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Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (Chacham Tzvi)

Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (Chacham Tzvi)

(5418-5478; 1658-1718)


It is more than three hundred years since this great man was born, of whose life we are about to tell you here. He was famous as an outstanding scholar and Talmudist, and-as a great leader and fighter for the purity of the Jewish faith. He was one of the best known Rabbis of his time, having travelled extensively, and served both in Ashkinazic and Sephardic communities. "Chacham Tzvi" is the Sephardic title which means the same as "Rabbi Tzvi."

"Ashkenazi" means the "German," for he belonged to and was the Rabbi of various Ashkenazic communities, as we will see later.

Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi was born in a small town in Moravia (now Czechoslovakia), in the year 5418 (1658). His father, was a learned man, Rabbi Jacob Sack. When Tzvi was still a young child, the family moved to Alt Ofen, a district of the city of Budapest, where his mother's family lived. Tzvi's father and grandfather were his first teachers. The name of his grandfather was Rabbi Abraham Hakohen and he was the head of the Yeshiva of Often. After they taught him all they could, they sent him to the city of Saloniki in Greece, where the illustrious Rabbi Eliah Kobo had attracted a large circle of Talmud scholars. Under the guidance of this great teacher, Rabbi Tzvi became one of the greatest authorities on the Talmud and Halachah (Jewish law). He was barely eighteen years old when the Rabbinical council of Constantinople bestowed on him the title "Chacham," an honor rarely given to any young man of such tender age. Thus Rabbi Tzvi became known as "Chacham Tzvi."

Chacham Tzvi returned to his father's house in Alt Ofen, married and settled down to a quiet life of study. His studies were interrupted, however, six years later, when the city became a target of war. The Austrian army was fighting back against the Turkish hordes. Budapest was besieged but heavily defended, and many a cannon ball was rained down upon the city. One cannon ball struck the house of the Chacham Tzvi and killed his wife and their only daughter. Thus, deep tragedy engulfed the young scholar. He himself barely managed to escape from the hard-pressed city, and after much trouble and great hardship, he came to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Here the Chacham Tzvi learnt at first hand of the evil effects of the Shabbatai Tzvi movement, which was Still quite strong in those parts of southeastern Europe. Though Shabbatai Tzvi, who had proclaimed himself as the "Messiah," was dead, having betrayed his people and his faith and died as a Moslem, many Jews still believed in this false impostor and hoped that he would come back and lead them to the Holy Land as he had promised. Here, also, the Chacham Tzvi learned of the dangerous impostor Nechemiah Chayun, who was yet to cause much trouble to Chacham Tzvi years later.

Chacham Tzvi could not stay in Sarajevo for very long, for this city, too, was soon engulfed in the ravages of the Austro-Turkish war. Chacham Tzvi had to flee a second time. He took a ship to, Italy and for a while stayed in Mantua and Venice. Then he went north, crossing the Alps to Ansbach, Furth, Prague and Berlin. Wherever he went, his reputation went before him, and he was received with respect and admiration. Many communities vied with each other to engage him as their Rabbi. But he refused all such calls. In Berlin, he married the daughter of Rabbi Meshullam Zalman Neumark, head of the joint Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck communities, known by their Hebrew abbreviation "AHU." When his father-in­law died, the three communities invited him to succeed his father-in-law to the Rabbinate of the "AHU" Ashkenazic communities. His wife Sarah urged him to accept the post, and he did, not very eagerly. Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi was not a man to compromise, or to bow before the rich community leaders. Soon he faced opposition, which not only brought him a loss in his income, but challenged his very position as Rabbi. For the opposing members and leaders invited another Rabbi to take his place. The new candidate, Rabbi Moshe of Rothenburg, was a man of much lesser stature than the world famous Chacham Tzvi. The mischievous community leaders, who had hoped to involve the Chacham Tzvi in a sharp controversy and strife, were disappointed, for to their astonishment, Chacham Tzvi offered to share the Rabbinate with his opponent each serving for six months in the year. Unfortunately this arrangement did not work out well. Rather than humble himself before the rich men of the community Chacham Tzvi resigned from the position of Chief Rabbi of the Ashekenazic communities of "AHU," and withdrew into his small private synagogue, within a small circle of devoted friends. A year later, in the year 1710, he followed the call of the Ashkenazic community of Amsterdam and he became their Rabbi.

