Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Although he remains largely unknown, Rav Reines (1839-1915) made critical contributions in the areas of halacha, Jewish philosophy, yeshiva education and religious Zionism. He is best known as a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi who was a staunch Herzl supporter and a passionate advocate for political Zionism, as a founder of the Mizrachi Movement, which came to represent religious Zionism within the broader Zionist movement, and as the architect of one of the first yeshivot to also teach secular subjects.

Original drawing by Hermann Struck of Rav Reines and signed by him. Struck (1876-1944) is considered one of the most important print artists of Germany and Eretz Israel in the first half of the 20th century.

Born in Kaolin (now part of Pinsk in Belarus), he studied at the Eishishok and Volozhin yeshivot and was ordained by leading rabbanim (1867) before serving in the rabbinate in Lithuania (1867-1869), Vilna (1869-1885), and Lida (1885 to his death). During his all-consuming Talmudical studies, he also somehow found the time to study Hebrew works on logic and mathematics and to master Russian and German, a rare accomplishment indeed for rabbis at the time.


His singular contribution to rabbinic scholarship was a rejection of the then-favored pilpul (sharp textual analysis and argumentation in the rabbinical dialectic) in favor of higgayon (“logic”), the logical and rational approach favored by Rambam. Not surprisingly, many charedi leaders condemned his approach as heretical, and only his piety, his sterling character, his love and respect for all Jews, his legendary diligence in Torah study and the great respect he had earned as a great Torah scholar saved him from excommunication.

Portrait of Rav Reines from a photographic album published by Mizrachi (see discussion below) in New York (circa 1910), depicting great Rabbinical leaders who advocated the Jewish settlement of Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Reines emphasized this higgayon approach in his masterwork, Chotam Tochnit (1880), written in response to the German “Reform” movement that denied the divinity of the Oral Torah, in which he ambitiously sought to systematize halacha by revealing the logical principles by which the Oral Torah had been derived from the Written Torah. The sefer made a great impression, particularly in Western Europe where Jews were largely unaccustomed to halachic works by Eastern European scholars stressing a logical approach.

Rav Reines was among the rabbanim who assembled in St. Petersburg in 1882 to consider plans for improving the moral and material condition of Russian Jews, where he advocated for the broad adoption of his rational halachic approach by all the leading yeshivot. He sought to introduce the spirit of the times in his public activities without breaking with tradition, for which he was much criticized; in particular, he founded a yeshiva in Shyiciani (or Sventsyany) with a curriculum including secular studies.

Unlike Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, he did not subscribe to the philosophy of Torah Umadda, seeing no inherent value in secular education; rather, motivated by a desire to increase the knowledge of rabbis, who would be ruling on a variety of halachic issues that required scientific and secular knowledge, he implemented a technique to unify Jews by narrowing the gap between his yeshiva students and “enlightened” secular Jews (and, indeed, his political Zionism eased concerns that many secular and religious Jews had about working together) and to provide for the ability of his students could get the training and develop the skills necessary to earn a respectable livelihood for themselves and their families.

Postcard depicting Rav Reines.

His yeshiva aroused the ire of religious fanatics, who viewed his yeshiva as profaning the Holy and forced him to shut the school after only a few months. Nonetheless, with his plans initially thwarted by the charedim, he went on to found a new yeshiva that successfully implemented his program for a ten-year course through which students were to gain the full extent of rabbinical knowledge necessary for the proper ordination of a rav while simultaneously acquiring the secular education required of government rabbis. However, there was again so much charedi opposition to his yeshiva that it was closed by the authorities after four years.


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Still, after these failures, he was able to recognize a lifelong dream in 1905 with the founding of a modern yeshiva in Lida, which he called Torah Vodaas, in which Hebrew and history, geography, literature and practical business skills were taught along with Talmud, all within the framework of strict adherence to halacha. (The well-known yeshiva in Brooklyn of the same name was founded by students of Rav Reines and named after his yeshiva in Lida.) Although he was careful not to promote Zionism – or any politics, for that matter – in the curriculum, the Mizrachi movement (see discussion below) came to view the yeshiva as its own, and it attracted many students from throughout Russia and established a reputation as a distinguished Torah institution. (The yeshiva, which proved unable to sustain itself without Rav Reines, closed in 1915 upon his death.) Rav Reines was also instrumental in the establishment of the first kollel perushim in Kovno for the purpose of subsidizing young married men studying for the rabbinate outside the yeshivot.

Rav Reines’s correspondence discussing his students at the Lida yeshiva.

A comprehensive picture of the Lida yeshiva’s innovative program emerges not only from Rav Reines’s works, many of which describe the yeshiva’s program and the need for its existence but also from his correspondence, including solicitations for donations for the consistently cash-strapped institution. In this May 31, 1910, correspondence on his Yeshiva of Lida letterhead, Rav Reines writes in exceedingly flowery language to “The wealthy and respected and exalted, dedicated to our nation and to our holiness, a man of great deeds, Mr. Yehuda Leib Leibenstein – great peace and everlasting blessings!” [Note that, as was traditional at the time, he refers to the donor in the third person, using the term “his noble honor.”]


With great affection, I hereby express to his noble honor our warmest thanks for his generous gift of five rubles and also for the love that he has shown to our representative, the noble Mr. A. M. Karpal for his good work on behalf of our Yeshiva Gedolah during the past year. Allow me to tell him that this is a very great matter, much exalted, for our nation and holiness and also for the education of our children in the spirit of Judaism and humanity, upholding this excellent institution with truth, his goodness, and his blessings, which is unique through the breadth of our land. Three hundred students now in our building, all of whom pursue their studies with love and have wondrous success, and they are being educated to be sons who are knowledgeable students of Hashem, sons true to their nation and to their G-d, children who are a glory to Hashem and to Man. These students have already been recognized as the best of our nation and the quality of our institution and, with his support, they have been able to elevate themselves on the pedestal of the highest degree of achievement. Therefore, his respected and noble heart should be joyful because he, too, is among all the sons who build this institution for Torah and for the perfection of Israel, and may his heart be ready, because his proper reward will come from “He Who Has Chosen Israel,” and all the rewards we have earned, and even all the blessings of our nation, shall rest upon his head forever!

And I hope, that because his noble respect was to provide from his great charitableness upon us, he will not stop now in the middle of the road, and he should give us also this year a helping hand, and he should also stand now to help our noble representative Mr. Karpal to support him in holiness and to serve as his mouth and ears before his community – then, then will increase the blessing to come upon us, and the deed of charity will become full, and his honor will earn G-d’s blessing, which will be with us always!

With my certainty [that he will make further contributions], I extend my thanks in advance to his noble honor, and I hereby extend to him our blessings of peace with all feelings of respect and importance, that our sons may feel his inestimable value and also his great and exalted deeds.

Rav Reines joined Chovevei Tzion (“Lovers of Zion”) at its inception, became a leader in the movement and established the religious Mizrachi section of the organization in 1893. Many historians suggest that his keen attachment to Eretz Yisrael was due principally to his father, Shlomo Naftali, who in 1809 had joined a group of followers of the Vilna Gaon and made aliyah. (He lost his first wife and children in the tragic January 1, 1937, Safed earthquake that killed 1,800 people, and he never again returned to Eretz Yisrael.)

In 1887, Rav Reines met with Rav Mohilever and presented to him a detailed plan for activities to be instituted by the religious members of Chovevei Tzion, including combining Torah study with physically working the land and establishing a school system in Eretz Israel that would transform the land into a world center of Torah learning. He was among the first rabbis to zealously and publicly heed Herzl’s call, and his support of the Zionist movement greatly encouraged the great Zionist leader who, faced with the overwhelming opposition of most European rabbanim, recognized the need to find rabbis who would support his new Zionist movement. In fact, the holy Chofetz Chaim paid a personal visit to Rav Reines to plead with him not to support Zionism, but his effort failed.

