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, and continued to be active well into the eighteenth century. One prominent rabbi who fell under suspicion was R. Yonason Eybeschutz, whose name emerged during a campaign to root out Sabbatians in 1725. Although he successfully dismissed the allegations, when he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the illustrious triple-community twenty-five years later the accusations resurfaced. Kabbalistic amulets he had given pregnant women for their protection were opened up, and R. Yaakov Emden claimed to have discovered references to Shabbetai Tzvi. Although his opinion was given on condition it would remain a secret, his verdict quickly came to the attention of the community leaders who called him to an emergency meeting on Tuesday, February 2, 1751. The following day R. Yaakov heard alarming news – that supporters of R. Yonason were preparing to have him harmed, possibly killed. His response was to publicly challenge R. Yonason to prove the amulets were not Sabbatian, so that the matter could be put to rest.

Within hours the entire triple-community had heard about the announcement, and so had R. Yonason. A supporter of his who had been present when R. Yaakov spoke reported back to the Chief Rabbi. R. Yonason didn’t waste a second; he immediately called the community’s lay leaders to his home and informed them that R. Yaakov had spoken out publicly about the amulets and accused him of being a Sabbatian. Without attempting to hear what R. Yaakov had to say about the matter, the community board decided they could not allow anyone, and particularly someone of R. Yaakov’s stature, to undermine the community in this way.

R. Yaakov was informed by messenger that his second meeting with the executive board later that day had been cancelled, and going forward he would no longer be permitted to hold daily prayer services at his home, as he had been doing for the past eighteen years. He was also placed under house arrest, forbidden to leave his home until further notice. The following morning an announcement was made in the Great Synagogue that R. Yaakov had been put into ‘cherem’ (halachic excommunication), and no member of the community was permitted to interact with him, or they themselves would be excommunicated. This same pronouncement was read to R. Yaakov at his home later in the day. His response was simple and blunt: “Those who have excommunicated me are themselves excommunicated, as they have not followed halachic protocol before putting me into cherem. They have acted outside Torah law and made a mockery of Judaism.”

This defiant reaction only made the community leaders angrier, and they responded by arranging to have R. Yaakov’s rights of residence in Altona withdrawn by the local gentile authorities. On the following Sunday he was ordered to leave Altona before six months was up, and never to return. By Monday guards had been posted outside R. Yaakov’s home preventing him from leaving, and anyone else from entering. R. Yonason’s faction appeared to have won the day, with R. Yaakov completely neutralized and the threat to the Chief Rabbi’s authority and community peace essentially over.

But had anyone reached this conclusion over that cold February weekend, they would have been utterly mistaken. R. Yaakov Emden was not a man to be trifled with. As far as he was concerned, the ferocity of the reaction to his Thursday announcement simply confirmed what he had suspected all along: R. Yonason Eybeschutz was a secret Sabbatian who could not possibly survive any form of objective investigation into his amulets, and he knew it. And so, despite the incredible forces mounted against R. Yaakov, and probably because of them, his utter conviction that he was right spurred him on, as did his belief that the truth would ultimately prevail. With no one local willing to defend him or to take up his cause for fear of excommunication, R. Yaakov decided to reach out to three rabbinic colleagues with a plea for help. In detailed letters he carefully described the recent events, and explained how his initially reluctant involvement had ultimately resulted in the draconian measures being implemented against him. The three addressees were R. Shmuel Hilman – R. Yonason Eybeschutz’s replacement as Chief Rabbi of Metz; R. Arye Leib of Amsterdam, married to R. Yaakov’s sister; and R. Yaakov Yehoshua Falk – Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt, acclaimed author of ‘Pnei Yehoshua’ on Talmud, and without any doubt the most revered rabbi in Germany, and possibly all of Europe.

R. Yaakov did not mince his words. Referring to his predicament as a ‘holy war’, he accused R. Yonason – whom he referred to disdainfully as ‘Eybeschutz’ – of ‘scandalous conduct’ and ‘Godless convictions.’ R. Yaakov asserted he had long known of R. Yonason’s Sabbatian leanings, although he conceded he had not objected to R. Yonason’s appointment as Chief Rabbi so as to avoid the inevitable communal strife this would have generated. His tolerance for R. Yonason had changed dramatically once the Sabbatian amulets had emerged, and particularly because R. Yonason had been unable or unwilling to come up with any kind of convincing explanation to exonerate himself.

The three letters all ended with the same unequivocal summary that explained why R. Yaakov was calling on his colleagues to act immediately and decisively: “If, G-d forbid, we remain silent, how will we answer future generations when they ask, ‘why did you allow this stumbling block to remain, and neglect your duty to excise it?’ We must be courageous! We must be strong for our people and for G-d! We must publicize this abomination far and wide, so that the disease will not spread! And if we do, I am certain G-d Himself will repay us for this pious deed.”

The letters were secretly dispatched and slowly wound their way across Europe. Meanwhile, R. Yaakov languished under house arrest with local police posted at his door to prevent any contact with the outside world.

Initially it seemed that the plan to isolate R. Yaakov and his supporters, and to impose the will of the lay leadership on the community-at-large, had been successful. As time passed, however, it became evident that there was still an outstanding issue. Although the actions against R. Yaakov had shut down the opposition, it had done nothing to address the fact that R. Yonason had been openly accused of heresy by a distinguished and respected colleague, and had done absolutely nothing to dispel the accusations. Even within the lay leadership there were those who felt that the speculation needed to end, and there was only one person who could end it – R. Yonason himself.

A delegation of community notables met with R. Yonason and requested that he address a public meeting as soon as possible. He would have to unequivocally rebut R. Yaakov’s accusations, and also explain to the community how R. Yaakov could possibly have reached such a devastating conclusion. But most importantly R. Yonason would have to use his appearance to publicly renounce Shabbetai Tzvi and Sabbatians, and to repudiate Sabbatianism. So far R. Yonason had been reluctant to respond in public to the accusations, believing it would be below the dignity of his position, but after hearing from friends and colleagues how important it was to draw a line under the affair he agreed to give the speech on Sunday, February 21, 1751.

Signs announcing the speech went up all over the city. The evening arrived and the synagogue was packed to the last seat. The Chief Rabbi sat at the front of the synagogue flanked by the city’s dayanim, and the executive of the board. After mincha prayers were over R. Yonason slowly made his way to the pulpit. Wherever he looked there were expectant faces. Even the women’s balcony was full, and outside, in the lobby of the synagogue, hundreds more people gathered hoping to hear, however faintly, what R. Yonason was going to say.

The speech was outstanding. R. Yonason always spoke well, but on this occasion he pulled out all the stops and gave the speech of his life. He began with remarks about King David and his rebel son Avshalom, who in ancient Jewish history had tried to replace his father as king of the Jews – even though his father was the man designated by G-d to lead the nation. Weaving together an array sources and ideas, all enhanced with the oratorical skill for which he was so famous, R. Yonason projected a vivid picture that depicted him as the suffering King David of his generation subjected to a vicious attack by a ruthless Avshalom. Having planted this powerful symmetry firmly into the minds of his audience R. Yonason now turned to the central theme of his speech, and for the first time in more than twenty-five years directly addressed the disturbing topic of his rumored association with Sabbatianism.

“My friends, I didn’t come here today to give you a sermon. I came here today because I have been slandered. Rumors are circulating that I am a member of the sect of Shabbetai Tzvi, may his memory be erased.”

“If it was only about my honor, perhaps I would say nothing. But this matter involves the honor of my sainted forebears. It also involves the honor of my students, many of whom have become great rabbis and Torah scholars in their own right. How could I ever allow it be said that their teacher is a phony, that the spring from which they drank was contaminated? But more important than any of this is the honor of the Torah itself. How can I let the Torah be vilified? Would it not be the ultimate desecration of G-d’s name if I allowed such a thing to happen?”

“I must therefore call G-d Himself as my witness, and declare unambiguously that I am completely innocent of all the accusations against me! Neither now nor in the past have I ever been involved with the sect that believes in Shabbetai Tzvi!”

There was a collective gasp from the audience. The Chief Rabbi’s statement was unequivocal. It was a complete denial. And yet, it just didn’t make any sense! What about R. Yaakov’s accusations? Hadn’t R. Yaakov spotted clear Sabbatian references in the amulet he had examined? Why would these references be there, if – as they had just heard – R. Yonason was not a Sabbatian?


R. Yaakov Emden published numerous books and pamphlets detailing R. Yonason Eybeschutz secret Sabbatian side, and also giving his side of the story regarding the campaign against R. Yonason. One of the earliest such publications was ‘Akitzat Akrav’ (Scorpion’s Sting), published in 1752. The title page indicates it was printed in Amsterdam; in reality it was printed in in Altona

R. Yonason seemed prepared for this question, and immediately addressed it: “There may be those among you who are wondering how anyone can accuse me of being a heretic if I am not. The answer is simple – my accusers have no idea what they’re talking about! I would be concerned if they were equipped with the knowledge needed to denounce me. But they are not. Don’t be fooled just because they are Torah scholars. They have no background whatsoever in Kabbalah, and have no idea how an amulet should be written. Only a real expert in Kabbalah knows how the words and the letters in an amulet relate to each other. The composition of an amulet is a complex secret known to very few people, handed down by masters of Kabbalah to a fraction of their students. Only a fool would presume to know the meaning of amulets if they have never been trained or educated in their configuration. Letters and words that seem to say one thing can mean something else completely, and they would never know. Perhaps my enemies mean well, and I bear them no grudge if they do. But one thing I know – they are wrong, and I am innocent. It is as simple as that.”

Then, with a voice that filled the synagogue sanctuary and could be heard clearly by those standing outside in the lobby, R. Yonason concluded his address with the following powerful words: “May God judge me harshly if I have ever been any part of the Sabbatian sect. May fire and flames descend from heaven and destroy me if I have ever included Shabbetai Tzvi’s accursed name in any of my amulets. May all the curses reserved for heretics befall me if I have ever attempted to entice people to heresy or to beliefs that run counter to our holy Torah. Because those who follow Shabbetai Tzvi are evil men, and their presence in our midst is a grave danger. I wholeheartedly join with all our greatest rabbis who say that these miscreants must be publicly identified and excommunicated. They are scoundrels and destroyers of our faith who can have no part in our redemption. Let us remain steadfast in our faith, and in our fervent hope for the true redemption, so that we will merit to be a part of it, speedily in our days, Amen.”

The congregation all responded ‘Amen!’ in unison and R. Yonason slowly made his way back to his seat. Dozens of people crowded around him eager to shake his hand and congratulate him on his stirring speech. Late into the night the synagogue continued to buzz with the energy his words had generated. At last it seemed that the saga was over, and that everyone could move on from the rumors and insinuations that had been plaguing the community for so many months.

But rather than slow things down, R. Yonason’s speech created a whole new level of tension in the community. R. Yonason had asserted – without mentioning him by name – that R. Yaakov Emden knew nothing about Kabbalah or the composition of amulets. While those who didn’t know him might have imagined this to be true, R. Yaakov’s close friends and associates knew him to be an accomplished Kabbalist. The suggestion, therefore, that he was not ‘equipped’ to examine an amulet, or that he had no ‘background’ in Kabbalah, was untenable and seemed glib. That being the case, R. Yaakov was certainly more than qualified to spot combinations of letters that contained references to Shabbetai Tzvi in an amulet. So, notwithstanding R. Yonason’s impressive oratorical presentation, to R. Yaakov’s supporters his defense was nothing more than an unconvincing attempt to present himself as uniquely qualified to understand the contents of amulets, and any alternative explanation of the amulets could be summarily dismissed.

The division within the community began to intensify as these concerns were voiced. For the R. Yonason faction there was nothing more to discuss. R. Yonason had publicly explained himself, he had satisfactorily dismissed his accusers, and he had explicitly denounced Sabbatians. But for those in the community who were skeptical, their concerns about R. Yonason had only increased after his speech. They were also angry at R. Yaakov’s continued house arrest, and the total shutdown of any conversation about the amulets. It seemed inevitable there would be an explosion. Tempers were short, and anger bubbled just below the surface.

The explosion came on May 7, 1751, during Shabbat prayers at the Great Synagogue. The chazzan, Moshe Kasswitz, a known supporter of R. Yaakov, strode towards the chazzan’s lectern to begin leading the prayers. But as he walked to the front of the sanctuary three R. Yonason supporters stood in the aisle to block his way.

“Excuse me,” he said, and attempted to get past them.

“You’re not going anywhere, young man,” one of them said, “you are a disgusting individual, and disgusting individuals cannot lead our community in prayer.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked. He glared at them, and they glared back.

“How dare you support the enemy of our Chief Rabbi, that troublemaker Yaakov Emden? Do you really think we want someone like you to be the chazzan of our community? We don’t want you! Get back to your seat! Or better still – leave the synagogue, and never come back!”

Others were now getting involved. They began remonstrating with the three aisle-blockers, and tried to help the chazzan push through to the front. People were shouting across the synagogue towards the scene of the incident and at each other. Suddenly one of the three men punched the chazzan in the face. Kasswitz fell to the ground, his mouth bleeding.

“That’s what happens to someone who insults the greatest Torah scholar of our generation!” The attacker grinned nastily, and then spat at the dazed chazzan.

Kasswitz was struggling to get up, blood dripping from his mouth. At that moment one of the chazzan’s friends, a big burly man, grabbed the attacker around the neck and began dragging him out of the synagogue, all the while slapping him around the face. Others were now joining in, and suddenly the synagogue had descended into a violent riot. People who minutes earlier had been calmly praying in their seats were now yelling offensive insults at each other, and kicking and punching each other. Little children cried as they watched their wild-eyed fathers behave like animals. Elderly people huddled in the pews, afraid to move. The scene was one of complete pandemonium.

Within minutes the local police had arrived to break up the riot. They emptied the synagogue of people and insisted it remain closed until the community executive could guarantee the peace. But there was no guarantee. The mood in the community was far too volatile. For the time being the synagogues would need to remain empty as each faction began to pray in small groups at people’s homes. Even this separation was not sufficient to prevent outbreaks of violence. Time and again insulting remarks uttered in public would result in violent street brawls. The community was literally falling apart.

As the crisis intensified R. Yonason’s supporters began to publicly threaten R. Yaakov, who they believed was actively behind the unrest. As soon as R. Yaakov heard this he reluctantly decided he had no choice but to leave Altona immediately, and go to Amsterdam, where he would stay with his sister and brother-in-law until the situation had calmed down. He informed the local authorities, but they warned him that leaving the city would not be simple. At least at his home he was somewhat safe, protected from harm by the local police force. Once he ventured outside there was a real danger he might be attacked, or even killed. It was therefore decided he would leave at midnight on a Saturday night, when the least number of people were present on the streets, and to further minimize any possibility of detection, his wife and children would need to stay behind.

The farewell to his friends and family was extremely emotional. R. Yaakov blessed his crying children and then looked up at his house. Would he ever see it again? The situation seemed so bleak. How had he reached this low ebb? He shrugged and shook his head as he took his place in the carriage that would transport him out of the city. He took one last peek at his wife and children standing forlornly on the street in the pale moonlight. How would this nightmare ever end?

NEXT TIME: The controversy spreads as the Chief Rabbi of Metz presents evidence in support of R. Yaakov, while R. Yaakov Yehoshua Falk of Frankfurt comes in to bat for R. Yaakov and takes the lead in the campaign against R. Yonason. Soon the King of Denmark has been drawn into the fray, as well as an apostate Jewish apologist for R. Yonason. What began as a local community dispute was about to evolve into an international scandal.

Questions, comments welcome –