The Sthefaneshter Rebbes

Reb Menachem Nuchem and
Reb Avrohom Mattisyohu zt'l

  After the Ruzhiner's petirah in 1851, his fourth son Reb Menachem Nuchem settled in Sthefanesht in Romania, and from then on until the second World War the town was a center for tens of thousands of Yidden. Unlike Galicia and Poland where there were large numbers of talmidei chachomim (learned sages) and erlicher Yidden, (upright Jews) Romania was mainly inhabited by the simple and the ignorant and the level of Torah learning was on a much lower level.

Although the derech (path) of Beis Ruzhin was not to openly display miracles, in Romania the Rebbes felt that it was the only way to draw the Yidden away from the haskala (enlightenment). Thus it became the norm that even simple peasants who had never before visited a Rov or Rebbe made the journey to Sthefanesht to receive the Rebbe's berocha (blessing). Whilst they were in Sthefanesht the Rebbe would take the opportunity to coax them into keeping the Torah and mitzvos.

The Rebbe was attuned to all the needs of the people and would grant them his berachos before they even had time to tell him why they had come. To one of his chassidim who had written a long kvittel detailing all his problems he said, "If you think that you must write down every point and detail in order that I should know about it, you are mistaken and it's an aveirah (transgression) on the time spent coming here. The truth is that before a person has even entered the building I already know what he needs, and he must believe that it is so. If he doesn't believe it, he might as well stay at home!"

Reb Menachem Nuchem was niftar on the fourteenth of Kislev 5629 (1869). Before his petirah he agreed to be examined by a doctor. After the doctor had examined the Rebbe, he said, "I can see that the Rebbe's illness stems from a certain desire. His body is craving for a particular thing and this yearning has made him ill. All the Rebbe has to do is to fulfill this desire and he will recover." As the Rebbe left the doctor's surgery he told his chassidim, "What does the doctor know, what does he understand? I have indeed a craving, a craving for Hashem Yisborach!"

Reb Menachem Nuchem was succeeded by his only son, Reb Avrohom Mattisyohu. Years before Reb Avrohom Mattisyohu became Rebbe, his father already spoke of his great qualities saying, "What I know he knows already... when he promises someone a yeshuah, (salvation) the person can be sure that it will happen." Once when a plague descended on Sthefanesht claiming many victims, Reb Menachem Nuchem told his chassidim, "Go to my Mattisyohu, for only he can help you!"

On another occasion a fire broke out in the town. Urged on by strong winds, the flames soon turned into an inferno, rapidly spreading from one house to the next. Hearing of the fire, Reb Avrohom Mattisyohu left his house, heading in the direction of the fire. When he arrived at the scene, he stopped, looked up to the heavens and started to daven (pray). Immediately, the gale force winds abated and the fire's spread was halted.

His miraculous powers were famous by Yidden and Goyim alike who flocked to him en masse to solve their every problem. Wherever he went he was followed by thousands of onlookers. On his annual visit to Bucharest, the capital of Romania, all the shops and businesses were closed as tens of thousands lined the streets to welcome him.

Despite his fame the Rebbe was considered one of the true hidden tzaddikim of his generation. In his eighty five years he never once recited a dvar Torah (sermon, drasha) in public and there is not even one vort (Torah thought) that can be said over in his name. He sat and learned in his private study, and whilst he was learning he strictly forbade anyone to enter the room. Every day when he finished, he carefully replaced the seforim (books), leaving no indication that they had been used.
Only on one occasion was the Rebbe caught with a sefer in his hands. Once, late at night, a fire broke out in the Rebbe's house and the flames gave off a thick heavy smoke which spread throughout the building. When the Rebbe didn't emerge from his quarters, one of the household members opened the door to the Rebbe's private study. The Rebbe was sitting deeply engrossed in a sefer (book). The fumes and soot had totally blackened the whole room including the Rebbe's face and clothes.
The Sthefaneshter Rebbe
Reb Avrohom Mattisyohu zt"l
The Rebbe however remained totally oblivious to everything around him and only after the intruder told him about the fire did he look up from his sefer. As they left the room the gabai looked to see what sefer the Rebbe had been learning. He saw that it was the sefer 'Razial HaMalach', which is one of the most difficult kabbala seforim and is understood only by the greatest mekubolim.

Indeed, even more amazing than all his mofsim (wonders) was the Rebbe's total immersion in his avodas Hashem (divine service). The Rebbe once went out to the courtyard of his house with a minyan in order to sanctify the new moon. In the field just across the road a large division of tanks had gathered in preparation of a training exercise. The commanding officer had forgotten to warn the local population of the exercise. Suddenly, while the Rebbe was in the middle of Kiddush Levanoh, (blessing of the new moon) the tanks started to fire right over their heads. The chassidim, who had been quite unaware of the neighboring tanks, ran for their lives. The tremendous noise and the streaks of fire made them flee in panic in every direction. The Rebbe, however, remained rooted to the spot as if he hadn't heard anything and carried on davening without even lifting his head from the siddur!

The Rebbe's every move aroused wonder. From when he started Shacharis until he finished saying Korbonos (sacrificial passages) before pesukei dezimra (verses of praise) took over an hour. The chassidim sat and learned in the beis hamedrash until the Rebbe was ready to proceed further with the davening. After many hours, at around midday, he finished Shacharis and then the gabboim brought him his solitary meal of the day. The Rebbe would taste just a few spoonfuls and that sufficed until the next day. His shirayim (leftovers) were distributed to his chassidim who told of the many nissim (miracles) brought about through them.

On one occasion a chossid came to the Rebbe, crying that his daughter had fallen ill with typhus and was in a desperate condition. Her hours were numbered and only a miracle could save her. The Rebbe gave the chossid his personal spoon, which he used every morning to eat breakfast, and a piece of his bread, and told the chossid to feed the bread to his daughter with the spoon. Although the girl couldn't swallow and hadn't eaten anything in days, she readily consumed the Rebbe's shirayim, and a few days later she was back to herself and lived to a ripe old age. The spoon, handed down from generation to generation, is until today a family heirloom.

Despite his fame the Rebbe was the epitome of humility and regarded himself as a simple ordinary person. A Yid who had several elderly daughters to marry off came crying to the Rebbe for help. He told the Rebbe, "Since the Rebbe is the tzaddik hador (the Tzaddik of the generation) and Chazal say a tzaddik decrees and Hashem fulfills, I beg that the Rebbe promise me that this year I will marry off all my daughters." When the Rebbe heard the Yid describing him as the tzaddik hador he exclaimed, "What are you saying, that I am the tzaddik hador? Do you know what it means to be the tzaddik hador? I am the tzaddik hador?"

The Yid, who was no fool, realized that he was about to ruin everything with his incorrect terminology and answered the Rebbe, "Even if the Rebbe is not the tzaddik hador he surely knows who is, therefore I'll give my kvittel (petition) to the Rebbe and he should hand it over to the tzaddik hador." The Rebbe was pleased with the Yid's words, for such was his derech, to explain away his nissim as if they had nothing do with him. Taking the Yid's hand in his the Rebbe blessed him: "Hashem should help you to marry off all your daughters this year," a beracho that was indeed fulfilled.

Every time the Rebbe left Sthefanesht to visit his chassidim his coach was accompanied by a long procession of horse drawn carts. On one occasion as the Rebbe's procession got under way, a chossid, known as the red Yossel, tripped and fell under the feet of a passing horse. The horse became alarmed and trampled the man underfoot, crushing him badly until he fell unconscious. Amongst the Rebbe's escort was a doctor, but after taking one look at the motionless form lying on the ground he said that he couldn't do anything for the man, he was beyond the help of medicine. The chassidim carried the chossid's lifeless body to the Rebbe's carriage and told him what had happened. The Rebbe looked at him and said, "Oy Yossel, Oy Yossel, why do you act so foolishly, go already, go already." As the Rebbe finished speaking, Yossel opened his eyes and rose to his feet without any sign of injury.

The Ribnitzer Rebbe zt"l
Although the Rebbe was surrounded on all sides by the simple and the ignorant, in Sthefanesht itself there were a large number of ehrlicher chassidim. These were people who cut themselves off totally from the outside world and devoted themselves to Hashem's service. They lived in the Rebbe's court and many of them stayed for months or years at a time, during which the Rebbe worried for their food and lodgings. One of the most famous of these chassidim was the Ribnitzer Rebbe, Reb Chaim Zanvil Abramovitz zt'l. Famed as a holy tzaddik the Rebbe said that Reb Chaim Zanvil was the end product of all his efforts; he was the chiddush he had worked so hard to create. Like his Rebbe, Reb Chaim Zanvil was also famed for his miraculous powers and ruach hakodesh (prophetic like insight). Another of these elite chassidim was Reb Eliezer Zusha Portugal zt'l who later became famous as the Skulener Rebbe. He too was zoche to special attention from the Rebbe who regarded him highly.

In his last years the Rebbe became weaker and weaker, but he carried on as normal with his daily schedule. In his final weeks, as it became apparent that the Rebbe was about to depart from this world, thousands came to Sthefanesht to take leave of their holy Rebbe and receive his beracha (blessing) one last time.

When news of his petirah became known on the twenty first of Tammuz 5693 (1933) people fainted in the streets. The crown and glory of Romania had left them. In 1969 the Rebbe's holy remains (which were still as whole and fresh as the day he died) were transferred to Nachlas Yitzchok in Tel Aviv where his kever is until this very day a mokom tefillah (prayer site) for thousands of Yidden.

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