Sunday 1 December 2019


R. Yaakov Emden's Siddur, Beit Yaakov


In this article we will explore R. Yaakov Emden’s unusual, fascinating and little-known writings on Islam and particularly Christianity.

We will begin, in Section One with an overview of some of the many sources scattered throughout his numerous works in which he deals with these matters; and then, in Section Two, we will try to examine the possible reasons behind such unusual writing by a rabbi, and try to understand the historical context in which he wrote.

I have (once again) drawn extensively from the research of Rabbi Professor Jacob J. Schacter from Yeshiva University.[1]



R. Emden writes that Jesus and the founders of Christianity never intended to divert Jews away from the Torah, and that their target market was only the gentiles to whom they wished to teach the Seven Laws of Noah. In his view, these founders affirmed the requirement of Jews to observe the Torah as ‘an everlasting covenant’ which can never be abrogated.


R. Emden comments on the teaching in Pirkei Avot:

“Every gathering that meets for the sake of Heaven will have an enduring effect.”[2]

He interprets this to refer to Christianity and Islam who:

“...have emerged from us and built their altars on the foundation of our divine religion...

Compared with the nations of the world who preceded them, who did not recognize God...their gathering [i.e., of these religions] is considered for the sake of Heaven.”[3]


He places all three faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam into one category, by referring to “the three of us.” 

He refers to:

“Jews, Christians and Muslims, three leading faiths (sheloshah ’umot rashiyot) . . . that erected their fortresses on the foundation of the Torah of Moses, our teacher, may he rest in peace, and who have spread in the world.”[4]


R. Emden, like Rambam before him, believed that the purpose of Christianity and Islam was to prepare the multitudes of non-Jewish people in this world for a future era where faith, respect and order will prevail.

Rambam had long since written in (the uncensored version of) his Mishneh Torah:

“All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite (Mohammed) who came after him only served to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord...[5]

Along similar lines, R. Emden writes[6]:

“Thus the Messianic hope, the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics -topics of conversation (among the inhabitants) of the far isles and many peoples, uncircumcised of heart and flesh. They are discussing these matters and the commandments of the Torah...

They have accepted upon themselves the majority of the Ten Commandments, in addition to many admirable traits that they have affirmed . . . . They have given honor to God, the Lord of Israel, and to His Torah and have made known His glory among the nations who knew Him not.”[7]

Schacter points out, interestingly, that R. Emden was not the only one writing about such matters. A century earlier, R. Moses Rivkes wrote:

“These nations in whose shade we, the people of Israel, are exiled and amongst whom we are dispersed do believe in creatio ex nihilo, in the Exodus, and in the fundamental principles of religion (ikkerey ha’dat), and their entire intent is to [worship] the Maker of heaven and earth.”


R. Emden also writes that, according to his understanding, both Christianity and Islam were responsible at various stages of Jewish history, for protecting and harbouring Jews from further destruction:

“Were it not for them, the small crumbs [of Jewish life] would have already been consumed, our hope would have been lost among the nations who hate Israel out of religious jealousy.”

Although admitting that historically, this was clearly not always the case, R. Emden went even further by commending Christians for sometimes protecting the Talmud and other texts from obliteration, and for encouraging the printing of Jewish religious literature which included Tanach, Midrash, mystical literature and even Halachic and responsa literature:

“I saw in a Christian book that in past years many of them would be diligent in the analysis of Gemara [and would translate many tractates into Latin]. And behold still today there are found among them many learned ones who love our Talmud and study it.”[8]


R. Emden printed some ‘disclaimers’ as postscripts to his prayer books informing the readers that all references to ‘idol-worshipers’ must not be taken as relating in any way to modern-day Christians:

 “Let this be known that wherever idolaters and the like are mentioned, the reference is not to [members of] Christian nations who possess faith and are men of superior ethical behavior (ba‘aley ‘emunah ‘anshey middot me‘ullot)...”[9]

Similarly, he writes:

“That which we have mentioned several times in our works is well known, that all those who
believe in the Torah of Moses (be they from whatever nation) are not in the category of idol worshipers and the like even though they do not observe it [the Torah] fully because they are not commanded to do so.”[10]

It could be argued that because of the ever-present watchful eyes of the Christian censors, R. Emden added these postscripts to his prayer books and he therefore did not intend them to be taken seriously by Jews. However, because of the all-pervasiveness and intensity of such sentiment scattered all across his writings, it seems evident that he sincerely held such views.

