Memories of Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever

BY RABBI YITZCHAK NISSENBAUM hy”d

In 1893, after Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum attended a secret meeting of the Chovevei Zion, Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever offered him the opportunity to become the secretary of the new “Merkaz Ruchani” movement, usually abbreviated as “Mizrachi,” the predecessor to the Mizrachi movement that would later be founded in 1902. Over the next four years until Rav Mohilever’s death, Rav Nissenbaum worked closely with the great rabbi of Bialystok, recruiting thousands of new members to the movement. In his memoir, Alei Cheldi (1930), Rav Nissenbaum included the following memories of Rav Mohilever, translated here for the first time.

Rav Shmuel was constantly concerned for the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael, and used every opportunity he had to assist it or protect it from those who wished it harm – and there were many! 

One time the head of the Lomza Yeshiva, Rabbi Eliezer Bentzion Shulevitz, came to Rav Mohilever to request a letter encouraging wealthy donors to support his yeshiva. At that time, Mizrachi representatives in many cities frequently complained that the meshulachim (fundraisers) from the Lomza Yeshiva would speak disparagingly about yishuv Eretz Yisrael and Chovevei Zion. Rav Shmuel was very clear with Rav Shulevitz: if he directed his meshulachim to change their ways and stop disparaging the honor of the Yishuv, then and only then would he give Rav Shulevitz the requested letter. Rav Shulevitz agreed, and from that time on, the meshulachim stopped speaking against the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael.

One time, the Maggid Simcha Kahana, who was known as “The Maggid with Long Hair,” came to Bialystok. He always carried hundreds of reference letters from Torah scholars, writers and other important Jews that described him as a “gadol b’yisrael,” one the “great rabbis of the generation.” In the advertisements for his derashot, he pronounced himself the author of the book A Defense of the Talmud – a book no one had ever seen – and in his derashot, he boasted that he defended the holy Talmud against the conspiracies and accusations of its internal and external enemies. And then he would begin to rain fire and brimstone on these “internal enemies” of the Talmud – the Maskilim and the Chovevei Zion, accusing them of all sorts of conspiracies and evil plots against Jewish tradition and the Talmud. He spoke about the new Yishuv as if it were an עִיר הַנִּדַּחַת, a “city led astray” by idolatry.

This time, when Kahana came to Bialystok, he wanted to give a derasha in the Beit Midrash HaGavoha, the largest forum in the city. But the gabbaim told him that he needed to obtain a license to speak from Rav Mohilever, and so he came to Rav Shmuel to obtain the necessary license. Knowing the nature of this man, Rav Shmuel did not wish to engage in a long conversation with him, and simply said: “If you will praise the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael, I will give you the license to speak. If not, you can immediately leave the city, for you will not speak in Bialystok!” “But this is bribery!” complained Kahana bitterly. “So be it!” answered the Rav. “A bribe like this I am willing to accept! Otherwise, you will not speak.” The Maggid grudgingly agreed to the terms and requested the license to speak in writing. Rav Shmuel looked at me and said: “Please speak with the gabbai of the Beit Midrash HaGavoha and tell him that I am only allowing this man to speak on the condition that he praises the Yishuv in his speech. And you, Rav Yitzchak, go listen to his derasha and make sure he keeps his promise!” And so it was that the Maggid most opposed to settling Eretz Yisrael gave a speech in praise of the Yishuv.

Rav Shmuel once came to a large city for meetings on behalf of the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael. In his honor, the community organized a large assembly of the most important Jews in the city. When Rav Shmuel finished speaking, a very wealthy and religious member of the community stood up and began to attack the Yishuv “in the name of Torah and mitzvot.” When he finished, Rav Shmuel stood up and said: “I will tell you all a story.”

“A young man from a different city was learning in a yeshiva in a small town. His father would periodically send him money to pay for his expenses, which the father would send to the local shochet’s address for safekeeping to ensure the money would reach his son. One time, the young man received a letter from his father, who wrote that he had sent 25 rubles to pay for his expenses. The young man was surprised, because he had never received the money! He quickly ran to the shochet to ask him why, but the shochet claimed he had never received the money. When the young man received another letter from his father saying that he had sent the money to the shochet, he went to the local rabbi and brought the shochet to a din Torah, a dispute in front of the local rabbinic court. After hearing both sides of the case, the rabbi ruled that the shochet would have to take an oath that he did not steal the money, and then he would be free from any obligation to the young man. At this point, the shochet took 25 rubles from his pocket and placed them in front of the rabbi to give to the young man, and then stood up and swore that he had never received the 25 rubles from the man’s father.

The people present were shocked, and asked the shochet: ‘If you were willing to return the money to the boy, why did you also take an oath? And if you were willing to swear that you didn’t take the money, why did you give him the 25 rubles?’ The shochet explained: ‘If I had given him the money and not taken an oath, you would have said that I stole the money from the boy, but now I was scared of making a false oath and so I returned the money to him. And if I had only taken an oath and not given money to the boy, you would have suspected me in your hearts of swearing falsely for the sake of 25 rubles. But now that I have given the boy this money and also taken an oath, you must all admit that I have sworn truthfully and there is no reason to suspect me of any wrongdoing!’”

Rav Shmuel turned to the wealthy man and said: “If you want me to believe that your opposition to the Yishuv “for the sake of Torah and mitzvot” stems from a truly pure heart, first give money to support the settling of the Land and then make your claims against the Yishuv. Otherwise, I have complete permission to say that all your claims against the Yishuv “for the sake of Torah and mitzvot” derive solely from your desire to be freed of your financial obligation to support it!

© 2023 World Mizrachi

Follow us: