A Simple Jew asks:
Could you elaborate on the hashkofah of Rebbe Yaakov of Isbitza, the Beis Yaakov?Rabbi Betsalel Edwards answers:
There is no great difference between the paths of R' Mordechai Yosef, ZTs”l, the Rebbe of Izbitsa (the Mei HaShiloach
), his son, Yaakov, ZTs”l, (The Beis Yaakov), and the Beis Yaakov’s son, R' Gershon Chenoch of Radzin, ZTs”L, the “Baal HaTecheles,” also known by the names of his books, the Orchos Chaim
, the Sod Yesharim
, and the Sidrei Taharos
. All three Rebbes, and I would also include the Baal HaTecheles’s son, the Tiferes Yosef, form an organic whole and unified religious philosophy (“hashkofa.”)
Seeing as there is no great difference between the Isbitser and the Beis Yaakov, it is interesting that there is so much controversy surrounding the Isbitzer and no such controversy surrounding the Beis Yaakov.Mei HaShiloach
was transcribed and edited by the Isbitzer’ grandsons, R' Gershon Chenoch of Radzin, and R' Mordechai Yosef Elazar. It was published by a non-Jewish printer with no rabbinical haskomos
(approbations) in the year 5620 (1860). Most of the extant writings of the Beis Yaakov were also transcribed and edited by R' Gershon Chenoch. So a part of the philosophical unity must be due to how all the writings were filtered through R' Gershon Chenoch, arguably a different temperament living in a different time and place from that of his father and grandfather.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction to Living Waters: The Mei HaShiloach
, which summarizes the main points of the Mei HaShiloach:
"First and foremost, everything is in the hands of Heaven. Everything that we receive in our lives we are receiving directly from God, may He be blessed. It is then the world of man in the world to develop a mind that is conscious of this reality. In addition to an unwavering dedication to the Torah and its laws, which is the path of our refinement, man works through study and Avodas Hashem to know what God wants from him specifically in his life. He knows that God’s will could change at any time, and constantly looks to God to illuminate into him what He wants of man at any particular moment (the “way of Yehuda.”). This also necessitates that the individual not assume that what God wants from him is exactly the same as that which He wants from another. Even if he sees another transgressing the Torah, he may not automatically assume that the other is rebelling against God’s will, because he has no way of knowing the particulars of the other’s relationship with God at that time. Thus, through personal refinement in accordance with his illumination of the will of God, he develops the consciousness of the presence and intentions of God. Redemption is knowledge and understanding of God’s reasons for making Avodas Hashem difficult for us, as well as a revelation of the reasons for our exilic suffering. Such clarity and change of consciousness transforms all of the suffering into clear revelation. We look back and see that we were never in exile and God was with us at all times. "
For the time being, this is all I will say in my own words. In order to be true to the words of the Beis Yaakov, I will let him speak for himself. What follows are some selections from his writings that elucidate his hashkofa.
Here is how R' Gershon Chenoch described his father, the Beis Yaakov, and his grandfather, the Mei HaShiloach, in the Introduction to Beis Yaakov
"Rav Mordechai Yosef was the first one to open the gate, and establish the fundamentals of the true tradition of the Torah's mysteries. He taught how all teachings of the Torah's mysteries, even those which seem beyond the reach of man's understanding, are all relevant and apply to every soul. His teachings are like plantings whose roots are below, and bear fruit in the realms above. This fruit is known, revealed, and seen in our own exposition of his words, expressed in the verse (Devarim, 28:10), "and all the peoples of the world shall see that the name of God is called upon – " us, the lovers of God and his Torah, constantly involved with the Torah, honoring the Torah, guarding its commandments, surrounding them with protective fences. He was a recipient of the true tradition of the Torah's mysteries, founded on the belief in God, may He be blessed, established on the faith of the holy shepherds of Hasidism. This will all be explained in the second section, the introduction to the Beit Yaakov. There we will present and explain the received tradition of the Torah's secrets, and that which cannot be overtly exposed will be alluded to in subtle hints. Furthermore, I will give over words that have only been transmitted from mouth to the ear of the mekubalim of our fellowship, each one according to his level.
