The Last Will and Testament of Rabbi David Friesenhausen

Published in 1820, the work contains some surprising, candid views on science, faith, women, and more...

Levi Cooper
"My children and your descendants through the last generation! Place the book of the Will in the bookcase..." (Image: Moritz Daniel Oppenheim's "The Examination". From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

In Vienna 1820, Rabbi David HaKohen Friesenhausen (ca. 1756-1828) published a work in Hebrew entitled Mosdot Tevel (Foundations of the Universe). Friesenhausen procured rabbinic letters of recommendation which he printed in Mosdot Tevel, including such a letter from the illustrious Rabbi Moshe Sofer (known as the “Ḥatam Sofer”, 1762-1839), who, together with other rabbinic personalities in Hungary and Moravia, was even a prepaid subscriber to the book.

Title page of Mosdot Tevel, Vienna, 1820. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

On its title page, Friesenhausen tells us that his work contains three sections that heretofore had not appeared in Hebrew. The first section deals with the heliocentric cosmology as formulated by the Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), and the second section is a discourse with the geometry of the Alexandrian Greek, Euclid (ca. 300 BCE). In addition to the rabbinic recommendations, Friesenhausen mentions that his mathematical work could also be vouched for, though not by rabbinic personalities.

The third section of the work, entitled “The Book of the Will: Instructions of the Author to his Children after Him,” contains Friesenhausen’s own Ethical Will.


The Book of the Will: Instructions of the Author to his Children after Him
Friesenhausen’s Ethical Will is lengthy, containing 43 detailed instructions spread over 74 pages. Though it would be rightly classified as an Ethical Will, most of the instructions do not focus explicitly on ethical behavior – the ethical guidelines in Mosdot Tevel are often subtle. Thus, Mosdot Tevel begins with matters of a theological nature, including detailed principles of faith, his understanding of central themes in Jewish thought, and fidelity to Torah. He even included a harsh critique of maskilim (followers of the Haskalah movement, sometimes called the “Jewish Enlightenment”) who he saw as having forsaken tradition, as well as an honest appraisal of the failings of traditional rabbinic Judaism in his day.


The Intended Readership
At the beginning of his Ethical Will, Friesenhausen turns to God, stating the purpose of his writing:

“My entire salvation and my desire in this written will is to instruct my descendants in Your good ways which they should follow, and to help them cleave to You so that they will be in awe of You out of love, and so that they will keep Your statutes and Your commandments that You have bequeathed to our forebears… and in order that they will straighten out their deeds in Your eyes and they will attain happiness and true success for all time and for eternity.”

Throughout the treatise, Friesenhausen specifically turns to his descendants whenever he wants to emphasize a particular point. The final page of the Ethical Will is adorned with a poem and here too Friesenhausen implores his descendants to preserve the document for posterity:

Poem at the end of David Friesenhausen’s Mosdot Tevel, Vienna, 1820. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

“My children and your descendants through the last generation!
Place the book of the Will in the bookcase
Guard it, please, more than the treasure of kings
For it will renew its youth for lengthy days to come
[I] authored it so that you will serve your God
David the son of Meir the Kohen, your father.”

Yet printing an Ethical Will in a book with prepaid subscribers indicates that the author believed the message to be relevant to a wider readership. Indeed, in some passages, Friesenhausen addresses both audiences:

“And now, you my children! And every reader besides you! Know…”

Perhaps Friesenhausen’s decision to publish his Ethical Will addressed primarily to his children can be understood in light of his view on the success of others:

“And since for every person who truly loves people, he does not suffice with his own success and that of his children and generations who come after him, rather, he will seek and greatly desire the success of everyone else.”

The dual nature of Friesenhausen’s audience remains apparent throughout the work.


Pursuit of Knowledge
Another aspect of Friesenhausen’s legacy is the importance he places on the need to pursue both Torah study and “Ḥokhmah“, literally wisdom, a reference to scientific inquiry. In one place, he talks of his unparalleled achievement in attaining mastery in both fields:

“And you, my descendants, know that I myself, your father, studied much Torah, more than most of those who know science in our day. Neither did I neglect science, more than most and almost more than all the masters of Torah in our time.”

Aware that these words may sound a bit arrogant, he offers a parenthetical explanation reminding the reader of his primary intended audience:

“I cannot protest the dear reader who will consider me haughty, but he should consider that I address [primarily] my children and not strangers, who may or may not believe.”

He nonetheless goes on reinforcing his self-appraisal, adding that his wide travels justifiably led to such bold assertions:

“And apart from this, what can I do if I have traversed almost all of Germany, Bohemia, Moravia and Hungary, and I have not found a person who knows sciences yet has studied Torah properly, nor someone who has studied Torah properly and has also sufficiently delved into science.”

When Friesenhausen discussed Haskalah and those maskilim whose scientific pursuits led them away from Torah, he insisted that the two – Torah and science – are complementary, and those who make a claim to the contrary are merely revealing their own inadequacy in one of the disciplines.

Though studying natural sciences was important to him, time was not to be divided equally between the two topics. Friesenhausen felt that minimal time investment was sufficient for an understanding of science, while the bulk of one’s time should be dedicated to studying classic Jewish texts, explaining:

“There is no need to study the aforementioned works of sciences for great amounts of time of the days of his life, for even if he will delve into them for only an hour or two a day, he will reach his goal. To recognize the greatness, wisdom and exaltedness of the Creator, may He be blessed, it is not necessary to know the aforementioned sciences in their entirety, rather it is sufficient to know the main ideas of each.”

Friesenhausen was aware that the study of the natural sciences could not be done effectively from books written in Hebrew, and so he offered a form of annotated bibliography of the few recommended books in Hebrew and supplemented this list with recommended books in German.


A further aspect of the intended audience, is the choice of language – not so much the language of the Ethical Will but more so the language of the scientific portions of the book. Friesenhausen was well aware that a scientific work in Hebrew would not appeal to all. It was in this vein that Friesenhausen offers an insightful comment on the book’s sales potential to the list of prepaid subscribers, and later laments the lack of available scientific literature in Hebrew:

“Indeed most lovers of science seek it not in the Hebrew tongue, and most lovers of the Hebrew tongue, seek not science.

For indeed they will not find the sciences written in a book in the Hebrew language, save for a miniscule amount. Moreover those that are to be found, the majority are unsatisfactory for what is needed.”

Further on Friesenhausen suggests that if he had the requisite funds he would start a biennial competition for family members to author beneficial books – either in the field of Torah or in the field of science – in the Hebrew language. Alas, Friesenhausen’s financial situation did not allow him to realize this vision, but he did instruct his descendants to carry out his plan should one of them merit sufficient wealth.

The first two stanzas of the poem printed at the end of Mosdot Tevel passionately describe the tribulations and tenacity of the Hebrew language, yet for Friesenhausen learning Hebrew was a functional necessity, not an ideological priority. This is apparent when he talks about education, emphasizing the importance of teaching the Hebrew language at an early age:

“And since it is necessary for the Israelite Nation to know the Hebrew language, not only for the boys to study Torah but also for girls to at least understand the prayers and supplications which we pray and beseech as prescribed for each day, it is, therefore, appropriate to train the children in verbs and nouns of the Hebrew language, and to explain to them all the prayers so that they have the ability to understand them.”

The same utilitarian outlook led Friesenhausen to encourage parents to instruct their children in the local vernacular, as well as a third language that could grant them access to scientific texts:

“Do not be negligent to teach your sons or your daughters the language of the local nation in which you dwell, for as long as the Israelite Nation will not dwell in its own land, and as long as God will not ingather His banished ones, there is an extremely great need that one should understand the language of each nation amongst whom he dwells.

Since I have already let it be known that knowledge of sciences is beneficial for perfection of the soul, yet you will not find the sciences well explained except in one of the following three languages, namely German, French and English, therefore the person with a broad spirit should know at least one of these languages.”


Friesenhausen dedicates one lengthy section of his Ethical Will to the topic of raising children, beginning by explaining the centrality of this pursuit:

“Training the children and accustoming them to the path of Torah and uprightness, and to be diligent in their work and pleasant to human company, is a supreme principle in human success, all the days of his life on this earth, and to inherit the eternal world after his soul separates from his body.”

He warned that available literature on child rearing was inappropriate, since Jewish education was distinctly different from the education offered by non-Jews. Nonetheless, Friesenhausen granted that one can consult these works, but only if his own advice takes precedence. Some of the directives he offers for taking care of babies includes: being extra careful to ensure that the baby does not catch a cold during the first three days after birth; emphasizing that the baby is in danger of being suffocated if it sleeps in the mother’s bed; promoting vaccination as opposed to variolation (an older practice of inoculating someone with the virus of smallpox to produce immunity), along with support for this position rooted in Jewish law; encouraging mothers to breastfeed; and warning against goading children to overeat.

Friesenhausen moves on to early childhood education, stressing instruction in the Hebrew language from a young age and continuing with a detailed educational program. He touches on a gamut of pedagogic issues, including reviewing material studied and rote learning; details regarding different forms of Bible study; the study of Hebrew grammar; prudence in Talmud instruction along with an acknowledgment that not every student will succeed in Talmud study; the need to teach a trade aside from Torah; and women’s education. The section on women’s education notably includes a warning to fathers not to hastily and inconsiderately marry off their daughters:

“Also be careful, my sons, not to give your daughters to a man whom she desires not. Therefore do not hasten to give her to a man while she is still without knowledge to choose for herself according to her will. And do not focus on money, rather on qualities and level of perfection of the soul and the body, according to which a person is called by the title ‘human’.”

Friesenhausen also includes an impassioned plea to his descendants, should they be conscripted to the army. He emphasizes that they remain loyal to the commandments of the Almighty so that the merit of good deeds will stand by them in battle, yet he also stresses both practical and spiritual matters should they find themselves on the battlefield:

“Furthermore, do this and live: Learn well the rules and tactics of battle, perhaps they will be to the help of God against mighty warriors.

And you should know that you are priests of God your Lord, who has distinguished you for the army of [holy] service, to go out and come forth before the nation of God to be scouts for them.”


One of the most interesting aspects of the Ethical Will is how Friesenhausen portrays Hasidism, and specifically the portrait of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841). Rabbi Teitelbaum, commonly known by the title of his posthumous work Yismaḥ Moshe, served as Rabbi and Hasidic master in Sátoraljaújhely, the Hungarian town where Friesenhausen served as a Dayan from early in the nineteenth century.

Document confirming that following its publication and after he completes payment, one Rabbi Zalman is entitled to receive a copy of Mosdot Tevel; the document was signed by Friesenhausen while he was a judge in Sátoraljaújhely. From the Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection, National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Without mentioning Rabbi Teitelbaum by name, Friesenhausen includes a scathing attack against him in his Ethical Will. The facts detailed by Friesenhausen – the origins of the anonymous protagonist, his fame before reaching Hungary, his use of amulets to cure ailments, his popularity, as well as other historical tidbits mentioned – fit the biography of Rabbi Teitelbaum perfectly. The assault was similar, though not as harsh, as the critique of many other opponents of Hasidism, with one significant difference: Friesenhausen’s attack was personal.

Friesenhausen begins by describing the contemporary Hasidic milieu and then instructing his children not join the ranks of the Hasidim without being certain of the righteousness of the particular Hasidic leader they were about to follow. Friesenhausen’s instruction was a result of his own encounter with the anonymous protagonist:

“When he arrived, I too was amongst those who respectfully greeted him, and I immediately recognized from his words and his actions that he was a conceited person who exceedingly sought honor: All the greats of our time were considered by him to be as naught and nothingness.”

This first impression, however, did not deter Friesenhausen, for he saw other qualities in the anonymous Hasidic leader:

“And since many a time I heard from his mouth halakhah [Jewish law] and aggadah [Jewish lore], deep matters that were pleasant to the listener, and also in fear of God and love of peers, I considered him to be a wholesome person, also in worldly matters and human conduct I saw him to be knowledgeable and erudite: Because of all these qualities he was esteemed and exceedingly worthy in my eyes, and I did not avoid coming to him twice or three times a week.”

Alas, as time passed Friesenhausen became disenchanted with the behavior of the local leader, seeing him as unethical:

“And after doing thus for many days, his actions proved themselves that he was not wholesome in fear of God and love of peers. And his inner self is outward appearance. For I recognized him to be a bad-tempered person, who reaps honor from the degradation of his friend: He boasts before the masses about his piety and asceticism and his great wisdom, and is not afraid to denigrate and embarrass others in public. He shows himself to be disdainful of profit, yet in truth he loves silver and gold in order to amass them for himself, his grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”

Friesenhausen had no doubt in his mind: The more he observed the Hasidic leader’s behavior, the more he became convinced of his unethical conduct and his corrupt character. Friesenhausen chose to distance himself, though his local rabbinic duties sometimes required almost daily contact. These interactions led Friesenhausen to the conclusion that the Hasidic leader did not have an impressive command of Torah – not Talmud and halakhah, nor Kabbalah – though Friesenhausen did acknowledge that he had unrealized potential.

He ends this portion of the book with a clear instruction to his readership:

“And this matter has brought me to instruct you not to join people like this, unless you clearly know by repeated observation that he is [indeed] holy.”

Given the identification of the anonymous protagonist, this attack has a surprising twist: Rabbi Teitelbaum headed the list of prepaid subscribers at the beginning of the work. Moreover, in 1816, when Friesenhausen embarked upon a journey to raise funds for publishing his work, Rabbi Teitelbaum issued him with a letter of recommendation filled with praise!

Subscribers’ page at the beginning of Mosdot Tevel, Vienna, 1820. Moshe Teitelbaum is the first one listed. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

It appears that Rabbi Teitelbaum increased his activities in the latter part of 1815, following the death of influential Hasidic masters in Poland and Galicia. According to one scholar, this was too much for Friesenhausen, who consequently decided to embark upon a journey.

While Friesenhausen was traveling, Rabbi Teitelbaum ruled in absentia to his disadvantage when he awarded Friesenhausen’s wife a higher weekly stipend from the capital Friesenhausen had left behind. When Friesenhausen returned to Sátoraljaújhely and saw his dwindled funds, he was angered by Rabbi Teitelbaum’s ruling. This ruling was certainly not the main source of contention between the two, as Friesenhausen’s distaste for the city’s rabbi centered on the latter’s Hasidic activity and his comments focused on his personal conduct. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder how much the ruling in his absence affected Friesenhausen’s general attitude not only towards the “anonymous” Hasidic leader, but regarding Hasidism in general.


A version of this article was originally published in Jewish Educational Leadership. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.


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