A   F E W   G O O D   M E N  

The editors of Torah from Dixie proudly present
a recompilation of columns giving a brief sketch
of the rabbinic giants often mentioned in our articles
.

 Alshich Hakadosh   Chasam Sofer   Chofetz Chaim   Kli Yakar   Maharal   Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz   Rabbi Moshe  Chaim Luzzatto   Rabbi Moshe Isserles   Rabbi Ovadya Seforno   Rabbi Yosef Caro   Rabeinu Tam   Rambam   Ramban   Rashbam   Rashi   The Netziv   Vilna Gaon 

 

 

 

 

 
Alshich Hakadosh (1508-1593)  Popularly referred to by his family name, and an individual whose great holiness is reflected by the title "Hakadosh" (the holy) which history has appended to his name, Rabbi Moshe Alshich was one of the leading members of the great beit din (Jewish court) of Safed, Israel. He had moved to the holy city of Safed from Turkey with his teacher Rabbi Yosef Caro the author of the Shulchan Aruch) while still a young man. The Alshich Hakadosh was an eminent Talmudic scholar and kabbalist (as were many of the rabbinic leaders of Safed at that time), as well as a respected and gifted orator. However, the Alshich is most famous for his popular commentary on the Torah which was based on the public addresses and lectures he delivered every Shabbat to the people of his community. He also authored classic commentaries on many of the other books of the Tanach (Scriptures), some of which have recently been translated into English. He died only a few months after returning home from a successful campaign abroad to raise funds for the poor residents of Safed, and is buried there in Safed's famous cemetery.

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Chasam Sofer (1763-1839)  Rabbi Moshe Sofer is well-known in the Jewish world as the Chasam Sofer, the title of his great works of Torah scholarship and halachic responsa. He was regarded as one of the great rabbinic leaders of European Jewry of his time. The Chasam Sofer founded the great Yeshiva (school of advanced Torah study) of Pressburg, Hungary which produced many rabbinic and communal leaders of great knowledge and piety over the next century, and which quickly grew to become the most important Jewish institution in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Chasam Sofer was a strong and decisive leader who fought tenaciously against assimilationist tides to insure the survival of the Jewish people. Along with being the leading halachic decisor of his day, the Chasam Sofer also wrote a popular and illuminating commentary on the Torah. He was succeeded as rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva (dean) of Pressburg by his son, the K'sav Sofer, who followed in his illustrious father's footsteps as a great leader and scholar in his own right.

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Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933)  Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen Kagan of Radin, a small town in Poland, is popularly known as the Chofetz Chaim (meaning one who desires life) after the title of his first major work, published anonymously in the 1870's about the laws and attitudes pertaining to lashon harah (evil speech or slander). He was loved and revered throughout the world as one of the foremost scholars of his time -- a humble, pious, and saintly man who was respected by and acknowledged as one of the most important leaders of all of world Jewry. Aside from writing the book on lashon harah, the Chofetz Chaim authored many basic works on nearly every topic in Jewish life. His other major publication was the Mishnah Berurah, a monumental commentary on the Orach Chaim (daily living) section of the Shulchan Oruch (code of Jewish law) which has achieved universal acceptance and is considered to be the last word in most Halachik matters decided in our times.

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Kli Yakar (1550-1619)  After serving as rosh yeshiva (dean) in Lemberg, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Lunshitz became the spiritual leader in Prague. He was an inspiring speaker who electrified his audiences with his highly-charged and breathtaking sermons. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim's most important work is Kli Yakar, a classic commentary on the Chumash (Pentateuch) which is still published in every edition of Mikraot Gedolot (a compilation of classical commentaries whose writings are printed on the same page as is the text of the Chumash itself). Written in an exceptionally clear manner, Kli Yakar expounds upon the text in a homiletic style, clarifying difficult passages with remarkably penetrating and illuminating explanations. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim also wrote special selichot (supplications) to be said in memory of the Jews of Prague who suffered horribly during the pogroms of 1611.

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Maharal (1525-1609)  Rabbi Yehudah Loewe of Prague, popularly known as the Maharal (an acronym for Moreinu Harav Loewe, our teacher Rabbi Loewe), was one of the leading Talmudic scholars, kabbalists, and philosophers of his time, authoring significant works in almost every area of Torah study. His many inspirational volumes blend the brilliance of insightful genius, Kabbalistic perspective, and rationalistic scholarship into a tapestry of classic Jewish thought and faith. The Maharal's supercommentary to Rashi on the Chumash (Pentateuch), called Gur Aryeh, provides much elucidation of that great fundamental work. However the Maharal is probably most famous in Jewish legend for creating a Golem, a kabbalistically generated man-like creature, which defended the Jewish community of Prague from the murderous pogroms of the time. (Please see The Golem by Gershon Winkler for further details on the Maharal's incredible creation.)

