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{79}

Eminent Rabbis of Stawiski

by Pesach Kaplan of blessed memory

Translated by Jerrold Landau

a.

        I wish to present here to the younger generation a brief characterization of several rabbis of Stawiski, as they remain in memory.

        Reb Fishele (Makower) was the rabbi in Stawiski prior to my birth. As is related, he was an upright pious Jew.

        After him, the renowned Gaon Reb Leibele Plockier occupied the rabbinical position. (Rakowski, the father of the Maskil and writer Avraham Abba Rakowski, the grandfather of the writer Puah the daughter of Mendel Rakowski, the great-grandfather of the young man of letters from Bialystok, Marek Rakowski. [1] ) On account of his being a Misnaged (opponent of Hasidism), Reb Leibele was not beloved in Stawiski, and they looked for a pretext to dismiss him.

        Many years later, when I was a young child, I heard the following story in my home:

        In the year 1864, after the Russians had already suppressed the Polish revolt, a letter came to Stawiski from the governor of Lomza on Rosh Hashanah, stating that Reb Leibele must immediately leave the city, or else he would be beaten, shackled, and thrown into prison.

        The letter was a forgery, in order to assist in getting rid of the rabbi. The letter was read in the synagogue, and the rabbi fled from the town at the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah.

        Reb Meir Noach Lewin came in his place. He was later the Maggid (preacher) of Vilna and the head of a Kollel (institute of advanced Talmudic study) in New York. He was also not liked in town. Being Lithuanian, he was regarded as a simple person. Once, a Jew saw through the window how the rabbi was lying on the sofa and looking at a book. In the meantime, the rabbi's yarmulke fell off. The rabbi did not realize it, and he continued looking into the book bareheaded. For that particular mistake, the rabbi had to leave Stawiski.

        Many years later, my father at home would often relate, with great bitterness, about the bad deeds that the town did to these two rabbis, whom our family loved and supported greatly.

        After Reb Meir Noach, Rabbi Yoel Abelson (from Sokol) became the rabbi. He was a tall, blond man with red eyes, which I can still remember. He was weak in character, not cold and not warm. They neither loved nor hated him in Stawiski. The town was very demoralized during his time. Therefore, when he went as a rabbi to Odessa, they brought in the Tzadik Reb Chaim Leib from Zaludok in order to clear away the humiliation from the Stawiski garden.

        Reb Chaim Leib, a strong personality, served for a blessed period of time, about which will be related in the following chapter.

b.

The Tzadik Reb Chaim Leib studies Gemara in the Tavern.

        The Tzadik Reb Chaim Leib conducted the rabbinate with a strong hand. If he did not succeed by gentle means, he would impose strong means upon sinners. Often, he would not only reprove the violator vary strongly, but he would also issue a ban of excommunication.

        However, he did not always need to resort to strong means. Often as well, with the help of his deep astuteness, he was able to bring the violator to repent. I wish to describe such a story in the following lines.

        Baruchke the tavern keeper (I have not used his real name here) was perhaps the only Jew in Stawiski who would trim his beard a little. Certainly, Baruchke never missed reciting the afternoon service (Mincha) with the congregation. Certainly there was a kosher kitchen in his Jewish home. However, in the Beis Midrash, he was looked down upon. He sat behind the Torah reading platform. He loved to snatch a nap when a preacher was speaking, he would always receive a second rate aliya [2] , and he never became involved in communal affairs. However, in his home and in the tavern, he was vivacious and talkative. There he was always busy with something, unloading packages, talking idly, helping with the serving, and grabbing a shot of liquor or a bite with the group [3] . His guests were mainly characters from the “underworld”. At his tavern, people planned their “expeditions” to the border. At his place, they unloaded merchandise. At his place, they sealed all kinds of dark transactions.

        Baruchke already had no wife at the time. His assistant, the waitress for the secretive guests, was his daughter Gruntsha, a girl already in her upper twenties. She had a bold, manly face, a high bosom and healthy hands. Her sleeves were always rolled up past her elbows. When she would give a guest a friendly tap over the shoulder, everyone would double up from enjoyment…

        Gruntsha was the only “old maid” in the town. Everyone considered her to be not particularly modest…

        As Baruchke competed with the business of the other taverns, it is needless to say that he was not liked in town, and one dark rumor after another regarding his home and his conduct was spread about. No other girl was friendly with Gruntsha. When the girls of the town used to stroll along the highway to Lomza on Sabbath eves, Gruntsha would sit in her tavern with her rolled up sleeves and unkempt hair and look out the window with jealousy and hatred…

        When Reb Chaim Leib heard that Baruchke's tavern serves on the Sabbath, that all taverns were locked on the Sabbath but Baruchke's was open; and that even though he hired a gentile woman to stay behind the counter and serve, Gruntsha wandered around and even on occasion dealt with the money with her own hands, the rabbi sent for Baruchke, and warned him in the following words:

        “You sheketz [4] , why do you do this type of sin? You deserve to be stoned!… [5] ”.

        “Livelihood, rabbi! What will a Jew not do for livelihood?”

        “You are speaking like a brazen person! Be silent, you and she must not violate the Sabbath again!”

        The Tzadik make an uproar and sharply reproved and threatened Baruchke that he must not violate the Sabbath again. Baruchke was bent and downtrodden as he left the rabbi, but it did not help. He conducted business in his tavern on another Sabbath. The front door was indeed closed, but people could come in through the back door. In the town, people murmured and talked about a ban of excommunication, but the Tzadik had an entirely different plan.

        The following Friday, the city sexton (shamash) [6] went to Baruchke and informed him that the rabbi requested that he not turn off the heat in the tavern. Towards evening, Tzadok returned to the tavern and brought with him a large volume of Gemara and a small lantern by which the Tzadik would sit for the entire night in his house and study. Tzadok hung the lantern on the wall, and placed the Gemara on a table. Baruchke and Gruntsha asked about the significance of this. Tzadok answered briefly: “tonight, the Tzadik is coming to study in the tavern”.

        The bizarre news quickly spread through the town. Indeed, on Friday night after the Sabbath meal, Tzadok went to the rabbi's house and accompanied him to Baruchke's tavern.

        There, the father was already dressed in his Sabbath kapote (cloak) and the daughter had a kerchief over her thick, black hair.

        “Gut Shabbes” [7] – the rabbi greeted Baruchke and his daughter.

“Gut Shabbes, gut yahr, rabbi”, Baruchke answered as his teeth shook.
        
        “Did you eat already, Baruch?”

        “Yes, Rabbi.”

        “I want to study my from my book a little bit here. Baruch, you can do what you wish. I want to see how a Jew violates the Sabbath. I have never seen this before.”

        Baruchke did not answer. At the same moment, he noticed that there were curious children standing at both windows of the tavern. He ran to chase them away. Gruntsha went to block the door, but the rabbi stopped her.

        “Daughter, you do not need to do so. Let anyone who wishes enter. I wish to indeed see the Jews who make purchases on the Sabbath. Don't be bothered, girl, I will answer those who come in.”

        Gruntsha went away and the Tzadik sat down and opened the Gemara. Nobody came in. The entire town already knew that the Tzadik was sitting in the tavern. Gruntsha was not seen for the entire evening, and Baruchke went from time to time to drive the children away. On occasion, he stuck his head through the back door in order to steal a glance at what the rabbi was doing.

        The rabbi buried his head in the Gemara and studied. He seemingly forgot where he was and for what reason he had come. His quiet, sweet Gemara melody [8] cut through the air of the tavern, and pages turned one after another.

        Late at night, they came to call for the Tzadik. That is what they had probably agreed upon. Baruchke again stuck his head through the door.

        “Come here Baruch!”, the Rabbi said, as he lifted up the Gemara, “I am going home now, and tomorrow, I want to come back.”

        “No rabbi! Why should I trouble you further? I will no longer run the tavern on the Sabbath. I swear by my Jewishness.”

        “Call in the girl”, the Tzadik said quietly. Gruntsha then stood beside her father before the rabbi, and he said to her:

        “Listen, girl! You are a Jewish girl, and you should know that violating the Sabbath is one of the worst sins. Tell me that you will not do it again.”

        She stammered a few words, and the rabbi left.

        From then on, no customers came to Baruchke in the tavern on the Sabbath.


Translator's Footnotes :

  1. I am not sure of the implication of this sentence in parenthesis. My guess is that Rakowski is an alternate name for Plockier – perhaps Plockier being a name given to him due to his place of origin. Return
  2. An aliya is a synagogue honor of being called up to the reading of the Torah. Of course, there are more prominent and less prominent aliyas. Return
  3. I was not able to translate this sentence with complete accuracy, but the meaning is correct. Return
  4. A derogatory term for a non-Jew, here referring to one who acts like a non-Jew. Return
  5. The biblical penalty for willful violation of the Sabbath is death by stoning. The practicalities surrounding the laws of capital crimes in the Torah make the sentence very difficult to carry out, yet the punishment is on the books. In times when the Temple is not functioning, and the central Sanhedrin (court of Jewish law) in not functioning, the penalty is impossible to carry out. Return
  6. Probably the emissary of the rabbinical court. Return
  7. A Sabbath greeting: “Good Sabbath”. The response “Gut Shabbes, gut yahr”, means “Good Sabbath, good year”. Return
  8. Talmud is often studies to a plaintive melody. Return

{83}
 

Rabbi Chaim Leib Myszkowski of Blessed Memory
and the Yeshiva of Lomza

by Dr. Yom Tov Lewinski

In memory of my friend from the Yeshiva of Lomza, Chaim Leibele Goelman of blessed memory

Translated by Jerrold Landau

        In the year 5643 (1883) after the death of Rabbi Yisrael of Salant of holy blessed memory, the father of the Mussar movement of the Lithuanian Yeshivas [1] ), his expert student Reb Eliezer Shuliewicz, who became known as Reb Leizer, decided to found a Yeshiva in Poland along the style of the great Lithuanian Yeshivas, which included Mir, Telz, Radin, etc. Reb Leizer chose the city of Lomza, a district capital that is located on the Narew River. Reb Leizer was born in Kolno, in the region of Lomza, and during his childhood he lived in the village of Piontnica, which is on the other side of the Narew, and was generally regarded as a suburb of Lomza.

        In the town of Stawiski, close to Lomza, Rabbi Myszkowski of holy blessed memory occupied the rabbinical seat. He was a childhood friend of Reb Leizer. When Reb Leizer though of the idea of founding a Yeshiva, he came to Stawiski to visit Rabbi Chaim Leib. He presented his plan to him and told him of his idea to establish a center of Torah and Mussar, according to the Lithuanian style, in the Mazowia region of Poland. Reb Chaim Leib became quite enthusiastic of the lofty idea, and told Reb Leizer, quite enthusiastically: "Your people is my people, your G-d is my G-d, where you go, I will go…” [2] ). The two of them hugged and kissed, and broke out in a dance in the room of the rabbinical court. It was late at night. People gathered below the window of the room of the rabbinical court and asked each other: “What is the cause of this joy?” The rabbi's wife understood that Reb Leizer had brought good news to her husband. She hurried and brought them some wine, cups, and cake leftover from the Sabbath as a snack.

