Rabbi Yehoshua (Shaya’le) Rokeach was born in 1825 and was the fifth son and successor of rabbi Shalom, the Sar Shalom, founder of the Belz dynasty and the talmid of rabbi Yakov Yitzhak (“the Seer”) from Lublin (1825-1894). The notion of a son succeeding a father as Rebbe was uncommon at that point in the development of the Hasidic movement (usually the Rebbe was succeeded by a close disciple) but there was an inherent feature of the Belz Hasidut. He married a granddaughter of the Oheiv Yisrael, the Apter Rav. After rabbi Shalom was nifter in 1855, the Belz Chasidim had no leader for two years. Rabbi Yehoshua replaced his father two years later, in compliance with his father’s wishes, despite the fact that rabbi Yehoshua had 4 older brothers. Yehoshua was unwilling to step ahead of his four older brothers to become Rebbe. From 1855-1857, Belz Hasidut slowly crumbled without a central leader and many Hasidim defected to other Rebbes. Finally, on Rosh Hashana 1857, Yehoshua decisively grasped the reigns of leadership by entering the central Belz synagogue for the prayer services and seating himself in the rebbe's chair by the eastern wall.
He led the Belz Chasidim for 39 years. He was also the founder of “Machzikei HaDas”, perhaps the first Orthodox Jewish organization to be involved in government politics. Some of his discourses are published in the book “Ohel Yehoshua” that includes sheelot veteshuvot and is a supplement to the book of his father's teachings “Dover Shalom”.
It is known that rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach was the great defender of religious study, and in contrast to the representatives of the other directions, he never disparaged from these Jews whose Torah study was not leshem Shomayim, but conversely he tried to distance them from the entire occupation with the secular sciences and to help them to do Torah study more (Etz Chaim, Gilyon 11, p. 219).
He combined Torah scholarship with practical common sense to guide thousands of Hasidim and to fight the Haskalah ("Enlightenment") movement that was making inroads in Jewish communities in Poland during the nineteenth century.
Rabbi Rokeach desperately fought against the Haskalah movement that sought to introduce modernity and compromise in the Torah community. He often defended the Torah way of life to the leaders of the Haskalah's Shomer Yisrael organization. On one occasion, a leader of Shomer Yisrael asked him, "It isn’t right to be extreme and keep to the side of Hasidut or to the side of assimilation. What is wrong with taking the middle path?" The Rebbe responded, "Who walks at the side of the road? People! And who goes in the middle? Horses!"
Every Yom Kippur afternoon, for example, he would walk through the aisles of the Belz synagogue, intently scanning the faces of all the worshippers. Those who wondered about this practice were answered when he once spotted someone about to faint from the weakness of the fast. The Rebbe pulled a piece of cake out of his pocket and immediately fed it to the ill man.
Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach was not only a strong spiritual leader and mentor, but also a public figure: To strengthen Torah Jewry against the inroads of Haskalah, the Rebbe helped found the “Machzikei HaDa’s” (“The defenders of faight”) organization in 1878 and the Machazikei Hadas newspaper. He created this organization together with the famous admors – tzaddikim of the Eastern Galicia, for the counteraction to the Haskala movement and for the defending of the ideas of Hasidism on the territory of Galicia. Also he took part in the elections to the Austrian parliament.
During the years of his leadership the number of the Hasidim in the community of Belz Hasidim significantly increased. Under his leadership the “yoshvim takhnit” (learners) program of Belz expanded significantly. Belz encouraged married men to spend their days immersed in Torah study and prayer in the central Belz synagogue. Their meals and lodgings were provided by local businessmen. Some men remained in the program without returning home for months at a time. The talmidim absorbed to their hearts every word that Rebbe said with admiration until he sent them home for a short time to their wives.
In 1894 Rokeach traveled to Vienna to visit a specialist and undergo an operation. The operation was deemed a success, but the Rebbe died on the train en route to Belz a short while later, at the age of 69.
His soul left this world on the 23th of Shevat in 5654 (on the 3rd of February in 1894). He was succeeded as Rebbe by his second son, Yissachar Dov Rokeach.
The stone on the grave of Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach in the Jewish cemetery of Belz
The hundreds of Hasidim visit the gravesite of rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach in Belz. The Hasidim tell the hundreds of amazing stories about the wisdom and miracles which the Almighty created through Rebbe…
Sources: Me'oros Ha'Tzaddikim; chinuch.org; Rabbi Akiva Osher "Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach, the 'Mittler' Belzer Rav, zt"l, in honor of his 118th yahrtzeit, 23 Shevat". Hamodia Magazine, Feb 16, 2012, pp. 5-6.