Yeshivat Har Bracha

Revivim, rabbi Eliezer Melamed

The Character Traits of the Gaon Rabbi Shamai Ginzburg (1905-1997)

Rabbi Shamai Ginzburg, one of the heroes of the Vienna conversion affair, was a Gur Hasid and an avid Zionist who forced his parents to immigrate to the Land of Israel at an early age * After several years of working to provide for his family, in combination with learning Torah, he was asked to be the shamash for the Rebbe of Gur, author of the ‘Imrei Emet’, and became endeared to him * During the War of Independence, he enlisted in the army with the encouragement of the Rebbe, and afterwards, worked in the Jewish Agency for the religious welfare of new immigrants

Following the story of the slander about the Vienna conversions, which I dealt with in the previous articles, this time I will write about Rabbi Shamai Ginzburg, one of the heroes of the affair, who was responsible for religious affairs in the Jewish Agency and the establishment of the Beit Din for conversion in Vienna, and guided Rabbi Alter Steinmetz who, in practice, dealt with the conversions.

Rabbi Shamai Ginzburg was born in Poland in the year 1905 to a wealthy family from the Gur Hassidim. In his youth he studied with Rabbi Shimon Shkop, Rabbi Menachem Zamba, may God avenge his blood, and the Rebbe of Ostrovets. He was sharp and quick to understand, and stood out especially for his tremendous memory. Even in his youth, he was well versed in all of the Talmud. It is told that he would study a page of Gemara, and after a while, could recite it by heart – forwards, and backwards. Over the years he continued studying, to the point where he remembered by heart numerous books of Chazal, Rishonim and Achronim. The story is told about Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach who said that instead of carrying an entire cabinet of books, it was better to have Rabbi Shamai Ginzburg’s phone number.  Even two weeks before his death, Rav Auerbach spoke to him in reference to certain sources. Rabbi Haim Benish, author of the book ‘Ha-Midot be’Halacha, said that he asked Rabbi Shamai for all references to the measure of ‘zeret‘ (little finger span) in the Gemara, and received an answer on the spot.

Rabbi Shamai was also known for his talent for languages. Even in his youth he knew Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Polish. Later on he learned German, English, Arabic and Italian, and for the purpose of working with the immigrants from North Africa, he also learned French. He also had knowledge of various sciences, and it was also said that no man had ever beaten him at the game of chess.

Immigration to Israel

Young Reb Shamai wanted very much for his family to immigrate to Israel. The story is told that when they did not agree, he said that seeing as he resided in Poland, he was obligated to enlist in the Polish army, and that he had already gone and registered at the recruiting office. Consequently, if they did not immigrate within a week, he would have to enlist. This situation forced his parents to seriously consider fulfilling their dream, and move to Israel. His father went to speak to the Gurer Rebbe to ask about this, and even before he could speak, the Rebbe told him: “Go in peace.” In 1925, when he was twenty-two years old, the family settled in Balforia in the Jezreel Valley, on a large plot of land that their family had purchased. They attempted to develop agriculture, but were not very successful.

During the third “Rabbinical Journey”, in Iyar 1927, Maran Rabbi Kook arrived at Balforia and met the young Reb Shamai, recognized his talent, and recommended he continue studying Torah. Reb Shamai went to Jerusalem, studied for a while ‘Merkaz HaRav’, and then went on to the ‘Sefat Emet Yeshiva’ of Gur Hasidim in Jerusalem. After some time, his parents also ascended to Jerusalem, and opened a hostel for yeshiva boys, from which they earned a living.


In 1932, when he was about twenty-seven years old, he married Miriam (nee, Berkowitz), from a family of Vizhnitz Hasidim. As is customary among Hasidim, Reb Shamai worked for his living, but made sure to study for at least five hours every day, usually in the ‘Hebron’ or ‘Porat Yosef’ yeshiva libraries, or in the National Library. He had great physical strength, and for a number of years labored as a construction worker. Apparently, as a man with a memory like his own, even while working physically, he was able to continue reviewing his Talmudic studies by heart, and even delve into them.

In his ideological positions he identified with Zionism, as did his brothers who were Gur Hasidim, and also his wife’s family who were Vizhnitz Hasidim. Their families were connected to the ‘Poalei Agudat Yisrael’ movement, which at the time was part of Agudat Yisrael, and engaged in Yishuv Ha’aretz (the settlement of the Land of Israel). His wife’s brother, Rabbi Moshe Avital (Berkowitz), who studied with him in ‘Sefat Emet’, was later a senior officer in the Military Rabbinate.

Shamash of the “Imrei Emet

In the year 1940, the Rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai, author of ‘Imrei Emet’ ascended to Jerusalem, and Rabbi Shamai, who was thirty-five years old at the time, was asked to leave his job and become the shamash (assistant) of the Rebbe, who was seventy-four years old at the time. He served in this position for eight years, until the death of the ‘Imrei Emet’ in the year 1948. The Rebbe very much enjoyed the fact that his shamash was a Talmid Chacham and a gaon, who could speak to him with allusions from the Talmud. It is said that although Rabbi Shammai was physically strong, he never pushed anyone.

It is worth noting that the ‘Imrei Emet‘ greatly appreciated Maran Rabbi Kook, and upon his meeting with him in 1921, formed a positive position regarding Yishuv Ha’aretz. Thanks to this, he encouraged many Hasidim to immigrate to Israel and buy properties there, which are the basis for Gur Hassidism being the largest in the country.

Rabbi Shamai wrote a pamphlet called ‘Perek Zichranot’ from the last years of ‘Imrei Emet’. In the memoirs, there are also miracles he saw in the Rebbe. For example, when he mentioned the name of an ill person before him and the Rebbe did not bless him with a “refuah shleima” (a complete recovery) – Rabbi Shammai knew that the patient would not live. In addition, he said that the Gurer Rebbe supported the Underground fighters for Israel’s independence, and before dangerous actions they would send notes (kvitlach) via Rabbi Shamai to the Rebbe to pray for them. Afterwards, the Rebbe ordered Rabbi Shamai to burn them so the fighters would not be caught by the police. Sometimes, other kvitlach he would keep for a few days, in order to continue praying.

He said that he always made sure to fulfill the Rebbe’s wishes, except for a few instances. For example, after the Rebbe became weak in his old age and slipped and fell, the doctor advised someone to sleep with the Rebbe in his room. The Rebbe agreed, but when Rabbi Shamai walked with him, every step of the way the Rebbe would say “there is no need – ‘somayach Hashem l’kol ha-noflim” (“God supports all the fallen”). But when Rabbi Shamai dared to say that the intention of “somayach” was not to fall, the Rebbe agreed. Also, when a doctor ordered that two pillows be placed under the Rebbe’s head, he noticed that the Rebbe had moved them and went to sleep without them. “I approached him, and put the pillows back in their place. He put his head on them, and told me he felt a high mountain under his head. I commented: ‘For the righteous, the evil inclination appears to them as a high mountain’ (according to Sukkah 52a), and he left the pillows under his head.”

Rabbi Shamai also said that during the Holocaust the Rebbe was extremely worried, but believed that bad rumors should not be hidden from family members. And although they did not tell him everything, the Rebbe knew the magnitude of the disaster that had befallen the Jews, his Hasidim, and his family members. He also wrote that after the Holocaust, when survivors came to the Rebbe he would show them a cheerful face in order to strengthen and encourage them, but before they entered and after they left, he was “extremely sad, and sighed a lot.” He also said that at the beginning of the war, they buried the writings of ‘Imrei Emet’ in a pit. When the war was over they searched, but could not find them. The Rebbe was very interested in his writings, but after they searched several times unsuccessfully, he said: “Perhaps it should be so, the conversations were told to those Jews” (who were murdered in the Holocaust).

After the Rebbe’s death during the War of Independence, Rabbi Shamai followed his son the ‘Beit Yisrael’, as well as the subsequent Gurer Rebbes.

In the Army

During the War of Independence, he enlisted in the IDF with the encouragement of the Rebbe, and was one of the commanders of the Tuvia Battalion. It was a civilian battalion that was mainly involved in the preparation of fortifications. Rabbi Shamai’s soldiers were yeshiva students, and he, as someone with experience in construction work, guided them. One of his tasks was to prepare diggings to trap the Jordanian tanks that were about to attack Jerusalem. It is said that he led the battle against the tanks that fell in the trench, which were left in the hands of the IDF.

