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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘exile’

Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk (Part II)

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

The parents of Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk, Eliezer Lipman and his pious wife, Mirish, emanated from families that could trace their lineage all the way back to Rashi, Rav Yochanan Hasandlar of Talmudic fame and even King David. They lived in the townlet of Lapachi, not far from Tiktin.

As Mirish was illiterate in the holy tongue, she would recite her blessings by heart. Reb Zusha testified that at the time that his mother prayed, the Divine presence could be found in the home. On Erev Shabbos she would travel to Tiktin to dispense alms.

One story tells of a group of destitute beggars who came to her home, including a leper covered in ghastly boils. While everyone else distanced himself or herself from this wretched discomfiture, Mirish reached out and saw to his needs. Just before the group’s departure the leper blessed her: “May your children be like me.”

Before she could respond to this worrisome blessing, the entire entourage vanished. She then understood that she had been tested from Heaven.

One day, the Baal Shem Tov – who would travel from town to town and address assemblies of the commoners regarding the value of prayer and the sanctity of the synagogue – visited Eliezer and Mirish’s village. This marked a turning point in their lives. From that day on, they faithfully provided candles to the shul and were meticulous in prayer, as they beseeched the Almighty to open the hearts of their four sons and one daughter to the Torah.

On the sad day that Eliezer Lipman passed from this world, his children gathered for the week of mourning. At the conclusion of the shiva the sons divided their father’s inheritance in the following way: Avraham received the cash and the house was given to Nosson. The jewelry and housewares went to Elimelech and the outstanding debts were to be collected by Zusha.

The division had been thus contrived for Zusha, who was very clever at disguising his ways and who appeared to have plenty of time on his hands. It only seemed fitting that he should be the one to go out and collect the debts.

However, Zusha was in no way suited for this mission, and without a penny from the inheritance, was left destitute. Bereft of any means of support, he decided to travel to his uncle who was an assistant to the Maggid of Mezeritch.

Lodging with his uncle meant constant exposure to the Maggid and, in no time, Zusha became an ardent chassid. In the meantime, Elimelech had moved to his wife’s hometown of Shineva.

After his stay with his uncle in Mezeritch, Zusha departed for his brother, Elimelech. The very long and arduous journey took its toll on Zusha’s attire. His worn-out tatters were far shabbier than those that clad the poorest of beggars.

Ever vigilant of the honor of his in-laws, Elimelech was ashamed to allow his dreadfully-appearing brother into his home. He therefore arranged accommodations for him at the home of a local baker.

However, Zusha’s night was not earmarked for mundane sleep. Those precious hours were devoted to learning, prayer and the loud recitation of tikun chatzos. Zusha’s nocturnal agenda effectively brought an end to his tenancy at the baker’s house and Elimelech had no other recourse but to invite his brother into his own home.

It was there that he was able to observe Zusha’s ways first-hand. This sparked within Elimelech the desire to draw close to the Maggid of Mezeritch.

Reb Zusha convinced his older brother to join him in a self-imposed exile that they would devote to elevating the people that they would encounter. Attired in the clothes of exile, they would travel from village to village to persuade, direct and inspire the people to desist from sin and return to their holy roots. The exile would also, as the Talmud teaches, purify their souls.

Again? Yes, Again

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

“Not again!” you may say. To which I respond, “Yes, again!” I say this as I write once again about the most heinous tragedy that could have befallen us, so even though it may not be popular – even though your reaction may be, “We heard it already” – I am nevertheless writing because I fear we have returned to business as usual.

Hashem has been sending us wakeup call after wakeup call, but we remain deaf to all of them and have yet to sound the alarm, have yet to see the hand of G-d beckoning us. This time, however, is different. This time, no one can avoid seeing that what has befallen us is so incomprehensible, it can only be interpreted as a message from the Almighty Himself.

A Jewish child is slaughtered by another Jew – in, of all places, Boro Park, a glittering stronghold of Torah.

And before we can even catch our breaths, a sage in the holy land of Israel, in an enclave of Torah, is savagely murdered – by a Jew.

Is there anyone among us who should not be trembling? Is there anyone among us whose heart should not be shattered – whose eyes should not overflow with tears? With these murders, something has changed, something that never occurred before, something that should frighten each and every one of us.

Every yeshiva child knows our First Temple was destroyed because of three cardinal sins, as a result of which we were taken into the Babylonian exile. Through the mercy of Hashem, after seventy years of exile we returned to our land and rebuilt the Temple.

The Second Temple would eventually be destroyed as well, though for an altogether different reason. While we were careful in our observance, unwarranted hatred permeated our lives. Walls of animosity, controversy and jealousy divided us. It was this fragmentation that catapulted us into the Roman exile, and it is in this exile that we still languish.

For almost two thousand years we have been suffering in this darkness. We have traversed the four corners of the world, tasted the bitter sting of the lash, experienced oppression, torture, inquisition and the Holocaust. Centuries have passed and we remain in exile. Why did G-d not redeem us as he redeemed our forefathers?

