Born: circa 1730, Rovno
Died: 4 Adar, 5541 (1791) Yaltushkov, Podolia
Rabbi Aryeh Leib’s father’s name was Yoseph, but he was known as “Leib Sarah’s”, as in son of his mother. This unusual form of identification is hinted in the form of a prayer in the mystical Book of Razie HaMalach, which mentions a “Leib ben Sarah.”
Rabbi Leib Sarah’s was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezeritch, a tzadik nistar (hidden tzadik).
When Rabbi Leib Sarah’s was 13 years old, the Baal Shem Tov revealed that he received an ibbur (an additional soul) – that of Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar (Ohr HaChaim), who had passed away two days before, as a Bar Mitzvah gift.
Rabbi Leib Sarah’s became famous as a wonder-worker early in his life. From time to time, the Baal Shem Tov would send him on missions to Jewish communities or individuals in need of help. He was also in charge of collecting funds for the nistarim (hidden tzaddikim).
After the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Leib became attached to the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple and successor, Reb Dov Ber – the Maggid of Mezeritch. But Rabbi Leib spent much of his life wandering through Poland, Galicia and neighboring districts – wherever Jews happened to be in trouble. He would often say, “I did not go to the Maggid of Mezhirech to learn Torah from him but to watch him tie his boot laces.” – emphasizing that a tzadik’s personality and conduct are of prime importance for Chasidim.a
Rabbi Leib had the personality and popular status typical of the itinerant tzaddikim who preceded the Baal Shem Tov HaKadosh, the founder of Chasidism. He wandered from place to place helping the needy, especially by securing the release of imprisoned debtors. He once came, while invisible, to the court of Emperor joseph ii in Vienna, to obtain the abrogation of measures included in the toleranzpatent (1781).
Many wondrous stories about Reb Leib Sarah’s are related until this day.
Although we mentioned one reason why he is referred to by his mothers name, the main reason given to this unusual way of referring to him is based on the following story:
In a village not far from Rovno in Ukraine, there lived a G‑d-fearing Jewish innkeeper. The inkeeper had a daughter, Sarah, who was a strikingly beautiful girl. Sarah did not let her beauty turn her head, and she remained a modest, G‑d-fearing young girl, obedient to her parents.
One day, the young son of the Poritz (ruler/nobleman), the country squire, chanced to stop at the inn. The moment his eyes fell on Sarah, he was attracted to the beautiful young woman. He called on her to serve him one drink after another, and the more he drank, the more his desire for her grew. When he was pretty well drunk, he asked her, “Will you marry me?”
Sarah ignored his proposal. But he kept telling her that he was serious. She finally told him, politely but firmly, that she was Jewish and she was forbidden to marry him – she would never compromise her religious beliefs. For his part, the young squire said that he would return, and insisted that he would marry her.
When the young squire returned home and told his father that he intended to marry the Jewish innkeeper’s daughter, the old nobleman could not believe his ears. The father tried to dissuade his son, but the young man remained adamant. The elderly nobleman, who had pampered his spoiled son all his life and catered to his every whim, once again gave in. But there was one condition – the girl had to convert to Christianity.
Happily, the young squire raced back to the inn to tell Sarah the “good news” – that his father had consented to the marriage. There was, of course, the small matter of conversion, but once done, she would live a life of luxury.
Sarah was horrified. She told the young squire that she would never marry him under any circumstances, and ran from away from him. She decided not to say anything to her father, in the hope that this was a passing whim.
The young squire, however, was used to getting what he wanted. And his father, although originally opposed to his son’s infatuation, was now deeply insulted that a poor Jewish girl was turning down the marriage proposal of his son – a wealthy and handsome nobleman!
The Poritz sat down at his desk and wrote a letter to the innkeeper. The letter expressed his outrage that the Jew had the audacity to refuse his son’s gracious marriage proposal to his daughter which would lift her up from her lowly station. He insisted that the inkeeper agree to the match. Should the innkeeper not agree, he would be imprisoned and his daughter would be taken forcibly. The inkeeper was given one day to concede to the Poritz’s demand.
The Poritz’s messengers rushed to deliver the letter. When the girl’s father read it, his face became ashen. What could he do to spare his family and himself? All the time the innkeeper talked with the messengers, an old man sat quietly in a corner, bent over a sefer. He was Reb Yosef, the melamed (tutor) of the innkeeper’s two sons. Reb Yosef was no ordinary melamed. He was, in fact, a tzadik nistar. He heard the loud conversation and the mention of Sarah, the innkeeper’s daughter. He listened intently as the inkeeper read the letter out loud and could hear his broken demeanor when he came to the proclamation of the Poritz.
“Rabbi Yosef,” Sarah’s father cried, “what shall we do?” Reb Yosef came up with a plan. “Sarah must get married immediately. There is no time to wait,” said Rabbi Yosef.
“But with whom will she go to the chupah? There is not one Jewish man of marriageable age in this village,” the innkeeper lamented.
“In that case, there is myself,” the teacher said. “I am not young man. I am a widower, and Sarah deserves someone more worthy. But I am prepared to be the groom. Of course, once the danger has passed, we will go to the rabbinical court in Rovno and arrange for a proper divorce.”
The innkeeper hesitated, but Sarah herself immediately accepted the plan.
“Rabbi Yosef is risking his very life for our sake,” she said. “But there is no other way. We have no time to lose.”
That very night, a quorum of Jews was hastily assembled, and a chupah set up for the strangest marriage in the memory of the village: the white-bearded melamed with the innkeeper’s beautiful young daughter.
The next day when the Poritz’s messengers returned to the inn, they were amazed to find that the beautiful, young Sarah had married the old rabbi. Disgusted, they hastily left and the danger passed.
Rabbi Yosef stood up. “My friends,” he said, “we must be truly grateful to the One Above for this wonderful salvation. We celebrated a wedding to save Sarah from a calamity. Now that the danger has passed, I am ready to arrange for a divorce, so that Sarah is free to marry the man of her choice.”
The innkeeper once again thanked Rabbi Yosef for his help and his selflessness. “Well, my daughter, we are going to the rabbinical court,” he said to Sarah.
“I am prepared to venture into town with my new husband, but not for a divorce,” Sarah replied. “G‑d has brought us together, and made us husband and wife. I am certain that this marriage was made in heaven. I could not have chosen a more devoted and loyal partner, who risked his life to save me from a fate worse than death.”
Reb Yosef told his new wife that in the merit of her mesiras nefesh, she would have a son who would be a great and holy tzadik.
The following year, Rabbi Yosef and Sarah were blessed with a son whom they named Aryeh Leib. Reb Leib’s father did not live long enough to truly enjoy his young treasure and it was Sarah who raised and educated the child.
In adulthood he became famous as a great tzaddik and wonderworker, and was known as Rabbi Leib Sarah’s, so called in honor of his pious mother, Sarah.
Rabbi Leib would often tell the story of his parents’ marriage, citing his mother as an example of a Jew’s ability to withstand the most difficult of tests and to make great sacrifices for his faith.
One erev Yom Kippur, Rabbi Leib was traveling to a village. Torrents of rain beat down on his face, but the tempest did not prevent the chassidic master from reaching the village only several hours before the beginning of Yom Kippur. When he arrived, he was relieved to learn that there would be a minyan (quorum of ten) with which to pray – eight local villagers would be joined by two men who lived in the nearby forest.
Rabbi Leib immersed himself in the purifying waters of a river which ran by the village in preparation for the holy day, ate the meal which precedes the fast, and hastened to be the first in the little wooden synagogue. There he settled down to recite the various private devotions with which he was accustomed to inaugurate the Day of Atonement. One by one, the eight local villagers arrived in time to hear the words of Kol Nidrei. Together with Rabbi Leib there were now nine. But there was no minyan, for it happened that the two Jewish foresters had been imprisoned on some malicious libel.
“Perhaps we could find just one more Jew living around these parts?” asked Rabbi Leib.
“No.” The villagers all assured him, &lddquo;there’s only us.”
“Perhaps,” he persisted, “there lives here some Jew who converted out of the faith of his fathers?”
The villagers were shocked to hear such an odd question from the stranger. They looked upon him quizzically.
“The doors of repentance are not locked – even in the face of an apostate,” Rabbi Leib said. “I have heard from my teachers that even when one poles about in the ashes, one can light upon a spark of fire.”
One of the villagers now spoke up.
“There is one apostate here,” he said. “He is our Poritz, the man who owns this whole village. But he has been sunk in sin for forty years now. You see, the gentile daughter of the previous squire fell in love with him. Her father promised him that if he converted and married the girl, he would make him his sole heir. The man couldn’t resist the temptation, so he did exactly that. They had no children, and his wife died many years ago. He now lives alone in his great big house. He is a cruel master, and deals especially harshly with the Jews on his land.”
“Show me his mansion,” said Rabbi Leib.
Rabbi Leib removed his tallis in a flash, and ran as quickly as he could to the mansion, with his white skullcap on his head and his white kittel billowing in the wind.
He knocked on the heavy door. Opening it without waiting for a response, he found himself face to face with the squire. For a few long, long moments they stood in silence, the tzadik and the apostate. The Poritz’s first thought was to summon one of his henchmen to seize the uninvited intruder and hurl him into the dungeon. But the luminous countenance and the penetrating eyes of the tzadik softened his heart.
“My name is Leib Sarah’s,” began the visitor. “It was my privilege to know Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, who was admired also by the gentile noblemen. From his mouth I once heard that every Jew should utter the sort of prayer that was first said by King David, “Save me, O Lord, from blood-guilt.” But the word used for “blood” (damim) can also be translated as “money.” So my teacher expounded the verse as, ‘Save me, so that I should never regard money as my Lord’.”
Now my mother, whose name was Sarah, was a holy woman. One day the son of one of the local gentry took it into his head to marry her, and promised her wealth and status if she would agree, but she sanctified the name of Israel. In order to save herself from that villain she quickly married an old Jewish pauper who was a schoolteacher.
You, on the other hand, did not have the good fortune to withstand the same test. You were willing to betray your faith for silver and gold. Realize, though, that there is nothing that can stand in the way of repentance. Moreover, there are those who in one hour earn their portion in the world to Come. Now is that hour! Today is the eve of Yom Kippur. The sun will soon set. The Jews who live in your village are short one man to make a minyan. Come along now with me, and be the tenth man. For the Torah tells us, “The tenth shall be holy unto G-d.”
“By the sanction of the Almighty, and by the sanction of the congregation, we declare it permissible to pray together with those who have sinned.” The squire paled at the words spoken by this white-clothed man. Meanwhile, down the road, the eight local villagers waited in shul, huddled together in frozen dread. Who could tell what calamity this odd stranger was about to bring down upon their heads?
The door burst open, and in rushed Rabbi Leib, followed closely by the Poritz. The Poritz’s gaze was downcast, and his eyelashes were heavy with tears. At a sign from Rabbi Leib, one of the villagers handed the apostate a tallis. He enveloped himself in it, covering his head and face entirely. Rabbi Leib now stepped forward to the Holy Ark, and took out two Torah scrolls. One he gave to the oldest villager present, and the other to the Poritz. Rabbi Leib stood between them at the bimah, and began to solemnly chant the traditional tune for the Kol Nidrei prayer, “By the sanction of the Almighty, and by the sanction of the congregation, …we declare it permissible to pray together with those who have sinned…”
A deep sigh broke forth from the depths of the broken man’s heart. No one there could stand unmoved, and they all wept with him. Throughout all the prayers of the evening, and from dawn of the next day right until nightfall, the Poritz stood in prayer, humbled and contrite. As his sobs shook his whole body while he recited the confession, the other nine men shuddered with him.
At the climax of the Neilah service, when the congregation was about to say together the words, “Shema Yisrael,” the Poritz leaned forward until his head was deep inside the Holy Ark, embraced the Torah Scrolls that stood there, and in a mighty voice that petrified those present cried out, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One!”
He then stood up straight, and began to declare with all his might, “The Lord is G-d!” With each repetition his voice grew louder. Finally, as he cried it out for the seventh time, his soul flew from his body.
That same night they brought the remains of the Poritz to be buried in the nearby town. Rabbi Leib himself took part in the purification and preparation of the body for burial, and for the rest of his life observed the yahrzeit of this penitent every Yom Kippur by saying kaddish for the elevation of his soul.