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Katzenellenbogen, Tsevi Hirsh

(1796–1868), rabbi, teacher, commentator, public figure. Born in Vilna, Tsevi Hirsh Katzenellenbogen received a traditional Jewish education and even as a youth was recognized as a talented Torah scholar. His early teachers were the rabbis Sha’ul Katzenellenbogen (who gave his surname to Tsevi Hirsh as a marriage present) and Abele Posvoler.

Katzenellenbogen grew up in a family that was one of the first in Vilna to embrace the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) worldview. His father, Simḥah Bord, belonged to the transition generation between the closed world of traditional Jewish society in Vilna and the more open milieu proclaimed by the Haskalah, and he educated his children in the new spirit. Toward the beginning of the nineteenth century he had even established a small bet midrash (study hall) in the courtyard of his home that became a meeting place for Vilna’s first maskilim (adherents of the Haskalah). The second-floor library included books on science, modern thought, and other nontraditional works. Here, in the 1820s, young Tsevi Hirsh was introduced to Haskalah ideas as well as the Hebrew language and its grammar. He became a pupil of the well-known poet and author Avraham Dov Lebensohn (Adam ha-Kohen).

In 1827 Katzenellenbogen was one of the group of students that founded the Yeshivat ha-Arba‘im (“Yeshiva of the Forty”), a prestigious institution for promising young Torah scholars. At the same time Katzenellenbogen, like some of his colleagues, still assigned an important place to the Haskalah and its ideas in his cultural and spiritual world. He was one of the first to acquire a copy of the book Te‘udah be-Yisra’el (A Warning to Israel), by Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon, which appeared in 1828 and was considered the most important programmatic work of the Haskalah in Russia at that time.

In the 1820s Katzenellenbogen began a lifelong career as a social activist and public servant in the Vilna Jewish community. In 1823 he was a member of Sheloshim u-Shenayim Pene ha-‘Ir (Thirty-Two Leaders of the City), a body whose members were drawn from the economic and political elite of Jewish Vilna. It served as a kind of advisory body to the kahal, the institution that ruled the Jewish community. In 1826 Katzenellenbogen served as gaba’i (member of the board) of the Ḥevrah Kadisha’ Talmud Torah, an association that was charged with organizing the education given to orphans and poor children. In 1829 he was one of the treasurers of Ha-Tsedakah ha-Gedolah (Great Charity Fund/Association), which was responsible for the whole social welfare system of the Jewish community of Vilna, and in 1836 he served in the Jewish community’s most important lay position, that of parnas (community leader; lit., “provider”).

At the same time, Katzenellenbogen quite early on became one of the most important figures in the development of the Haskalah in Vilna. The bet midrash in his parents’ home became a safe haven for youths just becoming acquainted with the Haskalah and provided them with support and assistance. The bet midrash also became a center of Haskalah social and political activity locally. In 1843 Katzenellenbogen was one of the signers of a petition by Vilna maskilim to the Russian government asking that Jews be allowed to change their traditional dress. In 1847 he was also among the initiators and founders of the modern-style, Haskalah-oriented synagogue Tohorat ha-Kodesh. When the Russian government undertook to impose Enlightenment-oriented education (haskalah mi-ta‘am) on the Jewish community and sponsored the establishment of a seminary for teachers and rabbis in Vilna, Katzenellenbogen was hired as a teacher (1848); soon thereafter he was appointed to be the inspector of Jewish studies, a post he held until his death.

Along with these multifaceted activities, Katzenellenbogen also represented the Vilna Jewish community in its contacts with various Russian government bodies. Thus, in 1841 he met with Max Lilienthal, who was visiting the city to advance the government’s program of sponsoring enlightenment-oriented schools, and in 1843 he represented Vilna’s Jews in a meeting with the Russian minister of education, Count Sergei Uvarov. When Sir Moses Montefiore visited Russia in 1846, Katzenellenbogen and Yehudah Opatov were the representatives from Vilna on the exclusive committee of Jewish communal leaders that received the honored guest in Saint Petersburg, and he was also one of the representatives who received Montefiore in Vilna itself.

Even after the Russian government formally abolished the kahal in 1844, Katzenellenbogen continued his public activities. He was among the members of the institution known as the Deputies, and in 1850 he served on the committee that determined whether melamdim (traditional elementary school teachers) were fit for their job.

Katzenellenbogen was also a writer. Among his works were Shir tehilah (Song of Praise; 1817); Naḥal dim‘ah (River of Tears; 1821), Netivot ‘olam (Ways of the World; 1822), and Giv‘at Sha’ul (Saul’s Hill; 1825). He also published articles in the Jewish periodicals Otsar ḥokhmah, Pirḥe tsafon, and Ha-Karmel. He left unpublished works that included commentaries on Midrash rabah and the Guide of the Perplexed, new interpretations of the rhythm of names, and a book, Tif’eret Tsevi (Zvi’s Glory).

Katzenellenbogen’s sons, Ḥayim Leib, Shelomoh, and Gershon-Gavri’el, belonged to the second generation of Lithuanian maskilim. Like their father, they were active in Haskalah social and educational affairs. One of his daughters married Ya‘akov Katzenelson, the central figure in the circle of maskilim in the town of Bobruisk.

Suggested Reading

Immanuel Etkes, ed., Ha-Dat veha-ḥayim: Tenu‘at ha-Haskalah ha-yehudit be-Mizraḥ Eropah (Jerusalem, 1993); Israel Klausner, Vilnah, Yerushalayim de-Lita: Dorot rishonim, 1495–1881 (Tel Aviv, 1988); Hillel Noah Maggid-Steinschneider, ‘Ir Vilna: Zikhronot ‘adat Yisra’el ve-toldot ḥaye gedoleha, vol. 1 (Vilnius, 1900); Jacob Shatzky, Kultur-geshikhte fun der Haskole in Lite: Fun di eltste tsaytn bis Hibas Tsien (Buenos Aires, 1950); Mordekhai Zalkin, Ba-‘Alot ha-shaḥar: Ha-Haskalah ha-yehudit ba-Imperyah ha-Rusit ba-me’ah ha-tesha‘ ‘esreh (Jerusalem, 2000).



Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson