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Koidanover, Aharon Shemu’el and Tsevi Hirsh

Father and son; rabbis and scholars. Aharon Shemu’el Koidanover (Kaidanower; 1614–1676) was an eminent Talmudic and halakhic scholar and preacher; Tsevi Hirsh (d. 1712) is known primarily for his book of moral and ethical instruction, Kav ha-yashar.

Known as Maharshak (for Morenu ha-Rav Shemu’el Koidanover), Aharon Shemu’el was born in Koidanovo near Minsk and studied at the yeshiva in Brest Litovsk (Brisk); he served as rabbi in Biała. During gzeyres takh vetat (the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising, 1648–1649), he found refuge in Vilna, serving as a member of the rabbinic court. He thereafter returned to Biała and then moved to Kurów, near Lublin, where he remained until 1658.

During the Swedish invasion of Poland–Lithuania, Koidanover’s daughters were killed, his house plundered, and his library burnt. He first fled to Moravia, where he worked briefly as rabbi of Nikolsburg in 1659, and later to Bavaria, where he served from 1660 to 1667 as rabbi in Fürth. In 1667, he was appointed rabbi of Frankfurt am Main, remaining in that post until 1674. He also spent some months in 1669 in the united communities of Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbeck, where he drafted communal regulations that were included in the communal register of Altona. Subsequently he held rabbinic positions in Glogau, in Rzeszów, and finally, at the end of his life, in Kraków. He died in Chmielnik, where he had gone to attend an assembly of the rabbis of the region.

Aharon Shemu’el was a versatile and prolific author. In his works on the Talmud, particularly Birkat ha-zevaḥ (1669) and Tif’eret Shemu’el (1696), he sought to clarify sources of the halakhah in the writings of medieval rabbis and to establish correct readings of Talmudic texts. Birkat ha-zevaḥ also includes a fascinating autobiographical introduction. A collection of his homilies, Birkat Shemu’el (1682), reveals kabbalistic influences. His published responsa, Emunat Shemu’el (1683), devote considerable attention to the problem of ‘agunot (“chained” women, whose husbands were missing and for whom remarriage was problematic), which was exacerbated by the period of war and persecution in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Tsevi Hirsh Koidanover was born in Vilna and grew up in Kurów until 1658, when he moved with his father to Nikolsburg, and then to Fürth and Frankfurt. He studied with Yosef Yoska ben Yitsḥak, the rabbi of Minsk and Dubno. Tsevi Hirsh’s most famous book, Kav ha-yashar (1705), is heavily dependent on his teacher’s work, Yesod Yosef (1785), which circulated in manuscript form long before it was published.

Tsevi Hirsh lived in Vilna, where he worked in commerce, but he eventually left the city and returned to Frankfurt. In the introductions to his father’s Birkat Shemu’el and to his own Kav ha-yashar, he describes the sufferings of his family during the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising and the Swedish War. He also describes his being persecuted together with his son in Slutsk, where both were imprisoned and tortured as a result of a false accusation.

Kav ha-yashar (the title means “an honest portion,” but the letters of the first word correspond to the number 102, which is the number of chapters in the book and the numerical value of Tsevi, his first name; the numerical value of the second word is equivalent to that of his second name, Hirsh) consists of “moral teachings and the fear of God and dreadful deeds,” as described on the first page of some of its editions; it was one of the most influential and widely circulated ethical works of the eighteenth century. Dozens of editions of the original Hebrew version have been printed, and Tsevi Hirsh also prepared a Yiddish version, which went through at least 10 editions. The book is based on the dualistic doctrine of the Zohar, which attributed palpable reality to both the world of sanctity and the world of impurity, on earth and in heaven. It divides all aspects of reality according to their affinity either with the sanctity connected to the divine, the angels, and the Garden of Eden or with the impurity connected to Satan, Lilith, evil spirits, plagues, and kelipot (“shells,” a kabbalistic term for the impurity surrounding holiness). This influential book was regarded as a guide to God-fearing piety and to preserving the norms of the community, framing them in the context of individual providence and the reckoning of sins and merits. Following motifs in kabbalistic literature, the book propounds a cultural, religious, and social system of normative versus deviant behavior, enforced by often terrifying sanctions that depend on a supernatural and invisible source.

Kav ha-yashar includes references to popular traditions that developed under the growing and widening influence of the Kabbalah. It also is characterized by sharp social criticism of the leadership for ignoring the distress of the community and for exploitative taxation.

Suggested Reading

Jean Baumgarten, “Between Translation and Commentary: The Bilingual Editions of the Kav hayosher by Tsvi Hirsh Koidanover,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 3.3 (2004): 269–287; Moshe Idel, “On Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Koidanover’s Sefer Qav ha-yashar,” in Jüdische Kultur in Frankfurt am Main von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Karl E. Grözinger, pp. 123–133 (Wiesbaden, Ger., 1997).



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green