Columns - 2011

    If the Shoe Fits, Chafetz

    by Doug Brook
    Southern Jewish Life columnist

    If you hear "eighteenth-century rabbi in middle Europe," what do you think? First, you think 1800s instead of 1700s, but that's the least of your problems.

    That phrase probably conjured images of men with black coats, black hats, long beards, and long bookshelves. But the portrait of Rabbi Moshe Chafetz, published in his 1710 Torah commentary Melekhet Machashevet, shows that none of these were true.

    In his Venice, such a beard would befit a kabbalist, not a rabbi. His head was uncovered and his hair was long. Also, this portrait was the first ever published in a Hebrew language book. Why did he do it? It was simply normal for authors' portraits to be in other books of the era.

    But don't feel bad about having the wrong image. 150 years later, when a second edition was published in Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad), the publisher drew (yes, drew) a kippah onto the portrait to fit the image of a rabbi in 1859 Prussia. This same publisher -- who gets credit for finding the worth in republishing the book, which led to three more 20th-century editions in Warsaw and Jerusalem -- made another, even more entertaining, mistake.

    The portrait's inscription can be translated "I am 100 years old today." The portrait does not look like a hundred year old man. So the 1859 publisher greyed out his hair, too. But he misread the inscription. The letters in the Hebrew word for 100 add up to 46 in gematriya (Hebrew numerology), which is how old he really was.

    Moshe Chafetz (known as Gentili, in Italian), was a rabbinic scholar in Venice who taught Talmud and Midrash and wrote poetry until his death in late 1711.

    His Torah commentary is cited in various modern rabbinic sources, particularly in the renowned works of Nehama Leibowitz. R. Chafetz incorporated the latest thinking in science (Galileo), mathematics (Descartes), and philosophy (Aristotle), and often evaluated the deeper meaning in the literal text while applying common sense to Torah passages.

    For example, in Deuteronomy 3:27, the Big G tells Moses "look at (the Promised Land) well, because you will not cross the Jordan." R. Chafetz's commentary on this Almighty neener-neener? "Good for him!" Yes, literally. Even the punctuation.

    He then reminds that Moses was 120 years old and probably wouldn't have survived the crossing anyway. What the Big G intended as punishment in reality gave Moses a break.

    In discussing aspects of the Creation story in Genesis, R. Chafetz applies the very new teachings of his countryman Galileo, who had recently revealed to civilization that the universe does not actually revolve around the Earth, and that the Earth itself actually revolves around football season.

    R. Chafetz wrote his Torah commentary after the death of his son Gershom, a prodigy who died young in 1700. R. Chafetz's soul-searching through the ensuing decade led him to amass what he'd found into this book, which includes several opinions of Gershom's, too.

    Gershom was practiced in both rhyme and reason, so R. Chafetz published a rhyme dictionary by Gershom, Yad Charuzim, soon after his death in 1700, which included a poetic rendering of the 613 mitzvot.

    Before all this, R. Chafetz spent his early adult life researching and compiling the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The First Temple (aka the House that Solomon Built) is the better known and more commonly researched and documented. The Second Temple was the one destroyed in 70 C.E. at the start of The Great Exile -- the centuries-long expulsion of the Cubs from winning the World Series.

    The second, smaller Temple is relatively obscure and R. Chafetz felt the need to coalesce all known information into a single source. That source became his first book, Chanukat HaBayit. Published in 1696, it contains 58 sections describing the parts and ritual utensils of the Temple, with 19 diagrams and a detailed map of the Temple facility.

    Even in death, R. Chafetz shook things up. He died on the 30th of Cheshvan, a date that doesn't exist in most years. It's like having a birthday on February 29th. So, did he really die 300 years ago this month? After all, it's only about the 83rd anniversary of the date of his death.

    On Shabbat Yom Turkey (Nov. 26th), three synagogues nationwide will hear sermons honoring R. Chafetz's 300th yahrtzeit, including Temple Beth El in Birmingham.

    Doug Brook is a writer in Silicon Valley who is translating the works of Chafetz. Follow the project on Facebook at For more information, past columns, other writings, and more, visit For exclusive online content, become a fan at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.