Rabbi Israel Lipschitz • “The Author of Tiferet Israel on the Mishnayot”
Whenever a person enters a Beit Midrash, be it during the long nights of Tevet or the blazing hot days of Tammuz, he sees Jews sitting around a table, or perhaps in a corner, studying a chapter of Mishnayot or discussing the words of the Tannaim. Who has made the Mishnah such a popular book, understandable by all? Without a doubt, it has been Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, the renowned commentator of the Mishnah. It was he who spread its teachings to all Jews.
The son of Rabbi Gedaliah, Rabbi Israel Lipschitz was born in 1782 in the city of Hazdeutsch. He was the grandson of Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, the Av Beit Din of Kliva, known for the get that he established in Kliva and who in his lifetime become very famous.
From his earliest years, the boy distinguished himself by the scope of his intelligence and his profound humility. Among other languages, he learned Greek and Latin, which he used to explain difficult words in the Mishnah.
When Rabbi Israel Lipschitz married, he assumed the rabbinate and became the Rav of the following cities: Dessau, Schotland, Weinberg, Langfurt, and finally Danzig and its province near the end of his life.
Rabbi Israel was always immersed in the depths of Halachah, and he studied Torah day and night. His son Rabbi Baruch Yitzchak testified concerning him: “From the time he became the Av Beit Din of Dessau, he studied incessantly and fasted often, sometimes for three days and nights in a row, enwrapped in his Tallit and wearing his Tefillin under his coat, without anyone noticing. He studied constantly, making his nights into days of Torah study.” Rabbi Israel wrote many books: Commentaries on the Rambam, responsum on all domains of Torah, and especially – more than anything else – his commentary on the Mishnah.
His book Tiferet Israel on the six orders of the Mishnah shines by its clarity and simplicity, and it represents a considerable study aid for all who study the Mishnah. His commentary is greatly esteemed and has often been reprinted, in abridged format and in its entirety, under the names Yachin and Boaz. With time, his work has become almost an integral part of the Mishnah. As with the commentary of Rabbeinu Ovadia Bartenura, which has become inseparable from the Mishnah, Tiferet Israel accompanies almost every edition of the text. Rabbi Israel also added commentary entitled Hilcheta Gavrata, which explains Halachic decisions.
Rabbi Israel Lipschitz served as a rabbi for 50 years. He was a faithful shepherd of G-d’s flock, and in his mouth was the Torah of truth. He brought many people back to the right path, be it by using harsh words or by a gentle approach. According to his son Rabbi Baruch Yitzchak in his introduction to Tiferet Israel, Rabbi Israel Lipschitz could utter severe reprimands that burned like fire, or he could say things that were pleasant and sweet like honey.
The love that Rabbi Israel had for every Jew was exceptional. He explained the phrase, “Do not judge your fellowman until you have stood in his place” (Perkei Avoth 2:4) as follows: “When you lead the community and judge a man who has committed a sin, treat him with mercy. Do not put him to shame, but rather make him regret the failings that prevented him from overcoming his temptation, for you have not yet arrived at his place to succeed where he failed.”
Non-Jews also cherished and respected him. On the Mishnah that states: “He [Rabbi Akiva] used to say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is even a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in the image [of G-d]” (Perkei Avoth 3:14), Rabbi Israel added: “This includes a non-Jew, who was also created in G-d’s image.” And at that point he demonstrated his great understanding of history by listing an entire series of people “who did great good for the entire world, such as Jenner, who invented the smallpox vaccine, which saved tens of thousands of lives from sickness and death; Drake, who brought the potato to Europe and saved millions from hunger; Guttenberg, who invented the printing press; and finally the righteous of the nations, Reuchlin, who gave his soul to save volumes of the Talmud from being torched when Emperor Maximilian – through the evil influence that the renegade Pfefferkorn (cursed be his name) had on certain priests – ordered them burned in 5269 (1509). Reuchlin had put his life in danger, and by his arguments he pushed the Emperor to renounce his decree. Can we honestly say that these righteous of the nations will not have a reward in the World to Come?” This is why Rabbi Israel arrived at the conclusion that honest non-Jews are equally created in the image of G-d and that the Holy One, blessed be He, cherishes them.
Rabbi Israel practiced charity throughout his entire life. He went from house to house collecting funds to help poor Jewish women get married and to help other Tzeddakah causes. A few days before his death, while he was quite old, people saw him going from street to street, and even climbing stairs to the highest floors, to collect money for the poor.
Rabbi Israel observed mitzvot with great exactitude, and he put as much attention into performing easy mitzvot as he did into performing more difficult ones. He carried out the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah without changing a thing: He wrote it with his own hand, and on the day he completed it he also finished a cycle of Talmud study, thus uniting both portions of the Torah, the written and the oral.
During the Fast of Gedalia in 5621 (1860), he went to the Beit Midrash as usual to pray. After reciting Selichot, and after having given his daily courses, he fainted and rendered his soul to his Creator, enveloped in his Tallit and crowned with his Tefillin. The synagogue officials placed his saintly body in the “Chair of Elijah,” the seat that he always used as the Sandek for circumcisions.
An enormous crowd attended his funeral, and his son Rabbi Baruch Yitzchak, the Rav of Lansburg, gave the following account: “Great honors were bestowed upon him after his death. When his body was brought to its final resting place, everyone gathered together from the communities of Danzig and other cities in the region – young and old alike, the greatest to the least of the people – to follow the casket of this Tzaddik, and everyone wept.”
Even though he passed away more than 100 years ago, and that other, more recent commentaries have been written on the Mishnah, the brilliant star of the Gaon Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, the author of Tiferet Israel, continues to shine in the firmament of Israel for all generations.