Sunday 22 May 2016


Rabbi Emden's transcription of  a letter he received from Moses Mendelssohn (Hitavkut  p. 162)


Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) is considered to be one of the leading and most authoritative rabbinical figures of the 18th century. What many people don’t realize is that the Ya’avetz[1], as he is also known, was also a most radical and controversial personality with views that would shock even the most open of religious thinkers today.

Rabbi Emden was born in Altona, a borough of the German city state of Hamburg, which at that time was under Danish rule. It is important to remember that he vigorously defended Orthodox Judaism - which had been dealt a harsh blow by the false Messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi who had died just 21 years earlier. 
The Sabbatian movement continued to thrive for a very long time even after their leader’s conversion to Islam and subsequent death. Its influence remained a threatening menace to the rabbinical leadership, which was constantly challenged by very active but secret messianic cells embedded within the Jewish community at that time.


Rabbi Emden became extremely unpopular when he accused his colleague, Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz of Prague, another towering rabbinical figure, of being a secret follower of the false Messiah. He was extremely suspicious of Rabbi Eybeschutz, who had some mystical amulets which appeared to tie him to the secret group. The two leaders had huge followings, and soon violence erupted in the streets to the extent that the authorities had to intervene. 

The situation was so much more complicated because Rabbi Eybeschutz also happened to be the Chief Rabbi[2] with close connections to the Danish King Frederick V. Rabbi Emden, in turn, put pressure on the king to question the Chief Rabbi about alleged voting irregularities relating to his election to this high office.

The controversy turned more ugly when Rabbi Eybeschutz refused to appear before a Beit Din and instead chose to go to the Gentile courts. To make matters worse, he appointed a former pupil, Karl Anton (previously known as Gershon Moshe Cohen) who had converted to Christianity, to represent him.

(Incidentally, Rabbi Eybeschutz, who was one of only seven rabbis to have acquired the illustrious title of ‘Rebbe Reb[3], had a son, Wolf who openly declared himself to be a follower of Shabbetai Tzvi. As a result of this devastating blow Rabbi Eybeschutz’s yeshiva was closed down, never to open again.)

Rabbi Emden went so far as to accuse Rabbi Eybeschutz of incest and fathering a child with his own daughter.[4] Notwithstanding all these allegations, the majority of the Jewish community stood behind Rabbi Eybeschutz, and people were ordered by the rabbinate under threat of excommunication, to refrain from attending Rabbi Emden’s Shull. 

Rabbi Emden’s very life was under threat and he was forced to seek refuge in Amsterdam. Eventually the Danish King intervened and he returned to his home on the condition that he would halt his attacks on Rabbi Eybeschutz.

Rabbi J. Schacter of Yeshiva University, believes that the modern malady of disrespect towards rabbis, and the common tendency to undermine rabbinic authority, has its roots in this bitter and unfortunate controversy.

In a great irony of history, both Rabbis Emden and Eybeschutz were buried in very close proximity to each other.



Rabbi Emden believed that many sections of the mystical work known as the Zohar were forgeries and therefore not authoritative[5].

(Some are of the opinion that the reason why he took this stance, was because of the emphasis the Sabbatteans placed on the Zohar, and he was determined to undermine them at every level.)


He was greatly opposed to philosophy and maintained that the Guide for the Perplexed was not authored by Rambam, but by some unknown impostor.


Surprisingly, he had a very good relationship with Moses Mendelssohn, the founder of the Haskalah or Enlightenment movement, who referred to himself in a letter to Rabbi Emden as; “your disciple, who thirsts for your words”.[6]


Rabbi Emden also believed in the importance of knowing Jewish as well as secular history, since without some historical reference it is impossible to ever grasp the essence of any teaching:

 “The rabbinic scholar should not be devoid of (any) knowledge of history and changing times. (He must possess this information) in order to know how to provide his questioner with an answer and not be considered a fool or simpleton in worldly affairs...There is an obligation to know history. In order to understand Chazal, halacha etc, you need to understand history.” [7]


He seems to have had a keen interest in alchemy, and frequented Gottingen University to access ancient and original books on the subject.[8]


Rabbi Emden suggested that one pronounce G-d’s name in full, instead of the term ‘Hashem’, when studying Torah. He records this in the name of his father, the Chacham Tzvi, who, whenever hearing students studying and using the name ‘HaShem’, would instruct them to use the full name as if they were ‘reading from the Torah’.[9]


More interesting though, is his view on Christianity. He had ongoing interaction with Christian scholars, and wrote that the original intention of that religion, especially under the leadership of Paul, was only to convert Gentiles to the Seven Laws of Noah, and allow the Jews to continue with their Torah.

