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[Page 38]

Rabbis

 

by M. Cinowitz

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

 

A. Rabbi Dovid Tevli

He was born in Turetz, near Mir (District of Navaredok[1]) in 5554 (1793), son of Rabbi Moshe. At the age of 15 he was already at the Volozhin Yeshiva, studying under the Gaon[2] (“genius”, rabbinic title), Rabbi Chaim, founder of the yeshiva. Rabbi Dovid Tevli himself writes about this: “And it came to pass in the days of my youth, when I was already 15 years old and on the way, that God led me to the home of the Master and Teacher, the Chassidic (pious) Gaon, Rabbi Chaim. There I set my learning at his yeshiva, from which Torah and instruction emanate to all the towns in our surroundings. There I suckled from the breasts of his understanding and from the radiance of his wisdom, and his light penetrated my eyes. I learned the ways of hair–splitting argumentation and direct study to understand and to delve deeper into the 6 Orders of the Mishna and Gemara and the Deciders of questions dealing with Halacha[3] (Jewish law) from the earliest times until he ordained me” (in the introduction to his book, Beit David).

We see Rabbi Tevli at the age of 24 as a teacher of Gemara, Rashi's commentary and Tosafot[4] at the home of the famous “contractor”, Shimon Zimel HaLevi Epstein, in Babroisk, whose son, Yehuda Idel, Rabbi Tevel was teaching (Yehuda Idel was the father of Paulina Wengroff, who wrote a book of interesting memoirs about the period of her childhood in Brisk, Lithuania, where her father lived). Thanks to his learning, which he received from this teacher and rabbi, Yehuda Idel was a scholarly landlord. In his book, Minchat Yehuda which he had already written when he moved to Warsaw), he tells about “the sharp teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Tevli”, who later become famous as a “splendid genius in Israel”, and who was one “of the first great students” at the yeshiva of his outstanding teacher, Rabbi Chaim, in Volozhin, “and my father took him as a teacher before the year 5577 (1816) and I recognized his great qualities and obeyed him, and my learning was clear and in great depth and together we studied several tractates of the Talmud according to this method. Afterwards, we began to study together the 6 Orders of the Mishna and the Gemara in their order for ––––[5] and splendor, which gave him the opportunity to explain so as to increase his erudition.”

Close to that time, Rabbi Tevli became president of the rabbinic court in Steibtz, where he was active for a blessing until the year 5609 (1848). Already in Steibtz, he was renowned as the genius of his generation. From near and far, rabbis turned to him with serious and complicated matters of Halacha, especially with matters dealing with laws of matrimony, divorce, and Granting permission to a woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce to remarry. Among those turning to him for decisions in matters of Halacha or to benefit from his advice, were even two of the most prominent “geniuses”, Rabbi Yechiel Helir, president of the rabbinic court in Valkavisk, author of Amudei Or, and Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak Fried, president of the rabbinic court and head of the rabbinic college in Volozhin (from the year 5599 – 1838). Rabbi Dovid Tevli taught Torah to delightful yeshiva students during his tenure in Steibtz. Among his pupils, one can point out two of the most famous rabbis, Rabbi Yehoshua Helir from Koidenhove, who later became president of the rabbinic court in Palangen and Telz in Lithuania, and his relative, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel, who later became rabbi in Skidel ( District of Grodno), Eyshishuk and Rozayni,

In 5609 (1848). Rabbi Dovid Tevli was appointed chief rabbi of Minsk which, after Vilna, was considered the most important Jewish city in quality and quantity throughout Lithuania and White Russia. Rabbis and heads of rabbinic colleges, distinguished Torah scholars, were active there for a blessing and dozens of residents were outstanding in their brilliant erudition.

In 5614 ( 1853), Rabbi Dovid Tevli's first treatise, Beit David, containing part of his responsa[6] in Halacha, was published and gained wide circulation among rabbis and their pupils. It is interesting to note Rabbi Tevli's modesty, for with all his greatness, which was already in evidence then as the genius of his generation and as chief rabbi of Minsk, he considered it proper to obtain approval for this work from two official local rabbis, Rabbi Moshe Zvi, son of Rabbi Yisrael Halprin, the former chief rabbi of Minsk, and from Rabbi Moshe Shmuel ben Yitzchak Piness.

Three other brilliant rabbis also gave their approval of his treatise – Rabbi Yosef, president of the rabbinic court in Slotzk (he, too, a student at the Volozhin Yeshiva), Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman, president of the rabbinic court in Mezritch (later in Bialystok), author of the book Oneg Yom Tov, and Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Padova, president of the rabbinic court in Brisk, Lithuania.

Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman, who was a native of Minsk, calls Rabbi Dovid Tevli “The brilliant rabbi whose fame steadily grows in our country in his knowledge of Torah and his reverence.” Rabbi Yaakov Meir Padova writes about him: “And I have known the honorable rabbi of genius very well for several years– May he live a long life! Rabbi Dovid has done great things to make a name for himself in our country and is a giant in Torah, striving to plumb the depths of Halacha, and a river of streams will gush forth from the source of a living spring of pure water which his distinguished pupils have thirstily drunk from their illustrious teacher, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin.”

We must also note the approval of the Gaon, Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor Tosafah, who calls the author “The great genius in his pleasant and dear new interpretations, who gives excellent advice, increases resourcefulness, whose understanding in argumentation is immense and who is brilliant in rabbinic responsa, which are straightforward and honest.”

Rabbi Dovid Tevli also excelled as an outstanding expositor of Scripture and as a giant authority in the field of religious research and in the books of philosophy of the Sages of Spain. We know this from a part of the lectures attached to the above–mentioned Beit David, in which he is revealed to us as a wonderful thinker who penetrates and deepens the words of our Sages of blessed memory and explains them according to the spirit of authentic Judaism. He sometimes

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brings the words of his teacher, Rabbi Chaim, from whom he claims to have derived the correct way of expounding the Biblical text.

His second treatise, Nachalat David, published three years after his death in 5624 (1863), also achieved great importance. This work is likewise divided into two parts: one part responsa and one part containing some of his clarifications and innovations on two tractates of the Talmud, Baba Kama and Baba Metzia. The publisher, Shaul Horowitz (Rabbi Chaim's son–in–law), who founded the Meah Sha'arim Yeshiva in Jerusalem, similarly attached approvals from the great rabbis of Lithuania, including Rabbi Yosef Hislotskai, Rabbi Yaakov Zvi from Kalenberg, author of HaKtav v'HaKabala, president of the rabbinic court in Koenigsberg, Rabbi Yitzchak Elkanan Spector, president of the rabbinic court in Navaredok and Kovna. His reason for doing this (explains the above–mentioned son–in–law) is that the author himself while alive– despite his greatness– requested approval for his first book, following the example of Rabbi Moshe Sofer (author of the Chatam Sofer), who writes about the decency of this practice in his introduction to the book Sha'arei TShuva. In the section of responsa, the great Rabbi Tevli appears to us as saying that although he was “opposed” to Chassidism, according to his raising and education, he nevertheless had great respect for the Chassidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, author of Tzemach Tzedek, and on page 31 of his aforementioned responsa in the matter of divorce, he writes about him (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch), “The rabbi, the great luminary, the illustrious genius who will be called holy and all those who are joined to his shadow of wisdom and reverence.”

We must also point out that in both of his aforementioned treatises, we see Rabbi Dovid Tevli inclined somewhat to depart from the course of learning of his teacher, Rabbi Chaim, He tries in some places (especially in Nachalat David on the Baba Kama and Baba Metzia) to demonstrate his power of elegant argumentation, weaving and spinning difficult questions on various topics. In general, however, he doesn't stray too far from his teacher's way, which serves him as a plumb line for his new interpretations on the Gemara, Rashi and Tosefot regarding the two aforementioned tractates of the Talmud. In his new interpretations on the Torah, brought forward sometimes in the name of his teacher and rabbi, he puts us indirectly on the way of learning of Rabbi Chaim in his “lessons” which he presented before his pupils at the yeshiva of Volozhin. With regard to Rabbi Tevli's connection to the community in Steibtz, we must mention his son–in–law, Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib, who served in his presence as a teacher of religious subjects in Steibtz and who labored to have Rabbi Tevli's book, Nachalat David published and later became a rabbi for the community of Minsk.

Concerning Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib ben Shmuel, who was likewise a native of Turetz, his father–in–law writes that he was “a great rabbi, complete and reasonable, whom I consulted in the depths of Halacha for the most part from his published responsa, for he is a great and brilliant rabbi, an expert on Mishna and Gemara and who has a monumental ability for deliberation and supposition and on whom I depended when I was teaching and whose words were published without reservation or mistake and who also took upon himself much toil and trouble, wandering to different places and occupying himself with the craft of printing, May God remember him for the good.”

Rabbi Dovid Tevli passed away in 5621 (1860) at the age of 67. He was eulogized in nearby and far off communities in Lithuania and there was even a special report about his death in the newspaper, Hamagid, His pupil, the famous Yehoshua Helir, eulogized him in a warm and moving eulogy, in which the greatness of the deceased is described and words from one of his books are brought forward. In Rabbi Helir's eulogy are these words of esteem: “ A short time ago, my rabbi and teacher left us, the famous Gaon, our master and teacher, Rabbi Dovid Tevli, chief rabbi of Minsk, who served the “Light of the Exile”, the pious Gaon, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, may his virtue stand us in good stead, Amen! And who knew the method of argumentation and gave correct opinions in matters of Halacha and who explained the plain meaning of the Talmud in a sublime way and who clarified the method of the Rishonim (great rabbis of the Middle Ages) of blessed memory, in length, width and depth, and who is to be praised for the good sense he exhibits in his precious book, Beit David as well as in his wonderful lectures on the entire book of Deuteronomy, which are like honey and the drippings of nectar to us in his book.”

Upon his death, Rabbi Tevli left a son of his old age, a child of two and a half. This was his son, Rabbi Yitzchak, who was born to his second wife, daughter of Rabbi Yehoshua, president of the rabbinic court in Tshaous (District of Mohilov) the Gaon Rabbi Akiva, head of the rabbinic college in Slutsk and Bobroisk, who was also counted among the pupils of our master, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. This Rabbi Yitzchak was raised in the home of his brother–in–law, the aforementioned Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib, his sister's husband. He married the daughter of Rabbi Shaul Padova, president of the rabbinic court in Varonova, Brainsk, Polutzk Vilkomir and became the first “Teacher of Righteousness” in Minsk (the second, after the Gaon, the chief rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Rabinowitz ) and joined the Mizrachi Movement and died in Minsk in 5680 (1919).


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Navaredok: This is the Yiddish pronunciation the name of the city of Novogrudek Return
  2. Gaon: Genius, a rabbinic title Return
  3. Halacha: Jewish law Return
  4. Tosafot: discussions of French and German rabbis of the 11th and 12th centuries on subjects deliberated in the Talmud. Return
  5. There was obviously a typesetting error in the original Yizkor book, and this word could not be translated. Return
  6. responsa: Questions and Answers regarding matters of Halacha Return


B. Rabbi Simcha Shmuel

In the world of Torah, this rabbi is renowned as the author of the treatise, Mesharet Moshe, which deals with the Rambam's (Maimonides') work, Yad HaChazakah. In his study, Rabbi Simcha Shmuel is revealed to us as sharp–witted and acute, without parallel among the rabbis of the surrounding towns near and far and as possessing outstanding logic and understanding such as may be found in the philosophic and religious inquiries of the Sages of Israel in the period of the Middle Ages. He was intimately familiar with the Rambam's book, Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide for the Perplexed”). Rabbi Simcha Shmuel was also an expositor of Scripture par excellence and gifted in writing books in an ornate and original style of Hebrew which became a model for distinguished authors as well. With his logical method of Torah study and with the rules of study of the Six Orders of the Mishna and Gemara, he anticipated the Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines of Lida.

As a rabbi in Steibtz, we see him, according to his above–mentioned book, between the years 5608 (1847) and 5620 (1859). We see him again in 5621 (1860) as a rabbi in Mezritch (Poland) as a replacement for the Gaon Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heilprin, who had moved from Mezritch to Bialystok. However, the years he spent in that Polish city were not pleasant for Rabbi Simcha Shmuel due to the persecutions and quarrels against him on the part of certain Chassidim (who sought God primarily through joy and not study) and one local “Teacher of Righteousness”) (rabbi), and he died there while still young in 5677 (1866).

In the Hebrew weekly, HaLevanon, of the above–mentioned year (5677), (year 4, no. 15), interesting words of appreciation are written regarding this great man.

In the book, Nachalat Avot, by Rabbi Levi Obstinsky (Vilna, 5654– 1893), the following is written about Rabbi Simcha Shmuel: “A great and renowned rabbi, treasure of instruction, developer of new interpretations of the Torah and responsa, with the famous Rabbi Yechiel Helir in his book Amudei Or (Paragraph 4, Section 83).”

During the time Rabbi Simcha Shmuel served as rabbi in Steibtz, his son–in–law, Rabbi Yechiel Michal, was dependent on him for three years and moved together with him from Steibtz to Mezritch, where his son–in–law served as a rabbi in his presence.

Rabbi Yechiel Michal was a native of Slutsk, son of Rabbi Yeshaya. He was great in Torah and very knowledgeable in the wisdom of Kabbala and an expert in investigation and philosophy. Like his above–mentioned father–in–law, he knew the books of the philosophers and the mekubalim (kabbalists) by heart as well as the book of the Holy Shla”h (Shnei Luchot HaBrit, “The Two Tablets of the Covenant” by Rabbi Yeshaya Horwitz).

He became a rabbi in Constantin (District of Biali, in Lithuania) and later in Noviminsk (District of Warsaw). He was persecuted by the Chassidim on account of his being Lithuanian (in his rational way of thinking). In the world of Torah, his work of responsa, Galei Yam, is well–known. Among his many writings, he left behind a book Or Yisrael, dealing with the Book of Genesis.


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C. Rabbi Binyamin Ben Shmuel

He was born in Navaredok and educated at yeshivot in Minsk. There he married the daughter of a notable Torah leader who supported a yeshiva in Minsk at his own expense and distributed charity to the poor from his wealth. Rabbi Binyamin studied and taught at the above–mentioned yeshiva and at the new study hall adjacent to the Great Synagogue in Minsk. He taught for ten years without accepting a salary, and several of his new interpretations which he developed while giving lessons in the “tents of Torah” are from the period when he was dependent on his father–in–law in Minsk.

In 5604 (1843), Rabbi Binyamin was invited to serve in the rabbinate in the community of Zebin, close to Minsk. About 9 years later, he was selected to be the rabbi in Brezi, near Brisk in Lithuania, where he was active for a blessing for 7 years. In 5623 (1862), he was accepted as rabbi in Rayagrod (District of Lomzhe). As the above–mentioned small town was on the Polish–Prussian (German) border and close to Lik, where there was Hebrew printing press (where the Hebrew newspaper, Hamagid, was printed), he had a suitable opportunity to print his book, She'irit Binyamin, Part I, containing new interpretations on the Talmudic tractates, Brachot and Pessachim, and also containing sermons and lectures marking the completion of studying the 6 Orders of the Mishna and Gemara, Mishnayot[1] and the completion of writing a Torah scroll.

In his approval of this book, the Gaon Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heilprin (also known as author of Oneg Yom Tov) writes about the author: “whom I've known from the time of his youth in his diligent study (in Minsk) and like “eyes of doves fixed on rivulets of water[2]”, – his eyes are fixed on the streams of the 6 Orders of the Mishna and Gemara and who now has in mind to publish new interpretations on several Talmudic tractates… And it is proof that we should encourage him and receive his treatise and to make the teaching (of Torah) great and glorious[3].”

It was not long after the printing of his aforementioned book, that the fame and great name of Rabbi Binyamin reached the community of Steibtz, where he was accepted as head of the rabbinic court, replacing the Gaon Rabbi Simcha Shmuel, who moved from Steibtz to Mezritch in Poland.

In 5632–33 (1869–70), Rabbi Binyamin ben Shmuel went to live in Jerusalem and was immediately appointed one of the Ashkenazi judges on the rabbinic court of the Porshim[4] community. The court was headed by Rabbi Meir Auerbach, author of Imrei Bina.

In 5635 (1872), Rabbi Binyamin printed the second part of the above–mentioned book, She'irit Binyamin, which was crowned by the approval of both Chief Rabbis of Jerusalem, the Holy City – Rabbi Avraham Ashkenazi, the Rishon L'Zion, (the Sage – Bashi) of the Sephardic community in the Land of Israel and Rabbi Meir Auerbach– rabbi of the Ashkenazi community.

The above–mentioned second treatise contains opinions regarding the Talmudic tractates of Gittin (divorce) and Kiddushin (marriage), a lecture upon the completion of the study of Mishnayot, with the addition of a special section, a part of a lecture on Rosh Hashana, Shabbat Shuva (Sabbath of Repentance), Yom Kippur, The Four Special Sabbath Torah Readings and the Great Shabbat (before Passover).

Opinions are also expressed in this book from the lectures he heard at the yeshiva in Minsk from his teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Mann, who is described as a “genius, righteous and pious”. This rabbi was also the teacher of the Gaon Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heilprin and in his approval of the aforementioned Part I, Rabbi Yom Tov says that he was happy that this author decided to publish in this treatise “things which he heard from the mouth of the Rabbi, the Gaon and the pious and modest teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Mendel from the holy congregation of Minsk, and may all men of spiritual sublimity spread abroad in Israel!”

At the end of Part II, two matters can be found regarding permission for a “chained woman” (a woman whose husband refuses to grant her a divorce to remarry) and the halachic negotiations which Rabbi Itzchak Elkanan Kovneh, head of the rabbinic court, conducted with each of them (husband and wife). (Rabbi Binyamin replaced him in the rabbinate in the above–mentioned town of Brezi) And the “Gaon, the renowned Rabbi Yosef from Slotsk” also took part in these negotiations. Rabbi Binyamin served for a long time as Rabbi Teacher of Righteousness in Jerusalem, the Holy City, where he was called by the name of the place in which he had last served in the rabbinate– the Steibtz Rabbi, and his name appears in many regulations and seals (signatures) in the above–mentioned rabbinic court.


Translator's footnotes

  1. Mishnayot: Individual paragraphs of the compilation of the Mishna (Oral Law) Return
  2. Song of Songs (chapter 5:12) His eyes are like doves beside rivulets of water Return
  3. Isaiah 42: 21 He will magnify the law, and make it honourable. Return
  4. Porshim: married men who left their homes for another town to devote all their time to studying. Return


D. Rabbi Meir Noach Halevi Levin

He was born in 5594 (1833) in Brezi (close to Brisk in Lithuania), son of a respected leader, Rabbi Shimon Rafael, who was related to the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer ben Yehudah HaLevi Eidels, of blessed memory) and to other renowned Torah personalities. Rabbi Meir Noach received an excellent Talmudic education and stood out while still in his youth with his remarkable skills. At the age of 11, he was an expert in the Mishnaic Order of Moed (Festivals) and its commentaries, which he knew by heart and soon after he excelled in the study of Torah, in which he had a remarkable expertise thanks to his profound intellect and great intelligence. Once, the Gaon, Rabbi Yaakov, head of the rabbinic court in Karlin, author of Mishkanot Yaakov, tested him and predicted a bright future for him as rabbi of a large community. At 14 he became the outstanding pupil of the Gaon Rabbi Yaakov Meir Padova in Brisk in Lithuania and three years later he was ordained by him for the rabbinate. While dependent on his father–in–law, the Gaon and sharp–witted Rabbi Elazar Yitzchak Fried, head of the rabbinic court and college in Volozhin, he advanced in his Talmudic expertise (and got married at the age of 15) and served in holiness in renowned communities in the Jewish world.

His first position as rabbi was in Ivnitz (5618– 5622, 1857–1861) and from there he moved to Stabisk (District of Lomzhe), While he was there, the community of

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Prushnitz wanted him as its rabbi, but the community of Stabisk refused to give him up. This matter was considered at a court case before the Gaon and Righteous Rabbi Avraham Landau, head of the rabbinic court in Tzichanov, and the town of Stabisk won the ruling. Between the years 5632–46, 1871– 1885), he was a rabbi in Steibtz. In 5646 (1885), he was given the belated honor of being the spiritual rabbi of the important community of Moscow (replacing his relative, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Berlin). In 5654 (1893), he became the head of the rabbinic court in Volozhin (replacing the Gaon HaNatziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816–1893) and helped greatly to restore the upper level yeshiva, which had been closed in 5652 (1891) by the Russian authorities. In 5656 (1895), Rabbi Meir Noach became a preacher and teacher of righteousness in Vilna, where he died in 5664 (1903).

Regarding Rabbi Meir Noach's blessed work in Steibtz, Mr. Yosef Horowitz writes the following words in HaTzfira newspaper for the year 5645 (1884, no. 50): “The great rabbi, Rabbi Meir Noach, dwells with honor among us. Wherever he teaches Torah, there is his wisdom and wherever he demonstrates his skill in discussing and teaching, there is the rest of his spirit for all matters pertaining to the public. He is also worthy of two worlds, the old world and the new world. He brings those who are far from religion closer, and thanks to this wise rabbi, peace prevails in our town, and there is neither trouble nor dispute.”

However, the above–mentioned writer expresses his concern and that of the residents of Steibtz with regard to the fact that “but we have heard that Moscow has attracted the rabbi and that he, too, has reciprocated and is ready to leave Steibtz to exchange her for her older and better sister. And the above–mentioned writer is afraid that for this reason the worry has been aroused lest all the calamities fall upon the town authorities, and there already seems to be a breach in the wall of peace.”

With respect to this, the writer turns from the newspaper HaTzfira to the inhabitants of the Moscow community, asking that they allow the rabbi, in whom they take pride, to remain in the Steibtz community. However, as it is known, the residents of Moscow did not take this into consideration, and thanks to their efforts, Rabbi Meir Noach Levin moved to Moscow to serve as rabbi.

As rabbi in Moscow, Rabbi Meir Noach did much to consolidate community life in the diversified and variegated city. He influenced all the circles and established peace among all factions of the Jewish community. The wealthy residents also held him in high regard and admired him and thanks to the great influence he had on them, he utilized them for the benefit of lobbying and for Jewish public activity and likewise for their contributing to institutions of Torah and charity in the communities of Israel which were in the Pale of Settlement in Russia. He especially had access among the millionaire Poliakov brothers and utilized them for the benefit of public affairs. He would devote himself to activity for the sake of cancelling or easing laws and decrees on individuals or on the general public and extended his full spiritual and personal aid to the “emissaries” of public and Jewish institutions who would knock on the gates of Moscow for their interests. He also gave attention to strengthening Torah in Moscow. He set up two groups for the study of the Six Orders of the Mishna and Gemara, in one of which he himself gave a “scholarly lesson” to the notable participants of this group, including the erudite Rabbi Baruch Freidenberg, Rabbi Yehosha Zelig Parsitz, Bendet–Gebronski and his brother–in–law, Gootz (both sons–in–law of Rabbi Kalonimus Ze'ev Wisotstki, and other renowned figures.

Rabbi Meir Noach also occupied a central place in Vilna. His sermons were rich in content. He was eloquent in his pleasant expression and fine pronunciation. His lectures became the conversations of the day among all the circles of the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”, and not only would common people come to hear him, but also scholars and the Jewish nobility of this large city.

Rabbi Meir Noach also devoted himself to general and public affairs in Vilna. Being first to contribute to charitable institutions in that city, he was also founder of the first Jewish bank and, at a meeting for the establishment of this institution, he participated in investing several thousand rubles of his personal wealth. He did much to strengthen Torah learning in the numerous study halls in Vilna and was likewise the patron of the elders' minyan (prayer quorum), who studied in the study hall of the Gra (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Zalman, the “Vilner Gaon”), whose Torah was their art. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Gra (5658– 1897), Rabbi Meir Noach set up a permanent class for ordained yeshiva students in the Gra's study hall where they could spend the whole day studying the Gra's explanations of the Shulchan Aruch ( Code of Jewish Law) and he himself taught the first several lessons.

He was also a great lover of books. His Torah library contained thousands of important books, many of which were rare in all subjects relating to Torah and occupied several rooms in his spacious residence.

Rabbi Meir was also a Chovav Zion[1], He delivered many sermons from the pulpit of the Great Synagogue in the town in praise of this movement and he would participate in the festivity held on Shabbat Nachamu[2], which was set as the permanent anniversary of the “Lovers of Zion” Society in Vilna. His positive opinion of the Chovavei Zion movement was brought forward in the book, Shivat Zion, by Avraham Yaakov Slutski.

Rabbi Meir Noach passed away childless on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat 5664 (1903). He left behind in his writings new interpretations of Halacha and sketches of his sermons which he delivered in six of his communities and especially from the time he began to be active as a Teacher of Righteousness in Vilna.

A few of his sermons were included in the book, Shem Olam, printed in 5665 (1904) by Rabbi Gavriel Ze'ev Margoliot, Teacher of Righteousness in Grodno and later in New York (in commemoration of the passing of the late rabbi).The eulogy for Rabbi Meir Noach given by his childhood friend, the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Meizel, president of the rabbinic court in Lodz, may be found in this book.


Translator's footnotes

  1. Chovavei Zion: A “Lovers of Zion”– movement to rebuild the Land of Israel, preceding Zionism Return
  2. Shabbat Nachamu: the Sabbath following the anniversary – 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av – of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem Return


E. Rabbi Shlomo Mordechai Brodneh

He was born in the year 5592 (1831) in Smargon, son of Rabbi Eliyahu Leib (5576–5653, 1815–1892), who was a respected merchant in Smargon. His mother was the daughter of the eminent Rabbi Aryeh Leib Halevi Friedburg and the sister of the Gaon Rabbi Mordechai, author of the book of responsa, Divrei Mordechai.

Rabbi Shlomo Mordechai received a Talmudic education. At the age of 11, he was the pupil of the Gaon Rabbi Reuven Halevi Levin, who was then head of the rabbinic court in Iliya (and later head of the rabbinic court in Lavdovi, Ivnitz, Nesvizh, Amtzlam and Dvinsk). When he was 12 years old, Rabbi Shlomo Mordechai studied at the Volozhin Yeshiva in the presence of the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak, head of the rabbinic court and college there, son of Rabbi Chaim, founder of the great yeshiva.

Rabbi Shlomo Mordechai married Dreizel, daughter of the notable Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Duvkin in Minsk. He studied for a while in the small town of recluses (Porshim), Eishishok, and afterwards lived in Smargon. His wife helped him in his business dealings, while he sat in the “tents of Torah” with the position holders (in the synagogue) and studied,

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concentrating on his sharp–witted lessons in the Six Orders of the Mishna and Gemara and their commentators. With the opening of the railroad (Levoi–Romani) via Smargon, this small town turned into a city of merchandise and trade, and Rabbi Shlomo Mordechai was an agent of the branch of the Kenigsburg Bank in Smargon and was considered to be among the city's well–to–do residents.

Coming to realize that business disturbed him and kept him from studying Torah regularly, he acceded to the urgings of the community of Radushkvitz and became their rabbi and teacher for ten years. In 5648 (1887), he became rabbi in Steibtz, where he was active for 14 years. In 5662 (1901), he resigned from the rabbinate in Steibtz of his own accord and returned to Smargon, the little town of his birth, where he resided as a private position holder and spent the days of his old age there. He died on the 20th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, 5669 (1908).

Rabbi Shlomo Mordechai left behind in his writings: Chidushei Torah b'Halacha v'agadah (New interpretation of Torah in Halacha and homiletic[1] passages), Drushim v'hespedim (Sermons and Eulogies). A year after his death, his two sons, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman, published part of their father's writings under the name Ohel Shem in two parts: Part I dealing with Halacha and argumentation for teaching Jewish law with clarification of topics; Part II dealing with homiletic passages in the Talmud, sermons and clarifications of the Writings (Hagiography) and puzzling sayings of the Sages.

According to the above–mentioned book, Rabbi Shlomo Mordechai Brudneh appears before us very much like his teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Reuven Halevi, who was a pupil of the sharp–witted Gaon and marvelous critic, Rabbi Menashe from Iliya – possessing an analytic mind, sharp–witted, sober and clever, with a special sense of self–awareness and a unique outlook and viewpoint of life.

He also stood out in his special original Hebrew style, in his clarity of expression and conciseness. With all of this, he was exemplary of the rabbis of his time.

 

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The Rabbi R' Shlomo Mordechai Bruder

 

Translator's footnote:

  1. Homiletics: the art of preaching or writing sermons Return


F. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak “Maskil–L'eitan”

His father, Rabbi Aharon, was the son of Rabbi Avraham “Maskil–L'Eitan”, who was famous in his time in Lithuania and Reisen as the “genius of his generation” and well known for his precious treatises for the teaching of Torah. Especially outstanding are his thoughts on the Six Orders of the Mishna and Gemara by the name Mitzpe Eitan and on the Shulchan Aruch by the name Yad Avraham in their depth, acuteness and light which illuminate the breadth of the Talmud and Halacha. He likewise produced Be'er Avraham on the Mishnayot of the Order of Moed, Yad Eitan and Nachal Eitan on the Rambam (Maimonides), Ahavat Eitan on Eyn Yaakov (collection of non–legal portions of the Talmud by Rabbi Yaakov Ibn Chabib, 1433–1516). And he also left behind his treatises on all the subjects of the Torah and its commentators, books on the Deciders of matters of Halacha and even matters pertaining to the study of the Kabbala – even in that area he was very knowledgeable and a wonderful innovator.

The source of his quarry was from holy stock: from families of noble lineage in Germany, Austria and Poland, among whom may be counted Rabbi Yosef T'omim, author of Pri Megadim, Rabbi Zalman Mirlish, head of the rabbinic court in Hamburg and renowned great Torah scholars in Prague more than three hundred years ago. (See the introduction to the learning edition of the book Maskil L'Eitan by Rabbi Reuven Katz, head of the rabbinic court and college in Petach Tikvah and district. This work contains new ideas on Halacha for the Orders of Moed and Kedoshim (Marriage) and attached at the end of the book are allusions to the secrets of Rashbi's (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, second century sage) Sefer Tikunim, (Book of Corrections), which were refreshed by Rabbi Shimon, son of Rabbi Reuven Katz, Jerusalem 5716 (1955)).

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil–L'Eitan was head of the rabbinic court in Smolovitz in the district of Minsk, in Chislavichi (known in Yiddish as Choslovitz– in the district of Mohilov) and finally head of the rabbinic court in Steibtz, the last place he served as rabbi. He was active there for only three months when he died on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Marcheshvan[1] 5665 (1904). He left behind manuscripts of books which were lost during the First World War in Russia, but his words are brought forward in other books, as for example: Chakrei Halacha, by his uncle Rabbi Moshe Nissan Maskil–L'Eitan and Malbushei Yom Tov by Rabbi Lippa Mirer.

His son–in–law, Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin, replaced him as rabbi in Steibtz. His younger son–in–law, Rabbi Reuven Katz gave up his claim to be rabbi in Steibtz for the benefit of his brother–in–law. His wife, Chassia, passed away on the 26th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan 5696 (1935) in Steibtz and her husband, Rabbi Yoel died on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz 5698 (1939) and is buried in Otbutzk.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil L'Eitan's younger daughter Reichel, wife of the Gaon Rabbi Reuven Katz,–may the memory of the righteous be blessed!– passed away on the 20th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat 5714 (1954) and is buried in Petach Tikva.

Zalman Shazar (former President of the State of Israel) described the very impressive welcoming reception for the rabbi from Choslovitz in his book, Kochavei Boker, containing details of the deeply rooted Jewish way of life of Jewish Steibtz in those days. It is related there that “important position holders of the synagogue went out to the town of Choslovitz and brought the rabbi

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the certificate of the rabbinate written on parchment with the signatures of all the treasurers of the synagogues.”

In his honor and in merit of his greatness, they built a new “rabbi's house” for the new rabbi, “the likes of whom there had never been before in our community” and when the seven city elders found out about his meager salary, they increased his “karovkah” (a kind of candy).

The rabbi passed away on the Sunday of the week when the Torah portion Chayei Sara (“the life of Sara”) is read in the synagogues. He died in the middle of the eulogy for one of the town's elders. Seven rabbis eulogized him including the rabbi and teacher Hishish of the nearby yeshiva, the young rabbi and son–in–law of the “great” rabbi (in Minsk), who sits on the chair of the rabbinate of his late father–in–law in the main city of the district.

Zvi Harkavi, in his book about the Maskil–L'Eitan family, adds: “In order to give him proper honor, the funeral was put off until the day after his passing so that great Torah scholars might manage to come from near and far. However, his son–in–law, the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin, head of the rabbinic court in Tzaritzin, was unable to get there. When he later arrived in Steibtz, it was decided that he should sit on his father–in–law's chair as chief rabbi. Close to that time, the Gaon Rabbi Reuven Katz received a document from the rabbinate in the Holy Congregation of Selib.

A very impressive “tent” (mausoleum) made of red bricks was erected over the grave of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil–L'Eitan. On the front wall, a large tombstone made of black onyx stones was inlaid, on which were verses in praise of the great deceased rabbi. The letters were engraved in gold in the stone.

When his daughter Chassiah, wife of Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin, died in the year 5696 (1935), she was also brought to rest in this “tent”.

During their rule in Steibtz, the Nazis desecrated the cemetery, plundered and smashed the tombstones. The Christian inhabitants and farmers from the surrounding villages helped them and made use of the tombstones for building purposes. In this way, the grave of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil–L'Eitan was also desecrated when the monument was taken apart. The survivors of Steibtz, coming back the day after their liberation from the yoke of the Nazis, found only the tombstone standing and who knows if it still exists today?


Translator's footnote:

  1. Marcheshvan: Called mar–bitter – because there are no holidays in the Hebrew month of Cheshvan. Others suggest that it derives from the Akkadian word meaning 8th month. Return


G. Rabbi Yoel Carmel Sorotzkin

He was born in 5631 (1870), son of the righteous Rabbi Ben Zion, head of the rabbinic court in Zachrin (a chain in the lineage of rabbis of former generations, going back to the Gaon Rabbi Yisrael from Shklov, author of Or Yisrael)

As a child, Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin was extremely diligent, possessing excellent skills. He was raised in Torah under his father's tutelage and later studied with great perseverance at the Volozhin Yeshiva for seven years. There he served the Gaon Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, who ordained him for the rabbinate while still at a young age.

He appeared in Chislavichi (Choslovitz) as the son–in–law of the head of the rabbinic court, the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil L'Eitan, and was already crammed full with the Six Orders of the Mishna and Gemara and the Deciders of questions relating to Halacha. He continued to be assiduous in teaching religious subjects at his father–in–law's home and was one of the outstanding figures of the past generation. Rabbi Yoel knew the Hebrew language and grammar inside out and excelled in Bible, in which he was an expert and also in his lovely style of writing. He also received a license to serve as an official rabbi in any state of Russia. All of this, however, was secondary to his main study and involvement in Torah, in which he toiled with the best of his skills until he became a great and productive man.

In 5661(1900) Rabbi Yoel received his first position in the rabbinate in the provincial city of Tzaritzin (Stalingrad), which was outside the Pale of Settlement and lived there with great honor as a rabbi active in implanting the life of Torah in that place. When his above–mentioned father–in–law, the Gaon died in Steibtz in 5665 (1904), the residents of that small town began to discuss who would replace the deceased rabbi, whether his elderly son–in–law, Rabbi Yoel, or the youngest of his sons–in–law, the Gaon Rabbi Reuven– may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing! (head of the rabbinic court and college in Petach Tikva), who was still dependent on his father–in–law in Steibtz. It was decided that both of the above–mentioned candidates should decide this matter between themselves, and the Gaon Rabbi Reuven Katz renounced his candidacy and the Gaon Rabbi Yoel was accepted as rabbi and head of the rabbinic court in Steibtz in the year 5666 (1905).

Steibtz, which was always a place of welcome for distinguished rabbis, found in Rabbi Yoel the suitable rabbi who did not shame their past. He achieved wide renown as a great rabbi among the Jewish people and as a scholar. Together with this, he excelled as a superior preacher and as a fine public worker.

During the years of the First World War, Rabbi Yoel moved to Moscow. Due to the changes of the times, he engaged in trade and was successful in his business dealings, but the scholar in him triumphed over the merchant and he didn't move from the “tents of Torah”, where he gathered and arranged his numerous manuscripts on Mishnayot, on topics in the Six Orders of the Mishna and Gemara, on inquiries into Halacha and exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture) of the Torah.

After much effort, he managed to return to Poland, to his little town of Steibtz. In Poland he was immediately recognized as one of the great rabbis. He learned Polish at the age of 60 and his skill quickly stood him in good stead, for on May 3rd, Poland's national holiday, he delivered a speech in the synagogue in the presence of government representatives and received great honor from the anti–Semitic Poles.

While making one of his speeches on Poland's above–mentioned birthday in 5698 (1937), he caught a bad cold and after a long acute illness, he departed from life in Otbutzk.

One of his brothers is the Gaon Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, rabbi of great deeds, head of the rabbinic court in Varinova, Zitel and Lozk and currently President of the Council of Great Torah Scholars and Director of the Board of Yeshivot in Israel. Rabbi Yoel's wife was the sister of Rabbi Aharon Volkin, head of the rabbinic court in Grazd, Shad, Amtzislov and finally, at the end of his life, chief rabbi of the magnificent community of Minsk–Karlin,

He left behind in his writings Maskil L'Yosef, containing sermons and explanations of the Bible and sayings of our Sages and Malchei Zedek, in which may be found new interpretations and explanations of the Gemara, Rashi's commentary and Tosefot.

He was replaced by his son–in–law, a native of Steibtz, Rabbi Yerachmiel son of Rabbi Dov Baer Leizerzon. Rabbi Yerachmiel left the town after the Soviets entered in the Hebrew month of Tishrei 5700 (17.9.39). He moved to the small town of Turek in eastern Galizia, where his father lived at that time and there he died a martyr's death together with his family and the inhabitants of the entire small town.


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Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin

by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (Jerusalem)

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

 

My brother - May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing - the Gaon [genius, rabbinic title, a great scholar possessing encyclopedic knowledge][1], was born in 5631 [1870] in Zachrina, the son of our righteous father, Rabbi Ben-Zion Sorotzkin, the town rabbi, who was a “praiseworthy descendant of a splendid branch of God's planting and handiwork” [based on Isaiah 60:21] [of a family of rabbis, sons of the Gaon Rabbi Yisrael Yaffe, president of the rabbinic court in Shklov] and author of the book Or Yisrael. Our mother, Hiena, of blessed memory, was a righteous and God-fearing woman, outstanding in her benevolent deeds which she performed both physically and monetarily, and whose sons, including her sons-in-law, all became famous rabbis. She was the daughter of the Gaon and Kabbalist, Rebbi Chaim Sharin, author of the book, Divrei Chaim, dealing with the Pentateuch [first 5 books of the Bible] and the Holy Zohar [the book of Kabbala, presumably written by Rabbi Moshe de Leon in the 13th century] and, on a higher level, a descendant of rabbis and righteous men who were related to the Holy Man of Wonders, Rebbi Leib Sarah's son, who lived at the time of the “Besht” [Ba'al Shem Tov, 1698-1760, Yisrael Ben Eliezer, founder of Chassidic Judaism] - May the memory of the righteous be blessed and whose name is glorified in the Community of the Just.

