Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, author of the “Shefa Chaim” and “Divrei Yatziv” was born in Brodnick to Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Halberstam, the chief dayan (Jewish law judge) in the city in 5665 (1905). At the age of 14 he was orphaned from his father and was ordained as a rabbi. At the age of 18 he married his relative, Pesyah Teitelbaum and they had eleven children together. At the age of 21 (5686/1926) he was appointed to serve as the rabbi of the Chassidic congregation in the town and as the Rosh Yeshivah in Klausenberg.
After the Nazis invaded Hungary, Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah was in a camp in Nadabanyah. Later, he was sent with his entire family to Auschwitz. He survived the death march, but his wife and nine of his children were murdered. His remaining sons died of typhus not long afterwards. Throughout that time, Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah did not give up on mitzvah performance with hidur (extra beautification of mitzvot) even at great danger to himself. He was careful about kosher food and even made sure to have a new fruit for Rosh Hashanah.
In the Displaced Persons camp following the Holocaust, Rabbi Yekutiel established educational institutions and soup kitchens, took care of orphans and conducted many marriage ceremonies.
In 5706 (1946) he immigrated to the USA in order to establish institutions for Holocaust survivors. He married his second wife, Nechamah, and they had seven children. In 5715 (1955) he visited Israel for the first time and laid the cornerstone for Kiryat Sanz, a neighborhood in the city of Netanyah. He established the Chassidut of Sanz-Klausenberg, educational institutions, and a large yeshiva, which he headed. He also established an intensive Talmud learning program. During the Holocaust, Rabbi Yekutiel vowed that if God would save him, he would always attempt to save Jewish lives. To fulfill that vow, he established the Laniado hospital and medical center in Netanyah.
On the 19th of Kislev 5720 (1960), Rabbi Yekutiel made aliyah to the Land of Israel and settled in Netanyah. In 5723 (1963) he opened a yeshiva for boys of Sephardic descent and in 5746 initiated the establishment of the “Council for Legal Defense of Jewish Values.” When he was asked why he took practical steps for the community in Israel, in contrast to the outlook of the Satmar Rebbe (his first wife’s uncle), he answered: “We, the God-fearing, criticize and prosecute the secular state, while the secular Jews take action and create facts on the ground. I also used to think that this was the proper approach, and I would curse the heretics with great fervor, anticipating that my curses would be fulfilled. But that did not happen. On the contrary, I saw that they were becoming stronger and stronger. So, I said to myself, that perhaps it is better if we switch roles. I will build up the land of Israel in holiness and the seculars can curse me!”
In 5732 (1972) Rabbi Yekutiel returned to the US, where he passed away on the ninth of Tamuz, 5754 (1996). He was laid to rest in Netanyah.
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Eye-witnesses told an amazing story about the Rebbe of Tzanz during the death march at the end of the Holocaust:
The third day of the death march was the hardest day. The date was Sunday, the tenth of Av, when the fast of Tisha B’Av was observed that year. The Nazis randomly beat the Jews with terrible cruelty, prodding their captives forward. The Jews could hardly stand on their feet; many were burning with fever and dehydrated. Some salty canned food was distributed to the Jews during the march, but deaths on that day reached new heights. The dead were left at the sides of the road, with no one to bury them. The ranks of the marchers dwindled. Not even one drop of water was rationed out.
Finally, the command was given: “Rest! Go off to the left of the road!” The Jews gathered in a field on the bank of the river. A glimmer of hope sparked in their eyes. A few Jews rushed down to the water and wet their dried lips. But even before they managed to lift their heads, the Nazis showered them with bullets and their blood swirled in the water of the river.
During that day, the tzaddik of Klausenberg was heard quietly repeating the words of the Scroll of Eichah and the liturgical Kinot, both traditionally recited on Tisha B’Av. Many of the marchers removed their shoes because of the terrible heat. The Klausenberger Rebbe also removed his shoes, because on Tisha B’Av it is forbidden to wear shoes. A Nazi soldier saw the Rebbe without shoes and commanded him to walk on the side of the road, strewn with pebbles and broken glass.
