One of the most revered personages of Vilna in past centuries was the Ger Tzedek of Vilna who lived in Lithuania when the Gra was still a young man. Because Jews were forbidden from publicizing his story at the time when he died al Kiddush Hashem, his history has been preserved through stories and traditions passed down through the generations, including some originating with talmidim of the Vilna Gaon (the Gra), and for many years, even his grave was only marked by the cryptic words, “Here is interred the righteous Avrohom ben Avrohom, [who passed away on the second day of Shavuos] 5509 .” Every year, the Jews of Vilna commemorated his yahrzeit and repeated the wondrous story of his conversion and his martyrdom. Jews davened at his kever, which was almost as revered as that of the Gra.
Why are there Gerim?
The Ger Tzedek began his life as a member of the wealthy, ducal Potocki (pronounced Pototsky) family that owned property over large stretches of Poland. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach related that once Graf (Count) Potocki had amassed 999 estates, he avoided buying more land to prevent people from brushing him off as the man with a thousand estates. Rather, they would need to express his wealth in lengthy and cumbersome terms saying he had nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine estates.
The Potockis were the symbol of great wealth. When Jewish children demanded something their parents could not afford, the parental response would be, “Who do you think I am? Graf Potocki!”
Graf Potocki’s son, Valentin, was studying for the Catholic priesthood together with a friend named Zaremba. After journeying to Franceto complete their studies, the two began to entertain doubts about the validity of Catholicism and secretly studied Tanach with a Jewish scholar. This culminated in Valentin’s traveling to Amsterdam and becoming a Jew. It is said that the Ger Tzedek possessed a lofty soul even before he converted. Every Shabbos he entered a state of great hislahavus and striding back and forth in his room he would shout in Polish, “Tzo toh yest Shabbos, What is this Shabbos?”
The Chofetz Chaim often repeated a vort he heard in the name of the Ger Tzedek concerning why certain non-Jews choose to accept the heavy yoke of Torah upon themselves. At Matan Torah, when the nations turned down Hashem’s offer of the Torah, certain individuals in each nation did want to accept the Torah. These are the souls that convert in every generation.
Graf Potocki and his wife searched feverishly for their son who seemed to have dropped off the planet. They sent messengers to various countries where Valentin wrote to them during his journeying and came up with nothing. Fearing his parents might catch up with him, the Ger Tzedek moved to Vilna dressed like a pious Jew with long coat, beard, and peyos and sat down in an out of the way kloiz where he studied Torah day and night. Righteous women provided him with enough food to keep body and soul together.
It is said that the Vilna Gaon advised him to leave the large city of Vilnaand move to a small town where no one knew him. In accordance with his advice, the Ger Tzedek moved to the town of Il’yawhere he sat in the local shul with tallis and tefillin, learning and davening with devekus. No one but the local rav had the faintest idea who he was.
In the village lived a tailor who sewed fur coats for Polish gentry. When he heard that Graf Potocki was searching for a lost son who may have converted, he became suspicious of the mysterious porush (ascetic) in the shul who spoke Yiddish with a strange accent but knew Polish perfectly. In the meantime, he kept his suspicions to himself. But one day the tailor’s mischievous son entered the shul and disturbed the Ger Tzedek’s learning to the extent that he led him out by his ear, complaining, “If a Jewish boy can behave like this, he may even end up becoming an apostate.” Infuriated at what had happened, he mossered the Ger Tzedek’s secret to the authorities.
Some say the Ger Tzedek was arrested in Il’ya on the evening he married the daughter of a local miller, Betzalel Halevi, on the 13th of Adar 5509, one year after arriving in the town. He was clapped in chains and dragged to the bishop of Vilna.
Al Kiddush Hashem
The Ger Tzedek’s parents rushed to Vilna, fell at their son’s feet, and begged him to return to his ancestral religion and save his life. Priests came to argue with him and prove he had made a mistake. He told his jailors that he was perfectly willing to die al Kiddush Hashem like any other Jew, even when his parents asked him to only regret his conversion outwardly, promising to provide him with a private mansion where he could continue secretly living like a Jew.
“You are very dear to me,” he told his mother, “but the truth is even dearer.”
As a last resort, his mother asked the Czar to spare her son’s life. It is said that although the Czar acceded to her request, the Ger Tzedek was executed a day before the Czar’s authorization arrived in Vilna.
When the tormenting priests asked the Ger Tzedek to forgive them for the sufferings he endured by their hands, he replied, “The verse says in Tehillim, Extol Hashem all nations, praise Him all people, for His loving kindness has prevailed upon us. The Gemara (Pesochim 118b) asks, Why should the nations praise Hashem when He does kindness to Jews?”
