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Theben, Koppel

(Mosheh Ya‘akov ben Avraham Mandl; 1732–1799), principal lay leader of eighteenth-century Hungarian Jewry. Koppel Theben’s family, alternately called Mandl or Theben (Devény) after a small Hungarian village on the Danube near the Austrian border, played a central role in the leadership of Pressburg (Bratislava, Pozsony), the most important eighteenth-century Hungarian Jewish community. Theben’s father, Avraham (d. 1768) served not only as head of the Pressburg community, but also as nationwide leader and shtadlan (lobbyist or intercessor); he was the sole importer of textile from the imperial Linz factory. The Thebens were related to leading families in Hungary and the nearby Bohemian lands; indeed, the family’s reputation and prestige extended far beyond Hungary. One of Avraham’s daughters married a son of the world-renowned Yonatan Eybeschütz, Mordekhai, whose suspected Sabbatian sympathies embroiled the Thebens in an extended communal conflict.

Koppel Theben followed in his father’s footsteps in communal service, and by 1768 was serving as an elder of the Pressburg community. He expanded the family firm’s activities, importing textiles from as far away as the Netherlands. Business connections brought Theben into close and even friendly contact with Hungarian aristocrats and high-level government bureaucrats. The Hungarian chancellor, Count Károly Pálffy, who also owned the Pressburg suburb in which the Jewish ghetto was situated, signed a letter in 1798 to “my dear Koppel Theben,” as “affectionately yours.” The well-connected Theben, whose networks extended throughout the land, was destined by his talents and family tradition for the role of the principal interlocutor between the state and Hungarian Jewry. From the mid-1780s until his death, he was the foremost shtadlan, not only of the Jews of Hungary but also of the entire Habsburg Empire.

Theben was well known at court; successive emperors recognized him by sight and repeatedly turned to him during wartime to conduct fund-raising among Jewish subjects. His most dramatic episode was his successful lobbying against blood libels in Csenger and Peer in 1791. He also had several unsuccessful audiences with Emperor Joseph II in 1788 and 1789 in an effort to repeal military conscription for Jews. When the emperor died in 1790, an opportunity for change presented itself and representatives of Hungarian communities met to decide on a lobbying strategy. Tradition has it that while Theben’s in-law, Naftali Rosenthal, urged that Jews willingly assume the military obligations of citizens, Theben clung to a more traditional stance, seeking to redeem personal service with a fee. Theben’s view prevailed, and indeed he succeeded with the more pliant Emperor Leopold. Theben continued to intercede on behalf of the Jewish community, acting even from his deathbed in 1799 to orchestrate a campaign to frustrate efforts obligating Jews to serve in the army.

Hungary held a privileged position within the Habsburg Empire. Its unique constitution was reluctantly acknowledged by an otherwise centralized enlightened absolutist regime, a factor that gave Theben room for maneuver, which he fully exploited. While wooing the sympathy of the chancellor and other Habsburg bureaucrats, he also enlisted as an ally Péter Balogh von Ocsa, leader of the aristocratic opposition to Joseph II. He sought to persuade Balogh, the head of Hungary’s Lutheran minority and a leading Freemason, arguing that in levying the Toleration Tax and conscripting Jews, the king was violating Hungary’s constitution.

Theben died on 26 August 1799 while “taking the cure” at Karlsbad. He is buried in Prague, near the grave of Rabbi Yeḥezkel Landau. While Theben himself was not a particularly learned man, his brother Menaḥem Mendel (d. 1824) was a pious scholar, referred to by the title morenu; the latter was also a bibliophile who published Sefer ha-yashar of Rabenu Tam. Theben’s equally learned and pious cousin Binyamin Wolf Theben, who circumcised hundreds of infants, also served as a shtadlan. Binyamin Wolf recorded in Hebrew his successful intervention at the court of Joseph II to repeal the clause in the Hungarian Edict of Toleration (1783) obligating Jews to shave their beards, a feat often attributed to his more famous cousin Koppel. The maskil Shelomoh Rosenthal was Koppel Theben’s son-in-law.

Suggested Reading

S[ámuel] Bettelheim, “Koppel Theben: Ein Zeitbild,” Jüdisches Familienblatt (Bratislava) 1 (1926); Yehoshu’a Levinzohn, Ya‘akov Kopl Theben (Warsaw, 1899); Leopold Löw, “Geschichte der Juden in Ungarn,” Kalender und Jahrbuch für Israeliten 5 (1846/47): 96–98; Ignaz Reich, “R. Koppel Theben,” in Beth-El: Ehrentempel verdienter ungarischer Israeliten, vol. 2, part 2, pp. 99–117 (Pest, 1867); Max Schay, “Die Familie Mandel Theben,” Jüdische Familien-Forschung 1 (1925–1927): 115–124; Abraham Trebitsch (Moses Abraham ben Reuben Hayyat), Korot ha-‘itim (Brünn, 1801); Yitsḥak Vais, Avne bet ha-yotser (1900; rpt., Jerusalem, 1969/70).