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The Frankists were a semi-Christian religious organization which came into being among the Jews of Poland about the middle of the eighteenth century. This organization was the ultimate result of two causes: (1) the Messianic movement which agitated the Jewish world after the appearance of Shabbethai Ẓebi, the pseudo-Messiah from Smyrna, and which degenerated later into religious mysticism; and (2) the social and economic upheaval in the life of the Polish Jewry. The spread of the Messianic movement (1660-70) occurred in the period following the harrying and killing of the Jews inthe days of Bogdan Chmielnicki. Hundreds of ruined communities, in which almost every family mourned its martyred dead, awaited aid from Heaven. They were inclined to see in the Ukraine massacres the pre-Messianic sufferings (see Eschatology), and in Shabbethai Ẓebi the coming Messiah-Deliverer. The fall of the false Messiah and his conversion to Mohammedanism estranged him from many of his followers, but among the more uncultured portion of the Jewish people the belief in the mystic mission of Shabbethai persisted for a long time.

Having lost its political significance, Messianism at the end of the seventeenth century assumed a mystical coloring, and the open popular movement was transformed into a secret sectarian cult. A half-Jewish, half-Mohammedan sect of Shabbethaians was established in Turkey. In Poland, and particularly in Podolia and Galicia, there were formed numerous secret societies of Shabbethaians known among the people as "Shabbethai Ẓebiists," or "Shebs" (according to the Western pronunciation of "Shabbethai"). In expectation of the great Messianic revolution the members of these societies threw off the burden of strict Jewisḥ dogma and discarded many religious laws and customs. The mystical cult of the Shebs included the elements of both asceticism and sensuality: some did penance for their sins, subjected themselves to self-inflicted torture, and "mourned for Zion"; others disregarded the strict rules of chastity characteristic of Judaism, and at times gave themselves over to licentiousness. The Polish rabbis attempted the extermination of the "Shabbethaian heresy" in the assembly of Lemberg (1722) and elsewhere, but could not fully succeed, as it was kept alive mostly in secret circles which had something akin to a Masonic organization.

The Shabbethaian Heresy.

The spread of mysticism was favored by the distressing social-economic condition of the Jews in Podolia and Galicia during the first half of the eighteenth century, when Poland was falling into decay, and the Haidamak movements destroyed in many Jewish centers security of person and property. The resulting decline of the rabbinical schools and of mental activity was on the whole favorable to the growth of mystical doctrines, which among the masses assumed at times the most monstrous forms.

From among these secret circles of the Shabbethaians came the founder of the Frankist sect, Jacob Frank, born in Podolia about 1726. His father was expelled from the community for belonging to the secret society of Ẓebiists, and moved to Wallachia, where the influence of the Turkish Shabbethaians was strongly felt. While still a boy at school Frank displayed an aversion to Jewish learning founded on the Talmud, and afterward often styled himself "a plain man" or "an untutored man." In the capacity of a traveling merchant he often entered Turkey; there he was named "Frank," a name generally given in the East to a European; and there he lived in the centers of contemporary Shabbethaianism—Salonica and Smyrna.

In the beginning of the fifth decade of the eighteenth century he became intimate with the leaders of the sect and adopted its semi-Mohammedan cult. In 1755 he appeared in Podolia, and, gathering about him a group of local sectarians, began to preach to them the revelations which were communicated to him by the successors of the false Messiah in Salonica. In their secret gatherings was performed, under the leadership of Frank, much that was directly opposed to the religious-ethical conceptions of the orthodox Jews. One of these gatherings ending in a scandal, the attention of the rabbis was drawn to the new propaganda. As a foreigner, Frank was obliged to leave Podolia, while his followers were given over to the rabbis and the "ḳahal" authorities (1756). At the rabbinical court held in the village of Satanov many of the sectarians confessed to having broken the fundamental laws of morality; and women confessed to having violated their marriage vows, and told of the sexual looseness which reigned in the sect under the guise of mystical symbolism.

Jacob Franck.The Anti-Talmudists.

As a result of these disclosures the congress of rabbis in Brody proclaimed a strong "ḥerem" (ex-communication) against all impenitent heretics, and made it obligatory upon every pious Jew to search them out and expose them. The persecuted sectarians informed the Catholic Bishop of Kamenetz-Podolsk that the Jewish sect to which they belonged rejected the Talmud and recognized only the sacred book of the Cabala, the Zohar, which they alleged admitted the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity. They claimed that they regarded the Messiah-Deliverer as one of the three divinities, but failed to state that by the Messiah they meant Shabbethai Ẓebi. The bishop took seriously the "Anti-Talmudists," or "Zoharists," as the sectarians began to style themselves, and in 1757 arranged a religiousdiscussion between them and the rabbis. The Anti-Talmudists presented their equivocal theses, to which the rabbis gave a very lukewarm and unwilling reply for fear of offending the Church dignitaries who were present. The bishop decided that the Talmudists had been vanquished, and ordered them to pay a fine to their opponents, and to burn all copies of the Talmud in the bishopric of Podolia.

After the death of their patron, the bishop, the sectarians were subjected to severe persecution by the rabbis and the heads of the ḳahals. The Anti-Talmudists succeeded in obtaining from Augustus III, (1733-63) an edict guaranteeing them safety; but even this did not avail to free them from the unfortunate position of men who, having parted from their coreligionists, had not yet succeeded in identifying themselves with another faith.

At this critical moment Jacob Frank came to Podolia with a new project; he posed as a direct successor of Shabbethai Ẓebi, and assured his adherents that he had received revelations from Heaven. These revelations called for the conversion of Frank and his followers to the Christian religion, which was to be a visible transition stage to the future "Messianic religion." In 1759 negotiations looking toward the conversion of the Frankists to Christianity were being actively carried on with the higher representatives of the Polish Church; at the same time the Frankists tried to secure another discussion with the rabbis. The Polish primate Lubenski and the papal nuncio Nicholas Serra were suspicious of the aspirations of the Frankists, but at the instance of the administrator of the bishopric of Lemberg, the canon Mikulski, the discussion was arranged. It was held in Lemberg, and was presided over by Mikulski.

Baptism of the Frankists.

This time the rabbis energetically repulsed their opponents. After the discussion the Frankists were requested to demonstrate in practise their adherence to Christianity (1759); Jacob Frank, who had then arrived in Lemberg, encouraged his followers to take the decisive step. The baptism of the Frankists was celebrated with great solemnity in the churches of Lemberg, members of the Polish nobility acting as god-parents. The neophytes adopted the names of their godfathers and godmothers, and ultimately joined the ranks of the Polish nobility. In the course of one year more than 500 persons were converted to Christianity in Lemberg, among them the intimates and the disciples of Frank. Frank himself was baptized in Warsaw, Augustus III. acting as godfather (1759). The baptismal name of Frank was "Joseph." The insincerity of the Frankists soon became apparent, however, for they continued to intermarry only among themselves, and held Frank in reverence, calling him "the holy master"; and it was also discovered that Frank endeavored to pass as a Mohammedan in Turkey. He was therefore arrested in Warsaw (1760) and delivered to the Church's tribunal on the charge of feigned conversion to Catholicism and the spreading of a pernicious heresy. The Church tribunal convicted Frank as a teacher of heresy, and imprisoned him in the monastery in the fortress of Chenstochov, so that he might not communicate with his adherents.

Frank in Prison.

Frank's imprisonment lasted thirteen years, yet it only tended to increase his influence with the sect by surrounding him with the aureola of martyrdom. Many of the Frankists established themselves in the vicinity of Chenstochov, and kept up constant communication with the "holy master," often gaining access to the fortress. Frank inspired his followers by mystical speeches and epistles, in which he stated that salvation could be gained only through the "religion of Edom," or "dat" (= "law"), by which was meant a strange mixture of Christian and Shabbethaian beliefs. After the first partition of Poland Frank was released from captivity by the Russian general Bibikov, who had occupied Chenstochov (1772). Until 1786 Frank lived in the Moravian town of Brünn, and was surrounded by a numerous suite of sectarians and "pilgrims" who came from Poland. For many of the pilgrims there was great attraction in the person of Eve, the beautiful daughter of Frank, who at this time began to play an important rôle in the organization of the sect.

Accompanied by his daughter, Frank repeatedly traveled to Vienna, and succeeded in gaining the favor of the court. The pious Maria Theresa regarded him as a disseminator of Christianity among the Jews, and it is even said that Joseph II. was favorably inclined to the young Eve Frank. Ultimately the sectarian plans of Frank were found out here also; he was obliged to leave Austria, and moved with his daughter and his suite to Offenbach, a small German town. Here he assumed the title of "Baron of Offenbach," and lived as a wealthy nobleman, receiving money from his Polish and Moravian adherents, who made frequent pilgrimages to Offenbach. On the death of Frank (1791) Eve became the "holy mistress" and the leader of the sect. As time went on the number of pilgrims and the supply of money constantly diminished, while Eve continued to live in her accustomed luxury. She finally became involved in debt, and died neglected in 1816.

The Frankists scattered in Poland and Bohemia were gradually transformed from feigned to real Catholics, and their descendants merged into the surrounding Christian population. The sect disappeared without leaving any traces in Judaism because it had no positive religious-ethical foundation. Attempts to formulate the teachings of Frank upon the basis of a collection of his utterances preserved in manuscript ("Biblia Balamutna") have so far failed. There is no doubt, however, that Frankism consisted in a negation of the religious as well as of the ethical discipline of Judaism. "I came to free the world from the laws and the regulations which have hitherto existed," says Frank in one of his characteristic utterances. In this movement visionary mysticism degenerated into mystification, and Messianism into an endeavor to get rid of the "Jewish sorrow" by renouncing Judaism. See Baruch Yavan.

  • A. Theiner, Vetera Monumenta Poloniœ . . . ex Tabularüs Vaticanis Collecta, iv. 158-165, Rome, 1860;
  • Skimborowicz, Ziwot, Skon u Nauka Franka, Warsaw, 1866;
  • Grätz, Frank und die Frankisten, Breslau, 1866;
  • J. Emden,Sefer Shimmush, Altona, 1758-62 (Hebr.);
  • S. Dubnov, Yakov Frank i Yevo Sekta Khristianstvuyuschikh, Nos. 1-10, in Voskhod, 1883;
  • idem, Istoriya Frankizma po Novo-Otkrytym Istochnikam, Nos. 3-5, in ib. 1896;
  • Z. L. Sulima, Historya Franka i Frankistóew, Cracow, 1893;
  • A. Kraushar, Frank i Frankisci Polscy, 1726-1816, i.-ii., ib. 1895 (based on many newly discovered documents, and with the portraits of Frank and his daughter).
H. R. S. M. D.