In the month of Tammuz, about 600 years ago, the great Torah scholar, Rabbi Menachem ben Aharon Ibn Zorach, died. He was the author of the classical work, Tzedah Laderech ("Food for the journey").
Rabbi Menachem's father, Rabbi Aharon, was one of the Jews who were driven out of France in the month of Av, 5066 (1306), by order of King Louis the Tenth. The Jews left France sorrowfully, robbed of their lands, houses and possessions, which were confiscated by the king for his own use. Rabbi Aharon then settled in the province of Navarre, north of Spain, which was, for a certain time, an independent country, and was later to become a part of France. Here, in the city of Estella, Menachem was born. He studied in the Yeshiva of Rabbi Benjamin Ebitz, the Dean and Rabbi of this city. The young Menachem excelled in his studies. When he was 16 years old, he became the son-in-law of the Dean.
In Navarre, too, the Jews did not live securely for long. After the death of the French King Phillip the Fifth (in 1322), a difficult time came upon the Jews, known as "The Shepherds Uprisings," when a fanatical band of shepherds set out to rob and murder the Jews. For several years, these wild bands roamed the countryside freely, and plenty of Jewish blood was spilled. They also reached the gates of the Jewish ghetto in Estella. The Jews defended themselves heroically, but were beaten by the overwhelming numbers of the shepherds, who robbed them and burned the ghetto. According to Rabbi Menachem, about 6000 Jews perished in Estella and other cities in the province. Rabbi Menachem's father, mother and four younger brothers were killed and died for Kiddush Hashem. Rabbi Menachem himself was murderously beaten, and left in an unconscious condition. The group of 25 bandits who attacked him left him for dead, on a pile of Jewish corpses. Rabbi Menachem lay there in that condition, till the middle of the night (23rd Iyar) when a wellknown nobleman, a friend of Rabbi Menachem's father, saw signs of life in him and pulled him out from among the corpses and took him to his home. "When the great Healer," writes Menachem, "healed my wounds, although I was undeserving, I decided to go to Toledo to study the Torah."
Rabbi Menachem studied for two years at the feet of his new teacher, Rabbi Joshua ben Shuab. From there he went to Alcalla, Srain, where he learned Torah day and night, under the guidance of Rabbi ,Joseph Alaisch. He was also a student of Rabbi Judah ben Asher, the son of the Rosh (Rabbi Osher ben Yechiel) in Toledo. Rabbi Menachem studied here with his teachers and fellow students, for eighteen years without interruption. When Rabbi Joseph Alaisch died in 5120 (1360), the community of Alcalla appointed Rabbi Menachem as his successor. "Although I was unworthy of this honor," further writes Rabbi Menachem, "I had to fulfill their request."
Rabbi Menachem occupied the position of Rabbi and Dean for eight years, until the Almighty poured out His anger on the Jews once more. In the month of Iyar in the year 5128 (1368), there broke out the "Fraternal War" between the King Don Henry and his brother, Don Pedro, both the sons of King Alfonso of Castille. The victor, Don Henry, killed his brother, and became the King of Navarre.
During the civil war, the situation of the Jews was a perilous one. Their lives and possessions were worthless, and they sufered from both sides of the warring brothers. Terrorizing bandits roamed around, killing and robbing the Jews without mercy. Almost the complete Jewish community of Toledo was wiped out. About 8000 Jews died from hunger and lack of necessities. Those who remained alive, had to pay extremely high taxes that completely impoverished them.
As a result of all these troubles and misfortunes, Rabbi Menachem was left bare of all earthly possessions; he lost everything; his home, his community, even his holy books. A prominent Jew, Don Samuel Abravanel of Seville, wellknown in the royal circles, took Rabbi Menachem under his protection, and supported him and provided for him. With his help, Rabbi Menachem returned to Toledo, where the remaining Jews asked him to spread the teachings of the Torah throughout the community. Under his leadership the Jewish community of Toledo was put on its feet once more.
Rabbi Samuel Abravanel occupied an important post in the royal court in Toledo. He was a great lover of the Torah and supported Torah scholars with an open hand. Out of gratitude to him, and for the benefit of other Jews who held posts in the royal court, or who were so occpied as to be unable to spend sufficient time on Torah study, Rabbi Menachem wrote an important work, the above mentioned Tzedah Laderech.
It was an enormous help for the Jews who, because of various reasons, .and due to the troubled times, were forced to wander from place to place. It enabled them to learn the Laws pertaining to their daily life in a shortened form.
The work is divided into 5 parts, which deal with important laws of everyday living;
1) The laws of Prayers and Blessings
2) Laws of Isur VeHeter (Prohibited and Allowed), e.g. meat and milk questions
3) Laws pertaining to Women
4) Laws of Shabbos and Yomtov; and
5) Laws of the Fast days.
All these laws were compiled in a shortened form by Rabbi Menachem, so that every Jew would be able to become familiar with them, and know how 'to lead a Jewish life, true to the Torah. He also gives certain explanations about the meaning and importance of certain Mitzvos; he closes with words of comfort, and strengthen the belief in the final redemption by the Messiah.
Rabbi Menachem lived to a ripe old age, and accomplished a great deal for his suffering brethren, whom he encouraged with practical help, both spiritual and material, and especially with his great trust in the Almighty, his self sacrifice, noble character and humility.