|The Rabbi Gaon (Genius) Reb Meir HaKohen Writer of Hakhafetz Khaim born in Zhetl in 1839|
Excerpts from a larger essay published in Goldene Kayt, vo. 19, Tel Aviv 1954 (PP. 39-60)
Translated by Janie Respitz
The rabbi Reb Yakov Krantz is known in the world as the Preacher of Dubno. He was born in Zhetl in 1740 to his father Rabbi Zev Krantz and his mother Hinde, the daughter of the rabbi of Kobrin, Reb Nokhem.
Reb Yakov distinguished himself with outstanding talents. As a child he already memorized many tractates of the Talmud. The preacher of Mezeritch recounted how Reb Yakov learned the entire tractate of Chulin by heart.
At age 18 he arrived in Mezeritch. His sermons, which were filled with parables, quickly made him famous and they invited this young man from Zhetl to become the town preacher. He remained in Mezeritch as preacher for two years, then went to Zhulkove and from there spent 18 years in Dubno.
Great rabbis and simple people would come hear his sermons. He was especially loved by the Gaon of Vilna, Reb Eliyahu. When the Vilna Gaon got sick in 1790 he invited Reb Yakov Krantz to come to him to preach.
The Vilna Gaon once asked him: how is it possible to always find an appropriate parable for every passage? Reb Yakov replied with a parable:
Once a man went to a village and saw a practice shooting target with holes only in the middle. When he asked the shooter how it is possible to shoot only in the centre he replied: first I shoot, then I draw the circle. I am the same. First I understand the object of the parable, then I apply it.
In 1795 the Vilna Gaon invited him a second time. On his way he stopped in Vlodove and became the town preacher. After a year in Vlodove he spent two years in Khelm and finally became the preacher of Zamosc.
In Zamosc Reb Yakov Krantz ran a Yeshiva and would explain the most difficult Talmudic passages with a parable. He easily explained what other great rabbis and scholars could not.
His piety was without boundaries. He would wake up in the middle of the night, recite the midnight prayer, study until dawn and then immerse himself in a ritual bath. From dawn until evening prayers he would be wrapped in a prayer shawl and phylacteries. As he prayed, he did not move a hand or a foot. He stood before God like a slave before his master. After the morning prayers he would study until lunch and only then take something to eat. After lunch he would return to the House of Study and teach the Yeshiva boys.
In the midst of teaching he would begin to cry and recite psalms. After he died, the beadle of the House of Study said Reb Yakov Krantz would ask him to inform him of every sick person or tragic incident in town. Seeing as Zamosc was a big city with many troubles, he would cry every day and pray for the sick and unfortunate.
His entire life, from age 18 on, he was awake half the night and every Monday and Thursday he would fast.
He prepared his book Sefer Hamidot for publication on his own. His other books were published by his son Reb Yitzkhak Krantz and his student Reb Berish Flam (Kol Yakov, Kokhav Mi Yakov, Emes L'Yakov).
Rabbi Yakov Krantz died on the 17th of Tevet 1804 and was buried in Zamosc. The inscription on his tombstone states he was a famous preacher, well known throughout the world, there was no one like him before and won't be another after. (According to Yakov Dov Mandelboym from Sefer Zamosc).
Y.Y. Trunk Writes About The Preacher of Dubno
The Preacher of Dubno travelled around preaching to Jewish communities in Russia, Poland, the Austro Hungarian Empire and Germany. While in Berlin, the well known Moshe (Moses) Mendelsohn came to hear him and called him the Jewish Aesop. This comparison is incorrect. The Preacher of Dubno was not a fable writer and he never took his parables from the lives of animals.
The simple audience felt uplifted by the preacher's parables. He saw symbols of a moral way of life in daily scenes of Jewish life.
Even after his death, Jews would come en masse to synagogues to hear his parables which other preachers told in his name.
His parables did not only uplift the simple folk. The folksy piety of his words and his understanding of humanity as seen in his stories
about Jewish life, was seen as the highest thinking of the Jewish intellect by great rabbis of his generation.
A Discussion with the Vilna Gaon
The Vilna Gaon who was considered the greatest rabbinical authority of his day really liked the Preacher of Dubno and considered their meetings to be of great spiritual pleasure.
There is a story told about a meeting of these two great personalities of that time.
As is known, the Vilna Gaon rarely left his house. He would sit all day in his room, with the shudders closed even during the day and study Torah day and night.
When the Preacher of Dubno arrived and saw the Gaon's leadership, how he separated himself from the world and did not leave his home, he said to him:
It's no big trick to be the Vilna Gaon, when you sit closed in your room studying Torah. Going out into the street, seeing the world, meeting people, doing business and being the Gaon, now that's tricky.
The Vilna Gaon answered him abruptly I'm not a magician!
If the Preacher of Dubno, due to his travelling around to Jewish communities, did not manage to come to the Gaon in Vilna, the greatest Talmudic authority wrote him letters, which are touched with modesty and longing for the folksy righteous man and his stories about Jewish life.
Although the Preacher of Dubno was extremely popular throughout the Jewish world, he wrote very little. It seems he felt the pen stood as a barrier between him and the simple Jew for whom his heart burned with humility and love.
When the Preacher of Dubno stood at the podium, wrapped in his prayer shawl talking to Jews, he did not fear the fires of hell. He comforted the Jews and tried to steer them on the path to justice. He behaved like a holy ascetic and demanded of himself the strictest discipline. He demanded a lot less from others.
The Preacher Celebrates the Exile
A folk tale is told about the Preacher of Dubno which also characterizes his lifestyle.
Once on a Sabbath the Preacher of Dubno stood in front of the congregation and gave a sermon. The synagogue was packed with everyone swallowing every word. The Preacher's mouth spewed pearls of wisdom, bright thoughts. The Preacher of Dubno raised himself to the divine chariot in the heavens and to the golden chairs of the righteous. Suddenly he heard an accusation against him from the ministering angels. He searched for his deeds and felt he was nearing the golden chairs of the righteous, he descended from his actual rank. In order to correct his ascent, the Preacher of Dubno took it upon himself to celebrate the exile.
The Preacher of Dubno disappeared for a couple of years among the large nameless masses of poor Jews and wandered throughout the Jewish world as a simple poor man. Together with other poor Jews, he walked from town to town, torn, with a stick in hand and a pack on his back. He slept in poorhouses, took coins from well off Jews and on the Sabbath, together with the other poor people, ate at Jewish prosperous homes. He hid his popular and beloved name from everyone.
In this bitter community among the simple poor people he cleansed himself spiritually. He became engrossed and uplifted in his love of the Jews and his new life experiences helped him create new stories.
I will quote one of his parables.
A Parable About a Deaf Man with a Cripple
A lame man and a deaf man who went from house to house begging together formed a partnership. The lame man sat on the deaf man's shoulders. They went together from house to house begging.
One day they came to a house where a wedding was taking place. The lame man heard the musicians playing. He felt like dancing. But how can he dance when he only has one leg? The poor deaf man could not hear the music.
Dance a bit, jump a bit, I'm happy shouted the lame man to the deaf man.
The deaf man could not hear the lame man nor the music. What did the lame man do? He took a bottle of whisky out of his pocket and gave the deaf man a sip. The deaf man tasted the whisky, began to feel happy and started to dance. The lame man gave him another sip, and then another and the deaf man began dancing with all he had. The lame man, who was sitting on the deaf man's shoulders was bobbing up and down. This is how they both danced. The lame man because of the music and the deaf man, from the whisky.
How much irony of the essence of a person lies in this simple story. We can not demand too much from a person. We must love him
in his weakness. This is the content of the Preacher of Dubno's sermons.
Why Didn't the Preacher Write Down His Stories?
Jews say: they once asked the Preacher of Dubno why he does not write an essay on Torah, the Prophets or interpretations which would contain his preaching. This is what the other preachers do. He said: I'll answer you with a parable. A rich man was marrying off his child. Many guests came to the celebratory meal, rich and poor Jews. They ate and drank and were very happy. The difference was this: the invited rich man sits at the table, eats the fine food and drinks the liquor according to a certain order. First he eats the fish, then he takes a bit of whisky. Then he eats the soup with noodles, meat and vegetable stew and ends with a glass of wine. The poor man stands on the side and quickly eats people's leftovers. The poor man sadly, cannot follow an order. He mixes the fish with the soup, meat with the herring, hot and cold to make sure he eats everything thrown at him.
The same is with me. The great Gaon of Vilna always sits at his holy table studying Torah. He can enjoy the wisdom and insight which, as if possible grants him order. But me, a Jew who wanders from town to town I have to be satisfied with what is thrown at me from time to time. Here falls an interpretation of a passage on Khabkuk, and soon after a parable on the words between Balak and Blemen, or an interpretation of the story of Noah. I must take all these things in haste, and without order take note and prepare to continue in my way.
by Rabbi Moishe Meir Yashar
Translated by Janie Respitz
Rabbi Yisreol Meir Hakohen was born in Zhetl in 1839. His father Arye Zev died young and he moved with his mother to Vilna. At 17 18 years of age he married in Radin in the Vilna region.
After his wedding he spent his whole life learning and his wife supported the family running a store.
He wrote many holy books. His best known work which made him famous was his book on moral instruction called Khafetz Khaim (the Desire for Life) (Vilna 1873), published anonymously. The name of the book became the name of the author. Among his other known books are Shmiras Haloshen, Mishneh Brurua, a collection of laws from The Code of Jewish Law (Shulkhan Arukh) which included telling Jewish soldiers how to observe Judaism during military service.
Immersed in moral instruction, the Khafetz Khaim strove to spread virtues and strengthen religion through Yiddish. Besides his preaching, he had some of his books published with Yiddish translations under the Hebrew text. One that stands out is Sefer Nidkhai Yisrael which is one of the most important new religious literary works in Yiddish; the writer wrote on the cover page: due to the request from many people, for this to be a useful book accessible to everyone, we translated it into simple Yiddish, so everyone can look at the important matters about our holy faith, which must be known and observed by every Jew, especially those who live in far away places. We also discuss here necessary laws and many other issues every Jew should know.
His other books translated into Yiddish deal with women's modesty, immersions etc…
He received help with these Yiddish translations from Bentzion Alps and his son in law Hirsh Levinson who was the head of the Yeshiva in Radin for 36 years until his death. The communal activism of the Khefetz Khaim is connected to this Yeshiva which he founded and used his name to make it renown and collected the money it needed to exist. In recent years the name Khefetz Khaim is remembered together with greatest geniuses who influenced generations with their greatness.
The Childhood of Khafetz Khaim
In Zhetl, Grodno province, (Polish Lithuania), on the 11th day of the month of Shevat (1839) a child was born to Reb Arye Zev Hakohen and Mrs. Dobrusheh. Reb Arye Zev was not a wealthy shopkeeper. He came from a respected family, he was an important man and a great scholar. In his youth he studied at the famous Volozhyn Yeshiva, probably after the time of the esteemed Reb Khaim of blessed memory.
As a young man Reb Arye Zev studied in Vilna at Reb Khaim Parnas' house of study. In order to earn a living,
he tutored a few rich boys. He would send a portion of his earnings home to his family.
His wife Dobrushe was a very pious, quiet, modest woman. In honour of the Sabbath she would light many candles and observed the Sabbath with the utmost care. If there was a wire border around town which indicated an area which one was permitted to carry objects on the Sabbath, she would not even carry a key. She would spend her day reading the weekly portion and commentaries. She would not let her prayer book, supplications or psalms out of her hands.
She was Reb Arye Zev's second wife, a sister to the first. She was 14 years old when they married in 1833. Reb Arye Zev's first wife, Miriam left him with three children, a daughter Reyzl and two sons: Reb Moishe and Reb Aron. Reb Aron was 18 years old when his aunt gave birth after her wedding to her only son.
Reb Arye Zev's young wife was very happy seeing her prayers were answered and she was blessed with a beautiful little boy whose beautiful little face shone with heavenly light.
Oy, how she wished the holy temple would already be rebuilt. Then she would consecrate the son she prayed for to the Almighty as Khana did with her son Shmuel. Her son is even more prestigious, he is a Kohen and Shmuel was only a Levi! Whatever happens, her son would study Torah. Torah is the best merchandise! This is the only treasure that has remained since the destruction. When you study Torah you can reach the heights of the High Priest.
As she was thinking these thoughts she looked at her child. It seemed to her that when he smiled at her, she saw in his bright eyes a promise her hopes would be realized.
His circumcision took place on the 18th of Shevat. The rabbi came as well as all the important men in town. When they heard he was being named Yisroel Meir, (Yisroel =Israel, Meir = Light) everyone blessed the parents and said this child will grow up to be a light upon the Jewish people.
Amen! answered his mother with a trembling heart and tears in her eyes.
The Name Yisroel Meir in reality reached its full meaning, as the child grew up to be a true light of Israel, the illuminator of his people.
He recounted, when he was a small boy his father took him to Vilna, took him to an acquaintance, a great rabbi, so the rabbi could test his knowledge of Talmud. After listening to him the great rabbi pinched his cheek and said: Yes, you are a good little boy, be careful my dear child, do not lose your name.
He remembered these words his whole life. His parents felt proud and the small Yisreol Meir made them happy, because from childhood they recognized his prodigious talents. He was soon known as one of the best children in town. He stood out with his diligence and enthusiasm to learn. His diligence can be seen from a story his father told, that when they were in Vilna his beloved Yisroel Meir fell asleep while studying. His father carried him sleeping to the bedroom and put him to bed. He was astounded later to see his son studying and repeating what he had taught him that morning.
From childhood on he was admired for his exceptional naivety and honesty. Once, when he was a child playing at the marketplace with other children a fruit dealer dropped a basket of apples. The little brats happily grabbed the apples as did the little Yisroel Meir.
Later, when his father finished teaching him the phrases from the bible Thou shalt not steal and Thou shalt not covet he asked his mother for a kopeck to buy fruit. He took the kopeck, went to the market and bought apples from the same lady. After he paid, he threw the apples back in her bushel and ran away.
Another story was about a poor water carrier in town. He was a simple man and not very smart. School boys would tease him and pull pranks on him. In the winter when he would leave empty buckets near the well, these brats would fill them with water so they would freeze during the night. At dawn, when the water carrier would come to draw water he had to work hard to break the ice in the buckets. He would become irritated and curse.
When the young Yisroel Meir learned of this, he would go, unnoticed by the other boys, and empty the buckets so that the poor water carrier would not have problems in the morning,
and without too much effort, fill his buckets and earn his bread.
After His Father's Death
When the boy was ten years old, he became an orphan. His father who had studied in Vilna in Reb Khaim Nakhman Paranas' House of Study died at age 47 during a cholera epidemic. As he lay on his deathbed his only worry was who would educate his son in Judaism and raise him to study Torah and perform good deeds.
His father's death did not weaken the steady ascent of this young boy thanks to his noble, righteous mother.
Like a true woman of valour, she carried the burden of earning a living and kept a watchful eye on her child. His brother Reb Aron, of blessed memory also did a lot for him. He was a great scholar and personally taught his little brother. He also contributed financially to his successful education and the Khafetz Khaim always remembered this.
The small Yisroel Meir ascended in his Torah studies and did good deeds. Meanwhile, his widowed mother remarried Reb Shimon, a well established man from Radin. Her second husband committed himself to support her child. However, he was rarely at home. He was already studying in Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, which from then on he considered his second home after Radin.
An Excerpt from The Life and Works of Khafetz Khaim, by Rabbi Moishe Meir Yashar, New York.
by Shabbtai Mayevsky (B'nai B'rak)
Translated by Janie Respitz
As it is known, the worldrenowned genius and righteous man, Reb Yisreol Meir Hakohen from Radin, of blessed memory, was born in Zhetl. He published his first book Kahfetz Khaim at age 18. It is based on a line in the Book of Psalm He who wants to live, should not speak badly of anyone.
The book which was published anonymously made a great impact on the world, not only due to its content and great scholarship (there was no shortage of great scholars in those days), but because of its theme which was new to rabbinic literature. No one had written on the topic of slander and gossip before.
The Khafetz Khaim practiced what he preached. He lived his life as he instructed others to do. Those who knew him claimed he never said a bad word about anyone, therefore, deserving of his name.
The Khafetz Khaim wrote about 30 books. I want to mention only one: The Love for Justice. As the previous book, this too was new to the religious Jewish world because of his theme: disinterested act of charity. The book discusses the good deed of giving charity.
There were many biographies written about Khafetz Khaim. In the framework of my few words I would like to recount my meetings with him.
In 1927 I was studying at the Yeshiva in Ayshishok, 12 kilometres from Radin. On the 10th of Shevat, a day we did not study because it is a fast day, a group of us walked to Radin to meet the Khafetz Khaim.
We arrived in Radin frozen and went straight to his house. He made an incredible impression on me. A small Jew with a snow white beard, a high black cap the type old men in Zhetl would wear, his face radiant like the sun. He was by then in his eighties and could barely walk. He snuck into another room and began to drag a chair. His son in law saw this and asked:
Rabbi, why are you dragging that chair?
He replied: the boys are tired, they should rest.
My second visit to the Khafetz Khaim was when my father of blessed memory got sick and was hospitalized in Vilna. I went to the Khafetz Khaim to ask for a blessing. When I approached him and put forth my request he did not answer but began to cry like a small child. A few days later, my father of blessed memory died.
I believe it is worthwhile that everyone from Zhetl living all over the world should know this great man and lover of the people of Israel was born in Zhetl.
by Moishe Tzinovitch (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Janie Respitz
When the idea of Love of Zion began to spread among rabbis and enlighteners in Russia, Rabbi Borukh Avrom Mirsky was among the first to join the movement. While still the rabbi in Parizov (Volkovisk Region) he began to propagate among the town's Jews to help the colonists in the Land of Israel and organized a society to buy land and immigrate.
Rabbi Borukh Avrom Mirsky was in regular contact with the Bialystok rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Mohilover, receiving from him news about everything that was happening in the Land of Israel, which he would weave into his sermons which were filled with love for the Jewish land. He ended every sermon with a quote from the Talmud expressing his love for the Land of Israel.
With the appearance of Dr. Herzl, he espouses political Zionism. This step attracted the attention of the Jewish national and religious social fabric in Russia. Rabbi Sh. Y. Rabinovitch from Sopotzkin, one of the Zionists in the country wrote about it: The esteemed rabbi so well known throughout Lithuania, has dedicated his heart and soul to the idea of Zionism. Hameilitz 1899.
We learn from this article that Reb Borukh Avrom Mirsky's son lives in one of the colonies in the Land of Israel however the rabbi sheds a lot of tears as he fears, God forbid, his son is not keeping all the Jewish laws and fulfilling all the required good deeds. However, he tries to interest rabbis with the idea of Love of Zion and wants them to use their religious spirituality to influence the new colonies.
Rabbi Borukh Avrom Mirsky participated in a meeting of rabbis before the second Zionist congress which took place in Warsaw in 1898. At that meeting he opposed the suggestion of the rabbi from Poltov, Rabbi Eliyah Akiva Rabinovitch, to create a committee of rabbis that would oversee the Kashrut of Zionism.
I would like to underline the moderate attitude the anti Zionist rabbis had for Reb Borukh Avrom. They knew his Zionism was for the glory of God.
by Moishe Tzinuvitz
Translated by Janie Respitz
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch was the grandson of the Gaon and Cabbalist Reb Eliyahu, the rabbi in Slobodke and Kalish.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch married the daughter of the renowned wealthy man from Zhetl, Reb Shloime Namiyat. For years he lived in Zhetl at his father in law's Reb Shloime, and would study in the House of Study every day. After his father-in-law lost his wealth, Reb Shmuel became the rabbi in Zholudek.
In 1911 he was appointed as rabbi in Moscow, replacing the deceased Rabbi Eliyahu Yerukham Veysbrum. At that time Moscow chose a special commission to elect an appropriate rabbi. The commission searched throughout Russia and they chose Reb Shmuel Rabinovitch. Since Reb Shmuel did not have a permit to live in Moscow, he was officially hired as an assistant to the Kazyon rabbi, Rabbi Yakov Maza and that is how he received the right to reside in Moscow.
During the First World War Jews were permitted to live in Moscow. Of course, Jews exercised that right. Reb Shmuel Rabinovitch's house was open to all. The Jews kept him so busy he simply had no time to eat or rest. However, he always found time to answer everyone and gladly arbitrated on various religious themes.
Under the Bolshevik regime he suffered from hunger and destitution. His face swelled up, he lost all his strength and suffered from a neurological disease. He would often sit and study all night until dawn. His household would beg him to rest, but he would study without a break.
Reb Shmuel Rabinovitch was a great scholar. He had great insight and was extremely talented at explaining. In addition he was modest and hated greed. He could have lived in comfort and luxury as he was the chief rabbi of such a wealthy community as Moscow, however he lived in poverty, often dire.
In 1922 his friends suggested they sell Etrogim to the wealthy Jews in order to alleviate his poverty. Reb Shmuel rejected the suggestion.
He was very active on the Moscow Jewish communal council and his opinions were respected.
Although he was not a big talker, his few words had a persuasive influence.
Reb Shmuel Rabinovitch passed away in the month of Elul in 1924. His death announcement in Izvestsia did not mention he was chief rabbi of Moscow. The announcement said that Shmuel Rabinovitch who lived here and there died, and his acquaintances are invited to attend his funeral.
There were many commentaries written after his death. It was stressed everywhere that he was the last rabbi of the Jewish community of Moscow.
by Rabbi Elkhanan Saratzkin (Jerusalem)
Translated by Janie Respitz
Rabbi Zalmen Saratzkin was born in 1880 in the town Kharine, Mohilev province, the youngest son of the local rabbi Reb Bentzion of blessed memory. All his brothers were rabbis and his sisters married rabbis. The family stems from great rabbinic pedigree from the renowned Shklov rabbi Reb Yisroel, author of The Light of Israel.
Rabbi Zalmen Saratzkin studied in the Yeshivas of Slobodke and Volozhyn and was known to be an assiduous and sharp student. In 1905 he married the daughter of the world renowned head of the Telz Yeshiva the esteemed Rabbi Eliezer Gordon. Within a short time he perfected his secular studies and was a candidate to enter university in Pernov (Kurland) together with the renowned Dr. N.Y. Shteynberg who later served as Minister of Justice in the Kerensky government.
After his father in law died in 1910 he became rabbi in Voronove where he opened a Yeshiva for young boys. He became well known as a great speaker and was active in the community and was offered the position of official state rabbi in Slonim. He turned down the post as he did not want to leave the rabbinate in the actual meaning of the word, though the Slonim Jewish community wanted to appoint him as one competent in deciding matters of rabbinic law and city preacher.
At this time the Zhetl rabbi, Reb Ari Dvoretzky of blessed memory, died. He was invited to give the eulogy for the deceased rabbi. As a result of this visit to Zhetl he was invited to become rabbi of Zhetl and he did in 1912.
In 1915 when the Germans were close to our town and there was a danger he would be taken hostage by the Russians. He left Zhetl with the retreating Russian army after he did all he could to prevent the Russians from staging a pogrom in town. He left with the last group of Russian soldiers and settled in Minsk. Here he headed the committee to help the tens of thousands of refugees and became very well known for his communal work.
After the outbreak of the revolution he headed the Agudas Yisroel party in White Russia and was chosen as a deputy to the All Russian Jewish Conference (The Jewish National Council). He headed the rabbinic delegation to St. Petersburg which demanded rabbis be exempt from military service just as the spiritual leaders of other religions. He travelled to St. Petersburg 12 times until they achieved this goal.
He then was chosen, secretly, as head rabbi of Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia where many Jews settled during the war. He turned down this high paying post not wanting to leave the Pale of Settlement, and waited for the first opportunity to return to Zhetl. The opportunity was found when the Germans captured Minsk. He returned to hungry Zhetl.
Returning to Zhetl
He began his work helping the needy population through intervening with the German authorities to provide the town with produce and food supply.
When the Polish legionnaires marched into Zhetl he went under a hail of bullets to the military commander and negotiated that if the legionnaires won't rob the town he would provide the soldiers with food and cigarettes.
After the military left town he began to rebuild the ruins and improve the economic situation. He founded a bank, an interest free loan society, a food cooperative, rebuilt and expanded the building of the Talmud Torah, opened a school for girls, (the first religious girl's school in the region), repaired the bathhouse and the shelter for poor travellers and helped to reopen the Yeshiva.
At this time he was invited by the rabbi in Kovno, in the name of Agudas Yisroel in Lithuania, to take on the position of Minister of Jewish Affairs in the Lithuanian government, however, due to various reasons he did not accept this offer.
Communal Activity on a National Scale
Representing the institutions in Zhetl he travelled to many conferences and meetings and took on a leading role. He was chosen as chairman of the Society for Caring for Orphans in Bialystok (which Zhetl then belonged to), chairman of the Sanitation Medical Organization of The Joint and chairman of Cooperative Banks. Later he spent many years as a member of the Council of Cooperatives
in Poland and would travel almost every month to meetings in Warsaw where he played an active role. For a while he was chairman of the Central Cooperative Bank in Vilna.
He also participated in all rabbinic meetings in Poland and became known for his speeches. He was chosen for the highest positions in rabbinic organizations taking a place of honour. He was known as the confidant of Khaftez Khaim and Reb Khaim Ozer Grodshensky who were the rabbinic leaders in Poland.
He was one of the founders of the Council of Yeshivas in Vilna and played an active role in its activity until he left in 1940. He was one of the leaders of the religious school organization Khorev, the central organization of the Talmud Torahs and religious schools in the region. He took part in the World Congress of Religious Jews in Vienna in 1923 and made a great impression with his speeches which were marked with logic and rhetorical power.
In 1928 he was a candidate for the Sejm (Polish parliament) on the Agudas Yisroel ticket. He received a lot of votes, but due to a split in Jewish votes, no Jews were elected.
In 1929 he was elected head rabbi of Lutzk, a community which had more than 30 thousand Jews and was a big administrative and political centre where almost one hundred towns and cities from Volhynia Township were concentrated.
Zhetl could not compete against a Jewish community as large as Lutzk as they did when their rabbi was offered chief rabbi positions in towns like Ayshishok, Semiytitch and Ostrov Mazavietzk and they were able to influence him to remain at his post. Now they had to give up their struggle.
In Lutzk, as his work was broader and more diversified, he quickly became known as a complete rabbinic personality who was respected by Jews and Christians, in and outside the city. He was recognized as the religious and political leader of Volhynian Jewry. Rabbis consulted with him on all religious questions, sending him their questions and answers and communities would seek his advice when electing rabbis or ritual slaughterers and about Jewish politics in the country.
He stood at the helm of rabbinic delegations to the Polish government and presented the demands of religious Jews in Poland, like the organization of Jewish communities, and rights for a religious school system. He took part in the large, famous rabbinic delegation to the Polish premier Prof. Bartel, together with the Khafetz Khaim and other prominent rabbinic personalities. He was chosen by the government as a member and later chairman of the State Rabbinic Collegium which confirmed the election of rabbis and rabbinic judges throughout Poland after they were chosen by their communities. After the decision of the Rabbinic Collegium the Ministry of Education would confirm the election and the rabbi could take on his position.
When the sad, famous regional law emerged prohibiting ritual slaughter, he worked tirelessly in order to have it repealed and was elected chairman of the committee to defend ritual slaughter in Poland. He spent months in Warsaw organizing the political struggle against this edict which reached its culmination with a strike of the entire Jewish population of Poland who did not eat meat for 17 days in a protest against this law.
In 1937 he participated in the congress Agudas Yisroel in Marienbad which then discussed dividing the Land of Israel into Jewish and Arab states. He read for the Religious World Congress the famous resolution which stated Jews were not permitted a piece of the Land of Israel. He was then chosen as a member of the Council of Torah Scholars and at the same time a member of the international executive of Agudas Yisroel. The speech he gave as an introduction to the resolution became famous throughout the world and reverberated in the circles of the mandate commission of the British government.
That same year his first book Idea and Talk was published. It was a collection of articles and sermons on actual problems. It made a great impression in the rabbinic world and was quickly sold out. The book was published again in 1946 in London and will soon appear in its third edition in Jerusalem.
In The Land of Israel
After the fall of the Polish state and its division between Soviet Russia and Hitler's Germany, Lutzk was in Russian hands. At first it seemed possible to continue Jewish communal activity under the Soviet regime in religious and educational fields
and various circles exerted pressure on him to remain to continue with his work. But soon it became clear that this was an illusion. The Soviet authority quickly began to liquidate all Jewish institutions and from a good friend who had contacts in the NKVD he learned he was a candidate to be arrested. He ran away to Vilna which was independent and after many transformations, made it to the Land of Israel in 1940.
In the Land of Israel he founded a Council of Yeshivas based on the one in Vilna which was a union of all the Yeshivas in the Land Of Israel, and headed it until today. The Council of Yeshivas, under his direction, has grown into a powerful institution with a budget of almost one million pounds a year, with almost one hundred Yeshivas and learning institutions and thousands of students.
The Envoy for Religious Jewry
He quickly occupied a respected place in religious and political life in the Land of Israel. For a while he held the position of chairman of Agudas Yisroel in the Land of Israel. He was also a member on many aid committees for refugees that arrived during the Second World War.
In 1946 he visited England for the Council of Yeshivas. He went to the largest cities giving talks that were well received by English Jews. He was offered an important rabbinic position, but he turned it down. He did not want to leave the Land of Israel. In 1948 he published the second volume of Ideas and Talk which dealt with Jewish holidays and eulogized the great destruction of European Jewry, particularly those Jewish communities where he served as rabbi, Zhetl included.
The same year he flew to New York in order to organize aid for the Yeshivas in besieged Jerusalem. He participated in a few conferences bringing the call of Torah Jews in Israel and organized an appeal for support of Yeshivas in this difficult period of war. While in New York he participated in the Agudas Yisroel Congress where it was decided they would participate in the provisional Israeli government.
When he returned to Israel in 1950 he was chosen as a substitute chairman of the Council of Torah Scholars and after the death of the eminent Rabbi Isar Zalmen Meltzer of blessed memory, he was elected chairman.
In 1951 the first part of his large work on the Book of Genesis was published called Ears to the Torah which places him in first rank of rabbinic authors of today. He received the Rabbi Kook Prize from the Tel Aviv city council for the best book published that year.
With the introduction of the state educational system the Agudas Yisroel decided to maintain its independence from the educational network. He now is heading the The Non Partisan Independent Education of Agudas Yisroel and accepts the position of chairman of the board of directors and manages a network of schools for boys and girls with more than 25 thousand pupils.
In 1953 he published a second volume of Ears to the Torah and in 1955 the Scales of Justice which includes questions and answers from his forty years of rabbinic activity. This book was also received in the rabbinic world as a great contribution in the field of Jewish law.
Today, Rabbi Zalmen Saratzkin is one of the greatest rabbinic authorities in the world and remains in contact with all the rabbinic institutions in the world who consult with him on all aspects of religious Jewish life.
His children: Rabbi Elkhanan Saratzkin was the rabbi in Zholudek until the outbreak of the Second World War. He was sent to Siberia, freed in Moscow in 1944 where he worked in the Jewish division of Committee of Polish Patriots in Russia. In 1946 he returned to Poland and was elected chairman of Agudas Yisroel and member of the Council of Jewish Communities in Poland. In 1947 he emigrated to the Land of Israel and worked in the administration of The Council of Yeshivas and is a member of the International Council of Agudas Yisroel in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Eliezer is the executive director of the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland; Rabbi Borukh is head of the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland; Rabbi Yisroel is head of a Yeshiva in Petach Tikva, and Reb Bentzion is the head clerk in PIKA in Haifa. His daughter Temeh, may God avenge her murderer, perished in the Warsaw ghetto together with her husband and child.
by Yosef Eliyahu Piekelny Pniel (Kfar Haroeh)
Translated by Janie Respitz
Among the personalities who distinguished themselves in our town and was respected by all social classes was Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Khurgin, of blessed memory, or as he was called "Head of the Yeshiva".
The writer of these lines had the privilege to live in his time and benefit from this luminary. I must stress that besides his modesty and not wanting to distinguish himself, his personality placed a stamp on the spiritual life of our town.
I do not remember when he came to us, no one really took interest. His life with us was self evident, as if he had always been with us. He was attached to all of us, big and small.
Since I can remember, there was a Yeshiva in Zhetl and the boys would sit in the House of Study with the Head of the Yeshiva. The head of the Yeshiva would either give the boys a lesson or he would sit at his lectern absorbed in the Talmud and commentaries and the entire House of Study would echo with the voices.
The Yeshiva boys found the head of the Yeshiva's home to be the warmest and dearest place. He took interest in everyone personally. The boys did not feel like they were in a private home but rather continuing their studies in the House of Study.
On holidays his house was filled with guests and students who would come from different Yeshivas. To his great joy there were no boundaries, everyone was welcome and he showed interest in everyone. He would ask about their learning, their situation and progress while his wife would cook delicious food and prepare a holiday feast where each one would demonstrate what he knew.
The room where the head of the Yeshiva taught was filled with sacred books and he had a Torah in a special holy ark. Often, a quorum would be organized in his home. He would begin prayers exactly on time. Regularly, at the exact same time every day, you could see him going to pray even though he lived far from the House of Study.
Disregarding the fact that his economic situation was difficult, he never complained. He also did not demand a special position in town. He took upon the job of teacher and educator and he would often substitute for the rabbi in his duties. He was always ready to give to charity.
Everyone knew you could find the nicest Etrog and four species at the head of the Yeshiva's as he was a great Lover of Zion.
Everyone knew his hands were clean and he could be trusted. People would deposit their money with him as well as dowries for poor girls. The truth this was his main motto, and with great devotion and self sacrifice he protected the religious character of our town.
One Friday night when Jews were already in synagogue for evening prayers someone told him that some people are still working in a certain workshop in town. He quickly stopped praying and ran there. He turned over the table with the work tools and did not budge from the spot until they closed the workshop. His handling of the situation made a great impact in town.
Another incident worthwhile recounting: he made a deal with the pharmacist, his former student, that he would only give out medication on the Sabbath in the event of a life threatening emergency. In order to ensure this, he gave up his Sabbath nap and sat in the pharmacy (of course with a sacred book) to prevent the pharmacist from desecrating the Sabbath.
The majority of his students were youngsters from our town who finished their studies at the Talmud Torah and under his influence continued studying at the Yeshiva. Many of these boys went on to study in large Yeshivas.
In Polish Lithuania, where the majority of Yeshivas were concentrated, there was not one that did not have a student from Zhetl. The majority of them excelled in learning and in time became rabbis, ritual slaughterers or just well established Jews who held a respected place in society.
I have spoken here about a personality from our town who had many virtues.
In memory of all the communal leaders, I have described the great personality of our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Khurgin who perished in horrific circumstances together with all the other Jews of Zhetl in the big slaughter of 1942.
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