Sect of Skhariya

From Wikinoah English
Revision as of 10:33, 15 May 2018 by Red Judaism (talk | contribs) (Zacharias de Ghisolfi)

Jump to: navigation, search


The Thought of Skhariya the Jew, much more commonly known in the church terminology as the Heresy of the Judaizers or Zhidovstvuyushchiye, was a religious concept that existed in Novgorod the Great and Grand Duchy of Moscow in the second half of the 15th century and marked the beginning of a new era of schism in Russia. Some scholars consider it to have developed from the earlier Strigolniki religious concept that also had developed in Novgorod in the 14th century. Initially popular among high-ranking statesmen and even the royal court, the concept was persecuted by hegumen Joseph Volotsky and Archbishop Gennady of Novgorod.

Terminology and beliefs

The term Zhidovstvuyushchiye (Жидовствующие), as it is known in the sources, is derived from the Russian word жид (zhid, from Judea, an older Russian term for Jew which is now considered pejorative).[1] Zhidovstvuyuschiye may be loosely translated as "those who follow Jewish traditions" or "those who think like Jews". Hegumen Joseph Volotsky, the main critic and persecutor of this thought, considered the founder of this religious movement to be a certain Skhariya (a.k.a. Zakhariya, Skara; Russian: Схария, Захария, Скара). This was Zacharia ben Aharon ha-Cohen, a scholar from Kiev brought to Novgorod by Mikhailo Olelkovich from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1470. Zacharia translated a number of Hebrew texts on astronomy, logic and philosophy.[2]

Their nickname arbitrarily presupposed their adherence to "Judaism", even though most of Skhariya's followers had been ordinary Russians of Russian Orthodox faith and low-ranking Orthodox clergy and had never confessed Judaism. Almost all we know about their religious beliefs is found in accounts left by their accusers. This makes it rather difficult to determine the exact beliefs of the adherents, since the aim of the accusers was to blacken the name of the "sect" and crush it. According to most accounts though, the Belief of Skhariya renounced the Holy Trinity and the divine status of Jesus, monasticism, ecclesiastic hierarchy, ceremonies, and immortality of soul. Some adherents even professed iconoclasm. The adherents also promoted the idea of "self-authority", or the self-determination of each individual in matters of faith and salvation. Priests Denis and Aleksei were considered ideologists of this heretical movement.


In the late 15th and early 16th century, this religious movement spread over Moscow. In 1480, even Grand Prince Ivan III himself invited a few prominent adherents to visit the city. The Grand Prince's seemingly strange behavior could be explained by the fact that he had sympathized with heretics’ ideas of secularization and the struggle against feudal division. Thus, the Judaizers enjoyed the support of high-ranking officials, statesmen, merchants, Yelena Stefanovna (wife of Ivan the Young, heir to the throne) and Ivan's favorite deacon and diplomat Feodor Kuritsyn. The latter even decided to establish his own club in the mid-1480s.

Despite the growing popularity of this religious movement in Novgorod and Moscow, Ivan III was wary of the fact that it could irreversibly infiltrate broader masses of ordinary people and deprive him of ecclesiastic support in his foreign policy. Indeed, a denial of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ would destroy Christianity, while the adherents' opposition to the clergy and the secular authorities would have undermined the entire society. This made Ivan III renounce his ideas of secularization and ally with the clergy.[3]

Zacharias de Ghisolfi

A member of the famous Ghisolfi family, Zacharias de Ghisolfi was the prince and ruler of the Taman peninsula from about 1480. Beset by the Ottoman Empire (which was then in the process of reducing the Girai Khanate and the Italian possessions in the Crimea to tributary status) in 1482, Zacharias and his subjects, a mixed population of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Circassians, Tatars and Slavs, were compelled to retire from Matrega and sought refuge on the island of Matrice. On August 12 of that year, Zacharias informed the directors of the Bank of Saint George in Genoa of his position, and requested for 1,000 ducats with which to retain the friendship of his allies, the Crimean Goths of Feodoro, who had exhausted his resources; he stated that unless he received the support of the republic, he would move to Wallachia, where the voivode had offered him a castle.

Contact with Muscovy

Notwithstanding the fact that the Turks had captured Tana (Azov) and most of the settlements in Gazaria, Ghisolfi continued the war from Matrice, but with only a small measure of success. Learning that he had expressed a desire to come to Russia, and glad of an opportunity to ally with the Circassians and other peoples resisting Ottoman incursions, Ivan III of Muscovy directed Prince Nozdrevaty, his ambassador to the Crimean Tatar khan Meñli I Giray, to forward a message "sealed with the gold seal" to Zacharias the Jew, at Caffa. This message, dated March 14, 1484, and forwarded by Luka and Prince Vasili, both court dignitaries, reads as follows:


Departure for Moscow

From a despatch in Latin from Conario on the Kuban River, dated June 8, 1487, and signed "Zachariah Guigursis", it is clear that Zacharias, intending to accept Ivan's hospitality, started for Moscow, but while on the way was robbed and tortured by Stefan, the voivode of Moldavia; upon his release, he returned home. Notwithstanding this experience, Ghisolfi and his men declared themselves ready to join Ivan provided that guides were furnished them. Replying to this despatch, March 18, 1488, the Muscovite prince repeated his invitation, and informed Ghisolfi that he had notified Dmitry Shein, his ambassador at the Crimean court, that he had requested khan Meñli I Giray to send to Cherkassy two men to guide Ghisolfi to Moscow. He directed Shein to add to this number a Tatar from his own suite.

The Sect of Zacharias Persecuted

The struggle against the adherents was led by hegumen Joseph Volotsky and his followers (иосифляне, iosiflyane or Josephinians) and Archbishop Gennady of Novgorod.[4] After uncovering adherents in Novgorod around 1487,[5] Gennady wrote a series of letters to other churchmen over several years calling on them to convene sobors ("church councils") with the aim "not to debate them, but to burn them." Such councils were held in 1488, 1490, 1494 (the last in 1504). The councils outlawed religious and non-religious books and initiated their burning, sentenced a number of people to death, sent adherents into exile, and excommunicated them. In 1491, Skhariya the Jew was executed in Novgorod by the order of Ivan III. More adherents were executed with Gennady's approval, including archimandrite Kassian of the Iuriev Monastery (who had allowed a number of adherents to hide there), Nekras Rukavov (they first tore out his tongue and then burnt him at the stake), a Pskovian monk Zakhar and others.[6]


Thus several years passed before guides were sent to Ghisolfi, but in the spring of 1496 they reached the mouth of the Miyusha and Taigana rivers, where Zacharias was to meet them four weeks after Easter. It had been arranged that in the event of either party reaching the rendezvous before the other, the first should wait until Whitsuntide, and if need be until Peter and Paul's Day. The guides waited until St. Nicholas' Day (Dec. 6), when they learned that Ghisolfi was unable to advance on account of disturbances among his people, for "the man Zacharias is substantial, his family is great, and probably it is difficult to induce them to move." In his report to Ivan, the Crimean ambassador declared that, out of friendship for Muscovy, the khan Meñli I Giray would take Ghisolfi under his protection, but expressed concern due to Ghisolfi's having antagonized the Turks, who were the khan's overlords.[7]

From subsequent events, it is evident that Ghisolfi entered the service of the khan, for further negotiations were carried on, and in April 1500, Ivan, instructing his ambassador, refers to Ghisolfi as "Zacharias the Fryazin,"[8] who had lived in Circassia and is now in the service of Meñli I Giray, but who never reached Russia."[9]


By the end of the 15th century, some of the adherents remained under the protection of Yelena Stefanovna and her son tsarevich Dmitry (grandson of Ivan III). However, in 1502 Dmitry was stripped of his title (transferred to Vasili III – son of Ivan III and Sophia Paleologue). As soon as Ivan III died in 1505, Yelena and Dmitry were arrested and imprisoned, leaving the adherents vulnerable to attacks from the authorities. In 1504, diak (secretary) Ivan-Volk Kuritsyn, Dmitry Konoplev and Ivan Maksimov were burnt at the stake.[10] Other adherents were banished, imprisoned, or excommunicated. Feodor Kuritsyn's adherents' club ceased to exist.


Ivan's repeated invitations to Ghisolfi seem to indicate that he hoped the latter's services would be valuable to him in extending Russian influence on the Black Sea. Yet it is strange that during a period of more than eighteen years Ghisolfi did not succeed in reaching Russia. Whether the fact that Ghisolfi was a Jew had anything to do with the impediments put in his way, it is difficult to ascertain, for no mention of him is to be found in Jewish writings. The different spellings of Zachariah's name in Italian and Russian documents—"Guizolfi," "Guigursis," and "Guilgursis"—may be attributed to errors of the Russian scribes.

19th-century groups

In the early 19th century, a number of communities appeared in Tula, Voronezh and Tambov, which followed Jewish traditions and halacha. They were also called zhidovstvuyuschiye and were persecuted severely in the times of Nicolas I. Since the beginning of the 20th century, they have been also called iudeystvuyuschie, from iudeystvo, a neutral term for the Jewish religion. Now they are generally considered a part of Jewish people (although with no real Israelite descent) and some of them have immigrated to Israel. These groups, however, are not linked to the teaching of Skhariya.

See also



  1. Immonen, Visa. "The stratigraphy of a life: An archaeological dialogue with Leo Klejn." Archaeological Dialogues (2003), 10: 57-75, Cambridge University Press. For more on the origins of the word see Henrik Birnbaum. Essays in Early Slavic Civilization/Studien zur Fruhkultur der Slaven W. Fink, 1981. pp 26-36.
  2. Janet Martin, Medieval Russia, p290
  3. On Ivan's policies regarding the sect, see George Vernadsky, "The Heresy of the Judaizers and the Policies of Ivan III of Moscow", Speculum, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Oct., 1933): 436-454.
  4. John I. L. Fennell, Ivan the Great of Moscow (London: Macmillan, 1961), 329; David M Goldfrank, "Burn, Baby, Burn: Popular Culture and Heresy in Late Medieval Russia", The Journal of Popular Culture 31, no. 4 (1998): 17–32; Andrei Pliguzov, "Archbishop Gennadii and the Heresy of the 'Judaizers'" Harvard Ukrainian Studies 16(3/4) December 1992: 269-288.
  5. Vernadsky, The Heresy of the Judaizers and the Policies of Ivan III, 439.
  6. E. E. Golubinskii, Istoriia Russkoi Tserkvi (Moscow: University Typography, 1900), vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 582.
  7. ib. pp. 77-114.
  8. i.e., "the Italian".
  9. ib. p. 309.
  10. Golubinskii, Ist. Russk. Tserk, vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 582