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Banet, Mordekhai ben Avraham

(1753–1829), chief rabbi of Moravia. Mordekhai ben Avraham Banet (Markus Benedikt) achieved great fame during his 40-year tenure (1789–1829) as rabbi of Nikolsburg (Mikulov), head of its large yeshiva, and chief rabbi of Moravia. Throughout his career, he dealt extensively with the revolutionary political, social, and cultural changes that were transforming the lives of his Central European Jewish constituency. Yet unlike the confrontational Orthodoxy initiated by his younger colleague, Mosheh Sofer (Ḥatam Sofer) of Pressburg (Bratislava), Banet’s religious philosophy reflected a more pragmatic traditionalism that rejected certain manifestations of modernity while acquiescing to others.

Such an approach may have been inspired during Banet’s early years of study. His father was a butcher in Csurgó, Hungary, but both parents were scions of distinguished rabbis, and the five-year-old Mordekhai was sent off to study in Nikolsburg; he subsequently spent three years under the tutelage of Yosef Steinhardt in the Fürth yeshiva in Germany. At 18, he went to Prague; there his mentors included Yeḥezkel Landau, the late eighteenth century’s most outstanding embodiment of both traditional rabbinic scholarship and an outspoken presence with respect to public policy.

In the mid-1770s, Banet studied in Pressburg in the yeshiva of Me’ir Barby, where he befriended the young Eliyahu Rosenthal, member of the influential maskilic family. Banet studied as well with the Hasidic master Shemu’el Shmelke Horovitz of Nikolsburg. Indeed, Horovitz’s personal model may have inspired the ascetic orientation for which Banet was also known. During the early period of his career, Banet also served under Gershon Chajes as a judge in the Nikolsburg religious court (1784–1786), and as a rabbi in Lundenburg, Moravia (1786–1787) and Schossberg, in northwest Hungary (1787–1789). He was elected unanimously as Moravian chief rabbi in November 1789.

Banet was an outspoken critic of the nascent Reform religious movement: he was one of the first to clash with the rabbi of Arad, Aharon Chorin, in the 1790s over leniencies and innovations that the latter promoted even before he came to embrace ritual reforms. Banet published two letters, at the height of his fame, in Eleh divre ha-berit, the Orthodox polemic published in 1819 in response to the founding of the Hamburg Temple. Yet, unlike Sofer, who advocated complete separation from the reformers, Banet sought ways to prevent a full-fledged break with them; and he was even less doctrinaire in his approach to the Haskalah movement. Banet gave his approbation to Herz Homberg’s textbooks, Imre shefer (1808) and Bne-Zion (1812), and to a new edition of Moses Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Pentateuch and Hebrew-language commentary (Bi’ur), published in Vienna in 1817–1818 with Homberg’s commentary, Ha-Korem. Banet’s approbation also appears on the German catechism composed by his own son Naftali, Emunat Yisra’el (1824). And in a memorandum to the authorities concerning rabbinic training, Banet gave his assent to allow philosophical studies to be part of the curriculum.

The publication of Banet’s wide-ranging rabbinic scholarship began during his lifetime with the appearance of his Talmudic novellae, Bi’ur Mordekhai (1805–1813). Since Banet’s death, new authentic manuscripts have continued to be published. They include an analysis of Sabbath prohibitions, Magen avot (1835); the halakhic responsaHar ha-mor (1862) and Parshat Mordekhai (1889); Talmudic homilies, Tekhelet Mordekhai (1892); biblical homilies, Maḥshevet Mordekhai (1902); an analysis of the dietary laws, Divre Mordekhai (1906); and additional Talmudic novellae, Ḥidushe Maharam Banet, published in two volumes (1988, 1995).

Suggested Reading

Ya‘akov Abril (Jacob Abraham Avril ben Mordecai Benet), Toldot . . . ha-Rav . . . Mordekhai Benet (Ofen, Hun., 1832); Avraham Benedict, “Toldot ha-Ga’on Mordekhai Ben‘et,” in Ḥidushe Maharam Ben‘et, vol. 1, pp. 19–47 (Jerusalem, 1988); Avraham Benedict, “Perakim nosafim le-toldot ha-Ga’on Maharam Ben‘et,” in Ḥidushe Maharam Ben‘et, vol. 2, pp. 11–55 (Jerusalem, 1994/95); Rubin Faerber, Pe’er Mordekhai (Tel Aviv, 1951); Leopold Löw, “Das mährische Landesrabbinat seit hundert Jahren,” in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2, pp. 177–195 (1890; rpt., Hildesheim and New York, 1979); Michael K. Silber, “Shorashe ha-pilug be-yahadut Hungaryah” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1985), pp. 8–10, 29.