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24 Cheshvan 5760 - November 3, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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The Pshevorsker Rebbe, Reb Yaakov Leizer zt"l -- A Year Since his Petirah
by F. Avrohom

In the years before the Second World War, dozens of great chassidic dynasties flourished in Europe. Each dynasty established its own beis hamedrash and chassidic court to which chassidim would flock en masse to see their Rebbe and to unload their problems and sorrows.

With the outbreak of the war, all these once famous and glorious courts were destroyed and the sounds of Torah and tefilla that used to emanate from their walls, were to be heard no more. The few Rebbes who survived, re-established themselves in Eretz Yisroel and America, far away from the blood-soaked continent of Europe.

One solitary dynasty however, remained in Europe -- the Pshevorsker dynasty which was headed by Reb Yitzchok Gvirzman who was fondly known to all as `Reb Itzikel.'

His Task in the World

Reb Itzikel opened his beis hamedrash in Mercatorstraat, Antwerp, and in a short time he became a magnet for the many downtrodden Yidden scattered across Europe who had lost all and everything during the war.

When Reb Itzikel was asked why he did not attempt to found yeshivos or other mosdos, he answered, "Everyone comes down to this world for a different purpose. Some tzaddikim are sent to improve the ruchniyus, others are sent for gashmiyus. My job is to see to gashmiyus."

Reb Itzikel remained true to his word and due to his advice and his brochos, many people were helped to set up new homes and to marry off their children in a befitting way. Many are the stories told of the miracles that people witnessed as a direct result of the Rebbe's brochos.

On Yom Kippur 5636 (1976), when Reb Itzikel was in his 95th year, his holy neshomo ascended to the Yeshiva Shel Maa'la. Reb Itzikel left behind no sons, and his one and only son-in- law -- Reb Yankele -- was crowned as the new Pshevorsker Rebbe.

Like his shver before him, Reb Yankele did not seek to enlarge or to open a network of Pshevorsker mosdos. Even so, Reb Yankele's fame spread across Europe and later on across the globe until he became a legend during his own lifetime. The steady trickle of chassidim who made their way to the Rebbe turned into a flood.

Specially chartered planes would bring hundreds of chassidim who converged on Antwerp for every Yom Tov and occasion. Amongst the visitors were often those who had come seeking a yeshua of one type or another, and Reb Yankele did not let them down. Hundreds of stories abound about his ruach hakodesh and the miracles that he performed.

Reb Yankele would often relate stories of miracles wrought by tzaddikim from a bygone era in order to evoke their merit. Later on he would dismiss the things he did and say that they were not his mofes but that of the tzaddik in the story.

It once happened that a kallah suddenly collapsed and went into a deep coma a few days before her chasunah. All attempts to wake the girl up were of no avail. In a panic the family rushed to Reb Yankele and begged him to help them. Reb Yankele thought for a minute and then he said, "Last night after davening I related a story about the Chortkover Rebbe, Reb Dovid Moshe zt"l. The Chortkover Rebbe told a Yid whose children all died in infancy that he should name his next child after a person who is mentioned in the haftorah of the week in which the child is born.

"Sometime later the man's wife gave birth to a baby girl. The man looked in the haftorah of that particular week, Nosso, but couldn't find any mention of a woman's name. The haftorah however, which speaks about Shimshon, does mention Shimshon's mother even though it doesn't refer to her by name. The gemora in Bovo Basra informs us that her name was Sallfonis, and the Maharshal in his commentary writes that this name is a segulah to prevent the evil eye from harming a person! Needless to say, the girl lived to a ripe old age."

Reb Yankele turned to the family of the kallah and said to them, "After I related this story I suddenly wondered to myself what was my reason for saying it. It is not parshas Nosso this week, nor is it the yahrtzeit of the Chortkover Rebbe. It appears that it is a message that we should add the name Sallfonis to the kallah."

No sooner had the Rebbe added the new name than the kallah suddenly woke up and the chasunah went ahead as planned!

Early Years

Reb Yankele was born on the 6th of Teves 5667 (1907), in the small village of Roig near Riminov in Galicia. As a child he was educated by his father Reb Dovid Yitzchok, who was one of the prominent Shiniver chassidim of the area.

In a dedication to his parents in one of his seforim Reb Yankele wrote, "A person is duty bound to honor his father and mother. I am especially duty bound to honor my parents who served as my teachers as well. My mother taught me until I started to learn Chumash and then I learnt from my father Chumash and several hundred blat gemora until I was 12."

Even after their petirah, Reb Yankele continued to honor their memory and was makpid to give tzedoko every day le'ilui nishmoson.

After his bar mitzvah Reb Yankele joined the yeshiva in the town of Dukla. This yeshiva was intended only for geniuses and among those who learned there were Reb Yekusiel Halberstam zt"l who later became famed as the Klausenberger Rebbe, and Reb Pinchos Hirshprung zt"l who later became rov of Montreal.

The yeshiva was run by the great gaon Reb Dovid Tevli Dukla who was one of the choshuva Chortkover chassidim and author of a number of classic seforim. Reb Yankele once confessed that by the time he left Dukla he was fluent in every Pri Megodim in Hilchos Treifos, and indeed on his departure the rosh yeshiva awarded him with smicha.

His Rebbe

From Dukla Reb Yankele moved on to Yeshivas Zera Kodesh which was situated in the town of Koloshitz. That yeshiva was headed by the rov of the town, Reb Chuna Halberstam zt"l, who was a descendant of the Rebbes of Shinive and Tzanz. In Koloshitz Reb Yankele found his home and his Rebbe, and until the end of his life Reb Yankele regarded the Koloshitzer Rov as his Rebbe and mentor, as Reb Yankele wrote himself.

"In the year 5684 (1924) I was zoche to be mekabel my master and teacher the Rebbe of all Klal Yisroel, Reb Chuna of Koloshitz, the grandson of the Rebbe of Shinive. I was zoche to benefit a little bit from his light, from his Torah, avoda and gemilus chassodim, all of which were on an extremely lofty level. I remained under his guidance until Shavuos 5699 (1939).

"Those who were zoche to see his face when he learned with his talmidim or by himself, how his facial features changed from bright red to a ghostly white, can understand and appreciate what Chazal tell us that `Hashem, Klal Yisroel and the Torah are all one.' "

Reb Yankele's devotion to his Rebbe knew no bounds. One day Reb Chuna asked his faithful talmid if he had any spare money to give him to distribute to tzedaka. The only money Reb Yankele had at that time was the nadan that he had received at his chasunah. Without hesitation Reb Yankele withdrew the entire sum from the bank and presented it to his Rebbe.

Reb Chuna was rather overwhelmed by the large amount and confided to Reb Yankele, "You should know that your money is safer with me than in the bank."

A short time later the bank declared bankruptcy and all those who had accounts there lost their money.

In his tzavo'oh Reb Yankele asked that no praises or titles be written on his matzeiva except for the following words: "He was a beloved talmid of his Rebbe, the tzaddik of Koloshitz."

First Position

Reb Yankele's years of hasmodoh paid off and in 1931 when he was still a bochur he was appointed rov of the town Yashlisk in Galicia. The previous rov of the town, Reb Ephraim Halberstam Hy"d, left Yashlisk to take up another position. When the townspeople asked Rav Halberstam with whom he was leaving them, he pointed to Reb Yankele and said, "You see that bochur, he already knows more than I . . ."

Reb Yankele also traveled to seek the consent of the Sadigerer Rebbe, Reb Mordechai Sholom Yosef Friedman zt"l, who had many chassidim in the town. The Sadigerer Rebbe gave him his enthusiastic brocho and thus at the age of 24 Reb Yankele assumed his first position.

Although Reb Yankele was very demanding on himself and constantly strived to climb higher and higher, he was careful not to demand from others to act in a way that was not in line with their true madreigo. In one of his letters he wrote, "The gemora tells us that the Amora Mar Ukva once said that in comparison to his father he is like vinegar the son of wine. His father would wait 24 hours between meat and dairy products whilst Mar Ukva only waited 6 hours.

"This particular gemora is difficult to understand. If Mar Ukva praised his father for waiting 24 hours, then why did he not act likewise and follow the steps of his father? From here we see that for a chumra to have true meaning, it must be compatible with the overall behavior of the person. Mar Ukva did not feel that he was on the same level as his father and as such, it would have been incorrect for him to mimic his father and adapt this chumra."

Throughout his life Reb Yankele ran away from machlokes and controversy and he would often say, "If a person sees machlokes, there is only one eitzah. Pick up the ends of your coat and flee as fast as you can."

He would add that in his youth in Yashlisk he saw Yidden who became embroiled in a machlokes and they all met a bitter end.

In a letter Reb Yankele once wrote, "I heard in the name of the Rebbe, Reb Sholom of Belz zt"l, that it is better for a person to act falsely in order to come to emes, than to act truthfully and to end up with sheker. I, the lowly one, bow my head in front of every Yid in Klal Yisroel and I speak to everyone in a friendly tone although sometimes in my heart I am upset with them . . . "

To those who felt unable to keep silent in the face of attacks and slander, he would repeat the following vort in the name of the Chortkover Rebbe, Reb Dovid Moshe zt"l. "The Mishna says, Siyog lachochma shetika, keeping silent is an aid to chochmah. If keeping silent is only an aid to chochmah, what is the actual chochmah itself? And the Chortkover Rebbe answered: `True chochmah is when you don't take to heart the taunts of others and you remain immune to their baits. That is true chochmah!"

Five years before the Second World War, Reb Yankele married his lifelong helpmate the Rebbetzin Alta Bina zt"l, the daughter of Reb Itzikel, the Rebbe of Pshevorsk. For the next forty years, Reb Yankele lived in the shadow of his great shver and rarely left his side. So subservient was he to Reb Itzikel that although Reb Yankele was already in his seventies by the time his shver was niftar, until then he never made his own kiddush on Friday night or led his own Shabbos meal, preferring always to sit at his shver's table and hear his kiddush.

Best in the Long Run

With the outbreak of the War in 1939, Poland was invaded by the Germans yimach shemom. The day after their arrival in Pshevorsk they burnt all the shuls in the area and started to restrict the Yidden with their many sadistic decrees. Reb Itzikel and Reb Yankele fled to the relative safety of Lemberg, which was under the control of Russia.

Once in Lemberg, the Polish refugees were offered Russian citizenship by their new hosts. No one knew whether to take up the offer or not. Who could possibly know what lay in store for them either way? But most people were inclined to take up the offer and not risk upsetting the Russians. Reb Itzikel however disagreed, and he advised people to refuse the offer.

On the 23rd of Sivan 5600 (1940) the KGB swooped down on Lemberg and arrested all those who had refused Russian citizenship. Those Yidden were taken to the train station and put on trains to Siberia. Some of those on board were visibly upset with Reb Itzikel. It was due to his advice that they now found themselves being exiled to the frozen wastes of Siberia.

Reb Itzikel consoled them and told them he had not misled them and he added, "Today is the 23rd of Sivan, the day Achashverosh repealed the letters that he had sent ordering the destruction of the Jews. Just as the 23rd of Sivan was then a day of salvation for the Yidden, so it will be for us as well."

Reb Itzikel's words proved prophetic when the Germans entered Lemberg a short while later and brutally murdered almost the whole Jewish population. Those who had been exiled to Siberia were the lucky ones. Their refusal to accept Russian citizenship also enabled them to leave Russia with the war's end, a privilege that wasn't granted to those who had sworn allegiance to the mother Russia.

Reb Yankele would say, concerning their exile to Siberia, that it was a prime example of a situation in which a person thinks that he is doomed whilst in reality it is an act of rachamei Shomayim.

To this, Reb Yankele would add the following vort. We say in Krias Shema, "Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echod." The use of Elokim denotes middas hadin whilst the use of Hashem denotes mercy. This is to show us that even when we think that we are seeing an act of Elokim, we should know that Hashem echod, everything is in reality only mercy, and it is up to us to realize it!

During the war Reb Yankele lost almost his entire family. His parents plus all his brothers and sisters with all their children, were brutally murdered. Similarly he lost all his family on his wife's side except for his parents-in-law who were miraculously saved. Reb Yankele however, never questioned Hashem's ways and he accepted the terrible afflictions with love.

In a letter written many decades later, Reb Yankele wrote, "This Shabbos is the yahrtzeit of my father and mother who were murdered by the German reshoim yimach shemom in a forest between Yashlisk and Dukla. In Gan Eden and also when Moshiach will come, we will thank Hashem with all our hearts for all the sorrows we have endured. Even so we still ask Hashem that He should show us kindness that we are also able to appreciate, and that we should see only goodness."

The Suffering in Siberia

In Siberia Reb Yankele was assigned to a forced labor camp where he survived on a diet of bread and raw vegetables. He refused to eat the rest of the camp food for fear that it wasn't kosher. It was under these conditions that Reb Yankele was forced to steal a piece of bread to ensure his survival. Years later, he once admitted that this was the only time in his life that he had taken something dishonestly.

Even in the terrible Siberian conditions, Reb Yankele did not diminish his avoda. Daily, he smashed a hole in the ice and toiveled himself in the freezing waters. It once happened that whilst he was under the water, he couldn't find the hole again and almost drowned. From then on he gave up this practice.

Reb Yankele also risked his life to teach Torah to those he came in contact with. Although he possessed no seforim, he delivered regular shiurim in gemora and halacha.

In Siberia he came into contact with a descendant of Reb Yisroel Salanter. Never one to miss an opportunity, Reb Yankele asked his newfound acquaintance to teach him the derech and the teachings of the founder of mussar movement. Although Reb Yankele viewed himself as a Tzanzer chossid and his whole conduct echoed the derech of Tzanz, this in no way prevented him from learning and treasuring the teachings of other gedolim.

In a letter written as an answer to someone who wanted to know what is way of Chassidus, Reb Yankele wrote. "I don't know how to answer a clear ruling, for not all the times and the places are the same. The gemora in Bovo Kama quotes Reb Yehuda that someone who wants to be a chossid should keep the laws of Nezikim, so as not to cause monetary loss to others. Rovo however says he should be careful to keep what is written in maseches Ovos and to recite his brochos with kavannah. The Maharal and the Maharsha both explain that in order for a person to achieve true shleimus, he must fulfill all three points which encompass bein odom leMokom, bein odom lechavero and the person's own personal aliya which is achieved through davening with kavannah and becoming close to Hashem.

"I, the young one, explained that although all these three qualities are needed to achieve shleimus, each amora only listed one of the three. Reb Yehuda lived in Pumpedisa which was infested with ganovim (as we see elsewhere in Shas), therefore he stressed the quality which was lacking in his town. Rovo however, lived in Mechoza which was a prosperous town and there were few robberies there. They however were lacking in bein odom leMokom (see Rosh Hashana 17a) and therefore Rovo needed to stress the part they lacked.

"Similarly we find different derochim concerning mussar and rebuke. The gaon and tzaddik Reb Yisroel Salanter stressed mainly the mitzvos bein odom lechavero whilst other gedolim stressed the mitzvos bein odom leMokom.

"We find also another machlokes concerning learning kabolo. The mekubalim held that everyone is obliged to learn kabolo whilst other gedolim opposed them and forbade the learning of kabolo and only permitted it to be learned in private."


After the war's end Reb Yankele took up the position of dayan in the town of Breslau. For close to two years he administered to the difficult sha'alos that had to be solved. Sha'alos regarding agunos, chalitza and heter meah rabbonim were almost daily occurrences.

An appreciation of Reb Yankele's greatness can be gleaned from what he himself once answered when he was asked how many times he had finished Shulchan Oruch Yoreh Deah. "40 times for sure," he admitted. "After that I didn't keep count any longer!"

From Breslau, Reb Yankele moved to Paris where his shver was residing and then finally they both moved to Antwerp.

With Reb Itzikel's petirah on Yom Kippur 1976, Reb Yankele was chosen as his shver's successor. In his last weeks before his petirah, Reb Itzikel weakened greatly. He called Reb Yankele and instructed him, "Yankele, from now on you shall sit on my place and take kvitlech for I no longer have strength."

The Pshevorsker Rebbe

Even so the new appointment came as a shock to Reb Yankele, and he once innocently commented, "I had thought that the chassidim would look elsewhere for an ehrlicher Yid and make him their Rebbe . . . "

Indeed even once Reb Yankele had assumed the position of Rebbe he refused to disregard many of his practices which he had kept for decades. He had a practice (one of the many such tasks) of tearing toilet paper in the toilets in the beis hamedrash every erev Shabbos and Yom Tov. When he noticed that the toilets needed cleaning he didn't hesitate to clean them either.

He was once `caught' by one of his chassidim whilst he was busy standing on a table, cleaning the beis hamedrash. Noticing the look of surprise on the Yid's face, Reb Yankele apologized, "Oh! I'm sorry, I forgot that I am a Rebbe . . . "

Despite his simple ways -- or perhaps due to them -- Reb Yankele would often innocently repeat what he had been thinking, not realizing the impression these amazing comments left on all who heard them. Once, on erev Yom Kippur Reb Yankele was asked by his shver why he wasn't busy doing teshuva as befits such a day. "Only if one sins, does one need to do teshuva," Reb Yankele answered. "And I never sinned."

When he was once told of a newly-married couple who had just gotten divorced he remarked, "I had wondered why I didn't see the neshomos of their zeides at the chuppah. Now I understand!" (In the Zohar it is written that the neshamos of the deceased come down to this world to be present at the simchos of their offspring.)

On another occasion when someone asked him for a brocho for children he sighed and said, "It's a pity you didn't come earlier. There was a whole bag of neshamos but I already gave them all away."

After a moment's thought Reb Yankele added, "There is actually one neshomo left. It has a small blemish, but if you want, you can have it."

Left without much choice the Yid accepted the offer. Not long after, his wife gave birth to a baby with a defect in its legs!

Three times a week, Reb Yankele delivered a shiur in his beis hamedrash. He would spice his shiurim with beautiful stories from tzaddikim from bygone eras. Reb Yankele laid great importance to these stories and he would say, "Chazal say, `If you want to recognize the Creator of the World learn aggada, thereby you will know Hashem and go in His ways."

Reb Yankele would say that these words of Chazal refer not just to the aggada mentioned in the gemora but also to the seforim and the stories of tzaddikim which give us an appreciation of Hashem and how we should serve Him. So far one volume of these stories has been printed and another two will be ready shortly.

In his humility, Reb Yankele once said that perhaps the reason he was saved from the war was so that he could relate his stories which strengthen emunah. Indeed Reb Yankele did not regard stories about tzaddikim as mere incidents, but as lessons in avodas Hashem.

In his later years Reb Yankele grew increasingly weaker. Seven years before his petirah he fell ill and until the end of his life he knew only pain and suffering. Nonetheless he continued his avodas hakodesh and when his strength allowed, would give a short tish and grant his brochos to the crowds that continued to desperately knock on his door.

Last year, on the last Shabbos of his life his condition suddenly deteriorated. Two days later, on the 27th of Cheshvan 5759, he was niftar.

Zechuso yogein oleinu.

He is succeeded by his only son, HaRav Leibish Leizer shlita.

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