Interestingly, Rav Reines’s support of Zionism was not because of messianic idealism. He did not explicitly adopt the philosophy of most religious Zionists, who promoted Zionism as the ultimate Jewish redemption promised by the prophets; rather, he saw Zionism as nothing more nor less than a purely political movement necessary to save the Jewish people from danger in the here and now, and he argued that pragmatism and the reality on the ground dictated the immediate pressing need to find a solution to malevolent and relentless antisemitism. In this regard, his ideology was virtually synonymous with that of Herzl who, after witnessing Dreyfus’s humiliation, became disillusioned by growing antisemitism in Eastern Europe notwithstanding the emancipation of its Jews, and developed the Zionist Idea.

RavReines devoted considerable energy to propagandizing for political Zionism amongst Orthodox rabbis and communities, and he traveled widely to speak to the Jewish masses and to meet with some of the leading rebbeim of his time, hoping to inspire them with his renowned eloquence and impressive scholarship. One of his seminal publications, Or Chadash al Tzion (1902) – the title derives from the passionate messianic close of the blessing recited before the Shema in the daily morning prayer imploring G-d to shine a “new light on Zion” – in which he brilliantly refuted all the claims in rabbinical circles opposed to Zionism and presented a manual for establishing a model spiritual Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael that would also thrive economically. In the sefer, he explained that, in contrast to medieval Jews who saw G-d’s hand in nature, contemporary Jews see G-d’s hand in history, particularly in their miraculous survival through the 2,000-year exile to their expected return to establish a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael:

The belief that Israel will return to its own land originates with the inherent relationship between Israel and the land and with the promise that the Holy One Blessed Be He will give the land to His children. Such a belief instills a strong feeling of belonging between Israel and the land.

Each and every Jew should consult his heart and recall all that has passed and occurred to our fathers in this land and how they sacrificed their lives and their blood was spilled like water upon it; can such things not light his soul like burning coals and his heart with fire?

One should always desire to spread his tent in the Holy Land and through this he will see Eden and gain satisfaction to no end. However, the individual whose heart is far removed from such desires – this is a sign that his relationship to the Land has been severed and all love for the land no longer exists within the heart.

Rav Reines sent a copy of the book, which he had dedicated to Herzl, to the great Zionist leader, with whom he regularly corresponded, along with a cover letter that has been preserved in the Zionist Archive:

I am honored to present you with my book, Or Chadash Al Tzion, which I dedicate to your great and exalted name. As I publish this book which speaks of the Zionist movement, I see a personal obligation to present it as a gift to the one who founded this movement and gives his life to it.

Mizrachi Presidium of the First World Mizrachi Congress in Pressburg (1904). (Rav Reines and his long white beard are at front center.)

Many of Rav Reines’s essays, monographs and other manuscripts had been hidden from the public eye and all but forgotten, but some of the 20,000 handwritten manuscript pages in a cache that was donated to the National Library of Israel in January 2020 demonstrate a new dimension of his close relationship with Herzl. These include documents showing that even years after Herzl’s death, Rav Reines was giving lectures in his yeshiva in his honor and touting his greatness and critical contributions to the Jewish people: “When we see that even after his death, his achievements are recognized, that it a sign of his immortality.”

States, proudly embraced policies calling for both the settlement of Eretz Yisrael and the observance of religious law there; hence, the Mizrachi slogan: “The Land of Israel, for the People of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel.”

Very rare postcard depicting the Mizrachi attendees at the Seventh Zionist Congress, mailed from the Congress to Pisa, Italy, and postmarked Basel 27.VII 1915. Rav Reines sits in the front middle in his black top hat.

Many of the rabbanim who had wholeheartedly embraced Chovevei Tzion were appalled by the very prospect of an irreligious Jewish state, but Rav Reines launched Mizrachi as a political body within a secular framework. As president of the organization, he led Mizrachi in attaining membership in the World Zionist Organization in 1902, which marked the first time that an Orthodox religious faction secured representation in a Jewish secular political organization. He went on to found Ha-Mizrach, the first Mizrachi journal, and World Mizrachi headquarters were established with its main office in Lida and regional centers in Frankfurt, with responsibility for Western Europe, and in New York, with responsibility for North America. The Seventh Zionist Congress in Basle, which was the first held after Herzl’s death, sparked fierce opposition from the charedi community, and 121 Hungarian rabbis issued a cherem (ban) to all members of Orthodox congregations forbidding their joining the Mizrachi movement or attending their Congress.

The name “Mizrachi” in Hebrew – which literally means “eastern” but is actually an acronym for Merkaz Ruchani (“spiritual center”) – aimed to infuse the largely secular political movement founded by Herzl with a Torah-based spirit. This was by no means a goal that could be taken for granted in the early decades of organized Zionism because many religious Jews believed that the formal return to Zion was not supposed to take place before the coming of the Messiah and that any human effort to hurry that moment was blasphemy – an attitude that unfortunately persists to this day among many ultra-Orthodox and charedi sects.

Exhibited below are the first and last pages of Mi-Mizrachi (“from the East”), a very rare pamphlet printed in 1908 in the form of an open letter by Rav Reines as president of the Mizrachi movement. In the letter, which he calls “The First Letter about Zionism,” he calls for an increase in activities on behalf of Zionism; summarizes his ideological philosophy, according to which Torah-true Judaism and Zionism are interconnected; and emphasizes the two holy duties of Mizrachi: first, “to disseminate Judaism among the Hebrew nation in general and its youth in particular” and, second, “to make the best efforts to buy land in Eretz Yisrael and to make preparations for its settlement.”


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Although Rav Reines may not have been the first Orthodox rav to support the idea of a Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael, Zion, it was he who answered Herzl’s call to become involved in the political movement and it was he who almost single-handedly took on the anti-Zionist charedi rabbinate. At the Fifth Zionist Congress (1901, Basel), when the “Democratic Federation” sought to place all education under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization, Rav Reines was a powerful and passionate voice of resistance.

Also at the Fifth Congress, Rav Reines, determined to prevent a split in the Zionist movement, voted in support of the Uganda Resolution, a strong affirmation of his political Zionism; in a letter of support he wrote to Herzl, “We agreed to the African proposal because we paid attention to the needs of the nation that is dearer to us than the land [of Israel] – and the needs of the nation that is deteriorating both physically and spiritually requires a secure refuge wherever it may be.” However, the movement did sustain a minor split after the Tenth Congress in 1911, when the leftists succeeded in placing all education under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization. Nevertheless, due to Rav Reines’s herculean efforts, the Mizrachi party remained within the WZO and only the German Frankfurt branch broke away. In a power speech to the Congress, he emphasized the inherent need for unity:

All that others see as detrimental [to the Zionist cause], I view as a positive influence; others see in the [great number of] Zionist parties division of the hearts and I see in it a unification of powers. If one party were to work for the coming redemption this would not be surprising. But the fact that many different factions, each retaining its own specific view and ideology can unite under one general flag – the national flag – this can only be seen as the Etzba Elokim (“the finger of G-d”), a phenomenon that is not normal. The very fact that there are so many different political factions within the Zionist movement is in itself the best witness that this movement is resultant from the entire people of Israel, for they [the various factions] unify the various potentials which exist [within the Jewish people].

To be clear, there can be no question that Rav Reines deeply believed that the ultimate aim of Zionism was the establishment of a religious state in Eretz Yisrael and, in that sense, he did not differ at all from Rav Kook and other leading religious Zionists. Where he differed, however, was in his belief that the first imperative was to ensure the safety of the Jewish people, and if doing so meant temporarily suspending the messianic dream to work with secular Zionists, with whom he maintained profound ideological differences, to establish a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael, he was all in. He also prioritized protecting Jews against antisemitism and bringing all Jews, religious and secular, under the common banner of revitalization and homecoming. In any event, his religious Zionism Mizrachi faction, although a minority party, wielded a disproportionate influence on the entire Zionist movement.

Upon Rav Reines’s 50th yahrzeit, plans were discussed to bring his remains from Lida to Eretz Yisrael, but that proposed transfer has yet to occur. However, his name has been memorialized in many areas in Eretz Yisrael, including Neve Yaakov, a suburb of Jerusalem that was established in 1924 and rebuilt after the 1967 Six-Day War; Sede Yaakov, the first moshav of HaPoel HaMizrachi, which was established in 1923; and a street in Tel Aviv near Dizengoff Square.

Yehi zichrono 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 at [email protected].