Friday, May 11, 2007

Shabbos Behar-Bechukosai - R' Binyamin Mendelson, Who Dedicated Himself To The Observance Of Shmitah

This Shabbos, 24 Iyar, is the 28th yahrzeit of R' Binyomin ben R' Menachem Mendel Mendelson, Rov of Komemiyus. He was one of the founders of Moshav Komemiut, in Eretz Yisroel, which was one of the first moshavim to keep the laws of shmita. See here for the famous story about how their crops grew better after shmitah than the ones who didn't observe shmitah. Interestingly, his yahrzeit this year comes out on Behar-Bechukosai (he died the Monday after this parsha), where it talks about shmitah and the blessings that come through it's observance. This is testament to the deeds of this great Rov.

Also the yahrzeit of:

R' Yaakov ben R' Yaakov Moshe Lorberbaum of Lisa (his father died berore he was born, hence, the name), wrote Chaavas Daas and the Nesivos. Great-grandson of the Chacham Tzvi.

R' Eliezer Tzvi ben Yitzchak Issac Yehuda Yechiel Safrin of Komarna (1898), wrote Damesk Eliezer on Zohar

R' Chezkiah Aharon Chaim Pinkarli, Rov in Italy

R' Yitzchak Ibn Dana (1900), Rov in Fez, Morocco, wrote L'Yitzchok Reiach

R' David HaCohen Sakali (1948), wrote Kiryas Chanah Dovid


A Talmid said...

While reviewing the parsha I notice that besides the discussion of shmitah in Bechukosai 26:13 the last word of the posuk is קוֹמְמִיּוּת, the name of the moshav of R' Mendelson. No coincidence.

Anonymous said...

There is an article in this week's yated ne'eman on him. here is the email version of the bio:
Rav Binyomin Mendelsohn
Rov of Kommemius
by Avrohom Birnbaum

We read about the mitzvah of sheviis in this weeks Parsha, Parshas Behar. One of the most prominent fighters for kedushas sheviis was Rav Binyomin Mendelsohn, Rov of Kommemius, a gaon in Torah and yirah who was held in the highest esteem by the greatest gedolim of previous generations such as the Imrei Emes of Ger, the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rov.
In honor of both his yahrtzeit that falls on this Shabbos, 24 Iyar and the upcoming Shmitta year, we present highlights of his life.
The Chazon Ish wrote about him, “All of his actions are leshem shamayim.” On another occasion the Chazon Ish referred to him as a tzaddik gamur. The old Belzer Rebbe, Rav Aharon said that he is a “fartzeitisher Rov from 200 years ago.” The Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel, told the Chazon Ish that Rav Mendelsohn is proof that “even in post-Medina Eretz Yisroel it is possible to be a Rov in Eretz Yisroel the way a Rov should be.” The Brisker Rov wrote about him in a letter, “Yiras Hashem hi otzro – Yiras Hashem is his treasure trove.”
Who was this Rov, Rav Binyomin Mendelsohn who had such a profound impact on Eretz Yisroel from the time he moved there from Poland in 1933 until his passing in 1979?

A House of Torah
Rav Binyomin was born in the city of Plotzk at the end of the 19th century. His father, Rav Menachem Mendel Mendelsohn was a gaon in Torah who served as Rosh Yeshiva in the city’s yeshiva. His father was a close chossid of the Alexander Rebbe, Rav Yechiel. Rav Menachem Mendel was a tremendous masmid who almost never ceased learning. On the rare moment when he had to interrupt his learning, people close to him would notice that he was constantly murmuring the words of “Shivisi Hashem linegdi tomid – I have placed Hashem before me, always.”
Rav Binyomin Mendelsohn’s early years were spent learning from his father in Plotzk. His father not only imbued in him a lifelong love of learning and knowledge of Torah, but also infused him with a tangible yiras shamayim and quest for kedusha. Years later, Rav Binyomin wrote in a letter, “even when I was a small child, my father constantly pointed out that tahara – purity is a tremendously important thing and is instrumental in ensuring that one will understand Torah and attain yiras shamayim.”
Rav Binyomin too, became a phenomenal masmid and, years later Plotzker expatriates living in Eretz Yisroel, would recall that whenever they came to the yeshiva, the young bochur, Rav Binyomin was like part of the furniture. He was always there bent over a sefer learning. No one could even picture the yeshiva without the young Mendelsohn bochur immersed in learning. His strong hasmada and prodigious intellect showed in the fact that still as a bochur, Shas, Shulchan Aruch and even the seforim of the Noda Bi’Yehuda, the Avnei Nezer and the Chassidic seforim of Sefas Emes and Yismach Yisroel, were all on the tip of his tongue.
When he was still a bochur, he discerned the spiritual poison proposed by the Zionists as it was gaining momentum. In a letter to a friend, he writes, “At the time of the Balfour Declaration (1918), I was a bochur learning in Plotzk. I remember how certain elements tried to entice us (to become Zionists and Nationalists) and we replied, ‘If you would not have caused the Jewish Nation to transgress by following the façade of Zionism – Secular Nationalism that claims that Am Yisroel as a nation is not subservient to Torah and who reject the concept that Am Yisroel is the Am Hashem, Mashiach would have come long ago to bring us the geula sheleima.’ It was the sin of secular nationalism that has withheld our salvation.”

Avreich and Rosh Yeshiva
Not long after the end of World War I, Rav Binyomin married the daughter of Rav Aharon Moshe Chaimowitz, a Gerer Chassid and a distinguished member of the small city of Bodzanov, Poland. Rav Binyomin opened a yeshiva in Bodzanov and for some ten years until he moved to Eretz Yisroel, he served as Rosh Yeshiva. Rav Binyomin built the yeshiva into an important Torah center for that region and he hired maggidei shiur to teach at different levels. It was in Bodzanov that his abilities as a spiritual leader and marbitz Torah first came to the fore.
During his years in Bodzanov, he became bound as a chossid to the Gerer Rebbe, the Imrei Emes. Soon after his arrival in Ger, the distinguished Chassidim recognized his abilities and his greatness in Torah. He was among the few distinguished Chassidim who stood in the front row of the Rebbe’s tish so that he could hear the Rebbe’s divrei Torah and later transmit its message to the thousands of Chassidim who were too far or not equipped with the knowledge to understand the depth of meaning in the Rebbe’s words.
Indeed, during World War II, tens of thousands of pages of the Imrei Emes’ written chiddushei Torah were lost and many of the Imrei Emes’ many divrei Torah that were published decades later in Eretz Yisroel by his grandchildren, were culled from the notes of Rav Binyomin Mendelsohn who brought them with him before the war and were thus one of the few surviving copies of handwritten transcriptions of the Torah that the Rebbe recited at the tish that the Chassidim wrote for themselves.
Rav Binyomin had such a powerful spiritual bond with the Imrei Emes that even years after the Rebbe’s passing he once wrote in a letter about a certain important hashkafa issue, “The thoughts of my heart emanate from the great heart of my Rebbe, zt”l (the Imrei Emes). I am so certain that this was the way he would have approached this that I would be able to swear that this is what the Rebbe said…”
When he was still a young Rosh Yeshiva in Bodzanov, the Rebbe would periodically send him as an emissary to strengthen the then fledgling Bais Yaakov movement or the ideal of Agudas Yisroel. His deep spiritual bond with the Rebbes of Ger continued with the Rebbe’s two sons, the Beis Yisroel, zt”l and the Lev Simcha, zt”l. Even as an old man and one of the recognized Torah leaders in the generation, it was amazing to see how Rav Binyomin sat in complete humility and bittul in front of his Rebbes.

Rov of Kfar Ata
Rav Binyomin possessed a burning ahavas Eretz Yisroel and with the bracha of the Gerer Rebbe, he moved to Eretz Yisroel in 1933. Almost immediately upon his arrival he was offered the position as Rov of Kfar Ata not far from Haifa. At the time Kfar Ata boasted a significant Torah observant population that desired a Rov from the old school. Despite his relative youth, Rav Binyomin changed the entire spiritual landscape of the city. He founded education for the children, investing great effort into ensuring that they would have a true Torah chinuch and not be indoctrinated with the “avoda zara” of Zionism which was making great inroads at the time even into the Torah observant community. The shechita and all of the other religious services were complete revamped under his jurisdiction.
In addition to his public duties, his own private avodas Hashem was astounding. He would spend hours davening every day, he would learn both niglah and nistar and wrote bountiful chiddushei Torah. When he went to sleep in the wee hours of the morning, he would always recite the first four halachos of the Rambam in Hilchos yesodei Torah that represent the foundations of our emuna.
When it came to hashkafos, even in the 1930s and 1940s as a young Rov, Rav Binyomin stood out for his completely uncompromising stand against any compromise and recognition of Nationalist elements in religious matters. This was at a time when the heady Nationalistic feelings of Zionism had penetrated deeply into elements of the Charedi camp too.
When members of the political establishment tried to get the city’s Rabbinate to join the Zionist sponsored, “Vaad Leumi”, Rav Binyomin battled against it and won. When he was offered the position of Av Beis Din in a Chief Rabbinate Beis Din, a position that would have offered him a handsome salary and much time to learn Torah, he responded, “But where will that Torah that I learn end up…?”
The strong manner in which he conducted the Rabbanus in no way conflicted with his incredible humility and self-effacement. A minute after he harshly berated the owner of a bakery for not completely complying with his kosher policies he was heard quietly but painfully berating himself, “It is really my fault. If I would not commit aveiros, I would never have to rebuke another Jew. It is my aveiros that are the real underlying causes…”
Once an askan from a certain religious political party came to Kfar Ata and asked to speak in the shul on Shabbos. When Rav Binyomin realized that the askan had taken a haircut before Shabbos despite the fact that it was sefira, he notified him that he would not be permitted to speak in shul because he had transgressed a halacha specifically stated in the Shulchan Aruch. This caused an uproar in the kehilla and many tried to take the Rov to task for “embarrassing” the noted askan. Later, when Rav Binyomin related the story to the Chazon Ish, the Chazon Ish praised him for his stance and recounted a similar story wherein Rav Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor, the Kovno Rov, agreed to be mesader kiddushin. When he arrived at the chasuna, he saw that the chupa was to be held indoors, not outside as stated in the Rema. Shrugging, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon said, “I am a very good friend of the Rov of Cracow (the Rema) and I do not see any reason why I should get into a fight with him.”
The 17 years during which Rav Binyomin served as Rov in Kfar Ata were years when the kavod of Torah and rabbanus was raised in the eyes of both religious and non-religious Jews alike. He himself lived in a tiny hut with the barest necessities supporting himself from dry goods that his wife sold. He never accepted a penny from anyone despite the fact that there were community members who could have supported him with honor.

Baal Hashkafa
After the churban of six million Jews in Europe followed by the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel, a new aspect of Rav Binyomin’s multi-faceted personality came to light – that of a leading baal hashkafa.
Without fear of reprisal or loss of popularity, Rav Binyomin began to publicize articles explaining the current events according to the Torah and to foundations of emuna that he himself had heard from his own mentors. To grasp the strength of character required to behave as Rav Mendelsohn did, one must understand the times. During that period, the religious Jews and the Chareidim in particular were a small, poor, non-confidant minority that in general seemed submissive and passive in the onslaught of the massive Zionist propaganda machine that took hold of every source of power and public influence in the State.
To stand up and openly declare war against Zionism, even religious Zionism, and to try to explain the tragedy of the Holocaust according to hashkafas haTorah, was something that any sane person would have been terrified to do.
Rav Binyomin, however, possessed a fire within him; a fire of ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem; a fire that did not let him stand by when an entire generation was being indoctrinated with false hashkafos. With the tremendous encouragement of the Chazon Ish, the Brisker Rov, the Gerer Rebbe and many other luminaries, he stood at the forefront of delivering the Torah viewpoint on countless current events during that stormy period.
In an article printed in Digleinu, the mouthpiece of Tzeirei Agudas Yisroel, Rav Mendelsohn responded to the common libel of the Zionists who constantly used the Holocaust to blame the gedolei Torah and Chassidus of Europe for not encouraging their talmidim and Chassidim to join the “Zionist Dream” and move to Eretz Yisroel prior to Hitler’s rise to power.
In addition, the secular forces preyed on the vulnerability of Holocaust survivors who began to come to Eretz Yisroel after the War, convincing them that secular Zionism was the only power that would protect and save them.
At that time it was a very courageous move to write that: “1) it was primarily the Zionists who were responsible for the British White Paper that prevented Europe’s beleaguered Jews from moving to Eretz Yisroel before and during the war and that in fact, the Jewish Agency almost never gave certificates to religious Jews who wished to make aliyah. 2) The secular Zionists themselves were responsible for the Holocaust because it was they who turned so many religious Jews away from Torah observance by inculcating them with the concept that nationalism replaces religion.
“Even more, the very idea of secular Zionism was a profound sin that was the cause of not only squelching a special eis ratzon, Heavenly opportune times, but exchanging it for the bitter chevlei Mashiach that the Jewish nation sustained during the Holocaust.”
Part of what was written was, “If we would have listened to the great geonim and tzaddikim we would have merited the coming of Mashiach without the terrible chevlei Mashiach. Now, however, that we have sinned by not possessing the proper emunas chachomim and we did not properly fight against the way that the covenant between us and Hashem was forfeited, we sinned in our minds because in our minds we thought that the geula – redemption would come through Zionism. We were punished with terrible chevlei Mashiach and the delay of the geula…”
When Rav Mendelsohn submitted that article to Digleinu, its editor, Rav Moshe Sheinfeld hesitated to publicize it. He consulted with the Chazon Ish who read the entire article and said, “I am not certain if the public will be able to accept things like this…” Then the Chazon Ish added, “If you want to publicize the truth then publish the article.”

The parsha of “Yossele”
During the famed parsha of “Yossele” that gripped the entire Eretz Yisroel, Rav Binyomin was forced to defend himself in court.
The story in short was, a boy by the name of Yossele Shuchmacher was raised by his grandfather, a prominent Breslover Chassid. When the Chassid heard that his daughter and son-in-law were planning on returning to Communist Russia, he sent his grandson to live with religious people to save him from a life of G-dlessness. The episode of “religious kidnapping” cast the country into an uproar and since Yossele spent some time in Kommemius, they tried to implicate Rav Mendelsohn in the kidnapping plans.
They claimed that Rav Binyomin helped plan the kidnapping at a secret meeting on a motzaei Shabbos in Bnei Brak. Rav Binyomin had to prove in court that he was in Kommemius on that Shabbos. Indeed, on that particular motzaei Shabbos, Rav Binyomin had helped a simple Jew raise money by going with him door to door throughout Kommemius soliciting funds. The Jew, a Holocaust survivor with a terrible fear of courts and policemen, the psychological remnants of his suffering during the war, was too scared to testify. A distinguished Rov tried to convince him, saying, “If you don’t testify, you will be guilty of transgressing the possuk in the Torah that states, “if someone knows something and does not testify in court, ‘venasa Avono - it will be a great transgression.” Upon hearing this, Rav Binyomin rose, “Please do not say that,” he requested, “the State court has no relationship to a beis din. It is a secular court and that possuk surely does not apply to such a court. We are on! ly asking this man to do us a favor.” In the end the man could not bring himself to testify.
Rav Binyomin, when he parted from the man, told him, “Please, the fact that you didn’t testify should not prevent you from coming again next year so I can take you collecting once again.”
In the end, the Israeli court gave some of the tzedaka receipts collected that Motzai Shabbos which Rav Binyomin had to handwriting experts to prove it was Rav Binyomin’s handwriting. The experts requested that Rav Binyomin write something from which they could compare the handwriting. He proceeded to write the 13 Ani maamins. He explained that “perhaps, when the handwriting expert will check this, he might actually think about what the words that he is reading and it will arouse emuna inside of him…”

Rov of Kommemius
In 1951, Rav Binyomin complained to the owner of a large food store in Kfar Ata about his breach in kedushas Shabbos. Until then, the Rov’s word was law. That owner, however, openly disregarded the Rov’s words and brazenly responded to Rav Binyomin that, “From now on you can’t push your religion on us. We now have our own medina.”
When Rav Binyomin heard this, he decided to leave Kfar Ata and its well developed kehilla of 20,000 families and accepted the offer to become the Rov of a small, religious settlement in the Negev called Kommemius. Kommemius then was such a primitive settlement that it not even possess plumbing or running water.
For the next 27 years in Kommemius, Rav Binyomin actualized and manifested all of the hashkafos that he had so fervently preached until then about living a life in Eretz Yisroel completely according to the Torah. In Kommemius, where all of the residents were religious, Rav Mendelsohn was able to preside over a settlement that embodied the imperative to live a life of Yiddishkeit on the holy soil of Eretz Yisroel with no compromise in halacha and hashkafa.
One of the most defining aspects of his rabbanus in Kommemius was the fact that all of the mitzvos hateluyos ba’aretz – land based mitzvos, were kept with great alacrity. Shemitta was adhered to according to the opinion of the Chazon Ish with no reliance on the heter mechira that was almost unanimously accepted in those years. Rav Binyomin felt that keeping Shemitta was a key to bringing about the geula. He was moser nefesh for Shmitta observance, not only in Kommemius, but in other places as well. In a letter to a distinguished Rosh Yeshiva, asking him to raise funds to help farmers keep Shemitta, Rav Binyomin writes, “Imagine how much time you would be willing to spend in order to answer a very difficult Rambam in the laws of sheviis. You yourself, however, know that encouraging the observance of Shemitta is the most important answer to the Rambam in hilchos sheviis!”
A resident who grew up in Kommemius related that as long as he lives he will never forget the pure joy and happiness on the face of Rav Binyomin as night fell on Rosh Hashana of a Shemitta year. “It looked as if he was a person who had finally reached his life’s goal. The entire Shemitta year was to him like a long yom tov…”
Indeed, life in Kommemius under Rav Binyomin was one long manifestation of emuna. When the members went out to work the fields, it was done with an emuna, with a dikduk bimitzvos that infused their daily farming, transforming it into an avodas hakodesh.
A story illustrating Rav Binyomin’s view of the role of Kommemius this took place when one day, the owner of the bakery in Kommemius came to Rav Binyomin and told him that he would be closing down the bakery because he was operating at a loss. Rav Binyomin begged him to continue operating for another few months because all of the surrounding settlements also purchased their bread from him and if he would close, who knows if they would get kosher bread. The man listened. Three months later he returned to Rav Binyomin saying that his debts are continuously increasing. Rav Binyomin replied, “Please, just another three months. At least for three more months Jews will eat completely kosher bread.” When Rav Binyomin saw that the baker could not be convinced, he decided to make his greatest personal sacrifice. “There are ten chiddushim in a certain sugya that are the best chiddushim I have ever been mechadesh in my life. I will give you the sechar in Olam Habaa for them if you will! just keep your bakery open for three more months.”

Shmitta Miracles
During his time in Kommemius, Rav Binyomin witnessed many miracles with regard to keeping Shemitta. He was asked to write them down and he did. The following is a transcription of some of the stories that he wrote:
“At the close of the Shmitta year of 5712 (1951-1952), we were left without any wheat to plant, for we would not use any wheat grown during Shmitta. With great difficulty we procured leftover wheat from the sixth year from a nearby Kibbutz. This wheat was in terrible condition, cracked and full of worms. Reb Yechiel, the amazing head of planting in Kommemius asked me what to do? I replied, “If there is no other wheat that is halachically valid, “have faith in He who sustains the world and plant.” (Yerushalmi Shabbos, 30 Tosafos) and may Hashem help something grow from this hopelessly rotten wheat.” All who saw what we were doing laughed at us, warning that by planting this wheat we would suffer losses of over 20,000 liros. Reb Yechiel, however, in his complete faith, followed my instructions. In that year, it did not rain in the beginning of the winter. All those who ploughed at the end of Shviis and planted at the beginning of the eighth year suffered the spoilage o! f their crop due to the dry earth. We, however, did not plough at the end of the summer of Shmitta, nor on Chol Hamoed Sukkos of the eighth year, rather our plowing extended well into the winter months and our seeding took until the end of the winter. As soon as the winter months ended, it began to rain incessantly. We were privileged to harvest a bumper crop that year. The rotten, wormy wheat that we had planted yielded the most luscious stalks of wheat. We were the only settlement in the area that had any yield on the crops. This was a clear sign that Hashem sends his bracha to Shomrei Shviis.”

“After I related the following story to the Brisker Rav he told me that it is a mitzva to publicize it so that all should see the special divine providence that we witnessed in Kommemius in the Shmitta year of 5719 (1958-1959):
During the year prior to Shmitta we had planted produce. Many of those fields had yielded produce that would be harvested and fed to the animals during the Shmitta year. This was in accordance with the halachic decision of the Ramban that permits feeding animals produce planted before Shmitta and harvested on Shmitta. One Friday morning, the members of our settlement came running to me in a state of extreme agitation saying, “A swarm of locust has struck the neighboring settlements, wreaking havoc and completely destroying most of their crops. It is now heading to Kommemius.” I told them, “Let us go out and observe how Hashem saves those who keep Shmitta!” We went out and watched as the entire swarm headed towards Kommemius. As soon as the swarm reached our borders, it swerved and the locusts flew away as quickly as they had come. Hashem had again shown that He protects those who abide by his commandments.”
Rav Binyomin merited to be a close confidant and trusted emissary of the Torah giants of Eretz Yisroel from across the entire spectrum of Torah Jewry. His letters, masterpieces of hashkafa and emuna were published posthumously in the sefer Igros HaGrab.
Perhaps it is fitting to end these short remembrances of Rav Binyomin with the story of how he would visit the Kosel on Chol Hamoed with his entire kehilla of Kommemius. As they would come close to the holy Kosel, he turned to them and said, “My Dear brothers! Now is not the time to daven for nachas from children, parnassa or health or any other aspect of Olam Hazeh or even personal spiritual matters. At this time we must have only one request in our hearts: Avinu Malkeinu, please reveal the glory of your Kingship upon us and let the whole world see the glory of Hashem!”