Kalonymus Kalman Epstein
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The youngest yet most celebrated of the students of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein was the son of Aaron Halevi Epstein, and an alleged descendant from both the Prophet Samuel and King David. Young "Kalmish" (as he was known) began his formative years in abject poverty in Neustadt, Poland. Hoping to realize a better life for his wife and ten children, Aaron Epstein moved to the metropolis of Krakow while Kalmish was still but 4 or 5 years of age. The story is told that after selling bagels baked in the home of his parents to assist in his family’s support, Kalmish would sneak into the Bet Midrash and listen into the Torah sermons given by some of the most illustrious scholars in Krakow, including the famed Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi, Chief Rabbi of Krakow. One day following one of the sermons, Rav Mordechai Gutgold, who was one of the wealthiest Jews in Krakow asked young Kalmish in jest to repeat the profound Torah sermon that he had just heard. After young Kalmish repeated the sermon, indeed, word for word, he was immediately recognized as an extraordinary ‘ilui’ and young prodigy. To the utter delight of little Kalmish’s parents, Rav Gutgold undertook to completely support young Kalmish and provide him with the best Yeshiva education provided that Rabbi Aaron would agree to the marriage between Kalmish and Rav Gutgold’s daughter as soon as Kalmish would reach Bar Mitzvah. At the age of 13, Kalmish married the daughter of Rav Gutgold, Milka Raidel.
Shortly thereafter, having once been present and deeply moved when the famed Hassidic leader Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk visited Krakow, Kalmish became determined to study Torah and Chassidut under the direct tutelage of Rabbi Elimelech. His desire to travel to Lizhensk was met with great opposition by his esteemed father-in-law. Despite this opposition and with the encouragement and support of his young wife, Kalmish journeyed to Lizhensk in the hope of having the privilege to study under Rabbi Elimelech. Following his arrival in Lizhensk, Rabbi Elimelech immediately sent young Kalmish for a brief interval to study under the guidance of the famed Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov. After less than 2 weeks at the home of the ‘Maggid of Zlotchov’ Kalmish returned to Lizhensk with a message from the Maggid to Rabbi Elimelech that “you will not find others like Kalmish.”
Kalmish then went on to become the closest of all of Rabbi Elimelech’s students, as well as Rabbi Elimelech’s personal ‘shamash’ or assistant. Legend has it that as a mere teenager, Kalmish merited to have a vision of the Patriarch, Abraham, together with his Rebbe Elimelech, as well as a nocturnal vision of the Neshama of the holy Baal Shem Tov. Recognizing Kalmish’s extraordinary aptitude, uncanny abilities and extreme piety, Rebbe Elimelech sent Rabbi Kalmish to assume the mantle of Chassidic leadership of the great city of Krakow.
Upon his initial arrival in Krakow, Rabbi Kalmish was met with great opposition by the ‘Misnagdim,’ i.e. opponents of the Chassidic movement, and suffered greatly from them. However, over time even Rabbi Kalmish’s fiercest enemies and detractors recognized his prodigious greatness. Rumors began to spread throughout western Galicia about the great and holy Rabbi Kalmish of Krakow who came to be known as an extraordinarily great and G-dly Mekubal (Kabbalist), holy leader and miracle worker. Jews from far and wide came to him in herds like sheep in a flock, to hear the profound words of Torah from his mouth, for his guidance and for his blessings. Over the years Rabbi Kalmish succeeded in propagating Chassidut throughout Western Galicia. Even Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi became a friend and admirer of his. Indeed, during one visit to Lizhensk prior to the death of his beloved Rebbe Elimelech, the ‘Rebbe’ removed his ‘Atara’ in the presence of all of his students and placed it on Rebbe Kalmish’s shoulder and requested that Rabbi Kalmish assume the mantel of leadership of the city of Lizhensk. Although aware of his own greatness, as with the truly great throughout history, Rebbe Kalmish in his modesty did not feel worthy of taking over for Rebbe Elimelech and gracefully declined.
Counted among the contemporaries of Rabbi Kalmish and fellow leading students of Rebbe Elimelech were the Chozeh of Lublin, the Maggid of Kozhnitz, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Rimanov and the Apta Rebbe. Although the foregoing were his contemporaries (Rebbe Kalmish being the youngest of all), in his anivus (humility) Rebbe Kalmish referred to all of them as “Rebbe.” In fact he called all of the Tzaddikim of his generation, be they older or younger than he, by the appellation “Rebbe.” This was in keeping with the Torah he taught and how he stressed the importance of being close to a Rebbe as a way to elevate oneself in character and divine service. Rebbe Kalmish lived what he preached and no matter how great he himself was and how all congregated from far and wide to learn from him, he was frequently a guest at the homes of other great Tzaddikim (saints)of his day, including, without limitation, the famed Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Rabbi Zushe of Annipoli (brother of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk), Rebbe Mendel of Rimanov (his contemporary) and his closest friends, the Chozeh of Lublin and the Apta Rebbe.
Toward the end of his life, Rebbe Kalmish instructed his younger son Rebbe Aharon, to gather together all of his writings and sermons which later was published as the Sefer ‘Maor Vashemesh’ - the title by which he became known throughout the succeeding generations. The profound and kabbalistic insights of the Maor Vashemesh are studied regularly by Chassidic and non-Chassidic Jews to this very day throughout the world. Many great Chassidic leaders have referred to the Maor Vashemesh as the “Shulchan Aruch” of Chassidut. The holy sainted Rebbe Kalmish died on the second day of Rosh Chodesh Tamuz in the year 1825 at the age of 72. He left behind his wife, 2 sons and 2 daughters. It has been told that upon recognizing the exceptional abilities of each of his sons, he blessed his younger son Rabbi Aharon and bestowed upon him the power of leadership and guidance and blessed his older son, Rabbi Yosef Baruch and bestowed upon him the unique power and insight of dealing with and remedying unique problems and difficulties. Rabbi Aharon became the Rebbe of the Krakow community upon the passing of his father and became known as “Reb Oron” after the Oron Hakodesh (Holy Ark). Rabbi Yosef Baruch became known as the “Guhter Yid,” i.e., the “Good Jew”, or miracle worker of Neustadt.
Though stories abound about things he said and did and miracles he performed, perhaps the following two vignettes are most telling and best represent the character of the Holy Tzaddik, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi of Krakow:
First, it was said in the presence of the Holy Rebbe of Sanz (known as the “Divrei Chaim”) by students that had the privilege to study both under the Maor Vashemesh and the Chozeh of Lublin, that “what we saw in Lublin we saw by Rabbeinu Hakadosh (the Maor Vashemesh), but what we saw by Rabbeinu Hakadosh we did not see in Lublin.”
Second, the holy Divrei Chaim himself said that he knew of three Tzaddikim that did not ‘taste the taste of sin’ (i.e. were as absolutely pristine and holy) as Adam himself prior to the sin, one of whom was the holy Maor Vashemesh.
From the Encyclopedia Judaica articles:
- Kalonymus Kalman Epstein
- Maor Vashemesh