Rav Shimshon ben Raphael Hirsch

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #06: Rav Shimshon ben Raphael Hirsch





Rav Shimshon ben Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) serves as an important model for contemporary Modern Orthodoxy.  His belief in the value of secular wisdom and his advocacy of greater educational opportunities for girls reflect values central to our community.  While important differences exist between the worldviews of R. Hirsch and those who see him as an inspiration, in many ways the community he led in Frankfort represents the forerunner of twentieth-century American Modern Orthodoxy. 


R. Hirsch’s first rebbe was Chakham Yitzchak Bernays.  He then studied in the yeshiva of R. Yaakov Ettlinger, the author of Arukh la-Ner.  R. Hirsch’s formal schooling also included a year of university in Bonn, where one of his companions was Abraham Geiger.  Though he did not spend many years in yeshiva or in university, R. Hirsch became a knowledgeable and serious thinker who achieved great things in the world of Jewish learning.       


At the young age of twenty-two, R. Hirsch began his rabbinical career in Oldenberg.  During his eleven years there, he wrote two of his most important works, The Nineteen Letters and Horeb.  The Nineteen Letters is a modern defense of traditional Judaism.  The future historian, Heinrich Graetz, was so impressed by this work that he came to Oldenberg to study with R. Hirsch.  Horeb guides the reader through the various categories of mitzvot and focuses on the reasons for the commandments, an area where R. Hirsch made a unique contribution. 


After rabbinical stints in Hanover and Nikolsburg, R. Hirsch came to Frankfort on the Main in 1851.  He stayed in this position until his passing in 1888, and his name became most strongly associated with the community of Frankfort.  While there, he wrote commentaries on Chumash, Tehillim and the siddur, as well as many essays.  The essays often appeared in Yeshurun, a journal that R. Hirsch started in order to give public expression to the Orthodox viewpoint.  Two noteworthy essays critique R. Zecharya Frankel’s Darkei ha-Mishna and Graetz’s History of the Jews.


During the same period, he led the battle for Austritt, the right of the Orthodox community to secede from the broader Jewish community and to deal with the government as an independent political body.  R. Yitzchak Dov Bamberger, rabbi of Wurzburg, argued with R. Hirsch on this issue, and we possess an important correspondence between them debating the point.  It is worth noting that R. Hirsch was more positive towards secular education than was R. Bamberger, but R. Bamberger was the one who ruled that the Orthodox could remain in the same political entity as the broader Jewish community.  This should instruct us not to make facile assumptions about which positions must always go hand-in-hand.    


Professor Mordechai Breuer, the great-grandson of R. Hirsch, published an informative biography of his ancestor in a collection of articles entitled Harav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch: Mishnato Ve-shitato (Jerusalem, 1962).  Whereas we noted the paucity of scholarly literature on R. Lipschutz, R. Hirsch has received significant attention and we shall mention several relevant articles over the course of the next few weeks. 




Western culture prizes literature and art as humanizing influences.  I personally find it is easier to accept this point regarding literature, which deals with the world of ideas and ideals.  Can the same be said of painting, sculpture, and music?  It is noteworthy that almost all articles by Modern Orthodox rabbis and thinkers that argue for the value of a broader education cite examples from literature and philosophy but not from art and music.


R. Hirsch, however, finds religious value in the study of art.  God gave Adam and Eve trees that were “pleasant to the eye and good to eat” (Bereishit 2:9).  The reason for the sequence in this verse appears obvious: a person sees the fruit before eating it.  However, R. Hirsch locates a different message in the fact that the Chumash mentions looking before eating: namely, appreciating beauty takes precedence over a good snack.  The entire animal kingdom appreciates the needs and pleasures of the palate, but only humanity enjoys the beauty of art.  Valuing beauty raises man above the animal kingdom and moves him closer to ethical goals.   According to R. Hirsch, a parallel exists between the joy of aesthetic harmony and the joy of ethical harmony (see his commentary ad loc.).


This theme reappears in his commentary on the second parasha of the Torah as well.  R. Hirsch argues that Noach’s three sons stand for three aspects of humanity.  Cham represents the stormy life of sensuality; Yefet is identified with the realm of imagination and beauty; Shem stands for wisdom and spiritual cognition.  Of course, any individual or any national entity includes some elements of all three.  Etymology enhances the analysis.  “Cham” – literally “hot” – refers to the heat of sensuality, “Yefet” comes from “yafeh” – “beautiful” – and the third son is “Shem” – “name” – because naming things indicates understanding.  Ideally, humanity can utilize all three components in the religious quest. 


Yefet’s challenge is to be guided by the ideal of goodness rather than by the ideal of beauty.  Even though art lifts mankind above base sensuality, morality remains the essential criterion for the good life (commentary on Bereishit 6:9).  Here, R. Hirsch values aesthetics but emphasizes that moral and religious goodness constitutes the ultimate goal.


After the flood, Noach becomes intoxicated and reveals his nakedness in his tent.   Shem and Yefet enter his tent backward, so as not to see their father in this state, and cover him.   In contrast, the text indicates that Cham has done something terrible to his drunken father.  After Noach becomes sober, he curses Cham and blesses both Shem and Yefet: “God shall enlarge Yefet and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem” (Bereishit 9:27).  In his commentary on that verse, R. Hirsch returns to his analysis of the three aspects of humanity.  The “Yefet” aspect of man has produced poetry, music and art.  It has raised man above coarse materialism.  A person who appreciates an artistic masterpiece knows that the richest aspects of existence extend far beyond a good dinner.


However, if that person stops with Yefet and does not proceed on to Shem, he will remain immersed in a world of self-serving enjoyment and subjectivity.   Shem enables man to reach the authentic ideal of objective goodness that is mankind’s true goal.  Aesthetics have value beyond mere material pursuits, but they remain subordinate to ethics.  The descendents of Shem and Yefet have made the two major contributions to human culture.  The Jews carry the message of Shem, while Greece contributed the gifts of Yefet.  The fact that Yavan (taken to mean Greece) was a son of Yefet supports this idea.


The clear prizing of ethics above aesthetics emerges sharply from R. Hirsch’s commentary on Avot (3:9).  R. Yaakov taught that a person who interrupts his learning to exclaim “How beautiful is this tree” is “ke-ilu mitchayev be-nafsho.”  According to the most common understanding of this mishna, such a person has, as it were, forfeited his life.  Many readers wonder why this act merits such a harsh evaluation.  For R. Hirsch, the problem stems from this person’s valuing beauty more than religious and moral pursuits. 


He who, while studying, does not become aware of this higher beauty of God’s teaching, so that he will break off his sacred work to exclaim over the beauty of nature, is as if he had sinned against his own soul, or rather, as if he had forfeited his own soul.   For, despite his study, he thus shows that he has not come to understand the dignity and beauty of a human soul that is guided and enlightened by the spirit of God; a beauty and dignity that surpasses all earthly beauty by far.  (Chapters of the Fathers, tr. Gertude Hirschler [NY, 1967])


            R. Hirsch would praise the person who enjoys a trip to the art museum.   But he would certainly criticize the person who identifies that museum as the true place of beauty, while missing out on the incredible splendor of the word of God.  Interrupting study of Torah to look at a tree reveals this lack of understanding.  “Forfeiting his soul” refers not to a punishment but to the content of this religious failing.  A person oblivious to the beauty of Torah lacks something significant in his soul.


            This approach to aesthetics may have influenced the Orthodox synagogues of nineteenth-century Germany.  Eastern European shuls were associated with fervent prayer but not with aesthetic brilliance.  German Orthodoxy had a greater sensitivity to aesthetic concerns, including a choir to add harmonious music to the Shabbat service.  Some might explain this phenomenon as a tactical move to combat Reform Judaism’s contention that their synagogues exhibited a more dignified air.  Based on what we have seen about R. Hirsch, we can suggest that he saw inherent value in beautiful architecture and music.


