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[Page 20]

The First Office of the
Great Rabbi Yechezkel Landau in Yampol

by Aryeh Leib Gellman

A small town full of Torah Sages - Famed Tsaddikim found their place of rest there - The first settlers were exiles from Spain - He served there in the Rabbinate ten years - He accomplished much concerning spreading Torah study - He initiated many ordinances - The Ledger of the Chevra Kadisha was written in his own hand - Was involved in solving the problems of Abandoned Wives - A serious question from “Ashkenazic Scholars” - Accuses Rabbis who do not want to permit anything without payment.

(A)

The illustrious Rabbi, Yechezkel Segal Landau, author of the books: Noda BiYehuda (Famous in Judea), Tslach, Doresh LeZion (Seeker of Zion), Ahavat Zion (Love of Zion) and Dagul Merevava (Outstanding Among Thousands), is known to the Jewish world as the Head of the Rabbinical Courts in Prague, an important city in the Jewish world, famous for its leading rabbis. Such leaders as the Maharal of Prague held office there and taught the Torah to the people. Unfortunately, although most of the chroniclers of Jewish history have told the history of Jewish life in many lands and portrayed life in the Jewish community, they did not give due attention to the spiritual greatness of the renowned rabbis and luminaries of Judaism of those eras, who occupied a leading role in the communal life and left their spiritual impression not only within their own localities, but rather spread their religious and ethical wings over the Jewish life far beyond the limits of their own communities.

The centuries following the 1492 Spanish Expulsion were rich in spiritual and religious life and as such are a distinct period in Jewish history. The great rabbis of these ages were not interested in matters of the community alone, but principally in disseminating Torah and in moral guidance. One of the towering Torah figures of his time was Rabbi Yechezkel Segal Landau (b. 18 Cheshvan 5474 [1714] in Apt; d. 17 Iyar 5553 [1793] in Prague) whose first appointment was at Yampol where he served for ten years. It was during this period that he first achieved fame through his deep Halachic responsa and his wonderful sermons. In a responsa (Noda BiYehuda Tinyana (vol. 2), Even HaEzer, Section 116), he writes to a rabbi on the issue of writing a bill of divorce (gittin), “In my first community they write “Yampola” (in Hebrew characters with an Aleph after the initial Yud). Were I the first to write a divorce contract (get) in that town, I would have written “Yampol” (without the Aleph), but since this was already the accepted custom when I arrived, I made no change.

Hebrew literature and particularly Ashkenazi literature, is full of biographical essays on Rabbi Landau, his nature, and his ideology as spiritual leader of Jewry during that period, but all of it centers on the Prague period. In order to complete the picture, a few of his Torah activities during the Yampol period should be added. My sources were his own writings, and reports I heard from the elders of Yampol, my birthplace. These stories were handed down father to son.

(B)

The town of Yampol, in the province of Volhyn, where I was born, educated and grew up, boasted, like many Pale or Settlement towns, a circle of leading householders. These included some Torah scholars, some well-educated in the 'enlightenment,' Chassidim, and pious men who would have been prominent even in a large city. Even though their livelihoods were irregular, and all struggled to make a living in the town or in the surrounding villages, an aura of nobility pervaded the town. Most of them had a good religious education, and even the simple people and artisans were drawn to the holy books. On Saturday and religious holidays, they would sit at tables in the study houses or kloizes, listening to Torah studies and sermons.

The town was near Kremenetz, Brody, Dubna, Ostra and Rovno, and came under their influence in Torah, Chassidut and general education. Yampol was the home and final resting place of the famous righteous men and fathers of Chassidut: Reb Yechiel Michel of Zloczow (d. 25 Elul 5546 (1786)); his son, Rabbi Yosef, known as the Righteous Reb Yosseleh of Yampol (d. 24 Tevet or Shevat 5572 (1811-1812). Rabbi Landau mentions him in Tslach (Tractate Beitzah, Chapter 1, page 5b), “Over forty years ago the brilliant Rabbi Yosef of Yampol asked …” Besides his greatness in Torah and Chassidut, he was a religious philosopher and an expert on Maimonides' “Guide to the Perplexed,” and other works. Some of the town's elders would tell of Reb Yitchok Ber Lewinsohn (known by his Hebrew acronym: RIBA'L) author of Beth Jehudah, Teuda BeYisroel, Zerubavel, Efes Damimm, and other works, who lived in Yampol for three years during the lifetime of Reb Yossele. He later moved to Kremenetz. It is well known that RIBA'L was a leading opponent to Chassidut. He visited Reb Yosseleh only once when he and a friend had difficulty understanding a passage in the 'Guide to the Perplexed'. Reb Yossele offered a satisfactory explanation, and RIBA'L said he regrets not having visited Reb Yossele before.

Other figures were Rabbi Yaacov-Yosef of Ostra, the grandson of Rabbi Yi'vi [abbreviation for Rabbi Yaakov-Yosef ben Yehuda] (d. 23 Tammuz 5609 (1849)); Rabbi Michele of Shomsk, grandson of Reb Michael of Zloczow, and other offspring of other chassidic Rebbes.

This town was blessed with many famous Rabbis and Chassidic leaders during Chassidut's early years. Nevertheless, the town was free of the strife and controversy that were rife in other towns and communities when Chassidim first appeared.

This town, located on low ground between the hills (mountain ranges) surrounded by canals and lakes, existed in this manner for centuries. In the ancient cemetery, on the outskirts of the town, embedded in the ground, were old, worn-out tombstones, centuries old. Some called the town “the Miracle Sea” [Yam Pelle in Hebrew] on account of the many miracles that saved the townspeople from the periodic pogroms. It was commonly believed that the Jews had formerly lived in the hills, but were moved by the Gentiles to the lowlands so that if threatened, their only recourse would be to jump into the rivers … So life flowed down the generations in that little town upon the Goryn river.

(C)

Who the early rabbis were who sat in judgment in this town, we do not know, just as we will never know for sure how Jews arrived here. (There is an old tradition that the original settlers were Spanish Jews who came here following the exile from Spain. Reb Yithak Ber Lewinsohn (RIBA'L) reports in his “Beth Judah” in 5517 (1757) an account of a great blood libel in the town of Yampol in Volhyn, “my great uncle, Rabbi Elyakim of Yampol, traveled to Rome at the behest of the great rabbis of the Four Lands who met in the Great Assembly in the town of Brody. He met with the High Priest (Pabst) (the Pope) to discuss the matter of the blood libel. He succeeded in bringing back an epistle to the entire kingdom of Poland, written in Latin signed in the Pope's own handwriting and sealed with his seal, to totally dismiss this empty blood libel.. For six consecutive years the Rabbi was in Rome and he worked hard on this matter. He was highly respected by the Pope and his cardinals as a brave, intelligent man, well versed in the Torah. He was a descendant of Reb Yosef ben Shmuel HaLevi who was exiled by King Ferdinand of Spain.” From this account we can conclude that the early settlers were Spanish exiles.

In 5505 (1745), Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, aged 30, was appointed Head of the Rabbinical Court of Yampol. Already at this young age, he was highly regarded by his peers and particularly by the famous Sages of the Kloiz of Brody, “who were lions and tigers in the Torah and in piety.”

The fact that the townspeople turned to Brody, which was known for its Torah scholars, and chose the young Reb Yechezkel, about whom the great Cabbalist, Rabbi Haim Zanser, testified that “Yechezkel peered into Structure of the Chariot,” [the reference is to the prophet Ezekiel's vision associated with the higher reaches of Cabbalah], is a testimony to the strong Torah character of the townspeople.

In the introduction “Words of Endearment” to the first volume of Rabbi Yechezkel Landau's classic, 'Noda BiYehuda' (Famous in Judea), his son, Rabbi Yakovka Segal Landau, a pillar of the Brody Jewish community, writes: “In his thirtieth year, the year of Tzaddik Be'emunatho [the righteous in his faith (Habakuk 2;4) 'Be'emunatho' has a numerical value of 505, to indicate the year he arrived in Yampol 5505] a divine wind bore him to my birthplace, Yampol. (On the outside of the eastern wall of the great synagogue in Yampol, which was twice destroyed by fire, the first time during the tenure of the Noda BiYehuda, was inscribed the date Ki mimcha hakol umiyadcha nathanu lach [“For all is from You and we have given from Your own hand” (Chron. I 29;14)] probably only some of the letters were meant to be counted since the total numerical value is 841. I was unable to determine the exact date.) Like a lion he disseminated Torah to the public. Students began to flock to study with him. Every promising scholar who saw some success in his studies would come to him and 'dine' at his table. Thus the Jewish world was filled with spiritual leaders. Every day these young scholars would discuss his theories and recite his praises. They would tell of his intellectual power and of his high character. They spoke so highly of this great man that community leaders came to him for advice and he judged disputes within the community and his rulings were obeyed. Thus it was all the time that he was in this city, although it was a short time, he became the talisman of the town and did not think of leaving. His staff grew and blossomed throughout the area. The city was quiet during the ten years he lived in Yampol. But as soon as he left, the leaving of the righteous man left its mark, and the quiet did not last long. When he left he was joined by his son in law, my brother-in-law, the famed Rabbi Joseph, who was afterwards rabbi and rosh yeshiva of Posen. Our mother, the Rebbetzin, left with us the children the following summer and as soon as we had left there were bitter troubles [in the town] and we escaped with G-d's help. He had not yet reached his fortieth year in the year Chukath Hatorah [“the decree of the Torah” Chukath has a numerical value of 514 to indicate the year 5514] and he was appointed Head of the Rabbinical Courts and Rosh Yeshiva of the capital Prague. His place in Yampol has a special endearment, and its light and honor arrived at the beginning of the year Shira [“song” had a numerical value of 515 to indicate the year he left Yampol 5515.]”

(D)

In addition to his reputation as a scholar of great wisdom and stature in Halacha, Rabbi Landau was also a gifted speaker. As his son Rabbi Yakovke reports: “he suited every sermon to the occasion whether joyful or sad; he was highly praised by princes who had heard of his words and had them translated to their own tongue. Several of his translated sermons were printed.”

During the Yampol period, Rabbi Landau concentrated solely on Torah analysis and Halacha study. From 5505 (1745) to 5513 (1753) he would speak twice a year, on Shabbos Hagadol (before Passover) and Shabbos Shuva (between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) on complicated Talmudic passages. Thirteen of these sermons were collected in his book Doresh Zion on the following Talmudic passages:

1) Parshas Hamiluim - Rabbi Yochanan said Eliyahu will explain this in the future (Menachoth 45a)

2) Just as the [bitter] waters test her, so they test him (Sotah, beginning of chapter 5)

3) When the fourteenth [of Nissan] falls on the Sabbath (Pesachim 66a)

4) Akavia ben Mehalalel testified to four halachoth (Edioth chapter 5 Mishneh 6)

5) The men of Alexandria asked twelve questions of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania (Nidda 69b)

6) Rabbi Yehudah ben Betheira testified to five halachoth (Edioth beginning of chapter 6)

7) Rabbi Abahu said `it is written “from the family of scribes etc.”' (Shekalim chapter 5 Halacha 1)

8) Rabbi Chanina assistant to the Kohanim (Edioth Chapter 2 Mishah 1,2,3, Pesachim 14a)

9) The meal offering of the daughter of an Israelite who was married to a Kohen is burned (Sotah 23 in the Mishnah)

10) Rabbi Yosi ben Yoezer of Tsereda testified that Ayil Kamtsa (a variety of locust) is kosher (Edioth chapter 8 Mishnah 4, Pesachim 15a)

11) The four species of the Lulav, and the sermon begins with the Midrash Rabah Parshath Emor which explains the verse “There are three which were hidden from me, etc.” [Proverbs 30,18]

12) Rabbi Yochana ben Gudgada testified that a deaf mute whose father arranged her marriage can be divorced (Gittin 35a)

13) and the greatest of all “Ya'al Kagam” [an abbreviation for six halachoth] (Kiddushin 521, Bava Kama 73a, Bava Metzia 22b, Sanhedrin 27a) divided into three sermons.

All these sermons discuss the most delicate Halachic issues and his mastery of all aspects of Torah was astounding.

It is interesting to note that all his books of sermons and novellae bear titles which include the name “Zion”, “Doresh Zion”, “Ahavat Zion”, “Ziun LeNefesh Chaya”.

