Over a Cup of Coffee
Rav Yaakov Emden’s Eventful Journey to London
The Year 1722
The place: London, the capital city of England. The ruling monarch was King George I, the first king of the Hanover dynasty, who ruled over the British Empire and Commonwealth spanning several continents. This dynasty lasted until the death of Queen Victoria in 1819.
The cities of Hamburg and Brod are under the dominion of the Holy Roman Empire and the king is Charles VII.
The gedolei yisrael at the time included R’ Shimshon Vienner; the Medrash Talpiyos; the Chok Yaakov; R’ Dovid Oppenheim, rav of Prague; the Tevuos Shor; the Shev Yaakov; the Ma’asei Rokeach; the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh; the Maharam Tiktin; and more…
* Primary Source: Megilas Sefer, Autobiography of R’ Yaakov Emden, Editions: Kahana, Byck & Bombach.
The following responsum in Rav Yaakov Emden’s She’ilos Yavetz is a fitting introduction to the historical episode at the heart of our tale:
London, Tuesday the 24th of Sivan, 1722
May Hashem bless you. The great gaon and of good lineage, Rav Yaakov, may you be well.
Since time is limited, I will be brief. In addition, I have not delved into the issue at length nor have I seen it first-hand. I will nevertheless voice my query as to why you saw it proper to drink in the local coffeehouse when you were visiting our city of London. I understand that you were told by the Ashkenazic community members that there is a question of forbidden fats that might be present in the beverage, and yet, you seemed to waive that question as inconsequential.
I would not like to believe this episode as true, since I myself feel as well that it is forbidden to patronize the coffeehouse because there is a real question of issur, and the entire product is rendered halachically unfit for consumption.
I’m sure that, being a great individual such as yourself, especially taking into account that you are the son of your great father (the Chacham Tzvi), such a story should not have taken place. However, there are live witnesses to this episode. May I, therefore, ask you to please clarify your actions.
With the help of Hashem,
Yehudah Leib the son of Shlomo Zalman Norden
London, Winter of 1719
It is a typically dreary winter’s day, the sky grey, and the air heavy with the thick fog enveloping all of London. Just a few rays of faint light barely make their way through the narrow, tall window to shed their light on the young foreign visitor sitting beneath it.
The young man has left his wife and small children in far-off Bohemia, in the city of Brod, also known as “Hungarian Brod.” His siblings and extended family are even further away, in Lviv (or Lemberg), Poland. He sits with a furrowed brow, deep in thought as he mulls over the events of the last few months, which seem like a string of frustrating failures.
The only thing giving him some comfort on that wintry day in a cold and distant land is the mug of delicious coffee cradled in his hands, warming both body and soul. As we shall see, this seemingly innocuous scene was to give rise to significant halachic controversy. Questions about the kashrus of that coffee would be raised, which the young man knew to be totally unfounded. This much is certain: As he sat leisurely sipping that cup of brew that brought him much solace, he could not have any inkling that the episode would be enshrined for posterity in the pages of the poskim of the time.
That being said, who was that young man, what were the troubles that weighed upon him so, and what had brought him to England’s capital? In answer to all of that lies our tale…
The Passing of the Chacham Tzvi
Lviv (Lemberg), second day of Rosh Chodesh Iyar, 1718
Like a midday thunderclap, the untimely passing of the gadol hador, Rav Tzvi Hersh Ashkenazi, better known as the Chacham Tzvi, shocked the entire Klal Yisroel, and in particular, the city where just four months earlier he had begun serving as the Lemberger Rav.
The city of Lviv was left bereft of a great leader, and the nation as a whole had lost one of its greatest luminaries. Even in the short time he had been the rav, he had managed to accomplish so much. Tragically, he left behind a widow of all of forty years of age, along with young, now-orphaned children. Even a rav can be replaced, but not a father.
The rav’s passing made it necessary to inventory his assets so as to ensure the financial stability of his household and the future ability to eventually marry off his children.
R’ Yaakov, better known to us as R’ Yakov Emden, was the eldest son of the Chacham Tzvi. He was not present at the time of his father’s passing since he was living then in Brod, where his father-in-law R’ Mordechai Hakohen Katz, a son of the S’michas Chachamim, was the rav.
Rav Yaakov Emden comes to Lviv
Sometime towards the end of the summer, a few short months after his father’s passing, R’ Yaakov made his way to Lviv for the setting of his father’s tombstone, where he delivered a eulogy, later printed in a pamphlet entitled Yetziv Pisgam.
He also planned to use his visit to Poland to seek a well-paid rabbinical position in one of its many thriving communities. His hope to obtain such a position, however, did not materialize and instead, he settled down in the city of Altona.
While in Lviv, R’ Yaakov inquired about the distribution of his father’s estate. He was told that the ready cash was needed for the ongoing expenses of the family and that he should seek to collect on his father’s outstanding promissory notes. Then, when all proceeds had been accounted for, the estate could be properly divided among the heirs. He was also given all unsold volumes of the sefer Chacham Tzvi to distribute. Taking into account the substantial amount of money outstanding that he would collect over the coming period of time, R’ Yaakov advanced 100 Reichthalers of his own towards the family expenses before returning home to Brod.
R’ Yaakov’s Travels
R’ Yaakov decided that it was time to set out to collect the debts set forth in the promissory notes, with the first port of call to be Hamburg. Before embarking on this trek of 830 kilometers (515 miles), R’ Yaakov sent a letter to R’ Ber Kohen stating that he had a promissory note from a certain R’ Henli, and enquiring whether the latter was a man of means and capable of repaying the debt.
R’ Ber responded that since R’ Henli was engaged in a din Torah with R’ Mordechai Kohen’s heirs that would soon draw to a close, with R’ Henli poised to win a great deal of money, it was advisable for R’ Yaakov to come to Hamburg as soon as possible to collect his debt.
R’ Yaakov traveled to Hamburg with the post wagon, covering the travel expenses out of his own pocket.
Upon his arrival, R’ Yaakov immediately made his way to the home of R’ Ber Kohen, wanting to know what had transpired since receiving R’ Ber’s reply. To his disappointment, he learned that while R’ Mordechai had indeed left a handsome inheritance of 90,000 Reichsthaler in cash, which the beis din was holding until all his debts were paid, some of R’ Mordechai’s children were scoundrels. They had hired bandits to break into the safe of the beis din and steal the entire sum of money being kept there. As a result, R’ Henli had received nothing from R’ Mordechai, leaving him with no way to repay the promissory note in R’ Yaakov’s possession. R’ Yaakov also possessed a promissory note issued by the now-deceased R’ Nosson Dayan of Hamburg and guaranteed by R’ Ber Kohen, but the latter produced records showing that the debt had been paid.
From Hamburg, R’ Yaakov traveled to Frankfurt, hoping to sell some copies of Chacham Tzvi to raise much-needed funds. However, the Jewish community of Frankfurt was still reeling from the effects of a fire that only a few years earlier had gutted the entire Jewish Quarter of Frankfurt, and its residents were not in a financial position to buy new sefarim.
News from London
While R’ Yaakov was deciding on his next destination, some important news arrived from London. R’ Mordechai Hamburger, who was a brother of the aforementioned R’ Henli and R’ Nosson Dayan, was a resident of London but had been living in India for the past decade, where he was engaged in the trade of precious stones. He had just recently returned to London a very wealthy man and was the talk of the town, including the gentile populace, for one huge diamond he had in his possession.
R’ Mordechai Hamburger had been a good friend of R’ Yaakov’s father, the Chacham Tzvi, and was also a partner with his brother, R’ Henli, in business, which made it reasonable for R’ Yaakov to present him with the promissory note.
R’ Yaakov Emden also had another motive for traveling to London, which was that sometime earlier, he had received a letter from London. The letter stated that R’ Aberle London, a close friend of his father, had come into wealth and wanted to give to the family of the Chacham Tzvi the handsome sum of 100 ducats. R’ Yaakov felt that the time was right to travel to London to receive that gift.
Off to London
The trip by sea to London was an arduous one, with a storm threatening to sink his ship at one point. By the time R’ Yaakov arrived at the shores of England, he felt very ill. He took a coach straight to London to the home of R’ Mordechai where a doctor was called to examine R’ Yaakov. After being nursed back to health, he told his host his true reasons for coming to London and presented him with the promissory notes.
R’ Mordechai looked at the notes and acknowledged that they carried his brother’s signature. However, he told R’ Yaakov, he wasn’t able to pay his brother’s debts because were he to do so, there would be an endless queue of his brother’s creditors at his door.
Although R’ Yaakov promised him that he would keep silent about the repayment of his debt and not let word of it get around, R’ Mordechai would not relent and the note remained unpaid. In the meantime, R’ Yaakov inquired as to how he could contact R’ Aberle London but he learned that R’ Aberle had lost his fortune and there was, therefore, no reason to meet him.
Into the Coffeehouse
Although there wasn’t much more left for R’ Yaakov to do in London, the winter had already set in, and rather than risk the difficult voyage home in rough winter seas, R’ Yaakov decided to bide his time and spend the winter in London.
And so it was on a winter’s day in London that Rav Yaakov Emden found himself in one of its gentile coffeehouses, where he sought solace and warmth in that fateful mug of coffee.
When the winter passed, R’ Mordechai gave R’ Yaakov a few guineas to pay for his fare for the trip home. R’ Yaakov would remember this trip abroad as a failed mission.
The Letter of Accusation
Several years passed, and one day, a letter from London arrived at R’ Yaakov’s home. It had been sent by a good friend of his, but it contained many harsh accusations: 1) That he had drunk coffee in a gentile coffeehouse; 2) that there were serious kashrus issues involved in doing so; 3) that he had been warned not to do so; and 4) that the concerns raised were on the level of mid’oraysa rather than only mid’rabbanan.
The letter-writer also expressed his wonder that someone like R’ Yaakov, with such illustrious forebears, not the least of whom was his great father, the Chacham Tzvi, could have become involved in a halachic issue of questionable nature.
A Visit to the Coffeehouse
Let us now explore the phenomenon of the coffeehouse itself.
Coffeehouses in England were something very new at that time. Unlike the pubs and alehouses which were frequented by the common folk and where the behavior was likewise more lowly, coffeehouses were patronized by the upper crust of society and the conversations that took place there were of a higher standard.
Black coffee was usually served, with the French tradition of adding milk not yet in fashion in England. Also, the coffee was of a much milder consistency than we are used to today.
The coffeehouses would buy coffee beans and give them to a miller to grind. The rumor was that the miller would add into the groundmass some butter or lard (swine fat) to substitute for the volume lost during the grinding process. R’ Yaakov had been cautioned not to patronize the coffeehouses for this reason, but R’ Yaakov, for his part, did not agree.
One of R’ Yaakov’s acquaintances in London, R’ Leib Nordon, was quite upset that R’ Yaakov took no heed of his colleagues’ advice not to enter the coffeehouse, and he decided to pen a letter to him stating his protest.
R’ Leib Nordon raised the question of a Torah prohibition, but not that of the rabbinic prohibition of butter made from unsupervised milk of a gentile. Why not?
The answer is that butter produced from unsupervised milk is in fact kosher because only milk from a kosher animal can be used in the butter-making process. Since the issur of chalav akum is based on the premise that there might have been non-kosher milk mixed in, in the event that butter is produced, this fact proves the kashrus of the milk. The Mordechai records that it is for this reason that the people of Bavel did not apply the prohibition of chalav akum to the production of butter. Rabbeinu Tam, who lived in France, also categorically permitted butter produced from unsupervised milk to be used. This view is recorded in Shulchan Aruch and has remained the prevalent accepted halachah amongst Ashkenazic Jews.
The only issue was thus whether lard was used in making the coffee. But R’ Yaakov, being closely acquainted with the prevailing situation, dismissed the rumor to that effect as a fallacy and a fabricated story. As he concludes in his responsum on the matter, “Let my insides rejoice; I thoroughly enjoyed the drink, and rightly so, for I have ruled correctly.”
Drinking in a coffeehouse per se does not either seem to be an issue of halachic concern. The Shvus Yaakov discusses drinking coffee in a coffeehouse on Shabbos but does not raise any issue regarding the general matter of patronizing a coffeehouse. It was only later on, in the times of the Noda B’Yehudah, when it had become the norm to add milk to coffee, that this arose as a halachic issue.
One issue that neither R’ Leib Nordon nor R’ Yaakov Emden raised was that of bishul akum.
Chazal issued a prohibition of food cooked by a gentile, in order to prevent fraternization with gentiles that might lead to close friendships with them. The criteria for a food to be included in the ban are:
It is not a food that could be consumed in its raw state.
It must be a product fit for a “king’s table,” or banquet.
Since coffee fits both of these criteria, if it is prepared by a gentile, it should be prohibited on account of bishul akum. Why was this issue not addressed by both R’ Leib Nordon and R’ Yaakov Emden?
One answer may be given based on the approach of Tosafos regarding bishul akum in the case of beer. Although both of the above-mentioned criteria for the prohibition apply to beer, Tosafos offers a novel approach to permit it, explaining that although beer is made with grain and hops, they do not appear in the finished product. Only the water appears in the drink itself and since the grain component is nullified in the water, it would not be considered bishul akum. The same would apply to coffee as well, since the beans are strained off and are not part of the drink, and only the water remains as the drink.
It should be noted that the Pachad Yitzchok records that the Arizal was stringent about coffee with regard to bishul akum; however, the general consensus of present-day poskim is to be more lenient in this matter.
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