“We can compare this to a prince who was hit by his friend during a game and promised to take revenge after he became king,” the Ger Tzedek continued. “When he eventually became king, his erstwhile friend was worried that the long promised revenge might materialize, until the king told him that now that he was enjoying the glory of royalty, the pain of his childhood incident seemed like a joke.”
“Similarly,” said the Ger Tzedek, “when I reach the next world all the sufferings you caused me will seem like a child’s patch compared to the glory I receive there. I won’t even think of the paltry matters of this world. This is what the psalm is saying. The nations will praise Hashem when He grants us loving kindness in the next world as it will lessen the severity of their punishment for making us suffer in this world.
The Chofetz Chaim used to relate how the Gra sent the Ger Tzedek a message that he could help him escape his torturers through the use of holy names. To this, the Ger Tzedek replied that from the time he acknowledged Hashem’s unity, he was ready to deliver his soul al Kiddush Hashem. He would not give up the tremendous mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem and swap it for his physical body.
It is said that as the Ger Tzedek passed beneath the Gra’s window on his way to his death, the Gra called out to him, “Reb Avrohom, go quickly!”
The Ger Tzedek had been uncertain whether to walk slowly in order to extend his life by a few extra minutes, or whether to hurry in order to fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem with alacrity. Sensing his doubt, the Gra cried out that the second course was the best.
Rav Avrohom went on his last way with dancing and joy. In Volozhin Yeshiva bochurim used to sing with wonderful deveikus the words of the Ger Tzedek’s song taken from the beginning of davening: “But we are Your nation the sons of Your covenant, the sons of Avrohom Your beloved one, to whom You swore at Mount Moriah, the seed of Yitzchok his only son who was bound upon the altar, etc. Blessed are You, etc., who sanctifies His name in the multitudes.”
As the fire consumed him, the Ger Tzedek cried out to the flames, “Burn my body that once ate treifa, burn my hands that once sinned, etc.,” and he sang verses of Tehillim until the end. It was said in the name of the Gra that had ten Jews been present to answer amein to his final brochah, the moshiach would undoubtedly have arrived.
According to local legend, smoke from the pyre blackened an adjacent building and no matter how much people scraped and cleaned it, the stain never left. Even painting the building didn’t help. The only way to remove the mark of disgrace was to demolish the building.
In defiance of an order that no one should dare collect the Ger Tzedek’s ashes and bury them, the Gra sent a beardless Jew, Reb Leizer Shiskes, disguised a as non-Jew, to go and fetch the ashes. Shiskes bribed the guard to hand him the Ger Tzedek’s ashes together with two fingers that had survived the fire and these were interred in an earthenware vessel. The Gra blessed Shiskes with long life, and as a result he lived for 112 years. On his grave was inscribed, “[Because of] the blessing of the Gaon, the number of the years of his life was 112.”
The Gra once went to be menachem avel to a talmid whose son had died as an infant and revealed to him that the Ger Tzedek had sanctified his entire life except for the fact that he was born and raised as a non-Jew. Because of this, he said, his soul returned to the world in the body of the talmid’s baby in order to rectify this matter. Now that he was complete, the baby had returned to his place above.
A tree Grawing over the kever put out branches shaped like arms and legs, and was reminiscent of someone bending protectively over the kever. Stories were told of the unsuccessful attempts of non-Jews to destroy the tree; during World War I, it is said, when a soldier tried to cut down the tree with an ax, it slipped and killed him. Later in the war, however, German soldiers succeeded in destroying the top half of the tree. The kehillah of Vilna finally made an ohel for the kever in 1927, covering it with a roof and surrounding it with a wall where a sign declared, “The tomb of the Ger Tzedek, for a precious, clean, and pure soul, the kadosh, Avrohom ben Avrohom zt”l, who sanctified Hashem in public on the second day of Shavuos, 5509.”
During World War II, the Nazis destroyed Vilna’s old Jewish cemetery where the Vilna Gaon and the Ger Tzedek were interred. In 1949, the Communists granted permission for the kever of the Gra and seven others including the remains of the Ger Tzedek to be moved to a new beis hakevaros where they presently lie within the ohel of the Vilna Gaon.
(Source: Dov Eliach, Hagaon – Chayav uMishnaso shel Hagra, Moreshes Hayeshivos, 5762. It should be noted that many accounts of the Ger Tzedek are inaccurate and embellished.)