The 67 Jews massacred by the Arabs in Hebron in the pogroms of 1929 included a number of Yeshivah students from the Slabodka Yeshivah, which a few years earlier had moved from Eastern Europe to Hebron. The thought of these Yeshivah students so brutally murdered would always strike a chord of pain in a Jew’s heart. It was therefore no wonder that after the liberation of Hebron, the Israeli Government found it difficult to object to the opening of a Yeshivah in Hebron.
But such a settlement was to be limited to a Yeshivah. Everyone among the settlers had to be part of the Yeshivah. A Yeshivah is not limited to students. There are the Rabbis, the secretaries, the clerks, the kitchen staff, etc. They also might have wives and children and this would require baby-sitters, child-minders, kindergarten and teaching staff - the more titles one could find the better it was for us! Officially everyone had to fit in with one of these categories. There were a few exceptions. One man travelled each day to work in the post office in Jerusalem. Whether no-one outside caught onto this, or they just turned a blind eye, I don’t know.
To keep a control of who was living in the Memshal, the Government ruled that to remain over 48 hours in the liberated areas required a written permit signed by the Military Governor. On one of my early visits, I realised I would have to be in the Memshal for 50 hours and I was worried during these final two hours that the military authorities might eject me, or worse still! Nothing happened. When I came to remain in the Memshal and applied for this permit, it was months before they even sent it to me. No-one during this waiting period, and in fact during my three years in the Memshal, ever asked to see it. Since “officially” permits were limited to Yeshivah students, the Government had to provide a room for a Bet Hamedrash - a Study Hall - for them.
The Bet Hamedrash was not at first in the settlers’ wing, but in the soldiers’ part of the building. It consisted of a longish rectangular room. On the other side of the wall opposite the entrance door was a passage and in this passage we put a bookcase. This bookcase was the property of one of the settlers, possibly Rabbi Levinger. It consisted of a number of long metal poles and between these poles were placed bookshelves. The books on these shelves were the property of Rabbi Levinger, who was very generous in loaning his private things for the use of the settlers.
The constant taking out and returning of books to this bookcase must have somehow loosened it because one day when I went to take out a book, the entire book case collapsed and all the books spilt out. Fortunately I was standing at the side since the collapse of maybe hundreds of books, and some of them very heavy would, to say the least, not have been a pleasant experience!
In some Yeshivot the students use lecterns for their books and in others tables. We were of the latter type.
Our first Aron Hakodesh was simple cupboard-like and it stood on a table. The Ark curtain was donated by the Bagad family of Nechalim and on the top strip was appropriately embroidered the phrase from Yirmiyahu, “And your children should return to their own borders.”
One of the Sifrei Torah had been in Hebron at the time of the 1929 pogrom and it had been looked after at the Bnei Akiva Yeshiva in Nechalim. There was another Sefer Torah which Rabbi Levinger’s brother Meir had brought. It had an interesting history. It was about four hundred years old and during World War II had been hidden from the Nazis by being sewn in an oil skin and being put in the River Rhein. At the place where it was rolled to when it was put in the river, a little water had leaked in and one could see signs of this. The most interesting thing about it was, that it had been written according to the Rambam. In practical terms this meant there were “curls” on certain letters, there were minor changes in the paragraphing, and the two inverted “nuns” in Parashat Bahalotcha were in slightly different places. Meir Levinger had had these differences changed to make it like our conventional Sifrei Torah. He told me that afterwards he was sorry he had done this and felt it would have been better to have put this Sefer Torah in a museum.
The women wanted to come for services on Shabbat but there was no ezrat nashim in this Bet Hamedrash. We therefore, before every Shabbat set up a curtained “room” in the covered passage way in front of the Bet Hamedrash. When however the winter arrived, it was cold in this area and a different solution had to be found for the women. An ideal solution would have been the passage on the far side of the Bet Hamedrash but there was no entry to it except by walking right through the Bet Hamedrash. So that solution was out. The only solution we found was to move the services for Shabbat to the dining room for the men, whilst the women sat in the kitchen, which was joined to the dining room by a hatch.
Needless to say, we had services three times every day. There were however rare occasions when we did not get a Minyan. Maybe the alarm clocks failed to ring, maybe the men were out of town, or maybe a variety of other reasons, valid or otherwise! One of these occasions occurred on a Monday (or Thursday) morning and so we could therefore not read from the Torah. At Minchah that day there was a Minyan and after the service we had the Reading of the Torah. Rabbi Levinger was quite rightly angry that there had not been a Minyan that morning and said that if he had the power, he would have stopped us reading the Torah that afternoon.
