Visit the Wonder Rabbi's grave and the Jewish cemetery in Kerestir
Feb 22, 2018 | Travel guide
The widely respected wonder-working rabbi of the Jewish community, Reb Sajele Steiner was born in 1851 and died in the 3rd of Iyar (the 23th of April) in 1925. He was buried in a coffin made out of the wood of his pulpit, while many Jews and Christians traveled to Bodrogkeresztúr to attend his funeral. Today, many pilgrims visit his grave, especially on the day of the year he died. However, if you are set to go on such a quest, we recommend you to visit Nagykálló, Sátoraljaújhely and Olaszliszka in a day-long tour and get the whole experience. Here, we warmly suggest a one day-tour you can join right from the airport, without getting any airport transfers.
During the 19th to the 20th century, several significant pilgrimage sites related to Jewish folk piety developed on the territory of Hungary. Mainly, the pilgrimage traditions carried out by Jewish communities living in the countryside were active and diverse. Unfortunately, in 1944, the Holocaust put an end to this intensive practice of pilgrimage. After the World War II, the pilgrimage traditions were once again revived. However, by the middle of the 1950s, the pilgrimage practice came to a complete end, due to the new social structure, as well as to the emigration of traditional Jewish communities surviving the Holocaust. Then in the 1990s, due to the religious revival characteristic of the age, Jewish pilgrimage practice of the kind came to life again and new interpretations had appeared within the tradition.
Hence, if you want to learn more about the miracle-working rabbis at the turn of the century, we highly recommend you to tour the places Nagykálló, Sátoraljaújhely, Olaszliszka and Bodrogkeresztúr, by getting one of the tours offering 6-14 hours of sightseeing time. Most of them offer “meet and greet” service, hotel or airport pick-up and drop-off, both for groups and individual guests.
When it comes to pricing, if you are looking to use their services from Budapest Airport or your accommodation in Budapest one-way, getting a car transfer (with maximum 4 passengers and a driver) will cost you around 230 USD. And if you are visiting with a group, renting a minibus (with maximum 8 passengers and a driver) will cost you 250 USD one way.
However, we recommend getting the full day-tour and save on your fees. This way, getting a private car transfer (with maximum 4 passengers and a driver) will cost you 330 USD, while getting a minibus (with maximum 8 passengers and a driver) will cost you 350 USD. It is a pretty neat way to save on your fees and travel comfortably.
The first Jews arrived to the small town Bodrogkeresztúr (or Kerestir) in 1726. The small community prospered and grew stronger. One of the most important Hassidic communities emerged in this settlement, a community which grew stronger under the leadership of Jesája Steiner (1851–1925), the renowned tsaddik (being a Hassidic spiritual guide) known as Reb Sájele. He studied under Rabbi Friedländer of Olaszliszka, moving to Bodrogkeresztúr after his death. Reb Sájele’s fame grew and he was regarded as the successor of the Olaszliszka tsaddik. Jews and Gentiles alike came from far away to seek his advice.
Many legends are told about him, many of which saying that he never slept, never rested, dozing in his armchair for many nights, meditating and praying. As these legends go, when Reb Sájele died, a fire broke out in the synagogue and consumed the table, where he used to pray, but his books were spared. Yet, according to another story, lightning struck a house and it caught fire. The rabbi struck a knife into the beam, and the fire miraculously went out.
The well-tended cemetery, enclosed with a wall of stone slabs in the shape of stone tablets, lies on the mountain covered with vineyards. Surrounded by the burials of his followers, Reb Sájele’s grave is located on the highest point. The traditional ohel is guarded by an iron door and contains three graves with finely carved and painted gravestones. The middle one marks the grave of Reb Sájele, one marks the burial of his wife, and the third one is of a rabbi whose name is not remembered by the locals. Stepping out from the ohel, the Zemplén landscape with its gently rolling hills, vineyards and small villages, unfolds before the visitors. There are many lovely old and new gravestones in the cemetery, all worth your wandering around.
The former rabbinical residence, Reb Sájele Steiner’s house at 65 Kossuth Lajos Street, has survived in its original form. The windows of the renovated structure with a four column porch opening onto the street, compile an excellent example of the once rural architecture. Today it is a memorial house and a resting place for the pilgrims.
Olaszliszka (or Liske), a sleepy little town, was the vibrant center of Hungarian Hassidism in the late 19th century. Rabbi Hershele Friedman (1808–1874) attracted a huge following at the time, so his grave is set inside the carefully preserved ohel on the highest point of the picturesque cemetery on the hillside overlooking the Bodrog River, today attracting countless pilgrims. When entering the cemetery, a path will lead you to the highest point of the hill, offering a lovely view of the cemetery filled with ancient gravestones. The rabbi’s grave stands next to the entrance, as if it’s guarding and protecting his followers. There are about four hundred gravestones in the cemetery, some several hundred years old - the last gravestone was erected in 1978. The simple, worn stones, bearing traditional symbols, preserve the memory of the once grand community.
The origins of the Jewish community in Sátoraljaújhely (or Ujhely) can be traced back to the 18th century. The first documented evidence comes from 1771, when the congregation was formed. Between 1808 and 1840, the famed Moses Teitelbaum, one of the founders of Hungarian Hasidism and known also as Yismach Moshe after his main work, was the community’s rabbi. He was born in Przemysl in 1759, and his name, Teitelbaum, came from German the German word “Dattelbaum”, meaning a “date-tree”. He was the scion of a renowned family of rabbinic scholars, and was chosen as a rabbi of Sátoraljaújhely in 1808, where he founded a famous yeshiva (being a Jewish institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts) where he taught for thirty-three years. He was known far and wide for his erudition and ascetic ways, and was visited by countless Hasidic pilgrims. His followers called him “Old Saint” and his fame spread among the Gentiles too. According to local lore, Kossuth Lajos, one of the later leaders of the 1848–49 War of Independence, had also visited him.
The rabbi always kept his cane and his festive clothes by his bed, so that if the Messiah came, he would be able to receive him without delay. During Friday afternoons, the rabbi would climb Sátor Hill, from where one could see afar, for he believed that the Messiah would arrive right before the Shabbat. Then he would return disappointed to the synagogue, in the hope that the miracle would come to pass the next week. After his death, a poor lad was hired, whose task was to climb atop Sátor Hill every Friday afternoon to wait for the Messiah.
Being one of the destinations of the pilgrim route, the old cemetery lies along Road 37, across the Tobacco Factory. The several hundred years old cemetery on the hillside, enclosed by a modern concrete wall, can be seen from afar. The gate is ornamented with a menorah and leads to a small, open pavilion covered with a decorative copper dome. This open structure functions as a waiting room, with stone benches set in a circle and a hand-washing basin in the center. According to the prescriptions of Judaism, one must wash one’s hands in the traditional manner by repeatedly pouring water over them after leaving the cemetery. A few steps lead to the ohel containing Moses Teitelbaum’s grave. A resting place was also created inside the building, so popping-in is a must while visiting. The last burial in this cemetery took place about a hundred years ago.
Nagykálló (or Kaliv) is one of the most interesting stops on the Pilgrim Route. Although the exact date when the Jewish community was established here remains uncertain, the first settlers apparently arrived several hundred years ago. The town was destroyed three times and although the Jews moved elsewhere after each catastrophe, they always returned to this place. Isaac Taub (or Reb Eizik Taub in Yiddish), the founder of Hungarian Hassidism, and the perhaps best known Hungarian tsaddik, was elected as a rabbi in 1781. The rabbi’s fame spread swiftly and widely, and people flocked to him by the thousands. There were several legends about him already during his lifetime, while his unusual life inspired many writers and poets. Only a few families remain of the original community, which once numbered over one thousand. Their synagogues and other institutions have disappeared or have been transformed, while their memory is now preserved by the legends and the two cemeteries.
Whenever you find yourself in Hungary and ready to go on a religious trip, make sure to organize yourself (and your accompanying group) at the best possible way. Getting around all proposed places - Bodrogkeresztúr, Nagykálló, Sátoraljaújhely and Olaszliszka – via a personal tour, is the best decision you can make, accounting for the best comfort imaginable. Hence, we recommend organizing your visit straight from the Budapest Airport, thus eliminating the need to hop-on the airport taxi. When the tour is over, you can arrange for a drop off at your hotel or accommodation of choice and start your Budapest exploration peacefully. With all the adventures at hand in this city, you will be thinking of creative ways to prolong your stay.