Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

About a month ago, I began telling the story of the life of the great gaon, Rabbi Meshulam Rata (1875-1962), on the occasion of the publication of his book ‘Kol Mevasser’, in a well-designed and renewed edition.

Since our teacher and mentor HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook ztz”l described him as the Gadol ha-Dor (eminent sage) of the generation after the passing of Maran HaRav Kook, we will continue relating the history of his life (for part one, click here).

His Rabbi, Rabbi Meir AriK

As I mentioned previously, Rabbi Meshulam studied with the great sages in his surroundings, but his most prominent rabbi was Rabbi Meir Arik (Arak) ztz”l (1885-1926), author of “Minchat Pittim” on Shulchan Aruch, and the Responsa ‘Imrei Yosher’, as well as other books.

Rabbi Arik invested a great deal in his student, and was willing to spend a significant amount of time studying with him on the subjects his student chose, as Rabbi Meshulam wrote in a letter to his father when he was 17. He also said that his rabbi suggested that he put most of his effort “in the study of Shulchan Aruch aimed at halakha“, because he was about to marry, and unless he was proficiently versed in halakha, he would not be respected as a rabbi in his father-in-law’s house and in his community.

Their friendly relationship and the understanding between them was very deep, and, as he wrote his father in his letter, his rabbi told him it was very rare for two people to be of the same mind in all their opinions and behaviors, but “our opinions and our views are generally consistent, not beyond a bowshot, and so our relationship is strong and rooted firmly and securely… therefore, how good and how pleasant it is for such brothers to dwell together in unity on Torah and mitzvot.”

Later on, when his rabbi sent him his book, “Minchat Pittim,” Rabbi Meshulam wrote him a long letter, from which I will cite a few lines indicating his special connection to his rabbi:

“Your precious book came into my sight yesterday, shining like the sun of righteousness through spreading clouds, with tens of thousands of its glorious rays of light glowing… you have revived my soul, my master and teacher… Who would have created lips for me to express and articulate my heartfelt emotions that I sensed, which touched my memory of our soul-bound friendship! Oh, how I wish it was the pleasant months of the past, sitting in your shadow, listening to your lessons, back then I imagined that no one in the world could be as happy as I… I am writing this to you, my teacher and friend, and I envision seeing eye-to-eye the light of your face, speaking to you about everything my heart feels at the moment, and I love you with my soul, my pleasant teacher! … How fortunate you are, my friend and beloved guide! How joyful and prosperous you are!”

Their Attitude to the Settlement of the Land of Israel

Incidentally, in relation to Zionism as well, his rabbi was not far afield. Our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook said that when he had traveled to Europe, he met the illustrious gaon Rabbi Meir Arik, and he told him that he had formed a friendship with Rav Meshulam, and although he was thirty-five years older, he had great respect for him.

Rav Tzvi Yehuda also said that in the great assembly of ‘Agudat Yisrael’ in Vienna at the time of the Balfour Declaration, a motion was made to oppose the Balfour Declaration, and to reject it with the inapplicable haredi claims. At that moment, two eminent Torah sages sitting in the presidency, Rabbi Meir Arik and Mahari Assad, studied the document and said that the hand that signs it should be cut off. And thus, the sinners’ initiative was dismissed.

Following In the Hasidic Path

Along with his greatness in Torah, Rabbi Meshulam continued in the path of his family and teachers and was a hasid, and in his youth for twenty years traveled to Rebbe David Moshe of Chortkov (1826-1904). After he passed away, Rabbi Meshulam was not a hasid of any particular rebbe, but was associated with great appreciation to the rebbes of Beit Ruzhin, the common side they all had was their commitment to Israel’s unity and the settlement of Eretz Yisrael, and some of them, such as the Hosiyatin Rebbe, were even professed supporters of religious Zionism (“Mizrahi”).

Once, in his old age, Rabbi Meshulam and the outstanding Rabbi Reuven Margaliot (also a Zionist, of course) were at the joyous Beit Ha-Sho’eva celebration at the house of the Rebbe of Sadigora in Tel Aviv, and as sons of hasidic families, both of them danced with joy. Sometime later, the Rebbe wrote to his brother-in-law that these two brilliant sages had visited him, and when they danced together “it seemed to him as if two Torah scrolls were dancing.”

From his Daughter’s Memories, the Rebbetzin Sarah

“Our family home was also the ‘beit ha-Rav’ (‘the rabbi’s house’), a concept that included respect for the Torah and its guardians, and awe and appreciation for the ancestral tradition. The Rav (Rabbi Meshulam) was accepted as rabbi to the Chorostkiv community when he was just twenty-four years old, and spent most of his life there. He was the sandak at the brit milah of the new born babies, was present when they arrived at the age of mitzvoth, and the first time they were called up to the Torah on their Bar Mitzvah, married them under the wedding canopy, and was even the sandak at the brit milah of their sons.

The Rav was connected with all his heart and soul to the members of his congregation, participating in their sorrow and joy, and their grief and rejoicing. His home was a ‘house of meeting for the sages’, to which people came to consult about family matters, boys’ education and daughters’ marriages, matters of livelihood, and neighborly disputes. He was the confidant of all the townspeople (although, since the community was small, the vast majority of his time was focused on his Torah studies).

“The Rav’s father was a lover of Zion, a ‘Mizrachi’ man … The Rav’s house was a merging of Torah, wisdom, and derech eretz on the one hand, and religious Zionism and the love of Eretz Israel on the other. In this spirit he influenced the ba’alei batim and the youth in our town, and many of them made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. And when they came to say goodbye to him, he escorted them at length in honor of their aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.

“Human dignity was a sacred value for our father, and in this spirit he educated us – my late brother Ephraim, and myself. My father z”l showed special affection for the ‘Yad Harutzim’ corporation of crafts workers and manual laborers. They also showed him great affection and appreciation. I still remember the letter of recommendation that my father z”l wrote to the ‘Mizrahi’ in Lvov for a Jew preparing to immigrate to Israel, testifying about him, “that this dear and good Jew, is a laboring man, who, throughout his life has fulfilled the great mitzvah of ‘You will eat the fruit of your labor’…”

His Diligence

He was known for his tremendous diligence – during times of war, or at times of peace; during times of torment, or in days of calm. Of his persistence in learning, one of his students said: “I once had the opportunity to sleep with him in his room for four weeks (apparently, this was after his wife passed away), and I saw his night order: for the first third of the evening he learned continually , and when he went to rest for a few hours, he took numerous books with him to his room and put them on his desk next to his bed, and almost every half hour he would wake up, wash his hands, read the books, and go back to sleep.

He repeated this several times during his few hours of sleep. When I asked him about this, he explained to me that whenever he thought of something the Sages or the Rishonim had said, and he wasn’t sure he had remembered their words orally – immediately he felt the need to go over their statements, so he could recite them exactly.” Thus, all his life, he literally fulfilled the command “meditate on it [Torah] day and night” in the plain sense of the words.

His Aliyah to Israel

When WWII reached Czernowitz (Tchernovitz), Rabbi Meshulam could have escaped as many of the city’s Jews did, but he did not want to leave the members of his community, and acted on their behalf with devotion during the war. Towards the end of the war, a week after his daughter and son-in-law, with the mercy of God he managed to escape and immigrate to Israel. In the summer of 1944, when he was about seventy years old, he settled in Jerusalem, was received with great respect, and was asked by the Chief Rabbis to join as a member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, and to be a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council.

Together With the Chief Rabbinate

The then Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog ztz”l, who was himself a tremendous gaon, would consult with him on difficult questions, and was used to saying: “Everyone acknowledges that in this generation there is no greater rabbi than Rabbeinu Meshulam Rata.” At times when Rav Herzog was asked to rule leniently on a halakhic matter, he would say: “If Rabbi Meshulam is willing to do so, I will agree with 'both hands'.”

For example, when a species of cow with a hump was brought from Madagascar that was unknown at the time (zebu), the Chazon Ish ruled it was not kosher, but Rav Meshulam together with Rav Herzog ruled it was kosher, and their opinion was accepted as halakha for all of Israel (Kol Mevasser 1:9; see, Peninei Halakha: Kashrut 1:17, footnote 1). He also ruled to determine Israel Independence Day as a holiday, and to recite Hallel with a blessing. However, concerning the blessing, he conditioned it on the consent of the majority of the great rabbinic leaders (Kol Mevasser 1: 21). In practice, it was agreed upon at the time to recite Hallel without a blessing, but after the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, it was decided to recite Hallel on Independence Day with a blessing.

For a while, the Chief Rabbis determined that he would be the examiner and the one to grant ordination to rabbis, however, even great Torah scholars failed his rigorous exam, and therefore, other examiners were selected.

When Rav Herzog was asked by Torah scholars of Jerusalem, how a rabbi like himself, who grew up on rulings of Lithuanian rabbis, paid such respect to a Galician rabbi and posek, he replied: “He is not a Lithuanian, and not a Galician; in his halakhic rulings he is similar to the ancient poskim, the ones upon whom the principles of halakha are based.”

The End of his Life

After a few years of living in Jerusalem in order for health reasons, he moved to Bnei Brak. At the end of the Jewish year 5719 (1959), his second wife, Rebbetzin Leah Rubin, died. A few months later, on a dark night on Chanukah, Rabbi Meshulam was sitting in his chair near midnight, engrossed in Torah as usual, when suddenly he fell from his chair (apparently, bending down to pick something up), and broke his hip. From that day on, he failed to recuperate, and after hospitalization, he moved to Haifa to the home of his daughter and son-in-law, who served as a Major in the Navy. They faithfully fulfilled the mitzvah of kibud av (honoring one’s father), and arranged for him to have his library there, so he could continue studying Torah as usual.

On the 26th of Kislev 5723 (1962), the second candle of Hannukah, at the age of 88, his soul returned in purity to its Creator. His descendants continue in his path, engaged in the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, and settling the Land.

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