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[Pages 51-52]

Public Discussion About Zionism

by Sh. M. Feige Esters (Rabbi Shmuel Mordechai Garlin)

Translated by Shmuel Winograd


Upon my return home for the Holidays, in the end of 1907, I found my Zionist friends very worried and in grief. When I asked for the reason, they answered: "How can we help being worried, when we see a Tsekist (a member of the Central Committee) of the Bund engaged, for several weeks, in a virulent and ruinous propaganda against Zionism, and nobody is standing up to him."

– 'And how do you know that he is a member of the Ts. K. [Central Committee]?' I asked.

– 'It can be seen by his cloths', they said, 'he is wearing the "plarina", and a regular person does not wear "plarina".'

My response was that I was prepared to meet this member of the Ts. K. of the Bund in a public debate on Zionism.

When my friends heard that, they breathed easier. And they: Yitsick the Baker of the 'General Zionists' [a centrist Zionist Party], and Rachel Toiveh Leas, who was leaning, then, to the 'Poalei Tsiyon' [the Workers of Zion – a leftist Zionist Party], met with the officials of the Bund in town, and they agreed to hold a public debate on Zionism. The place was the Ezrat Nashim [women's section] of the Tailors' Synagogue.

The news of the public debate spread rapidly in the town. One evening, in the Fall of 1907, the Ezrat Nashim of the Tailors' Synagogue was filled with the young people of the town, and some older people too. As was usual in those days, we placed a guard by the door, just to be cautious. When the meeting came to order, the doors were closed and the debate started. By unanimous consent we selected as the Chair the head of the Rakov branch of the Bund; a non-local man, a carpenter by trade, and an honest and sympathetic person, whom I trusted to conduct the debate objectively. The first speaker was the "Tsekist". As soon as he uttered the first sentences I was convinced that he was not a member of the Ts. K. His posture, and his manner of speech, showed him to be a mediocre speaker and a run-of-the-mill propagandist. His whole argument was based on one point, which was worn out even in those days: "The mere fact that Herzl, the Chairman of the Zionist Movement, was a bourgeois, disqualified him, and his Zionist Movement, to lead the Proletariat."


rak052.jpg [35 KB]
Electoral Committee to the Zionist Convention of 1933


When my turn to speak came, I started laying out, in short and clear sentences, the necessity of Zionism for the liberation of the Jewish People. And having analyzed the basis of the Zionist Movement, I moved to the main part of my speech: demolishing the 'structure' which my opponent had erected in his speech. I pointed out that according to the biography of Lassal [a German Socialist leader], which had just been published in the important monthly "Russkia Bogtsavo", he [Lassal] used to shake the hands of working people without removing his gloves. This custom was clearly bad manners. Nonetheless, Lassal was qualified by the German Workers' Party, to be elected as its admired leader. Some people attending the meeting refused to believe me. At my request, someone brought from the library the appropriate issue of the monthly, "Russkia Bogtsavo", and I read aloud the section that I had mentioned, to the general astonishment of those assembled. My Zionist friends became joyous, and sensed that they had the upper hand. The excitement at the meeting reached its climax, and some of the more enthusiastic members of "Poa'alei Tsiyon" started shouting: "Away with the Bund!" As a response, the Bundists shouted: "Away with Zionism!"

In the chaos that ensued, some of the hot heads, on both sides, flashed their guns. The sight of the pistols caused a panic, and many rushed outside, even jumping off the windows. It was a miracle that the Rakov's public debate on Zionism ended without bloodshed.




[Pages 53-54]

The Prodigy from Rakov

by Tsvi Kaplan (the grandson of the prodigy)

Translated by Shmuel Winograd


The rabbi R. Avraham Eliyahu, the son of R. Moshe Mordechai Kaplan was born in Rakov in 5614 [1854] (or 5615 [1855]), to a family of honest and wholesome artisans. His younger brothers were also craftsmen. His great talents were manifest even in his childhood, and he became famous for his knowledge of the Torah [Jewish studies]; he was known everywhere as the "Rakov Prodigy".

