Friday, March 31, 2017

Rabbi Herschel Wasilski’s Pesach Customs

Photo by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Rabbi Herschel Wasilski’s Pesach Cutoms
From “Breslov Eikh she-Hu: Breslov Customs and Practices, Past and Present,” a work-in-progress compiled by Dovid Sears and Dovid Zeitlin.

Rabbi Zvi Yosef (“Herschel”) Wasilski (1922-1981) was the central figure in the New York Breslov community after World War II. There is a Breslover shtiebel in his name on Lee Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which he founded, and which is led today by his son Rabbi Avraham Moshe Wasilski. Reb Avraham Moshe kindly provided the information posted here.

A descendent of many distinguished talmidei chakhomim, Rabbi Herschel Wasilski was born in Vilna, Lithuania, raised in Oszmiana on the outskirts of the city. At age thirteen his parents sent him to learn in Rabbi Elchonan Wasserman’s famous yeshivah in Baranovitch. Many talmidim in Baranovitch were Breslover Chassidim, and Reb Herschel soon became a Breslover, too. With the invasion of the Nazis, the yeshivah was forced to disband and reestablish itself in Vilna. When Vilna came under attack, Reb Herschel was forced to flee. Captured by the Russian army, he spent the rest of the war in Siberia and then in Samarkand. There, he became a close and lifelong friend of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Bender, who also survived the war and went on to lead the Breslov kehillah in Yerushalayim. Reb Herschel emigrated to New York in 1946, soon entering the Torah Vodaath Yeshivah in Williamsburg, where he later served as a maggid shiur, melamed and menahel. Reb Herschel was a devoted Breslover Chassid who worked tirelessly for the Breslov chaburah in New York and on behalf of the Breslover shul and yeshivah in Yerushalayim and the Breslover Chassidim in Eretz Yisrael.

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Rabbi Avraham Moshe recalled that his father, zikhrono liv’rakha, had many personal chumros which reflected his deep yiras Shomayim—but not hakpodos. His Pesach hanhagos were all conducted in a pleasant spirit.

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He came from a Litvishe family that basically followed the minhagey ha-GRA. However, unlike his family, Reb Herschel did not eat gebrokhts on Pesach. There were no gebrochts in his home, even on Acharon shel Pesach. Even the children were not allowed to eat gebrokhts.

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Reb Herschel did not “mish” (eat food prepared in other people’s homes, or in restaurants or at public events) all year long—but his hatznei’a leches (modest conduct) was so thorough that no one ever noticed. This certainly included Pesach. But on Acharon shel Pesach, for the Baal Shem Tov Seudah (Ne’ilas HaChag), it is customary for everyone to bring some food to shul (usually matzos, hard-boiled eggs, and fruit) which the entire chaburah shares. This was the one time that Reb Herschel did “mish,” as an expression of achdus.

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He refrained from commercial food products all year long, with a few exceptions such as bakery bread, rolls, and cake; milk and cottage cheese. On Pesach he used only staples such as salt and sugar (with the hekhsher of the Hisachdus HaRabbonim), and wine. Rebbetzin Wasilski and later her older daughters did all the cooking. The Rebbetzin made her own non-gebrokhts lokhshen. She made her own shmaltz rather than use commercial oil, and she ground her own fish for gefilte fish. On Pesach, she squeezed her own orange juice and grape juice, and they didn’t even use selzer.

Yet, Reb Avraham Moshe added, his father never made an issue about these hanhagos; nobody thought that this was anything special, or that Reb Herschel was “extra frum.” Everything was done with temimus u-pshitus and with simchah. 

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Reb Herschel used handmade shmurah matzos from the Poilisher Matzoh Bakery on the Lower East Side, which he participated in baking with a special chaburah. The chaburah included his brother-in-law Rabbi Tuvia Kaplan, his younger brother Rabbi Boruch Kaplan (founder of Beis Yaakov Seminary in America), and Rabbi Dovid Bender (Menahel of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and father of Rabbi Yaakov Bender). They were particular to use razeveh (whole wheat) matzos, as a hiddur in halakhah. (The whole wheat flour was only sifted once, leaving less chance for error.)

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Reb Herschel used these handmade shmurah matzos, not machine matzos, throughout Pesach. Rebbetzin Wasilski and the children also used only these handmade shmurah matzos.
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He used to leave some matzos on a tray in the middle of the dining table throughout the entire Pesach, in case anyone wanted to wash and make “hamotzi.

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Bedikas chometz: The bedikah was a serious avodah for Reb Herschel. He did not speak the entire time, and all the lights in his home were turned off. They would put out ten small pieces of bread, as is the common minhag. Reb Herschel used a long wax candle, which one of his young children would hold for him. He would sweep any crumbs with a feather into a white cloth. He also used a wooden spoon. Yet he did not perform an unusually long bedikah. It took 15-20 minutes to search their seven and a half room apartment.

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In those years, bedikas chometz kits were not common. Reb Herschel would get a feather from the local butcher.

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He used to say the tefillah after bedikas chometz from the Rabbi Yaakov Emden Siddur (“Dinei Erev Pesach,” p. 226, Lemberg ed.).

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After the bedikah, he would tie up the the white cloth and its contents, including the feather and spoon, with string. Then he would hang it from the light fixture in the front hall of the apartment until the morning.

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He would recite the tefillah after bi’ur chometz from the Rabbi Yaakov Emden Siddur. Alluding to Yechezkel 36:26, this tefillah asks that Hashem grant us a “lev bosor” (heart of flesh). In Chayei Moharan (sec. 339), Reb Noson mentions that the Rebbe related “lev bosor” to “Breslov” (since they have the same letters). Therefore, Reb Herschel would always tell his children and all those nearby after reciting the tefillah, “So we’re asking to become Breslover Chassidim!”

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Hadlokas HaNeiros: The women would light the candles before the zman on the first night, as on Erev Shabbos. The second night they would light after tzes ha-kokhavim. Reb Avraham Moshe assumed that the women recited their own “Shehechiyanu” after lighting, although he wasn’t absolutely sure.

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Reb Avraham Moshe remembered that when his father came to the Seder, he had an aura of malkhus. His face would be radiantanpin nehirin.” Reb Herschel wore a white yarmulke and white kittel. He used his regular armchair covered with a white cloth, to the left of which was another chair covered in white with several pillows on which he would recline when drinking the wine or eating the matzoh, etc. But he did not lay down, nor did he recline during the meal.

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His sons did not use pillows, but just leaned at the required times. The guests did not have their own pillows, either—and there were always guests.

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Reb Herschel did not bentch the children before the Seder (although he did so before the Shabbos meal on Friday nights).

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Reb Herschel himself picked out the matzos for “Kohen, Levi, Yisroel” (arranging them in that order—“Kohen” on top, “Levi” in the middle, and “Yisroel” on the bottom), and then set up the Ka’arah.

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Ka’arah / Seder Plate: They used one ka’arah, set up according to the minhag of the Arizal (which is the common minhag in Breslov). However, each guest had his own lechem mishneh. The children did not have their own matzos, though, even Reb Herschel’s grown sons.

Simanei HaKa’arah:

Karpas: Reb Herschel used both potato and onion for karpas. Although he preferred potato, he always served onion as well, since this was his father’s minhag (as it was throughout Lithuania). So the onion was on the table, even though he didn’t use it. (This probably reflected the Rebbe’s caution not to eat raw onions in Sichos HaRan 265).

Whenever Rebbetzin Wasilski’s father Rabbi Yaakov Mordechai Gordon joined them for Pesach, they also served raddish for karpas, since that was his family minhag. (This was customary in the region of Kobrin, where his family came from.)

Chazeres: He used the head (keppel) of the horseradish root.

Moror: He used the end (i.e., the root, not the tip) of a romaine lettuce stalk. 

Beitzah: He used a boiled egg, not roasted.

Zeroah: He used the neck of a chicken (gorgel). But in later years, he used the wing (fliegel).

Charoses: Like most Eastern Eurpean Jews, he used a mixture of grated apples, wine, chopped nuts and maybe cinnamon. He would mix them together himself in the late afternoon on Erev Pesach.

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Kadesh, Urchatz, etc.: Reb Herschel led the entire Seder, and everyone else followed along. He alone recited “Kadesh, Urchatz, Karpas, Yachatz…” (If anyone wished to say it for themselves, they would do so quietly.) He also announced each of these simanim individually as the Seder progressed, and often would comment on it.

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Kiddush: According to the common Litvishe custom, Reb Herschel alone made Kiddush on Shabbos and Yom Tov for his family. However, on Pesach every son made his own Kiddush one after the other, in the order of their ages.

He drank the entire kos for each of the four cups of wine—even though in those days only Tokay, Malaga or Concord wine were available. He usually used Concord wine.

He used an 8 or 9 oz. glass kos on Shabbos and Yom Tov and also at the Pesach Seder. Yet he would drink the contents all at once. However, the women and children over bar mitzvah didn’t use such large glasses; they were probably 6 oz. glasses.

Every child also had his own Kiddush cup, even if it was a small shiur. This included even the younger children, beginning when they were as young as three or four.

Everyone stood for Kiddush. The women held their glasses and quietly recited the Kiddush at the same time as Reb Herschel. Then the male guests and his sons would recite Kiddush, one after another. No one left the table during Kiddush, but everyone listened to everyone one else. There was no hefkerus.

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Maggid: With Reb Herschel leading, everyone would recite the text of the Haggadah together, section by section. He would frequently add chiddushei Torah based on Breslov teachings. These chiddushim were new every year. Occasionally one of the guests would add a vertl, but this was infrequent.

Reb Herschel recited the Haggadah with a certain niggun or nusach that he probably heard from his father.

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He always used Reb Alter Tepliker’s Ohr Zareich Haggadah, which includes various excerpts from the Breslover seforim. Reb Avrohom Moshe recalled that his father had an old edition, probably from the 1940s.

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Karpas: He did not recline for karpas.

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Yachatz: He would set aside the Afikoman in a cloth bag nearby, and during the Seder one of the children would “steal” it and then bargain with him at the end of the meal, as is common.

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He followed the common nusachHoh lachma anya” (with a kometz-heh for “hoh”), not “hey lachma anya” or “ki-hoh lachma anya”—although he was well aware of these variant nuschos. This probably reflected his father’s custom.

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Mah Nishtanah: The younger boys and girls would recite the “Fee’ir Kashas,” and Reb Herschel alone would repeat them when they were through. (He would often preface this by saying, “I was the youngest child in my family.”) He would then say, “Der teretz iz… (the answer is)…” followed by “Avodim hoyinu.”

They said the “Mah Nishtanah” in the order of the Bavli, as found in most Haggadahs, and not according to the Yerushalmi and Arizal (even though most of the other Breslover hanhagos conform to those of the Arizal).

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In addition to commenting on the Haggadah, he would sing at various points, particularly in Hallel, and then at length after the conclusion of the Seder. Everyone would enthusiastically join in the singing. There were years when some of his talmidim and other local yeshivah bochurim stopped by just to witness Reb Herschel’s Seder (which was much longer than most).

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Mitzvas Moror: He would use only the stalks of romaine lettuce, removing the rest of the leaves and then rinsing the stalks thoroughly with water.

He would add some white chrein on top of a few lettuce stalks, with a very small amount of charoses. However, he distributed large shiurim, six or seven stalks.

For his personal use, he would prepare slices of the ends of the lettuce (i.e., the lower part from which the leaves grow) and add white chrein to those slices. This too may have been his father’s minhag.

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Korekh: Reb Herschel would add a little charoses to the chrein and lettuce stalks. Despite his carefulness to avoid gebrokhts, he was not concerned with the charoses touching the matzohs for korekh.

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Beitzah: At the beginning of the meal itself, he would serve hard-boiled eggs. For himself, he would slice an egg and put the slices in a small dish of salt water. This was his father’s minhag. (In Eastern Europe, many families only ate slices of the egg; they could not give each person a whole egg, due to poverty.)

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By the time he got to the fourth kos, which was after 4:00 AM—or sometimes after finishing the Seder—he often would go to the kitchen sink and dampen his forehead with cold water to wake himself up in order to continue his avodah. Reb Avrohom Moshe speculated that he might have even done so for the sake of the children, whom he encouraged to do the same thing.

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Afikoman: Reb Herschel was never makpid about the zman of chatzos. Reb Avraham Moshe does not remember his father even mentioning it. He just did his avodah in its own time. And in fact there were many Gedolei Yisrael who were not makpid about the zman chatzos on the Seder nights.

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After completing the Seder, he would lead the singing of the various songs at the end, some of which he sang in Yiddish or Russian, as well as in Hebrew. Then he would recite aloud the entire “Shir HaShirim.” After this, he would go to wake up those who asked him to do so for Shacharis, go to the mikveh and then to shul. (He did not daven ki-vasikin but a little after 7:00 AM.) Thus, he would be awake all night long on both of the first two nights of Pesach.

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Reb Avrohom Moshe added that one should remember that his father and his peers were strong people, and they were capable of doing these avodahs with simchah shel mitzvah and without becoming overstressed. Reb Herschel himself would always tell people that if they would not be able to function the next day, they surely should finish the Seder earlier.

Reb Avrohom Moshe added a vort of his own about this issue. The Haggadah mentions how five chakhomim stayed up all night discussing yetziyas Mitzrayim, until their talmidim came and announced that the time had arrived for kriyas Shema shel Shacharis. Did the sages need their talmidim to tell them this? Maybe we can infer from this that the talmidim wanted to inform their teachers that they couldn’t stay up all night like their masters and function properly the next day!

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After Pesach:

Shlissel Challoh: At first, the Wasilskis did not bake a “shlissel challoh” for the Shabbos after Pesach. But in the later years, Rebbetzin Wasilski would bake a challoh with the form of a key on top of the loaf, not an actual key. (There are a number of different customs for baking shlissel challoh.)

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Because they didn’t eat kneidlach on Acharon shel Pesach, for many years Rebbetzin Wasilski made kneidlach for the Shabbos after Pesach. They were prepared from a half-pound of matzoh meal which Reb Herschel bought before Pesach, ground by the bakery from the matzoh baked by his chaburah. However, it seems that this was done for the sake of the children. After the children grew up, Rebbetzin Wasilski stopped making kneidlach for this Shabbos.

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