The twenty-second of Kislev is the yahrzeit of Rav Eliezer Ashkenazi (1512-1585). His birthplace is unclear, possibly Prague, Turkey, or Italy, where his father, the son-in-law of the Maharik (Rav Yosef Colon), practiced as a physician. As a youngster he studied in Salonika under the Maharitatz (Rav YomTov Tzahlon). When Rav Eliezer was twenty-six he became a rabbi and rabbinical judge in Egypt. Among his contemporaries there were the Radvaz and Rav Betzalel Ashkenazi, author of the Shitta Mekubetzes.
For what appear to have been political reasons he left Egypt after 22 years and moved to Cyprus. He described his leaving as: “V’chol hamarbeh bitzias Mitzrayim harei zeh meshubach. Maaseh b’Rebbe Eliezer.” Cyprus felt like home as it was then a Venetian territory and he had lived under Venetian rule as a child. While in Cyprus he corresponded with Rav Yosef Karo.
Subsequently, he moved to Venice where he became embroiled in a get controversy. A man and woman had undergone kiddushin (the first stage of a Jewish marriage; today both stages are done at the same time, but previously there was often a long gap between the two), but then the two families began to quarrel. Four years had passed and the marriage had not been completed. The Maharam Padwa had ruled that the man was required to either complete the marriage or divorce her. Rav Eliezer agreed with this ruling. A get was issued, but subsequently the husband claimed it was given under duress and invalid. Rav Eliezer, having returned to Cyprus, ruled that the get was valid, in opposition to the ruling of the Venetian rabbis. Separately, he wrote a critique of some ideas the Maharal expressed in Gevuras Hashem, which the Maharal later refuted in Derech Chaim.
After Cyprus was captured by the Turkish Army he and his family returned to Venice. Unable to find a suitable position in Venice because of his lenient ruling on the get, he moved to Cremona where he became embroiled in yet another controversy. A man named Shmuel Porto owed a woman from Mantua a significant sum of money. He claimed that he was penniless and that all of his assets were really his wife’s as he had given them to her in prepayment of her kesuba. This question divided the rabbis across Italy. Rav Eliezer ruled that the man could not give his wife her kesuba while he was still alive, and composed several letters defending his position.
Another controversy arose about a Frenchman whose brother died childless and left a widow in Tzefas. There was a question as to the existence of an obligation for him to travel there to perform chalitza. Rebbe Eliezer and the Alshich held that he had no obligation, whereas the Mabit disagreed. The final straw in Cremona was a dispute about the local health officers and certain injunctions they had made. Among other things, they had forbidden laughter and declared several new public fasts. Rav Eliezer felt that both injunctions were unrealistic.
In the middle of the controversy he left Cremona, but not before publishing his commentary, Lekach Tov, on Megillas Esther. This commentary was very influential on later commentators, such as the Vilna Gaon and the Malbim.
He left Cremona in 1577 and in 1580 was appointed rabbi of Posen and chief rabbi of Poland. There he published his work Massei Hashem, a history book. In Maasei Hashem he described geography and science that he saw during his travels, as well as reinterpreted certain statements of Chazal in light of his experiences. Four years later he moved to Cracow, where he may have been chief rabbi until the appointment of the Maharam MiLublin in 1587. There he was also involved in a get controversy in which the identity of the writer of the get was unclear due to there being someone of similar name in the same community. Rav Eliezer felt it was not a valid concern. His opinion is cited by the Bach who concurs.
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The twenty-third of Kislev is the yahrzeit of Rav Dovid Tevele Shiff (1720-1791). He was born in Frankfurt, descended from a prominent family of which one of his ancestors was the brother of the Maharam Schiff. His mother was the daughter of a wealthy London businessman. Rav Tevele learned in Frankfurt, initially, under Rav Yaakov Katz and subsequently he became the primary student of the Pnei Yehoshua from whom he received semicha. After his marriage his wife’s uncle supported his learning in the Wurms Kloyz for twelve years where he eventually became the head of the kloyz. For some years he served as a maggid in Vienna. In 1760 he returned to Frankfurt as a rabbinical judge and opened a yeshiva. Most prominent among his students was Rav Nosson Adler.
In 1765 he was invited to become rabbi of London and de facto chief rabbi of Britain. Initially, his role as chief rabbi was in question as he had been hired by the Great Synagogue of London whereas the Hambro’ Synagogue had appointed Rabbi Meshulam Solomon as their rabbi and in their eyes he was the Chief Rabbi. Eventually, the rival community began to disintegrate and in 1780 Rabbi Solomon returned to Hamburg and the controversy abated.
Rav Dovid opened a yeshiva as well. Some of his original insights from his yeshiva lectures were posthumously published in Leshon HaZahav. He frequently corresponded with rabbis in Europe such as Rav Yechezkel Landau and Rav Yeshaya Pik. Financially, the job was not very remunerative, and in the economic depression that followed the loss of the American Colonies there were constant threats to lower his salary. Over the years he made inquiries into other positions in Rotterdam and Wurzburg, but he remained Rabbi of London for the rest of his life.