Translated by Jerrold Landau
Unfortunately, I could not find historical references about this town, neither in the encyclopedias nor in the books that deal with the history of the Hungarian Jews in general and the Transylvanian Jews in particular. The reason is probably that Halmeu was not a well-known town until after the First World War, when it was annexed to Romania and it became a border-point. The Transylvania Jews never played a major role or attained a special position in the general history of the European Jews. Before the First World War they were an integral part of the Hungarian Jewry and adopted their way of thinking, observing their style and customs and strictly following the way of life of their rabbis. They were a sort of periphery or border settlement, away from the mainstream.
The historical path that the Transylvania Jews have followed was a gentler one than that of the Hungarian Jews. Their development was slower as well, mostly devoid of interruptions or special restrictions; Transylvania was home to several minorities who lived in peace with each other, and the presence of Jews among them did not cause, relatively speaking, open antagonism.
Researchers have found in Transylvania indications of Jewish settlements from the time of the Roman rule in the area: Jewish tombstones, as well as documents mentioning Jewish military units whose responsibility was to assure the security of the Roman Empire at these remote borders.
We know without ignoring the early Jewish settlement in Hungary that at the time of the Turkish conquest of Hungary in 1536 many Jews followed the Turkish army. Most of them were Spanish Jews, exiles from the Spanish expulsion (1492), and some were Jews from Eretz Israel, Syria and Greece. However, it is probable that at the same time the movement of Jews from the bordering Austria continued as well, since the Jewish community of Buda, in spite of the great flow of Spanish Jews, maintained its Ashkenazi character.
It is interesting to mention that these new settlers kept their Turkish citizenship even after they settled in Hungary, because it guaranteed privileges of protection and trade.
Most of the economy and the tax collection of the country was managed by Jews.
The reports on tax collection are written in Hebrew or Spanish with Hebrew letters. So we read that the taxes manager of the Esztergom county was Hoshea Yerushalmi, and in some of the other counties as well the Jews Atela, Shlomo, Shimon etc. are mentioned. In the area of economics and finance we find the Jewish names Toledano, Shlomo Ibn Shabat, Zecharia Dabosh, Musa ben Belko, all of which point to their Spanish origin. They continued to direct all their questions in matters of religion and Halacha [religious law] to the rabbis in Constantinople [Istanbul].
By the end of this period, after the Cossacks' Rebellion in the days of Khmelnytsky, (1648) Jews who fled Poland and the Ukraine also settled there.
The Jewish life in Hungary came to an end with the liberation of Hungary from the Turkish occupation. As a result, in 1686 all foreign Jews, who settled in Hungary following the Turkish army, were asked to leave the country together with the Turkish army, because in the battles for the defense of the Buda Fort the Jews were clearly and actively on the side of the Turks. Most of the Jews who remained in the country were murdered mercilessly by the Austrian invading army.
Not long ago, archeologists in Buda discovered the synagogue where part of the Jews gathered, planning to defend themselves against the Austrian invaders. But the Austrians set fire to the synagogue and all Jews were killed. The archeologists found the burned bones, a testimony to the horror described in the lamentation The Ofen Scroll [Megilat Ofen Ofen is the German name for Buda (Budapest)]. The 'Scroll was written by the rabbi of Buda, who managed to save himself and fled to Turkey. In it he described in detail the terrible events.
The Jews in Transylvania
The Transylvania Jews managed to survive this catastrophe relatively trouble-free. Hungary freed itself from the Turkish occupation and the Transylvania Jews remained more or less unharmed.
The historian Dr. Shmuel Cohen is trying to prove the existence of the Jewish settlement by the fact that after the Mohács disaster in 1526 the ruler of Transylvania, Zápolya János suggested to the Hungarian king Lajos II to appoint a Jew by the name of Yitzhak as the head of the State Mint.
The Jews are mentioned for the first time in the records of a national Congress in Kolozsvár [Cluj] in 1591, where a complaint was filed against Jewish settling in the county. In Gyulafehéhérvár [Karlsburg] a Jewish Religious Court was active in 1591, which proves that a Jewish community existed there at that time.
