Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed PR photo

Recently, a new and elegant edition of the two volumes of the halakhic responsa “Kol Mevasser” by the true Torah genius, Rabbi Meshulam Rata (1875-1962), was published by Mosad HaRav Kook (the Rabbi Kook Institution, Israeli publishers). One of the important additions to the new edition is the summary of each answer in a detailed and accurate way by Rabbi Elkana Segal, son-in-law of the author’s granddaughter.

Our teacher and mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook ztz”l, was once asked who the Gadol HaDor was in the generation after Maran HaRav Kook ztz”l, and he answered: Rabbi Meshulam Rata.

This is an opportunity to relate a little bit of his history.

His Childhood

As a young child, Rabbi Meshulam was a great shakdan (diligent Torah student), and thanks to his outstanding ability, grew in Torah. His father was a Chortkov hassid, a branch of the Hassidic Dynasty of Ruzhyn. The first time his father took him to the Grand Rebbe, Rabbi David Moshe of Chortkov, Rabbi Meshulam was nine years old. Being studious , he went with hundreds of hassidim to hear the drasha (sermon) of city's Rabbi, a great Talmid Chacham.

Following the in-depth drasha, some of the hassidim asked the child if he understood what was said, for they saw that he had shaken his head in agreement during the drasha. The boy replied that he understood, and could even repeat it. The hassidim stood him on a table, and the boy repeated the drasha exactly, without missing a word. He even reenacted the Rabbi’s movements exactly at the precise time they occurred – when the Rabbi had stroked his beard, or held his forehead, the boy repeated these movements as well.

After the Rabbi of Zalzczyki tested him extensively, the Gaon Rabbi Leibella Bernfeld, said: “This child is like someone who repeats his studies not a hundred and one times, but rather, a thousand and one times!” He even studied books of machshava (Jewish thought) such as ‘Akedat Yitzchak\ while still a child, and when others had doubts, he was able to review and discuss the book. Due to his special genius, he was able to read and become well versed in the subjects of nature, history and philosophy in a short time.

His Rabbis

Rabbi Meshulam studied with the eminent rabbis in his vicinity who were associated with courtyards of Beit Ruzhyn, among them Rabbi Ya’akov Weidenfeld, author of ‘Kochav Me’Ya’akov (a hassid Husiatyn), whose son, the Rabbi of Tshebin (1881-1965), honored Rabbi Meshulam as if he was a student before his rabbi, and said about him: “Rabbi Meshulam was considered one of the Gedolei HaDor while he was still an avreich (young yeshiva student).” Rabbi Meshulam also studied with Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, author of “Mechazei Avraham” (a hassid Sadigora). However, his most prominent rabbi was Rabbi Meir Arik (Arak) ztz”l (1885-1926), author of ‘Minchat Pitim’ on Shulchan Aruch, and the Responsa ‘Imrei Yosher’, as well as other works.

His Family

Before he reached the age of Bar Mitzvah, the wealthy Rabbi Shimshon Steinholtz from Melnitsa chose him as the groom for his daughter Zippora, and she even embroidered the first pouch for his tefillin. During the long years between the engagement and the marriage, one of Russia’s wealthiest Jews offered the intended father-in-law a large sum of money, if he would agree to hand over the match to his own daughter. Rabbi Shimshon rejected the proposal, saying: “All the wealthy Russian Jews put together do not have enough money to match the worth of such a groom.” And the rabbis who were present, agreed.

In 1894, when almost twenty, he married Zipporah, and they lived in her parents’ home in Melnitsa where he served as rabbi – ‘without expectation of receiving any renumeration – for approximately four years.

In a letter to his friend, he said of his wife: “I thank God the boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places for me… a pleasant wife, a lovely and graceful doe, a dear soul, she has all the proper and lofty character traits, she is honest and pure, humble and gentle, wise and educated, perfect in most wisdom and sciences, gentle and sublime emotions emanate from her soul, she is good hearted and has a precious and pleasing temperament, our souls are imbued with sweetness … “.

Two children were born to them, the eldest Ephraim, and the second, Sarah. Ephraim had brilliant talents, and grew in Torah. Every week, Rabbi Meshulam would study the Torah portion of the week with Sarah, and on Shabbat eve, he learned with her from the book ‘Ein Ya’akov’, and taught her to study much Tanakh.

In 1918, when Ephraim was nineteen, he died of tuberculosis. His parents’ grief was immense. Rabbi Meshulam took comfort in his studies; the Rebbetzin, however, was grief-stricken, and suffered torment until her death. Through their daughter Sarah, the family had continuity, and Rabbi Meshulam found pleasure and happiness in her until his old age.

Rabbinate of Khorostkiv

Despite Khorostakiv\s being a small town, it merited having great rabbis serving there. In continuation of this tradition, Rabbi Meshulam was presented as a candidate for the town’s rabbinical office. As was customary in those days, the candidates for the rabbinate would give a drasha before the public on Shabbat, and that would determine who would be appointed rabbi. When Rabbi Meshulam’s Shabbat arrived, at two in the afternoon, everyone gathered in the Great Synagogue. The rabbi stood by the Holy Ark, holding a Tanakh, and gave a drasha for six consecutive hours. In the drasha he exhibited proficiency and acumen in Talmud and poskim, and everyone marveled at his greatness. He was elected rabbi of the town in 1898 at the age of twenty-four, and for approximately thirty years, served as the community’s rabbi.

