Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Printing Mistake and the Mysterious Origins of Rashbi’s Yahrzeit*

A Printing Mistake and the Mysterious Origins of Rashbi’s Yahrzeit*
by Eliezer Brodt
In this post I would like to deal with tracing the early sources for the great celebrations that take place worldwide on Lag Ba-Omer, specifically at the Kever of Rashbi (R. Shimon b. Yochai) in Meron.[1] A few years back on the Seforim Blog I dealt with some of these issues (link). More recently in Ami Magazine (# 22) I returned to some of the topics. This post contains new information and corrections that I have found which were not included in those earlier articles.
The period of Sefirat ha-Omer is traditionally considered a time of great mourning. The most well-known reason given for the mourning – offered by the Geonim and Rishonim – is due to the death of twenty-four thousand students of R. Akiva who, according to the Gemara in Yevamot 62b, died during this time of the year for not having accorded respect to each other. Because this is deemed a mourning period, we refrain from shaving, taking haircuts, dancing, listening to music, and making weddings.[2] Sefer Ha- Tadir[3] writes:
ומנהג בין פסח לעצרת לומר מסכת אבות בכל שבת ושבת קודם המנחה משום מעשה תלמידי ר"ע... י"ב אלפים זוגות תלמידים היו לו לר"ע... שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה... (ספר התדיר, עמ' רכב).
However, the prohibitions associated with sefirah are suspended on Lag Ba-Omer, and many early sources offer reasons for additional levels of simcha on Lag Ba-Omer, which includes omitting tachnun on that day. Additionally, there is a custom to celebrate Lag Ba-Omer at the kever of Rashbi in Meron, amidst great celebration, complete with music, dancing, and bonfires. The remainder of this post at the Seforim Blog will offer some reasons for this practice.
R. Yehoshuah Ibn Shu’eib, a student of the Rashba and a great Mekubal, was unsure of the reason for the custom in his day of taking a break from mourning on Lag Ba-Omer, until he heard some say that it is because the students of R. Akiva stopped dying on that day.[4] He writes:
ולכן נהגו לגדל שפם עד עצרת, ואין כונסין נשים בזה הפרק, ואף על פי שיש טעם אחר במדרש על אותן שנים עשר אלף זוגות תלמידי דר' עקיבא שמתו מן הפסח עד העצרת. ומה שנהגו רוב העם להגדיל שפם עד ל"ג לעומר לא מצינו בו ענין, ובתוספות פי' כי מה שאמר ל"ג אינו כמו שנוהגין, אלא ל"ג יום כשתסיר שבעת ימי הפסח ושבעה שבתות ושני ימי ראש חדש שהן ששה עשר יום שאין אבלות נוהג בהם, נשארו מן הארבעים ותשעה ימים ל"ג, וזהו מאמרם ל"ג יום לעומר. שמעתי שיש במדרש עד פרס העצרת והוא חמשה עשר יום העצרת באמרם פרס הפסח פרס החג שהם חמשה עשר יום בניסן ובתשרי, וכשתסיר חמשה עשר יום מארבעים ותשעה יום נשארו שלשים וארבעה, והנה הם שלשים ושלשה שלימים ומגלחין ביום שלשים וארבעה בבקר כי מקצת היום ככולו. (דרשה לפסח יום ראשון)
Some other Rishonim, including the Manhig and Meiri, also give this reason, while others say that the students only stopped dying on the thirty-fourth day of the Omer, the day after Lag Ba-Omer. Thus, according to them, there would be no reason for festive celebrations on Lag Ba-Omer.[5] See, for example, the Tashbetz who writes:
וכן אירע לר' עקיבא שהעמיד ארבעה ועשרים אלף תלמידים וכולם מתו מן הפסח ועד פרס העצרת אחר עבור ל"ג לעומר, כי פרס הוא חצי חדש שהם חמשה עשר ימים, כמו שנזכר בפרק מעשר בהמה בבכורות [נח א]. וכן בתוספתא [שקלים פ"ב מ"א] אמרו, איזהו פרס, אין פחות מט"ו. וט"ו ימים קודם עצרת, הוא יום ל"ד לעומר. ולזה נהגו להתאבל באותם ימים שהם מהפסח עד ל"ג לעומר ולא נהגו איסור ביום ל"ד לפי שמקצת היום ככולו. וכולם מתו מפני שהיתה עינם צרה זה לזה (מגן אבות, אבות, א:א).
If one looks in the Tur, the Shulhan Arukh as well as the various early commentaries, one will not find any other reason as to why there should be simcha on Lag Ba-Omer, other than that the students of R. Akiva stopped dying on Lag Ba-Omer. Be that as it may, this particular reason offers no insight into the connection between Meron, and more specifically Rashbi, and Lag Ba-Omer.
The most well known explanation to the connection between Rashbi and Lag Ba-Omer is that Rashbi died on that day, and he was one of the students of R. Akiva. Assuming for a moment that this is factually correct, it is quite strange that we celebrate Rashbi’s death. We don’t celebrate the yarzheit of Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabbeinu, David HaMelech, or any other great people with bonfires. Rather, halakha states the opposite - to fast on a yahrzeit, especially on those days that great people died. This problem is addressed by the Sho’el u-Meshiv (5:39) and because of this question and others, he was very skeptical of the celebration that takes place at Meron. R. Aryeh Balhuver, in his Shem Aryeh (no. 13), points out that because of the celebration that takes place at Meron for Rashbi, people began to be lenient about fasting on the yarzheit of their parents.
Another problem is that neither Chazal nor any of the Rishonim mention Rashbi dying on Lag Ba-Omer; and as a general rule we do not make any form of a Yom Tov on a day that is not mentioned in Chazal. This issue was addressed by the Chatam Sofer in his teshuvot (Y.D. 233) and because of this, he too was very skeptical of the way Lag Ba-Omer is celebrated.
So what is the source that Rashbi died on Lag Ba-Omer? R. Yehosef Schwartz writes in his Tevuot Ha-Aretz (p.224) that he searched all over for the reason for the great simcha at Meron on Lag Ba-Omer, and concluded that it must be because Rashbi died on Lag Ba-Omer. R. Jonathan Eybeschutz, the Ba’al ha-Tanyah, Reb Zadok ha-Kohen, and the Arukha ha-Shulhan also say that Rashbi died on Lag Ba-Omer.
The Shem Aryeh (no. 14) writes that when we celebrate the yahrzeit of Rashbi, we are celebrating that he died a natural death, at the proper time and place, and not at the hands of the Romans, who did not bury the people they killed. The Gemara in Shabbat 33b–34a relates that the Romans wanted to kill Rashbi, and he ran away and hid in a cave for many years until the Romans stopped hunting him.
What appears to be an earlier source for some who say that Rashbi died on Lag Ba-Omer is R. Hayyim Vital, quoting in the name of the Arizal, found in the Peri Etz Chaim. Indeed, R. Hayyim Vital states that Rashbi died on Lag Ba-Omer, and he was one of the students of R. Akiva who died during Sefirah. In truth, it is a mistake to give R. Vital credit for this. The source of this mistake was based on a simple printing mistake in two edition of the Peri Etz Chaim. One was printed in Koretz 1785 (p. 108a).

The other was printed in Dubrowno 1802 (p. 124b).

In the first printed edition of the Peri Etz Chaim, which was printed in 1782 (p. 101a), it does not say that at all. Instead of saying “she-meit” (that he died) it has a very similar, but entirely different word, samach (was joyous). The letter chet was apparently confused for a tav in the later version, causing the whole mistake![6] (Interestingly, the Aderes in his work Zecher Davar has a whole collection of cases where a problem arose due only to a קוצו שלו יוד.)

In the Shaar ha-Kavanot from R. Vital first printed in 1752, where the same piece appears, it also reads samach (p. 127) like the first edition of Peri Etz Chaim. In a later edition of of Peri Etz Chaim printed in 1819 it also reads samach. These would seem to confirm that the error is indeed she-met rather than samach.
The late Meir Benayahu z"l and, more recently, R. Yaakov Hillel, confirmed, based on many early manuscripts that this reading that does not have Rashbi dying on Lag be-Omer, is the correct reading from the writings of R. Chaim Vital. Recently, R. Yaakov Hillel printed the Sefer Shaar Ha-Tefilah from a manuscript of R. Hayyim Vital’s actual handwriting, and in that location (p. 312), as well, the passage states that it was the day of Simchat Rashbi, not the day he died.[7]
Interestingly, the Chida in his work Birkhei Yosef, printed in 1774, writes that Rashbi died on Lag Ba-Omer. But in a later work of his, Ma’aret Ayin, printed in 1805, he writes that the Prei Etz Chaim is full of mistakes and this statement regarding Lag Ba-Omer and Rashbi’s death day is one of them. So the Chida’s conclusion is that it is not a reference to Rashbi’s day of death at all. This conclusion is accepted by later authorities, including Takfo Shel Nes (p. 59a), Shu”t Rav u-Po’alim (1:11), and Tziyun LeNefesh Chayah (no. 65).[8]
The Lubavitcher Rebbe[9] wrote in a letter to R. Zevin that there is a printing mistake in the Peri Etz Chaim.

הרה"ג הוו"ח אי"א נו"מ וכו' מהורשי"ז שי'
שלום וברכה!
במקרה ראיתי, בספרית כ"ק מו"ח אדמו"ר שליט"א, את ספרו "המועדים בהלכה" מהד"ת, ומצאתי שם בפרק ל"ג בעומר העתקת לשון הפרע"ח (דפוס דובראוונע ודפוס לאשצוב) שער ספה"ע פ"ז בהערה, וז"ל: והטעם שמת רשב"י ביום ל"ג בעומר כי הוא מתלמידי רע"ק שמתו בספה"ע.
והנה ידוע, אשר קטע זה מוקשה הוא הן בנגלה, כי רשב"י הוא מהחמשה תלמידים שסמך רע"ק אח"כ, הן מצד הנסתר ע"פ המבואר, בפע"ח שם ובסידור האריז"ל, מדריגת הכ"ד אלף תלמידים שמתו ומדריגת ה' תלמידים הנ"ל. וכבר עמד ע"ז בשו"ת דברי נחמי' חאו"ח סל"ד סק"ז. וסיים: ואולי יש ט"ס בפע"ח שם במ"ש כי הוא כו' כנ"ל וצ"ע בדפוס קארעץ ששמעתי ששם נשמט זה.
ואמת כן הוא, אשר בפע"ח דפוס קארעץ לא נמצא קטע הנ"ל. וכן בסידורי האריז"ל ובשני פע"ח כת"י, שישנם באוסף הכת"י אשר לכ"ק מו"ח אדמו"ר שליט"א, חסר כל ענין זה. כן לא מצאתי לביאור הנ"ל בכל דרושי דא"ח שראיתי לע"ע.
וז"ל ספר הכוונות (ענין ספה"ע דרוש יב) בטעמי מנהגי ל"ג בעומר: כי הרשב"י ע"ה הוא מחמשה תלמידיו הגדולים של רע"ק ולכן זמן שמחתו ביום ל"ג בעומר. ועד"ז הוא במשנת חסידים.

ובעהמ"ס ד"נ כנראה לא ראה את סה"כ, מדאינו מביאו - ומכמה טעמים מהנכון, לפענ"ד, לתקן את הנ"ל בספרו, או עכ"פ להעיר על הספקות שבדבר, בהזדמנות הראשונה. ..
The question then is, what is the earliest printed source that Rashbi died on Lag Ba-Omer. Avraham Yaari and Meir Benayahu demonstrate that the earliest source to mention Lag Ba-Omer as the yarzheit of Rashbi is none other than the Chemdat Yamim. R. Yaakov Hillel also confirms this in his Aid ha-Gal ha-Zeh (p. 13).
The Chemdat Yamim was first printed in the 1730s and has been the source of controversy and debate until today. Some go out of their way to attack it, claiming it has strong ties to Shabbetai Tzvi. Others strongly defend it, saying it is a very special work. Whatever the case is, Chemdat Yamim has been established by many as the source of many different customs that we observe today. It is not necessarily the earliest source, but in the first few years after it first appeared, Chemdat Yamim was printed many times, becoming a bestseller as it were. Because of this, many customs contained therein became widespread. One notable example is the celebration of Tu Be-shevat. After the Chemdat Yamim was printed, many works about the customs of Tu Be-shevat were printed based on it. What is very interesting is that Chasidim, who are principally against the Chemdat Yamim, are very into this concept that Lag Ba-Omer is the yarzheit of Rashbi.[10]

If one looks at all early mentions of Lag Ba-Omer and the Arizal one will not see any mention of it being the yarzheit of Rashbi. Here are some examples:

The Magen Avraham, first printed in 1692, writes when talking about days when we do not say Tachanun writes:

מעשה באחד שנהג כל ימיו לומר נחם בבונה ירושלים ואמרו בל"ג בעומר ונענש על זה מפני שהוא י"ט [כונת האר"י] (מגן אברהם סי' קלא ס"ק יז)

When talking about Lag Ba-Ome , the Magen Avraham writes:

ומרבים בו קצת שמחה - וכתו' בכוונות שגדול אחד היה רגיל לומר נחם בכל יום ואמרו גם בל"ג ונענש (מגן אברהם סי' תצג ג)

We see that he makes no mention of it being the yarzheit of Rashbi when he referencing to the Arizal and Lag Ba-Omer. It is generally accepted that the Magen Avraham is responsible for bringing the writings of the Arizal into the world of halakhic discourse. The question, however, is regarding the Magen Avraham’s source for this specific Arizal. In general R. Yosef Avivi shows that the Magen Avraham when quoting from the Arizal was using the work Shulhan Arukh Shel Arizal.[11] There are many works similar to this work, one was called Nagid U-metzaveh; another was called Lechem Min Hashamayim. In both of these works, the whole story with the Arizal and Nachem appears with the version that this was the day of Simchat Rashbi, and not the day he died.

Now in this work, the story as quoted above appears and no mention of it being the yahrzeit of Rashbi, but rather that it was the day of Simchat Rashbi. However we cannot say, for certain, that his source was the Shulhan Arukh Shel Arizal because he specifically quotes the Sefer Hakavanot as his source. Now the problem with this is, which Sefer Hakavanot was the Magen Avraham referring to? The only edition printed before the Magen Avraham was from R. Moshe Terniki printed in Venice in 1620. In that edition of Sefer Hakavanot, there is nothing about Lag Ba-Omer. In a personal communication, R. Yosef Avivi suggested to me that it was the Sefer Hakavanot that was written in Cracow in 1650 and the Magen Avraham had it in manuscript. This edition of Sefer Hakavanot was later printed under the name Peri Etz Chaim in 1785.[12]

Another example of an early source who quotes the Arizal about Lag Ba-Omer but makes no mention of it being his yahrzeit can be found in the Ateret Zekenim from R. Menachem Auerbach, first printed on the side of the Shulhan Arukh in 1702 (it was written much earlier). He also cites the story of the Arizal:

מנהג ארץ ישראל שנוהגין לילך על קברי רשב"י ז"ל ור"א בנו ביום ל"ג בעומר והעיד ר"א הלוי שהוא היה נוהג תמיד לומר נחם בברכת תשכון וכשסיים התפלה א"ל ר"י לוריא ז"ל משם רשב"י הקבור שם שאמר לו אמור לאיש הזה למה הוא אומר נחם ביום שמחתי ולכן הוא יהיה נחם בקרוב וכן היה שמת לו בנו הגדול (סי' תצג).

Here too we see a version of the story that has nothing about it being the yahrzeit of Rashbi.

Another example of an early source that quotes the Arizal about Lag Ba-Omer, but makes no mention of it being his yahrzeit can be found in the Sefer Shirei ha-Levim. This work was first printed in 1677; it includes anything having to do with the topic of Shir Shel Yom including the Arizal's custom that he found in different sources.[13] When talking about Lag Ba-Omer he writes:

ל"ג בעמור שייך מזמור לז על שם שנאמר בו צופה רשע לצדיק וגו' וזה שייך על רשב"י וחבריו שנשארו מתלמידי ר"ע כמבואר בגמרא ולא שלט בהם המלאך המות ביום ההוא וכן מיום ההוא והלאה כי קצת דיעות. וכתב בספר כוונת האר"י הנדפס שהלך האריז"ל עם אשתו ובניו לגלח על קבר רשב"י ועשה משתה ושמחה ג' ימים לג לד לה ולמדו ספר הזוהר על קברו לכבודו של רשב"י וחביריו שנשתיירו והעמידו תורה באותו שעה, וע"ש מעשה נפלא על אחד שנענש על שאמר נחם בתפילת יח בעת שמחתו אבל ספר כוונת של הקדוש ר' חיים וויטל...

I am not sure which printed edition of Sefer Hakavanot he was referring to that contains this passage. However we see here also no mention of it being yahrzeit of Rashbi.

The Mishnat Chassidim, first printed in 1727, collected lots of material from the Arizal. When talking about Lag Ba-Omer, also makes no mention of it being the yarzheit of Rashbi.[14] He just writes:
ועל ידי ר' שמעון בן יוחאי שהיה אף הוא תלמידו נתקיים העולם לפיכך אין להתאבל ביום זה כלל על החרבן שלא יענש אל מצוה לשמח שמחת ר' שמעון בן יוחאי ואם דר בארץ ישראל ילך לשמוח על קברו.
Next is the historical work Divrei Yosef from R. Yosef Sambary, completed in 1672 but only printed a few years ago, (although parts were printed by Adolf Neubauer in 1887). When he records the story with the Arizal about someone saying Nachem at the kever of Rashbi, he does not even mention it was on Lag Ba-Omer; he, too, records the story stressing that it was a day of Simcha not the yahrzeit of Rashbi (p. 188).
It is also worth pointing out that the Shelah ha-Kadosh, an earlier work that was influenced by the Arizal, when talking about Lag Ba-Omer, also makes no mention of it being the yahrzeit of Rashbi.
The Divrei Nechemiah, written by the grandson of the Ba’al ha-Tanyah, writes (no. 34) that there is a printing mistake in the Peri Etz Chaim when he says that it was the yahrzeit of Rashbi. However he concludes:
אך המפורסמות אין צריך ראיה שכבר נתפרסם בכל העולם מכמה דורות ע' הלולא דרשב"י בל"ג בעומר ומסתמא יש מקור לזה בזוהר או בכתבי האר"י ז"ל.
In short it is quite amazing that the whole source for Lag ba-Omer being the day of Rashbi’s death is based on a printing mistake found in only one version of the story with the Arizal, while all other versions I have found of the story does not say anything about it being the yahrzeit of Rashbi!
Returning to the origins of going to Meron on Lag Ba-Omer, Avraham Yaari, has a very detailed article where he collects many early sources[15] for going to Meron in general[16] from famous travelers such as R. Binyomin Me-Tudela in the 1170s, R. Pesachyah Me-Regensburg, but these early sources make no mention of going to Rashbi’s Kever, only to the kevarim of Hillel and Shammai[17] who are also buried in Meron.[18] The first source that Avraham Yaari found that mentions going to Rashbi’s kever is from the twelfth-century in the travels of R. Yaakov HaKohen. After that, he found it in other sources.[19] None of these sources mention to these kevarim at a specific time. In the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, a student of the Ramban mentions going to the kevarim of Hillel and Shammai in Meron on a specific date in the month of Iyar, on Pesach Shnei. We have other early sources that mention going to those kevarim on Pesach Sheini. In the famous letter of R. Ovadiah me-Bertinoro (1488) and the travels of R. Moshe Basola (1521-1523), we also find mention of going to Meron to visit the kevarim of Hillel and Shammai on Pesach Sheini. From many of these sources, we see that the reason they went was to daven for water, and that at times, water would miraculously appear from the caves. However, it is important to stress that while we have many accounts of going to Meron even during the month of Iyar none mention going to the kever of Rashbi during that time of year.
Avraham Yaari and Meir Benayahu cite many sources that clearly demonstrate that the Mekubelei Tzefat would go to Meron to the kever of Rashbi a few times during the year to learn Zohar. However, the first source we have for someone going to Rashbi’s kever specifically on Lag Ba-Omer, is the Talmdim of the Arizal, who say that the Arizal once went to the kever of Rashbi on Lag Ba-Omer while still living in Egypt. When recording this testimony, R. Hayyim Vital writers that he is not sure if this occurred before the Arizal was well versed in Kabbalah. But he stresses that he was doing something done by others before him. We do not know to whom R. Hayyim Vital referred. Meir Benayahu concluded that the custom of going to Meron on Lag Ba-Omer was begun by the Mekubelei Tzefat.
Although Yaari concedes that Mekubelei Tzefat were very into going to the kever of Rashbi, that is not how the minhag to go specifically on Lag Ba-Omer developed. Yaari shows that the custom of going to Meron was taken from an earlier custom of going to Shmuel Hanavi’s Kever on his yahrzeit, which was on the twenty-eighth day of Iyar.[20] The Tur brings down from the Behag that one should fast on this day. We have many early sources of prayers that were recited on this day at Shmuel Hanavi’s Kever.[21] In the travels of Meshulem Me-Volterrah from 1481, the travels of R. Ovadiah me-Bertinoro (1488) and the travels of R. Moshe Basola (1521-1523) we also find mention of going to Shmuel Hanavi’s Kever on his yarzheit. In these sources, we also see that they used to light many big flames. Avraham Yaari believes this to be the source of the minhag to go to Kever of Rashbi.

In sum, the above indicates that there are early sources for people going to Meron during the month of Iyar, on Pesach Sheni, to the kevarim of Hillel and Shammai. The Mekubelei Tzefat went to Rashbi’s kever throughout the year and Meir Benayahu feels that the minhag of going Lag Ba-Omer originated from them too. While Yaari feels that the custom of going to Meron on Lag Ba-Omer was taken from an earlier custom to go to Shmuel Hanavi’s Kever on his yahrzeit, it is also clear that the Arizal did, in fact, go to the kever of Rashbi on Lag Ba-Omer at least once.

However it appears to this writer that it is more likely that the custom of going to Meron to the Kever of R. Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag Ba-Omer grew out of the earlier minhag of going to Meron in the month of Iyar, to the kevarim of Hillel and Shammai on Pesach Sheini which is only a few days before Lag Ba-Omer, and not from the Minhag of going to Shmuel Hanavi’s Kever on his yahrzeit, which was on the twenty eighth day of Iyar, which is not even in Meron. Possibly support to this can be found in the travels of R. Moshe of Basola who writes that after going to kevarim of Hillel and Shammai on Pesach Sheini, the crowd would go to the cave where Rashbi and his son hid for thirteen years and they would spend a few days and nights celebrating in Meron.[22]

In the work Arugat Ha-Bosem, written in 1234, I found a very interesting version to the earlier quoted, famous Gemara of why the sefirah period is considered a time of mourning. He writes:

מה טעם מנהג בישראל אין עושין מלאכה בין פסח לעצרת, משתקשע החמה עד למחרת שחרית, ואמרו לנו שני טעמים אחד על פטירת תלמיד הילל ושמאי, דאמ' שמוני' אלף תלמיד' היו להילל הזקן ושמאי מגבת ועד אנטיפרס, וכולן מתו מפסח עד עצרת על שאלה ונוהגים כבוד זה לזה... [ערוגת הבשם, א, עמ' 75].

This version would be possible additionally support, that originally in Iyar Jews went to the kevarim of Hillel and Shammai on Pesach Sheini. However I was unable to find any other manuscript that records such a reading of this Gemara.[23]

R. Shemaryhu Adler has a very interesting insight into the deaths of the talmdim of R. Akiva during sefira and when they start dyeing. In this piece he also says as a fact that Rashbi died on Lag B’Omer.

נראה טעם הגון ונכון לעצומו של יום לג בעומר דהוא בכלל יום טוב. ובהקדם להבין עוד מה דלכאורה תמוה דלמה לכולהו הני שיטות ליכא התחלה לאבילות כי אם מזמן התחלת ספירת העומר והיינו מיום ב' דפסח דאיזה שייכות יש לאבילות ךדלמידי ר"ע לזמן התחלת ספירת העומר כיון דיבמות ס"ב ע"ב אמר כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת וסתמא תנא מפסח מנ"ל דזהו מיום ב' דפסח ולא מיום א'.
נראה ע"פ דאמר במנחות סח ע"ב יתיב ר"ט וקא קשיא ליה מה בין קודם לעומר לקודם שתי הלחם אמר לפניו יהודה בר נחמיה לא אם אמרת קודם לעומר כשן לא הותר מכללו אצל הדיוט כו' שתק ר"ט צהבו פניו של רבי יהודה בר נחמיה אמר לו ר"ע יהודה הבצו פניך שהשבת את זקן תמהני אם תאריך ימים אר"י ב"ר אלעי אותו הפרק פרס הפסח היה עשעליתי לעצרת שאלתי אחריו יהודה בן נחמיה היכן הוא ואמרו לי נפטר והלך לו עכ"ל הגמרא יעו"ש
ומזה נראה דהי' קודם פסח ט"ו יום ונשאו ונתנו בענינא דעומר וע"י דצהבו פניו של יהודה בן נחמיה במה דהשיב את ר"ט ועי"ז קפד ר"ע מסברא לומר דבעת שהגיע זמן הקרבת העומר דהוא זמן התחלת ספירת העומר ביום ב' של פסח מצאה הקפידה מקום דתיחול כיון דעיקר דהשיב לר"ט היה בענינא דעומר וכיון דקפידת ר"ע היה על מה דתלמידו יהודה בן נחמיה התכבד בתשובתו לר"ט ולא נהג בו כבוד כראוי ומצאה הקפידה מקום לנוח בזמן הקרבת העומר דזהו היתה סיבה להא דהשיב הזקן ר"ט שפיר התפשטה קפידת ר"ע ג"כ על כל תלמידיו שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה והלכך שפיר התחילה פטירתן מאותו זמן דעיקר הקפידה חלה והיינו מיום ב' דפסח שהוא זמן הקרבת העומר והלכך שפיר שייכא אבילות דתלמידי ר"ע לזמן התחלת ספירת העומר וכנ"ל
ועיין כי רשב"י היה מתלמידי ר"ע והיה קפדן גדול וכדאמר במעילה יז ע"ב... וא"כ הו"א כיון דר"ש ג"ג נפטר ביום ל"ג בעומר נהי דכבר היה זה זמן טובא אחר שמתו תלמידי ר"ע כיון דאמר ביבמות ס"ב והיה... מ"מ כיון דקפידת ר"ע על מניעת נהיגת כבוד חלה בזמן בעומר שוב פטירת ר"ש דהיתה בזמן ימי העומר והיינו ל"ג בעומר ג"כ מקפידת ר"ע רבו על דהיה קפדן ובודאי לא נהג כבוד, והלכך לשלילת מחשבה כזו עושים קצת שמחה להראות דפטירת רשב"י אינו בגדר קפדנותו של ר"ע רבו ומטעמא דנהי דרשב"י היה קפדן מ"מ לא היתה לבד התכבדות בקלונו של חברו ח"ו דז"א דרשב"י הי צדיק גמור ועיקר קפדנותו לא היתה כ"א לכבוד השי"ת וקנאותו וזהו עיקר הלולא דרשב"י (שו"ת מראה כהן, סי' כט אות ג).

R. Eliezer Dunner, in his work Zichron Yosef Tzvi, offers a very novel reason for the celebration on Lag Ba-Omer. He says that we know that R. Akiva was a strong supporter of Bar Kochba. He suggests that R. Akiva students were soldiers in his army to fight the Romans and they died in this time period of Sefirah. During this time, on Lag Ba-Omer, the Jews were winning, that is why they turned this day into a great day of celebration.
ידענו כי ר' עקיבא היה הולך ונוסע ומלמד בכל תפוצת הארץ ובכל מקום היה לו תלמידים הרבה מאוד ועין שחושב לבר כוזבא כמשיח קרא כל תלמידיו להלחם בצד בר כוזבא ותחת רגליו נגד חיל האויבים... ואף על פי שבתחילה חלשו היהודים את אויביהם לפי חרב אחר כך גברו הרומיים ולכדו מישראל עיר ועיר ובאותה זמן היתה מלחמה בכל יום יום ובכל מלחמה נפלו ומתו הרבה אנשים מחיל בר כוזבא ובהן כמה תלמידי ר' עקיבא וכששקעה החמה בכל יום ויום פסקה המלחמה ואז נקברו כל המתים. ואפשר שבתוך כל המלחמות הללו שהיו יום יום ושבהם גברו האויביהם על ישראל היה יום אחד והוא ל"ג בעומר שגבר בו ישראל אותו יום שבו היה להם ישעות ה' בעת צרתם יום גבורה ותשועה אותו יום קבעו ליום שמחה לדור דורים וכמו כן שמעתי גם מפי הרב דק"ק פוזנא מוהר"ר זאב פיילכענפעלד ז"ל (זכרון יוסף צבי, סי' תצ"ג).
However, this original explanation, while giving us new insight into the mourning period during sefirah does not help us understand the connection to Rashbi. Avraham Korman in his Pinu’ach Aggadot (pp. 190-210) cites others (not R. Dunner) that tie the death of the talmidim of R. Akiva to the rebellion of Bar Kochba and he goes further to explain the connection between this and Rashbi and other minhagim of Sefirah.
There is a custom in many chasidic courts to use bow and arrows on Lag Ba-Omer. Many explanations are offered, but Korman says that perhaps the bows and arrows serve as a reminder of the war that the students of Rebbe Akiva fought against the Romans. As an aside, although most sources for bow and arrows on Lag Ba-Omer are found in chasidic seforim, I have found a possible source that in Vilna in the early 1800’s they also used bow and arrows on Lag Ba-Omer.[24]
R. Mordechai Ha-Kohen suggests based on this connection between the students of R. Akiva and the battle of Bar Kochba, that we can understand another issue. The Tur brings an old minhag that woman would refrain from doing work at night from after sunset the whole sefirah. He says the reason was the woman too participated in the battles against Bar Kochba they acted as nurses and helped the fallen soldiers and buried the dead every day after sunset when the fighting stopped. Therefore he says a custom developed that woman today do not do work after sunset.[25]
The earliest source who ties the mourning period during sefirah period for the deaths of the students of R’ Akiva and the battle of Bar Kochba that I found was in the magnum opus of the famous Galician maskil, Nachman Krochmal, who write in his Moreh Nevuchei Ha-zman:

אכן נראה כי גברה עתה המחשבה והעצה למרוד גם בין קצת החכמים וביחוד בין התלמידים והבחורים, ויש זכר לדבר גם בתלמוד ובמדרשות, ד"מ השנים עשר אלף תלמידים שהיו לר' עקיבא מגבת ועד אטניפרוס וכולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת (כלומר שעזבוהו כולם בזמן קצר לעת המרידה ולבסוף ספו תמו במלחמה) [מורה נבוכי הזמן, שער י, עמ' קט].

Support to this theory can possibly be found in the Iggeret R. Sherirah Gaon according to Gedaliahu Alon. R. Sherirah Gaon writes:

והעמיד ר' עקיבא תלמידים הרבה והוה שמדא על התלמידים של ר' עקיבא והות סמכא דישראל על התלמידים שנייים של ר' עקיבא דאמור רבנן שנים עשר אלף תלמידים היו לו לר' עקיבא מגבת ועד אנטיפטרס וכלם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת (אגרת ר' שרירא גאון, ב"מ לוין, עמ' 13).

Alon suggests that the words and "there was a Shemad" implies they were killed by the government.[26] However, it is not so simple that this is all historically true as there are many different discussions to what extent was R. Akiva was actively involved in the rebellion. It is well known that the Rambam writes:

וביתר שמה והיו בה אלפים ורבבות מישראל והיה להם מלך גדול ודימו כל ישראל וגדולי החכמים שהוא המלך המשיח, ונפל ביד גוים ונהרגו כולם והיתה צרה גדולה כמו חורבן המקדש (הל' תעניות ה:ג).

Elsewhere he writes even more clearly:

אל יעלה על דעתך שהמלך המשיח צריך לעשות אותות ומופתים ומחדש דברים בעולם או מחיה מתים וכיוצא בדברים אלו, אין הדבר כך, שהרי רבי עקיבא חכם גדול מחכמי משנה היה, והוא היה נושא כליו של בן כוזיבא המלך, והוא היה אומר עליו שהוא המלך המשיח, ודימה הוא וכל חכמי דורו שהוא המלך המשיח, עד שנהרג בעונות, כיון שנהרג נודע להם שאינו... (הל' מלכים יא:ג).
The Meiri writes:

וכן בדבור הזה עמד בן עוזיבא ועשה עצמו משיח, וטעו רבים אחריו, ואף ר' עקיבא היה נושא כליו (סדר קבלה, מה' אופק, עמ' 77).

R. Hamberger in his Meshichei Sheker u-Mitnageidheim (pp. 676-681) has a long list of people who agree with the Rambam.

Zecharia Frankel in Darkei HaMishna (p. 128) concludes that he did not really have much to do with the rebellion[27]. Y. Derenberg concludes that R. Akiva and his students were very involved with Bar Kochba.[28] R. Issac Halevi in his Dorot Ha-Rishonim (5, pp. 602- 628) downplays R. Akiva's role completely saying he did not really endorse Bar Kokhba for that long. From the Rambam and Meiri quoted above it seems they disagree. Aharon Heyman concludes that R. Akiva and his students were actively involved with Bar Kochba (Toledot Tanaaim ve-Amoraim 3, pp. 1002-1004).

To conclude with a well-known cute story related to R. Akiva and Bar Kochba: R. Zevin brings from R. Chaim Soloveitchik:

פעם אחת נסע רבי חיים ברכבת... היה שם איש אחד מן המסיתים, שהירבה דברים להוכיח שאותו האיש הוא המשיח... בתוך הויכוח נענה אחד ואמר להמסית וכי מי יודע יותר בטיבו של אותו האיש התנאים, שהיו בדורו והכירו אותו ואת מעשיו או אתה שאתה רחוק ממנו כאלפיים שנה? והרי התנאים של אותו דור דנוהו ותלוהו. השיב המסית אותם התנאים הרי אנו רואים, שטועים היו שכן טעה רבי עקיבא וחשב את בר כוכבא למשיח. נסתתמו טענותיו של היהודי ורבי חיים כשראה שיד המסית על העליונה, נענה ואמר וכי זו מנין לך שרבי עקיבא טעה בבר כוכבא? נתלהב המסית הרי הרגו את בר כוכבא! אם כן משיב רבי חיים בנחת הרי אתה מודה שמשיח שנהרג אינו משיח. (אישים ושיטות, עמ' ס).

* Thanks to R. Yosef Avivi for his help with some of the issues related to the writings of the Arizal.
[1] Much has been written about all the customs of Lag Ba-Omer. The best collections of material on the topic appear in Avraham Yaari, Tarbiz 22 (1951); Meir Benayhu, Sefunot 6 pp. 11-40, summarized in Sefer Vilnai 2:326-330] and R. Betzalel Landau, Maseh Meron (1966). See also David Tamar, Eshkolet Tamar, pp. 116-120]. See also R. Shelomo Joseph Zevin, Moadim Bahalcha pp. 359-64; Shmuel Ashkenazi, Avnei Chain pp. 103-11. For more recent collections of sources see: R. Yaakov Hillel, Aid ha-Gal ha-Zeh, pp. 3-29; Moshe Blau, Yeshurun 15 (2008), pp. 854-872; Tuviah Freund, Moadim le-Simcha; Pardes Eliezer s.v Lag ba-Omer;Yitzhak Tessler, Pinnenei ha-Chag.
As I have noted in my previous post at the Seforim blog on the topic of Lag ba-Omer, Freund and Blau have each plagiarized greatly from the works of Landau, Yaari, and Benayahu.
[2] For a detailed discussion, see R. Gedaliah Oberlander, Minhag Avoteinu be-Yadeinu (Merkaz Halakhah, 2005), pp. 528-547.
[3] On this work see R. R.N. Rabinowitz, Ohel Avraham (1898) pp. 14-15; Y.Yudolov, Yeshurun 24 (2011), pp. 893-919.
[4] Dershos Ri Ibn Shu’eib, 1, p. 222.
[5];Peri Chadash, 493:2. See also Beis Yosef and Aruch Ha-shulchan.
[6] For more on this edition, see R. Yosef Avivi, Binyan Ariel, pp. 68-71 and his Kabbalat Ha-Ari, 2, pp. 705-06.
[7] One can see pictures of the manuscripts in the article from Moshe Blau cited in footnote one.
[8] It would appear to me that Reb Yosef Engel also did not think that Rashbi died on Lag B’omer as in his work Otzros Yosef he has many pages on Lag b’omer and talmidei R. akiva etc and he makes no mention that it was the day he died.
[9] Thanks to an anonymous commenter for pointing to this letter.
[10] For a partial list of sources regarding the Chemdat Yamim controversy, see my Likutei Eliezer, p. 2. It’s worth mentioning that a new three volume edition of the Chemdat Yamim has just been printed in Benei Brak. The edition is very nice and was based upon the first edition. However, the 250 page introduction is extremely amusing.
[11] See R. Yosef Avivi, Kabbalat Ha-Ari, 2, pp. 752-753.
[12] See R. Yosef Avivi, Kabbalat Ha-Ari, 2, pp. 593-598, 670-672, 705-06. See also Zeev Gries, Safrot Ha-hanhaghot, pp. 81-84, 87-90; Yaakov S. Speigel, Pitchei Tefilah u-Moed, pp. 308-309.

Edit 6.22.11: However after reading this post R. Bentzion Meisles (In a personal communication) showed me that this whole piece with the Arizal going to Meron does indeed appear in the Sefer Hakavonos of R. Terniki, (In the 2006 edition it appears on pp. 5-6) and it too says שמחתי.

[13] On this work see here and here.
[14] See R. Yosef Avivi, Kabbalat Ha-Ari, 2, pp. 757-759.
[15] The actual sources can be seen in his works Masaot Eretz Yisrael and Iggerot Eretz Yisrael.
[16] Much has been written about davening at kevarim in general see Yehezkal Lichtenstein, Me-Tumah Le-Kedusha, pp. 218-242, 293-386.
[17] M. Zulay published very early Piyutim that seem to show that Hillel and Shammai were brothers! See his Eretz Yisrael u-Piyuteh, pp. 539-545.
[18] On going to the kevarim of Hillel and Shammai see M. Weiss, Kivrei Avos, 129-132; Elchanan Reiner “Pilgrims and Pilgrimage to Eretz Yisrael (1099-1517),” (PhD dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1988), 295-320.
[19] General sources for going to the Kever of Rashbi can be found in M.Weiss, Kivrei Avos pp. 179-81; Z. Vilnai, Mazavos be-Eretz ha-Kodesh pp. 117-150.
[20] On this being his date of death see the Tur (O.C. 580); S. Elitzur, Lamu Tzamnu, pp. 177-180.
[21] M. Zulay, Eretz Yisrael U-piyuteh, pp. 401-412. For more regarding Shmuel ha-Navi and visiting his grave, see M. Weiss, Kivrei Avot, pp. 113-16; Lamu Tzamnu pp. 177-80; Reiner op. cit. pp. 306-20; Y. Lichtenstein, Me-Tumah Le-Kedusha, pp. 298-230.
[22] The Itinerary of R. Moses Basola (David ed.) p.91.
[23] See Makhon Talmud Yisraeli, Yevamot 62b.
[24] Kundes p. 49. For more on this 1824 parody see here. For more sources on using bow and arrows on Lag Ba-Omer: see the sources listed by Landau, ibid pp. 124-26; Moadim le-Simcha pp. 155-59; Pardes Eliezer pp. 229-49; ha-Koton ve-Halachosov chapter 24 p. 59 n. 22; Zikhronot Av u-Beno p. 231; A.S. Sachs, Worlds that Passed (Philadelphia, 1928), p. 112.
[25] Ishim Utekufot, pp. 102-105.
[26] Toldos Hayehudim Beretz Yisroel, 2, pp. 43-44.
[27] See also J. Brull in his Mavo Le-Mishna, 2. pp. 121-122. For more sources on all this see: G. Alon, Toldos Hayehudim Beretz Yisroel, 2, pp. 16-47; S. Safrai, R. Akiva Ben Yosef, pp. 26-33; M. Cohen, Ishim Utekufot, pp. 92-112; R. Y. Tamar, Alei Tamar, Tannis, pp. 390-392;C. Kulitz, Rosh Lechachochim; Ibid, Ben Ha-aliyah; collection of articles in Mared Bar Kochba, Ed. A. Oppenheimer; R. Hamberger, Meshichei Sheker U-misnagdim, pp. 138-155, 665-681.
[28] Maseh Eretz Yisroel, pp. 220-228.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Satmar From As Seen By An Insider: A Review of the New English Biography of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe

Satmar From As Seen By An Insider: A Review of the New English Biography of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe

by Ezra Brand

I recently bought the new biography of the Satmar Rebbe, called “The Rebbe. The Extraordinary Life & Worldview of Rabbeinu Yoel Teitelbaum. The Satmar Rebbe זי"ע”, by Rabbi Dovid Meisels (Canada 2011, distributed by Israel Book Shop). Rabbi Meisels is related to Rabbi Teitelbaum, and a staunch Satmar chossid, so you can be sure that the views espoused in the book are Satmar’s true opinions. I also recently bought Solomon Poll’s classic study if chassidim in Williamsburg in the 1950’s, during which Rabbi Meisel’s book is also mostly set. It was interesting comparing the two very different views--that of a Satmar chossid looking back at those times, and that of a contemporary secular scholar like Poll. (See also an interesting review, and comments on it, here.)

The book discusses many opinions of the Rebbe. Besides for his famous anti-Zionist opinion, the book discusses such sundry topics as the required height of the mechitza in shul, metzitza b’peh, television, derech halimud, mikvaos,tznius (married women wearing sheitels, married women shaving their hair, women required to wear thick stockings—at least 90 denier), and the times for beginning and end of shabbos. It is somewhat surprising that the book doesn’t mention the Rebbe’s famous opinion that a boy and a girl shouldn’t meet more than two or three times before getting engaged. On pg. 364 the book does mention the Rebbe’s opposition to “the chosson spend[ing] time with the kallah before and after the engagement,” but no mention is made of how many times the Rebbe held the boy and girl should meet. There is a famous story told, that Reb Moshe Bick, a prominent chassidishe posek in the Bronx, decided that boys and girls should meet at least ten times before getting married. He felt that America was different than Europe, and too many divorces were happening because of improper matches. The Rebbe was strongly opposed to this. Reb Moshe Bick explained that the difference of opinion stemmed from the fact that he was a mesader gittin, while the Rebbe was a mesader kiddushin!

Almost no sources other than Satmar publications are listed as sources. These Satmar sources are listed at the end of the book in the “Bibliography;” there are about thirty or so. The only non-Satmar sources I found were “A Concise History of Agudath Israel” (pg. 97), “Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk” (pg. 137) (basically Satmar!), “Hamodia” (pg. 220), and “Rav Shach Speaks” (pg. 528). However, it is a breath of fresh air to see at least some sources listed; most heimishe publication until now have opted to leave them out.

The book is notable in that it is very politically incorrect. It doesn’t beat around the bush when it confronts Reb Yoel’s opinion on Zionism. Reb Yoel was famously extremely anti-Zionist—as are both camps of Satmar today—and Rabbi Meisels emotively explains the basis of his opinion. Of course, there are a lot of polemics, such as the story on page 313, where Rabbi Meisels writes:

Indeed, one measure of the impact of Vayoel Moshe is that whatever books the Zionists have since published purporting to refute it (notably Hatekufah Hagedolah and Nefesh Adah) have not been taken seriously in the general Torah world. To this day, no serious mainstream work has been written to refute Vayoel Moshe. Even those rabbis who continue to advocate voting in the Zionist elections use the terms “eis laasos” and “aveirah lishmah,” indicating that at least in theory they agree with the central concepts of Vayoel Moshe.

Notice that the all-inclusive term “Zionists” is used, without even using the word “rabbis,” even though the authors of the “Zionist books” cited were undoubtedly great Talmidei Chachomim. This pattern of not giving those who hold of Zionism any titles of respect holds true throughout the book. For example, on page 294, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, the founder of Mossad Harav Kook, is referred to as “Yehuda Leib Maimon.” It is therefore somewhat surprising that on page 317, the Minister of Religious Affairs is referred to as “Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano.” Maybe only Sefardim are allowed to be Zionists!

On pg. 178, the book says about the Satmar newspaper, Der Yid: “The policy of Der Yid was that whenever the State of Israel (Medinas Yisroel) was mentioned, the word “Yisroel” was placed in quotation marks to show that Torah Jewry, the true Israel, did not recognize the Zionists’ right to use their name.” (Notice “Torah Jewry,” not just Satmar.) This is followed by Rabbi Meisels himself, such as on pg. 249 (“…State of “Israel.” “). Usually, just the term “Zionist state” is used (e.g., on pg. 247). It is surprising that on pg. 523 the book mention “[t]he Israeli authorities.” I am sure this oversight will be corrected in future editions.

Throughout the book, the author hints to the Satmar opinion that kiruv rechokim is problematic. On page 13 he writes: “One of the secrets of the Rebbe’s success is that he never tried to perfect all of American Jewry and bring it into his fold. Instead, he worked hard to keep himself and his own community, which was mostly made up of post-War immigrants, unscathed.” Satmar is famous for disagreeing with Lubavitch on this point, however this disagreement is never stated explicitly. Rather, the author says that this is why Rabbonim before the War were not successful in planting Yiddishkeit in America (page 150): “A certain writer wrote that he heard from the Rebbe in 1955, ‘Why was I more successful in planting Torah in America than all the other gedolim who tried? Because they took in too much, they wanted to make the whole America good. In order to reach people, they had to make compromises. But I realized that Yiddishkeit can only grow if you plant perfect seeds. It doesn’t grow from compromises.” This completely ignores the fact that the Satmar Rebbe was working with people who had relatively recently been forcibly plucked from their homes in Hungary, straight into Williamsburg. On the other hand, earlier Rabbonim were dealing with people who had willingly left their very religious hometowns in Eastern Europe to go to America, a much more secular country. In addition, some of the American Jews had been in America for decades, and had gotten used to the freedom of acting how they pleased, without operating within the very strict confines of the Chassidic community. On pg. 515, the book discusses the Rebbe’s opposition to Lubavitcher chassidim putting tefillin on secular Israeli soldiers, based on halachic problems. Impressively, the book quotes the Lubavitchers answer back, albeit with a rejoinder.

For some reason, the Rebbe did not like the chassidim in Borough Park. This is despite the fact that there were also Satmar chassidim in Borough Park. On pg. 400 and pg. 429 derogatory remarks said about Borough Park by the Rebbe are recounted.

Very harsh words are quoted from the Rebbe about the Lithuanian derech halimud. On pg. 457, he is quoted to have said, in response to why bochurim in Litvish yeshivas “undeniably” learn with more enthusiasm and hasmadah than the Satmar bochurim: “…Here too, there is no truth in the ‘belly logic’ (boich svaros) used in these yeshivas. It’s all their own made up ideas, and it’s fun for them to think about ideas that they themselves made up.” And again: “Their style is not more than three generations old. They created it in order to save the younger generation from the Haskalah. It’s a totally new derech. We see that not one halachic authority came out from them. There is one of them who paskens shailos, and he wreaks terrible destruction. It’s a totally new derech, and it’s not Toras Emes.” The Rebbe isn’t exactly the open-minded or “eilu ve’eilu divrei elokim chaim” type. I’m curious to know which specific posek he was referring to that he feels “wreaks terrible destruction.” It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, because he is the only Lithuanian who paskens! I’m assuming he meant Reb Moshe Feinstein, with whom the Rebbe had many halachic/ ideological disputes.

An interesting story is told on pg. 474. One of the founding parents of “Bais Ruchel”-- the Satmar girls’ school—came to the Rebbe with a complaint. “He [had] discovered that the teacher had instructed the girls to write the Hebrew words “Ani ohev es habeged (I love the garment) as writing practice.” Now, you might think the parent had a complaint that the sentence is grammatically incorrect. A girl writing this sentence should write “ani oheves es habeged.” Or, he complained that his daughter shouldn’t be taught to love her clothing, but rather Hashem. But no. His complaint is: “The Rebbe founded a girls’ school to raise a new generation of girls like our mothers and grandmothers in Europe. Now I see that my daughter brought home a notebook in which she wrote ‘Ani ohev es habeged.’ The Rebbetzin argues that the girls can’t be so ignorant; they are allowed to understand what they are saying when they daven. I had a grandmother who passed away at 103, and she knew the entire Tehillim and Maamados by heart. But she didn’t understand what she was saying. That’s how our children should grow up as well.” The Rebbe said to his rebbetzin: “ ‘He’s right!’ “ In other words, this man’s grandmother had lived to such a ripe old age because she didn’t know the words she was saying! Rather, they should be some magical formula not to be understood.

The book discusses at relative length the process of founding “Kiryas Yoel.” On pg. 528, we read that “[a] Yekke from Washington Heights, who agreed with the Rebbe’s views on many issues, wanted to move to the new town. The Rebbe invited him, ‘Bring another nine Ashkenazim with you, and you can start your own minyan in Kiryas Yoel.” I wonder who this “Yekke” was., and how long he would have lasted among the thousands of chassidim in Kiryas Yoel!

On pg. 45, R’ Meisels bring the famous myth that the town “Satmar” in Hungary is named after St. Mary. He writes: “The Rebbe never pronounced the name Satmar, since it is the name of avodah zarah. Instead he would say ‘Sakmar.’ This pronunciation was also customary in Tzanz.” Throughout the book, when the Rebbe himself mentions the name “Satmar,” “Sakmar” is used instead. In truth, “Satmar” is a combination of the Latin word “Sattu,” meaning village, and the Romanian word “Mare,” meaning large. (See the beginning of the Wikipedia article on Satmar here.)

Something that I felt was lacking was any sign of Yiddish whatsoever. The Satmar Rebbe was known as a smart person, and the book brings a nice amount of stories that contain the Rebbe’s witticisms. I enjoy seeing the actual expression used, and since the Rebbe only spoke Yiddish, as the book says on pg. 26, the Rebbe obviously said whatever he said in Yiddish. Most such biographies quote the exact expression, and then translate. Possibly, Rabbi Meisels didn’t use any English lehavdil bein kodesh lechol. I’ll explain. On pg. 13, R’ Meisels writes that he really shouldn’t be writing the book in English, since the Rebbe was against the use of English “as a medium of speaking and reading within the Jewish community.” But since there were many outside of Satmar who were interested in the life of the Rebbe, the decision was reached to write a book in English. On pg. 488, R’ Meisels writes with pride that in the Satmar summer camps, for two months the campers “did not even hear a single English word.” I guess once the decision was reached not to use Yiddish, Yiddish could never be used!

Some surprising stories are told about talmidei chachamim, which seem to be against halacha:

1) On pg. 144, R’ Meisels talks about how after the Rebbe came to America from Israel in 1946, R’ Michoel Ber Weissmandel (Rosh Yeshiva of Nitra Yeshiva in Mount Kisco) wanted to make sure he wouldn’t return to Israel. He therefore took the Rebbe’s passport and ripped it up. What is the heter to destroy someone else’s passport just because you think he shouldn’t continue travelling?

2) The book speaks about how the Rebbe was “very particular not to use tainted or impure money” (pg. 187). It goes on to write that “[m]any times, they also witnessed him taking undesirable money and flushing it down the toilet.” Similarly, on pg. 190-191, it is told that after accepting a ten-dollar bill from “a man who was not properly observant,” the Rebbe “took that ten-dollar bill, rolled it up and began to use it to scratch his ears. Soon he tore off a piece, and continued to scratch his ears with the remainder. He tore off another piece, until the entire bill was gone.” First of all, didn’t all those people who gave the money give it to support charitable causes? Didn’t they want the zchus of their money being put to good use? If the Rebbe was planning on destroying the money, he should not have accepted the money in the first place. In addition, according to American law, it is illegal to destroy money. What happened to dina d’malchusa dina? However, it is possible that the Rebbe wasn’t aware that this was illegal.

3) On pg. 193-194, the book tells how the a man gave money to the Rebbe to pay his debts: “…As soon as the old man heard this, he brought the Rebbe 20,000 crowns. ‘Now you can go and pay your debts.’ “ Soon after, the Rebbe gave the money to a poor girl for her dowry. When the person who gave money to the Rebbe found out, he protested: “ ‘But I gave you the money only on condition that you would use it to pay your debts, not for tzedaka!’ the old chassid protested. The Rebbe replied: ‘The yetzer hara has already been arguing with me for quite some time, trying to convince me to stop giving tzedaka. And now you are arguing with me as well. Don’t worry, I will soon give you back your money.’ “ Here ends the story. The problem is, the halacha clearly states that if a person gives tzedaka with intentions that the money should be used for a specific purpose, the money cannot be used for any other purpose. See Rama; Yoreh De’ah 256:4; Shach ibid. s”k 10; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 125:1; ibid. se’if 5; ibid. se’if 6; ibid. se’if 7; Shach ibid. s”k 25. However, it is possible that the Rebbe thought that the donor wouldn’t mind. But if so, the book should speak that out.

On pg. 268, the book describes the tricks Neturei Karta used to make sure they would win control of the Eidah Hachareidis: “Shortly before the election, the Neturei Karta divided their candidates into two parties, Neturei Karta, under Reb Amram, and Mesores Vene’emanus, under Rabbi Eliyahu Nachum Porush. In the second party they placed candidates who were not so well-known. The goal was that some voters who did not support Neturei Karta would vote for this party and thus take away votes from Agudah.” This kind of book obviously doesn’t bring any stories about its allies which they feel were done wrongly. It is therefore surprising that the book describes these devious schemes were used to rig the election.

All in all, the book tells many interesting stories about the Satmar Rebbe. It also provides a good overview of the growth of Satmar in America from after the War until the 1970’s. However, some of the stories and views are a little extreme for the litvishe palette, and the book is very polemical in nature. However, this biography will be treasured for giving over a truly unique viewpoint of a gadol, a biography so different than other “heimeshe”, biographies.

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