The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
No. 124. Parashat Vayikra 5756, 1996
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
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.
*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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