YEḤIEL BRIL (March 3, 1836-November 13, 1886)
He was the founder of the press in the land of Israel and editor of Yiddish weekly newspapers. He was born—according to one version—in Tulchyn, Podolia, and according to another version of the story: in British India. He was married off at a young age, but he broke it off with her and set off to travel. In Constantinople he met the Malbim [Meir Leybush ben Yeḥiel Mikhl] and became extremely close to him. He made aliya in late 1857 to Jerusalem where his father, Yehuda-Leyb, had many years earlier settled. There he married the daughter of the famed traveler, Yaakov Sapir (author of Even sapir [Sapphire], who had assumed the position in Jerusalem of “scribe for the community of the abstemious” [sofer kolel haperushim]). When Sapir in 1859 set out on his travels to Yemen and India, Bril took his place as the scribe for the community. At that time he published in Hamagid (The preacher) correspondence pieces from Jerusalem, which demonstrated that he possessed journalistic talent. In 1863 Bril opened in Jerusalem a publishing house in partnership with Mikhl Hacohen and Yoyel-Moyshe Solomon. Although supported by the Perushim group, which sought through the publishing house to free itself from Yisrael Bak, the Hassidic printer who had a monopoly on publishing in Jerusalem, the new undertaking had little work, and Bril (together with his associates) began to publish a monthly newspaper, Halevanon (Lebanon), whose first issue appeared in February 1863—in all, four pages per issue. Above, on the newspaper, it was stated that it “brings tidings from Jerusalem, informs of news from the Holy Land overall, revealing secrets from Syria, Yemen, and India, and everything that a Jew yearns to know.” A portion of the newspaper was devoted to insights into the Torah and investigative treatises and was dubbed “riches of Halevanon.”
Halevanon appeared at a time when Jerusalem had erupted in a great controversy which was a consequence of opposition to the rabbis and custodians of the “abstemious communities.” The newspaper was a semi-official organ of one side. This propelled the opposing side to publish a second newspaper entitled Ḥavatselet (Daffodil). Both papers appeared without permits from the government. Just as Bril on several occasions in his articles punctured the honor of the Sefardi rabbi, Chief Rabbi Ḥazan, who supported the other side, so the rabbi through the Pasha (Governor) of Jerusalem shut down Halevanon, until such time as the publisher received an official permit. When Bril was unsuccessful in securing such a permit, he began in 1865 to publish Halevanon in Paris as a biweekly newspaper. In 1868 Halevanon began to appear weekly. In 1869 its format was enlarged, and the “riches of Halevanon” section began appearing as a separate supplement. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870) and the siege of Paris, Bril closed down Halevanon. In 1871 he relaunched it from Mainz, at the expense of Rabbi Lehman, as a Hebrew supplement to his Izraelit. When Moshe-Leib Lilienblum and Yehuda-Leib Gordon, during the Enlightenment struggles in Russia at the end of the 1870s, began calling for reforms in Jewish life, Bril rose in a stance of opposition to the Enlightenment, and Halevanon became the organ of the rabbis and Orthodox writers. Remaining close to [anti-Zionist] Ḥaluka elements in Jerusalem, he was also opposed to the new tides on behalf of settlement in the land of Israel.
A fighting nature with a hot temperament, aggressive, with a sharp pen, Bril treated no one with partiality. He led the struggle with the early Zionists until the pogroms in Russia (1881). At that point he changed his position. The land of Israel became his sole interest, and he put Halevanon in the service of the Zionist movement. He influenced R. Shmuel Mohilever to send Jewish peasants from Russia to Israel—to colonize the land. In 1883 he traveled to Russia, found eleven Jewish farmers near Rozhenoy (Ruzhany), and led them to Israel to settle on land that Baron Rothschild promised to purchase for them. Bril described his trip with the colonists, the struggle with the director of Mikveh Yisrael (Hope of Israel [the first Jewish agricultural school in Israel]), and his impressions of the land in a booklet entitled Yesud hamaala (Basis for Jewish settlement), which he typeset and printed himself at his own publishing house in Mainz. He also published and edited two weekly newspapers in Yiddish of an Orthodox bent. The first, Hayisraeli (The Israeli), began to appear in 1873 (nineteen issues came out). During the Russian-Turkish War in 1877, he relaunched the newspaper and brought it out until 1882. It was permitted to run political reviews, correspondence pieces from various countries, primarily Russia and Poland, and stories with a religious bent or historical content—and among all these were translations of Lehman’s novels. Ayzik-Meyer Dik also contributed to this newspaper. The Yudishe gazeten (Jewish gazette) in New York in its first year filled a number of its pages with material from Bril’s publication, which would publish special issues for the “gazeten.” When this newspaper was closed down, he began in the very same year to publish a weekly newspaper entitled Shulamis, which (together with Halevanon) ceased to appear while Bril was off on his trip to settle Jews in the land of Israel. In 1886 he relaunched both serials from London. The Hebrew newspaper appeared for nearly a quarter of a year, but Bril maintained the publication of Shulamis with difficulty until his own last days. Bril died suddenly in London.
After his death, his wife continued publishing the weekly, and later his son, Moshe Bril, took this over. He subsequently published Bril speshel telefon (The Bril special telephone) in London. Of Bril’s other literary activities, one need mention the manuscripts that he published through the association “Shomre Torah” (Guardians of Torah) in Paris, according to the specimens of “Mekirtse Nirdamim” publishers. Among these manuscripts can be found: commentary of Rabenu Ḥananel on Talmudic tractate Pesaḥim (Passover); the Rambam’s commentary on tractate Rosh Hashana; a letter of R. Meir Halevi Abulafia of Tudela concerning the struggle against Rambam’s More nevukhim (Guide of the Perplexed). He also translated the Torah into Arabic; the translation was never published.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1, pp. 430-45; Ḥ. Gurland, “Azkara lenishmat harav yeḥiel bri”l” (Memorial to the spirit of R. Yeḥiel Bril), Hamagid 30.47 (December 9, 1886); Yeḥiel-Mikhl Pins, in Erez halevanon hatsvi 3 (1886); Sh. L. Tsitron, Leksikon tsiyoni (Zionist lexicon) (Warsaw, 1923), pp. 34-35; bibliography prepared by E. R. Malachi, “Luaḥ hazikaron” (Calendar of memory), Hadoar (December 6, 1935).
A. R. Malachi