Jews are mentioned in 1600 as merchants, and a few years later several Jews were accused of selling holy books to Pécsi Simon, the founder of the Sabbath Keepers sect, and as punishment they were executed.
In the year 1623, the governor Bethlen Gábor gave an official permit to establish Jewish settlements in Transylvania. In this document he stated explicitly that his aim was to rebuild and develop the Transylvania territories that had been devastated during the many wars and make them bloom again. He mentioned also, that he was prompted to this action by the initiative of his friend the Jewish doctor in Constantinople by the name of Sasa Avraham. The governor also addressed directly his representative in Constantinople, Toldaloghy Miklós, asking him to bring Turkish Jews to Transylvania.
In April 1627, this permit was passed as law by the Parliament in Karlsburg, giving the Jews freedom of action in religious, economic and commercial matters. These privileges were later cut back by György Rákoczi, who reduced the Jewish right of settlement to the area of Karlsburg only; however we know that his directives were not actually implemented, since we find Jewish settlements outside of Karlsburg as well: Bethlen, Nátánfalva, Nagy-Iklód etc.
In 1650, another law was passed in the Karlsburg Parliament, concerning Jews: the law included restrictions as to what the Jews were allowed to wear in public. However, this law was not implemented rigorously.
The governor Mihály Apaffy I addressed the authorities three times (1661, 1673, 1678) demanding to protect the Jews and defend them against the attacks of the town hooligans.
Although the situation of the Jews was relatively good, there was almost no immigration to the region and the Jewish settlement remained static. On one hand, Transylvania was far from the Jewish migration paths and from the European commercial centers, on the other hand the Spanish exiles had already settled in other places at that time and the Jewish migration from Poland had not yet begun.
The first Jewish settlers in Transylvania were Sephardic Jews we remember that the governor Bethlen invited first of all the Spanish exiles who had arrived in Turkey. In the 18th century, the heads of the Jewish community in Karlsburg, as well as the rabbis, were Sephardim.
The first rabbi was a Spanish scholar by the name of Avraham Russo, who in 1736 began to keep the community records in the Pinkas Hakehila [community register], which is, to this day, the most important historic document of the Transylvania Jews. The Pinkas was written first in Hebrew, later in Ladino and finally in Yiddish.
The flow of migration from Poland began in the 18th century. The momentum of this migration was so powerful that during a short time the Sephardic community became a minority and its impact weakened, until a point where their customs and practices were barely observed, although they had been indeed the foundation upon which the Jewish settlement in Transylvania was established. The only custom that remained was the minhag sfarad of the prayer book, especially among the Jews that had come from Poland.
We do not know all the historical details of the Jewish settlement in the town of Halmeu; it is clear, however, that it began very early the old tombstones in the Jewish cemetery are a witness to that: the oldest tombstone is from 1704. Still, some information can be drawn from what we know about the near-by town Szatmar, which was the County Seat. Until 1848 Jews were forbidden to enter the town, except for business purposes, and we have a document stating that in 1844 the town authorities gave a Jew by the name of Kestenbaum a special permit to open a restaurant in order to supply Kosher food to the Jewish merchants in town.
It is reasonable to assume that in that period of time, Jewish settlement and Jewish integration in Halmeu was subjected to restrictions as well, as was the case in Szatmar, and only Jewish merchants were allowed to enter the town at market time.
by Yehuda Schwartz
Translated by Jerrold Landau
After the death of the Sephardic sage Avraham the son of Yitzchak Rusu in Carlsberg in 1736, it was decided, in accordance with a request of the local Jews and the rest of the communities of Transylvania, to appoint an overseeing rabbi (Landes Rabbiner) who would be responsible for appointing rabbis in the areas with large Jewish communities.
