Living Legacy: The Chidushei Harim, Founder of Gerer Chassidus
by Yehuda Alter
The 23rd of Adar marks the yohrtzeit of the Rebbe Yitzchok Meir Alter, known as the Chidushei Harim, founder of the Gerrer dynasty. He would become one of the greatest leaders in Poland, shepherding the Yidden of those times through difficult challenges which they faced, urging and encouraging them to stay strong in the face of persecution and spiritual upheaval. All this was in addition to his incredible Torah brilliance.
The Chidushei Harim was born in the year 1799 to his father, Rav Yisroel Rottenberg. His mother was Chaya Sarah, a descendant of Rav Yonason Eibeschutz.
He was named Meir due to the promise of the Koznitzer Maggid that he would illuminate the world, and Yitzchok, after Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berichev.
In his youth he was known as the “illuy of Warsaw,” and learned under the great Rabbonim of the generation. He was soon drawn close to chassidus, at first in the court of Rebbe Yisroel of Koznitz. Later, he became a prize talmid of Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Pershischa. Following the passing of the Rebbe Bunim, there were those who wanted him to assume the mantle of leadership. But he chose to follow the Kotzker Rebbe, and urged others to do the same.
In 1830, the Chidushei Harim was forced to change his name from Rottenberg to Alter due to his being suspected in participating in the “November Uprising,” which saw a revolution against the reigning Russian Empire.
Following the passing of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Chidushei Harim moved to the shtetl of Gora Kalwaria, near Warsaw, and established his own court, which continues to thrive until this very day. He was reticent to accept the leadership at first, but then he said, “if Yidden pronounce it, then I have no choice but to accept.”
The Rebbe has thirteen children, and twelve of them were niftar during his lifetime. He raised his grandson, Rebbe Yehuda Aryeh Leib (the son of his eldest son, Rav Avrohom Mordechai), known as the Sfas Emes, in his home. The Sfas Emes would succeed him as the Gerer Rebbe four years after his passing, and they are interred together in the ohel in Ger.
In addition to his greatness in Torah and avodah, the Chidushei Harim was a major askan on behalf of Polish Jewry. In addition to his chiddushim on Torah and Moadim, he wrote chidushim on Shulchan Aruch and masechtos hashas.
He was niftar on 23 Adar of the year 1866, and was interred on the beis Hachaim in the town of Ger, where multitudes continue to journey to daven for yeshuos.