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Rav Akiva Eiger

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The Modesty Of Our Gaonim

Modesty and humility are traits that were usually found in our Gaonim. When the Chasam Sofer was courting the daughter of the Gaon, Rav Akiva Eiger, the chief rabbi of Posen (born Nov. 8, 1761 – died Oct. 12, 1837), he wrote to the Gaon in­quiring about the qualities of his daughter.

Rav Eiger replied lauding the piety and religiosity of his daughter. He con­cluded his letter in the following manner: “My daughter is a ‘Tzadeikes,’ a saintly person, and she is truly G-d-fearing. But I am a little concerned about the passage of the Talmud (Pesachim 49a) wherein Chazal state that every person should try to take unto himself the daughter of a ‘talmid chacham,’ a learned person. Unfortunately I have not as yet reached the category of a ‘talmid chacham.’ Therefore, I am doubtful of the qualifica­tions of this shidduch…”

Back came the reply from the Chasam Sofer. “I am happy to read about the good qualities of your daughter; your word is more valuable to me than the testimony of a hundred witnesses. While you may be worrying about the first portion of that Gemara and the admonition of Chazal, I am worrying about the latter portion of that Gemara wherein Chazal also state, ‘A person should sell all of his possessions, if need be, in order that he should be able to marry off his daughter to a talmid chacham.’ I too am worrying whether I may be called a talmid chacham.”


Rejects Fancy Titles

Although Rav Eiger was one of the greatest Gaonim in his generation, the rosh yeshiva and Av Beth Din in his city of Posen, he never signed his name with the title of “Rav” or “Rabbi.” He merely wrote his name, Akiva.

Once, one of the prominent Gaonim of his generation had an occasion to write him a letter inquiring about a psak din. He prefaced the letter with many adjec­tives such as Gaon, Crown of Israel, Light of the Exile, Rav of all the Jews in the Diaspora, etc.

Rav Akiva looked at the let­ter and began to weep.

“Master, why do you weep? Is there bad news in this letter?” his students asked him.

“No,” he replied. “I weep because such a great man as this Gaon could make a terrible mistake by calling me such fancy and erudite names. Little does he know how undeserving I am of these titles.”


Seeks No Higher Post

When Rabi Shmuel, the Av Beth Din of Vilna died, the leaders of the community sent a delegation to Posen to offer the job to Rav Akiva. He accepted them with great honor and enjoyed discussing Torah with them.

But when he heard the purpose of their visit, he began to tremble. “You have made a terrible mistake,” he said. “I am not worthy to be a leader in your great city, the city which is famous as the stronghold of the Vilna Gaon. I am not even worthy to be the shamash of the shul in your city.”

He refused the honor and remained in Posen until his last years.


Honors His Colleague

Once, Rav Eiger, and the Gaon Rabi Yaacov, chief rabbi of Lisa, journeyed to War­saw to attend a conclave of rabbanim. All the Jews of Warsaw, its leaders and scholars, waited at the entrance of the city to wel­come these two great luminaries of Israel.

When their coach arrived in the city, it was surrounded by a multitude of people who cleared a path through the streets for it to proceed.  All the great leaders of the city walked in front of the coach as a sign of respect and reverence to these two great Gaonim.

Rav Akiva, seeing all this pomp and honor, thought to himself, “Surely the people are honoring my colleague, the great rav of Lisa, who is accompanying me in this coach. It is therefore only pro­per that I, too, pay him homage.”

He thereupon descended from the coach and walked in front of it to show his respect to his colleague.


Would Not Cheat The Government

Rav Akiva never wanted to accept the position of chief rabbi. He disdained the honor that came with the office. When he heard that the local bathhouse needed an attendant, he applied for the position. But of course the people of the city would never think of degrading their rav, and they finally prevailed upon him to assume the office of chief rabbi for the interest of all Jewry.

When he did accept the job he de­voted all of his efforts to aiding his fellow Jews. Though not a strong man in build, he never knew when to stop when it came to his fellow man’s welfare.

When the cholera epidemic broke out in Prussia in 1831, Rav Akiva, though of an extremely delicate constitution, often spent whole nights at the bedside of the sick. He promulgated various sanitary laws of behavior, urged the people to boil their water, and through other practices of cleanliness, helped reduce the death toll in Posen and its surrounding communities.

This came to the attention of the Emperor, Frederick William III, who sent a special royal order of appreciation to the rabbi. An emissary of the Emperor came to the rav’s house to deliver this letter of commendation.

Upon entering the house, he was sur­prised to see a large bowl containing torn postage stamps.

“What are these torn postage stamps doing here?” the officer asked.

The Gaon answered, “I receive many inquiries every day from people throughout the country. I usually answer by send­ing them a letter with the proper reply. But sometimes I hear that one of my constitu­ents may be traveling in the neighborhood of the inquirer. So I give him the letter to deliver personally. However, by doing this I am making the government lose money by not purchasing postage stamps for the letter.  Therefore I purchase the stamp and tear it up and in this way the government is not cheated from its share of the delivery of this mail.”

The officer was astounded at such piety, and when he returned to the Emperor he narrated his experiences, pointing out the saintliness of this rav.

Rabbi Sholom Klass

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