Ture zahav (Columns of Gold)

David ben Samuel ha-Levi



When the Lord enlarged the border of the Jewish people, and they increased and grew exceedingly mighty, and the land was filled with knowledge of the Lord [see Exodus 1:7; Isaiah 11:9] by the Talmud and the poskim [halakhic decisors], albeit that one increase piled upon another effectively resulted in a diminution,1 as no one knew to which of the holy ones to turn to determine the actual halakhic practice to be adopted in Israel, He sent before them a man—Joseph [Karo], sold as a slave [see Psalms 105:17]—he who serves the city, from all the tribes of Israel, shall till it (Ezekiel 48:19); it was he who sold [see Genesis 42:6] grain as food and opened the belts of the mighty (Job 12:21), who healed every broken heart through his great and esteemed works, the Bet Yosef and the Shulḥan ‘arukh. The pure man gathered [see Numbers 19:9] from all the differing camps of the holy ones and they became unified in his hand [see Ezekiel 37:17]. Was he not rightly named Joseph [see Genesis 27:36], as though to say: May the Lord add to us another son! (Genesis 30:24)? For comparable to him was this man Moses [Isserles] (Exodus 32:1) who led Joseph like a flock (Psalms 80:2). And they both built the house of Israel through determinative and succinct halakhic rulings; and the entire nation saw and cried out [see Leviticus 9:24], rejoicing that they would reach their desired haven at all times [i.e., they would know whether something was permissible to eat or prohibited, whether someone was liable or exempt].

Now I saw, in the introduction of our master, the author of the Bet Yosef, that he had a concern in this regard that the Torah might be turned into several Torahs by reason of the differences of opinion existing among the poskim, and therefore he paid good heed and sought out [see Ecclesiastes 12:9] a solid edifice in order to clarify such issues. But in this generation of ours, such concern has returned, for after him arose great authorities in Israel, one of whom was that special individual in our nation, our illustrious, great teacher, R. Solomon Luria. Later, in our own days, the most illustrious individuals, the geonim, R. [Joshua] Falk of blessed memory, and my teacher, my father-in-law, our teacher, R. Joel [Sirkes] of blessed memory, composed works whose respective virtues are well known, each in accordance with his honor. The eyes of all Jewry are fixed upon them [see 1 Kings 1:20], each individual according to his perception—one building and one destroying, one dreaming and the other interpreting. It is indeed so; for the appropriate path before us is to make our entire objective the justification of their statements. Even if one may find, along the way, the sound [kan]2 of writing implements and of scrolls not in accordance with the halakhah, one should not publicly open one’s mouth to utter a word—or half a word—denigrating their honor, heaven forbid. On the contrary, one should even hazard one’s very life [see Judges 12:2] to resolve these irregularities as far as possible, preferring credit to condemnation, and the positive to the negative, in accordance with the tradition explicitly transmitted to us concerning all the mishnaic authorities, to whom this matter was of paramount importance.

And incidentally, I determined to set out on the royal table my own novel insight on this theme, with God’s help. In Tosafot [medieval commentaries on the Talmud] to Kiddushin 62a, chapter three, regarding the condition addressed by the priest to a woman suspected of adultery: “If no man has lain with you, be free, but if one has lain with you, be choked to death,” Tosafot wrote as follows:

This is problematic, for we derive the law relating to all conditions from the episode involving the children of Gad and of Reuben [see Numbers 32], and that being so, the positive clause must precede the negative; but here we have the negative preceding the positive, for “if he has not lain” is written first! The answer is that “if he has not lain” is regarded as positive, since that which we wish to be the case is considered positive, just like “If they [the Gadites and Reubenites] cross [the Jordan],” where we desire them to pass over, and should they not do so, they will lose out, so too, we want “if he has not lain” to be fulfilled. Hence that constitutes the positive, but “if he has lain” he will lose out, and that constitutes the negative.

But I had a great problem with this, arising from Tractate Gittin chapter seven [75b]:

Samuel instituted [the following words to be written] in a get [bill of divorce] given by one on the point of death: If I do not die, let this not be a valid get, but should I die, let it be a valid get! However [suggests the Gemara], let it rather state: If I die, let it be a valid get, but should I not die, let it not be a valid get! Explaining: No one brings the notion of retribution for himself to the fore! Rava objects to this, saying: “But we require the positive to precede the negative!” Rather, Rava said, “He has to state: If I do not die, let this not be a valid get, but if I die, let it be a valid get!” For when he initially says: If I do not die, let this not be a valid get! he is not thereby bringing the notion of retribution to himself to the fore, and he can then say: If I die, let this be a valid get!, as we require the positive to precede the negative.

Now, according to the aforementioned Tosafot, this is problematic, as he need merely state, without further elaboration: If I do not die, let this not be a valid get, but if I die, let it be a valid get!—for we would automatically hold that the negative formulation here really constitutes a positive, since he desires not to die and that she will not be divorced, as stated in connection with the woman suspected of adultery.

Now there is actually a still greater problem, as the question raised by Tosafot can be resolved in a different manner. For the order of how the priest should make his pronouncement is not actually written in the Torah, but rather we derive, from the fact that it is written “be free” [ḥinaki] that the verse additionally means “be choked to death” [ḥinaki]; and Tosafot wrote that the priest would repeat the clause by saying: “If he has lain with you, be choked to death.” Thus, we can indeed maintain that he actually declared: “If he has lain with you” first, as that represents the positive formulation. You should have no problem with how he can bring the notion of retribution to himself to the fore. This presents no problem whatsoever, as it is exclusively in the case of a dying man that we need to worry that his formulation might cause him harm, in the manner envisaged by [the maxim] “Do not open your mouth [so as to encourage] Satan!” [b. Berakhot 19b]. Accordingly, there he should initially declare: “If I do not die,” unlike here, where the notion of “Do not open your mouth [to encourage] Satan” is irrelevant, and the words can have no harmful effect for the future, since whatever has already happened is over and done with. Accordingly, the priest pronounces the positive expression first, and this causes no harm whatsoever. And what Tosafot wrote, that what we desire to be the case represents the positive, is entirely unnecessary and bears no relevance to the sequence of the wording of the condition. This seems correct to me, with heaven’s assistance, and although it is against the opinion of Tosafot, the truth shows its way. Now let us return to our general rule, that it is appropriate to accord priority of place to merit and the positive over liability and the negative, and he who judges others in the scale of merit shall be judged likewise by Heaven!

Now all these elevated ideas we have stated are applicable only with regard to the honor of the Torah—the wise shall inherit honor (Proverbs 3:35) and their names be remembered for the good! But for the purposes of practical halakhah, our rabbis of blessed memory have already taught us [b. Berakhot 19b] that “one may not accord honor to the master.” And when it comes to dispensing a timely ruling, and the teacher’s eyes are alerted to the fact that a refutation [of his ruling] is contained in the words of some latter-day authority, the master’s honor is most certainly to be waived in this regard, and he himself is happy with this, for neither envy nor rivalry is involved, only the maxim: “Accept the truth from whoever utters it!” Now one such instance occurs in Section 371 [of the Shulḥan ‘arukh], where a ruling is printed relating to a priest’s ritual impurity which is contrary to a plain mishnah, as we shall duly note, God willing! It is undoubtedly true that a righteous individual would be content for the matter to be publicized. Anyone wishing to accord honor to poskim in relation to practical halakhah would arouse amazement. Similar instances of this will be found in our works, with heavenly assistance.

And indeed, this is a matter handed over to the sages, upon whom the Almighty has bestowed knowledge and intelligence; and this matter is the cause of indirect damage—for there are those possessing halakhic expertise who do not wish to utilize it, and others for whom the converse holds true; and there are some possessing both favorable traits but who are controlled by others, in that communal concerns and anxieties rest upon their shoulders, as the issue of halakhic rulings requires mental clarity.

And from the day that I was appointed to rule on halakhah in the locality where I had lived all my life, I was vexed by this concern; I said: I shall grow wise, [but it was far from me] (Ecclesiastes 7:23)—and yet necessity does not merit censure! And I hoped that the Blessed One would show me the true path, and that the verse: Once have I sworn by My holiness; surely I will not be false to David! (Psalms 89:36) would be fulfilled through me. And I shed from myself the yoke of mundane pursuits and bent my shoulder to bear [see Genesis 49:15] the yoke of the Torah and of esteemed students, and from them I attained understanding, in accordance with the sages’ statement [b. Ta‘anit 6a]. And my prayer bore fruit, as I produced numerous novel insights—thanks be to God—both in interpretations of the words of our sages of blessed memory and in matters involving halakhic rulings; and I said to myself, “Let these be yours alone, without sharing them with others, for what merit have I that I should instruct others?” But nonetheless, I said, “it is incumbent upon me to record the points in question so that they endure for a long while” [see Jeremiah 32:14].

It is now three years since the holy community of Ostra accepted me to spread Torah among them, and designated for me the great study house as a meeting place for sages, and I wish much good and favor to be extended to the aforementioned community who lavish me with silver from their own pockets to provide me sufficiently for my needs and those of my great and esteemed Torah academy. Praise God that esteemed students have gathered to me from near and far, from the ends of the earth; in all my life I have never seen a gathering of an esteemed Torah academy such as this. I laid out my table before them—that which I merited from the heavenly table—and they listened to my words, as they were pleasing, and urged me to have them published, but my heart fainted, being reluctant to listen to them on account of worry in this regard, for one does not readily accept responsibility even for oneself, and a fortiori for others! And even where halakhic decisions are not involved, but simply discussions, a pitfall can arise for someone who has not attained the requisite standard for issuing halakhic rulings and, seeing statements in print, derives some ruling from the explanatory comments and relies upon them even for practical purposes. A chain is hung around the neck of one responsible for this, and may the Merciful One save us from the punishment earned thereby, heaven forfend! I took all this into consideration in holding back from publication.

On further consideration, I changed my mind, as I merited to place the matter before esteemed individuals, both my students and others, and, God bless, it pleased them; and I trust in the Blessed One that it will be acceptable to the sages of our generation, lovers of the truth by virtue of it representing the truth of the Torah and for no other reason, heaven forfend! And I have entitled this work of mine Ture zahav, as the words of the Tur himself and the Shulḥan ‘arukh will become clarified thereby through vital annotations, like zahav [gold]. And [the title contains] an allusion to the numerical value of my name [David] which equals that of zahav. I have also included in it many questions posed to me in connection with halakhic rulings pertaining to Yoreh de’ah, and the responses I provided with the Almighty’s assistance.

I genuinely wish to make it known that quite a few years have passed since I commenced a commentary on the [Tur’s] Yoreh de’ah and the Shulḥan ‘arukh, but for some reason I withheld the fruits of my pen, as I was unable to achieve the total satisfaction I desired on the theme of: “By Torah law, the transfer of money effects legal acquisition,” and thus, somehow or another, a large number of documents were lost to me, and accordingly I needed to begin research anew, in accordance with the Almighty’s kindly hand protecting me.

And I prostrate myself and sit amid the dust of the feet of the sages on whose statements I have occasionally written refutations. May they not condemn me, for my Witness is on high that I was sorely vexed over this many times when such a situation arose—but sheer necessity cannot merit censure!

And my request—applicable to anyone studying this work who has a problem with some particular point—is that he should not hasten to destroy the edifice right from the outset of investigation; and I hope that during all the days that the Blessed and Exalted One grants me life, I shall know how to resolve the matters and shall not be put to shame in any halakhic matter. And I trust in Him that as a result of this work, many novel, revised halakhic rulings will emerge, and may I further merit to publish my commentary to [Tur’s] Ḥoshen mishpat and its Shulḥan ‘arukh, which, God be praised, has been prepared by me, containing novel and revised statements, with Divine assistance.

Now may the Lord accomplish that which concerns me—forsake not the work of Your own hands! (Psalms 138:8). Abundant peace unto all who love Your Torah, and let them encounter no stumbling block! (Psalms 119:165).

The prayer of David the insignificant, son of my master, my father and teacher of blessed memory, R. Samuel ha-Levi—may he be remembered for eternal life!

Translated by
David E.

Other works by ha-Levi: Ashle ha-ravreve (1677); Divre David (1689); Magen David (1692).


[This is a pun on the talmudic exegetical principle that “one amplificatory expression after another is a restriction”; see, e.g., b. Pesaḥim 23a.—Trans.]

[A pun on Deuteronomy 22:6: and a reference to the law that “even if one heard the sound [kan] of the quill and the sound of the scroll” this is enough to enable him to testify that it was written in his presence (b. Gittin 5b–6a).—Trans.]


David ben Samuel ha-Levi, Sefer ture zahav (Rows of Gold) (Lublin: Tsevi ben Avraham Kalonimus Yafeh, 1646), excerpts.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 5.

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