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.
In 1940, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua prevailed on his father to establish a yeshiva in Grosswardein. At that time both the political and financial climates were restrictive. Nevertheless, the yeshiva almost immediately had more than one hundred students, buoyed by Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua as their rosh yeshiva.
The Right Shidduch
In April 1942, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua married Rebbetzin Leah Esther a”h (d. 1993), daughter of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Paneth, zt”l Hy”d (1894-1944), Deijer Rebbe; son of Rabbi Moshe Paneth, zt”l (1843-1902), Deijer Rebbe; son of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Panet, zt”l (1818-1884), chief rabbi of Transylvania, Deijer Rebbe, and author of Maaglei Tzedek; son of Rabbi Yechezkel Paneth, zt”l (1783-1845, rav of Karsburg and of all of Transylvania, author of Mareh Yechezkel, and patriarch of the Deijer chassidishe dynasty.
The rebbetzin always respectfully stood to his right and enabled him to study Torah unimpeded. It was their joyous devotion to the study of Torah that enabled them to build the preeminent chassidishe family, with his sons and sons-in-law the leaders of four of the largest chassidic dynasties.
After their wedding, the newly married couple remained in Deij for several months. In Deij, he attracted a following. The couple returned to Vilchovitz where he actively served in the position of spiritual leader in order to qualify for a military draft exemption. Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua reenergized the yeshiva there, and it was left to him to provide full sustenance to fully half of the more than one hundred students enrolled. Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua labored to build the foundation of a huge yeshiva. Sadly, all his planning never came to fruition in Vilchovitz.
Escape to Palestine
In March 1944, when Hungary came under the rule of the Nazis, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua and his rebbetzin moved to Grosswardein to be closer to his father. The Jews there planned to either escape or hide should the Nazis enter the city.
In June, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua, his rebbetzin, and their firstborn daughter (today the Skverer Rebbetzin) covertly crossed the border into Romania, where they were arrested by Romanian police. Intercession (and bribes) by devoted Vishnitzer chassidim facilitated their release. After several months in Bucharest, the family left for Palestine. Their journey took them through Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. They finally arrived in Eretz Yisrael in September 1944.
Their arrival sparked seven decades of Torah inspiration and the building of a Torah empire. Rabbi Eliezer Hager, zt”l (1891-1946), Vishnitzer Rav, author of Damesek Eliezer, and uncle of Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua, had arrived several months earlier and established his beis medrash and yeshiva in Tel Aviv. Upon his arrival, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua was immediately appointed rosh yeshiva. He devoted himself to his students and remained with them in the beis medrash day and night.
His uncle, the Damesek Eliezer, passed away in September 1946. His father, the Imrei Chaim, arrived in Palestine in 1947. In that interim, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua gained inspiration in developing warm relationships with the Chazon Ish zt”l, Brisker Rav, Belzer Rebbe zt”l, Shomrei Emunim Rebbe zt”l, and the Steipler Rav zt”l.
When the Imrei Chaim arrived, the rebuilding of the decimated Vishnitzer dynasty commenced. In 1949, the Imrei Chaim left Tel Aviv and settled in nearby Bnei Brak. Shikun Vishnitz, the Vishnitz neighborhood, was established in 1951.
Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua’s Reign
Days before Pesach 1972, the Imrei Chaim passed away and the Vishnitz leadership was passed down to Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua.
During Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua’s reign as Vishnitzer Rebbe, Vishnitzer chassidus would grow at an unprecedented rate, with Vishnitzer Torah institutions established around the world. He reached out to descendants of Vishnitzer chassidim wherever they were and invited them to join and rejoice in the warmth that their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers relished.
He exuded magnetism, and the number of those who joined his tefillahs, tisch and shiurim multiplied with each passing week. The sweet joy of his Shabbos was particularly contagious. Torah scholars imbibed with relish his divrei Torah. Other chassidishe rebbes came and found inspiration.
Sadly, his health had been in decline for the past few years, and he was only occasionally able to make public appearances.
The news of his passing last week at age 95 spread instantly to all corners of the Jewish world. Fleets of buses were immediately deployed to bring more than one hundred thousand mourners to the funeral in Bnei Brak. His sons-in-law the Skverer Rebbe and the Satmar Rebbe and their immediate families left New York immediately. Thousands of others came from Europe and elsewhere.
The Vishnitzer custom is not to have any eulogies at funerals. Tehillim were recited and the Vishnitzer Rebbe was interred in the ohel where his father also rests.
The Rebbe is survived by his second rebbetzin; son and successor Rabbi Yisroel; son and successor Rabbi Menachem Mendel; daughter Skverer rebbetzin; daughter Belzer rebbetzin; daughter Satmar rebbetzin; and daughter rebbetzin of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Ernster, Vishnitzer rosh yeshiva in Bnei Brak.
The Rebbe was the glory of Vishnitz. His legacy and remembrance are a blessing.
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