Jacob Emden

Scholar quarreled with almost all his contemporaries.

Jacob Emden (1697-1776) was a German scholar of Talmud and Kabbalah who was known for his feuds with other Jewish scholars and rabbis.

Among those with whom Emden feuded were Moses Hagis, head of the Portugese Jewish community in Emden’s hometown Altona, and Ezekiel Katzenellenbogen, the chief rabbi of the German Jewish community. Emden was particularly hostile toward people he believed were adherents of Shabbetai Zevi, a Jewish man who falsely claimed in the 17th century to be the messiah.

According to Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ The Jewish Religion, Emden, despite being a Kabbalist and believer in the Zohar as sacred literature, took it upon himself to prove that Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai was not, as he is reputed to be, the author of this classic kabbalistic text.

For several years Emden feuded with Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz, whom Emden believed was a Shabbatean and, as a result, a heretic.When Eybeschütz was named chief rabbi of the three communities of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck in 1751, the controversy reached the stage of intense and bitter antagonism. Emden maintained that he had been threatened against publishing anything against Eybeschütz, but insisted that Eybeschutz deserved to be excommunicated. The majority of the community sided with Eybeschütz, however, and Emden was ultimately ordered to leave Altona. Fearing his life was in danger, he fled to Amsterdam. Emden’s cause was subsequently taken up by the court of King Frederick of Denmark, and on June 3, 1752, a judgment was given in favor of Emden, severely censuring the Jewish council of the three communities and condemning it 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.

Despite his constant feuds, Emden enjoyed a certain authority in the Jewish community and was a prolific writer. His written works fall into two classes: polemical and rabbinical.

Adapted from the Jewish Encyclopedia.

Discover More

Jewish Thought and Philosophy 101

Jewish thought is not a single continuous tradition, but rather a varied mix of works, which reflect the specific ideological and historical positions of those who wrote them.

How Jacob Healed His Family

Israel’s third patriarch was born into great dysfunction, but found ways to create the first cohesive family in the Bible.

False Messiahs in Judaism

Many have claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, and the results have often been disastrous.

Maimonides (Rambam) and His Texts

One of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, he was both a traditionalist and an innovator.

Tale of Two Talmuds: Jerusalem and Babylonian

The two versions of the Talmud developed simultaneously in the two major Jewish communities of the rabbinic era.