Rav Israel Hopsztajn, Maggid of Kozienice

Book Review of “Avodat Yisrael”

Bezalel Naor

Israel ben Shabtai [Hapstein]. ‘Avodat Yisrael (B’nei Berak: Pe’er mi-Kedoshim, 5773 / 2013). 66, 738 pages.

Rabbi Israel ben Shabtai Hapstein, the Maggid of Kozienice (or more commonly, the “Kozhnitser Maggid”) (d. 1814) was a major figure in the third generation of East-European Hasidism founded by Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, and specifically, a towering luminary within Polish Hasidism.

Like his contemporary Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liozhno (and later Liadi), Rabbi Israel studied under Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch (who led the Hasidic movement after the death of the founder, Ba’al Shem Tov). Unlike Rabbi Shneur Zalman, whose school of Hasidism, Habad, continues to this very day, Rabbi Israel founded no school and has no hasidim, no followers to speak of, today.

The same goes for Rabbi Israel’s book. Whereas Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s most famous work, Tanya, has earned the sobriquet (at least among Habad Hasidim) “the written Torah of Hasidism” (“torah she-bi-ketav shel hasidut”), relatively few have studied Rabbi Israel’s magnum opus, ‘Avodat Yisrael (Service of Israel), a commentary on the Pentateuch. Indicative of neglect in this respect, until today the book has been an example of poor typography. First published in 1842,‘Avodat Yisrael has been reissued periodically with pitifully broken letters of “Rashi” script (today unfamiliar to Hebrew readers without rabbinic training). About now the cognoscenti will chime in, “Afilu sefer torah she-be-heikhal tsarikh mazal” (“Even a Torah scroll in the ark requires luck”) and “Habent sua fata libelli” (“Books have their fates”).

Thankfully, this horrendous situation has now been remedied. Enter Pe’er mi-Kedoshim, a publishing concern headed by Rabbi Israel Menachem Alter, son of the present Rebbe of Gur. Pe’er mi-Kedoshim has committed itself to re-issuing the classic texts of Hasidic thought in deluxe, state-of-the-art editions. The Kozhnitser Maggid’s ‘Avodat Yisrael is the premier volume in a series envisioned to include: Degel Mahaneh Efraim by Ba’al Shem Tov’s grandson, Rabbi Moses Hayyim Ephraim of Sudylkow (next on the agenda); No’am Elimelekh by Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk; Zot Zikaron by Rabbi Jacob Isaac Horowitz (the “Seer of Lublin”), et cetera.

The book displays all the benefits that the modern age of Hebrew printing has brought to the sacred realm. The cursive “Rashi” script has been replaced by the square characters familiar to every Hebrew reader, which have then been provided with vowel points and modern punctuation. Sidebars caption the highlights of the Maggid’s comments. Footnotes reference sources in rabbinic and kabbalistic literature, as well as cross-referencing to parallel passages in the Maggid’s own works. As is customary, the book is preceded by “Toledot” (Biography) of the Author, and followed by “Maftehot”(Indices). (At present these indices are purely topical. It is hoped that in the future there will be included an index of the works cited by the Maggid, which will allow students of his thought a glimpse of his library, and the horizon of his intellectual and spiritual world.)

Quoting the Psalmist, “Who can understand errors?” (Psalms 19:12), the Editors have encouraged readers to offer constructive criticism, including pointing out errata in the present printing. Let us take them up on their kind offer.

In Parashat Bereshit, end s.v. vayyasem H’ le-Kayin ‘ot (6a), the Maggid observes “that there are times when miracles are performed by the Other Side, as we find in the Gemara, and in the Midrash, Parashat Toledot, that through Arginiton miracles were performed for Rabbi Judah the Prince and his companions, and the Omnipresent has many emissaries.” Where the Maggid alludes to an unspecified “Gemara,” the Editors have supplied within the text itself, within parentheses, “Me’ilah 17b.” If one consults the text of that passage in the Talmud Bavli, one discovers that it concerns miracles wrought by Ben Temalyon (name of a demon) for Rabbi Shim’on ben Yohai during his mission to Rome. When offered the demon’s help, rather than rebuffing him, Rabbi Shim’on resigned himself to accepting his intervention by saying: “Yavo’ ha-ness mi-kol makom.” (“Let the miracle come from any place.”) This statement of Rabbi Shim’on is similar in tenor to the Maggid’s conclusion: “Harbeh sheluhim la-Makom.” (“The Omnipresent has many emissaries.”) Clearly, the Editors have read the text of ‘Avodat Yisrael in a disjointed fashion, interpreting that the “Gemara” and the “Midrash, Parashat Toledot” refer to two different stories.

My own reading of the situation is that the “Gemara” and the “Midrash, Parashat Toledot” refer to the identical story whereby Rabbi Judah the Prince and his companions were spared the imperial wrath of Diocletian through the intervention of the demon Arginiton (or in the version of the Yerushalmi, “Antigris”). The “Gemara” of course is not theGemara Bavlit, but rather the Gemara Yerushalmit, and the reference is to the Talmud Yerushalmi at the end of the eighth chapter of Terumot. I rather like my suggested reading for two reasons. First, we are told in the biographical introduction to the book that Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin attested that the Kozhnitser Maggid was “familiar with Talmud Yerushalmi” (“baki be-Shass Yerushalmi”) (p. 30). Second, in recent years, the Hasidic court of Gur has expended great energy in promoting the study of the hitherto neglected Talmud Yerushalmi, so I believe it especially appropriate that the edition of ’Avodat Yisrael under the guidance of Rabbi Israel Menachem Alter shelit”a offer this alternate solution to deciphering the Maggid’s cryptic reference to “the Gemara.”

In Parashat Shemot, beginning s.v. ve-sham’u le-kolekha (91a), the Maggid writes that Moses was confronted with a conundrum. On the one hand, he was pressing for some kind of divine assurance that his mission to Egypt be crowned with success and that the Hebrews indeed hearken to his voice. On the other hand, he was concerned that by its very nature a divine guarantee would rob the Hebrews of their free will, forcing them into belief. The assumption is that the Hebrews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of their faith or emunah. (See Exodus Rabbah, Beshalah [parashah 23] playing on the words “tashuri me-rosh Amanah” [Song of Songs 4:8].) It is a tribute to the originality of the Kozhnitser Maggid that while most Biblical commentators busied themselves with the philosophic problem of God’s hardening the heart of Pharaoh, thereby depriving him of the free will to respond affirmatively to the divine demands, the Maggid explored in the opposite direction the problem of preserving the Hebrews’ free will to disbelieve.) The Maggid’s solution to the problem involves some rather esoteric doctrines of Kabbalah, namely “hanhagat gadlut” (“governance of greatness”) versus “hanhagat katnut” (“governance of smallness”), best left for the adept in Jewish mysticism. I would just point out for the record that the Editors missed a cue here. When the Maggid writes “’Ve-hen’ she-hu ahat,” he is clearly referencing the Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31b: “She-ken bi-leshon yevani korin la-ahat ‘hen’.” (“Hen in Greek is one.”)

In the section for the festival of Shavu’ot, s.v. u-Moshe ‘alah el ha-Elohim (200a), the Maggid writes: “Since all Israel prepared themselves for the sanctity of the Lord, and a leader is commensurate to his generation, therefore Moses was able to ascend above.” Now the crucial words, the key to understanding this thought, “u-parnass lefi doro” (“and a leader is commensurate to his generation”), have been emended by the Editors to: “kol ehad le-fi koho” (“each according to his ability”). Granted that in the old edition there was some fuzziness concerning these words (“u-parush lefi doro”), but they could still be made out simply by correcting “u-parush lefi doro” to “u-parnass lefi doro,” a well-known Hebrew adage. In the present version, one is at a loss to glean the Maggid’s meaning. (I see now that the wording “kol ehad lefi koho” does occur in the Warsaw 1878 edition of ‘Avodat Yisrael. Unfortunately, the edition I possess is without place or date. Unable to locate a copy of the editio princeps of 1842, I have no way of knowing which version occurs there.)

In Parashat Mas’ei, end s.v. eleh mas’ei b’nei yisrael (240a), in regard to Tish’ah be-Av, the Maggid discusses the difference between the “batei gava’ei” (“inner chambers”) and the “batei bara’ei” (“outer chambers”), alluded to by the Rabbis in TB, Hagigah 5b. The Maggid’s remarks in this passage are consonant with what he wrote elsewhere in Ner Israel, his commentary to the Likkutim me-Rav Hai Gaon (2a): “In the outer chambers there is sadness and mourning, but for one who is able to ascend to the inner chambers, to the will of the Creator, blessed be He, certainly there is happiness.” (By the way, the kabbalists’ reading of the passage in Hagigah, while opposite Rashi’s, coincides with the version of Rabbenu Hananel. See Rabbi Solomon Elyashev, Hakdamot u-She’arim [Piotrkow, 1909], sha’ar 6, chap. 6,“avnei milu’im” [24b-27b].)

