Rabbi Avraham Aveli Gombiner • “the Magen Avraham”
Rabbi Avraham Aveli Gombiner was one of our greatest Poskim, known by the name of his famous book on the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Haim, Magen Avraham.
The son of the holy Rabbi Chaim Segal Halevi, Rabbi Avraham Aveli was born in 5397 (1637) in the town of Gombin, close to Kalish in Russian Poland.
As a child, little Avremeleh was weak and sickly. His mother, who recognized his exceptional character, was very worried for his health and protected him like the pupil of her eye. Early in the morning each day, she remained in the woman’s section of the synagogue and recited a short prayer in Yiddish: “Dear G-d of mercy. I cannot stay long, for I have to return home and prepare breakfast for my Avremeleh so he can have the strength to study Your holy Torah. Goodbye my Father in Heaven.”
When Rabbi Avraham was 10 years old, he left his hometown of Gombin to go to Lissa, where he studied Torah with his countryman and close relative, Rabbi Yaakov Gombiner, who was the Rav of the city. By chance he learned that there were Torah greats in Kalish, and since he greatly yearned to find himself in such an environment, he left Lissa and traveled there. In Kalish the young man found a life that suited him. He studied Torah day and night, and his immense diligence allowed him to greatly elevate himself, to the point that he eventually became prominently known.
During that time, he got married with a young girl by the name of Dina. At the beginning, Rabbi Avraham was content to teach the children of the Beit Midrash, and his friends knew him by the name of “Rabbi Aveli the Melamed” He showed great discretion with regards to his Torah knowledge and wisdom. He was a humble man, one who worked hard to earn a living in difficult circumstances. In Kalish, people used to point out the cave where the Gaon, this man who authored Magen Avraham, lived. They said that he wrote his comments on the walls with a piece of charcoal, for he had neither pencil nor paper. In fact, he earned so little money each month that he didn’t have enough to buy paper, and he had to wait to get paper before copying down what he had written on the walls. They also say that from time to time he traveled to Pozna on foot in order to consult books that could not be found in Kalish.
After several years, people found out by chance that Rabbi Avraham Aveli was great in Torah and Halachah. It happened as follows: One day, the Gaon Rabbi Shabtai Cohen (author of the Shach) traveled to Kalish. As was the norm during that time, the leaders of the community asked him to speak at the local synagogue. During his discourse to the sages of the town, the Shach raised a very difficult question that nobody could answer. Yet among his listeners was a young man who studied with Rabbi Avraham Aveli, and after hearing the question he went and repeated it to him. Rabbi Avraham then resolved the difficulty in a satisfactory manner, and when the Shach learned of it, he immediately sent for Rabbi Aveli “the Melamed” (as people in Kalish called him) and spent a long time speaking of Torah with him. From that moment on, his fame spread as a great Talmid Chacham.
There was another incident that occurred to Rabbi Avraham Aveli, one after which was he appointed as Dayan. Not long after the holiday of Passover, the Rav of the city was presented with a serious question concerning chametz, yet he was unable to solve it. He sent for the scholars of the city, among whom was Rabbi Avraham, so that together they could reflect upon the proper course of action to take. Rabbi Avraham put forward a suggestion that pleased the Rav and everyone else, and they implored him to take on the responsibility for decisions pertaining to the Halachot of Orach Chaim. When the position of one of the Dayanim in the city became vacant, he was appointed as a Dayan of Kalish.
Even though he suffered tremendously during his entire life from all sorts of ills, he nevertheless managed to write his great work Magen Avraham. The book consisted of a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, which encompasses the life of every Jew – from the time he wakes up in the morning until the time he goes to sleep at night – during the week, the holidays, and Shabbat. The work experienced several mishaps before being published, and if it were not for his only son, Rabbi Chaim Gombiner, who knows if we would have seen the light of Rabbi Avraham Aveli’s Torah!
Rabbi Avraham began the work in 5425 (1665) and finished in 5433 (1673), and he obtained the support of the greatest Gaonim of Poland. His brother Rabbi Yehudah, who was a prominent figure in Krakow, went to Amsterdam to publish the book there. However Rabbi Yehudah died while preparing to print it, and a great deal of time elapsed while the manuscript was being passed from one hand to the next. Rabbi Avraham himself also died during that time, and the work remained in the hands of strangers. His son Rabbi Chaim knew no rest before taking over possession of the manuscript from these strangers and bringing it to the printer and bibliographer Rabbi Shabtai Meshorer Bass, the author of Siftei Chachamim on Rashi.
Rabbi Bass printed Magen Avraham, together with Turei Zahav by Rabbi David Halevi (the son of Rabbi Shemuel Halevi), around the text of the Shulchan Aruch. This work was published in the city of Dyhernfurth in 5452 (1692), becoming known by its generic name Magenim Eretz.
Rabbi Avraham was known throughout the Diaspora as an authority in matters of Halachah, and students everywhere formed groups to study the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, along with Magen Avraham. People have based themselves on its authority in order to render decisions that are even at variance with those of the Taz and other Poskim. The Gaon Rabbi Zalman of Volozhin once said, “In my eyes, the Magen Avraham merits the same respect as the Poskim of earlier times.”
Rabbi Avraham’s purity of heart and upstanding moral character are reflected in many areas. In paragraph 156 of Magen Avraham he writes, “It is a mitzvah for all men to love each Jew as himself, as it is written, ‘You shall love your fellow as yourself’ [Leviticus 19:18], and whoever hates a Jew in his heart transgresses a prohibition, for it is said, ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart’ [v.17]. When someone sins against his fellow, he should not keep a grudge in silence, but he should say, ‘Why did you do this to me?’ and he should not speak to him harshly, to the point of shaming him, but reprimand him in private, calmly, and with soft language.”
The story goes that when the Maggid of Koznitz was young, he arranged to study Magen Avraham with a friend every day in the early morning. After the first session, their hearts were aflame even more than usual in their service of G-d, to that point that they were overcome by extreme enthusiasm. The Maggid decided to go to his Rav, Rabbi Shmelke of Nickelsburg, and ask him from where this great light came. When he went to see his Rav, as soon as he crossed the threshold of his home Rabbi Shmelke said to him, “Israel, I can see on your face that you studied Magen Avraham. That book generates a great light in the heart of the wise.”
Rabbi Avraham wrote several other books other than Magen Avraham, the best known being Zayit Ra’anan (a commentary on Yalkut Shimoni). Rabbi Avraham did not live long, dying sometime around 5443 (1683) at about the age of 46. His grave is located in Kalish, and it carries the following inscription: “Here lies Rabbi Avraham Aveli Halevi, the author of Magen Avraham and Zayit Ra’anan.” The location of his grave was held in great reverence, and many people went there to pray and beseech G-d during times of distress.