The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” 

Genesis 12:1, Jewish Publication Society

So begins the bible’s narrative of a journey by Abram (later Abraham). In some ways, the story of Abram’s journey to a Promised Land has served as a template ever since for all who emigrate to the Land of Canaan. So it was, for the man who came to be known as Moses Wilhelm Shapira.

Yoram Sabo, author, filmmaker, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Shapira, discovered an account of Shapira’s return to the land of his fathers.[1] Sabo writes:

“Many have written about Shapira throughout the years: mainstream journalists, academic scholars and authors. Various inaccuracies appeared in many of their writings: according to their reports, Shapira’s birthplace was either Kiev or Odessa; in one he was a Polish Jew and in another, a German Jew; in one, he converted to Christianity in Constantinople and in the other he only did so after reaching Jerusalem; some mention that Shapira came from a traditional Jewish family while others wrote that he was born to a pious family who were disciples of the Vilna Gaon. This phenomenon suits Shapira’s evasive personality. However, the few facts pertaining to Moses Shapira’s life before his arrival in Jerusalem can be derived from one small document which Shapira wrote to the Prussian Consul in Jerusalem in order to receive the Consulate’s protection” (p. 4).

Shapira’s letter was submitted by “G. Rosen” with a note affixed that said, “Wilhelm Shapira, known personally, appeared (before us) and with a letter of recommendation from Bishop Gobat, presented a request as follows:

I was born in 1830 in Kamenetz-Podolsk. I studied there during my childhood and at the age of 25, joined my grandfather who immigrated to Palestine. Due to the political situation, which made it almost impossible for Jews of my status to emigrate, I had to forego my passport, and when we crossed the border, we forfeited all rights to Russian protection. We remained in Bucharest for about five months. My ties with the missionaries there convinced me of the truth of the Gospel, and by undergoing holy baptism, I was accepted to the Christian community. Awhile later, we continued our journey, and over three years ago I reached Jerusalem, where I am a member of the community of Anglican converts.

Being now, as I am, without protection whatsoever, my request is that I be accepted into the protection of the Prussian Consulate and be given a passport which testifies to my protected status. W. Shapira”

The complexities of Moses Shapira’s personality are still the object of researchers. Some have argued that his conversion was insincere, others have suggested that his newfound faith served as the basis for, in their estimation, a forged manuscript. To some of his Jewish coreligionists he was, and is, an apostate from the faith of his fathers. To some of his Christian coreligionists he was and is seen as an insincere opportunist.

The first person to entertain Shapira in London was Walter Besant, the Secretary of the prestigious Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF). Moses Shapira arrived unannounced at 1 Adam Street in London at the headquarters of the PEF on 20 July 1883. He had with him a small glazed bag containing the leather strips of his now infamous manuscript. Besant would later recall in his autobiography that first visit: 

“a certain Shapira, a Polish Jew converted to Christianity but not to good works, came to England and called upon me mysteriously … The man was a good actor; he was a man of handsome presence, tall, with fair hair and blue eyes; not the least like the ordinary Polish Jew, and with an air of modest honesty which carried one away” (p. 162).

Besant’s description of Shapira contained some language that certainly seems striking in our day when people are trained to be more sensitive to such stereotypes. His suggestion that Shapira “the Jew” was only partially converted (the part that didn’t include ‘good works’) is especially troubling, and the statement that his handsome appearance was “not the least like the ordinary Polish Jew” is equally prejudiced. It should be pointed out though that when Besant says of Shapira that “the man was a good actor,” he may mean nothing offensive. Besant used similar language in describing his friend Edward Henry Palmer who was ambushed and murdered on an expedition into wilderness lands. Of Palmer, Besant said in an article published 11 November 1882 in The Athenæum, “he was an excellent actor: he could ‘render’ a scene with the greatest fidelity and skill, he could multiply himself and personate alone a play with many characters, he could represent to the very life any man he chose to study.”

Sabo, in regard to the Moabitica affair, observes, “it should be noted that everyone who referred to Shapira as a forger was Jewish (the nineteenth-century Jewish Press, Herschel Shanks, The Hebrew Encyclopedia, Haim Be’Er, Yaakov Meshorer, and others) while those who abstained from doing so, then and now, were not Jewish … Is that fact that Shapira was an apostate [convert from the Jewish faith] what influenced this distinction?”[2]

One wonders how much antisemitism played into the treatment of Shapira in the nineteenth century. The London Charivari, or Punch, a British magazine for satire and humor, published a caricature showing a hook-nosed Shapira grasping his scroll on one hand and Dr. Ginsburg smiling and gripping his other arm, finger dripping with ink. The irony is that both men were of European Jewish descent, but Shapira was depicted according to racial, even anti-Semitic stereotypes. 

It is hoped that in the current quest for truth regarding Moses Wilhelm Shapira, researchers will be sensitive and fair. From our meagre account based upon the words contained in his submission to the Prussian consulate, he was a stranger in a strange land seeking to belong, to fit in, to be accepted. 

Let us all be kind to strangers, and as the Shapira manuscripts put it, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart,” for “blessed is the man who loves his neighbor,” and “cursed is the man who hates his brother in his heart.”

Like Abram of old, Shapira had left his birthplace in search of a land of promise. His journey, both physical and spiritual, while part of the story, is one that has been taken by countless souls for thousands of years. In some ways each of us are strangers seeking only acceptance. I am writing this blog post on 7 April 2021, 161 years after, on the same day that Moses Shapira’s request for acceptance was dated, and in which he said, “my request is that I be accepted.”

[1] Yoram Sabo, “Between Apostate and Forger: Moses Wilhelm Shapira and the Moabite Pottery Affair,” 4-5.

[2] Sabo, “Between Apostate and Forger,” 23.