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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Prison Rav©

A commemoration of Harav Dov Ber Eliezerov on his 14th yahrtzeit, 18 Av

Israel’s official Armored Corps Memorial Site is located at Latrun in the Valley of Ayalon, the site where Yehoshua bin Nun stopped the sun, the moon and the constellations. It now houses one of the largest tank museums in the world. The museum is in the former Tegart Fortress, which was a British police encampment under the Mandate, and contains an archive for soldiers fallen in battle, a library, and also a synagogue. In the last years of British Mandate rule over Palestine, there was a formidable jail in Latrun, in which hundreds of young Jewish boys were imprisoned. The prison was so oppressive that those interned there chose to leave out the phrase “The Compassionate One, may He send us abundant blessing to this house ...” when they bentched.

As Yishmael is the “mechutan” of Esav, the British showed a smiling countenance to the Arabs, while they were extremely unyielding to Jews then in the Land and those trying to enter it. The British always turned a blind eye to Arab activities against the Yishuv (Jewish settlement), in effect giving the Arabs a helping hand to terrorize the Jews. Many young Jews became members of the Jewish underground resistance against the British Mandate government. Arrests of these youngsters were a frequent occurrence and many were jailed in Latrun.

In an anguished letter to the Vaad Haleumi (Jewish National Committee) before Pesach 5703/1943, some of the young boys imprisoned in Latrun implored the committee to ensure that the Pesach needs of matzah and wine for the 110 prisoners be met before the chag. They wrote that they had requested this repeatedly and as yet nothing had been done. No one seemed to care!

That following summer a person was appointed to shoulder responsibility and supply the religious (and secular) needs of the imprisoned community. A thirty-five-year-old avreich, Dov Ber Eliezerov, was ready and willing to take on the task of being the Rav of Latrun. When Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Palestine Rav Benzion Chai Meir Uziel1 (Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine (1939–1948) and the State of Israel (1948–1954) ), asked him to help out, Rav Dov Ber had misgivings about his own competence to serve, yet he proved to be the spiritual compass and guide who acted as father and anchor to these young men for five years.

During the week Rav Eliezerov served as a maggid shiur in Yerushalayim at Yeshivas Toras Emes, but on Fridays he would pack a little bag with wine for Kiddush, lechem mishneh, and some dry food, and set out for Latrun, where he voluntarily enclosed himself for the whole of Shabbos behind bars. He spent most of Shabbos in solitude, except for leading prayer services and giving shiurim, or when an English soldier would occasionally come to guard him in his little tin shack, which the British assigned to him — and which was ice cold in winter and broiling hot in summer. His wife, who was left home alone with their small children for all those Shabbosos, encouraged him wholeheartedly.

Prisoners’ Committees
Rav Dov Ber’s first Shabbos in Latrun almost convinced him that his original assessment that he was not suitable for the post was correct. Most of the prisoners did not adhere to Torah and mitzvos. The holiness of Shabbos was absent and the profane atmosphere of the weekdays prevailed. On that first shabbos the sun had long since set. Only a sprinkling of congregants, not even close to a minyan, had arrived to daven in the prefab building set up as a shul. They waited for more young men to show up, but they were apparently still in the midst of their Shabbos preparations.

Succeeding Shabbosos proved the opposite as the very fact that he continued coming to Latrun and spending the holy day with them slowly penetrated throughout the camp and positively influenced everyone who was imprisoned there.

The Rav set up a number of committees to strengthen the observance of mitzvos in the prison. The prisoners chose from among themselves those who would serve on each committee. There was a shul vaad that was responsible for trying to obtain a sefer Torah, siddurim, and other holy books. They also had to see to it that the shul was kept clean and that minyanim took place each day for Shacharis and Minchah/Maariv.

The vaad for kashrus was to make sure that all the food coming into the prison camp was kosher. This was a most difficult and delicate task, especially when it came to meat. The meat was shechted by a reliable shochet, but was brought into the camp by a wily Arab. The kashrus committee members had to make sure the Arab had not exchanged the meat by examining each piece and comparing it to the exact description sent them by the shochet. They also had to make sure the stamps and plumbas were in place.

The Vaad L’maan HaShabbos saw to it that there was no public chillul Shabbos in the camp.

Egged Bus Passes
The British promised Rav Dov Ber a British soldier to escort him from Jerusalem to Latrun. No soldier ever appeared and the Rav had to wait in the long line at the Central Bus Station in Yerushalayim for the bus to Tel Aviv, and get off at Latrun. Being a gentle person by nature, the Rav often found himself pushed out of line. Yet he never complained to anyone about this difficulty. Eventually the problem became known to the Rabbanim who had sent him, and they acquired an official Egged bus pass to allow him on the bus without having to wait in line. This assured that he would not be late in getting to Latrun before Shabbos.

The Connecting Link
Rav Eliezerov had an additional task that was kept a well-guarded secret from the British administrators.
He served faithfully as a connecting link between the prisoners and their families. These boys were allowed only one visit a month from members of their families. For fear of discovery, not even one letter could be written down by the Rav. He had to remember all the messages from one side and deliver it verbally to the other. Parents and family of the incarcerated would throng to the Rav’s home at the beginning of each week to inquire about the welfare of their loved ones.

The inmates were not allowed private consultation with their lawyers either. Whenever the prisoners met with their advocates for legal aid, a British or Arab soldier who understood Hebrew was always present. During the week Rav Dov Ber would meet with the different defense attorneys and discuss with each one the particular case he was handling. Rav Dov Ber would then report back to the prisoner the line of defense the lawyer was going to take. All this was also done clandestinely and committed to memory, despite the unremitting surveillance of British and Arab prison guards, who stood constantly at the windows of the shul, eavesdropping.

When the Rav gave his various shiurim to his congregation in the Latrun prison, he would cleverly weave the information he had brought into the words of the shiur. The boys would hide their answers in their questions on the shiur, and that is how messages were sent back and forth from the inmates to their family friends, and lawyers. Sometimes the urgency of the matter necessitated that the messages be passed during the davening of Kabbalas Shabbos or the other Shabbos tefillos.

‘Beware the Government ...’
One Shabbos afternoon a Jewish British army officer joined the Rav’s Pirkei Avos shuir. At that point they were learning the mishnah (2:3), “Beware the government, for they befriend someone only for their own benefit.” The boys were expecting to hear the pshat, the simple explanation of the mishnah, that would validate their opposition to the British.

But the Rav expounded the mishnah according to Midrash Shmuel, explaining that one needs to support
the authorities and not disparage them. The attentive prisoners were extremely upset and even angry at the Rav for giving this interpretation. When the British officer left shul before Minchah, the Rav apologized to the boys and explained that he had been afraid that perhaps the Jewish officer had come to spy on them. He added that the plain understanding of the mishnah can be understood by itself, and the fact that they had been
given the opportunity to hear a different peirush that they would not have heard otherwise should be treasured.

Yeshivah of Latrun
The Rav gave a number of classes to his imprisoned kehillah. After the Friday night meal he usually gave a Chumash shiur; on Shabbos day he gave a lesson in halachah as well as one on Pirkei Avos. As the number of inmates in Latrun grew due to more frequent arrests in the wake of the intensifying British stranglehold on the Yishuv, a lesson in Gemara was added. This class made a siyum on Maseches Sanhedrin, which was marked by a large festive gathering on Motzoei Shabbos.

The lessons and learning were broadened and the prisoners themselves began teaching each other on
weekdays. It seemed as if Latrun had turned into a yeshivah!

The Festival of Freedom Behind Bars
Rav Dov Ber Eliezerov wrote a book called Shaali Tzion, named after the words in the well-known poem of Rav Yehudah Halevy, “Tziyon halo sishali lishlom asirayich — Zion, why do you not ask about the welfare of your [people who are] prisoners?” In the sefer’s introduction he writes that he saw it as a holy obligation to collect and publicize the halachic queries asked in Latrun, so it should be known and remembered for generations that even though these prisoners were suffering great personal hardship, their faithfulness to Hashem and His mitzvos never waned.

The purity of the Jewish soul and its desire to do its Maker’s will was clearly apparent when Pesach
came around. No one forced the boys at Latrun to go to such great trouble in order to keep Pesach in the
stringent manner that they did. On the contrary, the British jailers would have preferred to avoid all the nuisance and inconvenience involved. These pure souls insisted on seeing that the halachah was kept
to the nth degree. Fifteen pages of Shaali Tzion deal with a she’eilah that Rav Dov Ber Eliezerov discussed with Harav Tzvi Pesach Frank, the Chief Ashkenazi Rav of Yerushalayim. Since no new eating utensils were
given to them to use for Pesach, the prisoners had to kasher everything in the afternoon of Erev Pesach. No kosher-for-Pesach food products, such as coffee, tea, cocoa, or sugar came into the camp, and one of the questions the Rav was asked was if the regular chometzdig food could be used. To us this seems a question that should not even be asked, but those were the circumstances that prevailed and there was nothing else to be had.

One of the she’eilos he had to answer was about the validity of the sale of the prisoners’ chametz by the Rav. That Erev Pesach the Brits had not allowed the Rav to visit the camp, and he had to sell the prisoners’
chametz without asking their permission.

Other questions that were asked during the year included whether slivers of toast could be used for lechem mishneh. There were also queries about when to bentch Birkas Hagomel. And when they began to arrest boys in the Old Yishuv, the chareidi youth from the Old City, he began to receive questions about how much the Old Yishuv boys should rebuke the other inmates in regard to chillul Shabbos.

Humble to the End
The English left Palestine in May 1948; the prison in Latrun was closed and its inmates released. Rav Dov Ber Eliezerov hoped to be able to return to the preferred anonymity of being a regular avreich, but he was asked
to become the Rav of Katamon that same year. Indeed, he served as Rav of that neighborhood for forty-nine years, until his passing on 18 Av 5757/August 21, 1997.

His book, Shaali Tzion, was acclaimed by all the Torah greats of his day, yet he always remained modest and unassuming. Whenever Rav Eliezerov’s gabbai wanted to publish something in the Rav’s name, the Rav would not let him. He was known for his ability to promote shalom bayis among couples, his home was always open to everyone, and “strange types” frequented his dwelling. He is remembered by old Katamon residents for his warm and loving demeanor and friendly, all-encompassing smile. Even in his later years people would recognize his youthful gait from afar and eagerly await his greeting, for he loved each and every Jew regardless of the degree to which he observed mitzvos.

Rav Dov Ber Eliezerov’s tombstone mentions nothing of his greatness and scholarship. The only thing he allowed to be written are the words “Served as Rav of the prison camp in Latrun.”

The writer thanks Rav Dov Ber Eliezerov’s daughter, Mrs. Denah Hoffman, and her son, Rav Shlomo Hoffman, and the Rav’s granddaughter Mrs. Mirah Swimmer for providing the information on which this article was based.
Published in Hamodia

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! I remember the respect that Rav Eliezrov was accorded by hachmei Yerushalayim when I was a young student in the late 70s and the 80s. Thank you for posting this.