Publish or perish: Rabbi Israel of Shklov

Persistence in making aliya and the tenacity to publish a book can both be overwhelming taken one at a time. The tribulations of 19th-century immigrant leader Rabbi Israel of Shklov were intertwined in his endeavors to publish his classic book Pe'at Hashulhan, printed by the Bak print shop in Safed. Rabbi Israel was a leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliahu of Vilna or the Gra), who strongly advocated immigration to the Holy Land. As a student of the Gaon, Rabbi Israel belonged to the perushim (mitnagdim), not the hassidim. In 1810, Rabbi Israel led a group of students to make a home in the land. Settling in Safed, they found their place among the established Sephardi community and the recently arrived rival hassidim. Living in dire poverty, the immigrants struggled for sources of livelihood and tried to re-establish their Torah institutions. In 1824, due to a devastating cholera epidemic in Safed, Rabbi Israel decided to seek refuge in Jerusalem. En route, his wife died. He later lost his parents, his children and grandchildren, all except his youngest daughter, Shaindel. He finally contracted cholera, as well. In the introduction to Pe'at Hashulhan, the rabbi tells of how he was on a rooftop in Jerusalem with his daughter, racked with pain. He beseeched the Almighty for his life and for the privilege of living in the Holy Land. With waning strength, he vowed that if his life were spared, he would dedicate himself to writing a comprehensive treatise expounding all the laws of the Torah pertaining to living in the Land of Israel. Praying and weeping, he finally fell asleep. After collapsing, he relates, "someone approached and touched me, arousing me like one awaking from sleep. Then he said to me, 'Afflicted and tortured one, be healed!' From that time on, the Almighty began to reveal His kindness to me…" After recuperating, returning to Safed, and starting a new family - and more tribulations, like the collapse of his home, disease and floods, he fulfilled his vow and completed the manuscript, deciding to have it printed at Israel Bak's new printing enterprise in Safed. But earthquakes in 1827 and 1834 leveled Safed and the region. In the resulting fires, the Pe'at Hashulhan manuscripts went up in flames before they could be brought to the Bak printing press. Rabbi Israel persevered and rewrote the entire book, which was finally published by Bak in 1836, just before another earthquake struck Galilee. Pe'at Hashulhan's importance has to do with the significance of agriculture in settling the Land. When Moses Montefiore visited the country in 1839, he sought to purchase over 100,000 dunams of land, mainly fields in Galilee. He cooperated with the Vilna Gaon's disciples, hoping to turn many of Palestine's Jews into farmers. The immigrants believed that working the land would bring about the Redemption, and would enable them to fulfill the biblical commandments pertaining to farming in the Land of Israel. The name Pe'at Hashulhan indicates that it is a supplement volume to the four-part Shulhan Aruch ("prepared table"), hence the name, "pe'at" or "corner" of the Shulhan.