Category Archives: Religious Leaders

Spiritual and Religious Greats of the Jewish People

Jew of the Week: Hillel the Elder

Greatest of Sages

Hillel (c. 110 BCE-10 CE) was born in Babylon to a poor Jewish family, descended from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. To make a living, Hillel worked as a lumberjack. At the age of 40, he decided to move to Israel and further his Jewish studies. He went to work each morning and earned just enough to pay for his family’s needs, and for the tuition to the Jerusalem yeshiva of the sages Shemaiah and Avtalion. One winter, when he didn’t have the funds to pay the yeshiva fee, Hillel climbed up to the roof to listen in to the classes from the chimney. He was so engrossed in the learning that he didn’t realize the snowstorm that began to brew around him. In the morning, the yeshiva students noticed the clogged chimney and went up to find Hillel frozen on top of it. For his dedication, he was granted free tuition for life. Hillel went on to become the greatest rabbi in the world. He headed the Jerusalem yeshiva, and was also elected president (nasi) of Israel, and chief of the Sanhedrin. He had eighty pairs of disciples, including the famed rabbis Yonatan ben Uziel and Yochanan ben Zakkai. Hillel was famous for his incredible patience. In one account, a man made a bet that he could get Hillel angry so he bothered Hillel incessantly on the eve of Shabbat, yet Hillel remained calm and pleasant. When the man admitted to the bet and told Hillel how he lost 400 zuz, a huge sum of money, Hillel replied: “It is better that you lose 400 zuz, and even another 400 zuz, than that I should get angry!” The school of Hillel became the dominant school in Judaism, and to this day Jewish law always rules according to Beit Hillel. He is one of the most-oft cited sages in the Mishnah, the ancient corpus of Jewish law. Among his most well-known teachings is the Golden Rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, and “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Finally, it was Hillel who instituted the prozbul: In the sabbatical Shemitah year (such as the one beginning next week), the Torah commands that all personal debts between Jews must be cancelled. Because of this, Jews started to avoid handing out loans in the months before the sabbatical, worried that they would never be repaid. To ensure that the needy could still draw loans, Hillel crafted an important legal loophole known as the prozbul, still widely used. According to tradition, Hillel lived 120 years. He stood up for the poor and oppressed, and was beloved for his kindness, charity, and positivity. The Sages would later remark that each person should strive “to be humble and patient like Hillel.”

Shana Tova u’Metuka! Have a Wonderful 5782!

The Kabbalah of Hillel and Shammai

Words of the Week

Gems from Hillel the Elder:

“Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place.”

“Whoever destroys one soul, it is as though he had destroyed the entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world.”

“Where there are no men, strive to be a man!”

“Do not say ‘When I have free time I shall study’ – for you may never have any ‘free time’.”

“Be like the disciples of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all of God’s creations, and drawing them closer to the Torah.”

Jew of the Week: Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe

Miracles in the Holocaust

Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam (1905-1994) was born to a Hasidic family of the Sanz dynasty in the small Jewish town of Rudnik, Poland. At just 14, he lost his father, and replaced him as the town rabbi. At the age of 21, he was invited to become the rabbi of Klausenberg (then part of Hungary), and head its yeshiva. During the Holocaust, his entire family was sent to Auschwitz, and Rabbi Halberstam tragically lost his wife and 11 children. Nonetheless, he did not lose faith and continued to serve as an inspirational leader for the Jews in the camps. During a 1944 death march that took place on Tisha b’Av, the Rebbe recited the traditional Kinot as the Nazis tortured the Jews. Since it was Tisha b’Av, the Jews took off their leather shoes, so the Nazis used the opportunity to make the Jews march on broken glass. They then left them to die of thirst in the summer heat. As reported by several survivors, the Rebbe asked everyone to start digging in the earth. When they did so, water miraculously emerged out of the soil. The Jews were saved, and the bewildered Nazis left them alone. The Rebbe then said: “Here we have proof that despite all the troubles and the apparent concealment of God’s face, the Holy, Blessed One still loves us.” Another time, Rabbi Halberstam was shot in the arm by a Nazi and left to bleed to death. He wrapped a leaf around the wound and made a vow that if he survived, he would dedicate the rest of his life to saving the lives of others. The Rebbe survived. First, he stayed at the DP camps to run soup kitchens and care for the countless orphans. He established and headed the She’erit haPletah (“Surviving Remnant”) organization, which built mikvehs, set up Jewish schools, organized chuppas, and raised money for the victims. During this time, he met General (and future US president) Dwight Eisenhower, who was inspired by the “wonder rabbi”. Rabbi Halberstam then moved to New York, got remarried, and had seven more children. In 1960, he made aliyah and settled in Netanya. The Rebbe opened both a Hasidic-Ashkenazi yeshiva, and a Sephardic yeshiva, established the town of Kiryat Sanz and, to fulfill his Holocaust vow, founded the Sanz Medical Center/Ladiano Hospital. Today, the hospital serves half a million people, runs strictly according to Jewish law, and has the distinction of being the only hospital in Israel that has never closed—not even for a worker’s strike. Famous for his deep love and concern for every Jew, Rabbi Halberstam was beloved by everyone who knew him, secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. His two sons continue to lead the Sanz-Klausenberg communities in New York and Netanya.

Tisha b’Av Begins this Saturday Night

Words of the Week

I promised myself that if, with God’s help, I got well and got out of there, from those evil people, I would build a hospital in Eretz Yisrael where every human being would be cared for with dignity. And the basis of that hospital would be that the doctors and nurses would believe that there is a God in this world and that when they treat a patient, they are fulfilling the greatest mitzvah in the Torah.
Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Abraham Seneor

The Crown Rabbi Who Built Spain

A Castilian maravedi gold coin issued in 1191

Abraham Seneor (1412-1493) was born in Segovia, Castile, into a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family who served as treasurers and accountants for Spanish monarchs. Seneor himself served the Castilian crown. In 1469, he was the key negotiator that arranged the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon, resulting in the eventual birth of the new Kingdom of Spain. Seneor became Isabella’s main advisor and confidante. In 1480, Isabella decreed that Seneor would receive a lifetime pension of a whopping 100,000 maravedi coins per year for his invaluable services. He was also appointed the Jewish chief justice and “crown rabbi”. In this role, he worked together with his close friend and fellow rabbi-treasurer, Don Isaac Abarbanel. Between the two of them, they were able to raise the sums needed for the Spanish to defeat the Moors in the War of Grenada. They were also the ones that got crown support and funding for Christopher Columbus’ first trip to America. Seneor often intervened on behalf of the Jews, and saved countless Jewish lives by ransoming those that had been captured by pirates. In 1492, the Spanish decreed the Edict of Expulsion to exile all Jews who did not convert to Christianity. Seneor was 80 years old, and knew he wouldn’t survive exile and expulsion. While the younger Abarbanel refused to stay in Spain (although he was given an exemption), the older Seneor decided to convert, at least publicly, in order to keep his influential role and try to ease the plight of the Jews as much as possible. He helped secure temporary refugee for the Jews in Portugal, then did whatever he could to make sure the Jewish exiles did not lose all of their wealth. Still, he was unable to survive the stress of the ordeal and passed away just months after the Expulsion. Seneor had taken on the new name Fernando Coronel, starting a new lineage of Spanish nobility. The Coronel children continued to play important roles in Spanish affairs for decades to come. Many of them were arrested by the Inquisition for continuing to practice Judaism in secret; some were executed and others deported. A great number ultimately returned to Judaism in Holland and the Americas.

Words of the Week

Israel was extraordinary in being the one socially revolutionary people in the Near East to produce a literature and to survive as a distinctive cultural and religious entity.
Norman Gottwald, renowned professor of Biblical studies and political activist