Monday, 31 January 2011

26 Shevat - Yahrtzeit of the Taz - Rabbi Dovid HaLevy Segal

The 26 Shevat marks the Yahrtzeit – day of the anniversary of the passing of that outstanding Rabbi known as the Taz – Rabbi Dovid HaLevi Segal (1586-1667.) He was known as the TaZ after the name of the commentary he wrote on the Shulchan Aruch – the Turei Zahav. The Shulchan Aruch is of course the most authoritative classical text available for the purposes of Jewish law written by Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575.) The Taz – together with the ShaCh – Rabbi Shabbtai HaKohen (1621-1662) are by far the most influential commentaries on certain sections of the Shulchan Aruch and form the basis of any rabbi's main learning done today before obtaining his final Semicha – rabbinical ordination.

It is impossible to explain to anyone not familiar with the Shulchan Aruch, the depths of Jewish law that the Shulchan Aruch goes to in covering every area of Torah. If that isn't enough, it is beyond impossible to share with someone unfamiliar with learning the Acharonim – the main codifiers of Jewish law from the time of the Shulchan Aruch onwards – the depths to which these codifiers go to in clarifying the actual law as laid down by the Shulchan Aruch itself.

It would perhaps be an understatement to say that the latter commentators are completely familiar – to the degree of mastering the main texts off-by-heart – with every single word of the Shulchan Aruch (and other main Halachic works). Before putting pen to paper, these outstanding men were completely fluent with understanding the fullness of Jewish law to knowing how to be able to learn out any area of Jewish law that would come their way. The truly outstanding of the most outstanding – the crème-de-la-crème of Torah scholarship!

Learning these great authorities (especially in-depth) comes to dazzle one's mind at the thought processes that must take place before deciding upon a Jewish law. Don't imagine that the Taz sat and learned day and night without distraction however. In 1648-1649 the Taz had to flee the massacres of the Cossak insurrection under Chmielnicki. In the last days of his life, he lost two of sons – Mordechai and Solomon who were killed in the riots in Lemberg in 1664. He had also lost his wife long before this – and remarried.

Amazingly – the Taz is the ancestor of the well known Paltrowitch family. Gwyneth Paltrow is in fact one his descendants (though I cannot testify to her being Jewish.) Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is also a descendant. 

One wonders at the levels of humility and modesty that such giants behaved with during their lives. One of the most wonderful stories I have read about the Taz goes like this:

During the years 1648-1649 (see above) most of the inhabitants of the city where the Taz lived were murdered. He fled for his life with his wife. The Taz had strong faith and trusted that whatever G-d does is for the best – He has his own plans! Now, the Taz would be able to (finally) learn Torah fleeing from honour and learning in poverty. The Taz told his wife not to tell anybody who he was, in order that he could continue to learn privately and to toil in Torah with all his strength.

One day the Taz noticed that his wife was sad as they did not have enough money to pay their debts to their neighbours who had lent them money and so she had become embarrassed even to go outside!

The Taz decided to hire himself out as a "Menaker" – someone skilled and knowledgeable in the laws of removing the various forbidden fats and veins. It didn't take the Shochtim (the slaughterers) long to realise that the man attending to the removals of these forbidden items was in fact rather learned in the laws of Treifos (animals unfit for consumption due to a particular problem usually found after the Shechita process.) The Shochtim brought before the Taz a particular animal that had a problem with it's lung and asked him for his decision as to whether the animal was Kosher or Treif. Here they saw before them a real Talmid Chacham – a true student and expert of Torah law and they would bring him all their questions!

Some two weeks later, the main Rav of the area noticed that nobody would bring him their questions on Shechita any longer. He enquired and found that the "new Menaker" was the cause of all these problems! With this, the assistant to the Rav took his opportunity on one occasion and grabbed the Taz and brought him to a Din Torah – a Jewish court case, so as to put him on trial – and probably tell him just exactly where his place was! Seven of the prominent members of the community would deal with him!

After a short discussion, they brought the Taz to the main box, as everyone in the community now had the opportunity to meet this man so filled with Chutzpah as to take questions from the Shochtim and answer them himself – when the main Rav was quite capable of handling things on his own!

Shortly thereafter, a young girl arrived with a question for the Rav concerning a chicken. The Rav gave his ruling that the chicken was Assur – forbidden to eat. In those days of course – a chicken that would be called Treif and forbidden would be a huge expense for the family involved. This may well have been their only piece of meat for the entire month – if not longer! Today the rulings of saving another Jew from a loss of money apply no less than in those days – but to pronounce such a verdict then meant a huge loss for the family concerned!

As the young girl left and past the main box area where the Taz was standing she began to cry loudly. One could hear her distress and pain that she would now have to throw away the family's main meal for the next week! The Taz turned to her and asked her to show him the chicken before throwing it away. After a short investigation, the Taz ruled that the chicken was Kosher – not just regular Kosher, but Mehadrin – fulfilling all the necessary requirements beyond just being acceptable.

He then told the young girl that she should return to the Rav and tell him to "Look in the Taz (i.e. his own commentary!) in such-and-such a place." The girl returned and told the Rav what the "Chutzpadikker Menaker" had told her. The Rav looked into the Taz and saw that indeed the Taz ruled exactly as this "Chutpadikker" man had said! He then turned to the girl and asked, "Who revealed to you this particular Taz?!" The girl replied, "The man who everyone is embarrassing at the moment." Then the Rav realised that the man that he had called, "a teacher of Jewish law in front of his Rabbi (something forbidden)," was nobody else – other than the Taz himself! And obviously he asked the Taz's forgiveness.

"I take the guilt upon myself. I chose to conceal my identity and everything is forgiven you," said the Taz. "Indeed I had planned to live the remainder of my life in private – and so that I could then rise up to higher levels. But once I saw the tears of the young girl, I became afraid that perhaps all my service to G-d would not be worth anything if I would hide from the tears of a young girl!"

Such were the words of the Taz. Such was his life. Such was his greatness! An amazing story and an amazing authority in Jewish law.

The Taz was the son-in-law of the Bach – the Bayit Chadash – Rabbi Yoel Sirkes (1561-1640) – prominent commentator on the Tur written by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1270-1340) the son of the Rosh – Rabbeinu Asher (1250-1327.) 

The Vaad Arbah HaArtzot (Community of the Four Lands) decided to follow Jewish law in accordance with the Taz. As the years passed, however, the opinion of the Shach (whose Yahrtzeit falls out in the same week – 2 Adar) was accepted as being the norm for Jewish Halacha.

The Taz's shul in Lviv was kept up until the period of the holocaust when it was destroyed by the Nazis Yimach Shmam. His grave in the Jewish cemetery in Lviv was desecrated by the Soviet government, and a market place was set up to cover the entire are of the Jewish cemetery! No Jewish effort has ever succeeded until today to redeem the place of his burial and to establish the monument of his grave anew.

Legend has it that 200 years after the death of the Taz, his grave was accidentally opened – revealing his body completely intact!

Make sure you own a Shulchan Aruch today. Make sure to study his holy words. And if you cannot study them yourself or need assistance, consider sponsoring another to learn these holy words either together with you – or by themselves.


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