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Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

July 12-13 Parsha Chukas

Rabbi Yaacov Yitzchok Halevi Ruderman passed away on the 14th of Tammuz  5747 - 1987. Rabbi Ruderman was the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of the Ner Israel Rabbinical Academy for 54 years. Ner Israel has had a great impact on the development of the Atlanta Torah observant community, beginning with alumnus Rabbi Emmanual Feldman taking the helm at Congregation Beth Jacob, later Ner Yisrael alumni founding of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel, and the many alumni who live in Atlanta and make its Jewish community so vibrant.

What was it about this Yiddish speaking Torah giant that impacted so many to impact so many? Rabbi Ruderman was recognized as a genius as a young child. His parents sent him to learn Torah in the famed Slobodka Yeshiva before his Bar Mitzvah. The spiritual head of the Yeshiva was Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, known as the Alter (Elder) of Slobodka. Due to his tender age, the Alter took the young Ruderman into his own home.

A few years later tragedy struck when Rav Ruderman’s parents perished in a plague. At the time the youth had dedicated himself to an intensive program to complete the entire Talmud. The Alter withheld the news of the passing of the parents so as not to disrupt the ambitious learning program.  Others questioned this decision. “But no one is saying kaddish for the parents”. The Alter responded that the Torah that is being learned with such intensity is the greatest kaddish. When the goal was reached, the boy was informed of the tragedy. Decades later he was grateful for the sagacity of the Alter that enabled him to acquire knowledge of the entire Talmud.

In 1930, at age 29, having mastered and memorized all areas of Torah, he moved to America to help his father-in-law start a yeshiva. Attempts were made in New Haven, Connecticut and later Cleveland, Ohio, but both failed. In 1933 the Rudermans moved to Baltimore and began teaching a handful of students in their home. The Yeshiva grew into the hundreds and now occupies a 75-acre campus in suburban Baltimore.

How did Rabbi Ruderman turn American students on to the Talmud with its foreign language and decidedly un-Western thought process? I’m sure it was many different ways for many different people. For myself knowing him in the last seven years of his life, it was crystal clear. Rav Ruderman was a living embodiment of the Torah. He thought it, he talked it and he lived it.  His life was defined by his connection to his predecessors, and by extension, anyone who was connected to him shared that connection.

The Torah says that when Moshe Rabbeinu would go to his tent the people would stand until he entered his tent. The custom in Ner Israel was that when Rav Ruderman entered everyone stood until he reached his seat. Those moments are my finest recollections of my days in Ner Israel. The door opened and hundreds of men stood as the Rosh Yeshiva slowly made his way to his seat at the front of the room. Standing for the heir of Moshe Rabbeinu until he reached his place.

July 5-6 Parsha Korach

For nearly 1,500 years, the Jewish people called Babylon home. During that time the Jews created a veritable Kingdom in Babylon complete with Resh Galusa - Kings in Exile  - descendants of King David. The Babylonian Jewish community produced the cornerstone of Judaism, the Babylonian Talmud and scores of works by a host of great Chachamim. It all began on the 5th of Tammuz 433 B.C.

In the first year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar set out to conquer the world. His armies soon reached and subdued Israel. He appointed King Yehoyakim as his vassal. Three years later Yehoyakim rebelled against Babylon. The Babylonians put down the rebellion, killed Yehoyakim, and installed his 18-year-old son Yehoyachin as a vassal.  After only a few months on the throne, Yehoyachin also rebelled. The Babylonians came back and rounded up the entire Royal family and most of the Jerusalem aristocracy. They also looted two of Israel’s greatest treasures. They stripped the Temple of many of its gold ornaments and rounded up 1,000 young budding Torah scholars, known as the Cheresh and Masger. Cheresh – “Silencers” -  because their arguments silenced the opposition,  and Masger – “Closers” because everyone closed their mouths before them. All of these they exiled to Babylon.

The 1,000 Torah Scholars were of particular importance to Nebuchadnezzar because he needed to create a bureaucracy to run his ever-expanding empire. These young men were exceptionally bright and well educated, so he felt they were just what he needed. Nebuchadnezzar was correct and the Cheresh and Masger soon rose to prominence in Babylon. This prominence gave them considerable clout in powerful places. These 1,000 scholars were also very important to the destiny of the Jewish people.

Nine years after the Cheresh and Masger arrived in Babylon, Zedkiyahu the last king of Israel rebelled against Babylon. This time Nebuchadnezzar had no more patience. He destroyed the Temple and exiled most of the Jews to Babylon in chains. Our long history tells us that forced migrations from the old country generally entail a severe drop in the quality of Jewish life and knowledge. The immigrants are primarily focused on surviving in a new and often hostile environment and religious life takes a backseat. What these new immigrants found in Babylon was just the opposite. In Babylon, the Cheresh and Masger were well placed and ready to spring into action. The Cheresh and Masger immediately organized the exiles into a community with all the communal institutions. Finances were provided, community structure was instituted and Torah learning resumed almost immediately.

We have an adage that Hashem sends the cure before the disease. The Cheresh and Masger is the case in point. What made Nebuchadnezzar think that the answer to his problem lay in these 1,000 young Torah scholars? The answer is our Father in Heaven, who is always preparing the cure for His children before the disease.

June 28-29 Parsha Shlach

Yonoson ben Uziel was a student of Hillel and he died in the waning days of the Second Temple. During his lifetime Yonaon ben Uziel wrote an interpretive Aramaic translation of the Torah. The Targum (translation) of Yonoson ben Uziel is printed today in all of the Mikraos Gedolos (commentator's) editions of the Torah and is an important tool for Torah study.

The Talmud tells us that Yonoson ben Uziels’ love for Torah was all-consuming. As he studied, birds flying over his head were burned by the fiery intensity of his learning. His dedication to Torah even exceeded its rightful bounds. Yonoson ben Uziel could not divide his attention between his Torah and a wife so he decided not to marry. He passed away at a young age, unmarried, but just before his passing, he realized he had made a mistake by never marrying since he would have ascended to even higher levels with a wife, because a wife brings completion.

From then on, a tradition developed that those seeking their soulmates would meet their intended within a year if they came to daven at his gravesite in Amuka, a deep valley near Tsfat. On the day of his passing, thousands come to his gravesite for this very purpose. Many have seen miracles.

Diane was an unobservant, thirtyish single when she started attending classes with the newly formed Atlanta Scholars Kollel. In time she became observant and desired greatly to settle down and start a family. Harvey, 40ish, had a similar story in Chicago. A Kollel Rabbi in Atlanta was speaking to a Kollel rabbi in Chicago and a shidduch was proposed. Diane and Harvey dated and Mazal Tov! they became engaged. The engagement party was held in the home of Diane’s good friends, Rabbi Binyomin and Dena Friedman. Harvey, an amateur photographer, took many pictures of the happy event, reloading his camera as the rolls of film (yes, film) ran out. At one point he handed his camera to someone to take a picture of himself and his fiancee. After the event, Harvey went back to Chicago where he developed his film.

A few weeks later the Friedmans received a most amazing photograph.

Some months before he was introduced to Diane, Harvey, frustrated and burnt out on dating, decided to take a trip to Israel. While in Israel he was told of the tradition of visiting the grave of Rabbi Yonoson ben Uziel and its reported effects, so he journeyed to Amuka. While in Amuka, someone took his camera and took a picture of him praying there. When that roll of film was complete, he tossed it into his camera bag.

Harvey then returned to America. Soon thereafter, he was introduced to Diane and now they were celebrating the engagement. With all of the excitement of the engagement party, Harvey accidentally reloaded the already exposed film from his trip to Israel into his camera. Now we were holding the results in our hands. There in the same frame is Harvey davening for a wife at Amuka and Harvey and his fiancee celebrating their engagement a few months later.

This week Monday, 28 Sivan, is the Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yonoson ben Uziel. It behooves us to consider our friends and family who are earnestly seeking their soulmate and to pray for their success in the coming year. And if you have any ideas, pick up the phone.

June 21-22 Parsha Behaaloscha

There was a wedding in Hungary of one of the leaders of the community, to which all the greatest Rabbonim were all invited. There they rejoiced, sang, danced and sat to enjoy the mitzva feast. In honor of the momentous occasion, Rav Avrohom Binyomin Shmuel Sofer, stood up and declared, “In order to mark this happy event, I wanted to share something precious and unique with you all and something that will add to the joy of the event,” and so saying, he removed from his pocket a silver coin and held it up for all to see. “This,” explained Rabbi Sofer, “is a genuine Half Shekel from the time of Second Temple. I have this rare coin to share with you. Pass it around and see it for yourselves!”

All the great Rabbonim assembled were excited to see a genuine artifact, a real Half Shekel, and they excitedly passed around the coin. After everyone had a chance to see the coin, the request was sent to pass it back up to Rabbi Sofer, but the coin did not make its way back. They tried unsuccessfully to determine who had it last but unfortunately, no one knew; the coin had simply vanished.

At this point, someone locked the doors to the Simcha hall and declared that there was no choice but to have everyone empty out their pockets. Obviously, someone’s desire for the coin had gotten the better of him and he had stolen the Half Shekel. Hearing this, one of the Rabbonim stood up. It was the Rabbi Yehudah of Assad, Hungary (1796 -1866), known as Mahari Assad, and he made an unusual request. “Please, let us not ask the assembled to turn out their pockets; instead, let us all wait patiently for a half hour to see if the coin turns up.”

The Mahari Assad’s request caused some eyebrows to go up and some murmurs, but the assembled agreed. The feast continued and a half hour passed with no new developments. “Again, I beg your patience and indulgence and ask you all to wait another fifteen minutes!” asked the Mahari Assad. During this time, he was seen silently davening. Just then a waiter burst into the room excitedly. “I have it! I have the missing coin!”

The room burst our in cries of “The coin has been found!” The waiter explained how he had found the coin in the garbage. During the commotion passing it around from hand to hand, it must have been placed on the table and inadvertently been swept off the table when the waiters made their rounds clearing up. The Mahari Assad’s face showed visible relief and as he explained he drew out from his identical half Shekel coin! “Now I shall explain why I asked your patience and indulgence. You see, when I saw the Ksav Sofer’s delight, I didn’t want to spoil it by showing everyone my coin as well. Then I heard of the lost coin and the request to empty out our pockets and I was afraid no one would believe I had an almost identical rare coin in my pocket! So, I asked for a delay so that the coin might be found, and davened to Hashem that He spare me the shame of accusation and others the sin of falsely accusing me and suspecting me of wrongdoing and – Boruch Hashem Tefillos were heard.”

The Yahrtzeit of the Mahari Assad is this week 23 Sivan.

June 14-15 Parsha Naso

When I was a kid, Jewish men belonged to Bnai Brith Lodges. Like all fraternal lodges, Bnai Brith brought Jewish men together for camaraderie and social service. Bnai Brith lodges focused primarily on the needs of the Jewish community worldwide. My father was a member of Aaron
Milstein Lodge #49. He never attended any of their meetings or activities, and I never knew him to socialize with the other members.

One day I saw him making out a check to pay annual lodge dues. My father was a hard-working 24/6 guy and was not the ‘go bowling with the guys at the lodge’ type. Furthermore, his social circle was contained almost wholly within the Shul/day school community. I asked him why he
belonged to a Bnai Brith lodge. He told me that the lodge was named after a kid he grew up with, and when they founded the lodge, he felt an obligation to join. Curious, I pressed him for details.

My father told me that the Milsteins were a family in the old neighborhood of his youth, composed entirely of Jewish immigrants. The Milsteins had only one child, a slight, quiet boy named Aaron. Aaron’s mother doted over her only child exceedingly. When the boys went to play ball, Mrs. Milstein came to the park to bring Aaron his scarf. The boys made fun of this quiet boy and his doting mother as boys will do, especially children of Yiddish speaking immigrants eager to show their American independence. My father felt for Aaron but never said anything. He even joined in and got a laugh at the overweight Mrs. Milstein, her babushka scarf and apron waddling after ‘mein Aron’.

A decade passed. The depression-era boys graduated high school and WWII broke out. Everyone was drafted. This “greatest generation” was sent around the globe to fight tyrants and save the world. My father got as far as Hawaii. He was being trained to assault the Pacific Islands when Hiroshima ended the war.

Over the next number of months, the boys from the old neighborhood began to trickle home. They all had big dreams, most of which would take them far from the old neighborhood. At some point, one of the guys suggested that before they all scattered, they should get together
to share war stories.

My father went to the meeting. Many of the guys came in uniform; some had achieved considerable rank. Everyone wanted to catch up. “What happened to this one?” “What happened to that one?” Then someone said, “What happened to Milstein?” Someone else answered “He shipped out to Europe. Landed on D- Day. Took one step onto the beach and an artillery shell took his head off. His mother hasn’t stopped crying.” As he said those words, my father started crying. I don’t know if he was mourning the loss of quiet gentle Aaron Milstein or reliving the agony of the mother bereaved of her only offspring, or perhaps he was suffering the embarrassment of a man who would never be able to rectify the sins of his youth.

This Tuesday will be Aaron Milsteins’ 75th yartzeit. He died on Normandy Beach on the 15th of Sivan 5704, June 6, 1944. I hope to say kaddish for him.

May 24-25 Parsha Behar

On September 1, 1939, German troops invaded and conquered Poland. The Germans advanced to the east across the Bug river, capturing the city of Brest, or Brisk, which lay directly across the river. By prearrangement of the Molotov Von Ribbentrop pact, the Nazis retreated back across the Bug and turned over Lithuania and Belarus to the Russians.

While the Nazis began the extermination of the Jews in Poland, the Jews in the Russian sector were persecuted. All Jewish institutions were closed down and many leaders were deported to Siberia. In June 1941 the Germans broke their pact with the Russians. They swarmed across the Bug river, swallowing up Belarus and headed toward Moscow in an attempt to conquer Russia. The Jews in their path were now subject to the same fate as their Polish brethren. In the town of Brisk, shooting of Jews began shortly after the invasion. At this time there were no extermination camps as we would come to know them, and the Nazis were still trying to figure out the best way to destroy the Jews. In November 1941, the Nazis began concentrating the Jews in a ghetto, and by mid-December the ghetto was closed. In 1942 several murder operations were carried out against the Jews in various locations in Brisk, and by October 1942 almost all of the Jews had been murdered.

Rabbi Yehuda Dickstein, my father in law, grew up in Brisk. When the war broke out, he fled with the Mir Yeshiva and spent the war years in Shanghai, China. His entire family remained in Brisk and it is assumed that they met the same fate as the rest of Jewish Brisk in one of the murder operations of 1942. The dates and location of their murder, as well as their remains, are unknown. However, on 18 Iyar in the current Jewish year of 5779, they may have finally received Jewish burial.

In January of this year, excavation was being done to build a new apartment building in the area where the Jewish ghetto once stood. Construction workers unearthed the remains of more than a thousand people. Most were clothed; all had been shot. The Government of Belarus would not allow DNA testing, but they did allow the Jewish community to collect the remains and re-inter them.

This week, on the day before Lag Ba’omer, the remains of over a thousand Jews murdered in the Brisk ghetto were covered in taleisim and placed in 120 caskets adorned with the Magen David. The caskets were taken to an area on the outskirts of town and given Jewish burial. Among the Jews may very well have been my wife's namesake, or her aunts and uncles, grandparents or great-grandparents.

When the Romans murdered the Jews of Beitar shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, they did not allow Jews to approach the city. The dead were left unburied. A year later Jews were allowed access to the city.  When they entered they were shocked. The bodies had not decomposed. At that time the Sages instituted a blessing that we say until this day at times of great joy “Blessed are you Hashem who is good and does good”.

If, after 78 years, our family members have finally been laid to rest, we can only say Boruch Hatov V’hameitiv
, Blessed is Hashem who is good and does good

May 16-17 Parsha Emor

The 18th day of Iyar is always the 33rd day of the Omer. In Hebrew, the letter Lamed = 30 and the letter Gimmel = 3, hence the name L’g Ba'Omer. Lag Ba’omer is celebrated because the plague which claimed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva (2 CE ) stopped on that day.

Lag Ba’omer is also celebrated because it is the yahrtzeit of Rav Shimon bar Yochai (121 CE), author (or at least organizer and editor) of the Holy Zohar, and a disciple of Rabbi Akiva. After Rabbi Akiva was murdered by the Romans, Rav Shimon bar Yochai, together with his son Rabbi Elazar, went into hiding in a cave in the mountains near Peki'in in the Galilee, where they stayed for 13 years.

There, he wrote the Zohar. This body of mystical knowledge was given orally by G-d to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. With the passage of Israel's history, these teachings were lost to most people, until R' Shimon, fearing a permanent loss of this knowledge, recorded them in the Zohar. The Zohar means the “shine or glow”, referring to the illumination of G-d in this world. R’ Shimon chose the day of his passing to revel the Zohar to his students. The event is described in an addendum to the Zohar known as Idra Zuta.

Rebbe Shimon said, “Now is an auspicious time [to reveal the secrets of the Torah]. I wish to enter the World to Come without shame. For the holy matters that I did not reveal until now, I wish to reveal in the presence of the Shechinah, so that no one will say that I left the world without fulfilling my task, and that I concealed [these secrets] in my heart until now so that they would come with me to the World to Come. I will present them to you; Rabbi Abba shall write, and Rabbi Elazar my son will review them, and the remaining disciples must whisper them in their hearts.” I see that today is special, for G-d and all the tzaddikim are rejoicing in my celebration.

Since then, Lag Ba’omer is celebrated with bonfires, in commemoration of the shine of the Zohar and the holy flame that engulfed the home of R’ Shimon on the day of his passing.

May 10-11 Parsha Kedoshim

From approximately the year 500 to 1000, the primary center of Judaism was located in Babylon, current day Iraq. The people were led by Geonim, great sages who were heads of the different Talmudical Academies. As the economic fortunes of Babylon waned, Jews began migrating westward and Jewish communities sprang up across North Africa and into Spain.

The younger, more prosperous communities increasingly were called upon to support the declining communities in Babylon. At this time, one of the great sages of Babylon, Rav Chushiel Gaon, set out from Babylon to collect funds for a needy bride and was seized by pirates. He was sold as a slave in Africa, but was later redeemed by the members of the Jewish community. From Africa, he headed to Kairouan, a city in Tunisia with a large Jewish population. Rav Chushiel settled in Kairouan and his son Chanael was born there. Rabbainu Chanael established a great Yeshiva in Kairouan and wrote an extensive commentary to the Talmud. The establishment of the Academy in Kairouan helped seal the fate of Babylon. Now that there was a Torah center in the west, people stopped looking back to Babylon for leadership.

A young student from the Algerian city of Kal’a asked to be admitted to Rav Chananel’s Yeshiva. His name was Yitzchok HaKohen. As Rav Yitzchok advanced in his studies, he became keenly aware of the fact that many people were unable to elucidate the halacha from the Gemora due to the vast amount of material it contains, and because many students are not able to identify the conclusions of the lengthy Talmudic debates. As a result, he conceived of the idea of compiling a comprehensive and extensive halachic work that would present all the halachos and the practical conclusions of the Gemora in a clear, definitive manner.

To achieve this goal, he retreated to his father-in-law’s attic, where he worked on his sefer for ten consecutive years. During this period, however, a Moslem tyrant gained control of Tunisia, and persecuted all those who did not accept his faith, especially the Jews of Kairouan. As a result, all the city’s Jewish residents fled to places more tolerant of the Jews.

Among the fugitives was Rav Yitzchok, who, with his wife and two children, moved to the Moroccan city of Fez. Rav Yitzchok remained in Fez for forty years, during which time he completed his Sefer HaHalochos, which is considered the first fundamental work in halachic literature. The Sefer Halachos is one of the three pillars that the
Shulchan Aruch, the Jewish Code of Law, is based upon. Sefer Halachos became so popular that it became a standard feature printed in the back of all editions of the Talmud. Eventually, Rav Yitzchok from Fez became known as Alfasi, or the one from Fez. Later generations use the acronym Rabbi Yitzchok Fez or RIF. As an old man, RIF was slandered to the local government and was forced to relocate to Spain where he spent his final years. Rav Yitzchok passed away on Iyar 10 at the age of ninety, in the year 1103.

Tue, July 16 2019 13 Tammuz 5779