Ḥayim Tchernowitz, ca. 1920s. The Hebrew inscription reads: “To poet Rabbi Yeḥezkel, a memento from Ḥ. Tchernowitz.” (YIVO)

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Tchernowitz, Ḥayim

(1870–1949), rabbi, scholar, publicist, and public figure. Born in the shtetl of Sebesh in Vitebsk guberniia, Ḥayim Tchernowitz (known as Rav Tsa‘ir) studied in Kovno in 1895–1896 and received rabbinical ordination from Yitsḥak Elḥanan Spektor. From 1897, Tchernowitz served as a rabbi in Odessa, where he also established a yeshiva.

In 1902, Tchernowitz founded a kibuts (lit., group; institute of higher studies) within the framework of the yeshiva, to provide professional teacher training and to offer studies in Jewish and general studies. In 1907, he turned the yeshiva into a rabbinical seminary, which he headed until 1911. In 1914, he received a Ph.D. from Würzburg University for his study “On the Development of the Shulḥan ‘arukh.” From 1923, he lived in the United States and served as professor of Talmud at the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

From Aharon Shemu’el Tamares in Milejczyce to Ḥayim Tchernowitz in Odessa, n.d., about a pamphlet he has prepared that includes essays on subjects related to Judaism, including Zionism. The pamphlet has been with the publisher Yehoshu‘a Ḥana Ravnitski for more than half a year but is still unpublished. Tamares suspects that this is because Ravnitski is a Herzlian Zionist, whereas the essays in the pamphlet promote the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement. He asks Tchernowitz to recommend a printer/publisher in Odessa. Hebrew. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

In addition to his work as a teacher, Tchernowitz devoted himself to research, studying Jewish law and writing essays on topics of Jewish concern. Contributing to the journal Ha-Shiloaḥ beginning in 1898, he published articles on the Talmud and the development of halakhah (Jewish law), and was one of the first scholars to combine a broad knowledge of halakhic literature with methods of scientific research. His writings included analyses of ‘eruvim (Sabbath ritual boundaries); the halakhah governing theft and robbery; and the history of Jewish law. He also published a biographical dictionary of halakhic authorities who had flourished from the end of the Talmudic period to the sixteenth century.

Tchernowitz valued applying modern methods to the study of the Talmud. Accordingly, he published a series of works called Kitsur ha-Talmud, covering tractates Berakhot, Rosh ha-Shanah, Yoma’, Sukah, and Bava’ kama’ (1919–1923).

While serving as a rabbi in Odessa, Tchernowitz had to confront the lively religious and cultural changes taking place in that city, including widespread tendencies toward secularization and conversion to Christianity. He presented his views on conversion emphasizing the ethical standards of Judaism in his Le-Madiḥe Yisra’el: Teshuvah le-to‘e lev ha-holkhim le-vakesh lahemelohim aḥerim (To the Seducers of Israel: Answer to Those Who Go Astray, Who Go to Seek Other Gods for Themselves; 1911).

Tchernowitz was one of the earliest members of the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement in Odessa, and he gave a great deal of attention to the issue of Zionism. Upon his return from a visit to Palestine, he published a series of articles in the newspaper Ha-‘Olam under the title “Rishme Erets Yisra’el” (Impressions of the Land of Israel). Tchernowitz also published Masekhet zikhronot (A Bundle of Memories; 1945)—stories about people he knew and the times he lived through—along with numerous articles on questions of Jewish interest. In 1940, he founded the Hebrew monthly Bitsaron (Fortress), which he edited until his death.

Suggested Reading

Abraham Epstein, Sofrim ‘ivriyim ba-Amerikah, vol. 2, pp. 391–402 (Tel Aviv, 1952); Abraham Granott, Ishim be-Yisra’el (Tel Aviv, 1956), pp. 211–224; Eliezer Raphael Malachi (A. R. Malakhi), Peri ‘ets ḥayim: Bibliografyah shel kitve Ḥayim Tshernovits (New York, 1946); Meyer Waxman (Me’ir Vaksman), “Profesor Ḥayim Tshernovits: Rav Tsa‘ir, 1870–1950,” in Ḥokhmat Yisra’el be-Ma‘arav Eropah, ed. Simon Federbusch, vol. 2, pp. 122–140 (Jerusalem, 1963).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 713, Herman Bernstein, Papers, 1897-1935 (finding aid); RG 773, Israel Elfenbein, Papers, 1915-1964.



Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson