Rabbi Yehoshua Yosef Preil

(Rabbi in Krakes from 1884 to 1896)

[With thanks to Abraham I. Lebowitz for this biography]

The following is adapted primarily, but not entirely, from a biographical sketch of Rabbi Yehoshua Yosef Preil which appeared, in Hebrew, as a preface to his book, Ketavim Nivharim (New York, 1924; 2nd. ed. Elizabeth, NJ, 1994 published in one volume with his Eglei-Tal). The book was edited by his youngest brother, Elazar Meir, Rabbi of Elizabeth, NJ, who also wrote the biographical sketch.

Rabbi Yehoshua Yosef Preil was born in Birzai. Various articles about him and obituaries give his year of birth as 1856, 1858 and 1865. According to his sister, Golda Miriam Schwartz: "He was born on 12 Tevet 5619 in Birzai" which is equivalent to 19 December 1858. 

While yet a youth he stood out for his intellectual abilities and was referred to as the ilui (genius) of Birzai. In those days Rabbi Asher Nissan, one of the great scholars of that generation, whose wife was a relative of the Preils', was Rabbi of Birzai. The Rabbi composed many novellae [new insights into the Talmud] but was unable to record them, which the Preil lad did for him. Rabbi Asher Nissan was continually amazed by the young lad's quick grasp of difficult and complex issues. His book Gan Na'ul was written this way, in clear and appropriate language, by the young Preil.

At that time he, together with some other boys his age, edited a Hebrew weekly. They received 5 kopeks per copy and they used the profits to buy cigarettes which they smoked in secret. The famous writer, Yosef Leib Zusnitz who lived in Birzai, got hold of a copy which so impressed him that he placed a standing order for 50 copies which he distributed. When Yehoshua Yosef's father heard that Zusnitz, who was known as a freethinker, was buying the weekly, he ordered his son to stop issuing it.

At the age of eleven Yehoshua Yosef studied in Wabalnik and Vitebsk under the supervision of Rabbi Zalman Landau. At the age of fourteen he returned to Birzai and became engaged, but the engagement was broken, possibly because the bride had the same middle name as his mother. When he was sixteen he married a girl named Devorah Bracha in Sventsyany (Svencionys, in the Vilna district) where Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, the first of the religious Zionists and first head of the Mizrachi movement, was rabbi at the time. Rabbi Preil became a close friend and confidant of Rabbi Reines and they remained friends until his last day.

In 1884 Rabbi Preil was appointed Rabbi of Krakes, a post which he held until his untimely death twelve years later. Rabbi Preil wrote his philosophical book Eglei-Tal in 1886, a book which reveals not only the depth of his knowledge of the Jewish sources but also a broad knowledge of the non-Jewish world. When his book evoked a strong reaction from Judah Leib Rosenthal, one of the leaders of the haskalah [enlightenment] movement, in the journal "Hamelitz", Rabbi Preil responded with a number of articles in the same journal. The Orthodox eagerly looked forward to his articles and even those who did not agree with him honored him because he did not distort the truth. He wrote what he felt was true and while he wrote against the "enlightened" authors he also criticized his rabbinical colleagues when he thought them intellectually dishonest.

Rabbi Preil was not a well man and there were times that he was bedridden for days and weeks, which did not prevent him from acquiring an in-depth knowledge of Russian and German and, toward the end was studying French. These studies did not detract from his study of Torah and he wrote many responsa [decisions on questions of Jewish law submitted to him by other rabbis], novellae and homiletical materials.

Rabbi Preil's brilliance and his ability to extemporize are illustrated by the following story. Once he was asked to preach and, not having prepared anything in particular, asked those present to suggest biblical or talmudic texts on which to base his sermon. Many texts were suggested and Rabbi Preil wove all all of these widely differing texts into one marvelously clear and consistent sermon.

Despite his encyclopedic knowledge, Rabbi Preil never answered halachic [relating to Jewish law] questions without first consulting the relevant sources. When his much younger brother asked him why it was necessary to look up the answers even to simple questions, Rabbi Preil replied that this policy was recommended by earlier rabbis in order to avoid errors. However, he added with a smile, that it was impossible to know everything. If he only looked up those questions to which he did not know the answers everyone would know what he did and did not know. By looking everything up he left his audience guessing.

Rabbi Preil never allowed himself to be photographed. Having his picture taken went against his inner feelings and he could not see of what use seeing his picture would be to others.

The last two years of Rabbi Preil's life was his most productive period. During this period, while he hovered between life and death, he wrote many of his best essays. Many hoped that he was initiating a new period in the rabbinical world and that he would soon be called to be rabbi of a large and important city. In fact only two weeks before his death he was invited to accept such a post. During this same period a wealthy haredi [ultra-Orthodox] leader suggested that he move to Vilnius and offered to fund the establishment of a journal, to be edited by Rabbi Preil, and for which he was to receive a salary of 2.000 roubles, a very large sum for those days. However, Rabbi Preil refused on the grounds that the Orthodox should publish in the same journals as the freethinkers. The readers would then have both points of view available.

Rabbi Preil served twelve years as Rabbi of Krakes. He died of kidney disease on 14 Iyar 5656 [April 27, 1896]. May his memory be blessed.


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Ada Green Last updated: 08 May 2018

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