Rav Meir Baal Haness and Famous Rabbi Meirs of Jewish History

Meir: A Source of Light

Jewish life – and Jewish history – are studded with light: the light shed by the teachings and examples of our Sages.

Fittingly enough, many of the rabbinic giants by whose words we live were actually called “ Rabbi Meir”, the Hebrew name for someone who gives light. While it’s of course impossible to measure the impact of their Torah on the fabric of the world, the lessons embodied in their histories are chandeliers in and of themselves.

Rav Meir Baal Haness, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, and Rabbi Meir Shapiro all lived in different periods and places – but in every dark moment, their light burns and continues to shine. Who were each of these figures, and what can we learn from them?

Finding Lost Light: Rav Meir Baal HaNess

One of the earliest known Torah leaders with the name “Meir”,  Rabbi Meir Baal Haness  — alternatively transliterated as “Rabi Meir Baal Hanes”, “Reb Meir Baal Haness”, or simply as “Meir Baal Haness” —   is a name familiar to Jews of all stripes and ages.

As one of the sages who transmitted the Oral Torah during the  times of terrible suffering and darkness that befell the Jewish people under Roman rule in the post-Second Temple era, Rav Meir Baal Hanes nonetheless taught his students that even death, in the light of Torah, can be seen as positive. When he read to them the words “tov meod” (very good) in Parshas Bereishis that describe the brand-new, fully created  world, he expounded that even death was included as part of that goodness.

The Gemara recounts story after story about the life of Rav Meir Baal Haness, and how, true to his own Torah teaching, saw only light where others felt only darkness. In one incident, his wife Bruria gave him the insight to withstand the loss of two young sons with incredible faith. Their children, they recognized, were but a precious loan entrusted to them by their Creator,  Who had now seen fit to return their souls to the Heavenly treasure house.

Miraculously, Meir Baal Haness  was able to rescue his sister-in-law from a cesspit of immorality after she was captured and held in a brothel, because he saw righteousness in her even in such a place. When Reb Meir promised the hardened Roman soldier guarding his sister-in-law that the words “God of Meir answer me” would save him from the executioner’s block, he kindled a spark of mercy in a man who knew only how to kill . Needless to say, the guard let the two escape, and found that Rabbi Meir Baal Haness’ promise came true.

Rabbi Meir Baal Haness also witnessed the martyrdom of R’ Akiva his teacher, and R’ Chanina Ben Teradyon his father-in-law without faltering in his determination to spread Torah. The Romans  raked R’ Akiva’s flesh with hot iron combs, and lit on fire R’ Chanina Ben Teradyon while he was wrapped in a Torah scroll he taught Torah with. Their crime was teaching Torah. Others, in moments of such darkness and black shadow, would have given up. Rav Meir Baal Hanes was not discouraged: the students he taught in turn became glorious links in the chain of the Mishnah. The great Reb Yehuda HaNasi once attested that he had seen only the back of Rabbi Meir Baal Hanes, but that single site allowed him to merit seeing the light of Torah which still continues to blaze in this world.

Truly, Meir Rabi – Meir our teacher – was able to bring out concealed light from the most unimaginable of places. This is something that anyone who has ever recited the famous prayer for lost objects can attest to. The prayer concludes with the ringing entreaty, “God of Meir, answer me in the merit of the charity that I am donating in memory of Rabbi Meir Baal Hanes’ soul!”

The short prayer of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness for missing items has justly gained fame as a tried-and-true segulah for all types of difficulties. Individuals who have previously lost an item and recited this prayer have already created a positive association between “Rabbi Meir Baal Haness donate” and the success of finding the missing item.

A R’ Meir Baal Haness tzedakah representative once received a panicked phone call from a man who wanted to donate money because his elderly mother had disappeared. The representative guided him through the words of the prayer for lost things, processed the donation – and was not surprised to hear, a short while later, that the woman had been found, safe and sound.

Now, in the internet age, the prayer for missing items doesn’t even require a preliminary phone call: the text of the prayer – as well as the link to the Rabbi Meir Baal Haness charity fund – are all available online. Any time of day or night, users can go online to search for "Reb Meir Baal Hanes donate”, and will almost immediately be directed to the Kupath Rabbi Meir credit-card secure payment site, where it is customary to donate after reciting the lost object prayer.

Kupath Rabbi Meir, the charitable organization named after him, then disburses the donated monies to needy families, Torah scholars, widows, needy brides, orphans, and the ill and infirm in Israel.

And so Rav Meir Baal Haness quite literally continues to light up the eyes of those who contribute to, and those who receive from, the Rabbi Meir Baal Haness tzedakah fund.

The Light from the Tower: Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg

Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as the Maharam M’Rothenburg (the Hebrew acronym for the title “our master and teacher Rav Meir of Rothenburg”), was born in 1215 to a family settled in the ancient Jewish community of Worms, Germany. Since the days when Rashi had learned there as a young student, waves of trouble and persecution had devastated the kehillah, but Torah light would burst forth once more from that city in the figure of R’ Meir.

Rabbi Meir’s studies brought him to France, where he witnessed the burning of 24 cartloads of Talmudic manuscripts – virtually all those available within French borders – by the fanatic King Louis IX. The (kinah) liturgical lament he composed to commemorate that event movingly beseeches the Torah consumed in flames to entreat Hashem on behalf of the Jews who hope for “the light of day that will shine upon them and you”.

Much of Rabbi Meir’s adult life was spent in Rothenburg, a German town where he established a yeshiva; it was there that he left his impact on students like the Mordechai and the Rosh, two figures whose halachic compendiums would preserve the teachings and customs of the Jews of Ashkenaz.

Rav Meir’s collected responsa, published many years after his death, also record some of the special practices observed by the great Chasidei Ashkenaz, about which the Maharam writes that they originated from Moshe Rabeinu at Har Sinai. Jews from all over Europe turned to him with every question, and it was Rav Meir who answered all of them.

Yet in 1286, after a crushing tax was placed upon the Jews by Emperor Rudolf I, Rabbi Meir sought to flee  in the dead of the night. Recognized by an apostate Jew who informed on him, he was imprisoned for the last seven years of his life. But from the fortress jail of Ensisheim, his teshuvos to halachic questions big and small continued to stream forth, encouraging the suffering Jews of Germany with his dedication to Yiddishkeit.

Out of fear that a ransom payment would only stoke the Emperor’s appetite for kidnapping more Jews, it is said that Rav Meir forbade his students from buying his freedom through money. Only fourteen years after his death in 1286 was his body redeemed for burial by a wealthy Jew who merited thereby to have his grave placed next to that of the great Tosafist Rav Meir of Rothenburg.

Light from Russia: Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, better known as the “Ohr Sameach” or “Meshech Chochma” – the names of his two most famous sefarim – was a pillar of light in a time of much suffering for Russian Jewry. Legend recounts that as a child, his mother hid him in a clothing trunk so that Russian soldiers looking to forcibly conscript young Jewish boys into the army would not be able to seize him. That frightening experience did not hurt his faith. In an age where assimilation and secularism stole thousands of young yeshiva students from the path of observance, Rav Meir Simcha set an example of what devotion to Torah meant even as a teenager. Men coming in to daven an early Shacharis prayer in the town shul reportedly once found the young Meir Simcha engrossed in learning atop the ladder he had been seen climbing the night before in order to get a sefer from a too-high shelf.

As Rav of Dvinsk, one of the most prominent communities in Russia, he was beloved by all segments of the community for his integrity, saintliness, and selflessness. True to his kehillah, Rav Meir Simcha refused to flee the city even when the bombs of World War I threatened all the residents: in times of darkness and danger, he stayed with his flock to strengthen and encourage them. And amidst all the pressures that came with leading a diverse and large community, he continued to learn.

Today, no yeshiva bookshelf is complete without the Torah of R’ Meir Simcha, which enlightens and enlivens anyone who delves into his words.

The Light before Dark: Rabbi Meir Shapiro

Rabbi Meir Shapiro, better known as the Lubliner Rav, did not have children – but the ideas he transformed into reality for the betterment of Torah Jewry are an unending legacy of light.

A child prodigy from a prominent line of rabbanim, Rabbi Meir Shapiro always saw darkness, challenge, and void as opportune places for light. In his opening address as the Rav of Lublin, Rav Meir emotionally thanked his mother for sacrificing so much because of the potential Torah she saw in him – and then told all the mothers of Lublin assembled there that they too, deserved a mazel tov: Their sacrifices in difficult moments of childrearing would surely one day produce scholars and rabbanim as well.

The yeshiva Rabbi Meir spearheaded in Lublin was revolutionary in that it took care of his students’ material needs so that they could focus on learning undisturbed. To accomplish that end, he traveled the length and breadth of Europe to fundraise and study how other institutions ran.  The yeshiva model we are all so accustomed to today, then, is due to the fiery vision of Rabbi Meir.

Yet Rabbi Meir, more than any other of his myriad accomplishments in Torah and in communal affairs, is best known for the Daf Yomi program he initiated and advocated. Tens of thousands of Jews across the world spend the pre-dawn or late night hour learning a page of Gemara because of Rav Meir, whose life exemplified sparking light, life, and continuity through Torah study.

While the lives of these four Rabbi Meirs span from the destruction of the Second Temple until the pre-Nazi era, one lesson is clear from each of them: For the Torah Jew, light can shine in any and every situation.