Ever since Christianity and Judaism parted ways so many centuries ago, Jewish followers of Yeshua have been hard to find.
For most of church history, a Jewish person who was convinced that Yeshua was the Messiah—or, more often, was coerced, bribed, or threatened into saying they were convinced—had to leave behind Jewish identity and practice and become a practicing Christian.
Amidst this sea of stars were a few wandering planets—a few Jews who refused to conform to the categories of their day, who chose to follow Yeshua while practicing Judaism. One of these few was Rabbi Daniel Zion, chief rabbi of Bulgaria in the years following World War II.
Rabbi Zion was born in 1883 in Thessaloniki (also known as Thessalonica), a city whose Jewish history dates well before the time of the Apostle Paul, who visited a synagogue there on his journeys (Acts 17:1-9). Daniel Zion attended Jewish schools and received rabbinical training in Thessaloniki but also learned French and became well-read in secular literature. The only book he wouldn’t touch was the New Testament; centuries of Christian persecution of Jews had made the name of Jesus anathema to the Jewish community.
In 1915, Rabbi Zion was asked to travel to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, to lead the Yuch Bunar synagogue there. He acceded and found himself in the middle of political upheaval. Bulgaria’s defeat during the Second Balkan War had led to territorial losses and provoked a new regional alliance with Austria-Hungary. This realignment meant Bulgaria was about to find itself on the losing side of World War I, a disaster that led to the abdication of King Ferdinand and the ascension of Boris III.
The Jewish population of Bulgaria was small and concentrated mainly in Sofia. Rabbi Zion had his work cut out for him, especially with a tendency toward secularization among the youth, who had taken to speaking Bulgarian rather than Ladino. He founded several organizations dedicated to promoting traditional Judaism and caring for the numerous widows, orphans, and wounded men from Bulgaria’s repeated excursions to war.
At one point, as part of his study of the French language, Zion desired a copy of the Old Testament in French. However, he could find only a complete Christian Bible. He ripped out the New Testament pages, wanting nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity.
An ardent Zionist, Rabbi Zion promoted the idea of a reborn State of Israel, a stance that often irked the other leaders of the Bulgarian Jewish community. He also made waves by publicly renouncing the exploitative practice of dowry—requiring brides and their families to provide large sums of money to prospective husbands.
After some time in Sofia, Zion began to encounter Christians who piqued his interest. His curiosity got the better of him, and he began to read the New Testament. What he found shocked him; when he began to read the teachings of Yeshua, he found them to be thoroughly Jewish. Zion wondered why his people had rejected Yeshua.
Later in life, Zion recounted the story of his encounter with Yeshua, which he had kept secret until his tenure in Sofia had ended. One day as he was reading the New Testament, a voice came to him speaking “good and lofty” counsel. He couldn’t identify the source of this voice, but one night as he attended a Christian concert—perhaps out of curiosity inspired by his reading of the New Testament—he happened to see a picture of Yeshua. The voice spoke to him again: “Do you not yet know that it is I, Yeshua, who speaks to you every day?”
The voice instructed Zion to go to a specific place the next day and face the sun. When he did, he “saw the image of the crucified Yeshua spanning the entire expanse.” He was overjoyed and frightened. Another sign followed shortly thereafter: The voice instructed him to pray that a heavy rainstorm would stop. This sign was also fulfilled, and Rabbi Daniel Zion’s faith that Yeshua was the Messiah only grew.
He began to build bridges with Christians in Bulgaria to understand the visions and signs he had seen. One of these, Metropolitan Stefan, was the exarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church—the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria. Stefan’s advice to Zion resonates through the rest of Zion’s spiritual journey: Forget about Christianity; focus on Yeshua.
Unfortunately, this interfaith dialogue hampered Zion’s efforts among the Jewish people. He was accused of betraying the principles of Judaism by cavorting with Christian leaders. Rabbi Zion defended himself, saying that he had acted in his capacity as a leader among Bulgarian Jews to answer questions Christians had posed to him about the Talmud—which was, to some degree, true. The accusations against Zion were motivated by jealousy and intrigue more than by legitimate fears of Zion’s apostasy; he remained a firmly committed and observant Jew.
As the shadow of the Third Reich began to fall across Europe in the first months of World War II, Bulgaria chose to remain neutral. There must have been many alive at that time who remembered Bulgaria’s calamitous defeat in the Great War three decades before. Geographical and economic factors weighed against this decision, however. Germany had become Bulgaria’s largest trading partner, and Hitler’s demands that Bulgaria begin to persecute its Jewish population grew ever more direct.
Boris III seems to have been ambivalent about the fate of the Jews; however, the elected National Assembly—the unicameral parliament of Bulgaria—began to draw up plans to restrict the rights of Jews in Bulgaria in preparation for their collection and deportation to concentration camps. These measures were encoded in the deceptively titled “Law for the Defense of the Nation,” a copy of which made it to Daniel Zion, who reacted immediately.
Zion returned to his friend Metropolitan Stefan to plead for Stefan’s intervention on behalf of the Jewish people. Stefan was bewildered by the National Assembly’s decision and Boris’s refusal to act. He and many other members of the Holy Synod wrote a statement decrying the odious law and arguing that it was un-Christian and un-Bulgarian. Many others—writers, lawyers, doctors, and other public figures among them—were equally appalled by the National Assembly’s capitulation to the Nazis. Nevertheless, the law went into force.
Soon afterward, Zion received a message from God clearly stating that “people who live and let others live in freedom will live, too”—an oblique indictment of the Nazi menace and its Bulgarian collaborators in the National Assembly. The message warned the nations against acquiescing to Hitler’s demands, lest they be “liquidated.”
Rabbi Zion typed several copies of this message and delivered them to senior government officials, fully believing and insisting that he was delivering a message directly from God. Not more than a few hours later, he was confronted by the president of the Jewish Consistory. The Jewish community leaders had rejected Zion’s approach, fearing that resistance would only bring retribution. Daniel Zion stood firm and was consequently removed from his position as rabbi.
Zion did not relent in the slightest, continuing to beg for an audience with Boris. Meanwhile, Hitler summoned Boris to the Eagle’s Nest, where Ribbentrop leaned on him to expedite the deportation of the Jewish people. When Boris returned and heard of the decision of the Holy Synod to oppose the persecution of the Jews, he was enraged.
After several false starts stymied by anti-Nazi sentiment among the majority of Bulgarians, a date was set for the deportation of Bulgarian Jews in 1943. Against the wishes of the rest of the Jewish community’s leaders, Zion and many others protested in front of the Yuch Bunar synagogue. Armed police dispersed the demonstration and arrested Zion, who was then sent to a detention camp at Somovit in one of many waves of Jewish prisoners.
Despite this setback, Daniel Zion continued in his role as a spiritual leader, giving lectures on philosophy and Torah study to the other detainees and even attempting to befriend the guards. He taught the people about equality, humility, and endurance in suffering, hoping that this shared experience would deepen their compassion for each other.
Boris died suddenly that year, and the political sea change resulted in a slow process by which the anti-Semitic laws were incrementally rolled back. Zion was freed. The following year, the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria; four days later, a communist coup d’état deposed the Bulgarian government. The remaining anti-Semitic laws were immediately abolished, and the Nazi collaborators were tried for their crimes.
Daniel Zion was appointed as the chief rabbi of Bulgaria in 1945. However, his elevated station in Bulgaria seemed to mean nothing to the local authorities. He was denied even a place to live and was forced to stay with his daughter for some time. Three years later, he was among the first immigrants to the new State of Israel, arriving with 2,500 other Bulgarian Jews on December 16, 1948.
Rabbi Zion was outspoken about his belief in Yeshua as the Messiah of Israel almost as soon as he immigrated. He held synagogue services in which he proclaimed Yeshua as the Messiah. Within a few years, the Rabbinate sanctioned him for his “defiance.” They even went so far as to declare him mentally unwell. Zion did not convert to Christianity, however, nor did he encourage other Jews to do so. In fact, he excoriated Christians for their insistence that Judaism had been cast away in favor of a new religion.
His stance won him few friends among either Jews or Christians. Many wanted to baptize him, but he refused all offers. His faith in Yeshua fit perfectly within the context of Jewish faith and practice.
After provoking incredible controversy with a radio address in which he proclaimed his faith in Yeshua, Rabbi Daniel Zion found himself even more isolated, his only friends consisting of a few other Messianic Jews, including Abram Poljak.
Toward the end of his life, he lamented that if there had been as few as ten men like him—ten being the minimum number required to undertake corporate Jewish liturgical prayer—he would have been able to start a sect that would have changed the world.
At the age of ninety-two, he became senile. He believed that every day was Shabbat.
Jewish tradition holds that this world is like the six days of the week on which work may be done. The World to Come is like Shabbat, the seventh day, the day of rest. One must prepare now—as Yeshua said, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day” (John 9:4)—so that we are prepared to enjoy eternal life in the next age, which the sages describe as an everlasting Shabbat.
It is telling that Daniel Zion lived the last months of his life believing that every day was the Sabbath, that every day was a day for peace, rest, rejoicing, and Torah study. In some way, he seems to have stepped into the next world before his soul departed.
He was unappreciated in his time. As business guru Howard Marks once cynically said, “Being too far ahead of your time is indistinguishable from being wrong.” Today, however, his bravery in confronting the Nazi collaborators in Bulgaria, his conviction that Yeshua was the Messiah, and his unwavering commitment to traditional Judaism make Rabbi Daniel Zion a forerunner, a luminary, and a hero. Messianic Judaism (and every Jew of Bulgarian descent) owes much to the legacy of Daniel Zion.
Vine of David has released a compilation of Daniel Zion’s works, complete with a new biography. We hope to honor his memory, and we believe his remarkable life and poignant words will inspire you.
May the memory of the righteous be a blessing.