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Friday, May 05, 2006

Rebbe David of Tolna Saves a Jewish Soul with a Niggun

Sunday night and Monday, the 10th of Iyar, is the 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.

Rebbe David was married at the age of 13 to the granddaughter of another famous Rebbe, the Rebbe Reb Zusia of Anipol. After his father died, Rebbe David moved to the town Vusylkuv where he was appointed as Rebbe. The town was filled with Chassidim of his father, and when they heard that other sons had become Rebbes in different towns, they too wanted a son of their previous Rebbe to lead them. He lived in Vusylkuv for about 15 years, where he wrote his three sefarim, Magen David, Birchas David and Kehillas David.

Around 1885 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 chazzanim found a place of respect in his court. Even in mid-week he was eager to hear chazzanim 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, which almost brings us to our story… but first:

In his sefer, Magen David, the first Tolna Rebbe writes:

“Even if a person has committed terrible sins all year long, G-d forbid, and has taken the path of foolishness, he should not think that Teshuva cannot help him. For in truth, “A man is [like] the tree of the field” [Devarim, 20:19]. If a tree does not receive enough water due to a lack of rain or dew, it will dry up; but once the drought ends and it receives enough water, its moisture will return and it will produce fruit. Similarly, if a man becomes like a dried-up, withered tree, without any “moisture” of holiness, if he arouses and attaches himself to words of Torah and Tefilla [prayer] from the depths of his heart, his “moisture” [holiness] will return… For by engaging in words of Torah and Tefilla from the depths of his heart, and pouring his prayer out before Hashem, even though he has followed the path of vanity and evil desires all year long, nevertheless he can arouse himself to return to his Creator, Blessed be He, in truth, and bring forth fruit – good deeds. And in this manner all of his sins will be atoned for, and he will merit full and complete Teshuva.”

And now, we can begin our story…


Saved by a Niggun
excerpted from Not Just Stories, by R. Avraham J. Twerski

The Rebbe of Tolna was very fond of music, and the most renowned cantors visited his court. The famous cantor, Nisi Belzer, occasionally led the services in Tolna. In Nisi Belzer’s choir was a young boy, Meir, who had been orphaned from his father, a devoted Chassid of the Rebbe of Tolna, at an early age. Meir was very musical and had an unusually sweet voice, and Nisi relied on him for major solo renditions. However, Meir had a wild streak, and being without a father to discipline him, often behaved mischievously. One Rosh Hashana, when Nisi signaled Meir to begin a solo, Meir purposely sang a totally different portion of the liturgy. Nisi became angry, but to everyone’s surprise, the Rebbe signaled Meir to repeat the solo, and the Rebbe wept during his singing.

After the service was over, the Rebbe said to the youngster, “May you always sing these sacred songs, and may they be your salvation.”

Nisi could not contain the boisterous youngster, who gradually drifted away from Torah observance, and entered a conservatory of music. He became an outstanding opera star, and eventually married a non-Jewish woman. After many years of success under the bright lights, Meir’s fortunes declined. His wife left him, he became depressed, and his once dulcet voice lost its character. He was about to be released from the operatic group when he asked for one more chance to redeem himself at a concert. He strode onto the stage, and suddenly began singing the liturgy of his youth, the very solo the Rebbe had asked him to repeat. The orchestra stopped playing and the curtain was promptly lowered, and Meir was shown the exit door.

With no job and no home, Meir joined a group of beggars who traveled from town to town, and one Shabbos he found himself in Tolna. He joined the throng of people who attended the Rebbe’s Shabbos meal, and of course, no one recognized the one-time child wonder. When the Rebbe asked someone to sing one of the Shabbos songs, a voice suddenly rang out, “I will sing!” The Rebbe then said, “Let the man sing. Perhaps the singing will be the rectification for his errant ways.”

Meir began singing the liturgy which the Rebbe had asked him to repeat many years earlier, and both Meir and the Rebbe wept with the rendition. Only afterwards did a few of the older Chassidim recall the incident with the young choir boy, and realized that the Rebbe’s words, “May this song be your salvation,” were prophetic.

Meir remained in Tolna and became a sincere baal teshuva. Shortly after that, he died, and the Rebbe of Tolna personally assumed the responsibility of saying Kaddish for him.

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