This Day in Jewish History

1764: Controversial 18th-century Rabbi Dies

Jonathan Eybeschutz is remembered for his encyclopedic knowledge and moral punctiliousness - but also for a dispute with another rabbinic great, Jacob Emden, who accused him of heretical tendencies.

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September 18, 1764, is thought to be the date on which the great but controversial rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz died. Eybeschutz is remembered for his encyclopedic knowledge and moral punctiliousness – but also for the lengthy conflict he was involved in with another rabbinic great, Jacob Emden, who accused him of harboring heretical Sabbatean tendencies.

Eybeschutz was born in 1690 in Krakow, Poland. His father, Natan Note, was a rabbi in the Moravian town of Eybenschuetz, from which the son’s name derived. After his father’s untimely death, Eybeschutz continued with his studies in Prossnitz, Holleschau and Vienna. In 1711, he married Elkele Spira, and the couple settled in Prague, where, in 1715, he became yeshiva head.

Eybeschutz was unyielding in his fight against corruption in the rabbinical establishment (which included the sale of rabbinical positions), and also in holding the tide against a decline in the numbers of Jews devoting themselves to Torah study, in the face of the scientific revolution then underway.

As a yeshiva head, Eybeschutz sometimes supported his students, something he could do because he also worked as a trial lawyer and customs agent – but his wealth led to suspicion among some of collaboration with foreign governments. The chief rabbi of Prague, David Oppenheim, also disapproved of Eybeschutz’s willingness to allow in all who wanted to to study at his yeshiva, and had the school shut down for some time.

At one point Eybeschutz worked out an arrangement with Jesuit theologian Franz Haselbauer, the chief censor of Hebrew books, for the printing of an edition of the Talmud, on the condition that it would have deleted passages considering insulting to Christianity. When Oppenheim learned of this, he had the publication canceled and Eybeschutz banned from being involved in any future editions of the Talmud.

Eybeschutz remained in Prague for 30 years, hoping to follow Oppenheim as chief rabbi. When that didn’t happen, even after Oppenheim’s death in 1736, he moved on to a similar position in Metz, and eventually to Altona outside Hamburg, then under Danish rule. Together with nearby Wandsbek, the Jewish populations of Altona and Hamburg constituted a single community, and Eybeschutz became its chief rabbi in 1750.

There he had the misfortune of encountering Rabbi Emden, whose father had been chief rabbi of Altona, and who, some historians have said, was unhappy that the position had gone to the newcomer instead of himself.

Eybeschutz had a practice of distributing amulets to sick people, and Emden noticed that the charms had inscribed on them a reference to Shabtai Tzvi as God’s “anointed one” – that is, the Messiah. Emden cited these and some of Eybeschutz’s writings as proof of his Sabbatean tendencies, at a time when Sabbateanism was a growing threat to normative Judaism. He also accused Eybeschutz of having had a sexual relationship with his own daughter, the kind of behavior many expected of a follower of Shabtai Tzvi.

Emden pressed his case against Eybeschutz until the rabbinical council placed a ban on the accuser and ordered him to leave Altona. Emden moved temporarily to Amsterdam, but he also appealed to the King of Denmark, Frederick V, who ruled in Emden’s favor, and commanded the council to compensate Emden for the damage to his good name.

The dispute was never resolved, even with the death of Eybeschutz in 1764, and to this day there are historians who are convinced Emden was right about him.