        The two of them sat all night and took council together. The next morning, hasty letters went forth, signed by Rabbi Chaim Leib Myszkowski, who was respected in the entire region, to several well-to-do people who were supporters of Torah study in the expanse of Russia and outside its borders. Within two or three months, the rabbi received letters of encouragement as well as several pledges of money for the Yeshiva. Reb Leizer added to these sums his own dowry that was in safekeeping with a Jewish merchant in Lomza. He added to this the interest, as well as a sum that was placed at his disposal by his friend Reb Zerach Brawerman to use for Torah works. Thus he succeeded in gathering together fifteen thousand Rubles, a significant sum in those days.

Rabbi Myszkowski arrived in Lomza, and along with Reb Leizer, they rented a premises for the Yeshiva, and sent out a notice to many rabbis and heads of neighboring communities. Together, they appointed expert teachers of Talmud, who were good at explaining lessons and would have foster a good relationship between the teacher and the students. However, their eyes looked far off, and in their vision they saw a large building standing upon its foundations, a building dedicated solely to the Yeshiva, which would be made up of young men studying Torah for its own sake.

        After some time, they had the opportunity to purchase a property on the edge of Snatorska – the street upon which most of the Jewish communal institutions were located, including the Great Synagogue, the large Beis Midrash, the hospital, the Talmud Torah, the charitable organization, the organization for housing of guests, and others. The property consisted of a large house with a wide yard surrounding it. This place met with their favor, and with the favor of the Yeshiva activists in Lomza, so they purchased the house and the field for 10,000 Rubles. After the purchase was concluded, a meeting was called for members of the community, including those who volunteered to help set up the building to house a Yeshiva. One of them, Reb Asher Kopisker who was the owner of a brick factory, donated on the spot 30,000 bricks for the building. When his wife found this out, she became angry that her husband Asher had not included her in the Mitzvah. She came to the committee and donated another 25,000 bricks from her own money.

        When the building was completed, Reb Leizer did not wish to register it in his own name, despite the fact that he was the chief activist and also the ordained head of the Yeshiva. He said that the entire honor came to him on account of the joint activity and dedication of the head of the rabbinical court of Stawiski. He desired that the house be registered in his name, as well as the government permit to set up a school for adults. Thus, for all the years, the house and all of the buildings that were connected to it were registered in the name of the rabbi of Stawiski, Reb Chaim Leib Myszkowski. Not infrequently, the Russian investigators bothered the rabbi when they suspected that the Yeshiva students were joining forces with the “Kramola” – the political organizations that were revolting against the Czarist government. On several occasions he was brought to Lomza for interrogation at the education office and the secret police headquarters.

        For his entire life, the rabbi of Stawiski was the helper and faithful advisor of Reb Leizer in matters of the Yeshiva. During one of the years in the 1890s, the Yeshiva found itself in dire financial straits. This was in a year when there was a drought in Russia. Prices rose, the donations to the Yeshiva that were brought in from the emissaries all over Russia had shrunk, and the number of students who received weekly financial assistance to help them subsist in a modest fashion was growing. The debts grew. One matron who had lent the head of the Yeshiva 3,000 Rubles for the Yeshiva initiated litigation when the loan was not paid on time. The hands of Reb Leizer became weak, and he said: “How can I alone bear this heavy burden? After difficult tribulations, it was decided to close the Yeshiva at the end of the term, and to bring those students that were fitting, with some assistance from the Yeshiva coffers, to the Yeshivas of Mir and Telz. However, could any such thing be done without the advice and agreement of his friend, the rabbi of Stawiski? A special emissary was sent, and the rabbi was brought to Lomza for urgent consultations.

        The rabbi came quickly. When he came to Reb Leizer, in his home that was in the main building of the Yeshiva, Reb Leizer poured out to him the bitterness of his heart, and broke out in bitter weeping: “Chaim Leib, the situation has become desperate, and I no longer have the energy to bear this heavy burden.”

        Reb Chaim Leib answered him with great deliberation: “I am tired from the journey and you are emotional and distraught, so let us put off our discussion until the evening.” Reb Leizer wondered: “Is not the time for clear deliberation in the morning, after a good night's rest, as the prophet says: “Make your judgements in the morning.” (Jeremiah 21, 12).” However, the words of the rabbi, which were uttered with seriousness and level-headedness, calmed him, and he waited until the evening.

        After the evening service, the two of them ate supper in the home of Reb Leizer. Afterwards the two of them sat down, each from his own perspective, to study a book. During the entire time, the rabbi did not utter a single word. Reb Leizer got up, cleared his throat in order to attract the attention of the rabbi; however the rabbi was engrossed in his book and did not stop… It was 11:00 p.m. and the rabbi was still sitting there, bent over the book. Reb Leizer was not so brazen as to interrupt him, and he waited patiently. However, when the clock struck twelve, Reb Chaim Leib got up, kissed the book and closed it, and said to Reb Leizer: come my brother and let us go for a walk. The two of them went out without saying anything. The rabbi led him towards the Chevra Shas Beis Midrash. It was a dark night. Isolated stars twinkled from the sky, and the streets were quiet. There was nobody about. In Chevra Shas, there were always working people who would study until a very late hour of the night; however at that time, the Beis Midrash was already enveloped in darkness. Only the eternal light was flickering in the eastern side. From there, without saying a word, they walked toward the Great Synagogue, in whose foundations functioned two organizations for the spreading of Torah and good deeds: The Chevra Tehillim on the right and the Chevra Kadisha on the left. In the Chevra Tehillim, Reb Yoel Halevi Herzog, the father of Rabbi Yitzchak Izak Herzog [3] ) of holy blessed memory, would lead a class in Talmud each evening until a late hour of the night. However the hour was already very late, and all of the students had returned to their homes. The two of them went silently to the large Beis Midrash, which was on the corner of SzaKolno Street. Even there they did not find anybody. The students and householders had already returned to their homes after they finished their daily page of Talmud. The rabbi lifted his eyes up to the second floor, where the rabbi of the city, Reb Malkiel Tenenbaum, lived. Rabbi Malkiel would occupy himself in learning after the Sabbath. However, even the house of the rabbi was already dark, for it was now nearly 2:00 a.m., and even the rabbi had gone to sleep. The two of them set out for the Yeshiva building. They continued walking, and the darkness of the night enveloped the two pedestrians with a spirit of mystery.

        As they passed the Talmud Torah building, Reb Chaim Leib stopped suddenly and asked Reb Leizer in a puzzled manner: “What is this sound that I hear in the middle of the night? What is this soft melody which penetrated the heart two hours after midnight?” [4] ) Reb Leizer answered him in a fashion that had a taint of pride: “Is this not the voice of the students of our Yeshiva!”. “If that is the case”, said the rabbi, “Let us enter and see”. The two of them entered the large building of the Yeshiva. They came through the gate and waited near the entrance. They stood near the open windows for a number of minutes. A thin light shone out from the window and spread rays of light onto the yard. The sound of the melody did not stop. It was heard as a quiet harmony of melodies merging together. The rabbi opened the door silently. They did not enter, they only stood at the entrance and glanced at what was going on inside. There were dozens of youths and young adults sitting each in front of his Talmudic volume, which was placed on the reading desks. There was a simple candle flickering on each desk, and the student seated next to it would shake in a rhythmical fashion to the melody, causing shadows to dance on the wall.

        The rabbi asked, making as if he did not know the answer: “What are these people doing here? Does the day of study never stop?”

        Reb Leizer answered: “These are the diligent ones, who keep “watch” one night a week, and occupy themselves with their study until daybreak.”

        “And an institution such as this you wish to close?”, asked the rabbi with astonishment. Go forth and see, we walked the entire city. Every Beis Midrash is enveloped in darkness, for the students have gone home to give rest to their eyes. The gates of Torah are closed, and this large city, which excels in its Torah students, is enveloped in slumber. This is indeed the way of the world. However, here, in this holy place, the sound of Torah does not cease day or night. And you wish to close such an institution of Torah?”

        “You have strengthened me”, called out Reb Leizer, as tears choked his throat, “Reb Chaim Leibele, you have encouraged me.”

        “Let us go to sleep”, said Reb Chaim Leib to him, “the hour is very late and we have much to do tomorrow…”

        Suddenly, heartrending weeping was heard from the other side of the yard. The two rabbis were surprised and walked toward the voice. The voice was breaking forth from the cellar on the other side of the Yeshiva, where the elderly Mashgiach [5] ) Reb Yisrael Leib Egielski gives his class in Talmud to his students. They looked through he window: there in the corner seated next to the oven, with a darkened face, was seated the emissary from Jerusalem, the Kabbalist Reb Zalman Rojtman, who was known as Reb Zalman Weinmacher since his wife used to make raisin wine for Kiddush and Havdalah [6] ) and thereby support her family. Reb Zalman was seated in a corner reciting Tikkun Chatzot [7] ).

        “Lament Oh Torah for your glory has been desecrated, your crown has fallen from the day that your house was destroyed…”

        Could Reb Zalman Weinmacher did not find a more comfortable place to recite Tikkun Chatzot than here in the basement of the Yeshiva? The rabbi asked. Reb Leizer answered: “The Yeshiva became the home of Reb Zalman on all the weekdays. There he studied all day, there his wife or one of his sons brought him his daily meals, and there he recited Tikkun Chatzot. Only on Sabbath eves did he go straight from the Mikva (ritual bath) to his home.

        “And what would Reb Zalman Weinmacher do if you closed the Yeshiva?”, asked the rabbi with a light smile.

        Reb Leizer was silent. The answer was obvious.

        The next day, toward evening, Reb Chaim Leib with the assistance and permission of the rabbi of the city Reb Malkiel, called an urgent meeting of the householders in the Chevra Shas Beis Midrash, where the wealthy people of the city worshipped. Reb Chaim Leib told them about the difficult situation of the Yeshiva, the pride of the holy community of Lomza. Reb Leizer described to them the difficulties of the poor students, from whom Torah will go forth. There on the spot they collected approximately 8,000 Rubles in cash and oral pledges. Reb Leizer breathed a sigh of relief and Reb Chaim Leib returned to Stawiski rejoicing and of good heart.

