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History of the Jewish community in Bulgaria

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There is no clear data when the first Jews appeared in Bulgarian lands. According to some researchers, this occurred shortly after the destruction of the First Temple (6CE. BC), but the prevailing opinions are that the first settlers appeared in the period immediately before or after the Second Temple was destroyed (1 CE. AD). There has been a Jewish settlement in the region from the time of the roman emperor Caligula (AD 37-41) while a Latin inscription from the late second century speaks about the existence of a Jewish community in the village of Oeskus near Nikopol. The inscription is mentioned also by archisynagogus Joseph. In the center of Plovdiv were found the remains of an ancient synagogue from the 3rd century, when the city was under the control of the severians. The synagogue was destroyed during the reign of Emperor Arcadius and the various decrees of the Byzantine emperors from this period speak about persecutions of Jews and destruction of synagogues in Thrace and Illyria.

During the reign of Emperor Leo III (718-741) and his persecution of Jews, the majority of them crossed the border and settled in the territory of the First Bulgarian State. They obviously had an influence over the Khan’s family. Part of the 106 questions submitted on behalf of Khan Boris I to Pope Nicholas I had a Jewish focus: What has to be done with the first fruits of the harvest?; Which is the day of rest – Saturday or Sunday; Which animals and birds can be eaten? Is it wrong to eat an animal if it is not slaughtered in a certain way; If funeral rites should be provided to someone who committed suicide?, etc. The early Christian church in Bulgaria had good relations with the Jewish population, even the monks Cyril and Methodius, used the help of Jewish teachers from their hometown Thessaloniki in the preparation of their literary work.

There is evidence of a Jewish settlement in Nikopol from 967. In the early 12th century Leo Mung born as a Jew and a student of the Bulgarian Talmudist Tobiah ben Eliezer, converted to Christianity and became archbishop of the diocese of Ohrid and Bulgaria. Bogomilism which spread throughout Bulgaria during the 11th Century, denied most of the books of the Old Testament, but opened interest in Judaism as the source of Christian doctrines. Bulgarian attitude towards the Jews at that time was quite favorable: Jewish merchants from Italy and Dubrovnik, who settled in Bulgaria, received royal privileges. During the Crusades, in the Second Bulgarian Kingdom settled many Jews who fled the massacres in the west. Jacob ben Eliyau in his letters to the Apostate Pablo Christiani mentions two Jews who were thrown from the Tsarevets hill because they didn’t obey the order of Tsar Ivan Assen II to pull out the eyes of Thessaloniki King Theodore Comnenus Angel.

Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371) married a Jewish girl named Sarah, who took the name Theodora at her baptizing. The struggle of the church against heresy also affected Jews. The Church Convention of 1352 excludes Jews and heretics from the church.

The main part of the Bulgarian Jewish community until the 15 Century belonged to Romaniote / Vizayntian type. Only a small part of them spoke Bulgarian. Romaniotes had their special prayer service, which was subsequently replaced by Sephardic (Spanish) one. Romaniotes did not accept the decrees of the rabbis of Western Europe and to a very late stage practiced polygamy, although it was prohibited in the west in the 10th century. Among the most famous romaniote rabbis were Abraham Semo of the 15th century who lived in Sofia and Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac ibn Ezra of the late 16th century, who was known for his book Massa Melech.

Many Jews arrived in Bulgaria from Hungary after the expulsion of 1376. These Hungarian Jews had their traditions, but became part of nascent Ashkenazi (German) community in the Bulgarian lands. A famous rabbi was Rabbi Shalom Ashkenazi of Neustadt, who opened a yeshiva (religious school) in Vidin. His student was Rabbi Dosa the Greek author of Perush ve Tosafot, which is large commentary on Rashi on the Torah by 1430.

During the Ottoman rule

In the time of the Ottoman conquest of Bulgarian lands, Jews were living in Vidin, Nikopol, Silistra, Pleven, Sofia, Yambol, Philippopolis (now Plovdiv) and Stara Zagora. Jews came from Bavaria, which banished its Jews in 1470 and according to various travelers in Sofia at that time Yiddish could often be heard in the street. Although they accepted part of the Sephardic tradition, these Jews retain their character and had their own synagogue. Their prayer book was printed in 1550 in Thessaloniki by Rabbi Binyamin Halevy Ashkenazi from Nuremberg, who was also chief rabbi of Sofia Ashkenazi community.

Spanish Jews reached the Bulgarian lands around 1494, and settled in commercial centers, which already had Jewish communities. They arrived from Thessaloniki via Macedonia and from Italy via Dubrovnik and Bosnia. Until 1640 Sofia had three distinct Jewish communities – Romaniote, Ashkenazi and Sephardic and the city had a chief rabbi for the three communities. Rabbi Levi ben Habib lived for a short period of time in Pleven, and Rabbi Yosef Karo lived 13 years in Nikopol (1523-1536). Karo established a yeshiva in the city and here he wrote his great book Beit Yosef. In the 17th century Jews in Bulgarian lands experienced the pseudo – messianic movement of Shabetay Zеvi. His supporters Samuel Primo and Nathan of Gaza were active in Sofia around 1673.

Jews were mainly engaged in trade in the region of Turkey, Wallachia, Moldavia, Dubrovnik and Venice. Jewish traders had different privileges. One of the most important commercial cities in the 16th Century was Tatar`s Pazardzhik, where Jewish merchants from Thessaloniki settled after the war with Venice from 1571 to 1573. They created good relations with the traders in Sofia and some of them settled in the city. Merchants from Skopje bought clothes from Thessaloniki and sold them in Sofia and neighboring towns. In 1593 Sinan Pasha organized an annual Fair in Uzundzhovo, near Haskovo in which participated Jews from Western Europe and the European part of Turkey. Jews also occupied government posts. At the beginning of the 19th Century Bakish from Tatar Pazardzhik held a high position at the Sultan and was the author of a law on unification of money and coins in the Ottoman Empire.

After the liberation of Bulgaria

In 1878 in Sofia exploded fires, lootings and riots, especially with the departure of the Turkish forces. Jews organized their own militia and fire brigade to prevent the Turks from burning the city.Тhe fire brigade remained after the Liberation. Among the hosts who met the Russian troops led by General Gurko, was the chief Rabbi of Sofia – Mercado Almoznino along with three other Jews. During the war, Jewish property was seized in Vidin, Svishtov and Kazanlak, where locals considered the Jews supporters of the Ottoman Empire, and in some places the Jews were expelled. They left for Adrianople and Constantinople. Before the Berlin Congress of 1878 was held, the rights of the Jews in the new state were discussed. And the new treaty itself obliged the Balkan countries to give equal rights to the Jews. Chief Rabbi Gabriel Almoznino participated as a Jewish delegate at the signing of the Turnovo Constitution and he became the first Bulgarian Chief Rabbi. In 1880 an official ordinance marked the beginning of the regulation of Jewish organizations. Jews were councilors in municipalities. Despite equal rights, many of the parties in the parliament had anti-Semitic rhetoric and peasants avoided selling land to Jews. In some places there were bloody charges.

In 1885 during the war between Serbia and Bulgaria, Jews were drafted in the Bulgarian army for the first time. They actively participated in the wars for national unification in the early 20th century.

In the decades before World War II, the relative percentage of Jews in the Bulgarian society gradually decreased due to a smaller growth in the birth rate. In 1920, 16 000 Jews lived in the country amounting 0.9% of the population. In 1926, they were 0.85%. According to the census of 1934, the country had 48 565 Jews who represented 0.8 % of the population. In the mid-30s more than half of the Jews in Bulgaria lived in Sofia. Most dealt with trade and were self-employed. In the years before World War II the number of people who identified themselves with the Jewish national cause increased. The younger generation mainly communicated in Bulgarian, unlike their parents who communicated in Ladino.

Bulgarian Jewry was extremely active in the Zionist movement. Three Bulgarian delegates participated in the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1907 – Zvi Belkovsky, Karl Herbst and Yeoshua Kalev. Before the Congress Bulgarian Jews establish the settlement Har Tuv in the land of Israel. There was also a significant immigration to other countries. In 1900 a number of Jews settled in Kefken, Turkey on the Black Sea. Between 1919- 1948 over 7,000 Jews from Bulgaria immigrated to Palestine.

After 1978 the Chief Rabbinate was established in Sofia, led by Chief Rabbi. In 1900 the Conference of Jewish communities created and adopted its new constitution, but the Bulgarian government did not accept it. This document described the election of the leading bodies of the synagogue, the community and the school. The separate leading committees elected their Central Council – Consistory of Bulgarian Jewry, which represented the Jewish community in Bulgaria. Apart was the position of the Chief Rabbi , who was also the head of the rabbinical court in Sofia. He was responsible for the smaller religious communities and courts in Plovdiv and Ruschuk / Ruse.
Famous rabbis who lived in the Bulgarian lands were: Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Beha (16th century), who lived in Nikopol after the Turkish-Wallachian War of 1598 and wrote the book Bait Naaman in 1621, Rabbi Isaiah Morenzi also lived in Nikopol in this period and introduced a number of new traditions in the yeshiva of Rabbi Yosef Karo. Another rabbi of Nikopol was Abraham Aziz Borgil, author of Lehem Abir (1605). Chief Rabbis after the Liberation of Bulgaria were Gabriel Almoznino, Moshe Tadzher, Simon Dankovits of Czechoslovakia, Mordechai Gruenvald and Marcus Ehrenpreis.

