Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Tammuz 5765 - July 27, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Discovery of the Resting Places of Rashi and the Baalei Hatosfos

by Rabbi Y. Friedman

Marking the 900th Yahrtzeit of Rabbenu Shlomo Yitzchaki Hakodosh — 29 Tammuz, 4865-5765


One Man's Self Sacrifice

The morning sun shone on the huge marble sphere, bathing its white half in golden light. Its black half remained shaded, almost as though the moment of our arrival had been precisely coordinated in advance. A giant letter shin, hollowed from one side of the sphere to the other, declares this a Jewish memorial.

At this early hour, the wide square was still fairly empty; an elderly gentleman out with his dog watched us in bafflement. On the sphere's granite base appear the words, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki — Commentator and Guide, in Hebrew and French. A huge tree spread its green boughs overhead; there seemed something maternal about its protective shelter. A few children scattered crumbs to the pigeons, causing them to take fright and flutter away.

My companion, Rav Yisroel Meir Gabbai, took out a heavy marble plaque and, kneeling down, began shoveling cement onto the paving stones. The plaque's inscription reads; You are standing at the site of the cemetery of Troyes. Many Rishonim are buried here, Rashi among them. Today, nine hundred years after his petiroh, a monument to him marks the approximate site of his resting place.

Our visit to Troyes came at the end of an exhausting three- day trip that started in Istanbul and took us on to Frankfurt before we arrived in Paris. It was from there that we had set out for Troyes early that morning by car, using a GPS — a satellite navigator. Obeying the device's periodic instructions to turn a gauche (left) or a droit (right), we hurtled down wide motorways. From time to time the device led us off onto the winding roads of rural France where low houses line the roadside and hardly a human being was to be seen outside. The few faces we saw were unsmiling and expressionless. The silence was broken only by the birds' chirping and by the noise of our car engine. No signs of progress or modernity were outwardly apparent; life seemed to stand still. A workshop for marble gravestones was the only reminder that even here, life has an end and cannot therefore be entirely static.

Rav Gabbai's occupation is one that calls for constant sacrifice. He renovates the graves of gedolei Yisroel that have fallen into disrepair with the passage of time and repairs others that have been vandalized. His work takes him to all corners of the globe, visiting one continent in search of an ancient beis kevoros for example, then going on to another in search of a mass grave, Hy'd.

He is not a talker. His natural reticence and his reluctance to reveal details about current and future projects make it difficult to conduct an interview with him. The comments quoted in this article were gleaned from the conversations that I had with him from the back seat of the Mercedes as he drove between the towns that once housed the ancient Jewish communities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, known to us by their acronym as the Kehillos ShUM.

To mark Rashi's nine hundredth yahrtzeit, we went to set a new stone at the site where he is buried, to visit the graves of his teachers, to see the towns where he lived and taught, and to pray at the graves of his disciples. Long distances separate these places where important Jewish communities once thrived but have long since ceased to exist. The long hours on the road sapped our energy and wakefulness.

Later however, after the nuggets of information that Rav Gabbai yielded over our three day trip had been gathered and arranged, a truly fascinating picture emerged of a fascinating figure who has devoted his life to honoring the memories of the gedolim of past generations ztvk'l, zy'a.

Rav Gabbai is an alumnus of Yeshivas Lucerne and a talmid of the rosh yeshiva HaRav Yitzchok Dov Koppelman, himself a talmid of lhbc'l, HaRav Shimon Shkop zt'l. Afterwards Rav Gabbai learned in Ponovezh yeshiva.

While learning in kollel in France he took part in the activities of Kadmoneinu together with Rav Noach Sternfeld. He mentions that based on the examination of ancient and hitherto unknown manuscripts and authentic travelogues from ancient times, several highly important revelations have yet to be made regarding the locations of the resting places in the Galil in Israel of some of our earliest Sages. That however, is all that he is prepared to reveal. He directs our conversation to other topics, to avoid being led into betraying any further clues.

Rav Gabbai: "It's difficult to ascertain the precise location of the resting places of those Rishonim who are buried in Europe. Sometimes the site of the burial ground can be determined but not of the actual grave — this is the case with Rashi. This is also the way we discovered the resting places of our teachers, the Baalei Hatosfos: Rabbenu Tam, RaShBaM, RYVaM, R"Y Hazokein and tens of others, zy'a. We found the cemetery where they are buried but not their actual graves."

Hometown of Rashi

Troyes is a small town. A narrow, tranquil river runs across the main thoroughfare. At the time of the Crusades, its waters churned with Jewish blood. Small bridges have been reconstructed in their original places across the river; the Crusaders' armored boots and their horses' hooves once crossed at these points on their way to wreak murder and havoc.

With the sole exception of the richly-ornamented local authority building, the town appears humble enough. In one of the neighborhoods, narrow alleys and wooden houses take one back to centuries long past. Instead of a road, ancient flagstones pave the thoroughfare.

Here, life goes on inside courtyards, reminiscent of the older neighborhoods of Yerushalayim. Here and there one spots modernistic glass structures inside the courtyards, intruders upon the ancient landscape which they reflect. In fact the entire neighborhood is only a reflection of ancient Troyes; these are not the buildings of Rashi's hometown. Old Troyes was gutted by a fire that left only scorched earth behind. The town was eventually rebuilt and now extends over a far greater area than it once did.

We had not brought any cement with us for fixing the plaque. An unfamiliar taxi suddenly screeched to a halt next to us and, conversing with Rav Gabbai in clipped French, the driver inquired what we were looking for. When told, he generously volunteered his assistance. He helped us obtain the materials we needed — the only place where building supplies could be purchased was no small distance from the town.

When Rav Gabbai bent down to begin working the cement, the driver insisted on doing it himself. He refused to tell us what had brought him here at this particular time or why he wanted to do the work himself. He stayed with us all the time and, having affixed the plaque, he left in a rush without even telling us his name.

Rav Gabbai: "It all began long ago, when I wanted to travel to Communist Russia which was then composed of all the countries of today's CIS, including the Ukraine. The Iron Curtain kept Israeli passport holders out. It was impossible to go and pray at the graves of the tzaddikim buried there, let alone attend to their renovation. I therefore traveled via France, so that I would be able to enter Russia with my French passport.

"I already had information about the resting places of Rashi and the Baalei Hatosfos but it was very general and unspecific. A French Jew with whom I was in contact helped me further my knowledge. Today he lives in Yerushalayim — then he was serving as a professor in the prestigious Sorbonne University. He had already begun taking his first steps on the road to Torah life.

"In the early stages of his return to his heritage I urged him on and provided him with guidance and direction — mainly I encouraged him. Our bond grew stronger. As an academic of standing he had access to valuable archive material that was unavailable to the general public. He agreed to help me investigate and, with endless devotion and after extensive searching, he managed to obtain information about old Troyes."

However, the town had since undergone a transformation. All that the fire left of its wooden houses were ashes and charcoal. Ordinarily, it would have been impossible to ascertain where the ancient Jewish graveyard had been. The boundaries of the built-up area had also changed completely.

Rashi's Resting Place

"But one day the professor came to me with a beaming face." From his expression it was easy to guess what he had discovered — an old map, hundreds of years old, that clearly showed the area of the old cemetery. According to the information in Seder Hadoros, Rashi is buried in that cemetery. Further investigations had to be made in order to locate the actual area. Scientific methods had to be employed in order to verify the evidence . . . We very soon discovered that we were standing on the area of the cemetery.

Rav Gabbai: "It was clearly providential that nobody had interfered with the site. The square in which the cemetery was located had remained unbuilt. Generations of Frenchmen had left it alone. Sadly, the nearby road encroached on a small part of the cemetery. Concrete belonging to two corner buildings had been poured over the area of the graves. But besides these exceptions everything remained open."

A year after the discovery, the Jews of France erected a monument at the site — an impressive black and white globe engraved with the letter shin. The accompanying sign said a few words about Rashi but gave no indication that the entire area was an ancient Jewish cemetery.

None of the locals or visitors realized that in walking across the square they were treading on holy ground, over the heads of a holy community that placed its imprint upon the soul of a nation.

The precise location of Rashi's grave still remains a mystery. All that is known is that his holy body lies somewhere in this small open space in the heart of Troyes — in this cemetery that nobody knew was a cemetery until the morning of our visit when Rav Gabbai affixed the marble slab. It reads: The place you are standing on is the cemetery of the town of Troyes. Many Rishonim are buried here, among them Rabbi Shlomo, known as Rashi the holy, zy'a.

We emotionally recited several chapters of Tehillim and prayed that Rashi come to the defense of Klal Yisroel and of those who study his Torah.

The Town of Rashi's Grandsons

Rav Gabbai: "In the course of the same investigation we also discovered that the Baalei Hatosfos are buried in Ramerupt, or Remeruque, as the town used to be known."

Ramerupt is only a thirty-minute drive along the country roads from Troyes. Red flowers line the sides of the roads and streams irrigate the soil. In 1999, Ramerupt had 354 inhabitants. Troyes had almost 70,000 residents in 1999.

In 4907 (1147) the Crusaders passed this way too, on their way to massacre Jews. Perhaps this very soil, now moist and fertile, was once soaked with Jewish blood . . . red flowers and red blood . . . a wild association that comes to mind. A flower's roots soaking up blood shed when a person's roots are hacked away . . . "He will wreak judgment on the nations until the field is filled with carcasses; He will smash their heads mightily on the ground. He will be sated from their blood like one who drinks freely from a wayside river . . ." (Tehillim 110:6-7)

We approach Ramerupt, a sleepy country village. A narrow road on which two cars would have difficulty passing each other meanders among courtyards that are full of fruit trees. The sun-drenched bungalows have an oppressively carefree air about them. We make our way to the Street of the Great Cemetery, as the narrow street was known in past centuries.

Rav Gabbai: "While searching the archives we encountered a problem. There are two neighboring villages with the identical name. In which of them would we find the old graveyard? The professor and I decided that together we would go and look. We traveled from Paris along exactly the same roads that we've taken today, to one of the Ramerupts and swiftly discovered that we'd come to the right place.

"When we visited the village leader, we were in for a surprise. When he heard why we'd come he became emotional and in a loud voice excitedly related the string of `coincidences' that had just taken place. Within seconds, we were witnessing a clear instance of open Providence. `Just a few days ago,' he said, `one of the neighbors came to me for my signature so that he could obtain a building permit for a storeroom and parking space for a tractor. When he began digging he was shocked. He found himself staring at graves and he was terror-stricken. He continued digging carefully and found a row of gravestones. A few minutes later he was in my room to report. He was nervous about continuing as planned in case he came to harm. All this happened now — just a few days ago. Now you have come asking. This must be the graveyard that you're looking for.' "

On checking the area, Rav Gabbai and the professor easily identified the graves as Jewish ones. They were arranged in rows — unlike gentile burial where the stones are arranged haphazardly — and were pointing towards Yerushalayim. There could be no mistake.

Rav Gabbai: "An authoritative test that we carried out right there showed that the cemetery was eight hundred years old. The road's name, Street of the Great Cemetery, mutely confirmed our findings. The locals had no idea why that was its name and their amazement knew no bounds. Even the adjacent church, whose steeple overlooks the site, added a degree of confirmation to our conclusion. The gentiles used to try to erect such buildings wherever Jews buried their dead."

The Jewish Cemetery at Ramerupt

"Further investigation revealed the complete boundary of the cemetery. It is not a large area. A village house was standing on it but the owner had felt uncomfortable about living there and put it up for sale. It was badly neglected. It was bought by a worthy Jew, a member of the chareidi community of Paris."

When we met there in the evening to hear the story of the house that has become a beis hamedrash, he insisted on remaining anonymous. He didn't want to trade any part of his tremendous merit for some fleeting honor. HaRav Yosef Sitruk, the Chief Rabbi of France, came to participate in the dedication. One of the neighbors, an elderly gentile, looks after the key. Yidden come to pray there and ask the souls of the deceased to intervene on Klal Yisroel's behalf.

Rav Gabbai: "Although the resting places of Rashi's grandsons, Rabbenu Tam, the RaShBaM and the RYVaM (Rivam) have not been located, the cemetery where they are buried has been discovered. Though the gravestones have deteriorated with the passage of time, we've saved the cemetery from desolation and neglect."

On reaching the village we made our way to the home of the neighbor with the key. "He is no longer here," a youth with typically French features told us. "You're a few months late," he clarified sadly.

His grandfather had died, leaving behind the key, and a will instructing his descendants "to take care of the Jews' cemetery." That day, for some reason that he couldn't explain himself, the young man had not gone to school, where he was specializing in building. He quickly brought us stones and cement to put up the engraved marble plaque that Rav Gabbai had brought from Eretz Yisroel.

The sun beat down on the Ohel of the Martyrs of Remeruque, while inside we davened shacharis. Both the temperature and our emotions were running high. Here, close to Rabbenu Tam's resting place I put on tefillin of Rabbenu Tam for the first time. Outside in the heat, the young Frenchman worked at affixing the plaque. Then, the iron gate was locked. In batei medrash the world over, the teachings of those interred here continue to be debated and the lips of Rashi and his grandsons continue moving.

An additional plaque on the wall informs us that in the town of Remeruque lived one of the Jewish nation's distinguished families, the family of Rabbenu Meir ben Shmuel, Rashi's son- in-law. Rabbenu Meir had four sons whose Torah provided illumination for all of Klal Yisroel. They were, Rabbenu Shmuel (the RaShBaM), Rabbenu Yitzchok (the RYVaM), Rabbenu Yaakov (Rabbenu Tam) and Rabbenu Shlomo, who died young. After Rabbenu Shmuel passed away, his son Rabbenu Yaakov was appointed as rosh yeshiva in Remeruque. He was followed by his nephew Rabbenu Yitzchok, who is known to us as R"Y Hazokein. Most of Rabbenu Shmuel's family are buried here, as are many of the Baalei Hatosfos who learned in their yeshiva.

Unseen Guidance

Our car hurtled silently down the motorway. My thoughts were dwelling on the Jewish world that existed centuries ago in the places we had just visited. That existed? It still exists, only elsewhere. Rashi and the Baalei Hatosfos live on in botei medrash the world over, where their comments and opinions are discussed and debated.

We drive on, each wrapped in his own thoughts. At one point Rav Gabbai breaks the silence to tell me that he is currently searching for the grave of Rav Yosef Kolon, the MaharYK, in Schwanbrei, near Aix-les-Bains. Then he lapses into silence again.

Neither has he interrupted his search for the precise location of the resting place of the RaAVaD, in the Montpelier region in the South of France. When I asked how his researches are financed, he professes not to understand the question.

"Everything depends on siyata deShmaya," he tells me and explains that although he never knows how the next stage of a project will work out, when the time comes the problem is always solved. As an example he tells me about the purchase of the building in Ramerupt.

"When the house standing on the cemetery was put on the market, we didn't know where the money would come from to buy it. I spoke to a wealthy friend of mine about the possibility. The same week that he came to see the place, an advertisement for his business appeared in Kountrass (the chareidi French language magazine edited by Rav Nosson Kahn). It was the first time he'd ever advertised in Kountrass and when he took a look at his advertisement he had a surprise: there was a long article about Rabbenu Tam in the issue.

"When he started reading he was staggered. This was the first time he was reading Kountrass — in order to see the first advertisement that he'd ever placed — and while he stood in the cemetery where Rabbenu Tam was buried he was reading an in-depth article about Rabbenu Tam in the very same issue. He saw this as an overt sign, perhaps a message from Heaven even. His inner urging gave him no rest and he made the decision to buy the house. A little earlier we had had no idea who would fund the purchase."

A broad smile comes to Rav Gabbai's lips, banishing doubts and uncertainty like the emergence of a bright sun from a veil of cloud.

First Stop: Germany

It's a three-hour flight from Istanbul, where we stopped in transit from Israel, to Frankfurt, where we started out on the first stage of our trip. We planned to visit the city's two ancient Jewish cemeteries before the day's end (see accompanying box). The next day, our plan was to visit Worms and Mayence (known to the Rishonim as Vormayza and Magenca). Impressions of those visits are the subject of the following article. The visits to Troyes and Ramerupt described here, came at the end of the trip.

The prospect of staying a night in Germany and traveling around there was not a pleasant one. This is one of the regions most seriously infected with antisemitism. The shuttered, expressionless faces of the locals give nothing away but one feels the looming shadows. True, the people are courteous and willing to explain how to get about but who knows what lurks beneath the veneer? Who knows whether one isn't conversing with a murderer, or with his child or grandchild? It's a stinging realization. How vulnerable one feels here; one instinctively feels the need for shelter and protection.

In Frankfurt's Jewish Cemeteries

"It matters not if the inscriptions on the gravestones in the cemeteries have been damaged. Their mausoleum was [still] standing inside every Jewish heart, with the promise of the anonymity for which they yearned" (HaRav S.R. Hirsch, zt'l).

