The Torah of Rav Yehosef Schwartz

Since this parsha, Re’eih, discusses the different species of kosher animals, a topic that will be included in this article, it provides an opportunity to learn about a very unique talmid chachom and tzadik, Rav Yehosef Schwartz.

The Torah of Rav Yehosef Schwartz

Question #1: Which minyan?

“In the minyan factory shtiebel that I often attend, it sometimes happens that most of my minyan has already heard the entire Chazoras Hashatz and answered Kedushah and Kaddish before we assemble to daven. Does this present us with any halachic questions?”

Question #2: Which chayah?

“A gnu is not listed in the Torah among the seven chayos, kosher wild animals, although it has split hooves and chews its cud. Why is it not listed?”

Question #3: Which borders?

“Where exactly are the borders of Eretz Yisroel?”

Question #4: Which question?

“What do the preceding three questions have to do with one another?”


Rav Yehosef Schwartz, an outstanding talmid chochom and oveid Hashem, was also probably the greatest cartographer of Eretz Yisroel in history. We will study some background of this very unusual personality, and learn some of his Torah.

Rav Yehosef Schwartz was born in 1804 in a small Bavarian village where his antecedents had dwelled for many generations. A contemporary of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, he shared many of Rav Hirsch’s characteristics. Both men identified themselves as having a very specific, particular mission in serving Hashem, and pursued it despite living among people who neither shared nor necessarily understood their vision. Both maintained total humility, notwithstanding their considerable accomplishments, personal and communal. Both ended up becoming prolific and original authors on Torah subjects, in spite of the fact that neither had intended to do so early in life. Both married women whom they recognized would assist them in fulfilling their life’s goals, notwithstanding the difference in age between them. Both attended German universities with the specific goal of attaining knowledge they felt was necessary for them to fulfill their mission, yet neither one of them completed the requirements for the coveted doctoral degree. Both were involved extensively in providing chesed for their brethren, both journeyed widely to execute this goal, and both relocated to accomplish what they saw as their specific mission in fulfilling Hashem’s will. Both studied kabbalah, yet couched their knowledge in ways that their readers would not realize that they had drunk from those springs. Neither was always understood by the great halachic authorities of their generation, but both were highly respected gedolim, whose original contributions have withstood the test of time.

Early Life

Rav Yehosef Schwartz was born in Flos, a small Bavarian town, where, already as a youth, he distinguished himself for his hasmodah and sincerity. After studying in yeshiva, he attended the University of Wurzburg for several years, studying the subjects he felt he needed to augment his Torah knowledge: astronomy, mathematics, natural sciences and classical languages. He had already become an exceptional talmid chochom with extensive knowledge of Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, poskim, and midrashic literature. Rav Schwartz is known primarily for his encyclopedic and original work in mapping out Eretz Yisroel, but as we will soon see, this reflects only a small aspect of his greatness.

While quite young, he had already developed a profound love for Eretz Yisroel. At age 24, in 1829, while still living in Germany, he published his first map of the Holy Land. He revised this map twice before he left Europe for Eretz Yisroel.

Go East, My Son

When he was in his late 20’s, he had become convinced that his personal tikun was to move to Eretz Yisroel, no small endeavor at the time, which he proceeded to do despite strong family pressure. Because of various wars and other difficulties, the trip from Germany to Eretz Yisroel took him two years to complete. He finally arrived in Eretz Yisroel on the 13th of Nissan 5593 (1833).

He had originally planned to settle in Tzefas, presumably because of the kabbalistic orientation of the community, but upon arriving in Eretz Yisroel, he was invited to visit Yerushalayim. Once he arrived there, he decided to take up residence there, and he remained there for the rest of his life.

As was not uncommon among Ashkenazim who lived in Eretz Yisroel at this time, he adopted the local Sefardi dress and many of their customs, yet he maintained his very Ashkenazi family name. He never became a member of any of the various kehillos to the exclusion of the others, but considered himself part of all communities.

Upon after arriving in Eretz Yisroel, he taught himself two more languages, Ladino and Arabic, both of which would help him in his future research.

Personal Life

Shortly after moving to Yerushalayim, he married a twelve-year-old orphan. He was 29 years old at the time. They had eight children, four sons and four daughters; unfortunately six of their children perished during Rav Schwartz’s lifetime from the rampant diseases that plagued the country. Rav Schwartz merited taking only one daughter of his to the chupah; a younger daughter married the year after his passing. Although only two of his children survived him, a large number of his descendants are living today.

