Rabbi Meir Yechiel Halevi • “The Tzaddik Who Fasted Forty Years”
Rabbi Yechiel was a child prodigy. His father, who was very poor, earned a living by baking bread. He would arise at dawn, as soon as the rooster crowed, and there by the light of a tiny candle Meir Yechiel would peer through the door of his room and see his father Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak kneading dough with his fine, thin fingers. He would stand hunched over the dough, and each time his fingers dug into it, a murmur escaped his lips: “The prayer of the afflicted man, when he swoons and pours forth his supplications before the L-RD” (Psalms 102:1). At that point, tears dripped from his eyes into the dough. After the morning prayer, when Meir Yechiel’s mother gave him bread from his father’s bakery, where he had worked from the sweat of his brow, a certain verse from the book of Psalms came to his mind: “It is in vain for you who rise early, who sit up late, who eat the bread of sorrows” (Psalms 127:2). When he grew up, he was repulsed by food, and he spent the majority of his time fasting.
Rabbi Meir Yechiel was born in 5612 (1852) in the small town of Savin, near Krakow. From his youth no teacher was found that was competent enough to answer his questions, and when he was 10 years old his father brought him to see Rabbi Elimelech of Grodzisk.
Arriving at the court of the Rebbe of Grodzisk, the boy overheard a question that nobody could answer. Everyone tried to come up with a response, but all efforts proved useless. However an answer sprang to the boy’s mind, but he was too embarrassed to state it publicly. He therefore took some chalk and wrote the answer on the door of the Beit Midrash. Afterwards, when those who were studying in the Beit Midrash saw this answer on the door – an answer written with a child’s handwriting – they realized that it was indeed the solution to their difficult question. News of this spread quickly, and when it reached the ears of the Rebbe of Grodzisk, he told the boy’s father to leave him with him, for he would personally take care of him.
His father Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak thus returned to Savin while the young Meir Yechiel remained in Grodzisk. From day to day he rose in the rungs of Torah learning and the fear of G-d, until he became renowned for his sharp mind and great knowledge.
When Rabbi Meir Yechiel was 17 years old, he married in the small town of Worka and lived in the home of his father-in-law. There he studied Torah in holiness and purity until he attained a great level of scholarship and piety. He once enclosed himself in a room during the four weeks that separate Purim from Passover, and there he studied the entire Talmud, completing it on the eve of Passover.
His renown spread far and wide, and many scholars came to hear the Torah emanating from his lips. At the age of 28 he was called upon to become the Rav of Sakranovitz, a large city where thousands of Jews lived. In 5649 (1889), the city of Ostrowiec invited Rav Meir Yechiel to become its Rav, and so he moved there and dealt with everything concerning the community until his passing. After the death of the Rebbe of Grodzisk, Rabbi Meir Yechiel’s Rav, the chassidim came to crown him as their Rebbe, and thousands of Jews from every corner of Poland flocked to him to partake of his Torah and advice.
The Rabbi of Ostrowiec took it upon himself to fast. He would pray and study during the entire day, yet did not eat during that time. At night he ate some crackers and had a glass of tea, then continued to fast. Rabbi Yechiel fasted like this for 40 years, until his passing. His family tried to persuade him to abandon this lifestyle, but he refused to heed them, and when the Rabbi of Ger tried to convince him to interrupt his fast, he replied, “You have the merit of your fathers. Your father was the Sefat Emet, and your great grandfather was the Chiddushei HaRim. Your ancestors had already fasted for you. However I am the son of a baker, and I don’t have the merits of my ancestors, so I must fast for myself.”
He fought with extraordinary resolve for everything that was holy in Israel, yet he never neglected to listen with a heart that was filled with mercy for every Jew.
A traveling Jewish theater group once came to Ostrowiec, where it planned to hold a show on Shabbat. Despite all his efforts, Rabbi Meir Yechiel was unsuccessful in preventing the performance. What did he do? A short time before the start of the show, he arrived at the hall and sat down in the first row. The people that arrived for the show noticed the Rav in the first row and were ashamed to be seen by him, so they hurried to leave. Naturally, the show did not take place. At the end of Shabbat, Rabbi Meir Yechiel called the directors and paid them out of his own pocket for the losses they incurred due to the cancellation.
Rabbi Meir Yechiel’s wife, the Rebbetzin, once brought Yaakov the tailor (who was a tenant in the Rav’s house) to court because he failed to pay his rent. Because she did not want the court proceedings to take place in her husband’s presence, she told him that he didn’t need to go with her. However Rabbi Meir Yechiel replied, “I will be defending Yaakov the tailor.” When they came before the rabbinic court, the Rav formulated a very simple defense: “The house does not belong to me. The chassidim and distinguished members of the community purchased the house and gave it to me as a gift, and I do not want that this gift should be the cause of problems for a poor Jew with a large family.” The tailor was thus acquitted. The Rav left court content, reciting a verse from Ecclesiastes: “I returned and contemplated all the acts of oppression that are committed beneath the sun: Behold! Tears of the oppressed with none to comfort them” (Ecclesiastes 4:1).
Rabbi Meir Yechiel loved all Jews as a father loves a son, sharing in the misery of each Jew with all his heart and soul. During the First World War, his prayers lasted hours, and the floor upon which he stood was drenched with tears.
Rabbi Meir Yechiel remained as the Rav of Ostrowiec for 40 years. He created a new method of learning in Poland, the method of mental acuity. He had thousands of students who spread his Torah throughout the world.
Near the end of his life, his system could no longer tolerate solid food. He had withered to the point that his body was but skin and bones. His doctors said that it was only by a miracle that he was alive. Because his body no longer generated any natural heat, he was always in bed covered with a warm blanket. He was pure, and the skin of his face shined brightly.
On Adar 19, 5688 (1928), Rabbi Meir Yechiel was lying down as usual. Those living in the house, however, noticed that he no longer got up from his sickbed. The doctors tried as best they could to save him, but it was useless. The Rebbe of Ostrowiec closed his eyes for the last time. A tremendous multitude followed his casket, and when he was lowered into the grave, the Rebbe of Radzimin said of him: “If the ground only knew who it was receiving, it would open its mouth and recite a psalm.”
In Canada, one of Rabbi Meir Yechiel’s disciples has compiled his amazing commentaries and published them in several volumes entitled Meir Einei Chachamim.