Chassidim who merited to bask in the presence of the holy Belzer Rebbe, zy”a, absorbed his habits and influence into their very being. Despite the 60 years that have passed since his departure from this world on 21 Av 5717 (1957), everything they imbibed is still alive and vibrant for them. One of those Chassidim who can vividly describe those lofty days is an eminent gaon in his own right: Harav Reuven Gross, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshivas Hamekubalim Shaar Hashamayim, who also serves as a Rav and Posek.
In honor of the 60th yahrtzeit of the Rebbe, we were privileged to visit Rav Gross in his home in Kiryat Belz, Yerushalayim. Having spent a lot of time in the Rebbe’s presence, the Rav has shared with subsequent generations that which he experienced and witnessed throughout the years. The Rebbe exhibited such lofty levels we can hardly aspire to them, but Rav Gross’ words will surely inspire us to strive to increase our own kedushah.
Please describe the lofty atmosphere of those days in the presence of the tzaddik.
What do you think we saw? We saw an angel, withdrawn inside himself, and cleaving to the Creator 24 hours a day. There was no difference for him between Purim and Yom Kippur. Each day, each hour and every minute — he never diverted his attention from the Ribbono shel Olam.
Although this may sound simple, anyone who did not actually see it cannot possibly imagine what we saw. It was literally the face of a heavenly angel whose feet were planted on this earth but whose head reached the Heavens.
The Rebbe always sat on a simple wooden chair, without upholstery. The chair is currently located in the Belzer beis medrash here in Yerushalayim. Go see if it is comfortable to sit on such a chair. But that was the Rebbe’s special chair, and he had special reasons for wanting to sit only on this chair.
Even when he traveled elsewhere, such as to other Rebbes and Rabbanim, the chair was always taken along. He also sat only on the edge of the chair, and never, ever leaned back on it for even a moment.
He sat in a most uncomfortable position; even someone young and energetic cannot sit in such a position for more than several minutes without his bones beginning to ache. His hands rested one over the other above his holy heart. That’s how he sat for hours on end. The meshamshim, who saw him for many hours at a time, related that this was the only way he ever sat.
Was this a matter of affliction that the Rebbe imposed on himself?
I do not know if it was affliction. For him it was too great a comfort to sit on a chair, leaning back, the way most do.
The same was true with everything he did. He was like an angel cloaked in the form of a person. There was no concept of tiredness, of having to rest. We never saw him resting, or taking a break in the middle of the day. And when he did rest, it was for a very short time before daybreak.
My grandfather, Rav Nuta Freund, zt”l, related that one of the meshamshim told him that the Belzer Rebbe, zy”a, was careful never to sleep an 18 minute stretch. He would learn all night, or his lips moved in prayer, and if he fell asleep toward dawn, he would wash his hands every 18 minutes.
There was no concept of thirst with the Rebbe. Though it may have been the hottest day, he was wearing his tilip and his peltz, with his hat upon his head. He never requested to drink — and certainly not something cold! Neither did we ever see the Rebbe snacking on a fruit, as many do during the day. Over the years, he ate the same food each day, without variation. Even that was just two or three spoonfuls. He had a special order of eating and drinking once a day, usually before daybreak.
I remember the Rebbe on the hottest summer days in Tel Aviv and on the coldest nights in Yerushalayim. There was no difference for him whether it was summer, winter, day or night; whatever he did it was clear that he was enveloped in an awe of Hashem. He had a principle that the windows of his room should be closed and sealed, not allowing them to be opened. Even in the brutal heat of Tel Aviv, he would not deviate from this practice.
The meshamshim offered solutions. Here in Eretz Yisrael air conditioners were not popular yet, but they offered to bring from abroad all kinds of coolers, but the Rebbe refused to change anything.
Everything he did was an avodah: eating, donning his hat, resting, washing his hands… He washed his hands often and dried them with a special towel. The towel was also a special one, and he changed it only on Shabbos.
Did members of that generation know they were in the presence of a heavenly angel?
What’s the question? The Rebbe would sit all day in his room, his head lowered and his eyes closed, cleaving to the Ribbono shel Olam with every fiber of his being and soul.
Every human who stood within his presence clearly saw that he was an Ish Elokim, many levels above us. He lived his life in a way that transcended time, nature and the rules of human reality.
Harav Aharon Mordechai Rottner, shlita, who merited to be one of the closest meshamshim of the Rebbe, related that each year, four people were appointed to serve as meshamshei bakodesh. In addition to handling the public coming to the Rebbe, the Rebbe was careful not to be left alone for even a moment. Thus, the meshamshim had to be with him day and night.
Being a meshamesh of the Rebbe, zy”a, was very difficult. One of the privileged few who served the Rebbe for many years was Harav Yitzchak Landau, who recently published the sefer Bakodesh Penimah.
Rav Landau relates that the Rebbe served Hashem with tremendous and superhuman strength.
The meshamshim needed to change shifts every few hours, and at the end of their shifts they were drained and exhausted, because of the strain. Sometimes the meshamshim were told to be present for seven or eight hours at a time, without making a sound, as the Rebbe conducted his holy avodas Hashem.
Sometimes the meshamshim fell asleep while standing on their feet, or leaning against the wall. Sometimes they collapsed to the floor or onto a bench and fell asleep. But the Rebbe himself, despite his advanced age, weak state and suffering, was able to “employ” them for days on end, without any rest or break and without displaying any signs of exhaustion or weakness.
Did the meshamshim listen to what the Rebbe was whispering?
Usually, he was busy with his avodas hakodesh for hours on end. The Rebbe sat, enveloped in lofty thoughts, and everyone could see that he was in higher spheres. He would murmur, his lips moved without sound. Sometimes we could hear whispered tefillos and his defenses of Klal Yisrael.
I heard at the time that the Rebbe hardly spoke with the meshamshim. Even those who were near him were not allowed to speak among themselves. The few words they uttered had to be calculated and fitting to be uttered in the Rebbe’s presence.
Usually one had to wait a long time to enter the Rebbe’s chamber. The Rebbe was caught up in his thoughts, and people would wait until the gabbai gave the signal that people could enter to give a kvittel or to be mazkir names.
The Rebbe had a doctor who regularly attended him. When the doctor arrived he would be granted immediate entry. Usually, the doctor would examine the Rebbe right away, and would tell him which medication to take. There are many wondrous stories about these medications, and how the Rebbe would instruct people to take the medicines in his stead….
What can I say? Anyone who came into the Rebbe’s presence felt that he was facing a malach Hashem. There was no body, no substance, not a human being, but rather a torch of flame whose head reached the heavens. He enveloped himself in a human cloak so that the denizens of this world should not realize what a heavenly angel lived among them.
Halachah and Minhag…
Throughout the years of his leadership, keeping to every facet of Halachah was paramount, as was preserving the customs of his forebears, which were gedarim and seyagim to Halachah.
I merited to see this especially on Shabbos, when the Rebbe davened late, and usually in his room. Only on the Dalet Parshiyos, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Tov did we wait for him.
Did he ever daven at the amud?
There were times that he did, such as on Shabbos Shirah, as his forebears did. The Rebbe did not forfeit any customs of his forebears. He also davened at the amud certain times for Mussaf or Kabbalas Shabbos, when there was a yahrtzeit of one of his ancestors. On an ordinary Shabbos he finished davening late in the afternoon, and that’s when he washed for the seudah.
During every seudah, he would mention to the gabbai, Rav Shalom Fogel, over and over that they had to daven Minchah already. “S’iz shoin zman Minchah…” He was very aware of the Halachah.
Do you remember Shabbos seudos in his presence?
Certainly. There, too, we saw his strict adherence to every detail of Halachah. The Rebbe hardly ate; he made sure to eat two k’zeisim, and as he ate, he would ask Rav Shalom, ‘Is it a shiur?” He made sure to eat those two k’zeisim in four minutes, his shiur for k’dei achilas pras.
Eating was very difficult for him, and we could see he had trouble swallowing. He dipped the challah in wine or fish sauce, and again asked the gabbai: “Is it a shiur?” Aside from that, he ate nothing. He would put fish and chicken into his mouth and immediately remove them.
I saw many things but will mention only one: He had a chumra that with hot soup, not only is the ladle considered a kli rishon, but so is the bowl into which the soup is poured. We needed to transfer the soup into another plate, and only then would he eat it. When the soup was served, he would dip his fingertip in the soup to make sure it was not yad soledes bo.
It is said that the Tchebiner Rav was the Rebbe’s Rav in Halachah.
The Tchebiner Rav was a devoted Chassid of the Rebbe, and would bring kvittlach to him. Indeed, he would also answer halachic questions that the Rebbe would ask. I remember Harav Henoch Padwa, who became the Rav in London, would also answer the Rebbe’s halachic questions. Rav Padwa had traveled to the Rebbe’s father, Rav Yissachar Dov, zy”a, in Belz, and was a devoted Chassid of the Rebbe.
Love for Klal Yisrael
The Rebbe was deeply compassionate and sought only good for Am Yisrael.
While I was still a young boy in Hungary, the Rebbe passed through Neipest, where we lived, during his escape, and stayed at the home of Rav Moshe Weingarten, z”l.
Reb Moshe related that when the Rebbe arrived, there was a law in place that anyone not born in Hungary had to report to the Hungarian army, and if he didn’t he would be heavily punished and deported. The only ones exempt from this decree were the sick.
The Chassidim worked to release the Rebbe from the draft, and bribed an important doctor to issue an assessment that the Rebbe was ill and unfit to serve.
The Hungarian doctor accepted the money but said he had to examine the Rebbe. When he checked the Rebbe’s heart, he said, “The Rebbe has a good heart; I wish I had such a good heart.” When he finished the examination, the Rebbe asked what the doctor had said. When he heard, the Rebbe said, “I know, I know that I have a good heart!’
He took exceptional care not to speak badly about anyone. One could never refer to someone as a “sinner”; rather, one had to say, “He does not put on Rabbeinu Tam tefillin.” Of a Shabbos desecrator, we had to say: “He thinks that Shabbos is Friday…”
This was especially evident on Yamim Tovim, or on days such as Tishah B’Av and Purim, when we saw how it was torture for the Rebbe to utter words of criticism of Klal Yisrael. During these special times, one could see the Rebbe’s face and hear his voice, even though most of the year, he faced the wall.
On Tishah B’Av he sat on a low stool facing the crowd, and we could hear his Kinnos. On Tishah B’av, in the haftarah of Shacharis, where dreadful things are recited, he could hardly utter the words. He stammered his way through until he reached the pessukim about consolation, when he would raise his voice.
Similarly, with the Megillah on Purim, when he read the words “to destroy, to kill all the Jews…” he could hardly utter them. He would tremble and shake. But as it was obligatory to read each word, he did so, with much difficulty.
The Rebbe leined the Megillah?
Yes, he leined morning and night, as his forebears had done. Even in his final years, he blew the shofar and read the Megillah.
With the Rebbe, there were two ways to come and seek a yeshuah. There were hazkaros, when people came to mention their names for a blessing, and they could enter the Rebbe’s room all day for this, or to give a name to the gabbai, who would mention the name to the Rebbe.
Then there were kvittlach, which were harder to submit. People waited many hours to enter with a kvittel. Sometimes they waited two nights, because the Rebbe refused to accept more than ten kvittlach. He would literally cry: “I’m not an angel; I can’t…”
For him, reading kvittlach was a lofty avodah. At those times, we could clearly see the ruach hakodesh that enveloped him, and he acted to effect miracles. This happened on a daily basis. He would often note that the petitioner had written his or his mother’s name incorrectly.
Even in his later years, when he was weak, and the gabbai would read aloud the kvittlach, he would sometimes say, “Nu, nu,” when hearing the names. The gabbai would read the names again, and the Rebbe would repeat, “Nu, nu.” Then the gabbai would realize that the name was not written correctly. When it was rewritten and read to him again, he would not comment.
Did the Rav go in for a kvittel or to be mazkir?
Certainly, several times, for each. I can’t describe the tremendous fear I felt when standing before him. I wanted to flee. I can’t explain it. He sat bent over and trembling, and he conveyed this fear that he felt to those who came to him.
I once came to give a kvittel in Tel Aviv. I entered and gave my hand; he grasped it tight for four or five minutes. These moments were like eternity. My heart almost stopped. The gabbai began to hurry me, but the Rebbe motioned with his second hand that he was aware, and continued to grasp my hand. Only later did he give me a brachah and wish me well. I will never forget this.
The Rebbe’s far-reaching vision was evident at all times. In the beis medrash, he could have been distributing shirayim with one hand and suddenly switched to the other hand. Later it would emerge that a father was sitting on the other side, and the son on the first side, and he was always strict about first giving the father, then the son. He sensed this with ruach hakodesh, not with sight, because he sat bent over in his chair and didn’t even look at those around him.
I’ll tell you a story that I heard firsthand from my friend Harav Mordechai Shlomo Zalman Gutterman, zt”l. He went through the Holocaust and was spared miraculously, and came to Eretz Yisrael, where he learned in Yeshivas Ponevez. He basked in the presence of numerous Gedolei Olam, including the Belzer Rebbe, zy”a.
When he came the first time to the Rebbe he was almost 20 years of age. The Rebbe spoke to him like he spoke to bar mitzvah bachurim: “Did you put on tefillin already?” The Rebbe repeated the question three times.
The Rebbe’s custom was not to give a child a hand, only through a towel, and only to someone who already put on tefillin, because one who puts on tefillin is careful about keeping his body clean. Therefore, when a youth offered his hand, the Rebbe always asked if he already donned tefillin.
He did the same with Rav Gutterman, and the gabbai responded, “He is a bachur.” But the Rebbe kept asking about the tefillin. Those present were taken aback; he had a beard and was clearly older, so of course he had donned tefillin already.
But Rav Mordechai understood the Rebbe and explained: The tefillin he had brought with him from Europe had batim made from two skins, which is a b’di’eved in Halachah. When he came to Eretz Yisrael he saw that there were mehudar tefillin available and came to ask the Chazon Ish if he should change his tefillin. The Chazon Ish replied that he could not rule, because he did not want to say the other tefillin were passul, as many used them. On the other hand, he didn’t want to kasher them either because he felt that they relied on a very b’di’eved leniency. He instructed Reb Mordechai to ask the Rav of Bnei Brak, Rav Yaakov Landau, zt”l.
In the interim, Reb Mordechai came to the Belzer Rebbe. When the Rebbe asked him three times if he put on tefillin, he realized that, indeed, he had to purchase new tefillin. He saw this as real ruach hakodesh.
Were you at the big demonstration against the giyus banos, which took place 64 years ago? The Belzer Rebbe attended that demonstration.
Yes. It was the only time the Rebbe participated in a demonstration in Eretz Yisrael. It took place in Davidka Square. I saw him sitting in the car; there was no way for him to get out of the car because of the masses crowding around the car. Everyone wanted to see his holy visage.
His participation caused a big storm. It left a deep impression on chareidi Jewry the world over.
Do you recall the last Shabbos spent in his presence?
Oy, I remember that Shabbos well. One cannot forget such a Shabbos. We were in the yeshivah on Rechov Agrippas; the ground floor was completed and that was where the Rebbe lived. Next to the house they built a big tent where he conducted the tisch.
On Friday night I was at the tisch, which the Rebbe conducted as usual. The Rebbe said Torah as on every Shabbos, on the passuk “L’maan yirbu yemeichem.” He hurried, as he always did. On Shabbos morning we realized something wasn’t right and only later heard that the Rebbe was feeling unwell.
On Shabbos afternoon he was taken to Shaare Zedek Hospital, right nearby at the time, on Rechov Yaffo. On Shabbos afternoon we said Tehillim, storming the Heavens for his recovery. We didn’t dream for a moment that the worst was going to happen. Toward dawn on Sunday, 21 Av, he passed away.
The Rebbe’s influence is still felt, and just as he davened and advocated in this world, he is hopefully continuing to do the same for Klal Yisrael in the Heavenly worlds. Zechuso yagen aleinu.
This article originally appears in the current issue of Inyan Magazine.