1648: The Machloket in Europe
This shiur will begin with a study of the Chmielnicki massacres (1648-9) also known by their Hebrew years as “tach-vetat”. This pogrom killed tens of thousands of Jews across Europe.
As a result, the Jews of Europe (perhaps more so than the Jews of Spain and Africa) were sure that the coming of the Messiah was imminent. When Natan of Azza proclaimed Shabbatai Tzvi to be the true Messiah he was accepted by Jews all over the world, but especially in Europe. Even after his death, the Sabbatian movement continued, leading Rabbi Yaakov Emden to declare that Rabbi Yonatan Eybshitz was himself a Sabbatian. This controversy shook Europe even further. In the following generation when the chasidic movement began, one of the main reasons for the Vilna Gaon’s opposition was that he feared another Sabbatian movement. Ultimately the theological dispute between chasidim and mitgnagdim divided the Jews of Europe, and splintered Ashkenazi Jewry.
In this course with Rabbi David Sedley we will look at these key events and the people involved through the eyes of Jewish Rabbis who wrote about the tragedies, the destruction, the hope, the theology and the heresy.
1648: The Machloket in Europe: Lesson 1
1648: CHMIELNICKY MASSACRES: This series will look at Jewish life, and some of its heroes (and anti-heroes) in the second half of the 17th century. We will begin with one of the events which had the biggest impact on Ashkenazi Jewry – the Chmielnicky massacres. Chmielnicky was a Cossack leader, who fought against the Polish overlords to liberate the Ukraine. The Jews, who often acted as tax collectors for the Polish, were massacred on an almost unprecedented scale after 300 years of fairly peaceful (though never easy) Jewish life in Poland. As a result, Jews from eastern Europe were made homeless, and sought sanctuary in Western Europe. This was one of the reasons that there was such a strong push for the readmission of Jews to England. We will learn in this series about the Jewish Golden Age in Holland, and the influence of Menasseh ben Israel on the European thinkers of his time. The Chmielnicky massacres were viewed as part of the advent of the messianic age (based on the Zohar), so when the Messiah (Shabbatai Tzvi) was announced it was only natural that a large part of the Jewish world accepted him. The fall out from that tragic episode split Europe, as the Sabbateans went underground. Many closet Sabbatean Jews ended up having a large influence on mainstream Jewish practice, custom and belief. Ultimately this led to one of the most divisive disputes in European Jewish history – when Rabbi Yaakov Emden accused Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschitz a Sabbatean. We will attempt to look at each of these events through the Jewish authors of that time, and the books which they published. This first shiur begins with the tragedies of the Chmielnicky massacres (also known as “Tach ve-Tat” after the numerical value of the Hebrew years). There are a few contemporary books written about those events, and we will look at exerpts from them, especially “Yevein Metzula” describing the scale of the destruction, and its causes.
1648: The Machloket in Europe: Lesson 2
1655: RESETTLEMENT OF JEWS IN ENGLAND: The Jews were expelled from England by King Edward I in 1290. For a large part of English and British history there were no Jews in England. Ultimately they were let back in to the country in the time of Oliver Cromwell (1650s) though in fact there was never any official permission granted to Jews to live in that country. When Charles II returned to the throne he allowed the Jews to remain in England, and set up Synagogues and purchase land for a cemetry. Much of the hard work in persuading Oliver Cromwell and the British Parliament to permit Jews to return to England was done by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, a Dutch Jew, former Portuguese Converso. Before applying himself to the English question, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel had been a Rabbi, teacher, judge, author, printer and correspondent with many of the greatest intellectuals in Europe. He was almost the first Rabbi in America. He was almost on the Beit Din that excommunicated Spinoza. He was renouned for his brilliance by gentiles and Jews alike (though probably more by gentiles). In this shiur we will read exerpts from a few of his books, and try to understand a bit more about this most important Rabbi and amazingly interesting and varied character.
1648: The Machloket in Europe: Lesson 3
1665: SHABBATAI TZVI: The story of Shabbatai Tzvi is one of the most famous, yet least understood, tragic episodes in Jewish history. Who was he? Who was Nathan of Gaza? Why did so many people believe that Shabbatai was the Messiah? How did they react after his conversion to Islam? In this shiur we will focus primarily on a version of the story from 1665, describing the events and tragedy as they unfolded.
1648: The Machloket in Europe: Lesson 4
1676: SABBATEAN MOVEMENT: This class begins with the imprisonment, apostasy and death of Shabbatai Tzvi. Yet, despite all of these events, not only did the Sabbatean movement not disappear, but it actually grew stronger. Those who had followed the false messiah followed one of three different paths. The Donmeh held that they should follow the lead of Shabbatai Tzvi, and become Muslim. They converted en masse (the largest ever group of Jews to convert to Islam at once) and lived as Jewish Muslims until the 20th century. Today they have mostly assimilated into Turkish society, but conspiracy theorists still make amazing claims about them. Some regretted the loss of the messiah, acknowledged that they had been misled, and returned to their former lives (some whitewashing the extent of their involvement). Another group (and it is difficult to know how big this group was) went underground, and acted as religious Jews, but secretly retained their faith in Shabbatai Tzvi. At times this faith of theirs was expressed by private or public (led by Frank) breaking of mitzvot. For some, including Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid and Avraham Rovigo, it inspired their aliya to Jerusalem, and building the Shul (which became known afterwards as the Churva Synagogue). This third group had a lasting impact on Judaism, and despite efforts to stamp them out, continued to act as a “fifth column” within Judaism for many years (possibly centuries) after the death of Shabbatai Tzvi.
1648: The Machloket in Europe: Lesson 5
1656-1718: CHACHAM TZVI: Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi, The Chacham Tzvi, was 10 years old at the time of Shabbatai Tzvi’s apostasy, but the influence of Sabbateanism was so pervasive in the following decades that it split entire communities. In this shiur we will look at the life and times of the Chacham Tzvi, who spent times in both Ashkenazi and Sefardi communities in Europe, was one of the greatest Torah scholars (in both revealed Torah and kabbala), yet was evicted from his position and community for opposing a Sabbatean “kabbalist.” We will discuss Nehemya Hayyun, who was a popular and influential “kabbalist”, yet also a womanizer, gambler, fraud, and Sabbatean. The Chacham Tzvi also spend time in London, and was asked to rule on the case of David Nieto, who was accused of preaching Spinozan heresy in a sermon from the pulpit of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London. Time permitting, we will also look at one of the Chacham Tzvi’s more peculiar responsa: May one count a golem as part of a minyan?
1648: The Machloket in Europe: Lesson 6
1690–1764: R’ YONATAN EIBSHUTZ: Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschutz was one of the greatest Rabbis of his generation. Coming from a long line of Rabbis he became the Dayan of Prague, then Rabbi of Metz, and later the Chief Rabbi of Altona and the Three Communities. He was an expert in Halakha, Aggadata and Kabbalah. He wrote approximately 100 books, some unpublished, many still used today. In addition, he debated theology with Christians, and publicly denounced Sabbateans. He also wrote amulets for healing. We will look at his life, his brilliance, and his slightly unusual life in this shiur.
1648: The Machloket in Europe: Lesson 7
1697–1776: R’ YAAKOV EMDEN: Rabbi Yaakov Emden was a man of contradictions. He resented his father (for making the wrong shiduch, and for dying young) yet spent his life defending his father and his writings. He resisted temptation with a woman who tried to seduce him, yet wrote a responsum in which he holds that it is permitted to have a concubine. He (like his father) knew kaballah very well, yet he wrote a book showing that the Zohar is a forgery. He writes that he was depressed for most of his life. He managed to upset virtually everyone he came into contact with, yet was shocked that he didn’t get the job that he wanted as Rabbi of Altona. And he spent a large part of his life on a witchhunt against Sabbateans and Sabbateanism.
1648: The Machloket in Europe: Lesson 8
1751: THE MACHLOKET IN EUROPE: On Thursday, February 4, 1751, Rabbi Yaakov Emden (d. 1776) announced at a private synagogue service held in his home that an amulet ascribed to the Chief Rabbi, Yehonatan Eybeschutz could only have been written by a secret believer in the false messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi. This was the beginning of perhaps the most acrimonious and far-reaching controversy in the last 1000 years of Judaism. It involved many of the major greatest European Rabbis of the 18th century. In this shiur we will look at the responses of R’ Yaakov Emden, the Pnei Yehoshua (R’ Yehoshua Falk), the Nodeh BeYehuda (R’ Yechezkel Landau) and the Vilna Gaon. We will also look at the continuing influence of Sabbateanism on Jewish books and thought to the present time.
Rabbi David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and six children. He was born and raised in New Zealand before making Aliya in 1992. He left Israel temporarily (for eight years) to serve as a communal Rabbi in Scotland and England and returned to Israel in 2004. He has translated Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary on Pirkei Avos and is the co-author of Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement Through Counting the Omer (both Judaica Press). Over the years Rabbi Sedley has worked as a journalist, a translator, a video director and in online reputation management. He also writes a weekly Torah blog on the Times of Israel.