We do not know if Halmeu had a sufficiently large Jewish community in those days to be able to support a separate autonomous community with their own chief rabbi who would have been sent to them by appointment from the overseeing rabbi. We have no sources that discuss the lives of the rabbis and the spiritual customs of the community from early times. There is no doubt that all of them were great in Torah and well-known in the Torah world, for the rabbinate of Halmeu was considered as very honorable in the region.
We know that starting from the year 1890, the nearby district city of Satmar
[Unnumbered page following 24]
The text of the tablet is as follows:
|A memorial tablet in the Holocaust Cellar on Mount Zion, Jerusalem||The rabbi and gaon Rabbi Eliahu Klein
of holy blessed memory, the head of the
rabbinical court of the holy community
of Halmeu and its first rabbi
The text of the tablet is as follows:
|The rabbi and gaon Rabbi Yaakov Klein
of holy blessed memory, the head of the
rabbinical court of the holy community
of Halmeu and its final rabbi
|Memorial tablet in the Talmud Torah of Zichron Meir in Bnei Brak, dedicated
to the perpetuation of the communities of Halmeu Turcz and its region
continued to accept the authority of the overseeing rabbi with respect to the appointment of rabbis, and they chose the famous gaon Rabbi Zeev Mandelbaum as the chief rabbi of the city. After his death in 1897, they chose the famous gaon Rabbi Yehuda Greenwald of holy blessed memory.
From here, we can surmise that the community of Halmeu also developed as an independent community during the same timeframe. However, there are signs that Jews lived there many years previously. With respect to the appointment of the rabbi and gaon Rabbi Eliahu as the rabbi and head of the rabbinical court of the holy community of Halmeu, it is clear to us that after the death of his father Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke of holy blessed memory who served as the rabbi of Sălaj and its district, including Halmeu, his eldest son occupied the rabbinical seat of Sălaj, whereas Eliahu inherited the rabbinical seat of Halmeu.
The Elder Rabbi
In the year 5633 (1873), Rabbi Eliahu Klein the son of the gaon Rabbi Shmelke of Sălaj was chosen as the chief rabbi. He was the author of the book Tzeror Hachayim [Bonds of Life], and the son-in-law of the author of Yeriot Shlomo, the head of the rabbinical court of the holy community of Makova.
Rabbi Eliahu was a gaon and a fearer of Heaven, but was also modest and revered by all the residents, even those who were not Jewish. He made fences and protections around the Torah, and led his community with a strong hand. He was strongly opinionated and did not curry favor with any person, including the heads of the community. If he heard of any breach in his town, he would summon the perpetrator, and directly chastise him in a strong fashion, whether he was poor or wealthy. He did not forego any light custom of the Jewish people. Once, he noticed that a person was clean shaven during the days of sefira. Our rabbi went to him and greeted him as a stranger. He was surprised, Am I not here all week long and our rabbi does not realize? The rabbi responded, This is not possible, you are not from Halmeu, for in our place, people do not shave during sefira.
One Yom Kippur, Dietler was brazen enough to come to the synagogue wearing shoes. He was the chief judge of the local court, and was perhaps the only local Jew who did not observe the commandments. Our rabbi immediately approached him and requested that he either remove his shoes or leave the synagogue. As Dietler left the synagogue, he went, as an influential man, directly to the priest to ask if the rabbi has the right to do thus. The priest looked in the law books of the Christian faith and stated, It is your right to refrain from going to the synagogue on this holy day, but if you decide to go, you are duty bound to completely accept the authority of the local rabbi, to follow his directions and to act in accordance with accepted custom.
He issued precious enactments in order to strengthen the Torah life of the community. The rabbinical leaders of the generation would testify about his asceticism and holiness. He was gifted with a mouth that exuded pearls. His sermons were famous. At his sermon prior to the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah, he would arouse his congregation to repentance, and people would say that it was as if one could see the tragedy in the eyes of his spirit. The knife of the slaughterer was already resting on our necks,
and one could no longer see your tears. He would recite the calls before the shofar blasts in a frightening melody, which penetrated the depths of the heart.
He preserved the chain of tradition, disseminated Torah and fear of Heaven, and mentored many students including great rabbis and people of good deeds. The people of his generation reverently knew him by the nickname The elder rabbi, in contrast with his son, the rabbi and gaon Rabbi Yaakov Shalom Klein who succeeded him. He returned his soul in holiness and purity at a ripe old age in the year 5683 (1923) after he served here in the rabbinate in a splendid fashion for fifty years.
Rabbi Yaakov Shalom, the Last Rabbi of the Community
The rabbi and gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Shalom Klein moved to Halmeu from Grosswardein (Oradea), where he had served as the head of the rabbinical court. He was appointed as rabbi of the community and the district during the lifetime of the Elder Rabbi Rabbi Eliahu of holy blessed memory. He was already known amongst the Torah greats since his early years. He earned a name as a convincing orator in the town and the area. The leaders of the generation and the Torah greats frequently called him to places in which problems were occurring so that he could speak out and repair the breach against the raging storms that threatened religious life.
Orthodox Jewry enlisted its best efforts to fight for the religious character of the community. The personality of Rabbi Yaakov Shalom stood out as one of the primary lecturers and warriors for the wholeness of the spiritual entity of religious Judaism. His sermons in the local synagogue enthralled his audience from all circles for long hours, and penetrated the depths of the heart. His pleasant appearance attracted the hearts of his audience. He spoke calmly and with deliberation, with politeness and a warm gaze toward the person with whom he was speaking. His entire personality exuded nobility and patriarchialism. He was meticulous about the cleanliness of his clothing. He elicited honor and was a kind of bridge between the two cultures - rabbinical and secular.
The town earned national and international acclaim following the verdict that he issued in the Torah adjudication amongst the great rabbis - in which the rabbi served as the head of the rabbinical court - in a case regarding the inheritance of the rabbinate in Satmar (Satu Mare). According to his ruling, they appointed Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, may he live long, the head of the rabbinical court of Károly, as the rabbi to replace Rabbi Eliezer David Gringold of holy blessed memory. Today Rabbi Teitelbaum lives in Williamsburg, America, and is the leader of Neturei Karta of Jerusalem.
The rabbi conducted a large, splendid Yeshiva in Halmeu. Talented youths from the entire region came to drink his words with thirst. He preserved the character of traditional religious education with his dedication and sharp intellect. He was loved by his fellowman, and, in turn, loved his fellowman. He cleaved to the Torah with all the strands of his soul. He was expert in all the discussions of the Talmud, in depth and breadth. People from the entire region would turn to him with their difficult and complex questions. He brightened the eyes
of the sages with his didactics and reasoning Large sums of money, whether for business purposes or a dowry for a bride, would be placed into his trustworthy hands, for he was trusted more than the bank.
His private discussions were of the character of secular conversations of a scholar imbued with wisdom as well as a large dose of realism and understanding of the situation. He would often mediate between stubborn disputants by rendering a Torah judgment spiced intertwined with a joke in the right time and place.
On the night of Simchat Torah, the worshippers were received in his home with set tables. When those at the feast were joyous with wine, Yaakov Alek would speak in humorous verse about the issues of the day. Pious people and men of good deeds would add their own personal touch.
Halmeu was a border town. Since one could obtain very cheap merchandise across the Czech border, some residents earned their livelihoods primarily from smuggling merchandise across the border. The rabbi of holy blessed memory chastised them for the breach, and warned them, in general terms and in detail, of the dangers involved. He requested that they fulfill the principles of the law of the land.
When the Germans entered Halmeu, he was transferred to the Sălaj Ghetto with his community, and he perished together with them. May his memory be a blessing!
The rabbi and judge, Rabbi Mordechai Rotstein was noted for his fear of Heaven. He published a book titled Beit Vaad Lachachamim (A Gathering House for the Sages). His grandson is Rabbi Tzvi Pinchas Moskovich (today in Jerusalem) who served as the head of the High Yeshiva of Rabbi Yaakov Shalom in Halmeu He republished the famous book of his grandson, a commentary on Psalms titled Shaarei Parnasa Tova (The Gates of Good Livelihood).
