Samson Raphael Hirsch

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Rabbi S.R. Hirsch
Rabbi S.R. Hirsch
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (June 20, 1808 - December 31, 1888) was the intellectual founder of the Torah im Derech Eretz school of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. Occasionally termed neo-Orthodoxy, his philosophy, together with that of Ezriel Hildesheimer, has had a considerable influence on the development of Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Early years and education

Hirsch was born in Hamburg, Germany. His father, though a merchant, devoted much of his time to Torah studies; his grandfather, Mendel Frankfurter, was the founder of the Talmud Torah in Hamburg and unsalaried assistant rabbi of the neighboring congregation of Altona; and his granduncle, Löb Frankfurter, was the author of several Hebrew works, including Harechasim le-Bik'ah, a Torah commentary. Hirsch was a pupil of Chacham Isaac Bernays, and the Biblical and Talmudical education which he received, combined with his teacher's influence, led him to determine not to become a merchant, as his parents had desired, but to choose the rabbinical vocation. In furtherance of this plan he studied Talmud from 1823 to 1829 in Mannheim under Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger. He then entered the University of Bonn, where he studied at the same time as his future antagonist, Abraham Geiger.


In 1830 Hirsch was elected chief rabbi (Landesrabbiner) of the principality of Oldenburg. During this period he wrote his Neunzehn Briefe über Judenthum, which were published, under the pseudonym of "Ben Usiel" (or "Uziel"), at Altona in 1836. This work made a profound impression in German Jewish circles because it was something new — a brilliant, intellectual presentation of Orthodox Judaism in classic German, and a fearless, uncompromising defense of all its institutions and ordinances.

In 1838 Hirsch published, as a necessary concomitant of the Letters, his Horeb, oder Versuche über Jissroel's Pflichten in der Zerstreuung, which is a text-book on Judaism for educated Jewish youth. In fact, he wrote Horeb first, but his publishers doubted that a work defending traditional Judaism would find a market in those times, when reform was in vogue. In 1839 he published Erste Mittheilungen aus Naphtali's Briefwechsel, a polemical essay against the reforms in Judaism proposed by Holdheim and others; and in 1844 he published Zweite Mittheilungen aus einem Briefwechsel über die Neueste Jüdische Literatur, also polemical in tendency.


Hirsch remained in Oldenburg until 1841, when he was elected chief rabbi of the Hanoverian districts of Aurich and Osnabrück, with his residence in Emden. During this five-year post, he was taken up almost completely by communal work, and had little time for writing. He did, however, found a secondary school with a curriculum featuring both Jewish studies and a secular programme, for the first time employing his motto Torah im Derech Eretz ("The Torah is maximalised in partnership with worldly involvement").


In 1846 Hirsch was called to the rabbinate of Nikolsburg in Moravia, and in 1847 he became chief rabbi of Moravia and Austrian Silesia. In Austria he passed five years in the reorganization of the Jewish congregations and the instruction of numerous disciples; he was also, in his official capacity as chief rabbi, a member of the Moravian Landtag, where he campaigned for more civil rights for Jews in Moravia.

In Moravia Hirsch had a difficult time, on the one side receiving criticism from the Reform-minded, and on the other side from a deeply traditional Orthodox element, which found some of his reforms too radical. Hirsch placed a much stronger emphasis on deep study of the entire Hebrew Bible, rather than just the Torah and selected Bible readings, in addition to Talmud, as had been the custom of religious Jews up until then. A typical criticism was: "Before Hirsch we were studying Talmud and reading Psalms, after Hirsch we are reading Talmud and studying Psalms".

Frankfurt am Main

In 1851 he accepted a call as rabbi of an Orthodox separatist group in Frankfurt am Main, a part of the Jewish community of which had otherwise largely accepted classical Reform Judaism. This group, known as the "Israelite Religious Society" ("Israelitische Religions-Gesellschaft" or IRG), became under his administration a great congregation, numbering about 500 families. Hirsch was to remain Rabbi of this congregation the rest of his life.

Hirsch organized the Realschule and the Bürgerschule, in which thorough Jewish and secular training went hand in hand (Torah im Derech Eretz). He also founded and edited the monthly magazine Jeschurun (1855-70; new series, 1882 et seq); most of the pages of the Jeschurun were filled by himself.

In 1876, Edward Lasker (a Jewish parliamentarian in the Prussian Landtag) introduced the "Secession Bill" (Austrittsgesetz), which would enable Jews to secede from a religious congregation without having to relinquish their religious status. The law was passed on July 28, 1876. Sadly, there arose a conflict whether "Austritt" (secession) was required by Jewish law. Hirsch held this was mandatory, even though it involved a court appearance and visible disapproval of the Reform-dominated "Main Community" (Grossgemeinde). His contemporary Joseph Dov Bamberger, Rabbi of Würzburg, argued that as long as the Grossgemeinde made appropriate arrangements for the Orthodox element, secession was unnecessary. The schism caused a terrible rift and many hurt feelings, and its aftershocks could be felt until the ultimate destruction of the Frankfurt community by the Nazis.

Final years

During the final years of his life, Hirsch put his efforts in the founding of the "Freie Vereinigung für die Interessen des Orthodoxen Judentums", an association of independent Jewish communities. During the 30 years after his death this organisation would be used as a model for the formation of the international orthodox Agudat Yisrael movement. There is no doubt that Hirsch was opposed to political Zionism, although his love for the Land of Israel is apparent from his writings.

From reports of his family members, it seems likely that Hirsch contracted falciparum malaria while in Emden, which continued to plague him during the rest of life with febrile episodes.

Hirsch died in 1888 in Frankfurt am Main and is buried there.

Works and activism

Hirsch had an exceptionally powerful pen. An example is his opinion about a Jewish state (Hirsch Siddur, 1969 p703):

During the reign of Hadrian when the uprising led by Bar Kochba proved a disastrous error, it became essential that the Jewish people be reminded for all times of an important, essential fact, namely that (the people of) Israel must never again attempt to restore its national independence by its own power; it was to entrust its future as a nation solely to Divine Providence.

Other works (besides the ones mentioned above) were:

  • Pamphlet: "Jüdische Anmerkungen zu den Bemerkungen eines Protestanten" (anon.), Emden, 1841 (response to a provocative pamphlet by an anonymous Protestant);
  • Pamphlet: "Die Religion im Bunde mit dem Fortschritt (anon.), Frankfurt am Main, 1854 (response to provocations from the side of the Reform-dominated "Main Community");
  • "Uebersetzung und Erklärung des Pentateuchs,", 5 volumes 1867-78 (Hirsch' innovative and influential Torah commentary, see below);
  • Pamphlets during the Secession Debate:
    • "Das Princip der Gewissensfreiheit," 1874;
    • "Der Austritt aus der Gemeinde," 1876
  • "Uebersetzung und Erklärung der Psalmen", 1882 (Hirsch' commentary on the book of Psalms);
  • "Ueber die Beziehungen des Talmuds zum Judenthum", 1884 (a defense of Talmudic literature against anti-Semitic slanders in Russia)

He left in manuscript at the time of his death a translation and explanation of the prayer-book which was subsequently published. The publication, in several volumes, of his collected writings (Gesammelte Schriften) was begun in 1902.

Most of Hirsch' writings have been translated into English and Hebrew by his descendants, starting with "Horeb" in the 1950s (by Dayan Isidore Grunfeld of London) and his Torah commentary in the 1960s (by his grandson Isaac Levi, also of London). The bulk of his Collected Writings, that had previously been published in German in 1902-12, were translated during the 1980s and 1990s in memory of his grandson Joseph Breuer.

Themes in his work

Hirsch lived in the post-Napoleonic era, an epoch when Jews had been granted civil rights in a large number of European countries, leading to assimilation and a call for reform. A large segment of his work focusses on the possibilities for Orthodox Judaism in such an era, when religious freedom also meant the freedom to practice Torah precepts without persecution and ridicule.

The principle of "Austritt", an independent Orthodoxy, flows naturally from his view on the place of Judaism in his epoch: if Judaism is to gain from these civil liberties, it has to be able to develop independently - without having to lend implicit or explicit approval to efforts at reformation.

Hirsch' polemical work was almost completely dedicated to the defense of the views described above.

His other major work involves the symbolic meaning of many Torah commandments and passages. Indeed, his work "Horeb" (1837) focuses to a large degree on the possible meanings and symbols in religious precepts. This work was continued in his Torah commentary and his articles in the Jeschurun journal (Collected Writings, vol. III, is a collation of these articles).

A final area of his work, which has only recently been rediscovered, was his etymological analysis of the Hebrew language. Most of this work is contained in his Torah commentary, where he analyses and compares the shorashim (three-letter root forms) of a large number of Hebrew words and develops an etymological system of the Hebrew language. Although this effort was, in his own words, "totally unscientific", it has led to the recent publication of an "etymological dictionary of the Hebrew language" (Clark 2000).

Although Hirsch does not mention his influences (apart from traditional Jewish sources), later authors have identified ideas from the Kuzari (Yehuda Halevi) and the Maharal of Prague in his works. Nevertheless, most of his ideas are probably original.

Influence and controversy

There is considerable controversy over Hirsch's legacy; this is a matter of debate between Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) and Modern Orthodox writers. While it is undisputed that his Torah im Derech Eretz was his real innovation, the exact implementation has been greatly debated.

Those on Modern Orthodox's right wing, and Haredi followers, including Hirsch's own descendants (his son-in-law and successor Rabbi Solomon Breuer, his grandson Rabbi Joseph Breuer and the latter's successor Rabbi Shimon Schwab) hold that Hirsch only wanted Jews to combine observant Jewish lifestyle with learning the surrounding gentile society's language, history, and science, so that a religious Jew could earn a living in the surrounding gentile society. In this view, Hirsch did not want or approve of Jews learning gentile philosophy, music, art, literature or ethics for any other purpose than to function well in the surrounding world.

In contrast, Jewish historians and most Modern Orthodox Jews say that this understanding of Hirsch's philosophy is misguided; they refer to this reading of Hirsch as improper historical revisionism. (This issue has been discussed, i.a., in several articles in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, published by the Rabbinical Council of America.) In this view, Hirsch wanted more than just the study of the surrounding gentile society's language, history, science. He also thought that it was permissible, and even productive, for Jews to learn gentile philosophy, music, art, literature and ethics for its own sake. Hirsch himself studied gentile philosophy, ethics and literature; as did many later adherents, including Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.

There are some reasons to state that Hirsch held a slightly wider view than his sucessors of the level of secular knowledge that a Jew ought to possess to be fully "enlightened" while remaining scrupulously adherent to Jewish law. This may have been a response to increased dialogue between Hirsch's German followers and Eastern European Jewry. While a yeshiva student in Eastern Europe, Rabbi Shimon Schwab obtained the views of various poskim (authorities in Jewish law) on the required level of secular knowledge (Levi 1990). On this basis, many Ultra-Orthodox adherents of Hirsch's philosophy have preferred the natural sciences over the humanities as a subject of secular study.

See further discussion in the article on Torah im Derech Eretz.


  • Clark, Matityahu. Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew: Based on the Commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. New York: Feldheim publishers, 2000. ISBN 1583304312.
  • Klugman, Rabbi Eliyahu Meir. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, architect of Judaism for the modern world New York: Mesorah, 1996. ISBN 0899066321.
  • Levi, prof Yehuda. Torah Study. New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1990. ISBN 0873065557.

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