Rabbi Zvi Hirsch’s contributions to Jewish law, mysticism, and hassidic thought
Naturally we tend to best remember those hassidic masters who published books, or left behind manuscripts that were brought to press by their descendants or disciples. Of course, not all hassidic masters bequeathed written works of significance, and many of them live on in hassidic lore.
Among those who did leave writings, few could be said to have a panoramic oeuvre. One such master was Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Shapira of Munkacs (1850-1913), who is often overshadowed in collective memory by his firebrand son.
Rabbi Zvi Hirsch was born in Strzyzow – then in Galicia and today in Poland – and moved in 1882 to the Hungarian town of Munkacs, when his father was invited to serve as the town rabbi. In Munkacs, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch served at the head of the rabbinical court. Upon his father’s death in 1893, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch was set to inherit his father’s position. Alas, his unfamiliarity with the Hungarian language meant he could not be appointed to the official position of rabbi of Munkacs. That meant he could not draw a salary, nor could he preach in the main synagogue.
Nevertheless, in practical terms, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch continued at the helm of the community, serving as rabbi and hassidic master for 20 years. His literary output is panoramic, offering significant works in three fields: Halacha, Kabbala and hassidism.
In the same year that his father died, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch published the first volume of what was to become a monumental work in Jewish law: Darchei Teshuva (Wilno 1893). In this work, he endeavored to compile the gamut of decisions from the responsa literature and catalogue them according to the sections of Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulhan Aruch. This work became an extremely useful compendium for matters of ritual law and was accepted beyond hassidic circles.
For the next 20 years, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch published a further four sections of Darchei Teshuva. When he died, the final two sections were in preparation.
Just before his death, he published a collection of 84 responsa and talmudic analyses, under the title Responsa Zvi Tiferet (Munkacs 1912). Responsa are often considered the most valuable halachic output, since they offer analyses of actual questions in real time, as opposed to halachic works that are written in the comfort of an ivory tower. In the eyes of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch, however, this work was merely musings on halachic matters of his “sinful youth,” as he described it.
In fact, Munkacs tradition has it that only by happenstance were these writings discovered by one of his disciples, who urged his teacher to allow their publication. Rabbi Zvi Hirsch’s son would later say that many more writings existed, but he did not feel he had the license from his father to publish them.
Rabbi Zvi Hirsch also authored a commentary on the kabbalistic work Tikkunei Zohar, one of the appendices to the Zohar, that offers 70 interpretations of the first word of the Torah. His commentary, Be’er Lahai Roi (Munkacs 1903- 1909), is considered one of the prime works on this kabbalistic treatise, which was first printed in Mantua, Italy, in 1558. Here, too, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch did not complete the work, printing two volumes and leaving a third in manuscript.
But some of the credit for his literary output must be apportioned to his son and successor, Rabbi Hayyim Elazar Shapiro (1871-1937). Upon the death of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch, his son was left with a slew of his father’s manuscripts. Rabbi Hayyim Elazar diligently set about publishing these works. Within a year, he had published his father’s hassidic commentary to the Pessah Haggada, Tiferet Banim (Munkacs 1913), and before the onset of the Great War, he managed to publish a further work – Darchei Emuna (Munkacs 1914), Rabbi Zvi Hirsch’s talks on Hanukka. The son described his father’s deep connection to that festival, suggesting that his father’s soulroot must be identical to that of Yehuda the Maccabee.
After the war, once the Hungarian Munkacs had become Czechoslovakian Mukacevo, Rabbi Hayyim Elazar set about completing the unfinished works of his father: the final two sections of Darchei Teshuva on the laws of nidda (Bratislava 1921) and on the laws of mikve (Mukacevo 1934), and the third volume of Be’er Lahai Roi (Berehovo 1921). He also published his father’s hassidic talks on the weekly Torah portions, Tiferet Banim (Bardejov 1921).
All in all, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch bequeathed a wide range of literary works, spanning Jewish law, Jewish mysticism and hassidic thought.