The Life of Rav Asher Fruend zt”l
As told by his grandson, Rav Yair Weinstock
“One must rely on the Creator…devote oneself to Him…speak to Him…Let your ego, which brings hatred toward others, fade away.” These were the teachings of the tzaddik, Rav Asher Fruend zt”l. Rav Fruend never believed in titles or acronyms. He demanded truth in character and yet held infinite patience toward those who lacked it.
“If I had ten people who were willing to venture out to a desolate field with me and who were willing to negate all worldly materialism and devote their entire being to G-D…we could bring Moshiach right away.
This is how Rav Asher, as he was best known, expressed his desire and ambition to serve G-D and strive towards truth – without compromise, and without ego.
Rav Asher was a wondrous man who is dearly missed by many around the world. On the night after Yom Kippur, on the 11th of Tishrei, we remember and mark the anniversary of his passing. He was a unique servant of Hashem, a rabbi and father to hundreds of people without preconditions and attitudes.
He certainly had ruach hakodesh and had the ability to do miraculous things, and yet, he gave the impression of being a simple person. A rare benefactor of kindness and a man of sincere truth, he had the ability in one sentence to be short and sharp and yet bring about a mental transformation into a person’s heart, from one end of the spiritual scope to the other.
Rav Asher was born on the 25th of Elul 5670 within the walls of Jerusalem. His parents came from a Chasiddic family, the decedents of the “holy Jews of Peshischa”, who were Karlin Chasiddim. As a youngster growing up among the tzaddikim of Yerushalayim, he was instilled with great character and shown various pathways to serve Hashem. His grandfather, the saintly Rav Aharon Kalmanov, learned the attribute of performing Chesed in its most lofty form – by giving anonymously. His acts of kindness were part of his passionate desire for complete devotion to Hashem, all of which were passed down to his son and grandson.
In this world of Torah and Chasidism, Rav Asher grew up with a thirst to be close to his Creator – a thirst that was never quenched. There were three righteous men who were a source of spiritual nourishment for him: Rabbi Shlomka of Zveiel, the Rav and Mekubal, Rav Meir Schwartz from Pudheitz, from the Chassidic sect of Karlin, and the Rebbe of Grudziask, Rav Elimelech. In his youth as a student, he remained a soldier in his Torah studies and showed exceptional abilities to comprehend Talmudic concepts and teachings way above his age level.
Already at a young age he began to become famous in Jerusalem as a prodigy in the service of Hashem and slowly, people began to gather around him, whom he guided in his unique service of G-d. He used to go out with his students to a field for meditation. There, he would speak words that would ignite sparks of fire regarding the magnificent work of the Creator. The message was always the same: “We are nothing!” The verse “אנכי תולעת ולא איש, חרפת אדם ובזוי עם”
“…and I am a worm, not a man – a disgrace and a despicable person,” was always on his lips and he instructed his students with the understanding that everything a person obtains and owns is from Hashem. If he stands alone, he has nothing and without the help of Hashem to grow (spiritually), he will certainly fall to the lowest depths.
To establish this group of devoted servants to the Creator, R. Asher sought only such people who would agree to follow his lead and commit to give all of himself to the Creator, with total unity and unconditional love. The students would also go out among themselves to all kinds of groves and forests. In pairs they came out, but only after first establishing the steadfastness of his partner’s service to Hashem and together look for ways to strengthen each other. Only after that, was each one close enough with his Creator to be able to speak with Him as a son speaks to his father.
In those excursions to the field, R. Asher guided his students to speak at all times with the Almighty and depend on Him completely. Understandably, R. Asher was the living example for the Torah way of life that he taught to those he guided.
His students relate that once they went out to a remote location and waited for the driver that drove R. Asher around. As the car approached them, they noticed that Rav Asher, who usually had a radiant smile, did not show any facial expression at all but seemed to be in a dire situation. When they got closer they saw that he was writhing in agony and clutching his chest. His face grew darker. He was having the symptoms of a severe heart attack.
“There was no source of communication in the area, and no access to a preliminary first-aid kit. We just stared and then, an unbelievable thing happened,” explained one of the students who witnessed it. “Instead of asking us to call an ambulance, he put his head on his hand, which in itself seemed like an effort to do.”
Most people would interpret the laying of his head on his hand as a sign of despair and a worsening of the situation, but not the disciples of Rav Asher. They were used to seeing explainable daily occurrences turned into unexplainable outcomes. They guessed correctly that what the Rav said at that moment in his heart and with his lips as he turned to G-d were as follows: “Father in heaven, You are the source behind my heart attack. You sent it to me, as You cause all things to happen for reasons only You know. I have no ability to stop this attack, and I therefore will turn to you for help. You are the doctor and the healer. So, You alone will be my doctor, and You alone will cure me without material means.”
Then, the most amazing thing happened. “His face, which was really gray, suddenly began to turn red like a furnace,
and after a few minutes of concentration, he picked himself up, opened the door and got out of the car with a light jump on his legs. It was as if nothing had happened. The heart attack was already behind him and it was time to move on.
Three minutes and a whole life…
Apart from his absolute dependence on Hashem, R. Asher also constantly guided his life with pure truth and belief as a way to dismiss life’s hardships.
Asher would say: “A person should, all his life, get used to seeing the Holy One, Blessed is He, behind every reason of conflict and despair. Did someone irritate you? It is because Hashem sent him for a beneficial purpose. Your wife yelled at you? The Holy One, Blessed is He, put into her heart the need to steer you in a certain direction. Your neighbor is fighting with you? The Creator put the idea into his head to send you a message!”
He also used to say that repentance means relinquishing our knowledge of life – relinquishing all knowledge to the Creator. This means understanding that relying on our own reasoning to accomplish the goals we were sent to do will end in complete failure, and we on our own would not be able to bring goodness into the world. “How can a person be proud of his good deeds? They were caused as a result of a heavenly sent guidance and direction. The good deed you did was not your own.
The righteous Rabbi Gedaliah Keonig, one of the greatest Breslav Chasidim of the previous generation, said that he was once present in a situation in which Rabbi Asher was brutally degraded. R. Gedaliah was agitated, and asked Rav Asher why he did not protest the disgrace. Rav Asher said: “What is there to say. Every word that he said about me is true.”
Just as he saw things about himself, so too did he instruct his students. To explain that, a story was told a few years ago by someone who was very close to Rav Asher:
“I studied at the Kollel in Bnei Brak, and I had a friend who told me that there was a man in Jerusalem by the name of R. Asher Freund, who is an “interesting Jew”, as he put it. My friend explained that in his youth he would occasionally come, like many others, to drink with thirst the lessons of faith of R. Asher. I wanted to hear more about Reb Asher and finally got his address. I came to see Rav Asher on a winter Shabbos in 1967. I knocked on the door and R. Asher himself opened it. Rabbi Asher then sat at the head of a table surrounded by family and guests.
Rav Asher then asked, ‘What do you want?’
“I heard much about you and I want to know more,” I answered him directly.
Rav Asher, who looked at me with a sharp glance, did not prepare me for what I was about to hear. He said the following words that changed my life: ‘You and everything you have done so far in regard to avodas Hashem is just your ego providing self-satisfaction. Everything you’ve done your whole life is just to fulfill that self-satisfaction”.
I was then a young married man with a glaring reputation as an outstanding yeshiva student. I was from those who persisted in Torah learning in the kollel with complete dedication, studying Gemara, Halacha and Chasidic Studies.
It was our first meeting and it was not two minutes since I entered the Rav’s house when he said those words. No one had ever talked to me that way before, and I had never heard such sharp….and true words. In just a few minutes, Rav Asher tore up all the beautiful veils and clothing that covered my inner faults and charachteristic flaws. He had found my animalistic nature and revealed the truth to me. That was forty-six years ago and I remember those words of Reb Asher as if I just heard them. These first three minutes of the encounter with R. Asher gave me my foundation for life. Rav Asher was my true Rebbe.”
Don’t you know how to speak?
His disciples relate that once a very wealthy man from America came to him, looking for a shidduch for his son. He sat and waited in the courtyard for five hours, from eight in the morning until one o’clock in the afternoon, and saw how everyone was allowed to enter R. Asher’s study except him. The man was very upset and told the Gabai that he would soon leave. The Gabbai entered R. Asher’s room and asked what to do with the man. “When does he have to travel abroad?”, R. Asher asked.
“Tomorrow,” answered the Gabai.
“Then, he will come to me tomorrow,” Rabbi Asher replied sharply.
The gabbai went out to the man with the answer and he replied angrily: “I cannot wait until tomorrow because I will be pressed to catch my flight.
However, R. Asher did not change his answer. “Let him come tomorrow.”
As the man prepared to leave, Reb Asher sent the Gabbai to him again with the message not to go in anger, and to return tomorrow.”
The Gabai ran and told the man the message.
“I cannot return tomorrow,” replied the man, walking away angrily.
“Run to the man,” Rabbi Asher told the Gabai, “and tell him that I will see him now.”
When the man heard this, he was happy and thought that his rage had paid off. What happened when he finally stood before Rav Asher was unexpected.
“Tell me,” Reb Asher shouted at him, “Why do you come to me? Do you not have a mouth? Do you not know how to speak? Why do you need to come to me to pray for you? Can’t you yourself pray to G-d? What happened? Go and pray for yourself! “
The man walked away stunned and hurt. His pride and spirits were shattered. He arrived at his hotel room and burst into tears. He suddenly found himself standing and praying to his Creator from the depths of his soul. “Hashem, my Father in heaven, please send salvation to my adult unmarried son.”
Sure enough, within ten days, the man’s son had found his soulmate! Frightened and yet excited, the man returned to Israel immediately and came running to Reb Asher to thank him for his help.
“I did nothing. It was you who prayed to G-D and was answered!” This was Rav Asher’s typical answer.
Do not forget your short pants…
Sometimes R. Asher would educate his students from a heavenly view that he alone had. Miracles and unexplained occurrences seemed to engulf him and effect those nearby. One of his students recalls the following:
“One year, I came from abroad to Jerusalem, to celebrate Sukkot. In the shade and holy glow of my teacher Rav Asher. On the eve of the holiday, I went to the Ben Yehuda market to buy myself a set of “four species”. I soon found an etrog, a lulav and the most beautiful kosher set of haddasim, as well as kosher arovot.
So I walked back satisfied with my purchases in hand toward the Geula neighborhood along Jaffa Road. When I reached the Davidka Square, I saw a young man standing and selling haddasim under a doorpost. He had long wavy hair and a small skullcap, and he wore a pair of short pants.
He turned to me and asked, ‘Sir, would you like to by haddasim from me?’
I showed him the haddasim in my hands. “I’ve already bought what I need…I do not need to buy more”.
He looked embarrassed and confused as he asked me, “So maybe you can help me. I have a bucket here full of Hadassim and I do not know how to determine their kashrut level, which ones are more elegant and which are less elegant. I see that you do know, so maybe you can help me. Can I sort out the hadassim I have in the bucket for you to inspect?”
“I looked at him with disdain, and thought to myself, ‘Me, a chassidic young Talmudic student, should stay here in Davidka Square in the most stressful time before the holiday of Succot to help some guy who’s barely religious with his business? After all, I have to prepare for the holiday, both spiritually and materially. I do not have the time for him or his business.
I replied with a dismissive gesture, “I do not have time,” and I walked away quickly.
As I walked away with my belongings. I did not even turn my head to see the look of disappointment and frustration on the face of the boy.
On the eve of the holiday, we prayed in Rav Asher’s sukkah and after the prayer I joined everyone to say ‘Good Yom Tov’ to Rav Asher. I approached him and wished him a good Yom Tov but he seemed to not notice me. I was a little nervous as I left to go home. When I went home, I kept thinking about what happened and I came to the conclusion that Rav Asher did not answer me, “Good Yom Tov!”
Well, it could happen, I thought to myself. There were a lot of people and R. Asher just did not see me. Tomorrow he will answer me properly.
But the next day after prayer, the same scene was repeated. Rav Asher looked at each person in the line that approached him and wished each of them a good Yom Tov with a radiance and warmth that he was known for. Everyone, that is, except me. He simply ignored me and my well wishes. It was as if I did not exist. Still, I convinced myself that it was just a combination of coincidences which would correct itself in due time over Yom Tov.
When also on Chol HaMoed and on Shabbat Chol HaMoed, Rav Asher continued to ignore me, I understood clearly that there was a message being sent here and I was determined to find out that it was.
At Shemini Atzeret, the most joyous day to celebrate with the Torah in the Land of Israel, I was already on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I felt that if Reb Asher will continue to ignore me, I will not survive the day. I tried to make myself stand out, jumping and dancing before him erratically to get his attention, but nothing helped.
On the second day of Yom Tov, which was Simchat Torah for those who live outside of Israel, I could barely stand. I decided to go to Rav Asher’s house and see what would develop. I arrived at his home wearing holiday clothing while the people who live in Eretz Israel were already wearing their weekday clothing. For them, it was Issur Chag. I entered the room of Rav Asher and saw that he was sitting and speaking with one of his students.
I stood in the room until his eyes rested on me. He said in a stern voice, “You look like a young man with a small skullcap and short trousers standing in the Davidka Square. Good afternoon!”
At that moment I felt like a 10 pound hammer had hit my head. Suddenly, I remembered everything that transpired on erev Yom Tov with that young man with a small skullcap and short pants, begging me to buy his haddasim or at least help him sort them out. I remembered how rude I was and how arrogantly I answered the young man. Who did I think I was?
Now I understood why Rav Asher treated me with such disregard and so harshly, as if I do not exist. He saw my great pride and wanted to teach me in a way that I would understand. It was a sharp lesson I would never forget
The next day I had to go back to my home abroad, and I came to say goodbye to Rav Asher. I said goodbye and as I stood to leave, Rav Asher said, “Do not forget the shorts.” I understood the Rav’s sharp message: You can look exactly the same or nothing like the guy with shorts. Either way, you are no better than the other, so treat him with respect.
One of R. Asher’s main attributes was his kindness. His younger brother, Reb David, testified that as a seven-year-old boy Asher had seen the hunger of his classmates whose parents were so poor that they, on some days, could not even managed to give them a slice of bread for the school day. He managed to influence his mother to give him a large quantity of bagels. He would stick his thin arm through the holes of the hot bagel and wear them to school so he could give them to his hungry classmates.
He once was given a new thick coat and new shoes. On a cold winter day, he gave them to a poor man and returned to his parents’ home barefoot and without his thick coat. As R. Asher grew older, the scope of his acts of kindness increased and became more sophisticated.
Rav Asher saw before him the Jerusalem of that time – a city stricken with poverty and hunger. With the practical sense of a shrewd businessman, he invested all his genius into helping the poor. It began with carrying sacks of potatoes on his back from the Machane Yehuda market and distributing them to needy people in various neighborhoods in Jerusalem, a ritual which later became institutionalized. At one time, R. Asher ran a jewelry store in Jerusalem and distributed the profits he acquired to the needy. In the 1960s he founded the “Yad Ezra” organization and his many students took part in a wide range of chesed activities. These activities included setting up a printing press and a soup kitchen that employed the mentally disabled with the goal of preparing them for inclusion in community life.
In time, the organization grew to include dental clinics, kindergartens, a vehicle transport company, a food distribution plant for the needy, housing projects in Jerusalem and Ashdod, a hostel in Meron and a yeshiva in Yemin Moshe in Jerusalem, with more projects on the horizon.
One of Jerusalem’s Chassidic residents recalled that his parents’ home was very poor. One day, Rabbi Asher appeared in their home to inspect what necessities were missing. He discovered that the large family with many children were living without a refrigerator. The next day, Rav Asher arrived, accompanied by a patient of one of the clinics who was carrying on his sturdy shoulders a refrigerator in excellent condition. “Put it here,” Rav Asher told him, and before the family members knew what had happened, he was already gone.
One of the relatives of Rav Asher remembered him as a young yeshiva student, loading a heavy sack of groceries on his shoulders and walking toward the Old City to distribute it to the poor. Once, Rav Asher’s wife, Rebbetzin Zivia, told this relative how Rabbi Asher told her that it was the end of World War II, and a stream of refugees would begin to arrive from the camps, “We have to open the doors of our house. These people have long since forgotten the taste of a plate of hot soup.” Even before that, his house was open and there were always more guests than chairs, but since the end of the war, his table and his home had become public property.
He often vacated his own bed for someone who needed a place to sleep. His house was always stacked with egg cartons and other groceries, which he always distributed to the needy.
Despite the establishment of the Yad Ezrah institution, Rav Asher personally continued to be an unlimited source of help and kindness for all who turned to him for it. His own house was always open to everyone, when he often vacated his own bed for a tired soul in need of rest. His house was paved with egg cartons and other groceries, which he always cared to distribute to the needy.
His students told of one Avrech, a ben Torah, who came to him at the beginning of the year 5753 (1993), and complained that the roof of his house was damaged during the stormy winter of 5752 (1992). The cost of the required repairs was much more than he could afford. Rav Asher listened attentively and promised to help. He told the student to come back the next day. The student had no idea that Rav Asher’s righteous wife, Rebbetzin Zivia, was on her death bed.
The next morning the Rebbetzin died and in the hours before the funeral, when the student arrived, Rav Asher’s family gently hinted that it was not the right time to be inside the house. The student understood and immediately started to leave. But as he left the house, he heard someone calling his name. When he turned around, he was surprised to see R. Asher himself coming out of the house and calling him back. He stood in total shock. Rav Asher took out his wallet and counted out a few hundred shekels.
“But now, before the funeral, it is not the time,” stammered the scholar. “What is the connection?” muttered Rav Asher. “You have to repair the roof.”
We have no challahs…
Rav Asher, who traveled extensively to Meron, to mark the yortzeit of Rabi Shimon Bar Yechai, established a gathering of his students every Rosh Hashana in Meron, and led additional trips on monthly Shabbat Mevorchims (Shabbat, when the new upcoming month was proclaimed). Meron in those days was naturally fraught with logistical difficulties. It was a desolate area with little electricity and sparse living conditions. Finding a place to sleep for the 60 or so “friends” (an internal term for Rabbi Asher’s followers) that followed Rav Asher to Meron on those trips would indeed be a miracle. On one of the earliest trips for Shabbat, it was not until the friends arrived at Meron that they realized that they did not even have one challah or basic food essentials for Shabbat and it was already late on Friday afternoon. There was no grocery store in Meron and Safed was still a small city and the stores there were certainly closed.
In despair, the men in charge stood before Rav Asher and told him, “There are no challahs. We have forgotten the challahs in Jerusalem.” A handful of families living in Meron had only the amount of challahs it needed. Perhaps one or two families could volunteer a challah or two – but sixty challah! They thought among themselves that without the discovery of a challah tree, they were in trouble. They sent a search team to see what they could come up with.
A short time later, the search teams returned to Rav Asher empty handed. “There are no challahs in all of Meron, they reported. It was an answer within the realms of nature. But R. Asher, who has long since broken through the frameworks of nature with the power of faith, completely rejected the outcome of their search.
“There are no challahs?” he asked in amazement. “You have not searched well.” The determination and the power of faith in his voice made it seem as if he had actually smelled the challahs close by. “We already searched throughout the village,” said the leader of the search team. “Where else can we look?”
Someone remarked that they had not tried the Bnei Akiva yeshiva. The Yeshiva of Bnei Akiva was located next to the burial place of Rabi Shimon Bar Yechai, so they went to check if by some chance they had a few extra challas, although they did not believe that they would be able to secure more than five to ten challas at best. Even that would be better than nothing.
When they got to the yeshiva they saw that the yard was empty and the building seemed dark. It looked as if it might have been an “off Shabbat”, when the students all go away to friends and relatives. They knocked on the door of the office with a skeptical heart, but the door suddenly opened with a rush and the director of the yeshiva who lived in Meron asked what they wanted. They told him that they had sixty guests who desperately needed challah for Shabbat.
“What? Sixty challahs? He repeated it again. “Sixty challahs? I don’t believe it! Every Shabbat we receive a basket of sixty challas in our dining room from the bakery in Sefat. This Shabbat, I was supposed to remind to the bakery not to bring the challahs because it is an “off Shabbat”. For some reason I was busier than usual this morning and soon realized that I forgot to call the Sefat bakery. This morning, the car from the bakery came and dropped off 60 challahs in the kitchen of the yeshiva. I have no use for them, so please help yourself.”
You cannot imagine the look of the search party at that moment.
On another occasion, one student recalls the following…
We were with Rav Asher in Meron one early morning when we went to recite tehillim at the grave of Rav Yochanan the shoemaker. We stood together for about twenty minutes and then moved back while R. Asher remained standing and praying next to the grave. I was very curious and wanted to discover the mysteries of R. Asher, the person who makes himself dust and ashes, while around him wondrous miracles occur. I purposely stood next to him with a tehillim in my hands as if I were praying, but my eyes followed him closely.
Rav Asher did not feel my presence. He stood focused on his thoughts and his eyes closed tightly. Suddenly, he was completely pale, as if he was about to faint. He then put three fingers on his forehead and suddenly his face began to turn burning red. I should have been alarmed but I was a young and naïve Yerushalmi student, thinking that maybe Rav Asher was just trying to impress me.
I could see that Rav Asher was in a deep state of meditation and seemed to have somehow connected with the soul of the tanna himself. I will never forget how, suddenly the face of R. Asher turned pale like the face of a dead man, and he began to tremble if he were about to faint. I ran shouting at his son, Rabbi Avraham, who was standing and talking to my father. I yelled, “Avramel, your father…I’m afraid he’s going to die.”.’
Avramel, Rav Asher’s only son, took one short look at his father and soothed me with a forgiving smile and indeed, after a few minutes Rav Asher awoke from his deep spiritual trance which seemed to have taken him from heaven and returned him to earth.
A Constant Battle with Nature…
The work of Rav Asher was uncompromising towards himself. He did not give himself any leeway, and at every opportunity he “waged war on his nature” for the service of G-d. One of his close associates professed that although Rav Asher was in his eighties and had a broken body, he would fight his Yetzer Harah with the energy of a young child. Once, they found him lying on the floor at the foot of the bed, with a look of satisfaction. We were afraid he’d fallen off the bed. “The Evil Inclination tempted me to continue to sleep, trying to persuade me that I am old and sick, and deserve the extra rest,” he explained. “So I showed him precisely what I felt about that and threw myself on the floor.”
One can learn the level of control he had from the following amazing story:
Once, in his youth, he traveled to Meron with a suitcase full of gold vessels of enormous value. Before entering the holy gravesite of Rabi Shimon Bar Yechai, he asked one of his companions to look after the precious suitcase for a few minutes. However, someone managed to steal the suitcase from the watchful eyes of the companion without him realizing it.
After a few minutes, Rav Asher arrived and saw the young man standing in fear and near panic. Without a word said between them, he realized that the suitcase had been stolen and immediately reassured the poor man that he had no complaints what-so-ever. Seeing that the man was still in shock and embarrassed, Rav Asher went to great lengths to make sure that the man ate and drank and he made every effort to soothe him. From then on, for decades, the issue of how a suitcase that large with such valuable contents could simply disappear was never questioned or brought up.
In this case as well, Rav Asher responded with complete understanding that everything that happens is a message and a test from G-d. Rav Asher believed beyond any doubt that both, the thief who took the suitcase and the man who did not guard it properly, were messengers for the Creator to test his anger or if he would accept with love that he was destined to lose all of that money in a moment. If Hashem sent a messenger to do His will, then there could never be complaints about the messenger, but one must accept with love the will of G-d.
Despite the years since his death, Rav Asher’s influence seems to have expanded. His exceptional character and burning desire to serve Hashem with complete and utter piety, continues to inspire more and more people who have never met him. His legacy has caused multitudes of Jews throughout the world to exert more effort in their service of G-d, to deepen their level of belief in Him, to be patient and loving to others, and to be patient and understanding of the messages sent by the Creator during one’s life.
The same man who did not attribute anything to himself, became the one who is attributed for influencing so many others to yearn for the truth. We know that a tsaddik does not die but continues to live through his teachings. A piece of Rav Asher’s fire is inside each of us.