| Magazine Feature |

Paper Trail   

A treasure trove of secret letters from Tel Aviv’s cadre of hidden mekubalim

Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Mishpacha archives

A treasure trove of unpublished letters written and received by the secret mekubalim of Tel Aviv tells a lot about life in the ’50s and ’60s, but also sheds light on the spiritual struggles of the Streetsweeper, the Shoemaker, the Painter, the Milkman, and the famous rabbanim who held their secrets, as they all grappled with visions of the Upper Worlds while living in the hotspots of hedonism

HE locks the door behind meopens the safe, and takes out the treasure: Dozens of stamped envelopes scatter across the office desk, and the small room seems to fill with light.

I carefully pick up a single envelope. It seems to contain a random letter between friends. But then I read the following lines:

It’s been a long time since I have seen him, not while awake and not in a dream, and I yearn to see him and to hear good tidings from him… and also which good news and which chiddushei Torah he has heard from Eliyahu Hanavi zachur latov….”

The letter is signed simply “Yosef Waltuch,” but after reading its content, I begin to shiver. Rav Yosef Waltuch was one member of the famed group of hidden tzaddikim and mekubalim who lived in Tel Aviv in the mid and late 1900s. Which of his colleagues was he talking about, who was zocheh to learn Torah straight from Eliyahu Hanavi?

The answer to that, we’ll probably never know. But that doesn’t stop me from perusing dozens, up to hundreds, of notes and letters — correspondences between the secret kabbalists of Eretz Yisrael who were privy to the spiritual workings “behind the curtain.”

Rav Yosef Waltuch, known as the “Streetsweeper” because of his municipal day job, lived alone in a little hovel without a proper address, so the hundreds of petitioners, rabbanim, rebbes and other mekubalim would mail their correspondences to the homes around Tel Aviv where he would regularly eat his Shabbos seudos. And one member of such a family, who insists on remaining anonymous so as not to attract attention to the collection in his possession, let me take a peek into his treasure trove.

My acquaintance is probably not alone: The children and grandchildren of other families who received Rav Waltuch’s mail probably also possess some of Reb Yosef’s correspondences — and there were undoubtedly many letters that never reached their destination at all. (These collection proprietors have good reason to remain anonymous: During the funeral of one of the mekubalim of the last generation, his house was ransacked and all letters, documents and mementos were taken.)

Reb Yosef didn’t talk much, and even in shul he’d make himself invisible. But one Shabbos at the beginning of June in 1981, he stood up in Tel Aviv’s Beit Knesset Hagadol and asked for an aliyah, telling the gabbai, “I need to make a Mi Shebeirach.” When the gabbai asked for the name, he announced, “Menachem ben Chasya,” and everyone realized he was talking about Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The next day, Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor.

That was just one of thousands of Yosef Waltuch’s mofsim, yet he wasn’t alone. It was as if for many decades, Tel Aviv’s cluster of hidden tzaddikim were all on call behind the scenes.

They came from different places — some from Europe, others from Eastern nations — and each one concealed himself in a different way: There was the leader of the group, the Shoemaker, Rav Moshe Yaakov Ravikov, who passed away in the fall of 1966; the hidden tzaddik Rav Hillel Simchon; Rav Avraham Fish, known as the “Floor Layer” or “King of the Crazies,” yet whose blessings changed people’s lives; Rav Yehuda Patilon, known as the “Painter;” and Rav Ezra Eliyahu HaKohen and his son Rav Chaim Kohen, a Tel Aviv dairy worker known as the “Milkman” and the last of the group to pass away (in 2019).

Cursed into Blessings

On Pesach of 1983, Rav Waltuch’s close friend, the great mekubal Rav Meir Abuchatzeira, son of the Baba Sali zy”a, passed away suddenly. In Tel Aviv, Rav Yosef Waltuch was heard to whisper: “I have nothing left to do in this world.” (In fact, a sefer that Reb Yosef purchased for his good friend Baba Meir, with Reb Yosef’s handwritten blessings in the flyleaf, was recently sold at a Kedem Judaica auction.)

A few weeks later, on the Shabbos before Lag B’omer (which fell out on Sunday), a group of chassidim from the Gerrer shtibel in Tel Aviv were walking home from shul when Reb Yosef passed by. He turned to one of them — Rabbi Menachem Klugman a”h, who worked at the Tel Aviv Religious Council — and asked if he could come up to him for Kiddush.

Rabbi Klugman, who was one of Reb Yosef’s regular hosts, was taken aback. On Erev Yom Kippur of that year, he’d had an unpleasant exchange with Reb Yosef when the latter had asked him for the key to one of the private mikvaos in the city. Rabbi Klugman had no choice but to refuse, as he had a clear directive not to give over the key no matter what. But Reb Yosef didn’t accept the answer easily and made his disappointment very obvious. Their paths had not crossed since.

Now Reb Yosef asked to come over, and of course, Rabbi Klugman was happy to have him. On the way, Reb Yosef said to his host, “You should know, all my curses were really brachos.” And then he began to list in detail all the successes and blessings Rabbi Klugman would merit in the coming years. Needless to say, they all came true.

In retrospect, it emerged that this visit was part of a round of “settling accounts” that Reb Yosef made just prior to leaving This World.

On Motzaei Shabbos, which was Lag B’omer that year, a group of close confidants came to his room. They saw that he was unusually busy. He lit a lot of candles and mentioned the names of many tzaddikim, saying, “This week we will merit a great light.”

And then it happened. On Lag B’omer day, Reb Yosef traveled to Meron. But before ascending the mountain, he made a stop at the Ha’idra cave, located between Tzfas and Meron, where — according to the Arizal — Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai learned with his talmidim and there revealed the great secrets of the Hidden Torah.

He entered the cave, warning those who had come with him not to disturb him until he emerged.

Hours passed and Reb Yosef didn’t come out. Having no choice, the people mustered up the courage and entered. They found him in a complete faint. He was taken to the hospital, and two days later, his pure soul ascended On High.

I’m the Wrong Address 

The gedolei Yisrael of those years — the Chazon Ish, the Beis Yisrael of Gur, the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz, and other leading rabbanim and rebbes — all made remarkable statements about this group of hidden kabbalists, referring to them as the lamed-vav tzaddikim of the generation. In their final years, as word got out about their true identities, people began to flock to them for eitzos and brachos.

This group had another contemporary, although he, unlike them, was very much a public person. His name was Rav Yehuda Zerachiah Segal, and he served as the rav of the Kiryat Shalom neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

On the face of it, there was nothing to connect Reb Yossel Waltuch, the street cleaner with the broom and the filthy clothes, to the venerable rav, who was meticulous about his appearance and who conducted ongoing halachic correspondence with Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and other leading poskim.

But anyone who was a bit more familiar with them knew that there was a deep and very mysterious bond that connected them.

In fact, many of the letters in front of me were correspondences between Reb Yosef and Rav Segal — neither of whom merited to leave another generation. There are also fascinating exchanges with various rebbes, such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the early years of his leadership, and the Bohusher Rebbe, who lived close by in Tel Aviv.

One letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Reb Yosef from 1951 that made its way to the Kedem auction house (from another collector) reads, “Kesivah v’chasimah tovah for a new year, for a good and sweet year, blessed in materiality and spirituality.”

While it is clear from many of the letters that Reb Yosef is proficient in the words of Chazal, Gemara, Midrashim, and most notably, secrets of Kabbalah, often he would stop an explanation in the middle, with the words “and more cannot be revealed.”

In one letter, Reb Yosef writes, “And if he is looking for hidden things with me, he has — with all due respect — made a mistake in the address, as I have nothing to do with nistaros….

Heavenly Hand

In their letters, as well as in their meetings, these tzaddikim gave encouragement to one another to use their specially endowed kochos to sweeten the judgments and to evoke compassion for Klal Yisrael in the face of so many harsh decrees.

In one letter, Reb Yosef writes to Rav Segal, “… They told me in a dream that they want to take one great tzaddik from the world, and we need to ask for rachamim about this, that not a single tzaddik should be absent from the world. Please daven for this.”

Not always were the tzaddikim able to sweeten the decrees, though, as indicated in a letter sent after the passing of Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the Ponevezher Rav. During his illness, the hidden tzaddikim wrote that they had to daven to find merits they could accrue for his recovery, but that in the end, the decree had been cast. (In a letter from Rav Segal to the Knesses Mordechai of Sadigura, Rav Segal quotes a section of the sefer Maggid Meisharim to explain why they were not answered when they prayed for Rav Kahaneman.)

In addition to the ongoing correspondence between Rav Segal and Reb Yosef, there is another collection of letters to and from Rav Segal that I was privy to see, courtesy of a little-known resource called Machon Zichron Kehillos.

Leafing through the letters reveals a peek into the public rabbinic sphere of the previous decade. For example, when Rav Isser Yehuda Unterman (whom Rav Segal deeply respected and often quoted) was chosen as chief rabbi in 1964, Rav Segal sent a letter to Rav Moshe Mordechai of Lelov, describing a dream in which it was revealed to him that Rav Unterman had merited to reach the leadership position because he constantly submitted his will to the Will of Hashem.

And there are painful letters as well; one in particular that is especially prescient. Rav Segal sent a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe urging him to daven for IDF soldiers who were risking their lives. He added: “May the smallest of them who is moser nefesh be important in the Eyes of Hashem, as they are undoubtedly reincarnated sparks that have come to tikkun because in earlier incarnations they may have disparaged Eretz Hakodesh.”

One time Reb Yosef was harshly humiliated, and he expressed his pain to Rav Segal. The latter appeased him and wrote, “There is much nachas ruach for HaKadosh Baruch Hu from you,” and went on to explain that the incident was “to atone for a matter in a previous incarnation.” He offers some detail and then concluded, “…but not to worry, because there will be salvation quickly, b’ezras Hashem.”

These hidden tzaddikim, by their very appearance and vocation, made themselves easy targets of ridicule, but those who didn’t treat them with due respect often suffered. Once, someone in the Beit Knesset Hagadol served tikkun of l’chaim and mezonos for a yahrtzeit, when suddenly it emerged that a bottle of whiskey had disappeared. One of the distinguished individuals there, a public figure with money and connections, decided that Reb Yosef had pilfered it. He accused him and shamed him and in public — and the next day, he met his death in a horrific accident.

Then I discover a letter in which Rav Segal rebukes Reb Yosef for punishing people who cause him distress. In the next letter, Reb Yosef apologizes and writes: “His honor should know that I never harm any person, chas v’shalom. Rather, when someone hurts me, there is extra strictness toward him in Shamayim….”

Indeed, Reb Yosef was very easy to appease, as one of the mispallelim in the shtibel on Rechov Nordau — where Reb Yosef used to daven on Shabbos morning after a Kabbalah shiur — related. One Shabbos, an aufruf was held in the shtibel. The mechutan was a prominent gvir, and during the kiddush one of the choshuve relatives was honored to speak.

In the middle of the speech, Yosef Waltuch — sitting with his baskets in one of the back rows — interrupted and said, “Sorry, but what you’re saying is in contradiction to the words of Chazal in such and such a masechta.” The speaker fell into a stunned silence and the mechutan recoiled. He stood up and yelled at Reb Yossel, “Get out of here!”

Reb Yosef left without saying a word. Later that afternoon, the mechutan suddenly suffered an attack with terrible pain, and, it turned out when he was rushed to the hospital with massive internal bleeding. He quickly realized what had happened and sent someone to apologize to Reb Yosef — who immediately forgave the gvir. To the astonishment of the doctors, by Motzaei Shabbos, he was released without any need for further treatment.

Waiting for Good News

Reb Yosef wasn’t shy about writing words of rebuke to Rav Segal if he thought it would help bring him to a more refined spiritual state. One letter expressed Reb Yosef’s disappointment with Rav Segal’s easygoing attitude to some of the less-than-stellar petitioners who would come to seek his counsel as a community rav. He encouraged Rav Segal to “act like a rebbe instead of a rav,” meaning that he should be strict in making those petitioners rise to a higher level.

If the letters are often laced with a certain bitterness and broken-heartedness over their perceived lowly states and their inability to serve Hashem with joy and tranquility, one correspondent didn’t want to hear such language. The Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed this out to Rav Segal in several letters. In one letter from 1957, the Rebbe wrote: “And with regard to the content of his letter, which is filled with low spirit and low mood… that is not the derech that the Baal Shem Tov wanted for his talmidim and his disciples’ talmidim….” In another letter, the Rebbe penned: “And certainly, for people of your stature, it is needless to expound that there is no place for a person’s heart to fall from some difficulties that he encounters in engaging with the world in fulfilling his tafkid….”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was, in fact, closely connected to all the members of the chaburah. In one letter, Reb Yosef Waltuch asks Rav Segal to share with him chiddushei Torah that he recently heard from Eliyahu Hanavi. He adds: “And also some good news that the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent you.”

In another letter, Rav Waltuch writes: “And today, as well, I received a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe from America, and he wishes us a good year and concludes with a handwritten ‘besuros tovos,’ and may it be that his brachos be fulfilled for us speedily.”

Rav Segal corresponded extensively with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. We have more than sixty return letters that the Rebbe sent him, the majority from before 1960. Most of the letters are quite long, covering all sorts of subjects relating to various aspects of avodas Hashem.

In his return letters, Rav Segal shares with the Rebbe about his work for the klal in Tel Aviv, but not only. In one letter from 1970, Rav Segal describes at length a wondrous vision that he had, where he rose higher and higher in the Upper Worlds, and what was revealed to him about the Rebbe’s avodah.

Both Rav Segal and Reb Yosef had a special connection with Rebbe Moshe Mordechai of Lelov. In one letter, Reb Yosef advises Rav Segal to give a kvittel to the Lelover Rebbe for the merit of a great yeshuah from Shamayim to have children.

One esoteric letter to the Lelover Rebbe from Rav Segal has two postmarks on it and is twice stamped with the words “return to sender.” The letter, in which Rav Segal describes to the Lelover Rebbe the details of a dream he had about the Rebbe’s elevated levels, was — as Rav Segal later understood — obviously not supposed to reach the Rebbe, and after two attempts, he stopped trying to send it.

There are many letters between Rav Segal and Rav Ovadiah Hadaya, the Aleppo-born mekubal who headed Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Hamekubalim until his passing in 1969. One letter to Rav Segal, a response to one of his letters, reads almost like a progress report: “…The date on your letter was the yom hilula of the Rashash [Rav Shalom Sharabi, one of the great mekubalim of the 1700s]. So I find it fitting to tell you that, baruch Hashem, I tried to make his hilula together with all the rabbanim and mekubalim and likewise, a number of other rabbanim were also present that night. The mekubalim engaged in the Torah of the Rashash himself, until midnight… The others were busy with Shas and poskim and there was great illumination and the dwelling of the Shechinah there was evident. Zechuso yagein aleinu… until Hashem hastens to redeem us, speedily in our day.”

Looking through the letters again, I began to wonder if perhaps it isn’t right to publicize what the tzaddikim preferred to keep secret. But delving further into the material, there’s a sense that, on the contrary, these words are worthy of publication, and especially now. These missives reveal layers that we don’t see, depths that we cannot fathom. Like the heart of every Jew. We can never really know who are the simpletons or who are the hidden tzaddikim among us, pillars on which our nation, and the entire world, stands.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1019)

Oops! We could not locate your form.