Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Yahrtzeit - 28 MarCheshvan - Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona - A Lesson in Repentance

Rabbi Yonah (ben Avraham) of Gerona
Born: Gerona, Spain, 1180
Died: Toledo, Spain, 1263

Popularly known as Rabbeinu Yonah. Ethicist, author of Shaarei Teshuvah.

A disciple of Rabbi Shlomo of Montpelier, Rabbi Yonah was one of the most active participants in the controversy instigated by his teacher over Rambam's philosophical works. The story is a fascinating one, and is related to on Tisha Be’Av each year. Imagine the scene for a moment, the Rambam – the great codifier of Jewish law (1135-1204) had written two innovative works: 1. The Guide to the Perplexed – a work describing the philosophical difficulties of life, and 2. a comprehensive legal work including laws applicable to his times (and ours) as well as to the times when the Beit HaMikdash existed. Unfortunately, the Rambam had not included sources as to where he quotes his Halachah as having come from. This too raised much controversy as nobody could believe someone would claim to be an authority in Torah law without at the very least including comprehensive sources for his legal decisions.

Because of this Rabbeinu Yonah together with the “leading Rabbis” of his time severely condemned the Rambam and his teachings! One has only to study the basic life story of the Rambam to become well aware that the Rambam was not only the leading rabbi of his times – the Nasi of his generation – but was an authoritative doctor to the Sultan. His ways of medicine included a unique touch of preventing disease, rather than treating it once it happens – something the doctors of today would not advocate – after all, this would detract from the opportunity to make further wealth. 

This tremendous hatred towards the Rambam actually lead to the rabbis burning his “Guide for the Perplexed” and his code of Jewish law! One can barely imagine walking into a Yeshiva of today only to find that there is a “Rambam” missing on the shelves! If that would not be sufficient, could one imagine the tremendous shame of approaching the “Rosh Yeshiva” and showing one’s disdain towards the Ramban’s teachings?! Yet the leading rabbis of his generation did this very thing!

The irony as we see in each generation is the controversy – even today – of the “leading Rabbis” against – very often the true leading Rabbinical leader of the generation. And when the Nasi has “left the world” – everyone begins to cry at the severe loss. Suddenly the generation realise their loss. It was no different in the times of the Ramchal (1707-1747). He too was a giant in Kabbalah having written tens of books. But because of his young age and his interest in Kabbalah, he was condemned for his teachings and sent away from his home town. Today, there is no question at the greatness of the Ramchal, and it is rare not to find within the study halls of the Lithuanian Yeshivas, students immersed in his “Paths of the Just” and other important works. In fact, those truly interested in studying Kabbalah properly, will seek out the Ramchal in order to understand many concepts clearly. Yet, in his day, he was looked down and frowned upon, criticised, and even sent away from his own home town – lest he become another Shabtzai Tzvi – another false Messiah!

To continue the frightening story concerning the burning of the Rambam’s books…

When 24 wagon loads of Talmud were burned by the Church at the same spot in Paris where Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim had been burned some nine years earlier, Rabbeinu Yonah regretted his previous actions against Rambam's works. The Divine sign was clear. Heaven was declaring it’s complete disapproval at the generations “leaders” – as they had decided of their own volition to destroy true Torah teachings. The fact that the Talmud had been burned at the very spot where they had burned the Rambam’s teachings pointed to the high regard which Heaven regarded the Rambam’s own teachings! 

As related by his devoted disciple, R' Hillel of Verona, Rabbeinu Yonah declared publicly that he had been wrong, and vowed to travel to Teveria to Rambam's tomb, where he would beg the forgiveness of the deceased before a minyan of ten people. 

Rabbeinu Yonah began his journey, but was detained for three years in Barcelona where he lectured, always quoting Rambam's Halachic decisions and Talmudic interpretations with great reverence. After three years, he again set out to fulfil his vow, but was detained in Toledo, where the community implored him to stay for a while and give them Talmudic instructions. He died there suddenly, never completing his journey to Eretz Yisrael. He was mourned by all of Spanish Jewry, and Ramban - whose mother was a sister to Rabbeinu Yonah's father, and whose son R' Shlomo was married to Rabbeinu Yonah's daughter - composed a eulogy in his honour.

Rabbeinu Yonah is most famous for his classic ethical work, Shaarei Teshuvah ["Gates of Repentance"], a famous classic of Mussar litrature. It is said that he composed this work because of the very situation that had happened with the Rambam. It was his way of dealing with doing Teshuva for his own wrong, and to encourage others to also acknowledge their own mistakes. The author offers a system for self-improvement derived from biblical and talmudic sources. It forms the basis of all later works on Mussar ethics. He also wrote a number of Halachic commentaries on Tractate Avot, and Sefer Hayir'ah.

Most prominent among his students was Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, the RASHBA.

Light a candle for Rabbeinu Yona on his Yahrtzeit

May we all merit in the merit of Rabbeinu Yona, to see the true teachings of Torah, believing the greatness – especially – of the leader of the generation.

May the merit of the Tzaddik Rabbi Yonah of Gerona protect us all, Amen.

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