Rabbi Pini Dunner

Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rav of Young Israel North Beverly Hills

THE STORY SO FAR: Despite the conversion to Islam of false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi in 1666, and his death in 1676, secret societies of Sabbatians who still believed in his messianic mission thrived in communities across Europe. They continued to be active well into the eighteenth century. Watchful rabbis worked hard to expose them, fearing the injection of their warped ideas into mainstream Judaism. In 1725-6, a concerted effort to root out Sabbatians uncovered a connection between Sabbatian deviants and an up-and-coming rabbinic celebrity, R. Yonason Eybeschutz of Prague. R. Yonason forcefully denied any ties between him and Sabbatianism and promptly signed a toughly worded ban against the movement and its adherents. Most people believed he had been the subject of mistaken suspicion, and his star continued to rise. He became the head dayyan in Prague, and in 1741 left for Metz, where he took up the position of chief rabbi.

In 1749 the longstanding chief rabbi of the prestigious ‘triple-community’ of Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbeck, R. Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen, took ill. It became evident he would not recover. Speculation about who would replace him was rife, with many hoping that the community leadership would invite R. Yonason Eybeschutz to fill the position when it became vacant. Also in the frame was R. Yaakov Emden, the son of a previous triple-community chief rabbi, Chacham Tzvi Ashkenazi. Slightly younger than R. Yonason, he was also an acclaimed rabbinic personality, and already resided in Altona, where he had been given permission by the community leadership to run his own private synagogue. R. Yaakov’s experience in the professional rabbinate was limited to a three-year stint in the tiny community of Emden, but he was highly regarded as a man of integrity and deep scholarship, as well as someone who was fearless in facing up to reprobates, whatever their social status.

On Wednesday, July 9, 1749, R. Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen passed away and was buried within a matter of hours. It quickly emerged that the late chief rabbi had requested for the community to appoint his son, R. David, as his replacement. Other names began to emerge as contenders for the coveted position, among them R. Shmuel Hillman, who later filled the vacancy left by R. Yonason in Metz, and R. Arye Leib of Amsterdam, who was married to R. Yaakov Emden’s sister – as well as R. Yonason Eybeschutz and of course R. Yaakov. R. Yonason was certainly the most prominent of all the candidates. Almost sixty years old, and with an incredible reputation as a great scholar and public speaker, he had many admirers in the triple community dating back to the time he lived in Altona with his wife’s family for two years, between 1713 and 1715. Murmurings about his alleged Sabbatian leanings were dismissed as tittle-tattle generated by jealousy, or as tactical maneuvering by supporters of the other candidates. And while it was true that the other candidates, including R. Yaakov, were free of any association with Sabbatianism, none of them could match R. Yonason’s renown or acclaim.

There was a small but powerful group of individuals in the triple-community who considered it both appropriate and necessary to appoint R. Yaakov as the new chief rabbi. Firstly, they felt there was an unsettled ‘debt’ owed to Chacham Tzvi, who had been forced to share the chief rabbinate position with another rabbi owing to communal politics at the time of his appointment. The dual chief rabbi idea had proven to be untenable, and had been the main factor that had resulted in Chacham Tzvi’s resignation and move to Amsterdam. The pro-R. Yaakov faction felt it was only right for Chacham Tzvi’s eldest son to reclaim the position his father would have bequeathed him had he remained in the position until his death. More importantly, they saw R. Yaakov as the kind of rabbi who would elevate the standards of Jewish observance in the triple-community. In their opinion, R. Yechezkel had been far too easy-going, tolerating laxity, and turning a blind eye to the inappropriate actions of those who were wealthy. If R. Yaakov were appointed, he would be a very different kind of chief rabbi – the type who would ensure that any infraction of halacha was acted upon immediately and appropriately, whoever the offender might be.

R. Yaakov Emden’s house at 155 Breitestrasse in Altona, which he bought and remodeled extensively in 1738. Besides for family rooms it contained a private synagogue and a printing press. This illustration appeared in a German Jewish magazine in 1928. The house has since been demolished and the land on which it stood is now the site of an apartment building

But the lay leaders of the triple-community were not eager to appoint R. Yaakov. While they respected his scholarship and were aware of his claim to the position, they felt that his disdain for the late R. Yechezkel – a feeling of contempt that on a couple of occasions had burst into the open – made R. Yaakov an inappropriate replacement. Appointing him would demonstrate a lack of respect to the rabbi who had led the community for almost thirty-six years. What was more, the community board perceived R. Yaakov as a hothead with no political acumen, whose leadership of the community would inevitably result in a multitude of flashpoints and problems. Truth be told, R. Yaakov himself was not eager to take on the chief rabbi role, despite the urging of his confidants. Nonetheless, he certainly thought that any other rabbi who took the position knowing that by rights it was his would be guilty of having perpetrated a grave insult and an injustice against him and his late, revered father.