        Several years later, when Reb Chaim Leib went the way of all living, Reb Leizer called his widow and two children, a son and a daughter, and provided them with a residence for all their lives in the main building of the Yeshiva. Reb Leizer also concerned himself with their sustenance for many years, for he loved Reb Chaim Leib dearly, and he remembered his good deeds for all his life.

Translator's Footnotes :

  1. The Mussar movement stressed ethical and moral behavior within the Yeshiva world. It was founded by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (of Salantai, Lithuania), around the beginning of the 1800s. Its influence set the tone and style of the Lithuanian Yeshivas from that time on, including in their present incarnations in Israel and the United States. Return
  2. This is a quote from the Book of Ruth, where Ruth confirms her willingness to join the Jewish people to her mother-in-law Naomi. Here it is used as an expression indicating commonality of purpose. Return
  3. Rabbi Yitzchak Izak Herzog was a Chief Rabbi of Israel. He died in 1959. His son Chaim Herzog later became the president of Israel. Return
  4. Talmud is often studied using a simple melody. Return
  5. A Mashgiach (literally supervisor), is the spiritual supervisor of a Yeshiva. Return
  6. Kiddush (literally sanctification) is a blessing over wine made prior to the evening meal of Sabbaths and festivals, and again during the daytime meal. Havdalah (literally differentiation) is a blessing over wine made at the conclusion of Sabbaths and festivals. Return
  7. Literally “The Midnight Rectification”, a set of prayers recited in the middle of the night lamenting the destruction of the Temple. This ceremony is non-obligatory and generally recited only by especially pious people. Return

{92}

Words Studied from the Mouth of the Righteous
Gaon Reb Chaim Leib Myszkowski of Blessed Memory

Translated by Jerrold Landau

        At the conclusion of the evening service on the eve of the Sabbath, it was silent in the Beis Midrash.  The congregation was waiting for the rabbi to conclude his Shmoneh Esrei prayer [1] Suddenly, someone came running into the Beis Midrash shouting:  "Oh woe to what my eyes have seen, so and so the wagon driver has only just now returned from Lomza.  This is public desecration of the Sabbath." [2]

Everyone waited for the words of the rabbi.

        "Bring the wagon driver to the Beis Midrash", ordered the rabbi.  In a few moments, the man was brought into the Beis Midrash.  The wagon driver was a brave man, and many people had been scorched by the force of his arm, especially those who started up with him.  However this time he walked with his head down toward the rabbi, embarrassed and humiliated.

        "The rabbi ordered that I come, so I came", mumbled the wagon driver.

        The man ascended to the rabbi's pulpit with the rabbi next to him.  The wagon driver stood and confessed.  His story was short.  He had been waiting to receive his payment and did not realize that the hour was late and the sun was setting.  "What could I do rabbi?", he asked, "Should I have remained in the forest during the Sabbath?  Therefore I was a little late, for it is the Sabbath today."

        However this late arrival was not his first.  He was not careful to arrive at home on time on other Sabbaths as well.

        The verdict of the rabbi was given on the spot.  The rabbi commanded him to remain near the pulpit throughout the entire Sabbath.  He was forbidden to move from his place, even to go to another part of the synagogue.  He ate his Sabbath evening meal on the pulpit.  Furthermore, he was required to remain on the pulpit in his weekday clothes that he had worn on the journey for the entire Sabbath night and Sabbath day.  We children walked around the pulpit and chided him.  We paid him back for all the fear he instilled in us at all times.

        The Beis Midrash was full of people at all hours of the day.  Apparently, people came from other houses of prayer to look at the "prisoner".

        Only at the conclusion of the Sabbath was the wagon driver freed from his "prison" and allowed to return home.

        This incident was the talk of the town.  The "imprisonment" of the wagon driver who had desecrated the Sabbath instilled fear in all of those who treated the Sabbath lightly.

        This vision from my youth accompanies me all the days of my life.

(Told by Moshe Zeev Goelman of blessed memory, and brought to print by his brother Elazar.)

The Incident with the "Pakentreger"

[3]

"Pakentreger" was a nickname for the merchant who carried on his shoulders holy objects for sale. These object included Mezuzahs, tzitzit, prayer books, tefillin, etc. [4]

He would set up his station with his merchandise in the synagogue, on a table near the oven on the western side, near the door.  Those who entered the synagogue would purchase their required holy objects from him.

        ;The rabbi of the city approached his station and his eyes fell upon a bundle of secular books, which were regarded in that generation as books of heresy.  The rabbi, who was known for his sharpness, never hesitated to fulfill the adage "excise the evil from amongst yourselves" [5] He picked up the bundle of books and tossed them into the burning oven.

        The owner of the stand complained:  "My master the rabbi not only caused me a loss of three rubles, but has also spoiled my livelihood.  Do I make enough money to purchase food for my family from the coins I earn from selling Mezuzahs or bundles of tzitzit?    It is these books that are the main source of my livelihood.

        The rabbi answered him in a whisper:  "I will pay you from my own money for the burning books, but with regards to earning your livelihood – a person is not permitted to earn a livelihood from heretical books, and must search out another source of livelihood.  If he cannot make a livelihood from this business, he is required to search out another position, and I, the rabbi, promise my help in this."  When the merchant heard from the rabbi that he himself will help him attain a position that would earn him an honorable livelihood, he thanked him for his kindness, and decided that the next day, after the prayers, he would remind the rabbi about his promise.

        The next day, immediately following the morning prayers, the merchant approached the rabbi at a time when he was engaged in a discussion with the Shamash (sexton) of the synagogue, and reminded him of his promise.  The rabbi answered him that he has already started with this matter, and he told the Shamash to invite the priest to his house, for he has an important matter to discuss with him.  He told the merchant that shortly, with his help, he would attain a fitting position.

        "How", asked the merchant, "How can I be helped by the priest?".

        The rabbi answered:  "It is simple.  A week ago, when I met the priest on the street, he told me that the gentile whose job it was to ring the bell of the church every morning died.  He told me that if I could think of anyone, I should do him a favor and refer him to that position, and that person would earn a fitting salary."

        The merchant was startled and said the rabbi:  "Does my master the rabbi really think that in my old age, I should become an assistant to the priest and an accomplice of idol worship?"

        The rabbi answered him:  "Think for yourself – you refuse to ring a bell to awaken the gentiles to go to their house of prayer, but you are comfortable in selling heretical books to Jewish youth, and thereby encouraging them to go out to a bad crowd"

An Incident with a Bundle of Books

        They asked the Gaon Reb Chaim Leib what was a fitting punishment for the bookbinder who purposefully bound a book of Russian parables together with a copy of the Book of Genesis in one volume.

        The Gaon answered:  "You are asking me about a bound set of books but why do you not rather ask me what should be done with the Yeshiva students who occupy themselves with secular studies, and in their minds bind together the Russian parables with the laws of the Torah and Talmudic discussions in one volume?…  There is hope for that book, it is possible to loosen the glue, however what is the remedy for those who have made such bindings in their mind?"

An Incident with a Preacher

        Once a preacher who was not acceptable to the rabbi came to Stawiski.  As was customary, the preacher went to visit the rabbi.  During their conversation, the preacher attempted to explain to the rabbi, that in this day and age there is no other way to arouse the community than though his manner of preaching, for otherwise, the community would not be willing to listen at all.

        The preacher ignored the advice of the rabbi, who hinted to him not to deliver his lecture, and intended to do so nevertheless.  The rabbi at that time was ill, and he did not worship in the Beis Midrash during the weekdays.  However, on that day, he summoned up his strength and came to the Beis Midrash for Mincha (the afternoon service).  After the service, he took out a volume of Talmud and sat down in his place to study.  It is superfluous to say that the preacher was not brazen enough to ascend the pulpit and deliver his lecture while the rabbi was busy with his studies.

(From "Peulat Tzadik" – "The Deeds of the Righteous" – about Rabbi Ch. A. Myszkowski)

Compiled by Elazar Goelman


{94}

The Funeral of the Rabbi of Blessed Memory

by A. A. Rakowski

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Printed in the "Hatzefira" newspaper on the 10th of Av, 5658 (July 29, 1898)

        We have recently returned from the field of weeping.  There we buried one of the great renowned people, one of the few choicest people.  There we buried the glory and honor of this city, its splendor and brilliance, the rabbi and Gaon, the Tzadik, the foundation of the world, Rabbi Chaim Aryeh Leib of holy blessed memory Rotenberg-Myszkowski, who passed away on the Sabbath at the age of 72, after having served in this city for about twenty years, and serving as a judge for the Jewish people for about forty years of his life.

        It is not only this sorrowful city that is like a widow since the ark of G-d has been removed from it, but all of the nearby towns and far off place that was lit up by his name, all of them are cloaked in gloom, all our gathered together in darkness and are making a bitter mourning, for the late rabbi of holy blessed memory was a voice from the heavenly hosts, like a prince of G-d, and an honor in the midst of the people.  Rabbi Chaim Aryeh of blessed memory was one of the remaining ones who were called "one of the older generation of rabbis" who remained with us in this orphaned generation.  Even more than he was great in Torah and wisdom, he was wonderful in his deeds and his holy demeanor and in all other character traits that our sages enumerated.

        He did not take any benefit from this world even with his little finger.  He toiled in the tents of Torah and satisfied himself with a measure of carobs [6] .  He hated remuneration in the full sense of the term.  He spoke the truth in his heart, and whenever there was a disgrace to the honor of the Torah he played no favoritism and did what had to be done with swiftness and alacrity.  He was modest, and he did not respond the the requests of the larger cities that wanted to bestow honor upon him and put their crown upon his head.  However, wherever he saw that the breakers of the faith were increasing, he was the first to fight the battles of G-d with bravery and dedicate his soul to the battle.

        He was like the foundation stone from which the great Yeshiva of Lomza spread out, from where Torah went out to hundreds of the children of the poor.  He accepted with love the arrows and shots which were fired at him by the teachers who take honor in the disgrace of the Torah.  He did not allow his followers and those who revered him to return their disgrace.  However we should not think that all the praise of the late Gaon of blessed memory is simply gossip, and we should not think that the couch is too short for the person [7] .  From the eulogies for this great man, we can see the great love that was bestowed upon him by all of our brethren who knew even a little about his ways.  From all the towns near and far:  Lomza, Zambrow, Szczuczyn, Grajewo, Kolno, Augustow, and others, all the heads and notables gathered together, from all the factions, in order to lament and weep about the tragedy.  I give testimony as an eyewitness that as I was coming from Lomza to Stawiski, I met caravans of pedestrians, Yeshiva students and other people who honored and revered him, coming as evening was falling and in the midst of a heavy rainstorm, coming by foot to pay the final respects to the late rabbi of blessed memory who was to them like a holy man of G-d.

