The Life of the Synagogue

Samuel Holdheim

Rabbi Samuel Holdheim
Dr. Holdheim, Rabbiner zu Frankfurt
Drawing by Wollenberg
Lithograph by Dümmler
Published by Verlag v. Gebrüder Rocca, Berlin and Göttingen

Rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806–1860), shown here during his tenure as rabbi in Frankfurt an der Oder (1836–1840), was at the forefront of the Reform movement in Germany, advancing even beyond positions held by Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810–1874), founder of the movement there. Born into a traditional orthodox family, Holdheim began his education in yeshiva; he supplemented his Jewish learning with studies in philosophy at the University of Prague. While in Prague, he continued his training in Talmud under Samuel Landau (1752–1834).

Holdheim wanted to show how such diverse types of education could be harmonized in the position of the rabbinate. His first opportunity to do so was at Frankfurt an der Oder, where he instituted several reforms, including preaching in German and reading the Torah without traditional chanting. By the time he became rabbi of Berlin’s Reform Congregation in 1847, he had become more radical. Holdheim shifted the Sabbath service from Saturday to Sunday, overturned the ban on Jews marrying outside of the faith, and argued that a Jewish boy who had not been circumcised could still be considered Jewish.

Holdheim’s reforms often pushed the limits beyond those that other German Reform rabbis were willing to consider. The reaction to Holdheim by conservative rabbis was more extreme. When Holdheim died in 1860, Rabbi Michael Sachs (1808–1864) (also discussed in this section) contested the reformer’s burial in the section of the Jewish cemetery reserved for rabbis. The burial was allowed despite his protests, and Rabbi Abraham Geiger gave the eulogy at the funeral.