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Friesenhausen, David

(1756–1828), Hungarian maskil and rabbi. Born in a small community in southern Germany, David Friesenhausen studied with Yosef Steinhardt in Fürth. Mosheh Sofer, the rabbi of Pressburg, knew Friesenhausen in his youth and would later testify to his reputation as one of the outstanding students in the yeshiva. Until the age of 30, Friesenhausen devoted himself exclusively to Torah study, but then—seized by an intellectual restlessness—he immersed himself in mathematics and astronomy.

Between 1788 and 1796, Friesenhausen lived in Berlin, where he published a book on algebra, Kelil ha-ḥeshbon, in 1796 with the Haskalah’s flagship printing house, Ḥinukh Ne‘arim. Among its subscribers were the enlightened elite of Berlin, among them David Friedländer and Yitsḥak Euchel. Over the next four years, Friesenhausen wandered about Germany, Holland, Bohemia, and Moravia seeking subscribers for his second book, Mosdot tevel (Foundations of the Universe), a text in which he elaborated on the Copernican worldview. In his travels, he encountered several of the great rabbis of his time as well as professors of mathematics with whom he discussed his new proof of the eleventh principle of Euclid.

Friesenhausen succeeded in publishing the work only in 1820, updating the section on astronomy and adding two features: his Euclidean proof and more important, his 74-page ethical will. Written in an elegant, fluent Hebrew, the work contained autobiographical elements, ethical exhortations, and critical views of current religious and cultural trends. He recorded his disillusion with the disturbing radical turn of the Haskalah, its growing critique of tradition and the rabbinic establishment, and the accompanying phenomena of religious laxity and libertinism, deism, and superficial pseudo-enlightenment.

About 1800, Friesenhausen arrived in Hungary, where he served for a time as dayan (religious court judge) in the northeastern community of Unsdorf (Hunfalva, Huncovce) before moving to Pest. In 1806, he submitted a memorandum to the authorities proposing that rabbinical seminaries be established in Hungary, Galicia, and the Bohemian lands—the first such proposal in Hungary. Talented young men would undertake for 10 years a curriculum primarily of Talmud, but also of Bible, humanities, and sciences, as well as physical exercise; candidates for the rabbinate would receive a fellowship. Within 15 years, only graduates of the seminaries would be elected to the rabbinate. The authorities deliberated long on the project but ruled against it in 1813.

By 1808, Friesenhausen was serving as a dayan in Sátoraljaújhely (Újhely) when the newly elected rabbi, Mosheh Teitelbaum, arrived from Poland; subsequently, Friesenhausen served for eight years under the man who became the foremost leader of Hasidism in Hungary. Mosdot tevel provides a unique, albeit not unbiased, first-hand account of Teitelbaum’s activities and the personality of this important rebbe. Friesenhausen anxiously witnessed the growing neglect of Talmud study in Újhely as many turned to Hasidism. Although Friesenhausen leveled a typical critique against Hasidism, he could be tolerant of its customs, even with the dispensing of amulets, which he claimed could be efficacious when written by an expert. But Friesenhausen complained that Teitelbaum abused the practice by dispensing preprepared amulets. We learn that the rebbe had a pharmacist’s cabinet with 60 drawers, each containing talismans for particular requirements. Although he deeply loathed Teitelbaum, Friesenhausen did not shy away from posting his recommendation at the front of his book.

In 1816, Friesenhausen took to the road again to gather subscribers for his second work and to find a rabbinic post. As the 14-page subscription list of Mosdot tevel attests, he passed through more than 160 communities in Hungary and Moravia, collecting the signatures of major rabbinical and maskilic figures. He preached as he went, his sermons “Mas‘ot David” (still in manuscript) combining elements of sciences, philosophy, and Kabbalah.

It is difficult to categorize Friesenhausen, with his eclectic mélange of interest in science and mathematics, with conservative rabbinic culture. While he rejected or had no interest in many aspects of the Jewish Enlightenment, his pioneering proposal for a rabbinical seminary earned him a place among the ranks of the Haskalah. He spent the last years of his life in Transylvania where his son, Me’ir, served as a physician in the Gyulafehérvár community.

Suggested Reading

Me’ir Gilon, “R. David Frizenhoizen ben kotve ha-haskalah veha-ḥasidut,” in The Rabbinical Seminary of Budapest, 1877–1977: A Centennial Volume, ed. Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger, pp. 19–54 (New York, 1986), Hebrew section. The manuscripts of Friesenhausen’s sermons are located in the National Library in Jerusalem.