1 Reb Gershon Dov’s maternal grandfather, the wealthy Torah patron Reb Meir Zalman, was a native of Gluchov.2 He was the son of the gaon Reb Abba “Iron Head,”3 son of the noble Reb Meir Zalman of Nemirov, who was a survivor of the murderous massacres of the wicked Chmielnicki and his hordes.4

For many years, Reb Meir Zalman had been the manager of many estates belonging to a Vohlynian count. Thanks to his efforts, thousands of Jewish families had settled in the cities, villages, settlements, and crossroads of this count’s estates, and they managed to support themselves amply.

Reb Meir Zalman was a very wise man, and he dealt honestly not only with his fellow Jews, but also with the gentiles. Since Reb Meir Zalman had been appointed manager of the estates, the fortunes of the local peasants had also improved. Because of Reb Meir Zalman’s great wisdom and persistence, the scope of the landlord’s business dealings broadened, and his wealth grew ever greater.

Following Reb Meir Zalman’s advice, the landlord purchased additional estates near the borders of the Russian Empire. When the Chmielnicki revolution broke out, Reb Meir Zalman moved all of the count’s holdings of silver, gold, and precious jewels to one of these new estates.5 He then sent his son Aharon Shlomo and his other family members, with an armed escort, to live there.

The count’s soldiers fought the Chmielnicki mobs, but could not defeat them. When the news arrived that Chmielnicki’s hordes were carrying out pogroms against the Jews, Reb Meir Zalman declared that the Jews who lived on the estates of his master the count should move to the count’s new estates. The Jewish refugees of the Chmielnicki massacres who were now settled on the new estates gradually began to sell the produce of the land. After a while, their economic conditions began to stabilize at a satisfactory level.

As a result of Reb Meir Zalman’s persistent labors — and the assistance his sons Reb Aharon Shlomo and Reb Yerachmiel — and with the help of the Jewish overseers and the businessmen who bought and sold the produce of the land, the landlord’s new estates developed, and he grew very wealthy.

When the count returned from his journeys, he discovered that a palace had been prepared for his dwelling on one of his new estates. It was decorated with all his best-loved furnishings, arranged according to his own taste. Seeing this, he gave to Reb Meir Zalman the estate in the town of Gluchov and its suburbs as a perpetual gift, in token of his thanks.

Reb Meir Zalman had three sons: Reb Abba, Reb Aharon Shlomo, and Reb Yerachmiel; he also had four daughters, who were married to prominent Torah scholars. Of his three sons, only the eldest, Reb Abba, spent his full time in constant Torah study and avodah, worshiping G‑d (blessed be He). The others engaged in business and commerce.

Reb Meir Zalman passed away at a ripe old age, leaving a legacy of his good reputation and great wealth. His sons and sons-in-law then sold their father’s estate and divided the proceeds among themselves, except for ten percent which they gave to charity, as instructed in his will. Then, each separated one tenth of his own share for charity.

The eldest, Reb Abba, was childless for many years. It was not until his old age, during his second marriage, that a son was born to him. He named this son Meir Zalman, after his father. This Meir Zalman was a well-behaved and healthy young boy. When he reached the age of three, his father enrolled him in the cheder. By the age of five, he had already acquired a great deal of knowledge for a lad of his age.

Meir Zalman was much loved by his father, but he was orphaned at a young age, when his father the gaon passed away. His mother, being still a young woman, remarried two years after his father’s passing. Her second husband, a relative of the departed father, was a Torah scholar who engaged in business and commerce.

Meir Zalman’s stepfather took an interest in the boy’s education, and sent him to good melamdim. When he reached the age of fourteen, his mother took him to the Smorgon Yeshivah, which was famous in those days, and had a good reputation

The bochur Meir Zalman remained at the Smorgon Yeshivah for four years, studying with great diligence. He acquired much knowledge of Gemara-Rashi-Tosafos, and became one of the outstanding students of the yeshivah. Upon his return home, his mother arranged a marraige between him and his cousin, the daughter of his uncle Reb Yerachmiel.

His father-in-law supported him for the next fifteen years, while he studied Torah with great diligence. But Meir Zalman had no children, and so he eventually divorced his wife and left his uncle’s home.

He began to engage in business, and G‑d granted him much success. For business reasons, he settled in the town of Potchup,6 where he married the daughter of one of the leading citizens of the town. Three daughters and a son were born to him; he named the son Abba, after his own father.

