As America prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death on April 15, fresh insight into the events that occurred a century and a half ago can be gleaned by seeing that entire week through the eyes of America’s Jews, and especially of those Jews who attended America’s oldest and most historically distinguished congregation.
On Sunday, April 9, 1865, Generals Grant and Lee met in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Lee surrendered, and the Civil War came to an end, with 360,000 Union and 260,000 Confederate soldiers dead. The news broke all over the United States on April 10, which, in the Hebrew calendar, was the morning before the eight-day holiday of Passover was to begin. We can imagine the elegant symmetry that those Jews sympathetic to the Union cause saw in the advent of their Festival of Freedom, commemorating the Israelite exodus from slavery, coinciding with the Confederacy’s defeat. Thinking of their own relatives, who like other Americans had fought, bled, and died for several terrible years, we can imagine their finding a double meaning at their Seder tables that Monday evening, as they uttered the immortal words of the Haggadah: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
It was four days later, on Friday evening, when the president ventured out into a joyful, festive Washington for an evening at Ford’s Theatre, that he was shot. Carried to a boarding house across the street, Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on Saturday. It is often told that all those crowded around his deathbed turned to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who said simply, “Now he belongs to the ages.” As the writer Adam Gopnik has noted, these words are the best-known epitaph in American history, and probably the finest: “They seem perfectly chosen, in their bare and stoical evocation of a Lincoln who belongs to history alone, their invocation not of an assumption to an afterlife but of a long reign in the corridors of time, a man now part of eternity.”
Conveyed by telegraph, the news soon reached the rest of the country. Jews heard it from their fellow Americans on the day of the celebratory service held on the Sabbath during Passover. Bertram Korn, in his American Jewry and the Civil War, describes the scene:
Jews were on their way to synagogue or already worshipping when tidings of the assassination reached them. . . . Jews who had not planned on attending services hastened to join their brethren in the sanctuaries where they could find comfort in the hour of grief. The Rabbis put their sermon notes aside and spoke extemporaneously, haltingly, reaching out for the words to express their deep sorrow. . . . Samuel Adler of Temple Emmanuel in New York began to deliver a sermon but he was so overcome that he could not continue. Alfred T. Jones, Parnas of Beth El-emeth Congregation of Philadelphia, asked [the well-known Jewish scholar and writer] Isaac Leeser to say something to comfort the worshippers; he did, but it was so disconnected that he had to apologize: “the dreadful news and its suddenness have in a great measure overcome my usual composure, and my thoughts refuse to arrange themselves in their wonted order.”
Because the president died on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, the first utterances from the pulpit in response to the assassination were heard in synagogues, as Isaac Marken explains in Abraham Lincoln and the Jews. One of the most striking—and indeed, controversial—moments took place in Congregation Shearith Israel, in New York, the oldest Jewish congregation in America. There, Marken recounts, “the rabbi recited the Hashkabah (prayer for the dead) for Lincoln. This, according to the Jewish Messenger, was the first time that this prayer had been said in a Jewish house of worship for any other than those professing the Jewish religion.” This seeming deviation from tradition in Shearith Israel—known to this day for its fierce devotion to preserving religious and liturgical tradition—was noted by many, and defended by the aforementioned Isaac Leeser, who also edited American Jewry’s most prominent newspaper: