Rabbi Meir Shapira is famed for two educational institutions – one with walls and one without.
The Ruzhin hassidic courts were synonymous with noble leadership. A scion of this legacy, Rabbi Yisrael Friedman (1854-1933), was the second rebbe of Czortkow (today Chortkiv, Ukraine), and besides ministering to his hassidim, he served as one of the leaders of the Eastern European Torah community during the interwar period.
The battles of the eastern front of World War I were fought in the hassidic heartland of Galicia, and many Jews fled. Together with others, Rabbi Yisrael Friedman escaped to Vienna. Following the war, he stayed in Vienna, traveling back to his ancestral home for the festivals.
Perhaps the most famous hassid of Rabbi Yisrael of Czortkow was Rabbi Meir Shapira (1887-1933). He is famed for two educational institutions – one with walls and one without. Shapira is remembered for the grand Yeshivat Hachmei Lublin that he built and for his advocacy on behalf of Daf Yomi, the daily page of Talmud study that many people study to this day.
One Shabbat, sometime between 1921 and 1924, Shapira – then the rabbi of Sanok (today in the Subcarpathian province of Poland) – arrived at the Czortkow residence in Vienna. Already well known for his rabbinic leadership and oratorical skills, he was also a renowned cantor. He was not a professional cantor but a beloved leader of the service. It was no surprise, then, that he was honored with leading the congregation in announcing the new month. As Shapira began the service, the congregation was quickly swept up in his heartfelt prayer.
At the end of the Musaf service, all the hassidim lined up to greet the Czortkow Rebbe. When Shapira’s turn came, the rebbe turned to him: “I knew that you were a good leader of the service; I just didn’t realize how good.” Shapira’s face glowed.
The honored guest was invited to the rebbe’s home for lunch, and during the meal his cantorial abilities were mentioned, and once again the Czortkow Rebbe praised him: “It must be that from heaven you have been blessed with the power of prayer.” Shapira turned to his teacher and said: “Perhaps then, I should become a professional cantor.” Rabbi Yisrael of Czortkow did not respond immediately – he did not want to discourage his disciple but probably sensed that his efforts should be invested in rabbinics and communal leadership. After a few moments, he proceeded to tell Shapira the following tale.
Many years ago the famed hassidic master Reb Meshulam Zusha of Anipoli (ca. 1718-1800) took to wandering from one town to another as a sort of personal exile. He reached the town of Zholkva (Zhovkva, Ukraine), where Rabbi Yuzpa served at the helm of a relatively large yeshiva. Reb Zusha longed to hear the Torah of Rabbi Yuzpa, so he attended one of his lectures. The class centered on the complex relationship between two legal concepts – presumption and likelihood based on majority. At the end of the lecture, Reb Zusha approached Rabbi Yuzpa to shake his hand: “My sincere compliments on the wonderful lecture,” said Reb Zusha. “The reputation of your lectures has reached far and wide, and now I see that it is with good reason.”
Rabbi Yuzpa, moved by the exchange, carefully looked at Reb Zusha and said: “You have heard about my lectures, so you come to honor me, but how is it possible that I have not heard of you and do not even know who you are and am nevertheless overcome with honor for you?”
With characteristic humility, Reb Zusha responded: “I too am surprised you feel that way; I know not how to learn, so why should I even be considered in the eyes of so great a scholar as yourself?”
Rabbi Yuzpa was not easily distracted: “Even if you are not learned, there is something else about you, some holy treasure that you have. I sense it clearly. Tell me, what do I sense?”
Reb Zusha lowered his eyes: “I know how to pray before the Almighty,” he said softly.
“Please teach me the secrets of prayer,” implored Rabbi Yuzpa.
“Come with me to a quiet room, and I will open the gates of prayer for you.”
The two went into a room, and Reb Zusha taught Rabbi Yuzpa the secrets of prayer. Finally Rabbi Yuzpa burst out: “My master, I want to leave my yeshiva and accompany you so that I can continue to taste the secrets of prayer. I will go with you to the ends of the earth to merit to pray with pure intent at least once in my life!”
Reb Zusha responded carefully: “Each person is sent to this world to fulfill a destiny; each soul has its own unique task, and no one can fulfill another person’s task. That is why our sages have said that people should always study where their hearts desire [B. Avoda Zara 19a], for the place whence a person’s heart is drawn is the place that belongs to that person’s soul.”
Reb Zusha paused for the words to sink in before continuing: “Rabbi Yuzpa, your strength is in teaching Torah. Your destiny is to teach, to deliver inspiring lectures, to share Torah with depth and insight. My soul, on the other hand, belongs to the world of prayer. You should study, I should pray.”
The Czortkow Rebbe concluded the tale and looked deeply into Rabbi Shapira’s eyes, saying nothing more.