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Shakhnah, Shalom

(ca. 1495–1558), rosh yeshivah and rabbi in Lublin; chief rabbi of Poland. Shalom Shakhnah ben Yosef was born into one of the richest Jewish families of Poland. His father Yosef (Yoska) and grandfather Shakhnah were successful farmers of customs duties in Poland. After Yosef’s property was plundered, he moved from Lwów to Lublin in about 1504 and opened a moneylending business. After Yosef’s death in 1507, Shakhnah maintained the business, but subsequently turned to Torah study and a rabbinical career. Although he studied in Poznań and may also have spent some time in Ashkenazic yeshivas in northern Italy, his main teacher was Ya‘akov Pollak of Kraków. Shakhnah, who eventually directed a yeshiva in Lublin, was considered to be Pollak’s heir and successor and was a central figure among rashe yeshivot (heads of yeshivas) of Poland in the generation following his teacher, beginning in about 1522.

Shakhnah’s public standing depended to a great degree on connections he and members of his family maintained with the authorities, including the court of King Sigismund I. In 1541, Shakhnah was officially appointed chief rabbi of Poland by the king. In this capacity, he mediated between the authorities and the Jewish community, and his appointment was meant to ensure the collection of taxes by means of the power of excommunication that he wielded. But the position of chief rabbi actually lost much of its power while Shakhnah held it, and would gradually disappear. Its place was taken by regional councils and the Council of Four Lands, institutions with more significant powers of coercion.

In the literature of the period, Shakhnah’s court in Lublin is described several times as “the great court” or even “the true great court,” expressions that clearly reflect its senior status among the Jewish communities of Poland. The most severe punishment meted out by Shakhnah, which must be understood in this context, was against “a wicked man of evil deeds,” apparently an informer, whom he condemned to have his eyes put out and his tongue cut off. The sources that discuss this also note that “great misfortune came to the Jews because of this deed,” since the man who was punished converted, and he and his sons caused severe damage to the community.

Shakhnah was evidently empowered to impose corporal punishment in his court, but he refrained from condemning criminals to death, although it appears that he could have done so. Apparently, his status as chief rabbi influenced his standing as chief religious judge, and his authority was regarded as decisive. However, a series of confrontations in the 1540s took place between Shakhnah and the leaders of the Polish Jewish community, who customarily gathered in Lublin at the time of the winter fair. These confrontations signaled a decline in the prestige of the chief rabbi and exhibited the erosion in Shakhnah’s status in relation to the new institutions of leadership that the Jewish community of Poland had created.

Shakhnah’s image as a historical figure, however—and, apparently, his actual status—were mainly determined by his being the most prominent rosh yeshivah during the formative period of the Jewish community of Poland, which was gradually asserting itself as the most important Ashkenazic center for Torah study of the time. Shakhnah gained the reputation as one of the fathers of the pilpul system, of which Pollak, his teacher, is regarded as the founder.

Shakhnah’s yeshiva in Lublin attracted students from distant communities within Poland as well as from abroad. One student was Ḥayim ben Betsal’el, the brother of Yehudah Leib, Maharal of Prague, who came there from Poznań. In an introduction to one of his books, Ḥayim ben Betsal’el tells about studying with Shakhnah; his fellow student, Mosheh Isserles of Kraków, later said of his teacher that “all the great scholars of this land are his disciples.”

Ḥayim ben Betsal’el also noted Shakhnah’s resolute opposition to putting innovative halakhic decisions in writing. It is not surprising, therefore, that little remains in the way of Shakhnah’s literary heritage. Various decisions have survived—few of which have been printed in his phrasing and most of which are known from those who disagreed with them—along with “readings” or fragmentary remarks quoted in his name, usually in the works of his students and their contemporaries. Sometime before 1540, for example, a seven-page collection of rulings was published in Kraków at the Helicz press, and these included two halakhic decisions regarding marriage issued by Shakhnah.

In 1568, tractate Sukah of the Babylonian Talmud was printed in Lublin, and on the title page appeared the words “proofread letter by letter from the manuscript of the genius our master Rabbi Shalom of blessed memory”—almost certainly a reference to Shakhnah. Tractate ‘Eruvin was also printed in Lublin in that year, but Shakhnah’s name does not appear in it. However, Shelomoh Luria’s attack on this edition—“which was reprinted,” he contended, “by an erroneous scribe”—allows one to assume that this tractate, too, was printed from Shakhnah’s annotations. In the commentaries of that time, readings are also attributed to Shakhnah in tractates that were not printed in Lublin. It appears that the version of the Talmud attributed to him, which was different from that printed in Venice during the 1520s, reflects particular Polish textual traditions, which Shakhnah preserved and to which he clung.

The fragmentary material attributed to Shakhnah in rabbinical literature consists mainly of comments on books used in yeshiva lessons. Actual rulings by Shakhnah are not extant. His son Yisra’el saw fit to explain that both his father and his father’s teacher, Pollak, refrained from publishing their rulings because they did not want succeeding generations to issue decisions based on theirs, because of the principle of hilkhata’ kebatra’i (the halakhah is according to the later authority).

Aside from their halakhic significance, Yisra’el’s words also indicate a difference between the generation of the first sages of Poland, Pollak and Shakhnah, and the generation of their students. The former left their teachings in manuscript and they have been lost, whereas the latter made use of the new communications medium, the printed book, and made Poland into the central pillar of rabbinic literature in the early modern age in Ashkenaz.

Suggested Reading

Simha Assaf, “Hasagot ha-ga’on R. Shemu’el ha-Levi ‘al teshuvat ha-ga’on R. Shalom Shakhna’ be-din ha-sovlanut,” Sinai 4 (1939): 532–550; Majer Bałaban, Die Judenstadt von Lublin (Berlin, 1919), pp. 17–19; Ḥayim Zalman Dimitrovski, “‘Al derekh ha-pilpul,” in Sefer ha-yovel li-khevod Shalom Baron, pp. 111–181 (Jerusalem, 1975); Judah Leib Maimon (Fishman), “Teshuvah be-din sovlanut ketivat yad kodesh meha-ga’on ha-nifla’ maran Shalom Shakhna’,” Sinai 4 (1939): 218–220; Tovia Preschel, “Hagahotav ba-Shas shel R. Shalom Shakhna’ mi-Lublin,” Areshet 6 (1981): 191–193; Tovia Preschel, “Rabi Shalom Shakhna’ mi-Lublin,” Sinai 100.2 (1987): 682–700; Ḥayim Shalmoni, Toldot Rabi Shakhna’ ve-hithavut ha-pilpul (Tel Aviv, 1934/35); “Shut u-fesakim meha-ga’on Rashkhabahag Moh Shakhna’,” printed at the end of Sheloshah sefarim niftaḥim: Ve-hem ḥidushim ‘al masekhet Kidushin: Ḥidushe Aharon ha-Levi mi-Bartselonah . . . , pp. 98–113 (Jerusalem, 1957/58).



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green