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[Page 100]

Chapter 14

Oshpitzin's Rabbis and Chachamim

[Translated by Joseph Schachter April 13, 2000]


The names of Oshpitzin's first Rabbis are unknown. – The Oshpitzin Kehilla as subordinate to the Cracow Kehilla. – Rabbi Yitzchak Eisik Landa, Head of the Rabbinical Court dies in 5543 [1783]. – Rabbi Berish Frummer [?] succeeds him. – Rabbi Moshe Yakov Scharf, Chief Rabbi, dies in 5629 [1869]. – Rabbi Doctor Ephraim Yisrael Blycher [?] in Oshpitzin. – Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam. – Rabbi Abba'le Schnur, Chief Rabbi from 5640 – 5659 [1880-1898]. – Rabbi Doctor Leibush Mintz [?] in Oshpitzin. – The Head of the Rabbinical Court Noson Nota Halevi Landa. – Chief Rabbi Chaim Zvi Kupferman. – Head of Rabbinical Court Rabbi Yehoshua Pinchas Bombach. – His son, Head of Rabbinical Court, Eliyahu Bombach, HY”D.

We wrote first about Hasidism in Oshpitzin which arose as a social-religious movement in Eastern Europe in the 18th Century and was widespread primarily in Russia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary. We described the movement in West Galicia and particularly in Oshpitzin. It was not so with respect to the Rabbinate, whose inception as an institution is difficult to determine since it is in effect a continuation of the traditional institution of the Dayanim, which existed in the time of the Talmud and the Ge'onim. One thing is clear, that this institution was established on the vestiges of the Nasi [title of president of Sanhedrin] system in the Land of Israel, the dissolution of the Yeshivot of the Babylonian Ge'onim, and the shift of Torah centers westward. The Rabbanites, as they were called in the many lands of the Diaspora, were for an extended period, the loyal guardians of the Torah, that it be not forgotten in Israel, and acted as the torchbearers for the persecuted and afflicted people so that it would not, God forbid, become extinct.

It is not an easy task to write about the Rabbis and Dayanim of the Oshpitzin Kehilla since its founding. Those who are especially interested in these Rabbis will raise a series of questions about this subject, starting with who was the first Rabbi or Dayan of Oshpitzin, and was his jurisdiction limited to Oshpitzin alone or did it extend over the surrounding settlements, near and far, and that there is great interest in knowing his name, his birthplace, the Yeshivot he attended, who ordained him, and many more of a similar nature.

Even authors born in Oshpitzin have doubts about this moot question regarding the early city Rabbinate without coming to a definite conclusion. There is one who summarizes the eminence of the Kehilla by stating that it had the great good fortune of being a haven for Torah and that for six generations Tzadikim and Ge'onim of Israel lived there. Another concluded that the Rabbinical post in Oshpitzin was always considered as one of the most important and finest in West Galicia, and for that very reason they would experience various difficulties when it became necessary to choose a new Rabbi for the town. Mediocre Rabbis wouldn't have dared to consider offering their candidacy for the post, since the Rabbi to be selected would, to begin with, have to be known throughout Galicia, both as a great Gaon in Torah scholarship, a great Tzadik, or highly educated and erudite with a wide reputation. Nevertheless, these writers concentrate only on the most recent generations in town without mentioning a word about the earlier Rabbis, who it can be assumed did not stay in one place for long, since it was customary and natural for Rabbis to change their places of tenure from time to time for various reasons.

It is certain that the Kehilla of Oshpitzin, prior to its independence, was a part of the Krakow Kehilla Central, then considered the chief of all of the Kehillot in the region, known as “Kehilla Kedosha Kraka” (K' K' K') which had for many consecutive generations been “the metropolis having everything”, from which Torah was disseminated to Polish Jewry, and Halachic decisions for the entire Jewish world. From its very beginning it was prominent as “a minor Eretz Yisrael, from which came forth resourcefulness, and was filled with knowledge as the waters cover the seas”. The Oshpitzin Kehilla, then, was one of the small Kehillot in the Krakow region that was subordinate to it, as were the Rabbis subordinate to the Rabbi of the major Kehilla, who also served as the Rabbi of the Krakow district. It was only natural when the financial circumstances of the Krakow Kehilla became stressful and it was inundated with debts that became unbearable, that they made attempts to unload a part of the burden of those debts onto those smaller Kehillot. This brought about friction between the small Kehillot and the Central Kehilla, and finally to their splitting off. The historian, Meier Balaban notes in his book “The History of the Jews of Krakow and Kazimierz 1304-1868” (in Polish), that in the 16th Century the Jewish Kehilla of Krakow was subdivided into seven regional districts, and that in the Krakow district, itself, there were the Kehillot: Olkusz, Chrzanow, Wisnicz, Sacz, Bobowa, Pilica, Bedzin, Oshpitzin, and Wolbrom. Recounted as well are the court cases involving the Krakow Kehilla as against smaller named Kehillot with reference to leadership disputes, without a specific notation as to whether the Oshpitzin Kehilla was also embroiled as far as litigation, or whether the conflicts were resolved without a trial.[1]

This will deal only with the Rabbis and Dayanim who served in Oshpitzin during the last several generations, i.e., those that the most recent generation or two could still have had the opportunity of knowing them personally. Indeed, the following details and descriptions are based on the personal knowledge of the townsmen who knew them. It should, however, be clear: There were Rabbis in Oshpitzin before those who will be described, some of them quite famous, prominent Torah luminaries, but we have no more details about them, their Rabbinical functions and forms of service, since there is no definitive clear delineation of the use of the word “Rabbi” and the specific relationship of the one with the title with the actual functions of the post in daily practice.

Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Landa. He is the first mentioned in books, which contain some details. He was born in the city of Pilz in 5473 [1713], the son of R’ Yoav. He became the Rabbi of Olkusz, Poland at an early age, and there he signed an imprimatur on the book “Rosh Yosef” (Fiorda [?] 5521 [1761]) as follows: “The Holy Yitzchak Eizik residing here in the Holy Kehilla of Elkish and district, his exalted excellency and trustee in Israel of the Four Lands”. He dispatched Responsa to the Rabbi of Prague, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (author of “Noda Biyehuda”), see there Part 14, first edition, section 64. From Olkusz he came to Oshpitzin to serve as its Rabbi. There he signed [a responsum], (on Thursday, Tammuz 12, 5581 [July 12, 1821]) in the book “Keser Ahron”, section 60 (Zolkiew 5582 [1822]) * . He died in 5543 [1783] and the following lines are engraved on his tombstone:

“Keser Torah.
And Yitzchak departed like a Tzadik, impressively and his light and splendor are no more, the Rabbi and Great Luminary, our Teacher Eizik son of our Teacher Yoav, of blessed memory, Av Besdin of the Holy Kehilla of Oshpitzin. Woe is our loss of the Pearl and Sapphire who taught Wisdom and Mussar, strengthening Purity, and gathered unto his people in old age of 70 years, and buried with honor on the second day of Adar I 5543
[Feb. 4, 1783], here in our Kehilla”.

His writings in manuscript format were left to his son R’ Berish, and only a little of it was published in the foreword of the book “Sha'arei Bina” (Vienna 5552 [1792]) written by his grandson, R’ Yoav and his son, Rabbi Nosen Nota, his successor, and he is laudably mentioned in the Responsa “Har Hamor” (Section 35). His son-in-law was Rabbi Binyamin Wolf, the author of “Sha'arei Torah” (as explained in the foreword there).

Rabbi Dovber Frummer of Oshpitzin. He was a disciple of the “Seer of Lublin” and Rabbi Shlomo Bochner of Chrzanow. From 5588 [1828] onwards he lived in Oshpitzin as an Admor, as we noted in the previous chapter on Hasidism. In his last years he was elevated to the post of Av Besdin in Oshpitzin, but did not serve as the Chief-Rabbi, since he died in 5598 on the 20th of Iyar [May 15, 1838]. Subsequent to his death his work “Divrei Tzadikim” on the Torah was published.

Rabbi Moshe Yakov Scharf. He was born in 5547 [1787], the son of Ephraim. He was Av Besdin in Oshpitzin and Zator, pious, modest, and elderly, he conducted a Yeshiva. He had studied Torah as the student of Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Heller, the Av Besdin of Ungvar [Uzhorod], the author of “Tiv Gitin”, and he studied Hasidism as the disciple of Rabbi Dovber of Radoszyce and the “Divrei Chaim” of Sacz. The Torah luminaries were extravagant in their praises for him, and Rabbi Dovberish of Radoszyce said marvelous things about him, praising him for his modesty and integrity, testifying that his soul was from an exaltedly high place. The great Gaonim, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathansohn of Lwow and Rabbi Chaim of Sacz praise him abundantly in their imprimaturs to his book “Divrei Yosher” on the Talmud, and additionally, he published “Darchei Yosher” on the Torah and the Agadot of the Talmud. He was renowned as a great Tzadik and a true servant of God. He devoted all of his days to Torah and prayer. He held the post for 50 years, studied and taught, educated large numbers and produced many students who were exceptional in Torah and piety. He was privileged to reach extreme old age. He died on the 3rd of Nissan 5629 [March 15, 1869], at the age of 85.

Rabbi Dr. Ephraim Yisrael Bleicher [Blycher?]. Rabbi and scholar, who during his career was also appointed the community Rabbi of Oshpitzin. He was born on October 3, 1813 in Glücksdorf, Moravia. From 1850 onwards he was in Lwow as a graduate student in Semitic Languages at the University. In 1856 he came to Oshpitzin serving as a Rabbi, and later in Wadowice as a district Rabbi. In Vienna he founded a high school. Towards the end of his life he lived in Budapest earning a living as an educator. He attempted to establish German-Jewish newspapers and magazines, but they were short-lived. He died in Budapest on the 17th of Iyar 5642 (1882).[2]

His book “Marpe Leshon Arami” (which is a compendium of grammar of the Aramaic language as used in the Holy Writ, Daniel, Ezra, in the Targumim of the Talmud and other books of that period, Vienna, 1838) was one of the first scientific studies of Aramaic. He issued, in Hebrew and German translation, the Scroll of Ruth (Vienna, 1849). This was accompanied by an Aramaic poem and its Hebrew translation in thankfulness for the recovery of the Austrian Empress, Elisabeth, at the Kissingen Spa, entitled “Chashivuta Di Kissinga” (Fiorda, 1862). He also compiled a Hungarian-German-Hebrew dictionary and an Atlas of the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, Chief-Rabbi of Oshpitzin. He was the son of Rabbi Meir Noson Ben Rabbi Chaim of Sacz. He was born in 5607 [1846]. He was the son-in-law of Rabbi Yehoshua of Kaminka. He was appointed the Rabbi of Bukowsko in 5624 [1864, at the age of 17!] and from there came to Oshpitzin. In spite of being the founder of the Bobower Dynasty of Hasidism, he functioned primarily as the Chief-Rabbi of Oshpitzin, being a great luminary of Torah, Talmud, and Codes. The Kehilla leadership of Oshpitzin, however, tended towards modernity and preferred a Rabbi who was learned and proficient in languages and the sciences. He left Oshpitzin for Wisnicz [circa 1879], and from there he moved to Bobowa in 5652 [1892 - text has typo 5622] and distinguished himself in the founding of Higher Yeshivot with hundreds of students. He died on Tammuz 1 5666 [June 24, 1906]. [3]

Rabbi Abba'le Schnur. He was appointed to replace Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam in 5640 [1880] and lived in Oshpitzin until 5659 [1899], when he was chosen as the District Rabbi of the great Kehilla of Tarnow. He cut a handsome figure and was sublime among all of the Rabbis of Oshpitzin, about whom, his wisdom and personality, it was said that he was comparable to that famous historical Rabbi known as Rabbi Yehonasan Eybeschuetz. Indeed, he was an outstanding personality, notably tall with a yellowish beard, dressed in spotless Hasidic garments with an exquisite Shtreimel on his head. He gave the impression of being a profound thinker and with his elegant courteous manners attracted all who met him. Beyond the above he was permeated with wisdom and knowledge, and spoke several languages. He was proficient in German, Polish, and French; it was a delight to listen to his expressions, and every utterance of his sounded like sweet music. He attained the reputation of one of the best orators in all of Austria. He was the special favorite of the religious Jewish communities of Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, and Cologne, and was always invited by them for their major assemblies or sundry convocations in order to be their speaker. Thanks to his extraordinary talents he succeeded in becoming acquainted with Cardinals, government ministers, and wealthy nobles. Always, in times of trouble and calamities for Jews, it became his task to intercede for his persecuted and afflicted brothers. Especially in 5662 [1902], when the Romanian Amalekites instigated Pogroms and banishment of Jews from their country, and again afterwards when the entire Jewish world was shaken by the major Pogrom that was perpetrated against the Jews of Kishinev, causing a mass exodus of Jews fleeing to Galicia in rags and total penury. They all made for the German border in order to embark from there to America without having the financial wherewithal to arrange for passage. They remained stranded in Oshpitzin causing an unbearable burden for the Jewish Kehilla in town. Rabbi Abba'le Schnur, who by then was living in Tarnow, became aware of the tragic circumstances in Oshpitzin and hurried there, made his way to Germany to apprise important Jews there of the emergency and returned with one of their officials. On their arrival to the “vale of tears”, seeing the great havoc in person, the emissary immediately formed a committee headed by Rabbi Abba'le Schnur, depositing large sums of money for the relief operation. The Rabbi toiled ceaselessly to ease the distress of the wretched refugees. With the money at his disposal he bought passage on ships for many Jews, and for others he supplied a roof and food until such time as they could obtain assistance from their American relatives. Quite a few were helped by him until they could arrange to remain in Austria. Only after all of the refugees were cared for to the best possible disposition did he close down the operation and return to Tarnow. Rabbi Abba'le Schnur excelled as a devoted leader caring for his people accomplishing a great deal for them in a time of distress and danger. There were many legends told about him while he was yet alive.

Rabbi Dr. Leibush Mintz. Some of the leaders of the Oshpitzin Kehilla saw it as fitting and proper to appoint a Rabbi who would be officially recognized by the authorities and who would simultaneously be a fount of Torah and secular knowledge, having the title of “Doctor of Philosophy”. Dr. Mintz was considered an outstanding scholar by Jews and a learned Maskil by the governmental authorities because of his academic title. Dr. Mintz was ordained at the Yeshiva of the Chasam Sofer in Presburg [Bratislava] after having studied for years in well-known Yeshivot in Hungary. The Jews of Oshpitzin were, indeed, for the most part, quite far removed from the idea of having a Rabbi who had a doctoral degree. The “progressive” Kehilla representatives saw fit to bend the local Jewish population to their will and chose such a Rabbi as befitting a city bordering on the land of enlightenment and culture, Germany, from whose capital Berlin there reached the echoes of the learned leader of the Maskilim, Moshe Mendelsohn. On the other hand, Dr. Mintz was also famous for his knowledge of Torah as well as of Haskala. There were those among the Jews of Oshpitzin who expressed their opinions regarding their Rabbi, the Doctor, saying that it was a pity that a Jew like him had studied philosophy and thus tainted his Torah scholarship, while others said regarding his knowledge of “Goyish” matters could not in any way be thought of as learning, since a Jew such as Dr. Mintz certainly grasped the entire field of philosophy by just a glance into their books, and that with his marvelous, incisive intellect he certainly had imbibed all of the “Seven Wisdoms” while standing on one foot. Obviously, the town's Hasidim did not want to recognize Dr. Mintz as their Rabbi, even if he were the greatest Torah Sage of the generation. Conversely, it was hard for them to believe that someone with a “philosophic” education could at the same time be an outstanding Hasid and pious to the degree that he could be a spiritual leader of Hasidim. Indeed, there were in fact at that time in Oshpitzin in addition to the Chief-Rabbi, who had been accredited by the authorities, two other Rabbis, both of them Hasidic Admorim who arranged “tables” and accepted Kvitlach, and both were not accredited by the authorities, but the Kehilla paid their salaries under the rubric of “assistants” to the Rabbi. One was the grandson of the Tzadik of Sacz and the other was from the Sadigora Hasidic dynasty. In addition to these two Admorim, there were also two Dayanim in Oshpitzin, and when the need arose to ask for a Rabbinic decision they would not turn to Dr. Mintz, although there was no objection to his religious behavior, but they would turn to the city's Dayanim. Dr. Mintz, then was considered merely as the Kehilla representative and their spokesman with the authorities, and there he made an impression as an educated person who spoke the German language perfectly. Dr. Mintz would stay at home for days on end and would be visited by the town's Maskilim to spend time in conversation. It finally happened that a conflict occurred in town and Dr. Mintz found it best to leave the town and serve as the Rabbi in Kempen in the Posen district, the city where the famous Meir Leibush Malbi”m had once been the Rabbi. It is told that the conflict arose due to Rabbi Mintz's refusal to agree to have a marriage be performed at the cemetery as a remedy against the epidemic then raging in town. Since he suspected that this would be carried out in spite of his objection, he requested the Mayor to issue a warning to the Kehilla that should they dare to set up a marriage canopy at the cemetery over the objections of Dr. Mintz, the people would be dispersed by the police and those officiating at the ceremony would be punished by imprisonment. No other Rabbi accredited by the authorities was ever engaged by the Kehilla to take Dr. Mintz's place.

Rabbi Noson Note Halevi Landa, Av Besdin of Oshpitzin. He was born in 5601 [1841] in Brigel, Galicia. His father, R’ Moshe Dovid was a grandson and great-grandson of the Rabbi Gaon Yitzchak Eizik of Dukla and the MaHaRa”L of Prague (and his lineage traces back to King David). In his teens he was one of the students of the Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Ahron, Av Besdin of Korczyn, the author of “Beis Ahron” on [tractate] Gitin, and of Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, the Tzadik of Sacz, and he imbibed Torah from the greatest Sages of his generation. While still young, he was appointed to a post in Tarnow. He went on to serve as the Av Besdin in Bardejow, and finally served in Oshpitzin. He was famous as a mighty Gaon, proficient in Talmud and Codes, as well as all of the branches of Torah. He published the following books: “Ura Shachar”, “Kemo Hashachar” (principles in Halacha and Aggada), “Kerem Nota” (on the tractate Sotah), Responsa entitled “K'naf Renana” (Three volumes), “Chok Olom” on aspects of the world, “Levanon Nota” (on Yoreh Deah). In addition to the books he was able to publish there remained many lovely manuscripts, that his family were unable to publish. Rabbi Noson Note died on Teveth 13 5667 [Dec. 30, 1906] at the age of 66. His son, Rabbi Eliezer filled his post.

Rabbi Menachem Menli Soifer. He was not a Rabbi yet many came to his door. Communities wanting to appoint a Shochet or Rabbi to lead their Kehillot would turn to him, and he did everything possible to supply their spiritual needs. He did all of this without recompense. He wrote the book “Shlosha Edrei Tzon” [“Three Shepherds” - lit. Three Flocks of Sheep] which appeared in three editions, and became a spiritual bridge to the two previous generations. His life was spent in holiness. He never held any position nor accepted any fiscal relationship other than accepting the task [as a scribe] of writing a Torah Scroll. He served many Hasidic Tsadikim in his lifetime without becoming a disciple of any one of them. He was born in Oshpitzin and was called Soifer due to his profession which was that of being a Sofer STa'M [scribe who writes Sefer Torah, T'filin, and Mezuzot] which he pursued all his life. He did so not to make a living, but devoted all his power and energy to disseminate Torah and piety in all the places he reached. He was known in almost all the Hasidic courts of his time. Precisely for these traits it is fitting that he should be remembered in this chapter as one of the foremost figures of the Oshpitzin Kehilla.

Rabbi Chaim Zvi Kupferman. He was one of two Dayanim that were active in town during the tenure of Rabbi Dr. Mintz and Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam. He lived on Berek Joselewica Street. (More details about him are in the article by Chaim Wolnerman).

Rabbi Yehoshua Pinchos Bombach. He was the son of the Gaon, Rabbi Yosef of Jaworow (and a descendant of the Chacham Zvi and the author of “Minchas Yehuda” and of highest Yichus). When he reached 12 years of age he was already famous as a prodigy and for his incisive Torah novella, and had then written a large discourse on the tractate of Bezah entitled “Kvod Hamo'ed”, and a commentary “Kankan Chadash” on the subject of Chodesh [?] which remained in manuscript form. At 18 he was already recognized as a Torah Luminary who was at home in the profundities of Halacha and would discuss Torah with the mighty Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Ahron Ettinga, the Av Besdin of Lwow. In the book of responsa of the MaHaRYA Halevi (part 37) he testifies to the following about him: “Truthfully speaking, if I had not seen it myself I would not have believed that this man of tender years should be so aged in wisdom..., and I am certain that the people of his generation will derive counsel and resourcefulness in his teaching Halacha to the many in the age-old ways…” He was taught by his father, the Rabbi, Tzaddik, and Gaon, Rabbi Yisachar Dov Rokeach of Belz. He was married at 20 to the daughter of Rabbi Arye Leibush, the Av Besdin of Uhnow, who was the son of Rabbi Eliyahu, Av Besdin of Drohobycz, author of “Ezor Eliyahu”. At the age of 24 he was appointed Av Besdin of Medenice, and from there he moved to Bilkamien [?], and then to the post of Rosh Av Besdin in Drohobycz. He then moved to serve in the same post at Oshpitzin. He was a brilliant Gaon, and from all parts of the country they turned to him with difficult [Halachic] problems. His Bes Medrish produced great scholars, Rabbis, and Tzadikim. At the age of 36 he published his book of responsa, “Ohel Yehoshua” on Orach Chaim (two volumes) and there remained many manuscripts of many novella on responsa, Talmud, and Shulchan Aruch, sermons (he was a marvelous preacher), and on other branches of Torah scholarship. He died at the age of 56 on the 25th of Nissan 5681 [April 3, 1921] leaving behind sons who were Torah scholars and brilliant Rabbis, and his eldest son, Rabbi Eliyahu, the author of “Ma'ane Eliyahu” succeeded him in the post.

Rabbi Eliyahu Bombach of Oshpitzin. [4] He was the son of Rabbi Yehoshua Pinchos Bombach of Oshpitzin, born in 5644 [1884] at Drohobycz. When yet quite young he began to study with his father, the Gaon, and to sit in on his classes. At his Bar Mitzvah celebration which was arranged at his father's home, he spoke on Halacha before the gathered guests, many of them the Gaonim of Galicia, and his discourse became the talk of the town in Oshpitzin and the region, so that the echoes reverberated throughout all of Galicia. Many then foresaw a great future for him. Due to his greatness in Torah and his distinguished character his father betrothed him to the daughter of the Admor of Komarno, Rabbi Yakov Saffrin, and after staying several years under the wing of his father-in-law, Rabbi Eliyah went out to serve as a Rabbi in the Kety Kehilla, near Bilice. At the sudden death of his father, Rabbi Yehoshua Pinchos, the Rabbi of Oshpitzin, the son moved from Kety to succeed his father and was installed as the Rabbi of Oshpitzin. He established a Higher Yeshiva in town and lectured there daily. His profound discourses in Halacha trained Rabbis and Torah Luminaries par excellence, and the city of Oshpitzin became a place of Torah and a center of Jewish Torah life. The Rabbis of many cities would rush their Halachic questions to him. He, however, was reluctant to make [new] Halachic decisions, and even feared for his life, saying that his father, who was obliged to do so frequently did not live long. Consequently, he would use every opportunity to evade doing so with respect to specific Halachic problems. It was only rarely that he felt forced to respond to complicated, specific Halachic questions, and did so with the greatest reluctance. Rabbi Eliyahu conducted himself all of his life as a Hasid and was a loyal adherent of the Komarno Admorim. He regularly traveled to Komarno, thrice yearly: For Shabbat Hanukkah, for Shavuot, and the Shabbat preceding “S'lichot” [just before Rosh Hashana]. Rabbi Eliyahu had four sons and three daughters. His son, R’ Shmuel, was an Admor in Bedzin, Poland. His son, R’ Binyomin was a Rabbi in one of the Oshpitzin suburbs. With the outbreak of the Nazi-German war of annihilation, Rabbi Eliyahu experienced the affliction of his people and his Kehilla. He fled to Sosnowice, but a short time later was sent back to the place where he and his father had served with distinction. On Lag Ba'omer 5703 [May 23, 1943] he perished in the Shoah, HY”D.





FOOTNOTES

  1. See the large tome by Meier Balaban (in Polish: On the History of the Jews of Krakow and Kazimierz). Return


  2. On Blycher, see in the “Lexicon of Hebrew Literature of Recent Generations” by Lancel [?] Karpel, Vol. 1, published by “Sifriat Poalim”, Merchavia, and also in the biographical works of Weininger (in German). Return


  3. See more about him in the Memoirs “Meine Zichroines” by Gershon Bader in the chapter on Oshpitzin where he lived for some years. [tr. See an excerpt in the Yizkor Book itself in the Memoirs section]. Return


  4. See “Eile Ezkera”, a compendium of biographies 5700-5705 [1940-1945] edited by Yitzchak Levin, Vol. 6, NY, 5725 [1965] for details on the Bombach family who served as Rabbis in Oshpitzin. Return






[Page 107]

Chapter 15


The Jewish Community in Oshpitzin and Its Institutions

The ancient Jewish kehilla in Oshpitzin. – Its internal and external functions. – The Oshpitzin delegate to the Council of Four Lands. – The kehilla of Oshpitzin in the Council of Four Lands. – As of 1785 the kehilla is in charge of education, religious affairs, and charity. – A number of conflagrations of the Great Synagogue. – Folktales surrounding it as told by the city's Jews. – An historic treasure house of ritual articles of stylish and ethnographic significance. – The folktale of the public prayer by the dead in the Great Synagogue. – The Great Bes Medrish is about 300 years old. - The Old Cemetery in Oshpitzin. – Mass visits to family graves on special occasions.

