The tisch: In the Holy Ark of Israel

Despite the arduous journey from Czechoslovakia to the shores of British Mandate Palestine, the entourage stayed for only 13 days.

Shtetl in Poland 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Shtetl in Poland 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1930, Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapira (1871-1937) – hassidic master and rabbi of Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia – embarked on a historic pilgrimage to the Land of Israel. The traveling party was made up of 16 people, including Rabbi Hayim Elazar’s prospective son-in-law, other rabbinic figures from the Carpathian region, and loyal disciples and attendants.
Despite the arduous journey from Czechoslovakia to the shores of British Mandate Palestine, the entourage stayed for only 13 days, making sure to leave the Land of Israel before the festival of Shavuot.
The 13-day sojourn would later be explained as mystically corresponding to the 13 years that the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai and his son hid from the Romans in a cave: one day for each year. According to kabbalistic tradition, it was during this time that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai composed the Zohar.
Despite this mystical comparison, it is still surprising that the visit was so short. This is especially puzzling when we realize how much time Rabbi Hayim Elazar spent just getting to the Promised Land: He left Mukacevo on April 28, 1930, and arrived in Jerusalem on May 8 – a travel time of 11 days! Moreover, it is perplexing that he purposely chose not to remain in the Land of Israel for the festival of Shavuot. We would have expected him to embrace such a rare opportunity to spend one of the biblical festivals in the Holy City of Jerusalem! The answer to this conundrum appears in the travelogue written by Moshe Goldstein, a faithful disciple of Rabbi Hayim Elazar and one of the participants in the pilgrimage. The diary, titled Masaot Yerushalayim, was published after the group returned to Europe in 1931.
Goldstein recorded a conversation between the elderly Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari (ca. 1820-1930) and Rabbi Hayim Elazar. The meeting between these two figures was laden with messianic fervor and hope, and was one of the purposes and highlights of the trip for Rabbi Hayim Elazar.
The Saba Kadisha (Holy Grandfather) – as Rabbi Alfandari was called – asked Rabbi Hayim Elazar how long he planned to stay in the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Hayim Elazar responded that he intended to be there for about two weeks. He would travel to Meron for Lag Ba’omer, but would return home for Shavuot.
Rabbi Hayim Elazar explained that according to kabbalists, yom tov sheini shel galuyot – the second day of festivals celebrated only in the Diaspora – was of greater spiritual valence than the first day of festivals, and he did not want to miss that opportunity.
But this explanation alone was insufficient, for as Rabbi Hayim Elazar knew, the mainstream halachic position considered the second day of festivals to be a personal obligation. Consequently, the second-day obligation is considered incumbent on any person who is a Diaspora resident, even if that person is temporarily visiting the Land of Israel. Thus, Rabbi Hayim Elazar could have remained in the Land of Israel and kept the second day of Shavuot, since his place of residence was in Mukacevo.
Rabbi Hayim Elazar, however, seemed to prefer the less accepted position that considered the second-day obligation to be defined territorially: If you are in the Land of Israel you keep one day, if you are in the Diaspora you keep two days – regardless of your primary place of residence. But keeping one day would have him miss the kabbalistically significant second day, and mean that he had ruled against the mainstream position. What was he to do? Rabbi Hayim Elazar decided to avoid the issue by making sure that he was not in the Land of Israel for the festival of Shavuot.
Lest we think that Rabbi Hayim Elazar flippantly left the Promised Land because his visit left him uninspired: In a letter written after his return to Mukacevo, the hassidic master addressed his disciples in the Land of Israel and discussed a range of issues. At this opportunity, Rabbi Hayim Elazar nostalgically recalled his pilgrimage with stirring words: “And the 13 days that I stayed in the Holy Land… are etched in my memory – with God’s help, may He be blessed – until the Righteous Redeemer comes speedily in our days, and even then. Even at night, my heart did not sleep out of holy awe; as if I was lying in a synagogue, and inside the Holy Ark.”
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law.