Originally published in Abraham J. Karp et al. (eds.), Threescore and Ten: Essays in honor of Rabbi Seymour J. Cohen on the occasion of his seventieth birthday (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1991) 133-41.
In the responsa collection Sha’ar Efrayim by Rabbi Ephraim b. Jacob ha-Kohen (1616-78) of Vilna  there are two interesting responsa concerning a rabbi who had been accused of preaching a heretical sermon. This article seeks to uncover the issues beneath the surface in the dispute.
In the first responsum we are told neither the identity of the rabbi guilty of the alleged offence nor of the rabbi who was moved to place the offender under the ban. As we shall see, however, the name of the alleged culprit is stated in the second responsum. It appears from the first responsum that the offending rabbi was in the habit of allowing himself considerable homiletical license, claiming that there was no need for a preacher to limit himself to the plain meaning of his scriptural text. This attitude, so it was claimed, had led him seriously to distort the verse in which God said to Moses, ‘When you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship ha’elohim at this mountain’ (Exod. 3: 12). The preacher interpreted the word ha’elohim in the verse to mean not God but ‘a god’, the meaning of the verse being, God warned Moses beforehand that the people would worship the Golden Calf. The rabbi who turned to Ephraim for advice argued that the preacher deserved to be placed under the ban on three counts. First, according to his sermon, God had foretold that Israel would worship the Golden Calf, thereby implying that God compels man to sin. Secondly, he converted the word ha’elohim from a sacred into a profane name. Thirdly, the preacher’s stance has encouraged the ignorant to imagine that they, too, can exercise complete freedom in interpreting Scripture. For all these offences the preacher deserves to be excommunicated.
In his reply, Ephraim first discusses at length the sources in the Talmud and the codes on the question of placing a scholar under the ban, coming to the conclusion that this should only be done if the scholar had been guilty of a very serious offence. It is praiseworthy to find extenuating circumstances for a scholar so as not to place him under the ban, and this Ephraim proceeds to do. To be sure, Ephraim remarks, the preacher erred grievously. Nevertheless, we are bound to find some excuse for him if we can, since he is a scholar. Did not R. Papa say that when he had to find an excuse for a scholar, he refused to lay his head on his pillow until he had done so? 
Proceeding to his defence, Ephraim says it is possible that the preacher followed the example of Nahum of Gimzo, who expounded every et (the sign of the accusative) in the Torah as indicating something not stated explicitly in the text.  Our verse does not simply say ha’elohim but et ha’elohim, and the preacher, consequently, may have concluded that God had informed Moses that the people would worship God and the Golden Calf—the former from the word ha’elohim, the latter from the word et. The Talmud,  in fact, states that when the people worshipped the Golden Calf they had God in mind as well. Moreover, the Midrash states that God had foretold to Moses that the people will worship the Golden Calf but with God in mind as well.  This implies that their sin, grievous though it undoubtedly was, will not result in their utter destruction, since, God said to Moses, when they worship the Golden Calf they will have me in mind as well. Even if this is what the preacher intended, he certainly erred in preaching such a thing in public. But he does not deserve to be placed under the ban for this error, since even according to his erroneous interpretation the word elohim in the verse refers to God and thus retains its sanctity.
As for the objection that, according to the sermon, God compels man to sin when He foretells that the sin will be perpetrated, what of the verse (Deut. 31: 16) in which God tells Moses that after Moses’ death the people will go awhoring after strange gods and what of the above-mentioned rabbinic comment, according to which God does tell Moses that the people will worship the Golden Calf? The truth is that all this is the old theological problem of how God’s foreknowledge can be reconciled with human free will, and is really irrelevant to our question.  And, in fact, both Maimonides  and R. Abraham ibn David have explained the deuteronomic verse and other similar verses in such a way that they are not in conflict with the doctrine that the human will is free.
The same kind of interpretation can be given here so that the preacher cannot be faulted on these grounds. If, however, Ephraim continues, the preacher, Heaven forfend, did interpret the word elohim itself as referring to the Golden Calf, he should be rebuked for his error; yet, even if that is so, he does not deserve to be placed under the ban.
The prosecuting rabbi had argued that the preacher should be placed under the ban on the basis of a statement by R. Joseph Karo in the Shulhan Arukh.  Here Karo writes concerning a reader of the Torah in the synagogue who insisted on reading the ketiv (the way in which certain words are written in the scroll) instead of the keri (the traditional way of reading these words).  The great scholars present there at the time warned him sternly to desist and when he refused to listen to them, they placed him under the ban. A fortiori, then, should our preacher suffer the ban. Not so, retorts Ephraim. There the man had been warned not to continue and yet he persisted in following his own illegal practice, whereas our preacher, mistaken though he had been, was never warned that what he was doing was wrong.
The prosecuting rabbi had quoted Maimonides,  who lists twenty-four offences for which the ban is imposed, among them offences of which our preacher had been guilty, such as one who brings others to a profanation of the divine name and one who causes the spiritually blind to stumble, both of which applied when the heretical sermon was delivered. Again Ephraim maintains that the case of the preacher is different in that he had never been warned to desist. R. Solomon ibn Adret of Barcelona (1235-1310), the Rashba, engaged in a correspondence with the scholars of Provence on the question of the study of philosophy.  Jedaiah Bedersi (d. 1340) here defends his countrymen of Provence, pointing out that the whole controversy erupted when a Provencal scholar stated in a sermon that the talmudic tale of R. Bana’ah (who saw the patriarch Abraham reclining in the arms of his wife, Sarah) cannot possibly be taken literally.  Although the views of this preacher were rejected, he was not placed under the ban.
Another case of a heretical sermon is mentioned by R. Joseph Trani of Constantinople (1568-1639), the Maharit.  A preacher taught in his sermon that no charges of dishonest dealings can be brought against a scholar, implying that scholars are above the law. The Maharit vehemently objects to such an outrageous opinion and declares that the preacher must be silenced, but there is no record that according to the Maharit the preacher must be placed under the ban. All this is because no ban may be imposed without prior warning. And even though the prosecuting rabbi had stated that a rebuke had been administered to our preacher, it all depends on how this was done. Furthermore, the warning to be given before the ban can be imposed must be delivered by a competent court, not by an individual scholar. Ephraim concludes:
‘All this I have brought up in my net in accordance with the inferior grasp of my mind. And may the Lord our God deliver me from error and bring about peace in the midst of the community of Israel and send us the Redeemer.’
From Ephraim’s second responsum we learn the identity of the preacher, who, evidently without consulting the rabbi who had rebuked him, had sent his own enquiry to Ephraim, asking whether he had acted correctly and requesting Ephraim to support him in his dispute with his accusers. The preacher was none other than Joseph Almosnino (1642-89) of Belgrade,  a rabbi and kabbalist who had been won over eventually to Sabbateanism. Ephraim, in his reply, addresses Almosnino in the most complimentary terms, referring to him as a great talmudic scholar. He acknowledges the receipt of Almosnino’s letter containing his complaint, from which we can glean further details of the whole episode. Almosnino’s sermon began, in the typical manner of preachers of his time, with a difficulty in the verse in Exodus. Since it was God who was addressing Moses, the verse should not have said ‘You will serveha’elohim’ but ‘You will serve Me’. It was in order to meet this difficulty that Almosnino had suggested that the second elohim in the verse refers to the Golden Calf. It is obvious that the word elohim can mean, as is evident from other passages in the Torah, either God or ‘the gods’. As for the words ‘at this mountain’ (they did not worship the Golden Calf at Sinai), the meaning is that despite the Torah, given at Sinai, prohibiting idolatry, they will still worship the Golden Calf (taking al not as ‘at’ but as ‘in spite of’—‘in spite of this mountain upon which the Torah will be given, they will still worship the gods’). Almosnino complains that a ‘fool’ (i.e. the dissenting rabbi who had turned to Ephraim) had called him an unbeliever who denies the living God, whereupon the members of the congregation insulted him as if he really were a foe of Judaism.
Ephraim first informs Almosnino that he had been approached by the prosecuting rabbi, who only consulted him on whether such an offence is deserving of the ban. Ephraim had hitherto no knowledge of the rabbi and it never entered his head that Almosnino was the rabbi alleged to have committed the offence. He has learned this for the first time from Almosnino’s own letter. Ephraim declares that his sole aim is to promote peace, and he provides Almosnino with the gist of his first responsum.
There now follows an extremely involved discussion on the laws governing the injunction to rebuke sinners; a discussion interesting in itself but one not germane to this study. Ephraim agrees that the rabbi should have spoken privately to Almosnino. He behaved badly when he reviled him in public. Yet Ephraim cannot help stating quite categorically that he does not accept Almosnino’s defence. He proceeds to examine Almosnino’s arguments in order to demolish them point by point.
Almosnino, in defence of his position, had quoted a passage from the Zohar.  In this passage the Zohar makes a distinction between the Tetragrammaton, used in Scripture only for the God of Israel, and other divine names, such as elohim, which refer to God in a more general way, i.e. not specifically to God as the God of Israel. The name elohim can even refer, on occasion, to the gods. The Zohar quotes in support the verse ‘Elohim rules over the nations’ (Ps. 47: 9), elohim embracing the mystery of darkness from which realm Esau obtains his nourishment. After protesting his ignorance of the kabbalistic mysteries, Ephraim nonetheless says that he cannot accept Almosnino’s understanding of the Zoharic passage. The Zohar does not take the verse to mean that the gods rule over the nations (which would enable Almosnino to argue that if this elohim can mean the gods, why not the elohim in the sermon). The Zohar says nothing of the sort. What the Zohar is saying is that elohim in the verse from Psalms is a divine name, but one denoting God’s sternness and judgments (Gevurah) and it is from this holy name that the demonic forces, symbolized by Esau, derive their nourishment; unlike the Tetragrammaton, ‘the glory [tiferet] of Israel’, which name denotes only compassion.
If, on the other hand, Almosnino simply wants to point out that the name elohim sometimes has a profane connotation, for this there was no need for him to quote the Zohar. Every schoolboy knows that the term is used occasionally in Scripture to denote ‘judges’ or even ‘the gods’. What we must never do is interpret verses in which elohim refers to God as referring to the gods. Apart from the obvious objection, it will cause people to think that the name can be erased since it is not divine, and it is strictly forbidden to erase a divine name. 
In his further support, Almosnino had quoted the work Ahavat Olam,  in which there is an interpretation of a verse containing the word elohim. This is the verse:
‘Wherefore should the nations say:
“Where is their God?”
But our God (eloheinu) is in the Heavens.
Whatever pleaseth Him He does.’ (Ps. 115: 2-3)
The author of Ahavat Olam renders this as ‘and our god is in the Heavens. Whatever pleaseth him he does’, i.e. this is the continuation of the declaration made by the nations, thus turning a divine name into a profane one. Ephraim states that he is unable to check the reference since the work in question is not in his possession, but if Almosnino has quoted the work correctly then he, Ephraim, must decline to treat the work with everlasting love (ahavat olam) and this author, too, requires to be pardoned for the offence of which he has been guilty.
Almosnino also quotes the famous sixteenth-century mystic of Safed, Isaac Luria, the Ari, who is supposed to have commented on the verse: ‘Whoever sacrifices to elohim shall be proscribed’ (Exod. 22: 19). This is usually understood to mean: ‘Whoever sacrifices to the gods’, as the verse concludes: ‘except to the Lord [the Tetragrammaton] alone’. But the Ari is said to have understood the verse to mean that it is sinful to dedicate a sacrifice to God by the name elohim (i.e. by declaring: ‘this is a sacrifice to elohim’) since this name, unlike the Tetragrammaton, is used occasionally for other gods. Thus the Ari understands a ‘profane’ elohim as a sacred one and by the same token we are entitled to do the opposite, as did Almosnino in his sermon.
To this Ephraim replies that here again he is unable to check the source but he is confident that if the Ari really made this comment, he only intended it as an interpretation of the second part of the verse. That is to say, the verse means: whoever sacrifices to the gods will be proscribed, and even when a sacrifice is dedicated to God it should only be done with the use of the Tetragrammaton, not by elohim, since this term is used also for the gods. The Ari cannot possibly have intended to suggest that the word elohim in the verse refers to God.
Ephraim concludes by begging Almosnino to confess to his fault publicly in the synagogue where he had delivered his sermon:
‘Through this we shall have the merit of seeing the pleasantness of the face of the Lord our God to serve Him with all our heart and all our soul and we shall have the merit of redemption by our Messiah, speedily in our days.’
We are in the dark about several details of the whole of this controversy. Who was the rabbi who protested at Almosnino’s sermon? Did the episode take place in Almosnino’s own community or was he a visiting preacher in another community? Why did both rabbis turn to Ephraim in particular? Where was Ephraim serving as rabbi at the time? Since we know that Almosnino had Sabbatean leanings, were these already evident when he delivered his sermon and, if they were, was Ephraim conscious of them when he wrote his responsa? If they had been and Ephraim was aware of them, it is unlikely in the extreme that he would have been so fulsome in his praise of Almosnino and so anxious to promote peace.
Although, so far as I am aware, none of the historians of the Sabbatean movement refer to these two responsa of Ephraim, little imagination is required to detect Sabbatean overtones in the whole affair, even though the full details remain obscure. Almosnino, as has been noted, was eventually won over to Sabbateanism. The author of Ahavat Olam, Algazi, whom Almosnino quotes, was a determined opponent of Sabbateanism, as were Ephraim’s grandson, the Hakham Zevi, and the latter’s son, Jacob Emden. Moreover, a central theme in Sabbatean theology is the distinction between the Holy Ancient One and the God of Israel,  and in our debate references are made to the heresy involved in confusing elohim with other gods, and there are explicit references to the God of Israel (tiferet yisra’el). It is also perhaps relevant that Shabbetai Zevi was wont to pronounce the Tetragrammaton. 
Another sermon delivered by Almosnino is referred to in Ephraim’s responsa. Almosnino had here interpreted the verse: ‘He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt-offering’ (Lev. 1: 4) as referring to Amalek. Ephraim, in his letter to Almosnino, remarks that he fails to grasp what possible meaning this can have. Is it just possible that there is a veiled hint to Shabbetai Zevi? On all these matters much further research is required. What does seem to emerge from the affair is that at a time when the Jewish world was about to be disrupted by the new Sabbatean heresy, the struggle had already begun and the attempt at enlisting support from established rabbinic authority had been undertaken by both sides—unless it is all coincidence pure and simple, something hard to believe.
- 1. For R. Ephraim ha-Kohen, see the article in Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 6, cols. 812-13. He was the maternal grandfather of Zevi Ashkenazi, the Hakham Zevi (1660-1718). In the introduction to the Sha’ar Efrayim, the author’s son states that his mother, Ephraim’s wife, Rachel, died in the year 1685 and that she was a daughter of rabbi Elijah, grandson of R. Elijah Baal Shem of Chelm. To the latter is attributed in legend the creation of a Golem. See Responsa Hakham Tsevi (Amsterdam, 1712), no. 93, where the author, Zevi Ashkenazi, refers to this and speaks of Elijah of Chelm as his ‘grandfather’, meaning, of course, his ancestor. The first edition of the Sha’ar Efrayim was published by the author’s son, Aryeh Leib, in Sulzbach in 1698. The edition used for this article is that of Lemberg (1886), the second edition of the work. Cf. on Ephraim Entziklopedia le-Toledot Hakhmei Yisra’el, ed. M. Margaliot (Jerusalem, 1946), 222-3. Although Ephraim served as rabbi in a number of important communities after serving as a member of the rabbinical court in his native town of Vilna, he signs his responsa ‘Ephraim of the House of Aaron of Vilna’. Ephraim’s rabbinic positions were in the towns of Velke Mezerici in Moravia, Prague, Vienna, and Ofen (Buda). Zevi Ashkenazi studied with his uncle, Ephraim’s son; see the son’s introduction, beginning. R. Jacob Emden, Zevi Ashkenazi’s son, fiery opponent of Shabbateanism, refers in his siddur (Beit Ya’akov, Lemberg, 1904, Shavuot, p. 306) to his ancestor, R. Ephraim, with whose views on a liturgical question he takes strong issue but refers to as ‘my great-grandfather the Gaon, the Hasid, author of Sha’ar Efrayim’. The two responsa studied in this article are nos. 64 and 65.
- 2. Shabbat 119a. In our texts Rava, not R. Pappa, which, no doubt, is a printer’s error.
- 3. Hagigah 12a; Ephraim also quotes Pesahim 22b.
- 4. Sanhedrin 63a.
- 5. Exodus Rabbah 3: 2.
- 6. Ephraim refers to the discussion of the problem of divine foreknowledge versus human free will by Maimonides (Yad, ‘Teshuvah’, 5: 5) and by other mediaeval thinkers like Abraham ibn David; see my article ‘Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will’ in Conservative Judaism, 34(1) (September-October, 1980), 4-16.
- 7. Yad, ‘Teshuvah’, 5: 5 and R. Abraham ibn David’s stricture ad loc.
- 8. ‘Orah Hayim’ 141: 8.
- 9. On this subject see Robert Gordis: The Biblical Text in the Making: A Study of the Kethib-Qere (New York, 1971).
- 10. Yad ‘Talmud Torah’, 6: 4 and Tur, ‘Yoreh De’ah’ 334.
- 11. Responsa Rashba (Lemberg, 1811), no. 418 (p. 45b), and the collection of letters by Abba Mari Astruc: Minhat Kenaot, ed. Mordecai Laib of Brody (Pressburg, 1838). On the controversy see Joseph Saracheck: Faith and Reason (New York, 1935), and D. J. Silver: Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy (Leiden, 1965).
- 12. Bava Batra 58a. Bava Metzia in Minhat Kenaot, p. 69, is a printer’s error.
- 13. Responsa Maharit, part I, no. 110 (Lemberg, 1861). See my Theology in the Responsa (London, 1973), 148-50.
- 14. On Joseph Almosnino, see Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 2, col. 669. During Almosnino’s rabbinate in Belgrade the community sent a delegation to Shabbetai Zevi, see G. Scholem, Shabbetai Tzevi (Tel-Aviv, 1957), ii. 535. Cf. the English translation and enlarged version of Scholem’s work Sabbatai Seviby R. J. Z. Werblowsky (London, 1973), index, s.v. ‘Almosnino, R. Joseph’.
- 15. Zohar II. 96a (the page given in the Lemberg edition of the Sha’ar Efrayim is 173 and is either a printer’s error or refers to a different edition of the Zohar).
- 16. Shevuot 35a-b.
- 17. By the anti-Shabbatean R. Solomon Algazi (d. c.1683). Almosnino only refers to the work: he does not mention the author by name.
- 18. See Scholem, op.cit., and Werblowsky, op.cit. On the proliferation of Sabbatean preachers and their extremely unconventional manipulation of biblical texts in favour of their theology, see H. A. Sosland: A Guide for Preachers: The Or Ha-Darshanim of Jacob Zahalon. A Seventeenth-Century Preacher’s Manual (New York, 1987), 39-49.
- 19. See Scholem’s article ‘Shabbetai Zevi’ in Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 14, cols. 1219-54. See col. 1235 for Shabbetai signing some of his letters ‘I am the Lord your God Shabbetai Zevi’. Cf. col. 1239 that, after Shabbetai’s apostasy, his followers searched for and reinterpreted strange aggadot in order to discover the apostasy foretold there. The term used is aggadot shel dofi. The term used for Almosnino’s sermon by his opponent is derashot shel dofi. Furthermore, the idea in the sermon that God had foretold that Israel would worship the Golden Calf fits neatly into the Sabbatean theme of the two deities; see Scholem, col. 1240, that for Shabbetai Zevi the first cause is distinct from the God of Israel, and compare this with Almosnino’s understanding of the Ari that the sacrifice must be dedicated to ‘the God of Israel’.