Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l, On His 126th Yahrtzeit, Today, 27 Teves

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By D. Sofer

I see a child enveloped in flames. The bystanders are afraid; they do nothing, or else they are only trying to save the building. I see the child. I rush in. Should I first ask my neighbor whether he, too, sees the child? Should I worry whether, in my haste, I am jostling someone, or perhaps hindering the salvage of the building by running in? Perhaps I am causing a draft, fanning the fire?

“‘But,’ you might ask, ‘what if you are too late? What if the building collapses on top of the child in a roaring con – flagration before you reach it?’ To this I reply: ‘Were I to be buried under it, I would at least have done my duty.'” (Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, Letter Nineteen, The Nineteen Letters).

Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch was only 27 years old when he wrote The Nineteen Letters. From where did he derive this burning sense of duty and responsibility?

“What prompts me,” he once explained in a letter to a friend, “is solely the inner voice, which, though I test it over and over again, keeps reassuring me, ‘Your views hold something of the truth; some of that truth that you believe must ultimately emerge victoriously into the light.'”

To what responsibility was he referring? Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, whose activities are highly praised by all gedolei Yisroel, felt that saving German Jewry from spiritu – al decimation was his goal in life.


Throughout his life, Rav Shamshon Raphael was motivated not just by his “inner voice,” but also by the lessons he learned in his parents’ home.

Rav Shamshon Raphael was born on 24 Sivan, 5568/1808, in Hamburg, Germany. His father, Rav Raphael Aryeh, who changed his family name to Hirsch, was the son of Rav Menachem Mendel Frankfurter of Altuna.

Rav Menachem Mendel, a student of Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz, was rav of the three communities of Altuna, Hamburg and Wandsbeck. Pained by the fact that Jewish children from Germany’s poorer class received absolutely no Torah education, he founded the Talmud Torah of Hamburg, which functioned until the Holocaust.

Although Rav Menachem Mendel’s son, Rav Raphael Aryeh, was a merchant, he was an outstanding talmid chacham who had a burning desire to reverse the growing trend of German Jews casting off the yoke of Torah as a result of inroads made by the Reform Movement.

When Rav Shamshon Raphael was born, this spiritual crisis had already reached immense proportions. As the years passed, the situation worsened.

When Rav Shamshon Raphael was 9, Reform leaders in Hamburg established the New Israelite Temple Association. Less than a year later, they erected an actual temple that used an organ on Shabbos and a mixed choir as part of the services. These changes were accompanied by the publication of a new prayer book for Shabbos that eliminated many prayers, including the Shemoneh Esrei, and omitted all mention of the Geula, the Beis Hamikdash and Moshiach.

At that time, the Hirsch home was the focal point of all the anti-Reform activity in Hamburg, and it was there that plans to combat the threat posed by the new temple were formulated.

The young Shamshon Raphael could hardly conceal his pain as he listened to somber reports of formerly tradition – al families abandoning Torah and joining the Reform Movement. Deeply affected by this situation, he resolved to dedicate himself to saving Germany’s Jews.

Although Hamburg’s Orthodox Jews made valiant efforts in this regard, they could not stem the deterioration of the community, and the Reform Movement continued to gain adherents. As a result, they appointed Rav Isaac Bernays to the position of Rav of Hamburg, the largest Jewish community in Germany, hoping that he would succeed where they had failed.

Shamshon Raphael was only 13 at the time of Rav Bernays’ appointment. This brilliant and pious talmid chacham and Reform-fighter had a profound influence on him.


As was customary in those times, when Rav Shamshon Raphael was a youngster, he worked as an apprentice in a large firm. Every day after work, he would study with his grandfather. But Shamshon Raphael derived no satisfaction from his work and longed solely for Torah study. Later, while attending the local high school (gymnasia), he stud – ied under Rav Bernays. At the age of 18, he went to Mannheim to study in the yeshiva headed by Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger, a world-renowned posek and author of Aruch La’ner.

