(Background photo: Dov Kram)
Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum hy”d – A Spiritual Warrior for Eretz Yisrael
An appreciation of the life of HaMizrachi’s founding editor in commemoration of his 80th yahrzeit
BY RABBI ELIE MISCHEL
“You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator… We have too many high-sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” (Abigail Adams, October 16, 1774)
Abigail Adams’ impassioned letter to her husband John could easily have been written about a very different man, in a very different time: Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum hy”d (1868–1943). A pioneering Religious Zionist leader and the founding editor of HaMizrachi, Rav Nissenbaum was never to be found on the sidelines of history, content to stand idly by while others grappled with the complex issues of his time. A fearless Religious Zionist, he repeatedly and tirelessly called upon our people to reclaim the glory of Am Yisrael and return home to our Land.
The most talented speaker and greatest darshan of the Mizrachi movement, Rav Nissenbaum is largely unknown today, for the passage of time is cruel to the reputations of all but the most famous actors of history. Rav Nissenbaum himself had no illusions that he would be remembered by future generations, frequently citing the verse in Kohelet: “There is no remembrance of them of former times; neither shall there be any remembrance of them of latter times that are to come, among those that shall come after” (Kohelet 1:11).
Unsurprisingly, I was only vaguely familiar with his name when I first plunged into the HaMizrachi archives two years ago. But it didn’t take me long to realize that Rav Nissenbaum was not only HaMizrachi’s founding editor and most prolific writer, he was also the movement’s heart and soul.
In addition to publishing ten books of drashot and thousands of articles in HaMizrachi, Rav Nissenbaum penned Alei Cheldi, a fascinating memoir and treasure trove of eye-opening stories describing his life in the early Religious Zionist movement. Though the pages of my personal copy are beginning to crumble, the memoir is brimming with life, passion and humor. More than once, entranced by another fascinating story of Rav Nissenbaum’s encounters with Bialik or Rav Kook, I forgot to get off the bus and missed my stop. Much of the material for this tribute is drawn from this work.
The more I read, the more I realized that Rav Nissenbaum was not merely another important rabbi from a bygone era, but he had also become my Rebbe. I often ask myself, “What would Rav Nissenbaum say about the articles I’m writing? What would he think about the state of Religious Zionism in the Diaspora today?” Penetrating in his analysis of the Jewish community and unafraid to speak his mind, I’m certain he would have plenty to say – and that he would ruffle more than a few feathers!
Becoming a lover of Zion
Born in Bobruisk, Belorussia, Rav Nissenbaum lost his father at a young age. His mother, a sickly woman with a chronic cough, was left to support four young children on her own. At the end of shiva, he assumed he would have to leave his cheder to help his mother run the family store. But his mother turned to him in tears and said: “No, my son! This wasn’t your father’s desire, nor will it be mine! Return to your learning and study with diligence, and both of us – your father there [in heaven] and I here, will have nachas from you!” Though the family was in dire financial straits, nothing would interrupt young Yitzchak’s studies. It was a commitment that would later pay off handsomely, enabling Rav Nissenbaum to draw upon decades of Torah scholarship as he made the case for Zionism throughout Eastern Europe.
Immersed in Talmud study as a teenager, Rav Nissenbaum often davened in the Chassidic beit midrash near his home, drawn by the powerful tunes and mystical prayers like כְּגַוְונָא. At the same time, he was fascinated by the new world of Hebrew literature that began to flourish in the late 19th century, devouring the writings of authors like Nachman Krochmal, Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, Eliezer Zweifel and the early Zionist Peretz Smolenskin. Most significantly, these modern writers led the young yeshiva student to immerse himself in the study of Tanach and Jewish philosophy, areas of study generally ignored in the yeshivot of Eastern Europe. His deep knowledge of Nevi’im and Ketuvim and seminal works of Jewish thought like the Kuzari would form the foundation of his Religious Zionist worldview.
A highly regarded young Torah scholar, Rav Nissenbaum began thinking deeply about Eretz Yisrael during the Shemitta year of 1888–1889, when the heter mechirah leniency was used for the first time to support the new Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel. The leniency, which allowed Jewish farmers to sell their land to non-Jews so that they could continue to work the land during Shemitta, sparked passionate halachic debates in yeshivot throughout Europe. Rav Nissenbaum explains that “the spirited debates concerning the laws of Shemitta, which centered on the great value of the new agricultural settlements of the Yishuv, transformed me into a chovev tzion, a lover of Zion…’’
Turning down the rabbinate
While studying at the famed Volozhin Yeshiva, Rav Nissenbaum joined the yeshiva’s secret Zionist association called Netzach Yisrael, remaining active even after the Russian government forced the yeshiva to close in 1892. The next year, he attended a secret meeting of the Chovevei Tzion movement, led by the famed early Religious Zionist leader, Rav Shmuel Mohilever. Word soon reached Rav Mohilever about the brilliant young Nissenbaum, leading Rav Mohilever to offer him the opportunity to become the secretary of the new “Merkaz HaRuchani” movement, usually abbreviated as “Mizrachi”, the predecessor to the Mizrachi movement that would later be founded by Rav Yitzchak Ya’akov Reines in 1902. When Rav Nissenbaum arrived in Bialystok in 1894 to assume the position, Rav Mohilever looked at the young man with penetrating eyes and quietly said, “So young!”
Working closely with Rav Mohilever, Nissenbaum found himself at the epicenter of the budding Religious Zionist movement. Each day, he wrote dozens of letters to Chovevei Tzion chapters from Vienna to New York, recruiting thousands of new members for the movement and raising money to support the new Yishuv. He quickly developed a close relationship with Rav Mohilever, often assuming his rabbinic duties in Bialystok while the great rabbi traveled to conduct business on behalf of Chovevei Tzion.
Though Rav Nissenbaum had always assumed he would one day become a community rabbi, his experience working under Rav Mohilever changed his mind. “During the years that I worked for Rav Mohilever, I met tens of community rabbis who came to Bialystok to pour their hearts out to Rav Mohilever about the suffering they were experiencing in the rabbinate, primarily due to the powerful laypeople in their towns. I began to reflect upon the state of the rabbinate and realized that the vision I had of the rabbinate – that I would be able, as a rabbi, to do important work for our people and our Land – was false. I began paying close attention to Rav Mohilever’s experience with the community in Bialystok, and I realized that even he was limited in his influence, due to powerful members of the community who held the reins of power in their hands and religious zealots who used the glory of religion to impede any initiatives that were not their own. I thought to myself: if this is the reality of the great gaon, Rav Shmuel Mohilever, what hope could I have to make an impact as a young rabbi unknown in the broader Jewish world?… I realized that the rabbinate buries its own in suffering, and that it would be better for me to find another path.”
Disenchanted with the rabbinate, Rav Nissenbaum embarked on a new path that would give him extraordinary influence over the young Religious Zionist movement. As a young boy, he was entranced by the many traveling maggidim, inspirational preachers, who passed through Bobruisk, including the famed Maggid of Kelm, Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Darshan. Studying each speaker closely, the young Nissenbaum would stand on a chair at home and imitate their speaking style and hand motions. Later, as a precocious and learned teenager, he spoke periodically in local shuls and study halls. But it was Theodor Herzl’s emergence and the first Zionist Congress that launched his career as a sought-after speaker. “During the months after the first Congress, there was not one beit midrash in all of Bialystock where I did not speak in praise of Zionism! HaMelitz [a famous Hebrew-language newspaper in Russia] invited me during Chanukah of 1897 to speak at the Ohel Moshe synagogue in Warsaw, established by members of the Chovevei Tzion movement. I came, I spoke, and I conquered! [בָּאתִי, דָּרַשְׁתִּי וְנִצַּחְתִּי].”
For years, Rav Nissenbaum spoke every Shabbat at Moriah, Warsaw’s leading Zionist shul, where over a thousand people regularly crammed into the sanctuary, hallways and stairwells to hear the master orator speak. Grounded in decades of Torah learning, Rav Nissenbaum convincingly argued that Torah and Zionism are inseparable. “His great strength as a speaker was in his words, which were never forced or angry, but which, step by step, convinced the audience that his message was exactly what the prophets and Midrashim intended to convey… His words came across not as a ‘possible’ explanation, but as the one and only explanation of the text” (Moshe Krone, Morai V’Rabbotai Achai V’Rayai, 25). Rav Nissenbaum’s books of drashot were snapped up by rabbis from all over the world, who used them as their “go-to” source for sermons, much as the rabbis of our generation depend heavily on the teachings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l.
Shortly after the first World Zionist Congress, Rav Nissenbaum became the formal representative of the Odessa Committee, officially known as the Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans in Syria and Palestine. For eleven years, he traveled all over Europe, speaking in over three hundred communities. With Zionism now a hot button issue, Rav Nissenbaum often encountered hostile criticism.
In Sosnowiec, Poland, Rav Nissenbaum was summoned to the local rabbi’s home, where he found a group of ten, visibly angry Gerrer Chassidim who appeared ready to physically assault him for the crime of speaking in favor of Zionism. In no uncertain terms, the Chassidim told Rav Nissenbaum that he was forbidden from speaking in their town about Zionism. If this would cause him financial harm, they were prepared to compensate him for his loss – but under no circumstances would he be allowed to speak! Unfazed, Rav Nissenbaum responded: “The Zionists of this town invited me to speak, and only the Zionists can cancel my speech. To the demands of others – no matter who they might be – I will not listen!” When the time came for Rav Nissenbaum’s speech, the Zionists found that the doors of the shul were locked – and no one had a key! As a crowd gathered outside the shul, unsure what to do, the Gerrer Chassidim responsible for the prank laughed and celebrated their victory. Fortunately, the synagogue’s non-Jewish maintenance man said: “Is it really impossible to open the synagogue doors without a key?” and proceeded to break open the door! Rav Nissenbaum concludes: “I went up to the bimah and gave my drasha. That Shabbat was Parashat Shelach Lecha, and so I spoke about the new meraglim (spies) of our time!”
A Who’s Who of early Zionism
Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum, it seems, knew everyone. The pages of his memoir are peppered with fascinating anecdotes and memories of his encounters with famous rabbis and leading Zionist figures, many of whom he counted among his close friends.
The brilliant and often caustic Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky, known as the Ridvaz, then serving as the Rav of Bobruisk, attended Rav Nissenbaum’s bar mitzvah. He paid close attention as the young Yitzchak gave his speech, an exposition of a complex halachic discussion he had studied in Rav Eizel Charif’s Emek Yehoshua. At the conclusion of the speech, the Ridvaz peppered the young boy with questions. After hearing the young Yitzchak’s answers, the Ridvaz said: “They used to say that a good yeshiva boy is able to come up with his own novel insights for his bar mitzvah. Nowadays, though, it seems that all it takes to be a good yeshiva boy is the ability to understand what other people write!”
As a young man, Rav Nissenbaum was offered an unusual job opportunity – to be the mashgiach ruchani, the spiritual guide, at a Jewish school run by maskilim (activists promoting Jewish “enlightenment”) with controversial and often secular goals. Concerned that working for the school would ruin his reputation and damage his future career as a community rabbi, Rav Nissenbaum turned to Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the legendary founder of the “Brisker method”, for advice. After he explained the situation at length, Rav Chaim said: “If you have the ability to influence Jewish children and share the spirit of Judaism with them, no other consideration should be permitted to stop you from doing so!” Though Rav Chaim was opposed to Zionism, his son, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, would later accept Rav Nissenbaum’s offer to become a Talmud instructor at Mizrachi’s Beit Midrash l’Rabbanim – Tachkemoni Gevoha in Warsaw, where the curriculum included both Talmud and secular studies.
Always honest, Rav Nissenbaum admits that the written works of Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan, the famed Chafetz Chaim, did not speak to his heart. But when he met the Chafetz Chaim personally, he was deeply moved by his humility. “He didn’t speak from the front of the shul, in front of the aron kodesh, where all the other speakers would stand, speaking instead from the bimah in the middle of the shul. And when he finished, he did not sit [in an honored place] at the front of the shul, sitting instead in the middle of the shul. Every time he walked into the shul, people surrounded him and engaged him in conversation. When he responded, his words were carefully chosen and thoughtful. Clearly, he lived what he wrote in his books about guarding one’s speech!”
