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Tombstone of Jacob Emden in Altona
Jacob Emden ( ) (the Yabets) was a rabbi and notable talmudist, and prominent opponent of the Sabbateans. He was born at Altonamarker June 4, 1697, and died there April 19, 1776. He was the son of the Chacham Tzvi, and a great-great grandson of Elijah Ba'al Shem of Chelm.


Until seventeen Emden studied Talmud under his father Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi, the foremost Talmudic authority of the age, first at Altona, then from 1710 to 1714 at Amsterdammarker. In 1715 Emden married the daughter of Mordecai ben Naphtali Kohen, rabbi of Uhersky Brodmarker, Moravia, and continued his studies in his father-in-law's yeshivah. Emden became well versed in Talmudic literature; later he studied philosophy, Kabbalah, and grammar, and made an effort to acquire the Latin and Dutch languages, in which, however, he was seriously hindered by his belief that a Jew should occupy himself with secular sciences only during the hour of twilight. This belief stems from the biblical verse (Josh. I, 8): "You will study [the Torah] day and night", leaving room for secular studies during hours, which are neither truly day nor truly night.

He was opposed to philosophy, and maintained that The Guide to the Perplexed could not have been written by Maimonides, as he could not imagine that a pious Jew would write a work accepting and promoting what Emden saw as a non-Jewish theology.

Emden spent three years at Ungarish-Brod, where he held the office of private lecturer in Talmud. Then be became a dealer in jewelry and other articles, which occupation compelled him to travel. He generally declined to accept the office of rabbi, though in 1728 he was induced to accept the rabbinate of Emdenmarker, from which place he took his name.

In 1733 Emden returned to Altona, where he obtained the permission of the Jewish community to possess a private synagogue. Emden was at first on friendly terms with Moses Hagis, the head of the Portuguese-Jewish community at Altona, who was afterward turned against Emden by some calumny. His relations with Ezekiel Katzenellenbogen, the chief rabbi of the German community, were strained from the very beginning. Emden seems to have considered every successor of his father as an intruder.

A few years later Emden obtained from the King of Denmark the privilege of establishing at Altona a printing-press. He was soon attacked for his publication of the siddur (prayer book) Ammudei Shamayim, being accused of having dealt arbitrarily with the text. His opponents did not cease denouncing him even after he had obtained for his work the approbation of the chief rabbi of the German communities.

The Emden-Eybeschütz Controversy

Emden is known for his controversial activities, his attacks being generally directed against the adherents, or those he supposed to be adherents, of Sabbatai Zevi. In 1756 the members of the Synod of Constantinov applied to Emden to aid in repressing the Sabbatean movement. As the Sabbateans referred much to the Zohar, Emden thought it wise to examine that book, and after a careful study he concluded that large parts of it were forged.

Of these controversies the most prominent was that with Jonathan Eybeschutz, whom Emden accused of being a secret Sabbatean. The controversy lasted several years, continuing even after Eybeschütz's death.

Emden's assertion of Eybeschütz's heresy was chiefly based on the interpretation of some amulets prepared by Eybeschütz, in which Emden professed to see Sabbatean allusions. Hostilities began before Eybeschütz left Praguemarker, and in 1751, when Eybeschütz was named chief rabbi of the three communities of Altona, Hamburgmarker, and Wansbeckmarker, the controversy reached the stage of intense and bitter antagonism. Emden maintained that he was at first prevented by threats from publishing anything against Eybeschütz. He solemnly declared in his synagogue the writer of the amulets to be a Sabbatean heretic and deserving of excommunication. In Megillat Sefer, he even accuses Eybeschütz of having an incestuous relationship with his own daughter, and of fathering a child with her.

The majority of the community, including R. Aryeh Leib Halevi-Epstein of Konigsberg, favored Eybeschütz; thus the council condemned Emden as a slanderer. People were ordered, under pain of excommunication, not to attend Emden's synagogue, and he himself was forbidden to issue anything from his press. As Emden still continued his philippics against Eybeschütz, he was ordered by the council of the three communities to leave Altona. This he refused to do, relying on the strength of the king's charter, and he was, as he maintained, relentlessly persecuted. His life seeming to be in actual danger, in May 1751 he left the town and took refuge in Amsterdam, where he had many friends and where he joined the household of his brother-in-law, Aryeh Löb b. Saul, rabbi of the Ashkenazic community.

Emden's cause was subsequently taken up by the court of Frederick V of Denmark, and on June 3, 1752, a judgment was given in favor of Emden, severely censuring the council of the three communities and condemning them to a fine of one hundred thalers. Emden then returned to Altona and took possession of his synagogue and printing-establishment, though he was forbidden to continue his agitation against Eybeschütz. The latter's partisans, however, did not desist from their warfare against Emden. They accused him before the authorities of continuing to publish denunciations against his opponent. One Friday evening (July 8, 1755) his house was broken into and his papers seized and turned over to the "Ober-Präsident," Von Kwalen. Six months later Von Kwalen appointed a commission of three scholars, who, after a close examination, found nothing, which could inculpate Emden.

The truth or falsity of his denunciations against Eybeschütz cannot be proved. However, Eybeschütz's son openly declared himself to be a Sabbatean after his father's death.


Emden's works show him to have been possessed of critical powers rarely found among his contemporaries. He was strictly Orthodox, never deviating the least from tradition, even when the difference in time and circumstance might have fairly been regarded as warranting a deviation from the old custom. Emden's opinions were often extremely unconventional. Emden believed that Christianity has an important role to play in God's plan for mankind and was on friendly relations with a number of Christian scholars, and with Moses Mendelssohn the founder of the Haskalah movement.

In 1772 the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin having issued a decree forbidding burial on the day of death, the Jews in his territories approached Emden with the request that he demonstrate from the Talmud that a longer exposure of a corpse would be against the Law. Emden referred them to Mendelssohn, who had great influence with Christian authorities; but as Mendelssohn agreed with the ducal order, Emden wrote to him and urged the desirability of opposing the duke if only to remove the suspicion of irreligiousness he (Mendelssohn) had aroused by his associations.

Emden has been criticized for his interest in sexual matters but while it is true that, for instance, he provides, in his Siddur, details of how the marital act is to be carried out, this is in the context of the Shabbat eve section of the Prayer Book which, for the Kabbalists, is the occasion for sexual congress between husband and wife in order to repeat and assist the union on high between the male and female principles in the Godhead. He believed that the ban on polygamy by Rabbeinu Gershom was a serious mistake in that it followed Christian morals; although, he states, he does not have the power to urge the ban to be repealed. He even advocates a scholar taking a pilegesh (concubine) since, he says, the Rabbis hold that 'the greater the man, the greater his yetzer hara'. He never carried out his theories in practice and was looked upon by later Jewish teachers as a holy man.

Views on Christianity

From Emden's perspective, the New Testament appropriates parts of Jewish tradition, such as B'nei Noah and Proselyte, to the benefit of Christians, see also Council of Jerusalem.

Emden noted the following reconciliation:

This is a serious matter for believers in both religions, and a matter that scholars of those faiths often wish to leave out of contention when co-operating on projects of common interest, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is another reason non-confessional terms like Hebrew Bible suit themselves to academic, and other, discourse.

External links and references

  1. The Jewish Religion: A Companion | Louis Jacobs; Oxford University Press, 1995. 641 pgs., p.146
  2. Gentile: Gentiles May Not Be Taught the Torah

His Works

'Edut be-Ya'aḳov, on the supposed heresy of Eybeschütz, and including Iggeret Shum, a letter to the rabbis of the "Four Lands." Altona, 1756.

Shimmush, comprising three smaller works: Shoṭ la-Sus and Meteg la-Hamor, on the growing influence of the Shabbethaians, and Sheveṭ le-Gev Kesilim, a refutation of heretical demonstrations. Amsterdam, 1758-62.

Shevirat Luḥot ha-Aven, a refutation of Eybeschütz's "Luḥot 'Edut." Altona, 1759.

Seḥoḳ ha-Kesil, Yeḳev Ze'ev, and Gat Derukah, three polemical works published in the "Hit'abbeḳut" of one of his pupils. Altona, 1762.

Miṭpaḥat Sefarim, showing that the Zohar is not authentic but a later compilation

Ḥerev Pifiyyot, Iggeret Purim, Teshubot ha-Minim, and Zikkaron be-Sefer, on money-changers and bankers (unpublished).

Leḥem Shamayim, a commentary on the Mishnah, with a treatise in two parts, on Maimonides' "Yad," Bet ha-Beḥirah. Altona, 1728; Wandsbeck, 1733.

Iggeret Biḳḳoret, responsa. Altona, 1733.

She'elat Ya'abeẓ, a collection of 372 responsa. Altona, 1739-59.

Siddur Tefillah, an edition of the ritual with a commentary, grammatical notes, ritual laws, and various treatises, in three parts: Bet-El, Sha'ar ha-Shamayim, and Migdal 'Oz. It also includes a treatise entitled Eben Boḥan, and a criticism on Menahem Lonzano's "'Avodat Miḳdash," entitled Seder Abodah. Altona, 1745-48.

'Eẓ Avot, a commentary to Avot, with Leḥem Neḳudim, grammatical notes. Amsterdam, 1751.

Sha'agat Aryeh, a sermon, also included in his Ḳishshurim le-Ya'aḳov. Amsterdam, 1755.

Seder 'Olam Rabbah ve-Zuṭa, the two Seder 'Olam and the Megillat Ta'anit, edited with critical notes. Hamburg, 1757.

Mor u-Ḳeẓi'ah, novellæ on the Oraḥ. Ḥayyim, in two parts: the first part, Miṭpaḥat Sefarim, being an expurgation of the Zohar; the second, a criticism on "Emunat Ḥakamim" and "Mishnat Ḥakamim," and polemical letters addressed to the rabbi of Königsberg. Altona, 1761-68.

Ẓiẓim u-Feraḥim, a collection of kabalistic articles arranged in alphabetical order. Altona, 1768.

Luaḥ Eresh, grammatical notes on the prayers, and a criticism of Solomon Hena's "Sha'are Tefillah." Altona, 1769.

Shemesh Ẓedaḳah. Altona, 1772.

Pesaḥ Gadol, Tefillat Yesharim, and Ḥoli Ketem. Altona, 1775.

Sha'are 'Azarah. Altona, 1776.

Divre Emet u-Mishpaṭ Shalom (n. d. and n. p.).

His unpublished rabbinical writings are the following:

Ḳishshurim le-Ya'aḳob, collection of sermons.

Ẓa'aḳat Damim, refutation of the blood accusation in Poland.

Halakah Pesuḳah.

Hilketa li-Meshiḥa, responsum to R. Israel Lipschütz.

Mada'ah Rabbah.

Gal-'Ed, commentary to Rashi and to the Targum of the Pentateuch.

Em la-Binah, commentary to the whole Bible.

Em la-Miḳra we la-Masoret, also a commentary to the Bible.

Marginal novellæ on the Talmud of Babylon.

Megillat Sefer, containing biographies of himself and of his father.

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