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Sunday, April 29, 2007



Today, the 11th of Iyar, is the yahrzeit of Rebbe Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz, a talmid of the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, as well as the Chozeh of Lublin, the Kozhnitzer Maggid and Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Riminov. Among his talmidim was Rebbe Chaim of Sanz. Ropshitz niggunim trickled down to later Chassidic groups, including Sanz, Bobov and Dzikov. He was the author of Zera Kodesh and Ayala Shlucha.


Dont forget to check out last year's post on him: Rebbe Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz: Breaking the Ice…, for lots more about his wisdom on Negina.


This year's story comes to us by courtesy of my good friend Yrachmiel at the Ascent website. I have edited it somewhat, including some info gleaned from the L'Chaim website version of this story. I'd also like to thank A Talmid of the Zchus Avos blog for reminding me of the Ascent version. Enjoy!


Blizzards and storm winds had pounded Lublin and the surrounding countryside for several weeks. The roads were piled so high with snow that no one was able to go anywhere. This meant that the farmers weren't able to reach the city with their produce and food supplies were dwindling rapidly.
Many items were completely lacking, such as onions. There weren't even any onions to use in the tasty foods prepared in honor of Shabbos. This fact constituted a near tragedy, because in Lublin, the mixture of chopped eggs and onions, known in Yiddish as eiyr-un-tzibl, was considered a nearly indispensable ingredient of the holy day. The Jews of Lublin could remember occasions when there was no meat, or no fish, but whoever heard of being without onions?
The household of the famous tzaddik, the Chozeh [Seer] of Lublin, was particularly distraught. After all, Chassidic tradition attaches great significance to this humble dish. They tried to secure some onions by every means they could think of, but to no avail. Someone even managed to plod his way through the snowdrifts to a few of the local farmers, but they didn't have any onions either.
On Friday morning, one of the leading disciples of the Chozeh, Rebbe Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz, rose early as usual to make his way to the Rebbe's shul and pour out his heart in prayer to the Creator. On his way home afterwards he passed through the marketplace, where he unexpectedly came upon a peasant farmer with a sack filled with onions! "Wow!" said Reb Naftali to himself, struck by a bold idea. "This is exactly the opportunity I've been waiting for! Baruch Hashem!"
He approached the gentile and offered to buy the entire sack.
The farmer knew very well the value of his precious merchandise and had been looking forward to making a tidy profit. He wasn't going to compromise now. No wholesale discounts! He stated an outrageously high price. To his great surprise, Reb Naftali instantly agreed and handed him the money.
But that wasn't the end of the surprises. "I'd like to buy your sheepskin coat and furry hat too," the Ropshitzer added. The farmer couldn't believe his ears. Astonished, he refused. How could he possibly return home in the freezing cold without his coat and hat?
But the thick wad of bills in his customer's outthrust hand argued persuasively, and the second deal was also quickly struck. Reb Naftali strode home with his sack of onions and unusual new items of apparel.
Later that day, a farmer appeared outside the Chozeh's door. His body was swaddled inside a thick sheepskin coat, and his furry hat obscured most of his face. His boots were covered with mud, obviously trekked in from the countryside. In the language and intonation of a gentile farmer he called out, "Onions! Onions for sale!"
Chassidim came pouring from every direction. Everyone wanted onions in honor of the holy Shabbos. They crowded around the onion-seller, attempting to bargain with him. He refused to budge from his price. Then, suddenly, he announced that he was stopping for the day. No more onions!
The Chassidim pleaded with him. "But we still have to get some for the Rebbe. He is a great, holy man. Blessings will shower upon you, if only you will allow us to buy onions for him."
"If he is as special as you say, I'll do it," rejoined the farmer, "but only if I can sell them to the holy man directly, in person, face-to-face."
The Chassidim were shaken. How could they bring such an unrefined character to the Rebbe? After a few moments of confusion, they realized they had no choice. A solemn delegation led the onion-laden farmer to the Chozeh's house.
When they came in, the Chozeh was busy polishing his unique Kiddush cup, as he did every Friday before Shabbos. This was an extraordinary chalice, exquisitely crafted of pure gold, with intricate engravings depicting famous sites in the Holy Land, such as the Kosel HaMaaravi [Western Wall], Migdal David [the Tower of David], and Har HaZeisim [the Mount of Olives].
Many rumors surrounded this Kiddush cup and its history. It was said that the Chozeh had inherited it from one of the great Chassidic masters of the previous generation, and whoever was privileged to make a blessing over its contents and drink from it benefited infinitely.
Not that this merit was easy to come by. The Chozeh did not allow anyone else to use it or even touch it. The whole week it stood in a locked cabinet until Friday, when he would work on it until it glistened and sparkled on the white Shabbos tablecloth.
When his Chassidim brought in the gentile with his sack, the Chozeh understood the reason at once. "How much do you want for your onions?" he queried the farmer.
"One moment. Not so fast," the farmer replied coarsely, holding up his hand as if to ward off the Rebbe's offer. "I'm frozen stiff. I need a proper drink to warm me up."
It was clear that such a person didn't have in mind a cup of tea. The Chozeh instructed his attendant to serve the man some whiskey and a brimming shot glass was quickly set down in front of the farmer.
"That's all?" cried out the farmer, as if insulted. "Just this little cup?"
"Give him the whole bottle and let him do as he likes," said the Rebbe, turning away.
Now the onion seller seemed mortally offended. "What! You think I'm a drunkard?" he shouted angrily. "I'll show you! I'll go home. I won't sell you anything!" He tied up the sack and fastened his garments, as if preparing to leave.
The Chassidim hurriedly attempted to soothe him, anxiously muttering words of appeasement. Finally he calmed down. Then he smirked. "I tell you what," he offered. "I'll sell you my onions if, and only if, you fill this goblet with whiskey for me to drink." He pointed at the Rebbe's golden cup shining on the table.
The Chassidim drew back, aghast. From this holy Kiddush cup which no one dared touch except the tzaddik, this uncircumcised drunken peasant should imbibe his crude booze? They offered him other cups and glasses, bigger ones, singly and in combination, but he was stubborn. "Only from this one, like I told you. Otherwise I go home."
They tried again to dissuade him, but nothing worked. He simply refused to budge. With trembling hands and heavy heart, the Chozeh himself filled the precious vessel with the coarse fluid and, with a helpless shrug, presented it to the farmer.
The latter lifted it with his right hand, squeezed his eyes shut, and with great concentration and intensity called out, "Baruch ata...shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro [the blessing over whiskey]."
Everyone was shocked speechless. Only the Chozeh, after a quick stare, realized what had taken place. A broad smile spread across his face. "L’Chaim, Reb Naftali! You are so clever, and truly deserve to drink from this cup. L’Chaim u'livracha! [May it be for life and for blessing!]"
Zechuso yagein Aleinu - May Rebbe Naftali's merits protect us all!
UPDATE: See also Zchus Avos' post: the Ropshitzer on Yichus, and my comment thereon.

