In the month of Tammuz, some 600 years ago, there passed away one of the great Torah scholars and codifiers, Rabbi Menachem ben Aharon ibn Zerach, famed author of the work on Jewish law, T'zedah LaDerech ("Provision for the Way").
Rabbi Menachem's father, Rabbi Aharon,was one of the exiled Jews from France who were driven from that country in the month of Av, 5066 (1306). The expulsion of the Jews from France came at the order of king Louis X. Some of the destitute Jewish exiles from France settled in neighboring Navarre, north of Spain. Navarre was then an independent state, which was later incorporated into France.
Here, in Navarre, in the city of Estella, Menachem was born. He studied at the local Yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Benjamin Ebitz. He was an excellent student, and at the age of sixteen he was chosen by the Rosh Yeshiva as the husband of his daughter.
It was not long before the Jews of Navarre suffered a terrible catastrophe. After the death of King Phillip V (in 1322) , there came a period of time, which is known in Jewish history as the "Shepherd Calamity." Roused by a fanatical shepherd, who claimed to have seen a vision, countless shepherds and peasants banded together and began to attack the defenseless Jews. For several years the "Shepherds" spread a reign of terror, destroying and pillaging many Jewish communities in that part of France. They came also to the gates of the Jewish ghetto in Estella. The Jews defended themselves bravely, but were overpowered by the overwhelming numbers of the murderous attackers, bent on killing and robbing. According to Rabbi Menachem's eye-witness account, some 6,000 Jews lost their lives in Estella and other cities in that province. Rabbi Menachem's father and mother and four younger brothers were murdered, together with the other Jews who chose to die rather than save themselves by sacrificing their religion and way of life. Rabbi Menachem himself was left unconscious by the band of twenty five attackers, who mistook him for dead and left him on a pile of other Jewish bodies. In this state Rabbi Menachem lay till midnight (it was the 23rd of Iyar), when a passing nobleman, a friend of Rabbi Menachem's father, found him still alive. He took him out of the dead bodies and brought him home.
"When the Healer of All Flesh," so writes Rabbi Menachem, "cured my wounds and restored me to health, undeserving though I am, I decided to go to Toledo, and dedicate myself to Torah study."
For two years Rabbi Menachem studied Talmud under his new teacher Rabbi Joshua Ibn Shuib. Then he went to Al calea, in Spain, where he continued to study day and night under the instruction of Rabbi Joseph Ala'ish. He also studied under the direction of Rabbi Yehuda bon Asher, the son of the famed Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel), in Toledo. Thus he studied the Talmud and related subjects uninterruptedly for eighteen years.
In the year 5120 (1360), Rabbi Joseph Ala'ish died, and the community of Alcalea invited Rabbi Menachem to succeed him as Rosh Yeshiva and Rabbi. "Although I was not worthy of the honor," Rabbi Menachem writes, "I could not refuse their request."
Rabbi Menachem held this position for eight years, until a new catastrophe befell the Jews of Spain. Again in the month of Iyar, in the year 5128 (1368), the trouble started for the Jews, when civil war broke out betwen King Henry and his brother Don Pedro who contended for the throne vacated by their dead father King Alfonso of Castille. Don Henry defeated and slew his brother, and became king. But during the period of time when the struggle had been going on, the Jews were victimized by both sides. In addition, various bands terrorized the Jewish communities, taking a daily toll in lives and possessions. The flourishing Jewish community of Toledo was also nearly wiped out at that time. Some 8000 Jews died of starvation. Those who survived had to pay heavy taxes, which completely impoverished them.
In these troublesome times, Rabbi Menachem remained quite destitute. He lost everything he possessed: his home, his congregation, even his books. Then there came a ray of light. A prominent Jew, Don Shmuel Abarbanel of Seville a man of wealth and influence in the Court, took Rabbi Menachem under his wing, and provided for all his necessities. With his help, Rabbi Menachem return to Toledo, where the local leaders he requested him to restore the spiritual life and Torah learning of the community in its effort to reestablish itself.
Shmuel Abarbanel held an important position in the royal court at Toledo He was a great lover of Torah, and supported Torah scholars willingly and generously. In gratitude to him, as well in order to help other Jews who we engaged in various affairs and business and had little time to study the Talmud and Halachah works at great length Rabbi Menachem composed his important book, Tzedah laDerech, mentioned above. His book was a great help to the Jew many of whom were truly "wandering Jews" in those days, driven from place to place. For in this book they four the Jewish laws (Dinim ) pertaining to the daily life, clearly and concisely spelled out for them.
The book is divided into five section all of which deal with the important dinim concerning the various aspects of the day-to-day life: (1) The Laws of Prayer and Blessings; ( 2 ) The Laws of permitted and forbidden things; (3) The Laws pertaining to Women; (4) The Laws of Shabbos and Festivals; (5) The Law of Fasts. All these laws and regulations were formulated in plain and brief language, so that everybody could read and study them easily, and know how to conduct the daily life in accordance with the Torah and Mitzvot. He also gives explanations about the importance and significance of various Mitzvoth, and concludes his book with words of comfort and consolation to his suffering brethren, encouraging them in the hope and expectation of the coming of the righteous Moshiach.
Rabbi Menachem did not reach a ripe old age, but his life was full of learning and good works. His faith, selflessness and noble traits of character, were a source of inspiration to his brethren in those difficult days. His book has a prominent place in Jewish Rabbinic literature, and it has served as a source-book for other authors and codifiers of Jewish law.