Philip Earl Steele

Rabbi Kalischer from Toruń – the father of religious Zionism

The bronze bust of rabbi Kalischer, mounted on his home in Toruń's Old Town - photo

Two outstanding figures in the city of Toruń’s history are separated by just 20 metres. That’s how far it is between the monument of Copernicus standing on the corner of the Old Town square and the bust of Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer, which just 10 years ago was mounted onto the façade of the 19th-century townhouse he once owned. Yet while Copernicus is known the world over, Kalischer isn’t known even at the bookshop at 46 Szeroka street, though that is precisely where the rabbi lived when he composed Derishat Tsiyon (Searching for Zion, 1862), a work of fundamental significance for modern Israel. Moreover, it was also here that – even earlier, in 1836 – rabbi Kalischer produced “the first explicit literary expression of Jewish messianic activism in modern Europe”, as the most prominent scholar of Toruń’s rabbi, professor Jody Myers, writes. Indeed, Kalischer fathered an idea that would inspire generations of Jews to work towards the creation of a Jewish home in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. 

“We’re in the centre of Toruń, on Szeroka street, formerly known as Breitestrasse and before that as Friedrich-Wilhelm-Strasse”, says Anna Bieniaszewska, who for many years worked in Toruń’s municipal archives, and to this day committedly helps keep rabbi Kalischer’s legacy alive. “This is where Toruń’s elites made their homes. Kalischer lived here with his family right beside the statue of Copernicus, which was erected in 1853 on the market square.” 

Jews from Greater Poland

The rabbi’s ancestors were Polish Jews who had lived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for generations, having settled in Kalisz after their arrival from Prague – hence the family name, which in Polish usually appears as ‘Kaliszer’. Here in Kalisz the family gave rise to a new rabbinical dynasty. From the early 18th century the most noteworthy branch of that dynasty was associated with Leszno, today just over an hour’s drive west of Kalisz. This is where Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer was born in the early spring of 1795. Greater Poland, as the broader region is known, proved to be a place “where Polish Jewish culture shaped his education and upbringing”, stresses professor Myers. Between 1803 and 1818 Tsevi studied first at the Leszno yeshiva (college) under rabbi Lorbeerbaum, and then went on to study at the yeshiva of the famed rabbi Akiva Eger in Poznań. Little is known about the years Kalischer spent studying – besides, that is, the fact that Elijah Guttmacher studied with him at both yeshivas. 

The parents of Tsevi Hirsch moved from Leszno to Toruń a few years before their son completed his studies in the capital of Greater Poland in 1818. He thereafter joined them in Toruń. The Kalischer family was well off and young Tsevi became even wealthier when he married Gittel Cohn, the daughter of a rich grain merchant from nearby Nieszawa. No wonder, then, that he could afford to buy a large multi-family townhouse on Szeroka street together with his brother Moses. This is where Gittel was to give birth to 14 children over a period of 27 years – and where the rabbi’s brother became a father 11 times over. 


19th-century Toruń was a mid-sized Prussian town. The Jewish community was never very large here. During Kalischer’s lifetime, its size would grow from 600-700 members to some 1,200 (in 1871), which was 7 or 8% of the population. 

Rabbi Kalischer – who sometimes figures in Toruń’s archives as Kaliski (“of Kalisz”) – served his community as a spiritual leader for half a century without pay. He was adamant in not accepting money either for commentary on the holy texts or for performing his duties. Furthermore, he repeatedly declined large salaries offered by the Jewish communities of other towns, ones which tried to entice the renowned spiritual leader to move. He even published his books at his own expense, only to give them out for free. Rabbi Kalischer was able to do this thanks to Gittel, a talented businesswoman – and later on, thanks to the wealth accumulated by their sons, who according to the surviving town records paid roughly ten-fold the average annual amount of taxes in Toruń. 

Sources of messianic faith

Grand ideas become flesh in specific social and political conditions. This was no different in the 19th century with the idea of creating a polity for the Jews in the land of their ancestors. In the minds of many then – Jews and Christians alike – the restoration of Israel in the Holy Land was foretold by unfolding events. Following the rebirth of modern Greece in 1827, the Ottoman Empire next lost its control over the Levant as a result of the successful rebellion of the Egyptian pasha Muhammed Ali in 1831-1833. These events were viewed through a Biblical lens by the archbishop of Canterbury and the archbishop of Dublin, who announced in the House of Lords in 1833 that Biblical prophecy was clear: the Jews were to establish their own state in Palestine. In 1838, Lord Shaftesbury began his career as the 19th century’s most important Christian Zionist, publishing his first ringing appeal in the matter. The first of many. 

The Ottoman loss of Palestine to Muhammed Ali also influenced the imagination of rabbi Kalischer, who closely followed events in the Near East from Toruń. He viewed the pasha’s victory as a sign that he was living in times ripe with messianic promise. This is why the key argument in his missive to Amschel Rothschild (1836), the hugely wealthy Jew from Germany, was that the change of rule in Eretz Yisrael heralded a messianic era and would make it possible for Rothschild, as God’s vessel, to purchase the land. 

Kalischer interwove various signs into his messianism – that is, the belief that the coming of the redemption was to be realized during his own lifetime. Their common denominator lay with Kalischer’s conviction that he lived in times of dramatic promise. As many thinkers’ underline, from Jody Myers to Yossi Klein Halevi, Jewish messianism is mostly connected to positive events, while apocalypticism to defeat. Kalischer, for whom “antisemitism… was not part of his experience” (Myers), saw the gradual emancipation of Jews across Europe as a messianic sign. The fact that growing numbers of empires and states were giving Jews more rights signaled that the coming of the redemption was close at hand. He took a similar view of the Rothschilds’ family fortune and the stature of Moses Montefiore, the patron of the Jewish community in England and Jerusalem, with whom Kalischer exchanged letters in this spirit. The Toruń rabbi believed that these people, who had the ear of the powerful non-Jews of the world, should hearken to Biblical models in their actions – in particular, that of Mordechai vis-à-vis the king of Persia in The Book of Esther. Furthermore, Kalischer believed that a moment was approaching similar to the one described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, when Judaism and Temple worship were to be restored, just as was done after the Jews’ release from Babylonian captivity. Kalischer even envisaged the resumption of sacrifices in the Temple. 

Another of the signs that heralded the coming of the Messiah was that of Christian support for the Zionist idea. In the 1830s rabbi Kalischer noted that the British establishment – within the context of the sultan’s shrinking power – was eyeing the Near East with a view to the restoration of Israel. Throughout his life, Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer attentively followed the development of these ideas among Christian Evangelicals. For instance, the rabbi viewed Henry Dunant, the Calvinist from Geneva who founded the Red Cross, as an important representative of this trend. Dunant was an ardent proponent of Christian Zionism in the 1860-70s. In his writings rabbi Kalischer expressed approval of Dunant’s efforts, just as he did regarding other examples of Christian support, believing it would help usher the moment when a Jewish state would be created in the Holy Land. 

“As an expert in the Torah and Talmud, he was determined and consistent”, says Bieniaszewska. “His stance was one that reconciled faith and reason. He criticized Jews for their lack of national aspirations at a time when most European nations were proclaiming national slogans and/or were vocal about their national liberation. He mentioned the Poles as a model.” 

Messianism not passive – but proactive

In the late 1850s, Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer began acting more strenuously on his belief in Jewish restoration in the Eretz Yisrael. The first step on the road towards “messianic activism” (as Myers describes the meaning behind the title Derishat Tsiyon) was to reconnect with his colleague from the yeshivas in Greater Poland, Rabbi Elijah Guttmacher. Together, via their rich correspondence, they solved to their own satisfaction the many Halachic issues pertaining to the Jews’ return to their ancestral homeland. Following this success, a conference of Zionist activists and rabbis took place in 1860 in Toruń at Kalischer’s initiative. That same year Kalischer joined the newly created Association for the Colonization of Palestine, established by Hayim Lorje in Frankfurt. 

