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25 Nissan 5765 - May 4, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Sefas Emes

By HaRav Refoel Berlson

The Hundredth Yahrtzeit: 5 Shvat, 5765

Part II

The Sefas Emes became the Admor of Gur at the age of 23 in 5630 (1870). He led his chassidim for 35 years until he passed away just over a hundred years ago. His heritage is evident in the strong Gur communities that are found in Eretz Yisroel and America.


He devoted the focus of his attention on avreichim striving to elevate themselves in Torah and avodoh. "I did not make a commitment to be a go-between among merchants or to solve the problem of the dairyman whose cow refuses to produce enough milk. I only committed to teach chassidim about man's obligation in his world and to advise them on how to be real Jews."

But of course the chassidim continued to consult him on every matter. Once a chossid came to him asking him what to do after hearing his son's kallah had health problems. "If this were true, her father would have mentioned it to me," he said. "Since he has not spoken about the matter with me you can rest assured she is perfectly healthy."

One day the Admor of Slonim, the author of Dvar Shmuel, met with him to discuss matters of the most sublime nature. During the course of their conversation HaRav Shmuel asked why he always spoke so tersely, keeping exchanges to a bare minimum. "I simply cannot afford the time," answered the Sefas Emes. "I have to learn."

The Slonimer Rebbe replied with a vort on the verse, "Imru tzaddik ki tov ki pri ma'aleleihem yocheilu" (Yeshayohu 3:10). "Why does the verse begin in the singular and end in the plural? For the tzaddik is told that all of his fine fruits—the deeds of the people he drew nearer to Torah and avodoh—are his to partake of together with them, for he, too, has a part in their Torah and tefilloh and good deeds," he explained.

The Sefas Emes repeated the vort in his name the next Shabbos and from then on a change was apparent in the way he received the chassidim who came to speak with him. (Based on a letter in the holy handwriting of the Beis Avrohom of Slonim, courtesy of Rav Aharon Surasky.)

A Heritage of Torah Learning

The Sefas Emes followed in the path set by his grandfather, the Chidushei HaRim, and passed this approach onto his chassidim. Even as a leader of thousands he never stopped learning. "How can one answer a man if he does not remember all four parts of the Shulchan Oruch by heart?" he once asked. "Otherwise I would be liable to give an answer inconsistent with the halochoh, chas vesholom!"

One year on Shavuos Night he said at his table, "`Hu yiftach libeinu besoroso,' means through His Torah. The key to opening the heart to Torah lies hidden in the Torah itself." His words inspired thousands that night.

In the winter of 5702 (1942) a letter arrived at the Piotrkov Ghetto from the Sefas Emes' son, R' Mendeleh, the rov of Pavinezh. The letter called for the formation of Torah shiurim for the public at large. In his letter R' Mendeleh noted although he had not seen his holy father, the Sefas Emes, in a dream for many years, now he had appeared to him saying, "`Eis tzoroh hi leYaakov.' Dark days are approaching for the Jews. There will be nothing to sustain them except Torah study . . . "


When chassidim parted from him before their return trip home he would say, "Learn gemora and everything will go well." One chossid complained that he felt lonely because he was the only chossid in his town. "He who is absorbed in his daf of gemora is never alone no matter where he may be in the world."


Two brothers came to him saying they had started a factory in partnership. "A partnership in business is also a partnership in ruchniyus," he told them. "Both of you must learn a daf of gemora together every day. Then your partnership will be sustainable."


He would often say he envied businessmen. "I am jealous of the daf of gemora merchants learn on Shabbos. Throughout the week the businessman is busy with his affairs and cannot find time to learn. But on Shabbos Kodesh, when he opens up the gemora, he invariably learns with great enthusiasm."


Once he said, "The yetzer hora is unafraid of Chovos Halevovos or Reishis Chochmoh; he is familiar with them too. But the yetzer hora cannot contend with the gemora. The gemora demands close analysis; the gemora is cloaked and concealed."


On another occasion he said Torah and kedushoh are interconnected: the more one merits Torah the more he can retain his kedushoh (see Sefas Emes al Hatorah, p. 72, s.v. baposuk).

The Final Years

The Sefas Emes' final years were difficult. On 18 Elul 5661 (1901) his wife, Yocheved Rivkoh, passed away. He then married Raizel, the daughter of HaRav Boruch of Gorlitz, the son of HaRav Chaim of Tzanz, zechuso yogen oleinu. He fathered a total of ten children. Four passed away in childhood and the surviving children were: his eldest son the author of the Imrei Emes, HaRav Moshe Betzalel of Gur, HaRav Nechemia of Lodz, and HaRav Menachem Mendel of Pavinezh. His two sons-in-law were HaRav Yaakov Meir Biderman, who served as a dayan in Warsaw, and HaRav Tzvi Chanoch HaKohen Levine, the rov of Bandin.

In 5662 (1902) the beis medrash and most of the houses in Gur—including the Sefas Emes' home—were destroyed in a fire. Later, his pure heart was anguished over yet another tragedy: his sister and brother-in-law were murdered by Jewish thieves. After the murderers were caught, their family members had the chutzpah to come to Gur to hold a sit-down strike outside his home to pressure him to secure their release.

When the beis medrash was rebuilt the Sefas Emes' son- in-law, HaRav Levine, ordered a sign reading, "Beis Medrash LeTorah Uletefiloh Ulechassidus," but his father-in-law told him to remove the word, "Ulechassidus," saying that if it were left up people might permit themselves to chat away in the beis medrash thinking they are engaged in "Chassidus."

Toward the end of his lifetime the Russo-Japanese war broke out. During this period there was fierce competition between the two countries to gain control over parts of Northeast Asia. The battlefront was in Manchuria, today a part of China and once an independent kingdom that struck fear in all of its neighbors. The Manchurian front was the dread of thousands of Jews who had been drafted into the Russian army against their will.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Gur Chassidim were drafted and sent to the front. One scholarly avreich sent a long pilpul to the Sefas Emes from the battlefield. The Sefas Emes replied that the verse, "Ha'idosi bochem hayom es haShomayim ve'es ho'oretz" (Devorim 4:26) refers to people like him. The word "ha'idosi" comes from the word "adi" or jewel, he explained. HaKodosh Boruch Hu adorns Himself with such avreichim—baShomayim uvo'oretz.


Once there was a chossid who ran a store near a military training camp. When his son was sent to the front the father went to the Sefas Emes to ask him to plead for Heavenly mercy. "Go to Moscow," the Rebbe ordered. The chossid was stunned. Where in Moscow? Where would he stay and what would he do there?

The chossid set out on the journey, arriving in Moscow two weeks later. He saw a large crowd waiting, including a group of Jews. "Who is everyone waiting for?" he asked. "For General Robovsky!" came the reply, as if he should know who that was.

Later bugles sounded and General Robovsky himself arrived. The General's eyes met those of the chossid. "Come in to speak with me later," ordered the General.

When the chossid arrived, the General told him he had once been an officer at a training camp. Near the camp was a Jewish-owned store to which the General had an unpaid debt. The chossid realized that the Jew he was referring to was none other than himself. The General said he wanted to pay off the debt and the chossid asked him to have his son released from the army. The General honored his request. Then the Jew understood why he had been sent to Moscow.

Sudden Passing

The Sefas Emes was heartbroken during this period. He felt deep pain for his sons and his followers. When his wife begged him to come and eat he asked, "How can I eat when many chassidim write that their last request is to be given a Jewish burial? I don't think I can bear it much longer."

When the war ended, anarchy and revolution broke out in Russia. On 24 Teves 5665 (1905) the Rebbe suddenly contracted a rare disease. His condition deteriorated from one day to the next. Many chassidim streamed into Gur, where tefillos were held around the clock. On 5 Shevat at 4:00 am, less than two weeks later, his body no longer had the strength to contain his great neshomoh. Jews in Poland, Russia and elsewhere were shocked by his sudden passing.

According to the Avnei Nezer, the Sefas Emes had come down with the rare disease because he had always prayed for all of Am Yisroel's troubles. Thus it was decreed in Heaven that he would suffer from this unknown disease so that he would plead for Heavenly mercy for unheard-of suffering as well.

Immediately after his passing, a special beis din was assembled to discuss the arrangements for the funeral and burial. There was uncertainty over whether to carry him in his Shabbos tallis or his weekday tallis. It was decided to use his weekday tallis because it had seen the most use. The deceased's eldest son, the Imrei Emes, claimed that according to his calculations he had actually spent more time praying in his Shabbos tallis, but he said he would not interfere with their decision. Upon returning from the levaya it was discovered that his Shabbos tallis had been used . . .

From the early morning hours thousands began to stream into Gur. Twenty thousand people took part in the levaya, which set out in the afternoon. The single eulogy was delivered by the Avnei Nezer of Sochotchov, who simply read the verse, "Hatzaddik ovad ve'ein ish som al leiv, ve'anshei chessed ne'esofim be'ein meivin, ki mipnei horo'oh ne'esaf hatzaddik" (Yeshayohu 57:1), and everyone burst out in bitter tears.

When the Avnei Nezer returned from the levaya numerous chassidim continued to stream towards Gur. Upon seeing, them he said, "Leman demasni, leis leih shi'uro," a reference to a famous passage in the gemora (Kesuvos 17a-b) that discusses how many people should stop their learning to participate in the levaya of a Torah scholar. The gemora concludes that in the case of a Jew who taught Torah to others there is no limit.


"Hillel Hazoken had 80 talmidim . . . The greatest among them was Yonoson Ben Uziel . . . Of Yonoson Ben Uziel it was said, `When he sits engaged in Torah any bird that alights on him is immediately burned'" (Succah 28a).

"If his talmid was on such a high level, what level was Hillel Hazoken himself on?" the Sefas Emes would ask. Then he would say, "The Rebbe was of such great stature that he could bring the flame inside of himself, hiding it so well that a bird alighting on him did not get burned!"

Throughout his lifetime the Sefas Emes concealed his inner self, his Torah and his kedushoh. His greatness in Torah was made known primarily through his books, which reached every corner of the globe only after his histalkus. A bird flying over Gur would not get burned, but it would convey the message that a tzaddik, one of the pillars on which the world rests, resided there.

(Sources: Kasheleg Yalbinu, Encyclopedia LeChassidus, HaRav Hadome Lemal'ach, Kovetz Chaveirim Makshivim, Meir Einei Hagoloh, Rosh Golas Ariel, Rav Aharon Surasky, Or Zoru'a Latzaddik, HaSefas Emes, Migedolei Hachassidus, Rav Dovid Aharon Mandelbaum, Tiferes Shebatorah, Admorei Gur)

Excerpts from a Report on the Funeral Appearing in a Warsaw Newspaper

When news of the Admor's petiroh spread, so many people rushed to Gur yesterday morning that although the railway dispatched extra trains there was hardly any space in the cars and thousands of people were still left without means to travel. Railway authorities used open-air summer cars and the cold winter air blew hard.

One car with seating for 44 people held over 200, not even leaving any standing room, and in another car some people fainted as a result of the overcrowded conditions. In another car, benches broke and some passengers suffered leg injuries. Many people stood throughout the journey and some could not even find room for their legs inside the car, exposing them to great danger throughout the journey.

The telegraph in Gur was working constantly, sending messages to every corner of Poland. Every train load added thousands more people . . . Over 50 rabbonim walked behind the mittoh . . . When the time for tefillas Minchah arrived, all of the funeral goers, 20,000 in number, stood in a field and davened Minchah together. Like the rushing sound of a turbulent sea, long, whispered prayers rose up from innumerable mouths under the open skies in the middle of snow-covered fields. Following Minchah the mourning procession continued forward toward the final destination for the living . . .

The brief words spoken by the Rav of Sochotchov made a powerful impression. He merely recited the verse, ""Hatzaddik ovad ve'ein ish som al leiv, ve'anshei chessed ne'esofim be'ein meivin, ki mipnei horo'oh ne'esaf hatzaddik," adding not a single word. The many participants burst out weeping upon hearing these words.

His Portrait

No picture of the Sefas Emes is extant. The book Tiferes Shebesiferes contains a portrait sketched by R' Sholom Ze'ev Reshelbach of Lodz. At the bottom of the portrait he wrote, "Sefas Emes, the Rebbe of Gur zt"l." The author of the book notes, "If this is indeed the Sefas Emes' portrait this is an extraordinary find, for no such picture exists." The author says that the Beis Yisroel told him that this was a picture of the Imrei Emes.

The book Ohr Zorua Latzaddik recounts that as a child the Admor the Baal Lev Simchoh, once thought that he saw the Sefas Emes in his yard, after his histalkus. The boy ran into the house and told his father, the Imrei Emes, "Zeide came back and he's here with us!"

The Imrei Emes went outside and smiled. There was HaRav Shaul Moshe, the rov of Wiershov. Apparently they were very similar in appearance. The grandson of the Rov of Wiershov even said that his grandfather had told him the Sefas Emes had once told him they were the same age.

The Kotsker Kvitl

One of the central tenets in Gur is the Kotsker Kvitl sent by an elderly chossid known as R' Yaakov Yitzchok of Wolotchlabek. R' Yaakov Yitzchok was a chossid of Kotsk, of the Chidushei HaRim, of R' Henoch of Alexander, of the Sfas Emes, and of the Imrei Emes. In the year 5665 (1905), after the Sefas Emes passed away, the elderly chossid went in to see the new rebbe, the Imrei Emes, handing him a long kvitl packed with memories of the time he spent in the presence of various rebbes. R' Yaakov Yitzchok was a bright man, and he had ardent chassidishe pen.

The following excerpt about the Sefas Emes was taken from the famous kvitl: "I was meshamesh bakodesh to these three kedoshim. All the shirim are kodesh but the Shir Hashirim Kodesh Kodoshim was his father Maran hakodosh z"l navga"m zy"a ve'al kol Yisroel omein, he who with the light of his Torah and kedushoh shone onto the entire world, from one end of the land to the other.

" . . . What can I possible say? I went to Gur over 100 times over the course of 35 years. I heard much Torah from him. Most of what I understood I understood with ease and what I did not understand, not only did I not fully comprehend what he meant but I did not even begin to comprehend what he meant, for all who had eyes to see and a heart to understand realized the Shechinoh was speaking through the throat of this tzaddik. His words were very deep; innermost secrets hidden away and anyone who claims to be able to grasp his holy words—with the exception of a few select individuals— is mistaken.

" . . . Everything I was able to grasp on my first journey to visit his father, Maran Hakodesh z"l—on my second journey I realized on the first journey I had grasped nothing, and the same on the third journey, etc., etc. When I would arrive home every year I became aware, over the course of the year, that my previous visit was nothing . . . "

Stories from the Sefas Emes' Final Days and Passing

Excerpted from the prodigious archives of HaRav Dovid Avrohom Mandelbaum

The booklet Iggeres HaRab published in 5743 (1983) by HaRav Binyomin Mendelson of Kommemiyus, reads, "I heard from my teacher and rebbe, the Rav of Bodenzav zt"l Hy"d, that on the Yom Kippur before his petiroh the Sefas Emes asked what the halochoh is regarding a Kohen Godol who dies in the middle of his avodoh. Does the Kohen Godol appointed to replace him have to repeat the avodoh from the start or can he continue from the point where the first [Kohen Godol] left off? Hearing the question the chossid stepped out and burst into tears, until those on hand calmed him. And later, on the 5th of Shevat, it became apparent that the question was referring to himself."

The grandson of HaRav Shlomo Yuskovitz zt"l recalled how on Motzei Yom Kippur Rabbenu sat at his holy table in a state of great tension. At the end of the meal, when a fruit compote was served, he placed his plate before his son the Imrei Emes who was sitting at his side, and said. "Here, you hand it out . . . " (as recounted by Rav Chaim Yitzchok Schwartz).


As soon as the Jewish world learned of his illness his thousands of chassidim gathered in botei knesses to pray and plead for his recovery. It is interesting to note the introduction to Vol. IV of the Imrei Emes written by HaRav Eliezer Auerbach, the av beis din of Kontshitz, which was printed as an addendum to a book by his grandfather HaRav Meir Auerbach and including chiddushim by his father, HaRav Shlomo Auerbach: "When the year 5665 (1905) arrived [HaRav Shlomo Auerbach] had every intention of fulfilling his pledge to travel to the holy city of Jerusalem and settle there. This was at the end of Teves. He prepared to undertake the long journey when summer came, but in the meantime unfortunate news arrived: the Admor, the gaon and tzaddik and author of Sefas Emes, zechuso yogen oleinu, had fallen ill. Then my revered father, my teacher and rebbe, zechuso yogen oleinu, ordered the local shamash to have all of the people of the town gather in the beis knesses, though it was then very cold and, after a few hours of prayers and supplications there, he went home and immediately became weak. And on the 5th of Shevat he left This World on the same day that the Sefas Emes zt"l passed away."


According to what is told over, the next Admor, the Imrei Emes, told his brother HaRav Moshe Betzalel during the levaya [for their father]: "Our father zt"l had arichas yomim." Arichus yomim, he explained, means that his days were long and full, i.e. he used his time and his days to the fullest.

Similarly, his grandson the Admor, the baal Lev Simchoh zt"l wrote the following (Parshas Korach 5744): "In Bircas Hachodesh we ask, `. . . shetechadesh oleinu es hachodesh hazeh . . . vesitein lonu chayim arukim . . . ' According to the simple meaning, what does this request have to do with Bircas Hachodesh which applies to the current month? My revered father, my teacher and rebbe, told my uncle, HaRav Moshe Betzalel, after the levaya for the Sefas Emes, that [our] Father z"l had arichus yomim—long days and great days. And `arichus yomim' means that the days were long and full, that he used the time and the days to the fullest extent. Likewise we ask, `vesitein lonu chayim arukim,' i.e. that our lives may be long and full, that time be used to the fullest."


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