Rav Shamshon Raphael studied in Mannheim for a year and a quarter, and then received semicha from Rav Ettlinger. Afterward he enrolled in the University of Bonn, where he studied for half a year. His purpose in pursuing such an education was not to acquire a degree or secular knowledge for its own sake, but rather to familiarize himself with the enemy he had committed himself to combating.

Only half-a-year later, the 21-year-old Rav Shamshon Raphael was appointed Chief Rabbi of the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. This appointment was recommended by Baron Anschel Rothschild, who had met him two years earlier.

The Jews of the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg observed mitzvos scrupulously and revered talmidei chachamim. It was also a small community, so Rav Shamshon Raphael was able to devote most of his time to intensive Torah study.

While in Oldenburg, Rav Shamshon Raphael established several schools. In order to supply these schools with teaching materials, he translated chapters of the Mishna into German, then copied them – by hand – and sent them to the schools’ teachers.

In Oldenburg, he married his lifelong partner, Chana Judel, who stood by his side in all of his endeavors.


Although the Reform leaders did not gain a foothold in Oldenburg, they continued to make inroads in communities throughout Germany, and combating them still remained Rav Shamshon Raphael’s primary goal in life.

While in Oldenburg, he wrote a small book, Iggros Hatzafon, The Nineteen Letters, which eventually changed the face of German Jewry. It was written under the pen name Ben Uziel.

In reality, he hadn’t intended to write The Nineteen Letters, but rather publish a major work called Chorev, which he had written to educate the Jewish youth under his jurisdiction.

“I am in responsible for few hundred young souls. I have to provide teachers for them. But I cannot ask these teachers to introduce our youth to Judaism, since they themselves are actually ignorant of its full meaning. In addition, there is no available textbook that I can give the teachers.”

When the prospective publisher saw Chorev, however, he said was hesitant to publish it.

“Today’s public isn’t interested in such material,” said the publisher. “I can’t publish it unless you first test public reaction to your ideas and writing.”

Undeterred, Rav Shamshon Rafael returned to the publisher a few days later with a slim volume called The Nineteen Letters, which was meant to introduce the author to the public.

To the publisher’s great surprise, the first edition of this pamphlet was grabbed up as soon as it came off the press.

Apparently, the public was eager to read such material, since The Nineteen Letters was the first work to address itself to the new generation, which demanded to understand the religion it was supposed to uphold.

The Nineteen Letters takes the form of a correspondence between two young men, Binyamin and a friend from his youth named Naftali. Binyamin is an idealistic youth who is impressed by the rapid developments in arts and science. Naftali is a young rabbi.

In the first letter, Binyamin expresses his many doubts about Judaism. The ensuing 18 letters are Naftali’s responses to him. In his letter, Binyamin complains that adherence to Judaism’s principles does not result in happiness and perfection, and that mitzva observance hampers one’s chances of succeeding in the gentile world.

“I am about to marry,” he then writes, “and when I think of the duties I will have to fulfill as father to children, I tremble.”

In his responses, Naftali maintains that one cannot judge Judaism if one has no knowledge of it. In a similar vein, he explains that in order to understand Torah, one must study it from its own perspective, and not from a biased or slanted one. Letters three to nine analyze the history of the Jewish Nation from a Torah viewpoint, and the remainder of the letters summarizes the Torah’s teachings as manifested by the mitzvos.

The phenomenal success of The Nineteen Letters created a market for Chorev, which was published a year later.

In a letter to a cousin Rav Shamshon Raphael explains his reasons for writing Chorev.

In this monumental work, Rav Shamshon Raphael discusses all of the mitzvos, focusing on the lessons to be learned from them and presenting the basic laws pertaining to each one. Throughout this sefer, he stresses that a Jew doesn’t observe mitzvos because of the rationales behind them, but rather became they are Divine commandments.

“Even if every Divine precept was a complete riddle to us, presenting a thousand unsolved and insoluble prob – lems,” he writes, “the obligatory character of the commandments would not be in the slightest degree impaired. We must perform the mitzvos only because they are Hashem’s will, and it is our duty to be Hashem’s servant with all our powers and resources and with every breath of our life.”


The impact of these works was immense. More than a century after their publication, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz said, “I don’t understand how an American yeshiva student can be Jewish without The Nineteen Letters.”

When Rav Yisroel Salanter read a copy of The Nineteen Letters in 1873, he said that it should be translated into Russian and Hebrew. He also remarked, “Is there a Gan Eden big enough for Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch?”

Although Rav Salanter’s plans to publish The Nineteen Letters in Russian did not materialize, this sefer, as well as Chorev, had a profound impact on chinuch in Eastern Europe from a surprising direction.

On Shabbos Chanuka of 1915, a young Polish woman who was residing in Vienna attended a drasha delivered by Rav Moshe Dovid Flesch, a student of Rav Shamshon Raphael’s son-in-law and successor, Rav Shlomo Breuer. In that drasha, Rav Flesch quoted extensively from Rav Shamshon Raphael. After Shabbos, the young woman, who was profoundly impressed by Rav Shamshon Raphael’s ideas, secured copies of The Nineteen Letters and Chorev, and read them with relish. That young woman was Sara Schneirer, who later said on a number of occasions that these two works had inspired her to found the Bais Yaakov Movement.

In Rav Shamshon Raphael’s own time, these two works were so well received by the chareidi communities that they became required reading for traditional Jews in Germany for over a century.

With the publication of The Nineteen Letters and Chorev, Rav Shamshon Raphael’s fame also spread throughout Europe. He was invited to serve as rav of East Freisland, a province in the kingdom of Hanover, whose rabbinate was based in the city of Emden, and encompassed nine other communities.

At first there was opposition to the appointment from those who feared that Rav Shamshon Raphael was too mod – ern. However, soon after his appointment, his fiercest oppo – nents recognized his incomparable Yiras Shamayim.

Since the majority of Emden’s Jews had remained loyal to Torah, most of Rav Shamshon Raphael’s activities focused on improving their material situation and offering them halachic guidance. In Emden, he founded free loan funds and other chessed institutions. He also established a school for boys, while his wife founded one for girls. This period in his life was very active and fulfilling.


Rav Shamshon Raphael’s fame continued to spread, and by the time he was 40, he was considered West European Jewry’s leading fighter against the Reform Movement.

As a result, in 1847, he was invited to serve as chief rabbi of Moravia, a region with 50,0000 Jews, residing in 52 communities. Moravia, which is today the Czech Republic, was at that time part of Austria, and its chief rabbinate was based in Niklosburg. The chief rabbi of Moravia also headed Nikolsburg’s yeshiva.

Although Rav Shamshon Raphael was esteemed by Moravia’s Jews, this position proved unsuitable for him for a number of reasons, and in 1851, he accepted a position as Rav of Frankfurt am Main.


For many generations Frankfurt am Main had been a flourishing Torah city, where the position of chief rabbi had been occupied by gedolei Yisroel. Among the Torah luminaries who led it were the Shla Hakadosh, Rav Yeshayahu Horowitz; the Pnei Yehoshua, Rav Yehoshua Falk; and Rav Pinchos Halevi Horowitz, author of the Hafla’a. It was also the hometown of the Chasam Sofer, who once said, “Frankfurt is unique from a spiritual standpoint. There is no other city like it in the entire world.”

Toward the end of Rav Pinchos Horowitz’s life, winds of enlightenment and reform began to blow through Frankfurt. In 1805, a Reform school was established there, despite the firm opposition of its rabbanim.

At the same time, an official Community Board, staffed by Reform leaders whose avowed purpose was to abolish Torah study, was formed. This board, which dominated the allocation of funds for the Jewish community, diverted government subsidies earmarked for Torah institutions to Reform schools.

