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20 Cheshvan 5774 - October 24, 2013 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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HaRav Refoel Hamburger

In honor of his yahrtzeit, 26 Cheshvan, 5566

In the year 5483 (1723) a great luminary began to shine forth from Liesland. In the home of the rov of the town, HaRav Yekusiel Ziskind, a son was born and was named Refoel. As he grew up, the little boy's sharp mind and special middos were a wonder to behold, and soon he no longer was suited to remain amongst the small children with the simple melamed.

Then tragedy struck. At the age of ten, Refoel fell dangerously ill and was at death's door. The city was in an uproar over the welfare of its wonder-boy. All the tinokos shel beis rabbon were gathered to try and storm the heavens on their friend's behalf. Their childish tears were the key and Hashem heard the precious tefillos of the children. Refoel began to grow stronger and subsequently recovered completely.

His parents, however, did not recover so fast from their ordeal and decided that they should not rely on miracles. In order to protect his health, they kept him at home, almost in quarantine. The great father learned Torah with his son and, when he was preoccupied by his duties to community matters, he hired a private rov, a melamed, to come to the house to teach his son. Learning constantly with these great leaders, the child quickly rose to lofty heights in Torah and yir'oh.

Despite their love for him and concern over his health, Refoel's parents recognized when the time was ripe to send their son away to learn Torah from the gedolei hador.

Under the wing of his relative the Shaagas Arye, Refoel continued to blossom. The Shaagas Arye taught him and educated him as a close talmid.

Upon reaching the age of thirteen, Refoel did not go home to celebrate his bar mitzvah, worrying about the bitul Torah such a trip entailed. Instead, he stayed and had his bar mitzvah with the Shaagas Arye.

Already at the age of nineteen, Reb Refoel was appointed rov over the kehilloh of Minsk, where his Rebbe, the Shaagas Arye, had been rov until then.

Subsequently he served in various communities as rov. One of these was the town of Smilovitz, where a grand hachtarah celebration was held.

The large beis medrash of Smilovitz was festively decorated in honor of the occasion and, after Reb Refoel had given his first special droshoh, the townspeople sat down together with their new rov to talk divrei Torah and discuss communal matters.

Suddenly, the pleasant atmosphere was broken by a woman bursting into the shul. "Rabbi," she cried. "You must help me. I have a din Torah with the Rosh Hakohol, but he is ignoring my calls just because I am a poor widow and he's the mighty president! No one is prepared to help me as everyone is afraid of the power and wealth of this man. Please help me!"

Immediately, the new rov called the attendant that the city had appointed for his use, instructing him to summon the Rosh Hakohol to a din Torah.

The shamash trembled at the thought of carrying out his duty and suggested to Reb Refoel that perhaps it was preferable to wait, maybe delay the din Torah a little — not on this great day. Reb Refoel, however, insisted that the man be fetched.

A few minutes later, the shamash returned alone. The man had refused to come.

"Tell him," instructed the rov sternly, "that if he does not come, I will declare a cheirem on him." Quaking in fear, the shamash left to carry out his mission.

A few minutes later, to everyone's surprise, the door opened and in walked a smiling Rosh Hakohol in the company of the town's other dignitaries. Striding over to the perplexed rov, he wished him mazel tov and then sat down to explain.

There was no din Torah here and no conflict. The story had been invented to test the young rov and to demonstrate to all the townspeople that, his young years notwithstanding, this rov was to be obeyed unconditionally. Indeed, Rav Refoel had passed his test. His authority was absolute without fear of anyone.

During this period, Reb Refoel's rebbe the Shaagas Arye was wandering in self-imposed golus. Together with his rebbetzin he wandered from town to town, arriving one day in Smilovitz. The Shaagas Arye refused to be accorded any honor, nor did he wish to answer sheilos in halocho in deference to his talmid, who was moro de'asra.

Rabbeinu, who knew full well the gadlus of his Rebbe, was at a loss. "How can I continue to preside as rov over the town, while my Rebbe lives here, albeit unobtrusively like a common Jew?"

As a solution, Reb Refoel decided to move away to a town about an hour's distance from Smilovitz.


One of the terrible tzoros of the time was the rampant crime. Highway robbers were commonplace and many Jews suffered at the hands of these thieves and kidnappers.

Reb Refoel took off much of his Torah-learning time to save Yidden from these bandits.

Rabbeinu fasted and performed many self-afflictions, as did his Rebbe. His body was so tortured that his son-in-law testified that without his strong kochos hanefesh and, of course, Hashem's help, his body would not have survived.

Once, during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvoh, Reb Refoel fell very sick. On erev Yom Kippur his condition had worsened and the doctors warned that it was imperative that he eat on Yom Kippur.

On Kol Nidrei night, a terrible thirst overcame him and Reb Refoel asked a talmid to measure out the permitted shiur of water. While the appropriate amount was being looked up and measured, Reb Refoel fell asleep. He slept all night and the following day, awakening only on motzei Yom Kippur. To everyone's amazement, his illness abated and the Rov was recovering his strength, until the doctors were forced to admit that it was the taanis that had saved his life.

Upon becoming rov of the three kehillos of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbeck, a new battle had to be waged by Rabbenu against the Haskoloh.

In the year 5559 (1799), in his last drosho, Reb Refoel declared that he was renouncing the rabbonus.

"Due to the rabbonus I often had to talk loshon hora, albeit for a to'eles. But I do not wish to continue this type of work!"

So saying, he settled in Hamburg to live a quiet life out of the public eye.

When Napoleon began his conquest of Europe, Reb Refoel noted that perhaps this was the war of Gog and Magog, the final war preceding Moshiach's arrival.

Since he was a kohen and aspired to do the avodoh in the Beis Hamikdosh, he saw it as a must to study and to be erudite in all the hilchos avodoh. He threw himself into learning Seder Kodshim and wrote the sefer Sheilos Hacohanim Torah in this connection.

Thus steeped in his learning of the cohanim and the Mikdosh, his neshomoh left him on Friday, 26 Cheshvan.

Zechuso Yogen Oleinu.


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