Rabbi Yom Tob Tsahalon and the First Book Ever Printed in the Land of Israel

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Rabbi Yom Tob ben Moshe Tsahalon (1559-1619), also known by his acronym מהריט”ץ, was a student of Rabbi Moshe of Tirani (the Mabbit) and Rabbi Moshe Alshekh haQadosh. It is also possible that he had occasionally studied under Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulhan ‘Arukh.

Rabbi Tsahalon was a child prodigy. Not only for his precocious intelligence but mainly for his passionate dedication to the study of the Tora, when he was a teenager. Referring to his learning with Rabbi Mabbit and Rabbi Alshekh, he writes: “I devoted myself to studying at night, day and evening, without pause … clinging to the dust of the feet of the two great luminaries [his two teachers ] and drinking with thirst their words and teachings … [During all this time] I did not rest or pause, and I only dedicated myself to learning the Divine judgments [the laws of the Tora] …. I suffered the mockery of my friends when they saw that I was walking on these good paths, they despised me because I did not do what the youth of my age used to do … but I did not distract myself… since my greatest delight was always to learn to learn Divine Laws … “

The effort paid off. When he was 20 years old, the young Rab Tsahalon began to write his Pesaqim, that is, his Rabbinic Responsa, something reserved for mature and very experienced Rabbis.

We have evidence that at the age of 25 some of the most important rabbis of that time, such as Rabbi Shemuel Yafe of Constantinople (1525-1595) consulted with the young rabbi Tsahalon, to know his opinion in all kinds of rabbinical jurisprudence cases.

Some of those responses were published in what is the most famous book of Rabbi Tsahalon “She-elot Utshubot Maharitats”. This book is a collection of Rabbinical questions and answers, on topics of Jewish ritual and legal issues.

לקח טוב
One of Rabbi Tsahalon’s lesser-known books, but perhaps the most fascinating one, is a commentary on Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther. The name of the book is “Leqaj Tob” . And I have three reasons to affirm that this is an exceptional book.

1. Rabbi Tsahalon published this book in the year 1577. Considering that he was born in 1559, we see that when he published this book he was 18! Which means that he wrote this book in his early teens.

2. What makes this book truly unique is that it was the first book ever published in the land of Israel! Let me explain: until the year 1577, there were no printing presses in Israel. Jewish books were printed mainly in Italy (Rome, Ferrara, Venice) or Turkey. The first printing press in the history of Israel was established in the city of Tsefat by Rabbi Eliezer ben Ytshaq Ashkenazi, who had already had his own printing in Lublin (Poland) and Constantinople (Turkey). Anyway, this printing press did not last long, only ten years, in which only the book of Rab Tsahalón and five other books were printed.

3. Finally, like every good book, what makes this work fascinating is its content. Rabbi Tsahalon bases his commentary on two fundamental elements: 1. The Talmud and the Midrash’s ideas. 2. An acute and meticulous analysis of the Biblical language, where many times a new meaning can be discovered by rereading the same text with a “mental microscope,” which analyzes the almost imperceptible details of some Hebrew words.
We will see now an example of this type of analysis.

This is the text to be found in ALL the translations of Megillah Esther, 3: 2 “All the officers who were at the king’s court knelt and prostrated before Haman, because the king had so ordered … but Mordekhai did not kneel, nor prostrated [before Haman]. “
One of the most difficult questions to solve in the Megilla is why Mordekhai did not bow to Haman, when seemingly the King himself gave the order? The Midrash explains that Haman had an idol around his neck, which made him a representative (virtually a human incarnation) of that god, and therefore kneeling before Haman would amount to idolatry. The question then is: Why did Mordechai stay at the King’s court? If he could not kneel before Haman, he should have quit his position in the court and not endanger the other Jews of the Persian empire!

Rab Tsahalon (page 34) observed that the last words describing what Mordekhai did are written in the future tense, and although in many cases like this, this type of continuous tense can be understood as a past tense, in this particular case we must preserve the original conjugation. Thus, this Pasuq would be saying, “All the officers who were at the king’s court knelt and prostrated before Haman, because the king had so ordered … but Mordekhai did not have to kneel, nor prostrate [before Haman]. “ Thus, Rabbi Tsahalon explains that the King granted Mordekhai a special permission, a dispensation, so that Mordekhai, as a Jew, would not have to kneel before the human-god Haman. This explanation, as far as I know, is unique and original to Rabbi Tsahalon. And it solves an important question.

The other details of this question and many other fabulous insights of Rabbi Tsahalon can be found in his book Leqah Tob that we offer here, courtesy of hebrewbooks.org.