When Reb Yisrael Nachman and Reb Yussik arrived at the large beis hamedrash, they discovered that quite a few minyonim of Jews were there, together with many young folk and even a few of the prominent elders. Foremost among the assembly was Reb Avraham Shaul Palatnik.

Reb Yisrael Nachman became greatly excited, for he was enchanted by Reb Mordechai’s delightful davening. A few of the prominent elders approached Reb Yisrael Nachman and began to express their wonder at [Reb Mordechai’s] conduct: the time for afternoon prayers had arrived quite a while ago, but here was the maggid, still reciting the Shemoneh Esreh of Shacharis!

Just then, Reb Sholom Ivansker’s older sons-in-law arrived. They were quite pleased to hear the comments of the elders, for this was a perfect opportunity to voice their opposition to the maggid, which they had previously kept to themselves. They began to recite the rules concerning Shemoneh Esreh. The Shemoneh Esreh is to be said three times a day: morning, afternoon, and evening. The time when the Shacharis Shemoneh Esreh may be recited is from sunrise until noon; the Minchah Shemoneh Esreh may be recited from a certain time past noon until sunset; the Maariv Shemoneh Esreh may be recited from nightfall until midnight. So, if someone was reciting the Shacharis Shemoneh Esreh when it was already Minchah time, which Shemoneh Esreh should he in fact be reciting — Shacharis or Minchah?

A learned debate ensued, for all those present were quite erudite, and several of them were great scholars.

Reb Sholom’s son Hirshel (who was then still a young lad) was very devoted to the maggid, and deep in his heart he resented his oldest two brothers-in-law. He was aware that the debate taking place was on the highest level of scholarship, but he was offended by the irreverent tone of the [scholars’] remarks. He went over to his younger brothers-in-law, who had been standing and listening to Reb Mordechai’s davening, and reported what had been said. However, they were so engrossed in Reb Mordechai’s davening that they didn’t hear anything their brother-in-law Hirshel told them.

Unable to calm himself, Hirshel returned to where the company of scholars still debated, discovering that the discussion had become more heated. He was unable to follow the scholarly argument itself, but after hearing a few words he did realize that the whole group was of the opinion that [Reb Mordechai’s conduct] was not in accordance with law. This fact saddened him greatly.

Reb Avraham Shaul Palatnik had been standing there the entire time, but had kept silent. This Reb Avraham Shaul was considered one of the greatest scholars, for he possessed both broad knowledge and deep understanding.

When the maggid had first begun his Ein Yaakov lectures in the grave digger’s beis hamedrash, Reb Avraham Shaul had come to hear him. After the Ein Yaakov and Maariv were finished, Reb Avraham Shaul had asked Reb Mordechai a question concerning an extremely difficult and complex Talmudic subject, and had been astonished by Reb Mordechai’s genius. From that time on, Reb Avraham Shaul had been a passionate follower of Reb Mordechai. He was the first one to suggest that Reb Mordechai be appointed Town Maggid.

Reb Hirshel became furious when he noticed that Reb Avraham Shaul Palatnik had been listening to the whole discussion without objecting. True, Reb Avraham Shaul had not supported those who claimed that [the maggid’s conduct] was unlawful, but he had not sided with the maggid either.

Meanwhile, Reb Mordechai finished his davening. Being in his private quarters, he knew nothing of the large crowd present in the beis hamedrash, though the wall was still broken, and the door was gone. He washed his hands, and sat down for a bite to eat.

Reb Hirshel was overjoyed when he saw Reb Chayim Porush enter the beis hamedrash, for he knew that Reb Chayim held the maggid in the highest esteem. He immediately approached Reb Chayim and told him all about the learned discussion, reporting that some had viewed the maggid’s conduct as unlawful. After listening patiently, Reb Chayim replied coldly, “Young boys have no business getting involved in the affairs of their elders!”

When Reb Avraham Shaul Palatnik noticed Reb Chayim Porush, he went over to him. He had first met Reb Chayim Porush many years earlier, when a complex problem concerning the laws of chalitzah had been brought before the previous Rav and gaon, Reb Bunish Zerach (may he rest in peace). That was when Reb Avraham Shaul had become Reb Chayim’s fervent devotee, for he had never met so profound a scholar who possessed so much common sense. Now Reb Avraham Shaul did know what it means to be a genuine scholar, for he himself was a great scholar with a quick and penetrating mind, and very diligent in his study. In addition, he possessed an exceedingly great talent for grasping new concepts, and an awesome memory.

Moreover, it was [Reb Avraham Shaul’s] custom to attend the grand fairs that were held annually in Polotzk, Minsk, Shklov, and even Brysk. That was how he got the name Palatnik: he would travel from one fair to another with his wagon and a portable market stall made of cloth.1 Wherever he went, he took along two assistants who attended to the business, while Reb Avraham Shaul went to the beis hamedrash to study and to converse with the other scholars and geonim who had come to the fair.

In those days it was quite common for many scholars and geonim to gather wherever there was a fair: first, because there were many legal disputes [among the merchants] that had to be ruled upon; second, because any special laws or proclamations that the assembled geonim thought necessary to adopt would be quickly disseminated to all localities by the people who had attended the fair.

Every time Reb Avraham Shaul returned from a fair, he brought back with him a large inventory of pilpulim and novel insights on various Torah topics that he had heard from the world-famous geonim, and some he had conceived of himself. It was after he returned from the fairs he had attended during Elul in Minsk and in Brysk that he first learned of the recent changes in Reb Chayim Porush’s conduct. Now, he could see for himself that [Reb Chayim] was more worldly than before; nevertheless, it was still with the greatest respect that he approached Reb Chayim.

At first, it struck him as exceedingly strange that Reb Chayim had come to the large beis hamedrash at all, for he was thus wasting time he could be spending in Torah study; but then he remembered hearing that the maggid and Reb Chayim had an appointed time when they studied pilpul together. Since his recent return from the fairs, Reb Avraham Shaul had not yet had the opportunity to meet with Reb Chayim and share with him the novel Torah insights and pilpulim he had heard at the fairs.

This trip had not been as profitable as usual, and Reb Avraham Shaul had not returned until a few days before Rosh Hashanah. The first fair had been in Minsk during the early part of Elul, and the second fair had been in Brysk in the middle of that month. The Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Elul was the last time he had heard a sermon from the maggid; he had greatly admired that sermon, as well as the “one should not take leave” pilpul the maggid had presented to him.2

This recent trip was probably the first time — except when the “Belinitzer Genius” had visited — that he left home for the fairs with so many novel insights, pilpulim, and Halachah discussions, especially those dealing with the exact wording of the texts of the Rambam. During the several weeks when he had studied with the maggid, the quality of his study had risen to ever higher levels. At each daily session he learned some new insight or profound pilpul, for the maggid’s logical analyses were solid feats of intellect; one needed an exceptionally good mind to appreciate them.

Reb Avraham Shaul remembered the Belinitzer Genius’ visit very well, despite the fact that he — Reb Avraham Shaul — had still been quite young at the time; it was only the second time he had accompanied his father-in-law, Reb Abbale Feffer, a Torah scholar of great diligence who never slept for more than three hours a day. To keep from dosing off, he would sprinkle hot pepper between his toes and under his armpits; that was how Reb Abbale “Feffer” got his name.3

Now he — Reb Avraham Shaul — was also an outstanding scholar, who could originate his own novel insights on Torah subjects. Even back then, he had already drafted scholarly dissertations of his own. He had even discovered several flaws in Rashi’s reasoning; it required a great deal of hard work to extricate Rashi from the difficulties Reb Avraham Shaul had discovered.

Reb Avraham Shaul recalled that when the Belinitzer Genius had finished delivering his three hour pilpul from the podium, his father-in-law, Reb Abbale Feffer, had asked Reb Zavelle Parnas to invite the “Hafnyker Genius” to speak.

Hafnyk, a small village not far from Smilovitz, was Reb Avraham Shaul’s birthplace; he had spent all the years of his youth in Smilovitz as a student of Reb Tevel Baberer. Once, when Reb Abbale Feffer passed through Smilovitz, he was so impressed by the Hafnyker Genius that he took him home to Dubravna and made him his son-in-law. Being very conscientious about giving due respect to Torah scholars, he always referred to his son-in-law Reb Avraham Shaul as “the Hafnyker Genius.”

On that occasion the Belinitzer Genius had delivered an exceptional pilpul, for he had just the right audience for it. Besides the great scholars and geonim who came regularly to Dubravna for the fairs, Dubravna possessed geonim of its own, among them Reb Azriel Klotz. For more than fifty years, [Reb Azriel] had spent eighteen hours a day sitting and studying. There was a depression in the block of wood upon which he sat, where it had worn away; that was how Reb Azriel “Klotz” got his name.4

Another one was Reb Nechemiah “the Blind,” who was, in fact, not totally blind. On the contrary, in his youth he had possessed excellent eyesight, but his vision had been weakened by constant study and insufficient sleep. Nevertheless, he could study Gemara with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafos by heart.

There was also Reb Alter Hahn: an awesomely great gaon, practically the oldest inhabitant of the town; Reb Berach Koussia Berachah’s was still alive,5 but Reb Berach was already ....6 When [Reb Berach] lost his fifth wife (may we be spared), people approached him to say that [according to the Talmud,7 if he remained without a wife] he remained without joy and without blessing. Hearing this, Reb Berach requested that they bring him a chemist’s sieve filled with hops. When they brought it, Reb Berach easily lifted up the sieve with the hops, saying that he remembered once hearing someone rule that whoever still possesses the strength to lift a sieve with hops is obligated to marry a wife who can still bear children.8 And that’s exactly what happened: with his sixth wife he had two sons and a daughter. But his mind was no longer what it used to be, and Reb Alter Hahn was considered the foremost gaon. Reb Azriel Klotz and Reb Nechemiah the Blind used to lick their fingers with delight whenever they heard one of Reb Alter Hahn’s words of Torah or his logical explanations.

After attending the Chatzos service each night, Reb Alter would stand behind his lectern and study until it was time for davening. After the prayers he would have a bite to eat (Reb Alter was not in the habit of fasting) and after breakfast he would again stand behind the lectern and study. Because he suffered from severe pains in his legs, he would stand on his right leg for a few hours, then on his left leg for a few hours, then the right one again. Since he always stood on one leg, people called him Reb Alter “Hahn.”9 Right after Maariv, he would go home (Reb Alter was no porush), but he returned by Chatzos time and remained until after the next evening’s Maariv. Reb Alter followed this schedule for over forty years.

When the Belinitzer Genius finished saying his pilpul, Reb Azriel Klotz was so impressed that he clapped his hands together twice in great excitement. To this Reb Alter commented, “Reb Azriel — it’s Shabbos! There is a slight possibility that [clapping your hands] is forbidden because it makes a noise.” Reb Nechemiah was even more excited, and he rocked back and forth three times, as though it were Simchas Torah. To this Reb Alter commented, “Reb Nechemiah — remember the dignity of the Torah, as well as your own dignity as a Torah scholar!” All the scholars were highly impressed with the Belinitzer Genius’ pilpul.

[Reb Avraham Shaul] still experienced joy whenever he remembered Rev Zavelle Parnas announcing, “We now call upon the Hafnyker Genius to give us some new insight or pilpul.”

A few of the prominent citizens had asked, “Who is this ‘Hafnyker Genius’?”

But from several quarters the immediate reply had come, “Why, that’s the magnate’s new son-in-law!” (Reb Abbale Feffer was the wealthiest person in town.) Going up to the podium, he delivered an intricate pilpul, during which he pointed out two difficulties in the Belinitzer Genius’ Torah, for which even Reb Alter could think of no solution.

When Reb Avraham Shaul later passed through Smilovitz with his father-in-law, they visited Reb Tevel, who was so impressed upon hearing the Belinitzer Genius’ Torah that he declared it to be absolutely brilliant. Then — when Reb Avraham Shaul told him his own pilpul and the two difficulties he had discovered — [Reb Tevel] was even more impressed and kissed Reb Avraham Shaul on his forehead, declaring that this revealed a truly astute intellect. He could think of no solutions to the difficulties, but he promised that by the time they returned from their successful trip he would have answers for them, if they stopped by to visit.

However, all this was strictly pilpul. The maggid’s study, on the other hand, produced novel insights through straightforward logic. When Reb Avraham Shaul arrived in Minsk for the fair and began to repeat the maggid’s teachings, the elderly geonim could only shrug their shoulders in amazement, saying that this showed truly outstanding intellect.

When Reb Avraham Shaul arrived in Brysk, he engaged the geonim — his old acquaintances from long ago — in conversation, telling them that in his hometown there lived a great gaon and tzaddik. He repeated to them several teachings that met with their solid approval, for each analysis was based upon clever, sound, and sensible reasoning.

