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Shabbat Parashat Shoftim 5774

P'ninat Mishpat: Shoel UMeishiv Rav Yosef Shaul Halevi Nathanson

While discussing the life and works of Rav Yitzchak Shmelkes, we mentioned that he held the position of Rabbi of Lvov, which had previously been occupied by Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson. So we will now move back a few decades to study a series of selections from the most famous of Rav Nathanson’s works, Shut Shoel U’meishiv (which basically means the responsa of one who responds to those who ask).

Rav Yosef Shaul was born in Berzon in Galicia (today, Western Ukraine) in 1810. He was recognized as a prodigy while still young and did much of his Torah study under the tutelage of his father, Rav Aryeh Leibush, a great scholar who was a successful merchant by trade. Rav Yosef Shaul was married as a mere teenager to Sarah Eidel Ettinger, daughter of Yitzchak Aharon Ettinger, who also was a wealthy, learned businessman. As was not uncommon for budding scholars married to daughters of wealthy men, Rav Yosef Shaul’s family was supported by and lived in or around his in-law’s home and was not burdened by the search for a livelihood. Although Yitzchak Aharon Ettinger died soon after the marriage, his mother-in-law and later his wife kept the business going. During this period, a yeshiva of sorts of bright young Talmudists developed around Rav Yosef Shaul. With his access to funds, Rav Nathanson was also involved in many philanthropic projects.

Rav Nathanson received something else from the Ettinger family – a chavruta. For several years, Rav Yosef Shaul studied with his brother-in-law, Rav Mordechai Ze’ev Ettinger, and the two collaborated on a few seforim, the most prominent of them being Magen Gibborim, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim. Some claim that the two parted ways in the context of a somewhat bitter disagreement between Rav Nathanson and many of his colleagues, including his brother-in-law, regarding the use of machine-matzot for Pesach. Rav Yosef Shaul was the most influential supporter of the new idea that developed in his time. He actually took lenient stances on many (but certainly not all) halachic issues that came up.

It was not until 1857 that Rav Yosef Shaul accepted his first formal rabbinic position – as rabbi of the important city of Lvov (Lemberg, in German). He held that position until his death in 1875. One of the major public struggles in which he played a prominent role was the opposition to the Galician government’s closure of Jewish schools and their demand that Jewish children study in government schools.

Rav Nathanson wrote on Shulchan Aruch, Rambam, the Yerushalmi, and Chumash, showing his great versatility and, perhaps, his financial ability to publish. His most lasting work is his six-volume, fifteen section magnum opus of responsa – Sho’el U’meishiv. The Shoel U’meishiv was originally published over the course of 25 years. While the first volume (1865) was graced with a letter of blessing from his father, who was still alive, there were volumes that were published after Rav Yosef Shaul’s death. The topics encompass all areas of halacha, but in this column we will highlight those that deal with monetary law.


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