The Gaon, Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, Hagrasham, the rabbi of Hovevei Zion. Born in the city of Hlybokaye, near Vilna, to a rabbinic family.
It is said that at the age of eight he was already familiar with Talmudic topics and rapidly earned the title of the “Hlybokaye Prodigy“.
Even at the Volozhin Yeshiva, where the best Lithuanian scholars studied, the young prodigy stood out and at the age of eighteen and a half, after only six months at the yeshiva, he was ordained into the rabbinate.
For a number of years, he did not want to serve in the rabbinate but engaged in commerce because he did not want to turn his Talmudic learning into a trade. He responded, nevertheless, to the request of his fellow townspeople to serve as the rabbi of the township of his birth, and accepted the appointment when he was just 24 years old.
The cities of Shaki, Suwalki and Radom were the following stages in the Rabbi’s path. The residents of Radom, most of them Chassidim, quickly realized that the “misnaged” Rabbi supported the integration of the study of Torah and sciences together with immigration to the Land of Israel.
It was not long before the citizens of Radom found themselves mobilized for the Return and Redemption of the Land, initially with financial donations, and subsequently with practical support for establishment of settlements.
Rav Mohilever’s reputation as an adjudicator in Jewish law and his greatness in Torah brought the residents of Bialystok, one of the largest communities in Russia, to offer him the position of rabbi even though they were aware that their rabbi would not deal only with the affairs of their city. Later they would say: “Our rabbi is the rabbi of all Israel and sometimes also of Bialystok.”
He was totally dedicated to a great and lofty concern — the Zionist enterprise — A CONSTRUCTIVE PROPHET.
When Rabbi Mohilever first became interested in the Land of Israel there were already Jewish farmers living there. “The first swallows who do not necessarily testify to the rules are the dreams of individuals.”
The national awakening that swept through the countries of Europe in the 18th Century did not pass the Jewish People by and encouraged the appearance of “the harbingers of Zionism” ….but they engaged the concept and not the practical side of it.
The rabbi understood that no redemption would result from just appeals for redemption. And, with a personal fervor which allowed gave him no rest, he created a program of great daring and courage and called for a change in reality to initiate the redemption. Contrary to most of his generation, Rabbi Mohilever did not remain just a theorist.
tens of other similar societies were established. Money was needed for the venture to succeed. The rabbi traveled among Jews of affluence. After a long trip and many disappointments, he came to Paris and managed to recruit Baron de Rothschild for the settlement of the Land of Israel enterprise. And the rest is history . . .
At that same meeting, the Rabbi and the Baron agreed on a plan to recruit a group of Jews to immigrate to the Land and set up a moshava, to be an exemplary sign for settlements to come. The moshava of Ekron or Mazkeret Batya is the result of this agreement.
From every possible platform, the Rabbi called on Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel. The Rabbi serves as Honorary President of the Kattowitz Conference — the gathering which united the Hovevei Zion societies in Europe.
He heads the delegation of Hovevei Zion on a visit to the country and checks the situation of the first moshavot. On this trip, he determines in public that “The Holy One, blessed be He, wants his children to settle in their land even if they do not keep the Torah properly, more than He wants them to live overseas and observe it properly.” This was a far-reaching and courageous statement for those days.
When Herzl ascended the stage of history, the fruits of Rabbi Mohilever’s work were visible on the ground. Herzl sought the support and help of the Rabbi, and he became an indispensable part of the Zionist Movement. The Rabbi did not participate in the First Congress in Basle because of ill health but he sent his grandson to read out a letter of greetings from him: “Our Torah, the source of our life, has to be the foundation for our rebirth in the land of our fathers.” He further Wrote: “Sons of Zion . . . live amongst them in love and perfect brotherhood even though their opinions differ on matters between man and God.”
When he reached the age of seventy, Hovevei Zion planted “Gan Shmuel” (Garden of Shmuel), a plantation of etrogim near Hadera. Until his death, the Rabbi was active on behalf of Zionism within Russian Jewry which mobilized harmoniously for the new movement. “The remnant of my strength and the last moments of my life are for my people and my country,” he said, and he was not referring to Russia.
He saw far ahead as did the first political Zionist
Writers about times that have passed, with the wisdom of hindsight, known as historians, can determine which events in the historic continuum changed the course of history. The meeting between Rabbi Mohilever and Baron Rothschild was without doubt such an event.
With the wisdom of hindsight, one can say that Rabbi Mohilever was himself the change. A rabbi great in Torah who went against the stream, giving complete and unreserved support for “shortening the Exile and advancing the Redemption”, he is the change in the course of history.
The writings of Rabbi Mohilever, his innovations, sermons and responsa were destroyed and burned in the pogroms in Bialystok some eight years after his death.
But even from the few pages which remained, one can learn from his teachings.
The Rabbi supported the study ofthe physical sciences in addition to religious studies, and he advocated learning a profession and creative work. Today this sounds obvious but, in his day, it was swimming against the current.
In the political arena, the Rabbi worked for international recognition of the return of the Jewish People to its Land and thereby became the “first political Zionist” a title accorded to him by Herzl. In the sphere of human relations, his motto was “peace and love” long before it became a brand-name. “The foundation of the whole Torah is peace and love”.
His teaching focused on tolerance and he opposed factionalism and disputes between the various segments of the people.
“The Jewish People is divided into different parties and they do not debate with each other calmly and in a relaxed mode each is distinct in his opinions from the other and what one opts for the other will reject and no-one is concerned for the people as a whole.”
Rabbi Mohilever viewed the unity of the people as a condition for the success of the Zionist enterprise and emphasized that “We have to desist from argument and quiet strife …”. In a letter he wrote two days before he died and which was seen as his Will, it is stated: “Yes, dear brethren, there is much work ahead of us and we have to labor and toil without tiring, incessantly. We have to work shoulder to shoulder without schism, in total love, and perfect harmony.”