|Biography of Rabbe Elimelech of Lizensk|
|Biography of Rabbe Elimelech of Lizensk|
Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk
Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum of Lizensk, (born near Tykocin, Galicia 1717, died Leżajsk, Galicia 1787) better known as “Rabbe Elimelech of Lizensk,” (Lizensk is the Yiddish language name for the town, while Leżajsk is the Polish spelling) was a Chassidic master and leader in the third generation of the movement, as well as the author of the central Chassidic work, the “Noam Elimelech.” Amongst the adherents of the Chassidic traditions he is referred to with the deferential title of “The Rabbi, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk. He is considered to be one of the central founders of the Chassidic movement in Galicia and Poland. Rabbi Elimelech spread the philosophy of Chassidism throughout Galicia. From his home in Lizensk, he reigned over a large community of Chassidic followers who lived in the shadow of his personality and deeds.
Reb Elimelech Weisblum was born in 1717 (5477 in the Jewish calendar) a little village near the town of Tykocin, Galicia, to Mirl (Mirish) and Rabbi Eliezer Lipa Lipman. Rabbi Eliezer Lipa and his wife were financially well-off small town merchants, and they used their resources to engage in charity-work and good deeds. Elimelech was the eldest of the six siblings born to his father and mother. He developed a special relationship to his older half-brother Meshulam Zusya, son of his mother’s previous marriage, who would in time become a great master in his own right, Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol.
The two boys engaged in Torah-study together, and after learning in the Talmud and commentaries, they began still in their youths to learn the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, as per the pedagogical philosophy of the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak ben Shlomo Luria Ashkenazi). (1) (2) The two brothers spent eight-years travelling in self-imposed exile, wandering from town to town spreading Torah and inspiring people to mend their ways and repenting for the sake of the entire Jewish people and the exiled Shechinah, or Divine Spirit. This period is recognized as a genre in Chassidic storytelling known as “the Holy Brothers.” During this time they lived a life of hardship, poverty, penance and fasting. However, Rabbi Elimelech would later instruct his followers that they should not imitate those practices of his, as they would not lead them on a path to perfection. In the course of his journeys, he joined with his older brother for studies in the town of Równe under the tutelage of the Chassidic movement’s second leader and master, the Maggid of Mezeritch.
After studying with the Maggid of Mezeritch, Rabbi Elimelech returned to Galicia where he worked to spread the philosophy of Chassidism despite the strenuous opposition of the Mitnagdim, the opponents to Chassidic influence in Jewish communal life.
Rabbi Elimelech passed away in Lizensk on the 21st of Adar, 5547, (1787 CE), and was succeeded in the town’s rabbinate by his son, Rabbi Eleazar.
Rabbi Elimelech was married in Szeniawa to Sprinza (Esperanza), daughter of Rabbi Aharon Rokach Margolioth, and niece of Rabbi Eleazar Rokach. She bore him children, but ultimately died prematurely. After her passing, he married to Gittel, daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Margolioth. Rabbi Elimelech’s nephew was Rabbi Meshulam Zusya of Safed, who was named after his brother, and who was to be patriarch to the Kahane rabbinical dynasty. His brother-in-law was Rabbi Yehoshua of Szeniawa, father to Rabbi Yaakov of Tyczyn, author of the “Birkat Yaakov” on “Choshen Mishpat.”
Rabbi Elimelech’s eldest son was Rabbi Eleazar, named for his mother’s uncle, Rabbi Eleazar Rokach. Rabbi Eleazar declined to fill his father’s position of Chassidic leader after his death. He compiled and edited the “Noam Elimelech,” in which are also included correspondences with his father. He died on the 28th of Tammuz, 5566. His other children were Rabbi Lipa Eliezer of Chemelnick, Rabbi Yaakov of Maglanitza, Esther Etil, and Mirish.
Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk’s primary composition is the “Noam Elimelech,” which is among the first great Chassidic works; it teaches the principles of his lifelong philosophy. Every Shabbat during the third meal, Rabbi Elimelech would give over to his students a lecture on the weekly Torah-portion. His son, Eleazar, would memorize the lectures and copy them down after the Shabbat. Eleazar showed the work to his father and received his blessing; however Eleazar did not print the compilation of lectures and produce the book until after his father’s death, in accordance with his father’s mystical reasoning-based instructions, and despite the pleas of his students for the work. Over 50 editions have since been published.
The “Noam Elimelech” is divided into two parts: an exegetical commentary on the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and the “Yalkut Shoshana,” a commentary on the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, the Books of Prophets and Writings, as well as on the teachings of the Jewish sages.
The composition’s original printed text displays asterisks in seemingly random places above various words. Chassidic traditions maintain that these asterisks relay great meaning, and so they have remained in subsequent printings. Rabbi Dov Ehrmann writes in his book “Devarim Areivim”:
“In the first edition of the sefer [book], there are in many places small stars which allude to some secret meaning.”
The Klausenberger Rebbe once said that the stars in the heavens are a commentary on the stars in the Rabbi Elimelech’s “Noam Elimelech.”
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says in his book, “Likutei Moharan,” that:
“The level of holiness of the holy Rabbi Elimelech is transcendent high above anything seen or understood within his book.”
A student of Rabbi Elimelech, the Maggid of Kozhnitz, Rabbi Yisroel Hopsztajn, is reported by his son not to have ever begun the Shabbat without first learning some from the “Noam Elimelech.” Another student, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, said that only on the eve of the holy Shabbat, and only after a purifying immersion in the mikvah, or ritual bath, could he begin to comprehend the depth of wisdom of Torah in the book.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi referred to the “Noam Elimelech” as the “Book for the Righteous.”
Yitzchak Ginsburgh in his book, “Transforming Darkness into Light: Kabbalah and Psychology” talks about three main Chassidic compositions and describes each as serving a different type of person:
The Likutei Moharan, by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, is described as a book for giving hope and encouragement to those trapped in problems, through the Rabbi’s personal and creative articulation of problems in life.
The Tanya, by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidism, is considered a resource for people of average level. Its focus is on a coupling of intellectual comprehension and of esoteric understanding.
Rabbi Elimelech’s “Noam Elimelech” is held as the handbook of a righteous Master of Chassidism. His book teaches those special few the path to both mystical leadership in Chassidism and temporal leadership of the lay flock. The development of the phenomenon of the Tzaddik, or righteous master, as a concept in Chassidic thought attached to the Rabbi’s leadership position, was significantly influenced by Rabbi Elimelech’s book.
In the book Rabbi Elimelech stressed an idea that the Tzaddik’s role is “to give life to all the worlds by virtue of his Divine soul.” He also believed that the Tzaddik’s personality should play a central role to the Chassidic follower.
Chassidism subsequently adopted the book as a central pillar of study, and it is weekly learned by many on the Shabbat. It was also used as a charm for women bearing children, and the book would be placed beneath the birthing woman’s pillow.
Endorsements of the book by the greatest leaders of the community heaped praises on Rabbi Elimelech and his work.
Rabbi Elimelech is also famed for another, small composition known by its Yiddish name, “Zetl HaKatan,” which means “little note.” The work contains seventeen instructions for a pious Jew’s behavior in daily life.
He also wrote a list of customs for devout practice called “Hanhagot HaAdam.”
Rabbi Elimelech composed a supplication meant to be said as a preparation for Shachrit, the daily morning prayer service. The prayer bears his name, “Tefillat Rabbi Elimelech.”
Beliefs & Legacy
Rabbi Elimelech was known as a righteous Master of Chassidism. He spent his life studying and teaching the Torah, and especially encouraging the common Jews to draw closer in repentance and return to G-d. He was an ascetic and avoided partaking in alcohol. Rabbi Elimelech engaged constantly in kindness and good deeds, and distributed all of his wealth as charity for the poor. He elevated the souls of his Chassidim and raised the spirits of those who sought his blessings, and his seat at Lizensk became the center for those who pursued spiritual growth.
Rabbi Elimelech is contrasted with his older brother Rabbi Zusha, where the latter is portrayed as a charismatic “saintly simpleton.” At the same time, tradition relays that only Rabbi Zusha had the fortitude to remain in the same room as his teacher, the Maggid of Mezeritch, when the Maggid would relay an exhilarating lecture. Other students are reported to have fled the room or passed out in ecstasy. (3)
A story is told from the two brothers’ wanderings and their reflections on the Divine:
Rabbi Zusha and Rabbi Elimelech were rooming in an inn. Nightly, non-Jewish peasants would come into the brothers’ their room and mockingly and derisively beat the one who lay nearest the fireplace, Rabbi Zusha. After several nights of the same treatment, the brothers changed places, as Rabbi Elimelech suggested that his brother had experienced enough “Divine Punishment.” The next nights when the non-Jewish peasants came to mock and beat, one of them decided that the “one by the fire” had had enough, and that they should instead beat the other brother. Rabbi Zusha was beaten and mocked again, and concluded to his brother that the will of G-d couldn’t be avoided.
A story illustrating how Rabbi Elimelech was perceived by his students is relayed:
Once the time came to rouse Rabbi Elimelech from his slumber, but none of his students dared do the deed. Finally they called his brother, Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol. He opened the door to Rabbi Elimelech’s room and with his hand covered the scroll on the doorpost, the mezuzah. Rabbi Elimelech immediately awoke. The students later asked Rabbi Zusha about what effect the mezuzah scroll had had on Rabbi Elimelech. Rabbi Zusha explained that his brother constantly envisions the holy name of G-d, however while sleeping, he could not do so. Instead, Rabbi Elimelech focused on the mezuzah scroll and the holy name written within. When Rabbi Zusha covered the scroll, Rabbi Elimelech immediately awoke so as to again consciously envision the name.
Rabbi Elimelech’s primary students were the Seer of Lublin, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, the Maggid of Kozhnitz, Rabbi Yisroel Hopsztajn, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, and Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt. These four pupils were his successors and continued to spread the legacy of Rabbi Elimelech, each one of them in a different and unique way. They eventually established their own Chassidic courts of thousands of Chassidim, and their dynasties are preserved to this day.
In addition, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensks’s students also included Rabbi Naftali Zvi of Ropshitz, Rabbi David Lelover, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, and his son, Rabbi Eleazar Weisblum. His youngest student was the “Maor veHaShemesh,” Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein of Krakow.
Rabbi Elimelech’s unique path of pure fear of G-d, extraordinary humbleness and exceptional self-sacrifice for each and every Jew drew countless Chassidic followers to his court which had profound and everlasting influence on them. Thousands of followers continued in his path and sought out his blessings, his guidance and his advice. But above all, they absorbed his ways of repentance, improvement and spiritual growth.
Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin said of him:
“Five hundred years prior to his birth the world already benefited from his merits, his two hands were like the Two Tablets and his ten fingers were like the Ten Commandments.”
The perception of Rabbi Elimelech, his great modesty, and the esteem in which he was held is illustrated in a story told about the author of the Tanya and founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch stream of Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi:
Rabbi Schneur Zalman was once visiting in the home of a Rabbi who was a Mitnaged, or opponent of Chassidism. Rabbi Schneur Zalman saw Rabbi Elimelech’s composition, the “Noam Elimelech,” lying discarded on the floor beneath a bench, and he announced to his host, “Know that even were the author of this book himself to be discarded under a bench by you, and he wouldn’t say a word about his humiliation. From this you should learn just how great this book’s author really is.”
Rabbi Elimelech’s Death & Tomb in Chassidic Thought
Upon Rabbi Elimelech’s gravestone there is no year of death. Instead, the Hebrew acronym for “rest in peace” (תנצב”ה) is written, which has the same gematria, or numerical value, as the Hebrew year of his passing, 5,447 (תקמ”ז).
In many Chassidic traditions, confessional prayers are omitted on the anniversary of Rabbi Elimelech’s passing.
It is said that when the hour of Rabbi Elimelech’s passing from the world drew near, he laid his hands on his students’ heads, and to four of them passed on his spiritual strengths:
To the Seer of Lublin, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, he invested illuminated eyes. He was also asked to ensure the education of Rabbi Elimelech’s nephew, Zvi Elimelech Schapira of Dynów.
To the Maggid of Kozhnitz, Rabbi Yisroel Hopsztajn, he gave capabilities of the heart.
To Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, he bequeathed the ability of the soul in his intellect.
To Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, he left the power of speech.
After his passing, Rabbi Elimelech was interred in the city of his death, Lizhensk, Galicia. The site became the focus of adoration and pilgrimage of thousands of Jews from around the world.
There is a tradition in which Rabbi Elimelech promises that whoever will visit his grave will be deserving of salvation and will not pass away from this world without first repenting. A multitude of tales are preserved in Chassidic lore in which Jews would reach a ripe old age even after illness so severe that they begged death’s embrace. They would remain alive until they repented wholly and completely, and only then would they find eternal peace.
The tradition is one reason why so many Jews embark on pilgrimages from near and far in order to prostrate themselves on Rabbi Elimelech’s grave.
Another tradition relays that Rabbi Elimelech requested that he not be raised too high in heaven once his spirit passed on, as he wanted to remain as close as possible to the Children of Israel in this, the temporal world.
A story is told in Chassidic circles of Rabbi Elimelech’s tomb in the Holocaust of European Jewry:
When the Nazis entered Lizhansk they found a group of Jews praying at Rabbi Elimelech’s tomb. When the Jews saw the Nazis they dispersed in a terror and the Nazi soldiers approached the tomb so as to desecrate it. The soldiers first removed the stone cap from above the grave and then began digging. When they uncovered Rabbi Elimelech’s corpse, they saw a body pure and whole as on the day of his burial, and whose face radiated a heavenly aura. Upon witnessing the holy phenomena, the Nazi soldiers themselves then dispersed in a terror, and thus were the Jews who had been praying spared certain doom.
Following the end of the Second World War, the current building housing the tomb was built. In Chassidic tradition such a building is referred to as an ohel, or tent.
Pilgrimage to his Tomb
Already during Rabbi Elimelech’s lifetime, traveling to Lizensk was considered a segulah for salvations, and so Rabbi Elimelech’s tomb in Lizensk acts as a magnet to thousands of Jews seeking comfort and salvation, and is filled with worshippers throughout the year, but especially before the Jewish High Holidays and the anniversary of his passing, the 21st of Adar.
The Chassidic master Rabbi Shlomo HaKohen Rabinowicz of Radomsk, author of the “Tiferet Shlomo,” is said to have stated that “on the anniversary day of Rabbi Elimelech’s death, the Rabbi Rabbi Elimelech stands upon his tomb and blesses with both hands those visiting his grave.” Despite being a Kohen, or Jewish priest, someone ritually forbidden from entering most cemeteries, he traveled to the tomb of Rabbi Elimelech, and encouraged other Chassidim to travel there as well.
Until 2009, it was difficult for Kohens to visit the tomb, as the boundaries of the old cemetery were unmarked, so that a Kohen might enter it by mistake, and transgress the Jewish-religious prohibition. In that year, historical research was undertaken which has helped delineate the cemetery’s borders somewhat, and has enabled easier access to Kohens.
Due to the thousands of worshippers who visit the tomb of Rabbi Elimelech, a number of facilities including a synagogue and study hall, or beit midrash, have been created for their service. A ritual bath, or mikvah, even operates there and is appropriately maintained, while the synagogue provides guests with a daily, warm lunch. With the exception of the anniversary of Rabbi Elimelech’s passing, when the tomb is kept open 24 hours a day, it is accessible only through coordination with the local guard.
The small town of Lizensk comes to life twice yearly during the aforementioned pilgrimage seasons. Thousands of Jews from around the world converge on the otherwise sleepy town in order to visit the tomb. Charter airline flights packed with worshippers are organized especially for the anniversary, some of whom return home after flying in on the same day. During this time rooms in town, as well as safes for valuables, are available to cater to the many religious visitors. The synagogue and its kitchen function on overtime around the clock to supply the influx with hot, mehadrin kosher meals.