Chaim Elazar Shapira


Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira (Rabbi Shapira) was the leader of the ultra-Orthodox stream in Munkács, who ruled the city’s Jews until his death in 1937; The unquestioned rule of the community by constant struggles against anyone who dared to endanger it – both the Zionists, the Belz Hasidim, and Agudat-Israel. His control of the community enabled him, among other things, to live in welfare, which was very rare in those days, even among the higher strata of society. Thus, he travelled – beyond his business travels – to vacations to the west of Czechoslovakia and Switzerland. His daughter’s wedding was a public event, the likes of which were never seen in the city. The expenses of the event – for which a special preparatory committee was set up – were estimated at 100,000 Czech crowns, and the rabbi demanded that the community cover the debt! This corrupt behavior, which he defended with great vigor, led the community in Munkács to general bankruptcy in the mid-1930s.

In 1922, Rabbi Shapira established the famous “Darchei Teshuva” Yeshiva, which was also a central tool in his control of the Jewish community in the city. Of course, the yeshiva was an important learning center, which was attended by many from all over Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In fact, the Yeshiva was one of the largest yeshivas in Hungary, and in 1939 it numbered 280 students. In addition, it was recognized by the Czechoslovak authorities as an official rabbinical seminary.

Rabbi Shapira embarked on a stubborn and stormy struggle against the visit of the Belz Rabbi in Munkács. Upon the arrival of Rabbi Issachar Dov Rokach in the city as a war refugee from Galicia in 1920, he made sure to stress that there was no place in the city for both of them together. However, in order to give the struggle a more general, and not just personal content, it was directed against all the Belz Chassidim, whom Rabbi Shapira named “the pigs of Belz”. The Belz Chassidim prayed in their own Beit Midrash, called Machzikei Ha-Dat. A study of the regulations of the Beit Midrash immediately clarifies that the struggle between the Rabbi and the Chassidim of Belz stemmed mainly from political rather than halakhic motives. The confrontation intensified when the authorities in Prague decided to expel former war refugees from the former Soviet Union, including the Rabbi from Belz. Since the two rabbis opposed Zionism, they kept accusing each other in supporting it. After the danger of deportation passed, the Belz Rabbi remained in town until 1922, and later returned to Galicia. In the same year, the Belz Chassidim withdrew completely from the community and established their own separate community with a rabbi and shochet. Since the law could not call two communities in the same city of the same name, the Belz Chassidim had to call their new community a neologic (not Orthodox) community. This served Rabbi Shapira as a pretext for intensifying the struggle and spreading it throughout the Carpathoans. In a collection of letters of support for Rabbi Shapira from Rabbis from all over the region, as well as from other places in Europe, the Belz Chassidim are called in the most severe epithets, indicating the intensity of the conflict and the extent and influence of Rabbi Shapira. The confrontation ended only in 1934, and only after the Belz Chassidim recognized the supreme authority of the Rabbi Shapira in the community. The agreement, which was signed between the communities, explicitly stated that the Belz Chassidim give up (aufgeben) any complaint or dispute with the Orthodox community and its rabbinical leadership.

Rabbi Shapira’s struggle against the various Zionist movements in the Carpathian region was extremely intense. This, of course, stemmed from a complete contradiction between his world view and that of the Zionists. Rabbi Shapira’s faith in the coming of the Messiah in his day was in complete contradiction to Zionist activity and organized and mass immigration to Palestine. However, the attraction of many yeshiva students to the various Zionist movements also endangered his control of the community and necessitated an uncompromising struggle. Rabbi Shapira focused most of his public attacks on the Zionist stronghold of Munkács – the Hebrew Gymnasium. As soon as it was established, he published a very harsh leaflet against it and threatened to boycott parents who sent their children there. He also used to spit at the gymnasium every time he passed by its building, and so did his yeshiva students when they ran into the students of the gymnasium in the city. Physical violence between the yeshiva students and the Gymnasium students was also not uncommon. Rabbi Shapira used almost every occasion to lash out at the Zionist movement. When in the summer of 1934 a typhus epidemic broke out in Munkács and caused Jewish victims, Rabbi Shapira explained to the crowd that gathered in the Great Synagogue that the accused were the Zionists “… and their house of conversion” – the Hebrew Gymnasium. When, two years later, bloody riots broke out in Palestine, it was, of course, the realization of the warnings of Rabbi Shapira regarding immigration to Eretz Israel. Even regarding the Betar movement, Rabbi Shapira did not spare words, and looked forward to the liquidation of the movement. The Mizrachi movement was also a focus of Rabbi Shapira’s pressing, and even more so because of the danger of its religious appearance. With regard to Agudat Israel, Rabbi Shapira called a conference of Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis in the city of Csap on the border between Slovakia and Carpatho-Rus, in 1922, where he explicitly forbade any contact with Agudat Israel. This struggle of his against the Orthodox movement of the Agudat Israel (as in his struggle against the Belz Chassidim) can be seen as a political struggle for the control of the community, and much less an halachic struggle.

We can sum up by saying that the various wars of Rabbi Shapira – especially against the Zionists – were ultimately quite successful: his yeshiva was very large, an attempt splitting the community failed, and the Zionist movements and Hebrew education did not actually succeed in influencing a significant Jewish population in the city, and could not make a drastic change in the worldview of enough Jews, not even among the younger generation.