Rabbi Israel • “The Maggid of Kozhnitz”

The Baal Shem Tov was sitting at the table with his disciples one Friday night, when all of a sudden he let out a loud laugh.

After Shabbat he was asked why he had laughed, to which he replied, “I really would like to tell you, but first you have to come with me. That is when you’ll find out what you want to know.”

The Baal Shem Tov called his servant and told him to hitch up the wagon, into which his disciples climbed. They traveled the whole night, and in the morning they arrived at a tiny village. The Tzaddik commanded that Shabtai the bookbinder and his wife be brought to him.

Reb Shabtai (who was advanced in years) and his wife immediately came to see the Tzaddik. He turned towards the bookbinder and said to him, “Tell me what you did last Friday night.”

The bookbinder began his story:

“I am a craftsman, and I used to earn a living working with my hands. Every Thursday my wife and I would go to the market to buy what we needed for Shabbat. On Fridays I would leave my work at ten in the morning and prepare for Shabbat, going to synagogue early. This is what I did during my entire life. However I’m old now, and I no longer have the strength to work. Yet despite having great difficulty in making a living, I have never needed gifts from anyone. G-d has always helped me to honor Shabbat as I normally would.

“Last Friday, however, I didn’t even have a cent. Yet I decided that it was better to fast than to ask anyone for help. My wife, who is an upright woman, promised to abide by my decision and not ask people for help either. I went to synagogue early enough, as is my usual practice, and I stayed there until the last person departed. When I went home, from afar I could see the lit Shabbat candles in my home. When I arrived, I saw that the table was set and covered with a great many good things. Since I was certain that my wife did not fail to keep her promise of not asking for help from anyone, I immediately came to the table and recited Kiddush on the wine and commenced the meal.

“As we were eating, my wife told me the following: ‘You remember your old coat with the silver buttons that we lost a while ago? Today I found it after you left for synagogue. I then sold the buttons, and with the money I purchased everything we needed for Shabbat.’

“When I heard that, my eyes let out tears of joy. I took my wife and together we danced in gratitude to G-d.”

When he finished his story, the Baal Shem Tov said to his disciples, “Know that the angels of Heaven also rejoiced and danced with them. And now, Shabtai, what is your desire?”

Shabtai asked the Baal Shem Tov to give him a blessing for a son. He agreed, and one year later, in 5500 (1739), a son was born to him that he named Israel.

Since he was born in his father’s old age, Israel was by nature a weak child, however he possessed a strong mind and soul. By the age of seven he already knew several tractates of the Talmud by heart, and he became one of the youngest students of the Maggid of Mezritch and his disciples: Rabbi Shmelke of Nickelsburg, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin recounted that when he had been in Kozhnitz, he studied with Rabbi Israel for an entire day and found him to be an expert in all fields of Torah.

When the inhabitants of Kozhnitz heard of his fame, the prominent members of the community came to him with an offer to be their Maggid.

The people of Kozhnitz greatly loved their Rav, whose fame quickly spread around the Jewish world. From the four corners of the globe, people began to seek out the Maggid in order to receive his blessing.

Despite his frailty (and even though he spent most of his time lying down wrapped in covers to warm his body) when the time for prayer arrived, he experienced no weakness. When he went to pray in the morning, he entered the Beit Midrash holding a Torah scroll in his arms, and he danced before the holy Ark as two rows of people stood on either side of him. He would pray with a powerful voice, one whose echo was heard throughout the building.

He taught his disciples to have confidence in G-d. And how powerful confidence is – the confidence that comes from the depths of the heart!

There was a certain peasant who lived with his wife for more than ten years, yet they remained childless. A chassid, who was among one of the Maggid’s closest disciples, said to the peasant: “Follow my advice. Go see the great Maggid of Kozhnitz and ask him for a blessing. He has already saved many childless couples.”

The peasant and his wife hurried to go see the Maggid. They implored him to give them a blessing so that they could have offspring. He looked at them and finished by saying, “If you want a son, you must put 52 gold pieces on the table, the numerical value of ben [son].” The astonished peasant exclaimed, “Fifty-two gold pieces? Only the rich have that kind of money! I only have 10 gold pieces.” However the Maggid maintained his demand for all 52 of them.

The peasant raised his hands to heaven and said to his wife, “Let’s go. G-d will help us even without the Maggid!”

At that point, the face of Rabbi Israel began to shine. He said to them in a confident tone, “Go home in peace, because from Heaven your salvation is near!”

The words of the Tzaddik were quickly fulfilled, so great is the power of faith in G-d when it comes from the depths of the heart.

Rabbi Israel supported people who moved to Eretz Israel, and he was among the Tzaddikim of the generation who established the Rabbi Meir Baal Haness fund that aided the poor of Eretz Israel.

On Tishri 14, 5575 (1814), on the eve of Sukkot, the holy Maggid of Kozhnitz left this world. His son, Rabbi Moshe Eliakim Bria, replaced him as Rav of Kozhnitz.

The published works of the Maggid include Avodat Israel (a commentary on the Torah and Perkei Avoth), Ohr Israel, and many others.




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