Seven blessed years: mourning the Rebbe of Sadigura, Rav Yisroel Moshe Friedman ztz”l
Photos: Shuki Lehrer, Mishpacha archives
That’s all it’s been, but they were “seven years of plenty,” years of spiritual abundance and bounty. Years in which a vibrant, passionate, learned rebbe led and breathed new life into a chassidic court that dates back to the earliest tzaddikim.
Reb Avraham Yaakov Zilbershlag, a maggid shiur in the Sadigur beis medrash and transcriber of the Rebbe’s Torah, reflects on the uniqueness of the dynasty.
“Sadigura,” he says, “boasts an uninterrupted lineal succession, father to son, starting with the Baal Shem Tov’s closest talmid and successor, the Maggid of Mezritch zy”a, and continuing to this very day, son following father, so that the heilige Ruzhiner’s surname, Friedman, came down through the generations. Even within the courts of Ruzhin, this is unique.”
But Rav Yisroel Moshe, who passed away last week at 65 after an illness, had so much more than the right last name. The seventh rebbe in the dynasty, and third in Eretz Yisrael, lived up to the exalted station of a Sadigura Rebbe in every way.
Over the past century, only three admorim reigned in the court: Rav Mordechai Sholom Yosef (known as the Knesses Mordechai), who led for 66 years; Rav Avraham Yaakov (the Ikvei Abirim), who led for 33 years; and the most current Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Moshe — the name Yisroel was for the holy Ruzhiner, while Moshe was in memory of the Rebbe of Boyan-Krakow — who led for just seven and a half years.
“Those familiar with the history can’t help but notice the connection,” reflects Rabbi Zilbershlag, “because unlike most of the rebbes of Ruzhin, who concealed their greatness and knowledge, Reb Moshe’nu of Boyan was revered as a lamdan and gaon, serving as nasi of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. Anyone who met him saw immediately that what interested him was a chiddush in learning — and our Rebbe, who carries his name, was unique in this way as well.”
Torah Defined Him
The Rebbe’s journey to greatness was carefully laid out.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1955, where his grandfather, the Knesses Mordechai, had been forced to move for medical reasons, and where his father, Rav Avraham Yaakov, had a shul in Crown Heights during the 1960s. Several years later, though, the Knesses Mordechai returned to Eretz Yisrael and his grandson, just bar mitzvah, was sent to learn under his grandfather.
He imbibed Torah, yiras Shamayim — and the essence of the Ruzhiner chassidus.
The Rebbe’s brother-in-law, Rav Pinchas Shapira, rav of the Sadigura kloiz in Tel Aviv and son-in-law of the Ikvei Abirim, is grappling with the fresh pain and shock of the loss.
As he speaks, his mind’s eye returns to the old beis medrash in Tel Aviv led by the Knesses Mordechai. “The Zeide had 26 elderly chassidim who still remembered the heilige Ruzhiner, and the whole atmosphere was connected to Ruzhin of old. My brother-in-law, the Rebbe, imbibed that air. He was a young prince and he acted like a prince — the hopes of everyone pinned on him.”
In a decision that surprised some, the Knesses Mordechai decided that his beloved grandson should go learn in Ponevezh and become a talmid of Rav Shach and Rav Shmuel Rozovsky.
And what he gained in Ponevezh — Torah, its depth and breadth and profundity — would bake on his warm chassidishe neshamah.
Until the very end, it was Torah that defined him. Even in recent years, as Rebbe, the gabbaim knew that he would sometimes disappear, especially after returning to Eretz Yisrael after traveling abroad. The closest confidants knew that the Rebbe was in a particular beis medrash, catching up on his learning with the very same chavrusas he kept since those years in Ponevezh, whom he’d never replaced. Only after several hours of intense learning would he surface again.”
The young heir, a distinguished lamdan and with impeccable yichus, was chosen as a chassan for the daughter of the well-respected Vizhnitzer chassid, Rav Chaim Moshe Feldman of London. The wedding was held on 19 Teves 5739 (1979). “Notice something amazing,” says Rabbi Zilbershlag. “It was on this date exactly, that of his wedding day, that his father would pass away years later. And the day of the Rebbe’s death, 21 Av, was the date of his father’s wedding. Each passed away on the other’s wedding anniversary. At some level, their souls were mystically intertwined.”
For the next few years the Rebbe lived in London, near his father-in-law. Several months after the wedding though, just before Pesach, the Knesses Mordechai told his gabbaim that he missed his einekel Moishele.
The new chassan was spending Pesach in London. “It was shanah rishonah,” the Rebbe would later reflect, “but I regret that I didn’t go spend that Yom Tov with my grandfather.”
Just after Pesach, the Knesses Mordechai was niftar.
The Knesses Mordechai passed away in the early morning hours. An explicit psak by the Minchas Yitzchak and Rav Wosner ruled that the levayah should be delayed till evening, so that the young grandson from London could take part.
For the next 33 years in London, the Rebbe was engrossed in Torah, but he never missed a day speaking to his father in Bnei Brak.
During this period he merited to receive semichah from several of the gedolei hador. For years the Rebbe had suppressed the details, but just a few weeks ago the Skverer Rebbe visited Los Angeles, where the Sadigura Rebbe was recuperating after surgery. In the course of the conversation the Rebbe revealed how he had received his heter hora’ah:
“I was my father’s only son, and everything relating to me was important to him,” the Rebbe said. “My father asked me to learn Yoreh Dei’ah and review it again and again. He didn’t give me a moment’s reprieve. After the wedding when I arrived in London, he asked if I’d already been tested and received a heter hora’ah. He wanted me to be tested by the Minchas Yiztchak and Rav Henoch Padwa, the rav of London. And then, I was visiting America when my father called me. He told me, ‘even if you’re staying in Boro Park, grab a taxi and go to Manhattan to be tested by Rav Moshe Feinstein — vehechyisa es nafshi (it will rejuvenate my soul).’ So I was forced to do a little hishtadlus, even though I didn’t think it would work. This was near the end of Rav Moshe’s life, and they weren’t really letting anyone in to visit him. He had a private minyan of eight people plus his grandson and a baal korei. I saw there was no way to reach him, but my father wouldn’t let me give up.
“I decided I had to obey my father, so I took a taxi and went to Manhattan. I remembered his street address from the cover of the Igros Moshe, so I went there, asking passersby which was the home of the great rabbi, and they pointed it out to me. But the building was locked.
“Just at that moment a woman left the building, and when she opened the door, I slipped in. I stood in line to join the minyan, as if I’d been invited. The grandson counted eight men, and then reached me, the ninth. But he had mercy on me, and let me in after the davening when each of the mispallelim turned to the RoshYeshivah with their requests. I told him that I was here to fulfill the mitzvah of kibbud av and wanted to be tested by him to receive a heter hora’ah.
“The grandson was gesturing at me warningly from the side,” the Rebbe continued, “but Rav Moshe asked me, ‘what are you learning, which siman?’ I told him I was learning Yoreh Dei’ah simanim 87–89 and onward. But Rav Moshe wanted to know if I had also learned the previous simanim, about the halachos of worms, blood, and so on. ‘You need to know those too,’ he told me. Then he started testing me, asking more and more questions. Suddenly he stopped and said: ‘I have here my son and talmidim, they’ll test you from here….”
Time to Lead
Eventually, the choshuve yungerman from Stamford Hill opened a chassidishe beis medrash — in Golders Green. At first, people raised their eyebrows at the idea of establishing a chassidishe kloiz in a not-so-chassidishe neighborhood, but the Rebbe was proven right.
Or Yisroel was a special place, the Rebbe serving as a traditional rav — a posek, counselor, and guide — but also as a chassidishe mashpia, uplifting and demanding according to the sacred traditions in his own family.
He could address shalom bayis issues, connect with the teenage yeshivah bochurim through a shtickel Torah, and reach the balabatim with his Shalosh Seudos Torah.
And even without speaking.
