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BULGARIA, East Balkan republic located along the Black Sea.

Ancient Period

A Jewish settlement is known to have existed in Macedonia in the time of Caligula (37–41 C.E.; Philo, Embassy to Gaius, par. 281). A late-second century Latin inscription found at the village of Gigen on the shore of the Danube (near Nikopol, the site of the ancient Roman settlement Oescus) bearing a menorah testifies to the existence of a Jewish community. The Latin inscription mentions the *archisynagogos Joseph. Theodosius I's decree to the governors of Thrace and Illyria in 379 shows that Jews were persecuted in these areas and synagogues destroyed.

Byzantine and Bulgar Rule

When the Byzantine emperor Leo III (718–41) persecuted the Jews, a number of them may have fled to Bulgaria. There, during the reign of the Bulgar czar Boris I (852–89), the Jews are said to have tried to exploit the religious unrest among the Bulgars, then heathens, by converting them to Judaism, but Christian emissaries were more successful. The faith of the early Bulgarian Christians was, however, a syncretistic mixture of Christian, Jewish, and pagan beliefs. A curious insight of the contemporary religious situation is afforded by the 106 questions submitted by Bulgarian representatives to Pope Nicholas I (858–67). Among the questions on which guidance was requested were the proper regulations for offering the first fruits; the law concerning amulets; which day is the day of rest – Saturday or Sunday; which animals and poultry may be eaten; whether it is wrong to eat the flesh of an animal that has not been slaughtered; should burial rituals be performed for suicides; how many days must a husband abstain from intercourse with his wife after she has given birth; should a fast be observed during a drought; should women cover their heads in houses of prayer; and so on. The names of the Bulgarian princes at this time – David, Moses, Aaron, and Samuel – may also show Jewish influence.

The monks Cyril (Constantine) and Methodius from Salonika, who were sent to Greater Moravia in 863 by the Byzantine emperor Michael III (840–67) to convert the Moravians, had mixed with Jews in their native town and studied with Jewish teachers. Cyril invented a new script called Glagolitic (later Cyrillic) in which to write Slavonic. The script was based on the Greek alphabet, but used the Hebrew alphabet as well in order to represent sounds which did not exist in the Greek alphabet, e.g., Sh and Ts. It is believed that Cyril made his translations of parts of the Bible from the Hebrew original.

There is evidence of Jewish settlement in Nikopol in 967. In the early 12th century Leo Mung, born a Jew and later a pupil of the 11th-century Bulgarian talmudist Tobiah b. Eliezer, became archbishop of the diocese of *Ochrida and Primate of Bulgaria. The Bogomil movement, a Christian sect that spread through Bulgaria in the 11th century, rejected most books of the Old Testament, but awakened interest in Judaism as the source of certain Christian theological doctrines. The Bulgarian attitude to Jews at the time was generally favorable; Jewish

Jewish population of Bulgaria, 18781948. Jewish population of Bulgaria, 1878–1948.

merchants from Italy and Ragusa (*Dubrovnik) who settled in Bulgaria received royal privileges. Also during the Crusades many Jews may have found refuge in Bulgaria. Jacob b. Elijah in his polemical letter to the apostate Pablo *Christiani mentions two Jews who were thrown from a mountaintop for refusing to obey the order of Czar Ivan Asen II (1218–41) to put out the eyes of Theodore I Angelus, Greek ruler of Salonika in 1230. Czar Ivan Alexander (1331–71) married a Jewish woman named Sarah, who took the name Theodora on her baptism (see *Sarah of Turnovo); her influence on state affairs was considerable. The church's struggle with heresy in Bulgaria also affected the Jews. The Church Council of 1352 excommunicated Jews and heretics. Three Jews were condemned to death on a false charge of blaspheming saints. Although the verdict was repealed by the czar, the mob took vengeance on the accused.

