Rabbi David Oppenheim Zatzal
Rabbi David Oppenheim was born in 1664 (5424) in Worms. He learned Torah from Rabbi Guershon Ashkenazi of Metz, Rabbi Yaakov Ashkenazi (the father of Chacham Tzvi), Rav Binyamin Wolf Epstein of Fridberg, and Reb Yitzchak Binyamin Wolf of Lensberg (author of Nahalat Binyamin).
At the age of 25, he was named rabbi of the community of the large city of Nickelsburg, as well as rabbi of the province of Moravia. He founded a yeshiva that he supported with his own money and in which he gave courses to numerous students.
Besides writing many introductions and approbations for different books, and besides the many manuscripts that he refused to have published during his lifetime, Rabbi David Oppenheim published more than 30 books. He later became the rabbi of Prague, dying in the year 1737 (5497).
From across a span of 300 years, it is difficult, if not to say impossible, to trace in detail all the incidents, stories, and decisions that the Gaon Rabbi David Oppenheim lived through and participated in. Who today can explain to us the exact nature of that which troubled the Jews of Nickelsburg, of Prague or in the province of Moravia and its regions between 1689 and 1737 (5449 and 5497)? We are, however, cognizant of this man who possessed astounding virtues and an exceptional character, a man who saw unfurled and heaped onto his plate all that happened in the Jewish world during these several dozen years.
Rabbi David Oppenheim was among the greatest decision makers of his generation. In almost every domain, he left an incalculable number of responsum in which the truth shines forth. He speaks of his teachers – the great of the previous generation – with great respect and reverence, and he cites their views with trembling and love. However it still remains that when, having worked for a long time on a question asked of him, he arrived at a conclusion that was different than that of his predecessors, he did not hesitate to express his opinion. And just as with every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, he began by saying just how insignificant he felt in comparison to those whose decisions he disagreed with.
He maintained a particularly loving relationship with his students. His commentaries were often written as if he was speaking directly to them, and they knew it. This is why today we are in possession of numerous letters that they addressed to their great Rav long after they had grown up and gone out into the world. These letters not only contain questions pertaining to Halachah, but also requests for help in gaining a livelihood or questions concerning their rabbinic roles in different communities. Rabbi David was for them not only a Rav, but also a father. In a letter that one student, Rabbi Meir Segal Horowitz, sent him from the Hanover Beth Midrash, the expression Adoni hamelech (“My lord the king”) is unceasingly used to designate Rabbi David. This attests to the veneration that the letter’s author had for his great teacher. When we look at the original letter, we see that Rabbi David, who apparently could not stand the honors that the letter bestowed upon him, crossed out in ink every place where the term “the king” was used to describe him.
His first years as Rabbi of Nickelsburg were a difficult period for the Jews. Four years earlier, in 1686 (5446), Austria had conquered Oben Castle, and in the course of that war the Jews of the region suffered greatly. Numerous communities had been entirely destroyed and others decimated. An echo of those painful days reverberated in the responsum of Rabbi David, and he took upon himself the difficult task – both physically and emotionally – of taking care of the numerous agunot whose husbands had disappeared during those horrific times. He gave himself no respite and worked relentlessly to provide them with help in accordance with Halachah.
His community work did not diminish in the years that followed, when he was designated as Rav and Av Beit Din of Prague. Much to the contrary, he was recognized as state Rabbi and the supreme authority in everything that concerned the community. He enacted decrees and oversaw all that occurred in the community, be it important or not. In one of his responsum, he described his crushing work schedule as follows: “You are very familiar with the weight of the tasks that burden me, beginning with the worries of our yeshiva, where we study from the middle of the night until the middle of the day, and proceeding to the affairs of the community and the state. I don’t even have time to swallow my spittle.”
If we had asked a contemporary of Rabbi David Oppenheim to give a title to the following story, it is probable that he would have chosen one that expresses the misfortune of a series of events. Today, more than 250 years after the passing of Rabbi David, it turns out that the events of this story seem far from misfortunate, and that the story should in fact be entitled The Extent of Divine Providence.
Rabbi David’s library had 7000 works in its collection, which even for us is a large number (and how much more so for that era, when books were rare and precious). Yet that is not all. The library shelves were also filled with more than 1000 manuscripts that had not been published. Of all the books published at that time dealing with Torah, there was not a single one that he did not have a copy of. If he heard people speaking of a manuscript that he did not have, he tried to obtain it, and if that was impossible, then at least to have it copied. When the Amsterdam Talmud was published in 1714 (5475), he prepared a parchment made from deerskin and asked that a copy of that Talmud (which was the most beautiful of the era) be printed on it, an undertaking that he paid 1000 gold coins for.
Today, too, there are many book collectors. However Rabbi David Oppenheim was certainly not a collector. His great passion did not come from shelves loaded with beautiful volumes of works; it came from Torah, which he loved with every fiber of his being, which he studied with all his strength, and which he always had on his lips. He possessed a complete understanding of the Gemara, and in his numerous responsum he cited different versions thereof, as well as the remarks of commentators taken from the books in his library. It is therefore astonishing to realize that during his entire life, he almost never had access to his library and hardly managed to profit from it.
At the beginning, the library was located in Nickelsburg. However when he left for Prague, he made it follow by way of Worms. He waited in vain in Prague for the arrival of his books that were so precious to his heart. Yet it was not to be, as a fire ignited and burned everything in the library, down to the last book. In a letter dated to that year, he wrote, “I am like a craftsman that no longer has the tools of his trade.” Would he accept this? Would he become discouraged? Not him! He began again from scratch, one book after another, one manuscript after another. Yet again, he could not have them by his side. For one reason or another, he had to spend some years in Vienna while his books stayed in Nickelsburg. He wrote, “I possess only that which I know by heart. I ascend and descend the Talmud only by what I have on my tongue.”
Next he returned to Prague, but at the time there was an official censorship policy in place that prevented his books from entering the country. This was due to a fear that some books could contain material offensive to Christianity. Thus each time he needed to consult one of his books, the Rav of Prague was forced with great regret to go to his father-in-law in Walfendithal, near Hanover. He thus left this world far from his books, which were sold by his son after his death and purchased by Oxford University’s Bodleian Library in England.
Divine Providence in this story can be fully seen today in all its strength. Many works and manuscripts would have certainly been burned over the course of the years and during times of persecution. Only the refusal of librarians to permit these books to be taken out allowed a great number of them to remain intact until our day. These books have subsequently been copied and scholars have made great use of them. The Rav Itzchak Dov Feld of London, a Holocaust survivor, worked tremendously hard to publish the works that Rabbi David Oppenheim had written. The Nazis had left him but one finger intact, and he used it to type the works of Rabbi David Oppenheim, which in this way were saved.