Supplementary and Concluding Notes on R. Zadok Hakohen

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #29:

Supplementary and Concluding Notes on R. Zadok Hakohen



            R. Yeshayahu Hadari raises an intriguing suggestion to explain why much of R. Zadok’s thought revolves around the chagim.  The obvious explanation contends that chassidic works focus on the holidays because that is when the chassidim visit their rebbe, who teaches them Torah relevant to the festive days.  R. Hadari notes a deeper reason.  We have pointed out a historical bent in R. Zadok’s works in which he outlines changing approaches to Torah over the course of Jewish history.  Someone with historical sensitivity may be drawn to the holidays, since each holiday manifests a different stage in the historical process.[1]  Indeed, R. Zadok’s analysis of Chanukah and Purim reveal this type of thought. 


            In a different article, R. Hadari adds two other insights.  Unlike other chassidic thinkers who present brief ideas, R. Zadok works out a comprehensive worldview in which he covers topics in their entirety.  He also mentions the heavy presence of halakhic citations in R. Zadok’s work.  R. Zadok’s approach weaves aggadic, midrashic, and kabbalistic sources together with halakhic material.  In R. Hadari’s words, “the Admor and the Ga’on meet.”[2]


            Yaakov Elman’s article, “The History of Gentile Wisdom According to R. Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin,” provides added analysis regarding the “zeh leumat zeh” principle.[3]  Elman also points out the influence R. Zadok has had on later rabbinic thinkers, including R. Eliyahu Dessler, R. Yitzchak Hutner, and R. Gedalya Schorr.  While R. Hutner tends to not cite recent authorities by name, R. Schorr and R. Dessler explicitly mention ideas they received from R. Zadok.[4]


Elman notes an intellectual emphasis in R. Zadok’s thought.  Kabbalistic and chassidic thought commonly state that various phenomena include both good and evil and that the Jewish people must extract the good.  This “raising of the sparks” may be the entire point of exile.  While other thinkers apply this principle to many different kinds of phenomena, R. Zadok restricts his attention to the world of ideas.   The clash with Egyptian, Babylonian, or Greek civilization interests him primarily in terms of intellectual trends.


The focus on Torah finds expression in another passage cited by Elman.  R. Zadok certainly loved the land of Israel and he seriously contemplated moving there toward the end of his life.   Nonetheless, he envisions the prophet Yechezkel going into Babylonian exile with great joy because Yechezkel understood the flowering of Torah that would take place in Bavel.  The ability to see joyous aspects of exile stems from R. Zadok’s great love of Torah.[5] 


Those interested in R. Zadok’s outlook on the Gentile world will also find Elman’s article quite helpful.  R. Zadok contends that Jewish distinctiveness stems not from historical choices but rather from their very ontology.  Circumcision on the eighth day symbolizes this point.  We circumcise a baby before he enters the world of choice to indicate that Jewish sanctity begins in the womb.[6]   The term “matan Torah” conveys the same notion.   A gift (matana) differs from a reward in that it is unearned.  Am Yisrael did not receive the Torah because of some choice we made in history; we received it due to the nature of our essential being.[7]


I must admit that I find these ideas problematic both in terms of the deterministic elements and the association of non-Jews with the negative forces of the universe.  R. Zadok even suggests that Jews who are attached to material pleasures actually do so for the sake of Heaven, whereas Gentiles who perform mitzvot truly lack idealistic motivations.[8]  I see little evidence for such assumptions in the interactions I have had with both Jews and Gentiles.


In an earlier shiur, I cited a passage in which R. Zadok defends Rambam’s identifying ma’aseh bereishit with the Gentile wisdom of physics.  R. Zadok also suggested that the Greeks knew many of the ideas found in the Zohar.  However, Jewish wisdom still differs from Gentile thought in that the Jewish sages internalize the wisdom until it affects their behavior.  In the interest of balance, it should be noted that R. Zadok explicitly denies the identification in his Sefer Ha-zikhronot.  There, he faults Rambam and contends that contemporary scientists already reject much of what Rambam included in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah.[9]  In the same part of the work, he criticizes attempts to integrate kabbala and philosophy such as that of R. Moshe Isserlis in Torat Ha-ola.[10]


Interestingly, R. Zadok was well aware that kabbalistic study presents dangers as well.   The notion of the sefirot can easily lead to an anthropomorphic conception of God.  Shabbetai Tzvi’s deviancy may have been rooted in kabbalistic sources.  Some kabbalistic texts rely on sexual imagery that fueled this sect’s desire for religiously legitimated orgies.[11]   R. Zadok rejects the idea that we should direct specific prayers to particular attributes.  An earlier rabbinic writer contended that addressing prayers directly to God would anger God, just as a king might become upset if bothered with a request that should really go to a particular minister.  R. Zadok forcefully rejects the analogy.  God is not distinct from His attributes in the way that a king is independent of his ministers.  We must direct all our prayers to the identical divine address.[12]


At the same time, R. Zadok is not a modern rationalist.  He wholeheartedly endorses the existence of angels.  He raises the question of why God’s governance should employ angels, but the question does not truly trouble him because our limited logic should not influence us to doubt the simple reading of Tanakh and Chazal.[13]   Along similar lines, R. Zadok forcefully criticizes Abravanel for suggesting, contra Bava Batra 15a, that Yehoshua did not author Sefer Yehoshua.  He cites Abravanel’s arguments and attempts to refute them.  In truth, he thinks the arguments irrelevant since we cannot challenge words of Chazal rooted in ru’ach ha-kodesh.  He says that “a thousand proofs would not convince us that a piece of gold is truly stone.”[14]


R. Zadok exhibits very powerful deference to Chazal but shows considerable independence vis-א-vis the rishonim.  He criticizes Rambam or Ramban without much hesitation.  Even though all traditional Jewish writers incline toward greater respect for Chazal than for post-Talmudic authorities, I believe that R. Zadok widens the gap between the two more than other rabbinic writers.


Aggadic Interpretation


Although he never wrote a commentary on aggada, R. Zadok’s various works include many insightful aggadic readings.  I found Divrei Soferim particularly helpful in this regard.


There was an elderly woman who came before Rav Nachman.  She said to him: "The Reish Galuta (Exilarch) and all the rabbis of the Reish Galuta's court are sitting in a stolen sukka."  She cried out, but R. Nachman did not pay attention to her.   She said to him: "A woman whose ancestor (i.e. Avraham Avinu) had three hundred and eighteen slaves cries out before you, and you don't pay attention?"   R. Nachman said to [his students]:  "She is a complainer, and she shall receive only monetary compensation for the wood." (Sukka 31a)


This story raises several questions.  Why did Rav Nachman ignore this poor woman's plight if the Reish Galuta's workers had indeed taken her wood?  Why should she only receive compensation and not the very items that were stolen?  Why does the woman make reference to Avraham and the three hundred and eighteen slaves with which he vanquished the four kings?  Is this point somehow relevant to her case?


R. Zadok explains[15] that Avraham symbolizes a crucial component of Judaism.  Avraham and Sarah had already despaired of having children when the angels came to tell them that they would have a son.  Thus, the continuity of the Jewish people was assured only after complete despair had set in.  God arranged for Jewish peoplehood to begin in this fashion so that it becomes an entrenched principle that Jews should never despair.


Avraham displays a refusal to despair when he courageously engages the four kings in battle. After all, they had just defeated the five kings, and were presumably a fearsome enemy. When Avraham assembles his three hundred and eighteen men, they too become a symbol of not giving up.  R. Zadok then presents a gematria that even those not enthusiastic about gematriyot should love.  The numerical value of the word ye'ush, despair, is three hundred and seventeen.  Relying on the rule that a gematria can be off by one, R. Zadok argues that though this number of men numerically equals despair, their achievement in fact demonstrate man's ability to transcend despair.  I would slightly alter R. Zadok's insight.  Since the three hundred and eighteen men represent moving beyond despair, they add up to one more than the numerical value of ye'ush.


According to Halakha, a thief is allowed to keep a stolen item and merely pay its value when the item has changed possession (shinui reshut) and the original owner despairs of ever getting it back.  If so, we can understand R. Nachman and the elderly woman. R. Nachman assumed that she must have given up hope once the powerful forces of the Exilarch took her wood.  Therefore, she was legally entitled only to financial compensation.  The woman responded that she was a daughter of Avraham, with his three hundred and eighteen men.  In other words, despite the odds, she had not given up, and was legally entitled to the wood.           


Of course, this leaves open the question of why R. Nachman still did not listen to her.  Rashi explains that there was a rabbinic edict allowing thieves who had stolen materials and used them in a building to keep the building standing and merely reimburse the owner.  This edict was intended to make it easier for thieves to repent.  According to Rashi, R. Nachman may have conceded that the woman had not despaired, but he denied her the wood on other grounds.


R. Zadok's reading should have deep resonance for students of Jewish history.  He is not claiming that any unrealistic plan devised by Jews will succeed just because they are the descendents of Avraham.  At the same time, when historical forces place us in a precarious situation, we should remember Avraham and his three hundred and eighteen men.


R. Ami taught: “Do’eg’s Torah was only from the mouth and outward.”  (Sanhedrin 106b)


A sign of Bil’am's ignorance is that he praised himself. (Zohar, parashat Balak)


These two sources lead Rav Zadok to a profound psychological insight regarding the incommensurability of wisdom and arrogance. He states that Bil’am actually seems to be quite learned so the Zohar must be referring to Bil’am's lack of internalized knowledge. When knowledge fails to penetrate into the deeper recesses of the human personality, arrogance results.


If our knowledge impacts positively upon the world, or enables us to become more ethically sensitive or spiritually alive, then that knowledge has found a worthy home, and we will find satisfaction in our learning.  On the other hand, if our knowledge has no effect upon the world, or upon our personality, then the knowledge finds no expression and we end up wondering what our years of study have produced.  At that point, the only thing left to do with our knowledge is to brag about it.  Envision two brilliant academics, one who goes about the day’s scholarly work with quiet dignity, and the other constantly attempting to show off his or her knowledge.  Rav Zadok's insight lies at the root of the difference between them.


The Talmudic imagery of wisdom "from the mouth and outward" takes on great resonance.  For Rav Zadok, that image conveys both the lack of internalization of knowledge, and the need to brag about it.[16]


Divrei Soferim also includes examples of R. Zadok finding religiously existential meaning in halakhic topics.  The gemara (Megilla 14a) questions the absence of Hallel on Purim and provides three explanations.  Perhaps we do not say Hallel on a miracle that occurred in the Diaspora.  Perhaps the recital of the Megilla functions as the Hallel.  Alternatively, the joy of the story remains incomplete as the Jews still find themselves "servants of Achashverosh."  The Pesach story reflects total salvation, but the Purim story represents a reprieve of great significance that does not permit a sense of complete redemption.


Yet the absence of Hallel does not mean an absence of celebration. We do make Purim a holiday and a quite joyous one at that.  R. Zadok sees Pesach and Purim as two important paradigms.  Pesach represents completely leaving the darkness.  Purim, on the other hand, serves as a model for finding the ability to cope with remaining in the darkness.  Even if both do not merit Hallel, both are worthy of celebration.[17]  It behooves us to remember this, as instances of complete salvation are few and far between.  We must take joy in and show gratitude for the ability to make it through difficult times, even when our problems do not depart entirely.[18]

[1] R. Yeshayahu Hadari, “Shir shel Yom Be-torat R. Zadok Ha-kohen,” Sinai 53 (5723), p. 75.

[2] R. Yeshayahu Hadari, “Purim Be-mishnato shel R. Zadok Ha-kohen (Rabinowitz) me-Lublin,” Sinai 46 (5720), pp. 353-354. 

[3] Yaakov Elman, “The History of Gentile Wisdom According to R. Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, vol. 3 (1993), pp. 153-187.

[4] R. Schorr cites R. Zadok several times in his Or Gedalyahu (see the section on Chanukah).  The index at the end of the fourth volume of Mikhtav me-Eliyahu lists five references to R. Zadok.  Mikhtav me-Eliyahu 4:164 should be added to that list. 

[5] Pri Tzaddik Sukkot, no. 18.

[6] Or Zaru’a La-tzaddk, p. 6.

[7] Or Zaru’a La-tzaddk, p. 5.

[8] Tzidkat Ha-tzaddik, no. 257, Machshavot Charutz, no. 6.

[9] Sefer Ha-zikhronot, p. 58. 

[10] Sefer Ha-zikhronot, pp. 64, 71.

[11] Sefer Ha-zikhronot, p. 64.

[12] Sefer Ha-zikhronot, p. 66.

[13] Sichat Mal’akhei Ha-sharet, p. 36.    

[14] Or Zaru’a La-tzaddik, p. 50.

[15] Divrei Soferim, no. 16.

[16] Divrei Soferim, no. 15.

[17] Divrei Soferim, no. 32.

[18] My analysis of the three passages in Divrei Soferim appeared in an earlier form in my VBM series on Talmudic Aggada and will appear in my forthcoming Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.