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[Page 117]

Synagogues and Batei Midrash

 

[Page 121]

Beit Hamidrash (Study Hall)

As told by Rabbi Arieh Ravitz

Translated by Henry Tobias

On the western side of the shul was the beit hamidrash, which was the largest and oldest building in the town and was full of people praying and studying day and night. Actually the beit hamidrash was the center of community life in Tykocin. Here the rabbi and elders prayed and the famous scholars of Tykocin studied, and the business of Tykocin was carried out. All the news and the social life of the community revolved around the beit hamidrash.

The well-stocked library had books of everyday life as well as rare volumes, alongside books of questions and answers, initial and final, halacha, legend and interpretations which supplied the needs of the many students at all levels. The yeshiva students of Tykocin and the learned residents who were graduates of the yeshivot of Poland and Lithuania, were the celebrities of the beit hamidrash. Other residents were associated in 'Mishna associations' and learned a page of Gemara every day, usually in the morning some before morning prayers (shacharit) and some after prayers. Others learned chapters of the Mishna or Chumash (the five books of Torah), two reading the text and another translating. In the beit hamidrash there were also 'Psalm groups' the so-called 'Psalm sayers' who sat permanently in the beit hamidrash and read psalms. In later years an 'Association of Mishnah Brurah' ( a work of the Hafetz Haim) was formed and was composed of three minyanim who listened every day to a lesson of the Mishnah Brurah between afternoon and evening prayers from Rabbi Baruch Sauervitch and Rabbi Mordechai Pines. So the beit hamidrash was filled with Torah and prayers day and night fulfilling the dictum of the psalms that if one studies, one will not be led astray.

On Shabbat night there were the most students. People, tired from six days of hard work and of going to the market which took place on Friday, went to sleep early, immediately after the Shabbat meal, and at midnight awoke and went to the beit hamidrash to study Torah and to recite psalms. Those who came late, at three or four in the morning did not find place at the study tables.

Even the youth were integrated in the way of life of the beit hamidrash. They were organized into their own societies ; 'book repairing' 'book buying' and “Life of Man”( a book of Jewish Laws) and the managers and treasurers among them raised money to buy and repair books from members of the different associations and mainly from the Jews whose wives had recently given birth to children. The students asked for the money from the youngsters to repair books that were worn from use or to buy a new book. Sometimes there were disputes, and arguments broke out between the leaders of the groups until the beadle (shamash) announced from the bimah of the beit hamidrash one day, that no more money should be given to the children. Eventually the children prevailed and continued with their work.

They were especially happy when they managed to collect seventy rubles, which was the price of the much sought after Vilna Talmud Bavli (published in Vilna and took between 1880 – 1886 to compile and print). A special kiddush was arranged and the Vilna Talmud Bavli beautifully bound in leather was brought in with much joy and splendor and added to the treasure of books of the beit hamidrash.

During the Shoah the beit hamidrash was destroyed and the many valuable books were lost and only the foundations remained.


[Page 122]

The Hassidim and the Shtiebel
(Rabbi Simcha Shulman and Rabbi Pinchas Levensohn)

Translated by Henry Tobias

South of the shul, stood a small sad looking building. The Hassisdic Shtiebel.

There were few Hassidim compared to Mitnagdim in Tykocin who were influenced by the nearby Lithuania, only about twenty people, mostly from the outskirts of town. All the Hassidim followed the Ger (Gur) Rabbi.

At first they did not have a place of prayer, but rented apartments which afterwards were used by Poles. When the time came for Pasha, who baked honey(?) cakes(?), to depart this world, she was barren and had no heirs, she called the Hassidim and gave them her miserable house and they in turn promised to say Kaddish for her every year.

In 1914 a short time before Pesach Pasha died and on the same day the Hassidim put the Holy Ark in the house and began praying. Only after Pesach did the renovate and repair and on the Shabbat of Parashat B'haaloch (the third parasha of the book of Numbers) did they consecrate the building with pride and joy accompanied by Rabbi Pinchas and other dignitaries. Four years later this miserable building was used as a place of Torah and prayer for all the residents of Tykocin.

In 1918 there was a terrible plague in the town. The Germans who ruled at that time temporarily turned all the shuls into hospitals and refused entry. Only the Hassidic Shtiebel was ignored.

The Hassidim like their shtiebel were mostly feeble and poor who found supporting themselves difficult, but there was no other place of prayer in Tykocin that was more grand and could be compared with the joy and intensity of the singing. Prayer was always held with singing and song and their service was intense and contagious. On Friday night their singing would reverberate long after the shul and Beit Midrash had finished praying and at the end of Shabbat they would be late for the 'third meal' held after afternoon prayers (mincha) because their singing and chanting was delightful and harmonious.

On Simchat Torah the joy reached its peak. It was well known in Tykocin that the Hassidim circled around the bima for hours with much enthusiastic singing and dancing as opposed to the 'cold' Mitnagdim who didn't know how to sing and dance. In all the shuls and Beitei Midrashot the encirclement of the bima was long finished and the encirclements of the bima continued long after in the shtiebel. Old and young dance in honour of the Torah with devotion and joy.

There was also learning in the shtiebel according to the instructions of the Master (the rabbi) every day and on Shabbat between morning prayers and the supplemental prayers.


[Page 124]

The Alternate Congregation (Society)

by Israel Meir Cohen

Translated by Henry Tobias

The Beit Midrash (study house) of the Alternate Congregation was in a wooden house in the centre of the town. Regular worshippers included a number of Jews not counted among or even associated with the wealthy of the town. The latter gathered at the Great )Main) Beit Midrash. Among the Alternate Congregation's members were traders, pedlars, workers and artisans, who usually prayed and studied Mishnah there every day.

The Alternate Congregation was readily accessible because it was in the centre of town and had easy access from the Goldene Gasse[1] (the name of a street) and from the market. It served as the main place of worship during the week for morning prayers in Tykocin.

The Great Beit Midrash and shul was on the outskirts of the town with set times for worship, but the Beit Midrash of the Alternate Congregation was a place of worship for many on their way to work. Minyan followed minyan, without pause at all hours, with a minyan always about to start.

Fewer worshippers attended the afternoon and evening services at the Alternate Congregation, as the majority of the many in Tykocin who wanted to study, went to the Great Beit Midrash for the daily study period between afternoon and evening services. But, at the Alternate Congregation the regular worshippers stayed and gathered round Rabbi Hirsch Flax or towards the back around Rabbi Alter where they listened to the daily lesson[2].

Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Flax made the Alternate Congregation into one of the finest institutions with which Tykocin was blessed, and they must be credited to a considerable extent with disseminating Torah throughout many sectors. At the Alternate Congregation a standard of learning evolved which was better than that of other towns. Many could recite by heart and intelligently explain excerpts from all the six parts (Shas) of the Mishna and were familiar with paragraphs of the Shulchan Aruch, as well as Halachic rulings.

During studies Rabbi Alter Hirsch Flax instilled his attentive students with the necessity and importance of performing mitzvot in their daily lives and the members of the Alternate Congregation excelled as men of deeds. From the ranks of the Alternate Congregation a number of notables emerged to help in the institutions of the town, among them, Anshel Porkoy, Arieh Katz, Hezikel (Cyril) Malchas and the supervisor of the congregation, Shlomo Melravitz. In the course of their duties for the Bikur Holim they also helped at the 'ice house', which was adjacent to their Beit Midrash, to provide ice for the sick during the summer.

The spirit of Zionism permeated the walls of the Alternate Congregation and many of the outstanding figures such as Reb Alter Der Geller, Reb Hezikel (Cyril) Malchas, Reb Arieh Katz and Reb Shlomo Melravitz immigrated to Eretz Israel and transferred the tradition and spirit of the Alternate Congregation of Tykocin to Tel Aviv.

In 1941 after the German occupation and the murder of the Jews of Tykocin, the wooden building which housed the Alternate Congregation was sold, dismantled and moved to the nearby village of Sawino, where it was rebuilt on a hillside and is now home to a local farmer.

(Israel Meir Cohen)


[Page 125]

The 'Chumash' (Torah) Congregation

by Israel Meir Cohen

Translated by Henry Tobias

At the 'Chumash' congregation, Jews who were unable to study Gemara and Mishna prayed and studied the weekly Torah portion (parashat ha'shavua), reading it twice in the original Hebrew and once in translation. These were mainly those of limited ability, or who worked hard during the week and spent the Shabbat studying Torah. Early on Shabbat, before morning prayers they gathered in their Beit Midrash, which was in a small house near the Great Synagogue and studied the weekly Torah portion. After finishing their studies but before the morning service, they went, along with many residents of Tykocin to their friend and neighbour Menachem Mendel Kovlinsky, the baker. Here they were all treated to cake and a mug of tea, as the large baker's oven retained its heat long after most of the home ovens had cooled, making it difficult to find a mug of tea elsewhere to warm themselves on the cold winter days.

Every Shabbat afternoon Rabbi Shmuel, the ritual slaughterer, sat with them and revised the weekly Torah portion, garnishing to his words with sayings of the sages and captivating rabbinic legends. He reminded them that the righteous in heaven would dine on 'wild ox and whale'[3] but didn't mention 'onions fried in schmaltz' (chicken fat), until on one occasion, one of his listeners who was particularly fond of this dish, could not resist asking “Rabbi, will onions fried in schmaltz also be on the menu.”

Simple, God-fearing Jews would pray at the 'Chumash' congregation, and would eventually share the same fate as all the Jews of Tykocin, being destroyed without a trace during the terrible Shoah (Holocaust). But they continue to live in our hearts and remind us of days gone by and of the downtrodden, righteous, simple Jews who served God sincerely.

(Israel Meir Cohen)


  1. Gasse in Yiddish (from the German) is an alleyway or narrow street. Return
  2. There were apparently two Rabbi Flax's, father and son, which may lead to confusion in translation. Return
  3. When the Messiah comes a Talmudic legend of a feast for the righteous attended by our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as Moses, his brother Aaron and King David, where a 'Whale and the Wild Ox' signify the spiritual world and the material world respectively. Return

 

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