Jewish Review of Books

The Last Word

The Wages of Criticism


The great 18th-century scholar Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ginsburg was not a shy critic. He excoriated implausible talmudic arguments, even, or perhaps especially, when they were made by earlier authorities. He once compared a halakhic proof of the 12th-century commentator Jacob ben Meir (widely known as Rabeinu Tam) to a "basketful of melons." Of the Beit Shmuel, acommentary on the Shulchan Arukh from the 17th century, he wrote that the author, Shmuel ben Uri Shraga Phoebus, was "a student who had not reached the level of one who has the ability to determine halakhic rulings." Borrowing from the creation story in Genesis, he accused the even more famous commentator Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (author of the Bach) of "building his proofs on a foundation that was formless and void (tohu va-vohu)." Of the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Abraham Abele Gombiner) Ginsburg wrote that he simply "did not know what he was talking about." Certain passages penned by the authors of the Shakh and the Taz, two other leading commentaries on the Shulchan Arukh,  were "nonsensical and incomprehensible." As for his contemporaries, most "ruined good paper and ink and embarrassed the Torah."

Eleff BookcaseLike many rabbinic scholars, including those above, Ginsburg came to be known by the title of his book, Sha'agat Aryeh. In this case it is particularly apt, since it is a phrase (taken from the Book of Job) meaning "the roar of the lion." Ginsburg's harshness eventually killed him, or at least so the story goes. Or at least one version of the story. 

In 1901, Aharon Marcus published Der Chassidismus, a history of Hasidism. The author was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1843, and eventually settled in Poland where he became a follower of the Radomsker Rebbe. Among the many tales in his book, we learn that the founder of Hasidism, the Ba'al Shem Tov, knew that he would one day fulfill the commandment to support Torah scholars by helping the impoverished Sha'agat Aryeh, and carried a purse reserved just for him. But Der Chassidismus also includes a dramatic and now somewhat famous account of Ginsburg's death.

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