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The Romanian Gaon


This article was written by Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, z”l, the Seridei Eish, about my grandfather, the Gaon Rabbi Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran, z”l, of Baku, Romania, author of She’elot U’tshuvot R’BAZ. He died on the 14th of Kislev 5690 (1930).

The essay was originally published in different form in the volumes Otsar Hachaim and Kibutzei Ephraim, and translated in 1932 in the local Romanian Jewish publications Tribuna Evreska (issue 22) and Bakuvel (issue 203). It was included in Rav Weinberg’s collection of essays L’Prakim.

I offer this revised version in my grandfather’s memory for his yahrzeit.

- Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, vice president of communications and marketing, OU Kosher.

To be called “gaon” is a mark of distinguished honor, one bestowed only upon the most grand of the grandest Torah luminaries; it is a title granted by historical Jewry that imparts special love and admiration on its bearer by every Jewish heart.

Although derived from and related to the Germanic term meaning “genius” – a person of prodigious talents – mere genius falls far short of all that is meant by the honorific gaon.

The Jewish gaon is greater, more elevated, more holy than any “genius.” Upon him and within him resides an echo of distant, nearly mythic worlds.

A European “genius” is fully a member of his society; he is of his time and place. While the Jewish gaon exists in his time and place, he is more than his time and place.

To attempt to describe what a gaon truly is would be like trying to describe the majesty of the Swiss Alps to a youth who knows only the unending flatness of the Kansas plains. Rather than description, the youth needs to visit the Alps themselves, to observe their greatness and absorb their beauty and majesty.

In the same way, one must be in the presence of an old-world gaon to fully understand what is meant by this high honor. By doing so, he will stand in the true light which shines from a human soul when it reaches its full stature.

The gaon brings together the full range of human attributes – a unique composition of fierce spirit and gentle soul; a prodigious mind and the delight of a child. He is restless and stormy internally, but calm and peaceful externally. He combines the vigor and intensity of a warrior with the soft wonderment of a dreamer.

A gaon aspires for the loftiest of accomplishment and conquest, yet is accepting of concession and humility. Mentally, he is the consummation of human aptitude. Morally, he is a faithful guardian of the spirit of man as created in the image of God.

He is, when all is said and done, the personification of the triumphant spirituality of man. Fortunate is the man who merits being in the presence of a Jewish gaon.

* * *

We ask that God give us strength.

The Hand of God has afflicted the congregation of the rabbis of Israel in the Diaspora. We find it to be more diminished and impoverished from one day to the next. One by one, its principal luminaries are fading away.

These days, when the Jewish rabbinate is changing so dramatically, as it becomes modernized and diminished, there is a special charm that imbues those few remnants carrying the flag of Torah, religious teachers of the speedily diminishing old school.

Such ancient glory, reflecting the noble spirituality of a world that will never return, rests upon these unvanquished spiritual heroes; great scholars and souls who are defeated only by life itself.

They call to mind the days when our spiritual lives were whole, unaffected by external and internal wars; when Judaism sang with a single voice, one that called both back to the past and forward to the future, forming an unbroken continuation of our ancient culture.

As these great remnants die out, we are left to face an unclear and clouded future. They carry with them to their eternal rest the security and the faith that seems lost to the young generation, a generation scattered on uncharted paths.

From among the few there towered a Jew of physically modest stature – weak, thin, adorned in worn clothing, with a crushed hat upon his head – the rabbi of Baku, z”l, bearer of the totality of the beautiful rabbinic ideology of the old generation, devout in his beliefs, guileless in his character, guardian of ancient traditions, and brother to everyone whose path he crossed.

He walked among us as a brother, seemingly of our generation. But when he spoke, it was immediately apparent that he was a Talmudic giant, a master of the complete Torah, with its immense literature and infinite ramifications.

Romanian Jewry suffered a grievous loss when he died. He was a gaon of the first degree; a man whose genius crowned the country with glory and splendor, binding to itself the hearts of the entire Talmudic world with strings of love and honor.

His loss transcended Romanian Jewry. His passing was a loss to world Jewry because the deceased was a rabbinical leader not only to his congregation and country, but also to the entire Jewish Diaspora. He was one of the select few gaonim of the generation, spared by God as a remnant of former generations, when the beis medrash stood at the center of Jewish life and the nation invested its prime creative energy and talent in the study of the Torah.

* * *

And I, claiming no deserving, merited to see him.

I was in Carlsbad, two years ago, when one of my friends approached and asked, “Would you like to meet a truly great rabbi?”

“Sitting on a great chair?” I inquired. “A great speaker or a great statesman?”

My friend shook his head. “A gaon,” he said, his voice reflecting a sense of awe and wonderment I’d never heard. “The rabbi from Baku!”

How could I have refused such an invitation? When I went to greet him, he was preparing to return to his home. He greeted me as if I were an old friend although he had never before met me. I looked at his face and I felt joy. His pure soul shone clearly in his countenance.

I attempted to converse with him in Torah, but no sooner had our conversation begun than I was overwhelmed with his knowledge, and quite nearly swept away with his erudition.

Truly, I felt as if I were in the presence of one of the rabbis of old, reincarnated in our generation.

It was astonishment. To hear him! To see him! To witness how he retained this repository in his mind even as he swam in the giant Sea of Torah, using his erudition as a working tool, a fountainhead of unceasing Torah creativity.

Even as I was awed by his heroic scholarship and spirituality, I was no less impressed by his personality. Such humility, such ingenuousness, such unaffectedness, such love for any man, and especially for one who debates him in Torah!

When I offered a counter to his logic, he didn’t become angered or indignant. Rather his face lighted up with a pleasant smile and, with a gentle voice, he said, “Of course you are correct in your argument, but how would we then explain an explicit saying in a Yerushalmi Tractate, or an explanation given by one of the Rishonim in such and such a book?”

His counter-argument bore no animus. Rather, it carried the joy of a loving father toward his precocious child.

Truly, in the Romanian gaon we saw the wondrous blending of a prodigious mind and a gentle heart. Every word of his wisdom resonated with his noble moral essence. Every motion of his body bespoke his genius.

When I accompanied him through the marketplace on his way to the train station, I saw how he carried himself with profound modesty so that he might avoid drawing attention to himself, lest someone recognize him.

His humility was so simple, so natural, so befitting a gaon. When I offered my farewell I did not feel that our first meeting would be our last. Indeed, I hoped to merit another meeting so that I might once again enjoy the abundance of his wisdom and the warmth of his kindness.

So it was that a very few months later, I received the news of his death with a sadness and gloom that crushed my heart. I thought, “If this one, a remnant of the gaonim, has been taken by the Angel of Death, what will happen to us? Who is to be guardian of the Torah?”

Two long years have passed from that bitter and tragic day, the day that he was taken from us. In that time, my pain has not diminished and my sorrow has not lessened.

The image of this great personage had been etched on my soul, not to be removed for any foreseeable future.

Indeed, all who merited to see and know the gaon of Baku will never forget him, nor will the blessed memory of this righteous man be erased from their hearts.

Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966) was a noted European posek and rosh yeshiva. He is best known as author of the work of responsa Seridei Eish.

This article was written by Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, z”l, the Seridei Eish, about my grandfather, the Gaon Rabbi Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran, z”l, of Baku, Romania, author of She’elot U’tshuvot R’BAZ. He died on the 14th of Kislev 5690 (1930).

The essay was originally published in different form in the volumes Otsar Hachaim and Kibutzei Ephraim, and translated in 1932 in the local Romanian Jewish publications Tribuna Evreska (issue 22) and Bakuvel (issue 203). It was included in Rav Weinberg’s collection of essays L’Prakim. Advertisement

I offer this revised version in my grandfather’s memory for his yahrzeit.

- Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, vice president of communications and marketing, OU Kosher.

To be called “gaon” is a mark of distinguished honor, one bestowed only upon the most grand of the grandest Torah luminaries; it is a title granted by historical Jewry that imparts special love and admiration on its bearer by every Jewish heart.

Although derived from and related to the Germanic term meaning “genius” – a person of prodigious talents – mere genius falls far short of all that is meant by the honorific gaon.

The Jewish gaon is greater, more elevated, more holy than any “genius.” Upon him and within him resides an echo of distant, nearly mythic worlds.

A European “genius” is fully a member of his society; he is of his time and place. While the Jewish gaon exists in his time and place, he is more than his time and place.

To attempt to describe what a gaon truly is would be like trying to describe the majesty of the Swiss Alps to a youth who knows only the unending flatness of the Kansas plains. Rather than description, the youth needs to visit the Alps themselves, to observe their greatness and absorb their beauty and majesty.

In the same way, one must be in the presence of an old-world gaon to fully understand what is meant by this high honor. By doing so, he will stand in the true light which shines from a human soul when it reaches its full stature.

The gaon brings together the full range of human attributes – a unique composition of fierce spirit and gentle soul; a prodigious mind and the delight of a child. He is restless and stormy internally, but calm and peaceful externally. He combines the vigor and intensity of a warrior with the soft wonderment of a dreamer.

A gaon aspires for the loftiest of accomplishment and conquest, yet is accepting of concession and humility. Mentally, he is the consummation of human aptitude. Morally, he is a faithful guardian of the spirit of man as created in the image of God.

He is, when all is said and done, the personification of the triumphant spirituality of man. Fortunate is the man who merits being in the presence of a Jewish gaon.

* * *

We ask that God give us strength.

The Hand of God has afflicted the congregation of the rabbis of Israel in the Diaspora. We find it to be more diminished and impoverished from one day to the next. One by one, its principal luminaries are fading away.

These days, when the Jewish rabbinate is changing so dramatically, as it becomes modernized and diminished, there is a special charm that imbues those few remnants carrying the flag of Torah, religious teachers of the speedily diminishing old school.

Such ancient glory, reflecting the noble spirituality of a world that will never return, rests upon these unvanquished spiritual heroes; great scholars and souls who are defeated only by life itself.

They call to mind the days when our spiritual lives were whole, unaffected by external and internal wars; when Judaism sang with a single voice, one that called both back to the past and forward to the future, forming an unbroken continuation of our ancient culture.

As these great remnants die out, we are left to face an unclear and clouded future. They carry with them to their eternal rest the security and the faith that seems lost to the young generation, a generation scattered on uncharted paths.

From among the few there towered a Jew of physically modest stature – weak, thin, adorned in worn clothing, with a crushed hat upon his head – the rabbi of Baku, z”l, bearer of the totality of the beautiful rabbinic ideology of the old generation, devout in his beliefs, guileless in his character, guardian of ancient traditions, and brother to everyone whose path he crossed.

He walked among us as a brother, seemingly of our generation. But when he spoke, it was immediately apparent that he was a Talmudic giant, a master of the complete Torah, with its immense literature and infinite ramifications.

Romanian Jewry suffered a grievous loss when he died. He was a gaon of the first degree; a man whose genius crowned the country with glory and splendor, binding to itself the hearts of the entire Talmudic world with strings of love and honor.

His loss transcended Romanian Jewry. His passing was a loss to world Jewry because the deceased was a rabbinical leader not only to his congregation and country, but also to the entire Jewish Diaspora. He was one of the select few gaonim of the generation, spared by God as a remnant of former generations, when the beis medrash stood at the center of Jewish life and the nation invested its prime creative energy and talent in the study of the Torah.

* * *

And I, claiming no deserving, merited to see him.

I was in Carlsbad, two years ago, when one of my friends approached and asked, “Would you like to meet a truly great rabbi?”

“Sitting on a great chair?” I inquired. “A great speaker or a great statesman?”

My friend shook his head. “A gaon,” he said, his voice reflecting a sense of awe and wonderment I’d never heard. “The rabbi from Baku!”

Rabbi Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran, the gaon of Baku

How could I have refused such an invitation? When I went to greet him, he was preparing to return to his home. He greeted me as if I were an old friend although he had never before met me. I looked at his face and I felt joy. His pure soul shone clearly in his countenance.

I attempted to converse with him in Torah, but no sooner had our conversation begun than I was overwhelmed with his knowledge, and quite nearly swept away with his erudition.

Truly, I felt as if I were in the presence of one of the rabbis of old, reincarnated in our generation.

It was astonishment. To hear him! To see him! To witness how he retained this repository in his mind even as he swam in the giant Sea of Torah, using his erudition as a working tool, a fountainhead of unceasing Torah creativity.

Even as I was awed by his heroic scholarship and spirituality, I was no less impressed by his personality. Such humility, such ingenuousness, such unaffectedness, such love for any man, and especially for one who debates him in Torah!

When I offered a counter to his logic, he didn’t become angered or indignant. Rather his face lighted up with a pleasant smile and, with a gentle voice, he said, “Of course you are correct in your argument, but how would we then explain an explicit saying in a Yerushalmi Tractate, or an explanation given by one of the Rishonim in such and such a book?”

His counter-argument bore no animus. Rather, it carried the joy of a loving father toward his precocious child.

Truly, in the Romanian gaon we saw the wondrous blending of a prodigious mind and a gentle heart. Every word of his wisdom resonated with his noble moral essence. Every motion of his body bespoke his genius.

When I accompanied him through the marketplace on his way to the train station, I saw how he carried himself with profound modesty so that he might avoid drawing attention to himself, lest someone recognize him.

His humility was so simple, so natural, so befitting a gaon. When I offered my farewell I did not feel that our first meeting would be our last. Indeed, I hoped to merit another meeting so that I might once again enjoy the abundance of his wisdom and the warmth of his kindness.

So it was that a very few months later, I received the news of his death with a sadness and gloom that crushed my heart. I thought, “If this one, a remnant of the gaonim, has been taken by the Angel of Death, what will happen to us? Who is to be guardian of the Torah?”

Two long years have passed from that bitter and tragic day, the day that he was taken from us. In that time, my pain has not diminished and my sorrow has not lessened.

The image of this great personage had been etched on my soul, not to be removed for any foreseeable future.

Indeed, all who merited to see and know the gaon of Baku will never forget him, nor will the blessed memory of this righteous man be erased from their hearts.

Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966) was a noted European posek and rosh yeshiva. He is best known as author of the work of responsa Seridei Eish.

About the Author: Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966) was a noted European posek and rosh yeshiva. He is best known as author of the work of responsa Seridei Eish.


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More Articles from Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg

This article was written by Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, z”l, the Seridei Eish, about my grandfather, the Gaon Rabbi Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran, z”l, of Baku, Romania, author of She’elot U’tshuvot R’BAZ. He died on the 14th of Kislev 5690 (1930).

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