An example of the Shapira family imprint from Slavuta, from the title page of Masekhet Zevaḥim, a tractate of the Talmud (1812). (Gross Family Collection)

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Shapira Family

Hasidic leaders active in the field of publishing. Pinḥas ben Avraham Abba Shapira of Korets (Korzec; 1726/28–1790) was a charismatic Hasidic leader and a member of the Ba‘al Shem Tov’s (Besht’s) circle. Mosheh Shapira (1762–1838) established a publishing house, an enterprise that he shared with his sons Shemu’el Avraham Abba (1784–1863) and Pinḥas (1792–1872).

Born in Lithuania (probably in Shklov), the elder Pinḥas Shapira received a traditional Talmudic education. While he was still young his family moved to Volhynia, where he and his father, an itinerant preacher, became acquainted with the Besht and his disciples and embraced Hasidism. After the Besht’s death in 1760, Pinḥas was active as an independent Hasidic leader in Korets, a center for Hebrew printing. He had particularly high regard for Ya‘akov Yosef of Polnoye, whom he considered the authentic successor to the Besht. At the same time, Pinḥas had reservations about the leadership and Hasidic doctrines of the Magid Dov Ber, who had established a Hasidic center in nearby Mezritsh.

For unknown reasons (perhaps related to his criticism of the Magid and his disciples), Pinḥas left Korets around 1770 and moved to Ostróg, where he continued to serve as a Hasidic leader for some 20 years. Toward the end of his life he moved to Shepetovka, where he died. Legend has it that he was then on his way to the Land of Israel.

Though proficient in Kabbalah, in particular with the Zohar and Lurianic writings, Shapira was critical of the emphasis that the Magid of Mezritsh and his circle placed on spiritual tendencies that were to be achieved through prayer and observance of the Torah’s commandments. Pinḥas, by contrast, stressed the importance of straightforward faith, kavanah (simple religious intention), and inner devotion, and took exception to outward expressions of enthusiasm. Above all, he emphasized the values of ethical behavior: modesty and humility, absolute devotion to truth, and avoidance of the slightest hint of falsehood. One of his typical sayings was: “A lie is as grave a sin as incest.”

While Pinḥas was neither a tsadik nor an officiating rabbi, many people were attracted to his charismatic personality and humility and tried to emulate his approach to divine worship. Among his best-known disciples were Ya‘akov Shimshon of Shepetovka, Ze’ev Volf of Zhitomir, Binyamin Ze’ev of Balta, and in particular Refa’el of Berszad, who considered himself Pinḥas’s leading disciple and is the source of many of his Hasidic teachings. Those teachings, usually quite brief and succinct, are quoted in many Hasidic works and as yet unpublished manuscripts. Some were collected in several texts after Pinḥas’s death, including Likute shoshanim (1858), Nofet tsufim (1864), Midrash Pinḥas (1872), Torat Rabi Pinḥas mi-Korets (1953), and Imre Pinḥas ha-shalem (2003).

Title page of Sefer Zohar (Slavuta: Mosheh Shapira, 1815). (YIVO)

Pinḥas’s best-known son was Mosheh Shapira, rabbi of the small town of Slavuta, Volhynia. As his rabbinical position was unsalaried, Mosheh made his living by establishing a large press in 1791, specializing in handsome editions of religious books—in particular, volumes of the Talmud and of halakhah and responsa. Mosheh’s two sons, Shemu’el Avraham Abba and Pinḥas, operated the press with him, and the business flourished because of their activity and the prestige of their lineage. The press was identified by maskilim as Hasidic, even though works of Hasidism and Kabbalah were not the major part of its output.

Three magnificent editions of the Talmud printed at Slavuta earned particular fame and were highly regarded outside Russia as well. In 1834, Menaḥem Mann Romm began to publish a rival edition of the Talmud in Vilna, complete with approbations by important Lithuanian rabbis; this edition was soon identified with Misnagdim and their circles. The Slavuta printers considered this edition an infringement on their exclusive right, guaranteed by numerous rabbis, to publish the Talmud for a fixed span of 25 years. Dozens of rabbis and tsadikim, from all parts of Eastern Europe, played a part in the great dispute that ensued, and in the mutual recriminations and bans; economic considerations of copyright were involved, as well as ideological and social tensions between Hasidim (who supported the printers of Slavuta) and Misnagdim (who supported the Vilna printers).

In 1835, when the controversy was at its height, the Slavuta printing press was closed down by Russian authorities, after the brothers had been denounced for their part in the death of a bookbinder working for them, who had been found hanged in the town synagogue of Slavuta. Even though it was clear that he committed suicide, the brothers were charged with being responsible for his slaying as an informer. They were arrested, imprisoned in Kiev for three years, and finally condemned to harsh physical punishment and deported to Siberia. After intercessions, their punishments were reduced and they were banished to Moscow, where they lived for about 20 years under difficult conditions. Only in 1855, following the death of Tsar Nicholas I, were they pardoned and permitted to return to the Pale of Settlement. Many popular legends were associated with this event; particularly well known in this connection is Y. L. Peretz’s short story “Dray matones” (Three Gifts).

Because of the printers’ dispute and the intervention of maskilim, all Hebrew printing presses in the Russian Pale of Settlement were closed down in 1836, except for two that the Russian authorities granted a license to print books: one in Vilna and the other in Zhitomir (the press in Warsaw was also permitted). The “presses decree” was abolished only in 1862. In 1845, Ḥanina Lipa, Aryeh Leib, and Yehoshu‘a Heshel Shapira (sons of the brothers from Slavuta) leased the Zhitomir press, and in 1847 they began to issue books. Observing the family tradition, they refused to print texts of secular knowledge and specialized in religious books, including volumes of Kabbalah and Hasidism.

In 1858, the Shapira press again commenced publication of an edition of the entire Talmud, completing it in 1864. Once more their competitor and rival, the Romm publishing house in Vilna, began to issue its own edition of the Talmud in 1859, completing it in 1866 (under the imprint “the press of the widow and the brothers Romm,” which became a well-known logo for the outstanding press).

Another descendant of Shapira’s family was Ḥavah (1879–1943), who was born in Slavuta. She was known as a Hebrew writer who published many stories and essays in most of the Hebrew newspapers and periodicals of the time (one of them, “The Brothers of Slavuta,” describes the whole affair of her ancestors). She and her husband were killed in Terezín.

Suggested Reading

Saul M. Ginsburg, The Drama of Slavuta, trans. Ephraim H. Plombaum (Lanham, Md., 1991); Abraham Baer Gottlober, Zikhronot u-masa’ot, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1976), pp. 185–187, 281–286; Mattathias Ezekiel Guttman, Rabi Pinḥas mi-Korets (Tel Aviv, 1950); Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Rabi Pinḥas mi-Korets veha-magid mi-Mezritsh,” in Sefer ha-yovel shel ha-Do’ar, ed. Menachem Ribalow, pp. 279–285 (New York, 1952); Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov: Studies in Hasidism, ed. Samuel H. Dresner (Chicago, 1985), pp. 1–43; Samuel Aba Horodezky, Ha-Ḥasidut veha-ḥasidim, vol. 1, pp. 141–153 (Berlin, 1922/23); Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer, Hasidism as Mysticism, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Princeton and Jerusalem, 1993), pp. 229–238; Ḥava Shapira, “Ha-Aḥim mi-Slavuta,” Ha-Shiloaḥ 30 (1914): 541–554.



Translated from Hebrew by David Louvish