Benjamin Aron Slonik
1550 – 1619
Benjamin Aron Slonik (c. 1550–c. 1619) was a Polish rabbi of the early modern period whose independent style of textual and halakhic analysis produced important works of responsa and other Jewish legalistic and moralistic tracts. Of particular note are Slonik’s attitudes toward certain women-related issues that placed him in a class of his own within the prevailing Ashkenazic rabbinic culture.
Probably born in Grodno in the region of Lithuania, Slonik in his youth was under the tutelage of the great Nathan Nata ben Solomon Spiro (c. 1585–1633). He later studied with the Polish rabbinic luminaries Solomon ben Jehiel Luria (1510?–1574), Moses ben Israel Isserles (1525 or 1530–1572), and Solomon b. Leibesh of Lublin. Slonik, who rapidly earned a reputation as a very learned Torah scholar and teacher, served the Jewish communities in Silesia and Podhajce (Podgaytsy) as rabbi.
Benjamin Slonik’s responsa are compiled chronologically in Masat Binyamin (1633), first published in Cracow in 1633. In addition to these he wrote Seder Mitzvot Nashim (first printing 1577), which deals with women’s obligations and conduct in all areas of family life; Sefer ha-Ebronot, a monograph on the Jewish leap year, and Seder Halizah, on releasing relevant parties from the requirements of levirate marriage.
Slonik placed a high premium on communal minhag, or custom. In answering questions posed to him by individuals and communities, he weighted the customs of the particular community in which the question had arisen as heavily as he considered the actual Jewish laws as recorded in the various halakhic texts. His placement of communal minhag on the same level as din, or law, is evident in Slonik’s works as one of his guiding principles in forming responsa. Indeed, he applied this standard even to cases in which it led him to perform a certain amount of rationalization in order to justify an extant practice.
Slonik’s commitment to maintaining the customs of the community was in fact quite common among his contemporaries in early modern Poland. Like many of them, he dealt with the realities of everyday life and considered them, rather than only abstract and theoretical (or even practical) halakhic issues, primary in determining his responses to the very real questions of Jewish life that were addressed to him. Part of what enabled Slonik to adopt this approach was his perception that, as opposed to the Talmudic period in which the lay leaders of the Jewish community did not possess any real power or authority over their constituents, in his own setting the lay and administrative leaders of the Jewish communities did have true authority. The kehillah itself granted the various leaders this authority which included the right of leaders to enforce legislation. Thus it was clear that Jewish leadership oversaw the daily business, social and family issues and activities that defined Jewish life in Slonik’s time, and that the practical matters that arose both from the activities themselves and the Jewish-led oversight of them must be taken heavily into account in resolving Jewish legal questions. Furthermore, the solidity and continuity of Jewish communal life had inherent value—indeed, had the greatest value—in Slonik’s worldview, and this mind-set also shaped his view of existing communal custom.
Slonik’s teachers Nathan Nata Spiro and Solomon b. Leibish were influenced by Kabbalistic teachings in their own scholarship, and they in turn aroused Slonik’s interest in Kabbalah. His engagement in Jewish mysticism is evident in some of his responsa, in which he takes into account the stance of the Zohar to a greater extent than his contemporaries were wont to do. In general, Slonik was considered an independent thinker; he often entered the fray in controversial matters, opposing not only his colleagues but even his own teachers.
One area in which Slonik particularly opposed his colleagues was the difficult and controversial issue of agunot, defined generally as wives bound (literally “anchored”) to husbands who had deserted or otherwise left them without first giving them a get (writ of divorce). Slonik’s Ashkenazic contemporaries were strict in their interpretation of the laws relating to agunot, more often than not insisting that these women remain in their current conditions and not be permitted to remarry until the due process of halakhah was somehow executed. But Slonik considered the exigencies of his times, taking into account the prevalence of wars raging along trade routes on which Jews frequently traveled; the strict interpretation of halakhah regarding agunot, he noted, often kept women bound in marriage when their husbands had long been presumed dead in these battles. Looking for ways to save such women from their limbo status, Slonik rejected the stringencies of his Ashkenazic colleagues and instead adopted the more lenient approach of the Sephardic rabbi Elijah Mizrahi (c. 1450–1526) in dealing with these cases.
Just as Benjamin Slonik’s sensitivity to women extended beyond the unfortunate cases of agunot, so his sympathies generally extended beyond issues relating to women. He implored his colleagues and constituents to adopt a great degree of forbearance and understanding for the feelings not only of women but of estranged Jews as well. Often appealing to fundamental ethics and morals within his functions as rabbi, Benjamin Slonik joined twenty-nine other rabbis in signing a 1590 decree of the Council of the Lands reinstating the proscription against offering a bribe in exchange for a rabbinic post.
Slonik died circa 1619 in Poland, leaving a legacy of independent and sensitive analysis of halakhah relating to all areas of Jewish communal and family life, especially ahead of his time in important practical and emotional matters regarding Jewish women.
Ben-Sasson, Haim Hillel. Hagut ve-Hanhagah. Jerusalem: 1959; Pollack, Herman. “The Minhag in its Bearing on a Communal Conflict.” In PAAJR 43 (1976): 183–207.