(1859–1941), rabbi, public figure, and writer. Yehudah Leib Zirelson (also Tsirel’son) was born in the shtetl of Kozelets, Chernigov province (mod. Ukr., Chernihiv). After receiving rabbinical ordination, he was chosen to serve as the spiritual rabbi of the town of Priluki in Poltava province. In 1907, he was also appointed to be the town’s crown (government-approved) rabbi, and from 1908 he served as both the spiritual and crown rabbi in Kishinev.
Zirelson corresponded with numerous rabbis in Russia and Western Europe, discussing issues of Jewish law. He was regarded as a brilliant speaker, and published articles, essays, and poetry in Hebrew newspapers and periodicals such as Ha-Magid, Ha-Tsefirah, Ha-Melits, Ha-Zeman, and others. He also wrote in Yiddish in the Orthodox newspaper Der yud. In 1902, he published a collection of poems and essays, Derekh selulah, and in 1904, a booklet in Russian on the Russo–Japanese War.
Beginning in 1897, Zirelson participated actively in the Zionist movement. In August 1898 he was a delegate to the First All-Russian Zionist Conference in Warsaw. Together with Poltava rabbi Eliyahu Akiva Rabinovich, Zirelson headed a group of 10 rabbis who spoke out vehemently against Zionist cultural and educational activities. Their demand that the cultural activities of the Zionist movement be placed under the supervision of a rabbinical commission was rejected at the Fifth Zionist Congress, held in Basel in December 1901.
Zirelson became one of the founders of the Mizraḥi religious Zionist movement and took part in its founding conference in December 1902 in Vilna. He soon became disillusioned with Zionism, however, and participated in the founding of the non-Zionist Orthodox movement Agudas Yisroel. He was a delegate to its first congress in 1912 in Katowice and was chairman of a number of later congresses.
From 1910 to 1917, Zirelson served as chairman of the sixth rabbinic commission, which convened in Saint Petersburg. These commissions, convened by the Ministry of Internal Affairs beginning in 1898, met to consider matters of Jewish law and other aspects of Jewish life. Both before and during the Mendel Beilis trial he published numerous articles in the Russian press refuting the accusation of ritual murder. He also wrote the text of a protest letter on this issue, signed by 315 rabbis.
From the beginning of World War I, Zirelson organized aid for Jewish war refugees and victims. After Romania annexed Bessarabia in 1918, he served as Bessarabia’s chief rabbi. He was elected deputy to the Romanian parliament in 1922 and senator from Kishinev in 1926. He resigned this latter position after a speech he delivered against antisemitism was denied publication in the parliamentary bulletin.
Zirelson was elected president of the executive board of the Great Synagogue in Vienna, though he did not settle there permanently. His publications included the responsa collection Gevul Yehudah (1906 and 1912), the responsa and homily collection Ma‘arekhe lev (1932), the two-volume responsa and speech collection Lev Yehudah (1935 and 1961), and the homily collection Hegyon lev (1929). His responsa included a condemnation of artificial insemination as tantamount to adultery.
Despite his disagreements with the Zionists, Zirelson actively assisted immigrants to Palestine from Romania in the years preceding the Holocaust. He was murdered soon after Kishinev was occupied by German and Romanian troops.
Mordekhai Slipoi, Ha-Ga’on Rabi Yehudah Leb Tsirelson (Tel Aviv, 1948); “Tsirel’son, Iekhuda Leib,” in Kratkaia evreiskaia entsiklopediia, vol. 9, col. 1098–1099 (Jerusalem, 1999).
Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson