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Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz
The Origins of Rabbi Pinchas and his Life in Koretz

By Eliezer Leoni

Translated by David Goldman

Koretz is located on the outskirts of Vohlyn and earned worldwide fame on account of a religious philosopher, a sharp–minded, profound thinker who pitched his tent there – Rabbi Pinchas Shapira, known as “the Great Rabbi Pinchas,” whose light was cast for more than 200 years throughout the city and upon its many Jews until the arrival of the “woodcutter.”[1] This righteous man, who “was from the earth and grew up in the heavens,” immersed his mind and the greater part of himself in the world of Atzilut–Emanation, completely dedicating his thoughts to divine wisdom and knowledge of the Creator.

Biographical material about Rabbi Pinchas is meager and scanty. In fact, only Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav merited having his own “Plutarch”[2] of his own in the person of Rabbi Nathan, who put to writing the life of his teacher and rabbi in a very detailed manner. Rabbi Pinchas' case fulfilled the statement of our sages, “Souls are not created for the righteous. Their words are their legacy.” This teaches that the personal lives of the spiritual giants are embodied in the “parchment” of their writings. In this sense, Emerson was correct when he said, “Great geniuses have the shortest biographies.” Anyone wishing to know Rabbi Pinchas must look at his statements and the collections of his teachings for his own genesis[3] is the genesis of his Hasidic teachings. Since there is so little reliable biographical material whatever can be told about Rabbi Pinchas is really just the tip of the iceberg.

Rabbi Pinchas Shapira was born in Shklov in 1726 to his father R. Avraham–Abba and his mother Sarah–Rachel 26 years after the birth of the Ba'al Shem Tov. His origin and lineage goes back to the holy and famous sage Rabbi Nathan Nota Shapira, the memory of the righteous is a blessing, author of the kabbalistic commentary, Megaleh Amukot (Revealer of the Depths) who was born in 1585, died 13 Av/July 30, 1633, and was laid rest in the city of Cracow.

His gravestone carries the statement: “Here lies a man of G–d, holier than his predecessors, revealer of depths, mysteries and hidden treasures. It is said that Elijah the Prophet spoke with him face to face, the great scholar, head of the rabbinical court and yeshiva, our great teacher, Natan Nota, son of our teacher Shlomo Shapira, the memory of the righteous is a blessing.

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The father of Rabbi Pinchas, Reb Avraham–Abba was the son of the famous and great scholar Rabbi Pinchas from Shklov and served as rabbi in one of the towns of Lithuania. He was drawn to Hasidism after meeting the Ba'al Shem Tov, and brought his son R. Pinchas into the Hasidic movement.

Even during his childhood Rabbi Pinchas' demonstrated very special traits. The Hasidic masters said of him that a soul such as his descends into the world once in 500 years to repair the world. The Shpola Zeyda, who dearly loved R. Pinchas, and who visited him many times in Koretz described the phenomenon named R. Pinchas in these words: “Happy are you, Rabbi Pinchas that you have a great soul and that the entire world calls you, 'the great Rabbi Pinchas.' Even when you sit in your house you are sitting everywhere in the world. With every word of Torah and wisdom that goes forth from your mouth you embrace and kiss the whole world.”

The Shapira family was a large family of great lineage whose name originates with the city where they had resided in the past – Spier – located on the shores of the Rhine River. This is the origin of the family name Shapira. R. Pinchas was very fond of this adapted name, and unlike the other tsaddikim he would sign his letters using this last name.

The life of R. Pinchas was difficult and bitter until he became renowned. In his youth he taught children who called him the Black Teacher. He lived a double life, and concealed his nature and essence from others. Only the rabbi of the town knew how great R. Pinchas was.

For reasons unknown to us the family moved from Shklov and settled in the city of Miropol in Volhyn. After a great deal of wandering R. Pinchas arrived in Koretz and settled there. Rabbi Mendel Biber wrote about R. Pinchas' arrival in Koretz: “Afterwards Rabbi R. Pinchas left his town and arrived in Koretz. Great disciples streamed to him to hear his wisdom and holiness, to receive his positive reproof and learn his wisdom containing both kabbalistic mysteries[4] and divine philosophy, as well as pure faith and pure fear of G–d together.” (A Souvenir of the Great Rabbis of Ostrog, p. 211).

Rabbi Pinchas settled in Koretz in 1760. Evidently he lived there for many years because even after he left he was known as Rabbi Pinchas Koretzer.

 

The broad and profound education of Rabbi Pinchas

When he started out, even before his worldview crystallized, he carried a mixture of both Hasidism and non–Hasidism. He toiled to acquire a broad and diverse education, and studied not only Talmud and the commentaries but also various sciences. He became proficient and expert in grammar and the exact sciences.

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He aspired to acquire knowledge in the engineering sciences, and studied the writings of Euclides Philosophus, the great Greek scientist who died in the fourth century BCE.

In that period R. Pinchas was influenced by the Gaon of Vilna. It is known that the Gaon greatly esteemed the exact sciences, and he himself had published a book on geometry called Ayel Hameshulash [A Ram in Three Parts]. The Gaon said that “all wisdom is needed for the holy Torah and included therein.” He emphasized “to the extent that a person lacks knowledge of various forms of wisdom, he will lack one hundred parts of Torah wisdom since the Torah and wisdom are connected to each other.”

The Gaon considered the writings of Euclides very significant. Euclides' book “Foundations” was translated from Arabic into Hebrew by Moshe Ibn Tibbon in 1270. When visiting in Vilna in 1778, Baruch Schick of Sklov was directed by the Gaon to retranslate the writings in engineering of Euclides “in order to extract from their mouths what they have swallowed.” However, this happened in 1790. A page of the these writings evidently got to R. Pinchas, and spent time studying it as diligently as he studied the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, and was the person who said about geometry, “a person must study these matters from his youth.”

He spent much time studying investigative writings from the Middle Ages but was not satisfied with them. He grew tired of philosophy and said, “I think philosophy is a lower level.” He began changing his views. He left the area of philosophical speculation and entered into mysticism and kabbalah. He encountered the book, The Zohar, and became deeply attached to it for the rest of his life. No one among the Jewish People ever praised this book so highly and expressed so much love for it. R. Pinchas praised and extolled G–d that he was not born in the period before the Zohar became known to the world. “The Zohar kept my soul alive,” he said, “the Zohar helped me to a Jews. The Exile is so difficult, he said, that he could only find peace of mind when studying it.

R. Pinchas also studied other kabbalah books very intensely, i.e., Pardes Rimonim [Orchard of Pomegranates] by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, the writings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, and Shnei Luchos Habris [Two Tablets of the Covenant] by Rabbi Yeshayahu Horwitz [known as the Holy Shla]. He was greatly influenced by the book, Maggid Mesharim [Preacher of Justice] which contains secrets and mysteries revealed to Rabbi Yosef Caro [the author of the Code of Jewish Law, Shulchan Aruch]. While studying it he fasted and performed self–mortification. He considered Maggid Mesharim very important his entire life, and it practically never left his table.

It is no surprise that R. Pinchas commented on kabbalistic works, and especially the writings of R. Yitzchak Luria. According to the correct definition Nachum Sokolov, his upbringing and the birth of Hassidism was not in Mezhibozh but in Safed, but the Ba'al Shem Tov simply explained and popularized the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria.[5]

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His intelligence and wit

The Ba'al Shem Tov said he had three successors: The Magid, R. Dov–Ber inherited his Torah, R. Michel of Zlotchov inherited his holiness, and R. Pinchas inherited his wisdom. Given the praise the Ba'al Shem Tov showered on R. Pinchas, the Magid wrote in a letter that he considered R. Pinchas greater than a prophet, because the Talmudic Sages said, “A sage is preferable to a prophet.”

R. Pinchas did not consider wisdom as the zenith of the fulfillment of ethics, and said, “I fear that I will be more a sage than a fearer of G–d. I prefer fear of Heaven to wisdom, and care more for a good heart than either of those.”

However, R. Pinchas was not only a sage, but also intelligent and witty. Once he entered a synagogue and found a group of people engaged in conversation. He asked them, “What matter are you discussing?” One of those in the group replied, “We are in sorrow and worry about what to do to fight the Evil Inclination that persecutes us.” R. Pinchas responded, “My dear Jews, this worry of yours has not even reached its time. You have not even attained the spiritual level of forcing the Evil Inclination to persecute you. It is you who are chasing the Evil Inclination and are not yet persecuted at all!”

The tendency towards sarcasm expressed itself in a conversation he had with R. Asher, the son of R. Aharon of Karlin. The “Great R. Aharon,” a disciple of the Magid of Mezeritch passed away at the age of thirty–six. R. Pinchas once met R. Asher and told R. Asher, “Your father did a foolish thing.” R. Asher was shaken up because whatever R. Pinchas said reached the ears of the Court of Heaven. R. Pinchas continued, “The foolish deed committed by your father was that he died young.”

R. Yaakov–Yosef of Polnoe, the eldest of the followers of the Ba'al Shem Tov, truly believed that he would inherit the chair of the Ba'al Shem Tov, and had good reason to believe this. According to Professor Buber, R. Yaakov–Yosef was the Xenophon[6] of the Ba'al Shem Tov.

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The Ba'al Shem Tov himself said that G–d himself would be grateful for the fact that he “raised” this kind of Yosele, i.e., R. Yaakov–Yosef, his great disciple who opened up ears to the teaching of the Ba'al Shem Tov. He began the commentaries on the Hassidism of the Ba'al Shem Tov and published his book in the “holy city,” Mezhibozh.

R. Yaakov–Yosef poured his heart out before R. Pinchas, who told the following allegory: “Why is it that while the czar is sleeping they hand his crown on a nail on the wall? After all, this denigrates the honor of the czar. Presumably one person should have been appointed a particular person, one of the leading ministers, or the assistant to the king, to remain awake while the king sleeps, and to wear the crown on his own head. But in fact, this would lead the holder of the crown to say, “I am the real czar! Not the nail, an inanimate object which cannot utter a word….”

 

R. Pinchas and the Ba'al Shem Tov

The name of the Ba'al Shem Tov became known in the world, and R. Pinchas also heard about him. However, R. Pinchas only managed to meet the founder of Hassidism shortly before the Ba'al Shem Tov's death in 5560 (1760), and it was approximately in that year that these two luminaries met.

Chronologists of the history of Hassidism say that both men had longed to see one another in person. R. Pinchas was brought to the Ba'al Shem Tov by his father, Avraham–Abba. However, the author of Shivchei Habesht [Praises of the Ba'al Shem Tov] wrote that at first R. Avraham–Abba did not show respect for the Ba'al Shem Tov, but then had a change of heart and recognized the greatness of the Ba'al Shem Tov. He then told his son, R. Pinchas, “He and no other! He and no other!”

His son asked him what he saw in the Ba'al Shem Tov, and R. Avraham–Abba replied, “Let me tell you, my son. I had a dream last night that I entered into Paradise. A ministering angel of the Torah told me Torah teachings in the name of the Ba'al Shem Tov. When I awoke, I remembered it well and it was for this reason that I came here. What I heard in the dream from the angel is what I heard from his holy mouth.” (Shivchei Habesht, p. 81–82).

The Ba'al Shem Tov respected R. Pinchas greatly. It is said that when the time arrived for the Ba'al Shem Tov to pass away, R. David of Ostrog approached his bed and asked him why he was leaving them. The Holy Man replied, “Dov–Ber and the teacher, Pinchas.” However, after the Ba'al Shem Tov died, many of his disciples traveled to R. Pinchas and highly respected him.

Even R. Zvi, the son of the Ba'al Shem Tov (about whom his father said, “I did not approach my bed for 14 years, and Hershele my son was born by a divine word.” Shivchei Habesht (p. 36), visited R. Pinchas to consult with him on divine service. And what was even more important is regarding R. Baruch of Mezhibozh, a grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov, who grew up in the house of R. Pinchas and was considered his disciple.

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R. Pinchas said that R. Baruch was a “novelty.” According to legend, when R. Baruch was staying with R. Pinchas and was taking his afternoon nap, R. Pinchas gathered his students around the bed, went over to the mezuza and covered it with his hand. R. Baruch began to move around in bed as if he was awakening. But when R. Pinchas removed his hand from the mezuza R. Baruch went back to sleep. R. Pinchas told his students, “You see, R. Baruch does not spend a moment asleep without attaching himself to G–d.”

When R. Pinchas visited the Ba'al Shem Tov he became ill. The Ba'al Shem Tov called a doctor to perform some bloodletting. He told the doctor that it would be best to withdraw the first amount of blood from the location where it was needed, but if not, the Ba'al Shem Tov would be prepared to place his finger on the spot of the bloodletting so that his own blood would come out rather than R. Pinchas' blood, because R. Pinchas' blood was very precious and had been conserved from the Six Days of Creation.

The legend emphasizes that the Ba'al Shem Tov claimed that from the moment that R. Pinchas' star started shining in the heavens of Hassidism, his own light became to dim. During a return visit by the Ba'al Shem Tov to R. Pinchas, he told R. Pinchas, “In my youth I felt that when I raised my hands worlds would move. Now I do not feel it.” It is also recounted that before the death of the Ba'al Shem Tov, R. Yaakov of Anapoli asked him about the virtues of all the disciples. He answered him about each one, and when he asked about R. Pinchas, he replied, “Please do not ask about such a great and holy man such as him.”

Nevertheless, the relationship between R. Pinchas and the Ba'al Shem Tov was a “chain of ice,” i.e., that it was actually chilly because the sources of their souls were different and in opposition to each other.

It is said that the soul of the Ba'al Shem Tov “was one of those souls that fled and escaped from Adam before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge and had not experienced the taste of sin at all.” He was completely a mystery, a legend. His opposite, R. Pinchas, was a rationalist. And this is the reason why the Ba'al Shem Tov rather than R. Pinchas had the privilege of being so beloved by the people and to be its spiritual shepherd. R. Pinchas was much deeper, much richer in knowledge in Torah and wisdom than the Ba'al Shem Tov, because the people were attracted to mysteries because of longing for the world of legend and the romance of life.

This rationalist nature is what separated R. Pinchas from the simple folk and prevented the masses from knowing about him. However the amazing thing is this statement from R. Pinchas, “If I have a choice between Paradise and Hell, I will take Hell and suffer the travails of gehennom together with our fellow Jews who are there. I would not move out of there as long as a single Jew remains there.”

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The difference in his teachings and style prevented R. Pinchas from deferring totally to the Ba'al Shem Tov and from accepting his leadership. He was sure that his own path, rather than that of the Ba'al Shem Tov, was the straight and proper one, and declared publicly that “had I lived years ago people would have served G–d according to the manner he would direct them on.” R. Pinchas viewed the Ba'al Shem Tov as his equal, and said, “one can find my equal in Mezhibozh.”

It is possible that in his heart R. Pinchas felt the greatness of the Ba'al Shem Tov according to the statement of the R. Mendel of Kotzk, “the Ba'al Shem Tov decreed that no one coming after him would be greater than himself.” So wherever R. Pinchas mentioned the Ba'al Shem Tov he never refers to him as “my Teacher” the way all the disciples did, and the Ba'al Shem Tov related to him as his friend and comrade.

A midrashic source relate “Until Adam obtained his body, G–d showed him every single tzaddik who would ever emerge from him: one tzaddik whose source was Adam's head, one whose source was his hair, another his forehead, eyes, nose or nostrils” (Midrash Rabba, Torah Portion Ki Tisa, Sect. 40:3). The Ba'al Shem Tov was the “Adam” of Hassidism, and all its streams branched out from his teachings. The tzaddikim who came after him were rooted in his head, ears, etc. However, this was not so with R. Pinchas.

These two tzaddikim were metaphorically the “First Ones” within the concept of “Beginning.” The Ba'al Shem Tov spoke as the “Foundation of Halacha in Hassidism” while R. Pinchas spoke as the “Foundation of Hassidism in Halacha.” The Ba'al Shem Tov could have said about R. Pinchas what Moses said about R. Akiva as recounted in the Talmud, “Master of the Universe! You have a man such as he [Rabbi Akiva], and you are giving the Torah through me?!” However, this question never received a reply because G–d silenced Moses and said to him, “This is what I decided.”

Only through this theological approach are we able to explain how the Ba'al Shem Tov was greater than R. Pinchas, i.e., that G–d “chose” the Ba'al Shem Tov specifically, and it is impossible for us to conceive things that are locked before our understanding.

He learned his path in Hassidism on his own. Although he did not say so explicitly, it appeared from his words that it was he, R. Pinchas, and not the Ba'al Shem Tov, who was the “Adam” of Hassidism. He emphasized that he had no teacher, and that he learned everything on his own from within. It was his soul that taught him, and said, “I could sit for one hundred years on a desert island with no books to study, and I could still serve G–d non–stop.” However, his well of Hassidism was filled with his dunes. The legendary words could be applied to him: “No father taught him, he had no teacher.” Everything that was his foundation during his lifetime came from his own merit.

R. Pinchas testified about himself that he drew his knowledge of the secrets of the Torah and wisdom from a high place of divine understanding. He once said to Rabbi Yaakov Shimshon from Shpitovka: “The difference between us is only that your esteemed Torah learning was derived from the Jerusalem Talmud, while I acquired mine from the same location from where the Jerusalem Talmud obtained its Torah knowledge,” meaning that he acquired his first ideas in the form of divine revelation.

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With this statement R. Pinchas places himself on the same page as the sages of the Talmud. He believed that there are no boundaries and limitations to the spirit, and every person is capable of reaching the original cause of the human phenomenon.

The feeling of pride and self–assuredness that he had was another reason, and perhaps a decisive one, why he did not accept the leadership of the Ba'al Shem Tov. When R. Pinchas was approximately four years old a fire broke out in his father's home, and the entire house and all its contents went up in flames. His father sat on the ruins of the house and mourned his bitter fate. R. Pinchas asked him, “Father, why are you crying?” His father replied, “I am not mourning about the burned house and possessions that went up in flames, but am crying only about the genealogy document of our family that I owned which links us to the Rosh,[7] of blessed memory, and which went up in flames. Little Pinchas asked, “Father, don't cry. We will have new family genealogy. It will start with me.” In order to understand the trait of pride that existed in the heart of R. Pinchas we must remember that the Rosh, R. Asher ben Yechiel, was one of the leading halachic authorities in his generation who became famous with his book on ethics entitled Orchot Chaim [Paths of Life].

 

Rabbi Pinchas and Maimonides

The sources that inspired R. Pinchas were different from those that inspired the Ba'al Shem Tov. R. Pinchas became a tsaddik from in depth study of Guide to the Perplexed of Maimonides. The Hassidism of the Ba'al Shem Tov was the Hassidism of the heart, and R. Pinchas sought a blended Hassidism, a form of Hassidism of the heart and of the head.

Maimonides was not overly accepted by the leaders of Hassidism, and merely accepting him was a serious and fundamental deviation from the worldview of Hassidism, which rejected philosophy entirely, including Jewish religious philosophy. According to Hassidism, philosophy is the enemy of Jewish, and whoever delves into it “does not return.”

It is not difficult to imagine the storm created by R. Pinchas in the Hassidic world when he said that “when they are in one's home the books of Maimonides produce fear of Heaven in a person's heart,” and Guide for the Perplexed was so important to R. Pinchas that he read it a thousand times and never wanted to let it out of his home or to lend it out. However, he did not feel complete with Guide for the Perplexed, because he understood that the “marriage” between Aristotle and the Torah of Judaism could not succeed.

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R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk mocked the “golden path” of Aristotle and said, “Only horses, not men, tread along in the middle of the road.”

R. Pinchas apologized for his affection for Maimonides and said, “The Guide for the Perplexed is like a pharmacy that has all types of drugs for healing sicknesses, and this includes the “sam hamavet” [deadly poison]. However, an expert pharmacist knows how to mix them and create from them medications to heal the sick and to bring them back to life.”

What did R. Pinchas adopt from Maimonides? He took the essences of Maimonidean philosophy, the golden path.

R. Pinchas said, “Everything has a middle point. Between living beings and plants are the “adanei sadeh[8] between living beings and humans are apes; between yomtov and regular days are the intermediate days of the festivals [chol hamo'ed]; between night and day is twilight, and so forth between one world and another.”

This view is expressed in the Mishnah Torah of Maimonides in the chapter on the Laws of Ideas in the volume Sefer Hamada [Book of Science]: “The straight path is the intermediate trait in every single one of a person's ideas, which is at an equal distance from both extremes. Therefore our early Sages stated that a person should a person should always place and assess his ideas in the middle path so that he should be complete in his body.

How so? He should not be an irate person who gets angry easily, but also not be like a dead person without feelings. Rather he should be in between: he should only become angry about something very great about which it is appropriate to become angry so that on another occasion he does not simply do so perfunctorily.”

 

The Yachin and Boaz[9] of his Teachings[10]

The Yachin and Boaz, the two pillars of the Hassidism of R. Pinchas were: Truth and Humility. Truth is said to be the stamp of G–d. Whoever seeks to be attached to G–d must stay away from falsehood. Since such a person fears that he may inadvertently say some falsehood, R. Pinchas took upon himself the life's wisdom of R. Shimon ben Gamliel: “All my days I grew up among the sages, and never found anything better for the body than silence,” and “A person who talks too much brings about sin.”

R. Pinchas so strongly believed in truth that he said, “If the entire world would speak the truth then the Messiah would come.” He hated hypocrites whose words were different from their beliefs. He once told his disciple, R. Rafael, “Rafael my son, stay away from philosophizing.” When R. Rafael asked him what he was referring to, R. Pinchas replied, “Philosophizing is saying one thing and believing something else.”

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R. Pinchas, who greatly respected the book Toldoth Yaakov Yosef [written by R. Yaakov of Polnoye] and said that “there are no books like this in the world because it is Torah from Paradise,” also said “The difference between the Rabbi of Polnoye and myself is this: the Rabbi loves truth very much, and due to his great love for truth he speaks a great deal and widely disseminates words of truth to the public, and is not concerned if among so many words of truth a little bit of falsehood gets mixed in. But I strongly hate falsehood, and therefore, I do not even speak words of truth for fear that my words might inadvertently include a bit of falsehood.”

Legend recounts that R. Pinchas said on himself that for thirteen year he worked on the trait of not speaking falsehood, and then spent another thirteen years working on the trait of speaking the truth. After all of this time he said, “When I prayed and my teeth were falling out of my mouth, it still was not the truth.” He also said, “when anyone speaks falsehood in my presence he is stinging my ears.” R. Pinchas said that he loved to pray at sunrise every morning before the air and space become filled with the lies that people are talking all day.

R. Pinchas believed that truth was cosmic and common among all people. Hassidim used to recount the following story in this regard: once R. Pinchas was leading the congregation in the evening prayer [Maariv] and cried out the words “shomer amo Yisrael le'ad” [“protects his People Israel forever”] in a booming voice. A duchess passed by the beth midrash and lowered her head to look through the window (because the windows in the beth midrash in Koretz were low) and said in Polish, “How truthful that cry from the heart is, without any falsehood!” When R. Pinchas heard the story he replied, “The gentiles also know what truth is.”

About arrogance R. Pinchas said, “There have to be reasons for all the sins that a person commits: either through a person or something else. But arrogance needs no reason.” “Let us thank G–d,” said R. Pinchas, “who forbade us the trait of arrogance. Had there been a mitzvah to be prideful we would never be able to fulfill G–d's decree.”

Just like the great teachers of Judaism R. Pinchas said, “A man who has a drop of arrogance or impertinence, even if he is a tsaddik and just person with other traits has no value.” Therefore, R. Pinchas did not like the Lithuanian Jews because he found in them more than one eighth of arrogance. His dislike of Lithuanian Jews was so great to the point where he said that if he felt in himself even one vein of a Lithuanian he would cut it out from his body. He even spoke ill of the Gaon of Vilna because he suspected him of arrogance.

Therefore, he did not want his son R. Moshe, the rabbi of Slavita and book printer in Slavita, to print the Talmud (which he printed at his own expense in his printing house) with the comments of the Gaon of Vilna. R. Pinchas, however, was one of the students of our patriarch Abraham about whom it is said they had three things: “A good eye, humility and meekness.”

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He learned the trait of humility from the simple, ordinary Jews. He said, “I am in awe and fear of R. Hershel the Water Carrier. When someone like him enters a house, even the home of a very wealthy person, he is lowly and humble, and considered himself as nothing. Am I ever able to reach that level of humility?”

