The Kabbalistic Culture of Eighteenth-Century Prague

BookThe Kabbalistic Culture of Eighteenth-Century Prague

The Kabbalistic Culture of Eighteenth-Century Prague

Ezekiel Landau (the 'Noda Biyehudah') and his Contemporaries

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


September 3rd, 2015



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Kabbalah, an esoteric lore whose study was traditionally restricted, played a surprisingly prominent and far-reaching role in eighteenth-century Prague. In this book Sharon Flatto uncovers the centrality of this mystical tradition for Prague’s influential Jewish community and its pre-eminent rabbinic authority, Ezekiel Landau, chief rabbi from 1754 to 1793.
A towering eighteenth-century rabbinic leader who is best known for his halakhic responsa collection the Noda biyehudah, Landau is generally considered a staunch opponent of esoteric practices and public kabbalistic discourse. Flatto challenges this portrayal, exposing the importance of kabbalah in his work and thought and demonstrating his novel use of teachings from diverse kabbalistic schools. She also identifies the historical events and cultural forces underlying his reluctance to discuss kabbalah publicly, including the rise of the hasidic movement and the acculturation spurred by the 1781 Habsburg Toleranzpatent.
In telling this story, the study offers the first systematic overview of the eighteenth-century Jewish community of Prague, and the first critical account of Landau’s life and writings, which continue to shape Jewish law and rabbinic thought to this day. Extensively examining Landau's rabbinic corpus, as well as a variety of archival and published German, Yiddish, and Hebrew sources, it provides a unique glimpse into the spiritual and psychological world of eighteenth-century Prague Jewry.
Reconstructing the intellectual world and traditional society in which Landau lived, this study reveals the dominance of rabbinic culture in Prague during this transitional period, the ongoing significance of kabbalistic ideas and practices, and the city’s numerous distinguished figures and institutions. Its analysis of the spiritual trends that animated this culture demonstrates that Prague’s late eighteenth-century rabbinate was more influential, more conservative, and less open to modernization than has been recognized. Debunking the widespread scholarly portrayal of Prague as primarily under the influence of the modernizing West, Flatto shows that this key central European city was shaped more by traditional east European Jewish culture than by Western Enlightenment thought.
By unravelling and exploring the many diverse threads that were woven into the fabric of Prague's eighteenth-century Jewish life, the book offers a comprehensive portrayal of rabbinic culture at its height in one of the largest and most important centres of European Jewry.


'Remarkable intellectual biography . . . a major contribution to the understanding of the diffusion and the role of Kabbalah in Europe in the eighteenth century. The book renews our knowledge of the cultural history of Ashkenazi society and, especially, of the Jewish community of Prague during the premodern period . . . An innovative aspect of Flatto's book is the study of Landau's relationship to mysticism, which was not without some ambivalence . . . an important contribution to the study of the cultural history of Jewish communities in Europe in the eighteenth century. [The book] leads us to reconsider the transformation of Jewish culture, viewed as a complex whole made up of a plurality of influences, of cultural and religious components, and full of contradictions and tensions. This remarkable research demonstrates that the transformation of Jewish society was far from linear.'
Jean Baumgart, H-Judaic

‛Constructs a map of Landau’s views on kabbalistic matters . . . that changes how we look at eighteenth-century Judaism . . . Flatto’s book is crucial for any attempt to understand eighteenth-century Jews.’
Joseph Davis, Jewish History

'A very good book. The scholarship is first rate, with every claim backed up by evidence. The presentation is also excellent, being well organized, clear and above all interesting . . . the author is to be congratulated and the book firmly recommended.'
A.H. Lesser, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies

'Offers a fascinating picture of Jewish culture in eighteenth-century Prague . . . based on rigorous analyses of texts and a wide-ranging collection of sources. This volume gives the English reader a fine introduction to central European rabbinic culture and sheds new light on hasidism and on modernization in Jewish religion. It does so in a very readable and clear manner.'
Shaul Stampfer, Religious Studies Review

'Challenges the conventional portrait of Landau as a staunch opponent of esoteric practices and reveals the centrality of kabbalistic thought in this key central European city.'

Author Information

Sharon Flatto is Associate Professor and Director of the Graduate Program in the Department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, specializing in early modern Jewish history, early modern and modern Jewish thought, and kabbalah. Her research interests include mysticism in early modern Prague; early Hasidism; and the modernization of east and central European rabbinic culture. Professor Flatto received her Ph.D. in Jewish history from Yale University, after which she held a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Brown University. She has taught at Yale University, Queens College, Brown University, and Brooklyn College. The recipient of many awards and grants, she has contributed to learned journals and written articles for the 'YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.'

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Title Page4
Copyright Page5
Note on Transliteration and Conventions Used in the Text14
Part I: Jewish Culture in Eighteenth-Century Prague36
Chapter 1. Prague’s Jewish Community38
Chapter 2. Prague’s Rabbinic Culture: Halakhah and Kabbalah55
Chapter 3. Mystical and Modernizing Trends: Prague’s Rabbinic Culture Threatened79
Part II: The Centrality of Kabbalah in Landau‘s Thought and Writings110
Chapter 4. Historiography, Personal History, and Folk Tales113
Chapter 5. Promotion of Kabbalistic Study, Books, and Customs124
Chapter 6. Tension143
Part III: Kabbalistic Schools in Landau‘s Works156
Chapter 7. Zohar and Early Mystical Sources162
Chapter 8. The Path to Devekut: Ecstatic and Cordoverian Teachings171
Chapter 9. Lurianic Kabbalah: Berur, Final Sparks, and the Mission of Exile187
Part IV: Key Kabbalistic Doctrines for Landau and Prague jews206
Chapter 10. Demons, the Soul, and the Afterlife209
Chapter 11. The Banished Consort: Theurgy and the Exiled Shekhinah225