Sunday 19 January 2020


Moses Mendelssohn's controversial Biur received the approbation of R. Mordechai Benet, the Chief Rabbi of Moravia.


Rabbi Mordechai Benet or Marcus Benedict (1753-1829) was the chief of rabbi Moravia, the historical region[1] in the east of the Czech Republic. This would have been one of the most prestigious rabbinic appointments of that time.

R. Benet was a child prodigy and at his barmitzvah his teacher showed the guests commentaries he had already written on the Torah and Talmud.

He was an interesting man because although respected by rabbis from across the spectrum – for example, the second Rebbe of Chabad, as well as his friend the Chatam Sofer spoke highly of him - he is described as being a fiercely independent thinker as well. 

Paradoxically, he allowed space for writings and ideas from the Enlightenment Movement (Haskalah), while at the same time staunchly upholding the traditional Halachic and rabbinic system.

In this article, which is based extensively on the research of Professor Tamás Visi[2], we will explore some of the thinking of R. Mordechai Benet.

Visi describes R. Benet as being:

“...remarkably flexible concerning those innovations [of the Enlightenment] that did not threaten the prestige of rabbinic literature. However, he was a rigid opponent of any changes that could have restructured the inner hierarchy of the [rabbinic][3] literary system.”


People were not sure how to read R. Benet.

On the one hand, he had adopted a strict anti-Enlightenment and anti-Reform stance, such as his ruling against the Hamburg Temple, forbidding the use of organs in a synagogue on Shabbat.[4]
This was in keeping with the traditional position of the Chatam Sofer, one of the ideologues of the emerging ultra-Orthodox movement who famously claimed that anything new was forbidden by the Torah.[5]

On the other hand, R. Benet gave his endorsement to a school book complied by Herz Homberg. Homberg started out as a tutor to Moses Mendelssohn’sson and ended up becoming his follower.
(Moses Mendelssohn is regarded as the father of the Enlightenment Movement.)

R. Benet also endorsed an edition of the Pentateuch which had Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Torah as well as his commentary on it known as the Biur.

There is evidence that Mendelssohn’s commentary was studied in Moravian yeshivot during the 1820s.[6]

R. Benet had a secretary, Avraham Trebitch who recorded the history of the time and he included a eulogy for Mendelssohn just as he did for other orthodox rabbis, and R. Benet gave his approbation for this work.

This should not come as too much of a surprise as there were quite a number of rabbis who were part of an ‘orthodox Haskalah.’  


It is possible to understand R. Benet’s ‘warm’ feelings towards the Enlightenment because of his being domiciled in Moravia. It was the Berlin Enlightenment particularly, which was the considered most threatening to traditional Judaism.


The reason why the Enlightenment was not such a threat in places like Moravia may have been because of the generally unattested authority and prestige of the rabbis which was prevalent there more than in Berlin.

Visi writes:

“Maskilic [Enlightenment][7] texts could have reached Moravia at the turn of the nineteenth century. They may have been read by some Moravian Jews...
Nonetheless, they could not compete with the heavy voice of Tradition in terms of prestige...”

And Visi continues to explain why a degree of Enlightenment literature may have been permitted in Moravia under R. Benet:

“However, it could be consumed only as peripheral or low prestige literature as long as the traditional literary system functioned.”


Amongst the rabbinate itself, there was even a hierarchy of prestige. There were rabbis and then there were specialist rabbis or ‘geonim.’ While this is typical of the rabbinate in all communities, it appears that this was particularly so Moravia. Thus, even within the orthodox rabbinic world:

“Any innovation not coming from the ‘geonim’ was immediately perceived as amateurish and suspicious.”

The Enlightenment could not successfully compete with this hierarchy of prestige.

Rabbinic prestige was obviously a major issue and one could say it was a positive factor as it kept the important tradition alive.

Visi describes this matter of prestige in rather strong terms regarding a question put to R. Benet about the permissibility of praying in a language other than Hebrew:

“...Benet argues, once Hebrew is replaced by German as the language of worship Jews may forget Hebrew altogether. This situation would cause the complete disappearance of rabbinic culture (as well as rabbinic authority) since rabbinic literature is consumable only in Hebrew. Its prestige among Jews stands or falls with the prestige of Hebrew.”

In other words, it was felt that prayer must remain in Hebrew not just because it is prescribed by Halacha (although there are exceptions), but also because it was a means of maintaining rabbinic culture, prestige and authority.

Incidentally; besides prayer - unlike the Chatam Sofer whose followers believed it was a religious duty to speak Yiddish and not German - R. Benet had no problems with Jews using German as a spoken language.


In R. Benet’s response to the Hamburg Temple issue, he wrote in Hebrew: 

“It is well known and generally recognized by everybody that all the community of Israel are all sacred and the One God is among them. And one Torah is for all of them. And all the people stand all the time on [the belief that] Moses is true and his Torah is true. And this is the Torah that he gave us. They are the two tablets of the covenant, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.”

The same eloquent passage was translated into the Yiddish vernacular in a curt and more authoritative style which simply laid down the law for the populace:

“It is generally known that all the community of Israel is based on an unconditional belief in the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.”

In light of this unconditional belief, there was nothing more to discuss.

The unassailable authority of the rabbis was most likely also contributed to by the general disinterest by the masses in intellectual endeavours both in technical religious, as well as in secular affairs.

As Visi puts it, the average Jews of Moravia had no real appetite for intellectual matters, and they:

“...actually lacked the educational background necessary to do philosophy in an enlightened maskilic style.”


It is apparent that R. Benet developed an interesting way of coping with the threat of the Enlightenment: 

As long as the authentic rabbinic theme was allowed to maintain its basic dominance, he felt no need to attack the Haskalic influences. He was prepared to allow them some space as long as they remained on the periphery. 

However, as soon as he perceived a direct threat to rabbinic tradition, he was steadfast in his condemnation of it no matter the source.

An example of this was R. Benet’s outright denunciation of the well-known Halachic work, Besamim Rosh, which originated from Berlin. R. Benet believed this work to be forgery.

As the title suggests, it purports to be the 14th-century work of Rabbeinu Asher, known also as the Rosh. The book, regarded as a ‘Trojan horse in the camp of Halacha,’ is thought to have been forged by R. Saul Berlin, whose father, R. Hirsch Tzvi Levin was the rabbi of Berlin.

Interspersed amongst the various writings in Besamin Rosh are ideas such as that Rambam did not base his Thirteen Principles on Torah or Talmud but from non-Jewish sources as well as on his own perceptions, and that faith is a matter of individual conviction. The Rosh (b. 1250), allegedly, would have known this having lived soon after Rambam passed away in 1204.

Besamin Rosh also speaks of a time when certain laws of the Torah will be abolished for the ‘well being’ of the people. There are also references to shaving one’s beard, drinking non-Jewish wine, and most controversially to a case of riding a horse on Shabbat. –These and other such statements are regarded as subversive and deliberately planted in the guise of a Halachic work, to spread Enlightenment propaganda.

In a letter by R. Benet to R. Levin of Berlin, he disputes the attribution of Besamim Rosh to the Rosh. He compared sections of authentic Responsa (Teshuvot, or written answers to Halachic questions) of the Rosh to the writings in Besamim Rosh and exposed various inconsistencies.

Visi explains:

“However, the main point of criticism was not the authenticity of the work but the blatant heresy propagated in some of the pseudoepigraphical [falsely attributed][8] responsa.

... the Besamim Rosh was a dangerous attack on traditional rabbinic Judaism in Mordecai Benet’s opinion. It demanded a response as opposed to other pieces of maskilic or reformer literature, which Benet preferred to ignore.

It could create a new publicity and prestige for maskilic ideas that they did not enjoy before. By attacking it Benet obviously wanted to prevent the spread and the recognition of the book: the possibility that Moravian yeshiva-students take the Besamim Rosh as an authentic piece of rabbinic literature must have been a nightmare for him.”


What emerges is a very interesting dynamic displayed by R. Mordechai Benet. He seems to have been neither a proponent nor opponent to the Enlightenment Movement. This was unusual in an age which had clearly defined boundaries in this area.

However, the open-minded, independent and tolerant R. Benet - who normally turned a blind eye to, and in some cases even endorsed Enlightenment literature - was transformed into a warrior when he felt that rabbinic literature itself was under threat.

This theological tightrope on which R. Benet walked as well as his commensurate delicate ideological balance seems to have been quite considered, intentional, strategic and in his mind, appropriate.

