Sign In Forgot Password

Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

September 4-5, Parshas Ki Tavo

An “illui,” a child prodigy in his youth, Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz became one of the great commentators on the Talmud and on the “Shulchan Aruch”, the Codes of Jewish Law. At the age of twenty-one, he headed the “Yeshiva” (Talmudic Academy) of Prague, and his oratorical abilities were already known far and wide. Somewhat unusually, he also interacted with priests and with the Cardinal in the area, debating religious topics with them. This Cardinal allowed him to print a copy of the Talmud, with passages critical of Christianity censored out. This aroused the hostility of the other rabbis of Prague, and also lent an air of controversy to Rabbi Yonasan. During Rabbi Yonasan’s time the Jewish community was suffering the effects of Shabbetai Tzvi, the charismatic kabbalist who developed a huge following. Shabbtai Tzvi proclaimed himself Messiah and led thousands off on a doomed march to Israel. After being arrested in Turkey Shabbtai Tziv was imprisoned and ultimately converted to Islam leaving a devastated community in his wake. Shabbtai Tzvi died in 1676 but his diehard followers held on for years afterwards. The Rabbis of the time enacted a number of strict measures to stomp out this divisive strain in Judaism. In 1725, Rabbi Yonason was among those who signed on a Cherem (excommunication) of the followers of Shabbetai Tzvi.

At that time there occurred a scourge of women dying in childbirth. As noted above, Rabbi Yonasan was highly proficient in “Kabbalah”. Rabbi Yonason consented to write amulets for pregnant women to wear to protect them from harm. Rabbi Yaakov Ashkenazi of Emden, also a great Torah scholar, had dedicated himself to the uprooting of any remnant of support for Shabbetai Tzvi. Rabbi Yaakov Emden came into possession of one of the amulets written by Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz and he claimed that he found in it evidence of Sabbateanism. Rabbi Eibeschutz by now Chief Rabbi  of the Jewish Communities of Altoona, Hamburg and Wandsbek.vigorously denied the charge and enlisted in his support great rabbis such as the “Noda BiYehudah,” Rabbi Yechezkel Landau and the Gaon of Vilna. But Rabbi Yaakov Emden also received significant rabbinical support and the controversy became so intense that it came to the attention of the Emperor Frederick of Denmark which controlled Altoona, Hamburg and Wandbek. The Emperor first sided with Rabbi Yaakov Emden, and deposed Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz, but later reversed himself, and restored Rabbi Eibeschutz to his position. The controversy roiled the Jewish community for years and led to a series of excommunications and counter excommunications.

This great internal dispute between two Torah giants was one of the bitter consequences of the Shabbetai Tzvi fiasco. It is also quite likely that the fierce opposition of the Vilna Gaon  to the new movement of Chassidus, that put its emphasis on “Kabbalah” and Prayer, rather than exclusive focus on the study of Talmud, developed as a consequence of the Shabbetai Tzvi disaster.  Rabbi Yonason Eibschutz died on the 21st day of Elul in the year 1764. Less than two years later Rabbi Emden passed away. Community leaders attempting to effect a form of reconciliation between the two Torah luminaries buried Rabbi Emden a few feet from Rabbi Eibeschutz in the Jewish cemetery in Altoona.

August 28-29, Parshas Ki Teitzei

In the run-up to the declaration of the State, the Jews in Palestine opposing the British were divided. Many supported the Jewish Agency led by David Ben Gurion and its military wing the Haganah. Others were called Revisionists and their military arm was the Irgun. Menachem Begin was one of the leaders of the Irgun. The Jewish Agency endeavored to create the State of Israel by political means. The Haganah was primarily a defense organization. The revisionists advocated military means to oust the British. A third group called Lehi splintered off from the Irgun. Lehi tended towards even more radical acts. The Stern gang as the British called Lehi was headed by a triumvirate one of whom was Yitzchak Shamir, one day to become Prime minister of Israel.

After Israel's independence, the Haganah became the IDF, however, Irgun and Lehi continued to function independently. In 1948 the UN sent Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte to Israel to broker a peace settlement between the Arabs and the Jews. Bernadotte advocated, “the right of the Arab refugees to return to their homes in Jewish-controlled territory…”  and placing Jerusalem under Arab control. Fearing that the Israeli leadership would agree to Bernadotte's peace proposals, which they considered disastrous, Lehi decided to take action.

On the 13th of Elul 1948 as Bernadotte’s motorcade was driving through Jerusalem they were stopped by an Israeli Army Jeep.  Soldiers got out, walked over to Bernadotte's car, shot him and his assistant to death and sped off. The assassins did not know that the Israeli leaders had already decided to reject Bernadotte's plans and were prepared to take military action. International outrage and condemnation of Israel ensued. The Ben Gurion government pledged to punish the assassins, but they were never found. In the end, Bernadotte's proposals were rejected by the UN. The Government used the episode to invigorate their efforts to stomp out renegade groups and consolidate all military functions in Israel into the IDF. 

Within months the Irgun and Lehi ceased to exist. As far as the Count himself he had a mixed reputation. He is noted for his negotiation of the release of about 15,000 prisoners from German concentration camps during World War II. After the war, he led efforts to bring Holocaust survivors to Sweden for rehabilitation. Count Folke Bernadotte is remembered by many Jews as a hero. To others, he was a wicked enemy of the Jewish people who tried to snuff out the State in its infancy. History is complicated. 

August 21-22, Parshas Shoftim

Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, visionary, teacher, and leader, single-handedly revolutionized American Orthodox Jewish life through the establishment of Jewish day schools, Jewish high schools, Torah day camps, and postgraduate yeshiva studies throughout the United States.

Born in 1886 in Hungary, Shraga Feivel studied with the greatest rabbis of Hungary. At the age of 17, he received semicha (rabbinical ordination) and married at 22. Avoiding the Hungarian army, he immigrated to the United States in 1913. Rabbi Mendlowitz began his new life teaching in various Jewish Talmud Torahs in Scranton, Bridgeport and New York. He briefly worked as a ritual slaughterer (which he hated) and ran an ice cream shop in New York.

In 1922, he joined the staff of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn. Shortly after that, he was appointed principal and was instrumental in its development from a small institution of 20 students to a world-renowned yeshiva with over 2,000 pupils. One of his first changes was his insistence that yeshiva board members attend Torah classes twice weekly to improve their Torah appreciation. Through the force of his personality, he convinced the parents of his 8th-grade students to stay in yeshiva for just one more year. This was the beginning of the first Yeshiva high school in America.– Mesifta Torah Vodaas, which officially opened in 1927.

Rabbi Mendelowitz preferred to be called Mr. Mendlowitz because he didn’t want people to think you have to be a Rabbi to learn Torah. Mr. Mendlowitz decided that Torah Vodaas should specialize in producing productive graduates, and community leaders, whose main focus and love in life would be Torah. Mr. Mendelowitz concentrated on Torah education alone, uniquely combining the rigors of Lithuanian Talmud and Torah learning with the spiritual and joyful approach of Chassidus.

Having an elementary and high school Torah learning program was not enough, so he enlarged the school to include a post-graduate program. He founded America’s first post-graduate yeshiva, Beit Midrash Elyon, in an unknown town called Spring Valley, NY (today the flourishing Orthodox community of Monsey) where students could continue their Torah learning.

Although devoted to Torah Vodaas, he also assisted in the founding of several other similar institutions such as Telz Yeshiva (Cleveland), Mesivta Chaim Berlin (Brooklyn), Beis Medrash Gehova (Lakewood) and Ner Israel (Baltimore)  by encouraging his own students to learn in these fledgling yeshivas. Today, these institutions play a very important role in 21st century American Orthodoxy.

To continue learning into the summer, he founded the first Jewish day camp, Camp Mesifta, where boys could both learn and relax during the hot summer months.

Perhaps his most remarkable achievement was the establishment of Torah Umesorah (in 1944), an organization whose goal was the establishment of Jewish day schools in every American city or town with over 500 Jewish families. Before he founding of Torah Umesorah, there were a handful of day schools in New York and on day school outside of New York. For the school year 2013- 2014, there were hundreds of schools across the country serving 255, 000 students. In 1953 Torah Umesorah helped with the establishment of the Hebrew Academy of Atlanta (today AJA)

Leaving an indelible mark on Orthodox Jewry in America, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz passed away on the 3rd day of Elul in 1948. In the words of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein: “Were it not for him, there would be no Torah study and no Fear of Heaven at all in America.”

August 14-15, Parshas Re'eh

On the 27 of Av in 1868, the Ku Klux Klan lynched a Jew, Samuel (Shmuel) Bierfield, who ran a dry goods store in Franklin, Tennessee. Bierfield was a supporter of Reconstruction who did business with both white and black customers; his employee, Lawrence Bowman, who was black, was lynched with him.  The KKK had been founded in Tennessee two years earlier and was involved in at least 400 lynchings within its first four years of existence. While Bierfield was the first Jew lynched in America, he was not the last. Also on this date in 1915, a Jewish writer Albert Bettelheim, convicted of murder in Georgia, was lynched — just two days before Leo Frank. Although the lynching of Leo Frank is well known the murder of Bierfeld is lost to history. Why?

During the second half of the 19th century, tens of thousands of Jews sailed from Central and Eastern Europe to North America, lured by the promise of economic opportunity and religious freedom. After the Civil War, many Jews headed south searching for opportunity. Between 1860 and 1880, the Jewish population of Tennessee roughly doubled from about 2,000 people to about 3,800. Many were successful, but success carried a price tag. The 50 years after the end of the Civil War were littered with cases of Jewish peddlers and merchants who were attacked, robbed and in some cases killed.  Money was not the only motive for harassment and murder of Jews. As newcomers to towns and cities, Jews were often seen as outsiders. Many Jews in the South were willing to trade with blacks, they were also seen as social and political rebels.

Samuel Bierfield appears to have arrived in Toronto, Canada, in the late 1850s. From his letters, it seems likely that he grew up in or around Riga, which is today the capital of Latvia. Sometime in 1866, Samuel Bierfield moved 750 miles south to Franklin, Tennessee. Franklin was the center of Williamson County, the most prosperous county in Tennessee at the time. After taking a few different jobs Bierfeld saved enough to open a store specializing in men's clothing and accessories. 

It remains unclear why Bierfeld was murdered. There was an investigation and a trial which concluded that Bierfeld had supported a group of blacks who had murdered two white men. The evidence of this proved very thin. It is more likely that Bierfelds murder was motivated by simple jealousy. Bierfields store which was achieving some success was located down the block from Colonel House the longtime Franklin general store. The KKK chapter in Franklin was actually formed in the Colonel House. After the murder the Jewish community in Tennessee never rose to demand justice for Bierfeld. As a matter of fact, Franklin’s only other Jewish resident, Louis Kaufman, sprang to the defense of the people of Franklin. Kaufman wrote a letter to the Republican Banner, on August 22, 1868, in which he protested “efforts made in certain quarters to prejudice the Jewish-kind against our town by asserting that S.A. Bierfield was killed because he was a Jew.” Kaufman stated that since he moved to Franklin in 1865, he had suffered no “prejudice or malice” because he was a Jew. “Our town is as quiet and law-abiding as any in the Union and I am certain that every person, whether he is Jew or Gentile, black or white, who behaves himself will be treated kindly by the people,” Kaufman wrote.

After September 1868, Bierfield’s murder became lost among the hundreds of lynchings that plagued the South through the decades that followed. At its peak, between 1880 and 1930, there was an average of one lynching per week. More than 200 people were lynched in Tennessee, most of them black. If anything, Bierfield’s lynching was remarkable because he was white and because he was a Jew. Shmuel Bierfield who emigrated to America seeking freedom from the murderous Czar lost his life to a murderous mob in Franklin, Tennessee. Another chapter of the saga of the Jew in Galus.

July 24-25, Parshas Devarim

In 1605 or 1606, the head of the Jesuit order in France received a letter from China dated July 26,1605—corresponding to 11 Av. The letter described in great detail a Jewish community that the writer, a Jesuit named Matteo Ricci, described as having been in China from time immemorial. He was somewhat correct.

Jewish traders had visited China since antiquity and manned outposts along the Silk Road. By the 12th century Jews, mostly of Persian ancestry, were at the center of a bustling cotton industry based in India. The Chinese at that time made cloth from silk which was rare and expensive, or hemp which was uncomfortable.

Sometime during the Song Dynasty 960 -1127 AD, a group of Jewish merchants arrived with cotton and cotton expertise to open up new markets in China. They requested an audience with the emperor whose throne was in the city of Kaifeng. The emperor graciously accepted the tribute of cotton goods they had brought to him, saying, “You have come to my China. Honor and observe the customs of your ancestors”.

Most scholars believe this indicates the formal start of the Jewish community of Kaifeng. In 1163 the Jewish community built a resplendent synagogue. Centuries later, in 1489, their descendants engraved the emperor's words along with their rituals and core beliefs on a commemorative stone tablet. They placed the tablet in a place of honor in the courtyard of that synagogue.

By 1605 the Jews of Kaifeng had experienced centuries of isolation from world Jewry. A certain Jew named Ai Tien read that a group of people had arrived in Beijing who believed that one God created the world. Assuming this group to be his long-lost brothers, Ai Tien resolved to make contact with this group.

When he traveled to Beijing, inquiries led Ai Tien to be introduced to Ricci the Jesuit. Ricci was overjoyed to discover Jews in China. The Jesuits were bothered by one question: why does the name of their Lord never appear in any Jewish scripture? They assumed that certainly he was described somewhere but had been censored out. In their worldwide travels, they were on the lookout for ancient Jewish communities that perhaps held uncensored texts. Ricci traveled to Kaifeng and copied everything he could get his hands on. He even drew pictures of Kaifeng Jewish life. In one of them a oriental looking person is standing before what is clearly a Torah. The caption under the picture reads ASHEL BACHAL BANU. (see Encyclopedia Judaica- kaifeng)

Sadly, Jews don’t do well in isolation Although there are people today who identify themselves as descendants of the Jews of Kaifeng, their appearance and observances are indistinguishable from regular Chinese. Yet another sad result of our long trek through the galus exile. May we see the ingathering of the Jews from the four corners of the earth speedily and in our days.

July 17-18, Parshas Matot-Masei

Dr. Samuel Nunez was born in Portugal, in 1667 or 1668. In Lisbon, Nunes was a well-known physician and a crypto-Jew— who maintained Jewish traditions in secret.

The Portuguese Inquisition sought to root out such people. It arrested Nunes during the summer of 1703. The fact that the Grand Inquisitor was being treated by Nunez at the time for an enlarged prostate probably saved his life. Nonetheless Nunez was tortured and this convinced the family to escape Portugal.

In the mid-1720s Nunes and family fled to London. Life in London was difficult; the family spoke little English and faced economic hardship. The flood of Iberian and German Jews during the early 1700s caused prominent Jews of London to worry that such a large influx of new arrivals would reduce funds available to care for them, and cause repercussions from the Christian population.

In 1732 money was raised to transport about forty Jews to the new colony of Georgia. A hazardous journey followed, during which the ship nearly wrecked off the coast of North Carolina. The exhausted immigrants arrived in Georgia on 28 Tammuz, 1733. They found a colony barely five months old, with settlers dying from an epidemic.

At first, James Ogelthorpe, a member of the Trustees who directed Georgia's early settlement, did not know what to do about the Jewish immigrants. They, along with Catholics, were excluded from the religious liberty guaranteed under the Georgia charter. After a Charleston, South Carolina, lawyer ruled that the charter guaranteed religious freedom for all non-Catholics, Oglethorpe admitted the Jews.

He conveyed particular gratitude to Nunes, who had treated the illness suffered by the colonists; those who followed his instructions survived. Oglethorpe recommended that Nunes be employed as physician of the colony. The Trustees agreed to pay Nunes but tried to deny permanent residency to the Jewish immigrants. They feared that Georgia would gain a reputation as a haven for European Jews.

Oglethorpe ignored their instructions and in December 1733 permitted fourteen Jews, including Nunes, to acquire land. The immigrants soon established Congregation Mickve Israel, which has survived as the oldest Jewish congregation in the South.

July 10-11, Parshas Pinchas

Behrend Lehmann (April 23, 1661 in Essen, Westphalia – July 9, 1730 in Halberstadt, Kingdom of Prussia), was a German philanthropist, who ranks among the great court Jews as one of the most highly respected Jewish personalities in Central and Eastern Europe.

Appointed as court financier to Frederick of Saxony, Lehmann not only helped finance Fredrick’s extravagant lifestyle and military campaigns, but also succeeded in procuring for his royal master the Crown of Poland, which in those days was awarded by the Polish nobility to the highest bidder. Lehmann raised the astronomical sum of 10 million thaler and in August 1697, Frederick of Saxony was crowned King of Poland. Lehmann’s career is filled with fascinating stories of international intrigue and large business dealings, some successful and some not.   any times, his successes were denied him by anti-semites, and his benefactors were not always able to help him.

Lehmann was a philanthropist who had the foresight to establish endowments so that his good deeds lasted long after his passing. He supported the poor, founded orphanages and supported Torah causes. Of particular note are his three requests of King Frederick of Brandenburg:  1) the rebuilding of the shul in Halberstadt, Lehmann’s native town; 2) the reprinting of the Babylonian Talmud,  of which practically no more copies could be found; and 3) the establishing of the Klaus - in modern terms, a kollel.

All three wishes became the greatest blessings of the time. The magnificent shul in Halberstadt in Central Germany became the hub of the community and stood until 1938 when it was destroyed during Kristallnacht. The Lehmann Talmud was a magnificent edition which was praised profusely by the rabbinical leaders of the time. Lehmann had two thousand copies printed and distributed to communities in Germany. This single project is credited with rejuvenating Jewish life in Germany.

The Klaus, which imported great Polish Torah scholars to Germany, was a seminal institution of learning which produced many leading rabbinical scholars for Germany and provided a powerful bulwark against the burgeoning Reform movement. (One scholar of the Klaus was Gershon Yehoshafat, who later became Rav of Frankfurt on Main. His brother, Yissachar Ber Yehoshafat, was a book dealer who decided that conversion to Christianity was necessary to advance. He changed his name to Reuter, was knighted as “von Reuter” and moved to England where he founded the famous news empire of Reuters.)

Issachar Behrend Lehmann, Yissakhar ben Yehuda HaLevi, died on the 24th of Tammuz. Lehmann's gravestone is preserved, and it praises his generosity as a community benefactor and his high reputation in the Christian "palaces" which enabled him to act as a shtadlan (an advocate) of his coreligionists.

July 3-4, Parshas Chukat-Balak

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 Beth Jacob, and later with 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 in turn impact so many?

Rabbi Ruderman was recognized as a genius as a young child. His parents sent him to learn Torah in the famed Slabodka Yeshiva before his Bar Mitzva. 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?” they argued. 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 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 he turn on American students to the Talmud with its foreign language and decidedly un-Western thought process? Certainly, like his mentor the Alter, he employed different approaches for 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.

June 26-27, Parsha Korach

For nearly 1500 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. He also looted two of Israel’s greatest treasures. He stripped the Temple of many of its gold ornaments and he 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 he exiled to Babylon. The 1,000 Torah Scholars were of particular import 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. 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 of the communal institutions. Finances were provided, community structure 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, even  before the disease.

June 12-13, Parsha Beha'alosecha

Yosseleh Rosenblatt and Chaim Yosef Friedman in concert.
Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt was born in 1882 in a small Ukrainian town, in a house with a dirt floor. By the 1920s, he was a superstar cantor in the United States, often mentioned in the same breath as opera great Enrico Caruso. Reviewers sometimes described Rosenblatt as a man
with two, even three voices: a warm baritone, a ringing tenor and a shimmering falsetto. He was known for his extraordinary technique, for the sweetness of his timbre, and for his unique ability to transition from normal voice to falsetto with hardly any noticeable break at all. Notes
were hit remarkably accurately at high speeds. Fiorituras, similarly, were struck near perfectly, both rhythmically and on pitch.

By the time he was 8 years old, he was being paid to sing at synagogues throughout Eastern Europe. He emigrated to New York in 1912, and when Rosenblatt sang, the synagogue was jampacked. Every seat, every aisle was filled, everyone there to hear the little man with the full
dark beard. Rosenblatt 's extensive recording career earned him exposure beyond the Jewish community, and his relentless schedule of concerts took him around the country and across Europe.

His fame spread so far that Toscanini appealed to him to sing the leading role in Fromental Halévy's La Juive, but Rosenblatt replied that he would only use his vocal gift for the glory of God, in service to his religion. Notably, he turned down a "Golden Hello" from the Chicago
opera house because it violated his religious principles. He didn't want to play a fictional character, wear makeup or sing onstage with women. Because of that, his engagements doubled and tripled. People wanted to hear and see this cantor who turned down, in 1918, a thousand dollars a night to sing.

A few years later, Rosenblatt turned down $100,000 to play a part in the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, for the same reasons that he said no to the opera. Still, Warner Brothers had to have him. So they threw a scene into the movie where Rosenblatt, playing himself, appears in
concert. Sometime around 1930 Rosenblatt’s tour brought him to the Minneapolis. The great synagogue, which seated over 1,000, was packed to the third balcony. In attendance were Arye Leib Friedman and his son Chaim Yosef a”h. Cantor Rosenblatt told the audience that he had
not yet davened Maariv. Therefore he would daven Maariv and invited the audience to listen in. My grandfather turned to my father and said, “have you davened Maariv yet?”. My father answered in the negative. “So, daven now”. My grandfather then saw to it that his son davened
Maariv with Yossele Rosenblatt in concert in Minneapolis MN.

On Sivan 24 1933 Yossele Rosenblatt died in Palestine at the age of 51 of a heart attack while filming a movie.

June 5-6, Parsha Naso

Moshe Shapira was Rabbi of the small town of Slavita, Volhynia, now in Ukraine. As his rabbinical position was unsalaried (apparently by his own choice), Rabbi Moshe made his living by establishing a large press in 1791, specializing in handsome, high-quality editions of religious books—in particular, volumes of the Talmud and of halacha and responsa. 

In 1823, Rabbi Moshe’s two sons, Rabbis Shmuel Avraham Abba and Pinchas, began operating the press, and the business continued to flourish because of their quality product and the prestige of their lineage. Maskilim, the secular Jewish intelligentsia, labeled the Slavita press a Chassidic press because of the orientation of the Shapira’s.

Three magnificent editions of the Talmud printed at Slavita earned particular fame and were highly regarded outside Russia as well. In 1834, Menachem Mann Romm began to publish a rival edition of the Talmud in Vilna, complete with approbations by important Lithuanian rabbis; this edition was soon identified with Mitnagdim (opponents of Hasidism) and their circles. The Slavita printers considered this edition an infringement on their exclusive right, guaranteed by numerous rabbis, to publish the Talmud for a fixed span of 25 years. Dozens of rabbis and tzadikim, from all parts of Eastern Europe, played a part in the great dispute that ensued, and in the mutual recriminations and bans.

On the 18th of Sivan,1835, when the controversy was at its height, the corpse of Reb Leizer Protogin was found hanging from a beam in the Tailors’ Shul in Slavita. Although it was clear that he had committed suicide, a priest named Benderovski in the nearby town of Zaslow used it as an opportunity to accuse the Jews of Salvita with murder. His report to Czar Alexander I led to the closing of the famous Slavita printing press and the extensive jailing and torture of the Shapiro brothers. The brothers were charged with being responsible for his slaying as an informer. They were also charged with avoiding the requirements of the censorship program. The brothers were arrested and kept in a small cell in Kiev for the next two years. During this period, their father, Rabbi Moshe, passed away.

After three years, the sentence was announced: 1,500 lashes each, walking through two rows of 250 soldiers three times, after which they would be sent to Siberia. Legend tells us that while walking through the rows of soldiers, the kipah (skull cap) fell off the head of one of the brothers. He calmly bent down, picked it up, and replaced it.

After intercessions, their punishments were reduced and they were banished to Moscow, where they lived for about 20 years under difficult conditions. Only in 1855, following the death of Tsar Nicholas I, were they pardoned and permitted to return to the Pale of Settlement.

Because of the printers’ dispute and the intervention of maskilim, all Hebrew printing presses in the Russian Pale of Settlement were closed down in 1836, except for two that the Russian authorities granted a license to print books: one in Vilna and the other in Zhytomyr (the press in Warsaw was also permitted). The “presses decree” was abolished only in 1862.

May 15-16, Parsha Behar-Bechukotai

In November 1095, Pope Urban II made a speech at the Council of Clermont, calling for Christian warriors to go to Jerusalem and free it from the rule of Muslim Turks. Urban no doubt envisioned an organized military campaign led by the nobility. He set the official date of departure for mid-August of the following year.

Shortly after the speech, a monk known as Peter the Hermit also began to preach Crusade. Charismatic and passionate, Peter appealed not just to a select portion of travel-ready combatants, but to all Christians -- men, women, children, the elderly, nobles, commoners -- even serfs. His enthralling sermons fired the religious zeal in his listeners, and many people not only resolved to go on Crusade but to go right then and there, some even following Peter himself. The fact that they had little food, less money, and no military experience did not deter them in the least; they believed they were on a holy mission, and that God would provide.

The speeches of Pope Urban and others of his ilk had stirred up more than a pious yearning to see the Holy Land. They painted Muslims as subhuman, loathsome, and in need of vanquishing. Peter's speeches were even more incendiary.

From this malevolent viewpoint, it was a small step to see Jews in the same light. In addition to the common belief that Jews had not only killed their Lord, the followers of Peter were hungry and undisciplined. Added to this was the fact that some Jews were notably prosperous, and they made the perfect target for greedy lords, who used their followers to massacre entire Jewish communities. These lords plundered Jewish wealth while at the same time feeding their crusaders and satisfying their zealous feelings.

From May to July, pogroms occurred at Speyer, Worms, Mainz, and Cologne. In some cases, the bishop of the town, or local Christians, or both, sheltered their neighbors. This was successful at Speyer but proved futile in other Rhineland towns. The attackers sometimes demanded that the Jews convert to Christianity on the spot or lose their lives; not only did the Jews refuse to convert, many killed their children and themselves rather than die at the hands of their tormentors.

The Crusades brought the concept of death “al kiddush Hashem” to sanctify G-d’s name into the lexicon of the Jewish people. This concept became a facet in Jewish life for the next 10 centuries. The first known attack was at Worms on Iyar 23. The famous prayer Av Harachmin that is recited before Mussaf of Shabbos was composed to honor the victims of the crusades. Although it is not recited on a happy Shabbos, such as when Blessing the New Moon, in the months of Iyar and Sivan it is always recited due to these tragedies.

May 8-9, Parsha Emor

In 1530, Charles V handed over Malta to the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St. John, who had been driven from Rhodes nine years earlier by the Moslems. Their whole raison d’`etre was that the Knights should wage continual maritime warfare i.e. piracy, against the Moslem
powers. Seaports were raided and their inhabitants carried off. Shipping was preyed on indiscriminately, captured vessels were brought to Malta, and crew and passengers were sold into captivity.

The victims were any persons who happened to be sailing on the captured ships. Jews made up a large proportion of the Levantine merchant class and disproportionately large numbers were to be found in any vessel sailing the Eastern ports. Jews also formed a considerable element in
the population of the Moslem ports subject to raids. So, soon after the establishment of the Knights in Malta, the island became in Jewish eyes a symbol for all that was cruel and hateful in the Christian world.

A typical capture, and one of the earliest mentioned in Jewish literature, is related in the "Vale of Tears" by Joseph ha-Cohen:`In the year 5312 (1552), the vessels of the monks of Rhodes, of the order of Malta, cruising to find booty, encountered a ship coming from Salonica, on which
were seventy Jews. They captured it and returned to their island. These unhappy persons had to send to all quarters to collect money for the ransom exacted by these miserable monks. Only after payment were they able to continue their voyage.’

Not all were able to raise the ransom and they became the slaves of the Knights Hospitaller, serving mostly on the pirate galleys. As the years passed their numbers grew. A very graphic account of conditions is given by the English traveler, Philip Skippon, who visited the spot in
about 1663: There are about 2,000 that belong to the order, most of which were now abroad in the galleys; and there are about three hundred who are servants to private persons. This place being an island, and difficult to escape out of, they wear only an iron ring or foot-lock. Those
that are servants, lodge in their masters’ houses, when the galleys are at home; but now, lie anights in this prison. Jews, Moors and Turks are made slaves here, and are publicly sold in the market. The Jews are distinguished from the rest by a little piece of yellow cloth on their hats or

In time the Jewish slaves became a community and practiced many trades, but they and their children remained slaves to be sold, used and abused at their owner’s whim. In 1798 Napoleon conquered Malta. On Iyar 20 in the year 1800, the Jewish slave community in Malta was
officially dissolved, ending a sad 250-year episode of Jewish life in exile.

May 1-2, Parsha Acharei Mos - Kedoshim

On 10 Iyar, May 3, 1982, premier Menachem Begin limped into a crowded Knesset chamber, tense with expectancy. He was in pain, recovering from a severe hip injury. He began quietly, factually, declaring that the government had finally decided to halt all El Al flights on Shabbat and festivals. The opposition benches erupted into a paroxysm of heckling: “So why don’t you shut down TV on Shabbat, too?” screamed one. “What about football matches on Shabbat?” bawled another.

Begin responded “Forty years ago I returned from exile to Eretz Yisrael. Engraved in my memory still are the lives of millions of Jews, simple, ordinary folk, eking out a livelihood in that forlorn Diaspora where the storms of anti-Semitism rage. They were not permitted to work on the Christian day of rest, and they refused to work on their day of rest. For they lived by the commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy...’ So each week they forswore two whole days of hard-won bread. This meant destitution for many. But they would not desecrate the Sabbath day.”

He continued, “Shabbat is one of the loftiest values in all of humanity. It originated with us. It is all ours. No other civilization in history knew of a day of rest... Ancient Egypt had a great culture whose treasures are on view to this day, yet the Egypt of antiquity did not know of a day of rest. The Greeks of old excelled in philosophy and the arts, yet they did not know of a day of rest... Rome established mighty empires and instituted a system of law still relevant to this day, yet they did not know of a day of rest. Neither did the civilizations of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, India, China – none of them knew of a day of rest.”

“So, put on a yarmulke,” sneered left-wing minister Yossi Sarid.

“Chutzpah!” boomed Begin, bristling. “I speak of our people’s most hallowed values, and you dare stoop to mockery. Shame on you!”

Then, arms up, fists balled, he thundered, “One nation alone sanctified the Shabbat, a small nation, the nation that heard the voice at Sinai, ‘ so that your man-servant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.’ “Ours was the nation that enthroned Shabbat as sovereign Queen.”

A crescendo of approval from the government benches sent the rafters rattling. Begin thundered on: “So, are we in our own reborn Jewish state to allow our blue-and-white El Al planes to fly to and fro as if broadcasting to the world that there is no Shabbat in Israel? Should we, who by faith and tradition heard the commandment at Sinai, now deliver a message to all and sundry through our blue-and-white El Al planes – ‘No, don’t remember the Sabbath day. Forget the Sabbath day! Desecrate the Sabbath day.’ “I shudder at the thought.”

The ensuing ruckus was terrific. Begin himself raised his palms and then lowered them gently, once, twice, thrice, until the furor quietened of itself. Begin continued “Know this: We cannot assess the religious, national, social, historical, and ethical values of the Sabbath day by the yardstick of financial loss or gain. In our revived Jewish state, we simply cannot engage in such calculations when dealing with an eternal and cardinal value of the Jewish people – Shabbat – for which our ancestors were ready to give their lives. One thing more. One need not be a pious Jew to accept this principle. One need only be a Jew.”

Currently, El Al policy is not to fly passengers on Shabbos.

The above are excerpts of Yehudah Avner’s account of the event. The full version can be found at https//

Fri, December 4 2020 18 Kislev 5781