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The Tzror Hachaim of Selish: Torah, Shoes and Salvation

Rabbi Shmuel Shmelkeh Klein was born in 5565 (1805) to his mother Pessil and his father, Rabbi Yosef. He was named after his uncle, the famous chasidic Rebbe,  Rabbi Shmuel Shmelkeh of Nicholsburgh. From the time he was a child, Rabbi Shmelkeh was innovating new Torah thoughts. He married Devorah, the daughter of Rabbi Aharon Shlomo Hakohen. In 5593 (1833) he was appointed as the Rabbi of the town of Balakani, where he established a yeshiva. Thirteen years later, he became the Rabbi of Chost, where he also established a thriving yeshiva. In 5625 (1865) Rabbi Shmelkeh became the Rabbi of Selish. He moved his yeshiva to the town, where the yeshiva flourished. Rabbi Shmelkeh also composed a number of melodies that are still popular today in some chasidic communities. Rabbi Shmelkeh passed away on 9 Adar 5635 (1875) and was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Pinchas Chaim.

When chasidim began to gather around Rabbi Shmelkeh on Shabbat and festivals, the tzaddik accepted their overtures but kept them at a distance. He was afraid that their presence and needs would take him away from his Torah study. In his great humility, he told his chasidim that they should seek advice from the famous tzaddikim of the generation, whose primary service of God was to bear responsibility for the Jewish People and to bring both material and spiritual abundance upon them.

Nonetheless, he could not escape from the crowds who continued to knock at his door seeking his advice and blessing. He had no choice but to receive their requests, listen to their troubles and attempt to comfort them. Rabbi Shmelkeh found a unique way to be present for them without infringing on his Torah study. When a chasid would come to him with his troubles, Rabbi Shmelkeh would immediately take his Gemara and say, “I am giving what I just learned now as a gift to the ill person (or whatever other trouble was at hand). May he be healed in the merit of the holy sages of the Talmud!” And God would send His healing to the person in need. When someone would come to Rabbi Shmelkeh urgently requesting prayers for a woman having a difficult birth, he would recite a Tosfot with a saying of Rabbeinu Tam and say: “If we can liberate a woman from the chains of a husband refusing to give her a divorce by means of the words of Rabbeinu Tam, can we not also liberate a woman from the ropes of childbirth with his holy words?”

Once, a person with a lung condition came for a blessing to Rebbe Hirsch of Rimanov. Rebbe Hirsch told him that he should go to Rebbe Shmelkeh of Selish. The ill person journeyed from Rimanov toward Selish. On his way, he was stopped in an inn and related to the innkeeper that Rabbi Hirsch of Rimanov had sent him to Rebbe Shmelkeh. The innkeeper was very surprised and asked him to return home via his inn and relate what had happened in Selish.

Arriving in Selish, the man told Rebbe Shmelkeh that Rebbe Hirsch had sent him for his blessing. “How can I possibly help you, and what did Rebbe Hirsch want from me?” Rebbe Shmelkeh wondered aloud. “But as long as you came, come to the class that I am giving in the yeshiva.” After the class, Rebbe Shmelkeh said, “I am giving the class and the merit of my Torah innovations in it to this man, who needs to heal.” The man was immediately healed. On his way home, he stopped at the inn and told the innkeeper that he had been healed in Selish.

Once someone came to Rebbe Shmelkeh with an urgent request for salvation for a woman having difficulties giving birth. This happened while the Rebbe was giving a class in the yeshiva. Rebbe Shmelkeh told the person to take the shoes of the woman and to give them to a poor woman. Just a few moments after this was done, he returned to inform Rebbe Shmelkeh that the woman had safely given birth. Rebbe Shmelkeh saw that the yeshiva students were looking at each other in awe. “This is a clear verse in the Book of Ruth!” he humbly said. “To confirm every matter, a man would remove his shoe and give it to his neighbor.”[1] In this manner. God would perform miracles through Rebbe Shmelkeh’s Torah study – truly Torah study without thought of reward.

Once, when Rebbe Shmelkeh was teaching in depth about transposition based on a verse in the Book of Ruth, a man entered his room crying profusely. “Rebbe, save me! My son is dying!” “Do you have boots?” Rebbe Shmelkeh asked. “Only the boots that I am wearing,” he replied. “Give them to the first poor person that you meet, and your son will be completely healed,” Rebbe Shmelkeh told him. Once again, the students were in awe. “Why are you surprised?” Rebbe Shmelkeh asked them. “We just learned in Ruth 4:7: ‘Now this was the custom in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning exchanging…” A man would remove his shoe and give it to his neighbor.”[2] This means that to redeem a person from death to life and transpose his severe situation to a great salvation, the spiritual remedy is to give his shoe to his friend.” Rebbe Shmelkeh sought to conceal his holiness by finding an allusion to the miracle in what they had learned.

We can support Rebbe Shmelkeh’s practice to effect salvation for others by donating his Torah study and innovations with the explanation of the sages: “But his delight is in the Torah of God; and in his law he meditates day and night.”  Initially, the verse refers to “the Torah of God.” In the second part of the verse, “his Torah” refers to the Torah of the person who studies it. What are these two stages?

Chasidut explains that at the beginning of Torah study, the intent of the person studying is to rectify his soul and to cleave to God. Later, however, when he studies Torah for its own sake, with no other motive at all, it is called the Torah of the person who studies it. The person who studies Torah for its own sake merits a wondrous paradox: On the one hand, he nullifies himself before the Torah and becomes completely one with it. On the other hand, the Torah becomes his acquisition – so much so, that he can give his merit in it to whomever he pleases.

There is another interesting point of paradox in these stories about Rebbe Shmelkeh: All of his attempts to avoid being a Rebbe stemmed from his will to study Torah day and night. Ultimately, however, from the power of that diligence, he became a sought-after miracle worker.

 

 

[1] Ruth 4:7.

[2] Ibid..

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