Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

Thursday, the 3rd of Tammuz, marked ten years since the passing of Rabbi Yehoshua Yeshaya Neuwirth ztz”l (1927-2013), author of the book ‘Shemirat Shabbat Ke’Hilchata’. Rabbi Neuwirth was born in Halberstadt, Germany to Rabbi Dr. Aharon, who served as rabbi in Mainz, Halberstadt, Berlin and Amsterdam. His mother was the granddaughter of two eminent geonim rabbis of Germany, Rabbi Yitzchak Dov Bamberger, and Rabbi Yaacov Ettlinger.

Rabbi Neuwirth endured the hardships of the Holocaust with his family in hiding, but two of his brothers perished. In the year 1946, he immigrated to Israel, and began studying at the Kol Torah’yeshiva. After the establishment of the state, his parents also immigrated to Israel.

‘Shemirat Shabbat Ke’Hilchata’

His book ‘Shemirat Shabbat Ke’Hilchata‘, published in 1965, is one of the most ordered and accurate books, systematically detailing the particulars of the halakhot, and meticulously providing accurate sources for each halakha.

In order to write his book, Rabbi Neuwirth analytically and carefully studied the Rishonim and Achronim, and halakhic articles by rabbis of his generation, and incorporated them all with precision. Consequently, the labor of writing took several years, and even over preparation of the second and then the third editions, he toiled for many years.

In order for the language to be clear and precise, he employed Rabbi Asher Wassertheil, who edited the book, proofread it meticulously, and added a detailed and precise index of content. The addition of the index was a great innovation in Torah literature, and thanks to it, the book became easy to use, containing available and immediate answers to questions that arose during Shabbat.

Owing to his characteristic thoroughness, Rabbi Neuwirth sought and was provided with assistance by doctors for medical matters, and scientists for electrical and mechanical matters. These systematic inquiries into the entirety of Shabbat laws were also an important innovation.

Thanks to its numerous virtues, the book ‘Shemirat Shabbat Ke’hilchata’ quickly became popular and sold thousands, tens of thousands, and eventually, hundreds of thousands of books. Rabbis enjoyed its scholarly precision, and baalei batim (laymen) could find in it, practical guidance. (It was translated into English and became popular overseas as well, ed.)

The systematicity and precision with which he wrote his book influenced hundreds of rabbis, some who wrote books of halakha on various subjects inspired by his book, but only a few managed to come close to his level of scope, thoroughness, and accuracy.

His Yekke Community Heritage

There is no doubt that Rabbi Neuwirth’s ‘yekke’ (German) origin had a decisive influence on the writing of his book. His father, who was his teacher and rabbi throughout his youth, held a doctorate, as was customary among German rabbis. Many of the rabbis he mentioned he consulted with in writing his book, studied in Germany, including Rabbi Yosef Breuer, Rabbi Ehrentreu, Rabbi Merzbach, and Rabbi Kunstadt.

He later became an outstanding and close student of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Many of the decisions in the book were made according to his method, and towards the second edition, Rabbi Auerbach went through the entire book. However, the order, systematic approach and accuracy in the sources seem to be from what Rabbi Neuwirth absorbed in his parents’ home and his origins. His very arrival at the ‘Kol Torah’ yeshiva was also due to the fact that its heads were from Germany.

His Father’s Legacy

His father, Rabbi Aharon (1882-1958), studied at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary (Beit Midrash for Rabbis) in Berlin, and received a doctorate in history, philology and sociology. He served as a teacher, rabbi, and dayan (judge) for nearly forty years in Germany, and the Netherlands. After he merited immigrating to Israel, he served as a rabbi in the community of Jaffa for about six years, and later moved to Bnei Brak, taught classes for individuals and groups, and would give the d’var Torah in the Itzkovitch Synagogue during the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers.

When he was twenty-five years old, he wrote an essay on the difference between Jewish and pagan fasts amd sent it to Rabbi Kook, who was then the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa. Rabbi Kook replied to him with a profound letter of blessing.

In Israel, Rabbi Neuwirth’s father wrote books to strengthen Judaism, including a book about the Jewish family, and its purpose. In an article in the Shaarim publication, there was a story about a woman who, following his study, began to observe the laws of family purity. He also wrote a book about the meaning of Shabbat called ‘Yisrael ve’Shabbato’.

The first part of the book is called ‘Ha’Shabbat be’Yisrael’ and contains ideas from the Chumash (Bible), Chazal, and historical sources, and even writings about the value of Shabbat that he brought from the leaders of liberal Judaism, for example, Leo Beck and the philosopher, Herman Cohen.

The second part – ‘Shabbato shel Yisrael ve’Yom Ha’rishon‘ – dealt with the difference between the Jewish Shabbat, and the Christian day of rest.

In the third part – ‘Zionism, the State of Israel, and Shabbat’ – he brought letters from various thinkers about the importance of Shabbat, and he urged the public to observe Shabbat according to its laws.

During the Holocaust

Giving thanksgiving to God, Rabbi Neuwirth related (in the introduction to the third edition) the story of his rescue from the Holocaust. “I lived with my family in Berlin, Germany. Hitler’s, yimach shmo, ascension to power and the rise of anti-Semitism and Kristallnacht made my parents, may their memories be for a blessing, feel that the earth – the land of Germany – was burning under their feet, and they began to look for refuge for the family…” They sent him and his two brothers to Belgium. Later on, they managed to leave Germany for the Netherlands, and rejoin their children.

After the Germans occupied the Netherlands, they began to persecute the Jews. “My parents brought a Torah scroll with them from Germany that belonged to the family and was kept in the Aron Kodesh in one of the rooms in our apartment. When the Germans searched the house, they discovered the Aron Kodesh with the Torah scroll. They immediately asked, in a threatening manner: ‘What is this’? My father ztz”l, was a man of faith, and for that reason, was not afraid to open the ark, and show it to the soldiers.

‘What’s written there?’ they demanded to know. He explained in German: ‘It says ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ ‘And what else’, they asked. My father replied: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ We children trembled with fear; but by the grace of heaven, they accepted the explanation, did not touch either the Sefer Torah or us, said good night, and left our house.”

After a while, they were taken into custody and were about to be sent to an unknown destination. The days were the days of Elul and Tishrei. “My father ztz”l, did not lose his wits, and during the arrest, took a shofar with him, which he hid under his coat. He, of course, knew how to blow the shofar, having been a long-time baal tokaya. Even here, surrounded by the guard of German soldiers, father did not want to forgo the mitzvah of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. We covered ourselves with coats to stifle the sound, and father blew thirty blasts for us. We merited the mitzvah, and were not discovered.”

In the end, they were released from detention, hid in a secret apartment, and lived there for three years, without leaving it. “This long and difficult time was used to our advantage by regular prayers, regular recitation of Psalms, and studying with my father ztz”l Tractate Ketubot, which we had with us. I also studied alone with the few books we had, such as Mishna Berurah section III…” (written on the laws of Shabbat).

Since danger was ever imminent, his father sought to save his daughter by sending her to serve as an aide for a Gentile, but when she said that she was forced to desecrate the Shabbat, his father brought her back home. A few days later, they heard that the house in which she worked had been hit by an aerial bombardment, and all its occupants killed. Thus, his sister was saved thanks to keeping Shabbat.

When he escaped from Europe to Israel, he was forced to desecrate Shabbat by boarding a ship, because of the fear of pikuach nefesh. And so he wrote in his introduction: “When I was forced to get on the ship and encounter difficulties of Shabbat desecration due to the fear of pikuach nefesh, I took it upon myself that if merited by God, I would do something for Shabbat, and that’s how the idea arose - to write a book about keeping Shabbat. After the birth of my first-born son, I noticed that there was no book that collected the laws of Shabbat in a language understandable to all, in order to answer the many questions that arise every Shabbat, and that’s when I started writing the book, with the grace of God.”

The Disputers

Despite the enormous virtues of ‘Shemirat Shabbat Ke’Hilchata’, disputes arose in Bnei Brak. Rabbi Yaacov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler) wrote that it was his duty “to write here a great and necessary notice, because in our times of a an orphaned generation, in which everyone does as they please, there is no doubt that there are compositions about which Chazal said ‘for many are those she has struck dead’, who claim to collect and order the laws of the Shulchan Aruch, and it is forbidden to rely on them. Because apart from gathering instructions [to be lenient, of course] from everything they find in essays and journals [many of which have nothing at all to base themelves on], they also add their own disruptions and distortions in the hundreds, knowingly or unknowingly, and all with the aim of introducing leniencies upon leniencies into the laws of our holy Torah, and God forbid, one should rely on such treatises”.

Apparently, his argument against “essays and journals” was directed against articles by Zionist rabbis and Torah periodicals such as ‘Noam‘ and ‘Moriya‘ which afforded them a platform, and were mentioned in ‘Shemirat Shabbat Ke’Hilchata’.

Rabbi Dov Lando (head of the Slabodka yeshiva), who was then about thirty-five years old, also wrote a sharp counter called ‘Biror Devarim’ against the book. In the first section of his criticism, he wrote: “The first and fundamental rule is that maximum accuracy is required, which not everyone is gifted with, in bringing the halakhot and quoting them from their source…” It is hard to understand how he wrote this about one of the most accurate books in quoting sources.

In section 3, Rabbi Lando accused the writer of taking lightly the severity of Shabbat, when few observed Shabbat as devotedly as the Neuwirth family.

He also claimed that the author did not know how to learn properly. It is difficult to understand the basis for this strange claim. Perhaps because they were used to a scholarly book being full of pilpulim (excessively subtle distinctions) and safekot (doubts), and therefore, found it difficult to believe that there could be an orderly and clear, scholarly book.

There was also resentment that Rabbi Neuwirth did not rule like the Chazon Ish, and in that point, they were indeed correct. Rabbi Neuwirth, like his own rabbis, considered the Chazon Ish to be one of the poskim (Jewish law arbitrators), and not a posek to whom all other rabbis must defer. Following the criticism, Rabbi Wosner withdrew his approval from the book.

The Damage

Following the harsh criticism, the book’s status was damaged. First, among the students of the rabbis who disagreed, but also among all Torah students, since in the second edition, which was published in 1979, fourteen years after the first, Rabbi Neuwirth changed some rulings to chumrah’s (stringencies). Although he still mentioned the lenient opinions in the footnotes, on the body of the page he wrote the stringent opinions as being the ikar (main opinion), or as the day’ah yichida (single opinion), and learners do not know if his own opinion is le’chumrah as he wrote above, or le’kulah (lenient), as stated below.

And a question still remains: did Rabbi Neuwirth, on his own initiative, decide to change because he was convinced by the words of the dissenters, or did he seek to minimize controversy by doing so? Perhaps his mentor and rabbi, Rabbi Auerbach zt"l, convinced him to change, and if so, why? If any of the readers know an answer to this question, I would appreciate it if they would share it.

Did They Apologize?

The controversy against his book was severe, and accompanied by extremely offensive words. With the passage of time, did the detractors realize their mistake, and retract, at least, the accusation of disregarding Shabbat, and inaccuracy? Did they apologize? There are probably some people who know the answer to this question, and I would appreciate it if they would share it.

To my brothers, the settlers, and to all readers of the column – this article was written before the horrific attack in Eli. May we find solace in the building of the Torah, the Nation, and the Land.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.