Thursday, February 28, 2008

Unfinished Post: R' Yehuda Bar Ila'i (part 1)

While JoeSettler nonchalantly blathers, "Where's Jameel? Who cares...," my wife and I were on a much needed (but far too short) vacation to the Galil.

On our way home from Tzfat, we meandered through the Galil in no rush to get home. Galil roads contain dozens of landmark signs pointing to the grave sites of Tannaim (Rabbis from the Mishnaic time period) and Ammoraim (Rabbis from the Talmudic time period) and Biblical notables. Besides the historical and religious aspect (saying Tehillim at these sites can never be a "bad" thing), I though it would make interesting blog material. Little did I know where this post was going to lead me when I embarked on writing it...

Armed with my camera, we stopped at a dozen or so locations on our way home (my wife opted to say tehillim in the car, laughing at me for taking pictures at each site).

Each site was basically a cave, with a marker of some sort; either covering up the side of the cave (with more of the cave behind it), or a raised area -- a "tzurat hakever", "the form of a grave." Some were slightly spooky, with no lighting down below and some were well lit (electric wires snaked along cave ceilings), complete with benches, chairs and tables (and used candles/bottles of oil).

Sounds like the perfect opportunity to blog something interesting.

At one of the sites, that of Rabbi Yehuda bar Ila'i, (a Mishnaic-era scholar) there was a large building and courtyard, and proper steps going down into a dark cave.
[In Yavne, it happened once that Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilai praised the Romans for building market places, bridges and bathhouses, addressing himself to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rabbi Yose Ben Chalafta. Rabbi Yose remained silent whereas Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai totally criticized their engineering achievements which were only made to serve the Romans' self interests: the public places to meet immodest women, the bathhouses to loll and the bridges to charge toll. When the Romans heard by mistake about this conversation, they rewarded Rabbi Yehuda for his praises by appointing him as the official government speaker; they sent Rabbi Yose to exile in the town of Tsipori and they sentenced Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to death. ]

It was so dark, I could barely see what was there except for 2 apparent inner caves. I said some tehillim, took a few pictures hoping the camera flash would illuminate what was there so I could go recollect a bit later what was at each site, and left the cave.

Getting into the car, I looked at my camera's pictures and was rather shocked. The stone tablet inside the cave I had just been in read "In this place soap was buried that was made from Jews, May G-d Avenge their deaths, murdered by the Germans, May their names be eradicated"

Soap. from. Jews.

Now that gave me the chills.

Everyone's heard the stories about Jews being made into soap by the Nazis during the Holocaust; the lampshades, "medical experiments", gas chambers, indescribable cruel torture, the atrocities.

I was glad I had said tehillim there, though in retrospect had I known before going down to the cave, I might have said it more intently.

Pondering this a bit, it seemed like a good thing the soap had been buried there instead of being in some museum.

Now I could simply end off this posting now, and many of you would think, "ok, that was an interesting blog post -- glad to see Jameel's posting quality Eretz Yisrael posts again." (I know I would).

Instead, I decided to do a bit more research...which is why this post is still "unfinished," and therefore only "part 1."

What piqued my curiosity is twofold:

1. While many of the grave sites around the Galil are attributed to the Kabbalistically derived identification from the Ari, was the grave site of R' Yehuda Bar Ila'i "identified" by the Ari, or does it have an older history. I learned that the Ari's identification also had halachik repercussions; can a Cohen visit these newly identified burial caves?

2. Many of the caves I had visited contained relatively new plaques on them (from the 1980's) from the "Society for preservation of Graves and Holy Sites in Eretz Yisrael." This didn't give me a high level of confidence that any of these sites had any sort of reputable history behind them (while many might argue that the Ari's Kabbalistic identification is also, "politely unreliable") Therefore, who placed the stone plaque about the soap made from Jews in the cave? When did this happen? Was that also reliable? And why of all places were they buried in THIS cave near Tzfat -- and not at Har Zion or at Yad Vashem?

