive effort to return his find by advertising it publicly.  In contrast, the Talmud and all the early rabbinical authorities not only allow a Jewish finder to appropriate an article lost by a Gentile, but actually forbid him or her to return it.  (p. 89)

Deception in business.  It is a grave sin to practice any kind of deception whatsoever against a Jew.  Against a Gentile it is only forbidden to practice direct deception.  Indirect deception is allowed, unless it is likely to cause hostility towards Jews or insult to the Jewish religion.  The paradigmatic example is mistaken calculation of the price during purchase.  If a Jew makes a mistake unfavourable to himself, it is one's religious duty to correct him.  If a Gentile is spotted making such a mistake, one need not let him know about it, but say "I rely on your calculation," so as to forestall his hostility in case he subsequently discovers his own mistake.  (p. 89)

Fraud.  It is forbidden to defraud a Jew by selling or buying at an unreasonable price.  However, "Fraud does not apply to Gentiles...."  (p. 89)

Theft and robbery.  ...  Robbery (with violence) is strictly forbidden if the victim is Jewish.  However, robbery of a Gentile by a Jew is not forbidden outright but only under certain circumstances such as "when the Gentiles are not under our rule," but is permitted "when they are under our rule."  (p. 90)


At the root of this religious obligation [to keep a Gentile slave enslaved for ever but to set a Jewish slave free after seven years, is the fact that] the Jewish people are the best of the human species, created to know their Creator and worship Him, and worthy of having slaves to serve them.  And if they will not have slaves of other peoples, they would have to enslave their brothers....  Therefore we are commanded to possess those [Gentiles] for our service....  (p. 95)

Anyone who lives in Israel knows how deep and widespread these attitudes of hatred and cruelty towards all Gentiles are among the majority of Israeli Jews.  Normally these attitudes are disguised from the outside world, but since the establishment of the State of Israel, the 1967 war and the rise of Begin, a significant minority of Jews, both in Israel and abroad, have gradually become more open about such matters.  In recent years the inhuman precepts according to which servitude is the "natural" lot of Gentiles have been publicly quoted in Israel, even on TV, by Jewish farmers exploiting Arab labour, particularly child labour.  (p. 96)


A pious Jew must utter a curse when passing near a Gentile cemetery, whereas he must bless God when passing near a Jewish cemetery.  A similar rule applies to the living; thus, when seeing a large Jewish population a devout Jew must praise God, while upon seeing a large Gentile population he must utter a curse.  Nor are buildings exempt: the Talmud lays down that a Jew who passes near an inhabited non-Jewish building must ask God to destroy it, whereas if the building is in ruins he must thank the Lord of Vengeance.  ...  It became customary to spit (usually three times) upon seeing a church or a crucifix....

There is also a series of rules forbidding any expression of praise for Gentiles or for their deeds....  (p. 93)

What we see, then, is that in the time of Khmelnytsky, Jews were given near-absolute powers over Ukrainians, and that through the exercise of these powers they ruthlessly reduced Ukrainians to conditions described by Shahak in such words as "utterly enslaved peasantry" or "utter serfdom, hardly distinguishable from outright slavery."  And what we have just seen in the above sampling of Jewish religious laws is that the all-powerful Jew lived and breathed an ideology that permitted � or even commanded � him to kill Ukrainians, deny them medical treatment, work them like animals, rape them, defraud them, curse them.  The Ukrainian was little better than a beast of burden and had small protection from whatever abuse his Jewish overlord chose to heap on him, or whatever extortion he chose to practice upon him.  And so it is particularly the existence and implementation of such Jewish religious laws against Gentiles in general � and thus also against Ukrainians in particular � as those mentioned above that justifies Shahak's describing Jews at the time of the Khmelnytsky rebellion as being superstitious, fanatical, stifling, exploitative, and oppressive:

In the period of 1500-1795, one of the most superstition-ridden in the history of Judaism, Polish Jewry was the most superstitious and fanatic of all Jewish communities.  The considerable power of the Jewish autonomy was used increasingly to stifle all original or innovative thought, to promote the most shameless exploitation of the Jewish poor by the Jewish rich in alliance with the rabbis, and to justify the Jews' role in the oppression of the peasants in the service of the nobles.  (p. 63)

In light of all of the above, we now find ourselves able to understand and to sympathize with Shahak's depiction of the Khmelnytsky rebellion, and even to applaud the rebellion itself:

Perhaps the most outstanding example [of rebellion against Jewish oppression] is the great massacre of Jews during the Chmielnicki revolt in the Ukraine (1648), which started as a mutiny of Cossack officers but soon turned into a widespread popular movement of the oppressed serfs: "The unprivileged, the subjects, the Ukrainians, the Orthodox [persecuted by the Polish Catholic church] were rising against their Catholic Polish masters, particularly against their masters' bailiffs, clergy and Jews."  This typical peasant uprising against extreme oppression, an uprising accompanied not only by massacres committed by the rebels but also by even more horrible atrocities and "counter-terror" of the Polish magnates' private armies, has remained emblazoned in the consciousness of east-European Jews to this very day � not, however, as a peasant uprising, a revolt of the oppressed, of the real wretched of the earth, nor even as a vengeance visited upon all the servants of the Polish nobility, but as an act of gratuitous antisemitism directed against Jews as such.  In fact, the voting of the Ukrainian delegation at the UN and, more generally, Soviet policies on the Middle East, are often "explained" in the Israeli press as "a heritage of Chmielnicki" or of his "descendants."  (pp. 64-65)

In conclusion, rabbi Bleich, it would seem that Israel Shahak has provided numerous and weighty arguments which should lead you to consider abandoning the Khmelnytsky prayer which you recite in Kyiv every Saturday.  For this abandonment you have two principal reasons.  First, the Khmelnytsky prayer incites hatred within Jews against Ukrainians, a hatred which is particularly counterproductive � even dangerous � to incite in Jews living within the heartland of Ukraine itself.  Second, the Khmelnytsky prayer is possibly rooted in the incorrect view that the Khmelnytsky rebellion was directed at Jews and was motivated by an irrational anti-Semitism, when in fact it was aimed at no more than overthrowing oppression, and targeted Jews as only one of the several instruments of that oppression.

I not only urge you to consider abandoning the Khmelnytsky prayer, but I urge you as well to consider replacing it with a prayer of support for Ukrainians in their struggle against slavery, and with a prayer that includes support also for the overthrow of every Jewish demagogue who by leading his people along paths of hatred, falsehood, and exploitation has succeeded only in leading them to their destruction.

Yours truly,

Lubomyr Prytulak