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August 21st, 2023

Published to coincide with the 97th yahrzeit of Rav Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk z”l, author of the Ohr Some’ach and Meshech Chochma

One Sabbath morning, while turning the pages of my copy of the Jewish Chronicle my eye caught, under the caption “Obituary Notices,” the name of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk. A bare mention of the fact of his death was all that the notice contained. I experienced a veritable shock, although I knew full well that the celebrated Gaon had exceeded the normal span of life. Week after week I have since been scanning the columns of the Anglo-Jewry’s principal organ for some tribute to his great memory, for some appreciation, more or less adequate, of his life and work, of his place as a master of the Torah and as a world-famed rabbinical authority.  

My expectations have so far remained unfulfilled. This silence, I have said to myself, is ominous. It has set me thinking and wondering. What if that extraordinary man had devoted his phenomenal powers of intellect and memory not to the Torah, not to Jewish learning, in the true sense of the word, but secular science or literature! 

He would have undoubtedly won for himself a position of the first magnitude. He would have gained the admiration of the non-Jewish world. His demise would then have created a stir in Anglo-Jewry as well, and this would have assuredly found a powerful echo in its leading organ. But since R’ Meir Simcha was unknown outside of the camp of Israel, his departure from this world has passed almost unnoticed!

This woeful lack of appreciation for those of our great men who are great in Jewish learning in its specific sense is, I venture to say, a measure of our spiritual decline. It suggests a lamentable want of self-respect. It is highly disconcerting to think that, despite the strenuous and continuous efforts of the national movement to arouse our national self-consciousness, Western Jewry is still, to a large extent, as a well-known modern Hebrew writer has expressed it, smarting under a load of bondage which is shrouded in a veil of freedom — ‏עבדות בתוך חירות.

It must have been otherwise in Eastern Jewry, or in that of its daughter communities in the West and in the New World, which still retain vivid memories of Jewish life in its full intensity and self-realization. There, the death of a great teacher in Israel of the stamp of R’ Meir Simcha must have produced a tremendous repercussion.

The Western Jew of today, in the majority of cases, hardly has an adequate idea of what the Torah has meant to the Jew in the course of the ages. Jewish learning in its original sense- לימוד תורה-has been not only his culture, but his very life. When in his daily prayers he spoke of the words of the Torah as “constituting his very life” –  – כי הם חיינוthis was no mere profession of the lips, but a living reality. Viewing in the Torah the written and oral, at once Israel’s divine heritage and the secret of its continued existence, he both adored and loved, with all heart and soul, its students and teachers, its exponents and masters.

In addition to these impelling forces of learning from religious conviction and the instinct of national self-preservation, there has been quite another motive force that has made the Jew regard the masters of the Torah with the most profound reverence and with well-nigh filial affection.

From times immemorial the Jew has been a great admirer and lover of intellect and wisdom. The חכם, the wise man, the man of great gifts of mind, has always occupied a place of honor in the popular estimation of the Jewish race.

The prophetic genius, though often winging its flight to regions transcending human reason, scarcely loses sight of it. In the fiery documentation of vice, tyranny, idolatry and superstition, the prophets frequently appeal to man’s reasoning powers, and wisdom is extolled in the Bible as one of the most precious divine gifts vouchsafed to man.

In exhorting his people to adopt the Torah as their rule of life and conduct, nationally and individually, Moses, the Prince of the Prophets knows of no more effective means of winning their hearts than by holding out to them the prospect of the universal recognition of the Jewish nation as “a wise and understanding people which hath statutes and judgments, so righteous as all ofthis law.” 

Our modern historians speak of the violent and protracted conflict during the medieval period between reason and faith, each contending for mastery over the Jewish mind. The Maimonists and the anti-Maimonists, the Spanish, on the one hand, and the French and German schools on the other, are portrayed as waging the feud, and the final victory is regretfully attributed to the champions of faith as against reason. That victory signified, according to the historians, the dethronement of reason from the exalted pedestal to which it had been raised in Judaism by Maimonides. 