When he was thirteen years old, he was chosen by the rabbi of Rakov to be the husband of his daughter, and after the betrothal he was sent to study in the Volozhin Yeshiva. In spite of his young age he was considered one of its best students, and for many years after he had left Volozhin they still mentioned his name. He studied in Volozhin for two years, and when he reached the age of eighteen he wed the daughter of the rabbi of Rakov, and she bore him a daughter. His wife died at a young age, and after her death he went to Minsk and studied there diligently and with great zeal. He was much respected in that city, which was full of scholars and learned.

In the Summer of 5647 [1887], he married Fridle, the daughter of Rabbi Zalman Smachyah Troib (the son of the rabbi R. Avraham Shimon Troib), the rabbi of Keidan, settled there, and devoted himself to Torah studies, day and night. In his studies he concentrated on the Gemara and the Rambam [Maimonides], and did not devote much time to the study of later Rabbinical authorities. He had his own method of study – the elucidation of the plain meaning of the text, and he had novel explanations of passages in the Gemara and Rambam; he was not deterred from even correcting the version of the Rambam when that seemed to him to be appropriate. He used to write his novel ideas on the pages of the Sha"S [Talmud book] (this book was burnt, later, in the great fire of Tlazh in 5648 [1888], so that only few of his innovations remained in writing). Throughout his stay in Keidan, he was much beloved by the town people for the pleasantness of his manners, and for the way dealt with ordinary folks. He was not a born orator, but the talks he delivered from time to time to the town people, on subjects of Torah [Jewish law] and Musar [ethics], emanated from a pure heart, filled with the awe of Heaven, and penetrated the hearts of the listeners, who drank his words thirstily. He was musical, and on the Festivals, when people gathered at the home of his father-in-law, the town rabbi, he sang holy songs which roused the hearts of the listeners, and conveyed to them the 'words of the Torah' and the 'awe of Heaven'.

He was of poetic soul. Among other writings, he also left a notebook of poetry, in Hebrew, written in the 'flowery' style of that generation. But even through the veil of the flowery language, one can recognize a raging poetic soul. In the introduction to this collection of poems he wrote: "I was zealous for the holy tongue… my heart was overflowing… for only few understand the language of their fathers, in which they praise God… and in my zeal I took a pen and ink… and girded myself to do battle for this ancient language, dead, worn with age, to revive it, to turn it into a living language, a spoken language. More than that – a language for poetry and high level of meditations." But more than anything else, he loved the Torah, which he always studied diligently, even during the most difficult moments of his life. At one time, when his wife was dangerously ill, he was devoting himself to the study of the Torah. When asked how he could study in such a situation, he answered by quoting the Scriptures [Psalms 119;92]: "Were it not that Your Torah delighted me, I would have been lost in my misery"…

The greatest Torah scholars of his time respected and esteemed him. Especially strong were the bonds of love between him and the rabbi R. Ya'akov David Rydba"z of blessed memory (the author of the famous commentary of the Jerusalem Talmud). He went to visit him often, when he lived nearby in the town of Volkovishk, and was in constant correspondence with him. He was also in touch with the Exalted R. Yits'hak Elhanan, ZTs"L [may the memory of the just be blessed], and would visit him often in Kovna.

The "Rakov Prodigy" passed away in Keidan at a young age, apparently from a sun stroke, when he was about thirty-five years old. It was a hot summer day, and he had gone to bathe in the river, and was found lifeless some time later. His sudden death, on the fourteenth day of Sivan, 5649 [June 1889], shocked all who knew and admired him.

His son was born after his death, and was named after his father: Avraham Eliyahu. And with the passage of time he, too, became known as a great Torah scholar. He was one of the choice student of the Lithuanian yeshivas, and in his later years was one of the heads of the "Hildsheimer" Beit Midrash [house of study], and one of the spiritual leaders of the German Orthodox Jewry.




[Pages 55-59]

Rakow As a Center Of Bible And Scholarship

by Rabbi Shmuel Mordechai Garlin

Translated by Shmuel Winograd


There were many types of towns: Some boasted of their scholars, but were not a site of Torah learning; others were famous as places of Torah learning, but hardly had scholars of their own. This was not the case with Rakov – we can say that Torah learning and Torah scholarship were joined in it.

I was still young of age, when I observed the fact that Rakov had many scholars and learned men. Some of them were local, born in Rakov; others, married the daughters of the town, and later became known as great scholars.

