Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemini 5770/ April 10, 2010

Holocaust Memorial Day-April 12

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

“A brand plucked from the fire” – Rabbi Isaac Jacob Weiss*

Dr. Yaakov Geller

Petah Tikvah

 

Rabbi Isaac Jacob b. Judah Weiss was born in Dolina, Hungary in 1905.   In his youth he gained acclaim as a child prodigy and was ordained as a rabbi at the age of 17.  After marrying the daughter of Rabbi Phinehas Segel Zimbaum of Oradea-Mare in northern Transylvania, Romania, he settled in that city, and from 1929 served as a judge on the rabbinical court, alongside his father-in-law.

Northern Transylvania, which was annexed to Romania after World War I, was severed from Romania by the Vienna Dictate in early 1940 and annexed to Hungary.   In May-June 1944, fifteen ghettos were set up there, and about a month later around 150,000 Jews were deported to the death camp at Auschwitz.   Rabbi Weiss and his son, however, hid in their city of Oradea-Mare and then fled to Arad in southern Transylvania (which remained in Romanian hands) with the aid of youth from Bnai Akiva and other youth movements, who were helping smuggle Jews out of Hungary by bribing the border police, gendarmes and local residents.   From there the rabbi and his son were transferred to Bucharest, with the assistance of railway workers, who also received a pay-off.   In the capital they were given forged identity papers, provided housing and prepared for immigration to the land of Israel.  The rabbi and his son planned to travel to Israel on the Mafkura, which was scheduled to set sail along with two other illegal ships, the Bulbul and Morino, but they missed the boat and so were miraculously saved once more, for the Mafkura was torpedoed by a Russian submarine in the Black Sea and the 380 immigrants aboard were drowned.  This miracle was one more in the list which included their being saved from deportation to Auschwitz, being smuggled across the border, and surviving the bombing of Bucharest by the Allied air-force.

In thanksgiving to the Creator for his deliverance and the deliverance of his son (the rest of his family was wiped out in the Holocaust), Rabbi Weiss wrote a booklet entitled Pirsumei Nisa (= “Publicizing the Miracle”), from which we cite several passages not previously published in any Holocaust research:

The Lord, blessed be His Name, saved us from all foes lying in wait, … for we were as walking between the living and the dead, and for every step I shall give praise, in recognition of the miracle, … and I shall mention some of the Lord’s mercy and providence over us…   We decided to cross the border into Romania even though we knew the way was difficult and fraught with danger, since in those days Jews trying to cross the border were being killed…   There was no question of whether we should transgress the rules of the Sabbath in order to save ourselves from death…   At night we walked for hours through forests, fields, and vineyards…  Our hearts were faint with fear, for this too was a great deliverance…   With the aid of the Lord, blessed be He, we managed to cross the border safely, after paying them what money I had left.  After this we continued walking for two days and one night, over mountains and hills, until we reached a village by the name of Dianti, which is some 40-50 miles from the border, and there we were graciously received by Mr. Hartman and Jacob Friedman, ritual slaughterers in Dianti and Belenish.   There, for the first time in a long while, we were able to relax.  We even tasted meat and could shut our eyes without being in mortal fear.   Several days later, the entire group with which we were traveling reached a village … we had reached the vicinity of Arad, although during the two weeks which we spent there we had to be in hiding for fear.   In any event, we found pleasure in seeing entire families living in their homes, and batei midrash and synagogues standing and functioning – something we had not seen for a long time.  I gave thanksgiving to the Lord, blessed be His Name.  

In Arad we heard that three small ships were to set sail from the capital for the land of Israel. We hired an army officer to transport us to the vicinity of the capital. The next morning he had engine trouble and we had to remain on the main road near the city of Sibiu  We reached Bucharest safely, but missed the boats, which had set sail two days earlier…  Due to our many sins the ship sank.  In Bucharest, the capital, we remained another few fearful weeks, for even here the voice of the Jew-hater could be heard – may his name be obliterated, … demanding that all the Jews be turned over to him, as in Hungary; so, being foreigners, we were in danger at every moment.  Therefore we sought a way of fleeing to Bulgaria or finding a bunker.   During these weeks the city was being bombed from the air daily, causing many casualties.  On August 23, 1944, there was a change for the better, as Romania cast off the yoke of the Germans after the king proclaimed he was making a peace treaty with the other side. [1]

Rabbi Weiss aspired to immigrate to the land of Israel, but before doing so journeyed to Oradea-Mare to see if he could find any of the numerous manuscripts his own or of his father-in-law, but all he found were 3,613 survivors out of a community that had numbered 21,337 before the war.  There were 500 agunot there, whom Rabbi Weiss was asked to free to remarry.   He was also asked to remain and lead the crushed community there.  Rabbi Weiss instituted important legislation regarding agunot, and managed to free some 200 women to remarry.  Also Rabbi Hayyim Meir Hagger, the admor of Vizhnitz, returned to this city, and the two worked together to instill new life into the community.  After the communists came to power, Rabbi Weiss was invited by the Jews of Manchester, England, to head the Rabbinical Court there.  The rabbi of the kolel, Alexander Shafran, recommended him, commending his character and Jewish learning.

At the request of the Satmer Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitlebaum, who lived in Brooklyn, Rabbi Weiss immigrated to Jerusalem, after serving as rabbi in Manchester for 22 years.  He was appointed deputy head of the rabbinical court of the ultra-Orthodox community, and after the passing of Rabbi David Jungreis, was appointed head of the rabbinical court (Ra'abad- Rav Av Bet Din).  Rabbi Weiss was inclined towards moderation, away from the extremism of Neturei Karta.  After the passing of the Satmer Rebbe he received the title of Ga'abad (Gaon Av Bet Din).

Rabbi Weiss was one of the greatest halakhic authorities and responsa authors of his time, and earned a reputation for his monumental 10-volume work, Resp. Minhat Yitzhak, containing correspondence in matters of halakhah with the great rabbis of his time.  His books serve as a foundation for halakhic rulings today, especially regarding contemporary issues.  He evinced the ability to clarify rules of halakhah concerning current events and was considered a great post-Holocaust halakhic authority.   He was expert in all the technological advancements that the Halakhah needed to address and resolve.

He himself explained the title of his magnum opus, Minhat Yitzhak:

… since my offering (= minhah) is a humble one, an offering of thanksgiving to the Lord, blessed be His Name, for having survived all the hardships that afflicted us in the days of wrath, losing most of our family in sanctification of the Name, and along with them many of the manuscripts to which I alluded in the introduction to my books of responsa.

Another of his works, Sefer Minhat Yitzhak (Jerusalem, Part I 1988, Part II 1997), is a commentary on the Torah.  For his books Rabbi Weiss was awarded the Rav Kook prize by the Tel Aviv Municipality.   He died in Jerusalem in Sivan 5749 (1989).   After his death his son, Rabbi Issachar Dov Weiss, published responsa and halakhic rulings, Talmudic novellae and clarifications on the four sections of the Shulhan Arukh, culled from the writings of his father which had not previously been published.  This anthology is also called Minhat Yitzhak (Jerusalem 1996).  One year after his death a memorial volume, Sefer ha- Zikkaron la-Rav Weiss (Jerusalem 2002) was published.

                                                                                                                                         



* 1901 – 1989. He served as the Chief Rabbi of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community (Edah Haredit) in Jerusalem, after a career in the rabbinate spanning Hungary, Romania, and Manchester, England. He authored many volumes of Halakhic responsa called Minhat Yitzhak.

[1] Cf. Pirsumei Nisa, at the end of Resp. Minhat Yitzhak, Part I.   Four volumes of these responsa were published in London, from 1962-1966, and the remainder in Jerusalem, from 1972-1990.  On the ship Mafkura, see Yaakov Geller, Ha- Amidah ha-Ruhanit shel Yehudei Germaniya bi-Tekufat ha-Shoah, Orot Yahadut ha- Magreb, Lod 2003, pp. 404-407.  On the rescue of Jewish refugees from Hungary, see pp. 379-384.