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Shabbat Parashat Pinchas 5774

P'ninat Mishpat: Beit Yitchak Rav Yitzchak Shmelkes (a historical look)

[We move on to a new author and will dedicate this weeks survey to a historical look.]

Rabbi Yitzchak Yehuda Shmelkes (1828-1904) was one of the leading rabbis in the latter part of the 19th century in Eastern Europe. Rav Shmelkes is known as the Rabbi of Lvov (Polish version of the city’s name; in Ukranian, it is Lviv and in German and Yiddish it is Lemberg). Lvov was the capital of the Jewishly famous country/region of Galicia, an area which when not an independent entity was in Poland, Ukraine, and/or Austria. In the 18th and 19th century it produced many of the time’s greatest talmidei chachamim. For one example of the prominence of the rabbinate of Lvov, until two decades before Rav Shmelkes’ assumption of the position, the rabbi had been Rabbi Shaul Yosef Nathanson, famed author of the Shoel U’meishiv, and arguably the greatest halachic authority of his time. Actually, while Rav Shmelkes’ last ten years were in Lvov, he served as Rabbi of Perzemysl (Polish spelling), also in the Galicia region, for 24 years, and most of his published work was written there.

At that time, leadership required more than just Torah erudition. Jews comprised approximately a third of the population of Lvov. That population was itself varied and challenging, as the traditional community shared the town with a major center of Chasidut, on one hand, and an increasingly strengthening Reform community on the other. His son-in-law described Rav Shmelkes as beloved by all due to his genuine love of others, which without a doubt helped him succeed in that climate.

For a reason that I cannot explain, not only is Rav Shmelkes not well known within today’s broader Jewish community, but he is not even well known within the world of yeshivot. This is despite the fact that he left behind some wonderful scholarship: six volumes of his responsa Beit Yitzchak. One of his most cited responsa (Yoreh Deah II, 110) presents a serious thesis on the matter of conversion of a person who appears to be insincere about his or her declaration of acceptance of mitzvot. (One liberal author writes that this responsa was the first of its kind, which only afterward became the standard Orthodox approach. This is a historically strange claim, as until that time (the 1870s), conversion to Judaism was extremely rare and extremely dangerous for all involved. Rabbinic literature on the topic, even on a theoretical basis, was often censored, either as a precaution by the author or by the authorities. Certainly few were interested in converting to Judaism when they were not sincere until the opening of general society to the Jews in the 19th century.)

We will be focusing, as is our practice in this column, on the volume of Beit Yitzchak on Choshen Mishpat. This is the work’s last volume, corresponding to the last section of the Shulchan Aruch, and it was the only volume to be published posthumously. Rav Shmelkes began died in the midst of his work on the volume on Kol Nidrei night of 5665 (1904). His son-in-law, Rav Nosson Levine, Rabbi of Reisha, finished it in 1908. The responsa includes discussions of actual cases from other communities, posed to him, along with theoretical Talmudic discussions.
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