Friday, November 19, 2021


Avraham Ben Avraham

The family of Count Potocki was one of the richest and most powerful in Poland of more than 200 years ago. He and his wife were devout Catholics, and raised their only son Valentin in the same spirit, and their ambition was to educate him for the priesthood.

When Valentin reached the age of sixteen, the Count enrolled him in the Catholic academy in Wilno. Here he met another student, who came from a family of humble circumstances. His name was Zrodny. The two became great friends and buddies. In Wilno, too, Valentin came in contact with Jews for the first time. He was walking one day in the street, he saw a group of boys attacking a few younger children. He went to their defense and saved them from further blows. Afterwards he asked them what they had done to provoke the attack. They replied, "Nothing, they wanted to beat us up because we are Jews."

Valentin had heard much about the Jewish people from his teachers, most of it very unkindly things. But he also learned about them from the Bible. One of the basic things he was taught was that the Jewish people were forsaken by G-d, because they refused to accept the Christian Messiah and Christian faith. This explanation seemed rather strange to him, since the Bible itself declared very clearly what would happen to the Jews if they turned away from the way of the Torah with all its Divine commandments which G-d gave them at Mount Sinai. If they remained loyal to their faith and refused to accept another faith, a faith that did away with all the basic Divine commandments -- like Circumcision, the Dietary Laws, and so forth --that was being forced on them, it should make them all the more beloved to G-d, rather than be rejected by G-d, as the church claimed. Besides, he distinctly learned in the Bible that G-d assured the Jewish people that He would never break His Covenant with His people, and G-d is not a man to break His word. If the Bible were true, as he was certain it was, and as claimed also by his teachers, then all they taught him about the Jews could not be true.

These questions troubled Valentin's young and searching mind, and he confided his doubts to his friend Zrodny. They talked about these questions frequently, but they did not dare discuss them with their teachers.

Young Potocki decided to discuss these matters with a knowledgeable Jew and hear what Jews think about all this. One day he met a Jew in the park and told the Jew that he would like to discuss with him some religious questions.

"What is there to discuss?" the Jew answered.

The Jew suggested to him to see the Rabbi, "Rabbi Menachem Mann is a very learned man, and he knows about these things more than I do'.

The following evening, young Potocki made his way to the Rabbi's house. The Rabbi was obviously reluctant to discuss religious matters with him. However, seeing his persistence and sincerity, and thinking that it would do no good to disappoint, or perhaps even anger, the young Count, he finally agreed to listen to him, provided their meeting was kept in confidence. This, the young Count readily assured him on his word of honor.

The questions and answers took longer than the Rabbi had hoped for. The more the young man listened to the Rabbi's answers, the more excited he became. When the Rabbi suggested to end the discussion, young Potocki pleaded for another meeting. The Rabbi had no choice but to agree to see him again.

The second discussion inevitably led to a third, and a fourth. Potocki kept his word and told no one about his conversations with the Rabbi. Finally the decision, which he had contemplated for some time, ripened in Potocki's mind. More than-- anything in the world he wanted to become a Jew. He told the Rabbi about it and begged him to help him become a Jew.

The Rabbi tried hard to dissuade him from this idea. He told the young Count that according to the Torah, a gentile can find true spiritual fulfillment and eternal life by living up to the Seven Precepts which G-d gave to the children of Noah, for all mankind, and there was no need for him to take upon himself the tremendous responsibility of observing all the Torah with its 613 Mitzvos which G-d gave to the Jewish people. He told him further that if he felt a sense of guilt for all that the world has done and is doing to the Jews, he could do more for them by retaining his exalted title, wealth and influence, and living a decent and moral life, in keeping with, and promoting the Seven Noahide Laws for a better world for both Gentiles and Jews. Finally he told him also of the danger that he may well bring upon himself if he were to carry out his decision, as well as on those who helped him to do so. To all these arguments, which he knew were true, the young Count had one answer: “I feel it in my soul that it will not rest until I become a Jew, and live as a Jew, to my last breath.”

Seeing that it was useless to try to make the young count change his mind, the Rabbi finally agreed to help him realize his ambition. He told Valentin that the only place where he could become a Jew was the city of Amsterdam, in Holland, where Jews lived in greater freedom.

The very thought that his ambition to become a Jew was no longer a dream, but a distinct possibility, excited Valentin no end. He could think of nothing else; he lost interest in his studies at the Wilno seminary; he lost his appetite, and spent many sleepless nights. He quietly left Wilno and made his way to Amsterdam. There he went straight to the Rabbi and, in the privacy of his study, with no other person present, Valentin introduced himself.

The Rabbi questioned him closely at great length to test his sincerity and determination. When he was finally convinced that the young Polish nobleman was unshakable in his resolve, he agreed to prepare him for the conversion by informing him, first of all, of what this would entail in terms of strict observance of all the precepts of the Torah that regulate the everyday life of a Jew. Valentin assured the Rabbi that he would observe every law, regulation and custom with all his heart and with the greatest joy, for this was his greatest desire in the world. Then Valentin underwent circumcision, and when he was fully recovered he underwent Tevilah (immersion in a Mikveh). Everything was done under supervision of the Rabbi and two other qualified aides, in strict accord with the Halacha.

The dream which Valentin had nurtured for a long time had now become a reality. He was now like a newborn Jew, whose name was Avraham ben Avraham -- named after the father of the Jewish nation, and the father of all Gerei-Tzedek.

Avraham was filled with an inner happiness he had not known before. He immersed himself completely in the study of Torah and was most meticulous in the observance of the Mitzvos. Except for a few hours of sleep at night, he spent every minute in Torah study, feeling that he had to make up for all those wasted years of his youth. Otherwise, all thoughts of his past were completely erased, for he felt like a newborn child who had no past life, but only a future life ahead, a life dedicated to Torah and Mitzvos; and he was determined to make the most of it.

Every waking moment was absolutely precious to him. "My first birthday" -- he often reminded himself -- "was when I was twenty years old; I do not know how many birthdays G-d has in store for me; I cannot afford to lose a minute!"

After years of avid Torah study, he decided it was time to carry out the instruction of the Sages, "Go into exile to a place of Torah, and do not say that it will come after you" (Mishnah, Ovos 4:14). So he left Amsterdam and wandered from city to city, stopping in the local Yeshivah to listen quietly to a lecture in Talmud, occasionally to participate in a Talmudic discussion. Eventually, his wanderings brought him back to his native country, and he settled down in a small town, Ilya, not far from Wilno.

Was it thoughtless of him to return to his native country? Did it not occur to him that he might be recognized and be seized by the authorities? Most likely he was fully aware of such a possibility, yet not only had he no fear in his heart of the grave danger to his life, but apparently welcomed it. Like Rabbi Akiva who, upon reading the daily Shema, in which a Jew expresses his readiness to die for the Sanctification of G-d's Name, longed for the opportunity to carry it out in actual practice, so the Ger-Tzedek of Wilno was filled with an all--consuming love for G-d, reaching a point where his soul was straining to take flight from the body and return to its Heavenly Father. Be it as it may, he was ready for any eventuality, and this was not late in coming.

One day, as the Ger-Tzedek was engrossed in his solitary study in the Beth-Medrash, several children burst in playfully, and began to run around noisily. The Ger-Tzedek reminded them that they were in a holy place, and asked them to play outside. All the boys meekly and shamefacedly walked out of the Beth-Medrash, except the oldest of them, who was evidently their leader. He stayed on and defiantly continued to jump up and down on the benches, until the Ger-Tzedek grabbed hold of him and forcibly led him out, shutting the door, behind him.

The boy ran home crying, and told his father: "That strange man, who sits all day in the Beth Medrash in his Tallis and Tefillin, hit me and threw me out of the Beth--Midrash."

The boy's father was an unlearned individual, a tailor by trade, and acquired a drinking habit. He took little interest in his son's education and behavior, but when his boy came home crying and complaining against that man, the tailor swore that no one was going to hit his boy and get away with it! Being under the influence of drink made him even angrier, and he lost no time in carrying out his threat.

The tailor, whose work brought him into the homes of the local Polish gentry, had heard about the tragedy that had befallen the Count and Countess of Potocki in the disappearance of their only son Valentin. The story that was long the talk of the Polish nobility, eventually faded and was almost forgotten. When the Ger-Tzedek quietly came to town and settled down in the Beth Medrash, as a saintly recluse, the tailor, like some of the other Jews in town, was a little curious as to who he was and where he came from, but after a few days, since no one knew the answer, and he, the Ger, wasn't talking, the Jews got used to his presence and went about their business.
The tailor had for some time suspected that the mysterious Ger was none other than Valentin, the missing young count Potocki. All he had to do was to inform the authorities of his "discovery."

This the tailor did, whereupon the Ger-Tzedek was arrested immediately. The prisoner was brought to Wilno, where a court of high--ranking church officials began an inquiry.

The Ger-Tzedek readily admitted that he was, indeed, the missing son of Count Potocki; that he became a Jew out of sincere conviction that the Jewish religion was the true faith and way of life.
The church officials knew full well that it would be a disgrace for the church if it became known that the young Count Potocki had disappeared to become a Jew. They were most eager to cover up the matter. If the young count would express some regret and declare himself a christian again, they promised that he would avoid any kind of penalty. On the contrary, he would be returned to his family, and his rank, together with all the riches and honor that would be his as the heir to the Potocki title and fortune. On the other hand, if he refused to admit that he had made a mistake, he could not avoid the highest punishment for heresy and blasphemy, and that meant being burnt alive at the stake.

The Ger-Tzedek made it quite clear to his inquisitors that neither promises nor threats could make him give up his Jewish faith. He told them that he had given up precisely the kind of life they were now offering him, because to be a Jew and live like a Jew was more important to him than anything in the world. Moreover, he knew the risk he was taking, and he was prepared to die for the Sanctification of G-d's Name.

Then the churchmen, some of whom were his past teachers at the Catholic seminary, engaged him in debate. They held long religious discussions with him in an effort to weaken his Jewish faith. Again, they were unsuccessful; they were no match for him in Biblical or Talmudic knowledge, for he had spent all his years since his conversion in ardent Torah study, day and night, and his convictons were unshakable.

In all these discussions the Ger-Tzedek conducted himself with dignity and pride in his Jewish faith. He insisted on being called by his Jewish name. "My name is Avrohom ben Avrohom. I will answer to that name only," he declared.

There was nothing left to do but to put him to all sorts of torture in an effort to break his spirit. But the saintly Ger-Tzedek welcomed the pain and torture as a way of purifying his body and soul from the impurities that had clung to him during the years of his youth.

Finally, the old Count and Countess Potocki were informed by the authorities that their long lost son Valentin had turned up as a Jew. They were also told that their son obstinately clings to his Jewishness, and that every effort made so far, failed to bring him back to his senses. Therefore, the only way to save him from the penalty of death would be if they, the parents. would somehow convince their son to acknowledge his mistake.

The Potockis were, understandably, overwhelmed by the news of their son's return. Unfortunately, their joy of being able to see their only son again was mixed with the feeling of shame and pain that he had become a Jew!

They hurried to the place where they were to meet their son, and waited for him with anxiety and confused emotions. Presently he was led into the waiting room by two guards, who promptly left the room.

For a moment the old Count and Countess remained stunned. Could that old--looking, emaciated Jew, with the long beard and side curls, be their beloved son Valentin? But the eyes they were surely his, and there was a strange softness in them. Evidently, he felt sorry for the old couple who were his natural parents, as he saw the look of shock, despair and confusion in their faces.

The old Countess, who had dreamed of flinging her arms around dear Valentin's neck with motherly love and tears of joy, remained seated near her husband, as in a daze. It took a few minutes before the Potockis regained Their composure and were able to exchange polite greetings with their son. Then the Count and Countess took turns in pleading with him to have mercy on himself, on them, and come back to them. They promised to forgive him for everything, and let him conduct his life the way he wished, as long as he formally renounced his conversion. They were old, ready to transfer their title and all their wealth to him, and everything would be made easy, if only he will say the word...

The Ger-Tzedek explained to them as kindly as he could that the Valentin they knew ceased to exist since they saw him last. "The person that stands there before you is not Valentin, your son, but quite a different person, Avrohom ben Avrohom, a jew, living in a different world; there is no way in which this Avrohom ben Avrohom can become Valentin Potocki again. Valentin was deeply sorry that his disappearance caused you grief; but you need not feel sorry for him, for he does not exist. As for me, just think of me if you must -- as just another jew, who is deeply and blissfully happy to be a Jew..."

Sadly, the Count and Countess returned home. They could get over the feeling that they had lost their one and only son, but they would now have to learn to live with the knowledge that their son had become a Jew and -- as it seemed certain --would die as a Jew. Inwardly they could not help but admire his extraordinary courage.

Word reached the king and higher church authorities and condemned him to be burned alive. The day on which his public execution was to take place was the second day of Shovuos, in the year 5509 (1749).

A terrible fear gripped the Jews of Wilno as the Festival of Shovuos drew near. They feared that the public execution of the saintly Ger Tzedek would inflame the mob to an outburst of violence against the Jews, as it had often happened in similar situations throughout the Middle Ages. On the second day of Shovuos they all stayed indoors and prayed for G-d's mercy, hoping that the merit of the saintly Ger Tzedek would protect them.

In the center of the town, facing the Town Hall, preparations were made for the public burning of the Ger Tzedek Avrohom ben Avrohom formerly Valentin Potocki, only son of Count and Countess Potocki, who dared to give up his title and wealth in order to become a Jew. Most of the non-Jewish population in Wilno and peasants from surrounding villages gathered to witness the execution. Some of them were eager to have a hand in it and brought with them a piece of wood to add to the pile that had been heaped together around the stake.

On a specially erected platform were seated church dignitaries and government officials. Presently, the prisoner was led to the stake amid the sound of beating drums and the hissing and howling of the mob. He was tied to the stake, and before the torch was put to the pile of firewood, he was asked for the last time if he would renounce his Jewish faith.

The Ger Tzedek, his face glowing with saintliness, answered in a loud clear voice that kept the audience spellbound. He denounced the blindness and hatred of his tormentors who claimed to act in the name of a merciful religion. He, too, had been brought up in this fanaticism and intolerance, until he was fortunate enough to discover the truth and see the light, and now he was ready to die for the sanctification of G-d's Name. But, he warned, G-d will surely avenge his innocent blood, as He has avenged, and will avenge for every drop of Jewish blood spilled by the enemies of the Jewish people. Turning to the church dignitaries, he exclaimed, "What kind of religion do you preach that demands human sacrifices? What kind of truth do you possess that has to be defended by fire and sword? But you have power only over my mortal body, which was going to die anyway, sooner or later; you cannot harm my immortal soul, and it will continue to proclaim for ever, 'G-d. is One!'...

The infuriated churchmen did not want to hear any more. The sign was given to the henchman, and the next moment the flames began to engulf the Ger Tzedek. He said the bracha "Baruch Ata HaShem...Lamut Al Kiddush HaShem". A Jew, Eliezer Zinkes, disguised himself as a non-Jew and answered AMEN to this unique blessing. He then recited the Shema and kept on repeating G-d is One until his last breath.

A strict order was issued by the authorities forbidding the Jews to gather the ashes of the Ger Tzedek for burial. A guard was posted to keep watch. Eliezer Zinkes again disguised himself as a non-Jew and told the guard that he was sent by the old Countess, with a large sum of money, to collect the ashes secretly. The guard readily accepted the money and allowed the Jew to gather up the ashes and charred remains of two fingers, which were buried in the old Jewish cemetery of Wilno.

Long thereafter, the story of the Ger Tzedek of Wilno was told and retold in whispered voices. The elder Jews of Wilno, who lived at the time of the Ger Tzedek's martyred death, also knew to relate about some strange happenings in connection with that event. It so happened that everyone who had anything to do with the Ger Tzedek's death came to a sorry end. The peasants of a village near Wilno, who gleefully added wood to the pile, became the victims of a raging fire that burned down their homes and barns. A woman who made a jeering grimace at the Ger Tzedek, suffered a stroke that left her face distorted for the rest of her life. A building adjoining the Town Hall, facing the place of execution, was blackened by the smoke of the pile and no amount of washing could erase the black stains. It was then painted over, and the black stains reappeared. It was given another coat of paint, of a different color, and the black stains came back again -- a silent reminder of the horror that had been perpetrated there. This struck fear and shame in the hearts of the Wilno inhabitants, until the authorities finally had to pull down the building.

For many years the grave of the saintly Ger Tzedek remained unmarked. But it had become well known to the Jews of Wilno, and many came to pray at his grave. The grave of the saintly Ger Tzedek of Wilno became especially well known, when, in the course of time, there grew over it a strange looking tree that had a remarkable resemblance to a person bending over the grave, with outstretched arms and clasped hands. A small stone, with an inscription in Hebrew, stated only, "Here rests the Tzaddik Avrohom ben Avrohom, Second day of Shovuos, 5509" -- no mention that he was the Ger Tzedek who died a martyr's death for the sanctification of G-d's Name.

So great was the fear of the Jews even to talk publicly about the saintly Ger Tzedek that it took more than a hundred years before the story of the Ger Tzedek was first published (in Hebrew, in 1862, but without the name of the author or publisher, or the place where it was printed).

Not until 1927 did the Jewish community of Wilno erect a tombstone over the grave of the Ger Tzedek, with an inscription in Hebrew stating that it was a "Memorial to the Pure and Holy Soul of the Ger Tzedek, the Saintly Avrohom ben Avrohom, Who Publicly Sanctified G-d's Name on the Second Day of Shovuos, 5509. May His Soul Be Bound Up in the Bond of Everlasting Life."

A "Ger Tzedek" (true convert) is a gentile who became a Jew out of a sincere and deep conviction in the truth of the Jewish religion, without any other motivation whatever. Indeed, this is the only kind of conversion that the Torah recognizes.

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The Chofetz Chaim, zs'l, wrote that if 10 people were present to recite the Kaddish when the Ger Tzedek, Avraham Ben Avraham, zs'l, was being executed (burned alive) Mashiach would have come automatically.