Sunday 6 November 2022

404) The melamed who experienced the stirrings of the shift to Daat Torah


Signature of Moroccan born R. Chaim ben Attar, known as the Or haChaim (1696-1743)


This article, based extensively on the work by Professor David Assaf,[1] discusses a dispute over the honour of the famed Moroccan rabbi, Chaim ben Attar (1696–1743), known as the Or haChaim after his book by that name. The Sefer Or haChaim has always been highly praised by the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) and his Chassidim. This, even though culturally, the Moroccan Or haChaim was far away from the nascent Chassidic movement just beginning in central Europe.

Reception of Or haChaim amongst Chassidim and (at least one of the) Maskilim

The Or haChaim’s student, R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai, known as the Chida, is perhaps just as well-known. The Chida was very proud of his teacher’s work being well-received in Europe, and he wrote:

“We have heard that in Poland, they hold it in high esteem, and it has been printed two more times. And this was inspired by the pious and holy rabbi, our master R. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, having spoken of the great soul of our aforesaid master R. [Chaim].”[2]

Future Chassidic leaders also continued to praise the Or haChaim including R. Yisrael of Ruzhin (1796–1850) who is quoted as saying:

“Just as in earlier times the holy Zohar had the capacity to purify the soul, today, study of the holy Or ha[Chaim] on the Torah has the capacity to purify the soul.”[3]

Even a member of the Enlightenment, the maskil, Abraham Ber Gottlober, who lived amongst Chassidim, wrote about how much he enjoyed reading the Or haChaim and informs us that:

“no [C]humash [Pentateuch] in our land was without that commentary.”[4]

Reception of Or haChaim amongst (some) Sefaradim

R. Yitzchak Yehuda Yechiel Safrin of Komarno (1806–1874), however, informs us that not everyone held the Or haChaim in such high esteem. He explains that sometimes, because of a righteous person’s lofty nature:

“[God] sets against him wicked accusers who scorn him ... as they did the holy rabbi, our rabbi [Chaim] ben Attar, who was scorned by some accursed one [who said]: ‘you are a deceiver and a hypocrite.’ And to this day, the stupid and foolish among his countrymen scorn him ...”[5]

R. Komarno is clearly referring to some Moroccans who despised the Or haChaim, but he was not the only one. In 1870, R. Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam of Shinova (1818?–1898) travelled to the Holy Land and decided to visit the grave on the Or haChaim on the anniversary of his passing. He was surprised to see no Sefaradim present. Upon inquiring as to why there was this blatant absence of Sefaradim at a ceremony commemorating another great Safaradi rabbi’s passing, he was told:

“[The Or haChaim] had disputes with them [the Sefaradim], for he recognized their impudence and they did not acknowledge his great holiness... Not so we, the Ashkenazim and the Hasidim, disciples of the disciples of our rabbi the B[aal Shem Tov] ... and it is our legacy from him that [the Or haChaim’s] name is holy and awesome beyond understanding.”[6]

The story of the melamed

A question concerning one Ashkenazi melamed (teacher) who dared to challenge the assumed ‘sanctity’ of the Or haChaim was posed to R. Chaim Halberstam of Sanz (1799–1876). R. Halberstam answered in his Responsa, Divrei Chaim:

“Some melammed [teacher] slighted the [Or haChaim], of blessed memory, saying he did not write his book with [ruach haKodesh] the holy spirit.”[7]

R. Halberstam goes on to explain that while it is true that biblical prophecy no longer exists, the individual sages of Israel are still privy to such revelations - and one who denies that is a heretic.

The ever-diligent Assaf points out that the printed question could not have been the original question. It is not even framed as a question and the context appears to be missing:

“Almost certainly, the printed version of the question was edited by R. [Chaim Halberstam’s] grandsons, who published their grandfather’s book during the final year of his life” (Assaf 2009:196).

Assaf begins to put pieces of the puzzle together based on what he is able to glean from the text. What is clear, is that an unknown melamed committed an offence by challenging the claim that a ruach haKodesh or holy spirit aided the Or haChaim to write his book. To make matters worse, the “vilemelamed even managed to secure ‘‘responsa from the great Torah scholars of our age’’ who supported the position that ruach haKodesh has been suspended in our generations. R. Halberstam continues:

“And concerning what you wrote [regarding his receipt] of a responsum from the great Torah scholars of our age regarding the total termination of the holy spirit—I will not believe that our rabbis, may they live long, in fact said that. Who knows what this vile deceiver wrote to them?... And not just [the Or haChaim, but]: rather, every writer worthy of it, even in our own generation, writes his book with the holy spirit.”

The melamed was evidently suspended and his source of livelihood was now under discussion. R. Halberstam was, however, not prepared to rule on the matter of remuneration:

“And you did well in not entrusting your children to him; well done! But I cannot rule regarding his wages as a melammed without the presence of the litigants and without knowing exactly how he conducted himself, for there may be some error here. Regarding that, you may rely on your local rabbinical authority.”

R. Halberstam was indeed prudent not to rule about the wages because he did not know all the facts, but he was adamant that the melamed be condemned because he “believes not in the great leaders of the time.’’ Assaf infers that R. Halberstam was particularly referring to the honour due to Chassidic leaders of his time.

Chassidic literature devotes much attention to the elevated nature of it leadership. For example, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, R. Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudlikov, declared:

‘‘the leader of the generation [i.e., the tzadik?] is named not by human but by heavenly authority.’’[8]

R. Eliezer of Tarnogrod (d. 1806), who wrote his book Noam Megadim:

“the true reason for carefully heeding the voice of the sages of each age is that their words are the words of the living God that come to them through the holy spirit.”[9]

Assaf points out particularly around the mid to late 1800s, there was a “preoccupation with the question of respect.” As we can see from the responsum of R. Halberstam, where he emphasises that the melameddoes not believe in the great leaders of the time,’’ he is not only referring to the Or haChaim but to the Chassidic leaders of that time.

Inculcating belief that the ruach haKodesh or holy spirit rested in the rabbis, was a major issue at that time because exactly nine years after R. Halberstam’s passing in 1876, the Chareidi (ultra-Orthodox) movement was birthed during a conference in Hungary in 1885.[10] As Assaf puts it:

“[T]he question of trust in the spiritual leadership [became one of] prominent markers of [ultra-] Orthodoxy during the 1860s” (Assaf 2009:199).

And a short while later - in order to officially oppose the newly formed Haskalah, Zionist, Moderate Orthodox and Mizrachi organisations -  at another conference in 1914,[11] both the newly formed Chareidim and existing Chassidim agreed to join in a loose alliance, and the concept of Daat Torah was merged with the well-known Chassidic version of veneration of their rebbes.

The technical debate over ruach haKodesh between Mitnagdim and Chassidim

The Chassidim and their opponents, the Mitnagdim, had different arguments about the actual parameters of ruach haKodesh as it manifested in rabbinic leadership. The view of the Chassidim was apparently formulated by the leader of the second generation of Chassidim after the Baal Shem Tov, R. Dov Ber of Mezerich. He wrote rather blatantly:

“Today, in the time of the Diaspora, it is easier to attain the holy spirit than it was in the time of the Temple.’’[12]

The Mitnagdim took a less dramatic stance, questioning whether one could even attain ruach haKodesh in the Diaspora. They believed it could only be acquired in the Holy land. Such a debate is recorded between R. Aaron Etinga of Raysha and R. Elimelekh of Lyzhansk in Shever Poshe’im.[13]

R. Nachman of Breslov’s student, R. Natan writes about a debate which took place in Odessa in 1882 between Chassidim and Mitnagdim:

“And I began to speak with them of emunat hakhamim. And I was sure that, in any event, they would have some belief in the Ga’on of Vilna, their leader. But they immediately responded, with surprise, ... ‘‘Should we believe in a human being, etc.?’’... And I began to debate with them asking, ‘‘If so, what is emunat hakhamim?’’ But they paid me no heed whatever ... . And then I realized the divergence between Hasidim and Mitnagdim…”[14]

The case of the ‘katshelabnik

Another case of deviant behaviour similar to the melamed is recorded in a response by R. Jacob Tannenbaum (1832–1897), head of the rabbinical court in Putnok, Hungary, where a shochet (kosher slaughterer) disrespected the author of Ma’avar Yabok. This work was written by the Kabbalist R. Aharon Berachiah ben Moshe of Modena and deals with prayers and customs relating to illness, death and mourning:

“a certain slaughterer had the effrontery not to recite for a deceased anything from the book Ma’avar yaboq on the grounds its author was only a katshelabnik.”

The word katshelabnik (which means a ‘‘goose leg’’ in Hungarian) was often used as an insulting term for Chassidim. Some even used it to refer to Sabbatains who followed the messianic claimant, Liebele Prossnitz (kat-shel-lieb = the sect of Lieb).[15] Either way, it’s not a very complimentary expression.

R. Tannenbaum relied on the abovementioned responsum of R. Chaim of Sanz concerning the melamed and responded almost verbatim:

“so, too, regarding the slaughterer, a spirit of heresy seems to have been cast into him, for he mocks our holy rabbis... . But since he cannot be sentenced to punishment in absentia, let his honor [the inquirer]... so inform the local rabbinic authority to whose jurisdiction the slaughterer is subject.”[16]

The anonymous melamed reappears

In an astounding turn of events, Assaf (2009:201) shows how the anonymous melamed makes a later appearance in the literature. In a collection of letters[17] sent to the Halachic decisor, R. Shlomo Kluger of Brody (1785–1869), is a letter by a certain Avraham Cohen of Siven (dated 16 August 1865).  He complains that he is being targeted by the Chassidim of R. Menachem Nachum Friedman of Stefanesti (c. 1825–1868), the son of R. Yisrael of Ruzhin. They accused him of being a heretic and have not honoured their financial obligations to him. This was because, he claims, he supported a shochet (not connected to the shochet mentioned earlier) who said that the Or haChaim:

‘‘possessed the holy spirit but his treatise was produced through his wisdom and his learning in the yeshiva.’’

In other words, this shochet believed the Or haChaim had ruach haKodesh but he didn’t use it to write his book. Perhaps, the melamed, Avraham Cohen, chose to write to R. Kluger because the latter was not within the Chassidic camp.

Assaf notices that the first (somewhat censored) letter sent to R. Halberstam was written in the plural. He assumes it was written by the Chassidim of R. Friedman complaining about the same incident. Assaf also reminds us that in those times and communities, such disrespect carried the penalty of ex-communication. An excerpt of the melamed’s petition to R. Kluger follows:

“And so I have written to his exalted honor in Torah regarding what has happened in our town, where ignorant Hasidim have arisen and spoken in pride and scorn of the learned scholars of the time. And a certain slaughterer was angered by their defilement of the Torah’s honor. And inasmuch as the Hasidim demeaned the learned scholars as lacking in intellect, he said to them that though the ancients were possessed of the holy spirit, even the Torah was not in the heavens but was attained by toiling in the yeshiva. And they said to him: Do you say this about the Or ha[Chaim] as well? The slaughterer said: The Or ha[Chaim], too, was possessed of the holy spirit, but his holy treatise was produced through his wisdom and his learning in the yeshiva. To which they all replied that he was a heretic, and they treated him very harshly… For I recognized this stumbling-block, in that they did not esteem the Torah and they took a different path, that of sitting together and drinking, and wisdom was nothing to them. I saw as well their scorn for interpreters of the Torah, who were not esteemed in their eyes. I therefore lent support to the aforesaid slaughterer, and I said that the matter was as he had spoken, even with respect to the Or ha[Chaim]… Now near our town lives the rabbi R. Na[chum] Stefanesti; he is the rabbi of the Hasidim and they obey what he says. And they told him what I said about the Or ha[Chaim, as well as other matters about which I knew nothing. And the rabbi, the [Tzadik] R. Na[chum] ordered that I be expelled from the town, for he said I am a heretic in this matter. And it is now two weeks since they have expelled me from partaking of God’s portion, denying me entry into the study hall and deliberately costing me several debts. And they are unwilling to pay me what is due me from several people. Even my comrades in whom I trusted have kept their distance from me, for they fear the aforesaid rabbi, R. Na[chum] inasmuch as a majority in the town are his Hasidim, and speakers of falsehood immediately bear tales to their rabbi regarding anyone who speaks to me. And I cry out in the bitterness of my soul for one to engage with me in litigation in accord with the law of holy Torah, but no one hears…”

We do not know if R. Kluger responded to the letter. What we do see, though, is that the rabbinic leadership was forceful and ruthless in terms of demanding respect. And not just demanding respect, but claiming Divine authority.

“When all is said and done, the melammed, who saw himself as an inseparable part of the traditional community, speaks with great respect of the [Tzadik] of Stefanesti. He fears for his livelihood, to be sure, but he is no less troubled by the prospect of being denied the possibility of worshipping in the synagogue…He does not protest being denied the right to freedom of thought; rather, he maintains that his views are grounded in the words of ancient authorities and entail no heresy”  (Assaf 2009:208).

In his letter, the melamed goes into much detail defending his view with support from the fourteenth-century Rabbeinu Nissim known as the Ran, Rabbah bar Nachmani, Sefer haChinuch; but the melamed laments:

“And one of the Hasidim spoke scornfully about the Ran in a manner that should not be committed to writing. But in that they see no offense, but [only] in my aforesaid statement about Or ha[Chaim].”

Assaf’s concluding thoughts are blunt and to the point:

“The forceful action of the Siven Hasidim is a local reflection of the new tendencies, modes of thought, and styles of action adopted within Eastern European Jewish Orthodoxy in general—a world in which Hasidism, having by now donned a mantle of conservatism and zealotry, had become a central component” (Assaf 2009:209).


One wonders what content was censored out of the original question to R. Halberstam. Reading the melamed’s petition to R. Kluger and his attempt at showing how his defense of the schochet was justified based on earlier rabbinic sources - it seems probable that his argument would have been known to Chassidim with whom he was altercating. Those same Chassidim were the writers of the query to R. Halberstam. They most likely mentioned what the melamed said, but it would have weakened their case if the counter arguments were included in R. Halberstam’s publication produced by his grandsons.

Either way, according to the melamed, he did not deny the Or haChaim his ruach haKodesh. He just supported an opinion that the book was the result of much work and study and was not necessarily a G-d-given book. This does not seem like an unacceptable Hashkafic position to adopt. Judaism has produced countless sefarim that have not always been unanimously accepted by those following different approaches. 

And a large number of Moroccan Sefaradim evidently held even stronger views. In theory, one could argue that a fair application of the principle of hyper-veneration should have extended to the Sefaradim. They too should have been excommunicated and condemned for their "impudence" which, by the accounts we have seen, appear to have been even more acute than that of the melamed's, who to still claimed to believe in his interlocutor's ruach haKodesh.

The melamed, it seems, was a victim of one person’s daat Torah not perfectly matching the prescribed daat Torah of another; even though, at that time, the term ‘daat Torah[18] had not yet even entered the lexicon. 

[1] David Assaf, D., 2009, “‘A Heretic Who has No Faith in the Great Ones of the Age’: The Clash Over the Honor of Or Ha-Hayyim,” Modern Judaism, vol. 29, no. 2, 194-225.

[2] Hayyim Joseph David Azulai, Shem ha-gedolim va’ad hakhamim (Vilna, 1853), ma’arekhet sefarim, letter A, no. 54

[3] Israel Rapoport, Divrei David (Hosyatin, 1904), p. 44.

[4] Abraham Ber Gottlober, Zikhronot u-masa’ot [Memoirs and journeys], (ed.) Reuben Goldberg, Vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1976) pp. 76, 126.

[5] Yitzchak Yehuda Yechiel Safrin, Netiv miztzvotekha (Lemberg, 1858), netiv emunah, shevil 1, sec. 9; cf. id., shevil 4, sec. 5.

[6] Moses Goldstein, Sefer mase’ot yerushalayim [Jerusalem journeys] (Jerusalem, 1963), p. 95.

[7] Chaim Halberstam of Sanz, Responsa Divrei Chaim, vol. 2 (Lvov, 1875), Yoreh de’ah, sec. 105.

[8] Degel Machane Efraim: [Koretz, 1809?], p. 21.

[9] Noam Megadim uKevod haTorah (Lemberg, 1807), parashat Tzav, 58b.

[12] Maggid Devarav leYakov, (ed.) Rivka Shatz-Uffenheimer [Jerusalem, 1976], p. 70.

[13] Mordecai Wilensky, Chasidim uMitnagedim, Vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 1970), pp. 175–6.

[14] Yemei Maharant [Journal of our teacher R. Nathan] (Benei Brak, 1956), Vol. 2, secs. 77–78.

[15] Jekutiel Judah Grunwald’s comment (in haShochet ve-haShechita baSifrut haRabbanit [Slaughterers and kosher slaughter in rabbinic literature] [New York, 1955], p. 114)

[16] Responsa Naharei Afarsemon (Paks, 1898), Orach Chaim, end of resp. 14.

[17] Ms. Columbia University, New York, X893.19 K71, no. 169.

[18] “Only at the end of the nineteenth century did the distinctively Hasidic quality of emunat hakhamim become blurred, as all segments of Haredi society united around a new understanding of the idea, this time patterned on a different concept—that of da’at torah (‘‘the Torah opinion’’)” (Assaf 2009:212).


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