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. R. Yaakov Emden examined amulets R. Yonason had given pregnant women and discovered what he believed to be references to Shabbetai Tzvi. The affair quickly escalated into a full-blown controversy, and the community split into factions. R. Yaakov was held under house arrest and told he would have to leave the city within six months. Shortly afterwards violence broke out between supporters of R. Yonason and supporters of R. Yaakov and R. Yaakov decided to flee to Amsterdam until things had calmed down.

R. Yaakov arrived in Amsterdam both physically sick and very depressed – the result of months of confinement, his secret departure and then a difficult journey. R. Yaakov’s sister and her husband sought to improve his spirits and his health, and in the weeks that followed his strength slowly improved, and so did his mood. Eager to recover his reputation and the right to return home he realized that the only way he could do this was if he proved that his suspicions were correct, and that the way he had been treated for voicing them was a travesty.

Now able to think more clearly, R. Yaakov formed the opinion that there were only two reasons why so many people had supported R. Yonason and continued to support him – either there was a crypto-Sabbatian conspiracy to protect their leader at all costs, or R. Yonason was so charming and charismatic that he was able to mislead people into believing the accusations were false, even though they were not. Both scenarios were highly dangerous, as they allowed Sabbatian heresy to creep into mainstream Jewish life completely unchecked. A third alternative – namely that R. Yonason was innocent, and had been wrongly accused – was dismissed by R. Yaakov as wishful thinking by naïve people who had allowed their respect for rabbis to undermine their critical faculties, and who simply did not appreciate that a guilty man can often convincingly present himself as innocent.

But could R. Yaakov successfully counteract the powerful forces mounted against him? R. Yonason’s influence was wide and deep, and particularly in the triple-community he seemed unassailable. After reflecting on his options R. Yaakov concluded that to win this fight he would have to do exactly the opposite of what he had originally suggested so many months earlier. When first confronted with the amulet evidence he had opted for a restrained, civil approach, on the basis that it would lead to a quiet solution – perhaps R. Yonason’s discreet termination, and a minimum of negative backlash. But that strategy had failed miserably, and it was evident that forces loyal to R. Yonason would easily crush any such gentlemanly opposition. So R. Yaakov decided that the only way to overcome the forceful defense would be to use equal force, and to publicize everything negative known about R. Yonason as widely as possible, so that the latter’s position would become untenable, with no right-thinking person ever able to support him again.

In Amsterdam R. Yaakov had no fear of repercussions, and felt free to say and write whatever he wanted. He sent letters to all the rabbis he knew, recording in lurid detail every piece of information he had ever been told about R. Yonason that exposed the dark side of a man widely believed to be virtuous and without blemish. The aim was simple: to discredit his rival and to utterly ruin his reputation. He called him a liar, a sinner, a heretic, a phony, in each instance offering narrative support for these accusations. The upshot was that R. Yonason was clearly not the kind of man to lead a community or teach impressionable young men. The counter-offensive had begun.

The notarized copies of the Metz amulets as they appeared in R. Yaakov Emden’s book ‘Sefat Emet Valashon Zehorit’. The recent discovery of the original notarized documents has vindicated his version, although at the time this book appeared in 1752 the rendering was maligned and dismissed

At the same time two other major developments had begun to unfold, one in Metz, R. Yonason’s former city of residence, and the other in Frankfurt. In Metz, R. Yonason’s replacement as Chief Rabbi, R. Shmuel Hilman, had been one of the recipients of R. Yaakov’s desperate plea for help in the aftermath of his fall from grace after his announcement on February 4, 1751. The letter from R. Yaakov came as no surprise to R. Hilman, who had long been suspicious of amulets handed out by his predecessor, even before he had replaced him in Metz. In his response to R. Yaakov’s letter dated February 21, 1751, he wrote that he had decided soon after his arrival to confiscate all of R. Yonason’s amulets and forbid their use by anyone in the community. He also offered to send a number of notarized copies of the amulets in Metz to the leadership of the triple-community, with the suggestion that they call in R. Yonason without warning him in advance, so that they could ask for an explanation of the obvious Sabbatian references in the amulets without giving him enough time to come up with a contrived meaning that explained them away.