It also canceled the kosher meals that had been provided to Jewish hospital patients in the city, and abolished the right of the Chevra Kaddisha to perform taharos and buri – als, allocating these mitzvos to paid undertakers. Under the board’s influence, Torah study in groups was also outlawed.

In response to this situation, in 1849, 18 Torah-loyal Jews in Frankfurt founded a new organization called the Jewish Religious Society, which declared that since the local community had failed to recognize or respect their needs, they would secede from the official community and establish an independent one. This new community eventually became known as Kehillas Yeshurun.

In 1851, this community invited Rav Shamshon Raphael, who was then the chief rabbi of Moravia, to head it. At that time it barely had 100 members.

In his letter of resignation to Moravia’s minister of religious affairs, Rav Shamshon Raphael wrote, “Recently a Jewish community has been formed that openly and proud- ly abides by its faith. I regard leading this community as one of the ideals to which I have consecrated my life.”

In Elul 1851, Rav Shamshon Raphael assumed the position of Rav of the Kehillas Yeshurun community of Frankfurt. Upon his arrival there, he found the Jewish community in a state of shambles. Starting from scratch, Rav Shamshon Raphael rebuilt the Torah community of Frankfurt, along with all of the institutions that constitute a genuine Jewish community. Under his leadership, the community grew by leaps and bounds.

Among the institutions and services the community lacked at the time were a mikveh, a kosher butcher, a school and a shul. Although the community wanted to build a shul immediately, Rav Shamshon Raphael insisted that top pri – ority be accorded to a mikveh and then to a school.

In Frankfurt, he also led Kehillas Yeshurun in its strug – gle to secede from the official Jewish community, which opposed tradition and persecuted those who followed it. This struggle was particularly difficult, since the law at that time obligated Jewish citizens to belong to a recognized Jewish community. As a result, his battle assumed the form of a struggle for the abolition of state-enforced affiliation to the official Jewish community.

Fortunately, Rav Shamshon Raphael succeeded in this battle, in part because it was conducted at the same time that the process of the separation of church and state had been initiated in Western Europe. As a result of his efforts, Kehillas Yeshurun became an independent community.


Rav Shamshon Raphael’s primary achievement in Frankfurt was his establishment of the Realschule school system. When he arrived in Frankfurt, there were no formal Torah schools there because every attempt to found Torah schools had been thwarted by the Reform Movement.

A year and a half after his arrival in Frankfurt, the Realschule school opened its doors to 83 students.

Through the founding of this school, Rav Shamshon Raphael realized the ideal of “Torah Im Derech Eretz” that he had espoused in The Nineteen Letters and in Chorev.

According to Rav Shamshon Raphael, “Torah Im Derech Eretz” does not imply or advocate the synthesis of two worldviews or a compromise between them. Rather, Rav Shamshon Raphael insisted on Torah’s total dominion in every facet of life.

“Torah is the only source of truth,” he explained, “and the yardstick by which all else is measured…It involves the fulfillment of Torah’s precepts, in harmonious unity with all the conditions under which its laws will have to be observed amidst the development of changing times.”

Rav Shamshon Raphael’s “Torah Im Derech Eretz” theory teaches one how to confront the times from a Torah point of view, with the Torah way being ultimate and supreme. It constitutes the supremacy of Torah over any branch of knowledge or earthly circumstance, and not the adjustment or the adaptation of Torah to suit modern circumstances. It reveals Hashem’s dominion in the world in every aspect of life.

German Jewry had been exposed to secular ideas, due to the fall of the ghetto and the expansion of enlightenment and Reform ideas, this philosophy is what saved them.

Although Eastern European gedolim strongly opposed the introduction of a “Torah Im Derech Eretz” curriculum in their own countries, they maintained that this theory was responsible for the preservation and renovation of authentic Judaism in Germany.

Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector of Kovno called Rav Shamshon Raphael a genuine tzaddik, and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski praised the German communities fashioned under Rav Shamshon Raphael’s principles, and called him a great mezakeh harabbim. Rav Spector and Rav Elya Chaim Meisel of Lodz were among the many Eastern European gedolim who supported Rav Shamshon Raphael’s Realschule school system.


The Realschule school system was very successful. While the school’s secular curriculum offered courses in history, geography, science, music, English, French and mathematics, the main stress was placed on Torah education.

However, throughout Rav Shamshon Raphael’s tenure as principal of the school, he had to constantly fight the offi – cial attempt to limit the hours allotted to limudei kodesh. Due to government interference, the actual balance between religious and secular subjects fell short of Rav Shamshon Raphael’s hopes and aspirations.

Nonetheless, this type of school saved Frankfurt’s Jewish youth, and served as a role model for the founding of similar schools throughout Germany. Due to the influence of these schools a new generation of strictly observant Jews arose in Germany.


Despite his numerous activities, Rav Shamshon Raphael still found time to compose many important Torah works, which explained Torah values to Jews from all walks of life and every type of upbringing.

His most monumental work is his commentary on the Chumash, in which he proves that the Written Torah and the Oral Torah are inseparable and integral parts of one whole, which cannot be understood without one another.

During his final years, he remained as prolific as he was in his youth, writing a commentary on Tehillim, and a com – prehensive commentary on the siddur.

Until his final days, he also continued to fight the Reform Movement, as well as the Alliance Israelite Universelle.

Rav Shamshon Raphael was niftar on 27 Teves, 5648/1888. Yet his impact on contemporary Jewry will forever be felt. The burning love of Torah he conveyed through his writings will continue to inspire Jews for generations to come.

{By D. Sofer. This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY, and is reprinted here with their permission.}

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  1. This biography mentions the five written works of the Rav, ZT’L:

    1.) The Nineteen Letters

    2.) Chorev

    3.) Commentary on (the entire) Chumash

    4.) Commentary on (the entire) Tehillim

    5.) Commentary on the Siddur – which includes a commentary on the entire Pirkei Avos

    In addition to these items, the Rav published a monthly Torah journel called the “Jeshurun,” in which he wrote extensive essays on numerous topics. Latter, these essays were put together in book form in a six volume set titled: “The Collected Writings.”

  2. Over the last several decades, all of these five items have been translated into English and Hebrew, most, a number of times.

    Two of the English translations of the commentary on the Chumash were done by a grandson, Rav Issac Levy, ZT’L. A new English translation was completed near the end of 2008. A new Hebrew translation has begun, with the volumes of Bereishis, Shemos, and Vaiyikra, completed.

    New English translations have recently also been completed of the commentary on the Tehillim, the commentary on Pirkei Avos, and The Nineteen Letters.

    A few selected pieces of the Collected Writings were translated into English in a two volume set titled: “Judaism Eternal,” published by Soncino Press. In the 1980’s, work was begun on the extremely extensive task of translating into English the entire Collected Writings. Boruch Hashem, in May of 2012, the concluding volume, with an index, was completed, producing a beautiful nine volume set.

    Throughout the Rav’s writings, there is extensive material on the Sefer Mishlei. In the mid-1970’s, all of these pieces were culled and placed as a commentary on the Sefer Mishlei; the work was titled “From the Wisdom of Mishle.”

    Similarly, throughout the Rav’s writings, there is extensive material on Inyanim of Pesach. In the mid-1980’s, these pieces were culled and placed as a commentary on the Haggadah; the work was titled: “The Hirsch Haggadah.”

    Almost all of the translated works are available through Feldheim Publishers; see http://www.feldheim.com/authors/hirsch-rabbi-samson-raphael.html?p=1.

    The English translation of Chorev was done by a grandson, Dayan Dr. Isadore Grunfeld, ZT’L, and is available through Soncino Press; see http://www.soncino.com/product/horeb.

