Monday, April 29, 2013

‘Masa’ot Yerushalayim’ and the ‘Sabba Kaddisha’ R. Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari


‘Masa’ot Yerushalayim’ and the ‘Sabba  Kaddisha’ 
R. Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari
By: Moshe Maimon

One of the greatest and most unique Torah scholars, Sephardic or otherwise, of the past 100 years was R. Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari . His life spanned about a century[1] and his prolific rabbinic career included stints in Istanbul, Damascus, Safed and Jerusalem. Besides for being an outstanding scholar with a near-photographic memory he was also extremely diligent and was a prodigious writer of responsa and novellae. Additionally, he was renowned as an independent thinker and outspoken critic of many of the societal norms prevalent around him including Zionism and modernity, and he had little tolerance for those who he felt had strayed from the torah-true path.[2] This quality earned him many admirers and not a few adversaries, but all admitted that R. Shlomo Eliezer’s sole motivation was the truth and he did nothing for personal gain. Indeed, despite his considerable means, he lived a life of asceticism and completely shunned any form of publicity.

Amongst his native Sephardic brethren he was known as ‘Chacham Mercado Alfandari’.[3] This unusual-sounding surname; ‘Mercado’, meaning ‘purchased’ in Ladino, was somewhat common in his native Turkey and was indicative of the fact that it’s bearer had undergone a symbolic ceremony in his youth whereby he was ‘sold’ and redeemed. This practice is mentioned in Sefer Hasidim (#245) and was widespread in Sephardic lands.[4] My Great-uncle, Sam Bension Maimon, himself a Turkish native, in his book The Beauty of Sephardic life (p. 188) has this to say about that interesting custom:

This practice of “purchase,” was followed by a family that was blessed with a newborn baby, but had previously suffered the loss of an infant before the new arrival. In order to ensure the life of the muevo nasido (newborn baby), they would go through a formality in which a relative or a friend would “purchase” this baby from the parents, thus transferring ownership. This was done to outsmart the evil spirits and ward off their fatal hold on this family’s offspring that was marked for a fatal accident. So, if it was a boy, he was called Mercado; or if it was a girl, she was called Mercada.[5]

Today, however, he is more popularly known as ‘the Sabba Kaddisha’ which was the title bequeathed upon him by the Minchas Elazar of Munkacz; R. Chaim Elazar Shapira, who was largely responsible for bringing this sage to the attention of the greater public especially in Europe among the Ashkenazim.  This also was used as the title of his response - שו"ת הסבא קדישא. In a sense, the Munkaczer was also responsible for shaping the perception that many people have of R. Alfandari, as his perspective as detailed in his writings and in Masa’ot Yerushalayim, is the lens through which many see the Sabba Kaddisha.

The Munkaczer, after hearing about this extraordinary personality almost completely coincidentally, gradually became convinced that this sage was the ‘Holy elder’ or Sabba Kaddisha of the generation. According to a personal Hassidic tradition he had, the Holy Elder of every generation was capable of bringing the Messiah. This is what drew this great Hassidic leader, born and bred in Ashkenazic/Hassidic Hungary to R. Alfandari, although from a distance it might have seemed that the two made strange bedfellows. R. Alfandari, for his part, was delighted to make the acquaintance of an important Torah leader who shared his extreme views on Zionism and modernity.

Masa’ot Yerushalayim; Journey To Jerusalem: A review

There are various sources which provide biographical information on this unique sage,[6] but predominant among them is the detailed account of the Munkaczer Rebbe’s trip to meet R. Alfandari in the late spring of 1930 shortly before the latter’s passing. This account was written by a follower of the Rebbe, who accompanied him on his trip, by the name of R. Moshe Goldstein. The book, entitled Masa’ot Yerushalayim which also contains a biographical section on R. Alfandari[7] was first published 1931 in Munkacz and has been published many times since. This monumental meeting between east and west is a most interesting narrative and in addition to providing insight into the lives of these great scholars, it also allows for a view of pre-war Israel which is the backdrop for this meeting.

The book was recently translated into English by Artscroll (in 2009) and is called Journey to Jerusalem. It is this last work which I will focus on. Unfortunately, instead of adhering to their usual high standard and putting in the type of quality effort they have come to be known for into producing a professional edition of this classic, I found it to be lacking in many basic areas. First off, it is essentially just a simple translation from the original, complete with the archaic syntax such as ‘the Holy Rebbe’, ‘the Holy shul’, etc. Generally speaking, such prose, although sounding fine in Rabbinic Hebrew, nevertheless grates on the ears when rendered into English.

Additionally, the ’famed’ Artscroll system of transliteration[8] was dropped in the case of this book, instead they adopted in many instances the Hungarian Hasidic mode of pronunciation. Understandably, this can be accepted when mentioning the Minchas Elazar who was known to his Hasidim as the Minchas Eluzar; but what justification is there, on the other hand, for spelling out Rabbi Eluzar son of Rabbi Shimon (p. 136) and Rabbi Eluzar Azikri (p. 157)?

In one instance (p. 205) they transliterated the Hebrew spelling of the Isle of Rhodes (רודיס) and thereby refer to “…The great Rabbi Rephael Yitzchak Yisrael, rav of Rudis (!)”.

In one case a faulty translation of the original completely corrupts the meaning of the sentence such as when discussing the origin of the famous Abohab Synagogue in Safed the author writes parenthetically:

אינו נודע אם זהו בעהמח"ס מנורת המאור או זקינו.

In English they got it backwards and wrote (p. 148):

It is unclear whether it was he or his grandfather who authored the Menoras Hamaor.

So much for style, but when it comes to content there are also quite a few editorial blunders such as when they refer to the Maharit (= Moreinu Harav Yosef diTrani) as Rabbi Yitzchak (!) of Trani (p. 204). One particularly egregious oversight can be found in the following paragraph (from p. 142 – 143):

The story is told in the holy Rabbi Shlomo ibn Gabirol’s accounts of his travels in Eretz Yisroel that because of Rabbi Alkabetz’s great wisdom, the gentiles envied him, and an Arab killed him and buried him under a tree in his garden. When the tree bore fruit early, people investigated. The crime was discovered, and the murderer was hanged on that very tree. This story is recorded in the holy work Kav Hayashar (chapter 86) about Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz.

Besides for the obvious problem with this story being that R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol preceeded R. Alkabetz by 500 years, there are two contradictory sources given for this tale, namely the supposed ‘accounts of R. Ibn Gabirol’s travels’  (a non-existent work) and Kav Hayashar. A quick check with the Hebrew Edition will reveal the source of this error. Here is the original:

ולפלא, כי המעשה שהביאו בספרי תיירי ארץ הקודש מהקדוש מה״ר שלמה בן גבירול שמרוב חכמתו נתקנאו בו אומות העולם, וישמעאל אחד הרגו והטמינו תחת אילן בגן שלו, ועל ידי שהתאנה חנטה פגיה קודם זמנה חקרו, ואכן נודע הדבר ונתלה הרוצח על אותו אילן, מובא בספר הקדוש קב הישר (פרק פ״ו) על מה״ר שלמה אלקבץ ז״ל, יעיין שם.

What he is saying is that he was amazed to find that different accounts of tourists’ travels in Israel record a story supposedly about R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, while in Kav Hayashar it is reported to have happened to R. Shlomo Alkabetz. This is indeed an important bibliographical point, but In truth this legend is actually quoted in Shalshelet hakaballah regarding Ibn Gabirol[9] and although the authenticity of this sefer is often questioned, there can be no doubt that the legend predates R. Shlomo Alkabetz and indeed no contemporary sources indicate that R. Alkabetz had anything but a peaceful end. Even though all early prints of Kav Hayashar that I have checked say R. Shlomo Alkabetz, the context leaves no doubt that it is a mistake and should read Ibn Gabirol.[10]

Censorship and political correctness in Masa’ot Yerushalayim

It is clear that the English edition is a translation from the latest Hebrew Edition published in 2003[11] by Emes publishing ltd. (the official publishing house of the Munkacz Hasidim in Brooklyn).[12] This addition is somewhat different from the first edition and I am not sure on what basis these changes were made. In addition to the footnotes which were actually parenthetical remarks included in the text in the original they have added numerous footnotes expanding and cross-referencing the material[13] and there is no differentiation made between the original footnotes and the later ones. There are also various differences in the text itself. For instance the original edition when describing the Grave of R. Haim ibn Attar, (the author of Ohr Hachaim) the first edition (p.25b) adds:

'סמוך למנוחת האוה"ח הקדוש שם ג"כ מנוחת אשתו ושתי יבמות שהיו לו לנשים'

The 2003 edition is less shocking in it’s revelation by stating instead:

'סמוך למנוחת האור החיים הקדוש שם גם כן מנוחת שתי נשיו'

This is also the version found in the English translation and if memory serves correct, contemporary restorations at the actual gravesite reflect the veracity of the later edition. In fact, this may be the reason they took the initiative, justified or not, to change the text.[14]

On another occasion the altering of the text was clearly intended to avoid possible fallout with today’s Yeshiva adherents. I refer you to the passage in the first edition (p.87b-88a) which recounts how certain members of the Hareidi Rabbis of Jerusalem approached the Munkaczer Rebbe in an attempt to find a solution to the problem of the negative effect the recently established Hebroner yeshiva was having on native Jerusalmite youth on account of the former’s modern style of dress.[15] The Rebbe hastened to consult with R. Alfandari who wisely advised him not to make a commotion over it as such a fuss would only have negative ‘political results’. It reads like this:

בהיות רבנו שליט"א בתוככי ירושלים באו אליו גדולים חקרי לב מהרבנים החרדים שם ליהנות ממנו עצה ותושי' כדת מה לעשות ע"ד ישיבת סלאבאדקע שהיתה מלפנים בחברון ואחר הפרעות והשחיטות ר"ל נעתקו משם וקבעו ישיבתם בירושלים והמה רובם ככולם (אם כי למדנים הם) הולכי קצוצי פאות וזקן ומגדלי בלורית ורגילים לזה ממדינתם ובהיותם בחברון שאין שם ישוב חסידים מהאשכנזים כ"כ לא הזיקו לאחרים משא"כ פה בקרתא דשופריא עיר מלאה חכמים חסידי עליון ירעו וישחיתו לנו ולבנינו ותלמידי ישיבתנו שילמדו מהם ח"ו בדמותם כצלמם.

רבנו בשמעו את כל התלאה הזאת הלך להתייעץ עם הסבא קדישא הרב מהרש"א אם להרעיש עליהם כעת אחרי שנמלטו על נפשם מהפראים וכו'. והוא השיב בחכמת שלמ"ה אשר בקרבו כי יש לחוש בעודם בחמימות מהרוגי חברון שנשחטו גם מתלמידי ישיבתם (ובתוכם יראי ה' הי"ד) ואם ירעישו עליהם יכנסו תחת כנפי אותו האיש קוק וכל משרד הרבנות הציונית שר"י ועי"ז יתרבה חילם עי ישיבת סלאבאדקי מפורסמת בעולם והראש מתיבתא שלהם מפורסם ללמדן ע"כ שוא"ת עדיף כעת...

וכשאני לעצמי כשבאו תלמידי סלאבאדקא לביתי לדבר דברי תורה, וראיתים בלי זקן ופיאות ומגדלי בלורית, אמרתי להם על הכתוב (שיר השירים ב, יד) הראיני את מראיך (צלם אלקים על פי התורה. ואחר כך) השמיעיני את קולך בדברי תורה. אבל כשהוא ההיפך לא אדבר עמכם, ודחיתים כי הם באמת מחריבי קרתא קדישא. וכן יעשה גם הדר״ת להזהיר לאנשי שלומו ויראי אלקים להתרחק מישיבתם, אבל לא לצאת עתה בקול רעש מטעם הנ"ל עכתד"ה.
The 2003 edition censors this passage and simply writes:

בהיות רבינו שליט״א בתוככי ירושלים באו אליו גדולים חקרי לב מהרבנים החרדים שם ליהנות ממנו עצה ותושיה כדת מה לעשות על דבר פרצה מיוחדת שנפרצה בעיר ה׳. ושאל רבנו להסבא קדישא מה לעשות במחיצת כרם בית ישראל שנפרצה. וענה לו הסבא קדישא כי יש לחוש וכו' על כן שב ואל תעשה עדיף כעת...

וכן סיפר הסבא קדיש אל רבינו כשבאו תלמידי ישיבה מסוימת לביתי לדבר דברי תורה, וראיתים בלי זקן ופיאות ומגדלי בלורית, אמרתי להם על הכתוב (שיר השירים ב, יד) הראיני את מראיך (צלם אלקים על פי התורה. ואחר כך) השמיעיני את קולך בדברי תורה. אבל כשהוא ההיפך לא אדבר עמכם, ודחיתים כי הם באמת מחריבי קרתא קדישא. וכן יעשה גם הדר״ת להזהיר לאנשי שלומו ויראי אלקים להתרחק מהם, אבל לא לצאת עתה בקול רעש, עד כאן תורף דבריו הקדושים.

There is no reason to suspect that this was done to protect the identity of R. Kook, because this edition shows little sympathy for R. Kook, in fact in the preceding paragraphs dealing with R. Alfandari’s opposition to R. Kook, the Chief Rabbinate[16], and even to Agudath Israel, nothing is omitted and the material is buttressed with lengthy footnotes detailing all the letters written by various Rabbis opposing Zionism in general and the Chief Rabbinate in particular. It is obvious that sensitivities for the Slabodka Yeshiva are at the root of this censorship. This is also why the next passage (from p. 88a), which I am loath to reproduce here, detailing R. Alfandari’s assessment of R. M.M. Epstein and R. Kook is also omitted in the 2003 edition.

Needless to say the English edition not only follows lead of the 2003 edition in censoring the Slabodka passages but also omits all of the anti R. Kook passages such as this one, from p. 229 in the 2003 edition:

כשבאו אליו אח"כ אנשים גם רבנים או אדמורי״ם שבאו לא"י, ושמע שהיו אצל ׳קוק׳ רב חראשי של המשרד חציונית והחפשים, לא אבה לקבלם להכניסם לביתו, ואמר הלא כבר היה אצל קוק[17] ומה יחפצו ממני, ומדוע אתם פוסחים על שתי חסעיפים.

Gone too are the following statements regarding Agudath Israel attributed to R. Alfandari, and with them a possible window into the special relationship he shared with the Munkaczer:

פעם אחד שאלו אותו לחוות דעתו בענין האגודה. והשיב שאין חילוק בין הציונים והמזרחים והאגודים רק בשמא, וחוט המקיף את כולם הוא הכסף והשתררות ולא כבוד שמים. על כן היה אוהב מאוד כששמע מצדיק ואדמו״ר אשר לא כרע לבעל לשום אחת מהמפלגות וכתות הנזכרים לעיל, ואדרבה מוחה בהם ומקנא קנאת ה׳ צבאות. ואמר כי מדה זו אהוב לו מן הכל ועולה על כולנה יותר מבקיאות התורה והפלגה בחסידות וזכות אבות, אם כי רב הוא.

Understandably, the English speaking audience this book is intended for is not as virulently anti-Zionist as the Munkacz/Satmar Hasidic base that the Hebrew edition was intended for and certainly wouldn’t countenance any anti-Agudah sentiments and therefore excised the more extreme passages from its translation. It is therefore all the more surprising that the following passage got by the careful eye of the censor and made it into the English edition on P. 178:

We found out that the main reason they did not keep their word was because they were afraid of their rabbi and leader, Yaakov Maier, a member of the official rabbinate, which the Sabba Kaddisha strenuously opposed. Immediately after the Sabba Kaddisha’s demise the zealous Torah scholars of Jerusalem warned Yaakov Maier not to come eulogize him.

Obviously they did not realize that despite R. Yaakov Meir’s affiliation with the Rabbinate as the Sephardic Rishon L’zion, nevertheless he was widely respected by virtually all segments of orthodox Jewry[18]. Indeed another popular Artscroll biography actually lauds R. Yaakov Meir for forging a close connection with Jerusalem’s Ultra-Orthodox Eidah Hachareidit and working together with them on various occasions.[19] Most likely, the American proofreader did not know who this famous Israeli-Sephardic personality was and thus allowed this disrespectful passage though.

In conclusion

The biographical information available on R. Alfandari is sparse, and precious little of it pertains to the bulk of his life before his move to Jerusalem in his final decade. There is certainly much more to the picture we could gain from a fuller biography of his life, also taking into perspective the vastly different milieu that he sprouted from. Yet, the detailed picture we have from the period of the Munkaczer’s visit certainly is an accurate portrayal of at least one dimension of his great personality. As I have demonstrated, the reader is best served consulting the original version where possible to obtain a more complete and accurate snapshot of this historic encounter.

In the case of R. Alfandari, this sort of contest for understanding and presenting his legacy is a testament to his greatness, his broad appeal, and to his own multi-faceted personality. He is certainly worthy of further in-depth study, and a full-length professional biography would certainly give us much to learn from and be inspired. However, this will only be true if the study is free of the constraints of bias and preconceived notions. 



