But, with the development of the [Jewish] community in Minsk, about two hundred and twenty years ago, the Rakov community became subordinate to the community of Minsk and its district, either in Rabbinical or administrative matters. It seems that during that period Minsk had two rabbis, who were recognized by the Polish authorities: In addition to the Community Rabbi, the District Rabbi also resided in Minsk. The responsibilities of the District Rabbi were to manage and supervise all the religious matters: [Jewish] courts, Kashrut, slaughtering, religious instructions, as well as being the go-between the Community and the Government. This district included tens of towns, among which famous communities such as Dlhinov, Smilovitz, Rakov, and Volozhin. Rakov was probably the "last stop" of the District of Minsk a border town, as the two adjacent communities Ivnitz and Radishkovitz were not connected to the rabbinate of the Minsk District.
Rabbi Shmuel Vezeh served the as the Rakov Rabbi, a position which was somewhat subordinate to the Rabbi of the Minsk District. His father was the famous Rabbi Mosheh Ze'ev, AB"D [Av Beit Din the head of the rabbinical court] of Razino in the Minsk District and of Fyorda in Bavaria. He was a descendent of the famous MaHaR"aL of Prague. The brothers of Rabbi Shmuel, the rabbi of Rakov, were: Rabbi El'azar, AB"D of Vehilov (in Byelorussia), Rabbi Nathan Neta, AB"D of Berditchev, Rabbi Menahem Mendel, AB"D of Halosk (near Bobroisk) and later AB"D of Minsk, and Rabbi Yitzhak, AB"D of Tchahnovcha (near Byalistok). According to another source, the name of the fifth brother was Yehudah Yidel AB"D of Timkovitz which is near Slotsk. These five brothers were famous rabbis in both Lithuania and Poland and were known collectively by the acronym of their names: "ANaShIM" [men, or mench, in Hebrew] (El'azar, Nathan, Shmuel, Yitzhak or Yehudah and Menahem Mendel). The source for that is the book "Bizat Mitzra'im" [The Pillage of Egypt] which was written by Rabbi Akiva, AB"D of Vrisov.
In a later period, the rabbis who served the Minsk District included the famous rabbis Rabbi Asher and his two sons: Rabbi Aryeh Leib (the author of "She'agat Aryeh" [the lion's roar]) and Rabbi Yitzhak Avraham. They served in this capacity, one after the other, for tens of years, and Rakov was included in the domain of their authority. For a certain time, between R. Asher and his aforementioned sons, the famous rabbi R. Rephael Ha'Cohen served as the rabbi of the Minsk District, and during the years T"KV T"KYA (1746 1751) he served as the rabbi and the AB"D of Rakov. The last of the Minsk District rabbis, whose domain included Rakov, was the Exalted Rabbi R. Shmuel Ha'Levi who chose Rakov as the center for the District's communities. He served in this capacity from the year T"KChH (1765) until his passing away in Rakov in the year T"KLA (1771), while he was there supervising the local court; and he was brought to his eternal rest there.
At that time the religious autonomy of the Jews in Poland and Lithuania, which was by the "Committee of the Four Lands" in Poland and the independent "Committee of the Land of Lithuania", came to an end. With the passing away of Rabbi Shmuel Ha'Levi the position of the Rabbi of the Minsk District was abolished, and the communities, including the community of Rakov, became independent, with their own independent rabbi and head of rabbinical court, without connections to Minsk. To my regret I have not been able to discover sources as to the names of Rakov rabbis during that period. By chance, I discovered a source which tells of a rabbi from Rakov, R. Tzvi, who was "the son-in-law of the community leader R. Mordechai, the brother of Rabbi Mosheh the AB"D of Novhardok". But I could not find additional details.
In the yaer T"KSD (1804) we find, serving as rabbi and AB"D in Rakov, "Mosheh the son of my beloved father and teacher MOHR"Sh [our teacher the rabbi R. Shmuel] Ha'Levi, of blessed memory, residing here in the community of Rakov". And from that period we also find Menahem Mendel, the son of my beloved father and teacher Rabbi Nethan'el, of blessed memory, of Rakov". These two rabbis were invited to Minsk to render judgement in a din-Torah [dispute in front of a rabbinical court], involving a dispute between the [secular] heads of the community and the rabbi R. Israel, regarding the dwelling "Beit Ha'Rav" [the Rabbi's house] in Minsk. (This according to a a Minsk Notebook which was published by Shabad). The aforementioned Rabbi Mosheh Ha'Levi was the son of the Exalted R. Shmuel Ha'Levi, the last AB"D of the Minsk District and Rakov. The famous rabbi R. Avraham Simcha officiated as the AB"D of Rakov in the year T"KPZ (1827); we will tell more about him later.
The Exalted Rabbi Rephael Ha'Cohen sat on the throne of the Rabbinate of Rakov
during the years T"KV T"KYA (1746 1751), and in the
year T"KYA (1751) he moved to Vilkomir, and from there to Pinsk, and after
a few years to Poizna, and to Altuna Hamburg and Dansbach [in northern
Germany]. He was a scion of a famous 'priestly' family of exalted rabbis. His
father, Rabbi Yekutiel Ziskind, was the head of the rabbinical court in
Lifland, and his son Rephael was born in the year T"PG (1723). Even when
nine years old, R. Rephael discovered new explanations to difficult Torah
passages, just like a mature learned man. At the age of ten, he was privileged
to become the pupil of the famous and exalted Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Minsk (who
was known as "She'agat Aryeh" [after the title of his book She'agat
Aryeh the Lion's Roar]), and was his disciple for three years. In
T"KB (1742), when he was only nineteen years old, he was chosen to head
the Yeshivah of Minsk succeeding the "She'agat Aryeh", who was very
happy by this choice. For a while he even served as the head of the Minsk
rabbinical court. In the year T"KV (1746), Rabbi Rephael became the rabbi
and teacher in the Rakov community, and there he gained his reputation as an
extraordinary homilist, and as an amender of important [halachic] regulations
which remained in force for many years. One of his reforms was the building of
a bridge for the men to walk to the synagogue, separated from the women. This
bridge was named after him as "the bridge of R. Rephael". In the year
T"KYA (1751) he accepted the position of the head of the rabbinical court
of the community of Vikomir, and there too he had many students. Having served
on the throne of the Rabbinate in Vilkomir for several years, he was chosen for
the position of a rabbi, teacher, and judge for the Minsk District in the year
T"KYZ (1757). The district encompassed about forty communities, among them
some ancient ones. R. Rephael chose Smilovitz as his place of residence. Most
of the days of the year he would travel from one town of the district to
another, and for that purpose he hired a horse rider who would gather a minyan
in whatever town he spent the night. After the prayer service he would preach
to the congregation on moral behavior, and his excitement and force of words
caused the listeners to break out crying. R. Rephael was then appointed as the
AB"D of Pinsk and its district. From there he moved to officiate, for six
years, as the head of the rabbinical court in Pozna, and was much honored and
respected there. In the year T"KLZ (1777) he was accepted as the AB"D
of the three united communities AH"V [Altuna Hamburg and Dansbach]
in Ashkenaz [Germany], lived there in honor and wealth, and his reputation
spread in the surrounding areas, and even reached the Court of the King of
Denmark. So great was his fame, that the [Danish] King issued an order that
every judgment of the [rabbinical] court of R. Rephael would have the force of
an official decree. He fought against the Reform movement, which had started to
spread among German Jewry, and came out explicitly against the translation of
the Bible into German (by Moses Mendelson and his disciples), as he saw that as
a sign of assimilation into the general German society. In the year T"KS
(1800), having sat for 23 years on the throne of the Rabbinate in the AH"V
communities, he resigned his position and settled in Altuna. He did not want to
carry the burden of the responsibilities of the spiritual leadership, since he
sensed that many changes were taking place in the spiritual life of the German
Jewry, which he could not stop. R. Rephael passed away in the year T"KSD
(1804), and his death caused much sorrow and mourning throughout the Jewish
world. He wrote two books on Talmudic scholarship as well as a book of
homilies, "Marpe Lashon Da'at Kedoshim" [the healing of the
tongue the opinion of the Holy].
R. Shmuel was considered as one of the most exalted rabbis in his generation, the generation of the GR"A [the Vilna Gaon], and the exalted rabbi R. Hayim of Volozhin spoke very highly of him. He passed away in Rakov in the year T"KLZ (1777), before reaching the age of sixty. His responsa [opinions of halachic law in response to questions addressed to him] appeared in print only decades after his death, in the year T"RYTh (1859), in a book entitled "Dvar Shmuel" [the sayings of Shmuel]. In the book one finds the names of several famous rabbis, from near and far, with whom R. Shmuel corresponded regarding the Halacha, the Torah and its teaching; among them rabbis of the neighboring towns the rabbi and homilist of Yivanitz, and the eminent and famous R. Shmuel of Radishkovitz, and more.
Of interest is one of his responses regarding the "marriage of a minor", which shows his sharpness and knowledge of the 'see of the Talmud"; a response which was of interest to the greatest rabbis of the time. It was written in the year T"KChH , and dealt with a persistent rumor, which was spreading among the Jews of Poland as an "unceasing voice", that the authorities were going to issue a law forbidding a marriage before both bride and groom reach the age of thirty. And some rabbis had married minors [boys under the age of thirteen and girls under the age of twelve], fearing that the decree would be issued. When R. Shmuel was asked as to the validity of these marriages, he responded in the affirmative, and cited several places in the Talmud as the basis for the ruling. They say, that when this response was brought to the attention of the exalted rabbi R. Eliyahu of Vilna [the Vilna Gaon], he praised it much, and said that it showed the writer to possess acute intellect and Talmudic expertise. In the responsa book he also comments on some of the new regulations issued by the Committee of the Lithuania Jewry.
One of the sons of R. Shmuel was R. Yehezkel, who was called "Exalted and
Pious", and who was the son-in-law of the Vilna Gaon. We also want to note
that before the appointment of R. Shmuel as the rabbi of the Minsk District and
of Rakov, he had served in the Amdor community in the district of Hordona in
the years T"KTh T"KChH [1749 -1765].
In the obituary, which appeared in the Hebrew weekly "HaCarmel", published in Vina, the deceased is described as a "remaining ember of the disciples of R. Hayim of Volozhin, from whose mouth he heard the 'flawless Torah of G-d' according to the method of the 'teacher of all the Diaspora', the exalted R. Eliyahu of Vilna [the Vilna Gaon]". The eulogy was delivered by the rabbi of the yeshivah, Ben-Zion Dubnov (the grandfather of the famous historian Shimon Dubnov).
In his introduction to the book "Nefesh HaHayim" [the soul of life] by R. Hayim of Volozhin, the exalted R. Yitzhak of Volozhin mentioned the name of R. Avraham Simhah. His name appears also in the "Agreements" [endorsements, statements by famous rabbis agreeing with the content of the book] of several rabbinical books of his time, together with other famous rabbis. He also appears first in the list of famous rabbis "agreeing" to the publication of the Vilna Talmud in the year T"RChH . This testifies to the greatness of his fame among the rabbis of his generation. Throughout his life he dealt with the greatest of his generation regarding the halacha, responses to [halachic] questions, and releasing agunot [chained women whose husbands' fate was not known].
His earlier writings, from the days he spent in the Volozhin Yeshivah, were burnt in the fire which broke out in Amtcheslev in the year T"RYA . Only a remnant of his writings, which survived the fire, was published, after his death, by his son R. Hayim Yoseph, who served as the head of the Amtcheslev Yeshivah, under the title "ShO'T Binyan Simhah" [the responsa structure of Simhah] (Vilna, T"RChTh ). In the beginning of the book there appeared an "agreement" [endorsement] by the successor of R. Avraham Simhah in Amtcheslev, the exalted and famous rabbi R. Reuven Ha'Levi, in which he noted the greatness of the deceased. R. Avraham Simhah published, jointly with the grandson of the GR"A [Vilna Gaon] R. Yakov Mosheh of Slonim the book "Sifra Detzniuta" [the book on modesty] by the GR"A (Vilna Horodna, T"KP ).
For more information on Rabbi Avraham Simhah, you may want to consult the
article, by M. Y. Barditchevski, on the Volozhin Yeshivah, which appeared in
the third volume of "HaAsif" [a Hebrew publication of that period],
T"RMZ , and in the article by Rabbi Hayim Berlin in the
scientific-halachic anthology "Beit HaMidrash" [the house of Torah
learning] (Cracow, T"RMH ).
In the 80th issue of the same paper, same year as before, we are informed by
Nehemiah Perlman that a new firefighters brigade, comprising both of Jews and
non-Jews, was established in Rakov, and that "there is an urgent need to
appoint a permanent doctor for the town, and also to find a teacher who, in the
absence of a school, would at least teach Hebrew and the general language
[Polish? Russian?]". In the end of the article he jibes the members of the
"Hevra Kadisha" [burial society] that the fence of the
"Beit-Hayim" [house of life cemetery] is in need of repairs.
In the "HaMelitz" [a Hebrew paper], issue No. 185, 1888, there
appeared the following article by Nehemiah Perlman:
In the Hebrew paper "Hed HaZman" [Echo of the time], of 1909, issue No. 255, we find the article below on the Jewish library in Rakov:Rakov, Minsk District, August 14:
On Thursday, August 11, there took place the dedication ceremony of the new Hebrew School, which was established by the learned teacher H. Dushman of Smargon. Among the town notables came to the dedication were the Mayor, the teacher of the Christian School, and more. The teacher Dushman talked about current affairs, the teacher of the Christian School and his students sang some folk-songs, and all who assembled shouted: Hurrah! The Mayor raised a glass to the life of the Czar, and congratulated the Rakov Jewish community on the founding of the school. He also spoke to the children and told them to be attentive to their lesson, for it would benefit them for the rest of their lives.
"After much effort the library of our town, which had shut down a few months ago, was reopened. It was set up properly, and a board of our best young people, all interested in literature was selected to supervise it, and put it on a sound basis. They removed the ban on the Hebrew language which had been instituted by the previous board. The library now has a fair size Hebrew collection of about 200 books, donated by the Zionist Organization of our town. The Hebrew language has finally received equal rights in our library, and there are not a few who seek it. Also, a national-cultural organization was established, whose aim is to spread the Hebrew literature and history among the young people of our town. In spite of the difficult condition of the organization, many give it a helping hand. In a short time some 50 young people, who are interested in literary matters, joined it. Thanks to this organization, the library has additional readers. Every Saturday, the members of the organization gather together, and one of them would talk on the literary merits of the author whose book they had read the previous week. Thus, the organization [members] have already heard lectures on the important authors Shalom Aleichem, Shalom Ash, Reizing, and Numberg. Not long ago they started inexpensive evening classes, open to all the young people of the town who want to learn Hebrew. As soon as the classes became known, many young men and women, from all corners of the town, flew to the organizing committee requesting to register for the classes. Thanks to some young people, who undertook to teach without pay, the organization was able to support and financially help everything that spreads literature in our town. They are also planning to open a branch of the Petersburg club of 'Hovevey Sfat Ever' [those who are fond of the Hebrew language]; as well as take under their patronage the "Talmud Torah" [Jewish school], which would be a blessing to poor people of our town."
"The organization is arranging, every Saturday, readings on Zionism and on historical and literary topics. Many come to these readings, even those who are not members of the organization. The organization tried to arrange a lecture in Hebrew, but the attempt was not successful. Under the influence of the organization, a cultural-literary Society was established, whose aim is to teach young people Hebrew literature and history. This Society helped a lot in bringing our young men and women nearer to our literature. They also arranged classes to learn the Hebrew language, and some thirty students were taught by expert teachers, who volunteered their services. Thanks to the effort of the organization the house of the [Culture] Council was reopened, under new arrangements which were instituted by the new Council, which includes Zionist members, and in the local school the number of hours devoted to Hebrew studies was increased. Zionists also participate in the 'Halva'ah VeHisachon' [Saving and Loan] Society, whose work is very fruitful, and their influence on its working is recognizable. Our institutions raised, this year, 118.54 Rubles; of which 73 Rubles were for the Jewish National Fund, 29.50 Rubles for the Odessa Committee, and 15.88 Rubles for other institutions. Our dues to the [Zionist] Organization were paid exactly."Y. M. Botvinik
"The economic situation in out town is bad. Poverty is on the increase, and the emigration is getting stronger from day to day. It is mostly the young people who are leaving, because they cannot make a living. In the last few months the police were watching the store owners more strictly, making sure that the stores remain closed on Sundays and other Christian Holidays. This, of course, adversely affected the situation of the store owners, who were hard up even otherwise, due to the low level of sales. On the other hand, the 'Hevrah LeHisachon VeHalva'ah' [Saving and Loan Society], which was established a short time ago, is trying to improve the situation, and during the short time of its existence has been of much use to the town. It is not surprising that the public is very fond of this institution, and supports it with all the means at its disposal.
It was nine years ago that, by the efforts of the Jews, a firefighters brigade was founded in our town. And although, even now, most of the firemen are Jewish, the fire chief did not allow the Jews to carry their own flag during the anniversary celebrations, as there had been the custom, saying that the Jews were rebellious, and did not deserve such an honor. Even the protests of the Poles were of no avail. Our town does not have a library. It is already four months since the library, which was privately owned, closed; this was the fault of our intelligentsia, which found it necessary to destroy this institution. We receive but a few newspapers: 4 copies of 'Hed HaZman', 2 of 'HaBoker', 1 of 'HaOlam', 1 of 'HaPrahim', 4 copies of 'Hafreint', 15 of 'Heint', and 9 Russian papers.
Very few of the thirteen years old boys [post Bar Mitzvah] of our town study Talmud, and the rest go idle after they reach the age of thirteen."
Rakov Y. M. Botvinik
"Except for the 'Bank for Small Loans', which was established not long ago in our town, the other charitable organizations are in a state of neglect. There is hardly any society for improving the situation of the poor, and even the long functioning societies, such as 'Linat HaTzedek' [for housing the poor] and 'Gmilat Hasadim' [for giving interest-free loans], are in a state of chaos and neglect, because they do not have good managers, capable of managing these Societies well.
The 'Talmud Torah' in our town is also beneath contempt.
An old-fashioned 'melamed' [teacher] is teaching the poor students, who sit in cramped quarters, and graduate without learning either the material or good manners; even though they have the financial means to improve the learning conditions, as in addition to the regular weekly income [from tuition], the T"T [Talmud Torah] also collects the money from the [charity] 'boxes' which are placed in the homes, and has income from the neighboring villages and small towns. It is only the officials [of the Talmud Torah] who are at fault, for they do not let others help in the management of the T"T, and are not doing anything themselves to improve the learning conditions. We do not have other schools in out town, nor do we have well-run 'heders'.
The Jews in our town are hard up economically. A few years ago, before they were permitted to build Catholic churches, the farmers from the neighboring area would come to our town every Sunday. But, since the time that churches were built in the neighboring villages, and since the time that a Catholic Christian opened a grocery store, the situation of the Jews worsened, as the priests agitated their congregations to support that store and to stop buying in the Jewish stores. Also, after the revolution in Turkey [the revolution of the Young Turks in 1905], residents of our town lost their interest in Palestine, those who leave go to America, and no one contemplates migrating to Eretz Israel.
Y. M. Botvinik
Our Pious and Exalted Rabbi, R. Avraham Moshe, the son of the Exalted Rabbi Yitzhak Luzhiner, who passed away on the eighth day of Tishrei 5673 (September 1912), did not leave a son to succeed him. According to the long-established customs in such matters, the right to the rabbinate in our town belongs to the son-in-law of the deceased rabbi, the Exalted Rabbi and teacher Rabbi Dimont, the A"BD of Jurburg. And it goes without saying, that we would have been honored by his coming to reside with us, and it would have been a small consolation for the great loss we had suffered.
But the situation of the family of our late rabbi is inhibiting us from thus deciding. For in addition to the widow of the rabbi z"l [of blessed memory], the family of his late only son is left without support, for the old Rabbi z"l used to support it. And in order to strengthen this respectable family, the rabbis who came to pay our great deceased his last respect [participate in the funeral] explained to us that when we choose the candidate for the rabbinate in our town, we have to give priority to that rabbi who would be able to support the family of the late Rabbi; that is to choose a young and unmarried rabbi who does not only excel in knowledge and good manners, as befitting a Jewish rabbi, but would also be willing to marry the eldest randdaughter of our late Rabbi. And only if we would not be able to find such a rabbi, and the rabbi of Jurburg would decline serving as the rabbi of our town, would the throne of the Rakov Rabbinate be vacated for every exalted rabbi deserving such a post.
And the majority of the town people accepted the decision of the aforementioned rabbis, and signed the agreement which those rabbis prepared, and undertook to fulfill all that they had said. More than that, as long as the throne of the rabbinate is vacated, all the income which the town would have given to the rabbi, will be given to the family of our late Rabbi.
And therefore, we find ourselves obligated to notify all those rabbis who are interested in the position of the rabbinate of our town, not to come to our town Rakov until that time when we announce publicly that we are looking forward to such visits.
And as to the young rabbis who consider themselves worthy of the rabbinical robe, because of their knowledge of the Torah and their fear of Heaven, we ask them to provide us in writing (to one of the signatories below) their particulars and also the names of references. And we will choose from among them the one whom we like, and will invite him to come to our town and assume the throne of its rabbinate.
Signed: Ze'ev Gorelick, Sh. Hilpir, David Feinberg, A. Hurewitz, Botvinik, Yitzhak Botvinik, A. Z. Meron, A. Rabinowitz.
In "HaZman", issue No. 245, 1912, there appeared another notice from Rakov that in spite of the previous announcement "some older rabbis started coming to Rakov to obtain the post of its rabbi. We, therefore, announce again to all the rabbis who 'cast their eyes' on the rabbinate of Rakov, to stop coming to our town, since it would not benefit them, and even their travel expenses would not be paid, and they would only cause needless quarrels [among the people of Rakov]. And indeed, Israel is not depleted of young prodigies who want to serve in the Rakov Rabbinate, but we have not had the chance to come to a final decision.
Signed: A. Z. Meron, David Feinberg, Shmuel Shkolnik, A. Rabinowitz, Sh. Hilpir, A. P. Hurewitz.
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