Writing Jewish Law: The 17th and 18th Century
A survey of the great post-Shulhan Arukh legal authorities.
Zvi Hirsch Ashkenazi
Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Ashkenazi (1658-1718) and his son, Rabbi Jacob Emden (below), both engendered much controversy during their careers but both remained influential jurists. Ashkenazi, who, although Polish by birth, studied with Sephardi teachers, served in Sarajevo, Altona, Amsterdam, and Lvov. His responsa entitled She'elot uteshubot kakham Zebi (Amsterdam, 1712), answered questions from across Europe and helped define how Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews should interact in the world of ritual where their customs often conflicted.
Unlike his father, Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776), with one brief exception, did not hold communal office. A prolific author and virulent opponent of those who harbored lingering beliefs in the pseudo-messiah of the 1660s, Shabbetai Zevi, Emden believed that one may not simply rely on legal precedent but must recheck the talmudic sources on each issue. His legal independence led him not only to question the views of many commentators on the Shulhan Arukh but the legal authority of the Shulhan Arukh itself. Emden also rejected unfounded stringencies believing that "someone who prohibits what is permitted will ultimately allow what is prohibited."
Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, a native of Poland, assumed a judicial post at the age of 21 and, in 1754, was invited to become Chief Rabbi of Bohemia. Landau produced over 850 published responsa notable for their wide use of earlier sources, talmudic commentaries, sermons, and other rabbinic writings. Like Emden before him, Landau spearheaded the efforts of the Jewish community against laws demanding the delay of burial of the dead until three days after the cessation of bodily functions, in accordance with then current scientific beliefs, government orders in Brunswick, Germany (1783), Bohemia (1786), and Austria (1787), and the views of Jewish modernists. A strong supporter of the authority of tradition, Landau believed that the principles of Jewish Law could not be outweighed by scientific postulates.
The Vilna Gaon
One of the most revered figures of the period was Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman of Vilnius (1720-1797), who was known and, indeed, is still referred to, simply as "the Gaon" by Ashkenazi Jewry (but not to be confused with the Geonim of some 800 years earlier). Although Elijah did not occupy a rabbinic position, he was able to mount a virulent campaign against the emerging Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe on the basis of the respect that he had earned for his scholarship. Elijah lectured to a small group of disciples, a number of whom became rabbinic leaders in the nineteenth century. His works, including commentaries to both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmud and the Shulhan Arukh, were published posthumously and are characterized by textual comparisons and emendations.
In the Sephardi world Rabbi Judah Ayash was renowned. The son of an outstanding jurist, Rabbi Isaac Ayash (d. 1727), Judah became the head of the rabbinic court in Algiers in 1728 and corresponded with communities around the Mediterranean. His responsa considered matters of communal authority and commercial practice but the majority of questions asked of him dealt with ritual practices. Like many outstanding rabbinic leaders, Ayash also maintained a talmudic academy where he taught Talmud and Jewish Law.
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