Second World War and the rescue of Bulgarian Jews – see the section Holocaust and the saving of the bulgarian Jewry.



1944 – 1989

Immediately after September 9th, 1944 in Bulgaria was established the Fatherland Front government and Jewish public life fell under the rule of the communists and their sympathizers. Jewish communities were controlled by the Central Jewish Committee of the Fatherland Front, which was subordinated to the committee for national minorities. All documents in this initial period were signed by both the Consistory and the Central Committee. In January 1945 the Bulgarian community stopped its membership in all international Jewish organizations – whether Zionist or others. The majority of Bulgarian Jews continue to support the Zionist ideas and their newspapers continued to be published until 1948.

The economic situation of the Jewish community after the war was desperate. The Jewish community was in extreme poverty. In March 1945 the government adopted a law on restitution, which returned all the rights and property of Jews in Bulgaria, but it took a long time before the law was applied in practice and the nationalization of the industry suspended the enforcement of the law. Thanks to the help of the international Jewish community organizations, the community managed to survive those first years after the war.

Of particular interest is the punishment of the guilty from the previous period. A special department of the People’s Court dealt with crimes against Jews.

At the beginning of its rule the Fatherland Front was hostile to Jewish immigration, especially to Palestine. The first signs of change in this regard came in 1946. The change in the Soviet position on Palestine had an impact also in Bulgaria and Zionist organizations got more opportunities. After being elected in December 1946 the Prime Minister, Georgi Dimitrov promised Jewish leaders that emigration to Palestine would be allowed. However, illegal immigration to Palestine was considered a crime and border police arrested and even shot at Jewish youths who tried to leave the country illegally towards Palestine. Only after the UN plan for partition, the regime allowed mass immigration.

Between September 1944 and October 1948, 7,000 Bulgarian Jews left the country and went to Palestine. But the biggest wave of Aliya was between 1949 – 1951 when over 44,000 Jews emigrated to Israel. According to the census of the 60s in Bulgaria lived about 7,000 Jews, half of them in Sofia, about 1000 in Plovdiv and the rest in other cities.
After 1948 organized religious life gradually decreased, and in Bulgaria remained no rabbis to deal with the maintenance of schools or Jewish education. The growth of mixed marriages increased. Religious affairs were conducted by the Central Religious Board, which was linked to the cultural and educational organization of Jews in Bulgaria – a secular organization that inherited the Consistory in 1957 and organized cultural life of Jews in the country and represented them before power. Once in two weeks was published the newspaper ”Jewish News”, which remained the only preserved paper of the rich Jewish press of the 20s and 30s.

Since the 70s the number of Jews subsequently reduced to about 5000, but though limited Jewish life continued. Besides “Jewish News” the Jewish community started publishing an annual collection of historical essays called “Almanac.” In Bulgaria at that time there was no rabbi and only the Central Sofia Synagogue was open all year round. In Plovdiv, the synagogue was only used for Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and the Bourgas synagogue was converted into a gallery. In this period there were no educational institutions for Jewish youth.

After 1989

After the changes of 1989, the Jewish community was revived. In Bulgaria there were about 3000 – 4000 Jews, mainly in Sofia. Since 1989, started the creation of the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom”, which inherited the cultural and educational organization “The Consistory” and took on the task of restoring Jewish life. In 1992, School 134 in Sofia began teaching Hebrew, and the community began organizing children’s camps, youth programs and programs for the middle generation. Extremely strong is the social activity and support of the community, especially in the initial, economically difficult years of the 90-s.

In Bulgaria work two synagogues – in Sofia and Plovdiv, and in the course of many years Chief Rabbi of Bulgaria is Rabbi Bechor Kahlon.

Relations with Israel:

Bulgaria is the twentieth country in the world to recognize the State of Israel on the 4th of December 1947. The two countries established diplomatic relations and had trade relations. Over time, however, Bulgaria adopted the Soviet line on Israel, and relations further deteriorated in August 1955, when the Bulgarian Air Force shot down an El Al aircraft that entered Bulgarian airspace by mistake.

After the Six Day War of 1967, Bulgaria, along with other Warsaw Pact countries froze the relations with Israel. Gradually trade relations were restored and full diplomatic relations were restored on May 3, 1990.

Relations between both countries develop and include humanitarian actions. In the summer of 2010, Bulgaria sent 90 firefighters in Israel to help with suppression of fires near Haifa. Two years later, in the summer of 2012, Israel sent two aircrafts for fire fighting to control the fires in Vitosha.

On July 18, 2012 at Burgas airport was carried out a terrorist act in which seven Israeli citizens and one Bulgarian were killed and at least 20 others were injured. The two countries together investigate the perpetrators of the attack.