Rabbi Ben-Zion Halberstam

Rabbi Ben-Zion Halberstam • “The Bobover Rebbe”

The chassidim recount that Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Zanz, the author of Divrei Chaim, once went to see his grandson Rabbi Shlomo, the founder of the Bobov dynasty. There he saw his great grandson, the infant Ben-Zion, in a cradle with his tiny legs sticking out. He looked at the baby’s legs for a moment, then said, “What I did not have the time to correct during my lifetime, my great grandson Ben-Zion will correct with these legs of his.” In actuality, the baby did not disappoint his great grandfather Rabbi Chaim. He grew to occupy a lofty position within Polish Jewry, becoming a faithful leader of Chassidus.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Halberstam was born in 5634 (1834) in the Galician town of Bokovsk, where his father Rabbi Shlomo served as Rav. He was Rabbi Shlomo’s only son, and following the advice of Rabbi Shlomo’s grandfather (the author of Divrei Chaim), he was named Ben-Zion.

When the baby grew up, it quickly became apparent that he possessed remarkable talents in addition to outstanding character traits. At the age of twelve he almost drowned in a river, and after he was rescued he was asked by his uncle, the Rav of Schinvaveh, what he thought of as he was drowning. The young Ben-Zion replied, “I thought of my great grandfather, Rabbi Chaim, the Divrei Chaim.” His uncle then asked him, “Why did you not think of the Creator of the world?” and the boy immediately replied, “I thought of a man who was the servant of the Creator of the world.”

When he was almost 13 years old, his father brought him to see Rabbi Yehoshua, the Rebbe of Belz. The Rebbe asked him to sing some verses from the Psalms: “A song of Ascents. I lift my eyes to the mountains” (Psalms 121:1). When the Rebbe heard the boy singing, he said, “His singing is filled with the fear of Heaven.”

After the death of his father Rabbi Shlomo, the Bobover Rebbe, Rabbi Ben Zion was crowned as Rebbe in his place in 5665 (1905). Thus at the age of 31, he became the leader of thousands of Bobover chassidim.

His first concern was to strengthen the famous Viznitz yeshiva that his father had established as Rav of that city. Under his leadership, it reached an elevated level and become famous as a center of Torah, fear of Heaven, and Chassidus. It was a yeshiva from which great rabbis, scholars, and pious and active students emerged.

Rabbi Ben-Zion devoted the vast majority of his time to his yeshiva students, and he was attached to them with all his heart and soul. He prayed with them, studied with them, ate with them morning and evening, and spoke to them as friends. He took an interest in the specifics and personal situation of each student, to the point that everyone felt that the Rebbe was a father who shared their worries and sufferings – as well as their joys – with each of them. The Rebbe considered himself to be responsible not only for the spiritual development of his students, but also for their physical health. It is therefore not surprising that Bobov students were devoted to their Rav and loved him wholeheartedly.

Songs and music occupied an important place among the chassidim of Bobov, and the Rebbe is considered to be one of the great composers of Chassidic melodies. Through his prayers and songs, he helped many people return to the right path. All that a person needed was to step across the threshold of the Rebbe’s home in order to become a different man. Throughout the year rabbis, great scholars, and ordinary Jews would come to Bobov, and every Torah utterance emanating from the Rebbe’s mouth entered the hearts of his listeners. His influence over his chassidim was tremendous and profound.

When his students become too numerous, the Bobover Rebbe was forced to open more branches of his Etz Chaim yeshiva in other cites, and over the course of time six yeshivot were established in western and central Galicia. People loved the Bobover Rebbe, and he was always among those who fought for the Torah. He maintained a correspondence with Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the Rav of Vilna and recognized leader of Orthodox Jewry at that time. He also shared in the misfortunes of the community and was concerned with the fate of his Jewish brothers who were persecuted and imprisoned.

Other than his wisdom and greatness in Torah, Rabbi Ben-Zion Halberstam was also familiar with the affairs of this world, and he knew how to perfectly clarify the law concerning dealings among men. His face shined with wisdom, and his entire persona witnessed to his splendor.

Once a resident of a small town, a non-Jewish meat dealer, was found murdered. Suspicions centered on his associate, who was then arrested. Yet soon afterwards, some non-Jews accused a Jew of being guilty of the crime. Since the two accused men denied having any connection with the murder, and since the police chief did not know what to do, the judge in the case was at a loss on how to proceed. Now the Bobover Rebbe was famous for his wisdom and uncommonly good sense, and so the judge asked him for advice. The Rebbe counseled him as follows: The judge should bring the two accused men to the victim’s grave and have the coffin opened, then each of the accused should approach the body and extend his hand to it. When the true murderer would extend his hand, the corpse would seize his hand by force and not let him go.

The judge accepted this advice. The two accused were brought to the grave, and the Jew was the first to approach the open coffin. He put his hand on the hand of corpse, and nothing happened. Then came the time for the accused non-Jew. He approached the open coffin, but then dropped to his knees as his whole body trembled. He made the sign of the cross with his hands, as Christians do, and said: “I murdered him. I ask for forgiveness.” With that, the name of the Rebbe was extolled throughout the country.

With the Nazi’s invasion of Poland and the start of the Holocaust, the Bobover Rebbe fled with his sons and sons-in-law to the city of Lvov, which was then in the Russian sector. Bobover chassidim throughout the world tried to save him and bring him to the United States, but their efforts were unsuccessful. In July 1941, the Germans entered Lvov, took the Jews from their homes, and led them to their death. The Rebbe was among them. It was Friday before sundown, and he was wearing his Shabbat clothes. The cruel soldiers began to beat him on his head with their rifle-butts, and his kippah fell to the ground. From time to time the Rebbe bent over to pick it up, and they beat him even more. His pure and holy soul ascended to Heaven, together with his sons and sons-in-law, on the fourth of Av 5701 (1941). May Hashem avenge their blood.

By Divine mercy, his son Rabbi Shlomo was saved. In 5706 (1946), after much wandering and suffering, he arrived in the United States and there rebuilt the Torah kingdom of Bobover Chassidus.




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