Responsa of the Chacham Tzvi (Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi), Zolkiev, 1767 – Questions about England.

8i Chochom_0001You are probably wondering why this book would be in a library of Anglo-Judaica.  My copy was printed in Zolkiev, in the Ukraine, in 1767, using type that was cut in Amsterdam.  Amsterdam type was so highly regarded that the word Amsterdam is in big, bold letters, not Zolkiev.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch ben Yaakov Ashkenazi (1656-1718) was known as the Chacham Zvi after the title that he gave to this book of responsa.  Responsa are “shaylos and tshuvos” – questions and answers, where rabbis would send in questions, some theoretical, some practical, and the author would provide answers.  The Chacham Tzvi was a Rabbi in Hamburg and later in Amsterdam, and was a major opponent of the followers of the false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi.

The story of Sabbatai Zevi was known in London.  Samuel Pepys writes on 19th February 1666, “.. a certain person now at Smyrna be within these two years owned by all the Princes of the East, and particularly the grand signor as the King of the world, in the same manner as we do the King of England here, and that this man is the true Messiah.”

8i Chochom_0002In 1702 the Chacham (Rabbi) of the Sephardic Community in London, who was a Sabbatean, left for Amsterdam, and was replaced by Chacham David Nieto.  The Jews in London had a newly built Synagogue, which is still in use today, known as Sharei Shamaim, or more commonly by its street name, Bevis Marks.  The new Rabbi gave a sermon in 1703 in the new Synagogue in which he argued that there is no distiction between God and nature.  Nieto was accused by pro-Sabbatean elements of the community of being a heretic follower of Spinoza.  These people were then excommunicated by the Mahamad of Bevis Marks and the Chocham Tzvi was asked to give an opinion on the controversy.  His opinion and answer were printed Question number 18 in his book.  “a question from the officers and leaders of the community in London, England…” He exonerates Chacham Nieto.


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The book has a second reference to England, in Question 37.  The Chacham Tzvi is asked in Altona (Near Hamburg) if the land of England (by which they meant Great Britain – apologies to Scottish and Welsh friends) could be considered a Reshut HaYachid (a public domain) on Shabbos as it is an island and surrounded by sea and a raised coast line.    If this were true, Jews in England would, with certain conditions, be allowed to carry on Shabbos.  The Rabbi’s answer is negative.

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On 1714 the Chacham Tzvi was in trouble again over the issue of Sabbateanism.  He left Amsterdam and visited London.  His son, Rabbi Yaakov Emden wrote that his father was greeted with great respect and escorted into London by boats.  The community had commissioned an artist to draw his portrait, in spite of the Chacham Tzvi’s refusal, and this portrait, which is believed to be very accurate, now hangs in the Jewish Museum in London.  The Chacham Tzvi was offered the post of Chacham in London, but turned this down.  However, the British connection continued.  His grandson was Rabbi Hart Lion, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom 1756-63.  Another Grandson, Rabbi Meshullam Solomon Emden was a rival and candidate for this position in 1765-80.

The Chocham Tzvi’s great-grandson was Rabbi Solomon Hirschell, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1802-42.

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As was the custom, my book concludes with the signatures of the printers, the worker who did the holy work of putting the letters in order, Elkana Meir the son of Betzalel Ari from Zolkiev, the workers who did the holy work of printing, Yehuda the son of the late Yosef from Zolkiev, and Reuven the son of the late Yosef from Zolkiev.


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