This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The New Rabbi in Town *

There are any number of different motives that might lure a rabbi to set up shop in a new locality. Some communities enjoy outstanding reputations as centres of Jewish culture and scholarship, and are likely to enhance the spiritual development and professional stature of their spiritual leaders.

There are, however, some rabbis who are attracted by the opposite considerations: they recognize that certain Jewish communities are grievously deficient in the qualities that are essential for thriving religious life and are therefore in need of somebody who--like Gene Wilder in "the Frisco Kid"--is prepared to brave the hardships of the spiritual wilderness to instill new vigour into the lives of the residents.

A prominent example of this type of rabbinic figure was the third-century sage known as "Rav" (Rabbi Abba Arikha of Kafri), one of the titans of talmudic scholarship. Rav was a native of Babylonia who had been pursuing his studies in the holy land. Eventually, he decided to return to the Babylonia to provide guidance to his coreligionists in the diaspora. His arrival was not greeted with universal enthusiasm by the existing rabbinical or communal leadership.

When a position became available in the yeshivah at Nehardea, Rav turned it down so as to avoid friction with the other leading Babylonian scholar of that generation, the Nehardean Samuel. It was at this point in his career, apparently, that Rav experienced an innocuous-looking encounter that would have momentous results. While visiting the obscure neighbourhood of Tatalfosh, a suburb of the populous Jewish community of Sura, the rabbi overheard a woman asking her friend for some culinary advice: what was the recommended amount of milk in which to cook a pound of meat? So shocked was Rav at encountering such blatant ignorance of a basic Jewish law that he decided to prolong his sojourn in Tatalfosh and to enact a few stringent measures with a view to preventing further infractions of the milk-meat prohibitions.

The tenth-century Ga'on Rabbi Sherira, in his treatise on talmudic history, depicted this episode as a watershed in the lives of Rav and of Babylonian Jewry as a whole: "This was the reason why Rav abandoned Samuel in Nehardea, which was his home and a centre of Torah, and travelled to a remote locality that was lacking in Torah, namely Sura... which also had a large Jewish population who were not even aware of the prohibition of mixing meat with milk. Therefore he declared: I shall settle here until the Torah is strengthened in this place." The academy that Rav established in Sura flourished to become one of the greatest centres of talmudic scholarship.

A fragmentary manuscript preserved in the Cairo Genizah and first published in 1942 introduces a new detail that significantly alters the story's ramifications. The unidentified commentator reports that Rav's encounter in the Tatalfosh marketplace that day was no random event--but on the contrary, it was carefully staged for his benefit. That ignorant woman who was ostensibly inquiring about a recipe for Beef Stroganoff was in reality the mother of one of Rav's leading students, Rav Assi, and her question was strategically planted in order to ensure that Rav would settle in the Sura metropolitan area. She had heard that he was planning to take up residence in far-off Isfahan and she feared that her son Assi would accompany his teacher there unless she did something to convince Rav that he was needed urgently in Sura.

I confess to feeling some skepticism about this report. I suspect that its author, or the source from which he was copying, might well have been a Suran rabbi who was affronted by the suggestion that his hometown could have ever been guilty of such overt boorishness; and therefore, in order to uphold the honour of Sura and its academy, he fabricated the persona of Rav Assi's mother and her predicament. [Sherira Ga'on, it should be noted, presided over the rival Pumbedita yeshivah.]

Another reason why a rabbi might relocate to a remote community is because he was abducted by pirates. In his historical chronicle "the Book of Tradition," Rabbi Abraham Ibn Daud told of four prominent rabbis in the tenth century who were hijacked by the pirate Ibn Ruhamis who had the captives ransomed in various Mediterranean ports. Among the prisoners was the prominent talmudist Rabbi Moses ben Hanokh, probably from Bari in southern Italy, who was redeemed by the Jewish community of Cordoba. In order to lower his market value on the captive market, Moses took care to conceal his identity, so nobody in Cordoba had any idea that he was the scholarly superior of most contemporary Spanish rabbis, such as their current leader Rabbi Nathan the Pious who was proficient in the Bible, but less so in the intricacies of talmudic discourse.

On one occasion, as Moses sat unobtrusively in a corner of the schoolroom, he pointed out an error in one of Nathan's lessons and then demonstrated the correct interpretation. The assembled students now realized that this was an individual of extraordinary erudition and they set to asking him diverse questions that had accumulated in the course of their studies, all of which Moses resolved to their complete satisfaction. The humble Rabbi Nathan then submitted his own resignation and recommended that the newcomer be appointed the new judge of Cordoba.

Ibn Daud, writing with the characteristic pride of a Golden-Age Spanish Jew, portrayed this episode as a pivotal turning point in Jewish history that culminated in Spain's supplanting Babylonia as the foremost centre of religious authority and rabbinic prestige.

Jumping ahead to the modern era, we find that in 1851, the 43-year-old Samson Raphael Hirsch occupied a cushy rabbinical pulpit in Nikolsburg and appeared to be in an enviable position. He held the impressive title of "Landrabbiner" (Chief Rabbi) of Moravia--or even "Oberlandesrabbiner"--and was the acclaimed author of important works on the principles of traditional Judaism. And yet, when an invitation was extended to him to take up a rabbinic position in Frankfurt am Main, he chose to forsake the prestige of Nikolsburg and attach himself to a posting that brought with it little honor.

For all its past glories, the traditionalist faction in Frankfort in the mid-nineteenth century was small and beleaguered, a powerless minority within a larger community whose majority was committed to a more liberal version of Judaism.

It would appear that this was precisely what Hirsch was looking for at that time. His experiences in Nikolsburg had left him frustrated. That town's venerable Orthodox populace had been vocally resistant to his attempts to impose own brand of "neo-orthodoxy" that advocated the integration of strict traditionalism with the embracing of European culture. He had reason to hope that the spirit of the traditionalists in Frankfurt was more amenable to his own brand of religious moderation. But even more important for him was the hope that in the absence of an entrenched Orthodox establishment, he would be able to fashion a community in conformity with his own ideals.

As it turns out, he was correct about this. In significant ways Hirsch was provided with the opportunity to rebuild the Frankfurt traditionalist community from the foundations as a showcase for his personal religious vision.

These cases from ancient, medieval and modern times inspire considerable confidence that the encounter between an accomplished Torah scholar and a far-flung Jewish community can generate unexpected blessings for both the community and the rabbi.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, May 28, 2010, p. 8.
  • For further reading:
    • Assaf, Simha, ed. Responsa Geonica. Jerusalem: Mekize Nirdamim, 1942.
    • Cohen, Gerson D, ed. A Critical Edition with a Translation and Notes of the Book of Tradition (Sefer Ha-Qabbalah). London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1969.
    • Obermeyer, Jacob. Die Landschaft Babylonien im Zeitalter des Talmuds und des Gaonats: Geographie und Geschichte nach talmudischen, arabischen und andern Quellen. Frankfurt am Main: I. Kaufmann, 1929.