« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 516]

Among Rabbis

by Professor Shaul Lieberman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The author, born in 1898, is a professor of Talmudic and Midrashic literature in Jerusalem and New York. He is one of the greatest of the Talmudic researchers, particularly on the Jerusalem Talmud. [1]

I arrived in Minsk in 1915, during the war. I had never seen such a Jewish city before. I was still young, but I looked around and saw that this city of Minsk was different than other cities that I had seen in my life. It was a city that was all Jewish. I barely saw any gentiles there.

I recall that one day I went with my uncle, my mother's brother, the elderly rabbi from Lahoysk, who was also the brother of the mother of the Chazon Ish [2]. As we were walking, we arrived at a street that was nicknamed, “Between the Stores”. It was a hot summer day, and there were not that many customers at the stores. The storekeepers were sitting on chairs outside the stores to get some fresh air. My uncle had a splendid countenance. When we arrived at the edge of the street, all of the shopkeepers, one after another, stood up to honor him. We passed among them as a supervisor passing through a role call amongst rows of soldiers. I had never seen such a thing anywhere else. Even though the people did not know him, they stood on their feet in awe in honor of an elderly rabbi with a splendid countenance as he passed through the entire street. They did not sit down again until he had disappeared from their eyes on the other side of the street.

My relative, the Chazon Ish, was Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz. He left his town of Stolbtsy, where his wife had a store, and lived in Minsk. He lived on a street that was called Zamkovaya, in a dwelling that consisted of two small rooms, which was next to the synagogue that was called “Rabbi Isser's Shtibel”. By his clothes and appearance, the Chazon Ish looked like a typical tailor from a small town. When he first came to Reb Isser's Shtibel on a Sunday afternoon, Jews were sitting and studying at a Talmud class. Reb Avraham Yeshayahu was nearsighted. He took a Gemara and brought it close to his eyes. To the people there who did not know him, he left the impression as someone who was looking for something in the Gemara and peering as a chicken would to humans. Of course, they did not say anything to him. When the rest of the householders gathered, and they were ready to start the class, they needed the book that was in his hands. The shamash (beadle) approached him, took the book from his hands, and said to him: “A simple Jew should be reciting Psalms, not peering into books. We need this Gemara to study here.” The Chazon Ish did not pay attention to this, and nodded his head as a sign of agreement. The next day, when he came to worship in that synagogue, he stood behind the lectern, to the west side, as a guest. The shamash approached him and asked for his name, in order to honor him with an aliya to the Torah. He said, “Avraham Yeshayahu the son of Reb Shmaryahu”. The Shamash was astonished, and did not say anything. After he had concluded his blessings on the Torah, the shamash became very emotional, and begged his forgiveness in a weeping voice. The Chazon Ish did not understand at all what the shamash wanted from him. He had not taken affront at all, and believed that the shamash was correct. The Gemara did belong to the synagogue, and those who were sitting and studying needed the Gemara. Thus was how it was supposed to be. The shamash was also correct that a Jew is supposed to recite Psalms.

During those years, he would sit in his home in Minsk and study all day and night. His wife would come from Stolbtsy for the Sabbath. On occasion, a relative would come to visit him. On such occasions, out of concern for yichud [3], he would ask me to sleep over for the night. I slept at his home a few times. One night, when I woke up from my sleep, I saw him sitting in his bed with his yarmulka on his head. He did not light a candle, and was studying tractate Eruvin by heart.

I believed that those days were his best days, for he was not yet recognized. Only a few people knew who he was. The community did not know of his existence, and he enjoyed that fact very much. He was able to seclude himself and study. People did not bother him, and his mouth did not desist from study. His wife would send him what he needed to subsist, and he would subsist with a measure or carobs from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve [4]. Things were different on the Sabbath, when his wife arrived from Stolbtsy, and they would honor the Sabbath with food and drink, as is commanded. He maintained no connection with any institution or Yeshiva. He did not teach anyone, did not visit anyone, but only sat in his house in solitude and studied. I would visit him frequently, since I was his relative. He published the books that he wrote with the pseudonym Chazon Ish. Ish (aleph yud shin) is the acronym for his name Avraham Yeshayahu. He published these books with his own funds. His wife earned a good living in her store. They had no children. He would publish the books himself and sell them. When people realized who the author was, he became famous.

He moved to Vilna two years later. There, his wife also had a large store, and they earned a good livelihood. His wife did not want to make aliya to the Land. How could she leave the store that provided abundant sustenance, and make aliya? Then the incident occurred. Thieves came one night and took everything. They emptied the store. He said that he had heard the thieves as they were coming, but was afraid to make a sound, lest they also engage in murder, and therefore he pretended to be sleeping. The next day, when they saw that nothing was left, he said, “Now there are no more impediments to making aliya to the Land”. They made aliya.

In my youth, I studied in the Slobodka Yeshiva, which had moved to Minsk during the war. The yeshiva students studied in the Synagogue of the Tatars (Tatarishe Shul). In the early days, the yeshiva students would eat on a rotation basis with the householders. This custom had already ceased in my days. Each yeshiva student received a stipend from the yeshiva to meet his needs. One rabbi in Moscow, Rabbi Kalmans, later a member of the office of the chief rabbinate of Jerusalem, was a wealthy Jew who owned a beer factory. He donated a great deal of money to the Slobodka Yeshiva during the time that it was located in Minsk. He would send 400 Rubles monthly to be divided among 10 selected yeshiva students, 40 Rubles per student. The directors of the Yeshiva claimed that more than 10 students could be supported with such a sum. However, he persisted, and answered, “I want that 10 students will each receive 10 Rubles per week” Thus it was. I was among the 10 students. This was a large sum. I was unable to spend even a third of this. Donations were collected, as was customary, to support the rest of the students. A large amount of money was collected in Minsk itself. Emissaries were also sent to many places.

We lived in private homes. I, for example, lived in the home of the Maggid of Minsk. I paid rent and also ate there. The housewife would cook lunch for us, and prepare a light meal for us for breakfast and supper. Thus did we study.

After this, at the beginning of 1917, we move to Kremenchug. The Yeshiva moved from Minsk out of fear of the approaching front. I recall the attacks by German aircraft. I saw with my own eyes how they dropped bombs, however not on the city itself. In those days, they were still not brazen enough to drop bombs on civilian settlements. They rather did so on cemeteries. The Germans conquered the city only in 1918. I was not in the city at the time. I was also not in Minsk at the time of the Polish conquest. I returned to the city only at the time of the Bolsheviks. I then married the daughter of the Rabbi of Minsk, who was my first wife of blessed memory.

In the home of my father-in-law, the Rabbi of Minsk, they mentioned to me one incident. In one neighborhood, a woman died in childbirth. Rumors were spread that she lived in a common law relationship with a Communist. After her death, the men of the Chevra Kadisha brought the coffin to the house of that Communist and told him, “See what your evil deeds have caused”. They said that they did this under order from the neighborhood rabbi. Shortly thereafter, they imprisoned all of the men as well as the neighborhood rabbi, and brought them to judgement. They also brought the chief rabbi, Rabbi Leizer to judgement. They interrogated and investigated, and finally freed the chief rabbi from having to appear in court. This is indeed what happened.

During the interrogation in court, one of the judges asked Rabbi Leizer, “Tell me truth. Do you really believe that people are punished for the misdeeds of others? Was it necessary to bring the coffin of the woman who died in childbirth to the house of the Communist, given that the entire neighborhood was liable to be punished for the misdeeds of that Communist?”

He answered them: “Listen my masters, whether or not I believe this, I do not intend to answer. However, your eyes see that we are all punished due to anger over the misdeeds of a different person. I am an elderly man, and you have already dragged me here several times for interrogations. You are all busy people, sitting here in the courthouse for entire evenings, and wasting your time. I say this to you, neither I nor you are guilty for what the neighborhood rabbi did. Nevertheless, we are all being punished on account of anger over the misdeeds of one man. This is proof.”

The rabbi was famous in the city as a scholar, and everyone related to him with great appreciation. When the judges heard these words, they burst out in laughter and freed him in peace, “The rabbi can go, we will not bother you further.” At the end of the matter, the neighborhood rabbi was sentenced to several months of imprisonment.

Here is another incident from the time that I lived in the home of my father-in-law, the Rabbi of Minsk. A shipment of 1,500 food parcels from America was received in the name of the Rabbi of Minsk, who was to distribute them as he saw fit. This was during the time of the famine, and the food parcels were of inestimable value. Is it a small thing in your eyes, a package that contains preserved milk and kosher meat in boxes? The Yevsekis [5] held up the shipment and demanded that the rabbi sign that he had received the packages. When he refused, they threatened to send him to jail. The rabbi stood his ground: “I will go to jail, but I will not sign for packages that I did not receive.” Finally, they proposed a compromise to him, half and half. 750 for the rabbi to distribute as he sees fit, and 750 to the Yevsekis for their own Jews. Having no choice, the rabbi agreed, for he understood that his stubbornness would not get him anywhere. Even if he were to go to jail, he would not get the packages. The Yevsekis threatened to send the packages back. They were concerned that by giving over all of the food packages to the control of the rabbi during the time of famine, he would gain authority and great influence over the Jews who would be saved from the indignities of hunger solely through the help of the rabbi. Therefore, this was a sort of gentlemanly agreement, fifty-fifty. However, when the matter was to be actualized, things were delayed. Then, the rabbi stated that he would not sign as long as the packages were not in his hands. The rabbi asked me to bring the business to conclusion. There was one man among the Yevsekis, named Levin, with whom I had to conclude the business. I went to the city council. Jews and gentiles sat there. When I arrived, Levin began to scream at me and threaten me, of course in Yiddish. When one of the gentiles asked about the meaning of the shouts, he was explained in broken Russian what the matter was about. I took hold of the matter, and explained it to him in Russian. He talked to me in Yiddish, and I talked to in Russian. He became very angry and told me, “Why do you speak Russian, do you know understand Yiddish?” I turned to the rest of those assembled and asked them: “Tell me please, is the Russian language not legal here? Is it forbidden for me to speak in Russian? Indeed, I know Yiddish, but here I prefer to express myself in Russian. If you object to this, I will speak in Yiddish.”

The gentiles were enjoying this matter, and they answered, “Certainly, certainly, it is permitted to speak Russian hear.”

Levin became livid with anger. But I already had the upper hand, since I was able to express myself well and to contradict his claims. He began to stammer. The agreement was signed. At the signing of the agreement, I was suddenly asked, “Do you have identity papers?”

“Yes”, I answered, “At home, but not here.”

“In the meantime, we will imprison you”, said Levin.

I was transferred to a different room, and a female official was ordered to immediately fetch a policeman. The official smiled. When Levin left the room, the official told me, “Leave immediately, before the policeman comes. I will say that I did not watch you closely enough, and you went home.”

I knew in advance that they would not come to arrest me. Why would they suddenly come to arrest me? I had identity papers at home. He only wished to take revenge over his failure in this transaction.

The packages were given over the rabbi, and he distributed them to poor Jews who were members of the community and were in need of such. He had served as the rabbi of the city for many years, and knew all the people of the city very well. The principle was that support would only be given to those who were in need of such. 750 packages saved 750 families from hunger.

Here is another incident. One day, about a year after we got married, my wife's wedding ring was stolen. She was very distraught about this, for this was a wedding ring, and was of great importance to her. When the family members found out about this, they comforted here. Don't be distraught, they said, the ring will be returned. Thus did it take place. When I investigated the matter, I was told that there was a rabbi of the thieves in Minsk, named Peretz. When he found out that the wedding ring of the daughter of the Rabbi of Minsk had been stolen, he became very angry. He gathered the thieves together and warned them. “Could you not find any other place to steal, other than the house of the rabbi?! Not only this, but the wedding ring of his daughter? Return the stolen object immediately!”. However, the ring had been sold in the interim. The thieves went to the purchaser and reclaimed the ring. A child came to the house of the rabbi and returned the ring.

After my wedding, I was engaged in business and I also studied. This was before the era of the NEP [6], but they were not that concerned about those who were occupied in business, but rather about those who were occupied in Valyuta [7].

Rabbi Leizer received his salary from the communal coffers. Those were the days before the Bolsheviks began to persecute the Jewish religion and those who occupy themselves with Torah. They still had some respect for a rabbi, and especially for Rabbi Leizer, who was intelligent, upright, and active in communal matters for public benefit.

After the death of Rabbi Leizer, the entire communal council gathered together and chose Rabbi Gluskin, the son-in-law of Rabbi Leizer, as the new rabbi of the city.

{Photo page 519: The remnants of the canopy of the “Great One” of Minsk, Rabbi Yerucham Yehuda Leib Perlman, in the Jewish cemetery of Minsk. Photographed in 1959 by the grandson of the “Great One”, Yehuda Rabinovitch.}

Translator's Footnotes:
1The late Professor Shaul Lieberman (1898-1983) was a leading professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the rabbinical school of the Conservative Movement (although Lieberman was Orthodox in personal practice and belief). There are two editions of the Talmud extant, the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud predates the Babylonian Talmud by a few centuries – and is generally considered more obscure. Most current Talmudic study in Yeshivas focuses on the Babylonian Talmud. Return
2Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (1878-1953), known as the Chazon Ish, was a very famous rabbinical leader. He moved to Israel in 1933, and was recognized as a leading worldwide Halachic authority. Return
3The halachic concept that a man is not supposed to be alone in a dwelling with a woman (other than one's wife or daughters). If another man is around, no such problem exists. Return
4A Talmudic euphemism for subsisting on the bare necessities. Return
5Members of the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist Party. Return
6NEP is an abbreviation for Novaya Ekonomicheskaya Politika (New Economic Policy) an internal economic policy introduced after the Civil War but before Stalin's took grip for power. It let small level private enterprises in manufacturing services and let peasants privately sell their agricultural products. During the Civil War and right after it in the country was policy of Military Communism - full government control over country economics including food distribution, mostly without money involved. Return
7“Valyuta" is a term for hard currency. Any private operation with foreign currency (beside small exclusions) was criminal offense during all Soviet times. Return

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.

JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Minsk Memorial Anthology     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page

Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Max Heffler

Copyright © 1999-2016 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 13 Oct 2008 by LA