Monday, July 17, 2017

Zvi Hirsch Masliansky: Memoirs from the Hebrew Periodical Ha-Doar

Zvi Hirsch Masliansky:  Memoirs from the Hebrew Periodical Ha-Doar 
By Zviah Nardi

Zvi Hirsch Masliansky, known as “The National Preacher” (1856-l943), was a member of the Hibbat Zion movement in Russia from the time of its inception in l882, and served as its itinerant preacher in the early 1890s. After his expulsion from Russia in 1895, he went to the United States, where he became a leading figure in the integration of the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to American life.
 He wrote memoirs of those two periods of his life in the l920s. Published in Yiddish in 1924, they were followed by a Hebrew version, for which the author was also responsible, in l929. The family has recently published an English translation: Memoirs; an account of my life and travels, Jerusalem, Ariel, 2009, which has been distributed to family and friends, as well as to leading libraries.
 In the l930s Masliansky wrote another memoir, which was published in installments in the Hebrew periodical Ha-Doar, mostly in vols. 13-14, 1933-5; four segments in vol. 15 and one, which has been translated into English and incorporated into the English 2009 book, in vol. 16 (1937).
 The focus of these memoirs is far more personal then that of the book. Here Masliansky describes his childhood, his education, the early stages of his career and his marriage. Other segments focus on various people he knew and loved back in Russia, including some great Rabbis and important public figures.
 Despite their literary quality and importance to social history, these memoirs, hidden in the large bound volumes of Ha-Doar, are even less known to the public than those published in the book. A number of excerpts from the Ha-Doar memoirs have been translated by Zviah Nardi (co-translator of the 2009 English book) for the benefit of family members. To the best of our knowledge, this is their first English version. The unpublished continuation of these memoirs in Masliansky’s handwriting is in possession of the family.
 We are most thankful to Eliezer Brodt of the Seforim blog for putting this partial translation on the web, and thus making it accessible to all interested in Zvi Hirsch Masliansky and in the life of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement in the late 19th century. We are also thankful to Moshe Maimon for bringing us together, and reviewing the excerpts. We hope to continue the translation of both the published and the hand written material in the future, and propagate them in the same fashion as the work continues.
 Finally, I would like to conclude with a personal note: In 2006, four of our progeintor’s descendants made the decision to publish his memoirs in an English version:  his grandsons James and Marshall Weinberg of New York and his great- granddaughters Zviah Nardi and Meira Nardi Bossem of Jerusalem. As these excerpts of his second memoir from Ha-Doar appear on the web, only two of us remain. My dear cousin-once-removed James Weinberg, a businessman and prominent Jewish leader, passed away in October 2013; my dear sister, Meira, just a year ago (on kaf-gimmel Tamuz). Meira was the first reader of both memoirs as the work progressed — a wonderful first reader and advisor.  We would appreciate the willingness of our readers to join us for a moment of thought about our dear departed.
 Zviah Nardi, Marshall Weinberg.
For further details contact

Excerpts from Masliansky‘s Second Set of Memoirs,
Ha-Doar, 1933-1935.

Ha-Doar vol. 13, 1933-4, no. 38, p. 724

Tachlith” – In search for a purpose in life.

(A Chapter from my Memoirs)

My days as a “Yeshivah Bochur  [student at a religious academy], those “days” devoid of goal and practical purpose, have come to an end.  I felt a growing aspiration to study at the modern, government-authorized Teachers’ Seminary in Zhitomir. I walked from Novogrudok to Pinsk, where I planned to board a ship headed for Kiev on the river Dnieper, and then walk from Kiev to Zhitomir.

Tachlith, Tachlith” [purpose, purpose] – this word sounded in my ears day and night, as I walked and as I sat, as I ‘lay down and as I got up’. What will be my purpose in life, what will become of me? I do not want Rabbi Yosel the Dayan [judge according to religious law] as a role model, nor do I want Rabbi Eliezer the preacher or the fanatical ascetic who tore the [modern Hebrew] novel “Ashmat Shomron” [by Avraham Mapu] to shreds. This problem gave me no rest and kept buzzing in my mind like the proverbial mosquito in the head of Titus. I had dwelled long enough among fanatic savages. I am a grown boy, fifteen years old, and back in my native town of Slutsk my mother, the elderly widow, is suffering hunger, and she and my orphaned brother of eleven years, are expecting my help. And what is my purpose in life? Tachlith! Tahclith!  -  the cry was echoing inside me at that time as I walked along the road.

I became weaker by the hour, and when I reached Mir, I felt that I should give my weak body and my swollen feet a rest; I shall rest and then continue my quest for a purpose.

I was drawn to visit the Yesivah, I so loved and adored, once more. I found this “molder of the nation’s spirit” in fine order. Hundreds of students were chanting their gemorrah lessons in loud voices. I found my cousin Avraham Yitzhak Masliansky[1] son of my uncle Arieh Leib there (I used to call him ABIM in my letters). Our meeting was one of loving excitement, as we had not seen each other since I had left Slutsk. He told me that my younger brother Avraham was in Mir as well, studying at the Talmud Torah [elementary school.] I was excited and moved to hear this, and soon hugged and kissed my brother, and yet I said to myself with a broken heart: “my miserable mother, you have lacked twice – a widow who is now also bereaved of her children; left behind by both your sons.”
My cousin ABIM and I went to visit our teacher Rabbi Chaim Leib[2]. He received me cordially and discussed various issues with me. I did not tell him my destination, as I did not wish to aggravate him. He suggested I return to the Yeshivah and promised to provide for all my needs. My heart was indeed inclined to accept his offer, but my mind reminded me “Tachlith!” I thanked him, he blessed me, and I left the Yeshivah, with a heart full of longing.

After two days of rest I took my wandering staff in my hand and put my sack on my back; my relatives escorted me to the main road where we kissed each other and parted in tears.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Ha-Doar, vol. 14, 1934-5, no.1, pp. 8 – 9.
(a Chapter from “My Life.”)

Two Yeshivah students seeking a purpose in life are walking along the main road leading from Kapulya to Pinsk. They walked for six days and ‘in the seventh day’ they arrived in Pinsk; they came to this foreign city, where they had neither a relative nor ‘a redeeming kinsman,’ with sore feet but with courageous spirits and high hopes.  The city of Pinsk at the time excelled in its commerce more than any other city in Lithuania. Along the river Pina, a tributary of the Dnieper, its ships sailed to Kiev, Kremenchuk, Yekaterinoslav and Odessa. We immediately noticed the difference between Pinsk and the surrounding cities. The city was full of life and tumult, being the center of commerce for grain and lumber shipped to the south of Russia by boats and rafts.  Thousands of peasants bringing their commodities filled its streets causing this turmoil.

At that time there were a number of rich families living in Pinsk that were renowned throughout Russia. I am referring to the Luria, Zeitlin, Eisenberg and Greenberg families, all had among them learned men skilled in Torah and wisdom [secular studies]. The most illustrious family were the Lurias, descendants of Rabbi Shlomo Luria (the MaHaRSHaL) or of the Holy Ari [the mystic Rabbi Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi.] They excelled in both looks and character, in their skills and in their communal work for charitable institutions, hospitals, Talmud Torah schools, orphanages and homes for the elderly. The head of the family at that time was the generous lady Haya’le Luria with her sons Moshe and David, and their sons Aharon and Isar and sons-in- law Moshe Haim Eliasberg and Jonah Simchovitch of Slutsk, all of them renowned Talmidei Chachamim [famous for their Jewish knowledge.]

Pinsk is divided into two cities – Pinsk and Karlin… 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Suddenly I received a letter from Slutsk, informing me that my abandoned, widowed mother and my orphaned brother are suffering cold and hunger. And so, what was I to do?!

This was an awful quandary and I was totally hopeless. There were no Yeshivoth in Pinsk, and its residents were unfamiliar with the practice of “eating by days” [having Yesivah students eat in a different resident’s home each day], a practice I myself was sick and tired of. Traveling any longer without documents had become impossible [as the authorities were kidnapping men and boys for prolonged military service in the area.] My friend Benyamin bid me goodbye and returned to his native town of Poltava. Our parting was a heart wrenching sight. Little Jews, almost children, deserted and alone, hugging and kissing each other, weeping and sobbing on each other’s necks, separating from one another, devoid of hope to find their purpose in life…

Absentmindedly I entered a Jewish inn on the bank of the Pina River. The innkeeper, a man by the name of Katchinovsky, was educated and respected students of the Torah. He took one look at me and instantly liked what he saw. The inn served the rural Jews, the tavern leasers and operators, living in the countryside around Pinsk. One of the guests, a man of stature, had asked the inn keeper whether he knew of a young man, a Torah student, who would agree to travel to the village with him to be a melamed [teacher] for his children. It was summer, the first day of the month of Tamuz, with three months left for the school year; He was ready to pay thirty rubles for this period and to raise the salary for the next year, provided he was satisfied with the man’s performance as instructor and teacher for his children. The innkeeper turned to me and asked me if I would agree to go with the man? I agreed.

Two days later the villager Eliezer Rubinstein took me to his village of Harinich. He was a kind and honest man by nature, and regarded me as a son from the very first day, treating me in a loving and friendly manner: it was as though his heart foretold that in two years time I would be his son-in-law.

The trip from Pinsk to Harinich lasted for about four hours. On the way he started couching me in his own manner. He clarified that country life was simpler and healthier than life in the city. He proved ‘with signs and marvels’ that country people are healthier physically and of a more honest spirit than city folk. He advised me to get slightly more accustomed to physical work, to take long walks, gain strength and ride a horse. ‘He said and acted’[3]. A horse he had bought in Pinsk was running behind the carriage; he put me on the horse and I rode behind the wagon.
My heart was pounding rapidly for the first ten minutes – the heart of a Yeshivah student who had never touched a horse, and was suddenly studying the theoretical Talmudic issue of ‘the rider and leader’[4] in practice. But I made the effort, straightened my neck, raised my head and rode like a cossack in the regiment. He was surprised that I sat on the horse and rode securely, as though accustomed to doing so, and expressed his feeling with the Jewish proverb: “wer Torah, dort ist chochmeh!” [“Where there is Torah there is wisdom!”]

As we were traveling I started to understand what the world famous “Marshes of Pinsk” were. I had searched for them in Pinsk without success, for Pinsk itself is a fine and dry city – no swamps to be found in its streets, which stone-pavements are superior to those of the neighboring towns.  En route, however, I learnt the nature of the terrifying swamps of Pinsk.

These swamps have gained their widespread reputation for a good reason. They were large broad and deep, extending for hundreds of miles… The roads, covered with branches of Birch and Oak trees, were called “grebliyes’, and woe to the man or horse who took one slanted step and got their leg into the ‘grebilyeh’ branches.

I rode my horse with the utmost care and after a number of hours we reached a wonderful and beautiful place in the wilderness of the swamp – thick forests, green fields, planted gardens, pastures with sheep and cows grazing. Suddenly I saw a windmill far away, its large, broad wings spinning fast.

Reb Eliezer Rubinstein turned to me most happily and said: “Do you see, Hirsch’le, the mill, the house next to it and all these fields till the distant mountain? – All this is mine. We are now in our home in the village of Harinich.”

Ha-Doar, vol. l4, 1934-5, no. 4, pp. 61-62
In the Country
(A Chapter from “my Life”.)

It was evening. The sun was setting in the west, earth and sky kissed each other in a sea of molted gold; the mill and the small hills around it were glowing in red. The air was full of the delicate sounds of bells, the bells of herds returning from pasture. The farmers’ wives were waiting for the herds, pails in hand, while the dogs, who had spent the entire day with the flocks, were running and jumping towards them, barking happily as their work day had ended and the time for rest had come. Farmers, large and small, men and woman, all dressed in thick cotton shirts, barefoot and tired, were returning, group by group, from their labor in the fields to their small low houses covered with straw, there they were met by their virtually naked toddlers and children, who rushed into the arms of their mothers they had missed so.

“Good Evening!” called the head of the family, as he opened the door of his dwelling wide.

The mistress of the house with her children, who were waiting for their father and for the new teacher, surrounded me. Six pairs of lovely eyes measured me with their glances from head to toe.

Mrs. Devorah Rubinstein, a pretty and graceful woman of about thirty, stood by her husband and looked at me with a mother’s eye…

“Children!” – the head of the household turned to his sons and daughters, two boys and three girls, the oldest among them twelve years old, “say hello to your new teacher, he will instruct you and you are obliged to obey him and follow his orders.”

The children approached me respectfully and handed me their little hands, Yetta, the oldest, lowered her glance as she came to me, as though her heart told her that it would not be long  - in three years time[5] – before relationship would far exceed that of teacher and pupil…

I enjoyed my first meal and ate it with zest. For the first time in my life I felt that I was eating my own food. I then slept peacefully through the night. The next morning I examined my pupils and saw that the two boys had studied a bit, but the girls did not even know the [Hebrew] A-B-C. I started to work and within a number of weeks my pupils were doing well in their studies.

The rural Jews living near Harinich heard my praise from Reb Eliezer and came to see me. Some of them brought their small children who joined my pupils, so that my salary doubled. I was ever so happy when, for the first time, I sent my poor mother ten rubles. That was a holy and festive day for me and I shall never forget it.

And yet the question of “tachlith” remained unsolved – what will my life purpose be, what will my future hold? I am living here, in a remote and deserted village, far from the rapid pace of life, surrounded by peasants with whom I have no spiritual bond. They regard me as worthless, an idle person who does not really work for a living, and I – living here I shall forget everything I have learnt. I am but fifteen years old, what will my purpose in life be? I will grow and develop in body but when will I see to my soul and spirit…?

A Jewish tavern leaser in one of the villages not far from Harinich had a small library. His name was Reb Yitzhak Rutzky. He was a Torah scholar and knew Hebrew. After we got to know each other he was pleased with me and opened up his library so I could take whatever I needed. This encouraged me to continue my studies of the Talmud with great desire. But a complete Jew does not live by Talmud alone. I felt, that with all my proficiency in the Holy Writings my knowledge of Hebrew grammar and medieval literature, which I knew only by name, was lacking. I searched through the small library and found “The Guide to the Perplexed” and “The Principles” [by Maimonides], “The Kuzari” [by Yehudah ha-Levi] and “Chovot Ha-Levavot” [ by Behya ibn Pequda]. I fell upon these profound books overzealously and enjoyed their study. I asked Mr. Rubinstein to bring me three books I wanted from Pinsk: “Talmud Leshon Ivri” [a grammar of the Hebrew language by Judah Leib Ben Zeev], the Biblical book of Isaiah, translated into Russian by Yehoshua Steinberg, and “Sefer Ha-Brith.”[6] These books occupied much of my time and I did not go idle.[7]

I studied the “Talmud Leshon Ivri” most diligently from beginning to end, including the appendix by the poet Adam HaCohen Lebensohn, and became quite a grammarian writing notes on the margins of the book. The book of Isaiah in its Russian translation was extremely useful: I imitated the first generation of Maskilim [adherents of modern Jewish learning, Haskalah or Enlightenment] who learnt the German language from Mendelsohn’s translation and commentary of the Bible [Bi-ur], till I was able to read Russian with the help of a dictionary and thus read the great works of Russian literature in the original.

Sefer Ha-Brith“ (“The Book of the Covenant” which includes tenuous information in all the branches of science known at its time, carried me off to another world. Later on, however, I learnt that the author of the book was a Yeshivah student like me, who had never studied the natural sciences he was interested in, and yet wrote modestly: “And I shall now confront Master Copernicus.”

And yet, I am grateful to the author of this book. He was extremely important to me, a rural melamed, with no school, no guidance. He opened my eyes to see that there are sciences and important topics in this world that are worth learning.

My employer’s affection towards me grew daily. He would sit at the table while I taught my students and audit the lessons most eagerly; he secretly repeated the verses till he knew them by heart. He especially liked the sayings from the Book of Proverbs about “jealousy”, “hatred”, “lust”, and “honor”, but his favorite theme was “idleness”, for he detested the lazy with all his heart, and so he always liked to recited the 24th chapter of Proverbs out loud: ‘I passed by the field of a lazy man, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense. It was all overgrown with thorns; Its surface was covered with chickweed. And its stone fence in ruins. I observed and took it to heart; I saw it and learned a lesson. A bit more sleep, a bit more slumber, a bit more hugging yourself in bed, and poverty will come calling upon you, and want, like a man with a shield.’

When he finished reciting the original Hebrew he started translating it to Yiddish with the same chant and intonation I used with the students. He continued to “recite” these verses till we arrived at his mill, where he took me nearly every day after the lessons. He taught me how to adjust the wings towards the wind and how to help him inside.  I especially liked sitting in the mill during the evening hours, a highly suitable time and place to engage in thought and to recite the declinations of Hebrew verbs to the rhythm of the large grinding stones. And so I worked as a teacher by day and as assistant miller by evening.

Some evenings I would stay long hours at the mill, keeping the miller company till midnight. He was an elderly Catholic peasant, very loyal to his faith. He loved me and felt sorry for me, not being member to his religion. He told me as a fact that the Pope is immortal and that old age has no power over him. He is like the moon, born again every single month, and will never die.

The hours I spent with this innocent old man were amazing and mysterious. The silvery moon, the rustle of the wings of the mill, the noise of the large grinding stones as the aged man related his stories, his nonsensical, imaginative stories enveloped in secrets and mysteries. We pitied one another – he pitied me for my heresy and I him for the figments of his hallucinating spirit, which he believed in with all his heart.

Ha-Doar, vol. 14, 1934-1935, no. 5, p. 79
A groom living in his father-in-law’s home
(A chapter from “My Life”)

It was a bright pure spring day – the third day of the third month of the year 5734 (1874), my birthday – I am seventeen years old!  I finished teaching my pupils at noon. The sun stood high in the sky blessing the entire universe with majestic splendor.  My employer, Reb Eliezer Rubinstein, stretched out his strong warm hand, kissed me and congratulated me in honor of my birthday. He then took me by the arm and walked with me down the narrow path leading to the hay fields he had been leasing from the Pravoslave priests for more than twenty years. We reached a small lovely hill; the grown hay gave a pleasant scent; the grass was sparkled with blue and yellow flowers that seemed like little stars in the green sky beneath us.

We were walking very slowly when suddenly Mr. Rubinstein halted and started to recite his favorite verses from the Book of Proverbs: ‘I passed by the field of a lazy man, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense’ etc.  When he completed reciting the verses he held me by my right arm and looked at me lovingly for several minutes, then spoke as a man restraining his emotions.

“You know, Hirsch’le, that I love you very much, and so my words will come from a pure and loyal heart. You are seventeen years old today, may you live to a hundred and twenty, it is time for you to find “tachlith”, to seek a purpose in life. You, with all your talents, have not been destined from birth to be a melamed. And so I have a wonderful proposition for you, if God helps me to accomplish it: You should get engaged to be married to a kind hearted and pretty girl, daughter of honest and wealthy parents and become betrothed this very day. And next year, when you will be eighteen years old, you will marry at the very age established by our sages of blessed memory. If you take my advice I shall congratulate you on this very day and say ‘Mazal tov’ upon your engagement.”

He then was silent, looked me in the eye and awaited my answer. His innocent and kindhearted monologue made a great impression on me. Some minutes later I said: “Reb Eliezer, two sides are needed for a shiduch [match] and I’m but one. Where is the other side?”

“Quite so, my son!” he answered, “The other side is standing before you, and I am ready, and my eldest daughter, Yetta, agrees full heartedly, because she loves you. I shall not sing her praises in your ears, for I am her father, but I believe that you have eyes to see and a mind and brain to understand. You can see her beauty and understand that she shall be a ‘woman of valor’ and a ‘splendid crown’ on her husband’s head. She is fourteen years old, as lovely as an eighteen year old and as wise as a twenty year old. What then have you to say as it is the shadchen [match maker] who is speaking to you.”

“Yes, Reb Eliezer, you mentioned the word ‘tachlith’. Do you know that it was ‘tachlith’ that uprooted me, that tore me away from my studies and from city life and brought here to seek my livelihood?  The question of ‘tachlith’ is to become even more difficult now: what ‘tachlith’ will we have now if I marry and have a family?”

“Yes, my son,” he answered, “you are right, but with God’s help I will find a solution to the problem. Open your eyes and see this entire plain that brings me a yearly profit that could easily support two families. I have leased all these fields for many years,we will both live and work together. You will no longer be a ‘melamed’, and I will build you a little house near mine and you will lack for nothing.”

Absentmindedly I put my small hand into his large one, and our eyes filled with tears of joy.

Overjoyed, my schadchan [match maker] and father-in-law returned home with me and with a cry of “Mazal Tov” that echoed through the entire house approached his wife, my mother-in-law, and said: “I congratulate you, Devorah’le.  Mazal Tov, our eldest daughter Yetta’le, has become a bride today and Hirsch’le is her betrothed for years to come.”

The sound of greeting and kisses filled the house. Tears of joy streamed from everyone’s eyes, for the entire family loved me and they all fell on my neck, kissed me and hugged me. The young couple, the seventeen year old youth and the fourteen year old girl, hugged each other[8] and cried, but they did not kiss, ‘for they were ashamed…’[9]

My days as a melamed came to an end, and the family members treated me as a master of the house from that day on. One day the door opened suddenly and my little brother appeared. He had walked from Slutsk to Pinsk to see his older brother who had almost reached his “tachlith.” He brought with him the kisses of my widowed mother and described her miserable situation. My brother and I were different – he was of a courageous spirit, hated to complain and was always satisfied, contented with his lot. He stayed with me for about ten days and then I sent him to our mother in Slutsk with considerable help, according to what my situation at the time enabled me.
The Days of Awe had come - the most exciting days of the year for the Jews of the villages. The leaseholders and innkeepers started the preparations for the journey in the month of Elul. This journey was to take them to the cities and towns [stetalach] to pray on Rosh Ha-Shana [the New Year] and Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement], that is to say, to hold proper services in a synagogue with a legal quorum [a minimum of ten adult men].  They would take their gentile maids, who were acquainted with all the Jewish customs, with them.  They were also equipped with a sufficient number of chicks and white chickens enabling them to perform the custom of “Kapparot” for the entire family[10]. Traditional pastries for these days were also prepared…. Indeed, it was a time when even the fish in the rivers were terrified. In addition the country people would take small sacks of ‘the choice products of the land’, the crops of the earth and of the fruit of the trees, various types of beans and grits, oats and spelt, as gifts for the home owners in the towns, who were to be their hosts for the holidays.[11]

The town closest to our village was Navliyah, which numbered about forty Jewish families. There were a few affluent families, but most were impoverished and beggars; they waited all year for the gifts their rural brethren would bring them for the Days of Awe. All the rural Jews, the leaseholders and innkeepers, from the neighboring villages…with their children and maids, their chicken and roosters, their sacks and belongings would gather in the village of Womit on the shore of the pond, where small boats awaited to lead them to the river that flowed to a spot near our destination – the town of Navliyah.

The boats rowed on the lake, full to capacity with young and old, men and woman, happy healthy youngsters, pretty and shy maidens in full bloom. Christian maids, watching over the children, were seated on sacks full of grain, foodstuffs and chicken coops carrying roosters and chickens, future victims of “Kapparot” to atone for the passengers’ sins. The boats sailed heavily on the pond towards the town to celebrate the Days of Awe there.

Ha-Doar, 1934-5, no. 7, p 123

My First Sermon

As in the gathering of the exiles the convoy of pilgrims descended from their boats to Navliyah, and the small town was suddenly filled with a multitude of people. All the leaseholders and innkeepers also brought their children’s teachers. Most of them were old and feeble, men who had spent themselves as teachers [melamdim] in the cities; their strength gone, they resorted to teaching in the villages where they hoped to find a remedy for their ailments, sickness of the heart or weakness of sight. Most of them were ignoramuses, all they knew was to read the prayer book and hold the whip in hand to flog the “naughty” children, who indulged in pure childhood mischief, refusing to listen to the teachers whom they did not understand.

I went to see the local Rabbi, a young man recently arrived from the Volozhin Yeshivah [religious academy] equipped with an authorization. He understood Hebrew. When I came to the synagogue he honored me, seated me at his side and introduced me to the leader of the community who gave me the honor of delivering the sermon before the prayer of “Kol Nidrei” [at the outset of the Yom Kippur Eve prayers.]

For the first time in my life I was to stand by the Holy Ark, wrapped in a Talith [prayer shawl] and preach to an audience.  True, I had already tried to conduct a study of the Pentateuch with Abarbanel’s commentary in public, and to explain a chapter of the prophets to my friends at the Mir Yeshivah, but I never dreamt of preaching in a synagogue before Kol Nidrei. How could anyone imagine that this sermon would be the first of thousands I would deliver in my lifetime? While at the time my mind was occupied with the issues concerning the mill and the harvesting of my father-in-law’s hay in the heart of the famous marshes of Pinsk…

I gathered my courage and ascended towards the Holy Ark. I felt my blood burning like a divine flame in the heat of the large wax candles that lit the small synagogue. I remember that a few minutes into the sermon the entire crowd was sobbing with me and terrible shrieks were heard from the women’s gallery. I spoke for close to an hour about the situation of our brethren in dark Russia, about our murky sources of livelihood – the war between Turkey and Russia broke out that year [sic],[12] and I quoted the verse: ‘The snorting of their horses was heard from Dan’ [Jeremiah 8,16), and interpreted it in homiletically: the war had started from the river “Donau”, Esau [Christendom] is fighting with his father-in-law Ishmael [Islam].  I concluded with a prayer: “Lord of the Universe, remove the goat [=Se’ir = the land of Esau, Edom] and his father-in-law, ’for liberators shall march up to Zion!’”[13]

There was a drunken and evil man in the audience, known as “Benjamin the Factor”. His livelihood was to supply “Pan Lapitzki”, who was single all his life, with girls, farmers’ daughters, and he served as the Pan’s [Polish landlord] matchmaker every single day. My sermon about our “murky sources of livelihood” must have insulted him, and immediately after the prayer of “Kol Nidrei”, he went to the Christian priest and informed on me, reporting that I had cursed the government, the Christian faith and first and foremost the Russian Czar…

Imagine the fear that seized the Rabbi and the leader of the community when, on the next day, the town policeman burst into the synagogue during the prayers and led the three of us to the government official. He brought us into the official’s bureau, where we found the priest and the informer, waiting for the three of us.

“Tell me, young Jew, what did you speak about in the synagogue yesterday? For if what I was told is true, I shall arrest you and send you to the district capital in chains.”
I answered him calmly: “Yes, Sir, I spoke yesterday to a large audience, and they can all testify that what I shall tell you is true. I talked about interest, saying it is a great sin, and that my Jewish brethren should stop taking interest. They should work and engage in various sustaining livelihoods. I spoke about the ‘factors’ that disgrace their people. I hope that this sermon brings me the thanks and praise of the government, rather than arrest and being led off in chains.”

The official looked at the priest, gave me his hand and asked the three of us to forgive him for interrupting our prayers on this holy day. The snitch left the bureau ‘his head covered in mourning.’[14]

This event, that took place during my first sermon, was ominous of my future fate – to be ready always to confront the government officials, high and low, from without and our informers and enemies from within, until I was exiled from the country, much to my happiness and to the happiness of my family.

The last winter before my wedding was also the last of my days as a melamed. I thought I had reached my goal and found my tachlith (my purpose in life). From time to time I sent money to support my widowed mother and orphaned brother. My brother was happy for me. But deep down in my subconscious I felt I was not meant to be a country man; that the meaning of my life was not to be found in the mill and the fields, that my rightful place was in the city, and that my work should be of a spiritual nature. I continued my study of the Talmud, persevered in learning Hebrew grammar, and in reading our modern literature, and Russian literature as well. 

On the third day of the month of Adar 5635 [March 10th, l875], I celebrated my wedding with the child bride, Yetta Rubinstein, who was fifteen years old, while I was eighteen. The reader nowadays may regard this marriage of young children, who know nothing of life, appalling, a legacy of the middle ages. Yet he who reacts so knows nothing and understands nothing of the pleasure of fathers as they look at forty- two beautiful and fresh images of boys and girls, their descendants, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the third and forth generations. He will not feel what our predecessors felt, namely, that timely marriage leads to a beautiful life, a life of morality and health, that leaves an eternal legacy for many generations to come.
I am no longer a single man. God has entrusted me with the responsibility for my family’s livelihood. I girded my loins in leather and rose early in the morning to assist my father-in-law with his work. I tried to engage in commerce as well, and was full of hope to soon become my father-in-law’s partner in his fields and in the rest of his endeavors as he had promised me.

One morning, as we were all sitting at the table for breakfast, joyous, happy and eating heartily, the door opened suddenly and the district policeman appeared bearing a government document for Eliezer Rubinstein. It proclaimed that all his rights in the fields and gardens belonging to Christian churches were ‘annulled and made void’ from that day on, since the government had issued a new law prohibiting Jews from buying or leasing landed property from Christians. The policeman handed him the document and ordered him to sign it. My father-in-law was terribly upset, his face became pale and he signed the order with a trembling hand.

The policeman left and all of us remained mute and dumbfound – staring at each other with horrific astonishment…

Tachlith” – practical purpose and livelihood - had evaporated in thin air. The oil had spilled from the pitcher, and what was to be done with an empty pitcher now?

My kind and generous father-in-law made the utmost effort to gather his courage so as to console and encourage us.  He said that this evil decree affected the public at large, it was directed against all the Jewish leasers and tavern operators, and a general disaster is, as the proverb says, half a consolation. But what is there to be done with the other half, for which there is no consolation at all?

For a year I tried my best to become a “wheeler dealer”, but I was not destined for commerce. I could not adjust myself to petty trade and to the deceitful cheating talk it always involved.

At that time my child-wife gave birth to our eldest son – Chaim who was named for my father. The question of our “tachlith” - our practical purpose in life – became even more acute.

Ha-Doar, vol. 14, 1934-5, no. 9, p.158
Thanks to a Poem.
(A chapter from “My Life.”)

In time of trouble one never knows ‘from where will… help come.’ In the midst of despair help suddenly comes and restores you.

In my pitiful state I was saved by one of the poems I had written while teaching in the country, though I had never been a poet.  My library consisted of three books at the time: [the Hebrew grammar book] “Talmud Leshon Ha-Ivri”, “Sefer Ha-Brith” [on basic sciences] and the Russian translation of the Book of Isaiah. These three books supplied my spiritual nourishment. Thank to the first I became a grammarian, the second introduced me to “The Seven Wisdoms,” and the through the third I came to understand Russian, as did the Maskilim in the early days of the Haskalah [the early adherents of modern Jewish learning, Haskalah or Enlightenment] who studied German with the aid of Mendelssohn’s[15] translation of the Bible.

The poem mentioned was one of six stanzas, which I wrote on the title page of Steinberg’s Russian translation [of Isaiah]. In the first three stanzas I praised and lauded Steinberg for his translation, and in the last three I cautioned him, saying he was not of the same stature as Ben Menachem [Mendelssohn]. I had no idea whether there was any poetry in that poem, but it did have some sensible ideas. I wrote it, left it in the book, and forgot about it.

One day, one of my rural pupils wished to enroll in the Hebrew School in town to complete his education. He traveled to Pinsk, where the government-appointed Rabbi, Avraham Chaim Rosenberg, had established a Hebrew School. The boy and his father reported to the principal of the school; the youngster happened to be holding Steinberg’s translation in his hand, for I had given it to him as a gift for his Bar Mitzvah. Rabbi Rosenberg took the book in his hand and when he opened it saw the poem on the title page. He immediately asked the boy’s father:
“Could you tell me who wrote this poem?”

“ Yes, Rabbi, the poet was my son’s teacher for three years.”

“Could I perhaps see him today?”

“He is in Pinsk now, at the Katchinovsky Inn. He came to sell his merchandise, for he left teaching and is trading in fish and hides, though with little success. If you wish to see him, send for him and he shall come here,” answered the boy’s father.

That day as I was eating my lunch at the inn, a man came forth and asked: “Is the son-in-law of Eliezer Rubinstein from the village of Harinich here?” The innkeeper pointed to me, and the man turned to me and said: “I have been sent by the Rabbi of the congregation; he wishes you come with me to see him.”

All the people present were very surprised: “What does the government-appointed Rabbi have to do with this young villager?” for I was dressed in rural clothes.

I followed the man to the Rabbi and found him in his school. For the first time in my life I saw a modern school – a hall, large and broad, rows of benches with their desks. In the center of the hall was a wooden black board. The teacher stood next to it, chalk in hand, writing Hebrew words. He would call one of the pupils by name and instruct him to read the words, add the proper vowels and explain them to him. When the pupil erred he ordered him to return to his place and called upon another pupil. The order and regime pleased me.

Rabbi Rosenberg handed his work to another teacher and took me to his office. He was a tall man with a large and handsome head, big black eyes and a round black beard. He looked at me, observing my rural attire, the leather loincloth on my waist, and a slight smile crossed his lips. He gave me his hand and asked that I sit next to him.

On the desk I saw Yehoshua Steinberg’s translation. The book was open with my poem on the title page. I was surprised – how did this book get here? The entire scene seemed like a dream to me. He understood my confusion and did not keep me waiting. He then asked me smilingly: “Is your name Zvi Hirsch Masliansky?”

“It is, Sir.”

“Did you write this poem?” he asked again pointing at the title page.

“Obviously, my signature is on it.”

“Kindly read it to me, young man.”

I read the poem out loud, emphasizing a certain place in a way that clarified my intention he had not formerly understood.

He looked at my strange clothes again, and addressed me affectionately: “And what are you doing? Where do you live? What are your plans for the future?” I answered all his questions, from the first to the last.

He got up, held me by the lapel, and said: “Listen to me, young man, and take my advice. You are not destined for country life, wheeling and dealing among the peasants. You should settle in the city among your fellow Jews who will understand and cherish your talents, and with time you will develop and become one of the great men of your nation.  I advise you to become a Hebrew teacher. Divide the day into hours, and spend each hour teaching in a different home. But be aware of the melamdim and their Hadarim [traditional teachers and schools] for they are in a very bad state. Teaching by the hours will give you a status and provide you with a livelihood.”

He continued talking as he walked me to the hall of the school, and said to me: “I shall be the first and give you an hour or two of teaching in my school for the same salary I pay all the other teachers.”

I looked at him with both gratitude and amazement. “I do thank you, Sir, for your generous spirit, taking interest in the fate of a desperate and lonely person like me. I am ready to do anything you instruct me, but I don’t know if I can fulfill your wish as far as teaching goes. This is the first time I have had the merit of seeing a modern school. Till now all I saw were the old fashioned Hadarim devoid of any order and regime.”

“This ‘lack’ can ‘be made good.’ I will spend a few days with you and instruct you in the modern methods of teaching,” was his relaxed answer.
That very moment he brought me to the best class in the school. The room was full of pupils and the great teacher Feitelsohn stood next to the black board explaining the difference between the definite particle and the interrogative particle in both meaning and vowels. The teacher too looked at my clothes with surprise. The principal introduced me to the teacher and asked him to allow me to take over for half an hour.

The teacher handed me the chalk; On the black board I wrote several sentences that included the two articles without vowels. The pupils added the vowels and seemed satisfied with my work.

The Rabbi then told me to ask the pupils a grammatical question about verbs. I did as he wished, asked them about the passive tense, and explained the answer to them. Rosenberg and Feigelsohn[16] approved of my answer.

“And now, young man, return to your home,” the Rabbi said as he bid me goodbye, “Cast off ‘the filthy clothes…and… be clothed in [priestly] robes… and I will permit you to move about among these attendants.’” [Zachariah 3; 4,7]

Ha-Doar, vol. 14, 1934-5, no. 11, p. 194
Teacher and Preacher
(A Chapter from “My Life.”)

I succeeded in my first trial, and immediately after the test was appointed as teacher in the school run by the government-appointed Rabbi, Rabbi A. Rosenberg, in Pinsk.

With little delay I took my small family, my sixteen-year-old wife and my half-year-old eldest child Chaim, and brought them with me to Pinsk. I shouldered my burden – the burden of a Hebrew teacher. I divided the day to twelve periods and spent each hour in a different house with a different pupil.

I became known in the town thanks to my teaching and when I would teach a chapter of the prophets [in the school] with the windows open, men and woman, young and old, would gather in the yard to listen. A few weeks later the wealthy families of Pinsk and Karlin, the families of Luria, Zeitlin, Greenberg and Eisenberg invited me to teach their children.[17]

And so I was burdened with work every day from eight o’clock in the morning till eleven o’clock at night. I got to see my only son only on Saturdays and Holidays. My kind father-in-law was very disappointed that I could not spend any time talking to him when he came to visit, for I was terribly busy.

With all that I devoted a few hours a week to study science with Rabbi Rosenberg, the principal of the school. Later in his life he wrote the ten-volume book “Otzar Ha-Shemot.”

I was not satisfied with teaching the young. I felt I had sufficient talent to propagate my teaching and views among adults as well. Much to my joy I became acquainted with the Rabbi of Pinsk, the great and renowned Rabbi Elazer Moshe Ish Horovitz, one of the greatest luminaries of his generation, a man of clear and broadminded ideas about life in general and Jewish life in particular. The fanatic ultra-Orthodox and the pious Hasidim were displeased with him and regarded him with suspicion. But his vast knowledge of the Talmud and his righteous deeds protected him, and they could do him no harm. At that time he came out publicly against various customs [preceding the Day of Atonement] like “Kaparoth” and “Tashlich.” He was especially irritated with a prayer [recited prior to blowing the Shofar – ram’s horn – on the Days of Awe], which was full of weird named angels, and ordered it to be eliminated from the prayer service in all the synagogues…

I became acquainted with this wonderful Rabbi, and was considered as a member of his household and family. He was a wonderful mathematician and excellent grammarian[18]. He spent many hours with me discussing Hebrew grammar and clarifying difficult passages in the Bible using the methods of the modern commentators.

It was to him that I divulged my desire to speak to [adult] audiences and he fulfilled it instantly. He sent for the Gabai [synagogue director] of the Heckelman Schul and ordered the synagogue to be opened every Friday night. I started delivering lectures on the Psalms that very week for a large audience that filled the house completely.

I recall these sacred evenings with joy and glee, for they laid the foundation for my sixty-year-long carrier as a preacher, addressing the people of Israel from the pulpit. I gave these lectures for three years, performing this sacred duty for a hundred and fifty evenings and reached chapter 50 of the Psalms. The audience was so enthusiastic that a new institution was formed: “Masliansky’s Tehilim Sagen” [The Masliansky Reciting of Psalms].

But there were some benighted fanatics who started to persecute me, seeking evidence to support various religious suspicions and allegations. Tudros the enthusiastic Hasid swore solemnly that he had seen me carrying a handkerchief in my pocket on the Sabbath and Moshe Itzel the bum watched me as I prayed and swore that I did not rise for the prayer “Va-Yevarech David” [and David Blessed] and did not spit during the prayer of Aleinu… But all this was to no avail – they could not disgrace my name or humiliate me in the eyes of the people, who were always ready to protect me in the face of any trouble, may it not befall us.

Once in my speech I reached the verse in Psalm 31 [verse 7]: ‘I detest those who rely on empty folly, but I trust in the Lord.’ I then poured my wrath on the superstitions, amulets, incantations, demons and notes placed in graves addressed to the living and the dead.

This speech affected all the Hasidim, especially the “confedrazim”, those who have no Rabbi and belong to all the courts. Their fanaticism is ‘unfathomable’ and their wrath is as a ‘spider’s venom.’ They incited groups of little Hasidim, naughty and mischievous, who ran after me in the streets ‘crying after me as a mob’ in strange voices: “wil Gut ist einer, und weiterer keiner” [God is one and there is none beside Him] – the words [of the famous Passover song] with which I ended my speech. My adult persecutors sent a committee to the rich Hasidim whose children I taught, telling them to banish me from their homes, but they were unable to accomplish that, because the great Rabbi Ish Horowitz, learning of their escapades, summoned the chief persecutor, Rabbi “Tudros the Hasid” and reprimanded him and his friends. He ordered them to stop persecuting me, for he knew me well and found no fault in me. The persecutors were frightened and left me alone.


[1] Grandfather of Joseph Masliansky.
[2] R. Chaim Leib Tikitinsky (1823-1899), Rabbi of Mir and head of its legendary yeshiva. (M.M.)
[3] Reference to the daily prayer service: ברוך אומר ועושה .(M.M.)
[4] Reference to T.B. Bava Metzia 8b. (M.M.)
[5] Earlier he was referring to his engagement when he said “it was as though his heart foretold that in two years time I would be his son-in-law”; the current statement factors in a year-long engagement after which he married his wife. (M.M.)
[6] "The Book of the Covenant“, an early 19th century attempt to harmonize natural sciences with Jewish religion and especially mysticism by Rabbi Pinchas Eliahu of Vilna, popular in ultra-Orthodox circles till this day.
[7] These three books indicate three ways contemporary Jews would follow in the quest for Haskalah, for broader horizons, beyond the confines of Yeshivah: Systematic study of Hebrew (especially Biblical Hebrew) and grammatically correct usage, leading to proper understanding of the Bible (as against the disorderly treatment of the language in the Rabbinical Responsa of the time); the study of a foreign language to gain access to European Culture (German in early Haskalah, and later, in Russia, Russian as well); the study of natural sciences.
[8] This behavior is quite liberal, as the prohibition against touching still applies even to engaged couples in ultra-Orthodox circles till this day.
[9] Reference to Gen. 2:25. (M.M.)
[10] According to this custom a person’s sins are supposedly transferred to a chicken, which is circled around his or her head. The chicken is later ritually slaughtered and the meat donated to charity.  Nowadays this controversial ceremony is often substituted by a monetary donation, yet it is still performed in (mostly Ashkenazi) ultra-Orthodox circles
[11] The roots of the sociological structure described here are to be found in the Polish rule over these areas that lasted till the end of the 18th century. The Polish nobility owned vast tracts of land, comprised of rural areas and towns. To manage their rural estates they would hire managers (mostly Jews) who would pay a yearly advance for the operation of the estate or parts of it (such as a mill, an inn with a tavern). The leasers would charge the peasants for the services of the estate and keep the profit at the end of the year. The leaser (called ‘Yeshuvnik’ in Yiddish) and his family were often the only Jews for miles around. Hence the need to hire teachers for their children (as Masliansky was hired by the Rubinstein family) and to gather together for the High Holidays (The Days of Awe). The Russian authorities disapproved of this structure and during the 19th century tried, time and again, to have the Jews expelled from the villages. This effort culminated in the notorious “May Laws” of 1882; This expulsion and resulting lose of livelihood was one of main causes for the emigration to the United States and other countries, as were the actual pogroms that took place sporadically, mostly in southern Ukraine, following the murder of Czar Alexander II by revolutionaries in March 1881.
[12] The unrest in the Balkans started in the mid 1870s, but massive Russian intervention on behalf of the Slavic nations and a full scale war between Russia and Turkey did not occur till 1877. The events described here, on the other hand, relate to autumn l874, when Masliansky, born in l856, was eighteen years old. His wedding with Yetta Rubinstein took place in spring l875. When he wrote the memoirs he must have remembered quoting this biblical phrase and explaining it as referring to the tension between Russia and Turkey in the Balkans. This probably led him to assume that the war had already broken out at the time.
[13] The complete verse in Obadiah verse 21 reads: “For liberators shall march up on Mount Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau; and dominion shall be the Lord’s.”  (JPS translation, l978) Masliansky was confident that his audience knew the end of the verse well and could understand his intention.
[14] A description of Haman in the book of Esther, 6,12.
[15] Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1789), German Jewish philosopher, considered as founder of the movement of Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah.)
[16]Unclear if it is Feigelsohn or Feitelsohn. (M.M.)
[17] The Hebrew writer, Yehuda Karni, then a child in Pinsk, gives a vivid description of the excitement   and admiration the new teacher arose in the city, see (in Hebrew):  N. Tamir-Mirsky, ed., Pinsk, a book of witness and memory of the Pinsk-Karlin community, vol. 2, Tel Aviv, Pinsk Organization in Israel, l966. We thank Prof. Zvi Gitelman of The University of Michigan for this information.
[18] Cf. the biographical elegy on him penned by his son in law, R. Boruch Halevi Epstein, נחל דמעה. (M.M.)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Half Slave, Ber Oppenheimer, the Reliability of R’ Shlomo Sofer, and Other Comments

A Half Slave, Ber Oppenheimer, the Reliability of R’ Shlomo Sofer, and Other Comments
By Brian Schwartz

When I was in my early yeshiva years studying tractate Shabbos, I came across a Rashba which I found to be most intriguing.  During its discussion of the first mishna, the gemara in Shabbos 4a makes the statement, “וכי אומרים לו לאדם חטא כדי שיזכה חבירך,” which means, “do we really say to a person, ‘sin in order that your friend should merit?’” A notion which suggests that a person should not sin in order that others can fulfill a mitzvah. Tosafos[1] has a long discussion addressing the multiple places in the Talmud which seem to contradict this concept.  One of the sources discussed, is the mishna in the fourth chapter of Gittin. The mishna states that if one owns a חצי עבד חצי בן חורין, (a half slave half free man, a phenomenon which happens when two partners own a slave and one partner frees him of his share), one must free him on the account that as a half slave he cannot fulfill the mitzvah of procreating, as a half slave cannot marry a slave or a free woman.  Tosafos also notes that freeing a slave is a transgression of the positive commandment of לעולם בהם תעבודו, as expressly stated previously in Gittin 38b.  Tosafos asks, how can a master be obligated to free his half slave so that the half slave can fulfill his mitzvah of procreating, does that not contradict the above statement in Shabbos of וכי אומרים לו לאדם חטא כדי שיזכה חבירך by violating a positive commandment? 

The Rashba[2] answers this question with the novel idea that the commandment of לעולם בהם תעבודו doesn’t apply to a half slave. Therefore, in this situation one isn’t transgressing any commandments when enabling someone else fulfill a mitzva. The problem with this approach is that there seems to be a gemara in Gittin 38a which suggests otherwise:
"ההיא אמתא דהות בפומבדיתא דהוו קא מעבדי בה אינשי איסורא אמר אביי אי לאו דאמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל דכל המשחרר עבדו עובר בעשה הוה כייפנא ליה למרה וכתיב לה גיטא דחירותא רבינא אמר כי הא מודה רב יהודה משום מילתא דאיסורא ואביי משום איסורא לא האמר רב חנינא בר רב קטינא אמר ר' יצחק מעשה באשה אחת שחציה שפחה וחציה בת חורין וכפו את רבה ועשאה בת חורין ואמר רב נחמן בר יצחק מנהג הפקר נהגו בה .”
“There was a slave-woman in Pumpedisa, with whom men did sinful acts.  Abaye said: Were it not that Rav Yehuda has said in the name of Shmuel, that anyone who frees his slave transgresses a positive commandment, I would force her master, and he would write her a contract of freedom.  Ravina said:  In such a case Rav Yehuda would agree because of the sinful acts.  And Abaye, would not agree due to sinful acts?  Did not Rav Chanina Bar Rav Ketina say in the name of R’ Yitzchak:  There was once an incident involving a woman who was a half slave-woman and half free-woman, and they forced her master, and he made her a free woman; And Rav Nachman Bar Yitzchak said, men acted with her in a promiscuous manner.”
The gemara clearly suggests that if it wasn’t for the promiscuity of the half-slave woman, freeing her would be forbidden under the positive commandment of לעולם בהם תעבודו, clearly contradicting the Rashba.  This question bothered me very much, so I began a search through the acharonim[3] to see if anyone dealt with this problem.  While I was perusing through the yeshiva’s library, I happened upon an old torn up copy of the Chiddushei Maharam Barby by R’ Meir Barby, the Av Beis Din of Pressburg before the Chasam Sofer and R’ Meshullam Igra.  R’ Barby asks the question in the name of one of his students and attempts to give an answer[4].  At the time, I gave no specific significance to this source, other than the fact it was the earliest mention of this question that I could find.  I continued to gather sources until I found this question asked in the sefer Mei Be’er.  The Mei Be’er was authored by Ber Oppenheimer, a resident of Pressburg and a talmid chacham.  What is so interesting about this sefer is that Oppenheimer corresponds with many of the gedolim of his time.  Examples include; R’ Shmuel Landau, R’ Baruch Frankel Teomim, R’ Moshe Mintz, R’ Mordechai Banet, R’ Yaakov Orenstein, and many others[5].  All these personalities do not hold back on writing titles and honorifics to Oppenheimer that would suit any other great rabbi of their time. 

After a response to the above question from the author of the Ketzos Hachoshen[6], Oppenheimer writes that he found this question in the name of one of R’ Meir Barby’s students,  in the newly printed Chidushei Maharam Barby, and that student happened to be Oppenheimer himself.[7]  From there he proceeds with his own answer.  Here is the title page of the Mei Be’er:

While I was discussing this question with one of my rebbeim in yeshiva, I brought up the topic of the Mei Be’er and how the sefer impressed me with all the correspondence with the gedolim of the time.  To my surprise, my rebbe told me that R’ Moshe Sofer, known as the Chasam Sofer after the seforim he authored, supposedly quipped about the sefer"מי באר לא נשתה" (a pun of the verse in Bamidbar 21:22).  This tidbit of information intrigued me to learn more about Ber Oppenheimer, and to find out if there was any truth to the hearsay of what the Chasam Sofer allegedly said. 

Ber Oppenheimer

            Ber Oppenheimer, a descendant of the famous R’ Dovid Oppenheim, was born in 1760 to his father Yitzchak in Pressburg.  Together with his brother Chaim, young Ber went to study in the Yeshiva of Fürth.  Sometime later, Oppenheimer left Fürth for Berlin so that he could fulfill his desire to learn secular knowledge.  When he completed his studies in Berlin, he returned to Pressburg where he would become one of the leaders of the community.

            In 1829, Oppenheimer published his seferMei Be’er.  Besides for the Mei Be’er, Oppenheimer published material in the Bikkurei Haitim and Kerem Chemed journals, and in 1825 he printed a prayer service in Honor of the ascension of Caroline Augusta of Bavaria to the Austrian throne[8].  Oppenheimer certainly was a maskil, though it seems he was traditional enough for all the gedolei hador he corresponded with.  The question is, what exactly did the Chasam Sofer think of him?  Did he know something the other gedolim did not, being that he lived in the same community as him?  In the Mei Be’er, there are a few teshuvos from the Chasam Sofer to Oppenheimer[9]. Devoid of of any titles and praise for Oppenheimer, the Chasam Sofer’s teshuvos to him leave off an impression of a seemingly cold relationship compared to his other correspondents; however, from this alone one can hardly gauge exactly what the Chasam Sofer really thought of Oppenheimer. 

            The start of the trail begins with the line "מי באר לא נשתה" that the Chasam Sofer allegedly said.  I found several sources which report the Chasam Sofer as the originator of the line[10], but without any context.  One source, R’ Shimon Fuerst in the preface to his Shem MiShimon,[11] does make a story out of it.  He tells of a story where once Oppenheimer came to speak to the Chasam Sofer in the latter’s house.  Sofer’s sons, R’ Shimon and R’ Avraham Shmuel Binyomin (the Ksav Sofer), noticed that their father made him wait a very long time.  They objected to their father’s treatment of Oppenheimer; protesting that it was not right to keep a talmid chacham such as Oppenheimer waiting so long.  Their father replied that every time Oppenheimer comes to speak to him in learning, it causes him bittul torah, since afterwards he must learn for a half hour in a musar sefer - since Oppenheimer's head is full of heretical books.  Fuerst continues with another anecdote: once a talmid in his yeshiva asked a question to the Chasam Sofer, and when Sofer realized it was taken from the Mei Be’er, he then told the talmid, "מי באר לא נשתה”. 

            There are other reports of similar reactions and encounters of the Chasam Sofer with an anonymous talmid chacham from Pressburg who happened to also author a sefer.  I think we can safely assume that the intended person is Oppenheimer. 

            R’ Yitzchak Weiss of Varbó, writes to R’ Yosef Schwartz in the latter’s biographical anthology of the Chasam Sofer, Zichron L’Moshe[12], of a story he heard from his uncle, R’ Yaakov Prager.  In 1828, the Ra’vad of Pressburg, R’ Mordechai Tausk, was making a siyum hashas.  Tausk never liked making long pshetlach, so he prepared his dvar torah on just the last page of tractate Niddah.  However, the Chasam Sofer was present, and he started himself to say a large pilpul, explaining Tausk’s thesis, based on the references Tausk prepared.  Also present at the time, was a great talmid chacham who wrote a sefer, though a heretic.  In middle of his pshetle, the Chasam Sofer turbulently cried out, “ מה מועילים כל החידושים וחילוקים, העיקר הוא ליראה את השם הנככד והנורא ית״ש להיות על כל אדם מורא שמים מפחד הי״ת והדר  גאונו," ואמר תוכחה נוראה בזה.
Though here Weiss chose to keep this talmid chacham anonymous, in his Alef Kasav[13] he identifies him as Oppenheimer.

            R’ Akiva Yosef Schlesinger in his Lev Ha’Ivri[14]tells of a story where the Chasam Sofer gave a eulogy. In attendance was “an important person, who was also a great talmid chacham and a great apikores.” During the eulogy, the Chasam Sofer quoted a gemara.  This talmid chacham proceeded to comment to his friends that there is no such gemara.  When someone by the name of Sender Leib happened to hear what the talmid chacham said, he quickly ran home to get a gemara.  With his gemara in hand, Sender Leib waited outside the shul for the Chasam Sofer to finish the eulogy. “When this important talmid chacham and apikores, author of the sefer…” came out, Sender Leib called out to him in public, “you said it wasn’t a gemara, here is the gemara,” and before he could even look at the gemara, Sender Leib slapped him on the face. He says that he received a public humiliation for publicly humiliating the Chasam Sofer - and he never opened up his mouth like that again.

            R’ Schlesinger was from the extreme factions of Hungarian Jewry, and was not without controversy to say the least.  Before taking this story at face value, we should certainly recall that he has been accused of fabrications in his Lev Ha’Ivri by the kehillah of Pressburg, in the polemical Ktav Yosher V’Divrei Emes[15]; written against him and his father in law R’ Hillel Lichtenstein. 

            Another anecdote can be found in R’ Shlomo Sofer’s biography of his grandfather the Chasam Sofer, Chut Hameshulash[16].  Sofer recalls his father, R’ Avraham Shmuel Binyomen Sofer (the Ksav Sofer), telling him about a wealthy talmid chacham in Pressburg, who also wrote a sefer.  This talmid chacham would frequently visit his father the Chasam Sofer. Once, the Chasam Sofer told his son, “every time that man leaves the house I immediately learn mussar, for what comes out of that man’s mouth is impure.” 

            There is no doubt that Sofer is referring to Oppenheimer.  Besides for dropping the clues about the man that he was a wealthy talmid chacham who wrote a sefer, Sofer also divulges a few more clues in his footnotes[17] with another two stories he writes about this man. 

The first story is about a student of the Chasam Sofer from Moravia.  Before travelling home to visit, the student went to the Chasam Sofer, to ask him permission to leave and for a dvar torah, so he would be able to share with the rabbi of his hometown something he heard from his rebbe.  The student also stopped by the anonymous person’s house to see if he wanted him to get regards from the rabbi, who happened to also be the person’s relative.  When the student came to the man’s house, the man asked him for a dvar torah that he heard from his rebbi the Chasam Sofer.  The student told him what he just heard.  Shlomo Sofer goes on to tell the story of how this man stole the dvar torah from the Chasam Sofer and said it over as if it was his own.[18]

            Sofer revealed in this story that this man had a relative who was a rabbi of a town in Moravia.  Oppenheimer had two relatives that served as the rabbi of Dresnitz in Moravia, Chaim his brother, and his nephew, Chaim’s son whose name was also Ber.

            Sofer recalls a second anecdote about this man that he heard from his uncle R’ Shimon Sofer.  R’ Shimon heard from his father the Chasam Sofer, that while he was still a student of R’ Nosson Adler, this man was still a bachur who was learning close to Frankfurt.  R’ Adler warned his young protégé to stay away from the bachur, as he was from the “Avi Avos Hatumah.”

            As stated before, Oppenheimer was a student of the yeshiva of Fürth in his youth.  Fürth is not too far from Frankfurt, about 70km.  All these clues, certainly point to identifying Sofer’s subject as Oppenheimer.  However, the reliability of the Chut Hameshulash has been called into question many times before, and I will return to this issue later.

            Should we assume that the Chasam Sofer’s supposed contempt for Oppenheimer was a result of the latter’s knowledge and interest in secular subjects and haskalah?  The Chasam Sofer was on cordial terms with many learned maskilim such as, Wolf Heidenheim[19], Tzvi Hirsch Chajes[20], Shlomo Yehuda Rappaport[21], and Zachariah Jolles[22].  So, what was behind this perceived animosity, and is there any truth to it? 

            The most definitive biography of Oppenheimer was written by Isaac Hirsch Weiss in his memoirs, Zichronosai.  The relevant pages were not included in the original edition, and were later printed in the compilation, Genazim (Tel-Aviv,1961).  Weiss was the son-in-law of Ber Oppenheimer, the nephew of our subject who happened to bear the same name as him.  In his memoirs, Weiss gives a detailed monograph of Oppenheimer, which includes very interesting material about his relationship with the Chasam Sofer.

            Weiss confirms the existence of the disparaging remark against Oppenheimer’s sefer, and attributes it not to the Chasam Sofer, but to people who didn’t like him; while describing it in its original form of the verse, "לא נשתה מי באר".  However, also according to Weiss, the Chasam Sofer wasn’t exactly Oppenheimer’s best friend either. 

Weiss describes a cold relationship between the Chasam Sofer and Oppenheimer. To Oppenheimer’s face he was pleasant and cordial, but behind his back he would badmouth him.  Weiss is baffled by the Chasam Sofer’s conduct towards a talmid chacham like Oppenheimer, especially since Oppenheimer was one of the original supporters of the Chasam Sofer, and his son the Ksav Sofer after him, for the position of rabbi of Pressburg.

What was their point of contention?  Weiss heard from Oppenheimer himself that though the Chasam Sofer did not approve of his affinity towards secular subjects, the main reason the Chasam Sofer held a grudge against him was because he supported educational reforms; mainly by being involved in establishing a school in Pressburg, the Primaerschule, which taught secular subjects.  There were two attempts to establish the Primaerschule during the Chasam Sofer’s tenure in Pressburg.  The first attempt in 1811 was met with failure, however the proponents of the Primaerschule succeeded with their second attempt in 1820[23]

One interesting remark about Oppenheimer was made by Leopold Greenwald in correspondence with Meir Herschkowitz in Hadarom[24].  There, Greenwald writes to Herschkowitz that Oppenheimer was known as an informer.  Though Greenwald gives no basis for this accusation, what he is probably referring to is the attempt of the maskilim to shut down the Yeshiva of Pressburg.  In 1826, the Rosh Hakahal Wolf Breizach and his fellow maskilim, protested to the government authorities that the education offered by the Pressburg Yeshiva was insufficient, leaving its students uneducated and boorish.   This accusation prompted the government to ask a series of questions on the nature of the studies which took place in the yeshiva.  The Chasam Sofer gave a written reply, answering each question point by point.  The maskilim then followed up with a rebuttal to the Chasam Sofer’s answers[25].  By just reading the content of the rebuttal, one realizes how radical these maskilim really were and what the Chasam Sofer had to deal with.  The government authorities then proceeded with an ultimatum; the yeshiva was to shut down within two weeks. Ultimately, the decree was rescinded through the efforts of one of the members of the Pressburg community.    

What was Oppenheimer’s role in all of this?  Though he was involved in opening the Primaerschule, to my knowledge there is no evidence that he was also involved in the effort to close the yeshiva.  As stated before, Oppenheimer certainly was a maskil.  Nonetheless, I find it difficult to classify Oppenheimer as a radical maskil who would have had such a rabid disposition against the yeshiva as to try to close its doors, like the maskilim who almost succeeded in doing so.   One need only to point to his Mei Be’er which shows his great love for learning in the traditional sense, and the fond relationships he shared with the premier rabbis and talmudists of his time.  Another episode which reveals his true predilections, was his involvement with the selection of a replacement for R’ Moshe Mintz, the previous rabbi of Obuda, who passed away in 1831.  Two of the candidates for the position were R’ Tzvi Hirsch Chajes and R’ Aharon Moshe Taubes, author of the Karnei Re’aim[26].  

One would think that if Oppenheimer were such an ardent maskil he would support someone like Chajes, who not only was a friend of Oppenheimer[27], but was also a maskil himself.    However, in a letter to Shlomo Rosenthal, Shlomo Yehuda Rappaport writes much to his surprise and chagrin, that Oppenheimer supported Taubes[28].  Taubes was a traditionalist rabbi of the old school, and Oppenheimer’s support for his candidacy shows he was far from the radical maskilim of his day who wanted to totally remove the old guard of rabbis and replace them with new enlightened ones.

Another reason I find it hard to believe that Oppenheimer wanted to shut down the Yeshiva of Pressburg, is the fact that there is a Michtav Bracha from Oppenheimer printed in Ber Frank’s Ohr Ha’Emunah Part II, which was printed in 1845, almost 20 years later.  Ber Frank was a close confidante of the Chasam Sofer and an integral part of the Pressburg community.  Frank was the shamashsofer, and shochet, of Pressburg, and wrote sefarim on practical halacha and hashkafah in German for the masses[29].  If Oppenheimer was involved in closing the Pressburg Yeshiva, I find it very hard to believe that Frank would oblige himself with a letter from Oppenheimer in one of his sefarim

            However, the most convincing piece of evidence to me, is a teshuva from the Ksav Sofer filled with respect and praise for Oppenheimer[30].  It is unthinkable to me that the Ksav Sofer would have anything pleasant to say about someone who would have shut down the great institution which he inherited from his father[31]

So, what prompted Greenwald to accuse Oppenheimer of being an informer?  The main source for Greenwald in his account of the Primaerschule controversy and the attempt to close the Pressburg Yeshiva, is R’ Yechezkel Faivel Plaut’s Likutei Chever ben Chaim[32].  As stated earlier, there were two attempts to establish the Primaerschule in Pressburg; in 1811 which failed, and in 1820 which was successful, and thereafter in 1826 was the effort to close the yeshiva.  Plaut correctly dates the first attempt to 1811.  However, he mistakenly writes that the second attempt to open the Primaerschule took place in 1826, the same time as the effort to close the yeshiva. This chronological mistake, which was also repeated in Shlomo Sofer’s Chut Hameshulash[33], probably led to the conflation of the two events by Plaut and subsequently by Greenwald[34], leading Greenwald to think that the same people that were involved in establishing the Primaerschule, were also involved in the effort to close the yeshiva.  Thus, concluding that just as Oppenheimer supported the Primaerschule, he must have also supported closing the yeshiva. 

Another proof that Plaut and Sofer’s version of events is inaccurate, is apparent from their recounting of what happened to all the supporters of the Primaerschule.  Both Plaut[35] and Sofer[36] tell us that in reaction to the events of 1826, which according to them included the opening of the Primaerschule, the Chasam Sofer gave a sermon whereby he preached that sinners who lead others astray do not deserve G-d’s mercy in this world; finishing off the sermon with a prayer that all the evildoers should be destroyed[37].  The Chasam Sofer’s words made a profound impression on his audience and in heaven, as all those who were involved in the Primaerschule did not live out the year. 

We have already mentioned that Oppenheimer was a supporter of the Primaerschule, yet he certainly continued to live on, as is evident from the printing of his Mei Be’er in 1829.  In fact, Oppenheimer died in 1850 at the ripe old age of ninety, outliving the Chasam Sofer by eleven years.  Thus, we must conclude that the sermon the Chasam Sofer gave in 1826 was not a response to the Primaerschule[38], but to the attempt at shutting the doors of his yeshiva.  Indeed, Wolf Breizach died in August of 1827, within a year of the Chasam sofer’s sermon.

The reliability of R’ Shlomo Sofer

Shlomo Sofer continues the story, by telling us that one of the people that opposed the Chasam Sofer realized his mistake; as he saw how all those who antagonized the latter started dying off one by one.  In fear and remorse, this person fled to Vienna from where he sent a letter to the Chasam Sofer, begging him for forgiveness and to pray for him so he shouldn’t meet an untimely demise like the rest of his friends.  The Chasam Sofer replied, “I have you in mind when I say ולמלשינים אל תהי תקוה,” and it wasn’t long until this person died like the rest of his friends.

Isaac Hirsch Weiss[39] takes issue with this part of the story, saying that only a fool would believe that someone as righteous as the Chasam Sofer would reject so cruelly someone who was trying to do teshuva.  He goes so far as to say that even if the story were true, it would be an egregious sin to publicize it, giving him cause to lament over the character and temperament of Shlomo Sofer who wrote the biography of his grandfather.  Earlier, Weiss derides the Chut Hameshulash as being filled with silly stories that no rational person would believe. 

Isaac Hirsch Weiss was not the only one to criticize Shlomo Sofer and his works.  No one less than Simcha Lehman, daughter of the Chasam Sofer, was reported to have said that her nephew’s biography of her father is filled with exaggerations[40].  

R’ Shlomo Zalman Ehrenreich claims[41 ]that Sofer intentionally left out his grandfather R’ Avraham Yehuda Schwartz, author of the Kol Aryeh, from a list of students of the Chasam Sofer that Sofer made in his Iggerot Soferim[42].  Ehrenreich attributes this omission to a familial dispute between Sofer and descendants of the elder Schwartz.  Shlomo Sofer was rabbi of the town of Beregszász, where some of the Schwartz family also resided.  Apparently, they did not get along.[43]

Leopold Greenwald[44] not only accuses Sofer of deliberate omissions by the latter in his works, but also of intentional distortions, exaggerations, and fallacious story telling[45].  He specifically takes issue with Sofer’s portrayal of a strained relationship between R’ Azriel Hildesheimer and the Ksav Sofer, when not only was Hildesheimer chosen from a plethora of many other rabbis to eulogize the Ksav Sofer upon his death, the kehillah of Pressburg even postponed the Ksav Sofer’s burial for two days, awaiting Hildesheimer’s arrival[46]. Hardly something that would be done for someone supposedly in a strained relationship with the deceased[47].  Sofer makes no mention of any this when he describes his father’s funeral in his Chut Hameshulash

I couldn’t verify that the reason that Ksav Sofer’s burial was postponed was to wait for R’ Hildesheimer to arrive; however, it is true that Shlomo Sofer only specifically mentions his brother Yaakov Akiva as giving the first eulogy and leaves the rest of the eulogizers anonymous.  Nonetheless, in my opinion I don’t think the omission of Hildesheimer is so problematic.  R’ Azriel Hildesheimer himself described the levayah[48], and he reports that there were five eulogizers; R’ Feish Fishman, R’ Yaakov Akiva Sofer, R’ Shlomo Zalman Spitzer the brother-in-law of the Ksav Sofer, Hildesheimer himself, and R’ Yosef Guggenheimer.  If we were to accuse Shlomo Sofer of intentionally leaving out Hildesheimer, then we would have to say the same about him leaving out his uncle, Shlomo Spitzer who he held in high esteem.  Though I’m not sure what Shlomo Sofer thought of Feish Fishman, who was a controversial figure among the more radical Hungarian rabbis for his German-language sermons, perhaps one could speculate that Sofer only mentions the first person that gave a eulogy and not the rest, so as not to make any mention of Hildesheimer or Guggenheimer.  But again, this is entirely speculation. 

Still, Sofer specifically says that his brother Yaakov Akiva gave the first eulogy[49].  If we were to read Hildesheimer’s list of the eulogizers as happening in the specific order in which he reported them, it would seem that in actuality the first eulogy was given not by Yaakov Akiva Sofer, but by Feish Fishman.  This would not be hard to believe, as there were many in the community that wanted R’ Feish Fishman to succeed the Ksav Sofer as rabbi of Pressburg over R’ Simcha Bunim Sofer, who eventually did succeed his father.  Hildesheimer was known to be a very meticulous person, but at the end of the day, he doesn’t specifically point out if he meant the list of eulogizers to be in the order that they actually happened.

            An allegation of forgery against Sofer was made by Shimon Zusman[50], grandson of R’ Yaakov Koppel Reich who was chief rabbi of Budapest from 1889-1929.  In the Igros Soferim, there is a letter of rebuke from the Ksav Sofer to his student R’ Reich, warning him not to pander too much to secular elements in his new position as Rabbi of Verbó[51].  Indeed, R’ Reich was known to be an educated and openminded person.  Shimon Zusman reports that when the Igros Sofrim first came out, R’ Reich commented about this letter to his other grandson R’ Dovid Tzvi Zusman, “I never received this letter, and I don’t believe that my master and teacher wrote me this letter.”

            Another charge of forgery against Sofer was made by R’ Chaim Elazar Shapiro of Munkacs, in his Nimmukei Orach Chaim[52].  I won’t get into the details of Shapiro’s accusations, as they have already been debunked by extant manuscripts of the letters he claims must be forged.  It should also be noted, that Shapiro got into a dispute with Sofer over certain charity funds and their appropriation[53].  

            So, are R’ Shlomo Sofer and his works, Chut Hameshulash and Igros Soferim reliable[54]?  Though there certainly is no proof of forgery on Shlomo Sofer’s part, can we still rely on his historical accounts?  Specifically, for our purposes, how are we to take the disparaging remarks about Ber Oppenheimer he claimed to hear from his father the Ksav Sofer in the name of his grandfather the Chasam Sofer, despite there being a responsum from the Ksav Sofer to Oppenheimer conferring upon Oppenheimer praise and respectable titles?

            In my mind, there are three ways to explain the seemingly contradictory remarks of the Ksav Sofer.

            The first possible approach is to consider Shlomo Sofer’s accounts as reliable.  Therefore, we must assume that just as the Chasam Sofer did not like Oppenheimer, though he showed no overt animosity toward him, as confirmed by Isaac Hirsch Weiss, so too the Ksav Sofer also shared his father’s opinion of Oppenheimer, and dealt with him in the same manner; overtly cordial with hidden contempt.

            There are other examples in history of rabbinical correspondence contradicting what the letter writer really thought of his recipient.  And though this seemingly goes against the dictum of chazal"אל תהי אחד [55]בפה ואחד בלב", I assume these people felt that this was overridden by another statement of Chazal"תעלא [56]בעידניה סגיד ליה", given the specific circumstances in which they had to address the correspondent.

            Two such examples come to my mind.  One is the correspondence between R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the Ramchal, and R’ Moshe Chagiz, where Luzzato writes to Chagiz with utmost respect[57].  Yet when Luzzato writes to his rebbi R’ Yeshaya Bassan, his opinion of Chagiz is revealed to be that of extreme contempt[58].  This is understandable, given that Luzzato was being persecuted by Chagiz, for what Chagiz felt was Neo-Sabbateanism. 

            However, the second example really sticks out to me, as it is of the Chasam Sofer himself.  There is a famous teshuva from the Chasam Sofer to R’ Moshe Teitelbaum, where the Chasam Sofer tries to alleviate some perceived strife between them which he heard of from the town of Potok, due to their differences; as Teitlebaum was a chassid and the Chasam Sofer a misnaged[59].  The Chasam Sofer is filled with praise and admiration for Teitelbaum, even as he acknowledges their differences, as you can see for yourself here:

            This letter is dated the 28th of Sivan 5578, or July 2, 1818.  The explanation to what prompted the Chasam Sofer to write to Teitelbaum, can be found in an earlier letter that he sent to the community of Potock, on the 12th of Elul of that year, or September 13th.  It can be found in the Shu”t Chasam Sofer Hachadashos, #54:

            Sometime after the Chasam Sofer wrote to Teitelbaum, on the 13th of Shevat 5579, or February 9th, 1819, he wrote another letter to two of his students who lived in Ujhely, the same town that Teitelbaum was rabbi.  In the letter, the Chasam Sofer reveals to his students what he really thought of Teitelbaum, and the true intentions behind his laudations.  The letter can be found in the Kovetz Tshuvos Chasam Sofer, #36:

            So perhaps we can suggest that the Ksav Sofer’s opinion of Oppenheimer differed from what he put in writing, just like his father before him.  However, I think that though the Chasam Sofer didn’t show any contempt for Oppenheimer in his letters to him, he was still cold, as pointed out before.  The Ksav Sofer on the other hand is overtly warm and respectful with Oppenheimer.  Consequently, I still find it hard to believe that the Ksav Sofer held Oppenheimer in contempt. 

            A second possible approach to this dilemma, is to again take Shlomo Sofer’s account at face value.  However, although the Ksav Sofer relayed to him the disparaging remarks of the Chasam Sofer against Oppenheimer, we must conclude that his opinion of Oppenheimer was different from that of his father’s contemptuous view.  Especially considering that the Ksav Sofer’s teshuva to Oppenheimer was written a few months after he was elected to succeed his father as rabbi of Pressburg.  As we earlier noted from Isaac Hirsch Weiss, Oppenheimer was a supporter of the succession of the Ksav Sofer.  Perhaps because of his support, the Ksav Sofer felt particularly grateful to him at the time. 

            The third viable approach would be to consider Shlomo Sofer’s remarks regarding Oppenheimer as unreliable, and his report in the name of his father fabricated.  What pushes me more to this approach than any other, is the combination of the teshuva of the Ksav Sofer to Oppenheimer and one other peculiarity which I found in the Chut Hameshulash

            In his biography of the Chasam Sofer, Shlomo Sofer copies for us the original Shtar Rabbanus that the Chasam Sofer received at the start of his tenure as rabbi of Pressburg.  Accordingly, at the end of the document, all the names of the signatories are present, or so it seems.  Comparing the version found in the Chut Hameshulash with the one in Likutei Teshuvos Chasam Sofer, reveals a glaring omission. Here is how Shlomo Sofer presents the Shtar:

Here it is in Likutei Teshuvos Chasam Sofer:

As you can see in the bottom of the middle column, Ber Oppenheimer was one of the signatories.  This also verifies Isaac Hirsch Weiss’s report I mentioned earlier, that Oppenheimer was a supporter of the Chasam Sofer taking the position of Rabbi of Pressburg.

            Here is a picture of the actual manuscript where you can still make out Oppenheimer’s signature:

             With a reputation for purposely omitting facts already preceding him, it does not surprise me that Sofer would also omit Oppenheimer’s name from the Shtar Rabbanus of his grandfather, given that it does not follow the narrative he wishes to portray, as evident from negative reports he gives of Oppenheimer.

            Whatever the truth may be, one thing is for sure; Ber Oppenheimer was a talmid chacham who was respected by most of the gedolei hador of his time, who had his differences with the Chasam Sofer.

Miscellaneous Ha’aros

I’d like to end off with a few divrei torah.  While I was busy with this post, Shavuos past, and like every year I read the relevant Mishna Berurah which I could never understand. Regarding the custom of eating dairy on Shavuos, the Mishna Berurah at the end of siman 494 gives a reason in the name of an anonymous gadol.  Since klal yisroel recieved the Torah on Shavuos, by default they also excepted all 613 commandments, for according to R’ Sa’adya Gaon[60] all 613 mitzvos are included in the ten commandments.  Along with that came the commandments of kosher food; shechitanikur, no blood, salting, and the need to have kosher utensils.  Thus, it was much easier at the time to forgo cooking and just eat dairy, as none of the above laws really apply.

This reason makes absolutely no sense to me.  Without getting too involved in the topic, I think that any person who’s learned through shas and chumash, even in just a cursory manner, knows that the whole torah and everything in it was not given all at once at Sinai; there is a chronology to the giving of taryag mitzvos.  I will just quote the Ramban in his hasagos to the Sefer Hamitzvos[61]:
"והנה, שתי פרשיות בתורה ובהן מצות רבות ולא נאמרו למשה בסיני, אלא לאהרן נאמרו ולא בסיני, פרשת שתויי יין ופרשת משמרות כהונה ולוייה ומתנות כהונה ולא חשש להוציאם מן החשבון הזה. ומצות רבות לא נאמרו בסיני אלא בשעת מעשה, כגון דין מקושש ובנות צלפחד ולא חששו לכך, וכו'."

The Chazon Ish also has a discussion on the chronology of the mitzvos, in Orach Chaim #125.  So, needless to say, suggesting that bnei yisrael by matan torah were concerned with all the laws of kashrus, is simply anachronistic.  Those laws were only given afterwards. 

Also, when Sa’adya Gaon suggests that all the mitzvos are included in the ten commandments, that’s not in a literal sense, but taxonomical; all the mitzvos can be divided under ten categories under the rubric of the ten commandments.

I found another interesting tidbit in the Alfei Menashe part I, from R’ Menashe Ben Poras of Ilya, where he rails against a pshat which suggests that עם קשה עורף is a good character trait:

What I find most interesting is that after condemning this notion by saying it only comes from the koach hadimyoni[62], he brings himself support by quoting the Vilna Gaon who said that the koach hadimyoni is a part of the evil inclination.  However, the Vilna Gaon himself in his commentary to Mishlei 10:20, explains עם קשה עורף as a good character trait!  See here:

[1] ד"ה וכי אומרים.
[2] ד"ה הא דאמרינן וכי אומרים.
[3] Here are the sources that I found at the time:  שו"ת עטרת חכמים אה"ע סי' ל"א, שו"ת טוב טעם ודעת מהדו"ק סי' רכ"ו, חידושי חת"ס פה ובגיטין ל"ח ע"ב, שו"ת באר יצחק אה"ע סי' א' ענף ח', שו"ת עונג יו"ט ס"ס נ"א, שיח יצחק חגיגה ב' ע"ב, נחלת יעקב להגאון מליסא פה, שו"ת כתב סופר יו"ד סי' קכ"ה, שו"ת בנין ציון השלם כרך ב' סי' קי"ט, שו"ת שואל ומשיב מהדורה תליתאה ח"ג סי' ל"ד, שו"ת מהר"ש ענגל ח"א סי' צ"ה, אור גדול סי' ח' אות ז' ד"ה ויתישב בזה, שו"ת משיבת נפש אה"ע סי' י"א, שו"ת ר"ש איגרת יו"ד סי' ל"ד,שו"ת הרי בשמים מהדו"ק ח"א סי' ל"ח, יד שאול יו"ד סי' רס"ז ס"ק נ', חידושי מהר"ם בנעט פה, שו"ת תירוש ויצהר סי' ל"ב.
[4] Gittin 41b, Tosafos ד"ה כופין here.
[5] Correspondence with Oppenheimer can also be found in Shu”t Noda Beyehuda Yoreh, De’ah Mahadura Tinyana here, #64, Shu”t Meshivas NefeshYoreh De’ah #67 here, Shu”t Yehudah Ya’aleh, Orach Chayim #147 HereShu”t Toafos Re’eim, Orach Chayim #9 here,  See also Shu”t Ein Habdolach #4 here where R’ Chaim Tzvi Manheimer gets sharp about Oppenheimer, though he still prefaces his name with Moreinu Harav.
[6] P. 8b here.
[7] P. 9b here.
[8] Hochgefühle bey der glorreichen Feyer der Krönung Ihrer Majestät, (Vienna 1825).
[9] #13, #39, and #103.
[10] See Leopold Greenwald, Otzar Nechmad, p.73 fn. 1, Arim V’Amahos B’Yisraelpart VII, p.74, Shlomo Zonnenfeld, Ha’Ish Al Hachoma, p.109, Shmuel Eliezer Stern, Sneh Bo’er B’Aish, p.66 fn.20.
[11] Vol. 2, P.18.
[12] P.96, here.
[13] P.25 #43.  Weiss also changes the year the story happened in to 1833.
[14] (Jerusalem 1924), part I, p.75b here.
[15] Printed by Efraim Deinard in Shibolim Bodidos, p.49 here.
[16] P.23a in the Munkacz edition here.  There were three editions of the Chut Hameshulash printed by Sofer, with the final edition being called Chut Hameshulash Hachadash due to the additional material not found in the previous editions.
[17] Ibid p.23b, here.
[18] Michael K. Silber, in his dissertation, Roots of the Schism in Hungarian Jewry, chapter2 p.26, writes similarly that there was tension between the Chasam Sofer and Oppenheimer, because of the latter supposedly stole from the former’s chidushim.  Though in his notes Silber references the Chut Hameshulash here, in the actual body of his text he brings proof from the language the Chasam Sofer uses in a short teshuva to Oppenheimer in the Mei Be’er #39, where he seemingly hints to this when he says, "גם אני אמרתי כן בחידושי לב"מ" .  Yet, I see no reason to believe the Chasam Sofer was suggesting anything of the sort by using this language, which is just a way of approving the other’s thoughts. See Shu”t Chasam Sofer Choshen Mishpat at the end of #118, where he uses the same language to R’ Meir Ash, here.  See also ibid. Even Haezer part I, #152 here, where R’ Akiva Eiger also says as such.
[19] See Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim #9, and ibid., Choshen MIshpat #79
[20] See ibid., Orach Chaim #54, 79, 140, and 208, and ibid., Yoreh De’ah, #6
[22] See Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat, #205, Kovetz Teshuvos Chasam Sofer, #44 and 64, Teshuvos Chasam Sofer Hachadashos #33
[23] For a thorough treatment of the events surrounding the Primaerschule, see Michael K. SilberRoots of the Schism in Hungarian Jewry, (Hebrew University, 1985) ch.2
[24] Hadarom, no.5-6, pp. 122-123
[25] See Leopold Greenwald, Otzar Nechmad, pp.72-77 here.
[26] See Meir Hischkowitz, Rebbi Tzvi Hirsch Chayos (Mossad Harav Kook, 2007), pp.91-92
[27] See Shu”t Moharatz #47, Here
[28] Leopold Greenwald, Toldos Mishpachas Rosenthal, pp. 38-39 here.  Rappaport accuses Taubes of joining the ranks of the chasidim, and for this he can’t fathom Oppenheimer’s support of Taubes, "אכן אשר אתפלא קצת הוא כפי ששמעתי גם החכם ר' בער אפענהיימער מפר"ב הוא מתומכי ר' משה טויבערש ומבלי דבר על תכונת הדוב הזה, הלא מדבר זה לבד יודע דרכו, כי מה מצא הוא באיש לחשבהו ראוי לעזרו וסעדו לעלות במעלה כזאת? " I find Rappaport’s remarks about Oppenheimer particularly interesting, given the fact that a little over a year before in 1830,  there was a rumor that Oppenheimer advocated for Rappaport to take over the recently vacated position of chief rabbi of Moravia after R’ Mordechai Banet passed away.  See the letter from R’ Yaakov Orenstein to the Chasam Sofer in Igros Sofrim, letter #50, where he asks if there was any truth to this, here.
[29] Here is his picture:

In the Toldos V’Chidushei Rebbi Menachem Katz Prostitz (Bnei Brak, 1990), there is also a biography of Ber Frank, who was the father-in-law of Prostitz.  Here is the title page:  

Not surprisingly, this picture was not printed in this sefer, probably because it does not fit the standard Bnei Brak narrative of what a Jew is supposed to look like.  And though the biographer is meticulous enough to list all of Ber Frank’s publications, whether extant or not, and to list and print the text of all the haskamos and michtivei bracha, he conveniently leaves out two; the michtav from the reformer Leib Schwab printed in Frank’s Ohr Haemunah part Ihere, and the michtav from the maskil and poet Meir Letteris, in his Ohr Haemunah part IIhere.  Frank is also famous for producing the picture of the Chasam Sofer and disseminating it to support the marriage of his daughter to Prostitz. For the story behind the picture, see Igros Sofrim pp. 27-28 here.  
[30] Shu”t Ksav SoferOrach chaim #115, Here.
[31] Hirschkowitz makes the same point, ibid. note 157.
[32] Hakdamah of Part II
[33] Pp.128-131 in the Jerusalem edition from Machon Daas Sofer
[34] In Otzar Nechmad ibid.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Ibid.
[37] See the version of this sermon presented in Drashos Chasam Sofer Part II, pp.648-652, here, and Yosef Naftali Stern’s footnote on p.650.  In his footnote, Stern asks the obvious question; how could the Chasam Sofer pray for the destruction of evildoers when this seemingly contradicts the gemara in Brachos 10a, where the gemara concludes that one should not pray for their death, rather one should pray that they should repent?  I would also add to that this contradicts the gemara in Brachos 7a, where R’ Yehoshua ben Levi concludes that it isn’t proper to curse evil people either, see Tosafos there too.  Though Stern answers this by concluding that the gemara’s dictum does not apply to those that lead others astray and cause others to sin, I’m surprised he doesn’t mention that the Chasam Sofer explicitly comes to this conclusion himself in reference to the gemara in Brachos, in an earlier sermon from 1806, found in the Drashos Chasam Sofer Part I, pp.275-276, here.  I also found that the Alshich in parshas Korach 16:28, also comes to the same conclusion.  Accordingly, this would also explain why birchas haminim which we say in shmona esrei doesn’t also contradict this gemara, as one could say that it was meant only for those minim that were חוטא ומחטיא את הרבים.  See also the Diyukim B’nuschei Hatefilah V’habrachos from the Vilna Gaon, printed in the back of the Shulchan Aruch, where he says that one should say וכל הרשעה and not עושי רשעה, as he references the gemara in Brachos.
[38] Yosef Naphtali Stern makes the same chronological mistake as Plaut in his footnote, ibid.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Olamo Shel Abba, (Jerusalem, 1983) p.67.  Here is her picture:

[41] Zichron L’Moshe P.5, here.
[42] Pp.89-95, here.
[43] See Naphtali Ben Menachem, B’Shaarei Sefer (Mossad Harav Kook) p.115.
[44] L’toldos Hareformatzian Hadatis B’Germania U’bUngaria (1948), p.73 fn.30, here.  Earlier on p.19 fn.38, he also takes issue with Shlomo Sofer writing that the Chasam Sofer allegedly said his son the Ksav Sofer knows how to learn better than himself.  Elsewhere, Sofer writes that the Ksav Sofer said that he learns how to learn from his son R’ Simcha Bunim, author of the Shevet Sofer.  Thus, one may conclude the obvious absurdity, the Shevet Sofer was a greater talmid chacham than the Chasam Sofer!
[45] Though not intentional, I found an example of Sofer telling an untrue story in his final edition (see above, fn.16), Chu”t Hameshulash Hachadash p.8a in the footnotes, or in the modern edition printed in Jerusalem, p.27.  Sofer tells a story he heard about R’ Zelmeleh of Volozhin, one of the prime students of the Vilna Gaon:  When the Vilna Gaon and hs talmidim were gathering signatures for the excommunication against the chasidim, they went to R’ Zelmeleh to ask him to sign on the document.  Much to their surprise, R’ Zelmeleh declined.  R’ Zelmeleh then proceeded to explain his refusal with a dvar torah; we find that Avraham stopped himself from slaughtering his son Isaac, when he heard the angel tell him to do so.  How could Avraham listen to the angel who said not to slaughter Isaac, when he heard directly from G-d himself that he must slaughter him?  R’ Zelmeleh concluded, “for one to not kill someone, a command from an angel suffices, but a command to go ahead and slaughter someone must be heard from G-d himself.”  R’ Zelmeleh continued, “though our master, Rabbeinu Eliyahu, is like an angel of G-d, in order to slaughter someone, we must hear it from G-d himself.”

When I first read this story, I gave a little chuckle.  Here’s why: You can clearly see on the right-hand column the signature of R’ Zelmeleh on the kol koreh of the cherem of 1781.

The main character of this story was originally told as being R’ Refoel Hamburger, not R’ Zelmeleh of Volozhin.  Even so, in the torah journal Sharei Torah, part X, kunteres 1, #5, R’ Meir Dan Plotzky, while explaining that R’ Refoel Hamburger was no lover of chasidim, says he doubts the authenticity of this story.
[46] Interestingly, Greenwald criticizes this practice of postponing the burial to wait for eulogizers, in his Kol Bo Al Aveilus p.12, here.  Greenwald writes that it pained him to read in Der Morgan Journal Dec. 2, 1941, that after the death of a famous rabbi and gaon from Brooklyn early Friday morning, the burial was postponed until Sunday so more eulogizers and people could attend.  I assume Greenwald is talking about the levayah of R’ Moshe Soloveitchik which you can read about here.  Though, I don’t know why he would read about it almost a year later (R’ Moshe died in January).  R’ Simcha Soloveitchick died a few weeks prior to that issue of Morgan Journal, on November 16.  However, R’ Simcha died on a Sunday, not a Friday.
[47] Meir Hildesheimer makes the same point in Sefer Hazikaron L’Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, p.18 fn.72.  He also adds that the Ksav Sofer pressured R’ Azriel Hildesheimer to become rabbi of Pressburg in a joint capacity with him.
[48] Tzefunos no.6, pp.63-66, Here.
[49] Ibid. p.338.
[50] See Shmuel Weingarten, Sinai no.74, p.92 fn.17.
[51] P.51-52, here.  Another interesting example of a rabbi giving rebuke to one of his peers, is the teshuva of R’ Yosef Shaul Nathanson to the son of R’ Shmuel Waldberg of Yaroslav, in Shu”t Shoel U’Mashiv, Mahadura Telisa’ah, part I #264, here.  Nathanson as an exception responds to the generic talmudic query of Yoel Waldberg even though it is not a pressing question of halacha.  Nathanson explains that he made this exception in order to foster a love for learning in Waldberg, so that he would leave his secular ways; simultaneously criticizing his father, R’ Shmuel, for being too involved in secular studies.  Indeed, R’ Shmuel Waldberg succeeded R’ Hirsch Chajes as Rabbi of Zolkiew, a city with very modern leanings, before his tenure at Yaroslav. Unfortunatley, Waldberg’s children became mechalelei shabbos (I don’t know if that includes the above mentioned Yoel), and in his later years Waldberg was filled with regret about his secular studies, railing against them in his sermons.  Waldberg authored many seforim on a plethora of subjects.  Here is his picture:

[52] Siman 243, here.
[53] See Yehuda Spiegel, Toldos Hayehudim B’Rusia Hakarpatis, pp.86-88.
[54] See Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger, Zichronos Umesoros Al Hachasam Sofer (Bnei Brak, 2013), pp.12-26 for a defence of Shlomo Sofer’s reliability.
[55] See Pesachim 113b.
[56] Literally, “Bow to the fox in its time.” Advice from chazal to act in a subordinate manner towards a person who is in an advantageous position.  See Megillah 16b.
[57] See Igros Ramchal, #10, “לגבר חכם בעוז נודע בשערים, לו שם בגבורים, גבור חיל במלחמתה של תורה עשיר מארי חיטיא קולע ולא יחטיא השערה, בר אורין ובר אבהן יאי ויאי כבוד מורנו ורבנו הרב משה חאגיש נר"ו “.
[58] Ibid. #12, “והשוטה הזה החאגיש, כאשר איש מדנים הוא, הודיע ביום כעסו גם בלא דעת ובלא השכל "
[59] See Drashos Chasam Sofer Part II, p.745, “אך מי שהגיע לכלל תכלית החסידות והפרישות ולא כחסידי הזמן ח"ו  " , here.
[60] This is apparent from the Azharos of Saadya Gaon, where he explains each mitzva, and under which commandment it falls.  See Rashi to Exodus 24:12 and Perushei Rabbeinu Sa’adya GaonMishpatim fn.2.
[61] Soresh Rishon
[62] lit. imaginary faculty, imagination

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