By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

As students of Jewish history know, Jews have lived under three very different groups of Christians. When the Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, Christianity was soon to split in half. The Byzantine Empire, which lasted another thousand years after the fall of Rome, developed into the Eastern Orthodox church. The Roman Catholic Church also developed independently and soon began to wield significant temporal power as well. Only in the latter sixteenth century did a non-Catholic third type of Christianity emerge from the western church, inspired by Martin Luther. Jews, for centuries a weak minority in the exile, have had to navigate their way between these three different types of Christianity as well as among Islamic and other groups.

The Printings of Shas

In the mid-sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church set its eyes upon blocking the Talmud and began its program of systematically burning copies of it. Notwithstanding the technological advances brought about by Guttenberg and his press, the printing of Shas was limited and curtailed.

But the Torah Jew would not give up.

Jews were aware that, in the former Byzantine Empire, the Talmud could still be printed. They utilized the Shas that their brethren–now under the Ottomans–were printing in the presses of Salonika and Constantinople. Soon though, opportunity opened when Polish kings defied the hand of the Polish Church, and the Shas was allowed to be published in the city of Cracow. It was published twice, unedited by the Catholic Church’s censors, in 1602-1605 and 1616-1620. The Chmielnicki massacres soon took place but, within the next century, a further edition of the Talmud was published in Amsterdam. Two more editions were printed in Germany, now that the Germanic lands were no longer under the control of the Catholic Church and had become Protestants.

The Slavuta Shas

Jewish history and Jewish Talmudic study continued to flow. The Chassidic movement was born, and soon the Pale of Settlement developed. A new edition of Shas was to emerge.

The Slavuta press was founded by a son of Rav Pinchas of Koretz, a prominent Talmid of the Baal Shem Tov, at the turn of the century in the Ukraine. His name was Rabbi Moshe Shapira, and three editions of the Talmud ensued.

Rabbi Shapira was a descendant of the Megaleh Amukos, and was steeped in the in-depth study of the Talmud. Slavuta was in the Ukraine between the Chasidic capitals of Lvov and Kiev. Rabbi Shapira’s printing of the Talmud Bavli in Slavuta also included the Yerushalmi’s tractate Shekalim in 14 pages. Shekalim is the only tractate missing in the Moed section of the Bavli. The Slavuta edition was wildly popular, among a large population of fervently observant Russian Jews.

The Competition

A Litvish press, however, emerged in Lita. The Romm Press soon published the Vilna Shas, and a fierce competition developed. The Shapiras claimed that the Romm printing house was in violation of Hasagas G’vul. They had received a rabbinically approved special license to be the sole publishers of the Talmud for 25 years. Rabbonim on both sides issued rulings and letters. The competition was to last for well over a century, even past the lifespan of the original Slavuta printing house. Oh, and by the way, the Romm edition had 21 blatt for tractate Shekalim.

How did the Slavuta Press close? A worker in the printing house, a bookbinder, was found dead by the Russian authorities. It is said that this bookbinder had reported to the Russian authorities that the printing house had printed material that the government had not sanctioned. There are two versions of the story. One has it that he was found hanging in the shul in Slavuta, an apparent suicide. Another version has it that he had fallen in the Slavuta Press and hit his head and died. Regardless, the Shapiras were taken into custody and tortured severely by the Russians.

(As a parenthetical note, the Steipler Gaon once related to a friend of this author that the bookbinder was the son of a once-childless couple, chassidim of the Shpoler Zeide, who had received a bracha from Rav Pinchas of Koretz to have children. The Shpoler Zeide had refused to give the couple a bracha. Ironically, the Steipler pointed out, the two owners who were informed upon were the grandsons of Rav Pinchas of Koretz.)

In 1836, the Czarist government closed all Jewish printing houses in Russia save two: one in Vilna and one in Zhitomir. The Shapira children and nephews rented the printing house in Zhitomir and were back in business by 1847, completing the printing of Shas in 1864. Romm completed another edition two years later, in 1866. The competition was in high gear.

The Birth Of Agudah

In the early 20th century, after Germany had taken sections of Poland from Russia, the German government asked some of its German Jewish citizens for advice and assistance in now to administer such sections as Warsaw, now under German control. One such expert was Ludwig Haas, a Reform Jew and member of the German Reichstag, who had succeeded in doing away with traditional Jewish education and implementing far-reaching reforms in education in his hometown of Baden, Germany.

The Polish rabbis were very concerned and reached out to the Orthodox Jews of Germany for advice and help. Somehow, the German government appointed two Orthodox Jewish experts to assist them, Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Cohn and Rabbi Emanuel Carlebach. These two individuals, of decidedly non-Chassidic lineage, reached out to Polish Jewry and helped them organize. Rabbi Dr. Cohn was able to befriend Haas, and changes began to take effect.

Thus, Agudath Israel in Poland, started by two decidedly non-Chassidish Jews in Germany and backed by the Gerrer Rebbe and others, was born. Agudath Israel of Poland was a remarkable experiment. It combined the organizational and logistical talent of German Jewry–of pure Ashkenazic temperament–with the masses of voters that Chassidishe Jewry would bring to the table.

Soon Agudath Israel of Poland morphed into a political party in the newly formed Second Republic of Poland. It began to take an active role in ensuring that the secularization processes that existed in Russia and in Germany did not develop in Poland too. The Knessiah Gedolah held in Vienna, Austria, featured an idea by a cousin of the Shapiras, an idea embraced by none other than the Chofetz Chaim himself.

The Daf Yomi

Rav Meir Shapiro introduced the idea of Daf Yomi. And, from the beginning, it too included tractate Shekalim. But which version? Would the Agudah-sponsored program adopt the litvisha Romm version of 21 blatt, or the Chassidish version of 14 blatt?

At first, the answer would seem to be obvious. Poland was teeming with burgeoning numbers of Chassidic Jews. The founder of the Daf Yomi, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Chochmei Lublin, was a cousin of the Slavuta/Zhitomir owners. So, yes, the Daf Yomi had 14 blatt allotted for Shekalim. Of that, there was no question.

But soon, the Nazis y’sh devastated Poland, wiping out more than 90 percent of Polish Jewry–more than in any other country.

A half century after the very first Knessiah Gedolah had passed, Polish Jewry was no more. The once mighty yeshiva of Chachmei Lubin was now gone, and its building was now used by the medical school in Lublin, Poland.

And tractate Shekalim?

In an era before the ArtScroll Schottenstein and the Mesivta Gemara, 14 blatt was just too dense. In 1975, after seven cycles, the Daf Yomi Commission of Agudah–with the approval of the Chassidish Gedolim, I am told–changed Shekalim to 21 blatt. The change was initially resisted by some of the former students of Yeshiva Chochmei Lublin, but to no avail.

Slavuta had lost its final battle. v

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