The Life of the Synagogue

From the William A. Rosenthall Judaica Collection
Marlene & Nathan Addlestone Library,College of Charleston

Jonathan Eibeszytz s. p. Rabin w Altona Hamburgu i Waneberg

Rabbinical portrait of Eybeschütz, surrounded by books

Jonathan Eibeszytz s. p. Rabin w Altona Hamburgu i WanebergLithograph

Rabbinical portraits became increasingly common across Europe in the 18th century as a result of the cults of personality surrounding the charismatic rabbis of the age, including Jonathan Eybeschütz and the Vilna Gaon (also shown in this section). The custom began among the Sephardi rabbis of Amsterdam in the 17th century and spread after that. The portraits usually were used as frontispieces in books, functioning much as modern headshots or profile pictures do today. Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschütz (1690–1764) wrote dozens of books, many of which remain in print. Esteemed as a scholar, he was also a popular preacher, occupying the pulpits of synagogues in different cities. So, in a certain sense, this portrait, one of several, was either a work of public relations or perhaps derived from one.

Beyond their use as frontispieces, it became customary in Orthodox circles to display portraits of revered rabbis such as this one, referred to as gedolim pictures. Still widely circulated, collected, and hung prominently in homes, offices, and schools, these portraits serve to honor the greatest, most admired rabbis, memorializing them and their achievements. Though the style of this portrait is in some ways unrefined, reflecting a “folk tradition” in Jewish art, several aspects emphasize what made Eybeschütz admirable. The image is direct and bold and conveys a strong sense of his character. The rabbi is shown in his study surrounded by books and wearing tefillin (phylacteries), symbols of his contributions as a scholar and a religious man.

In a period when rabbis were not normally associated with specific synagogues, but rather with schools or communities, Eybeschütz held many positions across Central Europe. He began work in Moravia and later held posts in Vienna, Prague, and Germany, where he served as rabbi of the “Three Communities”: Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek.