ABOUT – THE HISTORY OF BELZ
Die Shtetele Belz
WHERE IT ALL STARTED
Belz, a small town in Galicia, a small country in Eastern Europe that no longer exists on the map today, is apparently no different from hundreds of other pre-war Jewish Shtetlech. However, the mere mention of the name Belz is enough to evoke powerful emotions in the hearts of thousands of Jews – to awaken nostalgic memories in the hearts of those who had the privilege to visit Belz before it was devastated and destroyed during the Second World War Holocaust and destruction of Eastern European Jewry and to kindle the imagination and yearning in the hearts of the younger generations who have heard such wonderful tales and legends about Belz from their parents and grandparents or from their teachers and community elders.
Like Babylon and Constantinople, throughout history, there have been cities that had more popular appeal than most other cities and the very mention of their names conjures up visions of far away exotic cities and fabulous fables and legends lost in the mists of time. Just so for thousands of Jews, the name Belz is associated with tales and legends of the famous Belzer Rebbes and their Chassidim, legends of piety and holiness, of kindness and compassion, and wonderful tales of miraculous deeds and supernatural occurrences!
The air in Belz vibrated with excitement when the Rebbes and their thousands of Chassidim celebrated the Jewish holidays and the holiness during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement was almost tangible. Belz, a town that even now, after the passage of three score years since the streets that used to throng with thousands of Chassidim fell silent, is still remembered fondly and intimately as Die Shtetele Belz…
The geographical town of Belz is now a sad and forlorn town, no more than an empty shell, a mere shadow of its former self. The houses and streets seem to reflect and remember their former glory. But the spiritual town of Belz, the Chassidic Shtetel Belz, has been transplanted to Israel and is very much alive and thriving in the heart of Jerusalem.
The physical town of Belz was – and still is to this day – a small insignificant market town. It was not geographically built in a very strategic position and was not a particularly wealthy town. Spiritually, however, Belz was considered one of the most influential Jewish cities in Eastern Europe.
Although her everlasting claim to fame is the Chassidic dynasty of the Belzer Rebbes, it is interesting to note that for hundreds of years, long before the advent of Chassidus, the Rabbinical post in Belz was considered an influential and prestigious position that attracted great and famous Rabbis and Torah sages, who resided and officiated as Rabbi of Belz. We will name here just a few of the most famous amongst them; Rabbi Yehoshuah Falk (1550 – 1614), known as the S’mah, an acronym for his famous masterpiece Sefer M’eiras Einiyim, Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (1561 – 1640), commonly known as the Bach, an acronym for Bies Chodosh, the name he gave to his world-renowned commentary on the four mighty tractates of the Tur, and Rabbi Zecharye Mendle, author of B’ear Heitiv, a commentary on the Shulchan Oruch.
Sadly, despite so many great and illustrious Rabbis serving as Rav in Belz, the local inhabitants were mostly simple people. Indeed, many of them were coarse and uneducated ignoramuses, real Amai Ha’aretz! For this reason, they did not appreciate the greatness of their Rabbis and often treated them disrespectfully.
THE STORY OF THE HOLY BACH
Legend has it that one of the great Rabbis that served as Rav in Belz and fell foul of this unfortunate phenomenon was the mighty Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sirkus, the holy Bach, who served as Rav in Belz approximately two hundred years before the Sar Shalom, the founder of the Belz dynasty, came to Belz. Despite his greatness, the Holy Bach was not liked by the uncouth townsfolk, which is an understatement! History did not record why they were so hostile towards him, but one can assume that it was most likely caused by his efforts to guide them away from their loutish behavior towards the path of the righteous… The day that they managed to override the opposition of the more righteous members of the community and forced him to leave his post, and drove him out of town is indeed a dark page in the history of the Jews of Belz!
The task of informing the Bach of their intention and serving him his notice was delegated to the community beadle, the Shamesh. The shameless community leaders did not even have the decency, or perhaps they lacked the courage to approach him in person. Instead, they wrote him a Letter of Dismissal and gave it to the Shamesh to deliver.
The Shamesh, who was a simple but pious Jew, did not fulfill his unpleasant task immediately as instructed: “Today is Friday, Erev Shabbos”, he said to himself, “if I deliver this letter to our Rav today, he is sure to be upset and it may, Heaven Forbid, disturb and disrupt his Shabbos. I do not care that the Roshai Ha’kohal instructed me to deliver their nasty letter immediately! There is no way that I will disturb his Holy Shabbos!”
When Shabbos was over, the Shamesh had to fulfill the unpleasant task bestowed upon him by the Roshai Ha’kohal. When he received the letter, the Bach read it carefully and noticed that it was dated the previous Friday.
“Tell me, my good man, when were you entrusted with this letter and instructed to deliver it to me?” asked the Bach.
“Erev Shabbos”, mumbled the Shamesh.
“Well, why then did you delay the delivery until now?” asked the Bach gently.
The words came tumbling out in a torrent of tears: “Oiy! Holy Rebbe! I think it is horrible of them sending you such a nasty letter. But what could I do? I am only a simple Shamesh; who will listen to me? But nothing in the world would get me to deliver such a letter on Erev Shabbos and disturb the Rebbe’s Shabbos!”
The Bach was touched by his simple reply and said: “I see that you are a true Moiker Rabbonim, who loves and respects Talmidai Chachomim. May Hashem bless you with a son who will be a great Talmid Chochom!”
And so the Bach was driven out of Belz, and he moved on to other towns where his greatness was recognized and appreciated. He became Rav of the town of Krakow, the second largest Kehilla in Galicia, and to this day, people travel to Poland in order to visit and pray at his graveside in Krakow. In the meantime his blessing to the Shamesh was fulfilled, he had a son whom he call Yitzchok, who grew up to be a great Tzadik and Talmid Chochem and in due course it came about that he was elected to serve as the Rav of his hometown Belz!
While our faithful Shamesh received the blessings of the Bach, the rest of the townsfolk who had treated him so disrespectfully were not so lucky. Before he departed, he cursed them and said: “May it be the Will of Hashem that the inhabitants of this town, where I knew no peace and from whom I enjoyed no compassion nor mercy, shall never lead an easy life here. May their waters be tainted and their footways beset with mud and mire, and even after they depart from this world, may their bones know no peace!”
And indeed, Belz was afflicted with tainted water (later accounted for by the discovery of oil wells in the vicinity) and muddy roadways that were the characteristic outward signs of the town, and to this day, the desperate and miserable physical conditions endured by those who resided or visited Belz are described in almost as much detail as the spiritual ecstasy and uplifting experienced there!
But it was the fulfillment of the third part of the curse that was the most dramatic!
THE HOLY SAR SHALOM TAKES THE REIGN
It came about approximately 200 years later, when the Holy Sar Shalom z”l served as Rabbi of Belz, that the local government decided that they would like to build a new road that would connect with the towns and villages to the east of Belz to enhance her image as a town sitting on a crossroad. An engineering survey was commissioned by the local government’s Highways Department to decide where and how to construct the new road. An expert engineer, who had been brought over from Vienna, the capital of the Austrian – Hungarian Empire, studied the town’s topography and the surrounding countryside and drew up his proposals. He was not in the least bit concerned that according to his plan the new road would cut right through the ancient Jewish cemetery!
The fate of the Jewish burial ground did not worry the local government very much either, and despite repeated delegations from the Jewish community and even the intervention of the Sar Shalom, who at one point met with the surveyor and obtained his verbal agreement to change the plans, they pressed ahead with their road building project. In the year 1846 the ancient cemetery was dug up to make way for the new road and the graves were desecrated.
The Jews of Belz were permitted to collect all the exposed bones together with as much as possible of the surrounding earth. According to the Rebbe’s instructions, they were stored temporarily in the ladies’ gallery of the synagogue until they could be reburied.
When the road construction was over, the Belzer Rebbe ordered that the bones with the earth be returned to the roadside where they had been dug up from, and to this very day one can see the two small hillocks that were formed as the mounds of bones and earth were returned and the area continued to be known as Die Alte Heilige Ort – the Ancient [Jewish] Cemetery.
Naturally, the Jews of Belz were deeply saddened when their cemetery was desecrated, but when they turned to their holy Rabbi for an explanation, all he would say was that it was a direct result of the disrespectful way the residents of Belz treated the Bach when he served as their Rabbi and the disgraceful way in which he was eventually driven out of town!
According to the legends, one grave was left untouched when the rest of the old cemetery was dug up. The grave of the son of the Shamesh who was born with the blessing of the Bach because would not disrupt his Rebbe’s Shabbos!
MYSTICAL AND PHYSICAL BATTLES
As mentioned above Belz’s main claim to fame is the dynasty of Chassidic Rebbes who resided in Belz for over a century until the late Rebbe zt”l was forced to flee Nazi persecution during World War II. As their influence and fame spread throughout the Jewish world, Belz became a household name that is recognized and revered to this day. Physically Belz was no more than a small town, but in the Chassidic world, Belz was a metropolis, a bastion of Chassidus and Jewish study that attracted thousands of Jews from all walks of life. Indeed pilgrimage to Belz was so great that many religious Jewish travelers who entered train stations in Galicia were automatically offered tickets to Belz, as it was taken for granted that it was to Belz that they were headed!
The world as we know it is full of boundaries, physical boundaries and spiritual boundaries, boundaries that separate one person’s property from his neighbours, boundaries between one country’s territory and it’s neighbours. Often boundaries are disputed or even bitterly contested. Rivers of blood have been spilled over the years in countless wars and battles over the exact line or extent of some often invisible but nonetheless physical boundary. Just so in the spiritual world, there are boundaries between Holiness – Kedusha and the opposite of Kedusha, and even between different spiritual levels, between the Kedusha of a Cohen and the Kedusha of a Levi, between a Talmid Chochem and an Am Ha’aretz and so on.
The Jews of Eastern and Central Europe and especially the Chassidim lived in their respective countries for hundreds of years but did not feel themselves bound by the boundaries drawn by the various nations to separate them from their neighbours. They had maps and boundaries of their own! Their maps were based on the area of influence of the various Chassidic Rebbes, and national frontiers and boundaries were not taken into account at all! Thus a Chossid who lived in the Polish town of Tomashov, for example, considered that he lived in the Belzer Geigent, in other words, within the area of influence of the Belzer Rebbe. The fact that the Rebbe resided in Belz, a small town across the border in Eastern Galicia under the rule of the mighty Austrian Hungarian Empire, had little or no significance to them.
Rumor has it that a Belzer Chassid once had the privilege to meet the great Austrian monarch, Kaiser Franz Joseph. The Kaiser asked him his name and occupation, and place of residence. After talking with him for a few minutes, the Kaiser asked him: “Tell me, in your opinion, to whom does the area you live in really belong?”
Without any hesitation, the Chassid answered: “To whom? To the Belzer Rebbe of course!”
The Kaiser was somewhat taken back. He had intended to ask what the Jewish popular opinion was regarding who had the sovereign rights over the hotly disputed region he resided in; however, once he had recovered from his initial surprise, he smiled and agreed!
The Kaiser may have accepted the Chassid’s version of the territorial division, but in reality, the boundaries drawn by the ruling powers of the time created many difficulties and hardships for Chassidim living in those areas. Much in the same way as the Chassidim felt it did not concern them in any way if a certain area belonged to this country or another, so the ruling powers, when drawing their boundaries, did not consider which Rebbe the local Jewish population followed. This caused, at times, much distress to the Chassidim, who found themselves on the wrong side of the dividing line. The mere fact that they did not possess a passport or other similar travel documents would not deter them from traveling to their Rebbe, even if he were on the other side of an international border. It only meant that they had to exercise extreme care when crossing the border to avoid detection by the border patrols.
TRAVAILS AND TRAVELS
The very map took on a different perspective when in the hands of Chassidim. A traveller who wished to travel to Belz would not find the task in any way difficult, though the condition of many of the roads leading to Belz left much to be desired! However, it was a daunting task if he wanted to enter Chassidic Belz and experience their spiritual uplifting and learn to live their pious way of life. The small local train that puffed along a winding route stopping at many small stations along the way took on a metaphoric dimension; it signified the difficult and sometimes twisting route one needed to negotiate in order to “arrive” in Belz. Just as when looking out of the train windows, one caught occasional glimpses of the famous synagogue in Belz with the gilded balls on its fortified roof sparkling and twinkling in the distance, only for the train to twist away and for the vision to recede in the distance, so is the journey to holiness and perfection beset with setbacks and disappointments. Only those who persevere eventually reach their desired destination.
The stations the train visited along the route were sublime encrypted messages of fundamental Chassidic virtues relayed to the Chossid on a spiritual pilgrimage. Rava, as the town Rawa Ruska was locally referred to, indicated prayer, as in the words “Yehey Rava Kedomoch” – May it be thine will… Yaroslav (Jaroslow) really meant “Yiras Lev” – a heart full of awe, just as Lubishove meant “Libi Shoiv” – my heart [is full of] repentance. And finally, Unov, the Polish name for the town called Hivnov, referred to the Hebrew word for humility and modesty, the final requirement that the would-be pilgrim must acquire before he could enter the bastion of Chassidus and experience its accompanying celestial delights.
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