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    Four famous rabbinic eccentrics

    Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at Beit Avi Chai, Jerusalem, on 13 February 2017, at an event hosted by the Jewish Historical Society of England Israel Branch. A video of Rabbi Apple’s presentation can be viewed here.


    Portrait of Dr Falk, the Baal Shem of London, by JS Copley

    Close to the tomb of Chief Rabbi David Tevele Schiff in the Mile End cemetery in East London (he died in December, 1791), is the grave of his admirer Samuel Jacob Chayyim Falk, the reputed Baal Shem of London, who died on 17 April, 1782.

    Falk spent many years in Britain, often on bad terms with the communal leaders. London Jews could not decide whether he was a sorcerer or saint.

    Though known as an Ashkenazi, Falk was the son of “Raphael, the Sephardi”. His real surname may have been Laniado, a Sephardi name meaning “hairy”. Falk was born in Poldolia, though some give his birthplace as Fuerth in Bavaria. Cecil Roth dates his birth as about 1710; others say 1708.

    Falk was a kabbalist and alchemist who arrived in England in 1742 after nearly being burnt at the stake as a sorcerer in Westphalia. Whether he really practised magic is not known, but he was certainly banished from Cologne by the Archbishop/Elector. He spent some time in Fuerth, which was then a kabbalistic centre, and left its Jewish community twenty guineas in his will.

    Falk had a mysterious career of fame, fortune and fable. His life took him to many places and gained him the reputation of an adventurer. He was certainly a practitioner of alchemy, which gave the public the impression that he was a wonder-worker. If he was originally Laniado, he probably adopted a new name to outwit his pursuers. “Falk”, meaning “falcon”, may have come from the sign on his house. He was known as Dr de Falk, but many people in those days called themselves “Doctor”.

    He may or may not have been a rabbi. He had some (we do not know how much) Jewish knowledge including the mystical Kabbalah. A strange document found after his death contains kabbalistic formulas and diagrams which may have been alchemical recipes. People came to him with their problems and ailments and he was said to achieve miraculous cures. He apparently invoked the names of the angels and placed great store on his and other people’s dreams. His incantations were based on the Divine Name, which is why he is called a Baal Shem, but this may have been theatrics. He was believed to be able to access holy mysteries and utilise them at will.

    He had a private synagogue as well as a chemical laboratory. He owned several Torah scrolls and left two to the Great Synagogue. He is credited with saving the Synagogue from destruction by fire by writing Hebrew letters on the door. His connection with the Great Synagogue is seen in two strange pieces of evidence: he left the Synagogue an annual sum of one hundred pounds, a vast amount in those days, and he deposited a bundle of papers with a congregational leader, Aaron Goldsmid, with instructions not to open it on pain of death. Goldsmid eventually could no longer restrain himself, opened the package, and died that same day.

    In London, Falk lived in Prescott Street and later Wellclose Square. A neighbour was Emmanuel Swedenborg, the scientist and theologian; possibly they influenced each other’s thinking. Falk was rather affluent – maybe from a lottery win, certainly from his admirers’ gifts – and some said that he had treasure buried in Epping Forest. People saw him visit the forest in his carriage, but it may have been to meditate and gather herbs for his potions. It is said that once a wheel came loose from his carriage in Whitechapel Road and rolled after him all the way to the forest. He was reputed to be able to keep candles burning for weeks. When short of fuel he conjured it up to the sound of ram’s horn trumpets. Kabbalistic incantations also enabled him to conjure up food, wine and other necessities.

    Falk held court in his house in regal splendour wearing a golden turban, and people deemed it an honour to bring him donations. When he went out he wore a long robe which, with his beard, gave the impression of nobility. His tombstone claims that he uplifted the banner of the Torah, though others accused him of heresy. He gave charity generously. Some say that he lost fortunes as well as making them.

    He was close to several members of the Western Synagogue. His admirers included gentiles. Prince Czartorski asked his advice. He gave Phillipe, Duke or Orleans, a talisman. His friend Baron Theodore de Neuhof was briefly King of Corsica. Some leading Freemasons may have had associations with him. At this time “speculative” Freemasonry was developing, and amongst its proponents were members of the Royal Society.