In another section of his prayer book, which appears not have been written for the censors, R. Emden writes that the expression with which we open the Passover Haggadah, “May all who are hungry come and eat with us” fascinatingly refers also to gentiles (nochrim), and he regards this as ‘obvious’.[11]


In a most interesting and surprising statement, R. Emden writes that it is possible for a virgin to conceive. This is not as (textually) controversial as it seems as he bases this on an earlier Talmudic source which says that a virgin can conceive without intercourse. He also cites the Amora, Shmuel, who claimed that a woman can be a virgin even after intercourse.[12]


R. Emden also writes that there was more than one Jesus at the time of the beginning of Christianity. One was the founder of the new religion and the other is referred to in not such ingratiating terms.[13]


The concept of the Trinity has long been a theological thorn in the side of rabbis, who generally regarded this as a clear form of idolatry. However, R. Emden wrote:

“Gentiles... are not worshipers of avodah zarah [idolatry] but, rather, follow the customs of their ancestors.”[14]

 “Our Sages have already said that Gentiles (Beney Noah) are not commanded regarding ‘association’ (shittuf) [a term used to describe the Trinity].”[15]

In all his writings on Christianity, R. Emden divides Christians into two categories which he refers to, in what Schacter calls the almost ‘technical terms’ of pikchim (intelligent) and tipshim (unlearned) Christians. Of course, in these writings he is referring to the former.

R. Emden further makes the distinction between earlier and contemporary gentiles. It is the more recent generations whom, he suggests, have a ‘better’ belief system than the earlier generations:

“The nations these days are believers and are people of faith more than those from before, in earlier years.”[16]

Again, this seems to reflect Rambam’s view of humankind’s theological progression over time ‘aliyat hadorot’ (the advancement of the generations) as opposed to ‘yeridat hadorot’ (the decline of the generations).



R. Jacob J. Schacter offers  some possible explanations, as well as context for R. Emden’s unusually tolerant views on other faiths:


It is possible that R. Emden was simply inquisitive and interested in multiple things including other faiths. R. Emden admitted this in his autobiography:

“My heart was always inclined to know [and] to examine worldly matters as well, nations and faiths, their characteristics and dispositions, their histories and wisdoms.”[17]

And elsewhere he wrote that he yearned:

“ understand fully the ways of the world and the behaviour of people; to uncover the hidden treasures of nature, the form of the structure of the world and the divisions of the lands, seas, rivers, mountains, and valleys; the divisions between states, languages, religious faiths and cultural patterns (ve-ha-datot ve-ha-nimusim), the events of history...”[18]


Schacter suggests that besides a sense of general inquisitively, R. Emden was aware that socially, there was far more interaction between Jews and Christians in his day, than in previous times. It is possible that he was concerned about how the Jew would react during such encounters.

This appears to have been an issue for him because he wrote, also surprisingly for a rabbi, that it was necessary “to mingle comfortably with people (li-heyot me‘urav ‘im ha-beriyot).” The expression ‘beriyot’ generally refers to all people including non-Jews. It is possible, therefore, that he just wanted to foster better relations between Jews and those of other faiths.


This desire to ‘mingle comfortably’ with all society may have stemmed from his very interesting (if not controversial) take on the circumstances of the ‘exile’ society in which he lived.

Commenting on the words of the Passover HaggadaNow we are slaves, next year we will be free,” he writes that as opposed to the Egyptian exile from which we could not escape, if we are not happy in Europe, we can leave and go to Israel and be there ‘by next year’. See footnote for full text.[19]

Certainly, R. Emden knew he wasn’t living in idyllic messianic times, but he was evidently quite happy with his life in Europe at that time.[20]


There could be another, this time more strategic, explanation as well. This involves the very significant historical context in which R. Emden lived and worked. First some background:


Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) claimed that he was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. 

At one time, his followers may have numbered more than half of the Jewish population,[21] and they even included many respected rabbis. He introduced some strange practices into Judaism and distorted the mystical tradition. 

When he eventually converted to Islam and it was clear that he was a false messiah, the Jewish population was thrown into a crisis of faith (which is often swept under the carpet of Jewish history) and the repercussions spread far and wide.

Most went back to their original ways, but many remained on in underground and secret – and sometimes not so secret - cells. They were known, ironically, as the ‘Ma’aminim’, or Believers, and also ‘Shabbtaim’, or Sabbatians. These secret Sabbatians often posed as authentic religious Jews and continued to plague the Jewish community for many generations, The extent of their influence should not be underestimated.

Arguably, the fiercest opponent to, and exposer of numerous secret Sabbatians - some of whom had even infiltrated within the ranks of the rabbinate - was R. Yaakov Emden (1697-1776).

[We have dealt with R. Emden’s opposition to Sabbatianism in numerous other essays. See Shabbatai Tzvi – Roots Run Deep, and here and here.]

In 1756 - about 70 years after the death of Shabbatai Tzvi - a Sabbatian orgy[22] embellished with Christian symbolism was conducted in Poland by the new Sabbatian leader Jacob Frank, who also claimed to be the messiah and who later converted to Christianity. Frank and some of his followers who masqueraded as traditional Jews, were arrested.

At a subsequent rabbinical conference in Brody, the rabbinate placed all the Sabbatians, now also known as Frankists, under a ban of ex-communication.

These Sabbatians, feeling unfairly targeted and aggrieved, appealed to Bishop Dembowski of Kamenetz-Podolsk for protection, claiming that their fellow Jews were persecuting them because they had adopted some mystical Christian symbolism.

A debate, or rather a trial, was held between the Christian clergy and the rabbis. The rabbis argued that it was incorrect of the Church to consider the Sabbatians to be in any way connected to Christianity as they were, in fact, a brand new religion – not Jewish and not Christian.

The rabbis knew this was a good argument because the Church had declared it illegal to start a new religion, and the punishment for such an innovation was death. And because the punishment by the Church was so severe, the rabbis consulted with one of the great and authoritative rabbis of the time, R. Yaakov Emden to ascertain whether their strategy was permissible, as it would place the Sabbatians in mortal danger.

R. Emden was an obvious choice as a consultant on this case because, just a few years earlier, he had gone so far as to excommunicate the high profile Chief Rabbi R. Yonatan Eybeschutz - who was also one of the most prominent rabbis of the time - on suspicion that he too was a secret Sabbatian! The accusation was that R. Eybeschutz had amulets of a Sabbatian nature and that he was therefore an imposter.

Back in Brody, R. Emden did not disappoint his legal team. He ruled that under the circumstances it was permitted, nay required, to hand them over to the Church and to put the Sabbatians in a position where they may lose their lives!

And then R. Emden then wrote and expounded at great length on the virtues of Jesus and Christianity.[23] These praises of Christianity were not just in relation to this particular case involving the Sabbatians, because throughout his various writings[24], even from earlier years, such confirmations and affirmations of Christianity frequently occur.

Although it certainly would have been in R. Emden’s strategic interests during the debates if he could show natural affinities between Christianity and Judaism, one cannot say that that was his sole objective.

He went on to tell the Church that the Sabbatians dare not be accommodated by the Christians because they were a new religion and their sexual immorality had intrinsically become part of their creed. This, he said, was contrasted by the virtuous Christians, who:

“... have certain precious attributes and just morals...”

R. Emden also pointed out that the Sabbatians were claiming to believe in the Christian Messiah while at the same time claiming to be Jews. This was, therefore, a new religion, not Christianity and not Judaism; and it ought to be viewed by both as a common enemy.

By showing how Judaism was so understanding of, and accommodating towards Christianity, he clearly would have the Christians on his side. He needed to remind the Christians that according to their classical beliefs, the Jews had to keep their Torah, and now the Sabbatians were slowly eroding Jewish observance.

R. Emden was well-read in the New Testament and often quoted from it. He reminded the Christians that:

“The Nazarene and his apostles (ha-Notzri u-sheluhav) did not, God forbid, come to abrogate the Torah from Israel.”[25]

This he again contrasted with the Sabbatians who, he said, wanted to uproot the Torah from the Jewish people.[26]

Perhaps R. Emden’s views can best be summed up in the words of R. Schacter himself:

“While many of Emden’s statements in favor of Christianity were expressed before his ferocious opposition to that [Sabbatian][27] movement, his later obsession with it created a particular context in which to understand his attitude toward that religion.”


Schacter  strongly disagrees with Yehuda Liebes’ interpretation of R. Emden’s motivation for his tolerant views towards Christianity. Liebes argued that there was a disconnect between R. Emden’s extreme disdain for Sabbatianism and his exceptionally favorable attitude towards Christianity; he considered this to be a “paradox and contradiction.”[28] In other words, R. Emden’s negatives feelings towards the Sabbatians would have had no direct impact on his favourable views towards Christianity.

Schacter completely disagrees with this notion of disconnect and while he believes R. Emden to have been sincere, he maintains that:

“In fact...these are fully compatible positions; attacking Sabbatians and favoring Christians are two sides of the same coin...

It is a matter of no small interest that it is precisely in the context of a most extreme anti-Sabbatian argument—one that went so far as to suggest that adherents of this movement should be killed—where Emden expressed himself most favorably about Christianity.”


Some fascinating questions remain for the Reader to consider:

Were R. Emden’s views on Christianity somewhat strategic and expedient - although apparently still sincere - nevertheless influenced by the existential threat to Judaism posed by the Sabbatians and Frankists and by his desire to unite with the Christians against what he hoped was a common enemy?

Or, did R. Emden’s views represent an attempted rabbinic shift in how Christianity was to be perceived?

If it did, then it would place him within the same theological camp as the Meiri (1249-1315) four hundred years earlier. [See The Chief Rabbi’s Retraction.]

Or was R. Yaakov Emden, as he describes himself, simply inquisitive, enquiring of mind, and just expressing his altruistic and independent thoughts on Christianity while working towards a state of mutual respect and compatible co-existence?


Historically, in a sad irony, despite all the efforts of R. Emden, Bishop Dembowski sided in favor of the Frankists and also ordered the burning of 10,000 volumes of the Talmud in Poland; and by 1790, 26,000 Jews were recorded as having undergone baptism in Poland.

Sefer Shimush by R. Yaakov Emden (Amsterdam 1757 or 1758) depicting Bishop Dembowski drinking in celebration after burning books of the Talmud.

Describing similar events of that time, the (controversial) Cherson Letters, tell of a victory in Lvov against a Bishop Sokolski in 1759 and of prevention of the burning of books - to the extent that that day, the 26th of Tammuz, was declared by the Baal Shem Tov, to be the first Chassidic holiday. According to the letters, the Baal Shem Tov participated in, and actually won that debate.

[1] Rabbi Jacob Emden, Sabbatianism, and Frankism: Attitudes Toward Christianity in the Eighteenth Century, by Jacob J. Schacter. All translations are by R. Schacter unless otherwise indicated.
[2] Avot 4:11
[3] Eitz Avot (Máramarossziget 1912) p. 40b–41a.
[4] Gottlieb, “Resen Mat‘eh,” 318.
[5] Hilchot Melachim 11:4. Translation from A Maimonides Reader, by Isadore Twersky (New York, 1972) p. 226.
[6] R. Schacter points out that R. Emden is selective in what he chooses from Rambam who also had some negative things to say, just a few lines earlier, about Christianity “changing the Torah and causing the world to err and serve another beside God.
[7] Lehem Shamayim, vol. 2 (Altona, 1768), 49b. This version is in accordance with R. Emden’s own correction of his text which first read: “They have accepted upon themselves the majority of the Seven [Noahide] Laws.”
[8] Eitz Avot 58b.
[9] Siddur Amudey Shamayim, 418b.
[10] Siddur Sha‘arey Shamayim,159b.
[11] Siddur Sha‘arey Shamayim, 25a.
[12] Iggeret bikkoret (Zhitomir, 1867), 25a–b.
[13] Haggahot ve’chiddushim on Sanhedrin 107b and Avodah Zarah 17a.
[14] She’elat Yaavetz 1:41.
[15] Etz ’Avot on Avot 4:11, 40b, and She’elat Yaavetz 1:41
[16] Mor uKetziah, vol. 2 (Altona, 1768), 27a, no. 329
[17] Megillat Sefer, 96.
[18] Luah Eresh, first printed in Etz ’Avot [Amsterdam, 1751], 76b).
[19]  R. Emden writes: 

“One should not say: What is the point of the expression of freedom that we observe on this night [of Passover] if, after all, we are still in exile?...

To this he [the author of the Haggadah] responds that this is not considered a true exile, for even if we are today in a land not our own, next year we can be in the Land of Israel if we want. No one is stopping us. Even if, God forbid, the time of redemption will not yet arrive, nevertheless the Land of Israel is before us (cf. 2 Chr 14:6) to come and dwell in it at any time.

This is not similar to the exile of Egypt where we were indentured slaves and like captives imprisoned for backbreaking labor, clay and bricks . . . . [But now] all the nations and kingdoms acknowledge us as the seed that God has blessed (Isa 61:9). They treat us as free, to be under our own jurisdiction, to move our dwelling place from country to country in accordance with the fullness of our desire. On the contrary, it is a singular act of kindness that they accept us to dwell in their lands with the compassion of God on us. Therefore this is not considered servitude.

And if you will say that, on occasion, we live under the hand of a harsh kingdom that presses its yoke on us to be as slaves, therefore it [the Haggadah] points out that, with it all, there is ample room in the land for us (Gen 34:21) to [enable us] to dwell in another land as this very day (Deut 29:27).

[Siddur Sha‘arey Shamayim, 25b.]

[20] This is not to say, as Shacter points out, that R. Emden did not experience anti-Jewish sentiments during his time in Europe.
[21] R. Emden writes (in his Sefer Hit’avkut, 75b–76a) that certainly the Sabbatians in the Jewish community of Moravia (today the Czech Republic) were in the majority, and still ascendant.
[22] The Sabbatians were morally promiscuous and had some strange rituals that they managed to find various mystical and twisted kabbalistic justifications for. They believed in the idea of ‘purification through transgression.’
[23] Seder ‘olam rabbah ve-zuta’ u-Megillat ta‘anit (Hamburg, 1757), 32b–36b, and
“Meteg laHamor,” pp. 15a–21a.
[24] Such as Etz Avot, and Torat haKenaot.
[25] Gottlieb, “Resen mat‘eh,” 303.
[26] Torat haKenaot 69a.
[27] Parenthesis mine.
[28] Liebes, Sod ha-’emunah ha-Shabbeta’it, 209.

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