Literature of Memory VI: Hope and Despair

STH TS 870, Fall 2000

Professor Elie Wiesel


Judit Gellérd


Spiritual Jews of Szekler Jerusalem

A Four-Centuries History of Transylvanian Szekler (Székely)[1] Sabbatarianism



“Remember the days of old, think of the generations long ago;  ask your father to recount it and your elders to tell you the tale” (Deuteronomy 32:7).


            Like Atlantis, the long submerged land,

            Transylvania tolls its bells from the depth.

            Bells of village churches toll. Listen!

            Quietly, down, from the bottom of the sea.

            Sailors, who venture in stormy waters

            During long nights, listen carefully!

            Deep down, Transylvania tolls its submerged bells.[2]


            In the land of legendary tolerance, Transylvania, where several nations have lived together for centuries, a group of Hungarian Unitarians took the semper reformandi principle so seriously at the end of the 16th century, that they carried the Radical Reformation beyond Unitarianism, looping back into Judaism.  They called themselves “Spiritual Jews,” although they had no shared roots with Judaism, or blood ties to Jews.  In church history records they are known as Szekler Sabbatarians--not to be confused with Sabbateanism, Shabbetai Tsevi’s movement!  Although occasionally “Judaizing”[3] impulses affected Calvinists and Catholics, Sabbatarianism mainly spread among Unitarians in the Szeklerland [Székelyland].  Although this new religion spread all over Transylvania, it was not one of the “received” religions.[4]  Continuous persecution forced the Sabbatarians underground. By the end of the nineteenth century, when they finally gained official recognition, only two villages of Sabbatarians were left.  By 1936 when the Hungarian writer György Bözödi published the first study on this fascinating religious movement, only Bözödújfalu, called the “Szekler Jerusalem” remained.   “Bözödújfalu is the Jerusalem of the Szekler Jews with the difference that this one hasn’t been destroyed,” wrote Bözödi in 1936.  Half a century later, in 1989, I witnessed the diabolic destruction of this village by Ceausescu, drowning it into an artificial lake--“the lake of tears,” as exiled people of Bözödújfalu call it.

Transylvanian Unitarians have always fostered a strong sense of affinity toward the biblical story of the Jewish people which inspired tenacious hope in their own tribulations.  My father, Imre Gellérd, preached on the 400th anniversary of the Unitarian Church in 1968:


            When I contemplate the four-hundred-year history of our Unitarian faith, an irresistible analogy with the wandering Jewish people comes into my mind.  It is a strong sense of self-realization in the universal message of the scripture.  The centuries of wanderings of Transylvanian Unitarians from the metaphorical Egypt toward the spiritual Canaan of religious liberation is also the story of humankind.[5]


In the precarious security between the Hapsburgs of the Christian West and the Muslim Turks of the East, Transylvania uniquely fostered the Hungarian Radical Reformation and religious tolerance in the time when people all over Europe were murdering each other over religious differences.  It was Transylvania where, for the first time in the Western world, religious tolerance and freedom of conscience was granted in the Edict of Torda, in 1568, by then Unitarian majority and their king, John Sigismund.  Yet it was incomplete.  The Unitarian king died in a suspicious hunting accident and with him so did his vision.  Would toleration, which was granted for the first time in Europe by those in power, be further extended to the Jews in Transylvania?  A look into the historical background and into a biblical sentiment producing the Sabbatarian movement might suggest an answer.


Historic Background


            George Huntston Williams, Harvard Hollis Professor of church history[6] identified three reformational impulses in Transylvania [and in Poland]: the German-Swiss Protestant, the Italian Evangelical-Rationalist and the Anabaptist-Spiritualist trends. “In the whole Kingdom of Hungary and its subsequent divisions, the use of Hebrew by the preachers of the Reformation was very prominent, as also in Lithuania, leading in both regions to philosemitism and, among the extreme followers of [Francis] David,[7] to Sabbatarianism.[8] “Nowhere else in the history of Christianity such intellectual-religious revolution has occurred,” Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger noted.[9]

            The great Transylvanian diplomat to the Ottoman Empire, Tamás Borsos, a lifelong secret Sabbatarian, best illustrates the genuine multi-cultural and multi-religious spirit of this land.  The long title of his short Memoirs,  speaks for it: “...the life-long wanderings ... of Borsos Tamás, as, in his state of affliction, remembered in the 5573. year after Creation, in the 1614. year of Jesus Christ, in the 1025. year of the prophet Mahomed.”[10]  Borsos’ comprehensive religious perspective is not only of a true Transylvanian but also of a Sabbatarian.  His ideal is freedom of conscience, his story is of continuous persecution.  Because of his secret religious affiliation, we learn priceless lessons about Transylvania’s laws and practices toward the Jews.  The tolerant Prince, Gábor Bethlen, issued a charter welcoming and guaranteeing free religious practice to Jews who wished to settle in Transylvania.  If they arrived from countries where they had been forced to convert, in Transylvania they were allowed to return to Judaism or to join other denominations.  Some articles of the charter provide that Jews


            Ad 5.  Can practice their religion and ritual customs freely, given that they would not disturb others with it. 

            Ad 6.  If Jews from Spain or other Christian countries wish to find refuge in our country and enjoy the privileges of religious freedom, we promise that we grant the same freedom and privileges to them. 

            Ad 7.  In order to protect them from any harm, they are allowed to wear Christian clothing without any discriminatory and humiliating marker or badge.”[11]


            The core idea in Borsos’ memoir is freedom of conscience.  He poignantly articulates the dilemma of Transylvania’s ruler: “Your Majesty struggles with three difficulties.  First, your fear from the threatening Porta [Turks]; second, your fear from the Christian emperor and concern with your obligations toward him; third, your own conscience, which is much more important than the others.”[12]  The only difference between the Turks’ and the Christians’ pillage was that the Turks violated and deprived people’s religious conscience.  Although not in favor of religious conversion, Borsos absolves those who, under coercion and persecution, seemingly proselytize.  In such cases a higher principle of conscience takes precedence: the principle of preserving life.  Life is the greatest value and one who saves it, saves the conscience with it.  Borsos’ logic implies that, if Christian laws threaten one’s faith--in his case his Sabbatarian faith--one is justified to flee so one’s life is preserved.  With such an issue of conscience involved, Szekler Sabbatarians fled for their life to Turkey, especially in the eighteenth century.  

            Szekler Sabbatarians were "Jews" by their choice: “Nothing can stop me from becoming a Jew.  God has not set a biological boundary to faith.  Faith and conscience are free.  Therefore I may become a Jew.”[13]

            The best known description of a popular view of Szekler Sabbatarians in the 19th century is that by Mór Jókai in his famous novel Egy az Isten [God is One].


            This religion [Hungarian Szekler Sabbatarianism] breaking with their ancestors’ traditional Christian morality, found salvation in the sharing of the faith of a persecuted race, which was able to survive the torments of continuous tribulations.  In their once adopted new religious practices and customs, they would never allow any changes;  in their worship and rituals, and in spite of living among their Christian relatives, dressing alike, speaking the same language, they hold on to the most orthodox Jewish customs;   they are Hungarian in their ethnicity, and Jews in their religion.

            If they are coerced [by persecution] to celebrate communion in a Christian church ... they tremble while taking the bread into their mouth. They would never swallow it, rather take it home and feed it to the dog.  They lock up their houses during Christian festivals and sleep through the day.  They only celebrate Jewish holidays.  On Friday night when they glimpse the first star shining from the direction of Jerusalem, they cease work, light the Sabbath candle in every window, and begin their Vespers.  They sanctify each hour of the Sabbath in the rigor of the fourth Commandment.  To each of their houses a hidden chamber was added, facing East and separated by a curtain.  This is their prayer sanctuary.  The outside signs of reverence are identical with those of the Israelites ... including wearing the tephillin and rocking while praying.  Their songs were translated from Hebrew into Hungarian by the famous royal chancellor, Simon Péchi, founder of their religion.  They have a chant which they sing during thunderstorms, when they open all windows of their house:

            Open, Lord, open

            the door of your mercy!

            Send us, send

            The true Messiah!

            During their high holidays, they gather in someone’s home, which serves as a synagogue.  One of them is a designated rabbi, but they are secretive about him and they often change the person in order to avoid detection by Christians.... The payment for the rabbi is the fee due to him as a kosher butcher of poultry.  The rabbi may never shave his beard.

            Their authoritative scripture is the Pentateuch.  They expect the coming of the true Messiah and the day of judgment when the faithless perish and only the Jews enter the promised Canaan, led by the Messiah.  They safeguard over their book of Law like the Israelites over their ark of the Torah.  They would never reveal its hiding place.  Their faith is filled with superstitions... they are more Jewish than the Jews....

            Their marriage rites are traditionally Jewish.  They cut the hair of the bride.  They consider marriage celebrated by Christian clergy invalid.  If they marry Israelites, they don’t register it.  If a Christian wants to marry a Sabbatarian, the Christian party first has to convert and pass a difficult, one-year-long test.  The first requirement from the candidate is a vow of keeping the religion’s secrets, of denying one’s father and mother, as well as Christ.   Their fasting is even more radical than that of the Jews’.  They fast on Wednesday to break the power of evil spirits.   They abstain from combing on Friday.  They never throw the trash toward the East, for there is Jerusalem.

            Their greatest self-protection is cursing.  But they curse only those who violate their faith, and there are legends about the power of their curse.[14]


Sabbatarian Theology


            The theoretician of Sabbatarianism was Matthew Vehe-Glirius, a Hebraist and “Judaizing” Christian theologian.  Fleeing Heidleberg, he arrived in Transylvania via Poland at the invitation of Francis Dávid in 1578, to be his theological counselor in the critical Latin edition of the Bible.   Glirius brought along his newly published book, Mattanjah (Cologn, 1578). 

            In his inaugural speech to the faculty of Kolozsvár, Glirius upheld the biblical freedom of will against the predestination theory of Calvinism.  In this address, he introduced ideas of certain rabbis and Talmudists.  Consistently antitrinitarian, he viewed the New Testament as subordinate to the Hebrew Bible--a theological position quite radical for a Reformed Christian.  In his view Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, was a prophet, the promised Messiah.  But because people of his age did not understand Jesus, he failed to bring about the Kingdom of God and fulfill a new covenant.  Until his second [and successful] coming--when salvation would be realized--the Pentateuch continues to hold an abiding authority as divinely inspired Law.  Even more so since--as Glirius viewed--the Pentateuch was written by Moses himself, while the New Testament was authored “only” by the apostles and their followers long after Jesus’ death.  Glirius re-ranked scriptures, assigning the absolute sanctity to the Mosaic Law.  Next came the Prophets and the Apocalypse [Christian book of Revelation]--which are designated to prepare humankind for the divine second promise.  Ranked fourth and fifth are the gospels and the epistles by the apostles which represent human endeavor.  Therefore they are to be interpreted in the light of the Mosaic Law.  Glirius’ biblical prioritizing clearly suggests his view of the Christian Bible being but the interpretation of the Jewish Bible.  This position shared the Radical Reformers’ most ardent desire of returning to the origins of Christianity, to the primary and authoritative sources of their faith--but it also radically turned the priorities upside down. 

            Vehe-Glirius’ two key propositions concerning the New Testament were: “that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ) and the Gentiles by faith alone in Jesus may become without circumcision participants in the Republic of Israel or be justified.”[15]   The essence of messianism was the promise of a golden age, which, Glirius argued, hasn’t been fulfilled with the Messiah-Jesus.  This scandal suggests three possibilities: 1) Messianic prophesies were false--but being divinely inspired, this possibility is out of question;  2) Jesus was not the Messiah--impossible, for he was sent precisely to fulfill the Law;  3) Jesus was the Messiah, but his mission failed because people of free will, did not follow him.  Therefore Jesus has become a martyr--and not a sacrifice!  Besides, he was not even a priest because he was not a Levite.   In this spirit, Jesus meant baptism--originally observed by Jews as purification or tevilah--to the Jews only; for God had already made possible for the Gentiles to become Jews, without circumcision.  The new covenant instead of being represented by circumcision, was “inscribed in the heart” (Jer. 31:33).   Thus baptism was a unifying ritual between Jews and non-Jews, and not a dividing one.   The Lord’s Supper for Glirius continued to be the Passover meal, made more powerful by Jesus passing on the bread as “my body.”  The only difference, Glirius argued, was that during the meal Jews focus on the Messiah while Christians focus on Jesus. 

            Glirius’ introduction of worship of God on Saturday instead of Sunday [hence Sabbatarianism] was a logical conclusion of his “Hebraizing impulse.”  So was the observance of the Mosaic dietary and other laws.   Yet Sabbatarians regarded themselves but “extreme Unitarians” and thus Christian.[16]

            Unitarians had already been divided against the mainstream Reformed church over the non adoramus issue.[17]  Radical in their Christology, Unitarians claimed the human Jesus as prophet and therefore to be followed as an example and not to be invoked and worshipped.   This principle was considered by the increasingly powerful Counter-Reformation as heresy or innovation, and thus punishable.  The infamous Law of Innovation was introduced by Roman Catholic Prince István Báthori in 1572.  Ratifying the late Prince John Sigismund’s Edict of Torda (also known as the Edict of Religious Tolerance), he banned any further “innovation” in religious matters.  Francis Dávid, however, in his passionate and continuous search for truth--“Whom God enlightened by His spirit must not be silent and must not hide the truth.”[18]--pushed the apostolic ideal further and further back to Judaism.  His once spiritual comrade, Italian physician Giorgio Biandrata, desperately tried to halt David’s innovative impulse in order to save Unitarianism from the charge of innovation and Dávid from the charge of heresy.  Helpless and frustrated with Dávid’s obstinacy, Biandrata invited Antitrinitarian Faustus Socinus[19] of Poland, to come to Transylvania and try to stop Dávid in further “devolution” of Unitarianism toward Judaism.   Passionate debates among the three theological giants lasted for several months, resulting in major publications by all three.   Dávid upheld the still key Unitarian religious precept “God is One,” (and therefore God alone is to be worshipped), as a clear rejection of a more conservative Socinian (and also Polish Brethren’s) Christology and eschatology.  Biandrata, once having confessed the same radical Christology, now turned openly against Dávid and employed increasingly harsh and categorical coercive strategies against his former friend--which Dávid compared to the persecution of Michael Servetus by Calvin--culminating in Dávid’s divestment as pastor and his house arrest.  In extremely poor health, Dávid was taken to Prince Christopher Báthory’s court in Alba Iulia.  Transylvanian nobility supported Dávid; Jesuits condemned him;  Calvinist ministers demanded his life.  The Prince pronounced him guilty of innovation and imprisoned him in the dungeon of Déva fortress where he shortly afterwards (November 15, 1579) died as the first martyr of the Unitarian faith.  

            Conservative Unitarians elected a compromiser as their second bishop, Demeter Hunyadi, who promoted the principle of adoramus and invocamus Jesu principles, hoping to halt the radical “Judaizing Dávidians”[20] from further innovation.  But history took a different turn.  A devout follower of Dávid and Glirius, Szekler nobleman András Eössi of Szenterzsébet, a small Szekler village, carried Sabbatarian principles further: first as non-adorantism and rejection of the Christian sacraments, then to re-instituting Mosaic dietary and other laws and worship on the Sabbath.  If Glirius was the theoretician of the Sabbatarian movement, Eössi was its effective organizer.   Grief-stricken by the loss of his wife and three children, and seriously disabled, Eössi passionately dedicated his life to translate Glirius’ Mattanjah and other Latin and Hebrew theological ideas not only into the “peasant language” (Hungarian) but also into practice, teaching Sabbatarianism to simple people of Transylvania’s villages.  Interestingly, this neither purely Jewish, nor purely Christian belief system caused quite a stir in larger Protestant circles of Europe.  And nowhere else did it become an organized movement.  So why did this fusion of Judaism and Unitarianism appear in Transylvania?

Fusing Judaism and Unitarianism


            András Kovács,[21] a prominent expert and himself a descendant of Sabbatarian ancestors, finds the causes similar to those which favored Unitarianism in its becoming Transylvania’s indigenous religion.  There are several reasons why Transylvania proved to be one of the most receptive for progressive and diverse intellectual-religious ideas.   Its ethnic diversity was one, its peculiar geographical-political situation and the resulting historic mission were the other.  Always on the edge between two powerful opponents--the Hapsburgs in the West and the Muslim Turks in the East and moving on a delicate trajectory between political subordination and relative security and freedom of thought, Transylvania attracted European progressive thinkers and fostered  radical ideas.  “It was ordained of the Lord that a pillar of great strength should be raised through us and placed in these inaccessible mountains,” Giorgio Biandrata reported from Transylvania.  For precarious centuries, the Szeklers were the defenders of the Eastern borders of the West.  This privileged free status of the Szekler warrior nobility granted them a certain independent status and the safety for radical ideas to flourish.  Transylvanian students imported the most progressive ideas from Europe’s finest universities and transplanted them into Transylvanian reality.  While some radical ideas were persecuted in other parts of Europe by the Spanish Inquisition, in Transylvania they found fertile soil despite persecution.  Religious debates in Transylvania were open and public, the very pulpits of churches being their forums.  It was not a simple coincidence that the Edict of Tolerance and freedom of conscience was proclaimed by the Diet of Torda in 1568--an edict that can never be overestimated.[22]  It was this tradition of freedom and equality of the individual that, on the one hand, lead to repeated revolts by the Szeklers, and on the other hand, paved the road of the Sabbatarian movement.   Jewish social organizing principles were highly compatible with those of the Szeklers.  Sabbatarians rejected feudal and ecclesiastical oppression as alien to the divine order.   Higher than any secular levy, religion held commanding authority in their lives. “We fear and respect our Prince, but our respect for God takes precedence.”  It is the opinion of Róbert Dán, the most renowned scholar of Sabbatarianism, which links the new religion to the tradition of Szekler freedom. Unlike Antitrinitarian ideas--coming from Italy, Spain, and Poland to Transylvania--Sabbatarianism was not a foreign import.

            The spread of Sabbatarian ideas and the reference to Francis Dávid’s name, constituted a significant danger in Biandrata and Socinus’ striving to make the Unitarian Reformed Church internationally recognized.  Convoking the body of ministers on July 1, 1579, the new Unitarian Confession of Faith, forged in the spirit of Biandrata, was accepted, undercutting Francis Dávid’s more revolutionary theological principles.  But eighteen Unitarian ministers refused to betray Dávid’s radicalism, refusing to accept the now reintroduced pedo-baptism [baptism of infants] and commemorative Lord’s Supper.

            The subterranean stream of Sabbatarian movement, however, was far from being eradicated.  In 1583 Jesuit writer Possevino reported that a large group of people in Kolozsvár have “forsaken the Gospel for the Prophecies of the Old Testament, and that ‘the Unitarian ministers in Szeklerland universally ... abstain from blood and pork.’” They are also observant of the Sabbath and fast days, eat unleavened bread, abstain from unclean meats and blood, and practice circumcision, he further reported.[23]  By 1595 Sabbatarianism was so widespread in the Szeklerland that the Diet passed an order of its suppression, and Vallach [Romanian] Voivode Michael confiscated their properties.  With these measures, the Sabbatarians’ persecution by all four “received religions” had started, to become increasingly ferocious for the next four centuries.  In 1600 in Marosvásárhely Sabbatarian liturgy and prayerbooks were burned, properties confiscated, followers imprisoned and flogged.  So the movement. as a separate religion, went underground.   Its adherents, mostly villagers, attended Unitarian and occasionally other churches and observed the Sabbath in secret, in night-time worship in their homes.  A considerable number of Szekler educated nobility were enthusiastic and generous supporters of Sabbatarians.    The underground stream of this new religion surfaced and blossomed for the next thirty years.  Its adherents became more and more Jewish and less Christian. 

            Conceived as a threat to Christianity, Calvinist Prince Gábor Bethlen set as a task the weeding out Sabbatarians from among Unitarians.  The method of persecuting all Unitarians under the pretext of anti-Sabbatarian campaign proved to be effective.  Unitarians would suffer as much as Sabbatarians, and this would inflict an opposition between the two groups.  The traditional ecumenism between Unitarians and Calvinists now was drastically curtailed. Unitarian properties--62 churches among them--were confiscated and given to Calvinists. 

            In 1618 the Unitarian Synod of Erdöszentgyörgy condemned Sabbatarians and formally expelled them from the Unitarian church. Through a deus ex machina event, however, Sabbatarianism was rescued, gaining new strength once again through Simon Péchi, the “apostle” of the Sabbatarians.  A learned and widely traveled theologian-politician, fluent in twelve languages and well-versed in Judaism--after eighteen years of state diplomatic service--Péchi returned to Transylvania to his teacher and sponsor, Andrew Eössi, now the wealthiest landowner in Transylvania, and spiritual leader of Sabbatarians.  When Eössi made Péchi his sole heir, an extraordinary career opened up for the young man, who soon became chancellor to Transylvania’s princes.  Péchi’s intellectual heritage--a mixture of stoic philosophy and Talmudic learning--was foundational for Sabbatarianism.  The body of his theological writings is vast--more than 5,000 pages.   According to András Kovács, Péchi was responsible of weaving rabbinical literature into the eclectic texture of the new religion, laying its ideological foundation.  He added and consolidated more orthodox Jewish elements to mere “Judaizing” practice.   In his village library, Péchi furiously translated the Hebrew Bible, Talmudic and rabbinical literature into Hungarian, wrote biblical commentaries, with Sebastian Münster’s Biblia Hebraica in his hands.  He also wrote Sabbatarian hymns and prayers, founded a school in Szenterzsébet where he himself taught the new religion.  His school was opened to children of any denomination, but he abstained from proselytizing.  The result was the birth of a new “Szekler Judaism,” indigenous to Transylvania.   Organized Sabbatarianism spread all over Transylvania and especially in the Szeklerland.  Many congregations were founded and synagogues built in the early 17th century. 

