Yisakhar Dov Rokeaḥ, the third Belzer Rebbe (center, in fur hat) out for a walk with his Hasidim during a visit to a spa, Marienbad (Mariánské Láznĕ), Czechoslovakia, 1926. (Forward Association / YIVO)

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Belz Hasidic Dynasty

A Hasidic sect originally located in the town of Belz (Pol., Bełz) in eastern Galicia. The Belz Hasidic Dynasty was founded by Rabbi Shalom Rokeaḥ (1783–1855), a devoted disciple of Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Horowitz, the so-called Seer of Lublin. Rokeaḥ established his famous court in Belz around 1817, attracting many followers from Poland, Galicia, and Hungary. He was known as both a miracle worker and a Talmudist, and maintained a close relationship with the Galician non-Hasidic rabbinate of his time. His everyday life was simple, and he was the first rebbe who did not dress in white (as was common for kabbalists and early Hasidic leaders).

His youngest son, Rabbi Yehoshu‘a Rokeaḥ (1825–1894), succeeded him as the second Belzer rebbe. Known for his deep involvement in public and political affairs, Yehoshu‘a Rokeaḥ consolidated the Belz court and made it the most important Hasidic branch in Galicia. He was among the founders in 1879 of the militant organization Makhzikey ha-Das (Upholders of the Faith), which was established in order to protect and lobby for the interests of the ultra-Orthodox community in Galicia and to challenge the secular organization Shomer Yisra’el (Protector of Israel) in Lwów. In this project, Rokeaḥ cooperated with rabbis Shim‘on Sofer of Kraków and Avraham Ya‘akov of Sadagora [see Ruzhin Hasidic Dynasty], but he was the most influential and active participant. Despite his radical negative attitudes toward modernity and secularism, Rokeaḥ’s work in this organization reflected a newly emergent pattern within Orthodoxy: the adaptation of modern tools in order to protect traditional values. He also initiated, along with the above-mentioned rabbis, a weekly publication titled Kol maḥazike ha-dat (Voice of the Upholders of the Faith), which promoted the Orthodox agenda in Galicia.

A group of boys outside the Belzer kloyz, Mukačevo, Czechoslovakia (now Mukacheve, Ukr.), ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

Yisakhar Dov Rokeaḥ (1854–1926), who succeeded Yehoshu‘a, took command of the sect at a time of upheaval and transformation in almost every area of Jewish life. Like most Hasidic leaders, he actively opposed Zionism (Belz did not even join the ultra-Orthodox Agudas Yisroel Party), and thus exhibited a particularly radical rejection of Zionism. In the third rebbe’s lifetime, Belz Hasidism gained in popularity among Galician and Hungarian Jews, even though the rebbe was known for his extremely conservative attitudes regarding modernity and modern technological innovations, even in the most common and everyday aspects.

During World War I, the Russian army occupied Belz (at that time a part of Austria), and the town was burnt and destroyed, along with the Hasidic court. The rebbe’s family and entourage left their homes and escaped to Hungary. They settled first in Ratzfert (Újfehértó) and remained there until the end of the war. In 1919, he moved to Mukačevo (Munkács). There, Rokeaḥ clashed with the radical Hasidic leader and scholar Ḥayim Eli‘ezer Shapira of the Munkács Hasidic Dynasty. The controversy, which continued for many years, occasioned inflammatory pamphlets and even mutual informing to the authorities. In 1922 Rokeaḥ returned to Galicia, where he first settled in Oleszyce. Only in 1925 did he reestablish his court in Belz, then part of Poland. During the interwar period the Belz court gained a powerful influence on the ultra-Orthodox community in Poland and attracted many adherents.

Yisakhar’s son Aharon Rokeaḥ (1880–1957) succeeded his father and became the fourth Belz rebbe. Escaping from the ghetto of Bochnia in 1943, he and his brother Mordekhai Rokeaḥ of Bilgoraj (1903–1949) settled in Budapest, where they had a devoted community of Hasidim. In a dramatic speech delivered in January 1944, a day before the brothers left for Palestine and two months before the Nazis invaded Hungary, Mordekhai promised his Hasidim that nothing would happen to Hungarian Jews. This false promise, along with the brothers’ personal escape and their abandonment of their Hasidim, provoked criticism of their behavior during a time of crisis. The two brothers, the only survivors of the family, settled in Tel Aviv, where Rabbi Aharon tried to renew his court, while modifying the traditional Belz objection to Agudas Yisroel and to the idea of a Jewish state.

After Aharon Rokeaḥ’s death in 1957, Belz Hasidim accepted his nephew, Yisakhar Dov Rokeaḥ (born 1948), then a nine-year-old orphan, as his successor. Only in 1966 was he formally installed as the fifth rebbe. Belz still remains one of the world’s largest Hasidic communities. Its center is located in Jerusalem, but there are other Belz communities in New York, Antwerp, London, Zurich, and Montreal.

Suggested Reading

David Assaf, “‘My Petty and Ugly World’”: The Confession of Rabbi Yitzhak Nahum Twersky of Shpikov,” Contemporary Jewry 26 (2006): 1–34; Abraham Isaac Bromberg, Mi-gedole ha-Ḥasidut, vol. 10 (Jerusalem, 1955); Matityahu Yekhezkel Gutman, Belz (Tel Aviv, 1952); Israel Jacob Klapholz, Admore Belz: Te’ur demutam u-fo‘olam ve-toldot ḥayehem shel tsadike Belz, vols. 1–4 (Bene Berak, 1972–1979); Mordechai Georgo Langer, Nine Gates to the Chassidic Mysteries (New York, 1975; 1st ed., 1961); Mendel Piekarz, Ḥasidut Polin: Megamot ra‘ayoniyot ben shete ha-milḥamot

uvi-gezerot 700–705 (“ha-Sho’ah”) (Jerusalem, 1990), pp. 424–434; Eliezer Schweid, Ben ḥurban li-yeshu‘ah: Teguvot shel hagut ḥaredit la-Sho’ah bi-zemanah (Tel Aviv, 1994), pp. 65–88.