The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, The Holy Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, wrote that the book Pokayach Ivrim-“He Who Opens the Eyes of the Blind,” was most likely written for the benefit of a specific Baal Teshuvah-Returnee to Torah practice. In one of the entrees to his diary the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe recorded the account of this particular Baal Teshuvah. The following is a free translation from the Rebbe’s diary by Rabbi Amiram Markel:
“His Honorable Holiness, my father, master, teacher and rabbi (The Holy Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch), told me to call upon Rabbi Abba Zelig and to ask him to relate his father’s biography to me. His father was the Chassid, Rabbi Yosef the Teamster of Beshenkovich.
When I asked Rabbi Abba Zelig to tell me about his father, he requested that I first review a Chassidic discourse with him. Afterwards he told me his father’s story, as follows:
There was a certain man in Beshenkovitch by the name of Rabbi Ephraim Zalman who was famed as a Torah scholar in all the surrounding areas, and who corresponded in matters of Torah law with many of the great Torah luminaries of that generation. When the Alter Rebbe’s fame as a tremendous Torah scholar spread far and wide, Rabbi Ephraim Zalman traveled especially to Vitebsk to test the Iluy of Lioznia (The Wunderkind of Lioznia), as the Alter Rebbe was called in Vitebsk during his first year of marriage. At the time he was fourteen years old.
Rabbi Ephraim Zalman spent approximately two weeks at the home of the Alter Rebbe’s wealthy father-in-law, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Segal, at which time he delighted in many Torah conversations with the Alter Rebbe. He was extremely impressed and astonished by the young man’s incredible talents and expansive knowledge in all fields of Torah, and his astounding depth of understanding and tremendous sharpness of mind.
When he returned home he became very despondent, for he had seen with his own eyes and had confirmed to himself that though the Iluy of Lioznia was only a young lad of fourteen, he nevertheless was his superior in both sharpness of mind and depth of Torah knowledge.
Rabbi Ephrain Zalman was so shaken by this that for a month he had difficulty focusing on his Torah studies and learning for extended periods of time, as he was used to. Finally, he poured out his heart to the elder Gaon (Genius), Rabbi Avraham Ze’ev, Saggi-Nahor (The Blind). Rabbi Avraham comforted him by telling him that in Bekius (committing great portions of the vast teachings of Torah to memory) he was second only to The Gaon of Vilna. Only then was Rabbi Ephraim Zalman’s spirit revived, and he returned to his studies as before.
The Gaon, Rabbi Avraham Ze’ev, Saggi-Nahor was fluent in the entire Talmud with the commentary of Rashi and Tosafot, all of which he knew by heart. He also served as Rosh Yeshiva (Chief Rabbi of a Rabbinical Academy) for fifty years and had many students who were outstanding Torah scholars.
One of Rabbi Avraham Ze’ev’s greatest students was Rabbi Yosef. Besides his great talents in Torah learning, even as a child Rabbi Yosef had a natural fear of G-d. When he was eighteen years old he married the daughter of a certain villager who lived in a settlement within the environs of the city of Beshenkovitch. He dwelt there for approximately fifteen years occupying himself in the study of Torah and Divine service.
Now, it once happened that a certain traveler, who turned out to be a great Torah scholar, stayed in their settlement. Rabbi Yosef was overjoyed with the guest and delighted in the many Torah conversations he had with him. Since it was the winter month of Cheshvan and because of the heavy rains travel on the roads was very difficult, Rabbi Yosef impressed it upon his guest to stay longer until the rains had subsided.
In one of their conversations Rabbi Yosef heard from his guest that he had received most of his Torah insights from the Maggid of Lioznia (The Preacher of Lioznia-This was the title that the Alter Rebbe was called by at the time). These words penetrated his heart and he resolved that next time he goes to town he will inquire as to the whereabouts of the city of Lioznia. He intended to go there to meet the Maggid and to personally hear Torah insights from him.
However, three years passed and Rabbi Yosef still had not gone to visit the Maggid of Lioznia. It once happened that he attended a gathering of Torah scholars in which the Gaon, Rabbi Ephraim Zalman lectured on a very difficult section of the Talmud. In the course of his speech, Rabbi Ephraim Zalman mentioned that fourteen years previously (in the year 5523-1763) he had met the Iluy of Lioznia (The Wunderkind of Lioznia) when he was still residing at the home of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Segal, his father-in-law. He mentioned that while there he delighted in many Torah conversations with him and that the Iluy had explained several comments of the Raavad on the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam (Maimonides). Since the sages stated that whoever quotes a teaching in the name of the person he heard it from brings redemption to the world, Rabbi Ephraim Zalman related some of the teachings he heard from the Alter Rebbe and explained the tremendous depth of insight and sharpness of intellect in these teachings.
These words penetrated Rabbi Yosef’s heart, and he resolved to visit the Alter Rebbe in Lioznia without delay. This was in the summer of 5537 (1777). Rabbi Yosef stayed in Lioznia for a year. He then returned home and immersed himself in the study of Torah and Divine service according to the instructions of the Alter Rebbe. Twenty years passed in this manner, during which time Rabbi Yosef would travel to visit the Alter Rebbe every two or three years.
In the year 5561 (1801) Rabbi Yosef became a widower. During the first year after his wife’s passing he continued to live on his father-in-law’s estate, which by then had been inherited by his brothers-in-law. He then left the estate, against his brothers-in-law’s wishes, and rented a room in the city of Beshenkovitch. His landlord was a certain Yochanan Nafcha (The Blacksmith).
Around this time Rabbi Yehudah, his brother-in-law, took him to Rabbinical court in order to force him to accept the five hundred guldens that his father-in-law had left him in his will. The verdict was in the affirmative and Rabbi Yosef was obligated to accept the funds. After giving one tenth of the amount to various charities, he lent three hundred guldens to the free loan society and he deposited the remaining one hundred and fifty gulden with a committee of three wealthy men of the city. It was their responsibility to pay for his living expenses with these remaining funds. When the funds were depleted Rabbi Yosef sustained himself by teaching three students. He ate in the homes of their parents using a rotation system of two months in each home.
Rabbi Yosef visited the city of Liadi (where the Alter Rebbe now resided) in the year 5564 (1804). When he entered the Alter Rebbe’s office for a private audience, the Rebbe asked him if he knew the six orders of the Mishnah perfectly by heart. Rabbi Yosef answered in the affirmative and that, amongst other things, he was accustomed to reviewing the entire six orders of the Mishnah once a month.
The Alter Rebbe answered, “Mishnah (משנה) has the same letters as Neshamah-Soul (נשמה). You will marry a woman who has children from a previous marriage. She will give birth to a son for you. HaShem, Blessed be He, will give you long life. For the good of your soul, it is better for you to be a teamster (a wagon driver) than to a take a rabbinical post.”