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[Page 83]

Something about
the Ostrowiec method in studying

by HaRav Isser Frenkel

Translated by Sara Mages

They said: when R' Meir Yechiel died and departed from the world, he appeared before Beit Din shel Maalah [the Heavenly Court], and when they asked him, as they ask every person who is brought to justice: “Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom?” R' Meir Yechiel fell silent and didn't answer the question. Immediately came and stood before Beit Din shel Maalah heaps of halakhot[1] that R' Meir Yechiel explained on every single letter of the Torah, even the little crowns that adorn many of the letters of the Torah, like R' Akiva[2] in his time - and they surrounded him from the front and back and wrapped themselves around him. And Beit Din shel Maalah began to read all the halakhot and their eyes lit up, like a shining mirror, from the abundance of light and the spark that flowed from the piles of these halakhot, and asked: Whose are they? The halakhot said: of that tzadik that we are wrapped around him and surround from all sides. Beit Din shel Maalah answered and said: bless you Avraham Avinu that Meir Yechiel is your offspring. The question, “Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom?” no longer exists, because “wisdom” itself is standing before us…

* * *

What was the study method of R' Meir Yechiel Halevi? What is that wonderful method that has received such open and tumultuous admiration, and it has the simple and casual name, “Ostrowiec,” without a nickname and without any additions?

Indeed, a new method in the world of teaching, the pilpul[3] method. But not the one we are used to mentioning in the same breath with R' Yaakov Pollak[4]. Because how can Rabbi Jacob's method be interpreted?

“The main foundation of the pilpul method is the intellectual science. But, with no similarity to the Sephardic method of intellectual science that aspired to build in an architectural way a building of thoughts. In the pilpul you mainly find mental gymnastics, without any real positive result to the body of the matter, and also without special efficiency and fertility. It seems, as if after strenuous activation of superior spiritual powers and great spiritual vigor, a machine is driven without the benefit of the machine being utilized, or a wheel that rotates incessantly around its axis only. This is not about the improvement of the order of study, or finding the true reason for the law, or establishing a fundamental historical fact regarding what concerns a certain Talmudic formula.”

* * *

This is how R' Yaakov Pollak's method was interpreted by those who rose up against him and harshly criticized his methods (among them were: the Maharal[5], Maharshal[6], Maharsha[7], Shelah[8] and more). But, in fact, the pilpul method in the period of R' Yaakov Pollak was the spice of life for the Jews of the time. They lived in ghettos, and this was a point of light in the darkness. The pilpul, the clarification, the sharp and prickly idea - all of them maintained the Jews in the Diaspora and breathed life into them.

To this day there are two methods in the world of learners: the method of deepening and logic, and, in contrast, the method of pilpul and sharp-wittedness. But, with all the criticism of the pilpul method, R' Yaakov Pollak set for himself a place of eternity in the world of learners. Moreover: R' Yaakov Pollak himself acknowledges that the pilpul is for clarification and does not come to draw conclusions for the halakha, since most conclusive proof is the fact that both R' Yaakov Pollak, and his sworn and faithful student. R' Shalom Shakhna[9] (rabbi and father-in-law of R' Moses Isserles, which can also be seen as the successor of the pilpul method), didn't write books so that no conclusions would be drawn from them. And on the other hand, they were known in their generation as the supreme ruling authority in all matters concerning questions of Halacha that arose in everyday life. This testifies to the diverse personality of these great Torah scholars.

* * *

And so, we arrive to R' Meir Yechiel Halevi and his method.

The Gemara debates the question: which one came first? The incisive and difficult that from the fervor of thought may sometimes argue without a basis to the question, or the moderate and conclusive who investigates and ponders the matter and comes to a correct practical conclusion? - the Gemara question remained in a draw. But, R' Meir Yechiel Halevi zt”l, HaGaon of Ostrowiec, came and solved this question with his broad personality.

* * *

He was learned and sharp- witted. He couldn't make a mistake and be confused with the wrong version, because of his vast knowledge in all the secrets of the Torah - as in the saying in Tanna Devei Eliyahu[10] that illustrates the essence of his teachings: “Just as the Holy One, blessed be He has secrets in his Torah, so each of the scholars has secrets in his teachings” (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah Chapter 6) - everything was visible and known before him and open before him like the scroll of a book. And he uprooted very big mountains and ground them together. His wit knew no bounds and limits. He literally cleared large areas of stones and filled valleys and ravines, straightens rails and filled pits. There's no definition that can express

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the validity of his greatness and the extent of his Talmudic knowledge. He was sharp and difficult, yet mild and concluder, therefore, his question doesn't remain in the draw.

He approached with sharp-wittedness, carefully cut the issue he was dealing with and in this manner drew the true conclusion. He opened with a face expressing pleasantness and kindness, and from the easy came to the heavy and serious. He started calmly and rose with his pure intellect high up into the creative world. He said something far-fetched, improbable, and yet - although it seems strange - he straightened the curved into a straight line, showed the versatility of the ways of studying the Torah, method within method, commentaries within commentaries, straight and upside down, back and forth, until it is impossible to get to the bottom of his opinion - and yet, at the end you can find the halakha strong and improved and enlightening, because it was the strength of R' Meir Yechiel Halevi - the power of the Torah.

* * *

R' Meir Yechiel Halevi continued the method of R' Yaakov Pollak and R' Shalom Shakhna and found new ways in it. He also held their opinion because he answered all life's questions that arose with complete and absolute decisiveness. Only sometimes he writes: “Regarding the question, I don't want to resort to halakha for hidden reasons but, instead, I will amuse myself in with pilpul be-alma” [i.e. inferring one matter from another]. However, he refrained from writing his pilpulim. If his pilpulim have a name and a remainder, it is thanks to his tzadik son, R' Yehezkel Halevi zt”l, and his students, and also thanks to the fact that in the letters of consent for the books he was asked to express his opinion on, he adds from the innovations of his spirit and thought.

There was no one like R 'Meir Yechiel Halevi in his sharpness in all of Poland and Lithuania among all the outstanding rabbis of the generation who lived there, and whose teachings are our heritage. He was the craftsman of pilpul, but the established pilpul, the pilpul that has evidence from other sources, that has a foundation and a roof, whose foundations are firm and strong and cannot collapse. And in this regard he was more daring from the first innovators of the pilpul method, R' Yaakov Pollak and his student R' Shalom Shakhna.

The pilpul constituted the elixir of life for R' Meir Yechiel Halevi. In his reply to HaGaon of Sochatchov he ends with the words: “I extended the subject of study in the Six Orders of the Mishnah in the pilpul method, because I'm among the lovers of pilpul.

On every step of the way, even the smallest, you find the line of pilpul: “and it is necessary to debate in all this at length, but due to my lack of strength I will finish.” Or: check carefully because he is sharp,” or in his sharp accounts you find: “and this is a wonder,” and this arouses wonder and wonder at the wonders of the Torah.”

* * *

Negaim[11] and Oholot[12] are simple halakhot, study for the sake of study. And then we turn to the lively route in the study method: the method of pilpul, in which it is possible to renew innovations upon innovations. And the ear is not satisfied with hearing, and the mind is not satisfied with listening. And the main thing is that you study in this method in order to be innovative, and what is the advantage of the power of innovation? “I learned it from my father z”l.” - said R' Meir Yechiel Halevi, “when I came to visit him after many years, he took me out to the market square and told me: Meir Yehiel, you surely remember my bagels. Well, after years and years of roaming around the villages looking for buyers for our bagels, they became famous and everyone arrived at a very early hour and started demanding the bagels, and I got to the point where I had to buy the flour from all the bakers in town to fill the high demand for my bagels. And that's how I accumulated money in which I bought the house that you see - and while talking he showed me the house that was his property, but - father z”l finished by raising his voice - all this was done for me by my success. I didn't inherit anything from others and nothing remained to me… And since then I learned to know - R' Meir Yechiel Halevi continued - everything that a person acquires on his own, and thanks to his talents and actions, remains his property forever… The Torah is certainly not inherited, and when a person learns a lot of Torah and reaches a stage where he can renew innovations in the Torah, shine a light in it and add ornaments decorations to it, Torah becomes his private property, and inalienable asset, in the term of: “And in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). And so - continued R' Meir Yechiel - I practice with my students “because in pilpul I develop the intellect of my students and instill in them the desire to be innovators and to think in the teachings of God.”

He behaved with his students in friendships, and his conversations with them on matters of the Torah and morality, were always conducted out of the desire to share with them the course of his thought according to their perception.

His “perception” was very comprehensive. His perception was for sharp minds like a white-hot big knife used for slaughtering, a sharp two-edged sword or a sharpened knife. There are no stages in his perception. To reach a height, a certain height, you have to climb, or climb a ladder rung by rung, to go step by step, until you reach the peak. An acrobat is able to climb several steps at once. Rabbi Meir doesn't know what acrobatics is, but he knows how to go from the first stage to the highest stage all at once. One of the country's geniuses stands by him and listens to a daily Talmudic conversation built on ladders, meaning a short sermon with stages, that one solution of a problem is rejected in favor of the following question, until we reach an enlightening final conclusion. And the same genius hears dozens of explanations built in a form of a “ladder,” and they flow in a stream from his holy mouth, and he emits in a whisper to the one standing next to him: I don't get this brain. After all, another man

