Friday, November 2, 2012

Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum: Chasid & Miracle Worker!

I recently paid an extensive visit to Hungary. During the last days of the trip, two fellow Companions and I visited the gravesites of a couple of two highly esteemed Kabbalists. One in particular, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum(1759 - 1841), is particularly well remembered for his skills in the realm of "Practical Kabbalah." Rabbi Teitelbaum, nicknamed the "Yishmach Moshe" ("Moses Rejoiced") after the title of one of his works, signed himself "Tamar," this Hebrew term being equivalent to the Yiddish "Teitelbaum" (Dattelbaum in German), all referring to the date palm.In his early years Rabbi Teitelbaum was a Misnaged, a staunch opponent of Chassidism. We are told that as a young boy Rabbi Teitelbaum visited Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, who was the greatest opponent of the rise of the Eastern European Chassidim. Apparently the young man was allowed entry into the presence of the Gaon, and he requested to be admitted as a student [see "In Our Leaders Footsteps" Volume 2 by Menachem Gerlitz]. Some reports have it that the Yishmach Moshe was returned home, whilst others maintain that the Gaon of Vilna recognised the genius of the young man and that he "was given custody in Hagra's Beit Midrash in Vilna."
Rabbi Teitelbaum commenced his rabbinical career in Przemysl, his birth city in south-eastern Poland, and was later appointed Rabbi of nearby Sieniawa. In 1808 he migrated to the Hungarian town of Satoralja-Ujhely, where he spent the rest of his days, and his successors became the founders of the Sighet and Satmar chassidic dynasties. In this regard, it should be noted that Rabbi Teitelbaum himself became a Chassid at a relatively late age. This occurred after his daughter married Rav Aryeh Leib Lipshitz. The odd religious behaviour of his son-in-law attracted the attention and disapproval of the Yishmach Moshe. We are informed that Rav Aryeh Leib acquiesced to relinquish his Chassidic ways, but would do so only after Rabbi Teitelbaum travelled with him to visit his Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak ("the Seer") of Lublin. This visit to the famous Polish Chassid resulted in Rabbi Teitelbaum having a change of heart, and to him becoming a Chassid himself. Hence it was in the town of Satoralja-Ujhely that the Yishmach Moshe established a Chassidic community, one which was quite independent from the Galitzianer Chassidim, i.e. those who were residing in Poland and the Ukraine and who were calling the shots, so to speak.
The Yishmach Moshe was a remarkable leader who was highly esteemed as "the Light of all of Hungary." He had a profound comprehension of the meaning of "Now." In this regard he said that "were we to ask someone 'How long will you live?' he would likely take a total of the years he has already lived, add on to them an estimate of how long he figures he will still live, and give you a rough total. If you were to ask me, however, I would answer you, 'One second.' After all, what has already past is of no consequence. And as far as the future: how am I to know if I will even live to see tomorrow? What I do know is that this very moment, I am being given the gift of life. This moment is all I have. So, right now, this is my whole life." We are told that the great Rabbi considered this a "mussar haskeil," i.e. "penetrating insight," regarding which Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann of commented that "were a person to really value each moment, to realize that all he has in life is this very moment, which fool would while away his 'moments' with idleness and meaningless distractions. One who adapts this approach, his life becomes a collection of thousands of meaningful moments, threads of time, which, when woven together, yield an exquisite fabric, the likes of which could not have been produced by anyone else but him." The commentator reminds us that "man receives his moments one at a time. 'The past is gone, the future is yet to be, and the present is as quick as the blink of an eye.' The nature of man is to underestimate the significance of a minute. What is a minute, anyway? Many people seem to feel that a minute is not so terrible a thing to waste. Yet, as life 'flies' by, these are the minutes that must be utilized. They are our life. And using them properly and constructively is all we have to show for ourselves." [Mashal ve-Nimshal, Likutei Peshatim]
The grandson of the Yishmach Moshe maintained that his grandfather had total recollection of three earlier incarnations. Rabbi Teitelbaum apparently recalled being a sheep in the flock of Jacob, the Biblical Patriarch, and taught his disciples a song which he maintained Jacob sang as he looked after his sheep. As you probably know, kabbalistic tradition has it that Jacob's sheep were comprised of the root souls of the nation of Israel. The second incarnation apparently pertained to the time of Moses, specifically to the "Dor Ha-Midbar" (Generation of the Desert), i.e. the Israelites who wandered in the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt. In this regard, the good Rabbi recalled witnessing the famous rebellion of Korach against Moses as recounted in the Bible, and in this regard he related details to his grandson, whom he scolded for expressing his dislike for Korach, maintaining that we do not comprehend just how great Korach really was. In fact, the Yishmach Moshe maintained that since the mentioned conflict between Korach and Moses was between the greatest minds of the time, he himself had difficulty deciding which side he was on. We are informed his grandson asked whose side he was on, and apparently received the reply "My child, you cannot imagine what a revered man Korach was. He was held in great esteem by many important people, and had a large following. And on the other side was the holy leader Moshe Rabbeinu! I decided that the best way to deal with such a division was to stay out of it. Throughout the entire controversy, until Moshe and his brother Aharon, the High Priest, were affirmed as the leaders, I remained inside my tent. I did not go out even once. And you, my dear grandson, should do the same. Learn a lesson for life: Whenever there is divisiveness, keep away. Lock yourself in your house if necessary so that you are not forced to join one side!"
Apparently this advice stood the grandson of Rabbi Teitelbaum in good stead. Some years later, when he witnessed a dispute between his own Rebbe (the Sanzer) and the children of Rabbi Chaim Halbertstam of Sanz, he refused to get involved in the incident, and would not support either of the disputing parties. When quizzed on why he did not support his own Rebbe, he replied "The Rebbe is great, but he is not greater than Moshe Rebbeinu! I learned from my grandfather not to get embroiled in quarrels, even if it involves Moses himself!" [see "Reincarnation and Judaism: The Journey of the Soul" by DovBer Pinson, and "Gut Woch" by Avrohom Barash]. Regarding the third incarnation, it appears that the Yismach Moshe lived at the time of the desolation of the First Temple, but we are informed that he did not disclose anything regarding this to his followers. However, we are told that he was identified as having been the Prophet Jeremiah who prophesied the destruction of the Temple, and his contemporaries maintained that the soul of the Prophet still resided in him.
As said, Rabbi Teitelbaum was considered a most remarkable miracle rabbi, i.e. wonder-working tzaddik or simply a "practical kabbalist." In this regard, we might recall the saga of his meeting with the 9 year old Lajos Kossuth whom he cured from a childhood illness. Kossuth became Governor General of Hungary in 1848, and was also leader of the Hungarian Revolution. He is not only considered a great hero, but was greatly beloved for his fair behaviour towards all the citizens of his country, Jews and gentiles alike. As it is, when the Hungarian War of Independence failed, Kossuth was exiled to Turkey where he died in Rodosto in 1894. Regarding the meeting of the good Rabbi with the young Kossuth, a rather self-indulgent newspaper reporter, who wrote as if he had personally witnessed the incident he delineated, and whose beligerent intentions to besmirch the Rabbi is plainly visible, wrote the following article titled "Kossuth and the Rabbi" which was published in the Jewish Chronicle (December 14, 1849), and afterwards republished in several British Papers. The article reads:
"The following sketch, taken out of Kossuth's boyhood, which he derived from an authentic source, affords a characteristic illustration of that sympathy which the old and pious Jews manifested for their agitator up to the last hour of his dictatorship. Whilst patriotism animated the younger branches, whilst considerate calculations stimulated middle-aged men, cabalistic interpretations actuated the hoary and the aged.
Kossuth's father was an attorney, and resided in a northern department of Hungary, chiefly inhabited by Jewish emigrants from Poland, who have settled there. Among these settlers there is a sect called 'Chassidim' (the pious), who are known by their long gowns, fur caps, and curly locks - their appearance being altogether different from that of native Jews. Kossuth's father conducted a vexatious lawsuit against the Chief Rabbi of Aphely. The cause of it is not known, but it lasted many years, and was carried on with great obstinacy by both parties. In the course of the process, two sons of the attorney died, and, very shortly after, the father also. Prejudice and bigotry spread a report to the effect that this heavenly visitation was in consequence of a curse by the Rabbi; and even the Catholics and Calvinists began to dread the power of the Jewish ecclesiastic. The sick and unfortunate of all religious professions flocked to the Rabbi's house, to be cured and assisted by his wondrous spells.
The Rabbi enjoyed the greatest respect and reverence: he was a shrewd and experienced man, and turned the ignorance of the people to his advantage, as is not unfrequently done by political and ecclesiastical leaders of other creeds. The widow of the attorney, fearing that her last boy, Louis Kossuth, would also fall a victim to the curse of the Rabbi, was induced by maternal love to pay a visit to the bearded Rabbi, and seek his pardon for the offence given to him by her late husband. The Rabbi received the sad widow very graciously, and even favorably, which emboldened the mother to request a blessing for her son. The shrewd Rabbi hesitated, gazed at the boy, and conversed with him. Veracity and high spirit then already distinguished the lad, and the respectful confidence with which young Kossuth surveyed the Rabbi and his suite, had a favorable effect on the venerable ecclesiastic. We omit to portray the state of mind of the wise Rabbi, the anxious mother, and the high-minded lad at that moment - we leave this to a more poetical pen than ours. We will but state the fact, that the Rabbi laid his hands on the head of the child and blessed him. This was considered so great an event in the country, that the family of Kossuth carefully noted down the Psalm quoted by the Rabbi, which was the 60th, and the passage, verse 4, 'Natutta liraecha nes lehisnoses mipne Koshet Selah.' - ('Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth.') The Rabbi then impressed on Kossuth's youthful mind not to entertain hostile feelings towards the poor Jews: this injunction was obeyed, and even at school Louis Kossuth distinguished himself by tolerance. These little traits, connected with the boy's growing up a bright and vigorous man, gave the Rabbi a great name and authority.
When Kossuth commenced his political career, he expressed himself at once liberally towards the Jews, who understood how to keep Kossuth's attachment alive, by continually chanting the renowned verse in the synagogues and on all solemn occasions. Kossuth soon promised the Jews the boon of emancipation. He loved the Jews, and they loved him. They shed their best blood in the struggle for Hungary's independence; they rendered him many services, and even his private secretary was a Jew. The emancipation of the Jews in Hungary was proclaimed at Szegedin just before the Russian invasion. The Austrian Government saw the necessity of soothing the fermenting element. Stadion, who had an opportunity, during his residence in Poland, to study the Jewish character, recognised the danger of driving the Jews ( a body of people full of mind and courage), back into their Gheto. It was known at Vienna that Pillersdorf's fall was owing to the non-execution of the principles of religious liberty embodied in his constitution. The Cabinet of Schwarzenberg have acted more wisely, and have carried out the principle to its fullest extent; but the attachment of the Jews to Louis Kossuth remains unabated. The enlightened adore him for his capacious mind, whilst the orthodox revere him on account of the blessing of the Rabbi."
Be that as it may, whilst this report is heavily embellished with unfounded conjectures regarding Rabbi Teitelbaum's motives, the important point is that the good Rabbi did not only cure the young Lajos Kossuth, but that he placed his hands on the head of the child and blessed him with Psalm 60:6 (4), the Hebrew text of which transliterated reads "Natata lirei'echa nes l'hitnoses mipnei koshet selah" ("Thou hast given a banner to them that fear Thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth. Selah"). Apparently the Yishmach Moshe was punning on the term "Koshet" ("truth") in reference to "Kossuth." We are informed that Rabbi Teitelbaum did not only bless the child, but also "prophesied his future greatness." I am reminded of a remark I recently chanced upon, which was made by an individual who wanted "to show somewhat more clearly the religious opinions of the great chief, who so successfully roused the spirit of his countrymen to endeavour to achieve a glorious freedom." In this regard he extracted "from the New York Tribune a prayer, which Kossuth is said to have made on the field of battle," and added "we rather think that pious churchmen will hereafter throw doubts on Kossuth's orthodoxy, as he appears to pray in the manner of Jews, to the 'Almighty God of heaven, earth, and seas'." Here is the prayer which was published on July 28, 1849 in the New York Tribune, and which we are told was offered by Kossuth as he knelt "amid the multitude, at the graves of the Magyar heroes who fell in the battle of the Rapoylna, and was originally published in the Opposition, a journal of Pesht." It reads:
“Almighty Lord! God of the warriors of Arpad! Look down from Thy starry throne upon Thy imploring servant, from whose lips the prayer of millions ascends to Thy heaven, praising the unsearchable power of Thine omnipotence. O God, over me shines Thy sun, and beneath me repose the relics of my fallen heroic brethren; above my head the sky is blue, and under my feet the earth is dyed red with the holy blood of the children of our ancestors. Let the animating beams of Thy sun fall here, that flowers may spring up from the blood, so that these hulls of departed beings may not moulder unadorned. God of our fathers, and God of the nations! hear and bless the voice of our warriors, and with the arm and the soul of brave nations thunder to break the iron hand of tyranny as it forges its chains. As a free man I kneel on these fresh graves, by the remains of my brothers. By such a sacrifice as theirs, Thy earth would be consecrated were it all stained with sin. O God! on this holy soil above these graves no race of slaves can live. O Father! Father of our fathers! Mighty over myriads! Almighty God of the heaven, the earth, and the seas! From these bones springs a glory whose radiance is on the brow of my people. Hallow their dust with Thy grace, that the ashes of my fallen heroic brethren may rest in peace! Leave us not, Great God of battles! In the holy name of the nations, praised be Thy omnipotence. Amen.”
Getting back to Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum and his activities as "Practical Kabbalist," we are informed the Rabbi wrote many amulets amongst the services he rendered to the community. I am currently analysing two kameot attributed to him, which, like the following one, were included in "The Book of Seals and Amulets":
I have also noticed recently an "incantation against the evil eye" attributed to the Yishmach Moshe for sale on a website auctioning Judaica. We might note that Rabbi Teitelbaum's amulet writing skills did not always result in good returns, so to speak. In 1822 he was accused of suppying amulets to individuals jailed on libel charges, in order to aid them in escaping their incarceration. When confronted with this matter, the Yishmach Moshe responded that the amulets were actually substitutes for mezuzot, the purpose of which were to protect those who carried them against dark forces, e.g. demons. Whatever the case may be, I am certainly most grateful to have had the opportunity to pay homage at the gravesite of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the Yishmach Moshe, and to have done so in the company of a wonderful Companion!