The often cryptic Torah commentaries of the 19th- and early-20th century Talmudic sage known as the Rogachover Gaon have been the subject of intrigue to many a modern-day Jewish scholar.

Rabbi Yosef Rosen, the “Genius of Rogachov,” was described by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—as an unmatched scholar who “brilliantly shaped general rules for every single concept in Torah study,” among the many superlatives assigned him by the Rebbe and other modern-day sages. Despite the acclaim, Rosen’s 83rd yahrzeit (anniversary of the passing) will come and go on the 11th of the Hebrew month of Adar II (corresponding to March 18, 2019) in a mostly hidden manner, much like his Torah concepts, except in the eyes of the gaon’s enthusiasts such as Rabbi Binyomin Bitton.

Co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Downtown Vancouver with his wife, Malky, Bitton has made it one of his life’s works to unravel and simplify the depths of Rosen’s often inscrutable insights, and share those gleanings with the world.

He told that two years ago, he began to pursue his goal in earnest by releasing an initial set of articles on the Rogachover’s works. They met with such a strong response that he decided to reach for larger audiences through published courses that others can teach, publication of books and further articles.

“The project consists of decrypting and adapting in a clear, easy and enjoyable fashion the unique and novel scholarship of the Rogachover, and making it available to the largest possible audience,” said Bitton, whose passion for the subject and the organization he has created around it, the Tzfunot Institute, is evident in his every word.

Among his first subscribers was Rabbi Mendel Itzinger, mashpia (“spiritual mentor”) at the Lubavitch high school, or mesivta, of London, who also heads a Lubavitch-wide association of yeshivahs and mesivtas. He decided to experiment with the material to further ignite interest in learning among some of his students, at first unsure of just how well it would play.

“I gave the first shiur [‘lesson’] yesterday, and I don’t have the words to describe the geshmak (Yiddish for ‘delicious’ or ‘delightful’) in learning that this brought to my students,” he said. “In addition to teaching the Rogachover, it had the effect of stimulating students in need of extra inspiration to learn more. It is turning out to be well worth it.”

Analysis of the Morning Blessing

Rabbi Yosef Rosen, 'The Rogachover Gaon'
Rabbi Yosef Rosen, 'The Rogachover Gaon'

In summing up what inspires such intrigue about the Rogachover’s teachings—collected largely under the assemblage of works known emblematically as Tzafnat Paneach or “Decipherer of Secrets”—Bitton poses a three-fold phenomenon.

“The importance and central place that his Torah scholarship takes in the talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe [who frequently quoted the Rogachover], the delight in its unique and novel approach to Torah analysis, and the fact that it is written in a code language that for the most part is incomprehensible to the larger public.”

Incomprehensible to most it is, just as the dreams of the Egyptian Pharaoh were to the Pharaoh himself before he called on another Joseph to interpret them, as relayed in last week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz. Joseph did such a good job hitting the mark in his analysis of Pharaoh’s dreams that the Pharaoh gave him the name Tzafnat Paneach, or Decipherer of Secrets,” from whence the majority of the works of the Rogachover are titled.

In the original series of articles published by Bitton, audiences can gain a taste of all of the above.

In one of them, he elucidates on Rosen’s analysis of the morning blessing that appears in every prayer book, which focuses on the ability of the crowing rooster to distinguish between night and day. In the article, Bitton summarizes Rosen’s take-away point that there are two ways to look at what constitutes the transition between night and day. One is to view it as a precise point in time that divides and separates the two, the position argued in the Babylonian Talmud. Another is to view the changeover as more of a meeting or unifying point that contains elements of both day and night, the position argued in the Jerusalem Talmud.

The Rogachover goes on to associate the Jerusalem Talmud’s view to the intellectual capacity called “wisdom” (or chochma in Hebrew), in both the rooster and man, which emanates from the attribute of chochma in the supernal realms. By contrast, he links the Babylonian Talmud’s perspective to the intellectual capacity of “understanding” (or binah in Hebrew) in the rooster and man, and the corresponding supernal attribute of binah.

In Bitton’s own words: “Does the timing of the morning turn on a point—the time that divides between day and night—or the point of time that unites them?” The answer is both, he indicates in conclusion. “In general, there is a ‘wise’ rooster and there is a rooster that ‘understands.’ ”

In another article focused on a passage in the Torah portion of Vayeitzei that tells how Jacob lay down on the ground to sleep and dream after gathering a set of stones around his head, Bitton elaborates on Rosen’s lofty concept of continuous or recurring action. The maxim teaches that in the stories of the Torah, in the course of Torah practice and in life in general, there are one-time actions and recurring actions. What determines whether something is a recurring, rather than a one-time action is the presence in the scenario of a connection between two entities or elements of opposite natures.

A key example given by Rosen of a continuous action is marriage, where constant application of the effort to unite the traditionally opposite natures of a man and a woman are at play.

In the case of the scene in Vayeitzei, Jacob turned the stones, which in their natural state are not comfortable to lay down on, to something akin to a comfortable pillow. The action served as an act of acquiring, known as a kinyan in Hebrew—the piece of land that Jacob was resting on. Due to the fact that it involved a connection between two opposite elements (in this case, stones and a pillow), Bitton explains that the act of acquisition was a renewing or recurring one. When later we learn from the commentaries that G‑d folded the entire land of Israel under Jacob, the recurring action was then applied to the act of acquisition of the entire land of Israel.

“Thus, he acquired not only the ‘four cubits’ upon which he was laying, but the entire land of Israel eternally,” said Bitton.

As is evident from the samples of his work, the Rogachover had the ability “to identify hidden unifying themes in widely divergent aspects of the Torah,” a skill he began to develop as a child, explained Bitton.

Bitton is reaching for larger audiences through published courses on the Rogachover Gaon that others can teach, as well as books and articles. (Photo: Or Koren)
Bitton is reaching for larger audiences through published courses on the Rogachover Gaon that others can teach, as well as books and articles. (Photo: Or Koren)

‘The Unity of Torah’

Born into a family of Chabad Chassidim in 1858, the young Rosen was educated at a local cheder (elementary school) in the Belarusian (White Russian) city of Rogachov. His unusual capabilities were detected by age 13, when he was sent to study in Slutzk with Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik as his learning partner under the Beit Halevi, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.

Rosen was appointed to the rabbinate of the Chassidic community of Dvinsk in his early 30s, a position he held for nearly 50 years in tandem with another prominent rabbinic leader, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk. He died on March 5, 1936, in Vienna.

The Rebbe would go on to say about the Rogachover that “he ate, drank and slept like every human being, however his way of learning was wondrous.” The Rebbe once wrote in one of his vast array of letters on Torah topics—one that Bitton points to as testimony to the importance of his work—“that it was a shame that he [the Rogachover] is still not yet well-known among Torah scholars, that his vast wealth is hidden in his books and responsa [‘answers’ on Torah topics].

The strong connection between the Rogachover and the Rebbe was further highlighted by Rabbi Yanki Tauber, a prolific writer and author on Torah subjects, in his monograph released in 2014, titled The Rebbe’s Philosophy of Torah.

“The Rebbe’s approach to Talmud study can be described as a synthesis of the approach innovated by Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk with that of the Rogachover Gaon, with whom the Rebbe began corresponding as a teenager,” wrote Tauber. “Brisk champions the understanding that fine lines can be drawn to differentiate laws and concepts that appear to be identical at the outset. On the other end of the spectrum, the Rogachover espouses the unity of Torah—teaching that a central unifying theme could be found in areas that appear to be completely unrelated. The Rebbe drew from both.”

 Tzafnat Paneach, or “Decipherer of Secrets” is the main title applied to many publications of the Rogachover Goan's teachings. (Photo: Or Koren)
Tzafnat Paneach, or “Decipherer of Secrets” is the main title applied to many publications of the Rogachover Goan's teachings. (Photo: Or Koren)

Upon the release of a book written in 2011 by Rabbi Avraham Benshimon of Montreal, another rabbi with a lifetime goal to unlock the secrets of the Rogachover, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, author of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, was quoted as having written before his death in 1978: “When you begin to study the Rogachover’s works, short in words, but long in the depth of what they explain, you find someone who has the authoritative power over all parts of scholarly Jewish teachings.”

For his part, Bitton said his audiences can expect to see in the end a clear depiction of the Rogachover’s works on every Torah portion, many aspects of Judaism’s annual festivals, more sections of prayer, the Passover Haggadah, portions of the Talmud, sections of the Prophets and Writings, Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah opus on Jewish law and a broad array of other subjects in Jewish law.

“The project is built on the conviction that if explained and taught well, everyone will be able to enjoy and understand, and be given access to a whole new world of wisdom and Torah study,” said Bitton.

It appears that the project is well on track from the following testimonial from an educator in France about his experience teaching the material to a group of adult participants in his community.

“I thought at first that this program of learning was not really meant for my traditional crowd,” he said. “Not coming from a yeshivah background, I thought it would not be fitting for them. But the fact is that since I have started to teach the class to five to six people, they have discovered a new world. They are speaking about the subject all week long and can’t wait for the next shiur.”

For inquiries about the work of the Tzfunot Institute, they can be reached by email at [email protected]