Diary, 5664 (1904). We spent the summer of that year in the Rheinfall resort, on the estate of a certain squire, near a township called Horoditch in the Mohilev Province.

In that township there lived a very old chassidisher individual who was known by his trade as “R. Yosef Binyamin the Fur-Boot-Cobbler.” A few days after we arrived in Rheinfall, he settled in one of the houses that stood on the unpaved road between us and Squire Harpaki’s estate. There his workers hammered away, making fur-lined boots in time for the beginning of the new season’s sale.

This old man prided himself on his grandfather, R. Elye Reuven, who was one of the Alter Rebbe’s earliest chassidim – a serious scholar who had mastered the Talmud1 and was a Kabbalist of repute, and had also made a thorough study of all the classic works of Chakirah.2 He was saturated with Torah and with the avodah demanded by Chassidus. In fact the Alter Rebbe once said that “the light of Elye Reuven’s neshamah glows, and is manifest in an orderly manner.”

Moreover, the Alter Rebbe chose him to be the melamed of the son of his old age, R. Moshe. He taught him for over ten years, from age eight to nineteen. Every month, usually on erev Rosh Chodesh, the Alter Rebbe used to give his children a three-hour oral examination of their month’s studies.

R. Elye Reuven was one of the chassidim who were present in the little beis midrash on erev Rosh HaShanah when Rebbitzin Devorah Leah made the sifrei Torah, together with them, partners to her declaration that she took upon herself whatever had been decreed,3 and would be decreed, concerning her father. And on the Fast of Gedaliah, it was R. Elye Reuven who carried the orphaned child in his arms to his mother’s funeral. The first Kaddish was said by the Alter Rebbe. From then on, it was said by the child, with the assistance of R. Elye Reuven.

His grandson, R. Yosef Binyamin, whom I recently met, now told me: “As at this past Shavuos, it’s now sixty-five years that my daily nourishment has been two – or at most, three – lines of Tanya. It was my grandfather, R. Elye Reuven, who told me to do that, from the first word printed on the title page until chapter 39, and no further.

“My grandfather,” he continued, “was one of the ‘Little Sanhedrin’ that had been dispatched by the ‘Great Sanhedrin’ of Chabad chassidim that had assembled in war-battered Liadi. They handed down a halachic ruling that the Rebbe’s family must return to Lithuania and settle in a township of their choice. And my grandfather was a member of the ‘Little Sanhedrin’ that was sent to Kremenchug to inform the [Mitteler] Rebbe of that ruling.”4

R. Yosef Binyamin then showed me the Tanya that his grandfather had given him for his bar-mitzvah. This was the Tanya whose “two, or at most, three lines,” day in, day out, had nourished him for sixty-five years.

Just between us, what shall I say? We belong to quite a limited circle of chassidishe temimim, who were privileged to hear and study maamarim that constitute the richest teachings and avodah of Chassidus. We ought to stand shamefaced before this very ordinary, typical, unsophisticated chassid who for long decades has been hammering fur-lined boots in this remote, half-forgotten village. Every day he sets out early for the township to say Tehillim, and davens with a minyan three times a day. No mud or rain, thunder or lightning, snow or blizzard disrupts the routine of this boot-maker as he serves his Creator. And this villager has the unbounded inner fortitude of a chassidisher neshamah to maintain his study schedule – day in, day out, on weekdays, on Shabbos and on Yom-Tov – for sixty-five years.

Not only should we chassidim and disciples of chassidim regard this simple fellow as a book of Mussar from which we should learn to admonish ourselves, but beyond that, we should hang our heads in shame before him.

For fourteen years this R. Yosef Binyamin lived in the home of his grandfather, R. Elye Reuven, who shared with him many recollections of the [Mitteler] Rebbe’s childhood years. R. Elye Reuven clearly remembered [even] the [Alter] Rebbe’s scholarly grandfather, R. Avraham the Gardener, father of the Alter Rebbe’s mother, Rebbitzin Rivkah. R. Avraham related fondly to R. Elye Reuven, and taught him for over three years. He had been requested to do so by the boy’s grandfather, R. Azriel, who was R. Avraham’s partner in gardening and in business.

