Munkacz – an Empire of Torah
From its humble anonymity, the town of Munkacz grew into a glorious landmark of Torah – home to some of our history’s greatest personalities
The history of the Jews in Munkacz is not very long – it encompasses only three centuries, but this short period of time was enough for Munkacz to blaze its hallmark of uncompromising fervor in Judaism. The earliest records of Jewish Munkacz are found in ancient business documents, which bear testimony to the presence of a Jew named Efraim who was a resident of Munkacz in the year 5409 (1649), and dealt in lease-holding and the supply of products to that region. No other details are known concerning this Jew or any other that may have lived in the city at that time. Further evidence of a Jewish presence in Munkacz shows up only forty years later - in the year 5447 (1687), when two Jews by the name of Avraham and Marco are recorded to have supplied products to the nearby army.
Years passed and the city of Munkacz was handed over from one ruling power to the next, yet all this while the Jewish presence in the town did not develop. There is documented evidence that in the year 5508 (1748) there were five Jewish families in Munkacz, amongst them a Shochet (ritual slaughterer) named Hershko Davidowitz. The Jewish population in the town at that point numbered about twenty-five people. Five years later the Jewish community dwindled to a mere three Jewish families; there was no Minyan nearby or a Shul, and on Shabbos and Yom Tov they would join the Jews of a nearby town and daven in the Shul there.
Only in the year 5540 (1780) was the first Shul founded in Munkacz, and this only after the duke of the town, Graf Scheinbron, gave his approval - in light of the promise that a Jewish house of worship would attract more Jews to settle and bring their business to the town.
The Jews of the fledgling community were correct in this premise, and indeed more Jews arrived and the town began to set up more mosdos. A Beis Din was established, and melamdim were hired – amongst them Rav Baruch, father of Rav Schneur Zalman Liadi founder of the Chabad movement. Eventually a Rav was brought in to guide the kehilla – Rav Yehuda Leib, the first Rav of Munkacz.
The Jewish community slowly grew, as many Jews who passed through for business purposes decided to settle there. Villagers from the surrounding hamlets also began to move to the town because of the promising signs of Jewish life that were budding there. Other causes of the steady influx of Jews to Munkacz were persecution and expulsions from other regions, and in a short while the town grew tenfold.
In the year 5550 (1790), Rav Avraham Gutsman was appointed Rav of Munkacz. Rav Avraham was a profound Torah scholar, and his jurisdiction spread over all the towns and villages in the region. He corresponded extensively with many leaders of the generation, amongst them Rav Yechezkel Landau – the ‘Noda b’Yehuda’, and the Rav of the city of Pressburg at the time.
The next Rav in Munkacz was Rav Zvi Avigdor Ashkenazi, a Talmid Chacham with close ties to the Chasam Sofer. He led Munkacz and its environs in the customs of Ashkenaz, as were the ways of the ‘Misnagdim’ – opponents of Chassidus. After his passing in the year 5584(1824), the few Chassidim who lived in Munkacz rallied for Rav Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov, a Chassid, to come and serve as Rav in the town.
Rav Tzvi Elimelech was a follower and student of the Chozeh of Lublin and of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Riminov. Not without difficulty was Rav Tzvi Elimelech accepted as Rav of Munkacz, but in light of his greatness in Torah even the leaders of the Misnagdim relented, and during the week of Parshas Re’eh in the year 5585 (1825), Rav Tzvi Elimelech was crowned as Rav of the community in Munkacz .
The arrival of Rav Tzvi Elimelech in Munkacz heralded change for the community in Munkacz, as he brought with him the refreshing winds of Chassidus. At first Rav Tzvi Elimelech led the Kehilla with a firm hand, set down rules and organized study groups, but his peaceful days as Rav of Munkacz did not last long. He soon began to feel the antagonism of the townspeople, in wake of his ruling as to the prohibition of fattening geese – a psak he publicized in his kuntress ‘Takanos Tamchin d’oreyssa’. Many of the townspeople who made a living from fattening geese were furious at this psak, and began to wage war against Rav Tzvi Elimelech until he was forced to leave the town. Rav Tzvi Elimelech served as Rav of Munkacz for only four years, after which he returned to Dinov.
After this episode, the Rabbanus of the community in Munkacz continued to alternate between the Chassidim and Misnagdim. At first Rav Ezriel Green took over as Rav; he had ties with the Chassidim, but after only ten years he passed away (5601/1841), and was succeeded by Rav Efraim Fishel Horowitz. Rav Efraim Fishel served in this post for eighteen years, during which he concerned himself exclusively with the spiritual and physical aspects of Jewish life in Munkacz. At his initiative a Jewish hospital was built, and it was he who singlehandedly managed the relations between the Jews and the ruling nobility at the time. He was also known to fight fiercely against the winds of the Reform that had begun to blow in from the Enlightenment in Germany.
After the passing of Rav Efraim Fishel, the old argument between the Chassidim and Misnagdim was re-ignited as the two sides attempted to find a suitable Rav. No satisfactory solution was found, and the town of Munkacz remained without a Rav for seven years. After this time the Misnagdim appointed Rav Chaim Sofer, a student of the Chasam Sofer, as Rav of the town. Rav Chaim was an ardent Misnaged, and during his term as Rav clashed constantly with the Chassidim of Munkacz. The Chassidim returned fire, and in the end, Rav Chaim left Munkacz and moved to Pest to serve as Rav there.
After this victory, the Chassidim of Munkacz began to look for a Chassidic Rav to lead the Kehilla. Their interest lay strongly in the house of the prior Rav of Munkacz – Rav Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov. The grandson of this illustrious personality, Rav Shlomo Shapira, was serving then as Rav of Strishov and was invited by the Chassidim of Munkacz to serve as Rav in their town. In the year 5642(1882), Rav Shlomo began to fill his role as Rav of the town, and the years he spent guiding the Kehilla passed peacefully and uneventfully. In the year 5653 (1893) Rav Shlomo Shapira zt’l passed away, and his son Rabbi Tzvi Shapira succeeded him. Rav Tzvi was the author of ‘Be’er l’chai Roi’i’, ‘Darkei Teshuva’, and ‘Tzvi Tiferes’.
Inasmuch as the days of his father Rav Shlomo were peaceful and tranquil, the years Rav Tzvi served as Rav in Munkacz were turbulent and full of turmoil. A short while after he assumed the mantle of Rabbanus, the Hungarian rulers dictated that secular studies and Hungarian culture must be introduced into the Jewish curriculum. A further law required that community leaders in Hungary must be proficient in the Hungarian language, and in order to obtain an official permit to serve as Rav they were to pass a number of tests that would assess their knowledge. Rav Tzvi perceived in these edicts an impingement on the fundamentals of Yiddishkeit, and relinquished his official title as Rav of Munkacz. In a similar vein, he set up independent Talmud Torah schools where he ensured the strict adherence of an education according to our holy mesorah.
Despite all this, there were still those ‘enlightened’ members of the community who insisted on sending their children to the state schools, and Rav Tzvi fought against this faction fearlessly. Rav Tzvi also waged war against the Zionists who had gained a foothold in Munkacz, and banned them even if they were seemingly Torah observant. In the days of Rav Tzvi in Munkacz, the renowned project ‘Kollel Munkacz and its Ten Districts’ was introduced, to which the Chassidim of Munkacz donated ‘Shekel kodesh’, money that was sent to support the Jews of the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael.
During the Yom Tov of Succos 5673 (1913), Rav Tzvi Shapira zt’l passed on to the World of Truth and his position was filled by his son Rav Chaim Elazar Shapira. During the years Rav Chaim Elazar guided the town – from 5673 (1913) until 5697 (1937), the Jewish community in Munkacz developed and thrived. Like his father before him, he was a tireless activist, and his extensive activities on behalf of the town influenced and molded the character of Jewish Munkacz. He was known by the authorities as the undisputed pillar of the Jewish community, which itself numbered over half of the town’s entire population. Rav Chaim Elazar founded the Kollel ‘Tiferes Tzvi’ after his esteemed father who had organized financial support for the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael. He also established a neighborhood in Yerushalayim called ‘Batei Munkacz’. He appointed the Mekubal Rav Chanoch Chaim Cohen, a former Rav in Hungary, as Rosh Kollel of Tiferes Tzvi in Yerushalayim.
During that period there were many businessmen in Munkacz who had become very wealthy, and tzedaka, chesed and mosdos of Torah abounded. Rav Chaim Elazar perpetuated his father’s uncompromising war against the Zionists, and stood at the helm of all issues of religious import pertaining to Munkacz and its surrounding environs. Rav Chaim Elazar zt’l passed away on the 2nd of Sivan 5697 (1937), and was succeeded by his son-in-law Rav Baruch Yehoshua Yerachmiel Rabinovitz, who served as Rav of Munkacz until the Holocaust of European Jewry, from which he was miraculously saved. He later made his way to Eretz Yisrael, where he took a position as Rav in the city of Cholon. His son Rav Yehuda Leib Rabinovitz serves today as the Munkaczer Rebbe in Boro Park, New York.
With the outbreak of World War II and Hungary’s alliance with Hitler, the town of Munkacz was transferred from Czechoslovakian to Hungarian rule. The Hungarians began to persecute the Jews of the town – many were denied citizenship, and many others were sent to forced labor on the Russian front. When the Nazis conquered Hungary they concentrated the fifteen thousand Jews of Munkacz into a ghetto, and in the early spring of the year 5704 (1944) the Nazis liquidated the ghetto and most of the Jews were loaded onto wagons and shipped off for extermination, may Hashem avenge their holy blood.
So it was that physically, Jewish Munkacz ceased to exist - its greatest lights were extinguished; but the spiritual Munkacz still lives on, and its fervor and spirit still resonates powerfully in the heart of the Jewish nation.