Outstanding rabbinical provenance in the Kaplan Centre Collection, part 1: Ḳorban reshit (Frankfurt an der Oder, 1777)

This volume was formerly in the rare book collection of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Judaic Studies at the University of Cape Town and donated to the Penn Libraries in 2019.

There was a major figure in the world of rabbinic leaders of the Ashkenazic Jews – R. Aryeh-Leib Günzburg of Metz. He lived ca. 1694 – 1785. Although he lived on the eastern front of the fading Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for most of his years, the rabbinate he was known for was more famously that of Metz, which is close to the northern border of France near Germany. His novellae (novellae in the context of Talmudic and Halakhic writings are theoretical and practical dissertations on the minutiae of conceptual Talmudic writings, in contrast to Hidushe halakha or hidushe dinim, which are legal and practical sets of opinions and writings) – are considered to be among the highest achievements of Talmudic genius; fore-mostly with his publication of his responsa, Sha’agat Aryeh in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1755; Ṭure even, on tractates of the Talmud, Metz 1781. His other writings were published posthumously.

R. Aryeh-Leib Günzburg, from a drawing done of the sage on his deathbed; probably Metz, 1785; from, Netter, Nathan, Vingt siècles d’histoire dune communauté juive: (Metz et son grand passé), Paris, 1938. His yahrzeit (annual day of death) occurred on July 7 (15 Tamuz).

During the years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it was common for distinguished rabbis to originate in Eastern Europe and move westward into Germany or to distinguished rabbinates in Bohemia or Moravia. R. Günzberg is one such example, serving the extremely important rabbinate in Metz; other examples are like that of R. Joseph Teomim originating in Lemberg, to Berlin, and afterward Frankfurt an der Oder; R. Jacob Reischer originating in Rzeszow, Poland, going to the rabbinates of Worms and Metz; R. Ezekiel Landau from Poland to Prague, and R. Ezekiel Katzenellenbogen, originally from today’s Lithuania, assuming the rabbinate of Altona, Germany.

Aside from the obvious economic considerations of this fact, there is also very important intellectual consequences that came from this. Talmudic and Halakhic novellae – which during the middle ages seldom moved at this volume, accuracy and adaptivity – spread with ease during the 18th century. One of the books in the Cape Town Holocaust Collection shows this point precisely.

Sefer Ḳorban reshit, Frankfurt an der Oder, 1777, published by the Widow of Dr. [Johann David] Grillo; volume from the South Africa Holocaust Collection, gift of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, 2019.

Turning to the volume at hand; Ḳorban reshit, by R. Judah-Loeb Margoliot (Zboriv, Ukraine, 1747 – Frankfurt A.d. Oder 1811) we find one such great work of Talmudic novellae, on the tractate Rosh ha-shanah, authored by an Ashkenazic rabbi from Eastern Europe who made his way west.  Early in his career, he headed yeshivot  in the towns in Poland where he lived and worked.  The manuscript writing in our volume of his novellae, published in Frankfurt an de Oder in 1777 show the detail of his studies in the halakha (Jewish law) and the spread of his teaching among yeshivah students.

R. Margolioth was a rabbi in a number of Polish towns, but he is best known for having served as a Resh Metivta (head of Yeshivah) in Kopyczyńce (קאפשיניץ, also called Kopychyntsi, located on the Ukrainian border near Poland in the Tarnopol area); this biographical fact is an important clue that informs our discovery. Although this was a small town, the practice of the yeshivot at the time was for students to travel to study with famous talmudists even if the yeshivah where the scholar taught lacked a formal educational system (in contrast to what was often found in a large city with curricula). The purpose of such travel was to learn and develop under the tutelage of an eminent scholar, and R. Margolioth was one such figure to whom students flocked.

Our volume in the Kislak Rare Book Collection is specially inscribed with manuscript notes covering both sides of the endpapers. The Hebrew scribal hand is Polish-Lithuanian in style, typical of an Talmud scholar also with eastern European influence. The page layout consists entirely of one continuous disquisition (i.e., the text is not formatted in paragraphs). It addresses a single topic in one lengthy note.

The line begins: מה שהקשה הגאון המחבר רשכב”ה בעל ש”א זצ”ל – ‘[the following is] that which the prolific author [of this volume] asks [from] the rabbi of all of the [Ashkenazic] diaspora, the author of Sh.[a’agat] A.[ryeh], of blessed memory”. The manuscript then proceeds to answer at length a complex question that was initially raised by R. Günzburg in his work Ture even.

We don’t know when exactly this note was written but sometime after its composition, we find this volume, originally printed in Frankfurt, shows signs of having traveled east to Poland and subsequently Russia. One such sign is a common stamp in Russian made by a censor working under the command of the Czar.

This appears to have been written from an oral retelling (possibly a witness retelling). The script is careful and precise.

After his death, the Sha’agat Aryeh gained the reputation of being the greatest expounder and thinker of the Talmud of his day, and possibly the greatest “head of yeshivah” of the past few (how many? since the time of the rishonim?) centuries; for example, the extended title statement for the Brno edition of the Sha’agat Aryeh (the first edition postdating his death) states that “he is named, among all, as Rabbi Löb, Rosh Yeshivah”. This honorific is recorded in many biographies of him. The notes in our volume attest to R. Margolioth having a significant place in the widespread study of the work of Sha’agat Aryeh.  Moreover, we elsewhere have documentary evidence of a living connection between the two scholars.  The Bibliography of the Hebrew Book records a rare variant printing on the verso of the title page of the first edition of the Sha’agat Aryeh (Frankfurt an der Oder, J.D. Grillo, 1755-6) which mentions a written correspondence between R. Gunzberg and R. Margolioth (BHB, no. 000116993)!

In sum, we see from our copy the author having moved from eastern Europe to the west; we also find him moving again via the agency of the halakhic work he published and the notes someone, perhaps a student of his, inscribed on it traveling from Germany back into Poland and/or Russia. We also find two parallel lives of two famous Resh Metivtot (heads of Yeshiva) who originated in the east of Europe, who moved to prominent rabbinates in western Europe, and who published their Talmudic novella in the west, and who later gained even greater prominence in the east.  Although the title and position of the western rabbinate was quite different than that of a Resh Metivta in eastern Europe, the eastern style of learning persisted, was published, and circulated in the west and found its way back east during this period of history.

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