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Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz (1902-1979)  Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, rosh yeshiva (dean) of the famous Mir Yeshiva for more than forty years, was one of the towering Torah figures of the past generation, and was recognized both for his prodigious mind and for his sterling character. When World War II broke out, Reb Chaim (as he was reverently called) was able to lead almost his entire student body out of war-torn Lithuania to a safe haven in Shanghai, China. Even with the nightmare of the war haunting the Jewish world, Reb Chaim was able to inspire his students to achieve true greatness in Torah scholarship. After the war, he reestablished the yeshiva in Jerusalem. Reb Chaim was well-known for his ability to become totally engrossed in his Torah study for hours at a time, while at the same time showing all-encompassing concern for other people. His ethical discourses, many of which have been published in English, attracted huge crowds of anxious listeners and are considered classics. They offer novel interpretations into the wisdom of our sages and reveal his penetrating insights into human nature.

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Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1747)  (known by the acronym Ramchal) was born in Italy where he became renowned, even as a young man, for his vast Torah knowledge and beautiful literary style. A prolific writer, Ramchal's magnum opus, Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Just), became a classical work in the study of mussar (Jewish ethics and piety) and is studied to this day by every serious student of Torah and ethics. Other of Ramchal's important works include Derech Hashem (The Way of Hashem) -- a major philosophical treatise, and Da'at T'vunot -- an exposition on critical kabbilistic concepts. His extended involvement in kabbilistic study at such a young age created a furor among suspicious, but well-meaning rabbis and he was eventually forced to leave Italy. After a short stay in Amsterdam, Ramchal moved to Tiberias, Israel where he succumbed to an epidemic at the young age of 40. His gravesite, overlooking the beautiful Kineret, is adjacent to that of the great Rabbi Akiva.

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Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1530-1572)  born into a prestigious family in Poland, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (known by the acronym Rama) went on to become one of the greatest Ashkenazic halachic decisors ever. His greatest work was his annotations to Rabbi Yosef Karo's Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) which had primarily reflected the practices of the Sephardic communities. The Rama appended the opinions of the great medieval Ashkenazic halachists to Rabbi Karo's text, thus providing the halachic perspective of the Ashkenazic tradition to the full gamut of Jewish law. It was with great humility that the Rama expressed his opinions as notes on a contemporary work, rather than writing his own halachic compendium; he aptly entitled his notes "Sefer HaMapah - the covering" which would lend grace to the "Shulchan Aruch - set table".

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Rabbi Ovadya Seforno (1470-1550)  aside from being a great Torah scholar, philosopher, and communal leader in his native Italy, Rabbi Ovadyah Seforno was a physician and mathematician of great renown. However, Seforno is best known for authoring a famous commentary on the Chumash (Pentateuch) which has long been published in every edition of Mikraot Gedolot (a compilation of classical commentaries whose writings are printed on the same page as is the text of the Chumash itself). His commentary is a masterpiece of concise remarks which interpret the verses according to their literal meaning, while at the same time serving as a reservoir for classical ethical and moral insights.

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Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575)  was forced to flee Spain at the time of the expulsion, eventually settling in the holy city of Safed (Tzfat), Israel where he was immediately appointed to a position of great importance. An extremely humble and devout person who was a master of Kabbalah, Rabbi Yosef Caro's greatest contributions were his outstanding works in halacha which made for him an everlasting place in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. His first major work, the Bais Yosef, is an extremely thorough commentary on the Tur (the great 15th century halachic code), complete with halachic discussions of earlier opinions and his own final decisions based upon the preceding authorities. From the Bais Yosef, he wrote a brilliantly organized authoritative abridgment of those final decisions, called the Shulchan Aruch, in which he covered the gamut of practical Jewish law. These two great publications established Rabbi Yosef Caro as the preeminent authority on Jewish law and practice, with almost all discussions in halacha to this day stemming from his writings. Towards the end of his life, he authored yet another monumental work, the Kessef Mishneh, an important commentary on the Rambam's halachic masterpiece, the Mishneh Torah .

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Rabeinu Tam (1100-1171)  a grandson of the great Rashi, Rabbeinu (our rabbi) Tam was widely considered to be the greatest Torah scholar and leader of his time, and he was called upon to decide most of the halachic problems of the day. Scholars from all over the world flocked to his academy in France to hear his incisive Talmudic discourses in which he brilliantly dissected and compared the topics, resolving difficult passages and revealing basic principles which would apply throughout Jewish law. Those lectures served as the basis for the Tosafos commentary, compiled by his students and printed in the margin of every page of the Talmud. Rabbeinu Tam was an extremely successful wine merchant and financier, and was also well versed in the rules of Hebrew grammar. When his home was pillaged by the Crusaders in 1146, Rabbeinu Tam miraculously survived five knife wounds to the head. His actual name was Yaacov ben Meir, but he was called Rabbeinu Tam after the verse which describes our forefather "Jacob as being tam" - a wholesome man who spent his time studying Torah.

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Rambam (1135-1204)  born in Spain, but forced to flee because of the Muslim invasions, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) finally settled with his family in Cairo, where aside from being the leader of the Jewish community and a prolific writer, he became a brilliant physician and was eventually appointed by the sultan to be the doctor of the royal court. After writing a commentary to the Mishnah, the Rambam authored his monumental halachic magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, a comprehensive 14-volume halachic compendium based upon the Talmud, upon which more than 300 works have since been written. The Rambam later wrote his great philosophical treatise Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) in which he explains many of Judaism's fundamental concepts. Ani Ma'amin, a list of thirteen principles which delineate our basic beliefs, and its poetic counterpart Yigdal which we recite at every morning service, are based upon the Rambam's formulation. The Rambam is buried in Tiberias, Israel.

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Ramban (1194-1270)  Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides) was one of the foremost halachik authorities of the Middle Ages. Aside from writing many great works in Jewish philosophy and thought studied to this day, his monumental commentary on the Chumash (Pentateuch) is considered indispensable to the Torah scholar. In a well-documented theological debate with the Catholic Church called by James I of Aragon in 1263, the Ramban eloquently defended the tenets of Judaism. As a result of his convincing victory in the debate which embarrassed the Church, the Ramban was forced to flee Spain. He eventually settled in Israel in 1267, re-establishing the Jewish community in Jerusalem.

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Rashbam (1085-1174)  a grandson of the great commentator Rashi, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (known by the acronym RaSHBaM) followed in the footsteps of his illustrious grandfather by composing an important commentary on the Chumash (Pentateuch). Perhaps more than anyone else, Rashbam stresses the plain meaning of the text, providing a clear, literal, and concise explanation of the verses without including any extraneous matter. His commentary has long been published in every edition of Mikraot Gedolot (a compilation of classical commentaries whose writings are printed on the same page as is the text of the Chumash itself). On the few tractates of the Talmud where Rashi's commentary was left incomplete, Rashbam compiled a commentary of his own to fill that void, and it is printed on the margin of every standard Talmud edition. His younger brother Rabbeinu Tam, studied under his tutelage.

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Rashi (1040-1105)  Born in France, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) was the major figure of Ashkenazic Jewry in his time, and remains unparalleled to this day in providing education and inspiration to the masses as the commentator par excellence of the Jewish people. His commentary on the Chumash (Pentateuch) became the basic one studied by almost every Jewish child and adult -- layman and scholar alike -- and is considered absolutely necessary for an accurate understanding of the Torah. In addition, Rashi wrote a monumental commentary on the Talmud which appears on the inner margin of every standard edition, upon which nearly all Talmudic study is based. His family and students succeeded him as leaders and scholars, founding the school of the Tosafos, whose commentary on the Talmud and style of study are also fundamental to this day.

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The Netziv (1817-1893)  Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, popularly known in the Torah world as the Netziv, was well-known for his great piety and scholarship. He headed the world famous yeshiva of Volozhin during its glorious era when countless of Europe's budding scholars streamed to study Torah at its highest level. The Netziv authored many important works on the Talmud, but is perhaps best known for his monumental commentary on Chumash (the Pentateuch) entitled Ha'emek Davar. In the latter part of the 19th century, Torah learning was suppressed in czarist Russia. The oppressive czarist regime made many demands on the Netziv to "enlighten" the programming in his yeshiva to include various courses of study which he considered inconsistent with the goals of his curriculum. Refusing to compromise his lofty principles for an unadulterated Torah program, the Netziv closed the doors of his yeshiva in 1892. This caused him enormous pain which eventually led to his passing a year later.

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Vilna Gaon (1720-1797)  Reverently known by the title "Gaon", a Torah scholar and genius of the highest magnitude, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna's brilliance was considered to be reflective of the greatest Torah scholars of many earlier generations. Not only was the Gaon a master in the fields of Torah, Talmud, Jewish philosophy, halacha, and Kaballah; he was also an expert in the sciences, mathematics, philosophy, music, and medicine. Although he was mostly a silent leader during his time, the Gaon made an indelible impression on the Jewish world by preserving the traditional position of importance held by the talmid chacham (Torah scholar) in the Jewish community. He further insured the survival of Torah study, and therefore the Jewish people, by inspiring his disciples to build the modern yeshiva educational system, in which his methodology and approach to Torah study are still maintained today. The Vilna Gaon's major written works include his corrections and emendations of Talmudic texts, and his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). His commentary on the Torah, known for its brilliant and often incredible observations, is also widely studied.

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