Jewish Personalities

10 Facts about Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Today   the 27th of Tevet, marks the 129th Yohrtzeit of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the man that with his mighty spirit saved German Jewry from disappearing into oblivion. Here are 10 facts about him:

1. Rabbi Hirsch (1808-1888) was the head of the German rabbis and Germany’s spiritual leader and led Orthodox Jewry against the onslaught of the Reform and Conservative movements in Germany.

2. Rabbi Hirsch was born in Hamburg and died in Frankfurt where he was active for 38 years. His life accomplishments were so great that it’s hard to believe one person could have done them! They include a vast array of activities in many areas to save German Jewry. He wrote Torah literature that suited the times, he wrote a commentary on the scriptures, and he established the “Adas Yeshurun” congregation that broke all ties with the Reform movement and founded a school according to his vision and taught there.

3. Rabbi Hirsch’s vision was formed as a response to the painful reality of the “enlightenment” taking place in Germany and was based on “Torah Im (with) Derech Eretz” the way of the world. This meant a joining of Torah and secular education. Rabbi Hirsch nurtured the combination of these joint studies, encouraging careful mitzvah observance alongside general secular knowledge and participation in society.

4. Rabbi Hirsch’s influence on German Jewry to this very day must be understood in context of what obstacles he was up against. In his day, European culture penetrated right into Religious Jewry. The Baal Hatanya said about the French revolution and the emancipation that followed which took Jews out of the ghettos; ‘it will be good for mankind but bad for Judaism’. The ambition for “happiness and completion” swept across all Jewish youth and almost all of them left their father’s ways. Torah and mitzvoth were abandoned and the generation was on the threshold of intermarriage and disappearing to oblivion thanks to the Reform movement which encouraged embracing the German culture.

Rabbi Hirsch painfully saw that advanced Torah schools had to close down for no one enrolled in them. Even Torah schools for children and private Torah teachers became a rarity. Most of the major congregations and communities were taken over by the Reform movement. In many temples, (formerly synagogues) there were non-Jewish organ players similar to church. (A side note, Moses Mendelsohn, one of the fathers of the enlightenment had a grandson Felix who was baptized at age 7 and ultimately ended up composing probably the most popular wedding song played in churches around the world.)  This embracing of German culture was considered a success for the reform movement but was the death knell for all of Judaism as intermarriage became rampant. Prayers with the words Zion and Jerusalem were changed. Reformers had a saying; “Berlin is our Jerusalem!”

jewish torah
Rabbi Hirsch as a young man

5. Rabbi Hirsch became the anchor for saving Judaism at that time. He was of the few that understood how to reach out to the youth of the generation and show them the path they should take. He was able to explain to them the pitfalls of a life seeking “happiness and completion” externally.

6. Rabbi Hirsch understood the need of the generation and wrote a book “Letters from the North” which we know as ‘The 19 Letters” which explains his vision. The book is structured as a correspondence between a young man named Benjamin that left Torah and mitzvoth and has complaints about Judaism, and Naftali who points out to Benjamin that his knowledge of Judaism is partial, shallow and superficial; it didn’t get the in depth investigation it deserves. He never considered the Jewish outlook to foundational questions like the purpose of man and the purpose of the Jewish nation.

7. Across this correspondence, Naftali explains the meaning of Judaism to Benjamin and the role of the mitzvoth. In this way Benjamin’s complaints get their answers. Naftali explains that for generations, the actual performance of mitzvoth was fastidiously kept but over the generations, the reasons and spirit behind them were forgotten. Because of this, Jews meet up with a Judaism lacking meaning and abandon it. He challenges the generation to draw the spirit of Judaism back into it from authentic Jewish sources like the scriptures and the words of the sages and not from outside sources. In this way Judaism would be understood. He also shows his idea for a book explaining the mitzvoth and their reasons.

8. Rabbi Hirsch translated the written Torah and the Psalms into German adding his commentary. In addition to the ‘19 letters’, he wrote ‘Horeb’ which explains the reason for the mitzvoth we observe in exile, ‘Shemesh Umarpeh’ a book of responsa (questions asked to him and his answers) in Jewish law, ‘Mitzvoth as a Symbol’ about the purpose and meaning of the mitzvoth, written in response to the reform movement, ‘Tefillot Israel’ a siddur with his commentary, “In the Cycle of the Year” about Jewish Holidays, and ‘A Good Gift’, containing essays about Shabbat. He also founded and wrote for a newspaper called “Yeshurun” which was a platform to protect authentic Judaism.

9. Family played a central role in Rabbi Hirsch’s outlook and writings. We find many times in his commentary on the Torah where he discusses the importance of family. He also stressed the importance of the parent’s role in their children’s education. He turns to the parents with an emotionally charged message trying to explain the necessity for a parent to be totally dedicated to his child’s education.

10. The following quote can serve as an example: “… there is no higher happiness than the pleasant feeling sustaining the soul of a soft child who has no demands from you but is dependent on you and your kindness… do you not hear an inner voice telling you what he hopes to get from you?…you should feel all the responsibility, happiness and holiness this mission entails. You should feel that the title ‘father’ anointed you a “high priest”… if you don’t feel that this opportunity to be totally devoted to the good of a person is the epitome of happiness, if this emotion doesn’t arouse boundless feelings of happiness of a mitzvah, and giving doesn’t make you happier than receiving, then it is not proper for you to be a father!”  

Rabbi Hirsch attacks the notion that a parent’s obligations to educate their children are over as soon as they’re enrolled in a school. “Don’t fool yourselves into thinking that a school exempts you from any obligation to educate your child… woe is to your son if you think that you fulfill your obligation with paying tuition and worrying for his economic needs.”

In this essay Rabbi Hirsch specifies what the role of a school is, mainly to give over knowledge that the father can’t. But the purpose of a school is to “prepare the pupil and give him skills for living”. This preparation includes developing the mind and filling it with many branches of knowledge, but “mainly to make the pupil enthusiastic about his important role in life; to live faithful Jewish life in G-d’s world according to G-d’s wishes.” 


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