Rabbi Meir Shapiro ZT”L – also known as the “Lubliner Rav” - was a leader of Polish Jewry before WWII and a living legend. He was a direct descendant of Rabbi Pinchas (Shapiro) of Koretz, who was a disciple of the holy Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. He was a genius who mastered the entire Talmud and many other parts of the Torah.
Rabbi Shapiro had a warm, charismatic personality, a sharp wit, and was a world renowned speaker. He served as rabbi in various cities across Poland and Galicia, including Piotrkov and Lublin. He was a member of the Sejm (the Polish parliament) and was actively involved in the World Agudath Israel movement.
Although he never had any children of his own, Rabbi Meir Shapiro considered the two famous institutions that he founded to be his “spiritual” children – the worldwide Daf Yomi program which began in 1923 and the prestigious Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin which he built and headed until his untimely death in 1933 at the age of 46.
Daf Yomi (Hebrew: דף יומי, "page [of the] day" or "daily folio") is a daily regimen undertaken to study the Babylonian Talmud one folio (a daf consists of both sides of the page) each day. Under this regimen, the entire Talmud is completed, one day at a time, in a cycle of seven and a half years. Rav Shapiro introduced his idea at the First World Congress of the World Agudath Israel in Vienna on August 16, 1923. The first cycle of Daf Yomi commenced on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5684 (September 11, 1923). Now in its 13th cycle, Daf Yomi has been taken up by tens of thousands of Jews worldwide.
Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin was the first yeshiva of its kind in Poland. This magnificent institution, both physically imposing and spiritually inspiring, was founded by Rav Shapiro in 1930 in order to raise the prestige of the Torah student and the community rabbi in the eyes of the masses of Polish Jewry. To be accepted into the Yeshiva, a young man would have to know at least 200 pages of Talmud by heart! The impressive yeshiva building, which still stands today, was used by the Medical University of Lublin for many years after the Holocaust, and has recently been reclaimed by the local Jewish community of Lublin.
I feel a special attachment to Rabbi Meir Shapiro ZT”L and to the Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin because my great uncle Rav Yehoshua Baumol HY”D was a student of the famed yeshiva as well as one of Rav Shapiro’s closest disciples.
On the occasion of Rabbi Meir Shapiro’s 82nd yahrtzeit (anniversary of death), I would like to share with you a brilliant insight of his on the weekly Torah portion, Parshas Lech Lecha, as well as two short stories which afford us a glimpse into the mind and life of this great Torah personality:
“And He took him outside, and said, ‘Gaze, now, toward the Heavens, and count the stars if you able to count them!’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be!’” (Genesis 15:5)
Rabbi Meir Shapiro offered a beautiful explanation for the comparison between Abraham’s descendants, the Jewish people, and the counting of the stars. When G-d took Abraham outside to count all the stars in the sky, Abraham actually began counting them. Though he knew at the outset that the task was impossible, it did not stop him from making the attempt. Why? Because he understood that the feasibility, or lack thereof, of any endeavor is not the determining factor in its successful completion.
A Jew must make the effort, even though the feat in front of him seems to be unsurmountable. So long as there is a strong will and determination to accomplish the task at hand, he will ultimately succeed in achieving the impossible, regardless of his ability or strength.
"So shall your offspring be!" G-d was telling Abraham that his descendants will emulate him, and will continue to serve G-d and do the right thing, even under the most difficult circumstances. The Jewish people will never allow lack of ability to stand in their way, and they will achieve the impossible – and indeed we have.
When Rabbi Meir Shapiro became the rabbi of Sonik, one of the largest towns in central Galicia, he settled down and took a long hard look at the formal aspects of religious life in the town; the domains of such matters as kosher food services, education, mikvah (ritualarium), and so on. A few words were enough to describe everything: completely, utterly dreadful. Anarchy ruled wherever he looked. People were doing whatever they pleased. In response, Rav Shapiro simply mustered all his strength and forceful energy, and set to wage battles with the miserable situation. In his very first sermon as Rabbi, he delineated the areas where he intended to go to work – if need be alone - to improve things. He began with words of the Prophet Isaiah: “Go, my people, enter your chambers, and lock your doors behind you. Hide for a brief moment until ‘za’am” (wrathful fury) passes’ (Isaiah 26:20). Then he interpreted: “In the Hebrew word ‘za’am’ we have the letters zayin, ayin, mem. For me they stand for ‘zevachim’, ‘eruvin’, ‘mikvaos’; in other words, the problems of kosher, ritually slaughtered animals to provide meat (as alluded to in the word ‘zevachim’ which means ‘slaughter’); the problems of a proper ‘eruv’ for this town – a technical arrangement by posts and wires that would make it permissible to carry things in public on Shabbos (as alluded to in the word ‘eruvin)’; and the problems of maintaining every mikveh in Sonik in satisfactory condition (as alluded to in the word ‘mikvaos’)”. The Rabbi paused a moment, and continued: “The situation in every one of these areas of my concern is a matter of miserable neglect – more than enough to arouse Heaven’s ‘za’am’ and wrathful fury. If others till now have ignored everything, hiding safely in their own chambers, in the privacy of their personal lives, I cannot. I intend to work. I intend to fight.”
With a population of three million Yiddish speaking Jews in pre-war Poland, there were many Jewish newspapers in the Yiddish language printed there. The two most prestigious secular newspapers were ‘Heint’ and ‘Moment’, while the religious community printed its own newspaper titled ‘Der Yid’. One day, walking by a newsstand, Rabbi Shapiro asked for ‘Der Yid.’ The proprietor said to Rabbi Shapiro, "Why do you want ‘Der Yid’? Why don't you buy the more sophisticated papers, like the ‘Moment’ or the ‘Heint’?’ In fact, you see that ‘Der Yid’ is all the way on the bottom of the pile, beneath the ‘Heint’ and the ‘Moment’!” "But I insist on buying ‘Der Yid’! said Rabbi Shapiro. The proprietor bent down and pulled out ‘Der Yid’ from the bottom of the pile and handed it to Rabbi Shapiro. "I'm very curious," he said to the Rabbi, "Why did you insist on buying ‘Der Yid’ in preference to ‘Heint’ and ‘Moment’?” “I will tell you”, replied Rabbi Shapiro with a smile. “The name ‘Heint’ means ‘today’; so it denotes only one day. The name ‘Moment’ denotes likewise only about a minute, here and now. So both will soon disappear into the past. ‘Der Yid’ means ‘the Jew’; he may lie at the bottom of the pile, downtrodden and oppressed; but the Jew is eternal.”
[Sources: Rav Meir Shapiro: A Blaze in the Darkening Gloom by Rav Yehoshua Baumol published by Feldheim]