King Solomon’s famous tribute to the “Woman of Valor” is found in Chapter 31 of the Book of Proverbs. The following verses from this tribute relate to the themes of this letter:
“She opened her hand to the poor and stretched out her hands to the destitute.” (Verse 20)
“She opened her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of loving-kindness was on her tongue.” (Verse 26)
“Charm is deceit and beauty is vain; a woman who reveres Hashem brings praise upon herself. Give her of the fruits of her handiwork; and let her be praised by her very own deeds.” (Verses 30, 31)
In this letter, I will introduce you to a great tzadekes – righteous woman: Channah Levin. She was also the wife of a great tzaddik, Rav Aryeh Levin, who was often referred to as Reb Aryeh, and I hope to write about his greatness in a future letter.
This letter is dedicated to the memory of my mother and teacher, Udel bas Yosef (Adeline Oboler). Her yahrzeit – the anniversary of her passing – is on the 24th of Adar, which this year falls on Wednesday, March 10.
Channah Levin, who passed away in 1952, was a beloved and respected chareidi woman who was known for her great devotion to acts of loving-kindness and for her strong faith. The following stories can serve as examples:
During her era, economic conditions in Jerusalem were usually very difficult, and beggars often made the rounds in search of food. The majority of the Jews of Jerusalem, including Reb Aryeh and Channah, were of very limited income, yet they tried to help these poverty-stricken individuals who were driven to begging. Channah Levin did more than just give them food; they were invited to eat at her table just like the members of the family.
In addition to the children of Reb Aryeh and Channah, there were other children living in the Levin home or who just came for meals, such as orphans or children whose parents were temporarily unable to take care of them. Despite the extra burden on her, Channah welcomed each child cheerfully and lovingly. This hospitality took place even during those periods of the first half of the 20th century when food was scarce in Jerusalem.
There were students of Torah who were engaged to be married but who could not afford a wedding hall. The Levin home therefore became the setting for the wedding ceremony, and there the guests were served by their smiling hostess, Channah. Like most people in Jerusalem, they did not have a large house, so how were they able to accommodate all the guests? I believe that the answer can be found in the following ancient teaching which we discussed in a previous letter: When there is unifying love, many people can be in one place and not feel overly crowded.
Channah also managed her own personal tzedakah fund from which she gave secretly and anonymously to needy people. She never even told Reb Aryeh the names of the people to whom she gave.
Reb Aryeh was in the habit of saying that all of his good qualities came to him from her strength. She never complained, and she had a power of faith that knew no bounds. Reb Aryeh once said, “If not for her, I could not possibly have withstood the days of hunger during the First World War.” And he added, “When it came to trusting the Holy One, Blessed is He, she was greater than I was; she surpassed me.”
In later years, Reb Aryeh often told of the troubles during the First World War, when starving people literally collapsed in the streets of Jerusalem. Food supplies were limited, and during this chaotic period, many people couldn’t even afford to buy food. The family of Reb Aryeh and Channah was also suffering. Once, their young children were sobbing piteously; they had eaten nothing in two days. There was, however, one possible source of help. There was one wealthy man in Jerusalem for whom Reb Aryeh had done favors in the past; and now, during the war, it was his practice to lend money to people in need. At his wife’s request, Reb Aryeh took several valuable holy books that he had and went to this man’s house to ask him for a loan against the pledge of the volumes. To Reb Aryeh’s surprise and dismay, the man simply and utterly refused. Reb Aryeh asked, “But why do you turn me away when you lend money to others?”
The man replied, “To others I must lend, because they know I am wealthy, and if I refuse they will resent it and bear a grudge against me. But as for you, I know you will hold no hatred in your heart against me if I refuse to give you a loan.”
Filled with utter despair, Reb Aryeh returned home as penniless as before. Seeing no way out, no hope left, he shut himself in his room and gave way to bitter tears. “Because I won’t bear a grudge of hate in my heart,” he cried, “they refuse to lend me anything, and I must be condemned to starve with my family?” Gently, his wife Channah came over to him with words of comfort and hope: “Aryeh, Aryeh! Where is your Jewish faith? Where is your trust in the Almighty? Just think a moment why that rich man would not give you any money. Is it because he does not have any? We know he is wealthy. Is it because he won’t give any loans? We know that he lends to all the people in need. Is it then because he will not trust you? You know that last month you went to knock on his door at midnight, walking barefoot in the streets of Jerusalem because there is not even a pair of shoes in your house, in order to return to him a gold coin that you found in the house after he had changed some money for you here into smaller coins.
“Very well,” she continued, “he knows that you are honest. Then why will he lend you nothing? We have to judge a person favorably. So what shall we do when we can find nothing favorable or good in what a person has done? We must conclude that something out of the ordinary is going on here. And so it must mean that Heaven prevented that rich man from lending you money, so that your help should come from somewhere else. Aryeh, ‘Cast your burden upon Hashem, and He will sustain you’ (Psalm 55:23).”
Reb Aryeh grew calm and stopped weeping. He understood that his wife was right. He had to draw strength from his faith. Incredibly, a short while later the postman came knocking on the door, bringing a letter from America. Reb Aryeh opened the envelope and found a ten-dollar check inside (worth then many more times its value today). His amazement grew all the greater when he read the letter that came with it:
The writer recalled that several years earlier, when Reb Aryeh happened to be in Petach Tikvah, a man had turned to him and said, “You look like your dear departed grandfather. I knew and admired the man”, and so they departed in friendship. Now it turned out that this American Jew had passed away; and in his will he had left instructions to send a check for ten dollars to Reb Aryeh.
Just now, at this dark hour of his life, the money arrived. Reb Aryeh realized how right his wife was: It was all Heaven’s doing, so that his rescue should come from a different source.
One of their young sons died, and during the seven days of her mourning, two women came to call and offer solace. They were quite jarred, however, by the calmness of this young mother during her mourning. As the afternoon wore on, Channah excused herself and went to the side to say the afternoon prayers. Her two visitors took the opportunity to hold a conversation in Russian, certain that the Yiddish-speaking Channah would not understand a word. In their talk, they agreed that she could not be quite right in the head. Otherwise, they concurred primly, how could she take the child’s death so calmly?
Her prayer concluded, Channah rejoined them, and to their surprise, she began to speak with them in flawless Russian, for she was an educated and accomplished linguist. She explained to them the following teachings of the Jewish faith regarding the death of close kin: The death occurs by Divine will; the soul of the departed person lives on in another realm of existence; and excessive grief (giving way to despair) is therefore inappropriate.
“It would seem,” Reb Aryeh used to say, “that she was stronger than I was in submitting to the yoke of Hashem’s sovereign rule and accepting suffering.”
She never raised her voice to her children, although at times, they drove her to anger, as children will. When they were very difficult, she would mutter in Yiddish, “You should only be well!” If some of the children began wrangling and squabbling, she would simply take hold of them and say, “Children, I beg of you: Don’t quarrel!”
As her family recalls, her life was like a praise-song to Hashem. She relished every moment of her life as His precious gift, even when her last illness brought pain. When she said her daily prayers, she was in exalted enthusiasm with sublime happiness.
Opposite her window, there was a small synagogue for Yemenite Jews. Even in the coldest weather, they would open their window in homage to her, so that she could hear their prayers and join in the responses.
Especially toward the end of her life, she achieved an inner peace and utter tranquility, despite all the illness and pain. She therefore became a source of great inspiration to all who knew her, including her doctors and nurses.
Once she told Reb Aryeh that she had a very disturbing dream; and she implored him to take her to the holy mystic Rav Shlomo Elyashav, to whom they were related by the marriage of their children. It later became clear that the dream revealed to her that the day of her leaving this world would be in 1952.
And so it was; in 1952, she left this world. In far-off America, before the news of her passing arrived, her daughter-in-law saw her in a dream. The tzadekes, Channah, was dressed in her special Shabbos clothes, walking in peace and serenity, and entering a beautiful garden where Rav Elijah, the famous Vilna Gaon, stood at the entrance to welcome her in. The woman awoke in agitation and related the dream to her husband, the son of Reb Aryeh and Channah. He felt mournful and grieved, and a few hours later, a telegram arrived from Jerusalem, informing him that his good, pious mother had passed on.
Reb Aryeh grieved for his beloved wife, and the following are excerpts from a tribute to her memory that he wrote soon after he lost her:
“In the Name of Hashem: My heart is in grief and my spirit mourns. For how shall I find consolation for my great misfortune when my greatest treasure, my crowning glory was taken from me? ...Who could ever describe her devotion and goodness? Another like her is hardly to be found – so pure of spirit, with a heart as wide in generosity as the entrance to a palace, with a sensitivity of loving-kindness and compassion that strove to give and help every step of the way. She had a cheerful smile for everyone, and spread out her compassion to reach every living being
“.… Above all, she watched her tongue, to a most extraordinary degree. Her pure precious spirit returned to its place of origin on high, as clean and spotless as on the day it descended into the world, but more shining, sparkling and radiant; more grace-filled and pure.”
As the years went by, his longing for her grew stronger and stronger. He once told Dr. Israel Eldad: “Physical details about her, even her physical appearance, become blurred and fade away. But to the same extent, her qualities of character shine even more brightly in my memory.”
Dr.Eldad visited Reb Aryeh, the widower, on Purim, as Reb Aryeh was his rabbi and teacher. Dr. Eldad noticed the picture of a beautiful young girl standing on his table, and he asked. “Whose picture is that”?
Reb Aryeh told him that it was a picture of his dear departed wife, and he explained why it was now on the table: “Today is Purim. Everyone is happy and rejoicing. So I too, when I gaze at her portrait, have pleasure and joy.”
May the loving deeds and strong faith of this great tzadekes of Jerusalem continue to be a source of merit, blessing, and inspiration for all the Family of Israel.
And may all the Family of Israel be blessed with the light, joy, and shalom of Shabbos.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
P.S. The above information is found in the biography of Reb Aryeh Levin, “A tzaddik in our time” by Simcha Raz. It is published by Feldheim:www.feldheim.com