Rabbi Yitzchak Aryeh Sekel • “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt”
Jews in Russia gave Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer of Okup, the founder of the Chassidic movement, the name “Baal Shem Tov”.
In Germany as well, Jews called Rabbi Yitzchak Aryeh Sekel of Michelstadt the name “Baal Shem”. Like Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem was a hidden Tzaddik and great scholar, and he was equally versed in the ways of the world. Many people came to see him to ask for advice regarding both spiritual and material concerns. The general public considered him to be a miracle worker, and they sought him out in times of distress. Even non-Jews addressed themselves to him, and he never sent anyone away empty-handed.
The people of Michelstadt have said that all the Jews and non-Jews who prayed by the grave of the “Baal Shem” before being drafted into the army during WWI came back safely from the war. The local council placed a plaque on the house where he lived in memory of its “Baal Shem”.
Rabbi Yitzchak Aryeh Sekel was born in 5529 (1768) in Michelstadt. His father Matityahu was a simple and upright man who feared G-d and distanced himself from evil. He was a descendant of Rashi and King David.
From his youth, the young man demonstrated his exemplary character traits and extraordinary abilities, which enabled people to see that he would become a genius and the glory of his people. He was known throughout the region of Michelstadt as a child prodigy. At the age of eight, there was no one in the tiny city who could teach him Torah any more.
When he reached the age of 13, he implored his parents to send him off to study in yeshiva. Yet because they had lost six sons before him, they could not accept the departure of their young remaining son. He understood that he could rely only upon himself, and so he devoted himself to sacred study with all his heart and with all his soul. He studied Torah day and night, and more than once did his mother extinguish, despite his wishes, the candle in his room at a late hour of the night. As soon as daybreak occurred, he arose like a lion, got dressed quickly (lest he fall back asleep), then washed his hands and ran to the Beit Midrash.
The young man’s reputation also reached the ears of the Duke of Michelstadt, who asked his father to send him alone, without a guide, to his palace. He wanted to see how he would find his way around in a large palace, and how he would find the Duke’s reception room. The young man easily found the room where the Duke waited for him. “Who showed you where I was waiting for you?” the Duke asked.
“His lordship the Duke himself,” the boy replied. “I glanced up and looked all around, and I noticed that the windows of the all the palace’s rooms were open except for a single one, it being closed and covered by a curtain. I then understood that your lordship was certainly there, hidden from the eyes of those who came to the palace.”
The Duke understood that the boy knew that he had hidden himself in order to put him to the test, and that it was precisely in this way that he had revealed his hiding place to the boy. He asked him, “Tell me, my dear boy, if you had encountered ten servants in the stairways or the halls, and you had asked them where I was, how would you have found me if they gave you different answers?”
“In that case,” he replied, “I would have followed the advice of the majority. For example, if three servants had indicated one room to me, three other servants another room, and four other servants yet another room, I would have gone towards the last room.”
At the age of 16, this intelligent boy entered the yeshiva of Rabbi Nathan Adler of Frankfurt, and there he met Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the Chatam Sofer, who later became the Rav of Pressburg). Together they studied the revealed and hidden Torah with their great Rav and devoted themselves to emulating him.
At the age of 18 he took it upon himself, for the rest of his life, to never eat or drink anything that had animal products in it. Following this vow, he not only abstained from eating meat and fish, but also from consuming eggs, milk, and butter.
Rabbi Yitzchak Aryeh Sekel studied Torah in Frankfurt for six years. One of the residents in the Jewish community there, Yitzchak Reiss, gave him his daughter in marriage, and after the wedding he returned to his place of birth, the small town of Michelstadt. He then lived several years in Manheim, where he learned Torah from Rabbi Yaakov Ettinger, who was later known as the Rav of Altona and the author of Aruch LaNer. After the death of his parents, he was forced to go into business to feed his family, but even then he did not interrupt his Torah study, continuing to publicly teach it as well.
At the age of 54 he was chosen as Rav of Michelstadt, and there he founded a yeshiva that he directed. During the last 25 years of his life, he was known throughout all of Germany as a worker of miracles, and none of the words that emanated from his mouth were ever in vain.
He was known as the “Baal Shem of Michelstadt”, and from near and far students came to hear Torah from his mouth. Among these were some very wealthy people who came to ask him for advice and received his blessings, but even during this period of prosperity he himself lived in poverty and ate only vegetables and vegetable products. As for the students of the yeshiva, he provided them with an abundance of meat, fish, and all sorts of good things. His heart and home were wide open to whoever came to ask for help or support. Rabbi Yitzchak Aryeh Sekel brought to his home every Jew passing through town, and he fed them lavishly. Sometimes, when dozens of guests were at his home, he went to the market and purchased bundles of straw. He then loaded them on his shoulders and brought them back to his home, where he himself prepared beds for his guests.
He was accustomed to saying, “It is forbidden to abandon the poor to Divine mercy. A man should concern himself with them and take care of their needs.” Rabbi Moshe Sofer said, “I have learned the mitzvah of Tzeddakah and hospitality from my friend Rabbi Yitzchak Aryeh.”
The following is an account of Rabbi Yitzchak Aryeh’s final days, as told by his son: “He wanted to strengthen our hope that the end wasn’t so close. Lying on his bed, he tried hard to encourage my mother, promising her that she would lack nothing. He also told her that if she came to his gravesite at a difficult time, his soul would intercede for her before the Throne of Glory.
“The night of Rosh Hashanah 5608 , we returned from synagogue and wanted to receive our father’s blessing. Yet his weakness was such that he could not pronounce a single word. He spread out his trembling hands over our heads, and we sensed that this would be his last blessing. The morning of Rosh Hashanah, he expressed his ardent desire to hear the Shofar. His soul left this world during the Fast of Gedalia, at seven o’clock at night. He recited Shema Israel aloud, and his soul departed at the word echad.”