Menachem Mendel

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Books That Ruin Good Paper

On my post on the use of underwear for paper-making, someone commented that,

I can think of many books today that would have been put to better use had they been converted to underwear.

While not using the same words, this description of the worthiness of certain books reminded me of an approbation (הסכמה) written for R. Judah Leib Zirelsohn’s collection of responsa, Gevul Yehudah (1906). The writer of the approbation was R. Eliyahu Hazan, who was then the Chief Rabbi of Alexandria, Egypt. R. Hazan apparently was not only very impressed with R. Zirelsohn, but was also quite disappointed with the quality of many books that had been written. Regarding Gevul Yehudah he wrote,

אדוני שאל לשלוח לו הסכמתו על ספרו שו”ת גבול יהודא העומד בדפוס. גם שלח לי עלים לתרופה מהתשובות שכבר נדפסו כדי לשים עיני עליהם. ומאז ראיתי הרבה ספרים נדפסים אשר אינם שוים בנזק הנייר והדפוס ולא לעזר ולא להועיל המה, ויש בהם כי אדרבא עוד יזיקו להדת ולהחכמה, ולדאבון לבי ראיתי גם באיזה מהם הסכמות רבנים מפורסמים, אולי טרם ידעו הכתוב בספר או מרוב ענותנותם לא יכלו להשיב המחברים ריקם. ואחרי כי כן לא יוכל איש לדון על הספר ועל מחברו מההסכמות הבאות בראש הספר, ורק אחרי העיון בגוף הספר, אז ידע ערך החיבור וגודל מעלת המחבר. לכן משכתי את עצמי בכל האפשר לתת הסכמתי על הספר

The gentleman asked to send him an approbation for his book of responsa Gevul Yehudah which is soon to be published. He also sent me copies of the responsa which had already been published in order that I see them. Since then I have seen many books published which are not worth the damage done to the paper and printing, and they are not helpful or useful. On the other hand they contain that which will cause damage to religion and knowledge, and to my disappointment I saw in some of them the approbations of well-known rabbis. Maybe it is that they didn’t know what was written in the book, or because of their great humility they weren’t able to turn the authors away empty-handed. After this no person is able to judge a book and his author on the basis of the approbations that are in the beginning of the book. It is only after an examination of the contents of the book that one will know the worth of the book and the level of the author. Therefore I restrained myself as much as possible from writing an approbation for the book.

R. Hazan goes on to say how impressed he was with R. Zirelsohn when they met, and how much he thinks of his work that he has already seen, but he says that he is intentionally making comments of a general nature. One final not is that while R. Hazan has been subject to the insightful analysis of Tzvi Zohar, very little has been written about R. Zirelsohn. I wrote a seminar paper on him ages ago, and hopefully I will find the time to go over it and make it into an article.

One Response to “Books That Ruin Good Paper”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    There’s tons of stuff out there on Zirelson because he was the head of Agudat Yisrael. Maybe not modern scholarly articles, but the material on him is out there and is overwhelming. He also wrote many articles in newspapers, like Avi Shafran today
    j | 07.19.07 – 7:30 pm | #

    True. I should have been more specific in saying that there isn’t much out there regarding his responsa as Zohar has done to some Sephardic rabbis. He was also in the Romanian parliament and some of his speeches can be found in Maarachei Lev. There was some scholarly treatment by Moshe Samet in an article on conversion printed in the Mordechai Bruer Sefer Yovel (I think), and in Yaakov Geller’s work on the Jews of Romania there is some discussion of his political and public activity.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 07.19.07 – 9:10 pm | #

    The favourite “out” now is to praise the author and mention that it is a haskoma for the author and not the sefer.
    avakesh | Homepage | 07.20.07 – 12:37 pm | #

    I also like the “I knew his father and he was a knowledgable and honorable person”.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 07.20.07 – 1:16 pm | #

    What a yerida. What’s next? “I knew his wife and she was very good”?
    Georgiel HaMalach | 07.20.07 – 1:58 pm | #

    Browsing an unreconstructable path through the yam ha’internet, happened across your blog and hope you don’t mind a minor comment or two. First, R. Zirelson, along with the various nuggets you’ve already dropped – member of parliament, head of the Agudah, m’chaber sh”ut, great charedi (if you’ll pardon the anachronistic taxonomy) talmid chokhom creds – one of the more striking factoids about him is his unprecedented p’saq halokhoh which actually permitted a giyores to marry a cohen (!). And this was not after the fact – after they’d gone off and done the deed with halachik authorities trying to come to grips with it, but a case where he permitted the up front organization of a chupoh and qiddushin. Sure, it was a hora’as sho’oh and sh’as hadd’choq and all, but still. And the article by Samet was indeed in a Mordechai Breuer festshrift.

    Second, to compare a talmid chokhom of great independent stature, authority, and backbone to an Avi Shafran of today – a faithful spinmeister and organization PR mouthpiece – does disservice to appreciation of the unquestioned enormous status of R. Zirelson in his day. as an aside I well remember how quickly and publicly R. Shafran got slapped down when he attempted to exercise independent judgment in a musing piece about M. Mendelssohn published some years ago in the JO. The piece itself was kind of silly – theme was Mendelssohn was basically an OK frum guy whose fatal error was – you guessed it – he didn’t follow the leadership of the “gedolim” – But even this strayed too far from the strict party line and the JO issued subsequent (you and they should pardon the expression) mea culpas. I doubt R. Shafran has gotten off the reservation since.

    Anyway, yasherkoiach on your blog. If I ever figure out how I got here, I’ll try to look in again sometime in the future.
    Mechy Fankel | 07.22.07 – 3:18 pm | #

    Thanks for the comments. I am not familiar with possible other examples, but R. Zirelsohn might present an interesting paradigm of a talmid chaham who was also a publicist, politician, etc., without necessary losing his integrity.
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 07.22.07 – 3:26 pm | #

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