Jakub Frank

Jakub Frank

Polish-Jewish religious figure
Country: Germany

Biography of Jacob Frank

Jacob Frank, a Polish-Jewish religious leader, was the founder of a Jewish messianic group known as the supporters of Shabbetai Tzvi. He declared himself the messiah and believed he was the reincarnation of Shabbetai Tzvi and Berechiah Russo. He lived in the Ottoman Empire, where he was introduced to the Dönme community, before moving to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Podolia). In Poland, he organized a sect that was in conflict with orthodox Jewish communities. In his dispute with rabbis, he sought the support of a Catholic bishop and eventually converted his entire sect to Catholicism.

Born as Jacob ben Yehuda Leibovitch, he received his early education in Chernivtsi and later lived in Bucharest. He acknowledged his lack of education and later discussions on theology were led by rabbis from his sect, in which he did not participate. It is believed that his father was a Sabbatean and had to relocate to Wallachia due to persecution. From a young age, Jacob engaged in trade and became wealthy. In 1752, he married the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Nikopol. During his visits to Turkey, he came into contact with local Sabbateans (Dönme). In Smyrna, Jacob met with the hakham Issachar, who initiated him into Sabbateanism. It was during this time that he acquired the nickname Frank, meaning "European."

In 1740, after the death of Berechiah Russo, the Dönme community in Salonica lost its leader. With Issachar's approval, Jacob declared himself the reincarnation of Berechiah Russo. In order to prove the "authenticity" of his soul, he began publicly violating Jewish commandments. However, this greatly frightened Turkish Jews (including the Dönme community), and he was forced to flee persecution in Poland. He returned to Podolia in 1755, where he declared himself the embodiment of Shabbetai Tzvi and sought the patronage of the Catholic bishop of Podolia, Nicholas Dembowski. He participated in several disputes with rabbis organized by the Catholic clergy, arguing for the validity of blood libel accusations against Jews, which was later used as evidence in the widely circulated book by Gaudencio Piculski.

Jacob Frank succeeded in uniting and consolidating a large community. Following in the footsteps of Berechiah Russo, he organized ecstatic gatherings that involved "ritual" violations of Torah prohibitions, including sexual commandments. On January 27, 1757, the sectarians were arrested for conducting a religious orgy during a fair in Lwąskie. Frank presented himself as a subject of Turkey and was freed from the investigation led by local rabbis. He settled in Hotin, which was then located within the territory of Turkey, not far from the Polish border.

The Frankist community was expelled to Brody on June 13, and later to Lviv, Lutsk, Dubno, and Starokonstantinov. However, the case of the orgies, as it was related to religion, had to be settled in a church court. Jacob Frank established contacts with the Catholic Church, seeking patronage. He developed Sabbatean dogmas, introduced the concept of the Holy Trinity, and presented the case to Bishop Mikolaj Dembowski of Kamianets-Podilskyi, stating that a group of Jews was fighting against the dominance of Talmudists for the recognition of the Messiah and the Trinity. In the summer of 1757, a long dispute took place in Kamianets-Podilskyi, where rabbis, supporters of Jacob Frank, declared that "the Messiah will never come, and Jerusalem will never be rebuilt." Furthermore, the Frankists expressed their opposition to the Talmud, considering the Zohar as the true book. Orthodox rabbis were forced to defend themselves, proving that the Talmud does not insult Christianity and that the Zohar does not contradict the Talmud, avoiding other issues as irrelevant. The bishop declared the supporters of Jacob Frank as winners of the dispute.

On October 17, 1757, the episcopal court in Kamianets-Podilskyi, headed by Dembowski, sentenced the Jewish community of Lwąskie to pay five thousand zlotys to the Frankists. Jews were also taxed for the needs of the church in Kamianets-Podilskyi, and the Talmud was declared a book to be burned. Talmuds were confiscated by the police, accompanied by Frankists, from the homes of rabbis, synagogues, hederim, and libraries, and taken to the marketplace for burning. However, during the collection and burning of the Talmuds, Nikolai Dembowski unexpectedly died. This death was interpreted as punishment for burning sacred Jewish books. The Jewish masses at that time became more hostile towards the Frankists. Polish nobles also began to oppose them. After a series of mass uprisings, Dembowski's successor refused to further defend the sect. Subsequently, Frank and a large number of his followers fled to Turkey, where they converted to Islam in 1757. However, they did not receive support from the Dönme or Jewish communities or Turkish authorities and were forced to wander between Turkey and Poland. In 1758, Frank obtained permission from King August III to return to Poland, where he settled in a small village near Hotin. There, he created a sect similar to a Christian brotherhood. The Frankists who returned from Turkey settled in several villages along the Dniester River. Frank appointed twelve apostles from among the members of the "brotherhood." Sabbateans from other cities eagerly visited the sect, leaving generous gifts. Frank resumed correspondence with the king and archbishop, seeking a second dispute with rabbis. In return, he promised to convert to Christianity and expose the "ritual murders" of Jews (which were rumored by some priests contrary to the Pope's prohibitions). In exchange for the expected baptism, he attempted to negotiate land along the Dniester River, but without success.

