This week in Jewish history | Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog passes away - World Jewish Congress

This week in Jewish history | Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog passes away

This week in Jewish history | Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog passes away

Rabbi Herzog speaks at a pilot certification ceremony at Lydda Airport, in April of 1939. (c) Library of Congress.

On 25 July 1959, Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog passed away in Jerusalem. 

Born in Łomża, Poland, in 1888, Herzog and his family moved to England when he was ten years old. Herzog would go on to study at the University of London, where he wrote his thesis on tekhelet, the blue dye that was used to make tzitzit. 

From 1916–1936, Herzog held several rabbinic positions in Ireland including chief rabbi. In that capacity, Herzog built excellent relations with political leaders, establishing a lifelong friendship with Irish prime minister Eamon de Valera. Testifying before a committee of the Irish senate discussing shechita [Kosher slaughter], Herzog ensured that the right to practice that tradition would be upheld.

In 1939, Herzog immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine to succeed Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as Ashkenazi chief rabbi, holding the position until his death and serving during a period that could arguably be described as the most transformative in modern Jewish history. As Hitler’s hatred of Jews became increasingly clear, Herzog warned the leadership of European Jewry of the impending danger, writing impassioned letters to the chief rabbi of Kovno in Lithuania and urging the community to leave as soon as possible.

Following the Holocaust, Herzog attempted to rescue Jewish children – many of whom didn’t even know they were Jewish – from Catholic churches and monasteries in which they had been hidden during the war. On at least one visit to such a monastery, Herzog gathered all the children in a large hall and cried out in a loud voice "Sh’ma Yisrael Ado-nai Elokeinu Ado-nai Eḥad !” [Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One)] Immediately, dozens of children rushed to Herzog, as tears filled their eyes and they sobbed uncontrollably.

Grappling with important questions such as Judaism’s role in the newly established State of Israel, Herzog’s tenure as chief rabbi was critical in shaping the range of opinions and thought on these crucial issues. Among dozens of noteworthy contributions to the development of Judaism in the Jewish State, Herzog wrote the Prayer for the State of Israel – which was edited by his friend and Nobel Prize-winner, S. Y. Agnon – and supported the recitation of Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut.

In many ways, Herzog acted as a de facto foreign minister before the position was formally established. Traveling the world from London to New York on behalf of the Jewish people, he spoke with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, brought Harry S. Truman to tears in a private conversation, and held an audience with Pope Pius XII in the Vatican. 

Herzog was a vocal critic of the British White Paper, which restricted Jewish immigration to Israel, so much so that he ripped a copy of it at the end of a speech he delivered at the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City. Interestingly, his son, Chaim Herzog, who would go on to serve as the President of Israel, repeated his father’s actions when he ripped up a copy of the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism during a speech at the UN in 1975.

Herzog left not only a personal legacy of dedication to the Jewish people, but also would be known as one of the forefathers of one of Israel’s most prominent families. His son Chaim dedicated decades in public service. His son Yaakov served as Israel's ambassador to Canada and would also serve as director-general of the Prime Minister's Office. In July 2021, Herzog’s grandson Isaac began a seven-year term as Israel’s president as well.

Remarkably, as a testament to his broad appeal, Rabbi Herzog’s funeral was attended by thousands of yeshiva students, kibbutz members and Israelis from all walks of life.