Wolf Pohorille - A 19th Century Scholar

By

Norbert Porile

 

This is the story of Wolf Pohorille, my great-great-grandfather. He was a well known scholar who spent most of his life in Buchach. In his written works he used the name Zeev Wolf Pohorille and this is also the name by which various writers often refer to him. This name is actually redundant since Zeev is the Hebrew equivalent of Wolf. He was called Wolvaleh by those who knew him well.

Wolf was born in 1818 in Touste (Tolstoye), a small village near Buchach. His father was Alexander Zyskind Pohorille and his mother was the daughter of a well known rabbi. He had one sister, who also lived in Buchach most of her life, whose married name was Alfenbein and one brother. Wolf had distinguished ancestors on both sides of his family. His father was a descendant of the Shakh (Shabbetai Ben Meir Ha-Kohen, born in Amistov, Lithuania in 1621, died in Holesov, Bohemia in 1662) and his mother was a descendant of the Taz (David Ben Samuel Ha-Levi, born in Lodowenia, Ukraine in 1586, died in Lvov, Ukraine, in 1667), both famous rabbinical scholars. Wolf was a precocious youth and started to write both poetry and scholarly work at age 16. His first poem was entitled "Blossoms of Springtime".

Wolf was a man of many talents. He became a successful businessman and engaged in such diverse endeavors as banking, oil exploration, and the sale of iron ore. However, scholarship was his main interest and he devoted much of his time to the study of Torah and the works of Jewish scholars, as well as to original writing. His main contribution was in the area of Aggadic studies - those components of biblical studies dealing with philosophical, ethical, and historical aspects, rather than with religious laws and regulations. He wrote some two dozen books on a variety of biblical topics, as well as on mysticism, grammar, history, philosophy, and poetry. In addition to his published works, he wrote many unpublished manuscripts. Some of his works, described by the Nobel laureate, S. Y. Agnon, in his article on "Books by Buchach Townsmen" in the Buchach Yizkor book include the following:

1. Agadat Azav, a multi-part book series dealing with the Talmud, published in Lemberg (Lvov) in 1887. A part of this work is the 3-part Sefer Divrey Kakhamim, consisting of 1. Derekh Emuna (Way of Faith), which deals with the Talmudic tractate "Berakhot" (Blessings) and the Mishna order "Zeraim" (Seeds); 2. Sefer Davar Be'ito (A Word in Time); 3. Sefer Khosen Rav (Great Riches), which presents the author's innovative thoughts on various sections of the Talmud, including "Yebamot","Ketubot", and "Nedarim".

2. Sefer Drishat HaZe'ev (The Wolf's Enquiry), published in Lemberg (Lvov) in 1895. This multi-part book includes the 1st and 2nd editions of Khomat Anokh, dealing with the Prophets and Sefer Erekh haShulkhan, on the Shulkhan Arukh. This work also reprints the above mentioned Sefer Divrey Khakhamim. A typical feature of both this work and other works is the inclusion of approvals by the leading scholars of the period. For instance, this particular work included endorsements by Rabbi Tsvi Hirsh Orenstein of Lvov, Rabbi Yekutiel Judah Teitelbaum of Siget (uncle of the author's wife), Rabbi Simon Sofer and Rabbi Dembitser of Crakow, Rabbi Meshulam Issachar Halevi Ish Hurevits of Stanislau, Rabbi Joshua Hurvitz of Dzikow, Rabbi Yekhiel Brumir, senior president of the rabbinical court of Buchach, and Rabbi Shmuel Issachar Shtark, also of Buchach, Also included were approvals from the learned elders of Tshortkov and Matanya as well as from several scholars in Eretz Israel.

3. Khomat Ankh, Part Two (Wall of the Law), published in Lemberg (Lvov) in 1889. Consists of commentaries on Prophets and Writings. This work deals with the occasion of each prophecy, the rule of the kings in Judah and Israel, and the events involving surrounding nations, as prophesied by the prophets. It also includes a commentary on Rashi's essays on grammar.

