Kiddush Hashem: R' Avrohom Ben Avrohom
By Rav Dov Eliach
The following material is from the book about the
Gra of Vilna being prepared by Rav Eliach, entitled HaGaon. Shavuos is the
holiday of converts, who follow the example of Rus. Also, the yahrtzeit of The Ger Tzedek is on the second day
of Shavuos. He was martyred in 5509 (1749), 251 years ago.
Reb Avrohom ben Avrohom was one of the most
admired and hallowed personalities in the eyes of Vilna Jews for generations.
They called him "The Ger Tzedek," with a capital "T" -- he
who, in his youth, answered to the name "Duke Valentine Pototzki,"
was named Avrohom ben Avrohom at his conversion.
A number of traditions remain about the man who
attached himself to Klal Yisroel with such tremendous mesiras nefesh until that second day of Shavuos when
he was burnt at stake al kiddush
Hashem. From that day until Vilna was destroyed by the Nazis ym'sh, the Vilna Jews used to go to
his kever to pour out their hearts. In the
masses' opinion, the Ger Tzedek's tomb was almost as holy as the tomb of the
Vilna Gaon zt'l.
The Jews of the city used to show the site where
the Ger Tzedek was burnt at stake on a street called "the Wide Road." They said that the trees for the fire were brought
by gentiles of Sapinikes, a suburb near Vilna. They paid dearly for their
alacrity and devotion, because immediately after the Ger Tzedek was burnt a
large fire broke out and destroyed the entire suburb.
The Vilna Jews also used to tell about the fact
that when the Ger Tzedek was burnt, the smoke ascended onto the building next
to it and a black stain remained there forever. The gentiles worked hard to
remove the stain, but nothing, not even repainting the building, helped. They
finally knocked down the building in great embarrassment.
Fear of the authorities and censure prevented the
wondrous story of the Ger Tzedek from being written down when it happened. Only
years later was anything written. The inscription on his grave, as well, is
short. The memory of the fascinating story, therefore, was kept alive by
tradition, passed down from father to son.
Due to the unique connections between the Vilna
Gaon and the Ger Tzedek, we have devoted a short chapter on the matter in the sefer of the Gra's life story.
From "Valentine Pototzki" to
"Avrohom ben Avrohom"
In the fifth century of the sixth millennium (the
early 1700s), an extremely wealthy duke lived in Poland, son of the Pototzki family, a famous noble family that
had held important political positions in the Polish government. They say that
the Duke, or as he was called in Polish, the Graf, owned nine hundred and
ninety-nine properties. He purposely did not buy another property so that when
people were describing his vast wealth, they could not merely say that he owns
a thousand properties. They would have to enunciate "nine hundred and
ninety-nine properties." (See Shimusha
shel Torah Maran HaRav Shach,
One of the Graf's luxurious palaces is still
standing and has become a tourist attraction. People point out that the
Pototzki family coat of arms, which is engraved in the gate and contains a
number of leaves, is missing one leaf as a sign of the lost son.
Graf Pototzki had one son, a smart, learned son
named Valentine, and he had a friend named Zarembo, who studied with him in a
theological seminary. The two planned to become Catholic priests and the Vilna
Bishop sent them to study in Paris. There, while taking a stroll, they came across a Jewish Tanach. They began to learn with a
certain rov in secret, until Pototzki's soul became attached to Judaism and he
decided to convert, come what may. He traveled to Amsterdam, far from his devout Christian parents' home, and joined
the Jewish nation.
Some say that even before he converted, Pototzki
possessed a lofty soul. Every Shabbos he was overcome with a special excitement
and he didn't know what it was. He used to walk back and forth in his room, in
inner emotional turmoil, crying out in Polish, "Tzu ta za Sabato?" What is the nature of Shabbos?
(Much later, after the Ger Tzedek was burnt at stake,
his friend Zarembo also converted and was called Boruch ben Avrohom. He
traveled with his wife, who had also converted and was called Rochel bas Sora,
to Eretz Yisroel where they spent their days involved in tzedaka andchessed.)
Valentine's parents, the Graf Pototzki and his
wife, began a thorough search for their only son who was missing. They sent
emissaries to the various lands from which he had sent them letters over the
years, but they could not find him. On the other hand, "Valentine"
began worrying that his parents would find him, so he left Amsterdam and went to Vilna dressed as one of the Perushim with a beard and payos. He settled himself into some
small kloiz where he learned Shas and poskim day and night. Righteous women brought
They say that when the Vilna Gaon found out what
was happening, he advised the Ger Tzedek not to live in a large city like Vilna
but to move to a small village where no one would recognize him. He traveled to
Ilia, where he stayed in the beis
knesses wrapped in a tallisand tefillin and learned and davened with lofty deveikus. The Jews of Ilia respected
him as an exalted, holy man, but with the exception of the village rov, no one
knew who he really was.
A tailor who used to sew furs for the noblemen
lived in this village. Through his gentile customers, he heard that Graf
Pototzki was searching for his lost son and the rumor was that the son
converted. The tailor suspected this Porush,
who spoke Yiddish with a strange accent and also a perfect Polish -- a rare
accomplishment among the Jews -- but he kept his suspicions to himself.
One day, the tailor's mischievous son teased the Porush and disturbed his learning. When he
could not take it anymore, the Porush picked him up by ears and took him out
of shul, saying that if a Jewish
boy could act with such wickedness, he could become a meshumad. (Some say that the boy did
become an apostate.) The tailor was enraged, and although the Ger Tzedek
apologized, the tailor went to the authorities and informed on him.
Armed soldiers immediately came to Ilia, bound the Porush in chains and brought him to the
capital city Vilna to the local bishop. In those days, when the Church ruled
supreme, a gentile who dared convert to Judaism was sentenced to burning at the
Some say that the Ger Tzedek was captured on the
night of his wedding to the daughter of the miller of Ilia, 13 Adar 5509
(1749), about a year after he came to Ilia.
To Be Mekadesh Shem Shomayim
As soon as the imprisonment became public
knowledge, the Ger Tzedek's parents came to the prison and tried to convince
him to return home. They fell at his feet and cried and begged him to save
himself from death and to return to Christianity. It was all for naught. Their
former son now dwelled in other worlds, pure and holy.
The priests as well tried to convince him again
and again to return to their religion. But he answered them bitingly, "I
am willing to meet you, but why do you bring me `these dogs,' " and he
pointed to the crosses they wore. He announced that he was prepared to die as a
Jew, al kiddush Hashem. The many
terrible tortures that they inflicted upon him were to no avail, and he
remained faithful to Hashem.
One of the tactics his parents tried was to
suggest that he renounce his geirus only outwardly. They said that when he
was freed, they would build him his own palace where he could live secretly as
a Jew. The answer to this too was absolutely no. He wanted to fulfill his
strong desire to sacrifice himself as a korbon to sanctify Heaven's name.
Some say that his mother begged him to deny
Judaism and he answered, "Dear mother, you are very dear to me but the
truth is even more dear to me." His mother realized it was a waste of time
to try further to convince him, and she quickly traveled to the Kaiser himself
to plead for her son's life. She did obtain a special permit allowing her son
to live, but the priests pushed the judgment up one day and burned him a day
before the permit came.
They also say that before the decree was carried
out, some of those who tortured the Ger Tzedek came and asked for forgiveness
and asked that he not take revenge on them in the next world.
The Ger Tzedek answered them confidently and
calmly, "It says in Tehillim (117), `Praise Hashem, all the
nations, praise Him all nationalities, because His kindness has overpowered
us.' The gemora (Pesochim 118: 2) asks why do the nations of the
world need to praise Hashem because `His kindness has overpowered us.'
"However, it is compared to a prince who was
hit by his friends while playing. The boy promised that when he becomes the
king after his father, he'll pay back the one who hit him, double the pain. The
years passed, the boy grew up, and he was crowned king. The friend who hit him
remembered the promise and was afraid of what would happen now. How surprised
he was when the king explained to him that from the heights of the throne, with
all the honor he had, the entire incident of the slap was just a joke.
"So too, the Ger Tzedek said, when I reach
the World of Truth, to the place set aside for me, all the tortures you caused
me will be considered like a child's slap in comparison to all the honor and
rewards promised me there. My mind will not even be thinking about small
matters such as revenge on you and your wicked deeds. That is why the nations
of the world, as well, need to give thanks that `His kindness has overpowered
us.' Because of the fact we are so overcome with His kindness, all the problems
they caused us will not be considered so terrible."
About the fate of the tailor who informed on the
Ger Tzedek, some say that the Ger Tzedek calmed him with the same moshol and promised that he'll try to
intercede on his behalf in heaven so he will be allowed into Olam Haboh. After all, the tailor
brought about this tremendous zechus for him, to give his life al kiddush Hashem.
Another source relates that the Ger Tzedek cursed
the informer that he and his children for ten generations would be malformed.
Indeed, when a certain writer visited Ilia, he found descendants of this tailor
who were malformed, generation after generation -- deaf or mute or such, and
they had not yet reached the tenth generation. See the words of HaRav Tzvi
Hirsch Farber, "It is a terrible lot to be like an informer, to tell
everything he sees. How much bloodshed was caused through this in Yisroel, and
the holy Avrohom ben Avrohom Ger Tzedek was burnt in Vilna al kiddush Hashem because of the story of one tailor to
"Boruch Mekadesh es Shimcho Borabim"
The story of the Ger Tzedek took place in 5509
(1749), and the Vilna Gaon, who was then about twenty-nine years old, knew the
Ger Tzedek and had secret ties with him.
They say that the Gra once came to visit the Ger
Tzedek in prison and found him worried. Seeking an explanation, he said to the
Ger Tzedek, "You should be happy, because in a few days you'll reach a
very high madreigo, to sanctify
Heaven's name in public, like the level of the tana hakodosh Rabbi Akiva."
The Ger Tzedek answered the Gra that he was
worried for a different reason -- he did not havezechus ovos, for his father
and mother were gentiles who did not believe in the Creator of the world. The
Gra comforted him and said, "Hakodosh Boruch Hu says, `I am first and I am last;'
Hashem is the father of all those who do not have yichus ovos."
HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz of Kaminetz told the
story of the Gra's visit as follows: The Gra once visited the Ger Tzedek, the tzaddik Reb Avrohom, and found him crying. The
Gra wondered why; after all you are going to sacrifice your life al kiddush Hashem. Why are you crying?
You should go happily.
The Ger Tzedek answered that he was not crying
because of that. He was crying because he was not zoche to put down roots in Am Yisroel, for he had no father or
son in Yisroel.
The Gra said, "We find in the medrash of the posuk, `I am first and I am last etc.'
(Yeshaya 44:6) `I am first for I
have no father; I am last for I have no brother; And besides Me there is no
power for I have no son' (Shemos
Rabba chapter 29, 5. see also Yalkut Hameiri, Yeshaya44). The words seem
questionable. Why does it have to say something that everyone knows?
"However," Rabbenu answered, " `I
am first' for someone who has no Jewish father and came to bask in My shade; `I
am last' for someone who doesn't have a brother; `And besides Me there is no
power' for someone who doesn't have a son. I am better for him than ten
The Chofetz Chaim, who used to tell over the story
of the Ger Tzedek often, related that the Gra offered to save him from being
tortured and killed through sheimos
kedoshim according tokabolo. But
the Ger Tzedek told his rebbe that since he had recognized the
Creator of the world, he was prepared to sacrifice his life al kiddush Hashem. He did not want to
forgo the lofty merit of Kiddush
Hashem and exchange it for a physical
And so, with these pure, lofty thoughts, the Ger
Tzedek returned his holy soul al
kiddush Hashem when he was burnt
at stake a few days later. Before being put on the fire, he made the brocho of "Boruch
mekadesh es shimcho borabim" and
called out in a loud voice,"Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem
The Chofetz Chaim also said that the Gra said that
if ten Jews would have been present to answer omein to the Ger Tzedek's brocho, Moshiach would have come already.
Who was Bound upon the Mizbeiach
Reb Avrohom ben Avrohom made his way to the fire
in song and dance. In Yeshivas Volozhin, they used to sing a special song that
the Ger Tzedek sang when he was being burnt with the words from the brocho of kiddush
Hashem: "But we are Your nation, bnei
berisecho, sons of Your beloved Avrohom that You swore to him on Har Hamoria,
seed of his only son Yitzchok who was bound upon the mizbeiach."
They say that when the fire grabbed hold of the
Ger Tzedek's body, he called out, "Burn the body that ate treif," and so on. Even as the
flames engulfed him, his voice was heard singing verses of Tehillim until his soul left him amidst
One author of that generation dared write
something about the happening, but only in a hint. He wrote, "And in our
generation, I heard that some of the kedoshim who were killed al kiddush Hashem, zechusom yogein oleinu, used to go to
their death as if they were going to a beautiful chuppah. And some used to say that
their hearts are happy like one going with a flute and they would have wanted
to hear musical instruments such as an ugov, harp and musical instruments, since
they were zoche to give their souls as a present to Hashem yisborach and cling to the upper light and
fulfill the mitzvo of ve'ohavto
es Hashem Elokecho. And in their fervor for love of Hashem, they don't feel
pain in their death."
It seems that due to the lack of authentic
tradition on this story, great importance is placed on this source, because it
is the earliest one we have.
A tradition is cited in the name of the Gra that
on the day the Ger Tzedek sanctified sheim
Shomayim, the klipo chitzonis was nullified and the power of tumo that
rests on the hands in the morning (after sleep) was weakened. In the wording
quoted in his name: with his [the Ger Tzedek's] ascent to Heaven, fear overcame
all the klipos chitzonios and they all became mute.
They also say in the name of the Gra that when he
was praising the Ger Tzedek of Vilna he said, among other things, that the
level of a ger is higher than the level of a Yisroel.
It is known that a Yisroel is higher than a mal'och,
for a mal'och may only say "Hashem" after
three words, "Kodosh,
kodosh, kodosh Hashem," and
a Yisroel says after two words "Shema
Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu" (see Chulin 91:2). The ger says
after one word, like it says, "And Yisro said `Boruch Hashem . . . '"
The Chofetz Chaim used to repeat an explanation
that he heard in the name of the Ger Tzedek about the origin of geirim. The words of Chazal are
well-known that before Hashem gave the Torah, He went to every nation and they
all refused to accept it. However, the overwhelming majority of each nation
refused, but there were individuals who did want the Torah. Those individuals
are the source of the souls of geirim.
A Jewish Burial
After the Ger Tzedek was burnt at stake, the
priests forbade gathering his dust to be buried. But the Gra decided that they
were obligated to try to give him a Jewish burial, and that is what happened. A
Vilna Jew by the name of Reb Eliezer Meir Sirki (or Leizer Siskes according to
another version) did not have a beard which made it easy for him to disguise
himself as a gentile. The Gra chose him to fulfill this mitzva.
Reb Leizer dressed up in gentile clothing and went
to bribe the gentile appointed to temporarily guard the ashes. After offering a
large sum of money, Reb Leizer received some ashes and two pure fingers, which
he buried in an earthenware vessel -- a proper Jewish burial.
For his great devotion, the Gaon gave him a brocho that he should live a long life.
Indeed, he lived to the ripe old age of one hundred and twelve. They say that
engraved on his tombstone are the words, "The Gaon's brocho -- the number of years of his life:
one hundred and twelve years."
They also say that when they found out that the
Gra instigated saving the Ger Tzedek's ashes, the authorities imprisoned him
for some time. The chapter of this imprisonment, however, is shrouded in
darkness, and details of two later prison stays, which happened in his old age
for other reasons entirely, are mixed into it.
A wondrous phenomenon occurred at the grave of the
ashes of the Ger Tzedek in the ancient cemetery in Vilna. A thick tree grew on
top of it, shaped like a human body stooped over the grave, covering it, as if
to protect it. At the bottom of the tree, two branches grew like two legs and
two branches crossed on top like two arms. Whoever saw it was frightened by the
tree's awesome appearance, which rose from the ashes of the holy and pure one.
Stories abound about the tree, mostly about repeated
attacks from the gentiles even as late as one hundred and fifty years after the
Ger Tzedek's demise. They say that during World War I, a soldier shot the tree
and suddenly there were drops of blood coming out of it. Another time, a
soldier tried to cut down the tree, and when he hit it with his ax, the ax
slipped out of his hand and killed him. The fact that this "rebel to their
religion" merited a remembrance and a place for many Jews to daven infuriated the gentiles. In any case,
during World War I, German soldiers succeeded in cutting off the upper part of
Due to the circumstances, the grave did not have a
proper ohel until 5687 (1927) when the "great tzedaka" of Vilna erected an iron ohel to
protect the grave and a stone fence to protect the rest of the tree. The
following wording is engraved on board on the black ohel:
The tombstone of the Ger Tzedek / To a dear pure
and holy soul / The kodosh Avrohom ben Avrohom / He was mekadesh Hashem in public on beis Shavuos / 5509
The anniversary of his death was a special yahrtzeit for the overall Vilna community, and
they used to remember his neshomo and speak about his strength. Reb
Eliyohu Gordon, amaggid in Vilna,
raised the memory of the Ger Tzedek on the bimah of the Beis Knesses Hagodol on the
second day of Shavuos 5679 (1919) before Yizkor.
He concluded his hesped with the following words: "Who of
us has not seen this frightful tree; who of us has not stood there bent in
great admiration before the remains of the saintly man, who sacrificed his life al kiddush Hashem."
He also added that on the day Vilna remembers the
Ger Tzedek's neshomo, from then until today, they tell
stories upon stories about his life, because in his generation it was forbidden
to publicize the details of his strength.
We cannot end the description of this chapter
until we mention another thing told about the Gra's connection to the Ger
Tzedek. Once, Rabbenu went to comfort one of his students whose son died in
infancy. While comforting him, he revealed the secret of why the infant was
taken so young. The Ger Tzedek, Reb Avrohom ben Avrohom, purified himself with
all kinds of holiness, but there was one thing he could not rectify -- that he
was not born in kedusha, because
he had a gentile mother. His soul therefore came back down to earth in the form
of that baby, and when his tikun was complete, he returned to his