Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

13 Teves 5764 - January 7, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Man with a Grave Mission

by Yisroel Friedman

Part I

Jews were always deeply concerned about graves, both their own and the graves of their ancestors. This reflects their belief in the continuation of the person after the death of the body: the soul continues and the body also has a role in the future. In this week's parshoh we are told of Yaakov Ovinu's concern to be buried in Eretz Yisroel. As a ruler of Egypt, Yosef was in a position to bring his father's remains to burial in the Holy Land. Many of our ancestors have not been so fortunate, and their bones lie buried throughout the world, in every place that Jews have wandered. There is no central agency of the Jewish people to care for the many resting places of Jews throughout the Diaspora, but there are many smaller initiatives to try to help. Here we present the fascinating story of one individual who is involved in fixing and preserving Jewish gravesites throughout the world.


The mosque was full to capacity. In the city of Kiruan, Islam dominates the scene. The sight of a man in traditional Jewish garb draws the attention of the thousands of worshipers and perhaps irks them as well. Their stares are piercing and hostile.

A shudder passes down Rav Gabbai's spine. Fear strikes him deep inside, a palpable, immediate fear that cannot be repressed. But he decides not to give up and starts to wait. Maybe the speaker, the leading imam of Kiruan, can solve the mystery of where the burial cave of the geonim lies. Maybe . . .

Among Rav Gabbai's journeys to locate and restore kivrei tzaddikim, he once traveled to Tunisia, where many gedolei Torah and communal leaders from the Tunisian Jewish community lie buried. But most of all he wanted to find the Cave of the Geonim.


It all began with a boat from Babylonia. After its capture, the passengers were sold into slavery. The Jewish community of Kiruan redeemed Rabbenu Chananel. Later he opened a yeshiva there, like the other three captives who set up Torah centers elsewhere. Among the talmidim who learned in Kiruan were Rabbenu Gershom Meor HaGoloh and the Ri Megash.

When the yeshiva was closed, the city became like an abandoned train station of Diaspora Jewry, and then turned into a major center for Islam. For hundreds of years Jews were forbidden to live in the city and were even denied entry. One of the landmarks that remained was the Cave of the Geonim. According to tradition, R' Nissim Gaon, R' Chananel and R' Chushiel are among the prominent Torah figures buried there.

The site was closed and off limits to Jews. According to an old account, one Jew managed to make his way there to pray and the locals who caught him wanted to do him in, but he was saved miraculously.

Where is this famous cave? That question did not cease to trouble Rav Gabbai. The only certified information was that the cave was located "under the mosque." But the old section of Kiruan is immense, accommodating some 800 mosques!

Nevertheless Rav Gabbai did not give up. He decided to do something. One day he went to a local archaeologist, but the ancient map he held in his possession revealed very little. After making no progress Rav Gabbai decided he would venture into the lion's lair. He would approach the imam after the sermon.

Thousands of pairs of eyes were glued to him, surveying his unusual appearance. His heart pounded in his chest as he asked the imam about the cave. The imam refused to engage in a long conversation. He gave a few minutes of his time to be polite, but volunteered no information. Yet the tone of his voice raised strong suspicions that he had something to hide. Throughout the brief conversation he seemed to be trying hard to play innocent.

Rav Gabbai had a hunch the imam knew more than he let on. Something in his words sounded unreliable. Since then, this has become another one of the many missions he hopes to complete. He would like the merit of placing restored gravestones on the gravesites of the kedoshei elyon in the Cave of the Geonim.


Rav Gabbai is not a man of words. Conducting an orderly interview with him is no easy task, for he is reluctant to reveal any of his secrets. The conversation below was assembled from a friendly talk I held with him while sitting in the back seat of a car flying along the Ukraine's mournful roads.

Highways and country roads stretch from one cemetery to the next. It takes hours to travel between them. The draining journey leaves you less and less alert, sapping your strength -- and your resistance. After two days of constant travel among cemeteries and gravestones, the information accumulated, forming a fascinating account of a fascinating man who has devoted his life to the honor of gedolei hadoros zt"l.

The Torn Sign

From Borispol, the airport in the Ukraine capital of Kiev, we drive into the city and soon get caught in traffic jams. A narrow, one-way road leads us to a monument in the form of a menorah placed at the head of a graded pyramid. Beyond it is the grass and the trees. Carved into the stone lying to the right of the menorah are the words, "The sound of your brother's blood cries up to me from the ground." Dead silence prevails here. But this silence is more terrible than any voice ever heard out loud.

The silence calls out. Babi Yar. One hundred thousand Jews were led to their deaths here. You need only take a few steps into the trees to see the horrible pit. It looks like a stream bed. To envision the river of blood requires little imagination. The earth here soaked up the blood of one hundred thousand Jews. This is where they were shot and covered over. For several days one human shipment after another was brought to the valley of killing. According to survivors the ground kept moving from the twitches of people buried alive. When the city that forms a ring around the site of the atrocity was built here and the rain washed away the soil, the dry bones floated to the top.

A Ukrainian flag waves on the flag post, a remnant of some ceremony held before our arrival. Sky blue and yellow, rather than black like the acrid hatred, and red, like the seething blood that washed this cursed land. And our brothers' blood cries out, as always.

Taking a soft right from the menorah leads us to an ancient cemetery. Little square gravestones dot the area. Desolation reigns.

"Not everywhere were we able to find the site of the grave," Rav Gabbai tells me sorrowfully. "The Malbim's grave is one of them. The Malbim was buried in this cemetery and we started to search for the exact location of his grave. Among the other steps we took to locate it I placed an ad in the chareidi press. I asked anyone who knew any details to contact me. One of the phone calls [I received] provided rare and valuable information. The voice on the other end of the line spoke in the name of one of the people who dug under the Malbim's gravestone in order to transfer the body to a safer burial place before the cemetery was destroyed, leaving him prey to the bulldozer's shovel.

"But a big surprise lay in store. Under the Malbim's gravestone and his wife's gravestone there was no grave. The plot was simply empty. Not because of grave robbers, for clearly nobody had ever been buried there.

"Various hypotheses were raised. One of them held that because the Malbim suffered throughout his lifetime at the hands of Enlightenment Jews, his family members intentionally placed the gravestone in the wrong place to prevent them from harming him even in death.

"Whatever the real reason, the Malbim was definitely buried somewhere in this cemetery, but it would be very difficult to locate the exact place. I erected a sign reading, `In this cemetery lies buried Rabbenu Meir Leibush, son of Yechiel Michel, the Malbim zechuso yogen oleinu, who departed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5640 (1880).'

"The sign did not last long here. The long arm of the local antisemites struck and the sign was soon damaged and torn down."

So there are graves whose exact location cannot be identified?

Rav Gabbai: Many of the graves of the Rishonim in Europe are difficult to locate with precision. The area of the cemetery can be located, but not the exact place of the grave. This is as much as we found of the resting places of Rabboseinu Baalei HaTosefos: Rabbenu Tam, HaRi HaZoken, HaRashbam, HaRivom and another sixty of Baalei HaTosefos, zechusom yogen oleinu. We located the cemetery where they are buried, but not the plot where they lie resting.

Here Lies Rashi

It all began when I wanted to go to Communist Russia. The Iron Curtain blocked entry to Israelis, so I traveled to France to use my French passport. At the time I already had general information regarding the place of rest of the Baalei HaTosefos--general information, but not specific information. The person who helped me expand on this information was a Jewish-French philosopher with whom I was in contact. He was in the initial stages of drawing closer to Judaism and returning to his roots, and I gave him chizuk, encouraged him and guided him in the first stages of doing teshuvoh.

Since he was an academic, through him I had access to valuable documentary, archival material not available to the public. He agreed to help me with my search and thus got on the track of the ancient city of Trauche. The city had changed over the years. The city was burned down and rebuilt and after that it spread far and wide. Under normal circumstances, it would have been impossible to find out anything. But the ancient map that came into his hands clearly shows the old cemetery grounds where Rashi lies buried. Further checks had to be done to verify the findings and indeed after we discovered the location, French Jews erected a monument on the site.

During this same archival search we also discovered that the Baalei HaTosefos were buried in the Ramfurt Cemetery, but here we ran into a problem. There are two villages located near one another bearing the same name.

We went there and entered one of them. Very quickly it became clear that it was the right village. When we spoke to the village mayor, there was a surprise waiting for us. He very excitedly told us about one of the villagers who built a storeroom and tractor garage. When he began digging he came across graves and when he continued to dig he discovered row after row of gravestones. When we examined the area we identified it as a Jewish burial site since non- Jews do not bury their dead in straight rows. Also the graves were facing Jerusalem.

An examination by a certified professional revealed that the cemetery was from 800 years ago! And what's more, the adjacent road has always been called "Big Cemetery Street." The locals never knew why. This is how the cemetery where, according to archival documentation, the Baalei HaTosefos lie buried was discovered.

Later a house built on this site was offered for sale. The house had been abandoned. I brought a Parisian Jew to the site. He purchased the house and had it dedicated to his name. When it was converted into a beis knesses and beis medrash, HaRav Yosef Sitruk, the Chief Rabbi of France, came to the chanukas habayis. There is a key, people come and pray.

Kedoshei elyon are buried here in this cemetery. Even if their exact place of rest is not known with certainty, we saved the cemetery from desolation and disgrace.

The Beis Knesses that was Turned into a Carpenter's Shop

Rav Yisroel Meir Gabbai, a Breslover chossid, received his Torah education at Yeshivas Lucerne under HaRav Yitzchok Dov Koppelman, a talmid of HaRav Shimon Shkop, and continued his studies at Yeshiva Ponovezh. While studying in a kollel in Tzfas, he took part in activities organized by Kadmoneinu under Rav Noach Sternfeld.

He says, based on examinations of ancient, previously unknown manuscripts and the uncovering of authenticated travel logs from very early periods, we can anticipate highly important discoveries about the location of ancient graves in the Galil. Because of his sense of responsibility he refuses to open even a peephole. Instead he steers the conversation toward other realms, without explanations and without leaving any traces.

We continue our drive, now on a relatively smooth route. A bit before the town of Orbritch, familiar to some from the beis medrash in Tzfas by that name, we turn left toward Vilednik. Here we travel through the heart of rural, primitive, backwards Ukraine.

Wood cabins line the road. The villages are not in the form of clumps of houses, but long rows of wooden cabins along the way. Yawning old men sit in the gateways of the courtyards. People with no smile visiting their lips pass by, never showing what lies in their hearts. The chirping of birds blends with the mooing of cows and the cackling of the geese. Almost all of the locals raise flocks of long-necked geese, which they take out to feed as in former times. Rods in hand they hurry the cows out to pasture and then return them when they begin to low. Fruit trees, particularly apple trees, bow under the weight of their loads. The locals stand alongside the road selling fruit.

At the brooks, seen everywhere, ducks quack away. Motorized vehicles are a rare sight here. Cows block the lane and barking dogs keep them from straying from the road. The "limousines" of the Ukraine, wagons stand at the entrance to every home, laden with straw. Only the horses are in the barns. The almost forgotten (to us) sight of two horses pulling a wagon is the most common mode of transport seen in the area.

Squash fields stretch out across the background and the squashes paint the landscape spectacular colors. Logs are piled high in the yards. People are laying in for winter. When the cold sets in -- with ice and snow -- they will be ensconced in their homes, eating whatever they laid in store. This is how people survive here. They don't live, they survive.

Not even the smallest cloud can upset the tranquility of their gray, faded spirit. They survive from one day to the next like the geese in the coop, the cows in the cowshed and the horse in the stable. And this land was once the home of great Jews, who did not merely survive, but lived, for there is no life but Torah.

This place was home to the tzaddik of Vilednik, on whose grave Rav Gabbai set up an ohel. As in Anipoli, where HaRav Zusha and the Maggid of Mezritch lie buried, like in Polnaa where the Toldos Yaakov Yosef and the "Mochiach" lie buried, as in Kaminka where brothers who were among the Baal Shem Tov's greatest talmidim lie buried, as in Berditchev where the famous HaRav Yitzchok Levy lies buried, as in Linitz where the Baal Shem Tov's talmid R' Gedalyohu lies buried, as in Breslov where R' Nosson, R' Nachman's talmid, lies buried.

We stopped at all of these stations to visit the fathers of Chassidus, zechusom togen oleinu. Rav Gabbai set up the ohalim at these sites and, in places where Jews often visit, he also built a guesthouse with coffee, tea, water, electricity and sanitary facilities where required. In the city of Uman, according to Mayor Yuri Ivonovitz Bodrov, "Rabbi Gabbai was the first who began to operate, and he deserves a medal of honor from our city." Rav Gabbai built a guesthouse and a mikveh, to do chesed with visitors who arrive all year round.

Rav Gabbai, when you come and set up an ohel on a gravesite, how can you be sure you haven't made a mistake?

First of all there are some places that are not in doubt. Like the town of Ostrahah, for instance, the place where the Maharsho lies. The location was known; there was no need to search. Jews never stopped visiting his grave. It was the Communists, not the Germans, who destroyed the gravestone. It's always the same: when the cities expanded, the cemeteries found themselves in the middle of the city and then the Communists simply made them into a park.

The Maharsho's Beis Knesses

A large stone gate blocks the entrance into the park. A paved walkway leads into a thick forest. Along the sides, green vegetation covers the ground. A slightly sharper glance reveals fragments of gravestones among the ferns and tree trunks. Once, a cemetery was here. Bo'u goyim benachalosecho. They plowed over, broke gravestones, planted trees. Along the paved paths one sees locals, jogging or walking. The foxes of Ostrahah roam through the ruins.

Deeper in the forest, you spot the ohel with the white and red tiles surrounded by stylized iron latticework, the trees providing a natural safe haven. Here lies the Maharsho's grave.

Inside is the original gravestone inscription. Once, a new gravestone was installed but local antisemites soon shattered it. When the site was renovated and the closed, protected ohel was built, the original inscription was carved into the stone.

A few minutes' walk away is the Maharsho's beis knesses. Plants sprout on the neglected rooftop and the outer walls shed their plaster. The red tiles that once decorated the walls have mostly dropped off, leaving plastered wounds. But the past glory is hard to hide.

The structure seems to lift up its past out of the faded ashes of the present. The fabulously decorated inner pillars are barely able to bear the weight. Even in its destruction, the remnants of its former glory are still apparent. During the period of Communist rule the site was converted into a carpentry workshop. Instead of the sound of rinoh and tefilloh, it echoed with the shrill noise of the saw. Cruel concrete pillars clash with the interior design. Special kedushoh is attributed to this beis knesses.

Once a man came to the Maharsho carrying a sack of gold coins. He wanted to dedicate them to the construction of the beis knesses on condition he had a son "like you," he told the Maharsho. The Maharsho listened and countered with a stipulation of his own. "This is possible, but when your wife becomes pregnant you will die. And when the child is born, she too will die. And your son will be raised in my home."

The man consulted with his wife and the two agreed. Both died as predicted. The boy, based on the Maharsho's orders, served as rov after him. He remained mysterious, never divulging a thing. And he never went to levayos.

This story appears in the kehilloh annals. "And I hope to raise up this beis knesses out of its ruins. Local Jews contacted the City and asked to return the beis knesses to the local Jewish community. Now the site's former appearance has to be restored."

In the course of your activities have there been surprises as well?

Certainly. HaGaon R' Chaim Palagi is buried in the town of Izmir. There were people who knew about his grave, but the information was not well known. I decided to travel there to daven at his grave, and maybe to renovate if something needed renovation.

When I arrived in the city I began to make inquiries. During this period the Turkish regime did not demonstrate openness, as it does now. Therefore the Jews were afraid to expose themselves and avoided entering the cemetery. When I arrived, I began to search and I found a local Jewish trader named Eliyahu Chovah. He did not know much; he just showed me the ancient cemetery.

I climbed over the fence and went in. Following a night search in the dark I found a huge gravestone lying on the ground. That was his grave. But just two years ago, I learned that all of the ancient graves in the old cemetery were transferred to here from the older cemetery, where the Turks built the central station.

Next week: Eliyahu Chovah helps find the grave of the Baal Haturim, in Greece.

End of Part I. Part II is expected to appear in the issue of parshas Vo'eiro.


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