Great Leaders of our People
There were two aspects that made the life of Rabbi Yonasan
Eibeschutz memorable. The first was his tremendous scholarship in Torah;
“nigleh” (the open, revealed Torah of the Bible and the
“nistar” (the hidden, esoteric Torah of the “Zohar”
and the “Kabbalah”) The second was a
tragic dispute that he had with Rabbi Yaakov Emden, in the wake of the
catastrophic episode that nearly tore the Jewish world apart, the rise and
fall of the false-Messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi.
An “illui,” a child prodigy in his youth, Rabbi Yonasan became one of the
great commentators on the Talmud and on the “Shulchan Aruch,” the Codes of
Jewish Law. At the age of twenty-one, he headed the “Yeshiva” (Talmudic
Academy) of Prague, and his oratorical abilities were already known far
and wide. Somewhat unusually, he also interacted with priests and with the
Cardinal in the area, debating religious topics with them. This Cardinal
allowed him to print a copy of the Talmud, with passages critical of
Christianity censored out. This aroused the hostility of the other rabbis
of Prague, and also lent an air of controversy to Rabbi Yonasan. However,
in 1725, he was among the Prague rabbis who put the followers of
Shabbetai Tzvi in “cherem” (excommunication).
As noted above, Rabbi Yonasan was highly proficient in “Kabbalah,” and he
wrote amulets for many Jews who wanted them for their mystical powers.
Rabbi Yaakov Emden, also a great Torah scholar, had dedicated himself to
the uprooting of any remnant of support for Shabbetai Tzvi. He also had
sharply criticized the
(Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto), not for any connection with Shabbateanism
but for what he considered abuse of his knowledge of “Kabbalah.” We see
that Rabbi Yaakov Emden possessed a critical personality, although that
can be very easily understood in the light of the disaster that had just
befallen the Jews and their false Messiah.
In any case, Rabbi Yaakov Emden came into possession of one of the amulets
written by Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz and he claimed that he found in it
evidence of Shabbateanism. Rabbi Eibeschutz vigorously denied the charge
and enlisted in his support great rabbis such as the “Noda BiYehudah,”
Rabbi Yechezkel Landau and Rabbi Eliyahu, the
Gaon of Vilna.
But Rabbi Yaakov Emden also received significant rabbinical support and
the controversy became so intense that it came to the attention of the
Emperor Frederick of Denmark. The Emperor first sided with Rabbi Yaakov
Emden, and deposed Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz, but later reversed himself,
and restored Rabbi Eibeschutz to his position as a leader of the Jewish
This great internal dispute between two Torah giants was one of the bitter
consequences of the Shabbetai Tzvi fiasco. It is also quite likely that
the fierce opposition of the Vilna Gaon and other “Mitnagdim” (Those in
Opposition) to Chassidut, a new mass
spiritual movement that arose around that time, initiated by the
Tov, that put its emphasis on “Kabbalah” and Prayer, rather than
exclusive focus on the study of Talmud, developed as a consequence of
the Shabbetai Tzvi disaster, and this hostility has lasted for hundreds of
years, albeit with continually lessening intensity, till today.
The above graphic includes photographs that were provided by VERAfilm archives.