Saul Berlin

Saul Berlin (also Saul Hirschel after his father; 1740 at Glogau November 16, 1794 in London) was a German Jewish scholar who published a number of works in opposition to rabbinic Judaism.

Early life

He received his general education principally from his father, Hirschel Levin, who had served as rabbi of the Great Synagogue of London and as chief rabbi of Berlin. Saul, the eldest son, was given an education in both the Talmud and secular subjects. His brother, Solomon Hirschell, eventually became Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.

Saul Berlin was ordained as a rabbi at 20. By 1768, aged 28, he had a rabbinic post in Frankfort-on-the-Oder in the Prussian province of Brandenburg. He married Sarah, the daughter of Rabbi Joseph Jonas Fraenkel of Breslau.[1]

In Berlin and Breslau (where he frequently went to visit his father-in-law, R. Joseph Jonas Fränkel), he came into personal contact with the representatives of the Jewish Enlightenment, and became one of its most enthusiastic adherents.


Berlin began his literary career with an anonymous circular letter, "Ketav Yosher" (An Epistle of Justice) (printed in Berlin, 1794, after the death of the author), which Hartwig Wessely warmly defended in his own contention with the rabbis while pleading for German education among the Jews. Berlin used humor to describe what he viewed as the absurd methods of the Jewish schools, and alleges how the rabbinic casuistry—which then constituted the greater part of the curriculum—injures the sound common sense of the pupils and deadens their noblest aspirations.

He later wrote the pseudonymous work, "Mitzpeh Yekutiel" (The Watch-Tower of Yekutiel) (published by David Friedländer and his brother-in-law Itzig, Berlin, 1789), a polemic against the "Torat Yekutiel" of Raphael Kohen. The latter, one of the most zealous advocates of rabbinic piety, was a rival candidate with Levin for the Berlin rabbinate, which induced Levin's son to represent ha-Kohen as a forbidding example of rabbinism.

Under the name "Ovadiah b. Baruch of Poland," Berlin attempted in this work to ridicule Talmudic science, and to stigmatize one of its foremost exponents not only as ignorant, but also as dishonest. The publishers declared in the preface that they had received the work from a traveling Polish Talmudist, and had considered it their duty to print it and submit it to the judgment of specialists. To secure the anonymity more thoroughly, Berlin and his father were named among those who were to pass upon it.

Berlin's statements, especially his personal attacks against those he disagreed with, undermined his cause. When it reached Altona and Hamburg, where Raphael was chief rabbi, the work and its author was placed under the ban. The dispute that then arose concerning the validity of the ban turned entirely on the question of whether a personal element, like the attack upon the rabbi of Altona, justified such a punishment.

Ezekiel Landau, chief rabbi of Prague and a near relation of Berlin, along with some other Polish rabbis supported the ban, while some declared the ban invalid. Even the former censured Berlin's actions after circumstances forced him to acknowledge authorship.

Besamim Rosh, Berlin 1793

Before the excitement over this affair had subsided, Berlin created a new sensation by another work. In 1793 he published in Berlin, under the title "Besamim Rosh" (Incense of Spices), 392 responsa purporting to be by Asher ben Jehiel, with many glosses and comments that he called "Kassa de-Harsna" (Fish Fare). Berlin says, for instance, ( in No. 257) that an insight into the principles of the Torah and its commands can not be gained directly from it or from tradition, but only by means of the philosophico-logical training derived from non-Jewish sources. However, Asher ben Jehiel had condemned the study of philosophy and even of the natural sciences as being un-Jewish and pernicious (compare No. 58 of Asher's genuine responsa). Besamim Rosh ascribes the following opinions are ascribed to the neo-Talmudists of the thirteenth century: "Articles of faith [creed] must be adapted to the times; and at present the most essential article is that we all are utterly worthless and depraved, and that our only duty consists in loving truth and peace and learning to know God and His works" (l.c.). R. Asher is also alleged to be the author of the two responsa concerning the modification of the ceremonial laws, especially of such as were burdensome to the Berlin youth. Thus, for instance, it should be permitted to shave (No. 18), to drink non-kosher wine, "yayin nesek" (No. 36), and to ride on Shabbat. Berlin aroused a storm of indignation by thus fraudulently using the name of one of the most famous rabbis of the Middle Ages to combat rabbinism.

Mordecai Benet first attempted to prevent the printing of the book in Austria, and then argued deception in a circular letter addressed to Berlin's father, by critically analyzing the responsa and arguing that they were spurious. Levin tried in vain to defend his son. Berlin resigned his rabbinate and, to end the dispute, went to London where he died a few months later. In a letter found in his pocket, he warned everybody against looking into his papers, requesting that they be sent to his father. He expressed the wish to be buried not in a cemetery, but in some lonely spot, and in the same garments in which he died. The exact historicity of Besamin Rosh is still disputed, with it being unclear which parts are forgeries.


To understand this unique personality, note that, as a modern historian remarks, that Berlin was a focal point for the rays of a sinking and rising period in Jewish history. Being a great Talmudist, he knew better how to attack rabbinism, and was filled with a burning desire to lead his people toward intellectual freedom. Mendelssohn's and Wessely's timid attempts to inaugurate a new era did not appeal to him. With his youthful ardor he could not understand that the development of the popular consciousness is a slow process. An open championship of his ideas, however, would have meant a breach with father, wife, and children—in short, with all his associates; it being after all doubtful whether his sacrifices would have helped his cause. His anonymous and pseudonymous authorship was a measure of policy and not of cowardice. He could not, however, escape the consequences of such a mode of warfare. It is debasing and embittering to attack secretly those whom one is forced to praise in public. Hence Berlin became personal in his polemics, and nervous and dissatisfied with himself and the world because he knew he was misunderstood through his own fault.

Besides the works mentioned above, Berlin is said to have written a large number of rabbinic works, including notes to the whole Talmud.

Jewish Encyclopedia bibliography


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