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.