This is true, to some extent, in as far as it refers to the supremacy of the intellect within the realm of the basic principles of the Jewish religion. But the Jewish intellect, ever dynamic, ever in a state of ferment, diverted from speculation upon the Great Questions, nonetheless sought for self-manifestation and found it within the framework of the Torah. Accepting the ground principles of the Torah as axiomatic, the Jewish mind found ample material for its highest expression and fullest exercise in the vast field of Halacha.

“Law,” Main asserts, “is one of the very few subjects through which one is able to give employment to all the faculties and capacities of the mind.” (“Ancient Law”, p. 368.) “Nobody except a professional lawyer is, perhaps, in a position to understand how much of the intellectual strength of individuals Law is capable of absorbing.” (ib., p. 369.) Now, Law, in the ordinary acceptance of the term, forms only a part of the Talmud and of the colossal mass of its derivative literature of the entire body of Halacha.

The Talmudim, the Babylonian and the Palestinian, and their cognate literature, are much more than corpus juris. Not only in its juristic sphere, but also in every one of its various departments, Halacha demands the maximum effort and concentration of all the faculties and capacities of the mind, the perception, the mnemonic, the penetrative, the inductive and deductive, the analytic and synthetic, and so forth. Within this immense and mazy domain, intellectual energy and activity, always held aloft on the Jewish horizon, have brought into the fullest play, throughout many centuries, the entire mental equipment of the Jew.

And it was for this reason, too, that the nation entertained such boundless love and esteem for the great masters of the Torah in whom it viewed not only its religious leaders, but also the embodiment of its specific intellectual genius. The passing away of a Prince of the Torah was thus felt as a national disaster and occasioned universal grief and mourning. If this is no longer so, as the present instance would seem to point, it is a matter for serious reflection. The subject of these lines was, I may say, without fear of contradiction, the greatest Talmudist and the foremost Rabbinical authority of the day. 

His life was not rich in incidents. There is very little for the biographer to record. It is virtually summed up in his literary work – דבריהם הם זכרונם. Born about 1843 in the townlet of Baltrimantz, in Lithuania, he quickly rose to fame by dint of his marvelous gifts and astonishing assiduity and was hailed as a rising star upon the horizon of Jewish learning. When still a young man R’ Meir Simcha was already classed among the Rabbinical celebrities of Russian Jewry, and that at an epoch when Rabbinic learning was at its zenith in Russia. In 1887 he was elected Rav of the important community of Dvinsk, a position which he occupied with singular honor and distinction until his last day. R’ Meir Simcha has left in manuscript a number of works covering the entire field of what is known as Talmudic and Rabbinic literature, both Halacha and Agadah. But, of course, we can only judge from his published writings.

These consist of three volumes entitled אור שמח, “Or Sameach” – notes and novella on certain parts of Maimonides Code. That magnum opus of Maimonides, which marks an epoch in the history of Judaism, appears to have formed the center of gravity of R’ Meir Simcha’s life-long labors in the vineyard of the Torah. Very few before him have so completely scaled the heights of a Titanic intellect of the immortal sage of Cairo. Maimonides seems to have exercised a peculiar spell over the kindred genius, at once analytic and encyclopedic, of the great Rav of Dvinsk. The Halacha offers very little scope for the expression of sentiment. And yet the discerning eye can note here and there a reflex of the fervent, virtually filial love which animated the author of the Or Sameach towards the greatest exponent of Judaism since the close of the Talmud. 

Writers on the history of Jewish literature draw a sharp line of demarcation between the Spanish and the French schools of Halacha. The former, we are told, is characterized by methodical arrangement, logical analysis and constant attention to general principles, while the latter, or Tosafists school, is chiefly distinguished by great acumen, fine subtlety, high dialectic skill, and rare mental agility. Like most generalizations, this, too, suffers overstatement, but it is not altogether unfounded. In R’ Meir Simcha, the distinctive trends of these two schools or, rather, currents, of Halachic thought, meet and seem to contend for the supremacy. Next to Maimonides, the Tosafists exercised the mind, at once mathematically precise and metaphysically profound, of the famous Rav of Dvinsk, and elicited his intense admiration and reverence.

Between Maimonides and the author of the Or Sameach, there stretches a long chain of Halachic development. A curious phenomenon along this line is presented by the rise of what I would term the neo-Pilpul, to distinguish it from the old Pilpulembodied in the Talmud and earlier Rabbinic authorities. As the close study of the Halacha almost monopolized the intellectual activity of Jewry, this became practically inevitable. Every faculty of the mind and every mental bent had to find its satisfaction within that particular field. The desire for intellectual gymnastics, for dramatic surprise, movement and sensation, for the delights of fiction, clamored for satisfaction and necessity is of course the mother of invention. Hence arose the chilukim and pilpulim, long, elaborate, dialectics, ingeniously constructed offering surprise upon surprise, sally upon sally. This quasi-romantic development often degenerated into sheer sophistry and was as often severely censured by many of the greatest authorities. 

The vagaries of the neo-Pilpul found at last a resolute and uncompromising combatant in the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797). He insisted, with all the weight of his unequaled authority, upon intellectual honesty, upon the exclusive search of the truth and nothing but the truth, and he called for a return to the Rishonim, to the early authorities and their methods of Talmudic study and inquiry. The Gaon of Vilna set the stamp of his great and saintly personality upon Lithuanian Judaism, and, in a certain measure, his influence survives to the present day. His spirit passed on to his renowned disciple, R’ Chaim, the founder of the well-known Yeshiva of Volozhin. From that time onwards the days of the neo-Pilpul, at all events in Lithuania, were numbered. 

The rise of the Haskalah, the neo-Hebraic movement with its quasi-modernist trend, which speedily penetrated into the Yeshiva, indirectly reacted upon the study of Halacha. The feeling gradually asserted itself that to retain the attachment of the rising generation to the Yeshiva and Bais Hamidrash, it was necessary to pay greater attention than heretofore to the methods of logical analysis in the higher departments of Rabbinics. R’ Chaim Soloveitchik, a man of wonderful analytic powers, a descendant of the Gaon’s disciple, now appeared upon the scene in Yeshiva of Volozhin. His lectures which opened as it were, a new era, were models of lucidity and the subtler logical analysis of Halachic concepts. His mind resembled a chemical laboratory, and one may say that he was logic personified.

The method initiated by R’ Chaim gave a new impetus to the study of Halacha and soon found many emulators and imitators. But what was a powerful instrument in the hands of the master often came to be misapplied and badly used by imitators and copyists. The new tendency also led in certain quarters to an underrating of the value of בקיאות, or Halachic condition, and to over-subtlety, degenerating into airy badinage.

In the Or Sameach the new tendency is fully reflected, but it is purged by the genius of a mastermind. The playful pupil is severely kept out. Logic reigns supreme. Analysis is well represented, but it is exercised upon substances, not upon shadows. Traditional synthesis is accorded a fair share, but it is restricted to the subject matter and does not wander away and become mere rambling. R’ Meir Simcha always leads us back to the original sources – to the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmudim and to the earlier post-Talmudic authorities. Here and there he supplements the standard commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud by original exegetical notes, which are often most illuminating. Obscure passages in the Palestinian Talmud he now and again subjects to a critical treatment, yielding an improved text and a most satisfactory exposition.

In his notes and novella on the juristic parts of Maimonides Code, R’ Meir Simcha reveals himself as a jurist of the highest order, and from his view-angle, it is to be regretted that his work along that direction is not accessible to the world’s jurists. The Or Sameach did not at first meet with an enthusiastic reception. In certain quarters an attempt was even made to underestimate its merits.

In the first place, a great many Talmudists rely on the lengthy disquisition which forms the exception rather than the rule in the Or Sameach. But Rabbi Meir Simcha, who had a complete mastery over the whole range of the Torah in all its various ramifications, from the Bible down to the last productions of his older contemporary Gaonim, sought everywhere for the root-idea for the essential points; and only the essential matter seemed to him worthy of publication. Had he so chosen, his published work would have been far more voluminous.

Secondly, partly as a result of the terseness and compression, and partly owing to the great depth and high power of his rare intellect, his work often demands such a degree of concentration that the average Talmudist finds its matter too difficult for reading at sight. Now, in a work which is practically a running commentary upon a standard text, the author will not refrain from including here and there short notes pertinent to the text, but not displaying his powers at their highest. The ordinary student will naturally turn to these as offering the line of least resistance, and upon the basis of these samples, he will form his opinion of the work as a whole. This has happened in the case of R’ Meir Simcha’s work, and this explains to a large extent why its outstanding merits were not at first generally acclaimed. But after the lapse of some time, the Or Sameach won universal recognition, and it has by now secured for itself a place of honor in Israel’s Torah-Literature.

The material at our disposal only enables us to form an estimate of R’ Meir Simcha as a Halachist. We know that the Agadah, in all its manifold branches, likewise received his close attention. An enthusiastic revere and lover of Maimonides, the latter’s philosophical contributions to Jewish thought must have also reacted upon his exceedingly capacious mind, and, as in the case of many great Jews before him, must have also led him to take a keen interest in the intellectual progress of the human race as a whole.

His published work on Maimonides’ Code, confined to its juristic and ritualistic parts, scarcely offered opportunity of self-expression in that direction. And yet here and there one may catch a glimpse. In a note on Maimonistic diatom in הלכות מלכים, the Rav of Dvisnk foresees a time when science will have attained such a stage of development that the human mind will realize that it had reaches its uttermost limit, and recognizing its inherent limitations will know exactly where science ends and religion begins, and will not attempt to venture beyond its legitimate province. It is a most significant remark this, and one which reflects the sagacity and breadth of the intellectual sympathies of its author!

R’ Meir Simcha, great master of the Torah that he was, was by no means a scholar of the recluse type. From morning to evening, like Moses of old, he toiled indefatigably for the material as well as the spiritual welfare of his people. His heart was as large as his mind. His opinion on points of Jewish law and ritual was eagerly sought after by rabbis all over the world, who acknowledged his authority as supreme. He loved his people passionately. During the Great War when Dvinsk was subjected to daily aerial bombardment, he would not move from his post, declaring that as long as a minyan of Jews remained in the city, he would stay with them, sharing their trials and dangers. 

During the Bolshevik occupation, he was thrown into jail along with the heads of the Russian Church, but after the Bolshevik authorities learned what type of a man he was, and they soon released him. An appeal issued by R’ Meir Simcha shortly after the San-Remo Conferences in the interests of the Keren Hayesod has recently been republished. In this document, which is of historic importance, his fiery love for Israel’s national land and his ardent desire to hasten its restoration find beautiful, quasi-prophetic expression. 

Drawing parallels between the present juncture and the restoration under Cyrus, he hails this turning point in our post-exilic history as of momentous significance. He views, in Britain, an instrument of Providence, regarding her in the light on which the prophets regarded the Persian Empire. Nay, “the level-headed and fair-minded people of the island” appeal to him even more than the Persians of old, and he obviously esteems Britain a much nobler instrument of Providence than Persia was. Fervently praying for the speedy manifestation of the divine light and grace upon Zion, R’ Meir Simcha calls upon all Israel to work with all their heart and might for Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, for the rebuilding of our ancient, prophetically and historically hallowed, Homeland. His name will go down to posterity as that of a great Jew, a great master of the Torah, and a great man.

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