Rabbi Raphael Nathan Rabinovitch • “Author of Dikdukei Sofrim”

Our Sages of blessed memory have said, “The Rishonim are called sofrim because they counted all the letters of the Torah” (Kiddushin 30a). Because they loved and cherished the written Torah, they counted every one of its letters, and thereby deduced a multiple of Halachic principles. The name Sofer perfectly fits Rabbi Raphael Nathan Rabinovitch, because his love for the oral Torah pushed him to literally count the letters of our Sages’ words, and he greatly strived to understand every letter of the Talmud, “which is the essential aspect of Judaism and the life of the Jewish people.”

He devoted more than 20 years of his life to this study, examining various manuscripts that he found in libraries, choosing versions according to the words of the Rishonim, and making his own personal notes. He wrote 16 volumes on most of the Talmud’s tractates, a lifework that conferred worldwide recognition on him, and which he aptly called Dikdukei Sofrim (“Fine Points of the Oral Law”).

The “Gadol of Minsk”, Rabbi Yerucham Yehudah Leib Perlman (5595-5656/1835-1896), who was among the most famous Torah scholars of his generation, greatly loved the volumes of Dikdukei Sofrim, often making use of them to show how a slight change of wording can harmonize many of the Rishonim’s statements.

The son of Rabbi Zalkind, Rabbi Raphael Nathan Rabinovitch was born in 5595 (1835) in the new town of Novo-Zhagory, government of Kovno, Russia. Since he was from a poor family, his childhood was spent in one place of Torah after another, following to the letter the teaching of the Talmud: “Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, live a life of deprivation, and toil in the Torah” (Perkei Avoth 6:4).

At the age of 13 he arrived in the town of Wilkomir, where he studied for two and a half years with his father’s uncle, the Gaon Rabbi Yossef (the son of Rabbi Israel Isser). Rabbi Yossef noticed his student’s remarkable talents and devoted himself to teaching him with great affection. Rabbi Raphael Nathan ate at his table and slept in his home, and as he grew older he never forgot his great Rav. In fact when he published his Gaon Yaakov on Tractate Eruvin, he added his Rav’s article, Kuntras Zichron Yossef, which was an explanation of the problems dealing with twilight. In it he expressed the hope “that G-d will help me to assemble his commentaries and to make them into a work that is complete.” He learned an enormous amount from his Rav, above all being qualities of the heart. Of him he wrote, “All his study was selfless, for he never derived the least cent from his Torah. He earned his living with the help of his wife, who ran a small store, and he ordered her not to sell anything to his students, for he did not want to draw any profit whatsoever from Torah. He never cancelled a class with his students, and even when he was sick and confined to bed, he still got up and went to the Beit Midrash to teach them.”

Rabbi Raphael Nathan then journeyed to the town of Keidan, where he stayed for several years. There he studied Torah with great diligence, and people began to call him “the Wonder of Keidan.” It was also in Keidan that he married the daughter of Rabbi Aaron, a wealthy man in the city. His father-in-law expended a great deal of his wealth so as to allow him to study Torah in tranquility.

Rabbi Raphael Nathan also studied a few years in Kapulie, in the region of Minsk. One of the residents there who remembered him wrote the following many years afterwards: “I still remember Rabbi Raphael Nathan as if it were yesterday. I remember how he would sit with his Tallit and Tefillin, studying G-d’s Torah with great intensity and making his nights into days of study – an incessant study – to the point that the residents of the town were taken aback by the magnitude of his diligence and his vast knowledge in all realms of the Talmud. It was at that time that he became known as one of the greatest men in the country” (A.M. Habermann, The Life of Rabbi Raphael Nathan Rabinovitch).

When he attained the age of conscription, Rabbi Raphael Nathan escaped from Russia and went to Lemberg, where he met Rabbi Yossef Shaul Halevi Nathensohn, the Rav of the city. There as well, he devoted himself completely to Torah study and was greatly respected by all the local personalities. Someone once remarked that Rabbi Yossef Shaul Halevi Nathensohn rose in Rabbi Raphael Nathan’s honor whenever he entered the synagogue, even though he was only 25 years old at the time (ibid).

In Lemberg, Rabbi Raphael Nathan began to formulate some ideas on certain differences in the wording of the Talmud depending on the manuscripts and books being examined. His friends and acquaintances encouraged him to devote himself to researching this subject, which was an enormous undertaking.

In the beginning of the year 5624 (1863), Rabbi Raphael Nathan came to Munich and began his magnum opus: The compilation of Dikdukei Sofrim. He was introduced to Rabbi Avraham Merzbacher, a Talmid Chacham and famous banker who showed great respect for all who studied Torah. Rabbi Raphael Nathan included him in his project, and Rabbi Avraham promised to support and help him in this great task. He expended enormous sums for manuscripts and first prints, and he supported Rabbi Raphael Nathan financially so that he could continue to study and devote himself to this difficult work.

In 5628 (1868), Rabbi Raphael Nathan published the first volume of Dikdukei Sofrim on tractate Berachot. Included in this first volume was an introduction entitled “On the Printing of the Talmud,” in which he recounts the history of the Talmud’s publishing. All the Torah greats of his generation gave their approbations for Dikdukei Sofrim.

Rabbi Raphael Nathan’s work testified to his genius in Torah, his extraordinary knowledge, and his exemplary meticulousness. Since he did not trust anyone else to recopy a manuscript, he would do the work himself. To explain his justification for this, he would often recount the following incident: Once, a lit cigarette fell onto a copy of his work and burned away a few lines of text. He then asked three people to recopy the missing lines from the original manuscript. When he received the copies and compared them, they differed from each other in several details. He then told himself, “If this is the result for a few missing lines, what would happen if someone were to copy an entire manuscript!”

In the fall of 5649 (1888) he traveled to Russia and developed pneumonia upon arriving in Kiev. He died on the first night of Chanukah 5649 (Nov 28, 1888) at the age of only 53. The dignitaries of Kiev bestowed great honor upon him and buried him among the great. At his passing, Rabbi Raphael Nathan left behind his wife and only son.




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