Category Archives: Extraordinary Individuals

Unique Jews In a Category of Their Own

Jew of the Week: Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

The Polish Nobility’s Hasidic Pharmacist 

A 19th century woodcut engraving of Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Simcha Bonhomme “Bunim” Bonhart (c. 1765-1827) was born in Vodislav, Poland, the son of a wealthy German-Jewish merchant father (who was also a rabbi and rationalist philosopher) and a mother that came from a long line of rabbis going all the way back to Rashi. After studying at the top yeshivas in Hungary and Czechia, Simcha Bunim went to Leipzig to also get a solid secular education at one of the world’s top universities. He studied science and majored in pharmacology. After marrying, he settled in Peshischa (Przysucha) and opened up his own pharmacy. His concoctions were so potent and famous that he soon served the Polish nobility. He also continued his father’s merchant business, sold exotic woods, and regularly appeared at the Danzig trade fair. Meanwhile, Simcha Bunim joined the local Peshischa Hasidic group, then under the leadership of a rabbi and mystic known simply as HaYid HaKadosh, “the Holy Jew”. When the Holy Jew died in 1813, Simcha Bunim took over as the new leader. Unlike other Hasidic groups, Peshischa was all about enlightenment and rationalism. Their aims were to synthesize science with Judaism, to develop each member’s personal autonomy, and to inspire people to discover who they are and to think critically on their own. They encouraged people to pray when they really felt like it (instead of praying by rote three times a day) and to walk confidently with an upright posture. Instead of wearing the classic Hasidic robes, Simcha Bunim dressed in a regular suit. His internal Hasidic revolution spread like fire across Eastern Europe—causing Simcha Bunim to nearly be excommunicated by other Hasidic rabbis! Simcha Bunim is also credited with being perhaps the first kiruv (“outreach”) rabbi. While other Hasidic groups at the time simply ignored the secular Jewish world, Simcha Bunim went out of his way to bring secular Jews back into the faith. In fact, he would regularly go to theatres on Jewish holidays in the hopes of inspiring Jews there to come with him to the synagogue instead. While the Peshischa Hasidic movement itself died out shortly after Simcha Bunim’s death, it sparked multiple new Hasidic groups, and had a significant impact on the wider Jewish world as well. Today is Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

I know who I am irrespective of how I am perceived by others.
– Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Jews of the Week: Israel and Nisan Bak

Israel’s First Printers – and Farmers

Page from a Zohar printed by Bak in Jerusalem

Israel Bak (1797-1874) was born in Berdichev, Ukraine to a Hasidic family of printers. He took over the business at the age of 18, and over the next seven years printed thirty books. Unfortunately, the family printing press was shut down, and over the next decade Bak unsuccessfully tried to rebuild the business. In 1831, he made aliyah and settled in Tzfat. He established a new printing press, and Jewish books began to be printed in Tzfat again for the first time since the 1600s, when the previous printing press was shut down. Meanwhile, Bak also purchased a plot of land near Mt. Meron and started the first Jewish agricultural colony. Some credit him as being the first modern Jewish farmer in Israel. It was he that inspired (former Jew of the Week) Sir Moses Montefiore to start investing in more Jewish settlement and agricultural development of the Holy Land—a seminal event upon which the later Zionist movement was built. Sadly, Bak lost everything in the Tzfat earthquake of 1837 and the Druze Revolt of 1838. He relocated with his family to Jerusalem, there establishing the holy city’s first-ever printing press. From there he printed 130 books, as well as the second Hebrew newspaper in Israel’s history, Havatzelet.

Kirya Ne’emana in 1925

After he passed away, his son Nisan Bak (1815-1889) took over the printing business. Nisan sold the press in 1883, deciding to focus all of his efforts on rebuilding Jewish life in the Holy Land. Back in 1843, he had prevented the Russians from purchasing a coveted plot of land near the Western Wall where they intended to build a church and monastery. He was able to procure vast sums of money (with the help of the Ruzhiner Rebbe) to secure the area for the Jews, and there built the illustrious Tiferet Israel Synagogue (also known as Beit Knesset Nisan Bak, and the Hurva, “Ruin”, because it was destroyed by the Arabs in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, before being rebuilt and reopened in 2010). In 1875, Bak founded one of the first modern Jewish towns in Israel, just outside Jerusalem’s walls, called Kirya Ne’emana. He built 30 homes for the Hasidic community, and distributed the remaining plots to large numbers of Iraqi, Syrian, and Persian Jews. In 1884, he co-founded (with his brother-in-law, Israel Dov Frumkin) the Ezrat Niddahim Society to stop Christian missionaries from targeting Jews. The society also established a Yemenite Jewish quarter in Jerusalem, and raised funds to support and educate Jerusalem’s impoverished.

Top left: the Hurva Synagogue in 1930; bottom left: the ruins in 1967; right: the Hurva today (photo credit: Chesdovi). Sir Moses Montefiore paid for much of the early construction. More than half of the money came from the wealthy Iraqi-Jewish family of Ezekiel Reuben. The synagogue was completed in 1864 and originally called Beit Yakov in honour of Edmond James (Yakov) de Rothschild. It was considered the most beautiful building in Jerusalem, and nicknamed “the glory of the Old City”.

Words of the Week

I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jew of the Week: Ramchal

The Unparalleled Kabbalist Who Became the Father of Modern Hebrew

Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) was born in Padua, Italy to a wealthy Sephardic family. He studied under some of the great Italian rabbis of the time and was quickly recognized as a prodigy, receiving rabbinic ordination himself while still a teenager. He also took up studies at the University of Padua, and by the time he was just 20 years old had complete mastery of Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), as well as philosophy, medicine, and alchemy. He had also written a textbook on Hebrew language and grammar, Leshon Limmudim (predating Eliezer Ben-Yehuda by some two centuries!) Meanwhile, Luzzatto wrote several plays including a dramatization of the Biblical story of Samson. Around the same time, he started writing a book of 150 psalms to mirror the 150 Psalms of King David in the Tanakh. His Hebrew and poetry were of such a high level that people had a hard time distinguishing between the psalms of Luzzatto and the psalms of David! This drew the anger of many rabbis, who banned the work. The final straw was when Luzzatto revealed that he had been visited by a maggid, an angel that taught the mysteries of the Torah. He started writing these teachings down, and relaying them to a small mystical circle. When word got out, the Italian rabbis sought to excommunicate him for good. To avoid the decree, Luzzatto agreed to stop teaching and leave Italy. He resettled in Amsterdam and made a living as a diamond cutter and lens grinder. During this time he produced his greatest works, which would become classics of Judaism and standard textbooks in yeshivas to this day: Mesillat Yesharim (“Path of the Just”), a manual for personal development and character refinement; Derekh Hashem (“Way of God”) on the fundamentals of Jewish theology; Da’at Tevunot, a unification of Kabbalah and rationalism written in the form of a conversation between the Soul and the Intellect; and Derekh Tevunot, a manual for Talmudic study. He also wrote a number of commentaries on the Zohar (the central text of Kabbalah) and countless other discourses, most of which have been lost. After being barred from teaching in Amsterdam as well, he headed to the Holy Land and settled in Acco. There he helped build the Jewish community and a new synagogue (destroyed by Bedouins in 1758). Sadly, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (or the Ramchal, his initials, by which he is better known) perished in a devastating plague that broke out several years later. One of the early Hasidic leaders, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezerich, would later say of the Ramchal that “His generation did not have the merit of this great man.” The Vilna Gaon famously stated that had the Ramchal still been alive, he would have walked all the way from Lithuania to Amsterdam just to meet him, and that the Ramchal was the only person to understand Kabbalah since the Arizal. The Ramchal was seen as a hero and inspiration by secular Jewish and Haskalah leaders, too, who crowned him the “father of modern Hebrew literature”. Today, the 26th of Iyar, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

He who confronts himself with the paradoxical, exposes himself to reality.
– Friedrich Durenmatt