Most are familiar with the Chiddushei Harim as one of the Gaonim of his time whose seforim are still learned the world over. He is also known as the first Gerer Rebbe and the progenitor of Gerer Chassidus, as well as a first hand transmitter to the masses of the innovative branch of Polish Chassidus that began with a much more limited following, with Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa and subsequently The Kotzker Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk.
In addition to the above qualities, however, the Chiddushei Harim also was a leader, who was involved in wide ranging areas of askanus to better both the spiritual and physical lot of his fellow Jews in Warsaw and by extension in all of Poland.
When it came to protecting Yiddishkeit from the designs of those that sought to destroy it–whether from within or without–the Chiddushei Harim proved to be an uncompromising and implacable fighter. The essay that follows depicts the fight against what became known as the G’zeiras Hamalbushim, a government decree triggered largely by the designs of secular Jews to force Polish Jews to abandon their traditional way of dress.
The article was originally published 45 years ago in the Agudah Yiddish language publication Dos Yiddishe Vort in honor of the 100th Yahrtzeit of the Chiddushei Harim. The Yated is proud to present an adapted version of that original Yiddish language article in honor of the 145th Yahrtzeit of the Chiddushei Harim.
19th Century Poland: A Period of Upheaval War and Revolution
To write an article nowadays about the Chiddushei Harim is both extremely easy and exceedingly difficult. It is easy because today we have access to numerous seforim about the Chiddushei Harim. On the other hand this is precisely the reason it is so difficult. One does not want to “grind ground flour,” just repeat stories that have already been published.
Therefore, at this time, I will write about one particular aspect of the life of this unique manhig Yisroel, that is not as well known to the general public, the Chiddushei Harim’s great Mesiras Nefesh for the Klal. This extreme self-sacrifice as will be told in the coming lines was the antecedent for the Mesiras Nefesh on behalf of Klal Yisroel that Gerrer Chassidus came to symbolize. They became those that kept watch and stood over the vineyard of the house of Israel both against stormy winds and decrees that threatened to uproot the Mesorah from without as well as the various “isms” and “epidemics” of the times that threatened the continued existence of Klal Yisroel from within.
In order to discuss the Chiddushei Harim’s selfless effortson behalf of the Klal, we must journey across the peaks and valleys of Polish history of his time. Only in this context will we be able to understand the nature of the grave and unusual personal danger that this G-d-fearing Jewish leader, whose heart pulsated with true ahavas Yisroel and burned with kedushas HaTorah, encountered.
How much tact, wisdom and messiras nefesh did he need in order to stand up and encourage the general community to defy the decrees of Czarist Russia! Poland, then occupied and oppressed by neighboring Russia, was undergoing one of the stormiest eras in its history. The Polish population responded with numerous plots and plans of revolution and popular uprising against the occupying, oppressive Czarist government of Russia. This caused the Russians to react with iron-fisted military might to suppress the uprising and ruthlessly punish anyone suspected of taking part in or fomenting unrest that would shape the future of Poland.
As always in such crises, the Jews were caught between the two lines of fire. The occupying forces considered the Jews revolutionaries and rebels, while the Poles considered them to be lacking in patriotism or, worse, enemy spies. And then too, among the more secular Jews, then known as the Maskilim, there were various factions. The Chassidishe Yidden, however, headed by the Chiddushei Harim, were united by one motivation: to seek what was truly beneficial for Klal Yisroel and to remain am levodod yishkon, uvagoyim lo yischashov.
When the Chiddushei Harim was born in 1799/5559, a large area of Poland, which included Warsaw, was under Prussian occupation (1796-1807). During these years, many Jewish bankers and businessmen from Germany settled in Warsaw for business reasons, bringing with them the first wave of assimilation, which had already successfully swept through Berlin. A short time later the French campaign (1807-1813), led by Napoleon, conquered Poland. Again, a new wave of Jews arrived in Poland, bringing with them new ideologies, such as the Emancipation movement.
Then came the historic war fought between Napoleon’s French Army and the Russian Czarist Army, in which Napoleon eventually fell. This brought Warsaw once again under Russian occupation until the great Polish Revolution of 1831, which was squelched ruthlessly by the Russians. It goes without saying that in such times of political unrest, with constantly changing governments, and with wars, conquering armies and changing ideologies, the host citizens bore the brunt of the wrath of the various occupying forces. And where the general host population fares badly, the Jewish population suffers a hundred times more, and the religious even more so.
Besides having to endure the economic and political discrimination associated with being a Jewish minority, the religious Jews also had to face various edicts against Yiddishkeit itself. These edicts against religion were made, by and large, with the quiet acquiescence and sometimes even the help of the official Warsaw kehilla, which by then was already dominated by the secularists.
It was during those difficult times for Polish Jewry that Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter,zt”l, author of the multi-volume Chiddushei Harim and father of Gerrer Chassidus, lived. The Chiddushei Harim became the amud ha’anan — the pillar of cloud, and the amud ha’eish — the pillar of fire, for all of Polish Jewry, and more specifically for Warsaw Jewry. Like the amud ha’anan, he lit the way for those who desired the light of Torah and Chassidus, and like the amud ha’eish, he battled and stood up against all the terrible edicts from without and against the stormy, dangerous winds of change from within. The following is but one episode that clearly illustrates his great messirus nefesh.
The Corrupting Influence of the Maskilim and the Battle Against Them
In the 1840s, assimilationist forces spread through Warsaw, gaining considerable power and influence. This plague of Haskala had been imported from Germany and Western Europe, where it had already wreaked havoc on the large segments of German Jewry, and it soon spread to the Warsaw community. The proponents of the Reform movement at that time did not limit themselves to living their freethinking lifestyles peacefully and passively; rather they sought actively to influence the general population to adapt their ways. This, however, was not as easy to do as they had anticipated, and when they were largely unsuccessful in trying to convince Warsaw Jewry to leave their “old and outdated” ways, they resorted to various plots, intrigues and “messiros,” in order to enlist the help of the Czarist government.
In the early 1840’s, the great manhigei Yisroel, the Chiddushei Harim along with the Rav Yitzchok of Vorka and others, were busy day and night with the mitzvos of pidyon shevuyim, trying to counter the terrible edicts of the Russian Czar that forced all children to be inducted into the army for a twenty-five year period of service. The Jewish reformers of the time added to their burden, causing other difficult decrees to be brought upon Warsaw Jewry. They enlisted the government to mandate various reforms in the traditional educational system. In addition, they spearheaded the infamous ruling that prohibited wearing traditional Jewish clothing, the “gezeiros hamalbushim.” Polish Jewry, who for countless generations had dressed in their traditional Jewish garb, were forced to change their clothing to the European mode of dress and to cut off their beards and payos. Women were also forced to change their traditional mode of dress. Only those who lived in Poland before the churban can really understand the severity of the ruling and what it meant to the Jews in those times.
The Chiddushei Harim stood at the helm of those trying to reverse both of these terrible gezeiros. Of course, other Gedolei Yisroel, such as Rav Yitzchak of Vorka and Rav Avraham of Tchechenov assisted him. However, the bulk of the responsibility fell on the shoulders of the Chiddushei Harim. The historian Dr. Shatzki writes, “In those stormy times, when even the smallest public matter became enmeshed in politics, the Gerrer Rebbe also had to play the political game and sat on various government commissions. The main reason for his joining was to help prevent any significant changes in the religious life of the Jewish community.”
The Decree Against Jewish Education
The reins of the community leadership in those times were taken by the assimilationist members of the German Reform that had moved to Warsaw, as well as by a “progressive” faction that were referred to as the “modern” Jews by the Chassidic community of Warsaw.
The Reformers were led by people such as the chairman of the kehilla, Mathias Rosen, who declared openly their desire for reform, both in the educational system and in the mode of dress. The “progressive” movement, led by Avraham Winnower and Zalman Posner, did not side with the reformers publicly, but in their hearts they had long desired to free themselves of the burden of religion. It is to Avraham Winnower that the Chiddushei Harim wrote this emotionally charged letter, imploring him to help rescind the decree to “modernize the educational system”:
With the Help of Hashem, Friday, Erev Rosh Hashana 1843,
… After my recent conversation with his honor regarding the evil planned by the wicked of Israel, to stop teaching the tinokos shel beis rabban, the young schoolchildren, upon whose Torah the world stands, and instead replace it with a curriculum that they desire, I followed his advice and went to speak with the wealthy Rosen. After discussing the matter with him at length, he said that he would take any action against the system himself, but that he would not take any steps to stop those that are working to change the system, because, he explained, he agrees with them and thinks the system should be changed. It is impossible to make him understand that all of Yiddishkeit is dependent on this because, despite the fact that he transgresses the entire Torah, in his own eyes he is righteous and wishes others to be as “righteous” as he.
What can we say? Woe to us that such is happening in our days. It is not enough for them that they themselves publicly transgress the entire Torah without anyone interfering, but all those who adhere to the Torah are like thorns in their eyes. Never before has there been such a sorry situation in our history. I ask and beseech his honor that he use his wisdom and discretion to do all that he can to prevent their plans from coming to fruition. Do not take this lightly, because even the slightest change in the educational system of the tinokos shel beis rabban can cause immeasurable harm. As Chazal teach, we do not stop children from learning, even in order to build the Beis Hamikdosh. It is impossible for learning to enter a child’s heart properly if his mind is focused on other things, especially on secular subjects.
I hope that his honor will undertake to accomplish a great deal to alleviate this situation. May Hashem help you, because he who is able to help his fellow Jews can acquire Olam Haboh…
After receiving this letter from the Chiddushei Harim, Avraham Winnower used his close government connections and interceded continuously, until the ruling against Jewish education was nullified.
The Chiddushei Harim Rules, “Yehareg V’al Yaavor”
Even though the ruling against education was nullified, the edict against the Jewish mode of dress was still in force. The Chiddushei Harim arranged various meetings of Rabbonim and shtadlonim and worked tirelessly, interceding with those who had influence in government circles. The gezeira against the Jewish mode of dress, however, was much more difficult to deal with than the gezirah intended to regulate education. Here, the “modern-bent” but still officially religious Jews, the Winnowers and Posners, came out openly in support of the edict. In fact, they even maintained that, according to halacha, there was nothing wrong with bending to the decree. Many of them therefore said that under the circumstances the Jews were obligated by Jewish law to obey the government.
Being that they were wealthy, distinguished members of the community, their support for the decree engendered a great deal of confusion among the rank and file of the Warsaw Jewish community. Also, those who had close ties with the Russian government took great pains to show their Russian “friends” that they were not Chassidic fanatics and therefore worked on behalf of the decree and made efforts to convince members of the broader community to follow them.
Still, the large majority of frum Yidden followed the lead of the Chiddushei Harim and Rav Avrohom of Tchechenov, who decided they would not conform to the gezeira under any circumstances. In Warsaw and the neighboring towns, many were thrown into dark melancholy. The Poles began to bully the frum Yidden every day. The terrible scene of Jews being grabbed in the streets, having their beards and payos forcibly shorn or, worse, ripped off, caused a terrible storm. Even the anti-Semitic government quickly realized that the frum Jews possessed an iron resolve and were ready to be moser nefesh rather than give in to the gezeira.
The government turned to their assimilated Jewish supporters to try to find other means to carry out their edict. Their assimilated Jewish advisors explained to them that if the Chiddushei Harim would give his haskoma, his stamp of approval to the law, all of Warsaw’s Jews would follow. They therefore advised that the Chiddushei Harim be forced to issue a public declaration to that effect to the general population.
The Chiddushei Harim is Thrown in Jail; Public Mutiny Ensues
The Russian Governor, Fuerst Poskiwitz, gave the command that the Chiddushei Harim be arrested. In Adar 1851, the Chiddushei Harim was taken forcibly from his home in the middle of the night and brought to the Warsaw Police Headquarters. High-ranking government officials tried unsuccessfully to convince him to give the law his approval. When that did not work, he was threatened that his own beard and payos would be shorn and that he would be imprisoned for a lengthy period of time. (Originally, Rabbonim had been exempted from the edict.) The Chiddushei Harim categorically refused, ruling that this was a decree aimed specifically at uprooting Yiddishkeit, and therefore there could be no compromise (yehareg ve’al yaavor). Upon hearing his response, they promptly jailed him.
The news that their beloved leader, the great tzaddik, was imprisoned threw Warsaw Jewry into upheaval. Not only Chassidic Jews but even all of the plain, simple Jews were horror-stricken by the despicable action that the “enlightened” mosrim had perpetrated. By early the next morning thousands of Jews gathered outside the jail, wailing and crying in protest and pain. The news of the Chiddushei Harim’s arrest made its mark even in non-Jewish circles; many non-Jews actually condemned the government’s brutal act of jailing the innocent leader of Warsaw Jewry. This alarmed even government officials, who were afraid that nationalistic Polish gentiles would use the Chiddushei Harim’s arrest as an excuse to increase Jewish support for their revolutionary activities. For this reason, they decided to release the Chiddushei Harim immediately.
The resistance of frum Yidden persisted. The police could not contain the Jewish opposition and even among the Jews themselves there was turmoil; machlokes raged through the Jewish streets of Warsaw. Thousands of simple Jews could neither forget nor forgive the chillul Hashem and sought revenge against the “enlightened” mosrim who had caused the whole fiasco in the first place. The mosrim called upon their connections in the government to back them, causing the fierce machlokes to escalate.
Upon the Chiddushei Harim’s release from jail, he immediately reassumed the position of head of Warsaw religious Jewry. This time, though, he went underground, deeming it too dangerous to be in the public eye. For security reasons he changed his surname from Rothenberg to Alter, and due to the danger posed by the mosrim, he moved out of Warsaw and took up residence in the nearby village of Novidvor, from where he led the resistance.
On that day, he wrote the following letter to his close friends Rav Yosef Krul and Rav Eliezer of Poltusk:
Even as I am in exile, having done no wrong, a victim of lies and baseless hatred, I beg of you, do not enter into any dispute nor speak harsh words to anyone on my account. Only draw people toward you with words of peace, truth and love, for we are all children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. It would not have been necessary for the Torah to command one not to “hate his brother” regarding one’s friend whom he already likes …”
The upheavals in Warsaw and the subsequent arrest of other Chassidishe Yidden and their uprising against the authorities eventually had its desired effect. Even the Polish press began to criticize the conduct of the militant police and their policies of ferociously ripping out Jews’ beards and payos and throwing Jews in jail. Some of the less radical Maskilim realized that their conduct had been totally inappropriate and that they had gone too far in trying to force their beliefs on other Jews. In addition, the Chassidishe askanim never ceased their efforts to defend their stand and pursued all avenues to have the decree overturned, using all three of Yaakov Avinu’s tactics, tefillah, bribery and war. Eventually, two days before Pesach, the gezeira was rescinded, and the frum Jews of Warsaw began to breathe freely again.
The Chiddushei Harim returned immediately to Warsaw, and the Yom Tov of freedom was celebrated there with happiness and joy.