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Me’ir Simḥah ha-Kohen

(1843–1926), rabbi and commentator. One of the outstanding Orthodox thinkers in Lithuania during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Me’ir Simḥah ha-Kohen was a wealthy merchant’s son. He received his religious education first in his hometown of Butrimonys and later in Eishishok, where he studied under Mosheh Denishevsky.

In 1860, Me’ir Simḥah married and moved to Białystok; in 1883, he was appointed rabbi of the Misnaged sector of the community of Dvinsk (Ger., Dünaburg; Lat., Daugavpils). There are conflicting reports regarding the relations between him and the rabbi of the Hasidic community of that town, Yosef Rozin (the “Rogochover”; 1858–1936). Over the years, Me’ir Simḥah was offered various rabbinic posts—including a position in Jerusalem (1906)—but he declined them, remaining faithful to his community in Dvinsk. Even during World War I, when only a few Jews remained in the town, he refused to flee from it.

Me’ir Simḥah was involved in contemporary issues, at times taking a moderate position. He came out in support of secular education for rabbis, and on this matter conflicted seriously with Yisra’el Me’ir ha-Kohen of Radin (Ḥafets Ḥayim, 1838–1933). Me’ir Simḥah was sympathetic to the settlement of the Land of Israel, but had reservations about the “Permission through Sale,” created in order to help the settlers. (First issued in 1889, this halakhic ruling allowed Jewish peasants to fictitiously sell their lands to non-Jews, thus avoiding the religious prohibitions of the sabbatical year). He supported the initiative to establish Agudas Yisroel but never actually joined the organization. He also welcomed the Balfour Declaration and even called for contributions to Keren Hayesod, but never joined the Zionist movement and appears to have been critical of it.

Me’ir Simḥah harshly condemned the assimilant Jews in Germany, and anticipated their bitter end by “a gale and gust” that would return them to their people and land (Meshekh ḥokhmah, be-ḥukotai). He was critical of the Musar movement that emerged in contemporary Lithuania, but refrained from an overt debate with it.

Me’ir Simḥah’s earliest work, Meshekh ḥokhmah (published posthumously in 1927), combines theological and halakhic discussions. This work established him among the representatives of the Neo-Maimonidean school that developed in nineteenth-century Lithuania. This school wished to return to the ideas of medieval Jewish philosophy while integrating them with some of the basic concepts of Kabbalah, now reinterpreted in a more rationalistic manner.

Me’ir Simḥah’s second major work was Or sameaḥ, a commentary to MaimonidesMishneh Torah (published in four parts: 1902, 1904, 1910, and 1926), which brought him fame during his lifetime and is still considered one of the fundamental works of halakhic interpretation. His formulations in this work are clear and concise; his interpretations are based on the text itself and its relationship to the Talmud and only seldom refer to other commentators.

Me’ir Simḥah’s commentary on the classic medieval book on the 613 Torah precepts, Sefer ḥinukh was published during his lifetime (1923). Additional works were published after his death, including commentaries to a number of tractates of the Jerusalem Talmud (1928), to the Babylonian Talmud (1948, 1967), and to the Sifra’ (1959), along with halakhic responsa (1981). However, none of these attained the reputation of his first two books.

Suggested Reading

Yonah Ben-Sason, Mishnato ha-‘iyunit shel Ba‘al “Meshekh Ḥokhmah” (Jerusalem, 1995/96); Shelomoh Yosef Zevin, Ishim ve-shitot (Jerusalem, 1951/52), pp. 133–166.



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss