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[Page 113]

The Ilui Reb Shlomo Poliatzik,
May the Memory of the Righteous Be For a Blessing

by H.L. Gordon

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

Two names drew the students to the Lida yeshiva: the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines, the founder of the yeshiva, and the name of Reb Shlomo Poliatzik, the Rosh Metivta of the third and fourth division (the highest) in that yeshiva, who became famous in the Torah world by the name “The Ilui From Meitzt.” On the first day of my arrival in Lida, when I walked innocently in the street, a sturdy and upright person came towards me, who stepped slowly as a dreamer, and a light breeze ruffled the hair of his long yellowish beard. I looked in his wide open eyes, and I saw that his gaze was not directed at what was in front of him, but beyond him, and only by way of miracle he was not injured by the passers-by or run over by the freight wagons coming towards him. Out of distraction he was really colliding with the fences of the yards and telegraph poles. This man, who was strange in his walking, was the Ilui from Meitzt.

He was possessed of a sharp and clever logic, and his views were crystal clear. He would teach his lessons with a joyful spirit, and every division would pay attention to his words with alertness and enthusiasm. His happy and warm voice still rings in my ears. Since the yeshiva building was too narrow to contain all the divisions, the Ilui from Meitzt would teach his lessons outside of the house of the yeshiva – in the “bedek”[1]* of the large synagogue that was adjacent to the yeshiva. I remember that we would gather outside and wait impatiently for the teacher's arrival. And as soon as his magnificent stature appeared next to the doorway of the yeshiva, we would hurry to close our Gemaras and stream after him to the synagogue without saying anything. He was a quiet one, and we understood him by allusion. When we reached the “bedek” we were not seated on benches, as was our custom in classrooms, but rather we would stand and listen to his words with bated breath. Crowded together in a small space, we would surround him and try not to lose one thought that came out of his lips. At the beginning of his words we believed that all was understood and clear to us. His speech was always pleasantly abundant, like a person speaking to himself, and not to others. But after a few moments he would turn aside from the path of simplicity, and soar to the heights of reason, when he would differentiate the finest of differences from one opinion to the next, and from one method to the next. He attempted to reveal before us the deep and hidden foundations that were in the reasoning of the Tanna'im and the Amora'im, the interpreters who were the Rishonim and the Acharonim,[2] and the Poskim, and especially Maimonides' “Yad HaChazakah[3]

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and its interpreters. Little by little the thread of logic that he linked and connected in the lecture on the matters dropped from our hands. One by one we lagged after him and left the battle: the eye was seeing and the ear was hearing, but the mind did not perceive anymore. We were like dreamers grasping at illusion. And the teacher was continuing his lecture calmly and mildly, and almost in a whisper. The ideas were dizzying the minds, even the most emboldened, with ascents and descents and turns to the sides. His lecture was not in the way of the lengthy debaters, glowing fiery embers, but rather slowly-flowing streams of water.

It happened that new sharp students, who did not know the nature of the teacher, would venture to stop him with a difficulty. This was an accepted ploy among members of yeshivot, who used it to endear themselves to the teacher, and became respected in the eyes of their fellow students. In the rest of the yeshivot the Rosh Yeshiva would answer, most of the time, with an explanation like this, which placed in the hands of the questioner a number of opportunities to reply and make it harder from new strategic corners, and to return and arouse the attention of the listeners. However, it was impossible to stop the “Ilui from Meitzt” even for the blink of an eye. He would respond immediately, and the negotiation would be finished. The questioner or the one raising the difficulty would receive an answer as if thunderstruck, and only after much study he would descend to the meanings of the teacher's words that were said to him.

The lesson would be concluded in the way it had begun: with a moderate and relaxed conversation. But we the students would exit the hall covered in sweat and in serious consideration. Indeed, we did nothing but sit and pay attention, but the effort to concentrate and understand the negotiation exhausted us. According to the depression that was engraved on the faces of most of the students it was possible to suppose that now they had come down from the tooth extractor's chair of pain. We would go to have our poor meal, hurrying to get back, in order to return to the lesson in our division. But some of the students, and I among them, mostly skipped the food and remained in the synagogue “bedek,” in order to go over the words of the lesson in twos, while the impression of what we heard didn't get lost. My review partner was G. Beilin from Koidanov, who had, in my opinion, “an iron head,” and I would record the best of the innovations and give the list to our rabbi, who would think well of us for the pains that we took. These were, apparently, the “Torah” notebooks that were lost to him on his escape route from Lida after the outbreak of The First World War.

My father, who was a veteran student of the Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Hirsh Leib Berlin, (The Netziv)[4] told me that he learned in Volozhin at the hour that the boy Shlomo was brought there. The Netziv agreed with difficulty that they should bring the boy before him for a talmudic discussion. But the little one began to argue aggressively with him about halakhah, and the Rosh Yeshiva was amazed. Quickly the second Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Chaim Soloveitzik, joined them, and asked: - “Where did you come from, boy?”
- “From Meitzt” the boy answered.
- “The Ilui from Meitzt!” added Reb Chaim. The yeshiva was quickly in an uproar. “The Ilui came to the yeshiva!” And from then on the name “the Ilui” went before him.

When the Volozhin yeshiva was closed in the year 1892, the Ilui from Meitzt was a 14-year old youth, and he wandered from there to the “Knesset Yisrael[5] yeshiva in Slobodka. The Ilui was an excellent man of Mussar, but he could not adjust to the custom of the Mussarniks that were in Slobodka, and after a short time he moved to Brisk to spend time in the shadow of Reb Chaim, his beloved Rabbi from Volozhin. But also in Brisk he did not stay long, and quickly moved to Vilna, and there he learned in the “kibbutz” of Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, and he was then 15 years old. The students of the “kibbutz” were scattered in the synagogues of the city and its suburbs, and the Ilui from Meitzt was assigned to learn in the synagogue in Shnipishok. Here began the period of his life that is covered in fog. What did he do in Vilna? It is certain that most of the hours of the day he engaged in Torah study, but apparently he also learned secular studies a few hours in the day and night, and with the strength of his phenomenal perception he was able to absorb in an hour what others acquired with months of exertion.

He especially loved the mathematical subjects, and he apparently bequeathed this inclination of his to his eldest son, who worked as an expert in physics in the government office in Washington the capital. When the Ilui was a small boy his uncle Horovitz, who learned then in the gymnasia, came once to visit him. Suddenly Horovitz's books of mathematics disappeared, and with them also the small Shlomeleh. In the evening he came down from his hiding place in the attic, with the mathematics, algebra and geometry textbooks under his arm.

And Shlomeleh apologized:

“I learned it all from the beginning to the end, and now I can be compared to my uncle, the gymnasia student.”

When the word had spread that Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines was about to open a modern yeshiva in Lida, in which there would be a mixture of Torah and enlightenment (“Torah and Knowledge”), and the Ilui from Meitzt (who was then a 27-year-old yeshiva student) was invited to serve there as Rosh Yeshiva, a few of the geonim of the generation entreated Reb Shlomo to refuse and not accept the invitation. But the Ilui did not listen to them, and came to Lida. Torah and enlightenment were already joined together in his soul for a few years, and the one who saw his soul could see the outcome, that the future of all the yeshivot would be to welcome secular studies.

Reb Shlomo taught in the Lida Yeshiva for nine years, until the outbreak of the First World War. In the days of the war the yeshiva was exiled, and its students and teachers with it.

Dr. Dov Rebel, Rosh Yeshiva of Reb Yitzchak Elchanan in New York, invited Reb Shlomo Poliatzik to disseminate his Torah in the new land. In this yeshiva, Torah was mixed with science, like the custom of the yeshiva in Lida. Reb Shlomo responded to the invitation and reached the coast of New York on September 1, 1922. Here I met with him frequently in the subway, and we would sit together and talk in friendship. Now he was the speaker. The train rattled and ran quickly, but he spoke slowly, and settled into his thoughts, as if he was daydreaming.


“The Ilui from Meitzt” (at center) Within a Group of His Students From the Upper Class, Accompanied by the Teachers Pinchas Shifman (to his right) and Moshe Cohen (to his left)


From these conversations of his I recognized that he was not an idler who was estranged from the world as it exists, by virtue of his engrossment with the Torah. He was expert in what was happening around him and at the ends of the earth, not from casual reading of a Yiddish newspaper, but rather

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from careful reading of English journalism and by the strength of his rapid extraordinary perception he would absorb into himself in the wink of an eye not only the matters in which halakhic literature engaged, but also the issues of secular literature. When I asked him about the nature of his students in America, he answered, in his way, with polite hesitation, so as not to diminish, God forbid, the image of the other, except in a general way, that his students in Lida were more excellent in diligence and understanding than his students in New York, but here too he found students who were great in the Torah, who were worthy of all praise and glory.

In what did the Ilui from Meitzt excel? In his exceptionally fast perception. A middling person, when he opened a book, in which came, for example, the expression “expound and receive a reward”[6] will fumble to find its meaning in a few incorrect ways, until he arrives at the simple meaning of the words. It is possible that he will read the first word as if the daled was vocalized with a kamatz[7] in the meaning of “needed,” and the second word “v'kabel[8] he will vocalize the kuf with a chirik and interpret the word as the past tense,[9] and the third word he will read as starting with the letter tzadi with the vowel tzere,[10] with the meaning “an intoxicating drink.” It is found that the regular reader needs to try a few erroneous versions until he reaches the correct version, and this is a loss of time and a loss of understanding. But the Ilui from Meitzt would review tens of corrupt readings in the wink of an eye, and immediately land on the correct reading. With this power of his he could predict halakhot and new opinions that he had never seen, since he saw all the possibilities with one glance.

And I saw further, that when I was his student in Lida, that he understood the words of others besides himself before he heard them until the end. If he knew, for example, the words of Rabbi Akiva on the laws of prayer or donation, he could surmise what his opinion would be on matters of ritual impurity before he would read his words. And so he was able to see in advance the halakhot of Rambam or the solution of Rabbi Akiva Eiger or Ketzos HaChoshen[11] on the laws of divorce, according to what these sages decided on the laws of testimony. This thing amazed us, the students, and also he really frightened us with the sharpness of his understanding in advance of matters that had not yet been said. In vain we searched for difficulties in the Rashba[12] and in the Maharsha,[13] in order to stop him. He knew all the solutions in advance, like a chess genius, who knew to see the tenth move in advance, for example, of the white knight, according to the possibilities of the moves on his various paths, and his opponent's. His gentle mind contained billions of judgments and dispositions that ranged through hundreds of possibilities at once. To every question that we, his students, asked him, he responded immediately with the correct answer.

After all, the Ilui from Meitzt was gifted with the power of exertion in thought, as quick as lightning, which made it possible for him to arrive, almost in a straight line, by way of thousands of previous minority opinions, to the truth. There was a surprising instinctiveness in the ability of his thought. But there was in him not only the speed of his perception, but also a measure of truth and honesty.

These virtues in the genius of halakhah were enough to amaze us. But R' Shlomo Poliatzik had a heart as a big as the doorway to the auditorium, and included a degree of humility, love of others, inclusive, comprehensive, and deep knowledge, in understanding of a number of secular studies and ways of the world outside of the 4 cubits of halakhah.


  1. Asterisk:* From the language “bedek ha-bayit,” and its meaning in a few places in Lida, a wing that was added onto a building, or an additional room, which was secondary to the main hall. [Translator's addition: this phrase first appears in 2 Kings 22:6, and refers to repairs that were to be made to the Temple in Jerusalem.] Return
  2. The Tanna'im were the teachers in the land of Israel in the first two centuries CE/ Their views appear in the Mishnah and other literature from this period. The Amoraim were the expounders of the teachings of the Tanna'im in Babylonia and the land of Israel ca. 200-500 CE. Return
  3. Moses Maimonides' 12th-century code of religious law written in fourteen parts. The name, which means “The Strong Hand” is a reference to the strong hand of God that took Israel out of Egypt. The Hebrew word “Yad,” hand, has a numerical value of fourteen. The work is also known as the Mishneh Torah, the repetition of the Torah. Return
  4. The acronym stands for Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, (1816– 1893), also known as Reb Hirsh Leib Berlin. He was an Orthodox rabbi, dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva and author of several works of rabbinic literature in Lithuania. Return
  5. Assembly of Israel. Return
  6. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 71a. Return
  7. The first letter is a daled, which with a kamatz would look like this: דָּ. Return
  8. “And receive.” Return
  9. Like this: קַבָּל, “and he received.” Return
  10. Like this: צַ. Return
  11. Written by Aryeh Leib Heller c.1764 - c.1796 CE, this commentary elucidates difficult sections of the Choshen Mishpat section of the Shulchan Arukh. Return
  12. Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham ibn Adret, one of the greatest codifiers and Talmudists of his time, was born in Barcelona, Spain in the year 4995 (1235), and died at the age of 75 (in the year 5070, or 1310 CE). Return
  13. Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles, born in Posen, 5315-5392 (1555-1631 CE). Return

Innovator and Activist

by Rabbi Meir Berlin

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines, may his memory be for a blessing, was one of the seekers. He did much and acted much, but more than what he did with a certain intention, there was in his nature and his way a search for deeds as opposed to existing words, in that they did not satisfy his will. However his private will was not for the sake of private pleasure. He was not one of those who pursued honor and not one of the lovers of power. His deeds were for the sake of heaven, but his spiritual desire, his pure desire, was not satisfied by many things and matters that existed in his day, and in searching he was not satisfied with criticism, but rather to approach actions. Therefore his haters and his adversaries were many, they didn't like the degree of action and they didn't look at the results of his activity, they saw the soul and they looked at the spirit and they listened to his sharp words on all that was not according to his desire, and they rejected him from the outset, at the beginning of his work. And if after all these Rabbi Reines triumphed and succeeded in known actions and merited to establish a great movement in Israel, it is a sign of his greatness and the purity of his soul, of his devotion and his great powers.

Both in Torah innovations and in the sayings of aggadah Rabbi Reines approached the new. Not innovation in method, but rather a change in the ways of the writing and the saying from within review of what others wrote and said. From the start there was the inquiry and afterwards came the corrections that were good in his eyes. The review, of course, caused him to become reviewed. And even though his books in halakhah and aggadah were worthy of being received favorably for their contents by all the greats of Torah in his days, they looked at him and at them unfavorably. Not the wondrous form of the books – indeed a new form to a known degree – but rather the form of the words of the author, which from within criticism expressed negative opinions of others, for they were not according to his spirit.

And when he came to found a “yeshiva,” the geonim of the generation and the heads of the magnificent yeshivot rose up against him. And it was not the additional yeshiva they resented; rather, the plan of the yeshiva, although it had in it some of the innovation in its organization and aspirations, the general resentment did not come because of that, but rather as a consequence of his angering the greats of the period, that he did not approach to add a yeshiva to the existing yeshivot, but rather that he sought deficiencies in the existing institutions of Torah. In the plan of his activity, the desire to correct was significant, for indeed for all of his greatness in the knowledge of Torah, and with all of his devotion to the learning of Torah, he was not satisfied with the foundation of a regular yeshiva in his city, but rather he desired to show that it was in his power to fill the gap, in his opinion, in other yeshivot.

In his last days too he was among the seekers, and in his approach to hard work and devotion for the sake of “HaMizrachi,” with all his physical efforts and spiritual powers, there was much of the unwillingness in what he established among the Jews and in Judaism. His heart hurt deeply for the difficult lot of the Jews in Russia, and few were those suffered the pain of their people with all their soul and might, as he did.

He was a genius of halakhah and deed, and therefore memory of him will never end.

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The Little Horoditzche

By Rabbi Aharon Rabinovitz, Av Beit Din of Lida

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

I was a student in the great yeshiva of Volozhin from the year 5646 [1886] until its closing, but the place where my parents lived was in the Priloki Forest, between the towns of Novhardok and Horoditzche. At that time Rabbi Shmuel Meir Horvitz lived in our neighborhood, a person great in Torah and ordained for instruction. He was famous in the area as a wise man, and expert in the world as it exists. Every time I returned home from Volozhin for the festival days, and I chanced upon Rabbi Shmuel Meir, he would tell me wonders about his brother-in-law Shlomeleh, who lived in the “yard” adjacent to the town of Meitzt, and who learned then in the Talmud Torah of Slonim.

When my interest was aroused in his stories about the great sublime abilities of his brother-in-law, I asked him if he would bring him to me so that I could meet him. He fulfilled my request and brought him to me during the festival of Sukkot in the year 5650 [1890] to be a guest in my house. When he brought him to me, I saw before me a boy of about twelve years old, thin, weak, and shy. But from his dark eyes wisdom and deep understanding were seen – not at all according to his years. When I began to test him in Gemara I saw that his knowledge was little, but when I questioned him about an opinion, I was astonished by his sharpness and his wonderful depth, and even more by his knowledge of how to express a deep opinion with a few words. And then I saw that not even half of the greatness of this excellent boy had been told to me, the likes of whom were not found even among the excellent iluim[1] older than him who were among the members of the yeshivot.

I found myself obligated to bring him to take shelter under the wings of the great eagle,[2] the rabbi of all of the children of the exile, our teacher Reb Chaim Soloveitchik, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing, the light of whose Torah shone at that time in the yeshiva of Volozhin.

In my knowledge of the Admor's excessive affection for those with excellent abilities, and the affection that he would feel for this genius ability, I informed Shlomeleh's father, who was a proper and God-fearing man, of my decision, and with joy he agreed to bring him to Volozhin. Since these were days of rain and mud, the journey by wagon lasted three days, until I brought the youngster to Volozhin while he was still alive. When I got down off the wagon I went into the Gaon Reb Chaim to give him the good news that I had brought a boy of wonderful abilities. The Gaon asked me what was his special strength, and I transmitted to him what I had asked him and what he replied to me.

The Gaon requested that I bring him before him immediately, and even though the boy was dispirited from the exertion of the journey, he knew how to reply with a logical argument to Reb Chaim about his deep questions, until the Gaon got excited and called out whole heartedly: “Here there is before me an ilui unlike any other!” The yeshiva went abuzz when it became known to it about the wonderful boy, for until then there had not been found even in the great yeshiva of Volozhin an excellent ilui like this. He was famous in the yeshiva by the name “The Little Horoditzche.”

His way of learning was to sit and look into the Gemara and his voice was not heard. The Gaon Reb Chaim commanded him to learn ten pages of Gemara every day, and commanded me and the well-known Gaon Reb Yitzchak Tzukerman, Shlita,[3] who was well-known in the yeshiva in those days by the name Reb Yitzchak Libidober, to test him in the evening on what he had learned in the day. And on every Shabbat night the Gaon Reb Chaim himself, in person, was dedicated to test him for about straight five hours about all that he had learned during the course of the week. Of course he asked him deep questions, in the Gaon's way, and the answers of the “little Horoditzche” were amazing each time, and in this way he took very much of an interest in him, until not even one day went by that he did not inquire about his learning and his innovations.

After he learned for a year in the yeshiva, he was already expert in the three “gates”[4] and the Tosafot. On his Bar Mitzvah day, before the Netziv, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim, and the rest of the Torah greats of that status in the house of the Netziv, he spoke words of innovation to the point that the Gaon Reb Chaim determined that this innovation was worthy of being taught as a lesson before all the members of the yeshiva.

The Gaon Reb Shlomo learned in the yeshiva until its closing, and after this, when the Admor the Gaon Reb Chaim, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing, was accepted as the rabbi in Brisk of Lithuania, after the death of his father the great Gaon Reb Yosef Duber, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing, and gave a lesson there before excellent students, the Gaon Reb Shlomo also travelled to Brisk to hear a lesson from the mouth of the Gaon Reb Shmuel, his primary rabbi. From then on I did not see him, until he was matched up with the daughter of a certain wealthy man from Ivanitz, and at his invitation I traveled to his wedding.

When the great yeshiva in Lida was founded in the year 5665 [1905] by my father-in-law the wonderful Gaon Y.TZ. Reines, may his memory be for a blessing, Av Beit Din in Lida, and my father-in-law the Gaon at that time sought a person who was great in the Torah, who would be trained to serve as head Rosh Metivta in the yeshiva. At my suggestion the Gaon Reb Shlomo was appointed for this position, and he became the Rosh Metivta in the yeshiva, until the year 5675 [1915], when the yeshiva was exiled to the city of Yelisavetgrad following the war, and with it also the Gaon Reb Shlomo. We are able to recommend a saying about him by our sages, may their memories be for a blessing, in Sifra[5] Parashat Tzav on the verse “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”[6] Rabbi Yehuda taught: He said it was so even in the journeys, because even in his traveling and while he was in exile his great fire illuminated the altar of Torah. In his deep lessons, which flowed from his strong genius intellect, he spread light on the serious issues in the Shas[7] and in the words of our first rabbis, their souls are in Eden, many, many of the greats of the Torah from the various yeshivot would come from afar to hear his innovations and to contemplate his way in the study of the Torah.

When he returned to Poland from his exile he was very depressed after he drank from the poisoned cup while he was in Russia, and especially when the yeshiva was destroyed together with the rest of the Torah institutions, and in addition to that, the manuscripts that contained his wonderful innovations in the Torah, which had worked on all the days of his life, were stolen. All these very much depressed his spirit, and it was really difficult to recognize him, but he was complete in his soul and in his Torah.

Volozhin was the cradle of his childhood, and the Lida Yeshiva the place of his greatness.


  1. Plural of ilui, prodigy. Return
  2. This is a conflation of two images found in Jewish tradition, the first in Exodus 19:4, that God took Israel out of Egypt on eagles' wings, and the second that refers to being sheltered under the wings of the Shekhina, found in many places in Jewish literature, including, for example, Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a. Return
  3. Acronym for “may he merit good long days amen.” Return
  4. The three tracts of the Talmud called Baba Kama, Baba Metzia, and Baba Bathra (the First, Second, and Third Gates) are unique in the Talmud in that their names do not indicate the contents, as do all other tracts of the Talmud. Return
  5. “The Book” is a halakhic midrash on Leviticus, frequently quoted in the Talmud, compiled c.250 - 350 CE. Return
  6. Leviticus 6:6. Return
  7. Acronym for the Hebrew words shisha sedārīm, the Six Orders, the common rabbinical name for the Talmud, which is divided into six principal orders. Return

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Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines – Founder of the Mizrachi

By Rabbi Y.L. Cohen (Fishman)

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines created the Mizrachi Federation, and this federation is grateful to him for his giving it its pure divine flame, his not unstable decision, which did not cease warming our hearts.

Indeed he was one of the “the heroes of old, the men of renown”[1] whose gaze was fixed with immense devotion and unwavering concentration towards the future, without worry, and without fear and dread, because of its ideas and views on the environment that surrounded them. The essence of their purpose was “build up, build up a path! clear a road!”[2] for the nation or the party, for which their spirit will be to educate and to do good. Personalities like these - what will honor and praise give to them and what will they add to them, or the prosecution or opposition of the fleeting present? It does not matter to them at all what the others will say or malign. Isolated, individuals among the multitudes in the public domain, who will be unable or won't seek to understand him; their lonely seat is steadfast.[3] “And they will put their nest in the rock of their view.”[4] And they influence what is to come in the future, ennoble from their spirits a distance without straits to a passageway, to generation after generation, forever.

And from within the throne of honor of men like these, Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines' soul was also hewn.

Before us – before these – who are the remains of the first Mizrachi assembly, the bright spirit of the founder of HaMizrachi is lifted. How much of the light was in him, how much of the power and the fortitude, how much of the effort, how much of the pain and suffering! Didn't he fashion HaMizrachi with hard labor, with inhuman toil, from torments of body and soul, wasn't he the one and only of the first ones who took the sun of religious Zionism out of its pouch – to illuminate for us and for the generations?

Because he saw and knew the hearts' desires of the children of his people, and their wishes, and since he himself took part and participated in their longings, because of this he merited to be the President of Presidents of national-religious Judaism, and to also be called by the name of the founder of Ha Mizrachi.

“The Book of the Mizrachi,” an anthology in memory of Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines, edited by Rabbi Y.L. Cohen Fishman, a publication of Mossad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem 5706 [1946].


  1. Genesis 6:4. Return
  2. Isaiah 57:14. Return
  3. See Numbers 24:21. Return
  4. See Numbers 24:21. Return

The Great Yeshiva

By Pinchas Shifman (Ben-Sira)

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

“The essence of the story of the righteous is their deeds.” And the main good deed that is in the story of Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines, may his memory be for a blessing, is the great yeshiva that he founded in Lida and strengthened materially and spiritually. That which caused him many wars in his life, and that which hastened his death. After the distress in which the yeshiva was found in the first year of the World War, the ailing old rabbi wandered to distant places to seek material support for the yeshiva. And from wanderings and moving from place to place, he became sick with a mortal illness from which he died. With his departure the yeshiva was neglected; the heads of the yeshiva, its directors and teachers, along with some of the students, left Lida. The yeshiva was neglected, but the great idea, on which the yeshiva of Lida was based, was not neglected; on the contrary, after the war yeshivot on the model of the Lida yeshiva multiplied.

While he was still young and serving as rabbi in Svencionys, which was in the Vilna district, he founded a yeshiva like this one, but when the denunciation of it from some of the Lithuanian rabbis overcame it and he was compelled to close it, when he transferred to the rabbinate in Lida, he felt the powers of the lion that were in him and broke through the way towards the generation's new solution to the education of Israel. The Lida Yeshiva became famous throughout all of the country of Russia, and even outside of its borders. Over the course of the time of existence of the yeshiva, a few hundred rabbis sent their sons to be educated in the yeshiva of Lida. The heads of the yeshiva were some of the great ones of the generation; of them, the name of Rabbi Shlomo Poliatzik, the Ilui from Meitzt, ascended to glory. The Rabbi Reb Eliyahu-Dov Berkovski was the Director; a few teachers worked there together with them. Peace and tranquility prevailed among all the workers, fellowship and respect. The majestic image of Rabbi Reines hovered over all of their faces.[1] The topic of the revolutionary idea in yeshiva education found collaborators alongside him among the scholars and also many supporters among a large group of rabbis. A few times Rabbi Reines would repeat himself and say that his intention in founding the yeshiva was not to establish rabbis in Israel. For this there are enough yeshivot; his intention was to educate a generation of scholars who would unite within themselves love for the Torah and proper appreciation for human enlightenment, to save the younger generation from the confusion and doubts that exist between Judaism and humanity.

And in this sense the yeshiva in Lida fulfilled its role in a desired way. Even here, in the land, there are hundreds of students from the yeshiva in Lida, of them tens of teachers who continue with honor the tradition of the unification of Torah and wisdom, Hebrew and the love of the land.

The Lida Yeshiva became famous among the yeshivot as a place for the growth of the Zionist idea and its dissemination among the youth of Israel, the scholars. The Hebrew language was living language in the yeshiva, and also the language of speech among the students. The students of the yeshiva to this day bring up with great respect the fine days when they learned Torah in it, out of love and awed respect and they mention all of the heads of the yeshiva and its teachers. And above them all, the revered name of the founder and great educator, who with his words of Torah would instill in them the spirit of life.

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Rabbi Reines, with the bravery of his heart and his creative spirit, opened a new chapter in the education of Israel. Without exaggerating it is possible to say that the principal creator of the educational method of the “Mizrachi” was Rabbi Reines. The Lida Yeshiva served as a living example of the new religious education: “see it like this and sanctify.”[2]

A yeshiva without comprehensive Judaism is not a yeshiva, in our days and in our generations. This is what Rabbi Reines intended in his founding of the great yeshiva. By means of this historical activity of his, he returned the crown to its original splendor;[3] he loved Judaism for its learners, for because of this, Judaism broadened its horizons.

Yet without general human enlightenment, students of Torah are unable to influence the groups of society. Many of the Torah sages and rabbis of the previous generation recognized this. And indeed, some of the most diligent of the rabbis acquired a general education for themselves, but the matter came up for them in many deliberations; and some were unable, for various reasons, to acquire a fundamental education, and they suffered on account of this from inferiority and mental depression. And if the thing was not possible for them, they wanted at least that their sons would not suffer from this inferiority in their education and their social status. And from here is the aspiration of a number of rabbis and scholars in Russia to change the order of learning in the yeshivot. From their own experience they saw the need for this. And the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines with his mighty spirit built a pleasant building to fulfill the need of the generation.

He was born and grew up in the enlightenment period in Russia, and out of courage and full self-recognition, he changed the line of instruction in the yeshivot. The Lida Yeshiva occupied an important place in the education of our generation. It simultaneously merged Torah study into one whole with Hebrew education and general education. Rabbi Reines' spirit, his knowledge and his will were merged into one whole, and the seal of this merging was minted in the yeshiva that he founded in Lida.


  1. Alluding to Genesis 1:2 “The spirit of God hovering over the face of the water.” Return
  2. Literally, “when you see it [the moon] this way, sanctify it.” Appearing in many rabbinic sources, such as Babylonian Talmud Rosh HaShanah 14a, it is an order to do something exactly as it is done in a specific example. Return
  3. Babylonian Talmud Yoma 69b. Return

The Restless Man

By Moshe Cohen

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

Rabbi Reines used to say: “There are three who know complete spiritual rest in this world – one who is completely righteous or one who is a complete fool. And since in this orphan generation there are not any completely righteous ones or complete philosophers, then anyone in our days who has complete spiritual rest is in truth nothing but a complete fool!

And indeed, he did not know the secret of spiritual rest at all. In contrast, he was the symbol of restlessness. This was one of his fundamental qualities.

When I met him for the first time he had already reached “old age.” And he had come into the hands of this “old age” in order to slow the “racing blood” a little, and to cool the internal heat, and to make himself more moderate, more reasonable, more dispassionate and more a man of rest.

And a great store of many bitter experiences, defeats and difficult disappointments, suffering and more than a few torments, was already hung on him in those days because of his recent past, and there was also in them enough to sober him more than a little, to restrain him rather a lot, and to make him more settled, more tolerant, and more patient.

But he did not listen to “old age” or to “experience” and he remained on his own for every matter – his warmth like a youth, the fiery passion of boyhood, quick and awake as at the beginning, envisioning and having outbursts, advancing and jumping the gun, just as he was all his life!

Since this restlessness was one of his fundamental qualities, in any event it became his second nature, and they never separated all his days.

And he lived and acted always out of this stormy restlessness, which was always also accompanied by fear, lest God forbid he miss something?! God forbid something will be late?! And this restlessness stood out prominently in all the ways of his life and his deeds.

He was expert in all rooms of the Torah, and there were none like him. He was really “a basket full of books.”[1] And all his days he would lodge in the tent of Torah and rummage in the books. And it was like his heart needed to be rude and indifferent to some new book that appeared somewhere from some anonymous unknown place. And if he was lacking books? Nevertheless in some restlessness he would expect a book that was like this one, and in some restlessness he would tear into it!! To say the least, “drink thirsty” his words;[2] this thing is not appropriate for his situation at that time, no! He would “swallow it” while it was still in his hand! Really in the literal sense! “Swallow it” – since he was afraid to tarry on it for too long, because meanwhile another book appeared, one and a second and a third, and one must fear that God forbid he will be late!

He was “drenched” in writing, this was his routine each and every day, over the course of many decades of years. And strewn in his cupboards were thousands of pages of manuscripts, and it was like this matter became ordinary for him, as a daily routine. And although with some vibration of restlessness, each day he would await the first propitious time for this writing, and how he devoted himself to it! He wouldn't just write, rather he would simply “devour” the letters and “decapitate” the words, until afterwards he himself couldn't read them. But to tarry a little on their writing, to crown the letters and words a little, God forbid one should mention it!! Since meanwhile new ideas were flowing, and it is to be feared lest he miss them because of that! And he is the law in Zionism.

I remember those many moments, when he sat across from my work table, with his fingers unceasingly drumming from restlessness on the table, or his feet stomping on the floor from lack of patience, and he is entirely burning and fiery, and his eyes, oh, his eyes! Worn and looking to heaven,[3] filled with dream and vision… that hour it seemed to me as if the congregation of Israel was huddled here and prosecuting the insult and neglect of generations, and demanding additional exertion, exertion without rest, exertion out of fear; lest God forbid they miss out! Lest God forbid they be late! And he is the law for every matter.

And his restlessness did not want to know any justification and excuse.

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It too denied weights and measures, didn't admit to boundaries and horizons. It prosecuted everything, even what is beyond normalcy.

And this is what he would say: “every idea that has some of its own madness with it, is destined to come into existence! And everyone who does not have with him “madness” like this, his end is to be nullified!”

For only the “madness,” that doesn't have with it any of the common sense or the cold logic, and none of the dry accounting, or the grey reality, but has in it some of the jumping above them, and some of the transcending of the accepted normalcy, only this “madness” has in it the power to materialize the new ideal within the conditions of the old reality. Otherwise, the reality consumes him and wears him out.

And therefore “mad is the man of spirit”[4] is not for free, and “with love of him you will always succeed”[5] is not in vain. For such is the way and the nature of the “man of spirit.” And there is no “true love” without obsession…”

And he demanded this “love” from himself and others, and this “obsession.”

And here is the other side of his coin. “Logic” on this side, and “obsession” on the other.

And in effect the “obsession” overcame the “logic” and in his life he was mostly a dreamer and a visionary.[6]

In life he did not accept for himself the authority of any logic and the laws of common sense; there he was entirely full of obsession and vision. And it was they who always aroused restlessness within him, and that always placed the great fear in his heart.

And this restlessness changed in his heart, and became really an uncontrollable force,[7] which will make its path with a storm, and in its path there is no justice. An uncontrollable force, which is the opposite of the regular rate and the constant rhythm. It is mischievous, and free in itself, and its spirit will be disgusted by cables and ropes.

And here is a characteristic line to the description of his face.

He always advocated in the name of “logic” and his ironclad laws, and the harmony which is in him, and precisely here he cannot suffer the singing and the music, because of… the tempo in them and the rhythm that they have!

Here too his restlessness, which does not tolerate beat and rhythm and harmony, stood out, aspiring to outbursts, to stormings, above all cables and ropes.

And to complete the picture, one more detail.

He sprouted from the trunk of the greats and the mighty of Israel, one of the descendants of the prince Rabbi Shaul Wohl on one side, and from Rashi on the other. From these ancestors of his he inherited: independence, power, and self-confidence. These qualities determined this image: pride, strong personal standing, non-submission to what is agreed, mostly non-compliant, the power of innovation in form and style, acceptance of responsibility, striving confidently towards the hoped-for shore. These are his outstanding and principal signs, that distinguished him from the whole congregation of the members of his generation; they too made their mark on his mindset and on his actions all the days of his life, but among all of these, passing through and intertwining and twisting like the scarlet thread,[8] his fundamental characteristic: the frequent restlessness and the sacred fear!

This restlessness was like that same angel who strikes his head and says: “hurry up and do it, hurry up and act!” And contrary to it, the fear answers and says “lest, God forbid, he misses! Lest, God forbid, he's late!”

And he did not rest.


  1. Babylonian Talmud Megillah 28b. Return
  2. Pirke Avot 1:5. Return
  3. Isaiah 38:14. Return
  4. Hosea 9:7. Return
  5. Proverbs 5:19. Return
  6. The Hebrew wordplay here is lost in translation: logic is הגיון higayon, obsession is שגיון shigayon, and madness is שגעון shiga'on. Return
  7. This is used for natural forces like storms, and social forces not in human control, as well as in Marxist thought. Return
  8. Joshua 2:18. Return

The Sayings of R' Yitzchak Yaakov Reines

By Nachum Chinitz

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

Decades passed from the day of my leaving the Lida Yeshiva, and after years of wandering in Europe and in America my soul longed and yearned more for those good and peaceful days in the yeshiva in Lida. I will remember those days: a 15-year old youth wandering from the yeshiva in Slutsk to Lida, his soul longing and aspiring for education. The yeshiva is entirely full, and he is not accepted due to lack of space. My feet walk for a long time from Rosh Metivta to Rosh Metivta, and their ears are sealed: go away to Radin, Telz, Sloboda! What do you want that you cry out Lida, Lida?

I set my face towards Rabbi Reines' house. With what reverence I looked at his face, which expressed majesty and nobility. I stood as if bewitched, and I was unable to move from my place. “Please come here, my son!” I heard his soft voice.

All of me is shaking. I explain to him the purpose of my coming to Lida, and he speaks softly: “ and if I don't want to accept all who come? He who can testify for me is on high,[1] that the house is too narrow to contain all of those who are already in the yeshiva. Turn yourself, my son, to the adjacent Radin, Svencionys, Novhardok. To my sorrow there are no open places in the yeshiva.” Rabbi, I pleaded desperately, what shall I do? I don't have a penny to pinch for the expenses of the journey, and my heart desires Torah and education together in Lida. I burst out weeping, which apparently softened his heart, and he went over to the book closet, took out a Gemara, and hinted to me to explain some issue, and afterwards he wrote down a number of words on a piece of paper and signed it with his seal. With trembling hands I received a note on which it was written that I had been accepted to the yeshiva.

In Lida I found an opportunity to pour water on the hands of Rabbi Reines,[2] and to enjoy his words that were full of logic and good sense. Currently when I remember the great good that was hidden away in the Lida Yeshiva, I will most appreciate the wonderful character Reines, who knew how to rise up and proclaim about Zionism and the redemption of the land of Israel at a high level. He knew how to defend against Charedi Judaism, who had ostracized and excommunicated him every step of the way.

It was a daring deed in those days to found the “Mizrachi,” and the Lida Yeshiva. Reines brought inspirational powers into the Lida Yeshiva, the greats of the Torah, such as the Ilui from Meitzt, distinguished Roshei Metivta. As Hebrew teachers he invited the excellent pedagogues Pinchas Shifman and Moshe Cohen. The yeshiva boys cherished them and drank their words thirstily.

Reines also paid attention to the externals. The yeshiva building had

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two stories, a real hall, wonderful auditoriums, and modern school benches. A large sign in Hebrew and Russian was prominently displayed above the balcony of the yeshiva. It said[3] “It is incumbent on the boys of the yeshiva to be complete Jews, that the way of Torah and [secular] education will not be foreign and strange to them. I did not found the yeshiva in order to establish rabbis in Israel.”

On every Shabbat night Rabbi Reines had the custom of coming to the yeshiva to preach an interesting and heartfelt sermon. He opened with the Torah portion of the week, from there he moved to a matter of halakhah, and concluded with an aggadah and comforting words.

His words encouraged and inspired the hearts of the listeners, and instilled faith and confidence in them. Visits by Baron David Gintzburg and Refael Gutz were considered to be important, highly valued events. They spent a few days in the yeshiva, and visited all of the lessons in Talmud, Hebrew and Russian. They finished the “Hallel[4] on the yeshiva and expressed satisfaction for the institution which continued to progress in giant steps.

In the yeshiva there was a proper library of the best in Hebrew, Russian, and German literature. This library was the donation of the benefactor M. Cohen from Moscow, and served as a storehouse of Torah which provided spiritual sustenance for the yeshiva students outside of the walls of this important institution.

The Lida Yeshiva existed for eleven years and achieved the establishment and growth of nationalist Jews, some of whom were rabbis, teachers and writers in Israel, thanks to the important and blessed devotion and work of our Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines, whose name will endure for generations.[5]

His informative books that are mostly full of innovations in Torah testify to his greatness in Torah. But I want to erect a memorial monument to this beloved personage by means of the perpetuation of the sharp sayings that I recorded and collected in the yeshiva, and from the mouths of Lida residents.

As if in an illuminating mirror, his sayings symbolize the life of a great man, his relation to the community, to his students, to Zionism, and to all that occurs in the life of the Hebrew nation. His sayings reflect the image of a man who did not know weariness, whose “moisture had not fled”[6] and his vision was not too dim to see the return of the nation of Israel to its land. In his faith in the Torah and the living land of Israel, and with this faith of his he died old and full of days.


Instead of a Saying, a Deed

The Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines used to say “ Jews cry out and mention twice every Tuesday “Zion! Zion!” or “When you return to Zion,” “Jerusalem,” “And to Your city Jerusalem.” Do a real thing for the good of Zion, for with talk will never be enough…


Be a Jew

The Zionists say: every Jew who is not a Zionist is not even a Jew, and I say: every Zionist who is not a Jew is not even a Zionist.


Prosecuting Insult to the Poor

In one of his sermons Rabbi Reines demanded satisfaction for the insult to the poor of the city and said: In Baba Batra it is written (Baba Batra 12b): “Before a man eats he has two hearts, and after he eats he has one heart, as it is written: a hollow man is two-hearted.”[7] How true were the words, that when a person is hungry, he feels the hunger and the emptiness that are in his heart and his friend's heart. When he is sated, he feels only what is in his heart.


The Students of the Yeshiva and Their Teachers.

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That Which You Will Do

To one of the rabbis who were opposed to Zion, Rabbi Reines once said in raging fury: according to your words one must sit with clasped hands and wait for the bringing of the redeemer. You are screaming and yelling that the impudence has reached its peak, and I say that in the days of the Messiah impudence will increase,[8] and everyone who sits idle – what does that mean? - may the hands of the doers and the builders of the souls of our land be strengthened. Ibn Ezra too says – “I did not see a cat sleeping and the mouse came into its mouth.”


The Karaite Clerk

In Lida there was a Karaite clerk of the Jewish district by the name of “Yashke.” He pursued one of the residents of the city with a ban and bullied him to death. Reines sent to summon the clerk and asked him: what is your problem, that you are pursuing him? And if you are a Jew from Troki (from Troki which is adjacent to Vilna, a center for the Karaites), must you bully a member of your faith? Know what is above you – there is high above high. The clerk replied: My name is Yosef, let the Jew continue to give me a proper gift, and everyone will come to their place in peace. It is a great principle in the law, Rabbi, that when they don't give to Jacob, they give double to Esau. Rabbi Reines commented on this: this reminds me of an interpretation by a well-known ignoramus, “Israel will rejoice in his deeds” – and what is there to be happy about in Esau the wicked?[9] However, with Esau it is possible to compromise in small amounts, however “[In days] to come Jacob shall strike root”[10] the one who comes from the root of Jacob, “Israel shall sprout and blossom”[11] – after all he sucks and brings out juice and the minds of the children of Israel like that same spider.


Guard Your Tongue[12]

Rabbi Reines and his father-in-law, Reb Yossele from Slonim, when they stayed in Ponevezh, visited the local rabbi, Reb Itzcheleh. The Rabbi Reb Yosele asked a question about a serious difficulty and Reb Itzcheleh did not find his hands or his feet.[13] As they were leaving Reb Itzcheleh's house, Rabbi Reines said to his father-in-law: why did you have to ask him in the presence of greats of Israel? – this means that you embarrassed him. Reb Yossele called out with a sigh and fainted. Reines woke him up afterwards: to begin with there is no need for questions like these, and after the fact the fainting doesn't say anything. How right were our sages, may their memories be for a blessing, when they said: “sages should be careful with their words.” Ai, ai, guard your tongue! Life and death are in the hand of the tongue!


I Give You Servitude

In the Lida yeshiva a ravenousness for ordination for teaching broke out. In one of his sermons Rabbi Reines, may his memory be for a blessing, commented on this: “I give you authority, I give you servitude.” Our sages, may their memories be for a blessing, were right and good to see. For you are of the opinion that the rabbinate is authority, you have the upper hand, you rule the roost, as it were? No and no! It is true servitude in all its minutest details. It is on the rabbi to be dependent on the opinion of the congregation, a Canaanite slave to the needs of the public. And woe to that rabbi who neglects all these things and isn't involved with the creations.


He Recognizes His Value

In one town they wanted to get rid of their rabbi; they came and asked Rabbi Reines to mediate between them. He ordered them to sign that they would obey his verdict, and if not he would not travel in vain. Rabbi Reines listened to their claims. They wanted to give the rabbi 100 rubles and the rabbi demanded 300 rubles and then he would leave the town. In his judgement Rabbi Reines judged that the rabbi was in the right.

They asked him: our Rabbi, we have to pay off a huge amount like this, and did he leave collateral with us? Rabbi Reines commented: didn't you sign that a verdict cannot be appealed? Indeed, your rabbi knows and recognizes his value, for to be rid of him it is worth it to pay off even 300 rubles.


Complete Slaughter

Two Lida yeshiva boys came to Rabbi Reines to ordain them for instruction. He asked them if they had studied Talmud recently. “Our Rabbi!” The boys said, we spent the last months all but in “Yoreh Deah,” Questions and Answers, but we did not have time for the study of halakhah. Reines said: Now the midrash becomes clear to me (Breshit Rabbah 42)[14] “Immediately following placing hands on the head of a sacrifice, is its slaughter”[15] – when a young man is ordained for instruction, he is slaughtered without a knife: he is not a person who when they call him “Rabbi,” thinks that he is expert in Shas and Decisors, and does not set a time for Torah. Oy, oy, ordination is a graduation certificate in ignorance….


The Letter Will Answer You…

The rabbi of a small town complained before Rabbi Reines that the Chasidim of the town were embittering his life in considering him educated.[16] Rabbi Reines smiled and stated: my advice is that you write them a letter in Hebrew and from this they will see that they suspected you in vain.


Person to Person

Reines used to say: how ugly is pride, which takes the light away from a person's eyes, preventing him from seeing what is present. We happen upon two rabbis or two well-known writers and each of them thinks that he is better than his fellow; it is presumed that they will remain enemies in their discarding of each other.

In this it is possible to understand the well-known saying: “a mountain doesn't meet a mountain,” when the two of them are swelled up and consider themselves as mountains, Sinai uproots mountains – to the great ones who have no equals – they will never be able to meet and take a chance together – “a person meets a person,”[17] but if the two of them consider themselves to be equal and similar people, then they will meet out of brotherhood, friendship, and fondness.


The Power of Unity

Rabbi Reines said: come and see what the anthology teaches us about the power of unity and its value in the life of the Israelite nation. “He drew a circle in the dust and stood inside it. He said I am not moving from here until you let me know the end of wonders.[18] He said to him, Habakkuk my servant, you are a scholar and not an ignoramus, go and write aleph on the tablet.” Habakkuk saw that the Children of Israel were in a circle of troubles and were unable to move and to be freed from it, Habakkuk screamed and said: “I will stand my guard,”[19] – here I am looking, investigating and seeking, for what purpose were these endless troubles placed upon us? I am not moving from here until you tell me the end of the wonders – when will the end of the troubles and hardships of the Hebrew nation come? The Blessed Holy One said to him: Habakkuk my servant, you are a scholar, go and write aleph[20] on the tablet of their hearts, train them and teach them; just as the “aleph” [א] is built from two yuds[21] [יי] and in the middle is a line that joins them together, so too the Children of Israel when they are not united and joined together are not a nation and all their efforts are nothingness. Go, speak to the Children of Israel; in the hour when Benjamin is building and establishing, Shimon is destroying and demolishing.[22] Unity! Unity! Apparently a simple and easy word, however, how much great strength, energy and waste of time is required until this word is engraved on the hearts of Israel and they will all become one bundle to redeem the land of Israel and to be redeemed in the land of the ancestors.

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What is the Value of the Equator

In the Sixth Congress[23] they asked Rabbi Reines, how was it possible that he would vote for Uganda? “Doesn't our Rabbi know” they asked him “that Uganda is next to the equator, in a place where the heat is great and it is entirely impossible to live there?” “It is a minor matter!”[24] replied Rabbi Reines, what great value does the equator have next to a Jew!”


Incense is Permitted on Shabbat

One of Rabbi Reines' opposers from the religious camp, Akiva Rabinovitz (the Rabbi from Poltava, owner of “HaModia[25] and his faction embittered the Rabbi's life and slandered him at every opportunity. As was known, Rabbi Reines smoked a long pipe, and at one of the congresses Dr. Herzl gave him a gift of a small gold-plated pipe, and on it were inscribed two letters: B.H. (Binyamin Herzl). The religious made false accusations about Rabbi Reines, that the long pipe was for secular days, and the small one was designated for Shabbat. Rabbi Reines said bitterly: As they are of the opinion that since a change began in the use of a long pipe to a small one, that man is permitted to burn incense on Shabbat…incense from a gang like this is an abomination according to all opinions.

* * *

We lived in Russia under the House of Romanov government, they are assumed to be a huge novel, not a father's novel.[26]

* * *

“For the sun has burnt me,”[27] don't read shemesh, but rather shamash,[28] in exile our faces were burned and we lost our countenances and our original lives, in our being shammashim and servants to all the peoples of the world and a light to the nations in their culture. This is what is written “they have placed me as a guard, but my own vineyard I have not guarded.”[29]

* * *

“There is nothing new under the sun,”[30] but aren't there many amazing innovations under the sun? Rather “all new” – there is nothing entirely new, for all is found in nature and it can be renewed, perfected, and effectuated.

“And you have made him a little less than divine”[31] and in this is the greatness of the creating and innovating human.


  1. Job 16:19. Return
  2. To be a follower or student; 2 Kings 3:11 “Elisha son of Shaphat, who poured water on the hands of Elijah….” Return
  3. Babylonian Talmud Brakhot 17a. Return
  4. Certain Psalms make their way into the liturgy as “Hallel,” praise, sung on Shabbat, festivals, and other times. Return
  5. Psalm 72:17. Return
  6. Comparing him to Moses, Deuteronomy 34:7. Return
  7. Job 11:12. Return
  8. Mishnah Sotah 9:15. Return
  9. There is a wordplay here – the name עשיו Esau (misspelled on purpose), and the Hebrew words for his deeds עושיו “osav.” Return
  10. Isaiah 27:6. Return
  11. Ibid. Return
  12. Psalm 34:15. In Hebrew, the word לשון lashon means both language and tongue. Return
  13. That is, became confused. Return
  14. As well as Babylonian Talmud Brakhot 42a. Return
  15. Rabbis are ordained by the placing of hands on their heads. Return
  16. In secular knowledge. Chassidic Jews do not use Hebrew as a daily vernacular. Return
  17. This is a folk saying of unknown origin – “a mountain doesn't meet a mountain, a person meets a person.” Return
  18. This is a variation of the story of Honi the Circle maker, Mishnah Taanit 3. Return
  19. Habakkuk 2:1. Return
  20. Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Return
  21. Yud is the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Return
  22. Binyamin and Shimon were two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Return
  23. The Sixth Zionist Congress. Return
  24. Aramaic from the Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 33b. Return
  25. An Orthodox Jewish weekly published by Eliyahu Akiva Rabinovitz (1861–1917) in Poltava. Return
  26. This is a pun that parses the name Romanov into two words – roman and av. The Hebrew words “huge” and “father” both are pronounced “ av,” but are spelled differently from each other. In Hebrew the word “ roman” is a novel, or a love affair. Return
  27. Song of Songs 1:6. Return
  28. The Hebrew word שמש can be read as shemesh, sun, or shamash, the sexton, or caretaker of a synagogue, as well as the candle with which we light the eight candles of Chanukah. Return
  29. Song of Songs 1:6. Return
  30. Ecclesiastes 1:9. Return
  31. This phrase seems to have a typological error, but the correct quote is from Psalm 8:6. Return

The History of the Ilui from Meitzt

By Moshe Goldberg

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

The Gaon Reb Shlomo son of Reb Yosef Poliatzik, was born on the 4th day of Chanukah [29 Kislev], 5638 [1878], in the village of Sinichinitz, which was adjacent to the town of Meitzt, which was in the Grodno district. His father was a scholar, and in the way of those days he found his livelihood in lease of the post office and the tavern in the village. His mother died while he was still young.

Five years had not yet been filled for the boy and Reb Yosef his father was travelling to Meitzt to bring from there a teacher for his child, to teach him Torah and mitzvot. Signs of unfound ability were being in revealed in the young child: diligence, rapid comprehension, deep understanding, and a wonderful power of memory.

At first he was learning Hebrew, Chumash, and the book “Lekach Tov.”[1] He read every book that came into his hand with intense passion. Once he found the book “Tse'enah Ure'enah[2] in which his mother read the weekly portion every Shabbat, and hid it in the corner that was between his bed and the wall, and by the dim light of a small lamp that sent black soot up onto the face of the boy, he would swallow the aggadot of the book until their end…

When he reached his seventh year he was learning Gemara; three pages a week in Tractate Beitzah. The teacher becomes distraught when his student presses him with difficulties and questions in Talmud. He tries to evade him with trivial rejections, but his student does not relent, and demands a proper explanation. The teacher feelsthat his student's knowledge exceeds his own, and he flees from the village in the night… The boy knows the entire tractate. It is not only that he understands the Gemara, the Tosafot, the Maharsha and the Maharam, but he also remembers their words, word for word, by heart.

Once a visiting scholar came to the village and lodged in Reb Yosef's house. At night when the boy was asleep, Reb Yosef told his guest about his excellent son, who was praised by all his teachers. The guest implored Reb Yosef to bring him his son so he could find out more about him.[3] Reb Yosef approached his son's bed and awakened him: Shlomeleh, get up from your sleep, a scholar came here and he wants to test you in Gemara. Shlomo dresses quickly, and stands before the examiner in embarrassment and graceful humility, for Shlomeleh is very shy and modest from his youth, and begins to say and to explain the Gemara by heart. The guest, who doesn't believe what his eyes are seeing and his ears are hearing, predicts that the boy was created for great things.

Then the parents[4] realized that even the best teachers that they could bring to the remote village would not develop their son's abilities, and they decided to send him to a nearby city. The father seated his son in his wagon and transported him to Novohardok. He spent a full year there with a Gemara teacher, but that method of learning did not make any impression on the eight-year-old boy, and also the area did not please him. And then they decided to send him to Slonim in order to enroll him in the “yeshiva.”

The Slonim yeshiva was directed at that time by Hirsh from Meitzt, who was famous in all the area as an exalted scholar. About forty youths, thirteen years old and up, learned there. Most of the yeshiva boys were more or less distinguished students, for Reb Hirsh himself was the examiner and the admitter, and was very, very, careful not to admit youths to the yeshiva who lacked ability. First he denied the father's request, saying that a nine-year-old boy could not be counted among the students of his yeshiva. But when they entreated him he consented to examine him. Reb Hirsh presented questions and difficulties to him, and the youth replied to all of them quickly and with common sense. His correct reasoning and fundamental knowledge of a few tractates made a great impression on the examiner. He enrolled him into his beit midrash, and placed him in the highest class.

The youth Shlomo felt himself found in a world not his own, as a baby in the company of great men. But he was not disheartened.

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He began to learn Tractate Nedarim with the interpreters of the Shas, and his knowledge exceeded the other boys'. His thirteen- and fourteen-year-old friends were envious of their little friend, who was superior to them in knowledge and understanding. There were those who joked around on his account and there were those who would push him into some corner and honor him with slaps to the face and with pinches. And he, the shy one, the quiet one, whose nature was of those who are insulted but do not insult,[5] accepted his lot in silence.

As he became a young man of twelve years old, the desire awoke in his father's heart to enroll him in the “yeshiva” of Mir. A boy from a nearby village, who was one of the distinguished ones in the Volozhin yeshiva, whose name was Aharon Rabinovitz (who afterwards sat in the rabbinic seat in Lida and was the faithful friend of Reb Shlomo Poliatzik all his days), recognized the wonderful youth's abilities and pleaded with his father to transfer him specifically to the yeshiva of Volozhin. At first the father refused, for it didn't occur to him that a twelve-year-old boy – even if he was an ilui – would be worthy of being accepted in the greatest and most famous yeshiva in the world. Finally the father agreed, and transported his son in his wagon, accompanied by the youth Aharon Rabinovitz, to Volozhin.

The Gaon Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv), Rosh Metivta and Av Beit Din of Volozhin, upon seeing the youth said in a joking way: you brought me a baby, and why didn't you also bring his crib?

The Gaon Reb Chaim Soloveitchik tested him and said: “not a baby and not a youth and not just one with ability stands before me, there is no doubt that he is an ilui.”

- Where did you come from? Reb Chaim asked him.

- From Meitzt – answered the youth.

- The Ilui from Meitzt!

With this name the Gaon the Rabbi Soloveitchik crowned the 12-year-old youth.

On the day of his Bar Mitzvah, the Netziv invited the elect of the Volozhin yeshiva to his house to hold a party and a celebration in honor of the groom[6] of the day. The Gaon Reb Chaim approached him and requested that he conduct an “analysis” before the assembled, and also pointed out to him the places in the Talmud as the basis of his analysis. On the day of his Bar Mitzvah all of him trembled with fear. The shy one did not find strength in his soul[7] to say words of Torah before a congregation of great ones in Torah. Reb Chaim encouraged him and the young ilui, the great literalist, began and also concluded his analysis in a low voice. Upon his conclusion Reb Chaim approached him and said: “my son, what I thought, you did not say, but what you said exceeded what I thought.” Then tears shone in the eyes of the youth, who burst out weeping. Reb Chaim comforted him by saying “don't be discouraged, my son, I too cried on the day of my Bar Mitzvah.”

The name “The Ilui from Meitzt” gave him wings. In religious Judaism and in educated groups they spoke and told of the manner and the goodness of the youth, who merited in the days of his youth to be called ilui and gaon as one. The distinguished ones of the yeshiva of Volozhin, the iluim and the avrechim[8] of the yeshiva, and even the Gaon Reb Chaim himself, may his memory be for a blessing, treated him with the respect with which they treated an old and famous Gaon. They saw a new and shining star in him, who was making a way for himself and rising in the skies of the Talmud. In 5652 [1892], when fourteen years for the boy had been completed, the Volozhin yeshiva was closed based on an order by the Count, and all the yeshiva boys and avrechim left the town and travelled to various places. The Gaon Reb Chaim, who did not take his eye off his “precious son” even for a minute, invited him to come to him when he was appointed Av Beit Din in Brisk of Lithuania. The Meitzitai came to Brisk and set the beit midrash, “the kloiz[9] post,” as the place of his learning.

Famous heads of yeshivot and rabbis used to come to Reb Chaim Soloveitchik's house from all over Russia. They would turn to the “Ilui” with difficulties and innovations in Torah, and he – he would solve the problem and answer all the questions with simplicity and depth.

At the age of sixteen we find him in Slobodka. With great difficulty the grandfather Reb Natan Tzvi Finkel – who aspired to glorify the Slobodka yeshiva with able students and iluim - succeeded in bringing him to the yeshivaKnesset Yisrael.”

He didn't study in the yeshiva's auditorium, for according to the rules of the yeshiva he didn't need to study specifically within the four walls of the yeshiva. He found himself a place in the Beit Midrash, and studied there by himself in his theoretical way. Only in the hour of Mussar learning each evening, and in order to hear the analyses of the Geonim Reb Mordechai Epstein and Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer, may he merit good long days amen, would he come to the yeshiva.

When the days of Elul[10] were approaching, Grandfather Finkel would send about forty or fifty of the most excellent boys in the yeshiva of Slobodka to Kelm, to hear words of Mussar and awakening from the mouth of the Gaon Reb Simcha Zissel Ziv. And in that same month of Elul, when three quarters of a year had gone by since the arrival of the Meitzitai in Slobodka, he too was sent.

After Sukkot he did not return to Slobodka, but set out for Brisk. Apparently his heart was drawn to his great rabbi, Reb Chaim. He stayed in Brisk until his time to be inducted into the army arrived, and after his induction, when he was freed from his enlistment, he travelled to Vilna to learn in the yeshiva of Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzinski.

In Vilna he also specialized in the literature of the enlightenment, engaging in various sciences, and he was one of the few who peeked and was not hurt.[11] Immediately the news spread that the Meitzitai was proficient in all the subjects of mathematics, and that he was a great expert in the game of chess. From then on great players would invite him to play the above-mentioned game. Likewise great experts in the wisdom of mathematics would turn to him to solve complicated problems. Professor Getz from Vilna, who recognized the Meitzitai's sharpness in the field of mathematics, wrote that a great professor of the world of mathematics was lost. For if he had only devoted himself to this wisdom, without a doubt he would have merited a seat in the accounting profession in one of the great colleges.

Despite the fact that he dedicated the best of his times to the Torah, he never aspired to the rabbinate. He did not want to make his Torah “a spade with which to dig.”[12] When his time came to marry, he made a condition with his father-in-law that he would not have to engage in the rabbinate.

In the town of Ivanitz that was adjacent to Minsk, he entered the covenant of marriage, and after the wedding he tried his strength in commerce. The experiment did not succeed, and in the course of a short time he lost all his money. Then he left his young wife and his father-in-law's house and travelled a second time to study Torah.

The Gaon Reines realized that the youth who turns to enlightenment distances himself from the sources of Judaism. This fact saddened his spirit and over the years he conceived the idea to combine Torah and enlightenment in one institution. In this way he aspired to draw the hearts of youths into the tent of the beautifully decorated name of Yaphet.[13] In this way the “yeshiva” would be able to raise a generation faithful to the spirit of the Torah and the tradition, a generation full of the wisdom of Israel and the wisdom of the world. After clarifications and experiments Rabbi Reines was able

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to lay the corner stone for the Lida yeshiva, the first for Torah and enlightenment in Russia.

Rabbi Reines' views awakened a spirit of resentment in the hearts of the rabbis and the heads of the yeshivot. They thought that the youths of all the yeshivot would leave their yeshivot and go to Lida to devote themselves to enlightenment. In this the leaders of Torah Judaism in Russia saw a danger of destruction of Charedi Judaism, and they publicly challenged Rabbi Reines and his plans. Rabbi Reines hoped that the anger of the Charedim would be forgotten a little when there stood at the head of the Talmud department a gaon like this who would be worthy and suitable, even in the opinion of the extremists, for such a high office and responsibility as this. He found a person like this in the character of the Meitzitai Avrech, who, it was agreed by all opinions, was a Gaon, and who was noteworthy for distinguished attributes.

The Lida yeshiva opened a new period in his world. Until then he shrank in his corner: from here on in he turned into a teacher, an educator, and a disseminator of Torah to the many.

Over the course of the eight years in which he served as head of the Talmud division at the Lida yeshiva, students streamed to him from all the corners of Russia. Those who held the “opinion” of Slobodka would come to him with their opinions. Those of the Telz division came to him in their divisions, and those of the “disputation” of Mir came with their debates. There were those who stopped him in the middle of his lessons, everyone according to the way they had become used to in their yeshivot. The Meitzitai included all the various styles of learning in his own way.

With the outbreak of the First World War the Gaon and the members of his family were forced to leave Lida and wander afar. After a long and dangerous way, and after difficult wanderings, and various adventures, he and his family arrived in Yelisavetgrad, which is in southern Russia, and began a period of many sorrows and suffering in his life.

The Russian Civil War between the Red and White camps was in full swing, and this was accompanied by pogroms against the Jews, which were conducted by the enemies Petliura,[14] Denikin,[15] Grigory,[16] and Michna. Communities were destroyed, thousands of Jews were slaughtered. And in this hour of distress, the responsibility for supporting not only his own family but the support of the family of his friend Rabbi Reb Aharon Rabinovitz, who wandered with him, was placed on the shoulders of the Gaon.

He spent six years in Yelisavetgrad, which were entirely years of revolution. The community founded a yeshiva that existed for only a short time, headed by the Meitzitai. At its closing, the community appointed the Meitzitai Supervisor of the municipal schools. The responsibility to visit the girls' high school every day was placed on him, walking from one end of the city to the other.

However, the pogroms cast him into an awful melancholy. The slaughters that were carried out against his unfortunate brethren, and especially one pogrom that lasted three days and three nights, in which four thousand Jews fell slain, entirely depressed his spirit. The screams of his tortured and killed brothers opened a deep wound in his heart that was never healed until his last day. A terrible matter, he used to say in secret, was every shot that killed one soul of Israel.

When the peace treaty had just been signed between Soviet Russia and Poland, the Meitzitai decided to escape from the bloody land. With great toil he obtained a permit to leave Russia. He had only begun his journey, when his writings, all his Torah innovations, were stolen from him at one of the stations. This loss of the manuscripts that were precious to him caused him great spiritual distress and heartache. On the way from Yelisavetgrad to Kremenchug he was in danger with every step of the way. After many weeks of wandering and illnesses, the family crossed the border from Russia to Poland.

The bearers of the banner of Torah - the heads of the yeshiva and the rabbis - who aspired to turn Poland into a center of Torah and the religion, received their long-time friend, the Ilui from Meitzt, with joy. Only a few days went by and he was invited by the “Tachkemoniyeshiva in Bialystok to serve there as Rosh Yeshiva.

A year of his stay in Bialystok had still not been completed when a telegram arrived from America, inviting him to teach at the yeshiva of Reb Yitzchak Elchanan in New York. He decided to travel alone in order not to settle, but to observe and see if the new conditions would enable his life and his family's.

At the end of the year 5681 [1921], he arrived in New York, to the joy of all who knew him and heard of him in America, and accepted the position of “Rosh Yeshiva” in the yeshiva of Reb Elchanan, and immediately sent certificates to bring his family to him.

He developed extensive activity among United States' Jewry, was a member of “The Rabbinical Association of the United States and Canada,” and his presence was marked at all the annual assemblies and conferences. He joined the “Mizrachi,” and was very devoted to the Zionist idea and the revival of the Jewish nation in our land.

A short illness put an end to his life on 21 Tamuz 5688 [1928].


  1. “Good Lesson,” a commentary on the Torah and Megillot [five scrolls] written by Tobiah ben Eliezer in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Return
  2. A Yiddish prose work whose structure parallels the weekly Torah portions and Haftarot used in prayer services. Return
  3. The idiom used here, “to sniff out his container,” is from the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 108a. Return
  4. This is odd, since we were already told that the boy's mother had died. Return
  5. Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 88b. Return
  6. The word “groom” is often used to refer to the guest of honor at a celebration. Return
  7. Psalm 138:3. Return
  8. Married young men of the yeshiva. Return
  9. A place of study for adult Jewish men. Return
  10. The month of Elul is the last month of the Jewish year, and is traditionally spent in reflection and “soul accounting” in preparation for Rosh HaShanah, the ten days of atonement, and Yom Kippur. Return
  11. This is an allusion to the allegorical story of four who were seeking mystical knowledge, found in the Jerusalem Talmud Chagigah 2:1:9 “Four entered the Garden, One peeked and was hurt; one peeked and died; one peeked and cut saplings, one entered in peace and left in peace.” Return
  12. Pirkei Avot 4:5. Return
  13. Yaphet was the third son of Noah, Genesis 9:18, 23. The name stems from the Hebrew word for “beautiful.” Return
  14. Symon Vasilyevich Petliura, 1879 - 1926, socialist leader of Ukraine's unsuccessful fight for independence following the Russian revolutions of 1917. Return
  15. Anton Ivanovich Denikin, 1872 - 1947, a general who led the anti-Bolshevik (“White”) forces on the southern front during the Russian Civil War (1918–20). Return
  16. Grigory Yevseyevich Zinovyev, 1883 - 1936, revolutionary who worked closely with Lenin in the Bolshevik Party before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Return


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