Sunday 13 September 2020



The great controversy between R. Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) and R. Yonatan Eibeschutz (1690-1764) shook the Jewish community to its core as it involved two well-known and highly respected rabbis.

R. Eibeschuetz started out as the Chief Rabbi of Metz in north-eastern France bordering on Germany, and after 1750 he assumed the position of Chief Rabbi[1] of the triple community of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck. He was, arguably, one of the most powerful rabbis serving in the most prestigious communities at that time. His popularity is evidenced by the great number of his portraits, making his image the most widely disseminated Jewish icon in the eighteenth century.[2] 

The Chassidim have a tradition that seven Rebbes are referred to by the double honorific Rebbe-Reb and R. Eibeschutz was one of them, even though he wasn’t a technically a Rebbe.

This did not prevent R. Yaakov Emden from attacking Chief Rabbi Eibeschutz alleging he was a secret follower of the false Messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676). The vast networks of underground and secret followers of Shabbatai Tzvi were known as Sabbatians - and now a famous rabbi was suspected of being one of them.

At the heart of the controversy was the matter of a number of amulets, particularly for childbirth, written by R. Eibeschutz which were said to contain references to Shabbatai Tzvi and pointed to his associations with members of the Sabbbatian movement.

The stage was now set for the most aggressive and bitter rabbinical conflict to erupt in many centuries.


In this article, based extensively on the research of Professor Pawel Maciejko[3], we will deal with the question of what happened to Wolf Benjamin (1740-1806), the youngest son of R. Yonatan Eibeschutz and see whether it has any bearing on the accusations of Sabbatianism levelled against his illustrious father. 

Many Sabbattians and particularly Frankists[4] were known to have eventually converted to Christianity. Where did Wolf position himself in this regard?


Maciejko begins with an extract from R. Yaakov Emden’s writing, describing the events of one winter’s evening in the late 1750s when Wolf experienced a ‘miracle’:

“At the time of...Hanukkah Wolf pointed to eight lights against the firmament, and when Christmas Eve [leil kuti] arrived, he said: ‘Lo and behold! The entire world, even the great sages tell us to play cards[5] on this night, but we will not do so. We will be destroying his [Jesus’] kelippah[6]!’

And he went and took a violin and started to sing songs and cried a great cry. And the said Wolf told the people who were there with him to look through the window, and they saw a pillar of fire [amuda de-nura] coming from the heavens to the earth.

And he also told them: when I call you, fall on your faces, because the power of destruction is great and you might be destroyed. And there were also sounds and lightning.”[7]

According to the Zohar[8], a pillar of fire is one of the first signs that the Messiah has arrived.
Maciejko writes:

“Wolf Eibeschutz [was][9] trying to establish himself as a Sabbatian leader by demonstrating that the Shekhinah had descended upon him in the form of the pillar of fire....

Wolf Eibeschutz was one of the two most important Sabbatian leaders in mid-eighteenth century East-Central Europe. The other was Jacob Frank, who established himself as a leader of a large group of Sabbatians and convinced a significant number of Jews to convert to Christianity in Lwów in 1759.”


Interestingly, Maciejko is of the opinion that the ‘pillar of fire’ that Wolf saw may have been Halley’s Comet which appeared in 1758 on the 25 of December which also coincided with the first day of Chanukah. In fact, that year was the first time this event had been accurately predicted (by Halley) and many in Europe were filled with messianic expectations. 

The anticipated appearance of the Comet was well-known as it was publicised and written about in the non-Jewish newspapers of the day. It is possible that Wolf used his foreknowledge of this event to mislead those more gullible and less aware of current events within the community.


R. Yaakov Emden continues his account of Wolf who had suddenly become very wealthy:

“[H]e bought a large house and estate, a field and a garden full of exquisite and fine fruit trees. And he hired many painters and artisans and ordered them to rebuild the external wall from the side of the street, which was old, crooked, and crumbling. And he had it built tall and beautiful, with decorations made of precious stones and images of lion and wolf and his name gvul benyamin[10] carved upon the wall. 

Inside the garden he had a wall of glass built; all the trees and plants were eradicated, and parterres made with arrangements of coloured porcelain taken from broken china. He also had a wine cellar carved, inside of which there was a basin of water with engravings representing scales of sea creatures and conches, as it is customary among great lords. In the house he had figures of naked courtesans dancing with lovers and hunting scenes of the priests of the goddess of the ancient Greeks, Venus. 

In his room (where, as he claimed, the Shekhinah had descended on him), he hung a painting of a young man and woman embracing each other. In the garden he also placed costly sculptures of marble and alabaster, statuettes of [the Virgin] feeding the child and of other known [Christian] saints. 

And he had a great chronograph [keli shaot], which is called Wanduhr [wall clock] ... and which was decorated with the images of all the deeds of Jesus [kol ma’ase talui].”[11]

These comments by R. Emden need to be seen against the backdrop of sanctioned and even sanctified promiscuity as practised by the Sabbatians, who used and abused Lurianic Kabbalah to intentionally 'go into the sin' and become more 'elevated' as a result of mystically 'rectifying' it. This prepared the world, they claimed, for the arrival of Mashiach.


In his house, he held lavish parties and according to R. Emden, he even established a study centre headed by the Sabbatian Kabbalist R. Moshe ben David of Podhajce.[12]


Wolf was soon to lose his newly acquired wealth, and his property and possessions were auctioned off. Those who came to observe the auction discovered a Sabbatian manuscript[13] which was a type of manifesto. This seemed to corroborate his possible role as a leader of the movement and caused great embarrassment to Wolf’s father, Chief Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz, who had already been accused of Sabbatianism himself some nine years earlier. After being persuaded by R. Landau - the Noda beYehudahn - R. Eibeschutz sent his son away.

In 1762, Wolf left Altona in a gold-leafed carriage to the sounds of trumpets and in front of a large crowd[14].


 After reconnecting with other Sabbatians in Moravia, he ended up in Vienna where he began to associate with high society and royalty including Empress Maria Theresa. He re-established his art collection and assumed the title ‘Baron von Eibeschutz,’ as well as ‘Baron von Aldersthal.’


At around the same time, Jacob Frank - another messianic claimant and the leader of the Frankist movement - also put in a request to become part of the nobility which was made easier due to his conversion to Christianity. Many Frankists were later to convert to Christianity. As soon as they did, they donned the long colourful flowing gowns of the Polish nobility, known as zupans. Polish Jews wore black zupans.

Jacob Frank, or as he now called himself, ‘Count von Frank,’  was very conscious of his perceived rank and his clothing played a large part in the image he wanted to portray. He also rode in a carriage pulled by six horses, which was an honour reserved only for the Pope and the Emperor. He wore a ceremonial sword and was accompanied by a uniformed guard.

Frank promised his followers he would turn ‘all Israelites into knights’and give them ‘respect in the eyes of all Polish magnates.

Wolf Eybeschutz and Jacob Frank collaborated and had a lot in common. There are also accounts of rivalry between them over the leadership of  Sabbatain/Frankist movement.


Eventually, Wolf returned to Altona and faced a wall of debts from his previous escapades there. But now he claimed he could literally make his own money.

Incredulously, R. Emden describes how:

“[Wolf] tried to ward off creditors by resorting to a ‘supernatural’ means of making money. He took a bag of gold coins and had the coins smelted and the gold refined. Then he began to spread the rumour that he had mastered the science of alchemy and knew how to change copper into gold; the high quality gold in his possession was reported to have been obtained through the alchemical process of sublimation. 

Altona’s moneychangers thought they had got wind of easy money and provided Wolf with funding, hoping to receive pure gold in exchange in the future. Indeed, a few days later they were given bars of ‘gold’, which were actually bars of copper plated with a layer of gold. 

When the moneychangers realised something was wrong, they were told that the alchemical process was slow, the gold was still in almost spiritual state, and for a period of time it should be locked in a chest without being exposed to air until it fully materialised. Meanwhile, Wolf demanded more credit, and it was extended to him.”[15]


Jacob Frank also resorted to Alchemy and he set up a special laboratory at his estate for such purposes. He claimed to have invented  ‘Drops of Gold’, also known as the ‘Elixir of Life’  which he claimed could cure any ailment. 

One account records how one of his followers died from imbibing the drops. He seems to have given these ‘treatments’ to some of his needy and poorer followers.

Frank derided his allies, the Sabbatians for not engaging in the art of Alchemy which was sweeping through Europe at that time.


Maciejko writes:

“In the second half of the eighteenth century, alchemy enjoyed a special vogue and became a favourite pastime of both rich and poor. It was practiced in all European capitals and major cities. It attracted the attention of the crowned heads and the nobility, but it was also widespread among the lower strata of society. According to Georg Forster, around 1785 in Warsaw alone there were 2000 active alchemists, ‘the number simply stunning for one city, even a large one.’”

Stanislaus Augustus, the King of Poland, even wanted to replenish the coffers of his kingdom through the efforts of Alchemists.


Thus we see that Wolf Eibeschutz and Jacob Frank simply reflected the norms of the age and used it to their advantage. They were aided by the perception that they, as Maciejko puts it “were said to have mysterious connections,” or as Stefan Zweig puts it, had “the aroma of mystery.”[16]


Elisheva Carlebach[17] explains that from medieval times, the non-Jewish world had the perception of Jews being involved in secrets and mystery. This accounted for the Christian interest in Kabbalah which became very popular during the eighteenth century. We find people like Count Heinrich Bruhl who was instrumental in the development of early  Frankism, for example, who was known to have had one of the largest Kabbalistic Libraries in Europe.


To say that Sabbatian messianism was rife during that time is an understatement. To illustrate: R. Meir Eisenstadt (1670-1744) was the rabbi of Prosnitz (a town saturated by Sabbatians) and although he was from a well-known rabbinic family and he himself was regarded as a great Halachic authority,  he worked together with his brother R. Moredecahi Eisenstadt, who called himself the real Messiah and Shabbatai Tzi only the Mashiah ben David. 

Gravestone of R. Meir  Eisenstadt (1670-1744), the teacher of R. Yonatan Eibeschutz. The headstone reads:  "Head of the Beit Din of the holy community of Ash (Eisenstadt) and surrounding areas." 

R. Eisenstadt, known as the Maharam Ash, wrote responsa literature, such as Or haGanuz on marriage, as well as Panim Meirot. He served as Rosh yeshiva in Worms, and one of his students was Wolf's father, Yonatan Eibeschutz. According to some accounts, R. Eibeschutz became R. Eisenstadt's adopted son.

Another false messiah, R. Leibelle Prossnitz (who claimed to have been instructed by the Ari) was also very close to R. Yonatan Eibeschutz.

This was the world of the eighteenth century; filled with messianism, charlatanry, alchemy, Sabbatianism and mysticism. It was not easy to tell one from the other, particularly when Sabbatians masquerade as Halachists and messiahs as Kabbalists.

If R. Yaakov Emden was right, and it is true that Chief Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz was involved in the mystical Sabbatian movement - then his son Wolf Benjamin Eibeschutz was just another example of the fallout that always follows when promised and immanent messianic expectations cannot be met.


[1] In some accounts, he is only considered a Dayan or Judge and not Chief Rabbi because of the cloud of Sabbatianism  hanging over him.
[2] Yivo Encyclopeadia. Eybeschütz Yonatan.
[3] Pawel Maciejko 2010. Sabbatian Charlatans: The First Jewish Cosmopolitans. Department of Jewish Thought, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
[4] Frankism was a more intense form of Sabbatianism involving the followers of another messianic claimant, Jacob Frank (1726-1791) who claimed to be the reincarnation of Shabbatai Tzvi. Frank was born 100 years after Shabbatai Tzi was born and fifty years after he died.
[5] There is a custom to play cards or chess on this evening, rather than study Torah which, it is said, will give spiritual energy to Jesus (Darchei Teshuva 147:7).
[6] Kelippah means shells or husks which represent Kabbalistic negative energies.
[7] Emden, Sefer Hitabkut, 40r-v, see also 48v.
[8] Zohar II. 7b. Sefer ha-Zohar (Zołkiew, 1756)
[9] Parenthesis mine.
[10] Gvul Benyamin was the title of Wolf’s lost book on Kabbalah. See Liebes, Hibbur, 80.
[11] Emden, Sefer Hitabkut, 19v.
[12] Emden, Megilat Sefer, 201.
[13] Sefer Hitabkut, 26r-v, 27v, 33v. See also Yehudah Liebes, Hibbur, pp.77–102.
[14] Emden, Sefer Hitabkut, 21v, 30v-31r.
[15] Emden, Sefer Hitabkut, 20r.
[16] Stefan Zweig, Casanova, pp.31-32.
[17] Elisheva Carlebach, Attributions of Secrecy and Perceptions of Jewry, 128-9.


  1. To illustrate: R. Meir Eisenstadt (1670-1744) was the rabbi of Prosnitz (a town saturated by Sabbatians) and although he was from a well-known rabbinic family and he himself was regarded as a great Halachic authority, at one stage he also called himself the Messiah.


    Please could you check that the Rabbi Eisenstadt who called himself the Messiah, was R. Meir rather than MORDECAI (Mokhi'aḥ ) BEN ḤAYYIM OF EISENSTADT

    MORDECAI (Mokhi'aḥ ) BEN ḤAYYIM OF EISENSTADT (1650–1729), wandering Shabbatean preacher – hence his cognomen Mokhi'aḥ ("reprover"). He propagated faith in *Shabbetai Ẓevi as the Messiah after the latter's conversion to Islam. An extreme ascetic, he wandered through Hungary, Moravia, Italy, and Poland spreading the doctrine, previously enunciated by *Nathan of Gaza, that for mystical reasons Shabbetai Ẓevi had to undergo conversion and that his death was merely an illusion. In three years, he insisted, the "Messiah" would reappear. Invited to Italy in 1682 by R. Issachar Behr *Perlhefter and R. Abraham *Rovigo of Modena – both secret Shabbatean adherents – he put forth the claim that, while Shabbetai Ẓevi had been the Messiah b. Ephraim, he, Mordecai, was the Messiah b. David.


  2. According to Scholem: "...Mordecai Eisenstadt, an ascetic preacher who ...[t]ogether with his brother, who was probably the later famous rabbi Meir Eisenstadt ... travelled through Bohemia.. exhorting the people not to lose faith in the forthcoming redemption."
    Kabbalah (1987) 276.

  3. May I ask if Scholem is your source that Mordecai Eisenstadt's brother who he says was probably the later famous rabbi Meir Eisenstadt also at one stage called himself the Messiah just as his brother Mordecai did ?

    Incidentally (which by no means is a 100% accurate)does not consider them to be blood relations. They being only distantly related by marriage .

    The father of Mordecai Eisenstadt is Jesaia Pick Berlin-Aschkenasi rabbi
    The father of R. Meir Eisenstadt is Yitzhak.

  4. Yes it is my source although I've come across it elsewhere as well. (Perhaps taken from Scholem?)

    Even if, as you show, it is possible they were not related, Scholem clearly associates R. Meir Eisenstadt with the Sabbatian movement and with another Sabbatian messianic claimant, Leibelle of Prosnitz:

    "Meir a number of other outstanding rabbis, had been in sympathy with the movement and was then officiating at Prossnitz..." (Ibid. 279)

    On p. 441 he says R. Meir Eisenstadt was Leibelle Prosnitz' "most important supporter for some years" when R. Meir became the rabbi of Prosnitz from 1702. Leibelle Prosnitz promised to 'reveal' the Shechina to R. Meir Eisenstadt (441)

    We also know that R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz studied under R. Meir Eisenstadt in Prosnitz (Ibid. 405)

    R. Eibeschuetz "is said to have studied secretly with Judah Leib [Prosnitz] , who was then propagating teachings close to the radical wing of Shabbateanism." (442)

  5. You say " Rabbi Eisenstadt who called himself the Messiah "

    This is a step up from Rabbi Eisenstadt being associated with the Sabbatian movement and Rabbi Eisenstadt being Leibelle Prosnitz' "most important supporter for some years"

    Do you have a source that Rabbi Eisenstadt ever called himself the Messiah ?

  6. No I don't. Here, however, is a more direct source than Scholem linking R. Meir as a brother to R. Mordechai, the Messiah - and working together with him:

    "Perlhefter had invited [Mordechai] Eisenstadt
    and his brother, Rabbi Me’ir Eisenstadt, to join him in Italy, knowing that
    they were among the faithful Sabbateans of his homeland. Someone from
    the Eisenstadt circle managed to insult Rovigo even before their group
    arrived in 1681, and though Mordecai attempted to shore up relations,
    apparently neither Rovigo nor Perlhefter was really appeased. Mordecai
    then claimed that Sabbatai Zevi was in fact not the true messiah descended
    from King David, but a sort of pre-messiah messiah, the descendant of
    Joseph – whereas he, Mordecai, was the true Davidic messiah!"

    Matt Goldish, “Sabbatai Zevi and the Sabbatian Movement" (512).

    This establishes a stronger link between the two Eisenstadts who worked closely on messianic enterprises, and R. Meir did not yet disassociate from his brother the Messiah.

    (False Messiahs sometimes operated as duos as in the case of David Reuveni and Shlomo Molcho.)

    I will continue to look for more direct evidence, but in the meantime, I shall amend the text and thank you, as always.