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8 Iyar 5778

Three Rebbes: the Father, the Oldest Son, the Youngest Son-in-Law

When the Gates to Heaven are open an entire week

Connection: Seasonal — this is The Week! — startiing the day after Sunday, Iyar 14, Pesach Sheini (“Second Passover”)

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A festive spirit pervaded the town of Sanz, Poland. Several tzadikim (exceptionally holy Jews) had arrived and were staying with Rabbi Chayim Halberstam, who was the chief rabbi of the town since 1830 and Rebbe of thousands of chasidim. But one morning, a day or two after Pesach Sheini (“Second Passover” – see Num. 9:1-14) in the middle of Shacharit (Morning Prayer Service), the spiritual atmosphere was compromised by a most unpleasant incident.

It began when the prayer leader completed the repetition of the Amidah (‘standing’ prayer). R. Chayim instructed him to skip Tachanun(penitential prayer – omitted only on festive days). When queried, he explained that his ruling was based on the holy Zohar (primary text of Kabbalah), which states that during the entire seven days following Pesach Sheini (i.e., Iyar 15-21), the Gates of Heaven remain continuously open.

Present was the oldest of his seven sons, Rabbi Yehezkel-Shraga, who objected strenuously. “Excuse me, Father, but the Remah (Rabbi Moshe Isserles – the main Ashkenazic codifier of Jewish Law) writes clearly, ‘On Lag b’Omer (Iyar 18) Tachanun is not said.’ From this we derive clearly that on the rest of the seven days (3 days before and 3 days after Lag b’Omer) Tachanun is said!”

They debated back and forth, with R. Yehezkel insisting Tachanun must be said and R. Chayim refusing to budge from his decision and stated reasoning. In the end, R. Yehezkel stamped out of the building with a minyan of his own followers, so as not to be seen acting against his father’s position in his presence. Outside, in the courtyard, they recited Tachanun and completed the prayers by themselves.

As soon as both groups had finished praying, R. Yehezkel re-ignited the ‘debate.’ Neither father nor son was moved a needle’s width by the other’s scholarly arguments. Their words became more and more heated, until finally R. Chayim proclaimed imperiously to his son, “I don’t want you ever again to step over the threshold of my home!” As the shul was located in a dedicated room inside R. Chayim’s house, R. Yehezkel climbed out the window of the shul in order not to disobey his father’s command.

Also in the shul that day was Rabbi Mordechai-Dov of Hornosteipel, the husband of Reitze, one of R. Chayim’s seven daughters. Like everyone else present, he was startled and shocked at the argument that had flared between the father and son, both Torah giants, and the harsh words they had exchanged. It was even more bizarre in his eyes in that he knew well the great respect that R. Yehezkel had always displayed towards his father. His amazement increased exponentially when his father-in-law walked over to him and whispered in his ear, “I don’t know what extraordinary merit I have that I should be blessed with such a holy son as this one.”

R. Mordechai couldn’t help wondering: “Such a holy son? Because he initiates a quarrel with his father and then disrespectfully walks out!” But he quickly recovered and replied to R, Chayim ambiguously, “In my opinion it is not so wondrous to think that you have such great merit.”

A short time after returning home, R. Chayim prepared to sit at the table for his first meal of the day. He sent a messenger to summon R. Yehezkel for the meal. But his son refused to come! The chasidim and the Rebbe’s household were all astounded. Sure the argument between father and son had been intense, but to such an extent? It seemed scandalous.

* * *

Many years passed. In 1876, Rabbi Chayim of Sanz departed to his heavenly reward, leaving sons and sons-in-law worthy to shepherd the chasidim. A few years later, Rabbi Mordechai-Dov happened to be in Sanz, again during the week immediately following Pesach Sheini. His brother-in-law, Rabbi Yehezkel, the chief rabbi and Rebbe in Shiniva since 1856, was also in Sanz and in the same minyan as he for Shacharit. The prayer leader, who knew well R. Yehezkel’s strongly held position about saying the Penitential Prayer even during these days, began saying Tachanun immediately upon his completion of the repetition of the Amida prayer.

How surprised the man was when R. Yehezkel went over to him and instructed him to skip the Tachanun and immediately recite the Kaddish which follows it.

The Hornosteipeler was astonished. He well remembered the fierce debate years before between father and son, and how obstinate R. Yehezkel was about the obligation to say it. He could still picture how his brother-in-law had walked out of the shul with a minyan of his disciples in order to say Tachanun away from his father’s presence.

When they both finished praying, R Mordechai approached his brother-in-law and requested an explanation. R. Yehezkel smiled. “I’ll tell you what really happened that fateful morning all those years ago. It was not as it seemed to you and the other onlookers.

I arose very early, to prepare myself before entering my father’s room. All of a sudden I was overwhelmed with tiredness; I had to close my eyes. Immediately I was asleep…and dreaming.

“In my dream I saw my father, sitting on his chair and surrounded by hundreds of chasidim. The next moment they all turned away from my father and faced me. They started chanting, ‘Long live our Rebbe! Long live our Rebbe!’ My father remained sitting in his chair, alone and abandoned.

“I awoke from the dream. My thoughts were disturbed and my whole body was trembling. I understood the dream to be a hint that my father was soon to transfer the scepter of leadership to me. And since our holy books state, ‘one royal reign cannot overlap another,’ the implication was that my father would soon have to depart from the world in order that his ‘throne’ would pass over to me. I was horrified at the thought and my heart felt crushed.

“The first thing I did vow to undergo the ‘Fast for a Bad Dream’ (recommended in Jewish Law to help nullify a negative dream’s effects –y.t.), starting right then. After I calmed down a bit, I struggled to come up with a plan. And, praise G-d, with the help of Heaven I thought of something. I reasoned that the principle of ‘one royal reign cannot overlap another’ applies only when it is one and the same kingdom, but when it is two separate kingdoms the concept of ‘overlap’ is not relevant.

“So, I decided to initiate a division between myself and my father’s court, starting with diverging customs, thereby declaring that in effect I and my followers were establishing a separate ‘kingdom’ – a different chasidic court. In that way both courts would be able to co-exist without any tragic loss of a leader.

“My actions turned away the Heavenly judgment hovering over my father and dissolved the Divine decree. However,” added the Rebbe of Shiniva, “when my father, who well understood what I had done and why, requested my presence at his table later that day, I was still in the midst of the fast I had accepted upon myself, and thus could not participate in the meal in his house, as I usually would.”

At last, after years, R. Mordechai-Dov understood the perplexing remark of R. Chayim about the special holiness of his son, and also the reason for R. Yehezkel’s seemingly inexplicable behavior that day many years before.

R. Yehezkel concluded his response by finally answering the Hornosteipler’s original question: “As for whether or not to recite Tachanunduring these seven days here in Sanz, his city, G-d forbid that I would allow a change from the customs of my holy father of blessed memory,” he exclaimed.

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Source: Translated and slightly adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the rendition in the Hebrew weekly, “Sichat HaShavua”, #1533, based on Tzvi Tiferet.

Connection: Seasonal — this is The Week! — the seven days after Pesach Sheini (“Second Passover”) which falls on Sunday, Iyar 14 (April 29).

Biographical notes:
Rabbi Chayim Halberstam of Sanz [of blessed memory: 25 Nissan 5553 – 25 Nissan 5636 (April 1793-April 1876 C.E.)] was the first Rebbe of the Sanz dynasty, from which emerged also the courts of Klausenberg and Bobov. He is famous for his extraordinary dedication to the mitzvah of tzedaka and also as one of the foremost Torah scholars of his generation; his voluminous and wide-ranging writings were all published under the title Divrei Chaim.

Rabbi Yechezkel-Shraga Halberstam of Shiniva [of blessed memory: 20 Shvat 5573 – 6 Tevet 5660 (Jan. 1813- Dec. 1899 C.E.)], was the eldest son of the Divrei Chayim, Rabbi Chayim Halberstam of Sanz. As an emissary of his father, he founded the Sanz community and synagogue in Tsfat in 1870. He served as the rabbi of Shineva from 1855 till 1868, and then again from 1881 till his passing. A major Torah scholar, many of his Torah insights into Scripture, Law and Kabbalah are collected in Divrei Yechezkel.

Rabbi Mordechai-Dov of Hornosteipel [of blessed memory: 1840 – 22 Elul 1904] was named after his two maternal great-grandfathers, Rabbi Mordechai of Chernobyl and Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch. He was also a direct descendant of Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli and the son-in-law of Rabbi Chaim of Sanz. A highly respected Talmudic scholar, he was the author of a popular book of Chasidic guidance, Pele Yoetz.

Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed.

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