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in his place should have thought about it for at least an hour, and he edited the things in five minutes?… A bit of that whisper crept into R' Meir Yechiel's ear, and he replied as if out of justification for wasting time on a five minute thought because in five minutes you can derive more intellectual benefit: you've made a mistake , I think for five minutes? God-forbid, I think for one minute, the four minutes before the thought I devote to another thought, that the Holy One, blessed be He, will help me reach the source of truth so that I can innovate at that moment correct and accurate things…

* * *

R' Meir Yechiel could have been Rosh Yeshiva[13] in the conventional sense. After all, he belonged to the third type[14] of outstanding people whose lessons form a method of study, and the echo of their teachings spreads to other yeshivot. His innovations constituted a source for pilpul and his questions and solutions served as fundamental teaching material for Roshei Yeshiva and students. He created a unique teaching method and acquired many scholars who were involved in his method and came from near and far. And what did those who came? They were also distributors. They were also the creators of a study method, the famous study method of Ostrowiec.

Dozens of rabbis, and hundreds of religious functionaries in the community, came out of Beit HaMidrash in Ostrowiec, and they all excelled in their own special character, both in their behavior in life and in the way of studying. A character that the distinct seal of Ostrowiec was imprinted on it, the seal that turns the teaching method into part of the Creator's work.

The Torah was firmly established in his students. It stuck a stake in them that wouldn't fall, and they were among the most famous rabbis in Poland. Among them: HaRav Yudel Levin President of the Court of the community of Krakow, HaRav Leibush Rosenberg a judge in Lodz, HaRav R' Eliezer the Rabbi of Wolbrom, HaRav R' Emanuel Leibowtiz, HaRav R' Elimelech the Rabbi of Lagow, HaRav Nachman Meidoser the Rabbi of Brok and Bnei Brak [Israel], HaRav Yerachmiel President of the Court of the community of London, and many others who perished in the Polish Holocaust, and we were not granted that they will continue to spread the teachings of R' Meir Yechiel,(of the students alive today a special mention should be made to HaRav Fishel HaCohen, member of The Chief Rabbinate Religious Council of Tel Aviv-Yafo, and HaRav Z. Ben-Yakov).

Translator's footnotes

  1. Halakha (pl. halakhot) is the totality of laws and ordinances that have evolved since biblical times to regulate religious observances and the daily life and conduct of the Jewish people. Return
  2. Akiva ben Yosef, also known as Rabbi Akiva, was a leading Jewish scholar and sage, a tanna (teacher) of the latter part of the first century and the beginning of the second century. Return
  3. Pilpul/pl. pilpulim (from the Hebrew word pilpel - pepper) is a method of studying the Talmud  through intense textual analysis in attempts to either explain conceptual differences between various halakhic rulings or to reconcile any apparent contradictions presented from various readings of different texts. Return
  4. R' Yaakov Pollak was the founder of the Polish method of halakhic and Talmudic study known as the pilpul. Return
  5. The Maharal of Prague is an acronym for Morenu Harav Rabbi Laib, “Our Teacher Rabbi Leow,” who was a Talmudist, theologian, and Rabbi of Prague. Return
  6. Shlomo Luria (Maharshal) was a Polish rabbi, posek (arbiter) and Talmudic commentator. Return
  7. The Maharsha, a Hebrew acronym for “Our Teacher, the Rabbi Shmuel Eidels” was a renowned rabbi and Talmudist famous for his commentary on the Talmud. Return
  8. Yeshayahu ben Avraham Ha-Levi Horowitz, also known as the Shelah HaKaddosh (“the holy Shelah”) after the title of his best-known work, was a prominent rabbi and mystic. Return
  9. R' Shalom Shakhna was a rabbi and Talmudist and a student of Yaakov Pollak, founder of the method of Talmudic study known as pilpul. Return
  10. Tanna Devei Eliyahu is the composite name of a Midrash (textual interpretation) consisting of two parts. The first part is called Seder Eliyahu Rabbah (31 chapters); the second, Seder Eliyahu Zuṭa (15 chapters). Return
  11. Negaim (lit. “Blemishes”) is the third tractate of the order of Tohorot (Purities) in the Mishnah. Return
  12. Ohaloth (lit. “Tents”) is the second tractate of the Order of Tohorot in the Mishnah. Return
  13. Rosh Yeshiva (pl. Roshei Yeshiva) is the title given to the dean of a yeshiva, a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts Return
  14. There are four types of character in people: 1. Is a Sodom-type of character. 2. is an unlearned person. 3. is a pious person. 4. is a wicked person. (Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 5:10) Return

The greatness of the Admor[1]

by Yechezkel Ereli (Ehrlich)
(told by Tzvi Himel z”l)

Translated by Sara Mages

Many legends and stories circulated about the Rebbe's greatness and among them quite a few miracles.

I've heard the following miracle story about the tzadik of Ostrowiec several years ago.

In the alley leading to the cemetery the wood engraver, R' Eliezer known as “Eliezer Stelmach,” sat in his workshop one winter day. It was noon and R' Eliezer calmly ate his meal. Outside, the neighborhood children skated on the gutter which was frozen and covered with ice.

At the same moment one of the townspeople passed by R' Eliezer's workshop, Yakov Bomshtein was his name and R' Eliezer had an “account” with him. Eliezer the engraver stopped his meal, got up from his workbench, ran towards the passerby and, while running, he slipped and fell and couldn't get back on his feet. R' Eliezer was brought to his house, the city's doctors were summoned urgently to him but they couldn't heal him.

When they despaired of the help of the city's doctors, R' Eliezer was sent to his wealthy son, who lived in Krakow, in order to ask the advice of the doctors of this city. And when they didn't help him, he was brought to the great doctors of Warsaw, the capital. R' Eliezer also returned from Warsaw to his home walking with crutches, and his work was far from him.

R' Eliezer's wife lamented her bitter fate before her girlfriends, and they advised her to turn to the city's tzadik and ask him to pray for her husband's healing. The advice was accepted by the unfortunate woman. She wrapped herself in her scarf and burst into the tzadik's house with a loud cry. When the tzadik heard her sobbing, he sent his helper to ask for the reason. His helper returned to the tzadik and told him who she was and what she was crying about.

The tzadik ordered to bring the woman to his small bedchamber, patiently listened to her cries and pleas and then said: “do you have a few prutot [pennies] with you? Put a pruta on your husband's sore leg, or in his pants pocket, and the cure won't be late in coming.” R' Eliezer's wife returned to her home and immediately did as the tzadik commanded, and by the end of the month the pain disappeared. The engraver immediately threw away the first crutch, and before the end of the second month also threw away the second crutch, and the man was as any man.

Indeed, great are the deeds of the tzadikim , their right will protect us and all of Israel.

Translator's footnote

  1. Admor (Heb. acronym of Adoneinu Moreinu Verabeinu - “our master, teacher, and rabbi”), or Rebbe, is the spiritual leader in the Hasidic movement. Return

[Page 93]

The Ostrovtser

by Y. Opatoshu

Translated by Tina Lunson

The Ostrovtser Rebi “cultivated his character”. He tortured his body, he starved himself and, no wonder, he observed the fasts. He practiced this for half a century. In the evenings he would eat something just in order to maintain his soul and so on from shabes to shabes. Of the virile man who in his youth at his father's bakery could knead a batch of bread by himself, there remained no trace. His shoulders, his hands, his feet – all had become smaller, everything had collapsed. Even his beard, which had once been red, now had no color at all. The little beard grew sparsely and only around his chin.

The Rebi could not be warmed. He stayed in bed whole days because of the cold. On his withered feet, fur socks; on his dried–out hands, fur gloves. Although his body was cold, he never complained. But he did suffer greatly at being cold in his soul, that he was not the son of a good family. Since his father was a baker, they were just “psalm Jews”, no help either. They had to rise at the sprout of day, pour water over their fingers, say a few Jewish words and get to work with rolled–up sleeves, providing the town's Jews with flour, with loaves of bread, helping to fill the body, the living stomachs. Thus the Ostrovtser Rebi observed fasts for half a century, wanting to un–accustom his stomach to food and also pulling his father away from eating, wanting to raise them to a higher level. The Ostrotser's intimates knew this, the corporeal khasidim, who did not retreat from him.

Among the corporeal khasidim, Pinkhas occupied the seat of honor. He was quite manly, a young man, tall, broad at the shoulders, broad at the hips. His hair, black; his large eyes, sensual eyes, black; and his silky beard, black as pitch; the lips red as though they had just tasted a roast.

The Rebi did not move from his place without Pinkhas. Here Pinkhas prayed from the cantor's stand, here he read the Torah, here he passionately recited a bit of zohar. He did all of this for the Rebi. The Rebi, it seemed, could not listen to anything. From deep old age, from great weakness, he lay wrapped in quilts and dozed. From time to time he woke himself, opened his small grey eyes, sad eyes, that bid farewell to the world. Pinkhas bent over the Rebi, bringing his red sensual lips near him:


“Listen, Pinkhas, however long a person lives he must cultivate his character, must wean the organs for eating…”

Pinkhas knew that. He knew that the Rebi continued to wean away the “organs”, was continually “cultivating the character”. He also knew that the Rebi was already dozing again.

At 76 years old the Ostrovtser was entirely finished. He had no energy at all.

Pinkhas did as usual. He seldom came out by day. Here he prayed, here he studied, here recited devotions. And he did everything with fervor, as if he wanted to sit at the head of the service, wanted to help the Rebi free himself from the flesh. And as Pinkhas the insufficient scholar, with the red lips, with the sensual eyes, was standing over the Ostrovtser he did not appear to be the Rebi's assistant but like an evil spirit that would make a mockery of the Ostrovtser.