[1] It is difficult to pinpoint his exact year of birth and many different dates have been given. Masa’ot Yerushalayim, on the basis of a statement of R. Shlomo Eliezer regarding his involvement in the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840, assumes that he had to have been born at least by 1810 and thereby making him 120 years old at the time of his death in 1930. In Ohalei Shem (pinsk 1912) p. 507 he is mistakenly referred to as ר' חיים(!) מירקאדו אלפנדרי, and this has caused many to overlook his entry there, but there it states that he was born in 1846. Most sources give 1826 as the year of his birth.
[2] This quality was unique even among Ashkenazic Rabbis of that era but certainly among the Sephardic Rabbis. See what R. Yosef-Zundel of Salant had to say about his Sephardic contemporaries in Ha-tzaddik R. Yosef Zundel M’Salant p. 37 to wit 'רבני הספרדים שיחיו...אעפ"י שהם ת"ח וצדיקים אכן אין הם יודעים מעניני האשכנזים כלל... ודאי כוונתם לש"ש אמנם יותר טוב היה להם השתיקה ולא להתערב בעניני האשכנזים' .
[3] His name has understandably been misunderstood and misspelled by Ashkenazic writers. See for example: Mara D’ara Yisrael vol. 2 page 201 where he is addressed as כמהר"ר אלעזר מלכאדו אלפנדרי.
[4] In fact, the Hida writes in glosses to Sefer Hasidim (Brit Olam ad. loc.): 'בראותי דברי רבנו הנאני דכך נוהגים במדינת תוגרמה ומתקיימים ונמצא שרש הענין בדברי רבנו ז"ל'. See also the other sources referenced in R. Margolies edition. R. Eliezer Brodt pointed out that some Ashkenazic scholars have also followed the advice of Sefer Hasidim, such as the Aderet; see his Seder Eliyahu p. 30.
[5] The practice of calling a child by anything other than his given surname may seem strange today but it had a parallel among Sephardim not too long ago, where many firstborns were called “B’chor” to the point of where his official surname was all but forgotten. See Keter Shem Tov (Keidan 1934) vol. 1 p. 680 where he writes: 'המנהג בא"י וסת"מ כשנולד בן בכור, מלבד שם העריסה, קוראין אותו בשם "בכור" ולנקבה "בכורה", ושם העריסה משתקע לגמרי. ואם יש לו משרה דתית קוראים לו רבי בכור, חכם בכור, או האדון בכור'.
[6] Including articles in these two publications here and here. The latter article by R. Aharon Surasky was later expanded and included in his Orot Hamizrach.
[7] This section was printed recently as the introduction to a new work of R. Alfandari’s published from manuscript by Ahavat Shalom (2011), as part of new initiative to publish more of his writings, called Yakhel Shlomo. Surprisingly, they attribute the article to the noted Jerusalem Kabbalist R. Yeshaya Asher Zelig Margolies. I am not sure how they could have made that mistake since it was clearly part of R. Goldstein’s work although he does credit R. Margolies, among others, for providing him with valuable information on R. Alfandari.
[8] See here.
[9] See here. The language used by R. Goldstein is too similar to that of Shalshelet Hakabbalah to be a coincidence and it is therefore surprising that he gave such a vague reference. The story is also recounted in Divrei Yosef (Jerusalem 2011) p. 81 with regards to R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol.
[10] In the edition published by Machon Haktav (Jerusalem 2001) available here they have corrected it but leave no clue as to on what basis they did so. The legend itself has been shown to be inaccurate. See Yeshurun 25 pp. 769-770 and also R. Eliezer Brodt’s fine article here.
[11] The prologue to the English edition, basing itself on the Hebrew תשסד, mistakenly claims it was published in 2004.
[12] Available here.
[13]Some of which just don’t make any sense, such as this one (from the English edition p. 152): ‘Rabbeinu David ibn Zimra, who taught much Torah and had many great students. He wrote over 2000 halachic rulings, of which only 300 were printed.’ I can’t figure out what is the basis for this statement as there are actually well over 2000 responsa printed from the Radvaz.
[14] R. E. M. Reich pointed out that in Toldot Chachmei Yerushalayim vol. 3 p. 10, the author states that although according to folklore the two women buried adjacent to the Ohr Hachaim were יבמות, in reality they were his two wives. Interestingly enough, the account in Masa’ot Yerushalayim mentions three women altogether. It would seem that Toldot Chachmei Yerushalayim is the source for this change as you can tell by looking at the interesting footnote in the 2003 ed. (ad. loc.) which was lifted straight from Toldot Chachmei Yerushalayim. To wit: מקובל כי הן .היו נשים גדולות ומופלאות במעשיהן, ומנהגיהן היה להתעטף בטלית ולהתלבש בתפלין על דרך שאיתא במיכל בת שאול The only difference is that in Toldot Chachmei Yerushalayim this is only reported with regards to the second of his two wives. See also R. Rueven Margolies’ Toldot R. Chaim ibn Attar pp 45-46. Interestingly, he records an unsubstantiated report that there were four יבמות in addition to the two wives.
[15] It is noteworthy that R. Dov Cohen, a Slobodka student at that time, reported that the transition to Jerusalem was smooth ‘and almost completely devoid of any opposition’. See his memoirs: Vayelchu Shneihem Yachdav (Feldheim 2009) p. 250.
[16] R. Alfandari was so opposed to the Rabbinate that when he heard that R. Tzvi Pesah Frank, who had been close with him, had become involved with the Rabbinate, he remarked that it was 'חמץ שנמצא בפסח'. I heard this from a descendant of R. Asher Zelig Margolies.
[17] It is instructive that in a written correspondence reproduced on p. 228 of the 2003 ed., R. Alfandari refers to R. Kook respectfully as הר' מהרא"י קוק ה"י even when disagreeing with him sharply. It may be the zealotry of R. Goldstein who saw fit to leave out the honorifics in this quotation.
[18] To be sure, his appointment to this position after the death R. Elyashar in 1906, was not without controversy, as many favored R. Elyashar’s son to succeed him over the Alliance-trained and Zionist-inclined R. Yaakov Meir. In some cases he proved himself to be too right-wing for some factions, such as when he opposed the Vaad Ha’leumi for giving women the right to vote. See B’toch Hachomot (Jerusalem 1948) pp. 334-335.
[19] See Guardian of Jerusalem (Artscroll 1983) p. 401.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Announcement: Special shiur by Rabbi Yechiel Goldhaber

The readership of the Seforim Blog is invited to a shiur that will be taking place Thursday night [8 Iyaar; 18th April] at 9PM. The shiur will be given by the noted author Rav Yechiel Goldhaber of Eretz Yisroel [link]. He has authored many wonderful articles and works on a wide range of topics most notably Minhagei Kehilos about customs, and Kunditon (link) about the Titanic, and the Cherem on Spain. 

The subject of the Shiur is The influence of the Zohar on Halacha, and it will take place in Brooklyn at 1274 East 23rd Street (the home of Dr. and Mrs. Shlomo Sprecher). 

The shiur is dedicated to the memory of R. Y. Szlafrok, z"l whose 25th Yahrzeit is next Shabbos, 10 Iyaar. 

For reservations, please email goldhabershiur@gmail.com.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Israel ben Shabtai [Hapstein]. ‘Avodat Yisrael - Book review by Bezalel Naor

Israel ben Shabtai [Hapstein]. ‘Avodat Yisrael (B’nei Berak: Pe’er mi-Kedoshim, 5773 / 2013). 66, 738 pages. 

Reviewed by Bezalel Naor 

Rabbi Israel ben Shabtai Hapstein, the Maggid of Kozienice (or more commonly, the “Kozhnitser Maggid”) (d. 1814) was a major figure in the third generation of East-European Hasidism founded by Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, and specifically, a towering luminary within Polish Hasidism. Like his contemporary Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liozhno (and later Liadi), Rabbi Israel studied under Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch (who led the Hasidic movement after the death of the founder, Ba’al Shem Tov). Unlike Rabbi Shneur Zalman, whose school of Hasidism, Habad, continues to this very day, Rabbi Israel founded no school and has no hasidim, no followers to speak of, today. 

The same goes for Rabbi Israel’s book. Whereas Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s most famous work, Tanya, has earned the sobriquet (at least among Habad Hasidim) “the written Torah of Hasidism” (“torah she-biketav shel hasidut”), relatively few have studied Rabbi Israel’s magnum opus, ‘Avodat Yisrael (Service of Israel), a commentary on the Pentateuch. Indicative of neglect in this respect, until today the book has been an example of poor typography. First published in 1842, ‘Avodat Yisrael has been reissued periodically with pitifully broken letters of “Rashi” script (today unfamiliar to Hebrew readers without rabbinic training). About now the cognoscenti will chime in, “Afilu sefer torah she-be-heikhal tsarikh mazal” (“Even a Torah scroll in the ark requires luck”) and “Habent sua fata libelli” (“Books have their fates”). 

Thankfully, this horrendous situation has now been remedied. Enter Pe’er mi-Kedoshim, a publishing concern headed by Rabbi Israel Menachem Alter, son of the present Rebbe of Gur. Pe’er mi-Kedoshim has committed itself to re-issuing the classic texts of Hasidic thought in deluxe, state-of-the-art editions. The Kozhnitser Maggid’s ‘Avodat Yisrael is the premier volume in a series envisioned to include: Degel Mahaneh Efraim by Ba’al Shem Tov’s grandson, Rabbi Moses Hayyim Ephraim of Sudylkow (next on the agenda); No’am Elimelekh by Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk; Zot Zikaron by Rabbi Jacob Isaac Horowitz (the “Seer of Lublin”), et cetera. 

The book displays all the benefits that the modern age of Hebrew printing has brought to the sacred realm. The cursive “Rashi” script has been replaced by the square characters familiar to every Hebrew reader, which have then been provided with vowel points and modern punctuation. Sidebars caption the highlights of the Maggid’s comments. Footnotes reference sources in rabbinic and kabbalistic literature, as well as cross-referencing to parallel passages in the Maggid’s own works. As is customary, the book is preceded by “Toledot” (Biography) of the Author, and followed by “Maftehot” (Indices). (At present these indices are purely topical. It is hoped that in the future there will be included an index of the works cited by the Maggid, which will allow students of his thought a glimpse of his library, and the horizon of his intellectual and spiritual world.) 

Quoting the Psalmist, “Who can understand errors?” (Psalms 19:12), the Editors have encouraged readers to offer constructive criticism, including pointing out errata in the present printing. Let us take them up on their kind offer. 

In Parashat Bereshit, end s.v. vayyasem H’ le-Kayin ‘ot (6a), the Maggid observes “that there are times when miracles are performed by the Other Side, as we find in the Gemara, and in the Midrash, Parashat Toledot, that through Arginiton miracles were performed for Rabbi Judah the Prince and his companions, and the Omnipresent has many emissaries.” Where the Maggid alludes to an unspecified “Gemara,” the Editors have supplied within the text itself, within parentheses, “Me’ilah 17b.” If one consults the text of that passage in the Talmud Bavli, one discovers that it concerns miracles wrought by Ben Temalyon (name of a demon) for Rabbi Shim’on ben Yohai during his mission to Rome. When offered the demon’s help, rather than rebuffing him, Rabbi Shim’on resigned himself to accepting his intervention by saying: “Yavo’ ha-ness mi-kol makom.” (“Let the miracle come from any place.”) This statement of Rabbi Shim’on is similar in tenor to the Maggid’s conclusion: “Harbeh sheluhim la-Makom.” (“The Omnipresent has many emissaries.”) 

Clearly, the Editors have read the text of ‘Avodat Yisrael in a disjointed fashion, interpreting that the “Gemara” and the “Midrash, Parashat Toledot” refer to two different stories. My own reading of the situation is that the “Gemara” and the “Midrash, Parashat Toledot” refer to the identical story whereby Rabbi Judah the Prince and his companions were spared the imperial wrath of Diocletian through the intervention of the demon Arginiton (or in the version of the Yerushalmi, “Antigris”). The “Gemara” of course is not the Gemara Bavlit, but rather the Gemara Yerushalmit, and the reference is to the Talmud Yerushalmi at the end of the eighth chapter of Terumot. I rather like my suggested reading for two reasons. First, we are told in the biographical introduction to the book that Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin attested that the Kozhnitser Maggid was “familiar with Talmud Yerushalmi” (“baki be-Shas Yerushalmi”) (p. 30). Second, in recent years, the Hasidic court of Gur has expended great energy in promoting the study of the hitherto neglected Talmud Yerushalmi, so I believe it especially appropriate that the edition of ’Avodat Yisrael under the guidance of Rabbi Israel Menachem Alter shelit”a offer this alternate solution to deciphering the Maggid’s cryptic reference to “the Gemara.” 

In Parashat Shemot, beginning s.v. ve-sham’u le-kolekha (91a), the Maggid writes that Moses was confronted with a conundrum. On the one hand, he was pressing for some kind of divine assurance that his mission to Egypt be crowned with success and that the Hebrews indeed hearken to his voice. On the other hand, he was concerned that by its very nature a divine guarantee would rob the Hebrews of their free will, forcing them into belief. The assumption is that the Hebrews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of their faith or emunah. (See Exodus Rabbah, Beshalah [parashah 23] playing on the words “tashuri me-rosh Amanah” [Song of Songs 4:8].) It is a tribute to the originality of the Kozhnitser Maggid that while most Biblical commentators busied themselves with the philosophic problem of God’s hardening the heart of Pharaoh, thereby depriving him of the free will to respond affirmatively to the divine demands, the Maggid explored in the opposite direction the problem of preserving the Hebrews’ free will to disbelieve. The Maggid’s solution to the problem involves some rather esoteric doctrines of Kabbalah, namely “hanhagat gadlut” (“governance of greatness”) versus “hanhagat katnut” (“governance of smallness”), best left for the adept in Jewish mysticism. I would just point out for the record that the Editors missed a cue here. When the Maggid writes “’Ve-hen’ she-hu ahat,” he is clearly referencing the Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31b: “She-ken bi-leshon yevani korin la-ahat ‘hen’.” (“Hen in Greek is one.”) 

In the section for the festival of Shavu’ot, s.v. u-Moshe ‘alah el ha-Elohim (200a), the Maggid writes: “Since all Israel prepared themselves for the sanctity of the Lord, and a leader is commensurate to his generation, therefore Moses was able to ascend above.” Now the crucial words, the key to understanding this thought, “u-parnas lefi doro” (“and a leader is commensurate to his generation”), have been emended by the Editors to: “kol ehad le-fi koho” (“each according to his ability”). Granted that in the old edition there was some fuzziness concerning these words (“u-parush lefi doro”), but they could still be made out simply by correcting “u-parush lefi doro” to “u-parnas lefi doro,” a well-known Hebrew adage. In the present version, one is at a loss to glean the Maggid’s meaning. (I see now that the wording “kol ehad lefi koho” does occur in the Warsaw 1878 edition of ‘Avodat Yisrael. Unfortunately, the edition I possess is without place or date. Unable to locate a copy of the editio princeps of 1842, I have no way of knowing which version occurs there.) 

In Parashat Mas’ei, end s.v. eleh mas’ei b’nei yisrael (240a), in regard to Tish’ah be-Av, the Maggid discusses the difference between the “batei gava’ei” (“inner chambers”) and the “batei bara’ei” (“outer chambers”), alluded to by the Rabbis in TB, Hagigah 5b. The Maggid’s remarks in this passage are consonant with what he wrote elsewhere in Ner Israel, his commentary to the Likkutim me-Rav Hai Gaon (2a): “In the outer chambers there is sadness and mourning, but for one who is able to ascend to the inner chambers, to the will of the Creator, blessed be He, certainly there is happiness.” (By the way, the kabbalists’ reading of the passage in Hagigah, while opposite Rashi’s, coincides with the version of Rabbenu Hananel. See Rabbi Solomon Elyashev, Hakdamot u-She’arim [Piotrkow, 1909], sha’ar 6, chap. 6, “avnei milu’im” [24b-27b].) 

In Parashat Devarim, end s.v. eleh ha-devarim (246a) there is a quote from Rabbi Isaac Luria’s commentary to the Idra Zuta. The Maggid supplies the exact page number: folio 120. The problem is that the passage does not occur there. The Editors have left the reference in the text untouched. At least in a footnote we should be told that the quote may be found in Rabbi Jacob Zemah, Kol ba-Ramah (Korets, 1785), 122a. (I am indebted to my dear friend Prof. Menachem Kallus for the correct address.) See also Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Sefer ha-Derushim (Jerusalem, 5756 /1996), 214 (left column); and Rabbi Shalom Buzaglo, Hadrat Melekh, 139a. 

In the section for Tu be-Av, s.v. meyuhasot she-bahen (256b-257a), the Maggid writes that there are times that ki-ve-yakhol (as it were), God so delights in Israel that He becomes as a young man (bahur). The Maggid writes that he has dealt with this in his commentary to the line in Avot (beginning Chap. 6), “Barukh she-bahar bahem u-be-mishnatam.” As the Editors point out, the comment is not to be found in the Maggid’s remarks on Avot. Instead, they refer us to a parallel passage in Re’eh, s.v. ve-hineh ha-Midrash (270a). By the same token, they might have referred us to Ner Israel (commentary to Likkutim me-Rav Hai Gaon), 4b: “Ve-nikra bahur ka-arazim…” 

In the section for Rosh ha-Shanah, there is a lengthy kabbalistic homily, the thrust of which is that on that day we ask the Holy One, blessed be He, to reinvest himself in the particular role of “Elohei Yisrael” (“God of Israel”). “The God of these [Jews] is asleep.” Which is to say, [the nations] were not foolish enough to assert that the Sibat Kol ha-Sibbot (Cause of All Causes) is in a state of slumber, only “the God of these [Jews],” in other words, this particular hanhagah (governance) referred to as “Elohei Yisrael” (the God of Israel) is in a state of sleep…and unconsciousness, and there is but “Elaha de-Elahaya” (the God of Gods). Based on this, you will understand the kavvanot (mystical meditations) of Rabbi Isaac Luria for Rosh Hashanah. We awaken Him with the shofar (ram’s horn). (‘Avodat Yisrael, 290b) The Editors duly noted the reference to Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Peri ‘Ets Hayyim, Sha’ar ha-Shofar, chap. 1. But what they should have noted is the following reference which would have been even more instructive: “Now in the days of Mordecai was the mystery of the time of dormita of Zeir Anpin, and the mystery that Haman said ‘There is (yeshno) one people spread and separated among the peoples’ [Esther 3:8]. The Rabbis, of blessed memory, commented on the word ‘yeshno,’ that Haman alleged ‘their God is asleep.’” (Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Sha’ar ha-Purim, beginning chap. 5) The Holy Maggid loaded the kavvanot of Purim on to the kavvanot of Rosh Ha-Shanah

The Kozhnitser Maggid was a preeminent halakhist (specializing in heter ‘agunot, permitting wives of missing husbands to remarry), kabbalist, thinker (penning commentaries to the works of Maharal of Prague), and statesman. With all that, the following anecdote sent a shiver down my spine: The Kozhnitser Maggid was on friendly terms with several prominent members of the Polish nobility. In the eighteenth century, Poland, dismembered and subjected to a tripartite division—whereby Prussia annexed the western portion of Poland; Austro-Hungary annexed Galicia in the south; and Russia annexed the east—simply ceased to exist. A certain Polish nobleman importuned the Maggid to intercede with Heaven on behalf of the Polish nation. The gentleman would not leave the Maggid’s home until promised Polish independence. Finally, the Maggid foretold that at a time in the future Poland would once again be a sovereign nation—for a span of “three shemitin” (three sabbatical cycles or 21 years). When the Jews of Warsaw were being subjected to aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe in September of 1939, they recalled the Maggid’s prediction. In the aftermath of World War I, in 1918 to be precise, Poland once again declared its independence. Three shemitin had passed from 1918 until 1939. Warsaw capitulated to the Nazis on the eve of Sukkot, the yahrzeit of the Kozhnitser Maggid! This anecdote was told by a witness to Warsaw’s destruction, Rabbi Joseph Friedenson, editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort, the Yiddish magazine of Agudath Israel of America (“Toledot,” p. 37).

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