61 years ago today, 5 Shevat 5708 (Jan 16, 1948), 35 Hebrew University students set out to the besieged settlers of Gush Etzion. A previous convoy had been attacked a month before, and the settlers of Ramat Rachel themselves were attacked twice in the previous week. So, at an age when most of us don’t have bigger worries than keeping our grades up or finishing the next paper these youths volunteered with the Haganah and chose to head into danger. Under the leadership of Danny Mas, they each took a 60 lb pack and headed into the Judean Hills.

We don’t know exactly what happened next, but there were enough messages intercepted by the British police to reconstruct some detail. (Not that the British tried to use this information to save lives.) The group passed an Arab shepherd outside the town of Suref, and rather than kill him to ensure his silence, they compassionately chose to simply lie about their intent. The shepherd informed an armed group, and this troop was attacked twice, involving hundred of local Arabs.

Dr Solomon Bloom tells his part of the story in an open letter to his daughter:

The settlement Ramat Rachel, slightly south of Jerusalem, was being besieged by the Arab Legion. The Haganah decided to send a small force of thirty-five soldiers, most from the Pal Mach’s best veterans, plus a few from our group of American recruits, to try to lift the terrible threat at Ramat Rachel. I was one of the Americans selected to join the thirty-five. During the final determination of who was to go, I was on my bunk listening to the officers of our battalion discussing those to be sent. One said; “Well we can’t send Shlomo Bloom, he’s married.” The other officer asked; “Why not?” The reply came back; “Well suppose Shlomo becomes a casualty and doesn’t get back here after this action. Then we have his American wife sitting, grieving alone here in Jerusalem. We can’t handle all the problems that would come up. There will be too many diplomatic and political problems if that happens; we just can’t be concerned with such a problem.” So I was struck from the list and Moshe Pearlstein, whom I had trained with but had no previous U. S. army experience, was selected in my place to join the thirty-five.

I will always remember how formidable – yes, how heroic – the “35” appeared in all their battle gear, as they assembled on the edge of Beit Hakarem. They were the Yishuv’s best and seemed invincible in my eyes. The group went out to reach Ramat Rachel, but never made it through the Judean hills. Twenty-four hours went by and no word from the “35.” Then our officers assembled a further group, I among them, to seek them out. Just before we started, the officers were listening to the news and there was this British bulletin stating that the “35” had been caught in an Arab ambush and there were no survivors. This tragedy was a terrible blow to the Haganah, the kibbutz fell to the Arab Legion a few days later and its surviving members were taken prisoner.

My dear daughter Ruth, I write this story forty-seven years after its occurrence. Being married to my first wife Helen in January of 1948 was my salvation. And what eternal gratitude I have for that Haganah officer who decided not to send me because of my marriage. That sweet soul Moshe, my good friend from training days and life together in the Haganah, became, as far as I know, one of the first Americans to fall in the war of independence for Israel. His sacrifice has given me a long eventful life – baruch Ha-shem. And it was just that twist of fate that I was luckily married at that time.

Ruth, if you should ever visit Israel again, be sure to ask the location of the “Forest of the Thirty-five.” Yes, there is today a forest planted to memorialize those “35” hero soldiers of Israel.

Moshe Pearlstein, the person who volunteered in Dr. Bloom’s place, was my grandfather’s cousin.

I recall the last time I visited my grandfather a”h, which was a few weeks before the yahrzeit. “Grandpa” expressed his frustration that he no longer healthy enough to make it to the annual gathering of family members of the Lamed Hei at the military cemetary Har Herzl. His worries that he would take with him a piece of the past were justified. I wish I had asked my grandpa when he was still alive more about Moshe Pearlstein so that I could draw for you a better portrait. (I wished I had asked him more about many things.)

What I do know is that Moshe Pearlstein made aliyah from Jersey City, NJ. He was an alumnus of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchal Elchanan (today the yeshiva affiliated with YU) who was studying Agriculture and Jewish Studies at the time of his murder. He was 23.

None of them survived. They were so brutally beaten, Rav Aryeh Levin zt”l had to rely on a Goral haGra, a lottery system attributed to the Vilna Gaon, to identify the last 12 bodies.

Danny Mas, the leader, was an amateur cartoonist. He drew the pictures on the right. We’re not talking of hardened soldiers, anonymous “troops”. We’re speaking of young people who put the lives of those at Ramat Rachel, ahead of their own. Men who risked, and ultimately gave, their own lives rather than risk killing an enemy civilian needlessly.
The names of these 35, the Lamed Hei, were:

  • Yisrael Alonai (Marzel)
  • Haim Engel
  • Benny (Sailor) Bogoslavsky
  • Yehuda Bitansky
  • Oded Binyamin
  • Ben-Tzion Ben-Meir
  • Yaakov Ben-Atar
  • Yoseph Baruch
  • Eitan Gaon
  • Sabo Goland
  • Yitzchak Gintzburg
  • Yitzchak HaLevi
  • Eliyahu Hershkovitz
  • Yitzchak Zvuluni
  • David Tash (Tur Shalom)
  • Alexander Cohen
  • Yaakov Cohen (Jordan)
  • Yechiel Kalev
  • Yaakov Kaspi
  • Yona Levine
  • Alexander (Avraham) Lusting
  • Eliyahu Mizrachi
  • Amnon (Mischel) Michaeli
  • Danniel (Danny) Mas
  • Shaul (Sully) Pnoali
  • Moshe Pearlstein
  • Binyamin (Benitzky) Persitz
  • Baruch Pat
  • David Tzabari
  • David Zwebner (Shag)
  • Yaakov Koting
  • Yoseph (Yup) Kopler
  • Tuvia Kushnir
  • Danniel (Chichu) Riech
  • Yaakov Shmueli

It’s strange to think, but they would have been, should have been, grandparents by now.

But it’s inspiring to think of the human potential. Man’s ability to place others ahead of his own very survival.

Yehi zichram barukh.

Osniel ben Kenaz

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב בשעה שנפטר משה רבינו לגן עדן אמר לו ליהושע שאל ממני כל ספיקות שיש לך אמר לו רבי כלום הנחתיך שעה אחת והלכתי למקום אחר לא כך כתבת בי (שמות לג) ומשרתו יהושע בן נון נער לא ימיש מתוך האהל מיד תשש כחו של יהושע ונשתכחו ממנו שלש מאות הלכות ונולדו לו שבע מאות ספיקות ועמדו כל ישראל להרגו אמר לו הקב”ה לומר לך אי אפשר לך וטורדן במלחמה שנאמר (יהושוע א) ויהי אחרי מות משה עבד ה’ ויאמר ה’ וגו’ במתניתין תנא אלף ושבע מאות קלין וחמורין וגזירות שוות ודקדוקי סופרים נשתכחו בימי אבלו של משה אמר רבי אבהו אעפ”כ החזירן עתניאל בן קנז מתוך פלפולו

Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: At the time that our teacher Moshe was released to gen eden, he said to Yehoshua, “Ask me about any uncertainty you may have.” [Yehoshua said, “Have I ever left your side, even for a moment? You have written about me, ‘and his assistant, the young Yehoshua, did not stir from the ohel mo’eid.’ ” Immediately, Yehoshua’s strength waned and he forgot 300 halakhos and 700 doubts were born to him. All of Israel got up to kill [Yehoshua]. Hashem said to him, “It is impossilbe for Me to [let Myself] tell you. Go, distract Israel with war.” As it says, “and it was, after Moshe, Hashem’s servant, died . . . God said, ‘Go and cross the Jordan…’ .” (Yehoshua 1)

– Temurah 16a

אמר רבי יוחנן שעורין ועונשין הלכה למשה מסיני עונשין מכתב כתיבי אלא הכי קאמר שיעורים של עונשין הלכה למשה מסיני תניא נמי הכי שיעורין של עונשין הלכה למשה מסיני אחרים אומרים בית דינו של יעבץ תיקנום והכתיב (ויקרא כז) אלה המצות שאין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה אלא שכחום וחזרו ויסדום

Rabbi Yochanan said: Measures and punishments are [all] laws given to Moshe from Sinai. “Punishments”? They are written [and thus wrong to classify them as orally given to Moshe]! Rather, this is what was said: The measures over which one is punished were given to Moshe from Sinai. Other say the court of Yaavetz established them. But doesn’t it say “These are the mitzvos” (Vayiqra 27) — that no prophet is worthy of adding anything from now on? Rather, they forgot them, and they went back and reestablished them.

– Yuma 80a

תנא הוא עתניאל הוא יעבץ

Mishna: Asniel is Yaavetz.

– Temurah (ibid)

Today, the 7th of Adar, not only marks the birth and death of Moshe. I want to point out another significant event. Until Moshe’s death, one could resolve halakhah by turning to Moshe to ask Hashem. However, we see in this gemara that the moment Moshe died, “lo bashamayim hi — it [the Torah] is not in heaven” took effect. Hashem couldn’t restore the lost Torah to Yehoshua, that’s not what Torah is supposed to be.

Osniel ben Qenaz did something new. He was the first rabbi in the sense of the halachic give-and-take we find in the mishnah, gemara, codes, commentaries, responsa and lomdus. The era of Rabbinic Judaism begins with Osniel, even as Yehoshua carries on the prophetic inspired approach to Torah.

Osniel prefigures another event in Jewish history. Note the phrase “שכחום וחזרו ויסדום — they forgot [the laws], and they went back and reestablished them.

דאמר רבי ירמיה ואיתימא רבי חייא בר אבא מנצפ”ך צופים אמרום ותיסברא והכתיב (ויקרא כז) אלה המצות שאין הנביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה אלא מה’ הואי, מידע לא הוה ידעין הי באמצע תיבה הי בסוף תיבה, ואתו צופים תקנינהו. -ואכתי, אלה המצות – שאין הנביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה! – אלא: שכחום וחזרו ויסדום

Rabbi Yirmiyah said and others believe it was Rav Chiya bar Abba: Menatzpa”kh [an acronym listing the letters that have final forms] were said by the seers. Is this logical?  But doesn’t it say “These are the mitzvos” (Vayiqra 27) — that no prophet is worthy of adding anything from now on? Rather, they are from Hashem, but they didn’t know which went in the middle of the word and which at the end of the word, and the seers came and fixed it. But again “These are the mitzvos” (Vayiqra 27) — that no prophet is worthy of adding anything from now on! Rather, they forgot them, and they went back and reestablished them.

– Shabbos 104a, Megillah 3a

And similarly the Ashuris script is described as restored,  as well as many other things forgotten during the Babylonian Exile. This same using reason to restore what was forgotten was a key part of the job of the Anshei Kenesses haGdolah. Theirs was not only an era after much Torah was forgotten during the pressures and assimilation of exile, but also the end of a prophetic alternative. The Great Assembly included the last of the prophets. One couldn’t “feel for” the right answer as reliably, and halachic reasoning came to the fore.

I fell in love with one of the central ideas in Professor Moshe Koppel’s book, “Metahalakhah”. There are two ways to learn a language: The native speaker doesn’t learn rules of grammar before using them, he just knows what “sounds right”. In contrast, an immigrant builds his sentences by using formalized rules, learning such terms as “past imperfect” and memorizing the forms that fit each category. R’ Koppel notes that the rules can never perfectly capture the full right vs wrong. A poet has to know when one can take license.

He argues that halakhah is similarly best transmitted by creating “native speakers”. It is only due to loss of our progressive loss of the Sinai culture with each generation that we need to rely on transmitting codified rules. In each of our cases, there was a major cultural shift.

With Moshe’s death, we not only lost Moshe’s level of prophecy. Note the words spoken by Yehoshua. “I have no doubts; I never left your side.” Overconfidence, in contrast to Moshe’s anavah. And therefore there was a shift from knowing by having a prophetic feel for what’s right to formal rules of derashah, of qal vachomer and gezeira shava.

Similarly the reestablishment of numerous laws by Anshei Keneses haGedolah when their prophecy was waning, and they needed to restore the Torah forgotten by our being mingled among the nations by Sancheirev.

The 7th of Adar therefore also represents Torah in our generation. We’re still reeling from the cultural dislocation caused by the Holocaust and the shift of Torah centers from Europe to Israel and the United States. From Sepharadim being forced out of century old communities. We’re still rebuilding. And again we see a focus on formal rules, on halachic guides.

However, there is a next step. Osniel was from the tribe of Yehudah and later became the first of the Judges, but he is not the one with whom Hashem established the kingship. It’s not until a leader emerges who is not only king, warrior and sage, but also the author of Tehillim — David.

Perhaps this is what it means when we say in the birkhas ahavah, the second blessing before the morning Shema, “lishmor vela’asos ulqayeim — to guard, to do, and to make permanent.” Shemirah, guarding, is a term used for prohibitions, mitzvos lo sa’asei. Asiyah obviously refers to duties, mitzvos asei. However, after watching to refrain from the prohibited and to do the mandatory, one has to allow them to make a permanent impact on one’s soul. This is qiyum hamitzvos —making the permanence of the mitzvos.

An Osniel can reestablish a mitzvah. Yasdum, literally — he gave them a foundation. But we still had Yehoshua giving us a building atop that foundation. We are now rebuilding our foundations. Now we need to Davidically stand upon them and sing.

(See also “Halachic Process – part I“.)

Hod shebiGevurah

Given that we’re a little shy on prophets right now, we have to find G-d’s word as He relays it as the Author of history. Looking at these “coincidences” He allows to crop up.

One of them is the convergance of meanings the Jewish People assign to the 27th of Nissan.

In the sefiras ha’omer, today is day 12, which the Qabbalists teach corresponds to the sefirah of Hod as it is manifest as part of the week’s sefirah of Gevurah. In other words, somehow day 12 has/represents the aspect of Divine Will which we perceive as the humility inherent in self-control.

More recently, most of the Jewish world assigned today as a day to remember the Holocaust. I am not getting into the question of its religious significance, if any. Looking at this “coincidence” as simply a historical artifact created / permitted by the Almighty…

During the omer, my email signature generator poses thought-questions related to the sefiros of the day. Today’s is “Hod shebiGevurah: What aspect of judgment forces the “judge” into submission?” And it struck me.

Nothing speaks to “Where was G-d during the Holocaust?” more than Hod shebiGevurah. G-d “held himself back” from acting, even though it caused the world to question Him.


Yeshivas Kenesses Yisrael (Slabodka), Chevron 1911

Yeshivas Kenesses Yisrael (Slabodka), Chevron 1911

This Shabbos, 18 Av, marks the 80th yahrzeit of those killed in the 1929 massacre in Chevron.

The message of Slabodka, the yeshiva that relocated there before the massacre, is realizing the potential and dignity of every person you encounter. Dan Slonim Hy”d not of the yeshiva, although he was always there when they needed assistance. As he was for every one, both the Jews, the local Arabs, even the very members of the mob who slaughtered him, his wife Hannah, his little son Aharon, and 19 others in his home.

The message of Slabodka is also the dignity of oneself, knowing one’s true worth, and how to strive for the kind of greatness Hashem Yisbarakh created you capable of acheiving. Whether it was the constant learning of Simchah Yitzchak Broide, who was killed in the yeshiva, his blood spilled across the gemara; or the chessed of Alter “Ashpooler” Sher, one of the students who founded a gemach within the yeshiva; R’ Moishe “Warsawer” Grodzinsky, a talmid of the Chafeitz Chaim who was known to greet every person first, and with a smile — whether the yeshiva student in his bording house, the sheikh or the Arab waterboy.  (Reb Moishe Warsawer was killed just weeks before his son’s wedding.)

These are just a few portraits of those who were killed that day. All of them very distinct, made in different molds. And yet each led a life of reaching for greatness.

The Alter of Slabodka with Students, Chevron

The following was written by Rabbi Leo Gottesman of the West Side Congregation and a Yeshivas Chevron Alumnus, on the occasion of the first yahrzeit in 1930. He spoke of those who came to Chevron, and told stories of those he knew who were murdered there. I used that section as one of the sources for the quick sketches I wrote above. However, I chose to include Rabbi Gottesman’s closing words of hope in full — that G-d is still with us, and it is for us to continue the ideals for which they lived.

WHAT shall we derive from all this?

Shall we allow the hopes and dreams and prayers of over eighteen centuries to be washed out by the blood of the martyrs of last August? Shall we throw up our hands in discouragement and call ourselves defeated.

No! That is unthinkable!

Reading over what I have written before; reading the account of the wonderful, the pure, the noble souls whose earthly careers were snuffed out in the twinkling of a gory, degraded passion for which the Arabs will never be able to forgive themselves when they have grown more enlightened, it might seem indeed that we are in a helpless situation. It might seem that in addition to our own helplessness we are faced with an absence of divine sanction; that God, Who permitted that unspeakable atrocity, has not cared to look with favor upon our efforts to reestablish ourselves spiritually and materially in the land of our forefathers. But to think so woud be to fall into an enormous error.

It would be wrong to hold in mind only the few score martyrs who fell beneath the weapons of the mad mob—who fell thus and thereby rose so high that it is given to few to hold rank with them in their greatness. It would be wrong not to give thought to those who were saved. And by this I mean not the vast multitude, the whole Jewish population of Palestine, more than 150,000 souls, whose survival may be ascribed to the purely natural cause that the danger did not come very close to them. I mean rather the hundreds who, though engulfed by the flames, were nevertheless drawn out of the fire; and were saved by such means that it is hard not to say— miracle, hard not to perceive the hand of Providence in it, hard not to realize that their being saved means that God has not averted His face from us but stands by yet to spare His children and speed us on the road to victory.

Yes, a few died; but many more were saved. Let us not make the mistake of looking only upon the little heap of sacred ashes. Let us gaze with understanding eyes upon the survivors, the living evidence of our ultimate victory. Because I have said so much in detail about those that died, let me say something about those that were saved; and I will leave it to many others to build up the remainder of the encouraging picture. I will content myself by concluding this brief record with a few accounts of how some of our fellows escaped the fate that threatened alt.

I have already written of some that survived, the manner of it being nothing short of miraculous. There were Lezer Yanishker and the young sister of Hannah Slonim, who were hidden in a closet. Whence came so much strength to the arm of a single youth, holding a door shut against the efforts of a mob——?

And there was the wife of Zaimon Welan-sky who, clinging to her husband, fell beside him in a swoon as he was stabbed by many knives, and was covered with his blood—so that the Arabs though they had stabbed her too. By this her life was saved. How much less than a miracle is it?

And there was William Berman’s younger brother. Who can say by what miracle he was permitted to live even where his brother and his friends were murdered. What stopped the Arabs, who thought him dead, from making sure of it?

Not all the Arabs in Hebron participated in the massacre. Some remained aloof, and some helped the intended victims to escape. Many hid in pits, in trees, in bushes—anywhere to be out of sight when the torrent broke loose. And many were concealed by friendly Arabs. One Arab gave shelter to thirty people, including the old Rabbi Slonim.

Two young boys were caught alone in a house when a mob began to break in the door. They ran up to the roof. The mob entered and plundered what they could. Then they began to look for persons—and were soon bound for the roof. The trembling boys sought a way of escape. They looked down into the yard, and there was an Arab—beckoning to them to jump down. They declined at first, being afraid of him. But seeing the mob about to come up, they were forced to take the leap—the height not being great. The Arab below took them by the hand and led them to a safe place and guarded over them until the worst was over.

Among those whose escape borders very close upon the miraculous is Rabbi Mosheh Mordecai Epstein, the venerable Dean of the Yeshivah. He was in his own house when the attack began, and there were twenty-five people with him. The doors were fastened. They were not molested at first. But late in the day, when the Arabs were finished with their horrible work elsewhere, they turned to the Rabbi’s house.

As they were actually breaking in the door, some trucks transporting soldiers from Beer Sheba to Jerusalem passed through Hebron and though the street where the Rabbi’s beleaguered house stood. These soldiers had not been sent for by anyone in Hebron. They had no business there and had no knowledge that anything was wrong in the city of the patriarchs. They were merely passing through on their way to Jerusalem . But they arrived in the nick of time. Five minutes later would have been too late to save many lives.

The soldiers, not knowing what was going on, but seeing a violently behaving mob, fired a few shots in the air—and the cowardly pack dispersed. They were in no mood for anything but the murder of the defenseless men and women and children. Thus, at the last moment, at the very moment of resignation, the Dean, and over a score of people with him, were saved.

Too numerous are the escapes, natural and, in a sense, miraculous, for me to write of all that I have heard about, though many of them are so extraordinary that it is hard to resist putting them on record. But I will content myself with giving just one more here—that of my own brother—whose escape was hardly less noteworthy or miraculous than any.

My brother was studying in Hebron . Having received a check from home, he was in Jerusalem on Friday, August 23, purchasing a suit. Late in the afternoon he took the auto that runs between Jerusalem and Hehron, intending to return in time to be in Hebron for the Sabbath.

The locality was in a hum of excitement. Many rumors were afloat—among them a rumor that trouble was brewing for the Jews in Hebron . My brother’s friends tried to dissuade him from returning to Hebron . They begged him to stay over in Jerusalem for the Sabbath and if things remained quiet in Hebron he could return to the Yeshivah on Sunday. But my brother, like the other American boys, was not afraid. He was confident that no harm would befall them. He insisted on returning for Shabbos to Hebron and, against the wise counsel of his friends, took the auto for Hebron and was soon on his way.

It happened that he was the only Jew on the auto. All the other passengers were Arabs. As soon as they were on the road, he began to feel most uncomfortable. The Arabs were whispering among themselves, and casting peculiar glances at him, and pointing to him when they thought he was not looking, and smiling in an unpleasant way. He began to feel that his friends in Jerusalem had been right.

What if indeed some horror was afoot? The Jews in Hebron were not ignorant of the danger. There was nothing his presence could contribute if trouble really came. And were not these snickering Arabs pointing to him as “another customer” riding carelessly into the jaws of death? He began to wish he had not started out. He wished he could go back. If only there were some way of withdrawing from this unfriendly company! Might they not attack him on some lonely part of the road? But what excuse could he offer for having the car stopped? And if he began to run, woud they not chase after him?

Suddenly a great gust of wind arose and carried his hat off a good way back on the road. He began to shout to the driver to stop—he must recover his valuable hat. The driver was in no hurry to hear him. He took his time at it, and slowly, very slowly, brought the car to a stop. In the meantime the car had gone on a considerable distance and the hat was far, far back. My brother alighted and loudly requested the driver to wait there with the bus until he got his hat. Was there not a malignant grin upon the driver’s face as he promised that he would certainly wait for him?

My brother hastened along after his hat. What with the distance the car had gone, and the velocity of the wind, the hat had been left very far behind. When my brother got it, he was practically out of sight of the auto. Not stopping to dust it, he fixed the hat firmly upon his head and began to walk at a very rapid pace—back towards Jerusalem —and let the automobile wait there for him.

And so it happened that the next morning, Saturday, August 24, the day of the massacre at Hebron, my brother was not there, but safe in Jerusalem . Had it not been for that blessed gust of wind that carried his hat off, my brother would have been in Hebron together with Bennie Horowitz and William Berman, and the others—and who knows what might have been?

One of my friends, to whom I told of this miraculous escape, remarked that that was no ill wind which blew Friday afternoon on the road between Hebron and Jerusalem. Indeed it was not an ill wind but a wind of Providence, of that same Providence Who has watched over the Jewish people and preserved it throughout the long night of the exile, Who watches over it still in the dawn, and will continue to do so through the bright new day that is speedily coming.

תהא נשמתם צרורות בצרור החיים

May their Souls Be Bound in the Bond of Life

… and may we follow the path that it was  not their lot to complete.

25th of Shevat

Today is R’ Yisrael Salanter’s yahrzeit.

I just want to point you to a biography of Rav Yisrael written in 1899 (16 years after his passing), posted by fellow AishDas-nik R’ Neil Harris on his blog. Translation by Google, with some touch-up by RNH.

Here’s a teaser. Click on the post’s title for the complete blog entry.

Rabbi Israel Lipkin was born on 3 November 1810 at Sagar in the province Samogitia in Russia, the birthplace and birth land of his father. His father, Rabbi Wolf Lipkin, held the office of a rabbi, first in Goldingen (Courland) and afterwards in Telshe in Russia.
From the high learning of his father came his “marginal notes” to the Talmud.  These notes can be found reprinted in the latest edition of the great Vilna Talmud.  He had also been the first teacher of his son, Israel.  In accordance with the custom at that time among the Russian Jews, which was still standing, almost in boyhood Lipkin became engaged to the daughter of one of the religionists named Rabbi Jacob Eisenstein of Salant, called Jacob, who takes over, also according to the fashion, food and drink for the young couple in their home while the young husband is carefree and undisturbed resigns employment with the doctrine….
My previous posts about R’ Yisrael’s yahrzeit: