Sunday 18 September 2016




Did Rabbi Saul Berlin (1740-1794) write the famed halachik work ‘Besamin Rosh’ (which contained some controversial halachik rulings) and fraudulently claim that he was not expressing his own views but merely publishing the authentic five hundred year old work of a Rishon?

Did R. Saul Berlin (who is known to have had strong leanings towards the Enlightenment or Haskalah Movement) attempt to undermine traditional rabbinic Judaism by ‘reforming’ it from within – by introducing leniencies and claiming that they were in fact the writings of the famous halachist known as the Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, 1250-1327)?[1]

Was this simply a devious tactic of the Enlightenment Movement to erode the strictures of halacha, not by its typical ‘modern rational reasoning’ - but instead by (allegedly) using the words of one of its most authoritative halachists?

- Or was Besamin Rosh in deed written by the Rosh himself? 


R. Saul Berlin was born in Glogau[2], and was the son of the Chief Rabbi of Berlin.[3] The young Saul received a thorough religious and secular education and was in constant contact with members of the Enlightenment. Eventually R. Saul became the rabbi of Frankfurt an der Oder.
His rabbinic position together with his allegiance to the Enlightenment created an uncomfortable tension for him, and he was torn between traditionalism and modernism.[4]


He began his writing career with a letter Ketav Yosher[5] which he authored anonymously beacuse it attacked the traditional Torah schools and claimed the system left no room for development and aspiration. It is presented in the form of a dialogue between and old-fashioned rabbi and a modern young man.  His writing style is engaging, humorous and quite to the point. Because of the controversial nature of the subject matter he did not append his name or title to the work.


His next contribution was the more elaborate Mitzpeh Yoktiel[6] which he wrote under a pseudonym[7]. This was a response to the very popular Torat Yekutiel, which was written by R. Refael haKohen, a so called ‘zealous rabbinic advocate’ who was also a fierce opponent of the Enlightenment. It is no coincidence that R. Refael haKohen had been vying for the Berlin rabbinate in opposition to R. Saul’s father!

In this work R. Saul Berlin attacked the pilpul style of the book saying that; “It was a sin to use up the paper which the author had wasted with his foolish theories.[8]  He went so far as to attack the very character of R. Refael haKohen by accusing him of taking bribes.

In an elaborate cover up, the publishers tried to hide the true author’s identity by writing that both R. Saul Berlin and his father did not approve of the book.

The problem was that R. Refael haKohen was the Chief Rabbi of the ‘Three Communities’ (Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck).

The ‘Three Communities’ were so incensed by the attack on R. Refael haKohen that they placed the author (who many suspected to be R. Saul Berlin) and the book under cherem or ban.[9]

When a copy of the book reached R. Saul Berlins’ father in Berlin, he too was about to declare the author to be banned until someone pointed out that it was in fact his own son who had written it!

Eventually R. Saul Berlin admitted that he was the author.


As if all this was not enough, R. Saul Berlin went on to publish a major work known as Besamin Rosh (Spices of the Rosh).

The book included 392 responsa (allegedly) by the Rosh.[10] He allegedly acquired old original manuscripts written by the Rosh, during his travels to Italy.

The responsa contained a number of very lenient halachic rulings in the name of the Rosh. These included the permissibility of shaving on Chol haMoed - eating kitneyot (legumes) on Pesach and claiming it was a Karaite custom - saying a blessing over non-kosher food -redefining the rulings regarding mourning for a suicide[11] - warnings against being too strict[12] - sanctioning the of drinking yayin nesech (non-kosher wine)[13] - the extolling of the value of secular studies[14] - and allowing riding a horse on Shabbat[15].

It contained statements like:

To grasp the basic elements of our Torah...we cannot be content with commentaries of our sages, but must also diligently study the philosophical books of the nations of the world.[16]


It is time to do for G-d...If the time might come when the commandments of the Torah would bring evil on our nation...or cause unhappiness...then we would throw off the yoke (of Torah) from our neck.”


Many doubted whether all the rulings in the book were actually from the Rosh. Most believed some rulings had been ‘adjusted’ by R. Saul Berlin. His torrid history with writings and texts hadn’t helped either. 

According to the Seforim Blog; “In the academic world, the Besamin Rosh is written off as aTrojan Horse’ intended to surreptitiously get R Saul’s maskilic (‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened’) positions out in the masses...”[17]

R. Saul Berlin’s father, the Chief Rabbi of Berlin, came immediately to his son’s defence. He claimed that he had seen the original manuscripts of the Rosh which he had had in his possession for eleven years and that the work of his son was accurate! 

Even the Chida[18] supported the claim. As did the Nodah be Yehudah (who even wrote an approbation to Besamin Rosh).

But most regarded Besamim Rosh as a forged document.  

The first published work to cast aspirations on Besamin Rosh was (a rare book) Ze’ev Yetrof (1793), by R. Ze’ev Wolf Landsberg. It points out that there are eight teshuvot (responsa) that raise eyebrows because they appear not to be within rabbinic norm.

The second person to challenge Besamim Rosh was R. Yaakov Katzenellenbogen (who happened to be an in-law of R. Refael haKohen who R. Saul had attacked previously). He raised questions on 13 of the teshuvot.  

The Chatam Sofer also disputed the originality of the writing and considered the entire work to be a forgery! He referred to the book as kitzvei haRosh, or Lies of the Rosh.[19]

The Avnei Nezer suggested that the only respectable thing to do to with Besamim Rosh is to burn it (even on Yom Kippur that fall out on Shabbat).

Others took an interesting middle of the road position acknowledging that it was not the work of the Rosh, but praising its scholarship nonetheless:

R. Matityahu Strashun (son of Rashash) see Kotzk Blog 95 wrote;

After all these analyses, even if we were able to prove that the entire Besamim Rosh from beginning to end is the product of R. Saul, one cannot brush the work aside.... as the work is full of Torah like a pomegranate, and the smell of besamim is apparent, it is a work of great insight and displays great breath, the author delves into the intricacies of the Talmud and the Rishonim, the author is one of the greats of his generation..”[20]

When Besamim Rosh was reprinted in 1984, Sefardic Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef wrote in his approbation to the new edition that he believes it was the work of R. Saul Berlin, but that it nevertheless is still of great halachic value.[21]


Eventually R. Saul Berlin resigned from the rabbinate and went to live in London where he died soon after. In his will he asked not to be buried in a cemetery but rather on some ‘lonely place’.

As if R. Saul Berlin’s father did not want to make the same mistake twice, it’s interesting to see that his younger son (by 21 years) Solomon Hirschel was raised with little secular education and eventually became the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, a position he held for 40 years (1802 -1842). 

He was far from being the modernist that his brother was and it is said he could hardly speak English (with much of the communication done through his secretary). He is known for his unsuccessful attempt to stop Reform Judaism by excommunicating its leaders.

R. Saul Berlin’s son, Aryeh Yehuda, also received a thorough Talmudic education and became the Chief Rabbi of Silesia. 

Sadly in 1809 he left Judaism and converted to Christianity.


It does seem as if an overwhelming number of scholars believe the Besamim Rosh to be either wholly or partly the creation of R. Saul Berlin. As we have seen, some regard it as an entire forgery and some as only a partial ‘adaptation’. A small minority believe it to actually be the work of the Rosh himself.

Yet today the book is still generally studied by the mainstream rabbinic world, notwithstanding its controversial history. No one denies the scholarship and it is nevertheless still regarded as part of the rabbinic cannon. 

(In a newer edition of Besamim Rosh some of the problematic teshuvot are omitted, although the page numbers are still there and just blank spaces remain.)

In a great irony, as pointed out by R. Adam Mintz, the very work that was intended to undermine rabbinic authority has become one of its strongest (and strangest) bastions.[22]


Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky writes strongly against publicizing R. Saul Berlin’s fraudulent attributing of Besamim Rosh to the Rosh. 

He gives a number of reasons:

1) It is disrespectful to his family.
2) His soul may already have been rectified in the 150 years since his passing, and bringing these events to the fore may harm him.
3) It discredits all the rabbis who mistakenly supported him.
4) It will weaken the faith of many who will become confused to see how a great Torah personality can fall to heresy.

It is up to the reader to decide whether this is just another ‘conspiracy of silence’ - or a noble attempt at preserving dignity (which then for the same reasons, should also to be applied equally across the board to everyone else on all sides of Jewish history).

If Torah faith can only stand on a foundation that withholds (admittedly) factual information, then what value is that faith?


Regarding the issue of riding a horse through a town on Shabbat instead of having to rely on the ‘kindness of strangers’, I discussed this ruling with Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein who has this interesting halachik take:

"In response to the seemingly bizarre ruling that one may continue riding on Shabbos through a town that is foreign to the rider to avoid debasing one's self to ask for hospitality; since kavod habriyos, human dignity supersedes even a Torah injunction. 

Although I haven't seen the Teshuva inside and it's not a matter of halacha lemaaseh, only an academic discussion, I offer a plausible explanation for this ruling, that the source in Gemara Brochos 19a amongst many sources (cf. ad loc.) stating the degree of severity given to human dignity over other commandments means that Rabbinic injunctions were suspended when they cause human suffering and discomfort. 

This is termed a Torah prohibition as all Rabbinic enactments involve the prohibition of "lo tasur" - do not veer from the path provided by the Rabbonon. So to assume that a lone rider be allowed to continue riding into Shabbos, which is itself only a Rabbinic concern, to avoid the humiliation of begging for hospitality, is not bizarre by any stretch of the imagination. 

Although it is a poor reflection of Jewish hospitality if that's what strangers feel in a Yiddishe shtetel..."

- Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein, Rosh Yeshiva L'Rabbonus Pretoria. 

[1] The Rosh was such an important halachik figure that when R. Yosef Karo compiled his Shulchan Aruch, he included him together with Rambam and Rif as one of the three main decisors of upon which all of Jewish Law is built.
[2] Part of the Habsburgs, Prussia and today Poland.
[3] Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Levin (Berlin).
[4] See KOTZK BLOG 95) for an understanding of how the Enlightenment Movement adopted different positions regarding Orthodoxy and religion. In some locations (such as Vilna and the Czech Lands) it was quite compatible with rabbinic Judaism, while in others it was radically and diametrically opposed to it.
[5] Lit. Letter of Justice
[6] Lit. Watch-Tower of Yoktiel.

[7] ‘Ovadiah ben Baruch ish Polanya (of Poland)’.

[8] See The Berlin Haskalah, by Israel Zinberg p. 194 This is quite a strange accusation to make because R. Saul Berlin’s own commentary to Besamim Rosh also seems to relish in pilpul. See Shaking the Pillars of Exile; ‘Voice of a Fool’, by Talya Fishman, p.174.
[9] As an aside there were two interesting questions regarding this ban; Can a ban in one city be applied to another city? And can a ban in fact even be considered effective if it is simply a response to a personal character assassination?
[10] It also had his own commentary, known as kasa deharsena. The publication contained two approbations; One from R, Tvi Hirsh Berlin (R. Saul’s father) and the other from R. Yechezkel Landau (the Chief Rabbi of Prague), known as the Nodah beYehudah.  [The number of responsa is 392 which happens to be the numerical value of besamim. 392 corresponds to Shin Bet Tzaddi, or Saul ben Tzvi.]
[11] Since most suicides are not the result of a premeditated suicidal philosophy but rather of extreme stress and pain - the suicide is therefore not considered a ‘technical suicide’. For this reason, many of the laws of mourning would still apply. Interestingly enough, for the most part, we follow this ruling and definition today and do not consider every suicide to be a ‘technical suicide’.
[12] #115,118. He warns against being a chasid shoteh (righteous fool).
[13] #36
[14] The Rosh was known for his opposition to secular studies.
[15] #375.  This is where a traveller was riding a horse and Shabbat was fast approaching. Instead of relying on the kindness of strangers, the rider was permitted to continue on his way on Shabbat. Kavod habriyot doche lo ta’aseh (Respect to fellow humans overrides a negative commandment). See Note 2. at the end of this essay.
[16] #251
[17] See Seforim Blog: Besamim Rosh and its History by Dan Rabinowitz and Eliezer Brodt.
[18] Rabbi Yosef Chaim David Azulai
[19] Orach Chaim 154
[20] Shmuel Yosef Finn, Kiryah Ne’amanah p. 93 (Cited by Seforim Blog)
[21] In the second approbation to the same edition, R. Binyamin Silber wrote that he believed the work was a forgery.
[22] Rabbi Mintz points out that a similar process took place with the controversy over the authorship of the Zohar, yet it still stands as a bastion for Jewish mysticism despite its question of authorship. See Kotzk Blog 87.


  1. Did you read the teshuvah regarding sanctioning the of drinking yayin nesech (non-kosher wine) ?

    It does not seem to me he said that.

    1. With reference was to Teshuvah number 'lamed vav': You're correct. I did read that later editions omitted some sections -but I can't say that is the case here.

      The only thing vaguely relevant that I saw was about 14 lines down 'venireh d'rabbeinu' - but that could be explained as normative for abolishing a custom whose original reason has been given and, in time, the reason falls away.

    2. Perhaps 15 lines above: 'veod sheani roeh shekol haosrin haelu hen kemo hayayin leharchik yisrael min hagoyim...sheyeish adayin mekomot shedarin yisrael sham veovdin avodot zarot'