From whence you came

A hassidic master’s ‘soul-root’ sprouts branches.

Haredim 521 (photo credit:
Haredim 521
(photo credit:
Every year at Hanukka time, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dynow (1783-1841) would feel a deep connection to the holiday. Its holiness would permeate his being and he felt spiritually uplifted as he felt at no other time of year. Undoubtedly Hanukka was his favorite festival, but why? He had no explanation. Perhaps he had been one of the Hasmoneans in a previous incarnation? That would explain why he felt such a visceral connection to the Festival of Lights. Alas, he was not a kohen, so he decided that he could not have been one of the Hasmoneans.
On one of his travels to his teacher, Rabbi Ya’acov Yitzhak Horowitz (1745- 1815), known as the Seer of Lublin, he resolved to ask his master about the root of his soul, in a bid to discover from which of the 12 tribes of Israel his soul was hewn – and perhaps to solve the mystery of his Hanukka connection.
As soon as he arrived in Lublin, the Seer – known for his powers of spiritual perception – immediately turned to his disciple and explained: “You are from the tribe of Issachar!” He continued, explaining R. Zvi Elimelech’s intuitive link to Hanukka: “During the Hasmonean period you served on the beit din [rabbinical court] of the Hasmoneans.”
R. Zvi Elimelech – a prolific author – went on to call one of his primary works Bnei Yissachar (Zolkiew 1850), the the children of Issachar.
One of R. Zvi Elimelech’s sons, Rabbi Elazar of Lancut (1808-1865), followed his father’s lead and called his work Yodei Bina (Przemysl 1911), taking the title from a biblical verse about Issachar: And of the children of Issachar, men who had understanding [yodei bina] of the times, to know what Israel ought to do – 200 of them were leaders, and all their brothers were at their command (I Chronicles 12:33).
Two generations later, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch of Munkacs (1850-1913) – a grandson of R. Elazar and great-grandson of R. Zvi Elimelech – was also enamored with Hanukka. His only son surmised that R.
Zvi Hirsch had the same soul-root as Judah the Maccabee, noting that the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of the name Judah Maccabee (102) was the same as the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of the name Zvi.
In the year of mourning after R. Zvi Hirsch’s death, the son published the Hanukka sermons of his father under the title Darkei Emuna (Munkacs, 1914).
From 20 years of Hanukka sermons, the son chose 102 paths of faith. Appropriately, the word emuna also has the numerical value of 102.
The tradition continued with the next generation: the son – Rabbi Haim Elazar of Munkacs (1871-1937) – wrote a fascinating responsum in which he described how in a prayer recited at the beginning of the month of Nisan, he would not say the standard text – “If I am from the tribe of ...” – the conditional language of the prayer was superfluous for R. Haim Elazar since he knew exactly from which tribe he descended – the tribe of Issachar. He therefore boldly changed the text of the prayer for himself. Understandably, he did not mandate this change for others.
Moreover, R. Haim Elazar authored a work that was styled after his great-greatgrandfather’s aforementioned book, Bnei Yissachar, and called it Sha’ar Yissachar (Mukacevo 1938-1940), the gate of Issachar. The work was published posthumously by his son-in-law and successor, before the destruction of the Jewish community of Munkatch.
But it was not just Hanukka that captured the attention of hassidic masters.
The soul of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz of Ropczyce (1760-1827) was said to be connected to the commandment to build a succa. Hassidic tradition has it that barely a day would pass without R.

Naftali commenting on something connected to the succa, making plans for the construction of his succa, or merely learning the Mishna or talmudic tractate that deals with its building.
R. Haim Elazar acknowledged that each person’s soul was connected to a different mitzva. This, he explained, was the reason that some hassidic masters made every effort to procure new fruits in order to recite the sheheheyanu blessing; while others made no such effort: It all depended on their soul-root.
His own great-great-grandfather, R. Zvi Elimelech, would explain his own preference: “I say sheheheyanu over the grand mitzvot of blowing the shofar and taking the lulav and on the occasion of other such beloved, precious opportunities; should I recite this blessing on any old fruit?” Indeed, there are different paths; each according to the root of the soul.
The challenge, of course, is discovering from whence your soul came.

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.