Rabbi Gershon Hanoch Leiner
“Speak unto the Children of Israel, and bid them that they make fringes in the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the corners a thread of blue.”
Gershon Hanoch Leiner was thirteen years old and his Bar Mitzvah not long past, when he wrote a learned thesis on the four parts of the Shulchan Aruch (The Laws and Customs of Israel).
“Man was created to fulfil the will of the Lord,” the lad wrote, “even if his efforts should not always prove successful.”
That young Gershon Leiner was destined to be a man of great knowledge and ability, of courage and ingenuity, could have been foreseen at an early age. He inherited his deep thirst for knowledge from his grandfather, the great Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Ishbitz, and his enquiring mind from his father, the Rabbi of Ishbitz, Reb Jacob Leiner, author of the book, “The House of Jacob”. Courage and initiative were family traits, for it was Rabbi Mordecai Joseph who founded the Hassidic Court at Ishbitz after leading a group of disciples from the Court of Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk.
Rabbi Gershon Hanoch, whilst still very young, demonstrated his inclination to tackle problems and tasks that seemed well insurmountable, and, by carrying them through to a successful conclusion, proved his amazing ingenuity and knowledge. The first of these tasks was his great Halachic work, “The Laws of Purification”.
The Tohoroth, the sixth order of the Mishna which deals with problems of purification, has no Gemara (Commentary). But there is a wealth of material on the subject spread throughout the Talmud. Young Rabbi Gershon Hanoch set himself the task of collating all that material and appending it to the Mishna it referred to with all the opinions and argumentations set out in the prescribed manner. Thus he wrote the Mishnayot ( each problem or law), in the centre of the page leaving wide margins on each side. To the right of the Mishna he presented the Rashi-like commentary, whilst to the left he gave the argumentations and responsa. In the margin at the foot of the page he provided the references from which each commentary and argument was taken.
It took him ten years to complete this work, and when he finished it he went to visit the Gaon Rabbi Joseph Shaul Nathanson, one of the most illustrious Rabbis of those times, to obtain his approval of what he had accomlished. He arrived at the Rabbi’s house in the late afternoon and sat quietly in the corner of the Beit Hamidrash waiting for the great man to receive him. Meanwhile his attention was drawn to a discussion on the Torah which was taking place there under the guidance of Rabbi Nathanson’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Mordecai Zeev. The discussion so interested him he could not refrain from expressing his opinion, which he did so lucidly giving chapter and verse to back up his words, that Rabbi Mordecai Zeev was visibly impressed. After the lesson ended, the Rabbi came over to shake the hand of the surprising young man and to ask him where he came from.
“Poland,” Rabbi Gershon Hanoch replied laconically.
“A Hassid?” was the next question.
“Certainly,” the Hassid replied proudly.
Reb Mordecai Zeev was taken aback and yet so delighted he could not control himself and burst out: “Praise the Lord, here is a Hassid who knows his Gemara!”
He accompanied the young man to the room of the Gaon and when they entered Rabbi Nathanson was deeply immersed in a very difficult Halachic problem set him by a member of his community. The two men waited quietly for several minutes and then Rabbi Mordechai Zeev broke the silence, saying:
“I have brought you a visitor, sir.”
The Gaon was full of apologies for keeping the young Rabbi waiting, but explained what the particular problem was, adding that he had already spent many hours of thought on it. Rabbi Gershon Hanoch boldly faced the great man and said:
“Sir, you are not a Hassid nor of Hassidic stock and it might come as a surprise to you to hear that just before leaving my father’s house, we were discussing the Halachic findings on just such a problem. We solved it in the following manner …”
Rabbi Joseph Shaul was both excited and amazed at the manner in which the young man explained the delicate point of Jewish Law which had been worrying him for so long. He jumped up from his chair and insisted that Reb Gershon Hanoch stay and dine with him. He issued instructions to his household to use the best china and cutlery for their important guest, adding that they should even use the Pessach dishes and make them ‘Hometz’.
Reb Gershon Hanoch stayed with the Gaon a full week and when he took leave of the Rabbi, he left with words of glowing praise for his great work on “The Laws of Purification”.
When he was but 22 years old and still working on the Tohoroth, Rabbi Gershon Hanoch was appointed Rabbi of Radzin, a small town in Poland. By the time he was 29, and his first great work completed, he had become famous and the greatest Rabbinical authorities were seeking him out to give him encouragement and support for the important work he had done.
Indeed, he sorely needed such encouragement, for the leading Talmudists of the town of Vilna, famed for their Mitnagdic (opposing) attitude towards Hassidim and Hasidism, led by Rabbi Bezalel HaCohen, vigorously attacked his work, vilifying it as an imitation of the Gemara. They not only condemned Rabbi Gershon Hanoch’s “Laws of Purification” as such, but stated that it was a danger because of its similarity in style and arrangement to the Gemara and, in the course of time, might be accepted as an integral part of it.
Rabbi Gershon Hanoch, however, took this set-back philosophically and quoted the final Mishna on the tractate dealing with the purification of utensils which says: “Blessed are the utensils that you put in unclean and withdraw cleansed and purified.” Explaining what he meant by this, he said the best lesson in life is that provided by meeting obstacles, for by overcoming them one learns to prevail over all sorts of dangers and difficulties and by surviving them one becomes strengthened and purified…
Rabbi Gershon Hanoch Leiner was not a man to be diverted from his purpose easily. He was persistent and determined and, to some extent, intractable. Somebody once asked him why he did not follow his father’s example and be more restrained and moderate? His reply as:
“Who says I do not follow my father’s example? I most certainly do. For he did not follow his father’s example!”
When Rabbi Jacob Leiner died in 1878, his son Reb Gershon Hanoch was invited to succeed him as the head of the Hassidic Court at Ishbitz. From then on he was known as the Rabbi from Radzin. For a Hassidic leader he was most unassuming and modest in his behaviour. He dressed simply and did not even have a shamas (assistant) to accompany him when he went out. Whenever he was asked what one did in Radzin, he would reply “Learn Torah!”
And studying was the very essence of life to the Rabbi from Radzin. He studied every subject he could obtain material on. The Torah, the Kabbalah, Hassidism, architecture, engineering, chemistry, medicine, botany, biology, philology, poetry and literature. He was a writer of considerable competence and a man of great courage and convictions who would defer to nobody in his search, elaboration and implementation of new ideas.
He had barely completed his work on the “Laws of Purification”, when he was already planning an entirely new field of study and enquiry. This time, however, he had every reason to anticipate serious opposition to what he intended to accomplish, for indeed it was fraught with all sorts of obstacles and dangers. Thus, being not unprepared, he said, “A revolutionary is automatically a war-monger, and whoever wishes to introduce new ideas must be prepared to combat objections.”
His revolutionary idea was- the Blue Thread. Not that there was anything revolutionary in the Blue Thread, as such, for it says in Numbers chapter 15 verse 38; “Speak unto the Children of Israel, and bid them…that they put upon the fringe of the corners a thread of blue.” What Rabbi Gershon Hanoch aimed to do was to reintroduce the Blue Thread using the same dye as that used by the Children of Israel up to the time of the First Temple in Jerusalem. The secret of that dye had been lost and, therefore, there was no way of fulfilling the Mitzvah. If the secret could be uncovered, then it would again be possible to include the blue thread in the fringes of the corner. Rabbi Gershon Hanoch was the first to admit that there was nothing of outstanding significance in his idea beyond the fact that “even the most inconspicuous and unimportant of things has its place in the Torah, and if the Mitzvah can be reintroduced so that it again becomes a tradition throughout the House of Israel, it will be as important as the most essential of Mitzvoth,” the Rabbi said.
“There was a time,” Rabbi Gershon Hanoch explained, “when it was both customary and obligatory to include a blue thread in the fringes. However, towards the end of the period of the Gaonim, when the Children of Israel were exiled to Babylon and other eastern countries, the blue dye became a luxury and few could afford it. A Mitzvah cannot be reserved only for those fortunate enough to afford it and, therefore, to avoid any possibility of that happening, it became forbidden to all to include the blue thread. (?) With the decline in demand for the blue dye, it gradually disappeared and eventually completely vanished from the market. If, however, there should be a possibility of rediscovering the secret, it would again become both obligatory and compulsory to use it, and nobody can prevent us from doing so.”
Rabbi Gershon Hanoch travelled from Radzin to Italy in search of the Chilazon, the marine source from which the dye was obtained. The Chilazon carried the dye in a special sac located in its pharynx. The Rabbi went from one aquarium and piscatorial museum to the other, studying hundreds of different types of marine life. In the famed aquarium at Naples he saw the Chilazon and studied the way in which the dye was removed and prepared. He discovered that it was used by artists in their paintings because it would never fade. After gleaning as much information and data on the subject as was available there, he left Italy and on his way home paid a brief visit to the Island of Corfu off the coast of Greece, where he enquired into the developement of the famous Corfu ethrog (citron).
Once back home, he set up a labratory in his house and began turning his theoretical knowledge into practical achievement. In 1887, he published a book on the subject, calling it “The Secret of the Sands”, in which he explained why he sought the blue dye and gave all the relative reasons for renewing the ancient traditions of the blue thread in the fringes. The following year he finished his book “The Blue Thread” which itemized all his experiments and the results achieved.
On Chanukah 1889, the first bolt of blue material was processed with the blue dye. Twelve thousand Jews dyed their fringes. Jews not only from Radzin, but from all over, joined the movement to use Tallitoth with the blue thread. Rabbi Gershon Hanoch then realized how very right his own philosophy was, namely that man is obliged to do everything in his power to succeed even if at times it means attempting the impossible. What is more, once he has achieved the seemingly impossible, mankind will come to appreciate the boldness of his thinking and actions and thank him.
Yet there will always be those how oppose what has been accomplished, and the Rabbi found himself the centre of a controversy which raged around the Blue Thread. But opposition could never deter Rabbi Gershon Hanoch, for he not only had the courage of his convictions, but an unfaltering pertinacity that demanded unassailable proof that he was wrong before he would concede the right of his opponents to object to his point of view.
Thus, as opposition to the use of his blue dye grew, he bitterly asked: “If they do not believe the dye to be a natural one and the true one used in the days of the Temple, why do they not prove it to me? Only proof that I am wrong will convince me, not words!” He wrote 320 closely written pages of a new book called “The Source of the Blue Dye” in which he refuted all the arguments of his opponents. It was, however, his last work and was published after his death.
Two years after his discovery of the secret of the blue dye, Rabbi Gershon Hanoch was taken desperately ill. By the end of the year his life was dispaired of and when on Chanukah the candles were brought into his room for him to kindle, the doctor who was constantly with him, smiled wryly and said “Hassidische meyses” (Hassidic wishfull thinking), “can’t you see he is unconscious!” But when he saw the Rabbi strain with all his might and waning strength to light the candles, he quickly ran out of the room and told the waiting Hassidim outside: “God can help him. Pray!”
In the early morning of a winter’s day in 1891, Rabbi Gershon Hanoch Leiner asked to have “Minchat Todah”, a book he had written within twelve days, several years before, brought to him. He had it placed on his pillow above his head. Then, putting his right hand to his lips and his left on his heart, he died.
His son, Rabbi Joseph Eliezer, who wrote “Tiferet Joseph” (The Glory that was Joseph), published and distributed his father’s books and defended the opinions and achievements of the great man courageously and vociferously throughout his life. Rabbi Joseph Eliezer was a man of great piety and earned the respect and devotion of orthodox Jewry everywhere. He passed away shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.
After the death of Rabbi Joseph Eliezer, leadership of the Court of Radzin passed to his son, Rabbi Shmuel Shlomo Leiner. But he had no time to make his mark in this world, for he perished in the Nazi Holocaust.