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Rosenthal Family

Leading maskilim and shtadlanim (political leaders) of Hungarian Jewry. Naftali Rosenthal (Naftali Mohr; 1727–1798) was, after Koppel Theben, the most important lay national figure of eighteenth-century Hungarian Jewry. Eliyahu Rosenthal (Eliah Komorn; 1758–1833), Naftali’s elder son, was an adviser to the government on issues of Jewish rights. Later members of the family, including Naftali’s younger son Shelomoh Rosenthal (Shelomoh [Solomon] Mohr; 1763–1845), were active in the Haskalah and in Jewish cultural life.

A learned, wealthy merchant who lived in the small community of Mór (Fejér county), west of Budapest, Naftali Rosenthal came to the fore in the frequently held assemblies of Hungarian Jewry during the reign of Joseph II and the emperor’s successors. Rosenthal illustrated the lobbying dilemmas that faced Jewish representatives in an era of swift political change. When military conscription for Jews was first introduced in 1788, he, Theben, and two others were chosen to represent Hungarian Jewry in stating the case against Jewish army service. A year later, he was one of four deputies representing Habsburg Jewry as a whole. When the emperor died in 1790, the time seemed ripe for a change. The Hungarian Diet was contemplating new legislation, and deputies of the Jewish communities met at Rohonc (Rechnitz) to consider strategies. This time, Rosenthal argued that since eventually Jews would be compelled to serve in the army, they might as well undertake the obligation willingly, earning goodwill and the right to demand citizenship. Perhaps it was the revolutionary events in France that caused him to change his position. However, it was the more traditional course suggested by his in-law, Theben, redeeming service for a fee, that prevailed.

Members of the Rosenthal family filled similar capacities as communal and national leaders of Hungarian Jewry. Eliah Rosenthal, Naftali’s son, corresponded with Cerf Beer, the leader of French Jewry, in the summer of 1790, informing him that an assembly of Jewish representatives was meeting in Buda for three weeks and that a 10-man committee had been selected to prepare a petition to be submitted to the Diet. Rosenthal indicated that information on French Jewry’s new legal status would be most appreciated. A remarkable Latin petition, submitted to the Diet with a copy sent to the Emperor Leopold on 29 November 1790, was surely composed by a non-Jewish agent, but in all probability the guiding hand was that of Rosenthal. It read, in part, “At long last, permit us too to be citizens, useful taxpayers of the fatherland. In the whole world, outside Hungary we have no fatherland, no other father than the King . . . no other brothers than those with whom we live and die in one society. . . .”

In the following years, Eliah led several delegations and framed petitions on behalf of Hungarian Jewry. In 1810, after the Toleration Tax was raised, he submitted a request that it be abolished altogether. In the past, the petition argued, the tax was meant to provide exemption from military service:

From this exemption one concluded that the Jew, therefore, was not regarded as a native because he did not defend the country and was excluded from the rights of a citizen. . . . For almost 20 years now this nation is no longer exempt from this obligation; the Jew must now spill his blood as much as the Christian in the defense of the fatherland. In most European states the consequence that one draws from this circumstance is that once Jews fulfill the obligations of a citizen, they should be invested with the rights of the citizen.

The campaign to achieve legal equality was continued by Eliah’s son-in-law, Jacob H. Kassovitz, who served as head of the Pest community and was elected president of the Toleration Tax Committee in July 1848, thus becoming the leading representative of Hungarian Jewry as a whole. Naftali’s younger son, Shelomoh, who had married Cheile, the daughter of Koppel Theben, in 1784, restricted his own activities to the Pest community.

In addition to being wealthy political leaders, the Rosenthal family played key cultural roles in Hungary as pioneers of the Haskalah. Their links with the German Jewish Enlightenment had begun with Naftali, who at age 13 had been sent by his learned father, Yitsḥak Yehudah Lewin (Naftali adopted the name Rosenthal later in life), to study with David Fränkel in Germany. In the relatively open intellectual setting of Fränkel’s yeshiva, Naftali befriended a fellow student, the future philosopher and father of the Haskalah movement, Moses Mendelssohn. When Naftali left Berlin to continue his studies in Prague, he passed on to the young Mendelssohn his position as tutor in the household of the silk manufacturer, Berman Ziltz, whose partner Mendelssohn eventually became (as Mendelssohn informed his “brotherly friend” when Rosenthal renewed their correspondence in 1776). Returning to Hungary as an accomplished scholar with the title morenu, he changed his surname, settled in Mór, and married Tcharna Leipnik of Táta (d. 1797), widely renowned as an unusually learned woman who read the Bible in the original and could cite many passages of the Talmud by heart. Along with his son-in-law, Feivel (Philip) Gomperz, Rosenthal maintained a small yeshiva at Mór that attracted talented young scholars.

Naftali’s sons, who combined wealth and rabbinic learning, stood at the center of the Haskalah in Hungary. Between 1771 and 1776, Eliah studied at the Pressburg yeshiva of Me’ir Barby, where he formed a close bond with Mordekhai Banet, the future chief rabbi of Moravia. Naftali also urged his son not to neglect studying French and German. After continuing his studies in Prague, Eliah married, and in 1785 settled down in Komárom where he leased a brewery and earned the unusual appreciation of the city’s burghers. He moved to Pest in 1804, where he became a paper merchant and opened a bookstore. It was then a natural step to apply for permission to set up the first Hebrew printing press in Hungary. Had he received the permit, his enterprise would have rivaled the influential presses of Vienna and Prague, which were attracting maskilim from all over Europe. Instead of a press, the Rosenthal family put together an important library that drew people from afar; Leopold Zunz judged it as one of the best collections in private hands. If Eliah favored the Haskalah, he vehemently condemned German religious reforms, as he revealed in an 1819 letter to Banet, then in the midst of the campaign against the Hamburg temple.

Solomon Rosenthal (also known after his hometown as Shelomoh Mor; 1763–1845), Naftali’s younger son, followed in his brother’s footsteps and attended the Pressburg yeshiva. But as he revealed to the Berlin maskil Yitsḥak Euchel in 1789, he had also from an early age immersed himself in philosophy, studying first Christian Wolff and Alexander Baumgarten, then Mendelssohn, and even translating the latter’s Phaedon into Hebrew. Rosenthal wondered whether Euchel would publish his translations from the writings of the “excellent,” “giant” Kant. He asked Euchel to send him two sets of Mendelssohn’s Pentateuch via his father-in-law, Koppel Theben, and raged against “the fools who do not admit the greatness of Moses, the man of God.” Throughout his life, he corresponded extensively with maskilim, including Naftali Herts Wessely, as well as with Orthodox rabbis such as Mosheh Sofer with whom he enjoyed a close relationship.

Shelomoh Rosenthal’s network of acquaintances was such that he easily was the most influential layperson of his time in Hungary. His reach extended even beyond Hungary, as when his connections with the wealthy, learned maskil Mosheh Yisra’el Landau, his counterpart in Prague, helped swing Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport’s election to the Prague rabbinate. While Rosenthal firmly opposed the more radical forms of the Haskalah and religious reforms instituted at Berlin and Hamburg, he did favor the liberal Moravian rabbi, Löw Schwab, whom he convinced to take up the rabbinical post in Pest (Rosenthal himself had moved there only in 1819). The elaborate negotiations reveal two men who felt equally at ease spanning both the world of traditional learning as well as that of the Haskalah and moderate religious reforms.

Shelomoh Rosenthal also wrote several works: the manuscript “Sefer ha-mele’ah,” composed in 1818, argues against the plea for the antiquity of the Zohar that was set forth in Mosheh Kunitz’s Ben Yoḥai (1815). Rosenthal published articles in Kerem ḥemed, Orient, and a long article on Kabbalah and philosophy in Zion. His extensive polemic against Michael Creizenach, Samuel David Luzzatto, and Isaac Samuel Reggio appeared as Bet owen (1839).

The poet Salomon Löwisohn and the renowned humorist Moritz Gottlieb Saphir were related to the Rosenthal family. In the Vormärz period, members of the Saphir and Rosenthal families helped to establish the German press in Budapest.

The vast correspondence of the Rosenthal family was fed to flames sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century, but the fraction that survived has proven to be an invaluable historical source. Some letters came to be housed in the rabbinical seminary of Budapest; the rest found their way to the Viennese Jewish community’s library. After World War II, parts of the correspondence and Shelomoh Rosenthal’s manuscripts were deposited in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, while the rest of the letters are found in the so-called secret archives in Moscow.

Suggested Reading

Judah Arieh Blau, “Ḥalifat mikhtavim ben Shelomoh Rozental u-ven Itsik Oikhel,” Ha-Tsofeh 5 (1921): 48–53; Alexander Büchler, “Die Wahl Rapoports in Prag und Salomon Rosenthal,” Oesterreichische Wochenschrift 7 (1890): 403–411; P. Büchler, A móori chevra kadisha története, 1791–1891 (Budapest, 1891); Jekuthiel Judah Greenwald, Toldot mishpaḥat Rozental (Budapest, 1920); David Kaufmann, “Le-Toldot R. Mordekhai Banet u-mishpaḥat Rozental me-‘ir Mohr,” Ha-Asif 5 (1889): 130–139; “Liebermann Eliezer levele Rosenthal Salamonhoz, Berlin, 1819 Decz. 6.,” Magyar Zsidó Szemle 17 (1900): 184–185; Leopold Löw, “Geschichte der Juden in Ungarn,” Kalendar und Jahrbuch für Israeliten 5 (1846/47): 96–98; M. N. Mehrer, “Mikhtavim ben Mar Shelomoh Rozental veha-Rav Leb Shvab be-Prosnits ‘al devar hitmanuto le-Rav Abad be-Budapest,” Ha-Tsofeh 15 (1931): 167–185; Ignaz Reich, “Rosenthal Eliah,” in Beth-El: Ehrentempel verdienter ungarischer Israeliten, vol. 2, pt. 1, pp. 70–90 (Pest, 1867).