The father of the Rizhiner, R. Shalom Shachna of Prohobisht blazed a new trail in Chassidus, which was broadened by his son, R. Yisroel, and followed by many of the Rebbes of the Rizhin-Sadigora dynasty. He conducted himself in a most regal fashion. Instead of the white, silken bekeshe (long Chassidic topcoat) of his forebears, he preferred a stylish woolen outfit, even though the chassidim shunned woolen garments for fear of sha’atnez (a forbidden admixture of wool and linen). He dressed before a mirror, an act permitted by the Talmud only to the descendants of Rabban Gamliel. His hair was styled, his peyos (sidecars) short, and instead of the old-fashioned pipe, he smoked expensive cigarettes. He lived in a beautiful, exquisitely furnished house and insisted that his wife dress fashionably.
Even his Avodas Hashem defied the norm. During the month of Elul, when everyone prayed and studied with unusual intensity in anticipation of judgment on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, R. Shalom Shachna spent much of the day in the forest. Only toward evening did he return home for Minchah.
For anyone else, such behavior might have been suspect, but his grandfather, R. Nachum of Chernobyl, understood who R. Shalom Shachna was, even if he didn’t know why he adopted such practices.
Nevertheless, his conduct aroused the wrath of R. Nachum’s chassidim. After several complaints, R. Nachum warned him, “Son, your path is a dangerous one, which your forefathers did not follow. You are treading on a razor’s edge, and one misstep could spell tragedy.”
R. Shalom Shachna responded with the following parable: “Once a chicken sat on some duck eggs. After they hatched, the ducklings thought they were chickens and followed their ‘mother’ around. When they came to a river, they jumped in and began to swim.
“‘Children,’ the mother hen screamed, ‘you could drown!’
“‘Don’t be afraid Mama,’ the ducklings answered. ‘This is where we belong.'”
Satisfied with this answer, R. Nachum told his chassidim to stop criticizing R. Shalom Shachna, for he was acting for the sake of Heaven.
The Chassidic movement grew ever stronger. Once the task of founding the Chassidic movement had been completed, with tens of thousands of faithful adherents following the tenets of the movement, R. Shalom Shachna paved the way for a national revival by restoring the crown of the exilarchs. In those troubled times, R. Shalom Shachna single-handedly built a royal house.
On another level, R. Shalom Shachna himself wrote: “When one dons fine clothes, he should do so only to fulfill the verse, ‘Prepare [yourself] to greet your God, Israel’ [Amos 4:1]. When one appears before a flesh and blood king, he must be certain that his appearance befits the honor due to royalty. How much more so before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. Heaven forbid he should become haughty.”
Asked why his father, R. Shalom Shachna, chose such a perilous path of pomp and ostentation, R. Yisroel of Rizhin replied, “The Ba’al Shem Tov gave our holy grandfather, the Maggid of Mezeritch, a precious jewel – the path of true Chassidus. The Maggid hid it in a fortress of Torah and prayer, but the thieves from Above, the Yetzer Hara, broke into the fortress to pilfer the gem. My grandfather, R’ Avraham the Malach (angel), polished it and built it into a fortress of holiness and purity, by means of fasting and mortification. But the thieves were relentless. So my father devised a new strategy – he hid the stone in a rubbish bin of pride, glory, and honor. This hiding place proved much safer, for the thieves never expected to find a precious treasure there.”
The Rizhiner himself all but shunned the Beis Merash and could be found in his court surrounded by musicians, strolling in the fields or orchards, or riding in his golden coach drawn by six white steeds.
While his divine service was appreciated by the Chassidim and many non-chassidim, it was not appreciated by the Russian authorities. They eventually accused him of plotting to depose the Czar; his regal way of life proof in point.
The Rizhiner was imprisoned for 22 months, 16 in the notorious Kiev dungeons in a dark and damp cell and then another 6 months in Kamenetz. No charges were ever brought against him and he was never placed on trial. The Rizhiner, undaunted continued to lead his Chassidim even while incarcerated, despite the fact that he was allowed almost no visitors.
The way he fully accepted upon himself this decree and sanctified Hashem’s name while in prison, can be comprehended by the way he left his imprisonment. When, on Shushan Purim, March 20, 1840, the iron cell door creaked open to release the Rizhiner, he walked out, paused, turned around and stepped back in the cell. To the wonderment of those present, he remained inside for a few moments before finally stepping out to freedom. Everybody understood that the time he had spent in prison were holy days; to learn from and to be remembered — not forgotten. Days later, after receiving information that the authorities were planning on re-arresting him, and a sentence of lifetime exile in Siberia in store for him, he made a miraculous flight to the town of Sadigora where the Austrian government declared him a citizen and granted him a safe haven. The Rizhiner spent the rest of his days in Sadigora, and even now that name is synonymous with Rizhiner chassidus.
One of the admirers of the Rizhiner was the tzaddik, R’ Chaim of Tzanz,the Divrei Chaim. R’ Chaim had an illustrious Rabbinic career and in his later years was the Rav of the area of Tzanz and presided over its Beis Din. (rabbinical court) When he retired, his son R’ Aharon assumed his position.
Once, when R’ Aharon was presiding over the Beis Din, he rendered a certain decision that displeased the guilty litigant. Not only did he not accept the verdict against him, but demanded that the results be reversed insisting that he would not take “no” for an answer. R’ Aharon, unmoved, refused to be influenced and called the case closed.
At that point the unfortunate litigant, desperate for things to go his way, claimed that if the Rav would not reverse the results he would report him to the local authorities on some trumped up charge which carried the risk of imprisonment. After R’ Aharon again refused to reverse the decision of the Beis Din, the fellow followed through on his threat by fabricating some story in the eager ears of the local authorities. They arrived promptly at the home of R’ Aharon, arrested him and threw him into prison without any investigation.
His family and students came running to his father R’ Chaim to report the news, but to their great astonishment, he was calm and surprisingly unconcerned. “If my son were sitting in jail because of some crime or indiscretion that he committed, that would certainly bother me,” he told them. “But that he was thrown into jail because rendered an honest and fair judgment upholding the sanctity of the Torah. . .it should only be so!”
When the family saw that they were getting nowhere with R’ Chaim, they went to see his mechutan (the father of a son or daughter’s spouse) R’ Yehoshua of Belz, and asked him to intervene; perhaps he would be able to convince R’ Chaim to use his influence to get his son out of jail.
R’ Yehoshua agreed to take on the mission and went immediately to speak with R’ Chayim. He related to him all that had transpired; from the case that had come before the Beis Din until the current tragic outcome. He explained how difficult it must be for a refined person like R’ Aharon to be in a Hungarian jail, and how important it was for his family as well as for the community to have him back. And last but not least, there was a Chilul Hashem (desecration of Hashem’s name) involved.
At that R’ Chaim ignited, and he turned full force to R’ Yehoshua. “Do you really believe that if one is put into prison because he upheld the Kedushah (holiness) of the Torah by rendering an honest and true judgment, that it is the cause of a Chilul Hashem?! Would you label Yosef’s sentence in the prison of Pharaoah a Chilul Hashem?! Were the twenty-two months that R’ Yisroel’tche (the Rizhiner) spent in prison a Chilul Hashem?! No! Just the opposite! It was a Kiddush Hashem! Both Yosef HaTzaddik and R’ Yisroel’tche sanctified the name of Hashem until the highest heights. My dear mechutan, listen to me! Anybody who calls himself a Jew and is not attached body and soul to his Creator every hour of the day – that is Chilul Hashem!