JewishGen Danzig/Gdańsk SIG Presents:
Chen/Ashkenazi Rabbinical Family of Danzig
by Ralph Chayen
23 Jun 2006
The Rav Avraham-Yehuda Chen was Rav of the Jewish Community of Sopot (near Danzig) from about 1919 to 19341. Most of the community were refugees from Russia, as was Rav Chen himself. The interest in Rav Chen derives not only from the man himself, but also because his forbears go back to the Rav Elchanan of Schottland (1713-1780).
Avraham Chen was a gifted essayist in addition to being a rabbi and talmid chacham. His works were published posthumously by Mossad HaRav Kook (1958)1 as a three volume book of essays, entitled "Bemalchut Hayahadut" ("In the Kingdom of Judaism"). A nutshell version of his genealogy is given as a small footnote in a chapter entitled "Lamenachemai" ("to my comforters"); and a short biography appears in the introduction.
He was born in 1878 in Chernigov (Belarus) where his father, the RADATZ (Rabbi David Zvi Chen) was the Rabbi. The RADATZ's father, the Rav Peretz Chen, had been the Rabbi of Chernigov before him, and had been a confidant of the third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Zedek.
In 1902, Avraham Chen married Leah, daughter of Reb Moshe Ginzburg, a rich merchant, philanthropist and Chassid, in Cherkassi (Ukraine).
In 1910 he was appointed Rav of Novozivkov, in the district of Chernigov, and officiated there until after the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1919, he escaped with his family over the border to Bialystock (Poland), and soon after was appointed Rav of Sopot, as mentioned above.
In 1934, the Nazi influence was already felt in Danzig, and the Rav Avraham Chen again departed firstly to Paris and then to Eretz Yisrael in 1935. After two years in Tel-Aviv he moved to Jerusalem where he had been invited to become Rav of Bet-Midrash Rambam. He filled a number of other important posts until his death in 1957.
As stated previously, the Rav Peretz Chen (1797-1883) was the grandfather of the Rav Avraham Chen. Peretz was the eldest son of the Rav Elchanan Chen, who had come from Schottland as a boy of about seven, to Shklov (Belarus), to learn at the Yeshiva of the first Chabad Rebbe, Schneur Zalman of Liady. The account of how this Elchanan was entrusted by his mother to the care of a visiting merchant, Alexander Sender of Shklov, is one of the traditional stories of the Chen family. The important part of the story, from the historical point of view, is that this lady, the wife of the Rav Meir Chen, was the daughter, granddaughter, or niece of the Rav Elchanan of Schottland. It seems quite reasonable to suppose that she was the daughter of Rav Elchanan's eldest son, Moshe, who died at the age of 28.
The Rav Elchanan of Schottland became the communal Rabbi there in 1752 and served until his death in 17802. He was born in 1713, the son of the distinguished Rabbi, Rav Shmuel Zanvil Ashkenazi, who lived in Bonn (Germany), and was Rav of three communities, Cologne, Arnsberg and Munster. The name Ashkenazi may not have been a real family name, but Elchanan is often referred to as Elchanan Ashkenazi.
The Rav Elchanan became Rav of Fordon (Poland) at the age of 18, and presumably served there for some 20 years before coming to Schottland. He is known as the SIDREI TAHARA after the name of his work which was published in 1783, three years after his death, as an addendum to the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deyah (volume Bet) by his son Yehuda Leib. Before the work itself, there appears a long foreword by this son, in which he refers to his father, his stepmother, and his late brother Moshe. He tells the story of how his grandfather, Shmuel Zanvil Ashkenazi, on feeling his strength departing in 1766, asked his Kehillah to appoint his son (Elchanan) in his place.
Apparently the Kehillah agreed, as did Elchanan. The latter had already sent his library by ship to Amsterdam and set off in his coach, when the people of Schottland not only begged him to stay, but lay down in front of the coach to prevent his departure. The Rav Elchanan relented, and stayed in Schottland until his death. His father died in 1767.
It is interesting that Yehuda Leib, in his introduction to the Sidrei Tahara, refers to his father as the Rav Elchanan ben HaRav Shmuel Zanvil Ashkenazi; but whereas he uses block capitals for all the other names, the name Ashkenazi is given in small letters. However, in the Shulchan Aruch, the name Ashkenazi as well appears in block letters. Yehuda Leib's use of small letters for the name Ashkenazi might indicate that it was not a family name.
The Rav Avraham Chen, in his book, refers to the Sidrei Tahara as the Rav Elchanan Chen. Indeed, in the introduction to his book (not written by the author), the same name is given. In a book entitled "On the Poems of Zelda," by Chamutal Bar-Yosef3, the authoress gives a biography of the Chen family (Zelda was a granddaughter of the RADATZ); and she, too, identifies the Sidrei Tahara as Elchanan Chen. Of course, it is possible that all three authors took their information from the same source; but it would be strange if the Rav Avraham Chen were mistaken, since not only had he seen the family tree but had himself been a rabbi in a suburb of Danzig.
The problem of the family name becomes even more complicated when we see that the grandson of the Rav Elchanan, Samuel Sanwil ben Rav Yehuda Leib Rosenstein became the third Rabbi of Mattenbuden, following the death (in 1814) of the Rav Elchanan's son Isaak Itzig. Was this Rav Yehuda Leib Rosenstein the same Yehuda Leib ben HaRav Elchanan, as seems likely? There seem to be seem to be two possible answers; one is that the name was selected from the German names given out in 1817, when everyone was obliged to take on a surname; another possibility is that Elchanan's son married a Rosenstein lady according to Jewish law but the marriage was not recorded in a civil register. That such situations arose in Schottland may be deduced from the archives of the Danzig communities, where it appears that a Max Eisenstaedt (b. 1839) married Johanna Falk, and their children were named Falk.
It seems that we have more questions than answers. For example, was it a coincidence that the Rav Moses ben Chaim Chefez (d. 1807), the first Rabbi of Mattenbuden came from Shklov, the town to which the young Elchanan Chen was taken? Was it also a coincidence that the Rav Avraham Chen came to be Rabbi in Sopot (a suburb of Danzig) more than a century later; or was there some long-lasting connection between the Chabad movement in Belarus and the Jewish Community of Danzig? It may be hoped that the Danzig SIG will be able eventually to provide the answers.
1. In the Kingdom of Judaism, by Rav Avraham Chen. Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1958.
2. Die Geschichte der Juden in Danzig, by Samuel Echt. Leer/Ostfriesland: Rautenberg, 1972.
3. On Zelda's Poetry, by Hamutal Bar-Yoseph. Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1988.