About Tsar Nicholas the First: From Rav Yechiel Michel Feinstein zt”l

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com

This week, being Shabbos Parshas Zachor, we recount a fascinating tradition repeated by Rav Yechiel Michel Feinstein zt”l (1906-2003).  Rav Yechiel Michel was the nephew of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, a student of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l, Rav Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l, son-in-law of Rav Velvel Soloveitchik zt”l, and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Beis Yehudah.

This tradition concerns what this author calls, “CPA NAAN” – and no, CPA NAAN are not accountants – they are the seven Tsars that ruled over the “Pale of Settlement” from which most of our great-grandparents originally lived before immigrating to America.  The seven are: Catherine, Paul I, Alexander I (1777-1825), Nicholai I (1796-1855), Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholai II.  Alexander I and Nicholai I were brothers, despite their being nineteen years apart.

Sometime in the early 1800’s, the Tsar was visited by Rav Yitzchok Volozhin (1780-1849), the son of Rav Chaim Volozhin and father-in-law of the Netziv.

Rav Yitzchok Volozhin (the last name was Itzkovitz) went with a group of others.  While waiting for an audience with the Tsar, a 4 or 5 year-old young prince, the child of the Tsar, entered the room.  The child prince began to vilify and denigrate the group of Jews that came for an audience.  After leaving the Kremlin, Rav Yitzchok Volozhin told those with him that he had a tradition from his father, in the name of the Vilna Gaon, as to how to identify  whether a particular gentile is from the seed of Amalek.  He then told them that all of the signs were present in that boy.  That child grew up to become Nicolai the First – the Tsar who enacted the cruel Cantonist decrees in 1827 and relentlessly tried to convert the Jews of Russia to Russian Orthodoxy.


I would like to humbly suggest an adjustment to Rav Yechiel Michel’s version of the incident.  It is highly likely that the child prince was not the son of the Tsar, but rather the younger brother of the Tsar.  And the Tsar at the time this incident took place would likely have been Alexander the First and not Paul the first.   If it was Paul the first, then the incident would have had to have happened in 1800 or 1801.  Since Paul the First was assassinated in 1801, Rav Yitzchok would have only been twenty or twenty one years old, and the Volozhin Yeshiva was not yet established.

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It is more likely to have happened during the reign of Alexander the First, between the years of 1801-1825 when Alexander the first suddenly died of typhus. The Yeshiva was first established in 1803.  Since the young prince was described as a child, it is more likely that happened between 1804-1808.

About Tsar Nicholas the First: From Rav Yechiel Michel Feinstein zt”l 1

The picture to the right is how Nicolai the first appeared in 1808 – still possibly appearing as a child.

Rav Yitzchok Volozhin further explained that in Parshas Balak (BaMidbar 24:20) where it states “reishis goyim amalek.”  He stated that the earlier commentaries have stated that their kings – are from zera amalek.

The Cantonist Decree for Jewish children was made on August 26th, 1827 (Sept.7, 1827 according to the Gregorian Calendar) and was signed by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia twenty months after he became Tsar.  It was officially called the “Statute on Conscription Duty.”   Essentially, it required that Jews also perform military service, but at a higher recruitment rate than the gentile population and from a younger age.  Jewish boys from the ages of 12 to 25  (but sometimes as young as 8) were taken at the rate of 4 recruits per 1000 Jewish residents.  In total, about 84,000 Jews were taken.

It was the responsibility of the leaders of the Kehillah to deliver the recruits and some adopted some very vile means of doing so.  There were people called Chappers who literally kidnapped children to place the in the hands of the Tsarist army.

Rav Yisroel Salanter zt”l could not stand this government sanctioned kidnapping and near-forced conversion to Christianity and made every effort to put a stop to it at the highest level of government.  He created a special committee to attempt to repeal this most vile of Decrees.

A secret meeting was held in the summer of 1851 during the market of Zelwa (held each year from July 25th for 4 weeks – it lasted until the end of the 19th century).  Money was raised secretly to fund a mission of deputized shtadlanim.  Eliyahu Levinson of Kratinga, a wealthy student of Rav Salanter, donated 1100 rubles of his own funds toward this effort. Counting inflation this would have a modern approximate value of $22,000.  The attendees of the meeting sent Rabbi Elchanan Cohen to St. Petersburg to work toward this goal and to act on the groups behalf.  Rav Yisroel Salanter was the main force behind it and worked with Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector on it as well.  One of the Rebbes of Lubavitch had also made efforts to negate the decree.

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In 1852, the group which Reb Yisroel’s student led had the Gomel petition presented which asked the Tsar to repeal the yet higher draft rate.  The group met again that year in Bobruisk and chose two wealthy shtadlanim to go to St. Petersburg with large sums of money for purposes of helping convince government officials to try to influence the Tsar and with letters from attorneys.  These two individuals were Meshulem Feivel Friedland of Dvinsk and Nissen Katzenelson of Bobruisk.

Try as they could, however, those behind all of these efforts did not see fruit with Nicholas I.  He died in February of 1855.  Nicholas I’s son, Alexander II, took over as Tsar.

On August 26, 1856, after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, Tsar Alexander II, in response to appeals by the Jewish community, removed the horrifying clauses of the Cantonist Decree.  It took three years to fully implement.  When Rav Yisroel heard that the conditions were abrogated, he declared a Yom Tov.

Perhaps, this entire incident should be kept in mind when we read Parshas Zachor this upcoming Shabbos.  It is a mesorah told over by Rav Yechiel Michel Feinstein zt”l.

About Tsar Nicholas the First: From Rav Yechiel Michel Feinstein zt”l 2

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