Rebbe Shmuel Shmelke Horowitz (1726-1778) was a renowned scholar and leader of the second generation of the Chassidic movement. Reverently known as “The Rebbe Reb Shmelke,” he studied under Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon, before becoming a student of Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, successor of the Baal Shem Tov.

His young brother was Rebbe Pinchas, rabbi of Frankfurt, renowned as “The Hafla’ah.” Their mother was known to say, “One of my sons never says nighttime Shema and one never says Grace After Meals.” What did she mean? That Rebbe Shmelke hardly slept and Rebbe Pinchas hardly ate!

Rebbe Shmelke opened a yeshivah in Ritshval (Ryczywół), which he ran for 10 years, with a rigorous1 daily schedule:2

  • 14 hours of Torah study
  • 4 hours for the three daily prayers
  • ½ hour break (during which he taught them Chovot Halevavot)
  • ½ hour for eating
  • 4 hours for sleeping
  • 1 hour for personal needs

Many of Rebbe Shmelke’s students became beloved Chassidic leaders, including: Rebbe Yisrael, the Maggid of Kozhnitz; Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev; Reb Mendel of Rimanov; and the renowned Talmudist, Reb Mordechai Benet.3

He subsequently led a yeshivah in Shinov (Sieniawa), with the Chozeh (“Seer”) of Lublin among his students. “If you ever see me so engrossed in Torah that I forget G‑d, pull my sleeve to remind me,” he requested. The Chozeh said that only once did he feel the need to tug on his master’s sleeve, and when he did, Rebbe Shmelke told him, “My son, my son, I remembered on my own.”4

“When the yetzer hara (evil inclination) convinces you to stop learning because you are tired, Rebbe Shmelke taught, “shout at it, and strengthen yourself to overcome it. Break your nature, and learn more than you would otherwise!”5

Once, Rebbe Shmelke was visiting Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, and Rebbe Elimelech convinced Rebbe Shmelke to sleep. He wanted to show him how much he could accomplish by being well rested.

The following morning, Rebbe Shmelke enjoyed a wonderful morning service. When the community came to Az Yashir (the Song of the Sea), Rebbe Shmelke aroused them to feel as though they were singing praise right after the Red Sea had parted. People even lifted their hems as they imagined the waters of the sea around them.

Rebbe Shmelke thanked Rebbe Elimelech for facilitating the experience, but he didn’t change his custom of staying awake as much as possible. “Sleeping is very good,” he said, “but who has time for it?”6

According to another version, he said, “Sleeping is very good, but who can risk it?”7

Attraction to Chassidism

When he was in Ritshval, Rebbe Shmelke said to his brother, Rabbi Pinchas, “I heard that in Mezeritch there is a holy scholar who teaches people how to serve G‑d. Let's go there. Perhaps he can teach us as well.”

They arrived on Friday, but the Maggid told them that he didn’t have time to speak with them then, as he was busy preparing for Shabbat.

Disappointed, the brothers thought, “If he is so holy, why didn't he recognize that we are Torah scholars and honor us accordingly?”

At each of the three Shabbat meals, they were disappointed. They expected deep discussions in Talmud, to which they were qualified to contribute. But the Maggid spoke of Chassidic teachings, in a manner they weren't accustomed to.

Feeling the trip had been a waste, they prepared to leave, but first wanted to take leave of the Maggid.

They came to him that night, and the Maggid said he would soon call for them.

On Tuesday, the Maggid blessed them, said goodbye, and advised them to also take leave of Rebbe Zusha of Anipoli.

They found Rebbe Zusha in the study hall, where he told them: “The sages8 say that one should seek a teacher who is like an angel. But we’ve never seen angels. So how can we know whether the teacher is similar to an angel? The explanation, my brothers, is as follows: An angel is hidden from all eyes, and we should seek a teacher whose greatness is concealed from all.”

Rebbe Zusha was implying that the Maggid's ways were concealed from them, but that he was truly angelic.

The brothers said to one another, “If the student has Divine inspiration, and he knew what we were thinking about his master, certainly the Maggid must be inspired!” and they decided to remain.9

In one of their early meetings, the Maggid asked the brothers, “Why should righteous people like yourselves travel so far to come to me?” After praising them, he also rebuked them and taught them to be humble.

