The Rabbinate of Czyzewo

By Gerszon Gora

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

The scanty facts that remain for us and merge together for the chapter “The Rabbinate of Czyzewo” are scattered about, a bit here and a bit there. Indeed, nobody ever would have imagined that a time would come when this type of information would be needed to erect a memorial monument to a splendid past. Indeed, our town did maintain an exacting ledger of the Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society), in which all of the special events and experiences in the life of the town were recorded. This ledger served as a source for a great deal of historical material, spanning centuries. The chapter on the rabbinate was significant. However, to our sorrow, even this ledger has passed into oblivion with the terrible devastation of Czyzewo.

Without this, when we come now to record some scanty lines for the chapter “The Rabbinate of Czyzewo”, we are forced to utilize scattered lists and data from various sources of rabbinical literature or Jewish newspapers from many years ago. From them we can put together a clear picture of the history of the rabbinate in our town.

The following can be clearly established: Czyzewo excelled in its rabbis from way back; and throughout all of the eras was considered to be one of the small number of towns in all of Poland where rabbis who were great in Torah lived even in the earlier times. These were famous Gaonim, who bound the crown of the rabbinate of Czyzewo to their heads, and made it into something splendorous. The reason that these renowned rabbis streamed there was because the populace of the town comprised of excellent, choice people, men of deeds, Hassidim and G-d fearing people. The geographic position of Czyzewo also characterized it and set it apart from all other towns of Poland. It was a border town on the boundary of the realms of Hassidim and Misnagdim in Poland and Lithuania. The town was nestled in an area between the fortresses of the Gaonim and Torah greats, as well as the founders of Hassidism. This fact explains well the phenomenon that both Hassidim and Misnagdim occupied the rabbinical seat at times. These rabbis included those educated in the Lithuanian Yeshivas and students of the Gaon of Vilna, as well as natives of Poland who were brought up on the courts of the famous Admorim of Pszyscha and Kock (Kotzk), or other Rebbes.

As I have stated, we do not have a unified body of material on the rabbinate of our city. Therefore, we will utilize the material that was found for us by the writer Rabbi Mosze Czinowitz. He collected information from the literary sources of the bygone era, starting from the year 5599 (1839). We have no information about the time prior to this. It will be the task of a future historian to produce a book about the entire rabbinate of Poland, from its beginning until its bitter end in the terrible Holocaust.

Rabbi Chaim Leib Epsztejn of holy blessed memory

He was the rabbi and head of the rabbinical court of Czyzewo from the year 5599, and for a blessed number of years following. At the same period of time, his signature appears among the signatories from Czyzewo upon the book “Shvil Hayashar” (“The Straight Path”) (a commentary on the book of the Rif) by the Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Shuskes of Vilna, that was printed in 5599. He served as the head of the rabbinical court of Chorzel prior to that (5595). From Czyzewo, he moved to Sokolow, and in his latter years he served as the rabbi of Kolszyn, where he died.

The book of responsa of Rabbi Epsztejn, called “Pri Chaim”, was published posthumously in the year 5673 (1813). From between the lines of this book, we learn that the author was the expert student of the famous rabbi of Kock, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of holy blessed memory. It is quite possible that he was the first spiritual influence of Hassidim in our town. Perhaps thanks to his influence, this small town on the Lithuanian border became a fortress of Hassidism.

From the year 5599, when he began to occupy the rabbinical chair of Czyzewo, we find a response by him to a question of permitting an aguna. This response was written to the first rabbi of Lomza, Rabbi Szlomo Zalman the son of Mo”haran, and his two judges, Jechiel Aryeh the son of Reb Josef, and Szlomo Zalman the son of the rabbi and Gaon of Wroblowa. He maintained a Torah oriented correspondence during that era with the greatest rabbis of the generation, included Rabbi Feiwel of Gorysze, the head of the dynasty of Admorim of Aleksander.

In the section on sermons in his book “Pri Chayim”, we find, among other things, his eulogies for the famous Admor Rabbi Icchok of Warka (died in 5608 – 1848); the rabbi of Parczew and the rabbi of Wyszogrod Rabbi Jakob Dawid of Mezeritch, who both died in the year 5623 – 1863, when rabbi Epsztejn was serving in the rabbinate of Kolszyn.

His son Rabbi Simcha Epsztejn served as a rabbi in a variety of communities. In his final years, he served in Pultusk. He spent his youth and was educated in Czyzewo.

The following householders of Czyzewo are appear as signatories of his book “Shvil Hayashar”, along with others: Reb Chaim the son of Reb Josef Jozel, Reb Szmuel Meir the son of Reb Jehuda Lejb, Reb Aharon the son of Reb Zeev, Reb Szlomo Zalman the son of Reb Icchok Zelig of the village of Sudek, and Reb Mosze Arje the son of Reb Icchok Eizek Meizelzon.

Rabbi Eliezer Szmuel of holy blessed memory

He was born in Krottingen, in the region of Kovno in the Zamot area of Lithuania. He was born in approximately the year 5585 (1825). During his youth, he was a student at the famous Yeshiva of Volozhin. At that time, Rabbi Yitzchak, the son of the founder of the Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, served as a head of the Yeshiva. He was appointed as a rabbi in a town near to his native city at the age of 20, and after some time, he was appointed as the rabbi of Czyzewo. There is evidence that he served as the rabbi in Czyzewo until the year 5628 (1868).

We can assume that he was an educated rabbi in accordance with the ways of the time. His brother-in-law was Eliezer Zilberman, the founder and editor of the first Hebrew weekly “Hamagid”, and also a native of Krottingen.

In the year 5628, Sir Moses Montefiore decided to set up a talmudic Academy in his native town of Ramsgate England. He wished to bring there rabbis who were learned in Torah, who would receive all of their livelihood and sustenance from him. The rabbi of Czyzewo, Rabbi Eliezer Szmuel was among the three rabbis who were chosen for this position, and bestowed of their glory upon the Talmudic Academy that was called by the name “Yeshivat Ohel Moshe Veyehudit”. It is probably that his brother-in-law, the editor of Hamagid, had a hand in his appointment. This institution survived for a long time, until the year 5648 (1888), about three years after the death of the knight. At that time, the directors of that institution decided to liquidate the Yeshiva, and from the monies received in the liquidation, they would pay compensation to the rabbis who taught at the Yeshiva, supporting them for life in any place that they would choose to settle. Rabbi Eliezer Szmuel of holy blessed memory moved to Montstar, near the hospital. He died there in the year 5654 (1894).

He published several works during his life. These included “Toldot Halevi”, that is Eliezer the Levite, who was the assistant and translator for Montefiore, who accompanied him throughout all the years of his long life. This work was in Hebrew. He also translated “Sefer Yehudit”, which was written about the wife of the esteemed knight. It includes her diary and travel log from the year 5599 (1839). In his long introduction to this book, the translator describes the activities and life history of Lady Judith Montefiore. He includes many rabbinical statements that deal with the honor of women, which was great in the eyes of the rabbis of the Talmud. In these books, the name of the rabbi who was the translator is not mentioned, in the same manner as he appears anonymously in his many articles in various issues of Hamagid. In the year 5650 (1890), the rabbi published a sample pamphlet containing selections from his large book “Baalei Asifot” – a book that anthologizes statements of Talmudic rabbis from both Talmuds, and organizes them in alphabetical order. He was not able to complete that work on account of his old age.

Incidentally, it is worthwhile to point out that in his article on the Yeshiva of Sir Montefiore in Hamagid of 1869 (37), the rabbi mentions his Czyzewo, the locale of his former rabbinical service, as a city “full of scholars and scribes”.

In Hamelitz of 1894 (3), there is a long article about Rabbi Eliezer Szmuel of blessed memory, by Yitzchak Yaakov Hirshborn of London.

Rabbi Yisrael Tyktin of holy blessed memory

According to Reb Zalman Stolowicz (now in Israel) Rabbi Tyktin conducted the rabbinate in Czyzewo for a brief period of time “between two kings”, that is between one rabbi and the appointment of his successor. He took over the rabbinate after the death of Rabbi Eliezer Szmuel of holy blessed memory. He was a great scholar as well as wealthy. Torah and greatness merged together with him. He ran a large store off iron implements. He was ordained by the “Chidushei Harim” of Ger. Since he was quite occupied with his multi-branched business, he transferred issues requiring rabbinic decisions to Rabbi Aharon Hirsz Grodus of holy blessed memory, a resident of the city who was a scholar, and knew how to make rabbinical decisions. The two of them together conducted the rabbinate of Czyzewo until a new rabbi was chosen, Rabbi Mosze Joel Hagerman.

Rabbi Mosze Joel Hagerman of holy blessed memory

He was an expert student of the Chidushei Harim, who was the father of the Ger Hassidic dynasty. He was the scion of a family of rabbis and Hassidim. His maternal grandmother was the Gaon and Kabbalist Rabbi Dawid Halevi Horowicz of Olkusz (in the area of Kielce). His father, Rabbi Jakob Szlomo, was related to the Bach, Taz, and Tosfos Yom Tov.

We learn of his greatness in Torah from his book of responsa, dealing with all sections of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch), titled “Shai Lamorah”. It was published a long time after his death (Piotrkow, 5672 – 1912), with the approbation of all of the Gaonim and Tzadikim of the generation.

The Admor Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter of Ger of holy blessed memory wrote about the author of this book as follows: “The Rabbi, the Gaon, the veteran Hassid”. The Gaon Rabbi Icchok Feigenbaum, one of the chief teachers of Warsaw, honors him with the title “The Gaon, the Hassid, who is famous for his holiness and ascetism… who was his friend and cleaved to him like a brother”. The Gaon Rabbi Szaul Mosze of Wierszow (died in Tel Aviv) testifies regarding him that “still in his youth, this rabbi who authored this book was famous, and he was publicly praised as a sharp Gaon and great Hassid”. Other rabbis who granted their approbation were: Rabbi Isuchar Berisz Graubard, the rabbi of Bendin; his brother Rabbi Jehuda Lejb Graubard, the rabbi of Staszow; Rabbi Jakob Orner the rabbi of Sochaczew; Rabbi Mosze Nachum Jeruzalimski, the rabbi of Kielce; and Rabbi Aleksander Ziskind Lipszicz, the rabbi of Ozorkow, who was the in-law of the author. He waxes great in his praise, and writes that “he was a great and broad in his Torah knowledge; both in the hidden and revealed Torah were with him in full measure; he also conducted himself in the ways of Hassidism and great asceticism; during his youth, he poured water on the hands of the rabbi of all Israel, the prince of Torah, our rabbi the Rim; he was one of his greatest students, and esteemed him very greatly.” It is especially important to point out the approbation of the Lithuanian Gaon Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, who also testifies that the author was “a famous Gaon”.

In the words of rabbi Jozef Lewinsztejn, the rabbi of Sirock, that are brought down near the beginning of the book, Rabbi Hagerman composed an orderly essay on the “Choshen Mishpat” section of the Shulchan Aruch and on several tractates and Talmudic discussions. However, these were burnt, and are lost.

In his Halachic responsa, Rabbi Hagerman discourses with the great rabbis of the generation, including: Rabbi Baruch Zwi Rozenblum, the rabbi of Piotrkow; the Gaon of Kutna Rabbi Jehoszua Tronk, the Gaon of Kalusz Rabbi Chaim Elazar Wachs; and the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Borensztejn, the rabbi of Krasznowice (later the rabbi and Admor of Sochaczew, the son-in-law of Rabbi Mendele of Kotzk). Rabbi Hagerman writes the following to this Gaon: “I remember in days gone by, when I stood before him and suckled honey from the rock, with milk under my tongue, as he led me through the circles of righteousness and the paths of study, I still had many days to lean upon him and be supported. He was a foundation rock when I saw the splendor of his face, as he assisted me with everything that my soul requested in the paths of study.”

There is evidence that Rabbi Mosze Joel Hagerman was a confidante and friend of the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Borensztejn, or as he was better known, Reb Avrahamele Sochaczewer, the author of the “Avnei Nezer” during the time that he was supported at the table of his father-in-law the Rebbe of Kock, where the first Rebbe of Ger, the Chidushei Harim also found shelter. According to a story that is told by natives of Olkusz who are now in Israel, Rabbi Mosze Joel Hagerman studied together with the Gaon of Sochaczew in the same cheder during their childhood, and continued to study together in the Beis Midrash of Olkusz, their hometown. This was prior to their being coronated as rabbis in the Jewish world. Every morning, Reb Avrahamele would wake up his friend Mosze Joel, and the two of them would walk together to the Beis Midrash to study their regular lesson.

As is pointed out in his book “Shai Lamorah”, Rabbi Hagerman served as the rabbi of Jezew from the year 5617 (1857); and in the years of 5635-5647 (1875-1887) as the rabbi and head of the rabbinical court of Czyzewo. From there he moved to Zarnowka (in the region of Kielce). He was brought to rest there after he died around the year 5654 (1894).

During the years that he occupied the rabbinical seat of Czyzewo, we find that Rabbi Mosze Joel issued responsa in Halachic matters to rabbis of the area, such as: Rabbi Icchok of Zaromew; Rabbi Jechezkel of Nur; Rabbi Jozef Lewinsztejn of Sirock; the rabbi of Szniadowa (near Lomza); and Rabbi Jehoszua Jechezkel the rabbi of Ostrowo. In a letter from the year 5638 (1878), he turns to the author of “Nefesh Chaya” with a question regarding a fire that broke out on the Holy Sabbath in Czyzewo. Several kosher and passul Torah scrolls were burnt in the fire, and a number of pieces of parchment were left. He asked a question with regard to the halacha regarding the proper burial of the remains.

A few of his Halachic responsa were directed to the relative of the Admor of Ger, the Gaon and Hassid Rabbi Pinchas Eliahu Rotenberg, the rabbi of Pilce. He also maintained a Torah oriented correspondence with his brother Rabbi Icchok Paltiel, the rabbi of Olkusz, and with Rabbi Jehuda Lejb Graubard, the rabbi of Staszow. The latter, in his approbation of the book, testifies that the author was “a great and renowned Gaon, a lion amongst his colleagues, an overflowing well, who spend all of his days in the valley of Jewish law”.

His book “Shai Lamorah” was published by his son and student, Rabbi Icchok Jehuda Hagerman, the son-in-law of the rabbi of Ozorkow, Rabbi Aleksander Ziskind HaKohen Lipszicz, and his successor in the rabbinate of Zarnowka. Incidentally, in the long introduction that the author wrote for his book, his splendid image of a great innovator in the area of Aggada (Jewish lore) and exegesis also stands out. He is expert on the Midrashim (exegetical lore) of the sages, and in investigation to the theory of Hassidism, in accordance with its founder the Besht, to whom he cleaved all of his days, and with all stands of his heart and soul.

Rabbi Jakob Icchok HaLevi Epsztejn of holy blessed memory

He occupied the rabbinic seat of Czyzewo for fourteen years, between 5649-5663 (1889-1903). He died on the 27th of Adar of that year. An announcement of his death appears in Hatzefirah of that year (number 71). The announcement states that the rabbi died at the young age of 42, and left behind a young wife and five young children. (Hamodiah, Reb Zerach Starkowski).

He came from Lithuania, and was a relative of Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, the rabbi of Novhorodok and the author of the “Aruch Hashulchan”. He was a student of the famous Gaonim the Netziv of Volozhin and Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. He studied in the famous yeshiva of Volozhin.

During his tenure, the “famous controversy” between the Chazan-Shochet of Wyzne and the Shochet of Szniadowa took place, which shook up the entire area and whose echoes reached the governing authorities. This controversy that spread in its time divided the city into two camps of disputants who hated each other with a strong hatred.

The background of the controversy was as follows: our city was a bastion of Hassidism. In particular, the Hassidism of Rabbi Mosze Joel of holy blessed memory, who was one of the first students of the Chidushei Harim of Ger, as well as one of the frequenters of the home of the elder Rebbe of Kock, took root. At that period of time, the community of Czyzewo was searching for an experienced shochet who would serve the role in a permanent fashion. The community divided as follows: the masses, simple householders who worshiped in the Beis Midrash as well as artisans wished to seek a shochet who could also serve as a chazzan (cantor) and would be able to lead the services on the High Holy Days. However, most of the worshippers of the shtibels, the Hassidim of Gur, Aleksander and Kock (excluding the Hassidim of Mszczonow (Amshinov) who sided with the householders) opposed this, claiming that the shochet should be a great fearer of Heaven and not an experienced chazzan, but rather an ordinary Hassidic prayer leader.

