Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Nissan 5765 - April 20, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Sefas Emes

by HaRav Refoel Berlson

The Hundredth Yahrtzeit: 5 Shvat, 5765

Part I

For various reasons, we were unfortunately unable to publish this at the time of the yahrtzeit itself. The lessons are certainly pertinent now and forever.

Kotsk 5616 (1856). The thief made his way toward the rebbe's house. Here perhaps he would find something worth stealing. He was unafraid to break into the home of the Seraph of Kotsk, zechuso yogen oleinu, whose whisper was the hiss of a snake. The thief spotted a silver goblet, stashed it in his sack and left. When the burglary was discovered one of the shamashim said, "Why should it come as a surprise if a theft takes place? Here everything is hefker!"

The Seraph raised his voice. "What do you mean `hefker?' The Torah says, `Lo signov!'"

A nine-year-old boy stood off to the side watching the scene. Later he would recall, "When the Kotsker Rebbe declared, `Lo signov,' I saw before me an enormous iron wall roaring from one end of the earth to the other, `Lo signov! Lo signov!'"

Ever since then, the boy considered himself a Kotsker chassid. Even when the boy became the revered Admor of Gur, the Sefas Emes, zechuso yogen oleinu, the flame of Kotsk continued to burn in him. Kotsk according to the Gur definition.

The father of the Sefas Emes was also a Kotsker chossid, and not just because he was a member of the kehilloh. The Seraph of Kotsk would remain in seclusion for extended periods. From time to time he would enter the beis medrash, jeer at chassidim and say, "You're not looking for truth!" They would run outside in fear, racing out the doorway or, if there was no time to escape, jumping out the window. But when the Seraph saw the Sefas Emes' father, HaRav Avrohom Mordechai, he would go back without making any remarks.

The Chiddushei HaRim offered the fabulous description, "Of him it can be said he was a Kotsker chossid." Kotsk. A flame beyond reach, and HaRav Avrohom Mordechai embraced the flame. He was a Kotsker chossid!


The Sefas Emes was born on 29 Shevat 5607 (1847) and named Yehuda Aryeh Leib. There is a story behind his name. The Chiddushei HaRim lost 13 children. Only one son and three daughters survived. The son was HaRav Avrohom Mordechai, who kept a low profile but was held in high esteem by the gedolim of his generation. HaRav Yitzchok of Vorki said, "Many are envious of HaRav Avrohom Mordechai for his great father, the Chidushei HaRim, but I am envious of the Chidushei HaRim for his great son, HaRav Avrohom Mordechai."

At the age of 30 HaRav Avrohom Mordechai contracted a serious illness. He recuperated but suffered a relapse, and during Pesach 5606 his life was in danger. The Chidushei HaRim sent a message to Kotsk to beseech rachamim for his son, "Avrohom Mordechai ben Feige, sheyichyeh, is very weak, lo oleinu, and in need of Rachamei Shomayim."

Then the Chidushei HaRim went into the room where his only son lay ill and whispered to him, "Know that it is a special mitzvah to live and there are opinions that hold it is a mitzvah from the Torah, as is written, `Uvocharto bachaim.' Therefore I am certain you will want to live and I promise you that you will live and will father a good son."

HaRav Avrohom Mordechai gathered his strength, sat up in bed and said, "Ribono Shel Olom. Give me the gift of more years to live and give me the merit to father a son and I will name him Yehuda, to fulfill the verse, `Hapa'am odeh es Hashem.'"

He recovered and less than one year later his son was born. They named him Yehuda Aryeh Leib. At the time HaRav Avrohom Mordechai said, "I called him Yehuda Leib and he will [open] the hearts of Bnei Yisroel to thank Hashem Yisborach." ("Yehuda" comes from the Hebrew word, "hodo'oh" or "thankfulness," and "Leib" comes from the Yiddish word, "leiben" or "heart.")

HaRav Avrohom Mordechai taught and forged his son into a man of strong character. When one of his grandchildren refused to eat a certain type of food the Sefas Emes said, "I recall when I was a small boy I once said I didn't like groats. My father, zt"l, heard and ordered that only groats be served for 40 days. Ever since then I have eaten groats."

The 40 days of groats probably did not teach him to like them, but he continued to eat them because bodily needs and wants were of no import to him. On one occasion he asked his son, "What mitzvah do we do with our entire body?"

"Mitzvas Succah," came the reply.

"But one can fulfill Mitzvas Succah with rosho verubo," challenged the Sefas Emes. "The mitzvah one fulfills with his whole body is, `Ve'ohavto es Hashem Elokecho bechol levovecho uvechol nafshecho . . . '"

Once a longstanding chossid sat at his table for a meal and said the soup was good. "Is anything in the world as good as HaKodosh Boruch Hu?" retorted the Sefas Emes.

On Shabbos Kodesh, 27 Menachem Av 5615 (1855) HaRav Avrohom Mordechai, the Chidushei HaRim's last son, passed away. The Sefas Emes was eight at the time. The Chidushei HaRim bore the tragedy with his spiritual fortitude. To console his wife, who bitterly mourned the death of their beloved, only son, he said the following words: "Our tragedy will serve as a consolation for all bereaving fathers. Now they will say, `Look and see what Yitzchok Meir went through. He lost 13 children, all of them holy, and all of them died before their father . . . '"


Yehuda Aryeh Leib, the orphan, was sent to the home of his famous grandfather, the Chidushei HaRim. He called the boy Leibeleh and said he learned Torah lishmoh. The Sefas Emes' spiritual world was built in this great home. It is said when the Chidushei HaRim hired a chossid to study with him he made three conditions: to wake the boy up early in the morning, to arrive at a chiddush with him every day, and to study 18 hours per day. It is said only the first of these conditions he was unable to keep, since when he came to wake him the boy was already up . . .

The Chidushei HaRim took his grandson to Kotsk with him on several occasions. Even when the ground was covered with frost and snow he would insist on bringing the boy along, saying it was worth the effort to have him see "a real Jew."

In 5619 (1859) the pillars of Poland were stunned by the histalkus of the Seraph of Kotsk. Most of his chassidim chose the Chidushei HaRim to lead them. Even with the weight of thousands of chassidim resting on his shoulders he continued to study both nigleh and nistar with his grandson, who remained near his grandfather's side.

On 3 Adar Beis 5622 (1862) the young man's wedding was held in the town of Gur. His father-in-law was HaRav Yehuda Kaminer, the grandson of HaRav Boruch Frankel, the author of Boruch Taam. On the day of the wedding the Chidushei HaRim summoned HaRav Kaminer and said, "When one gives a present he must notify the recipient in advance. I hereby give notice you are about to receive a big present." The Chidushei HaRim then proceeded to extol his grandson, but even years later the Sefas Emes refused to divulge what he said, recounting only that he offered great praises.

The Chidushei HaRim had a white, silk garment sewn for the chosson. Someone close to the Chidushei HaRim asked whether this was not liable to bring ayin hora. "No," replied the Chidushei HaRim. "He is from the seed of Yosef Hatzaddik, and keeps the covenant, protecting him from ayin hora."

On 23 Adar 5626 (1866) the seven years of leadership by the Chidushei HaRim, the first Gerrer Rebbe, came to an end. These years came to be known as "the seven years of plenty."

Following the Chidushei HaRim's histalkus the Sefas Emes was chosen to serve as the rov of Gur at the age of just 19. Many chassidim urged him to take the mantle of leadership for the entire Gur community, which was left like a flock without a shepherd, but he would not hear of it.

After a period of preparation he set out for HaRav Henoch of Alexander. Despite his young age the rov held him in high esteem, even stirring envy. During the Sefas Emes' first seudah in Alexander, wine was brought to the table before Bircas Hamozone. Peering at the clear wine and the sediments on the bottom of the bottle HaRav Henoch proceeded to speak about how a Jew should look pure and clean and clear, letting all of the sediment and unwanted elements sink down. When the Sefas Emes heard his words they rang a bell. This was the last thing he had heard his grandfather, the Chidushei HaRim, say!

The Sefas Emes turned to the Admor of Alexander's son. "Then the opening of a new rebbe is like the closing of the previous rebbe," he concluded, and decided to remain in Alexander.

Four years later, on 18 Adar 5630 (1870), the Alexander Rebbe passed away. Thousands of Gerrer chassidim looked toward the young grandson, but the Sefas Emes adamantly refused to become a rebbe.

One Shabbos a large number of chassidim gathered in Gur and even said the Mi Sheberach normally reserved for the Admor. As he stepped up to the bimoh he declared unequivocally, "I am not a rebbe. I am not worthy of being your rov."

An Unwilling Rebbe

The mountain climber hammered in another piton. He air was becoming thinner and thinner, but he kept climbing toward the summit. The expedition had been underway for weeks. Across hundreds of miles he had clung onto the mountainsides like the shoots of a climbing vine. One last drop of sweat streamed down into his eye, but nevertheless he could see that he had reached the peak.

And there, at the top, he saw him: a young boy stood there smiling. The mountain climber thought he was hallucinating. A child all alone at such high elevations? "How did you get here?" he asked the boy.

"I was born here," the boy said in reply.