Inspired, the brothers replied, “You are correct. We shouldn't have ridden here. We should have come here by foot!”10


In 1772 (5532), the brothers returned to Mezeritch for another visit. They had been invited to take up rabbinic posts in Nikolsburg and Frankfurt, and they wanted to receive the Maggid’s blessing. They also wanted to receive his counsel, because the communities hadn’t specified which brother should go to Nikolsburg and which to Frankfurt.

They stood outside the Maggid’s home, each brother wanting to honor the other by allowing him to enter first. The Maggid called out, “Let the Rav of Nikolsburg come in first, because he is the older brother,” thereby letting them know that Rebbe Shmelke should be the rav of Nikolsburg.11

It was during this visit that the brothers were shown the first completed sections of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), then being worked on by their colleague, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad. They praised his work and encouraged him to continue, “Be strong and complete the Shulchan Aruch, because you are fitting for this mission. The merit of Torah will protect you, your children, and all Jews.”12

En-route to Nikolsburg, the Rebbe Reb Shmelke stopped in Krakow for Shabbat. The Jews of Krakow were overjoyed with their distinguished guest, and asked him to speak.

He shared the advanced Talmudic analysis he had prepared to say upon his arrival in Nikolsburg, thinking he could simply repeat it again when he got there.

He soon realized, however, that several prominent community leaders from Nikolsburg had come to Krakow to accompany him to his new home, and he understood that he would have to prepare something new to say once he arrived.

But so many people came to greet him that first week, he was left with no time to prepare.

Before Shabbat, he lit a large candle, which would allow him to study all night and prepare a new discourse. But alas, the candle blew out early.

The following morning, with a prayer on his lips, he asked for a Gemara, any one, and he read a few lines from a page he randomly opened. After reading the Gemara, he asked many questions, and the scholars of Nikolsburg added many of their own, until they had come up with 130 questions.

Reb Shmelke then went through the questions and answered them in 72 ways. The exercise took several hours. Everyone was astonished by his genius, and they rejoiced that they had merited such a rabbi.13

Located in Central Europe, at the nexus of the east and west, Nikolsburg was a religious city with many Torah scholars, but there were also followers of the nascent Enlightenment, who valued sciences over Torah study.

As such, for the first seven weeks that Rebbe Shmelke was in Nikolsburg, in his weekly Shabbat speech, he discussed the seven wisdoms (mathematics, music, medicine, geology, etc.), covering another science each week.

After demonstrating his proficiency in the sciences, he was able to convince them that studying Torah was far more important.

He explained that if a rabbi speaks about the importance of Torah study over studying the sciences, people will say, “How does he know? He only knows Torah. He never studied the wisdoms of the world.” But when a rabbi knows these sciences, and nonetheless recognizes the supremacy of Torah, that is a convincing argument.14

He went on to remain in Nikolsburg, the city that will forever be associated with his name, for five years. While there, he served as chief rabbi of the region of Moravia.

His First Week in Nikolsburg

As mentioned earlier, Rebbe Shmelke spent his first week in Nikolsburg meeting the locals. Here are some anecdotes from that time:

A grand reception was prepared in his honor. Before it began, Rebbe Shmelke asked to be alone in a room. Someone peeked through the keyhole and saw the newly appointed rabbi put out his hand, like he was greeting an imaginary person, and he heard the Rebbe say, “Shalom Aleichem holy Rebbe. We feel honored that you came to our city.” He continued to pretend he was being greeted by others, imagining what they might say.

Later, the man asked the Rebbe about his behavior. The Rebbe explained that no one feels honored when he honors himself, and he wanted to train himself to be numb and unaffected by all the praises he would receive at the reception.15

Another day, during his first week in Nikolsburg, Rebbe Shmelke was invited to the home of a wealthy person. The host served him a cup of coffee and a saucer filled with cream.

Rebbe Shmelke asked, “Where's the cream?”

The host pointed to the saucer.

A few minutes afterwards, Rebbe Shmelke asked again, “Where's the cream?”

The host understood that something must be wrong with the cream, so he hurriedly went to ask about it. He discovered that, accidentally, the gentile maid had milked the cow without Jewish supervision, which rendered the milk not kosher.

The host apologized to Rebbe Shmelke, and he asked, “But why didn't you tell me that the cream isn't kosher? Why did you ask, ‘Where's the cream?’”
Rebbe Shmelke replied, “It states in Jewish law,16 ‘Milk that was milked by a non-Jew and a Jew doesn't see it, it is forbidden.’ Hinted in these words is that when something isn't kosher, a Jew doesn't see it. I didn't know the cream was forbidden; I simply didn't see it.”17

His Humble Ways

Throughout Reb Shmelke’s life, he was loved by his students and by (most of) his community, because he loved them and he led them in a fatherly way. In Nikolsburg, he faced his share of opponents who didn't want a Chassidic leader, but his humble and pleasant ways won them over.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, shortly after his arrival in Nikolsburg, a wealthy person brought a bottle of old wine to Rebbe Shmelke and poured him cup after cup.

This man, who resented the new Chassidic rabbi, wanted to make him drunk, sure that when the rabbi showed up to synagogue intoxicated his reputation would be forever ruined.

But on Yom Kippur night, Rebbe Shmelke was totally sober.

In front of the community, Reb Shmelke beseeched, “G‑d! I have enemies who want to harm me, but I forgive them. Please! Don't punish them…” He spoke about this for some time, and the entire community wept.

The wealthy man understood that the Rebbe was pleading on his behalf, and that surprised him. Not only was the new rabbi not taking revenge, he was trying to free him from punishment!

In front of everyone, the wealthy man fell before Rebbe Shmelke and asked for his forgiveness.

“Do you think I accepted the leadership of this city because I want honor?” asked Rebbe Shmelke. “It isn't so, my son. I would be glad if I was embarrassed tonight, because that would atone for many of my sins. Much good would come from it!”

Upon hearing this, the man cried some more, and from then on, they were very close.18

After Rebbe Shmelke's passing, he was succeeded by his student Reb Mordechai Benet, who said, “I won't be like Rebbe Shmelke who remained silent in the face of disrespect. I am not like him.”19

Few people can emulate Rebbe Shmelke's humble ways. Indeed, humility is the primary focus of his book, Divrei Shmuel.

Love for Others

The houses in Nikolsburg were made of wood with thatched roofs, and were prone to fires. Once, people told Rebbe Shmelke that a fire had broken out in the city and Rebbe Shmelke was very worried.

Soon they returned to report that the fire was far from the Rebbe's home.

The Rebbe calmed down, but after a moment his face turned white again.

He explained, “When you told me there's a fire, I was worried that my home might catch fire. Then you told me the fire was distant, and this calmed me, because my home wasn't at risk. But our sages say, 'Your fellow’s money should be precious to you as your own,'20 and I realized that I still have not attained that level; I care more for my home than for other people's homes. That's why I became frightened again.”21

On another occasion, a man suffering from poverty asked Rebbe Shmelke to pray for him. Rebbe Shmelke replied, “Tomorrow I can pray for you, but today, I have already taken upon myself to feel the pain of another Jew. I've seen that when I feel the pain of my fellow, and I pray for him, G‑d answers my prayers. Today I'm feeling his pain, but tomorrow I will feel your struggles and pray on your behalf.”22

Rabbi Avraham Chaim of Zlotchov related that when he was young, he asked Reb Shmelke how it is possible to love someone who harmed him.

Rebbe Shmelke explained, “If you accidentally hurt yourself with your hand, would you beat your hand because of that? Of course not, because your hand is part of you. All Jews are one. To hurt your fellow is ultimately to harm yourself. Why would you do that?”23

Although Torah study took a primary place in his life, he never forgot the needs of his fellow people.24 At times, he would travel to collect money for the poor, and was known to say, “For a Jew one must have self-sacrifice.”25

Like many of his colleagues (fellow students of the Maggid of Mezeritch), he made sure to distribute all of his money to charity.26

His Passing

On the 1st of Iyar, 5538 (1778), he called his students and said, “Today I will die.” The students cried.

“Know, I have the soul of Samuel the Prophet, with whom I share a name,” he told them. “He was a Levite and I'm a Levite. He passed away at age 52, and today I became 52 years old. If people would call me Shmuel, I would be like Shmuel HaNavi literally.” And his soul ascended on high, while he was still sitting on his chair.27

He left behind two sons, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz and Rabbi Tzvi Yehoshua—rabbi of Treibitsch (Třebíč); and a daughter, Toiba, whose husband, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, was the rabbi of Kaltburg, along with a cadre of students who went on to lead Jewish communities all over Eastern Europe, spreading the light of Chassidic teachings.