Sunday 25 June 2017


Prossnitz, Moravia - historic region of Czech Republic


In addition to Shabbatai Tzvi[1] (1626-1676), Jacob Frank (1726-1791) and Yehoshua Herschel Tzoref[2] (1623-1700), we still have other candidates for the Messiah: one of them being R. Yehudah Leib Prossnitz (1670-1750[3]).


R. Leibelle Prossnitz’s original name was Yehudah Leib ben Yaakov Holleschau, but he was known after the town in which he later settled – Prossnitz - which was where his wife’s family came from. At that time Prossnitz had the second largest Jewish community in Moravia, and was known as the ‘Jerusalem of the Hana (Plains)’.

One of R. Moses Sofer’s students described the town as ‘full of members of the sect of Shabbatai Tzvi.’

In the popular vernacular, the inhabitants of Prossnitz were known as ‘Schepsen’ (corrupted from Shabbatai Tzvi).

Interestingly enough, about a hundred years later, the town also became a centre for Haskalah and Reform.)


At around the age of thirty R. Leibelle Prossnitz was drawn to the teachings of Kabbalah, and claimed to have been instructed by the Ari Zal (who has died about a hundred and thirty years earlier) – and also by Shabbattai Tzvi (who had died some thirty years earlier).

A poor pedlar by trade, he lived in a ruin which was said to be haunted. Later, after ‘revealing himself’ as Mashiah ben Yosef, he travelled around Austria and Germany where he gained popularity and managed to receive some substantial degree of funding. He then changed his name to Yosef ben Yaakov.

Early on in his career, he pulled off a spectacular stunt when, one midnight, he allegedly was able to ‘manifest’ the Divine Presence. He robed in white and adorned himself with gold lettering which spelt out the Tetragrammaton which glowed - apparently with the help of some burning alcohol behind a curtain.

While the crowd was aghast, someone[4] tugged at the curtain and the fraudulent show was exposed and Yehudah Leib (or Yosef) was thereafter excommunicated by R. David Oppenheim, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, and was exiled for three years. He appears to have further been excommunicated on three different occasions.


The excommunications did not prevent R. Prossnitz from attracting growing number of adherents from the many Sabbateans active during the early 1700’s. 

He associated with R. Meir Eisenstadt (1670-1744) who was the rabbi of Prosnitz at that time. R. Eisenstadt (who at one stage similarly called himself the Messiah!) was from the well known rabbinic family and he himself was regarded as a great Halachic authority.  

Leibelle Prossnitz was also very close to R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz (who was accused by R. Yaakov Emden of being a secret follower of Shabbatai Tzvi). According to some accounts, R. Eybeschutz actually studied under R. Eisenstadt and became his adopted son!

Some letters from R. Prossnitz to R. Eybeschutz were, at some stage, confiscated from the Sabbateans and used as evidence of their messianic leanings.

He was additionally quite influenced by the well known Sabbatean, R. Nechemiah Chiyun[5].


The following is an extract from a letter, allegedly written by R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz, asking for his amulets (which many believed were of Sabbatean origin) to be urgently returned to him:

To be short: For G-d’s sake, return to me all the writings and amulets, for this is very urgent to me.
I hope to G-d, who is good and does good, that He will not forsake me.

(And I hope) that all those who rise up against me, who (try to) swallow me up, will fall into (their own) trap, and I will escape happily and free...
From the one who waits for G-d’s salvation, may it come soon,
Signed: R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz.[6]
What exactly were these ‘writings and amulets’ and why were they recalled so urgently?

In a 1751 letter from R. Yaakov Emden[7] - which is housed today in the Bodleian Library - he writes about R. Leibelle Prossnitz:

Assorted strange letters of correspondence with the wicked heretics of the sect of Sabbatai Tsevi...were found in his (R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz’s) possession. 

In particular, he corresponded with the accursed Leibele Prostitz...For he (Leibelle) prophesized that he would rule in place of Sabbatai Tsevi...and he (Leibelle) misled the hearts of the sages of that generation...

Although they (the rabbis) initially attacked him (Leibelle) with the sword of excommunication, intending to destroy him; they then accepted his patently false that point the rabbis who were pursuing him softened...and they hid him like the night...”[8]

R. Yaakov Emden clearly believed that the rabbis should have been more vigilant with Leibelle Prossnitz, especially in the wake of the wave of false messiahs at that time.

What strikes one as very significant is the fact that, according to R. Emden, the rabbis ‘hid him like the night’- which may account for the fact that such an influential rabbi who rubbed shoulders with Rabbis like Eisenstadt, Eybeschutz and Chiyyun, seems to have faded away from the face of history and today few even recognize his name.


Meanwhile, R. Prossnitz’s following grew even larger when he became known as an accomplished mochiach or revivalist preacher.

He predicted the ‘return’ of Shabbatai Tzvi in 1706. 

In Prossnitz’s messianic scheme of things, the messianic line passed from Shabbatai Tzvi to R. Yehonatan Eybeschutz and then to on him.

He claimed he had brought an end to the reign of the ‘evil force’ known as Samael and was involved in some form of ritual to accomplish that end.


According to the Breslov Megilah[9], Rabbi Nachman’s opponents accused his foremost disciple, R. Natan of Breslov, of being a great-grandson of R. Leibelle Prossnitz.

A well-known Kabbalistic work entitled Tzadik Yesod Olam allegedly written by the Ari Zal, seems to have in fact been falsely attributed to the Ari and was, instead, fraudulently written by R. Yehudah Leib Prossnitz[10].


During that time, when so many false messiahs and secret cells of Sabbateans were active all over Europe, one would have imagined that the populace would have been less gullible and not have fallen for another spiritual charlatan.

Yet, R. Yaakov Emden writes that even the ‘sages of the generation’ were led astray -  and this seems to have been the case even with regard to some of the ‘minor’ messiahs!

This gives one an insight into those incredible times and shows how the people were clasping at straws to construct a spiritual system which could immediately springboard them into eternity.

An interesting question would be – with the current focus on populist messianism today from varying locations on our religious spectrum including some sects of Chassidism and even some forms of religious Zionism - to what degree have times have really changed since then?

[3] Some say 1730.
[4] According to some accounts it was R. Meir Eisenstadt himself.
[7] Entitled Iggeret Purim.
[8] See Sabbatian Heresy: Writings on Mysticism, Messianism and the Origins of Jewish Modernity, edited by Pawel Maciejko, p. 123.
[9] See note 95.
[10] See Studies in Jewish Myth and Messianism, by Yehudah Liebes, p. 103.

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