Rabbi Belza

Today we will talk about the culture of the Jewish people, a people who have faced great trials. Not so long ago, at the Constituent Congress of the People’s Movement of Ukraine for Perestroika… a special resolution was adopted, which read: “The Congress of the NRU, opposing all forms of national hatred, extends its brotherly hand to the Jewish people.”

From the Editor:

The text of this publication was written in 1990, a year before Ukraine’s independence. The People’s Movement as a party at that time was the driving political force behind the pro-independence movement. With these lines, the authors of the text show that the nationalist movement is not about radicalism, but about respect for each other, historical truth, coexistence, respect for freedom and protection of private property. It is about objectivism in history. But over the past 30 years, right-wing radicalism has taken on forms that, instead of protecting human rights, recognise only the rights of the titular nation. We continue….

The resolution went on to say that “the people who have lived on Ukrainian land for many centuries, the people who have become famous for their talent and hard work…” should have every right to develop their culture and history.

Ancient Belz was famous in medieval Europe for the fact that representatives of different peoples lived and cooperated here for centuries, developing their own culture. Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, and Hungarians lived here side by side without enmity. This is natural. The city stood at the crossroads of important European trade routes.

For many centuries, bloody wars between Kyivan Rus and its neighbours were fought over the Belz: Poland, Hungary and Lithuania. In the 18th century, Jews settled in the city and gradually their community accounted for half of all Belz residents.

Belz was called the “Jewish Rome”.

Especially when Sholem ben Eliezer Rokah became the rabbi. In those days, Belz was a typical Galician town, dirty, buried, among impassable swamps and lakes. But, as you know, an important trade route connected Southwestern Russia with the Baltic States passed through the town. At one time, I managed to see a document about Tartu’s trade with Belz in Estonia, in the Tartu Museum. This led to the settlement of many energetic people in Belz. Jews were not the least among them.

Jews brought their culture and history to the Galician region, which is very interesting and instructive. Their history, like the history of other peoples, is rich in interesting parables that are closely intertwined with reality, and even today it is difficult to distinguish truth from myths. The Jewish religion, Judaism, which developed in the early first millennium BC, is also interesting in this regard.

In the 7th century BC, the cult of the one God Yahweh, who was previously the God of the tribe of Judah (hence the name Judaism), emerged, having gone through a complex path of historical development, like the religions of other nations. There were different forms of the Jewish religion and its various branches. In Belz, Judaism took on a Talmudic-Rabbinic form, and its offshoot Hasidism was especially widespread here. Hasidism (“the doctrine of virtue”) emerged in Ukraine and Poland in the 18th century.

The main thing in this theory is the belief in a tzaddik (righteous person) who has supernatural powers and can influence the surrounding nature.

The legend says that the first Belzian rabbi was Aron ben Zvi, who was called the Messiah (i.e. God’s messenger on earth). He was a pious and intelligent man who constantly observed the commandments of the Talmud (a collection of religious, ethical and legal provisions of Judaism) and demanded that other members of the Jewish community do the same. This, of course, did not please the devil, who, as in all religions of the world, does nothing but lead people astray. The devil decided to do this to Rabbi Aron. Pretending to be a woman, the devil went around the cities and held scholarly debates, which were commonplace in the Middle Ages. What was unusual was that this woman devil always won. The fame of her intelligence and scholarship reached Belz. Soon she appeared here herself. Of course, Rabbi Aron also wanted to try his hand at a scientific duel. The time came for the debate, which was attended by many people. Aron confidently took the debate into his own hands, and it seemed that his victory was near. But the devil is the devil! He asks the last question to the pious Aron, but the rabbi cannot answer. But he wants to know the answer so badly!

So the woman promises to tell him the right answer only when they are alone. When all the servants had left the room, it finally occurred to the poor rabbi. The Talmud strictly forbids being alone with a strange woman, even for a minute. It was an unforgivable sin, so great that it cost Aaron his place as rabbi of Belz and the Jewish people their eternal redemption until the coming of the Messiah.

According to the Talmud, the attitude towards women is special. A rabbi is not allowed to look at women, even his own wife. The Talmud records that a pious rabbi noticed that his wife had a wooden leg only after her death.

Aron died, constantly praying for his terrible sin, and was buried in Belz

Nowadays, Hasidic Jews from all over the world come to his grave. However, not only to Aron’s grave, but also to the graves of other rabbis who are buried here. That’s when Sholem Rokah, whose family, according to legend, descended from the legendary King David back in the 13th century, became the rabbi of Belz. Sholem was born in 1779 and at first wanted to become an ordinary handyman, like most young Jews in those distant times. But the gesheft didn’t work out, and he went bankrupt in a few months. Having good abilities, on the advice of the Lublin rabbi, he became the head of the Jewish community in Bełża. It is said that he had a very intelligent wife, Melkele, who did a lot for the popularity of the Sholem. It was she who made him study the Tolmud and Torah to perfection. Every night, so that no one could see, he would climb out of the window on a ladder that Melzhele had set up in advance, and study the Talmud all night in a secret place. And so it went on for 999 nights (except for Shabbos), but the results were excellent. No one could recite and interpret all 613 commandments of the Torah as well as Rokah. And his fame spread throughout the world.

Even before the war, there was a wooden staircase in the synagogue in Bielsk, where Rokah used to leave his home, as a sacred relic of Jewish history. The fate of this ladder is unknown today.

After some time, Rokah built a synagogue according to his own plan, which for many years became a sacred place of pilgrimage for Jews from all over the world, who came to Belz in a continuous stream. According to the belief, it is to the Belz synagogue that the Messiah is supposed to descend from heaven to save his people when “his day comes.”

What brought fame to the rabbi of Bielsk, Shalem Rokah?

First of all, the fact that he was not only a religious fanatic, but also a good psychologist and, above all, an intelligent man. Understanding the desire of people for religion, which was an obligatory attribute of everyday life in those days, he skilfully used and spread legends about the “miracles” of the reverend rabbis and his own. Indeed, in the Talmud itself. consisting of two parts: Halakhah, which contains mainly legal provisions, and Haggadah, which describes myths, legends, parables, and stories, promotes the ideas of human dependence on God, the immutability of social order, and the preaching of humility and patience. But, as one rabbi (Baal Shem) said, even if there is some untruth in the stories of those miracles, they are holy because they are repeated by the people. It is likely that Sholem Rokah was supported by the wealthy elite of the Jewish community in order to attract as many people as possible to Belz, since most of the Jews in the town were living off of newcomers: they provided them with accommodation, sold their simple wares, etc.

The fact that the rabbi of Bielsk (and his wife Melkele) were well versed in folk medicine also played an important role. By treating people with its secrets, he achieved unsurpassed authority among the population of Belz and the surrounding area. There were very few certified doctors at that time, which also played into Rokah’s hands. And it was very easy for a religious man to be treated in those days, given the piety of both the Jewish and local Ukrainian population, which the rabbi treated without fail.

And the merchants who passed through Belz spread the fame of the “miracle-working” rabbi around the world. Pilgrimages to Belz began from many European countries. Rokah’s numerous disciples, who came to him from everywhere, also made him famous. Being a supporter of Hasidism, he taught his students accordingly.
One of the biggest holidays for believing Jews is Shabbos. It is the Sabbath. On this day, believers are forbidden to do even the slightest work. Even lighting a stove is a sin. This was used by the Belzian boys, who earned small amounts of money from believing Jews on this day. On this day Jewish shops are closed, shoemakers and tailors, who lived in Zhydivska Street in great numbers, do not work. On this day, men have to go to the bathhouse (all of them), then bathe in the pond (the so-called “mikvah”). On this day, festive candles are lit in the rabbi’s house and all men take turns greeting the rabbi. The rabbi puts on his best clothes for this day: a silk robe up to the heels, and a “shtreimel” (a cap with 13 sable tails) on his head. At this time, 100 candles are lit in the synagogue, and preparations for the Shabbat rite are underway. Pilgrims from Russia, Hungary, Poland, and all over Galicia come to Belz. Gathered in the synagogue, everyone is waiting for the rabbi. Here he is, strong, tall, broad-shouldered, blind in one eye, in his late teens, walking quickly to the place of preaching (the bima). The pilgrims part before him, bowing their heads in respect. The festival begins with the reading of Psalm 107 of the Talmud, which gives thanks to God for the day. After a short speech by the rabbi, a wild shouting begins in the synagogue, everyone runs around the synagogue gesticulating, others shake their bodies and shout out the words of the psalms. But even amidst all this din, Rokah’s speech stands out. After twenty minutes, the synagogue celebration ends. In general, according to the teachings of Hasidism, every rabbi should be able to speak quickly.

