The Life and Legacy of Rebbetzin Rivkah

On the heels of Yud Shevat, which is also the yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Rivkah, wife of the Rebbe Maharash, we are honored to present a brief overview of her life, an excerpt from the book Biography of the Rebbe Maharash by Rabbi Sholom Avtzon, which is in the process of being prepared for publication:

The Rebbe Maharash’s (second) wife was his first cousin Rebbetzin Rivkah. Rebbetzin Rivkah was the daughter of Reb Aharon of Shklov and HaRabbonis Chaya Sarah, the youngest daughter of the Mitteler Rebbe, and she was born in Lubavitch in 5593 (1833).

When she was six years old, [Rebbetzin] Rivkah’s family moved to Shklov, the city where her father’s family resided. But tragically, Reb Aharon passed away on the 24th of Iyar, 5599 (1839), just a few months after they arrived in Shklov. Reb Aharon’s parents wanted their daughter-in-law and her two young girls to remain in Shklov, promising to support them handsomely. However, she declined their offer and they moved back to Lubavitch.

Seven years later, HaRabbonis Chaya Sarah married Reb Aharon of Kremenchuk, a son of the Alter Rebbe’s daughter Rebbetzin Freida, and they settled in Kremenchuk. But tragically, just two years later she too passed away. Her two teenage daughters then returned to Shklov and stayed by their father’s family for four months, after which they settled in Lubavitch.

The Mitteler Rebbe’s Rebbetzin, Rebbetzin Shaina, took her two granddaughters under her wing and raised the girls, now orphaned from both their parents, as her very own. As related above, she was the one who arranged the marriage of Rebbetzin Rivkah to the Rebbe Maharash, which took place in 5610 (1850).

Rebbetzin Rivkah was noted for her caring, kindness, and compassion. She possessed a refined, exalted character and would constantly look for ways to assist others and avoid friction.

Shortly after her marriage, she pawned some of the jewelry she had received as a gift, to help the less fortunate. Her father-in-law the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek noticed that the jewelry was missing, and he asked his son what had happened. When he heard that she had pawned it to assist others, he was pleased by her noble act and gave him money to redeem it. Rebbetzin Rivkah continued to pawn various pieces of jewelry every Erev Shabbos and give the money to tzedakah.

One could always see her visiting the houses of the poor to help prepare a simchah. When her son, the Rebbe Rashab, established Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim in 5657 (1897), although she was almost sixty-five years old, she assumed the responsibility of making sure the students had enough food to eat. Additionally, she showed a motherly interest in them by inquiring about the wellbeing and success of each student.

Her devotion to her husband the Rebbe Maharash is legendary. Whenever he entered the room, she would rise and wait until he sat down. She continued this practice despite his requests that she not bother, and even after he reiterated this request when she was not well. Once, when she left his study, the door accidently closed on her garment. Knowing how precious every moment was to him, she did not want to interrupt his learning and ask him to unlock the door from the inside. Instead, she remained sitting there on the step the entire night.

Even years after his histalkus, she never called him by his first name. Instead, when speaking to her children or grandchildren, she would refer to him as “your father” or “your grandfather.”

Two years after her marriage she became critically ill, arousing the concern of all. The doctors instructed her to eat as soon as she awoke in the morning. However, she did not want to eat before davening. Instead, she would wake up an hour or two earlier than usual to daven, and she would then eat a full meal at the time the doctors thought she was getting up.

When her father-in-law the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek heard about this, he said to her: “Your davening is very precious to me. However, it is preferable to eat to be able to daven than to daven to be able to eat. If you will eat before davening, I will say two chapters of Tehillim for you every single day. I will also bless you with long life.”

She followed the Rebbe’s directive until she was completely healed, so much so that no ill effects at all remained from the sickness. Amazed, the doctors stated that such a total recovery was only possible through the prayers of the Rebbe.

The Rebbe Maharash on his part respected her noble character, and he would give her large sums of money to give out to those in need as she saw fit. He would confide in her regarding the most sensitive communal issues, and whenever he would go to the Ohel of his father, he would ask her if she had a question for him to relay. When he would return from the Ohel he would answer her question, saying, “My father said as follows.”

Her grandmother Rebbetzin Shaina related to her all that she had personally witnessed in the presence of her father-in-law, the Alter Rebbe, and husband, the Mitteler Rebbe. She also shared with her the stories she had heard from them about the Maggid and Baal Shem Tov. As a result, Rebbetzin Rivkah was known as an extremely accurate storyteller, especially regarding the history of Lubavitch.

Her grandson, the Frierdiker Rebbe, related that his father, the Rebbe Rashab, encouraged him to visit his grandmother on a constant basis so she could relate these stories to him. She would also repeat the incidents she had personally observed in the presence of her father-in-law, the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek, and husband, the Rebbe Maharash. He notes that for close to thirty years, he would visit her almost every day (whenever he was in Lubavitch) to hear a story from her.

In the winter of 5674 (1913), Rebbetzin Rivkah became ill. A short time before her histalkus, she mentioned to a certain chossid that she had in her possession a number of special cloths. These cloths, she explained, had been used to dry the Rebbeim—from the Alter Rebbe until her husband— as part of the taharah process after their histalkus. However, she continued, as much as she had searched for them, she had been unable to locate them until recently.

On Friday morning, the 10th of Shevat, after concluding the Shemonah Esreh of tefillas Shacharis, her pure neshamah left her body. She was then seventy-seven years old. She was buried that very day in close proximity to her husband the Rebbe Maharash, who had passed away thirty-one years earlier.

If you have any comments or are interested in helping sponsor the forthcoming book, please contact the author at avtzonbooks@gmail.com.

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