Tag Archives: Chief Rabbi

Jew of the Week: Ramban

Mystic, Physician, Defender of Judaism

Painting of the Ramban from the walls of the Akko Auditorium

Moshe “Bonastruc” ben Nachman (1194-1270) was born in Gerona (present-day Spain) to a deeply religious Sephardic Jewish family. From a young age he studied with some of the great Sephardic sages of the day, and by the time he was 16 was already recognized as a wise scholar in his own right. He also studied medicine and became a sought-after physician. He was soon the chief rabbi of Catalonia and published several highly-acclaimed works, including glosses on the Talmud and several legal texts. Rabbi Moshe would become known as the Ramban, based on the initials of his name, and also as Nahmanides to the wider world. (The Ramban should not be confused with the Rambam. In fact, the Ramban helped to settle a philosophical dispute that first began with the Rambam in the previous century.) In 1263, Ramban was summoned to publicly debate a group of Dominican friars, before King James I, to settle whether Christianity or Judaism was the true faith. Rabbi Moshe tried his best to avoid the debate, which he knew would be a setup where Judaism could never be shown to win. The king conferred royal protection to him, promising no retribution of any kind. The Ramban gently tore down all the arguments of the Christians, and expertly defended Judaism, later publishing a written account of this famous “Disputation of Barcelona”. As he predicted, the failed friars sought to have him executed for “blasphemy”. The king, however, proved wise and fair, decreeing only a two-year’s exile, and gave the Ramban a gift of 300 gold solidi. (The friars then took their cause to the pope, unsuccessfully.) The Ramban journeyed to the Holy Land and settled in Jerusalem. When he arrived, he found just two Jews left there, following the ravages of the Crusades. He resolved to reinvigorate Jewish life in the Eternal City, building a small synagogue (which still stands today) and re-establishing a vibrant Jewish presence. Henceforth, a Jewish community has never ceased from Jerusalem. The Ramban spent his last days in Acre, where he similarly rebuilt the Jewish community. While there, he wrote his most famous work, the Commentary on the Torah. The commentary is among the first to feature mystical interpretations, since the Ramban was also a renowned Kabbalist. He is considered among the greatest rabbis of all time. Tomorrow, the 11th of Nissan, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

We must believe in freedom of will, we have no choice.
– Isaac Bashevis Singer

Interior of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City

Jew of the Week: Rav Shteinman

Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman (1914-2017) was born in what is now the city of Brest, Belarus. To avoid being conscripted into the Polish army, the young yeshiva student fled to Switzerland with some classmates. He continued his diligent studies in a Swiss yeshiva until being arrested during World War II and sent to a labour camp. Shteinman was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. He settled in Israel after the war. There, the young rabbi quickly made a name for himself as a Torah prodigy, and was soon appointed rosh yeshiva, head of a Torah academy. He would serve as a rosh yeshiva for the next five decades, while also establishing a number of children’s schools for the underprivileged. Meanwhile, Rav Shteinman wrote profusely, authoring dozens of bestselling books and discourses on Torah, Talmud, and Jewish thought, as well as being recognized as an expert in the field of education. While abstaining from politics himself, Rav Shteinman was the spiritual leader of Israel’s Degel HaTorah party, playing an influential role in government. In his 90s, and in frail health, the Rav decided to journey around the world to strengthen Jewish communities. Countless thousands gathered to greet him and hear his wise words in Los Angeles, New York, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Manchester, Odessa, Berlin, Gibraltar, Paris, and many more small towns. On these trips, he would give as many as 10 talks a day.

Rav Shteinman was known for his extreme piety, humility, and modesty. His daily diet was nothing but a cucumber, a boiled potato, and one small bowl of oatmeal. He lived in a tiny apartment, with little furniture but walls lined end to end with books. He slept on the same thin mattress that was given to Jewish refugees upon arrival in Israel for some 50 years. Streams of people lined up at his open door each day seeking counsel and blessings. Rav Shteinman stood only for truth, even when it brought him adversity. This was particularly clear when he supported the Nachal Charedi, an IDF unit for yeshiva students. Even after some backlash from ultra-Orthodox communities, the Rav stood his ground and continued his support. He was widely recognized as the gadol hador, the world’s chief rabbi. Sadly, the great rabbi passed away yesterday, at 103 years of age. (His condition had turned critical two weeks ago after the tragic death of his 72-year old daughter from a heart attack, even though no one had told him of her passing.) Rav Shteinman wrote in his will that it would suffice to have just ten men to carry out his funeral, and requested no eulogies. Nonetheless, the funeral procession brought over 600,000 people. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin stated that Rav Shteinman “bore the entire weight of the Jewish people’s existence on his shoulders… he knew how to convey his ideas gently, in a pleasant manner, and with a great love of the Jewish people… He was a man whose wisdom was exceeded only by his humility.”

Words of the Week

You are also living on a miracle.
– Rav Shteinmanto a doctor that told him the frail rabbi is “living on a miracle”.

The streets of Bnei Brak fill with hundreds of thousands of mourners for Rav Shteinman’s funeral procession.

Jews of the Week: Rav Uziel and the Chofetz Chaim

The Chofetz Chaim

The Chofetz Chaim

Israel Meir Kagan (1839-1933) was born in what is today Belarus to an Orthodox Polish-Jewish family. After his father’s passing when he was just ten years old, the family moved to Vilnius where Kagan continued his Jewish studies. Quickly noted as a great scholar, at the age of 17 he was married and appointed rabbi of the town of Radin. Soon after, he founded the Radin Yeshiva, which would go on to become one of the greatest yeshivas in the Ashkenazi world. Meanwhile, Rabbi Kagan wrote many popular books of wisdom, most notably Chofetz Chaim, a book about the laws of proper speech, the title of which became Rabbi Kagan’s nickname. His Mishna Berura became a standard text of Jewish law, and still used extensively today. He wrote nearly two dozen other books on a wide array of topics. At the same time, the Chofetz Chaim traveled across Europe to inspire Jews to observe the Torah, and to counter the growing secular movement. He was also an important member of Agudath Israel. Click here to see rare footage of the Chofetz Chaim at the First Congress of Agudath Israel in 1923.

Rav Uziel

Rav Uziel

Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uziel (1880-1953) was born in Jerusalem, the son of the president of the city’s Sephardic community. Like the Chofetz Chaim, Uziel was also quickly noted as a great scholar, and by age 20 founded his own yeshiva. By 31, he was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, where he worked alongside his Ashkenazi counterpart, Rabbi Kook, bridging the two communities together. During World War I, he worked tirelessly to stop the persecution of Jews, which earned him a sentence of exile in Damascus. In 1923 he returned to Israel as the Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, and in 1939 became the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, a post he held until his passing in 1953. Rabbi Uziel was a founding member of the Jewish Agency, and played a key role in the founding of the State of Israel. Of course, he wrote a great deal of widely-read Torah thought and commentary as well. Rav Uziel and the Chofetz Chaim passed away on the same day, twenty years apart: the 24th of Elul.

Shana Tova! Rosh Hashanah Begins This Sunday

Words of the Week

In Jewish history there are no coincidences.
– Elie Wiesel