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Natanson, Yosef Sha’ul

(1808–1875), rabbi, halakhic decisor, and Orthodox educator. Yosef Sha’ul Natanson was born in the Galician town of Brzeżany (Ukr., Berezhany; Yid. Berezhan) to a distinguished and wealthy family. In 1825, after he married his cousin, Sara Idel (of the Ettinger family), he moved to Lwów. Most of Natanson’s time in subsequent years was devoted to study and to writing Talmudic and halakhic works in collaboration with his brother-in-law, Mordekhai Ze’ev Ettinger. In 1848, Natanson established a small yeshiva in a Lwów bet midrash, and he was soon widely recognized as an Orthodox educator. In 1857, he was appointed district rabbi in Lwów, after the post had been unoccupied for some 10 years; he held that position until his death.

Natanson was well aware of the challenges presented by modern culture, and his reactions to them were conservative and moderate, as expressed in his halakhic rulings, in his approach toward the education of rabbis, and in his publications. Natanson was one of the most highly regarded halakhic decisors in Galicia and the neighboring districts in the mid-nineteenth century. After being appointed rabbi in Lwów, he was involved in most of the public halakhic debates in Galicia, and his opinions were also in demand elsewhere.

He was particularly active in ruling on issues pertaining to the relief of ‘agunot (“chained” women, who are legally barred from remarrying due to a husband’s desertion, unverified death, or refusal to divorce), the appointment of rabbis and ritual slaughterers, and the supervision of the textile and food industries. In the 1850s and 1860s, he cooperated with the German Neo-Orthodox rabbinate and with the preachers of the Lwów Tempel (that is, the progressive synagogue), Shim‘on Aryeh Schwabacher and Yisakhar Ber Loewenstein. In 1858, for example, Natanson headed a group of Galician rabbis who, relying on the rulings of German and other West European Orthodox and Neo-Orthodox rabbis, permitted the use of a new matzo-baking machine of German manufacture.

In the field of Jewish education, Natanson considered his main task to be to prepare a new generation of dayanim and communal rabbis, thus ensuring the continuation of the rabbinate. He concentrated efforts at his yeshiva on preparing pupils to be halakhic decisors and encouraging them to publish texts on halakhic issues. Later, he was involved in the ordination of many dayanim and rabbis in Galicia, Hungary, and Russia, after evaluating their ability to issue halakhic rulings.

Natanson was acquainted with the pioneering research of Galician maskilim and reacted to it at an early stage. He and Ettinger made efforts as early as the 1820s to collect, edit, and publish ancient manuscripts, also composing hagahot (glosses) and lists of cross-references for rabbinical texts. Natanson’s first collaborations with Ettinger were several works of Jewish law and commentary, the most important of which was Mefarshe ha-yam (1827). The two authors were soon referred to collectively by the title of that work, a commentary on Yam ha-Talmud—a work by their uncle, Mosheh Yehoshu‘a Heshel Orenstein, that they had published from manuscript.

In the 1850s, however, the two brothers-in-law had a falling out, apparently over the question of the appointment to the Lwów rabbinate. From that time on Natanson wrote a large number of halakhic works, both by himself and in collaboration with his disciples. His best-known works are Sho’el u-meshiv (6 vols.; 1868–1890), containing some 3,000 responsa, and a series of books entitled Divre Sha’ul (1875–1879), containing homilies on the Torah, the Talmud, and the Passover Haggadah, along with halakhic and exegetical novellas.

Natanson gave major support to the publication of rabbinical literature in Galicia and the Russian Pale of Settlement, writing approbations for hundreds of books. From the 1860s on he helped some of his pupils (including Yosef Kohen-Tsedek, Menaḥem Mendel Bodek, Uri Ze’ev Salat, and Yisra’el Elimelekh Stand) establish publishing houses that specialized in rabbinical literature.

Suggested Reading

Haim Gertner, “Rabanut ve-dayanut be-Galitsyah ba-maḥatsit ha-ri’shonah shel ha-me’ah ha-tesha‘-‘esreh” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 2004), pp. 18–62; Moshe Leiter, “Ha-Meḥaber shut Sho’el u-Meshiv: Kavim li-demuto,” Ha-Darom 29 (1969): 146–170, and 31 (1970): 171–202; Meir Vunder (Wunder), Me’ore Galitsyah: Entsiklopedyah le-ḥakhme Galitsyah, vol. 3, pp. 1031–1044 (Jerusalem, 1986).



Translated from Hebrew by David Louvish