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Moses Zevulun Margolies

MARGOLIES, MOSES ZEVULUN (1851–1936), U.S. Orthodox Rabbi. Rabbi Margolies was born in the small Lithuanian city of Meretz, not far from Kovna and Slobodka. On his father's side, he was the grandson of Rabbi Abraham Margolies, chief of the bet din of Telshe, and of Rabbi Wolf Altschul, chief of the bet din of Lutzan who traced his lineage to Rashi. On his mother's side, he was the grandson of Reb Eliyahu Krosczer, the brother-in-law of the Vilna Gaon. Ordained by his uncle and by Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman Halpern, the rabbi of Bialystok in the year 1876. He served as rabbi of Sloboda for 12 years. In 1889 he was invited to assume the chief rabbinate of Boston. In 1906 he was called to the rabbinate of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York, a post which he held until his death. His primary occupation was study. The Talmud was always open on the dining room table. He began study at five in the morning and he would make a siyyum on the completion of the whole Talmud every year on the yahrzeit of his mother. It meant that he covered seven pages of the Talmud every day. Rabbi Margolies introduced the system which supervised the distribution of kosher meat in New York City. He served as president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada. He founded the New York Kehillah and the Central Relief Committee (later absorbed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee). An early Zionist, Rabbi Margolies was a member of the Mizrachi Organization of America. He also served as president of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva (which ultimately became Yeshiva University) for several years, presiding over the ordination of a generation of Orthodox rabbis.

Gifted with a sharp and crisp wit, he used it not to entertain people but to drive home a point and to help solve a problem. He was consulted by people of all religious persuasions on both personal matters and communal issues. On one occasion, he was consulted by the impresario Meyer Weisgal who had scheduled a performance of "The Romance of a People" at the Polo Grounds in New York on a Saturday night in late August which coincided with the first seliḥot (penitential service). The performance was to start 8:00 in the evening which, at that season of year, would involve violating the Sabbath. Weisgal wanted the rabbi to grant absolution for the Sabbath violation. "Mr. Weisgal," the rabbi responded, "You came to the wrong Moses; I would have to refer you to the original Moses. He was the one who gave us the Sabbath." A wise and witty observation ended the inquiry.

Rabbi Margolies' natural inclination in deciding questions of Jewish law was toward leniency and tolerance. He had the scholarly erudition which enabled him to back up his decisions with abundant halakhic sources. His openness to all brought him into contact with many of the lay and rabbinic leaders of the wider Jewish community. He once shared a platform at a Zionist meeting with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise who was delivering an address. Wise turned to the rabbi and then to the audience and said "Look what Zionism can do. It can bring to the same platform a goy like me and a sage like Rabbi Margolies."

His last public appearance just months before his death was at a Madison Square Garden rally against Hitler's Nuremberg laws. He had to be carried on to the stage. His hands trembled, but his voice never wavered, as he read his message. When he finished, 20,000 people rose to their feet in reverence and appreciation. He was known to many as the RaMaZ (an acronym for Rabbi Moses Zevulun). The Ramaz School in New York was established one year after his passing in 1937 by his grandson, Rabbi Joseph H. *Lookstein and Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. It was named for him as an everlasting memorial to a giant of scholarship and leadership in the Jewish community.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.