Chovas HaTalmidim and Sheloshah Ma'amarim
(The Student's Obligation & Three Discourses)
By Hagaon Rav Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira
Feldheim Publishers, 2011, 644 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 18, 2011
This book is part of Feldheim Publishers' Torah Classics Library of important Jewish books with an English translation. This volume contains "The Students' Obligation" and "Three Discourses" by the Chassidic Rebbe of Piaseczna, Rav Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, and s biographical sketch about him. All but the biographical sketch are in the original Hebrew composed by the Rebbe with an English translation. The sketch is in English. "The Students' Obligation" contains an introductory "Discussion with Teachers and Parents," followed by thirteen chapters addressed to students encouraging them to study Torah and Chassidus (the unique teachings of Chassidim), and a final section on "Directives and Warnings." The "Three Discourses" are on "How to Contemplate Chassidic Teachings," "Torah, Prayer, and Singing to Hashem," and "Concerning the Holy Shabbat."
Rav Shapira was the son of a Chassidic Rebbe – Rebbe is what Chassidim call their spiritual leader. He was born in 1889 in Poland and claimed descent from King David. His disciples say that his father recognized his holiness when he was an infant and hired an assistant "to wash his hands every time he awoke and to make sure that his head was always covered with a kippah." His father said: "It is not fitting for a future leader of the Jewish people to have his head exposed." His disciples report that he never acted with the levities of a child, but as if he was born an adult, with his mind on heavenly matters. His father engaged him to a girl when he was thirteen, and he married at age sixteen. He began serving as Rebbe when was twenty, in 1909. He continued as Rebbe for thirty-five years with many followers until he was murdered by the Nazis in 1944, at age fifty-five. He established a yeshiva, a school of Jewish learning, and considered the yeshiva his most important contributions to the Chassidic world.
His disciples say that he formed a supernatural bond with youth and would bring youngsters who strayed from the Torah and Chassidism back to the proper path. His life goal was guiding and educating Jews about the Torah and its commands. He acted as a father to his students. He sacrificed everything he had for young people, and therefore his home was plagued by debt. He reflected his love for his students in his writings. On Shabbat he would surround himself with crowds of children, and teach them to pray out loud. He said: "A Rebbe who is not willing to enter Gehinnom (Hell) in order to prevent one of his Chassidim from sinking into the depths cannot consider himself a Rebbe."
The Rebbe's Chovas HaTalmidim reveals his heartfelt cry to his students and how he praised and encouraged them: "You, the Jewish youth, are fortunate; fortunate is your share, for you have been given the privilege of learning Torah, which is the light of Hashem (God), and have reached the elevated level of being one of His loved ones in whom He delights, The Heavenly angels both envy and respect you; the seraphim (the angels of fire) are amazed by you and honor you."
In his introduction called "Discussion with Teachers and Parents," he emphasizes that education requires parents and teachers to "nurture the inherent character and talents that lay dormant within the child or only partially realized, and to develop them." We have the duty, he wrote, to make the child realize that the spirit of God lies within his soul, and "it is our responsibility to raise and teach him to discover it, to extract it and cause it to flourish. Only then will he become a devoted servant of Hashem."
He notes, among many other things, that there is a spirit of assertiveness in today's youth. They tend to see counselors, educators, and parents as interfering tyrants. The children of today mature earlier than in former years. He addresses these two possible problems. He felt that once children are taught properly, "they do not go off the Torah path impulsively." He suggests repeating the Torah message frequently, impress youths that "they alone are responsible for their" spirituality, make them realize that a person "cannot rely on his intellect alone to determine his service of Hashem," be sure to start lectures "with an amusing comment" causing those present to laugh, include stories in lectures, encourage the student with statements such as "you are so intelligent," and speak about the greatness of the soul. Parents and teachers, he said, must tell the students that they have to accept rules simply because they are told that it is right, holiness comes by repeatedly immersing oneself in the service of Hashem, and the teachings of Chassidus makes education easier.
In his "Call to the Student," that follows this section, he does what he suggested others to do. He tells the student that he will help them achieve their potential and aid them in being happy. He warns them that what he is teaching is from God, and God is watching. He tells them how to handle their feelings that some of their friends are better than them. He speaks about their "tremendous responsibility, far greater than you realize." He encourages them to understand that they can trust God to help them.
These are some of the many lessons that this Rebbe who the Nazis murdered was teaching. He is dead, but his teachings, in this and other of his books, live on.