Pages from a certificate issued by the rabbinical seminary to 20-year-old Khaim Aronov”evich Efron from Antokol, Vilna, 1869. Among the secular subjects studied were algebra, geometry, trigonometry, physics, astronomy, world history, Russian history, Russian language, geography, and handwriting and drawing. Efron received the grades of “satisfactory” for arithmetic and Russian and “poor” for geography and handwriting and drafting. (YIVO)

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From the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were attempts to reform the training of rabbis and teachers in Europe. Such programs were conducted at seminaries that were modeled on elite state schools under Enlightened absolutism and on ecclesiastical seminaries, and combined traditional learning with the modern sciences; what was novel was the instruction in secular subjects as well as homiletics. The idea of rabbinical and teachers’ seminaries was developed by maskilim, under both the pressure and the protection of the state. At times there were also open-minded traditional rabbis and teachers among the founders of the seminaries, who intended to anticipate and moderate changes dictated by the state or by radical Jewish reformers.

For a brief period beginning in 1823, Peter Beer and Herz Homberg, two maskilim and government advisers, oversaw the federation of three yeshivas in Prague to form the Privilegierte Öffentliche Rabbinerschule (lit., Privileged [i.e., Chartered] Public Rabbinical School). The first true seminary in Eastern Europe, however, was the Szkoła Rabinów, founded in 1826 in Warsaw primarily on the initiative of the maskilim Abraham Stern, Jakob Tugendhold, and Antoni Eisenbaum. Although it did not ordain any rabbis and graduated few teachers, it did help facilitate its students’ integration into advanced institutions of learning and vocational training. The seminary in Warsaw was closed after the Polish uprising in 1863; yet, along with the Collegio Rabbinico Italiano in Padua (1829), the École Rabbinique de France in Metz (1830), and the Nederlandsch Israëlitisch Seminarium of the Ashkenazim in Amsterdam (1836), it served as a model for seminaries in the Pale of Settlement, the Ravvinskiia Uchilishcha in Vilna and Zhitomir (1847). In 1854 the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar in Prussian-ruled Breslau was founded, stimulating the opening of the Országos Rabbiképző Intézet (1877) in Budapest.

The seminaries in Warsaw, Vilna, Zhitomir, and Budapest depended on cooperation between the Enlightened absolutist, imperial state and the maskilim. The Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar in Breslau, by contrast, owed its existence to a private Jewish foundation and the personal initiative of a conservative Jewish reformer. The seminaries in Warsaw, Vilna, and Zhitomir were connected via personal networks. There was cooperation between the seminaries of Breslau and Budapest, and an attempt at cooperation among Vilna, Zhitomir, and Breslau.

In their attempts to modernize rabbinical training, the seminaries invoked medieval Jewish philosophy as a forerunner of, and an inspiration for, modern Jewish academia. All of the seminaries developed new, comprehensive curricula and introduced the study of religious philosophy and homiletics; they merged academic scholarship with traditional learning (Bible and Talmud), though they struck a balance in different ways. Most offered a twofold course of study that combined university preparatory courses with rabbinical or teacher training; in Breslau and Budapest, however, rabbinical training had a clear priority and took more than two or three times as long to complete than the programs in Vilna and Zhitomir, where the main focus was on general higher education.

In Budapest, studies at the university were and continue to be obligatory; in Breslau they were looked on favorably. In Warsaw, university studies were possible only for a brief period, until the closing down of the university in 1831. In Vilna and Zhitomir, such studies were not an option.

All of the seminaries stimulated scholarship in Jewish studies. Breslau had the best reputation, but the highest enrollments were found at the seminaries of the Russian-ruled Pale of Settlement. The longest-lived, however, proved to be the seminary in Budapest.

Vilna and Zhitomir

State-sponsored seminaries were founded in the Pale of Settlement in 1847 in Vilna and Zhitomir, centers both of Russian administration and of Hebrew and Yiddish printing; the institutions trained rabbis and teachers and developed into the first Jewish state schools. The Vilna seminary was in a rented building near the old city, opposite the Tyszkiewicz Palace; the Zhitomir seminary was located on the city’s outskirts. The expert for Jewish affairs at the Ministry of Education, the maskil Leon Mandel’stam, mediated between government and maskilim for the first 10 years (1847–1857) of its existence, and organized the production of textbooks for seminaries. Secondary school teachers taught general education, and renowned maskilim (Shemu’el Yosef Fuenn, Avraham Dov Lebensohn, Tsevi Hirsh Katzenellenbogen, Yehudah Idel Shereshevskii, Kalman Schulman, Tsevi Hirsh Klaczko, and Wolf Tugenhold in Vilna; Ya‘akov [Jakob] Eichenbaum, Yitsḥak Bakst, Ḥayim Zelig Słonimski, Mark Suchostawer, Avraham Ber Gottlober, and Eli‘ezer Zweifel in Zhitomir) taught Jewish subjects. Russian was the official language of instruction, but ignorance of that language meant that German was used until the forced integration policy after the Polish uprising of 1863. Yiddish was the spoken language.

Following the standard model for state educational institutions, both seminaries were boarding schools under Christian leadership. Each of them had dormitories with up to 65 students. Local Christian headmasters (although Akim Zimmerman in Zhitomir was a convert) ensured state control. Organized along paramilitary lines, the institutions demanded dual loyalty—to the state and to the Jewish religion and Jewish traditions. The seminaries admitted boys from the age of 10, both paying and scholarship students, with preference given to orphans, the poor, and teachers’ children. Students received a seven-year general and Jewish secondary school curriculum according to the tenets of the Haskalah, including traditional Jewish educational elements: Bible studies, Talmud, ethics, Jewish law, Jewish history, and Hebrew and Aramaic language and literature. This curriculum was followed by either one year of teacher training or two years of training for the rabbinate. Scholarship students were obligated to teach for a mandatory period of 6–10 years.

The seminaries were poorly defined, controversial institutions. For maskilim, they were a means of reform (and a source of employment); for Russian reformers they were a tool of integration of Jews into Russian society; and for the state bureaucracy, they represented a means of control, as they were essentially state-run institutions. These varying goals created conflict over the methods for training rabbis and teachers and highlighted the impotence of the maskilim and the limits of governmental reform policies. Amid the tension created by these differing forces, the seminaries had to manage conflicts aggravated by crises and political upheavals. They nevertheless developed their own dynamic and managed to grow to impressive size and to wield considerable influence.

In 1847, there were 63 pupils in Vilna and 23 in Zhitomir; by the end of the 1850s, these numbers had grown to 300 and 207, respectively, and during the 1860s enrollment in Vilna reached 400. The two seminaries were at that point producing 4 rabbis and 10–11 teachers each year. Altogether, they produced 550 graduates, including about 150 rabbis and about 400 teacher candidates (more than 234 in Vilna and 160 in Zhitomir). During the 1870s, seminary graduates held 55 rabbinical posts, many in the larger cities: Zelik Minor in Moscow; Avram Drabkin in Saint Petersburg; Aharon Pompianski and Shelomoh Pucher in Riga. The most prominent graduates—Adolph Landau, Lev Katzenellenbogen, Avraham Harkavy, Nikolai and Osip Bakst, Mikhail Morgulis, and Mikhail Kulisher—became scientists, journalists, and lawyers who served as key figures in founding centers of Russian Jewish culture in Saint Petersburg and Odessa.

Three brothers of the Shokhor family who studied in the Vilna rabbinical seminary and went on to become crown rabbis in various cities of the Russian Empire, 1898. (Forward Association / YIVO)

In their earliest years, the seminaries met opposition from traditional communal leaders, who sometimes even compelled students to fill quotas for recruits into the Russian army; not until 1850 were seminary students exempted from military service. During the Crimean War, seminaries offered asylum from conscription, and enrollment rose by 60 percent. Simultaneously, conflict between seminaries and communal leaders erupted over the issue of ordination. Rabbi Yisra’el Gordon in Vilna refused to ordain the first candidates for the rabbinate (Zelik Minor, who later became the state rabbi of Minsk [1859] and of Moscow [1869] and Yonah Gerstein). The scandal set a precedent: the Ministry of Education, which intended to get control over the rabbinate, was no more than a mediator in the conflict, as ordination remained under the purview of the rabbinate and the local authority charged with choosing rabbis.

With major reforms taking place in Russia under Alexander II, the seminaries enjoyed new privileges: recognition of their diplomas at universities (1856), freedom of location, and admission to the civil service for Jewish academicians (1861). Enrollment rose with these features, and the changes fostered integration into the state educational system but distanced the seminaries from their intended function. Under the patronage of businessman Aharon Lebenson, the seminary in Vilna incorporated a cultural center with a library, a Sabbath school, a relief fund, and an orphanage. From 1860 to 1879, it published the weekly periodical Ha-Karmel with a supplement in Russian, receiving support for the venture from the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE) in Saint Petersburg.

As a new generation of Jewish staff took over in Vilna, conflicts arose. The differences between the two generations of maskilim were manifest in their clothing, language, and understanding of the goals of education. While the older, self-taught generation spoke Yiddish and wore traditional garb, young teachers wore the uniform of the Ministry of Education (beginning in 1857) and spoke Russian (even during the Polish uprising of 1863, the seminaries remained loyal to the Russian state). Jewish studies, however, became unpopular. The Great Reforms radicalized the young maskilim, and they began to demand civil rights in addition to an education.

By the mid-1860s, almost all the self-taught teachers had retired, although influential teaching posts remained “in the family”: Tsevi Hirsh Katzenellenbogen and Yehudah Idel Shereshevskii were replaced by their sons (Ḥayim Leib Katzenellenbogen, Il’ia Shereshevskii), Lebensohn passed the post to his son-in-law (Yehoshu‘a Steinberg). Young maskilim, including Minor, Pompianski, and Pucher, became teachers in the new Russian Jewish elementary schools and were the first to preach in the language of the land. The seminary in Vilna became extremely active as a center for translation: for the first time, the prayer book (by Assir Vol’; 1866) and the Torah (by Yonah Gerstein, Lev Gordon, and Lev Levanda; 1875) were translated into Russian, and Russian Jewish textbooks were published. The seminaries produced the first generation of Russian Jewish intellectuals, a new elite.

The balancing act during a period of imposed acculturation threatened to degenerate into forced integration, and some seminarians indeed converted to Christianity. The publication of Kniga kagala (The Kahal Book; 1869) by the censor for Jewish books in Vilna, Iacov Brafman, launched a scandal; his text denounced the Jewish communal organization and supplied ammunition for antisemitic journalists. The seminary was involved in the publication and was therefore drawn into the controversy, placing it under increasing pressure to justify itself.

The seminary in Zhitomir followed the Vilna model but had some particular distinctions. Located in the provinces, far from the centers of power, it could more easily avoid close supervision, although this also meant that it was a less prestigious institution. Internecine feuds unfolded undisturbed by outside forces, and in contrast to Vilna, there was no handover from older to young among the Jewish staff. During the Crimean War, the Zhitomir seminary was larger than the one in Vilna, although it subsequently reassumed its subordinate position.

While the emphasis at the Vilna seminary was on philology, Zhitomir focused on mathematics. During the Great Reforms, it made a name for itself thanks to the head of the Kiev school district, Nikolai Pirogov, who abolished corporal punishment, admitted seminarians to universities, and allowed them to serve as headmasters. A struggle for pension entitlements, which lasted almost 10 years and was ultimately unsuccessful, was led largely by Jewish teachers in Zhitomir.

At the start of the 1870s, the revolutionary movement began to attract followers from the seminaries, including Aharon Lieberman, Aharon Zundelevich, Vladimir Iokhel’son, and Lev Kantor. The seminaries had fulfilled their function as engines of integration and the Russian government found them politically risky in this early revolutionary period. In 1873, after the change of state policy toward Poland and with the halt to educational reform under the minister of education, Count Dmitrii Tolstoi, the seminaries were converted to Jewish teacher-training institutes.


Seven years after the founding of the seminaries in the Pale of Settlement, the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar (JTS) in Prussian-ruled Breslau opened its doors. Privately funded, JTS was founded by Zacharias Frankel, who also became its director, and was under the supervision of the state. Frankel developed the seminary based on the school of Positive-Historical Judaism that he had instigated.

Certificate issued by Zacharias Frankel, Director of Jewish Theological Seminary, Breslau, Prussia (now Wrocław, Pol.), 28 April 1862. The document attests that Michael Holzmann from Ostrowo attended the seminary from Michaelis 1854 to Easter 1862 and earned the marks of "good" in behavior and "satisfactory" in studies. German. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

JTS existed from 1854 until it was violently dissolved by the Nazis. Not a boarding school, it was an institution of a manageable size, with 2–5 teachers and an average of 39 students per year (a peak of 69 in 1929–1930), some of whom earned it a great reputation. Especially prominent were the faculty of the early period—Heinrich Graetz, Jacob Bernays, and Manuel Joël—followed by Jacob Freudenthal and a multitude of seminary graduates (Ismar Elbogen, Hermann Cohen, Moritz Güdemann, Michael Guttmann, Bernard Weinryb, Leo Baeck, Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski), who became eminent figures in academia, literature, and public life. In all, the seminary graduated a total of 250 rabbis.

The curriculum consisted of classical languages, German and Hebrew literature, natural sciences, Jewish philosophy and history, Bible, Talmud, and homiletic literature and preaching. German was initially the language of instruction, but in later years Hebrew was incorporated as well. From 1856 it operated its own synagogue. University studies were mandatory for seminarians, and obtaining a doctoral degree was looked upon favorably. After 1869, JTS and the university were connected informally when Graetz and Freudenthal taught at both institutions. In the early 1930s, two seminary teachers were accredited as university professors, and JTS was entitled to call itself the Hochschule für Jüdische Theologie. The renowned Monatschrift für die Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums (Monthly for the History and Science of Judaism) was the seminary’s institutional journal, edited from 1869 to 1887 by Graetz, from 1893 to 1920 by Markus Brann, and from 1920 to 1938 by Isaak Heinemann. JTS contributed prominently to the scientific study of Judaism; Graetz’s Geschichte der Juden (History of the Jews) is but one example.


The Rabbinical Seminary of Hungary in Budapest (Országos Rabbiképző Intézet), which still exists, was founded in 1877, a decade after the emancipation of Jews in Hungary. From its inception, the seminary was located in a building specifically built for it in the city’s center. Originally it was under the control of the Ministry of Religion, which nominated the faculty and supported the school financially. Since 1945, it has been an institution of the Union of Jewish Communities in Hungary. Until World War II, the seminary’s rectors and many of its teachers were internationally renowned Jewish scholars, among them Moses Bloch (who served as rector from 1877 to 1907), Vilmos (Wilhelm) Bacher (1907–1913), Lajos (Ludwig) Blau (1914–1932), Michael Guttmann (1933–1942), David Kaufmann (1877–1899), and Ignác Goldziher (1900–1921).

Ideologically akin to the Positive-Historical Judaism of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, with which it maintained close relations, the Budapest seminary bore the specific imprint of Hungarian Jewish Neology. Training courses generally lasted 10 years and were divided into two equal phases. Accordingly, there were two departments: the university preparatory program and the rabbinical school. Following the 1946–1947 academic year, the seminary was reduced to offering rabbinical training alone; after 1991 it was restructured and now has training programs for religious teachers, cantors, and social workers. In 1999, it was renamed the Jewish Theological Seminary–University of Jewish Studies (Országos Rabbiképző–Zsidó Egyetem).

The curriculum initially combined general education courses and classical rabbinical studies (Bible, Talmud, halakhah, Hebrew, Aramaic, Jewish history, and philosophy). The original languages of instruction were Hungarian and German; Hebrew was added after 1933, and Hebrew and Hungarian have been utilized since 1945. Since 1891, upper-level students had to be enrolled simultaneously at the University of Budapest; a doctorate became mandatory to receive the state-approved rabbinical degree.

Until the Holocaust there were two types of seminarians: secondary school graduates and former yeshiva students. The school attracted students from Hungary as well as Slovakia, Transylvania, and the Banat region. The plan to establish a boarding school was realized only for a brief period in 1931–1932 under the direction of Blau. After World War II, students came from the Communist states of Eastern Europe.

In the first century of its existence, the seminary ordained 300 rabbis, some of whom later became renowned seminary directors, including Adolf Buechler (Jews’ College in London), Samuel Krauss (Israelitische-Theologische Lehranstalt in Vienna), and Michael Guttmann (JTS in Breslau). A number of its graduates, including Raphael Patai and Martin Schreiner, acquired international reputations as scholars. The lecturers Vilmos Bacher, József Bánóczi, and Samuel Krauss published the first complete translation of the Hebrew Bible into Hungarian between 1898 and 1907 and were among the founders of the Izraelita Magyar Irodalmi Társulat (Israelite Hungarian Literary Society). In the 1920s, the seminary took a leading role in the Magyarization of Hungary’s Jews. After World War II and despite the cold war, Alexander Schreiber emerged as an internationally renowned scholar of Judaic Studies and ensured the survival of the institution within the Communist state.

