The Hassidism of Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov (known as the Besht) and his
disciples is rightly associated with a rejection of an ascetic lifestyle as the
primary spiritual avenue. Nevertheless, hassidic masters were not cut of one
cloth and, over the 250 years of Hassidism’s history, some masters adopted
ascetic practices. It would therefore be inaccurate to ignore this fact when
One such master was Rabbi Meir Yehiel Halevi
Halstock of Ostrowiec (1852-1928). Meir Yehiel was brought up in hassidic home
and from an early age he visited the hassidic masters of Congress
When he was 10 years old, Rabbi Elimelech Shapira (1824-1892),
hassidic master in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, saw the potential in Meir Yehiel and
suggested that he stay in Grodzisk for his education. Meir Yehiel’s care was
entrusted to one of the most learned hassidim, Rabbi Berel the illuy (genius),
with the express instruction: “Make the boy into a great and famous
When he was 17, Meir Yehiel married and moved to his in-laws’
home in Warka. There he became renowned as the Warka Illuy. For 10 years he
remained in Warka, plumbing the depths of the revealed and hidden traditions,
until he was appointed the rabbi of Skierniewice at the age of 28.
years later he moved to the rabbinate of the larger town Ostrowiec, where he
served for 39 years until his death.
But it was only when his teacher,
Rabbi Elimelech of Grodzisk, died in 1892 that Rabbi Meir Yehiel began to serve
as a hassidic master in addition to fulfilling his rabbinic duties. Despite
famously serving in both roles, Rabbi Yehiel Meir barely left a written legacy
in either sphere. He was often asked to write approbations for other people’s
books, and in these letters he seized the opportunity to share detailed talmudic
Two of Rabbi Meir Yehiel’s students each independently
attempted to collect their teacher’s words. The first effort, Torah Or
(Piotrkow, 1920), covered Rabbi Meir Yehiel’s Torah insights on the Book of
Reportedly, Rabbi Meir Yehiel – who was still alive when the
book was published – reproached his student, though it is unclear what upset
At any rate, no further volumes appeared.
Destruction of European Jewry, one of Rabbi Meir Yehiel’s students collated
hassidic, talmudic and halachic material and published it in two thick volumes
entitled Meir Einei Hachamim (New York, 1950).
Hassidic lore remembers
Rabbi Meir Yehiel for his ascetic practices. He spent much time in prayer.
Hassidim would say that he left a puddle of tears wherever he prayed. Though he
loved music, he chose not to listen to it so as to deny himself the joy it
brought with it. On weekdays he did not change his clothes. Fasting was part of
his daily regimen, and he would eat only a small amount each evening. His
frequent fasting weakened his body and he was often found wrapped in a blanket,
trying to stay warm. Rabbi Meir Yehiel would also avoid speaking, dedicating
entire days as a ta’anit dibbur, a fast from talking.
Rabbi Meir Yehiel
was once visited by the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter (Imrei Emet,
1866-1948). As was the custom, fruit and beverages were brought for the guest.
When the refreshments were served, the Imrei Emet did not touch the food. Rabbi
Meir Yehiel was surprised. “Why won't you taste anything?” he
The Imrei Emet explained that everything really belongs to the
Almighty: The Earth and all that is in it belongs to God (Psalms
Only after making a blessing and acknowledging God’s dominion are
we permitted to partake of the food: The heavens are the heavens of God, but the
land He gave to humans (Psalms 115:16). Thus,” explained the Imrei Emet, “you
are offering me food that is not yours, for you are yet to taste it! Only after
you recite the blessing do the rights to the food transfer to you and then you
can honor me as your guest.”
Without hesitating, Rabbi Meir Yehiel picked
up a fruit, made a blessing and ate. This was no trifle, for Rabbi Meir Yehiel
had been fasting, as was his wont. Once Rabbi Meir Yehiel had recited the
blessing and tasted the fruit, the Imrei Emet also ate from the food that had
been placed before them.
Thus, a hassidic master known for extreme
ascetic practices was able to strike some form of balance, tempering his own
preference for abstinence for the sake of making a younger colleague feel
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish
Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.