The Romanian Gaon


rabazThis article was written about my grandfather, The Gaon Rabbi Be zalel Ze’ev Shafran z’l, Chief of the Rabbinic court of Baku, Romania, author of Sh’elot U’tshuvot R’BAZ.  He died on the 14th of Kislev 5690 (1930). The article was originally printed in different form in the volumes “Otsar Hachaim” and “Kibutzei Ephraim”, and also in the local Jewish publications “Tribuna Evreska” in 1932, issue 22, and “Bakuvel”, issue 203, 1932.

I offer this revised version in his memory for his yarzheit.

– Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

To be called “Gaon” is a mark of distinguished honor, one bestowed only upon the most grand of the grandest Torah luminaries; it is a title granted by historical Jewry which imparts special love and admiration on its bearer by every Jewish heart.

Although derived from and related to the Germanic term meaning “genius” – a person of prodigious talents – mere genius falls far short of all that is meant by the honorific, Gaon.

The Jewish Gaon is greater, more elevated, more holy than any “genius.”  Upon him and within him resides an echo of distant, nearly mythic worlds.   A European “genius” is fully a member of his society; he is of his time and place.  While the Jewish Gaon exists in his time and place, he is more than his time and place.  To try to describe what a Gaon truly is, is to try to describe the majesty of the Swiss Alps to a youth who knows only the unanimous flatness of the Kansas plains.  Rather than description, the youth needs to visit the Alps themselves, to observe their greatness and absorb their beauty and majesty.  Only then can he truly understand.

In the same way, one must be in the presence of an old-world Gaon to fully understand what is meant by this high honor.  By doing so, he will stand in the true light which shines from a human soul when it reaches its full stature.

The Jewish Gaon brings together the full range of human attributes – a unique composition of fierce spirit and gentle soul; a prodigious mind and the delight of a child. He is restless and stormy internally, but calm and gentle externally.  He combines the vigor and intensity of a warrior with the soft wonderment of a dreamer.

A Gaon aspires for the loftiest of accomplishment and conquest, yet is accepting of concession and humility.  Mentally, he is the consummation of human aptitude.   Morally, he is a faithful guardian of  the spirit of man as created in the image of  G-d.

He is, when all is said and done, the personification of  the triumphant spirituality of  man.  Fortunate is the man who merits being in the presence of a Jewish Gaon.

* * *

We ask that G-d give us strength.

The hand of G-d has afflicted the congregation of the Rabbis of Israel in the Diaspora.  We find it to be more diminished and impoverished from one day to the next.  One by one, its principal luminaries are fading away.  The once great “family of Rabbinic prodigies” has grown impoverished, leaving us only few, singular, remnants.

These days, when the Jewish Rabbinate is changing so dramatically, as it becomes modernized and diminished, there is a special charm that imbues those few remnants carrying the flag of Torah, religious teachers of the speedily-diminishing old school.  Such ancient glory, reflecting the noble spirituality of a world which will never return, rests upon these unvanquished spiritual heroes; great scholars and souls who are defeated only by life itself.

They call to mind the days when our spiritual lives were whole, unaffected by external and internal wars; when Judaism sang with a single voice, one that called both back to the past and forward to the future, forming an unbroken continuation of our ancient culture.

As these great remnants die out, we are left to face an unclear and clouded future. They carry with them to their eternal rest the security and the faith that seems lost to the young generation, a generation scattered on uncharted paths.

From among the few towered a Jew of  physically modest stature – weak, thin, adorned in worn clothing, with a crushed hat upon his head – the Rabbi of Baku z”l, bearer of the totality of the beautiful Rabbinic ideology of the old generation, devout in his beliefs, guileless in his character, guardian of ancient traditions, and brother to everyone whose path he crossed.

He walked among us as a brother, seemingly of our generation.  But when he spoke, it was immediately apparent that he was a Talmudic giant, a master of the complete Torah, with its immense literature and infinite ramifications.

Romanian Jewry suffered a grievous loss when he died.  He was a Gaon of the first degree; a man whose genius crowned the country with glory and splendor, binding to itself the hearts of the entire Talmudic world with strings of love and honor.

His loss transcended Romanian Jewry.  His passing was a loss to world Jewry, because the deceased z”l was a Rabbinical leader not only to his congregation and country, but also to the entire Jewish Diaspora.   He was one of the select few Gaonim of the generation, spared by G-d as a remnant of former generations, when the Beit Hamidrash stood at the center of Jewish life and the nation invested its prime creative energy and talent in the study of the Torah.

He was one of the last of the Talmudic genius, one whose quality, countenance, essence, and dimension is no longer understood by the world at large, but which is the true representation of human spiritualism, wherein our national genius found full and complete expression over hundreds of generations of historical existence.

* * *

And I, claiming no deserving, merited to see him.

I was in Carlsbad, two years ago, when one of my friends approached and asked, “Would you like to meet a truly great Rabbi?”

“Sitting on a great chair?” I inquired.  “A great speaker, or a great statesman?”

My friend shook his head.  “A Gaon,” he said, his voice reflecting a sense of awe and wonderment I’d never heard.  “The Rabbi from Baku!”

How could I have refused such an invitation?  When I went to greet him, he was preparing to return to his home.  He greeted me as if I were an old friend although he had never before met me.  I looked at his face and I felt joy.  His pure soul shone clearly in his countenance.

I thought to myself, “Certainly this man merits to pray ‘My G-d, the soul You placed within me is pure.’

I attempted to converse with him in Torah, but no sooner had our conversation begun than I was overwhelmed with his knowledge, and quite nearly swept away with his erudition.

Truly, I felt as if I was in the presence of one of the Rabbis of old, reincarnated in our generation.  One of the Giants.  One of the ancient greats to whom the Torah was an open scroll, a living repository of the enormous Rabbinic literature.

It was an astonishment.  To hear him!  To see him!  To witness how he retained this repository in his mind even as he swam in the giant Sea of Torah, using his erudition as a working tool, a fountainhead of unceasing Torah creativity!

Even as I was awed by his heroic scholarship and spirituality, I was no less impressed by his personality.  Such humility, such ingenuousness, such unaffectedness, such love for any man, and especially for one who debates him in Torah!  When I offered a counter to his logic, he didn’t become angered or indignant.  Rather his face lighted up with a pleasant smile and, with a gentle voice, he said, “Of course you are correct in your argument, but how would we then explain an explicit saying in a Yerushalmi Tractate, or an explanation given by one of the Rishonim in such and such a book?”

His counter-argument bore no animus.  Rather, it carried the joy of a loving father towards his precocious child…

Truly, in the “Romanian Gaon” we saw the wondrous blending of  a prodigious mind and a gentle heart.  Every word of his wisdom resonated with his noble moral essence.  Every motion of his body bespoke his genius.  When I accompanied him through the marketplace on his way to the train station, I saw how he carried himself with profound modesty so that he might avoid drawing attention to himself, lest someone will recognize him.

His humility was so simple, so natural, so befitting a Gaon!

When I offered my farewell to z’l I did not feel that our last meeting would be our last.  Indeed, I hoped to merit another meeting so that I might once again enjoy the abundance of his wisdom and the warmth of his kindness.

So it was that a very few months later, I received the news of his death with a sadness and gloom which crushed my heart.  I thought, “If this one, a remnant of the Gaonim, has been taken by the Angel of Death, what will happen to us?  Who is to be guardian of the Torah?”

Two long years have passed from that bitter and tragic day, the day that he z’l was taken from us.  In that time, my pain has not diminished and my sorrow has not lessened. The image of his great person had been etched on my soul, not to be removed for any foreseeable future.

Indeed, all who merited to see and know the Gaon of Baku z’l will never forget him, nor will the blessed memory of this righteous man be erased from their hearts.

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