Each generation has its great leaders. But even among these luminaries, Reb Aharon of Belz shined brightly. The most accomplished men of his generation called Reb Aharon the “Kohen Gadol.” The Great Kohen! These weren’t just words of honor — they recognized that just as the Kohen Gadol was the connection between G-d and every Jew when the Temple stood, so was Reb Aharon to the Jewish people of his time. His love for every Jew was boundless.
When he was alive Reb Aharon was scrupulous to repay everyone that had done him kindness. The same is true now that he is no longer with us. Generations after his passing, Reb Aharon looks after all who “attach” themselves to him through acts of kindness, charity, and learning.
The third Rebbe, Rebbe Yissachar Dov, the father of Rebbe Aharon, was the son-in-law of Rebbe Zusha, the Rebbe of Chernobyl. After his marriage, he lived near his father-in-law, studying Torah day and night. His father, Rebbe Yehoshua, instructed him to write down all his Torah commentaries in a notebook. One day when he arrived at his father’s home, the latter asked him, “Yissachar Dov, show me your commentaries.” When he went to get the notebook, he couldn’t find it. As it turned out, his writings had been stolen when he spent one night in an inn. Rebbe Yissachar Dov was very bothered by this, but his father told him, “My son, don’t worry and don’t be sad. In place of your lost Torah commentaries, Hashem will give you a son that will illuminate the world with his Torah and his great wisdom.”
One year later, on the 17th of Teves, 5640 (1880), a son was born to Rebbe Yissachar Dov, after 12 years of marriage. He was named after his mother’s great-grandfather, Rebbe Aharon of Chernobyl, although his father later revealed that he intended to name the child after the Great Rebbe Aharon of Karlin. Said Rebbe Yissachar Dov, “In the same way that the great Rebbe Aharon accepted upon himself all the misfortunes that could have struck Klal Yisroel, my son will also take upon himself all of their misfortunes.”
Aharonu’s mother died in 5644 (1884) when he was just 4 years old. His grandfather, Rebbe Yehoshua Rokeach, took Aharonu under his wing and oversaw his spiritual development. As he grew up, Aharonu spent much of his day ensconced in Torah learning and he ate and slept little.
When Rebbe Aharon was a boy, he would take with him some bread and coffee to the Cheder. One day he called the gabbai and asked him to bring his bread and coffee to a certain Jewish tailor. The gabbai did not understand why little Aharonu requested this of him, and he wondered about it. The boy replied, “Today when I passed the mikveh, I heard this tailor talking to another Jew. He said, “After such a cold mikveh, it would be wonderful to have a piece of bread and a cup of hot coffee.” At that point, I decided to send him my bread and coffee.”
One day Rebbe Yechezkel Shraga, the Rebbe of Shinova, noticed little Aharonu and carefully looked him over. He exclaimed, “Apparently the “yetzer harah” has completely forgotten about this young man.” The young Aharon showed great brilliance in Torah knowledge and extreme diligence, but above all in his sterling character traits and purity of heart. All who saw him knew that he was destined to become a great sage among the Jewish people.
Rebbe Aharon was very modest by nature. The verse “and walk humbly with Hashem your G-d” (Micah 6:8) was one of his guiding principles. The Chassidim recount that Rebbe Aharon studied day and night, and while he knew all of Talmud and Poskim, he concealed the extent of his knowledge.
When he came of age, Rebbe Aharon married his cousin, Malka. After his marriage, Rebbe Aharon lived near his father-in-law for several years. His strict regimen of seclusion, deprivation, and asceticism made him become seriously weakened. His doctors recommended a change of location and they sent him to a spa. While recuperating at the health resort of Kreniec, he still ate little, and his sleep deprivation made it difficult for him to stand or walk quickly. On Shabbos, however, he displayed no weakness. Rebbe Aharon would stand upright, walk quickly, and partake in the meals with obvious pleasure.
Rebbe Aharon had five sons and four daughters. Several of them died at birth or during childhood. The rest were killed by the Nazis Hy”d.
When Rebbe Aharon’s father, Rebbe Yissachar Dov, died in Belz on Friday night, on 22 Cheshvan 5687 (30 October 1926), his 46-year-old son accepted the mantle of leadership at the funeral which was held in Belz after Shabbos.
While Rebbe Aharon continued to live with extreme simplicity and seclusion, he revealed himself to be a warm and caring leader. He read each kvitel with great interest and prayed for the petitioner’s salvation and success. At first, he tried to limit the number of petitioners who sought his counsel and blessings to five per night, saying, “I simply cannot bear the tzoros (tribulations) of Klal Yisroe!” With time, however, he allowed many petitioners to see him nightly.
After a few years, the name of the young Rebbe of Belz became known throughout the world. The more he advanced in age, the greater his Torah knowledge and holiness became. Rebbe Aharon developed into a light that lit up the whole Jewish world as everyone became aware of his holiness, his righteousness, and his greatness.
During Shemini Atzeret 5700 (1939), the Rebbe was forced to take the baton of pilgrimage into his hand and leave the city of Belz. The Rebbe and his brother, Rebbe Mordechai of Bilgoray, who accompanied him, wandered for four years, but Belz Chassidim both inside and outside Nazi-occupied Europe made saving their Rebbe their primary goal and they protected him from any harm. His entire family was killed, yet it was Hashem’s will that the Rebbe be miraculously saved from the Nazi inferno and make his way to Eretz Yisroel.
The Rebbe gave the following account: “It is impossible to describe the miracles, and the miracles within miracles, that the Holy One, blessed be He, has done for us. The man who drove me from the Bochnia Ghetto all the way to Budapest in Hungary visited me while I was in Pest. I once asked him, “How could you dare leave us in the car for more than an hour in the middle of the road in Pschemichl, while you went to the cabaret to visit your soldier friends and have drinks with them? Weren’t you afraid that a Gestapo agent traveling along the roads would catch us and realize that you were hiding Jews?” [Note: This man was a Hungarian military officer who pretended that the Rebbe and his brother were officers who were taking their retirement]. He replied, “I knew with whom I was traveling.” No one saw us along the entire route, for a large cloud covered the car throughout the duration of the trip.”
The Rebbe and his brother arrived in Eretz Yisroel on the 9th of Shevat, which became an occasion for joy and good deeds in the homes of Belz Chassidim. The Chassidim would assemble in his Beit Midrash and seat themselves at the table, while the Rebbe would give them a “Tikkun” and recount the miracles that occurred to him in hiding. He finished by saying, “Thank G-d, I arrived in Eretz Yisroel.” He spent his first Shabbat in Haifa, leaving an atmosphere of spiritual elevation in the city.
The full story of the Rebbe’s miraculous rescue during the war can be read in the book Rescuing the Rebbe of Belz
When he arrived, Rebbe Aharon settled in Tel Aviv where he worked to replant Belz from the ashes of destruction. Eretz Yisroel was zocheh to have the Rebbe for thirteen years, first in Tel Aviv and later in Yerushalayim.
To the utter surprise of the Chassidim who thought that he would live in Yerushalayim, he said that he had secret reasons for doing so, reasons that he couldn’t reveal. When it was suggested that he live in Bnei Brak or Petach Tikvah, he replied, “When there were incidents with Arabs, no Arab could enter Tel Aviv, unlike those other cities. Therefore, I want to live in Tel Aviv, for only Jews live there.” The influence of the Rebbe on Tel Aviv was considerable, leading to noticeable reforms in the spiritual landscape of the city. The Rebbe once told a Belz Chassid living in Tel Aviv who was giving his son a haircut on his third birthday and leaving him payos: “Take your son and walk with him along Allenby Street [the main street in Tel Aviv] so that people see that the city now has another child with payos.”
Rebbe Aharon devoted the rest of his life to rebuilding Belzer Chassidus in Eretz Yisroel. He initially established his court in Tel Aviv, where he opened the first Belzer Talmud Torah. Later he moved to Yerushalayim, where he founded the first Belzer yeshiva.
