Sunday, 20 Iyar, 5656 [1896, the author was 15 years old at the time]
After great efforts I managed to get permission to join in the Shabbos meal at the home of my respected grandmother, the Rebbitzin [Rivkah, mother of the Rebbe Rashab and Husband of the Rebbe Maharash]. The meals there are always interesting, because at the table they recount episodes full of content -- especially this Shabbos, when two guests of stature arrived in town, repositories of chassidic oral tradition: R. Avraham Abba Persohn [G-d willing a description of this Chossid will appear in the next post, which will include some of the stories he recounted on this occasion] and R. Shmuel HaLevi Horovitz. [Also known as R. Shmuel Mozinker, because for many years he lived in an inn of that name in a forest near Babinovitch. He studied in the yeshivah of the Tzemach Tzedek in the years 5613-5618 [1853-1858]. He was a meticulously correct baal shmuah (master of Chassidic tales). My father [the Rebbe Rashab] once said that he reported oral traditions with utter reliability, even with respect to their wording. Any point about which he had a doubt, he omitted from his memoirs. (Based on a letter of the Rebbe Rayatz.)]
On Friday evening, though it was almost eleven when we began the Shabbos meal, there was no haste, and it continued until 1:30 a.m. In honor of the distinguished guest, R. Abba Persohn, my former teacher R. Nissan Skoblo, who loved hearing chassidic traditions firsthand, joined the company at the table.
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The History of Reb Abba David Iskasya
R. Shmuel Horovitz recalled that among the elder chassidim of Denenburg and Griva there was a elderly scholar known as R. Abba'le David Iskasya. In the study of nigleh he was the longtime colleague of the learned R. Baruch Mordechai [son in law of the last Rov of Vilna, Reb Shmuel a fuller account of Reb Boruch Mordechai’s history will be provided in a future post] when the latter was still in Vilna, and in Chassidus he was his disciple.
“R. Abba David, who was born in Polotzk, was gifted and assiduous, and advanced from one yeshivah to the next until he found his way to the yeshivah of the Gaon of Vilna, where he shone as an outstanding student. By nature he leaned towards solitude and intensive study. For some days he lived in the shul in a suburb called Shnipishak, and then moved into the center of town. Throughout all that time not one idle word escaped his lips; he knew of nothing but conscientious study; and he made the acquaintance of no man.
"However, when it became known that the son-in-law of the head of the Rabbinical Court of [Vilna], 'the Jerusalem of Lithuania,' the brilliant R. Baruch Mordechai, was now loyal to the banner of 'the Sect' and was now at the head of the [local chassidic] movement, there erupted such a scandal that it aroused even the curiosity of R. Abba David: What lay at the root of this storm that was rocking all of Jewry and Vilna, and especially agitated its most eminent scholars? To cut a long story short, the more he savored the scholarly expositions of Chassidus on themes such as knowing G-d by understanding the concept of creation ex nihilo, the more did his soul cleave to its teachings. Since he was a scholar of great standing, whom the Alter Rebbe chose to teach his grandson the Tzemach Tzedek for a full year after his bar mitzvah, he was offered numerous rabbinical posts. He refused them all because of his love of solitude, preferring to live in a village for about thirty years. And that was why the chassidim used to call him 'Abba David Iskasya [an allusion to a Kabbalistic concept of Divine Self-Concealment].'
"When he was about eighty years old he came to live near his son, R. Zerach, the moreh tzedek of Griva, who rented him an apartment near the shul. He spent most of his days and nights studying in the shul, and sometimes slept there.
"The chassidic communities of Denenburg and Griva treated him with reverence, since he was known to be a scholar of repute in both the revealed and esoteric planes of the Torah. Indeed, elderly chassidim testified that forty years earlier, in 5567 (1807), the Mitteler Rebbe had said: 'Abba David's brain is saturated with Divine intellect.'
"A chassid by the name of R. Zalman Moshe Leitzener, who for many years had known R. Abba'le David from the time he had been in Vitebsk and in a village near Nevel, and who had also met him on many occasions in Lubavitch, was amazed that he had changed his conduct -- far from being a silent recluse, he was now companionable and a ready talker."
Lag B’Omer 5604
Among the events recalled by R. Abba'le David Iskasya [as transmitted at my grandmother's Shabbos table by R. Shmuel HaLevi Horovitz] was the celebration of Lag BaOmer in Lubavitch in 5604 (1844). This is how he described it:
"From the first year that the past [i.e., the Mitteler] Rebbe settled in Lubavitch, in 5574 (1813), he renewed the old custom of celebrating Lag BaOmer in the fields out of town. Every year there would be a light festive meal that included mashke and hard-boiled eggs, and there was singing and dancing. In the middle of the meal or at the end the Rebbe [the Tzemach Tzedek] would arrive and deliver a maamar of Chassidus, and would then urge the elder chassidim to tell him whatever they remembered of Lag BaOmer celebrations [with his predecessors] in bygone years -- customs, teachings, narratives. After he left, the chassidim would continue to celebrate together at the table until early evening. Later this celebration became a full festive meal.
"Early in MarCheshvan of that year a special messenger brought the chassidim of Nevel a circular letter written on the Rebbe's instructions. The letter conveyed the Tzemach Tzedek's directive that his chassidim should not visit Lubavitch nor write letters there, and detailed the slanders initiated by the maskilim of Vilna. [For the historical background to this episode, see, The Tzemach Tzedek and the Haskalah Movement, ch. 5]
"For all of us, the chassidim of Nevel and the whole province and the whole country, that winter was a time of anguish -- until the affair of the slanders was cleared up early in Nissan, and once again we were allowed to visit Lubavitch.”
Earlier in the meal R. Chanoch Hendel [later to become the first Mashpi’a in Toimchei Temimim] had related regarding these events;
"From the beginning of the month of Iyar the Rebbe had again permitted his chassidim to visit Lubavitch, after having forbidden them to do so throughout the winter because of all the tribulations that had lasted from the beginning of MarCheshvan until close to Pesach.
"During that winter, the Rebbe had delivered maamarim only on limited occasions -- on Shabbos Parshas Vayeitzei, the ninth of Kislev [anniversary of the Miteler Rebbe’s passing]; on Yud-TesShabbos Rosh Chodesh [Teves], Shabbos Chanukkah; on the twenty-fourth of Teves [anniversary of the Alter Rebbe’s passing]; on Shabbos Shirah; and on Purim. And even on those occasions the maamarim had been delivered in his small private minyan which included a few of the yoshvim [young men who sat and learnt in the Rebbe’s Beis Hamedrash]. Kislev [anniversary of the Alter Rebbe’s release from prison]; on
"On Shabbos HaGadol, after a break that had lasted all winter, the Rebbe delivered a maamar of Chassidus (beginning with the phrase, Zos Toras HaOlah) in public. All the townsfolk [of Lubavitch] were overjoyed, and especially the yoshvim. Emissaries gave out the word that the Rebbe had again allowed chassidim to visit Lubavitch. Many already arrived in time for the first Shabbos after Pesach, Parshas Tazria-Metzora. As the news spread their numbers increased, so that for Shabbos Parshas Emor and Lag BaOmer which followed it there were about four hundred visitors, the most prominent among them being the distinguished R. Aizik of Homil and R. Hillel of Paritch.
"On that Shabbos Parshas Emor the Rebbe delivered three maamarim. The first, Ein Omdin LeHispalel Ela MiToch Koved Rosh, was delivered after Shacharis on Friday; the second, LeHavin Inyan Koved Rosh BaAvodah BeNefesh HaAdam, was delivered before Kabbalas Shabbos; and the third, LeHavin BeTosefes Biur: Yisrael -- Li Rosh, on Shabbos before Minchah.
"The joy of that year's Lag BaOmer celebration was doubled and trebled [beyond that of a regular year, due to the renewed opportunity to see the Rebbe and hear Chassidus from him].
"Since the third fast [of the Behab series of fasts] fell on Monday, the eve of Lag BaOmer, three celebrated rabbis -- R. Nechemiah of Dubrovna, R. Aizik of Vitebsk, and R. Aizik of Homil -- convened a beis din, and ruled that on this particular occasion, in view of the imminent communal celebration, those present should not complete the fast. Instead, after an early Minchah, they were to observe their well-established custom and participate in the annual festive meal.
R’ Hillel Paritcher, though he agreed with their ruling in principle and joined in the melodies and dancing, nevertheless completed his fast. Only after Maariv did he break his fast on a cup of tea.”
The Eposide with Reb Hillel Paritcher
R. Abba'le David Iskasya continued his account:
"At the farbrengen that then took place, R. Yitzchak Aizik of Homil rebuked R. Hillel of Paritch for his numerous hiddurim and for his excessive vigilance. A basic principle in avodah, he argued, is that one should follow the middle path. As the medieval thinkers conclude, superiority is not to be sought in either extremity, even in the higher; true happiness lies only in the middle path.
"[In response to R. Aizik of Homil's rebuke], R. Hillel of Paritch sought to explain that he had not been prompted by conceit or arrogance. Weeping as he spoke, he recounted the story of his life until he first came to meet his mentor, the saintly R. Mordechai of Chernobyl, and then the events through which he eventually found his place under the wings of Chabad Chassidus and its teachings.
“At fourteen he began to study Kabbalah, to accompany his prayers with the kavanos of the AriZal,Chassidus. and to engage in fasting and self-mortification. At eighteen he first beheld the holy light of R. Mordechai of Chernobyl; he cleaved to him and pursued the paths of
“In 5571 (1811) the Alter Rebbe journeyed to Vohlyn, and on his way back through the Mozir region thousands of people gathered together to hear him at every town and village. At one of the inns on the way, some five hundred people awaited him. Among them was R. Hillel, and from the lips of the Alter Rebbe he heard the discourse beginning, leolam yargiz adam yeitzer tov al yeitzer hora.
"Reb Hillel related, “one of the venerable chassidim who accompanied the [Alter] Rebbe on that journey [in 1811], my distinguished mentor, R. Zalman Zezmer, clarified for me both the principles and the details of the above discourse.
"For three years the teaching that I then heard from the [Alter] Rebbe stirred me from within, and in Elul of the year 5575 (1815) I visited the [Mitteler] Rebbe in Lubavitch. For three years I toiled to refine my body and all my organs so that they should attain the level of being truly good, and not only right. First of all, avodah can be considered proper only when the body is good, and not merely in the right by virtue of various excuses. Besides, when one departs this world and arrives at the World of Truth, time is precious: it's a pity to waste it on judicial proceedings involving trivial matters."
[In Sefer HaSichos 5701, a slightly different version is related. Reb Aiezel Homiler asked [Reb Hillel] why he is not washing [his hands to eat]. Reb Hillel responded with two answers:
“Firstly, I accustomed my body, that anything that is not absolutely required, the body cannot at all do. Therefore I am worried that I will bite and the food will not be able to pass through my throat, resulting in a blessing made in vain. Secondly, when I will arrive in the world of truth, after 120 years, there will be a discussion as to whether or not I was right to eat. In the meantime [while they deliberate] time will be spent to no purpose. If time in this world is so precious, certainly in that world time is even more valuable. It is a shame to waste the time the time for the discussion that eating will instigate.”]
The big clock at the south wall chimes 1:30 a.m., but R. Yosef the Meshares says that it is slow; he prefers to believe the rooster that crowed an hour ago. He is right: any minute now the morning star will rise, so we say the Grace After Meals.
The morning star rose as we left my grandmother's home, and the air was fresh. For over an hour we stood around and sat around in the courtyard, repeating the talks and the narratives that we had heard at the table. Then they all went off -- apart from R. Abba Persohn -- to immerse in the mikveh, and I went to sleep.
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To be contiued...