Stern, Joseph Zechariah

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STERN, JOSEPH ZECHARIAH (1831–1903), Lithuanian rabbi and talmudist. Stern was born in Neustadt-Shirwint (Woldislovava) in the Suwalki district of Russia to a family which had produced many generations of rabbis. He married the daughter of Mordecai Gimpel *Jaffe and at the age of 20 was appointed rabbi of Jasenovko, Grodno district, where he remained for ten years. He was subsequently appointed rabbi of Shavli, Lithuania, which post he retained until his death. With his phenomenal memory, he mastered ancient and modern Hebrew literature and also interested himself in various branches of Jewish and general knowledge. He published articles on halakhah and topical matters (mainly in Ha-Levanon), some of them polemics against Moses Leib *Lilienblum who advocated religious reform (1869–70). The poet Judah Leib *Gordon, during his stay in Shavli as a teacher, came to know Stern and regarded him as a symbol of religious fanaticism and inflexibility, portraying him in his poem Koẓo shel Yod (in the character Vafsi Hakuzari – a name made by a transposition of the letters of Joseph Zechariah) as a fanatical rabbi with "the soul of a Tatar." This assessment of Stern was severely criticized by those who knew him. Many claimed that he was indeed one of the lenient rabbis, even though he was of a resolute mind and a nonconformist. He displayed a positive attitude toward the Ḥibbat Zion movement and settlement in Ereẓ Israel, but it was expressed only in his letters and writings, and not in actual activity. He wrote responsa and corresponded on halakhic topics with rabbis in many countries.

He was the author of Zekher Yehosef (1860), novellae on the Talmud; Zekher Yehosef (1899–1902), responsa on the Shulḥan Arukh in four parts; commentaries on the five scrolls (Song of Songs, 1875; Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, 1876); the Passover Haggadah (1898); and Tahalukhot ha-Aggadot (1902), on the aggadah (appended to Zekher Yehosef, pt. 4).


Sefer ha-Yaḥas, in J.Z. Stern, Zekher Yehosef (Responsa), 1 (1899); Z.A. Rabiner, Ha-Rav Yosef Zekharyah Stern (1943); B. Jaffe, in: Yavneh, 3 (1942), 153–60; G. Katzenelson, Ha-Milḥamah ha-Sifrutit bein ha-Ḥasidim ve-ha-Maskilim (1954), 103ff.; Yahadut Lita, 3 (1967), 97.

[Benjamin Jaffe]