-But this unusual balance between staunch defender of faith and open tolerance of Enlightenment views, was too much for some. The following tactic was adopted by an anonymous Kabbalist, perhaps representing a larger interest group:


In 1820, a letter - ‘from G-d’ - was found in the East-Moravian town of Lipnik addressed to the chief rabbi, or landesrabbiner of Moravia. The anonymous author claims he attended a sitting of the Heavenly Yeshiva and he was commissioned to bring a message to the rabbi.[9]

The letter praises the erudition of R. Benet and informs him that his teachings are studied in the Heavenly Yeshiva. The Rif (Alfasi, 1013-1103), Rabbeinu Asher (1250-1328) and Rambam (1135-1204) send their regards.

This praise notwithstanding, R. Benet is reproached for not noticing and not objecting to a new evil which was spreading everywhere. The letter, referring to the proliferation of what it calls heretical views from the Enlightenment, states:

 “Don’t you know, have you not heard how the schism arose in Israel and faith perished and heresy is growing stronger and stronger day by day! No settlement remains unpolluted from people belonging to their sect, some of them [professing their heresy] openly and many more secretly.”

The letter goes on to make use of Kabbalistic terminology describing how G-d’s Presence, or Shechina is being harmed by such Enlightenment activity and R. Benet is reminded about how others in the past - especially Mordechai the Jew[10] - had being willing to sacrifice their lives to prevent the suffering of the Shechina and to stop these satanic influences.

Then the letter becomes more personal and threatening:

“And you, my son, my beloved one, behold I have appointed you as the leader [nagid] of my people and all the great ones of the generation obey your words and all the chiefs and leaders of the people respect you. You have the power to do as you wish.

Despite all these you sit in silence as if you were deaf and unable to give instructions to fight the wars of the Lord and to punish these wicked ones, who destroy the world, with strong hand.
And it is you whom the other sages of the generation imitate when they sit and keep silence. 

Meanwhile the faith and religion of Israel is being demolished because of you.

And for this reason many accusers arose against you, some of them from the right side and some of them from the left side,[11] and required a punishment for you in the presence of God, and your punishment was almost decreed had not the members of the heavenly yeshiva, especially Jacob… and Joseph… spoken for your benefit and apologized on your behalf, saying, if you knew the intensity of the Shekhina’s suffering in the exile, so to say [kivyakhol], and the demolition of the upper worlds you would certainly be ready to sacrifice your life just as the saints of old days did.”

R. Benet is then told that he is a reincarnation, or gilgul, of Mordechai who did not fear any man, and he is called upon to convene a great gathering of rabbis in order to condemn the new heresy from the Enlightenment.


I am not aware of R. Benet’s reaction to this letter just nine years before his passing, but it shows how far some people were prepared to go to draw him deep into the fight against the Enlightenment.

By the same token, some members of the Enlightenment also went out of their way to produce forged and subversive works in the guise of technical rabbinic literature in order to further their agenda.

The problem, of course, was that huge numbers of innocent and unsuspecting people caught up in the middle would be swayed by charismatic leaders on both sides, to believe that either G-d was writing letters, or that the 13th-century Rosh had 19th-century Enlightenment leanings.

[1] Historic regions are geographic areas which at some point in the past had an ethnic or political basis regardless of present-day borders.
[2] Tamás Visi, A Moravian Defence of Orthodoxy: Mordecai Benet and the Rabbinic Literary System.
[3] Parentheses mine.
[4] See Elle Divrei haBrit.
[5] A play on the words ‘chadash asur min haTorah’ (referring originally to the eating of ‘new grain’ before the Omer offering is given). However, according to the findings of Meir Hildesheimer, it is no longer certain that the Chatam Sofer even banned the study of Mendelssohn’s writings. (Hildesheimer, “The Attitude of the Hatam Sofer…” (see note 10), pp. 149-154 and p. 177).
[6] Hildesheimer, “Moses Mendelssohn…” (see note 10), pp. 95-96.
[7] Parenthesis mine.
[8] Parenthesis mine. (Also spelt: pseudepigraphical.)
[9] The letter is printed in Maasiyot m-tsadiqei yesodei olam (Podgorze, 1903), 6a-7b.
[10] From the Book of Ester.
[11] These would refer to what the anonymous writer believes to be spiritual entities. Those from the ‘left’ are evil, while those from the ‘right’ are good.

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