  3. The Rav had ten children, five boys and five girls. The sons also wrote Torah commentaries, following the Derech of their father. The oldest son, Rav Dr. Menachem Mendel, ZT’L (obviously named after his paternal, paternal great-grandfather), wrote a commentary on the Haftoros, and also a commentary on Sefer Trei Asar. A son, Yehuda/Julius, ZT’L, wrote a commentary on Sefer Yeshaiya. Another son, Mordechai, ZT’L, wrote commentaries on some of the other Sifrei Tanach.

    When, as related above, Rav Issac Levy wrote his translations into English of the commentary on the Chumash, he also translated into English the commentary on the Haftoros. The work was published by Judaica Press as a very beautiful seven volume set; six volumes for the Chumash (Vaiyikra was two volumes) and the seventh for the Haftoros. (On the bindings of the six volumes of the Chumash was the mark “S R Hirsch” while on the binding of the seventh volume for the Haftoros was the mark “M Hirsch.”)

    As related above, in 2008, a new translation into English of the commentary on the Chumash was completed; it was a joint project of both Feldheim Publishers and Judaica Press. (So the same set is sold on both the Feldheim web site at http://www.feldheim.com/authors/hirsch-rabbi-samson-raphael/the-hirsch-chumash.html and on the Judaica web site at http://www.judaicapress.com/Hirsch-Chumash-5-vol.-set.html.) For a while, Judaica Press continued to sell separately the one volume of the Haftoros. At the present time, work is in progress on a new translation into English of the commentary on the Haftoros.

    Furthermore, at the present time, work is in progress to translate into English the commentary on Sefer Trei Asar and the commentary on Sefer Yeshaiya.

    Im Yirtza Hashem, we should see these publications soon!

  4. [Additional Note:

    To give proper credit, it should be mentioned that the “early” seven volume set English translation of the commentaries on the Chumash and the Haftoros by Rav Issac Levy related above was first published by Bloch Publishing. (They were big thick volumes with strong heavy paper that gave a very stately classic look to any library shelf.) Later (I do not know when, just that I do know that by the early 1970’s) it was published by Judaica Press. (I especially liked the exceptionally beautiful book jackets that, for many years, came on the Judaica volumes. They had a bright blue color with a design of an Aseres HaDibros tablets on top of a white and gray flame.) So for several decades until the new edition in 2008, this seven volume set WAS what people knew as the “Hirsch Chumash.”]

  5. Extensive work was done to gather from the Rav’s files all of the numerous Shailos Ut’shuvos (legal briefs on questions of Halacha), other Chidushei Torah, and other letters that the Rav wrote. Their original texts in their original Lashon HaKodesh were transcribed into book form; the volume was published in 1992 by  ArtScroll Mesorah Publications under the title: “Shemesh Marpei.” (See http://artscroll.com/Books/9781422608067.html) It has a Divrei B’racha from Rav Shach, ZT’L, which Rav Shach exclaims that such a Torah publication obviously does not need his Haskama! [He thus implies that, on the contrary, he (Rav Shach) needs to have Rav Hirsch’s Haskama!]

  6. A senior Talmid at Yeshiva Gedola – Merkaz HaTorah in Montreal pointed out to me that in the introduction to the Hebrew translation of the Iggros Hatzafon – The Nineteen Letters, the following is related. Sometime after the original initial release of the Sefer in 1836, it was read (from its original German text via translation into Yiddish) to one of the Gedolei Chassidus of that era. Upon completion of the reading, the Rebbe exclaimed that he is Mayeed – he gives testimony, that the Sefer was written Al Pi Ruach HaKodesh!

    We should remember that the Iggros Hatzafon – The Nineteen Letters was “just” a short “little” Sefer that the Rav wrote when he was a “just” 28 year old man. We thus obviously cannot even weakly begin to begin to be even faintly Masig – we thus obviously cannot even weakly begin to begin to even faintly realize the exceedingly tremendous Ruach HaKodesh that came with his several later “big” works of Torah!


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