I knew all of them personally. But before I tell their story, I should say a few words about the Rakov scholars of the previous generations. Even in my youth I heard many stories and tales about them. They told about the rabbi R. Avraham Moshe z"l, he who sat on the throne of the rabbinate in Rakov for 53 years, until two or three years before the First World War broke out, that he was but a young man when he was appointed as the Town Rabbi. But he had the privileges of his family: his father-in-law, R. Hayimke, was the Town Rabbi, and his father was R. Yitsale Yivnitser. And there were among the learned in the own who objected to his appointment. Some of them viewed themselves as greater Torah scholars, and more knowledgeable, than the young rabbi, and therefore criticized every step he made. Foe example, they spread the backbiting rumor that he was not very familiar with the precise laws of the lulav [palm branch] shaking on Succoth, or beating of the willow branches on "Hosha'ana Rabbah" [the last day of Succoth], and other such nonsense… anything, just to throw mud at his reputation. This kind of gossip stopped only after several years, in which he studied the Torah day and night, and with his diligence, which was without limit, penetrated the depths of the Halachah [Jewish law]. Only then was he recognized as brilliant and deeply learned, and his opponents were forced to say Amen [agree to his appointment].

The Rakov Rabbinate was always considered, by the Jewish world, as one of the more honorific positions. Early on, the rabbi of the [Minsk] district used to dwell there. One of these rabbis was mentioned by Graetz in his Jewish history book, namely, the famous rabbi R. Rephael Hamburger, who was in the front of the fight against the Reform movement, which started in Germany at the time of [Moses] Mendelson. He started his rabbinic career as the District Rabbi in Rakov.

Another one of the District Rabbis, by the name of R. Shmuel HaLevi, lived and passed away in Rakov, and they erected a tent on his grave. (By the way, the only one in the Rakov cemetery.) This rabbi left behind a book of responsa, which was kept in one of the cases in the Old Synagogue under lock and key, as a valuable possession and a great treasure. The key to this bookcase was in the hands of R. Yoseph the Slaughterer, and whoever wanted to peruse the book had to turn to R. Yoseph and return the key that same day.

In my time, and it seems, even earlier, Rakov had a "collective", where excellent students would gather, from far and near, to study Torah. And here is the list of the town and villages of origin of these students, as far as I can recall: Volozhin, Trab, Mertz, Molodetshna, Krasna, Yiliye, Ozlani, Ivanitz, Volma, Laffitz, Minsk, Kaltsek, Haslevitz, Malostovski, Byalistok, and more.

Among the students were distinguished scholars, who later served as heads of yeshivas. One of them was R. Nahum of Vitshinova, so named because he came to the "collective" from a village by that name. He was a great scholar and a splendid head-of-yeshiva. Among other subjects, he used to teach his students the innovative commentary on the RaMBam of R. Hayim of Brisk. Later on, he migrated to Eretz Israel, served as the rabbi of one of the settlements, and passed away there.

The young man from Malastowska was sitting bent, studying Gemara (main part of the Talmud) eighteen hours in a day, that is why he was nickenamed "The assidiuous student from Malastowska."

R. Meir Levin. He married one of the daughters of the town, settled there, was integrated into the community, and over the years became one of its leaders. During the First World War, he was a member of the War Refugees Committee, and was known for his dedication and his organizational skills.

Moshe, the son of R. Yohanan of Solomyanka. One of the more excellent of the group, knowledgeable in the Sha"S [the six volumes of the Talmud], diligent, and of a sharp mind. When I met him in New York in 1924, he already held an important rabbinic position there, and was known as Dr. Moshe Ram. He came to Eretz Israel in 1931, and bought an orange grove near Rehovot. From there he moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, wrote a book of responsa, and also translated the Siddur [prayer book] to a foreign language.

R. Avraham, the rabbi of Yorberg, and R. Avraham Ely, the "Rakov Prodigy", the two son-in-laws of R. Avraham Moshe, the rabbi of Rakov. I heard a lot about both of them from my elders, who had known them intimately. I myself was aware of the sharpness of mind of R. Avraham, in the Old Synagogue, when I encountered the books of the RaMBaM, and found the margins of all five volumes strewn with clear tiny letters, the comments of R. Avraham on the RaMBaM.

The second son-in-law of our rabbi, R. Avraham Ely, was the son of a poor family in Rakov. He did not have the means to pay for a private tutor, and therefore was sent to the public heder. One day, the melamed [teacher] overheard the boy Avraham Elynke boasting that he could recite the "Ashrei" prayer backwards: starting with "Haleluyah" [the last word], and ending with "Ashrei yoshvei beitecha" [the first three words]. And how great was the surprise of the teacher and the other students, when they observed him doing it without missing even one word. His wonderful memory was astonishing, and before long it was the talk of the town. When the story reached the Town Rabbi, he called the boy, examined him, and recognized his great talents. Since then, the rabbi undertook the responsibility for his education. Years later, he became famous throughout the world of Torah scholars as the "Rakov Prodigy", married the rabbi's daughter, and after her death, married a second time, to the daughter of the rabbi of Keidan, in the District of Kovna. One summer day, he went to bathe in the river, was hit by a sunstroke, and lost his life. His death caused much sorrow throughout the Diaspora. (See the earlier section, devoted to him.)

R. Yoseph of Cologne. He used to spend most of his time, as an 'ascetic', away from home. He also had the reputation of being very knowledgeable in the Talmud and later halachic authorities, of being observant to the extreme, and of being in awe of Heaven. It was told about him, that when he was lying down in bed at night, he would cover his beard with a bag, lest even one hair of his beard would fall down to the ground. As was mentioned before, he spent most of his time away from home. But even when he returned home to his family in Rakov, he would close himself in a small room, isolated from the external world, and immerse himself in the study of the Torah.

R. Hirsh, the son-in-law of Israel Ely. He looked like majestic Rabbi, his face covered with a nice beard, black as tar, and his all appearance proclaimed: honor and respect! He would always wear a wide-brimmed hat, as befitting an honored rabbi, scrupulous in his choice of clothes, and very meticulous. Most of the year he would be somewhere in the Ukraine, teaching Torah as the head of the yeshiva of one of the towns there, and would come home only for the Holidays.

R. Shlomo Yidel, the son-in-law of the potter. He was nicknamed "der Leimener Rav" because he was the son-in-law of the potter. He was one of the more distinguished scholars of the town. He received a pottery factory as his dowry, but spent most of his time in the 'beit midrash' [house of study], studying assiduously. The young students would turn to him for explanation of any difficult portion of the Talmud. I chanced to meet him in America, in 1924, where he served as a rabbi and slaughterer in one of the New Jersey communities.

R. Leib of Dubroi. A very special figure of a Talmudic scholar. He had the looks of a patriarch, with dreamy blue eyes, and the appearance of a saint. He was committed to his studies, and would go over the whole Talmud every five or six years. In his daily life he was a simple, folksy, man, a typical "horopshnik" (a laborer). I would never forget how amazed we, the children, were when we saw him one foggy morning near his house, wearing a workman's clothes, and working on paving his own piece of the road. We could not reconcile the rabbinical appearance, the long, overflowing, beard, the yarmulke [skull cap], with the hammer and clothing of a physical laborer, engaged physical dirty work.

But R. Leib of Dubroi, a simple man and a scholar rolled into one, was fulfilling, literally, the rabbinical injunction [Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers]: "Love labor, and shy away from the Rabbinate." When necessary, he would construct his own furniture, chop wood, fix the stove at home, and if pressed, knew how to repair watches, and perform other such tasks.

R. Shabtai Shapira, the son-in-law of R. Sander. He was an imposing figure, inspiring respect. A born scholar and aristocrat. The scion of an important family, his father was R. Re'uven of Renenburg, who was well known in the world of the rabbinate. R. Shabtai had a textile agency, and had business and trade dealings with the industrialists of Lodz. He spent most of his days traveling, crisscrossing the length and breadth of Russia. He would come home only for the Sabbaths and the holidays, or when business was slow. But, wherever he was, at home or on the road, he did not cease studying. He was one of those who frequented the home of the the rabbi R. Ely Hayim, the rabbi of Lodz. In Rakov, he was considered a learned man and a Talmudic scholar, and parents were honored when R. Shabtai examined their sons in the Talmud. More than once he discussed with me this or that portion of the Talmud, whatever I was studying. At that time, he shed the appearance of a businessman and dived into the sea of Talmudic scholarship. His tall and bright forehead would glisten, his eyes would shine, and his whole appearance would light up with enthusiasm.

