Intimidated by neither power nor position, Rabbi Yaakov Emden left a remarkable literary legacy in the form of his autobiography, Megilat Sefer. This brief lecture provides an overview of his life and work, including his epic controversy with Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz.
R. Yaakov Emden, Megilat Sefer
People of the Book: Great Works of the Jewish Tradition
Dr. Henry Abramson
One of the more remarkable documents to emerge from the contentious 18th century is Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s Megilat Sefer, the first known autobiography of a major Rabbinic figure. Surprisingly frank and comprehensive, Megilat Sefer provides an unique glimpse into the mind of one of Europe’s most celebrated Judaic scholars, known not only for his erudition but also for his strident attacks on his contemporary Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz, a popular figure who stood accused of neo-Sabbatean tendencies.
Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) took his surname from the German town where he briefly held his only formal position as a community Rabbi. Most of his scholarly and communal activity, however, took place in Altona, which together with Hamburg and Wandsbeck formed the important “Triple Community.” Frustrated by his inability to win a permanent position as a communal leader, he maintained himself as an independent scholar, pursuing a variety of business ventures (mostly unsuccessful) until he paired his extensive learning with a private printing press that he set up in his home. He published widely, and his incisive commentary on the Siddur in particular has withstood the test of centuries. An autodidact and polymath, he once hired a young Dutch boy to teach him the German alphabet, and went on to study a wide variety of scientific and medical texts.
Sadly, his impressive Rabbinic credentials were overshadowed by a major campaign he championed to discredit Rabbi Eibeschutz. After brief involvement with Rabbi Moshe Chagiz’ attack on R. Eibeschutz (see http://5tjt.com/r-moshe-chagiz-shever-poshim/), Rabbi Emden took his cause to another level when copies of a number of amulets, written by R. Eibeschutz for the protection of pregnant women, were sent to R. Emden for scrutiny. R. Emden determined that the Kabbalistic formulations used in the amulets were veiled references to the false messiah Shabbetai Tsvi. The ensuing controversy engulfed Europe for much of the 18th century and involved hugely influential Rabbinical figures such as the Pene Yehoshua and the Vilna Gaon. R. Eibeschutz was ultimately vindicated, but R. Emden maintained his efforts to discredit his rival even after the latter’s passing in 1764.
Megilat Sefer is R. Emden’s personal account of his life, written in the midst of the controversy. The autobiography is characterized by an unusual degree of transparency, with R. Emden describing everything from his unhappiness as a husband and a parent to the minutiae of his business failures. His personal ill health is also chronicled, including his passion for the curative properties of a particular tea to which he may have developed a dependence. Prominent in the memoir, of course, is his dispute with R. Eibeschutz, and the reader gets a clear sense of how all-consuming the conflict was for R. Emden, who was prepared to sacrifice all in his relentless search for ideological truth.
An unflattering biography of R. Emden based on Megilat Sefer appeared in the 1930s, taking unfair liberties with the author’s searing honesty. The great historian Salo Wittmayer Baron of Columbia University published a rather devastating book review of this work, identifying the multiple weaknesses of the biographer’s tendentious, Freudian psycho-social interpretations of R. Emden’s account of his life. Professor Baron also pointed out that R. Emden’s life and work should not be viewed solely in terms of his opposition to R. Eibeschutz, but also in terms of his phenomenal contribution to Jewish scholarship and spirituality.
Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought, serving as Dean at the Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.