This past Saturday, a most eccentric, traditional Talmudist named Rabbi Raphael Halperin passed away at the age of 87. In modern Israel, he is probably most recognized as the head of a major chain of optical stores whose (literally) ear-piercing, glass-shattering ads can be heard, approximately, every 2.5 minutes on Israeli radio. Halperin was not an academic Talmudist, nor was he an important Talmudist, but he sure was a splendidly strange and colorful-bird of a Talmudist. I remember the shock, horror, and admiration when I discovered his multi-volume encyclopedia of rabbis “from creation (literally!) until our day,” “Atlas Etz Hayim.” In some of the books were pictures of Halpern as a young body builder, or as a champion wrestler, while on other pages he appeared in a dashing suit and fedora behind the Hazon Ish. I also remember feeling that he stole my thunder, as I wanted to one day produce a comprehensive book of that sort for classical rabbinic sages. Little did I know then that Halpern was himself reinventing the wheel. The Jerusalem Post has a richly detailed and colorful obit.
As strange as his personal odyssey may seem, particularly for someone who became a kind of symbol for a type of harediism, Halperin’s biography actually hearkens back to a day when the ultra-orthodox world in Israel was, to put it one way, far less black and white.
He should rest in peace.