THE LEADERSHIP OF A TRUE GIANT

April 29th, 2020

The day preceding Yom Kippur is always one of the busiest days of the year in a community rabbi’s calendar. He must be both practically and spiritually prepared for the most auspicious day of the Jewish year – the awesome Day of Atonement, during which he will lead his community members in devout and meaningful prayer, and hopefully inspire them with his words and by example for the coming year.

But on Erev Yom Kippur in 1831, there was at least one rabbi who was distracted from his ordinary pre-Yom Kippur activities as a result of the scourge of a deadly cholera epidemic then sweeping through the region in which he lived, a plague that was devastating dozens of communities with death and misery, and causing untold mental anguish and financial hardship for thousands of families.

That rabbi was Rabbi Akiva Güns-Eger, one of the most extraordinary rabbinic leaders of modern Jewish history, whose profound concern for all Jews – not just those in his immediate vicinity or from his own community – was only matched by his superlative scholarship and pedagogic supremacy.

On that fateful day in 1831, rather than gather his thoughts or put some final touches to his sermons, R. Eger sat down and penned identical letters to the three wealthiest communities in the Jewish world at that time: Hamburg, London and Amsterdam, entreating them to come to the aid of all those communities that had been stricken by the blight of cholera.

Presented here for the first time both translated and fully annotated, the letter dispatched by R. Eger in the hours before Judaism’s holiest day in 1831 is an extraordinary masterpiece of wisdom, care, profound brilliance and – perhaps most impressively of all – responsible leadership. After all, R. Eger could quite easily have come up with countless reasons why he had to be otherwise engaged that day, and moreover, why others – not he – should take the lead in this dreadful situation.

But rather than leave this matter of grave concern to anyone else, R. Eger grabbed the bull firmly by the horns, demonstrating his care and love for those who were suffering, and doing his absolute best to inform those who could help of what was happening in a valiant effort to motivate them to alleviate the dire condition of their brethren, using his authority and fame to garner support from those in the Jewish world who could truly make a difference.

Before diving into the letter, however, allow me to share R. Eger’s biographical details,[1] thereby enabling you to properly appreciate the source of this unusual missive, so that you can understand why a letter from this rabbinic giant was so impactful in 1831, as well as what it means to be a rabbinic leader almost two centuries after R. Eger’s letter was originally written and dispatched.

Rabbi Akiva Eger was born in 1761, in a small town called Eisenstadt, in Burgenland, Austria. Jews had begun living in Eisenstadt almost as soon as it was established during the medieval period, and for hundreds of years had been granted special protection by the Esterhazy family, who were the local nobles. This small town was propelled to special prominence in the Jewish world after Rabbi Meir Eisenstadt, better known as MaHaRaM A”Sh (1670-1744), was appointed the rabbi in 1714. Author of the halachic work Panim Meirot, he headed a yeshiva in Eisenstadt from 1718 until his death in 1744 (his most famous student was the rabbinic luminary, Rabbi Yonason Eybeschütz).

In 1722, Israel Schlesinger of Vienna settled in Eisenstadt after a long and prosperous career as the official tax collector for the city of Kőszeg, also known as Güns, on the Austro-Hungarian border. His son, Samuel Güns-Schlesinger, who was both very wealthy and deeply involved in community activism, was elected the lay leader of Eisenstadt’s Jewish community. Samuel’s wife, Sorel, was the daughter of the rabbi of Worms, Rabbi Moses Braude (1680-1741), who was himself the son of a distinguished Talmudic scholar – Rabbi Abraham Braude (1640-1717), author of Eshel Avraham, erstwhile rabbi of Prague and Metz, and from 1713 until his death head of the renowned Frankfurt yeshiva.

Samuel’s son, Moses Güns (1705-1790), was single for many years but eventually married Gittel (1740-1811), daughter of Rabbi Akiva Eger (the Elder; 1720-1758) of Pressburg (Bratislava, Slovakia), grandfather of his namesake, the much better known R. Akiva Eger of Posen, about whom more in a moment. Notably, Gittel’s two younger brothers, Rabbis Yehuda Leib Jacob of Halberstadt (1741-1814) and Binyamin Wolf of Leipnik (1744-1795), were outstanding rabbinic scholars in their own right, with reputations that extended well beyond their own communities.

R. Eger’s father was his first teacher, but it quickly became evident that this very bright boy needed a more professional instructor. So at the age of just six years old Akiva was sent to the neighboring town of Mattersdorf (Mattersburg, Austria), where he was taught by Rabbi Nathan Nota Frankfurter, son of Rabbi Aryeh Leib, rabbi of the town. This arrangement continued until Akiva was fourteen and at that stage he was brought by his uncle, R. Binyamin Wolf, to the yeshiva in Breslau (Wrocław, Poland). By the following year, Akiva had already started teaching other boys at the yeshiva – and teaching would become a vocation he would retain and excel in for the remainder of his life.

In 1778, R. Akiva Eger got married; he was just sixteen years old. His bride, Glückchen Margolies, was the daughter of Yitzchak “Parnes” Margolies, a wealthy lay leader of the Jewish community in Lissa (Leszno, Poland). After the wedding, the newlyweds moved in with her parents, who took care of their every need for many years as R. Eger perfected his rabbinic scholarship, devoting day and night to his studies. During this period, the couple had four children, and became intimately involved with the local community. But sadly, their idyllic life came to an abrupt end in June 1790, when a fire devastated the city of Lissa, destroying over 200 houses, including the home of Yitzchok Parnes.

Without the financial support of his father-in-law, and despite his popularity in Lissa, as well as in his temporary residence community in nearby Rawitz, R. Eger was compelled to seek a properly paid rabbinic post to support himself and his family, and in the Spring of 1791 became the rabbi of a nondescript town called Märkisch Friedland (Mirosławiec, Poland). As Neuschloss wryly puts it: “The small Jewish community of Maerkish Friedland is known neither because of [its] ancient origin… nor for any famous men of learning and scholarship who were born or lived in the city. Its only claim to fame lies in the fact that for [almost] a quarter of a century it was the seat of Rabbi Akiba Eger’s Yeshiva.”[2]

Life was tough, both financially and because R. Eger loathed many aspects of his rabbinic duties. Essentially, he was most comfortable as a scholar and teacher, and although he was a gregarious and canny individual, he found the social and political aspects of rabbinic work tedious and unrewarding. He would also have preferred not to make groundbreaking halachic decisions, and at that stage of his career would only agree to do so if he had the written support of at least two colleagues.

But despite these growing pains, this period of R. Eger’s life was crucial in his development on the path to becoming the leading European rabbinic authority of the early nineteenth century. Slowly but surely, via correspondence and personal contact, R. Eger’s reputation grew, and he became recognized as an outstanding authority on Jewish law who had the whole array of relevant sources at his fingertips, as well as a unique ability to deliver dazzling rulings and present fascinating insights into dense Talmudic topics that would invariably both delight and educate in equal measure.

It is noteworthy that Glückchen’s backing and good-naturedness was crucial to R. Eger’s career development; she was the absolute engine of support for her advancing husband. But tragically, Glückchen fell ill very soon after their fourth child’s wedding in early 1796. Her condition rapidly deteriorated, and despite all efforts to cure her, she died within a few weeks. She was just 33 years old.

R. Eger was beside himself with grief. In a poignant letter to two of his close friends in Lissa,[3] the despondent young widower poured out his heart: “I am bereaved and smitten, a broken vessel,” he wrote, “who will I speak to about my worries and [who will] ease my mind?… How can I ever forget my own right hand?” His sorrow was overwhelming, and he informed his friends: “all the happiness and joy have gone from me.”[4]

As he wallowed in his mourning R. Eger categorically refused to contemplate remarriage, although – unsurprisingly – he was offered countless matches.

But R. Eger’s obstinacy did not deter or deflect his two friends; they relentlessly pressed him to reconsider, and in particular suggested that he marry his wife’s niece, Brendel, daughter of Glückchen’s sister Masha and her husband R. Yehoshua Leib Halevi Segal-Feivelman (1742?-1805), chief rabbi of Samter (Szamotuły, Poland), near Posen. Without waiting for R. Eger’s consent, they discussed the matter with her parents – and, indeed, her grandparents, R. Eger’s erstwhile in-laws – and it appears that despite the tragedy of Glückchen’s death still fresh in their minds, everyone was eager for the proposed marriage to proceed.

And so, on August 29, 1796, just six months after Glückchen’s passing, the 35-year-old R. Eger married his 16-year-old niece and children’s first cousin, Brendel Feivelman, in Lissa. The wedding was attended by the entire in-law family, and their marriage proved to be remarkably happy and positive, encouraged by the Eger children, and, in R. Eger’s own words, “in spite of her tender years, [Brendel] is… the support and mainstay of our home, [and] my children are [also] comforted through her regarding their [late] mother… and revere and honor her as if she were their true mother.”[5]

But R. Eger’s life was a constant struggle. Financially his community was parsimonious, and even when he was offered another rabbinic position later that year – the job was in Leipnik (Lipník nad Bečvou, Czech Republic) – and was seriously considering the offer, community leaders in Märkisch Friedland still only offered him a paltry salary raise to keep him there. In the end he chose to remain where he was, but in the meantime began actively looking at the possibility of retiring from the pulpit rabbinate completely, so that he could become a full-time scholar through the support of philanthropic sponsors.

Incredibly, his new wife agreed to live more frugally than even their current economic situation allowed, and a number of R. Eger’s admirers – including the brothers Michael, Simon, Aaron, and Joseph May, a family of Hebrew publishers in Dyhernfurth (Brzeg Dolny, Poland) – made reliable if modest pledges of support. The money on offer would have been just about enough for the Egers to get by, but then an unexpected complication arose: where would they reside once he ‘retired’? A number of suggestions were tabled, and Dyhernfurth seemed to be the favored choice – despite its tiny Jewish community. Or, more probably, precisely because there were so few Jewish people in Dyhernfurth, R. Eger was eager to go there so that he would be able to study, write and presumably publish almost completely undisturbed.

The plan was ultimately aborted, however, when R. Eger’s mother suddenly discovered what was going on and furiously intervened. Gittel, herself intimately familiar with precarious financial circumstances after going through incredible hardship following the death of her husband in 1790, was absolutely adamant that her son should not give up a reliable income, however inadequate, on the basis of an idealistic whim. When he refused to budge, Gittel enlisted the help of his friends, R. Zvi Hirsch Baschko (aka Zamosc; 1740-1807), then rabbi of Glogau (Głogów, Poland), and R. Meir Weil of Berlin, among others, and all of them together engaged in an unyielding team effort to persuade Brendel of her husband’s recklessness. And once R. Eger had lost Brendel’s support for the idea, the game was up, and he remained the rabbi in Märkisch Friedland.

R. Eger kept a grueling schedule of study, prayer, Talmud lectures at his yeshiva, personal mentoring and detailed rabbinic correspondence, as well as his regular community rabbi responsibilities, to the extent that his own son R. Shlomo admitted “I myself refrain from asking my father difficult Talmudical explanations because I know how busy he is; under no circumstances will he give up his regular lectures.”[6] R. Eger often stayed up all night to keep himself up to date, and would only reply to correspondence from out of town on Fridays, when he did not have to give a shiur at the yeshiva.

Increasingly, his outstanding reputation and stellar qualities were becoming known across the Jewish world, and this growing fame led to his wisdom and knowledge being sought by colleagues and communities well beyond his own hometown. It was no longer possible for R. Eger to anonymously disappear from public life into a world of scholarship and personal studies, far removed from the unsettling realities of life. And after Märkisch Friedland became part of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 as a result of the Napoleonic wars – a French-protectorate under the leadership of the minor German monarch, King Frederick Augustus I of Saxony – R. Eger became the de-facto Chief Rabbi of this new geographic entity, heading leadership delegations to Warsaw to advocate for Jewish rights and concessions.

In 1810, the community of Eisenstadt, R. Eger’s place of birth, invited him to return “home” – after an absence of more than three decades – to take up the vacant rabbinic post. To induce him to accept their offer, they proposed extremely generous financial terms, both personally and in terms of supporting the costs of his yeshiva. After some deliberation, R. Eger decided to accept the job, and in 1811 began to plan his move back to Eisenstadt.

But as soon as he announced to his community that he was leaving, they balked. Moreover, news of his decision to leave the German-controlled Duchy of Warsaw for his native Austro-Hungary caused a sensation elsewhere as well. Suddenly – and rather belatedly – his employers in Märkisch Friedland realized what they were about to lose, and the penny dropped as to how badly they had treated their prize possession for so many years. He was abruptly offered more than double his current salary to convince him to stay, and when this proved insufficient, they offered him even more money. But nothing whatsoever would sway him – indeed, it seemed as if the more money they offered him the less interested he was in staying – so instead of money, Märkisch Friedland’s community leaders tried using guilt and sentiment. What would happen to their community, they asked him, if its illustrious rabbi abandoned them, and especially under such a cloud of bad feeling?

R. Eger was unmoved, seemingly impervious to their appeals, so they decided to turn to his rabbinic colleagues, pleading with them to persuade him to remain in Germany, where his leadership was so valuable for the broader Jewish community. Once again, a campaign was mounted to keep R. Eger in Märkisch Friedland, although this time it was spun carefully to reflect the needs of German Jewry, who, it was argued, needed strong traditional rabbinic leadership to counteract the influence of the emerging Reform movement. If R. Eger left for Eisenstadt, he was told, German Jewry would quickly descend into a situation where Shulchan Aruch Judaism would be entirely abandoned, and R. Eger had a real responsibility to prevent this outcome from happening.

Once again R. Eger was forced to reconsider moving away, although this time he had already accepted the job offer, a commitment that he felt halachically obligated him unless the community in Eisenstadt released him from his promise to come. The key negotiator tasked with convincing R. Eger to remain in Märkisch Friedland was his close friend R. Abraham Tiktin (1764-1821), then rabbi of Glogau, later chief rabbi of Breslau. R. Eger deeply respected R. Tiktin and considered him his equal in every respect; resisting R. Tiktin’s pleas for him to stay would have been extremely difficult, and in the end proved impossible.

Others who prevailed on R. Eger to reject the Eisenstadt job were R. Meir Weil, as well as his uncle R. Yehuda Leib Eger, and his friend from yeshiva days, the esteemed R. Yaakov Lorberbaum of Lissa  (1770-1832), author of the acclaimed halachic work Chavat Daat.

After eventually withdrawing his candidacy and opting to stay in Märkisch Friedland, R. Eger nonetheless found himself compelled to visit Eisenstadt – not for the rabbi job, but to attend the wedding of his daughter Sorel to his dear friend, the illustrious R. Moshe Sofer, chief rabbi of Pressburg, best known to us as the author of Chatam Sofer, and also as the founding father of one of the most important rabbinic families in Europe during the nineteenth century.

R. Sofer was born in Frankfurt in 1762. His father, Shmuel Sofer, died when he was just seven, and his mother immediately put him into the care of Frankfurt’s two leading rabbis – Frankfurt’s chief rabbi, R. Pinchas Halevi Horowitz (1731-1805) and the kabbalist iconoclast R. Nathan Hacohen Adler (1741-1800). R. Adler was tragically childless, and treated R. Sofer as his own child, to the extent that when he was appointed rabbi of Boskowitz (Boskovice, Czech Republic) in 1782, he took his young protégé along with him. R. Sofer never returned to Frankfurt and went on to become the key rabbinic leader and arbiter of what is today referred to as ‘Orthodox Judaism’ for the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In 1787, R. Sofer, who at 25-years-old was considered an old bachelor by the standards of his day, had married Sarah, the widowed daughter of Rabbi Moshe Jerwitz (d.1785), who had been the rabbi of Prostitz (Prostějov, Czech Republic) until his passing a couple of years earlier. Very soon after the engagement was announced, R. Sofer discovered that not only had Sarah been childless with her first husband, but there was some doubt as to whether she could in fact conceive. R. Sofer wrote a letter to his mentor R. Adler to ask for his advice, but never received a response, which he interpreted as a divine sign that he had to marry Sarah. Their marriage turned out to be childless, lasting for 25 years until Sarah’s death in 1812.

At the time of Sarah’s death R. Sofer was 50-years-old, and was probably not expecting to marry a young childbearing wife from a well-regarded family. But R. Eger, who frequently corresponded with R. Sofer on a variety of topics, and with whom he had struck up an unusually warm relationship, leaped at the opportunity, and suggested the hand of his recently widowed daughter Sorel, aged 24, whose husband R. Avraham Moshe Kalischer (1788-1812) had tragically died just a few months earlier. The marriage date was set, and R. Sofer and Sorel went on to have three sons and seven daughters, founding a rabbinic dynasty via their sons and sons-in-law that continues to impact Judaism to this day. Sadly, Sorel predeceased R. Sofer, passing away in 1832 at the age of just 44.

In 1814, R. Eger received an unexpected letter from R. Joseph Landsberg (1749-1825), senior Dayan (rabbinic judge) in the city of Posen (Poznań, Poland), one of the most important Jewish communities in Germany at that time. In his letter, R. Landsberg requested on behalf of the community leadership as well as the rabbinic fraternity of Posen for R. Eger to come and fill the vacant rabbinic position of Posen, a community that was facing numerous problems, and which therefore needed a superior authority to resolve heretofore intractable issues.

Posen wasn’t Leipnik, nor was it Eisenstadt; it was the epicenter of Jewish life in Prussia. But for a number of reasons the local Jews were finding themselves under phenomenal pressure to assimilate and Germanize at an accelerated speed, a trend that some local and quite influential Jews were only too eager to embrace. Only a rabbi of R. Eger’s caliber and acumen would have the ability to address these issues, and navigate the challenges of modernity diplomatically, but at the same time with the firm hand of tradition. All of this fed into the call to R. Eger to leave Märkisch Friedland and take on the poisoned chalice of the Posen rabbinate.

The reformers in Posen were led by the charismatic and highly talented publicist David Caro (1782-1839), who had taken upon himself the role of revolutionizing Judaism, having pledged to take his hapless brethren out of the ghetto and into the modern era. The traditionalists in Posen seemed clumsy by comparison, and were in desperate need of an acclaimed hero to rescue them from oblivion. And in the opinion of Posen’s concerned Jewish leaders only the venerated R. Akiva Eger, their era’s undisputed superstar Jewish authority, could come to the rescue of German Jewry in general, and Posen’s community in particular.

But when news of the invitation to R. Eger reached Caro and his wealthy supporters, all hell broke loose. Posen Jewry exploded into discord and conflict, and those who saw R. Eger as an anachronistic throwback did everything that they could to prevent his appointment. But ultimately it became evident that community bylaws had been diligently upheld, and the very same rabbis who had so recently discouraged R. Eger from accepting the Eisenstadt position now hastened him to take up the Posen position without delay, so that he could save this important community – and Germany as a whole – from reform oblivion.

Remarkably, despite the vocal opposition against him, and R. Eger’s documented abhorrence for communal politics and intrigue, he accepted the offer, and by the late Summer of 1815 was installed as the new chief rabbi of Posen – a position he was to hold for the remainder of his life and with which he would become most synonymous.

From the day he arrived in Posen until his passing in 1837 R. Akiva Eger remained at the helm of German Jewry, with his influence being felt well beyond his own community. Whether it was battling the ascendant Reform movement, or representing the interests of Judaism and Jews to the gentile authorities, or training the next generation of rabbis and teachers, or answering halachic questions of importance to a wide array of correspondents – R. Eger stood at the fore, a pulsating force of rabbinic authority and wisdom in an era when such credentials were in deep decline, and true orthodoxy was considered a handicap.

It is in this context that R. Eger embraced the challenge of the dreadful cholera epidemic which gripped Prussia in 1831. The epidemic began in Russia in 1827, but only in 1830 did it turn into a pandemic that spread from Russia to the rest of Europe, where it claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The peak occurred in 1831 and was the cause of enormous controversy between two camps – the ‘contagionists’ and the ‘non-contagionists’. The Prussian government firmly believed in the contagionist interpretation and reacted accordingly. Meanwhile, the Prussian business community was outraged by the strict lockdown requirements and exclusionary policies ordered by their government, and loudly protested against their damaging consequences. As far as business leaders were concerned, any interruption in trade and industry was far worse than damage caused by the epidemic – namely, countless deaths.

By the summer of 1831 it was clear that the cholera pandemic was not being contained by either lockdowns or border controls, although the Prussian authorities stuck firmly to their guns and remained contagionist in their approach. But in spite of all the strict controls they had put into place, the cholera stubbornly persisted, ravaging the citizens of Prussia.

Curiously, and unlike previous epidemics, the Jewish community was particularly badly hit. According to the German physician and medical historian Dr. August Hirsch (1817-1894), during the cholera epidemic of 1831 the Jewish population of Prussia was far worse affected than the general gentile population.[7] By this time R. Eger was 70 years old, and physically not a well man. But in the face of the incredible difficulties and suffering of his community he barely slept, devoting all of his time to assisting the sick and their families. Instinctively aware of bad hygiene as the cause of cholera, he publicized the need for sanitary conduct, and advised everyone to boil their water before drinking it or using it for cooking, or even washing. In this way, and through other cleanliness recommendations, R. Eger helped to significantly reduce the death toll in Posen and other surrounding communities.

The rabbi of Posen’s responsible leadership coupled with his success at holding back the devastating sickness was eventually brought to the attention of the Prussian Emperor, Frederick William III, who decided that R. Eger needed to be publicly recognized. As R. Eger was unable to visit Berlin, the Emperor’s glowing letter of appreciation had to be delivered via a messenger, who came all the way from Berlin to R. Eger’s house in Posen with the letter in hand. With as much pomp and ceremony as was possible amid the prevailing circumstances, R. Eger was handed the letter a few days before Rosh Hashana – the secular date was September 5th, 1831.

Eleven days later, on 9th of Tishrei 5591, corresponding to September 16th, 1831, with the burden of death and devastation having simply become too much to bear, R. Eger decided that the time had come for him not only to use his considerable clout and notoriety to garner the financial support he needed to help all those who were affected by the pandemic, but also to use the glowing acclamation he had received from the Prussian Emperor, so that he could induce wealthy Jews from further afield to support his efforts so that could save as many people as possible. There was not a moment to waste; literally every Jewish family in his region had suffered a bereavement. Moreover, over the previous few months almost everyone he knew had been reduced to economic ruin – and the epidemic was far from over.

And so, with transcriptions of the Emperor’s letter in hand, R. Eger decided to devote the few hours before Judaism’s holiest day to record his thoughts in three identical missives which he then dispatched to the wealthiest Jewish communities of Europe, in the hope that they would support their brethren in distress.

While we do not have any record of their response – although we can be certain that they responded generously – what we do have in this letter is a record of R. Eger’s incredible sense of responsibility. What is particularly extraordinary is that the brilliantly worded letter emanated from the pen of a man who just a few years earlier had been seriously thinking about becoming an academic hermit living anonymously in a forlorn corner of Europe, divorced from the problems of the world, and certainly unprepared and unworthy of advocating for his suffering community members in moving correspondence composed in the shadow of Yom Kippur. But by Erev Yom Kippur 1831 that had all changed, as evidenced by the moving letter he wrote to Hamburg, London and Amsterdam.

Here is the letter that R. Akiva Eger composed on that fateful day. It is a feast of biblical references and clever wordplays, and it is also a testament to the preeminent greatness of R. Akiva Eger – a true giant of Jewish leadership.[8]

May God’s glory rest on you, your leaders and your elders;[9] may you see much happiness[10] in your family circles; may divine blessings of every bounty be poured down[11] onto your places of residence[12] from on high[13]— you, the celebrated and exalted[14] officers and communal heads who administer the congregation of Jeshurun,[15] the holy community of … led by Rabbi …

You have heard from the heralds (newspapers)[16] that on account of our many sins, cholera[17] has flown towards us[18] and she[19] has taken up residence in our city, giving off her foul stench[20] in our district. Indeed, she kills her victims with merciless fury. She pours from her brimming cup of potent wine in her hand;[21] she sets the table, slaughters her dinner,[22] and invites her guests.[23] The clouds swell with [her] poisonous vapors,[24] and on falling to the earth they do not return[25] until they have consumed their fill.[26] Wherever she turns,[27] she unleashes death and destruction in her wake.[28] She claims one and all — the elderly and the young[29] are given no quarter;[30] her consolations[31] are pitiless.

Behold, cholera frolics amid famine and famishment,[32] for she descends into the recesses of the gut[33] if it is empty and has no contents.[34] This disease does not say “enough”;[35] if she takes but one soul as booty[36] she is not placated, refusing to rest[37] until she makes a portion[38] out of those living in the house,[39] of the deceased, unstoppably grinding them all underfoot.[40] There is no armor against her poison, and no shield against her weapons of destruction and her clubs.[41] She is insatiable.[42] Her footprints are bloody;[43] grief and lament trail her. She overpowers young and old alike[44] and burns a devouring flame[45] to consume babes and sucklings.[46] She spares them not from death, delivering them unto the pestilence.[47]

But still, God has not forgotten how to pity, nor has He stifled His mercy in anger![48] For even as He pushes us away with His left hand, he mercifully draws us close with His right.[49] He performs feats of deliverance[50] among our Jewish brethren here. As the rod of disease begins to land blows among us,[51] God forbid, only through the kindness and mercy of His love and compassion[52] does its force weaken as it approaches.

But although the mercy shown us by God has not run out,[53] the dear leaders of my congregation have made sure that this disease does not ravage[54] the poor of my community here. On the day of their misfortune[55] they did not remain aloof,[56] but came to their aid,[57] because experience with cholera has taught us[58] that malnourishment harms the body at a time like this. If people have nothing to eat,[59] she will hit them exceptionally hard and she cannot be gotten under control. Therefore, community members have taken the initiative[60] and have not stopped bringing donations to each [poor] person’s house, according to the good hand of the Lord upon them.[61]

God, remember them for good,[62] for [ensuring that] our poor and needy are fed. And with God’s help, the fracture of our people has been healed.[63] My heart is glad, and my soul rejoices at their salvation,[64] for the singular individuals of the community acted marvelously in their benefaction of my community’s poor in those days.

I call a trustworthy witness to testify about this:[65] the enclosed letter of gratitude (dated 5th September 1831) sent here by our king (may his majesty be elevated), under whose good graces we live,[66] in which he announces[67] to the world, through the newspapers, his heartfelt happiness[68] concerning all the work done in our congregation with the poverty-stricken, to save them from starvation and protect them by not letting the destroyer enter their abode.[69]

But this period has grown long, and the strength of my congregation’s officers is too drained to impose upon them[70] as long as this disease makes its rounds[71] in our district, for they alone shoulder this burden. Blessing has been withheld[72] from them, too, for some time before the plague began here.[73] For the approximately nine months since the people of Poland, having taken up arms,[74] have had their plans dashed on the battlefield,[75] commerce between us and them has foundered,[76] as borders have been closed to all traffic.[77] This has broken the staff of bread,[78] for they are our food supply.[79] Both great and small moan for food and sustenance, because our city has shut down. Day by day indigence depletes[80] the strength of the weak, and the devastating disease[81] is returning back. I have therefore said: Let me go to the great men, the God-fearing who contemplate His name,[82] to appeal to their hearts and inform them of all this.

Congregation of Jeshurun![83] From forever you have dealt kindly with all those who walk in rectitude;[84] your warmhearted kindness and justice are your legacy. Sow kindness and justice in the furrows of your hearts, and let the sprouts be blessed.[85] Hearken, please! When the Lord created man, He said: “Let love and brotherhood unite them; let no hand be free of another.[86] If someone should call his friend for help,[87] even if the city be far from him, he should heed his call.”[88] Now the time has come; the deadly weapon[89] has entered the city — reinforce us,[90] because we are weary and undermanned,[91] with no relief in sight.[92]

Please, brothers! Elevate from the blessing of your hands[93] for the poor of our city, bring them the fruit of your kindheartedness.[94] From afar, bring them the bread of elevation.[95] Be their refuge and shelter. Take under your generous wing the poor who have nowhere left to turn. Your kindhearted donation will be found pleasing, like a fruit tree among the evergreens,[96] like an oasis in the desert.[97] Let this not be trifling in your eyes, for I have never before spoken to you about a meal offering.

Incline your ears to my plea, and the One enthroned on high[98] will heed your pleas, and grant you shining success. You shall live out pleasant lives in the company of your extended families,[99] and nothing good shall be withheld from your near and distant relations. You shall have only fair weather for the rest of your days.[100]

Respectfully,

Your friend, the insignificant[101] Akiva Güns of Eisenstadt[102]


[1] For the details of R. Akiva Eger’s life, I have principally relied on the magnificent doctoral dissertation authored by Rabbi Dr. Simcha Neuschloss (1920-1994), Rabbi Akiba Eger: His Life and Times, Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, Philadelphia, 1956 (see pdf link below). In his introduction, R. Neuschloss cites a number of other studies and monographs relating to R. Eger that had preceded his own exhaustive treatment, albeit noting that they lacked objective depth and breadth. In the years since R. Neuschloss’ thesis appeared there has been just one hagiographic biography of R. Eger published in English: Sinason, Jacob, Gaon of Posen: A Portrait of Rabbi Akiva Guens-Eger, Feldheim, New York, 1990; and another hagiography in Hebrew: Strasser, Yehuda & Perl, Ahron, מאורן של ישראל: רבינו עקיבא איגר זצ”ל, Machon Shem MiShmuel, New York, 1990 (2 vols.). The Leo Baeck institute has an online resource titled ‘The Eger Family Collection 1914-1993’, “genealogical tables and other materials describing the ancestry of Rabbi Akiba Eger (1761-1837) and his descendants”, with a range of materials in German and Hebrew. See also: Jung, Leo (ed.), Jewish Leaders (1953), 99–113; Judith Bleich, Rabbi Akiva Eger and the Nascent Reform Movement, Proceedings of the Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies (1986): 1–8; and Appel, Yosef Yehoshua, רבינו רבי עקיבא איגר, Sridim (“A Publication of the Standing Committee of the Conference of European Rabbis”), Iyar 1994, 14:13-21.

[2] Neuschloss, Rabbi Akiba Eger, p.22

[3] R. Zechariah Mendel Katzenellenbogen-Horochow (d.1809), son of R. David Tevele (d.1792), chief rabbi of Lissa; and R. David Wolf Pollak-Landau (1742-1818), later the first chief rabbi of Dresden.

[4] Schreiber, Solomon, ספר חוט המשולש החדש, Drohobycs, 1908, p.65b

[5] This powerful statement was included as a postscript in a responsum from R. Eger to Brendel’s father, later published by R. Eger’s son in Teshuvot Rabi Akiva Eger #147: אשר דרש כבודו על בתו צלעתי (אב”ה [אמר בן המחבר] היא אדונתינו הגבירה הצדיקת מ’ ברענדיל תי’ בת אחות אמנו נ”ע אשר הוכיח ד’ לאשה למרן אאמ”ו ני’ אחרי מות אמנו הצדיקת ז”ל) יהא לבו הטהור שוקט ובוטח ואל ידאג מאום כי גודל יראת ה’ בקרבה גם חכמתה עמדה לה להיות כל מעשיה רצויים ועם רכות שנותיה היא תה”ל [תהלה לה’] גברת ועקרת הבית. הגדיל ה’ חסדו עלי להזמין לי זווג שני יותר מכפי מעשי. גם שי’ זרע ברוכי ה’ מתנחמים בה אחרי אמותם ז”ל, ייראוה ויכבדוה כאלו היא הרה אותם גם ילדתם באין הפרש

[6] Ibid. #126. R. Shlomo Eger (1785-1852) was one of his father’s most brilliant students, but opted for a life inbusiness, perhaps as a reaction to his father’s distaste towards and perennial difficulties with the rabbinate. As a prominent Jewish resident of Warsaw, R. Shlomo sided with the Poles in the 1830-31 “November Uprising” rebellion against Russian rule that was brutally crushed by the Russian army, as a result of which he lost his  wealth and assets, forcing him to take a rabbinic post in Kalisch (Kalisz, today Poland). When his father died in 1837, R.  Shlomo was chosen to replace him as the rabbi of Posen, and eventually took up the post in 1840, after opposition to his appointment by local Maskilim was neutralized. But after tiring of his constant bitter battles with the enemies of traditional Judaism, R. Shlomo left Posen and returned to Kalisch, where he died. The legend has it that when R. Shlomo’s son R. Yehudah Leib “Leibele” Eger (1816-1888) became a devoted follower of the fiery Polish Hasidic master R. Menahem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk (1787-1859), R. Shlomo sat shiva for his son as if he had died, such was his distaste towards Hasidim. R. Leibele subsequently left Kotzk together with the even more radical R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (1801-1854), and much later on formed his own Hasidic dynasty, which exists to this day.

[7] Hirsch, August, Handbuch Der Historisch-Geographischen Pathologie, Vol. I, p.129, §66.

[8] The full Hebrew text is linked below, fully footnoted with every scriptural reference, even those not included here.

[9] Cf. Deut. 29:9 and 33:12

[10] Cf. Ps. 45:16

[11] Cf. Mal. 3:10

[12]  Cf. Job. 38:40

[13] Cf. Gen. 49:25

[14] Cf. Zeph. 3:20

[15] “The Congregation of Jeshurun” is often used as a flowery name for the Jewish people, but in this context, it may actually be a reference to the name of a specific congregation to whom the letter is addressed.

[16] Yiddish: צייטונגען

[17] The Hebrew text reads החלי-רע which is a pun that literally means “dreadful disease” but is also vocalized so that it sounds like the word “cholera” with a guttural “ḥ” sound, which is the way the disease is pronounced in German and Yiddish. This was the accepted rabbinic Hebrew form for cholera. See, for example, the title of the popular (in its day) book by the renowned scholar and mohel, Rabbi Abraham Loeb Benjaminson (1844-1917): עמק יהושפט או החלי-רע [‘The Jehoshaphat Valley or The Cholera’], published in Zhitomir, 1872.

[18] The original reads מועף ביעף אליהו, but אליהו is probably a corruption of אלינו, as this phrase is based on Dan. 9:21. Alternatively, it should be translated “has taken flight like Elijah,” as in Jewish tradition Elijah the prophet is reputed to move very rapidly, to the extent that he seems to be everywhere at once on Passover night as well as at every circumcision ceremony.

[19] The Hebrew החלי-רע is grammatically masculine, which means that R. Eger’s use of the feminine throughout his letter is clearly intentional. For the sake of clarity and ease, I have not changed Hebrew feminine pronouns to neuter. (On occasion R. Eger uses both the masculine and feminine in a single line, as in the beginning of the next paragraph: הנה החלי-רע הזאת לשוד ולכן יצחק.)

[20] Cf. Joel 2:20.

[21] Cf. Ps. 75:9

[22] Cf. Prov. 9:2

[23] Cf. Zeph. 1:7

[24] Cf. Zech. 12:2

[25] Cf. Isa. 55:10

[26] Cf. Gen. 24:19 & Gen. 43:2

[27] Cf. I Sam. 14:47

[28] Cf.  Isa. 28:19

[29] Cf. Job 15:10

[30] Cf. Lam. 1:3

[31] Cf. Isa. 66:11

[32] Cf. Job 5:22

[33] Cf. Prov. 18:8 & 26:22

[34] רק ואין בו – this is clearly a play on Gen. 37:24: וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם. The question is whether the second word should be vocalized as the noun ayin, or as the determiner ein which was originally followed by the word mayim (as in the verse). Potential support for the latter comes from the next responsum published in this collection of responsa, in which R. Eger exhorts readers to follow the directive of the physicians, which includes: “not leaving the house in the morning on an empty stomach and the necessity of drinking hot water beforehand.”

[35] Cf. Prov. 30:15-16

[36] Cf. Jer. 21:9 etc.

[37] Cf. Job 3:26

[38] Cf. Ex. 29:26

[39] Cf. Ex. 3:22

[40] Lit. “ripping and trampling with no deliverer” (cf. Mic. 5:7).

[41] Cf. Ez. 9:2

[42] Cf. Gen. 41:31

[43] Cf. Hos. 6:8

[44] Cf. Isa. 3:5

[45] Cf. Joel 2:3

[46] Cf. Joel 2:16

[47] Cf. Ps. 78:50

[48] Cf. Ps. 77:10, where it is phrased as a question, rather than as an affirmative declaration as it is here.

[49] Cf. Sanhedrin 107b

[50] Cf. Ps. 74:12

[51] Heb. שוט המחלה כי תעבור בנו ח״ו פעמיה, in which there seems to be a lack of consistency in the grammatical gender, as שוט should be matched with יעבור and פעמי. (It does not seem likely that שוט should be vocalized shut and read as an infinitive absolute, “wandering about,” because one would then expect a prefixed particle, and also because the former reading is clearly based on Isa. 28:15 and 18.) Pa‘am is a verb that means “strike” or “blow”, cf. Isa. 41:7.

[52] Cf. Isa. 63:9

[53] Cf. Lam. 3:22

[54] Lit. “breach fences” (cf. Eccl. 10:8).

[55] Cf. Job 21:30

[56] Cf. Ps. 38:12

[57] Cf. Jud. 5:23

[58] Heb. בריתכרותה, lit. “a covenant is made,” a Rabbinic phrase that appears in, for example, tractate Rosh ha-Shanah 17b.

[59] Lit. “food is cut off from a person’s mouth” (cf. Joel 1:16).

[60] Lit. “girded their loins” (cf. II Kings. 1:8).

[61] Cf. Ezra 8:18

[62] Cf. Neh. 13:31

[63] Cf. Jer. 8:11.

[64] Based on the prayer recited each weeknight in the Diaspora “יראו עינינו”.

[65] Cf. Isa. 8:2

[66] Cf. Ps. 30:6

[67] Lit. “in his announcing.”

[68] Cf. Songs 3:11

[69] Cf. Ex. 12:23

[70] וכשל כח הסבל להעניק על קציני עדתי – The word להעניק does not take the preposition על anywhere else. The sense in which להעניק seems to be used here is also odd, and jarring. It is possible that the text has been corrupted or was misread by whoever transcribed it. להעניק has the regular meaning of “to gift,” in line with the donations being given above, but this does not fit comfortably with the continuation here. I have therefore translated taking into account the general sense of this sentence.

[71] Cf.  Gen. 37:7

[72] Cf. Gen. 27:36.

[73] Cf. Num. 17:11

[74] Heb. נושקי רומי קשת, lit. “longbowmen” (cf. Ps. 78:9)

[75] See above, note 6. R. Eger is referring the 1830-31 “November Uprising” rebellion by the Poles against Russian rule, which began at the end of 1830, and concluded with the surrender of the Polish army in October 1831.

[76] Lit. “bound in chains” (cf. Nah. 3:10)

[77] Lit. “the countries/provinces have been closed to entering and leaving” (cf. Josh. 6:1)

[78] Cf. Ps. 105:16

[79] Lit. “they are our bread, from which we eat” (cf. Num. 14:9 and Deut. 20:19). The plural pronoun is presumably a reference to the wealthier officers of the community who had previously made their money from international trade.

[80] תפר האביונה (Eccl. 12:5) is vocalized tafar ha-aviyonah and has traditionally been understood to mean “carnal desire ceases.” However, in this instance R. Eger is using wordplay, and the word is clearly meant to be vocalized evyonah—based on the word evyon, which means “indigent”—instead of aviyyonah.

[81] Lit. “sword of the disease.”

[82] Cf. Mal. 3:16

[83] See above, note 3.

[84] Cf. Mic. 2:7

[85] Cf. Ps. 65:11

[86] Heb. יד ליד לא ינקה,a creative rereading of Prov. 16:5.

[87] Cf. Isa. 41:6

[88] Cf. Ps. 4:4

[89] Heb. מפיץ, cf. Prov. 25:18

[90] Lit. “protect the fortress” or “man the posts” (cf. Nah. 2:2)

[91] Cf. Deut. 32:36

[92] Lit. “are yet to be saved” (cf. Jer. 8:20)

[93] Cf. Deut. 16:17

[94] Cf. Deut. 28:47

[95] Cf. Lev. 23:17

[96] Lit., “like an apple tree among the trees of the forest” (cf. Songs 2:3)

[97] Lit. “like Sharon in the desert,” a reversal of Isa. 33:9.

[98] Cf. Isa. 26:5

[99] Heb. במחוגת סלסלי משפחותיכם, a strange phrase which appears to mean “in your family basket”. I have translated the sentence based on the general sense.

[100] Cf. II Sam. 23:4

[101] Hebrew ה׳, which I have assumed is to be expanded as הקטן.

[102] R. Eger signs off with his untitled name followed by his town of birth, a common practice at that time by which the signatory conveyed humility, presenting himself as he was before any of his adult achievements, his only title and identification being his birthplace. R. Eger’s distinguished friend and son-in-law, R. Moshe Sofer, similarly signed off letters as “Moses Sofer of Frankfurt-am-main.”

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