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 traveled extensively and served both in Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities. “Chacham Tzvi” is his 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 the Czech Republic), 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 yeshivah of Ofen. After they taught him all they could, they sent him to the city of Salonika in Greece, where the illustrious Rabbi Elijah Cobo 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 cannonball was rained down upon the city. One cannonball struck the house of 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 Chacham Tzvi learnt at first hand of the evil effects of the Shabbetai Tzvi movement, which was still quite strong in those parts of southeastern Europe. Though Shabbetai Tzvi, who had proclaimed himself as the “Messiah,” was dead, having betrayed his people and his faith and died as a Muslim, 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 Chiyun, 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, Fuerth, 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 Meshulam Zalman Neumark, head of the joint Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek communities, known by their Hebrew abbreviation “AHU.” When his father-in-law 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 Rothenburg, was a man of much lesser stature than the world-famous Chacham Tzvi. The mischievous community leaders, who had hoped to involve Chacham Tzvi in 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 Ashkenazic 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 became their rabbi.
During the time Chacham Tzvi served as chief rabbi of the three communities of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek, 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 yeshivah, 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 down 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 Chiyun in Amsterdam.
The arrival of Nechemiah Chiyun created quite a stir in Amsterdam. Chacham 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” Shabbetai Tzvi. At that time Nechemiah Chiyun had just begun his infamous career, but Chacham Tzvi had time to observe the evil influence of this man and his followers in southeastern Europe. As soon as Chiyun’s true character became known to the Jewish spiritual leaders in that part of the world, he was excommunicated by them. Chiyun 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 Kabbalistic work, but which contained dangerous theories disguised in pious and learned talk. Only experts, such as Chacham Tzvi, could discover the true nature of this book and see that its purpose was to revive the Shabbetai Tzvi movement, which had undermined the religious faith and moral character of so many simpleminded Jews who once followed this movement. Earlier this Chiyun 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, where he hoped to make a fortune from the sale of his book, and to win many friends and followers.
Unfortunately for Chiyun, it happened that Rabbi Moses Chagiz had just then settled in the Dutch capital. He was among those who had banned Chiyun and his work in Jerusalem. Rabbi Moses Chagiz immediately called the attention of Chacham Tzvi to the presence of Chiyun 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 Chiyun.
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 Chacham Tzvi and Rabbi Moses Chagiz demanded against Chiyun. He claimed that he could find nothing wrong with Chiyun’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, Chacham Tzvi and Rabbi Moses Chagiz lost no time in pronouncing the ban on Chiyun and his writings, as so many other rabbinical authorities had done before them, declaring that Chiyun 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 Chiyun 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 Chacham Tzvi’s opponents in his own community. Both Chacham Tzvi and Rabbi Chagiz were threatened with personal violence and were attacked in the streets. Then the Portuguese commission came out with its report that there was nothing improper in Chiyun’s writings, and Chiyun was acclaimed with much honor in the Portuguese synagogue. The rift between the Portuguese and the Ashkenazi communities was wide open.
Through the instigation of Ayllon, 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 Chiyun was indeed an impostor. The venerable Rabbi Leon Brielli of Mantua (Italy) sent a letter in which he condemned Chiyun as a dangerous impostor who had falsely used his, Rabbi Brielli’s, name in support of his writings. Rabbi Brielli approved the ban against Chiyun in no uncertain terms. But the Portuguese leaders refused to recognize the ever-growing evidence against Chiyun, whom they had taken under their wing. Their president, Aaron de Pinto, had much influence with the city magistrates, and tried to have Chacham Tzvi banisbed from the city. 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 non-Jews. However, 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 de Lima.
Chacham Tzvi came to Emden together with his family. Soon a call reached him 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. 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 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, Chacham Tzvi traveled 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 Chacham Tzvi 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 tribunal. 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 Chacham 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.
Chacham Tzvi left a great son, Rabbi Jacob Emden, of whom we shall 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 Tosafoth, which unfortuately has been preserved only in parts. He is most famous for his collection of shaaloth uteshuvoth (responsa), which appeared in print some six years before he died. Ten years earlier he published his commentary Turei Zahav on one of the Turim, the Choshen Mishpat.
Truly, Chacham Tzvi was undoubtedly one of the greatest rabbis and Talmudists of his day.