    Unlike the Chassidic Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”) of Miedzyboz, Falk is not known to have brought ordinary Jews closer to God and Judaism. He may have been an observant Jew, but Rabbi Jacob Emden of Altona accused him of being a follower of Shabbatai Zvi and having Sabbatean friends. Emden said that Falk was not a Baal Shem but a Baal Shed (“Master of the Demon”). Emden was critical of alchemy, unlike his antagonist Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz. Chayyim Yitzchak David Azulay accused Falk of being a charlatan, and believed that he gave rich people a smattering of the Kabbalah for the sake of financial reward.

    Because Falk could afford a printing press, he produced polemical publications which inflamed the controversies of the time. His own notes, and the diary compiled by his son-in-law and secretary Zvi Hirsch Kalisch, are too cryptic to allow a conclusive answer as to how learned or genuine Falk was.

    Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler, in a 1903 essay, grants that Falk preyed on the superstitious and failed to rise above his circumstances to become a truly holy man.

    Dr Falk’s grave in the Alderney Road Cemetery, Mile End

    On the one hand, in an age of emergent scientific experiment, Falk probably deserves more credit for his alchemy than his theology, and whilst his eccentricity was evident, he might even be counted amongst the pioneering figures in British science. On the other hand, his critics might be justified in the light of the Biblical warnings against magic and sorcery (Deut. 18:10-11): Falk’s combination of Kabbalah and chemistry, wrapped in theatrics, puts his integrity and piety in doubt.

    He lived in England for 40 years and died in April, 1782. Not much is known about his personal life, though he left descendants as well as charitable bequests. Cecil Roth’s wife Irene had a family connection with both Falk and Kalisch.


    Strangest of the early 19th century British Jews was “Rabbi” Joseph Crool, “an eccentric travelling scholar of Hungarian origin… (a man) of great pretensions and little learning”. His eccentricities are widely mentioned.

    The Jewish Chronicle of 30 June, 1848, reprints from the Cambridge Independent Press a letter from Rev. FR Hall of Fulbourn, who asks, “Who was Mr. Crooll (sic)? He was a Jew who gave Hebrew lessons to a few Fellows of Colleges in the University of Cambridge, when, for several years, the Royal Professors of Hebrew were absentees; and, instead of giving twenty lectures in the year, according to the custom of most Professors of the University now, never gave one, and never offered to do so.

    “Mr. Crooll was by no means a learned man. He was not well read; and he could read no language except English, German, and Hebrew. He was not a man of good sense. He abounded in prejudices. He delighted in old wives’ fables and vain traditions. He supposed that it was the angel Gabriel who appeared to the Fathers and Prophets of the Jews.

    “He wore a parchment girdle, on which were inscribed passages from the Law and the Talmud. He believed that Christ did not yet come, because of the sins of the Jews. He cared not for the prophecies concerning the Messiah in the book of Daniel. He thought that Christ would come into the world in a state of manhood; and that he would reign, from Jerusalem to the ends of the world, the conqueror and the King of all the enemies of the Jews.”

    Perhaps Crool had tried to teach Hall Hebrew, and the two did not get on well. But Hall’s remarks are almost as strange as his assertions about Crool.

    He may be right that the latter lacked rabbinic ordination, but how can he be so sure? Crool was certainly more learned than Hall admits: his use of Biblical and midrashic material may be idiosyncratic, but it is impressive. Crool is not likely to have had a university education, but he must have known enough Hebrew to satisfy his Cambridge employers.

    Stefan Reif has written, “Given that those who were religiously acceptable as officially appointed Hebrew teachers were not always linguistically qualified to perform such a function, locally available Jews could be drafted in, on a paid but informal basis, to educate the students in the holy tongue”.

    What Hall means by “old wives’ fables” we do not know; perhaps it is midrashim about Messiah. Hall thinks Crool did not know many languages but surely he spoke Yiddish and presumably Hungarian. Even the description of Crool’s personal habits is strange. If he wore a parchment girdle containing Hebrew quotations, it may have been tefillin, prayer boxes, which orthodox Jewish men fasten with leather straps to their forehead and arm before morning prayers.

    Hall may also not have completely understood Crool’s views of Judaism or of Christianity. Crool did not deny “the sins of the Jews”, but he thought the Jews were more sinned against than sinning. He wanted Christians to reassess their view of the Jews because the world had little time left. It did not bother him that Judaism was wary of eschatological predictions. He said in 1829, “By a particular calculation of my own, it appears to me that the following ten years will produce strange things in the world, and it further appears that all things will be accomplished by the year 5600 of the creation of the world (i.e. 1840)”. 1840, however, came and went, and the end of days still did not arrive.

    Hall said, “He was opposed to the emancipation of the Jews, because he thought that the introduction of Jews to Christian gentlemen in the Legislature would lead to their conversion to the Christian faith. To reason with him was impossible…”. Does this mean that Hall himself favoured Jewish emancipation? It could be so, but like a number of Christian advocates of the cause he may have had an ulterior motive, to bring the Jews into parliament and thus hasten their acceptance of Christianity, which is precisely what Crool feared.

    The opponents of emancipation used Crool as proof that the Jews themselves were divided. Francis Henry Goldsmid wrote in 1830, “There is a certain small number of Jews who regard our application for relief not only with indifference but even with doubt and distrust because they imagine that its success is likely to promote among those who now adhere to Judaism a falling off from the faith of their ancestors. These persons maintain that the religious feeling of men arms them sufficiently against fear of the privations which restrictive laws impose, but that there is no such defence against the slow undermining progress of kindness and affection”.

    Goldsmid believed that Jews did not need to be separate but could enter parliament without detriment to their religion. In Biblical times, he said, “Nehemiah and Daniel were ministers and servants of Babylonian kings”. He also warned against predictions based on kabbalistic fancies.

    Most Jews ignored Crool’s speculations and opposed his views on emancipation. When the Bishop of Oxford mentioned Crool in the House of Lords, Hall retorted: “His Lordship’s quotation from Mr (not Rabbi) Crool in support of his opinion only serves to weaken it… The opinion in question is so much at variance with facts, that it defeats the object of its advocate.” What seems to have destroyed Crool’s credibility was the non-fulfilment of his dream about 1840. Never highly regarded by either Jews or Christians, he was now merely a curiosity.

    We are not certain as to his date of death; Hall speaks of him in 1848 in the past tense.

    After quasi-ministerial activity in Manchester and Nottingham, he moved to Cambridge. There he worked and possibly resided for at least 20 years but probably held no office in the Jewish community. He was succeeded as “Preceptor Linguae Sacrae” in 1837 by Hermann Bernard, son of a converted Jew. Roth says, “the earliest known officiant to the (Manchester) community was apparently that curious peripatetic scholar and pamphleteer Joseph Crool … His incumbency did not last long”. Whether he was an official incumbent is not known. In 1802 he established a Hebrew Academy at his home in Oak Street, Manchester.

    A sermon he gave in Manchester was titled, Service of the Synagogue of the Jews at Manchester (on March 8, 1803, being the day appointed for a general Fast), delivered in Hebrew by Rabbi Joseph Crool, and translated by him into English. We wonder how many of his listeners understood a Hebrew sermon. Crool used the occasion of this publication to make an appeal.

    “Rabbi Joseph Crool,” he said, “respectfully informs the public, that he has intended, for a considerable time, to publish a translation and explanation of all the difficult passages in the Old Testament. If any person would step forward to encourage him, by bearing part of the expence (sic) with him, he thinks it would be of great service to the public.”

    In late 1810 Crool challenged Christian Frederick Frey to a public debate, though Frey claimed that Crool had only a “partial acquaintance” with English. Tickets were sold, but Crool reneged, possibly because Jewish leaders feared whether he could control his emotions. Thereafter he waged his war with the pen.

    In 1812 he wrote The Restoration of Israel, warning that the Christians would be punished by God for persecuting the Jews. He believed that God was using the conversionists to test Jewish faith and loyalty to tradition.

    Two further works followed in 1829, The Fifth Empire and a pamphlet, The Last Generation. Both urged Christians to repent by treating the Jews generously.


    Whilst never holding office as Haham, the Sephardi rabbi Abraham ben Shalom Belais (1773 1853) was an author in several languages and occasionally preached in English, often called upon for memorial addresses. One of his books issued with English translation was welcomed by the Jewish Chronicle as a boon to “the traveller through a desert, parched with the drought and languishing with thirst”.

    Belais was a colourful character, who had been a rabbi in Tunis and treasurer to the Bey. To escape his creditors, he moved to Jerusalem and started collecting funds for himself in Europe. Carrying recommendations from public figures in Italy, France, etc., he was a candidate for a post at the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, and for some years was a rabbi in Nice.

    In 1840 he came to London with letters of introduction to the Duke of Sussex, who was a Hebraic scholar, and to the Dowager Queen Adelaide. He taught in the Sephardi congregational school, occasionally sat on the Sephardi Beth Din, and gave memorial addresses and occasional theological discourses. But his financial troubles continued, and he needed constant support from the synagogue charities. The congregational leaders, determined to control everything in the community, objected to his publishing a book of poems without their permission in 1841, and in 1843 they declined to sponsor another book he had written.

    From 1844-1853 he was a member of Etz Hayyim, the Synagogue’s yeshivah. The title page of his Perach Shoshan Bet Levi says, “The light of his Torah shines in the Etz Hayyim college for Torah study of the Sephardi congregation”.

    He was no cloistered scholar but threw himself into controversy. When the Jewish Chronicle saw that the community favoured the repeal of the cherem (ban) against the group who had established the Reform congregation, Belais supported the repeal against the stricter view of the official Sephardi dayanim, David Meldola and Abraham Haliva. Belais said the cherem could be repealed by the Board of Elders without the Beth Din. The Elders decided not to submit Belais’ views to the rabbis of Leghorn and Amsterdam, as this would cast doubt on the credibility of Meldola and Haliva.

    Belais wrote poetry, eulogies (some given in London) and works on ethics and exegesis. His Petach haBayit, a commentary on the rabbinic code, the Tur, was published in 1846 “together with answers in reference to congregational questions in London”, plus Peri Etz Chayyim, seven funeral orations. His Af’rot Tevel (1850) is a commentary on Ecclesiastes in Hebrew and English. He wrote odes including one in Hebrew and English on a Rothschild family wedding. The Adler collection in New York contains a bound volume of Prayers and Thanksgivings, 1756-1885, which includes a poem by Belais in honour of the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840, and a elegy, dated 1843, for the Duke of Sussex.

    His Sefer Perach Shoshan Bet Levi is titled in English Biblical Expositions, “printed for and to be had of the author, 46, Great Prescot Street”. The Hebrew title reflects the fact that a patron of the work was Samuel Levi Ben Susan. The translation is stated as by “the same learned Professor” who was expected to translate Belais’ work on Ecclesiastes. The “learned professor” may have been Hyman Hurwitz, professor of Hebrew at University College, London, who died in 1844 and presumably did not complete the work on Ecclesiastes. Hurwitz himself was no preacher, “oratory,” as an obituary note remarks, “not being one of his shining qualifications”. However, his written English style was quite fluent and elegant.

    The Jewish Chronicle criticised the translation of Belais’ work: “We do not look for elegance in the Hebrew or in its English translation (the latter of which must have been a laborious task)”. Nor did the paper think the work showed much originality: “We… wave (sic) all reflections about originality of matter”. But it praised the fourth section, which seeks Biblical evidence for life after death.

    An “Advertisement” at the beginning of the book assures readers, in terms familiar in halachic works, that whenever the author uses the words goy or akum, he means heathens and idolators, not Christians, since the latter are brothers and Jews pray for their welfare. Belais adds, “It is particularly incumbent upon us to wish well to the Government of countries in which we enjoy liberty and freedom to follow our sacred religion, like in England under the reign of our blessed Queen Victoria”.


    Nathan Marcus Adler was elected as chief rabbi largely because of the support of the Duke of Cambridge who had known him in Hanover. Adler, the moulder of the chief rabbinate, determined that his writ would run throughout the proud British Empire. Apart from Adler, the other clergy – even the few with rabbinical learning – were known by the British nomenclature of The Reverend, deferring to a chief rabbi who was the Jewish equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The critics dubbed Adler a Chief without Indians and mocked what they called Adlerism.

    Not that the Chief was without his challengers. Apart from the nonconformist ethos represented by David W Marks, founding minister of the newly established Reform congregation, Adler faced and overcame the ambitions of two rabbinic rivals – Herman Hoelzel, nominally Reader of the Hambro’ Synagogue, and Solomon Schiller-Szinessy of Manchester whose affiliations moved from orthodoxy to reform. Both Schiller and Hoelzel were colourful and significant figures, but I want to focus on the ambitions and activities of Hoelzel.

    Hoelzel’s background is not entirely clear. He claimed a continental doctorate which might not have been genuine, though he did hold the title of Morenu (“Our Teacher”) bestowed by various European rabbis and endorsed by Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg. This does not necessarily mean a rabbinical diploma. In some places the Morenu title was granted when a student got engaged or married.

    Born in Altofen (Budapest) in 1812, Hoelzel was Reader (chazzan) in Magdeburg, Germany, from 1836-40, then gained a similar appointment in Hanover, where Nathan Marcus Adler was rabbi. He moved to England in 1845 and served the Hambro’ Synagogue as Reader and occasional preacher from 1845-52 (his first sermon was in October, 1850, when the Jewish Chronicle asked the community to be patient with the preacher’s inadequate English diction). Like Samuel Marcus Gollancz, his successor from 1855-1900, Hoelzel was nominally Reader but fulfilled regular ministerial functions. There was not yet a clear distinction between chazzan and minister: this came later. Hoelzel’s sermons at the Hambro’ were apparently rather colourful and dramatic and sometimes regarded as hindering the emancipation movement.

    At this stage Hoelzel might have been on good terms with Adler, but Hoelzel had his own ambitions. Adler endorsed his Biblical and rabbinic knowledge and confirmed that he was qualified to be a minister. This aided Hoelzel but it spelled trouble for Adler, whose plan to be the Empire’s highest rabbinic figure was well known. Hoelzel held the ambition (presumably not revealed to Adler) of holding an equivalent position in the Antipodes. Aware that Sydney and Hobart both needed a minister, Adler recommended him provided he referred any major decisions to London. Nonetheless Hoelzel represented himself as authorised by Adler to act on a higher and more independent rabbinic level.

    When he arrived in Australia, Hoelzel informed his congregants that Adler had appointed him to be the Presiding Rabbi of the Australian Colonies, whatever the grandiloquent title meant. He certainly had a high opinion of himself. Adler must have seen that the Hambro’, for all its communal cachet, could not contain Hoelzel, but probably neither Australia or Adler himself realized the extent of Hoelzel’s pretensions. With wisdom after the event, we have to view Hoelzel as planning to bypass the chief rabbi and be the Adler of Australia.

    Hoelzel was the son of Rabbi Judah Semnitz, “second rabbi” (presumably dayan) of Altofen, i.e. Buda in Hungary. Semnitz is from the Hungarian town of Szenice. We don’t know why Hoelzel used this surname, which is from the German word for timber. He had a strong personality and musical and other talents. His foreign accent probably worried the Australian synagogue committee. He was not the only applicant for the Sydney position but seemed the best qualified. Precious time was lost when the London committee charged with handling applications had misgivings which needed to be cleared with Sydney. The problem centered on “scholastic (i.e. secular) acquirements”, which suggests that Hoelzel could not have had a genuine doctorate. The London committee felt that any decision should be made in Sydney. It took months for letters to go to and fro between England and Australia. Sydney eventually decided in 1852 to appoint him. But the process took many months, and in the meantime neither Hoelzel nor Adler thought anything would happen with the Sydney position, so Hoelzel and his wife set off for Hobart instead.

    He did later go to Sydney, not that the shidduch there was a great success, but at this stage they were upstaged. The first that Sydney heard of his arrival was when Hobart wrote to say they had engaged Hoelzel, who duly reached Tasmania on the Abberton on 22 May, 1853, immediately declaring himself Presiding Rabbi of the Australian Colonies.

    Sydney resented the way it felt it had been treated and declined to place itself under his jurisdiction, intending to appoint its own chief rabbi. It rankled that Hoelzel’s title had seemingly been approved by London. A protest was sent to Adler, who replied diplomatically that because of the delays, Hoelzel (and he) had felt that no Sydney appointment was likely to eventuate, so he had nominated Hoelzel for Hobart.

    Adler presumed that Hoelzel would function under his aegis, but Hoelzel had his own ideas. Adler confirmed Hoelzel’s suitability for “the Ministry in question” but repeated that “he be pledged to submit all complicated and difficult theological questions … to higher authority”. Hoelzel had his own view of what Adler called “complicated and difficult theological questions” and saw himself as the “higher authority”, even though when he wrote to Sydney he spoke only of “the honour of becoming your Minister”. When Hobart wrote to Sydney in June, 1853, they claimed that “the Rev. Dr NM Adler, Chief Rabbi of the Jews of the British Empire, has been pleased to nominate and appoint the Rev. Herman Hoelzel who has recently arrived in this city to be the Presiding Rabbi in the Australian Colonies with full power and authority to adjudicate in all religious matters”. Hobart swallowed whatever Hoelzel told them.

    The Jewish Chronicle reported on 11 February, 1853, on his “energy and perseverance”. His Hobart induction took place on 5 June in a full synagogue, conducted by the second Reader with choir and orchestra. Hoelzel was led to his seat under a velvet canopy. The collection amounted to an impressive 150 pounds. He soon set up his own Beth Din in conjunction with Henry Jones, the Second Reader, and on 29 January, 1854, conducted the divorce of Michael and Sarah Solomon(s); the husband was in gaol at the time for stealing from his mother-in-law.

    Hoelzel paid a visit to the northern city of Launceston in late 1854. The Tasmanian Colonist of 6 November acknowledged the impact he had made on that city. Apart from rabbinical and cantorial skills, he must have had enough halachic knowledge to recommend Henry Lewis Harris of Hobart for a shechitah post in Melbourne.

    He made contact with the Royal Society in Hobart and gave lectures to the general public. He was the most qualified minister that Hobart Jewry ever had, but his incumbency lasted only three years. By 1856 he had fallen out with them and once more approached Sydney. This time the negotiations reached finality.

    Hoelzel moved to Sydney, again with the title of Presiding Rabbi of the Australian Colonies. At first the congregation went along with his grand title, but when he claimed control over Melbourne, the local congregation objected to his pretensions and opposed his conducting conversions and divorces without consulting or deferring to Adler, who by now must have been distressed at Hoelzel’s perfidy.

    In Sydney as in Hobart, Hoelzel gave public lectures on music and literature. Then matters became serious. Apart from conflicts on liturgical and financial matters, the board were alarmed at his and his wife’s support for the maverick artist Samuel Elyard, who claimed to be king of Australia, prince of Israel, and Elijah incarnate. Elyard wanted to turn the Jews of Sydney into Christians and even sought permission to preach in the York Street Synagogue. The board regarded Elyard as dangerous, and were perturbed at Hoelzel’s apparent sympathy for the artist. They told the rabbi that if he resigned his post they would pay his and his wife’s fares to England plus six months’ salary.

    When the Hoelzels left, they told people they were returning to England. However, Hoelzel does not figure in the subsequent history of the British rabbinate. Presumably Adler breathed a sigh of relief once a (possibly unexpected) challenge to his own imperial policy was over. Hoelzel might have made for England in the first instance, but he went – perhaps soon afterwards – to the Continent, where he seems to have died in Vienna in February, 1886, having embarked on a business career. Whether he also functioned as a cantor or rabbi is not certain.

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