The Rebbe Reb Yisroel of Ruzhin zt'l

  The mere mention of the word "Ruzhin" is enough to conjure up stories of fabulous wealth and undreamed of treasures. Indeed, the Rebbe of Ruzhin was already a legend in his own lifetime. All of his personal belongings, even his everyday cutlery, were made of the most expensive materials. The buttons on his bekeshes were made of solid gold, studded with diamonds, and his pillowcase was woven from pure gold thread. Even though the reasons for the Rebbe's conduct were not understood by most people, he was regarded as one of the greatest tzaddikim of his time.

Many were the praises heaped on him by the gedolim of his era: the Szanzer Rov, the Divrei Chaim, said that he could testify that the Rebbe of Ruzhin was constantly moser nefesh for Hashem, every second of the day. Reb Moshe Kobrine exclaimed that even in the times of the Tanaim and Amoraim the Rebbe would have been considered a special person and that even when he blinks his eyes it's only lesheim Shomayim. The Chidushei HaRim spent three weeks traveling to the Rebbe in order to speak to him, and he later declared that during the half hour they had spent together, the Rebbe had taken him through half the Torah! Similar sentiments were echoed by the Apter Rov who used to say that he had never seen anybody as well versed in the Torah as the Ruzhiner.

The Rebbe was born to Reb Sholom, the Rebbe of Prohibisht (who was a son of Reb Avrohom HaMalach, the son of the Maggid of Mezerich) and his wife Chava a day after Rosh Hashana in the year 1797. Even before he was born they knew that their child was destined for greatness. When the Rebbetzin Chava was pregnant she went to see the Apter Rov to ask for his brocho. He stood up for her as she came into the room, telling her that he was standing up for the sefer Torah she was carrying inside her. As a small child his phenomenal level of kedusha was noticeable. When he was only a few years old he would often cry bitter tears but would refuse to disclose the reason for his crying. When his father told him that as a father he has the right to decree that his son tell him the reason for his tears, he answered, "I am thinking to myself how many times I have lifted up my hands today shelo lesheim Shomayim."

When Reb Yisroel was six years old he met Reb Shneur Zalman, the Ba'al HaTanya. Reb Shneur Zalman later related how deeply impressed he had been with a question the six year old child had asked him. The Rebbe had asked about an apparent contradiction in Krias Shema. When a person says the possuk of Shema Yisroel, he must totally annul himself until he comes to appreciate that Hashem is One and that he and everything else cease to exist in comparison. If so, how is it immediately possible to fulfill the next possuk of loving Hashem, having just totally annulled all personal feelings? In reply, the Ba'al HaTanya told him a very deep explanation which took a few hours to relate, and the Rebbe understood every word.

It was at this time that Reb Yisroel's father, Reb Sholom, was niftar, and he was succeeded by his oldest son Reb Avrohom who was just sixteen at the time. Reb Sholom was niftar on erev Sukkos and the same night Reb Avrohom sat at the head of the table in his father's place. Among Reb Sholom's chassidim were a few who were not so happy with the confident attitude of the new young rebbe. They were not pleased that he had become Rebbe without first obtaining the berocho of elder tzaddikim. Sensing their displeasure, Reb Avrohom related the following story.

There was once a king who spent a fortune building a new palace. When it was finished he invited his subjects to come and view the palace, promising a reward to anyone who could find a fault with any aspect of the new building and furnishings. Among the many experts who came to inspect the building was a simple villager. The man looked at the beautiful rooms and saw a picture hanging on the wall of a drunken man walking in the street holding a cup of wine. The villager went straight to the king and told him that he had found a major fault with the drawing. In the picture the man was holding a full cup and that was an impossibility. A drunkard sways from side to side and the wine in the cup would certainly have spilled. In reality the cup could be no more than half full. The king agreed with him, rewarding him handsomely.

Pleased with his success, the man looked for more mistakes and soon proclaimed that he had found another fault, this time on a picture of the royal crown. The diamond did not suit the crown at all. This time, however, the king commanded his servants to punish the man for his insolence. The villager could not understand his crime and when he asked for an explanation the king said, "When it comes to a drunkard then you can offer your opinion, but how dare you, an uneducated man, offer an opinion about the royal crown!"

