Weekly Story: The Histalkus of the Rebbe Maharash

Being that today, the 13th of Tishrei, is the Yahrtzeit of the Rebbe Maharash, we present our weekly story describing the events of his Histalkus in great detail.

***

The Histalkus of the Rebbe Maharash
by Rabbi Sholom Avtzon

Being that today Yud Gimmel Tishrei is the yahrzeit of the Rebbe Maharash, we are presenting the chapter on His Histalkus, an excerpt from the forthcoming 500 page biography of him.

His Histalkus

As noted numerous times in this biography, the Rebbe Maharash would speak to the ministers and other officials with strength and determination. As the pogroms spread wildly after the Czar’s assassination, he intensified his efforts on behalf of the Jewish people. This necessitated frequent visits to Petersburg, sometimes for extended periods of time. In the winter of 5642 (January 1882), he was there for almost a month.[1]

After one meeting, the Rebbe returned to his hotel and sent for Dr. Bertenson. The doctor examined him and warned him that this exertion and tension was detrimental to his health. The Rebbe replied: “Am I better than my ancestors, who were willing to sacrifice their life for the Jewish people?”

The doctor convinced the Rebbe to at least leave the capital for a few days, to give his body the ability to recover. However, the tremendous agony and aggravation he was enduring weakened his body, and the sickness of his youth[2] came back with intensity.

While the Rebbe Maharash was ill for most of his life, he never publicized or let anyone know how serious his situation truly was, nor did he allow it to affect or curtail his grueling work on behalf of the Jewish people. However, toward the end of his life, seeing that his health was deteriorating drastically, the Rebbe decided not to hide it any longer. In the summer of 5642 (1882), in a conversation with his middle son and subsequent successor, the [Rebbe] Rashab, the Rebbe Maharash alluded to his imminent histalkus:

“During the festive meal following my bris,” he related, “my brother the Maharil asked my father after whom I was named. After all, Shmuel was not a common name in our family. As if answering the question himself, he said in an undertone, ‘Perhaps he was named after Shmuel HaNavi?

“ ‘The child was named after a certain water carrier from the city of Polotzk,’ my father answered. ‘And a wise man is greater than a navi.

“My father then continued:

“ ‘It says in Tehillim,[3] “The days of our life in them [bahem in Hebrew] are seventy years, and if [a person is blessed] with strength, [they can extend to] eighty years.” This means that Hashem grants each person a different amount of years. Some people are granted the average lifespan of seventy years, while others are blessed with eighty years. However’— ‘sometimes a person only receives bahem with its letters.’ ”

The Rebbe paused, sighed, and continued: “My father said בהם [the numerical value of which is forty-seven] with its letters [of which there are three]. Together, it equals fifty.”

This was the first hint he gave to his imminent histalkus of which we are aware. If we consider the year of his birth (5594/1834) as a full year, during the summer of 5642 (1882) his forty-ninth year was coming to an end, and the following Tishrei would be the beginning of his fiftieth year.

Around that time, he said to one of his gabbaim, “I am now one hundred years old.” Seeing the gabbai’s bewildered expression, the Rebbe explained: “I am now forty-eight years old, while on my ‘passport’ I have an additional fifty-two years, [equaling one hundred].” His ‘passport’ was a reference to his connection with Shmuel HaNavi, who lived for fifty-two years.[4]

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5643 (1882), when the Rebbe Maharash conveyed his yearly blessing to his wife, Rebbetzin Rivkah, for a good and sweet year, he added: “I am going up thirty-two levels, and you will remain here for thirty-two levels.”[5]

The Rebbetzin immediately understood the severity of the message: her husband was hinting that he would be nistalek some time this year, while she would live on for another thirty-two years. “But the children are still so very young!” she said in a trembling voice. Their youngest daughter, Chaya Mushka, was only four years old at that time!

“Yes,” the Rebbe replied, “but this is the will of Hashem.”[6]

The Rebbe’s daughter-in-law, Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah (the wife of the Rebbe Rashab), related:

“Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, my father-in-law said: ‘A surgeon must be summoned to make an operation.’ However, he said it so calmly and unalarmingly that we didn’t realize how serious the situation was. It was only later, at the time of his histalkus, that we understood.”[7]

That Rosh Hashanah was the only Rosh Hashanah since the Rebbe Maharash became Rebbe during which he did not blow the shofar or say a maamar, and the chassidim realized his illness was much worse than they had previously thought.[8] As can be expected, the Tehillim they said throughout that Rosh Hashanah, and indeed for the next two weeks, was said from the depths of their hearts and with much more feeling, as the chassidim beseeched Hashem for mercy.

HaRav Issur Tumarkin, a noted chossid and Rov, was in Lubavitch for that Tishrei. He later related:

“A day or two after Yom Kippur, a prestigious specialist arrived in Lubavitch to examine the Rebbe. Normally, the doctors who came would leave immediately after conducting their examinations without speaking to the chassidim at all. However, when this non-Jewish specialist left the Rebbe’s room, we noticed that he was overcome with emotion. Something extremely positive or, chas veshalom, the opposite must have occurred.

“Instead of rushing to his coach, the specialist entered the small beis hamidrash. When we saw this, we realized he was willing or perhaps even desired to share with us what had transpired. So we brought a comfortable chair for him to sit on and surrounded him, hoping he would relay to us a positive prognosis for the Rebbe and a possibility for a cure.

“The doctor sat down, looked at us, and said:

“ ‘You think you know who your Rebbe is? I will tell you who he really is!

“ ‘When I arrived, the doctors treating the Rebbe gave me a detailed report on the nature and progression of his illness. Based on this information, I began my examination by asking the Rebbe a few questions. At one point, I asked him to give me his hand so I can feel his palm.

“After examining his palm, I told him I can only be sure of the diagnosis if he allows me to make a small incision behind his ear and perform a minor operation. When I said this, a look of sorrow appeared on his face. I mistakenly assumed this was the result of his discomfort to be forced to undergo an operation, as minor as it may be. However, he gave me verbal permission to do as I had requested, so I proceeded to perform the procedure.

“After I finished the examination, the Rebbe began explaining to me — the one who is considered the greatest specialist in this field! — the entire prognosis of his illness. He proceeded to explain what I had done and why it had been necessary. I then understood the reason for his unhappy expression: it was because he knew exactly what that procedure was all about and that it indicated how dire his situation was.

“ ‘My illness is the result of an undesirable foreign entity that entered my veins and contaminated the blood,’ the Rebbe said. ‘The reason you monitored and felt the palm of my hand was to try and detect an abnormality that would enable you to see the symptoms.

“ ‘The reason you made an incision behind my ear was to see how far the illness had progressed. You wanted to know if it had affected the other parts of the body and if it had reached the brain.’

“The Rebbe spoke to me about the details of his illness and its prognosis for over an hour. During the entire time I felt as if I was sitting in a university classroom, being given a lesson in medicine from one of the greatest medical professors.

“The Rebbe’s illness is extremely severe, and anyone suffering from it endures terrible pain. The examination I conducted revealed that the illness had already spread to his brain. Typically, when the illness reaches the brain, it immobilizes one’s ability to think clearly.

“After hearing him explain his illness to me, I was shocked, realizing that the individual sitting in front of me was not a regular person. Here is a man afflicted with an incurable disease, found in a grave and indeed incapacitating situation. Yet, he has a cheerful expression on his face and is capable of giving a medical lecture to the specialist who came to heal him! He explained all of its aspects, with its minutest details and intricacies, until I felt as if I was a student hearing a report from his teacher on the latest medical advances!”

The doctor concluded: “Now you know who your Rebbe is!”

Although the doctor’s prognosis was grim, the chassidim continued saying Tehillim, beseeching Hashem for mercy.

Unlike regular laymen, many tzaddikim were aware of the day of their passing in advance. However, even among tzaddikim, rarely do we find that they knew the exact moment when their neshamah would leave their body. The Rebbe Maharash was one of the select few who knew this as well.[9]

The Frierdiker Rebbe relates the phenomenon that occurred that day:[10]

“On the morning of Yud-Gimmel Tishrei, 5643 (1882), at 11:26 a.m., my grandfather [the Rebbe Maharash] removed his large golden pocket watch from its casing. He then moved the hands of the watch forward twenty-five minutes, to 11:51,[11] and inserted small pieces of paper beneath them, which he had cut moments before. Evidently, he did this so that the hands shouldn’t continue moving forward but should remain at that location, indicating that at that specific time his neshamah would leave his body.

“He then instructed his gabbai Reb Pinchos Leib to summon each of his family members individually, as he wished to convey his parting words to each one.

“The first one to enter was his oldest son, Reb Zalman Aharon [the Raza]. The Rebbe spoke to him in the presence of Reb Pinchas Leib.

“After Reb Zalman Aharon left, my father [the Rebbe Rashab] entered. His father the Rebbe told him many things, and my father began crying bitterly. This, too, took place in the presence of Reb Pinchos Leib.[12]

“After my father left, his younger brother, Reb Menachem Mendel, entered, and he, too, was told certain things.”

[In all probability, he also called in his wife and daughters at that time. This can be implied from the fact that, as chassidim say,[13] he told his youngest daughter Chaya Mushka at that time: “I wanted to be present with your mother at your chassunah; however, this wasn’t what Hashem chose.”]

“After he finished speaking to all the members of his family, the Rebbe prepared for his neshamah to leave his body. At exactly 11:51 a.m., the time to which he had moved the handles of his watch, he was nistalek.”[14]

The taharah and kevurah took place that very day. And in accordance with what he stated in his will, he was buried in close proximity to his father,[15] on his left side.[16] To enable this, the iron fence that had previously been standing to the left of the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek was extended so it would surround both resting places.

When chassidim saw the two gravestones adjacent to one another, some of them remarked: “Now we understand what his father the Tzemach Tzedek meant when he said, ‘Echad b’echad yigashu,[17] Nissan b’Tishrei [One and One will draw near, Nissan and Tishrei].’ ”[18] These chassidim were referring to the unique bond and similarity between the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek and the Rebbe Maharash.[19] Both of them were nistalek on the thirteenth day of the month (the gematriya of echad), one in Nissan and one in Tishrei, and they are resting one next to the other.

It is interesting to note that the Rebbe Maharash is the only Rebbe who was both born in Lubavitch and interred there.

The Rebbe Maharash was only forty-eight years old at the time of his histalkus, the youngest age to be nistalek from all of the Rebbeim. He was Rebbe for almost seventeen years, and he fought courageously on behalf of the entire Jewish people, attaining tremendous accomplishments. With his histalkus, the valiant and fearless voice that had stood up against government officials and ministers was silenced, and he was mourned by Jews all over Russia and beyond.

Although all of Russian Jewry had suffered a great loss, it was especially difficult for his chassidim to come to terms with the Rebbe’s histalkus. Yes, they all knew that his middle son, the [Rebbe] Rashab, would ultimately accept the nesius and lead them along with all of Klal Yisroel; however, until that would take place their situation would remain uncertain.

Each one drew comfort from the vort or saying the Rebbe Maharash had said to him, with which he lived every day. They were confident that these sayings would certainly sustain them until the sun would shine in Lubavitch once more, with the acceptance of the nesius by the Rebbe Rashab.[20]

Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and author of numerous books. He is available to farbreng in your community and can be contacted at atzonbooks@gmail.com.

The biography on the Rebbe Maharash is the 4th volume in The Rebbeim Biography Series, and will be published as soon as the funding is available. If you would like to co-sponsor with a hakdasha, please contact Rabbi Avtzon.

***

[1] As related below, Section Three, “The Journeys of Reb Y.M.”

[2] See above, ??

[3] 90:10.

[4] See above, “His Unique Connection With His Father,” that although he wasn’t actually named after Shmuel HaNavi, there was a strong connection between the two of them. See also fn. 60-70.

[5] Toras Menachem Vol. 2, p. 160. There the Rebbe explains that the Rebbe Maharash’s elevation of thirty-two levels are connected to the thirty-two maamorim he wrote in the sefer Likkutei Torah L’Gimmel Parshiyos on the first three parshiyos of Chumash and sent to be published (see below, “His Seforim”).

Rebbetzin Rivkah’s thirty-two levels, on the other hand, refer to the additional thirty-two years she would be living. Although she passed away thirty-one years later (on Yud Shevat, 5674), if we count the last day of that year (5642) as a complete year, it equals thirty-two. [Indeed, other sources note that her husband told her she would remain here for thirty-one levels.]

[6] For more details of this conversation, see Sippurei Meir by this author.

[7] The Rebbe repeated this story on 7 Teves, 5711 (1951), and on Yud Shevat, 5712 (1952). He then added: “I heard this from Rebbetzin Shterna Sarah herself some forty years after the histalkus. However, despite the many years that had already passed, her voice trembled when she repeated it.”

[8] Another indication of his terrible pain was the fact that he was now often sleeping while sitting on his chair instead of lying down in bed.

[9] The Talmud states that when Dovid Hamelech davened to Hashem and said Hodieini Hashem Kitzi (Tehillim 39:5) – Hashem please let me know my end…, Hashem replied this something that isn’t revealed. Yet we see some tzaddikim knew on what day they will pass away, and here the Rebbe Maharash knew the moment.

[10] Sefer HaSichos 5683, pp. 41–42.

[11] According to Rav Zalman Shimon Dworkin, he moved them to 11:53 (see Di Yiddishe Heim, Issue 69).

[12] Twelve years later, the Rebbe Rashab related to his son HaRav Yosef Yitzchok everything his father had told him that morning. He concluded by saying: “There was one more point my father said. While I did not hear it clearly, the gabbai Pinchos Leib did. However, he refused to repeat it to me.”

Hearing this, HaRav Yosef Yitzchok looked for an opportune time and succeeded in getting Reb Pinchos Leib to divulge this last point to him. He then immediately repeated it to his father, the Rebbe.

See A Day to Recall, A Day to Remember, Vol. 2, pp. 16–19.

[13] Likkutei Sippurim,

[14] Author’s note: As noted previously, the Rebbe Maharash is known as “a Baal Shem’ske Rebbe.” Interestingly, it is related that shortly before the Baal Shem Tov was nistalek, he stated, “All the clocks in Mezhibuzh will stop the moment my neshamah will ascend to the heavens.” Similarly, the Rebbe Maharash ensured his watch would stop at the moment of his histalkus.

[15] The Rebbe Maharash had noted that this was to be done only if he would pass away in Lubavitch.

[16] The Rebbe Maharash’s oldest brother, HaRav Boruch Sholom, is interred to the Tzemach Tzedek’s right.

[17] This is a borrowed term from Iyov 41:8.

[18] Author’s note: A personal observation: As I was doing research on the Rebbe Maharash, one of the themes that came up was that he influenced many people to do teshuvah.

In the Rebbe’s first maamar of Basi Legani, 5711 (1951), the Rebbe related a story expressing the mesiras nefesh and ahavas yisroel of each of the Rebbeim. The story he chose to relate about the Rebbe Maharash was how he travelled to Paris just for the sake of entering a casino and reminding a Jew of who he was, causing him to do teshuvah (see above, “To Help a Jew”). Then there is the story related by the Frierdiker Rebbe (see below, Section Three, “The Journeys of Reb Y.M.”) how the Rebbe Maharash’s words changed a certain person’s life, causing him to become a baal teshuvah some thirty years after he had heard them from the Rebbe.

Chassidus explains at length the difference between the months of Tishrei and Nissan. One of the major differences is that Tishrei represents the avodah of baalei teshuvah (as evident from the fact that Yom Kippur occurs during this month), while Nissan represents the loftier avodah of tzaddikim and the preparation for receiving the Torah.

Although the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek was instrumental in preserving Yiddishkeit in Russia, especially with regard to the Cantonist soldiers, he is best known for his chiddushei Torah, and his histalkus took place in the month of Nissan. On the other hand, the histalkus of the Rebbe Maharash, who was involved in influencing others to do teshuvah, took place in the month of Tishrei, the time of repentance.

After writing this, I was shown that this idea is mentioned in a sichah said by the Rebbe in 5750 (Toras Menachem 5750, Vol. 1, pp. 111–116).

[19] This is reminiscent of the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 84:6) that says that whatever happened to Yaakov Avinu happened to Yosef. Both of them were in conflict with their brother(s), and both were away from their father for twenty-two years. As Chassidus explains, although Yaakov Avinu had twelve sons, his essence was brought out in Yosef, one of his youngest sons.

Similarly, while the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek had seven sons, five of whom became Rebbeim, his essence was brought out in the Rebbe Maharash, who was his youngest son.

(See The Rebbeim Biography Series: The Mitteler Rebbe pp.== where we noted the similarities between the Mitteler Rebbe and his father the Alter Rebbe.)

[20] The Rebbe Rashab accepted the nesius eleven years later (on Rosh Hashanah, 5654/1893), as will be related b’ezras Hashem in the forthcoming biography of the Rebbe Rashab.

One Comment

  • 1. Momma's in the Kitchen wrote:

    Thank you for the inspiration amid the Erev Yom Tov rush. It was so special to take a few minutes amidst the 3 day Yom Tov cooking and dedicate time to learning about the Rebbe Maharash!

    Reply

Leave Comment

Comment moderation is in use. Please do not submit your comment twice -- it will appear shortly.