The Rebbe would walk into a room and all eyes were drawn to his dignity and stateliness, the way he stood, the radiant face, even before they heard the soft voice.
In London, they grew so reliant on him that they were stunned when the inevitable call came.
His father had passed away and it was time for the heir to come forth and lead.
Prepare with Emunah
The new Sadigura Rebbe moved to Bnei Brak, and from the first day, it became clear that he had an agenda, an approach to building a new generation of chassidim.
It started with the bochurim in the yeshivah, recalls Rav Shapira. “The talmidim were challenged to really know their material, tested by the Rebbe himself. Under his short-lived leadership, a whole new crop of highly skilled dayanim and morei hora’ah emerged.”
Then there was the “takanah,” the bedrock of his approach. Doing mitzvos wasn’t enough. The chassidim had to know what and know why.
Several months after assuming the mantle, the Rebbe instituted a 15-minute-a-day seder for every single chassid, regardless of age or station, in Sefer HaChinuch.
Before you become a lamdan, you have to be familiar with Taryag Mitzvos, the Rebbe said.
In a speech given at an American Agudah convention in 2015, the Rebbe urged his listeners to imbue their children with the tools to appreciate Yiddishkeit. “We have to teach them not just the dinim of tefillin, but also the reason for tefillin, what happens when a Yid wraps tefillin around his arm. Start with the basics.”
During Simchas Torah hakafos last year, the chassidim were surprised when the Rebbe interrupted the dancing to announce a special request he had for his chassidim. “Everyone learns and knows a lot of Torah. But I want each of you to take five dapim of Gemara and make them your own. That is, to understand it through and through and be able to quote it in your sleep. Everyone needs to have a cheilek in the Torah.”
He would often speak about the importance of learning Chumash and Rashi, and had each of the bochurim fill out cards each month with a list of what they’d covered in Chumash, Rashi, and Sefer HaChinuch. On Friday nights, when the chassidim would pass by to receive a “Gut Shabbos” from the Rebbe, he would stop individual chassidim and ask, “What does Rashi say on this pasuk?”
One Shabbos, the Rebbe was far from home, visiting a certain community. In the middle of the Leil Shabbos tefillos, the gabbai realized that the Rebbe was uncomfortable. There was loud chatter all around and a general light-headed atmosphere, and the gabbai wondered what the Rebbe would do the next morning. How could he return to daven in a place that caused him distress?
In the morning, the gabbai saw the Rebbe wrapped in a tallis. He’d gotten up early to daven vasikin, and then he headed over to the shul, standing for hours, siddur in hand, pretending to daven.
He wouldn’t daven there, but he also wouldn’t hurt the feelings of the rav of that shul.
If the Rebbe had a favorite song, the niggun he requested at every tish and simchah, it was the traditional song of “Nohr emunah, nohr emunah in Borei kol olamim….” It was as if, chassidim reflect, the Rebbe was preparing them for the darkness that was to come.
No Other Way
He took ill a few years ago, and was in near constant pain since.
“People who didn’t see it up close will never understand what it was like,” says Rav Shapira. “It wasn’t just the arduous treatment regimens he underwent for this disease, but all kinds of additional pain and complications that accompanied it. Yet every time I visited him, I was amazed at how he retained his old cheerful dignity. He wasn’t busy with himself at all. I used to visit him after he endured particularly harsh treatments. He sat in his lodgings — in my nephew’s house in Los Angeles — surrounded by seforim and learning. His face lit up. He never let on for a moment that he was in agony.”
And in their hearts, the chassidim hoped he would pull through — they relied on him too much to consider another way. He had taken them, in a short time, and made them his children, had lifted their families, had taken the word “Sadigura” and invested it with so much power.
How could there be another ending?
And then he collapsed, last week, the relatively young Rebbe falling to the floor, his weak body unable to exist… and just as he’d come, he is gone.
And they are broken.
There is little to give them strength, but they point to a vort said by the Knesses Mordechai: Where is Sadigura found in the Torah? The Rebbe would show the words of the Targum Yonasan on the pasuk “eid hagal hazeh — this pile is a witness” in Bereishis (31:52). The Targum interprets it as follows: “sahid d’gura hadin.” It’s testimony for the ages.
Sadigura will go on.
ALL THAT GLITTERS
In a wide-ranging conversation with Mishpacha’s Hebrew editor Aryeh Ehrlich, the Sadigura Rebbe discussed the past and present, the legacy of his holy ancestors and today’s chinuch challenges. Some excerpts.
-“The Ruzhiner was known to walk in golden shoes, but few knew that those shoes had no soles. Despite the outer grandiose appearance, his feet were wounded and bruised with every step. Once when he went out for Kiddush Levanah, those who followed him saw blood in his footprints. That was a manifestation of Dovid Hamelech’s words ‘v’libi chalal b’kirbi’ — royalty on the outside, humility inside. In fact, he attested that he never enjoyed even a hairsbreadth of the materialism offered by This World.”
-“Chassidim once asked the heilige Ruzhiner about the preferred way to serve Hashem, and he replied with the following parable. Two brothers were sentenced to death by the king, but the king offered them both a chance to escape their sentence. He brought them to a riverbank and declared that he’d pardon whichever brother could succeed in crossing the river on foot. One of the brothers threw a long rope from one riverbank to the other. The end of the robe caught onto a tree on the bank of the opposite side, and the first side was tied near where he was standing. The man began walking along the thin rope. Masses of people witnessed the scene in wonder: The man walked confidently and reached the other side, and thus, his life was saved. People asked him how he was able to do it and he said, ‘When I felt myself leaning to the left, I leaned over to the right, and when I veered rightward, I leaned to the left, and that’s how I crossed.’ Concluded the Ruzhiner, ‘What is the right away for a person to choose to serve Hashem? It is the middle way.’ That was his approach: the middle way, which the Rambam calls the shvil hazahav. And zahav, gold, is emblematic of royalty.”
-“The entire concept of Yetzias Mitzrayim, which we mention every day, is to imbue us with the idea that there is a Creator. But we need to instill this deep in the hearts of the young generation, so it becomes unshakable knowledge. Yesterday I spoke with a person dealing with a bochur whose observance has slackened. Now, this bochur has never learned anything about emunah. He’s always been told, if you don’t do the mitzvos, you’ll be punished. Of course, without ahavas Hashem and an understanding of the mitzvos, what holds him on the path? I suggested a list of seforim to learn: Chovos Halevavos Shaar Habitachon, Maharal, and most of all, select pesukim with Rashi. I’ll tell you a story about this:
-“The legendary chassid Rav Eizik of Homel was once dispatched by his Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch, to spend a Shabbos in Ruzhin. There, the Rebbe told him, he would acquire new understandings of avodas Hashem. On Friday night, Rav Eizik participated in the tish, but the heilige Ruzhiner didn’t give over Torah. He was very surprised. At Shalosh Seudos, again, the Rebbe didn’t say any Torah, and again the chassid was surprised, because he was used to hearing deep divrei Torah from his rebbe. On Motzaei Shabbos, when Reb Eizik waited outside the Ruzhiner’s chamber to take leave of him, he met another person waiting, whose job was to recount stories of tzaddikim. To the surprise of Reb Eizik — who was a respected rosh yeshivah — the Rebbe instructed that the storyteller be admitted first. The man spoke to the Ruzhiner for a long time, and only afterward was Reb Eizik admitted.
-“When Reb Eizik was finally allowed in, the holy Ruzhiner said to him, ‘You must be wondering why I admitted him first. Let me answer with a different question. You would think that the Torah would start with the first mitzvah — hachodesh hazeh lachem. Why does it start with the story of Bereishis? Rashi explains that koach maasav higid l’amo — the bedrock foundation of all Yiddishkeit is to internalize the power of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. First we have to learn emunah in Hashem and know Who created the world. Then, once those foundations are firm, we can delve into the depths of mitzvos. That’s why I so value the storyteller — his tales of tzaddikim cement the foundations of emunah.’ ”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 824)
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