Rabbi Emden wrote; “The rise of Christianity and Islam served to spread among the nations, to the furthest ends of the earth, the knowledge that there is One G-d who rules the world...

Christian scholars ...have also defended the Oral Law. For when, in their hostility to the Torah ruthless persons in their own midst sought to abrogate and uproot the Talmud, others from among them arose to defend it and to repulse the attempts...

He (G-d)also bestowed upon them ethical ways, and in this respect He was much more stringent with them than the Torah of Moshe, as is well is not necessary to impose upon Jews such extreme ethical practices, since they have been obligated to the yoke of Torah...”[10]


Most surprising and shocking (and certainly not reflecting the view of this writer) is his responsum on the permissibility of a married man taking a pilegesh (even in modern times).
Rabbi Emden taught that at least theoretically, a married man may take another woman besides his wife, and maintain a committed relationship with her. (Pilegesh should not be confused with the biblical permissibility to take more than one wife[11].)

He writes;

“Great men and kings took concubines...A pilegesh is forbidden to another man as long as she is in a private relationship with this one because of the prohibition against prostitution, which is biblical. And also to determine the parentage of each child, which is the reason she needs to wait a period of three months if she leaves the first man and chooses to live exclusively with a second...

Moreover, I have found in the course of my bibliographic search, the response of Ramban where he challenges the ruling of Rambam and says; ‘I do not know why there is any question about (the permissibility of a pilegesh) for she is in an exclusive relationship with him...If he brings her into his home and she is exclusively with him, and thus her children would be known to him and are called by his name, she is permitted...And if you claim that it may be permissible by biblical law but prohibited by rabbinic law, where in the Talmud was such a decree recorded?’

(If she chooses to leave) she would not require a get (divorce), and after three months may marry or live with another man...the relationship is initiated by word and ended by word...

People are trespassing boundaries in sexual morality, and this is certainly so also in our time and in all places because the door of permissibility has been shut in front of their faces...It therefore seems to me that we should be teaching in public that a person is allowed to be in a pilegesh relationship and rescue them from serious violations (such as relationships with other married women) that are occurring daily.

Why should we continue to impose this prohibition without cause, to place stumbling blocks that are based and perpetuated by a stringent ruling that has absolutely no premise to support it?”[12]


It needs to be abundantly clear that this article is in no way intended to be seen as an endorsement of any of the views expressed above.

I happen to believe that in our times these ideas are morally dangerous, and may be (in not have been) abused by some to further their own nefarious agendas.

The family unit is under threat from all sides and certainly does not need a sanctioning religious element to be added to the fray.

These views, however, have simply been recorded to show the scope, range and multifacetedness of some of our Torah thinkers - something which never ceases to amaze me.

A number of popular historical accounts of Rabbi Emden paint him very superficially as just another scholarly rabbi to whom we owe a traditional debt of gratitude.

But I found it fascinating to dig a little beneath the surface.

[1] Yaakov ben Tzvi - His father was the famous Tzvi Ashkenazi or Chacham Tzvi (1656-1718) so named after his responsum by the same title. (The surname Javitz is said to come from Ya’avetz.)
[2] Rabbi was Chief Rabbi of the Triple Communities of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck.
[3] I heard this from a close associate of the Belzer Rebbe. The other six were all Chassidic Rebbes, which shows the high esteem in which Rabbi Eybeschutz was held, as he predated Chassidic movement.
[4] This allegation is recorded in Rabbi Emden’s autobiographical book Megillat Sefer. It was written between 1752 and 1766 and remained in manuscript form for about 130 years until it was found at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and only published in 1896 by David Kahane. It is probably the most frank and brutally honest rabbinic autobiography ever written.
[5] See Mitpachat Sefarim.
[6] See Harvey Falk, Journal of Ecumenical studies vol. 19, no.1 (1982)
[7] See Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, ‘History, Truth and Religious Commitment’.
[8] See An Esoteric Path to Modernity: Rabbi Emden’s Alchemical Quest, by Maoz Kahana.
[9] Shealat Ya’avetz vol.1, 91.  See also Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim, vol. 2, 56.
[10] See Seder Olam Rabbah VeZuta.
[11] Which he also wanted to reinstate, overriding the Cherem of Rabbenu Gershom.
Rabbi Emden had three wives (not simultaneously), and fathered twenty children, 16 of which sadly died within his lifetime.
[12] Extracted from Shealat Ya’avetz, vol.2, no. 15 (Translated by Gershon Winkler)
For more insights, see Rabbi Emden’s autobiographical account in Megillat Sefer : http://www.hebrew

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