1848: A Terrifyingly Modern Rabbi Is Poisoned by Fellow Jews

Religious murder among Jews is almost unknown, but Abraham Kohn's ideas, such as banning Hasidic garb, were mortally threatening to some.

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On September 6, 1848, Abraham Kohn, the chief rabbi of Lemberg, Galicia, and four members of his family ate arsenic-laced soup. Shown in picture: Steaming hot soup in white ribbed china bowl. The bowl is sitting on a table, covered by a blurry tablecloth.
On September 6, 1848, Abraham Kohn, the chief rabbi of Lemberg, Galicia, and four members of his family ate arsenic-laced soup; he and one daughter died. (Illustration.)Credit: Dreamstime.com

On September 6, 1848, Abraham Kohn, the chief rabbi of Lemberg, Galicia, and four members of his family ate arsenic-laced soup, apparently cooked up by Orthodox opponents to Kohn’s reformist activism. By the next day, Rabbi Kohn and his infant daughter Teresa were dead, although his wife and four other children recovered.

However contentious Jews may be with other Jews, it is fortunately rare for them to kill one another over ideological or theological disagreements. In the case of Kohn, a traditionally trained rabbi who embraced the Enlightenment and the principles of Reform Judaism, he was influential enough make himself a lot of enemies. Although the identify of the person who sprinkled the poison in his soup is fairly certain, it is not known whether he was acting alone or at someone else’s behest, and officially, the murder remains unsolved.

He began to think outside the box

Abraham Kohn was born on June 13, 1806, into a very poor family in Zaluzany, Bohemia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Despite their limited means, his parents sent him to Prague in 1828, where he began studying philosophy at Charles University. At the same time, he pursued rabbinical studies with the city’s chief rabbi, Samuel Landau.

Although Kohn gave up his secular studies when the money ran out, he was ordained as a rabbi in 1832, and the next year was appointed rabbi of the town of Hohenems, Austria. He remained in Hohenems for the next decade, during which period his sermons reflected his growing concern that organized Judaism overemphasized adherence to the letter of religious law at the expense of ethical or moral behavior.

In Kohn’s view, the rabbi had an obligation to speak out on matters affecting people’s day-to-day lives, and should be willing to take practical measures to improve those lives. His effort to have his congregation stop selling the honor of saying Torah blessings was unsuccessful, but he established a society to help Jewish artisans, and was involved in educational reform.

His ability to influence grew when Kohn was appointed chief rabbi of Lemberg (today, Lviv, Ukraine), in 1844, to which he added the title of district rabbi three years later. The position was offered him in part on the strength of a sample sermon he delivered there in 1843 in which he complained about the “false religion” of rote observance, calling for its replacement with more ethical behavior and science-based education.

Death threats

Once he became Lemberg’s rabbi, Kohn established a school that offered both secular and Jewish studies, taught in German. It attracted some 700 pupils, both male and female.

But certain stalwarts among Lemberg’s Hasidic and traditional-Orthodox Jews felt angered and threatened by his call for the emancipation of Galician Jewry. Also, he appealed to the secular authorities to cancel the taxes on both kosher food and the sale of Sabbath candles – taxes that were collected by other Jews. . They also resented his request to Austrian authorities to enforce an existing ban on the wearing of Hasidic garb.

Lemberg was a polarizing figure, and he had both loyal followers and fanatical opponents. He was offered money to resign his position, and when he demurred, he began to receive death threats.

In his book on the Kohn case, “A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion and Violence in Modern Jewish History,” published in 2007, Michael Stanislawski, who examined the long-inaccessible records of the investigation and the resultant trials, concluded that the perpetrator was one Abraham Ber Pilpel, a Hasidic goldsmith. Having infiltrated the Kohn family kitchen on September 6, 1848, Pilpel, on the pretense of lighting his cigar from the light of the stove, leaned over and poured arsenic into the soup as it bubbled away.

Everyone who ate the soup got sick, and, as noted, both Abraham and the baby Teresa actually died.

Pilpel was tried for the crime, as were two outspoken Kohn opponents, Jacob Naphtali Herz Bernstein, and Hirsh Orenstein, but all were acquitted; in the case of Pilpel, his conviction was overturned on appeal.

Rabbi Kohn’s widow, Magdalena, lobbied hard to have the verdict reconsidered. But a renewed investigation by the Austrian justice ministry concluded there were no grounds for reopening the case.