Sunday 8 September 2019


Typical handwritten marginal notes by R. Yaakov Emden,  often containing sharp and outspoken criticism, such as: "This makes no sense",  "I do not know what possessed him, it seems that he was confused", etc. 
 [Sheyarei Knesset haGedola, Orach Chaim, by R Chaim Benveniste 1729.]


R. Yaakov Emden (1697-1776), also known as Ya’avetz[1] was born in Altona to his father the famous Chacham Tzvi. While living in Altona, he obtained permission from the King of Denmark to own a printing house from which he published many of his own writings. He also dealt in jewellery and real estate. In 1728 he accepted the position of rabbi of the German town of Emden, from which he took his family name.

R. Yaakov Emden is perhaps best known for his attacks against the Sabbatteans who were the secret followers of the then recently deceased false messiah Shabattai Tzvi (1626-1676). 
R. Emden had an interesting relationship with Moses Mendelssohn, the founder of the Jewish Enlightenment Movement or Haskalah, who regarded R. Emden as his teacher referring to himself (in a letter to R. Emden) as: "your disciple, who thirsts for your words."

R. Emden, never one to shy away from controversy, went on to claim that parts of the Zohar were forgeries and could not have been written by R. Shimon bar Yochai as many Kabbalists believed.

But, adding to his very interesting and wide range of views, he also said that he did not believe that Maimonides wrote the famed Moreh Nevuchim, or Guide of the Perplexed. Instead, he claimed it was written by an unknown imposter!

This article deals with R. Emden’s views on the Guide of the Perplexed (hereafter referred to as the Guide).

I have drawn extensively from the writings of Rabbi Professor Jacob J. Schacter from Yeshiva University who wrote the original paper[2] in memory his teacher Professor Twersky.


Five hundred years after Rambam’s passing in 1204, R. Yaakov Emden experienced great angst as to how to deal with the seemingly dual personalities of Rambam who on the one hand wrote a major work on Jewish jurisprudence, the Mishneh Torah; and on the other hand complied an accomplished rationalist and philosophical work, the Guide, which seemed to radically challenge many of the basic belief systems of the religious masses.

Schacter describes R. Emden’s apprehension towards the Guide as follows:

“[W]hile Emden’s assessment of Maimonides’ halakhic contribution was highly favorable, he rejected his philosophical emphasis as nothing less than a distortion of Judaism...

[and] maintained that the implications of Maimonides’ philosophical system posed a real threat to traditional Jewish life...

[and] that he [Maimonides][3]was misled by philosophy and that even he, let alone his followers, could not survive its dangers.”

R. Yaakov Emden himself writes:

“May his Master [God] forgive...Maimonides...

It is possible to speak favorably about him [i.e., Maimonides] in the manner written about King Solomon. Even though he was beloved by God...he too was brought into sin by the foreign woman...

It is therefore no wonder that they caused him [Maimonides] to sin as well, for he was lured by the smooth tongue of an alien woman (Prov. 6:24). He was no better than Solomon.[4]

The ‘alien woman’ in this context refers, of course, to Maimonides’ attraction to rationalist philosophy as expounded upon in his Guide.

This led Schacter to say:

“Emden drew an explicit contrast between the two aspects of Maimonides’ contribution, halacha and philosophy.”

Having made, what R. Yaakov Emden considered to be the clear distinction between Maimonides’ Halacha (Mishneh Torah) and philosophy (the Guide), he even had some sharp things to say about the followers of Rambam’s philosophy. He disparaged “those who call themselves his (Rambam’s) disciples”:

“...because they wasted their days with foolishness and their years with the vanities of the philosophical ideas of the nations of the world...

They cast the normative mizvot of the Torah behind their backs and the study of the Talmud, which was the bread and meat of the great rabbi (in whom they glory) was loathsome to them.”[5]

R. Yaakov Emden, as we shall see from his own writings, adopted two very contradictory positions as to whether or not Maimonides even wrote the Guide in the first place!


Here are some sources that indicate that R. Emden took the position that Rambam did indeed author the Guide:

The rabbi, author of the Guide of the Perplexed, did well...However, his students, the philosophers, would not walk in his ways.”[6]

And again R. Emden wrote:

“We have found that only Maimonides deeply investigated it in his book the Guide, for the sake of his contemporaries. It is appropriate to say that he established it for his generation alone.”[7]

And again in no uncertain terms, R. Emden wrote:

Maimonides was responsible for an obstacle (for Jews) for he left over a stumbling block for the generations, the Guide of the Perplexed, as is well known.”[8]

According to these sources, it seems abundantly clear that in R. Emden’s view, Rambam authored the Guide.


But then, astoundingly, on other occasions[9] R. Yaakov Emden went one step further and that was to deny that Maimonides even wrote the Guide at all:

R. Emden wrote:

This is not the work of the great author among the Jews but one of the philosophers of the generation...

Since he benefitted the masses (with his legal work, Mishneh Torah), for this reason I cannot believe that he was responsible for the abovementioned sinful striking stone.”[10]

R. Yaakov Emden’s strongest denunciation of the Guide is found in his Iggeret Purim:

“...I will not deny that I spoke against the book Guide of the Perplexed, which, in my opinion, was never authored by the same Maimonides who created the book Yad ha-Hazakah [Mishneh Torah][11] in which we glory. Unless we say that as rich as he surely was in wisdom, at that time [when he wrote the Guide] he as poor...

For that book, the Guide, is full of blemish. In truth, it contradicts Torah and faith, more than could be believed...

Verily, it is true that I did not invent the slander about this book. For immediately after its birth it acquired a bad name...

All the true scholars of that generation hated it, despised it, considered it abominable, erased it, and some burned it.

No one selected it except for the heretics...

In any case, we have not found in the records of the wise men of the generations anyone who permitted becoming involved in it.”[12]

In another work, R. Emden writes:

The book, Guide of the Perplexed, did not emanate from this great author. He [Maimonides][13] could not be responsible for [such] a ruin...

[O]ne can prove [he did not author the Guide] from several places in the book Yad [Mishneh Torah][14] that point with a finger to the disgrace of the would-be-philosophers (mitpalsifim), wise men [only] in their own eyes, with whom he had no portion.”[15]

R. Emden attacks the explanation for the korbanot or sacrifices, as expressed in the Guide, (that the sacrifices were permitted begrudgingly by G-d to the Israelites who had just come out of an idolatrous culture – but this concession was not what G-d really wanted to perpetuate into the future), as ‘incurably mentally deficient’:

“The truth is that when I examine and ponder the rationale of mizvot as suggested by the book, Guide of the Perplexed, my spirit fails me and falls into weakness. Especially [upsetting is] the... reason that he gave for sacrifices...

What person could tolerate [this] . . . , ensnaring the mind in a net, unless one who is incurably mentally deficient or one who abandons himself to nullify what the Men of the Great Assembly wrote, that the world rests on the [Temple] service [of sacrifices][16]. They further state that "were it not for the [daily sacrificial ritual of the] ma'amadot, heaven and earth could not exist.

And what will he do with the verse, [Be punctilious in presenting to Me at stated times] the offerings of food due Me, as offerings by fire of pleasing odor to Me" (Numbers 28:2)?
I wonder if he [ever] looked at it...

Who can garner enough contain all the madness included in just this [statement] alone?

How is it possible to imagine that the two works [Mishneh Torah and the Guide][17] were written by the hand of one author? For, according to the words of the book, Guide of the Perplexed, all the laws of sanctification - lengthy, detailed, and profound-are tantamount to an act of nonsense...

Had there been found in the book, Guide of the Perplexed, nothing other than this alone, namely, the reason for the sacrifices that it contains, it is enough to condemn it to be burned.”[18]

In another section, R. Emden blames the Guide for misleading ‘hundreds and thousands’ and causing them to leave their faith:

It is therefore impossible to ascribe the book, Guide of the Perplexed, to Maimonides who was himself meritorious and who brought merit to so many...

There is no doubt in the world that this obstacle of the book, Guide of the Perplexed, misled many from [a proper understanding of] the Torah. Who knows how many hundreds and thousands left the faith because of this?

It is the direct cause of the destruction of many great and mighty Jewish communities and their total eradication from the lands of Spain and France.”[19]

All these statements attesting that Rambam did not write the Guide, are intriguing because they contradict much of his other writings, as we saw earlier, where he does assume that Rambam authored the Guide!

How do we understand R. Emden’s very divergent, contrasting and in fact mutually exclusive views on whether or nor Rambam wrote the Guide?


This inconsistency in R. Emden’s writing led Schacter to reconcile the matter as follows:

“Although there were a few times when Emden cited that work [i.e., the Guide][20] approvingly, far more often did he oppose it and even considered it to be the epitome of what he considered evil about philosophy...

There is little doubt that Emden knew full well that Maimonides authored the Guide but yet found it necessary to assert repeatedly the contrary because of what he considered the dangers it would effect in the community.”

Thus, as we have seen, R. Emden, who in many places does ascribe authorship of the Guide to Rambam, appears to have known without doubt that that was true. Yet he grappled with the idea of what he considered to be dangerous thoughts as depicted in the Guide, and:

“...this indicates how anxious Emden must have been to salvage Maimonides’ greatness by distancing that extraordinary great figure from having anything to do with what he considered to be the most dangerous, harmful, and deleterious beliefs presented in the Guide.

The philosopher in Maimonides is rejected and discredited; the halakhic master remains sacrosanct and reigns supreme.”


Clearly, R. Emden was torn between two irreconcilable positions and in desperation he declares:

“For it is impossible to bring into agreement the words of these two works [Mishneh Torah and the Guide][21] together, as it is clear to an expert in them.”[22]

It appears that R. Yaakov Emden remained in a type of twilight zone where he didn’t quite know how to deal with Rambam. He knew he couldn’t define this giant of a mind and he obviously knew that his own writings by his own hand concerning the authorship of the Guide were paradoxical if not contradictory.


Although Rabbi Schacter does not use the term, today we might describe the torturous and conflicting approach which R. Yaakov Emden displayed towards Rambam, to be akin to the psychological condition known as cognitive dissonance, which is defined as:

 “[T]he mental discomfort experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person's belief clashes with new evidence perceived by the person. When confronted with facts that contradict beliefs, ideals, and values, people will try to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort.[23]


The more one reads and learns, the more one discovers just how multifaceted Judaism actually is. For some, this is a wonderful thing because he or she can find their niche within this vast and fascinating labyrinth of Torah thought.

For others, nothing can be more terrifying than the discovery that something else may exist outside of the bubble of one’s religious perceptions yet still remain just as equally within the parameters of Halachic Judaism.

When this happens, one either adopts the extreme measure of rejecting the ‘other’ out of hand (something R. Emden - taking all his sources into consideration - ultimately did not do) - or one goes through a softer but perhaps more painful process of cognitive dissonance, where one remains in a state where the ‘other’ exists but at the same time it doesn’t.

This may be the only way to understand R. Yaakov Emden’s writings on Maimonides: He knew that Rambam authored the Guide, but he had to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce his discomfort and therefore he simultaneously denied it.



The stance which R. Emden took on Rambam was not just an idle academic matter but it made waves within the community with supporters and detractors:

A leader of the Chassidic community, R. Yisrael Rizhin (1797-1850), gave his approbation to one of R. Emden’s books entitled Migdal Oz, reprinted in 1836.

Schacter tells us that when R. Yisrael Rizhin read through the book apparently for the first time only after it was printed, he mentioned that had he known of the author’s view of Rambam, he would never have submitted his approval of the book in the first place.

[1] When Yaakov Emden was still a child, he asked his father, the Chacham Tzvi, why he signed his name simply as Tvi, instead of Tvi ben Yaakov. His father responded that Tvi stands for Tvi ben Yaakov.  He similarly suggested to his son that when he grows up and writes books, he should sign his name Ya’avetz for Yaakov ben Tzvi.
[2] Rabbi Jacob Emden, Philosophy and Maimonides, by Jacob J. Schacter. See also: Rabbi Jacob Emden, Philosophy and the Authority of Maimonides, by Jacob J. Schacter.
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] Mishneh Lechem on Avot 2:14. All translations from the writings of R. Yaakov Emden are from R. Schacter.
[5] Migdal Oz 25b.
[6] Migdal Oz 23b.
[7] She’ilat Ya’avetz 1:41.
[8] Mishneh Lechem 49a.
[9] Migdal Oz 121b. Mitpachat Sefarim 3, 56, 61, 64.
[10] Mishnah Lechem 49a.
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] Iggeret Purim 33a.
[13] Parenthesis mine.
[14] Parenthesis mine.
[15] Eitz Avot on Avot 1:15, 30a.
[16] Parenthesis mine.
[17] Parenthesis mine.
[18] Mitpachat Sefarim 61-62.
[19] Mitpachat Sefarim 61-62.
[20] Parenthesis mine.
[21] Parenthesis mine.
[22] Mitpachat Sefarim 64-65.
[23] Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

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