Rabbi Yaakov Emden • “The Yavetz”

Many great Rabbanim have been known primarily for their works of Halachah. Themselves fleeing from honor and fame, it is only their books on Halachah or Aggadah that have brought them to people’s attention and assured them of universal recognition. Among these was Rabbi Yaakov Emden, known by most for the siddur that he wrote. At the age of 28, he created a prayer book for every day of the year, with all corresponding practices. Commonly called “Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s Siddur,” it spread widely and earned him great renown.

Who exactly was this great Jew, and why did he choose the name “Yavetz”?

The son of the Chacham Tzvi, Rabbi Yaakov Emden was born in Altona in 5457 (1697). During his youth he lived in Galicia and Mehrin, and he studied Torah with his father and father-in-law.

The following is an account that Rabbi Yaakov gave of himself: “When I was still a young boy with my father, the Gaon and pious Rabbi Tzvi, the glory of Israel, I asked him why he signed his name simply as ‘Tzvi’, without mentioning his father. He answered me, ‘These are the initials of Tzvi ben Yaakov. When you, my son, will have become a man of Torah and will have written books and words of wisdom, sign your name as ‘Yavetz’, meaning the initials of Yaakov ben Tzvi.’ ”

Only once in his life did he accept the position of community Rabbi, in Emden, Germany. Yet because he was by nature a man of truth and fervently desired not to depend on anyone’s advice, he resigned after a few years and recited the blessing, “Blessed are You, Who did not make me an aved [Av Beit Din],” a play on the words of the morning blessing: “Blessed are You, Who did not make me an eved [slave].”

He then returned to his hometown of Altona and opened a Hebrew printing shop. He printed books and distributed them to everyone for free, all while earning a living from a business in jewels and precious stones.

Because his primary concern was Torah study, his business was always secondary to him. From his youth to his old age, he remained immersed in it, making Torah study, as well as the writing of his books, his constant delight. Even though he was frail by nature, it was his habit to go to the Beit Midrash every day, even during winter, to give courses in Gemara.

The story goes that one particularly harsh winter day, it was so cold that his students did not make it to the Beit Midrash in the early morning to hear his lecture. They arrived in the afternoon and found the Rav sitting down, covered in this Tallit and wearing his Tefillin, with his head in his book as he studied.

He interrupted his study and asked them, “Why didn’t you come this morning for the Gemara lecture?”

“Teacher,” they replied, “it was terribly cold and difficult to walk outside. We were afraid of catching a cold.”

Rabbi Yaakov wanted to lift up his head, but he realized that he couldn’t because his beard was frozen to the table. He sighed and said, “Apparently it is very cold,” and then added: “It is written, ‘Guard your foot when you go to the House of G-d’ [Ecclesiastes 4:17].” And the Messora underlines that the letter yud in the word raglecha [your foot] is superfluous. This yud makes us recall the 10 laws [10 being the numerical value of yud] involving feet that the Jew should observe. They are as follows: (1) Do not leave on a trip without praying beforehand; (2) Do not visit someone early in the morning before having prayed; (3) Do not pray before making sure that your body is clean; (4) It is a mitzvah to run to synagogue or to the Beit Midrash; (5) When in synagogue, step forward a little before praying; (6) Do not go barefoot in synagogue; (7) One must travel up to four kilometers to find water to wash one’s hands before praying; (8) It is forbidden to walk behind a synagogue when the community is praying; (9) One must not stand on an elevated place to pray; and (10) One must keep one’s feet pointed straight ahead when praying. (Note that all these Halachot are found in the Rambam).

With a smile, Rabbi Yaakov ended with the following: “Here are thus 10 things that we are warned about in the verse that states, ‘Guard your foot when you go to the House of G-d.’ Yet we have not been warned about guarding our feet from going to synagogue because we can catch a cold. However this is what my father taught me: The verse states, ‘In the House of G-d we would walk in company’ [Psalms 55:15]. The word beragesh [in company] is formed by the initials of barad [hail], geshem [rain], and sheleg [snow], for even on days such as these, we must make it to synagogue.”

Rabbi Yaakov Emden studied all fields of Torah and wisdom in depth, and he wrote more than 60 books during his lifetime. He wanted to live in peace, but he was constantly besieged by conflict, sadness, and pain. The wife of his youth died while he was still young, and his dear son Tzvi was taken from him while in the prime of his life.

Rabbi Yaakov died at 80 years of age, having lived through his share of pain. He left three sons behind: Rabbi Meshulam Zalman (the Rav of the Hamburg Synagogue in London), Rabbi Meir (the Rav of Constantinople), and Rabbi Aryeh Yehudah.




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