Coming out of Frankfurt Airport we were met by one of the local community's ecclesiastical workers, who had the keys to the gates of the cemeteries with him. A half-hour drive through the drowsy and unlovely streets brought us to Batonstrasse. A gray wall surrounds the area and even from afar one can make out the small rectangular slabs that are set along its top.

Only when one gets nearer does the horror of it become clear. Each slab bears the name of a victim of Nazi crimes — the names of a thousand souls whose blood was spilt and ashes scattered. All that remains of them are names (at least that and not numbers!) This is how the local municipality commemorated them.

The cemetery we are entering is one of the most ancient in all of Europe — its oldest grave dates from five hundred and seventy years ago. Due to lack of space, the dead were buried in tiers. In an area that was bombed and that today stands empty, the gravestones used to be crowded together. Only one part of the cemetery survived the wartime aerial attacks; piles of fragmented gravestones are scattered across it. One section has been restored as nearly as possible. Even the gravestone of the great HaRav Nosson Adler zt'l, teacher of the Chasam Sofer zt'l, does not stand by his grave. The stone was moved to the rabbinical section on the right but Rav Adler was never buried there.

For centuries, the Frankfurt community was renowned for its fierce devotion to its own customs. Because Rav Adler adopted certain customs based on Kabboloh he was not buried in the rabbinical section. His gravestone was only moved there after the cemetery's destruction. Rav Gabbai very much wants to rectify this situation. A gravestone must stand by the grave, he maintains.

The damage to the grave of the Maharam Schiff is something else that greatly disturbs him. There is no engraving, the stone has been smashed and greenery overgrows it. In the course of our brief visit he begins negotiating with the communal leaders to try and get them to put right a very unseemly sight, secure in the knowledge that time is on his side and that sooner or later, something will be done.

Nearby stand the gravestones of the Pnei Yehoshua, the Haflo'oh (whose 200th yahrtzeit was 4 Tammuz) and Rav Avrohom Abish all of whom served as rabbonim of the community. A low concrete wall surrounds the small rabbinical section. We recite several chapters of Tehillim by each of the graves. The area is shady and quiet, with dense, dark green vegetation. The inscriptions at the top of the stones here are arched, unlike other places. An exception is the grave of "the righteous Raizele" mother of the Chasam Sofer, which is made of small tablets resting on a damaged foundation.

The second cemetery that we visited is in Reite Bel Strasse. A dignified looking gateway affords entrance to the cemetery of the general community, the Judische Gemeinde. Walking along, its hard to feel that one is in a Jewish cemetery; even the dates on the stones are from the gentile calendar. On the other side of a fence that divides the area is the cemetery of Kehal Adass Yeshurun, the Israelitische Gemeinde. HaRav Hirsch taught his congregants that burial in a gentile cemetery is preferable to burial in a common cemetery with Jewish reformers. Gravestones that were gathered after the wartime bombings stand against the wall.

Walking alongside the wall, one comes to HaRav Hirsch's grave. I personally felt a powerful sensation of warmth and closeness there that brought tears to my eyes. Its red stone stands out among the neighboring white ones. Members of HaRav Hirsch's family are also buried here.

On the gravestone are inscribed the following lines.

"His teachings were luminous dew; his writings contained life restoratives. They shed new light, illuminating the world. They brought the message of pure faith to the holy people. He plumbed the depths of . . .Hashem's Torah, the goodly rationales of the mitzvos [and] the secret of our Creator's laws. Before our eyes he shone [as a] wonder of our generation. He was zealous for his G-d; he fought our battles and our master renewed the crown to its former majesty."

One felt something while standing by the cool stone. Clouds parted in the light breeze, allowing a wayward ray of sunlight through. Raindrops mixed with my tears, misting up the lenses of my glasses. When one's immediate field of vision is obscured one's thoughts take wing and soar. This stone still plays a role in the battles of faithful Jewry, as though a living heart still beat within.

A short distance away is the grave of the Stoliner Rebbe zt'l. It is surrounded by six empty graves, marked off with an iron fence, according to the Rebbe's instructions. He was an immense Torah scholar, addressed by Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor zt'l of Kovno in a letter as gaon. We read a chapter of Tehillim while the birds' chirping echoes in the emptiness. The gate will soon close behind us. On an ordinary day there are very few visitors here. People come at sunset or in the darkness, entering the gate inside which time has stopped.


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