The Ninteen Letters

by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Newly translated by Karin Paritzky
and with a comprehensive commentary by Rabbi Joseph Elias.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was a noted sage and commentator of the 19th century. His first published work, ''The Nineteen Letters,'' serves as an excellent introduction to the Torah's universal vision for Jews and all humanity. It was written in the form of letters to a young Jewish intellectual who felt alienated from his spiritual roots. However, Rabbi Hirsch's intended audience was not only the assimilated Jewish intellectuals of his generation, but also those Jews who had remained traditional, but who were fulfilling the mitzvos - precepts -of the Torah by rote, without comprehending their inner spirit. To both groups, Rabbi Hirsch taught what our sages refer to as Toras chaim - the Teaching of life, and he proclaimed:

There is but one road that leads to salvation; amends must be made precisely where the wrong was done. We must forget the views and prejudices that we inherited about Judaism and, instead, turn to the sources of Judaism, the Tanach (scriptures), the Talmud and the Midrash. We must read, study and comprehend them in order to live by them and to draw from them Judaism's views about God, the world, mankind and Yisrael. Thus Judaism must be studied and understood out of itself and be elevated, all by itself, to a science of wise living. (Letter Eighteen, p. 273)
In ''The Nineteen Letters,'' Rabbi Hirsch explores how the study of Torah and its mitzvos leads to a true understanding of human identity, and how this study guides the human being in his relationship to other creatures. For the human being was created in the Divine image, and therefore has the capacity and the responsibility to emulate the Divine love and justice:
Everything bestowed upon you - mind, body, fellowman, material goods, other creatures, every talent and every power - all are merely means to action, to further and to safeguard everything. With love and with justice! The earth was not created as a gift to you - you have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God's earth, and everything on it as God's creation, as your fellow creature, to be respected, loved and helped to attain its purpose according to God's Will. (Letter Four, p. 56)
In this work, Rabbi Hirsch also demonstrates how an understanding of Torah is crucial for an understanding of Jewish identity. He lived in an age of growing nationalism, and he therefore emphasized the spiritual and universal raison d'etre of the People of Israel:
Yisrael was given the Torah in the wilderness, and there - without a country and land of its own - it became a nation, a body whose soul was Torah. Thereby it came to be a mamleches kohanim, a ''kingdom of priests,'' a nation serving as the guardian of God's Word in the midst of humanity, as a priest serves amidst his people. At the same time, by fulfilling God's Word, it was to become a goy kadosh, a "holy nation,'' standing apart in holiness... Torah, the fulfillment of the Divine Will, constitutes the foundation, basis and goal of this people. Its nationhood is, therefore, not tied to transitory things or dependent on anything of a passing nature; it is as eternal and everlasting as spirit and soul and the Word of the Eternal. (Letter Eight, pages 115-16)
However, this people was to enter history as a nation in the midst of other nations in order to become a social model of the Torah's teachings. ''Therefore,'' writes Rabbi Hirsch, ''a land, prosperity and institutions of statehood were to be put at Yisrael's disposal not as goals in themselves, but as means for the fulfillment of Torah.'' (Ibid)
''The Nineteen Letters'' also helps us to understand that the Jewish journey through history is one which leads to a universal goal. As Rabbi Hirsch explains to his young student:
You wrote that the Torah isolates us. True! If it did not, Israel would long since have lost its identity. Look what struggles are required to preserve the purity of Yisrael's spirit within our people despite this isolation! But does this spell enmity? Or pride? As if God were not the Lord of all creatures, all men? An unfortunate misinterpretation indeed! After all, Yisrael has no other task than to acknowledge as its God the One Who calls and educates all human beings to His service, and to make Him known as such through its destiny and way of life! (Letter Fifteen, p. 198)
''The Nineteen Letters'' conveys a contemporary message. It helps us to renew our understanding of the Torah's universal vision for Israel and all the nations, and it serves as a reminder that ''Judaism, correctly conceived and conveyed, constitutes a bond of love and justice encompassing all creatures.'' (Letter Nineteen, pages 333-34)
"The Nineteen Letters" is published by Feldheim, Jerusalem / N.Y.