A GREAT RABBINIC LIGHT SHINES AGAIN

June 20th, 2024

This article is adapted from the Hebrew introduction to “Ohr Hayasher al Masechet Shabbat”, republished, edited, and annotated by Rabbi Pini Dunner (Otzrot, Jerusalem, 2024).

Over the past three years, I have been working on a project to produce an annotated edition of Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchok Hillman’s “Sefer Ohr Hayashar” on Masechet Shabbat. I am thrilled to announce the conclusion of this project, making Rabbi Hillman’s incredible scholarship on this foundational tractate available to a new generation of Talmudic scholars. Before discussing the book and the project leading to its publication, let me share a few words about Rabbi Hillman.

The Life and Works of Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman

Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman (1868-1953) was born in Šeduva (Yiddish: ‘Shadova’) in Lithuania, where his father, Rabbi Avraham Chaim Hillman, was a community leader. Rabbi Hillman initially studied with his father and uncle, both great scholars, and then at the Volozhin yeshiva, where he received semicha from the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Raphael Shapira. He later received semicha from Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz Teumim (“Aderet”), Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen (“Ohr Some’ach”), and Rabbi Yaakov David Willowski (“Ridvaz”).

In 1897, Rabbi Hillman became the rabbi of Berezino, near Minsk, now in Belarus. In 1908, he was appointed presiding rabbi of the thriving Jewish community of Glasgow, Scotland, where he remained until 1914. That year, Rabbi Hillman was selected to a new position as the head “dayan” (rabbinical judge) at the Court of the Chief Rabbi in London, which served London’s Jewish community as well as provincial communities across Great Britain and the British Empire, wherever there was no permanent rabbinical court.

Previously, dayanim who served under incumbent chief rabbis were paid directly by the chief rabbi, which compromised their independence. Rabbi Hillman insisted that his salary come from general community funds and that all matters of Jewish law fall under his authority, free from interference by the chief rabbi. This new arrangement suited the recently appointed Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Empire, Joseph Herman Hertz, as his primary interests were not in halakha or the detailed management of kashrut, divorces, and conversions.

Rabbi Hillman brought gravitas and prestige to his role, becoming a widely respected rabbinic leader across the Jewish world, well beyond the geographic and jurisdictional boundaries of his position. He also served as the primary London contact for the two leading Lithuanian rabbis of the era, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (“Chofetz Chaim”).

Soon after moving to London, World War I erupted, and Rabbi Hillman worked tirelessly to meet the needs of the many Belgian-Jewish refugees who fled to England. His dedicated efforts earned him recognition from King Albert I of Belgium and cemented his reputation as a community leader willing to venture beyond regular rabbinic duties.

In 1934, after 20 years at the helm of the London Beth Din, Rabbi Hillman resigned and moved to Palestine, where his elderly widowed mother had relocated from Lithuania some years earlier. There, he founded and led the “Ohel Torah” Yeshiva in Jerusalem, training the emerging generation of exemplary rabbis. Among his students were Rabbi Yosef Sholom Eliashiv, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Sholom Schwadron, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, and Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner, all of whom became leading rabbinic luminaries during the latter half of the twentieth century.

The “Ohr Hayashar” Series

In 1921, while still in London, Rabbi Hillman published the first volume of a series of books he titled “Ohr Hayashar” (“The Straight Light” or “Direct Light”); “Hayashar” in Hebrew is also the acronym of his name, “Rav Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman.” The first published volume offered Rabbi Hillman’s erudite interpretations and insightful explanations for Masechet Bechorot, a tractate in Seder Kodashim that explores three types of firstborns: a woman’s firstborn son, the male firstborn of a kosher domesticated animal, and a male firstborn donkey – all ascribed a sacred status by the Torah, necessitating their consecration through various means. This tractate – indeed, all of Seder Kodashim – is not part of the regular yeshiva curriculum and rarely the focus of a scholarly rabbinic work.

In 1923, Rabbi Hillman published the second volume of “Ohr Hayashar,” this one on two Talmudic tractates that are rarely explored by contemporary rabbinic scholars: Arachin and Temurah.

Rabbi Hillman went on to publish twenty-three volumes of “Ohr Hayashar,” covering every tractate in the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud – both those studied in depth by yeshiva students and those almost never studied in depth – as well as on Maimonides’ “Mishneh Torah,” Tanach, Mishnah, Mechilta, Tosefta, Sifrei, and a book of sermons on Bereishit which also included a collection of his eulogies for famous decedents.

Rabbi Hillman’s remarkable breadth of knowledge is on full display in his work on Masechet Shabbat, part of the “Ohr Hayashar” series. The first edition was published in Jerusalem in 1941 as part of a larger book that included his interpretations on the four initial tractates of the Babylonian Talmud: Berachot, Shabbat, Eruvin, and Pesachim. The section on Shabbat in the 1941 edition amounts to a mere 32 pages, but this seeming paucity of material masks the fact that Rabbi Hillman’s brief annotations provide a gateway into vast vistas of insight from a staggering array of sources.

Champion of Tradition

One of Rabbi Hillman’s illuminating commentaries in the volume on Masechet Shabbat offers a glimpse into his approach to understanding the words of the Talmudic sages and sheds light on his worldview. In his commentary on Shabbat 14a, Rabbi Hillman provides a novel interpretation of an enigmatic statement by the Talmudic sages: “One who holds a Torah scroll while naked will be buried naked.”

The Talmudic passage that follows this statement explores the perplexing nature of this proclamation. “Naked? Do you think this means literally naked? Rather, read it as [he will be buried] devoid of commandments.” The passage then continues with a further question: “Devoid of [any] commandments? Can that really be the case? Rather, read it as [buried] without that specific commandment.”

Rabbi Hillman offers a brilliant interpretation that unlocks this entire passage. Without the oral traditions that give Torah directives practical application, many of the commandments found in the written Torah would remain incomprehensible. For example, the Torah states regarding one of the four species used on Sukkot, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree” (Lev. 23:40) – but does not specify which fruit. The oral tradition informs us which fruit to use: the etrog. The oral tradition similarly clarifies many other commandments.

Using this as his platform, Rabbi Hillman interprets the Talmudic statement as follows: someone who “holds” the written Torah while rejecting the oral Torah, which provides the necessary explanations for fulfilling the commandments, is considered to be holding the Torah “naked.” Indeed, such a person will end up being buried “naked,” without the benefit of the Torah’s commandments, as they will not know how to properly observe them.

The sages’ question, “Devoid of [any] commandments?” highlights the fact that some commandments make sense as they are written in the Torah and do not require additional explanation from the oral tradition. Rabbi Hillman explains that the Gemara’s answer establishes that the original statement should be understood to mean that someone who considers the Torah as the only source for Jewish law, without the oral Torah, will be buried “without that specific commandment,” meaning without those commandments that require the oral tradition for correct observance. Commandments that don’t need an oral tradition to be understood will accrue to the person and benefit them in the afterlife.

Rabbi Hillman supports his explanation by citing a Talmudic passage in Berachot 5a, which explains the verse, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the stone tablets, the Torah, and the commandment that I have written to instruct them” (Ex. 24:12). The passage in Berachot clarifies that “Tablets” in this statement refers to the Ten Commandments, “Torah” to the written scripture, and “commandment” to the Mishnah.

This raises the question: why does the verse refer to the Mishnah, which symbolizes the oral tradition, as “commandment”? According to Rabbi Hillman’s interpretation of the Talmudic passage in Shabbat 14a, the answer is clear: the Mishnah, as the foundation of the oral tradition, instructs us on how to observe all the commandments which require an oral tradition, and is therefore aptly referred to as “commandment.”

Rabbi Hillman’s interpretation not only clarifies the specific Talmudic statement in Shabbat 14a but also encapsulates a central idea in his worldview. In the generation before Rabbi Hillman, this point had been a cornerstone of controversy between devout traditionalists and their modernizing opponents, who sought to cast off the yoke of Torah and tradition.

In 1859, Rabbi Zacharias Frankel, a traditional rabbi in Germany with modernizing tendencies, published “Darkei HaMishna,” exploring the development of the oral tradition. Frankel’s academic approach was groundbreaking; he outlined the compilation of the Mishnah from the period of the Men of the Great Assembly soon after the Second Temple was built, through the era of the Zugot, the schools of Shammai and Hillel, their disciples, and up to its completion by Rabbi Judah the Prince two centuries after the Second Temple’s destruction.

Despite Frankel’s conservative stance compared to the radical Reform movement, his failure to attribute the oral tradition’s origin explicitly to Moses at Sinai ignited the ire of his more orthodox colleagues, including Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt and Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer of Berlin. They scrutinized his work, raising concerns that Frankel’s approach undermined the foundational belief in the divine transmission and origin of the oral Torah.

In response to “Darkei HaMishna,” several rabbis published articles and pamphlets addressing the issues raised by Frankel’s ideas. Rabbi Hirsch’s journal, “Jeschurun,” featured articles by his student Rabbi Yedidya Gottlieb Fischer, who critiqued Frankel’s views on the oral Torah. Rabbi Tzvi Benjamin Auerbach, who had been dismissed from his position in Darmstadt due to Reform opposition, wrote “HaTzofeh Al Darkei HaMishna” to further scrutinize Frankel’s ideas.

One of the most incisive critiques came from Rabbi Shlomo Zev Klein of Colmar, France, in his booklet “Emet VeShalom Ahavu.” Rabbi Klein implored Frankel to clarify his stance, as his descriptions of the oral Torah’s development seemed to suggest it was a product of rabbinic, purely human, innovation rather than divine revelation.

Frankel’s refusal to unequivocally affirm the divine origin of the oral Torah left his critics dissatisfied. Even Rabbi Solomon Judah Loeb Rapoport (“Shir”), the era’s most prominent enlightened traditionalist, who initially defended Frankel, eventually expressed disappointment with Frankel’s vague clarifications, describing them as obfuscation rather than elucidation.

The consequences of Frankel’s approach were significant. His Breslau rabbinical seminary produced a generation of rabbis who took his methodology further, ultimately leading to the formation of the Conservative movement in America. Over time, this movement increasingly distanced itself from traditional halakhic Judaism.

Rabbi Hillman began his rabbinic career two generations after the Frankel-Hirsch controversy, by which time the destructive effects of rejecting the divine origin of the oral tradition were evident. His insightful interpretation of the Talmudic statement in Shabbat 14a reflected his attitude and the Orthodox approach in general to the dangers of marginalizing the oral tradition that supplements the Torah’s commandments.

The statement “One who holds a Torah scroll while naked” symbolizes those who accept the written Torah but deny the oral Torah’s divine origin, thereby undermining the practical observance of many commandments. Rabbi Hillman’s steadfast defense of traditional Jewish belief, as demonstrated by his interpretation of this Talmudic passage, highlights his firm commitment to preserving Judaism.

Reviving a Legacy

In 2020, in collaboration with my dear friend, President Isaac Herzog, I published a book of Rabbi Hillman’s sermons on Bereishit, which also included eulogies he had given for various notable individuals. Originally published in 1927, the second, expanded edition that we produced included annotations and explanations to make his words more accessible to contemporary readers.

In planning the book, I decided to include a detailed biography of the esteemed author. For this task, I enlisted the help of my colleague and friend, Rabbi Yechiel Goldhaber, a well-known and respected expert on the history of Orthodox Jewry in the modern period. This was the first comprehensive research and documentation of Rabbi Hillman’s life and achievements, a monumental endeavor. (You can access the full biography via this link.)

Rabbi Goldhaber combed through multiple sources, including rare books, correspondence archives, and a selection of rare documents from my personal collection. After many months of work, we succeeded in adding a detailed biographical section of over one hundred pages, complete with illustrations and footnotes.

Here is a quote from Rabbi Goldhaber’s introduction to the biographical monograph:

“Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman was a towering figure, a polymath with a rare and unique Torah personality. He was an extraordinary genius and a brilliant scholar who made the entire Torah accessible; he was an exemplary rabbinic judge for the communities he led; he was a teacher who taught Torah to countless students; and he was a righteous and devout individual whose faith was the lifeblood flowing through his veins. Throughout his life and notwithstanding the circumstances, he had no other master but God. Truth and pure faith were the two lights that illuminated his life’s path. Moreover, his nobility, patience, and kindness defined who he was, giving him an aura of grace and compassion.”

Rabbi Goldhaber’s words are of course entirely accurate, but even this fulsome praise does not fully capture Rabbi Hillman’s stature. Typically, community rabbis and rabbinic judges find their official roles dominate their daily lives. They must deal with numerous communal issues, both spiritual and material, and they must also attend to their own and their families’ needs, along with the challenges of their rabbinic positions, ensuring that their duties do not overwhelm them.

Unfortunately, the price of these numerous responsibilities is often that the rabbi or rabbinic judge dedicates most of their energy and time to pressing matters to do with their work, making it difficult for them to immerse themselves fully in their true passion—namely, studying Torah. When a community rabbi delves into a Talmudic topic in depth, it is generally for practical purposes, so that they can respond to a specific question or address a particular need.

Consequently, it is heads of yeshivas – whose educational roles allow them to dedicate all their energy and time to teaching Torah, and whose students are fully engaged in Torah study – who are often recognized as great Torah scholars and innovators. Their scholarly works circulate widely in study halls. However, this is not the case for community rabbis, who are surrounded by numerous responsibilities, such as managing their communities and maintaining religious standards. If they choose to publish a book, it is usually a collection of responsa, or sermons delivered to their congregation.

In this regard, Rabbi Hillman was truly unique. Despite being the head of the rabbinical court in London—a large city—and serving in this role full-time, he managed to write dozens of books covering every page of every Talmudic tractate, both in the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud. This is an incredible achievement, and few community rabbis and judges can boast such an accomplishment.

Moreover, Rabbi Hillman’s “community” was not a single synagogue, or a community of a few dozen families; his rabbinate extended over the entire Orthodox community of London and the provinces. And after moving to Eretz Yisrael, he led one of the most prestigious yeshivas in the country—“Ohel Torah”—and assisted his son-in-law, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine and later Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac HaLevi Herzog, in his efforts on behalf of Jews in Eretz Yisrael and around the world.

So how did Rabbi Hillman find time to study in-depth and innovate on every Talmudic topic, not only writing them down but also preparing them for publication and spreading his Torah to the masses? It is truly astonishing! Perhaps this phenomenon can only be explained as being the fulfillment of the words of our Talmudic sages (Jer. Talmud, Berakhot 5a), who, when speaking of saintly rabbinic leaders, said: “Because they are pious, their Torah is blessed.”

Although, due to the limited time he had for such pursuits, Rabbi Hillman’s method was to note his insights concisely, with brief hints and references. He would refer to statements of predecessor rabbis who had posed pertinent questions or suggested clever resolutions to puzzling issues, or he would direct readers to other books with phrases like “Take a look in such-and-such book.” With these brief annotations and references, Rabbi Hillman opened a window into his world, guiding the reader in understanding the Talmudic passages.

Some Personal Recollections

The publication of this new edition of “Ohr Hayashar” was generously supported by an array of well-wishers, but few of them knew much about the illustrious author. One exception was Mr. Aviezer Wolfson of Jerusalem, whom I have known for many years. A distinguished philanthropist in his own right, he hails from the renowned Wolfson family, originally from Glasgow and later London, celebrated for their charitable giving. Aviezer shared several remarkable stories with me about Rabbi Hillman that he heard from his father, Mr. Shmuel Wolfson z”l (1912-1975), who got to know Rabbi Hillman in his younger years.

“My father spent a lot of time with Rabbi Hillman, and they were very close,” he told me. “One day, while they were in the East End of London, where many Jews lived in poverty and hardship, struggling to maintain their religious observance due to their dire financial situation, my father saw a little boy approach Rabbi Hillman with a chicken. The boy’s mother was unsure if the chicken was kosher and sent her son to ask Rabbi Hillman.

“Before Rabbi Hillman looked at the chicken, he asked the boy if his father had a job and was earning a living. Only after the boy had confirmed that his father was working in a paid job did Rabbi Hillman agree to inspect the chicken. This was because, if the father was unemployed, telling the boy that the chicken was not kosher would result in a significant financial loss to the family, and he needed to consider this in his halachic ruling.

“Another amazing story my father told me illustrates the state of the Jewish community in the East End in those days, as well as Rabbi Hillman’s wisdom, broad-mindedness, and proactive leadership. Before Passover, Jews from all over London were busy buying kosher food for the holiday and preparing their meals. The kosher food vendors in the East End knew that they were the only source for kosher food, causing prices to soar, even for non-Passover food.

“Rabbi Hillman was fully aware of the situation, and was very distressed by it. He asked my father, ‘Which shop is the largest food shop in London?’ My father answered, ‘The largest shop selling food is Selfridges; it’s in the West End.’ Rabbi Hillman said, ‘Please take me there!’ And at that time, Selfridges did not have a kosher food section.

