Translated by Melanie Rosenberg
Rabbi Meshulam Igra was a master sage from Tismenitz who later became the chief rabbi of Pressburg. Even the most prominent of scholars could not fully appreciate the extent of his greatness: his talents rendered him the embodiment of Israeli brilliance. A number of wise men of great intellectual talents, shining suns emanating great light, were among the distinguished men of Israel of the previous century (according to our count). One of the most eminent personalities whose exalted brilliance and sharp wittedness merited high accolades of praise, was Rabbi Meshulam Igra.
Rabbi Igra was a scion of rabbis and great men of Israel (a descendent of the renowed Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel, author of Meginei Shlomo), but his father, Reb Shimshon, was a simple landowner from the city of Buchach in eastern Galicia, a chaste and honest man. Up until the last generation, elders of this city would speak wonders of his righteousness and integrity. In Buchach, the city of Rabbi Meshulam's birth, his father built a house adjacent to a Jewish-owned tavern whose proprietor permitted himself to keep the premises open on the Sabbath. Rabbi Shimshon was greatly distressed and tried time and time again to prove to his neighbor the error of his ways, reciting ethical parables and attempting to influence him to cease Sabbath desecration. But his neighbor the bartender scorned him and his example. Rabbi Shimson then went to the local rabbi and brought suit against his neighbor over monetary damages. When the neighbor received the summons, he was surprised and said, At no time have negotiations ever taken place between me and Rabbi Shimson regarding monetary issues. What possible claim can he have against me in this regard?
When the trial began, Rabbi Shimshon arose and proclaimed, Our sages have said (Tractate Shabbat, 119, B) No conflagration is to be found, except in a place where desecration of the Sabbath occurs. Since my neighbor the tavern owner desecrates the Sabbath, I fear that a fire will break out in his building and spread to consume my house as well. Therefore I demand that he do one of two things: either take upon himself the commandment to observe the Sabbath, or buy my house.
From this righteous man was born Rabbi Meshulam, of whom Rabbi Moshe Sofer testified his two arms were as two Torah scrolls; it was impossible to grasp the enormity of his erudition and speed of intellect combined. (from Sermons of the Chatam Sofer, vol 1 ). And note this wonder: Rabbi Meshulam Igra was a mitnaged who opposed hasidut. Yet one of the greatest hassidic rabbis of his time, Rabbi Chaim of Chernowitz, (author of Be'er Mayim Chaim and S'doro Shel Shabbat) in his book Sha'ar Tefilah (Gate of Prayer) describes him as the ultimate role model for his time, a mighty leader of Israel, a true genius, an ambassador of Torah, a light of purity unto the world, a crown of glory for Israel. For according to hasidic legend, Rabbi Yisrael Baal-Shem-Tov himself once visited the city of Buchach where he laid eyes upon the son of Rabbi Shimshon, then a boy of four. The creator and master of hasidut looked at the child's face and turned to those assembled, saying, Look and you will see: this child possesses a new soul, noble and exalted, the caliber of which has not existed in this world for several generations
Still in his childhood, at the age of five, Meshulam astounded his community with his sharp intellectual perception. Once, as Meshulam sat with other children his age before their rebbe, the pre-school teacher listened as the toddlers read and repeated the verses (Genesis 37, 9-10) regarding Josef's dream: Behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars bowed down to me and his father rebuked him and said to him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamt? Shall I and thy mother indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee? The children's rebbe then read them Rashi's commentary on these verses, focusing on Yosef's having dreamt that his late mother represented by the moon would bow down to him in future. From this our sages derived that within every dream there are elements which will not come true. At this, the young Meshulam sprung forward and asked his teacher, Just because Yosef's dream included prophecies that were untrue, must we deduce that every dream contains elements that are untrue? Isn't this generalizing from the specific to the universal? (such an axiom would defy gemara logic m.r.)
The children listened to the question posed by their peer and were silent, not knowing what to answer, but Meshulam could not remain still. After several minutes he once again asked, Why did Yosef see fit to mention that he saw the moon in his dream, thus raising his father's ire as well as serious doubt as to the veracity of the dream? Wouldn't it have been more convenient had he totally omitted mention of the word 'moon,' a clear reference to his late mother, and not opened room for doubt?
And yet, added the child, his eyes glittering and his face shining, one question explains another: Yosef related his dream verbatim, without omitting a word, for he was aware that every dream has an element which is untrue. Had he omitted the word 'moon,' his father and brothers would have searched for other false aspects of the dream. Keeping that in mind, Yosef related the dream in its entirety, with nothing excluded. And from this, the fact that Yosef was steadfast in mentioning the word 'moon' in his dream, our sages learn that there are no dreams without inaccuracies.
In his early childhood, at the age of eight, this wonder child began to compile his Torah interpretations into a book, and by the age of nine was well-versed in whole commentaries of the Mishna and Talmud. At that point, it was suggested to his father that his dear son become engaged to marry the daughter of Reb Shmuel Bick, one of the officers and wealthy men of Brody. At the request of the prospective bride's father, Rabbi Shimshon brought his son to Brody and to the town's main Bet Midrash. Here, in the presence of all of the wise scholars of Brody, the nine-year-old boy delivered a deep halachic discourse and stood his ground in a Torah debate with the local rabbi, the eminent Rabbi Yitzchak Horowitz (who later became the chief rabbi of Hamburg). As each articulated and argued his points, it was the child who claimed victory over the elder. When Rabbi Yitzchak Horowitz returned to his home, his young daughter came to greet him. He placed his hand upon her head and blessed her, saying, May it be Thy will that you should marry a great man such as the delightful child who triumphed over me now in halacha.
Thus the young Meshulam became engaged to marry the daughter of Reb Yitzchak Bick, and when he reached Bar Mitzvah age, they were wed according to the laws of Moses and Isarel. During his youth, he became renowned not only for his genius but also for being a tzadik, a righteous man. Yet his intense piety did not appeal to his young wife, the daughter of the officer and nobleman, and she began to demand a divorce. His father-in-law Reb Shmuel also became convinced that the match was not a successful one and began to urge him to grant his wife a divorce. Rabbi Meshulam acquiesced. A short time later he married the daughter of Rabbi Yitzchak Horowitz, the rabbi of Brody. Thus was fulfilled the rabbi's blessing for this very wise and righteous man.
During this time, a heated argument broke out between the notables of Brody and her sages regarding the matter of a particular divorce. Some ruled that the divorce was null and void, others championed its validity, and among those arguing the issue was the 19-year-old Rabbi Meshulam. The sages of Brody, who enjoyed a reputation for their great Torah erudition, decided to request an opinion from Rabbi Yeshiah Berlin, the chief rabbi of Breslow whose incredible knowledge of every aspect of the Torah was known to the sages of his generation. Each of the Brody scholars wrote his own answer to the question at hand, and each of these letters, among them Rabbi Meshulam's, was sent to Rabbi Yeshiah Berlin. Rabbi Berlin poured over each viewpoint, one by one, and when he finished reading the answer given by Rabbi Meshulam, he cried in wonder and admiration, This is an elderly man who has attained great wisdom! His intellect and keen insight are so profound that he could rival many of the great sages of yore.
Rabbi Yeshiah Berlin was intrigued to discover the identity of the author, someone whose name or existence he had never been aware. At that very time, Reb Shmuel Bick, the officer from Brody, happened to be in the city of Breslow. Although he was there on business, Reb Shmuel saw fit to pay a proprietary visit to the rabbi's home. Rabbi Yeshiah received him happily, and in the course of conversation asked if perhaps he knew a certain wise scholar in his city named Rabbi Meshulam Igra.
Yes, replied Reb Shmuel. He's still quite young, around fifteen or so.
So young? cried the rabbi in astonishment, And I had no idea of his existence!
May I ask why this interests the rabbi? queried Reb Shmuel. How many wise young scholars are there right here in Brody whom the rabbi of Breslow has never heard of?
What are you talking about 'wise young scholars,' retorted Rabbi Yeshiah, Rabbi Meshulam is a mighty genius, one of the few truly profound scholars of our day.
Upon hearing the words of this distinguished, elderly rabbi, Reb Shmuel Bick suddenly grasped his chest and collapsed to the ground in a faint.
After he came to, Rabbi Yeshiah asked him, What made you faint?
This young, mighty genius was formerly my son-in-law, and I convinced him to divorce his wife, my daughter, replied Reb Shmuel with a bitter sigh.
If you once held such a precious, blessed vessel in your home and you yourself banished the holiness from the house, said Rabbi Yeshiah, then you deserve to faint a second time!
Rabbi Meshulam Igra's reputation preceded him, and in time the Jewish community of Tismenitz, a city of scholars and writers and one of the nine largest communities in the Lvov district, turned to appoint him president of the area's regional rabbinical court. At that point he was all of seventeen years old! Rabbi Meshulam was as meticulous in his study of Torah as he was great in his knowledge and thoughts, never ceasing for a moment to serve the community, any time or place. Even as he traversed the path from his home to the Bet Midrash and back, he would be murmuring words of Torah, probing and postulating, discerning new interpretations, his lips moving to recite entire pages of gemara and Talmud as well as commentaries by Rambam and other halachic sages. Once, it is told, when the rabbi was walking through the marketplace, completely absorbed in pondering halachic issues, he was struck to the ground by a team of horses who raced by pulling a carriage. The townspeople who witnessed this dangerous, frightening occurrence raced to save the rabbi's life. As they pulled him out from under the wheels of the carriage, they heard him mumbling,
And from this, we must decide whether the approach of Rabbi Avraham Ben David of Poshkira (the RABD) is more appropriate than that of the Rambam.
In Tismenitz, Rabbi Meshulam found ample ground from which to disseminate Torah in Israel. From the town's yeshiva of higher learning which he established, scores of Torah scholars went forth to the people. Many of these scholars themselves became great lights in the celestial heavens of Judaism, such as these notable rabbis: Rabbi Mordechai Bennet, the rabbi of Nikelshporg, Rabbi Naftali-Tzvi Horowitz, father of the hasidic dynasty of Rashpitz, Rabbi Frenkel-Teumim, the rabbi of Lipnik, Rabbi Yaakov, the rabbi of Lisa, who called his rabbi, Rabbi Meshulam, Rabeinu Tam, and many others.
And so Rabbi Meshulam was able to find contentment in Tismenitz, where he succeeded in glorifying and advancing Torah. Large, important communities with major Jewish centers came to offer him positions as the head of their courts. Yet he refused to leave Tismenitz. Where his greatness reigned, he exuded humility, telling his students that so limited was his knowledge of Torah and halachic innovation that he was not worthy of his post as the president of a rabbinic court in a city of the Jewish world. Rabbi Alexander-Sender Margalioth, the rabbi of Sotonov (author of T'shuvot HaRAM), one of the leading religious leaders of the time and a friend and colleague of the author of Nodah B'Yehudah, used to say that he was strong enough to fight a Torah battle against the famed Rabbi Yehonatan Ivshitz, but not against Rabbi Meshulam Igra. Yet nevertheless, when the notables of the Three Communities (Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek) approached Rabbi Meshulam and offered to have him assume the position of his father-in-law Rabbi Yitzchak Horowitz, he demurred, saying, I am not able, nor worthy or entitled to sit upon the seat of the righteous sage Rabbi Yehonatan Ivshitz.
And when the community leaders pressed him, claiming that they would consider it a great honor for him to assume the position of his father-in-law in this rabbinical court, Rabbi Meshulam dispatched them to his wife, the daughter of Rabbi Yitzchak Horowitz, for her opinion. Naturally, the rebbitzin readily agreed to move from tiny Tismenitz to those three metropolitan communities, especially to greater Hamburg where her family was living. The messengers of the Three Communities returned to Rabbi Meshulam, their faces shining with joy, and reported, Your wife agreed. Now there are no objections remaining to the Rabbi's acceptance of our offer.
Rabbi Meshulam nodded and said, My wife, may she be blessed with long years, is worthy of being the rebitzen of the Three Communities just as she is worthy to be the rebitzen of Tismenitz. And I, small and young, know and recognize my paltry worth. Why, I am not even worthy to serve in the rabbinical hierarchy of the little town of Tismenitz, which deserves better. How much more do I lack the merit to serve as the president of the rabbinical court of the Three Communities
And so Rabbi Meshulam Igra remained in his post in Tismenitz for twenty-seven years, and may well have continued there into his old age. Yet at that time, a royal edict came forth obligating all Jews to be conscripted into the military. The Jewish community of Tismenitz, like other communities in Galicia, was required to supply a certain number of conscripts each year. The leaders of Tismenitz were apt to overlook scholars for this task, preferring instead to send in their place ignorant, uneducated youth. Rabbi Meshulam lashed out vehemently against this practice: in the city's batei midrash he attacked the communal leaders who carried out this practice, accusing them of being slave traders and responsible for the bloodshed of innocent people. Rabbi Meshulam rose to publicly rebuke the community leaders, his words stinging in reproach, There is no discrimination in the law. All of Israel, including talmudic scholars, all must obey the law of the land and be drafted into the army. And if the government demands of us only a certain number of people, then we must cast lots among all those Jews who are eligible to serve in the army. Whoever has the fate to be chosen, whoever he may be even the greatest scholar of our times he must enter and serve within the military.
Rabbi Meshulam stood up and swore, Even if the die is cast for my only son, Yitzchak Eliyahu (his father attested to the fact that his son's sharpness of intellect outreached his father's, yet Yitzchak died at a young age), then I will personally turn him over to the serve in the army.
Their great rabbi's words, however, were met with scorn by the community leaders, who refused to pay heed to his message. Thus Rabbi Meshulam decided that the time had come to leave Tismenitz, and when offered the post of chief rabbi of Pressburg, he agreed.
It is told that when Rabbi Meshulam set out from Tismenitz to Pressburg, the notables and officers of Pressburg organized welcoming delegations to greet the rabbi along the route. On the way they stopped at an inn to eat and rest before the rabbi's arrival. There they treated themselves to a fine meal, all the while singing the praises of their new rabbi and his phenomenal knowledge and piety. From time to time, one of them would go out and scout the area, seeking signs of the rabbi's arrival. Why is it taking the rabbi's wagon so long to get here? Why is he so late?
Meanwhile, at the very same inn a man and his wife sat inconspicuously eating a meal of dry bread. One of the notables of Pressburg struck up a conversation with them and asked, Where are you from?
From Tismenitz, answered the man.
And where are you headed?
What's your name?
The questioner understood that this was indeed the new chief rabbi of Pressburg, Rabbi Meshulam Igra, who always fled from false honor and had no desire to enter the city with jubilant fanfare.
Yet honor seeks out those who shun it. When it became known to the notables of Pressburg that their rabbi was present at the inn, they immediately hoisted him and his wife upon a grand carriage and prepared a majestic entrance to the city.
And there, in the city of Pressburg, Rabbi Meshulam Igra established a grand Yeshiva which trained a cadre of the finest rabbis and educators who went forth to teach Torah and become lights unto the dispersed of Israel. Rabbi Meshulam Igra became renowned as a wise sage among sages, the rabbi of the children of the Diaspora.
HaRav Y. L. Maimon