Until this year, no one walking through the square in the Jewish Quarter of Yerushalayim’s Old City could fail to miss a lonely arch soaring over the town’s second most famous ruin: the Rav Yehudah HaChassid Churvah shul, sited next to the Ramban shul. Recently, the view of the ruin has been obscured by a web of scaffolding as a 28 million shekel project, to restore the shul to its pre-5708/1948 condition, gathers steam.
This building is an enigma. First, why should a synagogue in Yerusha- layim be named after the medieval gadol, Rav Yehudah HaChassid of Regensburg (4910/1150-4977/1217), who lived and died in Germany and never set foot in Eretz Yisroel in his life? Also, why has this particularly famous shul been singled out to be called the Churvah (ruin) for the past few centuries?
DAYS OF REDEMPTION
The truth is that the Churvah is not named after the Rav Yehudah HaChassid at all but after a much later personage who passed away in 5460/1700. This later Rav Yehudah HaChassid began gaining fame, after the year 5450/1690, when he started roaming through Poland proclaiming that the redemption was imminent although, it should be noted, he never went as far as claiming to be the Mashiach himself. He gathered together a group of ascetics who castigated themselves cruelly in order to reach ever higher planes of sanctity, eating little more than bread and olives, sleeping about two hours a night, and spending the lion’s share of their waking hours poring assiduously over tomes of Kabbalah.
Rav Yehudah was a phenomenal orator and, after he left Poland to wander throughout Europe, the number of his adherents grew phenomenally and he even attracted a number of distinguished talmidei chachamim.
Unfortunately, the group’s reputation was tarnished after the inclusion of a controversial character in its ranks. This was Chaim Malach, who had gained a reputation as a formidably talented mekubal in his younger years, but, like many others, had become overwhelmed by the false light of Shabsai Tzvi. Now, even though it was about fifteen years since that false messiah’s demise, in 5436/1676, Chaim Malach still refused to give up his deluded beliefs and insisted that, just as Moshe Rabbeinu had disappeared to Kush and Midyan for forty years (see the appropriate medrashim) before saving Klal Yis- roel from Egypt, so Shabsai Tzvi would reappear forty years after his death and fulfill his grandiose promises.
At the time, one of Chaim Malach’s fierce opponents, Rav Avraham Braude of Prague, sent two of his prize talmidim, well-versed in Kabbalah, to engage Chaim Malach in debate. The attempt was a miserable failure. As Rav Yaakov Emden records, in Mitfachas Sefarim, the wily Chaim Malach trounced them with his arguments and, only after returning to Prague and studying his logic in depth, did they manage to discover its flaws.
The Chacham Tzvi, too, regarded Chaim Malach as a heretic for his leanings to Shabsai Tzvi. He was also not impressed by Rav Yehudah HaChassid and wrote concerning him, “Lo am ha’aretz chassid” (“An ignoramus cannot be a pious man”). Rav Yaakov Emden records that the Chacham Tzvi even temporarily excommunicated Rav Yehudah on a specific occasion and concludes: “Perhaps Rav Yehudah HaChassid’s intent and thoughts were good, according to the lowly status of his wisdom and his limited understanding, and, indeed, he achieved good and aroused the people to repentance because of his crying and the tears he shed. However, the conclusion proved that his convocation was not for the sake of Heaven, and therefore it was not destined to last.”
However, there are those who argue that Rav Yehudah must have been a tzaddik after all, since how many people have merited that their name be immortalized though one of Yerushalayim’s most renowned shuls?
Meanwhile, Rav Yehudah HaChassid’s entourage grew until it numbered about 1,500 people. In Vienna, the wealthy Rav Shmuel Oppenheimer financed two ships to transport a few dozen of them to the Holy Land, and the rest of the group collected funds from other sources and embarked to Eretz Yisroel from Venice.
Sea travel was a hazardous business in those days and there is disagreement over exactly how many men, women, and children survived the storms and piracy of the voyage and reached the Holy Land. Some calculate their number at 300, some at 500 and others at 1,000. Whatever the number, there had never been such a huge single aliyah for centuries. Prior their arrival, living quarters and a shul had been prepared for them.
In his sefer, Sha’alu Shalom Yerushalayim, one member of the group, Gedalyahu of Simiatitz, describes how the group’s home was built on a site, named Dir el Ashkenaz on account of an Ashkenazi shul that had existed there centuries earlier:
“In the year 5460 (1700), before Rosh Hashanah of 5461, a few weeks before our arrival to the Holy City, a shul was built, with a courtyard and many houses in the courtyard, about forty houses, and also a supremely magnificent beis medrash, full of sefarim. And four plastered cisterns that do not lose a drop in the courtyard, to provide stored water for those dwelling in the courtyard … and all the houses of the holy courtyard are of hewn stone. Also, there is a stone dome on top of them.
“And [on] the shul with the holy courtyard and all the dwellings in it, they spent a tremendous amount of money, and they paid many bribes to the Arab leaders in Yerushalayim until they allowed the above compound be built.”
Some reports claim that Rav Yehudah and his group acquired the shul and buildings after their arrival, but this seems extremely unlikely considering subsequent events.
THE DREAM SHATTERS
After arriving in Yerushalayim, the Jews moved joyfully into their new quarters and confidently awaited the imminent redemption promised to them by their leader. Before long, however, their dreams were crushed to smithereens after Rav Yehudah fell ill and died after only five days, before the shul was even completed.
As Gedalyahu of Simiatitz recorded: “On Erev Shabbos, our rav went to the mikveh in the above mentioned courtyard of the community and suddenly took ill due to our many sins. He davened Maariv of Shabbos devotedly and, when he came to his home, he felt ill in bed . And on Shabbos in the morning, he got up, washed, and davened Shacharis, and asked forgiveness from the people for troubling them at night . He thought he was already healed but, about half an hour later, he fell sick in bed as before, except that the power of speech was taken from him, and he did not speak at all until Monday when he passed away, without leaving a will.”
The shocked group fell apart, some members leaving Eretz Yis- roel, while others remained to wallow in poverty.