Galicia was able to boast of having three giants of the chassidic movement who lived at the same period of time. They were Rav Meir of Parmishlon, Rav Tzvi Hirsh of Riminov and Rav Naftali of Ropshitz. The latter, especially, was famous for the sharpness of his mind.
His father, Rav Menachem Mendel of Liska, had married the daughter of the Gaon HaRav Yitzchak HaLevi Horowitz, spiritual leader of the great Torah center of Altona and Hamburg, who was, ironically, one of the staunchest misnagdim (opponents of chassidus). Yet, it was his grandson who was to become one of the leaders of the chassidic movement.
Rav Naftali was born the day that the Baal Shem Tov passed away, on the holiday of Shavuos, in the year 5520. He was not only a chassidic rebbe but also a great Torah scholar with both sharp mind and wit – traits he inherited from his father, Rav Menachem Mendel.
Of the latter there is a related story when, on Shabbos HaGadol he rose and, as was the custom, gave the traditional address to the congregation.
“It is the custom among the communities of the Jewish people,” he said, “to have the rav deliver a discourse in which he attempts to explain away difficult areas in the Rambam. I, too, will attempt to do this today.
“In the laws of Pesach, the Rambam rules that everyone is obligated to eat matzah at the seder and everyone – even the very poor — must drink four cups of wine.
“On the other hand, he also rules — in the laws of theft — that anyone stealing anything worth even a penny is guilty of violating a negative commandment of the Torah.
“We are now faced with a serious problem. The poor are obligated to eat matzah and drink wine this Pesach and they have no money. Nor can they steal it since the Rambam rules that this is against the Torah. How can we reconcile these two laws of the Rambam?
“My friends, I have pondered these very difficult Rambams and I think that only you can answer them for me. You, who have the means to do so, should give maos chittim generously, and in this way the contradiction between the two Rambams will be resolved.”
As A Child
The cleverness of the great Rav Naftali was apparent to all, even as a young child. It was the custom in Galicia that on the night before a bris milah the evening was set aside as Leyl shemurim (a night of safeguarding) and all the little children would come to the home of the newborn child and say the Shema. Following this, they would all be given candy and other sweets.
One day, a bris was to be held in a certain house in Liska, and little Naftali and the other youngsters hurried over. They all said the Shema and Naftali said it with great fervor and in a loud voice.
Later, the father gave our sweets to the children and wanted to give Naftali a double portion. But the little boy refused, saying, “My father taught me that a person should never show preference to one boy over the others since this leads to jealousy.”
After a few moments, however, when all the portions had been handed out, Naftali came over to the man and asked for a second piece.
“What is this?” asked the man. “I offered you a double portion before and you refused. Now, why did you change your mind?”
“I did not change my mind,” answered the little boy. “Before, when you were giving out the portions, I thought that only one child had been born. I just learned that there were twins, so this calls for a double share for everyone.”
It was and still is the custom of many of the chassidic rebbes that when their chassidim would come and ask for brachos and advice they would be asked to leave a pidyon –a sum of money. For the most part, this money was used by the Rebbe to help the poor and needy in the town.
Once a chassid of Rav Naftali came to see him. The chassid was a learned man and he had a problem:
“I live in a town that is quite far from Ropshitz,” he said. “Not only is the journey very long and tiring but I also waste a great deal of my time which could be spent in learning, and the expenses of the trip are very great. On the other hand, there is a great mitzva in coming to see my rebbe. What shall I do?”
Rav Naftali thought for a moment and asked him: “Tell me, how much does this journey here usually cost you?”
“I would say that the journey costs approximately 100 gold coins,” answered the chassid.
“In that case, I will give you this advice. Whenever you want to come and visit me, tell your wife to make a great feast and serve all the finest delicacies. Invite the poor people in your town to join you and let them eat to their heart’s content. Let this cost you about 50 gold pieces and send the rest here without bothering to come yourself.
“In this way, the poor, you, I and Hashem will all benefit. The poor will benefit from the food and drink you will have given them; you will have done a great mitzva; I will have received a pidyon and Hashem will benefit from the fact that you can sit and learn Torah without wasting time.”
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