Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rav of Young Israel North Beverly Hills
The atmosphere in the room was somber and tense. The elderly rabbi lay on a rickety bed, surrounded by family and a handful of close friends, his breathing labored, his wrinkled face sunken and pale. This wasn’t just any elderly rabbi; this was one of Europe’s most influential rabbinic figures, Rabbi Yaakov Emden, and these were his final moments. At seventy-eight years old he had reached a ripe old age. He had outlived two of his three wives, and most of his twenty children. Once a wealthy and successful businessman, his fortunes had reversed and just a year earlier he was compelled to seek assistance from the community fund. His health had been in decline for some time, and waning eyesight had ultimately resulted in total blindness, denying him his one remaining pleasure – reading and studying the numerous books in his private library.
It was April 19, and the year was 1776. For more than a quarter of a century all of R. Yaakov Emden’s energy had been devoted and dedicated to just one thing – ensuring that every G-d-fearing Jew was aware of the fact that the Chief Rabbi of Hamburg and revered rabbinic leader, Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz, was not the devout Jew he purported himself to be, but was in fact a secret believer in the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi, and that he had cunningly insinuated Sabbatian heresy into mainstream Jewish life.
R. Yonason Eybeschutz had already been dead for twelve years. But his demise had not halted R. Yaakov’s campaign. In fact, it seemed only to have increased its ferocity. R. Yaakov was absolutely determined that the man he considered the epitome of evil would never be lionized nor adulated. Even as R. Yonason was being buried twelve years earlier R. Yaakov delivered a ‘eulogy’ in which he accused him of religious deviancy and worse, astounding his audience with the vehemence of his denouncements. But now, as the small group of relatives and friends stood silently, watching the aged rabbi as his life ebbed away, the last thing on their minds was R. Yonason Eybeshutz. All they were concerned with was the imminent final breath of this titan of Jewish leadership, who had been at the center of European Jewish life for well over fifty years. The bitter dispute between him and his archrival was utterly remote at that moment and if anyone in the room gave the saga any thought, it would only have been to reflect on the fact that the controversy was finally coming to an end.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, R. Yaakov opened his unseeing eyes. He grabbed the hand of the person closest to him, a member of the Chevra Kadisha at his bedside, and began to speak in a whisper. It sounded as if he was greeting someone; a long lost relative or friend. His voice was barely audible, and the man whose hand he had clutched leaned towards him, trying to make out what he was saying. He put his ear next to R. Yaakov’s mouth and listened intently, then gasped and went pale.
“What is he saying? What is he saying?”
The young man seemed unable to respond. He leaned back down and listened again, and then shook his head in bewilderment.
‘The rabbi is saying over and over again, “baruch haba, my father; baruch haba, Rabbi Yonason”, that is what he is saying!’ There was a sharp intake of breath from everyone in the crowded room. What could this mean? How was it possible that in his final moments R. Yaakov was mentioning his beloved father in the same breath as the name of his hated nemesis? What did he mean by “baruch haba”, a phrase usually said as a welcome? The family muttered to each other quietly, trying to figure out some explanation for what was going on. One of them suggested they ask R. Yaakov, but he had gone quiet again, and closed his eyes. His breathing began to slow down, and within a matter of minutes he was gone. The Chevra Kadisha cleared the room, and – in keeping with tradition – they lifted the rabbi’s fragile body off the bed and onto the floor.
Outside the family began discussing the funeral and burial arrangements with community officials. Obviously R. Yaakov would be buried in the most distinguished portion of the cemetery, where only community leaders and distinguished rabbis were buried. After all, besides for being one of Europe’s preeminent rabbis, he had lived in Hamburg for most of his life, and his father, Chacham Tzvi Ashkenazi, had served as chief rabbi. No one would dare to deny him his rightful place in the cemetery.
But the community representatives were shifting from foot to foot, looking down at the floor. There was a problem. A big problem. Who was going to break the news to the family? The only available gravesite in the cemetery was a few feet away from where R. Yonason was buried, and on the same row. There was no way the family would agree for R. Yaakov to be buried there, and nor would the Hamburg community leadership, whose loyalty to R. Yonason had been absolute over the years, be willing to see the man who had caused so much strife buried near the object of his relentless crusade. One of the community’s representatives blurted out the news to the family. There was dead silence. You could have heard a pin drop. The head of the Chevra Kadisha spoke up. He wanted to suggest a solution.
“I hear that R. Yechezkel Landau, Chief Rabbi of Prague, is in town, presiding over a court case. Perhaps let us ask him to rule whether R. Yaakov can be buried near R. Yonason. He knows the history between them very well. For my part, I can speak on behalf of the community. We will follow the Rav of Prague’s direction – as long as the family also agrees to do so.”
The family members looked at each other and nodded their agreement. What choice did they have? Every minute they delayed the funeral was disrespectful to R. Yaakov. A meeting was hastily set up with R. Landau. His relationship with both R. Yaakov and R. Yonason had been fraught and difficult over the years, which at the very least meant that both sides would treat his ruling as objective. A senior member of the Emden family and a representative of the Chevra Kadisha were shown into R. Landau’s room, and he listened intently as they explained the problem at hand. He pondered for a moment, and asked how R. Yaakov had spoken of R. Yonason over the last few months of his life. Had there been any change of attitude? Had he softened his stance? Not really, the family member responded – his harsh criticism had been unceasing. Except, he added, in the moments just before he died, and he related the strange episode that had taken place just minutes before R. Yaakov had drawn his last breath.
R. Landau smiled. “I think we can announce the funeral,” he said, “and it is absolutely fine for R. Yaakov’s final resting place be so close to R. Yonason. Clearly, as his soul was departing from this world, R. Yaakov finally reconciled with R. Yonason, and none other than the great Chacham Tzvi was there to witness it. Baruch Dayan Ha’emess!”
And with that the worst rabbinic battle in modern Jewish history appeared to have reached its natural conclusion. A controversy that had embroiled multiple communities, ruined careers, split families, involved the gentile authorities of more than one country, and devastated lives, seemed – finally – to be at an end. With the death of the second of the two protagonists whose names were synonymous with this epic fight, on what possible grounds would it continue?
But had anyone breathed a sigh of relief as they buried R. Yaakov Emden on that spring day in Hamburg, they would have been completely mistaken to do so. The root causes of the controversy, the two principal combatants, the impact of the controversy on Jewish life and on the development of Judaism, would fascinate and polarize scholars and rabbis of every subsequent generation, as well as captivate aficionados of Jewish history, and they continue to do so to this day.
So how did it all begin?
In 1666, the pretender messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi, converted to Islam. His conversion was all it took for most of the Jewish world to realize he was a fraud. The vast majority of those who had publicly declared their allegiance to him shamefacedly admitted their folly and went back to normative Judaism, wounded and wiser. But there was a significant group who simply refused to accept that his apostasy negated his messianic identity. They were too emotionally and religiously invested in Shabbetai Tzvi, and remained fiercely loyal to him. Nathan “the prophet” of Gaza, Shabbetai Tzvi’s lead publicist, came up with convoluted kabbalistic concepts to explain away his hero’s conversion, and to rationalize his failure to materialize the messianic mission.
In 1676 Shabbetai Tzvi died in obscurity, having never recanted. Devotees considered even his death a temporary setback, and there were Jews within every community who continued clandestinely to believe he was the true messiah. What was more, it was their fervent view that they had to insinuate warped kabbalistic ideas into mainstream Judaism so that the abortive messianic mission could be fulfilled. Surprisingly, although Sabbatians – as they came to be known – were very much a minority group, their number included many rabbis and distinguished leaders, and they were almost impossible to detect, behaving in every way like fully observant Jews, indistinguishable from any other Jew. Time after time during the decades after Shabbetai Tzvi’s death, crypto-Sabbatian activists were exposed and banished from their communities. Seemingly ordinary and faithful Jews, they had fallen under the spell of some Sabbatian propagandist but continued outwardly to behave completely normally.
One particularly notorious propagandist was an insidious Bosnian-born scoundrel called Nehemiah Hiya Hayyun, who wandered from community to community during the early years of the eighteenth century. A scholar who was also a gifted teacher and writer, he authored a number of books that interspersed Sabbatian heresies with regular Torah interpretations. In 1711 he arrived in Prague, where he inveigled himself into the circle of the local kabbalist rabbi, R. Naphtali Katz, esteemed author of Semichut Chachamim, a widely admired book on Mishnayot. R. Katz was very taken by Hayyun and agreed to write an approbation letter for his new book. So did the local Chief Rabbi, R. David Oppenheim. In Berlin, Hayyun gained the approval of the Chief Rabbi, R. Aron Binyamin Wolf. With these endorsements in hand he arrived in Amsterdam in 1713, where he requested permission from the leaders of the prestigious Sephardic community to sell his books. The rabbi, R. Shlomo Ayllon, was not considered a world-class scholar, so the community leaders submitted Hayyun’s book to the rabbi of the German congregation, Chacham Tzvi Ashkenazi, who was widely acclaimed and respected, and asked for his opinion.
Chacham Tzvi looked through the book with his friend and colleague, R. Moshe Hagiz of Jerusalem, who also lived in Amsterdam. They both quickly came to the definitive conclusion that Hayyun was a closet Sabbatian masquerading as a normative practicing Jew. Chacham Tzvi reported this information back to the Sephardic committee, and warned them that Hayyun posed a grave danger to the Amsterdam community. For a variety of reasons, mainly unrelated to Hayyun himself, the issue degenerated into an ugly communal battle, with Chacham Tzvi and R. Hagiz on one side, and the Sephardic community on the other. Fistfights broke out between the supporters of both camps, and Chacham Tzvi was eventually put under house arrest by the gentile authorities, possibly for his own protection. Hayyun, emboldened by the support he was receiving from R. Ayllon – who was himself suspected of Sabbatianism – published a number of vicious attacks against Chacham Tzvi and R. Hagiz, and actively generated animosity towards his detractors.
With the saga spiraling out of control, Chacham Tzvi fled Holland for England in early 1714, and never returned. He was offered post of Chief Rabbi in London, but declined, and returned to mainland Europe, where he was eventually offered the rabbinate of Lemberg (Lvov) in 1717. He died in 1718, at the age of 58.
Throughout the period of the Hayyun affair, Chacham Tzvi’s family, and especially his teenage son Yaakov, were caught in the eye of a ferocious storm. Yaakov was just 15 years old at the time – an impressionable teenager – and the saga was an eye-opener for him on multiple fronts. He watched as his innocent and distinguished father was dragged into the foul politics generated by the controversy, and how he was targeted for his honestly held views and his unshakeable integrity. Additionally, he was exposed to the tenacity of Sabbatian activism, and to the vicious tactics Sabbatians were willing to use to gain a foothold in Jewish affairs, which in Chacham Tzvi’s case resulted in the loss of his rabbinic position and being subjected to incredible abuse at the hands of Hayyun’s supporters. It was a lesson the young Yaakov clearly never forgot.
Shortly after Chacham Tzvi’s escape from Amsterdam, community leaders asked Hayyun to leave the city so the controversy could die down. As he traveled through Europe, Hayyun discovered that although his opponents had failed to win over the rabbi and leadership of the Amsterdam community, his widely publicized association with Sabbatianism had resulted in a general revulsion towards him. Wherever he went he found doors closed. He moved to Tzfat, in Eretz Yisrael under Ottoman rule, and opened up a Sabbatian ‘yeshiva’. This enterprise failed so he moved to Constantinople where he desperately tried to rehabilitate himself. In 1725 he resurfaced in Western Europe claiming that the rabbis in Turkey had readmitted him into the fold, but everywhere he was refused entry. Even his former defender in Amsterdam, R. Ayllon, refused to meet him. In Vienna he was forced to stay in an enclosure reserved for Turkish Muslims. In Glogau and Berlin he found no refuge whatsoever, so in Hanover he tried to hide his identity. But he was recognized and quickly expelled. He made his way to Prague, but there, too, was prevented from entering the city. Soon afterwards he disappeared from sight, and was reported to have died in 1730.
Hayyun’s final abortive attempt to gain prominence was very significant in terms of the Emden-Eybeschutz battle 25 years later, as not only did it coincide with a new and even fiercer battle against the Sabbatians than the one of 1713-14, but it also generated evidence of a link between him and a brilliant Talmudic scholar and rising rabbinic superstar – a young man living in Prague called Yonason Eybeschutz. According to R. Moshe Hagiz, Chacham Tzvi’s erstwhile co-campaigner in Amsterdam, just before Hayyun was ejected from Hanover in 1726, community officials searched his possessions and found correspondence that were ‘Sabbatian in nature, including letters from Yonason Eybeschutz.’ When Hayyun arrived in Prague shortly afterwards, on the last leg of what was his pathetic final journey, no Jew was willing to house or feed him, except for the wife and daughter of R. Yonason, who brought him food and took care of him until he left.
In order to understand the magnitude of this unlikely association, not only is it important to know that Nehemiah Hayyun was a devious rogue, it is also imperative to realize just how illustrious and mainstream R. Yonason was. The son of the rabbi of Eybeschutz (Ivančice, Moravia), he became the star student of R. Meir Eisenstadt of Prossnitz, author of Panim Me’irot, who was undoubtedly the most influential Talmudic teacher of his generation. R. Yonason outshone all his peers, and in 1715, at the age of 25, he moved to Prague and quickly gained prominence as a remarkable speaker and an energetic communal activist. He engaged with local Christian leaders, and during the many absences of Prague’s Chief Rabbi, R. David Oppenheim – who was often called away to take care of his vast business interests – R. Yonason would fill in for him. There was considerable friction between the older and younger rabbi, but R. Yonason had a captivating personality that won him numerous allies, enabling him to withstand the senior rabbi’s hostility.
One cannot possibly overstate R. Yonason’s qualities. His intellect was unparalleled, he was charismatic, exceptionally warm, a gifted communicator, versed in every aspect of Torah knowledge, remarkably good looking, and possessed of an inexhaustible energy. Besides for R. Yaakov Emden, no one would ever question his superior rabbinic qualities, nor cast any doubt on his abilities as a teacher and scholar. If anything it was these sterling credentials that precipitated the widespread astonishment when rumors began to emerge in 1725 – long before the polemic with R. Yaakov Emden – that R. Yonason was a leading crypto-Sabbatian, engaged in the most sordid attempts to penetrate Sabbatian beliefs into the Jewish mainstream.
In the early summer of 1725 an itinerant preacher called Moshe Meir of Zolkiew arrived in Frankfurt where he fell under suspicion for being a crypto-Sabbatian. While he was preaching at a local school, a group of rabbis raided his room and discovered a manuscript work in his luggage that began with the verse from Bereishit (24:42): ‘va’avo hayom el ha’ayin’ (‘when I came today to the spring’). The manuscript contained a detailed heretical kabbalistic description of G-d that both denied His oneness and posited that His power was diminishing. The investigative rabbis in Frankfurt were horrorstruck. Such ideas were utterly reprehensible to Judaism. They found Moshe Meir and forcefully interrogated him to find out who the author of this deviant material was. Under phenomenal pressure he finally revealed that he had received the manuscript from none other than R. Yonason Eybeschutz of Prague, who, he claimed, was also its author.
The rabbis were aghast. Everyone had heard of R. Yonason. He was an “A-lister”, acclaimed by anyone who had ever met him. How was it possible that this bright rabbinic light, the rising star of the European rabbinic fraternity, could have written, or was even associated with, such a disgusting and evil composition? It was completely and utterly incomprehensible. The rabbis of Frankfurt felt that this was a bigger deal than anything they could deal with, and decided to call in the big guns. The next phase of the war against Shabbetai Tzvi’s legacy was about to begin.
In Part Two we will hear of the turmoil generated by the discovery of the ‘va’avo hayom el ha’ayin’ manuscript, and how the anti-Sabbatian veteran R. Moshe Hagiz led the new campaign to root out Sabbatianism, targeting R. Yonason Eybeschutz and countless others whom he accused of heresy and other heinous activities. We will also see how R. Yonason reacted to these accusations and R. Hagiz’s campaign, and how he was able to so dissociate himself from the accusations that he became a senior rabbinic figure in Prague, and was later appointed rabbi of Metz and Hamburg, two of Europe’s most prestigious communities. And finally we will discover where Rabbi Yaakov Emden was and how he reacted as his future nemesis found himself at the epicenter of this nasty battle against crypto-Sabbatians.
Questions, comments welcome – firstname.lastname@example.org