Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Carlebach • “The Rav of Hamburg”
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi, the last Rav of Hamburg, was an extraordinary and radiant man. He had special charm and possessed uncommon spiritual strength, and a Torah of truth was in his mouth. He was filled with wisdom and knowledge, a pure fear of G-d, and sterling character traits. His was a beautiful soul in every sense of the word, and he embodied the spirit of his times and the heart of youth. His good name as an exceptional educator preceded him from one end of the country to the other.
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi was born in Lubeck, Germany on Shevat 22, 5643 (1883). The son of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (the Rav of Lubeck), Yosef Tzvi was the sixth of 12 children (eight girls and four boys) in the Carlebach family, one of the most remarkable and well-known families in the Jewish world.
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi’s father was the one who educated him. Although he had teachers who taught him Torah, it was primarily his father who influenced him, teaching him Gemara and Mussar every day. When he grew older and became the disciple of Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer, the image of his father continued to accompany him. He said, “During my childhood, the image of my father was my symbol and example of a humble and pure man, one whose heart was open to all, and who was even concerned with criminals in prison.”
Already from his earliest years, the young Yosef Tzvi displayed a tendency to bring souls back to Torah and Judaism. After his Bar Mitzvah, he organized a Hashkama group, whose goal was to insure that its young members rose early for prayer. They also gathered once a month to speak of Torah matters and the fear of G-d.
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi knew that if he was going to influence young Jews who were already cut off from Torah and tradition, he had to study secular subjects. Thus he left for Berlin and entered university, where for four years he studied physics, mathematics, and chemistry, receiving a doctorate in these subjects. In Berlin he taught Torah in the Adath Israel community school, which was under the direction of Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer.
It was during this time that he was invited to teach mathematics and the natural sciences in Jerusalem’s Beit Midrash L’Morim (teacher’s seminary). His Rav, Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman (the Chief Rabbi of Germany), convinced him to accept this offer. He also asked his father for advice, who wrote him back, “Why are you asking whether you can go in the best conditions to the Holy Land? Even if I had a son who was a beggar in the streets of Jerusalem, I would still be inclined to thank the Creator every day for such an immense merit.”
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi taught in the holy city for three years. He was welcomed among the greatest rabbis of Eretz Israel, including Rabbi Shmuel Salant (the Rav of Jerusalem) and Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook (the Rav of Jaffa). Because he was obligated to serve in the German army, he was forced to return to Germany. However before his departure, Rabbi Shmuel Salant thanked him for the positive influence he had on the young of Jerusalem and Eretz Israel as a whole. Upon returning to Germany, he wrote remarkable articles entitled Eretz Hakodesh, in which he described the years that he spent in Jerusalem and the impressions it left on him.
When the First World War broke out, he was appointed as an educational advisor in the military, and it was in this role that he met several Lithuanian Torah greats. Thanks to his devoted work in the area of education, he saved the Torah for Jewish Lithuanian youth. Rabbi Reuven Grozovsky, the Rosh Yeshiva of Kamenitz, stated that without Rabbi Yosef Tzvi, the military authorities would have closed down the yeshivot of Lithuania.
With the death of his father, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi was called upon to replace him as the Rav of Lubeck. However he served in that capacity for only three years, being appointed as the headmaster of Hamburg’s Talmud Torah secondary school in 1921. Rabbi Carlebach quickly demonstrated that he was also an expert in education, transforming a 120-year-old school into a modern institution. He was the first to introduce the study of Hebrew as a living language into the school. His approach to teaching was to instill a love for Torah and Eretz Israel, the land of Torah, into his students. Not long afterwards, Hamburg’s Talmud Torah school became famous as an orthodox educational center in Germany.
The fame of Rabbi Yosef Tzvi spread throughout the country, and he received many offers to become the Rav of various communities. In 5826 (1926), he became the Rav of Altona, and there he quickly revealed himself as a great leader and faithful shepherd of his community. Despite his greatness and scholarship, he remained a man of the people. He made no disctinction between Sephardic and Ashkenaz Jews, between Mitnaged and Chassid, or between rich and poor.
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi remained in Altona for 12 years. From there he was appointed as the Rav of Hamburg, and the Jews of the city were delighted to have him as their Rav and guide. This period of his life was marked by poverty and tragedy, for it was during that time that Hitler, yemach shemo, came to power and the Nazis began persecuting the Jews of Germany. The Rav demonstrated extraordinary courage in every difficult situation. During one of his sermons, delivered in the presence of a Gestapo agent who was in the synagogue watching the congregation, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi said: “People speak of Hitler’s 1,000 year reich. That this will last 1,000 years, I doubt. Yet one thing is clear to me: Even after 5,000 years, we will still be reciting Shema Israel and our Torah will forever remain a Torah of Truth.”
In 5701 (1941), an arrest warrant was issued for the Rav of Hamburg, and shortly afterwards he and his family were brought to a concentration camp in Riga. During the four months of his imprisonment, he conducted himself as a holy man, a man of G-d, in his every action. He spoke to the hearts of his fellow Jews, encouraging them not to abandon the path of the Torah, but to be prepared to die as martyrs. Each day his gave an oral lesson on a page of Gemara or Mishnah.
Before being led away to die, he said to his fellow Jews: “It is written in the Torah that Joseph said, ‘And G-d pakod yiphkod [will surely remember] you’ [Genesis 50:24]. This indicates two pekudot, one of which is an extremely hard punishment, as in the verse, ‘And in the day pokdi [of My visiting], u’phakadeti [I will visit] upon them their sin’ [Exodus 32:34]. On the other had, the second intervention is a very great sign of G-d’s love, as in ‘And G-d pakod [remembered] Sarah’ [Genesis 21:1]. Joseph therefore said that the Children of Israel first had to go through extremely difficult times, but afterwards a second intervention would occur, a visit of love, and they would enter Eretz Israel. When that moment came, he asked them to carry his bones with them, and that he be remembered as well.” (From the book Ele Ezkera).
It was not possible, however, to have Joseph’s request granted to the Tzaddik Rabbi Yosef Tzvi, who died as a martyr, for to this day no one knows where he was buried. May G-d avenge his blood. Amen.