The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
WHO IS LIKE YOU AMONG THE SILENT ONES, OH, LORD.
Dr. Penina Meizlish
The Institute for Holocaust Research
Rabbi Shem Klingberg, the Rebbe of Zaloshitz, resided in Krakow before the Holocaust. A descendant of the Chassidic dynasties of Ziditschov and Komarna, his unusual name, Shem, was given to him according to a mystical tradition held by his great-grandfather Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac of Komarna, that Shem the son of Noah was to be the spokesman in favor of the People of Israel in the year 1872, the year of Rabbi Shem's birth; symbolically this role was given to the newborn child.
Rabbi Shem was a great Torah scholar, lived very modestly, and performed many acts of charity and kindness, but he was not the head of a Chassidic "court" of the type then prevalent in Poland. He continued the tradition of his fathers in studying Kabbalah and wrote a commentary on the Zohar and another work called Oholei Shem (The Tents of Shem), also devoted to mysticism. Most of his writings, among them comments on the Talmud and Halachic works, were lost during the Holocaust. The little that survived was collected and published by his son in a book called Oholei Shem (Jerusalem, 1961) in memory of the original book which was lost.
When the Germans captured Krakow, Rabbi Shem was on the list of rabbis they sought to arrest. This was in accordance with their policy to arrest the spiritual elite of the Jews -- and other captive peoples -- in order to destroy the leadership. Rabbi Shem succeeded in escaping arrest and hid for two years in one of the nearby towns. In hiding he continued to study and teach as much as possible and to give encouragement to all those who were with him.
When the Krakow ghetto was established in March, 1941 he was forced to leave his hiding place and was smuggled into the ghetto. At this time he ceased to sing "Z'mirot" on the Sabbath. Paraphrasing the Midrash (Bavli, Megilla 10B and Sanhedrin 39A) he stated: "The people of Israel are drowning in the sea and you sing?" The Midrash refers to the ministering angels who wanted to sing before God after the drowning of the Egyptians in the sea, but the Almighty protested: "The creations of My hands are drowning in the sea and you sing before Me?" (in another version in Shemot Rabbah Chap. 23: "My legions are in distress and you sing before Me?") This episode is related in the book Oholei Shem in a few brief sentences behind which lies an entire context of meaning which I will attempt to briefly explain.
In the "Shirat Hayam" (Song of the Sea), Exodus 15:11-19, we read: "Who is like You, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness?" In the Midrash Mekhilta D'rabbi Yishmael (Beshalach - 8) it is written: "Who is like You, O Lord, among the Gods (Eilim)? Who is like You among the silent ones (Ilmim), who hears the shame of Your sons and is silent" (in another version: "Sees the shame of Your sons and is silent") The absence of the letter yod in the Hebrew word Eilim allows the reading Ilem which means 'one who cannot speak', here referring to God himself.
In the Midrash Lekach Tov we read: "Among the silent ones -- these are the People of Israel who are silent in exile. They are insulted and do not reply and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, sees their shame and is silent". In this version the silent ones are the Jews living in exile, who bear their shame and are unable to react, as well as God himself, who is silent.
Following the pogroms in Wurtzburg, Germany during the second crusade in 1146, the poet Yitzchak Ben Shalom, grandfather of Rabbi Yitzchak, author of the Or Zarua wrote the lamentation which begins with the words: "There is none like You among the silent ones, Quiet and still before those who cause our sorrow. Our enemies multiply and rise up!" This appears in the prayerbook according to the Custom of Poland as part of the "Yotzer" prayer for the first Sabbath after Passover, which follows the day on which the Egyptians drowned in the sea (the seventh day of Passover) and the Shirat Hayam was first recited. This prayerbook in the Ashkenazic tradition adapted for the Jews of Poland is now quite rare. Over the course of years the majority of Polish Jewry accepted the prayerbook in the Sephardic version of the Chassidic movement. It is however reasonable to assume that Rabbi Shem Klingberg was quite familiar both with the Midrashim quoted above and with that prayerbook and the lamentations it contained.
Rabbi Shem was murdered on the 28th of Nissan, 5703 (April 3, 1943) in the Pleschov Camp on the outskirts of Krakow. Commenting on Psalms 73:17: "Until I entered the sanctuary of God, then I understood their end", he said: "When the Messiah comes we will understand the secret of the divine conduct of these times, the secret of the murders and the slaughter". He was certain that there was an explanation for the Holocaust which had fallen upon Israel, but that human experience until now was completely unable to deal with it and only in the days of the Messiah, when a different cosmic order will prevail, will it be understood. His son, who published Rabbi Shem's words in the book Oholei Shem (pp.17-18) states: "He did not say more than this and refused to discuss the situation, taking care not to express any hint of doubt concerning the decree of Heaven and accepting everything with love."
For further study: P. Meizlish, "Rabbis in the Holocaust," Sinai (1995), pp. 281-283
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