Tag Archives: Belarussian Jews

Jew of the Week: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

The Man Behind Modern Hebrew

Eliezer Yitzhak ben Yehuda Leib Perlman (1858-1922) was born in what is now Belarus to a religious, Yiddish-speaking, Chabad family. Before his bar mitzvah he was already recognized as a genius in Torah and Talmud. While studying to become a rabbi, Ben-Yehuda was first exposed to some of the Hebrew works of the medieval Sephardic rabbis (such as Ibn Ezra) who wrote poems, stories, and even textbooks of Hebrew grammar. Meanwhile, he came across contemporary, secular (Haskalah) literature written in Hebrew, most notably a Hebrew-only Zionist newspaper called HaShahar. This sparked a passion for languages in general, and Hebrew in particular. Ben-Yehuda plunged into the study of the grammar, history, and development of Hebrew, and also started learning Russian, German, and French. He soon realized the tremendous power of language, and that the only thing truly uniting all Jews around the world—whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi, religious or secular—was Hebrew. In 1877, Ben-Yehuda moved to Paris to study medicine and Middle Eastern history at the famous Sorbonne University. While sitting at a café one day, he met a fellow Jew who started speaking to him in Hebrew. This was the moment that convinced Ben-Yehuda that it was possible to turn Hebrew into a common, spoken language. While some Zionists (like Herzl himself) initially sought to make Yiddish or even German the official language of what would be the Jewish State, Ben-Yehuda knew that it had to be Hebrew. Upon graduating in 1881, he made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem. Ben-Yehuda taught at the Torah and Avoda School, where he devised his immersive ivrit b’ivrit system of learning. He spent the rest of his time writing and developing the language. He founded the Hebrew Language Committee (still operating today) to dig up ancient Hebrew words and to coin new words for modern phenomena, based primarily on ancient Biblical, Aramaic (often Talmudic) terms, as well as from Arabic roots. Ben-Yehuda coined words like glida (“ice cream”), ofanaim (“bicycle”), magevet (“towel”), and rakevet (“train”) using Biblical roots for similar terms. Meanwhile, he wrote for the Havatzelet newspaper, edited the Hashkafa newspaper, then launched his own periodical, HaTzvi, where he would introduce his new words (such as iton, “newspaper”!) He published the first dictionary of Modern Hebrew, a whopping 11-volume tome (later expanded to 17 volumes). Ben-Yehuda raised his children strictly in Hebrew. His son, Ben-Zion, is considered the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew. Some people inaccurately state that Hebrew was a “dead” or “extinct” language before Ben-Yehuda and the Zionists. This is, of course, completely inaccurate since Hebrew has always been used by Jews throughout the centuries, particularly in prayer and for the writing and teaching of holy texts. What Ben-Yehuda did was systematize Hebrew, adapt it to modern times, and transform it into a commonly-spoken tongue, as historian Cecil Roth summed it up: “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”

The Kabbalah of Yom Ha‘Atzmaut

Words of the Week

For everything there is needed only one wise, clever and active man, with the initiative to devote all his energies to it, and the matter will progress, all obstacles in the way notwithstanding… In every new event, every step, even the smallest in the path of progress, it is necessary that there be one pioneer who will lead the way without leaving any possibility of turning back.
– Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

Jews of the Week: the Genius of Rogatchov and Joseph Trumpeldor

An Unparalleled Genius and a Zionist Icon

Joseph Trumpeldor

Joseph Volfovich Trumpeldor (1880-1920) was born in Russia, the son of a cantonist (young Jews forcefully conscripted into the Russian army). He became a dentist, but in 1902 enlisted in the Russian army. Trumpeldor lost his left arm in one battle of the Russo-Japanese War, yet wanted to continue serving, reportedly saying “I still have another arm to give to the motherland.” He returned to the battlefield and was captured by the Japanese. Trumpeldor spent most of his captivity studying, learning more about Judaism, Jewish history, and the Zionist cause. He even started writing on Jewish topics and found fellow Jewish prisoners who dreamed of settling in the Promised Land. Upon his release, he received four medals, and was later made an officer, making him the most decorated Jew in the Russian army, and its first Jewish officer. Unable to return to the military, he became a lawyer. In 1911, Trumpeldor made aliyah and settled in Kibbutz Degania. With the outbreak of World War I, he went to Egypt to establish the Jewish Legion (which fought for Britain) alongside Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The legion, also known as the Zion Mule Corps, is considered the first entirely Jewish military unit in two thousand years, and a precursor to the IDF. It helped the British conquer the land of Israel from the Ottoman Turks. Trumpeldor was a key soldier in that effort, and was wounded in the Battle of Gallipoli. After the war, he returned to Russia to gather more young Jews to settle in Israel. In 1920, while working to build the new town of Tel Hai, a band of Arabs attacked the Jewish community. Trumpeldor was shot twice, and succumbed to his injuries. According to legend, his last words were “Never mind, it is good to die for our country.” Trumpeldor immediately became a symbol of Jewish strength, self-defense, and resilience, and an inspiration for a new generation of Zionists. The day of his death, the 11th of Adar (this coming Monday), is a minor holiday in Israel.

Rabbi Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover Gaon

That same date is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Yosef Rosen (1858-1936). He was born in the town of Rogatchov (in modern Belarus) to a Chabad family. By the age of 13, he was recognized as a genius and was sent to study with some of the great rabbis of the day in the town of Slutzk. At 31, he was appointed one of two chief rabbis of Dvinsk (in modern Latvia), and served in that role for nearly five decades, until his last days. Rabbi Rosen ensured the survival and flourishing of Jewish life under Russian Imperial, and then Communist, rule, often with great sacrifice to himself. Meanwhile, he published several important works of Jewish commentary and Jewish law. Some of his best writings were published only after his death, under the title Tzafnat Paneach, “Decipherer of Secrets”. Rabbi Rosen was known as the Rogatchover Gaon, the “Genius of Rogatchov”, and was famous for his unbelievable breadth of knowledge on just about any subject. After once meeting him for a lengthy discussion, the renowned poet Bialik said that “from the mind of the Rogatchover could be carved out two Einsteins” and that he is “a great spiritual national treasure.” Rabbi Rosen had many students, including Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who also received his rabbinic ordination from the Gaon. The Rebbe once said that Rabbi Rosen was able to simplify all of Judaism into ten ideas, and quoted him as saying: “Were I a little bit smarter, it would be only one idea!”

Did You Know These Famous People Converted to Judaism?

Words of the Week

Love and work are the two things you have to do in life.
– Sigmund Freud

Jew of the Week: the Alter Rebbe

Founder of Chabad

Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) was born in the shtetl of Liozna in what is now Belarus. A child prodigy, he wrote his first commentary on the Torah when he was eight years old. Shortly after, he was sent to the nearby town of Lubavitch to begin advanced Talmudic studies, and was sent back home at the age of 12 as he had surpassed the knowledge of his teachers. He married at 15, and around the same time was first exposed to Kabbalah by two Bohemian refugees that settled in Liozna. They also taught him math, astronomy, and philosophy. A few years later, Rav Schneur Zalman met the Hasidic master Dov Ber, “the Maggid [Preacher] of Mezeritch”, who was himself the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement. Rav Schneur Zalman became the Maggid’s devoted student, and when the latter died in 1772, was recognized as his successor. Unfortunately, there was still great opposition to the Hasidic movement at the time, most notably from the Vilna Gaon, who attempted to ban the Hasidim. Rav Schneur travelled to Vilnius in an effort to assuage the Gaon, but was refused a meeting. Despite the opposition, Hasidism flourished across Eastern Europe, and many Hasidic masters were emerging in towns large and small. Rav Schneur Zalman’s approach was unique in that he placed rationalism and thought above all else, and held by the mantras of “mind over matter” and “intelligent, not blind faith”. He therefore called his branch of Hasidism “Chabad”, based on the acronym for the Kabbalistic sefirot of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at, loosely translated as Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge. Rav Schneur Zalman would become known as the Alter Rebbe, the “Elder Rabbi”, the founder of Chabad. His magnum opus, known as the Tanya, is sometimes considered the “Bible of Hasidism”. The Alter Rebbe also put together a new Hasidic code of law, a prayer book, and multiple discourses on Hasidic teachings. During the Napoleonic Wars, he sided with the Czar, despite the fact that the Russians oppressed the Jews while Napoleon brought emancipation to them. He believed that while the Russians threatened the Jewish body, Napoleon threatened the Jewish soul, as his “emancipation” would lead to mass assimilation of Jews in Europe. History would prove him right. In 1812, the Alter Rebbe fled Napoleon’s approaching armies, and succumbed to an illness on the difficult journey. His disciples split among two potential successors: some supported Aharon Horowitz, based in the town of Strashelye, while others supported Rav Schneur Zalman’s son, Dov Ber, based in Lubavitch. Over time, the Strashelye branch dissipated, leaving the Lubavitch stream. This is one reason why the movement is still known as Chabad-Lubavitch. The organization has become the most successful Jewish outreach group in history, mainly due to the work of the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Today, there is a Chabad House on every continent (except Antarctica, for now), with over 1300 Chabad-run institutions around the world. Yesterday, the 18th of Elul, was the Alter Rebbe’s birthday.

A Secret History of Zionism

Words of the Week

A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.
– the Alter Rebbe

In a letter to his grandson, dated 24 Tevet 5583 (December 1812, shortly before his passing), the Alter Rebbe wrote: “I no longer see a table, a chair, a lamp… only the letters of the Divine Utterances.” As we read in the Torah, God “spoke” the world into existence, and all material things are only a reflection of their spiritual inner essence, composed of a combination of Hebrew letters, the building blocks of Creation. Like other great Kabbalists before and after him, the Alter Rebbe saw through the illusory material world, and beheld the spiritual “code” within, reminiscent of this famous scene from ‘The Matrix’.