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Dawidsohn, Ḥayim

(1760–1854), merchant, leading member of the Warsaw Jewish community, and its chief rabbi. Ḥayim Dawidsohn was born in Pińczów and, after the death of his father, grew up at the home of the wealthy Tsentseminer family, Warsaw bankers to whose daughter he was wed as a young man. Thanks to an inheritance from his father-in-law and to the sharp business acumen of his wife, Dawidsohn’s family amassed a great fortune, acquired among other means by obtaining the leasehold for taxes on kosher meat. His teacher, Ya‘akov Lorbeerbaum of Lissa (Leszno), ordained him. In 1797, on the basis of the Prussian law regarding Jewish surnames, Ḥayim became the first member of his family to assume the family name of Dawidsohn.

Dawidsohn enjoyed great respect among all factions of the Warsaw Jewish community. His diplomatic skills made it possible for him, a Misnaged, to form political alliances on specific issues with Hasidism as well as with followers of the Reform movement. Despite the high regard in which he was held, Dawidsohn consistently avoided accepting official positions in community leadership. When in 1839, however, a commission made up of community leaders and dignitaries elected him to succeed the late chief rabbi Shelomoh Zalman Lipschitz, he accepted—despite his advanced age, and motivated not least by his now precarious financial situation. Enjoying the approval of the vast majority of the Warsaw community, Dawidsohn occupied this office until just before his death in March 1854. In this capacity, he campaigned especially hard to put the community school system (Talmud Torah schools) on a solid financial footing.

During the decades he spent in informal service as a highly respected member of the community, Dawidsohn acted on numerous occasions as a mediator between government departments and the Jewish populations of Warsaw and of the Kingdom of Poland. Thus, he was among the dignitaries who successfully delayed government plans to introduce mandatory military service for Jews. In return, together with the most prominent religious (including Hasidic) leaders of Poland’s Jewry, he supported the government’s 1841 initiative to more strongly encourage Jews to engage in agriculture. On the question of the position of Jews in Poland toward the Polish independence movement, Dawidsohn supported the uprising of 1830–1831 financially; however, he also defended the position of the Warsaw community leadership, which sought to prevent the formation of an autonomous Jewish military unit within the ranks of the rebel troops.

Dawidsohn advocated a cautious opening of traditional Jewish education to new subject areas, such as the Polish language, and initially supported the Warsaw rabbinical school founded in 1826, until its directorship was taken over by the radical reformer Antoni Eisenbaum. In 1846, Dawidsohn agreed to the publication of the first Hebrew–Polish prayer book (Tsevi Libkind’s Tefilot Yisra’el; 1846). Shortly before his death he burned all of his own religious writings.

Suggested Reading

Azriel Nathan Frenk, Di familye Davidzohn (Warsaw, 1924), pp. 21–49; Jacob Shatzky, Geshikhte fun yidn in Varshe, vols. 1–2 (New York, 1947–1948).



Translated from German by Deborah Cohen