Brave new world

Rabbi Mirvish working

Remembering Cape Town’s pioneer Rabbi

 

By Juan-Paul (Paysach) Burke

South African Jewry is a relatively young community whose religious and communal infrastructure was built up by several pioneering individuals, be they rabbis, reverends, or laymen. In Johannesburg, there were the likes of Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Landau, and Rabbi Moishe Friedman. In Cape Town, there was Rev Joel Rabinowitz, Rev Alfred Philipp Bender, Adv Morris Alexander, and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Mirvish, to name but a few. To all of these and more, we owe our acknowledgement and gratitude for their efforts in building our community.

Due to it being the 70th yartzeit this year of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Mirvish, it is fitting to extol the virtues and achievements of this pioneering rabbi, hoping in this way to inspire others to also be builders of yiddishkeit, and for these words to be a merit for him on high, may his memory be for a blessing.

Born in 1872 in Baisagola, Lithuania, he was educated from among the best yeshivas of the day (Slabodka and Telz), where he studied under such illustrious teachers as Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gordon, Rabbi Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, and Rabbi Shimon Shkop. He received his smicha from Rabbi Eliezer Gordon and from Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor Feivelson of Plungian.[1]

He arrived in 1908 to serve as the rabbi and more hora’a (aka teacher and judge) of the Beth Hamedrash Hachodosh, also known as the Cape Town Orthodox Hebrew Congregation, with its synagogue on Constitution Street, built c1901. This congregation later moved to the Vredehoek Synagogue in 1939.

The Beth Hamedrash was one of three main congregations at the time and frequented by the most Orthodox of the Lithuanian/Russian immigrants, being most akin to what they were used to in Eastern Europe. The other two congregations were the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, based at the Gardens Shul (Tikvat Yisrael), built in 1905, which followed the English tradition, and the New Hebrew Congregation, based at the Roeland Street Shul (Agudat Achim), built c1902, whose congregants were essentially Litvaks who were slightly more anglicised or, if you will, the ‘modern orthodox’ of the day.

The challenges for the Lithuanian immigrant were many. The established English Judaism was unfamiliar and, while the dominant language was English, these immigrants spoke Yiddish. The Litvaks were also more Zionistic at that stage than the English Jewry. They were also used to living in a locale where the majority was Jewish, and now found themselves in the minority amidst a strange culture with the pull to assimilate. The Beth Hamedrash Hachodosh became their gateway for life in this new land.

Rabbi Mirvish was reputedly the first rabbi with full smicha to be appointed to a congregation in the Cape. He saw it as his duty to serve Jews beyond his own congregation and he had his work cut out for him. With the help of his congregation and leaders of the other congregations, such as Rev Bender of Gardens Shul and Adv Morris Alexander of Roeland Street Shul, order was made out of chaos.[2]

His son, Louis Mirvish, says this of his father, “Many new problems unknown to the Russian rabbi faced him […] It is not easy for a later generation to realise the legal and practical difficulties which arose in this new land, and which my father was called upon to solve.”[3]

Dr C Resnekov recalls, “I well remember my late father returning from a stormy meeting of the Hebrew School, where it had been proposed that only Shomrei Shabbath should be eligible for membership of the Committee; both Rabbi Mirvish and my father, the pillars of orthodoxy, fought against acceptance of this ruling as they maintained that no Jew desecrates the Sabbath wilfully but only through economic compulsion.”[4]

‘”So numerous were Rabbi Mirvish’s activities,” said a well-known Cape Town communal worker, “that it is easier to mention those with which he was not associated than those with which he was.””[5]

He was a founding member of the executive of the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies together with Adv Morris Alexander MP and Rev A P Bender, serving the interests of the Jewish community in its relations with the government. An example of difficulties the community faced from the government was the anti-Semitism displayed when immigration from Europe was cut with the 1930 immigration quota act. Rabbi Mirvish called it Amalek in our times, as a display of baseless hatred and saw it as a wakeup call for SA Jewry to return to Hashem and his Torah.[6]

He had a great interest in Jewish education and served on the educational sub-committee of the United Hebrew Schools, devoting much time to the furtherance of Jewish education in the Cape. He was a bridge between two worlds and fought to preserve Torah-true Judaism. He saw the risk of children being whisked up in the secular maelstrom of the times. He warned about the preeminent influence of the home in transmitting the sacred Torah tradition and how the teacher at cheder only came second in strength of influence to that of the example of the parents.[7]

He was instrumental in setting up a board of shechita before the existence of a Beth Din, of which he also helped to set up, being the first Av Beth Din from 1933-1947. He was on the committee of various Jewish charitable and welfare organisations. He zealously supported Zionism and was a leading member of Cape Town Mizrachi. His activities extended beyond the confines of his own congregation, accepting the responsibility to attend to the religious needs of all Jews in the Cape and was often called on to speak at various functions and synagogues.

A Talmud society (chevra shas) had been founded in 1898 which was subsequently based at Beth Hamedrash Hachodosh, celebrating their first siyum hashas (completion of the study of the entire Talmud) in 1906. Upon his arrival in 1908, Rabbi Mirvish became the maggid shiur (lecturer) and proceeded to lecture to the completion three siyumim of shas (1917, 1927 & 1937). The next siyum was completed shortly after his passing, but was not celebrated out of respect. This was the “daf yomi” of the day.

These siyumim made an impression on the local community, as the celebrations were attended by rabbis from all over the Cape as well as a sizable amount of guests, besides, of course, the members of the chevra shas. These would be opportunities for the sharing of divrei Torah and a special shiur by Rabbi Mirvish, who also influenced the setting up of chevras in Gardens Shul (1917) and at Muizenburg Shul (1928).

He left two published works of his writings[8], much rabbinical correspondence with overseas rabbis[9], and an unpublished manuscript attributed to Yisroel Eliezer Segal edited by Rabbi Mirvish[10], copies of all can be found at UCT Libraries and of some at the Johannesburg Beyachad archives.

Rabbi Mirvish had just conducted the marriage service of Rev Kassel’s daughter and was on his way to speak at a memorial that evening for the Jews of Ponevez who had been murdered by the Nazis when he passed away on the steps of the shul of the very congregation that he had served with such dedication for almost 40 years. He was niftar 2 Elul 5707 (17 August 1947).

Haim Pogrund wrote:

“The late and venerated Rabbi Chaim Mirvish was the spiritual leader of the congregation at the time, and a MORE RESPECTED Jew was hard to find. Uninvolved in the political intrigues and petty rows […], he set the example for sincerity and integrity coupled with wisdom.”[11]

May remembering Rabbi Mirvish serve to spark within us a desire to likewise be spiritual pioneers, each in our own unique way, building ourselves, our homes, and our communities.

Juan-Paul Burke is currently researching South African rabbis, reverends, and cantors pre-1941. To contact him email: paysach12@gmail.com

  1. See this extensive biography by Rabbi Mirvish’s grandson: Helman, C. Biography Rabbi Moses Chaim Mirvish. Available: http://www.jewishgen.org/safrica/synagogues/18/RabbiMosesChaimMirvish.pdf
  2. Resnekov, C. 1947. The late Rabbi Moses Chaim Mirvish. South African Jewish Chronicle. 29 Aug.
  3. Mirvish, L. 1960. Cape Town Jewry in 1910. Jewish Affairs. May: p7
  4. Resnekov, C. 1947. The late Rabbi Moses Chaim Mirvish. South African Jewish Chronicle. 29 Aug.
  5. Death of Rabbi M. Ch. Mirvish: Moving Grave-side Tributes. 1947. South African Jewish Times. 22 August:p8
  6. Mirvish, M. C. 1935. Sefer Derushe ha-Ramaḥ. Jerusalem: Defus Ṿais. p19
  7. Mirvish, M. C. 1916. The cement of the house of Israel. (Rosh Hashona Suppl.) South African Jewish Chronicle. 22 Sept: p12-13 & Mirvish, M. C. 1935. Sefer Derushe ha-Ramaḥ. Jerusalem: Defus Ṿais. p138-140
  8. Mirvish, M. C. 1924. Zikhron Yaʻaḳov. Jerusalem: Shemuʼel ha-Leṿi Tsuḳerman. Mirvish, M. C. 1935. Sefer Derushe ha-Ramaḥ. Jerusalem: Defus Ṿais. [includes some published responsa]
  9. Simon, J. 1994. Responsa and Rulings Reflecting Some South African Issues. The Jewish Journal of Sociology. 36(1): 5-18. Available: http://archive.jpr.org.uk/download?id=2263
  10. Jewish Museum: documents and papers. BC1315, handwritten copy of work “Emunath Yisroel” by Yisroel Eliezer Segal edited by Rabbi M. C. Mirvish. Manuscripts and Archives Department, University of Cape Town Libraries, University of Cape Town. (Unpublished).
  11. Pogrund, H. 2001. Days of awe-the Cape Town experience. JewishGen. S.A. SIG. Newsletter. 2(4):16-18. Available: http://www.jewishgen.org/safrica/newsletter/SA-SIG-NL-2001-09.pdf

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