Friday, April 27, 2007


The Keen Wisdom of Rebbe Dovid’l Tolna

This Shabbos, the 10th of Iyar, is the 125th yahrzeit of the first Rebbe of Tolna, the world-renowned Reb Dovid'l (1808-1882). He was born in the year 1808 in the Ukranian town of Chernobyl, where his father, Rebbe Mordechai was the Rebbe. Rebbe Mordechai's father, Rebbe Menachem Nachum - the Maggid of Chernobyl, disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and towering figure in the galaxy of Chassidic masters gathered around the Baal Shem Tov's successor, the Maggid of Mezritch. Rebbe Mordechai had eight sons, all of whom became Rebbes in different towns throughout the Ukraine.

Around 1835, Rebbe David became the first Rebbe of the town of Tolna in the Kiev district of Ukraine. In Tolna, he found the authorities more disposed to the Jews. Thousands of Chassidim adhered to Rebbe David, and the town of Tolna soon became one of the largest Chassidic centers in the Ukraine.Upon his arrival in Tolna from Vusylkuv, a folk tune was composed: "Rebbe Dovid’l from Vusylkuv is now in Tolna," which his Chassidim sang to a fervent melody. Rebbe David was very fond of Negina, and chazanim found a place of respect in his court. Even in mid-week he was eager to hear chazanim and various niggunim. The Rebbe even had clocks which played music. His court had its own baal menagen/chazan, R. Yossele Tolner, whose melodies became popular among the masses in Russia and Poland. Another favored chazan of the Tolna Rebbe was R. Nissan Belzer...

All of this, and more, can be found in last year's post,
Rebbe David of Tolna Saves a Jewish Soul with a Niggun.


And as last year, we have the privilege of bringing you the following story, excerpted from Not Just Stories, by Rabbi Avraham J. Twerski, who shares some common ancestors with Rebbe Dovid'l.

The Keen Wisdom of Rebbe Dovid'l Tolna
A Chassid of the Tolna Rebbe was a lumber merchant, and had reached an understanding with the poritz [feudal lord] to buy a section of his forest for lumbering. No contract was written, and when the price of lumber fell, the merchant wished to renegotiate the deal, claiming that he has not legally bound by the verbal agreement. The poritz knew that according to civil law, the merchant was right, and he therefore suggested that they take the dispute to the Rebbe for a decision according to Jewish Law.
The Rebbe listened to both sides, then ruled that although there was no legal contract, the Talmud pronounces a severe curse upon one who reneges upon a verbal agreement, and that certainly the merchant would not wish to subject himself to this. He therefore found in favor of the poritz.
The poritz was most pleased with the decision in his favor, but remarked, ''In our courts there is a much longer process, and if a litigant is displeased with the court's decision, he can appeal to a higher court, and there are several levels of appeals available to him. Suppose the merchant wished to appeal your decision. What recourse does he have?''

The Rebbe smiled and said, ''One time a wolf attacked a flock of sheep, and the animals dispersed. The wolf pursued one of them, but before he had a chance to seize it, a lion emerged and pounced upon the sheep. The wolf protested that the prey has his, because he had caused the sheep to leave the flock, but the lion said that he had as much right to the sheep as the wolf, since neither had paid for it. They agreed to take their dispute before the fox, who was the wisest of all the animals."
"The fox ruled that the sheep should be divided equally between the two, and proceeded to cut the sheep in half. Noting that one portion was larger than the other, he nibbled away a bit, but then, seeing that now this portion was smaller, he nibbled away a bit of the other. This 'equalization' process continued until the fox had consumed almost the entire carcass, leaving nothing but the bones for the wolf and lion.
''In your courts,'' the Rebbe continued, ''there are indeed many appeals, with the result that the lawyers on each side nibble on the disputed assets. By the time a final decision is reached, all that is left for the litigants are the bare bones. We may not have an appeals process, but both litigants are likely to benefit from our judgment.''
Adds Rabbi Twerski:
The Rebbe said this in 1840. Was it by his wisdom or prophetic foresight that he so accurately described the judicial system of our own times?
Zechuso Yagein Aleinu -- May the Rebbe Dovidl's merits protect us!

UPDATE! See Dixie Yid's follow-up post [to this one] about Judicial Economy.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Yahrzeit of the Imrei Aish 5767

The Imrei Aish as Sandak at a great-grandson's Bris

Today is 4 Iyar, the 23rd yahrzeit of the third Modzitzer Rebbe, Rebbe Shmuel Eliyahu Taub, known as the Imrei Aish. I just returned from a very elevating Shabbos in Bnei Brak, which featured three Tishes – Friday night, Shalosh Seudos [the 3rd meal of Shabbos], and the yahrzeit Seuda - Melave Malka. What can I say but the Rebbe Ztvk"l left us some really very majestic and elevating niggunim and Torahs.

For a lot more about this Rebbe, see last year’s posts:
The Advantages of Negina
Scenes from the Yahrzeit Seuda

Enjoy the new picture, and anyone who can obtain the set of 5 cassettes [10 years’ worth of new niggunim!] from the Modzitz Machon will surely benefit! [They were on sale at the Tish last night.]

Zechuso yagein Aleinu v’al kol Yisrael – May the Rebbe’s merits protect us all!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


The Vitebsker – An Inner Perception

The Resting Place of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk in Tiveria
Tonight and tomorrow, the 1st of Iyar, is the 219th yahrzeit of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk [Horodok], leader of the third generation of the Chassidic movement. The greatness of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, who spread Chassidic teachings throughout Russia and along the border of Lithuania, rose above all of the other talmidim [disciples] of the Maggid of Mezritch. The Maggid himself willed that, after his own son, Rebbe Menachem Mendel be his inheritor. In all of the letters written by the disciples of the Maggid, Rebbe Menachem Mendel is always the first to sign.
UPDATE: The Maggid "Crowns" Reb Mendel
from R. Yosef Zevin’s Sippurei Chassidim, Parshas Pinchas [#382]
The Maggid of Mezritch had Chassidim from Belorussia, who would travel a great distance to be in his presence and learn from him. Once they came to him and expressed their difficulty in making the long, tedious journey. But on the other hand, it was difficult for them to go on for a long time without the teaching and influence of a Rebbe.
The Maggid brought out a garment of his, a belt, and a walking stick, and said, "Take these and give them to a man named Mendeleh in Vitebsk. Whenever it is too difficult for you to come to me, you can go to him."
These Chassidim went to Vitebsk, seeking out Rav Mendel. However, this was before Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk was known. The townspeople told them that there is no Rav Mendel in Vitebsk. Not satisfied with this, the Chassidim continued to investigate until they came upon a woman who asked them what they were looking for.
"We are looking for Rav Mendel," they answered.
"There is no Rav Mendel here," she said. "But there are many [plain] Mendels here. In fact, my son-in-law is named Mendeleh."
They understood that this man was the one they were looking for. They came to her home, found her son-in-law, and handed him the items that the Maggid had sent.
Reb Mendel took the garment and belt, put them on, and grasped the walking stick in his hand. He was immediately unrecognizable to people. His appearance had changed so drastically, that people were in awe of him.
Upon the Maggid's death, Rebbe Menachem Mendel, along with fellow disciple Rebbe Avraham of Kalisk ("Kalisker") settled in Horodok. Among the thousands of Chassidim who thronged to him were many prominent former students of the Maggid, such as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Rabbi Baruch of Kossov, and many others.
In 1777 Rebbe Menachem Mendel, along with disciple Rebbe Avraham, and 300 followers emigrated to the Land of Israel, settling in Tzfas. In 1783 they left Tzfas and moved to Tiveria.
From his residence in Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Menachem Mendel maintained a close contact with his Chassidim in Russia through personal emissaries and a steady flow of letters. His reflections, letters, and commentaries have been published in the sefer Pri Ha'aretz.


The Vitebsker had an uncanny perception, reflected in his senses of sight, smell, hearing and his spiritual perception of others, as the following stories demonstrate. But first, why not listen to his Niggun L’histapchus HaNefesh – a niggun of outpouring of the soul, courtesy of Chabad’s English Niggunim site.


How to View the Stones
from Ohr Sameach's website
There is a famous Chassidic story told about Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk. Many years ago, he finally fulfilled his dream to settle in the Land of Israel. Forty days after his arrival, he invited all of his family and students to a special festive meal. His students were a little unsure as to why their Rebbe was making the meal but they attended anyway. During the meal, Rebbe Menachem Mendel recounted that before embarking on his trip he had gone to a pious and holy rabbi for a blessing. The Rabbi had informed him that on his arrival in the Land of Israel every stone will be a diamond! He related to his spellbound audience that on arriving he had looked and looked and all he had seen was…stones! Not a single diamond on the ground (in those days there probably weren't even diamonds to be seen on any fingers either!). Imagine his disappointment! What had happened to the guarantee that he had been given? So fiercely did Rebbe Menachem Mendel believe in the promise that he would see diamonds that he fasted for forty days straight, eating only at night! On the fortieth day he opened his eyes, looked out of the window and saw…diamonds!
Don't think that Rebbe Menachem Mendel made a special meal because now he was rich. Don't think that he went to the grocery store and bought all the requirements for the meal with a stone he picked up off the ground! Quite the opposite! For the store owner and everyone else, all the "diamonds" were still stones.
No, Rebbe Menachem Mendel was celebrating the moment that he was able to recognize the diamonds that were all around him, but that he had never been privy to see before. He was celebrating his new-found blessing to be able to cut away, just like a master jewelsmith, the unimpressive, the unprepossessing, exterior to reveal the magnificent opulence that lies underneath.

[Note – we posted a similar story, Jewels of Our Lives, about the Bas Ayin here. Very often, the protagonists of Chassidic stories can change, depending upon who is telling the story.]


The Scent of Moshiach
A composite of several sources, including R. Levi Brackman and Inner Stream
When the famous Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk founded a Chassidic community in Tiberias, in northern Israel, in 1777, this raised the hopes of many for the coming of Moshiach and the redemption of the Jewish people.
Shortly he arrived, a man climbed Har HaZeisim [the Mount of Olives] in Yerushalayim and sounded a Shofar. A rumor quickly spread that the Shofar’s call heralded the arrival of Moshiach. Word spread quickly; many even stopped working and began making preparations for the Messianic era. When news of Moshiach’s arrival reached Tiveria, Rebbe Menachem Mendel’s Chassidim couldn’t wait to see his reaction.
"Rebbe, the Shofar was sounded on the Mount of Olives! Moshiach is here!"
They expected their Rebbe to jump for joy. Instead, they saw him rise slowly and walk to the window. He then threw the shutters wide open and sniffed the air. He then sadly closed the windows and remarked, "No, he has not come; I cannot smell the scent of Redemption."
In retelling this story Chassidim have often asked why Rebbe Mendel need to open the window to sniff the air outside? His followers explained that Rebbe Menachem Mendel had to open his window for this because the smell of Redemption, the revealed manifestation of the Divine, always pervaded his private room. This Chassidic leader and Kabbalist had reached the stage of self-mastery where no other influence either outer or inner was able to contain him from reaching that which his authentic self wanted to achieve. Thus, his room was filled with the fragrance of Redemption, but the outside was not.
(Note: The term odor was used allegorically to imply an indiscernible presence. It’s worthwhile noting the Talmudic text from Sanhedrin 93b. "Bar Koziba (Kochba) reigned two and a half years, and then said to the Rabbis, 'I am Moshiach.' They answered, 'Of Moshiach it is written that he smells and judges (Isaiah 11:3) let us see whether he [Bar Koziba] can do so.' When they saw that he was unable to judge by the scent, they slew him.")


Why Did He Leave Tzfas?
from the Shalom Rav [Tzfas] yeshiva website.
The end of the eighteenth century again witnessed a flowering of Tzfas, this time from the followers of the Baal Shem Tov and to some extent the followers of the Vilna Gaon. Barred from settling in Jerusalem by the libel against the Ashkenazim, and attracted to Tzfas by the mystical atmosphere, they found a haven on this hilltop in the Upper Galilee. Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, a student of the Baal Shem Tov, explained why he left Tzfas and moved to nearby Tiberias.
"The air in Tzfas is very pure and at night I could hear the angels calling out from heaven for the world to do Teshuva. It disturbed my sleep so much I had to leave."


Spiritual Vision
from Akiva of Mystical Paths
After the Maggid of Mezritch passed away (the Maggid was the Baal Shem Tov’s successor), the disciples each looked for a Rebbe to follow. The eldest of the disciples was Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl. Rebbe Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, did not follow his close friend Rebbe Nachum, but instead looked to Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk for guidance. Rebbe Schneur Zalman and Rebbe Nachum would visit one another once a year on Sukkos.
On one of those visits, when they were sitting and discussing the deep mysteries of the Torah in the sukka, Rebbe Nachum asked Rebbe Schneur Zalman: "Why did you take Rebbe Menachem Mendel as your Rebbe and not me?"
Rebbe Schneur Zalman replied: "I once saw him when he was giving audience and I realized that everything that the person seeking his council had done in his life was known to him."
Rebbe Nachum shrugged, as if to say that he too saw past actions.
Rebbe Schneur Zalman continued: "I then realized that not only could he see all his actions in this present lifetime, he also was aware of all of the person’s previous incarnations since the six days of Creation."
Rebbe Nachum shrugged again.
Finally, Rebbe Schneur Zalman said: "In the end I realized that not only could he see his past actions and past incarnations, he could also see everything that this soul was destined for in the future until the coming of the Moshiach and after."
At that moment Rabbi Nachum raised his brows in wonder, thereby acknowledging Rabbi Schneur Zalman's choice of a Rebbe, but the conversation abruptly ended, as the Chassidim, who had been intently listening to the holy words of the two tzaddikim from on top of the sukka, suddenly moved and were heard...
Zechuso Yagein Aleinu v'al Kol Yisrael - May the Vitebsker's merits protect us all!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Saved – in the Holocaust – by a Song

Yesterday was Yom HaShoah v’HaGevura, Holocaust Remembrance Day [literally, the Day of Holocaust and Strength]. Our Sages [Pirkei Avos - Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1] say, "Who is strong? One who controls his desires." The essence of heroism is the ability to maintain one's inner freedom in the face of external pressure. It is the ability to, despite everything, act in accordance with what one considers correct and desirable.
Quiet actions can come from strength too. Dr. Viktor Frankl, himself a concentration camp survivor, writes:
But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors - be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these? Most important, do the prisoners' reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?
We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way (Man's Search for Meaning, pp. 103-104).
(Excerpted from the book, Shoah: A Jewish Perspective on the Holocaust, by Rabbi Yoel Schwartz & Rabbi Yitzchak Goldstein - ArtScroll Publications. Hat tip, Moshe Kempinski of Shorashim’s Jerusalem Insights).

With this in mind, of the many Holocaust stories [besides the one below], I highly recommend reading Sara Y. Rigler’s Who Will Save the Baby? from the Aish HaTorah website.


Reb Dovid Werdyger is a Gerer Chassid and a Holocaust survivor, as well as a chazan (cantor) who has recorded many traditional niggunim. Reb Dovid's Holocaust memoirs are written in a book entitled Songs of Hope, which is part of the Holocaust Diaries series, and from which the story below is taken.


Saved by a Song

Plaszow concentration camp, near Krakow

Our column of condemned Jews marched in the direction of the Plaszow [near Krakow, see also here] extermination camp, each step bringing us closer to the jaws of death. As I trudged along with my brother-in-law Hersch Leib Geldwerth, I clasped his hand tightly; the leaden sky matched our sullen mood.
"Mir gehn yetzt oif Kiddush Hashem,” Hersch Leib whispered. "We are going to offer our lives to sanctify the Name [of G-d]. Up in Gan Eden, the tzaddikim are preparing to welcome us. We'll have best seats at the magnificent Tish presided over by Moshe Rabbeinu, Aharon HaKohen and the three Avos, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The Chiddushei HaRim and the Sfas Emes [first and second Gerer Rebbes] will be there to receive us with open arms, and they will give you the honor of singing the Gerer Yedid Nefesh. You remember the verse, 'Ki zeh kama nichsof nichsafti . . . Because it is so every long that I have yearned to see the splendor of Your strength.' Today it will come true. You will see the sweet radiance of the Shechina [Divine Presence]." He choked, trying to hold back his tears.
"Let’s prepare ourselves and say Vidui [confess our sins]. I can see the Plaszow gate in the distance, and I don't know how much time we have."
His words lifted my spirits. Suddenly, I did not fear death any longer. A better world awaited me. All the beautiful niggunim of Ger echoed in my mind, and I saw myself again as a little boy singing in the choir on Rosh Hashana.
"K’vakoras roeh edro... [like a shepherd who tends his flock]." The solo I had sung on that memorable Yom Tov echoed in my ears, the words of the tefilla so appropriate to our situation. "Who will live and who will die, who by water and who by fire, who by the sword and who by the beast, who by famine and who by thirst. . .''
Moved by the memory of the hauntingly beautiful melody, tears came to my eyes. I was overcome by mixed emotions, faced with the prospect of certain death, yet knowing that like Yitzchak Avinu, I was going to my Akeida al Kiddush Hashem [personal sacrifice, to sanctify G-d’s Name].
As we marched, the holy niggunim that were so familiar to me rang in my ears. The solemn melody of K’vakoras Roeh was followed by the rousing 'Ein Kitzva Lishnosecha - there is no limit to Your years.' It was an exuberant marching niggun, and I found myself keeping step with the beat of the tune.
When I came to the words, "v’kadeish es Shimcha al makdishei Shemecha, Sanctify Your Name through those who sanctify Your Name," I was shaken. How fitting this phrase was for our group of condemned prisoners.
As we neared the Plaszow death camp, the main gate swung open. In this camp, thirty thousand Jewish inmates were dying a slow death, but we quickly realized that for us, a swift end loomed ahead. In the central square, a firing squad was in readiness, their machine guns in place, and in the rear, several trucks were waiting to haul away the bodies.
At the gate, our column was ordered to halt.
"Sturmbannfuehrer Goeth, the SS Lager commandant, is coming." The ominous news spread through the column. The mere mention of Kommandant Goeth sent shivers up the spine of every inmate of Plaszow. A typically coarse, vile German, he was the embodiment of evil.
He approached us slowly, his steely blue eyes devoid of any human emotion, his thin, cruel lips pursed tightly together. He was wearing the green uniform of the Waffen SS, and a Luger handgun dangled casually from his belt. In his right hand, he held a black wooden cane.
"Hashem Ro’i, lo echsar," I whispered feverishly. "Hashem is my Shepherd, I lack nothing. Gam ki eileich b’gei tzalmaves, lo ira ra. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are with me" (Tehillim-Psalms 23:1-4).
"Achtung! Halt!'' the command rang out.
Our column came to an abrupt stop, and one by one, we filed past the commandant. Motioning with his cane, he directed most of us toward the square where the machine guns were set up.
Soon it was my turn, and I tried to look confident as I met Goeth's stare.
"Vos ist dein beruf?" Goeth asked. "What kind of work do you do?"
"Ich bin saenger von beruf, Herr Kommandant," I replied straightforwardly, standing sharply at attention. "I am a professional singer, and I have a trained soprano voice. Would you like to hear something?"
Goeth was taken aback. He hesitated for an instant.
"So zing doch mal den Juedischen totengesang," he said, as a diabolical smile spread across his face. "Sing the song you Jews chant when you bury your dead." He was obviously very amused at the thought of my singing the memorial chant for those who were about to die.
I took a deep breath and began to sing, knowing that my fate depended on the quality of my performance. Hashem was with me, and suddenly, I felt like a thousand malachim [angels] were standing behind me, lending my voice new resonance and strength.
"Keil maleh rachamim…" I began slowly and hesitantly, terror gripping my heart. "Oh, L-rd full of mercy, Who dwells on high. . .'' I closed my eyes and concentrated on the meaning of each sacred word of the tefilla. Hamtzei menucha nechona al kanfei HaShechina... Grant proper rest on the wings of the Divine Presence to the souls of the martyrs and the pure ones who were killed, murdered and slaughtered for the sanctification of the Name..."
Seized with emotion, I sang with a vibrancy and fullness I did not know I possessed. Never before had I felt the meaning of a tefilla with such immediacy.
"B’gan Eden t’hei menuchasam, veyanuchu b’shalom al mishkevoseihem. May their resting place be in the Garden of Eden, and may they repose in peace in their resting places…" I threw all my might into the last verse, concluding with a thunderous, "V’nomar Amen."
As one, the prisoners standing nearby responded softly, "Amen."
There was a mordent of absolute silence as the Kommandant stared at me, transfixed. At that moment, I believe that a small spark of humanity, hidden under an impenetrably hard shell of depravity and malevolence, was aroused by my singing.
"Geh ins lager [go into the camp]," he said hoarsely, and with an abrupt gesture of his cane, he directed me toward the Plaszow camp, saving me from immediate execution.
Keil malei rachamim. Hashem, in His abundant mercy, had saved me from certain death.
I was among the forty men who had professions that were deemed useful enough for them to be sent to the Plaszow camp. The remaining hundred and forty prisoners were led to the square, and within moments, they were machine-gunned to death. My brother-in-law Hersch Leib Geldwerth was one of those Kedoshim. Hashem yinkom damo. May Hashem avenge his blood.


Reb Dovid’s victory over the Nazis. Reb Dovid Werdyger (center), surrounded by [some of] his sons: Chaim Werdyger (producer and singer), Mayer Werdyger (singer), Mordechai Ben David Werdyger or MBD (singer, far right), Yeedle Werdyger (singer), Mendy Werdyger (singer), and Yisrael Werdyger (singer) [not all are pictured].

adapted from Jewish America:
Throughout the world, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life study are marching through the Babylonian Talmud and they study each day another page, which is known as Daf HaYomi.
On the night of September 28, 1997, seventy-thousand people were linked together by satellite and they celebrated the completion of a seven-and-a-half year study cycle. For the tenth time in recent history, the Jewish people concluded the last book of the Talmud and began the first…
Before thousands of Jews assembled at Madison Square Garden, Reb Dovid Werdyger intoned the Keil Maleh Rachamim on behalf of kedoshei Churban Europe [the Holocaust victims].

From the above story, you can well understand why R. Dovid was accorded this honor!

Sunday, April 15, 2007



We are now in the period between Pesach and Shavuos, between our People’s Exodus from the land of Egypt, redemption from slavery, and our Receiving of the Torah, the Divine Law for the Jewish People, and indeed, all of humanity. During this period we count the Omer, for the duration of the forty-nine day period between these two events [and holidays].

First, let’s take another look at the Pesach Haggada, if you will, for a moment. In the fifteen "Dayeinus" that we recite about midway through the Seder, there’s a curious stanza: "If He [G-d] had only brought us close to Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah, dayeinu – it would have been enough." Oh, really? What is the significance of coming to Mount Sinai if not to receive the Torah???

The Imrei Aish of Modzitz gives a beautiful answer to this question. On the verse, "Vayichan sham Yisrael neged haHar – the Jewish People encamped there [at Sinai], opposite the mountain" [Shemos, 19:2], Rashi explains that the People are referred to in the singular [vayichan, not vayachanu] because they encamped "like one person, with one heart" – they were fully united. That is, as soon as they approached Mount Sinai, even before the Torah was given, the Jewish People achieved a tremendous accomplishment – complete Jewish unity. Therefore, we say to this, "Dayeinu," it would have been enough for us. For this accomplishment alone, of Jewish unity that we attained upon approaching Mount Sinai, we should graciously thank Hashem – for loving our fellow Jew is indeed "a great general principle [Klal Gadol] of the Torah."


With this in mind, I’d like to present HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu Shlita’s response to the question, "Why do we not listen to music during the Sefiras HaOmer period?" This is my free translation of an article which appeared in the weekly Mayanei HaYeshua for Parshas Shmini [this past Shabbos].

(Other bloggers who have dealt with this question include our good friend, A Simple Jew, whose post is here; and of course, Chaim of Life-of-Rubin has had many posts on it, including this one from last year, which he has reaffirmed this year. Chaim also links to “Has Sefira Music Gone too Far?”, which is quite interesting, too.)

However, I think Rav Eliyahu’s response is very much in keeping with Jewish Unity, so without further ado, here’s what he writes:

HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu Shlita

The days of Sefiras HaOmer are the days which link the Exodus from Egypt, the freedom from physical enslavement, to the spiritual Redemption – our drawing close to G-d. Only after the tenth plague did Pharaoh understand what Moshe Rabbeinu was trying to explain to him previously and gently. Moshe was saying [to him], you should know that it is impossible to serve G-d in Egypt. We need a spiritual Redemption before the physical one. In the end, Pharaoh sent out the Jewish People and they received the Torah. Sefiras HaOmer also teaches us the opposite – that the Exodus from the physical exile is not a Geula, a Redemption, without the Torah.

Sefiras HaOmer turns these two holidays [and holy days] into one unit. And this is as true today as it was then, at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. Perhaps it was for this reason that it is written in the holy Zohar [Emor, 97b]: "Any one who does not perform this counting [of the Omer] is not considered pure, and it is not fitting that he should have a portion in Torah."

The Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim ztvk"l, writes concerning Sefiras HaOmer: "One should be extra cautious in refraining from anger, quarrels and disputes, at home and outside, and he should show signs of love and friendship, to both his family members and others." The reason for this is to teach that the spiritual connection to Torah is related to the connection that is necessary between every one of the Jewish People. As we know, the giving of the Torah began when the Jewish People at Mount Sinai were "like one person, with one heart." So, too, in our time, the preparation for the receiving of the Torah depends on the middos [character traits] of bein adam l'chaveiro, between man and his fellow man, which are learned in Pirkei Avos [Ethics of the Fathers, which are studied between Pesach and Shavuos].

We know that the Torah scholarship of the 24,000 pupils of Rabbi Akiva did not hold [i.e., they were punished - all of them died during the Sefira period - despite their scholarship], because they did not respect each other enough. It should be noted that they did not despise or insult one another, but just did not have the proper respect – and Hashem is stringent with his chassidim [pious ones] even to a hair's breadth.

We also know that this defect is not only an historical one. It was a major cause of the destruction of the Second Temple, part of that baseless hatred which destroyed the House [of G-d] which has not yet been rebuilt [meaning, that its cause still exists]. It is for this reason that we have some customs of mourning during this period. Every time we are distressed over not listening to music, we should remind ourselves to increase "signs of love and friendship, to both family members and others." [my emphasis]

And it is for this reason that we rejoice on Lag B'Omer, the day that Rabbi Akiva began to teach his five talmidim [disciples]: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, Rabbi Meir Baal HaNeis, Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Nechemia. These five talmidim repaired what the previous 24,000 had ruined. As they grew in Torah learning, they grew in their love for each other [and every Jew] and in displaying cordiality. From this great light and cordiality the Zohar eventually emerged from them.

Finally, in the Ben Ish Chai’s (Rabbi Yosef Chaim’s) Haggada, Orach Chaim, the Rei’ach Tov writes: "A Jewish person must have love for his fellow man and strive for unity at all times. But during these days [of Sefira] one should be extra cautious to distance himself from any form of quarrel or dispute. For you already know what happened to the talmidim of Rabbi Akiva during these days. Hashem in His infinite mercy should help us, for the sake of the honor of His Name."


UPDATE! Chaim has a wonderful roundup of "Sefira music" acapella style, including a link to this post! Thanks, Chaim!

Monday, April 02, 2007


Zman Cheiruseinu – the Time of Our Freedom – in the Valley of Death

This past Shabbos HaGadol I was privileged to hear Rav Leventhal deliver his drasha about “political and spiritual freedom.” He introduced his topic with an awesome Halachic query that was posed to Rav Ephraim Oshri, the last Rabbi of Kovno, Lithuania, during the Shoah, the Holocaust.
As we know, the morning service [for men] begins with a series of blessings, in which we thank Hashem and acknowledge that we are free Jewish men. The middle of these three blessings is “shelo asani eved,” wherein we thank Hashem for not having made us slaves.
In the Kovno Ghetto [in Lithuania] there was a chazan, a cantor, named Avraham Yosef. Every morning when he was about to recite this blessing, he cried out to Hashem: “How can I recite this blessing, as we find ourselves under arrest and in captivity…how can a slave make the blessing of a free man, with the yoke of slavery around his neck? How can a slave who is crushed and disgraced, without enough bread and water…how can such a slave bless his Creator and say, ‘You have not made me a slave’? Is it not mere ridicule, like a deranged person devoid of sanity? A major principle of Jewish prayer is that it should be with proper intention [kavanna], and how can I utter such a blessing when my heart is not with me?”
An awesome question, indeed. Without providing the answer that the Rav who was asked this question gave, I believe the story below, adapted and combined from a number of sources*, will shed some light on this matter.

(*Main Sources: Rav Binny Friedman, Isralight and Yeshiva of Greater Washington Weekly News)

The Bluzhever Rebbe, ZTvK"L

It was the year 1942, in the foreign nationals section of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. A group of Jews had approached Rav Yisrael Spira, the Bluzhover Rebbe, with an incredible request. Pesach was only two weeks away, and many of them, sensing this might be their last Pesach, were desperate to find a way to celebrate the festival. The thought of eating chametz (unleavened bread) was anathema to them, so they came up with an idea. They would appeal to the logical German mind of their oppressors and ask to receive their rations as flour and water instead of bread, and they would ask as well to build, on their own time at night, a crude oven with which to bake their rations into matza. After all, they reasoned, if the prisoners would start baking their own bread, this would be more efficient and economical, which would appeal to the mindset of their masters.
They asked the Rebbe if he would be willing to present their petition, signed by over eighty inmates, to the SS commandant of the camp, in the hopes that his merit and the merit of his illustrious ancestors would somehow protect them all and ensure a successful outcome. The Rebbe took some time to consider their request. Handing the Nazis a list of Jewish names was a very dangerous thing to do, especially in a concentration camp. Yet here was a group of Jews, enslaved, starving, almost beyond hope, and yet still willing to risk everything for the sake of a mitzva. How could he be the obstacle to the fulfillment of such a holy deed?
So the Bluzhever Rebbe asked for an audience with the camp Commandant, one Adolf Hoess, and approached him with his audacious request: “We wish to celebrate our religious holiday with matza. We are not asking for extra rations. All we ask is that you give us flour instead of bread, and that we be permitted to build a small brick oven for ourselves. All the work will be done outside of our regular working hours.”
To everyone’s amazement, not only did the commandant not have the Rebbe executed for such a request, but several days later, authorities in Berlin authorized it. Two weeks later, shortly before Pesach, the Jews of Bergen Belsen actually baked matza in preparation for the festival.


A few days before Pesach, a letter addressed to Switzerland was smuggled out, describing the deplorable conditions of the camp and requesting food packages. The letter was intercepted and given to Commandant Hoess, who charged into the barracks and berated the Rebbe: “I was kind enough to allow you to bake your filthy matzos and you repay me by sending out this letter! If you do not inform me within the next twenty-four hours who is responsible for this letter, I will have you shot.”
The Rebbe answered, “I know nothing of the letter and cannot be the cause of a fellow Jew’s death.”
As Commandant Hoess turned to leave he smashed the matza oven, but did not lay a hand on the Rebbe. Fortunately, the matzos had already been baked.
Since there were not enough matzos for everyone, it was decided that children under Bar Mitzva [13 years old] would not receive any matza. However, there was a widow in the camp, who had diligently cared for her two sons and three nephews throughout the war. While in the camp, she had even purchased a Tanach [Bible] with German translation for three pounds of bread in order to teach the children. The widow argued, “We must rebuild the Jewish people with our children. They are the ones who should receive the matza, for if we escape this Mitzrayim [Egypt], they are the future.” The Rebbe ruled that she was right, and the children were given matza.
Today, some of these children who learned from a Tanach bought with bread and ate matzos baked in tears, are leaders in the rebirth of Torah in Israel, America and England.


The Bluzhover Rebbe announced he would conduct a secret Seder in his barracks for those interested. Attending, never mind conducting, a Seder in Bergen Belsen was a crime punishable by death. Nonetheless, nearly three hundred Jews crowded into the Rebbe’s barracks that Pesach night. When they reached the point in the Seder that spoke of their bondage in Egypt, there was a palpable air of pain and anguish that spread through the barracks.
Avadim Hayinu L’Pharoah b’Mitzrayim... Ata Bnei Chorin... - We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and now we are free men...’ The Rebbe could hear the sobs and feel the pain in every Jew’s heart, and knew he had to say something. How could a Jew recite these words in Bergen Belsen in 1942?
He looked around the barracks, in the dim moonlight, seeing the gaunt, hollow faces, and hopeless eyes, and he began: “Why is this Seder different from all other Seders? We have no four cups of wine to bless, no tables laden with good food and fine china, no children to ask the four questions, and no vegetables to dip in commemoration of the exodus from Egypt so long ago. Our matza, burned, small, and barely recognizable as the same matza we had before the war, reminds us more of where we are than of where we once were. Only maror, the bitter herbs, are in abundance this year. “But if even here, in the depths of our darkness and despair, we can nonetheless recall the exodus and celebrate Pesach, then we are truly free. Freedom, you see, isn’t about where you are, it is about who you are.”


The Bluzhever Rebbe taught them of surviving in slavery and of hope for redemption and freedom. He interpreted the ma nishtana to reflect the concentration camp experience. He told them that the Hebrew word avadim - “slaves” – had the same letters as the acronym for “David ben Yishai avdecha meshichecha – David the son of Yishai, Your servant, Your anointed to be Moshiach.”
Thus, “even in our state of slavery we find intimations of our eventual freedom through the coming of Moshiach. We who are witnessing the darkest night in history, the lowest moment of civilization, will also witness the great light of redemption... one day we will look back at this bitter exile night as the prelude of our redemption.”
A Chag Kasher v'Sameach - a Joyous and Kosher Pesach to one and all!

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