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The Rebbe’s Sefer Torah

By Rabbi Sholom Ber Avtzon  •

Author’s Note: For generations, this unique Sefer Torah was referred to as “The Sefer Torah of Mesirus Nefesh,” an obvious reference to the continuous mesirus nefesh shown for over twenty-one years by the Schapiro brothers of the famed Slavita Press. There are, however, varying accounts as to how the Sefer Torah came to be and how the brothers received it. The two main versions of its history are recounted in the text below.

The Jews of Russia were in distress.

They knew that the brutal campaign against the Schapiro brothers, the tzaddikim of Slavita, was essentially an attack on all religious Jews. In effect, the Czar and his advisors were trying to extinguish the light of Torah and yiddishkeit, chas v’sholom. Everyone knew that the Schapiro brothers had nothing to do with the tragic death of their former employee, Lazer. It was also well known that everything they had printed had been approved by the government censor and was in accordance with the law. So what was their crime? Their only “sin” was that they had been instrumental in publishing materials which publicized the authentic philosophy and way of life of religious Jews, and in particular of chassidim

Furthermore, even if they had printed something illegal, why did the government intend to punish not only them but the entire Jewish community of Russia? Evidently their punishment was being used as an example to all religious Jews, warning them what could be expected if they did not change their ways and act in accordance with the Czar’s desires.1 

The effects of the Schapiro episode on the rest of Russian Jewry was twofold. Firstly, by closing down all but one of the Jewish printing houses, the Czar and his ministers were preventing access to Jewish books from the nation known as “the People of the Book.” Additionally, in the final decision against the Schapiro brothers it was clear that ultimately, their only “crime” was that they had publicized the laws and practices of the Torah. This was clearly demonstrated by the government’s own written admission that “… while there is no proof that they had any connection whatsoever with the death of their former employee, they are nevertheless guilty of a most grievous offense for spreading ideas that are considered dangerous.” The unfair bias against them was even more striking when compared to the government’s reaction to other printing houses. Although other printing houses were closed down for printing articles considered offensive to the government, their owners were not flogged as were the tzaddikim of Slavita. The Schapiro brothers, by contrast, were brutally beaten within an inch of their lives and were sentenced to live in exile in Siberia for the rest of their days. Every Jewish community in Russia was aroused with sympathy and inspired with a great desire to help in any way it could. The community of Slavita, as well as Jews throughout the greater region, desired to lift the brothers’ spirits as much as possible. The opportunity to do so arose when the Czar commuted their sentence from exile in Siberia to incarceration in a Moscow institution, and their confinement there became somewhat more lenient. Although many of the conditions were still difficult, the prison officials allowed them to have a becher for Kiddush and a besomim box for Havdalah

At that point, someone speculated —or perhaps a hint was heard to the effect—that the brothers yearned to have a Sefer Torah with them during their incarceration. But how could a Sefer Torah be brought into the prison when the brothers were still being mistreated? The government had denied the request of the families of the Schapiro brothers to exile them to some distant Jewish community instead of to Siberia (while at the same time, they had pardoned, and even reinstated, the officials that had been charged and punished earlier for “covering up” for the Schapiros2). Why, then, would the officials allow them this glorious pleasure? 

After much thought, the members of the Jewish community came up with the following plan. Since the brothers were allowed to receive letters from family and friends, they decided to write a small Sefer Torah and smuggle it into the prison under the guise of it being a lengthy letter.3 Each piece of parchment would be a mere 20 centimeters (just under 8 inches) from top to bottom, compared to most other Sifrei Torah, the parchments of which are 49 centimeters (19 inches) or more. In this way, the sheet of parchment could easily pass as a lengthy letter, even with its format of 7 or 8 columns of 42 lines each on each sheet of parchment.4 

Obviously, they couldn’t smuggle a complete Sefer Torah into the prison in one visit, for that would be too noticeable. Instead, they decided to send each sheet of parchment individually as the sofer (scribe) completed it. The fact that the individual sections were not sewn together to form a complete Sefer Torah had an additional benefit as well: the pieces of parchment did not contain a level of holiness equal to that of a Sefer Torah and were therefore permitted to remain in a room that was not completely clean.5 

When word about this project became known, many tzaddikim eagerly participated. The descendants of the tzaddik Reb Shmuel Shmelka of Nikolsburg arranged for special ink6 to be prepared for the Sefer Torah. An outstanding scribe — both in piety as well as in his ability to write a beautiful script,7 which would also be required to be exceptionally small — was commissioned to write it. 

Over the course of many months, the scribe labored over the Sefer Torah, and the sheets were smuggled in one by one. But although the sheets included the entire Torah, they remained as separate pieces of parchment for the duration of their imprisonment. 

The brothers of Slavita learned from these sheets and expounded on them, delving into both the simple meaning of its verses and laws as well as into their deeper aspects. Only after they were released from their incarceration many years later did they combine the sheets of parchment as prescribed by halachah and transform them into a complete Sefer Torah

At that time, the only items still missing were the atzei chaim (two sticks, normally formed out of wood) to which a Torah is bound. A few days after the brothers finally came home, they were presented with special atzei chaim that carried an amazing story of their own. 

Years earlier, the tzaddik Reb Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov had written a Sefer Torah. The tzaddik Reb Yisrael, the Maggid of Koznitz, participated in the momentous celebration of the completion of this Sefer Torah by presenting Reb Yechiel Michel with two wooden atzei chaim. Reb Yechiel Michel’s chassidim, however, wanted to beautify their Rebbe’s Sefer Torah, and they ordered silver atzei chaim from a silversmith. 

When Reb Yechiel Michel received the two sets, he had to decide which of them to use. After much thought, he chose the silver ones, explaining that his decision was based on the halachah derived from the possuk Zeh Keli V’anveihu — this is my G-d and I will glorify Him,”8 in accordance to which we are instructed to use a more beautiful object for a mitzvah if one has the opportunity to do so.9 

Placing his hands over the wooden atzei chaim, Reb Yechiel Michel was quiet for a moment and then said, “However, the efforts of the Maggid of Koznitz will not be in vain. There will be a day when tremendous tzaddikim will use his atzei chaim for a special Sefer Torah.” This prophecy was indeed fulfilled: years later10 they were given to the brothers, the tzaddikim of Slavita, for their unique Sefer Torah

According to others, there was no need to smuggle the Sefer Torah into the prison at all. As noted,11 a year after they arrived in Moscow the officials began treating them with a certain measure of respect and, among other things, allowed them to meet with other Jews and use a becher for Kiddush and a silver besomim box for Havdalah. Some say that the officials even mentioned that they would not prevent them from having some seforim in their cell and would even allow them to have a Sefer Torah. According to them, this was when people began discussing the possibility of writing a Sefer Torah for them, and this idea was indeed brought to fruition. However, when the brothers were informed that the Sefer Torah would soon be completed and brought to them, they said, “A prison cell is not an appropriate place for a Sefer Torah as it [i.e., the cell] is [halachically] unclean. For the time being, give us all of the sheets of parchment individually.”12 

In either case, the Sefer Torah symbolized their exceptional and unparalleled mesirus nefesh, and it was revered by all Jews. For the next few generations, it was referred to as the Sefer Torah of Mesirus Nefesh

Since Reb Shmuel Abba was the older of the two brothers, it was ultimately given to him. After his petira, it remained with his oldest son Reb Pinchos, and so it continued to be passed down from generation to generation. 

In 5677 (1917), shortly after the Russian Revolution, the Communists solidified their control over the country and began closing down hundreds of shuls throughout Russia. In addition to this, they confiscated everything of value even from private homes, including this Sefer Torah.13 Reb Schapiro, the great-grandson of Reb Shmuel Abba, was horrified. “How can I allow the accursed Communists to have this Sefer Torah in their possession? Who knows what they will do with it? I must save it at all costs!!” 

After much thought, he came up with a solution. During the course of his business dealings over the years, he had developed a very good business relationship with a certain influential Polish official, and he decided to ask him for help. After some persuasion (and perhaps a nice gift from Reb Schapiro), the Polish official demanded from the Russian authorities with whom he was dealing that they repatriate the Sefer Torah to Poland. This was only proper, as a provision in the signed agreement between Poland and Russia stated that all Polish citizens who had found refuge in Russia during World War I and their possessions were free to return to Poland.14 The Russian authorities agreed, and they gave the precious Sefer Torah to the Polish official who in turn returned it secretly to its rightful owner, his friend Reb Schapiro. Shortly before he passed away, Reb Schapiro passed it on to his son Reb Shmuel Abba,15 with the instruction that he continue to safeguard it. 

When this Reb Shmuel Abba was preparing to leave Russia,16 he was faced with a dilemma. Knowing the awesome history of the Sefer Torah and how his family — and especially his father, of blessed memory — had watched over it constantly with “seven eyes,”17 he could not think of leaving Russia without it. However, he was fearful that the officials would not allow him to take it out of the country with him. 

After tremendous effort, he was finally able to reach an agreement with certain Russian officials: he would relinquish some of his property to them if they allowed him to take the Sefer Torah out of the country. And so, shortly after leaving Russia, Reb Shmuel Abba, the son of Reb Schapiro and a fifth-generation descendant of Reb Shmuel Abba of Slavita, arrived in Eretz Yisroel with the Sefer Torah safe and sound. 

(I heard from certain individuals that even after he made this arrangement with the Russian officials, he was worried that something might not work out as arranged. Therefore, as an extra precaution, he wrapped the Sefer Torah around himself, under his outer garments, and successfully smuggled the Sefer Torah out of Russia.) ■

In the coming edition we will iy”h explore how this special Sefer Torah made its way to the Rebbe and became “The Rebbe’s Sefer Torah.”


1. At that time, the Czar had authorized the implementation of his plan to open a new kind of Jewish school which would be controlled by his ministers. The students would be taught by maskilim (anti-religious Jews), using a curriculum written by the maskilim that omitted many parts of the Torah. See A Biography: The Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek, pp. 223–35. 

2. See the Introduction to this book.

3. Author’s Note: According to another version of the story — told to me by an individual during one of my numerous discussions with various people on the subject — the person who smuggled the parchment to the cell would wrap each individual sheet of parchment around his garment and then cover it with his tzitzis and vest to prevent it from being detected.

In my opinion, however, this is a most unlikely scenario. If it was necessary for the authorities to be kept in the dark regarding the existence of the scroll, where did they hide all these sheets once they were in their room? I therefore followed the above-mentioned version that they were passed off as individual letters which they were allowed to receive and then keep.

It also seems that this individual confused this story with the manner in which the Sefer Torah was ultimately smuggled out of Russia by a descendant of Reb Shmuel Abba, as related at the end of this chapter.

4. To give you an idea of what this means in actuality, based on the standard writing of a Sefer Torah: In a regular Sefer Torah, which is often comprised of three columns per sheet, the first sheet begins with the word Bereshis and continues until (תשוקתך 3:16). If it consists of four columns, it continues until (4:18  משותאל). Since many sheets of this Sefer Torah had seven columns, the first sheet would have continued until (6:18 הארץ). However, for some reason the first sheet has only five columns.

5. Unlike an intact Sefer Torah, which could not be kept under these conditions. (See the Chapter entitled In Prison as to how the unclean prison conditions once prevented them from being allowed to daven.)

6. Author’s Note: I believe that the uniqueness lay in its endurance. In fact, it is still clear now, over one hundred and seventy years after it was written.

7. It was written in the script of the AriZal

8. Shemos 15:2. 9. Shabbos 133b. 10. Reb Yechiel Michel was nistalek in 5546 (1786). The Slavita brothers were imprisoned fifty years later, in 5596 (1836), and were finally freed after another twenty-one years, in 5617 (1857). In other words, these atzei chayim were waiting for a “home” for over seventy years. 

Because of this substantial gap in years, some claim that the story of the Sefer Torah is somewhat different than noted above. They believe that it was written by the brothers’ father, Reb Moshe Schapiro, many years before their imprisonment. Reb Moshe was born in 5522 (1762) in the city of Koritz and opened the Slavita press twenty-nine years later, in 5551 (1791). If he had, in fact, written this Sefer Torah when he first settled in Slavita, it would be merely five years since the passing of Reb Yechiel Michel when he received the atzei chaim. Then, after he himself was niftar (passed away) in 5598 (1838) or 5600 (1840), it was decided that the Sefer Torah should be given to his sons who were then in prison. However, they requested that the sheets of parchment be separated into single sheets, as the prison was not a suitable place for an intact Sefer Torah

As further proof to this opinion, they point to the oral tradition that it was the sons of Reb Shmuel Shmelke of Nikolsburg who provided the special ink for this Sefer Torah, and they, too, passed away many years before the brothers’ arrest and imprisonment. 

Author’s Note: If all this is correct, one should not wonder why these tzaddikim went to such lengths to enhance Reb Moshe’s Sefer Torah, and why he was given the special atzei chaim of the Koznitzer Maggid. 

As noted, Reb Moshe did not become a Rebbe because his father, the tzaddik Reb Pinchos Koritzer, instructed him to become a printer of seforim instead. All of the tzaddikim of the time recognized the absolute necessity of this undertaking. They understood and acknowledged Reb Moshe’s mesirus nefesh to become a businessman instead of devoting his entire life to learning and taking care of his community (as did his three brothers). So as an expression of their sincere appreciation and respect for his service to the Jewish community at large, they arranged to have the ink prepared, hired the sofer to write the Sefer Torah and gave him these atzei chaim

This version (that their father wrote it and was assisted by other tzaddikim) would be even more conceivable if we say that Reb Moshe began writing the Sefer Torah in memory of his father, who was nistalek on the 10th of Elul, 5551 (1791). The tzaddikim would have done everything in their ability to honor the great tzaddik, Reb Pinchos Koritzer. 

(To describe the greatness of Reb Pinchos would require a book of a much greater size than this one. Suffice it to say that during the first year after the histalkus of the Baal Shem Tov, many felt that he was worthy of becoming his successor. Although the vast majority of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples ultimately accepted the Maggid of Mezeritch as their Rebbe, they all had tremendous respect for Reb Pinchos and, on occasion, many of them came to learn from him and receive his guidance.) 

However, from almost every article I read on this episode it seems that the Sefer Torah was written specifically for the brothers during their imprisonment. In that case, we would have to say that it wasn’t Reb Shmuel Schmelke’s sons but rather his descendants who prepared the special ink for the Sefer Torah. And we would indeed be forced to say that the descendants of Reb Yechiel Michel held on to those atzei chaim for all those many years.

11. In the Chapter entitled The Road To Siberia Stopped In Moscow.

12. If we follow the opinion (cited in the previous footnote) that the Sefer Torah had originally been written by their father, then their request was to separate the sheets and only then bring them in one by one.

13. This, and the following few paragraphs, is based on the account written in Anshei Segula by Rabbi Issur Fraenkel (who was the Rov of Tel Aviv during the 1950’s). It was translated into English under the title Men of Distinction. The author wrote about this Sefer Torah based on what he heard from Reb Shmuel Abba (a great-great-great – grandson of the Reb Shmuel Abba, the tzaddik of Slavita). 

14. After World War II, this agreement was instrumental in helping many Russian Jews escape from Russia. During the war, many Polish Jews fled to Russia to escape the wrath of the Germans. In the event that a Polish person passed away in Russia, his passport was extremely valuable. A person from Russia would assume that person’s identity, and he would even be able to take his Russian spouse and children out of Russia with it. 

Even if the Polish citizen were still alive, as long as he spoke a fluent Polish, he was allowed to return to his native land without a passport. Everyone understood that because of the tribulations of wartime, his passport could easily have been lost or stolen. As such, many Polish Jews who were in Russia readily gave up their passports to save other Jews (especially if that family had provided them with food and shelter while they were in Russia). 

On a personal note, this is the way my parents were able to leave Russia. My father, Reb Meir a”h Avtzon, used the passport of a person by the name of Chaim Gasthalter. My mother, Rebbetzin Cheyena a”h, used the passport of a Bina Lasky, and even after my parents became American citizens and changed the family name back to Avtzon, she was known in America as Rebbetzin Bina. 

Many years passed. A friend of the family was once davening in the Chabad House of Five Towns when he heard someone calling a Reb Yankel Gasthalter. Going over to him, he asked, “Are you perhaps related to the Gasthalter-Avtzons from Detroit-New York?” After some conversation, Mr. Gasthalter realized that my father was the one who had used his father’s lost passport! Calling his father, who was in Eretz Yisroel, he excitedly informed him of what had occurred with his “lost” Polish passport. 

Hearing how his passport had saved an entire family — and, kein ayin hora, a large one at that — Reb Chaim Gasthalter asked his son to visit my father and inform him of how happy he was to have merited that his passport was involved in saving my parents and their family by enabling them to leave Russia. 

My father then presented Reb Yaakov Gasthalter with a picture of his family, which he then passed along to his father. He later mentioned to us that his father placed that picture among his own family pictures and always pointed out proudly to his friends that we were an extension of his family. Yehi zichro boruch (may his memory be blessed).

15. As mentioned above, he was the great-great-great-grandson of Reb Shmuel Abba, the tzaddik of Slavita.

16. In 5707 (1947), he was already settled in Eretz Yisroel. This leads me to conclude that he left Russia shortly after World War II (during the few years over the course of which thousands of people left Russia as Polish citizens) or perhaps even earlier.

17. A Hebrew expression similar to “like a hawk.” 

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