During the time Chacham Tzvi served as Chief Rabbi of the three communities of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck, he impressed the mark of his great person­ality on these communities, which bene­fited from his good influence long after he was no longer there. He had built up a Yeshiva, where many promis­ing students studied diligently; he had introduced the study of Mishnayoth be­fore the evening prayers for Jews engaged in work or business during the day; and on Shabbath morning he himself taught a portion of the Bible to his congrega­tions. These and other customs, which helped to strengthen the spiritual life of the Jews, were preserved for genera­tions, right to our own times.

In Amsterdam Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi found a flourishing Jewish community. It was one of the centers of European Jewry. He soon made many friends, both among his own community as well as. among the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in the city. The Sephardic community of Amsterdam was headed by Rabbi Solomon Ayllon. Before long, similar trouble developed for Chacham Tzvi as he had experienced in Altona. Within the Ashkenazic community, resentment grew among the prominent members, when their Rabbi showed more respect for the learned and the poor than for the influential and rich financiers. They tried all means to force him to leave his post, and even withheld his salary. Chacham Tzvi was not one to pay much attention to matters of money. He continued to teach and to lead the community at large, despite all the obstacles put in his way. However, events came to a head with the arrival of the abovementioned Nechemiah Chayun in Amsterdam.

The arrival of Nechemiah Chayun created quite a stir in Amsterdam. Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (the "Chachani Tzvi") had met him in Sarajevo (Bosnia) some twenty five years earlier and knew him to be an impostor and a follower of the false "Messiah" Shabbatai Tzvi. At that time Nechemiah Chayun had just begun his infamous career, but Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi had time to observe the evil influence of this man and his followers in south-eastern Europe. As soon as Chayun's true character became known to the Jewish spiritual leaders, in that part of the world, he was excommunicated by them. Chayun had to seek new pastures where people did not know him and would fall for his smooth talk. He came to Berlin and published there what appeared to be a Cabbalistic work, but which contained dangerous theories disguised in pious and learned talk. Only experts, such as Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi, could discover the true nature of this book and to see that its purpose was to revive the Shabbatai Tzvi movement, which had undermined the religious faith and moral character of so many simpleminded Jews who once followed this movement. Earlier, this Chayun bad already published several similar manuscripts, not daring to put his name to them. Now, however, he had become bolder, for he had succeeded in obtaining the approval of certain rabbis, who either had not read, or who failed to understand, the false teachings of the author. So he came to Amsterdam, wherc he hoped to make a fortune from the sale of his book, and to win many friends and followers.

Unfortunately for Chayun, it happened that Rabbi Moses Chagiz had just then settled in the Dutch capital. fie was among those who had banned Chayun and his work in Jerusalem. Rabbi Moses Chagiz immediately called the attention of the Chacham Tzvi to the presence of Chayun and his attempt to spread his newly published book among the Portuguese community in Amsterdam. Both then went to the heads of the community and warned them of the true nature of Chayin.

Rabbi Solomon Ayllon, the spiritual head of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam, had once been suspected of sympathizing with the Shabbatian movement. Now he was opposed to the drastic measures which the Chacham Tzvi and Rabbi Moses Chagiz demanded against Chayun. He claimed that he could find nothing wrong with Chayun's book and suggested that a special commission of scholars should be formed to look into the charges.

