Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Modena, Gilgul, and an Unpublished Letter

Someone in a comment to a recent post mentioned an article that appears in the latest issue of the journal Ets Hayyim. This journal is published by the “students and hassidim of Bobov.” [Supposedly this journal is a break-off of the excellent journal Kerem Shlomo.]
The journal is comprised of what most torah journals are today, there is a section publishing manuscripts hiddushei torah, general hiddushei torah, some articles on halacha etc. In this fourth and most recent issue there is an article that I think deserves wider dissemination.

R. Shmuel Aboab (1610-1694), author of the Davar Shmuel (as well as Sefer Zikrohonot, discussed here, and Tavat Dovid) was one of the leading rabbis in Italy and Europe of his day. He corresponded with numerous people, part of that correspondence was published in Davar Shmuel. Davar Shmuel, published posthumously by his son, was a mahdurah kama (first edition -that Spiegel doesn't mention in his discussion regarding mahdurah kama/tinyana - although it is a printed book and not a manuscript), and does not include all R. Shmuel Aboab's responsa (something that was not corrected in the latest reprint of the Davar Shmuel). For many years, a collection of R. Abaob's letters (approximately 300!) were in the Montefiore Library and now they have passed into private hands. (These letters are mentioned in Hartwig Hirschfeld's Descriptive Cataloue of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Montefiore Library - but the Google books version is for some reason missing the relevant page.) According to the description provided in Ets Hayyim, many of these letters have never been published or used by scholars (see below for a discussion of this claim). In Ets Hayyim, they have published one of the letters in its entirety. A detailed introduction about the manuscript generally and R. Aboab is included. This was written by R. Betzalel Divlitski. R. Divlitski uses traditional as well as academic sources in his introduction. Also an index of all the letters from the Montefiore collection is provided that includes some important snippets of these letters. For instance, one letter (no. 125) includes information when R. Ya'akov Hagiz came to Italy, something, according to R. Divlitski, that was previously not definitively known (again, see infra for more on this claim). According to the index, this letter tells us R. Hagiz came to Italy in 1659 (see infra note 2 ). Moreover, the letter that is published is in no way pedestrian. Rather, it is about a controversial topic and takes, what can be seen, as a controversial position.

While the above comes from R. Divlitski’s introduction and notes, it is worthwhile pointing out some serious shortcomings in R. Divlitski’s comments. R. Divlitski claims that most of these letters have never been published. This is wrong, and R. Divlitski knows it is wrong. Most of these letters were published by Meir Benayahu in his Dor Echad B’Aretz. R. Divliksi is aware of Benahyahu’s work as he cites it throughout. Divliski also made the claim the letter discussing when R. Hagiz came to Italy [1] was unknown, while again Benayahu has it in his work and discusses its implications (Dor Echad pp. 304-5). [2] Moreover, although R. Divlitski is willing to use the book he is unwilling to say who actually wrote it. Thus, every time R. Divlitski cites Dor Echad he never mentions Benayahu’s name. Lest one think Benayahu is somehow “treif” (whatever that may mean), R. Shlomo Zalman Aurbach seem to have no problem with Benayahu and read Benayahu’s works. (See Benayahu, Yosef Becheiri, Jerusalem, 1991, p. 364, 380). [3]

A bit of history regarding Benayhu’s work - Dor Echad B'Aretz - published in Jerusalem, 1988. A while back Benayahu while traveling the world and discovered this excellent collection of letters of R. Shmuel Aboab. He even writes that he could not believe his luck on finding them - these untapped sources full of this incredible wealth of information.[4] He noted that they were extremely important for multiple areas. Therefore, Benahayu went ahead and started printing them in many different journals. These articles started appearing as early as 1954. He divided the letters into different topics, inter alia, history of Eretz Yisroel, seforim and Sabbatianism. In 1988 Benayahu collected many of these letters from these varied journals and added some more from this collection (over 100) and printed them in one volume – Dor Echad B’Aretz. In this volume he included a comprehensive history of R. Abaob and R. Moshe Zaccuto (as Benayahu is well-known for his comprehensive biographies and works). For some odd reason he did not print all the letters from this collection nor did he even print all the letters he had already published. It could be that he never noted this important letter (now published in Ets Hayyim) perhaps because he planed on coming to it in a future work as it is well known he has over thirty years worth of seforim in manuscript!

Turning back to the article, R. Divlitski is correct that the letter regarding Modena has never been published and is thus important. [It is unclear why Benayahu decided not to publish this letter.] Thus, what Diviltski should have done was prefaced his article stating that although much has been written on R. Aboab and on the letters formerly housed in the Montefiore Library and many were published by Benayahu, for some reason, a very important letter has thus far escaped publication and now to remedy that, the letter is now being published – now on to the actual letter.

The letter in question discusses the belief, or lack thereof, in gilgul (transmitigation of souls). This subject has been a hot topic for centuries and much has been written on it in general and will be the subject of a different post. [For now, see Kol Hanevuah from R. Dovid Hanazir pp. 230-36 for an excellent collection of material on this topic and see R. Reuven Margolis in Sharei Zohar, Bavaeh Metziah, 107a.]

One of the persons to have denied belief in gilgul was R. Yehudah Aryeh Modena in his work Ari Noham. While Modena explicitly denied gilgul, some questioned whether that was truly his position. The Hida, first in Shem HaGedolim and later on in his travelogue, Ma'agel Tov, (pg 113) Hida states that he saw Modena’s then unpublished autobiography and the Hida claimed that Modena wrote that he changed his opinion on gilgul because of an event he witnessed towards the end of his life. Joseph Michael Hayim in Or haHayyim (pg 443) mentions that he never found evidence of Modena’s change of heart in any manuscripts of Modena’s autobiography. [Divlitski alludes to Hayim, but like the other “academics” doesn’t cite to him or mention him explicitly.] Today, we have two printed editions of Modena’s autobiography and neither has any reference to Modena’s alleged change of heart. It is worth noting that the autobiography contains other fascinating material – much of which would not be considered flattering as it portrays Modena in a very human sense. Thus, in the Sefer HaTerumos published by Mechon Yerushalim with the commentary of the Gedulei Terumah, by R. Azariah Figo, a student of Modean, an amazing allegation is made to deal with Modena’s Autobiography. A. Goldschmidt in the introduction claims that because of the content of the Autobiography it is “a forgery.” The reason being “it is unconscionable that a qualified Talmid Hakham such as R. Yehuha Areyeh Modena [would write things] that [even] simple people would not want publicized.” (p. 25 n.8).

The letter now published in Ets Hayyim is not from Modena but instead from R. Aboab to R. Moshe Zacuto about R. Yehuda Areyeh Modena. [5] Specifically, R. Zacuto heard that R. Modena was denying and publicizing that gilgul was not a Jewish belief. R. Zacuto wanted to put Modena in herem or come out against him, and wrote to R. Aboab to get his opinion. As R. Divlitski demonstrates this letter is key to disproving the notion that although Modena initially did not believe in gilgul he changed his mind later. Due to the timing of this letter it appears that either literally at the end of Modena's life he repudiated his belief on gilgul or, the more likely conclusion is that Modena never did.

In the letter, R. Aboab counsels against disputing Modena. R. Aboab makes a simple argument in that there are sources that dispute the claim of gilgul. Thus, there have been others who don't believe. How then can we reconcile those positions with R. Aboab's and R. Zacuto's idea that gilgul is a central tenet - it must be that only worthy people appreciate and therefore believe in gilgul. It would be pointless to criticize someone for not believing when it is not really their fault.

Basically, this is a great article with important new material but proper credit is not given. Furthermore, as Divlitski notes, and in light of the fact Benayahu clearly has not yet published all these letters, hopefully, with this letter being published in Ets Hayyim someone will finally publish all these letters.


This post is the product of the combined efforts of myself and R. Eliezer Brodt.

[1] For some reason it seems E. Carlebach did not use Dor Echad, although she does use Benayahu’s prior articles, and thus was unaware of Benayahu’s discussion of this particular letter. See Carlebach, The Pursuit of Heresy, New York, 1990, p. 21, 284 nn.11-12. Although Benayahu rejects using the dates of R. Hagiz’s works to place Hagiz in Italy, Carlebach does just that. See Benayahu, Dor Echad, pp. 304 and Carlebach, id. Additionally, Carlebach does not mention the letter discussed above that explicitly establishes Hagiz in Italy.

[2] For some reason Divlitski says the letter was written in 1659 while Benayahu says the letter was written in 1657. Additionally, Divlitski says that he can figure out who the recipient of the letter is, although “coincidentally” Benayahu uses the same materials to come to the same conclusion.

[3] This is not the only time Divlitksi leaves out the authors name. He also uses Tishby’s edition of Tzitz Novel Tzvi, but doesn’t mention Tishby.

[4] Divlitski uses similar language when discussing how important the letters are as an untapped resource.

[5] It is worth noting that Modena and Aboab corresponded directly see Benayahu, “Yediyah al Hadfasat Seforim vehafatzasm b’Italia” in Sinai, 34 pp. 157-58, 186-87.


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