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[Col. 193]

Torah and Chassidism



[Col. 195]

-- --Through the dark cloud which obscured Jewish life and Jewish thought, a light, all of a sudden, broke through. This light was Chassidism, which illuminated the Jewish mind and the whole nature of Jews and Judaism. Like all inceptions, like all beginnings of new creations, the appearance of Chassidism was miraculous. When the Jewish people found itself in danger of atrophying and being torn from its succulent roots, suddenly there appeared a new reality, the new lifestyle of the rising soul and its permanent awakening, which the Chassidic Movement brought with it. It brought the voice of the Sabbath, which is the complete opposite of rest, the stagnant rest that is necessary only to the evil ones in hell. The Chassidic Sabbath was a whirlwind and a storm. It roared in the hearts of simple Jews with songs of joy and the beauty of earthly springs and heavenly azure: you should always be happy, lively Jews! In the world of those who opposed the Chassidim [1] a world of sobriety and individuality, which represented Jewish Lithuania, the stronghold of Chassidic opposition, greater Sventzian was among the few Lithuanian cities, which permitted themselves to be caught up in the Chassidic lifestyle, which pulled the Jew out of the grasp of the ordinary and let him be governed by a relationship which gave him the wings to lift himself out of sadness and melancholy and freed the playfulness that dozed in his soul. The inner life of Sventzian became fuller and more alive. The beauty and the radiance of Lithuania always remained its yeshivas, to which Jewish young men streamed from near and far. Its “inns of Torah”[2] were renown throughout the whole Jewish world, and there many generations of Sventzian Jews were raised.

[Cols. 197-202]

Chassidism and Sventzian

Rabbi Yitskhok Duber Ushfal, Brooklyn



The founder and creator of the Chabad Movement in Chassidism, the great Torah scholar Rabbi Shneur Zalman, may his memory be a blessing, of the city Ladi, was known by the name “Master of the Tanya”. During the years 1743 and 1823, he spread the Chassidic Torah of the Bal Shem Tov.[3] He especially worked in the towns and villages among which was also Sventzian. As it is described in “The Generations of Chassidus, “ the old rabbi, the Master of the Tanya, had three kinds of followers in Sventzian in the year 1778. His adherents in Sventzian used to travel to the settlements in order to influence the simple Jews and transform them into followers. This was known in Vilna, where the quarrel between the Chassidim and the Misnagdim [those who opposed Chassidism] was very great at the time. The opponents of Chassidism immediately held a meeting and decided to pass judgment on the Sventzian Chassidim.


The Rashbats

The Vilna Gaon,[4] may his memory be a blessing, was told about this and he agreed to it. The judgment that was passed was that all those who belonged to the “sect” (as their opponents then called Chassidism) should be persecuted.

The Vilna opponents traveled to Sventzian in order to carry out this judgment right on the spot. With them went Rabbi Zundl Volf who was very strongly tied to the Torah greats of Vilna at that time, especially to the Vilna Gaon.Their trip took place in the year 1781.

The Chassidim of Sventzian, however, did not lose their heads. On the contrary, they held themselves proudly and continued their work. When all of the Chassidim were excommunicated at the Vilna Synagogue courtyard the Chassidim of Sventzian protested against Vilna and with songs and instruments demonstrated their opposition to the excommunication.

Since then, Sventzian has been famous in the Chassidic world. Sventzian even managed to produce great Chassidic personalities. It is worthwhile to talk of one of them at length.

In the great Lyubavitch[5] yeshiva, “Tomkhey Tmimim,”[6] which was founded by the Lyubavitch rabbi, admu”r[7] Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Shneyerson, in the year 1897, Rabbi Shmuel Betsalel bar Sholom Sheftl was the spiritual leader for many years. To Chassidim, he was known by the name: “The Rashbats” and was considered one of the pillars of Chassidim in Lyubavitch. He was much loved in the Rabbi's house and, for several years, studied with the Rabbi's only son, the previous Lyubavitcher Rabbi, who died in New York in 1930.

