The Tisch: Crossing Swords With an Iron Head

Posted by Levi Cooper on May 13, 2011
Topics: Hasidut, Hasidic Lore Series, Early Hasidic Era

The holy Rabbi Ya’acov Yitzhak Halevi Horowitz, commonly known as the Hozeh of Lublin, was the first hassidic master to serve in a major city.

The holy Rabbi Ya’acov Yitzhak Halevi Horowitz (1745-1815), commonly known as the Hozeh (Seer) of Lublin, was the first hassidic master to serve in a major city, albeit in a suburb. He was an extremely popular leader, and can be considered the father of Polish hassidism.

While many of his fellow hassidic masters crossed swords with the mitnagdim, the rabbinic opposition to the nascent hassidic movement, the Hozeh came into direct contact with a leading mitnaged in Lublin: one of the renowned talmudists of his era, Rabbi Ezriel Halevi Horowitz (d. 1818). Though the two adversaries shared the same surname, they were apparently unrelated.

Rabbi Ezriel was known by the Yiddish moniker “Eizerner Kop” (iron head), for his talmudic acumen. While the Eizerner Kop did not publish his writings, in 1969 a compilation of his talmudic novellae and responsa was published under the Hebrew title Rosh Barzel (iron head).

Despite the reputation of a sharp mind, in hassidic lore he is portrayed – as could be expected – in a rather different light. The Eizerner Kop is remembered for the disdain he felt toward the unlearned. He despised hassidism, especially its local representative, the Hozeh of Lublin.

Seeing the Hozeh’s popularity wax, the Eizerner Kop called the Hozeh to his office and said to him: “We both know that you are not a learned scholar, and hence the respect accorded to you is entirely misplaced. It is time to remedy the situation. On Shabbat, I want you to announce to all that you are nothing more than an ignoramus, unworthy of attention, and people should stop treating you with such deference.”

The Hozeh readily agreed to the Eizerner Kop’s suggestion and carried out the plan. Unfortunately for the Eizerner Kop, the cunning plan backfired; seeing the Hozeh’s humility, people felt even more admiration for the master, and his popularity continued to grow.

The Eizerner Kop called the Hozeh once more, this time with a new demand: “Clearly our plan failed; we need a different solution. This Shabbat I want you to publicly announce that you are the most learned scholar in town and are worthy of being treated with the highest esteem.”

The Hozeh demurred: “I readily agreed to your initial suggestion to declare that I am unlearned. But to get up and publicly lie – I am not willing!” Years later, the Eizerner Kop approached one of the Hozeh’s prime students – who incidentally had the same first name as his master – Rabbi Ya’acov Yitzhak Rabinowitz (ca. 1766-1813), known as the Yid Hakadosh of Pshischa, the holy Jew from Przysucha. The Eizerner Kop said to the Yid Hakadosh: “I hear that your master the Hozeh takes extra combs with him whenever he goes to the bathhouse. He offers these combs to others, so that he is able to do acts of loving-kindness, even in a place where Torah study is forbidden. While the Hozeh’s intention is indeed laudable, his solution would appear to contradict the Talmud!” The Eizerner Kop cited the Talmud passage (B. Menahot 43b) recounting that when King David entered the bathhouse, he bemoaned that he was naked of mitzvot. When he noticed his circumcision, he realized that he always carried a mitzva with him, and his mind was put at ease.

The Eizerner Kop wondered: “Why didn’t King David simply take combs with him to distribute, rather than feeling naked without mitzvot?” The Yid Hakadosh replied: “I am surprised that a scholar like you would forget a Mishna! The Mishna states that a king should not been seen naked, and no one should go into the bathhouse with him (M. Sanhedrin 2:5). Moreover, a king may not forgo the honor that he is to be accorded (B. Ketubot 17a). To whom could King David have given combs in the bathhouse?”

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