Friday afternoon at the commencement of Shabbat, is always a problem to get a minyan for Minchah on time. Everyone is busy rushing like mad to get their last minute preparations for Shabbat completed. Avraham Nachum, one of the settlers who came towards the end of the period of the Memshal, till this day continually reminds me how I would go around the Memshal just before Minchah on Fridays calling out “Minchah Minchah!”
About the beginning of 1969, the Government began to refurbish for us a “more luxurious” Bet Hamedrash. There were some unused “rooms” in our part of the Memshal - I believe they were originally stables. These rooms were converted into a Bet Hamedrash comprising two rooms connected to each other via several large arches. They said that one of them is for us to learn in and the other to pray in. It would seem that the people who designed them knew very little about study in Yeshivot - one prays in the same room as one learns in! However such a division was very useful. We put up curtains which could be drawn over these arches and on Shabbat, one of the rooms became the ezrat nashim.
At first we continued using the Ark which we had used in the previous Bet Hamedrash. Later, someone donated us a beautiful Ark. It was made in Eddy’s carpentry shop. The donor also gave us a curtain to hang in front of this Ark.
Some time afterwards, another donor also gave a curtain to hang in front of the Ark. When we hung this curtain in place of the original one, someone commented that the donor of the Ark would not like to see someone else’s curtain there. To this someone else retorted that all curtains periodically need cleaning and thus whilst one of them was being cleaned, one would have to have to hang up another one! I think the problem was solved by utilising the second curtain as a cover for the table used for Reading the Torah. This Ark curtain was, as is usual, suspended on a rod. On one occasion this rod came crashing down on my head. Fortunately I must have a thick skull and I thus came to no harm.
In front of the Reader’s lectern was a holder with two light bulbs, simple but still quite attractive. Hanging on the west wall of the Bet Hamedrash were two framed quotations from the writings of Rabbi Avraham Kook. These were originally hung in the previous Bet Hamedrash and they are today in the Bet Hamedrash of the Kiryat Arba Yeshivah.
It was probably around Yom Ha’atzmaut, that somebody hung up a picture of Theodor Herzl on the south wall of the Memshal Bet Hamedrash. This caused a bit of a rumpus, with Rabbi Levinger amongst those who favoured the hanging up of this picture. One of the students brought a responsa from “Divrei Malkiel,” the Rabbi of Lomza on this exact question. It was in a Synagogue in England that a person hung up a picture of Herzl. The Rabbi removed this picture and this caused some unpleasantness in the Community. He then submitted this question to the Rabbi of Lomza, who came out in full support of this Rabbi in England. As I remember, this picture of Herzl did not remain for a long period on the wall of the Bet Hamedrash.
Although the learning of Torah should give spiritual warmth to the body, in the Hebron winters one also needs physical warmth. To give us this latter warmth, we had an oil boiler installed in the Yeshivah and to operate it, had oil pumped up to the roof.
In addition to warmth, a Yeshivah needs books. The original books in the Bet Hamedrash were loaned mainly by Rabbi Levinger. We decided to build up our own Yeshivah library. Outside donors were very generous and would present us with sets of books or money to buy them with. One such donor gave us several thousand lirot to buy books in memory of a number of his relatives who had died, some of whom in concentration camps. He even had a rubber stamp made containing all their names and other details, in order to stamp all the books we bought with his donation. This rubber stamp was very large - in fact larger than any ink pad we could find! We therefore faced the problem of how to use it. I finally found a method by inking it in parts and then stamping in the books. A short while before I came to the Memshal, my father’s twin brother died and I donated to this library a seven volume set of “Aruch Hashulchan” in his memory.
Sometimes donors sent books that were “unsuitable” for a Yeshivah library. Some people then said that we should keep these books for when a general library is opened in our settlement, to which others commented that this was “worse still!”
In addition to all the donations for books, the Yeshivah set aside each month a certain amount of money to purchase further books and I was entrusted with the task of going to a Hebrew bookseller to purchase the month’s quota. Rabbi Levinger kept stressing to me to buy books of the Rishonim before those of the Acharonim. One of the sets of books I bought was “Otzar Hageonim” and some time later it was remarked that it was good that we had bought it then, since it later become almost unobtainable.
From where did I purchase these books? Soon after the liberation of Jerusalem, Ben-Arza opened a Hebrew book shop in the “Moslem Quarter” of the Old City of Jerusalem. This was the first Jewish enterprise to open in the Old City after its liberation and it was therefore most important to ensure that it was successful. I thus main a point of going to this shop to purchase the books for the Yeshivah library (and I might add also my own books). Due to its large overheads, this shop could not sell books as cheaply as Hebrew booksellers operating from their own houses and I would regularly come under criticism for not going to the cheapest bookseller. However, I stuck to my guns and said it was more important to support another pioneer. Even though it was Jerusalem, Ben Arza was surrounded on all sides all day long by Arabs and we were therefore morally obliged to give him all the support possible.
In addition to the receiving of books by outside donors, we were also presented with a nice looking large bookcase. This bookcase had glass doors which slid along - in theory at least. In practice, however, these doors would jam and so finally we removed the glass and stood it on top of the bookcase.
One Israeli daily newspaper presented us with a one shelf bookcase with glass frontage filled with several sets of books. After it had been in the Yeshivah for several weeks, there was a discussion whether we should arrange these sets in the appropriate places in our library or keep them in this bookcase. We finally followed the first alternative and we reserved this bookcase to display new acquisitions to the library. This enabled the Yeshivah students to know which new books had just arrived in our library.
Elsewhere I mention a group of foreign students who in the summer of 1969 came to study in the Yeshivah. One of them - possibly he was swinging on his chair - crashed and smashed the glass of this bookcase. We discussed whether we should charge him for its replacement. We asked Rabbi Levinger who commented that he might not be able to afford it. Really it was no serious loss and I don’t recollect it ever being replaced.
Sometimes Yeshivah students from elsewhere would come and spend a few days learning in our Yeshivah. Once, a couple of students who were from the family of the Chazon Ish came. When they left, they recommended that we should learn from his works.
Sometimes soldiers who were in “miluim” in the Memshal would come into the Bet Hamedrash. On one occasion we were learning about stretching out the “daled” of echad in the shema and we could not understand how it was physically possible to do this. One of these soldiers present explained that if one pronounced the daled in echad as the Taimonim do, it could easily be stretched out. Rabbi Levinger replied to him, that were he only in Miluim just to give us this explanation, it was worth his while.
Some of our students at the Yeshivah were married and others were still single. Rabbi Levinger acted as the Rosh Hayeshivah but I only discovered about twenty years later, that in fact it was Rabbi Waldman who was officially registered in this position. In an arrangement made with Ben-Gurion in 1948, full-time Yeshivah students were given a deferment from the army. When our Yeshivah applied to get this deferment for its students, they were informed that this arrangement would not apply to new Yeshivot.
This came as a complete bombshell to us and we had discussions amongst ourselves to find a solution. Could we for example register as a branch of another Yeshivah? I was putting forward a suggestion in the Bet Hamedrash one day, when Rabbi Levinger retorts to me that I should get on with my learning and leave this problem to him. Personally this problem did not affect me since, at the time, I did not have Israeli citizenship. One student quickly went to register for the army and he was then immediately sorry that he had done so. I suggested to him that he go a lawyer to see if anything could be done about it, but he didn’t. However, for various reasons, this problem did not have a major effect on our Yeshivah.
I remember what one of our married students Menachem Felix told us what he had done about his army service before he came to Hebron. He went to the Army Recruitment Office and told them he was a Yeshivah student, which of course he was. He told them that he wanted them to arrange for him to receive the shortest possible period for compulsory service. If they didn’t, he would exercise his right as a Yeshivah student for a deferment. They granted his request!
Almost all students choose a particular Yeshivah, because they like the particular curriculum and style of learning of the Yeshivah of their choice. We were basically of a different character; students came to the Yeshivah in Hebron because they wanted to re-establish Jewish presence in the City of the Patriarchs. Thus our learning programme was more flexible.
I, myself, liked learning Masechtot mainly from the Seder Moed, since from these Masechtot one derived day to day Halachot. During the three years I was in Hebron, I learnt the following Masechtot: Megillah, Moed Katan, Sukkah and about half of Berachot. As I finished each Masechet I would give a Siyum in front of the whole Yeshivah.
Examination of students in any Yeshivah (except for “Semichah”) was almost unheard of. However, on one occasion, Rabbi Levinger said that he wanted to test the Yeshivah students on what they had learned. I was at the time just beginning Moed Katan, and I recollect him asking me some questions on this Masechet. But this was just a one time occurrence - there were no further examinations
One of the students in the Yeshivah was Meir Peretz. His family came from Morocco and many of them were Rabbis and Torah scholars. We decided to learn together Yoreh Deah for “Semichah.” Meir’s brother studied under Rabbi Nissim David Ezran who was Rosh Yeshivah in the “Bet Shmuel” Yeshivah in Jerusalem and also a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council. After we had studied together for many months, Meir’s brother arranged for us to be examined by this Rabbi. Meir and I had hoped that the examination wouldn’t take place for at least several weeks, but the Rabbi fixed the examination for just a day or two later. We thus had to spend the intervening hours “cramming” as much as one could in that time!
We travelled to Jerusalem and Rabbi Ezran examined us orally for several hours with very searching questions. He did not finish the examination that day and so he told us to return a week later. This we did and after some more grueling hours said we had satisfied him with our knowledge and that we should come to his house the next morning and he would write out our certificates.
It was on 4 Adar 5731 (1971), that we went to his house. On my certificate he wrote about my deep understanding of the material and my great fluency in all the laws. He then bestowed on me the degree of “Yoreh - Yoreh” which in practice means that one can then call oneself “Rabbi.” He then signed the document and added his official stamp.
Photocopying of documents was not widespread in those days and people were therefore not photocopying conscious. However, having studied in University, I realised the importance of such photocopying. Thus immediately we left his house, I said to Meir that the thing to do was to find a shop which photocopies documents and there we made several photocopies of our certificates.
In is customary that when one received such a certificate one takes it to other leading Rabbis who know the Rabbi who gave the certificate, and ask if they would add their signature it. Thus as soon as we had had it photocopied, we went to Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu. At that time he had just been appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Israel (and later he became Chief Rabbi of Israel). He added his agreement to the document, but told us he had not yet received his new official stamp and would have to use his previous one - that of him being a Judge on the Jerusalem District Rabbinical Court. A few days later Rabbi Nissan Zacks, who was a Maggid Shiur in our Yeshivah and also the Rabbi of Rehavia and Sha’arei Chesed in Jerusalem added his agreement. Naturally, this completed document was as soon as possible photocopied.
The document was entirely handwritten. In some ways this is a plus, since it adds to its authenticity. On the other hand, a degree certificate is often beautifully calligraphed. Someone had shown me how their Semichah certificate had been written on parchment by a sofer stam and I decided that I would like the same. I was given the name of a Taimani sofer in Jerusalem and I went to his house. At the time he was seated in his attic writing, I believe, a Sefer Torah. He told me that he did not have the time to write out my certificate and he gave me the name of another sofer. I went to the latter’s apartment, he looked at my document and quoted a price. I felt his quotation was far too high and so I did not take him up on it. Thus the only edition of my certificate is the handwritten one.
A number of the students at our Yeshivah were products of the Mercaz Harav Yeshivah in Jerusalem. One of their Maggidei Shiur, Rabbi Zvi Tau would come down to Hebron each week to give a Shiur. I did not attend these Shiurim. Rabbi Waldman, who was a very devoted student of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, would spend a lot of time studying the works of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook.
At one period Rabbi Shlomo Binyamin Ashlag would come down from Bney Brak and gave Shiurim on Zohar and Kabbalah. Rabbi Ashlag was son of the Sulam who wrote the very famous commentary on the Zohar. Whilst he was in Hebron there was a ceremony of bringing in a Sefer Torah to Hebron and I have a photograph of his dancing with a Sefer Torah in the centre of a circle.
In the summer of 1969, Rabbi Nissan Zacks became a Maggid Shiur of the Yeshivah and as long as we were in the Memshal, he would regularly come to Hebron and gave Shiurim. He would on occasion come for Shabbat. Unlike many places, where the meal includes fish on Friday night, this was not so in the Memshal. It was Rabbi Zacks’ custom to eat fish at this meal and once when he requested it, a tin of sardines was opened for him.
Rabbi Zacks would research and write notes on the works of the Rishonim which were then published. Some of these works had never been published and I sometimes saw him with photocopies of the original manuscripts. He told me that the libraries holding the original manuscripts would gladly supply him with the photocopies. On various occasions he would give me one of his books.
Rabbi Zacks’s shiurim were extremely interesting and generally each one was on a subject of its own. Even after all these years, I can remember a number of these shiurim, if not all the details, at least a general outline. Let me give some examples:
One of his books was on the Tosafot of Rabbenu Yehudah Sirlion, who held that the reading of all of the “Arba Parashiot” is from the Torah. He gave a Shiur on this subject.
It was before Chanukah that I asked him why Bet Shammai brought a proof for his view of decreasing the number of Chanukah lights each night from the “parim” of Sukkot. What was the connection between Sukkot and Chanukah? He answered me that that happened to be the subject of his Shiur that day.
Another Shiur was why the successive Berachot in Kiddush, begin with “Baruch ata...” when there is a general principle that only the first Beracha in a sequence of Berachot begins like this.
