The twenty-fourth of Kislev is the yahrzeit of Rav Refael Nosson Nota Rabinowitz, author of Dikdukei Sofrim (1835-1888). Born near Kovno, his family was very prominent but totally impoverished. After his bar mitzvah he moved to Wilkomeir where he was a student of Rav Yosef Padwe for several years, eventually marrying his niece. With his father-in-law’s support he was able to continue learning in a number of towns eventually ending up in Eishishuk and then Vilna. In Vilna he befriended Rav Yitzchok Eizik ben Yaakov who had a large library. Rav Refael Nosson Nota shared with him a bibliographic work he had written that included some seforim with which Rav Yitzchok was unfamiliar. Rav Yitzchok asked permission to publish them in a work of his own and Rav Refael Nosson Nota agreed as long as his name wasn’t mentioned. He didn’t want his family to know that he was involved in bibliography and not in studying sShas and poskim.
He obtained a manuscript of the responsa of the Maharam Ruttenberg which he wanted to publish, but his work on it was interrupted when he had to escape Vilna in order that he not be drafted into the Russian army. Eventually he resettled in Lemberg and published the sefer. He also published the manuscript of the Gaon Yaakov on Eruvin. He moved to Pressburg where he heard about a complete ancient manuscript of the Talmud which was located in Munich. When he saw the manuscript he embarked on his life’s work of publishing a work delineating the variant texts of the Talmud. In addition to standard printed editions of the Talmud, he would lay out on the table the Munich manuscript as well as other manuscripts, and walk around the table examining each line in the Gemara, the commentaries of Rashi and Tosefos and other commentaries and note the differences. He began to publish the catalog of variances under the name Dikdukei Sorim. Despite working on the project for many years, he was unable to complete the project on the entire Talmud.
Although many of the leading rabbis of the time praised the work, others were concerned that as a one-man job it was apt for there to be errors in his transcriptions. This was especially true as he published at an astonishingly fast rate which some felt was due to his pressing financial needs. Others felt that although the textual variants could help resolve certain questions on comments by the Geonim and Rishonim, it was important that they not be relied upon for halachic decisions. He himself mentions this in his introduction.
On one of his trips to raise funds for his project he visited Kiev and caught pneumonia. He died shortly thereafter.
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The twenty-sixth of Kislev is the yahrzeit of Rav Avrohom ben Dovid of Posquieres (1110-1198), also known as Raavad III, or Raavad Baal Hahasagos for his glosses on the Rif and Rambam. (This is the Raavad that most people are familiar with.)
Born in Narbonne, which was then a center of Torah study, among his teachers was Rav Avraham Av Bais Din, known as Raavad II, author of the Sefer Ha’eshkol, who was his father-in-law and with whom he is often confused. His father was one of the leading kabbalists of his time and taught him Kabbalah as well. However, despite having prominent Torah scholars as his teachers, he writes that his approach was one that he developed on his own. “There is not in all that I write here (that comes from) a rabbi or teacher, it is only with the help of the one who grants man understanding. As the pasuk says that “The secrets of Hashem are to those who fear him.” Elsewhere he writes that ruach hakodesh appeared in his bais medrash.
Even as a student, studying in the yeshiva of Rabbeinu Meshulam, he wrote a sefer called Issur Mashehu. It was written to dispute a sefer by the same name written by his rebbe.
He was independently wealthy and moved to Posquieres where he opened a yeshiva which he supported single-handedly. The local duke was jealous of his wealth and jailed him on false charges, but he was freed by the intervention of royal authorities. He wrote a commentary on the entire Talmud. In fact the Meiri consistently refers to him as the greatest of the commentators. Unfortunately, most of the commentary was lost and it is only extant on a few mesechtos. He also wrote a commentary on the Sifra, the halachic midrash on Sefer Vayikra. He wrote a number of halachic works including one on the halachos of lulav and esrog that he wrote when he had to escape from Posquieres due to a conflict between some local noblemen and returned for a time to his hometown.
His most famous works are his glosses on the Rif and on the Baal Hamaor, and even more so on the Yad Hachazakah of the Rambam. While his comments on the Rif were written with the greatest of respect, his comments on the Baal Hamaor were often very sharply written.
The Rambam’s work was written and quickly became popular during the Raavad’s old age. As each part of it reached Provence, the Raavad studied it very carefully and wrote his comments. They are written tersely, but they also often packed a punch. He disagreed strongly with the entire concept of codifying halacha. He also opposed the Rambam’s drawing on ideas from Aristotelian philosophy to understand concepts of Jewish thought.
Following in the family tradition of Kabbalah study, his son, Rav Yitzchok the Blind, was a leading kabbalist in the next generation.