Hirschfeld, Ephraim Joseph

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HIRSCHFELD, EPHRAIM JOSEPH (c. 1758–1820), author and active Freemason at the end of the 18th century. Hirschfeld was born in Karlsruhe, the son of the learned cantor Joseph Hirschel Darmstadt. In his youth his talents came to the attention of Prince Charles Frederick of Baden who enabled him to study in the high school of Karlsruhe and then to study medicine in Strasbourg. Hirschfeld did not complete his studies but acquired a wide general background in addition to his traditional education. From 1779 to 1781, Hirschfeld was a tutor in the house of David *Friedlaender; he frequented the home of Moses *Mendelssohn and was in contact with the Haskalah circles of Berlin. His sensitive character and his quarrelsome nature were conspicuous in his relations with others. In 1782 he worked in Innsbruck, where he met with the founder of the order of masons of a theosophic bent, the Asiatic Brethren, an order organized by the cooperation among monks with theosophic tendencies, Freemasons, and aristocrats. One of its founders was an important Frankist convert to Christianity, Franz Thomas von Schoenfeld (see *Dobrushka), who introduced into the writings of the order portions of Shabbatean literature in German translation. Hirschfeld was received into the order and for several years was secretary to its founder, Hans Ecker von Eckhofen, who opened the order to Jewish financiers, members of the Enlightenment who wished to form closer ties with Christian society. As was customary in mystical orders of Freemasons, he took a pseudonym, Marcus ben Binah. Hirschfeld occupied an important position in the order, especially after the departure of Schoenfeld. Until 1786 he lived in Vienna where he first assumed the name Hirschfeld, and later, until 1791, in Schleswig, which had become the center of the order. Because of a quarrel with Ecker, Hirschfeld was expelled from the order and in 1790, placed under house arrest for several months. However, several important Jews in the organization came to his defense. During those years, Hirschfeld was active as translator of the mystical writings of the order, making it seem as if they had been originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, and he interpreted the mystical teachings of the order. In 1791 his former friend Schoenfeld took him to Strasbourg, but Hirschfeld left him and returned to Germany. From 1792 until his death he lived alternately in Frankfurt and in nearby Offenbach and maintained close contact with the Frankists who had their center there. His aspiration toward a religious fusion of Judaism and Christianity within a kabbalistic framework was close to the spirit of Frankism. But Hirschfeld never converted to Christianity and died a Jew.

In 1796 he and his brother Pascal published Biblisches Organon, a kabbalistic-theosophic translation and commentary on the beginning of Genesis, intending this to be the start of a large work elaborating mystical insights on biblical topics. Hirschfeld moved away from the Haskalah spirit and lived in the intellectual milieu of the order, dreaming of its reestablishment after its decline around 1791. He was close to the Catholic professor Franz Josef *Molitor, later a distinguished student of Kabbalah in Frankfurt, who was greatly influenced by Hirschfeld. In the lively disputes in Masonic circles over the acceptance of Jews into their organizations Hirschfeld was prominent and he was attacked vehemently by opponents of their admission. Even after his death, important persons in these organizations attempted to obtain manuscripts rumored to be in his legacy. He was completely forgotten in the 19th century because his mysticism was not to the taste of the Jewish Freemasons of that period. Much material on Hirschfeld is preserved in the archives of the Freemasons in The Hague and Copenhagen. He was a unique figure at the beginning of the Emancipation, both because of his many-sided personality and because of his activities as a Jew in organizations which then generally were inimical to Jewish membership.


J. Katz, Jews and Freemasons in Europe 1723–1939 (1970), index; idem, in: Zion, 30 (1965), 171–250; idem, in: blbi, 28 (1964), 295–311; Scholem, in: ylbi, 7 (1962), 247–78. add. bibliography: K. Davidowicz, "Zwischen Aufklaerung und Mystik," in: G. Biegel and M. Graetz (eds.), Judentum zwischen Tradition und Moderne (2002), 135–47.

[Gershom Scholem]