In Parashat Devarim, end s.v. eleh ha-devarim (246a) there is a quote from Rabbi Isaac Luria’s commentary to the Idra Zuta. The Maggid supplies the exact page number: folio 120. The problem is that the passage does not occur there. The Editors have left the reference in the text untouched. At least in a footnote we should be told that the quote may be found in Rabbi Jacob Zemah, Kol ba-Ramah (Korets, 1785), 122a. (I am indebted to my dear friend Prof. Menachem Kallus for the correct address.) See also Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Sefer ha-Derushim (Jerusalem, 5756 /1996), 214 (left column); and Rabbi Shalom Buzaglo, Hadrat Melekh, 139a.

In the section for Tu be-Av, s.v. meyuhasot she-bahen (256b-257a), the Maggid writes that there are times that ki-ve-yakhol (as it were), God so delights in Israel that He becomes as a young man (bahur). The Maggid writes that he has dealt with this in his commentary to the line in Avot (beginning Chap. 6), “Barukh she-bahar bahem u-be-mishnatam.” As the Editors point out, the comment is not to be found in the Maggid’s remarks on Avot. Instead, they refer us to a parallel passage in Re’eh, s.v. ve-hineh ha-Midrash (270a). By the same token, they might have referred us to Ner Israel(commentary to Likkutim me-Rav Hai Gaon), 4b: “Ve-nikra bahur ka-arazim…”

In the section for Rosh ha-Shanah, there is a lengthy kabbalistic homily, the thrust of which is that on that day we ask the Holy One, blessed be He, to reinvest himself in the particular role of “Elohei Yisrael” (“God of Israel”).

“The God of these [Jews] is asleep.” Which is to say, [the nations] were not foolish enough to assert that the Sibat Kol ha-Sibbot (Cause of All Causes) is in a state of slumber, only “the God of these [Jews],” in other words, this particularhanhagah (governance) referred to as “Elohei Yisrael” (the God of Israel) is in a state of sleep…and unconsciousness, and there is but “Elaha de-Elahaya” (the God of Gods). Based on this you will understand the kavvanot (mystical meditations) of Rabbi Isaac Luria for Rosh Hashanah. We awaken Him with the shofar (ram’s horn). (‘Avodat Yisrael, 290b)

The Editors duly noted the reference to Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Peri ‘Ets Hayyim, Sha’ar ha-Shofar, chap. 1. But what they should have noted is the following reference which would have been even more instructive:

Now in the days of Mordecai was the mystery of the time of dormita of Zeir Anpin, and the mystery that Haman said “There is (yeshno) one people spread and separated among the peoples” [Esther 3:8]. The Rabbis, of blessed memory, commented on the word “yeshno,” that Haman alleged “their God is asleep.” (Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Sha’ar ha-Purim, beginning chap. 5)

The Holy Maggid loaded the kavvanot of Purim on to the kavvanot of Rosh Ha-Shanah!

The Kozhnitser Maggid was a preeminent halakhist (specializing in heter ‘agunot, permitting wives of missing husbands to remarry), kabbalist, thinker (penning commentaries to the works of Maharal of Prague), and statesman. With all that, the following anecdote sent a shiver down my spine:

The Kozhnitser Maggid was on friendly terms with several prominent members of the Polish nobility. In the eighteenth century, Poland, dismembered and subjected to a tripartite division—whereby Prussia annexed the western portion of Poland; Austro-Hungary annexed Galicia in the south; and Russia annexed the east, including Warsaw itself)—simply ceased to exist. A certain Polish nobleman importuned the Maggid to intercede with Heaven on behalf of the Polish nation. The gentleman would not leave the Maggid’s home until promised Polish independence. Finally, the Maggid foretold that at a time in the future Poland would once again be a sovereign nation—for a span of “three shemitin” (three sabbatical cycles or 21 years). When the Jews of Warsaw were being subjected to aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe in September of 1939, they recalled the Maggid’s prediction. In the aftermath of World War I, in 1918 to be precise, Poland once again declared its independence. Three shemitin had passed from 1918 until 1939. Warsaw capitulated to the Nazis on the eve of Sukkot, the yahrzeit of the Kozhnitser Maggid! This anecdote was told by a witness to Warsaw’s destruction, Rabbi Joseph Friedenson, editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort, the Yiddish magazine of Agudath Israel of America (“Toledot,” p. 37).

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