The Be'er Mayim Chayim

"The Well of Living Waters"

by Chana Katz


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"Without Shabbat, what is life, other than an unrelenting, pressured, struggle? The Shabbos is so important, that the sages say if all the Jews would observe just two Shabboses, the Redemption would come." -- Rabbi Chaim Tirar of Tchernovitz (1760 -- 1817).

Rabbi Chaim's love of the Sabbath was so extraordinary that on the red-arrowed-marker pointing to his gravesite in Tsfat's famous ancient cemetery, he is referred not only by his most famous work -- the Be'er Mayim Chayim, a deep commentary on the Chumash, but by another illustrious work, Siduro Shel Shabbat, which provides much inspiration and understanding of the holy Seventh Day.

It wasn't easy to turn Rabbi Chaim down when he explained both the beauty and importance of keeping Shabbos. In fact, it wasn't easy for a Jew in the northern Moldovian city of Tchernovitz during the late 19th century, to turn down any request made by Rabbi Chaim.

Brilliance in Torah, warmth of Chasidus and a big dose of personal charisma helped Rabbi Chaim Tirar -- "the Tchernovitzer" -- influence both peasant and nobility during the 18 years he served as the Jewish community's first head rabbi.. During that time he waged a fierce battle against the registration of Jewish children in German public schools, as was demanded by the ruling Austrian emperor.

Rabbi Chaim was a leading disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch and of Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov. Over the years, he developed many disciples of his own, and some of them also traveled with him to Tsfat and are buried alongside him. Only some are mentioned by name (see story #246).

When he left his post in 1807, a suitable replacement wasn't found until 1833.

In 1813 Rabbi Chaim emigrated to the land of Israel and lived his last years in the holy city of Tsfat. He passed away in 1817 on the third day of Chanukah.

Others may have stayed in Tchernovitz, but probably never forgot their encounter with Rabbi Chaim -- even if they didn't always give a full commitment right away.

Once, in a heart to heart talk with a simple peasant, Rabbi Chaim had given it his best shot...

"All week you work with your animals, planting, plowing doing backbreaking labor. But on the holy Shabbat you receive a second soul, a pure soul which enables you to experience a complete rest from the mundane...On the holy Shabbat, every Jew becomes a king, the son of the King of Kings."

Hearing Rabbi Chaim's straightforward but bejeweled words, the peasant started crying and promised to start to keep the Sabbath, but begged to receive exception to work during the plowing and harvesting season as times were very difficult.

No, Rabbi Chaim told him firmly but caringly. And he explained. "The Shabbat laws were given at Mara, (a place of bitter waters), to teach that even when things seem so difficult and keeping Shabbos an impossibility, a Jew must overcome the obstacles and keep it anyway.

"And when he does," assured Rabbi Chaim, "the Master of the Universe will see to it that the bitter waters become sweet to him."

Crouching for the Cave Experience

To get to the burial cave of the "Be'er Mayim Chayim" the quickest route may be from the bottom of the "new" cemetery and wind one's way up the hill toward the ancient cemetery. Then again, if one starts at the top of the hill, the path to Rabbi Chaim passes directly by perhaps the most famous dweller of the lot, the holy Ari -- Rabbi Issac Luria.

To get to the starting point from the top of the mountain leading to the old cemetery, take HaAri Street from Ascent to as far as the road goes (which is right by the Ari Sephardic synagogue and leads to the Ari's mikveh). A platform built in recent years to accompany the large volume of visitors, leads directly to the Ari's kever. From the Ari, the same platform winds to the left and a towering tree, which hovers above the grave of Rabbi Yosef Karo, whose famous Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, is still studied today.

From the Beit Yosef, take six more steps down the platform and make a sharp left, where a sign in Hebrew points to "the Be'er Mayim Chayim and Sidoro Shel Shabbat -- Rabbi Chaim bar Shlomo." (Continuing just a few steps down is the burial cave of illustrious Torah commentator, Rav Moshe Alshich).

If you're not too keen on reading the signs in Hebrew, don't worry. There is almost always a knowledgeable visitor who passes through the ancient cemetery all hours of the day and night.

The entrance to the cave is only small enough for a little child to enter, making it necessary for one to bend down until passing several feet into the cave. It's strikingly quiet in there, the only exception being an occasional buzz of a fly or some birds singing outside. It's also pretty dark, except for a foot-high glass jar filled with enough oil and a burning wick to provide light for probably several months if not a year. But in the heat of the day, the cool shade provided by the cave is most comforting.

Other than some books of Psalms and other holy works. . . there's not much else that stands between the visitor and the souls of Rabbi Chaim and his disciples.

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[Chana Katz, a former South FLorida journalist, lives in Tsfat. Her articles on life in Israel have reached publications throughout the world.]

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