When Herzl burst onto the scene, Rav Nissenbaum quickly developed a warm relationship with the legendary leader, often serving as the line of communication between Herzl and the members of Chovevei Tzion. He had no qualms about working together with the “secular” Herzl and others like him on behalf of the Zionist cause, resolute in his own beliefs but also deeply respectful of others. At the World Zionist Congress, Herzl felt comfortable enough to join Rav Nissenbaum and some of the other religious delegates for Shacharit at a local shul, where Herzl was honored with the Levi aliyah. After davening, as Herzl schmoozed and laughed with Rav Nissenbaum and the other men at the shul, someone asked him: “Our honored doctor, are you really a Levi?” Herzl smiled and said: “I know I’m definitely one of the three!”
While sitting in an attorney’s waiting room, Rav Nissenbaum bumped into Mendele Mocher Seforim, the “grandfather of Yiddish literature”. In the course of their conversation, Rav Nissenbaum innocently asked him if he was considering making Aliyah. Mendele’s response was epic: “He stood up from his chair, paced around the waiting room, then stood in front of me and yelled angrily: ‘What? Me, move to Eretz Yisrael? In my Eretz Yisrael, King David is still sitting on his throne and playing his harp, the prophet Yishayahu is still standing at the gates of Jerusalem rebuking government ministers for their sins, the Temple still stands and the Levites are playing their trumpets and cymbals! And now? Oy vavoy! I’ll come to Jerusalem and see that all of this is merely a golden dream. And then what will I do?’” In other words, the famous writer’s attitude was similar to that of many religious Jews in our time, who only plan to make Aliyah when Mashiach comes and Israel finally lives up to their expectations!
Old friends and study partners from their time in the Volozhin Yeshiva, Rav Nissenbaum and the famed poet Chaim Nachman Bialik remained close throughout the rest of their lives. In the early 1930s, shortly before his death, Bialik returned to Warsaw and spoke at Rav Nissenbaum’s Moriah synagogue. After Rav Nissenbaum’s warm introduction, Bialik told the crowd that “since the time of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi until today, no man of Israel has arisen who has studied, spoken and preached about the love of Zion and the building up of the Land like Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum!”
A life-changing journey to the Holy Land
Sadly, Rav Nissenbaum’s personal life was marred by a succession of tragedies. In 1899, his beloved only son, Avraham Yosef, passed away. His wife, shattered by the loss, passed away a few years later, leaving him broken and alone. In 1905, bereft of family and seeking to start anew, Rav Nissenbaum decided the time had come to see the Holy Land for himself. He embarked on an arduous journey to Eretz Yisrael that became, unquestionably, the greatest experience of his life. Over the course of his trip, he would visit nearly every Jewish town and settlement throughout the Land, copiously recording his impressions and insights along the way. A third of his autobiography is dedicated to this journey, providing a critical historical record of life in the early Yishuv.
Upon disembarking from his ship at the port of Jaffa, Rav Nissenbaum was pained to find non-Jewish workers speaking languages he did not understand. “Strange, strange, strange! Strange languages, strange people, strange customs. But in my heart I felt a sweet joy, for my feet were now walking upon the Land of my fathers! I raised my head in pride and looked all around me. Who are these people, and what connection do they have to this place? I am the son of the Master of this Land, and I have returned home to my Father’s embrace!”
Rav Nissenbaum’s tour of the Land was eye-opening. Roads were decrepit or non-existent, and he was forced to travel by donkey for several days over barren and rocky hills. While traveling to the new settlement of Rechovot, he spotted a young Jewish laborer hoeing the tough ground, preparing the land for planting. The sun and heat were intense, and sweat streamed down the man’s face into his eyes. His hands were filthy, his face covered with dirt, and his clothing completely soaked through with sweat. Awed by the young man’s herculean efforts, Rav Nissenbaum developed a new appreciation for the laborers of the new Yishuv who were building up the Land of our fathers with blood, sweat and tears.
