Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi


Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


No. 124. Parashat Vayikra 5756, 1996

The Malbim : Leadership and Challenge as Reflected in his Introduction to Vayikra and His Torah Commentary "Hatorah Vehamitzvah"

One hundred thirty two years have passed since the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel)* was driven from Bucharest on the eve of Shabbat Zachor - Parashat Vayikra in the year 1864, where he had served as Chief Rabbi of Romania (the principalities of Walachia and Moldova).

The Malbim had come to Bucharest from Kempen in Prussia in the summer of 1858 after having served there as Chief Rabbi for eighteen years (1840-1858). Previously he had been the head of the Rabbinical Court in Vorshna in the province of Poznan (Posen) from 1837 till 1840. How is it that he came to serve in a third community? He saw his new position as a challenge and his objective was to improve the religious, spiritual and social status of the Bucharest Jewish community which numbered nearly ten thousand. The community was divided into various congregations: the native Walachians, Poles, and foreign subjects of various powers: Austrians, Hungarians, Prussians and Russians, and a small Sephardic community as well.

Upon his arrival the Malbim was received enthusiastically by all the various congregations. He established a permanent, authoritative Rabbinical Court which carried out his halachic rulings enforced by the communal leadership and by the civil authorities. He decreed that all the kosher slaughterers must bring their knives to a Rabbi or to another slaughterer for daily inspection both before and after their work. He set new standards in the area of kashrut, imposed supervision on kosher butchers, and constructed a new eruv. He supervised the educational institutions for children, taught lessons on Torah and his sermons were attended by large numbers of people. In one of the first of these the Malbim compared the role of the Rabbi to that of the kohen (priest): "Just as the kohen was to receive from the people three portions of every animal slaughtered: the arm, the cheeks and the stomach (Deut.18:3), so did he ask of his congregants: "the arm" - so that they would put on "tefillin" every day; the "cheeks" - that they should not shave their beards; and the "stomach" - that they should eat only kosher food.

These demands began to cause friction between the Malbim and the "enlightened", intellectuals who were wealthy foreign nationals in the community (identified as "Sudeten"). The enlightenment faction had expected that the Malbim, the Biblical commentator and researcher of the Hebrew language, would be a "progressive" rabbi. In a very short time they realized their mistake. Another sermon - dealing with the obligation to fulfill "vows" made when one is called up to the Torah - increased their anger. I know, said the Malbim, that vows are paid by the hands and the Torah is kissed with the mouth. You, on the other hand, make vows with your mouths and kiss the Torah with your hands.

The "enlighteners" lost all confidence in the Malbim because he objected to the continuing construction of the Choral Temple, a modern house of prayer with an organ and a choir like those which already existed in western Europe. He also objected to the existence of two general-studies schools which had been established previous to his arrival in Bucharest . They began a campaign to incite the civil authorities against him. In posters and pamphlets, they described him as an obscurantist rabbi of the dark ages who keeps his community in darkness (as opposed to "enlightenment"), hinders progress, is ignorant of the local language and sermonizes against Christianity (see the Malbim's commentary on Isaiah 66:17-18).

The "enlighteners" in Bucharest were lead by Dr. Julius Barash, an Austrian from Galicia, who worked to advance the causes of enlightenment and reform in the community. In a blatant act of provocation against the Malbim, they sent him Mishloach Manot during the time of the Purim Seudah which included pork and crabs along with a letter: "We the local 'progressives' are honored to present these delicacies and tasty dishes from our table as Mishloach Manot to our luminary. We are his servants, admirers and those who do him honor". The Malbim, taken by surprise, reciprocated by sending them Mishloach Manot with a picture of himself, along with the comment: ''You sent me your own image and I herein send you mine".

In fact the Malbim had begun his effort "to make war against the Karaites and others who deny the tradition of our Sages of Blessed Memory" (i.e., the enlighteners) in his youth in Breslau, under the tutelage of Rabbi Zalman Tiktin, who himself opposed one of the early reformers, Abraham Geiger. Malbim continued his efforts during his rabbinate in Kempen. In his introduction to his commentary Hatorah Vehamitzvah to Leviticus, which appeared together with the Sifra, in Bucharest in 1860, the Malbim attacked the first conference of Reform Rabbis which met in Braunschweig, Germany, in June 1844, to which he himself was invited, in which decisions were made on religious reforms. He also explained his motives for his Biblical commentaries:

And it happened in the year 5604 (1844), we heard a voice like that of a sick person, in agony as that of a woman giving birth for the first time ... for some of the shepherds (spiritual leaders) of Ashkenaz (Germany) had acted out of ignorance and blasphemed against God, and assembled to violate religion and laws... and many shepherds came... calling themselves Rabbis and preachers... all came together in the city of Braunschweig... the little foxes gathered around ...and a fire broke out in God's Sanctuary... in those days and at that time I saw and gave my attention that it is time to act for the Lord, time to do for the Torah, written and oral, a fortified wall around it, doors and a bolt, so that these vicious men will not arise and desecrate it... at that moment I gathered my strength like a man and I began to write my commentary on the Bible, the method of which I have already explained in my introduction to Isaiah and in the "Ham'vasser" which I published in 1848.

The Malbim escalated his struggle against the "enlighteners" in Bucharest by forbidding the local kosher slaughterers to slaughter for them, enforcing his ban by means of an oath and threat of excommunication. He prohibited the consumption of meat from animals slaughtered by two ritual slaughterers who broke the oath. By doing so, he increased the number of his enemies and caused tension between himself, the local slaughterers, and the rabbinical judges, because he enforced total authority over them.. The government withdrew its official recognition of the community and of the Malbim as its Chief Rabbi, prohibiting him from delivering sermons in the Great Synagogue. In addition to this his family life was upset and, worst of all, his son Aharon died in his youth and was buried in the Bucharest cemetery in 1862. This had a severe impact on the Malbim.

Dr. M. Wertheimer, the head of the Orthodox faction, supported the Malbim in everything he did, protected him and convinced the community to re-elect him as Chief Rabbi for an additional term of two years despite the absence of government recognition. He even supported him financially. However, the "enlighteners" succeeded in persuading the Prime Minister Michay Koglenitzeanu, to deport him from Romania. On Friday, the eve of Shabbat Parashat Vayikra (18,3,1864), policemen surrounded his house early in the morning, arrested him and placed him in a wagon which carried him to a prison in Georgiu, where he was imprisoned alongside thieves and highwaymen. After Shabbat he was placed on a ship sailing on the Danube and released upon reaching the Bulgarian border in the city of Ruschuk (Ruse) upon the condition that he would never return to Romania.

In Ruschuk he stayed at the home of the sephardic Hacham, Avraham ben Yisrael Rosanes, the father of the historian Solomon Rosanes. From there he journeyed to Constantinople to protest to the Government, which had formal sovereignty over the Romanian principalities, over the injustice done to him. Unsuccessful, he left for Paris in order to plead his case before Adolphe Cremieux and the other leaders of the Alliance Israelite Universalle (Kol Yisrael Chaverim). Together with Sir Moses Montefiore and the Russian ambassador, they petitioned the Romanian government to repeal the deportation decree, pay him the as yet unpaid salary due him, and reparations for the damages he suffered.

The Malbim continued his fight against the enlighteners in the communities he later came to serve: Kharson in Russia (1869-1870), Lunshitz in Poland (1870-1871) and especially Mohilev in Russia (1872-1875) and Koenigsberg in Germany (1875-1879). In each of these four communities the "enlighteners" informed against him on the grounds that he was an extremist and a "rebel against enlightenment". In Lunshitz he had to conbat an additional dispute with the Chassidic faction, who accused him of submitting to influences of the "enlightment" in his Biblical commentary. After having served in seven communities, he was offered the new post of general-Rabbi of New York, but declined it. Communities in Amsterdam, Paris, Uhal in Hungary, Grodno in Poland and Vilna all made bids for his services but the Malbim refused their offers. He finally accepted a rabbinical post in the community of Kremenchug in Russia. On his way there he fell ill in Kiev and died on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 1879 at the age of 69, where he was buried. Over forty years he had served in seven different communities and it truly may be said of him: "For forty years I was wearied by that generation" (Psalms 95:10). There does not seem to have been any other great scholar and rabbi like him who was forced to wander from place to place, causing great hardship for him and his family.

Despite it all the Malbim was one of the greatest scholars of the nineteenth century in halachah and aggadah, (in Jewish mysticism), in biblical exegesis and research, in grammar and in rhetoric, and he published numerous works. The aim of his commentaries Hatorah Vehamitzvah on the Torah and Mikraei Kodesh on the books of the Prophets and Writings was to halt the influence of Moses Mendelsohn's Be'ur commentary to the Torah and to create an alternative to it. At the end of his commentary to Daniel he dealt with calculations of the coming of the Messianic era and the time of Redemption which would occur in 1868 (5628), in 1875 (5638), and in 1913 (5673). In 1928 (5688), the Holy Temple would stand erect on its site. In Ayelet Hashachar which appears at the beginning of his commentary to Leviticus, the Malbim set down 613 rules for philological thinking; in the book Ya'ir Ohr he deals with 662 synonymous words, his opinion being that in the Hebrew language there are no synonyms and each word has its own special meaning. In Artzot Hachaim he wrote novellae on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim and in the pamphlet Aleh Litrufah an explanation of Maimonides' Hilchot Deot. Artzot Hashalom is a collection of sermons and the book Eretz Chemda a Torah commentary based on the Midrash. He also published Yesodei Chochmat Hahigayon (The foundations of logic), Mashal V'nimshal, a work in rhetoric and style, and a poem in four sections and Shnat Ha'evel an autobiography which he wrote for the newspaper Halevanon in 1865.

In conclusion, the Jews of Bucharest, the householders and "simple folk", all loved and admired the Malbim (as did the Jews of the other communities he served) despite the protests of the enlighteners, the sanctions of the civil authorities and the threat of his expulsion. They remembered him each year and a great House of Study was built in his memory. This Bet Midrash became the center of Orthodoxy in Bucharest. Only by order of the Communist tyrant Nikolai Ceaucescu was the Bet Hamidrash destroyed in the 1980's.

Note:

*It is generally believed that the name Malbim is an abbreviation of "Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel". According to a different opinion the name Malbim is a translation of the original family name Weisser. In official Romanian documents he appears by the name Malbin (which means "whitener" in Hebrew).

For further reference: Ya'akov Geller, "Al Peulato shel Hamalbim Lehafatzat Limud Hatorah B'Bucharest", Sinai 79 (1976), pp. 82-93; Idem., "Al Hama'avakim ben Haneorim uben Hamalbim B'Bucharest", Sinai Jubilee Volume 100 (1987), pp. 242-259; Idem., "Yediot Chadashot al Hamalbim Ubeto B'Bucharest ve'al Ma'avakav im Hamaskilim Le'or Kitve Yad Chadashim", Alei-Sefer, Bar Ilan University (in print).

Dr. Ya'akov Geller

Department of Jewish History

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