Schapira, Hermann

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SCHAPIRA, HERMANN (Ẓevi Hirsch ; 1840–1898), one of the first leaders of *Ḥibbat Zion and political Zionism, originator of the ideas of the *Jewish National Fund and The Hebrew University. Born in Erswilken, Lithuania, Schapira displayed outstanding talents from early childhood. He became the rabbi and rosh yeshivah in a Lithuanian townlet. In 1866 he moved to Kovno, where he began his scientific and linguistic studies, and thence to Berlin in 1867 in order to pursue them further. After a period of hardship, hunger, and scholarly exertions, he was accepted as a student in a crafts' academy (Gewerbe Akademie), but was later obliged to return to Russia because of lack of means. He worked for a number of years as a clerk in commercial enterprises in Odessa and other cities to save money in order to return to his studies. The substantial sum he earned as a military supplier during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78) finally made it possible for him to realize his ambition. Schapira went to Heidelberg, where he devoted himself to the study of mathematics and attracted academic notice by his achievements in this field. Among his publications was the mathematical work Mishnat ha-Middot in Hebrew ("The Study of Measures") and in German translation in 1880. In 1883 Schapira became university lecturer and in 1887 was appointed associate professor in higher mathematics.

After the pogroms in Russia in 1881, he had joined the Ḥibbat Zion movement, and published articles in Ha-Meliẓ in 1882 calling for the establishment of agricultural settlements in Ereẓ Israel, and the founding of a university with departments for training rabbis and secular teachers, as well as teaching theoretical and practical sciences (mathematics, astronomy, etc., and chemistry, agriculture, and industrial crafts). The language of instruction would be German, but Hebrew would be taught as much as possible so that "in the course of time Hebrew might become a spoken language as well." Schapira expressed his willingness to teach at this university and even contacted other Jewish scholars with this end in view. He was one of the founders of Ḥovevei Zion in Odessa, which became the center of all Ḥovevei Zion societies inside Russia and in other countries. In Heidelberg in 1884 he founded the Zion society for the settlement of Ereẓ Israel. The failure of the Ḥibbat Zion movement to awaken a widespread Jewish national movement or to initiate large-scale settlement in Ereẓ Israel caused Schapira to despair, and he withdrew from public and literary activities.

His status as a professor at Heidelberg University was insecure, and he felt isolated from his non-Jewish and even from his Jewish colleagues, the majority of whom were assimilated or even converted. His mathematical studies showed great talents but were unsystematically written and never fully completed. His economic circumstances were poor, and he was obliged to take on various other jobs to support himself, including watchmaking. After a period of doubt, Schapira embraced a religious philosophy and way of life. In Reuben Brainin's periodical Mi-Mizraḥ u-mi-Ma'arav ("From East and West") he published in 1894 two fragments from a book in which he tried to synthesize modern science with traditional Judaism. A group of Zionist students in Heidelberg roused Schapira to renewed activity. After initial hesitation he became an enthusiastic supporter of the new Zionist movement founded by *Herzl. To the First Zionist Congress (1897) he brought two proposals: the first was the creation of a "general Jewish fund," to which the whole of world Jewry, poor and rich, would contribute. Two-thirds of the fund would be assigned to purchasing land, and the remaining third would serve for the maintenance and cultivation of the land acquired. The land would not be sold but only leased for a period not exceeding 49 years. The second suggestion was the establishment of a Jewish university in Ereẓ Israel. Schapira's first proposal was accepted only by the Fifth Congress (1901), at which the Jewish National Fund was founded; his second proposal had to wait until the 11th Congress (1913).

Schapira devoted the last years of his life to the dissemination of the Zionist idea among German Jewry. He corresponded with Herzl and was active in the student group Safah Berurah in Heidelberg. In his last article, "Shalom," published posthumously, he wished that "God will let him live to teach the sons of His people in the school of Torah, wisdom, and labor which would be built in the Holy Land." His collected writings on Zionism, edited by B. Dinaburg (Dinur), were published in 1925. In 1953 his remains were re-interred on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.


L. Jaffe, The Life of Hermann Schapira (1939); I. Klausner, Karka va-Ru'aḥḤayyav u-Fo'olo shel Hermann Schapira (1966); B. Dinaburg, Mefallesei Derekh (1946), 62–69.

[Yehuda Slutsky]