Abraham ben Abraham

Abraham ben Abraham, also known as Count Valentine (Valentin, Walentyn) Potocki (Pototzki or Pototski), is a legendary figure who is claimed to have been a Polish nobleman of the Potocki family who converted to Judaism and was burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church because he had renounced Catholicism and had become an observant Jew. According to Jewish traditions he is regarded as someone known even to the revered Jewish Talmudic sage, the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah (Eliyahu) Ben Shlomo Zalman (1720–1797)). Some historians who have studied his story have stated that surprisingly little evidence of Potocki's existence has yet been discovered other than several 19th century sources citing earlier oral histories, and they therefore consider that he most likely did not exist.


Jewish legend

There are several versions of this story, especially among the Jews of Lithuania, Poland and Russia, who know and still refer to Potocki as the Ger Tzedek ("righteous proselyte") of Vilna (Vilnius). Virtually all Jewish sources agree that he was a Polish nobleman, who converted to Judaism and was burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church at Vilnius on May 23, 1749 (6 Sivan 5509)[1] because he had renounced Catholicism and had become an observant Jew.

Multiple oral histories, backed up by several 19th century and later printed versions of the story, from many Jewish communities over the past two hundred and fifty years, serve as evidence of Potocki's story. Jewish oral tradition teaches some most interesting details as well as outcome of Avraham ben Avraham's life and death.

Polish author Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, who is acknowledged as the oldest verified source citing this story (and thus perhaps its creator) relates that young Potocki and his friend Zaremba, who went from Poland to study in Paris, became interested in an old Jew whom they found poring over a large volume when they entered his wine-shop. This Jew might have been their own countryman Menahem Man ben Aryeh Löb of Visun, who was tortured and executed in Vilna at the age of seventy (July 3, 1749). Tradition has brought this Jewish martyr into close connection with the Ger Tzedek, but fear of the censor has prevented writers in Russia from saying anything explicit on the subject. His teachings and explanations of the Old Testament, to which they, as Roman Catholics, were total strangers, so impressed them that they prevailed upon him to instruct them in Hebrew. In six months they acquired proficiency in the Biblical language and a strong inclination toward Judaism. They resolved to go to Amsterdam, which was one of the few places in Europe at that time where a Christian could openly embrace Judaism. But Potocki first went to Rome, whence, after convincing himself that he could no longer remain a Catholic, he went to Amsterdam and took upon himself the covenant of Abraham, assuming the name of Abraham ben Abraham.

Elijah Ben Solomon, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) was, according to the Jewish tradition, a mentor to Abraham ben Abraham

After residing a short time in Germany, a country he disliked, he returned to Poland, and for a time lived among the Jews of the town of Ilye (Vilna Governorate), some of whom seemed to be aware of his identity. He has become close to the revered Gaon me'Vilna. When finally apprehended by the authorities, and placed in prison awaiting his death - it was decreed he would burn alive at the stake - the Vilna Gaon sent message offering to rescue him using Kabbala. Avraham ben Avraham refused, preferring instead to die 'al kiddush Hashem' and inquired of the Vilna Gaon which blessing he should make immediately before his passing. The Vilna Gaon answered "...M'Kadesh es Shimcha be'rabim" (who sanctifies His name in public) and sent an emissary to hear and answer "amen.". The entreaties of his mother and friends failed to induce him to return to Christianity; and after a long imprisonment and a trial for heresy he was burned alive in Vilna, on the second day of Shavuot. It was unsafe for a Jew to witness the burning; nevertheless one Jew, Leiser Zhiskes, who had no beard, went among the crowd and succeeded by bribery in securing some of the ashes of the martyr, which were later buried in the Jewish cemetery. A letter of pardon from the king arrived too late to save the victim.

Potocki's comrade Zaremba returned to Poland several years before him, married the daughter of a great nobleman, and had a son. He remained true to the promise to embrace Judaism and took his wife and child to Amsterdam, where, after he and his son had been circumcised, his wife also converted to Judaism; they then went to Palestine (Eretz Yisrael).

It is Jewish tradition that following Avraham ben Avraham's death, the Vilna Gaon believed that the spiritual constitution of the world had become altered in such a way that a Jew was no longer bound to wash his hands in the morning within four amos (cubits) of his bed, as explicitly taught in the codes of Jewish law such as the Shulchan Aruch and other halachic works. Rather, a Jew's entire house would be considered as though four amos for this regard. This custom, born at Avraham ben Avraham's death, commenced with the Vilna Gaon and later became the practice of the Slobodka yeshiva in Europe, becoming today the routine of many leading Israeli Rabbis who follow the Slobodka tradition.[2]

As to why there are few full sources, the Jewish view is reflected as in the views published on the Shema Yisrael Torah Network website:

There are a few reasons why there are so few contemporary sources about the ger tzedek story. It can be assumed that the noble Pototzki family, which was a religious Polish- Catholic family, was not happy that one of their sons defected to Judaism. The Pototzki family was said to have generally dealt kindly with the Jews living on its lands. Mentioning the conversion would have been interpreted as an open provocation of the area's ruler, which would have not resulted in any good. In addition, undoubtedly the conversion of one of the upper- class gentiles aroused great interest among the populace, and his refusal to return to their faith caused them great embarrassment...Nevertheless, we believe the words of our rabbonim, which clearly indicate that there was a connection between the Gra (i.e. the Vilna Gaon) and the Ger Tzedek.[3]

Historical evidence

Many secondary sources - encyclopaedias of Jewish culture, history and religion - include an entry on Potocki, a Polish magnate and member of the powerful Potocki family, who converted to Orthodox Judaism in 18th century Netherlands and who, after his return to Vilna, he was tried by an Inquisition court which sentenced him to burning at the stake.[4] Polish (ex. Janusz Tazbir[4] and Jacek Moskwa[5]), Lithuanian (Rimantas Miknys[5]) and Western (Magda Teter[6]) historians who have studied the story of Potocki however believe it to be invented,[4][5][6] although it is unknown when or by whom (Moskwa points to a possibility that the author was Kraszewski himself, who is known to have invented some tales he claimed were true[5]). Teter mentioned that the story ("a carefully crafted tale of conversion") was likely created and developed as a "response to a number of challenges that the Polish Jewish community faced from the mid-eighteenth century".[6]

Polish historian Janusz Tazbir notes that the story - he uses the term "legend" - originated at the turn of the eighteenth century, was published in a Jewish periodical issued in London as "The Jewish Expositor and Friend of Israel" (vol. 8, 1822).[4] He notes that the literary version of the legend was created by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, a well known Polish writer of the 19th century, author of numerous historical novels, who included the story about Potocki in the third volume of the history of Vilna (1841), Wilno od początków jego do roku 1750 (1840–1842),[4] in which he claims to have followed a Hebrew original, thought by some to be from Ammudei Beit Yehudah (Judah Hurwitz, Amsterdam 1766). (Extant copies of Ammudei Beit Yehudah contain no reference to the story other than a brief mention of the execution of the elderly Rabbi Mann in Wilno). The story was then popularised through Russian translations, and there is evidence that a cult of Potocki's grave in Vilna has existed until the Jewish graveyard (at Pióromont also known as Snipiszki quarter) was destroyed by Nazis during World War II and later by the Soviets.[5] Some sources claim his remains were rescued along with those of Vilna Gaon, though there is no modern monument or grave clearly identified as Potocki's in Vilna or elsewhere.[5]

Tazbir notes that the tragic fate of Potocki, passed through Jewish oral tradition, remains unconfirmed by eighteenth–century Polish or Jewish primary sources and that there is no evidence in any archives or genealogy tree that Potocki existed.[4] He also notes that Polish szlachta was guaranteed the freedom of faith (by acts like Neminem captivabimus and the Warsaw Confederation), and capital punishment was extremely rare.[4] He argues that the described fate should have caused an uproar among szlachta (consider, for example, the case of Samuel Zborowski), and would be the only historical example of execution by burning of szlachta member - yet no contemporary source from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth mentions this event in even a passing reference.[4] In addition, it is difficult to believe that the death at the stake of a Polish aristocrat, from one of the most powerful Polish magnate families, charged with a religious crime, was not echoed in any of the diaries or polemical writings concerning religion and tolerance, topics in which the szlachta, and the entire European Enlightenment were particularly interested.[4] Tazbir has concluded that "the court trial and death of Walentyn Potocki should be recognised as an historical legend deprived of all source–material foundations".[4]

There is some evidence that the Potocki legend is an embellishment of a true story. A report published in the July 1753 edition of The London Magazine describes the story of a very similar execution. The correspondent dated his report June 11, two days after the end of the Shavuot holiday. It describes "an apostate named Raphael Sentimany, a native of Croatia" who converted to Judaism and adopted the name Abraham (thus making his religious name Abraham ben Abraham). The report describes his imprisonment and execution in Wilno as the Potocki legend describes. The report also states that he was executed on June 9, which was the second day of Shavuot, just as in the Potocki story. The only important differences between the Sentimany execution and the Potocki legend are that the martyr was killed in 1753 rather than 1749, and that he was a Croation immigrant rather than a Polish noble.[1] Raphael Sentimany is also mentioned in the anonymous British work "Admonitions from the Dead, in Epistles to the Living", published in 1754, in a manner suggestive of the wide exposure of the original report of Abraham ben Abraham's execution.


Gerim (Jewish converts) often feel a close identity with Abraham, in Jewish law a convert to Judaism receives the name ".... son of Abraham" seen by many as the first convert. As all converts are considered the children of Avraham, a convert who chooses the first name "Abraham" as well, would become Avraham ben Avraham. There are several semi-famous converts with the same name, including one from Japan and one from Germany[citation needed].


  1. ^ Mamar Mordichai
  2. ^ This story was related by Rabbi Ostroff, posek and student of Rav Sternbuch of Jerusalem, as well as Rabbi Hadar Margolin and the Artscroll biography of the Vilna Gaon.
  3. ^ Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight - IN-DEPTH FEATURES
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Janusz Tazbir, The Mystery of Walentyn Potocki, Kwartalnik Historyczny, 3/2003, online abstracts from that issue
  5. ^ a b c d e f (Polish) Jacek Moskwa, Legenda Sprawiedliwie Nawróconego: Historia zatajona czy zmyslona?, Zwoje 3/31, 2002, online original in Polish
  6. ^ a b c Magda Teter, The Legend of Ger [Zdotu ]edek of Wilno as Polemic and Reassurance, AJS Review (2005), 29: 237-263 Cambridge University Press




  • Fuenn, Kiryah Ne'emanah, p. 120, Wilna. 1860
  • Gersoni, The Converted Nobleman, in Sketches of Jewish, Life and History, pp. 187–224, New York, 1873
  • Judah ben Mordecai Ha-Levi Hurwitz, 'Ammude bet Yehudah, p. 46a, Amsterdam, 1766
  • Kraszewski, Józef Ignacy, 'Wilno od poczatkow jego do roku 1750', 1841 (Russian translation: Yevreyskaya Biblioteka, iii., pages 228-236')hy
  • B. Mandelstamm, Chazon la-Mo'ed, p. 15, Vienna, 1877

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