R. Shmaya Rosenthal. A personality of many hues. In addition to his deep knowledge of the Talmud and later commentaries, he was learned in the general subjects; a grammarian, well-versed in the Bible, and familiar with the extensive Jewish philosophical literature – of R. Se'adya Gaon, the RaMBaM, the RaMHaL, and others. He did not turn his Talmudic knowledge into a source of income [literally: did not make his Torah into a working tool – see Pirkei Avot], but made a respectable living from his large general store, located in the center of town. He was known as an astute man, and of easygoing manners, and therefore was asked often to arbitrate disputes. Troubled people would come to him to talk about their worries or whatever distressed them, and he would welcome them, listen, give advice, and lighten the load of their heavy hearts.



The Yeshiva Zuta

The apex of the public work R. Shmaya Rosenthal was the founding of the "Yeshiva Zuta" [little yeshiva], as it was called in the town. Here he proved himself to be an extraordinary educator and pedagogue. In his lessons, he would emphasize self learning and independent thinking. He would say that except for the Torah given to Moses on Sinai, which we have to accept without questioning, everything else, the Talmud and later commentaries, was based on logic, and that it was our responsibility to penetrate their depth, and examine them well.

He appointed R. Aryeh Dardak, his son-in-law and the first husband of his daughter Haya Mina, as the acting head of the yeshiva. R. Aryeh was known by the appellation "the Prodigy of Tschernik" after his place of birth. He had a phenomenal memory. And it happened, that he was once with the famous author Y. L. Cantor, the editor of "HaYom" – the first Hebrew daily in Russia. R. Aryeh, who was then but twenty years old, amazed him [Cantor] with his extensive knowledge of the Sha"S and later commentaries, and by his ability to cite the page of every saying and ruling in the Gmara. More than that, he knew the whole tractate of "Teharot" [cleanliness] by heart. When Dr. Cantor asked him why, to what purpose, he went to all this trouble, R. Aryeh answered that if, by chance, he would come to a place where no Talmudic book could be found, he would study the tractate "Teharot" from memory.

R. Aryeh excelled in his ability to elucidate, and even the most difficult topics in the Talmud were explained by him so clearly, and in such simple terms, that they were understood by all.

Years later, when he moved to Minsk, he was appointed to a teaching position in the rabbinate there, and some time later he was given the responsibility for the "heder" of R. Issar.

This was not an ordinary heder, for the purpose of teaching children. The students were adults who had not had the opportunity to study in their youth, working people: masons, plasterers, teamsters, smiths, cobblers, and so on. They would get up at the crack of dawn, sit around the tables at the synagogue, and listen to their rabbi deliver a lesson on the Mishnah. Some outstanding students graduated from this "heder", and it happened more than once, when for some reason R. Issar could not attend, that one of the students would take his place, and would expertly explain a chapter of the Mishnah. Before his death, R. Issar expressed his wish and desire that R. Aryeh would succeed him as the head of the heder.

It is interesting, that this place of learning continued to function even under the rule of the Bolsheviks, until R. Aryeh passed away. May his memory be blessed.

R. Leib, the son-in-law of the slaughterer R. Yoseph. One of the scholars of Rakov, who had a great influence on the education of the young generation of the town. He founded the society of "Tiferet Bahurim" [the glory of young men], where he gathered those young men who desired to deepen their knowledge of Jewish subjects. He taught the Bible, and excelled as a commentator and lecturer, spicing his talks with Talmudic stories. He came from the village of Tschernik, near brezin, in the Minsk District. Actually, he served as the deputy-rabbi of the town. In the evenings he would teach a portion of the Mishnah, or give a lesson in the Talmud to a choice audience of learned men. He was the regular "ba'al kore" [the reader of the Torah scroll during services] in the beit ha'midrash, and at times he would go up to the Bimah [pulpit] and deliver the sermon to the congregation. Years later, he was called to Voronzh, a large Russian city, to serve as the mashgi'ach [kashrut supervisor] for a large sausage factory.


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