The hassidic master Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira (1783-1841) is often referred to by the title of his famous hassidic work, Bnei Yissachar.
While mostly associated with the Galician town of Dynow, the rabbi spent a brief four-year stint over the Carpathian Mountains as the rabbi of Munkacs, Hungary.
His tenure in Munkacs began in 1824, and ended in acrimonious circumstances in 1828. At that time he returned to his native Galicia, where he continued his illustrious career as a hassidic leader.
During his Munkacs sojourn, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech penned two short works.
The first work appears to have been written soon after he arrived in Hungary, though it was only published in 1909 under the title Azharot Mahartsa (“The Warning of our Master”). The rabbi was perplexed by the lax religious observance he encountered in Hungary, and Azharot Mahartsa contains exhortations and encouragement, addressing a variety of aspects of Jewish religious life. He explicitly permitted copying and disseminating the text.
The other work he authored during his Munkacs years was a collection of regulations that established a society responsible for traditional Jewish education of all male students there. This legislation was called Takkanot Tamkhin Deorayta (“Regulations for the Support of Torah”), and was enacted in 1827. The regulations include the bylaws of the society, and made it clear that in addition to providing Torah education, there was a strong socializing element to the legislation: members of the society and students who benefited from society funding were to be paragons of traditional Jewish conduct. Thus, for instance, they were not allowed to trim their beards, nor were they permitted to wear modern clothing.
By and large there is no overlap between Azharot Mahartsa and Takkanot Tamkhin Deorayta. There are, however, a few topics that are dealt with in both works, such as religiously avoiding sha’atnez, wearing tefillin, not cutting the beard or sidelocks, and not growing long hair. One particular issue emphasized in both works clearly vexed the rabbi: the widespread neglect of tzitzit.
In Takkanot Tamkhin Deorayta, the issue of wearing tzitzit is mentioned numerous times: the rife neglect of tzitzit is mentioned in the preamble, membership in the society was conditional on wearing tzitzit throughout the day, and the beadle was to warn new students that they must wear valid tzitzit. In Azharot Mahartsa, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech condemned those who wore tzitzit that did not cover their entire bodies, and those who tucked the fringes in their trousers.
Tzitzit, opined the rabbi, should be oversized and proudly displayed.
The biblical verse indicates the importance of tzitzit by saying that when we see the fringes, we will recall all of God’s commandments and will observe them (Numbers 15:39). With this backdrop, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech noted that it was no wonder sinning was so rife, given the commandment of tzitzit was neglected.
The rabbi’s concern for tzitzit was not limited to his time in Munkacs; in his other works, he also related to them. Thus he wrote that looking at tzitzit was a panacea for all types of temptation, in particular the folly of anger.
Why did Rabbi Zvi Elimelech harp on tzitzit? To be sure, his predecessors had also emphasized the import of the mitzva. One of his teachers, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanow (1745-1815), enacted regulations for his city just before his death. In his regulations, Rabbi Menachem Mendel instructed: “To warn the tailors that when they sew four corners [that is, tzitzit], that the four corners should reach the knees.”
But Rabbi Zvi Elimelech seemed to go farther than his predecessor in dealing with tzitzit. Was it because of a particular neglect of this precept in early 19th-century Eastern Europe? Or perhaps a particular affinity that the rabbi felt for the commandment? Indeed, the notion that a particular commandment captured the attention of a hassidic master more than others is an idea that is accepted in hassidic thought. Or perhaps it was a combination of the two, as Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1787), Rabbi Zvi Elimelech’s great-uncle and one of the central personalities responsible for the spread of Hassidism from present-day Ukraine westward to present-day Poland, wrote: “Each and every generation is connected at its root to fix a specific commandment more than other commandments. For example, this generation is connected at its root to fix the commandment of tzitzit more than other commandments. And similarly, each generation is connected at its root to uphold a specific commandment more than other commandments.”