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Fassel, Hirsch Bär

(1802–1884), rabbi, theologian, and scholar. Born in Boskovice (Ger., Boskowitz) in the Habsburg province of Moravia, Hirsch Bär (Hebrew name, Tsevi Hirsh) Fassel attended yeshivas in Boskovice and Pressburg (mod. Bratislava). Upon his return to Moravia, he married Jozefa Arnstein, with whom he had eight children. In 1836, he was offered the rabbinate of Prostĕjov (Ger., Prossnitz) despite strident opposition from Moravia’s chief rabbi, Neḥemyah Trebitsch (1779–1842), who was wary of Fassel’s predilection for religious reform.

Fassel was a moderate reformer who affirmed the authority of the Talmud while asserting the dynamic and evolutionary nature of Jewish tradition. In this respect, he shared many affinities with Zacharias Frankel (1801–1875), a proponent of positive-historical Judaism and the ideological father of Conservative Judaism. In Prostĕjov, Fassel promoted reforms in this spirit, including German-language sermons, synagogue choirs, and indoor weddings; he also allowed Ashkenazic Jews to eat rice and legumes on Passover in the aftermath of the crop failure of 1846.

Fassel’s earliest publications dealt primarily with these matters; his works included Zwei gottesdienstliche Vorträge (Two Sermons; 1838) and Reis und Hülsenfrüchte am Pesach erlaubte Speisen (Rice and Legumes: Foods Permitted on Passover; 1846). In collaboration with Gideon Brecher (1797–1873) and Moritz Steinschneider (1816–1907), both from Prostĕjov, Fassel also made a case for modernizing the circumcision ritual. (See Fassel’s preface to Gideon Brecher, Die Beschneidung der Israeliten [Circumcision of Israelites]; 1845.) In 1839, Fassel published a polemical treatise, Horev be-Tsiyon, which attacked Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Horeb for its allegedly stultifying approach to Jewish tradition. Hirsch responded in kind, setting the stage for further conflict when Hirsch was elected Moravia’s chief rabbi in 1847. Although the two men joined together in the struggle for Jewish emancipation during the Revolution of 1848, Fassel remained a perennial thorn in Hirsch’s side.

In 1851, Fassel left for Nagykanizsa, Hungary, where he served as rabbi of this Reform-oriented community until his death in 1884. A prolific writer, Fassel was a regular contributor to periodicals including Der Orient, Ben Chananja, and Die Neuzeit. He composed several critical compendia of Jewish law, including (Die mosaisch-rabbinische Tugend- und Rechtslehre (Mosaic-Rabbinic Moral and Legal Doctrines; 1848); Das mosaisch-rabbinische Civilrecht (Mosaic-Rabbinic Civil Law; 1852–1854); Das mosaisch-rabbinische Gerichts-Verfahren in civilrechtlichen Sachen (Mosaic-Rabbinic Court Procedure in Matters of Civil Law; 1859); Die mosaisch-rabbinische Religionslehre (Mosaic-Rabbinic Religious Doctrine; 1863); and Das mosaisch-rabbinische Strafrecht (Mosaic-Rabbinic Criminal Law; 1870). Several of his sermons were also published. He composed a practical guide for rabbis and rabbinical students, “Mozne tsedek” (Scales of Justice), which remains in manuscript. A daughter, Rosa Fassel Sonneschein (1847–1935), founded and edited The American Jewess (1895–1899), the first Jewish women’s journal in the United States.

Suggested Reading

Michael Brocke, Julius Carlebach, and Carsten Wilke, eds., “Fassel, Hirsch Bär,” in Biographisches Handbuch der Rabbiner, pt. 1, Die Rabbiner der Emanzipationszeit in den deutschen, böhmischen und grosspolnischen Ländern, 1781–1871, vol. 1, pp. 295–296 (Munich, 2004).