Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rabbi of Young Israel North Beverly Hills
THE STORY SO FAR: In 1666 the Shabbetai Tzvi messianic debacle came to an abrupt end when the pretender messiah converted to Islam. For most Jews his apostasy relegated Shabbetai Tzvi to the margins and life went back to normal. For a small but significant minority, however, the Sabbatian mission never ended. Secret societies of crypto-Sabbatians were formed, and these aberrant groups continued to believe in Shabbetai Tzvi as the messiah, and in warped pseudo-kabbalistic ideas that provided the backdrop for this belief. In the decades following his death, secret Sabbatian activists were regularly exposed by watchful rabbis cognizant of the grave danger they posed to normative Judaism if their twisted ideas infiltrated mainstream Jewish life.
One such scoundrel was Nehemiah Hiya Hayyun, who was outed in Amsterdam in 1713 by Chacham Tzvi Ashkenazi – a revered rabbinic scholar and kabbalist – together with his colleague R. Moshe Hagiz. Chacham Tzvi’s bruising campaign was ultimately successful, and Hayyun was never taken seriously again. In the process, however, Chacham Tzvi and his family – including his eldest son Yaakov, later R. Yakov Emden – were forced to leave Amsterdam, as a result of the animosity generated towards them by Hayyun’s supporters. Hayyun reappeared in central Europe in 1725, by which time Chacham Tzvi had passed away. Nevertheless, Hayyun was barred from every community and eventually disappeared from sight – although not before it emerged that he had recently been in touch with a young rabbinic superstar from Prague by the name of R. Yonason Eybeschutz. As if this was not enough, R. Yonason was also identified as the author of an anonymous heretical Sabbatian manuscript titled ‘va’avo hayom el ha’ayin’. The scene was set for a dramatic showdown between the opponents of Sabbatian influence, and one of Europe’s most electrifying young rabbis, whose future as a prominent leader in the Jewish world seemed assured.
The challenge in 1725 was far greater than it had been in the battle against Hayyun more than a decade earlier. During that conflict the Sabbatian adversary had been an itinerant preacher, who for all his talent was an easy prey. None of Hayyun’s allies were his friends – in the main they were recently acquired acquaintances. If there were those among them whose support was based on their own Sabbatian beliefs, even for them Hayyun was just a means to an end, and as soon as the fight was lost, they quickly abandoned him to his sorry fate without a second thought.
R. Yonason Eybeschutz could not have been more different. He was the ultimate insider, with pedigree, a devoted non-Sabbatian following, and status as a noted rabbinic scholar and preacher. Even the people who were totally dedicated to the task of rooting out insidious Sabbatian influences shied away from open warfare with someone like him. The stakes were simply too high. If R. Yonason Eybeschutz was branded a flagrant deviant, what would that mean for every other rabbi of his stature? How would it be possible for Jewish community life to remain stable if every distinguished rabbi with an enemy could have his career and reputation wrecked in a frenzy of anti-Sabbatian zealotry?
And yet, while the evidence against R. Yonason was never more than anecdotal and circumstantial, it was still hard to ignore the fact that his name kept on cropping up in the Sabbatian witch-hunt. What was even harder to ignore was that both Sabbatian-hunters and the Sabbatians themselves concurred over R. Yonason, all of them claiming he was a longstanding and committed Sabbatian. Apparently he had first been introduced to Sabbatian beliefs by a man called Leibel Prosnitz, a former peddler turned Sabbatian ‘prophet’, with whom he came into contact while studying in Prosnitz under R. Meir Eisenstadt. Leibel Prosnitz may have or may not have believed in Shabbetai Tzvi’s messianic identity, but he was certainly a gifted hoaxer who used ‘magic’ and ‘miracles’ to convince credulous people that he was a holy man with unique powers. Prosnitz was involved in several attempts to infiltrate Sabbatianism into mainstream Jewish life over the years, and in 1706 had even announced the imminent return of Shabbetai Tzvi. When this prediction failed to materialize he began to wander from community to community, hooking up with crypto-Sabbatians wherever he went.
During the 1725 campaign against Sabbatians, Prosnitz became the subject of an intensive investigation by the rabbinate of Mannheim. The inquiry was initially launched when his son-in-law was discovered staying at the home of a known Sabbatian, Yeshaya Hasid, who lived in Mannheim. In the course of the investigation Hasid shockingly divulged that Sabbatians now believed that Leibel Prosnitz was ‘Mashiach ben Yosef’, while R. Yonason Eybeschutz was ‘Mashiach ben David’ – in other words, some kind of reincarnation of Shabbetai Tzvi himself. This disturbing revelation was rendered even more alarming when it emerged that Prosnitz had lobbied Hasid to use his influence to ensure R. Yonason would be offered the position as rabbi of Mannheim. What emerged was that Sabbatians thought of R. Yonason as their supreme leader and an integral part of a widespread conspiracy to penetrate Sabbatianism into the highest levels of Jewish life.
This view of R. Yonason was not exclusive to Hasid and Prosnitz. R. Moshe Hagiz, who relentlessly led the 1725 anti-Sabbatian crusade, was also utterly convinced that R. Yonason was a Sabbatian and the author of ‘va’avo hayom el ha’ayin’. In his correspondence with numerous rabbinic colleagues R. Hagiz repeated this view countless times, and sought support for a showdown with the young rabbi. But the showdown never came. On September 16, 1725, R. Yonason publicly took an oath denying any connection to Sabbatianism and then affixed his signature to a toughly worded ban issued by all the rabbis in Prague against Sabbatians and Sabbatianism. His supporters cited these actions as incontrovertible proof that he was not a Sabbatian. Even many of those who believed he was a Sabbatian were ready to take R. Yonason’s readiness to publicly condemn Sabbatians as a sign that he had either repented, or that he would never again be so reckless as to involve himself with Sabbatianism, even covertly. After all, why would a man of his quality and ability wish to descend into the sordid world of lowlife crypto-Sabbatians such as Prosnitz and Hasid and their ilk?
Sabbatian manuscripts and incriminating letters ascribed to R. Yonason continued to circulate, but were dismissed as forgeries or fantasy. The best R. Hagiz could do was try and convince his colleagues to avoid sending students to Prague to study under R. Yonason, but even in that he failed to succeed. R. Yonason was unassailable. The murmurings continued, but his signature on the ban along with his consistent denials of any involvement with Sabbatianism prevented any of his adversaries from gaining traction against him. Meanwhile the anti-Sabbatian fight focused itself on those whose connection with Sabbatianism was certain, and whose neutralization was uncontroversial. By the end of 1726 the crisis was over and R. Yonason’s popularity and reputation grew even stronger.
In 1736, the Chief Rabbi of Prague R. David Oppenheim died, and R. Yonason seemed the natural choice to be his successor. It was not to be. Longstanding acrimony between R. Yonason and R. Oppenheim dating back many years meant that the community leadership would not allow him to replace the late chief rabbi, although they did appoint him as chief dayyan for the Prague beit-din. But a man of R. Yonason’s caliber would not continue to occupy a “number two” position for very long. In 1741 he was offered the chief rabbinate of Metz, in France, when the incumbent chief rabbi, R. Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, later famous for his authorship of Pnei Yehoshua, left to take up the chief rabbinate of Frankfurt. So R. Yonason moved to Metz and led the community there until 1750, when he was offered the coveted chief rabbinate of the “triple community” of Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbeck, one of the most prestigious and influential Jewish communities in Europe.
The triple-community had boasted some of the greatest European rabbinic luminaries of the previous century, including Chacham Tzvi Ashkenazi, who presided over the community in various roles from 1690 until 1710. It was also the birthplace of Chacham Tzvi’s son, R. Yaakov Emden, and it was here that R. Yaakov now lived, a prominent local rabbinic scholar, although he had no formal position in the community. R. Yaakov’s attitude to R. Yonason’s appointment, irrespective of the accusations of Sabbatian heresy, would prove to be a contentious issue in the years that followed, but before we dive into the origins of the devastating dispute that engulfed the two rabbis, let us take a look at what R. Yaakov had been up to since the time his family had been hounded out of Amsterdam in 1714.
R. Yakov Emden did not have an easy childhood. His father, Chacham Tzvi Ashkenazi, found it very difficult to stay on an even keel with communal lay leaders, whose gifts and favors he would never accept, and whose constant political maneuvering he abhorred. He was fearless in his opposition to all kinds of communal shenanigans, and although this won him admiration and respect from his colleagues, and from ordinary folk whose hands were not on the reins of communal power, it landed him, and by implication his family, into hot water on numerous occasions. As a result he was unable to offer his children a solid education, and they were all home schooled, usually without the benefit of private tutors. R. Yaakov later wrote that he had studied privately with his father, but these study sessions were intermittent due to the constant pressures and difficulties in his father’s life.
This challenging background makes it all the more remarkable that R. Yaakov turned out the way he did. Although there is no question that he was extremely bright to the point of being a genius, his intellect was amplified by his incredible motivation and self-discipline. From the youngest age no body of work was too daunting, and no detail too trivial. He taught himself to read and write Hebrew to perfection, and eventually became a master of the Hebrew language, as well as of Aramaic, understanding every nuance and feature of these languages in each era and record of their use. He finished the Talmud in his teens, and also mastered every aspect of Jewish law. He explored the complex world of Jewish customs and traditions, knowledge that he would later share in his monumental work on Jewish prayer. He taught himself to be a public speaker, and was considered a master orator. Being the eldest son of Chacham Tzvi also meant that he was treated with respect simply because of who his father was. In short, R. Yaakov possessed exactly the qualities that should have propelled him to one of leading rabbinic appointments of Europe.
But what R. Yaakov did not possess was patience, nor the ability to suffer fools or crooks. He was inflexible, refusing to compromise on his principles, nor would he ever massage the egos of those with whom he came into contact in order to get something done. He considered such behavior unseemly, and inappropriate for a religious leader. And so, although his breeding and erudition might have resulted in one of the best rabbinic appointments of Europe, his reputation as a no-nonsense rabbi who would call it as he saw it meant that he landed just one short-lived rabbinic position very early on, after which he would never lead a community again. That position was in a town with which R. Yaakov later became synonymous – Emden, Germany, on the North Sea coast just north of the Dutch border, and home to a small Jewish community.
His appointment happened unexpectedly in 1729, after more than a decade of turmoil and personal difficulties. In 1715 R. Yaakov had married Rachel, the granddaughter of R. Naphtali Katz, in a union of two rabbinic dynasties. But his marriage began badly, with him living in the home of his in-laws, a teenager far away from his family. To compound these difficulties he was badly mistreated by his wife’s father, who took some of the young couple’s wedding gifts for himself, and refused to honor financial commitments made before the wedding, which in turn led to bitter acrimony between the newlyweds. For three years he endured this unhappy arrangement, burying himself in his studies and writing.
Then, in 1718, Chacham Tzvi and his wife died in quick succession, leaving R. Yaakov with the responsibility of looking after his unmarried siblings. Financial problems dogged him at every turn. People with debts to his late father refused or were unable to pay up, and R. Yaakov traveled far and wide trying to collect what was due to the family, all to no avail. Often those who offered to help him turned out to be swindlers, and on numerous occasions he was robbed or cheated. He became physically sick, and also went through several bouts of depression, the details of which he recorded with incredible frankness in an autobiography written many years later, and published just over a century after his death.
With his family growing, the pressing need for financial security compelled him to find a steady job, despite his misgivings about working for the Jewish community. So when an offer came in 1729 to take up the vacant rabbinic position in Emden, he accepted it immediately and settled there with his family. But his instinctive reluctance to become a community rabbi proved right, and the job was a disaster from the start. R. Yaakov was unable to handle lay leadership insubordination, and he also could not bear the sense of entitlement felt by wealthier members of the community. He also despised the mundane tasks expected of a communal rabbi, including the delivery of regular sermons. R. Yaakov believed these tasks were a distraction from what a rabbi really needed to be doing – studying Talmud and Jewish law, writing and publishing beneficial books, and leading by example.
In 1732, after only three years on the job, he had finally had enough. The final straw took place on Rosh Hashana, when the president of the community demanded that his clean-shaven unmarried son blow shofar for the community, and R. Yaakov disapproved. The pettiness of the issue and the uproar it precipitated made R. Yaakov realize that he was simply not suited to be a community rabbi. He resigned and left Emden, never to return, although, in spite of his disagreement with the president, R. Yaakov not only made sure to reconcile with him, but was even involved in defending him in the local secular court against accusations that could have caused the man incredible financial loss had he been found guilty.
The end of the Emden rabbinate experience was a turning point in R. Yaakov’s life. He would never again work for any Jewish community in any kind of formal capacity, nor, for the remainder of his life, would he ever be reliant on the whims of some wealthy backer. With his characteristic dry wit, he would later write that when he recited the daily blessing shelo asani aved – thanking G-d that he wasn’t a slave – he would pronounce it shelo asani abad – a play on words that made the Hebrew word for slave sound like the acronym for Av Beit Din, the formal title of a communal rabbi. And yet, although he was glad that he was no longer a rabbi who worked for a community, he was and always remained acutely aware of his standing as a rabbinic individual of unimpeachable integrity and distinguished ancestry, and was extremely conscious of the deficiencies and weaknesses of other rabbis, the worst examples of which he loathed with a passion.
After leaving Emden, R. Yaakov decided to settle with his family in Altona, the town of his birth, which at the time was the main center of Jewish life in the triple community. The powerful and renowned triple community was comprised of six Ashkenazi synagogues scattered across Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck, all under the auspices of one chief rabbi and a non-rabbinic lay-leadership committee. The chief rabbi was R. Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen, a Lithuanian-born scholar who began his tenure in 1714, brought in by a wealthy philanthropist who had wished to secure R. Yechezkel’s previous rabbinic position in Keidani, Lithuania, for his own son-in-law.
R. Yaakov, claiming that sickness prevented him from walking to the nearest synagogue on a regular basis, sought and received permission from the triple community leadership to open up his own private synagogue at his rented home. Although it was true that he had been suffering from intermittent health issues while in Emden, and for many years previously, in all likelihood this request was also motivated by a desire for privacy, and to establish distance between himself and elements of the community and communal affairs with whom he wished to have no contact. In particular R. Yaakov had a very low opinion of the chief rabbi, whose scholarship and general demeanor did not meet his extraordinarily high standards.
During his first years in Altona R. Yaakov did well financially, and in 1733 he personally funded the publication of his first book, Lechem Shamayim, a confident, scholarly work on mishnayot. In 1738 he bought himself a house and remodeled it at great expense. This early period in Altona marked a peak; soon afterwards things began to unravel. In 1739, R. Yaakov’s wife Rachel died shortly after giving birth to a daughter, who herself died after just a few months. Eight months after Rachel’s death R. Yaakov remarried, to Sarah, the daughter of a prominent communal personality from Halberstadt. But in 1743 she took ill, and died shortly afterwards. A few months later R. Yaakov remarried again, this time to his niece Batya Tzviya, daughter of his younger brother R. Ephraim, rabbi of Lvov. But this marriage proved to be very challenging, particularly because Batya Tzviya found it difficult to get on with R. Yaakov’s daughters from his first marriage.
The financial situation had also taken a turn for the worse, as businesses went sour, and unscrupulous business associates took advantage of R. Yaakov’s trusting nature and distinct lack of business acumen. At the same time R. Yaakov’s contempt for R. Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen burst into the open when the chief rabbi consulted him about a controversial halachic decision he had made that required the support of recognized scholars such as R. Yaakov. Not only did R. Yaakov disagree with the decision, he attempted to publish his dissenting view, causing a storm in the community. The community leadership supported R. Yechezkel, but it was clear that R. Yaakov was a powerful force to be reckoned with. When R. Yechezkel was stricken with his final illness in 1749 the community was rife with rumors that R. Yaakov would replace him once he was gone. After all, his late father had been the chief rabbi, he already resided in the city, and he was highly respected and amply qualified for the position. The scene was set for a drama that would haunt the triple community for decades.
NEXT TIME: The death of R. Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen was followed by months of speculation about who would be his successor as chief rabbi of the triple community. When R. Yonason Eybeschutz was appointed to replace him, and not R. Yaakov Emden, the dormant suspicions of R. Yonason’s Sabbatianism would reemerge with devastating consequences. What followed was one of the most devastating rabbinic battles in modern Jewish history.
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