יום ראשון ד' בניסן תש"פ 29/03/2020
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  • The Mission Continues

    As in the past so it remains today - we were and still are under the selfsame commitment to adhere to the directions of the Gedolei Yisrael, who stand guard against breaches of purity threatening our camp. When we were required to ask – we asked. When we were instructed to depart – we left. The moment we are summoned back to raise the flag, every other consideration is pushed to the side and we answer: We are ready!

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בראי היום

  • Harav Yisrael Friedman zy”a, the Rebbe of Husyatin

    מוטי, ויקיפדיה העברית

    The ancestral chain of Harav Yisrael Friedman, the founder of the Husyatin chassidic court, originates with the holy Baal Shem Tov. The Husyatin chassidus has its roots in Galicia and eventually came to Tel Aviv, during the turbulent years between the two World Wars.

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  • Maccabi'im Gravesite

    In honour of Chanukah, we will discuss a fascinating, ongoing investigation attempting to establish the place of burial of Mattisyahu Kohen Gadol and his family.

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Reflections

The Kehillah of Minsk

The city of Minsk, the capital of Belarus (White Russia), was established some nine hundred years ago. Over the years, many different states controlled the city. A beautiful and thriving Jewish community existed there, which produced many great rabbanim and gedolei Torah.

Motty Meringer 08/12/2009 11:58
The Jewish kehillah of Minsk was only established around four hundred years ago. At first, Jews were not permitted to purchase houses there, or to engage in business in the city. Only one of Minsk’s rulers permitted Jews for a short while to engage in business in the city. Shortly after permission was given, a war broke out between Russia and Poland, and the few Jews who had settled in Minsk fled the city. After the city came under Polish control once again, the Jews began to return, but only in small numbers. Nonetheless, within less than fifty years, the kehillah expanded and many Jewish communal institutions were founded, including a beis medrash, a large beis knesses and a number of smaller shuls. In the year 5440 the main beis knesses of Minsk was inaugurated, which was housed in a large and beautiful building. The location on which it stood had been purchased from Polish locals, and the original structure that had occupied the area had been a derelict and rundown building. The Jews renovated it, converting it into a miniature sanctuary, beautifully and tastefully decorated. When the Polish former owners saw what had emerged from their derelict shack, they wanted to renege on their sale and reclaim possession. However, once the matter was thoroughly investigated, it was clear that ownership had been legally transferred to the Jews, who were now its rightful owners according to the law of the land.

Once the kehillah expanded and numbered several hundred families, the need arose to appoint a rav and halachic leader who would guide the kehillah on the correct path. The official leaders of the community began a search for a rav, which concluded when they found a suitable candidate for the position in the town of Wengrow, where Harav Moshe ben hakadosh Harav Mordechai Wengrow ztz”l was rav. Harav Moshe arrived to take up the position of rav in Minsk, the first rav ever of that city, and he immediately established a yeshivah in the city, to which flocked many who had been thirsting for the waters of Torah. Harav Moshe was niftar in the year 5456, and his position was then filled by Harav Leibel ztz”l, who was affectionately known as Harav Leibel ‘baal haTosefos’ due to his incredible fluency in the words of the baalei Tosefos whose commentary accompanies the entire Shas.

During the period of Harav Leibel baal haTosefos’ tenure as rav, Minsk became a Torah hub for the surrounding area. This new recognition of Minsk’s importance allowed the local rabbonim to assert their authority over the surrounding towns and villages, and Harav Moshe Zev of Kavli ztz”l was appointed to serve together with Harav Leibel baal haTosefos as the rav of the region.

In the year 5468 Harav Leibel was niftar, and he was greatly mourned by the townspeople. After his petirah, the kehillah of Minsk was left without a rav for several years. Although Harav Moshe Zev remained as rav of the wider Minsk region, his duties necessitated him to be almost constantly travelling between the various towns and villages in the countryside around the city, and he was very rarely in Minsk itself. A few years later, the residents of Minsk decided to approach Hagaon Harav Yechiel Halperin ztz”l and ask him to come to serve as rav of Minsk. During this period, Harav Yechiel was serving as rav of Lusk, and the members of the kehillah there were extremely fond of him and begged him not to desert them, appealing to him not to leave for at least another few years. In the records of the Minsk kehillah can be found the following notation from the year 5471, signed by Harav Yechiel: “From Yechiel, the son of my father and master Harav Shlomo Halperin – moved his residence from here, the kehillah of Lusk, to the holy kehillah of Minsk.” In the end, only a year passed from the time of the original request from the townspeople of Minsk before Harav Yechiel arrived in that city in the year 5472, after numerous deputations from Minsk visited him, entreating him to come. Harav Yechiel served as rav of the city and also as rosh yeshivah of the widely-respected Minsk yeshivah.

During the tenure of Harav Yechiel, the yeshivah expanded greatly and hundreds of talmidim occupied the benches of its beis medrash, soaking up the Torah of Harav Yechiel whose name was widely-known as a great talmid chacham whose shiur was on an exceptionally high level. During this period, another talmid chacham, a younger man by the name of Harav Aryeh Leib Ginzburg ztz”l, also resided in Minsk, who in the course of time became known as the Shaagas Aryeh. Harav Aryeh Leib was the son of Hagaon Harav Asher Ginzburg ztz”l, who then served as rav of one of the suburbs of Minsk and who had established his own yeshivah in the city, which attracted many talmidim.

The two yeshivos of Minsk had entirely different ways of learning, and it was well-known that if talmidim from one yeshivah met up with those of the other, a lively argument for the sake of Heaven would ensue. Harav Yechiel and his talmidim embraced the method of learning referred to in Chazal as ‘Sinai’ – meaning a focus on pshat and learning in great breadth, covering a great deal of material without plumbing to the depths of every topic. The Shaagas Aryeh, however, along with his talmidei yeshivah, focused on learning b’pilpul and endeavouring to understand each topic to its roots and linking it intricately with the whole body of Torah – the method of learning referred to in Chazal as ‘oker harim’ (uprooting mountains).

In the year 5503, Harav Yechiel Halperin ztz”l, the rav of Minsk, was niftar, around the same time as Harav Asher Ginzburg ztz”l, rav of one of the Minsk suburbs. Harav Asher left behind two sons, one of whom was the Shaagas Aryeh – the second was Harav Yitzchak Avraham. The Shaagas Aryeh had already begun to assist his father with his rabbinical duties prior to his passing, since the task of catering to all the needs of the Jews in the surrounding towns and villages was too great for any one person. Therefore, with the petirah of Harav Asher, it seemed only natural that the Shaagas Aryeh would fill his position as regional rav of Minsk. The Shaagas Aryeh on his part wished to see his brother inherit the position of rav of Minsk itself, since Harav Yitzchak Avraham was a great talmid chacham and worthy of the position. However, many residents of Minsk were opposed to this, as the tzava’ah of Harav Yechiel had stated his wish that his son Harav Moshe Halperin ztz”l succeed him as the rav of the city. Harav Moshe was then the rav of the town of Dohlinov, and in the end, he indeed became the rav of Minsk in accordance with his father’s wishes.

The duties of the Shaagas Aryeh as rav of the region took him far from Minsk for much of his time, away from his yeshivah. This had been a problem that had also plagued his father, Harav Asher, in his lifetime, almost leading to the closure of the yeshivah. Now, the Shaagas Aryeh felt compelled to entirely leave the yeshivah, and the many talmidim who had flocked to it from all over Europe ceased to arrive. The yeshivah almost closed down, and this caused great anguish to the residents of Minsk, who resolved to appoint an alternative rosh yeshivah who would ensure the continuation of the institution and also restore it to its former glory. One of the alumni of the yeshivah, who had left some ten years previously, was the great ilui Harav Raphael Leiflander ztz”l. At the age of eleven Harav Raphael had arrived at the Shaagas Aryeh’s yeshivah, where he had astonished everyone with his breadth of knowledge and the sharp clarity of thinking he brought to every topic. The Shaagas Aryeh himself predicted a glorious future as a great gaon for the young boy. Now, ten years later, the community heads of Minsk turned to the young man of twenty-one and appointed him as rosh yeshivah. When the Shaagas Aryeh heard of the appointment of his former talmid, he was delighted and wished him the greatest of success. Harav Raphael restored the glory to the Minsk Yeshivah of his former teacher, where he taught in the manner of the Shaagas Aryeh.

Two years passed, and the city’s residents appointed Harav Raphael as Av Beis Din of the main beis din of the city, in addition to his duties as rosh yeshivah. This aroused the jealousy of many Minsk residents who were far from being talmidei chachamim themselves, and they began to persecute Harav Rephael and incite against him. Harav Raphael, however, was undeterred, and continued to disseminate Torah and take great delight in his spiritual achievements.
Eventually, in the year 5506, when the controversy intensified, Harav Rephael was forced to leave Minsk for the town of Rako where he was appointed as rav and rosh yeshivah. A few years later, he moved again to Wilkomir, where he served as rav. During this period, the Shaagas Aryeh left his position as the rav of the wider Minsk region, and the post was given to his brother Harav Yitzchak Avraham. However, not much time passed before Harav Yitzchak Avraham asked to be relieved of this position, since it stole away too much time from his Torah studies. In his place, Harav Rephael was appointed as rav of the Minsk region. At that time, the Shaagas Aryeh was living in the town of Smilovitch, where he was freed of communal responsibilities and was able to devote himself entirely to limmud haTorah. Now that his former talmid was the rav of the Minsk region, Harav Aryeh Leib came under his ‘jurisdiction’ and he accepted his former talmid’s authority over him, according him great respect. Harav Rephael, for his part, dedicated himself entirely to his new role, devoting himself to both the spiritual and the physical needs of the Jews of the region. The position necessitated being in contact with the authorities of Minsk, who afflicted the Jews of the region with heavy taxes and penalties. Harav Rephael exerted himself greatly in his efforts to have the outstanding debts of the Jews abolished.

A short while after these events, the Shaagas Aryeh entirely left the Minsk region and travelled to Volozhin, where he saw to the printing of his sefer ‘Shaagas Aryeh.’ Shortly later, he returned to Minsk, where he served as rav together with Harav Moshe Halperin. This joint rabbanus did not work smoothly, and Harav Aryeh Leib soon left Minsk again, this time for the city of Metz in Germany.

After the Shaagas Aryeh left Minsk, Harav Moshe Halperin was niftar at an old age. Not too long afterwards, the city was afflicted with terrible fires and other tragedies that seriously impacted on Minsk’s Jews. The members of the kehillah turned to soul-searching for the cause of the recent events, and came to the collective conclusion that their persecution of the Shaagas Aryeh and their slighting of his kavod had brought all these tragedies upon them. They were then filled with sorrow and regret at their deeds.

After the petirah of Harav Moshe, Hagaon Harav Yosef haKohen Rappaport ztz”l was appointed as rav of Minsk, and Hagaon Harav Gershon Charif ztz”l was appointed as rosh yeshivah, who also served as rav of the city after the petirah of Harav Yosef. During this period, slanderers approached the regional authorities, with a libel against the rav of the Minsk region, accusing him of acting improperly. As a consequence, the position of regional rav was abolished for a span of several years.

A few years later, Hagaon Harav Yisrael Mirkish ztz”l was appointed as rav of Minsk. Harav Yisrael was a close friend of Harav Chaim Volozhiner ztz”l, who had founded the Volozhiner Yeshivah. Harav Yisrael had offered a great deal of assistance to Harav Chaim, both with his money and with his own personal efforts. Harav Yisrael in fact sacrificed his health and all his wealth in order to protect the authentic transmission of Torah from one generation to the next. During this period, Minsk was already a great bastion of Torah, full of talmidei chachamim, yet Harav Yisrael still saw it as necessary to establish boundaries and regulations to ensure its continued existence as a citadel of Torah. Harav Yisrael was beloved by all the residents of Minsk, and after his petirah the members of the kehillah resolved that no other person would carry the title of ‘Rav and Av Beis Din of Minsk’ – but would only be called ‘mara d’asra.’

The ensuing years were years during which Torah flourished in Minsk, although parallel to this, the winds of the Haskalah began to blow through the city, claiming many neshamos. Against the greatness of the talmidei chachamim and rabbanim of Minsk was pitted the strength of the Haskalah and the forces of destruction, seeking to uproot the successes of the city. During this period, Harav Yechiel Michel Nieshviez ztz”l established a new yeshivah in Minsk. The yeshivah occupied a beautiful and well-appointed building in the centre of town, and all the needs of the talmidim were provided by the rosh yeshivah, who carried the entire burden of the institution on his shoulders. Minsk was then home to numerous rabbanim and talmidei chachamim, many of whose names were well-known throughout the Torah world, including Hagaon Harav Yisrael Michel Yeshurun ztz”l, Hagaon Harav Avraham ztz”l (author of the sefer ‘Hamaskil l’Eitan’), Hagaon Harav Yaakov Liebeshitz ztz”l (a talmid of the Vilna Gaon), Hagaon Harav Eizel Charif ztz”l, Hagaon Harav Dovid Tewil ztz”l (author of ‘Nachalas Dovid’). Many other talmidei chachamim lived in Minsk or the surrounding area, and the region was renowned as one from which the light of Torah emitted in full force.

Parallel to the spiritual flourishing of the city, however, the winds of the Haskalah were making steep inroads, and eventually matters reached such a point that Minsk became divided into two camps; those who resisted the Haskalah and endeavoured constantly to elevate their avodas Hashem, and those who had allowed themselves to be pulled ever further downwards to their doom. It was during this period that the Russian Czar Nikolai passed a decree demanding that the Jews learn the language of the land, Russian, and to ensure that the decree was enforced, Dr. Max Lilienthal, one of the leading maskilim and later to become a Reform ‘rabbi’ in the United States, was appointed. Dr. Lilienthal would travel around the various towns and cities of Belarus to make sure that yeshivos and chadarim were complying with the Czar’s commands, and in the course of his travels, he arrived in Minsk. For the supporters of the Haskalah in Minsk, the day of Lilienthal’s arrival was an occasion for rejoicing – for the rabbanim of the city, it was a black day, portending gloom and bitter tidings to follow.

A landmark symbol of the glory of the Minsk kehillah was Hagaon Harav Dovid Tewil ztz”l, and after his tenure, the city was left without a rav for many years. On a number of occasions the leaders of the kehillah gathered in order to decide on the appointment of a new rav, but they failed to reach agreement on who would be a suitable candidate. After many years had passed, Hagaon Harav Yerucham Yehudah Leib Perlman ztz”l was appointed as rav in the year 5643, and was known as the ‘great one of Minsk.’ During this period, the Minsk kehillah numbered over fifty thousand souls, which was almost half the total population of the city. Harav Yerucham Yehudah served as rav of Minsk until his petirah in the year 5656.
During the First World War, Belarus changed hands a number of times, and at the war’s conclusion its territory was divided between Russia and Poland. Minsk now fell under Russian jurisdiction, and therefore it was under Communist rule, which meant that severe restrictions were placed on religious life in the city. In the interwar period, the kehillah of Minsk was the largest in all of Belarus.

When the Second World War broke out, Minsk was flooded with refugees fleeing from the west, away from the Nazi terror – the number of Jews in the city almost doubled. In the year 5701 there were approximately eighty thousand Jews in Minsk. On the first day of Tammuz in 5701, around six days after the German invasion of Russia began, Minsk fell to the Nazis. Immediately they began their slaughter of the Jews, who were simply cut down in the streets of the city.

On the 13th of Tammuz 5701, the Nazis ordered all the Jews remaining in Minsk to leave their places of residence and move to a new Jewish ghetto area. In addition to the Jews of Minsk, the ghetto area also housed Jews from Slutzk, Uzda and other towns, so that some hundred thousand Jews were crammed into the ghetto without even the basic conditions for normal living, and with no means of supporting themselves.

Around a month after the erection of the ghetto, the Nazis removed five thousand Jews from there and killed them, and the remaining Jews were ordered to redeem themselves with a large ransom. In addition, new restrictions were placed on their existence, including the wearing of a yellow patch on their clothing; and nonetheless, indiscriminate killing of Jews continued.

On the 17th of Cheshvan 5702 the Nazis carried out an ‘aktzia’ in the streets of the ghetto, and caught some twelve thousand Jews who were transported to the town of Tuchinka near to Minsk, where they were murdered. A short while after this first aktzia, another one followed, in which a further seven thousand Jews were murdered. The places of the murdered were filled by the Nazis with Jews brought from Germany, who were known to the original Jewish residents of Minsk as ‘Hamburg Jews.’

These aktzias led to the formation of a Jewish underground which began to take action against the Germans. A short while after the two aktzias, the Germans ordered the Judenrat (the Jewish administration of the ghetto) to imprison five thousand Jews, but the underground refused to allow the implementation of this order, and the Nazis in their fury instead caught five thousand Jews in the streets of the ghetto, no matter who they might be, including women and children. These Jews were then murdered by the Nazis. Members of the underground, who numbered several hundred, were now hunted down by the Nazis, and most of them escaped to the forests around Minsk where they formed partisan groups who managed to inflict heavy casualties on the Germans.

On the 14th of Av 5702 the Nazis began to systematically liquidate the Minsk ghetto. Tens of thousands of Jews were ordered to assemble in the main square, and Moshe Yaffeh, the head of the Judenrat, spoke words of encouragement to the assembled, as he had been instructed by the Nazis. In the middle of his speech, sealed trucks suddenly burst into the square which were equipped with gassing facilities to murder the Jews, and Moshe Yaffeh shouted out; “Jews! The evil murderers have tricked you! Run away!” Hearing his cries, the panicked Jews attempted to flee for their lives; nonetheless, on that day and the ensuing three days, some thirty thousand Jews were murdered by the Nazis, including Moshe Yaffeh, Hy”d.

At the end of the summer of 5703, the transports of Minsk’s Jews to the extermination camp of Sobibor began. Tens of thousands of Jews were sent there to their deaths, and many others were killed in the streets of the city and in additional locations. During the course of the Second World War almost the entire Jewish population of Minsk was slaughtered, along with many Jews from other parts of Belarus who had also been concentrated in the Minsk ghetto. Only isolated individuals remained from the original hundred thousand souls who had been incarcerated in the Minsk ghetto and who had been swept up to Heaven in the murderous storm winds created by the evil Nazis yimach shemam.

After the Second World War, the Russians regained control of Minsk where they imposed communist rule. The communists persecuted religious observance and sought to obliterate any remnants of Judaism. The main beis knesses of the city was turned into a theatre and the Jewish cemetery was destroyed and a stadium was built over it.

After the fall of the communists, the Jewish community of Minsk began to flourish once more. As of today, there are several tens of thousands of Jews in the city, although most of them are far from observance, and some of the Jews of Minsk are not even aware of their Jewish identity. In recent years, a large kiruv movement has begun in Minsk, largely in the merit of the Chabad sheluchim in the region.