Photo Credit: Jewish Press

As a passionate Zionist and the founder of modern religious Zionism, Rav Samuel Mohilever (1824-1898) was at the forefront of the philosophy and theology of settling Eretz Yisrael, and it was his conception of Eretz Yisrael as a mercaz ruchani (spiritual center) that later became Mizrachi, the foundation of the modern religious Zionist movement.

Throughout his life, he was committed to the goals of attaining a deep attachment to the mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisrael; tolerating non-observant Jews as a prerequisite of achieving unity among the Jewish people; and rebuilding the Jewish homeland.

R. Mohilever postcards.
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Rav Mohilever was attracted to the idea of settling Eretz Yisrael even before the infamous 1881 Russian pogroms but, in their wake, his efforts to that end became stronger. He traveled to Brody and Lvov to encourage the mass of refugees who fled Russia to make aliyah and to urge philanthropists to direct greater financial support to migration to Eretz Yisrael. He remained faithful to the importance of aliyah even after many Russian rabbis withdrew their support of Chovevei Tzion because the movement was headed by maskilim (modern Jewish intellectuals influenced by the Enlightenment).

Chovevei Tzion (literally “the lovers of Zion”) was founded as a loose confederation in Eastern Europe to promote aliyah and advance Jewish agricultural development in Eretz Yisrael. Credited with building the foundations of modern Zionism, it became officially constituted as a group in 1884 when 34 delegates met at a historic conference in Kattowitz, Germany and elected Rav Mohilever as its first president.

As the leader of Chovevei Tzion, Rav Mohilever influenced Baron Edmond Rothschild to extend aid to the first settlement in Eretz Yisrael and convinced him to establish a settlement there for Jewish farmers arriving from Russia. As rav of Bialystok (1883-1898), he persuaded his community to settle in Petach Tikvah and, through his influence, a board of rabbis was appointed to ensure that the settlement work there was carried out in accordance with halacha.

In an important, but controversial, halachic decision, he ruled that Jewish farmers could work the land of Eretz Yisrael in 1889, a shemittah year. The Bible prohibits tilling the land on shemittah, so the Jews who had returned to Eretz Yisrael in the early 1880s and supported themselves primarily through the production and export of agricultural products – particularly wine and citrus fruits – theoretically were required to let their land lie fallow.

Most the leadership of Chovevei Tzion, however, argued that the entire “Eretz Yisrael project” would fail if Jewish farmers failed to work the land for an entire year, and Baron Rothschild threatened to pull his support for an enterprise that he believed would be destroyed through shemittah observance.

When the leading rabbinic authorities in Eretz Yisrael – Rav Shmuel Salant and Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin – refused to issue any exception to permit farming work, the settlers turned to their religious leaders back in Europe and beseeched them, given the exigencies of the economy of Eretz Yisrael and as a matter of their very survival, to find a way around the strict shemittah laws.

Assortment of R. Mohilever stamps and labels.

The threat of the collapse of the Jewish settlements and the withdrawal of Baron Rothschild’s support led to a meeting in Vilna of three preeminent European halachic authorities: Rav Yehoshua Trunk of Kutno, Rav Shmuel Zanvil Kleppfish of Warsaw, and Rav Mohilever of Bialystok. The three great rabbanim fashioned an exception, which came to be known as a heter mechirah, pursuant to which a one-year sale of Jewish farmland to non-Jews would be permitted as a means to bypass the shemittah prohibitions (which all halachic authorities agree only extend to working land in Eretz Yisrael owned by Jews).

This exception, on its face, was specifically designed to be temporary and conditioned on the approval of the great Rav Yitzchak Elchonon Spector who, in a long responsum, did approve. Nonetheless, the greater Jerusalem rabbinate, as well as most leading European rabbinic leaders, were passionately opposed to the heter mechirah, including most prominently the Brisker Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik; the Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin; and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt. The use of the heter mechirah remains controversial to this day.

After speaking at the Chovevei Tzion conference in Odessa (1891), R. Mohilever went on to lead a group tour of Eretz Yisrael and, upon his return, he published an open letter in which he urged Jews to work toward the settlement of the land. He joined the World Zionist Organization upon its founding by Theodor Herzl and, though he could not attend the First Congress (1897) because of his old age and frail condition, his letter of greeting to the delegates was formally read at the Congress, which was one of its highlights.

In the last letter he wrote before his death, Rav Mohilever called upon the Jews of Russia to support the Jewish Colonial Trust, the first Zionist bank. Founded at the Second Zionist Congress and formally incorporated in London in 1899, it was intended to serve as the financial instrument of the Zionist Organization and to obtain capital and credit to help attain a charter for Eretz Yisrael.

Original sketch of Rav Mohilever signed by artist Herman Struck.

Exhibited here is an original sketch of Rav Mohilever by fervent Zionist Herman Struck (1876-1944), considered one of the most important print artists of Germany and Eretz Yisrael in the first half of the 20th century. His favorite artistic technique was copper etching and its related processes, though he also was a master of the lithograph, and his artistic legacy originates from his love of the print medium as well as from his landscape and portrait drawings. He later turned to the use of color to represent the stark beauty of the Levant and to better reflect the ever-changing nuances of light in the landscapes of Eretz Yisrael.

Born into a rabbinical family in Vilna, R. Mohilever was ordained by the Volozhin Yeshiva (1842) before assuming rabbinic posts in his native Glebokie (1848), Szaki (1854), Suwalki (1860), and Radom (1868). In each place, his hallmark was total involvement in community affairs.

In his articles, which were published in Ha-Levanon, he stressed cooperation with the maskilim for the welfare of the community and demanded that the rabbinical leadership combine Torah with secular wisdom. He also notably attempted to unite rabbis and maskilim in response to the summons issued by the Russian Ministry of Education under Count Uvarov to attend an 1873 St. Petersburg conference to discuss the Russian plan to reform Jewish education.

In this handwritten 1892 letter on his embossed Bialystok letterhead, Rav Mohilever writes to Rabbi Chaim Yosef Yafeh (Jaffe) congratulating him on his marriage and discussing land in Eretz Yisrael:

Handwritten letter by Rav Mohilever.

Friday, eve of the Holy Sabbath 8th Teveth 5612

The honored one, friend of my soul, the industrious rav, your mouth is most sweet, and you are altogether lovely, who loves your Land with all your heart and soul, standing out among the many in your fear of G-d, Chayim Yosef Yafeh, may your light shine and to all that is yours, much peace and blessing.

I have received your precious correspondence with deep pleasure. I have drunk from your tidings that you have found a wife, found a good thing in all the particulars, may G-d consent that you and she live in pleasance and quietude to long days. Likewise, I am praying that G-d in His mercy send speedy, swift and complete healing to his dear son Yesha’yah, may he live amongst all the other sick Jews, amen! – Regarding what you wrote to me that the clerk there will not set his eye upon him. What can I know from afar? For as it seems to me that there is. In particular, a hospital and a physician and a department certainly is there. Also, surely your son-in-law, the perfect Mr. Horwitz, is in the Holy Land. And when he writes to the clerk in Zichron Yaakov, there is no doubt that the clerk will heed his words.

As to the matter of the lands that they purchased in the Holy Land. I have already received letters from my honored and exalted friend R. Moshe Bramson, may his light shine, and the fellows of his society in Kaunas [Kovno]. Also, from the society in Riga. I have already written in this matter to the committee in Odessa and shall hope that it will all be peacefully settled, even though perhaps it will drag on some more time. Is not the Land of Israel one of the things that come through tribulations? But hope to G-d that the ban by the government of Turkey against the coming of our brethren the children of Israel through the gates of the Holy Land will soon expire.

And, thus, I am your friend who pursues your well-being and wisher of your success.

Rav Jaffe (1845-1898), the “Maggid of Vekshne,” was one of the founders of the Chovevei Tzion and a renowned orator in Vilna on behalf of the movement. Moshe Bramson was a political activist who represented the Jews of Kovno at the Chovevei Tzion Congress at Kattowitz (1884).

Much to the chagrin of the local Arabs, the First Aliyah, which began in 1881 and lasted until about 1903, brought about 30,000 Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe and Yemen, to Eretz Yisrael. In discussing the Ottoman ban on Jewish immigration and his fervent hope that the Turkish government would reverse course on its anti-aliyah policy, R. Mohilever was almost certainly referring to the petition sent only a few months earlier by a group of Arab notables to the central Ottoman government in Istanbul calling for the cessation of Jewish immigration and the end of all land sales to Jews.

Exhibited here is the original tragic public notice by the gabbaim (managers) of Sha’arei Torah announcing the death of R. Mohilever.

Public announcement of Rav Mohilever’s death.

HEAVY MOURNING!

“And Samuel died, and all of Israel gathered to mourn him.” [I Samuel 25:1]
On the death of our faithful shepherd, the leader of our nation,
Will eulogize and cry with mourning distress,
all lovers of Zion and our holy land,
will howl with broken spirit and tears that flow like water.

The announcement goes on to proclaim a gathering on the 2nd of Tammuz, 1898 (the originally scheduled printed date, which was overwritten, was for three days later) at 11:00 for a eulogy to be delivered by Rav Naftali Hertz Halevi on the great loss sustained by the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael. The document closes with “He who comforts Zion and Jerusalem will comfort all who mourn [R. Mohilever’s] loss.”

A disciple of the Maharil Diskin, Rav Naftali Hertz HaLevi Weidbaum (1852-1902) made aliyah in 1884 from his native Lithuania to Jerusalem, where he lectured at the Degel Torah Yeshiva and taught classes on Kabbalah which were attended by the leading Lithuanian Kabbalists at the time. In 1886, Rav Shmuel Salant appointed him to the rabbinate of Jaffa and settlements in Eretz Yisrael, and he became the first rav of the Ashkenazi community in Jaffa.

R. Mohilever was buried in the Bagnowka Cemetery, which he had established in 1892 as Chief Rabbi of Bialystok. However, in 1991, almost a century after his death, his remains were exhumed and reburied in Israel. A large funeral was held on November 10, 1991, and was attended by a Knesset delegation, Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, an Orthodox youth delegation, and about 1,000 people from across Eretz Yisrael.

Gan Shmuel, a kibbutz established in 1913 in northern Israel east of Chadera, was named for him.

Yehei zichro baruch.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.