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My Great-Grandfather, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Lamport, Author of ‘Piskei ha-Gra’

With some of his writings being reprinted for an Orthodox audience, my relative’s scholarly achievements are revealed

Natalie Zemon Davis
November 23, 2020
Courtesy of The Rabbi Pini Dunner Collection (Beverly Hills, California)
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch LamportCourtesy of The Rabbi Pini Dunner Collection (Beverly Hills, California)
Courtesy of The Rabbi Pini Dunner Collection (Beverly Hills, California)
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch LamportCourtesy of The Rabbi Pini Dunner Collection (Beverly Hills, California)

Through the invitation of Tablet magazine to write a comment about my great-grandfather Tzvi Hirsch Lamport, I have learned a family story that had not been passed on to me, growing up a third-generation American. The progenitor of my mother’s family was not merely a rabbi and teacher in 19th-century Belarus, but also an honored commentator on Torah and Halacha, working in the tradition of Eliahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna. Indeed, back in 1875 and again in 1902-1904, Tzvi Hirsch had published a collection of the Gaon’s rulings together with commentary of his own on passages from the Shulchan Aruch. Still of interest to Orthodox readers, parts of the book are being reprinted today—and for me, serving as a surprising Lamport legacy.

Tzvi Hirsch Lamport was born to Shlomo and Esther Lamport in Belarus in 1835 in the town of Novardok. Jewish cultural life there was lively, both in Hebrew and Yiddish, with busy yeshivas and many masters of the great texts of the Ashkenazic tradition. Shlomo arranged for his son’s instruction at cheder and by scholars of Torah and Talmud. The teachings of the Gra figured centrally in that study (Gra was the acronym for the Gaon: Gaon Rabenu Eliahu), and in principle he was a model for the scholarly life. The Gra had devoted his years in 18th-century Vilna solely to the study and interpretation of texts, a fulfillment of the ideal, as was said in 19th-century Vilna, “of not making [the] Torah a hoe with which to dig food.”

But food was needed on the table of the Jewish scholars and their families. Many of them turned to the rabbinate for their living, even while rabbinical salaries in Lithuania and Belarus were low and precarious. So Tzvi Hirsch became a rabbi, first practicing in Novardok and then by 1875, when his Piskei ha-Gra appeared, serving a congregation of Jewish craftsmen, traders, and a few estate owners in the small Lithuanian town of Garliava. In the introduction to his book, he mentioned the “great hardship and poverty” he had suffered:

For nearly ten years have I borne the heavy burden of instruction, leading the Lord’s people according to the path of Torah and proper conduct, instructing them in the law. I have had no reprieve until this very day. I have been forced to move around from place to place, each stop along the way too meager to satisfy me and the nursing babes with me during these costly days, when expenses are great and any income disappears in an instant – may God show mercy in the days to come. Despite all this, I have maintained my daily regimen and not diverted myself from the study hall, spending my nights in deep study of Halakha.

Among those “nursing babes” were his eldest, Nathan, and my grandfather Moses. Their mother, Esther Gladstin, probably ran a store or otherwise tried to bring in money, as was the pattern in many rabbinical families. By 1883 Tzvi Hirsch was called to another post, now to the small town of Stalovichy near Minsk in Belarus. He was still serving as rabbi there in 1900, as he prepared the new edition of his Piskei ha-Gra. Throughout, he retained his contacts with the important rabbis of Lithuania and Belarus, as we see from the approbations they provided for his book. Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovno, the most esteemed rabbi of his day, found an early version full of “novel insights,” and along the way was struck by the precocious brilliance of Tzvi Hirsch’s son Nathan. Rabbi Eliyahu Dovid Rabinovitz Te’omim of Mir, in reading an enlarged version in 1897, affirmed that Tzvi Hirsch had “prepared delicacies for the tables of the majestic rabbis.”

Meanwhile in the 1880s and 1890s, Tzvi Hirsch was presiding over a changing scene both in his family and in the political world. His son Nathan had left for the United States in 1877 as a teenager. After peddling for a time-—and preaching Torah as he peddled—Nathan had settled in Burlington, Vermont, where he set up shop selling waste and remnants. Moses and his family joined him some years later. In another direction, Tzvi Hirsch married daughter Chana to Rabbi Yisrael Heller, himself the grandson of an important Belarus rabbi. Like Tzvi Hirsch, the Hellers were misnagdim, scholarly Orthodox opponents of the Hasidic movement that had caught fire among communities of Lithuanian Jews.

Through writing this article about my great-grandfather Tzvi Hirsch Lamport, I have learned a family story that had not been passed on to me, growing up a third-generation American. As a girl, I had heard something of my mother’s uncle Nathan Lamport and the role he had played in support of Yeshiva University before his death in 1928. His combination of commercial success and engaged religious Orthodoxy fit well what I knew of his children and those of his brother Moses, my own grandfather. Spread out to different cities from their initial start as immigrants in Burlington, Vermont, these uncles, aunts, and cousins were devoted both to business and to Jewish religious practice.

Lamport family Passover Seder, Manhattan, 1933; the author, Natalie Zemon Davis, sits third from the left, in the white dress
Lamport family Passover Seder, Manhattan, 1933; the author, Natalie Zemon Davis, sits third from the left, in the white dressCourtesy the author

Tzvi Hirsch was also a strong critic of Jewish involvement in socialist and revolutionary movements, some of it going on in Belarus itself. Already in 1881, the young Abraham Cahan had joined a socialist commune in Vitebsk and managed to escape the Russian police and leave for America. Young Chaim Zhitlovksy and Shloyme Zanvel Rappoport, friends since their bar mitzvah days in Vitebsk province, were busy spreading radical or socialist ideas. Rappoport lost his post as tutor in 1882 for his pains, and Zhitlovsky went from pillar to post, but neither abandoned his effort to link socialism with Jewish consciousness. Rappoport, under his new name of Ansky, went on to write The Dybbuk, and both men were to be supporters of the Bund.

Looking at the world in 1883, Rabbi Lamport thought them already on the wrong path. The events of 1881-1882 had brought terror to the Jews. Czar Alexander II had been assassinated by the anarchist Narodnaya Voyla group in March 1881, and a Jewish woman was among those arrested and tried for the act. Pogroms erupted in Russian lands, with Jews the prime victims. In May 1882, the Russian government, under Czar Alexander III, enacted laws restricting Jewish living arrangements and business in the Pale (which included Belarus). Even moderate Russified Jewish intellectuals began to turn against the government, the Jewish weekly Razvet calling for mass emigration.

This was the historical context for Tzvi Hirsch’s sermon in December 1883, “Paying Homage to Kings,” a traditional call for Jews to accept and be obedient to the political authorities in place and their rulings. “I observe the command of the king,” was the model from Ecclesiastes 8:2, and such obedience was enjoined in other biblical texts:

Let every Jew who has the fear of God in him know that from the day we were exiled from our land, we have found refuge in the Diaspora under the aegis of the laws of these countries. We have been sworn from birth, as the rabbis tell us based on the tradition of our holy Torah, that fear of the earthly government ought to be upon us like the fear of the heavenly kingdom, so that we do not violate the laws and statues of the government, in the same manner that we are enjoined not to violate the laws of our holy Torah.

Any call for the transformation of laws was to be framed within “the Halakha of the messianic era.” Years later Tzvi Hirsch still thought his message of importance and published it in the 1902-1904 edition of his Piskei ha-Gra.

By then, and perhaps already in the 1890s, Tzvi Hirsch had lost his first wife, Esther, and had remarried Etke Kulik, from a family connected to scribes and destined to produce scholars. A lithograph of Tzvi Hirsch from the end of the century suggests the respect with which he was held and the ideals to which he clung. A bearded man in his mid-60s, he sits next to a table of books. Above his left shoulder is an 1888 wall map of the Holy Land, which had been published in Odessa by the polymath Isaac Joel Linetzy. Above his right shoulder is a lithograph of the Gra at his desk, which had been designed in Vilna in 1897 to mark the 100th anniversary of his death. (“Tzvi Hirsch looks like a Lamport,” I exclaimed when I first saw the picture.)

Regarding the Holy Land, Tzvi Hirsch’s position seems to have been that of the traditional Orthodox of his day. As suggested in “Paying Homage to Kings,” he saw the diaspora as the continuing setting for most of the Jewish people. He surely approved Hovevei Zion as it settled recently persecuted Jews in the Holy Land and supported Jewish farmers already living there. Mass emigration, that is, the restoration of the kingdom of Israel, was to be the work of the Lord at the time of the Messiah. In the meantime, as Rabbi Alexander Moses Lapidot had said from Vilna, “Only the pious and the men of deeds shall go up to serve the Lord [there] and to pray for the welfare of their dispersed brethren and for the entire world.” This is what he did himself, moving to Jerusalem with his wife, Etke, in 1904, after the publication of the last volume of the Piskei ha-Gra. Alas, he did not have long to enjoy the Holy Land, for he became ill and passed away in Jerusalem in February 1905.

Nonetheless, we can find out what the Gra meant for Tzvi Hirsch in the introduction to the Piskei, which stressed the continuing importance of his teaching. The “divine light of Torah” is the center of Jewish life—here Tzvi Hirsch meant Torah in the wide sense, including the Talmud and commentary—and it is incumbent on each Jew, according to his ability, to seek it and live by its law. The Gra not only exemplified such a life, but his expositions of the law had drawn on “a cornucopia of delicacies from both the Babylonian Talmud [and] the Jerusalem Talmud,” along with the other great commentators of the Jewish past. Moreover, he had been willing to take issue with even the Shulchan Aruch, when Caro’s text seemed to diverge from “the truth of Torah.”

Tzvi Hirsch had spent the last years collecting and studying the Gra’s actual rulings on cases in the Shulchan Aruch, which, he claimed, had not yet been published and which the Gra would have wanted “to be discussed by halakhists of authority in halakhic fora.” (Tzvi Hirsch here was presumably distinguishing between the Gra’s commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch, which had been given printed editions in the decades since his death, and the Gra’s rulings on individual cases.) Tzvi Hirsch had also added some commentaries, some pilpul, of his own. He gave them the title ’Ammudei Esh, “Pillar of Fire,” explaining that “Esh” represented the first letters of the names of his parents, Esther and Shlomo. For the edition of 1875, he had turned to the Matz printing house in Vilna, well established for decades. For the enlarged edition of 1902-1904, with the Gra’s rulings on the three later sections of the Shulchan Aruch, he won as publisher the house of the Widow and Brothers Romm, the most important Jewish publishing house in Eastern Europe. He had clearly arrived.

I end with some pilpul from Tzvi Hirsch’s introduction, in which he described his hopes for his own edition. He opened with a quotation from the Babylonian Talmud, where the angels are demanding to know why the Holy One had not given them the Torah to pass on to the Jewish people. Tzvi Hirsch then laid out alternate situations in which a benefit can be received, either acquired by the person himself/herself to be rewarded or acquired by another, who can then pass it on to the person so helped. As an example of the latter, he cited a slave who is given manumission, adding as a complication that manumission itself “violates a positive commandment.” “Ah, yes,” I said while reading this, recalling the late 17th-century Spanish/Hebrew prayer I had found that was to be said when purchasing a slave: One promised, with reference to Leviticus 25:46, to keep the Canaanite slave as one’s bondsman forever. (I had quoted this prayer in an essay on Jewish slave ownership in Suriname, published in Tablet.)

Tzvi Hirsch went on to cite from the Talmud (Shabbat 89a) how the Holy One had instructed Moses to explain to the angels why they had not received the benefit of the Torah. Moses wisely went through the Ten Commandments asking the angels whether any of them applied to them—had they been brought forth from Egypt and the like—to which the angels’ answers were clearly negative. Tzvi Hirsch added some arguments of his own: The angels did not have bodies, so how could they put on tzitzit and phylacteries? They could not themselves fulfill the obligations of the Torah.

Then, using his different models for the transmission of benefits, Tzvi Hirsch argued further that the angels

who wanted to act in our interest and acquire the Torah for us were exactly like someone who lifts up any old object for his friend, concerning which there is an opinion in the Talmud that his friend does not acquire it because it is seizure for a creditor when it is detrimental to others.

At this point, I part company with the pilpul of my great-grandfather Tzvi Hirsch Lamport. Though I once wrote a book on The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, in which different modes of exchange and obligation were central, I find it difficult to follow Tzvi Hirsch’s reasoning. I end then applauding the lifelong devotion he brought to his pursuit of the “truth of the Torah.” In his will of 1905, Tzvi Hirsch left his books and notebooks to his sons in America. I wonder what he would have thought of a descendant like me, reading and pondering his texts: a female scholar, who has not always obeyed the Rulers’ commands. Perhaps he would have recognized and been glad that we share a passion for learning and a quest for truth.

Author’s note: I am especially grateful to Menachem Butler for conversations about the Lamport family and for supplying me with essential materials for the preparation of this essay. The picture of Tzvi Hirsch Lamport is part of the collection of Rabbi Pini Dunner, who has kindly provided a copy for use in this essay. The picture was initially part of the collection of Benzion Eisenstadt (1873-1951), a scholar who was born in Belarus and immigrated in 1903 to the United States. Eisenstadt published biographies of contemporary rabbis. Thanks also to Nathan Lewin of Washington, D.C., for identifying the origin of the map in the background of the picture. Translations in this essay have been prepared by Daniel Tabak. I am appreciative of the added commentary in his notes and his references to the precise Talmudic texts being drawn upon by Lamport.

Natalie Zemon Davis is a Canadian and American historian of the early modern period. She is currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto in Canada. She is the author of The Return of Martin Guerre, Women on the Margins, and Trickster Travels, among many others.