Almost a year went by without a decision, as different factions within the community jockeyed for and promoted their preferred candidates. Eventually, on May 14, 1750, the rabbinic selection committee sat down to make the fateful choice. A vote was taken and the winner declared. The triple-community’s new chief rabbi would be R. Yonason Eybeschutz. An official letter was dispatched to R. Yonason, and he sent back word that he was delighted to accept the position and expected to arrive in the triple community before Rosh Hashanah. He left Metz as soon as he could and slowly made his way, town by town, to his new home.

One of those towns was Frankfurt-am-Main, where he stayed for a few weeks. In the period immediately before his arrival there, several pregnant women had either died in childbirth or lost their babies at childbirth, or both. For several years, R. Yonason had been known for his expertise as a writer of amulets believed to help people in these kinds of situations. While he was in Frankfurt, he had several requests for such amulets from women who were pregnant. In an age before reliable medical care, these kinds of requests were not unusual. People often sought amulets from an expert rabbi as a protection against hazard.

But the use of amulets was not a practice welcomed by everyone. One of the major consequences of the Shabbetai Tzvi disaster was that any form of Kabbalistic “hocus-pocus” was automatically considered dubious. Only rabbis with the highest approval rating would dare engage in practical Kabbalistic remedies, as any lesser rabbi would run the risk of immediately being suspected of Sabbatianism. The fact that R. Yonason was willing to write and distribute amulets meant that he believed himself to be a rabbi whose reputation was so strong that no one would ever suspect him of being a Sabbatian, despite – or perhaps as a result of – his 1725 run-in with the anti-Sabbatian enforcers. He was widely acknowledged as a ‘gadol hador’ – one of the select group of rabbis considered the greatest of their generation. Therefore, he assumed his Kabbalistic amulets would never be called into question. He could not have been more mistaken.

One of R. Yonason Eybeschutz’s amulets, as reproduced later by R. Yaakov Emden in one of his numerous books on the controversy. For many years R. Yonason regularly distributed amulets to pregnant women and others who sought spiritual protection. When he arrived in the triple community this practice generated a fierce controversy

Even before he had departed from Frankfurt, a number of R. Yonason’s amulets were opened and reviewed by local rabbis. Their conclusion was that the amulets contained Sabbatian heresies, and references to Shabbetai Tzvi through the use of cryptic Kabbalistic codes. But rather than confront R. Yonason in Frankfurt, the rabbinic investigators instead sent letters to their friends in Hamburg and Altona to warn them that their new chief rabbi was not what he appeared to be. Although externally he behaved in complete conformity with normative Judaism, he was, they wrote, a crypto-Sabbatian who dispensed blasphemous amulets to unsuspecting folk seeking his help in difficult circumstances.

At this stage, R. Yonason was entirely unaware of these new accusations, and in the late summer he departed Frankfurt for the triple-community. The numerous rabbinic students who had accompanied him from Metz had traveled ahead so that they would be there to welcome him when he arrived. His entrance into Hamburg in September 1750 was extremely dramatic. A huge crowd gathered at the gates of the city to greet his carriage. As he drew close, his students formed a guard of honor. When the carriage windows opened and his face appeared, a huge cheer went up, as the community, most of whom had never seen him before, laid eyes on their new chief rabbi – the first new chief rabbi of the triple-community for over thirty-six years.

A few days later, R. Yonason delivered his inaugural address at the main synagogue in Altona. The sanctuary was packed to the rafters, and people crowded in the aisles so that they could be present at this historic occasion. In the introduction to his oratorical tour-de-force, R. Yonason paid tribute to numerous community notables, including R. Yaakov Emden. But R. Yaakov was not there. He had decided that as the only rabbinic candidate in the selection process who lived locally, his attendance would turn into a distraction and might be very awkward, so he stayed at home.

The entrance to Altona’s synagogue, where R. Yonason Eybeschutz delivered his inaugural speech in September 1750. R. Yaakov Emden was not in attendance, although at that stage there was no history of enmity between them, nor any hint of the controversy that would soon erupt. The synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in November 1938

When R. Yonason finished his speech, the entire community danced him through the streets to his new home. As he walked through the front door, he kissed the mezuzah and quoted a verse from Tehillim (132:14): “Zot Menuchati Adei Ad; Po Eisheiv Ki Ivitiha” – “Let this be my resting place for ever; I will dwell here, for this is what I desired.” It was a moment of high emotion, and many of those who witnessed it wept openly.

But even as the community celebrated R. Yonason’s arrival, rumors circulated that he was a Sabbatian, and there were predictions that R. Yaakov Emden was going to expose him. Local gossips quoted R. Yaakov’s wife, Batya Tzviya, as having declared before R. Yonason’s arrival from Frankfurt, “Let the new chief rabbi come – my husband has already sharpened the knife to cut his throat.” It is unlikely she had uttered this statement, but the fact she was being quoted as having said it clearly indicated that R. Yonason’s honeymoon was over even before it had begun. Lurid stories about his affinity with Sabbatianism became the staple topic around every Shabbat table across the triple-community. R. Yonason himself seemed completely unruffled, laughing off the rumors as a recycling of the accusations against him a quarter of a century earlier. He even continued to write amulets for those who requested them, and seemed to be of the view that firm denials would be enough to kill off rumors of his alleged heresy. After all, it had worked twenty-five years earlier!

But this time it would not be so simple. In the anti-Sabbatian campaign of 1725, no one had been able to find the ‘smoking gun’ to positively identify R. Yonason as a Sabbatian. Even though there had been numerous Sabbatians willing to take an oath confirming R. Yonason’s commitment to their cause, and his authorship of the heretical tract “Ya’avo Hayom El Ha’ayin,” it was entirely possible that they had been fantasizing a scenario in which a completely innocent rabbi was somehow their leader. Alternatively, their assertions about R. Yonason’s Sabbatianism could easily have been contrived, a web of lies deliberately disseminated as part of a dastardly conspiracy to besmirch a rising star of the rabbinate. Perhaps they hoped to sow confusion in the mainstream Jewish world. Whatever the truth actually was, R. Moshe Hagiz had never been able to prove anything against R. Yonason, and this lack of evidence coupled with R. Yonason’s convincing denials had resulted in his complete exoneration.

Things were very different twenty-five years later. This time around there was physical evidence –the amulets. R. Yonason had been writing and distributing amulets for years before he came to the triple-community, and now, as the new accusations of heresy began to surface, his detractors started tracking them down and opening them up. They discovered that the amulets were undecipherable unless you were a Kabbalistic expert. The resident expert on Kabbalah in the triple-community was none other than R. Yaakov Emden. Consequently, at some point during the winter of 1750, a group of concerned triple-community members brought one of the amulets to R. Yaakov for an evaluation.

It was this fateful meeting that would be the genesis of the raging controversy that ultimately engulfed the entire Jewish world, although at this stage no one would have dreamt that R. Yaakov would emerge as R. Yonason’s principle critic. As a matter of fact, although R. Yaakov later became the person most identified with the anti-R. Yonason campaign, during the early stages of the controversy, he was not the principal player. And while he may have had a reputation as a tough and demanding rabbi, R. Yaakov had no history of battling those with whom he disagreed, nor had he ever played any role in an anti-Sabbatian crusade or previously tangled publicly or privately with R. Yonason Eybeschutz.

That fateful winter day the small group arrived at R. Yaakov’s home and was immediately shown into his study. The mood was serious and pensive. One of the group explained the purpose of their visit, and handed R. Yaakov a small handwritten amulet. R. Yaakov shook his head and handed it back. They all looked at him, puzzled.

He sighed. “My dear friends, I have absolutely no desire to involve myself in this situation. You see, unless I completely exonerate R. Yonason I will be accused by everybody of harboring sour grapes. They will dismiss my opinion and claim that I hate R. Yonason for accepting the chief rabbi position I believe should have been mine – even though we all know that I had no interest in the position, and do not want that job under any circumstances. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I simply cannot offer you my help.”

After a moment, the leader of the group, Joseph Prager, spoke up softly but with great determination. Prager was a longstanding friend of R. Yaakov – an upstanding man whose devoutness and sincerity were indisputable.

“Honored rabbi,” he began, “while I totally understand your position, please let me present you with another angle, for your consideration. If it is true – as many people are saying – that R. Yonason is a Sabbatian, how can we allow him to lead our wonderful community, and to guide us all down the wrong path? R. Yechezkel, may he rest in peace, may not have been an ideal rabbi in every respect, but he was not a heretic. We all know that Sabbatianism is reprehensible heresy, and a grave danger to true Judaism. You must surely agree that as responsible members of our treasured community, we are compelled to either expose R. Yonason as a Sabbatian, or to confirm his claims of innocence. And, honored rabbi, you are the only one in this city who has the knowledge and expertise to guide us in this matter. So we have no choice but to ask you, and, respectfully, surely you have no choice but to honor our request for your guidance.”

R. Yaakov was quiet as he reflected on what Prager had just said. After a few moments he nodded slowly and reached for the amulet – and then stopped.

“I have one condition,” he said, “if I do discover that the amulet contains heresy, on no account can you mention that I was the one you consulted. I will show you what I see, and how I see it, and then it will be up to you to take things forward, without ever mentioning my name. Do we have a deal?”

They all nodded their consent.

R. Yaakov took the amulet and carefully unfolded it. It contained a roughly drawn Star of David, with Hebrew letters inside and surrounding it. The letters seemed random, forming unintelligible words that only made sense to someone familiar with the craft of writing Kabbalistic formulae. The rabbi was quiet as he turned the amulet this way and that. He held it up to the window to examine it in the light. Suddenly his face creased into a frown, and he gazed intently at one of the words on the amulet.

He looked up. “Are you absolutely sure this was written by R. Yonason?” he asked.

“We are completely certain,” Prager replied. “It was received directly from the pregnant woman he gave it to.”

“That is not good, not good at all. Come over here and let me show you something.”

The men shuffled over to the window, and R. Yaakov held the amulet up to the light, pointing to the handwritten word he had just closely examined. He looked at them, but they all shrugged their shoulders. They did not have a clue what the word meant.

R. Yaakov’s voice was shaking with emotion. “This word is made up of an acrostic using a cryptic code known as ‘ATBASH,’ where an ‘alef’ is a ‘tav,’ a ‘beit’ is a ‘shin,’ a ‘gimmel’ is a ‘reish,’ and so on. What this word actually says is ‘King Messiah Shabbetai Tzvi.'”

Everyone gasped in shock as they realized the magnitude of what R. Yaakov had just told them. Here was the “smoking gun” R. Moshe Hagiz had never managed to find. Here was actual proof that R. Yonason Eybeschutz, one of the greatest and most celebrated rabbis in Europe, was in reality a secret believer in the messianic mission of the charlatan messiah Shabbetai Tzvi. R. Yaakov seemed lost in thought, and his visitors waited for him to say something. When he finally spoke his words were slow and deliberate.

“This amulet is devastating, worse than anything ever produced by those cursed heretics Hayyun, Prossnitz, and Hassid. I’m begging you to please listen very carefully to what I am about to say. Whoever wrote this amulet is an extremely dangerous Sabbatian. Right now I have no idea who wrote it. It’s not that I don’t believe you, but your affirmation of its authorship is only hearsay. My advice to you is to keep this discovery very quiet for the moment. Over the next few weeks gather up as many amulets written by R. Yonason as you can. Make sure to keep them closed and locked away. At some stage they will need to be opened in front of witnesses, or a notary, so that no one can ever claim they have been tampered with. You need to realize something very important – the only way anyone will ever believe R. Yonason is a Sabbatian is if you produce evidence, hard evidence, that leaves him no room to deny it. My friends, you have a very hard task ahead of you. May G-d be with you.”

R. Yaakov solemnly shook hands with all his visitors and showed them out, totally unaware that he had just launched a process that would dominate the rest of his life.

NEXT TIME: Despite R. Yaakov Emden’s precautionary instructions, his views concerning this amulet and other similar ones soon became public knowledge. Although R. Yonason tried desperately to prove his innocence to R. Yaakov, it was to no avail. Within a matter of days the community board became involved – although not to adjudicate between the rabbis, but rather to prevent any controversy from occurring before it began. Their strategy was to silence R. Yaakov and his supporters, even as more evidence emerged substantiating the view that R. Yonason was a Sabbatian. The scene was set for a showdown that neither side could afford to lose. The question was, who would pull the trigger first?

Questions, comments welcome –