During the heat of the controversy, a young man from Wyzne appeared in town, splendid in countenance with a well-kept beard, trimmed with scissors. He had no peer in the whole region of Lithuania, and he did not, Heaven forbid, impinge upon the kashruth of shechita. In addition to this, he was a wonderful chazzan who knew how to sing, and was able to read musical notes. On the first Sabbath that he officiated, he enchanted his audience with his strength in singing and melodies. The rabbi of the city examined him carefully to see if he knew all of the laws regarding the slaughter and ritual examination of animals, as well as if he knew how to properly check the shechita knife (chalaf). He passed the test properly, and the rabbi informed the community that there is no problem or lack with his knowledge of the laws of shechita, and he gave him the approbation to practice shechita. Based on this approbation, the householders appointed him as a chazzan and shochet. However, when the Hassidim of the shtibels, who guarded each dot and tittle of the traditional Hassidic way of life, heard that in Czyzewo they were about to appoint a shochet who was also a chazzan and knew how to sing and read musical notes, and whose bread was trimmed and well-kept – they immediately raised a great tumult and declared open warfare.

This battle brought Rabbi Epsztejn into an extremely difficult situation. He was no longer able to become involved in the matter, since the events developed rapidly, and the controversy deteriorated from the usual style and reached the point of provocation, bloodshed, and slander, etc. From his perspective, he had no issue with the chazzan of Wyzne. His dress, his cantorial style, and his trimmed beard were not issues for him, for he himself was a native of Lithuania, where they were used to this style. One the other hand, he understood the spirit of the Hassidim very well; that it might not be fitting and proper in a Hassidic town such as Czyzewo to appoint such a chazzan-shochet.

This controversy (described in this book in a different place) was one of the factors that shortened his life. He died, as has been mentioned, at the very young age of 42.

Rabbi Szmuel Dawid Zabludower of holy blessed memory.

From Ostrolenka, where he was supported by his father-in-law, the rabbinical leader Rabbi Zwi Skrowicz as he studied Torah and served G-d, Rabbi Szmuel Dawid Zabludower was called to serve honorable in the rabbinate of Czyzewo a few years after his wedding. He was an enthusiastic Hassid of Mszczonow (Amshinov), and thanks to that, he was accepted willingly and joyously by the entire Jewish community of Czyzewo. This was satisfactory to the Hassidim, and also served as an appeasement to the supporters of the Wyzne shochet, who included the Mszczonow (Amshinov) Hassidim, headed by the elder renowned Hassid Rabbi Mosze Ber Kackowicz of blessed memory (His son Yaakov David and daughter Yocheved are today in Israel).

This chapter of the rabbinate of Czyzewo was one of the most splendid and interesting in the life of the city, for Rabbi Szmuel Dawid was one of the Torah giants of his generation, who raised the level of the banner of his rabbinate to lofty heights, and who was acceptable to all members of his community for a blessed period of close to fifty years. The era of his rabbinate was one of the most difficult and stormy in all of Jewish history. There were two world wars during this period, and at the end came the Holocaust of Europe that destroyed the majority of the people and the structure of the large Jewish community of Europe, including our town of Czyzewo.

The chapter of his life added a radiant page in the annals of the life of our town. During his tenure, our town knew a peaceful life, and no sound of strife and controversy could be heard. Despite the fact that in the latter part of this era, the winds of the times blew into the town, in the form of political factions and parties that divided the town, such as: Agudas Yisrael, Mizrachi, Zionists, Beitar, Poale Zion, Bund, etc., factions that were born due to the massive changes in communal life in Poland – despite all this, the rabbi, with his great wisdom, knew how to repair any breach that would come up at any time, and to set the course of communal matters in the paths of peace and brotherhood.. In a separate section of the book, we will describe his family, his personality, and his death.

Rabbi Szmuel Dawid Zabludower of holy blessed memory was the last rabbi of Czyzewo. He fell as a brave martyr in sanctification of the name of G-d, along with his flock, on that bitter day, the 28th of Av 5701 (1941), at the hands of the Nazi enemy, may their names be blotted out.

Thus was covered the grave of Czyzewo, the holy town.