One of the estate owners with whom Reb Meir Zalman had business dealings introduced him to a prominent nobleman. From him, he leased the town of Klimovitch and the surrounding rural areas, including the streams and the inns by the roadside. Reb Meir Zalman then moved to Klimovitch. He pursued his business affairs with great energy and skill, increasing the yield of his fields’ produce, and expanding his business contacts throughout the land.

After Reb Meir Zalman ceased studying Torah full time in the home of his uncle and [former] father-in-law, and took up business affairs, he set for himself scheduled times for Torah study. Indeed, his home became a gathering place for Torah scholars, and he supported Torah scholars generously. He maintained all his scheduled Torah study sessions, paying no attention to the great distractions imposed by business.

After moving to Klimovitch, he built a beis hamedrash in his courtyard, with a guest house where visiting Torah scholars could stay. He selected ten of the elderly perushim who were Torah scholars living in the beis hamedrash, and provided for all their needs. Occasionally, he himself would teach a Gemara lesson in great depth.

He remembered his days as a student at the Smorgon Yeshivah with great nostalgia. But he especially missed his mentor, the gaon Reb Elyakim Feivish Porush, who had been the foremost member of the yeshivah’s post-graduate school.

A few years later, this gaon Reb Elyakim Feivish went into exile, and happened to pass through Klimovitch. He stayed at the guest house of the wealthy Torah patron, Reb Meir Zalman, who recognized him. He hugged him and kissed him, and showed him great honor, begging him to make Klimovitch his permanent home. He even dispatched a special agent to fetch his family members and the orphaned children of his daughter, whom he had been raising in his home. He then gave him a house to live in, and generously provided all his needs.

The gaon Reb Elyakim Feivish thoroughly knew both Talmuds, the Rambam, and the Turim by heart; he was an awesome masmid, without peer. For the past fifty years he had been a porush, divorced from all worldly matters. He fasted each weekday, from Shabbos to Shabbos, and each night he recited Tikkun Chatzos, weeping profusely. He would then collect the tears in the palms of his hands, and rinse his face with them.

It was said of him that he had never looked anyone in the face, and could not even recognize the faces of his immediate family members. When they arrived from Smorgon to join him, they had to bring a certificate from the rav of that town, certifying that they were indeed his relatives. Whenever he had to go outdoors, he would cover his eyes with his handkerchief to avoid seeing anything beyond the ground upon which he was actually walking.

Reb Elyakim Feivish was fond of saying that all his life he had taken great pains to avoid looking anyone in the face, and to avoid looking at anything outside his immediate vicinity. In fact, he often prayed that he would lose his eyesight. On the day that G‑d finally fulfilled his request, and he felt himself going blind, he was exceedingly happy.7

The little boy Abba was a cheerful and merry child. He was very talented at mimicking other people’s gestures and voices. He could imitate the chazan and the baal korei, copying their voices, their melodies, and their gestures. He also imitated the movements of all the blind and lame folk of the town, and their manner of walking. During the Purim festivities, it was he who directed the other children in their Purim play.

The boy also excelled with other lofty abilities, and by the age of twelve he had already acquired a considerable knowledge of Gemara. He then took to visiting the elderly gaon Reb Elyakim Feivish. From him, he received instruction in mussar, which had a great effect upon him.

At his bar mitzvah celebration, the young Abba delivered a very incisive pilpul, taught to him by his teacher, Reb Shmuel Zelig. The local Torah scholars were highly impressed with his speech. But the listeners were even more amazed by the sermon he had prepared on the verse,8 “The final word, when everything has been heard, is to fear the L‑rd and obey His commandments, for that is the sum of man.”

With closed eyes, in an entreating tone of voice, and with the awe and fear of G‑d visible in his face, the bar mitzvah boy quoted the sayings of the Sages (of blessed memory) that exhort us to the fear of Heaven. He illustrated these points with stories by the Sages describing the punishments meted out for even the most insignificant sins. For “The L‑rd is a G‑d of vengeance,”9 who “shows favor to none, and accepts no bribe.”10 At every moment, we must be mindful of the day of our eventual death, and prepare provisions for that journey. When he described the bitter punishments in the seven furnaces of hell, tears flowed from his eyes, and his audience wept profusely.

The lad spent two years diligently studying the mussar works, Shaarei Teshuvah11 by Rabbeinu Yonah,12 Sefer Chareidim,13 Reishis Chochmah, and the like. This was besides his constant study of Gemara in depth. During this time, he attended the elderly and blind gaon Reb Elyakim Feivish, and followed in his ways.

Occasionally, he would hear some wandering Torah scholars — who were lodging at his father’s guest house — mention the names of great tzaddikim and miracle-workers such as Reb Yisrael of Mezhibuzh and his disciple Reb Dov Ber of Mezritch. But he paid no attention to these stories.

Once, however, he happened to make the acquaintance of a traveler who was a great scholar, lodging in his father’s home. This visitor captured his heart with his teachings on the proper path for worshiping the Creator (blessed be He). He also interpreted for him several sayings of the Sages, based on these teachings.

One evening, the guest interpreted for him the passage (Sotah 31a), “Both of you rabbis are perfect tzaddikim; one through love [of G‑d], the other through fear [of G‑d].” He then proceeded to explain the difference between one whose avodah stems from love, and one whose avodah stems from fear.

From this traveler, the bochur Abba heard, for the first time in his life, of G‑d’s being praised as slow to anger, doing much loving kindness, and bestowing much good. Also new to him was the concept that the prayer of each Jew (even the simplest person) is beloved by G‑d as if it were a burnt offering and sacrifice.

The guest then told him that on the borders of the Polish Empire, in the small village of Kalisk, there lived a certain gaon named Reb Avraham, who worshiped the Creator in wondrous ways. 14 These words went to his heart. One day, without a word to anyone, he left home and wandered on the road, until he eventually came to the tzaddik Reb Avraham in Kalisk.

When he arrived there, he discovered groups of young married men and bochurim who were Torah scholars, all studying Torah and worshiping the Creator. They would daven at length, accompanied by lengthy meditation on the meaning of the words and passages. During their prayers they would sing with great fervor, dancing and skipping about with great joy.

They used the term “Chassidus” to refer to the teachings that they learned from their master and Rebbe, the tzaddik Reb Avraham; the avodah through which they worshiped G‑d by keeping His mitzvos and studying His Torah; and their avodah of fervent prayer. The Torah study and the avodah of this “Chassidus” were based upon the attributes of humility and total self-effacement.

The disciples of the tzaddik Reb Avraham would abrogate their egos and call themselves demeaning names. They would also debase themselves by walking about in torn and patched clothing, and by various other degrading gestures.15 Abba remained in Kalisk for about a year, and it was there that he first heard of the tzaddikim Reb Menachem Mendel of Horodok and the Alter Rebbe.

We now continue the story as Reb Abba himself told it to the chassid Reb Yitzchak Shaul,16 who repeated it to Reb Gershon Dov:

During the first month after I arrived in Kalisk, I heard the teachings of our master Reb Avraham. I took great delight in them, for the halls of concealed wisdom had now been opened to me. Also, the mussar lectures that we heard from our master Reb Avraham touched my heart greatly.

The problem was, however, that I was unable to adapt to the ways of avodah that involved self-abrogation and self-denigration. This situation continued during the entire time I spent there. Eventually, however, I did manage to become aroused by feelings of joy, especially the joy and happiness that stemmed simply from the fact that I was a Jew.

For Shabbos Mevorchim Elul, the tzaddik Reb Avraham made a pilgrimage to the tzaddik Reb Menachem Mendel of Horodok. We all joined him in this journey, remaining there for three months.

Upon our arrival, we found many other guests there. Among them were rabbis, young married Torah scholars, and bochurim. All of them were outstanding scholars, who studied the Torah and davened at length, paying great attention to the meaning and sense of the words.

The Torah study and the avodah that characterized this branch of Chassidus were based upon humility and modesty. Most of the disciples had infinite patience. They spoke little, but their Torah study and their prayers were articulated slowly and melodically.

The teachings of our master, the tzaddik Reb Menachem Mendel, were extremely profound, yet they were stated with extreme brevity. Thus, the subject matter remained mysterious and obscure, though the older students would explain the teachings to the younger ones.

The tzaddik Reb Menachem Mendel had seen the Baal Shem Tov twice, and heard his teachings.

During my third month in Horodok, the Liozner Maggid (the Alter Rebbe) and a group of his disciples arrived, to spend Shabbos with our master Reb Menachem Mendel Horodoker. I had already heard of the Liozner Maggid’s reputation when I first arrived in Horodok: he was a mighty gaon of the revealed Torah and of Kabbalah, and was also thoroughly versed in the sciences.

I also had heard of his great accomplishments in gathering bochurim and married students with outstanding intellectual abilities. He taught them the revealed Torah and the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and guided them in the intellectual approach to Chassidus.

The sitters at Reb Menachem Mendel’s court were overjoyed at his arrival, for they knew that the tzaddik Reb Menachem Mendel cherished and held dear the Rav and Maggid of Liozna. In his honor, he would hold feasts even on weekdays, and he would deliver Torah discourses at the table.

That Shabbos, Reb Menachem Mendel delivered a teaching on the subject of the trial of the binding of Yitzchak as a sacrifice. He pointed out that the trial was a test of Avraham, not of Yitzchak, and he explained why the trial of Ur Kasdim17 is not mentioned explicitly in Scripture. He explained at length the concept of simple faith versus the concept of intellectual understanding.

Even the oldest disciples were unable to comprehend these teachings fully. However, when the Liozner Maggid had reviewed the teachings for the sitters three or four times, and explained them thoroughly, they all succeeded in understanding the subject.18 This caused them great joy.

Some of his disciples had come along with the Liozner Rav and Maggid, and they informed me of the program of guidance and teaching he had arranged for the students. Therefore, I decided to travel to Liozna. Upon my arrival, the students welcomed me cordially. Following the Liozner Maggid’s instructions, one of them taught me the basics of Chassidus:

i. Every created being, whether it belongs to the heavenly host (from the smallest planet, to the greatest of the angels) or to the earthly host (from the smallest worm, to a human being who commands tens of thousands), possesses a G‑dly soul that animates it and brings it into being ex nihilo.

ii. Every motion and action, whether of the heavenly host or the earthly host (from the movement of the smallest blade of grass, to the revolution of the highest star in its orbit), results from the individual supervision of the Creator and L‑rd of all worlds (blessed be He).

iii. All Jews — regardless of whether they are poor or rich, whether they descend from a distinguished lineage or a common lineage, whether they are scholars or not — are members of a single family. Each must be concerned about the others, and they must aid one another in material matters and in spiritual matters.

iv. One must view another person in a favorable light, and give him the benefit of any doubt. We must take a lesson from the innocence of simple people, who worship G‑d (blessed be He) with pure faith, and who help other people with honor.

During that trip, I remained in Liozna for eight months. Afterwards I returned home happy and in good spirits. My father, being very fond of learning and deep wisdom, was delighted with the Torah teachings that I brought back. Within a year, he too went to visit the gaon of Liozna.

The holy Alter Rebbe made a mighty impression upon my father, who then expressed a desire to remain in Liozna for some time. But the Rebbe dissuaded him, advising him instead to find for himself someone who would study Toras HaChassidus with him at home.

When my father returned from Liozna, he turned over his businesses to his two elder sons-in-law, while he continued to support me and my younger sister on the proceeds from his savings.

He then began to study Torah constantly, day and night. About two years later, his older son-in-law passed away. The widow then sold her share of the business, and later married the widower Reb Azriel Yaakov Melamed.

When my father visited Liozna for the last time in his life, he met the Illuy of Kruce, Reb Gershon Dov, and took him for his son-in-law, to marry his youngest daughter. He gave him a house to live in, and generously provided for all his needs.

Not long afterwards, Father passed away. He left his fortune in gold and silver to me, to his two daughters, and to his son-in-law Reb Gershon Dov. This was besides the businesses that he had given to his two elder sons-in-law.

[The narrative is now resumed by the Previous Rebbe]:

Reb Gershon Dov [the elder] lived with his wife for twenty years, during which she bore him no children. Meanwhile, he lost his entire fortune, and finally he grew sick and died. After the chassid Reb Gershon Dov passed away, his widow desired to support herself by the labor of her own hands. Therefore, she sold her house and rented an apartment instead, in the home of her brother, the chassid Reb Abba.

She supported herself by some small business dealings in the market, and by plucking feathers. Reb Gershon Dov [the younger] was born there, in his uncle’s house, four months after his father’s death. Indeed, he was named Gershon Dov, after his father.

The chassid Reb Abba was known as Reb Abba “the lively.” Reb Gershon Dov remembered this uncle well, though he was only six years old when Reb Abba died. His earliest memories, dating from the time he was about three, were of his uncle dancing with him, and teaching him a tune to the words, “Who has set us apart from those who go astray, and given us the Torah of truth.”19

After he was enrolled in the cheder of Reb Zelig the kindergarten teacher, his uncle would often personally escort him to the cheder. And when he began to study Chumash, he would review his studies with him

The biography of this uncle Reb Abba consists of a long chain of good deeds and mesirus nefesh for Chassidus. Even in his very old age, he did many things that were characteristic of his jovial nature. But none of this had any effect upon Reb Gershon Dov, who was by nature very serious and studious, and who loved to investigate every subject carefully.