The image of a great Jewish law jurist, a paragon of scholarly Talmudic learning, doling out mystical amulets was difficult for some minds to grasp.
During the 1831 Second Cholera Pandemic, the great Rabbi Akiva Eger (1761-1837), chief rabbi of Posen in the Kingdom of Prussia, distributed amulets to ward off the disease. Despite not being renowned as adept in the mystical tradition, and despite not being affiliated with movements like hasidism that favored Jewish esoteric lore, the great Talmudist used amulets – in addition to other legal and social tools – to combat the raging plague.
Yet the image of a great Jewish law jurist, a paragon of scholarly Talmudic learning, doling out mystical amulets was difficult for some minds to grasp. One reason that the image was jarring is because of traditional sources, particularly Maimonides, that derided the use of amulets. This may explain a counter-narrative that evolved regarding Rabbi Akiva Eger’s amulets.
Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein (b. 1934) is a leading legal authority in the Lithuanian Yeshiva community in Israel and renowned expert on the interface of Jewish law and medicine. In 2012, Rabbi Zilberstein was invited to join the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the policy-making council of Ashkenazi haredim. Rabbi Zilberstein’s widespread appeal is largely due to a growing library of popular self-help books that include advice and stories. In one such volume, Rabbi Zilberstein recalled the 1831 cholera pandemic and Rabbi Akiva Eger’s tireless work on behalf of his charges, adding “and he also gave, as a one-time measure, amulets to those who requested.” Rabbi Zilberstein was quick to point out that Rabbi Akiva Eger was well-versed in Kabbalah, though he hid his knowledge of this realm. Yet the 1831 crisis called for an exception and Rabbi Akiva Eger dispensed a few amulets in order to calm people down. The amulets – reported Rabbi Zilberstein – worked.
Rabbi Zilberstein continued: In one case, after the amulet worked, the recipients wanted to know which mystical names of God were written in the amulet. They could not hold themselves back and they opened the amulet. To their great surprise they found text that did not smack of mysticism at all: an entire passage from Tosafot, the medieval commentators on the Talmud!
The storyteller even knew to direct his readers to the specific passage in Tosafot. A cursory look at the particular passage reveals that it contains is no reference to sickness, disease, plagues, cures or salvation. That is exactly the point of the tale: the mystical efficacy of the revealed Torah, without the need for recourse to the esoteric tradition. Thus studying a medieval Talmudic commentator can have the same effect as theurgic uses God’s name.
The English translation of Rabbi Zilberstein’s account knew how to explain the reference to a nondescript passage:
They opened the amulet, and to their surprise, they found an entire passage from Tosafos … beginning with the words … “with refuse of the threshing floor and the wine vat.” These words refer to materials that are fitting to be used as s’chach, the roof-covering of the sukkah. The indication is that just as the roof-covering made of s’chach does not provide protection from the elements and therefore one must rely on the Ribono shel Olam, in this situation one must daven and place his trust in Hashem to cure the illness.
Readers of the English account are therefore prodded to avoid even a ‘Talmudic amulet.’ They are enjoined to pray and have faith.
With regard to the 1831 cholera pandemic, the counter-narrative voiced by Rabbi Zilberstein has shallow historical roots and cannot be preferred.
IN MARCH 2020, with the spread of coronavirus, Rabbi Zilberstein offered a different amulet-opening story. During an outbreak of cholera in the 18th century, the doctors had lost any hope of finding a cure for the disease. The community leaders turned to Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschütz (1694-1764) and asked him to write an amulet that would wipe out the plague. Rabbi Eybeschütz acquiesced and the amulet that he wrote cured all those who were ill.
One person was curious to see what was written in the miraculous amulet. When he opened the amulet, he was surprised to find four letters: het, lamed, reish, ‘ayin – [c]holera! He hurried to Rabbi Eybeschütz to ask him the meaning of the amulet: Had the amulet writer abjured the angel responsible for the cholera outbreak? Rabbi Eybeschütz responded in the negative, explaining that he had written an acronym for the words hatanu lefanekha rahem ‘aleina – we have sinned before you, have mercy upon us – and God did indeed have mercy.
Rabbi Eybeschütz was famous – or perhaps infamous – for the amulets that he wrote. Opening those amulets landed him deep in controversy as his amulets were identified as pro-Sabbatean. Once again, Rabbi Zilberstein appears to have blunted the mystical content of amulets. This is broadcast clearly in Rabbi Zilberstein’s concluding words, added after the end of the tale: “Therefore it is possible to see that when a person understands from a spiritual perspective why he is ill, he will contemplate repentance and God will heal him.” Rabbi Zilberstein’s account of the Eybeschütz amulet is unlikely for a further reason. The same tale appears in a work published in Jerusalem in 1940, but instead of the amulet writer being Rabbi Eybeschütz it is the hasidic master Rabbi Menahem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotsk (1787-1859).
It is difficult to read any of Rabbi Zilberstein’s accounts as historic sources. The tone of his writing and his objectives are andragogic rather than historical. It would appear that the “Talmudic amulet” story, in any of its versions, tells us more about the storytellers and translators and their cultural milieu than it does about Rabbi Akiva Eger, 19th-century Europe, and the prevalent use of amulets to ward off plagues.
The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.