The answer to this question is painfully simple – we never repented. Stubbornly, we clung and continued to cling to our hatreds and animosities and in every generation, in every society, we found different reasons to justify it…so much so that the hatred has taken on a life of its own. We no longer see anything wrong with it and consider it a normal way of life.

But these recent heinous, unprecedented events alter our reality.

Our generation continues to stubbornly cling to the sin of unwarranted hatred that is at the root of our present exile, and we concede we are guilty of two of the cardinal sins that led to the destruction of the First Temple: immorality and idol worship (idol worship does not only connote “idols” but anything that is like an idol (money, etc.) and removes us from the true worship of G-d.

Nevertheless, we were secure in the knowledge that the third sin – murder – never penetrated our sanctuary.

Now, with the savage murders of an innocent child and a Torah sage, that illusion has been forever shattered. Overnight, we became the generation that carries on its shoulders the heavy burden of the sins that led to the destruction of our two Temples and sent us into exile. Just take a moment to think about it. It is a catastrophe that has never befallen our people. The sins that led to those destructions are now identified with us. Is that not reason enough to tremble? Is that not reason enough to examine our lives before it is too late?

The Rambam taught us that when suffering is visited upon us, we are commanded to cry out, awaken our people, sound the shofar. Everyone must be alerted to probe his or her life and commit to greater observance of Torah and mitzvos. The Rambam warned that if we regard the tragedies that befall us simply as “the way of the world” – “natural happenings” – we will be guilty of achzarius, cruelty.

At first glance, it is difficult to understand why the Rambam would choose to ascribe “cruelty” to those who view trials and tribulations as “natural happenings.” Such people may be unthinking, apathetic, blind or obtuse, but why accuse them of cruelty? The answer is simple. If we regard our pain and suffering as “mere coincidence,” we will feel no motivation to examine our lives, abandon our old ways, andchange. So yes, such an attitude is cruel, for it invites additional misfortune upon ourselves and others. It would be the height of cruelty to dismiss what is occurring in the world today as mere happenstance.

As Jews, we all know (even if we do not want to admit it), that nothing on earth occurs by accident. G-d’s guiding Hand is always there. In the holy tongue, the very word “coincidence” is kara, meaning kara me Hashem – “it happened from G-d.” G-d has sent us a wakeup call so loud that even a deaf person must hear it. But somehow we manage to console ourselves with distractions and blame some mental or emotional sickness to explain away this savage brutality.

We are a generation that no longer recognizes terms such as “bad” or “sinful.” Rather, we tend to rationalize it all away with psychological jargon. At the end of the day, however, no matter what psychological illness we attribute to these heinous deeds, the tragic, shameful fact remains – they happened! And they were done by our own! Now if this is not enough of a wakeup call, what is?

In the face of all this, what are we to do? What can we do?

(To Be Continued)

Q & A: Cheshvan Or Marcheshvan?

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

   QUESTION: I see that some people refer to the month of Cheshvan as Marcheshvan. Which is correct?

Nachman M.

(Via E-Mail)


