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[Page 269]

First Chapter:

Rabbinate, Torah & Hassidism

 

R. Baruch Mordechai Atinge

Translated by Avi J. Levin

R. Baruch Mordechai Atinge is the first rabbi of Bobruisk whom we hear about. According to Hasidic tradition[1], R. Baruch Mordechai was born in the late 1760s. His father was R. Eliezer Atinge who had emigrated from L'vov to the town of Novo Svintzion near Vilna. When he was 13 years old he studied Torah in the Bet Medrash[a] of Svintzion with R. Michal Apotzker, a Hasidic mystic, who inducted him to the Hasidic sect of Lita. In his youth, R. Baruch Mordechai attended various yeshivas[b] in Vilna, Slutsk and Minsk, and he achieved fame as “The Genius from Svintzion.” Everywhere he went, he joined the local Hasidic community. About 5541 (1781), he married the daughter of R. Shmuel, the Rabbi of Vilna. He worked in the service of the dean of one of the city's yeshivas. His ties with Hasidism were tightened and in 5553 (1793), for the first time, he had a private visit with R. Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of the Chabad[c] movement. They developed a close bond. His piety rapidly became known. And his name was mentioned among those Hasidim who were accused by the mitnagdim[d] of celebrating when the GR”A[e] passed away on Sukkot 5558 (1797)[2]. According to Hasidic tradition, he was elected as the “Rabbi of Bobruisk” at the beginning of 5562 (1801), and served as the city Rabbi for nearly fifty years. R. Baruch Mordechai succeeded in gaining the trust of the mitnagdim in Bobruisk, who accepted his teachings. And while he held his position as Rabbi, he served the two communities of the city - Sephardim (referring to the Hasidim, due to their prayer liturgy) and Ashkenazim. One of his young contemporaries, the wealthy Michael Margolin, described him as “a wondrous man, exalted, and with a diplomatic wisdom, who would draw people like a magnet toward love of Torah and yirat shamayim[f]. Also his conversations on secular matters showed a remarkable brilliance combined with a sharp, but sweet, wit.”[3]

During the time of [Tsar] Nicholas I, the rabbis were instructed to censor all the Hebrew books in their communities and to give written certification to those that were “acceptable” to the government. It is said of R. Baruch Mordechai that “he certified every book that was presented to him without even looking at it. Once he was asked, “Isn't it possible that you could get caught approving a book whose contents is 'forbidden' to the government?” To which he calmly responded: “And what will they do to me? If they send me to Siberia, even there I'll continue to certify 'forbidden' books, and then they'll send me back to Bobruisk.”[4]

From the days of his youth, R. Baruch Mordechai longed to immigrate to the land of Israel. However, the rabbinic leaders of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman and his successors, were opposed to him doing so, because they felt it was more important for him to continue in his work to strengthen and spread Hasidus. He is enumerated among those who approved the Shulchan Aruch (Zhitomir 1847) and the Likutei Torah (Zhitomir 1848) written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman and the Shas published in Slawata in 1837.[g]

In the year 5611 (1851) his lifelong aspiration overcame him and he immigrated to the land of Israel with two of his young children. He passed away in Jerusalem on 14 Elul 5617 (1857) and is buried on the Mount of Olives near the grave of the “Or HaChaim.”[h] On his gravestone is inscribed:

Here lies the rabbinic luminary of the exile, the sharp-witted, clever and humble, Baruch Mordechai. He was the Chief Justice of Bobruisk, son of Rabbi Eliezer Leizer from Lambrick, and son-in-law of the sagely and holy Rabbi Shmuel OB”M, the Chief Justice of the holy congregation of Vilna.

He was summoned to his heavenly abode on the 14th of Elul in The Year of the Covenant [i]. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.[5]

The grandchildren of Rabbi Baruch Mordechai who remained in Russia and carried on the surname Atinger were respected teachers and community leaders. One of them was R. Dov Ber Atinger who was a financial supporter of the Bobruisk community and a leading promoter of religious observance in the city until his death in 5663 (1902). Another grandchild, R. Avraham, was a rabbi in Uman (his 4th-generation descendant—Dr. Shmuel Atinger—lectured in the history of Hebrew in a university in Jerusalem). One of his grandchildren, Baruch Mordechai Atinger became “involved in an evil culture” by becoming a Zionist and even became a “professional rabbi” in Kishinev… so the remaining descendants in Bobruisk, who were all leaders of Chabad Hasidim in their cities, decided not to call their children by the name of the family patriarch, so as to avoid desecrating G-d's name….

The descendants of R. Baruch Mordechai in Jerusalem continue to use the surname Atinger until today.


Author's footnotes

  1. “A pamphlet on visiting Chicago,” New York 1944, pp. 8-20 Return
  2. A. S. Hillman, “My Rabbi's House,” 1903, p. 52. Return
  3. A. L. Frumkin, “The lineage of the sages of Jerusalem,” 1929, p. 130. Return
  4. Y. Nisenbaum, “Aley Chaldei,” p. 31. Return
  5. “Jerusalem,” section 1, pp. 143. Return

 

Translator's footnotes
  1. Study room. Return
  2. Academies devoted to the study of Torah. Return
  3. Chabad is an acronym for chochma (wisdom), bina (understanding), da'as (knowledge), and a reference to the philosophy of Lubavitcher Hasidim. Return
  4. Mitnagdim were the religious opponents of Hasidim. Return
  5. The Vilna Gaon Return
  6. Fear of G-d, religiosity. Return
  7. Zhitomir is a city in western Ukraine located by the Teteriv River. Return
  8. Rabbi Chaim ben Attar: b. 1696, d. 15 Tammuz 5503 (1743) in Morocco. He is called the “Or HaChaim,” after his somewhat kabbalistically oriented Torah commentary of that name, included in many editions of Mikraot Gedolot edition of the Torah. Return
  9. 5617's numerical value spells “The Covenant” in Hebrew. Return


[Page 271]

R. Eliahu Goldberg

Translated by Avi J. Levin

Very little is known to us about R. Eliahu Goldberg, who was the Rabbi of Bobruisk in the 1850s and 1860s. He is mentioned in the memoirs of his relative, the author Avrohom Yaakov Papirna and remembered as having ordained many young rabbis in Lita.

Later on in this book, there is a story by A.Y. Papirna about the Rabbi on his Sabbath in the city of his birth, Kapulie.[a]

R. Eliahu Goldberg excelled in his yirat shamayim [b] and his Torah knowledge. After spending much time in Paritch and Bobruisk, he lived in Vilna for a number of years as a “Parush[c]. While there, he developed a relationship with the students of the GR”A [d]. He returned from Vilna laden with Torah knowledge and with his rabbinic ordination. However, the Parushim of Kopyl felt that he had changed. First, he devoted much of his time to studying “musar” and second, he brought back with him a geographic atlas written in German from Vilna, which he liked to study. Despite these strange actions, he was known to be a tremendously G-d-fearing, religious man and above all suspicion[e]. However, a scandal quickly broke out. It was Yom Kippur, the great and awesome Day of Judgment. The men of Kapulie were dressed in their kittelim[f] immersed in fasting and prayer, beseeching G-d for mercy and for forgiveness for their many sins. Specifically on that day at the concluding Ne'ila service, when the Judge on High was about to seal the books of judgment and decide “who in the coming year will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, who will be poor and who will be rich”—at that time, R. Eliahu left the kloyz [g] and did not return. The scholars at the yeshiva and the Parushim worried about him and went out to search after him. They searched a long time and finally found him in the “Hekdesh”—the poor house where the sick lived. There stood Rav Elienke. He had chopped wood, put it in the oven, and was cooking soup for the sick people. One can only imagine the bewilderment and consternation of the yeshiva scholars! They called him an apostate, and quickly returned to the kloyz to relate the scene they had witnessed to the other congregants. The people were so deeply shocked and alarmed that they consulted with R. Ziskind about the matter (who was the Chief Rabbi of Kapulie and the father-in-law of R. Eliahu). R. Ziskind heard their complaint and said “I am ashamed to say that this young man (R. Eliahu) knew better than all of us, the elders, how to occupy himself on a holy day.”

(A.Y. Papirna, Remembrances, “Pirizhituya”, Volume 3, pp. 270-271)

 

Translator's footnotes
  1. Kopyl (See http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/slutsk/slu476.html) Return
  2. Fear of G-d, religiosity. Return
  3. Zionist followers of the Vilna Gaon were called “Parushim.” Return
  4. The Vilna Gaon. Return
  5. Of a lack of religiosity. Return
  6. White robes traditionally worn on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Return
  7. Bet Medrash or study room. Return


[Page 271]

Rebbe Hillel ben Meir HaLevi

Translated by Avi J. Levin

One of the prominent men of Chabad Hasidism, R. Hillel ben Meir HaLevi from Paritch, served as a rabbi in Bobruisk from 1851-1864. His influence amongst the Hasidic community was felt for many years afterward.

R. Hillel's father was R. Meir HaLevi from Brahin (in central Rechitsa). R. Hillel was born in 5555 (1795) into a Hasidic sect, which was associated with the great rabbis of Wahalin. He was the student of Rabbi Avroham Dov Mawarotch, from the inner circle of Rabbi Mordechai of Chernobyl, who emigrated to the land of Israel in 5591 (1831). Subsequently, he was counted amongst the Hasidic followers of Rabbi Mordechai, the Maggid of Chernobyl (1770-1837). When he was a boy, R. Hillel heard Rabbi Shneur-Zalman of Liady teaching Torah before hundreds of Hasidim during his travels to Wahalin in 5571 (1811). At that time he also met one of the leading Hasidic followers of the elder Rabbi, R. Zalman from Zhazmir, who explained the principles of Chabad to him. The book of “Tanya” had a tremendous impact on the young boy, and after 3-4 years, he undertook to travel to the son and successor of the elder Rabbi, R. Dov Ber from Lubavitch (the Mittele Rebbe). His family and his neighbors forbade him from taking this trip for he would be vulnerable to the dangers of the Chernobyl dynasty. According to Hasidic lore, they asked all the wagon-drivers in town not to give him a ride, “but he didn't rely on rides from the wagon-drivers, instead he set out on foot.” (“My Rabbi's House,” pp. 27) He immediately became one of the most fervent Hasidim and closest associates of the Mittele Rebbe and was considered one of only three Hasidim “who performed everything (ausgefirt) according to his desire (ibid)”[a]. In the year 5578 (1818) the Rebbe instructed him to travel among the small settlements as an emissary of Lubavitch “to collect materials and to plant spirituality.”[b]

R. Hillel had great strength not only in Hasidic matters but also in his ability as a musical composer. He composed many melodies adopted by the Hasidim, the most famous of which is the melody for the song entitled “B'nei Heichala D'chsifin.” He used to remark, “Whoever can't sing a melody is not suited to be a Hasid.” M.S. Geshuri, who studies Hasidic melodies, writes, “His musical compositions were neither filled with many notes nor too lacking in tone and did not follow a definite direction. But they were steeped in spirituality and their simplicity took to the heart, and in this way distributed an inner light and warmth” (“The Melody and Dance in Hasidus,” 1st ed., p. 221). His permanent residence was in Paritch and there he served in the rabbinate until he came to Bobruisk. R. Hillel quickly became one of the great influential forces of Chabad and the Mittele Rebbe sent young men to him to guide them in the way of Hasidus.

When R. Dov Ber passed away in the year 5588 (1827) there was a period in which they questioned would be his successor. R. Hillel together with his mentor and friend R. Zalman Zhazmir, supported the son-in-law of the prior Rebbe, Mendel (known as the “Tzemach Tzedek”), and assisted him in winning the hearts of the other Hasidim. A story is told after this, that after the Mittele Rebbe passed away, many Hasidim contended that nobody was qualified to succeed him; the proof being that they did not observe young men achieving those heights of greatness (“vav zaht maan itztar yunga lite zaalin oysvaksin”). Therefore R. Zalman Zhazmir arose and said, using R. Hillel as a demonstration: Observe this young man standing on the side—behold he is able to hit us all on our heads (“ar vat unz gabin alamin ibaran kup”).[c]

R. Hillel had a strong connection with the “Tzemach Tzedek” and would travel to him twice a year. And the Rebbe would entrust him with different missions.

As is known, the Rebbeim of Lubavitch supported the settlement of Lita's Jews in villages in southern Russia. When the rabbi of Nikolayev, R. Avraham Lavat, turned to the “Tzemach Tzedek” and asked him to dispatch an emissary to guide the colonists in the Jewish and Hasidic ways and to bring them material help, this task was assigned to R. Hillel, who went out every summer to visit the cities of the Ukraine and southern Russia. He collected funds for this purpose and taught Chabad principles in the cities and the Jewish colonies in the south.

When he would come to the villages, all of the farmers would come out to greet him together with their wives and children and he would lecture Hasidus before them. Once he came to a particular village and a large assemblage came to hear him. Since there was no study hall there, he spoke in the street. He observed many of the listeners crying. He asked them: [“]Why are you crying?[”] They said to him: [“]We are crying because we are boorish and ignorant and we do not understand anything from your words of Hasidus. We are silent so as to understand, but our intellect doesn't grasp it.[”] R. Hillel consoled them and said: [“]A Torah scroll is written on kosher [d] parchment. The letters must be surrounded by parchment and written only with ink. The quill is not a letter and a letter doesn't become a letter except by being surrounded by empty parchment. And if so, you can imagine, fellow Jews, what joy in created in the heavens, when down below simple Jews are standing around and providing parchment for the letters of the Torah which they are writing into their souls.[”] On another occasion, when some of the listeners came to R. Hillel with the argument that they, the simple folk, didn't understand his words of Hasidus, R. Hillel replied: “I am speaking about you, fellow Jews. Specifically about you, the simple Jews. I speak to your souls; your souls understand everything.” (A. Steinman, “Be'er HaHasidus,” The teachings of Chabad, Chapter A, p. 361)

After R. Baruch Mordechai Atinge immigrated to the land of Israel in 5612 (1851), the Hasidim of Bobruisk elected a rabbi for themselves, R. Nechemiah from Dubrovno, the son-in-law of R. Chaim Avraham, son of the elder Rebbe and author of “Divrei Nechemiah.” However, R. Nechemiah passed away on the 15th of Shvat 5612 (1852) and thereafter R. Hillel was selected to be the rabbi of the congregation of Hasidim in Bobruisk. Even when he sat on the seat of the rabbinate, R. Hillel continued in his ways: he traveled to the Rebbe, he wandered out every summer in the southern communities and guided young men from all corners of Chabad. R. Hillel was especially concerned for Jewish soldiers; most importantly to procure kosher food for them. Even though R. Hillel wasn't considered amongst the Admorim[e], he conducted himself in the same manner as an Admor. He would occupy himself in Torah and in prayer for nearly the first half of the day and “from then on he would open his doors to those who knocked on them, who had come to frequent him and stand in his shadow, and to seek his advice in heavenly matters and in worldly matters. And G-d assisted him to perceive what was asked of him in this service, and to protect him from all obstacles and from making mistakes, which would naturally arise.” (“Pelach Rimon,” Vilna 1887, p. 5) His Hasidic associate, R. Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi, the rabbi of Gomel, who had also been asked to serve the Rebbe in his city of Gomel and in Sirov, used to say of him: “bil fachar e stal z'nacar” (meaning: he was a peasant who was made into a healer).

R. Hillel passed away during his travels in southern Russia on the 11th of Av 5624 (1864) in the city of Kherson and was buried there. They built a covering over his grave and many of the Hasidim in the vicinity would travel there to stretch out on the gravesite [f].

After his passing many of his writings remained. Among them his own writings, and those that he transcribed from what his mentors had said, as well as explanations of the words of his mentors. In 5628 (1868) in Warsaw a book was published called “Likutei Biurim[g] containing numerous compositions of the Mittele Rebbe. In 5636 (1876) a student of R. Hillel, Levi-Yitzchak Shimnavski, published a small collection of lectured he had heard from him called “Imrei Noam.”[h] And in 5647 (1887) in Vilna, a collection of lectures and explanations on the Book of Genesis was published, which contained portions of things that he (R. Hillel) had transcribed from the Mittele Rebbe and the “Tzemach Tzedek,” and portions of additional explanations on them. The publishers were the father-in-law of the author Raphael Mordechai Schneerson, and the grandson of R. Pinchas HaLevi (the only son of R. Hillel, Zalman, passed away before his father, and the grandson was raised in his grandfather's house) and they are the ones who named the book “Pelach Rimon.”[i] The second volume—on the Book of Exodus and the Scroll of Esther—was also prepared, but was in violation the censorship department so was not published because of that. And only in 5717 (1956) was it published by Chabad Hasidim in New York, together with a photostat edition of the first volume. In the year 5678 (1918) in Poltava “Pelach Rimon” was published on “Song of Songs.”

 

Translator's footnotes
  1. He essentially became the Rebbe's “right hand man.” Return
  2. Meaning to gather followers and/or collect funds. Return
  3. Hence disproving those contenders by stating that R. Hillel was a perfect example of a young man who had indeed achieved heights of greatness. Return
  4. Suitable. Return
  5. A Hebrew acronym for “our master, our teacher, and our mentor,” which I use interchangeably with the word “Rebbe.” A Hasidic Rebbe held such a glorified title as “Admor.” Return
  6. In prayer. It is customary to visit the grave of a righteous man to ask him to intercede in heaven on our behalf. Return
  7. “A Collection of Explanations.” Return
  8. “Pleasant Words.” Return
  9. “A Slice of the Pomegranate.” Return

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