I.

There is hardly a student of the Talmud who has not at one time or another made use of the "Shitta Mekubetzeth," which is a collection of notes and commentaries on the Talmud. The author of this famous work is Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi, one of the greatest scholars and community leaders during the Middle Ages. Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi was the descendant of a family of great scholars that migrated from Germany to Jerusalem. This is indicated by the family name "Ashkenazi," which means "The German." Rabbi Betzalel was born in Jerusalem.

At that time the position of the Jews in the Holy Land was a very difficult one. Most of the scholars and large numbers of other Jews lived on funds collected by special emissaries who visited various Jewish communities everywhere. When funds did not arrive an time, or in sufficient quantity, the Jews in the Holy Land had to starve, or emigrate, for they bad no opportunities to support themselves.

Betzalel's father, Rabbi Abraham Ashkenazi, was thus forced to emigrate with his family to Egypt, where be supported himself as a rabbi and a teacher. Young Betzalel early began to show his great mental ability. His father sent him to the Yeshivah of the famous Rabbi David ibn Abu Zimra, who was head of Egyptian jewry for fifty years. During this time, as well as during his last thirteen years in Safed (in the Holy Land), Rabbi David taught most of the scholars who became famous later on. Among them was Rabbi Isaac Luria (also known as the Saintly "Ari"), the famous founder of the Lurianic school of Cabbalah.

It might be mentioned here that Rabbi Betzalel had a hand in the early education of Rabbi Isaac Luria. It came about this way. Rabbi Mordecai Francis, a rich uncle of Isaac Luria, asked Rabbi David to send to his house one of his best students to teach his nephew. Rabbi Betzalel was recommended, and for six years he tutored the brilliant young Isaac Luria. In the meantime, Rabbi David had left Cairo, and his place was taken by Rabbi Israel de Curial. Both he and Rabbi David considered their disciple Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi as one of the greatest authorities of the Talmud. They passed on to him a multitude of religious questions which were addressed to them from various communities and rabbis, and his decisions were considered binding. Rabbi Betzalel was then barely twenty-three years old.

II.

At the age of thirty-six, Rabbi Betzalel was elected to bead, the large and famous Jewish community of Cairo. He was now the bead of a large Yeshivah where many leading rabbis were educated. Rabbi Betzalel was highly respected for his great learning, and his name was known far and wide.

Soon Rabbi Betzalel became involved in a controversy which created quite a storm. The controversy centered around the succession to the title of "Nagid."

"Nagid" (leader) was the title of the secular head of Egyptian jewry. For six centuries it was borne by a noble family, and the title came down from father to son. Finally, the holders of this high position in Egyptian jewry proved no longer worthy of the authority and honor that went with the title. They continued for a time as titular heads but without real authority. Eventually, the succession to this title was decided by the Jewish community council of Constantinople, who bestowed it upon one of their own outstanding members in recognition of valuable services.

Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi was in the prime of his years as the greatest rabbinical authority of Egyptian jewry when the old Nagid died. The Council of Constantinople sent Jacob ben Chaim of the noble family of Talmid to succeed as Nagid. About the same time, Sultan Suleiman sent Mahmed Pasha as his governor for Egypt.

On the first Sabbath after the new Nagid's arrival, the leaders of the Cairo Jewish community, with Rabbi Betzalel at their head, visited the Nagid to offer him their respects and welcome. Jacob ben Chaim turned out to be a proud and conceited man. He did not hide his unfriendliness towards the distinguished visitors, as though he wanted to let them know that they were subordinate to him.

Rabbi Betzalel was deeply hurt, for he saw in the open insult an insult to the Torah. He let Jacob Talmid know that he had committed a serious offense. The enraged Nagid denounced Rabbi Betzalel to Mahmed Pasha, accusing him and the leaders of Cairo jewry of insubordination to the Ottoman government.

When Rabbi Betzalel heard of this, he decided that the position of Nagid had become more of a danger to jewry than of use. He convinced the Pasha that the title of Nagid was undesirable since it referred to secular (political) rule, and was very much like the title of king, which the Jewish people ceased to have since they lost their state. The Pasha accepted Rabbi Betzalel's view and abolished the title. Jacob ben Chaim was now no longer Nagid, but "Gilibi," which means "gentleman," or "sir."

Thus, while the authority of Rabbi Betzalel was upheld, there was a great deal of public indignation that it should have been attained at the cost of the title of Nagid. Rabbi Betzalel left Cairo and went to Jerusalem, where he stayed until the death of Gilibi Jacob Talmid. Then he returned to Cairo as chief rabbi of Egypt.

III.

During his stay in Jerusalem, Rabbi Betzalel was recognized as the leader of both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities. He induced the Ashkenazic leaders to share with the Sephardim in the funds collected for them abroad, although they themselves were in great need.

Several years after his return to Cairo he received a call from his brethren in his birthplace to become their chief rabbi. Rabbi Ashkenazi followed this call and returned to the Holy City. It was a difficult time for the Jews in Palestine, where they were oppressed by the cruel Pashas and had to pay heavy taxes. Worse was yet to come when the Sultan sent the notorious Abu Siphun to be governor. He hated the Jews and the slightest provocation was reason enough to persecute them.

One Friday, as the Pasha was walking to the Omar Mosque, the Mohammedan temple that stood on the place of the Beth Hamikdosh, he heard some noise of streaming water. Curious, Abu Siphun asked where the noise came from. His companions informed him that it was the noise of the waters of the Gichon well, which King Hezeklah had closed many centuries before, and no one was able to uncover its exact location. He was further told that there was one man in Jerusalem who could-discover the well, for he had extraordinary powers. His name was Rabbi Chaim Vital, and he was a disciple of Rabbi Isaac' Luria.

Abu Siphun ordered Rabbi Chaim Vital to locate the well or forfeit his head. Rabbi Chaim fled for his life. This was another reason for Abu Siphun to increase the taxes of the impoverished Jews of Jerusalem. Despite his old age, Rabbi Betzalel decided to make the hazardous trip to Damascus, where he hoped to raise money on his manuscripts in order to pay the taxes of his oppressed brethren. The funds were not sufficient, however, and Rabbi Betzalel made his way to Egypt to raise more money. Soon after his return to Jerusalem he died at the age of seventy.

IV.

Rabbi Betzalel is the author of "Kelalei Hatalmud" (on methods and rules of Talmudic discussion and decisions), and of a collection of responsa - legal decisions of a practical nature, on which he was requested to rule by many correspondents. These were published after his death.

As already mentioned, Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi is most famous for his main contribution to the literature of the Talmud in his "Shitta Mekubetzeth." It is a commentary on the greater part of the Talmud, though it was not completed On certain tractates, of the Talmud his commentary was known to exist in manuscript form, but was lost. Like wise was lost his commentary on the Talmud Yerushalmi.

The value of the "Shitta Mekubetzetb" is enhanced by preserving old versions of Tosafoth (comments by Rashi's disciples) and of such great masters as the Ramban (Nachmanides), kabbenu Jonah, the Rashba, the Ritva, and others of the Spanish school; and of many authorities of the French school. This work is a "must" with advanced scholars of the Talmud, and it is this work mainly which places him among the greatest of our great.