Letter from Arn Zeitlin to Yoysef Opatoshu, 1930. From Arn Zeitlin in Warsaw, to Yoysef Opatoshu in New York, 8 April 1930. Zeitlin has been elected the chair of the local PEN Club and looks forward to seeing Opatoshu at the upcoming PEN Congress. He agrees with Opatoshu that Shmuel Niger is "our only literary critic." A recent issue of Literarishe bleter focusing on Opatoshu's work "made a strong impression." As per Opatoshu's request, Zeitlin has asked his father Hillel about the eighteenth-century Eybeschütz–Emden controversy, and the senior Zeitlin notes that some of Emden's pamphlets accused Eybeschütz of being an apostate who wore a "copper cross" on his chest; nonetheless, he regards this a slander on the part of Emden. Arn asks Opatoshu for news of the American Yiddish journal Di vokh and sends regards to writers H. Leivick and Aaron Glanz-Leyeles. Yiddish. RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu Papers, F206. (YIVO)

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Eybeschütz, Yonatan

(ca. 1694–1764), one of the foremost and certainly the most controversial rabbinical figure of his generation. Born in Kraków, Yonatan Eybeschütz moved about 1700 to the Moravian community of Eibenschütz, where his father, Natan Note, was appointed rabbi. His father died within a year and the young orphan, who soon became widely acknowledged as a child prodigy, came under the wing of Me’ir Eisenstadt, the rabbi of Prossnitz (Prostějov). In 1711, Eybeschütz married into the Spira family, which held various rabbinical and lay leadership positions throughout the empire. Eybeschütz proved to be a very talented preacher, and was appointed to a position in Prague. Later he was chosen to head a private yeshiva.

Eybeschütz perceived his generation as afflicted with a double crisis: on the one hand, an internal decline was marked by the sale of rabbinical posts, corruption among the rabbinical oligarchy, laxity in the performance of commandments, and scorn for Torah study; on the other hand, Jews were confronting modernization and the growing popularity of the new empirical sciences. To rid the community of these maladies, Eybeschütz believed, one needed both to promote meticulous observance of the commandments and to encourage increased Torah study by expanding the number of yeshiva students. He called for regulations that obligated communities to maintain a considerable number of students and required ordinary householders to support sons-in-law who wanted to continue their studies after marriage.

Eybeschütz himself led an ascetic lifestyle and was punctilious in his observance. He held that the community rabbi should preach not only about observance but also about morality, and would frequently reprimand his congregation, demanding that they fully comply with the most trifling customs, especially in the realm of modesty. His collections of sermons, Ya‘arot devash, have enjoyed great popularity and have been reissued in numerous editions.

Eybeschütz’s reputation as a virtuoso Torah scholar spread far and wide, and soon students across Europe, including those attending the local chief rabbi’s yeshiva, flocked to his academy. Many of these were financially supported by Eybeschütz himself, who became wealthy by working at a variety of professions, including as a trial lawyer in the non-Jewish civil courts and as a customs agent; his work as an intercessor with the government led to his being suspected of spying for France. Eybeschütz’s opposition to limiting the number of yeshiva students, together with his objection on principle to charging tuition fees, sparked a dispute with the community rabbi of Prague, David Oppenheim. The latter enlisted the support of the authorities, and Eybeschütz’s yeshiva was closed down in 1722.

Eybeschütz’s novellae on the Shulḥan ‘arukh—Kereti u-feleti, Urim ve-tumim, and Sar ha-elef—have become standard works, published repeatedly. He was against the system of halakhic responsa, since it increased the volume of halakhic disputes (he believed that the communal rabbi should be the final arbiter in halakhic matters), and he vehemently attacked the practice of conferring rabbinical approbations on an unknown author’s work, especially since it encouraged the proliferation of trivial pilpul (traditional Talmudic dialectical reasoning) at the expense of dealing with classical texts.

Eybeschütz found himself in an ambivalent position over the issue of pilpul. On the one hand, the previous generation had witnessed an expansion of the “useless pilpul” phenomenon, which caused students to digress considerably from the simple meaning of the text and from the halakhic explanation. On the other hand, he saw value in interspersing his lectures with pilpul because the occasions enabled students to sharpen their faculties. Eybeschütz found a didactic solution to this dilemma: he would include in the edition of his published Talmud only those commentators who, in his view, did not deal in trivial pilpul. [See Talmud Study.]

In 1724, the manuscript Va-Avo’ ha-yom el ha-‘ayin, began to be circulated. The book’s anonymous author attempted a synthesis of the methods and concepts of various contemporary kabbalistic schools, and the book included Sabbatian interpretations of kabbalistic literature. Owing to the text’s exceptional intellectual quality, Eybeschütz was suspected of being its author, and he did not take great pains to exonerate himself of this suspicion; he only claimed that he had definitely not written certain sections. Still, two years later Eybeschütz added his name to the excommunication order signed by the scholars of Prague banning the Sabbatian heresy. He also participated in later bans against the sect in 1751, 1755, and 1761, but was careful to make it known that an excommunicated Sabbatian could always choose to repent. During those years, Sabbatian groups spread rapidly throughout Hungary, Moravia, and Bohemia. They had previously regarded Eybeschütz as their leader, and perhaps even as their messiah, but now became, as the result of the Prague excommunication, his greatest foes; they even tried to expose him as a clandestine Sabbatian. 

In 1728, Eybeschütz persuaded his friend, the Jesuit theologian Franz Haselbauer, the chief Hebrew book censor, to permit the printing of an edition of the Talmud. Haselbauer conditioned his acceptance on the omission of all homiletic (aggadic) passages that seemed demeaning to Christianity. Eybeschütz complied with this condition, and even took the opportunity to omit any agadah that, in his opinion, might detract from the purity of Jewish belief. The publication of the censored tractate Berakhot (Blessings) prompted Chief Rabbi Oppenheim to bar Eybeschütz from participating in editing the Talmud in the future. 

Eybeschütz spent approximately 30 years in Prague (1711–1741), and throughout this period sought the post of chief rabbi—the most prestigious rabbinical position of that period—but to no avail. When Oppenheim began to lose his eyesight in 1734, Eybeschütz effectively assumed his duties. After Oppenheim’s death in 1736, Eybeschütz was appointed both to the position of acting chief rabbi and as a judge on the community’s bet din (religious court). His many opponents thwarted his formal appointment as chief rabbi, however. After five years, despairing of occupying the post he coveted, Eybeschütz entered into negotiations with the French community of Metz, which hosted one of the largest yeshivas in Europe. Following the occupation of Prague by the French and under French auspices, Eybeschütz moved to Metz, where he served as rabbi for the next eight years, until he was elected rabbi of the three communities of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbeck (AHW). A year later the famous amulet controversy erupted.

When some expectant mothers who had purchased amulets of protection from Eybeschütz in Metz and in AHW mysteriously died, the amulets were opened and discovered to contain combinations of letters that hinted at the name Shabetai Tsevi. A polemic was then initiated by Ya‘akov Emden, who published many pamphlets accusing Eybeschütz of belonging to a clandestine cult that engaged in corrupt practices, including sexual perversities. The controversy raged for nearly two decades and engulfed communities throughout Europe. Regionally, Eybeschütz’s supporters were strong in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Bohemian lands, whereas Emden’s allies formed a wide-ranging coalition of Eybeschütz’s enemies in Western Europe. Emden’s most prominent supporter was Ya`akov Yehoshu‘a ben Aleksander ha-Kohen Falk, the chief rabbi of Frankfurt am Main. Falk, considered one of the greatest scholars of his generation, was perceived as being impartial. 

The controversy began to die down in 1755, after the publication of Eybeschütz’s Luḥot ha-‘edut (Tablets of the Testimony), which contained many letters of support. In 1760 the controversy was renewed when it was discovered that some of Eybeschütz’s students were indeed affiliated with the Sabbatian cult. At the same time, Eybeschütz penned a brilliant memorandum at the request of Polish Jewry, who were charged with the blood libel by the Frankists.

Eybeschütz viewed the study of the Kabbalah positively and also demonstrated an interest in the various contemporary kabbalistic schools of thought. He debated some of these schools in his works Va-Avo’ ha-yom el ha-‘ayin, to which he ultimately admitted authorship and which remained unpublished, and Shem ‘olam, which was published only at the end of the nineteenth century. Eybeschütz claimed that Kabbalah, unlike halakhah, did not demand a daily regimen of commandments (and therefore Falk’s assertion that Eybeschütz had practiced kabbalistic customs was without any basis). Nonetheless, he preferred kabbalistic theology to the Talmudic agadah. Though Eybeschütz denounced false messiahs, including Shabetai Tsevi, he viewed messianism as a positive and therapeutic phenomenon that had provided an alternative to the depressing and desperate realities of exile. In Eybeschütz’s opinion, the “theoretical Sabbatians”—those who studied the Torah and performed acts of piety—did not pose a danger to communal unity. He thus refrained from attacking them, and even recommended that those who repented be granted absolution.

The literary legacy that Eybeschütz left behind was large, and at the beginning of the nineteenth century he became a popular cultural icon in the Orthodox community, which absolutely rejected the charges that had been leveled against him. Renewed academic interest in Kabbalah and Sabbatianism in the twentieth century revived the debate over Eybeschütz’s ties to Sabbatian groups; his younger son, Wolf, clearly seems to have been immersed in Sabbatian thought. The authorship of Va-Avo’ ha-yom el ha-‘ayin was finally ascribed to Eybeschütz in 1947, and he became the subject of a new polemic between academia and Orthodox writers.

Eybeschütz was in some ways a harbinger of the Haskalah. His general knowledge and proficiency in foreign languages were self-acquired. He also wrote poetry and advocated the study of Hebrew, and maintained that Jews must be kept informed of the latest scientific developments, as they had been in the past. Eybeschütz believed in religious tolerance and applied this belief to his wide range of contacts, whether they were Jewish scholars, Christian theologians, or princes—to the extent that his conduct was criticized by the Jewish sages of his generation.

There is no doubt that Eybeschütz was the most complex, multifaceted, and intriguing personality of his generation of rabbis. He considered himself an aristocratic leader, but also possessed heightened social awareness. He strongly supported yeshiva students and was in turn much admired by them, as well as by many well-known rabbis. His popularity is attested to by his many different portraits, making Eybeschütz’s image the most widely disseminated Jewish icon in the eighteenth century. He was a prolific writer whose books in all their various editions amount to 256 items in the Jewish National Library’s holdings (with almost 40 more items written about him), but even this number does not take into account material that remains in manuscript.

In his twilight years, Eybeschütz was offered important rabbinical posts in Kraków and in Nikolsburg, but he preferred to return to Prague, even as an ordinary citizen. However, Yeḥezkel Landau, the rabbi of Prague, feared that Eybeschütz would disturb the peace of the community and prevented his return. Eybeschütz died in Altona in 1764, and was buried there.

Suggested Reading

Moshe Aryeh Anat (Perlmuter), Rabi Yehonatan Aybeshits ve-yaḥaso el ha-shabta’ut (Tel Aviv, 1946/47); Jonathan Eybeschuetz, Ya‘arot devash, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1983/84); Jekuthiel Judah Greenwald, Ha-Rav R. Yehonatan Aibshits: Toldotav ve-korotav (New York, 1953/54); Shnayer Z. Leiman, “When a Rabbi Is Accused of Heresy,” in From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism, ed. Jacob Neusner, Ernest S. Frerichs, and Nahum M. Sarna, vol. 3, pp. 179–194 (Atlanta, 1989); Yehuda Liebes, Sod ha-emunah

ha-shabta’it (Jerusalem, 1994/95); Gershom Scholem, Meḥkare shabta’ut, ed. Yehuda Liebes (Tel Aviv, 1991); ‘Azri’el Shoḥet, ‘Im ḥilufe tekufot: Re’shit ha-haskalah be-yahadut Germanyah (Jerusalem, 1959/60); Samuel Werses, Haskalah ve-shabta’ut (Jerusalem, 1988); David Loeb Zins, Gedulat Yehonatan ([Jerusalem?], 1967/68).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler