Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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11 Teves 5768 - December 20, 2007 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
From Pharaoh's Dungeon to the Gamli Prison

by Yehuda Kedem

A collection of instances in which gedolei Yisroel wrote works in prison.

One of the most powerful descriptions in the lives of our gedolei Yisroel depicts the moment when the Maharam of Rothenberg was informed that the European Jewish communities were about to ransom him and free him from prison for a huge sum.

"One does not ransom captives for an exorbitant sum of money," he ruled halachically. And the Maharam remained incarcerated for fourteen years until his soul was summoned to Heaven.

The Maharam, one of the last Baalei Tosafos in Germany, was imprisoned en route to Eretz Yisroel, on the fourth of Tammuz, 5046. At first, he was imprisoned in Wasserburg and then he was transferred to Anzsheim in Alsace, where he remained for six more years until his soul was summoned to Heaven on the 19th of Iyar, 5053.

Even in his prison cell, the Maharam continued to respond to halachic queries sent to him. In a teshuvoh which he sent to his prime disciple, R' Osher ben Yechiel better known as the Rosh, he writes: "And if you find that the Tosafos and other poskim differ with me in any matter, I defer to them completely, since what am I, after all, a pauper dwelling in darkness, in the shadow of death, for the past three-and-a-half years, forgotten, forsaken, like a doormat trodden underfoot . . . " We similarly find that the responsa which were issued from his prison were signed, "He'oni — the impoverished one."

An amazing story from the life of the Chida, to which he himself testified, is brought in an article by G. Kleinman. On the 17th of Iyar, 5534, with no grounds or charges, trumped up or surely not real, the Chida, Rabbenu Chaim Yosef Dovid Azulai, was cast into prison. This was technically not an arrest or imprisonment in the usual sense, but more of a preventive, protective measure: actually, a quarantine.

It was accepted practice in the Italian ports during those Middle Ages — when epidemics swept through Europe with lightning speed, decimating whole populations, often borne in ships because of the terrible sanitation conditions aboard — to force passengers who wished to debark to remain in quarantine for a specified amount of time to make sure they were not carrying any dreaded diseases.

All of the passengers were forced to remain in quarantine for forty days. Tall and imposing, regal in bearing and dress, the Chida entered the lazaritto compound for the duration. What did he do there, alone, confined to close quarters, for forty days? He tells us in his own words, as recorded in his travel memoirs:

"I went to the lazaritto where I began and completed my work, Shem Hagedolim."

Were it not for his own testimony, we would find this incredible. Shem Hagedolim is a comprehensive opus, the first of its kind, cataloguing all of the rabbinic works — halachic and homiletic — produced since the sealing of the Talmud, arranged according to topic and author. These are listed both according to the titles and to their writers — an inventory encompassing over 1,200 works, many of them only in manuscript! And the Chida does not suffice with recording the title and a synopsis of its content, but even gives background identifying material on the work, how it came to be written, when it was written and so on.

All this was begun and completed in the space of forty days — in quarantine!


During the Communist regime in Russia, the story was that the population was divided into three parts: those who had been imprisoned in the past, those who were in prison in the present, and those who would soon be in prison.

The same could almost be said for our Jewish leaders in many times, who were persecuted wherever they were, Communism or no. It hardly makes a difference to the gentile — or government — under which pretense he is given a carte blanche to hound and harass the inevitable Jewish scapegoat. The more important the Jewish sage, the more he was pursued and oppressed.

Take the Rebbe of Radzin, for example, the Baal Hatecheiles. R' Gershon Henoch, author of Sidrei Taharos, was charged with treason, an offense punishable by death. He was put in jail for twelve days pending his trial, days of terrible tension. In order not to let these days go to waste, R' Gershon Henoch worked on the famous "Will of R' Eliezer Hagodol" which is composed of individual sentences, each one of them depicting a different practice and conduct which one should strive for. The Radziner attempted to trace their sources and how they were implemented according to the famous Tana R' Eliezer throughout the entire span of mishnayos, Toseftos, beraissos, talmudim, midroshim and the Zohar Hakodosh!

All this was done in twelve days!

Actually, he completed the full compilation before the end of the trial and already found himself another demanding project. The Maharshal enumerates fifty differences of conduct between the Sages of Eretz Yisroel and those of Bovel. The Radziner Rebbe toiled to ground each of these in its respective source, in the sugyos which were under contention as found in the distinctions in the Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi. Even more, he added many other divergences of practice — and all this is the span of less than a fortnight spent in prison before his own trial!

There are other whole works that were composed in prison. "And I have already written a work of seventeen chapters," testifies R' Shmuel ibn Mitut, "and have named it Meshovev Nesivos. It was composed while in jail in Nice [France], where I was imprisoned in heavy and cumbersome iron shackles. But I authored it with an original, lengthy, comprehensive and clear commentary."

The name of the following work indicates where it was written, Dovid Bametzudah [Dovid in the fortress- prison]. How did the author, R' Dovid Chazan, land in prison? "I invoke the lovingkindness of Hashem," he begins in his introduction to that work, and tells his chronicle.

"I was in Vienna, where every person must carry with him a passport. I had a legitimate document in my possession but a wicked person informed on me and told the authorities that I was carrying two passports which were both forged. The second one bore the name Dovid, with a different surname, and they charged me with spying under false papers."

He continues to relate that he was imprisoned from Pesach until Shavuos, during which period he wrote a commentary on Pirkei Ovos. "And on the day that I completed this work, I was told that I had been exonerated of the charge and was free to go. I therefore called this work Dovid Bametzudoh, since it was conceived and completed within that citadel."

A Poem that was a Will

R' Moshe Rimos wrote his will-lament the day before he was executed. This moving epistle is described very vividly by G. Kalmanowitz. In all of world literature, there is nothing to compare with it; it is unique.

R' Moshe Rimos was an erudite Torah sage and also very knowledgeable in medicine, with a great aptitude for poetry. His manifold talents and keen intelligence, outstanding from a young age already, are what brought about his downfall.

He was born in Palma, Morocco, in 5166 (1406) and put to death al kiddush Hashem in Sicily in the year 5190, at the very tender age of twenty-four.

His great success as a doctor, in Rome, gained him many enemies who hated him bitterly out of envy. They sought all kinds of ploys to incriminate him and to make him lose public favor. This phenomenon has already been written about in Sefer Hayosher as follows, "Gentile physicians envy us and provoke others against us. Sometimes we are forced to describe our methods and knowledge to them so that they can take credit for it . . . Therefore, I advise very Jew to stay away from gentile patients if he is unable to explain, to their understanding and satisfaction, the natural methods of healing [lest they accuse us of witchcraft]."

R' Moshe was accused of poisoning his gentile patients, as he describes eloquently in rhyme in his dirge. He was sentenced to death but allowed clemency if he were to agree to convert. He refused, preferring to die sanctifying Hashem's name.

When his warders came to inform him that he would die on the morrow, he composed that moving biographical lamentation. He prays that his death be his atonement. "With bitter tears, I reached for my quill and began writing profusely, crying and writing simultaneously. I forswear all those who lay their hands upon this missive to pass it on to others so that it may eventually reach my unfortunate relatives. [Signed:] Moshe Rimos, woe unto me."

At the time when a sharpened sword was poised over his throat, he was able to compose a dirge of 47 rhyming stanzas which began, "Who would have believed that — like the death of a despicable novol — there would die a savant, seeker of Hashem? And that there would be — led to the slaughter — Moshe, servant of Hashem?"

He goes on to describe how all the celestial powers will mourn his death, as would the founts of knowledge. In the end, when the storm of death began to overcome him, he appeals to his father and mother in the most touching words: "Oholi — forgive me my sins and my shortcomings if I did not honor you sufficiently."

After he fortifies himself with the memory of the death of R' Akiva and his colleagues, he justifies his Divine sentence in his mind and heart and begs that he be strong at the moment of death, and that it be a penitence for all his sins. "And as a soul that believes, may my soul be gathered up to eternal life, to abide by You eternally."

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