I asked the aged R. Yosef Binyamin if he kept written notes of what he had heard about his grandfather, R. Elye Reuven. He answered Yes, and to show me where it was all written, he pointed to his head and heart…

R. Yosef Binyamin then related: “For my bar-mitzvah, which was on Lag BaOmer, 5599 (1839), my grandfather set out to visit the Rebbe [i.e., the Tzemach Tzedek] in Lubavitch, together with my father, R. Ephraim Moshe and my uncles – my grandfather’s six sons and five sons-in-law – and twelve married grandsons. My grandfather ignored his extremely old age. In those days, he and my father and my uncles, who themselves were already old men, used to avoid any mention of his age. Only we knew that he was 110 years old. Regardless, he was not only strong enough to walk all the way from Liozna to Lubavitch, but also light-footed enough to jump over a puddle just like a young man.

“My father was a lessee who also had fields of his own near Liozna. He used to cultivate them himself together with a Christian worker, and during the sowing and reaping seasons he was under heavy pressure of work.

“When I was eleven or twelve, I developed a strong liking for working the land. I was a good student. My teachers were pleased with my attainments and with my punctual attendance. I was always the first to arrive at our cheder, but my free time I devoted to farming. I would get up very early and run off to daven with the vasikin minyan,5 and in the sowing and reaping seasons I would hurry off to work in the fields and to watch over the regular workers.

“My father had a big vegetable garden and a fine fruit orchard. I was responsible for the vegetable garden. I would bring water and irrigate it before sunrise, hoe the plots and weed them. As I mentioned, that routine did not harm my studies, but my father was displeased with it and often rebuked me for it.

“Anyway, when we arrived in Lubavitch, my grandfather and my father took me in to the Rebbe’s study to receive his blessing. My father briefly described my routine and my love of farming and concluded: ‘Tomorrow, my Yosef Binyamin will be bar-mitzvah. So Rebbe, I’m asking you: give him a berachah that he should grow up to be a man who fears Heaven and not a man who loves the soil.’

“My grandfather added: ‘Rebbe, bless my grandson Yosef Binyamin with a good memory, so that he will remember everything that he saw and heard in my home, and everything that he sees and hears now, and everything that he will see and hear from the Rebbe6 and from the chassidim. Then, as a matter of course, he’ll grow up to be a man who fears Heaven.’

“My grandfather then brought me closer to the Rebbe, who placed his holy hands on my head and blessed me. I didn’t hear the blessing, except for its last words: May you be blessed with long and healthy years!

G‑d fulfilled my grandfather’s request. Thank G‑d, I remember everything that I saw and heard from my grandfather, from the Rebbe, and from chassidim. I have preserved intact the hat and the yarmulke that I wore when the Rebbe gave me his blessing, and his holy hands touched my hat.

“When my grandfather said, ‘Then, as a matter of course, he’ll grow up to be a man who fears Heaven,’ the Rebbe countered: ‘For over fifty years my grandfather [i.e., the Alter Rebbe] and my father-in-law [i.e., the Mitteler Rebbe] and I have been toiling that chassidim should become G‑d-fearing as a result of their own avodah, and not as a matter of course….’ “7

* * *

The aged R. Yosef Binyamin now shared with me further recollections of his grandfather, R. Elye Reuven, as follows:

“My grandfather related that when the [Alter] Rebbe was eleven years old, his father, the gaon8 R. Baruch,9 who was one of the most renowned experts in Seder Nezikin,10 taught his brilliant son11 [i.e., the Alter Rebbe] Choshen Mishpat.12 R. Baruch used to say that his expertise in Seder Nezikin he owed to his father-in-law,333 the gaon R. Avraham the Gardener, who excelled in his mastery of that field.

“When the [Alter] Rebbe heard that his scholarly grandfather, R. Avraham, had taught me for a few years when I was still a youth, I gained stature in the eyes of that young genius. He would occasionally ask me how his grandfather had understood a particular passage. And often, when a puzzling problem in the text we were studying left him with an unanswered question, he would complain: Why hadn’t I asked his grandfather that question? And to that complaint I had no answer.”

* * *

[From this point until “throughout my entire life” (on page 118), the narrator is R. Yosef Binyamin’s grandfather, R. Elye Reuven:]

“The Alter Rebbe’s [paternal] great-grandfather, R. Moshe Posner, was a towering scholar. When he came to Minsk [from Posen], he bought a large tract of land and built several houses – for himself, and for other families that had come from Posen and Prague. One of those houses served as a shul and beis midrash, one of whose rooms housed R. Moshe’s extensive library. When the [Alter] Rebbe was not quite eight years old, he knew the name of every book there. A couple of years later it was discovered that he had also mastered their contents. His grasp and memory were mind-blowing.

“The prominent scholars13 of Liozna included R. Avraham’s peers, and also his two sons, who were highly reputed for their broad scholarship and for their sharp minds – in particular R. Baruch, who was known to be a gaon and the close and leading student14 of R. Avraham in Seder Nezikin and Choshen Mishpat. One day those scholars of Liozna asked R. Moshe Posner to deliver learned discourses in Tractate Nedarim two or three times a week.

“I could sense the [Alter] Rebbe’s holy power when he was still very young, before he became a chosson.

“By nature I was obstinate, and even though I fully respected my teachers, they weren’t able to influence me to change my habit of insistently clinging to my own opinions. This grew worse from year to year. I simply ignored the views of others. As I grew older I realized that I really ought to take note of what others have to say, but I never managed to bring myself to actually do that. By nature I had a quick grasp, and at one glance I was able to understand any new Talmudic subject.

“In honor of the [Alter] Rebbe’s bar-mitzvah, a great number of geonim and prominent scholars337 arrived, including some from Vitebsk, Polotzk and Minsk. It was a veritable assemblage of a Great Sanhedrin. The three most outstanding figures among those prominent scholars were: the [Alter] Rebbe’s uncle (a brother-in-law of his uncle), the gaon R. Yosef Yitzchak,333 who was known throughout that region as “the genius15 of Tcharei”; the gaon R. Moshe Reuven, son of the renowned gaon R. Avraham Ze’ev of Beshenkovitch,333 who succeeded his father as head of the great yeshivah of Beshenkovitch; and the gaon R. Avraham Meir, a close and leading disciple of the author of Seder HaDoros.

“The gaon R. Baruch16 and the gaon R. Moshe Posner hosted a seven-day celebration, and every day’s festive meal was highlighted by original erudite expositions.17 The most outstanding discourse was the one delivered by the [Alter] Rebbe. Listening to it, all those geonim bestowed upon him the halachic ordination called semichah, and the title of rav. This title they recorded in the civil register18 of the Chevrah Kaddisha, so that it should be remembered for future generations.”

* * *

“One day I was sitting in R. Moshe’s beis midrash and studying. In those days I used to study aloud, with highly disciplined concentration – and at a wild pace, though not at the expense of thorough comprehension. The [Alter] Rebbe had been sitting in the library, and as he passed by, he remarked that I study avidly, but very fast. I answered that by nature I do everything quickly. In response, he said that one ought to change one’s nature. I protested, ‘But I can’t change my nature!’

“ ‘Every Jew,’ said the Rebbe, ‘has soul-powers, and he can change his nature by means of kabbalas ol.19 Once a person habituates himself, the habit becomes nature, and this nature that was born of habituation changes his inborn nature. Kabbalas ol is a fundamental basis in Torah study and in one’s avodah.’

“The Rebbe went on to say that such an exuberant desire to study Torah as I had at that time was a gift from Above. He then quoted the verse,20 ‘You will be banished hastily from the good land that G‑d is granting you,’ [and proceeded to expound it on the non-literal level of interpretation called derush, as follows]:

The word meaning land (ארץ) alludes to one’s will (רצון).21 “The good land (ארץ) that G‑d is granting you” alludes to a person’s desire and will (רצון) to study Torah, and also to his desire and will to invest effort in avodas HaShem. And now, when G‑d grants someone “a good land (ארץ הטובה),” that is, an eager desire to study Torah, he should take note of the preceding words, vaavad’tem meheirah. [Those two words, as translated above, mean that “you will be banished hastily.” Beyond their simple meaning, however, the Alter Rebbe now reads their vowels differently and thus perceives an instructive subtext:] “You shall banish haste! One should study Torah pleasurably, delighting his soul with the pleasantness of the Torah.”

“With those few words of interpretation, the Rebbe changed my nature. My hasty nature vanished and was replaced by deliberateness. With that transformation, the Rebbe made me fortunate throughout my entire life.”

[Here end the recollections (which began on p. 115 above) of R. Elye Reuven, as relayed by his grandson – the aged villager, R. Yosef Binyamin – to the Rebbe Rayatz.]

* * *

My diary of the year 5664 (1904) comprises numerous subjects, because I then had to record all of that year’s events, some of which involved me personally. In the month of Kislev, for example, a year after I began keeping financial accounts and acting as an agent in the sale and purchase of forests, I and my wife, Rebbitzin Nechamah Dinah, calculated the resultant income and expenditure for the first time. That done, we were happy to set aside a tenth of the profits – a tidy sum – for tzedakah.

In the public sphere, likewise, the year 5664 (1904) was particularly eventful. In government circles, circumstances resulting from the Russo-Japanese War officially weakened their conventional incitement to pogroms. Even the master Jew-baiter Savorin, editor of Novy Vremya,22 restrained his poison, and it became much easier to deal with the numerous issues affecting the Jewish public that had to be attended to in Petersburg.23 The ruling circles there had noticeably relaxed their attitude to Orthodoxy. Many of the details of one such visit by my father are recorded in my diary, and likewise, details of my many visits to Moscow, Petersburg and Warsaw, most of which concerned the shipment of matzah and other Pesach products to the Jewish soldiers serving in the Far East.

In that year, too, the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah saw extensive growth in every department. For example, the establishment of a number of chadarim during winter yielded fine results. The ongoing good news from various locations made an impact on the senior students of the big study hall: it inspired them to be more punctual in their attendance at the study sessions of Chassidus and to devote themselves increasingly to the avodah of davenen.

(The students of one of the classes had previously neglected the study of Chassidus, and in response, my father wrote and published the kuntreis entitled Etz HaChayim.24 )

The above public and personal events made the pages of that year’s diary double their usual number. There was also my acquaintance with the old men of Horoditch – the above-mentioned R. Yosef Binyamin the Fur-Boot-Cobbler, and a chassid known as “R. Yaakov Shimshon the Builder,” who worked on the Harpaki estate which his two sons held on lease.

R. Yaakov Shimshon the Builder was a typical ordinary Jew, but unusually proud of his ancestry. His grandfather, R. Nachum DovBer, a villager who lived near Kalisk, was a chassid of the Alter Rebbe and outstanding in his hospitality. In addition, before every Shabbos and Yom-Tov he would bake challos out of half a sack of flour, slaughter a calf or a lamb, and then deliver the meat and the challos to Kalisk, for the benefit of the rav and the local Torah sages.

His son, R. Zalman Yitzchak, the father of R. Yaakov Shimshon, was a fine scholar, but wanted to support himself by the toil of his hands. He chose to be a builder, and while at work he would often review a chapter of Mishnayos from memory. He was extremely proud of the fact that he was one of the Jewish builders who built the homes of the Mitteler Rebbe and his family, as well as the batei midrash that faced the big courtyard in Lubavitch.

The first time I visited R. Yaakov Shimshon at the Harpaki estate, just a viorst away, I found him sitting in his fruit orchard and audibly reviewing Mishnayos that he had memorized. He welcomed me fondly and recounted five episodes:

1. He told me how for half a year before his wedding, when he was about seventeen, his father prepared him for his yechidus with the [Mitteler] Rebbe. That was in 5585 (1825). And as if this were insufficient, the young man’s grandfather R. Nachum DovBer lectured him for two months on the significance of yechidus.

At that time his grandfather had told him: “For us chassidim, the Rebbe’s house was the Heichal of the Beis HaMikdash, and the Rebbe’s study was its inner sanctuary. When we were young married students who sat and studied in his precincts in Liozna, we felt a deep-seated reverence for the ground of his courtyard, and how much more so for the walls of the room in which we waited before entering his study for yechidus.25 Occasionally – after due preparation, deep self-scrutiny, and purification in a mikveh – we would allow ourselves to kiss the lectern at which the Rebbe davened. If you had seen with what reverent and loving awe a ninety-year-old scholarly chassid called R. Yerucham Moshe Shpetivker approached that stender and kissed the place on which the Rebbe had rested his holy hands while he was davening, only then would you understand the meaning of a holy place upon which the Divine Presence abides.”

2. R. Yaakov Shimshon again quoted his grandfather: “We young chassidim received a traditional teaching from the elder chassidim – that one should enter the Rebbe’s study for yechidus only after proper preparation, and that must take time. For some yungeleit, that preparation took three years and more.”

3. The grandfather recalled: “Some yungeleit were still standing – after due preparation – on the doorstep of Gan Eden HaElyon before their first yechidus, yet they already came to deeply appreciate the delicate flavor of grasping a G‑dly concept, and their natural feelings were refined. When they then entered the Rebbe’s study, the sight of his holy face opened up a conduit from their neshamah to their ruach and nefesh.26 At yechidus, the Rebbe did not patch up a ruach or nefesh that was in need of correction. Rather, he recharged them with the light of the neshamah.

“A person would leave his yechidus with the Rebbe like a newborn creature – with a vigorous Divine soul, a cheerful Good Inclination, a fragmented natural soul,27 and a crushed and spineless Evil Inclination.”

4. R. Yaakov Shimshon’s grandfather continued: “About a month before my wedding, my grandfather R. Nachum DovBer and my father R. Zalman Yitzchak accompanied me to see the [Mitteler] Rebbe in Lubavitch. Over a hundred28 young men, some of them married and some of them preparing for marriage, studied there in the smaller of the two batei midrash that faced the big courtyard. Their chassidic grooming and guidance were in the devoted hands of about a minyan of elder chassidim. My mentor was R. Zalman Sender Kruler, and in addition to all my above-listed preparations for yechidus, he prepared me further.”

5. The last of the old chassid’s recollections: “At my yechidus, the [Mitteler] Rebbe gave me two directives: (a) to make a living from the toil of my hands and not from business; (b) to memorize the Six Orders of the Mishnah and review them every three months, that is, four times a year, and in the thirteenth month of a leap year, to review Seder Taharos twice.

“I was no expert in profound comprehension, but whatever I learned, I grasped. My father-in-law – R. Shmuel Abba Ivanovker, from a village near Rudnia – had undertaken to support me for five years,29 and within the first two years I memorized the entire Mishnayos. Every year, from Rosh HaShanah, 5588 (1827), until today, I have fully carried out the directive that I received at my first yechidus.

All those years he made his livelihood from the toil of his hands, as a builder. Two years earlier his two sons had taken the lease on the Harpaki estate, so he continued working there likewise. And when his sons were busy with visits to Vitebsk and Smolensk, he used to supervise the workers on the estate.