Hillel Moshe Meshil Gelbstein's Dedication to the Kotel and Hebron

A hasidic rabbi's love for Hebron and the Western Wall inspires his descendants.

5.10.18, 10:52
(PHOTO: Descendants of the Gelbstein family in Hebron. Credit: COL Chabad On Line)
Rabbi Hillel Moshe Meshil Gelbstein [also spelled Hillel Moshe Meshel Gelbstein] (1832-1907) was an advocate of the Jewish community of Hebron and close friends with Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini, the city's chief rabbi.
Born in Bialystok a twelfth generation of the Holy Shelah, he was a student of the hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. He also traveled to Lubavitch where he became a a life-long admirer of the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe. 
In 1869 he arrived in Jerusalem and became the first representative of the Kotsk Hasidic movement in the Land of Israel. For his livelihood, he opened a bakery together with his wife.
In addition to studying with the most prestigious rabbis of Jerusalem, he also traveled four times a year to Hebron to study together with Rabbi Medini, author of the Sde Hemed.
Rabbi Gelbstein could see a portion of the Western Wall, then still called the Wailing Wall, through his apartment window in Jerusalem. He was fascinated with the commandment to "guard the Mishkan" as the Kohanim and Levi’im were instructed to do in Leviticus. “It is as clear as the sun in the sky,” he wrote in one of his books, “that according to the Sifri and Rashi the mitzvah of guarding applies today as well."
Although establishing sentinels like in times of the Bible presented several difficulties, he did spend considerable effort in establishing a special status to the Kotel. Considering it like an outdoor synagogue, he re-established daily afternoon and evening prayer services during a time when visiting the holy site was difficult and sporadic.
Unlike today's Kotel plaza, the prayer area was a narrow strip tucked behind squat, poorly constructed hovels. Rabbi Gelbstein was able to purchase three courtyards for three synagogues and a beit midrash for the considerable sum of 270 napoleons. 
He brought benches and tables to the Western Wall and even erected a temporary canopy to shade worshipers from the sun on Yom Kippur. It is apropos to note the Land of Israel was in control of the Ottoman Empire at this time and who imposed sometimes strict restrictions on the Jewish community.
The rabbi also was dedicated to the care of the graves of the righteous, such as the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem and the grave of Shimon HaTzadik in Jerusalem. His descendants later became heads of the Chevra Kadisha burial organization.  A story is told about Reb Meshil, as he was called, that he heard that a Jewish soldier had fallen in battle, and at much personal risk, dragged him away from the killing field to give him a proper Jewish burial. The Tzemach Tzedek told him that because of this righteous deed, he merited to learn deep esoteric Torah teachings 
from the top educators in Jerusalem. 
Reb Meshil passed away on the 24th of Cheshvan 5708, in the city of Hebron, where he was laid to rest in the Chabad section. Today, his descendants visit the grave regularly. Unfortunately, its headstone, along with most of the other others were destroyed during the Jordanian period of 1948 - 1967. Today, the only tombstone in the old Ashkenazic section that was able to be rebuilt was that of Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel Slonim and one of her children. An annual pilgrimage to her grave on the anniversary of her passing takes place and is attended by many Chabad leaders in Israel including the Gelbstein family. 
In 2005, in honor of the upcoming 100th anniversary of his passing, over 200 descendants of Rabbi Gelbstein visited Hebron. For five generations, the Gelbstein family has helped run the Kehillas Yerushalayim burial society and worked in the Har HaMenuchot cemetery and Mount of Olives. Other descendants live in Kfar Chabad.
Worked published by Rabbi Gelbstein include:
Tefillah LeMoshe (1898, Jerusalem) - Siddur HaAri with novellae and commentary on the prayer order.
Hoshen Yeshuot (1884, Jerusalem) - novellae on Tractate Baba Kama .
Mishkenot le Avir Ya'akov (1881-1894, Jerusalem) - It has three parts:
A: Innovations and responsa in the mitzvah of saving the Temple at this time.
2: purity of the sanctuary; Innovations and responsa in the laws of the sanctity of the Western Wall at this time.
3: Light to the righteous; Annotations on preservation of the Temple.
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