In the introduction to his book, “Ziun leNefesh Chaya” [Monument for the Living] (known by the acronym “Tslach” this work comprises his novellae on the tractates of Brechoth, Beitzah, Pesachim), which includes both straightforward analysis of Talmudic passages and deep interpretations in Aggada (homilies), he explains why he gave the book that name:

“And Yechezkel said: 'What benefit will man see in his work, all his days of vanity' (Ecclesiastes 1,3; 6,12) if he does not leave a lasting memory after he is gone so that even beyond the grave, his lips will continue to speak clearly. So all my years, since I turned twenty, and G-d favored me with the opportunity to teach students, I have gained some noteworthy insights on several tractates of Talmud and the commentaries, and have pointed out observations which can arouse the interest of the students, but unfortunately I did not write them all down and unfortunately some have been lost. Now I must be content with that which I have written down. They appear here together with what my students recorded. Seven years ago G-d granted me the opportunity to publish my responsa “Noda BiYehuda” which I named after my father, and now I repay my debt to my modest and pious mother with this monument to her living (Chaya) soul. I have chosen this book on three tractates of the Talmud, Brachoth, Pesachim, Beitzah, A Monument for the Living Soul … I called my responsa Noda BiYehuda after my father [Yehuda] … and I have called this volume Ziun Lenefesh Chaya “a memorial (Tsiun) for the soul of the living (Chaya) in honor of my mother, Chaya.”

“I must point out that all my insights are for the benefit of students; the great Torah scholars can do much better. I prepared a pauper's offering. Nevertheless, even greater men than myself may benefit from this book, if only that it will save them time. Thoughts which took me several hours of work to reach, will be immediately accessible to them. A particularly difficult subject was the passage of Rabbi Chanina S'gan Hakohanim (Pesachim 14a) which afforded many a sleepless night. Especially Maimonides' interpretation of this passage in his introduction to Tahroth, one of the orders of the Mishna, was very puzzling until, with G-d's help, I succeeded in resolving it. I now offer thanks to G-d for the fifty years He has enabled me to teach Torah. I pray that I will live out my days in such a manner and that He will enlighten me and my children and students in the light of the true Torah.”

(E)

The elder Torah scholars in our town liked to talk about that great era; about the yeshiva that Rabbi Yechezkel maintained in his study house, and his method of teaching Torah. One of the older men would point to his seat in the study house. Such was the oral tradition he had heard. As an indication of the power these memories had for the scholarly crowd (which even in my day was dwindling,) is the existence of two closed bookcases which were kept locked. These bookcases housed the study books that had served the students in that golden era. As one of the regular students at the study house, I was once allowed by the sexton to examine the contents of the bookcases. There I found some Talmud tractates, Rav Alfas, books of morals and some Halacha books, etc.

Decades had passed since Rabbi Landau's office in Yampol, yet his influence was still felt in the curriculum of the schools and adult study groups. His method is well-known as it was laid out in his books. He strongly objected to empty intellectual acrobatics and he demanded that all discussion be directed toward determining the Halachic ruling. This method was adopted not only in Yampol but in all of Volhyn and the surrounding districts.

Rabbi Yechezkel's second son, Rabbi Shmuel Landau, who succeeded him in Prague explains his father's system in his introduction to 'Doresh Zion.' “The great and straightforward men devote their principal energies to extracting the Halacha from each topic and to resolve apparent contradictions. Even correct analyses and differentiations, which can enlighten the students in the correct methods of study, are proper to raise,” but not “empty sophistry which you may turn over and over and still remain with nothing worthwhile. Rabbi Horowitz (the Shelah) has already castigated those who study in this manner. They are in the category of `those who reveal false faces of the Torah. Their conclusions are based on weak and scanty evidence and their efforts are wasted. They are drawn away from the true path and use their intellect to develop incorrect ideas and at the end of the day they remain empty of Torah and do not arrive at a Halachic conclusion…”

Thorough investigation into the Talmudic sources and Halacha rules, in order to discover the Halachic ruling, - this was his method. Although all the paths of Aggada, the Zohar and Cabbalah were clear to him, he nevertheless refrained from writing on these matters. In his “Tslach [Ziun Lenefesh Chaya] on Berachoth page 33 he writes: “It is true that all our Rabbis' writings in Aggada are in code and riddles. Those who are capable will grasp their meaning, each scholar according to his level. My own feeling is that the revealed Torah was handed down to us and our children on Mount Sinai, but the hidden Torah was only hinted at, and even this only in part. But we hope that G-d will reveal His Presence before us once again and then He will reveal the hidden depths of the Torah's secrets as He did previously on Sinai.”

