In the year 5485 , when I was admitted to the Chief Rabbi's yeshivah for the second time - to the third class, taught by the gaon Reb Shalom Yehudah - the Rosh Yeshivah greeted me with a joyful expression. He had discovered my unique talent for in-depth study, and it pleased him greatly.
I remained a member of my father-in-law's household for ten years, while I continued studying with awesome diligence. Unfortunately, during all that time my wife and I remained childless. Ever since our marriage, my wife had treated me with the utmost respect. She worked very hard to enable me to continue studying Torah full-time.
During all those years, my father-in-law - who was a wealthy patron of Torah scholars - supported us generously. We lived in our own home, and all our needs - food and drink, clothing and shoes, firewood and lighting - were generously supplied.
Besides this, my wife also earned an income from her dry goods store, which gave her an ample profit. But the problem of her barrenness persisted. Throughout the first nine years of marriage, we tried various medical and folk remedies, but to no avail. When our tenth anniversary approached, and she still remained childless, she began to weep day and night in prayer and supplication. She was very pious, and she knew the law: a woman who remains childless after ten years of marriage must be divorced.
G-d, who hears all prayers, witnessed our distress. She finally became pregnant, and at the end of the year she gave birth to a daughter. I then resumed my Torah study with even greater diligence and fortitude. But two years later my Rebbetzin became seriously ill. Eventually, G-d sent us His holy salvation and healed her. But then, our daughter contracted a grave illness. None of the medicines were of any use, and [she died], leaving us broken and depressed.
At that time, the congregation of the town of Kabilnik sent special agents to our master the gaon, Chief Rabbi Yechiel, requesting him to choose a rav for their congregation. The Chief Rabbi convened an assembly which included such geonim as the Roshei Yeshivah Reb Pesach Uriah the Saintly and Reb Shalom Yehudah. They unanimously chose me as the candidate.
As for me, I was not too keen on the idea of accepting a rabbinic position. But we were in very depressed spirits because of the terrible tragedy of the death of our daughter. Therefore, I decided to follow the advice of my master and Rebbe, the gaon Reb Shalom Yehudah, and to accept the holy task of leading the congregation of Kabilnik.
At the beginning of the year 5498 , at the age of thirty-three years, I left the capital city of Minsk to take up my duties as rav of the village of Kabilnik. The geonim of the intellectual center of Minsk held an assembly in my honor in the community center, where they discussed many Torah topics. This was a great honor for me, since the Chief Rabbi Reb Yechiel, and the mighty geonim Reb Shalom Yehudah, Reb Pesach Uriah the Saintly, and Reb Betzalel the Kohen, were also present.
I delivered a deep pilpul on the topic of nisarvu in the Mishnah of Kol HaZevachim, with several novel insights to the difficulty pointed out by Rivam, the solutions offered by Ri, and the interpretation of Rabbeinu Tam, in the Tosafos referring to the passage "...even one in ten thousand."
My father-in-law, the wealthy patron of Torah scholars, prepared a banquet in honor of the mitzvah, for all the students of the class in which I had once studied. All of us - the long-standing students who were my colleagues and were outstanding in Torah study in fear of Heaven, led by our master and Rebbe Reb Shalom Yehudah - sat there and discussed Torah pilpulim.
My colleagues and I filled several wagons when we departed, and they accompanied me all the way to Kabilnik. There, I was greeted with great honor. I discovered that about fifty of the local citizens knew a little Torah, and there were thirty young men who possessed outstanding knowledge of the Torah. Most of them were alumni of the Smorgon Yeshivah. There were also twelve bochurim with great abilities, who were studying at the local yeshivah under the Rosh Yeshivah, Reb Pesachia Meir the Masmid (who was himself outstanding in Torah study and fear of Heaven).
I spent five years in the city of Kabilnik, living a life of leisure while I studied Torah and enjoyed prestige. My whole days - including the nights - were spent in constant study with the local citizens, in delivering Torah lectures to the outstanding young men, and in examining the yeshivah students. Through G-d's kindness, I also managed to compose numerous novel insights to the Torah.
During the third year of our residence in Kabilnik, the Rebbetzin bore me a son. But he lived for only five months, and this caused us much grief. During the fifth year of our residence the Rebbetzin fell seriously ill; she suffered for about a month, after which she died, and was remembered with honor.
My father-in-law, the wealthy patron of Torah scholars, wished me to marry to one of his relatives, but I declined the offer. I decided to abandon my rabbinic position, and to exile myself to a place of Torah, or else to wander in exile for a period of time. I compelled my father-in-law to take back all the property of his late daughter - the Rebbetzin, the household furnishings, and her clothing, and jewelry. Within three months' time, I was gone from Kabilnik.
I began my exile and wandered far away, until I came to the city of Brysk. I had heard of that city's good reputation while still studying at the yeshivah of the Chief Rabbi in Minsk. I remained there for about a year. Most of my days there were spent in the beis hamedrash, where I studied Torah constantly, day and night. I was adequately supported by the local charity that cared for homeless visitors.
On my way to Brysk I had passed through several large and small towns, villages, and rural settlements. In each locality and settlement, I discovered scholars busy studying Torah. Some of them had no other trade or employment, the Torah being their sole vocation.
Others occupied themselves with business and commerce, with some trade, or with tending the fields and gardens. But they would also set aside time devoted to in-depth Torah study. Many of them were well versed in the six orders of the Mishnah - or several hundred pages of Gemara - by heart. While they stood in the marketplace or the store, or while they were busy at work, they would recite the Mishnayos and repeat the text of the Gemara.
In every Jewish settlement, I found young scholars who were supported by their in-laws, and bochurim supported by their parents. These were foremost among those who studied Torah and worshiped G-d with great diligence, and many of them possessed outstanding faculties.
I wandered for a year and four months before finally arriving at my long-desired destination of Brysk. I had longed to visit there since the time that my master and Rebbe, the gaon and tzaddik Reb Pesach Uriah the Saintly, had told me about his colleague, the perfect tzaddik, gaon, and kabbalist, Reb Zevulun Shimon Porush, who had already merited the revelation of Eliyahu while still a bochur. He had settled in Brysk several decades earlier, and I had an overpowering desire to see him and become his disciple.
During my travels, I met several outstanding Torah scholars who were also wandering in exile. Among them were a few great geonim and wondrous tzaddikim, masters of humility and good character traits. As they walked along, some of them would even recite Gemara - with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafos - by heart.
I arrived in the village of Kertchynka, about a day's journey from Brysk. There, I found a settlement of about seventy Jewish families, who raised cattle and tended farms. Among them, there were four elders with great knowledge of the Torah. Two of them served as roshei yeshivah, teaching eight young married Torah scholars and thirteen bochurim (five of whom possessed great abilities).
They were overjoyed at my arrival, and showed me great honor, begging me to spend some time in their vicinity. I observed the sincerity of the dwellers of that settlement, their great reverence and piety, the care with which they did mitzvos, and their unusual zeal in honoring the Torah and Torah scholars.
They, their wives, and their children (from the youngest school child to the oldest) were all exhausted from their back-breaking labors. Despite this, they all studied the Torah, they welcomed visitors with a smile, and they honored Torah scholars generously. Thus, I was unable to refuse their request. I remained with them from Shavuos until the beginning of the month of Av.
While I was there, I heard that about ten miles away there was a large village, which also boasted a Jewish settlement. Even more important - about a mile from that village was the estate of a powerful nobleman of great wealth. The nobleman himself lived far away, in France.
His entire estate - including all the villages, streams, forests, and inns - was leased to one Jew. This Jew admired and supported rabbinic scholars; several Torah scholars and geonim lived in his court at his expense. He also distributed charity generously.
Now, about forty years have passed since I was in the village of Kertchynka. During this time, I went through several stages: I wandered in exile, I lived a celibate life, I married [my second wife], I was widowed (may you be spared), I married my third wife (long may she live). But the memory of those days remains before my eyes.
I traveled in the company of about ten people. Besides myself, there were five other Torah scholars. They declined to tell me their names, so I didn't tell them mine. However, just as they realized that I was a genuine Torah scholar, I realized that they were scholars. And so, we discussed Torah as we walked together.
One of these Torah scholars possessed an outstanding ability to assimilate new material. The moment he heard something for the first time, or read something new in a sefer, he could repeat it by heart, exactly verbatim, neither adding nor omitting a single word. Besides this, he also possessed an astounding memory. By the grace of G-d, he never forgot a single thing he had ever heard or seen.
Whenever I recited one of my novel insights, he could repeat it verbatim the moment I finished speaking. Each item was in its correct order, as if it had been written down in a book or engraved in steel.
All six of us Torah scholars traveled together for about ten days, discussing Torah as we went. Each of us behaved with proper humility, but the humility of the fellow with the quick grasp and keen memory was far superior to the rest of us.
It was clear to us that he possessed broad knowledge of the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, Sifra, Sifri, and Tosefta, not to mention the Rambam and the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, and other texts. Since he had such a keen grasp and outstanding memory, how could it be otherwise? Nevertheless, whenever he would quote a passage of the Gemara, Rashi, or Tosafos, he would say, "It seems to me that the text goes something like this...." But this was only because of his great humility.
As we walked through a field on the day of Lag BaOmer, the heat became unbearable. We sat down in the shade of a tree to rest, and began to discuss Torah. I was then studying the chapter of Arba'ah Achin in the tractate Yevamos. I could repeat the text of the Gemara and Rashi by heart, but I did not know the Tosafos by heart. But the fellow with the quick grasp and keen memory came to my rescue, and supplied me with the text of the Tosafos.
On that day, for the first time, I heard of the Yeshivah of Mezhibuzh, whose Rosh Yeshivah was a gaon, kabbalist, and miracle-worker. [I also learned that] he had many disciples who were world-class geonim and possessed the best character traits and fear of Heaven.
By the time we got close to the village of Kertchynka there were only five of us left, for the others had gone their own way at the crossroads. As we approached the village, we saw several Jews out in the fields, wearing their four-cornered garments with tzitzis, while they tended the grain. Seeing us, they hurried over to greet us. The first ones to reach us then claimed the right to have us as their guests, in fulfillment of the mitzvah of catering to guests.
On the day preceding the eve of Rosh Chodesh, an announcement was made to remind all those who worked in the fields that tomorrow they were to return from the field earlier than usual. That day was, of course, the eve of Yom Kippur Katan; on Yom Kippur Katan itself, the men, women, and children assembled in the synagogue and the women's gallery for the sunrise minyan, during which they all wept profusely.
On the Shabbos preceding Shavuos, they announced that there would be no work during the three days before Shavuos, so that they could all prepare for Yom Tov. Their Yom Tov celebration itself amazed me very much.
(Reb Yitzchak Aizik related to the Rebbe Maharash: "My father, the gaon, was very cold-blooded. He was already quite old when I knew him, and his personality was as frigid as ice. I never saw him smile. Even on Simchas Torah, when he made a great effort to be joyful, his icy expression failed to melt. But all this is nought compared to the frozen personality of my uncle, the gaon Reb Zelmele. Nevertheless, there were moments when some expression of emotion could be detected in his face as he told a story. One of these moments was when he related the story of his visit to the rural village of Drucia, and the Yanta Estate.")
At the beginning of the month of Av, I left the village of Kertchynka. The Jews of Kertchynka wished to send me in a wagon, which would transport me to the village of Drucia. But I declined the ride, wishing instead to walk with my stick and my knapsack, along with three or four other foot-travelers, who also happened to be following the road that led to Drucia.
Notwithstanding the mourning that was required during the Three Weeks, the Jews of the Kertchynka settlement assembled after the sunrise minyan to honor me and bid me farewell. They said to me, "Bless us, O master and Rebbe!" I then blessed them, and departed.
A short distance from Drucia, we met a few Jews working in the fields. The very same thing that had happened to me on my approach to Kertchynka was now repeated in the fields near Drucia. Going a bit further, we came to a large flat open space. There, we saw (may the evil eye not affect them) many Jewish men and women working in the fields. When they saw us, they greeted us with Shalom Aleichem!
One of the travelers was a Torah scholar, and we discussed Torah as we walked. Though it was only a short distance - and we stopped two or three times along the way - I was exhausted, for it was very hot. I sat down in the shade of a tree together with the Torah scholar, and we continued discussing our Torah topic. We sat there for about two hours, until the sun's heat had cooled a bit.
As we got ready to resume our journey, a group of elderly folk suddenly appeared, walking toward us. When they came closer, they greeted us with Shalom Aleichem! Turning to me, they exclaimed "Shalom Aleichem, our master and Rebbe!"
Looking about, I discovered that we were surrounded by a whole minyan of men. Shortly, they began to argue among themselves. One claimed, "I was the first to see the arrivals and greet them with Shalom Aleichem! Thus, the guests belong to me." Another stated, "No, it was I who first saw them, and the guests are mine!"
One of the elders (I later learned that he was the oldest of them all) thought about it, and then he said, "Each of us wants the privilege of fulfilling the mitzvah of catering to guests - especially guests who are such geonim and tzaddikim. We heard all about our great master and Rebbe (he was referring to me) while he was visiting the village of Kertchynka, and we prayed to G-d that we too might have this privilege. When the field workers informed us that our master and Rebbe had arrived, we came to greet him. Each of us wants the privilege of hosting him in his home. Therefore, let us cast lots for it."
The rural village of Drucia boasted seventy or eighty families, most of them farmers and cattlemen. But even there, there were several young married scholars who were supported by their in-laws, and bochurim supported by their parents, who spent their time studying Torah.
The Jewish settlement of Drucia was blessed with many elderly people, some of them very old - in their eighties, or nineties, and even older. But they were quite simple, unable to comprehend anything more subtle than Aggadah or a verse of Chumash. But they were very G-d-fearing and pious. In no other place did I ever see people who were so very scrupulous in the performance of a mitzvah, in honoring Torah scholars, and in honoring the Torah. Even the greatest Torah scholars were no match for the Jews of Drucia in that regard.
I spent five or six days in Drucia, including Shabbos Chazon. For Shabbos Nachamu, I went to the Yanta Estate, where the Jewish tenant-manager - who was famous for his generous philanthropy and for honoring and helping rabbinic scholars - lived.
When I got there, I found many guests. Most of them were great scholars and geonim. The gaon with the quick grasp and keen memory - who had accompanied me on the way to Kertchynka - was also there. I discovered that he had been there the whole time. At the host's request, he had been studying with one of his sons.
A large house with spacious rooms was placed at the guests' disposal. There, they ate, drank, and slept. But on Shabbos, all the guests would eat with the host, his sons, and his sons-in-law. He also had a large and ornate beis hamedrash, with large rooms set aside for study. The beis hamedrash had a well-stocked library.
On Shabbos after Maariv, we all entered a large dining room, where there stood tables laden with all sorts of good food. Many silver candelabras had been placed on the tables, besides the bronze lamps that hung in the room. The wealthy tenant-manager, his son-in-law, and his three sons sat at the head of the table, while the rest of us sat around the tables.
We said Kiddush over excellent wine, and ate our fill of fish and meat. During the meal, our host recited a few novel insights on the Torah. He was not much of a scholar, but he did have a little knowledge of the Torah. He also gave some straightforward interpretations of Aggadah, which were a pleasure to listen to.
I spent about a month at the Yanta Estate, studying Torah with much diligence. A few days after my arrival, I was surprised to discover that the fellow with the quick grasp and keen memory was nowhere to be found. I asked about him, and was told that he had gone to the Yeshivah of Mezhibuzh. Our wealthy host's son - who had been studying with him - had gone with him, and would remain there for the month of Tishrei.
At that time - while I was staying at the Yanta Estate - I had no idea what the Mezhibuzh Yeshivah was. Many others had never heard of it either, and didn't know what it was. But later, while I lived in the city of Brysk, people began to relate that at the other end of the country, in the town of Mezhibuzh, a certain person had appeared, who called himself the Baal Shem Tov. This person performed wonders by using the Names of G-d. Many people had gathered around him, some of them Torah scholars. He had formed a cult that practiced strange customs.
Later, I learned that people had begun to spread rumors about the wealthy tenant-manager of the Yanta Estate, saying that he too was a member of that cult. His whole program of catering to guests with such generosity was by order of the man who called himself the Baal Shem Tov. He had instructed him to invite guests in general, and especially Torah scholars.
The gaon and perfect tzaddik, the kabbalist Reb Zevulun Porush, had issued a Halachic ruling that all members of the cult, especially its promoters and publicists, were to be excommunicated. One must stay away from them, as required by the law concerning people who have been excommunicated. He informed the Jewish Regional Councils of Vilna and Slutzk of his ruling.
While I was in there in Brysk, I heard that among the scholars of that cult there were also some great geonim, who had been subverted (may G-d preserve us) and had fallen into the trap of apostasy. Some of them traveled about through the Jewish communities, ensnaring innocent victims. It was then that I realized that the fellow with the quick grasp and keen memory was a member of that cult.
About twenty-five years later, the real danger of the "cult" became apparent. Many of its members who were great Torah scholars, and even geonim, were continuously spreading throughout the country - especially in the yeshivos - to capture souls. Many geonim of the Regional Councils of Brysk, Vilna, and Slutzk published a proclamation against the Baal Shem Tov of Mezhibuzh and his disciples.
"And now," Uncle Zelmele concluded his story, "You can well understand why the gaon your father refused to send you to a yeshivah.
He was afraid that you might (G-d forbid) fall into the net of the cult (may G-d preserve us)."
But, I must "Give thanks to the L-rd, for He is good,"
During the second year after I left Smilovitch, on this very date, I saw the great luminary - the Alter Rebbe - when he came to Minsk to debate with the great misnagdim. I then formed a firm attachment to him.
- (Back to text) From the Previous Rebbe's essay, "Fathers of Chassidus," HaTamim, Vol. 4, pp. 367-372.]
- (Back to text) [Reb Yitzchak Aizik repeated it to the Rebbe Maharash. He, in turn, told it to his son the Rebbe Rashab, who repeated it to the Previous Rebbe during their daily walks in the Balivka summer estate.]
- (Back to text) [Shluchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 154:10.]
- (Back to text) [Zevachim 70b, 71a; a complex subject regarding animals consecrated for sacrifice, which were inadvertently mixed into a herd of other animals designated - for various reasons - to die, or to be put to death.]
- (Back to text) [Mishnah, Zevachim 8:1.]
- (Back to text) [Rivam; acronym for Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Meir, a grandson of Rashi. He and the subjects of the following two footnotes were leading contributors to the Tosafos.]
- (Back to text) [Ri; acronym for Rabbeinu Yitzchak, also known as Ri HaZakein ("the Elder"); R. Yitzchak ben Shmuel, great-grandson of Rashi and nephew of Rivam and Rabbeinu Tam.]
- (Back to text) [R. Yaakov ben Meir Tam, brother of Rivam.]
- (Back to text) [Lit., "the Book" (Aramaic); a 3rd century compilation of Halachah and its derivation, based on the book of Vayikra.]
- (Back to text) [Lit., "the Books" (Aramaic); a 3rd century compilation of Halachah and its derivation, based on the books of Bamidbar and Devarim.]
- (Back to text) [Lit., "the Supplement" (Aramaic); a 3rd century compilation of legal statements not formally codified in the Mishnah.]
- (Back to text) [The Talmudic tractate dealing primarily with the laws of a brother who dies without offspring, the obligation of a surviving brother to marry the widow, the procedure for releasing them of this obligation, and situations where they are exempt from the obligation. The chapter Arba'ah Achin (lit., "Four Brothers") deals primarily with extremely complex situations where several brothers are married to several sisters.]
- (Back to text) [Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah, chapter 334.]
- (Back to text) [See the chapter on "Reb Yitzchak Aizik," above.]
- (Back to text) [Tehillim 107:1, int. al.]