Egalitarian Impulses


I use the term “egalitarian” to refer to an approach that both emphasizes the equal share all Jews have in Torah and downplays the distance between the masses and great individuals.  With all the reverence that R. Hirsch has for Moshe Rabbeinu, he writes that the Torah repeatedly insists on Moshe’s basic humanity. 


            Just before Moshe and Aharon perform their signs for Pharaoh, the Torah outlines the genealogies of the tribes of Reuven, Shimon and Levi (Shemot 6:14-27).  Why is this information written here and why does the family tree stop with Levi?  The fact that the list ends with Moshe and Aharon indicates that the true purpose of the genealogy was to discuss them; the list simply went through Reuven and Shimon to get to Levi.  R. Hirsch explains that this section of Chumash stands just before the beginning of the glorious success of Moshe and Aharon.  Precisely at this moment, the Torah reminds us of the humanity of these great leaders.  They have cousins and uncles like any other human.


            R. Hirsch mentions that Christianity failed to provide this safeguard against excessive veneration of its guiding lights.  The lineage of its founder was unclear and his followers ultimately attributed divinity to him.  The Torah forestalled this problem at the very start.  Although Moshe’s illustrious career included taking his people out of his Egypt, receiving God’s Torah at Sinai, and leading the people to the brink of the land of Israel, he was never deified.


A mishna in Avot leads R. Hirsch to the same conclusion.  The mishna (5:9) enumerates the things God created on the first Friday of creation, just as the day turned into night.  R. Hirsch understands that the list consists of items that are part of the physical world but that share the purpose of Shabbat.  Therefore, they came into being at the transition between the six days of work and the Sabbath.  A few of the items on this list will illustrate the point: the chasm that swallowed Korach, the well of Miriam, and Bil’am’s donkey.  These phenomena all help teach important religious truths, just as the Sabbath does.  One opinion in the mishna includes the grave of Moshe on this list.  What central idea does this teach?  R. Hirsch contends that it is our ignorance regarding the site of this grave that encourages religious truth.  “Were its site known, ceaseless pilgrimages would have given rise to a cult of quasi-idolatry which would have been most detrimental to our spiritual welfare.”


            Interestingly, while R. Hirsch interprets the section of Shemot about the beginning of Moshe and Aharon’s career in an “egalitarian” fashion, he goes on to emphasize that the text also prevents an error at the other extreme.  Asserting the humanity of our leaders can lead to the erroneous conclusion that no qualitative distinctions exist.  From this mistaken perspective, Moshe would not differ from the local carpenter.  The Torah lists the family tree of three different tribes to indicate that others were passed over, whereas Moshe was chosen.  Moshe shares the humanity of the rest of Am Yisrael but he made certain choices that enabled him to become the supreme prophet.


            In several places, R. Hirsch stresses that study of Torah is for all Jews, not just for the priestly class.   The light of the menora symbolizes wisdom, and the priests who tend to the light must teach the Torah.  However, two consecutive verses about lighting the menora mention “the sons of Israel” to clarify that all should partake of this illuminating wisdom.  The halakha that even a non-priest can light the menora, because it is not considered an avoda (Temple service), also reiterates the connection of each Jew to the knowledge of Torah.  One gemara says that “the priest lights the wick until the flame rises on its own” (Shabbat 21a).  R. Hirsch explains: “The purpose of the teacher of Torah is to render himself superfluous.  The priest should not keep the commoner in a situation of ongoing dependence” (Shemot 27:20). 


            Moshe’s response to the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad teaches the same message.  Yehoshua thinks that their prophetic efforts are an affront to Moshe’s honor, but Moshe responds that he wishes that all of God’s people would be prophets (Bemidbar 11:29).  R. Hirsch says that the appearance of Eldad and Meidad immediately following the appointment of the seventy elders indicates that Jewish spiritual appointments do not generate some kind of spiritual monopoly that excludes outsiders.  Those without an official position can also achieve spiritual excellence and even prophecy.  (Those interested in further study should see R. Hirsch’s explanation of the specific prophecies that Chazal attribute to Eldad and Meidad.  He connects each suggestion with this egalitarian message.)