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Roth, Aharon

(1894–1947), Hasidic Ḥaredi leader. Born in Ungvár, Aharon Roth founded a sect, known today as Reb Arele’s, that numbers in the thousands and serves as the most visible representative of radical Hasidic anti-Zionism in Jerusalem.

Even as a youth, Roth was recognized for his unusually pious and ascetic bent. From age 16 to 20 he studied Talmud in Vác under Yesha‘yahu Silberstein, one of Hungary’s preeminent Orthodox leaders. Subsequently, however, Roth dedicated himself to spiritual development under the guidance of some of the leading figures of Galician Hasidism who had fled to Hungary during World War I, including Yisakhar Dov Rokeaḥ of Belz and particularly Tsevi Elimelekh Shapira of Bluzhev (Pol., Błażowa). After the latter’s return to Galicia, Roth continued to visit him regularly.

By the time he married in 1916, Roth had already begun to guide younger students in Hasidic practice. After he settled in Satu Mare (Szatmár) in 1920, a small group gathered around him that steadily grew until he departed for Jerusalem in 1925. There he established a second base of support, but four years later returned to Satu Mare and to the task of cultivating his followers according to his unique brand of Hasidism.

An outsider to the Hasidic establishment, Roth criticized the scandals and political struggles that dominated the culture of many of the larger dynasties. He believed that they had become stale in their religious devotion and had distanced themselves from the emphasis of the early tsadikim on simple prayer and piety. Roth called his own group Shomre Emunim (Guardians of Faith); set out guidelines for distinctive behavior, dress, and hairstyle; and defined the group as a holy fraternity (in contradistinction to the more regal Hasidic court). As Roth’s influence expanded, however, his independent and sectarian initiatives inspired increasing resentment, particularly among devotees of the Satmar rebbe, Yo’el Teitelbaum, a charismatic figure in his own right and the preeminent Hasidic leader in the area. By 1936 this conflict, which had escalated to open physical violence, forced Roth to uproot himself to the Czechoslovakian town of Beregovo (Beregszász), although many of his adherents, and the study hall that he had built, continued to function in Satu Mare.

In late 1939, Roth returned to Jerusalem, where he once again attracted a large and devoted following. Most of his Hungarian disciples were subsequently murdered by the Nazis. Roth’s communications with those left behind during the early war years testify to his complex predicament. He went to great lengths to describe his despair at their situation, as well as his concerted spiritual efforts to facilitate God’s mercy. In 1942, parallel to the news of the magnitude of Nazi atrocities in Eastern Europe, Roth wrote his two-volume magnum opus, Shomer emunim (Guardian of Faith). Sensing the pervasive apocalyptic climate, he set out guidelines for pietistic behavior that he believed would secure Israel’s redemption.

As was true of his adversary, the Satmar rebbe, Roth was unwilling to credit Zionism with any redemptive role. On the contrary, he blamed secularism and Zionism for inciting God’s wrath. He highlighted the decline of modesty as a particularly heinous development, and stated explicitly that had appropriate standards of dress been maintained, he was sure that the evil decrees of the Nazis would not have come to fruition.

After Roth’s death, his sect split into two rival groups. Some, who kept the name Shomre Emunim, followed his son, while the larger group, known as Toldos (Toldot) Aharon (Generations of Aharon), was led by his son-in-law. Along with the latter group’s expansion in numbers, their prominent location in Me’ah She‘arim, distinctive gold “Jerusalemite” robes and white knitted yarmulkes, and vocal opposition to any intrusions on their sectarian values have catapulted them to the forefront of the anti-Zionist camp.

During his lifetime, Roth published the monographs Tohorat ha-kodesh (on Hasidic moral development; 1930); Shulḥan tahor (on pious table etiquette and related matters; 1933); No‘am ha-levavot (on belief, practice, and repentance; 1934); Igrot shomer emunim (1942); and Osef mikhtavim (1943). Upon his death, his ethical will was published as Kuntres tsava’ah (1947). His followers have continued to republish expanded versions of his works and to produce new volumes based on his written manuscripts.

Suggested Reading

Mordekhai ha-Kohen Blum, Toldot Aharon, vols. 1–2 (Jerusalem, 1988–1992); Samuel C. Heilman, Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry (New York, 1992), pp. 145–162; Yitshak Yosef Kohen, Ḥakhme Transilvanyah (Jerusalem, 1988/89), pp. 230–233; Daniel Meijers, Ascetic Hasidism in Jerusalem (Leiden, 1992).