Notaries were a fixture of Jewish communal life in those days, and could more accurately be described as court recorders who faithfully recorded all the proceedings at meetings of lay-leadership and the rabbinate in an official record book that could later be used for reference when needed. In the city of Metz the two community notaries were Isaac Koblentz and Mordechai Gumprecht, and on March 17, 1751, they carefully copied the contents of five separate amulets that had been written by R. Yonason and given to five different individuals on five separate occasions. Koblentz and Gumprecht then affixed their signatures to a declaration which stated: “These five amulets were copied word for word, letter for letter, line by line, exactly as they appeared in the original amulets that were received by five separate people from R. Yonason Eybeschutz who was our Chief Rabbi and is now Chief Rabbi of Hamburg.” Much later in the year, on November 17, 1751, the two notaries once again affirmed their original notarized document, this time in front of a local Christian judge, an act that gave their notarization official legitimacy in a gentile court of law.


The original notary document from Metz recording the exact wording of the controversial amulets, as reproduced in a recent article by Rabbi Professor Shnayer Leiman and Dr. Simon Schwarzfuchs. R. Yonason later claimed that the two notaries were forced to sign the notary document against their will

Both notaries were known to be deeply devoted to R. Yonason, and no one could accuse them of being biased against him, nor of having deliberately misconstrued the notarized copies to show R. Yonason up in a bad light. Much later R. Yonason would accuse his enemies of having “forced” the notaries to sign the declaration against their will, essentially implying that the amulets had been deliberately reconfigured and the notaries threatened that they would lose their jobs if they didn’t notarize the altered versions. The notaries themselves dismissed this claim, and it is clear from R. Yonason’s later attempts to explain the notarized versions that even he considered the Metz copies to be largely accurate. Meanwhile the amulets, all of which seemed to indicate a definitive Sabbatian obsession by their author, were widely disseminated by R. Hilman, and within a few weeks, as rabbis and leaders across the Jewish world came face-to-face with the evidence, the accusations against R. Yonason could no longer be dismissed as representing the bitter resentment of a cranky competitor for the position of triple-community Chief Rabbi. On the contrary, the evidence now seemed to indicate that R. Yaakov had been right all along.

This devastating proof played an important role in the second development that began to unfold at around the same time, a development that was far more significant than a few notarized amulets. After having remained publicly silent for two months despite the desperate plea from R. Yaakov for his support, in late March, 1751, R. Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, distinguished Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt and elder statesman of the European rabbinate, finally lent his backing to the growing group of people who felt that R. Yonason had a lot of explaining to do. Clearly unaware that R. Hilman had already notarized some of the Metz amulets, on March 30 R. Falk wrote to advise him that any amulet reproductions would have to be accompanied by irrefutable evidence that they were genuine copies of the originals, otherwise “members of R. Yonason’s community who are loyal to him will claim that his enemies are using falsified amulets to discredit him because of jealousy.” R. Falk added “I am in no doubt whatsoever that R. Yonason is guilty as charged, which makes your task all the more urgent.”

R. Falk was a savvy, experienced communal rabbi. He knew that even if R. Yonason was guilty, there was no way the triple-community would ever fire him from his position, as this would amount to an admission of gross ineptitude – after all, it was they who had chosen him only the previous year, despite the not-so-secret information that their new rabbi had been dogged by suspicions of heresy for twenty-five years. The only way of resolving the matter of R. Yonason’s Sabbatian amulets was if the man himself was forced to admit what he had done and then forced to publicly repent. At this stage R. Falk felt that R. Yaakov’s strategy of totally delegitimizing R. Yonason could never be effective as a tool to convince those people who adamantly refused to believe he was guilty, and the strategy was certainly not pertinent to those who already believed it.

At first R. Falk appealed to R. Yonason via messengers, asking for him to be in touch. When this elicited no response, R. Falk published a letter calling for the matter to be adjudicated by three rabbis, although he did not mention R. Yonason’s name. Once again R. Yonason did not react, so R. Falk then wrote a letter directly to R. Yonason exhorting him to do the right thing. When even this failed to get a reaction R. Falk went public with that letter so that his proposed solution would become widely known in the hope that the consequent publicity would force R. Yonason to accept his proposal.

When the published version reached R. Yonason he was livid. He protested that he had never received the original letter, and vigorously objected to R. Falk’s implication that he was guilty of heresy. And this time he decided to respond. He sat down and wrote a lengthy, angry reply to his antagonist in which he dismissed his famous work, Pnei Yehoshua, as being full of mistakes. The letter also challenged R. Falk to a kabbalah contest, guaranteeing that any such contest would only act to prove that R. Yonason knew much more about this discipline than R. Falk. The letter even accused R. Falk of having harbored hatred towards R. Yonason for many years, making him an inappropriate person to suggest any method of rehabilitation.

Once R. Yonason finished writing the letter, and on reflection, he decided not to send it, and instead left it on his study desk. This resulted in mischief. While he was away from his desk a few of his students snuck in to the rabbi’s study and copied the letter word for word without telling him, and then began circulating it far and wide. It was only a matter of time before a copy found its way to R. Falk, who was understandably furious.

R. Falk began to forcefully demand that R. Yonason appear before a panel of rabbis, but his appeals fell on deaf ears. R. Yonason’s support in the triple-community was still rock solid. Even in R. Falk’s own community of Frankfurt the leadership began to tire of their Chief Rabbi’s involvement in the controversy and before long it was he who was forced out of his position – the second major casualty of the Emden-Eybeschutz affair after R. Yaakov.

Although R. Yonason felt safe, it had become apparent that the amulets were a burning issue, and he therefore decided to seek out experts who would endorse his version of what they meant. The two experts he chose were R. Shmuel Essingen of Muenster, a friend of R. Hilman of Metz, and R. Eliyahu Olianow, an elderly Kabbalist who had spent time at the home of R. Arye Leib of Amsterdam, R. Yaakov’s brother-in-law. Clearly these two rabbis were carefully chosen to demonstrate how even friends of his enemies were willing to support his version of what the amulets said, rather than the version suggested by his enemies. And so they did, both declaring that R. Yonason’s amulets were completely fine, free of any Sabbatian references. R. Olianow even suggested that banning the use of these amulets by insisting that the letter formulations were Sabbatian was highly dangerous, making R. Yaakov and his supporters guilty of allowing those who really needed them to be subjected to illness and death.

R. Yaakov was unimpressed. In a pattern that would become familiar with regard to any supporters of R. Yonason, he accused both experts of being miscreants and bribe takers who had allowed money to influence them. R. Essingen, he said, was someone who made money out of fake magic dressed up as Kabbalah, while R. Olianow was an immoral drunkard. Meanwhile R. Yaakov had not been idle. He had written dozens of letters to rabbis in Germany and Poland, informing them of R. Yonason’s iniquities and trying to convince them to excommunicate R. Yonason, and to demand that the triple-community dismiss him from his position immediately. Using the notarized amulets from Metz as proof of his depravity and duplicity, R. Yaakov added numerous other accusations and claims to boost his case against R. Yonason:

“With my own eyes I saw him throw out a Talmud student who travelled a great distance to study at his yeshiva in Hamburg, simply because he was poor and could not pay his way. Someone once asked him why he eats wormy fruit and he laughed, answering ‘worms and bugs have no power over me, so who cares!’ His evil deeds in Prague could fill up a whole book, and all his followers are the same…immoral sinners who rejoice in transgressing against G-d!”

The Jewish world was deeply divided into two camps: those who believed the accusations against R. Yonason and were disgusted that a man with such a deep flaw could remain in a leadership position; and those who could not accept that a rabbi as great as R. Yonason could ever be a believer in the long dead Shabbetai Tzvi and the ridiculous mystical system disseminated by his followers. Truthfully, R. Yaakov’s rambling vituperative letters did not help the case against R. Yonason. On the contrary – those who read them and who might have been sympathetic to a case against R. Yonason based purely on the amulets, dismissed any believable evidence once they read accusations of heinous sin coupled with ridiculous claims that R. Yonason was an ignorant fool.

With the controversy now raging in full force across the Jewish world it was no surprise that the gentile world also became involved. As the year progressed incidents of public disorder increased in Hamburg and Altona, as arguments envolved into physical fights between supporters of R. Yaakov and supporters of R. Yonason. One nasty fight on December 12, 1751, took place as a funeral was being conducted in the cemetery, and resulted in a court summons for R. Yonason, and then on December 28 a violent fight broke in the Hamburg Stock Exchange. All of the fights were fallout, a result of the bitterness felt by R. Yaakov’s supporters at the success of R. Yonason’s supporters in silencing and penalizing anyone who expressed any misgivings about the Chief Rabbi, or who expressed any interest in getting clarity on any aspect of the controversy.

In the Fall of 1751 this animosity came to the attention of the young King of Denmark, Frederick V, whose kingdom included Altona, where R. Yaakov owned his home and had resided for many years before running away. A man named Mordechai Shmuel Hecksher, who was a member of the triple-community board, had written a letter to his brother in Brunswick in which he expressed doubt about R. Yonason’s honesty, and also questioned why no major German rabbinic leaders had publicly supported the Chief Rabbi. But before the letter reached his brother it was intercepted and read by R. Yonason’s supporters, who decided to punish its author. Hecksher was humiliatingly deposed from the board and expelled from Altona. He immediately appealed to King Frederick, and although the Hamburg City Council had no stake in his expulsion from Altona as it was a different jurisdiction, they also demanded that Hecksher be readmitted into Altona otherwise his antagonists would no longer be able to do business in their city. The main instigator in the Hecksher expulsion, Eliyahu Oppenheim, was forced to appear before the Hamburg authorities for his role in the affair, and after fining him with a hefty fine he was ordered to present a list of all those who had formally joined the pro-R. Yonason faction in Altona. Oppenheim appealed to the Altona authorities for help but they sided with Hecksher and their counterparts in Hamburg, and Hecksher was readmitted into Altona.

With this success in hand R. Yaakov’s supporters now formed the view that the gentile authorities could be the means by which they would achieve R. Yonason’s dismissal from office. In the first instance they appealed to the Hamburg City Council, alleging that R. Yonason had overstepped his legal rights by imposing punitive measures on his opponents. When this attempt failed to gain traction, a similar case was brought to the Royal Court of Denmark in Copenhagen, where both factions presented evidence to King Frederick himself. During the proceedings the King was also informed of R. Yaakov’s expulsion from Altona earlier in the year, and his ongoing exile in Amsterdam.

After a bitterly fought battle at the Royal Court the King ruled that R. Yaakov could return home to Altona and should be allowed to operate his printing press. The Court also decided that Hecksher should be reinstated as a member of the triple-community board. In addition, R. Yonason was ordered to personally appear before the King to explain his attempts to overreach his authority, and also the claims of heresy against him. It seemed, finally, that the tables had turned, although rather than the controversy being resolved by Jewish leaders it would have to play itself out in a non-Jewish courtroom setting.

NEXT TIME: R. Yaakov returns home and R. Yonason appears before the king with a Jewish apostate apologist. With the community now in complete turmoil a new player stepped in – R. Yechezkel Landau, author of the Noda BiYehuda. Bravely he tried to arrange a compromise solution between the warring factions in an attempt to settle the matter once and for all.

Questions, comments welcome –