He was known as many things – the tzaddik of Yerushalayim, a father figure to prisoners, and the father-in-law of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l. To every person, he was something else. Native Yerushalmim and underground fighters, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, chilonim and religious Jews – all of them revered him, each for their own reasons. He was always there for the downtrodden – the poor, the despondent, the weak, and the imprisoned. Even lepers benefited from his kindness. Rav Aryeh Levin zt”l was one of the few people who were willing to enter the lepers’ hospital in Yerushalayim. The title that stuck to him permanently, though, was that of “father of the prisoners,” as he was called by the men of the underground, headed by Menachem Begin, the commander of Etzel, and Yair Stern, the leader of Lechi. The British recognized his status, even though it was unofficial, and they habitually summoned him before executing a prisoner.
Simcha Raz wrote a book about Rav Aryeh Levin titled Ish Tzaddik Hayah (literally, “There Was a Righteous Man,” although the English version was titled A Tzaddik in Our Time). The book became a bestseller after its release. Many people were enthralled by the stories of Rav Aryeh’s incredible humility and sensitivity to other human beings.
One of the most famous stories is about an incident when Rav Aryeh accompanied his wife to an appointment with a doctor. When the doctor asked him what was wrong, Rav Aryeh said, “Doctor, my wife’s leg hurts us” – not “her,” but “us.” He related to her pain as if it was his own.
Rav Aryeh was filled with love for his fellow Jews. He once received a pair of gloves as a gift, but he refused to wear them. “How can I shake another Jew’s hand while wearing gloves?” he asked. “I won’t feel him…”
The tzaddik of Yerushalayim was deeply admired by the chilonim. Much was written about the underground fighters and right-wing political leaders who revered Rav Aryeh, and to whom Rav Aryeh himself showed bountiful affection. The members of the Mizrachi movement also prided themselves on their close relationships with him. In truth, Rav Aryeh was close to everyone, and he showed tremendous respect to every person.
It can be said that Rav Aryeh pioneered the concept of being mekarev other Jews. Indeed, Rav Aryeh was personally responsible for drawing many Jews back to Yiddishkeit. He once delivered a drashah in which he asserted, “Tochachah is one of the aspects of ahavas Yisroel. If you examine the pesukim carefully, you will see that the mitzvah of tochachah appears between two other statements: ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart’ and ‘You shall love your fellow like yourself.’ That teaches us the nature of genuine tochachah. The tochachah that is desired is one that comes from a pure source. It should stem not from hatred, but from love.”
In other words, a person must love his fellow Jews, but he must also rebuke them when necessary. This was a balance that was epitomized by Rav Aryeh.
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Rav Aryeh Levin was born in Nissan 5645 (1885) near Bialystok, in White Russia, to his father, Reb Binyomin Beinush, and his mother, Ettel. As a youth, he left home to learn in the Yeshiva of Volozhin, and he then moved on to Slutzk and Slonim. He arrived in Eretz Yisroel at the age of 20, in the month of Adar 5665 (1905), and he soon became acquainted with the rov of Yaffo, Rav Kook. He made his way to Yerushalayim, and in the year 5677 – a full century ago – he began serving as the mashgiach ruchani of a Talmud Torah near Yeshivas Eitz Chaim, a position that he held until the end of his life.
In an article published by the Lechi movement (an acronym for Lochamei Cheirut Yisrael – “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”), Rav Aryeh is described as follows: “On Erev Shabbos, he used to visit hospitals to raise the spirits of the patients. He even risked his life by visiting the lepers’ hospital, which had never before seen a man from outside venture into its confines. But the most magnificent aspect of his life’s work was his activities as the rov of the central prison in Yerushalayim. The authorities asked the Chief Rabbinate to send a rov for the Jewish prisoners, just as there were clergymen for the prisoners who practiced other religions. When no rov agreed to accept the job, Rav Kook asked Rav Aryeh, and he consented immediately. His love and dedication to the Jewish prisoners evoked jealousy among the other inmates. Beginning in the year 5639, when the number of Jewish political prisoners increased, Rav Aryeh began advocating for them to be separated from the Arabs. Ultimately, he was successful in that. Then he demanded a separate, kosher kitchen for them as well. The prisoners admired their rov, who related to them like a loving and encouraging father. The British and the Arabs watched in envy as he would caress the hand of a prisoner and shower him with words of encouragement. The British did not know that Rav Aryeh was also transferring letters between the prisoners and their families, as well as the underground, despite the tremendous danger that it entailed. Their begrudging attitude led the British to try to have him replaced, but they did not succeed.”
The article goes on: “In the year 5665, Rav Aryeh married Tziporah Chana, daughter of Rav Shapiro of Kovno. They had seven children, as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Rav Aryeh was a righteous and refined man. Throughout his life, his sole concern was for others. In the war of 5708 (1948), when Yerushalayim was under siege, whenever the members of Lechi brought him a small amount of food, Rav Aryeh would quickly share it with his neighbors. When he learned that there were plans to enter the Old City, he asked to be taken there so that he could daven at the Kosel. He left an indelible imprint on everyone who knew him, especially the prisoners who were members of Etzel and Lechi.”
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Rav Aryeh received his semichah from Rav Shmuel Salant, the rov of Yerushalayim. He was a son-in-law of Rav Dovid Shapiro, the rov of Kovno, as was Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank. Thus, the two rabbonim were brothers-in-law.
Another famous story about Rav Aryeh concerns a Goral HaGra that he performed. After the War of Liberation, the bodies of the “Lamed Hey,” a convoy of Jewish fighters who were killed, were returned to Israel. Most of the bodies were identified, but twelve of them were not recognizable.
Perhaps a bit of background information is in order. During Shevat of the year 5708, Gush Etzion consisted of four communities: Kfar Etzion, Ein Tzurim, Massuot Yitzchok, and Revadim. The Gush had been under an Arab siege for several months, and convoys from Yerushalayim were unable to reach the settlements. On the third day of Shevat, the defenders of the Gush repelled a massive offensive launched by the Arabs of the area, but they were left with a major shortage of weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, and other vital items. Because of their plight, the commander of the defensive forces in the area of Yerushalayim decided to send reinforcements to the Gush in the form of a convoy consisting of 40 fighters. The convoy was spotted by Arab women as it headed toward the Gush, and the commander of the Arab forces in the area was quickly notified. About 2,000 Arabs surrounded the convoy. The soldiers fought until their final bullets were gone, and then they were all slaughtered. Two and a half days after the battle, the bodies of the fallen fighters were brought to Kfar Etzion by the British police in Chevron. Rav Aryeh used the Goral HaGra to identify the bodies that were beyond recognition.
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Many of the gedolei Yisroel have connections to Rav Aryeh. His son-in-law, of course, was Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv; thus, Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s wife was his granddaughter. Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky attested that all of her special qualities had been derived from her grandfather, Rav Aryeh. Rav Aryeh had three other sons-in-law: Rav Eliezer Plachinsky, who was a grandson of the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel; Rav Shmuel Aharon Yudelevitch, author of Me’ilo Shel Shmuel; and Rav Aharon Yaakobovitz, who is known for the Otzar Haposkim.
He also had three distinguished sons, who carried on his legacy: Rav Chaim Yaakov Levin, who served as rov of the city of Pardes Chana; Rav Refoel Binyomin Levin; and Rav Simcha Shlomo Levin. All three were not only Torah giants of immense stature, but also experts in Kabbolah.
Rav Aryeh passed away one week before the Seder night of the year 5729, fifty years ago. The day of his passing was the Friday just before Shabbos Hagadol. He was buried in the cemetery in Sanhedria, on Rechov Bar Ilan in Yerushalayim. Due to the lack of time, as well as the fact that it was Erev Shabbos and the month of Nissan, no hespeidim were delivered. This was also something that Rav Aryeh had requested in his tzava’ah. Nevertheless, he received great honor after his petirah.
In accordance with his tzava’ah, his tombstone bears an inscription instructing visitors to recite one of the “Ani Maamin” passages, declaring their faith that the deceased will be resurrected when Hashem desires to do so.
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Rav Aryeh is a renowned historical figure. After his passing, the public admiration for him grew even further. Recently, I was leafing through some old newspapers and discovered headlines that piqued my curiosity. One article was titled “The Story of a Blank Note.” Since it was an old newspaper (dated July 5, 1968) and a distinctly non-chareidi publication (Yediot Acharonot), I wouldn’t ordinarily have bothered reading the article. In this case, though, I took note of the large picture of Rav Aryeh in the center of the article. Beneath the title appeared the legend, in smaller letters, “The memories of Rav Aryeh Levin, by Yehoshua Zeitler.”
The article above that one also had a connection to religion. (Perhaps the newspapers were different at that time, fifty years ago.) The title of that article was “Rav Levin’s Double Secret.” This actually refers to a different Rav Levin – the rov of Moscow, who had just concluded a visit to America. It was a miraculous visit that made the Jews of America aware of the silent Jewish revival in Russia, and of their brethren who were crying out for freedom, especially religious freedom. The author of the article, I noticed, was one Eliezer Wiesel. Was it the famous Elie Wiesel? Indeed, I remembered that Wiesel, the famed author and freedom fighter who had become symbolic of liberation from the Nazis, worked for a period of time as a correspondent in America for Yediot Acharonot.
My curiosity overcame me. The rov of Moscow had visited New York? Elie Wiesel had written about it? And Yediot Acharonot had carried an article about Rav Aryeh Levin’s memories, published less than a year before his passing? I perused both articles with great interest. In honor of Rav Aryeh’s yahrtzeit, I will share the fascinating anecdotes that were quoted in his name.
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The article about Rav Aryeh relates, “If you ever walk in the neighborhood of Mishkenos in Yerushalayim, and you suddenly find yourself facing a man who is stooped over, with a white beard and a face that radiates sanctity, and with eyes that seem to be gently, lovingly assessing you, and if you immediately feel that some void within you has suddenly been filled, that something is freeing you from the chains that have been holding you – then you will know that it is Rav Aryeh Levin, the father of prisoners, who is freeing you almost exactly as he did in the days when you were imprisoned in the literal sense.”
Upon reading those words, I began to understand how the chilonim felt when they experienced the warmth of Rav Aryeh’s gaze. After all, this article was written by one of their own writers and attests to their experiences, and it appeared in a completely nonreligious newspaper.
Zeitler continues, “But when you stop for a moment, you will immediately feel the dread of the empty void in which you are moving at a dizzying speed. And then you will realize how much you have missed that handshake and the warmth that it exudes. It feels like the hand of your savior. And then those days and years that you experienced, when you were in prison, will come back to you, and the image of the rov will come along with them. Once again, you will hear him whispering, ‘Hashem’s salvation comes in the blink of an eye,’ and your heart will be filled anew with the same hope that he infused in you every Shabbos in those days.”
Evidently, the writer was one of the former prisoners who benefited from Rav Aryeh’s loving touch. “Years have passed since that time,” he continues, “and many tefillos have been accepted. Yerushalayim is now whole and liberated. To him, it is natural. The miracle of redemption is a natural phenomenon. A person prays, and his prayers are accepted.” He reveals to the reader that he had visited Rav Aryeh just before Yom Haatzmaut, and the rov had shared several anecdotes with him. Two of those stories are presented in the article. They are remarkable tales, but for a person of Rav Aryeh’s spiritual stature, such incidents are entirely reasonable.
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Who is Yehoshua Zeitler? About ten years ago (in May 2009), Haaretz reported the following: “Yesterday, on the day before Yom Yerushalayim, Yehoshua Zeitler passed away. He was the commander of the Lechi underground in Yerushalayim and the mastermind of the assassination of Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations diplomat. Zeitler was born in Kfar Saba 92 years ago. His family was one of the first four families to live in that settlement. He joined the Haganah at a young age and later transferred to Etzel.
“Zeitler participated in many of the organization’s retaliatory attacks against Arab violence in the late 1930s and oversaw the training of 40,000 Jewish fighters in the mountains of Poland. The group planned to conquer Eretz Yisroel from the British in a surprise operation and to announce the founding of a Jewish state. Due to differences of opinion with Etzel, as well as the outbreak of World War II, that plan was never carried out. When the war broke out, Zeitler supported continuing the struggle against the British for the establishment of a Jewish state. As a result of his views, he and his commander, Avrohom Stern (otherwise known as Yair) resigned from Etzel and founded Lechi.” The two were accompanied by Yitzchok Shamir, who later became the prime minister of Israel.
Zeitler later became famous as one of the participants in the daring escape from the Acco Prison in May 1947. When the United Nations adopted the Partition Plan, in which Yerushalayim was not slated to be included in the State of Israel, Zeitler moved to Yerushalayim and began organizing the soldiers of Lechi into a fighting force. Under his command, Lechi conquered the villages of Lifta, Sheikh Badr (which is today occupied by the Binyanei Ha’umah convention center, the government headquarters, the Knesset, and the Supreme Court), and Deir Yassin (the location of the neighborhood of Har Nof). In Elul 5708, Count Bernadotte was assassinated in Yerushalayim. Bernadotte had advocated placing Yerushalayim under United Nations control and giving over the Negev to the kingdom of Jordan. The assassins were not captured at the time, and it was claimed only years later that Yehoshua Zeitler had conceived, planned, and directly carried out the murder.
Now we know a bit about the identity of Yehoshua Zeitler.
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Let us return to his article in Yediot Acharonot 50 years ago. Zeitler goes on to quote Rav Aryeh, who recounted the following story: “One Shabbos morning, when I was on my way to visit you in prison [in the Russian Compound in Yerushalayim], I suddenly noticed that there wasn’t a human being in sight, other than the groups of British soldiers who were roaming the streets. I realized that a curfew had been placed on the city, but before I had an opportunity to retrace my steps, I heard a shout. A British officer commanded me to approach him. I was placed in a room where other violators of the curfew had already been imprisoned. I paced around the room in distress. I had already davened Shacharis, but what would happen to the prisoners who would be waiting for me?
“Suddenly, a man in civilian clothes approached me and asked if I was the person who visited prisoners on Shabbosos. When I answered in the affirmative, he left and then came back with a note in his hand. ‘Take this,’ he said, ‘and go directly to the prison.’ I took the note and began to walk, without even turning to look to either side of me. I made my way down Rechov Yaffo toward the Russian Compound. As I walked, I heard other Jews calling out to me, ‘Reb Yid! Where are you going? There is a curfew! Go inside somewhere!’ I ignored their calls and I continued on my way. I passed all the British patrols without being stopped or questioned. When I arrived at the prison, everyone was astonished by my arrival. I found out that the underground had killed several British soldiers the previous night and the entire city had been closed down. I showed them the note, and to their surprise – and mine as well – we found that it was merely a blank piece of paper. I felt that it was a sign from Hashem, and I was confident that just as He had led me there in peace, He would bring me home in peace as well. With that piece of paper, I walked all the way home, once again passing all the British patrols without being stopped even once.”
Zeitler related that Rav Aryeh kept that piece of paper in his possession for years afterward.
Rav Aryeh went on to share another story, which Zeitler likewise recorded: “Before Pesach, I used to collect funds to distribute to the poor. Once, the community had fallen upon hard times and I did not succeed in collecting anything. The Yom Tov was approaching, and I felt lost and dejected. How could I look into the eyes of the people who had been relying on me, when they had nothing? On the day before Yom Tov, I set out to walk to the Kosel Hamaarovi. I was accompanied by my son, and we approached a bus that was heading to the Old City. There was a long line, it was in the middle of a powerful heat wave, and I was standing there, immersed in my anguish. Suddenly, a bareheaded Jew in casual dress walked over to me, placed a sum of money in my hand, and asked me to distribute it to the poor. I took hold of his hand and asked him who he was and why he had chosen me to be his shliach for a mitzvah. The man rebuked me. ‘If someone gives you money, take it and use it!’ I hurried to distribute the money to the widows and orphans. And I never saw that man again.”