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Dembitzer, Ḥayim Natan

(1820–1892), Orthodox community leader, religious court judge, and chronicler. Ḥayim Natan Dembitzer was born in Kraków, where he served from 1849 as a dayan (religious court judge) and magid (preacher); by 1856 he was appointed head of one of the community’s religious courts. In the 1850s, he was active in the first stages of Galician Orthodoxy’s response to the challenges of modern culture, organizing a group of rabbis who took defensive stands in several public halakhic controversies. The leader of the group was Dembitzer’s teacher, the dayan Shelomoh Kluger of Brody.

Dembitzer supported the publication of several polemical pamphlets, which he hoped would help to formalize Orthodox public opinion. In this vein, in 1852, a group of Galician and Polish rabbis assisted him in providing support for the fund-raising campaign of the Rabbi Me’ir Ba‘al ha-Nes Fund for former East European Jews living in the Land of Israel. To that end, he published a halakhic tract titled Megine Erets Yisra’el (1852), in which he tried to reinforce and widen the halakhic basis for the customary collection of kaspe ha-ḥalukah—donations from Diaspora Jews for the support of those who maintained the Land of Israel. In 1857–1858 he led opposition to a matzo-baking machine for Passover, defying the opinions of West European and Neo-Orthodox rabbis, and insisting they continue to be made by hand.

Dembitzer was also interested from an early age in the history of the major Jewish communities in Poland—in particular, with the history of the rabbinical elite. He assembled information from pinkasim (communal record books) and genizot (synagogue archives), also recording and preserving tombstone inscriptions from cemeteries in Lwów and Kraków. Beginning in the 1870s, he devoted himself entirely to collecting manuscripts and studying the past.

Dembitzer’s work Kelilat yofi, on the history of Lwów’s rabbis (in two parts; 1888–1893), made him famous. He maintained contact with Jewish studies scholars in both Eastern and Western Europe, who availed themselves of his knowledge. They also encouraged him to publish an anthology of letters (Mikhteve bikoret; 1892) that constituted the first, pioneering study of the supercommunal councils of Polish and Lithuanian Jewry.

Suggested Reading

Haim Gertner, “Re’shitah shel ketivah historit ortodoksit be-Mizraḥ Eropah: Ha-‘Arakhah meḥudeshet,” Tsiyon 67.3 (2002): 293–336; Vunder (Wunder), Me’ore Galitsyah: Entsiklopedyah le-ḥakhme Galitsyah, vol. 1, pp. 805–814 (Jerusalem, 1978); Feivel Hirsch Wettstein, Toldot Moharḥan (Kraków, 1893).



Translated from Hebrew by David Louvish