Hirshenson, Hayim

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HIRSHENSON, HAYIM (1857–1935), U.S. educator and scholar. Eliezer Schweid and Daniel Elazar call Hirshenson one of those great and almost forgotten men of early Zionist history who undertook one of the most comprehensive efforts of anyone to demonstrate how the traditional Torah and modern democracy went hand in hand. His response was bold and daring even as it remained inside the confines of Jewish law.

Born in Safed, Hirshenson moved with his family to Jerusalem in 1864 after an earthquake. There his father Yaakov Mordecai established Yeshivat Succat Shalom. His contacts in the yishuv were wide including the yeshivah world, where he was well respected, and the world of Maskilim. In the middle part of the 19th century, these worlds were less divergent than they were to become. He worked at a time when Zionism was interested in continuity and synthesis rather than revolution. Thus, he worked with Ben Yehuda and Rabbi David Yellin to develop Hebrew as a spoken language. He took to speaking Hebrew in his own home as well. He traveled to Russia in 1878 where he met with some of Eastern Europe's most distinguished rabbis and in 1884 he traveled to Hungary and Germany where in Frankfurt he established a Torah scientific journal Ha-Misderonah, which featured articles by great Talmudic scholars as well as maskillim. He returned to Jerusalem where he published a Yiddish paper Beit Yaakov and worked at the Abrabanel Library. He also continued his wide range of contacts working with the secular organization of B'nai B'rith and also constructing housing outside of the city walls. He was a teacher in the Lemel School in Jerusalem and faced some problems – including the threat of excommunication – for being too involved in the advance of Hebrew. Financial instability forced him to travel to Constantinople where he became a principal of the Hebrew School Tifereth Zvi and Or Torah. While in Constantinople, he studied Spinoza and Maimonides. He was part of the delegation to the 6th Zionist Congress in Basel and was encouraged to immigrate to the United States where he became a rabbi at a Hoboken synagogue in 1903. While he bemoaned the materialism of the U.S. and the sad state of Torah education in the beginning of the 20th century, he developed an admiration for American democracy.

In the U.S. he became a member of the Agudath ha-Rabbonim. He remained an active Zionist and became well known for his writings, which were not uncontroversial. His works include Yamim mi-Kedem (1907), which grappled with the then prevalent issue of Biblical criticism, and Malki be-Kodesh (1919), in which he established the theoretical presentation of the future Jewish state within a halakhic perspective. Hirshenson regarded the advent of the Messiah as a historical process, not a metahistorical event and worked to see that there would not be a rupture between the Jewish past and its future.


M. Sherman, Orthodox Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook (1996); E. Schweid, Democracy and Halakhah (1994).

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]