Yehonatan Eyebeschuetz, son of Natan Neta 1690-1764

Yehonatan Eyebeschuetz in Otzar Harabanim


Dear Heshie,

Earlier this week I sent you a copy of the article by Yehudah Liebes dealing with "A Secret Judaeo-Christian Sect Originating in Sabbatianism," taken from his collection of studies on the aftermath of the Sabbatean movement, "Be-sod ha-Emuna ha-Shabta'it." As I comment in my cover letter, you probably won't especially like the article, but it is important ior someone with your interests to stay abreast of interesting and controversial developments in the research of Eybeschuetz's life and times.

For the benefit of the various members of the Eybeschuetz and Zlotnik clans, I thought the trime has come to present some basic information about our illustrious ancesour, who is after all the ultimate "first cause" (if you'll pardon the light blasphemy) of all the E-mails which have been flying around the world among this group over the past few months, and whom we all claim, directly or indirectly, as our forebearer. (Much of this information is taken from Gershom Scholem's article in the Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. VI: cols. 1073-1076.)

Rav Yehonatan Eybeschuetz was by all opinions one of the major Rabbinic figures of the first half of the 18th century. The son of Reb Nathan Neta Eybuschuetz, he was born around 1690, apparently in Posen, and studied in his youth in Poland, Moravia and Prague. The first half of his mature life was spent in Prague -- about 1715 to 1740 -- where he served as rosh yeshiva, was a highly respected and charismatic preacher and, from 1736, upon the death of Rabbi David Oppenheim, also dayan --head of the religious court. During the Prague period he also had coaatct with both Christian clergy and lay intellectuals, and discussed religious matters with Cardinal Hassebauer and others.

He apparently aroused much controversy by his plan to print an edition of the Talmud with the "anti-Christian" passages censored -- a plan that was thwarted by the other rabbis of the time.

From 1741 on he was in Germany, first in Metz (Mainz), and later in Altona, as rabbi of the "three communities" of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek (Ah"o). It was here that violent controversy broke out over his alleged Sabbatianism. Sabbatianism refers, of course, to the great messianic movement which swept Jewry during the mid-17th century, centered around the figure of Sabbatai Zevi, which persisted even after his forced conversion to Islam in 1666 and his death in 1676. The movement was rooted in a complex, tortuous Kabbalistic theology, based upon the teachings of the Lurianic Kabbalah of 16th century Safed, but took these in a new direction, crossing the line into heresy with mystical doctrines of descent into the realm of the forbidden in order to redeem sparks of the Divine present therein. This same panchant for mystical dialectics provided the fuel for mystical rationalizations of Sabbatai Zevi's apostasy, making possible the persistence of an underground, crypto-Sabbatian movemnt well into the 18th century, and possibly beyond. The above is but a drop in the bucket of the serpentine doings of this bizarre chapter in Jewish history. The interested reader is referred to Gershom Scholem's monumental study, "Sabbatai Sevi, The Mystical Messiah (1626-1676)," available in both Hebrew and English.

To return to our ancestor: Eybeschuetz's principal nemesis, and leader of the accusations against him of Sabbatianism, was Rabbi Jacob Emden (the "Yavetz"), of Altona. This dispute split the Jewish and especially rabbinic world of the day, spilling over into halakhic issues as well, such as the famous divorce case in the city of Cleves. The Noda Beyehudah (Rabbi Yehezkel Landau of Prague) tried to intercede to make peace, but to no avail. At one point even the King of Denmark was involved. One of the major accusations against Eybeschuetz concerned amulets which he made, containing holy names ( as such an accepted Orthodox Kabbalistic practice, current to this day) which allegedly contained allusions to Sabbatai Zevi. His son Wolf Eybeschuetz was apparently, by all accounts, a Sabbatian prophet. (Heschie: I hope Moshe Aharon isn't from that line!).

Eybeschuetz died in Metz in 1764. He was an acknowledged genius in at least three separate areas of Jewish religious creativity: Talmud and Jewish law (halakhah); homiletics (derush) and popular preaching; and Kabbalah. His halakhic works include Urim ve-Tummim and Kreti u-Pleiti, on varios sections of the Shulhan Arukh. These works, like his Talmudic novellae, are outstanding examples of the school of pilpul -- ingenious, often hair-splitting novellea on the Talmud -- which reached its height in the 17th and 18th centuries, but unlike many pilpulists his work is written in a clear and incisive manner, based on clear logical principles. His homiletic works include Ya'arot Devash and Ahavat Yonatan.

In the area of Kabbalah, as is befitting an esoteric science, he wrote but little, but was considered one of the greatest Kabbalistic masters of his day. Given the deep involvement of Sabbatianism in Kabbalah, it was not unexpected that he be prone to suspicion. Moreover, given the underground nature of Sabbatianism in this period, it was next to impossible to conclusivel disprove that oneself, or any other given person, was not a Sabbatian. (In some ways reminiscent, perhaps, of the anti-Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era in America?)

In any event, there remains much controversy among historians and scholars over Rabbi Yonatan's Sabbatianism. Some hold that he never was; others that he was in his youth, but later rejected it; while a third school holds that he was a crypto-Sabbatian from the time of his studies in Prague until his death.

As for Liebis's article (for those who don't know: Yehudah Lieibis is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University, specializing in Kabbalah, and known for his fondness for outrageous and iconoclastic theses -- but always with solid backing; he's a thorough and painstaking scholar). He summarizes and analyzes a series of documents that describe a sect, that existed in the latter part of the 18th century, of crypto-Christians: Jews who had been Sabbatians, and had now adopted Christian belief in their hearts, while outwardly maintaining the appearances of Judaism. These people claimed as their founder and main prophet none other than Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschuetz!

Leibis examines closely the documents, and concludes that they are authentic, in the sense that such a sect did in fact exist, but that Eybeschuetz himself was not a member thereof, but was in fact a normative Rabbinic Jew, with certain crypto-Sabbatian tendencies. (All this is of course very much in a nutshell).

There's of course much more taht could be said, but I shall suffice with that for now for basic information.

With best wishes to all,

Jonathan Chipman


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