For the rest of his life, his livelihood was provided by his family, particularly by his older brother, Rav Chaim Schwartz, a rov in Europe who eventually even provided for Rav Yehosef’s widow after his passing. Rav Yehosef kept an active and lengthy correspondence with this brother, who often published the letters he received from Rav Yehosef in various periodicals in Europe. Rav Chaim Schwartz encouraged Rav Yehosef to write and publish his seforim, and arranged that many of Rav Yehosef’s works were translated into German and published in Europe, shortly after they were written.

Rav Yehosef, himself, was known as a great provider of tzedokah, notwithstanding that he and his family always lived in dire poverty and that he, personally, followed a very ascetic lifestyle. He fasted frequently and slept little. He and his wife were heavily involved in many chesed projects, including much hachnosas orchim and providing for widows and orphans.

His Mussar

Many of the observations shared by Rav Schwartz show us his perspective of “mah rabu ma’asechah Hashem.” For example, he notes the tremendous chesed that Hashem provides for us daily by having night very gradually turn to day, and having day so gradually darken to become night. If the day were to change suddenly, we would find the results blinding.

His Travels

Rav Schwartz devoted much of his life to traveling extensively throughout Eretz Yisroel, although we see from much of his correspondence that this travel involved a great deal of danger. We also know that, on at least one occasion, he traveled to England and the United States to attempt to raise funds for the yishuv in Yerushalayim.

His Research

Despite his fame for this area of research, it represents only a small part of Rav Schwartz’s published material. One of his areas of extensive study was to accurately determine the halachos of halachic daybreak, sunrise, sunset and nightfall, a topic to which he devoted an untold number of trips to check how long it took to get light and to get dark. He writes that both in Eretz Yisroel and in chutz la’aretz, he checked the physical features of sunrise over 4000 times in order to understand the topic well. He noted that calculating how much time it takes from dawn to sunrise and from sunset to nightfall depends on one’s location. He also demonstrates that one can prove, by observation, that the earth is round.

He was original in his approaches. In numerous places, he quotes great earlier halachic authorities such as the Ibn Ezra, the Radak, or the Gra, and then rallies proof to show why he feels that their interpretations of the halachic sources or their mathematical calculations were inaccurate.

His Published Works

For many years after Rav Schwartz arrived in Eretz Yisroel, he did not write or publish anything, despite his brother’s entreaties that he do so. Eventually, he produced numerous works, some published in Hebrew and printed in Eretz Yisroel, others printed in various European languages, mostly translated abridgments of his Hebrew works. Rav Hirsch quotes Rav Schwartz in his commentary to Devorim Chapter 11, Verse 29. Some of Rav Schwartz’s published material was used during his lifetime to produce educational materials for religious schools in Europe, particularly in Germany.

In his lifetime, Rav Schwartz published seforim on the following topics:

Tolodos Yosef, on astronomy and the halachos of zemanim. This work is full of charts and other demonstrative evidence.

Tevuos Ha’aretz, on the details of the land of Israel. This work places particular emphasis on its borders, and it is replete with many of his own original maps and drawings.

Ma’asei Ha’aretz, a history of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisroel from the time of the churbon to his time, in which he divided the history into various eras. He included highly detailed descriptions of the different rishonim who lived in Eretz Yisroel and the communities in which they lived. He includes all his sources.

He also wrote on linguistics, philology and phonemics, but always with a Torah perspective on how this research demonstrates the correctness of one halachic practice over another, or how we can thereby understand a passage of Gemara or Midrash.

In addition, he published a volume of his own responsa, called Rosh Hashoni, on a very eclectic list of topics. For example, he wrote a teshuvah discussing whether someone traveling through several dangerous areas, as was the situation in Eretz Yisroel in his day, bentches gomel only upon arriving at his final destination, or whether each day he should bentch gomel upon safely arriving for the night at a different community (#58). He explains why we find no dispute in Chazal regarding when the day begins, although we find much dispute when the day ends (#19). He asks if someone who says his prayers in a vernacular may say the name of Hashem in Hebrew while doing so (#35). In another teshuvah, he discusses whether the Rambam changed his mind about the fact that Judaism has 13 ikorei emunah (#57). The basis of this question is that although the Rambam devotes much discussion to this topic in his commentary on the Mishnah, which he wrote in his youth, he makes no mention of this basic topic in the Mishneh Torah.

Some of Rav Schwartz’s responsa answer contemporary questions. For example, he was asked the following shailah about a shul that has several daily Shacharis minyanim: The people who daven at the later minyan have already arrived in shul while the earlier minyan is still davening and thus, they have already answered Borchu, and answered Kedushah. Do they still have a minyan to daven the regular Shacharis? Is it considered that they have already fulfilled the requirement of tefillah betzibur by listening to Chazaras Hashatz and therefore cannot repeat Shemoneh Esrei for that davening (#55)?

Mussaf Before Shacharis?

Here is another, even more contemporary, question that Rav Schwartz addresses. Someone arrives late for shul on Shabbos, and the tzibur is ready to daven Mussaf. Should he recite Mussaf together with the tzibur, so that he has the merit of tefillah betzibur, and then daven Shacharis, or should he daven in the proper order, Shacharis and then Mussaf (#30)? He concludes that someone in this scenario should join the minyan for Mussaf and then daven Shacharis.

Several of the questions he talks about are discussed extensively by other authorities of his time. For example, he discusses the situation of a gentile in the process of conversion who has undergone bris milah, but did not yet have the opportunity to immerse in a mikvah to complete his geirus. Is he still required to break Shabbos?

An interesting question Rav Schwartz discusses that I have found in no other responsa work is as follows: There are two people; one is a perfect tzadik, whereas the other was born with very bad traits and is striving to improve. Which of the two will be rewarded in greater measure by Hashem? (#34)

When Rav Schwartz passed on, he left behind, in addition to his published works, extensive notes, notebooks, and even several works ready for publication.

The Four Questions

At this point, we can now address our opening four questions:

Question #1: Which Minyan?

“In the minyan factory shtiebel that I often attend, it sometimes happens that most of my minyan has already heard the entire Chazoras Hashatz and answered Kedushah and Kaddish before we assemble to daven. Does this present us with any halachic questions?”

Question #2: Which Chayah?

“A gnu is not listed in the Torah among the seven chayos, kosher wild animals, yet it has split hooves and chews its cud. Why is it not listed?”

Question #3: Which Borders?

“Where exactly are the borders of Eretz Yisroel?”

Question #4: Which Question?

“What do the preceding three questions have to do with one another?”

As I am sure you surmised, the first three questions are discussed in Rav Schwartz’s writings. He devotes one of his responsa (#55) to the first question. Apparently, already in his day Yerushalayim had a shtiebel in which minyanim took place in different parts of a large beis medrash. Frequently, a group of people would have heard the entire repetition of Shemoneh Esrei before a section of the beis medrash was available for them to conduct their minyan. Can one still conduct Chazoras Hashatz, when every member of the assembled group has already heard a repetition of Shemoneh Esrei, albeit without having yet davened themselves? Rav Schwartz concludes that if the minyan assembled does not have six people who did not yet hear the repetition of Shemoneh Esrei, they cannot have a Chazoras Hashatz for their minyan. If you are faced with the same question, I suggest consulting your rav or poseik.

What’s Gnu?

The gnu, also known as a wildebeest, is a variety of antelope native to Africa. Since the gnu both chews its cud (ruminates) and possesses split hooves, seeming to be a kosher animal, Rav Schwartz was asked as follows: The Torah lists only ten varieties of kosher animals: three beheimos and seven chayos. Which one is the gnu?

Rav Schwartz answers that the gnu is the yachmur. He writes that he has correctly identified the nine other kosher animal species mentioned by the Torah, and writes which species they are. The only one left unidentified is the yachmor, which, by process of elimination, must be the gnu.

(Personally, I would suggest a different approach to answering this question, since there are, according to my information, 91 species of antelope known to mankind, all of which ruminate and have split hooves. One is probably forced to say that some of the terms of the Torah include far more than what we would consider to be one species.)

Responsa from Early Nineteenth-Century America

Rav Schwartz wrote several teshuvos based on questions he was asked during his trip to England and the United States. One question was whether a citrus fruit native to the West Indies qualified as an esrog. He first writes that there was no question that this fruit had never been grafted onto another species, since such fruits grow in the wild in an area where the local native population has no interest or knowledge about grafting, nor do they have related species on which to graft it. The remaining question was whether this fruit, which looked very different from any esrog he had ever seen, qualified as an esrog. He ruled that it did qualify, and reports that he used it to fulfill the mitzvah during his stay in North America.

The End

Based on our contemporary understanding of the report of Rav Schwartz’s physician, he contracted scarlet fever, which developed into meningitis and took his life when he was 61 years old. Thus ended the life of an intense oveid Hashem, who devoted himself to becoming a master of areas of Torah that had been completely untrodden before him. Yehi zichro boruch.