Night finally fell. The broken Jews were ordered to prepare for the night. Their shattered bodies collapsed onto the ground. The Nazi soldiers were also tired and little by little, left their guard duty next to their machine guns and fell asleep. A message was whispered from Jew to Jew: “He said…that every person should dig in the ground beneath him…God’s salvation is in the blinking of an eye.” Everyone knew who “he” was. If the tzaddik of Klausenberg said to dig, they dug.
The Jews grabbed whatever was near them: with spoons, sticks, their fingernails or their bare hands they began to dig. Suddenly, the unbelievable happened: Thin streams of pure water rose up from the ground! K. Hermetz, who was not a chassid of the Klausenberger Rebbe, describes the miracle in his book Koshmaran: “We were afraid to raise our voices so that the oppressors would not hear us, but a flame sparked in everyone’s eyes. Water, living waters! The despondent people embraced each other with joy. Half-dead, fainted Jews returned to life in a moment.” Everyone quenched their thirst, hydrated their dry bodies, and thanked God for the kindness that He did with them. Their energy was renewed. Suddenly, the Nazi guards awoke and ran over to the Jews to see what was taking place. They stared at the prisoners in amazement, but apparently did not want to arouse a rebellion against them and preferred to remain silent and go back to sleep. In the morning, when the commanders came and saw the miracle, their satanic eyes exchanged looks of wonder, and without saying a word, they turned and left, outwitted.
At this point, the Rebbe intensified his efforts to encourage the survivors in the horrific march, saying, “Here we have proof that despite all the troubles and the apparent concealment of God’s face, the Holy, Blessed One loves us….” Years later, the Rebbe, relating to this miracle, said: “Anyone who has doubts, Heaven forbid, about Abraham’s ram or Miriam’s well, could have been convinced then….”
The Rebbe’s first name, Yekutiel, is one of the names of Moses. We can also apply the sages’ saying about Moses’ name, Yekutiel, to him: “For Israel hoped (“Yeku”) for E-l (God) in his days” (Megillah 13a). He was like Moses, but the miracle that he enacted with the water was actually more reminiscent of Miriam’s well. Miriam was Moses’ older sister who foretold his birth and accompanied him throughout his life. Their father, Amram, even referred to Moses as, “your (Miriam’s) prophecy.”
On a physical level, Miriam provided the people of Israel with the well. Chassidut explains that this testifies to a spiritual gift, the service of prayer. Just as the waters of the well rise from the depths of the earth, so Miriam elevated the ‘feminine waters’ and awakened the hearts of Israel. We can say, then, that Moses’ name, Yekutiel—referring to hope and prayer—was given to him as he was Miriam’s prophecy. Miriam’s well that flowed for Rebbe Yekutiel in the valley of the shadow of death of the Nazi oppressors expresses the unique bond between the brother and sister. By means of the well, the tzaddik revealed God’s concealed love and by doing so, awakened the hopes of the Jews for salvation. Miriam’s name (מֵרִים) means one who raises water (מְרִמָּה מַיִם) and like Miriam, Yekutiel raised the souls of the suffering from the depths of the earth.
Miriam accompanied the Rebbe Yekutiel Yehudah even after his aliyah to Israel. When he established the Laniado Medical Center, he gave a special blessing to the maternity ward, that it should always be filled with Jewish mothers. The maternity ward is like a reincarnation of the Jewish midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah, who were Yocheved and Miriam. The well is also present in the other hospital wards. The root of the word “well” (בְּאֵר) has the same letters as the root of the word for “health” (בְּרִיאוּת). It is common in Hebrew to exchange letters that emerge from the same part of the vocal system. The letter bet (ב) is part of the group of letters formed by the lips—the בומ”ף group. Thus the root of “well” (באר) can be transformed into the three-letter root of “healing” (רפא).
Amazingly, Rebbe Yekutiel passed away on the evening after the fast day for the burning of the Talmud, a day on which he was always careful to fast. This day is not a public fast day, but a day on which special individuals fast. It is not on a particular date, but rather, on the Friday of the week in which we read the Torah portion of Chukat, the portion that includes the song of Miriam’s well.
The sages explain that Miriam’s passing is related just after the description of the Red Heifer in order to teach us that the passing of tzaddikim atones and purifies, like the ashes of the Red Heifer. The same can be said of Rebbe Yekutiel, who chose to promote childbirth and medicine specifically as a response to death and suffering—all by the power of Miriam, who purifies and heals the impurity of death.