#556 (s5768-46 / 19 Tammuz 5768)

The Secret Sage

When the Sthefaneshter Rebbe finished studying, he carefully replaced the books, leaving no indication that they had been used.

The Secret Sage

Rabbi Avraham Mattisyahu of Shtefanesht was known for his miraculous powers. Wherever he went he was followed by thousands of onlookers, Jews and non-Jews both. On his annual visit to Bucharest, the capital of Romania, all the shops and businesses were closed as tens of thousands lined the streets to welcome him.

Despite his fame, the Shtefaneshter was considered one of the true hidden tzadikim of his generation. In his eighty five years he never once recited words of Torah publicly and there is not even one Torah thought that can be said in his name. He sat and learned in his private study, and whilst he was doing so he strictly forbade anyone to enter the room. Every day when he finished, he carefully replaced the books on their shelves, leaving no indication that they had been used.

Only on one occasion was the Rebbe caught with a holy book in his hands. Once, late at night, a fire broke out in the Rebbe's house and the flames gave off a thick heavy smoke which spread throughout the building. When the Shtefaneshter didn't emerge from his quarters, one of the household members opened the door to the Rebbe's private study. The Rebbe was sitting deeply engrossed in a small book. The fumes and soot had totally blackened the whole room including the Rebbe's face and clothes.

The Rebbe however remained totally oblivious to everything around him and only after the intruder told him about the fire did he look up from his book. As they left the room, his attendant looked to see what the Rebbe had been learning. He saw that it was Sefer Raziel HaMalach, which is one of the most difficult kabbala tomes and is understood only by the greatest kabbalists.

Indeed, the Shtefaneshter's total immersion in his divine service, his study and prayer, was truly more amazing than all his wonders. He once went out to the courtyard of his house with a minyan in order to sanctify the new moon. In the field just across the road a large division of tanks had gathered in preparation of a training exercise. The commanding officer had forgotten to warn the local population of the exercise. Suddenly, while the Rebbe was in the middle of Kiddush Levana (the prayer for blessing the new moon), the tanks started to fire right over their heads. The chasidim, who had been quite unaware of the neighboring tanks, ran for their lives. The tremendous noise and the streaks of fire made them flee in panic in every direction. The Rebbe, however, remained rooted to the spot as if he hadn't heard anything. He carried on his prayer without even lifting his head from his siddur!

The introductory passages of the Shacharit [morning prayer] took him over an hour. The chasidim sat and studied until the Rebbe was ready for Baruch Sh'amar [after which prayer there can be no more talking]. After many hours, at around midday, he finished Shacharit and then his attendants brought him his solitary meal of the day. The Shtefaneshter would taste just a few spoonfuls and this would suffice him until the next day. His shirayim (leftovers) were distributed to his chasidim who told of the many miracles brought about through them.

On one occasion a chasid came to the Shtefaneshter Rebbe, crying that his daughter had fallen ill with typhus and was in a desperate condition. Her hours were numbered and only a miracle could save her. The Rebbe gave the chasid his personal spoon, which he used every morning to eat breakfast, and a piece of his bread, and told the chasid to feed the bread to his daughter with the spoon. Although the girl couldn't swallow and hadn't eaten anything in days, she readily consumed the Rebbe's shirayim, and a few days later she was back to herself. She lived to a ripe old age; the spoon, handed down from generation to generation, is until today a family heirloom.

Despite his fame the Shtefaneshter was the epitome of humility and regarded himself as a simple ordinary person. A Jew who had several elderly daughters to marry off came crying for help. He pleaded, "Since the Rebbe is the most righteous one of the generation and our sages say, "The tzadik decrees and G-d fulfills," I beg that the Rebbe promise me that this year I will marry off all my daughters."

When the Rebbe heard himself being labeled as the most righteous one of the generation, he exclaimed, "What are you saying, that I am the tzadik hador? Do you know what it means to be the tzadik hador?"

The chasid, who was no fool, realized that he was about to ruin everything with his flattering terminology, and answered, "Even if the Rebbe is not the tzaddik hador he surely knows who is, therefore I'll give my petition note to the Rebbe and he should hand it over to the tzaddik hador."

The Rebbe was pleased with the chasid's new wording, for such was his way, to explain away his miracles as if they had nothing do with him. Taking the Jew's hand in his own, the Rebbe blessed him: "The Al-mighty should help you to marry off all your daughters this year."

This blessing was completely fulfilled.

Although the Rebbe was surrounded on all sides by the simple and the ignorant, in Shtefanesht there were also a large number of chasidim at a highly advanced spiritual level. These were people who cut themselves off totally from the outside world and devoted themselves to divine service. They lived in the Rebbe's court and many of them stayed for months or years at a time, during which the Rebbe worried for their food and lodgings.

One of the most famous of these chasidim was Rabbi Chaim Zanvil Abramovitz, who became famed as the holy tzadik, the Ribnitzer Rebbe [d. 1995, see story #515 in this series]. The Rebbe said that Rabbi Chaim Zanvil was the end product of all his efforts; the chidush (innovation) he had worked so hard to create. Like his Rebbe, the Ribnitzer was also famed for his miraculous powers and prophetic like divine insight.

Another of these elite chasidim was Rabbi Eliezer Zusha Portugal [d. 1982, see story #129 in this series], who later became famous as the Skulener Rebbe, known for his extensive deeds of kindness and Holocaust rescue activities, as well as his unusually lengthy and intensive prayers, similar to his Rebbe. He too merited much special attention from the Shtefaneshter, who regarded him very highly.

When news of his passing became known on the 21st of Tamuz 5693 (1933), people fainted in the streets. The crown and glory of Romania had left them. In 1969 the Shtefaneshter 's holy remains (which were still as whole and fresh as the day he died!) were transferred to Nachlas Yitzchok in Tel Aviv, where his grave is still a noted prayer site for thousands of Jews.


[Adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from www.nishmas.org, the website of the former Nishmas Chayim Yeshiva in Jerusalem, headed by Rabbi Benyamin Adilman. Posted there are also back issues of his weekly parsha sheet, B'ohelei Tzadikim.]

Biographical note:
Rabbi Avraham Mattisyahu Fridman of Shtefanesht [1848 - 21 Tamuz 1933], in Romania, was the grandson of the holy Rabbi Yisroel of Rhzhin. He succeeded his father, Rabbi Menachem Nochum, to be the second Rebbe in the dynasty, in 1869. While famed for his miraculous powers and having thousands of followers and admirers, he was also considered one of the true hidden tzadikim of his generation. In 1969 his remains -- which witnesses alive today testify were still as whole and fresh as the day he died! -- were exhumed and transferred from Romania to Nachlas Yitzchok in Tel Aviv, where his grave is still a holy site of prayer for thousands of Jews.

Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages.

A 48 page soft-covered booklet containing eleven of his most popular stories may be ordered on our store site.

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