A Sukkot Meeting that Changed History

When Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever met Baron Edmond de Rothschild


From 1881 to 1882, pogroms raged through the Russian empire. Thousands of Jewish homes were destroyed, families were reduced to poverty and large numbers of men, women and children were badly injured. Exhausted from his efforts to help the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled across the Russian border to Galicia, a weary, venerable rabbi arrived at Baron Edmund de Rothschild’s magnificent Paris home. He gazed up at the imposing doors of Rothschild’s residence and steeled himself to act.

Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever was born in 1824 in a village near Vilna, the intellectual center of Lithuanian Jews. A brilliant student, he was ordained a rabbi at the age of eighteen, although he initially refused to practice this calling and worked as a flax merchant for five years. Eventually, he became rabbi of Radom in Poland, and was later elected to the more auspicious post of Bialystok. Moved to practical Zionist labor by the pogroms of 1881, he was instrumental in organizing the then-nascent Chibbat Zion movement in Warsaw – one of only a handful of rabbis involved in a movement dominated by secularists. Mohilever’s involvement in this movement ran deeper than a need to find a safe haven for Jews. He wrote that the act of buying land in Israel “is considered by our sages to gain for the individual a share in the world to come and the commandment to buy land even overrides a shevut (a form of rabbinic prohibition) on Shabbat.” In his eyes, resettling the land of Israel was not only needed to provide a safe haven for Jews, but a religious imperative. It was in this spirit that he made the journey to Baron Rothschild’s door during Sukkot of 1882.

Rothschild was the third son of James Mayer de Rothschild, head of the Rothschild family branch in France. As a young adult, Edmond de Rothschild had a keen interest in subjects of the humanities and the arts. He was a member of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts and moved among intellectual circles. An art aficionado, he assembled an important collection of drawings and engravings, eventually bequeathing it to the Louvre. Rabbi Mohilever’s visit would convince Rothschild to refocus his considerable energy and passion to the cause of the Jewish people.

Rishon LeZion in the 1800s (Photo: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Rabbi Mohilever describes being daunted by Rothschild’s courteous but cool demeanor. “For a brief moment,” he wrote, “I was flabbergasted, but then I suddenly reminded myself of the great purpose for which I had come, and I ignored my weaknesses and fragile health.” He pulled himself together, and said:

For years I was troubled by this vexing question: Why was Moses, of all people, chosen to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt when he suffered from such a debilitating speech impediment? As a political leader and representative, he had to speak to the king and to other government officials. The most basic requirement of a spokesperson is to be a good communicator. Exactly what Moses was not!

…I was perplexed by this question, but only [now], during my trip to see you do I – as an emissary performing a mitzvah – suddenly realize the answer. Moses was chosen to be not only the political leader of the Jewish people, but the giver of the Torah. G-d chose him not only for the exodus from Egypt, but to bring the Jews to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Had Moses been charismatic and eloquent, knowing how to influence people, the cynics would have claimed that the Torah had come not from G-d but from him, because he knew how to seize the moment and mesmerize people into believing. But if the Jews accepted the Torah from a stutterer, it would prove that G-d spoke through Moses – that he was the messenger, not the sender.

My lord Baron, before this very table come representatives of many countries – some quite powerful, with power of attorney on behalf of great financial institutions. They come with different proposals: about building railroads or canals, or colonizing desolate lands. They come armed with a wealth of information regarding the topic they want to discuss. With their eloquence, they can impress you, explaining why their projects would be so profitable to you and beneficial for mankind.

I also come to you with a proposal from my people, a proposal so important that the spirit of our nation depends on it – the settling of the Land of Israel. But I’m a man of heavy tongue and have great difficulty communicating to you how rewarding this project will be for you and for our people. If you accept my proposal and heed your people’s request to revive this barren land, it is only because the lot of this ailing and oppressed nation has touched your heart. But if you dismiss my words and send me away empty-handed, I won’t regret my difficult journey with all its aches and pains – because I have fulfilled the obligation placed upon me. I’ve carried out my mission.

Rabbi Mohilever’s sincere words did indeed touch the Baron’s heart. Together with Yechiel Brill, the editor and publisher of the Hebrew newspaper HaLevanon, Mohilever had developed a plan to set up an agricultural colony in Eretz Yisrael. This land was purchased with the help of a loan from the Baron. The settlement became Rishon LeZion, and Rothschild would go on to hire an agronomist to consult with the settlers, give the colony 30,000 German franks in aid (while requesting that they not announce his name publicly) and promise to extend additional support on the condition that they absorb 10–15 more families into the colony. During the years 1883–1889, Baron de Rothschild covered all the expenses of Rishon LeZion, Zichron Ya’akov, Rosh Pina and Ekron, and donated over 5 million pounds for other settlements. He paid to drain mosquito-filled swamps and for clinics to care for malaria victims. In 1924, he established the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association (PICA) which acquired more than 125,000 acres of land in Israel. 

Rothschild also established synagogues and schools that encouraged the use of Hebrew. “I have heard many French poems in France,” he said. “Here [in the Land of Israel] I will be delighted to hear Hebrew poetry.” Rabbi Mohilever’s stress on the importance of this mission to ‘the spirit of our nation’ made a deep impression on Rothschild. On one visit to Israel, he urged the members of Zichron Ya’akov not only to work diligently in developing the land, but also to “observe the principles of our faith, which is good and beautiful, and the ethics of Judaism, and our language. Be loyal sons of our religion and our land so that you will be worthy of dwelling in our ancestral country.” He understood it was not money and practical labor alone that would revive a dormant land, but the power of an idea. He once commented, “The Zionists could not have done what they did without my help… but I grew to understand that the Zionist idea worked in its spirit in the Land of Israel perhaps more than my money did.” Rabbi Mohilever’s simple but powerful message penetrated Baron Rothschild’s heart. His humble words that afternoon in Paris would go on to not only foster the physical development of the land, but to nourish its spiritual core. 


Odelia Glausiusz recently moved to Jerusalem where she works as a freelance writer and content creator.  

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