Tuesday, December 13, 2011

R. Israel Najara - Pervert?

The following appeared two weeks ago in a gilyon called “מבאר רבותינו”, a weekly paper that is primarily focused on סיפורי צדיקים. (I couldn't properly load the picture to get a good look, click on the picture.)

This column is about rituals and minhagim for Friday night and their sources. This week the topic is the famous zemer Koh Ribon Olam, composed by the-not-so-famous R. Israel Najara. The first footnote starts out with an innocent story about the Chasam Sofer. The story goes something like this: The Chasam Sofer never used to recite/sing Koh Ribon Olam on Friday nights. His son, the Ksav Sofer very much wanted to sing this song. But he couldn't. The reason he couldn't was that he didn't dare do anything different than his father. Once, when eating at his father on a Friday night, he started talking to his father about the beauty of this zemer and how nice and holy it is. The Chasam Sofer got the hint, and told his son: "I would rather recite the zemer than tell why why I wouldn't recite it". Since then, the Chasam Sofer recited it weekly. A few weeks or months later, the Chasam Sofer told his son the following story: the author of the zemer, R. Israel Najara served as  the Chazzan of R. Isaac Luria, a.k.a the Ari Zal. The morning after Najara composed Koh Ribon Olam, the Ari Zal told him that yesterday night, while he was composing the wonderful zemer, the Shcinah together with the Pamalya Shel Ma'aleh came to visit him, but when they arrived, they saw that he was sitting [at his Shabbos table], lo and behold, without wearing a jacket! That was presumably disgraceful, because the story goes that at the sight of a jacket-less Najara, the Shechina and the pamalya turned around and left. Later, the Ksav Sofer hypothesized that this was actually the reason why the Chasam Sofer never really wanted to recite the zemer.

The same story is then repeated from a different source. The author of the article references a slightly different version of the story, where Najara's disgraceful behavior is a little bit worse than writing poems sans coat. Here is R. Eliezer Papo's version of the story, as recorded in his sefer Pele Yoetz:

But then the author adds a cryptic reference, namely, שבחי ר' חיים ויטאל p. 19. Why is this cryptic? Because in Shivchei R. Chaim Vital, Najara's name is not even mentioned. You can see the referenced page here. So what can this mean?

The answer is that the sefer Shivchei R. Chaim Vital is actually a censored and shortened book. The original, uncensored book is called Sefer Hachizyonos and was published by Mossad Harav Kook but was then recalled in face of wide protest over the publication of the book (lead in part by R. Reuven Margolios who claimed that the sefer is a forgery). As Dan Rabinowitz reported some years ago on his blog, the original manuscript of the sefer was lost, but fortunately we have copies of it. And compared to different writings of R. Chaim Vital, this is most definitely his work. 

Here is the uncensored version of the page the author of Mibe'er Hashabbos references:

Now, I can't be sure, but I'm almost certain that THIS was the actual reason for the Chasam Sofer's reluctance to recite the zemer of Koh Ribon Olam, and not the other story that was later told by the Chasam Sofer. 

I must add the the reference to Shivchei R. Chaim Vital is a mischievous play on the part of the autohr, as I have no doubt that he wouldn't dare refer to it if it wouldn't have been censored. Maybe he should have added the words ויש לו סוד to his note...


  1. It's stange that an eternal being, ie the Shechina and Pamalya would care about whatever fashion existed on earth at that particular time. The Avos, Taanayim, Amorayim, etc... didn't wear jackets either.

  2. I have a more serious question. How come the Shcinah and the Pamalya only realized about the missing jacked after descending?

  3. If he'd worn an Italian suit, the Famiglia would have been impressed.

  4. It's crucial to note that R. Chaim is quoting the claims of a dybbuk in the passage in question. That certainly should provide some context to the incidents depicted in the second paragraph.

  5. Also, the intention of the journal is most likely to call our attention to the first paragraph which serves as a parallel to the story in question.

  6. "the original manuscript of the sefer was lost, but fortunately we have copies of it. And compared to different writings of R. Chaim Vital, this is most definitely his work. "

    This is a bit misleading. He wrote that there is only one manuscript that clearly is from R' Chaim Vital's own hand. In the comments someone points out that after the first printing it disappeared. When it was published again, it was done from facsimiles of the original. You make it sound like the authenticity was corroborated through textual comparison while it was done handwriting comparison.

    In your post you assert that both R' Papo and R' Sofer had seen the original manuscript of Sefer HaChizyonot. I agree that R' Papo most definitely must have seen some type of manuscript, but you are wrong assert that he intentionally tried to mislead us. The Shivchei MaHarchu was first printed in 1826 but Pela Yohetz was printed in 1824. My information comes from Gershom Scholem bibliographical notes at NLI (formerly JNUL) here http://aleph.nli.org.il/F/9HU21IBEUFNCVY99VX8GSFUGNQHNUQK87IRKBY5HV515LBQ2J2-25626?func=find-acc&acc_sequence=008681308
    The citation may be an addition of the recent editor, though I can't see it from the copy on the blog. It would take quite a learned editor to realize where that it was from Sefer HaChizyonot and then purposely cite Shivchei. Even then could you blame him, Sefer HaChezyonot wasn't widely available then. Indeed in the first edition there is no such citation see here http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=34575&hilite=bd896043-5ae4-4365-851f-43fce75c7d0e&st=%D7%90%D7%9B%D7%99%D7%9C%D7%94&pgnum=19 Also possible, if the new edition of Pela Yoetz was printed from manuscript, it is from the author himself but the page number was added later for a place it could have possibly been in the manuscript of Shevchei although it doesn't appear in our editions. I should note that there are 3 manuscripts listed for Shivchei see here http://aleph.nli.org.il/F/9HU21IBEUFNCVY99VX8GSFUGNQHNUQK87IRKBY5HV515LBQ2J2-54899?func=find-acc&acc_sequence=005967116 It is possible one of these manuscripts itself was censored and from it the book was printed.
    Regarding the Chassam Sofer, I think it is most likely that he saw what Pela Yoetz wrote. He was not known for quoting from manuscripts. He writes in teshuvoht that he never read the Mezritcher Tanya because he is too busy with just Shas and Rishonim. Hard to imagine he would be deciphering sephardic manuscripts.
    You should link to the higher quality scan of Shivchei available here http://jnul.huji.ac.il/dl/books/djvu/1896267/index.djvu?djvuopts&thumbnails=yes&zoom=page

  7. Question: Why in the world would R. Hayyim refer to someone he considered to be such a lowlife as ר"י - i.e. Rabbi Israel? Shouldn't "rabbi" get dropped?

  8. Dov, as Bar Uryan pointed out, R. Chain wasn't telling the stories but a Dybbuk was. Dybbuks are known for not always telling the truth.

  9. Interesting. So perhaps one could infer from the fact that he did not drop the "Rabbi" title that he was skeptical of the story.

  10. If memory serves, the dybbuk related similar tales about a great number of senior members of the Jewish community of Damascus. Elsewhere in the work, R. Chaim makes some oblique references to some years spent 'off the path' himself during his twenties. Perhaps 'chareidi' conceptions of 'perverts' and 'lowlives' is simply out of touch with reality.

    In any case, R. Chaim only confirms the last detail of the first paragraph, and most likely didn't identify with the generalizations at the beginning.

  11. "Question: Why in the world would R. Hayyim refer to someone he considered to be such a lowlife as ר"י - i.e. Rabbi Israel? Shouldn't "rabbi" get dropped? "

    ר"י does not really mean "Rabbi," in our tradition. Pretty much any slightly notable person will get at least that. Usually you can infer a not-very-high opinion if only an 'ר was used, not even a 'כהר.

  12. S. -

    רמ"א, רש"ל, רש"א?

    I know some are spelled with the added 'מה but these aren't uncommon.

    Anyway, you are saying that all it means is that he was slightly notable. But if the stories of the dybbuk were accepted to be true, do you think R. Hayyim would even consider him that?

  13. It's hard to draw hard fast rules. We can give exceptions to everything. You say "Gr"a" and I say "Chid"a." You say Rabbenu Hakadosh and I say Godol merabban shemo, etc.

    But in general, people who are not hedyotos who are discussed in seforim are always given a 'ר at least. You're right, someone who is really, really, really a rasha will lose it (e.g., Shabtai). But just about everyone who ever said something negative about R. Azarya de Rossi, as an example, will at least put a ר. That's also why people who make too much out of even the Chasam Sofer calling Mendelssohn "Ramad" are really missing the point. No, he didn't mean "Rasha" and no, it isn't some high encomium. That's just how rabbis wrote.

    So yes, I think R. Hayyim would have used that even if he thought they were true. Actually, I think if he thought highly of him he would have written something at least more flowery. Perhaps it doesn't indicate that he thought it was true, but I bet it indicates that he didn't think very much of him.