In 1985, the seminary was presided over by Lászlo Salgó; József Schweitzer headed it from 1985 to 1998, and was succeeded by Alfréd Schöner. The enrollment numbers varied, though there were always a greater number of students in the university preparatory department than in the rabbinical school. Peaks of 106 students at the university preparatory level and 48 students at the rabbinical level were attained in 1887–1888 and 1892–1893, respectively, but enrollment fell to an all-time low of 18 and 9 students, respectively, during the critical years of 1920–1921 after the founding of the Hungarian republic. In the years immediately preceding the Holocaust, enrollment in rabbinical courses rose drastically with the systematic exclusion of Jews from Hungarian society, reaching a peak of 125 in 1943–1944. After the war, combined enrollment in the seminary and the university numbered only in the tens but it rose again after 1989, reaching 264 in 2003.

Suggested Reading

Zofia Borzymińska, Szkolnictwo żydowskie w Warszawie, 1831–1870 (Warsaw, 1994); Andreas Brämer, Rabbiner Zacharias Frankel: Wissenschaft des Judentums und konservative Reform im 19. Jahrhundert (Hildesheim, Ger., 2000), pp. 318–414; Marcus Brann, Geschichte des Jüdisch-Theologischen Seminars (Fränckelsche Stiftung) in Breslau: Festschrift zum fünfzigjährigen Jubiläum der Anstalt (Breslau, 1904); Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger, ed., The Rabbinical Seminary of Budapest, 1877–1977 (New York, 1986); Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger, “The Similarities and Relationship between the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar (Breslau) and the Rabbinical Seminary (Budapest),” Leo Baeck Year Book 44 (1999): 3–22; Verena Dohrn, “Das Rabbinerseminar in Wilna, 1847–1873: Zur Geschichte der ersten staatlichen höheren Schule für Juden im Russischen Reich,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 45.3 (1997): 379–400; Verena Dohrn, “Maimonides und die Haskala in Russland: Leon Mandel’štams politisches Vermächtnis,” in Moses Maimonides, 1138–1204: His Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Wirkungsgeschichte in Different Cultural Contexts, ed. Görge Hasselhoff and Otfried Fraisse, pp. 363–384 (Würzburg, 2004); Julij Gessen, “Ravvinskiia uchilishcha v Rossii,” in Evreiskaia entsiklopediia, vol. 13, pp. 257–263 (St. Petersburg, 1912) ; Guido Kisch, Das Breslauer Seminar: Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar (Fränckelscher-Stiftung) in Breslau; Gedächtnisschrift (Tübingen, 1963); Sabinah Levin, “Bet ha-sefer la-rabanim be-Varshah be-shanim 1826–1863,” Gal-Ed 11 (1989): 35–58; József Schweitzer, “Das Budapester Rabbinerseminar: Der Platz des Rabbinerseminars in der jüdischen Wissenschaft,” in Wissenschaft des Judentums W Ḥokhmat Yisra’el: Anfänge der Judaistik in Europa, ed. Julius Carlebach, pp. 74–85 (Darmstadt, 1992); József Schweitzer, György Gábor, Piroska Hajnal, and Gábor Schweitzer, eds., “A tanítás az élet kapuja”: Tanulmányok az Országos Rabbiképzö Intézet fennállásának 120. évfordulója alkalmából (Budapest, 1999); ‘Azri’el Shoḥet, Mosad “ha-rabanut mi-ta‘am” be-Rusyah (Haifa, 1975/76); Yehudah Slutski, “Bet ha-midrash la-rabanim be-Vilnah,” He-‘Avar 7 (1960): 29–48; Michael Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1825–1855 (Philadelphia, 1983); Nikolaus Vielmetti, “Das Collegio Rabbinico von Padua,” in Wissenschaft des Judentums W Ḥokhmat Yisra’el: Anfänge der Judaistik in Europa, ed. Julius Carlebach, pp. 23–35 (Darmstadt, 1992); Carsten Wilke, Den Talmud und den Kant: Rabbinerausbildung an der Schwelle zur Moderne (Hildesheim, Ger., 2003).



Translated from German by Anna Lipphardt and Rebecca Stuart