Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch • “The Chacham Tzvi”

In 5408 (1648) the fate of Israel became darkened with clouds and shrouded in heavy fog. That hated enemy, Bogdan Chmielnicki and his hordes of Cossacks, attacked Jewish communities throughout Poland and Lithuania, massacring tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children. The city of Vilna also drank from the cup of woe. The Cossacks invaded it and brought terrible carnage upon its inhabitants. The city was overtaken with terror and many took to flight, among them being the Gaon Rabbi Ephraim Hacohen (author of Sha’ar Ephraim), who was the head of the Beit Din of Vilna, along with his son-in-law the Gaon Rabbi Yaakov Ashkenazi and his young wife. They crossed the border and settled in the province of Mehrin.

Nevertheless, many hardships awaited them while on route. In his haste, Rabbi Yaakov became separated from his father-in-law and wife, and he fell into the hands of the murderous Cossacks. One of them raised his sword over him and was preparing to kill him, when at that last minute he had pity and said, “Get up and flee from here to save your life.” Fearing that he would fall into the hands of other murderers, he hid himself during the day among the dead for about a week. During the night he got up and gathered plants that he ate to stay alive. In the end, the murderers left the place and Rabbi Yaakov began to wander in search of his wife and her father.

Now during the time that he was lying among the dead, some people who knew him passed by and saw him by chance. Thinking that he was dead, they went and testified before his father-in-law that they had seen Rabbi Yaakov’s body. The Gaon Rabbi Heschel allowed Rabbi Yaakov’s wife to remarry, which was clearly permitted in such a case, since the Torah states, “According to two witnesses or according to three witnesses shall a matter be confirmed” (Deuteronomy 19:15). Yet the young woman was not to be consoled, and she turned a deaf ear to all marriage proposals. After six months, Rabbi Yaakov made it back to his father-in-law, which appeared like a miracle to him. By the merit of his young wife Nechama’s righteousness, they then had a splendid son whom was named Tzvi Hirsch, known as the Chacham Tzvi. The Gaon and Tzaddik Rabbi Yossef Eliyahu Henkin always recounted this story in order to clearly illustrate just how careful one should be before allowing an agunah to remarry.

Thus Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch, the son of Rabbi Yaakov Ashkenazi, was born in Mehrin in 5420 (1660). From his early years, he demonstrated his considerable talents and ardently yearned to study Torah. He studied with his father, and also in the yeshiva of his grandfather Rabbi Ephraim Hacohen. When he grew up, he was sent to study with Sephardim scholars, remaining in the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Eliyahu Kobo in Salonique for two years. There he learned Sephardic customs and practices, which he knew perfectly well, as well as their language. He greatly loved Sephardic Judaism and its practices, to the point that he insisted on being called “Chacham” (which Sephardim used in place of the word “Rav”). After several years of study and travel he returned to his father in Ubin, and there he married the daughter of one of the city’s residents. However he did not enjoy peace for long, for in 5446 (1686), when the city of Ubin was attacked, a cannonball ripped through his home and killed his young wife and their little girl. Rabbi Tzvi fled to Sarajevo, where the community appointed him as Rav. From there he went to Berlin, where he married the daughter of Rabbi Meshulam Zalman Neumark, the leader of the Jewish communities of Altona, Hamburg, and Vendsbek.

He settled in Altona and there, in the great Beit Midrash that he founded, he taught Torah for 18 years. He became known throughout the land as the greatest of his generation, and people addressed Halachic questions to him from neighboring as well as distant countries. When his father-in-law died, Rabbi Tzvi was named as Rav in his place over the three aforementioned communities. During that time, Altona’s Rav was the Gaon Rabbi Moshe of Rottenburg. These two Gaonim decided that, in alternating with one another, they should each take on this responsibility for a period of six months.

However, because of a conflict that erupted between him and his colleague over a question of a chicken in which a heart was not found (which the Chacham Tzvi permitted, believing that it was impossible for any creature not to have a heart, whereas Rabbi Moshe forbid it), he decided to resign and return to the Beit Midrash.

News of this development spread, and the Jewish community of Amsterdam invited the Chacham Tzvi to take on the important position of Rav of Amsterdam. He was accorded great honor when he arrived, and he was given a salary of 2,500 Dutch gold coins. He also enjoyed the respect of the city’s Sephardic community. It was there in Amsterdam that he printed his book of responsum entitled She’elot Uteshuvoth Chiddushim U’Beurim, a work that gained him great renown in the rabbinic world.

Concerning the Chacham Tzvi, the scholars of his generation remarked that he was as humble as Hillel and as uncompromising as Shammai.

The following story testifies of his humility:

The Rav of Frankfurt-am-Main, Rabbi Avraham Breuda (the author of the Talmudic commentary entitled Eshel Avraham) married off his son to the daughter of a wealthy scholar in Hamburg. When he traveled to Hamburg to attend the wedding, the city’s Rav held a great feast in his honor and invited all the Torah greats of the surrounding communities. Except for Rabbi Tzvi (who could not be present because he was still in mourning for his father), all those invited to the feast were in attendance. Yet Rabbi Avraham became angry and held a grudge against him. After the wedding, Rabbi Tzvi (who was accompanied by his two students) went to welcome the Rav of Frankfurt. Rabbi Avraham received him cordially, but then he asked: “Why have you not shown up until now?”

Rabbi Tzvi excused himself and told him that he was in the 12 months of mourning for his father.

“And yet,” Rabbi Avraham responded, “you could have sent your students and told them to transmit your greetings!”

“I don’t have any students,” Rabbi Tzvi replied.

“And who are these here with you?” asked Rabbi Avraham.

“These,” Rabbi Tzvi said, “are my friends.”

Yet where his humility was, we also find his resolve and obduracy. He loved the poor and hated corruption; he pursued justice and defended all those who were persecuted. He fought against rich and influent people and stood on the side of the poor and the oppressed. His obduracy forced him to leave Amsterdam, a city that he greatly loved. After traveling as far as England and passing through numerous Jewish communities in Germany and Poland, he was invited to take the important rabbinic position in Lvov and its province. Yet he did not benefit long from this, for he died on the first day of Iyar in the year 5478 (1718) at the age of 58. His book of responsum was published under the name of Chacham Tzvi, and he became famous as much for his questions as for his answers.

Many years have passed since the death of the Chacham Tzvi, but to our day his name is still evoked with reverence throughout the Diaspora.




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