Last month marked the 76th yahrzeit of Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal, author of Eim HaBanim Semeicha, who was murdered while being transported from Auschwitz to Mauthhausen.
To learn more about his life and the famous sefer he penned, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Rabbi Moshe Lichtman, who translated the work into English in 2002. Rabbi Lichtman is also the translator of An Angel Among Men and the author of Eretz Yisrael in the Parashah. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives in Beit Shemesh, Israel.
The Jewish Press: For those who aren’t familiar with Rabbi Teichtal, what can you say about him?
Rabbi Lichtman: Rav Teichtal was a renowned gadol in Europe by the age of 24. In my opinion, if he were alive today, there would be no one close to him in Torah scholarship.
He was also a master darshan. I have given many shiurim based on his writings, and listeners are always spellbound. In his generation, he was on par with the Chofetz Chaim. He knew the entire Torah by heart.
Growing up in Hungary, the center of Satmar, he was influenced by the anti-Zionist opinions of the great rabbis around him, naturally adopting their negative outlook regarding the Zionist movement. But yntil the Holocaust, the issue did not concern him at all. He filled his time with learning and halachic writings.
What changed and led him to write Eim HaBanim Semeichah, which argues passionately for making aliyah, which he says will bring Moshiach?
In the Introduction to Eim HaBanim Semeichah, he writes: “Now that we have encountered unwanted days…I am unable to delve into ordinary halachic matters…since such study requires clarity of mind. Moreover, the storms of exile which have assaulted us, have banished the students from my yeshiva. I remained alone, isolated with my thoughts over the present-day destruction of the people and communities of Israel. Why has the Lord done this? What is the meaning of this terrible anger?”
How do you explain his dramatic turn-around from being a staunch anti-Zionist to an outspoken advocate for mass Aliyah?
I think that all of his life he simply accepted what he had been taught by his teachers. After he went into hiding in Bucharest as a wanted fugitive [from Czechoslovakia], he had time to ponder the question [of Zionism]. In the Introduction to Eim HaBanim Semeichah, he writes: “Why has the Lord done this? What is the meaning of this terrible anger?”
Having crossed the border illegally, he couldn’t walk freely on the streets of the city. But without any books whatsoever, he reviewed the entire Torah with his extraordinary photographic memory and reached the conclusion:
“The sole purpose of all the afflictions which smite us in our exile is to arouse us to return to our Holy Land…. I intend to publicly express my opinion, to teach and advise our people, the Children of Israel, how to hasten the future Redemption, speedily in our days.”
He mentions 15 times in the course of the book that he didn’t have any sefarim with him and then goes on the quote the source exactly, or almost exactly – not only it comes from the Torah, Tanach, Gemara, Rishonim, or Achronim, but from all the commentaries on them as well.
He writes: “The purpose of this work is to raise our Land from the dust and stimulate love and affection for it in the hearts of our Jewish brethren…. The essential point is that Hashem is waiting for us to take the initiative, to desire and long for the return to Eretz Yisrael. He does not want us to wait for Him to bring us there….
“[W]hen we, on our own volition, truly and with all of our strength, desire and strive to return to the Land, then G-d will complete the work for us beneficially.’”
How was the book received?
We really don’t know. From his own writings, we know that Rav Teichtal would venture out to secret meetings of Jews to give sermons about his great revelation, and to urge them to find ways to escape the coming doom.
With a heavy heart, he bemoans the fact that when he requested to speak at these underground meetings and prayer gatherings, he was told not to talk about Eretz Yisrael.
From what he writes in the book’s introduction, we can assume that few people heeded his impassioned warning and call: “Those who have a predisposition on this matter will not see the truth and will not concede to our words. All the evidence in the world will not affect them, for they are smitten with blindness and their inner biases cause them to deny even things which are as clear as day.
“Who amongst us is greater than the Spies? The Torah testifies that they were proper individuals. Nonetheless, since they were influenced by their desire for authority, and thus, they rejected the desirable Land and led others astray, causing this bitter exile, as Chazal explain…. The same holds true in our times, even among rabbis, Rebbes, and chassidim.
In another place in Eim Habanim Semeicha, he writes, “I know that the humble ones who separate themselves from the building effort do so for the sake of heaven. They fear that they and their children may be harmed by joining people whose ways have strayed from the path of the Torah.
“Behold, we can say about such people that although their intentions are acceptable, their actions are not, for many reasons. All Jews must be united in order to fulfill the positive commandment of the Torah of building and settling the Land…. Therefore, do as you are commanded!
“Further, no harm will come to a Jew who participates in this great and exceedingly lofty mitzvah. On the contrary, if a large number of Orthodox Jews join in, they will enhance the sanctity of the Land, as I previously cited in the name of the holy Rebbe of Gur and the Ramban. Since we are commanded to build the Land and raise it from the dust, it is forbidden to be overly pious and undermine this endeavor, G-d forbid.”
I heard that not all of Rav Teichtal’s family was happy when the book was republished in Israel in 1983.
I understand from the publisher, Rabbi Danny Cohen, that there was a family dispute on ideological lines. One of the rabbi’s sons belonged to the Lubavitch community in New York, and he didn’t want the book to be published in Israel.
After the Holocaust, the book was published in Hebrew in America in a limited edition, which, I have heard, was bought out almost in its entirety by some religious group opposed to Zionism, which proceeded to burn all of the copies – but I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that report.
In any event, one of the sons living in Israel, Menachem, felt less antagonistic toward Medinat Yisrael and asked the Rebbe of Chabad what to do. The Rebbe replied that Rav Teichtal was a tzaddik, not a “Zionist” in the pejorative use of the term, and that the book was a legitimate Torah study about Eretz Yisrael.
So the son gave his permission on the condition that a letter from him would be included at the beginning of the book, explaining that his father was not a Zionist, but rather wrote the treatise out of his great love for the Holy Land.
As in interesting side note, one of Rav Teichtal’s great-grandsons, a Chabad chassid, is the chief rabbi of Berlin, actively engaged in revitalizing the Jewish community of Germany. I can’t help but wonder if he has ever studied his great-grandfather’s book.
How did Rav Teichtal die?
When the Final Solution of the Nazis finally reached Hungary, Rav Teichtal tried to flee with his family back to Czechoslovakia, hoping the situation was better there. They were captured and sent to Auschwitz. Then, as the Russian armies drew close to the extermination camp, the Nazis transported the inmates deeper into Germany.
During the train ride to Mauthausen, guards threw crusty chunks of bread to their captives. When a Ukrainian prisoner grabbed a piece out of the hand of an old and starving Jew, Rav Teichtal protested. Others Jews warned him to mind his own business, but he demanded that the thief return the bread. A student, who was in the cattle car as well, says that Ukrainian prisoners and a Nazi guard beat Rabbi Teichtal to death.
Do you have any indication how readers of the English translation have reacted to it?
Baruch Hashem! The response has been fantastic. I have received many letters of thanks, including testimonials from people who made aliyah after having read the book. Rav Teichtal’s style is amazing in its combination of passion, Torah erudition, and unrelenting truth. His Torah greatness and honesty jump out from the pages.
I am certain that thousands of people have been inspired and awakened by the clearly-presented discussions and scholarly proofs in the book which emphasize the vital nature and centrality of Jewish Life in the Land of Israel.
In my opinion, with the world upheaval that corona has caused, and with ever-increasing anti-Semitism, the message of the book is just as real today. After reading Eim HaBanim Semeicha, you cannot return to being the same person unless your head is filled with denial and the need to guard yourself from the truth.