Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The fourteenth of Shevat is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983). His father’s last name was originally Carmona, and he was a descendant of the Ricanti family. Arriving in the United States, he Anglicized his name to Kaplan. The family was irreligious and young Len (as he was known then) was a difficult student in public school and was expelled and spent his days wandering the streets. His mother died when he was fourteen and his two younger sisters were sent to foster homes. He was encouraged to say kaddish for his mother and a young Kloisenberger Chassid who was the same age, saw him struggling with the words and not wearing tefillin and offered to help him. Henoch Rosenberg and his siblings taught Kaplan Hebrew and shortly thereafter he was already learning Chumash on his own.

The following year he enrolled in Torah Vadaas and a few years later he was among the students sent to Los Angeles to help Rav Simcha Wasserman open Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon. In 1956 he went to Israel to learn in The Mir and received semicha from Rav Yitzchok Isaac Halevi Herzog and Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel. He then returned to the United States where over the next few years he taught in Richmond, the Bronx, and then Louisville. While in Louisville, he sent a number of letters to Rav Moshe Feinstein to receive guidance on how to handle certain situations he faced. He also attended the University of Louisville, where he met his wife, with whom he would have nine children, and received a Bachelor’s Degree in physics. Moving on to Hyattsville, Maryland, he attended the University of Maryland to receive his Master’s in physics and to work at the National Bureau of Standards.


A couple of years later he entered the rabbinate. He served a number of Conservative congregations, over the next few years in Iowa, Tennessee, New Jersey and New York. In the 1960s it was not unheard of for rabbonim with Orthodox semicha to serve in Conservative pulpits. In Iowa he was very involved in developing ties to clerics of other faiths. He then moved to Brooklyn where he embarked on a remarkable writing career over the next decade until his untimely passing from a heart attack. He translated some fundamental Kabbalistic works, such as Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer HaBahir. He authored, what is perhaps his best known work¸ Jewish Meditation. He published a series of pamphlets on all aspects of Jewish life for NCSY. This author recalls receiving Rabbi Kaplan’s booklet on tefillin before his bar mitzvah. It was a mixture of halacha and hashkafa drawing from a wide range of Jewish sources. He embarked on a project of translating the entire Yalkut Me’Am Loez, and published a translation of the entire Chumash entitled The Living Torah. He also translated a number of Breslov works. Altogether, during the last decade of his life he published more than twenty-five books.

His books opened many Torah concepts to the English speaking world and had an indelible effect on the kiruv efforts of NCSY and other organizations.

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The seventeenth of Shevat is the yahrzeit of Rav Chaim Palagi of Izmir (1788-1868). Born into a rabbinic family, he started his career as a prolific author at a young age. At the age of seventeen he published a commentary on Pirkei Avos. Each time he published a sefer he made a seudah to commemorate the completion, and distributed the sefer to the attendees. He never sold any of his publications. He married when he was nineteen and received semicha a few years later.

He refused to accept a rabbinic position while his father was living, but after his passing he was named to the local Bet Din as well as appointed rosh yeshiva in 1828. In 1837 he was named the head of the Bet Din of Izmir and in 1857 he received the title of Chacham Bashi. Due to opposition from some of the members of the community, his position as Chacham Bashi was not solidified until the government sent emissaries from Constantinople to settle the matter. He was then given government sanction to issue judicial rulings.

Some years later he became involved in a political dispute over the collection of a tax on kosher meat and alcohol. As Rav Chaim sensed that there were certain abuses being perpetrated by those who had the concession to collect the tax, he tried to have the funds diverted to support the local school. When that met opposition, he decided to abolish the tax. When those holding the concession complained to the government, the head of the commission of inquiry decided to replace Rav Palagi with himself. This led to protests which resulted in his being reinstated.

He was very sensitive to the needs of others and spoke frequently about being respectful of others’ feelings, including children. People would frequently come to him for advice, or just for a listening ear. He found it very difficult as it interrupted his study schedule, however, “When a man or woman comes before me and speaks for a long time in order to pour out their sorrow… I don’t push them away as I don’t want to embarrass them or make them feel like I don’t care about their pain.” A rumor spread that a wealthy man had pledged a small fortune to the community in Teveria. He denied it and refused to pay. An emissary from the Teveria community brought him before the Bet Din in Izmir where it was proven that he had never made such a pledge. A few days later Rav Palagi called the man to come meet with him. He explained that even though he had done nothing wrong, since there was such a rumor about him, he should make the donation anyway. He explained to him how important of a mitzvah it was, and the man agreed and made the donation.

He involved Baron Rothschild and Sir Moses Montefiore in the building of a local hospital and the creation of other welfare organizations. He publicly opposed the smoking of tobacco as he believed it was the cause of health problems. He created an organization that oversaw the quality of the schools in Izmir and instituted a rule that no child was allowed to leave school until he was literate and knew how to daven. He also prohibited children from being apprenticed until they completed their schooling. He founded and supported a number of yeshivos for older students and responded to halachic inquiries from all around the Sefardic world and Europe. He was honored by being named to the Order of the Medjidie, an award given to non-Turkish people who had served the Turkish state.

He published seventy-two seforim on many different topics, including, Tanach, kabbalah, Talmud and halacha. Many of his manuscripts had been destroyed in a fire in 1841 and he had to reproduce the manuscripts for fifty-four of them. He finished writing his final sefer the day before he died. Members of the Turkish government and armed forces, as well as diplomats from foreign countries attended his funeral. He had been honored during his lifetime by being named to the Order of the Medjidie, an award given to non-Turkish people who had served the Turkish state.


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Chayim Lando is the practice manager at Maryland Neuro Rehab & Wellness Center and has been a Jewish educator for over three decades. His favorite activities are studying and teaching Talmud and spending time with his grandchildren.