The Mystery of Orechos Tzadikim

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by R. Gil Student

Orechos Tzadikim is an anonymous mussar sefer that has enjoyed a lasting impact on Judaism. It is surprising that the sefer was never attributed to anyone. Publishers and men of letters usually guess at the author’s name of an anonymous sefer, even if they are wrong. For example, the Sefer HaChinuch was published anonymously and its authorship has long been a subject of speculation. The Re’ah was the leading contender for a long time but now his brother seems more likely. The more recently published anonymous commentary on R. Yisrael Salanter’s Or Yisrael is widely rumored to have been written by R. Shlomo Wolbe. Yet Orechos Tzadikim seems to have avoided this speculation. Its authorship was lost to history… or was it? We will attempt to discover when and where the book was written but we will have to leave identification of the specific author to more skilled historians.

R. Eliyahu de Vidas, in his 1575 work Reishis Chochmah (Sha’ar Ahavah, ch. 6), quotes the Orechos Tzadikim so we can set that year (or, taking into account the time for books to disseminate, approximately 20 years earlier) as the latest possible date. However, there is much internal evidence about the time and place of its writing.

Sources

Orechos Tzadikim draws heavily on earlier sources, often quoting them verbatim. While today this would be considered plagiarism, in those times of hand-copied manuscripts, the standards of attribution were different. (Scholars trace the origin of the constantly evolving sense of authorial ownership to the eighteenth century.) Orechos Tzadikim is unquestionably an original work, albeit one that is built partially on the words of others. On one occasion, Orechos Tzadikim‘s author even left in the name of the original author of an underlying quote, when that author identifies himself.

This method of compilation gives us the ability to determine an earliest date of authorship. The book quotes frequently from Rambam (d. 1204), R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol’s Tikkun Midos Ha-Nefesh (ca. 1055), Rabbenu Yonah’s (ca. 1180-1263) Sha’arei Teshuvah, R. Bachya Ibn Pakuda’s Chovos Ha-Levavos (ca. 1161), R. Moshe of Coucy’s Semag (mid-1200s), R. Yehuda He-Chasid’s (ca. 1150-1217) Sefer Chasidim and other works. Taking all this into account, we should place the writing of Orechos Tzadikim to at least the late 13th century. So far, we have narrowed down the authorship to a three century time period from late 13th century to mid 16th century. 

The liberal mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazic texts is not particularly surprising. We see in the Semag and Semak citation of Sephardic sages like R. Sa’adiah Gaon and Rambam. Cultural pollination had brought those works across borders.

Internal Evidence

In one section of Orechos Tzadikim, the author gives us valuable information about his time and background. In the Sha’ar Ha-Torah, the author traces the development of the Torah until his time, mimicking the Rambam’s introduction to Mishneh Torah much like Meiri does in his introduction to Avos. It is quite telling that the author focuses largely on the French schools of learning. After the Rambam, the author lists the Semag and a few German halakhic works, and then proceeds to laud the French Ba’alei Ha-Tosafos. He describes the process of development of the Tosafist literature, beginning with Rashi and continuing with Rabbenu Tam and the Ri. Then came the tragic expulsion of Jews from France at which point, according to the author, creativity in learning seemed to come to an end. The author then continues at length about how “nowadays” people are a lower level of learning than those from before the expulsion.

Clearly, the book was written after the 1306 expulsion from France. Furthermore, the author seems to be at least a generation or two removed from the expulsion, so that he can talk about how scholars “today” differ from pre-expulsion scholars. He must have lived after the pre-expulsion scholars died out. There were actually three expulsions from France–1306, 1322 and 1394, with permission to return granted periodically in between. However, the centers of learning never returned after the first expulsion so it seems likely that the author was referring to that tragic event.

The author does not mention any German work from after the early 13th century and focuses largely on the French Ba’alei Ha-Tosafos. It seems that he was living in a French community, either in France itself or among exiles.

Conclusion

What we can state with certainty is that the author lived in or after the early 14th century. Despite being influenced by the German Chasidim, he was a follower of the French Ba’alei Ha-Tosafos. We can suggest that the author lived in the late 14th century in France or among French exiles, but not in Germany or Spain.

(Adapted from a Sep ’04 post)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. Was the gender of the author of Orchos Tzadiqim ever firmly established?

    As the oldest known edition of OZ was in Yiddish (Isny, 1542), and it was for a time believed this was the original text, with the Hebrew being a translation.. At that time, there was a theory that captured academic fascination that the book’s author was a woman. It would explain the popularist choice of language, but then they found Hebrew manuscripts from the 15th century under the name Seifer haMiddos (Available at https://he.wikisource.org/wiki/%D7%90%D7%95%D7%A8%D7%97%D7%95%D7%AA_%D7%A6%D7%93%D7%99%D7%A7%D7%99%D7%9D ). The Yiddish was a translation of the Hebrew.

    But there were other indicators for the theory that the author of the OZ was a woman. Those Chazal statements quoted are nearly all ones that entered common parlance; in a culture where a man is expected to master shas, the author doesn’t prove his credentials as an expert in Talmud. The topic was one being neglected by men at the time, which could be an argument that it was by a woman for women, or that it was an attempt to break through that neglect. The anonymity is not startling among Mussar books, as you note, but it would be mandatory for a woman trying to publish then-and-there.

    So, I was under the impression that even though the primary cause for that theory ended up being wrong, the idea itself was never finally put to rest.

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