R. Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira of Piaseczna was born in Grodzisk Poland in 1889 to R. Elimelech and Hannah Bracha Shapira. On both sides he was descended from a long line of distinguished Polish Hasidic rebbes, including R. Elimelech of Lyzhansk, the Kohznitzer Maggid, the Seer of Lublin and R. Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, after whom he was named. His father died when he was three and he was educated largely by his older nephew, R. Yerahmiel Moshe Hapstein of Kohznitz, who later became his father-in-law. In 1909, R. Yerahmiel Moshe died and, at the age of 20, R. Kalonymus became the Hasidic rebbe of Piaseczna, a suburb of Warsaw, a few years later becoming the town’s official rabbi as well. After World War One, the Rebbe moved to Warsaw, although he continued as the rebbe of Piaseczna, where he spent several months each year.
Polish Jewry in the interwar period faced a spiritual crisis of massive proportions. Economic and demographic factors, combined with the influx of modern trends, contributed to a radical process of secularization, especially among the youth. Even Hasidic communities found themselves threatened by alienation and defection.
R. Kalonymus sought to combat these trends on a wide variety of communal and educational fronts. One of his strategies was the organization of secret societies for the elite of the Hasidic community. Devotion and service to God, experienced in a group setting, would enable each individual to reach spiritual heights he could not attain on his own. Perfecting their own relationship to God, the participants would eventually create a ripple effect revitalizing the Hasidic world.
This was the subject of the Rebbe’s first book, Bnai Mahshavah Tovah (Conscious Community), written in the early 1920s, and would also be discussed in his later works, such as Hahsharat Ha’Avreihim (Jewish Spiritual Growth). One of his major spiritual techniques is the development of the imagination through exercises in guided imagery on a series of religious topics. Ultimately, one’s consciousness could rise to the level of a constant awareness of God’s presence, fostering a stronger sense of connectedness with the Divine.
In 1923, R. Kalonymus founded Yeshivat Daat Moshe in Warsaw, which rapidly became a leading Hasidic yeshiva, educating thousands of students until the outbreak of World War Two. His stated goal was to produce an elite spiritual leadership.
The Rebbe was considered an outstanding and creative educator, and in 1932 published his only work to actually come out in his lifetime, Hovat HaTalmidim (The Student’s Obligation). The book, addressed directly to the young student, made a great impression, and was studied even in non-Hasidic yeshivot. Throughout this period the Rebbe continued in his role as a Hasidic rebbe and spiritual guide. His sermons from the 1920s and ’30s were eventually published (from the notes of his students) in Israel under the title Dereh HaMeleh.
It was during this period as well that the Rebbe penned Hahsharat Ha’Avreihim and Mevo HaShearim, around 1935 and 1937, respectively. Unfortunately, World War Two broke out before he had a chance to publish them.
At the very beginning of the Nazi attack on Warsaw, most of the Rebbe’s immediate family was killed. As his wife had died in 1937, the Rebbe was left quite alone. Throughout the war, in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Rebbe continued to give sermons secretly in an attempt to strengthen the faith and religious resolve of his Hasidim. Eventually, his writings were buried in the ground as part of Emanuel Ringelblum’s secret Oneg Shabbos archival project. After the liquidation of the ghetto, he was deported to a camp near Lublin, where he was murdered in November 1943. His writings were miraculously discovered after the war and published in Israel, including the Holocaust sermons (Aish Kodesh –Sacred Fire), and his personal spiritual diary, Zav V’Ziruz (To Heal the Soul).
In recent decades all of the Rebbe’s works have become very popular and are studied in yeshivot of all stripes. They are popular as well in many non-Orthodox educational frameworks. Additionally, they have been the subject of numerous academic studies. Most have been translated into English and some into other languages as well. It is clear beyond any doubt that the Rebbe’s teachings, while written in Poland between the wars, are extremely relevant for spiritual guidance today as well.
R. Kalonymus, in a letter to his brother R. Yeshayahu Shapira in Tel Aviv, which he enclosed with his manuscripts before they were buried, implores all Jews to study his works, and promises that the merit of his holy ancestors will be a blessing for them. I am sure he would take great comfort in knowing that his works were eventually published and are studied throughout the world by many thousands who attempt to live by his teachings. He signed his letter, which was penned January 3, 1943:
“The words of your loving friend and brother, who yearns for you, who is broken and shattered with his own torments and the torments of all the Jewish People, which are as deep as the manifold abyss and as high as the heaven’s heavens, who anticipates God’s salvation in the blink of an eye, Kalonymus.”
May his righteous memory be for a great blessing.
A memorial evening in Hebrew and English will take place Thursday night October 11th at the Chorev Yeshiva, 2 Ben Zion Atun Street, Jerusalem.