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The Saintly Shaloh

The Saintly Shaloh

(5315-5388)

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Rabbi Yeshaya (Isaiah) HaLevi Hurwitz, the famous SHaLoH, named after the initial letters of his great work Shnei Luchos HaBris, was born in Prague in the year 5315. (1555), and, died in Safed, in the Holy-Land, in the year 5388 (1628). He served as Rabbi in several important Jewish communities, such as Posen, Cracow, and Frankfurt, where he headed large yeshivos with many students. In the year 5375 (1615) he was appointed Chief Rabbi of his native Prague, a post he held with distinction for seven years. When his wife the Rebbetzen Chaya, passed away in the year 5380 (1620), he decided to carry out his cherished wish to settle in the Holy Land. A year later he resigned his highly important and honored position as Cheif Rabbi of Prague, said good bye to his children and grandchildren, his beloved students and congregants, and set out on his long, and in those days dangerous, journey to the Holy Land.

Hardest for him was to part with his beloved son Shabse Sheftel, a well known Rabbi and Gaon in his own right.

On Friday, erev-Shabbos Sedra Vayetze, 6th day of Kislev, 5382 (1621), the saintly Shaloh arrived in Jerusalem, where the Ashkenazic community received him with great honor as their Chief Rabbi.

We have already had occasion to talk about the life and work of this great Gaon and saintly Torah personality, his famous writings, and his extraordinary influence. Here we bring you highlights of the Shaloh's journey to the land of Israel as described by himself; a journey which in those days close to 400 years ago, meant many possible dangers and great personal hardships, especially for one his age. The Shaloh's account of his journey was recorded in one of the earliest letters which he wrote shortly after his arrival in the Land of Israel.

The Shaloh begins his letter to his sons and daughters with a wish and prayer: "May the Creator of heaven and earth who took me out of my father's house and from the land of my birth, and brought me to the Holy Land - protect you all."

Then, expressing his blessings to each one individually and to all the family together, he asks them to consider his letter as if written personally to each. He also asks that his greetings be passed on to all the heads of the communities and to all fellow-Jews.

Further on he writes:

"I have already sent you several letters and related to you that the Almighty was with us all the way and all the time, on land as well as on the seas. We had no troubles; the Al-mighty dealt most kindly with us and we were not short of anything. Even the ship's captain was most friendly to us. He gave us a special room where we could pray and study .Torah. We were 22 days at sea, until w° came to the "good land" (eretz tovah; the Hebrew word tovah adds up to 22).

"On Rosh Hashanah we approached the shores of Tripoli. We were supposed to go ashore in Tripoli, but fortunately we were unable to do so by reason of an unexpected delay. That was a real miracle from heaven, for, as we soon realized a battle was raging there, and if we had gone ashore, we would have surely been taken captives together with all our possessions.

"Our ship promptly turned around and headed for Syria on a different route. A fast warship gave chase in order to capture our ship, but the Almighty saved us again. He sent a strong wind which drove our sails full speed ahead, while causing trouble for the warship. At last we reached the coast of Syria in good time before Yom Kippur.

"We arrived in the big port city Aleppo before Succos, and stayed there several weeks, until Monday, Sedra Lech-lecho. It is hard to describe the love and friendliness with which our brethren in Aleppo received us. I felt as if I were in Prague, all our needs attended to with honor and respect. They all flocked to hear my sermons, eagerly listening to my every word. My door was besieged day and night, everyone waiting to receive my blessing. Our brethren there speak our Holy Tongue (Hebrew) and I, too, gave my lectures in our Holy Tongue.

"From there we continued our journey and arrived in Hammat (Hammah), then on to the City of Damascus... Here I was received with even greater honor. The leaders of the Jewish community sent word around to all surrounding communities, particularly to the Torah scholars. All came to me with deep love and said, "Be thou our leader..." Baruch HaShem, I won the affection of all our brethren in the land."

The Shaloh goes on to mention a number of famous Biblical places located in the area.

"This is the area of Aram-Naharaim and Aram Tzova; also Gal-ed, where our Father Yaakov and his father-inlaw Lavan made a covenant of peace, is there. Four days' journey from here is Ur- Kasdim, the birthplace of our father Abraham. Two wellsprings are said to flow there, with wonderful little fishes swimming in them. They look as if they had golden rings in their mouths. No one is allowed to touch them, by order of the Turkish government of old, in honor and reverance for our Father Abraham ....

"Every synagogue in the region has a special room bearing the name of the Prophet Elijah. In Damascus there is also a cave where Elijah had hidden in his flight from King Ahab. There the ravens brought him food at G‑d's command. In the cave there is a chamber where Jews assemble to pray. A wonderful miracle takes place there: Whether there are ten worshippers there or a hundred, the place always seems fully occupied and ample at the same time. I felt this myself when I prayed there. Candles burn here constantly. I, too, lit a candle there ....

On Wednesday, Sedra Toledos, we arrived safely in Safed. I fell to the ground and kissed the stones and dust, in keeping with the words of King David (speaking of Jewish love and longing for the Holy Land): "Your servants (HaShem) hold dear her stones and cherish her dust" (Ps. 102:15). But when I saw the ruins of Safed, since the time of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh, I called out from the depth of my heart, "O Master of the World! How long will you hold back Your mercies from the cities of Yehudah?" The next moment, however, I thanked and praised the Almighty, with joy and reverence, in gratitude for the wonders and miracles I was privileged to witness with my own eyes ...

"About my settling in the Land of Israel - let me tell you what happened on the way.

"While I was in Damascus, two worthy delegates from Safed came to see me, with greetings and a request in the name of the entire community, that I come to live in Safed and accept the position of Rabbi and spiritual. leader of the city. I replied that, as my way led through Safed, there would be an opportunity to discuss the matter with the leaders of the community when I will be there. However, my intention, at this time, is to go on to Jerusalem.

"The same day, when I was preparing to leave, a special emissary from Jerusalem, one of the honorable leaders of the community, arrived in all haste. He brought a lengthy and duly signed document, in which I was appointed head of the Beis-Din and Rosh Yeshiva in Jerusalem for as long as I wished, till the coming of Moshiach, and at a salary that I myself will determine. The emissary said he was instructed not to leave me until He received my acceptance of the appointment. They were obviously afraid that the community in Safed would detain me as their Rabbi when I would be there on my way to Jerusalem.

"I thanked and praised the Almighty for allowing me the privilege of spreading Torah learning in the Land of Israel and, especially, in the holy city of Jerusalem, and bringing Jews closer, to the service of HaShem with all their heart ....

"I told the emissary that I would not accept a salary from the community, which already has enough financial burdens. I would be quite satisfied if I would be provided with a suitable dwelling. That in itself is an important matter, for I knew there was a great shortage of dwellings in Jerusalem, where the Ashkenazic community was twice as big as that of Safed, and growing from day to day. I was also pleased to know that there were great Torahscholars in Jerusalem ...."

The Shaloh expressed his high hopes about the future of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. "I am confident," he continued, "that with HaShem's help I will be able to spread Torah, in keeping with the Divine promise, Ki miTzion tetze Torah u'dvar HaShem miYerushalayim "For from Zion will come forth Torah, and the word of HaShem from Jerusalem."

The Shaloh finishes his letter expressing the fervent hope that his children and all Jews will have the Zechus to see the rebuilding of the Holy City and of the Beis Hamikdosh, very soon indeed.

This letter was signed on the first day of the week of Toledos ("Indeed, blessed (Yaakov) shall be") in the year 5382 (1621), in Safed.

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