From the very first tish, the chassidim realized this would be something different. Toldos Avraham Yitzchak would forge a new path and ignite neshamos, not only at the dramatic grand finale in Meron on Lag B’omer, but all year round
From the very first tish, the chassidim realized this would be something different — the rigorous avodah of Toldos Aharon blended with the warmth and joy of Vizhnitz, laced with the Rebbe’s own intense strivings. Toldos Avraham Yitzchak would forge a new path and ignite neshamos, not only at the dramatic grand finale in Meron on Lag B’omer, but all year round
L ate in the day of Lag B’omer as the sky over the mountaintops of Meron begins to darken and the energy and commotion of the previous 24 hours start to wane they arrive.
A flood of chassidim. Rays of setting sun and the reflection of the fire bathe them — in their golden beketshes — in a sea of light.
It’s almost shkiah as the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Rebbe having arrived from Jerusalem by helicopter ascends the platform in the clearing far to the west of the packed tziyun to ignite the holy hadlakah in honor of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. The Rebbe looks out at his chassidim seated among the thousands who’ve already claimed their space on the bleachers for what’s become the highlight of the day’s festivities. He rests his eyes on each of them a community of melamdim and sofrim shopkeepers and butchers and bookbinders interspersed with other chassidim litvishe bochurim visitors from abroad and Israelis who — at least outwardly — appear far from any chassidus.
The Rebbe’s gaze reflects an all-encompassing love as he looks out over the massive crowd. But then just before he extends the torch he will look to another group men whose faces are painted with intensity. Before the Rebbe connects with the Tanna Rabi Shimon who opened the wellsprings of the hidden Torah so many centuries ago he will concentrate on this group a chaburah of lions who’ve pierced the veil and begun their ascent up the rungs of the ladder of pnimiyus haTorah.
They are the Rebbe’s chosen yungeleit a select brigade within the army he created alone fusing the inspiration of his forbears with his own intense spiritual path.
Questions and Answers
It was just over 20 years ago, on Chanukah of 1996. Following months of illness, the Toldos Aharon Rebbe, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kahan ztz”l, passed away — and his chassidim, so reliant on the Rebbe’s leadership and support, felt like a flock of searching sheep with no shepherd to guide them.
The Rebbe’s light, which had illuminated the path of a strict, demanding chassidus, was extinguished, and when the last hesped was concluded (as is proper for a talmid chacham, even on Chanukah), there was silence: The Toldos Aharon community was confronted by the harsh reality that they needed to find a new leader. When the Rebbe had been ill there was no clear consensus on the matter, so they pushed it out of their minds and davened for their rebbe’s health.
Eventually, the chassidus of Toldos Aharon split into two, each chassid following the call of his soul. The official mantle of leadership (the name and the mosdos) was passed to the Rebbe’s second son, Rav Dovid, who had been residing in Monsey and was summoned back to Meah Shearim — today’s Toldos Aharon Rebbe. But a distinguished group of chassidim, among them the gaon Rav Meir Bransdorfer and the mekubal Rav Daniel Frisch, asked the eldest son of the late Rebbe, Rav Shmuel Yaakov Kahan, to be their new leader. Although he had carved out quite a different path, they wished to follow his guidance and emulate his unique conduct, which combined the traditions of Toldos Aharon with the customs and influences of other holy rebbes — especially the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz, whose derech he reflected.
The older chassidim of the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Rebbe will always remember that first Shabbos of connection, of pride, and of confidence in a glorious future. There were many questions back then with this new rebbe and kehillah — temporarily housed in the Ksav Sofer (“Perushim”) shul. Years later, Rav Meir Bransdorfer — who would become rav of the new kehillah until his passing in 2009 — once quipped that during those first days, he was afraid to look out from under his tallis and turn around, lest he’d see only 20 chassidim behind him.
Back then, very little was clear: Which family belonged to which half? How many chassidim in each group? But as the dust settled, it became apparent that Toldos Avraham Yitzchak was for real — elderly chassidim and vibrant young avreichim found their way to the shul, taking their place around the Rebbe.
During those bewildering days, the shul just kept filling up, hundreds of chassidim swaying and singing, an army trained by the founding Shomer Emunim Rebbe, Reb Arele Roth (who passed away in 1946), and his son-in-law, the departed Divrei Emunah of Toldos Aharon. Now, they were ready to be led once again by a third rebbe in the chain.
On that first Erev Shabbos, the chassidim waited for the Rebbe to arrive at the old, rundown Perushim shul, with its cracked floor tiles and peeling ceiling. The davening, which started with feelings of uncertainty and doubt, ended on a triumphant note. The Rebbe began Hodu l’Hashem ki tov in the Vizhnitzer nusach he so loved — and by the end of davening, the faces of the crowd that lined up to say gut Shabbos and then filed out into the Meah Shearim night were glowing, as if they all realized they’d just made chassidic history.
Later that night, they returned for the first tish. Hundreds of chassidim, locals and curious onlookers, filled the hall to see a Rebbe known for being immersed in the holiness of Shabbos.
The chassidim were drawn into this new world — Vizhnitz melodies woven together with the tunes of Shomrei Emunim — appreciating that a new chassidus was taking shape. The rigorous avodah of Toldos Aharon would blend with the warmth and joy of Vizhnitz, and was carved from the hanhagos of the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz (the new Rebbe’s mentor from the time he was a bochur) and the Imrei Chaim’s son-in-law, the tzaddik Rav Yehuda Horowitz of Djikov.
At the end of the tish, the Rebbe and the chassidim danced together while singing Nishmas Kol Chai, as was the custom of the Shomer Emunim — the holy Reb Arele. The chassidim assumed that the Rebbe would then turn to the crowd, wish them all a gut Shabbos, and go home. But that’s not what happened.
The Rebbe stood still, eyes closed, his face aglow, a blanket of silence and anticipation hanging over the crowd, when suddenly…
“Az bayom hashvi’i nachta” — the sound burst forth, a Vizhnitz niggun. The Rebbe seemed to be shivering with emotion, perhaps exhaustion. In the coming months, it would be his hallmark — the intense concentration and passion, and a constant defiance of his physical limitations.
He started a botte, a more informal tish of song and niggun, continuing until the wee hours of the night — and then the dancing began. The Rebbe led the dancing, stopping only to sip water; the fire of Shabbos was tangible on that Shabbos in the old Perushim shul.
The Rebbe often quotes his father, the previous Toldos Aharon Rebbe, who used to say that the custom of a get-together on Friday night to sing the praises of Hashem is a tradition bequeathed by the Baal Shem Tov. And how can a person call himself a chassid if he doesn’t leave his home on Friday night and devote his whole being to clinging to Hashem through the holy Shabbos melodies?
Later, at the first Shalosh Seudos after the Rebbe said Torah, Rav Meir Bransdorfer stood up in the dim room and began to speak. He discussed the deeper significance of leadership being transmitted from one generation to another, and then announced, “Together with the Divine Providence, we, the disciples of our Rebbe, hereby appoint his eldest son, Rav Shmuel Yaakov, son of Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen, to be his successor and lead us in his footsteps. Mazel tov! Mazel tov!”
The new chassidus of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak came to life, the community happily accepting anyone who wished to join its ranks, including chassidim from other courts, those from abroad, and even litvishe yungeleit. Chassidim who didn’t feel they could adhere to the stringent rulings of Toldos Aharon were nevertheless attracted to the new Rebbe. In time, a new building arose on the appropriately named Oneg Shabbos Street — which became the essence of the new chassidus.
In fact, the Rebbe accepts upon himself Shabbos two hours before candle lighting, at which time many chassidim start filling up the shul, learning chassidus in preparation for Shabbos. Kabbalas Shabbos begins even before the Shabbos siren goes off, which in Jerusalem is a full 40 minutes before sunset.
(Rav Moshe Wolfson of the Emunas Yisrael beis medrash in Boro Park once remarked that the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak community is a paradigm for total devotion to Shabbos. Therefore, any donation to them may be considered as Shabbos expenses, which are not included in what a person is decreed to receive on Rosh Hashanah.)
A Real Chassid
How did Rav Shmuel Yaakov Kahan shlita, the previous Toldos Aharon Rebbe’s oldest son, become a talmid of Vizhnitz instead of remaining strictly under the purview of his own chassidus? The Yerushalmi mekubal Rav Daniel Frisch, author of Matok MiDevash — a Hebrew translation and explanation of the cryptic Tikunei Zohar — and close confidant of the previous Rebbe, explained it in a letter written in 1987, nearly a decade before the Rebbe was coronated:
“About 30 years ago, in 1957, our holy Rebbe asked me to learn with his oldest son, Shmuel Yaakov, to prepare him for his bar mitzvah. Two years later the Rebbe asked me to accompany his son to the Vizhnitz yeshivah in Bnei Brak. I would go to Bnei Brak every week, to see Shmuel Yaakov and bring him whatever he needed from Yerushalayim. I remember how reluctant Shmuel Yaakov was at first, saying to his father, ‘as ich vehl dort veren a Vizhnitzer chassid — I will turn into a Vizhnitzer chassid there.’ And the Rebbe replied: ‘Al menas ken — precisely for that reason.’
“Six months later, the Rebbe requested that his son return home. He then said to his father, ‘In Vizhnitz I learned the warmth of the Holy Shabbos, the sacredness of the tish, the sweetness of prayer, and the concept of true ahavas Yisrael. How can I leave Bnei Brak and return home where it’s much more difficult to be a real chassid?’
“Shmuel Yaakov told me that the Imrei Chaim [the grandfather of the current Vizhnitzer Rebbes] instilled in him true love of Hashem and true love of Am Yisrael. He took upon himself very strict conduct, wearing a tallis and tefillin until after noontime, usually without having eaten or drunken anything. Even in the heat of the summer days, he would often choose to learn on the roof, where it was scorching hot, in order to break his dependence on the physical world around him.
“Later on, the Rebbe asked me to learn with Shmuel Yaakov both Gemara and also Kabbalah. Indeed, for several years we studied together the teachings of the Arizal and Rav Moshe Cordovero. The Rebbe was always on top of his son’s progress in both areas of study.”
Reb Meir Tzvi Ganz, a prominent Vizhnitzer chassid, once told a group of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak chassidim, “When your Rebbe was a bochur learning in the Vizhnitz yeshivah in Bnei Brak, we couldn’t understand why the Imrei Chaim gave this boy from Yerushalayim so much special attention. Then one day I happened to meet Shmuel Yaakov walking down the street in Bnei Brak, holding the Yiddish newspaper Der Yiddishe Shtrol. That was strange, so I came over to him and asked, ‘Since when are you interested in reading newspapers?’ He told me that he’d taken a bus from Yerushalayim via Tel Aviv and had been reading to pass the time. My curiosity was piqued, so I grabbed the newspaper from his hands. I was shocked to see that it was only a cover for the sefer Bris Kehunas Olam [a mystical Kabbalah sefer written by Rav Yitzchak Izik Cohen-Tzedek, a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch].”
Those six months in Bnei Brak turned Shmuel Yaakov into a fervent Vizhnitz chassid, whom the Imrei Chaim entrusted with holy missions, occasionally dispatching the bochur from Meah Shearim to Meron. Once, when they traveled to Meron together, the aged Vizhnitzer Rebbe immersed in a freezing-cold mikveh (much to the consternation of the chassidim) while keeping a few coins in his mouth, as was his custom, in order to purify them and then distribute them to those needing help and salvation. Then he entered the courtyard outside the tomb, grabbed Shmuel Yaakov’s hands and started dancing with him. The Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Rebbe travels to Meron every Rosh Chodesh, and decades later, he says it was that dance with the Imrei Chaim that gave him the profound connection he feels with Rabi Shimon until today.
It’s a New Day
When Rav Shmuel Yaakov became bar mitzvah, his father instructed him to always rise two hours before Shacharis. Indeed, the Rebbe has been careful to keep up this custom ever since, and rising at dawn is one of the resolutions his chassidim have taken upon themselves as well.
The Rebbe once explained: “As far as actual halachah, a person is not obligated to get up early, as long as he says Krias Shema on time and is not late for the morning prayers. But the fact that the Shulchan Aruch opens with the words, ‘Be as strong as the lion,’ proves that anyone who rises at dawn is, indeed, as strong as a lion. Endowed with that strength, the early-riser chassid can cope with all the temptations and tests of the yetzer hara. But one who cannot overcome his yetzer with the very first act of the day — what will his day look like? How will he have the energies to battle the yetzer hara throughout the day?”
The Rebbe advises his closest chassidim, the tight-knit group known as dem Rebbe’s yungeleit, to retire no later than 11 o’clock at night, in order to be able to get up so early. He often says, “In Shamayim no one will be punished for getting up late —rather, he’ll be punished for going to bed late.”
The exception, though, is Leil Shabbos, when the tish continues far past midnight, often until three a.m. “One cannot sing of Hashem’s glory at night and then remain in bed for his own comfort a few hours later,” the Rebbe explains. He goes on to say that when a chassid attends a tish, he’s not finishing the night — rather, he’s preparing for the morning prayers.
As if to prove this, dozens of avreichim are already at the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak shul early on Shabbos morning, long before Shacharis begins, even as the steps of the parentshes are still hot from the fiery song of a few hours earlier.
Rabbi Akiva Gottlieb, a prominent kehillah member, explained how he became a follower of the Rebbe even prior to the split in the chassidus. “In 1978, when the [previous] Rebbe married off his youngest son, I was a young avreich appointed to serve on the wedding committee in charge of logistics. The wedding was held in the main beis medrash, and after the mitzvah tantz, which lasted until four-thirty in the morning, the chassidim left for home while we stayed behind to clean the hall and get it ready for Shacharis. No one else was around, except maybe a few cats looking for some leftovers. At five-thirty, in walks a chassid wearing a vochedige kaften un shvartze zoken [weekday garb and black socks]. His peyos were wet and he had obviously already been to the mikveh. He walked to a far corner of the shul and started learning in the sweetest voice ever with a melody that would melt your heart. ‘Look at that,’ I said to myself. ‘It’s Shmuel Yaakov, the Rebbe’s bechor.’ I came over to him and asked, ‘Why did you get up so early? The wedding was over an hour ago!’ And he answered, ‘A naye tog hot shoin ongehoiben — a new day has dawned, and it’s not the new day’s fault that last night I went to sleep so late.’”
The Rebbe’s day always begins at five in the morning. Reb Tzvi Akiva Rotman is his dedicated vekker, responsible for knocking on the Rebbe’s door to wake him up — although the gabbaim claim they can’t remember a day when the Rebbe was actually awakened by the knock; he’s always up before that.
At seven minutes past five, the Rebbe is already out of the house, and although he doesn’t have a strong constitution, he’s used to overcoming his physical limitations. When he was in his twenties, he suffered a life-threatening blood infection, and by age 30 he was diabetic. According to Rebbetzin Sara Chana, ever since their marriage the Rebbe has never stretched out a meal for more than one course, in order not to give in to the temptation of eating.
Despite the Rebbe’s diabetes and heart issues, he sleeps little. Yet he does advise the chassidim to take a nap in the afternoon to ensure they get sufficient sleep, saying, “I used to sleep too little, and paid very heavily for it,” referring to his chronic health issues — by which, however, he is undaunted.
It’s in the Kvittel
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kahan, the previous Toldos Aharon Rebbe, and his wife, Yenta, did not have children for several years. Their firstborn son, Shmuel Yaakov, was born on the 15th of Elul, 1943. It was a difficult birth, endangering the lives of both mother and infant. Rebbe Arele Roth, the grandfather, hurried to the shul at midnight, opened the aron kodesh, and cried fervently, pleading for Hashem’s help. Afterwards he gave his kaftan to the new mother and instructed her to wrap it around the newborn, saying, “This child will be holy.”
