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30 Tishrei 5766 - November 2, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
Manuscripts from the Flames

by Y. Ben Avi

An account of many Torah works that were written and preserved in difficult circumstances.

The Pri Chodosh, work of R' Chizkiyah de Silva, was first published in Amsterdam in 5460 (1700). It was printed posthumously by his son, R' Dovid de Silva. In the introduction, the son relates the miracle that involved the manuscript while he was transporting it from Jerusalem, where the Pri Chodosh had been living until his death, to Amsterdam.

"During the voyage, we were attacked by pirates who stripped us of our valuables and searched our baggage. They were about to seize the precious manuscript but thanks to Hashem's mercy, they had a change of mind and agreed to give me back the work of my deceased father. And, `I thank You Hashem for having been wrathful with me but Who turned away Your anger and comforted me' " (Yeshayohu 12:1).

Another author whose writings were spared by robbers was the Maharam Ash, R' Meir ben R' Yitzchok Eisenstadt. He authored the responsa Ponim Meiros and Kosnos Ohr on the Torah. The incident referred to here involved a different work of his, the Ohr Hagonuz, which was printed posthumously by his son, R' Yehuda from Bialy.

In the introduction, the son tells how the manuscript was stolen, together with the author's other manuscripts, during a pogrom which took place in Bialy in 5524 (1764), when Stanislav Ponyatovksy was appointed king of Poland. The event was followed by mass rioting, which peaked with the destruction of the communities in Ukraine and Podolya in 1768. "That year, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz fell on Shabbos Parshas Chukas," he writes, "and we saw the fulfillment of the Targum Onkelos' translation [of `Zos Chukas . . . ']: `This is the decree (literally, tearing) of the Torah.'"

On the following Sunday, the second of Tammuz, the mob began rioting for three hours in R' Yehuda's community. "Who can imagine the extent of the devastation, especially what they wreaked upon the great synagogue and beis medrash of our community. They looted all my possessions besides, and stripped the expensive clothing from my wife and me and our children.

"The rioters intended to sell their spoils in other communities, knowing that Jews would pay handsomely to redeem those things, but the communal heads of Brisk, where the looters planned to go, decreed upon the members of the congregation that they must return any property they bought to its rightful owners without accepting any remuneration beyond the cost. This helped our community immeasurably."

In spite of the help from the Jews of Brisk, many of the writings of the Maharam Ash were lost, though the miracles that he experienced prompted R' Yehuda to travel from city to city, "until Hashem enabled me to print the writings of Ovi Mori."

"Os Mutzal Mei'eish — Letters Spared from the Fire"

Many treasured manuscripts and works were lost in the course of generations as a result of fires. Sometimes, whole communities were totally consumed, together with their sacred books and writings. But it sometimes happened that this was the very cause for works to be printed. Jews whose entire property had been burned and only a manuscript spared, would regard this as a sign from Heaven to make a supreme effort to print what they called, "Os mutzal mei'eish — holy letters spared from the fire."

Some considered those fires a punishment from Heaven for not having been energetic in printing manuscripts which had been bequeathed to them by their forebears, and made haste to right that wrong. Some, altogether impoverished, were also able to cash in on the printing. Either way, the fact is that we now possess works that might otherwise not have been printed, had fire not broken out in the homes of their owners.

R' Chaim Falagi was the av beis din of Izmir some 170 years ago. This gaon composed 68 works, according to the numerical value of his name `Chaim.' On the eve of the 11th of Av, 5611 (1851), however, a huge conflagration erupted in Izmir that consumed a great portion of those works.

One of the students of his yeshiva, Yitzchok Yeshurun, leaped into the flames in an attempt to salvage whatever he could. He succeeded in dragging out a chest containing fourteen of his master's compositions. "And Yitzchok emerged like a skilled runner after the race," writes R' Chaim Falagi. "He guarded the works in a basement of hewn stone against the light of day." The first one was brought to print but the fate of the other manuscripts was different and he was forced to begin rewriting them from the beginning. Many writings from other scholars of Izmir suffered a similar fate from that terrible conflagration.

In 5517 (1757), the responsa Me'il Tzedokoh by R' Yonah Landsover was printed. The author's grandson, R' Yom Tov, who had it printed, expressed his apologies and explained that fire broke out in his home on a Friday night in 1754. No one was around to help him and, left with no recourse, he quickly dragged his grandfather's works to the basement in the hope that they would be spared.

He then quickly left the burning house, but not before he made sure to take his grandfather's will along so that at least this would remain. When he returned in the morning, he discovered that nothing had survived the fire. "Everything, from cellar to attic, had been totally burned. For this did I weep," he writes, "and my eyes overflowed with lakes and rivers of tears." But, to his great amazement, the manuscripts which he had left in the cellar remained unharmed. "How good this is! Not one of those pages of all those works written by my master was singed." Immediately after this event, he began the work of preparing those manuscripts for publication.

Another work that was miraculously spared from the fire was the responsa of the Mahardach, R' Dovid ben R' Chaim Kohen from the island of Corfu. This was first printed in 5297 (1537) and again, in 5563 (1803). On the front page, the author's son, R' Chaim HaKohen, tells of the fire which erupted and which damaged some of his father's property, including his responsa. However, this was miraculously spared. "The fire had seized it and had already consumed two verses, but it did not penetrate further. The fact that this alone was spared was hailed as a miracle and of this can it be truly said, "Os mutzal mei'eish — Letters spared from the fire."

Writings in Prison

The imprisonment of the Maharam of Rottenberg is one of the most famous stories in Jewish history. The Maharam headed a celebrated yeshiva in his city and was the recognized leader of all German Jewry in his time. In 5046 (1286), he was arrested and imprisoned while en route to Eretz Yisroel, on the grounds that his emigration was illegal. The Maharam refused to let himself be ransomed, knowing that the real reason for his imprisonment was to extort money from the Jewish community. He did not want to set a precedent for future acts of this kind.

During his stay in prison, the Maharam dispatched many responsa to the numerous questions sent to him. He would sign the letters "The poor one" or "I do not have poskim seforim at my disposal and what I reply is what Heaven has illuminated for me."

He writes to his disciple, the Rosh, "And if you find that Tosafos and the works of poskim differ with me in any area, I bow and nullify myself before them, for what can a poor man know, sitting in the darkness . . . for the past three-and-a-half years. I have forgotten all that is good . . . [signed] Meir bar Boruch."

The Maharam died in the Ansitzheim fortress after some six years of imprisonment, but the authorities refused to release his body for burial. Only fourteen years later, on the 4th of Iyar 5066, were his remains given over for burial. He was interred in Worms.

Another work produced during imprisonment was that of R' Zecharya Altzhadi, one of the great scholars of Yemen in the 16th century. R' Zecharya traveled extensively to Jewish communities in various lands and was the author of works on halochoh and aggodoh, among them a commentary to the Torah called Tzeidah Laderech. One of the most momentous of his works is Sefer Hamussar which includes chapters of reproof, good practices, parables and poems. Also noteworthy are the descriptions of his travels, which include a visit to Eretz Yisroel in 5327 (1567), at the time of Maran the Beis Yosef, the Ramak and the Mabit from Trani.

The years 5328 and 5333 were years of dreadful decrees against the Jews of Yemen. The country was in the midst of a war against the Turks, and the Imam Almathar, who defeated them, decided to imprison the Jews of Tzaana, including R' Zecharya. In order to distract himself from his suffering, he threw himself completely into writing a sefer.

In the introduction, he describes the difficulties which he and the imprisoned members of his community suffered. "In 5328 . . . up till Rosh Chodesh Av of the following year, the governor scattered us throughout the fortress, each in a separate tower, youths and old men, chained in iron fetters. Any eye would shed tears at the sight of them sent off to harsh labor."

He made a superhuman effort to encourage the dispirited Jews and infuse new hope in them. He named the work he composed during this period, Sefer Hamussar. "So that everyone who reads it, in the style and accent familiar to him, can extract from it a message and lesson from his own hardships as reflecting his sins and shortcomings." He concluded it after being released from prison.

A work that was written completely during incarceration was Dovid Bametzudah on Pirkei Ovos by R' Dovid Chazan. R' Dovid was a noted, distinguished rabbi and printer in Izmir in the eighteenth century who authored many works. The abovementioned was written while he was falsely imprisoned in Vienna under the charge of bearing forged documents. He was detained there for the period between Pesach and Shavuos until the heads of the Viennese kehilloh succeeded in having him transferred to the Jewish hospital due to his poor state of health and paid for his stay there.

"I asked the communal trustees to send me copies of Peirush Shmuel and Ein Yaakov, and during this period, I succeeded in writing a commentary on Pirkei Ovos. On the very day I completed this work, the government released me."

Shem Hagedolim by the Chida is a very familiar work, but less known is the fact that it was written while he was in quarantine. In 5533 (1774), the Chida traveled to Europe for the second time to raise funds for the city of Chevron. After many adventures, he finally reached the port of Livorno, Italy, where he was quarantined for forty days before being allowed to enter the city, as was the practice for all travelers hailing from the east where there were many diseases. During this waiting period, the Chida composed the above work.

The Radal, R' Dovid Luria from Bichov, mentions in one of his responsa that he composed a calendar while he was imprisoned in 5598 (1838) under the false charge of treason. "Had I been imprisoned for the year following," he writes, "I would not have been able to write a calendar, for I would not have had any source, any book or person who could have guided me in this." Through Divine mercy, he was exonerated and released after four months.

Thanks Offerings

A good many works were written as a sign of gratitude by authors saved from captivity, illness, peril at sea or other dangers. Their salvation provided the impetus to write or print a manuscript they produced.

Famous is the work which the author of Pnei Yehoshua wrote in 5563 (1803) when an explosion in a gunpowder factory in his city caused the death of 36 Jews, including his wife, daughter, mother and grandmother. He, himself, was buried under a mountain of debris from which he could normally not have been extricated.

He resolved at that time that "If Hashem rescued him unscathed, `I will not leave the walls of the beis medrash but will apply myself to intense study of Shas uposkim and will reside in the depths of halochoh, for many nights at a time on one topic.' Before I had finished my declaration, Hashem answered my prayer . . . and suddenly, a path was miraculously cleared before me and I emerged safe and sound." It was this miracle that resulted in the writing of the Pnei Yehoshua years later.

A similar incident occurred to R' Dov Ber ben R' Yehuda Leib Troyes, rosh av beis din of Vilna, who passed away in 5563 (1803). He was also rescued from a building which collapsed and, as a sign of gratitude, authored his work, Revid Hazohov on the Torah.

"The communities in my vicinity are well aware of what happened to me," he writes in the introduction. "May none of you know of such troubles. I was punished by having my children, young and mature, taken from me. The last trouble that befell me was when a wall collapsed upon my home, killing my wife, my daughter, a granddaughter who was a kallah, a nephew, and others who were in my home at the time." He, himself, sat near an outer wall, as usual, and emerged unscathed. "I have no doubt that the merit of my ancestors interceded for me by creating for me a safe place where I was seated."

R' Shmuel Hanoggid, author of Mevo HaTalmud which is printed at the end of Maseches Brochos, was a prince of Spanish Jewry and a minister to the kings of Granada. In 4809 (1049), he was captured by the Malaga army and his life was in danger, but he succeeded in escaping. As a thanks offering for his rescue, he authored his work, Hilchesa Gevirta. He also composed a poem to commemorate the miracle. His son, R' Yehosef, introduced it with the words, "Valorous men were lost in the war and my father, may Hashem preserve him, was taken into captivity. Through amazing and miraculous circumstances, he was saved, and vowed then to compose this work."

The infamous decrees of Tach Vetat, 1648-1649, and the years following, brought in their wake the printing of many works, perhaps stemming from the feeling that if those manuscripts were not brought to print they might be altogether lost in the pogroms. Another reason might have been to bring some income to their authors during those harsh times. Yet another motive was as a sign of thanksgiving to Hashem for the rescue of the author from danger. An example of the latter is Birchas Hazevach on Kodshim by R' Aharon Shmuel Kaidenower.

He was wounded in the riots and fled with his family from Vilna to Lublin. But the Cossack sword intercepted him and claimed the lives of his two daughters al kiddush Hashem. In addition, he lost all his wealth, including the manuscripts which he had written "about several study approaches in Talmud uposkim which I received transmitted from my holy teachers, and which I understood through my own meager intellect . . . All was taken from me by the accursed enemy."

Further on, he describes how he lay in the street together with the surviving members of his family among those who were murdered. He tells how the mobs even stripped him of his clothing, leaving him with only a cotton shirt to his body. Many were the times that he was face to face with death but upon each occasion, a miracle occurred and he succeeded in reaching the Jewish community of Nikolsburg.

"In His great mercy, Hashem allowed me to remain alive, to this very day, together with my son. I was literally rescued from the sword, and Hashem carried me, as it were, on the wings of eagles through marvelous, miraculous ways, which we fall so short to describe, involving so many escapades, then and afterwards as well . . . And He brought us in peace, together with my dear beloved surviving children to the country of Merrin."

R' Aharon Shmuel began disseminating Torah in the Nikolsburg yeshiva and decided to give expression to his thanksgiving to Hashem by devoting himself completely to the study of Kodshim, which the commentators had not dealt with extensively.

Poel Tzeddek on the 613 commandments by the Shach was printed for the second time by two descendants of the author, R' Dov and R' Yisroel Yehoshua Prager, in 5674 (1914). This, too, served as a sign of thanks for one of them having recuperated from a severe illness. In the introduction, it is told that while he was hospitalized in Berlin, when the doctors had all but despaired of his life, he sent someone to pray on the grave of his grandfather, the Shach. He then resolved that if he survived, he would print one of the Shach's manuscripts. And he truly fulfilled his word.

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