Great Rabbis' Books

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Our Great Rabbis and Their Books


It was customary among the European Jews to re-name their greatest scholars by using the names of their most important books. It was for this reason that Moses Schreiber, born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, was called Chasam Sofer. He had written a book by that Hebrew name which may be translated as Seal of the Scribe. Of course, Schreiber is the German word for writer or scribe. The book Chasam Sofer is a collection of legal decisions concerning Jewish practices. Rabbi Isaac Klein, of blessed memory, formerly Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Buffalo, wrote a similar book in our time called A Guide to Jewish Practice.  There were also a number of other Jewish scholars known by their books.

The use of “nick” names to describe a culture hero is known to us as well. In all cultures some people exemplify the most admired characteristics of that society. These people then are given names that reflect their importance. For example, in our culture George Herman Ruth was known as “Babe” and “the Sultan of Swat” and other labels of affection and social honor. The great boxer Joseph L. Barrow was called “The Brown Bomber” and fought under the name Joe Louis. There are many such examples.

Therefore we are not surprised that the “culture heroes” of the 19th century Jews were the great scholars of the day, including the Chasam Sofer.

Rabbi Sofer, as he called himself, became Chief Rabbi of Pressburg in 1806 and remained there until his death in 1839. Pressburg is today known as Bratislava and is located in today’s Slovakia. In the nineteenth century is was part of the Austrian Empire and German was spoken there.

Those who have read the life of Napoleon Bonaparte know that he invaded Pressburg in 1809 after he had won the Battles of Jena and Austerlitz in 1805 (Read one of the innumerable biographies of Napoleon - do it now).

That invasion and two terrible fires made Rabbi Sofer’s life very hard. He lost his wife at the age of 50 and was then a childless widower. Therefore he married Saril Eiger, the daughter of the famous Rabbi Akibah Eiger, and had eleven children with her.

Rabbi Sofer then became the leading “halachik” legal authority of his time. It was of course a time when Jews were emerging from the medieval ghetto. Napoleon had left it as one of his legacies that he emancipated the Jews in the spirit of the French Revolution (1789), which he, Napoleon, spread across all of Europe.

Thereupon some Jews turned to a secular life and began to abandon traditional Judaism. Sofer, like so many other orthodox Jews after him, became an opponent of the secularists by writing a number of additional books consisting mostly of his speeches and decisions.

Another great scholar among us was Rabbi Meir Kagan, known as The Chofetz Chaim because his principle work was called “desire of life” after Psalm 34 (Take a look in your Bible). He also wrote other books including Ahavath Chesed, meaning Love of Kindness, The Dispersed of Israel or Nidchei Yisrael and The Camp of Israel or Machneh Yisroel. He wrote a commentary, Mishna Brura, on The Set Table or Shulchan Aruch, the famous work of Rabbi Joseph Caro who compiled that code of Jewish laws and customs in the middle of the 15th century. His most monumental work was Likkutei Halachos. Neverthless, our concern is more with the book Chofetz Chayim because it deals with the great sin of Loshon Hara, speaking evil of others. The Chofetz Chayim is based on Psalm 34:13-14, which is repeated by us three times a day in the course of the 18 Blessings we say in the evening, in the morning and in the afternoon. We say, “Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit.” Surely, you will agree that we Jews have been and are to this day the victims of the most atrocious “evil speech”. The Arab media repeat all the old lies about Jews ruling the world, poisoning the water supply, baking matzoth with the blood of children, etc. etc.

As you can see, our great rabbis were not mere speculators about otherworldly concerns. The warning against character assassination is important. Loshon Hara is of course a plague in everyday life. Gossip and innuendo cause a lot of trouble and are, nevertheless, the favorite pastime of many of us. So we need to read what the Chofetz Chayim had to say to us about this.

Rabbi Kagan came to America in his later years and taught at a New York yeshivah. He died in 1933 at the age of 95.

There were of course many other great rabbi-scholars among the European Jews. We cannot mention all of these here. However, it may be of interest that the famous actress, Gwyneth Paltrow, winner of an Oscar for Shakespeare In Love, is the direct descendant of the famous Rabbi David ben Samuel Ha-Levi, born in Cracow in 1586, where he died in 1667. He was known as “The Taz” after his great book Tzurei Zahav or Rock of Gold. The descendants of Rabbi Ha-Levi were the Russian rabbinical family Paltrowitch. This family produced 33 rabbis over several generations. One of these rabbis, Simcha Paltrowitch (1843-1926) served the Pine street “shul” in Buffalo from 1890 – 1914.  His brother’s descendant is the producer-director Bruce Paltrow (Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere), the father of the actress who is not Jewish because her mother, Blythe Danner, is not Jewish. 

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2002).

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