Eybeschuetz, Jonathan

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EYBESCHUETZ, JONATHAN (ben Nathan Nata ; 1690/95–1764), talmudist and kabbalist. Eybeschuetz, a child prodigy, studied in Poland, Moravia, and Prague. In his youth, after the death of his father, he studied in Prossnitz under Meir Eisenstadt and Eliezer ha-Levi Ettinger, his uncle, and in Vienna under Samson Wertheimer. He married the daughter of Isaac Spira, the av bet din of Bunzlau. After traveling for some time he settled in Prague in 1715, and in time became head of the yeshivah and a famous preacher. When he was in Prague he had many contacts with priests and the intelligentsia, debating religious topics and matters of faith with them. He became friendly with Cardinal Hassebauer and also discussed religious questions with him. Through the help of the cardinal, Eybeschuetz received permission to print the Talmud with the omission of all passages contradicting the principles of Christianity. Aroused to anger by this, David *Oppenheim and the rabbis of Frankfurt had the license to print revoked.

The people of Prague held Eybeschuetz in high esteem and he was considered second only to David Oppenheim. In 1725 he was among the Prague rabbis who excommunicated the Shabbatean sect. After the death of David Oppenheim (1736), he was appointed dayyan of Prague. Elected rabbi of Metz in 1741, he subsequently became rabbi of the "Three Communities," Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek (1750). Both in Metz and in Altona he had many disciples and was considered a great preacher.

His position in the Three Communities, however, was undermined when the dispute broke out concerning his suspected leanings toward Shabbateanism. This controversy accompanied Eybeschuetz throughout his life, and the quarrel had repercussions in every community from Holland to Poland. His main opponent was Jacob *Emden, also a famous talmudist and his rival in the candidature to the rabbinate of the Three Communities. The quarrel developed into a great public dispute which divided the rabbis of the day. While most of the German rabbis opposed Eybeschuetz, his support came from the rabbis of Poland and Moravia. A fruitless attempt at mediation was made by Ezekiel *Landau, rabbi of Prague. Most of Eybeschuetz' own community was loyal to him and confidently accepted his refutation of the charges made by his opponent, but dissension reached such a pitch that both sides appealed to the authorities in Hamburg and the government of Denmark for a judicial ruling. The king favored Eybeschuetz and ordered new elections, which resulted in his reappointment. Yet the literary polemic continued, even prompting several Christian scholars to participate, some of whom, thinking that Eybeschuetz was a secret Christian, came to his defense. After his reelection as rabbi of the Three Communities, some rabbis of Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Metz challenged him to appear before them to reply to the suspicions raised against him. Eybeschuetz refused, and when the matter was brought before the Council of the Four Lands in 1753, the council issued a ruling in his favor. In 1760 the quarrel broke out once more when some Shabbatean elements were discovered among the students of Eybeschuetz' yeshivah. At the same time his younger son, Wolf, presented himself as a Shabbatean prophet, with the result that the yeshivah was closed. When Moses Mendelssohn was in Hamburg in 1761, Eybeschuetz treated him with great respect, even publishing a letter on him (Kerem Ḥemed, 3 (1838), 224–5), incontrovertible testimony to Eybeschuetz' awareness of Mendelssohn's ideological approach.

Eybeschuetz was considered not only one of the greatest preachers of his time but also one of the giants of the Talmud, acclaimed for his acumen and particularly incisive intellect. Thirty of his works in the field of halakhah have been published. His method of teaching aroused great enthusiasm among the pilpulists, and his works, Urim ve-Tummim on Ḥoshen Mishpat (1775–77), Kereti u-Feleti on Yoreh De'ah (1763), and Benei Ahuvah on Maimonides (1819), were considered masterpieces of pilpulistic literature. To the present day they are regarded as classics by students of the Talmud. They are unique in that the many pilpulim they include are in most cases based on clear, logical principles that give them their permanent value. His homiletic works, Ya'arot Devash (1779–82), Tiferet Yonatan (1819), and Ahavat Yonatan (1766), also found many admirers. In succeeding generations his reputation was sustained by these works. Since (apart from Kereti u-Feleti) his works were not printed in his lifetime, it is clear that his great influence among his contemporaries must have derived from the power of his oral teaching and from his personality, both of which were highly praised by many writers. Of his books on the Kabbalah, only one was printed, Shem Olam (1891), but during his lifetime Eybeschuetz was considered a great kabbalist.

Opinions are still divided on the assessment of this striking personality, his supporters and detractors vying with one another with an extraordinary intensity. The great bitterness surrounding the controversies on the question of his secret relationship with the Shabbateans stems precisely from his being recognized as a true master of the Torah. It was hard to believe that a man who had himself signed a ḥerem against the Shabbateans could have secretly held their beliefs. Suspicions were aroused against him on two occasions: in 1724, with the appearance of a manuscript entitled Va-Avo ha-Yom el ha-Ayin, which the Shabbateans, and also several of his own students, ascribed to him. This book (preserved in Ms.) is indisputably a Shabbatean work. Even after he had signed the ḥerem against the Shabbateans, suspicion was not allayed and it prevented his election to the rabbinate of Prague. In 1751, the dispute grew more virulent when some amulets written by Eybeschuetz in Metz and Altona were opened. Jacob Emden deciphered them and found that they contained unmistakable Shabbatean formulae (Sefat Emet, 1752). Eybeschuetz denied that the amulets had any continuous logical meaning, maintaining that they consisted simply of "Holy Names" (Luḥot Edut, 1755), and he even put forward an interpretation of them based on his system. His opponents retorted that the real interpretation of the amulets could be discovered from the work attributed to him, Va-Avo ha-Yom el ha-Ayin, and that they could and should be interpreted as having a meaningful content. Scholarly historical research has advanced three views concerning Eybeschuetz' relationship with Shabbateanism: that he was never a Shabbatean and that suspicions on this score were completely unfounded (Zinz, Mortimer, Cohen, Klemperer); that he was a Shabbatean in his youth but turned his back on the sect around the time of the ḥerem of 1725 (Bernhard Baer, Saul Pinhas Rabinowitz); that he was a crypto-Shabbatean from the time he studied in Prossnitz and Prague until the end of his life (Graetz, David Kahana, Scholem, Perlmutter). An interpretation of his kabbalistic beliefs must also depend on his relationship with Shabbateanism. Some believe that the book Shem Olam, which deals with the philosophical explanation of the nature of God, is a work whose kabbalistic teaching only confirms generally accepted kabbalistic teaching (Mieses); others consider that the book is undoubtedly Shabbatean in its conception of God (Perlmutter). Still others believe that the work is a forgery or was erroneously attributed to Eybeschuetz (Margulies). Recent research has demonstrated a close relationship between Shem Olam and Va-Avo ha-Yom el ha-Ayin.


B. Brilling, in: huca, 34 (1963), 217–28; 35 (1964), 255–73; D.L. Zinz, Gedulat Yehonatan (1930); M.J. Cohen, Jacob Emden, a Man of Controversy (1937); G. Scholem in; ks, 16 (1939–40), 320–38; idem, in: Zion, 6 (1940–1), 96–100; idem, Leket Margaliyyot (1941); R. Margulies, Sibbat Hitnahaguto shel Rabbenu Ya'akov me-Emden le-Rabbenu Yehonatan Eybeschuetz (1941); A. Ha-Shiloni (I. Raphael), La-Pulmus ha-Meḥuddash al Shabbeta'uto shel R. Yehonatan Eybeschuetz (1942); M.A. Perlmutter, R. Yehonatan Eybeschuetz ve-Yaḥaso la-Shabbeta'ut (1947); Mifal ha-Bibliografyah ha-Ivrit, Ḥoveret le-Dugmah (1964), 13–24.

[Gershom Scholem]