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NY Rabbi Unearths Lost Commentary of Ancient Scholar

Rabbi Allen Schwartz deciphers lost text of Rabbi Elazar of Worms' handwritten insights on Book of Proverbs from Crusader times.
By Ari Yashar
First Publish: 5/15/2014, 10:46 PM

Arutz Sheva got the chance to talk with Rabbi Allen Schwartz, who recently deciphered the previously lost commentary of a famous Jewish scholar from the Middle Ages.

Rabbi Schwartz has been the congregational rabbi of Manhattan's Ohab Zedek (OZ) synagogue since 1988, and is working on his doctoral thesis at Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School.

The rabbi explained his most recent work, which unearths the once-lost commentary on Mishlei (the Book of Proverbs) by Rabbi Elazar of Worms, who was born at about 1170 CE in Germany and is widely known by his alias of "Harokeach," or "the perfumer," after one of his commentaries.

Harokeach wrote over 50 religious texts, but Rabbi Schwartz notes that the Crusaders killed his family and destroyed his works, leaving many of his exemplary texts, including the commentary on Mishlei, virtually unknown until now.

"I found this ktav yad (handwritten manuscript) at Yeshiva University many years ago, and through many many years of a labor of love finally have been able to figure out what this very difficult handwriting actually meant to say," reported Rabbi Schwartz.

The newly published book includes annotated notes, Rabbi Schwartz's introduction as well as Harokeach's own introduction, which features a remarkable analysis of Mishlei, indexing word and letter repetitions and other minuatiae to reveal incredible secrets.

Rabbi Schwartz began his endeavor over 30 years ago, when he started the work as a paper in graduate school. At the time, Harokeach's handwritten commentary on Mishlei was obscure, the rabbi notes: "Mishlei, no one knew about."

A facet that is emphasized in the text is the suffering Harokeach endured from the Crusades. The commentary addresses "what to do when they come to you to force you to give up on your religion, how you can have strength to believe in the future and fight on in the face of oppression," explained the rabbi.

Harokeach was part of hasidei Ashkenaz, a group of German Jewish pietists who practiced a stringent observance.