Zweifel, Eliezer

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ZWEIFEL, ELIEZER (1815–1888), Hebrew author and essayist, one of the first Haskalah writers to view Ḥasidism sympathetically. Zweifel was born in Mogilev. His father belonged to the *Chabad movement, and his traditional education included rabbinic and ḥasidic literature, medieval studies, and Kabbalah. Later, he studied the works of the Haskalah and the Wissenschaft des *Judentums writers in Hebrew and German. After many years of wandering in various Russian towns, earning his living by preaching and teaching, he was appointed lecturer in Mishnah and Talmud in the government rabbinical seminary at Zhitomir in 1853, remaining there until the seminary was closed in 1873. Zweifel was liked by his students, who included A.J. *Paperna and M. *Margolis, and inspired them with a love of Jewish tradition and the Talmud. By nature, he was a moderate; he tried "as far as possible to emphasize the favorable aspect of everything and every person" (preface to his Shalom al Yisrael, 3 (1870), 11).

His first book, Minim ve-Ugav, appeared in Vilna in 1858. It was a small but variegated collection of scriptural commentaries, homilies, and poems, deprecating the extreme attitudes of the Haskalah toward the devotees of the old religious tradition. The book aroused lively literary controversy, and was criticized with particular severity by *Mendele Mokher Seforim, then a young student, in his pamphlet Mishpat Shalom ("Peaceful Judgment," 1860). In Minim ve-Ugav, Zweifel employed a unique mixture of biblical, mishnaic, and talmudic language. David *Frischmann exaggerates in calling him "the father of the modern style", but he was undoubtedly one of those who led the change in Hebrew prose from the ornate biblical language to the modern literary style.

Zweifel's most important work was Shalom al Yisrael ("Peace to Israel"), which appeared in four parts in Zhitomir and Vilna between 1868 and 1873. The book defended Ḥasidism in terms of modern values and marked a sharp contrast to the general hostility which virtually all maskilim had hitherto manifested toward that movement. Ḥasidism, he argued, had a system of ideas of its own, which in many respects resembled the ideas of Philo and Spinoza. His defence of Ḥasidism relates specifically to the early stages of its development, whereas he takes issue with negative aspects which emerged in its later period, especially the cult of the ẓaddik. The book includes numerous selections from the writings of Ḥasidim, and of modern Jewish writers who wrote favorably about the movement as well as those who attacked it. Although it contains a wealth of material, the contents are poorly edited and make reading difficult. The book aroused indignation and severe criticism among the maskilim, and Jewish censors sympathetic to the Haskalah tried to prevent its publication. The book sparked a reevaluation of Ḥasidism by scholars and writers, and led to the historical appraisal of the movement by S. *Dubnow and a more romantic one by M.J. *Berdyczewski, S.A. *Horodezky, M. *Buber, and others.

After the closing of the rabbinical seminary in 1873, Zweifel lived in various towns in Russia and Poland, until he finally settled in the house of his daughter at Glukhov. His book Sanegor ("Defense Counsel," 1885) is a rebuttal to the accusations leveled against the Talmud by Jewish and gentile critics. Zweifel also wrote hundreds of articles in the Hebrew press, issued several works on ethics in Yiddish, including Musar Haskel ("Moral Lesson," 1862) and Tokhaḥat Ḥayyim ("Life's Reproof," 1865), and published books by other authors, old and new, whose ideas were akin to his. Zweifel's writings are distinguished by profuse quotations from rabbinic sources and his wide erudition. They lack, however, systematic structure, and today his works are primarily of historical interest.


Waxman, Literature, 3 (19602), 315–9, 341; Lachower, Sifrut, 2 (1929), 251–9, 312–3; Klausner, Sifrut, 6 (1952), 11–80; Rejzen, Leksikon, 2 (1929), 251–9; R. Goldberg, in: Orlogin, 12 (1956), 263–6.

[Yehuda Slutsky]