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Mülhausen, Yom Tov Lipmann

(fl. late fourteenth–early fifteenth century), eminent rabbinic leader in Bohemia, anti-Christian polemicist, halakhist, philosopher, kabbalist, and commentator. Mülhausen’s activities, coming a generation or two after the devastation of the Black Plague, raised the intellectual, cultural, and religious profile of Bohemian Jewry. Along with contemporaries such as the brothers Avigdor and Menaḥem Kara and Menaḥem Shalem, Mülhausen belonged to a set of rabbinic figures whose intellectual breadth was not usually associated with the Ashkenazic rabbinate of the late medieval period.

Mülhausen’s career was centered in Prague, and his achievements were more remarkable because of the context of violence and instability within which he worked. He survived a massacre of Prague Jews in 1389, and later witnessed and responded to the Hussite uprising and its attendant turbulence (1419–1436). His comments constitute an important primary source for the effect of the Hussite revolt on Jews of Bohemia.

A polymath who mastered several different bodies of Jewish learning, Mülhausen was a rationalist pioneer in Jewish Bohemia, basing his understanding of Judaism and his halakhic opinions on a Maimonidean approach, rejecting anthropomorphism. At the same time, he mastered early kabbalistic texts, as well as the teachings of medieval pietists (Ḥaside Ashkenaz), which influenced his Sefer alfa beta, and the Spanish, especially Geronese, schools of Kabbalah, which influenced his Sefer ha-eshkol, a commentary to Ma‘aseh be-reshit and Ma‘aseh merkavah (Works of Creation, Works of the Chariot, referring to esoteric kabbalistic doctrines of cosmic and divine nature). Only a small fragment of his commentary to Sefer yetsirah survived.

Given the scattered and downtrodden condition of Jews in his time, Mülhausen made every effort to connect to Jews in far-flung places and teach them. His travels throughout Bohemia, as well as through Poland and Austria, left a trail of takanot, rabbinic amendments, in places where he detected ignorance or laxity. His topics concerned the writing of sacred scrolls, the making and blowing of the shofar, and the granting of a valid Jewish divorce. In 1407 he was appointed as a judge of the Jews in Prague, and was prominent at the rabbinic conclave at Erfurt, about 1420.

While fragments of what may have been a significant corpus of homiletic literature and Bible commentary have survived, Mülhausen’s most historically repercussive work was his polemic against heretics and Christians, Sefer nitsaḥon (meaning both polemic and victory). Written in a lively and accessible style, it reflects Mülhausen’s contacts with diverse classes of Jews as well as his actual polemical encounters with Christian clergymen. The work endured for centuries in manuscript as a resource to Jews and a challenge to Christians. It is a summa of arguments intended to deride Christians for their misreadings of Hebrew texts, and to arm Jews with a firm understanding of their faith. His material is culled from earlier textual sources such as the Sefer nitsaḥon “yashan” (late thirteenth–early fourteenth century) as well as from his own debates with Christians.

In the seventeenth century, as Christian Hebraists began to investigate Jewish anti-Christian writings systematically, they paid attention to Mülhausen’s Nitsaḥon. In 1644, Theodore Hackspann published it in Nuremberg, albeit in a flawed edition. A considerable number of Christian Hebraists dedicated themselves to its refutation, most notably Johann Christoph Wagenseil (1633–1705), eminent Christian Hebraist of Altdorf, in his Tela Ignea Satanae (Fiery Arrows of Satan; 1681). A critical edition remains a desideratum.

Suggested Reading

Yehudah Kaufmann, R. Yom Tov Lipman Mihlhoizn: Ba‘al ha-Nitsaḥon, ha-ḥoker veha-mekubal (New York, 1927); Ephraim Kupfer, “Li-Demutah ha-tarbutit shel yahadut ashkenaz ve-ḥokhmeha ba-me’ot ha-14–15,” Tarbiz 42 (1972): 113–147; Ephraim (Frank) Talmage, “Introduction,” to Liber Nizachon, ed. Theodore Hackspan (Altdorf, Ger., 1644; rpt. Jerusalem, 1984).