Jewish kehilla in Oshpitzin was one of the most venerable and ancient Polish kehillot, especially in West Galicia. Understandably, its composition varied during its many years of existence, and it experienced many events in the political and social spheres. The kehilla was always an autonomous entity serving the Jewish community, safeguarding its interests vis-à-vis governmental authorities, the Church, and the municipality. With reference to internal affairs, the kehilla forcefully supervised all areas of Jewish life, most of which were already in existence before the formation of the kehilla framework: synagogues and religious functionaries (rabbis, dayanim, chazanim ), mikvaot, cemeteries, chadarim and melamdim. In accordance with the medieval practice of the Church and the municipal authorities, kehillot instituted social welfare as one of their activities. The kehilla took the stance of officially representing the Jewish population in its dealings with outsiders, i.e., the city council or governmental institutions, as the sanctioned authority of the Jewish population. The kehilla, too, was responsible for collecting taxes on behalf of the government that Jews were required to pay. The organizational pattern of the Oshpitzin kehilla in the medieval period was undoubtedly, as generally was the case of Jews in Poland, a continuation of ready-made patterns they had brought with them from Germany. A similar organizational pattern of the kehilla existed at that time in the neighboring countries of Bohemia and Hungary. It can, nevertheless, be assumed that the proximity of Oshpitzin to Krakow brought about a reciprocal relationship between the two kehillot and that the influence of the “Big Brother” Krakow on the smaller Oshpitzin was evident[1].

Organizational changes in the kehilla and the personal lives of the Jews came about after the conquest of Galicia by Austria. Previously, the Galician kehillot had been organized according to the Moravian model, but in 1785 the kehillot lost their juridical and administrative authority, leaving them only with control over religious affairs, religious education, and supervision of charitable institutions. The kehilla became a religious organization and nothing more. Poll taxes and other taxes were no longer levied on the entire kehilla, as had been the practice before 1776, but on each individual. Their collection was now the province of government officials who received the taxes directly, without the intervention of kehilla officials. With regard to police and administrative matters, Jews, like other residents, came under the jurisdiction of the municipality. Even so, the government did not relinquish its authority to appoint the kehilla leaders.

The Synagogue in Oshpitzin

It is a certainty that during the entire period of the existence of a kehilla in the city, a suitable place was provided to enable a Jew to pour out his heart's concerns before his Creator and to give expression to his religious feelings, not only on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays but every day and whenever he felt the need. A synagogue was, therefore, a primary and essential institution for any Jew. There exists, however, only one synagogue reference in the journals, stating that in 1863 [5623], during a great conflagration in the city, two synagogues went up in flames. This solitary mention is from a non-Jewish source, giving rise to many questions concerning the synagogue itself, including when it had been built (for it surely had been in existence for some time) and who had seen to its construction. Because the synagogue was an institution of supreme importance in the lives of the city's Jews and because frequent outbreaks of fire were common in all settlements, lacking specific details we may assume that this was not the first ancient synagogue serving Oshpitzin's Jews but that other buildings had preceded it and had burned down more than once. In general, we know only one important fact, that the Oshpitzin synagogue was one of many in Poland filled with artistically fashioned ornaments that would have been suitable for museum collections. Where, then, can we find a resource to fill in the gap in our knowledge about the great splendor that was present in this remote corner of the Oshpitzin Principality from the beginnings of Jewish existence there until it was lost for all time, set on fire by the defiled of humanity, the German Nazis? The synagogue of Oshpitzin was an historical monument involving episodes and events of past generations;[2] about it legends have grown which tell about the lives and troubles of the city's Jews. The synagogue was also a museum of artifacts, furnishings, and objects of great historical value, stylistically and ethnographically, including the Holy Ark, altar cloths,[3] Ark curtains, chairs of Eliyahu, candlesticks, candelabra, antique prayer books, and ritual items. It is safe to assume that the first synagogue built in old Oshpitzin, a community surrounded by forests, was constructed of wood in a Jewish folk style of unique character, the product of Jewish builders and artists. Seemingly one might ask, “What is so special about wooden structures whose architecture is of the simplest form, sometimes even primitive?” It is a fact, however, that even the wooden synagogue structures that were quite numerous earned a reputation in artistic circles generally, and especially among Jews, for magnificent construction and their style, which had been fashioned by “artisans who are engaged in sacred work.” With respect to exterior and interior components, it is certain that there existed among the wooden synagogues in Oshpitzin all of the sublime characteristics which testified to the excellent talents of those who built them.

One can assume that prior to the burning of the synagogue in 1863 [5623], it had gone through many transformations and various modifications whose details disappeared along with the buildings, and one may suppose that some listing of the different synagogues that occupied that plot in different eras is necessary. Old Oshpitzin was visited by tourists and travelogue writers who noted their impressions of what they saw with their own eyes, but no such record of the synagogue remained, as if it had been a conscious decision by the visitors not to mention the sacred building of the Jews. Indeed, one cannot surmise that the synagogue always occupied the same space, since there is the injunction that states: “One should not demolish an old synagogue until a new one to replace it is erected, otherwise he may transgress and not build another.” It is likely, then, that since the founding of the kehilla in Oshpitzin there existed synagogues which varied in appearance, style, or composition, and that the Holocaust survivors can describe only the last synagogue, built to replace the one that had burnt down. They are full of praise regarding its splendor and of its treasured ritual objects, which were disgracefully put to the torch by the Nazis.

A widespread folktale used to be told in Oshpitzin about the dead who prayed communally in the synagogue at Oshpitzin. It was said that once, after midnight on Simchas Torah night, when all the residents were asleep, Jews were awakened by a great noise which issued from the synagogue. The most intrepid approached the synagogue to see what was happening there. As they neared the synagogue, enshrouded in darkness, they saw it suddenly lit up brightly, and the gates wide open. They saw no living soul inside, but they did hear the sounds of a Jewish congregation praying the Ma'ariv service. A chazan chanted Ato Horaiso [opening prayer of the holiday], followed by Hakofot [seven rounds of dancing with the Torah scrolls]. When the living Jews attempted to leave in fright, it was not possible because of a warning from inside the synagogue that no one should dare move away until they were given leave to do so. It is self-evident that they were obliged to obey the instruction. It was later explained to them that these congregants were the purified souls of former Jews of Oshpitzin who had for some years been in the world beyond. When the service reached the portion of Torah reading, all were called for an aliyah. The “living” were also called, each by name, after which the Torah scrolls were returned to the Holy Ark, and the Ma'ariv service ended. Then they heard the order that no one was to turn away on leaving, but that they should all leave the place with their backs to the outside, so that they should, Heaven forbid, not be harmed. This they did with trepidation and they came back home safely. [4]

The synagogue building was always dark during the night, and various legends about it were embellished. One of them related that each night after midnight, the dead come to pray. Those who have not found eternal peace come to find a healing for their souls. They take out the Torah scrolls from the Holy Ark and read the Torah. Therefore, whoever passes by the synagogue at night must approach the gate and knock three times in order to give the dead time to get away. Should he not knock, the dead are liable to call him up to the Torah, and no one knows what may befall him thereafter. Young boys and sometimes even older ones were afraid to pass by the synagogue at night. There was one outstanding detail in all of these legends: there was no mezuzah on the synagogue door. No few people remember with fear and trembling what dread this building aroused in their youth – some shudder even today. This dread and the legendary tales that grew up about the synagogue were a kind of reminder that there is Judgment and a Judge who oversees all the living, and that the end of each is death.

The common denominator of all of the synagogues was that they were located in the same place in Oshpitzin, notwithstanding many changes over time, and that in all the years of the existence of a kehilla in Oshpitzin, the synagogue remained the center of the communal and personal lives of the Jews. Every communal event found its expression there, and it was the meeting place of the community to which all came for the few joyous and the many sad occasions in our history. The relationship between the Jew and his people, between the individual and the many, was exemplified by the link of the synagogue – daily, on every Sabbath and Festival, on days of celebration, and in times of mourning.


The Great Bes Medrish

The Great Bes Medrish, which stood next to the synagogue, greatly differed from it in structure, shape, influence, and character as the molder of the nation's soul. Other than this important aspect of the Oshpitzin Bes Medrish, we have very few significant details of its earlier incarnations. There is one reference from 1905 [5665], which reports that the gabbaim of the Great Bes Medrish had refurbished and enlarged the building. Another reference a week later completes the picture by reporting that the bes medrish was a very old building that had seen 300 years and that it had been overflowing with religious books; hardly anyone had been concerned about their safeguarding or supervision, and as a consequence only ten percent remained.[5] Should someone have desired to study Torah it was necessary to go to another bes medrish, in spite of the fact that the Great Bes Medrish could have accommodated 300.

It is difficult to describe the bes medrish adequately, not only the one in Oshpitzin, but wherever one existed. There were tables in the form of a “U,” with benches along the sides of the tables. Bachurim of all ages sat and studied with fervor, each aloud with his own intonation, all the voices with various nuances combining into one large symphony. On specific nights, diligent bachurim would spend the entire night studying. Daily, there were merchants who closed their businesses and craftsmen who abandoned their labors and came to the bes medrish for the Ma'ariv service, and after the prayers they would stand or sit for hours to listen to the bachurim studying. Dozens of unlearned people, too, would sit for many hours in the bes medrish and hear with spiritual delight the voices of the bachurim. Overall, the bes medrish served as a shield and shelter for the weak, as a children's house, a school for the youth, and a university for the adults. The bes medrish was open from before dawn until late at night, and its position as a place of Torah was honored in its surroundings. The tall bookcases and shelves that reached to the ceiling added much to the sacred atmosphere filling the place, and its memory would remain a source of inspiration for decades.[6]


The Bes Ho'almin

The bes ho'almin [cemetery] was the label given to the location reserved for the burial of the dead. Jews have always regarded cemeteries with respect. Graves were considered holy places, especially those of tzadikim, where people would come to lie prostrate with their requests and prayers. Since the rise of the Hasidic movement the custom was to erect ohalim [memorial stone huts] over the graves of the tzadikim, and there were such at the cemetery in Oshpitzin located on Zator Street, somewhat removed from the city, called the Old Cemetery. We have no knowledge of when it was inaugurated or who its founders and first custodians were or the circumstances of the purchase of the land. It is probable that this cemetery was preceded by others long forgotten; once when excavations took place on the Jews' Street the remains of a cemetery from ancient times were discovered. The Old Cemetery was closed with the passage of time owing to the lack of space for new graves, and it was replaced by the last one. No further details are available about the Old Cemetery.[7]

From the tombstones in the Old Cemetery, one can determine that it was the latest of the old cemeteries. One of the Hebrew journals (1896) recounts a report by a researcher who examined the headstones of rabbis who taught Torah in Oshpitzin. He estimated that the oldest such tombstone was of Rabbi Yitzhak Eizik Landa, and quoted the text on the tombstone, which indicates that the rabbi served as the av besdin in town, died at the age of 70, and was buried on 2 Adar I 5543 [1783]. According to his son-in-law in his foreword to the Sha'arei Torah, the rabbi was a trustee of the Council of the Four Lands of Poland for many years and left a blessing through his novella, some of which are mentioned in the same foreword (Vienna, 1792 [5552]); the famous gaon Rabbi Yirmiyahu, the av besdin of Mattersdorf, born in Oshpitzin, was his son.

It is said that between trees whose lower branches covered the lower tombstones in the cemetery there were two crypts or ohalim. In one of them was the tomb of the Hasidic tzadik, Rabbi Berish Fromer, one of the disciples of Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsberg [Mikulow] and of Rabbi Yakov Yitzhak, the Choize [Seer] of Lublin. The second ohel was that of Rabbi Yakov Scharf, the chief rabbi of the town in 1819 [5579], the author of Darkei Yosher on the Torah, the Prophets, and the Talmud, and the close friend of Rabbi Yisachar Ber, the Tzadik of Radoszyce, who was interred in 1869 [5629]. Twice a year masses from the town and surrounding area would come to visit the graves of these two tzadikim to pray and light memorial candles.

The cemetery in Oshpitzin was cherished by the Jews in town and in West Galicia, as well as by Jews living in nearby Austrian Silesian settlements and Prussia. In the cities of Bilice and Biale lived assimilated Jews who were not careful in keeping the mitzvot, and throughout their lives their only concern was how to be brought to eternal rest after 120 years and to be buried in the Oshpitzin cemetery, for they wanted to be laid to rest among authentic, religious Jews. An American, who was born in Oshpitzin, recounts that he knew people who lived for many years in wealth and dignity in the beautiful capital of Austria, Vienna, and in their waning years moved to Oshpitzin and ended their days there. They were asked, “Why would you want to leave the most beautiful of the European capitals and come to live out your elder years in Oshpitzin?” They replied that, indeed, life was good and very comfortable in Vienna, but that it was better to die and be buried in Oshpitzin, for they were certain that in the merit of the nearby tzadikim, rabbis, and famous gaonim buried in the Oshpitzin cemetery, its earth had been turned into holy land, and whoever merited being buried there would not suffer the pains of resurrection.

On Tisha B'Av and the days of the month of Elul, the Jews of Oshpitzin and surroundings would visit the cemetery in droves, to be at their ancestors' gravesides and to pray and commune there. They would also go there when beset by trouble and would then beseech the departed to intercede for them, and would on those occasions distribute charity to the poor for the sake of the departed souls, which is not to be considered sinful since the children and relatives of the departed come to the graves to request a favor for their souls. As the Shaloh had said: It is customary to prostrate oneself at the gravesides in order that the dead intercede on our behalf.

There was no kehilla in Israel without a Chevra Kaddisha and, as is customary, a burial society existed in Oshpitzin with the very founding of the first cemetery hundreds of years ago. The cemetery and the Chevra Kaddisha were interdependent. The Chevra would see to the proper burial and came to ease the burden of the local Jews, for it is the duty of every Jew to occupy himself with the burial of the dead in his city. If, however, there was an operative Chevra Kaddisha, then all the others were released from the mitzvah. In this locality there was a decided feeling of doing an important mitzvah by enrolling as a member in the Chevra Kaddisha. The members and gabbaim would keep certain customs and had various privileges.

The members of the Chevra Kaddisha underwent severe trials during the Nazi occupation. They endangered themselves more than once in order to bury the murdered Jews of the city and surroundings. Some of the members used detectives' methods to locate the dead, and immediately after receiving word they would effect the burial. Carrying out this task was extremely difficult and risky, and in fact some of the members themselves fell victim while performing this mitzvah. In spite of it all, they continued to do their work with courage and devotion until the deportation of all the Jews to Sosnowice. The survivors of Oshpitzin in Israel keep a record of all the tombstones the Germans removed from the cemetery to line the streets and various places, and after the war the survivors gathered the stones and brought them to the Jewish cemetery. The record lists the names of people on these tombstones.[8]


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FOOTNOTES
  1. I found practically no information on the kehilla of Oshpitzin, aside from some peripheral remarks here and there. Former Oshpitzin residents in Israel were able to provide me with some little data on the two last generations only. Return


  2. In this too, the Jewish community of Oshpitzin differs from the others, nearly all of which were able to preserve some record of their synagogues and artifacts, whereas in Oshpitzin we have only the reference to its burning down in 1863 [5623], i.e., a little more than 100 years ago, without knowing when it was built, refurbished, repaired, etc. The only kindness is that one photograph attests to its having existed. Return


  3. The term in the original text, kipot, meaning domes or ritual head coverings, is puzzling in this context and may be a typographical error. If the Hebrew letters chaf and yod are connected to form the Hebrew letter mem, then kipot becomes mapot or altar cloths, fitting the series of words describing the interior of the synagogue.] Trans. & Ed. Return


  4. This legend in various versions is told in almost every Jewish town, and no one knows who adapted it from whom. Return


  5. Wolnerman in his description of the Great Bes Medrish just before the Shoah reports that there were no books or bookshelves at all! The ten percent of 1905 disappeared altogether in the next 30 years. Return


  6. The Oshpitzin Bes Medrish was luckier than the Great Synagogue, for according to one reference it was 300 years old, though here, too, it is uncertain if it was the first, or rebuilt. Return


  7. There is a gap concerning the cemetery, and it remains difficult to determine if there was a still older one in town which had been closed due to lack of space and which, due to the passage of many years, had been totally forgotten by the kehilla administrators. It was only by hearsay that there was thought to be an ancient cemetery in the city which was found in the process of excavating for a new building. Return


  8. The Book of Tombstones is an invaluable memorial, and perhaps it will serve as a memorial in the House of Oshpitzin that will be erected in Israel through the initiative of those who came from the city. Return

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