The Vasloier Rebbe
Reb Sholom Halpern, zt'l

  Among the many towns dotting the countryside of Romania is a town called Vasloi. Although not a particularly important town, in the years before the Second World War it became a household word among Jews across the country, for in it lived the famed tzaddik Reb Sholom Halpern, who became known as the Rebbe of Vasloi. He was regarded by all who saw him as an ish Elokim (holy man), and thousands came from far and wide to see him and to receive his brocho (blessing).

Reb Sholom was born on the fifteenth of Shevat 5617 (1857). His father was Reb Dovid Halpern, who was a son-in-law of the Rebbe, Reb Yisroel of Ruzhin zt'l. Reb Dovid was from a distinguished line of famous rabbonim and gedolim. Reb Dovid, however, refused to accept the yoke of rabbonus (the Rabbinate), preferring to remain within the shadow of his shver (father-in-law), the Ruzhiner zt'l, where he could sit and learn without interruption.

Despite his reticence, Reb Dovid soon made a name for himself as a major talmid chochom (Talmudic sage). Blessed with a very sharp head, his comments and sayings were passed from mouth to ear. On one occasion when the Ruzhiner gave him a brocho that Hashem should fulfill all his heart's desires, Reb Dovid asked: "Is that all?"

"Isn't that enough?" the Ruzhiner asked him back in surprise. "There are things which happen to a person which he doesn't even dream of," Reb Dovid explained. "Did it ever occur to me that one day I would end up being the Rebbe's son-in-law? Yet it still happened!" The Ruzhiner smiled at Reb Dovid's original answer and blessed him that Hashem should help him in whatever he needs, even if he does not know that he needs it.

As a young child, Reb Dovid's son Reb Sholom was recognized to possess an extraordinary mind and character. However, even these attributes were exceeded by his remarkable hasmodoh (diligence) and the energy he invested in his learning and avodas Hashem. Most of his waking hours were spent delving deep into Shas (Talmud) and poskim (legal tracts) until he had a considerable reputation as a talmid chochom.

In 1873, when Reb Sholom turned seventeen, he married his cousin Chana Sarah, the daughter of the first Bohusher Rebbe, Reb Yitzchok zt'l. After his chasunah (wedding) he stayed on in Bohush, carrying on learning without interruption. Some of the Bohusher chassidim didn't take too kindly to the fact that Reb Sholom would only enter to his shver's tish after his shver was already seated, but Reb Sholom didn't take any notice. His time was too precious to be wasted. When Reb Sholom was nearing forty years of age, the Bohusher Rebbe decided that it was time for his son-in-law to emerge from behind his seforim (books) and begin to lead his own chassidim.

To this end the Bohusher Rebbe sent him to the town of Radukan, where he was received with open arms by its many inhabitants. The Yidden (Jews) of the town rejoiced at having Reb Sholom in their midst, and indeed after a short time his gadlus (ability, greatness) was recognized by those around him, and they crowned him their Rebbe, opening a large beis hamedrash (shul and study hall) for him.

In 1907 a pogrom descended on the town. Roving bands of armed goyim had been circulating in the area and they decided to attack the Jews of Radukan. In a panic the Yidden fled to the large court of Reb Sholom, where they gathered, awaiting their fate. The local goyim, however, didn't want to lose Reb Sholom, for they also were witness to the power of his brochos; they surrounded the Rebbe's building and forcefully prevented the armed bands from harming the Yidden.

On another occasion, when news arrived of an imminent pogrom, Reb Sholom enclosed himself in his room and, taking out a packet of cigarettes, he started to smoke, all the while deep in thought. No sooner had he finished one cigarette, than he started the next one. The Rebbe's room started to fill up with a cloud of smoke. Outside, in the streets, a fog started to descend on the town. As the cloud of smoke thickened in the Rebbe's room, so the fog intensified. The fog became so thick that it was almost impossible to see anything more than a few feet away. The goyim were forced to call off their pogrom and thus the Yidden were saved.

For more than thirteen years Reb Sholom lived in Radukan, leading his flock with an iron hand. Even though the Haskolo (Reform movement) had managed to penetrate into most of the towns in Romania, in Radukan, however, Reb Sholom stood firm, preventing them from gaining a foothold. However, even he was not able to totally stop their spread and in 1909 a school was opened by the maskilim (reformers) of the area.

Reb Sholom warned the heads of the kehilla (community) that if the school was not shut down immediately he would move out of Radukan. His words, however, were not taken seriously, and after being invited by his chassidim in nearby Vasloi to move to their town, he left Radukan.

Not long after Reb Sholom left Radukan, middas hadin (retribution) descended on the town, causing them to repent on their ways. One of the heads of the new school was found murdered with his wife lying next to him. Searches were made to find the killer but to no avail. A few days later, a second Yid was found murdered in his shop together with his wife and daughter, and not long afterwards a third Yid was found killed. Like the first Yid, these other two Yidden had also been instrumental in opening the new school. If all this was not enough, a plague also descended on the town, bringing severe illness to many of the children in the school.

At an emergency meeting arranged by the kehilla it was decided to send a delegation to Reb Sholom to ask for forgiveness for having caused him to leave the town and to ask him to move back. When the delegation arrived in Vasloi, Reb Sholom told them that he forgave them all and, even though he would not move back to Radukan, he would, however, come for a visit. The news that Reb Sholom had forgiven them and was even coming for a visit brought a festive atmosphere in Radukan and a beautiful kabolas ponim (reception) was arranged.

During the kabolas ponim all the members of the Haskolo came one by one to apologize to him and to beg his forgiveness with broken hearts. Reb Sholom told them that he had never had even the slightest hakpodo (stringency) against them and he reassured them that all would return to normal. A few days after Reb Sholom left, the murderer was found and duly punished, and peace and quiet returned once again to the streets of Radukan.

In Vasloi a large court and beis hamedrash were built. Although many flocked to Reb Sholom whilst he had lived in Radukan, in Vasloi even more came to see his avoda. Every Friday night the whole town would assemble around Reb Sholom's tish to watch him as he recited Kiddush, his soul-piercing voice causing many a heart to miss a beat.

Not only the Yidden regarded Reb Sholom as an ish Elokim (holy man). The local goyim would also stand in awe of him every time he walked along the street. The Rov of Vasloi, Reb Dov Rabinovitz, zt'l, once told the following story: "I was once walking along the streets of Vasloi when suddenly a beautiful carriage stopped alongside me and from inside it emerged the Governor of Vasloi. He walked up to me and asked, 'Tell me, are you the rabbi of the town?'

"When I answered him in the affirmative, he said to me, 'But you don't seem to be a rabbi,' and he explained himself, saying: 'Surely you know the famed Rabbi Sholom Halpern. He was once walking in the forest around Vasloi, and on his way he passed by a group of soldiers who were under my command. The second my soldiers caught a glimpse of this rabbi they became so scared that they bolted in fright in every direction. Others remained rooted to the spot, too petrified to move.' As the Governor finished he said to me, `But when people see you coming they don't feel any fear at all, so how is it possible that you are a rabbi?'"

From left to right:
The Vasloier Rebbe,
Reb Sholom Halpern
and his grandson
Reb Yaakov Yosef zt"l
Amongst the main trials and pithat were the lot of the Yidden in Europe was the attraction of Zionism and all that it entailed. Although in Poland and Galicia the gedolim (sages) had seen the dangers involved in their ideas and had by and large managed to prevent its spreading, in Romania, however, it spread like wildfire, trapping in its net not just the simple people but many rabbonim and talmidei chachomim also.

Reb Sholom was among the few gedolim who fought against the new movement tooth and nail. Many attempts were made to try to convince him to change his mind, but they all ended in failure. One of the heads of the local Zionist movement told Reb Sholom that he did not understand why Reb Sholom did not support aliya to Eretz Yisroel. Here in Romania the Jews are surrounded on all sides by anti-Semites who constantly seek to make their lives a misery.

Reb Sholom took out a map of the Middle East and showed it to the man saying, "Look, here is Syria and here is Egypt and Iran and Iraq. More than one hundred million Arabs live in these countries and you think you will be able to live in peace? I am telling you that they will fight against the Yidden until Moshiach will come and redeem us."

Reb Sholom's fight against Zionism knew no compromise. If a rov who had Zionist leanings came to see Reb Sholom - and in Romania there were many such rabbonim - he would not offer him a seat but would let the rov stand the whole time. When the gabboim tried to convince Reb Sholom to offer such rabbonim a seat, he told them, "What are you worried about, are you scared they won't come again? I really don't want them to come again!"

Another area in which the Haskolo managed to make major inroads into Romanian Jewry in general was regarding the sanctity of Shabbos. Many of the Yidden became lax in keeping the laws of Shabbos and would keep their shops open on Shabbos like during the week. The town of Vasloi was one of the few places in Romania where such a thing was unheard of. On the few occasions that someone dared to open his shop on Shabbos, Reb Sholom would march down to the shop and stand outside until the shop was hastily closed down.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 thousands of Russian soldiers descended on Vasloi. When their commander saw Reb Sholom's large courtyard, he decided that it would be ideal for his headquarters. The commander called Reb Sholom's gabboim (attendants) and ordered them to vacate the court by Shabbos. If by Shabbos they hadn't left the court then they would all be forcibly evicted.

The gabboim begged the commander to change his mind, but to no avail. The Rebbe with all his family must leave by Shabbos. When Reb Sholom heard the news he did not react at all - as if it had nothing to do with him. As Friday drew near, his chassidim begged Reb Sholom to leave the court and not to cause a chilul Hashem and chilul Shabbos through being evicted on Shabbos, but Reb Sholom ignored their pleas. Friday afternoon arrived and still Reb Sholom showed no interest in moving; in desperation his chassidim demanded to know his reasons for not leaving the court. In a soft and determined voice Reb Sholom told them, "The commander will not live to carry out his plan."

In order to occupy a private building, the law required that the takeover first be approved by a certain high ranking officer in Bucharest. The commander who anyhow had to go to Bucharest for an important meeting, went by himself to obtain permission for his new headquarters, which he received without a problem. The commander traveled back to Vasloi with an express train which was due to arrive early Shabbos morning.

Just outside Vasloi the train came to a halt. The commander, thinking that they had arrived, opened the carriage door to leave the train. As he opened the door, the train started to move again. The sudden jolt caught the commander off guard and he fell onto the rails where he was trampled to death by the moving train. From then on Reb Sholom was left in peace, his name uttered in awe by Yidden and goyim alike.

Amongst the constant stream of chassidim who came to Vasloi were quite a number of great talmidei chachomim, who would come to speak in learning with Reb Sholom. One of the greatest poskim in Romania, Reb Chaim Mordechai Roller, author of the classic sefer Be'er Chaim Mordechai, had become close with Reb Sholom from his days in Bohush.

Reb Chaim Mordechai would come to Vasloi once a month. Each time he came, they would close themselves in a room for hours on end, engaging in deep Talmudic discussion. Reb Chaim Mordechai wouldn't cease praising Reb Sholom and would say that he is one of the major talmidei chachomim of the generation, someone who is truly familiar with anything he is asked about.

In Kaballah Reb Sholom also excelled. One of the famous mekubalim of Yerushalayim, Reb Asher Zelig Margolios zt'l, lived for a short time in Romania. During his stay there he was a frequent visitor in Vasloi. Every time he came across a passage in Kaballah that he wasn't able to understand, he would ask Reb Sholom, who would answer him straight away. Even many years later Reb Asher Zelig would say that although one can't compare living in Eretz Yisroel to living in chutz la'aretz, (abroad) he does miss being able to ask Reb Sholom his questions.

In Reb Sholom's later years, his chassidim decided that it was necessary to make an extension to his court. After the extension was completed the chassidim wanted Reb Sholom to go and look at the new quarters that had been built. Reb Sholom, however, refused their request. The inspection could wait until Erev Pesach when he would have an opportunity to view the new rooms whilst he carried out bedikas chometz (check for chometz). To go now in the middle of the year would be a waste of precious time which could be better spent learning.

Indeed, those who still remember Reb Sholom recount that even more impressive than all the miracles that he performed was his unbelievable hasmodoh (diligence). Every spare second was utilized for learning. Reb Sholom would forgo buttering his bread during meal times. The time was simply too precious to be wasted on such trivial pursuits.

Despite his fierceness against anything that was deemed a threat to Torah true Yiddishkeit, he led his chassidim like a true shepherd, caring for all their problems and worries. Every broken heart was sure to be warmly received and Reb Sholom would comfort and console them. Even those who had strayed from the path of Yiddishkeit would be given his undivided care and attention until their problems had been solved. At the same time Reb Sholom would try to convince them to better their ways.

He would often say that it is forbidden to give up hope on any Yid, however low he has fallen, for every Yid has in him a spark which, when ignited, will bring him back to Torah and mitzvos. In this derech (way) he explained the words of the gemora (Talmud) in masechta Brochos, that a person must always ensure that his yetzer hatov (good inclination) controls his yetzer hora (bad inclination) and not vice versa. If the person feels that his yetzer hora is gaining control then he should learn Torah in order to defeat it. If the yetzer hora wasn't subdued through his learning, he should recite Krias Shema. If this also didn't help he should remind himself that a person does not live forever and one day he will have to account for his actions.

Reb Sholom would say that these three different methods mentioned in the gemora allude to the three different types of people in Klal Yisroel. The first category are the talmidei chachomim - those who learn Torah. Afterwards come those who, even if they cannot learn, are still G-d fearing people who put their trust in Hashem and daven three times daily to Hashem. The last category is the Yid who has fallen by the wayside, and although he does not keep the Torah and mitzvos, he still remembers to come once a year to shul on his parents' yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death) to recite Kaddish for them. Even such a person should not be given up on and is still capable of defeating and conquering his yetzer hora if he has the wito do so. In keeping with his words, Reb Sholom was 'mekareiv' (brought close) every Yid who knocked on his door, no matter how far he had strayed.

Almost until his last day, Reb Sholom continued his avoda as usual. On his last Shabbos he recited Kiddush in the beis hamedrash as every week. On Friday the twenty fourth of Av 5699 (1939) Reb Sholom's holy neshomo (soul) ascended upwards.

Chazal tell us that Hashem takes away His tzadikim from this world so that they should not have to witness the tragedies that befall their people. A few days after his petirah the Second World War broke out in all its fury, destroying the court and beis hamedrash with all its inhabitants. Reb Sholom's only son, Reb Chaim Dov, assumed his father's position and after many nissim (miracles) left Romania in 5710 (1950) for Eretz Yisroel where he was niftar in Sivan 5717 (1957).

Reb Chaim Dov was succeeded by his son Reb Yaakov Shlomo zt'l who was in turn succeeded by his son Reb Avrohom Shimshon Sholom shlita the present Rebbe of Vasloi who lives in Bnei Brak.

From left to right: The Vasloier Rebbe Shlita and the Bohusher Rebbe Shlita

Return to the Nishmas Chayim Home Page