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[Page 417]

The History of R' Yakov Reifman

 

A Great Jew and a Genial Person

by Itzhak Warshawski

Translated by Moses Milstein

People who receive their education in a normal fashion, in a school, cannot appreciate the many difficulties a young, religious, Jewish person, who had a desire for education, had in those days. All avenues were closed to them.

First, such a young man only knew Yiddish and Hebrew, and there were hardly any books in those languages that dealt with worldly knowledge. Second, in the Jewish shtetls and cities in Poland, Galicia, and Lithuania, there was bitter opposition to studying anything other than Torah. Such a young man was expelled from the Bet Hamidrash, beaten, and often sent away to the army. About marriage, there was no question: which Jew would take as a son–in–law, an apikores [1].

Nevertheless, there were many boys who risked their lives in order to obtain an education. It was their ideal. When such a young man learned, for example, a law of logic, or mathematics, or physics or geography, it was, for him, a joyous occasion.

One such, who later became a renowned scholar, was Yakov Reifman. Only a few decades after his death, legends and stories about him began to circulate.

 

A sharp mind

Yakov Reifman was born in 1817, in the village of Lugow., near Opatow, Radom Gubernia. His father, R' Hirsh, was a “writer”, albeit a writer in a forest.

In his short autobiography, he describes how, at the age of three, he was already awakened at dawn by his mother Rachel, and taken to a teacher to study.

When he was four, his father's house burned down. He also, it seems, gave up his occupation as a writer. He moved to Opatow, and became a teacher.

Yakov studied first with his father, and then with others, and quickly demonstrated a sharp mind. In those days, young boys were taught simple things. Before a boy was properly able to study a page of Gemora, he was expected to be skilled at asking questions, solving them, and building castles in the air around the laws of the Talmud. But even though he had an extraordinary mind, and could run rings around the other boys, he had no interest in these things, and wanted to study formally and with order. At the age of fifteen, he ended his studies with teachers and took to studying on his own.

 

What's written in those books?

While studying in the Bet Hamidrash, Yakov learned that there were “other ways of knowing.” He heard that, somewhere, in the big cities, there were learned people, universities, and libraries. Yakov was an inquisitive boy. He immediately acquired a strong desire to know: What are they writing about in those books? What do they teach, the professors? But in Opatow (or Opta, as the Jews called it), he could find nothing about the subject. The only thing he did hear was that the great minds are great apikoreses.

Aside from hearing these things, he also occasionally found books about those knowledgeable in worldly things. He learned, for example, that some were versed in mathematics, and could predict when eclipses would happen. It was sometime mentioned in books that some rabbi had had a debate with an apikores. This awakened a great curiosity in him, but there was no way for him to satisfy it.

He was married at seventeen. He had, of course, never seen his bride–to–be. His father–in–law, R' Yosef Maimon, lived in Shebreshin, quite a distance from Opatow. But matchmakers often made matches in far away cities. Yakov had a reputation as a scholar: the father–in–law was a rich man. He promised his son–in–law that he would support him while he sat and studied. In 1836, Yakov settled in Shebreshin.

 

New opportunities in Shebreshin

About the conjugal life of the newly–weds, little is known. But it is known that in his father–in–law's house, he found a “treasure.” The treasure consisted of a number of books that he had heard about but did not exist in Opatow. One book was “Moreh Nevochim”, by Rambam, a philosophical work written in Arabic, and later translated into Hebrew. A second book was “Hachuzri”, also philosophical, written by the great philosopher and poet, R' Yehuda Halevi.

From these books, Yakov began to study worldly knowledge. He read them with such passion that after a few months, he knew them by heart. But his hunger for learning was not yet sated. On the contrary, these books whetted his appetite for more spiritual matters.

In those days, all the maskilim [2] had one way to haskala: learning German. First, all sorts of books were available in German, but were not available in Russian or Polish. Second, learning German was easier, because of its similarity to Yiddish. But there was a third reason why it was the language of the maskilim. The renowned Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, had translated the Tanach into German (with a commentary). It was published with one side in Hebrew, and on the other, in German with Yiddish letters. From this translation, most of the maskilim learned to read and understand German, which, next to Hebrew, became the language of the maskilim.

S had an advantage, which Opatow did not. It was near Zamosc, which had long been a city of maskilim, of enlightened people. How Yakov acquired Mendelssohn's translation in S is hard to say. It was no easy thing. It had to be kept a strict secret. When a young man was found to be studying Mendelssohn's Tanach he was beaten, thrown out of the Bet Hamidrash, and forced to divorce his wife, because which father–in–law would continue to support an apikores?

But there is nothing one can't achieve if one desires it strongly. Yakov Reifman acquired Mendelssohn's Tanach, quickly learned German, and soon acquired more German books. He also taught himself how to write Hebrew in the old–fashioned way.

 

Caught up in the revolution

Sooner or later, it was discovered in Shebreshin that Yakov was caught up in the progressive movement, but it was too late for his father–in–law to drive him away. He already had a child. Aside from that, he did not behave like other maskilim, who wore modern clothing, and became apikoreses. Yakov remained, although exceptional, a pious Jew. He davened, observed all the mitzvoth, and sat and studied.

Chasidim say that Yakov's wife went to see the Belzer rabbi, R' Shalom, to ask him whether she should divorce her husband, the apikores. R' Shalom Belzer asked her if her husband washed his hands before bed. She answered that he did. “If so, the rabbi replied, live with him, you will have a good son with him.”

Chasidim point out that the rabbi's prediction was accurate. R' Yakov Reifman's only son, R' Nathan, became a properly religious young man, and later, a rabbi in Lublin. Like other religious Jews, he held his father to be a bit of an apikores. Nevertheless, he accorded him respect because, firstly, a father is a father, and, secondly, his father was a great scholar, one of the greatest in Poland.

Yakov Reifman was, by nature, a rationalist, a person who does not believe in secrets and mysteries. More than anything he revered clarity. But that did not prevent him from writing poetry in Hebrew and Aramaic. How did he know Aramiac? In every Chumash there is a “Targum”in Aramaic, a language that was spoken in Babylonia and in Israel where not everyone knew Hebrew. For their benefit, the Tanach was translated into Aramaic. As he had learned German from Mendelssohn's translation, he learned Aramaic from the “Targum.” He had a strong affinity for languages.

It did not take long for him to acquire a reputation among learned Jews as a philologue. He wrote many books and published many articles in German and Hebrew journals. Among his well–known works are, “Bet Yakov”–a book about the Tanach. “Pesher Davar” , a book about the history of the Talmud and Midrash; “Moadi Erev”, a book about the logic of the Talmud; “Sanhedrin”, a book describing the sofrim circle in Israel. He wrote a book about the great, extended family Rapaport, “Avi Mishpachat Rapaport” which was published in Vienna in 1872.

 

A Golden Cup from Montefiore

How did Yakov Reifman live in later years, after his father–in–law died? We do not have a clear answer to the question. His writings brought him some income. Maskilim the world over helped him out a little. And, he probably received some money from the articles he published from time to time. Also, it did not take much money to live in S. in those days; one could live on a few rubles a week.

In 1881, the well–known Jewish–English philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore, sent Reifman a golden goblet on which was inscribed a Hebrew poem written by Montefiore himself. In his short autobiography, Reifman wrote that he was never more gladdened than by this gift. If the Jews of S. did not yet believe that the “apikores,” Yakov Reifman was held in great esteem by the world, this convinced them.

Another happy event was receiving a chest full of rare books from an admirer of his in Amsterdam, R' Abraham Chaim Wagna. Reifman corresponded with many scholars of his time, including the Jewish–German scientist Abraham Geiger, and Itzhak Mordechai Jost. In his later years, he taught himself Latin, Greek and Arabic. His books were published in Berlin, Vienna, Warsaw, Vilna, and St. Petersburg.

The Hebrew poet, Y.L. Gordon, thought the world of Reifman, and wrote a Hebrew poem about him, where he says, “Wherever I go, I see your ghost, which searches for the hidden in the Torah with the light of a flame…I have not forgotten you, my brother, and who can forget you? How many Yakov Reifmans are there in the Jewish streets?”

Y.L. Gordon was not one prone to idle flattery.

 

Not copying others

In 1888, during the celebration of Reifman's 70th jubilee, a short autobiography was published in the Hebrew anthology, “Knesset Israel.” He described certain of his character traits. First, he preferred that everything be original–he said of himself. He did not like to copy others. Second, he detested dishonesty, flattery, and politics. More than anything he loved sincerity, and for this reason, he mostly befriended young people who had not yet learned to be false, and were freer thinkers. Third, he loved company, only occasionally preferring solitude. Fourth, he was a very loyal friend, and if he didn't like someone, he did not keep it secret.

R' Yakov Reifman died on Octber 13, 1895, at the age of 78.

*

He was very popular in the Lublin region. He was especially esteemed in Zamosc, which was, as already mentioned, an enlightened city.

Without a doubt he was a role model for Y.L. Peretz, when he was still a young maskil in Zamosc. He probably knew Reifman personally.

Chasidim considered him an apikores, but held him in greater respect than other maskilim. He conducted himself as a religious Jew, and raised a religious son, a rabbi; this was an exception among the maskilim. Most likely, he truly was a pious Jew, and therefore, he kept on living in the small and pious Shebreshin, where he could remain religious, and carry on his scientific work.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Heretic, free thinker Return
  2. Followers of Haskala, Jewish enlightenment movement Return


[Page 423]

A Great Shebreshiner, Pious Man, and Scholar

by Yakov Shatzki

Translated by Moses Milstein

Yakov Reifman, 1818-1894, was an important figure in Zamosc. He lived in Shebreshin in poor economic conditions. His father-in-law, Yosef Maimon, was a well-known maskil. Reifman's name appeared often in books of that era. He wanted to be active in the field of Jewish education. This apikores and Jewish scholar, who Peretz alluded to with respect, had to endure great distress from Chasidim. They wanted to excommunicate him. This was because, in his younger years, he was associated with the founding of Jewish elementary schools in Lublin (1833), and later, in Chelm (1862). Strong Chasidic opposition led to the closing of the schools.

As mentioned, he was held in great esteem in Zamosc. The maskilim there liked his approach to Jewish education. He believed in a balance between religious education and other forms. Reifman dreamed of a modern yeshiva, and in 1862, thanks to the help of Yehoshua Margolis, a near relation of Peretz, he succeeded in establishing such an institution. It only lasted for one year, but it became renowned in maskilim circles in Poland.

Every Saturday evening, he gathered together a group of young people, and delivered a series of well thought out lectures on scientific matters. He gave them good instruction in all things relating to chachmat-Israel[1], and acquainted them with the newest developments in the field. He strongly criticized the Warsaw rabbinical school for their negative attitude to Jewish history. He was bitter that the rabbinical school had not kept its word. It had invited him in 1854 to teach Talmud. But to the Warsaw educators he was the face of piety, and in the eyes of the Chasidim he was a terrible apikores.

He believed that Polish youth had a stronger Jewish intellectual potential than the Jews of Western Europe. One just had to find a middle way between the chaotic, old-fashioned method of learning, and the modern one. The role of a rabbinical school—he declared to his Zamosc students—was not merely to increase the number of teachers, or bookkeepers and secretaries of commercial houses, but to develop a scholarly, intelligent mind.

A strong circle formed around Reifman in Zamosc. Thanks to him, the local Talmudists had a good library. The fact that he was able to give such serious courses was proof of the existence of a scholarly maskil youth in Zamosc.

Yehoshua Margolis, Reifman's patron and friend, died in 1877. His later years were spent in terrible poverty, living in a “chicken coop,” as he complained in a letter, living on donations, which were solicited on his behalf in the Hebrew papers. The older maskilim of Zamosc died off, and no new ones with fresh energy came to take their place.

Reifman's scholarly works (he was very productive) were truly only meant for scholars, because he was not a writer, but rather a researcher. His works impressed the world of scholars. The world around him helped him little, although they were proud of him. Of his students, the Hebrew writer, David Shifman, (1828-1903), who was a private Hebrew tutor and bookseller, was the only one who helped out the old rebbe. Shifman was Peretz's secretary at one time. He was the local correspondent for “Hamelitz”, put out unpublished songs of Yakov Eichenbaum, and did all that he could to keep the haskala movement alive in Zamosc.

Y. L. Peretz writes about rabbi R' Moshe Wohl, that this “small, sweet Jew, with a silver-white beard” and with eyes “like doves” was the gentlest rabbinical authority in a congregation where maskilim played a very important role. He was a close friend of Reifman, the apikores, and defended him strongly. When they wanted to excommunicate the great Shebreshiner scholar and pious man, R'Moshe Wohl said, “He who performs an excommunication without the approval of the local Rabbi and his Religious Court, shall himself be excommunicated.”

Copied from “YIVO Bleter”, Vol. XXXVI
Researched and submitted by Abraham Wolfson


Translator's Footnote

  1. Science of Judaism, schools of thought among Jewish intellectuals in Germany beginning in the first half of the 19th century Return


[Page 425]

It is not Permitted to Hold it in One's Hand

by Abraham Bernstein

Translated by Moses Milstein

The Kuzmer shtibl in which my father davened, was in Yosele Reifman's house. Sometimes, we youngsters managed to climb into the attic where we found boxes of writings and letters written by Yakov Reifman. At the time, he was well known for his wide–ranging correspondence with Jewish philosophers and thinkers.

We did not understand the writings, but we were fascinated by the beautiful, rounded handwriting, and especially the hand–printed words.

Our parents discovered some of the papers in our possession, and asked us how we came to acquire them. They told us to immediately get rid of them, because, “it is not permitted to hold them in one's hand.”

That was their attitude to the boxes of writings that were treasures of important thoughts and ideas. They remained in the attic for many years, and no one was interested in them. That is an example of how our shtetele, with its mud and poverty, remained trapped in fanaticism for many years.


[Page 426]

In a Room like a Cage

by Solomon Lastik

Translated from Polish by Ephraim Farber

Translated by Moses Milstein

While living in Shebreshin after his marriage, Yakov Reifman developed strong ties to Zamosc with its significant effect on the cultural milieu of S. The winds of haskala found fertile soil in S.

Yakov Reifman occupied himself with modern philosophy and conducted research. At the age of 24, he published his first Talmudic research in the eminent organ of Jewish history, “Zion.” In time, he became an authority in the realm of knowledge. But this did not prevent him from living a life of need.

An excerpt from his letter to Zalman Chaim Halberstam, a scholar of Chachmat–Israel, [1] gives testimony to this.

“Alas, I must live in a room, which is no bigger than a cage, together with all of my family, and the poultry who cackle day and night disrupt my research, and don't allow me to sleep.”

He learned mathematics, physics, natural history, and astronomy from the works of Chaim Zelig Slonimski. Reifman, an expert on ancient scriptures, taught a rational analytical approach to the ancient literature, how to recognize hidden meanings, to appreciate the worth of translating commentaries, and identifying false and twisted texts in certain midrashim of the Talmud.

The world of Talmudic study bowed its head at the death of this giant, the modest priest of pedagogy, the self taught man of Shebreshin.


Translator's Footnote

  1. Science of Judaism, schools of thought among Jewish intellectuals in Germany beginning in the first half of the 19th century Return


[Page 429]

German Translation of Chanukah and Purim
Piyutim [religious poems]

Translated by Moses Milstein

A manuscript by Gumprecht of Shebreshin, written in octavo format, [1] was discovered, in 1892, in the anthology, “Hebraica,” of the Trieste brothers in Padua, Italy. With the mediation of the rabbi of Padua, Dr. Albert Zamatko, the discoverer was able to copy the original handwriting from 1555, written in the German–Gothic style, and publish it in 1895.

After that, the Trieste collection passed to Rosa Gompertz, and professor David Kaufman in Budapest. After his death, the collection, as well as other books, passed to the Hungarian Academy of Science in Budapest.

In the catalogue of Hebrew handwriting and books in professor Kaufman's library, described by Dr. Max Weisss of Frankfurt–Am–Main in 1906, the work is listed under number 397.

The German translation of “Chanukah and Purim piyutim” is, in reality, a poetic reworking of the Chanukah and Purim stories. The source of the Chanukah poem was the “yoytser[2] of Chanukah. The events of Chanukah are described in 49 stanzas taken from the yoytsers of Shabbat–Chanukah: the edicts of King Antiochus, (stanzas 2–4), the death of the martyr, Eliezer (stanzas 5–7), the death of the martyr Hanna and her 7 sons (stanzas 8–15), the wedding of Judah Maccabee, and the death of the city ruler (stanzas 16–25), the story of Holofernes and Judith (stanzas 26–34), and at the end–the miracle of the oil (stanzas 44–46).

The same format was used to tell the story of Megilla Esther in 78 stanzas. To complement the historical tale, he used the Targum Sheini, and the Gemora, Maskat Megilla, and the Midrash, Esther Raba.

Gumprecht was a teacher in Venice in the years, 1570–1571. (A contemporary was Abraham Hasofer ben Itzhak of Shebreshin, who completed a copy of “Esis Rimonim” (catalogue Neubauer no. 1808).

The flames of the Inquisition began to burn on October 19, 1553, and destroyed the entire rabbinical literature of the Venetian Republic. Publication of Jewish works was banned for a decade. It was not until 1563 that publications resumed.

Gumprecht found it necessary to compose the two poems for pious women in order to explain why Purim and Chanukah are celebrated. He dedicated the poems to the daughter, Sarah, (Zoorlein) of the rich and esteemed Simcha of Venice. The melody was taken from an old German song, “Die Schpinerin.” The second poem was sung to the melody of an old German song, “Leid von kalb und landsknecht.”

The entire manuscript is written in one hand but for several words that are struck out and changed by another hand. The name, Zoorlein, was changed to Mestlein, and Simcha to Kalman Azolei. On the last page of the manuscript there is a note with the date 1579–80, with the name, Isaac. One can conclude that this Isaac was either the owner of the manuscript, or the one who changed the names in order to give the manuscript to Mestlein, the daughter of Kalman Azolei of Venice.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. An octavo is a book or pamphlet made up of one or more full sheets of paper on which 16 pages of text were printed, which were then folded three times to produce eight leaves. Wikipedia. Return
  2. Part of the morning service where special hymns are interpolated on certain holidays Return

 

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