For Rebbe Aharon, the only way to respond to the near destruction of Belz and Chassidus, and to honor the memory of the dead, was to build new institutions and nurture a new generation of Chaasidim. Today, this task has been continued and largely accomplished by his nephew, the present Rebbe of Belz.
Rebbe Aharon remarried after the war but did not have children. His brother, Rebbe Mordechai also remarried and had a son, Yissachar Dov, on January 19, 1948. When Rebbe Mordechai died suddenly on November 17, 1949, Rebbe Aharon groomed his year-old nephew to inherit the dynasty. After Rebbe Aharon’s own death in 1957, the boy was educated by a small circle of trusted Chasidim. He became the fifth Belzer Rebbe in 1966.
Rebbe Aharon lived for 13 years in Eretz Yisroel, elevating the standards of Belz. On Motzai Shabbos Parshas Eikev, on the 21st of Av, 5717 (1957), his holy and pure soul departed.
The Zohar teaches that tzadikim bring down blessings to all who have a connection with them, even more so after their passing.
How does one have a connection with a Tzadik? By studying his teachings, by emulating what that Tzadik held dear in particular, or helping continue what the Tzadik started.
Although Reb Aharon lost all his children in the war, he considered the students of his yeshiva his own children, and laid the foundations of the rebuilding of the Belz Chassidus. He made a solemn promise to all who supported “his boys” through tzedakah that supports their learning:
A Holy Lineage
Reb Aharon was the oldest son of the third Rebbe of Belz, Reb Yisachar Dov. From his youth, Reb Aharon had the utmost respect and reverence for his father and for all his ancestors. He meticulously followed all their customs, which he regarded as sacred as the Torah itself.
In turn, his father and grandfather saw greatness in the young man’s demeanor, recognizing that a soul such as Reb Aharon’s is a gift from Heaven unique in his generation.
The Town of Belz
The Belz chassidic dynasty began in 1817 when Rebbe Sholom Rokeach was inducted as Rabbi of Belz, a small Ukrainian town near the Polish border. In time, the town would become a beacon of light to the surrounding provinces.
When the Russian army invaded Belz During WWI, the Third Rebbe of Belz, Reb Yissachar Dov, fled to Hungary with many of his chassidim. After the war they returned to Belz to re-establish his court. With the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the Fourth Rebbe of Belz also was forced to flee again and the town of Belz was completely destroyed by the Nazis.
The Great Shul and The Rebbe’s House
The Great Shul of Belz, built by Reb Sholom, the first Rebbe, featured a castellated roof with battlements adorned with gilded bronze balls that could be seen from the surrounding towns. The Great Shul was destroyed during WWII, but was rebuilt in Yerushalayim by the Fifth Belzer Rebbe, as a faithful replica of the original.
The Rebbe’s house also played a very large role in the Belz community. Here the Chassidim would come to see the Rebbe and gather at his tish (table) on Shabbos and Yom Tov.
The Early Years
During his early years, Reb Aharon had very little contact with the outside world. He grew in Torah and Avodas Hashem (serving Hashem) with purity and holiness. Even those few who did have contact with him were unable to grasp the lofty thoughts that flowed from his exceptional mind. Although he was fluent in all aspects of Torah, he rarely flaunted his greatness in learning. On the occasions that he did hint of his understanding, even the greatest Jewish leaders of the day were stunned at the depth of his knowledge.
A Great Leader
Reb Aharon had a different style of leadership than his father, one that helped him connect to his Chassidim him even as he himself lived in a different spiritual realm. Many thousand of followers flocked to him from around Europe to bask in his holiness and receive his blessings.
Under Reb Aharon’s leadership the Belz community grew and the small town became a center for Chassidus and Avodas Hashem.
A Rebbe for All
The Rebbe would travel all over Europe to support his followers. During these trips, Jews from all walks of life would come to to the Rebbe to receive his blessing. Many wondrous stories are told of the miracles people experienced after receiving his brachos. Even the non-Jews around Belz knew of the “Wunder Rabiner” (Rabbi of Wonders) and would frequently come to him for blessings.
Blessing the Gathered
Whenever Reb Aharon travelled, word would get out in the cities through which his train would pass. Men, women and children would flock to the train station to get a glimpse of the holy Tzadik.
The Rebbe would bless all those gathered by lifting his hands and praying for them. To many, it recalled the words in the Torah describing Aharon the Kohen: “And Aharon lifted his hands to the nation and he blessed them.”
The War Years
During the war the Nazis, ym”s (their name should be cursed), made it a priority to eliminate the generation’s greatest Rabbis in order to crush the spirit of the Jews of Europe.
The Nazis issued this image of a Star of David with pictures of their “most wanted” — the great Chassidic leaders they were searching for. Reb Aharon is in the center. Tragically, most of the other Rabbis in these images were killed during the war.
On the Run
Throughout the war years the Rebbe was on the run, hiding in one ghetto or another. Remarkably, during the darkest times after he had lost his entire family and the town of Belz was destroyed, Reb Aharon meticulously kept to all his customs, maintaining his lofty Avodas Hashem every minute of every day. During these hard times he beseeched Hashem for the salvation of the Jewish nation. Many who received his personal blessing miraculously lived to survive the War.
Rebbe Mordechai of Bilgoray
Reb Aharon’s younger brother, Reb Mordechai, was Rav in the town of Bilgoray where he ran a yeshiva.
When war broke out, Reb Aharon insisted that Reb Mordechai come and join him in his escape, and through the entire ordeal he kept his brother by his side. When they arrived in Eretz Yisrael after the war, Reb Mordechai continued to serve as his brother’s right hand, supporting his efforts to rebuild Torah, Judaism and the Belz Chassidus. Reb Mordechai remarried and had one son, Yisachar Dov, the current Rebbe of Belz. Sadly, Reb Mordechai passed away from illness in 1949 at a young age.
Reigniting Jewish Souls
In Israel, Reb Aharon became a father figure and leader to so many traumatized Jews whose lives had been shattered during the War. He gave strength and inspiration everyone who called on him, from all walks of life, caring for their physical and spiritual needs alike.
Reb Aharon saw a holy Soul in every Jew and would only hear and see the good in a Jew. If someone ever spoke a negative word about another Jew, he refused to listen. He would make them retract their words and find positive things to say.
Rebuilding the Court of Belz
Shortly after arriving in Eretz Yisrael, Reb Aharon began the task of rebuilding the Belz Dynasty. The Rebbe lived most of the year in Tel Aviv, but also established a small shul in Yerushlayim where he would often go on Shabbos and Yom Tov. The practices that his chassidim had followed in the old country were revived, and Jews from all over Israel, many of them war survivors, were drawn to the Rebbe, comforted to see the Tzadik bring back the old traditions.
Preparing the next Generation
Reb Aharon knew that in the next generation of children and young man lay the hopes of Jewish continuity. And so he put all his strength into their education, inspiring them to do Torah and mitzvos, to carry on the traditions of the generation that had been destroyed.
Those who caught a glimpse of the Tzadik during these years had his vision etched into their hearts, giving them the strength to carve out new lives in the Holy Land.
Laying the Foundations
Always, the Rebbe’s focus was on the future of the Jewish nation, and that depended on the health of its Torah institutions and yeshivos. With help from his dedicated chassidim, the Rebbe chose a plot of land in Yerushlayim where the Belz Yeshiva and Shul would be built. The Rebbe was involved in every aspect of development, ensuring that the students would be free to learn Torah without disturbance.
Today, hundreds of students study Torah in this very building, in addition to dozens of other Belz Institutions all over Israel and around the world.
Living In A Higher World
In his later years, Reb Aharon lived a life of such holiness that time and place were of little essence. Those close to Rebbe could actually feel that at many times the Rebbe was not in this world at all. The Rebbe’s avodah was 24/7. His eating and sleeping was so minimal that doctors who attended the Rebbe could not fathom how a person could live with so little contact to the physical world.
The Great Loss
In the final months of Reb Aharon’s life it was clear that he was preparing for his departure from this world. Before his final trip to Yerushlayim from his home in Tel Aviv, he asked to be dressed in his Shabbos clothing before saying farewell to the children of Tel Aviv. He wanted them to remember him in his Shabbos finery.
After the Shabbos of Parshas Eikev, the Rebbe’s holy Soul departed from his body, leaving behind a behind a nation that had just been orphaned from their great spiritual leader.
Mourning a Leader
The news of Reb Aharon’s passing swept quickly throughout the Jewish world. Tens of thousands of mourners came to participate in his somber levaya (funeral). With heart rending cries and copious tears they escorted the holy tzadik to his final resting place on Har HaMenuchos.
The generation that had just begun to see a light shining through the dark clouds of war now had their beacon taken from them. As the Torah says, “And the whole Jewish nation mourned Aharon’s passing”
The Young Orphan
Reb Aharon did not leave children of his own to assume leadership of Belz, so all eyes were drawn towards his young nephew: young Yisachar Dov. The son of the Rebbe’s brother Reb Mordechai was only 9 at the time. His own father had passed away when he was an infant and he had been raised by his illustrious uncle. The chassidim now took him under their watch; after his wedding he was crowned to be the Fifth Rebbe of Belz. Under the leadership of the new Rebbe, Belz continued to blossom and grew into the majestic empire that it is today.
The Holy Tziyon
The resting place of Reb Aharon, on Har HaMenuchos on the outskirts of Yerushalayim, has become a holy site for the Jewish people. At any time of the day or night, Jews from all backgrounds, from all over the world, come here to pour out their hearts and evoke the merit of the holy tzadik for miracles and healing.
By davening at his tziyon (resting place), Jews can literally speak to the Rebbe, just as if he were still alive, and receive his blessings.
The Yartzeit – 21 Av
Every year on 21 Av, the day that marks his passing, special prayers are said in gatherings around the world to remember this holy Tzadik. People in Israel go up to the Rebbe’s tziyon (resting place) on Har HaMenuchos, where, lead by the current Belzer Rebbe, they say tehilim and ask for his blessings.
May Reb Aharon’s merit protect over all Jews around world and may we be blessed with all we need.
In Reb Aharon’s youth, lunches were not provided in cheder (school), and mothers would lovingly pack food for their children before sending them off to learn. One day, young Aharale’s mother prepared for him a lunch of broiled chicken liver and bread. But when the Rebbitzen was about to cook the rest of the chicken, she saw there was a question on its kashrus, making it — and the liver — unfit to eat. She ran to her husband in a panic and said “The liver is not kosher! What if, Chas V’Shalom, our child should eat it! What should we do?” Aharale’s father, Reb Yisachar Dov, calmed her and said quietly, “Don’t worry, the child will not eat the liver!”
Sure enough, that evening when Aharon came home from cheder, his mother found the untouched liver in his pocket, wrapped up just as she had given it to him! The Gemara says, that Hashem protects Tzaddikim from eating unfit food. This obviously applied to the special child who, at such a tender age, was already a true Tzaddik.
His mother later asked him “Aharale, why didn’t you eat the liver? Weren’t you hungry?” He answered her “Mammeh, you know that I usually don’t care much about food. But today, I had such a strong desire to eat this liver, such an urge, that I thought to myself, “I must learn to control myself. I can do without it.”
A famous Chazan (cantor) once came to the town of Belz for Shabbos. Reb Yehoshua, the second Belzer Rebbe, Reb Aharon’s grandfather, so enjoyed his davening and singing that he asked him to sing one of his nigunim (melodies) to his grandson. After Havdalah (the end of Shabbos), he sent the Chazan to the room where his little grandson sat holding a sefer (book of learning) in his hands.
The Chazan started to sing, but the child did not lift his head from his sefer. He seemed indifferent to the song. The Chazan sang the song again and then once more, and still there was no reaction from little Aharon. After a while, Reb Yehoshua came in to see why the Chazan kept singing the nigun over and over.
“I think that your einickel (grandson) isn’t even listening,” he told theReb Yehoshua. “He is immersed in his sefer.” The Rav smiled and said to him gently “You must understand that a soul like his, you cannot find one in a thousand, or even one in ten thousand! Believe me, he heard you on a much higher plane than you can imagine! He heard you!”
Later, when asked to by his grandfather, young Aharon sang the tune perfectly!
During the war, Reb Shimon Kempler was lucky to have a job that took him outside of the ghetto. While outside he would sneak over to a farm where a cow was milked every day. Having assured that the milk was kosher, Reb Shimon would fill a bottle, tie it to his waist, and with great risk, smuggle it back into the ghetto for the ailing Rav Aharon to drink. The Rav never questioned how he got the milk, or who supervised the milking.
One day, he was caught by the Gestapo, and was led by them into the woods, presumably to his death. He miraculously managed to escape them. But the episode made him late, and he arrived at the farm just after the cow had been milked. The farmer told him that he could take some of the fresh milk as usual. He filled the bottle, tied it under his shirt and smuggled it into the ghetto.
But now he was in a dilemma. Should he tell the Rav that he did not actually observe the cow being milked? The Rav would certainly not drink it, since it was not supervised by a Jew during the milking. On the other hand, the Rav was weak and he desperately needed the milk for his health. Maybe it would be best to kept quiet. After all, the farmer was trustworthy and surely there was nothing un-kosher in the milk.
When he put the milk on the table, the Rav asked him — for the very first time — whether he had been present by the milking. He stammered and stuttered and before he could reply, the Rav told him gently “There are many children and mothers in the ghetto who need milk and are being deprived. I shall also forgo the milk.”
An employee of the Rabbinat in the city of Tel Aviv was charged with insuring that the local stores closed in time for Shabbos. Since this important job lasted until sundown, he davened in the Belz shul where the davening was a little later than everywhere else. After davening, everyone filed passed the Rav to greet him Gut Shabbos! When this Yid passed, the Rav would raise his eyebrows as if asking a question. The man would respond, “Alles iz tzugeshpart,” (“Everything is closed”) and the Rav would smile.
One Shabbos, another Jew substituted for him. When the man passed the Rav to say Gut Shabbos, the Rav asked him who he was. He answered that he was a substitute from the Rabbinat, making sure that all stores were closed on time. The Rav asked him, “Nu, how does it look?”
“Well,” he answered, “The stores are closed except for….” Suddenly he realized that the Rav had stopped listening. As soon as he said, “the stores were closed,” that was enough. The Rav would not listen to a single negative word spoken about another Yid.
During some of the toughest times in Russia when emigration was all but impossible, one daring man tried to get out of the country with his son. The father escaped but the son was caught. The father ultimately managed to make his way to Eretz Yisroel. He went to the Belzer Rebbe for a bracha for his son who had been sentenced to ten years in jail. When the Rav heard about the severe sentence, “Ten years? Would three months not have been sufficient?”
That very day in a Russian prison, the chief guard burst into the cell of this young man and yelled, “What are you doing here? You think that we are not aware that you are stirring up unrest among the prisoners! Get out of here!” He threw him out of the jail with his meager possessions flying behind him!
Eventually, this young man made his way to Eretz Yisroel and joined his father. They figured out that the day the police threw him out of jail was the exact day on which the Rav asked his father, “Would three months not have been sufficient?” He had been in prison three months to the day!
While Rav Aharon lived in Tel Aviv, his eyes started becoming weaker. A doctor came to examine the Rav’s eyes and exclaimed, “I have never come across such eyes before. I cannot fathom their depth!”
He went on to say that without the appropriate equipment, there was no way he could conduct a thorough examination as he could in his office. However, if the Rav could position his face upward and focus on a moving object such as a flying bird, it will give me a better idea of what the problem may be.
“I have never seen a flying bird before,” answered the Rav. “As a child, I never had the time to look out of the window. I would learn, then I had to chazer (review what I had learned), then there was more to learn. I never had time then to look at a bird.”