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 1843, Hirsch applied for the post of Chief Rabbi of the British
Empire. Out of 13 candidates, mostly from Germany, he made the short
list of four: Nathan Marcus Adler, Hirsch Hirschfeld, Benjamin Hirsch
Auerbach and Hirsch. Adler won the position on December 1, 1844. With
135 communities having one vote each, Adler received 121 votes,
Hirschfeld 12, and Hirsch 2.
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
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.
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 training was provided along with those aspects of
secular training deemed true according to the Torah (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. Despite the new legislation, a conflict arose 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 Isaac 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
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, despite a great love for the Land of Israel which is apparent
from his writings.
From reports of his family members, it seems likely that Hirsch
contracted 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
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
- "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
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 or Nachalath Zwi) 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
under the title Nachalath Zwi, 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 freedom of religion 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.
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".
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.
In a 1995 edition of Hirsch' Nineteen Letters, commentator Rabbi
Joseph Elias makes an extensive effort to show Hirsch' sources in
[Rabbinic literature]], parallels in his other works and those of
other post-Talmudic Jewish thinkers. Elias also attempts to refute
particular interpretations of his philosophy, such as the notion that
many of his thinking was rooted in Kantian secular philosophy.
While the Zionist movement was not founded during his lifetime, it is
clear from his reponses to Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer that he opposed
overemphasis on settlement in the Land of Israel. In later works, he
makes it clear that Jewish sovereignty is dependent only on Divine
Influence and controversy
See also the discussion on this point, in the article on Torah im
There is considerable controversy over Hirsch's legacy; this is a
matter of debate between three parties: Haredi (sometimes called
Ultra-Orthodox), Modern Orthodox, and Hirsch's descendants. While it
is undisputed that his Torah im Derech Eretz was his real innovation,
the exact implementation has been greatly debated.
Those on Orthodoxy's right wing hold that Hirsch himself only approved
of secular studies as a "Horaas Sha'ah", or temporary dispensation, in
order to save Orthodox Jewry of the 1800s from the threat posed by
assimilation. While a yeshiva student in Eastern Europe, Rabbi Shimon
Schwab obtained the opinion's of various Poskim (authorities in Jewish
law) to this effect (see Selected Writings "These and Those" where
Schwab himself disagrees).
To the other extreme, some Modern Orthodox Jews understand Hirsch in
the sense of Torah Umadda, meaning a synthesis of Torah knowledge and
secular knowledge - each for its own sake (this view is propagated in
several articles in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought,
published by the Rabbinical Council of America). In this view, Hirsch
thought that it was permissible, and even productive, for Jews to
learn gentile philosophy, music, art, literature and ethics for their
In contrast, a third middle opinion held by Hirsch's descendants (his
son-in-law and successor Rabbi Solomon Breuer, his grandson Rabbi
Joseph Breuer and the latter's successor Rabbi Shimon Schwab), Rabbi
Joseph Elias in his commentary to the Nineteen Letters (Feldheim 1995)
and some Jewish historians, says that both of these understandings of
Hirsch's philosophy are misguided; they refer to these readings of
Hirsch as improper historical revisionism. In response to the
"temporary dispensation" theory, they point to Hirsch in Collected
Writings as continually stressing the philosophical and religious
imperative of Torah im Derech Eretz for all times (Note that Hirsch
himself addressed this contention: "Torah im Derech Eretz ... is not
part of troubled, time bound notions; it represents the ancient,
traditional wisdom of our sages that has stood the test everywhere and
at all times." (Gesammelte Schriften vi p.221); see further Rabbi
Shimon Schwab in Selected Writings- "These and Those"). In response to
the "Torah Umadda" theory they say that Hirschian philosophy demands
the domination of Torah over secular knowledge, not a separate
synthesis. On this basis, many adherents of Hirsch's philosophy have
preferred the natural sciences over the humanities as a subject of
secular study, seemingly because they are easier to judge through the
prism of Torah thought than the more abstract humanities.
* Salomon Breuer
* Joseph Breuer
* Isaac Breuer
* Mordechai Breuer
* Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch