The Gadol HaDor Rabbi Meshulam Roth

The persona and history of the Gaon Rabbi Meshulam Rata (Roth) ztz”l, are not sufficiently told, although Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda called him the Gadol HaDor after Rabbi Kook ztz”l * From an early age his genius in Torah was clearly evident, and the roles he performed in the Rabbinate carried great importance * Rabbi Rata was connected to Eretz Yisrael and the Mizrachi movement, and merited having his descendants serving as Rabbis in Judea and Samaria, and engaging in the defense of the Land

Recently, a new and elegant edition of the two volumes of the halachic Responsa “Kol Mevasser” by the true Gaon, Rabbi Meshulam Rata (1875-1962), was published by Mosad HaRav Kook (the Rabbi Kook Institution). One of the important additions to the new edition, is the summary of each answer in a detailed and accurate way, by Rabbi Elkana Segal, the son-in-law of the author’s granddaughter. Our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook ztz”l, was asked who was the Gadol HaDor in the generation after Maran HaRav Kook ztz”l, and he answered: Rabbi Meshulam Rata. This is an opportunity to relate a little bit of his history.

His Childhood

Already as a young child, Rabbi Meshulam was a great shakdan (diligent Torah student), and thanks to his ingenious talents, he grew in Torah. His father was a Chortkov chassid, a branch of the Chassidic Dynasty of Ruzhyn. The first time his father took him to the Grand Rebbe, Rabbi David Moshe from Chortkov, Rabbi Meshulam was nine years old. Seeing as he was wise, he went with hundreds of chassidim to hear the drasha (sermon) of city Rabbi, who was a great Talmid Chacham. Following the in-depth drasha, some of the chassidim asked the child if he understood what was said, for they saw that he had shook his head in agreement during the drasha. The boy replied that he understood, and could even repeat it. The chassidim stood him on a table, and the boy repeated the drasha exactly, without missing a word. He even repeated the Rabbi’s movements exactly at the precise time – when the Rabbi stroked his beard, or held his forehead, the boy repeated these movements as well.

After the Rabbi of Zalzczyki tested him extensively, the Gaon Rabbi Leibella Bernfeld, said: “This child is similar to one who repeats his studies not a hundred and one times, but rather, a thousand and one times!” And even in books of machshava (Jewish thought) such as ‘Akedat Yitzchak’ he learned while he was a child, and when others had doubts, he was able to review and discuss the book. In his special genius, he was able to read and become acquainted with the subjects of nature, history and philosophy in a short time.

His Rabbis

Rabbi Meshulam studied with the eminent rabbis in his vicinity who were associated with courtyards of Beit Ruzhyn, among them Rabbi Ya’akov Weidenfeld author of ‘Kochav Me’Ya’akov (chassid Husiatyn), whose son, the Rabbi of Tshebin (1881-1965), honored Rabbi Meshulam as if he was a student before his rabbi, and said about him: “Rabbi Meshulam was considered one of the Gedolei HaDor while he was still an avreich (young yeshiva student).” Rabbi Meshulam also studied with Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, author of “Mechazei Avraham” (chassid Sadigora). However, his most prominent rabbi was Rabbi Meir Arik (Arak) ztz”l (1885-1926), author of ‘Minchat Pitim’ on Shulchan Aruch, and the Responsa ‘Imrei Yosher’, as well as other books.

His Family

Even before he reached the age of Bar Mitzvah, the wealthy Rabbi Shimshon Steinholtz from Melnitsa, chose him to groom his daughter Zippora, and she even embroidered the first pouch for his tefillin. During the long years between the engagement and the marriage, one of Russia’s wealthiest Jews offered his intended father-in-law a large sum of money, so that he would agree to hand over the match to his daughter. Rabbi Shimshon rejected the proposal, saying: “All the wealthy Russian Jews put together, do not have enough money to match the worth of such a groom.” And the rabbis who were present, agreed.

In 1894, almost at the age of twenty, he married Zipporah, and they lived in her parents’ home in Melnitsa where he served as rabbi – ‘without expectation of receiving an award’ – for approximately four years.

In a letter to his friend, he said of his wife: “I thank God the boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places for me… a pleasant wife, a lovely hind and a graceful doe, a dear soul, she has all the right and lofty character traits, she is honest and innocent, humble and gentle, wise and educated, perfect in most wisdom and science, gentle and sublime emotions will flow with her soul, good hearted and a precious and pleasing temperament, our souls imbued with delicacies … “.

Two children were born to them, the eldest Ephraim, and the second, Sarah. Ephraim had brilliant talents, and grew in Torah. Every week, Rabbi Meshulam would study the Torah portion of the week with Sarah, and on Shabbat eve, learned with her from the book ‘Ein Ya’akov’, and taught her to study a lot of Tanakh.

In 1918, when Ephraim was nineteen, he died of tuberculosis. His parents’ grief was immense. Rabbi Meshulam took comfort in his studies; the Rebbetzin, however, was grief-stricken, and suffered torment until her death. From Sarah the daughter, the family continued, and Rabbi Meshulam found pleasure and happiness in her, until his old age.

Rabbinate of Khorostkiv

Despite Khorostakiv being a small town, it merited having great rabbis serving there. In continuation of this tradition, Rabbi Meshulam was presented as a candidate for the town’s rabbinical office. As was customary in those days, the candidates for the rabbinate would give a drasha before the public on Shabbat, and that would determine who would be appointed rabbi. When Rabbi Meshulam’s Shabbat arrived, at two in the afternoon, everyone gathered in the Great Synagogue. The rabbi stood by the Holy Ark, holding a Tanakh, and gave a drasha for six consecutive hours. In the drasha he exhibited proficiency and acumen in Talmud and poskim, and everyone marveled at his greatness. He was elected rabbi of the town in 1898 at the age of twenty-four, and for approximately thirty years, served as the community’s rabbi.

A small group in the town, people who loved to quarrel, chose another rabbi. The controversy grew and was very distressing to Rabbi Meshulam, to the point where he wished to leave on account of the dispute. However, the townspeople, the vast majority of whom supported him, prevented him from leaving, and he had to endure bitterness for most of the years he spent there.

He was active in the organization ‘Mi’Tzion Taytzei Torah,’ and founded a school in the spirit of “Mizrachi” in Khorostkiv, and also founded a yeshiva and headed it. For this yeshiva, he wrote his famous curriculum. He was accustomed to test the younger students twice a week, and once a week gave an in-depth class to the older students. Knowing how to speak German and Polish, he would sometimes speak on behalf of the public and the rabbis with government officials.

In 1929, he was accepted as rabbi of Schatz in southern Bukovina, where he served for approximately six years. In his last year in Schatz, his wife passed away.

His Righteousness and Support for Zionism

In addition to his tremendous genius, he was also a tzadik (righteous), and his prayers were with devotion and the outpouring of his soul. He had a very pleasant voice, and it is said that anyone who heard him sing the prayer “Nishmat” on Shabbat Kodesh, would think about doing teshuva. The Admorim (Grand Rebbe’s) would also rise early in the morning, and go to his house to hear him speak words of Chassidut.

The Gaon, Rabbi Meshulam was active in the Mizrachi movement, and was also elected on its behalf as a representative to the Twelfth Zionist Congress in 1921. It should be noted that in his association with the Admorim of Beit Ruzhyn, his love of Eretz Yisrael and his support of Aliyah was not a great surprise, for among the Admorim of Ruzhyn, a number of them also supported Mizrahi.

The Chernovtsy Rabbinate

The gabbi’s (sextons) of Lamberg (Lvov) offered him the rabbinate of their important city, whose rabbis were Geonei Olam (great Torah geniuses), however, it was on condition he cease his activity for the Land of Israel. Of course, he refused. He was finally elected to the Czernowitz Rabbinate in the 1935, in which a large and important Jewish community of about fifty thousand Jews were active. There, he established a Beit Midrash for Rabbis. Apparently, his Zionist position saved him, for if he had been elected as Rabbi in Lamberg, he would have suffered the Holocaust like the rest of the Jews of Poland, for whom, only a small number were saved.

One of the candidates competing against him for the Chernovtsy Rabbinate was Rabbi Rubin, who suggested to Rabbi Meshulam, who was then a widower, to marry his sister Leah, who was also widowed by her rabbi husband. In the year 1936 they married, and she stood at his side, immigrated to Israel with him, and devoted herself to his well-being, until her last days. She died three years before him.

His Son-in-law, Daughter, and Their Offspring

The young yeshiva man who was sent to bring Rabbi Meshulam to Czernowitz to deliver the drasha for rabbinical election, was Rabbi Yisrael Heitner, who was orphaned from his father at an early age, and grew up with his mother and brother at the home of his maternal grandfather. He was a virtuous and upright man, and at that time, lived with his widowed mother, and was involved in teaching. During the trip, Rabbi Meshulam recognized his outstanding virtues, and matched him with his daughter. In the winter of 1936, Rabbi Yisrael was crowned as the Rabbi of Berland in Romania. He and his wife the Rebbetzin, also acted politely and respectfully towards their poor Gentile neighbors, and treated their Gentile maid generously. During World War II, when demonstrations against the Jews began, the Gentile neighbors assisted in their rescue. After making Aliyah to Israel, Rabbi Heitner, who changed his last name to ‘HaEitan’, served in the I.D.F. as a navy rabbi. Two children were born to them, Zippora and Yitzhak Meir, who later studied at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav under the tutelage of our teacher and mentor Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook ztz”l.

His great-grandfather cherished his grandson, and in his introduction to the second volume of his Responsa ‘Kol Mevasser’, thanked his young, God-fearing Torah scholar grandson, Yitzchak Meir, who assisted him in the work of arranging the answers. Several years later, Rabbi HaEitan was appointed rabbi in the Moshav Beit Meir, and out of his love of Eretz Yisrael, joined the settlement movement, established his home in Kedumim in the Shomron, and served as the Regional Rabbi of the Shomron. As part of his rabbinical work, he and his wife would spend almost every Shabbat in one of the new, small communities, strengthening them with their enthusiasm and devotion. One of the special communities in which they frequently visited on Shabbat, was Har Bracha. When I applied to serve as Rabbi of Har Bracha, he was very pleased. He passed away in 1991.

The daughter of Rabbi Yisrael and Sarah, is Zafira Zipporah, who married Tzvi Camille, an engineer, who was a partner in building the State of Israel’s atomic power plant, and for that, received the Israel Security Award. Every day he would immerse himself in a mikveh, pray vatikin (prayers at sunrise), and give a shiur in Daf Yomi. Zafira was a teacher, and raised their five children. One of their sons-in-law is the educator and author, Rabbi Avi Ratt, who is also the great-grandson of Rabbi Meshulam’s brother. The name Ratt in Hebrew is the furtherance of the name Rata in Yiddish.

His Last Days

Even during his weakness in his last years, he did not cease to engross himself in Torah. Even in his last days, while suffering in agony, he sang shirei de’vay’kute (devotional songs) – ‘Ve’karev Pizureinu’ and ‘Nishmat Kol Chai’,” and while doing so, returned his soul in purity to its Creator, on the 26th of Kislev 1962. His funeral went forth from the Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav, and Gedolei HaRabbanim (eminent Rabbis) eulogized him.

With the help of God, I will dedicate another column to his greatness and Torah teachings.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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