Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz's Tefillin

A week or so ago, I picked up a wonderful book from the local seforim store. It is called Yahadus, and is a curriculum for learning Yahadus, in a rather nice format. Check out this PDF sample of one of their lessons, on Kiddush Hashem. You can find out more, and purchase it, at their website. I also saw it the other day at the YU Seforim Sale in the children's section for about $10 less than their listed price, so maybe check it out there.

It follows the order of the Rambam's Mishneh Torah, and presents units all all 613 Mitzvos. Such that volume 1 (for grade 4) is Sefer Madda and Ahava, volume 2 (for grade 5) is Zmanim, Nashim, Kedusha and Haflaah. Volume 3 (for grade 6) is due to come out shoftly after Pesach.

My third-grade son has greatly enjoyed these books, and I would highly recommend them.

Anyway, on page 78 of volume 2, in the section on Shevisas Yom Tov, they tell a story of Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz's tefillin. To paraphrase, here is what happened.

A certain Jew came to Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz's town and, for an unspecified reason, without permission, decided to open up Rav Yosanan Eibeshitz's tefillin. He found the boxes to be empty! Since Chazal say awful things about those who never wear tefillin in their lives, he took Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz to bet din.

In bet din, Rav Eibeshitz asked him just when he examined the tefillin. The fellow replied that it had been on chol hamoed. Rav Eibeshitz then explained that his personal minhag was not to wear tefillin on chol hamoed, but that in the town he currently resided, the minhag was to wear it. If he overtly refrained from wearing it, then people might feel compelled to follow his minhag. Therefore, specifically on chol hamoed, he removed the parchment and wore the empty tefillin.

I find this story fascinating, on a number of levels. Not that I am entirely convinced that the story is true, for reasons I'll explain below in item 3.

1) First, why should a random Jew pick on Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz like that? It is almost like a tzitzis-check that some Rebbes in Jewish day-schools do. While talking to one of their young charges, they pat him affectionately on the back, to see if he is wearing tzitzis. Why would someone tefillin-check a Torah-great like Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz, zatza'l? And what was the thought process to suspect this -- that is, why would someone go to the trouble of actually donning tefillin yet remove the parchments inside?

The answer is that R' Eibeshitz was accused by Rav Yaakov Emden of being a secret follower of the deceased Shabbatai Tzvi, and a believer in the perversion of true kabbalah, following Sabbatean kabbalah as formulated by Shabtai Tzvi's prophet, Nathan of Gaza.

Part of the beliefs of these closet Sabbateans was that it was a positive thing to outwardly appear to keep all the mitzvot but to surreptitiously violate all of them. Because in the messianic era, the mitzvos were abrogated. Not mattir assurim (who releases the bound) but mattir issurim (who permits the forbidden). Thus, a closet Sabbatean would indeed outwardly wear tefillin but secretly remove the parchment so as not to fulfill the mitzvah and to be secretly one of the poshei yisrael begufan, those in Israel who sin with their bodies.

2) Second, I find the defense offered by Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz almost as damning as the actual absence of the parshiyot inside the tefillin.

For there is an overt meaning to the words, that he was trying to be non-imposing of his own personal minhag / accepted halacha on the community.

But there is a plausible secondary meaning. Recall that Sabbatean kabbalists held that it was a positive thing to secretly violate the commandments. This was because the mitzvot have a metaphysical impact on Creation and on the Divine. This is, however, time-bound. In the generations past, it was positive to do mitzvos. But in the present, in the messianic era, it was negative and damaging to do mitzvos.

The Talmud is somewhat unclear on whether one should wear tefillin on chol hamoed. On Shabbos and Yom Tov, while it was a matter of Tannaitic dispute, the conclusion is that it is not zman tefillin and is prohibited. Shabbos is already an os, a sign, and we don't need a secondary os. But does this halachic conclusion apply to chol hamoed as well. This was a dispute of Rishonim.

And then, in the late 13th century, the Zohar was revealed, and took sides in this machlokes. It declared that whoever wears tefillin on chol hamoed is chayav misa, as if liable to the death penalty. This naturally had a profound effect on kabbalists, as well as many non-kabbalists. After all, now we have Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Tanna, taking a stand on a matter which was left unclear in the Talmud. Even so, many communities stuck with their nigleh (revealed-Torah) based halachic practice, and still wore tefillin on chol hamoed. They should not change their practice just because the kabbalists act otherwise.

Now think about the hidden message. For profound kabbalistic reasons, what the community at large is doing, and which they think is quite positive -- wearing tefillin on chol hamoed -- is actually quite negative. And those who are privy to this mystical secret are not proselytizing to the masses to change their practice. But secretly, they might act in accordance with this profound kabbalistic reason and not don tefillin. And the reason that not putting it on is negative has to do with the timing. At any other day, a weekday, it would be a mitzvah. But now donning tefillin is really a great aveira.

