Mnachem Risikoff

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Mnachem HaKohen Risikoff

Mnachem (Mendel) HaKohen Risikoff (1866–1960), was an orthodox rabbi in Russia and the United States, and a prolific author of scholarly works, written in Hebrew.[1] Risikoff used a highly stylized and symbolic pen-name, יאמהדנונחהים, made up of the Hebrew letters of his first name, the Hebrew word for Lord, and the Tetragrammaton, one of Judaism's terms for God. It is not clear whether this pen name was used in conversation, or whether it was used only in his writings.

Life and work[edit]

Risikoff, the son of well-known Rosh yeshiva (Talmudic Academy Dean) Rabbi Zvi Yosef Resnick, was born in Zhetel,[2] later studying in yeshivot, academies, in Volozhin and Vilna, where he received semikhah (rabbinic ordination) at the age of 17 from a number of well-known rabbis: Yosef Shlupfer, from Slonim; Avraham DovBer HaKohen Shapira, from Riga; Shlomo HaKohen, author of Binyan Shlomo, from Vilna;[3] Katriel Nathan, Av Beit Din of Augustów; and Eliyahu Adran, of Grajewo; with other rabbis later adding their ordination as well.[4]

Risikoff as a young man

In 1895, after serving as rabbi in a small town in Lithuania, he was appointed rabbi of Kazan.[3] He emigrated to the United States in 1906, following anti-Jewish riots in that area,[3] serving as rabbi in a number of synagogues in Brooklyn, including Ohev Shalom, in Brownsville;[5] Keter Israel; Beth Ha-Knesseth Adath B'Nai Israel,[6] also referred to as Williamsburg's Moore Street Congregation;[7] and finally, Dibre Mnachem, a congregation named after the first book Risikoff published after moving to the United States, located in the area now known as Bedford-Stuyvesant, on one floor of the building where he lived for many years, until his death in 1960.[8]

His stationery listed him as רב ואב״ד לאגודת הקהלות דברוקלין -- "Rabbi of the Orthodoctical [sic] Congregations of Brooklyn."[9] In addition, he served as the Recording Secretary of the Knesseth HaRabonim HaOrthdoksim dAmerica vCanada, the Assembly of Orthodox Rabbis of America and Canada.[10]

Risikoff was a frequent contributor to The Degel Israel Torah Journal,[11] and the author of numerous works on Halakha and Aggadah, Jewish law and Jewish lore; Biblical commentaries; Divrei Torah (sermons and homiletical writings); and responsa, including Shaarei Zevah (1913), dealing with the laws of kashrut and shechita; Shaarei Shamayim (1937), a commentary on the Jewish legal compilation, the Shulchan Aruch; and Torat HaKohanim (1948), the laws pertaining to Kohanim,[12] Jewish priests, the descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses, a group which included Risikoff himself.[13] This latter work included explanations and commentaries on the rituals still performed by kohanim today, including pidyon haben (Redemption of the First Born), and birkat kohanim (the Priestly Blessing). Additionally, after explaining the laws and customs regarding such rituals, he added homiletical commentaries. For example, he explained that the mitzvah of Brit milah (circumcision) tied a new-born baby to the covenant of faith, but the combination of circumcision and pidyon haben was like a double knot. Further, because not all families qualified for the ceremony of pidyon haben on their own, all Jews could participate in the commandment by attending the ritual and celebrating the happiness of others.

However, the book, Torat Hakohanim, also included instruction on priestly responsibilities only applicable during the existence of the Jerusalem Temple, because of his fervent belief that redemption would come, and the Temple would be rebuilt. In the meantime, he believed that studying the laws served as a substitute for carrying out the duties, and would bring the coming of the Messiah closer.[14]

Risikoff's strong mystical beliefs, in addition to his command of legal sources, was evident in his frequent references to kabbalah and Hassidic masters, like the Baal Shem Tov. His link to Jewish mysticism was also manifest in his belief in the power of language, numbers, and words, sometimes writing prayers or sections of his works using words whose initial letters spelled out his own name,[15] the name of God,[16] or even the letters used to indicate the Jewish year.[17] His book, Palgei Shemen, includes a congratulatory letter he received on the occasion of his fiftieth wedding anniversary from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his response, in which he attributes meaning to each of the President's three names and three initials. For example, one of the explanations he offers for "FDR" was friend (F) to both democrats (D) and republicans (R).

Many of his writings included endorsements not only from some of the leading rabbis in the United States, but also in Jerusalem, including Tzvi Pesach Frank, and Abraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the pre-Israel British Mandate of Palestine.

Risikoff's views regarding the agunah[edit]

Risikoff's encyclopedic grasp of Jewish sources and his commitment to orthodox Judaism were so well respected that he could be a strong voice for discussions of innovative solutions to modern problems and challenges facing Jewish law. One key example was his proposal for enhanced authority of the modern Beth din, rabbinical court, to help in situations such as the Agunah, a woman whose husband had left her without granting her a Get, the religious divorce decree that would allow her to remarry.

In his writings, he advanced the idea, even before the establishment of the modern State of Israel, that some solution might be found in a worldwide Jewish recognition of the special authority of the Jerusalem Beth-Din. He introduced the idea, at least as one worthy of serious discussion within the realm of Halakhah, Jewish law, that the groom could declare that he was not only marrying the bride in accordance with "the laws of Moses and Israel" (kedat Mosheh weYisrael) the normal formulaic wording for a Jewish ceremony, but also, "in accordance with the Great Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem" (ukhdat Bet Din HaGadol biYerushalayim), so that the court could then step in to help a woman whose husband's actions violated the intrinsic meaning of the covenant of marriage, including that meaning as interpreted and understood by the court—declaring, in essence, that the marriage never took place, or was retroactively annulled. Similar ideas would be discussed by other orthodox thinkers after Israel's creation in 1948, but Risikoff was clearly ahead of his time—as one writer put it, writing "in apparent anticipation of future events"[18]—in terms of such thinking.[19]

An alternative approach to the problem, also introduced by Risikoff as a theoretical possibility worthy of halakhic discussion, was the reintroduction of the ancient institution of Pilegesh, an alternative category to formal marriage (and one that would not have the same requirements for a Get upon the dissolution of the relationship).[20]

Risikoff's responses to the Holocaust[edit]

Another area in which Risikoff's writings represented ideas ahead of his time was the subject of religious responses to the Shoah, an area that would only much later be referred to as Holocaust theology. He fervently believed that redemption would come for humanity, but never turned a blind eye to suffering, struggling with the existence of evil, its meaning, and the question of human response to it. His writings showed his sorrow and horror at the anti-Jewish attacks in Hebron, Jerusalem, and Safed, in 1929, and when Rav Kook died in 1935, Risikoff—with "a presentiment of the catastrophe" yet to come[21]—published a eulogy in which he put forth his belief that Kook might have been taken early to spare him from even worse times to come, based on the Biblical verse (Isaiah 57:11), "The righteous is taken away from the evil to come."[22]

Dr. Peggy Pearlstein, Head, Hebraica Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, U.S. Library of Congress, accepts two unpublished manuscripts written by Risikoff on behalf of the Library. Pictured with her are Risikoff's grandson and great-granddaughter, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff and Malka Sarit Resnicoff. June 7, 2010.

In 1938, with the outbreak of violence that would come to be known as Kristallnacht, Risikoff wrote about keeping faith, and yet taking action in religious ways that would include worship, liturgy, and both concrete and internal responses of teshuva/repentance. He wrote that Levites, members of the Levitical tribe—and especially Kohanim, the family dynasty of Jewish Priests within that tribe—must play a special role. In his writings, especially in his book, HaKohanim vHaLeviim, The Priests and the Levites, he stressed that members of these groups exist in the realm between history (below) and redemption (above), and were called upon to take a leading role in a call to prayer, repentance, and action that would help bring an end to suffering. He wrote, "Today, we also are living through a time of flood, Not of water, but of a bright fire, which burns and turns Jewish life into ruin. We are now drowning in a flood of blood...Through the Kohanim and Levi'im help will come to all Israel.[23]

His writings reflected a combination of what has been called meta-history (ultimate redemption) and history, including the idea that part of the problem on earth was dishonesty not only among individuals, but also among nations. For example, with a keen eye to developments in politics and current events, he wrote that governments of a number of nations had promised Austria and Czechoslovakia that they would come to their defense if the need arose, but they ultimately broke their promises.[24] On the other hand, when he wrote the words, "Nazis", "swastikas", and "Mussolini", he spelled their names backwards as a way, linked to mystical traditions and beliefs, to obliterate those names, and the existence of those represented by the names. This ability to deal with two worlds was noted by one scholar who wrote that Risikoff "distilled metahistory into history with his program for priestly action to mediate redemption."[25]

Risikoff's ability to deal with practical questions, rooted in reality, even as he kept faith in the promise of ultimate redemption, was clear in his response to the question as to whether Jews in Europe during the Holocaust should "accept martyrdom" for their faith, or escape if they could, to preserve their lives. He responded that it was clear in many Jewish sources that there were times to accept death for the sake of our faith (Mesirut nefesh al kiddush Hashem: submitting the soul in sanctification of God’s name), but that Hitler was not out to crush the Jewish faith, since (unlike some earlier enemies of the Jews) Jews were not given the option of conversion or abandoning their faith in order to live. Instead, Hitler's goal was to destroy the Jewish people, and therefore the responsibility to preserve life (individual life and the life of the people) became paramount so that Jews could continue to perform God's commandments, and flight was therefore one valid option.[26]

A 1942 article in "The Brooklyn Daily Eagle" noted that Risikoff believed that fighting against evil was also a valid option:

A proud man is Rabbi Mnachem Resnicoff [sic] of 691 Lafayette Ave, one of the borough's scholars of Hebraic law and the Talmud, for his three sons have dropped their civilian duties to fight for the preservation of democratic freedoms.
Although a firm believer in settling differences by peaceful means, the venerable, bearded member of the rabbinate reverted to the teachings of Moses and Solomon and gladly sent forth his sons to defeat those who persecute his people.
One son, Murray H. Resnicoff, is a Lt. Colonel in the Army, and Jack, an attorney, enlisted in the Navy two days after the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor. He has received a first class yeoman's rating, and is stationed "somewhere in the South Pacific." The third son, Samuel, also an attorney, and for many years active in Borough politics, is a member of the enlisted reserve corps, and was ordered to report for active duty September 21.[27]

Risikoff's writings clearly reveal how he struggled to accept what was one traditional religious response to suffering—the idea that it was punishment for sin, and a call to repentance—and early on did consider that Hitler might somehow be part of such a divine plan.[28] But he ultimately wrote that it was not possible to accept the idea that blame for a tragedy of the magnitude of the Holocaust could be understood in this way. He wrote that such extreme suffering could never come from God, for God acted according to Torah[21][29]

Unpublished manuscripts[edit]

On June 7, 2010, unpublished manuscripts for two of Risikoff's works, "Shaarei Mizrach" and "Zikron Mnachem," were given to the Library of Congress.[30] The gift was made on behalf of two of Risikoff's grandsons, Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff and Professor Steven H. Resnicoff, to be restored and preserved as part of the library's permanent Hebraica collection. Arnold Resnicoff was present at the ceremony, along with his daughter, Malka Sarit Resnicoff, Risikoff's great-granddaughter.


50th Wedding Anniversary, 1938.
Letter from President Roosevelt to Risikoff, congratulating him on his 50th wedding anniversary

Risikoff's father, Zvi Yosef Resnick, a distinguished Rosh yeshiva in Suvalk and Slonim, had rejected many requests to publish his teachings and commentaries.[31] He said that he did not want to take any time away from studying and teaching. However, Resnick did include a short written note in his son's book, Shaarei Zevach, as an haskama (rabbinic endorsement) of the book, and an opportunity to express his pride in his son's achievements.,[32] so Risikoff included some of his father's teachings in his works, especially in the volume MiTorat Zvi Yosef ("From the Torah [teachings] of Zvi Yosef"). In his praise for his father in this work, Risikoff states that his own knowledge is like "a drop in the ocean" compared to that of his father.[33]

One of Risikoff's brothers, Shlomo Chaim Resnick, was a cantor/hazzan, mohel, and shohet, referred to as the Grajewo Hazzan. One of Risikoff's sons, Leon Risikoff, was a rabbi in Brooklyn, New York;[34] his son-in-law, Herbert Simckes,was a rabbi in Massachusetts; and three of his grandsons, Arnold Resnicoff, Steven (Shlomo Chaim) Resnicoff,[35] and Joseph Simckes,[36] are American rabbis.


The discrepancy between Risikoff's last name and the family name, Resnick (or Resnikoff/Resnicoff, the Russian equivalent for "son of Resnick"), was the result of a name change, coupled with a physical relocation in Russia, as attempts to avoid the harsh Russian military draft that specifically targeted very young Jewish men, as part of a purposeful targeted attempt to weaken the Jewish community.[37]

"Mendel" is the Yiddish equivalent for the Hebrew name, "Mnachem."[38]

Risikoff's first name, "Mnachem," appears in variant forms including "Menachem" and "Menahem," but "Mnachem" is the spelling he seems to have preferred during his time in the United States, and was the spelling used in writings that spanned many years—from the 1938 letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, congratulating Risikoff on his 50th wedding anniversary;[39] a news story in the Brooklyn Eagle about Risikoff that referred to him as "one of the oldest Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn; a photo and caption on file with the Brooklyn Public Library;[40] and the 2010 press release from the Library of Congress that described the donation of two of Risikoff's unpublished manuscripts.[41] (In another Brooklyn Eagle article, Mnachem is used as the spelling of his first name, although his last name is spelled differently.) Most importantly, however, "Mnachem Risikoff" was the spelling Risikoff used on his own printed stationery.[42]

Heading on Risikoff's personal stationery

Hebrew works[edit]

Published works (online links to complete texts)[edit]

All of the following books (in Hebrew) are available for free download from

Unpublished manuscripts (online links to texts)[edit]


  1. ^ Portions of his book, HaKohanim vHaLeviim (The Priests and the Levites), Shulsinger Bros. Linotyping & Publishing Co., 1930, were written in Yiddish, perhaps because the work was in part a call for repentance, and in Yiddish could reach a larger audience than the scholars who understood Hebrew. (1930 was more than a decade before the establishment of the modern State of Israel and therefore the reintroduction and usage of Hebrew as a language beyond the scholarly realm or small groups of Israeli settlers was not yet widespread.) The one book that included English was Palgei Shemen that included the FDR letter and Risikoff's response, described in the article.
  2. ^ Pinkas Zetel: A Memorial to the Jewish Community of Zetel, Baruch Kaplinski (editor), Zetel Association in Israel (Publisher), Tel Aviv, 1957, 229
  3. ^ a b c Dorot HaAchronim, Ben-Zion Eisenstadt, A. H. Rozenberg (publisher),1915, 335.,
  4. ^ Ohalei Shem, S. Gottlieb, Pinsk, 1912, 297-298.
  5. ^ Yizkor-Book Suwalk, Berl Kahan (editor), The Suwalk & Vicinity Relief Committee of New York (publisher), 1961, 164
  6. ^ AJC Archives, Jewish National Organizations in the United States, 1919-1920.
  7. ^ Encyclopedia Judaica, Decennial Book(1973-82), Keter Publishing House, 1982, 523
  8. ^ Brooklyn Eagle, Nov 21, 1951, includes an article and photo of "90-year old senior rabbi Mnachem Risikoff" and his son, Rabbi Leon Risikoff, assembling Torah scrolls to be taken out of the building (691 Lafayette Ave., in Bedford-Stuyvesant) in case the fire in the nearby warehouse, on Kosciusko St, spread to endanger the synagogue building itself. (Photo on file as part of the Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.)
  9. ^ Archived 2011-07-17 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Kevarim of Tzadikim in North America, 2008.
  11. ^ The Degel Israel Torah Journal: A Monthly Journal for Strengthening Torah and Judaism, originally published by Degel HaRabbonim, collated and republished by American Jewish Legacy Torah Classics Library, New York, 2002. Most articles in this journal were written in Yiddish, although the introduction to the bound collection states that "Some essays and reviews were penned in Hebrew."
  12. ^ Ha Kohanim vHaLeviim, Mnachem Resnick, 1940. The status of kehuna -- belonging to the Priestly tribe -- was important to both Resnick and his son, Risikoff, but because of a sense of responsibility, not pride, and in this book of Risikoff's, he recalls how his father taught that it was important to have a sense of humility, and avoid actions or words based on pride or the desire for notoriety. He writes that his father did not even want him to relate stories about him that might be interpreted as praise unless there was some musar, ethical teaching, that could be derived from the story. So, for example, Risikoff relates in this book how once there was a large fire in Slonim, when his father lived there -- and many people in the town, including other Kohanim, were bringing their belongings to the cemetery, which was located in one of the safe areas -- but his father, because Kohanim were prohibited (with some few exceptions) from entering cemeteries, refused to do so, saying it was better to lose all their belongings than to go to the cemetery.
  13. ^ This lineage is passed from father to son, and is often indicated by the term, "HaKohen", in the individual's name, as it was for Risikoff and his father, Zvi Yosef HaKohen Resnick.
  14. ^ Risikoff, "Petach Sha'ar," in "Litutei Dinim: Torar HaKohanim ve'avodat Beit Hamikdash veHakorbanot," New York, Moinester:1945, pp5-10, quoted in Gershon Greenberg, "Kristallnacht: The Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Theological Response," p167 and footnote 45.
  15. ^ Shaaarei Ratzon, page 26, using his first name, Mnachem, and Palgei Shemen, page 7, using his first name, Mnachem, in one portion, and his full name, Mnachem HaKohen Risikoff, in another.
  16. ^ Torat HaKohanim, page iv.
  17. ^ HaKohanim vHaLeviim, page 20.
  18. ^ Divorce in Jewish Law and Life, Irwin Haut, Sepher-Hermon Press, 1983, 97, Vol V in the series, Studies in Jewish Jurisprudence, Edward Gershfield: also discusses his arguments in favor of helping the Agunah and strengthening the position of the modern Beth Din. This description of Risikoff's position is quoted based on an earlier secondary source: A. Freimann, Seder Kiddushin V'Nisuin, Mossad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem: 1964 (Hebrew).
  19. ^ The Manchester Analysis: Draft Final Report of the Agunah Research Unit, University of Manchester, England, July 2009, pages 91, 155, 162, 163, 174, 180.] This work references Risikoff's book, Shaarei Shamayim (New York, 1937), which includes both his arguments for enhanced recognition of the court in general, and reliance on it -- through a creative revision of the traditional words recited by a groom during a Jewish marriage ceremony -- in the case of the Agunah, in particular.
  20. ^ Between Civil and Religious Law: The Plight of the Agunah in American Society, Irving Breitowitz, Greenwood Press, 1993. By coincidence, Breitowitz's book was reviewed by Risikoff's grandson, Rabbi Steven Resnicoff, in Jewish Action, Winter 1994, Vol. 55, No. 2.
  21. ^ a b Gershon Greenberg, Kristallnacht: The American Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Theology of Response, in Maria Mazzenga (editor), American Religious Responses to Kristallnacht, Palgrave MacMillan:2009, pages 158-172. Much of the information in this paragraph of the Wikipedia article comes from Greenberg's exhaustive treatment of Risikoff's writings on this subject, as one three important thinkers representing the "ultra orthodox": Mordekhai Tsevi Schwartz, Tobias Gefen, and Risikoff.
  22. ^ Risikoff, “Le’zekher olam yehiyeh tsadik,” in Sha’arei Shamayim (New York: 1936/37), iv-v.
  23. ^ Greenberg, op. cit, 166.
  24. ^ Risikoff, Palgei Shemen,106-108.
  25. ^ Greenberg, op. cit., 172.
  26. ^ Risikoff, Zikron Mnachem, Siman 165. This issue is also discussed in the remarks by Gershon Greenberg, delivered June 7, 2010, at the Library of Congress. The video of those remarks is included in the "See also" section of this Wikipedia article.
  27. ^ "Rabbi Resnicoff, Boro Scholar, Has 3 Sons in Service," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, p12A, Sep 20, 1942, retrieved September 1, 2011.
  28. ^ Ibid.
  29. ^ Risikoff, Hakohanim vHaLeviim, 12, based on a section of the Talmud: Avodah Zarah, 4b.
  30. ^ Washington Jewish Week, June 10, 2010.
  31. ^ Encyclopedia Judaica Decennial Book (1973-82), Keter Publishing House, 1982, 526.
  32. ^ [1], pg. iv
  33. ^ Risikoff, Mnachem. MiTorat Zvi Yosef, p. 14.
  34. ^ Brooklyn Eagle, Feb 25, 1943, lists Leon Risikoff as Chaplain for the New York Department of Sanitation, and spiritual leader of Congregation Aitz Chaim, 349 Tompkins Ave., Brooklyn, New York.
  35. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-06-06. Retrieved 2010-01-28.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  36. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-02-01. Retrieved 2010-01-28.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  37. ^ Library of Congress Veterans History Project Oral History for Arnold Resnicoff, May 2010.
  38. ^ "Parents Connect: Baby names."
  39. ^ Letter printed in volume, "Palgei Shemen," Risikoff, Shulsinger Brothers Publishers, New York, 1959.
  40. ^ Brooklyn Public Library photo and description, retrieved August 31, 2011
  41. ^ Article in Washington Jewish Week, June 10, 2010, retrieved August 30, 2011.
  42. ^ Archived 2011-07-17 at the Wayback Machine, retrieved September 1, 2011.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]