These trials, recollections, evidence and documentation, collected and assembled with combined effort into one great narrative, unfold a vivid and interesting picture of life of this small community, which - along with hundreds of others - projects the image of the Jewish Diaspora in the Russian Pale of Settlement, prior to the First World War. Many of her sons took part in social, spiritual, and national activities, which changed the character of the Jewish society. Quite a number of them became leading figures in the Zionist movement and contributed to the revival of the Jewish homeland.
The initiative to write this book has originated from Ciechanovtzer landsleit to whom the memory of their birthplace is very precious. In their irresistable desire to commemorate its name and history, they volunteered to accomplish this momentous task and present it to the public. The reader will find here inexhaustible historical, bibliographical, and folklore material concerning events and occurrences from the First World War until the Holocaust; stories and impressions of everyday life, presenting a vivid picture of the traditions and ancient customs that leave a sharp imprint on the reader. Of special interest are the thrilling descriptions of various personalities, leading figures, rabbis, scholars, and common people, their deeds and performances, as viewed by eye-witnesses, friends, and admirers. Furthermore, the wealth of data and revelations connected with the change of values, caused by great economic and social ferments find their fullest expression in the national and social movement, and the shaping of a productive and revolutionary intelligentsia which left its stamp on the younger generation and brought about the great departure from the small towns to the big cities and mass wanderings to distant places in Russia, Palestine, and America.
A moving impression of the tragic end of the community is conveyed by survivors of the Holocaust, who with their own eyes saw the destruction and the loss of the scattered remnants, few of whom were left. Those of the Ciechanovtzer landsleit, closely bound to their former homeland endured the via dolorosa of suffering, pain, and hardship until they reached their patrimony.
Those who carried in their heart the hope of redemption and the vision of a free life in Eretz Yisrael, by a miracle attained their goal, but they could not forget the enormous debt due to their community and to their families who lost their lives in the Holocaust and all ties with whom have been torn, - this small group of initiators in Israel has been joined by families and friends in the Diaspora and with a common effort an exemplary deed has been achieved. They have erected a memorial to their destroyed community by giving a record of its past and drawing a complete picture of its history and peculiar way of life.
I have no doubt that this book will be welcomed with satisfaction, not only by the landsleit, their children and families, but also by many others who were once an integral part of the great East European Jewish community, and by the wide public in general. Would that its spirit may also dwell with the younger generation, that has never felt the taste of exile and to whom the life of a small town in the Diaspora is entirely strange. Let us therefore give our blessing to the accomplished work and thanks and appreciation to the initiators, authors, and editor of this great literary work, which will become an important link in the chain of revelations about the Jewish communities, wiped out in the Holocaust.
The Early History of Ciechanowiec
The two leading Jewish historians, Professor Meir Balaban and Dr. Isaac Schiffer, have expressed the opinion that Ciechanowiec was founded by Jewish Khazars. Not far from the city is a village by the name of Kosarze, and in it there was also a street known as Khazar Street. These historians claim that wherever the term Kozar is found it indicates a settlement of Jewish Khazars. Professor Balaban expresses himself as follows:
Jews reached Poland from two directions: from the West, i.e., from Germany and Bohemia; and from the East, i.e., from Asia through the Gate of the Nations, or possibly from the Land of the Khazars which lay along the banks of the Don and Volga. The Khazar or Russian Jews came to South-East Poland. They appear to have been tillers of the soil, and it is thought that the name Kosarze (from Khazar) found in villages and settlements in Russia and little Poland refers to them.Professor Balaban expresses this view as a hypothesis, but Dr. Schiffer is quite certain about it:
The activities of certain groups among the Jews who immigrated to Poland in ancient times and engaged in agriculture is evidenced by the Jewish villages which we find in Poland and Russia during the early Middle Ages. The names of these villages prove the origin of the people who lived in them. They are: Zidow, Zhidowo, Sidowo, or Kozara, Kozari, and Kozhazhow. There can be little doubt that the earliest of them were those villages whose names derive from that of the Khazars. It is possible that these Jewish Khazar settlements came into being during the 10th century, when a wave of Khazar immigrants arrived in Poland and Russia seeking refuge after the collapse of their state.To be sure, it is impossible to offer decisive proof of the correctness of this view, yet there is no scholarly proof that it is wrong. As the Greek historian Thucydides wrote in the Introduction to his History, The events which took place earlier (i.e. before the Peloponnesian War), and particularly the most ancient of them all, are hard to ascertain on account of the length of time that has elapsed.
The general opinion is that the Jews arrived in Poland during the 14th century in the days of Kasimir the Great, who reigned 1333-1370. There is a popular tradition that he gave the Jews special privileges because of his love for Esterka, a Jewess from Opotaszno. Chronicles and other historic documents show that Ciechanowiec was founded in the 15th century by the Kyszki family, whose descendants subsequently called themselves the Ciechanowites. This family established marital relations with immigrant families from Holland named Bremmer and Brytmar, into whose possession the lands of the city passed.
In the 16th century an important event took place in Ciechanowiec which exercised a decisive influence on the fate of the Jews there. A member of the Kyszki family, Prince Jan, who came from Vilna, brought the Arian form of Christianity to Podlesia, including Ciechanowiec. History tells us that the Alexandrian Bishop Arius, who died in 336, did not recognize the divinity of Jesus. He and the rulers who followed him did not persecute the Jews. In particular, the Emperor Constantine, who was an Arian, spoke highly of the Jews and showed them public favor. It is possible that this was why the Jews of Ciechanowiec did not require the privilege locally known as the Jus de Non Tolerandis Christianis (right not to tolerate Christians) in accordance with which non-Jewish residents used to be sent away from areas in which the Jews lived. It was likewise unnecessary to grant the Christians the corresponding privilege known as Jus de Non Tolerandis Judaeis (privilege of not tolerating Jews). It was unnecessary to establish any permanent bounds between the Jewish and non-Jewish populations.
Prince Jan died in 1592. The last of his House was Janusz, who ruled in Polock and died in 1653. Following the passing of the last of the Kyszki family most of the lands of Ciechanowiec passed into the possession of the Radziwil family. Tomas Osolinski inherited the town in 1775 and held all the land on either bank of the Nurzec River. In that year there were 293 houses in the hamlet. From the Radziwil family the town passed into the ownership of Princess Anna Jablonowska of the Sapieha family.
The River Nurzec divides the town into two unequal parts. The Old City, spreading along the left bank, belonged to the Bialystok Government District from 1794. From 1843 it was attached to the Bielsk District of the Grodno Province in Russia. The New City on the right bank was also in the Bialystok District from 1794, but as from 1807 was attached to the Lomza District in Poland. Hence the Nurzec served as the frontier between Russia and Poland before the final partition of the latter country. About a third of the town belonged to the Lomza District, which had been annexed to Prussia after the First Partition of Poland in 1772. Following the major victory of Napoleon near Jena in 1807, all the Polish areas were taken from Prussia and the Duchy of Warsaw was founded. This included the Lomza District and so the New Town also belonged thereafter to the Lomza Department of the Duchy of Warsaw.
After the fall of Napoleon there was a change in the possessor of the Duchy of Warsaw. In accordance with the decision of the Congress of Vienna held in 1814, almost the whole area was annexed by Russia as the Kingdom of Poland.
In 1795 there were 340 houses in Ciechanowiec and the population numbered 2,650 persons. In 1847 it had a Jewish population of 2,054; and according to the 1897 census the total population was 5,569 of whom 3,743 were Jews. The oldest synagogue in the town was built in the 15th century, though some claim that its construction actually took place during the 14th. Next to it stood six houses of study (Batei Midrash), three built of wood and three of stone.
Although we have no information about the persecution of the local Jews by the non-Jewish population, there are documents proving that they paid heavy taxes to the Estate owner which did not accord with their number. The community paid 20 gold pieces (edumim) for permission to select their rabbi. They also paid 400 gold pieces as their share in the maintenance of the police force and 30 gold pieces as a fee for exemption from the duty of serving in it. In addition, they had been paying since time immemorial, an interest of 1,000 gold pieces on a loan of 14,000 gold pieces which they had once borrowed from the landholder. In return for the license to ferry all kinds of commodities across the river from the Old City to the New, they were required to pay 200 gold pieces. A further 50 gold pieces were paid as a retainer to the attorney who lived with the landholder; in return for which he acted as counsel on their behalf in various trials. They paid 108 gold pieces for confirmation of the agreement with the community whereby slaughtering was permitted in accordance with the laws of Israel together with the upkeep of a mikveh (ritual bath). Rent for shops amounted to 240 gold pieces while any owner of a pair of millstones had to make an additional payment. Jewish trade and commerce were shackled and restricted by the local guilds. Thus the shoemakers guild, for example, required the Jews to pay six kilos of wax and four kilos of tallow for the right to deal in their products.
The Roman Catholic Church was built in the 14th century. It was a beautiful work of art and was particularly noteworthy on account of the many pictures by the great artist Carol Matti commemorating the founders and owners of the town. The Alexander Nievsky Church of the Pravoslavs (Russian Orthodox) was built in 1864 at a central point opposite the Roman Catholic Church.
The Roman Catholic Church adopted an attitude of tolerance to members of other religions, including the Jews. In times gone by this Church exercised humane, social, educational, and agricultural functions in Ciechanowiec. In 1707 Princess Theresa built a hospital in the vicinity of the Church for the forsaken poor in which all sick persons were housed and treated irrespective of faith or nationality. The hospital contained 18 beds and its staff consisted of six Sisters of Mercy, a physician, and a bishop. The Sisters also acted as teachers. At the hospital they opened a school where they taught poor young girls free of charge. Subjects taught included religious studies, reading, writing, arithmetic, and needlework. In this field too, the Jews were not discriminated against and Jewish girls also attended the school and learned embroidery there. The hospital and school were closed in 1842 by order of the authorities. The hospital building and others in the vicinity passed into private ownership. The new owners planted magnificent orchards and grew various kinds of vegetables throughout the grounds.
Ciechanowiec was the birthplace, in 1739, of the great naturalist Krysztof Kluk who died in 1796. He was educated in Warsaw, studied further in Drohiczyn and later in Lukow, and returned to Ciechanowiec as a priest. However, his interest lay in discovering the secrets of nature and upon returning to his birthplace he made a very careful study of the local flora. In this task he was assisted by the Jablona Princes of Semiatycze. His first work on botany, published in 1777-1780 was Roslin Portrzebnych i Pozytecznych Opisanie (Description of Useful and Necessary Plants). Subsequently, he published a monumental trilogy on the history of mineral and organic nature which contained all that was known in those days in the fields of agriculture, horticulture, climatology, fishing, apiculture, mines and metallurgy. The trilogy consisted of the following works: Zoologije (published in 1780); Wiadomosci o Rzeczach Kopalnych (Information on Mines) (published in Warsaw in 1781); and Dykcyonarz Roslinny (Dictionary of Plants) (published 1788). He also prepared a school book entitled Botanika dla Szkol Narodowych (Botany for Elementary Schools). Thanks to this scholar, Ciechanowiec attained world renown. Learned men came from far and wide in order to study the problems of natural sciences. In 1848 Prince Stefan Cicarski erected a splendid memorial in Ciechanowiec to Kluk, designed by the Warsaw sculptor Tatarkiewicz. The memorial was erected of local stone and was so lofty that it commanded the entire town. In it the sculptor incised a number of reliefs representative of the various branches of agriculture in which Kluk had engaged.
In Ciechanowiec there was a large fortress which was surrounded on three sides by a moat which ran into the Nurzec, and was protected by batteries, fences, turrets, and drawbridges. On top of it rose a clock which added a quality of its own to the local antiquities. This castle once served as a shelter and citadel against attacks by the Tartars and the Swedes. In the 19th century only the gateway and tower were left. The Szczuka family settled in buildings around the tower. There had also been a model farm in which various kinds of fruit were grown, but it was destroyed and its buildings were burnt by the Swedes who invaded Poland in the days of King Augustus the Second.
The authoritative status of the Ciechanowiec community was confirmed by a committee set up by the Council of the Four Lands to decide regarding a dispute between the Wengrow and Ciechanowiec communities as to the hamlet of Wysokie, the receipts from the poll tax of that hamlet, and the region to which it belonged. The committee decided (pending a final decision on the dispute which was to be reached at the forthcoming fair to be held at Miedzyrzec in 1726) that half of the amount from the annual total of 120 gold pieces was to be paid to the Wengrow community and the other half to the Ciechanowiec community. This agreement was signed at the hamlet of Sterdyn, southwest of Ciechanowiec.
The name of the rabbi signing for the latter community was Yehoshua ben Shmuel. The Polish translation was prepared by the Shtadlan (intercessor or representative of the Jewish community vis-a-vis the authorities) Nissan Judkowski. We do not know how long this agreement was to last. What we do know is that when the poll tax was divided in 1733 and 1739, the Wysokie community was already attached to Ciechanowiec. The parnassim or wardens of the Jewish community in Ciechanowiec played an important part in the Council of the Four Lands, which had been established about 1520 by permission of the Polish King Zygmunt the First and which continued to function for close to 250 years, being abolished in 1764 by order of King Stanyslaw August. In 1730 mention is made of Reb Nissan Yehuda (Judkowski) as the Shtadlan of the Ciechanowiec community. His importance can be realized from the letter of intercession which he received from the Warden of the Council of the Four Lands, of which the following is a fairly close translation:
With the aid of the Holy Name we have seen the talented works of the scholarly magnate Our Master Rabbi Nissan son of Our Learned Master and Rabbi Yehuda of blessed memory, Shtadlan of the Holy Congregation of Ciechanowiec, may strength reside in his voice, a man speedy in his holy craft, fit to stand before kings and princes, a fine new double-edged tongue, grace coming from his lips, his palate more smooth than oil, his utterance pleasant, knowledge on his lips, his utterance clear, understanding in his use of words, and all of him full of dainties and delights. Accordingly it has been appointed and decided that we receive him under a favorable planet as Shtadlan of the Four Lands from the present Great Council until another Great Council of the Four Lands; that he shall be Shtadlan of the Four Lands in addition to the regular Shtadlan of the Holy Congregation of Lublin; may his Rock and Redeemer watch over him and let him stand on sacred watch and ward. Wherever he is sent let him go and all that is required of him let him perform, and let him be a faithful messenger for those who send him to serve in holiness, truth, and entirety; and let him lie in wait at every corner to bring benefits and well-being about for the general public at the Great Councils, at the meetings of the Parliament of the State of Poland and Lithuania wherever held - be it at Warsaw, Grodno, or the like; and let him deliver year after year the allocation of the poll tax of the Authorities of exalted grace to the Ruler who is his Exalted Grace the Treasurer, and assess by all efforts of his strength. We have appointed him a regular hire fixed every year as payment for pleasant speech, amounting to 80 Polish gold pieces each week. And the honored rabbis and magnates, trustees of the House of Israel of the Four Lands may their Rock and Redeemer guard them, will give him every allocation from the funds of the Four Lands may their Rock and Redeemer watch over them to the aforesaid total amount from whatever community and district appear proper in his eyes for the entire year. And let him hereby gird up his loins in manly fashion and go forth with his senses keen for the weal and benefit of the entire community. May night be bright for him as day and may a wise heart make his mouth skilled and may that which the Lord desires succeed in his hands. All this apart from the cost of hiring any vehicle in which he may travel to the place where the aforesaid honored Princes may gather together; for the cost of the vehicle shall be paid to him by the honorable Trustees of the Four Lands apart from the aforesaid regular hire. And the validity of this manuscript shall be as the validity and privilege and authorization of all the former Shtadlanim of the Four Lands in respect of every law and judgment in all matters and manners. And may almighty G-d be merciful so that he may be the eloquent spokesman who is sent by his people Israel as is written Man hath many considerations in his heart but the answer of the tongue is of the Lord. And may He guard and protect the House of Israel as the apple of his eye and bring it speedily and in our days unto Zion with song and unto Jerusalem with everlasting joy and gladness.During the meeting of the Council of the Four Lands held at Jaroslav in October 1753, the poll tax was allocated between the various lands and regions, and on the 19th of October 1753 the Writ of Distribution was signed and submitted to the State Treasury in Polish translation stating the amount of tax paid by each region, district, or city. Each of these had to pay the specific amount decided on to the State Treasury in accordance with the division agreed on at the gathering of Polish Jews. Among those who signed this Writ was Berko, Head of the Court of the Holy Congregation of Ciechanowiec, Warden of the Assessors.
The full name of this rabbi was Issachar Dov Berush Segal, a far-famed and esteemed scholar in his own day. He was the son of the outstanding sage Rabbi Yehoshua, head of the Court of Semiatycze, who in turn was the son of Rabbi Shmuel, Head of the Court of Reisza. In those days it was the custom to obtain the approbations of prominent rabbis to scholarly Hebrew works, which were afterwards published as introductions. The approbation of Rabbi Issachar Dov Berush is found at the beginning of Darkei Noam (Ways of Sweetness), together with approbations of sages Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Halevi Hurwitz, Rabbi Shalom of Tykocin, and the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna. Rabbi Issachar appended his signature with Head of the Rabbinical Court of Ciechanowiec and Trustee of the Four Lands.
An edition of the Talmudic tractate Berachot appeared in Amsterdam in his days. The approbations given by the Magnates, Leaders, Officers, and Burgesses of the State of Poland were preceded by the personal approbation of Rabbi Dov Issachar Berush son of the deceased Rabbi Our Master and Teacher Rabbi Yehoshua Segal, encamped here in the Holy Congregation of Ciechanowiec, Trustee for the House of Israel of the Four Lands; may his Rock and Redeemer watch over him.
Among other sages, we find the approbation of Rabbi Issachar Berush to the work Mishpat Shalom (Judgment of Peace) by Rabbi Yitzhak Katz of Zamosc. This work discusses inter alia whether geese with black beaks are kosher or not. The rabbis had prohibited the eating of such geese because sages had declared that their gestation was unclean, that their mothers coupled with unclean water fowl brought from India and that the offspring of such matings are born with black beaks. This opinion had been the basis of a prohibition which had actually been proclaimed in public in the synagogues of the large communities. Rabbi Berush permitted such geese to be eaten because we have no reason to prohibit the goose on account of the blackness of his nose.
In the year 1751 reference is made to Rabbi Moshe Segal of Ciechanowiec, whose sons Aharon and Zanwil (Zevulon) helped the brothers Propes, owners of the large and historic Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam, to publish the complete Babylonian Talmud. A condition was that no man shall raise his hand to print the Talmud again in the course of 25 years from the completion of their work. In 1755, that is four years after the agreement had been signed, printers began to print the Talmud at Sulzbach in Bavaria. Rabbi Issachar Berush then supported the rabbis who imposed a ban on the Sulzbach edition, and was one of the twenty-four great luminaries who decided to put the Sulzbach Talmud under the ban. And the books of the aforesaid edition of the Babylonian Talmud which have already been printed require sequestration. And all those who support the persons who are printing the Babylonian Talmud at the Sulzbach Press shall be put under the ban like them and shall be scorched by the glowing coals.
Ciechanowiec participated in the great and historic dispute between Rabbi Yaacov Emdem and Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschuetz which split Ashkenazic Jewry in two during the mid-18th century. The dispute broke out because of a charm which Rabbi Eibeschuetz had prepared for some unknown woman when she was in childbed. Opponents of his opened the charm and brought it for Rabbi Yaacov Emdem to decode and interpret the contents. Decoding the various permutations and combinations of the letters used in this charm, Rabbi Emdem discovered that it contained the following words, In the name of the G-d of Israel and in the name of His Messiah Shabbetai Zevi, who destroys evil by the breath of his mouth. Yaacov Emdem proclaimed in the synagogue that the writer of this charm was a secret follower of Shabbetai Zevi, the false messiah of the previous century and was therefore a heretic. Rabbi Emdem communicated with the Council of the Four Lands and the dispute promptly flared up throughout Poland. Rabbi Issachar Berush, who then served as a permanent representative on the Council, went into the thick of the affair and supported Yaacov Emdem against Yonatan Eibeschuetz, for he was one of the leading antagonists of the followers of Shabbetai Zevi. He was one of 14 rabbis who, at the Brody Fair of 1756, signed a ban against Shabbetai Zevi and his followers whereby to cut off all performers of iniquity who believe in Shabbetai Zevi and their faith, may their name be blotted out.
The Ciechanowiec community rallied to the support of its spiritual leader Rabbi Issachar Berush, who sent a letter to the communities of Poland which stated inter alia,
It is certain that everybody whose heart feels the fear of the Lord is required to repel and pursue the believers in the abomination of desolation, that putrid carcass Shabbetai Zevi, may his name be blotted out and his bones ground to powder, who fashion themselves a high place and exhaust the strength from on High on account of their many transgressions.Rabbi Issachar Berush sharply opposed the letter signed by 26 supporters of Eibeschuetz justifying Rabbi Yonatan and claiming that nothing that was not perfect ever came from under his hand. Rabbi Issachar Berush stressed that it was a duty of all rabbis to remove abominations from the land. On page 31 of his work Sfat Emet Uleshon Zehorit Rabbi Yaacov Emdem refers to the Gaon (great scholar) our Master Rabbi Berush Segal of Ciechanowiec.
The Hassidic movement came to an almost complete standstill at the gates of the city and did not enter it. Scarcely any Hassidim were to be found there. Only in the 19th century do we know of one Hassid born in Ciechanowiec. However, owing to his fervent faith in the teachings of the old Wonder Rabbi of Kotzk, he found no alternative but to leave his home and settle in Bialystok. For in Ciechanowiec there was absolutely no room in those days for the Hassidic schools of Kotzk and Medzhibozh. This person was known as R' Eliezer Hassid. He was a devoted follower of the Kotzk Rabbi, but nevertheless was treated with the utmost respect as he was very well versed in the Talmud and the major rabbinic codifications. On his tombstone is engraved, Here lies a saintly and upright man, a friend of the Lord and a friend of his fellow men, who always acted in accordance with Hassidic piety, the G-d fearing rabbi and Hassid Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Avraham of Ciechanowiec who passed away on the 9th of Nissan in the year 5631 (1871). We know no details of his father Avraham save for the fact that he too came from Ciechanowiec.
It seems to me that the reason why Hassidism never found a home in Ciechanowiec is that the spiritual approach of the Jews of that city was given them by Rabbi Eliyahu the Gaon of Vilna, which meant that no place was left for the influence of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hassidic movement.
It was one of the great privileges of Ciechanowiec that the Vilna Gaon first began his studies there. The old synagogue of the city carefully preserved the work Meir Nativ written by Rabbi Meir, a descendant of the great 17th century Rabbi Shabbetai Cohen, known as the ShakH. This Rabbi Meir flourished when the Vilna Gaon was still young and the latter came to Ciechanowiec in order to study Torah at his feet. It is told in the name of the Vilna Gaon, In my youth I arrived during my wanderings and strayings at the hamlet of Ciechanowiec which is full of scribes and sages. The rabbi there, R' Meir was my instructor in the secret Kabbalistic studies, and he was my comrade in the open rabbinic studies.
The close ties between the Vilna Gaon and Ciechanowiec found their source in Rabbi David Saul Katzenelbogen, Head of the Court in Ciechanowiec. Rabbi David had four sons named after four animals. They were Zvi Hersch, Ze'ev Wolf, Aryeh Leib, and Dov Ber. Of these, Aryeh Leib was the comrade of the Vilna Gaon. There is a standard edition of the Hebrew Bible with many commentaries known as the Mikraot Gedolot, which includes a commentary of the Vilna Gaon entitled Aderet Eliyahu (Mantle of Elijah). In the section dealing with Leviticus we find, When the Vilna Gaon was ten years old he had a companion closer than a brother, that famed Gaon, our Master and Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Ciechanowiec. Shmuel Yosef Finn, the outstanding 19th century scholar and lexicographer of Vilna, writes in his work Knesset Yisrael about Rabbi Eliyahu ben Rabbi Shlomo Zalman of Vilna, When he was ten years old he gained as comrade the Gaon our Master Rabbi Aryeh, Head of the Court of Ciechanowiec. So close was the friendship between these two scholars that the Vilna Gaon subsequently named his firstborn son Yehuda Leib after Aryeh Leib of Ciechanowiec.
One of the first of these was Rabbi Shabbetai Zussman, author of Meir Nativ (The Path Lighter) which was published in Altona, Germany in 1793. In the introduction to his book Rabbi Shabbetai writes
The lesser luminary our Master the Rabbi Shabbetai, son of the rabbinic scholar our Master Rabbi Eliezer Zussman Katz, may the Merciful One guard him and redeem him, of the holy congregation of Ciechanowiec, and grandson of the High Priest, that Gaon so widely famed in his generation, our Master Rabbi Meir Katz, father of my great-uncle the Gaon author of the work of ShakH, Siftei Cohen (Lips of the Priest) of blessed memory.There is a saying of the sages with regard to scholars like Rabbi Shabbetai, Memorials are not made for the saints as their own works are their memorials. As a result we have very little biographical material. It seems that Rabbi Shabbetai received his early education in Ciechanowiec, for he witnesses in the introduction to his book, As it was in my early days when I studied with our Master and Rabbi the pious Gaon Rabbi Asher Anshell of blessed memory, who was Rabbi of the congregation of Selitz and spokesman for the congregation of Ciechanowiec. Rabbi Shabbetai composed Meir Nativ, which deals with the entire Babylonian Talmud, while he was living in Sokolow. He relates in the preface
All these works I prepared together while I was on the seat of instruction as Father of the Court in the holy congregation of Sokolow. I was accepted there in place of the Father of the Court and great teacher the Gaon and Kabbalist our Master Rabbi Yoel, author of the work Seder Hadorot (Order of the Generations) in the year 1771, and bless the Most High G-d who led me in the true way and gave me rest until the year 1782. During those eleven years the Lord gave me ease and honor and I had no trouble and my studies were productive, as the reader can see from the words of the famous Gaonim who have agreed to write approbations of it. For all of them together declare that the work Meir Nativ is of great and vast utility and it is a good deed to put it into print.In the introduction to Meir Nativ we find an old and authentic Hebrew source describing the state of the Ciechanowiec community almost 200 years ago. While he was Rabbi of Ciechanowiec, Rabbi Shabbetai Zussman planned to print his manuscript there, but it proved impossible as the community became impoverished and was almost totally destroyed. This is what the Rabbi tells:
I saw how matters came about, with the Lord's great fire in which the famed Synagogue and House of Study of the holy congregation of Ciechanowiec were burnt to the ground. Until now the Synagogue has not been rebuilt but a new House of Study has been erected which serves as a place for minyans and prayer. This is a city of sages and scribes yet the mills ceased to operate and all help fell away; for the pit cannot be filled with its own earth enough for purposes of livelihood. So when the money came to an end, I decided to go and publish the works I had written. As matters came about I traveled to Hamburg and I am here in the House of Study. Once again I saw that it was time to gather Torah together and not to disperse it, so I gathered words of the Torah in the course of time from the year 1783 until the year 1793.These few lines are very important in our understanding of the history of Ciechanowiec. Here we learn of the ruin of the community in the second half of the 18th century. The economic and public impoverishment were a catastrophe and Rabbi Shabbetai was forced to depart; there was no one to help and it was impossible for him to print his work in Ciechanowiec.
In the approbations we learn that in the 18th century there was a great rabbi in Ciechanowiec named Yehuda Leib. It states, Approbation of the rabbi and great luminary, the remarkably pious and ascetic teacher, our Rabbi Yehuda Leib of blessed memory, Father of the Court in the holy congregation of Ciechanowiec. This approbation ends with, The words of the minor Yehuda Leib, Monday 1st of Tammuz 5539 (1779), here in Ciechanowiec.
Thanks to the author of Meir Nativ, the fame of Ciechanowiec spread throughout the congregations of Europe, as noted from the diverse approbations. Thus we find the approbation of Rabbi Raphael Hacohen who held office in the triple communities of Altona, Hamburg, and Wansbeck; the approbation of the Gaon Rabbi Eleazar, Rabbi of Cologne and surrounding district, who writes, The Rabbi and great luminary, man of delights, complete in all high qualities, keen and well versed in the chambers of the Torah, His Honor our Master Rabbi Shabbetai Zussman Katz of Ciechanowiec. The approbation of Rabbi Saul of Amsterdam states, That astounding and well versed rabbinical scholar our Master Rabbi Shabbetai Zussman Katz of the holy congregation of Ciechanowiec, may his Rock and Redeemer preserve him. Of him I say, may the Father of the righteous rejoice indeed and be glad with him and His Torah, for it is very great. We also have the approbation of Rabbi Saul of The Hague who describes Rabbi Shabbetai as the astounding and most remarkable rabbinic saint our honored Master Rabbi Shabbetai Zussman Katz, may the Merciful One guard and redeem him of the holy congregation of Ciechanowiec who has honored himself and through whom honors are bestowed on others. The approbations of all these rabbis helped to spread the name of Ciechanowiec so that it became known as far as distant Amsterdam and beyond.
This is what I was told by R' Chaim ben Rabbi Peretz Hacohen of Ciechanowiec. On one occasion a tailor brought a new garment for a certain man to try on and see how it fit. (The garment was presumably brought to the Bet Hamidrash or House of Study.) A discussion began among those studying there as to whether such a fitting requires the Shechechayanu blessing. The blessing in question is said when eating something new, or upon reaching a new season, putting on new clothes, the commencement of a festival, etc. The saintly R' Zalman answered by applying a quotation from the sages, Tasting something does not call for a blessing.R' Mordecai Segal-Hurwitz notes that It used to happen when I was a child and the Gaon Reb Chaim was Rabbi in the holy congregation of Ciechanowiec, that I would come there and engage in Torah recreations with him. From which we learn that during R' Chaim's term of office, Ciechanowiec was a center of sages and great scholars. The pedigree of Rabbi Chaim Ciechanowiecer could be traced to R' Chaim, father of Rabbi Shabbetai Cohen, the ShakH, to whom we referred previously. Rabbi Chaim wrote an approbation to Gevurat Anashim by his great-uncle the ShakH, which was published in Sedilkow in 5579 (1819). It states:
Ye of this generation see something new: the delightful work by that true Gaon my great-uncle the ShakH of blessed memory, and responsa by his father, my great-grandfather the Gaon our Master Meir of blessed memory, father of the ShakH.Before coming to Ciechanowiec, R' Chaim lived in Vilna, where he married and engaged as a merchant importing goods from Amsterdam and Hamburg. When he left Ciechanowiec he was received as Father of the Court in Pinsk. In due course he left Pinsk for Eretz Yisrael. We learn this from the volume of responsa Mekor Chaim by the sage R' Yaacov Meir Padwa, published in Sedilkow in 5597 (1837). Therein the Gaon R' Aharon, author of Minhat Aharon writes, To my honored cousin the Gaon Reb Chaim, Father of the Court in the holy congregation of Pinsk, residing in honor in the Holy Land.
I have persuaded the cousin of my spouse, that distinguished and keen rabbinic scholar, the magnate and scion of nobility our Master Rabbi Mordecai ben our Master Shmuel Segal-Hurwitz of Kapust, to bring this book to the printer on Tuesday 27th of Tishrei in the year 5579. (The year 5579 is given in the form of what is called a chronograph, as was often done with Greek and Latin works in those days. Since each letter also has a numerical value, a Biblical phrase was chosen. In this case, Who makes salvation to flourish, which is numerically equivalent to the number required.)
R' Chaim made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael in 5586 (1826) with his second wife Mistress Mirka, who died in Jerusalem on the 7th of Cheshvan 5591 (1831). He settled in Safed where he bought a house and courtyard and built a Bet Midrash which became a meeting place of the sages. In the communal records of Safed for 5589 (1829) we find his signature in connection with the approval of distribution of funds received from abroad, in accordance with the compromise reached between the Ashkenazic, Parush, and Hassidic communities. These three communities were in reality all Ashkenazim, i.e. from Europe north of the Alps, as opposed to the Sephardim who originated largely in the Mediterranean basin. The Ashkenazim were Yiddish-speaking Jews without qualifications. The Perushim were disciples of the Vilna Gaon, while the Hassidim belonged to various Hassidic groups. The two latter divisions were relative newcomers on the scene and it clearly took a long time before their claim to share in the funds arriving from abroad was recognized.
R' Chaim passed away in Safed on 28 of Tevet 5591 (1831). One authority, Frumkin, claims he died in 5593. The date of his death is given in a letter of 2 Shevat 5591 written by the Gaon Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, a leader of the Perushim and author of Peat Hashulchan. The letter to Rabbi Chaim's son who lived in Vilna tells of the taking to Heaven of the Ark of G-d, my brother and head, your father the Rabbi and Gaon and famed saint His Honor of the glorious and Holy Name our Master the Rabbi Chaim Hacohen of saintly and blessed memory, to dwell in the world to come. His epitaph read, Passed away on the 28th day of the month of Tevet the Widow. There is a tale according to which R' Chaim ordered that after his death he should be immersed in a ritual bath in the cistern of his courtyard. During that year, however, little rain had fallen, it was very hot, all the springs had dried up, the cistern was empty and there was no moisture at all. Thereupon the Gaon Reb Yisrael of Shklov asked forgiveness of him in the name of all the congregation because it was absolutely impossible to fulfill his wishes. Those present showed him great honor and mourned him and kept him lying in state. But miraculously, a great deal of rain fell that night and all the cisterns were filled and the behest of R' Chaim was followed.
That explains the reference on his tombstone Tevet Armalta (Widow). The reference is to a quotation found in Tractate Taanit, Leaf 6, Rabbi Yehuda said, 'It is a good year in which the month of Tevet is like a widow and no rains fall during it to make the earth fruitful; while it is a bad year when rains fall in Tevet and bemire all the roads'.
R' David of Novogrudok mourned R' Chaim with great emotion. His eulogy, printed in Galya Masekhet runs in part as follows:
The Rabbi our Master R' Chaim had the Torah as his craft from his youth. He was a great and sharp pilpulist and corresponded with me on matters of Torah, writing responsa containing many things that were very new to me on various subjects. He was privileged to make aliyah to the Holy Land and find burial there. It is assuredly of such a saint that we can say that just as he was called Chaim (i.e. Life) before his death, so he deserves to be called Chaim after his death. In him is fulfilled the verse, And ye who cleave unto the Lord your G-d are all alive this day For his death was a saintly death in a kiss, cleaving to the Holy and Blessed One.
The Holy and Blessed One finds the passing of the saints as hard to bear as the burning of the House of our G-d, and just as the Holy and Blessed One calls for weeping and mourning on account of the Temple, in the same way the Holy and Blessed One is grieved and laments for the death of the saintly. Likewise we too are required to lament and weep greatly and mourn the passing of saints.
Rabbi Yaacov Leib achieved renown in the rabbinic world as a result of a dreadful incident. A certain Jew from Ciechanowiec went to a neighboring village. On the way he was joined by a Gentile. When they reached the forest, the Gentile killed the Jew and flung his corpse into a kiln in the middle of the woods. The body was found later with its face scorched and features obliterated. The rabbis could not make up their minds whether the wife of the slain man should be declared a widow or an aguna. (An aguna is an anchored woman, so to say, who does not know whether her husband is alive or dead. Hence, she is forbidden to remarry until the matter has been cleared up, or she receives rabbinical dispensation for remarriage on presumption of death after a sufficient time has elapsed.) For if the face of the deceased is scorched so badly as to be unrecognizable, it is impossible to identify him with certainty. Rabbi Raphael Yomtov Lippman Halperin, author of the book Oneg Yomtov published in Vilna in 1880, who himself served as Rabbi in Ciechanowiec for a number of years, communicated with R' Yaacov Leib Heller and asked him for his opinion. The responsa of R' Yaacov Leib is recorded in Oneg Yomtov, section 127 entitled Question regarding an aguna of the holy congregation of Ciechanowiec.
Your letter reached me more than a week ago, but my duties prevented me from answering until now because of the great deal of public toil which is burdened on me. However, since Your Honor has asked that I be associated with an authorization to free the said aguna to wed, as has already been approved by the Gaon of Lemberg (Lwow) and the Gaon our Master R' Leib Ornstein, the authorization and confirmation should be issued and there is no right or occasion to defer the matter. I did not wish to delay any longer, for our sages of blessed memory were very sensitive to the normalization of the situation of agunot. Therefore I wish to deal in brief with the matter of the aguna of Ciechanowiec whose husband when he left his home and was joined by a certain non-Jew and was killed by the latter when they reached the forest, and was then flung into a furnace at that spot, and was afterwards found there with his body whole, his legs burnt and his face and visage obliterated.From this responsum we see that R' Yaacov Leib gave permission to declare the woman as a widow, since if the body is entire it can be identified, even if no forehead and nose are to be seen there.
In my opinion this aguna should be permitted to wed again, and the permission depends on and is supported by many elements, one of them being the opinion of Rabbenu Tam of blessed memory, that recognition of the entire body is sufficient evidence, even if there is nothing identifiable about the face at all.
R' Yaacov Leib was also held in exceedingly high esteem by Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the Head of the Wolozhin Yeshiva (usually referred to by the initials of his name as the Neziv.) In his work Meshiv Davar, Part 2, Article 18, the Neziv writes to R' Yaacov Leib with regard to the laws of trefa, or meat which is ritually unfit for consumption by religious Jews.
To the honored Rabbi our Master Rabbi Yaacov Leib, may his light shine bright, Father of the Holy Court of Ciechanowiec (may the City of G-d be builded up): Considering that Your Honor is a great rabbi among his people, outstanding in instruction and may be relied on not to issue something which is not fully in order from under his hand, he doubtless found a good reason to issue his permission and I shall not deny that after I had been preceded by two of the sages of our times whose fame has spread afar, and who agree with the instruction of your holy fount of Torah, - therefore I shall have little to say and wish only to satisfy the request of your honored fount of Torah and address the hearkening ear, that the heart may be clear and their opinion decisive, to rely on your honored fount of Torah, charged with the holy work with much knowledge, wisdom, and fear of the Lord, wherever it may appear.
Rabbi Komay was born on 19 Elul 5600 (1840) in Telz, Kovno Guberniya, Lithuania. His father, R' Avraham, was a grandson of the scholarly R' Avraham, brother of the Vilna Gaon and author of Millot HaTorah. When Eliyahu Baruch was six years old, his father died and his mother Chana married R' Chaim Ze'ev Joffe (Jaffe), Rabbi of Szkod. In his early years, Eliyahu Baruch was educated in Talmud and the rabbinical writings by his stepfather. He achieved fame as a child prodigy with a keen mind, as one who was familiar with the most recondite sections of the Talmud. When his stepfather saw that great things could be expected from Eliyahu Baruch, he chose him as the bridegroom for his own daughter from his first marriage. At the age of 18 Eliyahu Baruch was wed and he remained with his stepfather who was now also his father-in-law and continued to devote himself to the works of the great Judaic authorities, carefully studying the system of Maimonides. He acquired a vast familiarity with the entire range of this literature, to which he added novellae of his own.
After the death of R' Chaim Joffe, Eliyahu Baruch was elected to be Rabbi of Szkod, a position he held for ten years. From there he proceeded to Karelitz in Minsk Guberniya where he served as Rabbi from 1878 to 1885. Regarding his appointment to that office: The men of Karelitz wished to set a rabbi over themselves. They sought the advice of Rabbi Yossi Ber of Brisk (Brest-Litovsk). R' Yossi Ber replied that he knew of one rabbi who was staying with him and was worthy of the post. So the community of Karelitz sent two emissaries to Brisk with a Letter of Appointment to the post of Rabbi. They arrived in Brisk and promptly went to the home of Rabbi Yossi Ber. Entering his study, they found a lean, pale-faced young man standing at a bookcase. This fellow would take a book, glance at it, replace it and then repeat the process, one book after another. Where is the Rabbi? they asked him. He'll return in a moment, the young man replied without turning his attention from the book in his hand.
The emissaries sat and waited. Meanwhile they were observing the young fellow. He was dressed in rags, his clothes crumpled and hanging in shreds. His boots were thoroughly worn and his hair protruded through his torn head covering. The men of Karelitz thought, This must be some poor recluse who has been given a roof by R' Yossi Ber.
When R' Yossi Ber entered he greeted the emissaries inquiring from whence they had come. From Karelitz, they replied. From Karelitz? Have you come to obtain the Rabbi I wrote you about? Well, here he is! And without pausing, R' Yossi Ber called to the young man, R' Eliyahu Baruch, these Karelitz folk have come for you. The eyes of the emissaries, as they say, turned black. Was this lean and miserable young fellow dressed in rags to be the Rabbi of Karelitz? One of them ventured to R' Yossi Ber, Honored Rabbi, pardon us, we have no doubt that this young scholar is worthy of the office as your honored self is prepared to recommend him. However, our community is accustomed to rabbis who have a certain appearance and presence, while this young man is . . . At this point R' Yossi Ber interrupted and summoned his attendant, Yekel, come here! Take these Jews and lead them to the slaughterhouse. Show them Berl the butcher. The emissaries stared at R' Yossi Ber in astonishment. You are telling me, said R' Yossi Ber, that you want a Rabbi with an imposing appearance, tall and broad-shouldered. Go out to the meat market with my attendant and he will show you such a man. Thereupon the emissaries felt ashamed of themselves and apologized to R' Yossi Ber. They took R' Eliyahu Baruch with them and returned to their city.
After his term of office at Karelitz, R' Eliyahu Baruch was appointed Rabbi in Wekszna (Weskin) to replace Rabbi Yosef Slupfer who had become Rabbi in Slonim. R' Eliyahu Baruch served in Wekszna for three years. In 5649 (1889) he became Rabbi in Ciechanowiec. The reception given him by the townsfolk was described by Avraham Yashunski, in the Hebrew journal Hatzefira of Wednesday, 3rd Av, 5649:
Our city rejoiced greatly for on Tuesday, 24 Tammuz, the men of our community gathered for a third time to set a prince over them who should come and go before them. And all of them unanimously chose the Gaon, the Rabbi and Father of the Court in the holy congregation of Weskin , long may he live, amen. The men of our community had often gathered to choose a rabbi, but to our sorrow they never reached agreement, for people differed in their opinions so much that they came to quarrel among themselves, as is customary in all the places wherein we dwell. We entertain the hope that the new rabbi will correct all that has become warped hitherto. May his coming make for peace and success.R' Eliyahu Baruch was outstanding in his shrewdness and keenness. While he was in Ciechanowiec, he had a small wage and lived poorly. His wife was always worried. So much was necessary, the children were growing and there was so little for their livelihood. But R' Eliyahu Baruch, who was gay and cheerful by temperament, was always in a good mood. He never worried even when matters were at their worst, but would amuse himself and others with a sharp phrase and clever joke. On one occasion, his wife said to him, Don't you worry at all about your home and children? To which he answered, You know that I'm thought to have a sharp head. What's the difference between a sharp fellow and one who isn't? Well, what the one who isn't sharp will take in during a week, the sharp fellow can take in during an hour or a moment. So from that, you can judge for yourself that what you worry all week long I worry in a single moment.
The shrewdness of Rabbi Komay is evidenced by the following story:
When he was appointed Rabbi in Karelitz, he was under economic duress. The town notables decided to sell a plot of public property in the town market and turn over the money to the Rabbi. Seventy-five rubles were realized and were presented to the Rabbi as a gift.Rabbi Komay remained in Ciechanowiec for ten years until 5659 (1899), at which time Rabbi Avraham Tiktinski invited him to be Head of the Mir Yeshiva. Once he assumed that post, this long-standing institution began its rejuvenation and rapidly became one of the foremost Yeshivot in East Europe.
In due course, the wardens were at the Rabbi's home and one of them inquired, What do you think of the community's gift? I'll tell you a certain story, replied R' Eliyahu Baruch. Once upon a time there was a king who had a dear friend whom he esteemed so highly that he made him his Minister of Finance, so as to keep him with him all the time. One day the Minister of Finance did not visit the King. The king summoned him and the Minister returned this message, 'My Lord King, I am in good health but sad and unhappy thoughts are grieving me and oppress my spirit.' The King answered, ' I have a book which has a charm about it. Everyone who reads it finds that his sad thoughts forsake him and he becomes cheerful.' Now the King ordered that the pages of the book should be interleaved with currency notes and he sent the volume to the Minister of Finance. Next day the Minister appeared bright and cheerful before the King. 'How do you like that book of mine?' asked the King. 'I must thank you my Lord King for your precious gift. Your book restored my soul and I have taken such a liking to it that I am very anxious indeed to get on with the next section.'
And R' Eliyahu Baruch ended his parable by turning to the wardens, And maybe gentlemen, you also have another part?
R' Eliyahu Baruch was in the front ranks of great modern rabbinic scholars. He could remember the entire range of Talmudic literature in all its branches, and had it at his command. He also had a vast range of general knowledge and a deep grasp of current affairs, and was constantly formulating fresh thoughts and novellae of his own. He required his students to be familiar, in systematic fashion, with entire range of Talmud and the commentaries, since that range of knowledge alone could provide a firm foundation for comprehensive dialectic and casuistry of the kind known as pilpul. He always told his students not to make fresh suggestions of their own until they were quite familiar with the whole range of the Babylonian Talmud, in order that their discussions should be firmly grounded.
In the autumn of 5675 (1915) the teachers and students of the Mir Yeshiva were forced into exile in Central Russia. At this stage of World War I, the Russian military forces were in retreat along a wide swath of the Lithuanian front. Mir was in the vicinity that separated the Russian and German armies. Although the Yeshiva was set up in Poltava in the Ukraine, R' Eliyahu Baruch remained with his community in spite of the physical and spiritual suffering he endured.
In that same year a severe ailment in one of his legs created additional suffering for R' Eliyahu Baruch. He was taken to Minsk for medical consultations. Surgeons recommended that the leg be amputated as the only hope for cure. Rabbi Komay would not agree. He stated, I wish to proceed to the True World entire in all my limbs. His wishes were accepted and the operation was not performed. He died of his illness on 12 Tammuz 5677 (1917) and was buried in Minsk.
No printed work of Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch is in our hands, but we know what is quoted in his name among scholars and other authors. His son, Rabbi Avraham Zvi Komay, who took his place at the Mir Yeshiva, prepared his father's manuscripts for the press but was unable to complete the work. R' Eliyahu Baruch's teachings are preserved by the students who attended his courses and lectures during his tenure at Mir from 5659-5675 (1899-1915).
The following scholars living in Israel studied under Rabbi Komay: Rabbi Unterman, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv/Yaffo; Rabbi S. J. Zevin, Editor of the Talmudic Encyclopedia; Dr. Moshe Zilberg, Judge in the Jerusalem Court of Appeal; and Rabbi Reuven Glick, a director of the Beth Hamidrash LeTorat Eretz Yisrael. In his work Mishpatei Bnai Adam, the latter quotes a number of new elucidations of his master R' Eliyahu Baruch, in whose home he grew up and at whose yeshiva he studied for eight years.
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