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ASHKENAZI, ZEBI HIRSCH (ḤAKAM ẒEBI) B. JACOB:

Early Life and Education.

Rabbi; born 1658 in Moravia, died May 2, 1718, at Lemberg. He was descended from a well-known family of scholars. When a boy he received instruction from his father and from his grandfather, Ephraim ha-Kohen, then rabbi at Alt-Ofen, and later went to Salonica, where for some time he attended the school of Elihu Cobo. There, also, he witnessed the deplorable aberrations which had grown out of the schisms engendered by the Shabbethai Ẓebi movement; and this experience became a determining factor in his whole career. During his stay at Salonica, Ashkenazi devoted himself mainly to an investigation of the Sephardic methods of study. Upon his return journey to Alt-Ofen he seems to have stayed some time (probably till 1679) at Constantinople, where his learning and astuteness made such an impression that, though a Polish scholar, he was termed "Ḧakam," which Sephardic title he thenceforth retained and by which he is known in history. Shortly after his return he married the daughter of a prominent citizen of Alt-Ofen.

Arrival in Germany.

When, in 1686, Alt-Ofen was invested, Ashkenazi, after seeing his young wife and daughter killed by a cannon-shot, was compelled to flee; thus becoming separated from his parents, who were taken captive by the Prussians. Proceeding to Sarajevo.he received an appointment as rabbi, in which post he remained until 1689. He probably resigned on account of some contention with certain members of his congregation, and left Sarajevo for Germany. In Berlin he married Sarah (died at Lemberg Jan. 23, 1719), the daughter of Meshullam Zalman Mirels Neumark, chief rabbi of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbeck.

On the advice of his father-in-law he went in 1690 to Altona, where the leading members of the congregation founded a study-house (Klaus) and installed Ashkenazi as rabbi. His school became celebrated, and pupils assembled from all parts to hear him; but his income as rabbi of the Klaus was only 60 thalers annually, so that he was compelled to defray his living expenses by engaging in various business pursuits (dealing in jewelry, etc.). After the death of his father-in-law, whom Ashkenazi had latterly aided in his official duties, one party in the Jewish community wished to have Ashkenazi installed as rabbi of the three congregations; while another party favored the election of Moses b. Alexander Rothenburg. Finally it was decided that both candidates should serve, but alternately, each for a period of six months. Naturally, friction and strife over religious questions ensued, and finally became so intense that in 1709 Ashkenazi deemed it advisable to resign and resume his duties as rabbi of the Klaus.

Ẓebi Hirsch Ashkenazi.(From the "Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society," London.)Becomes Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam.

Ashkenazi was not, however, destined to remain in Altona long; for on Jan. 10, 1710, he received a letter of appointment to the chief rabbinate of the Ashkenazim congregation of Amsterdam. In addition to free residence, the office carried with it a yearly salary of 2,500 Dutch guilders—a sum the magnitude of which becomes evident in view of the fact that fifty years later 375 guilders was the usual salary of the chief rabbi of Berlin. Unselfish and independent by nature, Ashkenazi renounced the perquisites of his office, such as fees in civil suits, etc., in order to maintain his independence, and accepted the high position only upon the condition that under no circumstances was he to be required to subordinate himself to the congregation, or to be obliged to receive gifts, and that he should be permitted to preserve absolute freedom of action on all occasions. From the very beginning he encountered in Amsterdam a hostile party, whose principal leader was a certain Aaron Polak Gokkes. Indeed, the difficulties with the directors became so serious that, on May 26, 1712, it was decided to dismiss the chief rabbi at the end of the term (three years) mentioned in his letter of appointment. Ashkenazi announced that he would not under any circumstances accept this dismissal, which he regarded as unjust. Serious difficulties arose. The rabbi's salary does not seem to have been paid, for in the register of the records of the congregation the present writer has found an entry to the effect that on Saturday, Nisan 4, 5472 (April 12, 1712), the parnasim sent a secretary and two attendants of the congregation to Ashkenazi to inform the latter that upon the return of the letter of appointment he would be paid the money to which he was still entitled. Ashkenazi, however, naturally declined to return this piece of evidence, a copy of which has been preserved among the official documents of the congregation.

Congregational Differences.

But worse was still to come. On June 30, 1713, Nehemiah Ḥiyya Ḥayyun arrived at Amsterdam and requested permission of the Portuguese congregation to circulate his writings, which had been published at Berlin. Ashkenazi thought Ḥayyun was an old enemy of his from Sarajevo and Salonica, and at once requested Solomon Ayllon, Ḧakam of the Portuguese congregation, not to accord patronage to the stranger, who was unfavorably known to him. Ashkenazi believed himself justified in making this demand, as the Portuguese congregation and its rabbi had, from the beginning, treated him most courteously, and had already, during his term at Altona, repeatedly sent to him from the Sephardim of Hamburg, Amsterdam, and London religio-legal questions for his decision. Ḥayyun thereupon called on Ashkenazi personally and made an explanation; whereupon the rabbi retracted his accusation, stating that it was a case of mistaken identity. Meanwhile several members of the Portuguese congregation had submitted Ḥayyun's writings to the judgment of Moses Ḥagis, a messenger from Jerusalem then sojourning at Amsterdam, who immediately discovered their Shabbethaian principles and tendencies and gave the alarm. He also called the attention of Ashkenazi to the dangerous doctrines published in Ḥayyun's book, whereupon the rabbi again warned the directorate of the Sephardim congregation not to support the author. Ashkenazi rejected a proposition to designate the objectionable passages, and declined to act as member of a committeeof investigation, because he did not regard Ayllon, the rabbi of the Sephardim, as a competent authority on such questions. Thereupon a fierce contention ensued, during the progress of which Ḥagis fought valiantly beside Ashkenazi.

Opposition to Ḥayyun.

A great number of pamphlets, some of them now quite rare, were issued by both sides, in which the contestants indulged in the most vehement abuse of each other. On July 23, 1713, Ashkenazi placed Ḥayyun under the ban, because the investigating committee appointed by the Sephardic directorate had not yet made its report. In consequence of this measure, both Ashkenazi and Ḥagis were subjected to street attacks, more particularly at the hands of the Portuguese, who threatened to kill them. In the midst of the constantly increasing bitterness and animosity, the report of the committee, which had been prepared by Ayllon alone, was publicly announced. It was to the effect that the writings of Ḥayyun contained nothing which could be construed as offensive to Judaism. It was publicly announced in the synagogue that Ḥayyun was to be exonerated from every suspicion of heresy, and on the following day a public reception was tendered him at the synagogue, on which occasion unparalleled honor was shown him. Naturally, the Sephardic opponents of Ashkenazi had found excellent support among the rabbi's adversaries in his own German congregation. The controversy was now waged so fiercely that even the family-life of the community became affected, and all peace vanished from the otherwise model congregation of Amsterdam. Ashkenazi was deserted, except for a few friends that remained faithful to him. When, finally, he was summoned by the directors of the Portuguese congregation to appear before their tribunal—which, of course, had no jurisdiction—he refused to do so, as he anticipated that he would be asked to retract and to praise and recommend Ḥayyun.

Placed Under the Ban.

Through a Christian advocate the directorate again summoned Ashkenazi to appear, Nov. 9, 1713; and when he again refused, he and Moses Ḥagis were formally placed under the ban by the Portuguese community. Ashkenazi was temporarily placed under arrest in his own home—probably to protect his life—by the municipal authorities, who had been influenced against him by Ayllon and the Portuguese leaders; and the whole matter was brought before the magistracy in order to secure Ashkenazi's deposition and banishment from Amsterdam. The magistrates thereupon sought the opinions of certain professors at Leyden, Utrecht, and Harderwyk, including Willem Surenhuis and Adrian Reland, on the dispute; but their decision, if given, has not been made known.

His Sojourn in London.

Ashkenazi forestalled the magisterial action by resigning his office and fleeing, in the beginning of 1714, from Amsterdam, perhaps secretly, with the aid of his friend Solomon Levi Norden de Lima. After leaving his wife and children at Emden, he proceeded to London at the invitation of the Sephardic congregation of that city. In 1705 he was invited to pronounce a judicial decision concerning the orthodoxy of the rabbi David Nieto, who, in a certain sermon, had given utterance to Spinozistic views. In London Ashkenazi found many friends, and received many tributes of regard. Even before this he had been invited to take the rabbinate of the Sephardic congregation, but refused. It seems that his portrait in oil was painted here, after he had refused, on account of religious scruples, to have his bust stamped on a coin. In the following spring he returned to Emden, and proceeded thence to Poland by way of Hanover, Halberstadt, Berlin, and Breslau, stopping at each place for some time. After roaming about in the vicinity of Opatow, Poland, he was called to Hamburg to serve as member of a judicial body convened to settle a complicated legal question.

Upon the death of SimḦah Cohen Rapoport, in 1717, Ashkenazi was called as rabbi to Lemberg, where he stood in high repute, both in his congregation and in the community at large. Four months after entering upon this office, he died.

Praised by Contemporaries.

Of a firm and unselfish but abrupt and passionate disposition, Ashkenazi everywhere aroused the discontent and hatred of the rich and the scholarly. Extensive learning, keen intelligence, and exceptional linguistic attainments, all combined to make him one of the most distinguished men of his day. All his contemporaries, even those who knew him only as the head of the Klaus at Altona, unite in praising his profound learning, his astuteness, his clearness of exposition, which never degenerated into the subtleties of the pilpul, and his absolute disregard for the influence of money. He would suffer serious deprivation rather than accept pecuniary assistance; and this characteristic, interpreted by the wealthy of that day as obstinacy and arrogance, became to him a source of much suffering and enmity.

Of his works, only a part of his responsa have been printed, under the title "Responsa Ḥakam Ẓebi" (Amsterdam, 1712, and since frequently republished). They are distinguished by lucidity of treatment and an undeviating adherence to the subject.

Bibliography:
  • Buber, Anshe Shem, pp. 187-192;
  • Kaufmann, in Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, iii. 102 et seq.;
  • Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, x. 352 et seq. and note 6;
  • Jacob Emden, Torat ha-Ḳenaoth;
  • idem, Megillat Sefer;
  • H. A. Wagenaar, beginning of Toledot Ya'bez;
  • J. M. Schütz, appendix to Maẓebet Ḳodesh;
  • Dembitzer, Kelilat Yofi, i. 91 et seq.;
  • Fuenn, Kiryah Neëmanah, pp. 86 et seq.;
  • Mulder, in Nederlandsch-Israelietisch Jaarboekje, 5620, pp. 42 et seq.;
  • idem, Jets over de Begraafplaatsen, No. 18, p. 17;
  • inscriptions on the tombstones of two of Ashkenazi's children, who died in 1712-1713.
L. G. J. Vr.
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