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Friday, March 23, 2007

 

WHY DID THE OHEV YISRAEL LEAVE APTA?

This Shabbos, the 5th of Nisan, is the yahrzeit of Rebbe Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apta, also known by the name of his sefer, the Ohev Yisrael. Be sure to check out last year’s post, The Joy of the Ohev Yisrael, for a lot more about him and his Negina.

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The following has been excerpted and adapted from this week’s English HaModia magazine. It was written by Shia Ellen.

The Apta Rav was the only one of the four spiritual heirs to the Rebbe Reb Elimelech who served as a Rav as well as a Rebbe, and in 5560 [1800], he accepted the position of Rav in the city of Apta, one of the oldest and most important Jewish communities in Poland. In honor of their new Rav, the venerable shul in the city changed its nusach from Ashkenaz to Sfard. It was in Apta that thousands of began to flock to him for brachos [blessings], and he soon became famous as a miracle worker, in addition to being a posek [Halachic decisor].
For nine years, he served as Rav in Apta, and then to the astonishment and consternation of its townspeople, he accepted the position of Rav in the distant town of Yassy, Romania. The people of Apta had formed a remarkable bond with their Rav, and he too had a special affection for them. He promised the residents that he would always be referred to as the ''Apta Rav'' and for the rest of his life, when he signed his name, he added, "of Apta." To this day, the Jews of Apta have the eternal merit that the name of this great tzaddik is forever linked with their town.

Why did he leave?
This question has puzzled many historians over the years, prompting various, often unlikely, theories. Many biographers seem unaware of the following two explanations.

According to Rebbe Yissachar Dov of Belz, the Apta Rav heard a voice from Shamayim [Heaven] proclaiming that HaRav Meir ben Shmuel was to become the Rav of Apta. Rebbe Avraham Yehoshua Heshel realized that since the town could only have one Rav, it meant that either he would move to another town, or pass away from this world. It was then that he decided to move to Yassy. Shortly thereafter, HaRav Meir, the author of sefer Ohr LaShamayim, became the Rav in Apta.
[the HaModia author notes that he heard this from the present Belzer Rebbe Shlita].

According to the Munkatcher Rebbe, author of the sefer Darkei Teshuva, when the Apta Rav agreed to take the position in Apta, he insisted on a large salary. When he left, he told them the following story:
"My father, Reb Shmuel, was a poor melamed [teacher-tutor] in a small town. His older brother, a very wealthy man, lived in Apta. Due to various calamities, my father and his brother had been separated from each other when they were eight and ten years old, and had no knowledge of each other's whereabouts. My uncle died childless, and left his young widow with very little information about his brother. Being childless, she was required to get chalitza from this unknown brother - but how was she to find him?
"The Rav of Apta at that time suggested that she send the letters to all the Rabbanim in all the neighboring countries, telling them that there was a widow in Apta searching for so-and-so to give her chalitza. She should also announce that when the brother comes and fulfills his obligation, she would give him half of what she inherited from her husband.
"She followed his suggestion, and one such letter arrived at the town where my father lived. The Rav called him in and said, 'I know you don't have money to make the trip to Apt, but seeing that you stand to return home a very wealthy man, I will lend you the money for the trip. Pay me back when you return.'
"My father went home, and told my mother the story. She said, 'A great mitzva has come your way. This is one mitzva that most people never get a chance to fulfill, and indeed, no one wishes for such an opportunity. Now that you have the chance to do this singular mitzva, you should do it for its own sake, and not for the sake of the money involved. In fact, you should not accept any money for it.'
"My father agreed, but my mother wasn’t satisfied. 'The yetzer hara [evil inclination] for money is very powerful. You may agree with me now, but when you are faced with that huge sum of money, who knows if you will be able to overcome this yetzer hara? Therefore, take my Korban Mincha Siddur in your hand, and promise that you will not take even a single penny.'
"He then returned to the Rav and told him that he did not want to borrow the money from him. 'Who says I’m the real person?' he argued. 'Perhaps I only seem to match the description, so how will I be able to repay you? I will go there by foot and see what happens.'

Engraving for the tractate Yevamos, illustrated by Mich. Richey, Amsterdam, 1700-04. The engraving shows the widow holding the "chalitza shoe" which she has removed from her brother-in-law's foot. (Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem)


"My father took his bag and walking stick and set out for Apta. He came to the Rav of Apta, and it turned out that he was the person they had sought. When the chalitza was completed, the woman insisted that my father take half of his brother's inheritance, but my father insisted on keeping the promise he had made to my mother and steadfastly refused to take any money.
"The widow insisted that she had no wish to keep this money, and if he would not accept it, it should remain in the community’s possession.
"My father’s actions caused a great tumult in Heaven. It was decided to reward him; and so, although my parents were very old, they were blessed with a son. I am that son," concluded the Ohev Yisrael. "Now you know why I consented to come here and be the Rav, but only for a large salary. I was only taking back the money that had been due my father, but was left in the hands of the community. Now that I have received the full amount, I can leave here and go to Yassy."

For four years, the Apta Rav served as Rav and Rebbe in Yassy. While many in the community recognized the great privilege of having the tzaddik in their midst, others did not; and while today the very notion seems incredible, the Apta Rav was viciously persecuted by segments of the Jewish community.
It is said that when family members saw how much the Rebbe was suffering from the actions of these individuals, they asked him what he did not curse the offenders.
''In my youth, I asked Hashem that any curse I utter turn into a blessing," the Rebbe replied. ''My request was granted. If I were to curse these individuals, I would actually be blessing them.''

On 18 Kislev 5572 [1811], the Rebbe Reb Baruch, Rebbe of Medzibuzh, was niftar [passed away]. The Jews of Medzibuzh had become accustomed to having a venerable tzaddik in their midst. Only half a century earlier, the Baal Shem Tov had resided there. For the past twelve years, it had been his grandson, the Rebbe Reb Baruch, and for the twelve years before that the Rebbe Reb Baruch’s older brother, Rebbe Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudylkov, the author of the Degel Machaneh Efraim, had served as their Rebbe.
The community decided to invite the Apta Rav to relocate to Medzibuzh, and in 5573, he left Romania and became Rebbe in the city of the Baal Shem Tov. Two years later his close friends, the Chozeh of Lublin, the Kozhnitzer Maggid, and Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Riminov, were all niftar within months of each other. The last surviving member of this unique group, the Apta Rav, was now considered the oldest Chassidic Rebbe of the time. All major decisions were sent to him for arbitration, and his word was feared throughout Eastern Europe and even as far away as Eretz Yisrael. Like the two previous tzaddikim who lived in Medzibuzh, the Rebbe Reb Baruch and the Degel Machaneh Ephraim, the Apta Rav lived there for twelve years.
Shortly before his petira [passing], he bade farewell to the table at which he had studied, the bookcase full of sefarim, and to the mezuza on the doorpost. He returned to his bed and began to say, "Ha’aderes vha’emuna, l’Chai Olamim – Strength and faithfulness are His, Who lives Eternally," and it was with these words that he departed this world, on the fifth day of Nisan 5585 [1825].

Zechuso yagein Aleinu v'al Kol Yisrael - May the Ohev Yisrael's merits protect us all!


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