            Péchi’s conclusion--based on his devoted study of the Hebrew Bible, the defining document for the notion of Jew--was that no one can be seen as truly alien from Jewry.  Szávai points out the sad paradox of the reversed phenomenon of the twentieth century when Jews were considered “alien” in most European countries.  For the Reformed-minded Péchi and for the Szekler “Judaizers,” Judaism meant religion first of all, which, therefore, had to be open for the foreigner who chose to follow this religious path.  “If a people’s defining character is religion, and if that religion cannot reject those who wish to join, the logical conclusion is that one can join the very people with the intention of national assimilation.”[24] The Transylvanian Szeklers viewed Jewish exclusivity as merely anecdotal, and did not pay too much attention to it and to its causes.  Exclusivity can result from seclusion as a defensive attitude of a group during persecution, or from banishment by the oppressive power.  Jews were subject to both in the tumult of Transylvania’s history.  In the seventeenth century’s religious “fluidity” of Transylvania, the unprejudiced Péchi simply opened up the notion of “Jewishness” for the Sabbatarians, who, at the same time, maintained their own national identity as Hungarian Szeklers.

            Péchi’s objective was nothing less than to solve the “outsiders” becoming “insiders” conundrum.  His translation of a complete Hebrew Prayerbook into Hungarian created a framework for problems of assimilation-distinction of the two kinds of Jews.  In this famous prayerbook we read: “We, your peoples [in plural], spiritual sons and daughters of Abraham your beloved friend, we preserve our covenant and owe you praises of your blessed name.”[25]  Péchi’s faith affirmations and pedagogical hymns made Judaism practicable within Hungarian culture. He associated his Sabbatarian community with the people of Israel as legitimate “co-religionists.”  Péchi’s vision was a far-reaching and bold perspective, seeing a historical-political possibility for the Hungarian nation in Judaism.  Unfortunately, Sabbatarianism failed even to become a recepta religio in Transylvania.  The "real" Jews never really encountered the Szekler Jews in any historic dimension.  Perhaps this failure, Szávai speculates, is responsible for a continual reservation toward “Judaizing” ideas.

           Simon Péchi's theory on just and unjust war was foundational to his Prince, Gábor Bethlen’s policy in his attempt to strike a balance between the two threatening powers of the Turks and Hapsburgs.  Blessed with a great diplomatic sense, Péchi tirelessly negotiated secret deals with Turks and Hapsburgs.  The result was a Turkish-Austrian peace accord.  Ironically, converging political misfortunes on the European political arena caused Péchi’s sudden fall from statesmanship to prison.  There was also a second reason: his apostolic zeal of the new religion.   The “orthodox” Reformed church denounced Péchi to the Prince: “The new faith began to infect people of Udvarhely county; more and more followers circumcise themselves--some even died of the procedure.”[26]  They requested the Prince to eradicate this “dangerous sect,” whose spiritual leader is Simon Péchi.  In 1636 Sabbatarians were ordered to convert to one of the four received religions, or they would be tried.  

            The greatest disaster came upon both the Sabbatarians and Unitarians in the year 1638.  Sabbatarianism had been condemned and banned several times earlier--1618, 1622, and 1635--but never truly persecuted, because they had assumed a formal affiliation with Unitarians, and because their apostle, Simon Péchi, was one of the highest ranking diplomats in the royal court.  Prince George Rákóczy I, suspecting political dangers of the new sect infiltrating his government, decided to strike.  He ordered confessional revision of all Unitarian books and confiscated all that contained Judaizing elements (some 33 works).  Then interrogation of Sabbatarians all over Transylvania followed.  And finally, the tragic “Accord of Deés” or Complanatio Deesiana in July 1638 definitely disjoined Sabbatarians from Unitarians.   Unitarians were ordered to worship Jesus, baptize in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, and to allow their publications censured--a coerced “complanatio.”  The “Judaizers” and those who rejected and cursed Jesus, however, were excluded even from the new amnesty.  Sabbatarians were easy target of the new discriminatory law: they observed the Sabbath, therefore they farmed on Sundays, abstained from eating pork and blood, celebrated the Passover with unleavened bread, and refused baptism of their children--the very sign of their expected conversion. Those who cursed Christ, received enhanced punishment.

            The Court of Deés sentenced more than 1,000 Sabbatarians to prison and confiscation of their properties.  In the time of trials, in 1636, Simon Péchi wrote his beautiful prayer, a gem of the Sabbatarian prayerbook: “Supplication Against Arms,” a recapitulation of the trials of people of Israel, paralleled with the fate of the Hungarian people, whose punishment is the Turkish invasion.  But more painful is the destruction from within--religious persecution.  Péchi prays for the entire people, even for his enemies, hoping to turn their hearts toward peace; he prays against arms, which can be not only cannons, but also dogmas and hatred.  His prayer has a universal appeal, more valid today than in his time.  It is a prayer that excludes nobody, but which rejects war and (self)destruction.    The prayer, written in beautiful archaic Hungarian, ends with these words:


            Eternal and merciful God, our Father, we pray to your majesty to turn the unrelenting hearts of stone into hearts that long for your peace; peace that should prevail in our homeland harmony that should dwell in our body and soul.  Bless our homes so that we can live in them in peace and not in fear and pain and loss.

            O, Lord, if your find ten just men in the homeland, show mercy for us for the sake of those ten.  But if you find only five, still save us for their merits.  And, Lord, if you find no one, then consider the lame, the innocent, the babes and show mercy on our country and its people for their sake; having experienced your many blessings and your fatherly care, they may turn to you and praise and glorify your might from generation to generation.  Amen and Amen.