Reb Avraham Shaul described the great skill with which [the maggid] taught Aggadah and delivered his sermons, and how he inspired everyone to do teshuvah. He related that for many years [the maggid] had been a student of a great gaon and tzaddik who lived in far-away Podolia-Vohlynia. In that region lived a gaon and tzaddik who performed miracles similar to those seen in the days of the Prophets, and who was known as the Baal Shem Tov.

Once, as a company of several elderly geonim sat together discussing the Baal Shem Tov, one of them reported the rumors he had recently heard: “A Jew who was once a simple wagon-driver and delivered clay to town, unexpectedly began to recite teachings and perform miracles. The geonim of Brod ordered him to cease these activities, but he refused to obey; therefore, they pronounced a ban against this miracle-worker. Ignoring all this, he continued in his former ways; now many geonim have become his disciples. However, in our own country all the geonim are opponents of the Baal Shem Tov.”

This conversation had a great effect upon Reb Avraham Shaul, especially the information that the Lithuanian geonim believed the miracle-worker of Podolia-Vohlynia and his disciples to be members of a deviant cult. The geonim of Lithuania suspected that the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples had departed from true Judaism and adopted false beliefs as a result of their having studied Kabbalah.

Reb Avraham Shaul left the fair in Brysk in a dejected mood. He traveled as far as Shklov in the company of several great Lithuanian scholars who spoke incessantly about the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. When Reb Avraham Shaul told them that the gaon who became the Town Maggid in Dubravna had once studied under the Baal Shem Tov, they cautioned him to be wary of this maggid: “If he spent some time studying under the Baal Shem Tov, you had better investigate him very carefully.”

Reb Avraham Shaul spent the Shabbos before Selichos in Orsha, where Reb Nachman Porush, known as the “Melaiczyzer Genius,” was the Town Maggid. He was famous throughout the vicinity as a great orator; his specialty was the use of metaphor to explain obscure concepts, and he devised metaphors that were easily understood by all. But when Reb Avraham Shaul heard this Town Maggid’s speech he took such offense that he was unable to speak and was beside himself with indignity.

Before Reb Avraham Shaul could calm himself, [the Orsha] maggid announced, “Tonight we will begin to say Selichos. We must all do teshuvah; those of us who do teshuvah will be forgiven by the Creator, and He will grant them, their wives, and their children a good new year. But those who don’t do teshuvah will be punished by the Creator: they, their wives, and their children will have a new year marred by sickness.” The [Orsha] maggid then began to curse them with dreadful curses, which made a horrible impression upon Reb Avraham Shaul.

While still a young lad, Reb Avraham Shaul had taken upon himself the custom of fasting every year on the first day of Selichos. He therefore spent that whole day in the beis hamedrash, from the time they began reciting Selichos until the next day after Maariv; on the second day of Selichos he left for home.

Upon his arrival [in Dubravna], Reb Avraham Shaul was unable to restrain himself, and he went directly to the large beis hamedrash — although it was already past the time for Minchah. There, he found a large crowd assembled; this caused him to wonder, for so many people were not usually present on an ordinary weekday. Meanwhile, the time for Maariv arrived; following Maariv people began to come from the other shuls. Only then did Reb Avraham Shaul discover that the maggid was going to preach a sermon.

The maggid delivered a passionate teshuvah sermon on the verse,10 “If a person commits a sin.” The entire congregation wept out loud; but when all the listeners’ emotions were fully aroused and their spirits were broken, the maggid changed his tone. He began to plead with them, and attempted to console them. “The Creator hears the prayers of every person’s mouth, and searches people’s hearts. If we truly do teshuvah the Creator, blessed be He, forgives and pardons us. He grants to everyone who does teshuvah a prosperous good new year.

“And what about those who have not yet done teshuvah? Due to the merit of those who did do teshuvah, the one and only Creator will have mercy upon those who still need to do teshuvah at present, and He will awaken their hearts to teshuvah, so that they and their families may also have a prosperous good new year.”

Reb Avraham Shaul was overwhelmed by this sermon, and especially by the maggid’s ahavas Yisrael. It was obvious that he was taking great pains to avoid any harsh words (G‑d forbid), even for those who were irreligious. “Ah, what a difference between the Orsha Town Maggid and our own maggid!” thought Reb Avraham Shaul. The Orsha Maggid spoke words better left unsaid; he employed foolish metaphors, and cursed the audience with cruel expressions. But their own maggid’s words of Torah were truly novel, they were precious pearls of wisdom. Everyone was able to understand his speeches, for his clever metaphors made them easy to comprehend. He spoke so lovingly and tenderly that it was a delight to listen! The maggid truly brought the hearts of the Jewish People closer to their Father in Heaven.

“But — the maggid is a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov!” This realization hit Reb Avraham Shaul like a blow to the head, and left him with a stinging sensation in his temples. “He himself told us that he spent a long time studying with him. And I heard — both at the fair in Brysk and from the scholars traveling to Shklov — that the Baal Shem Tov’s credentials are questionable.” Reb Avraham Shaul was reluctant even to think about what he had heard — in Brysk and on the way to Shklov — about the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples.

Was the maggid really a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov? He was sure that [the maggid] had visited [the Baal Shem Tov], for he himself had told him so; but if he was actually his disciple, things were very bad! “Perhaps,” thought Reb Avraham Shaul, “he only studied from [the Baal Shem Tov], but he was never really his disciple. On the other hand, if he really is a disciple, it’s not good!”

With these troubled and confused thoughts, Reb Avraham Shaul stood listening to the maggid’s sermon. The maggid’s concluding remarks, his dear and sweet words of consolation: “Even those who are not observant will be aroused to teshuvah in the merit of those who have already done teshuvah,” affected Reb Avraham Shaul immensely. He very nearly convinced himself: “A person of the maggid’s stature could never be a disciple of someone like that, if what I heard about the Baal Shem Tov — in Brysk and from the scholars traveling to Shklov — is true.”

At that point, he heard the maggid say, “Now I want to tell you a story that happened while I was at the Rebbe’s court.” When the maggid pronounced these few words, saying that he would relate something that had occurred at the Rebbe’s court, Reb Avraham Shaul noticed that the entire beis hamedrash became still. This astonished Reb Avraham Shaul, for he was well acquainted with the Jews of Dubravna. Never, in all the time he had lived in Dubravna, had he seen them treat anyone with such respectful deference as they did the maggid, not even in the old days, when he had first arrived in Dubravna fifty years earlier. In those days Reb Berach Koussia Berachah’s was the chief speaker, while his own father-in-law, Reb Abbale Feffer, was the mayor; but they were never treated with the sort of courtesy that the maggid was now afforded.

“And all this happened during the month that I spent traveling, for it was not like this earlier,” thought Reb Avraham Shaul.

Beginning with the first Shabbos in Elul, the maggid had introduced a new custom: following the sermon that was delivered every Shabbos before Minchah, he told a story about his Rebbe, that had occurred while he himself had studied with him. The maggid would tell the story and explain the moral to be derived from that story.

On that first Shabbos, the maggid related that he had studied at the yeshivah in Smorgon, together with many other yeshivah bochurim. “In the yeshivah, I was called Mordechai Bayever. I was one of a group of three companions: myself, Berel Kabilniker, and Chayim Mazierer, who is none other than our very own gaon, Reb Chayim Resasner. Later, I married and managed to earn a good living. Nevertheless, I felt an urge to leave and go into exile. I believed that a great scholar and tzaddik such as I deserved that the prophet Eliyahu reveal himself to him. And since Eliyahu did not reveal himself to me, I concluded that the reason for it was the exile of the Divine Presence.

“It was then that I decided to begin studying Kabbalah. After studying for several years, I managed to rise high in the ranks of Kabbalah (thank G‑d). But this only increased my desire that the prophet Eliyahu reveal himself to me, and made it even more difficult to understand why Eliyahu did not do so. I concluded that it was necessary to spend several more years in constant study, with no distractions of any sort.

“During that period,” the maggid related, “I studied the complete Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds thoroughly (thank G‑d); I also worked through the Rambam, as well as studying much Kabbalah and many works of Mussar. I was convinced that I had achieved absolute perfection in Torah study and in saintliness, which made it even more difficult to comprehend why Eliyahu — or at least some teacher from the Heavenly Yeshivah — still was not revealed to me. I then decided to take upon myself a life of exile. Since I was famous throughout that region as a gaon, kabbalist, and tzaddik (thank G‑d), it was necessary for me to leave for far-away places.”