“Rabbi Hillman and my father went to Selfridges, and when they came inside, Rabbi Hillman asked to speak to the manager. Although Rabbi Hillman did not speak English fluently, my father translated his Yiddish into English so that the manager could understand. Rabbi Hillman spoke to the manager in a straightforward, businesslike manner, and he proposed a deal: if Selfridges would start selling kosher food, they would attract many Jewish customers. ‘Selfridges needs to open a kosher food section,’ Rabbi Hillman said, ‘It is a sacred duty, and it will also be very profitable for you.’

“The manager wasn’t convinced. He asked, ‘Who will guarantee that we won’t lose any money on the kosher food?’ Rabbi Hillman replied, ‘I will guarantee it!’ The manager was astonished and asked what guarantors and collateral he could provide. ‘I don’t need guarantors,’ Rabbi Hillman said, ‘because God is my guarantor. My guarantee is God’s guarantee!’

“The manager was deeply impressed by Rabbi Hillman’s sincerity and determination. Shortly afterwards, Selfridges opened its kosher food section, which remains active to this day. Naturally, because Selfridges was only interested in a regular profit margin and sold very large quantities of kosher food, the prices there were much more reasonable than the shops in the East End, and as a result, kosher food prices in the East End also became more affordable.”

These two stories reflect Rabbi Hillman’s diverse personality. He was not just a teacher of Torah and a writer of scholarly works, but he was also a compassionate and innovative leader who thought outside the box for the benefit of both individuals and the community. He was a truly great man in every respect.

About the Book

Let us turn to the new book. My research into Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman began many years ago, sparked by my interest in the Shapotshnick controversy of 1927/28, in which Rabbi Hillman played a central role. As I delved deeper into the personality of Rabbi Hillman, I discovered that he was a man of remarkable courage, leadership, wisdom, and the kind of political acumen that garnered him admiration and trust.

However, it was only upon further exploration that I realized Rabbi Hillman was not just a skilled leader but also a first-class rabbinic scholar with an intimate knowledge of every aspect of Torah scholarship. His “Ohr Hayashar” series stands out as one-of-a-kind. In every volume, using a clear and concise style, Rabbi Hillman directs students of the Talmud to a vast array of sources scattered throughout the rabbinic literature of early and later commentators, including the expansive responsa literature often overlooked by other authors.

His notes, though brief, are always on point. Yet, the Talmudic student who does not follow up on the sources Rabbi Hillman cites may miss the full benefit of his insights. This brevity and the effort required to check the sources might explain why Rabbi Hillman’s works did not become standard study texts in yeshivas, despite their profound expertise.

To address this, I decided to invest my time into a task that Rabbi Hillman himself never had the resources to undertake. Every time Rabbi Hillman wrote a note that said “take a look at source X” or “take a look at source Y,” I found the source, transcribed it in full, and then added it as a footnote—sometimes with an explanation to clarify what Rabbi Hillman had intended.

This has been one of the most exhilarating and enjoyable projects I have ever engaged in. I got to study the entire Masechet Shabbat as if Rabbi Hillman himself was beside me, guiding me. Whenever he cited a source, I opened the book, studied it, and compared the statements to the section pointed out until I understood Rabbi Hillman’s intention.

And now the book is ready and available for everyone. My wonderful experience is now accessible to all students of Masechet Shabbat. Every citation by Rabbi Hillman has been fully expanded with notes that provide background and understanding. Those who use this new edition will be able to fully grasp what Rabbi Hillman had in mind: the questions that sparked his thoughts and the resolutions that gave him peace.

To understand the significance of this new edition and the immense effort involved in preparing it, consider this: Rabbi Hillman’s notes on Masechet Shabbat were originally published in 1941, in one volume along with three other tractates—Berachot, Eruvin, and Pesachim. The section on Shabbat was just 32 pages. In this new edition, those 32 pages have expanded into over 450 pages of sources and explanations, allowing for a far deeper understanding and expansion of Rabbi Hillman’s original notes.

Imagine the thousands of pages that will be required to do the same for all of Rabbi Hillman’s other works on every tractate of the Talmud. To complete this task is a daunting prospect. But, as Jewish tradition teaches us: “We are not obligated to complete the work, although we are not free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). I hope to continue with this project and to complete as much of it as I can, so that the light of Rabbi Hillman’s scholarship can illuminate the world once again.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Video

THE PROPHET BILAM: A BIOGRAPHY

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down) Discover the intriguing narrative of Bilam, the non-Jewish prophet whose extraordinary abilities rivaled even Moshe. Rabbi Dunner delves into the complexities of Bilam's character,... Read More

All Videos