A hasidic best seller

Rabbi Margaliyot’s collection of hasidic tales was exceptionally accessible, having appeared in print an impressive twenty times in just over a hundred years.

By LEVI COOPER
September 18, 2019 18:54
4 minute read.
A hasidic best seller

‘KEVUTZAT YAAKOV’ by Rabbi Yaakov Margaliyot contains seven short works.. (photo credit: COURTESY NATIONAL LIBRARY)

In 1891-1892, a printing press in Berdyczów, published a five-part work dedicated to the Hebrew language: Otzar Hashorashim by “Mabit,” a pseudonym for Meshullam F. Tuchinsky (1846-ca.1900). Tuchinsky would go on to publish other works aimed at furthering Hebrew language skills: in 189,2 a book in Yiddish about learning Hebrew grammar, and in 1899, a collection of Yiddish phrases and possible Hebrew replacements. There must have been demand for Otzar Hashorashim, for immediately after its publication a second edition appeared in 1893-1895. Otzar Hashorashim included approbations from “the wise men of Berdyczów.” Two approbations were penned on the same day in 1890, one by the notable hasidic jurist Rabbi David Ortenberg (d.1910), and the other by Rabbi Yaakov Margaliyot who is described as a “moreh hora’ah” – a title used for a rabbi charged with responding to everyday questions of Jewish law. Not much is known about Rabbi Margaliyot.

A year after the publication of the second edition of Otzar Hashorashim, in 1896, Rabbi Margaliyot turned to the same printing press to publish his own work. The volume was entitled Kevutzat Yaakov, and it included seven short works – hence the title Kevutzat, the collection of, [Rabbi] Yaakov [Margaliyot].

Kevutzat Yaakov opens with two succinct letters from hasidic masters, indicating the allegiance of the author. The first letter was penned in 1883 by Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Friedman of Sadigura (1819-1883), who declared his intention to purchase the book and encouraged others to do likewise. The second letter was from the Sadigura rebbe’s third son, Rabbi Yitzchak of Boyan (1849-1917), who curtly gave his approbation for publication.

The first section includes an enumeration of the 613 commandments, each one tersely stated with no explanation. The second section details rabbinic commandments (pp. 13b-23b). In both of these sections, Rabbi Margaliyot states that he gleaned the list from earlier sources. Indeed, there is nothing noticeably innovative in these sections.

Section three of the work is a copy of a short work on ethics penned by Rabbi Zvi Hirsh of Nadvorna (ca.1740-1809), an early hasidic master. This work had already been well-received, and had been printed many times since 1790. Sections four and five continued in a similar vein by presenting conduct counsel and other teachings of the hasidic master Rabbi Meshullam Feivish Heller of Zbaraż (ca.1740-1794). Here too the work had already been published, although Rabbi Margaliyot claimed to have removed mistakes that crept into previous printings.

In the sixth part of the work, Rabbi Margaliyot copied a hasidic letter written by Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk (1740-1810), together with other hasidic miscellany. This letter had not been published previously.

Rabbi margaliyot’s primary contribution comes to the fore in the seventh section, subtitled Gedolim Ma‘aseh Tzaddikim [Great are the Deeds of the Righteous]. Here the author recounts hasidic tales that he heard from his father, who in turn heard them from his father, who personally knew the Besht (the Baal Shem Tov). While this is only a fraction of the entire work, it is the most original material included in the volume and includes stories that had never been printed before. According to Rabbi Margaliyot, this section was the motivation for the entire enterprise. What happened to this collection?

A year after Kevutzat Yaakov was published in Berdyczów, the work was republished in Przemysl. The two editions were identical, save for the imprint information. At first blush it would seems that Rabbi Margaliyot’s efforts were unrewarded: two editions and then forgotten by history. In Gershom Scholem’s personal copy of the 1896 Kevutzat Yaakov, now held in the National Library of Israel, the great scholar and bibliophile is noted as “extremely rare.” Indeed, the title Kevutzat Yaakov was never reprinted.

But the work was not entirely lost to the sands of time. The hasidic tales included in the seventh section proved to be extremely popular. This section alone would be repeatedly reprinted over the years.

First, the tales were incorporated in a collection titled Emunat Tzaddikim [Faith in the Righteous]. This slender volume was first published in Warsaw 1900, and subsequently reprinted in Brooklyn, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. Emunat Tzaddikim was also published in 1902 in Lemberg under an entirely different title: Kehal Hasidim Hehadash [The New Community of Hasidism]. The content of the two works was identical, so naturally Rabbi Margaliyot’s collection was included. This new title was also reprinted in Lemberg and later in Israel.

A Yiddish translation of Kehal Hasidim Hehadash was also published in Lemberg 1904, giving further exposure to Rabbi Margaliyot’s tales.

After the Second World War, the hasidic tales were printed again, this time under their original subtitle, Gedolim Ma‘aseh Tzaddikim, in pocket-size format. This version went through a number of printings and editions – at least seven – in Jerusalem and in New York.
Thus Rabbi Margaliyot’s collection of hasidic tales was exceptionally accessible, having appeared in print an impressive twenty times in just over a hundred years: Section seven of Kevutzat Yaakov (1896, 1897), Emunat Tzadikim (1900, ca.1923, 1950s, 1965, 1985, 2000), Kehal Hasidim Hehadash in Hebrew (1902, 1906, ca.1960, 1998) and in Yiddish (1904), and Gedolim Ma‘aseh Tzaddikim (1945, 1946, 1970, 1983, 1987, 1991, 1999). Over the last century, Rabbi Margaliyot’s hasidic tales were published on average once in five years!

While Rabbi Margaliyot may not be widely known and his literary efforts not fully appreciated, there is no denying that he produced a small trove of hasidic tales, which turned out to be nothing less than a best seller.

The writer, a rabbi in Zur Hadassa, is on the Pardes faculty and a post-doctoral fellow with the Galicia project at the University of Haifa.


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