Those who know the meaning of Lyubavitch in those years can imagine the great honor that the Rashbats, may his memory be for a blessing, was accorded in the eyes of the Chassidic world. The Rashbats was born in Sventzian in the year 1829. His father was an ordinary synagogue-going Jew, and his mother ran the business and supported the family. His father died at age 50 and his mother remarried. At the wedding, his stepfather imposed a condition: he was prepared to feed him, but he had to sleep in the study hall of the synagogue. Later, however, seeing the child's good upbringing and devotion to learning, his stepfather grew closer to him.

Even as a young boy, he exhibited great ability, and by the age of fifteen, the Rashbats was learning Gemora and the commentators by himself.

At that time, the rabbi in Sventzian was Reb Hershele, may his memory be a blessing, who was famed in the whole area as a great Torah scholar with a sharp mind. When the Rashbats' father died, Reb Hershele took an interest in the orphan, became closer to him and taught him regularly. During the course of one and a half years, he went through the three Bavas[8] as well as the tractate Shabbos.

The Chassidim at that time already had their own minyan[9] and prayed according to their own versions of the prayers and instituted their own customs. They had their own ritual slaughterer, who slaughtered, with a sharp knife, according to the rules of the Chassidic rabbis.

It once happened that the Rashbats was walking not far from a Chassidic minyan. Out of curiosity he went inside and saw the Jews there studying from a small text. He listened to their learning and from that time on visited this Chassidic minyan very often. Their sincerity, their piety and their inspiration affected him greatly. He was especially impressed by their enthusiasm while praying.

This short visit by the Rashbats to the Chassidic minyan made a great impression on him. He began to look into and do research on the reasons such Jews were persecuted. The more he steeped himself in Chassidic learning and recognized the good qualities, their sincerity and deep soul, the closer he felt to them and visited their Chassidic minyan often.

He would, however, not stay very long at this minyan, since he didn't want the Rabbi, Reb Hershele and his step-father, who were great opponents of Chassidism, to find out about his visits.

Since he was a very frequent guest at Rabbi Hershele's house, the Rashbats heard much slander and exaggerated stories about the Chassidim. Reb Hershele once said that he had had the merit to eat together with one of the informers, who had turned the Bal HaTanya in to the Russian government in the year 1799. (A description of this betrayal can be found in the book “Beys-Rav”.[10] Since he feared Reb Hershele and his stepfather, he decided to meet secretly with one of Reb Itshele the Tailor's workers.

The Chassid[11] began to expound on the virtues of the Bal Shem Tov's Torah and the greatness of the Bal HaTanya. He told him various stories, which made a deep impression on him. The Rashbats, meanwhile, became very attached to this so-called “sect” and became a great friend of the Chassidim. He made an effort, however, to keep this from being known in town.[12]

One time when the Rashbats sat alone at night in the great Sventzian study hall pouring over the Tanya, a person slipped in unnoticed, a misnagid[13] , and upon seeing the Tanya, angrily tore the “unclean”[14] text away from him.

The next morning, the misnagid told the Rabbi of Sventzian about this episode. The rabbi didn't think about it too long before inviting the Rashbats' stepfather over and telling him the horrible news.

When the Rashbats came home, his stepfather hit him over the head with a piece of wood. The young man fell down in a faint.

Several days later, when the young boy was well, the rabbi sent for him and tried to explain to him that he was on a bad path. When these words failed to help, the rabbi announced in town that the boy had been misguided, and he was labeled “the heretic”.

His stepfather immediately drove him out of the house. The Chassid, who had led him into the Chassidic circles, took him into his own house and completely supported him. From that time on, the Rashbats began to study Chassidic texts openly and became a fervent Chassid.

One time he was sitting in the study hall and expounding to the Jews there the Bal Shem Tov's Torah and the virtues of Chassidism, when suddenly several young people attacked him and severely beat him.

Badly wounded, he was brought to the Chassidic minyan, from which a doctor was called out. In critical condition, he was brought to the house of Reb Moyshe the Chassid, where he lay in bed a long time until he became well.

The Chasidim then understood the virtues of this young man and began to think about sending him away somewhere to study. A great Chassidic meeting was called in order to discuss what was to be done with him. It was decided to send him to the renowned Chassid, Reb Mikhl Opotsker, who considered himself to be a great scholar and was an ardent devotee of the Bal HaTanya. From him, he would receive all the necessary preparations in order later to be able to enter the large “Tsemakh Tsedek” Yeshiva in Lyubavitch.

It was generally thought that Mikhl Opotsker was divinely inspired. As a child I heard from my grandfather, my mother's father Reb Moyshe Harmotz of blessed memory, that Reb Mikhl Opotsker often used to spend time alone in the woods around Sventzian. His behavior frightened the village peasants. The called him: The Holy One!

Before the Rashbats left Sventzian, he decided, ignoring all the persecution he had suffered, to say good-bye to the Rabbi of Sventzian, Reb Hershele. Upon entering his house, he found him sitting together with other Jews studying a deep question in Gemora. After their learning, when the scholars had left the rabbi's house, Reb Hershele turned to him and asked that he leave the Chassidim and their ways. The Rashbats told him about his decision to go to study at the Tsemakh Tsedek's Yeshiva in Lyubavitch. The rabbi acknowledged that the Tsemakh Tsedek was a great Torah scholar, nevertheless, he thought that with him he could accomplish more in Torah learning.

The Rashbats took his leave of Reb Hershele. The Rashbats made his way to Reb Mikhl Opotsker by foot. He studied with Reb Mikhl for a year and a half. One time Reb Mikhl said to the Rashbats: “My child! You have nothing further to do here. I would advise you to go to the Rebbe in Lyubavitch.”

On the eve of the new month of Adar in the year 1848[15], he left Opotsk, taking with him a note from Reb Mikhl to the “Tsemakh Tsedek”. Reb Mikhl told him not to open the letter. He couldn't contain himself, however, and opened it.

The paper was blank with nothing written on it.

The Rashbats was nineteen when he arrived in Lyubavitch. When he arrived at the rebbe's study hall he was very tired from his journey and fell into a sound sleep in front of the warm stove. In his sleep he heard the name: Reb Mikhl Opotsker! He was very surprised at how they knew who he was. After all, he hadn't told anyone where he was coming from. One of the elders indicated with a wave of his hand that the Rebbe wanted him.

He trembled as he approached the Rebbe, but the Rebbe immediately reproached him by asking him why he couldn't have made the journey without opening the letter from Reb Mikhl Opotsker. At the same time, the Rebbe welcomed him warmly and got into a lengthy discussion with him.

The young man was filled with admiration when he left the Rebbe. He threw himself into learning the Talmud and commentaries with great fervor. The Rebbe grew to love him as if he was his own child, and he soon became the closest friend of the Rebbe's children. He was in Lyubavitch for seven years. He got married there and in 1855 opened a bookstore, which provided his livelihood.

In 1869, the Rebbe's son, our teacher and master Rabbi Shmuel, (the “Tsemakh-Tsedek's youngest son who took his place) appointed him an emissary of the Rebbe. In this capacity he visited many cities and towns. He was warmly received in all the Jewish communities. In a short time, he was famous throughout the Chassidic world. When he returned to Lyubavitch, he was appointed chief spiritual guide in the great yeshiva “Tomkhey Tmimim” of Lyubavitch. He held this position until the end of his life.

He died on the 15th day of the month of Sivan, 1905.

This is, in brief, a description of the life of the famous Sventzian Chassid, who became known, in Chassidic history by the name: The Rashbats.


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Misnagdim in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Back
  2. Quotation marks mine. Back
  3. This means the “Master of the Good Name” and refers to Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer born in 1690 and died in 1760. Back
  4. This literally means the genius of Vilna. Back
  5. Nowadays more commonly known as Lubavitch Back
  6. This means “Keepers of the Faith”. Back
  7. This is a Hebrew acronym which stands for adoneynu moreynu v'rabeynu, “our master, teacher and rabbi,” the traditional title of a Khassidic rabbi. Back
  8. As was mentioned, the Bal HaTanya had a great influence on the Jews of Sventzian. Back
  9. Among the most interesting of his students in Sventzian at that time was Reb Itshele the Tailor. In his tailoring workshop, he would study his great rabbi's articles with his workers. Back
  10. Three tractates of commentaries all having Bava in the titles. Back
  11. Quorum of ten men. Back
  12. The Rabbi's House. Back
  13. A follower of Khassidism Back
  14. My quotation marks for emphasis. Back
  15. There seems to be an error in the text concerning this date. If the Rashbats was born in 1829 and he was 19 when he arrived in Lyubavitch, he left in 1848.Back

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