Rabbi Shemuel Mohilever • “The Rav of Bialystok”

Rabbi Shemuel Mohilever loved his people with all his heart and all his soul. Without taking his health or financial situation into consideration, he placed himself entirely at the disposal of the Jewish people. He suffered along with the tragedies of the people, and his pains gave him no respite. Rabbi Shemuel interpreted the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “I seek strength to withstand the sorrow, but my heart is sick within me” (Jeremiah 8:18) as follows: If this pain only concerned me, if it was only my heart that was suffering within me, I could tolerate it. Yet “Behold, the sound of the cry of the daughter of my people from a distant land” (v.19) – this voice also comes from a distant land. “Over the disaster of the daughter of my people, I have been shattered; I am blackened; desolation has gripped me” (v.21): Concerning the tragedy that has broken my people, I no longer have the strength to restrain myself. The sufferings of the Jewish people during that time led him to work for Eretz Israel his entire life.

Rabbi Shemuel was born on Nissan 27, 5584 (1824) in the small town of Globocki in the region of Vilna. According to family tradition, all 24 generations that preceded him in his family line included Rabbis or Torah scholars. His father Rabbi Yehudah Leib was a great Talmid Chacham, yet he had no desire to be a Rav and remained a businessman his entire life. In was only in his old age that he lost all his possessions and accepted to become the Rav of the town of Szlak. Nothing remained of his wealth except a few cabinets filled with books, which he always looked upon with joy. One day his son Shemuel asked him, “Father, why do you so often look at your books?” He replied, “My son, I look at the books and I envy their authors, men who did not place vessels near their beds in order to wash their hands in the morning, as we do.” Rabbi Shemuel was surprised and did not understand what his father meant.

“Why are you surprised? What I’m telling you is the plain truth. These authors, whose words give us life, made their nights into days of Torah study.” With such stories, his father managed to bring about a great love for Torah in his heart.

Shemuel already possessed exceptional talents by the age of three, and at the age of four he studied Chumash with Rashi’s commentary. By the time he was ten years old he was already known by everyone around him as the “Prodigy of Globocki,” and his teachers maintained that one day he would become a Torah great. He was also versed in mathematics and astronomy, fields that he employed to explain certain difficult passages in the Talmud.

When he was 15 years old, he married and went to live with his father-in-law. For three years he studied with great diligence and became an expert in the entire Talmud, following which he went to the Volozhin yeshiva and studied there. After six months he was given Semichah by Rabbi Yitzchak, the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, and by Rabbi Yitzchak’s son-in-law, Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak.

Rabbi Shemuel then went into business and worked as a flax merchant for several years. This, however, remained secondary in his eyes, for his primary concern was Torah study and writing responsa to the greatest minds of his time.

Rabbi Shemuel’s father-in-law, who had always supported him, died in 5608 (1848). Then aged 24, Rabbi Shemuel acceded to the requests of the residents of Globocki, his hometown, and become their Rav. He remained there for six years, living in poverty. However when the leaders of the community met and agreed to increase his salary, he refused and said: “There are some Jews in Globocki who are poorer than I. They’re dying of hunger, and the community should deal with them first.”

In 5614 (1854) his situation improved a little, for he was named the Rav of Szaki. There he also remained for six years, followed by which he became the Rav of the large city of Suwalki. From there he began to be known not only as a genius in Torah, but also as a community leader, and above all as a great Tzaddik. Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Maizel, the Rav of Lodz, would ask him to pray that G-d heal the sick, and when he became the Rav of Radom, the chassidim (who were aware of his burning awe of G-d) wanted to make him into a Rebbe. He was finally appointed as Rav of the great city of Bialystok, from whence came the author of Oneg Yom Tov.

In every city that he lived, Rabbi Shemuel did much for his Jewish brothers and saved them more than once from malicious Christians.

Once, several highly respected residents of the town of Subalk were sentenced to be hanged, and the execution was set for the day after Yom Kippur. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Rav went to see the military authorities. His eyes filled with tears as he spoke to the commander and swore that these Jews were innocent of all charges against them, being condemned only because of malicious lies. Since the commander said that he could not annul their sentences, the Rav asked that at least they be allowed to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur and pour out their hearts to G-d with their brothers before leaving this world. The commander agreed, but he asked the Rav what guarantee he would have if these Jews escaped. “With my life I guarantee,” the Rav replied, “that I will return them to you at any time you demand.” The commander gave them permission to go, but the words of the Rav made a deep impression on him. He then began to have doubts about their sentences, and finally he granted them an official pardon. This was considered a miracle.

Rabbi Shemuel also cared about the plight of Jewish soldiers who served in the army near the city, and he organized kosher meals for them. Particularly during Passover, he planned a special kitchen for all Jewish soldiers serving in the surrounding areas, and he furnished them with three meals daily for the holiday.

A community leader once came to him a few days before Passover and said, “Rabbeinu, this year is a year of scarcity. Everything is very expensive, and the residents of the city have nothing to prepare for Passover.”

“If such is the case,” said Rabbi Shemuel, “convene the Dayanim and have them authorize the use of kitniot for Passover.”

“Rabbeinu,” said the community leader, “may you be blessed! I was worrying about the soldiers, but now things will be easy. They will also eat kitniot.”

“Jewish soldiers?” asked Rabbi Shemuel in anger. “That won’t happen in our city. You, myself, and all the residents of the city will eat kitniot this Passover, but we should feed Jewish soldiers with proper food for Passover and delicacies for the holiday like every year.”

Rabbi Shemuel’s greatest endeavor, however, was his work for settlements in Eretz Israel. In 5635 (1875), Russian Jewry celebrated the 90th birthday of Sir Moses Montefiore, and money was collected in every community for a fund called Mazkeret Moshe (“In memory of Moses”) destined to establish new villages in Eretz Israel. Rabbi Shemuel invested all his energies into this work and collected great amounts of money. From that point on, the idea of settling in Eretz Israel became his life’s goal.

He traveled to innumerable places, and everywhere he went he spoke of the mitzvah of populating Eretz Israel. In Paris he was introduced to Baron Edmond (Binyamin) Rothschild, and encouraged him to devote himself to developing Eretz Israel, which at that point was destroyed and deserted. Baron Rothschild in fact helped many Jews who had already settled in Eretz Israel. He purchased great stretches of land from Arabs and settled large numbers of Jews there. Over the course of time, he was known as the “Famous Patron”.

In Iyar 5850 (1890), Rabbi Shemuel went to visit Eretz Israel. Despite his age and fragile health, he was leading the first caravan of the “Lovers of Zion” on route for our Holy Land.

On the first of Sivan they reached the port of Jaffa, and when Rabbi Shemuel arrived in Jerusalem all the communities living there greeted him with great honor. At the request of Rav Shemuel Salant, Rabbi Shemuel gave a speech on Shabbat in the “Hurba”, a large synagogue in the old city. After visiting various institutions in Jerusalem, he went to visit new settlements, without forgetting nearly a single one. He was especially interested in the construction of Petah Tikva, the oldest of the new settlements, which had been founded by observant, G-d fearing Jews in 5638 (1878). In Yahud (near Petah Tikva) he encountered his old-time friend the Gaon Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Jaffe, the Rav of Ruzhany. He saw him as he was walking with his students among the olive fields of Yahud, taking in the pure air and enjoying the beauty of nature in our Holy Land. Upon seeing this he exclaimed, “Whoever wants to have a sense of the World to Come, he just has to come to Yahud. There he will see the world of Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel, a world without jealousy or hate, where the Tzaddikim live and rejoice in the splendor of the Shechinah.”

When he returned from his voyage, he encouraged the rich to hurry and purchase land in Eretz Israel, and to purchase as much as possible.

It was in this way that the Gaon Rabbi Shemuel served his people and his country up to the last moments of his life, passing away on Sivan 13, 5658 (1898). His name will always figure prominently among those who developed Eretz Israel, one of the greatest mitzvot in our Torah.




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