Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

2 Tammuz 5766 - June 28, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Genizah in Eretz Yisroel

by Betzalel Kahn

Everyone in Israel is familiar with the big blue containers found near the main botei knesses of chareidi neighborhoods around the country. They are filled with bags of papers in need of genizah (or "sheimos") along with a smaller compartment for tefillin boxes and tefillin and mezuzoh parchments.

Sometimes boys can be seen climbing on top of the containers trying to recover various "treasures," including twelve-year- olds hoping to find a pair of discarded tefillin to practice with. (Note: This practice is considered unbecoming for a mitzvah article, even if the tefillin are no longer in use.)

The fact that very little of real interest is waiting to be found in genizah piles does not prevent certain people from looking.

In one amusing incident, a Jew made his way into a huge container among other containers in the yard of the Shamgar Funeral Home, where all of the bags of genizah are amassed before the Jerusalem Municipality transports them to a special site for burial. When a truck arrived to collect the large containers the driver was startled to see someone on one of the containers sitting on the truck bed, motioning for him to stop the truck.

The unexpected passenger had been so engrossed in his search through the discarded leaflets and worn books that he simply didn't hear the truck pulling up or notice when his little reading room was hoisted on board. The incident ended with a smile between the two and the hapless reader realized that he should either exercise more caution or stop rummaging through the genizah.

Vaad Hagenizoh Haartzi says not only is there nothing to be found in the piles of genizah but the mere act of searching through the bags makes it harder to gather them before hauling them away for burial.

Several months ago some people came to the Shamgar yard and took numerous bags out of the large containers. What they were looking for remains unclear, but they tossed the contents of the bags over the fence into a large field. This took place during the winter and the genizah workers had to scramble around for hours to gather together all the papers that had been blown far and wide by the wind.

Addicted to Searches

The Vaad staff also tells the story of a distinguished Jew living in one of the main chareidi centers in Eretz Yisroel, who developed an interest in antique books and started to look for them in genizah piles. He didn't find anything worthwhile because people who want to get antique books of importance out of their home pass them on to established libraries or sell them to Judaica dealers. But this individual became addicted to searching and began to extract old leaflets and newspaper clippings from the genizah containers.

At first he would conduct his searches at night to avoid being seen, but gradually it turned into a regular daytime activity as well. Over time his home filled with piles and piles of aging periodicals until finally his family turned to Vaad Hagenizoh to help him recover from his senseless addiction.

In general, when an elderly relative passes away, genizah workers are often called in to collect any items that require genizah. They leave items of value in the home and the heirs give or sell them to knowledgeable antique dealers or collectors.

One of the more unusual incidents was the case of a certain kehilloh in chutz la'Aretz that asked for old tallisos and tefillin destined for genizah. What possible use could there be for worn tallisos and sets of tefillin that are no longer kosher?

As it turned out this kehiloh was involved in absorbing Russian Jews and received funding for every immigrant they took in. The tefillin and tallisos were used to prove the kehilloh was constantly growing. The Vaad denied their request.

Sometimes the treasure-hunter comes to an antiques dealer with a "rare find" they uncovered in a genizah container somewhere. He presents his rare book, never published in Israel, only to hear the book is neither antique nor rare.

One Judaica dealer in Jerusalem says that a few years ago some Arabs from East Jerusalem came to him saying they had a thousand-year-old sefer Torah. When he asked to see it the Arabs arrived with a segment of parchment from an old sefer Torah. "I had no use for it," recalls the dealer, "but I redeemed it with money, to prevent it from being treated with disrespect. A week later they showed up with another section of parchment. I began to look into the matter and found out the Arabs were going to places on the Mount of Olives where old sifrei Torah had been buried, cutting out sections of parchment and offering them for sale. I asked them to stop, explaining this was a disgrace to writings sacred to the Jewish people and they stopped coming to me. I hope they also stopped digging and taking out seforim."

The Old Books That Led to Recovered Jewish Souls

One story involving old manuscripts and sifrei kodesh in a country in the Caucasus was particularly unusual. The discovery of the manuscripts and sifrei kodesh eventually led to a major teshuvoh movement in the Jewish community, the opening of Jewish schools and flourishing Jewish life. One girl from the community did teshuvoh, married a talmid chochom and started a fabulous family and kehilloh.

