Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli ztz”l
This Tuesday is the yartzeit of Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing (19th of Sivan, 5755), who was one of the great ‘poskim’ (Jewish law authority) of our generation, one of the heads of Yeshiva ‘Merkaz HaRav’, and a member of the ‘Beit Din Hagadol’ ( the Religious Supreme Court).
His father, Rabbi Binyamin, was a rabbi in Russia, who, with great self-sacrifice, continued teaching Torah and instructing Jewish law even after the Communists rose to power and threatened rabbis with harsh punishment for teaching Torah. In the end he was caught, and exiled to Siberia where he died. His son, Rabbi Shaul, continued in his father’s path, studying Torah with tremendous diligence and devotion in a secretive, underground yeshiva. After many hardships, he succeeded escaping Russia, arriving to Jerusalem and Yeshiva ‘Merkaz HaRav’, where he succeeded to learn under the tutelage of our teacher and leader, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook ztz”l, for two years.
Nomination as Rabbi of Kfar HaRo’eh
It wasn’t easy for the residents of Kfar HaRo’eh to accept upon themselves a rabbi who would decide all their questions in Jewish law. They barely managed to get by financially, and their non-religious kibbutz and moshav neighbors were sure that keeping the Sabbath and the mitzvoth would damage their livelihood. Nevertheless, they decided to choose a rabbi, and even to shoulder the financial burden of building him a house and taking care of all his needs.
The members of the community had three candidates to choose from: Rabbi Yisraeli, Rabbi Waldenberg (the author of ‘Tzitz Eliezer’), and Rabbi Aryeh Bansovsky (later, Rabbi Bina, Rosh Yeshiva ‘Netiv Meir’). Shlomo Zalman Shragai, one of the leaders of the Religious Zionist Movement arrived at the selection gathering, and said to the members: “I will honor any decision you make, however, how will it look if a moshav named after Rabbi Kook, doesn’t choose his student as rabbi?”
That’s how Rabbi Yisraeli, who was twenty-nine years old at the time, was chosen to be the rabbi of Kfar HaRo’eh. Consequently, after some time, his friend from yeshiva, Rabbi Neriyah ztz”l, decided to establish in Kfar HaRo’eh the first ‘Bnei Akiva’ yeshiva.
Indeed, Kfar HaRo’eh was worthy of becoming a pioneer in the field of Torah, a fact recognizable till this day, with many of their offspring meriting raising large and exemplary families, for the honor of the Torah, the nation, and the land.
In those days, the appointment of a rabbi was an extremely important event – an expression of preeminence of the community and the success of the Religious Zionist vision. Since there was no precedent for a ceremony appointing a rabbi to an agricultural community up until then, the committee from the ‘Po’el HaMizrachi’ movement sent instructions on how to conduct the ceremony: an entry gate should be erected close to the moshav, and on it should be written: ‘Welcome’. The synagogue should be decorated in greenery, with appropriate inscriptions hung on the walls, such as ‘Our nation is not a nation without Torah’, ‘Welcome in the Name of God’, ‘Your friends honor should be as precious to you as your own’, and others. The committee would draw-up the letter of appointment, but the names of those signing it should be brought to their attention. Guests should be honored with fruits and wine alone. Also, the committee requested the list of people invited to the ceremony, including rabbis and public figures. To play it safe, the committee sent a representative to assist and supervise close-up the implementation of the preparations. Members of the neighboring towns and kibbutzim also participated in the celebration.
Rabbi Charlop, of blessed memory, the Gaon from Jerusalem, Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz HaRav, and Rabbi Yisraeli’s rabbi, also attended the ceremony (from the book “Yichudo shel Kfar” pg.100-106).
Rabbi Charlop’s Blessing
The coronation ceremony also had an additional result. Rabbi Charlop was the guest of the Mendelson family, where he lodged and slept. The hosts, Yaacov and Rivka, were married for nearly five years without having a child. Before leaving, Rabbi Charlop blessed them that they should have children. In order that Rivka should also receive the blessing, she was summoned from the chicken-coop where she worked. A year later, their firstborn daughter, Nechama, was born. She is Rabbanit Nechama Ariel, the wife of the Chief Rabbi of the city of Ramat Gan, Rabbi Yaacov Ariel, shlita.
Rabbi Yisraeli’s Influence
Graduates of Kfar HaRo’eh relate that their community was on an especially high religious level due to the influence of Rabbi Yisraeli. He wasn’t one for friendly discussions, but he did give numerous, clear and comprehensible classes to the adults and occasionally to the youth. He was always available to answer questions in Jewish law and thought, both for adults and youth. Even when it was problematic, everyone accepted his decisions. He always remained true to the ‘halacha’, even in objectionable circumstances. For example, there was a discussion whether the rabbi should take part in guard-duty, and Rabbi Yisraeli ruled and determined that he should not to be included. The members of the community knew that he wasn’t seeking to make life easier for himself, but rather, because of his loyalty to ‘halacha’, he was simply safeguarding the principles appropriate for the behavior of a rabbi.
When he was asked questions about the ‘kashrut’ of certain foods, or other questions of Jewish law, he would clarify all the details of the issue, pause for a moment to consider his answer, and then give a clear and unambiguous decision – and immediately return to his learning.
Must a Student ‘Spill the Beans’?
One time there were disturbances in the school and the principal demanded that one of the students from the 8th grade tell him who started the commotion. The principal claimed that student was obligated to tell him so that the evil could be rooted out. The student didn’t want to tell, and the principal threatened that if he did not reveal the perpetrator, he would be thrown out of school. Upon hearing about the incident, the parents of the student also told the principal that they could not force their son to disclose, so as not to harm his relationship with his friends. In the end, they went to Rabbi Yisraeli, who listened attentively to both the principal and the student, and after contemplating the issue, ruled that the student was not obligated to endanger his social status by revealing his friends.
Seemingly, although it was important for the teaching staff to know what exactly happened, and the prohibition of ‘lashon ha’ra’ was not applicable, nevertheless, Rabbi Yisraeli felt that the student was not obligated to jeopardize his social status for it.
Meeting with Non-Religious Youth
Rabbi Yossi Artziel, who grew-up in Kfar HaRo’eh, told me that once, the youth of Kfar HaRo’eh met with other kids from Kibbutz Givat Chaim, and a sharp debate erupted concerning issues of faith and religion. In those days, the youth of the non-religious kibbutzim felt as if the future belonged to them alone. They were idealists, convinced of their ways, and strove to persuade the religious to be just like them. However, the religious youth also stood their ground. A suggestion was made to initiate two meetings to debate the issues – one in Givat Chaim, and the other in Kfar HaRo’eh. After the dates of the meetings were set and the youth began to prepare their arguments, one of the ‘Bnei Akiva’ counselors raised a question: perhaps they should ask for Rabbi Yisraeli’s agreement to participate in the debate. The chapter committee went to the rabbi. He contemplated the issue, and said: “Surely, you will not be able to persuade them, but they could possibly raise doubts amongst yourselves. Therefore, since the chances of losing the debate are much greater than winning it, the meeting should not be held.” The meeting was cancelled. Indeed, in those days, many of the religious youth left the fold.
Thirty years later, another initiative was made to bring together 12th grade students from Yeshiva Bnei Akiva in Ra’anana, where Rabbi Artziel served as principal, with students from kibbutz high school ‘Ma’avarot’, located near Kfar HaRo’eh. After the meeting was already agreed upon, the principal of the kibbutz high school notified Rabbi Artziel that he was forced to cancel the meeting. The steering committee of the kibbutz school decided to cancel the meeting, fearing that it would cause some of the students to become religious.
This is how things have changed in thirty years.