Reb Dovid varied the determination in a case concerning ritual slaughter. The problem was an abnormal adhesion in the lung of an animal, which Rama judged to make the meat traif (not kosher). This ruling was accepted in all Jewish kehiles (communities) at the time, but Reb Dovid paskend (adjudged) the meat to be kosher, and this had became the rule followed in Novogrudok. The later rabbonim accepted the lenient ruling.
Reb Dovid received a weekly allowance of three roubles, but not regularly. A transient visitor asked once what was his weekly allowance. He answered that it was three roubles this week. Asked why he said this week and not a week, he answered that it means this week and not last week and I am not certain if I will be paid next week. The reason was that there was no steady income to provide a regular allowance and the great rabbi and his family suffered poverty. But that did have no effect on his conduct in town nor his scholarship and his dealings with the great ones of his generation.
His situation had improved by a curious set of circumstances. Reb Dovid was approachable to the congregation. He used to socialise with the people of the town. He would comfort them and amuse them. Having come one day to the synagogue he told the story that though nobody could outwit him in a ruling, his wife presented him with an argument for which he had no answer. The story goes as follows: it was a sever winter with exceptional frosts and snow falls and his family was suffering from illnesses and poverty. He was in debt and Passover was approaching. His wife asked him why they had to suffer so much. She burst into tears, which she had never done before. She was reproaching him strongly for not being concerned about the deprivation of the family and for not looking for relief. He answered that the town could not pay him regularly because they had no means to do so. She should have been well aware of this. She answered that she knew it but she also knew that she could be a wife of a rabbi in a larger town such as Minsk of Vilno. Is it my fault, said she, that you can not secure such a appointment. Reb Dovid was astonished by the logic of her argument. He put on his fur coat and went to the synagogue to recount to the members of his congregation how his wife confounded him with her complaint. The story quickly spread around the town. A meeting was rapidly called, the rabbi's stipend was increased by two roubles in addition to his previous allowance of three roubles. They established a reliable source for obtaining the money to make sure that payment would in the future be regular. In addition, 50 gold coins were given to him to repay all his debts.
In his old age Reb Dovid suffered much anguish, because the tsarist government was contemplating the introduction of military service for Jews. The Jews were distressed by the proposed edict, because it would mean that they would be sent for many years to serve in the depth of Russia, made to eat non-kosher food and forced to forget their origin. The Jews considered it a terrible edict. Reb David took it to heart, was perpetually sick and told his visitors that he was disconsolate by the Jewish sorrows. He anticipated his demise. He died at the age 73 at taf cuf cadic chet.
Some time later, when Reb Yitzchak's name was well known in the world, and everywhere he went he was mobbed, they thought it a privilege to shake his hand and to see him, he came to Volkovysk and Rozhanka to visit his ancestral graves. Large crowds came to see him. An old, crumpled woman insisted on seeing him and asked him to bless her so that her fate would improve and her misfortunes would come to an end. Reb Yitzchak recognised her, it was his first proposed bride, who told her mother that she did not like him.
After he married he was on kest (also called esen kest, a custom of sustaining a young couple by the parents of the bride for an agreed period to allow the young husband to finish his studies) for 6 years and continued to study with diligence and dedication. At that time came to Volkovysk as a prospective bridegroom a well known young scholar Reb Boruch Mardechai Lipshits (later a rabbi in Novogrudok). He came to see a wealthy family in Volkovysk. He was envious of Reb Yitzchak's Helhonon diligence. On occasions, after Reb Yitzchak left the synagogue Reb Boruch would stay back and continue to study for a few hours. Once, after the Yom Kipur fast, Reb Boruch Mordichai thought: By now Reb Yitzchak must be asleep. I will go to the synagogue to study. But having come to the synagogue he found that Reb Yitzchak was still there, having prayed for the past hour. I will not exceed his diligence Reb Boruch Mordichai decided. And thus it was. Reb Yitzchak Helhonon developed to be the goen (genius) of his generation who was knowledgeable in everything in SHAS (acronym of Shisha Sedarim of Mishna or Talmud) Babylonian and Jerusalem reshoinim and achroinim (early and late authorities on Jewish law from 11 century to Shulchan Oruch 1564-1565) and became a leader of his generation. Whilst eating kest he studied in a learning circle which included the son of Reb Binyamin the rabbi of Volkovysk, with Reb Yeshiva Leib Diskin (who was later the goen of Brisk and later of Jerusalem).
Reb Yitzchak Helhonon was tall, had soft dark eyes, rosy cheeks and a smile. He spoke softly and delicately using short, refined sentences, in a thin soprano voice. He could never be made cross or curse anyone. He gave everybody the benefit of doubt. On his way from home to the synagogue he would be the first to greet everyone , Jew or non-Jew, big or small, poor or rich. Others were always waiting to meet him because they believed in the power of his blessing. They waited to hear his greeting and believed that this would secure them a good day.
In 1858 he went to Koenigsberg to print his first book of Be'er Yitzchak. Two rabbis came to visit him in his hotel to discourse and study. They were the famous goen Reb Isroel Salander and the goen Reb Yakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, the rabbi of the town. At the same time arrived the well known businessman from Minsk, Reb Heinach Eisenstadt. Having seen such eminent persons forgathered, he said to them that he had a request. He told them that in his district lives a women who needs chalitse (release according to the levirate marriage law) but her brother-in-law is an apostate, who once studied Judaism but has converted and is now a priest in Germany. I saw him recently, he said, he refuses blankly to give chalitse. He said that there is no explicit law in Talmud which obliges an apostate to give chalitse. Only the later judges have reinstated this law. He told me that if I can show him an appropriate law in Talmud he will oblige. The wealthy man from Minsk was imploring them to find an apposite ruling in the Talmud. Rabbi Yitzchak Helhonon exclaimed Yes, I know of proof in the Talmud, it is in the Gemarrah Gittin page ajendaled alef and brilliantly he deduced from it that an apostate is obliged to give chalitsa. The other rabbis were astounded. Heinach Eisenstadt went to the priest, who consented to give the woman chalitsa.
In issues concerning Aguna he was usually correct in his legal determination. He worked very hard day and night until he found the foundation for his positive judgement. This was because he was by nature kind and soft hearted. He would say I am sorry for the poor Aguna, all that is possible must be done to save her from an unfortunate life. And that is how he treated everyone. Charity he would dispense with an open hand. When he travelled he would tip the servants as a rich man. He paid the coachman double that which the normal passenger would pay and he would thank warmly the inn keeper for all his kindness.
When he was the Rav in Novogrudok a dispute broke out in the Volozyn yeshiva between the Rav Hirsh Berlin (father of Reb Meier Berlin) and the goen Reb Josef Ber Soloveichik, who was at the time the deputy head of Reb Hirsh Laibl's yeshiva. There was also a big dispute among the students. The well known rabbis Reb Dovid Tevel Minsker, Reb Yosef Fimer (twin) Slutzker, Reb Velvel, rabbi of Vilno and Reb Yitzchak Helhonon were invited. They were asked to settle the dispute. They did settle the matter and they introduced takkanot (regulations) in the yeshiva. Whilst the rabbis were in Volozyn, the students of the Yeshiva asked the rabbis to give them a lecture. This would be highly valued by the students. The rabbi asked Reb Yitzchok to give the lesson and said that they were too old to have discussions with the protégées of Volozyn. You are still a young man (he was 40 at the time), you could cope with them better. He accepted the commission and gave a lesson on the Gomorrah of Bava Batra (Last gate- laws pertaining to the sale, acquisition etc of real estate), which they studied at the time. The lesson was a success. Later Reb Yosif Ber had become the Rabbi of Brest. There was also an argument in the Mir Yeshiva between the rabbi Reb Dovid and the head of the Yeshiva. Reb Yitzchak settled the matter. At the time when he was the rabbi in Novogrudok, the enemies of the Jews in Russia and the Polish landowners were inciting the Russian government against the Jews. The outcome was the policy of the Russian Government to expel the Jews. They prohibited the Jews to live in villages, they drafted twice the number of Jews that they were obliged to, and often they did not for some years, draft non Jews from the western regions, where the Jews lived. They took Jews instead. They were intending to introduce a law that Jews would not be allowed to live within 50 viorst (53 kilometres) from the German boarder. They were planning to forbid kosher slaughter. They were planning to reform the curriculum in Jewish schools by forbidding the study of the Talmud. They wanted to introduce a government examination in the Jewish schools and introduce many other prohibitions. But the rabbis, among them Reb Yitzchak Helhonon, were conducting frequent meetings with Jewish community leaders (this was in the second and third year after his arrival in Novogrudok), activists were elected, who lobbied the government in St Petersburg and frequently they managed to forestall the introduction of a hostile decrees. Reb Yitzchok travelled frequently to Vilno and St Petersburg and, whilst he was a rabbi in Kovno, he was travelling frequently on matters concerning the Jews and was acting on communal matters. Whilst he was the rabbi in Novogrudok he heard that Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) was coming to Mogilev to attend a wedding of the son of Graf (Earl, Count) Pashkevich. He contacted communal workers and a delegation, which consisted of Rav the goen Barit of Vilno, Yitzchak Zelkind, Shmuel Lurie of Mogilev and Lipe Zelzer from Vitebsk. They went to Gomel and handed a petition to the Tsar. Two activists Mr Nisen Katzenelson from Bobruisk and Mr Fivel Freedland from Dvinsk were sent later to St Petersburg to petition the government. The Tsar gave them a friendly reception and promised to do something about the situation.
During the outbreak of the pogroms in the 1880's, Yitzchak Helhonon founded committees which were helping the victims. When whole townships were burned to the ground, he undertook to collect money to rebuild the ruined towns. He alone collected more than a million roubles. As it is known, the pogroms of '81-'82 in the south of Russia, which were characterised by their enormous spread (204 communities) and exceptional cruelty (the event was known in Jewish annals as the hurricane of the south). The pogroms were conducted by tsarist officials and the military (for example in Elizavetgrad). The dark tsarist reactionaries were frightened by the revolutionary movement that embraced all levels of the nation. They wanted to use the Jewish people as scape goats to divert the suffering of the people. The pogroms had also the aim to force the Jews to convert or to emigrate. The chief adviser to the Tsar, the chief prosecutor of the Holy Synod, who was the spiritual leader of the tsarist government, had made his meaning openly known. He said that the Jewish problem in Russia would be solved in the following way: a third would be killed, a third would convert and a third would emigrate. He added that the western boarder was open.
And indeed tens of thousands of Jews were making their way to the border. The border towns of Brody and Lemberg and the harbour towns of Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Hamburg were full of Jewish refugees. Thus began the great Jewish emigration which was increasing year by year and which brought millions of Jews from eastern Europe to America. The Minister of the Interior, Graf Ignatiev, has issued his ÒtemporaryÓ May decrees, to make Jewish life more bitter still. These decrees were kept in force until the fall of the tsarist regime. Tens of thousands of Jewish families were uprooted from their land and expelled from their homes. Their places of habitat were continuously reduced and further hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled into the overflowing Jewish towns. The Jews were restricted in all their rights.*
At that time RebYitzchak Helhonon got in touch with prominent personalities abroad such as Dr Asher, the Secretary of the committees of the communities in London, the Chief Rabbi Tsadok in Paris. HaRav Hilf of Memel and others. They organized protest meetings with the participation of bishops, members of parliament and ministers, where the barbaric behavior of the tsarist state was condemned. The press had written about it at length. Contact was made with the Danish king, who was the father-in-law of the Tsar. He had written to the Tsar that the pogroms were giving a bad impression of Russia. The protests had some influence, because the tsarist government was in need of support from their European allies. The vicious Graf Ignatiev was dismissed (though his temporary law had, as mentioned above, remained). The wave of the pogroms had temporarily come to a halt.
RebYitzchak Helhonon became sick in jud chet adar 1894. He had inflammation of the kidney and his heart was weak. Whilst sick he was still engaged in ruling on difficult issues, and came up with hidushshei Torah (original interpretations of passages in the Torah). Professors from Koenigsberg and St Petersburg were invited, but they did not give much hope for improvement because of his considerable age. People were reciting everywhere tehilim (psalms) for him. But to no avail. He died in beit alef adar 1897 tav nun tzadic bet'h (may his sole rest in peace).
Ha Rav Yechiel Michl Epstein (original German spelling Eppstein)
He was the rabbi in Novogrudok between 1874 and 1908. Hagoen (genius) Rav Yechiel Michl Epstein was the child of Reb Aron Yitzchak and Rashke of Bobruisk. The Epsteins were a large, eminent family known over many generations. According to records they stemmed from the exiles from Spain, expelled in 1492. And previous to that, in the ancient times, they stemmed from the exiles from Jerusalem, who were taken by Titus to Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem. In Spain the family lived in the vicinity of Seville and Toledo, where their name was Ben Venashti. After the exile from Spain the family was divided. A part of the family went to Turkey to Salonica and Constantinopol. Others went to Ismir. The second part of the Ben Vanashti family went by sea to Germany via France. They arrived to the town Eppstain. The town gave them a friendly reception and granted them right of residence. In gratitude they changed their name from Veneshti to Epstein.
Ha Rav Yechiel Michl was born in Bobruisk into a large interconnected family who lived in wealth, honour and prominence. They were men of the Torah and men of charity. This is how Yechiel Michl was brought up. He could have also grown up to be a man of letters and wealth, however he was destined to become a goen of his generation and a rabbinic scholar of law. After he married the daughter of Reb Yakov Berlin of Mir he started a business which was conducted by his wife. He was immersed in studying. His wife started a textile shop and employed people. This was the way they earned their living. The letter of patent for the shop was in his name and when an inspector would call to check the patents Reb Yechel used a hired man to show him the way to his shop. Thus he would be present in the shop when the inspector came.
At that time there was a rabbi in Bobruisk Rav Elijah Goldberg, a goen, a pupil of Reb Chaim Volozyner. He met the young scholar, Reb Yechiel Michl and recognised his substantial capabilities and great potential in the young scholar, because of his great talents and logical mind. He called on Reb Aron Yitzchak, the father of Yechiel Michl and he said: you have gifted children who assist you in your extensive enterprises. Why don't you let one of them become a Godl be Isroel? (a great one among his people). And that was Reb Yechiel Michl. His father agreed to the suggestion and Reb Yechiel Michl remained a student of the Torah without being disturbed. He began to lecture to gifted students and had become known as a great scholar in the town.
He obtained his first appointment as a rabbi in Novozivkov in the Mogilev gubernia. Most of the Jews in town were Lubavich Chasids. Having seen the great respect of the chasids to their rabbi Reb Mendele of Lubavich, whom they called the Tzemach Tzadik, he decided to visit the renowned goen. He travelled to Lubavich. The Rabbi gave him a friendly reception and despite their age difference they became firm friends. The Rabbi soon gave his guest a rabbinical degree. Every day they would discuss and study matters of functioning as a rabbi, how to be in turn lenient and strict depending on the nature of the matter in hand. This advice left a life long influence on Reb Yechel Michl. Reb Mendele shared with Reb Yechiel some personal confidences, for example, that he had great respect for the goen of Vilno. The Shulchan Oruch with Beor Hagra (which is the goen's of Vilno perush (commentary) on Shulchan Oruch) were always on his table and he did not budge without them. The Chasids should be thankful to the goen and his students, because, if it was not for their persecution of the Chasidim, who knows how far the Chasidim would have strayed in their new ways of learning by defying the hidden Torah and not being scrupulous in the study of the revealed Torah. This is why the Baal ha Tania had written his Shulchan Oruch because he used it to demonstrate to the Chasidim the need not to abandon the practical laws according to Shulchan Oruch. The foundation of Judaism is to live every minute according to the Shulchan Oruch and not to delve into the mysticism which is hidden.
Reb Yechiel Michl had his rabbinic style which was different from that of his predecessor. He was by nature not effervescent but was studious and contemplative. It was a pleasure to discuss matters and exchange information on lots of matters of history and politics. He was a good speaker. He kept things in order and supervised all matters in the town. His writings were in good order and were clear and well formed. Every name was spelled correctly. Concerning issues of the practice of slaughter in Novogrudok he confirmed all the existing rules. He always searched for a lenient ruling according to the law. His opinion was, as written in the RASH, that he who wants to be stringent must provide evidence, because to be stringent for its own sake meant wasting people's money. Once some people came to him on the seventh day of Passover with the following problem: they found a cooked grain of wheat in some soup. He did not want to rule on the matter on the spot. He postponed making the decision twice till evening came, which was the beginning of the eighth (last) day of Passover. A different law applies to this problem on the last day of Passover, because during the seven days of Passover the ruling according to Rabbenu Tam applies that any chomets during Passover is all chomets, but on the eighth day of Passover there is a rabbinic rule for the Diaspora to which the 60% rule applies, and everything can be used. Rabbi Yechiel Michl did not want to cause anguish to a Jewish family and found a solution to the problem.
In his personal life, Rabbi Yechiel Michl conducted himself without allowing concessions, strictly without lenience. He gave an example of a train. The passengers can sit in the carriages and enjoy themselves. They can walk and look in all directions. But the train driver must look intently at his engine and in the direction the train is going. Thus the rabbi must be the ruler of his community. In relation to the people of his community he was kind hearted and if anyone asked him for a favour he obliged regardless of whether the person was deserving or not. He was often interceding with the city authorities and always succeeded, because he was respected. Every day and night he was available as a soldier on duty in service to everyone. He considered himself wealthier than a Moscow millionaire because he lived a complete spiritual life.
His first book was Or leishorim, which he had printed. His second book which made him world famous was the Oruch hashulchan in nine parts. The book was written according to the method of Baal halvushim Reb Mordechai Yaffe, who died 400 years ago. In the Arba'ah helkey shulchan aruch he explained every law according to SHAS and reshoinim and achroinim (former and latter) until the last judges and he wrote the last legal ruling. The book was accepted by all Jewish communities. It became a book that every rabbi kept on his table, so as to see what the latest judge said. It was printed in large numbers and had several additions, which was a sign of its great importance.
Reb Yechiel Michl had arranged in Novogrudok that Sabbath should commence an hour before sunset. The reason for this was as follows: he was going one Friday evening to the synagogue at candle lighting time, when he saw that the shops in the marketplace were beleaguered with Jews and non-Jews and the shopkeepers were occupied with cashing in money and no attention was given to the time to close the shops. And all the pleadings that it was nearly sunset were disregarded. He caused the announcement to be made that from the next Sabbath the evening prayer in every shul would be conducted before sunset which would be followed by the immediate commencement of the Sabbath. And so it was. But the shopkeepers did not believe that the new ordinance would stand. But when they came to shul at the usual time, they found that the service was over and the shul was closed. After that they complied with the ruling so as not to desecrate the Sabbath.
Reb Yechiel Michl fell ill and passed away in the winter of 1908. The funeral was attended by most rabbis from the surrounding towns as well as many Jews from the neighbouring towns to mourn the passing of the great genius.
Following the seven days of mourning the community wanted to make an offer of the rabbinic position to his son, the goen Reb Boruch Epstein, author of the famous books Torah tmima About Humash and the book Makor Baruch. He refused, however, to accept the rabbinical position in Novogrudok. He preferred to retain his position as an accountant in a bank in Pinsk.
Reb Yichiel Michl took as his son in law the famous rabbi and the head of the Yeshiva of Volozyn (the Natziv-pillar) Reb Naftoli Tzvi Berlin, who was 64 years old at the time and his bride was 16 years old. They had a famous son, the well known Mizrachi activist Reb Meyer Berlin OBM. The young Rebetzn was conducting the affairs of the Yeshiva with much understanding and was a great help to her old husband.
The time had passed and Novogrudok was looking for a suitable rabbi. They made an offer to the Tavriker rabbi the eminent Rabbi Harav Avraham Burshten, who later went to Israel. He could not have been an active rabbi in Novogrudok, because previously he had written in the newspapers Ha Melitz He Chaluts and Ha Sfira agitating against the Musar movement. He was an avid opponent of their method. This led to a great conflict in town. Reb Yoisl and his supporters harassed him. He had to leave the town. He was replaced later by the eminent Rabbi Menachem Krakowski who later went to Vilno as the town preacher.
*(On March 1, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Alexander II was mortally wounded by a bomb thrown by student, I. Grinevitskii, a member of the revolutionary organization The National Will, ending his policy of conciliation toward the Jews of Russia and inaugurating an oppressive reign under Tsar Alexander III.
Within months after the assassination, the Russian minister of the interior, Count Nicolai Ignatiev, announced that, since the tolerant policies of Alexander II had failed, harsh measures against Russian Jewry were now in order. The notorious pogroms, anti-Jewish riots under thinly-veiled government sponsorship, soon followed, with the loss of many Jewish lives and the extensive destruction of Jewish property. Next came a series of anti-Jewish decrees, termed temporary regulations, which came to be known as the May Laws since they were placed into effect on May 3, 1882. These temporary laws were so repressive and restrictive on Jewish life that, by the year 1900, nearly 40% of Russia's Jews were dependent upon charity. The combined effect of the pogroms and the May Laws drove the Jews of Russia, in desperation, to seek relief in whatever direction it could be found.) Return
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