BEN-TSION (BENZION) ALFES (November 5, 1850-December 23, 1940)
Born in Vilna. He studied in religious schools as well as with his father, Rabbi Yirmyahu-Akiva, a scholar and God-fearing man. With his father’s death, he was orphaned at age fifteen and went to study in Eyshishok (Eišiškės). Married at age seventeen, his wealthy mother-in-law supported him and he thus continued his studies in Eyshishok. He later settled in Vilna where he studied in the Gaon’s synagogue, while his wife engaged in business. At the end of 1871 he left for Palestine with the intention of remaining there, but his wife did not wish to follow him there. So, after living in Jerusalem and Hebron for two years, he returned to Vilna. Thereafter he lost his possessions, and he became a proofreader for a publishing house. For fifteen years he maintained this position, but he did wish to proof novels and other ordinary “heretical” writings. He was particularly attentive to educating poor children in religious elementary schools and to befriending humble folk with Yiddishkeit. He studied with ordinary people, lectured in schools and synagogue study halls, and became well known as an interpreter. He also set to translating all manner of edifying Jewish texts from Hebrew to Yiddish. In 1886 his publishing house in Vilna brought out his Yiddish translation (in partnership with Rabbi Avrom Kretshmer, the Antokoly Rav) of Rabbi Yonah Gerondi’s Shaare teshuvah (The gates of repentance) and Sefer hayirah (Book of religious fear [of God]), to which he added an extraordinary tale concerning Rabbi Moshe Galant, translated from the text Matok midvash (Sweetness from honey). His published his Yiddish translation together with the Hebrew original. This work went through several printings. In the 1890s in small synagogues associated with the Musar movement, people used to study Shaare teshuvah with the Yiddish translation by Kretshmer and Alfes. He then went on to translate the Rambam’s last will, Rabbi Avraham Jagel’s Lekach tov (A good lesson), the biography of the Vilna Gaon from Rabbi Yitzhak Moldan’s Even shelomo (Rock of Solomon).
As a pious counter-force to the impact that novels and other “heretical” texts in Yiddish were having on the young, he wrote Mayse alfes (Alfes’s tale) which described a “genuine, heartfelt love for the one and only that one must love. A stunningly beautiful history of the celebrated, cultivated Rachel with her beloved Joseph.” This pious novel was initially published early in 1900 as a series of books (published by Sh. Shreberk in Vilna). The full series ran to ten parts, several parts were republished (in 1953 the Agudat bate kenesiyot de-shikago veha-Galil [Association of synagogues of Chicago and the Galilee] published a new, improved edition). Mayse alfes was written in the form of a letter from a daughter to her father (the book to the author) to whom the daughter explains her experiences and describes her impressions, with examples and stories drawn from prominent Jewish figures. Jewish preachers saw in Mayse alfes a modern work of Musar and used it as such. The success of Mayse alfes and the popularity of its author enabled the Vilna press that published it, Rozenkrants and Epshteyn, to proceed to place orders with him for translations and “Mayse alfes”-style commentaries on the regular prayer book, the high holiday prayer book, the Passover Haggada, the night liturgy of Shavuot, supplicatory prayers, and similar religious works. He also adapted the Mishnah in Yiddish with a commentary in Hebrew and wrote a text entitled Seyfer oyster hatoyre (The treasury of the Torah) which he described within as: “explaining the meaning of each passage of the Pentateuch, five scrolls, and the haftaras with observations, examples, and the eighteen perushim.” Only the first part of Genesis was printed (Vilna: Shreberk Publishers, 1914). He also authored: Der hokhgishetster gast, a sheyne geshikhte vos erklert di hoykhe gedanken fun unzer herlikhn tsirung (tfilin) (The highly esteemed guest, a lovely story that explains the elevated ideas of our splendid treasures [tefillin]) (Poltava, 1917/1918), 32 pp.; and Di vayse khevrenikes oder nimrods soyuz (The white guys or Nimrod’s Sayuz) (Poltava, 1918), 16 pp. Aside from his own texts, Alfes also published work in Hebrew and Yiddish of other writers, written in the spirit and the style of Mayse alfes, with his own introductions, appendices, and footnotes—as, for example, Hamatif, der redner (The sermonizer) by Gershon Pyestun, as well as other religious works: Hapaamon, der glekel (The bell) by Meir Achun; Folks-droshes (Popular sermons) and Mayn zeydes hagode, oder a pogrom af dem afikoymen (My grandfather’s haggadah, or a pogrom on the afikomen) by Borekh ben Refuel Halevi Yofis; Der barimter yunger darshan, oder meshiekh ilmim (The famed young expositor, or savior of the silent) by Avrom Meyer Rubinshtayn; A gibet brif (A pleading letter); a Yiddish translation of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra’s Igeret ha-shabat (Epistle on the sabbath); Hilkhot rav alfes, im miluim maaseh alfes (Rules according to R. Alfes, supplement: Alfes’s tale); and Metav hagiyon (Studies in logic) by Samson Raphael Hirsch, translated with R. Yitshok-Ayzik Hirshovits; among others.
During WWI, Alfes and his sons turned up in Vilna, and in 1924 made aliya to Palestine. For a short period of time, he lived in Petach-Tikvah, and gave lessons there in Chevra Tiferet-Bachurim, and later with his second wife (the first died in Vilna) entered an old age home in Jerusalem. Disregarding his old age, he continued to be active and tried to give lessons for the seniors and sermons in the study halls. He adapted parts of Mayse alfes in Hebrew as Ahavah levavit tehorah (Love, genuine and pure), a novel in two parts; Taut nimharah o ibud atsmo ladaat (Foolish error, or suicide) (Jerusalem, 1933). The last of these was a translation of his short book, Der shreklikher toes (The horrible mistake), in which the protagonists engage in a debate about Karl Marx, socialism, materialism, piety, and humaneness; concerning the revolution of 1917, the Bolshevik regime in Russia, and the question of labor in general. He expressed the same contentions before the “proletarians and Bundists” in his booklet entitled Maase alfes hachadash (Alfes’s new tale) (Tel Aviv, 1940). On his ninetieth birthday, he wrote an autobiography entitled Zikhroynes (Memoirs) (Jerusalem, 1940).
Source: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1.