10 Things You Need to Know About… Chaim Tchernowitz AKA HaRav Zair

Author and Talmudic scholar

1. Chaim Tchernowitz was born in 1871 in Sebesh, Vitebsk in the Russian Empire. He studied in Lithuania with Isaac Elhanan Spektor and was ordained in 1896.

2. He aimed to rejuvenate Jewish learning by combining traditional study with modern research. He opened a yeshiva in Odessa in 1897 and later transformed it into a rabbinical seminary (1907). He believed that study was the center of Jewish life, as opposed to prayer, and the house of study as opposed to the synagogue. The seminary was attended by such later luminaries as Hayyim Nachman Bialik [see my post of May 22, 2013] and Joseph Klausner.

3. In 1914, he earned a Ph.D. in Judaica from the University of Wuerzburg. After WWI, in 1923, he settled in the United States and taught Talmud at the Jewish Institute of Religion, started by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in New York.

Unknown4. He started writing scholarly papers as early as 1898, when his first article appeared in HaShiloah. He wrote studies on the codes of law preceding Joseph Caro [see my post of October 2, 2013] and general articles on Talmud. His books were mainly methodological studies aimed at modernizing the teaching of Talmud. He wrote four volumes on the development of Halakhah from pre-Mosaic times until the Second Temple. Then he produced a further three volumes on post Talmudic thought through the medieval period.

5. He thus authored a comprehensive history of Jewish law. In a less scholarly vein, he wrote articles in Hebrew and Yiddsh concerning Zionism and contemporary Jewish issues.

6. His pen name, HaRav Zair, means “the young rabbi.”

books7. In 1940, he founded Bitzaron, a Hebrew monthly, which he edited until his death in 1949. Many of his essays of this period were later collected in book form. They included humorous autobiographical sketches, as well as articles on Mendele Mokher Seforim, Bialik, Ahad HaAm [see my post of April 24, 2013] and others.

8. A good portion of his work remains in print today. In addition, an archive of his correspondence and other writings may be found at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati.

27d280d5-613a-40bf-8270-963c3326e0389. Among his friends was Albert Einstein (shown at left, with Tchernowitz on the right), who praised his work in making Torah accessible.

10. His granddaughter said of him, “The Bible is not abstract religious text. The human beings whose stories make it up are inseparable from its meaning….Rav Zair was full of stories.”

In Tel Aviv, the street named for HaRav Zair runs north from Bene Moshe, parallel to Weizmann.

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