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Eilburg, Eli‘ezer

(ca. 1530–ca. 1580), physician and skeptic. Born in Braunschweig, Germany, Eilburg moved to Poznań in 1546. After a brief stay there, he moved to Ancona, Italy, where he studied medicine. Around 1552, he moved to Oleśnica in Silesia, and subsequently appears to have lived in various places in that region, and perhaps Moravia or Poland. He was imprisoned twice and was perhaps excommunicated, though it is not clear if this was a result of his unorthodox views.

About 1575, Eilburg wrote “‘Eser she’elot” (Ten Questions), a work that is still unpublished. “‘Eser she’elot” is cast as a letter to three minor rabbis of towns in Moravia. The introduction and questions are preceded by a flattering, but perhaps ironically intended, address to the rabbis. In posing the questions, most of which are extended essays, Eilburg questions dogmas of Judaism such as creation ex nihilo, resurrection of the dead, the chosenness of the Jewish people, the accuracy of the Masoretic text of the Bible, and the unchanging nature of Judaism and Jewish law. He asks why there is no record of the Exodus in the histories of the Egyptians, and suggests that some Bible stories may be fables. He questions the morality of biblical heroes, and mocks the belief that heaven is only for Jews.

Eilburg quotes liberally from medieval Jewish philosophers, such as Maimonides and Gersonides, and Islamic philosophers, notably Averroës. Among scholars who were his contemporaries, he was influenced especially by ‘Azaryah dei Rossi; but Eilburg’s writing is far more radical than dei Rossi’s. Indeed, Eilburg’s views were as radical as or even more extreme than those of any other sixteenth-century Jewish writer.

In addition to “‘Eser she’elot,” Eilburg wrote Hebrew poetry (the content of which is religious and perfectly orthodox), a short book of medical notes, and a brief autobiographical sketch. He may also be the author of a book of Hebrew horoscopes—including those of historical personages, such as Copernicus and Pope Alexander Borgia. Eilburg copied a number of works of medieval philosophy, both Jewish and Islamic, and some kabbalistic works. He appears to have been a follower of Avraham Abulafia’s system of Kabbalah, writing that anyone who rejects Abulafia is “either a fool or a heretic.” Eilburg’s father—and, more exceptionally, his mother—had also been students of Kabbalah.

Suggested Reading

Joseph Davis, “The ‘Ten Questions’ of Eliezer Eilburg and the Problem of Jewish Unbelief in the 16th Century,” Jewish Quarterly Review 91.3–4 (2001): 293–336.