The discussion of whether one may use a Shofar made from the horn of a non-Kosher animal may be used on Rosh Hashanah and whether a non-Kosher animal can in fact have a horn, was also a subject of a Shiur.
Before Purim, he gave a Shiur on whether just by receiving Mishloach Manot on Purim and not giving anyone, one can fulfill this Mitzvah.
On one occasion, I wrote a “Chabura” on “Yoshvai Kranot.” I discussed whether the term “Yoshvei Kranot” is derisive or complimentary. Rabbi Zacks went over it and made some suggestions.
Whilst we were in the Memshal, his son got married to the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Hevroni, a Rosh Yeshivah of Hevron Yeshivah in Jerusalem. They intentionally arranged the wedding in Kiryat Zanz in Natanya. The reason, as Rabbi Zacks explained to me was, that if it took place in Jerusalem, they would have to invite an unlimited number of guests. He asked me to be one of the witnesses at this wedding. The Rabbanit Hevroni, in whose apartment I had stayed several years earlier, remembered who I was. At that period they had started building Kiryat Arba and a picture appeared in the newspapers of Rabbi Zacks and Rabbi Hevroni looking at the buildings then being constructed.
About this period (I don’t remember whether before or after the wedding) Rabbi Zacks had a heart attack and was hospitalised in Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. A number of us went to visit him. He related that the man in the next bed had brought his television to the hospital and Rabbi Zacks had said to him before Shabbat, “you won’t be using it on Shabbat?” I assume that this man did not appear to be religious but to his credit and consideration of the feelings of other patients, he replied that of course he wouldn’t. Rabbi Zacks recovered but several years later passed away. When we were in Kiryat Arba, even after her husband had died, the Rabbanit Zacks would still regularly visit the place.
On occasion, we had guest Rabbis to the Yeshivah who would give a Shiur. One of them was Rabbi Unterman, the then Chief Rabbi of Israel. The subject of his Shiur was on the “Lamed-tet Melachot of Shabbat.” Even after more than thirty years, I remember from this Shiur how Rabbi Unterman observed that the yiddish word for “tailor” is “schneider” which means cutter, because before you can sew a garment, you must first cut he material. Likewise we see that one of the forbidden Melachot of Shabbat is tearing in order to sew.
Another guest - I don’t remember his name - spoke on the punctiliousness of some people in Torah study. One example he gave, was of a person who was fasting and decided he would only eat at a Siyum on a Masechet. He estimated he would finish the Masechet he was then learning several hours later. Someone then approached him and said, “I have just finished a Masechet, come and join me for the Siyum and you won’t have to continue fasting.” He then asked this person, “How many times was the name Abaye mentioned in the Masechet you have just finished?” The man looked at him and said, “I have no idea,” to which he replied, “Then I cannot regard this as a Siyum,” and he went on learning and fasting until he finished his Masechet.
Ideally, everybody should be as diligent in their learning as this man was. Yeshivah students should - and I stress should - be in the Bet Hamedrash morning, noon and night. On one occasion, the girls working in the kitchen decided that the Yeshivah students should do the washing up on Friday night. I replied that their place was the Bet Hamedrash and not the kitchen - whether or not they would have been studying at that time is a best unasked question! However, I believe that the girls’ suggestion - even though if not intended thus - got the Yeshivah students to the Bet Hamedrash!
A Bet Hamedrash is a place for (amongst other things) individual study, “Chavrutot”, group learning and Shiurim. I would sometimes give a short Shiur or Dvar Torah and on one occasion before Pesach, I brought in my “chemistry knowledge.” I was trying to explain why a mixture of water and fruit juice will cause a dough to become Chametz very rapidly indeed and I used the expression “katalyza chumtsit” (acid catalysis). For some time, this expression became a favourite with Menachem Felix.
In addition, our Bet Hamedrash was occasionally used for conferences arranged by outside bodies. A particular incident on one of them sticks in my mind, although I don’t remember even what the subject of the conference was. We had arranged a few chairs for a top table, but one after another in the audience felt that they should have been honoured to sit at this table. So they took the law into their own hands and moved their chairs accordingly. The row of chairs got longer and longer and after it had reached the width of the room started bending round!
When Kiryat Arba was built, “Yeshivat Mitnachalei Hevron” did not close its doors. It expanded and became Yeshivat Kiryat Arba. Rabbi Dov Lior and Rabbi Waldman became its Roshei Yeshivah. At first it was housed in a hut and some years later a magnificent building was constructed to house the Yeshivah. The administrative director recently informed me that he knew that I was once a student there, since amongst their records are those of the period when it was in the Memshal.