4. Subbotniki Religious Doctrine

Some of the authors I have cited refer to the Subbotniki as secretive in the practice of their religion. One explanation for this behavior was avoidance of persecution by the Tsarist authorities. Therefore, little has been written about the content of Subbotniki doctrine, and details about their religious services are hard to find.

One source I have found that sheds some light on Subbotniki beliefs is a section of a book published in London in 1894 by Stepaniak entitled The Russian Peasantry provided to me by Anne Zolnekoff of the United Molokan Christian Association (UMCA) Library. In Chapter III of this book, the author describes the Molokans as being “… divided into Sabbatarian and non-Sabbatarian Molokane.” The book also contains a summary of interviews conducted by a Russian historian named N. Kostomarov with a Sabbatarian (Subbotniki) teacher (rabbi) in the city of Saratov. From these interviews, the following insight is gained about Subbotniki doctrine:
At that time Subbotniki in Saratov believed that they should offer sacrifices. [It is not known what was sacrificed or how the rite was performed.] Kostomarov quotes the rabbi as contrasting the Subbotniki with the Jews by saying, “The modern Jews do not offer sacrifices because they are in exile, but we, who are the New Israel — we ought to offer sacrifices.” The book also contains a description of Subbotniki services from which the following is taken:

The rites and worship of the Sabbatarians of Russia proper contain nothing Jewish. On Saturdays they assemble in their houses of prayer, where their elders or teachers deliver a sermon, which is interrupted from time to time by the sacred songs of the congregation.”

As to the service, it was very unlike that of the Russian Jews. The small congregation was seated in rows on wooden benches on one side of the room. Opposite there was an open space, on which stood the preacher … with an open Bible before him....” [There are many similarities with Molokan services in this account.]

However, the author reports that some Subbotniki living in the Trans-caucasus seemed to have evolved into a form closer to that of modern Jews:

The Sabbatarian colony in the Caucasus … have developed into a sect much more nearly allied to Judaism… They accept the Talmud, and they expect the Messiah in the guise of a king and conqueror, who is to appear at the close of the seven thousandth year, dating from the creation of the world (Mosaic style). They follow the Jewish ritual in the marriage ceremony and the burial service, and permit divorce; and they use the Jewish prayers in a Russian translation.

Albert Parry’s 1927 article in the Jewish Tribune provides more insight to their Molokan origins and those who became Subbotniki while living in the Yerevan region in Armenia.

Czar Nicholas I began persecution of the ''Molokani'' sect. He eventually banished them to the wilds of the Caucasus and Trans-Caucasia, and some to the district of Erivan. Contact with Jews in their new home resulted in many embracing the form of Judaism locally known as Subbotniki. They observed Jewish law and custom faithfully, called upon the rabbi for all religious ministrations, but did not learn to speak Hebrew or Yiddish. The Russian government only persecuted them the more bitterly, so some fled to America, with many Molokani [sic: molokane].

The Patai’s write that the Subbotniki adopted the Jewish customs of circumcision, voluntary marriage and divorce, the manner of burial and the form of prayer meetings.

In correspondence with Michelle Vincow, who is assisting her Subbotnik great-uncle with his memoirs, I learned the following:

“He {Michelle’s great-uncle} describes my family's background as Subbotniks who became gerim [non-Jews who have converted to Judaism] after contacts with a rabbi.

Initially, as Subbotniks, they celebrated biblical holidays, did not accept the New Testament, prayed in Russian, and lived separate from the Jews. They had Slavic features and Russian names.

After they met a rabbi, my great-uncle's "congregation" of several families in Tsaritsin (Volgograd) was convinced that it would be best to more fully adopt Jewish practices. They were given Jewish names, remarried under a chuppah [Hebrew wedding canopy] (even grandparents were remarried), and several of them learned to pray in Hebrew.

At that time they began to be referred to by other Subbotniks as gerim. This change "visibly distanced" them from other Subbotniks.”

I have not found any documentation that describes how these beliefs and practices were carried forth by the Subbotniki who came to America.

Both the Molokans and Subbotniki followed the Mosaic (kosher) dietary laws, but they differed in other practices. In addition to the day chosen to observe the Sabbath, another difference that led to conflict was the inclusion of wine in Subbotniki services — similar to Judaism. The Molokan faith professed abstinence from all alcoholic beverages. Subbotniki tended to rely more on the Old Testament as the source of names for their children, such as Abram, David, Esther, Moses (Morris), Osip (Joseph), Radila (Ruth), Samuel, Sarah and Yakov (Jacob). 

<< Previous — Chapter — Next >>
Back to Subbotniki.net