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Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever zt”l: Commemorating the 125th Yahrzeit of the Forefather of the Mizrachi Movement
BY RABBI ELIE MISCHEL
When Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever passed away 125 years ago on the 19th of Sivan, 1898, he left the world with the satisfaction of knowing that his life’s work had not been in vain. Among the founders of the Chibbat Zion movement and one of the spiritual fathers of Religious Zionism, Rav Mohilever planted the seeds that would later flower and become the Mizrachi movement founded by Rabbi Yitzchak Ya’akov Reines.
Born in 1824 in Glubokoye, a village in northern Belarus not far from Vilna, Rav Mohilever was soon recognized as a child prodigy and brilliant young Torah scholar. He married at fifteen and studied at the famed Volozhin Yeshiva, where he was later ordained at the age of eighteen.
Initially, Rav Mohilever refused to practice as a rabbi, working as a flax merchant for five years. But the death of his wealthy in-laws and business reversals compelled him to enter the rabbinate in his home village. In the decades to follow, Rav Mohilever would serve as the rabbi of ever larger Jewish communities. In 1868, he moved to Radom, in modern-day Poland, where he first began to actively work for the resettlement of Eretz Yisrael. Inspired by Rav Zvi Hirsch Kalischer’s groundbreaking Religious Zionist work, Derishat Zion (1862), Rav Mohilever began writing for the Hebrew-language weekly HaMagid. Like Rav Kalischer, Rav Mohilever discerned Hashem’s hand in his generation, sensing that the world was experiencing the early stirrings of the Messianic era.
In early 1881, shortly before he was elected as the rabbi in Bialystok, horrific pogroms in Kiev and other cities throughout Imperial Russia pushed Rav Mohilever and other early Zionists to act. When tens of thousands of Jews fled across the Russian border to Galicia, Rav Mohilever participated in a conference of western Jewish leaders to decide what to do with the refugees. He argued, unsuccessfully, that the refugees should be resettled in Palestine.
Most significantly, the pogroms were the catalyst for the formation of the Chovevei Zion, also known as Chibbat Zion – a variety of groups and organizations established to promote emigration to Palestine. Though the movement was dominated by secularists like Leon Pinsker, Rav Mohilever quickly became one its most important leaders, elected president of the Chovevei Zion conference in 1884.
Rav Mohilever’s decision to work side-by-side with secularists and agnostics in the Chibbat Zion movement set a critically important precedent for the Religious Zionist movement. Standing between Orthodox traditionalists who rejected all cooperation with irreligious Zionists and secular Zionists who regularly flouted halacha, Rav Mohilever’s balancing act foreshadowed the difficult role the Mizrachi movement would later play in the Zionist movement and the State of Israel.
Interestingly, Rav Mohilever also worked closely with Laurence Oliphant, a Christian Zionist and an emissary of the Lord Mayor of London. Both men sought to help as many Jews emigrate to Palestine as possible. Rav Mohilever even issued a public statement of support for Oliphant: “Our brethren should not suspect that his intention is to strengthen the Christian religion and divert our people from their faith… He and his wife wish only for the fulfillment of the words of the prophets that Israel will be restored to its Land, and that [the Jews] should do this in a way that enables them to keep every detail of the Jewish religion.”
In 1882, the Ottoman Sultan forbade Jews from entering Palestine, threatening the viability of the new settlements. During this precarious time, Rav Mohilever performed his greatest service for the Zionist movement. He traveled to Paris to meet the young Baron Edmond de Rothschild and successfully convinced him to support the struggling pioneers in Eretz Yisrael. After hearing the rabbi out, Rothschild announced, “Rabbi… state the sum and I shall give it.” Until his death in 1934, Rothschild remained the single greatest benefactor of the new Yishuv.
Rav Mohilever worked constantly to promote and support the colonization of the Land. He wrote, “From all that has been said, it becomes clear to us that the verse ‘And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land and dwell in it’ (Bamidbar 33:53) is a positive commandment which is equivalent to all the mitzvot in the Torah. The most important part of this commandment is the dispossession of the inhabitants and possession of the Land. At the time when Israel was an independent nation, this was done by war, and during our present era, the Land is bought with money. Such an act of buying land is considered by our Sages to gain for the individual a share in the world to come, and the commandment to buy land even pushes aside a shevut (rabbinic prohibition) on Shabbat…”
Unlike Rav Kalischer, who never had the opportunity to see the Holy Land, Rav Mohilever succeeded in visiting Eretz Yisrael in 1890. He traveled throughout the country, visiting old Jewish communities in Jaffa, Jerusalem and Chevron as well as new settlements like Petach Tikva, Rishon LeTzion and Zichron Ya’akov. He also played a key role in purchasing the land upon which the settlement of Rechovot would soon be established.
Returning to Europe, Rav Mohilever defended the secular Jewish pioneers that he met during his trip: “I am surprised to see many rabbinic scholars and pious Jews opposing the development of Palestine by Jews because, as they claim, the Jewish colonists, particularly the young element, do not observe the law… Even if such accusations were true, I have shown long ago from rabbinic writings that G-d prefers His children to be in His Land, even if they do not observe the law in the proper manner, rather than live in other lands and observe the law scrupulously” (Benjamin L. Gordon, New Judea: Jewish life in Modern Palestine and Egypt, 1919).
In 1893, after a series of disagreements with the secular leadership of the Chibbat Zion movement, based in Odessa, Rav Mohilever created a new Zionist center to promote Zionism among the traditional Orthodox community. He called this office “Mizrachi,” an abbreviation for merkaz ruchani, or “spiritual center.” Nine years later, when the Religious Zionist movement was reestablished by Rav Reines and other students of Rav Mohilever, they adopted “Mizrachi” as the name of the movement.
At the very end of his life, Rav Mohilever merited to witness the rise of Theodor Herzl and the beginnings of political Zionism. The two great leaders corresponded, and though he could not attend the First Zionist Congress due to poor health, Rav Mohilever’s grandson read an address at the Congress on his behalf.
In 1913, when secular Zionists established a kibbutz in northern Israel, east of Chadera, they chose to name it “Gan Shmuel,” “Samuel’s Garden,” in honor of Rav Mohilever. It is a fitting tribute to Rav Mohilever’s belief that all Jews must work together to rebuild the Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. May his memory inspire our people to turn towards each other in love and unity!