There are several versions of this story, especially among the Jews of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, who know and still refer to Potocki as the Ger Tzedek ("righteous proselyte") of Vilna (Vilnius). Virtually all Jewish sources agree that he was a Polish nobleman who converted to Judaism and was burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church at Vilnius on May 23, 1749 (7 Sivan 5509, corresponding to the second day of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot in the Diaspora) because he had renounced Catholicism and had become an observant Jew.
Multiple oral histories, backed up by several 19th-century and later printed versions of the story, from many Jewish communities over the past 250 years, serve as evidence of Potocki's story. Jewish oral traditions teach some most interesting details as well as the outcome of Avraham ben Avraham's life and death.
Polish author Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, who is acknowledged as the oldest verified source citing this story, relates that young Potocki and his friend Zaremba, who traveled from Poland to study in a seminary in Paris, became interested in an old Jew whom they found poring over a large volume when they entered his wine shop. This Jew might have been their own countryman, Menahem Man ben Aryeh Löb of Visun, who was tortured and executed in Vilna at the age of seventy (July 3, 1749). Tradition has brought this Jewish martyr into close connection with the Ger Tzedek, but fear of the censor has prevented writers in Russia from saying anything explicit on the subject. His teachings and explanations of the Old Testament, to which they, as Roman Catholics, were total strangers, so impressed them that they prevailed upon him to instruct them in the Hebrew language. In six months they acquired proficiency in the Biblical language and a strong inclination toward Judaism. They resolved to go to Amsterdam, which was one of the few places in Europe at that time where a Christian could openly embrace Judaism. But Potocki first went to Rome, whence, after convincing himself that he could no longer remain a Catholic, he went to Amsterdam and took upon himself the covenant of Abraham, assuming the name of Avraham ben Avraham ("Abraham the son of Abraham"; "the son of Abraham" is the traditional styling of a convert to Judaism).
Potocki's parents got word of his leave from the seminary in Paris and the rumors that he had converted to Judaism, and began searching for him. Potocki then fled from France and hid in a synagogue in Vilna, wearing a long beard and peyot like the Perushim (devout Jews who separated themselves from the community to learn and pray). When the Vilna Gaon heard of his whereabouts, he advised him to hide instead in the small town of Ilye (Vilna Governorate). There a Jewish tailor who sewed uniforms for Polish bureaucrats overhead some clients talking about the fugitive divinity student and suspected that the stranger in the synagogue might be he. Later this tailor's son, who liked to disturb the men studying in the synagogue, was sharply rebuked by Potocki; some say Potocki grabbed the boy by the ear and pulled him out the door. The tailor reported him to the Bishop of Vilna, and Potocki was arrested.
Potocki's parents visited him in prison and begged him to renounce his Judaism publicly, promising to build him a castle where he could practice the religion privately. According to Rabbi Ben-Zion Alfes, the Maggid of Vilna, Potocki refused his mother, saying, "I love you dearly, but I love the truth even more".
After a long imprisonment and a trial for heresy, Potocki was condemned to death by being burned alive at the stake. After the decree was handed down, the Vilna Gaon sent Potocki a message offering to rescue him using Kabbalah. Potocki refused, preferring instead to die al kiddush Hashem and inquired of the Vilna Gaon which blessing he should make immediately before his death. The Vilna Gaon answered, "...m'kadesh es Shimcha be'rabbim" (Who sanctifies His Name in public) and sent an emissary to hear and answer "Amen". His mother used all her influence to procure a pardon for him, but the execution was moved up one day so that she would not be able to deliver it in time.
Potocki was executed in Vilna on the second day of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. It was unsafe for any Jew to witness the burning; nevertheless one Jew, Leiser Zhiskes, who had no beard, went among the crowd and succeeded by bribery in securing some of the ashes of the martyr, which were later buried in the Jewish cemetery. Potocki walked proudly to the execution site, singing a song that was later sung in the Volozhin yeshiva and that was also sung by Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer after Yom Kippur. Some sources say that Rabbi Alexander Ziskind, author of Yesod VeShoresh HaAvodah, stood near Potocki and said "Amen" to the blessing he said before he died.
Following Potocki's execution, the town that had furnished the firewood for the execution burned down. There were also an unusual number of fires in Vilna, and a building that stood opposite the execution site bore a black stain from the "smoke and fumes of the burning". No amount of paint or whitewashing would remove the stain, and finally the building was taken down. The authorities would not allow a monument to be erected over Potocki's ashes, but a "strange tree" grew at the site. Those who tried to cut down the tree were mysteriously injured in the process. Around 1919 a tomb was erected over the ashes and Jews came to pray there. Following the destruction of the old cemetery of Vilna by the Nazis during World War II, a new cemetery was built and Potocki's ashes were reinterred next to the new grave of the Vilna Gaon.
Potocki's comrade Zaremba returned to Poland several years before him, married the daughter of a great nobleman, and had a son. He remained true to the promise to embrace Judaism and took his wife and child to Amsterdam, where, after he and his son had been circumcised, his wife also converted to Judaism; they then went to the Land of Israel.
It is Jewish tradition that following Avraham ben Avraham's death, the Vilna Gaon believed that the spiritual constitution of the world had become altered in such a way that a Jew was no longer bound to wash his hands in the morning within four amot (cubits) of his bed, as explicitly taught in the codes of Jewish law such as the Shulchan Aruch and other halachic works. Rather, a Jew's entire house would be considered as four amot for this mitzvah. This custom, begun at Avraham ben Avraham's death, commenced with the Vilna Gaon and later became the practice of the Slabodka yeshiva in Europe, becoming today the routine of many leading Israeli rabbis who follow the Slabodka tradition.
As to why there are few full sources, the Jewish view is reflected as in this excerpt from the Shema Yisrael Torah Network website:
There are a few reasons why there are so few contemporary sources about the ger tzedek story. It can be assumed that the noble Pototzki family, which was a religious Polish-Catholic family, was not happy that one of their sons defected to Judaism. The Pototzki family was said to have generally dealt kindly with the Jews living on its lands. Mentioning the conversion would have been interpreted as an open provocation of the area's ruler, which would have not resulted in any good. In addition, undoubtedly the conversion of one of the upper-class gentiles aroused great interest among the populace, and his refusal to return to their faith caused them great embarrassment ... Nevertheless, we believe the words of our rabbis, which clearly indicate that there was a connection between the Gra (i.e. the Vilna Gaon) and the Ger Tzedek.
Read more about this topic: Abraham Ben Abraham
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