Reb Gavriel Nossai Chein1
by
Reb Avraham Abba Persan2

Sometime during the last twenty years of the fifth century,3 a certain Jewish family that originally stemmed from Prague emigrated from Poland and settled in the city of Vitebsk in White Russia. In those days, the use of family surnames was still unheard of among the Jews of that vicinity. Usually, individual Jews were named for some event that occurred in their lives, their trade or business, their physical appearance, or their place of origin. Since this family originally stemmed from Prague, they were known by the name “Prager.”

The patriarch of the family, Reb Gavriel, was then between sixty and seventy years old, and he possessed an imposing appearance and pleasant disposition. His home was open to guests especially Torah scholars whom he would welcome with open arms.

Reb Gavriel had served as manager of the estates of a Polish count on the outskirts of one of the cities of Poland. This count happened to inherit an estate near Vitebsk from his uncle. He gave this estate as a gift to his younger son, who had recently married the daughter of the governor of Vitebsk. The old count asked Reb Gavriel to accompany his son, the young count, to Vitebsk, and manage his estate there.

Reb Gavriel replied that, although it would be difficult for him to move away from the place where he had been living for more than fifty years, he was nevertheless willing to fulfill the nobleman’s request. However, he first wished to put the affairs of the count’s local estate in order, and to find an honest person to serve as his replacement. The count thanked him, and told him that he desired Reb Gavriel’s eldest son to succeed him.

Reb Gavriel had two sons, both of whom had families of their own. The elder son, Reb Shlomo Yaakov, was a businessman; the younger son, Reb Aharon Tzvi, still sat studying Torah, together with a few of his young contemporaries.

Reb Gavriel and his son Reb Shlomo Yaakov decided to accept the count’s offer. Reb Shlomo Yaakov remained behind to manage the count’s estates, while Reb Gavriel, his younger son Reb Aharon Tzvi, and their families, moved to Vitebsk. The houses in which they had lived were donated to three Torah scholars, to live in rent free.

When Reb Gavriel arrived in Vitebsk, the young count introduced him to his father-in-law, the governor, praising him greatly. The governor welcomed him warmly, and suggested that he find a place for himself and his family to live, in one of the four properties he owned in the city. Reb Gavriel thanked him for his kindness, but declared that it would be better for business if he at first lived on one of the estates of the son-in-law, the count.

After about a year had passed, Reb Gavriel moved his residence to Vitebsk itself, building a house and a shul in his courtyard. There, he maintained ten Torah scholars who were supported at his expense. These were ascetic and chaste individuals, who sat in his beis hamedrash studying Torah with diligence. Little-by-little, his son Reb Aharon Tzvi took over the management of the estates, while Reb Gavriel himself came only occasionally to inspect and oversee their management.

The heads of the Vitebsk community, seeing the esteem in which Reb Gavriel was held by the governor and his son-in-law (and thus, also by the other city and county officials), appointed him president of the congregation. Due to his good nature, Reb Gavriel treated everyone with kindness.

Sometime during the next ten years or so, his son Reb Aharon Tzvi married off his children to prestigious families of Vitebsk, and supported them with affluence. But he suffered a sudden loss, when his wife died in the cholera epidemic (may we be spared) during the summer of 5491 [1731]. When the required three festivals passed, Reb Aharon Tzvi married a second wife, who was the daughter of one of the elder scholars of Vitebsk the gaon Reb Shlomo and the widow of Reb Yoel Masmid.

Four years after his second marriage, his father Reb Gavriel passed away. He was remembered with honor, and the greatest Torah personalities eulogized him; he was also mourned by all the Jews of Vitebsk. About a year later, a son was born to Reb Aharon Tzvi, and he named him Gavriel after his father. The young Gavriel surpassed all his classmates with his diligent study and gentle conduct. His father gave him a good education, and he excelled at his studies.

When he reached the appropriate age, one of the aristocratic Jews of Vitebsk took him as a husband for his daughter. He stipulated that he was to sit and study Torah exclusively, while [the father-in-law] would provide for all his needs. Thus, the young scholar Reb Gavriel devoted himself to Torah and avodah for nine years, supported by his father-in-law.

At that time, the young genius Reb Schneur Zalman who had been born in the village of Liozna, and was the son-in-law of the wealthy Reb Yehuda Leib Segal achieved prominence among the scholars and geonim of Vitebsk. Many of the foremost young scholars, including Reb Gavriel, would refer to him their questions and difficulties in Scripture, Mishnah, Gemara, Halachah, and Aggadah. They were always delighted with his replies.

A few years later, Reb Gavriel’s father-in-law passed away. To support his family, Reb Gavriel was now obliged to engage in business; he therefore took over the operation of a large store he had inherited from his father-in-law. But he continued to set aside time which he devoted to studying Torah. From time to time, he would visit the gaon Reb Schneur Zalman to enjoy his Torah discourses, together with several of his friends who were Torah scholars.

It was then that the Alter Rebbe, Reb Schneur Zalman, traveled to Mezritch. When he returned to Vitebsk, the city was in an uproar. The prominent citizens of Vitebsk, led by the elderly Reb Shlomo, insisted that his wealthy father-in-law Reb Yehuda Leib Segal evict him from his home, and that his daughter demand a divorce.

The Alter Rebbe notified the Rabbinical Court of Vitebsk that he was prepared to hold a debate about the practices of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciple the Maggid of Mezritch. He maintained that the proclamations and bans published against the Baal Shem Tov and his disciple the Maggid of Mezritch in the year 5517 [1757], were contrary to Torah law.

After lengthy discussion of the issue by members of the Rabbinical Court and other scholars of the city, it was decided to accept the proposal of “Reb Y. L. Segal’s son-in-law” (that is how people who opposed the views of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch referred to the Alter Rebbe) and to hear what he would say. They declared that his Torah study had caused him to grow haughty.

A public debate lasting a full week was held, during which the Rebbe explained the views of the Baal Shem Tov, and of his own mentor the Maggid of Mezritch. Afterwards, a great dispute erupted among the leaders of Vitebsk: some of them had now become advocates [of the Alter Rebbe], while others remained opposed.

A substantial number of the young scholars, including Reb Gavriel, were inclined to follow the Alter Rebbe, and they scheduled fixed times when they would study together. The parents of these young scholars, their in-laws, and other relatives persecuted them at every opportunity for going to the Alter Rebbe to study the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings. But they accomplished nothing by this, for the more they tormented them, the more firmly they clung to the chassidic ways.

The magnate Reb Aharon Tzvi, Reb Gavriel’s father, was also an opponent of the Alter Rebbe, and more than once he requested the governor to expel Reb Y. L. Segal’s son-in-law from the city. But since the time that the Rebbe had solved the two famous mysteries,4 he was held in great esteem by the governor, and they could do nothing to him.

When the Alter Rebbe accepted the position as Maggid of Liozna, Reb Gavriel was among the first to make pilgrimages to him in Liozna. From that time on, his father, his brother, his brothers-in-law, and all his other relatives began to afflict him with all sorts of persecutions, making every effort to ruin him financially. But the chassid Reb Gavriel persisted in following his own way, paying no attention to anything his father, his brother, and their confederates the opponents of the Rebbe did to him.

Reb Gavriel continued visiting the Alter Rebbe in Liozna regularly. But never did he complain to the Rebbe about his financial problems, which grew worse from day to day because of the persecution by his relatives. He even contributed generous sums as he had always done to all the charity funds that the Alter Rebbe collected from the chassidim. This included charities for both public affairs (such as supporting the Rebbeim in the Holy Land, pidyon sh’vuyim, and the like) and for private individuals.

Reb Gavriel and his wife were greatly distressed by the fact that twenty-five years had already passed since their wedding, and they had no children. They also suffered from the torments of his mother, his sisters, and his sisters-in-law, who heaped the most awful curses upon his wife and himself.

The chassid Reb Gavriel, who had been trained by the first generation of the Alter Rebbe’s chassidim, knew chassidic ways well, and he followed them with mesirus nefesh.

He refused to exploit what was holy for his personal use, and so he never complained to the Alter Rebbe about his material circumstances; not even about his condition of childlessness. Nevertheless, the One Who ordains all things caused events to evolve in such a way that Reb Gavriel received a threefold salvation: children, long life, and sustenance.

It once occurred that the Alter Rebbe was involved in pidyon sh’vuyim, and he assigned Reb Gavriel a substantial sum to be contributed toward this mitzvah. When Reb Gavriel told his wife about the assessment, she perceived that he was not too happy about it. Knowing how dedicated he was to the Alter Rebbe, and with what great joy he always obeyed his orders, she understood that something was bothering him this time, and she asked him to explain himself.

Reb Gavriel then revealed to her that because of the persecution by their relatives he was financially ruined, and could not raise the sum that the Alter Rebbe had assessed him.

To this, his wife replied, “Didn’t you often tell me that the Rebbe always stresses in his teachings that one must believe and trust in G‑d, and remain constantly joyful? So why are you distressed? Surely G‑d will help, and we will be able to satisfy the assessment that the Alter Rebbe placed upon us.”

Reb Gavriel’s wife, Chanah Rivkah, was a chassidic woman. She went to pawn her pearls and some of her other jewelry. She brought the money to her husband, saying, “Now we have the sum that the Rebbe assessed us,” and gave him a sealed packet. “Here is the entire amount,” she said, and she advised him to go immediately to Liozna and put it in the Rebbe’s holy hand.

Reb Gavriel replied that under ordinary circumstances when the Rebbe assessed chassidim for charitable donations, he would send his agent to collect the money that was due. Undoubtedly, he would do the same this time, and they ought to wait for the agent’s arrival.

After some time passed, his brothers denounced him to the government, and caused him great monetary loss. Reb Gavriel was afraid that he might need the money for his own use, and would be unable to resist the temptation. Therefore, he took up the packet of money, and set out for Liozna.

When he came into the Rebbe’s presence, he deposited the parcel of money on the table, explaining that he had managed to raise the sum the Rebbe had assessed him. But since his financial circumstances were not what they used to be, he feared that some unavoidable mishap might occur before the expected arrival of the agent. Therefore, he had brought the money in person, earlier.

When Reb Gavriel deposited the parcel of money in front of the Rebbe, the Rebbe instructed him to open the packet and count it. They examined the coins, and behold! The coins shone as brightly as if they had just been newly minted.

Reb Gavriel was quite perplexed, and could think of no explanation for this phenomenon. The Alter Rebbe leaned upon his elbows [in deveikus] for quite some time; then, he raised his holy head and said:

“Among the items donated for building the Mishkan, were gold, silver, and copper. But there was nothing that shone with such brilliance as the copper mirrors, brought by the women, from which the wash-stand and its base were cast.5 Now the wash-stand and its base were the last to be made among all the utensils of the Mishkan. But they were the first to be used, before all other forms of sacrificial worship in the Mishkan.

“Tell me,” asked the Alter Rebbe, “Where did you get this money?”

Reb Gavriel then related to the Alter Rebbe that for more than ten years his father, brothers, and other relatives had persecuted him and ruined him financially. But he had refused to pay any attention to that.

After being notified of the assessment, he had told his wife that he lacked the means to pay such a sum. Thereupon, his wife Chanah Rivkah bas Beila had gone and pawned some of her jewelry and precious stones without his knowledge. She had then given him this packet, informing him that it contained the required sum of money, and requesting that he go immediately and deliver it to the Rebbe.

He himself had wished to await the arrival of the Rebbe’s agent. But meanwhile he had found himself in the position of having been denounced. People who knew about such matters had predicted that he would have to pay a heavy fine, and therefore he was very afraid that the money would be gone. For this reason, he had hurried to deliver it to the Rebbe.

The Rebbe leaned upon his elbows [in deveikus] for quite some time; then, he raised his holy head and said:

“A woman of judgment has annulled the judgment.”6 May G‑d grant to you and to your wife sons and daughters, and long life, so that you may see your descendants for several generations. May G‑d grant you time and again success in all your undertakings, and great wealth. May you find favor in the eyes of everyone you meet. Close your shop, and open a business in jewelry and precious stones instead.

Reb Gavriel returned home in joyful spirits, repeating to his wife everything the Rebbe had said, and the blessings he had conferred upon him. He then asked her about the coins that shined and sparkled.

“I polished them with sand until they were mirror-like and sparkled like the stars of heaven,” replied his wife. “I did this so that G‑d (blessed be He) and the holy Rebbe, would elevate our status. Then, our fortune would begin to sparkle and shine, while our enemies would be humiliated.”

Reb Gavriel closed his shop and began dealing in precious stones. G‑d granted him success in this enterprise, and he found favor in the eyes of the noblemen who owned the estates surrounding Vitebsk. They were among his steady customers, and his reputation became known even among the government ministers.

His business grew and prospered from day to day, while the allegations against him were utterly forgotten. A year later, his wife gave birth to their first son, whom they named Chayim.

Within three years, the chassid Reb Gavriel grew extremely wealthy, for he was successful in everything he undertook. He found favor in the eyes of everyone he met, and so earned the name Reb Gavriel Nossai Chein.7

Reb Gavriel carried on with his business for over forty years. He married off his sons and daughters to prominent families of the city of Shklov. Afterwards, he gave the business over to his sons, devoting all his time to Torah and avodah, and to charitable works. His home was open to visitors, and due to his efforts the chassidic community of Vitebsk grew and prospered.

When the chassid Reb Chayim Yehoshua8 was arrested and brought to Vitebsk in chains, the elderly Reb Gavriel was away in Shklov attending the wedding of his youngest son’s grandson. He remained away from home for several months. By the time he returned to Vitebsk, the city’s governor had already been persuaded to hold Reb Chayim Yehoshua’s trial in the civil court.

Since the elderly Reb Gavriel was held in high esteem by the governor,9 he went to him to speak in Reb Chayim Yehoshua’s defense. He again found favor in the governor’s eyes, and his request was fulfilled; Reb Chayim Yehoshua was set free, with the stipulation that he must leave the vicinity of Vitebsk, and that no one must know of it.

Reb Gavriel Nossai Chein passed away in the year 5606 [1846] at the ripe old age of a hundred and ten years. He was eulogized by the gaon Reb Aizik,10 who cried, “Woe, a chassid is gone! Woe, a master of humility is gone!” Two years later, his wife the chassidic matron Chanah Rivkah also died. May their souls be bound up in the parcel of eternal life.