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.

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