The Husyatiner Rebbes
Reb Mordechai Shraga and Reb Yisroel zt'l

  The youngest of the Ruzhiner's six sons, Reb Mordechai Shraga was born to his father on the twentieth of Iyar 5595 (1835). Before Reb Mordechai Shraga was born, the Ruzhiner told his chassidim that he would bring a lofty and holy neshomo (soul) down to this world, the likes of which hasn't been for many generations.

Not long after Reb Mordechai Shraga's birth, one of the famous Rebbes of the period, Reb Moshe Savronna zt'l, came to visit the Ruzhiner. The Ruzhiner showed him the many valuable and precious possessions he owned, and after Reb Moshe Savronner had seen them all, the Ruzhiner told him, "Now I will show you my most precious possession," and with that he asked that his youngest son be brought into the room.

Once, when Reb Mordechai Shraga was three years old he was seen with a piece of cake in his hand, crying bitter tears. One of the chassidim went up to him and asked him why he was crying. Reb Mordechai Shraga answered, "I am very hungry and I want to eat." "So why don't you eat the piece of cake in your hand?" the chossid asked him. "Our father taught us that if one wants something, one may not have it," the young child answered.

In Ruzhin, the minhag (custom) was that during the Friday night davening they didn't sing Lecho Dodi. Instead it was chanted without a melody. It once happened that a chazan who was not familiar with the Ruzhiner's minhogim come to Ruzhin and sang Lecho Dodi. After davening, Reb Mordechai Shraga, who was still a young child, went over to the chazan and said to him, "Do you know the translation of Lecho Dodi?", and without waiting for an answer he continued, "Shomor ve-zochor be-dibbur echod (Guard and Remember in one utterance was said). A person must be careful and must remember, be-dibbur, in his every word, echod (one), not to forget the One and Only Hashem. And by you this is a song...?"

The chassidim would say that from these words of Reb Mordechai Shraga it was apparent that he would not be an orator. Their words were borne out and even many years later when he was Rebbe to thousands of chassidim he refrained from saying Torah at a tish (Chassidic gathering, Rebbe's table). Even when speaking to his chassidim, he never engaged in lengthy conversations but limited his replies to a few words.

Reb Mordechai Shraga was only sixteen years old when his father was niftar, but despite his tender age he attracted many of his father's chassidim. As a young man he once had to undergo an operation on one of his fingers. The doctor told him to drink a potion which would make him fall asleep. Reb Mordechai Shraga told the doctor that he could perform the operation on him whilst he was fully awake, and he stuck out his finger for the doctor to start. During the operation the Rebbe sat calmly without showing even the slightest discomfort.

Reb Mordechai Shraga moved to Husyatin in 1865 where he established a large court. His chassidim numbered in the thousands, amongst them many Rabbonim and Gedolei Yisroel. Most of his day was spent in total dveikus (spiritual attatchment) with his Creator. He would sit still without moving for hours on end, his face a ghostly white, his eyes turned upwards so that just the white of the eyes could be seen. Sometimes the gabboim became frightened for it appeared as if he was no longer among the living; they would bang on his table until he finally aroused himself from his deep dveikus.

Every Motzoei Shabbos, Reb Mordechai Shraga drank a cup of coffee. On one occasion the gabai (attendant) brought in the coffee but the Rebbe ignored it, leaving it until it became cold. The gabai brought in a second cup and again the Rebbe left it standing until it too became cold. After the gabai had brought in the coffee for the third time Reb Mordechai Shraga told him, "Every erev Shabbos the neshomo yeseirah (extra soul of Shabbos) comes down into a person's body. On its arrival the neshomo asks the neshomo yesheirah to influence the body that it should also feel the kedusha and tahara of Shabbos. When Motzoei Shabbos comes, the weekday neshomo returns to supervise the body for the coming week. On its arrival, the neshomo asks the neshomo yeseirah if it managed to achieve anything during the course of Shabbos. All is well and good if the answer is positive, but if the neshomo yeseirah says, 'Not only have I not achieved anything, moreover, I have undone what was already accomplished', the neshamos start to cry and wail." And the Rebbe ended, "When one hears them crying, how can one possibly drink anything?"

Before his petirah the Rebbe became seriously ill, and his brother, the Chortkover Rebbe, Reb Dovid Moshe zt'l, came to visit him. On his arrival in Husyatin, the Chortkover Rebbe asked to see all of his brother's personal belongings, his tefillin, his clothes and his seforim (books). Only after he had checked them all, did he enter his brother's room to wish him a refuah shleimah (a complete recovery). A few days later, Reb Mordechai Shraga's condition took a turn for the worse and his two daughters left for Chortkov to plead with their uncle to daven for his recovery. When they arrived in Chortkov they told Reb Dovid Moshe about their father's condition. Reb Dovid Moshe told them, "I just recently visited your father. Whilst I was there, I examined all his personal belongings and I wasn't able to find even the smallest fault which could have caused an accusation against him to make him so ill. It seems that he himself has no desire to stay in this world any longer...."

Reb Mordechai Shraga was niftar on the thirty seventh day of the Omer 5654 (1894) and was succeeded by his son Reb Yisroel. Reb Yisroel led his chassidim for over fifty years until his petirah (death) on the twenty ninth of Kislev 5709 (1949) on the fifth night of Chanukah. Despite the fact that during the many years he was Rebbe he hardly ever uttered a dvar Torah (a Torah thought), Reb Yisroel's chassidim numbered in the thousands, including quite a number of famous rabbonim and gedolim.

The Rebbe Reb Boruch'l of Mezhibuzh used to say that a faulty candle flickers and dances, but a good candle stays still, burning steadily, and thereby gives off a bright light. Similarly, a person has to remain calm and steady and not jump and prance like a faulty candle. The life of the Husyatiner Rebbe was like that of a good candle. He never allowed any of his inner feelings to show before his onlookers. His tefillos (prayers) were the picture of simplicity, no moans or groans ever left his lips. His body remained still, rooted to the spot where he stood without the slightest shockle, and he said every word from the siddur (prayerbook). Even when reciting Kaddish in front of his chassidim, he paused while turning a page in order not to miss a single word from the siddur.

Behind this facade of simplicity was hidden one of the true tzaddikim of his generation. The Belzer Rov, Reb Aharon zt'l, never referred to Reb Yisroel as `The Husyatiner Rebbe'. He used to call him `The Rebbe,' an honor which he did not bestow on any other tzaddik.

Born on the sixteenth of Kislev 5618 (1858), he was given the name Yisroel after his father's father, Reb Yisroel, the Rebbe of Ruzhin. When he was only three years old his extraordinary level of kedusha was seen by all. A local goy had long been interested in seeing the inside of the court of Reb Mordechai Shraga. The goy got hold of a bekeshe (long coat) and hat and, disguised as a Yid, he entered the Rebbe's beis hamedrash (shul, study hall). No sooner did the three year old Reb Yisroel catch a glimpse of the dressed up peasant than he began to scream, 'Goy, goy!'

When Reb Yisroel turned thirteen, his father Reb Mordechai Shraga was mechanech (educated) his son to tefillin. Before Reb Yisroel donned the tefillin for the first time, his father told him the following story, "Some of the Mezreticher Maggid's chassidim once complained to the Maggid that due to the long distance involved, it was very difficult for them to ask him for advice every time a problem arose. The Maggid gave them one of his bekeshes (coats) and a gartel (prayer sash) and walking stick, and instructed the chassidim to hand them over to Mendel from Vitebsk. The chassidim wasted no time, and although there were quite a number of Mendels in Vitebsk, they handed over the items to the first Mendel they found. No sooner had Reb Mendel put on the bekeshe and gartel than he appeared to become a different person. His face radiated holiness on his entire surroundings. The chassidim stood up in awe before the inspiring figure and accepted him as their new leader. He became as famous as Reb Mendel of Vitebsk.

Reb Mordechai Shraga told his son that when tefillin adorn the body, they can transform the person who wears them into a holy being with their holiness. With these words Reb Mordechai Shraga put tefillin on his son.

When Reb Yisroel turned fourteen he married Nechama Gitel, a granddaughter of his uncle Reb Avrohom Yaakov, the Rebbe of Sadiger. After his chasunah (wedding) he returned to Husyatin to learn under his father's guidance.

Reb Mordechai Shraga taught his son to appreciate that not only does every word a person utters have to be weighed and examined to see that it is totally truthful, but every thought and action also has to be carefully scrutinized to make sure that it does not give a false impression of any sort. Indeed, by the time Reb Mordechai Shraga was niftar in 5654 (1894), Reb Yisroel was famous all over Galicia for his tzidkus (righteousness). No unnecessary comment ever escaped his lips. On one occasion when he went to visit Reb Dovid Moshe, the Chortkover Rebbe, Reb Dovid Moshe told his son to look at Reb Yisroel, saying, "You see my son, this is the emes (truth)."

Typical of his dedication to truth through and through, Reb Yisroel never used silver plated cutlery. He used either solid silver or plain metal cutlery. He said that the idea of silver plating is to pass off plain metal as solid silver. The inside is different to what it appears to be from the outside. Therefore, he felt that it was untruthful to use such cutlery.

When an old couch was reupholstered, the carpenter informed Reb Yisroel that he had not redone the part underneath the seat. Since that part is not visible the carpenter thought that there was no need to cover it. Reb Yisroel did not agree and asked him to reupholster that section, telling him, "With us, what we see and what we don't see are the same!"

When Reb Yisroel gave his first tish as Rebbe, he took off his gartel, quoting the words of Chazal in maseches Shabbos, "Loosening the belt signifies the beginning of a meal." The chassidim understood this to mean that a person only has a right to eat if he no longer requires a belt to distinguish between the top and the bottom half of the body - the holy and the mundane.

The Rebbe never spoke during a tish. It was conducted in total silence except for the few traditional niggunim (melodies) that were sung. The chassidim used to say that in Husyatin one serves Hashem through silence. When a person is silent his innermost thoughts can surface, enabling him to contemplate truly his position and madreiga (spiritual level). The total lack of any external actions assists the person to see who he really is. Indeed, even the local goyim would joke that in Husyatin the chassidim came to hear the Rebbe who didn't speak!

The Rebbe's fame spread even to the goyim in the area. Near Husyatin lived a wealthy poritz (non-Jewish landowner), Count Glochovsky, who often conversed with the Rebbe about various matters. On one occasion, the Count told the Rebbe that as a token of his appreciation he would like to show the Rebbe his most precious possession. The Rebbe agreed to visit the Count, and on the appointed day the Count's carriage came to bring the Rebbe to the Count's palace. When the Rebbe was sitting in the palatial house, the Count went to open his safe but the safe would not budge despite vigorous attempts to open it. A red faced Count returned to apologize for causing the Rebbe to come for nothing. He just could not understand why the safe would not open. Such a thing had never happened before! Later, it became known that the Count had wanted to show the Rebbe an ancient golden cross that he had received from the Pope. Min haShomayim (from Heaven) the Rebbe had been saved from seeing the defiled object.

Although the Rebbe hardly ever said divrei Torah in public, he was extremely well versed in all parts of the Torah. The Rebbe's nephew, Reb Moshenu Boyaner zt'l, who was considered one of the foremost poskim in Poland, used to say that he could testify that his uncle was fluent in every Rambam. Similar comments were echoed by the Rebbe's son-in-law, Reb Yaakov zt'l, who was also famed as a major talmid chochom. Reb Yaakov used to say that he had acquired from his father-in-law most of his knowledge during their daily chavrusa (joint study session)!

Although the Rebbe never volunteered his opinion, if a rov (Rabbi) pressed him to answer he would not refuse. One such rov was Reb Yitzchok Isaac Herzog, (later a chief Rabbi of Israel) who used to say that the Rebbe had, literally, an encyclopedic knowledge of hilchos mikva'os (the laws of Mikveh). Another rov, Reb Fishel Arik zt'l, once accompanied the Rebbe on an inspection tour of an eruv. Reb Fishel later said that during the inspection the Rebbe had shown that he was familiar with all the opinions mentioned in the poskim about even the most minute sha'alos (question) in hilchos eruvim. Indeed, when they became aware of the true extent of the Rebbe's vast knowledge, most rabbonim were confounded by his ability to contain himself and not allow the Torah within him to gush forth. It was said that in order to really understand the Rebbe's 'pashtus' (simplicity) one had to be a true 'amkan!' (person of depth)

Another aspect of the Rebbe's conduct that aroused much comment was that he constantly checked his appearance to make sure that he was totally spotless and not even one hair was out of place. To this end he always carried with him a small mirror and comb. Before every tefillah or any other mitzva he carefully checked himself to ensure that he was respectable to appear in front of Hashem. When the Rebbe's wife was niftar in (5652) 1892, as the Rebbe was about to leave his house to go to the levaya, he suddenly stopped and exclaimed, "I am about to perform the mitzva of halvoyas hameis (accompanying the dead) and I almost forgot to check my appearance."
In a Viennese street. From right to left: Reb Yaakov of Husyatin, Reb Yisroel of Husyatin and Reb Avrohom Yehoshua of Kapischnitz
Although such conduct was not seen by other tzaddikim, the sefer Meshivas Nefesh from Rabbeinu Yochanan Luria (who lived in the time of the Maharshal) explains that the reason the kiyor (wash stand) in the Mishkan (tabernacle) was made from mirrors (mar'os) was so the cohanim could check themselves to ensure that they appeared presentable when performing the avoda (service) in front of Hashem. Chazal also tell us that when Hillel went to the bathhouse he used to say that he was going to perform a mitzva. The statues erected in honor of various dignitaries were constantly cleaned and polished, all the more so a person, who was created in the image of Hashem, must be careful that he is clean and tidy.

With the outbreak of the First World War the town of Husyatin was badly damaged, and the Rebbe was forced to flee to Vienna where he settled together with the other Rebbes of the Ruzhiner dynasty.

With the founding of Agudas Yisroel the Rebbe straight away joined the movement. He did not, however, stay a member for long. At a meeting he had attended, a certain rov verbally attacked the ideas of the Chortkover Rebbe, zt'l, and in doing so also slighted the kovod (honor) of the Chortkover Rebbe. When the rov finished his drosho (speech) the Rebbe handed in his resignation, saying it had hurt him so much to hear the way this rov had that he no longer wanted to be a member.

On one occasion when the Rebbe went for a walk in the town of Stanislav, he paused outside a particular house and asked who lived in this house. He said that he could feel a high level of kedusha emanating from its walls. The chassidim explained that when the Chortkover Rebbe zt'l comes to Stanislav this is where he stays. "Ah," sighed the Rebbe, "that's it." The Chortkover Rebbe admired the Rebbe greatly and on one occasion when they parted from each other the Chortkover Rebbe put his hand on the collar of the Rebbe's coat - as one would do to straighten a crooked collar - and then he kissed his hand as if he had just kissed a mezuza!

Although the Rebbe longed to settle in Eretz Yisroel, he felt unable to abandon his many chassidim. One day during the 1930s whilst he was walking down a street in Vienna some local goyim threw stones in his direction. The Rebbe saw this as a sign from Heaven that it was time for him to leave Europe and settle in Eretz Yisroel, and the necessary preparations were made for the Rebbe to move to Eretz Yisroel.

On another occasion, when the Rebbe was walking along a road in Vienna, he suddenly stopped, staring at a large conference hall ahead. The Rebbe became transfixed to the spot. Whilst he was standing there deep in thought, tears began to roll down his cheeks. A few years later after the Nazis had marched into Vienna, Hitler y"ms (may his name be blotted out) gave his speeches against the Yidden from that very same hall.

In 5697 (1937), just before he emigrated, the Rebbe travelled around Europe to bid farewell to his chassidim. He exhorted them to follow him saying, "Anyone who has common sense will flee from here as fast as he can."

A big house was bought for the Rebbe on Rechov Bialik in Tel Aviv and in Shvat 5697 (1937) the Rebbe and his son-in-law, Reb Yaakov, docked at Haifa. On his arrival, the Rebbe straight away was besieged by the many Ruzhiner chassidim living in Eretz Yisroel. His house on Rechov Bialik became a center of Yiddishkeit and many were helped through his advice. It was well known that when the Rebbe promised someone a salvation, he could be assured that the Rebbe's words would be fulfilled. We will suffice with one such story.

A yungerman who was finding it difficult to make ends meet decided to open a grocery store in a new settlement being built between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Before signing the deal, he came to the Rebbe to receive his berocho. Whilst he was waiting to be seen, the gabai asked the yungerman why he had come to see the Rebbe. Upon hearing his story, the gabai berated him that he dared to waste the Rebbe's time on such a stupid question, since even a simple person knows that from a few houses in a new settlement he could not have enough to live on. The yungerman agreed to the gabai's argument, but, since he was already in the Rebbe's house, he nevertheless thought it would be a pity to leave without asking.

When the yungerman entered the Rebbe's room, the Rebbe gave him his berocho and told him to go ahead with the deal. The yungerman, who by then was quite sure that the Rebbe would advise him against the deal, became confused and told the Rebbe what the gabai had advised him. "Who told him what to tell you?" the Rebbe retorted. "He speaks though he does not know what he is saying. Buy the shop and you will be very successful." A few days after he bought the grocery store, the Tel Aviv-Haifa Rail Company decided to make a new stop on the railway next to the store, in order to allow passengers to get off the train and buy a snack. Soon the yungerman became very wealthy.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, all the Rebbe's thoughts and actions were given over to helping his fellow Yidden in Europe. Although physically far away, the Rebbe knew exactly what was happening all over Europe. Many times people who had been coming to ask the Rebbe to daven for their relatives abroad were told not to write the names on the kvittel (petition) any more. From this they knew that their relatives had joined the millions of other kedoshim (martyrs).

In 1941 Eretz Yisroel was in terrible danger. Italy and Egypt were in Nazi hands and the Germans were making preparations to take Eretz Yisroel. The invasion could be any day and Rommel ym's, the German commander, had already broadcast his intention to destroy the entire country in one afternoon. On the fifteenth of Tammuz, the yahrtzeit of the Or HaChaim zt'l, the Rebbe went to his kever (gravesite) to daven. The Rebbe stood davening with intense concentration, knowing that the situation was critical and only a miracle could save them. Suddenly, to the surprise of all assembled, the Rebbe exclaimed, "The reshoim (evil ones) will not come, they will not enter... I have just seen the Divine name of Hashem shining brightly, we can be sure they will not enter the Land."

The Rebbe's words spread like wildfire throughout the country, bringing comfort to the panic-stricken nation. When Germany attacked Russia, the Rebbe laughed and said, "This is the beginning of Germany's downfall. This will bring the Nazis' defeat, for the tumah (impurity) of Russia is greater than the tumah of Germany."

With the arrival of the refugees from war torn Europe the Rebbe did his utmost to help them find places to live and adjust to their new homes. When the Tshebiner Rov (who was a Husyatiner chossid) arrived, the Rebbe gave him six hundred lira - an enormous sum - to help pay for the cost of a flat. Even this was not enough and the Rebbe summoned six rich chassidim and commanded each one of them to give one hundred lira to make up the missing amount.

One of the chassidim refused the Rebbe's request and didn't give anything for the cause. A few weeks later, on the first night of Pesach, a tearful lady came to the Rebbe crying that her husband had gone mad. Everything was beautifully prepared for the seder but when her husband came home from shul, a sudden fit of madness descended on him and he threw all the plates and cups on the floor, all the while screaming and shouting. In desperation she ran to the Rebbe to seek his advice. "What did he think?" the Rebbe replied. "The Tshebiner Rov will not have his own flat in which to lead his seder, and your husband will lead his own seder?" The woman promised to bring in the missing money right after Yom Tov and with that the Rebbe told her to go home where she would find her husband waiting for her, fully recovered.

It was very seldom that the Rebbe became angry with anyone. Rarely did he try to force or threaten somebody to do something. One such occasion happened with a person who refused to give his wife a get despite all the Rebbe's pleas that he have pity on his wife. The Rebbe took out a mishna Kiddushin and started to read the first mishna, "A woman leaves her husband through a get or through the death of her husband." The man suddenly became frightened and called out, "Rebbe I am going to give her a divorce straight away."

Reb Yisroel of Husyatin in his later years
Except for these few occasions, the Rebbe never lost his composure. His face glowed with an inner satisfaction, a glow that comes not from the pleasures of this world but from deep down in the soul. The Rebbe would often say, "If it is not as one would want, one must want it as it is." Indeed, just the sight of the Rebbe walking along the streets of Tel Aviv was enough to change the lives of some of those who saw him. Many a secular resident would confess that after having met the Rebbe they were no longer able to lead the same life they had until then. If his everyday stroll was a lesson in avodas Hashem (divine service), all the more so were his tefillos (prayers). So intense was his concentration that during davening he was totally oblivious to everything going on around him. During the War of Independence in 5708 (1948) a bomb fell in the center of Tel Aviv, not far from the Rebbe's beis hamedrash. The massive noise and the air raid sirens sent everyone running in a panic to the nearest shelter. At the time of the explosion the Rebbe was in the middle of Shemone Esrei. When he finished he turned around to see an almost empty Beis Hamedrash, and in astonishment he asked where everyone had disappeared to - he hadn't even heard the noise of the explosion or the siren. Such was his concentration.

A few weeks before the Rebbe was niftar, he was hospitalized. In his last days he asked to be wheeled out into the courtyard, saying that he wanted to see once more the heavens and the earth which Hashem had created and not just the hospital walls, which were made by man. On his last day while he lay unconscious in bed, his lips did not stop davening for a second. The whole time he kept repeating over and over again the same posuk: 'malchuscho malchus kol olamim' (his Kingship is the Kingship of the whole world), and with these words he was niftar. On the same day he was buried in Teveria where his kever is a mokom tefillah (prayersite) until today.

His place was succeeded by his son-in-law Reb Yaakov zt'l, whom the Rebbe had appointed, promising that all the berochos (blessings) he gave would be as if the Rebbe himself had given them. After Reb Yaakov's petirah in Cheshvan 5717 (1957) he was succeeded by his son, Reb Yitzchok, who led and guided the chassidim until his petirah in Ellul 5728 (1968).

Return to the Nishmas Chayim Home Page