The essence of this parable was presented by HaRav Eliezer of Grodzisk when the Sefas Emes eventually accepted the mantle of leadership. How could it be that one of the biggest, most glorious communities in Am Yisroel makes a 23-year-old avreich into their leader? How could intelligent chassidim who had been closely acquainted with the Seraph of Kotsk submit to him?

"The answer," explained HaRav Eliezer, "is that he did not grow up in the valley. He grew up on the peak of the mountain, on the knees of his famous grandfather, the author of Chiddushei HaRim."

Nevertheless, the Sefas Emes claimed he was not worthy of sitting at the head of the table in the place once reserved for his grandfather. Therefore he sat at the side of the table, rather than at the head. To this day Gerrer admorim follow this custom.

During the early period of his leadership, the Sefas Emes once arrived at the beis medrash to have the chassidim sit with him at the tish. Noise and commotion issued from the packed beis medrash. The Sefas Emes said he would not step inside until all was silent. HaRav Pinchos Eliyohu, the rov of Piltz, said, "In your grandfather's day sometimes there was noise in the beis medrash, too."

"Yes, but then every chossid was pushing himself," the Sefas Emes replied. "Today everyone is pushing somebody else."

On another crowded occasion, the Sefas Emes saw an elderly chossid sitting and being jostled by those standing behind him. The Rebbe asked the chassidim to be careful not to push him or lean on him. In an effort to put the elderly man at ease the Rebbe said, "They want to lean [i.e. rely] on a kosher person . . . "

"And am I a kosher person?" he replied with—perhaps contrived—humility.

"That's why I told them not to lean on you," the Rebbe shot back.

The Sefas Emes led his chassidim for 35 years. Nevertheless, he only went to gatherings occasionally. In cases of real necessity he would set out, take action and return right away. Gatherings that usually went on for hours were over quickly when the young Admor of Gur was present.

During his grandfather's era the Gur's influence grew dramatically and many of the Chidushei HaRim's relatives and acquaintances were involved in public affairs. But the Sefas Emes did not get involved in any of these matters, restricting his sphere of activity to Torah and avodoh alone. His conduct was marked by expeditiousness and efficient use of time.

He was never known to indulge in long conversations; even on halachic matters he spoke briefly. In a letter he wrote to a friend in his youth he remarked that it was difficult for him to speak with people to avoid a situation of "chochmoso meruboh mema'asov." Therefore at first his true stature as a Torah scholar was not widely known. Only those who studied with him on a daily basis knew he was a great genius. When his books were widely distributed, years later, the Sefas Emes became a household name.

Maasei Rav

Visitors were received near the door to the room. The Rebbe would lean against the wardrobe and people would step up to him one after the next. One would ask for a brochoh, another for advice, one would share his woes, another his joys. The Rebbe's expansive heart had room for the pain of his thousands of chassidim.


Once his daughter was given a pile of kvitlach and he asked her to burn them. His request was accompanied by a warning: "But take care not to read the sorrows written there. I am already accustomed to it, my heart has become as hard as a Tartar's heart. But you are not used to it and you would be unable to bear it."


His replies always came swiftly. In a rare remark he revealed, "My peace of mind lasts as long as it takes to go from the table to the oven [two steps]." A portion of his short responsa grew wings in the streets of Poland and even in other lands. One avreich came to him complaining that people were maligning him. "And what do you think yourself?" asked the Rebbe.

"I think, `Ashrei mi shechoshdim bo ve'ein bo.'"

"You should think instead, `Ashrei yoshvei beisecho,'" said the Rebbe, "and stop going to places you should be staying away from. Then you can be sure nobody will speak ill of you . . . "


One chossid complained that his father-in-law was unable to provide his meals as promised and therefore he had to spend his time in business affairs rather than engaged in Torah. "Does your father-in-law engage in Torah?" asked the Rebbe.

"No, he is a simple Yid."

"If so you should keep at your studies and Hashem will help your father-in-law support you. As Chazal said, `Toli tanyo bedelo tanyo . . . '"


One young man came to complain that his father did not want to support him. When the Rebbe summoned the father he explained that he had no money. This took place on erev Shabbos Parshas Behaalosecha. "In this week's parsha," he explained, "we read that when Bnei Yisroel demanded meat from Moshe Rabbenu he went before HaKodosh Boruch Hu saying, ` . . . Was I pregnant with this nation? Did I give birth to them? . . . Where can I get enough meat to provide for all these people?' (Bamidbar 11:11-13). What is the connection between bearing the nation and Moshe's inability to provide meat? If he has no meat to give, what difference does it make whether he gave birth to the nation or not? From here we learn that a father who is obligated to provide cannot exempt himself by claiming he has nothing to give."