   ANSWER: The Gemara (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashana 1:2) cites Rabbi Chanina who states, “The names of the [Jewish] months were brought up with them [the exiles who returned to the Land of Israel] from Babylonia.” Indeed, these were not the original names, as we see in the various biblical verses that refer to them only in a numerical fashion. The Gemara supports Rabbi Chanina’s statement by citing the following months and their scriptural sources (all post-exile), Nissan in Esther (3:7), Kislev in Nechemia (1:2), and Tevet in Esther (2:5).
   Though not included in the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah, through a scriptural search, we find as well Shevat in Zecharia (1:7), Adar and Nissan in Esther (3:7), Sivan in Esther (8:9), and Elul in Nechemia (6:15), which are all post-exile references found only in the prophets and Hagiographa.
   However, we find no scriptural mention of Iyar, Tamuz, Av and Marcheshvan. Our tradition, based on the Gemara’s statement (“The names of the months were brought up with them…”), is that these names too were brought up from Babylonia. Indeed, when the exiles came to Babylonia they found a society that used a lunar calendar similar to ours and that were quite knowledgeable of astronomy.
   Thus, they eventually adopted the Babylonian names for the months. While all remain essentially the same as the Babylonian names, three differ slightly: Sivan (from the Babylonian Siman), Tamuz (from Tuvuz), and Marcheshvan (from Arachshamn, most probably originated from Arach Shaman – i.e., Eighth Month.) In each of these three changes, it is noticeable that a corruption occurred with a mem somehow replacing a vav or the opposite.
   True, the Gemara cited above (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah) only cites three of the names: Nissan, Kislev, and Tevet. However, we find that the sages of the Talmud refer to these months as well as the others elsewhere. Almost all of the months’ names are referred to in Tractate Rosh Hashanah (Babylonian Talmud). An exception is Marcheshvan, which is mentioned in a mishna in Mesechet Ta’anit (10a) in the dispute between Rabban Gamliel and the tanna kamma about the proper time of year to start requesting rain via Shemoneh Esreh‘s blessing of Mevarech Hashanim.
   The tanna kamma posits to start at the 3rd of Marcheshvan, and Rabban Gamliel says the 7th of Marcheshvan. The latter’s reasoning being that the 7th is 15 days after the festival (of Sukkot), which provides sufficient time for the last of the olei regel – those who traveled to Jerusalem for the holiday – to have returned home unhampered by inclement weather.
   The Gemara explains as well that in the Diaspora, where there is less need of rain (or minimized dependence on rain for survival), the prayer request commences 60 days from the festival of Sukkot (today that is usually December 4th, 5th, or 6th, depending on the year and the day of week). Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 2:16) rules according to Rabban Gamliel and puts the start of the request for rain on the 7th of Marcheshvan in Eretz Yisrael.
   It is relevant that the month in your question is consistently referred to in halachic discussions as Marcheshvan, not Cheshvan.
   Rabbi Sperlingin Sefer Ta’amei Haminhagim U’mekorei Hadinim (Inyonei Simchat Torah siman 836) stresses the minhag of using the name Marcheshvan when blessing the new month. Rabbi Sperling explains that this is extrapolated from the Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Noach 11). There we learn that from the time of the mabul – the flood – and afterward, Hashem enacted that from the start of that month (Marcheshvan), there will always be heavy rains.
   This is what “mar” refers to. Mar means a drop (of rain), as in the verse in Isaiah (40:15), “Hen goyim k’mar midli… – Behold, all the nations are like a drop [of water] from a bucket…”
   Rabbi Sperling notes as well (infra 838) that even the names of the months used pre-exile in the scripture, for example, “Bul  (I Kings 6:38), reflects this same concept. Bul, from the word “mabul,” implies that this is the month of the flood. (However, it is at odds with the above rationale for the use of “mar.”)
   Additionally, Rabbi Sperling notes the midrash (Yalkut to Melachim p. 27) that tells about this season including heavy rains for the 40-day period. When King Solomon built the Holy Temple, the edict of heavy rains for 40 days was rescinded. Thus the name “Bul” represented the edicts having been rescinded with the removal of the mem, the numerical equivalent of 40, the 40 days fixed in the original edict.
   Consequently we might add, as far as the Babylonian name Marcheshvan is concerned, that the addition of the word “mar” (letters mem, resh) refers to this change, that the rains of that season will not necessarily be consistently heavy, but at times only “mar” – as drops of rain. Indeed that is what we pray for: A normal, bearable blessing of beneficial rain.

(To be continued)


   Rabbi Yaakov Klass can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.

It’s My Opinion: Celebrating Yom HaAtzmaut

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

            Reading through one of our local Jewish newspapers, I was delighted to see a full-page advertisement publicizing a celebration for Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day.  The 62nd anniversary of the resurgence of the Jewish State is certainly worthy of a party.  In fact, after 2,000 years of bloodstained exile, it is an incredible, modern-day wonder.


A local supper club in Aventura, Florida was organizing the event.  Live music would be provided.  Two Israeli singers were scheduled to perform.  The evening seemed to be planned as a gala affair.


My eyes scrolled down the page and then stopped.  I was horrified to see the rest of the agenda for the evening.  A “Hot Bikini Contest” was proudly touted as part of the festive program. And to think the hot debate in many communities is whether or not to say Hallel on this special day.


One does not have to be a haredi rabbi to understand that a competition like the one planned to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut was unsuitable.  A bikini contest is a totally inappropriate way to observe the commemoration of such a miraculous time in Jewish history.  In fact it was bizarre. 


This lack of insight to the fundamental order of life is quite disturbing.  What is wrong with people who are so out of sync with the basic concept of appropriate boundaries? Unfortunately, this behavior is endemic to a segment of secular culture.  It is a tragic problem.


Certainly, those who organized the Independence Day program meant no harm.  They simply wanted to create a happy and upbeat party atmosphere.    Nonetheless, we are once again reminded of the truth of the adage, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” 

Peace at Home And Among Our People (Part Two)

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Special Note: In my last column, I discussed the tragic consequences of  Sinas Chinam jealousy and hatred of the brothers toward Joseph that cast us into our first exile in Egypt, which continues to plague us to this very day. The following is a continuation of that column:

It is well known that the story of “Kamtza and Bar Kamtza” was pivotal to our exile but we have yet to learn the lesson of that shameful tragedy. The very title of the story is puzzling, since the controversy was not between Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, but between Bar Kamtza and the anonymous host of the party. Why is Kamtza implicated?

To refresh our memories: A gentleman in Yerushalayim made a party. He had a best friend named Kamtza and an enemy whom he despised named Bar Kamtza. He sent his servant to invite Kamtza to his party, but his servant mistakenly delivered the invitation to his enemy, Bar Kamtza. Happily, Bar Kamtza came to the party only to be ordered to leave.

Mortified, he pleaded to be allowed to stay. He even offered to pay for the cost of the party, but his host remained adamant and had him thrown out. So, the question remains – why is Kamtza, the good friend, who never even made it to the party, implicated? Why is he named as a central player?

As a best friend, Kamtza had to be aware that his friend’s heart was filled with animosity and hatred. It would have been his responsibility to warn his friend not to allow such venom to overtake him. So too should the rabbis and all the other guests at the party have taken a strong stand and protested. But everyone remained silent and thereby countenanced this shameful act. Those same people would surely have protested had they seen their host serving treif, so how could they have remained impervious to his reprehensible behavior, which was a pure manifestation of sinas chinam – a treif manner of behavior?

We are all familiar with the teaching of Chazal that calls upon us to be among the disciples of Aharon, Kohen Gadol, and pursue peace among our fellow man. In Judaism, the pursuit of peace is so critical we are even permitted to bend the truth for its sake. When there is a conflict between emes and shalom, emes must take a back seat, for there is no greater good than shalom. So, it is that Aaron had no problem telling two warring parties that the other regretted his actions and wanted to make peace even though that may have been far from the truth.

We, however, not only fail to generate peace, but consciously or unconsciously, we often incite further discord. It behooves all of us to ask ourselves whether we are among the disciples of Aaron or those who attended the infamous party from which Bar Kamtza was ousted.

This question is all the more pertinent to us, for we are the generation that has been destined to live in this trying period of Chevlei Moshiach when, with every passing day, our trials and tribulations intensify. So the question remains B how can we spare ourselves this intense pain that is endemic to this period and speedily bring about the geulah?

But how do we go about making peace and fostering it among our family, our community and our people? Obviously, every conflict, every situation, is different, but the first step is to unlock the heart sealed by hatred. Experience has taught me that the best way to accomplish this is through Torah study and a story that has the power to reach the heart.

In one of my books, I tell the story of the Maggid of Kelm. On one occasion, he challenged his congregation and asked, If, chas v’shalom, Moshiach does not come in our lifetime and we are buried here in Kelm and then one day, we receive an invitation to arise from our graves and return to Kelm for half-an-hour, what would you do? Where would you go? And what would you say?”

Very often, I challenge my audiences with this very same question. What would you do? Where would you do? And what would you say? Would you check on your business, go shopping, to the gym? Would you visit your family? And if you did, what would you say?

On 9/11 we found out. For the very first time, something happened on that day that we had never encountered. Thousands of people were trapped in the Twin Towers. They knew that they were going to die, and somehow, they succeeded in sending out a last message. Tragically, there is nothing new about people being killed and dying, but this was the very first time that we had a recorded message from those facing death. Amazingly, they all got through on their cell phones.

Incredibly, they all left the same message B three little words, I love you…I love you Mom…I love you Dad…I love you, my husband…I love you, my wife…I love you, my children… I love you Grandma I love you Grandpa – I love you all so much!

I allow the people to digest the story and then I ask, Should we not say, “I love you” before it is too late? All the things that we fight about – money, kavod…Is it really worth it? In the end, when all is said and done, it’s all shtuot – nonsense. So once again I ask, Is it really worth it? Is it really worth destroying those who are nearest and dearest to you?” When these two preparatory steps are taken you can anticipate that you will succeed in making shalom. I learned this lesson long ago from my revered father, Harav HaGaon Rav Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l.

At the end of WWII we were taken to a DP camp in Switzerland. A group of Polish young men, all of whom had undergone horrific, torturous experiences in Auschwitz arrived at our camp. They were orphans, angry, bitter, and openly expressed their hostility toward Judaism and Hashem. No one had much to do with them, but my father could not bear to see Yiddisheh neshamos so affected. He didn’t argue with them or admonish them, nor did he give them mussar. Instead, every night, my father went to their dormitory and said the Shema with them. Then he would go to each bed, give each boy a brachah and a kiss. Thus, my father converted their anger, and bitterness into faith, commitment and love.

The lesson of my father has guided me in my efforts to make shalom and unify family members. But those lessons should guide all of us, for they belong to our people.

(To Be Continued)

Peace At Home And Among Our People (Part One)

Friday, April 17th, 2009

In this season, when we gather around the Seder table to celebrate the birth of our nation, it behooves us to take a few moments to consider what we have learned – what we are taking with us to guide us throughout the year. Among the many priorities we should consider, surely shalom and achdus – unity – must be in the forefront. Sadly, today these pillars of our faith are missing from our families, from our communities and from the world at large. While we may not be able to influence the world, our communities or even our families, we can and must impact upon ourselves – we must emerge from this Pesach – different.

There is a well-known chassidic story about a man who was intent on changing the world – so he went to his Rebbe to ask for a brachah. The Rebbe readily gave his blessing, but after a few months of frustration, the man concluded that the task was beyond him. He returned to the Rebbe, who suggested that he scale down – the man quickly agreed and decided to concentrate on his community. But after a few weeks of trying, he came up against the same stone wall, so this time he decided to limit his efforts to his family, but here too he failed. Once again, he returned to the Rebbe, who with a piercing gaze said, Has it ever occurred to you that if you start changing, your family, your community, and yes, even the world, will change?”

So how do we change ourselves? How do we avoid the pitfalls of the past – the odious sin of sinas chinam – unwarranted jealousy and hatred that launched us into the bitter exile of Egypt and continues to enchain us in the darkness of our own exile? What must we do to be zocheh – to merit the geulah shlaimah – the redemption of our people, speedily in our own day?

The generation that lost its way in the dark galus of Mitzrayim merited redemption so that they might come to Sinai and they merited that awesome gift because at Sinai they became one B totally unified – They were as one man with one heart. It was a magic moment, but tragically, that splendid, majestic unity has been painfully absent throughout the millennia. Instead of Ahavas Yisrael, our nation has been splintered by bitter controversies, jealousies, and hatred. This toxic poison has been eating away at our people throughout the ages and is largely responsible for our first exile and for our contemporary familial and national catastrophes.

On Thursday evenings I give a shiur at our Hineni Center in Manhattan. Following the class, I see people in my office who come with all sorts of personal problems. Their backgrounds range from haredi, heimish/frum – yeshivish – Modern Orthodox,to totally secular; from young to old, from singles to married, and sadly, they all relate stories of personal pain. In addition to shidduch problems (which is a constant), I have found that the controversies that destroy families most often center on money, greed, pettiness, jealousy and kavod. To be sure, these conflicts are as old as humankind itself, but it is our mission to overcome our baser instincts and banish this poison from our hearts.

When animosity invades a family, communication all but ceases and in many instances, the hatred can be so ugly that spouses and relatives take measures to have their nearest and dearest imprisoned. When husbands and wives fight, their hatred can become so intense that, they become totally blinded to the deep and damaging scars that they inflict on their children.

This same blindness prevails when, consumed by greed, siblings sue one another, all the while remaining oblivious to the pain and shame they inflict on their parents here or in the Heavens above. Our sages teach that during the period of Chevlei Mashiach, chutzpah will abound and a man=s enemies will be among his own family. How well we know it! Alas, we are living it!

As I mentioned, I deal with these problems following my parshah shiur. Very often, I do not return home before 3:00 a.m. I do this, not because I enjoy staying up late into the night, but because, early on, I discovered that, Torah study prior to a meeting is a prerequisite to effectively reach people. Just the same, after each session I am left with a huge question – how could this happen among Jews? And an even greater question – how can heimish Yidden, who are knowledgeable and well versed, be a part of this? Have we not suffered enough at the hands of the Hitlers of every generation? Why can’t we follow the teachings of our Torah and forgive and fargin each other?

I hear the words of my dear, revered Tatty, HaRav HaGaon Avraham Halevi Jungreis, zt”l. With tears in his eyes, he would say in Yiddish, “After such a Holocaust, we have to embrace every Jew with love. And every Yom Kippur, he would come before his congregation with the same plea: There are people among us who are not talking to their parents, to their brothers, to their sisters, to their relatives, neighbors and former friends… Heint iz Yom Kippur B today is Yom Kippur, we cannot come before Hashem unless we forgive one another, do chesed for one another… But somehow we still fail to absorb the message. Why?”

Most Jewish Press readers are, Baruch Hashem, familiar with the genesis of our history B the jealousy and the hatred of the brothers for Joseph that launched us into a long, dark exile. But it is one thing to cerebrally understand, and something else again to absorb that knowledge into our hearts. Not in vain does the Torah warn us, And you shall know today and you shall absorb it into your heart.  There are just a few inches from the mind to the heart, but it is a gap that is very difficult to bridge. So it is that a man may know something intellectually, but if his heart fails to comprehend, it’s all to no avail.

Thus, even though we know our history, and even though we know that sibling rivalry and hatred were at the root of our Egyptian enslavement, we have yet to internalize that lesson and place it into our hearts. The hatred that enveloped Yosef continues to fragmentize us. Its toxic fumes continue to infiltrate our homes. The distinguished and the learned, the simple and unschooled, the rich as well as the poor, have all fallen victim to it. Since the Holocaust, we have witnessed a phenomenal and miraculous resurgence of Jewish life – the ba’al teshuvah movement, the proliferation of yeshivot, Torah study and observance of mitzvot – but this progress has yet to be paralleled by ahavas Yisrael and shalom bayis in our families. Why? And what can we do to once and for all neutralize this venom that continues to eat away at the moral fiber of our people?

(Continued Next Week)

A Light Unto The Nation: Benno Elkan’s Knesset Menorah

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

While the heart of Israel’s democracy is to be found in the Knesset in Jerusalem, just across the road is a quiet but persuasive work of art that sums up the awesome narrative of Jewish history that finally brought us to the Land of Israel. War and strife are the undeniable subjects of this 15-foot high bronze menorah by the British artist Benno Elkan. Both the subject and tone of the 29 relief panels that emblazon the menorah were significant not only for the Israel of 1956 − when it was given by the British people to the still new State of Israel − but also for a contemporary audience all too well acquainted with the fight for survival in the face of intractable enemies. Tragically, so little has changed. This is a menorah that will continue to illuminate brightly well past its first 53 years.

Benno Elkan (1877-1960) was born in Dortmund, Germany and became a sculptor of medals, busts and monuments. By 1933, life as a Jew in Germany became intolerable and he fled to England where he continued his artistic career. His work was predominantly non-Jewish, including sculptures of Rudyard Kipling, Sir Walter Raleigh, Oran-Utan Group at the Edinburgh Zoological Garden, Great War Memorials and other public works and tombs. Notably the bronze candelabras for Westminster Abby, conceptual prototypes of the Knesset Menorah, were taken with him as he fled Nazi Germany.



Knesset Menorah (1956) cast bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


He began work on the reliefs that would become the Knesset Menorah at age 68 and completed the work 10 years later at 78. As the creator of the Knesset Menorah, arguably one of the most recognizable images from Israel in the world, he is a man of mystery behind an extremely vibrant symbol. (It should be noted that the official symbol of the State of Israel, the menorah, was derived from the Roman relief found in the Arch of Titus that commemorated the defeat of Jews at the hands of the Romans in 67 CE.)

At first glance, the 29 images on the menorah seem random without chronology or theme, spanning ancient Jewish history through the Middle Ages, the early Modern era, and concluding in the mid-20th century. Upon reflection, certain patterns and elementary narrative structures emerge – so much so, that a preliminary outline can be offered:

The Central Branch is the main narrative, starting at the top and descending to the base. It depicts the fundamental struggle of 2,000 years of exile, finally ending in the creation of the modern State of Israel.

The side branches’ narratives frame the central story and should be read horizontally, starting with the uppermost row, moving down row by row and then inward toward the central branch. Admittedly this complex scheme is problematic, since some of the alleged subjects of the reliefs are not clearly confirmed by the visual images and do not conform to either a chronological or thematic narrative. Nonetheless the specific combination of Biblical narrative, symbolic figures and actual historical events yields a complete conception.

In keeping with the militant tone of the menorah, the three uppermost central images are of Moses presiding over the battle with Amalek, his arms supported by Hur and Aaron, flanked on the left by David brandishing the head of Goliath and on the right by a defeated Bar Kochba. The triumphant David image is symbolic of the tiny Jewish state that bravely confronts and defeats its larger and numerous enemies – and easily resonated in 1956, as well as now. Bar Kochba’s defeat reflects the periodic dashed Messianic hopes and yearnings of the Jewish people amid a crushing military debacle.



Moses, Aaron & Hur (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


The central image of Moses spiritually leading the Jewish army with the help of Aaron and Hur proclaims a fundamental Jewish concept of the Divine role in Jewish survival. Professor Hannelore Kunzl, noted scholar and professor of Jewish Art at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, correctly assesses that the ancient battle with − and defeat of − Amalek represents the all too recent struggle with Hitler. For today’s Jews, the war with Hamas and Hizbullah are no less urgent.



Rachel & Ruth (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


Next on the central branch of the menorah is the image of the Ten Commandments surrounded by the flames of Sinai − front and center on the menorah − as much as it is a crucial tenet of Jewish life and history. Subsequently, on the central branch is the image of Rachel weeping for her children who have gone into exile, as described in Jeremiah 31:15. The kneeling figure of Rachel is gently comforted by the beautiful Ruth, standing over her and holding a three-branched lamp, illuminating not only the sorrowful Rachel but also the crown of kingship seen floating above. This is the same crown that her descendent David would possess to establish Jewish sovereignty over the land and establish the first Jewish commonwealth.



Ezekiel (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


Beneath Rachel and Ruth is the Ezekiel panel, the prophet seen as a dramatic figure, gesturing to the viewer as well as to the painfully struggling skeletal figures emerging from the ground beneath his feet (Ezekiel 37: 1-14). Ezekiel prophesized that, by God’s word, the Jewish people would rise from the dead and become a great army, a great people – indeed, just as the post-Holocaust Jewish people arose and created the State of Israel.

Following Ezekiel is the much more complex visual theme of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Violence, individual courage, anguish and massacre combine to bring Elkan’s images into the horrific 20th century. Armed struggle, frequently against impossible odds, was a defining reality of throwing off the shackles of exile. The next image is the passage to the present, i.e. the rebuilding of the Land and establishment of the State of Israel. A flaming round plaque proclaims “Shema Yisrael” as the beacon of hope and strength that will lead the Jewish people from the ashes of the Holocaust to a renascent state in Palestine. The entire foundation of the Knesset Menorah rests on the final central panel of restoring the land: plowing, planting, building and reaping the sustenance that God has promised. The reward for the patience, courage, suffering and struggle of exile is the precious Land of Israel.

Just as the central branch represents the fundamental narrative of the Jewish people, this heroic tale is refined and subtly shaped by the images that surmount each branch on either side. On the extreme left is Isaiah’s vision of the End of Days (Isaiah 2:4; 11:6): “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.” And “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw. A babe shall play over a viper’s hole “



Isaiah (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


Yearning for such a peaceful paradise is brutally contrasted with the image on the extreme right. Jeremiah’s thin and anguished body stretches heavenward in lamentation as the sinfulness of the Jewish people blinds us to the opportunity for repentance and God’s law.

This kind of pairing further comments on the next two crucial figures of Ezra the Scribe (adjacent to Isaiah) and Hillel (who is seen next to Jeremiah). Ezra’s heroic task, shown here reading a large Torah scroll to the transfixed masses, was to reconstitute the decimated Jewish people returning from the Babylonian exile. His pivotal role is echoed on the other side of the menorah by Hillel, who is seen patiently teaching a convert who impetuously demanded to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot.



Hillel (detail of the Knesset Menorah, 1956) bronze by Benno Elkan
Jerusalem, Israel


The relief beautifully illustrates the famous response of the wise Hillel (Shabbos 31a): “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” Elkan juxtaposes the radical simplicity and kind wisdom of Hillel with Ezra’s tempered urgency of preserving a Jewish people on the precipice of obliteration.

Many other of the images on the side branches reverberate with similar contrasts, central to the contextualization of the primary theme that explores the many aspects of exile. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai’s witnessing of the Second Temple as it tumbles into ruins is posed next to the personal anguish in the betrayal of Job’s friends, forcing us to see the communal as but an aspect of the deeply personal. Just as easily, going across from one branch to another – the image of Jews mourning the Temple on the edges of the waters of Babylon – seems to reflect the death of Aaron’s sons.

The calm brilliance of the Rambam, pondering Yad haZakah with the writings of Aristotle under one arm, is seen right next to the awesomely serious Torah scholar, one thumb characteristically thrust up in a moment of brilliant assertion, ready to affirm the construction of the metaphorical rabbinical fence behind him – so necessary to navigate ordinary life.

The complexity and diversity of image and Jewish history multiplies at each glance of this monumental menorah, giving more and more breadth to the expanse of Jewish life that was − and continues to be – the fabric of Jewish exile. Ironically, the diversity of images and themes tend to dilute the central theme of suffering and violence that dominates the fundamental narrative. Even the main inscription on the bottom of the lowest branches from the Chanukah Haftarah (Zechariah: 4:6), “Not through army and not through strength, but through My spirit, said Hashem, Master of Legions,” seems to question our historical experience. Doesn’t this fly in the face of the menorah’s theme of violent struggle, war and strife? And yet this is exactly the point.

The constant reality of Jewish life, especially in exile, is contradiction − tenaciously holding two opposing thoughts in one’s head at the same time. They are the two realities of struggle and dreaming – violent assertion and pure faith. Both must be present for us to move forward, and both are demanded of us until Moshiach arrives. Both illuminate Benno Elkan’s Knesset Menorah.

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

Piety And Art: Zvi Malnovitzer’s Paintings

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

Zvi Malnovitzer

Mayanot Gallery

28 King George Street, Jerusalem, Israel 91073

972 2 625 0916


Yael Gahnassia, Director



Piety and paintings of pious Jews, what a dangerous mix!  It takes considerable courage to dedicate oneself to making art, not to mention to do so within the Orthodox community.  That is what Zvi Malnovitzer did.  He was raised and educated in a Hasidic community in Bnai Brak, Israel and while learning at the Ponevezh Yeshiva he somehow found the time and energy to learn to draw.  And he wasn’t satisfied depicting the stacks of Gemaras and commentaries he studied daily. Rather, a drawing from 1957 depicts the exile of bewildered Jews emerging from a tunnel overseen by six armed men on a balcony above.  Even as a youth Malnovitzer’s artistic seriousness and sensitivity was paramount. 


Zvi Malnovitzer’s work, as represented in two handsome catalogues published by Mayanot Gallery in 2000 and 2007, falls into two general categories: refugees and a broad array of genre depictions of the Hasidic community.  Both areas of subject matter are fraught with the dangers of pietistic treatment that threaten to dilute and trivialize the seriousness of his subjects.  Most of his works manage to avoid the inherent dangers of his chosen themes.  Whether the study hall, synagogue, or mikvah, fish market, matzah bakery or wedding hall, the fabric of Jewish life is examined with compassion and insight only possible from an insider, an artist who has lived in his subject’s lives. 


In his youth, the artist’s education extended well beyond the streets and alleys of Bnai Brak and the yeshiva walls to the precincts of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to absorb the influence of Rembrandt.  Further European travel took him to the Prado in Madrid to take in the visual and social complexity of Goya’s works. Malnovitzer has gracefully adapted these influences, producing occasionally romantic but realistic images of his subjects.  Notably, he tends to favor dramatic lighting and Old Masters atmosphere that often utilizes bravura brushwork of the modern expressionists.  To my sensibility, he is at his best when he observes from the fringes of his pious world or plumbs the depths of exile and homelessness.



Refugees (2005), oil on wood by Zvi Malnovitzer

Courtesy Mayanot Gallery



A consistent series of images on exile that spans his long career, start with the aforementioned early drawing right on down to Refugees (2005).  Typically they contain 10 to 20 figures either marching in a line to some undefined location or standing in great anticipation of their imminent arrival.  The settings are almost always outdoors, with the exception of Refugees at Train Station (ca. 2000) that is paradoxically set on an elevated train station in Boro Park, Brooklyn. 


Refugees (2005) in this series is unusual, in that the figures are trudging directly towards the viewer with a sad little girl sporting a red dress being carried by her father on his shoulders. She is clearly representative of the entire group; helpless, exhausted and dependent on the strength of others.  He sees this as a permanent condition of the Jews; “We are always wandering, continuing to wander, even here. We have not arrived yet.  We are still on the way.”


The vast majority of Malnovitzer’s work explores the complex drama of Jewish communal life, deeply involved in ritual.  Over the years his subjects have included Havdalah, Kiddush Levana, Simchas Torah celebration, Tashlich (notably on the beach) and the Rebbi’s Tisch. 



Lag B’Omer (1900′s), oil on canvas by Zvi Malnovitzer

Private Collection, New York



In Lag B’Omer (1990s) the motif of figures dancing around the blazing bon fire captures the spirit of release and celebration that characterizes the cessation of mourning for the Jewish community. As we notice the mountain outlined against the night sky, we suddenly realize that the five glowing areas of color are actually other bon fires, each with its congregation of Jews celebrating.  The enthusiasm in the painting and freedom in the handling of paint transforms the scene into a commentary on communal joy.



Hasidic Huppah (2000′s), oil on wood by Zvi Malnovitzer

Courtesy Mayanot Gallery



Another favorite subject is the Hasidic Huppah, seen here in a recent painting.  Its merit exists in its extreme simplicity, the wedding party massed in two uneven groups around the radiating whiteness of the bride’s gown and veil.  The artist’s ability to pick out just enough detail to create a crowd of 11 attentive faces in a such a diminutive painting, only 14″ x 11″ is truly stunning. 


The four children woven into the wedding party gives the adult figures real scale while the overall space soars upward to contain the red huppah that shelters the celebrants; effectively floating over them is the barely visible Magen David.  By abstaining from dramatic emotions and details, Malnovitzer allows his composition to convey the true gravity of this holy moment.  The women on the left gaze at the bride both in awe and pride, while the groom attentively listens to the mesader kidushin, as the hopes and blessing of his future life are consecrated by G-d.


While Malnovitzer has done many single genre figures, rebbes, grandfathers, musicians and portraits − all staples of a certain kind of Jewish art − nonetheless, the majority of his major paintings are of multiple figures engaged in the full gamut of Jewish life.  And whether single figures or multiple, he tackles subjects seldom, if ever, depicted.  Jewish soup kitchens for the poor vie with studies of older men drying and dressing after a dip in the mikvah.  A recent canvas even depicts a butcher pulling the hide off a just slaughtered animal. 



Walking to the Synagogue (2005), oil on canvas by Zvi Malnovitzer

Private Collection, New York



Another unusual image is a charming painting, Walking to the Synagogue (2005) that shows yet another facet of his creativity.  Two figures are walking on a rainy and windy day.  One is laboring with a cane, being helped by a friend.  The man with the cane walks hesitantly, each foot uncertain in the wet slippery street while the kind friend is seen from a peculiar perspective so that he appears to have only one leg.  The psychological tension between the two radically different figures is reflected in the ironic difference in appearance.  The man with two legs struggles while the “one-legged” man is assured and helpful.  Appearances are deceiving.


As we review Malnovitzer’s work over the years, we start to see exactly how unusual he is as an artist, especially one living and working within a Hasidic environment.  Perhaps emblematic of this, is his concentration on paintings of women.   In a Hasidic world so dominated by men, depictions of women are extremely rare and yet, Malnovitzer’s renderings of Hasidic women at prayer are a moving insight into a very private corner of the Haredi world. 



Women Praying (2006), oil on canvas by Zvi Malnovitzer

Private Collection, New York


One work, Women at Prayer (2006) is a complex composition of married and unmarried women. On the right, four young women surround a young, married woman who is davening, her hair covered in a close-fitting scarf.  On the left, more married women daven with a beautiful concentration. 


In another recent painting, Women Praying (2006), the scene changes.  Here, a middle-aged woman sits in the foreground at the end of a bench of other women praying or saying Tehillim.  She is slouched over absorbed in the familiar words.  It is very likely a scene from a waiting room that reflects female piety in its most public aspect.  For many religious women, there is no such thing as a wasted moment that is not saved by the recitation of the Psalms of David.


Zvi Malnovitzer has shown in 40 years of constant, hard creative work that art and piety are not necessarily antithetical.  Rather, with sufficient education and sensitivity in both worlds, the privacy and intensity of piety can be made accessible within an aesthetic, that sees honestly and tellingly of the very human narrative that constantly unfolds in the Haredi universe.  That is quite an accomplishment.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art.  Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/piety-and-art-zvi-malnovitzers-paintings/2008/07/30/

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