The Tisch: Fixing a watch, fixing a soul

Did Rabbi Yerahmiel Rabinowitz really forsake watchmaking? We may never be certain, but perhaps fixing watches was just a cover for fixing lost souls.

Rabbi Yerahmiel Rabinowitz of Przysucha (1784-1836) was the son of one of the famous hassidic masters, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Przysucha (1766–1813). The father, more commonly known as the “Yid Hakadosh” (the Holy Jew), spawned a new school of hassidism that eschewed miracle-working and called for a return to rational thought and traditional Talmud study. When the Yid Hakadosh died, most of his hassidim followed his prime disciple, Rabbi Simha Bunim Bonhart of Przysucha (1765-1827). A smaller crowd accepted Rabbi Yerahmiel as their leader. The two heirs to the Przysucha legacy had something in common: They both had professions – Rabbi Simha Bunim was a pharmacist, while Rabbi Yerahmiel was a watchmaker.
Hassidic tradition related that when Rabbi Yerahmiel prayed, he would hold on to the hands of a clock. Some thought he was fixing the clock instead of focusing on his prayers. Others assured the doubters that when the master prayed, he ascended supernal worlds; holding on to the hands of the clock was the only way he could ensure that he would be able to return from the heavenly spheres to the temporal world.
When learning how to be a watchmaker, Rabbi Yerahmiel chanced upon an exquisite watch that was in perfect working order, except for one small spring that was ever so slightly bent. As he straightened the spring, the watch immediately began to tick. “How similar is a watch to human being!” he thought to himself.
After his father died, Rabbi Yerahmiel refused to act as a hassidic master, insisting that he would continue to earn his livelihood by fixing watches.
Hassidic masters would later relate that for 13 years Rabbi Yerahmiel worked as a watchmaker, corresponding to the 13 years that Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai hid from the Romans and studied the esoteric traditions.
There was a poor orphan who lived in a nearby village with his uncle. The boy’s uncle was a harsh person who viciously mistreated his nephew. The uncle’s watch once broke, and he sent his nephew to nearby Przysucha to have the watch fixed.
When the boy got to Przysucha, he asked passersby where he could find the watchmaker. They pointed in the direction of Rabbi Yerahmiel’s home, and the lad knocked on the door with the watch in hand.
When Rabbi Yerahmiel opened the door, the boy immediately concluded that he had been misled. As he backed away, the boy stammered an apology for disturbing the venerable rabbi.
Rabbi Yerahmiel politely asked him what had brought him to his door. The poor orphan was dumbstruck. Rabbi Yerahmiel urged the boy, who eventually told the tale.
“Show me the watch,” R. Yerahmiel instructed. The hassidic master immediately realized the problem and said to the boy: “Sit down while I fix your uncle’s watch.”
As he bent over the watch, Rabbi Yerahmiel inquired about the boy’s situation, and upon hearing of the abuse the boy was made to suffer, he confidently said: “Leave your uncle!” “How will I support myself?” the boy asked. “I don’t have even a kopek to my name.”
“You can rent an orchard from a non- Jew who will trust you to pay him later.”
“Why would he do that?" the boy asked incredulously.
Rabbi Yerahmiel ignored the question, merely adding: “What you should do is ignore your uncle’s wishes a few times, and then he will want to get rid of you.”
As he finished the sentence, Rabbi Yerahmiel presented the repaired watch to the boy and bid him farewell.
As the boy made his way back to this uncle’s house, he met a non-Jew whom he knew.
“Moshko, why don’t you rent my orchard?” the non-Jew asked.
“I don’t have any money at the moment.”
“Rent it from me, and when you sell the fruit, you can pay me back.”
The deal was done, and the boy returned to his uncle’s house. As Rabbi Yerahmiel had instructed, he ignored his uncle’s words and was soon thrown out. Meanwhile, the fruit had started to blossom, and it wasn’t long before the poor orphan was a wealthy man.
So did Rabbi Yerahmiel really forsake watchmaking? We may never be certain, but perhaps fixing watches was just a cover for fixing lost souls.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.