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Kranz, Ya‘akov ben Volf

(ca. 1740–1804), preacher and exegete known popularly as the Dubno Magid, and dubbed “the Jewish Aesop” by Moses Mendelssohn. Ya‘akov Kranz was born in the town of Zietil (Dzyatłava) to Ze’ev Volf and Hinde, daughter of Naḥum, rabbi of Kobrin. After a failed business venture with his father-in-law, he was forced to preach professionally. His homiletic style was marked by folksy, incisive parables that often highlighted the different treatment accorded the poor and the rich, a disparity made painfully clear after his own impoverishment.

Kranz was appointed official preacher (magid mesharim) in Lithuanian Mezritsh, where he was employed for two years; he subsequently served in Żółkiew, Dubno (18 years), Włodawa (1 year), Kalisz (2 years), Chełm, and finally Zamość (15 years). In Dubno, his weekly stipend was 6 zlotys with lodging, which was later augmented to 8 (a typical rabbinical stipend, by contrast, was around 12 zlotys). Kranz supplemented this income with itinerant preaching throughout the region, and gradually attained celebrity status.

Employing parables and witticisms rather than words of rebuke and Talmudic casuistry (pilpul), Kranz inspired learned and unlearned listeners alike—much as did contemporaneous leaders of Hasidism. Yet hagiographical accounts contrast him with the latter by emphasizing that he led an ascetic life and interceded on behalf of the ill and needy only in secret and without financial compensation. The arch-opponent of Hasidism, Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna (1720–1797), sought out Kranz’s company and appreciated his parables, homilies, and moral comments, as attested in their published correspondence. In 1796, in the wake of his recovery from a severe illness, the Gaon wrote Kranz to come and “refresh my spirit and afford me some diversion, as on former occasions.”

In Zamość during the last 15 years of his life, Kranz preached publicly, instructed advanced students in Jewish law, and allegedly resolved a much disputed ‘agunah case by means of a parable. The future preacher and renowned legalist Shelomoh Kluger (1785–1869), who was a student in the Zamość yeshiva, was Kranz’s disciple during this period. Kranz’s hyperbolic criticism of an official Zamość cantor also named Shelomoh, known as the “Embellishing Cantor,” created an enduring rift. Tradition portrays Kranz as witty and confrontational in his interactions with Hasidim, maskilim, and the wealthy as well.

Kranz’s teachings were published after his death by his son Yitsḥak and disciple Avraham ber Plahm. Kranz’s works include the Pentateuch commentary Kol Ya‘akov (1819); the parable-laden homiletic Pentateuch commentary Ohel Ya‘akov (1830–1859); a commentary on the haftarot, Kokhav mi-Ya‘akov (1872); a commentary on the Passover Haggadah, Emet le-Ya‘akov (1836); and an ethical tract, Sefer ha-midot (1862; abbreviated Yiddish translation, 1893), modeled on Baḥya ibn Pakuda’s classic Ḥovot ha-levavot. Mosheh Nussbaum of Przemyśl extracted the parables from Ohel Ya‘akov and published them in Mishle Ya‘akov (1886).

Scholars generally agree that Kranz’s parables lose a great deal when removed from their homiletic context. Yet their frequent oral repetition and republication in the Yiddish vernacular attest to their canonical status in East European Jewish folklore.

Suggested Reading

Israel Bettan, “The Dubno Maggid,” Hebrew Union Collage Annual 23.2 (1950–1951): 267–291; Herman Glatt, He Spoke in Parables: The Life and Work of the Dubno Maggid (New York, 1957); Ya‘akov Dov Mandelboim, “Rabi Ya‘akov Krants: Ha-Magid mi-Dubno,” in Sefer ha-zikaron le-Rabi Mosheh Lipshits, pp. 860–873 (New York, 1997); H. Margaliot, “Le-Korot ha-yehudim be-‘ir Dubno u-matsavam,” Ha-Tsefirah 8 (22 January 1902): 30.