 Thousands of people followed after his coffin.  There was never such a large crowd as this in the town from the time of its founding.  Rivers of tears were shed as the rabbis and Gaonim of Nowogrod, Kolno, Szczuczyn, Grajewo, Wasosz, etc. eulogized him in a fitting.  Aside from these rabbis and Gaonim, The Gaon Rabbi Gavriel Mocz of Warsaw was also present.  A telegram arrived from the Gaon Rabbi Eliahu Chaim Meisel, the head of the rabbinic court of the holy community of Lodz giving notice that he would come, but that they should not wait to greet him on account of the honor of the deceased [8] .

 The rabbis and Gaonim did their good deeds to the dead and the living, and they made sure that the widow and son of the rabbi of holy blessed memory, who were left without livelihood, would not go hungry.  The community accepted and fulfilled everything that was decreed upon them.  May G-d have mercy on his soul [9] and comfort all of his mourners, including myself, for I honored him during his life and I honor him after his death.


Translator's Footnotes :

  1. The Shmoneh Esrei (literally 'eighteen', referring to eighteen benedictions), is the central part of all prayer services. It actually consists of nineteen benedictions on weekdays, as an extra benediction was added in the first century C.E.  On Sabbaths and festivals, it consists of seven benedictions, however it retains the name 'Shmoneh Esrei'.  It is also referred to as the 'Amida' (i.e. 'standing' – standing prayer). Return
  2. This is presumably Hershel, the wagon driver of pages 272-273. Return
  3. Literally "package dragger". Return
  4. A Mezuzah is a box containing a scroll with sections of the Torah written on it that is to be posted on each door of a home.  Tzitzit (literally fringes), refers to the fringes that are attached to the tallis (prayer shawl) or the tallis katan (four cornered undergarment).  Tefillin are the phylacteries, black boxes containing parchment scrolls with sections of the Torah inscribed upon them.  Tefillin are worn during weekday morning services. Return
  5. A verse from Deuteronomy referring to the commandment to uproot idolatry, but here referring to uprooting anything evil. Return
  6. A reference to the talmudic sage Shimon Bar Yochai who, according to legend, sustained himself on carobs for thirteen years as he hid in a cave from the Romans. Return
  7. A expression meaning that the descriptions of the person are exaggerated. Return
  8. It is considered an honor to the dead to conduct the burial as soon as possible. Return
  9. Literally, his 'dust', but this idiom is not used in English. Return


{95}

Rabbi Avraham Stawisker and Peretz' Three Gifts

by Yeshayahu Berger, New York

Translated by Jerrold Landau

        Our fellow native Betzalel Zwieback of California forwarded us a letter that he received from Mr. George Aronson of Brooklyn in which he makes note that the first gift of Peretz's famous story “Three Gifts” is bound up with Avraham Stawisker.

        We bring here, with minor editing, the work of Yeshayahu Berger of New York regarding the above-mentioned topic, which was published in “The Golden Chain” number 56, 1966.

The Editor

         – – – Menashe Ungar earlier pointed out the historical sources of the second and third gift. – – – Now the question is regarding the first gift. I am now prepared, perforce, to accept that Peretz' idea came from a small 40-page book that came into my hands a few years ago. This book contains eulogies of famous rabbis, and was printed about 100 years ago. After a few words, my eyes lit up, for I found the long sought source of the first gift.

        In order to appropriately bring down the similarity between the source and the poem, we must cite the highlights of Peretz' creation in his own words:

        “Robbers fell upon a wealthy man, robbers with masks over their faces. One holds a burning torch in his hands for light; a second the second holds a gleaming knife to the man's breast and looks him over: If you move, Jew, it will be your end! The tip of the knife moves around, and points to the other side! The Jew stands near the knife and looks casually at.… He looks around completely peacefully, as they open the last drawer of the last dresser and takes out sacks of gold and silver, sacks with jewelry and sundry utensils, and he is silent… And perhaps he has given up completely! But suddenly, as the thieves find the last hiding place and take out a sack, the last hidden object – he forgets himself, trembles, and with flaming eyes raises his right hand, as he shouts out: Don't move!

        From the source of the shout, a red stream of smoky blood streams out – the knife did its work… This is the blood from the heart and it is spraying on the sack – this was the best, the most precious! They made a bitter mistake: the blood flowed for naught. There was no silver, no gold, and no jewelry in the sack; there was nothing that had any value in this world! There was a little bit of earth, earth from the Land of Israel to put in the grave, and this is what the rich man wished to save from foreign hands and eyes, even with at the cost of his own blood.” [1]

        And now I return to the little book. Its name is “Arrows”, “Its arrows are arrows of fire, ignited by the lessons of the ark of G-d, the Gaon of our strength and the crown of our head, the righteous Gaon Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the head of the rabbinical court and head of the Yeshiva (the rabbi of the entire exile, our master and rabbi) of Poznan. The last one honors the Tzadik and modest man, the scholar of Israel and its Holy One, our Rabbi Eliahu, the head of the rabbinical court of Kalisz. My eyes, my eyes shed tears, etc. I am the man who is the author of this memorial book, Avraham of Stawiski.”

        At the end of the book, the place of printing is listed as Koenigsberg. There is no date, but Friedberg in his book “The Book Library” lists it for the year 5612 (1852).

