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Avraham Yehoshu‘a ben Ya‘akov Heshel

(1596–1663), rabbi and halakhic authority in Poland–Lithuania. Born in Brest Litovsk, Avraham Yehoshu‘a Heshel moved with his father to Lublin when the latter was appointed rabbi of the community and head of the yeshiva. With the death in 1650 of Naftali ben Yitsḥak Kats, his father’s heir from 1644, Avraham Yehoshu‘a was appointed head of the Lublin yeshiva. In 1654, he became rabbi and head of the yeshiva of Kraków, succeeding Yom Tov Lipmann Heller.

Avraham Yehoshu‘a came into significant wealth through the family of his first wife, a descendant of the Wahl-Katzenellenbogen family, and he was renowned for his charity toward individuals and the community. After the Khmel’nyts’kyi decrees of 1648–1649 (gzeyres takh vetat), Avraham Yehoshu‘a was appointed by communities in Poland to travel to Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia to request aid for the victims’ families. His trip was successful, and in Vienna he was received by the emperor himself. During this period, Avraham Yehoshu‘a was seriously ill and, in accordance with a custom traditionally prescribed for healing, he added a name to his own—in this case, Avraham.

Avraham Yehoshu‘a’s son, Dov Berish, was a leader of the Kraków community, and his son-in-law was Tsevi Hirsh, head of the rabbinic court in that city. Avraham Yehoshu‘a’s students became communal rabbis and halakhic authorities, the greatest of whom was Shabetai ben Me’ir ha-Kohen, author of the commentary Sifte Kohen, on the Shulḥan ‘arukh.

Avraham Yehoshu‘a’s pedagogic principles held that he would regard students as “friends” who studied according to their own levels, following a developmental approach that first considered the Talmudic text, then Rashi’s commentary and the comments of the Tosafot. Questions would not be raised from other sections of the Talmud until a thorough investigation was undertaken of the law under consideration. In his lectures, Avraham Yehoshu‘a would put forth a difficult issue from the text; students would be challenged to arrive at a resolution before he suggested his own.

Avraham Yehoshu‘a received halakhic queries from throughout Europe. For the most part, he tried to dodge the questions, but when he did respond, it was always tersely and exactly; he shied away from hypothetical theories and restricted himself, as had his father, to actual difficulties and their resolutions. Avraham Yehoshu‘a was lenient regarding the situation of many ‘agunot (“chained” women, unable to remarry) whose husbands had disappeared during the Khmel’nyts’kyi attacks. He was also renowned for his mastery of Hebrew grammar.

In 1862, Aharon Kelniker, a student in Lublin, published commentaries from Avraham Yehoshu‘a’s lectures on three tractates of the Talmud known as Bavot(Bava’ kama’, Bava’ metsi‘a, and Bava’ batra’). Avraham Yehoshu‘a also wrote a commentary, published in 1807, on the Sefer mitsvot gadol(Semag) of Mosheh from Coucy. Numerous other homiletical comments by Avraham Yehoshu‘a on biblical verses were published in Ḥanukat ha-Torah (1900). Several of his responsa are found in books of his contemporaries, and some of his innovative novellae on the Shulḥan ‘arukh are still in manuscript. In more recent times, there has been greater interest in Avraham Yehoshu‘a because of his leadership role in assisting the survivors of gzeyres takh vetat.

Suggested Reading

David Y. Greenfeld, “Ha-Rabi Heshel mi-Krakov,” in Magen bet Sha’ul, pp. 269–300 (Brooklyn, N.Y., 2004); Tsevi Elimelekh Kalish, “Toldot ha-Rabi R. Heshel ve-talmidav,” in Sefer shalosh kedushot, pp. 3–54 (Bene Berak, Isr., 1968/69); Shim‘on Shleser, Sefer otsar ha-Rabi R. Heshel (Jerusalem, 1988/89); Jehiel Mattathias Zunz, ‘Ir ha-tsedek (1874; rpt., [n.p.], Isr., 1970), pp. 104–114.



Translated from Hebrew by Deborah Weissman