In the matter of humility R. Pinchas was a disciple of the Ba'al Shem Tov, who taught that the trait of humility was the basis and foundation of a human being. “A man,” said the Ba'al Shem Tov, “could reach everything reached by the Tannaim and Amoraim of the Talmud except for the impediment of ego which prevents him from reaching it.” R. Pinchas said, “The Torah loves lowliness. In ancient times people would studying on the ground.”

His trait of humbleness was so great that when his name became known in the world, he would sigh and say, “Master of the Universe, what sins and misdeeds did I commit that I was punished by becoming a famous person?”

Despite his humility, R. Pinchas was free of any arrogance or conceit. He attested to himself that, “If I could write down everything I say I could revive a large number of souls.” Or, for example, “Whenever I make a gesture in this direction I move this world, and when I make a gesture in another direction I move another world.” He was sure about his spiritual powers and innocently believed in his ability “to spread out clouds to purify the heavens.”

R. Pinchas reached the pinnacle of his humility–pride in the following areas: R. Pinchas was very strict about not sleeping in a low place of about three handbreadths from the ground. But he was reminded that in the Tractate of the Fathers [Avot] it says, “This is the way of the Torah, to sleep on the ground.” R. Pinchas replied, “Yes, the sages instructed that this is the way of the Torah, but this refers to someone who is on the path heading to the Torah, but this does not refer to me because I have the Torah in my innards.”

There are also pedagogical/educational principles in his teachings. R. Pinchas presented himself as a teacher of the masses. From this perspective, his view about eliminating anger is very important. An ancient writer, Archytas, expressed a very interesting idea about this. When he became angry at his slave he said, “You are lucky that I am angry”, which means that a person should not punish someone while angry because in anger the punishment is exaggerated.

R. Pinchas said, “Whoever wishes to teach his family the true path must not become angry at them because through anger a person not only renders himself impure but the souls of those at whom he is angry as well.” Therefore, “we are even obligated to pray for the wicked among the nations because this will bring the Messiah.”

In suppressing anger R. Pinchas reached a very high level of humanity. “I struggled with anger for many years until I defeated it and placed it in my pocket. Whenever I need it I will take it out. But I am angry at it and never want to take it out of my pocket ever!”

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His Writings – Their Style and Fate

We have enjoyed only the bare remnants of the deep wisdom of R. Pinchas because we have no original, large and organized books from him. Most of his Torah writings are unknown among the living. Many of his clever and sharp statements were taken over by other tsaddikim.

In section 171 of his book, A Memoir of the Great Rabbis of Ostroh, R. Mendel Biber writes “While residing in my hometown of Slavita, I the writer used to go almost every Sabbath and holiday to meet the grandson of the Rabbi and honest tzaddik, our teacher R. Pinchas, of blessed memory, from Slavita, and while with him I saw an old manuscript of Torah teachings and divine wisdom of the Rabbi and tzaddik R. Pinchas of Koretz. I examined it repeatedly and saw in it great, amazing and lofty teachings standing at the top of the world from the wisdom of kabbalah and divine inquiry.

They befitted the person who said them. His grandson had a tradition not to allow the manuscript to be printed. However, many parts of those writings already found their way into the hands of outsiders and they deleted and interpolated those writings, ruining the splendor of those holy teachings. They destroyed more than they repaired.”

Only a few booklets and small sections of the Torah teachings of R. Pinchas became known in the world. These booklets are:

  1. “Collections from Rabbi R. Pinchas.” This has about one hundred and thirty paragraphs and was published at the back of the book, Ner Yisrael [Candle of Israel] written by the Maggid of Koznitz. This book was published in Vilna from a manuscript belonging to one of the disciples of the Maggid of Koznitz. In 1857, it was reprinted in Chernovitz in a special booklet called Likkutei Shoshanim [Collection of Roses].
  2. Nofet Tsufim [Choice Honey] – printed in Lelov in 1864 together with the book Kodesh Hilulim [Holiness of Praises] containing many statement from R. Pinchas of Koretz. R. Shimon of Zhilikhov said about the teachings of R. Pinchas in his recommendation of this book, “Had I only come here to hear his words that would have sufficed.”
  3. Geulat Yisrael [Redemption of Israel]. This is a collection of booklets from various tzaddikim, and has a special one for the Torah teachings of R. Pinchas. This book was printed in Lelov in 1864.
  4. Midrash Pinchas [The Midrash of Pinchas]. This is the main source from where we draw on the wisdom of R. Pinchas.
The author of the book Eser Orot [Ten Lights] said that “all of them include material penetrating into the depths of a man's heart for Torah, divine service and pure fear of G–d. It is incomparable.”

[Page 43]

His teachings are quoted several times in the books of our rabbis and expand upon his [sic] foundation like an ancient “midrash.” Ancient writers have said “habent sua fata libelli – Books have a destiny of their own.” The destiny of the writings of R. Pinchas was such that the teachings of other tzaddikim became included in them, and likewise his teachings were assimilated into those of others. We have no idea where R. Pinchas ends and another rabbi begins. Due to this reason we find many contradictions in the writings of R. Pinchas, and it is difficult for us to believe that one man would have stated both one idea and its opposite.

