One of the great puzzles for most researchers of the Shapira Affair is why he spent the final months of his life in the Netherlands. The basic story, oft repeated, is that after the official rejection of his manuscript strips by Christian Ginsburg, the dejected Shapira travelled to Amsterdam, then to Bloemendaal, and finally to Rotterdam. As he wandered from town to town, his depression grew worse and he lost his grip on sanity until finally, he took his life in a seedy hotel in Rotterdam. But is this true?

It is true that Shapira was clearly upset with the surprising report from Ginsburg, who had examined the manuscript for nearly a month, publishing translations and transcriptions of the leather strips in The Times and The Athenæum in August of 1883. During all that time, Ginsburg had not expressed any inclination toward a negative assessment, leading many to assume that the Hebraist believed in their authenticity. Ginsburg crafted his report, clearly hastened by the appearance of Clermont-Ganneau’s conclusions that the strips were modern forgeries. When it became known to Shapira that Ginsburg too would publicly declare his manuscript strips forgeries, he wrote, “Dear Dr. Ginsburg! You have made a fool of me by publishing and exhibiting things that you believe them to be false. I do not think that I shall be able to survive this shame, although I am yet not convince[d] that the MS is a forgery unless M. Ganneau did it. I will leave London in a day or two for Berlin. Yours Truly, M.W. Shapira.”[1]

We can only assume that Shapira did go to Berlin. He had friends there, but also, his oldest daughter was living in Berlin where she was enrolled in school. What we know for sure is that on 28 August 1883, five days after his note to Ginsburg, Shapira wrote a 12-page letter to E.A. Bond, the Chief Librarian of the British Museum from Amsterdam. He began his letter, “You will excuse my troubling you again with my bad English, but the thing seems to me to be of such high importance that I chose to write again begging you to let the MS be examined by several scholars and archaeologists of different schools or doctrines. The sin of believing in a false document is not much greater than disbelieving the truth. The tendency of showing great scholarship by detecting a forgery is rather great in our age.” Shapira then went on for pages, countering the points of Ginsburg’s theory. In closing, Shapira said, “I am not convinced that the manuscripts are false. Nevertheless, I do not wish to sell it even if the buyer should take the risk for himself (I have such offers), unless to authorities.”

But why was Shapira in Amsterdam? As it turns out, Shapira was not the only visitor to the Netherlands at that time – far from it! The Netherlands was hosting the International Colonial and Export Exhibition, a sort of world’s fair, and people from around the world converged on the Venice of the North.[2] Between the opening day of the Expo on 1 May and the end of October 1883, when the event ended, an estimated 1.5 million people had explored the extensive exhibits. And this was not the only significant event taking place in the Netherlands at that time. In Leiden, just thirty-five kilometers southeast of Amsterdam, the single greatest assemblage of orientalists convened the Sixth International Congress of Orientalists between September 10thand 15th. It is hard to imagine that Shapira would not have been present in those meetings. We know that some of the key players in the Shapira affair were in attendance including Professors Schlottmann, Sayce, Monsieur Clermont-Ganneau, Dr. C. Landberg, and others. 

These events would be the perfect place for Shapira to have found others who might be interested in his leather strips, experts who could assess their true worth, as well as potential buyers.

Shapira left Amsterdam around the time that the International Colonial and Export Exhibition ended and moved to Bloemendaal and finally Rotterdam. We possess evidence in the form of correspondence that Shapira was still selling to the British Library during his stay in the Netherlands. This hardly fits the narrative of a depressed man on the brink of insanity. 

Today I am in Amsterdam and thinking of Shapira. I didn’t plan to be here; I was invited to join my friends David and Patty Tyler on a Shapira research trip to Berlin and the flight plan included a layover in Amsterdam, and so here I am, on Simchat Torah in the Netherlands. Obviously, I am thinking of Shapira’s final months in this place. I intend to spend the day studying the erudite points in his letter to Bond written from Amsterdam 138 years ago. I will also read the words of The Moses Scroll in Hebrew and English. What better day to do so than Simchat Torah? What better place than the final resting place of Moses Shapira? For it was here in the Netherlands that Moses Shapira, like his namesake, was placed in an unmarked grave.

[1] This letter from Shapira to Ginsburg, dated 23 Aug. 1883, is contained in British Library Add. MS. 41294.

[2] For information on the International Colonial and Export Exhibition held in Amsterdam from 1 May to 31 October 1883, see Molendijk, Arie L., “Religion at the 1883 Colonial and Export Trade Exhibition in Amsterdam.” Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte / Journal for the History of Modern Theology 11.2 (2004), 215–245.