From the shmitta archives

From the shmitta archives

Librarian from Israel’s National Library to speak for Teaneck shul

Rabbi Zvi Leshem in the Gershom Scholem collection. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Rabbi Zvi Leshem in the Gershom Scholem collection. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

What is Torah?

Is it the scroll that we read from and then point to before returning it to its place in the synagogue’s ark?

Or is it the words we are commanded to inscribe (metaphorically!) on our hearts?

That interplay between holy words and their physical incarnation takes place not only in synagogues. It also happens in archives and libraries. And there is possibly no library more imbued with this mystical and magical interplay of word and parchment or paper than the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

Gershom Scholem was a towering figure of 20th century Jewish scholarship, who made Kabbalah and its mystical and magical forms of Judaism the focus of his life’s work — a very non-obvious and controversial choice for a young German Jew in a rationalist era. He settled in Jerusalem in 1923, where he became the head Judaica librarian at the nascent Hebrew University. But curating books wasn’t just his day job. To chart the flow of grand Jewish ideas that he wrote about in such influential works as “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism,” he sought all the books, in print and in manuscript, that he could acquire, no matter how seemingly minor. The result was a home library that held about 25,000 items when he died in 1982.

Professor Scholem left his library to the National Library of Israel. At the time it was part of Hebrew University; now it is an independent institution, with a new building being planned near the Knesset. His personal library — and the associated archives of Scholem manuscripts, correspondence, drafts, and other writings — became the basis of the Gershom Scholem collection, which is under the purview of American-born Rabbi Zvi Leshem.

On Sunday, Rabbi Leshem will present a talk on Zoom from Israel for Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael. (It will be open to the public — see box.) He will speak about the sabbatical year — that grand, biblical idea of the Land of Israel and its farmers taking a year off — as embodied in physical documents from the library’s archives dealing with how the laws of Leviticus met the realities of 19th- and 20th-century Israel.

The 1888 permission to sell land.

Before talking about those documents, some words about Rabbi Leshem. He grew up in the Rust Belt— Rochester, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana. He moved to New York in 1975, and he studied in the joint program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Then he made aliyah, studied in Rabbi Chaim Brovender’s yeshiva “for a long time,” and was ordained by the chief rabbinate. He worked as an educator at Nishmat, a women’s yeshiva, for nearly 20 years. He earned a doctorate from Bar Ilan University in Jewish philosophy, writing about Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner rebbe, who was interned in the Warsaw Ghetto and whose writings there were preserved by the Oyneg Shabbos archive. Rabbi Leshem also led a congregation in Efrat for 12 years.

And in 2011, when he was looking for a career change, the position at the Gershom Scholem collection opened up. The center continues to collect books; it now has about 35,000 volumes. Still, Professor Scholem had owned two out of three books there, “which is pretty amazing,” Rabbi Leshem said.

Rabbi Leshem already had addressed the question of shmitta, the sabbatical year, many times. “The first year my wife and I came on aliyah, shmitta had just started and we had no idea what was going on with shmitta.” he said. That was in 1979. “I said I would be prepared by the next time.”

But while he has taught many classes on the halacha of shmitta, the Teaneck congregation asked not for a presentation of disembodied law, but of concrete archival items.

So he put in a request for all the relevant documents available at the National Library, and came up with three topics that he plans to discuss.

The first concerns the “heter mechira” — the permission granted by some rabbinical authorities for Jewish farmers to sell their fields to non-Jews and still continue to farm them. In a rough approximation, it is equivalent to the selling of chametz before Passover.

But where selling chametz has earned grudging rabbinic acceptance since it was innovated to protect the livelihoods of Jewish merchants who made their living selling alcoholic beverages, there were basically no Jewish farmers in the Land of Israel until the Jewish pioneers began to arrive in the late 19th century. The idea of selling the land may have been obvious, but its acceptance was not at all guaranteed.

Which explains the importance of the oldest of the documents the library’s archivists found for Rabbi Leshem: “The original handwritten copy of the first heter mechira,” a rabbinic document permitting the sale dating to 1888. “It’s a document I’ve read many times. I didn’t know we had the actual original,” Rabbi Leshem said.

Chief Rabbi Herzog and his pamphlet.

The heter mechira was written by Rabbi Yehoshua of Kutno of Poland, Rabbi Shmuel Mohliver of Bialystok, and Rabbi Shmuel Zanvil of Warsaw, and was approved by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, Europe’s leading halachic authority. (Eight years after this document was written, founders of the New York rabbinical school that grew into Yeshiva University named it after Rabbi Spector.)

The second topic about which Rabbi Leshem will present archival documents is a fund set up to support farmers who didn’t want to rely on selling their land. “There are quite a few documents from the 1920s through the 60s from famous rabbis encouraging people to contribute to this fund,” he said.

The third topic concerns “the reinstitution, on some level, of the mitzvah of hakhel.” That’s the command at the end of the Deuteronomy — the second-to-last mitzvah in the Torah — that the king of Israel read publicly from the Torah on Sukkot in the year following shmitta.

Since the mitzvah was tied to shmitta and a Jewish ruler, it wasn’t practiced after the destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago.

“Starting in the late 1800s, there started to be an interest in reviving the mitzvah, or at least commemorating it,” Rabbi Leshem said. “The person who got it on track was Rav Herzog” — Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, who was the chief rabbi of Ireland before he moved to Israel to become the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, a post he held until his death in 1959. (Israeli President Isaac Herzog is one of his grandsons.)

“Around 1944 Rabbi Herzog published a pamphlet calling for establishing a kind of ceremony at the kotel, which would be led by the chief rabbis. This caught on, and it still goes on today.”

Rabbi Leshem was delighted by what he was able to find in the archive on these three points of halachic history.

“The archives are one of my funnest places to go,” he said. “You don’t always find what you’re looking for, but you often find 10 other amazing things. There’s a tremendous feeling of not just historical importance, but in this case great holiness to hold a letter penned by these great rabbis. To hold an original heter mechira document signed by the greatest poskim” — halachic decisors — “in Europe in the late 1800s is very exciting, very emotional.

“Whatever I go to look for, I don’t leave before I send pictures to a bunch of friends or to my kids. I sent the heter mechira to one of my sons and he was just blown away.

“When you’re dealing with Torah literature it’s more special. I have a real sense of awe that I’m able to hold such a document in my hand.”

Who: Rabbi Zvi Leshem of the National Library of Israel

What: Virtual presentation, “Shmita: From Heter to Hakhel As Seen Through the NLI Collections”

When: Sunday, February 6, 9:30 a.m.

Sponsored by: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, Teaneck

Where: Go to and scroll down for the link



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