A small group in the town, people who craved controversy, chose another rabbi. The controversy grew and was very distressing to Rabbi Meshulam, to the point where he wished to leave on account of the dispute. However, the townspeople, the vast majority of whom supported him, prevented him from leaving, and he had to endure bitterness for most of the years he spent there.

He was active in the organization ‘Mi’Tzion Taytzei Torah,’ and founded a school in the spirit of “Mizrachi” in Khorostkiv, and also founded a yeshiva and headed it. For this yeshiva, he wrote his famous curriculum. He was accustomed to test the younger students twice a week, and once a week gave an in-depth class to the older students. Since he knew both German and Polish, he would sometimes speak on behalf of the public and the rabbis with government officials.

In 1929, he was accepted as rabbi of Schatz in southern Bukovina, where he served for approximately six years. In his last year in Schatz, his wife passed away.

His Righteousness and Support for Zionism

In addition to his tremendous genius, he was also a tzadik (righteous), and his prayers were said with devotion and the outpouring of his soul. He had a very pleasant voice, and it is said that anyone who heard him sing the prayer “Nishmat” on Shabbat Kodesh, would think about repentance, doing teshuva. The Admorim (Grand Hassidic Rabbis) would also rise early in the morning, and go to his house to hear him speak words of hassidut.

The Gaon Rabbi Meshulam was active in the Mizrachi movement, and was also elected on its behalf as a representative to the Twelfth Zionist Congress in 1921. It should be noted that in his association with the Admorim of Beit Ruzhyn, his love of Eretz Yisrael and his support of Aliyah were not seen as a great surprise, for a number of the Admorim of Ruzhyn also supported Mizrachi.

The Chernovtsy Rabbinate

The gabbiaim (sextons) of Lemberg (Lvov) offered him the rabbinate of their important city, whose rabbis were alwas Geonei Olam (great Torah geniuses), however, it was on condition he cease his activity for the Land of Israel. Of course, he refused. In 1935, he was finally elected to the Czernowitz Rabbinate in which a large and important Jewish community of about fifty thousand Jews were active. There, he established a Beit Midrash for Rabbis. It seems that his Zionist positions saved him, for if he had been elected as Rabbi in Lemberg, he would have suffered the Holocaust like the rest of the Jews of Poland, of whom only a small number were saved.

One of the candidates competing against him for the Chernovtsy Rabbinate was Rabbi Rubin, who suggested that Rabbi Meshulam, who was then a widower, marry his widowed sister Leah. In the year 1936 they married, and she stood at his side, immigrated to Israel with him, and devoted herself to his well-being until her last days. She died three years before him.

His Son-in-law, Daughter, and Their Offspring

The young yeshiva man who was sent to bring Rabbi Meshulam to Czernowitz to deliver the drasha for rabbinical election, was Rabbi Yisrael Heitner, who was orphaned from his father at an early age, and grew up with his mother and brother at the home of his maternal grandfather. He was a virtuous and upright man, and at that time, lived with his widowed mother, and was involved in teaching. During the trip, Rabbi Meshulam recognized his outstanding virtues, and did a match between the young scholar and his daughter.

In the winter of 1936, Rabbi Yisrael was crowned the Rabbi of Berland in Romania. He and his wife the Rebbetzin, also acted politely and respectfully towards their poor Gentile neighbors, and treated their Gentile maid generously. During World War II, when demonstrations against the Jews began, the Gentile neighbors assisted in their rescue. After making Aliyah to Israel, Rabbi Heitner, who changed his last name to ‘HaEitan’, served in the I.D.F. as a navy rabbi. Two children were born to them, Zippora and Yitzhak Meir, who later studied at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav under the tutelage of our teacher and mentor Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook ztz”l.

His great-grandfather cherished his grandson, and in his introduction to the second volume of his Responsa ‘Kol Mevasser’, thanked his young, God-fearing Torah scholar grandson, Yitzchak Meir, who assisted him in the work of arranging the answers. Several years later, Rabbi HaEitan was appointed rabbi in the Moshav Beit Meir, and out of his love of Eretz Yisrael, joined the settlement movement, established his home in Kedumim in the Shomron, and served as the Regional Rabbi of the Shomron. As part of his rabbinical work, he and his wife would spend almost every Shabbat in one of the new, small communities, strengthening them with their enthusiasm and devotion. One of the special communities which they frequently visited on Shabbat, was Har Bracha. When I applied to serve as Rabbi of Har Bracha, he was very pleased. He passed away in 1991.

The daughter of Rabbi Yisrael and Sarah is Zafira Zipporah, who married Tzvi Camille, an engineer who played a part in building the State of Israel’s atomic power plant, and for that, received the Israel Security Award. Every day he would immerse himself in a mikveh, pray vatikin (prayers at sunrise), and give a shiur in Daf Yomi. Zafira was a teacher, and raised their five children. One of their sons-in-law is the educator and author, Rabbi Avi Ratt, who is also the great-grandson of Rabbi Meshulam’s brother. The name Ratt in Hebrew is the equivalent of the name Rata in Yiddish.

His Last Days

Even when overcome by weakness in his last years, he did not cease to engross himself in Torah. Even during his last days, while suffering in agony, he sang shirei de’vay’kute (devotional songs) – ‘Ve’karev Pizureinu’ and ‘Nishmat Kol Chai’,” and while doing so, returned his soul in purity to its Creator, on the 26th of Kislev 1962. His funeral went forth from the Mercaz HaRav, Yeshiva and Gedolei HaRabbanim (the most eminent Rabbis) eulogized him.

With the help of God, I will dedicate another column to his greatness and Torah teachings.

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

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper.