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Silberstein, Yesha‘yahu

(1857–1930), halakhist and Orthodox leader. Born in the southern Hungarian town of Zenta, Yesha‘yahu Silberstein was two years old when his family moved to Jerusalem. There he received his initial formal education within the framework of the traditionalist Yishuv system. He returned to Hungary as an 11-year-old, when his father was appointed rabbi of Bodrogkeresztúr. Throughout his early adulthood he continued to study under his father’s tutelage and to assist him in his rabbinical positions and in his yeshiva. Upon his father’s death in 1884, Silberstein succeeded him as chief rabbinical judge of the Orthodox community in Vác (Waitzen), not far from Budapest.

From the 1890s, Silberstein was acknowledged not only as one of Hungarian Orthodoxy’s most authoritative halakhists, but as a powerful ideologue as well. His influence spread through the rabbinic journal Tel talpiyot, which was published from 1892 in Vác under his auspices and edited by his fellow religious court judge David Tsevi Katzburg. Silberstein wrote numerous articles for the journal, which were attributed simply to Ha-Gaon Av Bet Din (the great chief judge), with the implicit assumption that all knew to whom this referred. His writings attest to the diversity of his intellectual interests as well as to his stature. They range from complex theoretical halakhic discourses to responsa on the burning topics of the day (the status of non-Orthodox Jews, civil marriage, intermarriage, conversion) and public policy pronouncements on controversial issues (Zionism, Agudas Yisroel, cooperation with the Neolog faction). Silberstein’s leading role in Hungarian Orthodoxy was acknowledged by his contemporaries in responsa on controversial subjects that concluded with the caveat that their final decision was conditional upon receipt of Silberstein’s approbation.

Silberstein’s Vác community gained fame as a center for rabbinic publishing. At the same time, the modernist Status Quo faction and its rabbis and institutions maintained a strong presence there. As Silberstein set policy for all of Hungarian Orthodoxy, his local experience alerted him to the complexities of heterogeneous modern Jewish society. He was a staunch defender of Orthodoxy’s independent status and vociferously supported the policy of communal separation that was put in place in the wake of the General Jewish Congress of 1868–1869. Such an approach is set forth in his 30-page pamphlet titled “Ukha-Torah ha-zot” (And Like This Torah), which he published in Vác in 1900. There he argued for the establishment of genealogical lists that would specify that an individual did not descend from non-Orthodox ancestors or that a kohen was not the product of an illicit relationship that disqualified him from priestly status. Such record books would be consulted by Orthodox authorities in advance of matchmaking.

At the same time, Silberstein was less militant in his appraisals of non-Orthodox Jews than some of his more zealous “ultra-Orthodox” contemporaries. In a two-page policy statement that was published in bold letters in 1908 in Tel talpiyot, he expressed a willingness to countenance some level of unofficial cooperation with other Jewish groups in areas of common interest, such as supporting settlement in the Land of Israel. He justified this position, less doctrinaire than accepted Orthodox standards might suggest, by articulating a distinction between Jewish religious identity, which he believed had very narrow parameters, and a broader formulation that he called the Jewish “nation.”

Silberstein achieved worldwide recognition as an outstanding halakhic exegete in 1913, when the first volume of his Ma‘asai le-melekh commentary on the code of Maimonides was published. Volume 1 deals with the laws of the Temple and its vessels; volume 2 (1930) addresses the laws of the altar and sacrifices.

Suggested Reading

Nathaniel Katzburg, “Vats / Vác,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Hungaryah, pp. 284–285 (Jerusalem, 1976); Yitshak Yosef Kohen, Ḥakhme Hungaryah (Jerusalem, 1996/97), pp. 428–429; Aharon Zilbershtain and David Leb Zilbershtain, “Hakdamah,” in Ma‘asai le-melekh, by Yesha‘yahu Zilbershtain, vol. 2 (Ungvár [Užhorod, Cz.], 1930).