Jewish religious life in the last six centuries has been governed by the code of laws, known as the "Turim," composed by Rabbenu Jacob ben Asher (who died about the year 5100). This monumental work of the Arba Turim ("Four Rows," after the four rows of Jewels on the High Priest's Breastplate) contains the laws and decisions of earlier codifiers, based upon the Talmud. The four Turim are: Tur Orach Chaim, Tur Yoreh Deah, Tur Even Haezer and Tur Choshen Mishpat, and they cover every possible phase of Jewish life.
About 200 years after the death of the Baal Haturim (Author of the Turim), another great scholar, Rabbi Joseph Caro (who died about 5335) presented us with the famous Shulchan Aruch -(Table Arranged) in which he had re-examined and recast the law-decisions, so that every Jew could learn and understand them. A third scholar who lived about the same time, Rabbi Moses Isserles (ReMO) added the Mappah ("Table Cloth") to the Shulchan Aruch, in which he laid down his commentaries and final law-decisions which were accepted by all Jewish communities as the final word in Jewish law.
Finally, several great scholars added their commentaries and elucidations to one or the other of the four parts of the Shulchan Aruch, among them Rabbi David Halevi, whose life story we are going to tell you here.
Rabbi David Halevi, better known as the TaZ, after the initials of his main work Turei Zahav ("Rows of Gold"), was born in Vladomir, in the Province of Volhynia. His family was famed for scholarship. His father Samuel was the son of a famous scholar Rabbi Isaac Betzalels. In addition to his scholarship, David's father was well to do, so that the young prodigy David, who had shown unusual talent for study, was fortunate enough to grow up in an atmosphere of both wealth and learning. His early, happy youth was in marked contrast to his later years, when he suffered great hardships and poverty, as we shall see later.
The young David was fortunate also in another way. He had an older half-brother called Rabbi Isaac Halevi, a great Talmud scholar who founded Yeshivoth in Vladomir, Chelm and Lvow Poland, and was the author of two books on Hebrew grammar, called "Siach Yitzchak," and "Brith Halevi." This great man dearly loved his younger brother, and became his first teacher and counsellor for many years. The affection between the two brothers never diminished in later years, and they continued to correspond with each other in writing after they had been separated. A part of this correspondence has been preserved. These letters are of great interest not only because they testify to the deep friendship and love that existed between the two brothers, but also because they contain an exchange of scholarly opinions on many problems of Jewish law.
Rabbi Isaac Halevi did not fail to recognize his younger brother's mental abilities, and did his best to encourage his literary work, which became indeed a masterpiece in the world of Halachah (Jewish law).
The young scholar married the daughter of no less famous a man than he himself later became. Rabbi David Halevi's father-in-law was Rabbi Joel Sirkes, known as the BaCH, after the initials of his commentary on the Turint entitled "Bayith Chadash" (New House). As was customary in those days, Rabbi David stayed in his father-in-law's house for several years, during which be applied himself fully to the study of the Talmud and Posekim (codifiers). This period served him as a good preparation for the great contribution which he himself was to make to this immense literature.
After Rabbi David Halevi left his father-in-law's house to make a home of his own, he accepted the position of rabbi in a small town, a position he changed several times for other small towns. During this time he suffered poverty and want, and was stricken by other misfortunes also. Several of his children died in infancy. (Many years later, towards the end of his life, two more sons of Rabbi David Halevi, who were famous scholars, were killed in a massacre in Lemberg in 1664). However, in due course Rabbi David had made a name for himself, and he was invited to become the Rabbi of the famed city of scholars-Ostrog. This was in the year 1641, and since then his poverty gave way to a life of comfort, as he had earned the recognition and respect due him. Here Rabbi David Halevi founded his own Yeshivah, but he found time also for his literary work. The leaders of this great Jewish community, many of whom were scholars of high standing, did everything in their power to help their great rabbi in his gigantic work. It was due to their influence and active cooperation that Rabbi David Halevi, by nature a shy and modest man, wrote his commentary on the first two volumes of the Shulchan Aruch, the Yoreh Deah and Orach Chaim. "Turei Zahav" was the name given to this important work, or TaZ for short.
