Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager, ZT”L Vishnitzer Rebbe, 1916-2012
At 12:40 a.m. on Adar 20, 5772 – early Wednesday morning, March 14 – Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager was called to Heaven. His passing left the Torah world in deep mourning and brought to an end the reign of the seventh rebbe of the house of Kosov-Vishnitz.
Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua had absorbed chassidishe heritage while on the lap of his grandfather, Rabbi Yisroel Hager, zt”l (1860-1936), beloved Vishnitzer Rebbe and author of Ahavas Yisrael, who, in turn, had been taught by his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Hager, zt”l (1830-1884), Vishnitzer Rebbe and author of Tzemach Tzaddik. Thus, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua was a direct link to chassidic fountainheads reaching back six generations.
He was born on Wednesday, June 14, 1916. His parents were Rabbi Chaim Meir and Rebbetzin Margolis (Pearl). Moshe Yehoshua was their firstborn. At the time of his birth, during World War I, his father served as rav of Vilchovitz, then in Austria-Hungary and now in Romania, not far from Vishnitz. The father later became Vishnitzer Rebbe and author of Imrei Chaim.
The Ahavas Yisrael directed that the child be named not after any of his forebears but rather after the first two leaders of the Jewish nation, Moshe and Yehoshua, mentioned in the weekly parshah of the boy’s bris. Rabbi Yesochor Berish Eichenstein, zt”l (1840-1924), Zidichover Rebbe and author of Malbish LeShabbos VeYom Tov, who was in the city of Grosswardein because of the war, traveled to Vilchovitz to participate in the bris.
As a child, Moshe Yehoshua was enrolled in the cheder in Grosswardein. Unlike the other children, he refused to participate in any games, instead using every minute to study Chumash or Mishnah, which he found exhilarating. He probed into mussar sefarim and actually cried when he could not understand what he was reading. The classic mussar sefer Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart) was his favorite. Late Friday nights, after his grandfather ended his tisch, the young Moshe Yehoshua would be glued to the sefer.
Once, recalling his youth, the Vishnitzer Rebbe told of the weeks before Pesach in his grandfather’s beis medrash. His grandmother had finished cleaning the beis medrash in their home a few days before Pesach, locked the doors, and told Moshe Yehoshua not to go in lest it become chametzdik.
A short while later, Moshe Yehoshua wanted very much to learn from a certain sefer only to be found in the beis medrash. He somehow located an opening large enough for him to squeeze through. His grandmother, however, caught him when she heard sounds of Torah and investigated. He had lost himself in the sefer and forgot that his learning was supposed to be clandestine. The very next day, the episode was repeated.
The Vishnitzer Rebbe told the story when a student in his yeshiva in Tel Aviv was caught sneaking into its beis medrash when it was closed for pre-Pesach cleaning.
As a young teenager he was elated to discover sefer Ketzos HaChoshen, a classic commentary on Choshen Mishpat (laws of Jewish jurisprudence). He devoted six hours every evening, including Friday nights, to the Ketzos. Observing Moshe Yehoshua’s intense schedule, an onlooker warned his father that the boy was overworking himself.
The Imrei Chaim called in his son and advised him that while he truly admired the six hours he was devoting to studying the Chatzos every weekday night, the Friday night tisch was an especially holy time and could not be missed.
Moshe Yehoshua expressed his love of learning Torah by loudly kissing the sefer he was studying after every few pages. Discovering a particular Torah insight would bring him dancing to his feet. He told his students that learning one blatt of Gemara with a companion was the equivalent of learning ten blatt alone, and that teaching one blatt of Gemara was the equivalent of learning a whole chapter alone. Thus, he encouraged his students to learn together and to teach.
Young Rosh Yeshiva
In 1936, Moshe Yehoshua earned ordination from Rabbi Pinchas Zimatbaum, zt”l Hy”d (d.1944), Grosswardeiner rosh beis din; Rabbi Yaakov Elimelech Paneth, zt”l Hy”d (1889-1944), Deijer Rebbe and author of Zichron Yaakov; Rabbi Yechezkel Widman, zt”l Hy”d (d. 1944), Izmetchel Rav; and Rabbi Mordechai Brisk, zt”l Hy”d (1886-1944), Toshnader Rav and author of Maharam Brisk.
After the passing of his grandfather, the Ahavas Yisrael, and the succession of his father, the Imrei Chaim, as Vishnitzer Rebbe, the Imrei Chaim was no longer able to tend to the needs of the kehilla in Vilchovitz. The Imrei Chaim appointed his yet unmarried son, Moshe Yeshoshua, as rav.
As his father before him, he gathered the boys of Vilchovitz and served as an inspirational rosh yeshiva. Students who survived the Holocaust became lifelong adherents. Residents in the towns around Vilchovitz routinely positioned eruvei techumim for Shabbos and Yom Tov to extend the permissible walking distances so that they would be able to walk to Vilchovitz and participate in the inspired davening and tisch.