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Aish Kodesh

By: Rav Ari Shames

The Individual and the Rebbe in the Writings of the Aish Kodesh Rav Ari Shames

I would like make a slight change this week and focus not on the parsha but rather on the writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Pieczezne Rebbe, commonly known as the Aish Kodesh, whose Yartzheit will be marked this coming week. For a taste of his biographical material and the miraculous manner in which we were able to get his writings please see

In this article I would like to focus on one aspect in the philosophy of the Aish Kodesh - the interaction between the individual and the Rebbe. This issue played a central role in the entire realm of Chassidut and was seen as both its strong point (by the proponents of Chassidut) and its weak point (by its opponents). The Tzadik (this is the term used by most for the Rebbe, we will examine the term soon) was seen as a central figure in the development of ones connection with God, and ones spirituality. The Tzadik possesses qualities and abilities that the commoner does not have and only by ones associating with the Tzadik can one benefit from the full potential of growth. The Tzadik was, of course, a teacher in the narrow sense of the word, but he was much more than that. A true Chasid would go to great lengths to spend time in his company and would often leave his family for Shabbat and Yom Tov to spend these with the Tzadik. Every action of the Tzadik was to be studied, while at the same time it was clear to all of the Chassidim that not all of his teachings or actions could be understood by the masses. The Tzadik was involved in the esoteric and only those at his level could understand the full impact of his work. In addition, the Tzadik was believed to be able to know things about people without having been told or by simply seeing them or reading their name. He was noted for being able to perform miraculous feats in order to help out those in crisis.

The relative standing of the Tzadik varied from Chassidut to Chassidut and from area to area. The Aish Kodesh was a member and descendant of a Polish school of Chassidut that put a very strong emphasis on the Tzadik.

Reb Elimelech of Lzansk was definitely one of the major forces in making the Tzadik into such a prominent figure. (In a humorous manner it is said that Chassidut has three books [a paraphrase of the Gemara describing the three books God opens on Rosh Hashana] - the book of the Tzadikim, written by reb Elimelech, the book of the benonim written by the first Chabad Rebbe (the Tanya is actually named "Sefer shel Benonim") and the book of the reshayim, by Reb Nachman who guides those who have sinned back to the path).

One of the more prominent students of Reb Elimelech was Reb Kalman Kalunumus Epstein, the author of the Maor VeShemesh. It is almost impossible to find a single page in his two volume work that does not talk about the Tzadik and the importance of traveling to the Tzadik to be with him and the other Chassidim.

All of this brings us to the Aish Kodesh, who was both related to Reb Elimelech, and more importantly, was ideologically part of the same chassidic camp (and was even named after the Maor VeShemesh). How did the Aish Kodesh view the role of the Tzadik?

I would argue that the Aish Kodesh parted ways with Reb Elimelech on this very important issue. The individual is the focus of the key to his own personal spiritual development and the Tzadik seems to play no significant role. This can be demonstrated by examining a few interesting points in his works.

It is very significant that in the vast majority of his writings, the Aish Kodesh makes no reference to the entire concept of Tzadik or Rebbe. He deals extensively with spiritual development but clearly does not see the Tzadik as a major element in the process. In addition, it is significant that even in the few places that he does mention it he uses the term Rebbe and not Tzadik. I cannot be sure but I feel that the term is less embellishing than that of Tzadik.

In a similar vein I would like to draw attention to the introduction to his work Chovat Hatalmidim where he spends thrity pages in what he calls a "Letter to Parents and Teachers" where he assigns much if not all of the blame for the generation's educational pitfalls to the teachers and parents. He does not exonerate anyone simply because of their status. I think it is very significant that he published this as part of the rest of the book which is aimed at the students and their responsibility for their own development. One would imagine that even if he had what to say to the teachers and parents he could have found an alternative venue to voice his concerns. Why was this essay, which seems not to be related to the actual body of the book, published as a preamble? I believe that the message is clear - he does not hide his critique and feels it important that the students be aware of it as well.

The only significant description of the interaction between the masses and the Tzadik/Rebbe is in Mevo HaShearim in chapter eight. It is here that the Aish Kodesh describes in detail how the interaction should be. He uses the work of the Maor VeShemesh as the model of how things used to be in the "good ole days" and describes in detail the uplifting experience throughout all stages of ones visit to the Rebbe. This idyllic scene is contrasted with the contemporary one where he bemoans the fact that even if one does go to the Rebbe, it is not in the proper state of mind or after having been prepared properly.

In many places the Aish Kodesh contrasts the golden days of old with the meek state of affairs that he witnessed in his time. However, each and every time he notes the contrast, it is not to dwell on it and make the attempt to reenact those times, but rather as a very realistic individual who looks to make the best out of the present available situation. In this case, as well, I think we can understand this as reminiscing but not as forming a central element in his program for development.

Instead of the central role of the Rebbe in ones development, the Aish Kodesh suggests other vehicles for spiritual improvement. One of these is the "Group". He describes in great detail, in many places, the ground rules and structure of this "Group". The main purpose is to develop a tight knit group of people to act as mutual support in order to effect growth in their search for a relationship with God. A Rebbe figure is conspicuously absent from the set up of the group. Indeed, the group is a very democratic organization where each and every member is meant to play a role in the advancement of all.

In addition to the "Group", or more precisely as a prerequisite, the Aish Kodesh stresses personal responsibility as the main criterion needed for success in spiritual development. The joint themes of responsibility, self esteem and always striving for the maximum, form the thesis for his book "Chovat Hatalmidim". I would argue that the concept (at least in its more radical forms) of the Tzadik/Rebbe stands in contradistinction to the ideas of personal responsibility. It is almost impossible for the Aish Kodesh to advocate for a strong Rebbe figure as this would weaken the feeling of pressure on the individual to take responsibility for his own actions.

As we mark the Yartzheit of the Aish Kodesh this week I hope and pray that I will be able to include the teachings of the Rebbe in my relationship with my children, my students and myself.


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