        The parable is brought down on pages 5-6, and reads as follows: “The author states that in the days of my youth I heard a powerful parable from the famous rabbi and preacher of Vilna, the late Tzadik Rabbi Kurser. He presents a parable about the final end of mortals who perish in their poverty, of thieves of the night who wander far off from their native city for many years. When they again return to their city, they recall that they left behind a noble man, a ruler and a very rich man, and they did not realize that he had already turned back ten degrees, that he is among those who go out to sea in great poverty (a play on Psalms 107, 23, “Those who go down to the sea in ships”). They decided together to murder that wealthy man, and that they would each receive one sack of goods. They remembered that this man had one office in which he had his treasury of all good things and precious stones. They decided to execute their plan specifically in that store. The evil people destroyed it down to its foundations and searched through it in the dark, but they found nothing (for he had already lost his belongings). They decided amongst themselves to search in the highest place in the room. They found one small sack bound up with a seal on the side. These men rejoiced, saying that it was certainly full of pearls and precious stones, and that they had in their hands the choicest of belongings of the owner. Due to their great fear that they would be pursued and caught, they fled all night, and escaped with all of their might. When they sat down in a certain forest to rest, an argument broke out among them. One said that half should belong to him alone, for if he had not sensed the value of the treasure by feeling it with his hand, they would have all withdrawn from it. The other said the same, and the first retorted. They began to hit each other until blood flowed. However when they sat down again to divide the treasure and opened the sack, they found it full of earth, for they did not realize that this was all that the ruler had left from all of his valuables was the earth that he had prepared for himself for when he died, so it can be used for his burial, for only this alone he would be able to take with him of all his belongings at his death. The object of the parable is self evident, regarding being caught up in the affairs of this world and its vanities, etc.”

        Here we have the first gift in its chief traits, and we can see it from its literary standpoint. It is in a clumsy Hebrew, with a few Yiddishisms. Peretz accentuates the dedication of the wealthy man, who does not stir at all when his gold and silver is taken. He only wants to save that which is most precious to him, the little bit of earth from the Land of Israel.

        In the work “Arrows”, the story demonstrates the foolish sacrifice for the vanities of this world, which will end up in a bit of earth…

        Who is this “well known preacher from Vilna” Reb Moshe Kurser, whose power of imagination was able to build upon such wonderful material from Peretz' “Three Gifts”? I was unable to find his name in our Jewish encyclopedias and biographical lexicons. As well, in Rabbi Shimon Yaakov Halevi Glicksberg's “Homilies of Israel” (Tel Aviv, 5700, 1940) there is no mention of him at all. As well, I do not see him in Rabbi Sh. Y. Fine's “Faithful City” (Kirya Neemana) and in Hillel Noach Magid Steinschneider's “The City of Vilna” (Ir Vilna).

        In any case, Reb Avraham Stawisker heard this parable from Reb Moshe Kurser in his youth. When he brings down the parable, he already refers to Reb Moshe Kurser as “The honorable late Tzadik”. Since this small book was published around 1852, apparently the Vilna preacher would have used the parable in a sermon many years previously. The fact that the book “Arrows” is the first literary source of this parable is evident before the eyes. Since Reb Avraham Stawisker is proficient in the homiletic literature and in the words of the sages, this parable is certainly not a well-known story from known sources. A preacher such as Reb Avraham would have certainly known about it. Therefore, we can surmise that Reb Moshe Kurser is indeed the one who invented the parable, and Reb Avraham identifies him as the source from who heard this parable orally – “I heard a powerful parable from the famous rabbi and preacher of Vilna, the late Tzadik Moshe Kurser”.

        Did Peretz indeed see this parable in “Arrows”? It is entirely possible. Peretz searched and rummaged everywhere for material for his creations. He looked in books of ethics, storybooks, and indeed possibly in books of homiletics, especially in a book that was bound up with such a great halachist as Rabbi Akiva Eiger. Rabbi Avraham Stawisker, the author of “Arrows”, traveled around to raise funds for his great book “Avnei Zikaron” (Memorial Stones) on halacha, and thereby befriended the rabbi and shochet of Luck, Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Zilberman, who indeed helped Reb Avraham publish the booklet “Arrows”. He also included a dirge “Haga Vahi” (A Moan and Lament) for Reb Zalman Titkin, the rabbi of Breslau (Wroclaw). It is also possible to surmise that Reb Avraham left a number of copies with Rabbi E. L. Zilberman, and some of them might have ended up in the hands of various maskilim, writers of the newspapers, and others, and thereby “Arrows” may have moved throughout the years from one Maskil's house to another, and also to booksellers who dealt with Haskalah books. That is how it would have reached Peretz, despite the fact that he most probably read very few books of homiletics. The parable was possibly also brought down in other books, or was used by later preachers, and Peretz might have heard it once.

        It is interesting that the year in which “Arrows” appeared, 1852 (according to what is brought down by Friedberg), was also the year in which Peretz was born.

        Other bibliographers would advance the research into Peretz if they would be able to identify who were Reb Moshe Kurser and Reb Avraham Stawisker.

*

        In the same letter from Mrs. George Aronson to Mr. Zwieback, Mr. Aronson also includes the following fact:

        “A Jew by the name of Aharon Zvi Friedman (possibly a rabbi) lived in New York, not in your times, for it was in the year 1850. That Jew published a book on shechita (ritual slaughter), one of the first books [2] in America. That book was translated into English, German, and French. That Jew was from Stawiski (The History of the Jews in America, F. Wiernick, page 426.)”


Translator's Footnotes :

  1. It is a custom to include some earth from the Land of Israel in a coffin of Jewish person. Return
  2. Obviously meaning: one of the first Jewish religious books. Return

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