Rav Yisrael Lipschutz, the Tiferet Yisrael

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau




Shiur #01: Rav Yisrael Lipschutz, the Tiferet Yisrael


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Say the phrase “Modern Jewish Thought” to a Modern Orthodox Jew, and he or she would likely think predominantly of the ideas of R. Avraham Yitzchak Ha-kohen Kook and R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.  This phenomenon is quite understandable, since these two giants serve as models for this community and since scholars have written scores of articles about their thought. 


Yet it would be a serious mistake not to encounter other great rabbinic models from the last two centuries.  A host of profound thinkers lived during this time period, and exposure to their ideas can significantly aid serious investigation of matters of Jewish thought.  These writers add a myriad of insights, provide alternative models, and focus on issues that the two ideological fathers of Modern Orthodoxy mentioned above do not. 


This series of shiurim will attempt to expose our community to a handful of these other rabbinic voices.




R. Yisrael Lipschutz was a German rabbi who served the communities of Dessau and Danzig, among others.  His fame lies in his masterful commentary on the Mishna, known as Tiferet Yisrael, which was initially published in installments between 1830 and 1850.  Later, the commentary was published in its entirety, with a division between a running commentary called Yakhin and a commentary of longer excurses called Boaz.  Thus, this work serves simultaneously as both Rashi and Tosafot.  In addition to these commentaries on the Mishna, R. Lipschutz included in the Yakhin U-Boaz a number of essays.  Most of these are introductory essays whose purpose is to provide the background necessary for approaching the study of complex halakhic topics, such as the laws of the sacrificial order, the laws of ritual purity, and the laws of Shabbat.  Another essay explains the workings of the Jewish calendar.  In terms of theology, the most significant essay is called Derush Orach Chayim, which is printed after Masekhet Sanhedrin, and whose aim is to justify the Jewish conception of the afterlife.


The Tiferet Yisrael exhibits a very wide range of intellectual curiosity.  It includes discussions of textual interpretation, practical halakha, philosophical questions, readings of aggadic material, issues of redaction and editing of the mishna, as well as asides pertaining to science and to other areas of study.  I believe that R. Lipschutz adds important insights in almost all of the above categories of thought.  Unfortunately, scholars and laymen alike do not make adequate use of his commentary.  The entire academic treatment of his works currently consists of two fascinating articles by Prof. Sid Z. Leiman; and even these articles address only one passage each, and do not give a sense of the wide sweep of this commentary.  My neighbor, Moshe Weinstock, is currently completing a doctorate on R. Lipschutz that includes heretofore unpublished material, and this may encourage further scholarly investigation.  Another recent doctorate about R. Lipschutz was written by Mordechai Meir.  On a popular level, the remarkably clear and concise commentary of R. Pinchas Kehati has produced a situation in which few people use the edition of the Mishna that contains the Tiferet Yisrael.  I hope that the next few shiurim of this series will contribute toward renewed interest in the thought of R. Lipschutz.


No tractate gives us a window into the world view of a commentator on Mishna more than Masekhet Avot, a tractate dedicated to issues of character, morality, and theology.  Studying R. Lipschutz’s ideas on Avot will prove a good starting point for appreciating his world of thought.  Many of the themes we encounter in his commentary on Avot find parallels in other sections of the work. 


Why does Avot appear in the order of Mishna devoted to matters of the court?  Rambam, in his introduction to the Mishna, offers two suggestions.  Since many of the maxims in Avot relate to judges, it naturally follows soon after Masekhet Sanhedrin.  Furthermore, the ethical quality of the judiciary affects society more profoundly than the ethics of other professions.  Therefore, the redactors of the Mishna placed the ethical maxims of Avot in proximity to tractates meant for judges.


But where does this leave the majority of Jews, not sitting on the bench, in their reading of Avot?  R. Lipschutz resolves this problem in his comments on the very first mishna in Avot.  The men of the Great Assembly taught that a person should be deliberate in judgment.  Obviously, this directive addresses the judiciary.  However, the mishna also guides every person.  We constantly make judgments about other people and about various opportunities, and we must not do this with undo haste.  The next part of that mishna, “Establish many students,” also applies to every person, as we all instruct our children and try to have a positive influence on our society.  Thus, any maxim in Avot directed towards educators or judges truly applies to every individual, because everybody must try to teach well and to employ good judgment (see Yakhin on Avot 1:7).


R. Lipschutz makes a novel interpretative assumption about Avot that impacts on his reading of several mishnayot.  This tractate cites the most common teachings of various sages.  Offhand, there seems no reason to assume that the various adages of a given sage revolve around a common theme.  R. Lipschutz assumes that each sage’s multiple maxims all focus on a single theme, and this methodological assumption leads to some very fine commentary.


R. Mattya ben Charash taught that “One should initiate a greeting to every person, and one should be a tail to the lions rather than a head to the foxes” (Avot 4:15).  We could say that we have two unrelated statements, one regarding politeness and another regarding companionship.  R. Lipschutz sees the two as conceptually linked.  R Mattya wants to contrast two important but distinct modes of human interaction.  When it comes to treating people with politeness and decency, we do not make qualitative distinctions, because all people deserve such courtesy.  However, when it comes to selecting friends, making distinctions becomes crucial; we must distinguish between the lions and the foxes and try to spend as much time as possible with the former.  The two statements set up an important contrast of two necessary modes of interaction (Yakhin, Avot 4:81).


R. Shimon taught (Avot 2:13) two ideas about prayer before adding that “a person should not be evil in his own eyes.”  Rambam, Bartenura, and Tosafot Yom Tov explain this as an independent maxim regarding self-image.  R. Lipschutz argues that R. Shimon is adding one more point regarding prayer.  Anyone who concludes that he is irredeemably wicked will despair about the potential efficacy of prayer, and will give up the endeavor (Yakhin 2:128).  Again, assuming a unified theme for each mishna produces illuminating results.


Two adjacent mishnayot in the third chapter provide excellent examples of R. Lipschutz’s productive use of this approach.  R. Dosa ben Harkinas taught that “Morning sleep, afternoon wine, childish chatter and gatherings of the ignorant remove a person from this world” (Avot 3:10). According to R. Lipschutz, R. Dosa lists four items needed for health but dependent on moderation and good judgment.  “Morning sleep” represents rest and relaxation; we all need some of it, but sleeping through the morning hours indicates too much lethargy.  “Afternoon wine” symbolizes physical pleasures; this too has a place in the life of the religious person, but an afternoon party reveals a lack of moderation.


In these first two examples, R. Lipschutz makes a quantitative distinction.  Rest and the pleasures of the palate have their place but should not be overdone.  For the last two categories, he moves to a qualitative distinction.  “Childish chatter” refers to levity and humor; “gatherings of the ignorant” to idle chatter.  Both humor and some inconsequential conversation help a person relax and enjoy life, but each must happen in the appropriate fashion.  Strikingly, R. Lipschutz contends that each activity should take place in the company of the great and noble members of the community.  Humor can be quite helpful, but there is a difference between humor that reflects wisdom and humor that entails frivolity and coarseness.  The latter is exemplified by the aggressive ridicule of the stand-up comic or the witless arena of bathroom humor.  Idle chatter also allows for varying quality.  Mundane comments of intelligent people often incorporate wisdom, while lesser individuals fill their chatter with gossip and vacuity (Yakhin, Avot 3:67-68).  R. Lipschutz provides rabbinic approval for some humor and idle chatter, but demands that these expressions not degenerate to the lowest common denominator.


The very next mishna also inspires an insightful employment of this method.  R. Elazar Ha-Modai lists five actions that make a person lose his share in the world-to-come.  These actions include “desecrating the holy things, degrading the festivals, publicly embarrassing an acquaintance, abrogating the covenant of Avraham, and teaching Torah in a non–halakhic manner.”  R. Ovadia Bartenura feels no need to locate a unifying theme in these five transgressions, which he explains as sins of action.  The first category refers to someone who makes personal use of a sanctified object, while the second refers to someone who relates to the intermediate days of the festivals as regular weekdays.  While no one can deny that such actions are halakhically wrong, the judgment that the trespasser should “lose his share in the world-to-come,” even if intended to be understood hyperbolically, seems a bit harsh for such transgressions.


R. Lipschutz does not say that this problem motivates him to offer a different interpretation, but he does provide an alternative explanation in which R. Elazar actually refers to problematic beliefs.  Each action mentioned in the mishna symbolizes a rejection of a foundational belief of Judaism.  God is the source of sanctity, so the person who denies God will desecrate sanctified items.  Some accept the existence of God but deny creation, claiming that the world is eternal.  If God did not bring the world into existence, He may not be able to control and influence it.  Therefore, this denial undermines our belief in Divine intervention in Egypt and in the desert, the source of the festivals.  


These first two categories of beliefs appear in most classic medieval discussions of fundamentals of faith.  R. Lipschutz’s next two are a bit more novel.  The third group denies that humanity was created in the image of God.  If man does not merit special respect and dignity, it becomes perfectly reasonable to embarrass him in public.  R. Lipschutz cites the Yein Levanon of R. Naphtali Herz Wessely, who bolsters this point based on a close reading of the mishna.  The mishna speaks of embarrassing “chaveiro,” a friend or acquaintance.  A person who publically shames his enemy may do so out of hatred and spite, but does not necessarily reveal a lack of dignity for humanity as such.  The person who does so to a friend, however, clearly thinks that humanity stands no higher than the beasts.


A person who abrogates the covenant of Avraham does not refer to a person who tries to undo a circumcision, but rather to one who denies the notion of the Jews being a chosen people.  R. Lipschutz notes that someone with this perspective will end up denying revelation as well, since revelation reflects the choice of a particular people to bear the divine message.  Such people remain with only natural law and morality, which apply equally to Jew and gentile.  Connecting the notion of a “chosen people” with revelation does identify this belief with one that appears on the traditional lists, but R. Lipschutz seems to talk about belief in God having chosen the Jewish people per se as the essential belief in question.  Thus, R. Lipschutz affirms two crucial beliefs, humanity created in the image of God and the Jews as the chosen people, which do not appear on Rambam’s list of thirteen principles.  Why Rambam himself did not count them is an interesting question worthy of some consideration.


The final group, according to R. Lipschutz, teaches Torah in a non–halakhic manner because they deny the Oral Law.  At the conclusion of his explanation, R. Lipschutz writes, “I built the entire commentary on this mishna on the foundation of the Yein Levanon, as I did regarding several matters in this tractate where I placed his words as the foundation of my commentary, as they are very sweet and authentic.  But I changed things here and elsewhere as my Father in heaven taught me” (Yakhin, Avot 3:76).  This quote reveals a certain intellectual openness on the part of Tiferet Yisrael.  Yein Levanon, as mentioned above, was written by R. Naphtali Herz Wessely (1725-1805), a Haskala figure who authored Divrei Shalom Ve-emet, an epistle calling on the Jewish community to introduce secular studies into the Jewish school curriculum.  Several significant acharonim vehemently opposed his ideas.  The fact that R. Lipschutz quite proudly mentions his learning from R. Wessely indicates a degree of intellectual openness, a theme we shall return to in subsequent shiurim.


Do not think that R. Lipschutz simply adapted all the good ideas of R. Wessely.  Of the mishnaic interpretations we have seen in this shiur, only the last one came from Yein Levanon.  R. Lipschutz was certainly a creative thinker in his own right.  Next week, we will encounter some penetrating insights on the subject of education found in the commentary on Avot.