At the age of seven, Reb Yisroel became engaged to the daughter of Reb Moshe, the Rosh Yeshiva of Berditchev. The Berditchever Rov, Reb Levi Yitzchok, came to the engagement. As he came into the room and saw the chosson, he lifted up his eyes and exclaimed, "Hashem, You haven't got many chassonim like him!"

When Reb Yisroel was thirteen years old the chasunah took place. When Reb Yisroel turned sixteen his older brother, Reb Avrohom, was niftar, leaving no children. He was then succeeded by Reb Yisroel. Despite his tender age, he immediately began to attract masses of followers. The famous Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin said that even though Chazal say that a person does not achieve true understanding before he is forty years old, Reb Yisroel was an exception. Similar sentiments were also heard from Reb Uri of Strelisk. Before Reb Uri was niftar at the age of seventy he instructed his chassidim that after his petirah they should adopt Reb Yisroel as their Rebbe even though he was then still in his twenties.

Not long after Reb Yisroel became rebbe, the famous `Ostilla Chasunah` took place. To this chasunah of two major dynasties came an estimated seventy thousand chassidim, including dozens of great tzaddikim. The eldest guest was the Apter Rov, the grandfather of the chosson. As such he sat at the head and was the center of attraction. When the Ruzhiner entered the hall, the Apter Rov called out, "Make way, make way". The Apter Rov's children didn't find it fitting that their father should belittle himself so much, and told their father so. The Apter Rov ignored their pleas telling them, "Do you know who is coming? The melech Yisroel is coming."

On another occasion, when Reb Yisroel's gartel fell on the floor, the Apter Rov picked it up and rewound it around Reb Yisroel's body, saying that he was fulfilling the mitzva of gelilas Sefer Torah. Stories such as these left a deep impression on the chassidim and thousands began to flock to Prohibisht. The building where Reb Yisroel lived became too small and he moved to the town of Ruzhin, not far from Kiev in Russia, by the name of which he is known until today.

Wherever the Rebbe went crowds came to see him. The Rebbe travelled in a beautiful carriage drawn by four white horses. On one occasion, the Rebbe was asked how he keeps himself from having haughty thoughts when he sees the many people pushing to see him. The Rebbe answered the question with a moshol.

There was once a king who ruled over a country which was too big for him to control by himself. He therefore appointed a governor over each province. One day the king decided to visit one of his faraway provinces that he had never been to before. When the king arrived he asked the governor to accompany him for a stroll through the main street of the area. As they walked down the street together, crowds began to push each other to get a better view of their governor. The king, however, was not recognized by anyone. In the commotion to see the governor, the king got pushed and shoved around along with everyone else. Can you imagine how embarrassed the governor must have been? His importance came only from the king, he must have felt terrible to see that the kiwas getting pushed around. "Similarly", ended the Ruzhiner, "When I see the way people try to honor me, I think to myself, if only they would honor Hashem like this as well, and it makes me so upset that the idea of becoming haughty doesn't even occur to me!"

The Rebbe laid great emphasis on sanctifying his thoughts. He regarded it as one of the most important factors of a person's madreiga. He constantly exhorted his chassidim to strive toward this madreiga. At the very least the first thoughts a person has when he wakes up in the morning should be about Hashem. These first pure thoughts then stand the person in good stead for the rest of the day, even while he is working or eating. The Rebbe himself testified that if he were left alone in a house without any seforim for one hundred years he would not forget about Hashem for even one second. Often, from his great dveikus in Hashem, he would go into a deep trance and remain so for hours at a time. His constant awareness of Hashem's presence was noticed by all. The famed tzaddik, Reb Mordechai of Nadvorna, would say that if one wants to see true fear of Hashem one should watch the conduct of the Ruzhiner: his knees would knock together with fright that he was standing in Hashem's presence.

