R. Shalom Shachna was born in 1760 to R. Avraham the Malach, and his second wife, the daughter of R. Feivel of Kremenitz. He was named after his great-grandfather, who was named after R. Shalom Shachna of Lublin, teacher and father-in-law of R. Moshe Isserles, the Rama. Shalom was six years old when his father passed away. His mother eventually resettled in Eretz Yisrael, never revealing her identity, working as a laundress until her death. She is buried in Tiberias.
Shalom and his older brother Yisrael Chaim were left in the custody of R. Shlomo of Karlin, who took responsibility for the children's education, and, when the time came, arranged shidduchim (matches) for them. To Yisrael Chaim, he gave his daughter's hand in marriage. He then sought a suitable match for R. Shalom Shachna.
As they passed Prohovitch that Friday, while R. Nachum was napping, he was told in a dream, "Now is your chance to marry off your granddaughter to the Maggid's grandson!" In the dream R. Avraham the Malach appeared, and shook R. Nachum's hand in agreement.
When he awoke, R. Nachum asked those present, "Did a wagon just pass?" They replied that a wagon bearing two passengers had indeed just passed, traveling rapidly. He instructed someone to catch up with it and bring its passengers back to Prohovitch.
When R. Shlomo's emissaries came to R. Nachum, he told them of the dream and convinced them that the shidduch had already been arranged Above between himself and R. Shalom's father, and that any other arrangements were invalid.
Thus R. Shalom Shachna married Chavah, the daughter of R. Nachum's daughter Malka. They settled in Prohovitch, where R. Nachum supported them.
When they left Berditchev, R. Levi Yitzchak sent musicians to escort them out of town and he himself danced before them. Later, his wife asked, "Why did you have to lower yourself by dancing like a child? Wasn't it enough that you treated them to such a banquet?"
"How could I not dance before the groom," replied R. Levi Yitzchak, "when Eliyahu the Prophet was dancing, too?"
Even his Avodas HaShem defied the norm. During the month of Elul, when everyone prayed and studied with unusual intensity in anticipation of judgment on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, R. Shalom Shachna spent most of the day in the forest. Only toward evening did he return home for his meal.
For anyone else, such behavior might have been suspect, but R. Nachum knew who R. Shalom Shachna was, even if he didn't know why he adopted such practices.
His conduct aroused the wrath of R. Nachum's chassidim. After several complaints, R. Nachum warned him, "Son, your path is a dangerous one, which your forefathers did not follow. You are treading on a razor's edge, and one misstep could spell tragedy."
R. Shalom Shachna responded with the following parable: "Once a chicken sat on some duck eggs. After they hatched, the ducklings thought they were chickens and followed their 'mother' around. When they came to a river, they jumped in and began to swim.
"'Children,' the chicken screamed, 'you could drown!'
"'Don't be afraid,' the ducklings answered. 'This is where we belong.'"
Satisfied with this answer, R. Nachum told his chassidim to stop criticizing R. Shalom Shachna, for he was acting for the sake of Heaven.
The Chassidic movement grew ever stronger. Once the task of founding the Chassidic movement had been completed, with tens of thousands of faithful adherents following the tenets of the movement, R. Shalom Shachna paved the way for a national revival by restoring the crown of the exilarchs. In those troubled times, R. Shalom Shachna single-handedly built a royal house.
On another level, R. Shalom Shachna himself wrote: "When one dons fine clothes, he should do so to fulfill the verse, 'Prepare [yourself] to greet your God, Israel' [Amos 4:1]. When one appears before a king, he must dress well. How much more so before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. Heaven forbid he should become haughty."
Asked why his father, R. Shalom Shachna, chose such a perilous path of pomp and ostentation, R. Yisrael of Rizhin replied, "The Baal Shem Tov gave our patriarch, the Maggid, a precious jewel - the path of true Chassidus. The Maggid hid it in a fortress of Torah and prayer, but the thieves from Above, Satan and his cohorts, broke into the fortress to destroy the gem. My grandfather, R. Avraham the Malach, polished it and built it into a fortress of holiness and purity, by means of fasting and mortification. But the bandits persisted. So my father devised a new strategy - he hid the stone in a rubbish bin of pride, glory, and honor. This hiding place proved much safer, for the thieves never expected to find a precious jewel there."
Chasidic tradition maintains that R. Shalom Shachna possessed a "spark" of King David's soul and that his son R. Yisrael of Rizhin had a spark of King Solomon's.
R. Shalom Shachna once experienced a spiritual elevation to the Upper World. There he entered a palace filled with marvelous treasures. On a table was a crown inlaid with indescribably beautiful jewels. A Tzaddik sat next to the crown. R. Shalom Shachna heard a voice proclaim, "This crown belongs to the Tzaddik seated next to it."
"And why is it not resting on his head?" asked R. Shalom Shachna.
"The crown is the Tzaddik's Torah and mitzvos," the voice answered, "but since he acted severely and saddened people, he did not deserve to wear it."
One erev Rosh HaShanah, despite valiant efforts, R. Shalom Shachna felt he couldn't daven. Finally he mustered enough resources to pray like a simple person, thinking only of the meaning of the words. Afterward, R. Nachum approached him and said, "Son, what did you do today? Your prayers caused such a tumult Above that many souls were elevated."
When asked to ease a woman's excruciating labor pains, R. Nachum instructed the woman's husband, an innkeeper, to reserve an empty room, a mikveh, a new table, and one hundred sixty copper coins. When R. Shalom Shachna saw all these preparations he left, avoiding the opportunity to learn to perform a Pidyon nefesh.
"This method is too elaborate and I do not wish to practice it," he later explained. "For if time or resources are lacking, it can't be done. I want to learn to provide relief quickly, so that no Jewish soul should be lost, Heaven forbid!"
On another occasion, the wife of one of R. Nachum's chassidim went into difficult labor before Shabbos. The Chassid came to R. Nachum for help, but he was napping. When the distraught husband started crying bitterly, R. Shalom Shachna exclaimed, "May that evil woman explode!"
The Chassid departed, even more distressed than before. On his return journey, he met a messenger who bore glad tidings: His wife had given birth. The Chassid faithfully attributed the good news to R. Nachum, assuming that he had interceded on his behalf through Ruach HaKodesh. His Rebbe refused to take credit, however. Bewildered, the Chassid told him everything, including what R. Shalom Shachna had said. R. Nachum realized that R. Shalom Shachna had somehow aided this couple and approached him to find out how.
"After the sin of the golden calf," R. Shalom Shachna began, "the Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbenu went to HaShem to defend the Jews. 'This people has committed a terrible sin...' [Shmos 32:3], he declared. What sort of defense was this? Furthermore, what did Moshe Rabbenu mean when he said, 'But now, if You will forgive their sin...' [Shmos 32:32]?
"When Moshe Rabbenu saw the great indictment facing the Jews, he, too, decided to accuse them of sinning. When the accusing angel saw that Israel's only defender had abandoned them, he ceased his work. Then Moshe Rabbenu prayed for them unchallenged, saying, 'Now - that the accuser has withdrawn - If You will forgive their sin....' When I saw the indictment issued against this woman, I began to accuse as well. Although I expressed it as a curse, I intended it as a blessing: When I said she should explode, I meant she should give birth."
After hearing her story, he told her, "Go home to your husband, and instead of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, eat and drink. You will be healed, and your sin will be atoned for."
R. Shalom Shachna's chassidim were surprised by this prescription for repentance. "The pain of this woman's conscience is punishment enough," the Rebbe explained, "for one lash from the heart hurts more than one hundred floggings and fasts. She should strive to reverse her sin - the destruction of a Jewish soul. By returning to her husband and strengthening herself, she will give birth to a child. If she remains in exile and continues fasting, she may never be able to achieve complete repentance."
When he emerged from the Tzaddik's chambers, the man told R. Yisrael's astonished chassidim, "Don't think I am a great person, for I am a simple Jew. This is what happened: My brother and I agreed that whoever of us died first would tell the other about the next world. My brother passed away twenty years ago, but only a few days ago did he finally appear to me in a dream. He told me that on the day he died, R. Shalom Shachna also passed away. 'Make way!' a voice was heard on High, and all the Tzaddikim came to greet him. My brother then heard it proclaimed, 'Whoever passed away today will be exempt from suffering in the grave! Whoever beheld R. Shalom's face on Earth will escape retribution in Hell. And whoever gave him a Pidyon will be spared all punishment!'
"'Oh, my brother,' I began to cry, 'now that R. Shalom Shachna is no longer in this world, how can I gain merit?'
"'His son R. Yisrael of Rizhin is a Tzaddik like him,' my brother said. 'Giving him half a ruble is like giving his father a Pidyon.' That's why I came today," he concluded.
R. Yisrael later said of this man, "Since his motivation was so pure, I received him with honor."
"Why are you happy?" his mother demanded. "No one rejoices after his father's death!"
"Mother," R. Avraham answered immediately, "if you were to see our father's exalted state in Heaven, you would be as ecstatic as I."
According to another version of this story, R. Avraham told her, "HaShem has been honored with a distinguished guest this Yom Tov, our holy father. We should send HaShem a gift in honor of his guest. Come into the Sukkah and let us recite a befitting Kiddush to HaShem."
R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel comforted her with a parable: "There was once a great fair in Leipzig. Some merchants diligently bought everything needed on the first day of the fair, while others had to shop until the end. So it was with R. Shalom Shachna and R. Avraham - they were so diligent in their service of HaShem that they accomplished in their short lifetimes what it takes others much longer to do."
On the verse "A Tzaddik lives by his faith" (Habakuk 2:4), he expounded: "A Tzaddik lives with faith in himself - with absolute conviction that every move he makes is an extension of his soul, and that he himself is part of the Life-force that emanates from Heaven and animates the entire world."
Our Sages tell us, "Whoever sees suffering coming upon him should examine his deeds. If his examination uncovers nothing, his plight hinges on the neglect of Torah study" (Berachos 5a). R. Shalom Shachna asked several questions about this statement. First, why does it say suffering is "coming upon him," rather than "he is suffering"? Second, how could his examination have uncovered nothing? Is anyone free of sin? Finally, why does his plight hinge on bitul Torah, as if that were no sin at all? Everyone knows it is one of the gravest!
He therefore explained, "Usually, one must accept suffering lovingly, but physical suffering prevents a person from learning Torah, praying, and serving HaShem. Thus, if one sees suffering coming upon him, that is, upon his body, he should search his deeds for something meritorious with which to pray to HaShem for salvation. If he finds nothing, his salvation hinges on the fact that he will be forced to neglect his Torah studies because of his suffering. He should therefore pray, "Master of the Universe! If I have to suffer physical illness, I won't be able to serve You. Better You should heal me so I can serve You properly.