Throughout history, a small handful of places have held so much mystical appeal that the very mention of their names would conjure up exotic visions and fabulous legends lost in the mists of time. Places like Babylon and Constantinople, Venice and Jerusalem. For thousands of Chassidic Jews, the town of Belz is one of those places. It brings to mind tales of the famous Belzer Rebbes and their Chassidim, legends of piety and holiness, of kindness and compassion, of miraculous deeds and supernatural occurrences. The very air in Belz would vibrate with excitement when thousands of Chassidim celebrated the Jewish holidays. The holiness during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur was tangible. Decades have passed since the streets that used to throng with thousands of Chassidim fell silent. But Belz is still remembered fondly and intimately as Die Shtetele Belz.
Belz, a small town in Galicia, a small country in Eastern Europe that no longer exists on the map today, apparently no different from hundreds of other pre-war Jewish Shtetlech. However, the mere mention of the name Belz is enough to evoke powerful emotions in the hearts of thousands of Jews – to awaken nostalgic memories in the hearts of those who had the privilege to visit Belz, before it was devastated and destroyed during the Second World War Holocaust and destruction of Eastern European Jewry, and to kindle the imagination and yearning in the hearts of the younger generations who have heard such wonderful tales and legends about Belz from their parents and grandparents or from their teachers and community elders.
Like Babylon and Constantinople, throughout history, there have been cities that had more popular appeal than most other cities and the very mention of their names conjures up visions of far away exotic cities and fabulous fables and legends lost in the mists of time. Just so for thousands of Jews, the name Belz is associated with tales and legends of the famous Belzer Rebbes and their Chassidim, legends of piety and holiness, of kindness and compassion and wonderful tales of miraculous deeds and supernatural occurrences!
The very air in Belz used to vibrate with excitement when the Rebbes and their thousands of Chassidim celebrated the Jewish holidays, and the holiness during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement was almost tangible. Belz, a town, that even now, after the passage of three score years since the streets that used to throng with thousands of Chassidim fell silent, is still remembered fondly and intimately as Die Shtetele Belz…
The geographical town Belz, is now a sad and forlorn town no more than an empty shell, a mere shadow of its former self. The very houses and streets seem to be reflecting and remembering its former glory. But the spiritual town Belz, the Chassidic Shtetel Belz, has been transplanted to Israel and is very much alive and thriving in the heart of Jerusalem.
The physical town Belz was – and still is to this day – a small insignificant market town. It was not built in a very strategic position geographically and it was not a particularly wealthy town. Spiritually, however, Belz was considered one of the most influential Jewish cities in Eastern Europe.
Although her everlasting claim to fame is the Chassidic dynasty of the Belzer Rebbes, it is interesting to note that for hundreds of years, long before the advent of Chassidus, the Rabbinical post in Belz was considered an influential and prestigious position that attracted great and famous Rabbis and Torah sages, who resided and officiated as Rabbi of Belz. We will name here just a few of the most famous amongst them; Rabbi Yehoshuah Falk (1550 – 1614), known as the S’mah, an acronym for his famous masterpiece Sefer M’eiras Einiyim, Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (1561 – 1640), commonly known as the Bach, an acronym for Bies Chodosh, the name he gave to his world renowned commentary on the four mighty tractates of the Tur, and Rabbi Zecharye Mendle, author of B’ear Heitiv, a commentary on the Shulchan Oruch.
Sadly, however, despite the fact that so many great and illustrious Rabbis served as Rov in Belz, the local inhabitants were mostly simple people. Indeed, many of them were coarse and uneducated ignoramuses, real Amai Ha’aretz! For this reason they did not appreciate the greatness of their Rabbis and often treated them disrespectfully.
Legend has it that one of the great Rabbis that served as Rov in Belz and fell foul of this unfortunate phenomenon was the mighty Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sirkus, the holy Bach, who served as Rov in Belz approximately two hundred years before the Sar Sholem, the founder of the Belz dynasty, came to Belz. Despite his greatness, the Holy Bach was not liked by the uncouth townsfolk and that is an understatement! History did not record why they were so hostile towards him, but one can assume that it was most likely caused by his efforts to guide them away from their loutish behaviour towards the path of the righteous… The day that they managed to override the opposition of the more righteous members of the community and forced him to leave his post and drove him out of town is indeed a dark page in the history of the Jews of Belz!
The task of informing the Bach of their intention and serving him his notice was delegated to the community beadle, the Shamesh. The shameless community leaders did not even have the decency, or perhaps they lacked the courage, to approach him in person. Instead they wrote him a Letter of Dismissal and gave it to the Shamesh to deliver.
The Shamesh, who was a simple but pious Jew did not fulfil his unpleasant task immediately as instructed: “Today is Friday, Erev Shabbos”, he said to himself, “if I deliver this letter to our Rov today he is sure to be upset and it may, Heaven Forbid, disturb and disrupt his Shabbos. I do not care that the Roshai Ha’kohal instructed me to deliver their nasty letter immediately! There is no way that I will disturb his Holy Shabbos!”
When Shabbos was over the Shamesh had to fulfil the unpleasant task bestowed upon him by the Roshai Ha’kohal. When he received the letter the Bach read it carefully and noticed that it was dated the previous Friday.
“Tell me my good man, when were you entrusted with this letter and instructed to deliver it to me?” asked the Bach.
“Erev Shabbos”, mumbled the Shamesh.
“Well, why then did you delay the delivery until now?” asked the Bach gently.
The words came tumbling out in a torrent of tears: “Oiy! Holy Rebbe! I think it is horrible of them sending you such a nasty letter. But what could I do? I am only a simple Shamesh, who is going to listen to me? But nothing in the world would get me to deliver such a letter on Erev Shabbos and disturb the Rebbe’s Shabbos!”
The Bach was touched by his simple reply and said: “I see that you are a true Moiker Rabbonim, who loves and respects Talmidai Chachomim. May Hashem bless you with a son who will be a great Talmid Chochom!”
And so the Bach was driven out of Belz and he moved on to other towns where his greatness was recognised and appreciated. He became Rov of the town of Krakow, the second largest Kehilla in Galicia and to this day people travel to Poland in order to visit and pray at his graveside in Krakow. In the meantime his blessing to the Shamesh was fulfilled, he had a son whom he call Yitzchok, who grew up to be a great Tzadik and Talmid Chochem and in due course it came about that he was elected to serve as the Rov of his hometown Belz!
While our faithful Shamesh received the blessings of the Bach, the rest of the townsfolk who had treated him so disrespectfully were not so lucky. Before he departed he cursed them and said: “May it be the Will of Hashem that the inhabitants of this town, where I knew no peace and from whom I enjoyed no compassion nor mercy, shall never lead an easy life here. May their waters be tainted and their footways beset with mud and mire, and even after they depart from this world, may their bones know no peace!”
And indeed Belz was afflicted with tainted water (later accounted for by the discovery of oil wells in the vicinity) and muddy roadways that were the characteristic outward signs of the town, and to this day the desperate and miserable physical conditions endured by those who resided or visited Belz are described in almost as much detail as the spiritual ecstasy and uplifting experienced there!
But it was the fulfilment of the third part of the curse that is the most dramatic!
It came about approximately 200 years later when the Holy Sar Sholem served as Rabbi of Belz that the local government decided that they would like to build a new road that would connect with the towns and villages to the east of Belz, so as to enhance her image as a town sitting on a crossroad. An engineering survey was commissioned by the local government’s Highways Department to decide where and how to construct the new road. An expert engineer, who had been brought over from Vienna, the capital of the Austrian – Hungarian Empire, studied the topography of the town and the surrounding countryside and drew up his proposals. He was not in the least bit concerned that according to his plan the new road would cut right through the ancient Jewish cemetery!
The fate of the Jewish burial ground did not worry the local government very much either, and despite repeated delegations from the Jewish community and even the intervention of the Sar Sholom, who at one point met with the surveyor and obtained his verbal agreement to change the plans, they pressed ahead with their road building project. In the year 1846 the ancient cemetery was dug up to make way for the new road and the graves were desecrated.
The Jews of Belz were permitted to collect all the exposed bones together with as much as possible of the surrounding earth. According to the Rebbe’s instructions they were stored temporarily in the ladies gallery of the synagogue until they could be reburied.
When the road construction was over the Belzer Rebbe ordered that the bones with the earth be returned to the roadside where they had been dug up from, and to this very day one can see the two small hillocks that were formed as the mounds of bones and earth were returned and the area continued to be known as Die Alte Heilige Ort – the Ancient [Jewish] Cemetery.
Naturally the Jews of Belz were deeply sadden when their cemetery was desecrated, but when they turned to their holy Rabbi for an explanation, all he would say was that it was a direct result of the disrespectful way the residents of Belz treated the Bach when he served as their Rabbi and the disgraceful way in which he was eventually driven out of town!
According to the legends, one grave was left untouched when the rest of the old cemetery was dug up. The grave of the son of the Shamesh who was born with the blessing of the Bach because would not disrupt his Rebbe’s Shabbos!