In a Responsum sent to the Ga'on Rabbi Yeshaya Berlin (Yoreh Dei'ah 2:161) who wondered in his question why he does not respond in relation to Aggadic (homiletic) matters he replies:

“…Behold, I am surprised - what is the point of going on at length? Do the words of our Sages, then, require approval? Is there anyone foolish enough to darken the great light, to ascribe error to words of Aggadah? All the words of the masters of the Talmud, without exception, were “given by the One Shepherd,” and they do not contain anything which is empty or untrue. If anything appears empty, it is our fault, and a consequence of our lack of intelligence, and the weakness of our ability to clearly comprehend the deeper allusions of their words.

Of course, if a person has the spare time, he should try his best to probe the meaning of words of Aggadah as well. All I said was that it is not my custom to reply to inquirers on such matters, because all the words of our Sages in Aggadic matters are sealed and closed, and they are all difficult to understand (at first sight), and if we start trying to explain them, there is not end to the matter, especially for someone like myself, who is burdened by public duties - it is enough for me if I find the time to reply on practical issues.”

There is nothing which stands in the way of Halachah. This was his fixed and clearly-paved path, in which he guided thousands of students, who spread the teachings of their teacher throughout the Jewish Diaspora.

(F)

In the decades during which Rabbi Yechezkel lived in Yampol, he worked and achieved a great deal to spread the study of Torah, and he continued this holy task with greater energy and greater dedication in Prague, until the day of his death. In his Responsa he always excused himself for the delay in his replies, as a result of his constant distractions due to his students, whom he loved and cherished with all his heart and soul.

His timetable was such that he used to deliver four lectures every day, and on Fridays he would study with his students Chumash with the commentary of Rashi (he had a particular inclination towards the study of Rashi, because he held that he was himself a descendent of Rashi.) In a Responsum to one of his disciples he writes (Even Ha'ezer 1:56): “I received your letter, and I remembered how you used to stand before me in the community of Yampol, and your devotion to Torah, and I was pleased that you have achieved the status of being a true teacher to the community of the Lord. As for your complaint that you wrote to me twice, and that I have refrained from replying to you - this is not my custom to any learned man, let alone in relation to my student whom I reared and nurtured.”

Apart from the burden of the Yeshivah, which was placed upon him, he enacted various ordinances relating to affairs of the town, and he instituted order in the conduct of the Chevra
Kadisha (Burial Society.) The ordinances in the Register of the Chevra (which will be reproduced at the end of this book) were written in his own handwriting. I myself have looked through this Register many times, and I was astonished by his perfect handwriting, which was clear and free of corrections. The Register was copied out for me by the local rabbi, Rabbi Meir Shmuel Lerner, the son of the old rabbi, the Ga'on Rabbi Aryeh Leibush Lerner, who was the principal disciple of the Ga'on Rabbi Shlomo Kluger of Brody. The Ga'on Rabbi Aryeh Leibush Lerner served as Rabbi of Yampol for more than sixty years. The contents of the Register are similar to those of all such Registers, which record the ordinances of the Chevra and its decisions. Even though they have no particular historical importance as such, it is worthwhile saving them from oblivion, since they were written by the hand of one of the greatest of Rabbis, whose everyday conversation was imbued with holiness.

Apart from the ordinances in the Register, various other ordinances are mentioned in his work 'Noda BiYehudah.' In Orach Chayim 1 ch. 33 we find an ordinance concerning the lighting of candles by a non-Jew on Yom Kippur. He replied to the inquirer as follows: “Concerning your astonishment, that many communities have the custom that a non-Jew lights candles on Yom Kippur at the time of the Ne'ilah service - you should know that here in our community this custom has already been stopped, thank G-d, and also when I was in the community of Yampol, when I arrived there I found that this was their wont and I stopped it. However, I did allow a non-Jew to move the candles which had been lit before Yom Kippur, and to spread them out throughout the synagogue, and this is permitted because it is a rabbinic prohibition applied to another rabbinic prohibition [i.e. doubly light in severity] which occurs at the time of performing a mitzvah.

Another ordinance which he established relates to the chalitzah shoe [*1]. In his Responsum (what is a … (Ever Ha-ezer 2:154) he writes: “When I came here (to Prague) I discovered that their chalitzah shoe was cut at the back out of three pieces, and I changed it to two pieces. And when I first came to the community of Yampol, I also found that they had a shoe made of three pieces, and I did not want to change it then, and I allowed it for a number of years until I saw the work Yamshed Shelomo on Tractate Yevamot, in chapter 12 paragraph 7, and I said it is sufficient to reduce the number of pieces and not to add a third one for no reason. There is no doubt that the more pieces you have, the more there is a problem of 'patchwork' shoes, especially since the third piece is superfluous and unnecessary. As far as winding the straps is concerned, the custom is to start from the front towards the back, and one starts winding it round behind the foot.

In the previously-mentioned Responsum regarding lighting candles on Yom Kippur, we see a glimpse of his powerful personality as a leading and decisive halachic authority. Which rabbi nowadays, however well-known, would dare to say publicly (Orach Chayim, ibid) “Who asked the community to do this, to recite piyutim (additional liturgical phrases on festivals)? Let them not say piyutim and selichot, but rather, listen to the cantor, and not do something which
is forbidden according to the opinion of most authorities.” The Noda BiYehuda was not afraid or intimidated, but rather, decided what he felt to be correct according to his understanding of Torah. Many of his rulings occasioned storms from time to time, and considerable disquiet in Rabbinic circles, but he, as a person who was firm in his views, took no account of his opponents and antagonists, since only the truth was his guiding light.

(G)

As soon as he arrived in Yampol, he became involved in a complicated problem, which required considerable research and a capacity for bold ruling. We find his Responsum about this in Noda BiYehudah (Choshen Mishpat 1:7) written “halfway through the month of Tammuz 5505 (1745) in Yampol.”

“It happened in our community that the deceased Reb Segal passed away to eternal life. Reb Aharon then produced a document signed by the deceased in the sum of 10,000 coins by way of capital, apart from profits. The heirs argued that, on the contrary, it is he who owed our father money, because we heard our father complaining vociferously that he did not know what to do about Reb Aharon, “in whose hands my money has been lying idle for a considerable time and which I cannot recover.” Now in the estate of the deceased we find two blank signatures of the above-mentioned Reb Aharon, and we have to settle this matter, because it seems to me that there are a number of uncertainties here.”

After clarifying the issue from all possible angles, he ruled that “We have to speak up on behalf of the orphans, and allege that their father had paid off his debts, even though he left the document in the hands of Reb Aharon, because he could have employed various stratagems to avoid liability. For example, he could have written out a deed for the stipulated amount. Therefore he did not bother to recover his deed, because this stratagem is better than selling all his property.”

Here we see the Noda BiYehudah sitting in his “Torah laboratory” dipping his hands deeply into the murky world of the halachic queries which engulfed the Jewish world of his time. He goes from strength to strength, from monetary matters to questions of life and death. He deals with questions of agunot [abandoned wives,] or, as he himself puts it in one of his Responsa “to save Jewish women from the chains of being an agunah.” Anyone who studies this section of his Responsa (Even Ha'Ezer chapters 312 - 315 etc.) dealing with a discerning eye, cannot but be impressed and moved by the brilliance of mind with which he was blessed.

In these Responsa - which are his first decisions and rulings - we see the power of his genius, penetrating to the depth and breadth (of a subject), drawing from ancient sources, analyzing with subtle logic the relevant issues, and reaching a conclusion - of a lenient nature. He constantly emphasizes that he is one of those people who are “hesitant to rule,” and in one Responsum (Even Ha'Ezer 1:32) he writes “I am one of those who are afraid to rule because I know the weakness of my abilities, lacking as I am in the power of a man, and especially in relation to a serious issue such as a marital problem, to untie and break the chains of a 'tied woman' - and this is something which should be placed on the table of princes - by which I mean Rabbis - who are familiar with the whole of the Talmud, from whose attention nothing escapes, and should not be asked of someone of such lowly status as myself (for what place is there for stubble together with pure wheat?) - but what option do I have, since the matter is one which has occurred within my sphere of jurisdiction, and I am therefore obliged to deal with it in the first place, to take pity on the misfortune of this poor woman and to heal her wounds.”

Despite this, we find another contemporaneous Responsum of his (Even Ha'Ezer 2:128) where he stands firm in his approach, and writes “The conclusion relating to this woman is that if my permissive ruling was written before you, Sir, ruled in the negative, I stand firm by my opinion that she is permitted, and just as I ruled then, so do I rule now, with the power of leniency.”

And the greatness of this giant of spirit reached such great heights that he could retract his previous opinion and admit “I was wrong.” In one of his Responsa (Even Ha:ezer 1:28) he adds in a footnote: “Says Yechezkel - this responsum I wrote whilst yet a child, about thirty six years ago and because I was very young, I was exceedingly fearful of taking decisions and I tended to strictness in most of my reasoning rather than to leniency … but now I have changed my mind and that which I said (then) is in fact mistaken.”

Commensurate with his greatness is the degree of his humility. Nothwithstanding his great power of decisiveness, there are occasions when he stipulates in advance (ibid. chapter 29 towards the end) “that you should not rely upon me at all, unless you obtain the agreement of three leading authorities … If they bestow their approval on my words and agree to permit it … then I too will join 'the lions' since I am sure that their intention is for the sake of Heaven and that if they rule leniently, it is not because of any desire to benefit financially … but in any event, they should not base anything they say upon me because it is possible that I have missed even a simple thing, which is not radical in any way, but rather, the great authorities of this generation should put forward their proofs and justify their positions as against me, for if I do not possess seniority (in age) how can I possess wisdom? And I am, after all, but an empty vessel, a new vessel, if it pleases them.”

(H)

Amongst the other difficult queries - perhaps the most difficult - which came before him when he first lived in Brody, and then in Yampol, was the following question, one which caused him (according to the testimony of his biographers) much anguish and soul-searching.

In the year 1744 he received a query from 'Ashkenazi scholars' of a certain community, whose name is not mentioned in his lengthy Responsum (Even Ha:ezer 1:72) so as not to upset the family concerned, which was a distinguished and respected family. Furthermore the father of the husband was a powerful man, who made use of civil law courts, and who had obtained from the judge a harsh ruling to punish severely anyone who would publicize the matter.

The facts of the case were as follows. Serious rumors had been spread about the woman who was the subject matter of the query, to the effect that she was an immoral woman. In that town there was a custom “that before Rosh Hashanah … a number of.people would come before the Beth Din .. to confess their sins and to receive some.sort of penitence, as would be determined by the spiritual leaders, by way of fasting or deprivation, each one as appropriate to the extent of his iniquities and each one would come by himself.”

As a result of their confessions, it became known to the Beth Din that the woman concerned was guilty of immorality. The rumors increased on a number of occasions but because the woman's family and that of her father-in-law, were powerful people given to violence, they managed to hush them up. But now that the Beth Din saw that a number of men had been ensnared in the trap of this adulterous woman, they came to the decision to inform her husband's father one night, in a gentle fashion, and with the exercise of a degree of discretion, seeing that he was such a powerful and forceful person.

After some days had passed, the husband's father came to the Dayanim and asked them to send one night for the penitent confessors and to cross-examine them, after application of the threat of excommunication (if they were to tell a lie.) The Dayanim did indeed do so that very night, and having been warned about the excommunication, they said what they had to say and they told the husband's father that night. Immediately he threatened that he would reveal the names of the witnesses and he gave instructions to beat them up cruelly but they refused to tell him the names and they said to him quite reasonably, “Why do you want to have a adulterous woman in your house?”

The responsum continues with a detailed account of the inquiries and investigations and the testimony presented before the Beth Din, “and afterwards the relatives of the woman spread a rumor that the witnesses were suspect and disqualified to act as witnesses.” After exhaustive investigation, the Dayanim came to the conclusion that this rumor was groundless and they could not be disqualified.” And then the father of.the husband went to the civil courts, together with the wife's relatives, to lodge a complaint against the Dayanim and witnesses, and the ruler became very angry with them and imposed a severe punishment on them, both physically and financially, and he ruled - on pain of a large fine which would be impossible to pay - that no one should say anything about this matter. In short, the husband's father carried out the threat he had made at the beginning. “And now the husband and wife want to continue living with one another - and we request a ruling as to their status according to the laws of.our holy Torah.”

[From the sermon which he preached in Yampol on Shabbat Shuvah in the year 1753 (see Doresh Letziyon, Derush 13) we learn that this difficult query came to him whilst he was still in Brody in 1744, as he writes “And behold, approximately nine years ago I gave an answer to this difficulty - noted by the son of the author: See Noda BiYehuda 1 Even Ha-ezer 72 and 74, and Noda BiYehuda 2, Even Ha-Ezer 77 at end.”]

The woman concerned was a native of Yampol but when the Noda BiYehuda received the query “from Ashkenazic sages” of a certain community (whose names are not mentioned, for the reason given previously) he was not intimidated nor cowed by the potentially serious consequences. He began to analyze the question with reasoning of astonishing brilliance and scholarship. And after clarifying - on the basis of sources in the Talmud and halachic authorities, whether early or late - all the possible arguments one could find to absolve the woman, he concludes by way of practical ruling “that this wife is forbidden to her husband by means of a severe prohibition of Torah law and she is considered “impure” (forbidden) just as any incestuous relationship and if her husband does not divorce her, then he too is not free of guilt, and he shall bear the consequences of his iniquity and the rest of the Jewish community is blameless.”

The scholars of the “kloiz” in Brody, including the Ga'on Rabbi Meir Margolioth - author of the work “Meir Nesivim” and amongst the greatest scholars of that time - the Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim of Sanz, the well-known Chassid Rabbi Avraham Gershon Kaitover (brother-in-law of the Ba'al Shem Tov) and others, supported the ruling of Rabbi Yechezkel. They were very incensed over the perversion of justice and audacity of the wealthy men, in particular, the father of the husband, who was - as previously noted - a powerful man who utilized all resources, based on the judgment in the civil courts, to ensure that the ruling should not be publicized anywhere. Similarly the family in Yampol could not forgive Rabbi Yechezkel for this ruling of his and became his enemies for as long as he lived in Yampol.

Dr. Klein, who was one of his biographers, and wrote about him in a German anthology, speculates that he was forced ultimately to give up his post in Yampol because of this ruling of his. It seems to me, however, that this is an unfounded speculation. What is most surprising is that some of the elders of the town, who were very familiar, by way of traditions from their parents, with many details of his public life, do not mention this episode at all and never suggested that it was because of this that he had to seek a new post. The reason why he chose to move to Prague is very simple: because he was too restricted in a small town.

(I)

Before he left Yampol in July 1755, he responded to a difficult question (Even Ha'Ezer 1:36.) “A certain person went on a journey from the community of Brailov to “little Poland” and did not return home. After making inquiries, they found the corpse of a dead man who had certain identification marks on his clothes and body. His wife said that her husband had an identifying mark, namely a scar from a wound he had had on the finger next to his right index finger but on the corpse they found there was no such scar, although there was a scar on the finger next to his left index finger. The grandfather of the woman, who presented the query to me, said that it is quite likely that she made a mistake and that she made a slip of the tongue between “right” and “left” and they should therefore question her again.”

In his reply he excuses himself on the ground that he was about to leave the town and that he had no books with him because many of his books had been burnt “because we had a great fire in our community and those books which I saved from the fire I have already sent on ahead. I do not have any place of rest so how can I respond to such a serious query without research [in my books?] But our generation is an impoverished generation and there are some people who are familiar with the words of the halachic authorities but do not want to give a permissive ruling unless they gain financially thereby and they take bribes to issue decision. There are others who wish to be considered wise and are not familiar with halachic authorities. And so I said [to myself]: Come what may, 'let me turn aside for a while and have a look' and maybe I can find a solution for her, especially as I declare that no one should rely on my decision alone until it is supported by leading halachic authorities.”

And after clarifying the problem at great length, starting with the early sources, from the Rif and Rambam, until the most recent contemporaries, “and the principal authority on this is the Ga'on Maharal of Prague” he concludes by ruling “that we can put together various grounds for leniency and permit this woman, based on the various marks of identification, including the clothes … with a clearly stated proviso, however, that two leading halachic authorities agree with me … and if they agree with me - well and good, but if not - everything I have said is null and void because I have already written that my books are not here and I am writing in a hurry as I am going to be leaving here, the holy community of Yampol, within the next few days … on Monday, the 6th of Av 1745.”

In this Responsum the Noda BiYehuda spreads a clear light about the sorry state of affairs which then existed in a number of communities in the Rabbinic world. The clear accusation against certain Rabbis of that generation “that they do not want to permit anything without financial gain and they take bribes to judge” is a heavy accusation which only a Torah giant such as he could permit himself to make and this was typical of the strength of his Rabbinic personality.

 

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