Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, who passed away in New York in 1950, once delineated the personality of a certain ordinary chasid — not a figure of towering stature, just one of the chasidim of the rebbe's grandfather, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, known as the Maharash.

He was no Torah scholar, nor...was he schooled in worldly matters...

This Reb Pesach lived in Homil. He was no Torah scholar, nor for that matter was he schooled in worldly matters, but he made a comfortable living by buying various kinds of merchandise in Homil and selling it to the shopkeepers in the villages round about.

Just before Rosh Hashanah in the year 1866 he joined a group of chasidim led by a chasid of renown named Rabbi Mordechai-Yoel, and they journeyed together from Homil to Lubavitch in order to spend the Days of Awe at the court of their rebbe, Reb Shmuel. When his turn came for yechidut — his first private interview with the newly-inducted rebbe, the fourth in the dynasty — he handed him a kvitl note in which he had written, amongst various personal details, the manner in which he made his livelihood.

The tzadik blessed him and said: "You can always fulfill the words of the prophet, 'Raise your eyes heavenward.'" And then he added: "Shema is Yisrael."

Reb Pesach went straight from the rebbe's study to find Rabbi Mordechai Yoel, who would no doubt be able to explain what the tzadik meant.

"Every synagogue," began Rabbi Mordechai Yoel, "is built with large windows: not only in order to admit light, but also to enable people to look out at the sky. For the heavens, we read, are reminiscent of the Throne of Glory, and looking skyward inspires a man with the awe of heaven. And is what the rebbe told you. Since you spend much of your time on the road, and see the sky not only when you are seated in shul, you are this able at all times to fulfill the instruction of the Prophet Yeshayahu: 'Raise your eyes heavenward, and behold Who created these.' **

[** From the last verse of the haftorah of the Torah portion of Vaet’chanan, which also contains the the first paragraph of the Shema Yisrael prayer! – Editor.]

...when a person says the Shema with every fiber of his being, he is elevated...

"Now the word Shema is made up of the initial letters of the first three words of this verse, and when a person says the Shema with every fiber of his being, he is elevated thereby to the level of Yisrael. For as you may know, the name Yaakov denotes a Jew when he is at the stage where his service of G‑d is that of a servant, motivated by awe; the name Yisrael is reserved for him who serves like a son, for the Jew who has reached the stage where his service is prompted as well by his love of the Creator. And that is what the rebbe meant when he said 'Shema is Yisrael': through making the Shema a living experience, one can become worthy of being called a Yisrael."

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch continued with the following reminiscence of his own childhood, when he was eleven years old: "Twenty-five years later, in 1891, when Reb Pesach paid a visit to Lubavitch for the Rosh HaShanah season — as he did every two or three years — he told me in detail all about that first yechidus in 1866, and added: 'When Rabbi Mordechai Yoel explained me what the rebbe Rabbi Shmuel had told me, I felt my soul lighting up, and from then on I yearned to understand the Torah. My neighbor, a chasid whom we knew as Hershel the Watchmaker, taught me every so often, so that within a few years I was able to study a few lines for myself out of Tanya, Likutei Torah, and various other classic texts. The rebbe's words put me on my feet!'

"The pleasure and the liveliness with which Reb Pesach recalled this experience were striking," recounted Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak.

As the years rolled by Reb Pesach became a rich man and he moved to Lodz, where he dealt in manufactured goods. Then in 1928, when he was about ninety years of age, he again repeated to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, who had become the sixth Rebbe of the dynasty in 1920, what he had heard from the mouth of the rebbe's grandfather, Rabbi Shmuel — and still with the same excitement and delight, as if this encounter had happened the day before. This time he concluded his recollection as follows: "From the time I first set out to try my own fortune on the road, I have always sought lodgings with large windows, and I always take a seat near a window, so that I will always be able to fulfill those words: 'Raise your eyes heavenward.'

"Sixty-two years have now passed since I was privileged to hear from the rebbe, your grandfather, that Shema is Yisrael. Throughout all those years, whenever I say Shema Yisrael, at whatever point in the prayers — whether it be in the obligatory daily reading, or while the Torah Scroll is being brought out of the Holy Ark, or during the responses of Kedusha, or in the additions to the penitential Tachanun prayer on Monday and Thursday mornings, or during the climax of Yom Kippur at the conclusion of the Ne'ilah service — I always recall that Shema is Yisrael.

When the time comes for me...to breathe Shema Yisrael for the very last time, I pray that He grant me a clear mind...

"One request I have yet to the Almighty: When the time comes for me to return Him the soul which He has entrusted in my keeping, and I am to breathe Shema Yisrael for the very last time, I pray that He grant me a clear mind, so that then too I will be able to recall those words the rebbe told me — Shema is Yisrael!"

"Such," observed Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, "was one of the ordinary chasidim of my grandfather, Rabbi Shmuel."


Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the rendition in A Treasury of Chassidic Tales (Artscroll), as translated by Uri Kaploun from Sipurei Chasidim by Rabbi S. Y. Zevin.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn (2 Iyar 1834-13 Tishrei 1882), the fourth Lubavitch Rebbe, known as "the Rebbe Maharash," was the seventh and youngest son of his predecessor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, "the Tsemach Tsedek".

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (12 Tammuz 1880-10 Shevat 1950), known as the Rebbe Rayatz, was the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, from 1920 to 1950. He established a network of Jewish educational institutions and Chassidim that was the single most significant factor for the preservation of Judaism during the dread reign of the communist Soviets. In 1940 he moved to the USA, established Chabad world-wide headquarters in Brooklyn and launched the global campaign to renew and spread Judaism in all languages and in every corner of the world, the campaign continued and expanded so remarkably successfully by his son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Copyright 2003 by KabbalaOnline.org, a project of Ascent of Safed (//ascentofsafed.com). All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work or portions thereof, in any form, unless with permission, in writing, from Kabbala Online.