He was a brilliant doctor, a well versed Talmid Chacham, a devoted Chossid, and merited to serve as the personal physician to the Beis Harav for forty years. Following is a biographical sketch of the life and times of the legendary Dr. Seligson.
From Derher Magazine – Kislev 5781, Issue 100
Harav Avraham Abba Seligson was born on 8 Av 5667* in Cracow, Poland. His father Reb Michoel Aharon was a direct descendant of the Alter Rebbe’s second son Harav Chaim Avraham. Reb Michoel Aharon was a wealthy man, an erudite Talmid Chochom, and a gifted baal menagen. A prominent member of the Cracow Jewish community, for several years he served as the gabbai of the Megaleh Amukos shul.
Reb Michoel Aharon was the only Lubavitcher chossid in Cracow at the time, and the Frierdiker Rebbe stayed in his home for an extended period during a visit to the city. Later the Frierdiker Rebbe wrote to him that as the only Lubavitcher chossid in the city, he should arrange a shiur in Chassidus and invite friends, neighbors and acquaintances to participate.
After some time, Rabbi Mordechai Mentlik among the outstanding Tmimim in Poland, was sent to Cracow to give the shiur, to attract the city’s yeshiva bochurim to Chassidus. Reb Michoel continued to maintain the Chassidus shiur which lasted for many years.
Avraham’s mother, Chaya Rochel, hailed from a prominent Cracow family, descendants of many Gedolei Yisroel. Their home was a blend of wealth and yiras Shamayim with an emphasis on Chassidishe minhogim.
During WWI the family fled Cracow for the outskirts of Vienna. Avraham Abba learned at a Hebrew Gymnasium, and received his formal training in Limmudei Kodesh from his father. A natural masmid, he would learn well into the night.
Avraham Abba wanted to help people and perhaps because many of his uncles on his mother’s side were physicians; he developed an interest in medicine. He applied to the medical university in Vilna and due to their anti-semitic policies, was initially rejected. Therefore, as a nineteen-year-old he started his medical studies in Strasbourg. Two years later in 5688*, through the intervention of one of his physician uncles, he transferred to the medical school in Vilna.
In Vilna he lived in the home of his uncle Harav Schneur Zalman Seligson. A prominent Lubavitcher Chossid, Harav Seligson was an ambitious activist for the Jewish community with many government contacts. He was a rare personality, a dedicated chossid and one of the founders of Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim in Vilna. For the next four years Avraham learned with his uncle, absorbing much from him. Avraham davened with the yeshiva in the evenings, and was always seen with a sefer. Immaculately dressed, he was modest and humble in all of his interactions and made a favorable impression as a yarei Shamayim of high caliber.
While studying in Vilna, Avraham had the option of studying the diseases endemic to Asia and Africa. While most of the students sought to become proficient in local illnesses, Avraham surprised everyone by choosing to study and research foreign disease, as well. This turned out to be the exact training he would later need during the war to protect the health of Yidden.
After receiving his diploma in Vilna, Avraham returned to Cracow and started working on his doctorate; engaging in research and gaining clinical experience as a practicing physician. He received his doctorate in medicine in 5696*. During the course of his research, he worked at specialized clinics at the Universities of Vienna and Cracow, respectively. His work uncovered the connection between hypertension and Cushing Syndrome, and was published in medical journals in Poland, France, Austria and the US.
In a 1947 letter of recommendation, when Dr. Seligson was applying for a license to practice medicine in the US, Dr. Bussell, a colleague from Cracow, wrote: “I have personally known Dr. Seligson for fifteen years… In his native city of Cracow, Poland he was known as one of the prominent physicians and research workers of that city. His special field of interest was the problem of hypertension. He published several papers… translated into many languages and were accepted with acclaim.”
His research gained the attention of Dr. Harvey Cushing, the world renowned neurosurgeon, and the namesake of the syndrome. He offered Dr. Avraham Seligson a position in his laboratory at Yale University. In one of the letters taken from their correspondence, Dr. Cushing writes, “Thanks greatly for the reprint of your excellent paper published in La Presse Medicale with its carefully made observation…”.
In addition to research, Dr. Seligson focused on his medical practice. Devoted to his patients, his bedside manner, personal warmth and good cheer put everyone at ease. He was never off duty and always had his medical bag with him in the event of an emergency. Known in the region as a frum doctor, many Yidden preferred to be treated by him despite his youth. On occasion, when halachic questions arose in connection with medical issues, prominent rabbonim such as Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grudzansky, the Rav of Vilna, relied on his judgement, as he was proficient in both halacha and medicine.
With the outbreak of WWII, Dr. Seligson fled Cracow for Vilna, where he received a transit visa from the legendary Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara, enabling him to escape Europe. After a long and arduous journey, he arrived in Shanghai, China together with thousands of Yidden. These included a group of Tmimim and the talmidim of several other famous yeshivos who escaped Europe in the same way.
The Chinese government settled the Jewish refugees in a ghetto in the poorest part of the city. The unsanitary conditions set the stage for illness and disease. Dr. Seligson was the only doctor that the refugees would trust. He worked in a hospital established by the American Joint for the Jewish refugees, as well as in a neighborhood clinic. He was dedicated to his patients and often walked miles in torn shoes to deliver medicine to patients who were unable to come to the hospital.
Almost immediately, many developed dysentery. Dr. Seligson suggested that all drinking water should be boiled, and all fruit and vegetables be thoroughly cleaned before consumption. Subsequently, the outbreak subsided. The Jewish residents of the ghetto were also stricken with Beriberi, a result of vitamin B-1 deficiency, common in Asia but virtually unheard of in Western countries. This was a disease that Dr. Seligson was familiar with from his medical training, and he was able to diagnose it properly. With no available vitamins or any medicine containing B-1, Dr. Seligson researched the foods that contain Vitamin B1 and prescribed them to the suffering ghetto residents. Thousands of lives were saved as a result.
Despite his many medical responsibilities, Dr. Seligson davened for many hours every day. He received smicha from Harav Meir Ashkenazi, the chief rabbi of Shanghai, at this time. He maintained an intense regimen of Torah study; borrowing sefarim from the beis medrash overnight and returning them in the morning.
In 5707* Dr. Seligson received a visa to immigrate to the United States. After the war many sefarim were published in Shanghai and Kehos published Chassidus sefarim, as well. When Dr. Seligson sailed from Shanghai, the publisher sent a case of newly published sefarim for the Frierdiker Rebbe. Dr. Seligson arrived at his sister’s home in New York on a Friday morning. The Rebbe sent a bochur that day to pick up the sefarim so that the Frierdiker Rebbe would have them for Shabbos.
Although a practicing physician for over 10 years, Dr. Seligson needed to retake the medical examinations necessary to practice in the US. He rapidly learned English, and within months was able to notify the Frierdiker Rebbe that he had received his medical license. The Frierdiker Rebbe responded with many brochos. Dr. Seligson immediately began serving as the personal physician to the Frierdiker Rebbe and the entire Beis Harav. The Rebbe would call him frequently to visit the Frierdiker Rebbe, and as he lived close by he was available at a moment’s notice.
The Frierdiker Rebbe relates in several sichos that during the nesius of the Alter Rebbe and the Mitteler Rebbe, the doctor in Liozna was R’ Avraham Harofeh. He was a ga’on in nigleh and a brilliant medical mind. The doctor serving during the time of the Rebbe Maharash, whom he praised greatly, was also called Avraham Harofeh. Dr. Seligson, whose first name was Avraham, merited to serve both, the Frierdiker Rebbe and the Rebbe for forty years.
On Yud Shevat 5710*, the Frierdiker Rebbe’s health deteriorated dramatically. Dr. Seligson was called in and rendered treatment. Chassidim commented after the Frierdiker Rebbe’s histalkus that day, that a Kohen – Reb Sholom Ber Eichorn, a Levi – Reb Shmuel Levitin and a Yisroel – Dr. Seligson, were present in the room at the time of the histalkus.
Dr. Seligson davened in 770. He gave a shiur in Shulchan Aruch Hilchos Shabbos every Shabbos morning after davening. The shiur was clear, brilliant and well attended. At the outbreak of the Korean War, Dr. Seligson received a draft notice. The Rebbe pointed out that since he delivered a weekly shiur in the shul, he was a member of the clergy and thus exempt from the draft and instructed that a letter should be sent to the authorities, indicating this fact.
In 5712*, Rabbi Herschel Shusterman, the rav of Bnei Reuven, the Lubavitcher shul in Chicago, suggested Rochel Pinsker of Chicago as a shidduch for Dr. Seligson. The Rebbe supported the idea and continued to be involved in every step of the shidduch from the engagement through the wedding. Her father Reb Yitzchok Meir Pinsker was a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim and he expressed hesitation at taking a chosson for his daughter who was a doctor. The Rebbe sent a message to him through Rabbi Shusterman that in the Litvishe circles Dr. Seligson would be considered a gaon.
The engagement was on Chof Cheshvan in Dr. Seligson’s apartment. The Rebbe and Rebbetzin sent over their own serving utensils to be used at the seudah. The Rebbe suggested that Dr. Seligson sponsor the publication of the Rebbe Rashab’s maamer סמוכים לעד תר“פ and the Rebbe personally composed the dedication, noting that the chosson was a doctor by including the words גומל חסד בגופו. The Rebbe set the wedding date for the fifth night of Chanukah. In yechidus with the couple, the Rebbe spoke with the kallah’s father at length, praising the chosson in glowing terms. The ufruf was held in 770 on Shabbos Parshas Vayeishev and during the farbrengen the Rebbe spoke about the concept of marriage.
It was common then for the Rebbe to be mesader kiddushin by the weddings of anash that were held in New York but there were several conditions. One of the conditions was that the chosson must have a beard. At the time Dr. Seligson did not have a beard and the Rebbe asked Reb Shmuel Levitin whether it was halachically permissible for him to make an exception to this rule since it was already done more than three times and had the stringency of an oath.
Reb Shmuel immediately responded that the Rebbe’s condition applied only to the talmidim of Tomchei Temimim and Dr. Seligson was not a talmid in Tomchei Temimim. In addition, he was a relative of the Rebbe, so this was not an issue. The Rebbe was pleased with the answer.
The wedding was in Manhattan, and the Kabbolas Ponim began when the Rebbe arrived. The guests included venerable chassidim, as well as prominent Litvishe Rabbonim. The Chassidim sang niggunim, while the Rebbe spoke to the chosson and reviewed the kesuba. Afterwards the Rebbe spoke a sicha explaining the connection between a Chasuna and Chanukah1. At one point, the chosson started to pour a drink for the Rebbe. The Rebbe declined saying that Chazal compare a chosson to a king and one should not be served by a king. Later, the chosson and the Rebbe took the elevator to the ground floor for the Chuppa. The Rebbe insisted that the chosson enter and exit first since he was comparable to a king.
The Rebbe was mesader kiddushin and recited all of the Sheva Brachos. The Rebbe offered the final bracha to the father of the Kallah, who refused and requested that the Rebbe recite the final bracha as well. The Rebbe watched the bochurim dance for several minutes and then returned to 770. After the wedding, the Rebbetzin borrowed the wedding album from Mrs. Seligson for a few days. It was understood that she wanted the album to show the Rebbe.
Several years later Reb Moshe Groner collected all the photos of the Rebbe then available, most of which were from when the Rebbe was mesader kiddushin. He showed them to the Rebbetzin Chana, who browsed through the photographs and commented on all of them. When she reached the photos of Dr. Seligson’s wedding she told Reb Moshe, “For this wedding the Rebbe made an exception by being mesader kiddushin although he does not have a beard.”
The Rebbe’s Doctor
From the earliest days of the Rebbe’s nesius Dr. Seligson was a permanent fixture in 770. He davened there every morning, and then spent hours seeing patients and attending to the medical needs of the bochurim. For many years, the Rebbe and Dr. Seligson would converse almost every morning. In the winter months of 5714*, he would go into the Rebbe’s room after Kabbolas Shabbos and remain there for over an hour.2 This happened in later years as well. No one knows with certainty what they discussed, although it is assumed that it pertained to medicine. For 40 years Dr. Seligson merited to serve as the Rebbe and Rebbetzin’s personal physician, as the dedicated doctor of the Crown Heights community and to serve as a conduit for many of the Rebbe’s brachos for people’s health.
One year on Shemini Atzeres Rabbi Shneur Zalman Gurary contracted pneumonia. During the farbrengen before hakafos on Simchas Torah night, the Rebbe gave a piece of cake to his son, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Gurary, to give to his father. The Rebbe then stood up and handed a piece of cake and wine to Dr. Seligson saying, “In the times of the Beis Hamikdosh, when the Kohanim ate their portion of the korbon the owner of the korbon achieved atonement. Likewise, you, the doctor should eat the cake and the patient will recover. Know that you are a great doctor. . . If other doctors disagree with me [in my directives regarding patients] I will refer the patient to you [so I will have a medical authority to support my opinion]. When3 I refer a patient to you, you will understand why I sent him.”
Throughout the years, the Rebbe sent countless patients to consult with Dr. Seligson. Once4 at a farbrengen the Rebbe told someone, “If there is a person who occupies his nefesh elokis with the Shulchan Aruch, and his nefesh hativis with medicine, what more do you need?” In conversation with Rabbi Dr. Nissen Mindel the Rebbe said, “When other physicians use strong medicine, Dr. Seligson manages to cure them with an aspirin.” In a letter5 dated 1 Iyar 5718* the Rebbe writes, “I received your letter… Upon my instructions, my friend Dr. Seligson contacted one of the top specialists in the field and enclosed is his opinion on the matter.”
Reb Michel Raskin was in yechidus in 5722* and asked the Rebbe about a complicated medical issue regarding his mother. The Rebbe told him to consult with Dr. Seligson. Reb Michel wondered if he was an expert in the field. Sensing his hesitation the Rebbe said, “Dr. Seligson is one of the greatest doctors of our time.”
Dr. Seligson was completely devoted to the Rebbe’s health. During every major medical crisis, Dr. Seligson was at hand. The Rebbetzin once said to Reb Sholom Ber Gansburg, one of the aides in the Rebbe’s home, “Where can you find a doctor like Dr. Seligson? He hears my husband cough in the other room and immediately prescribes the right medication.” In the terrifying moments during hakafos on Shemini Atzeres 5738*, Dr. Seligson rushed to the Rebbe and immediately diagnosed the Rebbe’s condition. Later, a team of cardiologists were brought in. The Rebbe asked that the cardiologists brief and consult with Dr. Seligson. He requested that Dr. Seligson should continue to monitor his health when the cardiologists left.
As a devoted Chossid, it was important to him that the Rebbe not be concerned with his (Dr. Seligson’s) own problems. In his later years, waiting on line to receive matzah from the Rebbe, he put his cane to the side, so the Rebbe should not see him using it. Every year he would receive a full matzah and the Rebbe would say to him “מיכלא דמהימנותא מיכלא דאסוותא” – the food of healing and the food of faith. The Rebbe once gave him matzah before the second seder, as well.
Although he was an excellent diagnostician and a scientist, Dr. Seligson was involved in many medical incidents that defied the rules of nature. Once6 the Rebbe walked out of his room holding a letter and asked Dr. Seligson if there was a cure for a specific illness (described in the letter). He answered in the negative, and the Rebbe left only to come back ten minutes later with the same question. This time Dr. Seligson stated confidently that surely there was a cure for the illness. Satisfied, the Rebbe returned to his room.
On another occasion, a woman suffering from a heart condition asked the Rebbe for a bracha and advice. The Rebbe advised her to consult with Dr. Twersky, who referred her to a top cardiologist. The cardiologist said that she needed immediate surgery. Reluctant to go under the knife, she notified the Rebbe who sent her to Dr. Seligson. He in turn asked the family, “Did the Rebbe tell you to consult with a rofeh yedid (a doctor who is a friend) or did he say Dr. Seligson?” They said that the Rebbe specified Dr. Seligson. Hearing that, Dr. Seligson said that there was no need for surgery.
Faced with two conflicting opinions, the family asked him to discuss it with the cardiologist. Initially he refused but ultimately had a ten-minute phone conversation with the cardiologist. He then told the family, “He has his opinion and I have mine.” The patient notified the Rebbe of Dr. Seligson’s opinion, and received a bracha. She decided not to have the surgery and lived for another 18 years.7
In the early 5730s* on Simchas Torah night, as the shul was being reconfigured for the hakafos at midnight, Reb Leibel Raskin’s young son was critically injured in 770. All efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. Rabbi Raskin ran to Rabbi Hodakov and begged him to ask the Rebbe for a bracha. The Rebbe was preparing for hakofos and could not be disturbed. Hearing how dire the situation was, Rabbi Hodakov decided to enter the Rebbe’s room. The Rebbe instructed that Dr. Seligson should be notified.
Dr. Seligson took one look at the boy and said everything would be fine. He then went into the Rebbe’s room to report on the situation and the child regained consciousness shortly thereafter. Later that evening, Dr. Seligson shared with Rabbi Raskin that the Rebbe once told him if he ever concluded that a patient could not be helped medically, he need only visit the patient and declare him well and the Rebbe would then do his part.
Rabbi Berel Baumgarten from Argentina had a serious illness and came to the United States for treatment. After all the tests were completed and the doctors had given their diagnosis, he brought the entire folder of medical records to the Rebbe who instructed him to show them to Dr. Seligson. Dr. Seligson examined the x-rays, and asked him to point to the illness. He did so but Dr. Seligson kept saying that he saw nothing. Confused, Rabbi Baumgarten told the Rebbe in yechidus that Dr. Seligson saw nothing in the x-rays. The Rebbe glanced at the x-rays and said, “I also see nothing there.” Upon further examination, he was found to be disease free.
In the 5720s*, Mrs. Menucha Rochel Groner was having problems with her lungs. Dr. Seligson insisted it was nothing but referred her to a specialist nonetheless. The specialist claimed there was a problem, but after conferring with Dr. Seligson over the phone, he told her, “Dr. Seligson, without special instruments, knows better than I do with my instruments.”
A guest from France came to the Rebbe for Tishrei in the late 5730s*. He had a skin irritation on his hand and the doctors were unable to help him. While in Crown Heights, he visited Dr. Seligson who prescribed a cream that caused the irritation to disappear. When he returned to France, he showed the hand to his physician who exclaimed, “Either he knows of a medication that we are unaware of or he performed a miracle.”
The Rebbe once told someone who consulted with him, “When you go to Dr. Seligson, you already feel better; Malach Michoel accompanies him.” Sometimes Dr. Seligson would simply tell the patient to go home and eat a fruit or to learn a certain topic in Torah, and they became well.
The Rebbe once told Reb Getzel Rubashkin, “Daloi doktoirim – enough with the doctors.” Before the summer, Reb Getzel wanted to go for a check-up, but wasn’t sure if he should, since the Rebbe told him “Daloi doktoirim”. He asked the Rebbe who told him that he should only speak with Dr. Seligson in learning and nothing else, and that would be enough to maintain his health.
Dr. Seligson once commented to Reb Dovid Shkolnik and to Reb Elya Chaim Roitblat, respectively, that if he were to share all the miraculous medical experiences that he had with the Rebbe he would fill many books.
In those pre-Hatzolah days Dr. Seligson was on-call for the community 24/7 and almost never went on vacation because he did not want to leave the community without a doctor. Having finished with his patients, he would learn for hours after midnight. In a yechidus, Mrs. Seligson expressed concern about his difficult schedule and the Rebbe replied, “Don’t you know that your husband is a Lamed-Vavnik?”
Dr. Seligson was dedicated to his patients and gave each one as much time as they needed. He would see patients in 770 at no charge, make house calls, and starting in the late afternoon, he saw patients in his office at home until late at night. After prescribing treatment, he would follow up and modify his instructions if he found a better solution. Before prescribing a medication, he would research it to ensure its kashrus, especially before Pesach, and was in constant contact with pharmaceutical companies. Dr. Seligson often utilized his medical consultations to engage in Torah. For example, a patient8 described a certain food he had eaten, Dr. Seligson began an animated discussion on the proper bracha.
He charged minimally for his services. A patient once did not respect Dr. Seligson‘s diagnosis because of the small bill, and arranged to visit another doctor in Manhattan. After being examined he heard the doctor making a phone call in the next room. “Dr. Seligson, I am interested in your opinion regarding this issue I encountered.” Patients were examined by prominent doctors and would leave without a diagnosis. They would later visit Dr. Seligson, who immediately found a solution.
During the first years of the Rebbe’s nesius, people witnessed him conversing with the Rebbe in Torah outside the Rebbe’s room. On Thursday nights, he would spend hours in the yeshiva library at 770 researching halachic sefarim on various issues. In Cracow, when he first started practicing medicine, Dr. Seligson drew a diagram of the body of an ox based on sources in Shas and Poskim. He sent a copy to a family member in New York. When he arrived after the war, years later, he made copies and shared them with the bochurim in 770, who were learning Yoreh De’ah and Meseches Chulin. The diagram was in use for many years. He sent it to the Rebbe for his consent, and the Rebbe suggested that a Rav Moreh Hora’ah should review it. Rabbi Yisroel Piekarski, the Rosh Yeshiva in 770, confirmed that it was accurate.
Dr. Seligson would write notes in the margins of his volumes of Chumash and Gemara, as well as in his Tanya. When the Rebbe heard about his notes on Tanya, he requested that Dr. Seligson lend him the Tanya. Years later, Dr. Seligson asked the Rebbe for the Tanya so he could copy the notes for himself. The Tanya was returned to the Rebbe’s library where it still remains. Many of his notes on Chumash and Tanya were published in the Ha’oros HaTmimim V’anash in 5749* after his passing.
Dr. Seligson passed away on Tuesday, 25 Shevat 5749*. During that time, the Rebbe worked from his home on President St. The Rebbe came to 770 from President St. to participate in the levaya and returned home immediately afterwards.
Once during a farbrengen in the 5710s*, people approached the Rebbe and asked for brachos for health for themselves and for others. The Rebbe turned to Dr. Seligson, “How will doctors make a living when Moshiach will come? People will visit the doctor, he will confirm that they are all healthy and he will be paid for it!”9
In 5695* the Frierdiker Rebbe was in Vienna for extended periods of time, and Dr. Seligson once merited to have a yechidus. The Frierdiker Rebbe inquired about his studies and then explained the following Gemara according to Chassidus.
אכל ולא שתה אכילתו דם. וזהו תחילת חולי מעיים. (שבת מא,א)
One who ate and did not drink at all, what he ate becomes blood and that causes the onset of intestinal disease.
Eating represents the study of nigleh and drinking represents the study of Chassidus. When a doctor prescribes a diet for the patient, there must be a means for the food to be digested properly. Similarly with Torah, learning Chassidus ensures that the nigleh is “digested” properly.
Kisvei Yad Kodesh
At the conclusion of a shana tova letter from Yemei Haselichos 5721*, the Rebbe writes to Dr. Seligson:
להצלחה ברפואת חב“י [חולי בני ישראל] שליט“א מתוך בריאות ושמחה
[A blessing] to be successful in healing the sick amongst the Jewish people, shlita, with health and happiness.
In a letter from 7 Cheshvan 5717* to a Yid requesting a bracha and advice on a medical issue:
אפגעהאלטן דעם אפשיקען פון בריף, און ערשט ערהאלטן די צופרידענטע לענדע ידיעה אז אויך א היגער ספציאליסט איז געגען דעם ערשטן וועג. זיכער וועט דר. זעליגסאן שי’ שרייבען בפרטיות. איינגעשלאסן דעם בייגעלייגטע אין אייער בריף.
The delivery of this letter was delayed, and in the meantime I just received the joyous news that also a local specialist opposes the first approach. Certainly Dr. Seligson will write in detail about this. Included the attached in your letter.
לבקש את דר. זעליגסון שי‘ לענות להם (ישר או ע”י המזכירות) החוו“ד ע“ד 3) וכן להודיעם חוו“ד לייטער
Ask Dr. Seligson to respond to them (either directly or through mazkirus) with his opinion regarding section 3. Also notify them about the opinion of Leiter.