The dispute was agreed to be conducted by the canon of Lviv, Stefan Mikulski. During the dispute, the Lviv rabbi Chaim Cohen Rappaport demonstrated the baselessness of the accusations of ritual murder, and Mikulski acknowledged this question as unresolved. However, in theoretical debates, he declared the victory of the Frankists.

According to the researcher of Frankism, Meir Balaban, the reason for the violent actions of the Frankists was the pressure from Catholic priests and revenge against the rabbis who persecuted them.

After the dispute, Christian authorities strongly insisted on baptism, and the entire sect (from 500 to 1000 people) converted to Christianity in Lviv on September 17, 1759. The new Christians took the names of their godparents, thus entering the Polish nobility. Jacob Frank conducted two baptism ceremonies, with the king himself, August III, as his godfather during the final ceremony in Warsaw. Ministers and nobles were present, and he adopted the name Joseph at his baptism. Over the next 30 years, the number of baptized Jews reached around 25,000.

After embracing Christianity, Frank sought to unite the sect by prohibiting intermarriage (as was the case in Dönme groups) and introducing his own rules within the sect. Overall, Polish society viewed the newly baptized Jews fairly favorably.

Jacob Frank petitioned for the sect to be granted land. However, the papal nuncio viewed the sect with suspicion. An investigation was conducted into the sect's activities, revealing Frank's correspondence with his wife. It was concluded that the beliefs of the sectarians were incompatible with Christianity. Frank himself was found guilty of intentionally misleading the community, and he was arrested and imprisoned in the fortress of Częstochowa in February 1760.

The imprisonment was relatively lenient, allowing him to meet with his family and followers. During his confinement, he developed the texts of the "Red Letters" (i.e., letters written in red ink) that were later distributed to Jewish communities with calls to embrace Christianity.

In 1767, Russian troops entered Poland, accompanied by a wave of pogroms against Jews by the Haidamaks. Frank attempted to establish contact with representatives of the Orthodox clergy, promising a mass conversion to Orthodoxy, but was unsuccessful. Frank continued his agitation, attributing the misfortunes of the Jews to their refusal to accept the new faith and making dark predictions.

Baruch Yavan, an opponent of Frank, contacted the Russian Orthodox clergy and explained Frank's activities to them, which led the clergy to ignore the requests of the Frankists. In August 1772, Russian troops occupied Częstochowa, and Frank was released. Frank and his family traveled to Warsaw. Upon his release, he became extremely wealthy, but the exact source of his wealth is unknown. Some theories suggest that he received money from the Russians for espionage activities, while others believe it came from the Frankists who achieved success and nobility at the Warsaw court, no longer engaging in agitation but generously donating money, which was collected by his daughter Eva Frank. Jacob then went to Brno, where he organized a community, now not a brotherhood, but an army consisting of "Cossacks, Uhlans, and Hussars." He constantly sought the support of Austrian authorities and even had an audience with Emperor Joseph II. He tried to obtain the title of count but was unsuccessful, although his daughter Eva enjoyed the patronage of the court and had an intimate relationship with the emperor. In 1788, he was granted the title of baron. In his later years, he resided in Offenbach, where he purchased a castle from Count Ernst von Gomburg-Bernstein for three million guilders and referred to himself as the "Baron of Offenbach." His followers came to visit him on pilgrimages and made significant donations. He tried to keep his origins secret among his neighbors, presenting himself as a Polish baron. Rumors circulated among the townspeople, ranging from him being the Emperor of Russia, Peter III, with Eva being Elizabeth Petrovna, to more modest rumors that Eva was the granddaughter or daughter of the empress. His fortune was estimated at 800,000 ducats. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Offenbach according to Jewish customs. His funeral was grand and long remembered by the residents of Offenbach. The leadership of the sect passed to his daughter, Eva. However, the sect rapidly lost popularity, Eva fell into serious debt, and after her death in 1816, the sect quickly declined.

In Poland, a small group of Frankists existed until the end of the 19th century.