Although Shmuel Yaakov was only three when his grandfather passed away, the chassidim say that Reb Arele would only begin the dancing at the Shabbos tish when his little grandson was brought in, and then he would dance with him.
On Pesach 1946, Reb Arele was already very weak, and told his family that he could not lead the Seder, but when Shmuel Yaakov came in, dressed in his new Pesach outfit, the Rebbe announced that he would make a special effort, “for the sake of future generations.”
Did the Zeide somehow know that this special grandson would one day be a guiding light for hundreds of staunch chassidim, transcending the entrapping limitations of the physical world?
Did he know that one day chassidim would refer to him as the “Kvittel Rebbe”? Not only his own chassidim, but others as well, say they feel like he is able to see through a person and unravel his innermost secrets, just by reading his kvittel. For this reason, not many dare enter the house on Meah Shearim’s Chevras Shas street with a kvittel in hand if they haven’t first engaged in teshuvah and taharah.
One young chassid told me that his first encounter with the Rebbe was when he was a yeshivah bochur. “I came with a kvittel, and then the Rebbe looked at me and said, ‘You didn’t go to mikveh on Monday and on Wednesday. How is it possible that a chassidishe boy skips a mikveh?’”
It was one of his first acts as Rebbe, the formation of this small group of elevated young men, known as dem Rebbe’s yungeleit. “Many years ago,” the Rebbe told them, “I promised myself that if Hashem would give me the strength and opportunity, I would endeavor to guide our wonderful young scholars so that they may maintain the high spiritual levels of their bochur years, even after they’re married, with families to take care of.”
There are about 300 young men in this group who are committed to abstaining from any worldly pursuit. They don’t have cell phones, not even the kosher ones; they don’t drive, smoke, or read the newspaper. They rise before dawn and retire to bed at 11 p.m. Their davening is powerful and emotional, both Shabbos and weekdays. They accept upon themselves extra stringencies, both in the area of interpersonal relations and in personal purity.
The chassidim say that these young men are the apple of the Rebbe’s eye, and he treats them like his own sons. They can approach him whenever they wish for personal conversation and advice, and he personally heads the chaburah — the young men get together regularly in the Rebbe’s room, where he gives them highly intellectual and profound discourses, often lasting several hours.
The Rebbe, too, conducts himself in the greatest simplicity. He doesn’t own a car. His zealous views are no secret, yet he distances himself from any political discussion. Once, when he elaborated on the danger of using the Internet, he said, “Twenty years ago I was told that only a dozen people would join me on the new way I was charting. I responded that there were enough shuls in Yerushalayim. We were fine with a dozen.” In other words, the Rebbe was saying that whoever is not interested in following the chassidus’s regulations is welcome to leave.
It’s an interesting mix, the brand of chassidus being transmitted in the shul at the corner of Oneg Shabbos Street. The Rebbe is reaching for Shamayim, perpetually striving for more holiness — and yet, it’s become a magnet for European and American visitors, local yeshivah bochurim, and baalei teshuvah, who feel comfortable between its walls.
The Rebbe’s special chaburah, his precious yungeleit, are expected to live elevated, refined lives. And yet, the Rebbe directs them to ensure that they are dressed in clean, respectable clothing, that they exude simchas hachayim and peace of mind. A chassid, says the Rebbe, should always seem happy and joyous, smiling to everyone, making everyone around him happy. The Rebbe often speaks to them about the importance of shalom bayis and instructs the chassidim to treat their wives with sincere attention and respect. Reaching for Heaven doesn’t mean forgetting about Earth.
The Rebbe has taught his yungeleit a secret, one closely associated with the day of Lag B’omer and the Tanna whose legacy is celebrated.
When Rabi Shimon bar Yochai came out of the cave the second time, after 13 years, he was just as holy as he’d been the first time he left the cave the year before, but now he was armed with an appreciation for the simpler folk also, a respect for their avodah as well.
It’s the lesson of the day, and the central message the Rebbe has conveyed to his closest chassidim, dem Rebbe’s yungeleit. Live here, but never stop reaching as high as you can.
(Originally Featured in Mishpacha Issue 659)
Oops! We could not locate your form.