As mentioned above Belz’s main claim to fame is the dynasty of Chassidic Rebbes who resided in Belz for over a century until the late Rebbe OBM was forced to flee Nazi persecution during World War 2. As their influence and fame spread throughout the Jewish world, Belz became a household name that is recognised and revered to this day. Physically Belz was no more that a small town, but in the Chassidic world Belz was a metropolis, a bastion of Chassidus and Jewish study that attracted thousands of Jews from all walks of life. Indeed pilgrimage to Belz was so great that many religious Jewish travellers who entered train stations in Galicia were automatically offered tickets to Belz, as it was taken for granted that it was to Belz that they were headed!
The world as we know it is full of boundaries, physical boundaries and spiritual boundaries, boundaries that separate one person’s property from his neighbours, boundaries between one country’s territory and it’s neighbours. Often boundaries are disputed or even bitterly contested. Rivers of blood have been spilt over the years in countless wars and battles over the exact line or extent of some often invisible but none the less physical boundary. Just so in the spiritual world there are boundaries between Holiness – Kedusha and the opposite of Kedusha, and even between different spiritual levels, between the Kedusha of a Cohen and the Kedusha of a Levi, between a Talmid Chochem and an Am Ha’aretz and so on.
The Jews of Eastern and Central Europe and especially the Chassidim lived in their respective countries for hundreds of years, but did not feel themselves bound by the boundaries drawn by the various nations to separate them from their neighbours. They had maps and boundaries of their own! Their maps were based on the area of influence of the various Chassidic Rebbes and national frontiers and boundaries were not taken in account at all! Thus a Chossid who lived in the Polish town of Tomashov, for example, considered that he lived in the Belzer Geigent, in other words within the area of influence of the Belzer Rebbe. The fact that the Rebbe resided in Belz, a small town across the border in Eastern Galicia under the rule of the mighty Austrian Hungarian Empire, had little or no significance to them.
Rumour has it that a Belzer Chossid once had the privilege to meet the great Austrian monarch, Kaiser Franz Joseph. The Kaiser asked him his name and occupation and place of residence. After talking with him for a few minutes the Kaiser asked him: “Tell me, in your opinion, to whom does the area you live in really belong?”
Without any hesitation the Chossid answered: “To whom? To the Belzer Rebbe of course!”
The Kaiser was somewhat taken back. He had intended to ask what the Jewish popular opinion was regarding who had the sovereign rights over the hotly disputed region he resided in; however, once he had recovered from his initial surprise, he smiled and agreed!
The Kaiser may have accepted the Chossid’s version of the territorial division, but in reality, the boundaries drawn by the ruling powers of the time created many difficulties and hardships for Chassidim living in those areas. Much in the same way as the Chassidim felt it did not concern them in any way if a certain area belonged to this country or another, so the ruling powers, when drawing their boundaries did not take into consideration which Rebbe the local Jewish population followed. This caused, at times, much distress to the Chassidim who found themselves on the wrong side of the dividing line. The mere fact that they did not possess a passport or other similar travel documents would not deter them from travelling to their Rebbe, even if he was on the other side of an international border. It only meant that they had to exercise extreme care when crossing the border to avoid detection by the border patrols.
The very map took on a different perspective when in the hands of Chassidim. A traveller who wished to travel to Belz would not find the task in any way difficult, though the condition of many of the roads leading to Belz left much to be desired! However if he wanted to enter Chassidic Belz and to experience their spiritual uplifting and learn to live their pious way of life, it was a daunting task indeed. The small local train that puffed along a winding route stopping at many small stations along the way took on a metaphoric dimension; it signified the difficult and sometimes twisting route one needed to negotiate in order to “arrive” in Belz. Just as when looking out of the train windows one caught occasional glimpses of the famous synagogue in Belz with the gilded balls on its fortified roof sparkling and twinkling in the distance, only for the train to twist away and for the vision to recede in the distance, so is the journey to holiness and perfection beset with setbacks and disappointments. Only those who persevere eventually reach their desired destination.
The stations the train visited along the route were sublime encrypted messages of fundamental Chassidic virtues relayed to the Chossid on spiritual pilgrimage. Rava, as the town Rawa Ruska was locally referred to, indicated prayer, as in the words “Yehey Rava Kedomoch” – May it be thine will… Yaroslav (Jaroslow) really meant “Yiras Lev” – a heart full of awe, just as Lubishove meant “Libi Shoiv” – my heart [is full of] repentance. And finally Unov, the Polish name for the town called Hivnov, referred to the Hebrew word for humility and modesty, the final requisite that the would-be pilgrim must acquire before he could enter the bastion of Chassidus and experience its accompanying celestial delights.
The founder of the Belz dynasty was the Rabbi Shalom Rokeach OBM. He is known throughout the Chassidic world as the Sar Sholom but in Belz he is referred to simply as the Ershter Rov Z”L – the First Belzer Rebbe.
Reb Sholom was born in Brod (Brody) to his father Rabbi Elazer Rockach approximately 5545 (1785). According to the legend, his father was attending the sick bed of his beloved Rabbi the holy Reb Chayim T’zanzer, praying and crying bitterly as he realised that his Rabbi was slipping away. Suddenly, his Rabbi opened his eyes and smiling calmly at his weeping disciple he said: “Do not cry! You have no cause to be so sad, as in just one week I will return to you!”
Shortly after he finished talking Reb Chayim passed away. His disciple was inconsolable, until just about a week later, at the end of the seven days of mourning; his wife gave birth to a baby boy. Wonder of wonders, he thought, who knows if this is not what my Rebbe meant when he said that he would return to me in one week?!
Indeed from a very tender age it was apparent that this child was destined for greatness. He excelled in his studies and unlike other children he shunned their childish activities, preferring to spend every spare moment in the synagogue. During the festival of Chanuka, when he was still a young boy, he asked permission one evening to go to the synagogue. His father, who assumed he wanted to go and play Dreidle with his friends, granted him permission, but gave him a candle to take with him, admonishing him to light the candle when he reached the synagogue and to return home as soon is it burnt out. Little Sholom made his way to the synagogue, but instead of playing with his friends, he lit his candle and settled in a quiet corner and immersed himself in the study of the holy books. He was totally absorbed in his studies and did not notice that something wonderful was taking place. The little candle, that should have burnt for no more than one or one and a half hours, burned for several solid hours until he finished the complex Talmudic discourse he was studying and only then extinguished. True to his word, as soon as the candle burnt out, he returned home to meet his father’s wrath at what he perceived as an act of disobedience!
At a tender age he was orphaned when his father passed away. His mother took him to Sokal, where he grew up in the home of his uncle Rabbi Yissochor Dov Ramraz, who served as the Rabbi of Sokal. When his uncle came to realise the merits of his young nephew, he was so impressed that took him for a son-in-law and gave him his daughter Malka’s hand in marriage.
Rebitzen Malka proved to be a worthy partner and soul mate and she stood resolute and steadfast at her husband’s side, encouraging and supporting him as he proceeded painstakingly along his chosen path. She was renowned for her great compassion for her fellow Jews, and to this day Chassidim tell great and wonderful tales about her legendary saintliness and her noble deeds, but above all her great husband never forgot what she had done for him when he was young and struggling. Indeed it is said about her: “It is for the merit of Malka (the Hebrew word for Queen) that Sholom is a King!”
Reb Sholom’s remrkable perseverance and ability to spend hour upon hour immersed in study of Torah is highlighted by another amazing story. Shortly after his marriage to the saintly Rebbitzen Malka he embarked on a mission to test his perseverance and endurance. He and two partners undertook a seemly impossible task – to spend 1000 consecutive nights studying the Word of G-d and searching for the illusive mysteries that are imbedded therein.
The first of the two partners gave up after a mere 300 nights, the second dropped out after some 700 consecutive nights, but Reb Sholom alone persevered.
On the thousandth night a terrible storm broke out with heavy rains, hail and thunder. It was as if the very Devil himself had come to bar his way and prevent him reaching his goal. The dauntless young man struggled through the storm and reached the synagogue. As he sat down to learn, the great winds were so powerful that they smashed the windows and extinguished his candle. In distress he made his way to the Holy Ark and cried: “Oh Hashem! Please help me and do not let this storm disrupt my learning schedule!”
Almost at once the terrible storm died down and Reb Sholom rekindled his candle and resumed his studies. But this time he did not study alone. The immortal prophet Eliyahu Hanovi was revealed to him and throughout the remainder of the night he disclosed to him the mysteries of the Torah. He introduced him to the wellsprings of the Cabbala and presented him with the keys to the vaults of the most secret and inscrutable mysteries that are imbedded in the Torah.
As the memorable night drew to a close, Reb Sholom made a resolution: he undertook to build a mighty house of prayer that would incorporate every aspect of holiness exactly as he had learned from the immortal prophet, because the last subject that they discussed that night pertained to the laws of building a synagogue as a house of prayer.
Reb Sholom was appointed as Rabbi in Belz in 5576 (1816) and shortly afterwards he embarked upon his ambition. He spared neither effort nor money on his holy project that took fifteen years to complete. He was not content to merely draw up the plans and give instructions to the masons and bricklayers. Every day, come rain or shine, even in the hail or snow of the bitterly cold winter days, Reb Sholom would stand and participate physically with the construction of the House of the Lord.
The resulting edifice was a truly a sight to behold. It was built with a castellated roof and battlements in the style of the fortified synagogues that were once common, and of which some are still in existence today in Central and Eastern Europe. Not only was it an architectural masterpiece but it also complied with every Halachic and Cabalistic law and guideline regarding, for example, the number of windows and their locations and the positioning of the doors etc. He even claimed that he had not merely built his synagogue to face towards East, as is customary, in the general direction of Zion, he had positioned his synagogue to face precisely towards the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and that furthermore no church or idol obstructed the direct line to the holy location!
He took the concept Le’romeam Beis Elokeinu – to elevate the House of our Lord, literally. Not only was his synagogue architecturally far superior to any other building in the vicinity, he insisted that it must also be physically the highest. When a local nobleman started to build a church across the street and according to the plans he submitted, his building would have been slightly higher that the synagogue, Reb Sholom modified his plans and elevated the overall height by adding ornamental battlements to the top of the main synagogue building.
The nobleman laughed when heard of the new plans and said: “The Rabbi does not realise that I am a reincarnation of Haman! As often as he elevates his building so will I elevate mine and we will see whose building will be higher!”
When his scornful statement was conveyed to the Rebbe he responded: “Well if he has likened himself to Haman he will have a downfall just as Haman had!” That very day, as the nobleman was riding into town to present his modified plans to the planning committee, he was thrown by his horse and killed.
During the synagogue’s inauguration ceremony the Rebbe said that when the Messiah will come and the Children of Israel will be gather from the four corners of earth to the Land of Israel, their synagogues and their houses of studies will be gathered with them and transplanted in the Holy Land. Twelve of the most beautiful synagogues in the Diaspora will be relocated in Jerusalem close to where Hashem will rebuild his temple and my synagogue will be one of them!
The building Reb Sholom built was indeed beautiful and elaborate, but above all he imbedded Kedusha – holiness, in the very masonry of the synagogue. One day, shortly after the inauguration of the synagogue, the blind saint Rabbi Shimon of Yaroslav visited Belz and Reb Sholom took him to show him around his new synagogue. It was indeed a wonderful sight to behold how the holy guest entered the synagogue, placed his hands on the wall and started walking around the building murmuring ecstatically: “Good! Good! Wonderful!” Occasionally he leant over and kissed the walls. The onlookers were surprised when he reached one particular section and withdrew his holy hands as if in displeasure. Only after continuing several paces did he start tapping and stroking the walls again.
“Yes, yes!” Reb Sholom said softly, not looking in the least surprised, “unfortunately I was not present when this section was built…” Undoubtedly the Chassidim who built the synagogue tried their best to build it with the greatest piety and all the holiness that they could muster, but they were not able to breathe their very souls into the brickwork or to infuse the cold masonry with the fervour of their hearts. Only the Reb Sholom was capable of doing so, and only a saint like the blind Reb Shimon of Yaroslav could perceive it!
The tips of the ornamental battlements were adorned with gilded copper balls that caught the sunlight and in ideal weather conditions could be seen twinkling from far away, some say they could be seen as far as sixty kilometres from Belz. They served as a beacon for the pilgrims as they made their way to Belz, reassuring them that they were getting close to their destination.
During the First World War the Russians occupied Belz. They billeted their troops in the Rebbe’s mansion, set up a field hospital in the House of Study and bedded their horses in the holy synagogue. They stole and destroyed many priceless and often irreplaceable objects and desecrated the holiness of these wonderful buildings, but perhaps, the most noticeable of all was that they plundered the gilded balls that adorned the roof. They were taken down and melted to make ammunition.
Besides the famous synagogue, Reb Sholom built another memorable building. He built a residential mansion to house him and his family and incorporated therein a large hall where Chassidim gathered on Shabbos and Jewish festival to participate in the Rebbe’s festive meals – the Tish. However this was no ordinary residential building. The holy Rabbi Moshe of Lelov visited Belz in 5610 (1850) to take leave of the Sar Sholom before immigrating to the Holy Land. He is recorded as saying that the famous synagogue is indeed a wonderful building; however, over the years he has had the privilege to see many great and holy synagogues and houses of study. But never has he seen a residential building imbued with such holiness – a Kedusha that surpasses even most synagogues. Anyone who could build a residential building like that was indeed worthy of his outmost admiration!
Reb Sholom reined in Belz for close to forty years, until he passed away in the year 5615 (1855) just three days before Rosh Hashana – the Jewish New Year. During his eulogy at the funeral, his successor, the holy Rabbi Yehoshua, proclaimed that his saintly father was taken from the world three days before Rosh Hashana because he had been appointed as a member of the judicial panel in the Heavenly Court and according to Jewish law a judge must be given three days notice to prepare himself before assuming an appointment as a judge.
The Sar Sholom was succeeded by his youngest son Rabbi Yehoshuah, whose position was ratified posthumously by his saintly father several days after he passed away. He appeared before his eldest son Rabbi Elazer while he was praying in the famous synagogue and confirmed that it was his wish that he should be succeeded by none other than his youngest son!
Initially, Belz under the leadership of the Mittler Belzer Rov, as Rabbi Yehoshuah is commonly referred to, went through a difficult transition. Firstly, at approximately 30 years of age, by the prevailing standards of the time, the Rebbe was considered a young man. Also the concept of a hereditary rabbinical position was relatively revolutionary. Most Rabbis and religious leaders at that time were succeeded by a chosen disciple, not by their descendants. In a case, however, where a son was appointed to succeed his father, the natural presumption would be for the eldest son to be appointed, not the youngest, as was the case in Belz.
Then there were doubts of a more personal nature. Whereas the previous Rebbe had travel extensively in his youth to meet the great Chassidic leaders of his time and had drunk deeply from their wellsprings of wisdom, his successor had not done so at all.
His father Reb Sholom was introduced to the teachings of Chassidus in Sokal shortly after his marriage by Rabbi Shlome Lutzker the Maggid of Sokal and he was also a disciple of the Holy ‘Seer’ of Lublin. He could also count amongst his teachers the Maggid of Koznitz who taught him how to ‘read’ a K’vittle and bequeathed him the famous power to heal by touching an afflicted limb with his holy hands, the Seraph Reb Urele of Strelisk who revealed to him the Torah scroll in the form of black fire written on white fire as it was showed by G-d to Moses in heaven, and the holy Reb Yehoshuah Heshil of Apte who prophesied that in years to come their descendents would join in marriage. Indeed years later Reb Yehoshuah married the Apte Rov‘s great grand daughter.
Reb Yehoshuah, on the other hand, never travelled to any of the famous houses of study and did not serve any of the great masters of his time. He used to say that his father was his only Rebbe, and his father had passed on to him all the priceless treasures that he had amassed in his vaults, therefore he had no need to travel in pursuit of wisdom from any other source!
With the benefit of hindsight we can look back and see that the Chassidic movement had just transcended into a new era. Whereas the holy Sar Sholom belonged to the first era, to the era of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement and his disciples, his son Reb Yehoshua was in the vanguard of the second era. Indeed he was instrumental in guiding and forming the Chassidic movement as it developed into the form that we are familiar with today.
In the first era most of the followers of a Chassidic Rebbe were disciples who were attracted to their Rebbe so as to learn his method of Torah study and to absorb his founts of knowledge and wisdom, and most of these disciples went on in due course to become a Rebbe in their own rights. The Rebbes in the second era started to attract followers of a more simple nature, many of whom never went on to become a Rebbe, and were content to remain a Chossid throughout their entire lives. This is perhaps the reason why in the second era each Chassidic movement evolved into a hereditary dynasty, whereas in the first era the mantle of leadership passed on to the most appropriate disciple.
But many of the changes that came about were of a much more profound nature. Winds of change were blowing and the religious and social scenery was changing dramatically and it was the stewardship of the Mittler Belzer Rebbe, together with several other great Rabbis of the time that helped the religious communities to adapt to the new times and to rise and confront the new challenges. Some of Reb Yehoshuah’s crowning achievements were considered extremely revolutionary at that time, while today they are part of the very fabric of our society and we could not imagine life without them!
Throughout Europe, and especially within the boundaries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jews were afforded social rights and freedom as never before. This encouraged many Jews to embrace a religious liberalism and a secular lifestyle in which traditional Jewish customs and values took little or no place. A greater problem was the liberal freethinkers, the so called Maskilym or enlightened ones. The former were motivated purely by their personal considerations and selfish desires, and their regard for their fellow Jews who chose to adhere to their former way of life ranged from reluctant respect tinged with slightly guilty feelings to indifference or even pity. The latter, however, actively pursued their freestyle approach to Judaism as an ideological achievement, and regarded traditional values as a threat that needed to be eradicated at any cost. To this end they petitioned the government to introduce laws outlawing what they termed old fashioned ‘outdated’ practices. They tried to obtain legislation requiring prospective Rabbis to have secular qualifications, rather than traditional rabbinical ordination, or to impose bans on traditional Jewish slaughter. They established schools – the so called Rabbiner Seminar, to teach their enlightened version of Judaism and to train Rabbis to practise their liberal views.
In order to coordinate their efforts they formed organisations with misleading names like Shomer Yisroel – The Guardians of Israel, and presented themselves as the representatives of the Jewish people. Under these flags they even put forward candidates for parliamentary elections. They felt confident and secure in the presumption that the religious groups, who they regarded as fanatical and hopelessly outdated, would never be able to mount an effective response.
They did not take into account the Belzer Rebbe who realised the potential danger for traditional Judaism if they were allowed to represent the Jewish people unchecked. He joined forces with Rabbi Shimon Sofer the Rabbi of Krakow and several other great religious leaders with similar foresight, and together they established an organisation called Machzikey Hadass – literally translated the upholders or the guardians of the religion. The organisation was ratified in the year 5638 (1878) by the representatives of over 200 orthodox Jewish communities who had gathered for a mega conference in Lemberg, the then capital of Galicia.
In the course of the conference a constitution was drawn up and Rabbi Shimon Sofer was elected as president of the organisation. Over the next year or two local branches were established in towns and villages throughout Galicia.
In the year 5639 (1879) Machzikey Hadass put forward their own candidates for the Austro – Hungarian parliamentary elections. What the religious Jews lacked in experience and knowledge of the electoral by-laws they made for with their dedication and coordinated efforts, and their campaign was crowned with success; Rabbi Shimon Sofer was elected a member of parliament. He was thus the first religious Jew to serve as a Member of Parliament as a representative of the religious Jewish population and his election marked their virgin venture into the world of politics.
At around the same period the Haskala movement introduced a new tactic in their campaign to gain the upper hand and exert their influence over traditional Jewry. Traditionally, Haskala – ‘enlightenment’, was directed towards the intellectual members of society, the Talmudic students and young Rabbis, whereas the simple Jews, the peasants and tradesmen were largely ignored and hence unaffected by the Maskilim. They were by and large happy to continue in the ways of their forefathers and to be guided by their Rabbis and religious leaders and did not get involved in theological debates, so they could not be drawn to change alliances. Then the Haskala movement started to publish newspapers. Written in German, Yiddish and even Hebrew and bearing traditional Jewish names like Der Israelit or Kol Yisroel (The Voice of Israel), they managed to penetrate the soft underbelly of the traditional communities.
Initially the traditionalists tried to stop them cold by banning the introduction of the newspapers to Jewish homes, but they were fighting a losing battle. Once again it was the Mittler Rov who realised the true threat these newspapers posed, and in characteristic manner he countered the threat by instigating the publication of a religious newspaper under the auspices of the new religious party the Machzikey Hadass. Whereas the founding of the first religious Jewish political party was regarded by many as controversial, nevertheless it was endorsed and ratified by the major communities and religious leaders. The publication of the Machzikey Hadass and the Kol Machzikey Hadass, as the first ever religious newspapers were called, met however with fierce opposition.
But Reb Yehoshuah was relentless. He proclaimed again and again that it was essential to have a self controlled media with which to express the views and opinions of the orthodox establishment and to counter the threat the newspapers published by the Haskala movement posed. Eventually he managed to convince most Rabbis and religious leaders and obtained their endorsement and support. In due course it has become an integral part of our life, to the extent that it would be difficult to imagine the world today without its variety of religious Jewish newspapers and periodicals.
Rabbi Yehoshuah had an interesting and expensive hobby. He loved to purchase handwritten manuscripts of Cabbalistic writing written by famous Jewish sages and over the years he collected many important works. However, he was not interested in the monetary value of the works, nor, unlike many other collectors of manuscripts, was he interested in keeping them secreted away. On the contrary, his main motivation was to learn their intrinsic secrets, and to share those secrets with the rest of the world. He spared no price and was prepared to do anything necessary to achieve this lofty goal for the benefit of Torah students. Sometimes he would invite a descendant of the author of one of his manuscripts to print their forefather’s work, and in one occasion he offered a descendent to reside in Belz for as long as was necessary to copy a manuscript and edit it while supporting his every need. He even presented a certain publisher with an entire treasure trove of previously unpublished manuscripts written by the famous medieval Italian cabalist the Rema Mi-Pano. This is one of the Mittler Rov’s lesser known contributions to the Torah world because he forbade the recipients of his generosity to publish the good deeds. It is only from the foreword of those manuscripts that were published posthumously that we know about his selfless generosity.
Incidentally, the recipient of the manuscripts of the Rema Mi-Pano never managed to publish the entire collection he received, but luckily he published a list of the manuscripts included in the priceless gift he received from the Belzer Rebbe. In recent years the entire collection was discovered in one of the European libraries and work is being done to publish them so that the Rebbe’s selfless desire is finally being fulfilled.
Reb Yehoshuah the Mittler Rov reigned in Belz for close to 40 years. While his early years were beset with many reservations, over the years he was recognised and accepted as one of the generations most dynamitic and forceful leaders. His name has gone down in history as one of the greatest guardians of traditional Jewish values and at the same time one who successfully navigated the transition into the realities of modern times. But he was also a world leader in compassion for his fellow Jews.
Thousands came to him from near and far for his advice and blessings and he would spend hours on end praying for them and trying to evoke Divine intervention to solve their many problems.
In the year 5654 (1894) Reb Yehoshuah travelled to Vienna to seek specialist medical treatment and to undergo an operation. Apparently he felt that his ailments were hindering him during his prayers and preventing him from attending to the needs of his many followers and he risked his life on their behalf. The operation was successful but he passed away on the train while he was making his way back to Belz. His funeral was attended by thousands of mourners and he was succeeded by his third son Rabbi Yissochor Dov.
Rabbi Yissochor Dov, the Frierdige Rov was the Mittler Rov’s third son. Many researches who have studied the phenomena of Chassidic Rabbis and their followers have debated over the question whether a Rebbe had the status of a Ruler and his followers his loyal subjects; hence in essence a Chassidic court could be considered a mini kingdom or a kingdom within a kingdom. Well, if we venture to concur with those who have come to a positive conclusion, Rabbi Yissochor Dov, the Frierdige Rov was a prime example. He was a dynamic leader with an almost uncanny understanding of the prevailing political trends and anyone who met him felt immediately that he was in the presence of a truly regal personality. Under his leadership the Belzer influence spread dramatically and his advice and often his support was sought by religious and lay leaders from far and wide. The fame of Belz reached way beyond the boundaries of the Austro – Hungarian Empire and its neighbouring countries and by the turn of the 20th century there were Belzer Chassidim in Great Britain, in North and South America and as far away as Australia.
While he was as charismatic a leader as his father before him, Rabbi Yissochor Dov is better known for his passion for Torah study. He encouraged his followers throughout the Chassidic world to promote and preserve the study of Torah in the traditional way. To this end he was instrumental in the founding of numerous schools to teach traditional Jewish values, as opposed to the more modern schools that were being introduced by the more ‘enlightened’ Jews who were looking to replace the traditional and, in their opinion, outdated values.
Under his rule the ranks of the Yoshvim – literally translated ‘those who are sitting’, a term used to describe young men who revoked all worldly pleasures and came to Belz and spent months and even years immersed in Torah study while their every need was paid for by the Belzer establishment – grew and swelled as more and more young men were attracted to Belz. Like a mighty beacon shining into the darkness, so the light of the Torah shining from Belz attracted young scholars from far and wide. In his father’s days the overwhelming majority of Yoshvim were older and hence more mature students, indeed many of them went on to serve as community Rabbis or religious teachers and instructors. Under Reb Yissochor Dov’s guidance Belz started to draw in much younger students and in order to accommodate them he reorganised the structure of the Chevre, as the Yoshvim organisation was referred to, and he employed a great scholar called Reb Mechele Zolkover to teach and instruct the young scholars.
Alongside the famous synagogue he built an equally famous Beis Hamedrash – a House of Learning where the sweet sound of Torah study rang out around the clock. From five o’clock every morning, come rain or shine, and even during the dark winter months when it was still long before the crack of dawn, students crowded around the table to hear Reb Mechele’s discourses. The Beis Hamedrash, that was always warm and brightly light, attracted simple people as well as those thirsty for Torah and as instructed by the Rebbe every effort was made to make then comfortable so that they too should keep on coming.
The years of relative calm and tranquillity were brought to a brutal end at the onset of the First World War. As the area around Belz was churned up by the raging armies, the Rebbe and his entire court managed to escape to relative safety in neighbouring Hungary.
During those difficult times the Frierdige Rov emmerged as a mighty pillar of support and stability. His court-in-exile was like a magnet for countless refugees, many who had lost all the worldly possessions and some even their entire families, and when they came to the Rebbe he supported and comforted them physically and spiritually.
His faith and belief in the help of Hashem was steadfast even in those dark and difficult days. He once remark wonderingly: “The Germans say that the world is theirs. The English claim that they own the seas. But my Yosselle – (referring to a Chossid called Reb Yosselle Krakowitzer who led the prayers in Belz on the Days of Awe), he sings so sweetly: The sea belongs to Him, for He made it, and the dry land – His hand created it…”!
While he was eternally optimistic, he never underestimated the importance of action. When he overheard someone saying that in these difficult times only Hashem can help, he turned on him angrily and said: “Of course we must ask Hashem for His help continuously, but above all we must do our physical part to help those in need and we cannot relieve ourselves from out duties by evoking the help of Hashem!”
Once during a meeting to discuss the dire situation of the refugees and those caught in war torn areas and unable to escape, one of the participating Rabbis said: “Oh! We are living in such difficult times; surely it is time for Moshiach to come and redeem us all!”
“No! No!” he retorted angrily, “now is not the time to pray for Moshiach! Now is the time to pray for Jews to be delivered from their current dangerous situation. Moshiach can come during peace time as well!”
A distraught mother once approached him as he was making his way to his daily prayers and cried: “Rebbe! You are going to pray in a synagogue with an entire entourage of Chassidim. My son is somewhere out on the front, who knows if he can be spared from eating non-kosher food and desecrating the holy Sabbath never mind having the privilege of going to pray in a synagogue!”
Some of the Chassidim tried to quieten her but the Rebbe motioned to allow her to approach and he said: “You are quite right, it is indeed not something any good mother should need to worry about. I can assure you that I have invested enough time praying for your son that tens of people could have been saved! What can I do – apparently it is the will of Hashem, who wants to hear his heartfelt prayers from the misery of the frontline. I can only promise you that immediately after the conclusion of the Days of Awe he will return home safe and sound”!
At the end of the war, as the mighty Austrian Hungarian Empire started to crumble and the European borders were redrawn, Belz and the rest of Galicia that up to then had been part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, became part of Poland. The Frierdike Rov observed jokingly that Belz has lost out on all counts. “In the past” he said, “Hungarian Chassidim gladly came to Belz because there were no border restrictions. Polish Chassidim also were glad to come – because there were border restrictions! Now the tables have turned. The Hungarians have stopped coming because they are daunted by the border crossing and they do not have the stomach to cross illegally. But on the other hand the Polish have also stopped coming, because they miss the excitement of the illegal crossing. Indeed Belz has lost out on all counts!”
In total, the Frierdike Rov spent ten years in exile before returning to Belz. Even when he returned from Hungary to Galicia he could not return directly to Belz because of the devastation left behind by the Russian army that had occupied Belz. He spent two years in nearby Holashitz while the Belzer ‘court’ was being restored and renovated.
But even though the excitement was great when eventually he returned to Belz, things were never the same again. The war had taken a great toll. The Rebbe had been deeply affected by the terrible suffering of his brethren who had been caught up in the war and his body weakened by constant fasting and praying.
Even in his weakened state he spent a lot of time and energy overseeing the renovations of Belz and especially the great synagogue. He tried his best to replace stolen articles and fix the damage inflicted by the Russians. When it came to his notice that some damage to the flooring, caused by the horse’s shoes when they were stabled in the great synagogue, had been overlooked, he instructed that it should be left as it is and not repaired, saying: “The day will come that they [- the Russians] will be held accountable for what they have done!”
The synagogue was built with four mighty pillars and a series or arches that supported a roof divided into three rows of three individual domes. While renovating the synagogue he commissioned an artist to paint the domes so that they resembled the sky, each dome depicting the sky under different conditions, e.g. a day sky and a night sky, a summer sky and a winter sky etc. The Rebbe himself oversaw everything being done in the synagogue, and even when he was ill and frail he would ask to be carried in on a chair so as to see for himself the artist at work.
One day he stood before the Holy Ark and as he examined the intrinsically carved woodwork he remarked: “When my Grandfather built this synagogue and installed this ark he did not expect anybody to decipher its hidden secrets… Praise to the Lord he has a grandson who understands it all!”
On another occasion he studied the Shevisi – the plaque placed before the pulpit enjoining the leader of the prayers to remember he stands before Hashem. “This is indeed a beautiful plaque. However, my grandfather promised that his synagogue will be transplanted in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem we will have a Golden Shevisi!”
The Frierdige Rov passed away at the beginning of 5687 (1927) and his funeral was attended by thousands of mourners. During the funeral many of the mourners noticed an amazing phenomenon – the walls of the synagogue were dripping with water, as if the synagogue had joined them in mourning and very walls were crying with them!
Reb Ahron, the Frierdige Rov’s first born son and successor as the fourth Belzer Rov is known by a variety of names or titles ranging from Reb Ahare’le or Reb Aharin’eu to simply Der Belzer Rov Zechrono Levrocha – the Late Belzer Rebbe OBM, but the title Aharon Kedosh Hashem that translates “Aharon [the] holy and G-dly” is by far the most apt and appropriate.
His total and complete dedication to the servitude of His Master while shunning all worldly comforts was phenomenal. From a very young age he seemed to survive on miniscule meals and routine denial of sleep, and as if he was completely detached from his physical being, he would spend hours on end studying and praying. One of his teachers tried to talk him out of his apparently self destructive ways. “Do you know that Chassidus teaches us that one can attain holiness by eating and drinking as well as by fasting? Hashem created human beings in such a way that they need to sustain their bodies with food in order to survive. This proves that it is His divine will that one shall eat, so provided that one eats in moderation, eats only permitted foods and recites the correct blessings before eating etc. one can sanctify His Holy Name while eating”.
“I know” the young boy replied seriously, “however, those who serve Hashem while enjoying His blessings and eating the food He provides us are limiting their servitude to the times of eating. By fasting and restricting the indulgence in food one can serve Hashem at all times!”
The history of Chassidus is full of many great spiritual giants, Tzadikim who are lived almost angelic lifestyles; however Reb Aharon was a giant amongst giants. The needs and desires of mere mortals apparently held no meaning for him, as he lived a life of determined detachment from the mundane, and banishment of anything that he deemed coarse and vulgar. His ascetic appearance and the aura of pure holiness that surrounded him was apparent to all who came into his presence and prompted many of those who beheld him to liken him to an angel. This appearance was further enhanced by the way he would sit motionless, sometimes for several hours, while, with his eyes closed, he meditated on heavenly matters. At times it seemed as if his soul had transcended to a higher sphere while his physical body remained seated in the world below! Indeed his amazing presence and the holiness he radiated was so powerful that it prompted many a wrongdoer to repent and to better their ways, and was not lost even on brutal and murderous Nazis!
During the Second World War when the Rebbe was fleeing from Nazi persecution he was for a period of time in the Krakow Ghetto. He had entered the ghetto incognito and his Chassidim had hoped to keep his identity secret, because the Wunder Rabbiner was on the Nazis ‘most wanted’ list. One can only imagine their dismay when Simon Spitz, a notorious collaborator, learned off his whereabouts and informed his Gestapo masters! To their intense surprise, while his close Chassidim were frantically contemplating how to defuse the danger Spitz posed, the Rebbe approached and suggested that they summon Spitz for a meeting! At first they were horrified, but when they saw that the Rebbe was adamant, fearfully they complied and approached Spitz with the Rebbe’s request.
Spitz arrived at the Rebbe’s apartment bareheaded and with his customary arrogance, but when he was ushered into the Rebbe’s room he soon fell under his spell and was soon reduced to talking quietly and respectfully as any Chossid! Over the next few weeks he brought the Rebbe and his brother work permits, a literal lifesaving document in those precarious times, and arranged for the Rebbe to be transferred to a more appropriate apartment and even supplied him with firewood to heat the apartment!
Later, when the Rebbe and his brother had moved to nearby Bochnia Ghetto, where they were furnished with work permits that stated that the Rebbe was a tailor and his brother was a shoemaker, the Gestapo heard rumours about an “illegal” gathering on Friday night at the Rebbe’s apartment. The Camp Commandant Lagerfuhrer Muller, who had a shrewd idea who the ‘tailor’ really was, decided to pay a visit in person.
During the entire visit the Rebbe remained engrossed in his prayers and heavenly meditation and virtually ignored the Commandant, while his brother, the Bilgorajer Rov did the talking. At first the commandant sneered with undisguised contempt: “So, this is the famous Wunder Rabbiner?” thereby indicating that there was no point in continuing with the charade, however, slowly he too was effected by the Rebbe’s presence and he started asking questions like: “How can the Rabbi pray here? Should there not be windows facing the east?”
Eventually, as he was leaving he perceived one of the other famous rabbis, who were in the ghetto at the time, approaching, unaware of the Belzer Rebbe’s ‘guest’. To everybody’s intense surprise he merely remarked mildly: “A Rabbiner geht zum Rabbiner”…(A Rabbi visits another Rabbi) and went on his way without molesting him.
Of course this did not indicate a complete change of heart, and he continued with his murderous activities right up to the final liquidation of ghetto; however he turned a blind eye to the Rebbe and his activities for as long as he remained under his “care” in the Bochnia Ghetto.
These are just some of the miraculous events that took place during the war years as the Rebbe embarked on an epic journey from his hometown Belz in attempt to elude the increasingly frantic search by the Nazis, a journey that spanned four years, towns and villages as well as ghettoes in several different countries, numerous hiding places, daring and dangerous journeys under a variety of disguises, and many miraculous escapes, often just avoiding falling into their bloody clutches, until he arrived safely together with his brother in Palestine. They arrived physically broken and weakened by the terrible suffering and hardships they had endured, but unbroken in spirit, and as soon as they set foot in the Holy Land they set about rebuilding all that was lost.
In spite of his greatness and his fame as a Tzadick, the Rebbe’s simplicity and modesty was exceeded only by his ascetic lifestyle and his love and concern for his fellow Jews. His adherence to Jewish laws and customs was legendary. Even when in hiding in the ghettos, while fleeing Nazi persecution, he steadfastly refused to deviate even slightly from his daily routines, spending hours immersed in prayer and meditation. Many survivors recount in wonder how, even in those difficult and dangerous times, he would meticulously observe every custom and tradition with the same dedication and fervour as when he was in Belz before the onset of the war.
Throughout the war he tried his best to encourage and comfort his distraught brethren in those terrible times and he suffered their pain and hurt with them. But he never referred to or bemoaned his own personal tragedies. He lost his wife and entire family without ever questioning the way of Hashem and never observed their Yahr Zeite as is customary to commemorate the anniversary of the death of a relative. Perhaps he would not commemorate a personal loss amidst such universal suffering.
While in hiding in Przemyslany at the beginning of the war he survived a pogrom in which many Jewish buildings were torched including the main synagogue, however his son Reb Moshe’le did not survive. He, together with about forty other Jewish men were caught by the murderous hoards and brutally thrown into the burning synagogue. When he was told the tragic news he reacted calmly and accepted his fate as a Heavenly Decree, saying: “I must give praise to our Creator! Now I too have paid my dues and presented a sacrifice!”
The Rebbe was a pitiful sight to behold when he arrived as a refugee in Palestine together with his brother the Bilgorajer Rov, practically the only survivors of the entire extended Belz family, broken and penniless without any trace of their former glory. But they did not sit back and relax nor wallow in self-pity. As soon as they arrived they set about the task of galvanising the efforts of the Jewish communities in Palestine to set up relief committees and to encourage them to do everything in their power to save the remnants of European Jewry that were still trapped in occupied Europe and were being methodically and brutally exterminated in the Nazi death camps.
At the same time they embarked upon the mammoth task of comforting the war scarred refugees and gathering the scattered remnants of the glorious Belzer Empire to start rebuilding what the Nazis had tried their best to eradicate. They toiled long and tirelessly until slowly their efforts started to pay off and here and there the seeds were sown to rebuild Belz in the Holy Land. A Shteible – a synagogue in Jerusalem, a Talmud Torah – a boy’s school in Tel Aviv, followed by a Yeshiva – a Talmudical collage and a Talmid Torah in Jerusalem. It was a far cry from the myriad Belz synagogues and institutions in Galicia and throughout Eastern and Central Europe, but it was an awakening and a promise of more to come.
Both brothers married again in the Holy Land and in the year 5708 (1948) the Bilgorajer Rov was blessed with the birth of a son whom he named Yissocher Dov after his saintly father OBM. The holy brothers however continued to drink deeply from the metaphoric bitter goblet. Shortly after the birth of his only son the Bilgorajer Rov fell ill and passed away leaving behind a two year-old orphan. His brother the Belzer Rov took the boy under his wing and personally supervised his education and all his physical needs. But that too was not destined to last and on the 21st day of Av 5717 (1957) the Belzer Rebbe passed away and was laid to rest in Jerusalem.
Thousands and thousands of mourners thronged the streets of Jerusalem. Rabbis and religious leaders, lay leaders and social leaders, community activists and teachers, Yeshiva students and secular students, Chassidim and non-Chasidim, religious and non-religious, Jews from all walks of life came from all over Israel and even from abroad to pay their last respects to the world renowned Tzadik, one of the last remnants of the previous era and the leader of the entire generation. His gravesite has become a place of pilgrimage, where to this day throughout the year thousands come to pray and to connect with the saint whose entire life was dedicated to comforting and praying for those in need.
Many of those who thronged the streets and took part in the largest funeral that Jerusalem had ever experienced wondered if this day marked also the demise of Belz. Could the Rebbe’s legacy possibly survive? Who would give the necessary push to keep up the momentum of a movement that was still in a fledgling state? Who could possibly step into the shoes of the beloved Rebbe and fulfil the place of the Torah world’s undisputed leader? Could the Bilgorajer Rov’s nine year old orphaned son, who had now also lost his uncle and mentor, be tutored to take up the reins of leadership?
These and other similar questions and doubts filled the hearts of hundreds, until one commentator was prompted to say: “Thousands have gathered today not only to mourn the departure and to lay to rest a great and saintly sage, they have gathered to mourn the passing and to lay to rest Chassidus Belz with its unique lifestyle, and with it they are essentially laying to rest the last link to pre-war Jewry!”
Indeed for close to a decade Belz did not fully recover from its great loss. However, it continued to confound those who predicted its early demise. Belzer Chassidim kept the memory of their beloved Rebbe alive by supporting his legacy, the Belz synagogues and Torah institutions he had founded. By supporting and maintaining the institutions and extending the scope of their activities, they felt connected to the late Rebbe, and that they were continuing his living ambitions. They also kindled their hopes and their aspirations for the future of Belz as a Chassidic movement when they beheld the Bilgorajer Rov’s young son, and their expectations grew that the time was finally approaching when he would finally be ready to face his destiny and take up the leadership as the heir and successor to the Belzer throne.
It is difficult to describe the excitement and joy experienced by the Belzer Chassidim who participated in the wedding of the century, when the Crown Prince of the Belzer dynasty married the granddaughter of the then Wiznitzer Rebbe – daughter of the current Wiznitzer Rebbe Shlita. Hundreds of Chassidim from throughout Israel and from abroad thronged to B’nei Brak to take part in the joyous occasion. They heralded the wedding as an important milestone, a sure indication that their long wait was drawing to a close and the Belzer throne was soon to be occupied again.
Two short years later, in the month of Av 5726 (1966), on the ninth anniversary of the passing of the late Belzer Rebbe, the present Rebbe Shelita was ordained and anointed in Jerusalem as the Fifth Belzer Rebbe and leader of the Belzer Chassidim.
Who, if any, of those present at the time could have possibly foreseen the phenomenal success that the Rebbe would have in guiding Belz into the future, and that under his able leadership Belz would be transformed into an international superpower that ranks as one of the greatest Chassidic and Torah movements in the world?!
When studying the biography of the Rebbe Shlita it is almost uncanny to observe the way it seems to mirror and reflect the entire essence of the history of Belz and to incorporate the unique characteristics of each of the previous Rebbes!
The First Belzer Rebbe – the holy Sar Sholom, was orphaned at a tender age and was brought up by his uncle and so was the Rebbe Shlita.
The Sar Sholom founded the Belz Chassidic movement and built it up from scratch. The present Rebbe Shlita inherited a fledgling movement that was no more than a shadow or a reflection of its pre-war glory and nurtured it and built upon it until it has become a mega Chassidic movement with thousands of followers, a movement that boasts numerous synagogues and Houses of Prayer, and incorporates social and religious institutions and even its own education network of schools and seminaries, Talmud Torahs, Yeshivos and institutes for higher education with several thousand pupils and students in Israel and throughout the world.
The First Belzer Rebbe – the holy Sar Sholom, built a famous synagogue that was renowned throughout the Jewish world as a physical and spiritual masterpiece. He spent fifteen years building his synagogue and was not only personally involved in the planning but he also participated physically in the actual building.
The present Rebbe Shlita built the Belz World Centre in Jerusalem modelled largely on the style of the famous Belzer synagogue that his great-great grandfather built and that was destroyed by the Nazis. The building also took about fifteen years to build and, as his forefather before him, the Rebbe Shlita took an active part in every stage of the planning and also contributed physically to the building work.
The main synagogue building, styled as a modern version of the famous Belz synagogue that was destroyed during the war, dominates the Jerusalem skyline and is probably the largest synagogue in the world, while the rest of the complex houses the biggest and the most vibrant Torah centre in Israel, where the sounds of prayer and Torah study permeate the surrounding air around the clock, 24 hours a day 365 day a year.
Rabbi Yehoshuah, the Mittler Rov – 2nd Belzer Rebbe started his leadership under a cloud of reservations, because of his young age and doubts about his suitability to succeed his father, as well as facing the difficulties of guiding his followers and the wider religious community into a new era, however in due course he disproved all those who doubted him and had phenomenal successes, including the implementation of dramatic social changes that have become the accepted norm today.
The leadership of present Rebbe Shlita also set off to a bumpy start beset with many reservations. Whereas his forefather the Mittler Rov was considered young when he ascended his father’s throne at approximately thirty years of age, by recent standards thirty is considered quite a reasonable age. But the Rebbe Shlita set a new record, because he was only eighteen years old when he was crowned Fifth Belzer Rebbe!
If the Mittler Rov courted reservations because his father was his only Rebbe and he hadn’t ‘widened his horizons’ by visiting other leading Rabbis, the Rebbe Shlita was accused by some of the old timers as being unsuitable because he had not learned from his father, who had passed away when he was only two years old, nor had he learned enough from his holy uncle who had passed away when he was just nine years old. After all – the doubters asked – how could a young man who had never set foot in the ‘real’ Belz, and who hardly even knew the previous Rebbe, possibly be the appropriate leader of the Belz Chassidim?
Above all the Mittler Rov weathered severe criticism when he tried to implement drastic changes to the traditional ways, sometimes with dramatic consequences, in order to adapt to a new era and come to terms with its new challenges. Similarly the Rebbe Shlita bravely took on the traditional establishment in order to adapt to the post World War Two era.
The pre-war style of community life was gone for ever. Gone were the little Shtetelech where, tucked away far from the mainstream of modern Europe, traditional life styles and values were preserved as if in a time warp.
In pre-war Europe, Jews lived scattered in hundreds or perhaps thousands of small Shtetelech. Post war Jewry has developed a marked preference to living in the densely populated big cities. The Rebbe Shlita realised that the module of the old time Chassidic movement would not provide the new generation with a strong enough sense of identity and purpose.
The new module he advocated encompasses the entire social and religious life of the Belzer Chossid. Nowadays, as a Chossid and a follower of the Belzer Rebbe, not only can one pray in a Belz synagogue and observe the unique Belz traditional customs, he can reside in a Belz Kiriya or settlement, send his children to study in Belz educational institutions from kindergarten through to higher education programs for married students, make use of Belz social institutions that include all community services and even a Beth Din. He can volunteer to help with the numerous Belz charitable institutions for the poor and the needy. Or perhaps, if he is that way inclined, he could participate with the Belz outreach programs that give guidance to those that seek the way back to religious Torah observance. And finally, when his time is up he can be attended to by the Belz Chevre Kedusha and be buried in a Belz cemetery!
If there are those who will compare a pre-war Chassidic movement to a state within a state, there is no doubt that Belz today can be compared to an empire without international boundaries!
The Belzer Rebbe’s political involvement in pre-war Europe was limited to the support of the general religious parties and guiding their activities, mostly from behind the scenes, nowadays Belz sends its own representatives into the political arena and over the years Belz representatives have served as councillors in several Israeli towns and cities, deputy mayors and even members of parliament in the Israeli Knesset.
Whereas, under the umbrella of the Machzikey Hadass in Galicia and later the Agudas Yisroel in Poland, religious Jews ventured into the world of politics, their main purpose was to safeguard the religious Jewish interest. In the new era, living in the State of Israel, religious politicians were venturing into minefields where no religious parliamentarian had ever ventured before.
The Rebbe Shlita was one of the first religious leaders who prompted dialogue with all the non-religious parties both on the right and the left. He was brave enough to advocate publicly the return of territories captured by the Israelis to their Arab neighbours in exchange for peace ten or fifteen years before it became, first an acceptable theory to discuss, then almost a consensus, until it became the reality it is today.
He initiated and embraced many ‘new’ concepts ranging from the distribution of Chassidic music tapes as an alternative to more secular popular modern music, to the introduction of psychology and modern teaching techniques into mainstream religious institutions.
But in spite of apparently bowing to the winds of change he seems to posses the ability to tame the winds and to bend them to blow in the directions he feels fit! Although he has pioneered some of the most dramatic changes in recent times, at the same time he is considered one of the most ardent admires and protectors of the traditional Chassidic values, and Belz is a bastion of traditional Chassidus! This almost paradoxical ability to extract what is good from the new while retaining the character and beauty of the traditional way of life is a direct inheritance from his great grandfather the Mittler Rov.
Rabbi Yissochor Dov, the Frierdige Rov was famous for his passion for Torah study, and with his guidance and encouragement his followers founded Talmudai Torah – traditional boy’s schools, in numerous towns and villages to promote and preserve the traditional style and method of Torah study.
His grandson of the same name, the present Rebbe Shlita continues along his path. The Belz Torah Educational Network educates several thousand pupils in numerous Talmudai Torah and no less than eight Yeshivos in Israel, as well as of course the Talmudai Torah and Yeshivos wherever there is a Belz community throughout the world.
But his crowning achievement in the sphere of religious education has got to be the founding of the Beis Malka schools for girls. With branches scattered throughout Israel and the rest of the Jewish world, these schools offer several thousand pupils a unique learning experience based on traditional Chassidic values, even to the extent of setting Yiddish as the main language (a concept that is generally only available in Israel for boys studying in Talmud Torah boy’s schools), and producing text books and other study material exclusively for the use of the Belz educational network.
His passion to strengthen and enhance the study of Torah is not restricted to the benefit of members of the Belz community. He has set up various extremely successful programs to encourage and support Torah students and to help them publish their work for the benefit of Torah study all over the world.
His uncle, the late Rebbe OBM, had tremendous compassion and unbound love for his fellow Jews. Throughout the 2nd World War, in dark and difficult times, he devoted his time and energy to help his brethren, and then to console and encourage the broken and downtrodden remnants of pre-war Jewry in the aftermath of the terrible holocaust.
The present Rebbe Shlita’s concern for the welfare of his fellow Jews is boundless. Living as he does in Israel, he does all that is in his power to comfort and encourage his fellow countrymen, who have suffered through several wars and years of terrorism, strife and hardship. He has utilised his enormous organisational skills and the goodwill of his followers to set up, within the framework of the Belz institutions, several high profile and extremely successful charitable organisations, ranging from organisations for the help of the poor and needy, to clinics offering cheap and affordable medical and dental care, as well as organisations that direct volunteers to assist the ill and offer free medical assistance and free loans of medical equipment.
When he ascended the throne as the Fifth Belzer Rebbe he was considered by many a young man who could not possibly qualify as a legitimate leader of Chassidus Belz, because he had never even set foot in the original town where the movement started. Today, practically all the present day Rebbes and leaders of the other Chassidic sects belong to the new generation and practically none of them can claim the privilege of having observed their particular Chassidus on it’s home turf. Indeed, forty years on, while by no means the oldest, the Rebbe Shlita is actually one of the longest reigning Rebbes in our generation! Under his leadership Belz has become one of the worlds most vibrant and dynamic Chassidic movements. May it be the will of Hashem that we shall continue under his leadership until, imminently; we shall merit going forward under his flag to greet the Moshiach!
The ninth day of Shevat 5704 (1944) marks the day that the two holy refugees, the Belzer Rebbe and his brother the Bilgorajer Rov first set foot in the Holy Land and is generally regarded as the date when the process of rebuilding Belz was initiated. However, the truth is that the first seed was planted in Jerusalem in 1939, just before the onset of the war, when the first Belzer Shteible was founded in Jerusalem. It was also the determination of the handful of Belzer who were living in the Holy Land that contributed greatly to the sequence of events that culminated with the arrival of the holy brothers to the Holy Land. They worked tirelessly night and day, sparing neither time nor effort, utilized their every connection and exerted all their influence until they managed to cut through the numerous bureaucratic barriers. As a result eventually the coveted entry certificates to Palestine, that were worth their weight in gold in those troubled times, were issued so that the brothers could finally get the necessary transit visas that would allow them to travel across occupied Europe into Turkey and on via Syria into Palestine.
The enthusiastic reception they received when they arrived in Haifa and all along the route until they eventually arrived in Jerusalem was like a throwback to pre-war times before the destruction of the Belz Empire along with most of Eastern European Jewry. Thousands of Jews thronged the streets as the entire religious community in the Holy Land came out in force to greet and welcome the great Chassidic leader who had come to reside in their midst.
Contrary to everybody’s expectations, the Rebbe did not settle in Jerusalem, or in B’nei Berak, nor any of the other recognised religious settlements, preferring instead to settle in Tel Aviv. His house in Echad Ha’am Street became a place of pilgrimage for Belz Chassidim as well as thousands of other Jews from all walks of life who thronged to the Belzer Rebbe to seek his advice and his blessings.
During the Roman conquest of the Land of Israel that led in due course to the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish people going into exile, Titus, the leader of the Roman legionaries offered Rabbi Yochanan ben Zackei that he would grant him any one request. Without hesitation he asked that the Romans shall spare the famous Yeshiva in Yavne and its Talmudical students. He did not request that he should spare Jerusalem and the temple, preferring instead to ask for the one thing that would safeguard the Jewish future – the Torah that was being studied by the students at the Yavne Yeshiva.
In much the same way when the Belzer Rebbe OBM embarked on his quest to rebuild the Belzer Empire he made an important strategic decision. He did not attempt to rebuild a Shtetele, instead he set about creating a network of Torah institutions that would educate a new generation of children in the unique Belz tradition, thereby guaranteeing the future of Belz.
The task of setting up and running the Belz educational program was undertaken by the Bilgorajer Rov, and he was appointed by his brother Administrator-in-Chief of all the Belz institutions. He approached the task enthusiastically and under his stewardship the first Belz Talmud Torah was founded in Tel Aviv in 1949 followed shortly by a second Talmud Torah in Jerusalem. However his leadership was not destined to last. About a year later at the beginning of the Hebrew year 5710 (1950) shortly after the inauguration of the Belzer Yeshiva in Jerusalem the Bilgorajer Rov was taken ill and hospitalised and after a short illness he passed away on the 25th day of Cheshvan.
The foundation of the Belzer Yeshiva was an important milestone in the rebuilding of Belz in Israel. There is an old Hebrew saying “if there are no lambs there will be no sheep”, therefore, having Belzer Talmudei Torah – independent boy’s schools for the education of the children of Belzer Chasidim was an important achievement. However, it was in the Yeshiva that Belzer Chassidim pinned their hopes of safeguarding the future of Belz.
The Yeshiva was the short term answer to the problem of educating the youth who were born just before the war, or to refugee parents during and immediately after the war, and were too old for the newly founded boy’s schools. It would enable them, too, to be instructed in the unique ways of Belz so that they would keep the Belzer traditions alive, until they in turn would send their children to be educated in a Belzer Talmudei Torah. Also, in the long term, it would act as a melting pot where students would come from all the various Belzer Talmudei Torah in Israel as well as from abroad and forge together to build the close knitted international community that characterises Belz throughout the world.
The Yeshiva opened in a rented Jerusalem property with no more than ten pupils but it quickly outgrew it premises. In 1954 an appropriate plot of land was acquired and on the 2nd day of Elul 5714 (1954) the Rebbe laid the foundation stone for the Belzer Yeshiva building. He instructed that the plans should include accommodation for several hundred students and a large central synagogue and study hall. Also included in the plans was a residential apartment for the Rebbe himself to reside in when he came to spend the summer months in Jerusalem.
At the time of completion the main study hall was one of the largest synagogues in Jerusalem and perhaps in the world, indeed many wondered at the time if it was indeed necessary to build the Yeshiva in such a grand scale. When the Rebbe passed away on the 21st day of Av 5717 (1957) the Yeshiva became the focal point as well as the Centre of Belzer Chassidim and in due course they all came to realise that it had been fortunate that they had the foresight to build in such a scale that it could accommodate the periodical gatherings of the Belzer Chassidim. This was especially so after the present Rebbe Shelita took up residence in Jerusalem and the great synagogue hall doubled as a Yeshiva for the students and as a centre where Chassidim from Israel and all over the world would gather to spend Shabbos or Tom Tov with the Rebbe and participate with his prayers and his Tish.
The Chassidim, who where devastated when their Rebbe the Rov Zechrono Levrocha passed away, realised that it was their responsibility to keep his legacy alive and keep up the momentum until such a time as the orphaned son of the Bilgorajer Rov, the Belzer crown prince, would be old enough to take over the leadership. Over the following nine years the Belz institutions in Israel continued to grow in leaps and bounds. One of their most amazing achievements during that period was the building of the Belz synagogue and Talmud Torah in Bnei B’rak. The groundbreaking ceremony was celebrated at the conclusion of the thirty days of mourning and the inauguration ceremony took place less than a year later, on the first anniversary of the Rov Zechrono Levrocha’s passing away.
Their collective progress during those nine years is truly impressive and includes the building of several buildings and extending the network of Torah institutions in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as in England, Belgium and the USA and Canada. However, in spite of their remarkable achievements, the Chassidim were in reality only undertaking a caretaker’s job, and it was only when the present Rebbe Shlita ascended the Belzer throne on the ninth anniversary of his uncle’s passing that the quest acquired a totally new sense of purpose.
Under his dynamic leadership the scope and the direction of the Belz Educational Institutes has broadened almost beyond recognition and it was extended to include educational institutions for girls as well as the traditional Talmudei Torah schools and Yeshivas for boys. Sarah Schenira, the founder of the Beth Yaakov schools for girls who pioneered the concept of religious Jewish schooling for girls in pre-war Europe, was a scion of a family of Belzer Chassidim, and her brother Avrohom Schenira was one of the prominent Belzer Chassidim in Krakow. Although she writes in her memoirs that she travelled to Belz to consult with the then Belzer Rebbe, the Frierdige Rov OBM about her plans for religious schooling for girls and received his consent and his blessings, as indeed she received from several of the other religious leaders at the time, Beis Yaakov was in no way affiliated or even indorsed by Belz.
With the foundation of the network of Beis Malka Girl’s Schools, Belz acknowledged that the need to educate the girls with the unique Belz traditions was equally important to the future of Belz as it is for the boys.
Even though this was a momentous decision of great importance, it pales almost to insignificance when compared with the way the Rebbe Shelta revolutionised the traditional educational methods by introducing modern methods and concepts like psychology and graphology to assist with the assessment of students, recognising the need for parallel schooling for students of different learning abilities and especially recognising the need to cater for physical as well as psychological or emotional ‘special needs’ children, while at the same time preserving and maintaining the unique character and the values of traditional Jewish educational methods. In this field Belz is regarded as pioneers and the trailblazers who set the trend for the entire Chassidic world.
Over the years, as the Belz communities ‘reborn’ in Israel and around the world matured and stabilised, the Rebbe Shelita decided that the time was ripe to shift the emphasis from the educational institutions to rebuilding the cultural and social aspects of Belz.
This was no small task. Post war Jewish communities are mostly located in the big cities and they are made up from Jews from all over Europe and from all sorts of different social and traditional backgrounds. While the Belz educational institutions were well established, on an individual basis Belzer Chassidim had integrated with their surrounding communities. Belz was looking for a delicate balance, one that would protect the individuality of their Chassidim without cutting them off and segregating them from the wider Jewish communities.
To do this the Rebbe chose a two pronged approach; to build upon and extend the Belz social and charitable institutions, in due course under an umbrella organisation called Kahal Machzikei Hadass, and to build Kiriyot – special housing projects that would create Belzer neighbourhoods within the larger religious neighbourhood blocks. The first Kirya was founded in Jerusalem followed by one in the Israeli seaport Ashdod and more recently in Beth Shemesh near Jerusalem, each housing several hundred Belz families and of course with their own synagogues and other community buildings.
Kahal Machzikei Hadass was established in the year 5740 (1980) in order to provide Belzer Chassidim with all the community services that Jews residing in a pre-war Shtelel would have traditionally expected from their local communities. The difference was of course that the present day Jew no longer resides in a Shtelel. Jews today live in large cosmopolitan cities and are by default part of the wider Jewish congregation. Therefore the new Belzer Kehila was a social experiment, a new concept in which the boundaries of a Kehila can transcend any physical tangible boundaries and membership is based on ideological and social unity rather than geographical location. Much in the same way as Jewish communities exist as independent entities within the confines of a town or city, interacting with but remaining independent of their neighbours and the wider community, so does the Kahal Machzikei Hadass operate within the framework but independently of the general Jewish congregations.
Kahal Machzikei Hadass served also to consolidate the existing Belz social and charitable organisations and in due course was instrumental in the creation and the running of numerous organisations that extend their services to Belz followers as well as to the general public throughout Israel.
In the year 5744 (1984) the cornerstone was laid in Kiryat Belz on the outskirts of Jerusalem for the Belz World Centre. The grandiose groundbreaking event was attended by thousands of Belzer Chassidim and well wishers from around the word. Over two hundred famous Rabbis and Jewish dignitaries graced the stage and delegates from all the Israeli political parties attended along with politicians from far and near. The American president sent an envoy with a personal message and Walter Mondale, the then American presidential hopeful, attended in person.
Fifteen years later the main synagogue was completed and today it is one of the greatest synagogues in the entire world and the ornamental battlements that grace the top of the Grand Synagogue dominate the Jerusalem skyline.
As the emphasis gradually shifted over from the educational institutions to the social and communal institutions, so too, the focus shifted from the Yeshiva in Jerusalem that had been the central focus point for so many years and swung over to the Belz World Centre. The role of the Yeshiva as the melting pot for all Belzer Chassidim was no longer required. Having one central Yeshiva where students gather from all over the world to study under one roof had great advantages; however the Rebbe decided that it was too large and unwieldy for its overall benefit. In line with his restructure and modernisation of the rest of the Belz educational network he preferred having several smaller, and hence, more manageable Yeshivas where each student can receive more personalised attention.
Today the Belz Yeshiva Network in Israel educates about one and a half thousand students in eight Yeshivas located in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Bnei B’rak, Haifa, Beis Chelkia, Ashdod, Rishon Le’zion and Telz Stone on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
As the Belzer communities grew in strength and in numbers so did their social and political influence and Belz is recognised today as one of the world’s greatest and most influential Chassidic empires.