“No pig will get through the fence if the fences are tight,” the Belz rabbi used to say.

This must mean that during a fast prayer, sinful thoughts cannot wedge their way into the middle of it and invalidate the prayer. Therefore, the rabbi considered it his honour to say the words of the prayer quickly (up to a thousand words in one breath!).

There is another special holiday for Jews – the holiday of Purim

The legend of this holiday is quite interesting. Once upon a time, in the capital of the Persian kingdom, Shotan, there lived Jews who were disliked by Minister Haman. He hatched a plan to exterminate the Jews in order to enrich himself with their property. Promising King Ahasuerus a certain share of the profits, Haman obtained a permit according to which no one was held responsible for the murder of Jews. However, the Jews, led by the wise Mordecai, stood up to the murderers with arms in hand and defeated them. In honour of this event, which has existed for many centuries, this holiday is the most cheerful holiday for Jews. On this day, the only day of the year when Jews are allowed to drink vodka, even to be drunk. On this day, satirical and funny performances are staged, carnival marches take place, and people give each other gifts (“minshloach manot”). The traditional food on Purim is oznei aman (ears of Aman), a triangular biscuit with poppy seeds.

In addition to meetings with the rabbi in the synagogue, it was possible to get a meeting with him personally. But it was not so easy for an ordinary labourer to get an audience. First, one had to pay the rabbi’s servant. Then he had to write a note (“kvitel”) in which he indicated his name, surname, parents’ names, and a brief summary of the request. Then the synagogue servant (shames) would give this note to the rabbi, and he would decide the time of the meeting. Many people (not only Jews) waited patiently for the meeting with the “miracle-working” rabbi, sincerely believing in the divine solution to their problem. And in those days the poor had many problems.

Another interesting episode of Jewish customs is the washing of hands before eating

A pious Jew cannot just wash his hands. There is also a whole ritual. First, you need to pour some clean water into a cup, but make sure it is not chipped. You take it in your right hand, then you have to transfer it from your right hand to your left, and then you have to pour some water onto your right hand, and then with your right hand you have to pour it onto your left hand. Rub both hands with the palms of your hands and dry them well with a towel. During this ceremony, the towel should always be on the left shoulder. It is not known where and why this custom originated, but it is certainly related to hygiene.

The Belgian rabbi Sholem Rokah lived to a ripe old age. In his old age, he became completely blind and died on 27 December 1855. He had lived for 77 years. Rokah’s admirers still visit his grave at the Jewish cemetery in Bielzno today. After him, his son Yoshva, then his grandson Isochar Dov Berch, and other relatives were rabbis in Bełża. Some of them are still living abroad today (as of 1990).

The memory of Sholem Rokah has survived the decades

Even today, Jews from all over the world come to the sacred places in Ukrainian Belz to pay tribute to their history and traditions.

No matter how much life has tossed the Jewish people around the world, how much this long-suffering people has had to endure, they have not forgotten their historical origins, their roots. Neither the storms of the First World War, nor Auschwitz and Treblinka, nor the years of Stalinism and Brezhnevism, nor anything else could destroy the Jews’ sense of devotion to their culture, religion, and history.

And already the residents of Belz quite calmly perceive their rituals on the site where the synagogue built by the “miraculous” Sholem Rokah once stood. Our people understand that this is their culture and traditions, and no one prevents them from performing Jewish rites in sacred places. I think that foreign tourists think better of us. I want this kind of tolerance for other cultures, customs, and religions to become a common norm in our common home in this difficult and turbulent time.

After all, it has long been known that no one has invented anything better for our lives than the famous Ten Commandments.

B. Pynka, history teacher at Belz school

Golos znad Bugu newspaper (1990)

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