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Kunitz, Mosheh

(1774–1837), rabbinic scholar. Born in Alt-Ofen (Óbuda), Hungary, Mosheh Kunitz studied Talmud with the leading authorities of his day: Wolf Boskowitz, Mosheh Münz, Yeḥezkel (Ezekiel) Landau, and Isaiah Berlin (Pick) of Breslau. In Prague he was influenced by the maskil Baruch Jeitteles. Kunitz also studied languages and secular subjects in Breslau.

In the eyes of subsequent rabbinic scholars and historians, as well as for many of his contemporaries, Kunitz’s fame came from his involvement in two highly controversial issues. First he composed Ben Yoḥai (1815), an analysis of Talmudic traditions, and of sayings attributed to Shim‘on bar Yoḥai, in particular; he wrote this work to defend the authenticity of the Zohar and Shim‘on bar Yoḥai’s authorship against Ya‘akov Emden’s polemic Mitpaḥat sefarim (Book-Wrapper; 1768). Second, he participated in a controversy over synagogue reforms. In the collection of responsa Nogah ha-tsedek (The Splendor of Justice; 1818), which advocated innovations in Jewish liturgy, he permitted the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew and allowed organs to be played at synagogue services. His traditionalist thesis in Ben Yoḥai perplexed many maskilim who were his admirers, while his liberal responsa (as well as his friendship with Aharon Chorin, an advocate of religious reform) caused many traditional rabbis to distrust him. Nevertheless, Kunitz’s Talmudic scholarship granted him virtual immunity and saved him from personal attacks in the ensuing polemics about religious reform.

Kunitz was elected rabbi of Buda in 1828 and served simultaneously as a judge in the rabbinical court of neighboring Pest. His writings and decisions reflected a new agenda that emerged from the exposure of traditional rabbinic learning to the Haskalah. With the emergence of Hebrew periodicals in the 1830s, these discussions were tackled in a new literary forum. Kunitz’s commentary on Yeda‘yah Bedersi’s Beḥinat ‘olam (Ha-‘Oyen; 1896) as well as his Ben Yoḥai contain short essays and scholarly excursuses on a wide variety of subjects only loosely connected to the texts they explain. Similarly, only a small part of his two volumes of responsa (Ha-metsaref [or Ha-Matsref, The Crucible]; 1820; 1857) stresses practical halakhah. Most of the questions (addressed to him by rabbis and maskilim alike) deal with exegetical, philological, and historical issues of rabbinic literature, and anticipate the spirit of the Hebrew periodicals.

Kunitz displays unique sensitivity to textual criticism, and deals extensively with subjects such as the problem of seemingly inaccurate biblical quotations in Talmudic literature or interpolations in rabbinic literature. Kunitz seems to hark back to an older type of rabbinic haskalah (of which Ya‘akov Emden himself was an example) more than to the type exemplified by Mendelssohn and his followers. Despite the sometimes harsh criticism of later scholars (Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport, for example), directed mostly against Ben Yoḥai, he exerted influence on subsequent scholarship.

Suggested Reading

Reuven Fahn, “Ha-Rav Mosheh Kunits,” Reshumot 4 (1925/26): 245–280; Ignaz Reich, Beth-El: Ehrentempel verdienter ungarischer Israeliten, vol. 1 (Pest, 1856), pp. 169–176; Mosheh Samet, “Ha-Shinuyim be-sidre bet-ha-keneset: Emdat ha-Rabanim ke-neged ha-‘Meḥadshim’ ha-Reformim,” Asufot 5 (1991): 345–404.