            Péchi himself, although he did not appear before the court, was sentenced to death.  His extended properties were confiscated.  In order to escape capital punishment and save his family--as many others did--Péchi chose compromise, joining the Reformed Church in 1639.  The Complanatio’s principal goal was the eradication of Sabbatarianism.  In its ideology and procedures the Deés trial was almost identical with the trial of Francis Dávid in 1579: “Same patterns to be used!” Rákóczy ordered.   Unitarians, although recognized as belonging to a legitimate religion, were closely guarded against any further innovation--branded as “perpetual infidelity”--and their freedom was narrowed in order to weed out Sabbatarian impulses.   But there were more than ideological reasons behind these persecutions.  The wealthiest nobility being accused with heresy, their properties now changed hands with a stroke of a pen by those in power.

            The stream of Sabbatarianism became subterranean once again, and the next three centuries represent an unbroken course of persecution of the movement.  Even the much celebrated (second) Edict of Toleration by Emperor Joseph II in 1781 brought no recognition of this resilient religious movement.  By the middle of the 18th century only one single congregation remained in the remote Szekler village of Bözödújfalu.


            Bözödújfalu, the Szekler Jerusalem


            We now narrow our focus to the fate of Bözödújfalu, this small and isolated village, which had the largest number of religions of any Transylvanian village: six denominations with their own buildings of church and a synagogue: Szekler Sabbatarians, Jews, Unitarians, Calvinists, Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics, the latter belonging to ethnic Romanians.   

            In 1868 the Sabbatarians of Bözödújfalu appealed to the Hungarian government--it was the era of the Austro-Hungarian empire--asking for official recognition of their Jewish identity, practiced in secret for three centuries.  But their petition was too early, the emancipation of the Jews in the empire hadn’t happened yet, so it provoked scandal within the Catholic church.   At this historic moment, the Jewry of Hungary, represented by the chief rabbi of Óbuda, petitioned on behalf of the Sabbatarians to prevent their forced re-conversion to Catholicism.[27] Finally, after centuries of persecution, József Eötvös, Hungarian writer and Minister granted freedom to the one hundred plus “spiritual Jews” of Bözödújfalu in 1869, preventing their re-conversion.   Now the “Jews” of Bözödújfalu elected a “real” Jew, Salamon Wolfinger as their leader and teacher.  With no delay, they began building a synagogue, which was finished by 1874.  Modest in size but pleasing, it had 67 prayer seats for the men and 40 seats in the balcony for the women.   Szekler traditional painted furniture and carvings decorated it.  Some of the Sabbatarians--five families--were reluctant to join the synagogue, and elected their own “rabbi,” prayed from Péchi’s Prayerbook, and kept the Law rigorously.  In this small village, thus two Jewish communities lived side by side in peace.

            The world turned upside down in the twentieth century: World War I, Trianon, and the “creation” of the largest and most oppressed minority of Europe, the Transylvanian Hungarians.  Overnight, the official language in the school of Bözödújfalu became Romanian, people’s names translated, their identity threatened, mass exodus to Hungary and to Western Europe began.  Then World War II, anti-Jewish laws, deportation, Holocaust, more exodus to Israel and America, village destruction--but Jews and Christians of Bözödújfalu steadfastly stood against the storm, praying Péchi’s supplication--still in their mother tongue, Hungarian.


            “There were times of darkness when no presence was felt,

            When even the sound of birds were cries for help.” 

            The Iron Guard was preparing the pogroms against Jews.  As a mere foretaste of their zeal in carrying out their version of Jewish Holocaust, Jews were thrown out from moving trains, or transporting masses of Jews in sealed trains until they suffocated (Curzio Malaparte’s account).  The deportation order for the Jewry of Bözödújfalu had a provision which acquitted the Sabbatarians who racially were not Jews and did not practice Judaism.  Many of them had previously (re)converted to Christianity in order to save their lives.  The police, however, disregarded such acts as deceptive and rounded them up anyway.  They deported the sympathizers and those who tried to help to the improvised ghetto in the brick factory of Marosvásárhely [Tirgu Mures]. 

            In these dark times the only light came from Bishop Áron Márton, the only Christian bishop to openly protest against Jewish deportations, calling his priests for resistance. And the priest of Bözödújfalu, Ft. István Ráduly responded with amazing heroism. He later (after a long political imprisonment) admitted that he baptized the Jews of Bözödújfalu--“spiritual” and “real”--sometimes unrequested or even against their will in order to save them.  He forged piles of birth and baptismal certificates--using a special mixture of ink so that the document would look old--and carried them into the ghetto.  He returned with a handful of villagers of Bözödújfalu every time.  Father Ráduly, called “the priest of the Jews” knew no fear.   His document-forging campaign--under the nose of a malicious and suspicious Gestapo officer, Schröder--saved not only the Jews of Bözödújfalu but those of the towns of  Székelykeresztúr and Bözöd as well.  He effectively proved that these Hungarian Jews were non-Jews.  Still there were a few who, although had permission, refused to leave the ghetto, because they had to leave a family member there. The darkness of hell engulfed them.

            Communism soon brought more darkness.


The Sunken Village, Transylvania’s Wailing Wall


            Today Transylvania, like Tibet, is a mere spiritual reality: it is no longer on the map as a country.  Bözödújfalu’s fate is even more tragic.  It is no longer on the face of the earth.  It has been drowned into an artificial lake. 

            Why was this village sentenced to death?  The artificial lake serves no economic or any purpose whatsoever.  The cruel irony is that the villagers themselves had voted for building a small dam for flood control.  Poverty-stricken during the Ceausescu years, men of Bözödújfalu rejoiced for the new job opportunity and were enthusiastically digging, until the sudden realization of their betrayal.  They were tricked into digging their own grave--a grave big enough to engulf the entire village--a familiar and haunting image from the history of genocide.  They were laughed at when they protested against the broken contract for a small size project.   Realizing the diabolic plan to drown Bözödújfalu, the men sabotaged the work and personally took their petition of protest to President Ceausescu--to no avail. The 1989 “revision” of the original plan--the trick--of a small dam, served Ceausescu’s obsession with village destruction too well.  He had just published the infamous list of 8,000 villages to be erased, bulldozed away.  The last vestige of Sabbatarianism, the much persecuted Bözödújfalu, became the first victim of Ceausescu’s “systematization” [systematic strangulation of the villages] madness. This village was living proof how Hungarians and Romanians and Jews had been living together in harmony until nationalist instigation and manipulation crippled the country.  It had to be sacrificed.  The project was urgent.  Because the villagers sabotaged the dam construction,  Romanian soldiers were brought in to finish the job--fast.

            The people of Bözödújfalu had barely enough time to even gather their personal belongings before the sudden inundation.  There was no place to take their animals or their furniture.  A tragically ridiculous amount of money--not more than a couple of hundred dollars worth--was offered as their “reimbursement.”  The ultimate irony was that the village was sunken just months before the overthrow of Ceausescu’s regime.  The lake that drowned this historical place is the mixture of their beloved creek, the Küsmöd, and the tears of the exiles.

            In 1990 when this village was drowned, the Romanian government made a solemn promise of rebuilding the churches of this village in the neighboring settlements, Erdöszentgyörgy and Szováta, where the exiles found refuge.  None of the churches has been rebuilt and there is no realistic hope for it.  These people have lost more that their livelihood and community.  They are deprived of the most basic spiritual need, that of the house of worship.  They lost everything--they lost their very human dignity.

            The government of Romania is building Romanian Orthodox marble cathedrals by the hundreds all over Transylvania’s predominantly Hungarian settlements.   These churches are strategically constructed, to ideologically prove a national myth of Romanian continuity in the land of Transylvania.  But more dangerously, they are to manipulate the future, serve the dishonest purpose of built-in cultural genocide for Romania’s ethnic minorities.  They mean to serve virtual congregations today.  Bözödújfalu’s still standing church skeletons, their bell-towers sticking out of the lake, have been real churches of the living faith and for living people.  The cost of one cathedral could save a dying village, and the disenfranchised victims such as Bözödújfalu.


            There are times of darkness when no presence is felt,

            When even the sound of birds are cries for help.


Bözödújfalu is a place of such times.  Its people live in exile, in abject poverty, scattered all over the country.   Their last act when the wall of water began to engulf their streets and houses, was to gather in the Unitarian church and take the Lord’s Supper for the last time.  With broken heart, they were gazing at the horror of their churches sinking, their graveyard disappearing.  Only a few Sabbatarian tombstones on the hilltop have remained with Hebrew inscription and the star of David or a menorah carved on them.  The only house on the hill serves as a museum for the pictures taken before the cataclysm.  Five of the villagers committed suicide, others were “relocated” into three by seven cubicles--they call them “crypts”--in the neighboring town’s “ghetto.”[28] These free spirited people are buried alive in these Communist-type miserable high-rise buildings.  Many found refuge in alcoholism.

            Rev. József Szombatfalvi, a Unitarian minister and friend--his very name means “one from the village of Sabbath”--grew up in this village, the place where the principle of respect for the other was the very fabric of every day life.  It is his remembrance: “We Unitarians had a small church but no resident minister.  As a child, I joined my Roman Catholic friends and served as altar boy, for the priest was careful to avoid any sense of discrimination. People knew each other’s liturgy and hymns, attended each others’ festivals.”  Rev. Szombatfalvi’s godmother was a Romanian, and worshipped in the Greek Orthodox church.  And Joseph’s Sabbatarian aunt had predicted that her nephew would become a Unitarian minister.  He did and so did his son.  Rev. Szombatfalvi is the organizer of Bözödújfalu’s annual ecumenical worship service of remembrance at the “wailing wall” of their “spiritual Jerusalem.” 

             Year after year ,since 1997, I join people of Bözödújfalu in their annual pilgrimage to the “lake of tears.”  This ghostly place is populated for a few hours each first Saturday of August.  The spiritual homeless, these people who no longer have a birthplace and a graveyard, come home.  For them, the homeland has become a virtual reality.  I take American Unitarians and Jews along.  We walk down to this surrealistic, eerie yet poetic place, where the gates lead nowhere.


            Like Atlantis, the long submerged land,

            Transylvania tolls its bells from the depth.

            Bells of village churches toll. Listen!

            Quietly, down, from the bottom of the sea...

There are more and more people gather each year.  The remnants come home from the ghetto of Erdöszentgyörgy, some from Israel, America, Western Europe. 

            I was walking down the main street of the village when the most dramatic moment of my pilgrimage happened. On the hillside of the street, a family of four generations were sitting on the ground around a picnic blanket and invited me: “Come in, join us!” Come in!  Where is in?  For most of the people the in is in the water.   For this “lucky” family the in was that sacred ground of their former ancestral home on the lake shore.  There was no entrance.  “Come in”--they invited me.  And I suddenly saw the proud carved gate, the house painted blue and covered with grapevine, the barnyard, the vegetable garden.  “Look, this was our well with the sweetest water in it, even during hot summers.  And look here, our apple tree!  This is the anchor, the only landmark to know where we are at home in this land of pain and destruction.  Come in, sit under our old apple tree, and eat and drink with us on our sacred ground.”

            That was the fellowship of my life with a family I had never seen before but I have become part of it, I belong to them now.  I will commune with them and with the other families next year; and if I cannot come, someone else, another witness will join them.

            Although the “concrete” village, the lovely Bözödújfalu is no more, their spiritual Jerusalem is increasingly alive--through the love of those whose ancestors lived and died here and through those who join them in remembrance.  We are compelled here to raise our voices against inhumanity; we learn to remember and love the homeland, the sacred ground of our cradle and our grave.













Bözödújfalvi Szombatosok Szertartási és Imádságos Könyve [Book of Liturgy and Prayers of the Szekler Sabbatarians of Bözödújfalu], András Kovács, ed. Csikszereda: Pallas-Akadémia Kiadó, 2000.


Gellérd, Imre. A History of Transylvanian Unitarianism through Four Centuries of Sermon. Kolozsvár: Uniquest, 1999.


Gellérd, Judit editor. Ending the Storm: Unitarian Universalist Sermons on Transylvania. Chico, CA: Uniquest, 1996.


Kovács, András. Az Erdélyi szombatosság nyomában [In the Footsteps of Transylvanian Sabbatarianism].  Csikszereda: Pallas-Académia Könyvkiadó, 1999.


Szávai, Géza. Székely Jeruzsálem. [Szekler Jerusalem] Budapest: PONT Kiadó, 2000.


Tvrtko, Vujity; Nógrádi Gergely. Tizenkét pokoli történet [Twelve Infernal Stories]. Budapest: Megafilm, 2000.


Wilbur, Earl Morse. A History of Unitarianism - In Transylvania, England, and America. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1977.


Williams, George Huntston. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1992.









[1] The Szeklers (Székelys) are ethnically and linguistically somewhat distinct group of Hungarians, holding on to an archaic internal structure of their society and language, being guardians of the Eastern borders of Western Europe since the 8th century CE.

[2] Sándor Reményik, “Atlantis,” translated by Judit Gellérd.  All other Hungarian texts are also my own translations.

[3] I am keenly aware of the pejorative overtone of this term.  Therefore I stipulate it as a neutral term used in scholarly literature, but it is often still pejorative.   It signifies an interest in Judaism.

[4] The four religio recepta or “received religions” of Transylvania were Roman Catholicism, Calvinism, Unitarianism practiced by Hungarians and Lutheranism by the Saxons. (Romanians’ Greek Orthodox faith was not among the official religions).

[5] Ending the Storm: Unitarian Universalist Sermons on Transylvania, Compiled by Judit Gellérd, (Chico, CA: Uniquest, 1996) 198.

[6][urely]ian]er innovation  that i George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1992).

[7] Francis Dávid (1510-1579) prominent theologian, founder and first bishop of the Unitarian Church in Transylvania.

[8] “The Work of Vehe-Glirius and Early Sabbatarian Ideology in Transylvania,” in Armarium, of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Budapest, 1976), 87-94.

[9] Géza Szávai, Székely Jeruzsálem [Szekler Jerusalem] (Budapest: PONT Kiadó, 2000) 15.

[10] Ibid., 34.

[11] Ibid., 36.

[12] Ibid., 37.

[13] Ibid., 50.

[14] Ibid., 75 (In Transylvania, even today, the practice of cursing is severely limited to self-defense.  Otherwise the curse falls back on oneself.  Hungarian folklore richly illustrates this practice).

[15] George H. Williams, op. cit. 1127.

[16] Ibid., 1128.

[17] non adoramus meant the non worship of Jesus.

[18][urely]ian]er innovation  that i Imre Gellérd, A History of Transylvanian Unitarianism through Four Centuries of Sermons (Kolozsvár: Uniquest, 1999) A reference on the “truth” of an authentic gospel and “uncorrupted” faith.

[19] Socinus theologically represented evangelical rationalism, holding the New Testament and the New Covenant superseding Old Testament revelation, regarding Jesus as the New Moses.

[20] This is also a contemporary term for ultra-radical Unitarians, that is, Sabbatarians.

[21] András Kovács, Az Erdélyi szombatosság nyomában [In the Footsteps of Transylvanian Sabbatarianism (Csikszereda: Pallas-Académia Könyvkiadó, 1999)

[22] Resolution of the Diet at Torda on January 6, 1568 is commonly called “The Edict of Torda:  “Preachers everywhere are to preach the gospel according to their understanding of it; if the parish willingly receives it, good: but if not, let there be no compulsion on it to do so, since that would not ease any man’s soul; but let each parish keep a minister whose teaching is acceptable to it.  Let no superintendent or anyone else ace violently or abusively to a preacher.  No one many threaten another on account of his teaching, with imprisonment or deprivation of office: for faith is a gift of God; it comes from listening, and listening is through God’s word.”  János Erdö, Transylvanian Unitarian Church Translated by Judit Gellérd (Chico, CA: The Center for Free Religion, 1990), 52.

[23] Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism - In Transylvania, England, and America (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1977) 105.

[24] Géza Szávai, op. cit., 240.

[25] Bözödújfalvi Szombatosok Szertartási és Imádságos Könyve [Book of Liturgy and Prayers of the Szekler Sabbatarians of Bözödújfalu], András Kovács, ed. (Csikszereda: Pallas-Akadémia Kiadó, 2000), 242.

[26] András Kovács, op. cit., 102.

[27] András Kovács, Mondjatok Kaddist egy székely faluért [Say Kaddish for a Szekler Village], (Csikszereda: Pallas Akadémia, 1997) 135.

[28] It is ironic and incidental that this block of houses is called “ghetto.”