And then...the more I delved, the more perplexed I became.

What I considered as an absolute fact -- that Jews were made into soap by the Nazis...the same sort of fact such as Nazi death camp prisoners had blue numbers tattooed onto their arms, which I had personally seen on relatives who survived -- was less than absolute. Yad Vashem admits there is no absolute hard evidence that soap from Jewish bodies was mass produced by the Nazis...and the Holocaust deniers are having a field day with this information.

All the research I could find on the web (from Jewish sites, not the vile Holocaust deniers) pointed to one very clear conclusion: there is no absolute evidence of Jews being made into soap -- at least not on a mass production level. [btw - these links are mandatory reading] The Nizkor site and the Jewish Virtual Library wrote a detailed article which has the difficult job of going head to head with the Holocaust deniers who claim that just as there's no proof of the soap production, the rest of the Holocaust is a bunch of stories and myths blown out of proportion. The reasons for thinking that soap production from Jewish bodies actually happened is more than understandable -- the Nazi's taunted Jews in Auschwitz that they would be made into soap; with thousands being gassed and cremated daily, I doubt anyone there challenged the veracity of the threat.

However, the admission that the soap production may have been so limited left me feeling...disturbed. Not the lack of hard physical evidence...but that it's portrayed as fact (or at least what I was taught). Makes you wonder if anything else was slightly hyperbolized? No, I won't think that. The explanation from the Nizkor site is honest and academic, even though it left me with a bad feeling.

So what was buried in that cave? Perhaps some of the soap allegedly thought to be the remains of Jews? When did it get there? Why there of all places...

Google is your friend. As are students at Yeshiva University...[thanks SJ!!] My YU library alumni access is not nearly as "premium" as access given to students and faculty who gladly looked up an article for me (the link was available from Google, but the full content is only available to YU students and faculty)

The information I was looking for here, appears in this footnote:

16. Hatsofeh, Dec. 29 and 30, 1949. On this ceremony, see Pinhas Peli's correspondence, "Reshimot Yerushalmiyot," Hatsofeh, Jan. 2, 1950. For an interesting parallel between the ritual on Mount Zion and the burial of "Jewish soap" in other parts of Israel, see Zeev Vilnai, Matsevot kodesh be-Erets Yisrael Jerusalem, 1952), 427, where he mentions Safed's elders, who in 1949 buried pieces of "Jewish soap" in the burial cave of Rabbi Yehuda Bar-Ilai outside the city. For a similar description and for details of another burial ceremony that took place near Rabbi Tarfon's tomb, see Yosef Hagelili, Sefer meron (Jerusalem, 1988), 60

So what did Professor Zeev Vilnai write? [thanks AGMK]

In 1949, many Jews -- residents from Tzfat came to the cave of Rabbi Yehuda ben Ila'i, and buried soap from the fat of Jews that were made by the German Nazis; it was brought by one of the immigrants to Israel.

The grave of Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ila'i was publicized within Jewish Life during the Middle Ages. Many pilgrams visited [his grave] and mentioned it. R' Menachem HaHevroni in 1218 was the first to mention it [in his book] "By The Vineyards."

So...wrapping up part 1 of this post, I've discovered that there's not much physical evidence that Jews were made into soap, though there was a public burial ceremony at R' Yehuda Bar Ila'i's cave in 1949.

And...the burial cave of R' Yehuda Bar Ila'i predates the Ari, and is already mentioned in the Middle Ages.

I don't know about you, but if just this one 5 minute excursion turned into an interesting research post, I wonder what part 2 (and the other sites I visited) will bring...

Shabbat Shalom!


PS: Lurker adds the following...

And why of all places were they buried in THIS cave near Tzfat -- and not at Har Zion or at Yad Vashem?

A thought occurred to me: According to a bereita in TB Ketubot 17a, R. Yehuda b. Ila'i was well-known for his practice of leaving his Torah learning whenever the opportunity would arise to fulfill the mitzvot of hotza'at ha-meit and hakhnasat kalah. (preparing the dead for burial, helping a bride [also financially] prepare for her wedding). The bereita adds that it's appropriate to do this in a case where there are not enough people already attending the funeral or wedding in question:

אמרו עליו על רבי יהודה ברבי אלעאי, שהיה מבטל תלמוד תורה להוצאת המת ולהכנסת כלה; במה דברים אמורים - כשאין עמו כל צרכו, אבל יש עמו כל צרכו - אין מבטלין.

These Holocaust victims, whose corpses had been mutilated beyond recognition (assuming the soap had indeed been made from them), certainly had no relatives or loved ones attending their burial. In light of this, perhaps the residents of Tzfat deemed it appropriate to give R. Yehuda b. Ila'i the honor, even in death, of sharing in the burial of these Jews.

Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael טובה הארץ מאד מאד


A Simple Jew said...

Jameel: I visited a World War II museum in Kiev a few years ago and one of the things they had on display was soap made murdered Jews. If I recall correctly the sign indicated that the Red Army discovered this soap upon liberating Majdanek.

A Simple Jew said...

I used Googles's translator tool to translate from Russian to English and here you can see the reference to "a piece of soap from human fat" in Kiev's Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Yitz: Where did I write that people would lie about it? G-d forbid. I'm 100% sure that the soap buried at the kever was thought to be from the remains of Jews. No one is saying that there were any ulterior motives!

One of the sefarim I was told about in my search for this information specifically stated that the soap buried was "RIF" soap. If you read the Nizkor article that I hyperlinked to in my post, you'll see that RIF soap was DNA tested and did not have any human DNA found in it. I suggest you read the links I provided...

And yes, what was buried in this cave COULD BE soap made from Jews, but to date, Yad Vashem has been very wary about backing up this claim (till they know otherwise).

Again, there is no sinister plot here at all, and no one is casting any doubt on the pure intentions of the people of Tzfat in 1949.

Anonymous said...

Jewish soap tale 'was Nazi lie'
Israel's Holocaust Museum, rebutting a common belief, said yesterday that the Nazis never made soap from the fat of murdered Jews during the Second World War. But skin was used for lamp shades and hair to fill mattresses.

Historian Yehuda Bauer said many Jews believed their murdered families and friends had been turned into soap because the Nazis themselves propagated the idea. "Nazis told the Jews they made soap out of them. It was a sadistic tool for mental torture." -- Reuter April 25, 1990

From the Jerusalem Post, May 29, 1990, p. 4:

To the Editor of the Jerusalem Post:

Sir, - Neil Kuchinsky (letters, May 20) quotes from the Nuremberg trial transcripts to show that the Germans made soap from human bodies at the Danzig Anatomic Institute, basing himself on the testimony of two British PoWs and a German laboratory assistant. The facts are correct. They were quoted in extenso in a Czech- language book by Ota Kraus and Erich Kulka, and are well-known to historians.

The reason why no historian has ever claimed that Germans made industrial use of human bodies for the production of soap is also contained in those very testimonies. They show that the "Institute" was established in the course of 1944 by a Danzig Nazi scientist (Dr. Spanner) who invented the method by which this could be done, and persuaded an apparently enthusiastic Berlin authority (we do not know who it was) to support his experiments.

According to the somewhat contradictory evidence, 25 kg. or perhaps more of this horrible substance was made, and one source claims that it was used experimentally in Danzig itself. It emerges very clearly that this was a first and unique experiment and that it was in its experimental stages. The bodies used may have been those of prisoners of war and forced labourers from the immediate vicinity. It is also clear that had the war continued, the Nazis were certainly capable of turning this into another mass horror.

There was no industrial production, and the pieces of soap inscribed R.I.F. which Jewish victims were told were made of human fat were found to contain ordinary non-organic fats (R.I.F. means Reichsstelle fuer Industrielle Fettversorgung, or State Centre for Supply of Fats, and not Pure Jewish Fat, as the victims were told by the Nazis).

The reason why one has to be accurate is that one has to exercise tremendous responsibility and deep respect towards the victims and their relatives and towards the memory of the millions of Jewish dead. What the Nazis did is horrendous enough; we do not need to believe the additional horrors they thought about but did not have time to realize. The Holocaust deniers waiting in the wings are eager to pick up any inaccuracies we may inadvertently commit, and we should not ease their "work."

Yehuda Bauer

mevaseretzion said...

Your post hit me like a ton of bricks. It is a reminder that we cannot wrap our minds around what happened.

Thanks for bringing this up.

Anonymous said...

I have serious Issue with your lack of trust in the ARIZAL whom has been the authority in Sodos Hatorah for the past 400 years. What you think he made up whos buried where? As if he had nothing better to do?Ask yourself honestly why do you have a problem trusting a tzaddik whos torah and Kedusha has been followed for the past 400 years by our leaders?

Lion of Zion said...


please point out for me exactly where jameel writes that he himself does not accept the authority of the ari in identifying graves. looking for earlier evidence doesn't mean he rejects the ari.

that having been said, maybe jameel does reject the ari in this and in other matters. (i don't know either way.) what is your problem with this? please don't exaggerate his role as an "authority." yes, his influence has been tremendous, but at no time did everyone accept all of the practices and thought found in torat ha-ari. not in his own time, not in succeeding generations and not today.

Tzipporah said...

Wow. I'll be interested to see what else you come up with.

The striking part of this story, for me, is the image of some poor evacuee, leaving the camps and heading for Eretz Israel, who thinks to stop and gather up what he believes are remains of his fellow Jews, to grant them not just a decent burial, but a postmortem pilgrimage to the land.

What a powerful redemptive moment that burial must have been for him (I say him, but of course it may have been a woman).

Thanks for the background on bar Ilai, Lurker. That site makes lots of sense in that context.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Yaakov: Its not an issue of lack of trust in the Arizal -- its a matter of practicality.

Did you know that while the Ari did identify many places, he ALSO sent Kohanim to the same places as well! There are halachik discussions on the subject of kabbalistically identified burial sites even have tuma...

Holy Hyrax said...

This is a great post.

Yaakov and Yitz's comments both share something and that is that by questioning certain accounts, we are somehow accusing them of have ulterior motives and being liars. This is so off, and typical of charedi ideology. Nobody ever accuses people that believe in these tails to having ulterior motives. What can it possibly be? What can they possibly get if they DID have ulterior motives? Perhaps the Ari got some right, perhaps he was way off. There is no chiuv on anyone to believe in these stories. This goes once again to the question of the infallibility of gedolim. That just because many have followed his kabbalistic teachings, automatically makes him 100% qualified to identify all graves.

Anonymous said...

About lampshades primarily, slight bit on soap at the end:

Akiva said...

Jameel - I don't understand the cohein comments. My understanding is that the grave sites of tzaddikim to not carry tumas hames, and therefore can be visited by cohanim. Though there are some authorities who forbid this, I thought this was common practice.

I know this is the practice among chassidim, and have seen cohanim being boxed to pass through a cemetery to the kever of a tzadik within.

Most of these sites being separate from a cemetery makes them uniquely suited to be visited by cohanim. (As opposed to the ancient cemetery of Tzfat, through which one practically cannot travel without stepping on graves, for which they built a path which certainly sits on top of graves.)

Anonymous said...

"One of the sefarim I was told about in my search for this information specifically stated that the soap buried was "RIF" soap. If you read the Nizkor article that I hyperlinked to in my post, you'll see that RIF soap was DNA tested and did not have any human DNA found in it. I suggest you read the links I provided...

This assumes that it was infact "RIF" soap, and not some other soap which they just called "RIF" because "RIF" meant, "human fat" in thier lexicon.

Not all Xerox machines are made by Xerox.

Phillip Minden said...

Really good post - not just about R' Y. Luria's reliability and influence and about the Nazis' atrocities, which might all be known, but that you can't buy anything and still shouldn't learn from it that you can't believe anything at all.

Lurker said...

A Simple Jew: I used Googles's translator tool to translate from Russian to English and here you can see the reference to "a piece of soap from human fat" in Kiev's Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

I followed your link, but I couldn't find any reference to soap there.

natschuster said...

I understand that the soap was made from fat that drained out of the crematoria. That might explain why no human DNA was found.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Excellent, excellent post. My friends, its not about people lying. It's about people saying things they've heard, or they were told, or what they thought. There isn't a shred of dishonesty, or anything unusual in this. These things happen all the time. On the other hand, it "could" be true. The thing is, there's no reliable evidence that it is, and that's all.

Anonymous said...

Michael Shermer, skeptic extraordinaire, wrote a book about holocaust denial and has debated deniers in the past. He claims that there is no evidence that the Nazis manufactured soap or lampshades from bodies and has found deniers often use this to falsify other claims of regarding the shoah.

Anonymous said...

May I humbly inquire as to the importance of the accurate identity of the former possessor of the pile of bones in a cave?

People make a pilgrimage to these sites to pour their hearts to G-d and pray for the soul of the holy person to intercede on their behalf.

I posit that their heartfelt prayers are as powerful if the cave’s occupant was the town’s chimney sweep or the resh galusa.

To believe that the Ari Zal had the ability to determine the identity of these cave’s occupants is heresy and a slippery slope indeed. If we’re not careful, people will be wrapping red string around grave markers and claiming the string has magical powers.
Our forefather Avram spent his life abolishing idol worship.

Seems some of us yearn for its return

Neil Harris said...

Wow! Posting a link on my blog!

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Anonyous: This assumes that it was infact "RIF" soap, and not some other soap which they just called "RIF" because "RIF" meant, "human fat" in thier lexicon.

You are 100% correct, and this was the first thing that occured to me as well. I will try to find out via Yad Vashem if they have any more knowledge about this, or perhaps via people in Tzfat.

Nat: Fat drained ouf of the cremetoria would still have trace DNA (as far as I know...but we can easily ask the experts)

I hope to post more on this next week. Glad you enjoyed reading it!

Lurker said...

Ben Yisroel: People make a pilgrimage to these sites to... pray for the soul of the holy person to intercede on their behalf.

According to many (including the Rambam), that's idolatry right there.

Anonymous said...

Another sign needs to be posted at the location (perhaps by Yad Vashem?) pointing out that the Jews who erected the first sign had been told by Nazis that the soap that they had contained remains from Jews, and thought that what they were doing was the appropriate honorable thing to do for Jewish remains, but that in fact there is no evidence that soap was ever made from Jewish remains and was likely not true.

No one should leave that site as the blogger did, thinking that the Nazi-perpetrated fraud was true.

Lion of Zion said...


"It's about people saying things they've heard, or they were told, or what they thought."

what is the earliest evidence of the ari's involvement in grave identification?

Anonymous said...

Hello. The AR"I's involvement in gravesites is from his lifetime, and addressed in Sha'ar ha-Gilgullim. Many Galilee gravesites predate the AR"I and even the circulation of the Zohar- Hillel & Shammai, RasHB"Y & r.Eliezer, Benyahu ben Yehoyada'. A perusal of Vilnay is worth a thousand blogs...

Anonymous said...

I also think that the soap wasburied very early in the history of the state, before there were official mosodt to address that sort of thing.

the kever of R. Yehudah bar Ilai used to be much smaller & rather like the old kever Rachel in design. I believe it was R. Mordechai Sliahu expanded it into this rather more unsightly building...

Lion of Zion said...

Pinchas Giller:

"the kever of R. Yehudah bar Ilai used to be much smaller"

there is a picture in vilnai

Anonymous said...

Thanks Lion

mojobeta said...

Poland's National Remembrance Institute confirmed that Nazis made soap from human bodies in a study that came out about a year and a half ago.

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