Monday, June 1, 2009

Abraham ben Abraham

Legend has it that Valentine Pototski, the son of a Polish nobleman, met an old Jew at a tavern and promised to convert to Judaism if the Jew convincingly argued the superiority of Judaism. Some say that the young count became interested in Judaism while studying at the University of Paris. Whatever the inspiration, Valentine went to Amsterdam, where he converted to Judaism and changed his name to Abraham ben Abraham.

Returning to Vilna (Poland), Abraham ben Abraham took up an active Jewish life of Torah study. Unfortunately, his furious father, Count Pototski, informed the Church of his son's heresy. The Church found him and demanded, under threat of death, that he forsake his Judaism and return to the Church. But, Abraham ben Abraham would have none of it.

While awaiting his execution, Abraham ben Abraham was visited by the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797, the greatest scholar of his generation), who was deeply impressed by the ger tzedek's (righteous convert) declaration that he was not afraid to die and was, in fact, proud to have the opportunity to publicly proclaim his belief in God.

On Shavuot 1749, the ger tzedek was burned at the stake. That night, several Vilna Jews, dressed as Polish peasants, slipped into the churchyard and gathered his ashes for proper Jewish burial.

The martyrdom of Abraham ben Abraham had a powerful impact on the Jews of Vilna. The Vilna Gaon requested that, upon his own death, he be buried next to Abraham ben Abraham. In fact, until his grave was desecrated and almost all of the Jews of Vilna were murdered during World War II, the Jewish community maintained the tradition, established by the Gaon, of visiting Abraham ben Abraham's grave on the anniversary of his death, the second day of Shavuot.

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