In the annals of Hassidism, there is a solitary example of a hassidic master penning a poem that has entered the sacred canon of zemirot (singular: zemer) – hymns sung at the Shabbat table in family settings. That zemer is the now-famous “Yah Echsof” written by Rabbi Aharon Perlow of Karlin (1736-1772).The poem first appeared in print in a rare, thin, six-page pamphlet published in 1849 in Czernowitz in Bukovina. The pamphlet bears the title “Tzava’a” [will], and the following line explains that the text is transcribed from an autograph copy of Perlow’s ethical will.
Perlow’s will is a personal document that was probably not intended to be published for posterity. Its publication almost 80 years after the demise of the author suggests that it was not immediately deemed of broad interest or significance. The will fills the first two pages and opens with a declaration that the author hereby states that he is giving his life for the sake of the Almighty. Perlow readily admitted that he was unsure about the mechanism for making such a declaration, so he announced that he was doing so by relying on the intention and knowledge of his forebears. Perlow then continued with directions for those who would be present at his demise. These instructions focused on various prayer and charity rites drawn from kabbalistic tradition. He then asked for his body to be subject to forms of punishment that were to mimic the corporal punishments that could be meted out by a religious court according to ancient Jewish law. Specifically, he asked for an imitation stoning ceremony, where his body would be dropped directly on the ground four times. He outlined the requisite lofty character and conduct of those who would prepare his body for burial.As far as a eulogy, Perlow asked for no praises to be sung. Moreover, he invited anyone who wished to speak badly about him to take the stage, though he quickly warned that there is no place for lies – even accidental lies – and it would be better to be silent than to say something untrue. Only his colleagues who truly knew the inside of his insides were permitted to say praiseworthy things about him, for without a doubt they would meticulously adhere to the truth.He then gave instruction for the language to be written on his tombstone and for the use of neighboring burial plots. His wife and other women were told not to touch his deceased body, not to follow his bier and not to enter the room where his body lay.So that his soul would continue its ascent, Perlow told his disciples to give a coin to charity each day and then dedicate a small amount of time to study, before concluding the daily ritual with the recitation of kaddish for all souls, but for his soul in particular. According to Jewish tradition, even the wickedest person is punished for no more than a year. Yet Perlow was not confident of his lot. So he asked his disciples to continue the charity-study-kaddish ritual for another year. During this second year, it was sufficient to perform the ritual once a week on the eve of Sabbath, and once a month on the eve of a new month.THE FINAL three pages of the 1849 Czernowitz pamphlet include a list of 25 points titled “Hanhagot Yesharot,” righteous practices. As the title page of the pamphlet announces, this is the conduct advice of Rabbi Asher Perlow of Stolin (1760-1826) – the son of the aforementioned Aharon and bearer of his legacy.Twenty-one of the 25 points begin with the word “yizaher” – the reader should be careful, conscientious and wary. Many of the sections deal with prayer and study habits. Asher consistently urged the reader to show greater commitment, attentiveness and focus in the performance of religious rites. Section 13 of the list is particularly interesting. Asher counsels his readers to find a trustworthy and upstanding friend and to meet that person every day for half an hour to discuss anything that is on the reader’s heart or mind. There is no presumption that the listener will solve the issues; the listener is merely expected to care and look out for the confidant.THE CZERNOWITZ 1849 pamphlet is the earliest printing of Aharon’s ethical will and of Asher’s regimen counsel.While it is fortunate to have the words of these great hassidic masters, the contents of both documents is unremarkable. Prof. Zeev Gries has demonstrated that Aharon’s will is not particularly “hassidic;” rather, it fits the mold of rabbinic testaments of the period. Similarly, Asher’s conduct advice does not stand out when compared to other such contemporary lists.Yet what makes the Czernowitz 1849 pamphlet irreplaceable is one page, or to be more precise a half a page, sandwiched in between the ethical will and the conduct guidance: the first-ever printing of Aharon’s “Yah Echsof.”The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a postdoctoral fellow with the Galicia project at the University of Haifa.