The Tisch: The Book of Life and the Plague

Posted by Levi Cooper on September 9, 2020
Topics: Hasidut, Hasidic Lore Series, Hasidic Works

Thus ‘Sefer Hahayim’ was born during a plague.

In 1993, Machon Siftei Tzadikim printed a lovely annotated edition of a slender volume: Sefer Hahayim (The Book of Life) by Rabbi Hayim ben Betzalel of Friedberg (ca. 1525-ca. 1588). This was an unexpected move by the machon, since the previous books it had published – and for that matter those volumes that they have published since – focused on Hassidism, while Rabbi Hayim of Friedberg predated the Hassidic movement by over 250 years!

Machon Siftei Tzadikim was established in 1980 by Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Flintenstein, the hassidic master of Kopishnitz in Jerusalem. Given the affiliation of Machon Siftei Tzadikim, the hassidic focus is entirely understandable.

In fact, the emphasis of the machon has been even more directed, redeeming many volumes associated with the Kopishnitz legacy, including works that had never been published before. Thus, the decision to publish a little-known work that had never commanded particular interest was surprising.

The slender volume was first published in Krakow in 1593. It was then reissued in Amsterdam in 1713. Neither publication generated great discussion, and Sefer Hahayim could well have been forgotten.

The author of the work, Rabbi Hayim of Friedberg, was a colleague of the great codifier Rabbi Moshe Isserles (commonly known as the Rema, 1530-1572), though he was an ardent opponent of the codification of Jewish law. The sands of time have shown that the Jewish community appreciates codes of Jewish law, leaving Rabbi Hayim of Friedberg’s principled position out in the cold.

Perhaps an indication of the author’s place in Jewish history can be garnered from the fact that whenever his name is mentioned, it is often followed by noting that he was the brother – the older brother! – of the famed Maharal of Prague (d. 1609).

So why did an institute under the auspices of the Kopishnitzer Rebbe reprint Sefer Hahayim?

The preface to the new edition explained the choice. In the early 19th century the work caught the eye of the hassidic master Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apta (1748-1825), commonly known by the title of his posthumously published hassidic work Ohev Yisrael (Zytomierz 1863). It appears that the Ohev Yisrael owned a copy of the work, and he gave it to a publisher in Mezhibuzh for reprinting. He also gave an approbation for the work, noting that each statement in the slender volume “was said with ruah hakodesh (the holy spirit).” As per the norm, the Ohev Yisrael forbade reprinting the work for 10 years in order to assist the publishers in turning a profit on their investment. Furthermore, he encouraged people to choose the work – presumably by purchasing it – and study it. This third edition of Sefer Hahayim was printed in 1817.

Kopishnitz Hassidism traces its roots back to the Ohev Yisrael, so the decision by Machon Siftei Tzadikim to print a new edition in 1993 – exactly 400 years after the first edition – was in deference to the glowing approbation given to the work by one of the saintly predecessors of Kopishnitz. It was, therefore, the paratext of the volume – not the work itself – that justified its publication by a hassidic publishing house. In a sense, the paratext reframed a 16th-century work as a volume that was part of the hassidic canon.

ONE MYSTERY solved, but another arises: Why was the Ohev Yisrael so enamored with Sefer Hahayim?

Perhaps the work held a special place in hassidic collective memory, or served as inspiration for the nascent movement. This would seem not to be the case. In fact, Sefer Hahayim is not cited in early hassidic works, and even in works published after 1817 it did not gain traction.

To be sure, the work contains precious pearls of wisdom. Despite insightful tidbits, the work was seldom cited, and is not mentioned at all in Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel’s teachings! Why, then, was the Ohev Yisrael so excited by the work? Perhaps the Ohev Yisrael’s feelings were linked to the author’s introduction to Sefer Hahayim, where he details the circumstances that led to his writing it.

In 1578 a plague forced Rabbi Hayim of Friedberg into isolation. One of the members of his household died from the disease. His daughter and another household member fell ill, though they were fortunate to recover from the illness. With the plague raging outside, Rabbi Hayim could not concentrate on his regular Talmudic studies while in lockdown.

Isolated from his community, Rabbi Hayim remembered that his students had pressed him to transcribe his Aggadic teachings. The teacher had been reluctant to acquiesce to their request: Every moment invested in putting pen to paper in order to record such teachings was a moment stolen from steely Talmud study, and hence hardly be justified.

For every season there is a source. With unseen danger lurking beyond the threshold of the house, it was nigh impossible to concentrate on Talmud study. Notwithstanding, it was still imperative to study Torah. It was, therefore, time to revisit the students’ request. Thus, Sefer Hahayim was born during a plague.

Fast-forward to the 19th century: In 1817 the first cholera pandemic began in India. The disease spread over Asia and beyond in an unprecedented manner. The global movements of the British Army and Royal Navy, as well as merchant ships traveling from India, may have contributed to the spread of the outbreak. Following a harsh winter in 1823-1824 the pandemic subsided.

Is it possible that the Ohev Yisrael’s decision to republish Sefer Hahayim with its autobiographical account of a plague was linked to the first cholera pandemic?

As neat as this explanation might be, it is unlikely. If the Ohev Yisrael’s interest in Sefer Hahayim stemmed from the link between the work’s introduction and current events, then we might expect the Ohev Yisrael to at least reference the disease in his approbation. Alas, no such mention exists. Moreover, it seems unlikely that news of the cholera outbreak along the Ganges River had already reached Mezhibuzh by September 1817.

It is far more likely that in a serendipitous turn of events, the Ohev Yisrael encouraged the reprinting of a work that contained a moving pandemic vignette just before the 19th-century waves of cholera reached the Europe. The mystery, however, remains.

The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at levi@pardes.org.il.

About Levi Cooper

Levi teaches Bible, Hasidut, Maimonides and Midrash at Pardes. Originally from Australia, Levi holds an LL.B., LL.M. and Ph.D. from the Law Faculty of Bar-Ilan University, and is a member of the Israel Bar Association. He is currently an adjunct professor in the Law Faculty of Bar-Ilan University and post-doctoral fellow in the Law Faculty of Tel Aviv University. Click here to read more.

Keep Learning

The Tisch: Omer Obsession

Posted by Levi Cooper on April 13, 2020