Saturday, July 12, 2014

Rabbi Yishma'el haCohen (1723-1811)

Rabbi Yishma'el haCohen was born in the city of Modena, Italy, in 1723. He was considered the most important rabbi (poseq) of his generation in Italy.  He was also a very beloved rabbi by all his congregants. Despite his great intellect, he used to speak to his congregants in a simple language and at their level of understanding.
Rabbi Yishma'el served as the rabbi of Modena for more than 30 years, but practically speaking he was the main rabbinic referent  of Italy during his lifetime. He wrote thousands of Teshubot (Rabbinic Responsa) answering to Halakhic questions sent by Italian Jews from all the corners of the country.   He was highly praised by all his contemporary colleagues, among them the famous rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azulai, the Hida.
The times of rabbi Yishma'el, were the times of the first reformers in Europe.  Many "enlightened" Jews were proposing radical changes in Judaism, to reform the Tora to modern times and remove from Judaism its national dimension. Rabbi Yishma'el stood at the vanguard on the battle against reform, safeguarding traditional Judaism against the new waves of assimilation.
He wrote many religious poems (pizmonim, baqashot), some of them were sung every shabbat in his Synagogue. 

He also wrote:
Sefat emet: a collection of his speeches on the Parasha of the week.
Shebah Pesah. A book that explains the Hagada of Pesah and the laws of the holiday.
His most famous book is zera' emet.  This is a collection of hundreds of Responsa on many different Halakhic subjects. It is also very important because it is one of the first books to address questions that arose in modern times which required a respected  Halakhic authority to set new legal precedents. 
The name of the book, zera' emet ("True descendants") requires some explanation. Rabbi Yishma'el did not have children. And although, as he mentioned in his book, he loved and care for every one of his students as if they were his own children, he considered this book his true legacy for posterity.  In the introduction of zera' emet he quotes the beautiful analogy our Rabbis wrote to express the "immortality" acquired by a Torah Scholar who writes a relevant book. They said that when the readers read the words of a Torah scholar who passed away, "his lips move in his grave", (siftotav dobebot baqaber), in other words, the act of reading revives the words of the Torah scholar, bringing  his legacy and memory back to life.
Rabbi Yishma'el passed away in Modena, 1811