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[Page 93]

Torah and Rabbinical

 

[Pages 93-96]

Rabbi Mordechai’le Pardes,
the first Tzaddik from Staszów

by Meir Shimon Geshuri

Translated from Hebrew by Yehuda Erlichman and Leonard Levin

Rabbi Mordechai’le, the Tzaddik from Staszów, was a major personality among the Hasidim, who served as a fine example of a superior type of tzaddik.

The Tzaddikim may be divided into two kinds:

  1. The famous ones, whose every action and saying brings respect. These tzaddikim hold a primary position in the Hasidic literature, whether through the publication of their life story or through their influence on scores of Hasidic followers.
  2. The modest ones, who despite being tzaddikim with great talents, did not force their way into the spotlight. In the literature their names are mentioned with great respect but without elaboration.

Rabbi Mordechai’le belongs to this second group.

Rabbi Mordechai’le’s affection for Hasidism started in his youth. Even before the rise to stardom of the Seer of Lublin, he joined the Hasidic followers of Rabbi Elimelech, the Tzaddik of Lizhensk (Leżajsk), and became his devoted student. A student of the Tzaddik of Lizhensk, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak “The Seer,” came to Lublin from Łańcut via Rozwadów and Czchów. In Lublin he organized his congregation, which became the capital of the Hasidim in Poland, and he attracted many rabbis and other learned Hasidim. A hundred and twenty tzaddikim in white clothes, who sat around the table of the Seer, left everything behind them, in order to study with him. His yeshiva became a melting pot for Hasidim seeking a higher spiritual state. It was he who laid the characteristic Lublinic stamp on the movement, developed the polished Hasidic style and established it in its pure essence. Rabbi Mordechai from Staszów was one of his best students and friend, and he was his guide in the early period, when he resided in Łańcut.[1]

Rabbi Mordechai from Stopnica-Staszów was a descendant of Rabbi Shabbetai Cohen (“HaShach”), profoundly learned and a virtuoso musician. When he led the prayers, he aroused his listeners to repentance. There was one common thread in all his activities: the desire to help others, the desire to spread the love of Hasidic music and make it loved by all.

It often seemed as if Rabbi Mordechai’leh, who was called the “Hazzan of Soslav (DziedziŁów),” was a reincarnation of the spirit that was believed to prevail among the tzaddikim of the early generations of Hasidism, and that his role in life was to spread the culture of the Hasidic “niggun” (melody) among the masses, while he himself stayed in the background. At any rate, Rabbi Mordechai’le attracted the attention of the Hasidic community both as a tzaddik and a musician. Among the musicians at the Seer’s house, he was one of the choice singers who knew how to captivate his audience. At the same time he was blessed with a modesty that subdued passion, fostered creativity, and put his personality in the background. His strong and pleasant voice and his beautiful melodies were dedicated to his piety and faith. His music served as a living interpretation of Hasidism and helped to spread its teaching amongst the broad masses.

For a long time, no one attempted to shed light on this interesting personality. But shortly before the Holocaust, one of his descendants came forward and published a book that contains some of his practices and teachings.[2] But a handful does not sate the appetite. Forgetfulness has taken its toll, and the author admits that he is not sure if all the teachings cited in the book are indeed the fruit of Rabbi Mordechai’leh’s thought.

Incidentally, the three cities of Staszów, Stopnica, and Opatów served hand-in-hand as the background of the two brothers, the great and famous tzaddik Rabbi Meir’le of Opatów and Rabbi Mordechai’le of Stopnica-Staszów,[3] and their net was spread over all three.

 

1. Rabbi Mordechai’e as Itinerant Cantor

Rabbi Mordechai’leh carved out his own path by combining melody, which burst forth from his great soul filled with yearning and attachment to the Creator of the Worlds, with the Hasidism of the Baal Shem Tov, which he felt intuitively with every limb of his body. He saw that the generations were in decline and the original pure Hasidism had become a matter of rote and customary habit. The teachings in the spirit of Hasidism no longer had the power to lift up and inspire their audience. Soon the small-minded would no longer be able to understand and penetrate the essence of Hasidism. Then Reb Mordechai’leh came and discovered that one could exert influence not only through Hasidic teaching, but also through Hasidic music, which could penetrate the innermost heart of the listener and move his soul, until it drew him near to Torah, to Hasidism, and to enthusiasm and attachment to his Maker, like a flame catching hold of a candle.

In his early years he served as a cantor in the city Stopnica near Staszów, but this did not suffice for his livelihood. Imbued with the awareness that through his singing he could arouse his listeners to repentance, he traveled among the towns of the area to expose his melodies to a wider audience. When he would lead the prayers, even on a weekday, reciting the Tachanun supplications, all would weep and be seized with repentance. At that time he was not the follower of any Hasidic “tzaddik.” Once during the Ten Days of Penitence he was in the vicinity of the town of Leżajsk and he heard that there dwelt there a rabbi, a tzaddik of the name of Rabbi Elimelech, and that many Hasidim were flocking to him. He decided to visit the tzaddik on Yom Kippur. On the morning before the festival he arrived in Leżajsk. He had not eaten for several days; he never asked for handouts. But it pained him greatly that he was not fulfilling the mitzvah of eating on the day before Yom Kippur, as well as the mortal danger to himself of fasting in that state. Perplexed, he asked himself if it was perhaps proper to depart from his custom and to tell someone what was on his mind. But he recoiled from this thought and vowed to keep silent. Only toward evening he chanced on a coin and went and bought himself a loaf of bread, thinking to eat half of it now and leave the other half until after Yom Kippur. When he went out into the street with the bread, he saw the Hasidim flocking to the besmedresh[4] to hear Kol Nidrei. They scolded him that at this hour he was going to eat. Although it was still daylight and he had time to eat, he set the bread aside and ran to the besmedresh. He greeted the rabbi, telling him his name and the name of his town, as was the custom. On the next day before the Musaf prayer, when the rabbi came to the besmedresh, he asked several times: Where is Reb Mordechai from Stopnica? The sextons and the Hasidim sought him everywhere but did not find him. The rabbi said that he would not go to pray Musaf as long as they did not bring that man to him. After a careful search they found him lying faint on the beams under the besmedresh. They aroused him with great effort from his faint and brought him to the rabbi. The rabbi honored him by asking to lead the Musaf prayer. He refused, saying it was not possible, for he had not eaten for several days and as a result was very weak. The rabbi took him to his room and ordered him to take off his clothes. He clothed him with other garments, including a shirt, slippers, and a robe, and ordered him again to go before the lectern and lead the Musaf prayer. This time he did not refuse. His prayer aroused the Hasidim and students to great enthusiasm; they had never heard anyone pray like this. From that time on, he became one of the leading students of Rabbi Elimelech.

 

2. In the Circle of the “Seer” of Lublin

The members of the Pardes family would always speak of the greatness and sanctity of R. Mordechai’leh, and of the fact that his teacher, the “Seer” of Lublin, esteemed him highly. While still residing in the town of Łańcut, R. Mordechai was regarded as one of his intimate admirers and foremost students. It was he who convinced him to leave Łańcut, close to the sphere of influence of Rabbi Elimelech, and transfer to Poland. He accompanied him on his journey to the suburb Czchów, from which he moved to settle in Lublin.

The son of Rabbi Mordecai, Rabbi Berish, the head of the court in Kamieńsk, would collect valuable letters of the tzaddikim in his manuscript files. Among them was a note to Rabbi Mordecai, written in the Seer’s hand at a time he was ill, saying: “Please mention me in your pure prayer, for if you are persistent in your prayer, you are answered on the spot. {signed} Ya’akov Yitzhak, son of Motl.”

It was Rabbi Mordecai who copied out the books Zos Zikoron [“This is a memorial] and Zikron Zos [“The memorial of this”] by the Seer of Lublin with his own hand. Among the imprimaturs of the great tzaddikim of the generation that appear in the book, they attest that this book was based on the written manuscript of “the holy rabbi, Rabbi Mordecai of Stopnica and Staszów,” completed in the Seer’s lifetime. At the beginning of this copy is written: “For the sake of the unification of the Holy Blessed One and His Shekhinah, etc.[5] I am ready and prepared to copy from manuscript the book called Zos Zikoron from the handwritten copy of the Master and Teacher Rabbi Ya’akov Yitzhak Halevi Horowic, may his light shine for ever and to eternity, who himself wrote it and called it Zos Zikoron.” At the end of the manuscript is written: “This book belongs to the Master and Teacher Rabbi Ya’akov Yitzhak, may he live, of Lublin. I who am writing am Mordecai Halevi of Staszów.” This copy is found in the custody of one of the Seer’s grandsons.

The Seer called him mara dakhya (“the pure teacher”) and even permitted him to go stand and sit at will in any side or corner, while he was fastidious in that regard with respect to his other students. He once said to him, “I hereby entrust several hundred Hasidim to you to lead as a community.” Rabbi Mordecai responded: “I will take counsel with my wife.” He went home and told his wife that the Rabbi wanted to give him several hundred Hasidim to lead as a community. She responded, “Forget about it! We must first live our own lives as Jews.” He came to the Rabbi and reported her answer. The Seer told him not to come to him any more for holidays, but to remain at home, for there were souls waiting for him there that required his corrective attention.

In the Seer’s court were also detractors of Rabbi Mordecai’leh (as also of the “holy Jew”), claiming that he was usurping rabbinic authority. He once traveled to Lublin to defend himself before his teacher, claiming they were spreading false rumors. His words, spoken emotionally and volubly, aroused the rebbitzen’s ire, and she ordered the shammes (sexton) to take his walking-stick and set it outside, as a sign that he should leave. The shammes did as requested, and Rabbi Mordecai left the house. When the Seer heard this, he told his wife and the shammes to go immediately to appease him, else the consequences would not be good. The Rabbi said he himself was afraid of what would happen if he did not submit to him as a student, but that it was up to them to win him back, and hope it would end happily. And so it was.

In the Seer’s eyes, Rabbi Mordechai'leh had saving powers. Not infrequently he would send his followers and intimates who were in straits, and he took the trouble, at his teacher's behest, to work for their relief and healing. The rabbi once told his childless daughter to go to Rabbi Mordecai's lodging to ask him to pray for her to have children.

 

3. The Great Tzaddik

It was his habit, when someone came to him on behalf of a sick person or a difficult childbirth or other distressing events, that he would grow stern, and even utter the curse shvartz yohr (“a black year!”), as a sign that the sick person would get well, or the woman in labor would deliver easily. He once explained this by interpreting the phrase: shvartz means “black,” but yohr suggests the Hebrew ya'ir “will give light,” that is to say, out of the darkness should come light, and this case would turn out for good and blessing.

Rabbi Mordecai entered into a marital alliance with Rabbi Dovid “the Tzaddik of Lelów” by marrying his daughter to the other's son Rabbi Nehemia, and from this match was born the famous tzaddik Rabbi Yankele of Iwaniska and Opatów, whom everyone called “Rabbi Yankele Apter.” Rabbi Mordecai would drum his fingers while looking at his grandchild, saying that such a soul had not been found in the world for hundreds of years.

Seven days after Rabbi Mordecai departed this world—many years before the Seer of Lublin—the other eulogized him: “We have lost the iron pillar!” Rabbi Mordecai left behind him his son, Rabbi Berish Halevi, the head of the court in Kamieńsk, and Rabbi Shmuel Aharon of Staszów, who was considered a noted tzaddik in the town. In Rabbi Berish's custody was found a major work in the hand of his father, the Tzaddik, expounding on the Torah in the way of kabbalah and Hasidism using the method of PaRDeS,[6] called Mara Dakhya. But the book was lost, and only a small portion of its content found refuge with one of the children of the family and was published in the book Gedulas Mordechai (“The Greatness of Mordecai”).

Rabbi Mordecai died in Staszów and was honored in his passing. Over his grave was erected a large pavilion, and on the anniversary of his death they would come from near and far to pray and recite psalms. They came from Opatów, from the vicinity of Staszów, and from other communities; his anniversary was a noted event in the town due to the many visitors that came.

The major tzaddikim of Poland would mention Rabbi Mordecai's name in awe and would always tell of his greatness and sanctity. The “seraph” Rabbi Chaim Yechiel Meir, grandson of the Maggid of Kozhenitz (Kozienice), esteemed him highly; also Rabbi Yitzhok, the Tzaddik of Vorke (Warka), loved to tell about him and to show how far the greatness of the tzaddikim extended. One rabbi, of Rabbi Mordecai's grandsons, visited Rabbi Yitzhok of Vorke for the first time after his wedding, and when he greeted him, he told the tzaddik about his relation to his grandfather. The rabbi of Vorke replied: “Know that I once visited your grandfather over Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot!”

Rabbi Berish, the rabbi of Kamieńsk, once told, during one of his visits in żagory, in the company of his brother Rabbi Shmuel Aharon of Staszów, visiting their uncle Rabbi Meir'l the Tzaddik of Opatów. The latter gave them many pearls of ethical teaching, and said in the end, “Do you know what a father you had? The heavenly angels came down for his wedding.” In the second edition of the book Zos Zikoron of the Seer of Lublin, which Rabbi Mordecai had copied out by hand, are found many imprimaturs of the tzaddikim of the generation, in which they mention the copyist and write of him: “Copied out by the holy rabbi, Rabbi Mordecai (may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing) of Stopnica and Staszów, who was held in high esteem by his teacher the Seer of Lublin, and of whom he spoke praises more than all the rest of his holy students.”

His grandson Rabbi Gershon Emanuel Halevi Staszowski of Warsaw published the book Gedulas Mordecai Ugedulas Hatzaddikim (“the greatness of Mordecai and the greatness of the tzaddikim”), which contains tales and novel insights from “the Master, the Holy Eminence, shining light, holy, pious, abstinent, man of God, renowned in sanctity, divine mystic, Rabbi Mordecai Halevi of Stopnica and Staszów.” The book appeared in two volumes: (1) tales of the two brother tzaddikim, with a commentary on the twenty-four permutations of mikvah [ritual-bath], and at the end “The Order of the Genealogies” (Warsaw, 5694/1934); (2) Notebook of Those in Need of Fire, with Various Homilies (Warsaw, 5696/1936).[7] The first contains 110 pages, the second 72 pages.

The second son of Rabbi Mordecai was Rabbi Shmuel Aharon of Staszów. He was a scribe of Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzahs. His scribal productions sold for high prices during his life time, and all the more so after his death.

Footnotes

  1. See the beginning of the book Ohel ha-Rabbi (“The Tent”) from Lublin (Piotrków: 5773/1913), composed by Moshe Menachem Waldan, in which appears a list of the disciples of the Seer of Lublin, arranged by the historian Rabbi Yosef Levinstein from Serock. (Footnote in original) return
  2. The reference is to Gedulas Mordecai Ugedulas ha-Tzaddikim (“The Greatness of Mordecai and of the Tzaddikim”) by Gershon Emanuel Halevi Staszówski of Warsaw, comprising two parts, comprising tales, teachings, and the like, mixed together. (Footnote in original) return
  3. The names of the three cities are connected in the events of these two brothers, and they are to be mentioned in a single breath, for these cities were closer to them than other cities, and they spent most of their lives in them. (Footnote in original) return
  4. Besmedresh: House of study, which was also the place the Hasidim gathered for prayer. return
  5. “For the sake of the unification…” In Lurianic kabbalah, every mitzvah [performance of a divine precept or good deed] assists in repairing the cosmic disharmony manifested in the alienation of the male aspect of the Godhead (called by the name “the Holy Blessed One” from the female aspect (the Shekhinah [“presence / indwelling”] representing the divine immanence in the created world). It is therefore customary to preface the performance of a mitzvah with a formula like the one cited here. (LL) return
  6. PaRDeS: A classic method of interpreting the text on four levels: Peshat (plain sense), Remez (allegorical), Derash (homiletical), and Sod (mystical). return
  7. Gedulas Mordecai Ugedulas Hatzaddikim — a download PDF of Part 2 of this work is available from http://www.hebrewbooks.org/3641, consisting mostly of transmitted tales of the above-mentioned personalities, mostly in Hebrew but some in Yiddish. It contains 30 double-columned pages plus prefatory materials. return


[Page 102]

Reb Shmuel, Parnas and Leader and Rabbi Yehuda Leib

by Meir Shimon Geshuri

Translated from Hebrew by Leonard Levin

In the eighteenth century there existed an apostasizing movement among the Jewish population in Poland as a result of the pressure of the Catholic priesthood that dominated the religious life of the country. Staszów was also involved in this episode in connection with Reb Shmuel, the Parnas[1] and Leader of the Staszów Jewish community. One of his brothers was enticed to convert and was the cause of many troubles in the life of the Council of the Four Lands and the Polish rabbis. Here is a citation from the “Records of the Council of the Four Lands” (page 331) of Israel Halperin:

Record of a notice “against Mordecai the son of the Rabbi of Jaroslaw, who engages in all the above-mentioned actions of compulsion with the assistance of helpers and companions, etc. against the general Parnas and the general officers and against their primary leader and associate the Head of the Rabbinical Court of the Province[2], who presided over the Council of Four Lands in Jaroslaw. Similarly against the Parnas and officers of all Poland, and against all the general Jewish Councils”—such is the claim of the apostate Jan Jacob Zhitlowsky, who “spent extensive time in foreign lands and on his return already had the desire to take on himself the Christian Faith. But prior to this he wished to take counsel with his brethren, whose names were: R. David Shmuel Shmelke, Head of the Rabbinical Court of Cracow; R. Yitzhak Isaak, Head of the Rabbinical Court and Chief Rabbi of Tarnow and the Province; R. Yosef, Head of the Rabbinical Court and Chief Rabbi of Pinczów; R. Shmuel, Parnas and Leader of the Jewish Community of Staszów; R. Mordecai, Parnas and Leader of the Jewish Community of Apt (= Opatów).

According to the acts of the archive in Lwów, the above-mentioned Jan Jacob Zhidlowsky was R. Joshua, the prior Head of the Rabbinical Court in Szydłów, and the son of R. Yehuda Leib of Szydłów, Head of the Rabbinical Court of Kraków.

The name of R. Shmuel from Staszów is mentioned also in both sections of the book Kelilas Yofi (authored by Hayyim Nathan Dembitzer) as one of the sons of R. Yehuda Leib, referred to as “R. Yehuda Leib of Szydlow,” because in his youth he was received there as Head of the Rabbinical Court and Chief Rabbi, and remained in that position for a long time. Finally, in 5473 (1713) he was accepted as Head of the Rabbinical Court and Chief Rabbi in Kraków and the District, and was deceased in 5491 (1731) or 5492 (1732), leaving six grown sons, the glory of the generation, including R. Shmuel, Parnas and Leader of the Jewish Community of Staszów.

 

Rabbi Yehuda Leib, son of R. Yitzhak Isaak of Staszów

This rabbi was among the most famous in Poland, and of the most elite families (the son of the daughter of the Gaon R. Joshua, author of the Meginei Shelomo), and among the best-known personalities of the Council of the Four Lands, the famous council that had its first meeting in Kislev 5341 (1580). He served as ordinary or Chief Rabbi in several locales, and his name was connected with the City of Staszów (or “Shtashov,” according to his signature). It is hard to know what he accomplished in Staszów, how long he resided there, whether he was attracted to this city in the summer months on account of the forests surrounding it and its good air, or for other reasons. His signature in Staszów came in connection with his approval to publish a book, despite the decision of the Jaroslaw community not to publish books without the approval of the Council. We cite here his notice of imprimatur:

Inasmuch as my student, friend and relative-by-marriage, the great Rabbi Eliezer son of the late honored, revered and learned Rabbi Shelomo Zalman Lifshitz, Head of the Rabbinical Court and Chief Rabbi of Ostrovtse [ = Ostrowiec] approached me holding a holy manuscript, the fruit of his pure intellect, containing new halakhic insights covering several Talmudic tractates and new legal applications relating to [Caro's compendium] Beis Yosef in the sections Yoreh De'ah and Ḥoshen Mishpat[3] and the latter-day authorities—notwithstanding that agreement has been made in holy conclave of the Council in Jaroslaw, among the leading lights of the Four Lands, not to permit anyone to print any book, no matter what it may be, without the gathering of the shepherds, the authorities and princes of the Four Lands (may God guard them!), and any decision made in conclave needs another conclave to override it. Nevertheless, for the honor of my student and friend, the above-mentioned great rabbi, of whom I am expert in his essence and quality and his knowledge which is pleasing for the sake of heaven, I have made an exception of my own rule and the rule of the majority that they have ruled on our behalf, and I give him permission to publish his books.

Written on Friday, the 2nd of Iyyar 5486 (1726) by Yehuda Leib the Lesser (son of Yitzhak Isaak, called R. Leib Szydłów), resident of Kraków and the Province (may God guard over them now and forever!), here in the Holy Community of Staszów.

The book spoken of is the Responsa of R. Eliezer, son of R. Shelomo Zalman Lifshitz, republished 5509 (1749).[4]

The signature of R. Yehuda Leib appears in various places in the rabbinic literature, in addition to his approvals of books. In one place he signs: “Rabbi Yehuda Leib the Lesser, son of my father the late Rabbi Yitzhak Isaak, resident of the Community of Szydłów and its outskirts, formerly of the Community of Kraków and the Province.[5]

It thus stands to reason that the two persons mentioned here are none other than father and son, that is to say, the father R. Yehuda Leib who from time to time visited and spent time in Staszów, and his son R. Shmuel, Parnas and Leader of the Jewish Community of Staszów, who apparently under the influence concentrated his business and spiritual activity in Staszów.

Footnotes

  1. Parnas: A title of communal leader, common in Polish-Jewish communities. return
  2. The rabbinic term “Galil” (= Galilee) was used in Diaspora to refer to the province or countryside as opposed to the urban centers of any given land. return
  3. Beis Yosef: Joseph Caro's encyclopedic commentary on R. Jehiel ben Asher's Arba'ah Turim, an authoritative 14th-century code. Yoreh De'ah: The 2nd division of the Arba'ah Turim, dealing with intricate laws such as kashrut. Ḥoshen Mishpat: The 4th division of the Arba'ah Turim, dealing with civil law. return
  4. Compare Hailperin, Kiryat Sefer, Vol. 11, pp. 108-109. return
  5. Kelilat Yofi Part I, 110; Part II, 29. Ir Ha-Tzadik pp. 159–160. return


[Page 103]

Rabbi Yitzhak David Szpiro

by Meir Shimon Geshuri

Translated from Hebrew by Leonard Levin

A child of Staszów, grandson of the Tzaddikim Rabbi Mordechai'leh of Staszów and Rabbi Meirleh of Apt (= Opatów), and scion of the Tzaddikim of the Neshchiz (= Niesuchojeże), Lelów, and Kowel dynasties.[1]

In his youth he learned in Staszów from good teachers and in the Beis Midrash, and he established a reputation as an erudite scholar. After his marriage he was appointed Rabbi in Iwaniska (= Ivansk), and he was one of its last rabbis before the First World War.

R. Yitzhok David wrote Torah essays in various religious periodicals. Thus we read his articles in the religious monthly Ha-Pardes, which started appearing in 5673 (1913) under the editorship of Rabbi Shmuel Aaron Pardes, who was also from Staszów. In the second issue[2] of the first year we find from him an answer to the local butcher, “the esteemed R. Chayim, ritual slaughterer of our community,” a page-and-a-half explanation of the words of the Oraḥ Ḥayyim on the Portion Naso. In the fifth issue[3] he explains a wonderful and difficult midrash in which it is said, “When Moses saw the words, ‘Let the earth bring forth herbs and grass procreating grass,’ he wept and foresaw the Destruction,” in which he speaks of the sanctity of the land and the sanctity of the people.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart of Staszów mentions him twice in his book, Ḥavalim bine'imim (Yoreh De'ah § 46). In one place he writes “on the commerce in crabs which has become very prevalent in our provinces,” and from the words of his respondent it is possible to judge concerning the complaint of the questioner that Jews are dealing in the commerce of crabs which are forbidden to eat. Rabbi Graubart refers to him by the title, “His Excellency, the Great Rabbi of distinguished lineage, our Teacher and Rabbi Yitzhak David, may his years be long, Head of the Court of Iwaniska.” In the second responsum he refers to him as “His Excellency, the Great Rabbi, etc. our Teacher and Rabbi Yitzhak David Szpiro, may his years be long, Head of the Court of Iwaniska.” (Ibid., § 133)

Rabbi Yitzhak David Szpira departed this world on Thursday, Shevat 2, 5674 (January 29, 1914). Rabbi Shmuel Aaron Halevi Pardes eulogized him in the pages of Pardes under the title “A Pitcher of Tears”[4] as follows:

“On Thursday of the Portion Bo, Shevat 2, 5674 (January 29, 1914) the sun set at noon. The diadem was removed and the crown was put on. There departed from us a great, wise, and splendid master, the great sage, a dear friend and relative, luminary of the age, a wall and fortress in insights of Torah, whose face was illuminated by his wisdom, pious and humble. His soul is joined with the saintly ones—our Teacher and Rabbi Yitzhak David Szpiro—may the memory of this righteous man be for eternal life—the Head of the Court of Iwaniska. He was a descendant of the holy Tzaddikim of Kowel and Neshchiz (Niesuchojeże), of Opatów and Lelów, and grandson to the holy brothers, the great holy and wise elders Rabbi Mordecai Halevi (may the memory of the righteous be for eternal life) of Staszów, and his brother, his Excellency the holy Rabbi Meir Halevi (may the memory of the righteous be for eternal life) of Opatów.”

And Isaac went out to meditate in the field”. David was strong in his pure fear of the Lord. It is hard to find one like him, a paragon of accomplishment. In him were joined together all exalted qualities—a great master of Torah and in all manner of wisdom and learning. Ah—his end came in mid-journey, before the full measure of his days. These enlightened eyes were dimmed before their time. He was 42 years old. Woe, woe. That this splendor should rot in the ground is indeed reason for us to weep.

He was of the helpers who strolled in Pardes.[5] Two precious articles of his were already published here. He left behind him much homiletical writing under the name Tenuvot Sadai.[6] When his homilies that are in writing are spread over the face of the earth, they will be beacons, in demand by all desirous of them. May the Blessed God give comfort to all who mourn him, especially all the members of his dear family, and at their head his honored son, my dear friend who is wise and learned in secrets of Torah, the flourishing olive-tree, may he be a glorious growth greatly exalted, my Teacher the Rabbi Abraham Mordecai Szpiro, may he live a long life, and may there be fulfilled in him the scripture, ‘As a man whose mother comforts him, so will I [God] comfort you.’ (Isaiah 66:13) And may you be comforted in Jerusalem. Amen.”

Rabbi Yitzhak David was pleasant in his bearing and possessed of a sweet voice, and on the High Holy Days he would chant the prayers in front of the congregation. The Jews of Staszów and Iwaniska spoke profusely in praise of him and of his sweet prayer-leading. His son Rabbi Abraham Mordecai served in the rabbinate in Kovno, Lithuania.

Footnotes

  1. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Hasidic_dynasties. return
  2. Part 1, § 18. return
  3. § 54. return
  4. Issue 7, Part I, p. 51. return
  5. “Strolled in Pardes: a play on words. “Pardes” (= paradise) means an orchard, and “strolling in Pardes” is a proverbial phrase alluding to dwelling on sacred, occult mysteries. But it refers at the same time to the name of the journal Pardes to which Rabbi Yitzhak David Szpiro was a contributor. return
  6. Allusion to Deuteronomy 32:13: “[to feast on] the produce of the field.” At the same time, the word for “field” (SDY) is an inverted acronym of the name of the author: “Szpiro David Yitzhak,” so that the title may be understood as either “the produce of the field” or “the produce of Rabbi Yitzhak David Szpiro.” return


[Pages 104-108]

Rabbi Abraham’ele of Porisov

by Meir Shimon Geshuri

Translated from Hebrew by Leonard Levin

I

“Rabbi Abraham'ele of Porisov (= Parysów[1])” — by this name was called the head-of-household of great lineage, the grandson of the “holy Jew of Pshischa [= Przysucha], who for about 50 years sat at the feet of the continuers of the way of Pshischa, in Kotzk (= Kock), in Ger (= Góra), in Aleksander (= Aleksandrów), and once again in Ger. His father, Rabbi Joshua Asher Rabinowic, the son of the “Yehudi” (nickname of the abovementioned “holy Jew of Pshischa”), led a community in Zhelechov (=Żelechów) and Porisov (= Parysów), the place of his service in the rabbinate. And moreover three of his brothers: the first-born Rabbi Ya'akov Tzvi (author of Atara le-rosh tzaddik); Rabbi Aryeh Mordecai, who was laid to honorable rest in Jerusalem; and his younger brother Rabbi Meir Shalom from Kałuszyn, were crowned with the title of “Tzaddik,” and were known with great affection by the Hasidim as the grandsons of the “holy Jew of Pshischa.” However, our Rabbi Abraham was different from his brothers and his extended family, for he was not willing on any terms to respond to the urgings that he take on himself the crown of a Tzaddik. Only in the waning days of his life did he concede to accept the eminence of Chief Rabbi of Porisov, the city by whose name he was called.

More than once, the question was asked: Why was he called by the name of the city of Porisov? Was it because of honor to his father, for his father had sat there as Rabbi and Tzaddik? Or because this was the only place where he served as a Tzaddik to Hasidim? To the best of our knowledge, he served as Tzaddik in Porisov only seven years, the last years of his life, from 5665 (1905) until the year of his death, 5672 (1912), while for more than twenty years, in the prime of his life, he sat in Staszów as rabbi of the city! Indeed, in accord with the truth, it would have been right for him to be called the Staszówer Rebbe. But because of the sins of that generation, the members of our city did not have the privilege of his being called after this city.

It was also that righteous' man's bad luck that a description of his personality was not written down, nor did his sayings and new insights of Torah, which circulated for decades among the Hasidim of Poland, did not find their way into print. Only in our generation did there arise for him a redeemer, one of his relatives and a member of his family, namely Rabbi Aryeh Mordecai Rabinowic, who inscribed his image with great love in a special book, The Merit of Abraham. Aside from this, the same author devoted to him a special chapter in his second book, Sha'ar Aryeh, in which there is a cameo description of that righteous man who merited two crowns: the crown of Torah and the crown of a good name, and he was counted among the “lions” in the circle of Kotsk. But there, too, we are standing in front of a wondrous riddle: What was the cause on account of which the city in which he served as rabbi, namely Staszów, suffered a decree of “it shall not be seen, nor listed”? And as it were, not accidentally but intentionally….Here, too, the Hasidic scribes engaged in a practice of ignorance, as in many other cases.

We have here an interesting fact. Our Rabbi Abraham, the exemplar of humility and modesty, happened to come to Staszów, where he served for over 20 years, and it was left, as by a hidden hand, “outside the courtyard” of his biography. A hidden Hasid in a hidden place. And nevertheless he was considered one of the greatest of the Rabbis and personalities who ever dwelt in Staszów. He lived in one of the most illustrious periods in the life of Polish Jewry, replete with events and activity, a period in which the pure labor of the heart came to its summit of achievement—the period of Kotsk. Rabbi Abraham was one of the strong survivors who were born and raised on the knees of that generation, who with his mother's milk drank in the fragrant nectar that wells forth life, and labored to perpetuate it in his quiet corner. Rabbi Abraham drew the line of connection between his era and that of Kotsk, the mighty and flourishing channel that came down to us from the fountain-spring of Kotsk.

In order to appreciate the Kotzk-like character of our Rabbi Abraham, it was enough to visit his house on a Sabbath eve, late in the evening, at an hour when all creation was sleeping the sweet Sabbath rest, and the whole space of the world was shrouded in silence with a holy aura. Rabbi Abraham was sitting at his table for the Sabbath feast, and his soul was expansive with the enthusiasm of heavenly joy, until he was totally liberated from thralldom to his body and bathing in the effluence of holy remembrances, words of fire and epigrams of flame. His mouth was spontaneously spouting fragments of expressions and sayings—expressions that put at naught all the vanities of this world and its imagined pleasures; expressions of pain and true suffering over his own exile and the exile of the Divine Presence. At that hour was opened an unfailing stream of supernal yearnings, and there were revealed streams of hidden desires within the innermost recesses of the soul. The house was suffused with light, and the table was filled with holiness….Unbeknownst, every person was being drawn to the streets of Pshischa and the alleys of Tomashov (Tomaszów) of a hundred years ago….

In Staszów dwelt one of the last of the Mohicans of the “Kotsker Era” that foreshortened the distance between the present age and that of the Zohar, bridging past and present, while adding of itself an important page in the history-book of that era. For this reason, too, it is important to engrave his image and perpetuate it for coming generations, not least for the descendants of Staszów in Israel and in the lands of Diaspora.

II

Rabbi Abraham was born in 5603 (1843) in the city of Zhelechov (=Żelechów). His father was Rabbi Joshua Asher, the Head of the Court and Tzaddik in Zhelechov and Porisov, a city which in the history of Hasidism was known as a city of virulent Misnagdim[2], from which Rabbi Levi Yitzhak (author of Kedushas Levi) had been expelled. In the letter of Rabbi Elazar of Lizhensk (= Leżajsk), which was printed in the book No'am Elimelekh, it is told of the “quarrels and controversies that were stirred up on account of Rabbi Hai Gaon, the godly and holy man, Head of the Court of Zhelechov.” Only seventy years later conditions changed, and the city became a Hasidic community, and the second son of the “holy Jew,” the father of our Rabbi Abraham, was accepted there as Rabbi and Head of the Court. His father gave him four names: Abraham David Naphtali Jerachmiel, but everyone called him Abrahameleh Porisover.

Aside from his illustrious lineage from his fathers side, his mother was the pious woman Leah-che daughter of the Hasid Rabbi Naphtali Herzl Halberstat from Lwów, of the descendents of the holy and eminent Rabbi Tzvi Hirshele Halberstat, the author of the Responsa Tif'eret Tzvi and Kos Yeshuot. He was also a descendant of the eminent Rabbi Jehiel Margolios, Head of the Court of Gorodno, of the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, as well as of Rabbi Naphtali Katz, not to mention the author of the Turei Zahav, Rabbi Heschel, and the Ḥakham Tzvi.

Hasidim tell that the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Mendele, set his eyes on Rabbi Abraham Porisover as a bridegroom for his oldest daughter, except that he could not meet the Porisover's demands. “I am not a village tax-collector, that I should be rich enough to satisfy his demands,” said the Kotzker Rebbe to his wife, who begged him to come up with the requested amount, in order not to lose this precious pearl. “But I will give you another Abrahameleh (namely Rabbi Abraham of Sochatshev [= Sochaczew], the author of Avnei Nezer).” Years later, when Rabbi Abraham Porisover joined the Kotzk circle, the Kotzker Rebbe said to his wife, “See, you wanted him as a son-in-law, but I have managed to acquire him as a student and a son, for a student is like a son.”

During the time that he ate at the table of his father-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Halperin, in the city of Pińczów, he traveled as was his custom to Rabbi Ber, the Tzaddik of Radoshitz (= Radoszyce). Once during his visits there he was not able to enter and obtain welcome, and he waited several days. Suddenly there came also his father Rabbi Joshua Asher, who entered immediately. They asked on behalf of the son to be mentioned to the Rabbi so that he should give him also permission to enter. As soon as his father went out from the room of the Rabbi, Rabbi Abraham, “the man from Pińczów” (as he was called then) was invited to enter. The Rabbi went to greet him and showed him with his finger, “Come, come,” as one shows a child. He fainted from fear. The Rabbi poured wine on him to arouse him, and said, “Why are you afraid of this ‘bear’[3] who has never harmed anyone?” When he had recovered, his father said to him, “He has now tied the bell on you, to become a Rabbi in Israel!”

In 5617 (1857), two years before the death of Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk[4], when Rabbi Abraham was a youth (14 years old), he had a desire to go out in the company of one of the student-circle to Kotsk. Hundreds were crowded outside the room of the Rabbi, from which he emerged very infrequently. But just a little while before Rabbi Abraham arrived in Kotzk, one heard the voice of Reb Feivel the attendant: “Let enter the youth from Rosash (= Rossosz), the grandson of the ‘holy Jew’!” In fear and trembling Rabbi Abraham entered the room of the Rebbe, who turned to him, “You have again one of great lineage!” and dismissed him with a belittling gesture. When he returned to the inn, he was hurried again to the room of the Rebbe:

“From where are you?” asked the Rebbe.

“From Rosash,” replied Abrahameleh.

“What are you learning?” the Rebbe asked further.

“Gemara and Tosafos,” answered R. Abrahameleh.

“What are you learning?” the Rebbe asked again.

“Gemara and Tosafos,”[5] R. Abraham answered. The cycle of question and answer was repeated eight times. When the Rebbe of Kotsk saw that our youth was not agitated at all but stood his ground, he drew him near. “It is your kind that I want,” said the Rebbe, and from then on he became one of the student circle. When Rabbi Abraham told this, he added that “with each question he breathed into me additional soul-energy, to understand and intuit the secrets of the holy Torah, and my heart began to burn with the love of God.” One should mention that in Kotsk they would not have trust in any Hasid at first sight, even if they saw good qualities and virtues in him, until they had examined him ten times. But they regarded Rabbi Abraham as being on a high level immediately on the first time, even though he was young. At that point in his life there opened up the Kotsk chapter that continued for the next fifty years, and from to then to his last day he sat at the feet of his teachers, the Kotzker Rebbe and those who continued his path.

He did not experience good fortune in the first towns of his rabbinate. Yet despite the persecutions that he withstood, joy was always visible on his face, and he developed his own complete outlook concerning the sufferings that come on a person in order to purify him and render him clean from every impurity and defect, so that at the time of judgment all the person's sufferings combine to tip the scale to the side of merit.

III

Rabbi Abraham was appointed Rabbi in Staszów in 5641 (1881). He established his dwelling in Lower Rytwiańska Street, in the house of David Chayim Szwarc. This was a one-story house, which contained five rooms together with a prayer-room. His dwelling in the city turned into a center of Torah, Hasidism, and Musar[6], and whoever was thirsty for the Word of the Lord turned to him and came out fortified. As the Rabbi of Staszów, he succeeded immeasurably in his task. The citizens of Staszów took pride in their rabbi, whose influence was above and beyond the accepted norm, and encompassed all the Jews of the city and its surroundings, of all branches and groupings, for his personality was admired without cavil. The rabbi and the members of his family were exemplary models for all, head and shoulders above everyone else, physically attractive and possessed of exalted ethical characters; refined and well-mannered, exceptional people in every respect. The rabbi was strict on himself but lenient to others; all his words and deeds expressed love and affection to all. He exuded love of fellow-Jews and love of the common person, and whoever came in contact with the rabbi felt this. He never wasted his time. He sat day and night studying, continually growing in learning and sanctity. He was pious and modest in the full sense of these concepts. Rabbi Abraham was not only a great intellect, but also a good and God-serving person as few can compare. He performed his service almost in stealth. His prayers were recited amid deep sighs, with genuine outpouring of the heart, but quietly, with an unceasing effort that no one should notice or pay attention to his service. All the paths of Torah-study were clear to him, and he was marvelously expert in all its treasures.

As for his love of fellow-Jews, they tell that when the author of the Sefas Emes[7] started to lead his congregation, Rabbi Abraham was in Ger. This was during the long nights of Shevat (February). When he finished the evening prayer-service, Rabbi Abraham sat down to study. After several hours there came a poor old man, who stretched out on the bench. He rested his head on a part of Rabbi Abraham's clothing and fell asleep. When day broke, they came as usual to the House of Study and found Rabbi Abraham sitting and studying. They asked him mockingly: How suddenly had he turned into an assiduous student who studies all night long? He answered innocently: “What could I do? This old man rested his head on part of my clothing, and I didn't want to awaken him from his sleep, so I was forced to play the part of the assiduous student all night!”

After the author of the Sefas Emes left Ger, some of the talented students journeyed to Rabbi Abraham with a petition to accept the leadership and chair of the Tzaddik. But he put them off by saying, “For what purpose should I accept this leadership role? For the sake of honor? If I travel to Ger, the honor that the Rabbi gives to me there will be enough. For the sake of emoluments from the Hasidim? The Hasidim of Ger are not in the habit of giving emoluments, and I haven't the power to teach them a new way. Is it, then, so that my sons will be rabbis? If you don't want the Sefas Emes's sons as rabbis, you surely won't want mine, and in any case, all this business is not worth it to me.”

From time to time, he would travel from Staszów, where he lived, to the famous Hasidic Tzaddikim of Poland, though he himself was practically born to be a Tzaddik. He also fled from the rabbinical office, and for a long time he did not want to accept for himself an official rabbinical position. But the great Torah-scholars of Poland all knew of his expertise in Torah, and the great Tzaddikim from Kotzk, Ger and Aleksander always accepted him with great honor.

In Staszów he would be visited by his faithful friends, eminent rabbis and Hasidim renowned in their Torah-learning and piety, and they would pass the time pleasantly with him in words of Torah and Hasidism. He did not receive his rabbinical office in Staszów easily either, and despite his desire he was forced to accept this office and to busy himself in the affairs of the city. His house in Staszów was a gathering-place of the sages. Many came to his door, either with a hard question or a request, either to intellectualize about Torah matters or to have the benefit of advice and assistance. He turned no one away, nor did he humiliate anyone, but he treated everyone with courtesy.

Many of his new insights and sayings in matters of Torah were spoken during the period of his active rabbinate in Staszów. Although he was expert in the Shulḥan Arukh, Oraḥ Ḥayyim and its commentators, able to recite every paragraph and sub-paragraph from oral memory, he did not stand pat, but continued assiduously to study it, without any sense of self-importance. He did not seclude himself in his home, but his regular place of study was the public Beis Midrash. When he visited his rabbinical colleagues in Kotsk, Ger, and Aleksander, he would study there, too, in the local Beis Midrash, and if there was no available seat, he would sit down on the steps of the podium and continue his studying there.

He was never self-satisfied with his work, but was always striving to achieve more, and even sought out criticism from simple people, whose word he could trust. He made a special effort to conquer his own self-satisfaction and personal pleasure. He would quote the Torah, “Take heed lest you have much silver and gold [and your heart be haughty, and you forget the Lord your God] (Deuteronomy 8:11–14)”—this means, if your Jewish pride turns into self-aggrandizement, and you feel yourself and your worth, then it is a sure thing that “your heart will be haughty, and you will forget the Lord your God.” He waged a heavy battle against jealousy; desire and honor could drive a person out of the world.[8]

As a faithful student of the Kotzker Rebbe, he fought against the quality of sadness that prevents one from fulfilling God's commandment in joy, and was liable to oppress a person and bring him down to the “pit of destruction” [i.e., spiritual hell].[9] If one saw that his base desire was getting the better of him, and he saw no other way to rid himself of it, he should think about the day of his death. But immediately on conquering it, he should return to serve God in joy. “If you do not do good”—that is, to perform your service in joy—“then sin crouches at the door” (Genesis 4:7)—sadness is liable to open an opening to the sin that crouches at a person's door, threatening to bring him down in its net. He would add, in the name of the Tzaddik of Ruzhin (Rużyn), that although indeed the sin of sadness is not written in the Torah, there is no sin or crime that sadness is not liable to bring in its wake.

He once said that “if he prayed in order to pursue mitzvoth, he would pray at the prescribed time.” (The Kotzker Hasidim were not pedantic about praying at the proper time, because they could never finish the necessary preparations.) “But my prayer is not at a set time, but it is spontaneous supplications, for I pray for the sake of my soul and seek mercy for me and for my soul, and therefore every hour is a fit time for prayer.” On the other hand, he did not consider himself as worth anything. He said in the name of a certain Hasid, that when he arrived on the Sabbath to the prayer, “By the mouth of the upright You shall be exalted, and by the lips of the righteous You shall be blessed,” he found no place for himself among the “upright, righteous, pious and saintly,” and only when he arrived at “the multitudes of Your people the House of Israel” he was reassured, for he was also counted among the House of Israel. He thereupon began to dance ecstatically, “All shall thank You, and all shall praise You.” He also said in the name of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasów, “Nine Moshe Leibs do not combine to a minyan (quorum) for Kedushah (the recitation of God's sanctity), but ten sinners of Israel combine for a minyan, and for all matters of sanctity.”

Rabbi Abraham was a symbol of pure Polish Hasidism as it was refined in the furnace of sharp, critical thinking in Pshischa and Kotzk. Many were his deeds in the Staszów community, in which he served as a faithful shepherd of the community. Staszów was a city filled with Hasidim and pious Jews, and the residents of the city recognized his qualities and exalted virtues in Torah and Hasidism. Even the “enlighteners”[10] were pleased with him.

The closest to Rabbi Abraham during his rabbinical service in Staszów were the Hasidim of Ger, who would come in to visit him from time to time, during Sabbath and festivals, to the ritual of his “table” and to hear his words of Torah. The “shalosh-seudos”[11] feasts that Rabbi Abraham arranged were always filled with participants. The Gerer Hasidim flocked to him, especially because he was considered as a Gerer Hasid from the time of his investment until his death. For two years Rabbi Abraham sat in the shadow of Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk, but when the Kotzker died, Rabbi Abraham moved to Ger and made connection with Rabbi Yitzhak Meir, the author of Hiddushei ha-RIM, which he greatly appreciated, so that he showed him special closeness. But Rabbi Abraham was placed at the table of his master as just another of the Hasidim, and he tried not to benefit from the special familial relationship. In every visit of Rabbi Abraham in Warsaw to Rabbi Yitzhak Meir of Ger, his master would receive him with new insights of Torah or a story from his elder, the “holy Jew,” and Rabbi Abraham would find seventy shades of interpretation of his master's Torah and find in them allusions and signs to the same way in which he wanted to direct his steps. With the death of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir, he passed together with most of the students of Kotzk to Aleksandar, and attached himself under the shadow of the Rabbi Henikh ha-Kohen Levin, and even encouraged his friends to receive the Rabbi's full authority. Rabbi Abraham was given full honors when he came to Aleksander, and even when the Rabbi's door was closed to the Hasidim, it was open to Rabbi Abraham. When Rabbi Henikh returned his pure soul to his Creator, Rabbi Abraham was standing next to his bed. He was counted among the serious candidates for assuming the crown of leadership after the decease of the rabbi from Aleksander. But when the mantle was passed on, in accordance with Rabbi Henikh's hints, before his parting, to the shoulder of Rabbi Yehuda Leib (the author of the Sefas Emes), Rabbi Abraham accepted his authority in full, and even persuaded his colleagues from Kotsk and Aleksander not to separate, but to continue together under the guidance of the young rabbi who had been made their general. He also influenced Rabbi Pinchas Menachem, the Rabbi of Piltz (= Pilica), the close associate and relative of Rabbi Yehuda Leib from Ger, to combine with the Hasidim of the Gerer Rebbe.

The Gerer Hasidim in Staszów related to him as if he were the representative of the Gerer Rebbe in their city. The councilors of the city did not interfere with his frequent journeys to visit the Tzaddikim, especially to the court of Ger. Rabbi Abraham stood in close connection with the Sefas Emes, who rejoiced greatly the first time that Rabbi Abraham came to him, and said, “I will learn from you, and you will learn from me.” Indeed, all the thirty-four years that he served, Rabbi Abraham recognized the Gerer Rebbe as his master. Even though he was treated royally by them, and the Hasidim related to him with admiration, still he distanced himself from all the attention that was showered on him, and he had to receive the blessing of departure together with all the Hasidim who stood in line, on the way to the Rebbe's room, sometimes retracing his steps in fear and trembling, because “the fear of your Rabbi should be as the fear of Heaven.”

IV

It is likely that were it not for the hand of chance that came to spoil the peace that prevailed in the city between Rabbi Abraham and some of the householders, he would have remained in office as rabbi of the city until the day of his death. Even though the words that his father, the Chief Rabbi of Porisov, had spoken to him after his youthful interview with the Tzaddik of Radoshitz still rang in his ears as a reminder—“He has now tied the bell on you, to become a Rabbi in Israel!”—still he continued to draw back from the crown of the Tzaddik. But after what happened in Staszów, he was forced to accept the judgment, and to take on himself the mantle of Tzaddik in his father's town.

An irresponsible youth by the name of Mordecai, husband of Shprintze Hannah, or Mordecai Kolirn, made up disgraceful stories about the goodly Rabbi, and as a result a portion of the most important householders in the city were found in an unpleasant situation, unable to come to a decision on the matter. While the matter was still in an uncertain status, someone dared to post defamatory manifestos against the rabbi on the doors of the synagogue and the Beis Midrash one Sabbath eve at a late hour, which on account of the sanctity of the Sabbath could not be taken down. As a result of this, the false allegations were publicized throughout the city, and people started to take sides for and against them. In order to refrain from controversy, the important householders in the city decided to invite to Staszów the rabbi from Ostrowiec, Rabbi Meir Jehiel Halevi, who arranged the matter for the satisfaction of all parties. Rabbi Abraham moved from Staszów to Porisov, where he received appointment as rabbi of the town and was at the same time crowned as Tzaddik. In 5664 (1904), in his waning years, after he had already achieved the age of “elder” status,[12] he agreed after much pleading to continue the holy dynasty of Tzaddikim of his father and grandfather and to lead the thousands who flocked to him from near and far, even though from time to time he chose to dramatize his pain for taking on this heavy yoke against his will.

Among the first Hasidim who accepted his authority was to be counted Rabbi Meir Yechiel of Ostrowiec, who handed him a note on which were written his name and his mother's name. In order to diffuse the tension in that situation, and in order to prove to the public that he was not at ease with leadership, Rabbi Abraham took the note from him, looked at it and asked, “And where is the grandmother's name?” In response to Rabbi Meir Jehiel's look of amazement, Rabbi Abraham asked further, “And why do I need his mother's name??”

In general, Rabbi Abraham did not sound forth with words of Torah over his table, but his lips moved and his voice was not heard, and his face turned various colors, and the aspect of his face exerted a holy influence on the people around him. The occasional sayings that he sounded over his table were directed to awaken thoughts of repentance in the hearts of his listeners, that they return to God in sincere repentance and take the necessary measures in the war against the schemes of temptation, which stand over a person to deflect him from the true way. He would compare speaking words of Torah at the table to a peddler who spreads out his wares in the market place, and all the customers would examine the merchandise spread out before them and choose what they needed out of the heap. Thus, too, the rabbi must sound out his words, in a way that everyone should perceive himself and know how to find in them what he needs for the improvement of his soul. In the name of Rabbi Henikh of Aleksander he would say, “For only when the Messiah comes will it be visibly known what the Tzaddikim have achieved in conducting themselves at table.”

Rabbi Abraham did not hold forth for a large audience of followers. The choice of the people, individual talents and men of action sat in his shadow, and with them he served. For seven years he sat on his chair in Porisov. But his wisdom gained him a reputation throughout the land. Many flocked to him to be blessed by his blessing and to benefit from what he had to offer. In addition, thousands admired him from afar, as they saw in him the embodiment of Kotsk in its full development. His personality and casual comments were the talk of all, and he became a legend in his own time.

On the 19th of Adar 5672 (March 8, 1912) Rabbi Abraham was called to the heavenly house of study, on the very day he was about to marry off his daughter Menucha. When he felt that he had only a few moments remaining, he blessed her prior to the wedding and went out to dance with his daughter for one moment, while saying, “Shoyn opgetantzt!” [“The dance is done!”] To this day, his memory is held dear as one of the great disciples of Kotzk, who kept the coal burning until his dying day.

Footnotes

  1. Porisov (= Parysów), Pshischa (= Przysucha), etc. We give here the equivalent versions of this and other names in standard Yiddish and Polish. For a comprehensive directory of these equivalents, refer to http://www.jewishgen.org/Communities. Though we use the Polish spellings as standard in most of the articles of the Staszow Book, here in the case of a Hasidic leader we deem it proper to use the Anglicized “Yiddish” spelling (giving the Polish equivalent in the first occurrence), because the religious Jews retained Yiddish as their primary language. return
  2. Misnagdim: opponents of Hasidism, adherents to a more sober, intellectualist, Talmudic-based version of Jewish life and values. return
  3. The rabbi's name, “Ber,” is the Germanic-Yiddish word for “bear.” return
  4. On Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787–1859), see Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth (1973: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). return
  5. “Gemara and Tosafos”: “Gemara”—the main argument of the Talmud, composed in the fifth century. “Tosafos”—the more advanced, complex commentaries, composed in the 12th-13th centuries. Together, these were the meat-and-potatoes of Talmudic learning. return
  6. Musar: a school of Jewish moralistic thought, popular in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. return
  7. “The author of the Sefas Emes”: Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (1847–1905). See Arthur Green, The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet (1998: Jewish Publication Society). return
  8. These teachings were characteristic of the Musar movement. return
  9. Many of the Hasidic masters (particularly the Kotzker Rebbe) experienced alternation of intense elation and depression, and modern interpreters have tended to see this as possibly a manifestation of manic-depressive dispositions. return
  10. From the late 18th century through the early 20th century, the “Enlightenment” movement (Haskalah, whose followers were called “maskilim”) advocated secular education among east-European Jews, and usually took an adversarial stance against Hasidism, which it criticized for tendencies to superstition and obscurantism. return
  11. Shalosh Se'udos — literally, “three feasts,” but denoting especially the third “feast” of the Sabbath that occurred late afternoon, toward sunset, and continuing until dark. return
  12. “At sixty, one achieves elder status.” (Mishnah Avot 5:21) Rabbi Abraham turned 60 in 5663 (1903). return

 

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