The Sefas Emes fulfilled the injunction to "despise the rabbinate." He resigned from the rabbinate and did not encourage his chassidim to fill rabbinical posts. He would tell avreichim seeking his advice in parnossoh matters to engage in commerce or skilled labor, but not "to make the Torah into a spade to dig."

His approach to the issue of the rabbinate may have been an outgrowth of his unique viewpoint on avodas Hashem in general. He claimed that a Jew would not have to serve Hashem to refine himself and to rectify his soul but for just one reason: because it is Hashem's will! As part of one chossid's efforts to secure a rabbinical post for another chossid, he traveled to the Rebbe to seek his backing. But the Rebbe would not agree. "So who will serve as rabbonim?" asked the visitor.

"Those who don't ask me," came the reply.


Once a tzaddik paid a visit and upon parting said to the Rebbe, "May it be His will that `ahavoh rabboh' be between us."

Said the Sefas Emes, "We also need `ahavas olom' and that the `olom'—the chassidim of both communities—be at peace with one another."

When he became an admor HaRav Yechiel Meir of Gastenin sent a messenger to ask the Sefas Emes to mention him in his prayers. "Tell him," said the Sefas Emes, "that I mention him in every Shemoneh Esrei when I say, `vesein chelkeinu imohem.'"


The Sefas Emes disdained all acts of deceit. When one of his chassidim, a major trader, wondered whether to declare bankruptcy the Rebbe told him, "What have you come to ask me? How to declare bankruptcy according to the Arizal?"


When the Sefas Emes came to supervise matzoh baking he made sure the dough was rolled thin, calling out, "Din! Din! ["Thin! Thin" in Yiddish]."

An elderly chossid on hand at the time had the gall to ask, "But we need rachamim, not `din.'"

"If there is `din' in the world there is no `din' in the Heavens," said the Rebbe. "If we are careful and exacting in fulfilling the `din' we will be treated with rachmamim from Heaven."


He was not in favor of the idea of printing a newspaper, even a chareidi one. It was said that he held that if a Jew has free time he should be spending it learning Torah.

Once he was approached regarding a plan to start a newspaper. "If all of the rabbonim sign a statement indicating there is a real need for it I, too, will tell my chassidim to buy a newspaper; in fact not just one, but two. But I will not permit them to read it."


The Sefas Emes refused to receive benefit from the beneficence of others—matnas bosor vodom—even declining the pidyon gelt customarily given. Once a visiting chossid insisted the Rebbe accept money from him, even "explaining" to the Rebbe why he must agree to take it. "Go to a rebbe who accepts money," he said, "maybe he will accept your advice as well."


One of the Sefas Emes' grandson's married the daughter of a very wealthy man. As the wedding date drew near he received a large dowry and a pledge from the prospective father-in-law to provide for his day-to-day needs. The grandson deposited the dowry with his grandfather. Later he came to the Sefas Emes asking for 200 rubles to cover a fabrengen held with chassidim.

The Sefas Emes handed him a sack with 20,000 kopecks (1 ruble=100 kopecks). "A water bearer gets one kopeck for his effort, but if he must carry the water up a flight of stairs he gets another kopeck," he explained. "Now imagine how much the porter must sweat to earn 20,000 kopecks!"

End of Part I

Kovod HaTorah

R' Avrohom Arten was among the prominent activists for chareidi Jewry and was closely associated and trusted by the Brisker Rov, ztvk"l. He was a Gerrer chossid who had the merit to spend time with the Sefas Emes.

Once his father, HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Arten, was with the Beis Halevi at a vacation site and the two spoke together extensively in learning. One day HaRav Yisroel arrived as usual, but the Beis Halevi flashed him a look of displeasure and did not want to speak with him. HaRav Yisroel Yaakov did not understand what the problem was until the Beis Halevi said angrily, "Where is your kovod haTorah?"

HaRav Yisroel still failed to understand until the Beis Halevi spelled it out for him. "The Sefas Emes' wife is staying here in the town. She is in a single room with three other women. How can you allow such a thing to take place?"

The Rebbetzin had arrived with a certain amount of money that did not suffice for her to rent a room for herself. Until HaRav Yisroel took care of the matter the Beis Halevi refused to speak to him.

Since the Sefas Emes took great pains not to derive any benefit at other people's expense—matnas bosor vodom— the chassidim staying there were afraid to rent her a room of her own. And because the Rebbe would have objected, they were also careful not to give her any money. But after the Beis Halevi claimed it was not kovod haTorah, they rented a separate room for her. (This anecdote, appearing here for the first time in print, comes from the collection by HaRav Shimon Yosef Miller, author of Uvdos Vehanhagos LeBeis Brisk and The Brisker Rov. A similar story is told by HaRav Nosson Einfeld, who heard it from HaRav Yisroel Arten himself.)


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