In the previous era, Rabbi Shimon Gotlieb served as a rabbinical judge. He was the father of Rabbi Menachem, who became famous as a genius in Torah and the fear of Heaven. Similarly, the rabbinical judge, Rabbi Avraham Chaim was known as an expert in Torah and scholarship.
During the tenure of the rabbi and gaon Rabbi Eliahu, his son-in-law also served as a rabbinical judge and teacher. This was Rabbi Yosef, a genius who was expert in all areas of Torah, who
was later accepted as the chief rabbi of Királyháza. He was beloved and revered by the entire community, also because of his uprightness and pleasant mannerism.
Rabbi Yaakov of holy blessed memory had two children who were expert scholars, G-d fearing, and wholesome. The younger one, Rabbi Dov Ber, married the daughter of Reb Yitzchak Rosenberg, a well-known wheat merchant of Satmar. Even after his marriage, he remained with his father, the gaon, in order to complete his studies in Talmud and rabbinical decisors. He was then appointed as a rabbinical judge and teacher. His son Eliahu survived and lives today in the United States. Reb Dov Ber served in the high position of rabbinical judge until the tragic liquidation of the community, and died a martyr's death in Auschwitz along with his family. The older son of Rabbi Yaakov of holy blessed memory, Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke, was pleasant in his mannerisms, a fearer of Heaven, and diligent in his studies. He was accepted as the rabbi and head of the rabbinical court of Elesd.
Ritual Slaughterers [Shochtim]
Reb Avraham Laush was one of the well-known cantors of the region. When he sang the Kel Adon prayer on Sabbath mornings to a marching tune, he captivated the worshippers in the women's section to the extent that they broke out in a dance. Later, he was accepted as the shochet of Grosswardein - Nagy Várad.
Reb Eliahu Markovich was not only a scholar and fearer of Heaven, blessed with the talents of a mohel [ritual circumcisor], but was also an experienced prayer leader with a pleasant voice. He was honored and revered by the entire community. His voice was strong, without blemish and hoarseness. He composed new melodies for the Vechol Maaminim and Veal Kulam prayers that pleased the congregation. All the worshipers would accompany him in song. His son Shimon fills an important, senior role as the rabbi of the police command of Jerusalem. His daughter Sara lives in Brooklyn, and his daughter Leah lives in Bnei Brak. As the number of Jews grew and his workload increased, Reb Yankel was hired as the second shochet. He was the son-in-law of Reb Berish, the chief shochet in Vysha-Malchin, who composed melodies for the Sabbath and festival hymns. Reb Yaakov was graced with a fine, lyric voice. Since he was a wise, learned man with talents, and young, he continued to study the cantorial arts. He learned melodies and tunes from other cantors, and had a bright future ahead of him as a successful cantor and prayer leader.
The two shochtim were killed in sanctification of the Divine name after they were brought to Auschwitz along with the rest of the community. May G-d avenge their blood.
For practical purposes, Transylvanian Jewry was a tribe unto itself only during the
[Unnumbered page following 28]
|The tombstone of the holy gaon Rabbi Eliezer
of blessed memory in the cemetery of Halmeu
|The rabbinical Judge Rabbi David Ber of blessed memory. The shochet Reb Eliahu Markovich of blessed memory and Reb Shlomo Glick of blessed memory|
|The tombstone of the pious woman Yartza
of blessed memory in the cemetery of Halmeu
|Reb Wolf Leib Farkas of blessed memory||Reb David Zicherman of blessed memory,
the trustee of the Chevra Kadisha [Burial Society]
Romanian era. The twenty years between 1918 and 1938 were years of brightness and flourishing in all areas of nationalist and Torah creativity. Prior to this time, Jews of Transylvania would send their children to the Yeshivas of Pressburg, Galanta, Chust and other places in the upper district of Hungary. They themselves only had one Yeshiva of renown, the Yeshiva of Rabbi Yehuda Grinwald of Satmar. Now, important centers of Torah and fear of G-d arose in their cities, from which thousands of scholars emanated who spread the names of the communities. Yeshivas of this nature existed in Károly , Satmar, Tăsnad, Halmeu, Székelyhid (Săcueni), Simleu, Margareten, Hunyad (Bánffyhunyad), Sighet, Kolozsvár (Cluj), Nagybána, and Tārgu-Mures, just to mention the most important of them.
This process began after the students of Chatam Sofer spread throughout the entire country, disseminated from their wellsprings outward, and established students and students of students who went out and conquered city after city. By the first third of the 1900s, this process had reached its maximum extent.
These cities became forging workshops for the soul of the nation, the bosom of whose Jewish life was the Beis Midrash and the Yeshiva. These were the points around which all the external and internal manifestation orbited.
TheYeshivaof Halmeu occupied an important place in the life of the Jews. In this Yeshiva, the thirst of hundreds of lads for knowledge of Talmud and halachic decisors was satisfied. One could hear the sounds of Torah breaking forth strongly from the walls of the Yeshiva, and one would say to oneself that there the tradition of generations was being woven; there is the spring from which the thirst for the word of the Living G-d is quenched; from there the stormy emotions of the pure Jewish soul pour forth in a flood.
On account of the famous Yeshiva, the city earned a name for itself as a dwelling place of Torah, and changed from an unremarkable city to a large-scale Torah center with theYeshivabuilding, theBeis Midrashthat was located in the courtyard of the rabbi. The revered leadership of theYeshivasucceeded in arousing their students to Torah and Divine service with a double dose of energy. All day, the sounds of Torah would break forth from that dwelling place of Torah in which Torah giants were educated - including Rabbi Zvi Pinchas Moskowitz, Rabbi Moshe Sender, the Roth brothers, Rabbi Shimon Deskel, Rabbi Aryeh Leib, and others, who also served as Rosh Yeshivas.
The style of learning in theYeshivainvolved the elucidation of the simple meaning of the text without additional didactics. Although at the outset there were only about 15 students, theYeshivalater rose in popularity and the number of students grew to over 100.
The goal was not to send forth men of religion but rather to study and disseminate Torah for its own sake, and to conduct Torah study and fear of Heaven on a high level. The ideal of the student was to study Torah and fulfill the commandments with exactitude, as exemplified by their enthusiastic song during times of joy, My soul thirsts for You, my flesh thirsts for You, my heart and my flesh will sing to the living G d.
The study of the doctrine of resisting the enticements of the pleasures of the secular world, as well as the study of Torah and prophets took an important place in the daily curriculum, and formed an inseparable part of the education of the students and ofYeshivalife in general. The following adage was common on the lips of Rabbi Yaakov Shalom, Whoever does not study Torah, Chumash and Rashi with its simple explanations is a complete ignoramus.
Aside from Yoreh Deah and the regular classes in the chosen Talmudic tractate, they would also study during the year approximately five Talmudic topics with all of the early and late commentators. The Homiletics society that operated within the framework of theYeshivaattracted many interested people on Sabbaths, for they desired to hear the novel ideas of Torah with sermons filled will didactics and sharpness from those who excelled in such, including Rabbi Moshe Sender and Rabbi Yudel Altman who kept their audience spellbound for hours on end.
The students demonstrated their observance of commandments and their essence asYeshivastudents in both an external and internal fashion. The methods of expressing the refinement of character traits included self-examination, rectification of one's deeds, forging one's traits, and learning how to withstand the challenges of study and prayer, accompanied by a blend of internal and external enthusiasm.
In order to avoid burdening the local Jews with the support of theYeshivastudents, an organized restaurant and cafeteria was opened with the assistance of outside institutions in the home of and under the direction of the widow of the scribe Schwartz. The students could eat there in a most honorable fashion. On the other hand, due to the lack of a dormitory, students were forced to live in rooms rented from the Jews of the city. This eased their difficult social situation to some degree, and ensured that the sounds of Torah would reverberate throughout the entire city.
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