In the pre-air conditioning era, the heat was oppressive and inescapable. While staying in Teveria (Tiberias), he – and everyone else in the city – slept on the roofs of their homes to find some relief from the heat. In a settlement in the Galil during the heat of the summer, his host served him lemonade with ice. Surprised, Rav Nissenbaum asked his host where the ice had come from. “Do you have a machine that makes ice?” Laughing, his host explained that the “ice” was actually packed snow from Mount Hermon, which an enterprising worker carried in a sack to the settlements in the area.
Many of the Jewish pioneers struggled to make ends meet, and some lived in appalling conditions of poverty. But Rav Nissenbaum was farsighted enough to envision a future far brighter than what he saw in 1905. Visiting Ein Zeitim, a struggling settlement just north of Tzfat with land ill-suited for agriculture, he noted its refreshing breeze and beautiful weather. One day, he imagined, this would become a beautiful vacation destination!
Traveling through the Galil, Rav Nissenbaum was struck by the sheer emptiness of the Land. “I’ve been traveling for over five hours… and I haven’t seen one home, one planted tree, one seeded field or any living thing! Was the Land like this when our forefathers lived in this place? The Galil in those days was crowded with habitation; if I was traveling in ancient times, how many villages and cities would I have encountered! And yet there, in the exile, there are anti-Zionists who claim that this entire Land is already settled by strangers and there is no room here for the children of the Land!” I often think of Rav Nissenbaum’s insight on my commute from Gush Etzion to Beit Shemesh. Looking out the window of the bus, all I can see are empty hills, waiting for their children to return home.
In Petach Tikva, Rav Nissenbaum witnessed the new Yishuv’s growing secular/religious divide firsthand. Founded in 1878 by religious Jews from the old Yishuv, tensions ran high between Petach Tikva’s religious founders and their primarily secular workers. As the guest speaker on Shabbat, Rav Nissenbaum rebuked the religious Jews of Petach Tikva for not embracing the workers and hiring Arabs at cheaper prices, passionately quoting the Talmud Yerushalmi’s prohibition: “Do not hire gentile workers [when Jewish labor is available]!” Infuriated by Rav Nissenbaum’s speech, Rabbi Yehoshua Stampfer, the head of Petach Tikva’s va’ad, ran up to the bimah to refute him. While staring at Rav Nissenbaum, he yelled: “You want us to welcome these workers – these sinners! – into our homes and give them work in our orchards, while they violate everything holy before our eyes and corrupt our children!” The workers in the audience, deeply insulted, stormed out of the shul in protest. Afterwards, Rav Nissenbaum spoke with the workers in their barracks all through the night, asking them not to blame all of the religious farmers for the painful words of Rabbi Stampfer. Most of the religious farmers did care for the workers, and if the workers could show a little more respect for Judaism and tradition, he believed the rift could be healed.
Founding editor of HaMizrachi
Though Rav Nissenbaum was one of the earliest members of Mizrachi after its founding in 1902, he temporarily left the movement during the Uganda controversy in 1903, when many of Mizrachi’s leaders supported the plan to make Uganda a temporary “safe haven” for the Jewish people. But after his visit to the Land in 1905, he more deeply appreciated Mizrachi’s efforts to establish religious schools in the new Yishuv, and soon rejoined the movement.
In 1918, shortly after the conclusion of World War I and the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, Rav Nissenbaum was appointed the founding editor of HaMizrachi, a critically important role that would place him at the epicenter of Religious Zionism. Published in Warsaw, the original HaMizrachi was a weekly Hebrew-language newspaper that regularly featured contributions from the leading Religious Zionist thinkers of the era, including Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel, Rav Shmuel Halevi Brot, Rav Yitzhak Yehuda Trunk of Kutno and, of course, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook. The mainstay of the publication, however, was Rav Nissenbaum himself. In addition to regularly writing feature articles, he also contributed hundreds of Torah essays over the years in a regular column entitled Resisim, “Fragments”, in which he masterfully interpreted Biblical and aggadic sources through a modern, Religious Zionist lens.
Rav Nissenbaum repeatedly turned down positions of leadership in the Mizrachi movement, saying “I am of the sganim (the deputies)”, the people who generally act and do more than those in charge. But in 1937, when Rav Shmuel Halevi Brot moved to Antwerp, Rav Nissenbaum was forced against his will to serve as the President of Mizrachi in Poland, a position he would fill with honor and dedication as the dark clouds of the Holocaust descended upon Eastern European Jewry.
A light in the darkness
In 1939, only months before the start of World War II, Rav Nissenbaum published his tenth and final book, Masoret V’Cherut, Tradition and Freedom. In his introduction, he writes: “This book is a child of its time, a frightening and dangerous time. In sadness was it born, in sadness was it shaped. But it will give encouragement and comfort to the generation that is passing and the generation that is to come, to strengthen their commitment to their nation, Torah and Land and their faith in redemption – a redemption that will come to the world through the pain and terror of our times, just as the prophets saw in their visions.”
When the Nazis occupied Warsaw, he refused offers to escape the city. Already an old man, he chose to remain with his people, to help in any way that he could. Nathan Eck, a Warsaw Ghetto survivor, describes a secret meeting of Warsaw’s Zionist leadership in early 1940, citing Rav Nissenbaum’s powerful words. “It is time now for Kiddush HaChayim, the sanctification of life, and not Kiddush Hashem, the holiness of martyrdom. In the past, the enemies of the Jews sought the soul of the Jew, and so it was proper for the Jew to sanctify the name of G-d by sacrificing his body in martyrdom, in that manner preserving what the enemy sought to take from him. But now it is the body of the Jew that the oppressor demands. For this reason the Jew must defend his body to preserve his life” (Nathan Eck, הַתּוֹעִים בְּדַרְכֵי הַמָּוֶת: הֲוָוי וְהָגוּת בִּימֵי הַכִּלָּיוֹן, 244).
As conditions worsened in the Ghetto, Rav Nissenbaum remained a pillar of strength. In his diaries about life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Michael Zylberberg writes that he and several other educators came to Rav Nissenbaum for advice during the summer of 1941. Hoping to provide some joy for the children of the Ghetto, the educators planned to produce a play in which the children themselves would be the actors. But what play should they perform? Rav Nissenbaum urged them to choose a play based on Yitzchak Lamdan’s powerful Hebrew poem, Masada: A Historical Epic. The educators were shocked. The story of Masada ends in disaster! How could they ask children to perform such a play under the horrific conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto? Rav Nissenbaum calmly explained: “We must try. We must at the very least prove to our young people that Jews can fight back against their oppressors! This play will give them strength and courage to stand up for themselves.” The educators, including Janusz Korczak, were deeply moved. Rav Nissenbaum’s advice was accepted, and in August 1941, thousands of young Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto sang the song of faith of Masada (Michael Zylberberg, A Warsaw Diary, 1939–1945).
The circumstances of Rav Nissenbaum’s death are unclear, but one account in particular rings true. According to Moishe Flumenbaum, on January 1, 1943 (24 Tevet, 5703), the Nazis shot Rav Nissenbaum when he refused to stand in the wagons bringing the Jews of Warsaw to Treblinka. Just before he died, he yelled out to other Jews: “Do not go to Treblinka!” With his final breath, he called upon his people to act and save themselves from the hated enemy.
רוּחַ מְיוּחָד דּוֹרֵשׁ לְהַסְפָּקָתוֹ מַעֲשִׂים מְיֻחָדִים, “a unique spirit can only be satisfied with unique deeds” (Rav Kook, Orot Yisrael 5:3). Rav Nissenbaum was a unique spirit, a Jew who refused to despair during the darkest of times. He believed with all his heart that the glory of Am Yisrael would soon rise again: “The day will come when the spirit of the redeemer and the prophet will return to the Hebrew nation, when the sparks of freedom hidden in the hearts of its children will merge once again into one great fire, and the heavy and rusted bonds of thousands of years of slavery will melt away from its body and soul. One desire, the desire for redemption, will overcome them all, and the Hebrew nation will return, upright, to its Land…” (Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum, הַיַּהֲדוּת הַלְאוּמִּית, 120).
May we, the fulfillment of Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum’s dreams, never take the blessings and miracles of our time for granted. And may Rav Nissenbaum’s life and teachings give us strength and hope, all the way to redemption!
Rabbi Elie Mischel is the Editor of HaMizrachi magazine.