In the Orthodox World, a Rare Dance and an Historic Gesture

At the Belzer wedding in Jerusalem, attended by thousands of people, the rabbi had a special dance not just with the bride, but with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Such warmth between ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis is not an everyday occurrence.

Yair Ettinger
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Before parting, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the Admor (Master, Teacher and Rabbi) of the Belz Hassidim rose, stretching their hands towards each other while tens of thousands watched the spectacle. While the band played a traditional wedding song, the two elderly rabbis started dancing arm-in-arm, trying to keep in step with the tune. The whole thing lasted for only 30 seconds, but bears further consideration.

This dance was not only one of the pinnacles of the wedding held by Belz Hasidim on Tuesday night, but was also a rare sight in the ultra-Orthodox world. A Hassidic wedding, conducted according to all their customs, came to a standstill in honor of a Sephardic rabbi. The choir temporarily dropped its Ashkenazi-Galician intonation in order to welcome him with a Moroccan song “I will sing in honor of the Torah,” delivered in an Israeli accent. To the rest of the planet it meant little, but in the Hasidic world it was a historic gesture. Like every big wedding in the ultra-Orthodox world, the Belzer rabbi’s celebration was a summit of important rabbis, but none caused a greater stir than the appearance of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who publicly called the Belzer Rabbi “our teacher and rabbi, our bosom friend.”

The event attests to the great esteem in which Ovadia Yosef – born in Baghdad in 1920 – is currently held in the ultra-Orthodox world. But it also reflects the standing of the Belzer Rabbi, who married off his grandson in a gigantic wedding, the likes of which were not, and will not be, seen this year in Israel.

The Admor, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Roke'ach, started his career as a yenuka (child prodigy) at the age of 9. His path was strewn with struggles and disputes with other Orthodox communities. Now, however, he is universally accepted. Along with his warm ties with the spiritual leader of Shas in recent years, he has managed to bring to an end a decades-old dispute with the large and anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidic group. His has been an independent voice which could not be ignored by his Lithuanian Jewish colleagues. In the midst of a leadership crisis in the ultra-Orthodox world, which expressed itself last week in a violent demonstration that spun out of control after leaders called on young men to go out and protest against plans to draft Haredim to the army, the Belzer rabbi still represents a generation of powerful, centralized and dominant rabbis.

The wedding was perceived as both a personal victory for the Admor, who is considered a leader who built up his position with his own two hands, but also as a closing of a circle for the Belzer Hasidim, who were almost completely exterminated in the Holocaust. After the war, the few dozen surviving families congregated in a single synagogue in Ahad Ha’am Street in Tel Aviv. They now number thousands of families, with tens of thousands of members in Israel and abroad. Thousands flew here for the wedding. The last time a Belzer Admor was present at a grandson’s wedding was in Europe. The Hasidic dynasty is named for the town of Belz in Western Ukraine, near the Polish border – a region historically known as Galicia.

The groom, Shalom Roke'ach, who turned 18 two months ago, is named after the founder of the Belzer Hassidic group. He married a daughter of one of the community’s families, Chana Batya Panet. At 1:45 she arrived in the men’s section for what is considered the highlight of the ceremony, the Mitzvah Tanz, a Yiddish term for the special, beloved dance of the rebbe with the bride – at a modest distance, of course. The bride stood in her own in front of thousands of men holding onto a gartel, a long belt that is part of the traditional dress for men in the Hasidic world, while the groom's grandfather held on to the other end and danced with glee.

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Tens of thousands of Ultra-Orthodox Jews of the Belz Hasidic Dynasty watch the wedding ceremony of Rabbi Shalom Rokeach, the Grandson of the Belz Rabbi to Hana Batya Pener, in Jerusalem on May 21 2013Credit: AFP
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Hannah Batya Penet, of a rank-and-file Belz family, weds Shalom Roke'ach, grandson of Hasidic sect's leader. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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Some 25,000 attended wedding of Belz Hasidic sect leader's grandson.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Millions of dollars were spent on the wedding, which spread out over several locations. The wedding ceremony itself was held at Belz Square, at the center of the neighborhood that the Admor built in Jerusalem, with its synagogue as its crowning feature. This is a huge complex with one of the largest and most elegant synagogues in the world. In contrast to other Hasidic sects in which women are shunted away from the main event, Belzer women were allowed to see the ceremony from up close, in their own section. However, following the ceremony they were all transported to the International Convention Center (Binyenei Hauma), where they celebrated with the bride under the auspices of the Admor’s wife. From there they could watch the main events in the men’s section by video feed. Thousands of men celebrated in a huge tent that was erected in the synagogue's yard, as they had at the bar mitzvah of the groom just five years ago.

Belz Rabbi Yissachar Dov Roke'ach and Sephardi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at the wedding of the Belz rabbi's grandson.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Spectators at Belz Hasidic dynasty wedding.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Hannah Batya Penet, of a rank-and-file Belz family, weds Shalom Roke'ach, grandson of Hasidic sect's leader. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen