The Ezras and Nekhemias of the Jerusalem of Lithuania (cont.)
The Library of the Culture Society
Sitting: Druts, Tsivia; Gordon, Liza; Sragovitsh, Aharon; Gurvitsh, Rokhl; Shutan, Michael; Feygl, Ester.
Standing: Kurlandtsik, Esther; Soloveytshik, Avraham; Ginzburg, Motl; Mofshovitsh, Sore; Milshteyn, Sime;
Murmis, Matle; Lubotski, Leyb; Broyman, Reuven; Kavarski, Velfke; Mikhelson, Teme.
In the picture at the top: Brumberg, Shimon--killed by the Red Army (Lithuanian Penal Battalion)
after whom the library was named.
TORAH AND CHASSIDISM
-- --Through the dark cloud which obscured Jewish life and Jewish thought, a
light, all of a sudden, broke through. This light was Chassidism, which
illuminated the Jewish mind and the whole nature of Jews and Judaism. Like all
inceptions, like all beginnings of new creations, the appearance of Chassidism
was miraculous. When the Jewish people found itself in danger of atrophying
and being torn from its succulent roots, suddenly there appeared a new reality,
the new lifestyle of the rising soul and its permanent awakening, which the
Chassidic Movement brought with it. It brought the voice of the Sabbath,
which is the complete opposite of rest, the stagnant rest that is necessary
only to the evil ones in hell. The Chassidic Sabbath was a whirlwind and a
storm. It roared in the hearts of simple Jews with songs of joy and the beauty
of earthly springs and heavenly azure: you should always be happy, lively Jews!
In the world of those who opposed the Chassidim
a world of sobriety and
individuality, which represented Jewish Lithuania, the stronghold of Chassidic
opposition, greater Svintsyan was among the few Lithuanian cities, which
permitted themselves to be caught up in the Chassidic lifestyle, which pulled
the Jew out of the grasp of the ordinary and let him be governed by a
relationship which gave him the wings to lift himself out of sadness and
melancholy and freed the playfulness that dozed in his soul. The inner life of
Svintsyan became fuller and more alive. The beauty and the radiance of
Lithuania always remained its yeshivas, to which Jewish young men streamed from
near and far. Its inns of Torah
were renown throughout the
whole Jewish world, and there many generations of Svintsyan Jews were raised.
-Rabbi Yitskhok Duber Ushfal (Brooklyn)
CHASSIDISM AND SVINTSYAN
The founder and creator of the
Chabad Movement in Chassidism, the great Torah scholar Rabbi Shneur Zalman, may
his memory be a blessing, of the city Ladi, was known by the name Master
of the Tanya. During the years 1743 and 1823, he spread the Chassidic
Torah of the Bal Shem Tov.
He especially worked in the towns and villages
among which was also Svintsyan. As it is described in The Generations of
Chassidus, the old rabbi, the Master of the Tanya, had three kinds of
followers in Svintsyan in the year 1778. His adherents in Svintsyan used to
travel to the settlements in order to influence the simple Jews and transform
them into followers. This was known in Vilna, where the quarrel between the
Chassidim and the Misnagdim [those who opposed Chassidism] was very great at
the time. The opponents of Chassidism immediately held a meeting and decided
to pass judgment on the Svintsyan Chassidim.
The Vilna Gaon,
memory be a blessing, was told about this and he agreed to it. The judgment
that was passed was that all those who belonged to the sect (as
their opponents then called Chassidism) should be persecuted.
The Vilna opponents traveled to
Svintsyan in order to carry out this judgment right on the spot. With them
went Rabbi Zundl Volf who was very strongly tied to the Torah greats of Vilna
at that time, especially to the Vilna Gaon.Their trip took place in the year
The Chassidim of Svintsyan,
however, did not lose their heads. On the contrary, they held themselves
proudly and continued their work. When all of the Chassidim were
excommunicated at the Vilna Synagogue courtyard the Chassidim of Svintsyan
protested against Vilna and with songs and instruments demonstrated their
opposition to the excommunication.
Since then, Svintsyan has been
famous in the Chassidic world. Svintsyan even managed to produce great
Chassidic personalities. It is worthwhile to talk of one of them at length.
In the great Lyubavitch
yeshiva, Tomkhey Tmimim,
which was founded by the Lyubavitch
Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Shneyerson, in the year 1897,
Rabbi Shmuel Betsalel bar Sholom Sheftl was the spiritual leader for many
years. To Chassidim, he was known by the name: The Rashbats and
was considered one of the pillars of Chassidim in Lyubavitch. He was much
loved in the Rabbi's house and, for several years, studied with the Rabbi's
only son, the previous Lyubavitcher Rabbi, who died in New York in 1930.
Those who know the meaning of
Lyubavitch in those years can imagine the great honor that the Rashbats, may
his memory be for a blessing, was accorded in the eyes of the Chassidic world.
The Rashbats was born in Svintsyan in the year 1829. His father was an
ordinary synagogue-going Jew, and his mother ran the business and supported the
family. His father died at age 50 and his mother remarried. At the wedding,
his stepfather imposed a condition: he was prepared to feed him, but he had to
sleep in the study hall of the synagogue. Later, however, seeing the child's
good upbringing and devotion to learning, his stepfather grew closer to him.
Even as a young boy, he
exhibited great ability, and by the age of fifteen, the Rashbats was learning
Gemora and the commentators by himself.
At that time, the rabbi in
Svintsyan was Reb Hershele, may his memory be a blessing, who was famed in the
whole area as a great Torah scholar with a sharp mind. When the Rashbats'
father died, Reb Hershele took an interest in the orphan, became closer to him
and taught him regularly. During the course of one and a half years, he went
through the three Bavas
as well as the tractate Shabbos.
The Chassidim at that time
already had their own minyan
and prayed according to their own versions of
the prayers and instituted their own customs. They had their own ritual
slaughterer, who slaughtered, with a sharp knife, according to the rules of the
It once happened that the
Rashbats was walking not far from a Chassidic minyan. Out of curiosity he went
inside and saw the Jews there studying from a small text. He listened to their
learning and from that time on visited this Chassidic minyan very often. Their
sincerity, their piety and their inspiration affected him greatly. He was
especially impressed by their enthusiasm while praying.
This short visit by the
Rashbats to the Chassidic minyan made a great impression on him. He began to
look into and do research on the reasons such Jews were persecuted. The more
he steeped himself in Chassidic learning and recognized the good qualities,
their sincerity and deep soul, the closer he felt to them and visited their
Chassidic minyan often.
He would, however, not stay
very long at this minyan, since he didn't want the Rabbi, Reb Hershele and his
step-father, who were great opponents of Chassidism, to find out about his
Since he was a very frequent
guest at Rabbi Hershele's house, the Rashbats heard much slander and
exaggerated stories about the Chassidim. Reb Hershele once said that he had
had the merit to eat together with one of the informers, who had turned the Bal
HaTanya in to the Russian government in the year 1799. (A description of this
betrayal can be found in the book Beys-Rav.
Since he feared
Reb Hershele and his stepfather, he decided to meet secretly with one of Reb
Itshele the Tailor's workers.
expound on the virtues of the Bal Shem Tov's Torah and the greatness of the Bal
HaTanya. He told him various stories, which made a deep impression on him.
The Rashbats, meanwhile, became very attached to this so-called
sect and became a great friend of the Chassidim. He made an
effort, however, to keep this from being known in town.
One time when the Rashbats sat
alone at night in the great Svintsyan study hall pouring over the Tanya, a
person slipped in unnoticed, a misnagid
, and upon seeing the Tanya,
angrily tore the unclean
text away from him.
The next morning, the misnagid
told the Rabbi of Svintsyan about this episode. The rabbi didn't think about
it too long before inviting the Rashbats' stepfather over and telling him the
When the Rashbats came home,
his stepfather hit him over the head with a piece of wood. The young man fell
down in a faint.
Several days later, when the
young boy was well, the rabbi sent for him and tried to explain to him that he
was on a bad path. When these words failed to help, the rabbi announced in
town that the boy had been misguided, and he was labeled the
His stepfather immediately
drove him out of the house. The Chassid, who had led him into the Chassidic
circles, took him into his own house and completely supported him. From that
time on, the Rashbats began to study Chassidic texts openly and became a
One time he was sitting in the
study hall and expounding to the Jews there the Bal Shem Tov's Torah and the
virtues of Chassidism, when suddenly several young people attacked him and
severely beat him.
Badly wounded, he was brought
to the Chassidic minyan, from which a doctor was called out. In critical
condition, he was brought to the house of Reb Moyshe the Chassid, where he lay
in bed a long time until he became well.
The Chasidim then understood
the virtues of this young man and began to think about sending him away
somewhere to study. A great Chassidic meeting was called in order to discuss
what was to be done with him. It was decided to send him to the renowned
Chassid, Reb Mikhl Opotsker, who considered himself to be a great scholar and
was an ardent devotee of the Bal HaTanya. From him, he would receive all the
necessary preparations in order later to be able to enter the large
Tsemakh Tsedek Yeshiva in Lyubavitch.
It was generally thought that
Mikhl Opotsker was divinely inspired. As a child I heard from my grandfather,
my mother's father Reb Moyshe Harmotz of blessed memory, that Reb Mikhl
Opotsker often used to spend time alone in the woods around Svintsyan. His
behavior frightened the village peasants. The called him: The Holy One!
Before the Rashbats left
Svintsyan, he decided, ignoring all the persecution he had suffered, to say
good-bye to the Rabbi of Svintsyan, Reb Hershele. Upon entering his house, he
found him sitting together with other Jews studying a deep question in Gemora.
After their learning, when the scholars had left the rabbi's house, Reb
Hershele turned to him and asked that he leave the Chassidim and their ways.
The Rashbats told him about his decision to go to study at the Tsemakh Tsedek's
Yeshiva in Lyubavitch. The rabbi acknowledged that the Tsemakh Tsedek was a
great Torah scholar, nevertheless, he thought that with him he could accomplish
more in Torah learning.
The Rashbats took his leave of
Reb Hershele. The Rashbats made his way to Reb Mikhl Opotsker by foot. He
studied with Reb Mikhl for a year and a half. One time Reb Mikhl said to the
Rashbats: My child! You have nothing further to do here. I would
advise you to go to the Rebbe in Lyubavitch.
On the eve of the new month of
Adar in the year 1848
, he left Opotsk, taking with him a note from Reb
Mikhl to the Tsemakh Tsedek. Reb Mikhl told him not to open the
letter. He couldn't contain himself, however, and opened it.
The paper was blank with
nothing written on it.
The Rashbats was nineteen when
he arrived in Lyubavitch. When he arrived at the rebbe's study hall he was
very tired from his journey and fell into a sound sleep in front of the warm
stove. In his sleep he heard the name: Reb Mikhl Opotsker! He was very
surprised at how they knew who he was. After all, he hadn't told anyone where
he was coming from. One of the elders indicated with a wave of his hand that
the Rebbe wanted him.
He trembled as he approached
the Rebbe, but the Rebbe immediately reproached him by asking him why he
couldn't have made the journey without opening the letter from Reb Mikhl
Opotsker. At the same time, the Rebbe welcomed him warmly and got into a
lengthy discussion with him.
The young man was filled with
admiration when he left the Rebbe. He threw himself into learning the Talmud
and commentaries with great fervor. The Rebbe grew to love him as if he was
his own child, and he soon became the closest friend of the Rebbe's children.
He was in Lyubavitch for seven years. He got married there and in 1855 opened
a bookstore, which provided his livelihood.
In 1869, the Rebbe's son, our
teacher and master Rabbi Shmuel, (the Tsemakh-Tsedek's youngest son who
took his place) appointed him an emissary of the Rebbe. In this capacity he
visited many cities and towns. He was warmly received in all the Jewish
communities. In a short time, he was famous throughout the Chassidic world.
When he returned to Lyubavitch, he was appointed chief spiritual guide in the
great yeshiva Tomkhey Tmimim of Lyubavitch. He held this position
until the end of his life.
He died on the 15th day of the
month of Sivan, 1905.
This is, in brief, a
description of the life of the famous Svintsyan Chassid, who became known, in
Chassidic history by the name: The Rashbats.
in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Trans.
11. Quotation marks mine. Trans.
12. This means the Master of the Good Name and refers to Rabbi
Israel ben Eliezer born in 1690 and died in 1760. Trans.
13. This literally means the genius of Vilna. Trans.
14. Nowadays more commonly known as Lubavitch
15. This means Keepers of the Faith.Trans.
16. This is a Hebrew acronym which stands for adoneynu moreynu v'rabeynu
, our master, teacher and rabbi, the traditional title of a
17. As was mentioned, the Bal HaTanya had a great influence on the Jews of
18. Among the most interesting of his students in Svintsyan at that time was
Reb Itshele the Tailor. In his tailoring workshop, he would study his great
rabbi's articles with his workers.
19. Three tractates of commentaries all having Bava
in the titles.Trans.
20. Quorum of ten men.Trans.
21. The Rabbi's House.Trans.
22. A follower of Khassidism
23. My quotation marks for emphasis.Trans.
24. There seems to be an error in the text concerning this date. If the
Rashbats was born in 1829 and he was 19 when he arrived in Lyubavitch, he left
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