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The Tolna Rebbe zt'l -- Sheloshim from his Petirah

by F. Avrohom

With the petirah of the Tolna Rebbe, Reb Yochonon Twersky zt'l, on the first day of Chanukah, Klal Yisroel has lost an irreplaceable tzaddik whose presence will be sorely missed. Although the Rebbe always shunned the limelight and tried to conceal himself and his greatness as much as possible, even he was unable to totally suppress the beacons of light that radiated from within him. Indeed just to stand in the Rebbe's presence was enough to somehow uplift a person and to elevate him to new heights.

One appreciated the words of Chazal, "tov le tzaddik, tov le scheino." The Rebbe was blessed with the ability to inspire those around him with just a few words or even just a gesture. His reassuring smile and the devotion and love with which he gave his heartfelt brochos, drew thousands of Yidden to him. You could feel how the Rebbe was genuinely concerned for you and was joining in your problem. You left the room feeling that a heavy load had been taken from your shoulders: you were not alone any longer, the Rebbe was davening for you as well.

Despite his busy daily schedule, in his great mesiras nefesh, the Rebbe was always willing to sacrifice himself and his time for others. A chosson once came to the Rebbe for a brocho before his chasuna. The Rebbe told the chosson -- who was one of his close chassidim, that although he refrained from going to many simchas due to his weakness, he would come to his chasuna. The chosson told the Rebbe that the chasuna would not be taking place in Eretz Yisroel but in chutz la'aretz.

When the Rebbe heard the chosson's words he became very upset. "What shall I do?" he exclaimed. "I haven't the strength to travel abroad, but on the other hand, how can I go against my word!"

The Rebbe sat deep in thought and after a few moments his face lit up with a smile. "I have an idea," the Rebbe explained. "We will make a small chasuna seuda here."

The Rebbe called his gabbai and asked him to prepare, then and there, a festive meal. Challos, fish, meat and compote -- nothing should be missing. When the food was ready, the two of them sat down to the impromptu seuda. Throughout the meal the Rebbe (who was then 88 years old) sang the various chasuna niggunim such as od yishoma and siman tov u' mazel tov. Towards the end of the meal, the Rebbe asked a third person to join in so that the chosson could bentch mezuman. Once the meal had ended the Rebbe joyfully told the chosson, "Boruch Hashem I was able to keep my word and to join in your simcha!"

This incident is just one of the countless stories which serve to demonstrate the Rebbe's greatness, bein odom lemokom and bein odom lechavero.

Early Days

The Tolna Rebbe was born on the tenth of Elul 5666 (1906) to his father Reb Dovid Mordechai, in the Russian town of Tultchin, where his grandfather Reb Menachem Nuchem was rebbe. Reb Menachem Nuchem had moved to the town a year earlier, after he decided that the time had come to leave his home town of Tolna and spread Yiddishkeit farther afield.

Tultchin became a center for the many Tolna chassidim including many who had still graced the court of Reb Menachem Nuchem's grandfather, the famed rebbe, Reb Dovid of Tolna. Reb Yochonon grew up and was educated in this atmosphere. When Reb Yochonon turned seven, his father was forced to flee to America to avoid conscription into the Russian Army. Despite his tender years when he left, Reb Yochonon would often recount that he remembered his grandfather and his court quite dearly.

Reb Dovid Mordechai settled in the East Side of New York where he opened his beis hamedrash, "Khal Chassidim." His home soon became a center for the many immigrants who found in him a reminder of the derech they had left behind in the shtetls of Europe.

When Reb Yochonon became bar mitzvah he asked his parents to allow him, as his bar mitzvah gift, to ascend to Eretz Yisroel and to learn at the feet of the gedolei Yerushalayim. His parents however refused his request -- the young Yochonon was their only son and they were hesitant to send him so far away from home at such a young age.

When Reb Yochonon got up to deliver his bar mitzvah drosho in front of the many guests who had come to the seuda, he burst into tears and pleaded with his father to allow him to go to Eretz Yisroel. He felt that in America he would not be able to develop in the derech he desired and he begged his father to grant him his wish. Hashem listened to the heartfelt tears of the bar mitzvah boy and a year later, after fifteen years of marriage, his mother gave birth to a baby boy so that the young Yochonon was no longer the only son.

Reb Dovid Mordechai finally gave in to his older son's wish to go to Eretz Yisroel and he wrote to the gaon Reb Yitzchok Yeruchem Diskin of Yerushalayim and asked him if he would be willing to accept his son into his home and look after him and to learn with him.

Many years earlier, when Reb Yitzchok Yeruchem was a young man, he had lived in Tolna where he had been the personal rebbe of Reb Dovid Mordechai for a number of years. Reb Yitzchok Yeruchem replied that he would be overjoyed to welcome his talmid's son and he was waiting for him to come.

At the young age of fifteen, Reb Yochonon left his parents' home in New York for Eretz Yisroel. The ship on which he traveled to Eretz Yisroel had a rule forbidding entry into the dining room with a hat. When Reb Yochonon tried to enter with his kappel on, he was instructed to remove his kappel. The young boy was undaunted and explained that his religion did not allow him to comply. When the official heard his words he lost his temper and started to hit the young boy. Still Reb Yochonon refused to give in and calmly replied, that he would rather be thrown into the sea than take off his kappel.

When Reb Yochonon arrived in Yerushalayim he was regarded by all as something of a chidush. That a young boy should agree to forsake his parents' home to travel halfway around the world was indeed a marvel. He joined the household of Reb Yeruchem Diskin and became his close talmid.

Reb Yeruchem held him in high esteem and would say, "Yochonon is already a very choshover bochur and with Hashem's help he will one day be even more choshuv."

Reb Yochonon also became close with many of the other great rabbonim who lived in the Holy City. A few nights a week he would learn together with the famed tzaddik Reb Aharon Rot zt'l, the rebbe and founder of the Toldos Aharon .

HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt'l often said that the Tolna Rebbe always tried to give the impression that he was an unlearned am ha'aretz. "If he lets on that he knows about a particular halacha then he says he saw it in the Kitzur. If you catch him quoting a gemora he says he saw it when he said Chok. But I know the truth," R' Shlomo Zalman would finish, "that he is fluent in the whole of Shas and Shulchan Oruch. I remember his hasmodoh when he learnt in Yerushalayim as a bochur and how all the gedolim of the time treasured him and spoke of him highly."

The av beis din of Tel Aviv, Reb Shmuel Werner zt'l was amongst those who would come often to the Rebbe and would give him a kvittel. The two of them had learned together as bochurim and Rav Werner would say that anyone who witnessed firsthand his great avoda and yiras Shomayim from those days knows that he is worthy of taking kvitlech.

Reb Yochonon would have stayed to live in Yerushalayim, but after seven years his father came to visit him and decided that it was time for him to go back home. Before he left, he was granted semichah by many of the gedolim in the city. Although the rav of Yerushalayim, Reb Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, did not usually issue semichah, for Reb Yochonon he made an exception. Even more uncharacteristically, he added to the ksav semichah that he was confident that Reb Yochonon would be zoche to "purify Yidden and bring them closer to their father in Heaven."

The Rebbe never showed this semichah to anyone, and indeed no one knew of its existence until someone discovered it a few years ago. The Rebbe was very upset that the secret was out and in his typical way tried to dismiss the whole semichah as if it was worthless. "The truth was just the opposite," the Rebbe explained. "Really I wasn't deserving semichah at all, Reb Yosef Chaim wanted to be mechazeik me and therefore he gave me this letter. . ."

Back to Golus

Reb Yochonon returned to New York where he married the daughter of the Stretiner Rebbe of Toronto. The Lubliner Rav, Reb Meir Shapiro zt'l who happened to be in America at the time to collect money for his yeshiva, played a crucial role in the shidduch. Whilst in New York, Reb Meir Shapiro met Reb Yochonon, and after he spoke with him at length he exclaimed, "Although in America the general situation is rapidly deteriorating and the yeridas hadoros is painfully evident, in this bochur I see the opposite trend, of aliyas hadoros. . . "

When R' Meir Shapiro arrived in Toronto some months later and was asked by the Stretiner Rebbe if he had met a bochur by the name of Yochonon Twersky, the Lubliner Rav gave him a glowing report and the shidduch went ahead.

After his chasuna Reb Yochonon moved to Toronto where he took upon himself to do all he could to increase public awareness of Torah and mitzvos. For the next few years he spent much of his time traveling around Canada, visiting every far-flung town where there were a few Yidden. Rarely was he home for Shabbos, he gave away most of his time for others.


In 1934 the Rebbe moved to Montreal where he opened his beis hamedrash Kehillas Dovid which became a major center of Yiddishkeit in the city. The beis hamedrash was the only chassidishe shul in Montreal, and many of the local Yidden came to the Rebbe to bask in his warmth and to see his avoda and learn his Torah. Yiddishkeit in Montreal was in need of chizuk with regard to some of its mikvaos, and some of its shochtim.

Painstakingly the Rebbe worked to organize the kehilla and to set proper standards which could be relied upon. Slowly but surely the Rebbe succeeded in transforming the kehilla. He assumed responsibility for weddings and divorces, for kashrus and for mikvaos and for all the needs of kehilla. Due to his singular efforts, Montreal became a haven for the many frum Yidden who went to Canada and wanted to be able to live in a frum atmosphere as they had in Europe.

The Rebbe's home in Montreal also served as a guest house for many gedolim who came to the town. The Boyaner Rebbe zt'l was a frequent guest, as were the Rebbes of Skver and Satmar.

On one occasion when the Satmar Rebbe zt'l was staying in the Rebbe's house, his dining room table broke into two halves from the crush of the crowds. The Satmar Rebbe turned to the Rebbe and said to him jokingly, "Chazal tell us, `Lav kol odom zoche leshenei shulchonos (not everyone merits two tables -- the gemora explains the term `two tables' as referring to being successful in ruchniyus and gashmiyus) but the Rebbe has been zoche to have two tables."

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the British government erected a number of large detention camps in Canada for Jewish refugees who had fled to England from Germany and Austria. The British were worried that amongst these refugees may be Nazi spies, and therefore they were exiled to these camps.

The Rebbe was instrumental in freeing hundreds of Yidden from the camps by accepting them as part of his family and agreeing to be responsible for their upkeep. Many of the youngsters were orphans, their parents having been killed by the Nazis. The Rebbe took it upon himself to see to their education and to find them shidduchim.

After the end of the War the Rebbe campaigned for the Canadian authorities to admit the survivors of the Holocaust. His efforts bore fruit and a large number of survivors were granted entry.

Although the Rebbe was beloved by all in Montreal and his home and beis hamedrash were a hub of activity day and night, the Rebbe longed to return to Yerushalayim and to settle there.

In 1953 the Rebbe's dream became a reality when he left Montreal for Yerushalayim. In his humility the Rebbe would often say that the reason he wanted to open a beis hamedrash wasn't for his own honor, but for the honor of his zeides. "I had such great ancestors," he would say. "I want to make sure that their memory is not forgotten. People should always remember the great Rebbes of Tolna."

If the name of Tolna is still remembered and treasured to this day, the reason isn't just due to the beis hamedrash that bears the name of Tolna but due to the tzaddik who davened and served Hashem inside the beis hamedrash.

The Rebbe's every action and deed served to remind all who saw him of the greatness that a person is able to achieve. The stories and divrei Torah that he related and explained made one realize and appreciate to what heights a human being can climb. The Rebbe's daily life mirrored the stories he sought to implant into those around him.


It was one o'clock in the morning when the phone rang at the Rebbe's home. On the other end was a caller from America. A cousin of his was about to undergo a serious operation on his head and he wanted the Rebbe to daven for him. The gabbai who answered the phone peeked into the Rebbe's room and mentioned to him the name of the patient.

When the Rebbe heard about the seriousness of the operation he announced that he wanted to go to the Kosel to daven for the Yid. The gabbai tried his best to convince the Rebbe that it would suffice if he would say some Tehillim at home, but the Rebbe refused to hear of it. Although it was a freezing cold winter night and the Rebbe was already very frail and weak, he went to the Kosel to daven for the unknown person from America.

Next to the Rebbe's house in Bayit Vegan is a reservoir which is supervised by a watchman. One cold winter morning, people were surprised to find the Rebbe sitting in the watchman's hut. An investigation revealed that the Rebbe had taken pity on the man who had to sit in the cold hut the whole day. The Rebbe offered to take his place for a while whilst the man went to the Rebbe's home to have something hot to eat and drink.

On another occasion the Rebbe came home wearing an old, ragged, torn coat. He had seen someone wearing the coat and, feeling sorry for the unfortunate person, the Rebbe decided to change coats with him. The poor man took the Rebbe's warm coat and he took the poor man's old rags.

The Rebbe once woke up Shabbos afternoon very upset and said that he needed to go to the mikveh. He told his gabboim that he had a proste cholom --a bad dream. The gabboim were very interested to hear the contents of the Rebbe's bad dream, but he refused to speak about it. Eventually after much coaxing the Rebbe divulged, "I dreamt that I saw someone traveling in a car."

The gabboim waited to hear the continuation but nothing more was forthcoming. "Nu," they asked. "What happened after that?"

"Is that not enough?" the Rebbe exclaimed. "To see a car traveling on Shabbos. . ."

Whenever the Rebbe was sandek at a bris, he was unable to sleep the night beforehand. He would say that to be a sandek is a great responsibility. In the few seconds that the person holds the child he has to implant a kedusha into the child which will remain with him throughout his life. It was this worry that would keep the Rebbe awake the whole night. In his later years the gabboim would only inform him in the morning about a bris in order not to cause him to miss his night's sleep.

During his first few years in Yerushalayim, the Rebbe lived in the Sha'arei Chesed neighborhood in close proximity to the Tchebiner Rav. After some years in Sha'arei Chesed, the Rebbe moved to Beis Hakerem and then to Bayit Vegan. The Rebbe would often fondly recall the many pearls that he had heard from the Tchebiner Rav who used to always delight in his visits. The Rav held very highly of the Rebbe and asked him to deliver shiurim to his talmidim in gemora Chulin and Shulchan Oruch Yoreh De'ah.

The Rebbe also became very close to the Belzer Rav zt'l and would often go to his tishen. The Belzer Rav used to show the Rebbe unusual kovod and would always seat the Rebbe next to him. Many times he would also honor the Rebbe with bentching.

Although the Rebbe was the epitome of kindness and goodness, when it concerned kovod Shomayim, he could stand up in battle and fearlessly protested the desecration of Hashem's name. Not long after the Rebbe settled in Bayit Vegan, a concert was scheduled to be held in the neighborhood with mixed singing and dancing. The Rebbe phoned the organizer of the event who was a religious Jew and came from a prominent family and pleaded with him to change the program so as not to cause innocent Yidden to inadvertently sin. The Rebbe's request fell on deaf ears and the concert went ahead as planned.

In the middle of the concert the Rebbe appeared to voice his protest. When he arrived he was horrified to see that the very Yid with whom he had spoken was dancing on stage with a few women. Without further ado the Rebbe strode onto the stage and delivered the man a stinging slap across the face! The Rebbe felt such a strong protest was necessary in order to impress those present of the seriousness of the aveira committed.

The Rebbe's life was a long saga of ahavas haTorah. Most of his day he spent engrossed deep in gemora. The Rebbe did not learn by himself but with a number of daily chavrusas. Even his gabbai was not exempt and the Rebbe learnt a daily shiur with him as well. On one occasion in the Rebbe's last years, when his gabbai had to be by his side to constantly help and aid him, the Rebbe told him, "Although I am very grateful for the tremendous help that you give me, it is not an excuse to miss out on learning." Indeed the Rebbe demanded that even those who were very busy the whole day should make sure to learn at least a blatt of gemora a day.

For most of his life the Rebbe never went to sleep in a bed at night. He would learn in his chair until late at night when sleep finally overcame him, he dozed in his chair until it was time to get up. Only in his late seventies did the Rebbe finally start going to bed at night, after his gabboim who were concerned for his health, forced him to give up the practice.

The Rebbe would record for himself certain kabbolos which he had undertaken. These kabbolos serve to give us an insight to the great madreigos, to which the Rebbe aspired. In one kabolo, he wrote: "I have realized that if a person worries about his lack of avodas Hashem, he forgets all the other unnecessary worries. Therefore the eitzah is to worry about my own lack of yiras Hashem throughout the day, to strengthen myself throughout my life and not to become easily impressed by events around me."

In a second kabolo the Rebbe writes, "To cleave to talmidei chachomim who believe faithfully in Hashem and His Ways, and not to waste even a split second from the emunah in Hashem and His Ways. To be constantly engaged in limud haTorah and to find a good chavrusa, also one must be totally immersed in divrei Torah with all 248 limbs and to serve Hashem with simcha."

Throughout his life the Rebbe constantly cleaved and was mevatel himself to the gedolim of the times. Every year on the yahrtzeit of the Chazon Ish zt'l, the Rebbe would cry bitter tears that he had not been zoche to meet him.

The Rebbe had moved to Eretz Yisroel some years before the Chazon Ish's petirah, and when he arrived he immediately became attached to the Belzer Rav zt'l. The Rebbe became so attached to the Belzer Rav, that as long as the Belzer Rav was alive, "it never occurred to him to go and see any of the other gedolim." Only years later did the Rebbe regret his actions and year after year he would say sorrowfully, "How was it possible that I should miss seeing such a godol?"

After the petirah of the Belzer Rav, the Rebbe became very close to the Sadigerer Rebbe Rav Avrohom Yaakov Friedman zt'l and then to the Zlatipoler Rebbe zt'l. Later on the Rebbe became very close to the Gerrer Rebbe, the Beis Yisroel. For many years the Rebbe would walk every Shabbos from Bayit Vegan to Geula to attend the Gerrer Rebbe's tish.

Indeed the Rebbe never knew what it meant to be `makpid on his kovod.' He was always to be seen by this tish or by that drosho. Wherever there was a gathering of ehrlicher Yidden, the Rebbe was to be found among them. For many years the Rebbe was a regular visitor at the annual Yarchei Kallah in Ponovezh Yeshiva. The Rebbe would quietly make his way to one of the benches at the back of the beis hamedrash where he remained unnoticed until the end of the shiur.

Besides his shiurim in gemora the Rebbe would also delve deeply into the classic sifrei mussar and chassidus. He especially treasured the Mesilas Yeshorim and it was always to be found on his table. Often he would take the sefer to bed with him and place it next to his head on the cushion.

Similarly when he went on a journey he would take the sefer with him. Over the years the Rebbe ended the sefer many dozens of times. When he learnt the great chassidishe classics the Rebbe would learn every word with great intensity, and sometimes he would toil for hours to understand just a few lines.

The Rebbe once gave someone as a present the sefer Noam Elimelech from the holy Rebbe, Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk zt'l. On the inside cover of the sefer the Rebbe wrote, "This holy sefer can be learnt only with great exertion, and to accept to keep all that he instructs, for its contents are indeed very lofty as we have been mekabel from the mouths of gedolim. In every word is hidden many deep thoughts and if you will search for them carefully you will find them. It is a storehouse of Toras Hashem and yiras Shomayim, and only with this in mind should you learn this sefer and in the way I have explained. Then you will be successful to know and achieve your goal and to act according to true chassidus."

The Rebbe would often bemoan the fact that people do not learn Mishnayos. They are only learnt as a preface to understanding the gemora.

The Rebbe decided to try to correct this derech and in 1986 he founded Mifal HaMishnayos. Every person who joins the organization has to learn twelve chapters of Mishnayos a month which are followed by a written examination. Those who are successful in the monthly tests are also paid a substantial amount. At the moment over 2000 people complete the required quota with the test every month.

The Rebbe disagreed with those who encouraged the boys to try and memorize as many Mishnayos as possible. He felt that this was often done at the expense of truly understanding the contents of the Mishna. Rather one should learn the Mishnayos thoroughly with the commentaries and gain a thorough understanding of each Mishna.

When the Rebbe noticed that people are lax in reciting correctly krias shema al hamitah he compiled a small booklet with all the relevant halachos, in order to combat the problem. The booklet was printed anonymously and was distributed free to shuls and yeshivos across Eretz Yisroel.

Indeed the Rebbe always tried to carry out his mitzvos away from the public eye. He would dish out large sums of money without people realizing that it came from him. The Rebbe once handed someone a big sum of money for a certain tzedokoh and told the person that he was just a messenger to hand over the money. The man however realized that it was probably the Rebbe's own money and he told the Rebbe that he was unwilling to accept the money, if he didn't know where it came from. This way the man thought that the Rebbe would be forced to admit that he was the benefactor.

The Rebbe remained unperturbed and told the man that the money came from a Yid called Pearlman. The man accepted the Rebbe's words and took the money. Little did he realize that the Rebbe's wife was called Pearl and therefore her husband was "the Pearlman!" (Man in Yiddish also means "husband.")

In the Rebbe's later years he became famed for his great ruach hakodesh and his wondrous powers. Those who were close to him already knew of his ruach hakodesh for many decades, but until his last years he managed to conceal it from the masses. He would often say that the fewer people knew of him the longer he would live and for many years he was indeed successful in concealing his greatness. Literally hundreds of stories abound about the many miracles that he performed and they became so commonplace that they hardly aroused much comment. He knew when someone was expecting a baby if it would be a boy or a girl. When the baby was born, the Rebbe miraculously knew about it before it was public knowledge. Sometimes when he inquired after someone he would add, "He is now in New York," "He went yesterday to London." He would utter such statements even though he had no contact with the person concerned for many weeks and could not possibly have known where they were by natural means.

One day one of the Rebbe's chassidim drove into an Arab village where he was ambushed. The man narrowly escaped with his life. The next day the Yid went to tell the Rebbe about his experience. Before he was able to sat anything the Rebbe told him, "You gave me a difficult job yesterday, I had to work very hard to save you. . . "

In his last years the Rebbe became increasingly weak, but still he soldered on with tremendous mesiras nefesh. Although it was often difficult for him to speak, he always tried to greet those who came to him with a smile and a word or two. Once, when he was in the hospital undergoing a painful treatment a fellow patient came to ask him for a brocho. Despite his tremendous pain the Rebbe sat up in bed and warmly blessed the man.

A few years before his petirah the Rebbe composed his last will in which he wrote, "I hope to be able to be correct myself whilst I am still alive, to fully repent with teshuvah. My wish is that one should not praise me, people mistakenly think that I am a Rebbe and refer to me as such. I know and recognize my low level and I have not reached even the madreigo of a simple man in yiras Hashem."

The Rebbe was fond of repeating that the Antonia Rebbe, Reb Chaim Hager, zt'l would say that he can't understand why one does not make a shehechiyonu before one is niftar. Reb Chaim Atonia was indeed niftar after he recited shehecheyonu over the menora on the first night of Chanukah. Similarly the last words the Rebbe recited before his petirah were the three brochos on the menora. The next morning, the Rebbe's holy neshomoh ascended to receive its well earned reward. Zechuso yogein oleinu. The Rebbe is succeeded by his grandson, Rav Yitzchok Menachem Weinberg, shlita.


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