ABOUT – THE HISTORY OF BELZ
The Frierdige Rov zt”l
The Third Belzer Rebbe
While he was as charismatic a leader as his father before him, Rabbi Yissochor Dov is better known for his passion for Torah study. He encouraged his followers throughout the Chassidic world to promote and preserve the study of the Torah in the traditional way. To this end, he was instrumental in founding numerous schools to teach traditional Jewish values, as opposed to the more modern schools that were being introduced by the more ‘enlightened’ Jews who were looking to replace the traditional and, in their opinion, outdated values.
Rabbi Yissochor Dov, the Frierdige Rav, was the Mittler Rav’s third son. Many researchers who have studied the phenomena of Chassidic Rabbis and their followers have debated the question of whether a Rebbe had the status of a Ruler and his followers his loyal subjects; hence, in essence, a Chassidic court could be considered a mini kingdom or a kingdom within a kingdom. Well, if we venture to concur with those who have come to a positive conclusion, Rabbi Yissochor Dov, the Frierdige Rav, was a prime example. He was a dynamic leader with an almost uncanny understanding of the prevailing political trends. Anyone who met him immediately felt that he was in the presence of a regal personality. Under his leadership, the Belzer influence spread dramatically, and his advice and often his support were sought by religious and lay leaders from far and wide. The fame of Belz reached way beyond the boundaries of the Austro – Hungarian Empire and its neighboring countries, and by the turn of the 20th century, there were Belzer Chassidim in Great Britain, North and South America, and as far away as Australia.
Under his rule, the ranks of the Yoshvim – literally translated ‘those who are sitting’, a term used to describe young men who revoked all worldly pleasures and came to Belz and spent months and even years immersed in Torah study while their every need was paid for by the Belzer establishment – grew and swelled as more and more young men were attracted to Belz. Like a mighty beacon shining into the darkness, so the light of the Torah shining from Belz attracted young scholars from far and wide. In his father’s days, the overwhelming majority of Yoshvim were older and hence more mature students; indeed, many of them went on to serve as community Rabbis or religious teachers and instructors. Under Reb Yissochor Dov’s guidance, Belz started to draw in much younger students, and in order to accommodate them, he reorganized the structure of the Chevre, as the Yoshvim organization was referred to, and he employed a great scholar called Reb Mechele Zolkover to teach and instruct the young scholars.
Alongside the famous synagogue, he built an equally famous Beis Hamedrash – a House of Learning where the sweet sound of Torah study rang out around the clock. From five o’clock every morning, come rain or shine, and even during the dark winter months when it was still long before the crack of dawn, students crowded around the table to hear Reb Mechele’s discourses. The Beis Hamedrash, which was always warm and bright light, attracted simple people and those thirsty for Torah, and as instructed by the Rebbe, every effort was made to make them comfortable so that they too should keep on coming.
Dark Days – WWI
The years of relative calm and tranquillity were brought to a brutal end at the onset of the First World War. As the area around Belz was churned up by the raging armies, the Rebbe and his entire court managed to escape to relative safety in neighboring Hungary.
During those difficult times, the Frierdige Rov emmerged as a mighty pillar of support and stability. His court-in-exile was like a magnet for countless refugees, many of whom had lost all their worldly possessions and even their entire families. When they came to the Rebbe, he supported and comforted them physically and spiritually.
His faith and belief in the help of Hashem were steadfast even in those dark and difficult days. He once remarked wonderingly: “The Germans say that the world is theirs. The English claim that they own the seas. But my Yosselle – (referring to a Chossid called Reb Yosselle Krakowitzer who led the prayers in Belz on the Days of Awe), he sings so sweetly: The sea belongs to Him, for He made it, and the dry land – His hand created it…”!
While he was eternally optimistic, he never underestimated the importance of action. When he overheard someone saying that in these difficult times, only Hashem can help, he turned on him angrily and said: “Of course, we must ask Hashem for His help continuously, but above all, we must do our physical part to help those in need and we cannot relieve ourselves from out duties by evoking the help of Hashem!”
Once during a meeting to discuss the dire situation of the refugees and those caught in war-torn areas and unable to escape, one of the participating Rabbis said: “Oh! We are living in such difficult times; surely it is time for Moshiach to come and redeem us all!”
“No! No!” he retorted angrily, “now is not the time to pray for Moshiach! Now is the time to pray for Jews to be delivered from their current dangerous situation. Moshiach can come during peacetime as well!”
A distraught mother once approached him as he was making his way to his daily prayers and cried: “Rebbe! You will pray in a synagogue with an entire entourage of Chassidim. My son is somewhere out on the front; who knows if he can be spared from eating non-kosher food and desecrating the holy Sabbath, never mind having the privilege of praying in a synagogue!”
Some of the Chassidim tried to quieten her, but the Rebbe motioned to allow her to approach, and he said: “You are quite right; it is indeed not something any good mother should need to worry about. I can assure you that I have invested enough time praying for your son that tens of people could have been saved! What can I do – apparently, it is the will of Hashem who wants to hear his heartfelt prayers from the misery of the frontline. I can only promise you that immediately after the conclusion of the Days of Awe, he will return home safe and sound”!
At the end of the war, as the mighty Austrian Hungarian Empire started to crumble and the European borders were redrawn, Belz and the rest of Galicia, who had been part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, became part of Poland. The Frierdike Rov observed jokingly that Belz has lost out on all counts. “In the past,” he said, “Hungarian Chassidim gladly came to Belz because there were no border restrictions. Polish Chassidim also was glad to come – because there were border restrictions! Now the tables have turned. The Hungarians have stopped coming because they are daunted by the border crossing, and they do not have the stomach to cross illegally. But on the other hand, the Polish have also stopped coming because they miss the excitement of the illegal crossing. Indeed Belz has lost out on all counts!”
In total, the Frierdike Rav spent ten years in exile before returning to Belz. Even when he returned from Hungary to Galicia, he could not return directly to Belz because of the devastation left behind by the Russian army that had occupied Belz. He spent two years in nearby Holashitz while the Belzer ‘court’ was being restored and renovated.
But even though the excitement was great when he eventually returned to Belz, things were never the same. The war had taken a great toll. The Rebbe had been deeply affected by the terrible suffering of his brethren who had been caught up in the war, and his body weakened by constant fasting and praying.
Even in his weakened state, he spent a lot of time and energy overseeing the renovations of Belz and especially the great synagogue. He tried his best to replace stolen articles and fix the damage inflicted by the Russians. When it came to his notice that some damage to the flooring, caused by the horse’s shoes when they were stabled in the great synagogue, had been overlooked, he instructed that it should be left as it is and not repaired, saying: “The day will come that they [- the Russians] will be held accountable for what they have done!”
The synagogue was built with four mighty pillars and a series of arches that supported a roof divided into three rows of three individual domes. While renovating the synagogue, he commissioned an artist to paint the domes so that they resembled the sky, each dome depicting the sky under different conditions, e.g. a day sky and a night sky, a summer sky, and a winter sky, etc. The Rebbe oversaw everything being done in the synagogue, and even when he was ill and frail, he would ask to be carried in on a chair to see the artist at work for himself.
One day he stood before the Holy Ark, and as he examined the intrinsically carved woodwork, he remarked: “When my Grandfather built this synagogue and installed this ark, he did not expect anybody to decipher its hidden secrets… Praise to the Lord he has a grandson who understands it all!”
On another occasion, he studied the Shevisi – the plaque placed before the pulpit enjoining the leader of the prayers to remember he stands before Hashem. “This is indeed a beautiful plaque. However, my grandfather promised that his synagogue would be transplanted to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, we will have a Golden Shevisi!”
The Walls Also Cried
The Frierdige Rav passed away at the beginning of 5687 (1927), and his funeral was attended by thousands of mourners. During the funeral, many of the mourners noticed an amazing phenomenon – the walls of the synagogue were dripping with water as if the synagogue had joined them in mourning, and very walls were crying with them!
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