Sign In Forgot Password

Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

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
caps”

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//cross-currents.com/2006/12/11/halting-el-al-on-shabbos-menachem-begin/


April 24-25, Parsha Tazria-Metzora

Most of us are familiar with the 5th day of Iyar as being Israel’s Independence Day.  Actually, the 6th day of Iyar was really the day that the British relinquished control over Israel.

In fact, the 6th of Iyar has a long history of significance in regard to the establishment of the State of Israel.

On 6 Iyar in 1881, anti-Jewish riots (government instigated ) broke out in Kiev in reaction to the assassination of Czar Alexander II. These riots quickly spread across Russia, leading to much loss of Jewish life and property. The reaction of the Jews was one of despair of ever improving the state of Jewish life in Russia.

People began to explore alternatives. One of the responses was the foundation of an organization called Chovevei Tzion - Lovers of Zion-  whose aim was to settle Jews in Palestine. Chovevei Tzion predated Theodor Herzl’s publication of Das Judenstaat and the Zionist movement by 15 years. The difference between the two was that Herzl envisioned political autonomy, and the Chovevi Tzion just wanted to find safe haven for Jews, regardless of who held political control.

On the 6th of Iyar in 1920, the victorious Allied powers of WWI met to come up with a solution for the Middle East which had been acquired when the Allies defeated the Ottoman Turks.  At that conference in San Remo, Italy, the British were given the Mandate to create a homeland for the Jews.

The British Mandate lasted exactly 28 years. On the 6th of Iyar 1948, following the decision of the United Nations (Nov 1947) to partition Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs, the British lowered the Union Jack and headed for home.

So how did the 5th of Iyar become the recognized date of Israel’s independence? In 1948, the 6th of Iyar was Shabbos. There were a handful of people who were expected to be signers of the Independence document who were Shabbos observant. In deference to them, the official declaration and signing was moved up to late Friday afternoon on the 5th of Iyar.

After the State was established, the religious parties passed legislation that when Iyar 5 falls on Friday, celebrations should be moved up to Iyar 4 so as not to spill over into Shabbos. So the creation of the State of Israel was on Iyar 6 but it was declared on Iyar 5 and is sometimes observed on Iyar 4.


March 26-27, Parsha Vayikra

Jonas Salk, the son and grandson of Jewish immigrants, was born in New York in 1914. His parents worked in the garment industry but emphasized education to their son. Jonas Salk went to New York University and received his degree in medicine in 1939.

Albert Sabin (Abraham Saperstein) was born in Bialystok in 1909 and immigrated to the US at age 15. His family took up residence in Patterson, New Jersey. The Sapersteins also worked in the garment industry but emphasized education for their children. Albert Sabin went to New York University and received his degree in medicine in 1931.

In the middle of the 20th century, the world was gripped with fear of the dreaded Polio disease. This was true even though polio was not the number one cause of death. During those decades, 10 times as many children died in accidents and three times as many succumbed to cancer.
Polio inspired such fear because it struck without warning and researchers were unsure of how it spread from person to person. In the years following World War II, polls found the only thing Americans feared more than polio was nuclear war.  Salk and Sabin turned each joined research labs working to develop a vaccine for the Polio virus. While most scientists believed that effective vaccines could only be developed with live viruses, Salk developed a “killed-virus” vaccine.


Many researchers such as Sabin, who was developing an oral “live-virus” polio vaccine, called Salk’s approach dangerous. Sabin even belittled Salk as “a mere kitchen chemist.” The March of Dimes had grown impatient at the time-consuming process of developing a live-virus vaccine
and put their resources behind Salk.

On Nissan 5 1952, Salk announced to the world that he had discovered a vaccine for Polio. Trials began immediately and by April 1955 the US govt. had approved Salk’s vaccine for widespread distribution. Polio had been defeated. In 1962, Sabin introduced an oral (sugar cube) polio vaccine that contained a live (rather than killed) virus, and the U.S. government began using Sabin’s vaccine instead of Salk’s because it
was cheaper and still effective. Today, a reformulated version of Salk’s vaccine is used in most parts of the world except for parts of Africa and the Middle East where polio is still a problem, and where Sabin’s vaccine is used.

Dr. Sabin spent three years as the head of the Weitzmann Institute in Israel.


March 20-21, Parsha Vayakhel-Pekudei

The word Mussar means Ethical Reproach. In the 1800s, Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin of Salant (1810 - 1883), developed and promoted an approach to Torah living that focuses the entirety of one’s being on Ethical Development. It became known as the Mussar Movement.

Most ethical behavior displays itself by being sensitive to others. Rav Yisroel Salanter became famous and controversial for propagating this approach. Some questioned whether it was a distraction from true Divine service. Rav Yisroel’s outstanding Torah acumen and fealty to halacha was his strongest defense against his critics. These factors all came to bear during the Cholera epidemic of 1848. 

The second of eight cholera pandemics lasted from 1829 to 1852, spreading through all of Europe, and leaving a trail of devastation across much of Russia and the surrounding regions.  In contrast to the waxing and waning character of the contagion in Western Europe, the infection spread continuously in Eastern Europe throughout the mid-nineteenth century, killing millions in the process.

Vilnius, or Vilna as it was known to Jews, the city where Rav Yisroel lived and taught, had been hit hard by cholera in the summer of 1848. In the early fall, as the fast-day of Yom Kippur approached, he was concerned that fasting would make the community more vulnerable to the disease. This concern was born of one of the many theories about the cause of cholera.

What happened next was widely debated. As a matter of fact, the very historicity of the events is debated until today. There exists no  contemporaneous account of Rav Yisroel’s decision. According to some, he got up in shul on Yom Kippur, made kiddush and ate a piece of cake, to publicly show that there should be no fasting. This account seems unlikely and may have in fact been propagated by his opponents. 
Other accounts say that he limited the duration of services and added multiple breaks so that people could get fresh air. He also had food available and encouraged anyone who felt weak to partake.

Although we don’t know exactly what happened, a few facts are indisputable. Rav Yisroel of Salant was well known as an outstanding Torah scholar and not one to take halacha lightly. He was also known to be highly sensitive to the needs of each individual Jew. Rav Yisroel based his decisions on the medical opinion (however paltry) of his time. When all is said and done, Rav Yisroel confronted his circumstances and made the best decision he could and there was nothing more he - or you or I - could ever do.


March 13-14, Parsha Ki Sisa

Many have noted that it is normal for pious Jews from Lithuania, and those who have studied in Lithuanian style yeshivos, not to wear beards and peyos. It has also been noted that many married women who emigrated from these areas did not cover their hair. On the other hand, Chassidic communities maintain their distinctive beard, peyos, and kaftan until this very day. As you might well imagine there is a story behind this.

When Czar Alexander II succeeded his father Nicholas I as Czar of Russia in 1855, Russia was mired in a losing battle for Crimea. Alexander realized that his country was backward and set about modernizing it. Alexander II is primarily remembered as the Czar who freed the serfs. Alexander also initiated a number of other reforms in the judiciary and military. He promoted the building of railroads and lifted censorship. On the first anniversary of his ascension to the throne, corresponding to Adar 24, Alexander II issued a decree banning all distinctive forms of dress. His stated idea was to erase ethnic differences and create a new Russian subject of the Czar. In reality, his decree was primarily focused on the Jews. In addition to the distinctive belted kaftan and round fur hat that all Jews wore, Jews also grew beards and peyos and the married women wore a distinctive head covering. These last items were not ethnic, but a religious imperative. The decree threw the Jewish community into turmoil.

 

Soon, police walked the streets with large shears on their belts. If a Jew with a kaftan was apprehended, his kaftan was cut at the waist on the spot. At that time trousers were not worn under the kaftan so this treatment was a disgrace. Beards and peyos were similarly treated. A beard could be shorn by the police on the spot. Peyos were removed by holding them on the ground and rubbing them with a sharp rock until they were cut off or ripped out. Women had their hair covering ripped off and were ridiculed in public.

 

In time, the kaftan disappeared from Lithuania and White Russia to be replaced by the western jacket or the more formal frock coat for Rabbis and people of distinction. Although beards and peyos were standard for Jewish men since biblical times Rabbis ruled that one was not obligated to die to keep them. As long as a razor was not placed on the skin, cutting of beards and peyos with scissors was permitted. For the first time, wigs made an appearance as a form of head covering. Made mostly of horsehair, the wigs were unattractive but did not violate the new dress code. Some Rabbis ruled that women only had to cover long flowing hair, but short hair needn't be covered. Wearing hair in a bun pinned close to the head became a popular form for women at this time.

 

Outside of Russia, there were no similar decrees. While many Jews modernized their dress willingly, Chassidic communities in Hungary, Rumania, and Galicia in the Austro Hungarian empire and parts of Poland under Russian rule but exempted from the decrees, maintained distinctive Jewish garb. As a matter of fact, almost the only Chassidic group that comes from Lithuania is Chabad Lubavitch and they generally do not sport peyos, they wear frock coats and western-style hats. By the time the Czar’s decrees were eased, modernity made it hard to turn back the clock.


March 7-8, Parsha Tetzaveh

On the 14th day of Adar, the holiday of Purim celebrates our salvation from the hands of the wicked Amalekite, Haman Yimach shemo (may his name be obliterated), who intended to destroy all Jewish people.

Throughout history, many locales have experienced their own miraculous salvation. When these events occurred, the community would declare a local Purim. Even the 14th of Adar was celebrated as a local Purim in addition to the Purim of Mordechai and Esther due to local events.

In 1840 the Jewish community of the Isle of Rhodes was going to be destroyed due to a Blood Libel. A young boy went missing and the Jewish community was accused of murdering him for his blood. The community was blockaded on the eve of Purim. For 12 days their fate hung in the balance until a high official from the Ottoman government visited the island and ordered the Governor to drop the case. Subsequently on the 14th of Adar, in addition to Purim, Jews on the Isle of Rhodes annually celebrated Purim Rhodes.

In more recent times, another Purim miracle occurred. In 1991, Sadam Hussein, Dictator of Iraq, went to war with the intention of annihilating the Jewish community of Israel.  He threatened to bombard Israel with rockets loaded with chemical weapons. In fact, 39 missiles landed in the heartland of Israel in densely populated areas, including within the city of Tel Aviv. (I stood in the bomb crater). For weeks the population of Israel was terrorized, fleeing to sealed rooms and donning gas masks when the sirens went off.

The United States launched the 1st Iraq war at the end of January 1991. On Purim 1991, the all-clear was sounded and people emerged from their sealed rooms to celebrate the holiday of Purim. In the end, only one man died due to the missile attacks on Israel. Another Purim had been added to the annals of Jewish history - Purim Eretz Yisrael.


February 28-29, Parsha Terumah

Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, popularly known by the abbreviation 'MaHaRaM' (Moreinu Horav Reb Meir) of Rothenburg, was born in Worms, Germany, around the year 1220. In his youth, he went to France to study in the well known French Yeshivoth. In 1245 Rabbi Meir, already a famous Talmudist returned to Germany, where he became the rabbi of several large communities successively. Finally he settled in Rothenburg, where he maintained, at his own cost, a famous Yeshivah. 

Those days were full of persecution for the Jews of Germany, and they lived in constant fear for their property and life. In the year 1286, Rabbi Meir took his entire family and set out for the Land of Israel. However, while passing through Lombardy, Rabbi Meir was recognized by an apostate Jew who was accompanying the archbishop of Mainz. The archbishop had Rabbi Meir arrested and taken back to Germany. There, by order of King Rudolph, Rabbi Meir was imprisoned in the fortress of Ensisheim and held for ransom. The king knew that the Jews would give away their last mark to redeem their beloved Rabbi, and indeed the sum of 20,000 marks was raised for Rabbi Meir's freedom. Rabbi Meir, however, forbade his friends and followers to pay any ransom for him. In his selflessness, he knew that once the ransom was paid for him, every noted Rabbi in Germany would be arrested and held for ransom by the greedy and cruel German rulers of those days. Thus Rabbi Meir preferred to remain in prison, and even die there, in order to save many others from a similar fate.

For seven years Rabbi Meir remained a prisoner in that fortress, until his passing in 1293. During this time his disciples were permitted to meet with him, and he was even able to compose several of his works within the prison walls. After he died, his body was not surrendered until 14 years later, when a heavy ransom was paid by a generous Jew, Alexander Suskind Wimpfen of Frankfort. In return, Alexander Suskind requested only that after his own death his body should be laid to rest by the side of the saintly Rabbi Meir. His wish was carried out when he died a year later. Miraculously the cemetery in Worms survived World War II and the two graves can be visited to this very day.

Thu, July 16 2020 24 Tammuz 5780