The Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva was founded by Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapira, who was born in 1887 in the village of Shatz (Suczawa), Bukovina (now in Romania) to a family of distinguished Torah scholars. His father was Rabbi Yaakov Shimshon, great-grandson of Rabbi Pinchas Shapira of Korce (Korets).
Following in the footsteps of his forefathers, Meir Shapira also emerged as an outstanding Torah scholar as well and was ordained by several preeminent rabbis. In 1911, he was appointed Rabbi of Galina (Gliniany) near Lviv. Shapira became very active in the Agudath Israel organization and in 1914 he became head of the Aguda’s Education Department in the East Galician branch of the organization in Poland. In the same year, Rabbi Shapira became a member of the Polish parliament (the Sejm), the first Orthodox Jew to hold such a position. In 1924, he became rabbi of Piotrkow.
In 1924, at the First World Congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna, Rabbi Meir Shapira introduced the groundbreaking concept of the “Daf Yomi”. This refers to the daily study of a uniform page of the Babylonian Talmud everyday by Jews around the world, in a cycle of seven and a half years. This tradition continues to this very day.
Rabbi Shapira also conceived the idea of building a large, modern yeshiva (Talmudical academy) that would become a world-wide center for Talmudic studies, and would also offer modern accommodations with optimal living conditions for the yeshiva students. He chose the city of Lublin, which in 1921 was home to 37,000 Jews, 39.5% of the population.
Jewish life in Lublin: Background
Lublin was once an important center of Jewish life. In 1518 a yeshiva opened there under Rabbi Shalom Shachna (who died in 1558; the tombstone still stands in Lublin’s old Jewish cemetery). By 1550 there were 840 Jews living in the city and, in the same century, the first Hebrew printing press was opened in Lublin. In the years 1580-1764, Lublin was the seat of the “Vaad Arba Haaratzot” (Council of Four Lands), a ruling political-administrative body for Jews in Poland and Lithuania; these communities enjoyed religious autonomy.
Members of the Council included: Rabbi Shlomo Luria, known as the “Maharshal”; Rabbi Meir Ben Gedalya, known as the “Maharam” and Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, known as the “Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin.”
In order to realize his dream of building the yeshiva, Rabbi Shapira traveled to Lublin in 1922 to meet with the respected and wealthy Shmuel Eichenbaum who, together with his wife, donated a large plot of land to the yeshiva; the plot was at the intersection of the Unicka and Lubartowska streets.
At the end of 1923, the rabbi founded a building committee and named it Keren Hatorah (“Torah fund”). Finally, the cornerstone laying ceremony took place on May 22, 1924 (Lag BaOmer, 5684), which was attended by many thousands of people. At that point, Rabbi Meir Shapira began the arduous journey of travelling around the world to raise funds for the actual construction. The crowning achievement of Shapira’s great efforts and infinite commitment was the opening ceremony of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva on June 24, 1930 (28 Sivan, 5690). This day was marked by a festive, impressive ceremony attended by thousands of Jews from all over the world. The day after the opening of the yeshiva, Rabbi Shapira was installed as rabbi of the entire city of Lublin.
The yeshiva academy was a five-story modern building with central heating. The first two stories (the basement and ground floor) housed a boiler room, laundry, bathrooms and a Mikve (ritual bath), a bakery, kitchens and a dining room. On the second floor were offices, reading rooms, and a room with an impressive model of the Jerusalem Temple (Beit Mikdash). The third floor housed a library, a conference room, an apartment for the Rosh Yeshiva (dean), guest rooms, and a large auditorium which also served as a synagogue. The fourth and fifth floors contained spacious and comfortable dormitory rooms for students. Finally, in front of the building was a spacious garden with paths, benches, and trees; this, too, served the students.
The yeshiva opened its doors in 1930 with approximately 200 students. In February, 1934 fifty graduates received special certificates of commendation for their Torah study (called “Tzarva m’Rabanon”). Tragically, Rabbi Shapira Meir could not attend this celebration because he died of a sudden illness on October 27, 1933 (7 Cheshvan, 5694); he had no children to carry on his legacy. That was a day of great mourning for Jewish communities around the world. Again, crowds arrived in Lublin, this time to pay their last respects to their holy rabbi and beloved leader. Rabbi Shapira was buried in an ohel (an enclosed structure) in the new Jewish cemetery in Lublin. Miraculously, his was the only tombstone that was not desecrated by the Nazis in World War Two; as a result, his remains were exhumed in 1958 and transported to Jerusalem, where they were re-buried in the Har ha-Menuchot cemetery.
The Lublin yeshiva met its tragic fate when the Nazis occupied the city in 1939. Military police confiscated the building and converted it into a military hospital, and the Germans publicly burned down much of the library which consisted of about 22 thousand books and approximately 10 thousand journal volumes. Whatever was left was transferred to a Lublin library called H. Łopaciński; however, to this day the rest of the library publications have never been found. Currently, we are in possession of only five books with the yeshiva library stamp. After the liberation of Lublin in 1944 by the Soviet Union, the Soviets took over the property. The building was handed over to the newly created Marie Curie-Skłodowska University and, later, to the Medical University of Lublin.
In 1997 a new law was passed in Poland (“Act on the Relation of the State to the Jewish Communities in Poland”). As a result, in 2002-2003 the building and grounds of the yeshiva were returned to the Jewish Community of Warsaw. However, the building was in poor shape: the heating system, water installation and sewer systems were not operable; sections of the structure that had been used as laboratories were ruined; the roof leaked and the entire structure was in dire need of renovation. In 2005, after the university left the building, the Jewish Community went to work in strengthening the foundations, redoing the entire heating system and water supply. Also, partly based on prewar photographs, a crumbling ceiling was replaced, columns and windows on the eastern wall were recreated, and the podium (Bimah) and steps to the Torah Ark (Aron Kodesh) were restored. Finally, in 2006 the Jewish Community began to use part of the ground floor in which to hold activities for the Lublin Branch of the Jewish Community of Warsaw.
One year later the Jewish Community renovated parts of the first floor, the synagogue and adjacent rooms (exhibition rooms and a library room). The official opening of the synagogue took place in February 2007, in a very moving ceremony with over 600 guests.
In 2008, a memorial service for Rabbi Meir Shapira was held on the site, 75 years after his death. In honor of the occasion, a new Torah Ark (Aron Kodesh) and new chandelier were installed in the synagogue. In 2009, the longneglected Mikvah (ritual bath) was also renovated under professional rabbinical supervision and has been adapted to modern requirements of sanitation. It is worth to mention that in 1987 thanks to the efforts of Symcha Wajs pre-war Lublin citizen – in the Yeshiva building (which was then a Medical Academy building), was designated a small room on the ground floor, where placed a simple Aron Kodesh with a Sefer Tora. From this moment Jews came back to pray in the Yeshiva.
But perhaps the most meaningful event connected to Rabbi Shapira’s legacy was the one that took place in March 2005. That was when the eleventh “Siyum Hashas” (completion of the Talmud) was celebrated – in other words, completion of the seven-and- a-half- year cycle of the Daf Yomi (daily Talmud folio) program. This time, one of the sites of celebration was Lublin, because it was who Rabbi Meir Shapira first innovated the Daf Yomi system in 1924. It was felt that the Siyum Hashas ceremony held there, which was well attended by numerous rabbis and Jews from all over the world, was a fitting tribute to the revered, illustrious Rabbi Meir Shapira who founded the Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin.