Reb Aryeh Leib, the author of the Shaagas Aryeh, was one of the great minds of all times, yet, his genius led him to be very impatient with people, especially with communal leaders who were not worthy of their exalted positions. Because of this he was seldom able to remain as rav in one town for very long, and spent much of his life wandering from city to city, in great poverty.
Once, when he reached the city of Koenigsberg, he came to the home of the rav of the city, the great Reb Aryeh Leib Epstein, author of Sefer Hapardes.
Without bothering to introduce himself, the Shaagas Aryeh began a complicated discussion with the rav.
Both giants of Torah rose higher and higher in the intellectual battle, each one asking and the other answering. Finally, the Shaagas Aryeh gained the upper hand and asked a seemingly triumphant question.
The rav of Koenigsberg, however, reached for a sefer on the table and said, “I will answer you from here.” And he proceeded to give an answer from the sefer he held in his hand. It was the Shaagas Aryeh.
When Reb Aryeh Leib saw this he cried out in protest, “You do not understand what the author of the sefer meant! I know what he really wrote.”
The rav of Koenigsberg looked into the eyes of the stranger and saw them burning with a strange and mysterious fire. He suddenly realized that here was the Shaagas Aryeh himself!
“Forgive me for not recognizing you,” he cried out, and rushed to order a special room be set aside for his great guest. He insisted that the Shaagas Aryeh remain, and every day he would sit with him and discuss Torah for hours.
Several weeks later, a letter arrived for the rav of Koenigsberg from the community of Metz in the Rhine Valley. This city was a great center of Torah in those days. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, it’s rav had been the famous Rabi Eliezer of Metz, the student of the great Rabbeinu Tam and the author of the stupendous work Sefer Yereim.
Opening the letter, the rav of Koenigsberg saw that the leaders of the Metz community had invited him to be their rav. It was a great honor but Reb Aryeh Leib of Koenigsberg never hesitated. He knew what had to be done.
Taking Reb Aryeh Leib, the Shaagas Aryeh, by the hand, he said, “Your Torah proclaims your greatness and your awe of G-d is greater even than your wisdom. You are also strong and unafraid. Because of this it is only proper that you sit upon the chair of the rabbinate of Metz, the position that the great Reb Eliezer once held.”
And this is how the Shaagas Aryeh, at the age of 70, became the rav of Metz.
The community of Metz was overjoyed to have the great Torah giant as their rav but they were also a bit sad when they saw Reb Aryeh Leib; he looked so old that they feared that he would not be with them for long.
But Reb Aryeh Leib looked at the communal leaders and, understanding what they were thinking, said, “I know that you are thinking that I am very old and not likely to live many more years. But let me assure you that just as Yaakov told Pharaoh that he was not as old as he looked but he had aged from all his suffering, I can also say the same. I am not as old as I look; I have only aged from all my wanderings and troubles. I assure you that I will be with you for another 20 years.”
And Reb Aryeh Leib proved to be a true prophet. He lived another 20 years as rav of Metz and died at the age of 90.
How He Died
Tradition tells us that Reb Aryeh Leib did not die from old age, but from in a remarkable accident.
The Vilna Gaon once said that the Shaagas Aryeh had the entire Talmud and its commentaries at his fingertips and that he could relate the gist of all of them and their sources in one hour.
It was only at rare intervals that the great Reb Aryeh Leib found it necessary to look at a certain book to check a point. It happened once when he was 90; a certain point remained a bit obscure in his mind and he went over to the bookcase to look it up.
As he reached up to pull out the sefer, the entire bookcase suddenly toppled over and fell on him, pinning him down. It was not till the following morning that Reb Aryeh Leib was found buried under a whole bookcase filled with sefarim.
In critical condition, Reb Aryeh Leib was carried to his bed where he lay for a few moments in silence. Then he opened his eyes and smiled, saying, “All the sefarim with which I differed and overruled fell upon me last night. As I lay there I made peace with all of them except for that stubborn man, Reb Mordechai, author of the Levush. He refused to forgive me and so I must now depart this world.”
And with these words the great Reb Aryeh Leib’s soul left his body.