One year, on Rosh Hashana, no signal was received from the Rebbe's private room that he had finished davening Shemone Esrei. The Rebbe's oldest son, Reb Sholom Yosef, went into the room and saw that his father was still on the first page of Shemone Esrei. Reb Sholom Yosef turned the pages of the machzor for his father until the end of davening. Later the Ruzhiner explained what had happened. When he realized that he was standing in front of Hashem, he suddenly became so overcome with fear that he was unable to move even his arm - as if he had been paralyzed - and therefore was unable to turn over the pages of the machzor to continue davening.

Although from the outside it appeared that the Rebbe enjoyed all the comforts of this world, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the Rebbe afflicted himself terribly, denying his body even the basic necessities. This point is illustrated by the famous story of the Rebbe's boots. The Rebbe used to wear a magnificent pair of boots. It was rumored that even the Czar of Russia was jealous of these boots. Made of solid gold and studded with diamonds and other precious stones, they were the envy of all who beheld them. Once on a bitterly cold night the Rebbe went out in his boots to sanctify the New Moon. The Rebbe stood for a long time in the snow davening. When he left, the chassidim noticed blood where he had been standing.

An investigation of the Rebbe's boots revealed that they had no sole. Every time the Rebbe wore them he was really walking barefoot and when he stood on the snow his feet became stuck to the icy ground, causing them to bleed when he left. When this story became known, even those people who had until then been opposed to his extravagant life style, bowed their heads in deference, acknowledging that the Rebbe's every action was only for the sake of Heaven and not for his own pleasure.

The Rebbe would go for days on end without eating. On one occasion he commented that when the time came for him to be born, his neshomo did not want to descend into this lowly world until the body promised the neshomo that it would not partake of this world, only what it would need for its basic survival.

When the Rebbe was asked why he chose to follow an extravagant life style unlike the other tzaddikim of the time who lived in poverty, he answered as follows, "We find that the two traits of humility and wisdom are entwined with one another. Only somebody who is truly wise can acquire the trait of humility, and similarly, only someone who is truly humble can become wise. Moshe Rabbeinu is called the most humble of men, and if so, he must have also been the wisest. Shlomo Hamelech is known as the wisest of all men and therefore must have also been the most humble. The reason Moshe is praised for his humility is because a rov has the right to be mochel on his kovod. A king however, even if he wants to, may not be mochel on his kovod (melech shemochal al kevodo, ein kvodo mochul). Therefore Shlomo could only be praised for his wisdom. "What can I do," said the Rebbe, "it has been thrust on me from Heaven to take the way of royalty. It wasn't my choice and I haven't the ability to exempt myself from this derech."

In keeping with this derech the Rebbe would often comment that a Yid's biggest aveiro is when he forgets that he is a 'ben hamelech' a son of Hashem. As long as a person remembers who he is, he is less likely to fall to lower standards.

The Rebbe's fame spread far and wide and people came to see him from all over. From Germany, Reb Shamshon Refoel Hirsch travelled specially to Ruzhin. Afterwards, when he was asked what impression the Rebbe had made on him, he answered: "It is quite unbelievable to see how all the money and kovod is brought to him, and he himself is totally uninterested in it. His one and only concern is how to increase kovod Shomayim and the kovod of Klal Yisroel."

Indeed, the Rebbe was constantly occupied with trying to lift the Yidden up from their poverty and problems. As a small child he used to go to the cattle market and tell the butchers which animals were treif and therefore shouldn't be bought. When the Rebbe's father heard of this he ordered his son to cease this practice. The young Ruzhiner protested that he wanted to save the Yiddishe butchers from losing their money.

The Rebbe sought to lighten the heavy burden of the Yidden as much as possible. When it was decreed that all the Yidden had to change their way of dress to that of the goyim, most of the poskim of the time held that a person should give up his life rather than change his mode of dress. When the Rebbe was asked what he held, he answered, "Yaakov Ovinu received the brochos from his father Yitzchok dressed in Eisov's clothes."

Even people who had fallen from the correct path could also hear a warm word from the Rebbe. In the times of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples, it was mainly the elite that found a place at the rebbe's table. The Ruzhiner however sought to include even the simple and unlearned. He would constantly remind his chassidim about the importance of being with a rebbe. He would say that even if they didn't learn anything new whilst in Ruzhin, it was still worth the effort to come.

Although always occupied with lofty thoughts, the Rebbe was able to speak to every person on his own level. When a simple person told him that he didn't know how to do teshuva, the Rebbe retorted, "And to sin you did know? You just did it without thinking twice and later you realized that you had done an aveiro. Now too if you start mending your ways the teshuva will follow automatically."

To another person, the Rebbe advised that his teshuva would be to daven only using a siddur. Even the smallest brocho should only be said from a siddur. In due course, this baal teshuva became known as a well respected tzaddik.

The Rebbe would do his utmost to help others. He would say that just like metal becomes hot when placed in fire and freezing cold when placed in the cold, similarly he himself feels the pain and suffering of every Yid from one end of the world to the other. Not for nothing did the aged Rebbe of Vorka, Reb Yitzchok zt'l, proclaim that ahavas Yisroel such as he had seen in Ruzhin was not to be found anywhere else!

When news arrived in Ruzhin of an evil decree against the Yidden, the Rebbe would lock himself up for weeks at a time in his private quarters to daven that Hashem annul the decree. At such times it was literally impossible to see or speak to him: not even his closest family or gabboim were granted access.

In his tefillos the Rebbe would constantly be melamed zechus on the Yidden. He would often repeat that when the Berditchever Rov would see a person carrying his tallis and tefillin on the way to shul, he would remark about the tzidkus of such a person who leaves his warm bed every morning in order please Hashem. If so, then what can one say nowadays when a person who leaves his home to go to shul doesn't know if his children are going to be snatched away to the army while he is out. Such a person can be likened to the Baal Shem Tov himself!

The Rebbe cared not only for the Yidden in his vicinity but also for those from far and wide. He took a special interest in helping those living in Eretz Yisroel. At that time it was extremely difficult to live in Eretz Yisroel. Only four thousand frum Yidden inhabited the land in very primitive conditions. A large number of them lived on money sent by Kollel Volhin. This organization administrated most of the needs of those in the Holy Land.

The Rebbe, who headed the Kollel Volhin, was in charge of raising and distributing the money to the needy. As a direct descendent of Dovid Hamelech, the Rebbe felt that it was his duty to see to their welfare. Anyone who wanted to emigrate to Eretz Yisroel had first to obtain the Rebbe's permission, otherwise he would not receive money from the Kollel. The Rebbe insisted that every person going to live in Eretz Yisroel must be able to support himself for the first three years, only afterwards would he be paid by the Kollel. Through this the burden was eased on those already there.

The Ruzhiner shul "Tiferes Yisroel"
(Nisan Bak Shul) in the Old City of Jerusalem
When word reached the Rebbe that the Russian Czar intended to build a big church in the Old City of Yerushalayim, the Rebbe summoned Reb Nisan Bak who lived in Yerushalayim and was one of the Rebbe's faithful chassidim. The Rebbe gave him a sum of money and told him to rush and buy the plot of land before the Russians do so. Reb Nisan arrived there a few days ahead of the Russians and succeeded in buying the plot of land. When the Czar heard that the land had been snatched out of his hands he exploded in a fit of rage about the Rebbe who always got in his way. The Czar was forced to buy a different plot of land, known today as the Russian Compound. With the money the Rebbe sent, a big shul was built. The shul was known as the "Reb Nisan Bak Shul" and stood until 1948 when it was destroyed by the Arabs.

Although the Rebbe longed to go and settle in Eretz Yisroel, he was unable to forsake his chassidim. He used to say that if he came to Eretz Yisroel he would be asked why he had come without his Yidden. On one occasion the Rebbe spoke about the final geula and said that it would begin with the gradual emigration of Yidden to Eretz Yisroel. Just as in the times of Ezra there was no miraculous redemption as in Egypt, similarly in our times if the generation will not be worthy, the redemption will also take place in a natural way.

The countries of the world will decide to give the Yidden Eretz Yisroel as a land of their own and the Yidden will come back and rebuild the land. There will be great miracles but they will be hidden in the circle of nature, and after this we will see the final redemption. As the Rebbe finished these words he sighed and said, "Of course it bothers us that the geula should start in such a way, but we have no more strength to wait. However it will be, let it start already."

The Russian Czar and the various maskilim of the time were greatly distressed by the power the Rebbe wielded. Through his royal conduct the Rebbe greatly uplifted the level of the downtrodden masses. The maskilim had long been plotting to bring about the Rebbe's downfall, but without any success. When the Rebbe was forty years old, he was arrested on charges of having had a hand in a murder. An informer brought evidence that the Rebbe had ordered the execution of a second informer. As the Rebbe was taken away into custody he said, "'Gam ki eilech be'gei tzalmoves lo iro ra,' even as I am to be locked up I am not afraid. One thing however upsets me, 'ki atto imodi', that You, Hashem, will be with me, the Shechina will also be in Golus with me.

Following the orders of the Czar himself, the Rebbe was locked up in the notorious Kiev dungeons. The Rebbe spent twenty two months locked away under terrible conditions in a small dark and damp cellar. No charges were ever brought against him, nor was he ever put on trial. The Rebbe was then transferred to a second prison in Kamenitz for six months until he was finally freed on Shushan Purim. A few days after the Rebbe was freed he was given a tip off that the Czar had decided to rearrest him on charges of rebellion and had already passed a sentence of life exile to Siberia. The Rebbe was left with no option but to flee Russia.

As soon as the authorities realized that the Rebbe had disappeared, soldiers were sent to look for him and prevent his escape. The Rebbe crossed the border into Austria in the middle of the night, and the Russians, having narrowly missed recapturing him, returned home empty-handed. The Russian Czar, however, did not give up and demanded that Austria send the Rebbe back to Russia.

Meanwhile, 'witnesses' were produced who testified that the Rebbe was really an Austrian citizen who had disappeared many years ago and had finally returned home to Austria. The Russians, however, also had witnesses to contradict this story and insisted on his return. The Austrian Government, however, refused to comply. They knew that the Rebbe would attract tens of thousands of chassidim who were good for the economy and businesses of the area. The Rebbe was simply too valuable an asset to lose.

When Reb Yitzchok of Vorka came to visit the Rebbe soon after he arrived in Austria, the Rebbe told him that he had not been imprisoned for his own sins, for in his life he had never transgressed even the smallest issur derabonon.

Not long after the Rebbe settled in Austria he was asked by one of his chassidim why he didn't take revenge against the Russian Czar. Everyone knew that the Rebbe was able to work miracles, so why didn't he see to destroy the Czarist regime?

"Do you believe in all the miracles that took place when Hashem took the Yidden out of Egypt?" the Rebbe asked him.

"Of course I believe," answered the Yid.

"And do you believe that Hashem has still the same power to perform such miracles?" the Rebbe continued, and the Yid answered him again, "Of course, Rebbe, I believe!"

"If so," the Rebbe asked him, "can you explain to me why Hashem doesn't punish the Czar for all his wicked actions?" If Hashem doesn't feel that it is time to punish him, what's the wonder if I also keep quiet?"

The time came however, that the Rebbe felt he could not keep quiet any longer. A few days before Purim the Rebbe asked that one of his chassidim dress up as the Russian Czar on Purim. The chassidim understood that the Rebbe had deep kavonos in his request, and it wasn't just going to be a show. On Purim the Rebbe was in the middle of his Purim Seuda, when suddenly the door opened and in walked the dressed up Czar. The Rebbe rose respectfully to his feet and addressed the Czar. "Your Majesty the Czar, you have decreed harsh decrees against my people, I ask you, please annul these harsh decrees."

The Czar however refused: it was impossible to retract. The Rebbe's face became more serious as he once again asked, "Please, I beg of His Majesty to have pity and rescind the decrees."

"No, it is impossible, it cannot be done," the Czar answered with impudence.

The Rebbe's face turned white and, getting up from his chair, the Rebbe came over to the Czar and in an emotional voice ordered him immediately to leave the room and never return. Afterwards the Rebbe sunk down into his chair and in a broken voice he said, "Chazal tell us 'Ein lecho odom she'ein lo sho'oh', every person comes to the world to fulfill a specific task, if this chossid would have realized that he should have agreed to annul the decrees, automatically in Russia they would also have been annulled. A great pity that this opportunity has been lost."

The Rebbe settled in the town of Sadiger. Some years earlier Reb Chaim Kosover had promised the people of the town that one day a great tzaddik would come to live there, and he make the name "Sadiger" famous for all generations. Once again the Rebbe set up a magnificent court with a big shul. Tens of thousands flocked to Sadiger, and indeed all the people of the area became his chassidim. The Rebbe lived in Sadiger for ten years until his petirah. A few months before he was niftar he started to drop broad hints of his imminent departure. Just before Rosh Hashana 1851 he told his sons that he had prepared extremely beautiful living quarters for himself and he would be moving there after the Yomim Tovim are over. As he walked into his Beis Hamedrash on Yom Kippur, he put his hands on the mezuza and announced that he would be a kaporo for Klal Yisroel. Right after Sukkos the Rebbe became ill and was niftar on the third of Cheshvan.

A few hours before he was niftar he asked one of his close chassidim if he knew what Esther davened before she went to Achashverosh. Without waiting for an answer the Rebbe himself answered, "She asked Hashem that He either help the Yidden or take her from this world." These were the Rebbe's last words before his petirah: "Reb Yehuda Hanossi testified about himself that he never had enjoyment from this world, not even the amount of a small finger, and I testify on myself that I didn't enjoy this world not even the amount of a bit of thread (kechut hasa'ara). The reason for my grand and royal conduct was totally Lesheim Shomayim."

With these words the Rebbe was niftar. He was only fifty four years old. The doctor who examined him diagnosed that the Rebbe had been niftar because his heart had given way in its longing to be reunited with its Creator. The Rebbe's son, Reb Avrohom Yaakov, used to say that just as on Shabbos, Gehennom is shut, the same is on his father's yahrtzeit, the third of Cheshvan, Gehennom is also closed. This statement can be reinforced with a story which occurred about eighty years ago.

A lady whose father was niftar on the third of Cheshvan had a dream a few days later in which her father appeared to her and told her that since he had died on the Ruzhiner's yahrtzeit he was let straight into Gan Eden. The lady immediately wrote to her brothers and sisters who lived in different towns in Europe, informing them of her dream. A few weeks later she received letters from all of her brothers and sisters and each one told over the same dream that she had. And each one had the dream on the same night!

The Rebbe's derech was carried on through his six sons. Each of them moved to a different town where they set up their own court. The Rebbe thought very highly of all his sons. He used to say that just like one used to come to ask the urim vetumim in the times of the Beis Hamikdash, in the same way one will come to ask them for advice. The Rebbe's oldest son, Reb Sholom Yosef, was niftar less than a year after his father and was succeeded by his son Reb Yitzchok, who became the first Bohusher Rebbe. The Ruzhiner's second son, Reb Avrohom Yaakov, took his father's place in Sadiger. He had two sons, the eldest, Reb Yitzchok, was the first Boyaner Rebbe and the younger son, Reb Yisroel, was rebbe in Sadiger. The third son of the Ruzhiner was Reb Dov Ber who was rebbe in Lieov and the fourth son, Reb Menachem Nachum, was rebbe in Sthefanesht. Reb Dovid Moshe, the Chortkover Rebbe, was the fifth son and Reb Mordechai Shraga, the Husyatiner Rebbe, was the sixth son.

In addition to his sons, the Ruzhiner also had four daughters. The eldest daughter - Chaya Malka, was married to Reb Yitzchok of Skver. The next daughter - Gitel, was married to Reb Yosef Mansohn. Their elder son Reb Levi Yitzchok was rebbe in Ozeranah and their second son Reb Chaim Dov was rebbe in Brod. The third daughter - Miriam, was married to Reb Menachem Mendel of Vishnitz, founder of the famous Vishnitzer dynasty. The last daughter - Leah, was married to Reb Dovid Halpern. Their son, Reb Sholom Halpern, was the founder of the Vasloier dynasty. Through his six sons the Ruzhiner Chassidus spread far and wide, bringing Yidden closer to their Father in Heaven ad bi'as go'el tzedek. Amen.

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