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[ Page 113 ]

PART TWO



RABBIS AND RITUAL SLAUGHTERERS
E. Ben-Ezra (New York)


Rabbi Moshe of Drohitchin
1705-1781


        One of the criteria for determining the greatness of a historical personality is the extent of legends that develop about him. A legend reflects how people saw the person, and that individual can be evaluated even though historical information is lacking.

        Rabbi Moshe of Drohitchin (as he referred to himself) was just such a person. We never found a single piece of information about his life, so we have to make due with biographical information in legends, and extract the kernels of truth from them.

        Apparently, Rabbi Moshe was born in Drohitchin, since in all of his books he signs his name, “Rabbi Moshe of Drohitchin,” and in my estimation he was born no later than 1705.

        His father was Rabbi Yekutiel Zalman, who was a descendant of the family of Rabbi Eliezer Kharif, who was the head of the rabbinical court of Tiktin, and his maternal great-grandfather was the famous eminent scholar, R. Elayakim Getz, who started a chain of ten generations of great rabbinical scholars.

        Rabbi Moshe was the head of the rabbinical court of Drohitchin, but no one knows when he started in that position. According to the title page of Magid Mishnah, he began the position of rabbi in Pinsk around 1745. Pinsk was where his father-in-law, R. Yehudah lived.

        Apparently, Rabbi Moshe did not serve as rabbi in Pinsk for very long, because in 1746 he was appointed head rabbi in Sambar, Galicia. He served in that city as the highly revered head rabbi for about 25 years, if not longer, until he moved to the Holy Land.

        How did Rabbi Moshe, the rabbi of Drohitchin and Pinsk, become a rabbi in Galicia? What led to it?

        In my estimation, Rabbi Moshe moved to Galicia because there were great kabbalists in Galicia, such as: R. Moshe Ostrer, R. Chaim Sanzer of Brody and others. Brody was a kabbalistic center in those days, where many kabbalists lived and studied the kabbalistic method of R. Isaac Luria (known as the Arizal) in opposition to the kabbalistic teachings of the messianic pretender, Shabtai Zvi. In Galicia, Rabbi Moshe found his place where he could flower, and where he could share the company of rabbis who understood him and appreciated him.

        Rabbi Moshe was not a kabbalist with a limited knowledge of the Talmud and decisors of Jewish law. On the contrary, he didn't acknowledge such kabbalists, because whoever was not a great scholar in the Talmud and commentaries could never understand the secrets of the Arizal. Therefore, he devoted his entire being to such studies. When R. Moshe filled himself with Jewish law and talmudic debate, he became involved in kabbalah, especially the kabbalistic system of the Arizal. This is when he came across the writings of Rabbi Emanuel Chai Riki, one of the commentators of the Lurianic [Arizal's] system (1688-1743), especially his book,

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Mishnat Chassidim, that was incomprehensible even to experts in kabbalah.

        R. Moshe undertook to explain that book to its readers. R. Moshe completed that task with his commentary, Magid Chassidim, on the book, Mishnat Chassidim. He received the approbations for his work from R. Yechezkel Landau, the author of Nodah Be'Yehudah as well as other esteemed scholars of that time.

        Rabbi Moshe's commentary, Magid Mishnah, was very popular, and the Belzer Rebbe, R. Shalom, used to study it daily. Rabbi Moshe wasn't very pleased with his commentary, Magid Mishnah, because he felt that there were gaps here and there in the commentary, and in 1765 he published Kiryat Arba, a continuation of his earlier book. The second work also received the approbation from none other than the great kabbalist, Rabbi Zvi Hirsh of Zidichov, who praised him repeatedly in his own book, Pri Kodesh Hillulim. The book, Kiryat Arba was a widely-used text, and it went out of print very quickly.

2.

        As discussed earlier, R. Moshe studied Jewish law extensively. In this area as well, R. Moshe did not lag behind. He wrote novellae commentaries on difficult sections of the Talmud, and clarified certain difficult sections of the commentaries of Tosafot and of Maimonides on the Talmud. His commentaries were published in his book, Chilukei de-Rabbanan, to which the greatest rabbis gave their approbations.

        The title page of the book indicates a number of significant details about R. Moshe: first of all, two or three years after he published Kiryat Arba, (1765) and his other book, Chilukah de-Rabbanan (1768), R. Moshe became very ill, and only recovered miraculously. During that illness, he was given the added name of “Yosef.” This is certainly a hint to the verse in Isaiah 38:5, I shall add [yosef] to your days. Not only did his name change, but he changed as well. The event was an impetus for his to publish his book on Jewish law, Chilukah de-Rabbanan.

        The same title page indicates that R. Moshe authored a work called Beit Tefilah, in which he discussed the importance of prayer according to the Lurianic system. However, the book was never printed. Another of his books that was never printed was Merkavat Mishnah, which deals with Jewish law and the writings of Maimonides.

        In addition to that halachic work, R. Moshe also had a manuscript of a small treatise called Mar'eh Ofanim, in which he dealt with astronomy and the laws regarding the sanctification of the new month according to Maimonides. R. Moshe was very interested in astronomy because it is possible to understand the greatness of G-d through it. The treatise was held in high esteem by rabbis of that period. Nevertheless, only a small part of the Mar'eh Ofanim was published.

        Rabbi Moshe evidently sought to distance himself from disputes. We don't find him to be involved in the dispute regarding the divorce certificate of Kleva. He was also not among the supporters or opponents of R. Yonatan Eibschutz and R. Yaakov Emden.
Rabbi Moshe was involved in his talmudic and kabbalistic studies, and therefore stayed away from disputes even when they involved the greatest rabbis of his generation, and who were among his friends and associates.

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