The Meshech Chochmah
October 27, 2016
After considering the result of my survey, I have decided that this year’s commentator will be the Meshech Chochmah.
It is not an easy commentary and there is no English translation, so I do hope that this year’s short extracts will open up and encourage you to consult the original.
Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen was born in 1843 in Butrimonys , Lithuania, to Shimshon Kalonymus, a local wealthy merchant. According to family tradition, his later success in Torah study was attributed to two blessings his parents had received from local rabbis before his birth.
He received his education locally, and managed to evade the regular roundups of Jewish boys that were being held as a result of the Cantonist decrees that had been in effect since 1827.
After marrying in 1860, at age 17, he settled in Bialystok, Poland, where he was supported by his wife, who opened a business to support him, whilst , he continued his Talmudic studies. After 23 years there he finally, after turning down many offers, accepted the rabbinate of the mitnagdim (non-Hasidic Jews) in the Latvian town of Dvinsk, (Dannenberg in German) now known as Daugavpils. He served in that position for 39 years until his death.
In Dvinsk, his counterpart was the rabbi of the Hasidim, Rabbi Yosef Rosen, known as the Rogatchover Gaon or by his work Tzofnath Paneach. He saw this as a punishment for cheppering with the old Rav of Bialystock in his youth!
The two had a great respect for each other, despite Rosen’s legendary fiery temper, and on occasions referred questions in Jewish law to each other. They also shared a love for the works of Maimonides.
In Dvinsk, he received visitors from the whole region, and was frequently consulted on issues affecting the community at large, including Poland and Lithuania. He reputedly turned down offers for the rabbinate in various large cities, including Jerusalem, New York City and Kovno.
Many students from America and England would pass through the Port of Dvinsk on the way to Mir or Slabodka. Naturally, they would go in to see and receive a blessing from Reb Meir Simcha who was delighted to welcome them. He would dance with joy at the thought of Western boys leaving their comfortable homes to study Torah in the harsh conditions of Lithuania.
He gave Semicha very easily and always tried to be lenient in deciding Halacha.
Once even he couldn’t find a way to allow a dish that had become treife so he wrapped it in a kerchief and told the lady that he was sorry, but that she had three daughters and she should break the dish at the next engagement in good health and happiness. Thus assuaging the loss and blessing the lady.
He died in a hotel in Riga while seeking medical treatment. He had one daughter, who predeceased him before her marriage.
His prominent works are:
Ohr Somayach on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.
Ohr Somayach on Talmudic tractates ‘Bava Kama’ and ‘Bava Metzia’.
Ohr Somayach novellae on the Talmud.
Ohr Somayach responsa addressing many practical issues of halacha.
Meshech Chochma on Chumash.
Various treatises on parts of the Jerusalem Talmud.
Comments and insights on the Sefer haChinuch.
His main contribution was to be published posthumously. His pupil Menachem Mendel Zaks published Meshech Chochma (“The Price of Wisdom”, Meshech is the acronym of Meir Simcha Kohen, and the words derive from Job 28:18), which contains novellae on the Torah, but very often branches off into questions of Jewish philosophy. He is often quoted as having predicted the Holocaust in a statement in this work: “They think that Berlin is Jerusalem…from there will come the storm winds that will uproot them”. (In his comment on the last chapter of Vayikra)
Several Yeshivot have been named Ohr Somayach after him.
In the late 1970s several baal teshuva yeshivas were founded and chose to honour the memory of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk by calling themselves by his pen name for his work “Ohr Somayach”. The first was the yeshiva Ohr Somayach, Jerusalem in Israel, and another was Ohr Somayach, Monsey in the United States. Other branches were established in Toronto and Montreal in Canada, and in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Worldwide, branches, all bearing the name Ohr Somayach, are Ohr Somayach, South Africa, London in the United Kingdom, Kiev in the Ukraine, and Sydney in Australia.
The Meshech Chochma has become a firm favourite amongst rabbis all over the world.