Weekly Chasidic Story #1019 (s5777-38/ 25 Sivan 5777)

Some with the Hand…

Rabbi Abba Pliskin was one of the more venerated elder chasidim from Russia in all of Lubavitch, although you would never guess so by his modest demeanor and behavior.

Connection: Seasonal--21st yahrzeit of Rav Abba.

Some with the Hand…

Yerachmiel Tilles

I moved from Binghamton to Brooklyn in 1972 in order to work with Meir Abehsera (of blessed memory) on his publications, and also to study some Torah in a more formal context. As I was employed during the day, I could only attend yeshiva classes at night.


I went one evening to visit the Chabad yeshiva for baalei tshuvah (returnees to Judaism without a strong Torah background), called "Hadar HaTorah," located in the Crown Heights district of Brooklyn. The rabbi in charge received me graciously and showed me where the two nightly beginners' classes in English were held. He advised me to sample each one.

The first was a class in Talmud, taught by a young married graduate of the yeshiva; the other was in Jewish Law, taught by an old-looking chasid with a strong Russian accent and lots of Yiddish syntax. Both classes took place during the same hours. After my second evening, the head rabbi asked me at the end of the evening which one I preferred.

I answered honestly: I wanted to learn Talmud, and would much prefer to do so with the old rabbi. To my amazement, by the next night it was already arranged.

The class never had more than five students, and sometimes only two.* I attended for several years, and considered myself blessed from Heaven to be able to do so. Now, forty years later, I am still influenced by those sessions with Rabbi Abba Pliskin, who it turned out was one of the more venerated elder chasidim in all of Lubavitch, although you would never guess so by his modest demeanor and behavior (and his diminutive 150 cm./4' 9-10" height). It is for the sake of introducing him to you that I have gone through this lengthy preamble.

In late summer of 1973 I became engaged, and the wedding was set for Kislev 21 on the Jewish calendar (that year: Dec. 15). Exactly three weeks before our date, on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Kislev, two good friends of ours were set to get married, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in front of Lubavitch World Headquarters. My in-laws to-be surprised me by saying they would like to come down from Yonkers (the first city north of NYC, adjoining the Bronx where I lived my first twenty years) for the ceremony, in order to expose themselves to what a Chasidic wedding would be like.

Weddings in that location had an unusual feature. The window of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's office faced the street, and a large wooden platform was temporarily erected in front of the window so that the Rebbe could view the ceremony, if he so wished.

The evening of the wedding, after the ceremony was over, I noticed that 'Rav Abba' was still standing in front of the platform. I decided it would be positive -and interesting!-to present to my in-laws to be this old-world chasid who spent nearly twenty years being pursued by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB), a consequence of his legendary dedication to Torah-true Jewish education. He managed to escape Russia in 1947, and went on to be one of the founding fathers of the highly successful Chabad community in Melbourne, Australia, before eventually moving to New York and becoming a gabbai (manager) of the 770 shul.

So I did it, and what I was afraid would happen, happened. My mother-in-law-to-be gracefully extended her hand for R. Abba to shake. Then she realized her faux pas - chasidim don't shake with the opposite gender. She was embarrassed. So was her husband. And so was I. And R. Abba...he saved the day. Calmly, he pronounced: "Some shake mit der hands; I shake mit mine heart." Instantly, sadness became joy as big smiles appeared on all faces.

But that's not the end of the story.

I mentioned that I had noticed Rav Abba still at the wedding platform after the ceremony was over. What caught my eye was I happened to see from a distance that the bride's elderly grandmother (great aunt?) was the last one on the platform, and the reason clearly was that she was having difficulty descending on the steep rickety metal step to the ground. I was feeling bad for her. If others saw, they probably felt so too. Not R. Abba. He didn't bother with feelings; he took action instead. He darted over and extended his hand for her to clasp and be helped down!

Now, put together the two episodes of the hands that evening and you have a true glimpse of what is a pious Jew and a chasid.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Yisrael-Abba (HaKohen?) Pliskin [of blessed memory: 5665 (or 5667) - 27 Sivan 5756 (1905 - June 1996] spent nearly twenty years in hiding from the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB), a consequence of his absolute dedication to helping Torah-true Jewish education survive in Communist Russia. He managed to emigrate in 1947, and after a brief period in Paris went on to be one of the founding fathers of the highly successful Chabad community it Melbourne, Australia, before eventually moving to New York and becoming a gabbai (manager) of the "770" shul and a teacher in the English-language yeshiva for young men without strong Torah backgrounds. (For more details)

Connection: 21st yahrzeit of Rav Abba.

* Editor's note: Old-time Tsfat residents may be amazed to know that one faithful attendee was Shabtai Coben of blessed memory. He even brought Rav Abba to speak to his mother, to calm her about her son's new religiosity.

Photo: The author in 5734 (1973) on his wedding day; Rabbi Abba Pliskin o.b.m.


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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"Festivals of the Full Moon"
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is also available for
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