Rabbi David Halevi's work soon won world-wide recognition and established his name among the greatest Talmudists of his day. It so happened that in the same year (5406-1646) when Rabbi David Halevi published his work, another scholarly giant, Rabbi Shabbatai Cohen of Vilna, published a similar commentary on the Yoreh Deah, entitled "Sifesei Cohen," (Lips of a Cohen), and soon became equally famous by the name "ShaCh." However, neither detracted from the fame of the other, and far from there arising any jealousy between them, they became the best of friends, although they often had conflicting opinions as to interpreting the decisions of their master, Rabbi Joseph Caro. Several years after their commentaries had first been printed, they cooperated in the publication of an edition of the Yoreh Deah, in which the text of the author Rabbi Joseph Caro was printed in the center of the page, flanked on one side by the "TaZ" and on the other by the "ShaCH." (This edition of Yoreh Deah was called "Ashrei Ravrevi.") This edition was later enlarged by the addition of other commentaries, but the form given to the Yoreh Deah by the two great commentators became the standard type for further reprintings of this book of laws over and over again, to this day.
The TaZ's commentary on the Orach Chaim was acclaimed with equal enthusiasm. It was later published in a special edition of this part of the Shulhban Aruch, similar to the above, except that here his companion-commentator was Rabbi Abraham Avlei Gumbiner, Dayan of the city of Kalish. The commentary by the latter was called "Magen Avraham," while his own was entitled "Magen David." The edition of this volume was therefore called "Maginei Eretz," (Shields of the Land). It was published by the son of Rabbi Abraham Gumbiner. This edition became the most popular book of Jewish law, inasmuch as it deals with the general aspects of Jewish daily life, while the other parts of the Shulchan Aruch deal with special subjects, such as laws of Shechitah and Kashruth, claims and damages, marriage and divorce, etc. The popularity of this volume has not diminished during the years; its influence on the preservation of Jewish traditional life has been immense. It is now as widely used and studied as ever, thus bringing immortality to three men who were responsible for it.
Rabbi David Halevi's happy period of teaching and writing in Ostrog was rudely interrupted by the cruel massacre by the inhuman Cossacks under the leadership of Chmielnicki, who led his revolt against the Polish nobility and at the same time massacred and pillaged all Jewish communities that fell into his hands. Rabbi David Halevi was fortunate enough to flee from Ostrog before it was captured by the Cossacks. He succeeded in saving also his priceless manuscripts. He was then invited to become rabbi of Lvov (Lemberg), where he continued his work to spread the knowledge of the Torah. A cruel blow was struck at the aged Rabbi David Halevi when three years before his death he lost his two older sons, Rabbi Mordecai and Rabbi Solomon Halevi, who were murdered in a pogrom in Lemberg.
Rabbi David Halevi died at the age of 81.
The lifework of this modest man and the influence of his masterpieces can hardly be appraised properly. His contribution to the tradition of the world of Halachah puts him among the greatest of our illustrious Talmudists. The TaZ is also the author of a commentary on Rashi, entitled Divre David-the Words of David-and of other works. As commentator and teacher, he accomplished great feats for the education of the Jewish people in the spirit and the knowledge of the Torah and its literature. As community leader he founded Yeshivoth, gave counsel and advice, and did his share in the violent fight against the dangerous movement of Shabbathai Tzvi's followers who threatened to undermine the basis of the Jewish law and belief. Both in his literary work and in his activities he created a strong fortress against attacks from within and without. There is no greater praise for Rabbi David Halevi, than the tribute given to him by his beloved brother and teacher, Rabbi Yitzchok Halevi who said of the TaZ: "Rabbi David Halevi's name spread over all countries and G‑d helped his work to worldwide recognition and acceptance... His heart was pure and candid as the heavens; his words were divine in their clarity and lucidity, despite their modest and pious presentation." No greater tribute could have been given to a great man.