In the same pamphlet, Rabbi Shamai wrote that even before the War of Independence during the days of the Underground (while assisting the Rebbe) “I was active all these years in the ranks of the defenders, and fulfilled all the duties assigned to me. I performed many important, and also dangerous actions.” “Maran ztz”l (the ‘Imrei Emet’) once said to me, when I told him I was going to a dangerous action (in translation from Yiddish): ‘Before you go to action, tell me, and you won’t have any distress.'” And so he did. He continued to relate : “Following that, when I went on extremely dangerous operations, I went with my head held high and wasn’t afraid. I didn’t even bend down when bullets whizzed around me (during the days of the War of Independence)… and not only that, even after the departure of Maran ztz”l, when I had to go for dangerous operations, I went to the grave of Maran ztz”l in order to inform him that I was going…” In the year 1991, he wrote: “I never acted as a commander. Every operation that involved some sort of danger, I acted alone. Baruch Hashem, out of all the yeshiva’s students who were sent on behalf of the Tuviah Battalion, not one was lost.”

At the Jewish Agency

At the end of the year 1949, he began working at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem as a representative of ‘Poalei Agudat Yisrael’. His position was rabbinical, and his responsibility was for kashrut and halachic matters in all the immigrant camps, and on the ships that brought them to Israel. As part of his work, he had to travel to different countries, and dealt with many halachic inquiries. For some reason, in the book published in his memory, “The Chasidic Gaon”, the matter of the Vienna conversions was left unmentioned. Apparently, his descendants thought it was not worth tarnishing his memory with the slander he had encountered, even though the Rebbe supported him. However, they noted that in accordance with the guidance of the ‘Beit Yisrael’ Rebbe, even before the immigration from the Soviet Union began, he prepared an immigrant camp in Vienna, and when the gates were opened and the immigrants began to arrive, the staff at the Jewish Agency were surprised to find that he had already prepared a camp for them.

Out of partnership with the Religious Zionist rabbis who engaged in the building of the nation and the land, he published Torah articles in ‘Shevilin‘, the ‘HaPoel HaMizrachi’ rabbinical journal, in the Chief Rabbinate’s journal ‘Shana Be-Shana’, and in ‘Noam‘ edited by Rabbi Kasher, who was also a Zionist Gur Chassid, and authored the book ‘Ha-Tekufa Ha-Gedolah’, about the State of Israel, and the Beginning of the Redemption.

As a confidant of the Gurer Rebbe, for decades Rabbi Shamai served as the head of ‘Kollel Poland’. As part of his position, he engaged in acts of kindness and charity. He was also a partner in the founding of the ‘Poalei Agudat Yisrael’ branch in Jerusalem.

His Books ‘Imeri Shammai

Beginning in 1974, after recovering from a serious illness, he began to publish his books ‘Imrei Shamai’ with the assistance of his son-in-law, Rabbi Yehezkel Ashlag – the Rebbe of Ashlag, the grandson of the author of the ‘Sulam’, and the son of Rabbi Shlomo Binyamin, who was associated with students from the Merkaz Ha-Rav Yeshiva. The series includes eight parts, and the books deal with Halacha and Aggadah, and the Five Books of the Torah.

In the last month of his life, he sadly told his grandson with tears in his eyes that he could not remember on which page a certain Gemara was, but a few moments later he remembered, and that made him happy. On the 20th of Shevat, 1997, he died and was buried on the Mount of Olives, next to the Rebbe’s of Gur.

This article was written with the help of Rabbi Tzuriel Halamish, and the book ‘Ha-Gaon Ha-Chassid’, about Rabbi Ginzburg.

On another occasion, I will tell about how he organized the Beit Din in Vienna in order to prevent the entry of non-Jews and mixed marriages to Israel. Unfortunately, as a result of the slander, the initiative to examine the identity of those seeking to immigrate before their immigration, to convert abroad those who were still interested, and to reject those who did not identify, was thwarted. This is how hundreds of thousands of relatives of Jews, lacking conversion, entered Israel under the Law of Return.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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