Divre Shalom was published in 1920 in St Louis. It contains Responsa, homiletics, and novellae by R. Shalom b. Asher Israelson (1861-1931). R. Israelson was born in Joniskis, Kovno Province and studied with R. Israel Salanter in Kovno. He was ordained by R. Isaac Elhanan Spektor and other rabbis. Upon his arrival in America in 1894 he served as rabbi in Milwaukee, then Toronto 1900, and finally Chicago. R. Shalom also wrote Neveh Shalom (Chicago 1900) novellae to several tractates and the Rambam.
This book is of the most absurd I have ever seen on many fronts. The author, typical of many early American Rabbis, was not appreciated by his community and Rabbi Israelson apparently took this to heart. This reflects in many points in the book of which I will note below. Often, you can get a better look at the author's personality and life from a work of his Chiddushim, than from an autobiography, and this book is a fine example. The author manages to insert his view on life on numerous subjects all in the context of a halakhic work. I will quote below some of the many points of the book that stand out in my opinion.
In the introduction (page 4), the author asks, why write a book? "We know that American Rabbis write books as a plot to raise money, going door to door selling their book, so what is so great about me writing another book? Truth is, I am not doing any great favor to the world by publishing by book, just fulfilling a natural need to express my thoughts in writing"
Israelson claims (page 5) that any Rabbi who was familiar with worldly knowledge as well as Torah, was targeted by zealots and his life was made miserable. He quotes several examples. The first is the Ramchal, whom he claims was chased down and brought down with lies by Haham Zvi and then his son, Yaakov Emden. Israelson, states how it is absurd for anyone to think, that an author of such a work as Mesilat Yesharim would be accused of any of the abominations that were fabricated against him.
The second example he brings is Jonathan Eybeschutz. He quotes an urban legend, Haham Zvi was once riding his chariot and noticed a young boy walking along. He offered him a ride, and asked for his name and where was he headed. The boy answered Yehonatan Eybeschutz, and I am going to such and such city to learn Torah. Haham Tzvi spoke to him in learning and was astonished at the great knowledge the boy revealed, and then asked him, did you hear of the Sefer Haham Tzvi that was just published and what do you think of it? The boy, not knowing that he was talking to Haham Zvi himself, said, I know if it and read it, and found nothing in it that would impress any learned man,a s all hiw words are befitting of just a young lad. The story goes on to say, that Haham Zvi held a grudge against Eybeschutz ever since and bequeathed it to his son after he died, who tormented Eybeshutz to death.
Israelson writes" It is well known, to anyone with a knowing heart, that Eybeshutz was clean of any of the accusations heaped upon him by Emden and his helpers, lies and falsifications which only existed in their imagination. This was all a scheme to get hm down, as he was also a Haham (possessor of worldly knowledge)."
The third Rabbi he brought down was the Malbim who suffered as well all his life, just for being knowledgeable in worldly matters. "In my own eyes, I saw his widow in the city of Memel, Prussia begging for food, as the Malbim left her naked and poor upon his death".
Israelson interprets the Gemara ( Bava Mezia 86) שמואל ירחינאה חכים יחקרי ורבי לא יתקרי in a novel way; since Shmuel was considered a Haham, and was an expert in worldly matters, he was Rebbe's doctor as well as an astrologer to the extent that he stated נהירין לי שבילי דשמיא כשבילי דנהרדעא " I am familiar with the paths of the skies, like the streets of Nehardea", and thus he was not able to be called a Rebbe as well. It was his superior knowledge in worldly matters, which prevented Rebbe from giving him Ordination.
Further in his introduction, Israelson brings down the בינה לעיתים who asks, how is that David Hamelech, who was known for his righteousness lets out strings of curses at his enemies through Tehillim. Yirmiya as well, even though his entire life from birth was dedicated to the Jewish people, cursed the people of Anatot his hometown with curses that cause any hearer to shudder?
The בינה לעיתים answers, that everything in life has it's limits. When it reaches a point, when a man's entire honor of trampled, such as is said about David, that even when he was leaning נגעים ואהלות his enemies would harass him with questions about Eshet Ish, at this point, a man must let it out, and curse if need be.
Israelson states, that though he is far from being on the level of Eibeshutz, Malbim or Ramchal, and certainly is not comparing himself to David and Yirmiya, but this was indeed the story of his life. The Rabbis did not get near him as he was considered open minded and of worldly knowledge. And the "Writers" kept a distance as he was after all a Rabbi....
Continuing on his rant, he writes, authors have developed a custom of writing their Yihus (lineage) in the introduction the their works and their biographies. In order not to be different than the norm, I should have written mine, as well, but my biography would need a book of it's own. Every day of my life from the day I first opened my eyes, is a long chain of different rings, each day that passed leaves me with just desolation and wonder.
ולוא אמרתי לכתוב בספר מכל אשר עברו עלי בימי חיי כי אז היה די חומר בעד חוזי חזיונות להציג על במת החזיון מחזה טראגעדית אשר אין ערוך אליה בקרב אנשים כערכי ואולי גם בקרב כל בני תמותה
"And if only I would write of what has transpired in my life, there would have been suffice material for screen writers to create a Tragedy stage play which would be incomparable to anyone else of my circumstance and perhaps even among all mortals"
When I read this, I felt I had just read the most depressing string of words humanely possible.
As for his Yihus, he writes, what would a help a reader to know who my father was? All they need to know is that I am a descendent of Avraham Avinu, though I happen to be a descendant of the Baal Halevushim and the Knesset Yechezkel, though I do not know if they would associate themselves with me, therefore I will not write it.
He thus gets to mention his Yihus and write against the mentioning of Yihus all at the same time.
The reader should know, he writes (page 9) that I am without many books, and especially I am lacking Aharonim, and the few times I did quote them in my book, is just what I recall from my youth. As for the publishing cost, it should be known that the price of printing has now doubled, and I have lost all my worldly processions until I am left with nothing at all...
It is the nature of authors he states (page 9), to thank the hosts of the city, who supported him financially. I though, do not have anyone to thank, as no one helped me. I do not owe any thanks to the hosts in the city at all, as I have brought bread to my table on my own with the help of God.
He goes on to beg (page 12) the reader to buy the book, so he can pay back his debts. He quotes the price as no less than $2, as the cost of printing has multiplied of late.
Thus he finishes his introduction, and all that can come to my mind after reading it is a quote from Ellen Hopkins "“So you try to think of someone else you're mad at, and the unavoidable answer pops into your little warped brain: everyone.”
Responsa 1: He is Posek that it is forbidden to make a partnership with a Jew who desecrates the Shabbat
Responsa 2: A Shohet who sends his children to public schools on Shabbat, his Shechita is Forbidden to be eaten.
in Responsa 26 he permits a man to marry a second wife without granting a divorce to the first and without a Heter Mean Rabanim, in the case of אשה מורדת a rebellious wife, which he describes as "an evil woman, in a frightening way". He states that the husband, a poor man, will find it very difficult to find 100 Rabbis to sign, without having to shell out a lot of money.
on page 118, he says that there is no חזקת כשרות for American Jews.
on page 124, Israelson states that in a Get, the city of New Orleans is written as ניו ארלינס and not as ארלינס חדשה
Following the responsa in the book, he added two essays he wrote, the first being on Women's Suffrage, a hot topic in those days. He starts off by mentioning that the customs of of many Jews of previous generations was to leave their house and go learn in a distant city and leave the wife to fend for herself. He speaks harshly against such practices, of sitting in front of a warm stove and sending your wife to do the hard labor all the while abandoning your obligation of שארה וכסותה. He contemplates the destruction of the Family in modern times and comes to the conclusion that it is was all caused by the Enlightenment, which taught new ethics in regards to the lady. They have made the lady in to a lofty creature, something that must be worshiped and revered and thus lost all the value of family life, after the ladies seeing themselves as better than thou, made life unbearable for the husband with their demands. "Woe to the man who falls in to his lot, one of these modern women, woe to this man, if he dares insult his wife's honor, for this will never be forgiven, this is what collapsed the family in our times".
He goes on to say, that if indeed a woman, would be elected senator, men would be petrified to argue with her, and as we know, a short phrase from a beautiful woman, can sway many men...
In short he concludes, the new movement of women's rights, has stolen the rights from the men....
At the end of the book, he writes a letter addressed to his book. He comforts the book for the insults he is bound to receive from the people who read it and the lack of interest from the masses.
Thus concludes the fascinating book Divre Shalom, a microcosm of what life was like for a Rabbi in America, in the early 20th Century.
A Coat of Many Colours: Memoirs of a Jewish Experience
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