Rabbeinu Mordechai Yosef lived a life of suffering. For a mere thirteen years he was publicly known as a Rebbe, of frail health the entire duration, scarcely seeing good fortune without several troubles closing in on him from all sides. He passed away on the seventh of Tevet, 5614 (1854) and found his final resting place in the town of Isbitza. Blessed is God who has not forsaken us, and a Tsaddik does not pass out of the world without God leaving a Tsaddik in his place! His son, Rabbeinu Yaakov of Isbitza, took on the role of leadership after him, and all of the followers of R' Mordechai Yosef who desired the true teachings of the mysteries of the Torah continued to follow R' Yaakov. The small opening which R' Mordechai Yosef began was greatly expanded upon by his son R' Yaakov. He was possessed a tremendous intellect, expert in the Halacha, Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, Sifrei, Sifra, and writings of the holy Arizal. He explained them all in a clear fashion, to the extent where while under his guidance, all these areas of Torah were open books to all who entered their gates. The incisiveness of his intellect in the area of Halacha was an awesome wonder to behold. With every law, he revealed its inner depths, and its clear connection to the source in the Talmud. I saw how whenever a student came to him who did not understand the nature or source of a law, R' Yaakov did not hesitate for a split second, but revealed its exact meaning and its source in the Talmud Bavli, Yerushalmi, Sifri, or Sifra on the spot. I never again witnessed a mind with such a tremendous hold on the meaning of the law and its way of learning. So many matters that he explained are recorded, yet not one of his numerous Torah innovations, and there are so many Torah matters included in his innovations. He was an ever flowing spring of Torah, each day increasing more wisdom and knowledge, both in the revealed and hidden studies. All who saw him witnessed this. He provided numerous clear expositions of the mysteries of the Torah, as to clarify the deepest depths and open the most closed of secrets. His teaching were a veritable highway for all who wanted ride on the way of truth in the hidden mysteries. Among them are many annotations on the obscure passages of the Zohar and the writings of the Arizal, all explained with wondrous understanding and wisdom, as all who look into this book will clearly see.
We possess many complete compilations of R. Yaakov of Isbitza's writings. They are:
*Ta'amei HaMitzvot on almost all of the 613 commandments.
*Commentary on all of the daily prayers.
*A commentary on the Shabbat and festival prayers, Rosh Chodesh, fast days. This includes an exposition of their sources from the Sages of the Talmud and the Zohar.
*Commentaries on all the writings of the Arizal, - the tree, the fruit and the branches – they are life for those who find them, fully explained for all who enter their gates.
(Most of his writings were lost during the second world war.)
R' Yaakov of Isbitza passed away in the year 5638 (1878) on the 15th of the month of Av. He left the world when traveling to the town of Drozganik for health reasons. His grave is in the town of Ratnitza.
Most of his Torah output was not written in an organized fashion, for he did not write down his teachings. The very little that was written down properly was that which he instructed me to write. In the first years he did not want to disturb my study of Halacha by asking me to transcribe his teachings. He once told me, "If I were to explain to you the true inner meaning of any matter in Torah, you would no longer want to learn Halacha. At that point in your studies, if I reveal the mysteries of the Torah, you will then be prematurely illuminated, only wanting to dwell in the realm of the mysteries and no longer study the revealed Torah. This is because you will see that the simple meaning of the Torah’s teachings are just a garment, and the inner essence is the neshama (soul). First occupy yourself with Halacha, and eventually you will understand that all of the inner mysteries of the Torah are within the revealed Halacha. Then you will take joy in learning both aspects of the Torah." At the end of his life I transcribed his commentary on the Etz Chaim of the Arizal. I managed to write more than two hundred pages on a few chapters. Also, I have hundreds of pages of his teachings on various disparate matters, including his commentary on the Torah."
What we would give to learn those two hundred pages of commentary on the Arizal that R' Gershon Chanoch transcribed from his father, the Beis Yaakov. Those writings, that, together with most of the Beis Yaakov’s output, were lost in the Shoah!
Consider the above statement of that the Beis Yaakov made, “First occupy yourself with Halacha, and eventually you will understand that all of the inner mysteries of the Torah are within the revealed Halacha.” This fits beautifully with the following statement about the study of Kabbalah by the Vilna Gaon:
“Even though you have studied the revealed Torah, and your “source is blessed,” still, be a ever flowing spring, and understand the sod
(mystery, or kabbalistic meaning) in a clear fashion. Then you will “rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Mishlei, 5:18.) That is to say, you will rejoice in that which you innovated in the simple meaning of the revealed Torah. When you understand the sod
, then you will see how the simple meaning is correct and true. You will see how there is nothing extraneous in the simple meaning.” (Commentary of the Vilna Gaon on Mishlei, 21:17, 22:13, 6:9, 5:18)
This is how R' Gershon Chenoch described his father’s book, Beis Yaakov
"The first book of my fathers that I published was the Beis Yaakov HaKollel
, a concise and comprehensive explanation of the holy Torah. It will open the gate that was closed by our predecessors, whose words were difficult to understand. The knowledge found in this book brings the words of the Torah into the grasp of man's understanding, offering the consciousness necessary to reveal the depths of the Torah's mysteries and the path of faith, free of doubt concerning God's governance and Providence over His creation. It contains moral instruction to refine the hearts of Israel, with advice on proper conduct. The book also explains the prayers and festivals, the fundamentals of the inner meaning of mitzvot, and a commentary on the Tanach and selections from the Talmud, all explained according to the, "pardes
." (This is an acronym for Pshat, Remez , Drash, Sod
, meaning all levels of exegesis from the simple meaning to the allegorical to the mystical.) Its goal is to show how all matters of Torah are relevant for all people, and how the events recounted in the Torah are experiences common to everyone. One may learn from this book how to serve God and truly fulfill that which He asks from us at any point in one's life – from the first moment he decides to conduct his life according to the wellsprings of Torah which flow from the house of God, to the time he draws the waters of salvation to heal the source of his soul. Through this knowledge one may even fix the deficiency he bears from the day of his birth, "for he is called an offender from his birth." (Yeshayahu, 48:8) He will be, "like a tree planted by streams of water, who spreads out its roots by the river." (see Tehilim 1:3 and Yirmiyahu, 17:8) He will see with faith how to strengthen his heart and proceed with courage. He will have hope and resolve, knowing how to take his soul in his hands and pray the God, trusting in Him forever. "
Perhaps the best summary of the teachings of the Beis Yaakov on the subject of emunah (faith) and Torah observance is found at the end of the introduction. There he writes:
"The Torah and its laws are advice given to man that allows him to fix emunah in his heart. The Zohar (Yitro, 82b) calls the 613 commandments of the Torah, “613 pieces of advice.” What exactly do the commandments advise? Perhaps it is subjective, for one can find many paths in the fulfillment of the Torah, whether it is the love of God, or the fear of God, or faith, or His oneness. Yet truly, they are called advice since the main principle of the mitzvot is that through the general fulfillment of the Torah and its laws as a whole, man fixes emunah in God in his heart with eternal permanence, and he shall not falter. Let not man ask, “How can I even start, for to begin with my heart does not even believe in the Torah or its laws?” For this reason God divided the Torah into positive and negative commandments, whereby even if man performs the commandments simply, what we call, the “garments” of the laws, without any appreciation of the deep intent within, he will be able to fix faith in his heart. In this way he will come to understand with perfect clarity that God is the Creator and Ruler of the universe, and that God’s intimate Providence extends to all the finest details of His creation. The more man accepts and builds fences around the law out of his growing love for the Torah and its mitzvot, the more the light will grow and he will feel the advantages of the laws, and in this way God will shine into him knowledge of the wonders of the inner nature of the Torah. This is as it is written in the Zohar (Vayeitze, 154b):
From this we learn how through the revealed Torah, one arrives at the hidden mysteries of the Torah.
The more one develops in his knowledge of the inner mysteries of the Torah, the more he will strengthen his emunah in every detail of his observance of the Torah.