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Fleckeles, El‘azar ben David

(1754–1826), rabbi. El‘azar Fleckeles was born to a well-off, patrician family in Prague; his father served as an elder of the Jewish community. Fleckeles studied in the yeshivas of Mosheh Kohen Rofe and Me’ir Fischels and then, for a decade, with his prime mentor, Yeḥezkel Landau, the rabbi of Prague, becoming his favorite disciple. Fleckeles’s wife, Esther, also belonged to one of the oldest and most prestigious Prague families, the Bondys.

In stereotypical fashion, Fleckeles entered the rabbinate perforce after going bankrupt. He served from 1779 to 1783 as the rabbi of the Moravian community of Goitein (Kojetín), and then received a call to return to Prague to take up the posts of rabbi in a kloyz (a study hall established by a private fund) and judge in the community’s extensive court system. He rose gradually to become the presiding judge (Oberjurist), the rosh or rav bet din, in 1801—the highest religious post in Prague, since the position of chief rabbi or av bet din remained unfilled for almost 50 years after the death of Landau in 1793.

Besides lecturing in the yeshiva, Fleckeles was also a gifted and controversial preacher, who published a four-volume series of sermons, ‘Olat ḥodesh (though several volumes carry an additional title), between 1785 and 1800. (A famous series of paintings depicting the Prague burial society shows him delivering a eulogy in the graveyard.) He was also an important halakhic authority, whose responsa, Teshuvah me-ahavah (3 vols.; 1809, 1815, 1821), were published during his lifetime.

It was the publication of his second volume of sermons, subtitled ‘Olat ha-tsibur (1787), that propelled Fleckeles into the midst of the brewing Kulturkampf between maskilim and the rabbinical establishment in the 1780s. His sermons lashed out against the growing laxity and acculturation of the times, as well as against Netivot ha-shalom, Moses Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Bible, and its Bi’ur commentary. Fleckeles’s name had already appeared in 1785 alongside those of Landau and other members of the rabbinical court in an approbation endorsing Zusman Glogau’s rival Bible translation and explaining why it was preferred to Mendelssohn’s unnamed one. Fleckeles was attacked in the maskilic journal Ha-Me’asef for being the actual author of the approbation (a remark alluding to an insignificant student could only have referred to him), and later by David Friedländer in an extensive review of the sermons.

Fleckeles’s sermons were later reprinted and even anthologized by such ultra-Orthodox opponents of the Haskalah as Akiva Yosef Schlesinger. Yet, surprisingly, there is evidence that by the 1790s, his own stance had moderated. He cited the maskil Naftali Herts Wessely approvingly and later in life would insist that the Prague rabbinic court had opposed Mendelssohn’s work purely on pedagogic grounds. He enjoyed the close cooperation of Prague maskilim, in particular that of Marcus Fischer (the grandson of his teacher, Me’ir Fischels), who translated an important statement by Fleckeles on religious toleration toward Christians (Geist des Judenthums: Frey bearbeitet nach dem Hebräischen von M. Fischer; 1813). It was a stance that Fleckeles was to reiterate in a friendly Hebrew correspondence he conducted with the censor Karl Fischer, in which Jewish customs and practices offensive to gentiles, such as avoiding studying Torah on Christmas Eve (Yid., nitl) or the open disparagement expressed in Yiddish in front of uncomprehending non-Jews, was discussed. There is even a query raised by Fischer in this correspondence, on the binding nature of oaths to non-Jews that is included in Fleckeles’s Teshuvah me-ahavah (pt. 1, sec. 26), a responsum to a Christian that is perhaps unique in the annals of rabbinic literature.

This universalistic and rationalistic turn in Fleckeles’s thinking may be attributed in part to a reaction against the havoc wreaked by the public ascendancy in the mid-eighteenth century of the Kabbalah and its related movements—Hasidism and, more relevantly in the Bohemian milieu, Sabbatianism. Fleckeles had clashed earlier with Sabbatians in Goitein. In the summer of 1799, he instigated a fierce campaign against the resurgence of the last remnants of the movement that formed around the prestigious Wehle family in Prague. The fourth volume of his sermons, Ahavat David (1800), agitated against the sect and earned him several days in jail.

In a fashion similar to that of his mentor Landau, Fleckeles viewed the threat that Sabbatianism posed to tradition, in particular to the centrality of Talmud and its study, as emanating from excesses of both rationalism and mysticism. Hence even legitimate Kabbalah and its derived practices, such as prefacing mystical intentional formulae to the recitation of blessings, should, he believed, play no public role. Rather, as in days of yore, such practices should become esoteric observances restricted to a learned elite. Fleckeles also denounced religious reform, participating with his Prague colleagues in condemning the Hamburg Temple reforms in particular.

Fleckeles’s son-in-law, Yom Tov Spitz, published his biography soon after his death. The poet and radical politician Moritz Hartmann was Fleckeles’s grandson.

Suggested Reading

Jacob Katz, “The Suggested Relationship between Sabbatianism, Haskalah, and Reform,” in Divine Law in Human Hands: Case Studies in Halakhic Flexibility, pp. 504–530 (Jerusalem, 1998); Salomon Hugo Lieben, “R. Eleazar Fleckeles,” Jahrbuch der Jüdisch Literarischen Gesellschaft 10 (1912): 1–33.