This Day in Jewish History / A Rabbinical Leader Who Thought Children Should Know Science Dies

Yechezkel Landau helped expose Jewish children to secular learning, despite his concerns that young Jews would assimilate.

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On April 29, 1793, Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau died, in Prague, at the age of 79. As chief rabbi of the Bohemian capital, Landau was a highly influential and consulted authority, a scholar who walked a line between his devotion to Jewish law and tradition, on the one hand, and a recognition and acceptance of the outside world and the need for Jews to interact with it.

Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau was born on October 8, 1713, in Opatow, in what is today Poland, the son of Rabbi Yitzhak of Ludmir, a well-off and influential rabbi who claimed descent from the medieval commentator Rashi. Yechezkel studied in Ludmir and later in the kloyz (a type of adult yeshiva) in Brody. There, in 1734, he was appointed a dayan, a rabbinical judge, in one of that city’s four Jewish courts.

It was in his next position, as chief rabbi of Yampol, which he assumed in 1745, that Landau made something of a name for himself, in writing his “Igeret Shalom” – message of peace – which was an attempt to mediate a dispute between two other rabbis, Ya’akov Emden and Yonatan Eybeschutz. Emden had accused Eybeschutz of perpetuating the cult of the false messiah Shabtai Tsvi. In the compromise forged by Landau, Eybeschutz was exonerated of the charge, but the Sabbatean movement was largely discredited.

In 1755, Landau became rabbi of Prague, which was then one of the largest Jewish cities in the world – a position he held until his death. There he established a yeshiva and also was the head of the beit din (rabbinical court).

Landau’s reputation extended beyond the Jewish community, reaching the ruling circles of the Habsburg monarchy. Although concerned that the Haskalah (Enlightenment) threatened to lead young Jews away from religious law – he was even opposed to Moses Mendelssohn’s translation into German of the Pentateuch, because he feared it would lead to a more general study of German – he did acknowledge the benefits that could come from secular education. He even cooperated with the government on establishing government-sponsored primary schools for Jewish children, where they could be exposed to science, math and history. (He also ruled that Christianity was not a form of idolatry, and that Jews were obligated to respect the law as it pertained to Christians too, not just vis-à-vis other Jews.)

For its part, the government would consult with Landau on points of Jewish law, including on the subjects of autopsy and delayed burial, civil marriage, and the oath Jews were required to recite when appearing in non-Jewish courts. As noted by the YIVO Encyclopedia, “Landau used his diplomatic skills to facilitate both Prague Jewry’s acceptance of various innovations and to convince government officials to moderate new rules.” He also gave his blessing to the conscription of Jewish men to the empire’s army.

Rabbi Landau wrote more than 850 responsa to inquiries from other Jews about points of Jewish law, which he collected and published during his lifetime as “Noda Beyehuda” (a reference to Psalms 76.2, which refers to God’s name being “great in Israel”). He also wrote commentaries on a several talmudic tractates, as well as blessings intended to honor the empress Maria Teresa and her successor, Joseph II.

Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau died on this date in 1793. All three of his sons, Jacob, Samuel and Israel, were also prominent members of their respective Jewish communities, playing roles in the Jewish Enlightenment.

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