4. Sefer Sheeyrit Yehuda, a multi-part book, first published in 1881, and later reprinted in a 2nd edition. This book consisted of commentaries on the Pentateuch and was dedicated to the memory of his youngest son, Itzak Yehuda.

Wolf learned Arabic, Syrian, Greek, Latin, as well as several modern languages. His knowledge of languages enabled him to delve far afield, for example by enabling him to write a book on the Babylonian Talmud. He traveled widely and got to know many scholars throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with whom he carried on an active correspondence. Many of them wrote Responsa to his works in their own publications. He was considered to be one of the more influential scholars of the second half of the19th century in his field.

Wolf was also very involved in community and charitable activities. He served as president of the Mitnagdim (i.e. mainstream Orthodox) community of Buchach for 32 years and of its Congregation Eydas Yeshurun, and also was a trustee of Jewish charities. At his own expense, he built a house for the chief rabbi next to his own house. His home was always full of rabbis and scholars, who came to him for guidance, poor people who came seeking contributions, and businessmen, who came to engage in deals or to seek advice. He freely gave away copies of his books to schools and rabbis. Wolf championed the cause of the needy and his outgoing and pleasant nature made it possible for him to exert his influence in their support.

In 1865, on Shabat Khazon, the center of Buchach, which is where the Jewish population was concentrated, was ravaged by a big fire. Many houses, including the Great Synagogue as well as individual homes, were destroyed. Wolf's recently built house was among them and he lost his home and all of its belongings. The loss of his priceless library was a personal tragedy as it contained over ten of his own unpublished manuscripts as well as his numerous books.

Wolf had a family life that was slightly unconventional for his time and place. He was married to Nechomah Teitelbaum, a young woman from Darovitch who was already divorced. Her father, Nachum Zvi Teitelbaum, was very knowledgeable in rabbinical studies. Unfortunately, the marriage did not work out well owing to a difference in outlook and temperament and eventually they separated. However, they did have three children: Abraham, born circa 1846, Leah, born in 1849, and Itzak Yehuda, born in 1854. All three died at a relatively young age, before their father. Abraham died in 1884, Leah in 1879, and Itzak Yehuda in 1876, on a day that was both his birthday and wedding day. Of the three, only Abraham had known progeny. He married Gietl Margulis in 1866 and they had three children, all born in Buchach: Henrietta (Hinda), born in 1867, Betty (Baile), and my grandfather Fabian (Feibisch Leibisch), born in 1880. Henrietta married Aron Udelsman and had five children, three sons and two daughters. Betty married a Mr. Kaplan and had three daughters. Fabian married Rosa Schapira and had five children, two sons and three daughters. At the outbreak of WWI all three families left either Buchach or the town they were living in at that time (Husiatyn, Tisminiz) and moved to Vienna. After the War, Betty and her family returned to Poland. Eventually, they all perished in the Holocaust. The families of Henrietta and Fabian, now consisting of married children and grandchildren, left Vienna in the late 30's. Most of them spent the WWII years in South America. Eventually most of them moved to the US, where numerous descendants now live. However, a sizeable number remain in South America.

Coming back to Wolf, it remains to be said that he lived to an old age. Not surprisingly for one who had been so prolific in his writings, he encountered considerable opposition from other scholars. There were some who questioned his faith. For example, he viewed the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham as an allegorical episode; this infuriated the literalists. He struck a middle course in his interpretations, being neither too orthodox nor too radical. Wolf outlived many of his opponents and by the end of his life had won nearly universal approbation from the community of biblical scholars. He died quite suddenly at 5pm on Friday, August 10, 1900. Following the custom of the day he was buried within the hour, before the beginning of Shabat. His funeral attracted many mourners but, in accord with his wishes, there were no eulogies.

 


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