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Mohilewer, Shemu’el

(1824–1898), rabbi, halakhic authority, and a leader of the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement. Born in Głębokie, near Vilna, Shemu’el Mohilewer was ordained at the Volozhin yeshiva. He served as rabbi in a number of communities in Poland and Lithuania, including Suwałki (1860–1868), Radom (1868–1883), and Białystok (1883–1898).

Mohilewer tried to bridge the gap between traditional Judaism and the modern Enlightenment. It was this synthesis that drew him to consider the Jewish national idea. To a great extent, he followed in the footsteps of Tsevi Hirsh Kalischer in fashioning religious Zionism, or national Orthodoxy.

As an important public figure, Mohilewer participated in discussions on problems facing Russian Jewry. He had links to the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE) and took positions that were unacceptable to many other rabbis in that country: for example, he supported the introduction of general education into traditional institutions of Jewish learning, and encouraged directing the Jews of Russia to productive economic activities.

With the outbreak of pogroms in Russia in 1881, Mohilewer was among the first rabbis to take active steps in support of the refugees and to encourage their immigration to Palestine. In mid-1882, together with two other leading rabbis—Yosef Dov Soloveichik of Brisk (Brest) and Eliyahu Ḥayim Meisel of Łódź—Mohilewer called for the establishment of an organization to encourage immigration to the Land of Israel and voiced his concern about immigration to America, which he believed would invite assimilation.

Mohilewer was among the founders of the Ḥibat Tsiyon (Love of Zion) movement in Warsaw and actively encouraged the establishment of societies of adherents (called Ḥoveve Tsiyon, “Lovers of Zion”) throughout Russia; he made several trips to Western Europe on behalf of the movement. It was he who first influenced Baron Edmond de Rothschild to support the early settlements in Palestine. Mohilewer also visited major Jewish centers in Western Europe to convince Jewish leaders to support immigration to the Land of Israel. He believed that only there would Jewish agricultural settlement succeed, because of the Jews’ special relationship to their ancient homeland.

Mohilewer debated rabbis of his generation who did not accept his views and were unable to agree to cooperative efforts between the observant and nonobservant elements of Jewish society. Figures such as Soloveichik, Eliyahu Ḥayim Meisel, and Esriel Hildesheimer of Berlin opposed him and the entire Ḥibat Tsiyon movement once the secular nature of its thinking became clear. Mohilewer played an important role in the 1884 Katowice conference of Ḥoveve Tsiyon, as well as in succeeding conferences. At the meeting in Druskininkai (1887), he proposed that the leadership be turned over to the rabbis, but was vigorously refused. Nevertheless, Mohilewer never retracted his support of the movement.

Already in 1889–1890, Mohilewer had joined with other rabbis to issue a dispensation to Jewish farmers in the Land of Israel to work their fields during the sabbatical year. This decision served as the model for future rabbinic rulings on the subject. Mohilewer later established a spiritual center in Białystok (1893) to engage in propaganda work on behalf of Ḥibat Tsiyon, particularly among observant Jews.

When Theodor Herzl founded the World Zionist Organization in 1897, Mohilewer sent him a letter of support for the new movement, which was read from the podium at the First Zionist Congress and received with a great ovation. Mohilewer was chosen at the Congress as one of the four leaders of the Zionist movement in Russia. However, he died before the Second Congress convened in June 1898.

Mohilewer did not leave behind a rich literary heritage, except for a small book on halakhic matters. His responsa were collected and published in 1940 and 1980, many years after his death. Some of his writings were gathered into the text called Sefer Shemu’el (1923), published in his memory by Yehudah Leib Fishman.

Suggested Reading

Yosef Salmon (Shalmon), “Ha-Rav Shemu’el Mohilever: Rabam shel ḥoveve Tsiyon,” Tsiyon 56.1 (1991): 47–78; Israel Shapiro (Y. Shapira), ed., Igerot ha-Rav Nisenboim (Jerusalem, 1956).



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss