This Day in Jewish History

1766: A Rabbi Who Argued Over a Fish and Reformed Judaism Is Born

Aaron Chorin seemed to enjoy provoking his fellow rabbis with outré ideas, like sparing chickens on Yom Kippur.

Aaron Chorin, black and white drawing, wearing black skullcap.
Wikimedia Commons

August 3, 1766, is the birthdate of Aaron Chorin, who offended some Jews and exhilarated others, as the first rabbi in Europe to call for the modernization of traditional Jewish law, anticipating the Reform movement.

Aaron Chorin was born in the town of Hranice, Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. His father was Kalman Chorin, and his mother, the former Shondel Donath. In 1780, the family moved to Deutschkreutz, where Aaron’s parents ran a small business.

Beginning at age 14, Chorin attended yeshiva in Mattersdorf, Hungary, following which he studied at the Prague yeshiva run by Rabbi Ezekiel Landau (also known as the Noda Beyehuda, the name of his best-known work). The latter academy was liberal enough that it exposed him to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and to kabbala, Jewish mysticism.

In 1783, he returned to Deutschkreutz to get married, and he began working in commerce, but with limited success. By 1789, he had accepted a job as rabbi in the town of Arad, in southwest Hungary. It was a position he held until his death, although that implication of stasis gives little hint of the drama that characterized much of his career.

What does the sturgeon say

In 1798, Chorin published his first rabbinic pamphlet, “Imre Noam” (Words of Pleasantness), in which he controversially argued, as had his teacher Rabbi Landau, that the sturgeon (a fish) has scales, and is therefore kosher. This was a provocative claim, and it elicited unpleasant reactions from other rabbis, particularly from Moravia's chief rabbi, Mordecai Banet, who had already ruled that the sturgeon was treyf.

Following Chorin's pronouncement on the sturgeon, Banet suggested that he deserved to be excommunicated. Banet would remain like a fish bone in Chorin’s throat for many years.

In 1803, Chorin published a book he called “Emek Hashaveh” (Vale of the Plain), in which he argued that learned rabbis can adapt Jewish law to current conditions. He also began delineating the customs and commandments that he believed could be dispensed with, which over time came to include not only the kapparot, the pre-Yom Kippur custom of sacrificing a chicken as a sign of penance, but also more substantive laws like the restrictions on travel and writing on the Sabbath, and a shortening of the shivah, the period of mourning following the death of a close relative.

Responding to an appeal by Rabbi Banet, a rabbinical court ordered that “Emek Hashaveh” be burned, and instructed Chorin to recant his heresies in writing. Instead, Rabbi Chorin asked a civil court to reverse the order of the beit din, and it did.

Was he enjoying this?

Rabbi Moses Munz, the rabbi of Obuca, had provided an endorsement of Emek Hashaveh before its publication. Now, Chorin’s congregation, in Arad, turned to Munz in 1805 for assurances that the book was indeed not heretical.

Finding himself in the hot seat, Munz appointed a tribunal, with himself at its head, to examine the work and its author, and present its judgment.

However, Munz neglected to show up. The two other rabbis called on Chorin to retract the claims made in his book, and to suffer the cutting off of his beard should he refuse, but again, he appealed to the civil authorities, and had the ruling reversed.

Clearly, Aron Chorin was a fighter, and he seems to have taken satisfaction in provoking his colleagues with his unorthodox rulings. Thus it was in his 1818 work “Kinat Ha’emet” (Zeal for Truth) that he became the first Ashkenazi rabbi to give his endorsement to the changes introduced by the German Reform movement, many of them related to the synagogue service, such as the saying of certain prayers in the vernacular, and the use of an organ on the Sabbath.

His increasingly bold call for halakhic reform made Chorin the bane of Orthodox rabbis throughout Central Europe, but earned him new friends within the growing liberal movement.  One of his opponents dubbed him the “Aher,” literally “the Other” in Hebrew, and an acronym for his name – but also a reference to Elisha Ben Avuya, who in the 1st century, C.E., had also been called The Other for his heretical views.

Rabbi Aron Chorin died in Arad on August 24, 1844.