The Polish Constitutional Tribunal changed the date of its central observance marking a key national holiday to accommodate its Shabbat-observant keynote speaker, an American-born Israeli professor.
In an unprecedented move, the Polish high court’s ceremony for Polish Constitution Day honoring Poland’s May 3, 1791 Constitution was switched from Saturday May 3, to Thursday May 1, also a national holiday, in deference to Prof. Moshe Rosman, of Bar-Ilan University’s Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry.
Rosman, an expert in Polish Jewry and an advisor for the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, told The Times of Israel that, on receiving the Polish supreme court’s initial invitation to speak, he hesitated after noting that the celebrations fell on Saturday. He said halachic authorities agreed he could participate, however, if, among other constraints, he began his speech by speaking about Shabbat.
“I wrote to them [the Polish Supreme Court] and gave them an out — ‘I’m very honored, but you should know I’m a Shabbat observer with restrictions, which I understand if you can’t accommodate…'”
But the court wrote back that it would accommodate his religious needs, and eventually changed the date of the holiday’s central ceremony, held annually at the court, from the Saturday to the Thursday. Also marking the occasion are speeches by public figures, parades, exhibitions, and concerts.
‘Poland is probably the most pro-Israel country in Europe’
Ahead of his flight to Poland, Rosman told The Times of Israel he was honored by the consideration given to him, but not 100% surprised, saying that although there is still anti-Semitism in Poland today, there is no official anti-Semitism.
“Poland is probably the most pro-Israel country in Europe. The government’s trend is to support things Jewish,” said Rosman.
The professor said, however, that the question is: what is the “real Poland?”
“Is the real Poland Communist? Chauvinist? Anti-Semitic? The country dominated by Russia throughout the 19th century?”
The answer lies in the Constitution Day holiday, said Rosman.
“Real Poland is before the partitions,” said Rosman, when there was an elected king and a multi-nationalist, proto-democractic parliament which created a more independent, progressive, and just society. Constitution Day celebrates this “real Poland,” said Rosman, and “for 200 years the Poles looked to this period as the real Poland.”
After the adoption of the constitution, the country was hit with political strife, followed by its Second and Third Partitions.
Constitution Day was celebrated once until Poland’s partitioning in 1792, and sporadically during its later tumultuous history. Since 1990 it has been an annual national bank holiday.
At the ceremony, Rosman will speak in Polish about what he feels symbolizes the “real Poland”: the status of the Jews. Even today, joked the professor, there are those who say the road to Washington is paved through Jerusalem.
Leading up to the ratification of the constitution — a revolutionary document, second only to the United States constitution and the first in Europe — there was much positive public discourse surrounding the status of the Jews.
According to Rosman, from June 1790 through April 1792, the parliament tried to pass a law declaring Jews as Polish citizens, a progressive concept for the time.
In the 1790s there was even a special committee about the status of the Jews. Unfortunately no consensus was reached and Jews are left out of the Polish constitution. “When you can’t agree, you retreat,” said Rosman.
Nonetheless, the status of the Jews was a “very burning issue, passionate on both sides,” said Rosman.
He cited the three prevailing positions in 18th century Polish society: Jews can never be loyal and useful citizens, therefore Poles must be protected from Jewish frauding; the Jews can be decent people and should be given a chance to prove it; and the Jews will be decent if they’re treated decently.
Rosman found ample support in the plethora of pamphlet literature the different sides published to promote their positions. Rosman said one pamphlet read, “‘Jews respect the Ten Commandments just as much as we do’ — which I find pretty ironic,” he chuckled.
While the professor is pleased the Polish high court is accommodating his religious observance, he said this is hardly the first time it has occurred in Poland.
While reading archival material, Rosman found a letter dated March 21, 1721 from a Jew who worked for a powerful Polish noblewoman.
“He put the time of day — 3pm — and writes he can’t do everything he promised because he has only three hours until Shabbat,” said Rosman. It is clear from the tone of the letter, he said, that his employer understood and respected the laws of shabbat and his observance.