We can assume that as far as we are acquainted today with the teachings of R. Pinchas it is not exactly the same Torah as was known to R. Rafael from Bershad. It is possible that we do not possess original texts from an original source.

 

His Departure from this World

All great Hassidic masters longed to go to the Land of Israel. Moving there was an integral part of the Torah teachings of Hassidism, and there were some who traveled there and returned home, while other settled there and yet others were unable to realize their aspirations of moving there. R. Pinchas was among the latter. He longed to settle in the Land of Israel his entire life, and would say, “Anyone who does not desire the Land of Israel is in a deep depression.” He frequently saw the form of the Land of Israel in his dreams, together with its rivers, mountains, houses and blue skies. However, his trip was prevented by his attachment to his followers since the hassidim of Koretz were a small community and they were utterly attached to their rebbe. Thus, it was difficult for him to leave them.

However, in 5551 (1790) he decided to move to the Holy Land and to behold its soil. He packed his bags and departed. On his way he passed the city of Shepetovka to receive a goodbye blessing from his in–law R. Shimon. He became ill and never recovered.

Following three days in bed without recuperating he descended into great sadness. R. Pinchas felt that his time had arrived to leave this world. He lay absentminded without awaking even for the Shabbat evening prayers [kabbalat Shabbat]. However early Shabbat morning he suddenly let out a desperate cry and lost his voice. He opened his palms and his lips uttered something. Those attending him hear R. Pinchas begging them to ask G–d to have mercy on him and to ask the Creator to allow him to live for a few more years in order to be able to arrive in the Holy Land and to see it with his own eyes.

R. Pinchas passed away in Shepetovka on the 10th of Elul in 5551 at the age of sixty five.

The following story is told about his death: the renowned scholar R. Yaakov Shimshon of Shepetovka saw a vision of the Shechina [divine presence] in the form of a woman crying and lamenting about the husband of her youth who passed away. He awoke from his sleep and told his friends that there was no one currently in the world who could be the husband of the Shechina except for R. Pinchas of Koretz, and that he had certainly died that same night. He tore his garment in mourning and broke out crying because R. Pinchas was his teacher. Sometime later the death of R. Pinchas was confirmed.

The following is the text on the gravestone of R. Pinchas:

Here is buried the soul [sic] of our Master,
The hidden light just as Pinchas son of Yair,
The breath of our nose, our Teacher and Rabbi,
R. Pinchas son of R. Avraham Shapira
Builder of fences, standing in the breach,
His praises fill the world, his soul departed in purity on Friday
And was buried on the 10th of Elul of the Hebrew year
Whose numerical value corresponds to the words of the verse:
“Bury me in the grave in which the man of G–d is buried” [1 Kings 13:31][11]

 

His descendants and what happened to them

His wife Treina had five sons and one daughter.

  1. R. Meir, who was the son–in–law of R. Yaakov–Shimshon of Shepetovka.
  2. R. Moshe, who was the rabbi of Slavita.
  3. R. Yaakov–Shimshon, who was the rabbi of the city of Zaslav.
  4. R. Yechezkel, who was the son–in–law of the Maggid of Polnoye.
  5. R. Eliyahu, who died in his youth during his father's lifetime.
The daughter, Rachel–Sheindel, married the famous rabbi R. Shmuel, who was the head of the rabbinical court of Kalniblat and Zwinorodka.

His wife [Rachel Sheindel] was known by all as “the Kalniblat Rebbetzin”. He had one son named Aharon, who succeeded him in Kalniblat.

We should give some attention to the words of R. Moshe, the rabbi of Slavita because it relates to an event that at the time stirred up emotions among Jews in Russia and elsewhere.

R. Moshe Shapiro was born in 5520 (1759). While still a child he stood out with his talents in drawing. So his father arranged for him to study the trade of engraving and printing.

[Page 45]

R. Pinchas sought to fulfill the words of the Talmudic sages who said that every father has the obligation to teach his son a craft to avoid dependency on others. Therefore it was recommended that R. Moshe learn the printing occupation which had a good future.

Even before R. Moshe established his own printing press he engraved beautiful letters of craftsman's quality, and his first product was to publish a new volume of the six orders of the Mishnah with various commentaries. It appeared in 5551 [1791].

R. Moshe immortalized his name by printing a new edition of the Babylonian Talmud. The political situation in those days forced almost every printing house in Poland to close their doors. This was because it was a period of Napoleon's war in Russia. However, R. Moshe Shapira reflected on this and did not leave his home until the entire Talmud was printed. He also corrected the Talmud from all the errors that had crept in, and edited it in a very detailed manner with the assistance of his two sons, R. Shmuel Avraham Abba and R. Pinchas.

Early in the summer of 5595 (1835) an “impure” event occurred in Slavita, because of which the Shapira brothers and all printing houses in Volhyn were closed and ceased operations because of this event.

One evening in the month of Iyar [May] of 5595, when the custodian was entering the synagogue of the tailors, he found the body of Leizer Frotogan, a bookbinder, hanging on the ceiling.

The priest Michael Bendrovsky, an anti–semite, submitted slander to the chief of police in St. Petersburg suggesting that the Shapira brothers were responsible for the death of the man because the bookbinder knew about their secret – that they printed various books without a license from the censor filled with poison against the ruling religion, and that they killed him to prevent him from causing trouble.

R. Shmuel Abba and R. Pinchas were taken into custody on April 9, 1836 and sent to prison in Kiev. On March 30, 1838 the Supreme Military Court decreed to punish each of them to be flogged 1,500 times, to cancel all their rights and expel them to Siberia.

These wounds evoked disgust. They remained in a government hospital for many weeks lying on their stomachs. While they were receiving the floggings splinters of wood penetrated their bodies. The removal of these splinters incurred tremendous suffering.

The two Shapira brothers were sentenced for twenty years. On June 1, 1856 Alexander II agreed to release them and to return them to their home in Slavita.

[Page 46]

The historian Ginzburg says that before the brothers left Moscow they were greeted by their admirers filled with joy, and R. Shmuel–Abba sat in sadness and depression among them. They asked him: “It's now the time of freedom and you are saddened?” He replied, “I am concerned that our freedom has now been lost because when we get home we will be greeted as 'holy men.' Will our energy be enough to allow us to survive the test when they beg us to be the leaders of the community?” And this is what happened. They rejected the requests of the Hassidic community.

R. Shmuel–Abba passed away in 1863 in the town of Teplik in Podolia at the age of seventy–nine. R. Pinchas passed away in Slavita in 1878 at the age of eighty. Their father, R. Moshe, became ill from all the grief over the suffering of his family and died in 1837.

 

Sources

Avraham Yehoshua Heschel: “The life of R. Pinchas of Koretz” (printed in Alei Ayin, Jerusalem 1948–1952).
Chaim Dov Friedberg: “The History of Hebrew Printing in Poland.”
Shimon Dubnov: “History of Hassidism”.
“Ten Lights”.
R. Mendel Biber: “A Memoir of the Great Rabbis of Ostroh.”
“New Order of the Generations” [Seder Hadorot Hachadash]
M. Buber: “The Hidden Light”.
M. Buber: “In the Paradise of Hassidism”.
Rabbi Mattityahu Yechezkel Gutman: “R. Pinchas of Koretz.”
Aharon Marcus: “Hassidism.”
Meir Shchernsky: “Great Personalities of Hassidism from the Ba'al Shem Tov to Our Times.”
Meir Shchernsky: “History of Hassidism and its Torah Teachings from the Ba'al Shem Tov to Our Times.”
Nachum Sokolov, Personalities: “Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav.”
Eliezer Steinman: The Well of Hassidism. “R. Pinchas of Koretz.”
Dr. S. A. Horodtsky: Hassidism and Hassidim. “R. Pinchas of Koretz.”
Midrash Pinchas
“Manuscripts of R. Pinchas.”
“Wonderful Things”.
“Lips of Tsaddikim.”
“The Candle of Israel.”
“The Words of Tzaddikim.”
“Choice Honey.”


Footnotes

  1. [Trans. comment: this sounds like a reference to Hitler] Return
  2. Plutarch, the well–known Greek biographer born in 46 BCE. He is famous worldwide for his biographies of the greats of Greece and Rome. Return
  3. Genesis from the Greek root gignesthai meaning creation or offspring. The book of Genesis–Bereishit is called Genesis because it is concerned with the generations of the world and humanity. Return
  4. Known as “Chen” (as a word it means “charm” in Hebrew), an acronym for Hidden Wisdom (referring to Kabbalah knowledge. Those who understand it are called “those who know chen.”) Return
  5. He was known as the ARI, an acronym for “Our Master R, Yitzchak” which also means “lion” and was known as the founder of the wisdom of kabbalah. He was born in Jerusalem in 1534 and died in Safed in 1572. Return
  6. Xenophon lived 354–430 BCE. He recorded the words of Socrates in his book, “The Banquet.” Buber considered R. Yaakov–Yosef to have recorded the words of the Ba'al Shem Tov. Return
  7. The great Spanish Talmudic scholar Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asher_ben_Jehiel. Return
  8. [Trans. comment: A creature mentioned in midrashic sources that was attached to the ground like a plant by a cord]. Return
  9. [Trans. comment: The two brass or bronze pillars in Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem]. Return
  10. When Solomon built the Temple he raised up these two columns in the main area of the Temple (the “heichal”) as is recorded in 1 Kings, Chapter 7, verse 21. These names are used in metaphorical instruction when asking to indicate fundamental principles in a particular mishnah. Return
  11. [Trans. comment: The Hebrew word for “buried” in the verse from 1 Kings is “kavur” whereas the reference on the gravestone uses the other passive form “nikbar” which is not part of the verse. Evidently the mathematical calculation corresponding to the year 5551 only works with the word nikbar (which contains the letter nun that has a value of 50) and not the word kavur. Kavur has a mathematical value of 308 which nikbar has a value of 352. Return

 

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