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Shabbat Parashat Terumah 5775

P'ninat Mishpat: Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Introduction)

Rabbi Daniel Mann

We have spent the last several months in this column on discussions that are based on the writings of two of the rabbis of Lemberg (Lvov) in the second part of the 19th century – Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson and Rav Yitzchak Shmelkes. The former was so prolific a writer that we could continue for another few months (and perhaps we will indeed return to him). However, I felt that it was time to move on or, shall we say, back in history. From Lvov, Ukraine of the late 1800s, we will travel back some fifty years and around 400 miles northwest to Posen (Poland – at the time it was part of the German kingdom of Prussia). We will study some of the responsa of the famed Rabbi Akiva Eiger (d. 1837). If we go back a few decades earlier, we can meet Rabbi Akiva Eiger in what the Jews called Friedland. He was born in Eisenstadt (Austro-Hungary). His adolescence (if one can so call that time in the life of a child prodigy) was in the yeshiva in Breslau followed by a few years in Lissa.

I apologize if this tiny biography will sound like an advertisement, but Rabbi Akiva Eiger was one of the featured gedolim in my book, A Glimpse at Greatness, published by Eretz Hemdah. As I explained there, while Rabbi Akiva Eiger wrote many responsa to rabbis throughout the region, he did not publish prolifically. Perhaps his major work was the compilation of approximately 1,000 responsa, known simply as Sheolot U’teshuvot Rabbi Akiva Eiger, which covers subject matter in all four sections of Shulchan Aruch. Within the smallest group of the four, that corresponding to Choshen Mishpat (monetary law), much of the discussion is on theoretical or text-based matters, rather than judicial case studies, which is what we usually focus on in this column.

Discussions of actual cases were also, for the most part, sent from the rabbis of other cities. Posen, as a prominent and devout Jewish community, had a respected beit din. (The most famous picture of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, which is on the cover of A Glimpse at Greatness, is from a painting of him walking with two dayanim from that beit din). It is not clear to me to what extent Rabbi Akiva Eiger sat regularly as the head of the court. There were cities with enough scholars to make it possible for there to be separate functions of the city’s rabbinate and its rabbinical court. It is also possible that even when being a dayan or otherwise being involved behind the scene, the posek would be careful to not include stories that are too close to home in his works. Additionally, on technical grounds, letters were needed to give information needed for the rabbi sending the question out-of-town, whereas local issues may have been dealt with orally.

In any case, we hope that the 4-5 weeks that we will spend on dinei Torah regarding which Rabbi Akiva Eiger expressed an opinion will be enlightening and informative. 

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