In my previous post on the subject of R. Benjamin Hirsch Auerbach (BTW, also refered to in other sources as R. Zvi Binyamin Auerbach) I mentioned in passing the controversies in which he was involved and in particular the controversy over his publishing of an edition of the Sefer HaEshkol by R. Abraham ben Isaac of Narbonne (c. 1110 – 1179).
I have since done some research into the material that has been published on R. Auerbach and the Sefer HaEshkol and I felt that it would certainly make a worthy subject for a post.
R. Benjamin Hirsch Auerbach was born in Neuweid on 21 June 1808 to a prominent rabbinic family. He studied under his father and then in the yeshivot of Krefeld and Worms. He then went on the University of Marburg where he studied Semitic languages and history (1831-1834). In 1835 he took the position in Darmstadt of Landesrabinner (chief rabbi) of the German state of Hesse. Here he seems to have spent much of his time and energies battling the Reform movement both on the ideological level as well as battling to retain his position against them. The Jews of Darmstadt were apparently of the Reform persuasion and gave him a hard time, whereas those in the smaller surrounding communities were Orthodox. He kept the position for 23 years and also published here a book of an educational sylabus for Jewish schools (“Lehrbuch der Israelitischen Religion,” 1839). He was involved in the publishing of the anti-reform polemic work “Torat HaKnaot” in 1844, together with other prominent Orthodox rabbis. Apart from that he established himself as a leading rabbi in Germany, among the first to preach and write in German.
In 1857 he was forced to resign his position and moved to Frankfurt Am Main where he devoted himself to writing while his wife supported the family. Apparently his financial position was not good and in 1863 he was convinced to take up the position of rabbi in Halberstadt (which did not have a reform movement).
In Halberstadt he developed close ties with the wealthy industrialist family Hirsch who owned a metal working business. Two of his children married Hirschs one of which was my great great grandmother Julia Auerbach who married Benjamin Hirsch.
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Hirsch Auerbach died in Halberstadt on 30th September 1872.
The Eshkol Controversy
It was also in Halberstadt that he published in 1869 (with financing from the Hirsch family) a purported manuscript of the Sefer HaEshkol, an important halakhic work written in the early 12th century by R. Abraham ben Isaac of Narbonne. The importance of this book is that it is the first work of codification of the halakha in southern France, which served as a model for all subsequent compilations. The work was accompanied by a commentary called the Nahal Eshkol written by R. Auerbach.
R. Auerbach published three volumes of the work in his lifetime and claimed to be in possession of a fourth volume that he did not complete before his death in 1878.
In 1909 the scholar R. Shalom Albeck raised doubts as to the authenticty of Auerbach’s manuscript and declared Auerbach’s work a fogery, basing himself on apparent unattributed quotation of sources in the text that post date the supposed date of authorship. Already in 1869 and 1880, such doubts had been raised, but the stature of R. Auerbach prevented these from having been taken seriously.
Following Albeck’s challenge, four prominent German rabbis (David Zvi Hoffmann, Abraham Berliner, Jacob Schor and Hanokh Ehrentreau) wrote a booklet published in Berlin in 1910 containing a defense of Auerbach named Tzidkat HaTzaddik – “the righteousness of the saint”. Albeck did leave this response unanswered and published a further booklet named Kofer HaEshkol – “denial/rebuttal of the Eshkol” (Warsaw, 1911), in which he explained his reasons for declaring the work a forgery.
Although a further defense of Auerbach was written as late as 1974 by Issachar Dov (Bernard) Bergman in an essay in the Joshua Finkel Festschrift (New York, 1974), it can be fairly said that Albeck’s arguments became accepted and the dubious nature of Auerbach’s Eshkol is now considered an established fact in academic circles as well as many rabbinic ones. Prof. Marc Shapira (see references below) brings examples of poskim who have obliviously used Auerbach’s Eshkol, including notably R. Ovadia Yosef. He also brings a couple of examples including notably the Teimani posek R. Yitzhak Ratsaby who rejects the Eshkol as a forgery and quotes and annecdotal evidence that this was also known to R. Moshe Feinstein (though he goes into detail of other sources mistakenly held to be forgeries by R. Feinstein on the basis of them containing dodgy views – an interseting subject in itself) as well as other leading rabbinic scholars.
Neither R. Auerbach or his heirs ever produced the original manuscript from which he worked to transcribe his Eshkol and no reasonable explanations have ever been given for the discrepancies in the work. Whether he worked from an original manuscript, but embellished it or whether he invented it entirely remains unknown to this day.
What is interesting are the places where no mention is made of the Eshkol controversy. The first and foremost of these is the Auerbach family tree (see below) which does not mention even in passing the existence of any such controversy. Seeing as the volume was published in 2002 and among its editors are academic scholars, this omission begs question. The second source where I found no mention was Wikipedia. This surprised me at first until I saw that its text is in fact copied (and credited) verbatim from the Jewish Encyclopedia which was published between 1901-1906(!) and thus pre-dated Albeck’s original aspersions. I am taking it on myself to update the Wikipedia article.
Later Publications of The Eshkol
In 1938 Hanoch Albeck (the son of R. Shalom Albeck) published what is accepted as being the authentic Eshkol. I have not found any material online that would suggest how he came into possession of the manuscript or the background to the publication. If any readers can fill me in on this, I would be indebted.
Unrelated, a purported fourth volume of Auerbach’s Eshkol was published in 1986 by Bergman (who wrote the defense of Auerbach in 1974), presumably from Auerbach’s original manuscript. Exactly where he claims to have got this manuscript from is totally unclear (and of course he doesn’t present it either) and it doesn’t appear that this volume is taken that seriously.
When Rabbis Hoffmann, Berliner, Schor and Ehrentreau published their Tzidkat HaTzaddik in 1910 they argued that a person of the stature of R. Benjamin Hirsch Auerbach could not possibly be held to have forged the work. They brought the Rambam to their defense who states in his commentary on Avot 1:6 that a tzaddik, even if he does something dubious, should be given benefit of doubt and it must be assumed that there is a reasonable explanation, even if it is very far-fetched.
Whether you want to take Rambam here to his word or not, the question remains of why R. Auerbach would have created a forgery. It does not appear that the forgery was to forward some agenda. Neither does it appear that he needed to establish status or authority, because it would seem he already had that. My only guess could be that in his years in Frankfurt he came upon this plan to achieve fortune, even if he was not in need of fame.
It may be that a manuscript did exist and he had also convinced himself that his embelishments were what the Eshkol would have said and were somehow defensible. In any case, my knowledge of this interesting chapter in our family past is far from complete and my insight is very limited.
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