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[Pages 109-110]

The Kosher Butchers of Staszów

by Meir Shimon Geshuri

Translated from Hebrew by Leonard Levin

Reb Chaim Issachar Erlichman

Reb Chaim Issachar Erlichman was the chief shochet u–vodek in Staszów at the beginning of the twentieth century.[1] He was considered one of the best Torah scholars in the town and knew enough to qualify for a rabbi's office, but the conditions of life forced him to forgo the crown of Torah and rest content with the office of a “butcher and inspector.” He had tried his luck in business earlier, and only after losing his bride's dowry did he travel to pay a visit to his rabbi the tzaddik, who advised him to study the laws of animal slaughter and become a butcher. He heeded his rabbi's advice and learned the trade from one of his Hasidic acquaintances. He received certification and took his friends' suggestion to undertake the butcher's trade in Staszów.

Despite his great knowledge of Torah, Rabbi Chaim Issachar had no compunctions about looking also into the literature of the Haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment]. He especially loved the Jewish philosophy of the Middle Ages and often read the books of that genre–Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed, the works of Rabbi Judah Halevi, Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabirol, the more recent Samuel David Luzzato (1800–1865), and others. But this did not influence his work, and he remained a religious Jew without any qualification. He was also one of the best prayer leaders in the city, and on the High Holy Days he would lead the prayers in the kloyz[2] or the beit midrash and won the favor of the worshippers. As a scholar he knew how to explain difficult passages in the Talmud and Midrash with good taste and common sense.

He served many years as a butcher in Staszów and lived to a ripe old age.


Reb Berl the Butcher

The love of fellow Jews throbbed through his veins, and his zeal for Hasidism, its teaching and mission in the town and surroundings burned in him like a flaming fire. He was respected and beloved throughout the town. He belonged to a group of men of whom it was said, “Zu Gott un zu layt”–for God and for people. He was a fine Hasidic type who never forgot his lineage, but attentive to the change of values on the street, he also tended toward enlightenment. He tried to learn and improve himself with practical knowledge. He became accustomed to reading the newspapers and followed the news and what was happening in the world generally.


Reb Motl Bloch

Reb Motl (Mordecai) Bloch was a native of Kurozwęki, a village close to Staszów, where a few dozen Jewish families lived. When he finished his studies with the local melamed [primary school teacher], Motel moved on to acquire knowledge in the beit midrash in Staszów, and after getting married he was appointed as butcher there. He was gabbai [officer] at the kloyz of the Gerer Hasidim. He was also an excellent shofar blower and led the pesukei de–zimra [introductory psalms] on High Holy Days and the Mincha [midafternoon] service on Yom Kippur.

Unlike in other cities, in which the butchers give rise to disputes within the city,[3] Reb Motl was accepted by all and beloved by young and old alike. He set aside times for studying Torah and was careful in minor as well as major mitzvot. He educated the members of his household in Torah and in Hasidism. Still, he managed to steer clear of controversy and did everything in order to make peace, brotherhood, and friendship prevail among all members of the community.

They would pray in the shtibl only on the Sabbath, whereas during the rest of the week they would meet mornings and evenings in the beit midrash. Reb Motl felt at home in the beit midrash, greeted everyone in a friendly manner, and supervised the division of guests and soldiers among host households for Sabbath and holiday meals–each according to his dignity. He himself did not sit down at table without a guest, not only on Sabbaths and holidays but even on weekdays. He even arranged for guests to sleep over in his house–all with a smile and a cordial manner.

He got along well with people and knew how to attract his acquaintances with pleasant talk, with light joking, and with the small talk that would befit a scholar. He especially tried to influence the youths; he would converse with them and pinch their cheeks affectionately, and they responded to him with warmth. He served the community with love, loyalty, and personal devotion. He was a man of many talents and fine qualities, a man with clean hands and a pure heart. He though now and then of making aliyah to the Holy Land, especially after his son Israel went and settled in Jerusalem. But out of worry that he would not be productive in Eretz Israel and would have to be dependent on his family, he gave up on the idea. With the invasion of Staszów by the Nazis, Reb Motl bore the yoke of his compatriots and shared their hard fate. He perished in 1942, at the age of 80. May God avenge his blood.


Reb Aaron the Butcher

A devout Hasid, exuding folk Jewishness, Reb Aaron united in his person and his manners seriousness and strict piety with good humor and intellectual jokes. It was he who wiped the tears off everyone's faces and introduced joy and gaiety in every sad situation and milieu. It was he who said that “the joy of a mitzvah” and “the mitzvah of joy” are one and the same.


  1. Shochet u–vodek: literally, “butcher and inspector.” To be certified as a kosher butcher under Jewish law, one must be familiar with the laws not only of slaughter but also of examining the condition of the slaughtered animal–in effect, a mini–autopsy–to determine if the animal was healthy enough to be deemed kosher. Thus shochet u–vodek–“butcher and inspector”–was the official title of what we would simply call a kosher butcher. return
  2. Kloyz: “room,” probably a shtibl (a small prayer gathering in someone's house or other small building). See the description of shtibls in the section “The Shul and the Besmedresh” in Hershl Pomerancblum's article “What Staszów Was Like,” http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/staszow/sta245.html. return
  3. “Disputes within the city”: Unfortunately, strictly religious Jews often disagree about whether this or that butcher is careful enough about his adherence to the rules governing kashrut and thus whether his meat is “kosher” enough to buy and eat. Apparently this did not happen in Staszów–at least, not among the butchers described in this article. return

[Pages 111-129]

The “Rav,” Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart

by Nachman Shemen

Translated from Hebrew by Miriam Leberstein

His Life and Work

It is very, very difficult to write about a person so near and beloved, a person with whom I spent hours every morning, listening to his constant murmur, to the tune he hummed expressing the solitude that embodied the Jewish tragedy, the pain and longing of life in the Diaspora.

Twenty years have passed since our great teacher and guide left us for the eternal world. To paraphrase the Mishnah: Since Rabbi Judah died, counsel and wisdom have departed from the world[1]. And yet, the pain of the loss of the gaon[2] is still so fresh. That terrible Thursday[3], when this genius of halacha [religious law], this pillar of wisdom left us, still stands before my eyes. I still feel the pain of that day when I heard the terrible news that he had given up his soul in sanctity and purity.

It is difficult to write a comprehensive appreciation of the gaon, and even harder to write his biography. He provided us with very little biographical material. All that we know about him comes from the time when he was already a rabbi and occupied quite a prominent position in the rabbinical world. We know almost nothing about his childhood and school days.

It is also hard to provide a portrait of a person so close to us. There is a danger of subjectivity, because of the love and respect we feel for him. There is also a danger that we might yield to the temptation of underestimating his greatness because we are so close. How can we accurately assess the value of the sun that shines above us and heals our wounds? The closer one is to the sun the harder it is to look at it. There is an old rule, after all: No one is a prophet in his own land.

Moreover, “the lion of the House of Ilay”[4] is still alive among us, and we cannot speak about him as we do of the past. He lives in our hearts and minds. It is amazing; not a day passes that we who were closest to him don't repeat his obiter dicta, in which the secrets of the Torah are concealed. Not a day passes that we don't repeat his original observations and critiques. His gestures, his groans are deeply rooted in us.

How often are we seized with a longing to hear him speak! His house on Denison Avenue in Toronto, his little room, the large bes–din [rabbinical court] room, the gray corner of the front room – all of these miss him and mourn him. Once, they vibrated with life, day and night. Who in our day, in our land of Canada so fulfilled the injunction to meditate day and night on the Torah? Who else wrote as much as Reb Yehuda Ari[5], whose entire life was inextricably entwined with Torah, as if he himself had become a holy ark that contained the oral and written Torahs, and the early and late authorities. It could be said of him that “his mouth never stopped learning.”[6] He was always studying, writing, working. His contributions to our 4,000–year–old culture, especially to Talmud scholarship, are significant. But this is not the place to provide a broad treatment of this great author. My intention is to encourage others by providing a preliminary biographical sketch, based on my own memories and on materials in my possession. I have not even drawn on the rich bibliography of his own works or of all that has been written about him and his work.


Birthplace of Maharil Graubart[7]

The little town of Shrensk [Szreńsk], where Rabbi Graubart was born, was located right on the border with Germany. Its Jewish population was very small. The town was occupied by the Germans several times, and the Germans had a great influence.

The landscape there was splendid, magnificently beautiful. The roads were lined with trees, flowers and tall grass stretching for miles. The landscape was enchanting, with its marvelous intimations of the secrets of creation.

The Jews there had much better opportunities to earn a living than in other parts of Poland.

There was a mix there of Polish sadness and loneliness with German pride and urbanity; Polish longing and romanticism with German zest, German technology, accuracy, and science.

Our rabbi's innate esthetic sense was further enhanced by the natural beauty of the landscape together with the German environment and influences.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart was born on the third day of Kislev in the year 5622 (1861). His father, Reb Benyomin, was a great scholar and maskil [follower of the Enlightenment], a giant of Torah and wisdom. He was a devotee–or, more precisely, a student– of the Tshekhanover (Ciechanów) rebbe Reb Avramele Landau and at the same time a friend of the renowned first Gerer [Góra Kalwaria] rebbe, Itsik Meyer. He was a cousin of the well–known rabbis Reb Leib Kutner (rabbi in Kutne [Kutno]) and Reb Simcha Meyer Rosenfeld (rabbi of Petrikov [Pyetrykaw]). His mother, Dvore Rekhil, granddaughter of the Shrensker rabbi, Reb Zelig, was also a teacher. She oversaw the education of her children and would often examine them to evaluate how well they had learned their lessons.[8]

It was a family with many branches in western Poland, including many proficient in Torah and secular learning, and also renowned for their piety and sanctity.

At the age of seven, the young Leib studied Talmud and the legal codes. When he got older, his father sent him to Plotzk [Płock], to study with his older brother, the world–renowned gaon and sage Reb Issachar Berish (the Bendiner [Będzin] rabbi), the author of the famous book of Talmudic law Sayings of Issachar, as well as other, unpublished works.

Among the students of the Bendiner rabbi, when he was living in Plotzk, was Nahum Sokolow, who later became a renowned writer and scholar and president of the International Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency. He studied along with Rabbi Graubart, and although he was three years older than he, they were friends and remained friends their entire lives.

My friend Rabbi David Graubart of Chicago told me that he went to greet Nahum when he visited the city. Of course, Sokolow was very busy with conferences and meetings, and they weren't able to meet privately, but when Sokolow's daughter wrote down the name Graubart and handed it to her father, Sokolow immediately left what he was doing, came out, and invited him in, joyfully repeating, “My Leib's son, my Leib's son.”

The rabbi also thought highly of Sokolow. I remember how a few years before he died, I think in the year 5692 [1932], on a very hot summer evening, we ended our studies early because of the heat and went for a walk. Since he never wasted time, we sat down in a nearby garden, and he took out a brochure in Hebrew that he had just received titled “Ma'aneh le–Nahum,”[9] written, if I am not mistaken, by a journalist from Łódź, a writer for Agudas Israel. We leafed through the brochure from beginning to end, discussing all of the author's criticisms of Sokolow, trying to justify them, but unable to. We were discussing Sokolow's personality, and the rabbi began speaking coolly and objectively but then increasingly louder, his enthusiasm growing, until suddenly, even louder, he said, “Sokolow is a marvelous man, a phenomenal person, an amazing mind, constantly searching and delving, just as he was as a child prodigy in Plotzk. You can't imagine what a memory he has. He is a gaon among gaons and renowned in all areas. If you want philosophy, he is himself a philosopher; if you want Gemara, no mystery baffles him. He remembers everything he ever studies, and there isn't anything he hasn't studied.”

While still a boy, the future rabbi Graubart had a reputation as a prodigy and assiduous student[10]. Renowned scholars who visited Shrensk or Plotzk were amazed by him, predicting that he would grow up to be a gaon. At his bar mitzvah in Shrensk, he recited an extensive pilpul on the Gemara, Hullin, page 96a, attended by his prominent relatives, foremost of which were the Bendiner rabbi; the town rabbi Reb Moshe Leven, brother of the Moscow rabbi, Reb Meyer Nes; the clever dayan [religious judge] Reb Motl; the rabbi of Sochatchin [Sochocin]; and many others.[11]

When he turned 20, he was ordained as a rabbi by the renowned Kalisher (Kalisz) rabbi, Reb Chaim Eliezer Waks, the author of the popular book on halacha, Nefesh Chaya[12] and others. The Kalisher rabbi wrote, inter alia: “I faithfully attest concerning the astute and pious Rabbi Yehuda Leib from Shrensk [Szreńsk], that he is resourceful in teaching and expert in instruction like the famous teachers. For this purpose my hand is prepared and my arms lend strength to grant him permission to judge and teach and to declare law and statute to the people of Jacob, and to make known what should be done in the community of Israel.” Signed, 25th day of Tevet in the year 5642 (6 January 1882), when he was living in Warsaw.[13]

It is interesting to note that the Shrensker rabbi, Reb Nosyn Leipziger [Lajpcygier], ordained Rabbi Graubart in the spring of 5644 [1884], two years after the ordination by the Kalisher [Kalisz] rabbi. Rabbi Graubart was at that time at his parents' house in Shrensk for Passover, and the town rabbi gave him a diploma dated: fifth of the week of the Torah–reading “Acharei–Kedoshim,” fourteenth of the Jewish ”counting.”[14] He writes, “The Torah is his occupation. He has not left the tent his entire life. Many times I have had fruitful discussions with him on Orach Chayim[15] and other matters, and I see that he is a new wineskin filled with old wine. May all ordinees be such as he! He is hereby invested with the authority to teach and to judge. As for our brethren of the House of Israel who desire to benefit from the light of his Torah, they shall go forth and come at his word, in accordance with the laws of our holy Torah, and he bears the crown of instruction.”

After serving four years as rabbi in Yanov [Janów], in the province (gubernia) of Plotzk, Rabbi Graubart was hired in 5648 [1888], with great honors, as rabbi in Makov [Maków], a larger Jewish town in the province of Lomzhe (Łomża) and a center of Jewish learning[16]. He served there as rabbi for about two decades[17]. He was very active in communal affairs and founded a great yeshiva, thus exercising leadership in both Torah and service.

During his time as rabbi in Makov, he participated not only in local communal life but in the national life of Polish Jewry, and he was already recognized as a person with great knowledge and skill in all area of Jewish activities. Thanks to his many–faceted brilliance, he began to take a leading position among the intellectual leaders of Polish Jewry, as well as in the rabbinical world, where he emerged as a specialist in both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds, in halacha, well versed in the early and later authorities and with great knowledge in Jewish learning, which very few rabbis in Poland possessed.

There wasn't one important book of modern Jewish scholarship with which he wasn't familiar. He knew the philosophical work of Rabbi Saadia Gaon[18]; he knew the Kuzari almost by heart; he was well versed in Maimonides's Guide to the Perplexed and in the verses of the great Jewish poets Yehuda Halevi and Solomon Ibn Gabirol; he was familiar with the philosophies of Spinoza, Mendelssohn, Solomon Maimon, Krochmal, Ahad Ha–Am, and quite a few of the poems of Y. L. Gordon, Shimen Frug, Bialik, and others.[19]

A poem he wrote soon before his death testifies to his zeal:

I am a servant, ever I will toil;
I will not spend my time for naught;
I will not give my strength and might to vain things;
I will study, meditate, research, question deeply,
And I will write in a book my thoughts, my question and answer.

I will not demand reward for my activity;
I do it for myself, for my spirit, my soul;
I love my service. I will not go out free!
The third of Kislev, the day I was born.


Recognized Authority in Halacha

In the year 5661 (1901), when he was still in Makov, Rabbi Graubart published the first part of his enormous book Chavalim Bi–Ne'imim, “Pangs of Delight – Words of Yehuda,” which came out in five volumes.[20]

After the publication of the first volume, he became recognized as an authority in halacha, first in Poland and then in the entire Jewish world. As it was then the custom to obtain haskomes [endorsements] for newly published books, the author sent the manuscript to several prominent figures of the time. In the first volume, there were endorsements from the renowned Sephardic leader Reb Chaim Hezekiah Medini, rabbi of Hebron, known by the acronym H”M; the Rabbi of Lomzhe, Reb Malkiel Tsvi HaLevi , author of the book Words of Malkiel; from Reb Chaim Berlin, the son of the “Netziv”[21] (then rabbi in Yelisavetgrod, Russia [now Kirovohrad, Ukraine]); from his uncle, the Shepser [Sierpc] rabbi, Reb Yehiel Mikhl; the rabbi of Plontch [Połaniec], Reb Tsvi Yeheskel Mikhelson (later rabbi of Warsaw), provided an enthusiastic letter at the end of the book.

All of them declare the usefulness of this book of legal theory and practice. All remark on the originality of his novel observations, which reflected how deep and wide he had swum in the sea of Talmudic studies. In his own book, Sedei Chemed,[22] one of the endorsers, the above–mentioned Chaim Hezekiah of Hebron, quotes extensively from Chavalim Bi–Ne'imim, along with other great Talmudic works from all periods.

The first volume of Chavalim Bi–Ne'imim is divided into two parts: (1) Sugiot: Talmudic questions, where he explained difficult passages in the Talmud in a systematic manner, organized alphabetically by subject. It is a profound book, based upon logical hypotheses and presented in the form of a concordance. (2) Inquiries and Responsa: answers to legal questions posed by rabbis from all over Poland, concerning religious, hygienic, and Jewish legal issues and problems of divorce and marriage. It is really an encyclopedia of Talmudic knowledge that could only have been created by a person of such great learning and a systematic thinker.

Rav Graubart left Makov for Staszów, in the province of Radom, where he served about a quarter of a century as the town rabbi and became known as the Stashever rabbi[23]. By that time, he occupied an honored position in the rabbinical world. Rabbis from all over the Russian Empire came to him with religious questions and to study, and he was renowned for his extraordinary memory and keen mind.

In Staszów he was the chief initiator of various rabbinical enterprises. He was the leader of the rabbinical conference in Warsaw. He travelled occasionally as an emissary all over Russia and Poland to organize Orthodox rabbis, and he played a central role in Jewish religious life. But he never wasted a minute, studying Torah day and night.

People came to consult on social and religious matters, and he answered everyone thoroughly and thoughtfully. I have before me a famous letter from the brother of the Gerer rabbi, Reb Menachem Mendl Alter (the Pabianitzer [Pabianice] rabbi), dated the third day of Parsha Bemidbar, 5669 [Spring 1909]. Reb Alter reports on several matters and asks Rabbi Graubart's assistance and advice. He writes about a rabbinical conference that took place with the Lubavitcher [Lyubavichi, Russia] rabbi and the Brisker [Brest–Litovsk] rabbi, Reb Chaim in attendance, about his impressions of the meeting, about how it differed from the conference in Warsaw organized by Rabbi Graubart, about the characteristics of Russian rabbis, about the Gerer yeshiva, which was then being organized, and about the condition of religious and Jewish studies in the country of Poland, which had greatly declined in recent years.

In Staszów, in 5670 [1910], he published the second section of Chavalim bi–Ne'imim, responsa arranged according to the Shulchan Arukh, with a collection of halachos (independent legal opinions) at the end.[24]

What actually constituted his greatness? That is not an easy question to answer. I will have to make do with a single all–encompassing word: originality. He created his own school of thought on how to bring clarity to the law. He approached the law analytically: First, he would determine its content, and then he would probe the logic of one or the other of the interpretations he was considering, employing both his enormous erudition and his astuteness, creating in essence a synthesis of learning and insight. In that lies the secret of his greatness.

He would start by researching the primary text in the Gemara, Rashi, Tosefot, and Rishonim.[25] Then he would pose questions, give answers, make comparisons, bring together different passages in the Talmud, and draw acute, radical conclusions.

His method was that of “delving deep,” immersing himself in the issues involved, to understand their inner spirit and extract law in its full clarity, a method of pure intellect, based mostly on the “Yad Chazakah” of Rambam[26] and the commentaries on that work.

He held that Maimonides's method in Guide to the Perplexed, reaching for the ultimate knowledge that we can never fully know, pointed to a great truth, as did the philosophies of the “Work of the Chariot” and “Work of Creation.”[27] In studying halacha, after intense and difficult probing to extract ever newer thoughts and opinions, he would say, “Well, we did after all accomplish something today; we now know what we don't know.” He would make this modest observation with great joy, after long sessions over a difficult question, which he had just resolved.

When he got involved in a matter, you couldn't tear him away. He could remain awake for days, thinking of the heavenly world in which that matter was formulated. At such times, this world and all it contained was irrelevant to him.

I once visited him on Sunday in spring, and in the course of a wide–ranging discussion, the name Jonah and “the prophet Jonah” came up – not a subject for a rabbi, but for him, the maskil, it was interesting enough to hold us enthralled for six hours, from 4 until 10 o'clock in the evening.[28] He displayed such knowledge and insight that my head was spinning. He referred to so many religious and secular books, concordances, encyclopedias, in several languages, not stopping for a minute.

A fairly large group of people had gathered in the corridor, awaiting his permission to enter. Some couldn't wait and came in, but he paid them no notice. Nothing existed for him expect the world of Jonah the prophet. Early the next morning, the telephone rang, and when I answered, I heard his pleasant voice: “Good morning, Nachman! You know what, I've found out something else about the name Jonah.” He had no doubt been up all night, studying the topic. And it should be noted that he was then already 70 years old. When it came to studying, however, he wasn't an old man but felt young and fresh. The wellsprings of wisdom never closed for him, whether in halacha or in any other area of Jewish learning.

Having been born near the German border, he absorbed a great deal of the literature of the Haskalah,[29] not just about dry, scientific material, but also about art, about which he was very knowledgeable. He had access to our modern literature in both [Hebrew and Yiddish] languages. He knew our classical Jewish writers as well as modern European literature, which he read “in the period that was neither day nor night.”[30] I was once sitting with him in the community house in Toronto waiting for the rabbis who were late as usual, and not having a religious book at hand, we began a secular discussion about German and Russian literature. In the middle of the conversation he began reciting by heart entire passages from Schiller and from Goethe's Faust, which he assured me he had read at the age of 10–13. I was very impressed that he could remember things learned sixty years ago.

His books of sermons are unique. They are not so much sermons and sayings as discourses on Jewish religion, full of Torah and learning. In these books, he reveals himself as a lover of all that is true and beautiful in human life, as a lover of aesthetics, as an admirer of “the beauty of Japheth” [Greek wisdom]. There was a reason why Russian nobles were friends with him; his conversations were a source of wisdom, knowledge, and brilliance.

Yes, we had with us one of the great men of his generation, a master of halacha and Talmud, for whom the pages of the Babylonian Talmud were always open, a great and tireless scholar, who died with his pen in his hand.

He never wasted a minute so as to fulfill the injunction “to study day and night.” For him to stop studying meant to stop living an exalted, spiritual life. For him, a life without Torah was worthless. As the Rambam said in Chapter 7 of Hilchot Rotzeach [Laws of the Murderer]: When a student must flee to a sanctuary city [to avoid vengeance after unintentionally killing another], you must see to it that he lives, and since for intelligent people to live without Torah is worse than death, he must also be provided with a teacher.

With his five enormous volumes of Chavalim bi–Ne'imim he enriched the literature of halacha. In his innumerable articles in the books Sefer Zikaron, Yamin u–Smol, Devarim Ki–khetavam, and Yabi'a Omer,[31] he revealed himself to be a publicist, maskil, cultural historian, philologist, and scientist. His works on history, Talmud, and natural science testify to his enormous erudition in all areas of Jewish achievement. All these articles and works are an important contribution to Jewish literature in general and in particular to rabbinical literature, to which he brought new life, a fresh spirit, and which he sought to elevate to a higher level.

He left us a valuable inheritance, but his death took even more from us. It is impossible to convey even a hint of this Prince of Torah. For me, his student, who was privileged to benefit from and enjoy his teachings, he serves as the embodiment of a brilliant personality, of patriarchal greatness that extends like a golden chain through Jewish history. I saw in him the true type of the Polish gaon, in the same category as the RIM[32], the Sochatchever rabbi, Reb Avraham; the Ostrovtser rabbi, Reb Meyer Yehiel, and so forth. He was a survivor of the “great rabbinic assembly,”[33] whose era has ended with his death.


The Great Stylist

I remember how, after the publication of his book Devarim Kikhetavam (Words as They Were Written), he sent for me to show me the new work and studied several chapters with me. As we studied, he tried to explain the manner in which he wrote. Because he knew the entire Bible by heart, he was able to find an appropriate biblical expression for every word or term. When I dared to remark that this wasn't the modern style, that his writing was too flowery, he answered, quite modestly: “First of all, the Bible is always new, not only in content but also in its style. And, second, the text is so deeply engrained in me that I simply can't separate myself from it.” Nevertheless, he did abide by modern rules of style. He tried very hard to express his thoughts clearly, employing his proficiency in secular Jewish and other literature.

He also believed strongly in “being careful with the pen.”[34] Before he published an article he reviewed it with great care several times. He edited everything. He also placed great value on esthetics, whether in writing, dress, or comportment. The enchanting beauty of nature created by God is the best evidence that He values beauty. To serve God, he would say, you have to do it with beauty. As the verse goes, “From Zion beauty will shine forth.”

He tried to write in the most beautiful Hebrew, to use the nicest terminology, so that not just the contents of his books but also the style, the language, the binding, and the paper should be the best and loveliest.

Disliking American superficiality, pessimistic about the Jewish community here, and shunning ignorant people, he always wondered whether it was worthwhile to keep writing. The questions of the purpose of his efforts and whether it was worth writing for so few readers always troubled him. But he himself would answer, “Philosophy has few readers, mathematics even fewer, and yet great works about them are written. Well, so I too will have only a small group of readers.”


The Social Activist and Leader

In recent years, he was cut off from the outside world, shut up in his narrow world of halacha, lonely and alone. Was his loneliness organic or fated? Was he born this way, or did fate lead him to this condition? Those who knew him only from a distance saw his apartness as an inborn trait. Others, who knew him better, know that the opposite was true – that his isolation was tragic.

He had never wanted to cut himself off from the community. After all, in Poland, both before and after the war, he occupied the position of a guide and spiritual leader, participating in all religious and social conflicts, unafraid of anything, and with pride and dignity let his voice be heard. In Poland he stood smack in the middle of Jewish social and religious life.

His whole life he sought to protect and sustain Jewish religious unity. Until the last minute, he kept opening up new ways and ideas for the Orthodox, trusting fully that these would come to fruition, hoping to see a better kind of Judaism, more beautiful and healthy. But he wound up on the North American continent, in a small Jewish community where he influenced only a small part of the local intellectual Orthodox youth, to which I belonged.

Unable to establish a movement here, he confined himself to a small circle, where he spoke the pure, often brutal truth, not expecting that he would become so isolated. But his weighty words were strong enough to break through all barriers and were heard wherever moral and ethical teachings could reach.

His leadership and organizational abilities were most in evidence during the First World War, in 1915, when he was sent to Russia by the tsarist regime as a zakładnik [hostage]. Along with many other rabbis, prominent people and ordinary Polish Jews, he was taken away and made responsible for any potential espionage by the Jewish population in Poland.

There, in exile, he began writing a splendid chapter in the history of Jews under the Russian Orthodox regime. His accomplishments in the religious, social, and educational realms during the time he was in Russia are described in detail in his Sefer Zikaron (Memoirs), which will soon be available in Yiddish. The memoirs are quite interesting and exciting. They tell of four years of war, with its upheavals, overturning of governments, revolutions, epidemics, economic crises, hunger, and poverty.

In those years, Rabbi Graubart worked zealously to alleviate Jewish poverty and to help his brothers materially and spiritually. He was active in all spheres of Jewish life: built schools, synagogues, educational institutions, relief organizations, and so forth.

This is not the place to summarize all of his work during the war years. It is enough to note that he set up 42 schools for elementary and higher Jewish education, a network that covered almost all of Russia, where there had previously not been any educational institutions.[35] He oversaw their curricula, the hiring of teachers, and their salaries, which amounted to tens of thousands of rubles a month.

Spending for mikvahs [ritual baths] also amounted to many thousands. This was all done almost entirely by a single person, so energetic and active was he at that time.

He did all he could to spread Judaism in Russia, giving hundreds of speeches to promote education and the observance of the Sabbath. All this he did despite the internal opposition from the Yiddishists and assimilationists, who wanted to impede his work. But with the greatest devotion he defended religious life, religious education, and Torah in general. He created a “Council for Education” in every town and placed the most prominent local figure at its head. He inspired them to develop curricula for communal study, appropriate to the needs and spirit of the place. He even provided lecturers on various subjects in Judaism.

He held that the required subjects for the schools should be reading the siddur, Hebrew language and grammar, the Bible, Talmud, history, and Shulchan Arukh [code of religious laws]. In order to perfect the children's Hebrew, he recommended the best available books of grammar and anthologies that included even modern writing, suitable for a child's psychology. He believed that the study of the Bible should begin with Genesis, together with Rashi,[36] and continue in order from there.[37] In the last grade of elementary school, they should study Leviticus, which deals only with sacrifices and is mostly the laws of the Priests. He directed that much of the learning be oral, whether it was about the laws or about the ethical obligations that a Jew must fulfill in his daily life.

He achieved much in the field of Jewish education, fighting with the strength of Father Jacob against the enemies of the faith. All of his work was destroyed after the Bolshevik October Revolution, which outlawed the teaching of Jewish religion or Hebrew.

While in Russia, mostly in Moscow, he forged close connections with the most prominent Russian and Lithuanian Jews, such as Rabbi Yakov Maze;[38] the Chofetz Chaim [Rabbi Israel Kagan], Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzinski; Rabbi Joseph Rozin (the world–renowned Talmudic genius, known as the Rogatchever Gaon[39]); and with such prominent figures as Rafael Getz, son–in–law of the Jewish tea magnate of old Russia, Reb Kalman Zev Wissotzky, Baron David Ginzburg, and many others, whom he drew into the committee on the homeless.

In connection with his struggle for religious education, Graubart issued a spirited appeal to religious Jewry in all of Russia, which appeared in Moscow on the eve of Passover in 1916. I will provide some extracts from the appeal, which applies to current times as well. In it, the rabbi states that tens of thousands of Jews who had been driven from their homes all over Poland, Galicia, and Lithuania were now in Russia. He describes the difficult conditions of these homeless wanderers. But, “the greatest tragedy of these homeless,” he says, “is their spiritual decline.” He criticizes the Yiddishist schools, which don't include any religious study except a little bit for the sake of appearances. He also criticizes the teachers in these schools, ostensibly pedagogues and educators, for themselves openly violating the Sabbath and eating non–kosher food in public.

He demonstrates with statistics and historical facts that Judaism grew stronger during periods of persecution. “But now,” he says in the appeal, “this is not happening because we ourselves are destroying the foundations of our faith.”

And he continues: “Once Jewishness was full of Torah and God–fearing piety, but people began to think that it can also exist without Torah, as long as we have nationalism and the Hebrew language. Later, they discarded Hebrew and contented themselves with nationalism. Now they have discarded nationalism as well as Hebrew and affirm that the Yiddish language alone is enough to sustain Jewishness in Russia.”

The appeal calls for religious Jewry to form one large organization, to create a religious atmosphere and public opinion, and to establish religious schools all over the land, where the children of the homeless Jews could receive a true religious education. Rabbi Graubart concludes his fiery manifesto with an interesting Hebrew song, in which he expresses his hope that young and old will unite under the slogan of religion and in so doing rescue Russian Jewry from the danger of decline.

The appeal made a great impression in Orthodox ranks. Leaders of religious Jewry began to unite, and an organization was in fact later established, headed by world–famous rabbis, prominent Jews, and important Jewish leaders.

At the time of the first revolution, in February 1917, he organized the movement Tradition and Freedom,[40] to which he attracted almost all the rabbis of Russia and many prominent Jews, including the renowned rabbis Maze, Rabinowitz, Nurak, Getz, and Persitz. Tens of delegates attended the first meeting, among them the rabbis of Kovno, Moscow, Smolensk, Minsk, Odessa, Nizhny Novgorod, Vladimir, and Bobroisk [Bobruysk, Belarus].

After a stay of four years, Graubart returned to Staszów, where he was the town rabbi. At that time, he participated in the conference of Agudas Israel, during which he was offered a position in the Council of Great Torah Scholars, which he declined because of its opposition to Zionism, even religious Zionism.[41]

He became active in the Mizrachi [religious Zionist] movement, where he became a leader. He addressed big meetings in all the larger cities of Poland, Lithuania, and Galicia and published dozens of articles on issues of the time. There was a strong movement for him to run for the Polish parliament. It was also suggested that he become head of the yeshiva (rector) of Takhkemoni, one of the great rabbinical seminaries in Poland, working together with the renowned historian Professor Majer Bałaban and the renowned gaon and scientist Reb Chaim Heller.

There was a time when he stood on a level with such figures as Mikhl Pines, Zev Yabetz (his intimate friend), Berlin, Nisenboym, Brodt, Fishman, and so on. He was a strong supporter of political Zionism, a great admirer of Herzl, whom he always praised for his noble work and great effort on behalf of the Jewish people. He considered the passivity of religious Jewry toward Zionism to be a great wrong. He told me that when he once spoke to Sokolow about various Zionist problems, he asked him why the General Zionists didn't help establish religious colonies on the basis of Torah and tradition. Sokolow answered, “Our work is to bring in more and more Jewish emigrants to Eretz Yisroel. We make no distinction as to which segment of society they come from. If you want to build a religious Eretz Yisroel, then go ahead and build it. Organize yourselves, go there, and build colonies based on Torah and tradition.”

“Well,” he concluded, “do our religious Jews understand that? Someone says, ‘;So, let's build it, then!’ and they just stand there and do nothing. How unaware they are.”

In the month of Nissan, 5680 [1920], he received an official invitation from the Toronto Jewish community to take on the position of rabbi of the community. At first, he didn't want to leave his homeland. But, for various reasons, he was forced to flee Poland.

In the summer of that year, he travelled to the International Zionist Conference in London. He gave a speech in Hebrew on behalf of the international Mizrachi movement. A description of the conference and part of his speech appear in his Memoirs. In the meantime, war broke out between New Poland and Bolshevik Russia. He had no choice but to leave for Toronto, where he arrived on Thursday, the 4th day of Elul, 5680 [1920].

Arriving on the new continent, he followed the wise man's advice: “Sow in the morning, but don't let your hand rest in the evening” (Eccles. 11:6). He soon found a broad area in which to be active. He occupied himself with education, striving to build the largest strictly Orthodox Talmud Torah in the city. He worked as hard as he could to promote observance of the Sabbath and kashrut. He set up eruvim[42] in the city that were the wonder of all America. His system of eruvim is considered a model by the greatest European rabbis, and he was highly praised for it.

He also worked hard on behalf of agunot, to liberate these unfortunate women whose husbands were lost during the Great War.[43] He corresponded with the greatest rabbis about this matter, including Rabbi Klotzkin of Lublin, Rabbi Joseph Rozin of Rogatchev,[44] Rabbi Mayer Yehiel of Ostrowiec, and Rabbi Abraham Kook.

In Toronto he also published his books Yamin u–Smol, Devarim Kikhtavam, Yabi'a Omer, and the last three volumes of his responsa Chavalim bi–Ne'imim.[45]

He never ceasing to write, and with the spoken and written word he illuminated the meaning of Judaism, its beliefs and principles, and with his logical arguments brought out their truths. He was a shining beam in a dark time, fighting to uphold our traditional Torah literature, which is “longer than the earth and broader than the sea” [Job, 11:9].

It is, however, the fate of superior individuals to live isolated from the surrounding world. The elite of each generation live out their holy lives off in a corner, within the territory of halacha. They don't seek honor or fame; they work for themselves and with themselves within the framework of Torah and faith. This distancing of the gaon from the community, this setting aside of a person who could do something for humanity, was a tragedy for him. But it was no less a tragedy for the community, which was blinded and didn't know how to find a way to approach him, to comprehend his theories, his thoughts, and his feelings.


Mystic and Rationalist

Rav Graubart was a harmonious combination of several different approaches: he was both a Hasid and a misnaged [opponent of Hasidism], a mystic and a rationalist, a romantic and a realist. He believed fully in the coming of the Messiah and yet had great admiration for Zionism. He was opposed to socialism and communism but admired and respected the common worker, who lives a moral and honest life from his own labor and production.[46] In his will, he requested that he be buried next to a poor but honest person: “only a place near a poor, upright man, who lived on the labor of his hands.” He left money for all three workers' movements: Poalei Zion (Histadrut), Poalei Mizrachi and Poalei Agudas Israel.

Having studied so much of scholastic–rationalist literature, he strongly believed in the tradition of revealed Torah, on which all of his books are based, and on logic and clear understanding. Not only was his thought strongly rooted in the Talmud (the source of all later rabbinic works), in the books of the Rishonim,[47] and in the dry scholastic literature of commentaries on the Shulchan Arukh, but as already mentioned, he also studied and knew the Kuzari, Maimonides's Guide, Saadia's philosophical principles, and other philosophical works, as well as all poetical words of the great Hebrew liturgical poets of the Middle Ages.

He was a misnagid in the sense that he defended misnagidic rabbis, if they were correct. In his Memoirs, he vigorously defended Rabbi Yaakov Gesundheit, a well–known misnagid and gaon who was mercilessly persecuted by Hasidim in Warsaw. He stood up for the exemplar of a [previous] generation, the Malbim, who (in 1866) was rabbi in Luntshits (Łęczyca, a small town in Poland) and who because of persecution by the Hasidim had to flee to Mohilev, taking up the post of rabbi with great honor. He defended as well Reb Yosef Engel, the world famous Polish gaon; Reb Yehoshuele Kutner, author of the important books Yeshuos Yisroel, Yeshuos Malko, and other important books, who was persecuted by Hasidim.

But he nevertheless thought well of Hasidism and of certain Hasidic rebbes. He recognized the historical significance and importance of Hasidism.

For him, the prototypes of the Hasidic rebbes were, among others: the Pshischer [Przysucha] rebbe, Reb Bunem, whom he quotes often in his books; the Kotzker (Kock) rebbe, Reb Mendele Morgensztern, about whom he frequently spoke, characterizing him with four words–scholar, intellectual, philosopher, and maskil; the first Gerer rebbe, Reb Itsik Mayer Alter [acronym RIM], whom he considered a giant, the greatest scholar of his time, the author of seven religious works, including Hiddushim [Novel Interpretations] of RIM and Responsa of RIM; the Tshechanover [Ciechanów] rebbe and his son, Zev Landau (later the Strikover [Stryków] rebbe), whom he characterized as a philosopher and poet; the Sochatchever rebbe, Reb Avrahamele, son–in–law of the Kotzker rebbe and author of Responsa Avne Nezer.

In his Memoirs, he sharply criticizes the book In Polish Woods by the great writer [Joseph] Opatoshu, who in his work insulted the Kotzker rebbe and his son Reb Dovid, saying, “I would have nothing to do with him. He is like one who says of Moses that he was an idolater, or of King Solomon that he was the most foolish of men, or that Alexander the Great was as fainthearted as a rabbit.”[48]

A strong supporter of Zionism, believing that Jews can become a normal nation by living in Eretz Yisroel, he was nevertheless not a “negator of the Diaspora” and did not disparage the Diaspora belief in the coming of the Messiah. He strongly admired the Diaspora powers of endurance and faith, strongly believed in the power of tradition, of the legacy that passes from generation to generation.

Like all religious thinkers, he believed in the mission of our people, which permeates the Kabbalah, as a uniquely chosen nation with a different historical fate and a unique historical future.

I cannot here provide in detail quotations from his works to clearly delineate the philosophy, which is a synthesis of religious belief, social faith, and national optimism. I just wanted to emphasize the fact that for him it was possible to harmonize Zionism with the deeply traditional ideal, rooted in faith, that Jews are the holy nation, an exceptional people, directly under divine providence.

His whole life he strove to see that his chosen people, the people of the Torah, be a truly elevated people, conducting themselves according to the morals and ethics of the prophets. He often noted that the beginning and end of the Torah is gemiles khasodim [acts of loving–kindness] (Gemara Sotah) and that God wants us to join in his ways: “As He is merciful, so shall you be merciful.”

He was pained that socialist Zionism was turning Israel into a land without Jewish tradition. And he, the saintly man who dreamt of a better, more just world, asked God to open their eyes so that they can see their error: “And our eyes are turned toward God, that He may instruct those who err and fulfill the prophecy, ‘;I will purge all your dross’ “ (Isa. 1:25).[49]


His Devotion to the Jews in Poland

It is impossible to convey his compassion for the Jews in Poland, Romania, Hungary, and so forth. The critical condition of the Jews there, the frequent attacks and pogroms, broke his heart. He saw in the suffering and pain of east–European Jews not an occasional catastrophe but an ongoing tragedy of a people without their own land who must rely on the kindness of others, on “the virtue of the Gentiles, which amounts to sin.”

He suffered over the fate of Polish Jewry, filled with sorrow over the letters he would constantly receive from rabbis, prominent Jews, and simple poor Jews who would ask for his help and support to save them from poverty and doom. He received hundreds of letters asking for help, and with his big heart he would answer each one, sending a few dollars.

I have in my possession a letter to him from the Kalisher [Kalisz] rabbi Yeheskl Lifshitz, who used to correspond with him on various matters and especially about how to move American Jews to support their poor relatives in Poland. The letter asks, “Are American Jews deaf to the poor among their brothers and sisters in Poland?” How pained Graubart was by the passivity and indifference of the Jews here toward their needy brethren in Poland.

For a long time, he had a plan to raise a few million dollars to settle 100,000 Polish Jews in Canada and talked about this often and appealed to the Chicago millionaire philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who wasn't interested. I once asked Graubart if he wanted to create a movement that would compete with Zionism. He answered, “First, I don't think about what my Zionist friends will say. Now is the time to act; we must do something, not split hairs, not be afraid. Second, I don't think it would be a movement in opposition to Zionism. On the contrary, the Zionist organizations could supervise the settlement in Canada of the Jews from Poland who can't go to Israel. They can train and prepare them here to do agricultural work, so that Canada can serve as an antechamber to Eretz Yisroel.” He intended to go on tour to promote this movement. Despite his age, he thought he could undertake such massive travel and raise the necessary money, as well as recruit the human resources necessary for agricultural labor.


His Fight for Education and Sabbath Observance in America

Rabbi Graubart was teacher and guide to many beyond his inner circle and was widely seen as a fighter for truth and for the Jewish spirit. He devoted his life to Jewish education, fighting against freethinkers, showing that the Torah was the best source of knowledge. In his struggle against atheism, he also encouraged the older, religious Jews who had fallen into the long sleep of Honi the Circle–Drawer[50] and ignored everything around them.

Mostly, he fought against desecration of the Sabbath, which he could not abide. He began his public campaign for Sabbath observance at a very unfavorable time during the First World War. Himself a refugee in a strange land, he took on the mission to organize religious schools and promote the Sabbath in free Russia.

He went to the town of Murom,[51] where the children were growing up wild and ignorant. Their parents didn't observe the Sabbath or Judaism, so he organized cheders, schools, and promoted Sabbath observance. He left to others the work of providing food and clothing.

I will focus here on his work for Sabbath observance. His motto was “Man does not live by bread alone.” Hundreds of his speeches were built on this theme. After the Kerensky–led revolution in February 1917, when Jews were given national autonomy, he used the opportunity to establish the organization Tradition and Freedom.

In his second declaration, where he explained the basic principles and goals of the organization, he already stated the need to fight the desecration of the Sabbath in Russia. “Our goal,” he said, “is for Saturday to be a full–fledged day of rest and that Jews who close their businesses on Saturday should be permitted to open on Sunday.” He demanded that not only civilians but Jews in the military and in all government institutions be permitted to observe the Sabbath and all Jewish holidays.

Hundreds of rabbis joined the new movement. Also, the Chofetz Chaim Yisroel Mayer Kagan, the Radiner [Radun, Belarus] rabbi, supported the movement, which was led not just by Graubart but also by Rabbi Yakov Maze, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, and the renowned scholar Shloyme Goff, all of whom have passed away.

Graubart placed a lot of hope in the new regime that was to grant national autonomy to all minorities and enable the expansion of Jewish education and unimpeded religious observance. But, unfortunately, these hopes were dashed when the Kerensky regime fell in October 1917 [Bolshevik Revolution] and with it all its good intentions.

The Bolshevik dictatorship extended to the Jews. Diamantstein became the commissar for Jewish matters and closed all national [Zionist]–Hebrew schools and traditional schools. The Bible and Talmud were outlawed; their historical role in Russia had ended. And Graubart barely escaped from this hell.

During the three years he spent in Russia, he gave countless talks in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. Thirteen of these were published in his Memoirs. All are filled with ethical teachings, based on logic and science. In a lecture in Kazan, he said, “Remember that even in a place where the Sabbath has been forgotten, where Sabbath observance can mean sacrificing oneself, even if you are not afraid or ashamed, you must observe it because it is God's law.”

He did not like America, where he arrived in 1920, observing how the foundations of religion were being destroyed, how one rabbi fought within Orthodox circles with all his strength to undermine another and impede his work, even if it was valuable. Here as in Russia he raged over the violation of the Sabbath. In Nisan [April] 1922, he published in Yiddish and English an “Open Sabbath Letter to the American Manufacturers and Workers.” The letter begins: “I, the Sabbath Princess, appeal to you. I am popular enough and don't need to establish my pedigree. I am as old as the amount of time that Jews have existed. I am the crown of Judaism, the darling of God and Israel. So how can you American Jews stand by as I am shamefully attacked and insulted and calmly watch as the Sabbath peace is desecrated?”

He appealed to all synagogues not to allow Sabbath violators to hold office, especially that of president.

In a second appeal, called “To Observe Sabbath,” he first presented practical plans to promote Sabbath observance. He suggested demanding of the government that it permit those who don't work on Saturday to work on Sunday, or to increase the number of hours in a workday so that the same number of hours can be worked in a week without working on Saturday.

Rabbi Graubart never ceased to agitate for Sabbath rest. At one time, he came out with a large group of Jews in Kensington (a Jewish market in Toronto), preaching in front of the shops. He tolerated the frequent insults from ignorant shopkeepers, stating: “If a rabbi deems it important to warn against Sabbath desecration, what use is it preaching in synagogue to Sabbath observers? The people he needs to address aren't there; they are occupied with their businesses, and the rabbi has to go to them, where they are.”

He gave examples of cases in which rabbis preached in the streets. “It says in the Bible: ‘;Wisdom cries aloud in the streets, raises her voice in the squares’ (Prov. 1:20). Our Father Abraham preached about God openly and everywhere. King Hezekiah spoke to the people in the public square, as did Ezra the Scribe (2 Chron. 32:6–7; Ezek. 9:10), while Nehemiah read the Torah in the public square in front of the Water Gate (Neh. 8:3).”

He believed that he could make a major contribution by demonstrating the importance of the Sabbath from a social, humane, and religious perspective.[52] He was sincere in his belief, and since every sincere person must be a little naive, he believed he could accomplish something toward this goal. His books Devarim Kikhtavam, Yamin u–Smol, and Yabi'a Omer, which were imbued with Torah and wisdom, testify to his enormous efforts. With the power of his pen and the beauty of his speeches, he tried to convince and inspire the Jewish masses in America.

Those close to him could appreciate his Sabbath declarations, with which he sought to strengthen the Sabbath imperative (v'shomeru) in which a Jew can immerse himself and arrive at the World of Emanation,[53] the eternal sign that unites all Jews with God: “It shall be an eternal covenant and perpetual sign between Me and the people of Israel” (Ex. 31:16–17).


The Humble Man

In the place of his greatness, there you will find his humility. Though famous in all corners of the earth by the title “Rabbi of all Jews of the Diaspora,” he conducted himself in a modest, unassuming manner with those close to him, especially his students, with whom he spent a lot of time not only in studying but also conversing, in secular discussions that were so full of information and erudition that they served as a means of study.

He always treated his students as friends, and his letters to them were friendly. When I left Toronto in 1932, he took an interest in my situation and wrote me two letters, one of which I will quote here:

With God's help, Tuesday, the 26th of Elul, 5692 (27 September 1932), Toronto:

My dear friend, still technically a youth (not yet married), sharp and expert, understanding and well–turned–out, Mr. Nachman Bumil (Shemen), may he live long –

I received your missive, and I was not satisfied on perceiving that you still have no basis for a productive livelihood. But if you do not see that you have sought and found–then be assured that you have not sought adequately. Pick yourself up and do not slack; search and search.

Concerning Chabad [the acronym for “wisdom, understanding, knowledge,” which is also the name of a Hasidic sect], see Maimonides's commentary to Avot 6:17 (which is laconic) and the [commentary] Tiferet Yisrael, and Malbim's commentary to Proverbs, chap. 1, and several places that he sets limits, and in the book Gan Na'ul (A Locked Garden), which is almost all devoted to idolatry, and indeed we indeed see that there is no difference among synonyms, and whoever knows the difference among the various names for “fool” – evil, ba'ar, chaser–lev, kesil, sakhal, navuv, peti, poteh, tippesh, shoteh – will understand the distinctions between wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.

Everything here is as it was yesterday. Let the current year with its curses come to an end, and let the King give her[54] position to another better than she. May the Lord bring us a new year for good and blessing.

Your friend,

Yehuda Leib Graubart, with greetings from all members of my family

He liked to discuss halacha with his students and was very pleased when he had to yield to them. In his meetings with students there was often a holiday atmosphere, a closeness and connection like that between father and child. Those closest to him felt toward him the love one feels for a dear, devoted guide.

In his will, which he wrote two years before he died, he asked to be buried next to a poor Jew, who had lived by the labor of his hands. He directed that his funeral be a simple one, with just his children and no eulogies, and on his gravestone just his and his father's names, no honorifics.


The Gaon's Death

Rabbi Graubart died on Wednesday night, the 2nd of Heshvan, 5698 (6 October 1937)[55]. Although he was already close to eighty, his death was unexpected and struck us like a bolt of lightning. All of Toronto came to accompany its great religious leader and authority to his eternal rest. Toronto had never seen such a funeral. Hundreds of children from the Talmud Torah Etz Chaim followed the funeral bier. The stores in the neighborhood of the funeral were closed.

Articles and obituaries were published in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English all over the world. The local Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Journal, had a black border in mourning. The editor, Sh. M. Shapiro, wrote an editorial titled “A Great Star Has Fallen,” which made a great impression. There were also articles by Rabbi Sh. A. Pardes, Y. Y. Wohlgelernter, Rabbi Sh. F. Wohlgelernter, Y. Mandel, Rabbi Benjamin Graubart, Rabbi Pinchas Graubart, Rabbi David Graubart, Rabbi Isaac Weingarten, myself, and many others. A major article by the well–known Canadian journalist M. Ginzburg appeared in Keneder Adler [The Canadian Eagle, a Montreal Yiddish newspaper].

For the sheloshim [memorial thirty days after death], the city of Toronto held a traditional, imposing memorial gathering in the renowned Ostrovtzer Synagogue [1922–early 1960s; now a community center at 58 Cecil Street], attended by the most important rabbis in the country: Rabbi Eliezer Silver, rabbi of Cincinnati (honorary president of Agudas Habonim of America); Rabbi Shaul Silver (president of Besmedresh LeTorah in Chicago); Rabbi Shmuel Aron Halevi Pardes (editor of the rabbinical monthly Ha–Pardes); Rabbi Y. Hirshhorn from Montreal; Rabbi Sh. Levin from Hamilton, Canada; Rabbi Menachem Sacks from Chicago; and others prominent in the Orthodox world.

The memorial was conducted by the president of the Toronto kehilla[56], Reb Yosef Levin, who was a close friend of Graubart's; Reb Yisroel Weinberg, president of the Ostrovtser Synagogue; Reb Itsik Mayer Karolnik, honorary president of Talmud Torah Etz Chaim; Reb Avraham Tenenbaum, president of Talmud Torah Etz Chaim, and others.

At the initiative of Reb Karolnik, the close friends of Rabbi Graubart established a yeshiva in Toronto with the name “Maharil[57] Graubart.” In doing so, they fulfilled the rabbinic commentary on the account of Hezekiah's death. The Bible says, “When he died, all the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem accorded him much honor” (2 Chron. 32:33). The rabbis interpret this to mean: “They established a yeshiva on his grave” (Talmud, Bava Kama 16b). The Talmud could find no greater honor for Hezekiah. And the Tosefos[58] declare there that this honor was due to him “because he spread the knowledge of Torah so thoroughly in Israel, as it says (in Talmud Sanhedrin 94b) that they searched from Dan (in the northern borders) to Beersheba (in the south) and did not find a man or woman, boy or girl who was not expert in the technical laws of purity and impurity.”

Rabbi Graubart was not fortunate enough to see such a learned generation. His wish was nevertheless the same as Hezekiah. He was a stalwart fighter for Jewish education, sacrificing his health for this work. With his death, we lost one of the greatest and most brilliant men of our generation.


  1. The end of Mishnah Sotah contains a series of litanies, of the form: “Since Rabbi X died, qualities Y and Z have departed from the world.” return
  2. Gaon: “genius”; honorific title for a rabbinic leader of outstanding intellectual eminence. return
  3. [Footnote in the original]: He died Wednesday night, the second day of Heshvan, 5698 [6–7 October 1937]. return
  4. A double play on words–an allusion to the Talmudic rabbi Yehuda son of Ilay (with whom Rabbi Yehuda Graubart shared his first name), while his middle name, “Leib,” means “lion.” The lion was also the symbol of the tribe of Judah (see Gen. 49:9: “Judah is a lion's whelp”), hence the common pairing of names “Yehuda Leib” in Yiddish (compare also “Zev Wolf” and “Dov Baer,” where the Hebrew “Zev” means “wolf” and “Dov” means “bear”). return
  5. Yehuda Ari: a variant of Yehuda Leib, with Ari [lion in Hebrew] substituted for Leib [lion in Yiddish]. See previous note. Invoking the Hebrew “Ari” rhetorically emphasizes the allusion “lion” even more, as if to stress the leonine aspect of his personality. return
  6. Allusion to Talmud Shabbat 30b, where this is said of King David. return
  7. Maharil is an acronym for Moreinu HaRav Yehuda Leib [our teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Leib]. return
  8. [Footnote in original]. In the preface to his great work Chavalim Bi–Ne'imim [Pangs of Delight] his dedication to his parents reads, “Who are in the land of the living [euphemistic for ‘in Heaven’], my honored father and teacher, the sharp and erudite man of eminence known as a fortress, Rabbi Benyomin, may his memory be a blessing, and my mother and teacher, the righteous woman famous for her wisdom and practical proficiency.” return
  9. “Ma'aneh le–Nahum”–“Reply to Nahum”–in other words, an anti–Zionist pamphlet refuting Nahum Sokolow's views from the anti–Zionist religious perspective. Agudas Israel was the leading anti–Zionist Orthodox organization in central and eastern Europe in the early twentieth century. return
  10. Assiduous student: “masmid”– literally “perpetual,” one who never stops studying. It was a famous type in east European Jewry, immortalized by Hayyim Nachman Bialik's long poem “Hamasmid.” See http://benyehuda.org/bialik/matmid.html and Israel Efros, ed., Selected Poems of Hayim Nahman Bialik (Bloch, 1965). return
  11. [footnote in the original] See Sefer Zikaron [Memoirs], published by Masorah (Łódź, 5687 [1927]), p. 256. return
  12. The book Nefesh Chaya (“Living Soul” or “Soul of Chaya”–collected responsa) by Rabbi Chaim Eliezer Waks was published in 1876 and dedicated to the memory of his mother, Chaya Tova. return
  13. [footnote in the original]: Rabbi Graubart thought very highly of this gaon and community activist, always referring to him as a gaon of his generation. He wrote an appreciation of him in his Memoirs (pp. 173–174), stating that he was not only a great scholar of Torah but also a rich man, a notable of the community, and leader of the Polish charity fund to support the [traditional] Kolel–yeshiva “Reb Meir Baal Hanes” in Eretz Israel, as well as a strong supporter of the new settlement movement in Eretz Israel. He was the first to permit the importation of esrogim [a citrus tree bearing sour yellow fruit that is used ceremonially in the festival of Sukkot–ed.]from Israel and himself bought a parcel of land of 25 dunam [1 dunam = about 900 square meters–ed.] in Kfar Hitim, not far from Tiberias, where he planted 2,000 esrog trees and gave them to the Polish kolel [yeshiva] in Jerusalem. In the preface to the book Nefesh Chaya, he expresses his enthusiasm for Eretz Israel and his hope that it will once again become a religious Jewish national center. His appearances on behalf of Hibbat Zion [Lovers of Zion] made an enormous impression. return
  14. As the “counting” probably refers to counting the Omer, this would imply a date of Thursday, 24 April 1884, equivalent to 29 Nisan 5644. return
  15. Orach Chayim: the first of the four sections of the Shulchan Arukh, devoted to the ritual regimen of weekdays, Sabbath, and holidays. return
  16. The reference is probably to the town of Maków Mazowiecki, which is midway between Łomża and Płock, in the old gubernia of Łomża in northern Poland. return
  17. An approximate timespan; from his arrival in Makov in 1888 to his departure to Staszów shortly after 1900 was actually less than two full decades. return
  18. Literally: “the ikkarim of Rabbi Saadia Gaon.” The narrator conflates two works–the Book of Doctrines and Opinions of Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882–942) and the Ikkarim (Principles) of Rabbi Joseph Albo (1380–1444). But both Saadia and Albo were in the received traditional Jewish philosophical canon, so Rabbi Graubart was very likely familiar with both. return
  19. All the latter thinkers were modern and even heretical by a traditional standard; the study of their works was central to the curriculum of the Haskalah (the “Jewish Enlightenment”) and justifies the earlier statement that Rabbi Graubart was a maskil as well as learned in the traditional sacred lore. return
  20. [Footnote in original]: The last volume was published after his death, in 5699 [1939].
    Translator's note: The title Chavalim bi–Ne'imim (Pangs of Delight) is explained by his son Rabbi David Graubart as follows: “The phrase Chavalim Ba–Ne'imim comes from Psalms 16,6: ‘The lines fall for me in pleasant places’; in Hebrew: ‘Chavalim nafelu li ba–ne–imim.’ The author saw in the phrase chavalim ba–ne'imim a reference to chavalim, pangs of birth, and ba–ne'imim, pleasantness. Basing himself on the text in Pirke Abot (Abot 5,26), lefum tza'ara agra, that the reward is commensurate with the painstaking effort, he speaks, in his introduction to the first volume, of the pangs of birth – Chavalim – experienced in the process of writing a book, and the sweetness of its completion – ba–ne'imim. But in addition, the author who was fond of gematrios, the numerical values of words, tells us that chavalim was a permutation of the words Hidushe Yehuda Leib ben Mori ha–Rav Benyamin. The reader is referred to that introduction for all the intricate and esoteric details.” (Introduction to 1974 reprinted edition) return
  21. Netziv: acronym for Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin. return
  22. Sedei Chemed: a widely popular 18–volume halakhic encyclopedia, including also poems, essays, and reflections by Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini of Hebron. return
  23. “A quarter of a century” is approximate, as he served in Staszów from somewhat after 1900 until his forced exile to Russia during the war and permanent move to Canada in 1920. return
  24. It is common practice in a responsa collection to arrange the individual legal briefs by topic following the time–honored arrangement of Jewish legal topics outlined by the Shulhan Arukh, with miscellaneous legal opinions collected at the end. In following this plan in the volumes of the Chavalim Bi–Ne'imim, Rabbi Graubart was conforming to accepted practice. return
  25. Gemara: the text of the Talmud (fifth century); Rashi: the first and primary commentator on the Talmud (eleventh century); Tosafot: the major glosses providing the second layer of commentary on the Talmud (twelfth–thirteenth centuries); Rishonim: “early authorities”–the generations of rabbis who commented on the Talmud during the later Middle Ages (thirtheenth–fifteenth centuries). return
  26. “Yad Chazakah” (Strong Hand) was the nickname of Maimonides's Mishneh Torah (“YD” = 14, representing the fourteen sections of his comprehensive legal code). “Rambam” is an acronym for Maimonides (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon). return
  27. The “Work of the Chariot” and the “Work of Creation” are referred to in Mishnah Hagigah 2:1 as studies that should be kept to a restricted audience, without specifying what they consisted in. Maimonides maintained that these terms referred to metaphysics and physics and were identical with Greek philosophy. In short, these terms became synonymous with esoteric studies into the profound mysteries of being. return
  28. The observation that the topic of the prophet Jonah was “not a subject for a rabbi” is perhaps surprising but significant. In the traditional Jewish milieu, biblical studies and midrashic lore were both considered on a lower intellectual level than technical legal analysis dealing with Talmud and its commentaries. A rabbi should spend his time on these challenging topics. Study of the later biblical books for their own sake was more characteristic of the modern Haskalah thinkers than of traditional Talmudic scholars. Clearly Rabbi Graubart felt secure in his reputation for analytical Talmudic expertise. His interest in the topic of Jonah shows the breadth of his intellectual interests, nourished on all sides by legal analysis, philosophy, Jewish lore, and humanistic literary studies. return
  29. Haskalah: “enlightenment.” This refers to any secular education, which it was the mission of the Jewish Enlightenment movement to propagate among traditional east–European Jewry. return
  30. The Talmud (Menahot 99b) tells of a rabbi who asked whether it was permitted to study Greek wisdom, inasmuch as one is commanded to study the Torah “day and night” (Joshua 1:8). He was told, “Study it at a time that is neither day nor night.” This became the proverbial time when Torah scholars were supposedly permitted to study secular wisdom. Of course, this was hyperbole; the kind of general erudition achieved by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart and others like him required serious application. return
  31. Sefer Zikaron (Memoirs [literally: Book of Memorial] – memoirs, letters, and sermons from the period of World War I and the Russian Revolution: Toronto, 1926); Yamin u–Smol (Right and Left – articles on public matters: Toronto, 1936); Devarim Ki–khetavam (Things as Written – sermons: Toronto, 1932); and Yabi'a Omer (May He Express Speech – sermons: Toronto, 1936). return
  32. RIM – Rabbi Itsik Mayer Alter (Góra Kalawaria, 1798–1866), the first Gerer Rabbi. return
  33. “Great rabbinic assembly”: allusion to Mishnah Avot 1:2: “Simeon the Righteous was among the survivors of the Great Rabbinical Assembly” (the governing body of rabbis of the third century BCE). return
  34. A bilingual pun on the Hebrew hishamer pen – “be careful lest” (Deut. 6:12, 8:11, and elsewhere). The Hebrew pen means “lest” but suggests the English–Yiddish “pen.” return
  35. Obviously there had been Jewish educational institutions previously in Russia! The implication of this passage must be either that he reinstituted them where they had ceased to be (on account of the war) or instituted them in places where there previously had been none (because Jewish settlement under the tsar was officially restricted to specified communities in the Pale). return
  36. Rashi: Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (Troyes, France, 1040–1105). His commentary on the Bible and Talmud achieved canonical status early on and were a required part of the Jewish school curriculum in Poland for centuries. return
  37. [Footnote in original:] Very religious Jews, in rote obedience to prior custom, hold fast to the tradition of beginning with Leviticus, not taking into account a child's emotions and comprehension. The source of this tradition is the midrash: “Rabbi Assi said: Why do we start children's education with the Priestly Law (Leviticus) rather than Genesis? Because children are pure and the sacrifices are pure; let the pure children come and deal with what is pure.” (See Pesikta Rabbati, chap. 16. This saying has different versions; see also “Ish Shalom,” the introduction to the Mekilta by the famous scholar Meir Friedman.) There are different customs in this regard. The expression “Priestly Law” in this midrash apparently refers only to the opening chapters of Leviticus, not the laws of leprosy, impurity, and the death of Aaron's sons, which would not be fitting for the instruction of small children. return
  38. Rabbi Yakov Maze: known by the Hebrew acronym MZAH – mizera Aharon Hakohen, “of the seed of Aaron the Priest,” that is, of cohenic–priestly lineage. He was chief rabbi of Moscow from 1893 to the Revolution, was elected to the Russian legislature during the Kerensky regime, and was active in the religious Zionist movement. See http://www.jta.org/1924/12/22/archive/rabbi–jacob–maze–leader–of–russian–jewry–dead. return
  39. The original text refers to Rabbi Joseph Rozin as “the Dinaburger prodigy,” but this has no support from the currently available sources, according to which Joseph Rozin, who was indeed a Talmudic genius, came from Rogatchev [Rahachow, Belarus]. The only major Jewish scholar who came from Dinaburg was Ben Zion Dinur (originally Dinaburg). return
  40. [Footnote in the original:] The reader can find more information about the mission, activity, and principles of Tradition and Freedom in his Memoirs. return
  41. [Footnote in the original:] In his Memoirs, pp. 183–185, he provides part of his letter to Herr I. D. Moses, which he sent on 28th of Adar, 5679 [1919], declaring his position about Agudas. He wanted the leadership to include traditional and not just modern rabbis. “Here it is impossible to agree, for all matters concerning Jews, whether sacred or secular, things requiring experience, expertise, and practical knowledge, will stand under the governance of the new so–called ‘rabbis.’” return
  42. Eruv: a schematic partition (such as a series of wires) enclosing an area within which carrying is permitted on the Sabbath. return
  43. Agunah: in Jewish law, a woman who though her husband is missing (as for instance in war) is still considered legally married and therefore ineligible to remarry. See “The Maggid of Kozhnitz, Author of ‘Responsum on the Agunah’” this book, p. 38. return
  44. Again, the text refers to Rabbi Joseph Rozin as “the prodigy of Dinaburg,” but this is not corroborated by other sources. return
  45. See previous footnote, where these books are described. return
  46. [Footnote in the original:] See Yankev Mandel, HaGaon R. Yehuda Leib, Yidishe Djurnal [Jewish Journal], Toronto, 10 October 1937. return
  47. Rishonim: the Talmudic commentators of the eleventh through fifteenth centuries. return
  48. [Footnote in original:] Memoirs, Commentary, p. 176. In 1920 he published an article in Hebrew in Hamizrachi, “In Defense of the Tzaddik,” defending the Kotzker rebbe and his version of Hasidism. return
  49. Ibid., p. 130 return
  50. Honi the Circle Drawer: the Jewish Rip Van Winkle. According to legend, he planted a carob tree, which takes seventy years to produce fruit, in the faith that, as others planted for him, so it was his obligation to plant for succeeding generations. Then he fell into a deep sleep and awoke seventy years later. (Talmud, Ta'anit 23a. See also http://scheinerman.net/judaism/Stories/honi.html.) return
  51. Murom: a town 312 kilometers east of Moscow. return
  52. [Foonote in the original:] See Devarim Kikhtavam, pp. 198–199. return
  53. World of Emanation: in Lurianic kabbalah, the highest and most celestial of the four worlds. return
  54. “Her position”–i.e., last year's. “Year” in Hebrew is a feminine noun; Rabbi Graubart is drawing on the language Esther 1;19, conveying Memuchan's advice to King Ahashuerus to depose Queen Vashti and find a replacement for her, to embellish his point. return
  55. According to the Hebrew calendar, the 2nd of Cheshvan extends from the evening of Wednesday, 6 October, through sunset on Thursday, 7 October. return
  56. Kehilla: the central governing organization of Jews in a town or city. See “The Kehilla” by Zvi Goldberg, this book, p. 41. return
  57. Maharil: acronym for “Morenu Ha–Rav Leib” (our teacher Rabbi Leib). return
  58. Tosefos (or Tosafot): the second standard commentary on the Talmud (after Rashi), comprising the opinions of the major French and German rabbis of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. return

[Pages 130-134]

Rabbi Moshe Shealtiel Gerszt,
the Moreh Hora'ah

by Dr. David Graubart

Translated from Hebrew by Miriam Leberstein

Our moreh hora'ah (or, in the Yiddish pronunciation, “moyre–hoyro'eh”), Harav Reb Moshe Shealtiel Gerszt[1] was a great Talmud scholar and one of the most beloved personages in the town. It wasn't only his scholarship that distinguished him. He was also a clever person and a warm and pleasant man, who was friendly to everyone with whom he came in contact.

How alive he appears in my memory, this bright, handsome figure, his pale face adorned with a pitch–black beard and a warm and good–hearted smile. Rabbi Gerszt embodied a type later popularly called “a man of the people.”

Rabbi Gerszt occupied the position of chief rabbinical judge at a time when the great gaon[2] Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart was the town rabbi. But he wasn't overshadowed by Rabbi Graubart. Thanks to his learning and perspicacity, his astuteness and experience in everyday life, Rabbi Gerszt was the life breath of Staszów's rabbinical court. His advice, rulings, and compromises were highly respected in cases involving business.

Rabbi Gerszt was an Ostrovtser [Ostrowiec] Hasid, a foremost student of the brilliant rabbi Reb Majer Yehiel Halevi Halbsztok, who led an ascetic life, fasting from one Sabbath to another and renowned for his piety all over Poland. As a loyal student and follower of his rebbe, Rabbi Gerszt followed the same path, fasting frequently, which actually weakened him so much that he died young.

When the Ostrovtser rebbe would come to visit his followers in Staszów, he would stay with his devoted student, the moyre hoyroe, who lived next door to the Hasidic besmedresh[3] on Dolna Rytwiańska [now Kolejowa] Street. (By the way, on one of these visits, the Ostrovtser rebbe blessed me and gifted me with a “lucky” coin.)

Rabbi Gerszt had bright and successful children. One of them, Reb Yisroel, later succeeded his father as the Staszów rabbinical judge. Like his father, he was a great scholar and judge. Another son, Nachman, with whom I attended cheder,[4] was somewhat of a child prodigy.

I remember an interesting episode from our childhood. We were travelling to Klementov [Klimontów], to the wedding of Rabbi Gerszt's son, Elimelech. On the way, one of the passengers suddenly discovered the presence in the wagon of sha'atnez.[5] Everyone jumped out, intending to walk to the wedding. Only after my father, Rabbi Graubart, decided that it was permissible to continue to ride in the wagon did people calm down and continue their ride.

As town rabbi, Rabbi Graubart thought very highly of Rabbi Gerszt, not just as expert in religious law and a rabbinical judge but also as a person experienced in secular matters. It was not surprising that Rabbi Graubart consulted with him and relied on his opinion on all important questions of the Torah, as well as communal matters. Their personal relationship was warm and brotherly. It was a real pleasure to see how well the two of them got along.

The moyre hoyroe's great learning is evidenced by the answers Rabbi Graubart addressed to him and published in his book of religious questions and responsa Chavalim bi–Ne'imim [Pangs of Delight].[6] These reflect not only the great friendship between the two but how Rabbi Graubart considered Rabbi Gerszt knowledgeable in all questions of religious law. In the above–mentioned book, part 2, article 24, Rabbi Graubart addresses Rabbi Gerszt as follows: “To my honored friend, the great Rav Master Moyshe Shaltiel, may his light shine, the Just Guide of this locale.” This same formulation is also found in other passages, articles 53 and 8, where the question involves the issuance of a writ of permission by a hundred rabbis. The author quotes the moyre hoyroe's opinion in a long passage, which clearly demonstrates how much respect he accorded it.

It is not insignificant that the above quotes deal with an attempt by Gerszt to answer a question from the Kovne [Kaunas, Lithuania] Rabbi, the gaon Rebbe Itsik Elkhanon Spektor, posed in his book Ayn Yitzchok. My father tries in a longer discussion to defend the Kovne rabbi. Gerszt and Graubart also agreed on matters treated in the Choshen Mishpat,[7] article 104, and Graubart evinced the same respect for Gerszt's wisdom and knowledge in this field as well.

After leaving Staszów and settling in far–off Toronto, Rabbi Graubart did not forget his good friend. In his efforts to establish an eruv in Toronto, he sought advice from Rabbi Gerszt. In this matter, Graubart refers to him in his book Chavalim bi–Ne'imim, 3:29 (the book was published after Rabbi Gerszt's death).[8] It should be noted that Rabbi Graubart did not dispense such titles to just anyone. If Rabbi Gerszt was dubbed “worthy of the same position,” he had to have earned it.

In sum, Rabbi Reb Shealtiel Gerszt was an exemplary person, who, in addition to his great knowledge of Torah, his wisdom, and his piety, was imbued with a sincere love of the Jewish people. But his community, Jewish Staszów, which he faithfully led for many years, repaid him with just as much loyalty and love whenever and wherever it could.

Photo caption p. 131: A seder organized by the community for Jewish soldiers.


  1. Moyre–hoyro'eh [Heb.: moreh hora'ah]: literally, “one who gives authoritative rulings.” This title indicated that its bearer was a rabbi and religious judge, second in authority to the chief rabbi of the town. Of the other titles, “Harav” is the formal Hebrew for “Rabbi,” while “Reb” is less formal and is roughly equivalent to “Mister.” return
  2. Gaon: brilliant, eminent man. return
  3. Besmedresh: house of study. return
  4. Cheder: religious school for young children. return
  5. Sha'atnez: religiously prohibited mixture of wool and linen. return
  6. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart, Chavalim bi–Ne'imim (Warsaw, 1910). return
  7. Choshen Mishpat: fourth section of the Shulchan Arukh, devoted to civil law. return
  8. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart, Chavalim bi–Ne'imim (Masorah Publications: Łódź, 1928). return


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