The largest part of the Bulgarian Jewish community before the 15th century belonged to the Byzantine (Romaniot) Jewish rite. Only a minority spoke Bulgarian. The *Romaniots had their own special prayer book, which eventually was replaced by the Sephardi prayer book. They regarded the sending of gifts from the groom to the bride as part of the marriage ceremony, and if the bride did not later marry the sender of the gifts, she had, in their opinion, to receive a divorce (get) before she could marry another man (see Kid. 3:2). The bride's dowry was guarded and the husband was forbidden to negotiate with it. Furthermore, according to their custom a husband could not inherit from his wife. The Romaniots did not accept the decree of R. *Gershom b. Judah in the 11th century forbidding bigamy. Among the rabbis of the Romaniot synagogue was Abraham Semo (15th century) who befriended the new Ashkenazi community that settled in Sofia (1470). Another famous rabbi of the Romaniots was Joseph b. Isaac ibn Ezra (late 16th–early 17th centuries), who wrote the book Massa Melekh (1601).

Many Jews went to Bulgaria from Hungary after the expulsion of 1376. These Hungarian Jews kept their own particular customs, but later adopted the customs of the other Ashkenazim, and eventually all of them adopted Sephardi customs and spoke *Ladino. A famous contemporary sage was Rabbi Shalom Ashkenazi of Neustadt, who founded a yeshivah at *Vidin. His pupil Rabbi Dosa the Greek wrote in 1430 Perush ve-Tosafot, a supercommentary to Rashi on the Pentateuch.

Turkish Rule

At the time of the final Turkish conquest of Bulgaria (1396), Jews were living in Vidin, *Nikopol, Silistra, *Pleven, *Sofia, Yambol, Philippopolis (now *Plovdiv), and *Stara Zagora. Jewish refugees came to Bulgaria from Bavaria, which had banished them in 1470, and, according to various travelers, Judeo-German was heard for a long time in the streets of Sofia. Despite their adoption of Sephardi customs, language, and names, the Ashkenazi Jews maintained separate synagogues for a long time and followed the medieval German rite. The Ashkenazi prayer book was printed in 1548–50 in Salonika by R. Benjamin ha-Levi Ashkenazi of Nuremberg who was also the rabbi of the Sofia Ashkenazi community.

Spanish Jews reached Bulgaria apparently after 1494, settling in the trading towns in which Jews were then living. They came to Bulgaria from Salonika, through Macedonia, and from Italy, through Ragusa and Bosnia. Until 1640 Sofia had three separate Jewish communities – the Romaniots, the Ashkenazim, and the Sephardim. Then a single rabbi was appointed for all three communities. R. *Levi b. Ḥabib lived for a short time in Pleven and R. Joseph *Caro lived in Nikopol for 13 years (1523–36). Caro founded a yeshivah there and continued to write his great work Beit Yosef. In the 17th century Bulgarian Jewry was caught up in the whirlwind of the pseudo-messianic movement of Shabbetai Ẓevi; Samuel *Primo and *Nathan of Gaza, proponents of Shabbateanism, were active in Sofia in 1673.

Jews conducted trade with Turkey, Walachia, Moldavia, Ragusa, and Venice. Jewish traders were granted firmans giving them various privileges. One of the most important trading towns in the 16th century was Tatar-Pazardzhik, to which the Jewish merchants of Salonika turned after the wars with Venice (1571–73). They established commercial relations with Sofia merchants and some of them settled there as well. Merchants from *Skoplje (Turkish Üsküb) bought clothing in Salonika and sold it in Sofia and neighboring towns. In 1593 Sinan Pasha founded an annual fair at Ozundzhovo in the district of Khaskovo, southern Bulgaria. It was attended by Jews from European Turkey and Western Europe. Some Jews also farmed the taxes on European merchandise. The Jewish merchants were able to extend their commercial activities when the Ragusa merchants, who had taken part in the Bulgarian rising of 1688 against the Ottoman rule, had to give up their businesses. In Samokov some Jews owned quarries and leather tanneries. Jewish government officials of that period are also known. In the early 19th century a Jew, Bakish, of Tatar-Pazardzhik, held an important position in the court of the sultan, and proposed the introduction of a uniform system of Turkish coinage.

From Independence to World War II

General rioting, robbery, and arson broke out in Sofia in 1878 when the Turks retreated from the town; the Jews formed their own militia and a fire brigade to prevent the Turks from setting fire to the town; the fire brigade was retained after independence. Among those who welcomed Russian General Gurko were the rabbi of Sofia, Gabriel Mercado Almosnino, and three other Jews. During the war Jewish property was looted and in Vidin, Kazanlik, and Svishtov, where the local population regarded them as supporters of the Turks, Jewish property was plundered, and Jews were expelled in atrocious circumstances; most of them fled to Adrianople and Constantinople. Before the Congress of Berlin in 1878 the major Jewish organizations of Western Europe had tried to secure equal rights for Bulgarian (as well as Serbian and Romanian) Jewry; the Berlin Treaty included a clause obliging the Balkan countries to give equal rights to Jews. Rabbi Gabriel Almosnino attended the Bulgarian Constituent Assembly (Sobranie) in 1879 as the Jewish delegate ex officio as the chief rabbi and cosigned the constitution. In 1880 an official code to regulate the organization of the Jewish communities was formulated. Jews also participated as advisers in town councils. However, the Bulgarian population displayed signs of resentment against the Jews. Most Bulgarian political parties were steeped in antisemitism. The Bulgarian peasantry did all in their power to prevent Jews from acquiring land, and from time to time there were blood libels.

In 1885, during the war between Serbia and Bulgaria, Jews were drafted into the Bulgarian Army for the first time. The principle of equality concerning the defense of minority groups was emphasized after World War I in the Treaty of Neuilly (1919). However, despite all declarations, the principle of equal rights had no genuine value for Jews; in practice the various Bulgarian governments discriminated against Jews. Anti-Jewish legislation was introduced indirectly in various memoranda. Jews were not accepted at the military academy, the state bank, or in government or municipal service. The coup against the Stamboliski regime in 1923 prepared the ground for the spread of antisemitism and its intensification. In the difficult years that followed the Bulgarian people's wrath was channeled toward the minority groups, especially the Jews, whom they held responsible for their hardships. Antisemitic nationalist associations sprang up. In 1936 the Ratnik ("Warrior") antisemitic association was founded; it was structured on the lines of Hitlerite organizations, accepting their theory of race and adapting it to its own ideological concepts. Nonetheless, in all this period, and even during the war, the Jews did not experience pogroms.

In the decades preceding World War II, the relative percentage of Jews within the Bulgarian population declined steadily, indicating a lower birth rate than the national average. The 1934 census showed 48,565 Jews, constituting 0.8% of the total population. (The respective percentages for the years 1920 and 1926 were 0.9 and 0.85.) In the mid-1930s more than half of Bulgaria's Jews resided in Sofia. Most Jews were engaged in commerce, and the majority were self-employed. In the prewar years, the number of wage earners showed a certain upward trend. A growing identification with Jewish national ideals characterized the intellectual development of the Bulgarian Jewish community. In the interwar period the Zionist movement completely dominated all Jewish communal organization, including the highest elected body, the Jewish Consistory. The younger generation spoke Bulgarian rather than the Ladino of their fathers.


Bulgarian Jewry joined the movement for national revival as early as the days of Ḥovevei Zion (founded in 1882). Three Bulgarian delegates attended the First Zionist Congress in 1897 at Basle – Ẓvi *Belkovsky, Karl *Herbst, and Yehoshu'a (Joshua) *Kalef. Before the congress, in 1895, Bulgarian Jews had founded the settlement Har-Tuv in Ereẓ Israel. However, there was also considerable emigration to other countries. In 1900 several Jews settled on the land at Kefken in Turkey, on the shores of the Black Sea. Other Bulgarian Jews took up farming in Adarpazari (in the Kocaeli district near Istanbul). Among the pioneers of Zionism in Bulgaria, the most noteworthy was Joseph Marco *Baruch. Between 1919 and 1948, during the British Mandate, 7,057 Bulgarian Jews emigrated to Palestine.


After 1878 a chief rabbinate was created, headed by a chief rabbi. In 1900 a conference of Jewish communities assembled and passed a new constitution, which, however, was not recognized by the Bulgarian government. The constitution dealt with elections to synagogue or community and school committees. The community committees chose a central council (Consistory) of Bulgarian Jewry from among their members. The council functioned independently of the chief rabbi, who was also head of the central rabbinical court. The central rabbinical court exercised authority over the rabbinical courts of Sofia, Plovdiv, and Rushchuk (now Ruse).


Bulgarian Jewish education passed through three periods: (1) the period of the meldar, the Sephardi religious school, equivalent to the Ashkenazi ḥeder, which flourished in Bulgaria before national independence; (2) the period after independence during which the Alliance Israélite Universelle maintained many schools; and (3) the period of modern, national education. Jewish schools were maintained at the expense of the community. Many Jewish children, especially in large cities, attended schools of other denominations.


Rabbi Isaac b. Moses of Beja (16th century), who lived in Nikopol after the Turko-Walachian war (1598), wrote the book Bayit Ne'eman (1621). Rabbi Isaiah Morenzi (d. after 1593), who also lived in Nikopol, introduced new customs into the yeshivah founded by Joseph Caro. Another rabbi of Nikopol was Abraham b. Aziz *Borgil, author of the book Leḥem Abbirim (1605). Moses Alfalas of Sofia, a famous preacher, published Va-Yakhel Moshe (Venice, 1597). In the 18th century Solomon Shalem of Adrianopolis and Issachar Abulafia were among the famous rabbis. Chief rabbis after Bulgarian independence (1878) were Gabriel Almosnino, Moses Tadjer, Simon Dankowitz from Czechoslovakia, Mordecai Gruenwald, and Marcus *Ehrenpreis. Ẓemaḥ Rabbiner was chief preacher to the Bulgarian communities. David Pipano, author of Ḥagor ha-Efod (1925) and other books, was head of the rabbinical court. Other scholars of Bulgaria include Solomon *Rosanes, author of Divrei Yemei Yisrael be-Togarmah, the standard history of Turkish Jewry. Mention may be made also of Saul Mézan, author of Les Juifs espagnols en Bulgarie.


In 1899 the Bulgarian-language newspaper Chelovecheski prava ("Human Rights") was published to repudiate the libels of antisemitic newspapers. The first Ladino newspaper, La Alborada ("The Dawn"), was launched in 1884. Later, Ladino publications ceased publication and were replaced by Bulgarian-language periodicals. In 1933 the Yevreski Vesti ("Jewish News") began to appear, resuming publication after WWII and continuing to come out every two weeks through the early years of the 21st century.


Rosanes, Togarmah, passim; idem, in: El mondo sefardi (Ladino, 1923), 33–38; D.J. Elazar (ed.) et al., Balkan Jewish Communities: Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey (1984); V. Tamir, Bulgaria and her Jews: the History of a Dubious Symbosis (1979); P. Meyer, Jews in the Soviet Satellites (1953), 559–629; Belkovsky, in: Ha-Perotokol shel ha-Congress ha-Ẓiyyoni ha-Rishon: Maẓẓav ha-Yehudim be-Vulgaryah (1947); Marcus, in: Sinai, 26 (1950), 236–46; idem, in: Mizraḥ u-Ma'arav, 4 (1930), 152–8; idem, in: Maḥberet, I (1952), 30–31; 3 (1954), 61–62; 10 (1961), 19–23; S. Mézan, Juifs espagnols en Bulgarie (1925); N.M. Gelber, in: JSOS, 8 (1946), 103–26; N. Greenberg (ed.), Dokumenti (Bul., 1945); N. Oren, in: Yad Vashem Studies, 7 (1968), 83–106; Bulgarian Atrocities in Greek Macedonia and Thrace (Athens, 1945); R. Kashani, Sekirat Sefarim al ha-Yahadut be-… Bulgaryah (1962); B. Arditi, Yehudei Bulgaryah bi-Shenot ha-Mishtar ha-Naẓi (1962); BJPES, 2 (1935), 19–25; Godishnik ("Yearbook"), 1 (1966), 63–79 (Eng. summ. 178); 2 (1967), 21–40 (Eng. 232–3), 65–110 (Eng. 236–7); 3 (1968), 31–58 (Eng. 201–2); J. Caleb, La situation des Juifs en Bulgarie (1919); A. Hananel and E. Eškenazi, Fontes hebraici ad res 'conomicas socialesque terrarum balcanicarum, 2 vols. (1958–60); S. Levy, in: Cahiers Sefardis, 1 (1947), 142–6; F.B. Chary, in: East European Quarterly, 4 (1970), 88–93. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: S. Shaltiel, Me-Ereẓ Holedet le-Ereẓ Moledet 1939–49: Aliyah ve-Ha'palah me-Bulgaryah ve-Darkah (2004); M. Bar-Zohar, Beyond Hitler's Grasp, The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews (1998).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.