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Rabbi Chaim of Czernowitz: Impropriety and Fire

Rabbi Chaim Tyrer, known for his book, “Be’er Mayim Chayim,” was a giant of the Chasidic movement and the disciple of Rebbe Yechiel Michel of Zlotshev (Zloczow). He was born in 5506 (1746) to his father, R’ Shlomo, who was a disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Horodenka. In 5542 (1782) Rebbe Chaim was appointed as the chief rabbi of Czernowitz, a position that he retained for many years. With the annexation of his town to the Austrian empire, and after he battled the Austrian government on behalf of the Jews of Vienna who were expelled at that time, the tzaddik left his position in Czernowitz to make aliyah to the Land of Israel. After he crossed the border to Moldova, he served as the Rabbi of Botoșani and later, in Kishinev. Rabbi Chaim reached the Land of Israel in 5573 (1813) and settled in Tzfat. He passed away on 27 Kislev 5578 (1818), the third night of Chanukah, and was laid to rest in the ancient cemetery of Tzfat.

When Rebbe Chaim came to Czernowitz, he discovered that the townspeople were holding a dance in the main synagogue every Shabbat. Men and women would dance together inside the synagogue (mixed dancing is prohibited by Jewish law) and the townspeople called this event their oneg Shabbat (“Shabbat pleasure”).

On his very first Shabbat as Rabbi of Czernowitz, Rabbi Chaim told the townspeople that now that he was Rabbi of the town, their prohibited custom would have to end. “How can you eliminate the oneg Shabbat of the entire community?” the heads of the community objected. Rebbe Chaim became very serious and promised: “If you agree to stop the dances, there will not be any fires in the city.” In those days, the houses were all made of wood and fires would destroy entire towns. Rebbe Chaim’s offer was hard to refuse and the community promised that they would abide by the Rabbi’s injunction.

As long as Rebbe Chaim was the rabbi of Czernowitz, for forty or fifty years, no fire ever broke out in Czernowitz. Even thirty years after he had passed away, as long as the injunction was upheld, the city was protected from fire. Seventy years later, however, a new generation that did not remember Rebbe Chaim had grown up. The Shabbat dances were reinstated. The following day, a large fire broke out in the town and all the homes there turned to ash.

As opposed to what is usually illustrated in stories from the towns of Europe, the Jews there were on a continuum of levels of fear of Heaven. It is specifically for this reason that we have much to learn from this story. While fires that destroy an entire town are less common in our day, entire communities can still be wiped out in “modern fires.” Yamit in Sinai, Gush Katif, and Amona are three well-known examples and like them, there are many more. According to this story, the impropriety of mixed dancing was the cause of the fires in the towns, even if there was no impropriety in a particular town.

But it was not only the destruction of those towns that was at stake. Our ongoing war with the sons of Ishmael in general is rooted in sexual impropriety. The Zohar writes that as long as there is improper sexual conduct among the Jewish people, the sons of Ishmael (who are circumcised, but not on the eighth day) can erode Israel’s hold on the Land of Israel. This is also the image that they project outwardly, as soldiers in the holy war against Western culture.

If the struggle of our generation is rooted in this shortcoming, we must be particularly interested in rectifying it. As a rule, Chabad—as opposed to other chasidic sects—preferred not to focus on the dangers of sexual temptations as the primary battle strategy. According to Chabad, a conscious and revealed battle against sexual temptation not only does not solve the problem, but even intensifies it. Sometimes however, as in our generation, when the root of all the problems facing our society is fettered in sexual debauchery, we are forced to address the problem directly. A person who attempts to rid himself of negative thoughts by battling those thoughts directly will not succeed. But a person who wants to take action to rectify society, with compassion and love, must understand the root of the problems and deal with them.

There is a connection between Chanukah, when Rebbe Chaim of Czernowitz passed away, and the battle against the foreign culture that has flooded the world. Fire is also connected to Chanukah in a very interesting and unique way: The only time that Chanukah is mentioned in the Mishnah is as a cause of fires. What is the inner connection between the two?

The Midrash says that the primary factor that motivated Matityahu and his sons to go to war against the Greeks was the Greek decree that defiled the daughters of Israel by forcing them to spend the night with the Greek rulers before their weddings. Matityahu’s daughter was also taken to the Greek ruler before her wedding. Her brothers, however, refused to accept this decree and killed the ruler and his soldiers. The primary expression of Jewish zealousness, since the days of Simon and Levi in Shechem, through Pinchas, and until our times revolves around sexual purity. The holy fire of the Hasmoneans is the fire that erupts from the Chanukah candles and beckons us to take action for the sanctity of the Jewish People. This time, however, not with fire or the sword, but rather with the spirit of Chanukah, which adds one candle every night. It is up to us to bring more and more Jews into the illuminating light of the holy Chanukah candles.

Image by elHelfer from Pixabay

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