“Educate a youth according to his way; even when he grows old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)
In this letter, I will begin to tell you the special story of Shmuel Aharon Yudelevitch, a spiritually-sensitive and gifted boy who grew up during the early 20th century. His parents, Reb Shabsai and Shaina Miriam, had established a home in Kerem, one of the new neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and their home was devoted to Torah and Torah-inspired acts of chesed (loving-kindness). Their acts of chesed included hospitality; thus, their table was always crowded with guests, many of them elderly Jews who had left their homes in Europe and elsewhere to spend their final years studying Torah in Jerusalem. One of their regular guests was Reb Shmuel, who ate a daily meal in their home. He was a quiet man, and his spiritual devotion led Reb Shabsai and Shaina Miriam to feel that he was a hidden tzaddik, perhaps one of the thirty-six hidden tzaddikim whose righteousness upholds the entire world.
Before Shmuel Aharon was born, his parents had two children who died when they were infants, and the couple began to despair about their future. Their daily guest, Reb Shmuel, became aware of their despair, and he gave them hope with the following message:
“I promise you that you will have a son. And this son will live a long and healthy life, and will become a great gaon (genius in Torah), a tzaddik, and a holy man. He will illuminate the world with his words of Torah.”
Reb Shmuel passed away soon after his promise. Less than a year later, Shaina Miriam gave birth to a son, and he was given the name, “Shmuel Aharon.” Two years later, Shaina Miriam gave birth to a girl, and her parents named her, “Basya.”
As a young boy, Shmuel Aharon already had a special aura about him. He had an aristocratic delicacy combined with an emotional sensitivity that was rare in a young child. On one occasion, Reb Shabsai had a heart-to-heart talk with his son. Reb Shabsai encouraged Shmuel Aharon to use his time wisely and fulfill his potential – “to become a true man.” And he added:
“My beloved son, before you were born, I was promised that you would become a true servant of Hashem. I am certain that you have all the abilities to become a great Torah scholar – but still, we must remember that Esav (Yaakov’s wicked brother) was also blessed with superior talents. And we know what happened to him. You must therefore make sure that, as you grow older, you continue to direct your talents towards spiritual goals.”
During World War One, Turkish officials in Jerusalem arrested and imprisoned Jews who had citizenship rights in the allied countries that Turkey and Germany were fighting. Among those imprisoned was Reb Shabsai. He and other prisoners were brutally beaten; moreover, they were exiled to Syria, with most of them being forced to walk the entire journey in their weakened state. At the end of 1917, Reb Shabsai died in Syria. Shmuel Aharon was then eleven years old.
The poverty-stricken Shaina Miriam continued to help others who had less than she did. She later met a kind and wealthy man who became her second husband: Reb Yosef Buchbinder. Originally from the northern city of Tsfas, he was a widower who made his home in Kfar Tavor, a small agricultural village in the Upper Galilee. Reb Yosef had many relatives in Jerusalem, and on one of his visits there a relative suggested that he meet Shaina Miriam. Her sterling qualities won him over almost immediately, and he was willing to become a devoted “father” to her two children. It was not easy for Shaina Miriam to enter a marriage which would cause her to leave Jerusalem, the place where she grew up and where she had relatives, but she decided to marry this kind man who would support her and her children.
When she told Shmuel Aharon about her decision and that they would be moving to Kfar Tavor, he hugged his mother tightly and whispered in her ear, “I am so happy for you.” Shaina Miriam slowly extricated herself from Shmuel Aharon’s arms. Looking straight into his eyes, she slowly told him: “It will be good for all of us, my son. Not just for me. We will all be happy there in our new home, and we will have plenty to eat.” To her shock, he then told his mother that he wished to remain in Jerusalem, where he could best advance in his Torah studies. He said that he could sleep in the Jerusalem home of Grandma Chaya. He also promised that he would visit his mother and sister during school vacations, which included the Festival of Succos. When his mother protested and indicated that he was abandoning her, he held his mother’s hand tightly in his own, and he said:
“No Mama, I am not abandoning you, not at all. I am just doing what Tattie (Daddy) would have wanted me to do. He once told me that before King David passed away, he told his son Shlomo, ‘I am going the way of all mankind, and you should remain strong and be a man’ (1 Kings 2:2). If I join you, Mama, in Kfar Tavor, I will become a farmer and not fulfill my potential. I will never become a talmid chacham. (The term talmid chacham – disciple of the wise – refers to someone who becomes a Torah scholar through becoming a disciple of those who are great in Torah wisdom.)
Shaina Miriam was always proud of her son’s loving devotion to Torah study. She hugged him tightly and said: “If that is your reason for staying my son, then you have my blessings. Learn Torah, grow in Torah, and become everything that you can be for the sake of the Torah.”
Shmuel Aharon remained in Jerusalem, and he later began to sleep in the home of his friend, Aharon Levine. The people of his neighborhood were kind to him, and the Rav of the neighborhood took a personal interest in his welfare. In addition, his cheder (elementary Torah school) was one place where he always felt at home. The children in his cheder had become his second family, and the melamed (teacher) was a father figure for him to emulate. Shmuel Aharon was an excellent pupil who reviewed his studies constantly, and it was in the cheder that his talents were really able to shine.
He felt a need for a change, however, one morning, less than a year before his bar-mitzvah. Shmuel Aharon’s rebbe must have been upset for some reason, for he walked into class that morning and sternly warned the children, “You had better be careful today. Anyone who misbehaves will be severely punished.”
Shmuel Aharon could not understand how the rebbe could say such a thing. He thought to himself: If a pupil disturbs the class, then of course the rebbe has a right to threaten punishment. But to threaten punishment because the rebbe himself is in a bad mood…it just did not seem fair. In fact, several years before, Shmuel Aharon had been unfairly treated by one of his rebbes, when he was falsely and publicly accused of stealing a miniature Mishkan (Tabernacle) which the rebbe had built for the class; moreover, when the real culprit confessed, the rebbe never even apologized to Shmuel Aharon. Although this incident left a deep impression, this spiritually-sensitive boy did not become bitter or complain; however, now that his current rebbe came into the class in an angry mood, his mind was flooded with the memory of that painful episode.
That morning, Shmuel Aharon came to a decision. During recess, he left his cheder, which was located in the Old City, and he walked to the Etz Chaim cheder which was located in the Machaneh Yehudah neighborhood in the New City. As he entered the lobby, he was greeted with a warm Shalom Aleichem by the spiritual director of the cheder, Reb Aryeh Levin.
Reb Aryeh asked him: “With whom do I have the honor of speaking?”
Shmuel did not understand that Reb Aryeh was addressing him, as he had never been spoken to in such a manner before. “Excuse me?” was all he could say.
Reb Aryeh gently held Shmuel Aharon’s hand in his own. “With whom do I have the honor?” he again asked with a smile, his eyes sparkling. “I am privileged to meet you and I would be happy to know your name.”
“Shmuel Aharon Yudelevitch,” the boy replied.
Reb Areyeh asked: “Yudelevtich? Are you related to Reb Yitzchak Yaakov Yudelevitch of blessed memory?”
Shmuel Aharon answered: “He was my grandfather.”
Reb Aryeh said: “Really! Your grandfather was an unusual person. I have heard amazing stories about him. I was told that when he was only a young boy he walked from Ponovezh, in Lithuania, all the way to Romania, to the Black Sea, and hid in a ship coming to Eretz Yisrael. I also heard that he was a tremendous baal chesed (master of loving-kindness), and that he suffered greatly in his lifetime.”
Reb Aryeh then asked Shmuel Aharon about his father, and the boy said: “My father was Reb Shabsai, of blessed memory.”
Reb Aryeh replied: “Will his honor please forgive me? I didn’t mean to say anything that would cause his honor pain. Come, perhaps his honor would be willing to join me in my room, where we can continue our discussion without being disturbed.”
In Reb Aryeh’s small office, Shmuel Aharon started to talk. He had no idea to whom he was speaking, or what position this man held in the Etz Chaim cheder, but he did know that this warm and loving person was carefully listening to every word that he said.
The words poured out of the sensitive boy in a torrent of emotion. He told Reb Aryeh about the suffering of his family, his mother’s remarriage, and his current challenges living without parents. He cried as he related the story of how he had once been suspected of stealing the miniature Mishkan, and his tears flowed on as he described how his current rebbe had warned the class that they were in danger of receiving a severe punishment. Reb Aryeh listened with empathy and understanding, and his eyes radiated warmth and love. “And now,” asked Reb Aryeh, “What can I do for his honor?”
“I came here to ask,” said Shmuel Aharon, who finally understood whose honor Reb Aryeh was referring to, “if it would be possible for me to continue my studies in the Etz Chaim cheder.”
Reb Aryeh asked him his age, and Shmuel Aharon told him that he was twelve years old. Reb Aryeh said: “So in less than a year his honor will be having a bar mitzvah. Wonderful! I will have to check into the matter, and I hope that by tomorrow I will be able to answer his honor. Will his honor be able to come to the cheder again tomorrow, before classes begin?
“I will be here,” answered Shmuel Aharon. “And whom should I ask for if I don’t see you when I come?”
Reb Aryeh replied: “Ask for Aryeh Levin. Here I am called the menahel ruchani (spiritual director). But don’t worry, hopefully you will find me here, and you won’t have to go looking for me. And now, my dear child, I have one important question to ask his honor: Where is his honor’s lunch bag?”
Reb Aryeh understood from Shmuel Aharon’s expression that he had not brought a lunch with him. Reb Aryeh then said:
“And so, my dear child, I would like to ask his honor to do me a favor and join me at home for the midday meal. I see that his honor would like to remind me that it is still a full hour until lunch time. I am aware of that. Let us take advantage of this hour to learn gemara (the text of the Talmud). Which gemara is his honor studying in cheder?”
The next hour flew by. Shmuel Aharon did not feel as though Reb Aryeh was testing him; he felt as though they were talking to each other as one talmid chacham speaking to another.
After the study session, Reb Aryeh took him to his small apartment in the Mishkenot neighborhood. “Good afternoon,” called out Reb Aryeh as he opened the front door. “Channah, come and meet the special guest I have brought home with me today, a very important guest. A real pearl.”
Reb Aryeh then said to Shmuel Aharon, “Meet my son Chaim Yaakov,” motioning towards a boy that seemed to be the same age as Shmuel Aharon.
Reb Aryeh said to his son: “And Chaim Yaakov, I would like you to meet Shmuel Aharon Yudelevitch, a brilliant talmid chacham. I had the pleasure of studying with him today.”
In later years, when both boys grew up and became noted Torah scholars, Rav Chaim Yaakov Levin recalled:
“I will never forget the first time that I met Rav Shmuel Aharon. We often had guests in our home – of all kinds and all ages. Yet when we saw how careful this young boy of twelve was to wash his hands properly, with loving attention to the halacha, and how he said the blessing slowly and with devotion, we were absolutely amazed. After he left, my mother turned to my father and said, “What can I tell you? You were absolutely right. We have never had such an important guest before.’ ”
The next morning, Shmuel Aharon came to the Ertz Chaim cheder an hour early, and Reb Aryeh was already there. “I’ve been waiting for you,” said Reb Aryeh, as he warmly extended his hand. “I hope you don’t mind that I am speaking to you in the second person rather than in the third. I feel that we are now friends, and friends speak to each other like this. Am I correct?”
Shmuel Aharon fought back a rush of tears. He was deeply moved by the very kind and very considerate way in which Reb Aryeh spoke to him.
Shmuel Aharon became a successful student at the Etz Chaim cheder, and he gained new joy in his Torah study, as this school placed a great emphasis on in-depth Torah study which inspired the students to ask questions. Shmuel Aharon amazed his teachers with such deep and perceptive questions that they themselves were often unable to answer. In the meanwhile, he continued to eat lunch, the main meal of the day, at the home of Reb Aryeh and Rebbetzen Channah. It was there that he basked in the warm family atmosphere and absorbed the sanctity that radiated from Reb Aryeh and his Rebbetzin.
Shmuel Aharon prayed each morning at a minyan which began before sunrise. It was there that he met Reb Zissel Chavez, an elderly talmid chacham who was a disciple of Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm, a noted sage of “Mussar” – Torah teachings related to ethics and character refinement. Reb Zissel and his wife had not been blessed with children; thus, when Reb Zissel discovered that Shmuel Aharon was a fatherless child, he approached Reb Aryeh and suggested that the young prodigy join him and his wife each afternoon for lunch. “We will adopt him as our own child,” said Reb Zissel.
It was difficult for Reb Aryeh to agree to such a plan, for both he and wife felt that it was a privilege to have Shmuel Aharon regularly join them at their table. “What can I say?” said Reb Aryeh after a long silence. “I realize that it is forbidden for me to think only of myself. In my house, he is just another one of the children, but in your house he will be treated as an only son.”
“So are you willing?” asked Reb Zissel. Reb Aryeh smiled and said that he would agree on two conditions: The first condition is that Shmuel Aharon would be served a nutritious daily meal with meat, so that he would have added strength. The second condition is that Shmuel Aharon himself would agree to the plan.
Reb Aryeh presented the idea to Shmuel Aharon in a sensitive manner. He suggested that Shmuel Aharon eat lunch at the home of this elderly couple for one week, and after that trial period it will be up to him to decide if he would like to continue. The boy agreed, and the elderly couple treated him royally. After the week was up, Shmuel Aharon asked Rav Aryeh if he could once again join him for lunch, and he mentioned that he had told Reb Zissel and his wife that he would not be coming that afternoon.
Reb Aryeh understood that he wanted to return, and he asked him whether he liked the food that they served. “It was delicious, but in a certain sense it was not enough,” replied Shmuel Aharon. And he added:
“For years I had always thought that if only I had plenty to eat, I would be happy. But now I view the world in a different light. I miss the warm atmosphere of the Rav’s home. Will the Rav allow me to return home – to return to my family?”
Reb Aryeh and Shmuel Aharon walked home together.
Although Shmuel Aharon no longer went to Reb Zissel and his wife for the main meal each day, he did recite Kaddish for them after they later passed away, and he honored their yahrtzeits every year, just as he did for his own parents. He remembered that he had spent an entire week eating in their home, and due to his Torah wisdom, he had a very deep understanding of the importance of gratitude.
To be continued.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
P.S. The above information is found in the book, “In Every Generation” – The Life and Legacy of the Gaon and Tzaddik, Rav Shmuel Aharon Yudelevitch. The author is Dovid Yudelevitch, a son of Rav Shmuel Aharon.
The opening section of this book tells the amazing story of the journey of Rav Shmuel Aharon’s grandfather, who at age ten, together with his two younger brothers, set out on a journey from Ponevezh, Lithuania to Jerusalem!
The publisher of the book is Feldheim: www.feldheim.com