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David ben Shemu’el ha-Levi

(Taz; 1586–1667), rabbi, author, and head of yeshiva. The life of David ben Shemu’el ha-Levi, better known as Taz (after the initial letters of his Ture zahav [Rows of Gold], commentary upon the Shulḥan ‘arukh), spanned the peaceful zenith as well as the violent decline of seventeenth-century Polish Jewry. He was witness to both the bloody uprising of Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi and the messianic aspirations of Shabetai Tsevi. In Taz’s lifetime the Shulḥan ‘arukh achieved recognition as the authoritative code of Jewish law. His renowned and oft-reprinted commentary on that work remains his principal scholarly achievement.

David ben Shemu’el was born in Vladimir in Volhynia (Lodomeria) in Ukraine in 1586 to a family renowned for wealth as well as scholarship. He married Rivke, a daughter of the eminent halakhist Rabbi Yo’el Sirkes (known as Baḥ, author of the premier commentary to the halakhic code, Arba‘ah turim); they had six children, four of whom died young. Upon the death of Rivke, Taz married the widow of one of Sirkes’s sons. Sirkes and David ben Shemu’el’s own brother Yitsḥak were Taz’s principal mentors.

Taz resided briefly in Kraków and Putalicze, spent more than 20 years at the prestigious rabbinic post of Poznań, and later accepted a rabbinic position in Ostróg, Volhynia. However, when Khmel’nyts’kyi’s forces virtually decimated the town’s Jewish population in 1648 [see Gzeyres Takh Vetat], Taz escaped to the fortress of Ulick. Several of his halakhic rulings, as well as some liturgical poems he composed, reflect the horror of that time and depict the escape of the Jews of Ulick from Khmel’nyts’kyi’s troops. After months of wandering through Moravia and Germany, Taz settled in Lwów, where he died in 1667. During his tenure in Lwów, he served as rabbi of the community, headed its yeshiva, and played an active role in the deliberations of the Council of Four Lands.

Among Taz’s more prominent students were Shemu’el ben David (rabbi in Hamburg and author of Naḥalat shiv‘ah), Yisra’el ben Shemu’el (rabbi of Tarnopol), and Taz’s stepson Aryeh Leib (rabbi and head of the yeshiva in Brest Litovsk; author of the responsa collection Sha’agat Aryeh ve-kol shaḥal). Along with Aryeh Leib, Taz sent his son Yesha‘yah to visit Shabetai Tsevi during the latter’s imprisonment at Gallipoli. They returned with glowing reports about the messianic pretender; there is no evidence, however, that their father shared this enthusiasm.

Taz wrote a voluminous collection of responsa (unfortunately not extant) and a commentary on Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch, Divre David. However, his principal work was the Ture zahav, one of the foremost standard commentaries to the four divisions of Yosef Karo’s Shulḥan ‘arukh. Originally published in four parts from 1646 to 1754 and published in full in Berlin in 1776, Ture zahav is in reality an eclectic commentary to Sirkes’s Turim; indeed, Taz was more a wide-ranging commentator than a rigorous codifier, including in his work many lengthy discussions of halakhic matters.

Taz engaged in written disputes on halakhic matters with Rabbi Shabetai ha-Kohen (Shakh), whose commentary on Shulḥan ‘arukh, Yoreh de‘ah, appeared in print the same year as Taz’s work. Legal disputes between the descendants of the two scholars continued for decades after their deaths, with each side championing its own ancestor.

Taz’s writings provide valuable insights into the social and economic conditions of Polish Jewry. His legal rulings display leniency about Jewish consumption of ḥadash shel goyim (grain of the new harvest grown by non-Jews in the Diaspora) and the legitimacy of Jewish leaseholders sharing in the profits derived from Passover and Sabbath business transactions. His rulings also reflect the precarious nature of the relations between Jews and gentiles. Taz condemns Jewish counterfeiters of coins who endanger the safety of other Jews, concluding that such offenders may be surrendered to gentile authorities even though the latter might not specifically demand their arrest. He reacts to the passage in the Shulḥan ‘arukh prescribing the use of red wine on Passover by observing, “We now refrain from using red wine because of the false blood libel.” Taz may well be the first Polish rabbi to refer to this Jewish response to the blood libel. Rabbi David ha-Levi’s halakhic analyses continue to be consulted by scholars, and they have influenced halakhic decisions through the generations.

Suggested Reading

Jacob Sasportas, Tsitsat novel Tsevi, ed. Isaiah Tishby (Jerusalem, 1954), pp. 77–79; Elijah Judah Schochet, TaZ: Rabbi David HaLevi (New York, 1979).