While the prominent Ashkenazi rabbis of the 19th century opposed the revelry (hilula) around the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) in Meron on Lag B'Omer, Rabbi Shmuel Heller saw this celebration as a continuation of an authentic tradition in the Land of Israel. Heller, a leader of the forgotten ultra-Orthodox school of the Land of Israel, believed it possible to work in the fields and still maintain Orthodox Jewish life. Rivka Embon describes the figure of a leader who permitted marriage to a second in cases when the first wife refused to live in the Holy Land.
Many movements that sought a solution to the problem of the existence of the Jewish people formed during the 19th century. Out of all these a single idea has been relegated to a dark corner – the ultra-Orthodox movement of the Land of Israel. Even more forgotten was the wing of the movement based in Safed, led by Rabbi Shmuel Heller, one of the most fascinating figures of the old Yishuv.
Rabbi Heller was born to a Chasidic family in the Lublin area, probably in 1803. Ten years later, he came with his family to Safed, and as an adult was part of the Ashkenazi leadership of the Galilee town. Along with producing provocative halachic rulings, Heller served in a significant administrative role as "Head of those in charge of distributing money in Israel on behalf of the organization of officials of Amsterdam." Naturally, then, Heller was highly involved in the economic structure in Safed of the old Yishuv.
L'ag B'Omer revelries at the grave of
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, 1939.
Photo: Hans Pinn, Government Press Office
In order to get to know Heller and his unique path, we must shed light on the school to which he belonged and on its founders. Theirs was an ultra-Orthodoxy that saw the Land of Israel as a sanctuary for preserving the traditional Jewish way of life – the same way of life which was substantially threatened by the changing world order in Europe. The movement's most prominent spokesman was Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, who immigrated to Israel in 1870. Schlesinger believed that precisely here, in the Holy Land, a Jewish entity secluded from modernity should be maintained. In his essay "The Society for the Restoration of Things to Their Former Glory or The Community of Hebraists," he called upon Jews to return to Zion and there establish a society, secluded but productive, supporting Torah scholars but independently maintaining all its systems, including agricultural, financial and defense.
Heller was Schlesinger's partner, but little research has been conducted on the Safed community and its leader in this period, apparently because these are assumed to be similar to that of the "old Yishuv" in Jerusalem. Thus, the unique processes that took place in the Galilee at the time have not been examined.
While Schlesinger was a theoretical thinker, Heller was a leader of a relatively large community, on which he tried to impose what he believed to be the correct way of life. Heller spent most of his life in Israel. His role as a major recipient of philanthropic funding to Safed obligated him to act responsibly and cautiously. He could not have behaved like his colleague Schlesinger, who sought conflict. The almost total dependence of life in Israel on funding from organizations and individuals abroad forced him placate these.
In his role as head of the rabbinical judges in Safed, Heller wielded great influence in setting the public agenda, but no less in the private realm. His rulings and actions reveal a clear Land of Israel, ultra-Orthodox trend, one that placed at its center the Holy Land and the ancient traditions that represented for him the coveted pre-exilic world. Heller craved what was perceived as authentic to the Land of Israel and strove to connect to local traditions, which became his guide.
On one occasion, Heller was required to rule on the tradition of the hilula of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron on Lag B'Omer. The tradition of burning expensive clothes during the ceremony roused the most opposition. In a pamphlet "The Honor of Kings" Heller countered those positions of important Ashkenazi figures such as the Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson and even Rabbi Yosef Hazan, and supported the tradition of Meron. Heller saw the hilula as a continuation of an authentic, sacred Galilean tradition.
In another case, Heller caused animal images to be removed from the Ark, built in the grand tradition of Galicia, of the Ari Synagogue in Safed. In a pamphlet "Purity of Holiness" he expanded on his resolute opposition to the ark. He especially emphasized the inappropriateness of these images in the Land of Israel.
Heller's boldest ruling was in polygamy. In 1876, Schlesinger asked Heller to present his position on this issue, having lifted Rabbenu Gershom's herem or ban and thus bringing a herem or embargo on himself. Heller's reply came quickly - he emphatically supported lifting the ban. Heller's court in Safed won a reputation as a haven for men to receive legal dispensation to marry another wife in cases where the first wife refused to live in the Land of Israel.
This ruling represented the epitome of ultra-Orthodoxy in the Land of Israel, indicating the centrality of the Land of Israel - concrete and historical - in their worldview. For them, immigration to the Land of Israel was highly important, even if the attitude to Israel in the Torah world of that time was ambiguous. Heller, who actualized this ideal, sought to connect to the source of holiness in the land and strengthen those who did not shy away from religious tensions involved in settling there.
As a leader, Heller was called on to address all aspects of life. He supported settlement, helped in finding sources of provision such as growing citrons, instituted regulations that encouraged work, and in his days the Jews even took part in guarding the district. Productive life was, in his eyes, an arena for expressing Jewish life.
Ultra-Orthodoxy of the Land of Israel was never completely actualized. Heller's attempt succeeded only partially, and with his death in 1884, he left no real successors. I think that eventually, with the founding of the State of Israel, the National Movement, which comprised those with a secular education, gained on its bitter rival, the ultra-Orthodox. Paradoxically, precisely this defeat became the only way to preserve aspects of the vision. It is the nation state that actually enables the existence of an isolated ultra-Orthodox society, which relies on modern society to support and maintain it.
Rivka Embon is a historical museum curator, as well as a researcher and doctoral candidate in the History of Safed at Tel Aviv University.