The Sadigerer Rebbe
Reb Avrohom Yaakov zt'l

  With the petirah of the Ruzhiner, his position in the town of Sadiger was assumed by his second son, Reb Avrohom Yaakov. He exercised immense influence on all aspects of Jewish life throughout Russia, Galicia and Poland. The town of Sadiger became the uncrowned capital of European Jewry, the place where hundreds of thousands turned for their every need and problem.

Reb Avrohom Yaakov was born on the twentieth of Cheshvan 5580 (1820). During that particular time, Russian Jewry was undergoing a painful and difficult period. The accursed Czar Nikolai had embarked on his plan to destroy the Jewish nation; each day brought terrible new decrees, in an attempt to bring the Yidden (Jews) to their knees. When one of the chassidim asked the Ruzhiner in desperation, "Is there nothing that can be done to topple this terrible man?" the Ruzhiner answered him, "My son Avrohom Yaakov, he will topple the Czar... Concerning him it is written Ha-kol Kol Yaakov." (the voice is the voice of Yaacov) And indeed, not long after Reb Avrohom Yaakov became Rebbe, the Czar committed suicide on Purim 1854.

When Reb Avrohom Yaakov turned thirteen, his father asked him, "You know that the yetzer hatov(negative inclination) joins a person when he becomes bar-mitzva. Yet his yetzer hara (positive inclination) is with him right from birth. Tell me, how were you able to stand up to the yetzer hara all these years without the help of the yetzer hatov?" Reb Avrohom Yaakov answered his father, "Whenever my yetzer hara tried to tempt me to sin, I put him off with a convincing argument. I told him that the halacha (Jewish Law) forbids a judge to hear the arguments of one of the parties in a case if the other one is not present. So he would have to wait until I turned thirteen and my yetzer hatov will be able to refute his persuasive arguments."

When Reb Avrohom Yaakov became of age he married Rebbitzen Miriam, the daughter of Reb Aharon Karliner. Before the chupa (wedding "canopy") the Ruzhiner told his son, "My father used to say, 'From my sons people will know who I am', but I say differently, from my sons people will know who Hashem is. My dear son, you should know that you possess a very holy neshomo (soul) . . ." And with these words, Reb Avrohom Yaakov went to his chupa.

Not long after Reb Avrohom Yaakov became Rebbe he was imprisoned by the Austrian authorities in the notorious dungeons of Chernovitz. When the Ruzhiner was niftar (deceased) the Russians confidently believed they had seen the end of Beis Ruzhin. Thus when they realized that the Ruzhiner's successor was proving himself both competent and beloved, they were furious. They were ready to do anything to get rid of him, and when the opportunity presented itself they grabbed it with both hands.

A Yid (Jew) who was a forger of Russian banknotes was apprehended by the police. In his possession they found a letter from the Rebbe blessing him in all his endeavours. The local maskilim secular intelligentsia), who long regarded the Rebbe as a thorn in their side, grasped this golden opportunity. They went to the police and testified that the Rebbe was also mixed up in forging banknotes and was in partnership with the forger.

On the strength of the false evidence provided by the maskilim, the Russian Government demanded the arrest and imprisonment of the Rebbe on charges of being involved in circulating forged Russian banknotes. A few days after Pesach (Passover) 1856 the Rebbe was arrested and imprisoned in the notorious dungeons of Chernovitz.

The Rebbe was thrown into a tiny dark cell in which there was hardly room to turn and nowhere to sit or lie down. To add to his discomfort, his gaolers put another man with him in the cell. This man, a hardened criminal, who was known to be a violent anti-semite, delighted in annoying the Rebbe with his remarks and coarse talk. He disturbed him during his davening (praying Yid.) and purposely got in his way whenever the Rebbe wanted to lean against the wall after the many long hours of being forced to stand on his feet.

After several days of this cruel torture, the warden of the prison was bribed to permit an armchair to be placed in the cell, so that the Rebbe could sit down during the daytime. No sooner was the armchair brought in than the criminal carved crosses all over it, knowing only too well that the Rebbe would not sit on a chair with such decorations and thus he would be able to use it himself.

And so the days and nights passed, until one Monday morning when the Rebbe was busy davening Shacharis (morning prayer). As he recited the words: "Look from Heaven and see how we have become a scorn and a derision among the nations...", he burst into sobs of anguish and misery. Quickly the Rebbe controlled himself and cried out; "Nevertheless we have not forsaken Your Name Hashem, please do not forsake us." He repeated these words several times.

Suddenly a surprising thing happened. The criminal collapsed on the floor writhing in agony, his whole body gripped in excruciating pain. He began screaming at the top of his voice, "Help! I'm dying! Help! Help!" The guards came rushing towards the cell and threw open the door. Inside, the Rebbe stood immersed in tefilla(prayer) with his face to the wall. On the floor, writhing in pain, was the criminal screaming, "Take me out of here! I'm dying! The Rabbi is tearing me to pieces!"

Not knowing what to do, the guards rushed into the warden's office to ask for instruction. But the warden too was writhing on the floor unable to speak. In terror the guards returned to the Rebbe's cell and dragged the criminal out of the room. Only then did he and the warden recover. The Rebbe was transferred to a larger cell where he spent fifteen months until he was finally released.

The Rebbe emerged from prison a desperately ill man. The many hours spent standing on his feet and the damp and cold conditions plus the lack of basic food had seriously damaged his health. A few days later the Rebbe's condition worsened and his life hung on a shoe-string. The Rebbe's brothers converged on Sadiger to visit him and to daven to Hashem to revoke the decree. With tears in their eyes, thousands of chassidim stood in the great Beis Hamedrash pouring out their hearts in tefilla to Hashem. Suddenly the Chortkover Rebbe, Reb Dovid Moshe zt'l, walked up to the bima (readers table) and called out, "We have done all that we can, but the Gates of Heaven remain closed. Call in all the townspeople, the simple and the ignorant, let them join us in our tefilla. Perhaps the pure tefillos of the simple will succeed where the tefillos of the tzaddikim (righteous) failed."

The Rebbe's Beis Midrash in Sadiger
Within a few minutes the Beis Hamedrash was packed full with the local laborers and workers, their voices joining the crying and wailing of those already present. After a few more minutes Reb Dovid Moshe mounted the bima for the second time and called out: "The crown is falling! Only a short while remains until our crown will be removed! Who is willing to offer himself as a korban (sacrifice), to accept the Rebbe's illness on himself? I guarantee Olam Haba (the World to Come) to whoever will take on himself the Rebbe's illness."

A deathly silence descended on all those assembled. Suddenly a Yid called Reb Mordechai Mishel of Linsk jumped up and said, "I am willing to be a kaporah (atonement) for our holy Rebbe, I accept on myself to be his pidyon nefesh (soul redemption)." No sooner had he finished speaking than scores of chassidim also jumped up saying they were willing to be the Rebbe's kaporah. "Mordechai Mishel was first," Reb Dovid Moshe announced, "Only he has been zocheh to become the kaporah."

That evening Reb Mordechai Mishel fell ill. As his condition deteriorated, so the Rebbe's condition improved. With jolly spirits Reb Mordechai Mishel told his visitors how happy he was that he had been found fit to be the Rebbe's korban. As he lay on his death bed, he asked that a lechaim should be brought in. With his last breath he whispered, "The Rebbe should have a refuah shleimah, and myself - a place 'tachas kanfei ha-Shechinah' (under the wings of the Divine Presence)."

Years later, on Reb Mordechai Mishel's yahrzeit, the chassidim wanted to drink a L'Chaim. The Rebbe told them, "Nu, you have finally remembered him! I haven't forgotten him, not for one second. When he arrived in the next world he was looked at as something of a wonder. No, no, he doesn't need your L'Chaim at a. He is supported by my holy father on one side and my grandfather on the other." From then on, whenever the chassidim spoke about Reb Mordechai Mishel, they would add the words zechuso yogein oleinu (may his merit protect us), as one does when speaking about great tzaddikim.

After the Rebbe had fully recovered, the Sadigerer Chassidus started to increase and expand even more. Tzaddikim would say that the Sadigerer Rebbe's very holiness was 'contagious'. As his name and fame spread ever wider so the numbers grew. Every week new faces appeared, eager to experience for themselves a Shabbos in Sadiger. Already hours before a tish (the Rebbe's table, a Chassidic gathering), the vast hall was jam-packed with chassidim who hurried to grab a place. Often the crowd was so great that it was impossible for them all to fit into the hall, but still they came. They knew that even if they couldn't see the Rebbe, he could still see them and feel their presence.

Once, whilst the Rebbe was wishing a 'L'Chaim' to those at the tish, he suddenly called out: "L'Chaim to the Yidden in the town of Nesiveilitz." At the time no one understood the Rebbe's words, but after Shabbos had terminated, his words were understood by all. A large group of chassidim who had been hoping to spend Shabbos with the Rebbe arrived in Sadiger on Motzoai Shabbos (Saturday night). Their journey had taken longer than anticipated and they had been forced to spend Shabbos in the town of Nesiveilitz. Although they hadn't been able to see the Rebbe, he had seen them.

Besides his tremendous influence in all matters concerning European Jewry, the Rebbe also had an overwhelming personality that was so powerful that, once seen, he could not be forgotten by those who had met him. A Sadigerer chossid had a son who took to modern ways until he finally became a mechallel Shabbos (Sabbath desecrator). Grief-stricken, the father turned his back on his son.

The next time the chossid journeyed to Sadiger the Rebbe asked him about his son. "I no longer want to know of him," answered the chossid. "He has forsaken the Torah and mitzvos."

"A chossid who was once at my tish cannot forsake the Torah," the Rebbe told him. "If he has sinned, he will not die without doing teshuva." When the Yid returned home he found that his son had indeed repented his former ways and returned to Yiddishkeit.

The Rebbe's brother, Reb Menachem Nuchem of Sthefanesht once said, "If my brother wanted to, he could make all his chassidim so wealthy that they could travel in wagons with golden wheels. He, however, concentrates on a totally different undertaking, he has managed to achieve that whoever visited him once will not have to return to this world!"

Not for nothing was the Sadigerer Rebbe hailed as the greatest Rebbe of his era. It was commonplace to hear from him about events which were about to happen in faraway countries and cities. One of the Rebbe's closest chassidim was the Gaon Reb Meir Leibish, the Rov of Turka. In his memoirs he writes, "It is impossible to describe what our eyes have seen and what we have heard from the Rebbe, every different aspect of the coming year was known to him: If food prices would rise or fall, if there would be rain for the crops or not, and also the running of the monarchy - if there would be peace or war. In short, all the future events of the coming year we heard from him long before they happened, and it was so commonplace that it didn't arouse anybody...".

On one occasion after the Rebbe had displayed his knowledge of local affairs in Philadelphia, America, his gabbai (attendant) asked him in wonder how the Rebbe knew what was going on in such a remote city. The Rebbe answered him, "Every morning when one wakes up, one has to declare that Hashem is Melech HaOlam - King of the World. Now if a person doesn't know and understand what is in the world, he won't be able to appreciate what it means to be King of the World! Therefore, every morning I look through the world to see what is in it, and whilst I was looking I saw what was going on in Philadelphia!" Indeed, when the Rebbe was still a small child, his father the Ruzhiner zt'l declared that his son was able to see from one end of the world to the other.

When the famed maggid and preacher Reb Hillel of Kolomei was in Sadiger the Rebbe called him in and told him, "Your job is to travel through the towns giving people mussar (ethics) and encouraging them to change their ways, I want that you should also tell me some mussar, tell me how I can improve my ways." Reb Hillel didn't feel up to giving the Rebbe mussar, but after the Rebbe insisted for a second time he told him: "I have only one observation to make, and that is, why doesn't the Rebbe give mussar to his chassidim?" The Rebbe listened to Reb Hillel's words of rebuke and told him, "Our holy father taught us that it is not enough just to say mussar, our actions and behavior must also be a living mussar sefer."

On another occasion the Rebbe met Reb Isaack'l of Zhidithchov who asked the Rebbe to tell him a story - a maaseh (story) from one of the Rebbe's zeides. The Rebbe told him: "We know of only one maaseh (actions, a play on words), the words of Chazal (the Sages) who say, A person is obligated to say, 'When will my maasim reach the maasim of my fathers?'

True to his words, the Rebbe's every action was a living mussar sefer. In his memoirs, the Rebbe's trusted confidant Reb Meir Leibish writes, "The Rebbe is careful not to waste even a split second, not a moment passes which isn't totally utilized to serve Hashem. Even when he speaks mundane matters with those who have come to see him, the kedusha (holiness) doesn't leave his face for a second and even whilst he is busy with those around him it is clearly noticeable that his thoughts are far away in the highest Heavens.

"During meal times his whole face glows with kedusha, and indeed, a simple person as myself cannot possibly grasp or understand his great kedusha, but from what I see it is clear that his eating is an avodah (divine service) just like davening or putting on tefillin.

"Where is the pen that can attempt to describe the sweetness of his voice when he makes a beracha (blessing)? It is clearly visible that as he recites the words his physical being ceases to exist, becoming totally subservient to his neshomo (soul). The sight of him making a beracha is so captivating that afterwards the onlooker doesn't know whether he will be able to resume his daily mundane life, having just felt that this world is really an empty shell."

Once during a tish, the Rebbe's son-in-law, Reb Yisroel of Mezibuzh, knocked over a glass of wine, spilling it over the tablecloth. After a few days, Reb Yisroel noticed that his shver (father-in-law) seemed to be upset with him and he realized that it must be due to the incident at the tish. He went up to the Rebbe and apologized, adding that it had been a pure accident, he hadn't spilled the wine on purpose. "That's why I'm upset," the Rebbe answered him. "How can a person move one of his limbs without any kavonah (intention)!"

The Rebbe was venerated not only among Yidden, but also by prominent Goyim. It was not unusual for princes, counts and famous writers to journey to Sadiger to see the 'Wonder Rabbi' and speak with him. Articles about him appeared in the press of Vienna, Berlin, Frankfurt, Prague and elsewhere. For such audiences the Rebbe relied on a translator, since he himself spoke no German.

One prominent figure who came to see the Rebbe was Sir Laurence Oliphant, a wealthy and eminent landowner. He was said to have an enormous influence on the English Government. For political reasons, he took an interest in the settlement of Palestine. At the time (during the 1870's) there was talk of eventual partition of Turkey. Oliphant tried to convince his government that the Jews should, in that event, have Palestine, the land of their fathers, where they could once again make their home.

Although exactly what he spoke about to the Rebbe was a secret, the Rebbe's translator years later told the chassidim in hints and allusions about the contents of their conversation. Oliphant, believing the Sadigerer Rebbe was the leader of World Jewry, wanted his help to establish a national fund to buy Palestine from Turkey. The Rebbe was supposed to have refused on the grounds that he was a Turkish subjecliving on a Turkish passport. Moreover, he believed Jews must await redemption by a miracle, not by purchasing land.

After the Rebbe's petirah (death) in 1883, Oliphant described his visit in a Viennese journal. "When I was in Vienna, people I trusted told me so much about the Sadigerer Rebbe. I very much wanted to meet him. I thought, come what may, a person who by spirit alone rules thousands of people cannot be an ordinary commonplace human. Since I was then situated near Sadiger I advised the Rebbe that I would like to meet him. Arriving in the Rebbe's house, I was led into a room much like a princely court, furnished with precious gold and silver antiques. There I met the Rebbe accompanied by two servants. Regal authority was in his face, he spoke intelligently about the situation of the Russian Jews. Though I did not quite understand his conduct, I was nevertheless convinced that he could lead and command his people with just the barest gesture."

In the Rebbe's last year he started to prepare himself to leave this world. More and more he secluded himself, sitting for hours on end in deep dveikus (attachment to Hashem). He refused to see people, cutting himself off totally from his surroundings, although he had never eaten much - just a few spoonfuls a day - he now refused even the bare minimum.

With the onset of the Yom Tov of Shavuos (holiday of Shavuos), thousands of chassidim journeyed to Sadiger to spend Yom Tov in the company of their Rebbe. The chassidim who drew conclusions from every word the Rebbe did or did not say, could not help but notice the change in his behavior. During davening the unusually loud sighs emitting from the Rebbe's room filled the hearts of his followers with dread.

Every year the highlight of the Yom Tov was when the thousands of chassidim would gather in the massive courtyard underneath the Rebbe's room. When the singing and dancing reached their peak, the Rebbe went outside onto his balcony overlooking the courtyard. With a slight smile on his face the Rebbe would watch his chassidim dance below.

This year, however, even though the chassidim's singing pierced the very heavens, the Rebbe didn't appear in front of his chassidim. Instead he stayed in his room surrounded by his sons and gabboim. The Rebbe was deep in thought, quite oblivious to the sounds going on outside. Suddenly the Rebbe aroused himself from his deep dveikus and said, "Each tzaddik is given a certain period of time during which he may procure a yeshua (salvation) for Yidden. When this time comes to an end, the tzaddik loses his power to do anything, and he is called to the Next World, from where he continues to worry for his people. At this time the tzaddik feels as if a voice from Heaven is calling him saying, 'lech shu-vu la-chem le-oheleichem', tell the people who are close to you that the time has arrived for them to return home, because 've-atah', you have to leave them and to be with Me - 'amod poh imodi'."

When the Rebbe finished speaking he signalled to his sons to leave the room, he instructed his gabbai that he should tell the chassidim to stop their singing, instead they should go and sit with his sons.

In his last months a very bright star was seen over the skies of Sadiger. When the Rebbe was informed of its presence his expression became very serious and he exclaimed, "Is that so? There has appeared a star...". It seemed as if he had been expecting its appearance, as if it foretold news of what was about to happen. The star appeared every night until the night of the Rebbe's petirah, after which it was never seen again.*

On the night of the eleventh of Ellul 5643 (1883) the Rebbe's holy neshamo ascended upwards. His petirah was described by his faithful chossid, Reb Meir Leibish. "Until the second of his petirah, the Rebbe didn't rest from his holy avodah, even when it appeared that his neshomo had already departed, his lips were still moving in constant tefilla. Those who saw him in his last minutes understood and realized to what madreigah (spiritual level) he had reached. It's not possible to write at length, for my hands still tremble when I remember what I saw, wonder of wonders...". zechuso yogein oleinu.

* Before the petirah of the Chozeh of Lublin, a bright star was also seen in the skies of Lublin every night until the night of his petirah. In the sefer 'Tov Ha-eretz' (Yerushalayim 1891) the author writes that every neshamo has its own star which is its representative. A tzaddik has a brighter star than others, and as his life draws to a close, so the star grows in brightness, sometimes even becoming visible to the human eye.

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