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America’s First Chief Rabbi

Rabbi Abraham Joseph Rice, zt’l

Rabbi Abraham Joseph Rice, zt’l

Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World

By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum

On Sunday, October 13, a large crowd gathered at the first Jewish cemetery in Baltimore, specifically in the Shearis Israel section, where many of the original pioneers who established Jewish congregational life in America are buried. On that Sunday, new tombstones were erected, rededicating the gravesites of America’s first chief rabbi—Rabbi Abraham Joseph Rice, zt’l (1800–1862)—and his wife.

The new tombstones were realized through the efforts of descendants of Rabbi Rice, including the family of Rabbi Shraga Rice of Jerusalem and the Rosenberg family of Monsey. Alexander Weil, Dr. Lehrman, and Wolf Schlossberg, together with Rabbi Landau, were actively involved.

Those first Jewish pioneers came from Germany to the United States in the early 1800s after enactment of draconian Bavarian anti-Semitic decrees limiting Jewish population by allowing only one son of a family to marry. Many young men and women left for America and gravitated to Baltimore, where they married and established their families. Beginning in 1836, tens of thousands of Bavarian Jews began emigrating in large numbers to the United States, literally by the boatload. Realizing that a significant Jewish population was materializing in the New World, religious leaders sought to provide the new Jewish communities with spiritual leadership.

Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger, zt’l (1798–1871), Altona Rav and author of Aruch L’ner, together with many other leading rabbis, prevailed upon his colleague Rabbi Abraham Joseph (Reiss) Rice, zt’l (1800–1862), a renowned scholar, to leave his work as rosh yeshiva in the city of Zel in Bavaria, to settle and permanently reside in the United States and provide religious leadership.

Rabbi Rice was a student of Rabbi Avraham Bing, Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, zt’l (1752–1841), Wertzberger Rav and author of Zichron Avraham. Rabbi Bing studied together with Rabbi Moshe Sofer, Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, zt’l (1763–1839), Pressburger Rav, author of Chasam Sofer, under Rabbi Noson Adler, Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, zt’l (1741–1800), Frankfurter Rav known as the Nesher HaGadol. Rabbi Rice was ordained by Rabbi Bing, the Chasam Sofer, and many other leading rabbis of the time.

Arriving in 1840, he was very warmly received by America’s observant Jewry. Initially, Rabbi Rice served in the pulpit of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Though this was the oldest synagogue in America, the Jewish community there was dwindling due to economic conditions. Rabbi Rice was then elected rabbi of Congregation Nidchei Yisroel of Baltimore, where his erudition was greatly appreciated. He was the most learned halachic authority and all questions of Jewish law were directed to him, effectively making him chief rabbi of the United States.

Rabbi Rice established an elementary yeshiva that had more than 600 children enrolled, a yeshiva for older boys to whom he lectured, mikvaos, matzah bakeries, and all other necessary institutions for viable Torah observance. One of his matzah bakeries, the first mechanized matzah bakery to produce machine matzos, still exists and continues to function. The original machinery is still in place.

An interesting chapter of his wide-ranging halachic focus was the question of the Caribbean esrog. Questions regarding its status were brought to him. His determination would decide whether Jews throughout North and South America would be able to fulfill the mitzvah of esrog on Sukkos. Since the Caribbean esrog grew in the wild, he argued that it was definitely not murkov (grafted). In opposition to rabbis of Europe who argued that esrogim grown in the Americas were growing on the “bottom” of the world (they were effectively growing upside down, and the berachah (blessing) on the esrog must be made holding the esrog top down), Rabbi Rice contended that all esrogim, whether grown in Europe or in the Caribbean, grew from the ground up. Rabbi Rice’s conclusions gave opportunity for observant Jews throughout the New World to fulfill the mitzvah of esrog.

As the presumed chief rabbi and leader of America’s observant Jewry, Rabbi Rice fought tooth and nail against the inroads of Reform Judaism. In his shul, he forbade honoring those that were not shomrei Shabbos during the weekly reading of the Torah. He resigned his position over that battle. A compromise had Torah honors given to everyone, but Rabbi Rice forbade the answering of Amen to the blessings pronounced by non-shomrei Shabbos. His battle against Reform Judaism was intense and had a toll on his health. Rabbi Rice passed away on the 5th of Cheshvan, 5623 (10/29/1862), and is buried in Baltimore.

In recent years, an increased number of visitors have been stopping at Rabbi Rice’s gravesite. The committee that is working diligently to identify Jewish holy sites in America periodically organizes trips from New York to Baltimore, specifically to visit Rabbi Rice’s eternal resting place. The groups are led by Rabbi Yonah Landau, the renowned chassidishe historian who has brought American gravesites of tzaddikim to the attention of today’s observant community. Rabbi Landau serves as chairman of the Committee to Visit Holy Sites in the United States and Canada.

In addition, groups visiting Rabbi Rice’s kever visit the shul and the matzah bakery. The groups also visit another area cemetery where many Baltimore Trisker and Ilaker chassidim lie. Receptions are held at Beis Medrash Arugas Habosem, led by Rabbi Amram Taub, where episodes of Rabbi Rice’s valiant campaigns against any inroads into Jewish tradition are retold.

Baltimore, only a few hours’ drive from New York City, was worthy in 1840 to be the home to America’s first rabbi. They very ground that Rabbi Rice walked on is of historical significance to the whole observant community. His burial place is truly a Jewish holy site right here in today’s America. Of all the large Jewish organizations, social, historical, religious, etc., serving the American Jewish community, it is most noteworthy that a small chassidishe organization in Brooklyn takes the lead in these efforts.

The Last Pre-WWII Rav:

R’ Eliezer Ehrenreich, zt’l

On Sunday night, October 13 (9 MarCheshvan) darkness pervaded as the pure soul of Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, Mahder Rav, returned to Heaven. Rabbi Ehrenreich served as dayan and rosh yeshiva in Mahd, Hungary, assisting his older brother, Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Ehrenreich, Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, zt’l Hy’d (d. 1944), Mahder Rav, who succeeded their father, Rabbi Chaim Zvi Ehrenreich, Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, zt’l (d. 1936), Mahder Rav and author of Kitzei Hamata and Kav Chaim.

Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib was murdered in the Holocaust. Rabbi Eliezer miraculously survived. He returned to Mahd and worked to rebuild the kehillah. Realizing the futility of his efforts, he elected to emigrate to America, where he sought to perpetuate the inestimable legacy of Torah scholarship of his antecedents. With an extraordinary determination, Rabbi Ehrenreich applied his efforts in the publication of the treasured sefarim of Mahd. In the past 63 years, the more than one hundred sefarim published have achieved irreplaceable positions in rabbinical libraries around the world. Sefarim that present the halachic requirements of hachnosas sifrei Torah, pidyon ha’ben, Yomim Noraim, Tashlich, Tefillas HaDerech, keriyas HaTorah, Birkas HaChamah are but a few of the priceless treasures that have been published by the Kol Aryeh Research Institute, Rabbi Ehrenreich’s life work.

In 2001, the Hungarian government announced that the synagogue in Mahd would be refurbished at a projected cost of US$250,000. Mahd was always mentioned with awe in respect to its great spiritual leaders. Many of the sefarim helped guide halachic formulations that are clearly discernible in today’s responsa literature. The Hungarian government’s recognition of Mahd’s importance was due directly to the decades-long unrelenting efforts of Rabbi Ehrenreich.

In November 2011, descendants of the Jewish community of Mahd gathered to celebrate Shabbos Vayeira in its rebuilt shul. The shul was originally built in 1798 under the direction of the city’s first rav, Rabbi Moshe Wahl, Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, zt’l (d. 1799). When built, it was one of the largest shuls in Hungary. The 2011 gathering was the very first time in more than 60 years that Shabbos was celebrated in Mahd. The group also visited the cemetery where Mahd’s great rabbis rest eternally. The cemetery had recently been renovated by the renowned Avoseinu organization, which raised fallen monuments and erected a retainer wall to protect and preserve the cemetery.

At the shul’s inauguration in 1798, Rabbi Binyamin Zev Wolf Boskowitz, Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, zt’l (1740–1818), Bonyhader Rav and author of Shushan Eidus, was the guest speaker. Rabbi Boskowitz was the son of the Machatzis HaShekel. All of Mahd’s rabbis prayed at the shul, as did notable guests, including the Divrei Chaim, Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, zt’l (1797–1876), and the Barditchiver Rebbe (Kedushas Levi), Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, zt’l (1740–1810). The group celebrating the special Shabbos was led by the late Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, Mahder Rav, and his sons Rabbi Yoel and Rabbi Naphtali. The group was met by other groups that arrived from Israel and other parts of Europe.

The city of Mahd has a glorious Jewish history. Its rabbis were preeminent scholars whose learned works continue to guide observant Jews throughout the world. Its pre-WWII Jewish population, sadly, was almost completely murdered in the Holocaust. Though the kehillah functioned somewhat briefly after WWII, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution saw the last handful of survivors escape to brighter Jewish communities in Israel and America.

With the passing of the Mahder Rav, Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenreich, zt’l, who was the last living official rabbi who served world Jewry before World War II, a historic era has come to an end. Remembering him and his unique place in history is a blessing. v

Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at

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Posted by on October 31, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.