Born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Moses Schreiber (1762–1839) spent the better part of his career as the rabbi of Pressburg (today Bratislava), and is best known as a fierce opponent of early Reform Judaism, a precursor of Ḥaredism, and the author of the talmudic work Ḥatam Sofer. Less known is his interest in kabbalah, astrology, and the latest advances of European scientists—subjects that in the early part of his life did not seem so far apart as they do now. Maoz Kahana presents a study of this aspect of Schreiber’s intellectual life:
Schreiber’s teenage years, which he spent [as a student of] Rabbi Nathan Adler in Frankfurt-am-Main, were interrupted during the years 1775–77, a period that he spent in Mainz, [engaged] in the study of various natural sciences—geography, mathematics, history, astronomy—under the patronage of a wealthy Jew in whose house he resided during this period.
Should we view the Schreiber’s clear interest in the study of sciences—in the original German, and perhaps also French, sources—which continued from this date onward, as standing in uneasy tension with his kabbalistic and magical training? Do these transitions—from Frankfurt to Mainz and, two years later, back to Frankfurt, reflect the inner turmoil of a young student caught between the lure of the scientific writings of Euclid and the power of Lurianic kabbalah, between magic and science, between old and new? The simple answer to this question is unequivocally negative.
For a talented Ashkenazi scholar of the mid-18th century, the study of secular fields of wisdoms was part of a wider interest in natural philosophy, and from this perspective there was actually much affinity between the Schreiber’s curiosity regarding these branches of knowledge—particularly physics and astronomy—and kabbalistic and magical lore. A look at the varied genres of writing produced by the Schreiber in his adulthood reflects a continued theoretical and conceptual preoccupation with a wide range of topics from the world of nature. Astronomy, astrology and alchemy, chemistry and physiology are present in his exegetical and homiletic writings, and closely intertwine with his religious interests and methods in what appears to be an almost purposeful confusion.
That intertwining can be found in Schreiber’s reluctant participation in an exorcism, and his analysis of the mystical properties ascribed by ancient rabbis (likely informed by Aristotle and Pliny) to the salamander.