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Paneth, Yeḥezkel

(1783–1845), chief rabbi of Transylvania. In the eighteenth century, the Paneth family formed the core of the small Jewish settlement in Bielitz (Bielsko-Biała) in Austrian Silesia; the town was located between Moravia to the west and Galicia to the east. Yeḥezkel Paneth’s father Yosef (as his father before him) was a wealthy leaseholder on the estates of Christian, Graf von Haugwitz. A considerably learned man with good connections to the economic and scholarly elite, Yosef sent his teenage son to study in Moravia and Bohemia. Yeḥezkel spent two years at the Leipnik yeshiva of Barukh Fränkl-Te’omim, and from 1799 to 1802 in Prague, primarily at the yeshiva for advanced students of Yehudah Leib Fischeles. The campaign to eradicate the last vestiges of the Sabbatian movement in Prague was in full swing, led by El‘azar Fleckeles. Furthermore, the Haskalah was flourishing under the moderating influence of Barukh Jeitteles, a member of the Prague’s rabbinical court.

Paneth was in touch with both these men. They represented trends that repressed the role of mysticism and Kabbalah in Jewish public life while striving—to different degrees—to accommodate acculturation and Enlightenment. In addition to being an outstanding student, Paneth significantly also earned the praise of Fleckeles for not pursuing German, a “harmful” fashion that “unfortunately had become a plague.” Nevertheless, it is certain that by the time he left Prague, Paneth had gained a good command of German and perhaps a smattering of Latin as well.

As a consequence of the Familiants Laws, Paneth, who had an older brother, could no longer live in Bielitz after reaching adulthood. His father arranged a marriage for him with Ḥayah Raḥel, daughter of the wealthy Mosheh Henik of Linsk. In the fall of 1802, Paneth arrived in that town, a medium-sized community in Galicia with a kloyz (an institution of advanced learning for newlywed young scholars), led by the community’s rabbi, Menaḥem Mendel Rubin. Paneth soon became the leading figure among the 24 young men following a rigorous ascetic regime of study in the cloistered framework. Rubin’s son, Naftali Horowitz, the rabbi of Ropshitz (Ropczyce), had become a follower of Hasidism and had drawn his aging father into the movement.

Within a year, Paneth had joined the Hasidim, visiting the three chief figures of the region: Yisra’el the Magid of Kozhenits; Ya‘akov Yitsḥak, the Seer of Lublin; and above all, the tsadik who became his prime master, Menaḥem Mendel (then of Pshitik [Przytyk]) of Rimanov (d. 1815). Paneth’s notes, taken during his month-long visits with Menaḥem Mendel from 1805 to 1808, became the basis of Menaḥem Tsiyon (1851), the first published volume of Menaḥem Mendel’s teachings. Paneth’s father disapproved of his son’s new association and questioned the rebbe’s familiarity with the Talmud. Paneth’s long letter to his father of 1805 (Responsa mar’eh Yeḥezkel; 1875, no. 104), is a unique document in the annals of Hasidism, recording the attractions of the movement even for exceptionally gifted Talmud scholars. Among Hasidim, the text attained the status of a “holy letter”; Ḥayim Halberstam of Sandz would read it on the anniversary of the death of Menaḥem Mendel of Rimanov. Deriding his father’s objections, Paneth asked, “Where do we find in the entire Torah that it is a commandment to be a great razor-sharp scholar?”

Paneth went on to be the rabbi of Ostrik (Ustrzyki Dolne) from 1807 to 1813, and then served the Hungarian community of Tarcal in the wine-growing region of Zemplén county from 1813 to 1823. When the post of Transylvanian chief rabbi became vacant in 1823, Mosheh Sofer of Pressburg recommended three candidates: two prominent older men—his confidant and righthand man, the Pressburg dayan Daniel Prossnitz (b. 1759), Elyakim Götz Schwerin, rabbi of Baja (b. 1760), and Paneth, a relative unknown. The energetic younger man was preferred to the two older candidates. A unique, mixed Jewish population of several thousand constituted this overwhelmingly rural Jewry: migrants from Galicia in the north; from Moravia and Bohemia in the south; and Sephardim, especially in Karlsburg (Alba Iulia, Gyulafehérvár), the seat of the chief rabbi (Paneth would pray on alternative Sabbaths among the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim).

There was only one rabbinate in Transylvania, and Paneth set about raising the religious standard of the principality almost single-handedly. He spent months traveling about the countryside on horse and buggy, appointing ritual slaughterers and constructing ritual baths, imposing strict observance on Jews who often inadvertently violated the Sabbath or were wont to dance men and women together. His responsa collection gives a glimpse into the rural occupations of Transylvanian Jews, especially lessees of estates farmed by serfs. He also enjoyed good relations with the governor and the bishop, and apparently played a political role in representing Jews of the region. His eulogy for Emperor Francis II in 1835, published in German at Paneth’s own expense, is a 46-page royalist paean to the Habsburgs, relishing the historical minutiae of the dynasty’s history (clearly informed by the Moravian chronicle, Korot ha-‘itim). Paneth died in 1845; on his deathbed he was still ruling on a halakhic problem. An ohel (mausoleum for saintly persons) was erected over his grave in 1879.

In the struggle over his succession, the reform-minded Avraham Friedmann, rabbi of Simánd, triumphed over Paneth’s eldest son Ḥayim Betsal’el (1803–1874). The author of an important responsa collection, Derekh yivḥar (1894), Ḥayim Betsal’el served as a rabbi in Tasnád (Tasnad), later the seat of the most important yeshiva in Transylvania. While Yeḥezkel Paneth himself had not assumed the mantle of a tsadik, his youngest son Menaḥem Mendel (1817–1884) did, founding the only autochthonous Hasidic dynasty in Transylvania. Menaḥem Mendel served as rabbi of Deés (Dej) and was a prolific author (among his works were Responsa sha‘are tsedek, Avne tsedek, and Mishpat tsedek). While Yeḥezkel’s daughters married the grandsons of Yehudah Kahana, the author of Kuntres ha-sefekot, in the following generation, the Deés dynasty allied itself with the Twersky, Rokeaḥ, Teitelbaum, Halberstam, Eichenstein, and other great Hasidic houses.

Suggested Reading

Mordekhai Grinfeld, ed., Mar’eh Yeḥezkel ha-Shalem, by Ezechiel Paneth, 2 vols. (Monsey, N.Y., 2004), see vol. 1, pp. 104–186 for reproductions of documents, including an 1805 letter to his father and a Hebrew version of his eulogy on the Emperor Franz; Yitsḥak Yosef Kohen, “Toldot Mar’eh Yeḥezkel,” in Sefer ha-yovel; Li-Khevodo ule-zikhro shel rabenu ha-gadol raban u-me’oran shel Yisra’el, maran Rabenu Yeḥezkel Panet, by Ezechiel Paneth, pp. 1–241 (n.p. [Union City, N.J.], 1994/95), including bio-bibliography, genealogy of his descendants, and selection of his teachings; Trauer Rede für Weiland Se. Majestät den allergnädigsten Kaiser Franz I. welche durch den Siebenbürger Ober Rabbiner Ezechiel Paneth den Israeliten zu Carlsburg in der aldaigen Sinagoge am 10. April 1835 vorgetragen werde (Hermannstadt, 1835).