Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel Michelson

The Rabbinic Council of Warsaw counted about 20 rabbis in its ranks, all of them Torah greats. Among them was one rabbi who was known for being a very active scholar, one that the Jews of Warsaw called the “Rav of Plonsk” (the city where he previously served as rabbi). However outside of Warsaw people knew him by his actual name, Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel Michelson, the author of the book of responsa entitled Tirosh VeYitzhar.

Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel was born on Shevat 9, 5623 (1863) in Bilgorei, in the province of Lublin. His father was Rabbi Avraham Chaim (from a family that included many rabbis and Torah greats), and his mother was Chana Beila.

Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel used to say that a miracle happened to him when he was very young. While his mother was staying with her father Rabbi Shemuel Eliyahu, armed Poles entered their home and fired upon his mother while she was holding the tiny Tzvi Yechezkel in her arms. The miracle was that they were not killed.

His parents hired the best personal tutor for him, and they also purchased valuable books for the boy. The young Tzvi Yechezkel began to assemble a nice library for himself, studying Torah “as I poured out my soul with great effort” (which he recounts in the introduction to his book Pinot HaBayit). By the age of 12, he already knew several tractates along with Tosaphot and portions of the Shulchan Aruch by heart. It was also at that time that he began to write Torah commentaries and entered into correspondence with the greats of the generation. When he grew up, he was sent to study in the Biala yeshiva. There he became close friends with the Rosh Yeshiva and Rav, the Rebbe Zev Nachum, who after a certain time addressed him in his letters as “the one whom I cherish as the apple of my eye.”

In 5639 he married Hinde Seryl, the daughter of his uncle (his mother’s brother), Rabbi David Tevel of Shverdsharf, who generously provided for him. Rabbi David purchased expensive books for his son-in-law and sent him to well-known spas in order for him to recover from various illnesses. He studied Torah day and night while living in his father-in-law’s home, and it was during that time that he was given Semichah by the giants of the generation, namely Rabbi Shneur Zalman Fradkin of Lublin (the author of Torat Chesed), Rabbi Chaim Elazar Wachs of Kalish (the author of Nefesh Chaya), and Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Teomim Moladavi.

In the meantime, his father-in-law experienced a reversal of fortune, and Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel decided to open up a print shop in order to earn a living. He went to ask for advice from the Gerer Rebbe (the author of Sefat Emet), since he was one of his chassidim. The Rebbe did not agree that he should go into business: “You should be a Rav in Israel, not a businessman,” the Rebbe told him. As he was returning from Ger, the leaders of the Jewish community from the city of Krasnobrod came to him with an offer to become their Rav. Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel immediately packed his things and left for Krasnobrod in order to obey his Rebbe’s wishes. Rabbi Gershon Chanoch Leiner, the Rebbe of Radzin and author of Techelet and Sidrei Taharot, wrote to the inhabitants of Krasnobrod to congratulate them on their new Rav: “Rejoice, residents of Krasnobrod, for a great man of Israel is among you.”

Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel remained as the Rav of Krasnobrod for nine years. Then in 5653, he was offered the position as Rav of Plonsk. After asking his Rav the Sefat Emet for advice, he accepted.

Not long afterwards a cholera epidemic broke out. Instead of leaving the city as many others did, Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel devoted himself entirely to saving as many people as he could. He helped to build a makeshift hospital, and he organized and participated with a group of people who took turns in caring for the sick. He also fell ill, but managed to recover from his bout with cholera. After the epidemic ended, the governor of the province, although a well-known anti-Semite, publicly thanked him for his devotion to the residents of the city during the crisis. Everyone then praised the Rav for his deeds.

In 5671 (1911), the Russian government decreed that all Jewish schools, including chederim (elementary schools), must give students a month and a half of vacation time, just as public schools did. Jews viewed this law as resulting in an enormous abandonment of Torah, for at that time Jewish children were accustomed to studying Torah every day throughout the year, and each day lost was considered like a sin.

The leaders of Jewish communities throughout Russia addressed Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel and asked that he intervene with the Russian Minister of Education in order to annul this evil decree. He then went to the minister and described to him the tremendous fear that had gripped the Jewish community because of the proposed law. The minister listened to the moving request from the Rav of Plonsk, and the decree was annulled. Rabbis and community leaders sent him a letter a thanks and their wishes that he live to see G-d’s salvation of His people Israel.

Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel’s great deeds made him famous in the Jewish world, and the community leaders of Warsaw invited him to join the Rabbinic Council of Warsaw, which he accepted. He held this position, along with its heavy responsibilities, until the city fell to the Nazis during the Second World War. He was respected and honored by all levels of society, and his personal warmth also attracted many Jews who were far from Torah and Judaism.

Upon coming to Warsaw, he organized a national assembly on the problems concerning Shabbat observance. The assembly’s invitation was signed by such figures as the Chafetz Chaim and Rabbi Menachem Zemba. Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel also established an organization devoted to the purity of Jewish women, and he worked for the construction of mikvaot and public bathhouses that were modern and hygienic. Even though he was extremely occupied with the needs of the community, he found time to study Torah and publish a number of books. Nevertheless, many of his writings remained in manuscript form and were lost during the Holocaust.

Rabbi Tzvi Yechezkel worked intensely for settlements in Eretz Israel, and he generated great interest for etrogim of the Holy Land. In his book Tirosh VeYitzhar he wrote, “Since I have been teaching Torah, I have requested the members of my community to purchase etrogim from the Holy Land. Thank G-d they listened, and now there are almost no etrogim from Corfu [a Greek island] in my city.”

He was in the habit of saying, “Scripture states: ‘If I fail to a’aleh [elevate] Jerusalem above the foremost of my joys’ [Psalms 137:6]. The word a’aleh is composed of the initials of Etrog, Aravah, Lulav, and Hadass, which teaches us that the four species that a Jew takes during Sukkot should come from Eretz Israel!”

The story of his long and active life ended in great tragedy. He spent his last days in the Warsaw ghetto under Nazi servitude.

When the time came for the Rav to be sent to Auschwitz, he enveloped himself in his Tallit and Tefillin, then went to his room to study Gemara. When a Nazi came into his apartment to check if he was there, he drew back upon seeing the noble face of the Rav, then 80 years old, and exclaimed before leaving, “It’s Moses himself!” The Rav then went outside into the square and joined the ranks of his Jewish brothers. He wanted to be with his fellow Jews at that terrible time, a time in which they were going to sanctify G-d’s Name in holiness and purity. The elderly Rav stood straight and was immersed in thought. He perished in August 1943, along with the glorious Judaism of Warsaw. May G-d avenge his blood. Amen.




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