Knowing that such a commission would merely drag out the matter and in the meantime. much harm would be done by this dangerous individual, Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi and Rabbi Moses Chagiz lost no time in pronouncing the ban on Chayun and his writings, as so many other Rabbinical authorities bad done before them, declaring that Chayun was attempting to estrange Israel from G-d and introduce new gods. The ban was printed in Hebrew and Portuguese and distributed throughout the continent, saying that nobody was to associate with Chayun or read his writings.

This called forth the violent opposition of Rabbi Ayllon and the Portuguese community leaders whom he had aroused. They were actively supported by Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi's opponents in his own community. Both Rabbi Ashkenazi and Rabbi Chagiz were threatened with personal violence and were molested in the streets. Then the Portuguese commission came out with its report that there was nothing improper in Chayun's writings, and Chayun was acclaimed with much honor in the Portuguese synagogue. The rift between the Portuguese and Ashkenazi communities was wide open.

Through the instigation of Ayllon, the Chacham Tzvi was called before a special tribunal, but he refused to appear, knowing that it had neither the knowledge nor the authority to deal with the case.

Meanwhile new evidence came that Chayun was indeed an impostor. The venerable Rabbi Leon Brielli of Mantua (Italy) sent a letter in which he condemned Chayun as a dangerous impostor, who bad falsely used his, Rabbi Brielli's, name in support of his writings. Rabbi Brielli approved the ban against Chayun in no uncertain terms. But the Portuguese leaders refused to recognize the ever-growing evidence against Chayun, whom they had taken under their wing. Their President, Aaron de Pinto, had much influence with the city magistrates, and tried to have Rabbi Ashkenazi banisbed from the city. The Chacham Tzvi was placed under house arrest, but an order for his expulsion was postponed until a commission of learned professors from the Universities of Leyden and Utrecht would declare their opinion.

It was most unfortunate that the Portuguese Jewish leaders were so blinded by their arrogance and obstinacy as to place the matter in the hands of nonJews. However, the Chacham Tzvi did not wait for the results of the new investigation. He left Amsterdam secretly, together with his family and his best friend and supporter, Solomon Levi Norden di Lima.

The Chacham Tzvi came to Emden together with his family. Soon a call reached I'm here from the Sephardic community in London. Several years earlier, they had consulted him in the case of Rabbi David Nieto, who had been accused of preaching ideas which were contrary to the Torah. The Chacham Tzvi bad been able to prove that the Rabbi had been misunderstood and to restore the community's confidence in their Rabbi. Since then, the Chacham Tzvi was known and highly respected by the London Jewish community, and when the vacancy for the post of Chief Rabbi occurred, he was the first one to be offered the position.

Leaving his family behind, Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi travelled from Emden to London, where he was received with great honor. Yet he decided not to take the position, and returned to Emden. For some time thereafter Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi travelled from city to city, going east, to Poland. While in the city of Opatow, be was called to Hamburg to serve on an important Rabbinical triburial. After his return, he accepted the position of Chief Rabbi of Lemberg, as successor to Rabbi Simchah Hacohen Rapaport. In this great community of scholars Rabbi Tzvi was destined to spend only four months, but they were the happiest of his life, which soon came to an end at the age of sixty years. He was sadly mourned by the entire Jewish world.

Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi left a great son, Rabbi Jacob Emden, of whom we shalt speak on another occasion. It was Rabbi Jacob Emden who made the eulogy (Hesped) over the grave of his departed father.

Despite his busy life, which all too often was not free from trouble and suffering, Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi found time to write, down some of the fruits of his studies. He wrote an important commentary on the "Turim" and on "Tosephoth," which unfortuately has been preserved only in parts. He is most famous for his collection of "Shaaloth uTeshuvot" (Responsa), which appeared in print some six years before he died. Ten years earlier he published his commentary "Turei Zohov" on one of the Turim, the Choshen Mishpat

Truly, the Chacham Tzvi was undoubtedly one of the greatest Rabbis and Talmudists of his day.

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January 7, 2008
i really enjoyed your article about the great rabbi Ashkenazi. this site is really a good resource.
emmanuel sebastiao
sydney, australia