Over a decade ago, a group of Caucasus Jews visiting the Israel Museum in Jerusalem presented samples of old manuscripts and sifrei kodesh. They told the museum staff that the samples were taken from items in the rov's house in Yekaterinova, their hometown before moving to Eretz Yisroel. The rov Hy"d was killed in 5701 (1941) by the Russians and in his attic, they claimed, were hundreds of old manuscripts and sifrei kodesh. The museum workers referred them to one of Jerusalem's leading Judaica researchers and dealers.

"When I saw the old manuscripts and sifrei kodesh I got very excited," the chareidi Judaica scholar told Yated Ne'eman. He had no inkling what kind of adventure lay in store for him. "I felt a need to visit the place of origin of these Caucasus Jews, especially after they told me that during the time of Stalin, yemach shemo, the Jews of the town continued to keep the beis knesses open morning and evening, despite the risk."

He took out a world atlas to find the precise location of the town of Yekaterinova in Southern Russia. Travel agents informed him there was only one flight a week arriving in the remote region.

A war was raging between Armenia and Azerbaijan during this period. When the Judaica dealer landed, members of the kehilloh were waiting for him at the airport to take him to the rov's attic.

The traveler was taken aback by what he saw. The roads seemed to be taken out of the distant past and the cars negotiating them were more scrap metal than automobile. The kehilloh members honored "the rov from Yerushalayim" by wearing yarmulkes and hundreds of children were on hand to receive him. These Jews had no real awareness of the concept of Eretz Yisroel. For them Jerusalem symbolized the center of Jewish life.

The hosts took the revered guest to the attic only after nightfall, for the local Jews were wary of being seen by their Muslim neighbors. There he discovered a large book collection, including early manuscripts, some of which were very rare or unknown. The treasure trove was transported to Israel where it joined other rare, antique items discovered around the world.

The Wine Bottle That Broke

"When I came back to Israel I called Agudas Yisroel's Vaad Lehatzolaa Nidchei Yisroel," recalls the Judaica dealer. "I told them about the Jewish discovery there and I was invited to a special conference on the matter, being held in the US. They reached a decision to adopt all of these places in Southern Russia and I traveled to these remote locations many times. Since then, boys' schools and girls' schools have been started along with yeshivas and other Torah-based institutions; hundreds of chareidi families have emerged in Russia, Israel and the US following that one visit."

Since flights to the area were available only once a week he always had to spend a Shabbos there. He made sure to arrive with kosher food and wine — yayin mevushol in plastic bottles to ensure they would not break and to lighten the load on the plane.

At the time there was not a single family that kept Shabbos properly. Over the years many of them did teshuvoh and some of them became rabbonim in their hometowns. All of these returnees to Yiddishkeit were the outcome of that one journey in search of old manuscripts.

"On one of the trips, on an Erev Shabbos, I took out the bottle of wine to put it on the table and get a bit of the Shabbos feeling. I was surprised to find my family had sent the wine in a glass bottle. Placing it carefully on the table I began getting ready for Shabbos. Suddenly the bottle fell off the table, broke and spilled on the floor. The distress I felt at the prospects of Shabbos without Kiddush was beyond description."

Then he recalled on the way to the hotel where he was staying (designated for foreign guests the hotel was under heavy security because of the war taking place) he had seen a local fruit peddler selling grapes at a very high price. "An hour before Shabbos I set out for the marketplace. I asked HaKodosh Boruch Hu to help me find the grave seller and indeed I spotted him. He had another 4 or 5 kilograms [about 10 lbs.] of grapes that he was glad to sell me. I paid a few dollars for them."

As the peddler was busy weighing the grapes he spotted a group of boys called to him. The visitor from Jerusalem ignored them to avoid drawing the young Muslims' attention. "Then a young woman stepped out of the group and said to me in Hebrew, `Sholom Kevod HaRav.'

"I thought one of them had learned some Hebrew and was trying to provoke me. I didn't respond. The group drew nearer and together all of them said, `Sholom.' I decided to answer them to avoid a bigger provocation. Then that Hebrew- speaking girl stepped up to me and said, `Kevod Horav, I'm from Jerusalem.'

"`You're from Jerusalem?' I asked. `What are you doing in a place like this?' She replied that she was Jewish, that she had returned to her birthplace to find a husband. I was appalled to hear a Jewish girl had moved to Eretz Yisroel and returned to this remote place to marry, invariably with a Muslim. But the clock was racing and the sunset was drawing near. I told the girl I had to run to the hotel and that she was invited to come to speak with me in the lobby of the hotel the next day."

A minute later he had forgotten all about the encounter. He went to the hotel, squeezed the grapes, strained the juice with a shirt and came out with just enough wine for Kiddush on Shabbos Night, Kiddusha Rabba and Havdoloh. Happy to have grape juice for Shabbos after all that had transpired, the incident at the marketplace drifted far from his thoughts.

"The next afternoon, on Shabbos Kodesh, the phone in my room rang. I didn't answer, of course, and then the guard came to tell me a girl was waiting for me at the entrance. I told the guard to let her in and I went down to the lobby."

For nearly five hours the traveler from Jerusalem conducted a conversation with the Jewish girl, who recounted how she had left her hometown of Yekaterinova in Southern Russia two years earlier, moved to Eretz Yisroel with her family, held a few jobs, but the lack of derech eretz among Israeli youth was not to her liking so she decided to return to her hometown in the Caucasus, where she claimed the young people had better derech eretz. She did not draw a distinction between Jews and non-Jews, since the Jews lived among the non-Jews. He spent several hours telling her about Yiddishkeit, starting with Creation, through Yetzias Mitzrayim, Matan Torah, Beis Hamikdosh and the entire chronicle of the formation and survival of the Jewish people.

The talk had a strong impression on the girl, who was very far from keeping mitzvah or anything Jewish. She asked for his business card to contact him later. It was apparent she wanted to hear more. "I told her since there was no eruv she could not carry even a business card on Shabbos. My reply led to another hour of explanations on the melochos of Shabbos. Then I told her that since I had a flight back to Jerusalem on Motzei Shabbos and at night she couldn't come to take the card from the hotel because of the curfew, I would leave it waiting for her in a designated spot and the next day she could come take it."

The man returned to Jerusalem and again forgot about the matter. Six months later the phone rang. The girl told him their long talk about Judaism had had a powerful impression on her. She had spent a whole week thinking about what she had heard. "She was well aware she was Jewish and belonged to the Chosen People and was very different from non-Jews. First she made a decision not to marry a Muslim. Her second decision was to leave the Caucasus and jump back into the furnace.

She moved to Eretz Yisroel again and searched for the truth on her own. She found herself in all sorts of "kabbalah" courses in Tel Aviv. At a certain stage she called me to tell me she was in Eretz Yisroel and to hear my opinion on these courses. Eventually she went to HaRav Brook at Netivot Olam in Bnei Brak and began studying Judaism intensively. The housemother took the girl under her wing. After a year and a half of serious study she had become a Torah-observant Jew in every sense."

Books in the Wall

When a proposal was made for her to meet a certain yeshiva bochur, a real talmid chochom from the Caucasus, before they even met she asked the man who first introduced her to Yiddishkeit to see what the prospective shidduch was made of. "I met with him and spoke with him for a while about his learning and various other matters. In the middle of our conversation I left the room to make myself a cup of tea and when I came back I found the young man had delved into a pocket gemora. He apologized, explaining he didn't want to lose a moment of time he could use for learning."

The two married and started a wonderful family. The young avreich was asked to serve as a rov of a large kehilloh in the Upper Galilee made up of immigrants from countries bordering Russia and Iran. Thousands of observant Jews from those remote towns and villages now benefit from his teachings.

"That's what happens when one looks for antique books people hid in the attic during the Stalin Era. While searching for books one finds Hashem's Kingdom and souls dear to the world of Judaism. A bottle of wine broke in order to uncover a treasure of unknown Jewish souls who returned to the `foundry,'" says the Judaica researcher from Jerusalem.

This fascinating story brings us back to the start: Where did the Jews hide the ancient books and rare manuscripts? In that town of Yekaterinova was a family that found ancient Jewish books inside the wall of their home, hidden away during the Communist Era. The wall was crumbling to pieces and inside an entire collection of ancient sifrei kodesh was uncovered. Afraid the books would be found and identified they tore out the title pages with the name of the author and the publishing information, which makes it difficult to obtain details on these books.

During one of his visits to these villages in the Caucasus the local Jews decided to give "the rabbi from Jerusalem" an unusual present: An old, small sefer Torah with clear, attractive and interesting writing. He refused to take the sefer Torah to make it available for use in those remote locations. But they insisted and the sefer Torah arrived in Eretz Yisroel. The sefer Torah is written in Vellish script, which according to the Mishnoh Bruroh should not be read from. It was given to a major beis knesses and is only used on Simchas Torah when all the sifrei Torah are removed from the aron kodesh for the hakofos.


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