This week, on 10 Elul, we commemorated the 100th Yahrzeit of the founder of the Mizrachi movement, Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Reines. He was a transformative thinker and activist who believed that the religious world needed to partner with Herzl’s fledgling Zionist movement. This led to the founding of Mizrachi in 1902, the only Religious Zionist movement of the time, which continues to be an integral partner in the enterprise of modern-day Israel.
Below, you can read a brief biography, some of his writings and download/read a booklet about his life:
Born on 19 Cheshvan 5600 (27 October 1839) in Karolin, Belarus, Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Reines studied at Volozhin Yeshiva under the Netziv. After ordination in 1867, he was appointed Rabbi of Shavkyana, Lithunia, where he spent less than two years. He then moved to Sventsyany (a district of Vilna) to serve as Rabbi and Av Beit Din (head of Jewish court).
It was in Sventsyany that Rabbi Reines set up a revolutionary yeshiva in which secular subjects were taught along with normal yeshiva curriculum. He desired to narrow the gap between the students in yeshiva and the enlightened Jews, so that a yeshiva graduate would be able to understand and deal with the world about him. However, among the religious and more established members of the community, there was great opposition because they viewed the inclusion of secular subjects as a desecration of the Holy, and as a result the yeshiva was forced to close after a short time. Yet, Reines never abandoned the idea and was destined to see its fruition many years later.
In 1883 he went to Lida where he served as Rabbi and Av Bet Din and by 1905 his established reputation gave him the ability to set up without opposition the yeshiva that he wanted under the name of Torah and Madah (‘Torah and Science’). During its ten year existence the yeshiva enjoyed a well earned reputation and hundreds of students graduated from it.
Rav Reines was one of the first rabbis to answer Herzl’s call to become part of the Zionist movement, and he attended the Third Zionist Congress in 1899. Under his guidance and influence, the First Congress of the Religious Zionists was called in Vilna in 1902. It was here that the name Mizrachi, a conglomeration of the words Mercaz Ruchani (‘Spiritual Center’) was chosen. Indeed, the Mizrachi party envisioned itself as the spiritual center of the Zionist organization and desired to make Eretz Israel the spiritual center of Judaism. They borrowed the name Mizrachi in order to show the relationship between the new political party and the Mizrachi segment of Chibbat Zion, which Rabbi Mohilever established in 1893. Their purpose was twofold: On the one hand, they desired to heighten the awareness among religious Jews towards the possibility of aliya and on the other hand, they desired to influence the non-religious Zionists by creating an atmosphere of tolerance and equality between the two factions.
During the first year of Mizrachi, 210 groups were established in Russia, Poland and Lithuania, aside from the Mizrachi groups in other countries of the Diaspora. In the general gathering of Zionists in Minskin 1902, 160 members of the newly formed Mizrachi party attended the congress. At the Fifth Zionist Congress, Reines fought strongly to keep the Zionist movement from splitting and, because of this, voted for the Uganda Resolution. After the Tenth Zionist Congress of 1911, when education fell under the wing of the W.Z.O., the Mizrachi movement split when many of its members demanded that the party leave the auspices of the W.Z.O. However, through the personal intervention and efforts of Rabbi Reines, the Mizrachi party remained within the organization and only the Frankfurt branch broke away. Rabbi Reines remained head of Mizrachi until his death.
Rabbi Reines’ importance rests not only with the fact that he established Mizrachi – the Religious Zionist Movement – but also in that many of his ideas which were written in various publications, became the cornerstone to the Mizrachi movement and have become realities.
Rabbi Reines died on 10 Elul 5675 (29 August 1915) and his name has been memorialized in many areas in Eretz Yisrael. Neve Yaakov, a suburb of Jerusalem established in 1924, rebuilt after the Six Day War of 1967, is named after him. The first moshav of HaPoel HaMizrachi, Sede Yaakov, established in 1923, is also named in his honor, as are many streets in the various cities of Israel.
From his writings
“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.”
“Or Chadash Al Tzion” Part 4: Chapter 10
“It is written: ‘…And lie down in the wilderness, sela’(Psalms 55:8). Upon this verse our Rabbis comment: “It is better to sleep in the deserts of Eretz Israel than in the palaces of the Diaspora. (Genesis Rabbah 39:8)” Such a concept should exist deep within the heart of every Jew and all the pleasures of this world as well as the residences that one owns in the Diaspora should not be treasured even during a time of peace and contentment. For the peace of Israel in the exile is not one which contains any measure of permanence for every hour we may be forced to leave and wander. Even at a time when the sky is clear and the winds of the world are at their calmest – even at such a moment – one must remember that the situation can change, the sun will be darkened and great strong winds of change can come unexpectedly…”
Letter dated 17th Tammuz, 1889
“All that others see as detrimental (to the Zionist cause), I view as a positive influence; Others see in the (many) 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 finger of God’, a phenomena 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 political factions) unify the various potentials which exist (within our nation).
Speech to the Zionist Congress