To spell out the parallel, wearing tefillin in general, or doing any mitzvah, in general, is now secretly, for kabbalistic reasons, a very negative thing. It used to be good, but given the timing, of the messianic era, it is actually quite negative.

In other words, the defense could serve well as a pro-Sabbatean argument.

3) Thirdly, here is why I have my doubts that the story even occurred. (Which then would make the story stand as an metaphorical defense of Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz in the other charges.)

The story of the empty tefillin has obvious parallels to a story that actually did happen. I heard this from Rabbi Dr. Shnayer Leiman, and I hope I get the details right.

Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz was a kabbalist, and he wrote kameyot, amulets, for people in need. One possibly suspicious aspect of this amulet-writing was that he made people swear that they would not ever open the amulets and examine the contents. (One could imagine that he specified this requirement to protect their sanctity; or to protect against false charges based on misinterpretation; or because they contained heretical Sabbatean kabbalistic ideas.)

However, he wrote an amulet for an ill woman, and the amulet was not effective. She died, and her husband gave over the amulet to Rav Yaakov Emden to examine. Rav Yaakov Emden published a copy of the amulet in a sefer and, being a kabbalist himself, analyzed the amulet. He demonstrated references to Shabtai Tzvi.

Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz's published response was that this was a misreading of the amulet. Was Rav Emden asserted was a tav, for instance, was really a chet. They look similar, you see, so it is easy to understand his mistake.

Then, Dr. Shnayer Leiman came across a bit of evidence. It was a reproduction of the amulet, with all the details as described by Rav Yaakov Emden. It was notarized by a French court, and signed by two students of Rav Yonanan Eibeshitz, who declared reluctantly that indeed, this was what the amulet looked like.

Given that Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz's response was to challenge the reproduced text, but to admit (as is fairly clear to those who can understand this stuff) that if the text were as Rav Emden said, it would be Sabbatean, the obvious conclusion is that, indeed, Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz was a closet Sabbatean.

But anyway, we have ample documentation for the amulet story, where a Jew opened it up, made a discovery, and there was a rejoinder by R' Eibeshitz which put him in the clear. The opened tefillin just seems like a duplicate of the story, with some details changed.


Avraham said...

i saw the version that was reproduced by sholem. It is unquestionably shabataian and refers to the shatz by name.

S. said...


The tefillin thing was widely believed about R. Yonasan, and also that the Chasam Sofer did this. And there's a whole reid about whether or not this is halachically appropriate.

About R. Yonasan, see, for example, pg. 96 of the Minchas Elozor's אות חיים ושלום toward the bottom.


and, possibly the source for this story, R. Leopold Greenwald's בית יהונתן pg. 26.


My tentative guess is that there is also something Chassidic going on here because of course it was the Chassidim who stopped wearing tefillin on chol hamoed.

Eric said...

The Yerushalmi in Moed Katan implies that tefillin are worn on Chol Hamoed. The commentaries dispute whether this is halacha leading to the different customs. I agree that the Zohar played a pivotal role in establishing the prevalent custom especially in Israel where wearing tefillin on Chol Hamoed is unheard of in all but the most Yekkish communities.

Eric said...

Regarding the book series it looks aesthetic and engaging but the question is always whose "Yahadus?" Using the Rambam as the framework for their discussion of mitzvos exempts them from discussing Eretz Yisrael which seems convenient.

If someone has additional information regarding how the series treats the existence of modern-day Israel I would be happy to be proven wrong.

Pinchas Giller said...

I agree with your interpretation that this tale is a whitewashed version of the incident with Yaakov Emden.

Chanokh said...

What is the source that says the Sabbateans were mevatel mitzvos asseh? It is known that they thought that time had come to be 'over 'al mitzvos lo taaseh in order to retrieve the last nitzutzei kedusha that were still trapped in the klipos. Hence mattir issurim. I never read that they considered kiyyum hamitzvos to be an avera - their whole logic was that aveiros were also mitzvos. What you're describing sounds more Frankist than Sabbatean.

joshwaxman said...

good point. i'll try to double check, as i may well have gotten it wrong / misremembered details.

but regardless, doesn't 'poshei yisrael begufan' implies a sin in not putting on the tefillin?

Anonymous said...

Dear Reb Eric,

This book is on the 613 Mitzvos, has nothing to do with any modern or current events. For instance you will not find any endorsements of who should be the next president of the US.

The reason why they chose the Rambam is becuase he is the most systematic.


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