As explained above, the full development of Kalischer’s thoughts on the Jewish return to the Holy Land was laid out in the Hebrew-language work Derishat Tsiyon. The manuscript was ready by 1860, and already then the author began sending out copies. His work came out in print in 1862 in Ełk, Poland, where a Hebrew publishing house operated alongside Ha-Magid, the famous weekly. Three years later it was translated into German in Toruń. And yet until this very day, Derishat Tsiyon has yet to be translated into Polish. Worse, not a single copy of this pillar of Zionism can be found in the city the author once lived in – whether at the Copernicus University’s library, or the provincial public library. Toruń has not the tiniest museal “shrine” devoted to Kalischer’s legacy – nor so much as a rabbi Kalischer street. 

In Derishat Tsiyon Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer argued for the Jewish colonization of Palestine and the creation of a Judaism-centred polity. He saw the project as inspired by Biblical prophecies that foretold the redemption. Nonetheless, the sage from Toruń expected no miracle, believing that realization of the dream rested with national resourcefulness. He believed that the Jewish people was obliged by God to actively search for Zion. As rabbi Kalischer himself explained it in Derishat Tsiyon:

The redemption of Israel, for which we long, is not to be imagined as a sudden miracle. The Almighty, blessed be His Name, will not suddenly descend from on high and command His people to go forth. He will not send the Messiah from heaven in a twinkling of an eye, to sound the great trumpet for the scattered of Israel and gather them into Jerusalem. He will not surround the Holy City with a wall of fire or cause the Holy Temple to descend from the heavens.

The bliss and the miracles that were promised by His servants, the prophets, will certainly come to pass-everything will be fulfilled-but we will not run in terror and Bight, for the Redemption of Israel will come by slow degrees and the ray of deliverance will shine forth gradually. 

Together with Rabbi Elijah Guttmacher, rabbi Kalischer signed an appeal to organize a Jewish agricultural colony in Eretz Yisrael. He wanted to use the profits from the crops in the colonized lands to support the budget of Zionist organizations. Owing to these and other efforts, the Jewish settlement of Mikveh Israel was created near Jaffa in 1870 and a farming school was set up here for the young pioneers. It was here in 1898 that Theodor Herzl (during what would be his only trip to Palestine) met with the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who was then open to the Zionist initiative. Although Kalischer no doubt enjoyed the development of his ideas from afar, he himself never succeeded in traveling to Ottoman Palestine. He passed away in 1874, four years after the founding of Mikveh Israel. One of his sons, however, would purchase land and settle in Biblical Israel (in the vicinity of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem). Another of his sons participated in the Hovevei Zion conference in Katowice in 1884. 

The Toruń rabbi was the first modern Jew to promote the idea of Jewish settlement in Palestine, and did so a whopping sixty years before The Jewish State (1896), and nearly a quarter century before the birth of Theodor Herzl (1860), otherwise considered the creator of modern Zionism. But contrary to Herzl’s Zionism, the foundation of Kalischer’s longing for the Land of Israel was not modern nationalism, but rather the ongoing Biblical covenant between the people of Israel and God. This is why rabbi Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer is regarded as the father of religious Zionism, which remains vitally important in Israel to this day. Indeed, it need be noted that Derishat Tsiyon was republished in Eretz Yisrael twice, precisely during times of messianic hope. The first instance was in 1919 at the behest of the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Kook (who formally held that position from 1921 with the creation of the British Mandate), while the second instance was half a century later, in 1969, at the initiative of his son, rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, in the wake of the Six-Day War. 

Known all over Europe – forgotten in Toruń

At 10/12 Szczytna street in Toruń, some seventy metres from the townhouse on Szeroka street, we encounter a modern “filling” among the old tenement houses. On the wall of the renovated building, next to the sign above the pub ‘Małgosia’ and that of a notary, is a plaque that commemorates the former synagogue. It opened it doors in 1847 and was destroyed by the Germans in October of 1939. It was of course here that rabbi Kalischer worked and taught. 

Although 19th-century Toruń was a rather small city, with just some 20 thousand people, and the local Jewish community, though prosperous, was much smaller still, its spiritual leader became well-known all-over Europe – and even in America, where Kalischer made a ruling allowing a Jewish father to circumcise his son even though the mother was not Jewish. As mentioned, Kalischer corresponded with Amschel Rothschild and Moses Montefiore. The renown Serbian rabbi Alkalai defended him against accusations of betraying orthodoxy. And this is the same Alkalai who impacted Theodor Herzl’s life, as his grandfather was a vocal proponent of the Serbian spiritual leader’s teachings that called for a Jewish return to Palestine and the establishment of a new Israel. 

Thus, aside from the misconception that Kalischer was a German Jew, the other mistaken belief one encounters is that although rabbi Tsevi Hirsch may well have been a visionary, he was but an obscure provincial unknown to his contemporaries. This is patently false for a wealth of reasons. In addition to those cited above is the fact that Kalischer’s thoughts reached far-away Odessa and Leon Pinsker, one of the future leaders of the first Zionist movement, Hovevei Zion from the early 1880s. Twenty years prior, Pinsker mentioned the activities of the rabbi from Toruń three times in articles for the Russian-language publication Syjon. Derishat Zion was also quoted by Moses Hess, a friend of Karl Marx, who included a three-page passage from Derishat Tsiyon in his own Zionist work Rome and Jerusalem (1862).

Moreover, rabbi Kalischer successfully gathered about him other rabbis, ones from many European countries, who supported his idea of the Jews returning to Israel. Other than Guttmacher and Alkalai, there was the Lithuanian rabbi Natan Friedland and the Hungarian rabbis Jozef Natonek and Akiva Schlesinger among many others, ones also hailing from France and England. 

Towards the end of the 1850s, Kalischer attempted to reach Jewish communities outside Toruń. He changed his previous tactic and began publishing in new Hebrew-language outlets, primarily collaborating with Ha-Magid in Elk and its editor-in-chief, David Gordon, one of the creators of modern Hebrew and the Hebrew press. 

“Other than Hebrew, Kalischer knew both Yiddish and German”, says Anna Bieniaszewska. Professor Myers explains that, besides writing in Hebrew, at times the rabbi wrote in German using the Hebrew alphabet. We can assume that he also knew Polish, which contrary to the stereotypes about yeshivas, was in fact taught in Leszno and Poznań during his lifetime.

After Tsevi Hirsz Kalischer’s death in 1874, the German-language Toruń newspaper “Thorner Zeitung” emphasized that the rabbi was not only an author of religious works, but also an undisputed master, a charismatic authority among Toruń’s Jews. Even the distant Galician newspaper “Gazeta Lwowska” noted his passing, describing him – of course – as a “Polish Jew”.

“The Christian population of the town attended the rabbi’s funeral. It was incredible”, says Bieniaszewska. “Rabbi Kalischer clearly enjoyed immense esteem, as the press that day stressed that ‘many of the gathered Christians wept’. The ceremony was undoubtedly very moving”. 

Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer was buried at the Jewish cemetery. Although it survived the Second World War, the local communist authorities liquidated it in 1975. The tombstone atop the grave of the great sage had nonetheless vanished in unexplained circumstances a dozen or so years earlier. Only one photograph of it remains, taken in 1960. Today on the site of the cemetery is a small park on a grassy knoll having several trees. In the middle is a large stone with a plaque commemorating both the rabbi and his community. This altogether surreal and depressing scene is completed with a four-storey block of flats facing the former cemetery, replete with laundry hanging from the balconies. There is also the stump of a linden tree once dedicated to the rabbi who lived and worked in Toruń, and who laid the foundations on which modern Israel was built. The upper part of the tree had to be cut down a few years ago after it was struck by lightning…


I bless the Lord, may he be praised, who gave me counsel, and who also gave me a helpmate, my wife the righteous Gittel, may she live a long life, who never grieved me by saying, “Go out and enter trade, so we may acquire fortunes and riches”. She never spoke thus to me, but she exerted herself in the business of buying and selling, and the work of her hands allowed me to be free from everyday burdens in order to busy myself with Torah.

From the introduction to rabbi Kalischer’s book Moznayim Lamishpat (1855)

Jarosław Kociszewski and Philip Earl Steele

[This is the fourth in a series of six articles on ‘fathers of modern Israel’ from the lands of today’s Poland]

The article was produced as part of the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański Eastern Europe College project funded by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

About the Author
Philip Earl Steele is an American historian based in Poland, specializing in the history of early Zionism. His recent book on Theodor Herzl, published by the Polish Academy of Sciences, is available in Open Access:
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