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One of the colorful personalities of Galician Hassidism was Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz of Ropczyce (1760-1827). While R. Naftali originated from a respected rabbinic family, he was drawn to Hassidism. As a teenager, young Naftali traveled to the then leader of Hassidism in Galicia, Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786). Rabbi Elimelech, however, was not interested in the young boy, dismissing him with a wave of his hand: “I am not interested in disciples who come from distinguished families.” When he heard this, young Naftali broke down crying bitter tears: “Am I at fault for having distinguished lineage?!”
When R. Elimelech saw the commitment and desire of the young lad, he felt that his distinguished pedigree would not serve as a stumbling block for his spiritual growth and he agreed to instruct the boy in the ways of Hassidism.
R. Naftali was also known for his musical talents. He composed songs – some of which we have today – and often served as the leader of the service. In this vein, hassidic tradition reports the following statement in R. Naftali’s name: “Through song the gates of heaven can be opened and with sadness we close them.”
But in hassidic tradition, R. Naftali is probably best known for his mischievousness. He was so prone to a joke that one of his teachers, the Seer of Lublin (1745-1815) once forbade him from making any more jokes: “I want you to accept upon yourself not to joke around for an entire year,” he demanded of his student. Not to long after that the Seer was praying and as was his custom, his prayers continued for some time. The disciples stood behind the Seer waiting patiently for their master to finish his supplications. Suddenly a group of hassidim burst out laughing. When the Seer finished his prayers, he turned around and glared at the obvious culprit R. Naftali: “No joke for a year, I said!” Impishly, R. Naftali replied, “Indeed, my master, your prayers took longer than a year!”
A disciple once spied him cutting his nails after dipping in the mikve. The disciple was curious to know the esoteric meaning of this regime: “Why, master, do you cut your nails after dipping in the mikve?” R. Naftali answered, perhaps with a playful grin: “Because that is when the nails are softer and easier to cut!”
For all his mirth, R. Naftali was not one to despise others. A sense of humility pervaded his being. Once after the Seer had returned from the tashlich
service on Rosh Hashana, R. Naftali was seen hurrying to where the Seer had just stood in prayer. “Why are you rushing there now, after the master has already left?” they asked him. R. Naftali explained: “I am going to collect the ‘sins’ that the Seer has cast aside.”
At the time, Ropczyce was a backwater and the streets were often filled with mud, even in the summer months. R. Naftali explained: When the Almighty created the world, he showed Adam the leaders of each generation. When he came to Ropczyce, God showed Adam that Naftali would serve as the rabbi here. Adam was so disgusted he spat at Ropczyce and since then there it has been impossible to dry the swampy roads of Ropczyce.
R. Naftali died on 11 Iyar 5587 (1827) as he was on his way to consult
doctors in nearby Lancut, some 50 km. from Ropczyce. The wagon driver
decided not to return to Ropczyce as he recalled that R. Naftali had
once commented to him that he could sense “pleasant scents” in Lancut.
To this day, Rabbi Naftali of Ropczyce lies buried in Lancut.The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.