So then Khenekh the shrewd, himself a great faster, moved heaven and earth. He sought advice to get the Rebi to stop fasting so that he would not destroy the world. Khenekh did not like Pinkhas. He hated him. What substance could Pinkhas' singing have when it was rooted in sensuality, and led to insurrection. And if Pinkhas was the Rebi's impulse to evil, then he, Khenekh, was his impulse to good.

And Khenekh, the impulse to good, persuaded the Rebi not to be angry with Ger. The Ostrovtser was correct in the dispute, not the Gerer Rebi. Therefore the Rebi must let it go, must show the world that the Ostrovtser can surmount the pride, can scorn it. That is what Khenekh said. In truth he hoped that if they could, the Gerer would be able to get the Ostrovtser to stop fasting.

Pinkhas opposed this. La–di–da, such a journey, coaches, trains, and the Rebi was a sickly man.

This time Khenekh the shrewd took the lead. At 76 years of age, the Ostrovtser was willing to travel to Ger.

Every town, every shtetl, all of Crown Poland anticipated much from this encounter.

Ostrovtser khasidim hired a special wagon where the Rebi lay on a padded bed. On his feet, fur socks; on his hands, fur gloves. And he looked completely like a young boy after a terrible illness. At his head was Pinkhas. He peeled a pomegranate, put the seeds in his mouth and hummed a tune. At the Rebi's feet sat Khenekh – thin and mean, like a hungry wolf. In a silent language he directed the khasidim who stood cheek by jowl at the entrance.

In Ger they were expecting the Ostrovtser. Khenekh's “men” were already in the Ger court. They pleaded for the Gerer Rebi to endeavor to make an end to the fasting. Otherwise the Ostrovtser would perish.

The Gerer promised to do so.

All of Ger gathered at the train in welcome to the Ostrovtser. The finest Ger khasidim placed the Ostrovtser in a plush armchair, carrying him with song into the court. Satin coattails flew around woven sashes. Everything gleamed with talis–kotens, with high white stockings, with curled peyes. A khasid in rags and tatters tore through the satin coats and yelled into the Rebi's face, “Oy, it's really victory for Yisroel”.

From the court they approached the Rebi with seven–branched candelabras. The pale little flames reflected in the satin. The Gerer Rebi had approached earlier, approached with great joy, and advanced to the Ostrovtser.

“Sholem Aleykhem, Ostrovtser Rebi.”

“Sholem Aleykhem, Gerer Rebi.”

The Ostrovtser took off the fur gloves and stretched out a hand, like a child. Each regarded the other for a while. The Ostrovtser's hand was small and cold. The Gerer's hand was plump and warm. The Ostrovtser closed his eyes from delight and said quietly, “I am , may you be spared, cold.”

“They say” the Gerer began, “that the Ostrovtser Rebi torments himself too much, does not eat… The “Sfas Emes” did not do that. The “Khidushi Hari'm” did not do that. And the Kotsker did not do that…”

“And I, the Ostrovtser, say, that one can cultivate the character, in order to more easily wean away from the organs for food.”

“Saving a life is more important than fasting, it rejects a fast…”

“Oh Gerer Rebi, that is good.” The Ostrovtser reached both cold hands out to the Gerer and warmed himself on him, as a chilled child warms itself on a mother. “You, Gerer Rebi, have the merit of your ancestry. There is support here, an inheritance – the “Sfas Emes” is your grandfather, the “Khidushi Hari'm” is your great–grandfather and the Kotsker Rebi is your uncle. And since my father was a baker, and my grandfather was a baker and I know nothing about my great–grandfather, must'nt a Jew like me cultivate his character, must'nt wean away the organs? Ha? What do you say, Gerer Rebi? Why are you silent?”

The Ostrovtser spoke the last words unlike a sick man. If you will, even with anger. The court was quiet. The audience, packed together, stood agape, mouths and ears open. And as all waited for the Gerer's response, Khenekh the “shrewd” pushed forward in his ragged clothes. He pulled on the long neck, turned the head around and quickly roared, shouting: “Ostrovtser Rebi, how long will you continue to abuse your own father?”

The silence in the court became deeper, heavier, like the silence that hangs between one thunderclap and another. Because of the crowding the lights went out. The Gerer lifted his beard, as if he wanted to gather it to hide his eyes. The Ostrovtser burst into tears…


Rebi Mayer Yekhiel Halevi


[Page 95]

The Ostrowiec Rabbi Foresees the Holocaust

by Dr. Chaim Shashkes

Translated by Pamela Russ

[ ] translator's comments

That time, I traveled in an old-fashioned way with a regular train to Toronto, Canada. The Jews there wanted me to tell them what I saw in various places of the world, and particularly to bring greetings from my last visit to struggling Israel.

So, I stand and look around at the large hall “Amalgamated,” where the dear guest were sitting around long tables, and were satisfying their hearts with [eating] dairy foods and fruit.

My friend entered the hall – the lawyer Mr. Leibish Zuker, who comes from Ostrowiec, a city of great chassidic ancestry. And as I see him here, in distant Canada, memories befall me of the city and of the great religious leader, the Ostrowiecer Rebbe, Rebbe Meir Yechiel Halevi.

A little over twenty years ago,

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I came for the first time to this old community, with its 16 000 Jews. I went to Yechiel Zukerman's hotel, which was in a cellar, and the bedroom consisted of a large room in which there were ten iron beds. Around me were Jews with messy beards of all colors, in kapotes [black frocks] and satin yarmulkes [skullcaps], who came to visit their esteemed Rebbe. And since such a visit is a great holiday, everybody was drinking “le'chaim” authentic “finef un neintziger” [95% whisky], and they were snacking on the famous roasted “goose,” where there was no comparison to this food anywhere in the world, except in Lublin and Kalc. Such a roasted duck, with crackling skin made from actual griven [chunks of fried skin fat], with the spicy, salted flavor of roasted meat, I could never find anywhere else.

In this cellar, I heard snatches of stories of the Ostrowiecer [chassidic] court, which at that time were a true reality, but they were passed to the next generation as possible legends.

“The Rebbe is already fasting for forty years!” the chassidim, and non-believers of the city stated.

“What does that mean?” I ask. “Does he eat nothing all day?”

“That's right. Only after maariv [evening prayers] does his wife bring him a bowl of milk and water and a glass of tea. On Friday night, the Rebbe eats a small piece of fish, the wing of a chicken, and the following day, even though it's Shabbath, he eats almost nothing.”

As he sat at the Shabbath table and sang zemirot [Shabbat songs] with his chassidim, singing “Azamer bishvokhin” [“With songs of praise, I will cut away [the evil]”], he suddenly began sobbing deeply. They ask, “Why is he crying?” He moans, “I do not see any joy in our world. G-d's presence is in exile. We are all chased away from G-d's source.” And he looked all around him, as if he would have felt that all those around him, the chassidim, his children, and grandchildren, were judged. As if he had seen the march to the ovens … “Azamer bishvokhin” – the Rebbe sings this through his tears. After all, it is Shabbath…

From shul [synagogue], the Rebbe would bring only those guests whom no other host would invite: those who were handicapped, or those who were dirty.

The kabbalist, Reb Leibish Ozherower, once asked the Rebbe why he punishes himself by fasting. This is the answer he received: “I've already been fasting for tens of years, and G-d is helping me by giving me many strengths. I don't see that those other rabbis who do eat, are healthier than me.”

Whether from not eating or not sleeping (the Ostrowiecer Rebbe generally slept for two hours a night), terrible dreams would torture him. According to tradition, he arranged for a “changing the dream to the good” [hativat chalom] event.

This was a whole ceremony. Three simple chassidim, intentionally not scholarly ones, but those whom the Rebbe considered devoted friends, sat down opposite the holy man and as he expressed his worries to them, he repeated the following words many times: “I saw a good dream.” And the three Jews, in various combinations, also repeated the prepared reply which begins with: “Your dream is actually a good one.”

Interesting, that among these three “psychoanalysts,” who understood the rebbe's complicated dreams, there was one simpleton who sat there for a long time, a former soldier of the czar, Khatzkel Kavkazer. He was a little bit crazy, but an honest, poor man, after whom the young boys chased in the streets, and they threw rocks at him, but the Rebbe felt something special in him that symbolized the innocent, hunted, simple Jew. So, the Rebbe drew him in and sat next to him at the table, along with the most prominent chassidim.

The Ostrowiecer Rebbe was one of the greatest rabbis in Poland, who at the same time was the rabbi of the city. But there were two rabbinic tasks that this rebbe always declined to do: he never provided a divorce and he didn't allow tena'im [pre-marital commitment] not to take place [i.e., insisted on this being done] in order that a Jewish woman would never be shamed [should the marriage not take place]. If this situation was necessary because of health reasons, then the Rebbe would send the two sides to his halachic [according to Jewish law] judges.

I very much loved the tradition that was established during the last years of the Ostrowiecer's life, which was to carry the frail Rebbe across the streets and into the synagogue on the night of Yom Kippur for Kol Nidrei [opening prayer of Yom Kippur evening]. Thousands of chassidim, among them rabbis and great Torah scholars from the entire country, participated in this procession, as he wished everybody, “A gut yuhr” [a good year].

The Rebbe expressed his love for Zion by sending 300 ruble to Israel three times a year, in celebration of the three major Jewish holidays [Sukkot, Shavuot, Passover].

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Since the Ostrowiecer Rebbe rarely owned such a sum (he himself did not know what money looked like), he had to borrow this money from the ritual slaughterers with the reckoning of his own salary.

The Rebbe left behind many writings with which, after his passing, the book “Or Torah [“Light of Torah”] was published. As you leaf through this work, you encounter original mathematical works that tell of the sharp aptitude the Ostrowiecer's genius. In one place, I found a complicated calculation about how the above mentioned, after completing a few hours a day of work on the sky's “running subjects” [“rushing spheres”], he begins to travel through all the worlds in the cosmos on his light cloud. The numbers in the astronomy roll out smoothly, as one and the other [of the numbers] work out with each other. One cannot forget that the logarithmic calculations and integer methods of higher mathematics were unknown to this Rebbe. He would get the correct answers through primitive methods of regular arithmetic and real brain work.

The Rebbe had one son, Reb Yechezkel, or Chatzkele, who took over the rabbinate of the city after the passing of his father in the year 5688 (1928). Twelve years later, Reb Yechetzkel and his twelve children perished along with all the Jews in historical Kazimierz (at the Vistula).

The “Morgen Zhurnal
January 1948

Ostrowiecer Gaon [Genius]

by Sh. Pietruszka

Translated by Pamela Russ

[ ] translator's comments

I wish to relate some personal memories about the noted Ostrowiecer Rebbe who died during these days. As a young boy, I studied [religious studies] in Ostrowiec. I knew the Rebbe well, heard about interesting events in his life, and also heard about the old-time chassidim [Rebbe's followers]. So I would like to highlight that which I remember.

About the Ostrowiecer Rebbe's birth, I heard the following story:

His father, a simple Jew, a baker in the small town of Sobin, would go to the elderly Mogelnitzer Rebbe. The Mogelnitzer Rebbe had an amazing tradition: Every year, on the night of Purim, after the festive meal, he would twist his scarf into a ball, tie it up to his gartel [sash], and when the crowd would be dancing with great energy, he would toss the ball into the crowd. They called this ball the “pitke.” The person who caught the pitka, was able to ask for anything he wanted. Once, it was the simple baker from Sobin who caught the pitke, and he asked that he have a good son, and the Mogelnitzer Rebbe promised him this would happen…

But this blessing did not happen so quickly, because the Mogelnitzer Rebbe died in the year 5709 [1848], and the Ostrowiecer Rebbe was born five years later in the year 5614 [1853]. When he was born, his father gave him a name after the Mogelnitzer Rebbe, Chaim Meyer Yechiel.

Where did the Ostrowiecer Rebbe study during his youthful years?

I remember: Once, the Ostrowiecer Rebbe told us a story: When he was a young boy, he studied in Grodzisk, in the Beis Midrash [Study Hall] of the previous Grodzisker Rebbe, Rav Elimelech. In Grodzisk, there was a young man, a great scholar. The called him “Berel the genius.” When the Ostrowiecer Rebbe would speak about this Berel the genius, he did not have enough words of praise about his studies. As a young boy, the Ostrowiecer Rebbe studied with this young man, and from him, the Rebbe acquired his complete manner of study as well. With this, the Ostrowiecer Rebbe also related this episode: Once, Berel the genius gave the Rebbe [a young boy at the time] a challenge to find a specific question (he told us what the question was, in the Talmud section of Shabbath, with the viewpoint of “18 things; these do not purify, but these and these purify.” The discussion in this section of the Talmud is regarding what type of items and scenarios require purification, what are the appropriate enactments, etc.). Meanwhile, the men in the Beis Midrash needed whisky,

[Page 98]

so the men gave the young Chaim Yechiel a bottle with six coins to go and get some whisky. As he was returning with the whisky, he was preoccupied with the [question in the] Gemara [Talmud], and actually found the reference to the question. But meanwhile he tripped on a rock and broke the bottle of whisky. When he entered the Beis Midrash and the men saw this, they lay him on the table and gave him “his dues.” As he crawled off the table, he ran over to Berel and cried out: “But I found the question!” From then onwards, the chassidim no longer used him for any missions.

Torah studies in Ostrowiec went like this:

Every morning, we, young boys with good heads (I was still young and before my bar mitzva), would enter the Rebbe's room. The Rebbe was half sitting on a stool, his feet were stretched out on a second stool, or halfway on a table; the Rebbe was wrapped in warm fur clothing both in summer and winter. By his side, laying on the able, there was always a Gemara [book of Talmud]. When we entered, one of us asked a question. The Rebbe responded with a Talmudic thought. In the middle of this, one of us interrupted the thought and tried to change it. The Rebbe did not permit this to happen, and went on to show that he was correct. Soon someone else had another question about this. And this is how the pilpul [critical argumentation] went on for two hours. With his commentaries, the Rebbe demonstrated a tremendous sharpness, [knowledge of] all kinds of sources, which really were not connected to one another. These are the famous “Ostrowiec commentaries” which some studies, especially the Lithuanian ones, reference very critically. The Rebbe would apply these same interpretation methods and combine all types of calculations in the Talmud and Midrash. The calculations were so well figured out that they were very exact, to a hair.

The Ostroweicer Rebbe had an unusual tradition: On Shabbath and on the Jewish holidays, he did not speak Yiddish, he spoke only Hebrew. Also, during the week, before prayers, he would speak only Hebrew. His Hebrew was not rich in vocabulary, so for the words that he did not know, he would gesture with his hands and say: “Nu, nu.” But when we were learning the commentaries, it was not so much of an impediment, because all the young boys who came to study with the Rebbe had good heads, and one word was enough for them so that they could figure out the rest. For the common expressions, the Hebrew, the provisionary words, and grammar that the Rebbe used, were not really enough. But it is a fact that he never abandoned this tradition. For him, it [Hebrew] was genuinely a holy language.

As for fasting, for the Ostrowiecer Rebbe it was actually

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an unusual thing. When I remember about the fasting, it is honestly a miraculous thing.

The Ostroweicer Rebbe would relate how, when he was a young man, he was very strong, could break steel. But this person hardly ate anything. And sometimes he would even fast from Shabbath to Shabbath, actually from Saturday night to the following Friday night, without tasting even a little cold water. When I was in Ostrowiec, I don't remember such “fasting” periods, but then he even used to fast all day. And at night, when they would prepare a little milk and an old piece of roll soaked in it, he fell asleep in the middle of eating, had a dream, and then once again locked himself into fasting. And what those dreams were all about, he never revealed. Those times of fasting also affected his chassidim. There were many Ostrowiec chassidim who practiced the fasting on a very high level. I remember a Jew from Warsaw, Yechezkel Met, who would copy the Rebbe and fast from Saturday night until the following Friday night, took nothing into his mouth, and once they barely saved him. The chassidim who would come to the Rebbe for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, had a community kitchen in the courtyard. The “manager” of this “kitchen” was the old chassid Chaim Yechiel Stubnitzer, who would collect money from the wealthy chassidim and would cook potatoes and milk and then he would give everyone a plate of potatoes and half [a loaf of] bread. But he would only give this at night. During the daytime, everyone was fasting. Fasting – this dominated the Ostrowiecer chassidus, fasting and the study of simple discourse.

Now, since the Ostrowiecer Rebbe died, everyone will try to find allusions and likes [from the Rebbe] for his own group: for Mizrachi, Agudah, and so on. The truth is, that he was a sharp opponent of all modern movements, of all sorts of enlightenment, and of course, of Zionism. As the Rav [rabbinic leader], the Rebbe would direct the greatest Jewish court issues, and understood everything well, but he truly was a sharp opponent of every modern movement. I don't know how much he even supported the Agudah [religious group], It is possible that he even did not support that. But he was a very strong opponent of Zionism and Mizrachi. Forget about “Haskalah” [“Enlightenment”] education – this for him was treif [non-kosher]. When he found out that one of his students had sadly gone to a “bad cultural organization,” and wanted that education, the Rebbe suffered great pain. When his son-in-law, the deceased Gostyniner Rav, Rebbe Dovid Silman, became a member of Mizrachi, he [the Ostroweicer Rebbe] had terrible pain from this. I remember that when a group of young people, Ostrowiecer students (among them was also the Mizrachi deputy HaRav Shmuel Brodt from Lipno), took the Russian test in Plock for the rabbis, they telegraphed the Rebbe. He became very angry: “Good news, a festive moment. They now know Russian!” The Ostrowiecer chassidim used to say that the Rebbe himself also knows Russian; he passed the exam then took the rabbinic seat in Skierniewice. But I remember that when we had to speak with the “nachalstvo” [authorities], there was an interpreter.

A characteristic episode:

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Rebbe did not pray with his chassidim in the Beis Midrash, but in the city synagogue with the businessmen, as Rav [chief rabbi] of the city. Once, a cantor came with a choir to recite the Kol Nidrei services [for Yom Kippur eve]. At the point of “ki hinei ka'choimer” [“We are as clay in the hand of the potter”] which concludes with “lebris habet ve'al teifan la'yeitzer” [“Look to the covenant and do not regard our evil inclination”], the cantor turned to the choir and began to conduct an entire composition. Very angry, the Rebbe ran to the cantor and told him, pointing from the prayer book to the podium, “Lebris habet” [“look to the covenant”], and then pointing to the choir, “ve'al tefan la'yeitzar” [“do not regard our evil inclination”].

Heint” [“Today”], Warsaw
4th of Nisan, 5688 [1928]


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