My brother was 10 years older than me, so I really can't recall the days of his youth in detail. The first thing about him that is engraved in my memory is that he fulfilled the saying, “Wander forth to a place of Torah.” [Ethics of the Fathers, 4:14].

 

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Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin

 

The concept of wandering forth is that of a person who accidentally killed someone and escapes to a city of refuge [See Book of Numbers, 35] all the while his soul is still in his place of residence, knowing that in his permanent place his life is in mortal danger. However, my brother – May the memory of the righteous be blessed - while still only 15 or 16 years old and who already revealed himself as a marvelously diligent and studious teenager with superior and excellent skills, knew or understood that the atmosphere itself which prevailed in his town and in its surroundings was in the nature of a rodef [someone who pursues another (innocent) person with the intention of killing him], that is to say, the rodef in this case was not a person but the atmosphere that pursued and conspired to harm his soul. The yeshivot [colleges for teaching and training boys to become rabbis] which arose and were then the homes of rabbis and Gaonim, who were the heads of the yeshivot in Shklov and Shimiatz, and who were some of the pupils and emissaries of the Gr'a [The Gaon from Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman], ceased to exist. There was no other important yeshiva or place of Torah in the entire Mohilov [Mogilev] district.

The way of life of the Jews in the whole district was indeed based and founded on the ways of Torah and mitzvot [commandments]. Good and faithful teachers were available, many of whom were numbered in the past among the select students in the yeshivot. However, when a young boy left the cheder [religious elementary school], there was no other suitable place for him to learn and advance in his Torah studies. It was thus incumbent upon the parents to choose some kind of craft or skill for their son, to help him become a peddler or clerk in one of the forest businesses which were well-known at that time. These professions were not suitable for and did not at all appeal to Rabbi Yoel and so he decided on his own to leave for Volozhin. However, since he was afraid that his parents would not agree to send him alone to the Volozhin Yeshiva, which was 700 km away from his town and he was still a boy, he began to save up for the expenses of the journey from the pocket money which they used to give him. After he had a certain amount of money ready in his pocket, he left his house secretly one night, leaving a note explaining that since his soul yearned for Torah, he was going to study at the Volozhin Yeshiva. At the Volozhin Yeshiva, his diligence was boundless. His excellent skills and his toil in Torah endeared him to his friends and teachers. He became the outstanding pupil of the Natziv [Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 1816-1893] - May the memory of the righteous be blessed and of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik- May the memory of the righteous be blessed, who loved him dearly. In a few years Rabbi Yoel had already become an expert in the Six Orders of the Mishna and Gemara and the Deciders of Halacha [Jewish Law]. He was an erudite person, possessing a mine of information in all subjects of the Torah. He had an excellent memory in the nature of “Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Hyrcanus, who is a plastered cistern which loses not a drop.” [Ethics of the Fathers, 2:11]. He studied assiduously. He devoted his nights as well as days to the toil of Torah. He would reduce his sleep and skip his meals provided that it didn't interfere with his learning.

Upon his discharge from the army after our mother, of blessed memory, left for Dvinsk and redeemed him from military service by paying the full amount of money required at the end of three months of service, they began to speak highly about him. But he was not willing to hear their praises, for all his wishes and entire being expressed a zeal and desire to study Torah. And indeed he acquired a great name among the yeshiva students and became renowned in the world of Torah. During one of his visits to his parents, when the bad news reached him of the closing, as a result of slanderer, of the Volozhin Yeshiva, he immediately tore his clothes, as if he were in mourning, sat on the floor and wept bitterly. In the eyes of his spirit, he foresaw the destruction of Judaism by the closing of the fountain of wisdom of the yeshiva, and thus refused to be comforted and to revive.

With the closing of “his yeshiva”, he didn't see any further reason not to marry. The great Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil L'Eitan- May the memory of the righteous be blessed - president of the rabbinic court in Chaslovitz, who was a branch on our genealogical tree, chose him as a groom for his oldest daughter, Chassiah Miriam-May she rest in peace. Also after his marriage, he studied Torah assiduously in his father-in-law's home,

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but when his sons and daughters were born and the yoke of earning a living began to oppress him, he went into business with the money he had from his wife's dowry, trading in wood obtained by cutting down forests. This business forced him somewhat to waste time meant for studying Torah, which caused him great sorrow and depressed his spirit.

Once, the Gaon Eliyahu from Pruzin- May the memory of the righteous be blessed - visited him in Chaslovitz. This Gaon had served a number of years as rabbi of Chaslovitz before being accepted in Pruzin. During this courtesy call to the town rabbi, the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil L'Eitan, he [Rabbi Eliyahu] met with the newly wed young man who was as full of Torah and wisdom as a pomegranate is with seeds and was impressed that a brilliant star was rising over the skies of the rabbinate in Russia. My brother - May the memory of the righteous be blessed - complained in the rabbi's ears that he lacked free time for studying Torah. During the conversation, the elderly Gaon insisted that the reason for my brother's neglecting Torah lay in the large dowry he received from his father-in- law. Therefore he gave him a “blessing”- that he should lose the dowry money and that he should again be forced to be like one of the yeshiva students as in his younger days and that afterwards he would attain the glorious rabbinate. The righteous Gaon's blessing came completely true. First he lost the large dowry and went back to being a diligent student of Torah at the Volozhin Yeshiva, which re-opened in the study hall, and later the second part of the blessing also came true: My brother was accepted with honor to be the rabbi of Tzaritzin, which later was given the better name of Stalingrad.

Tzaritzin was a distinguished city and known as a commercial center. Wealthy and eminent Jews dealing in dried and salted fish lived there. Permission for a yeshiva outside the Pale of Settlement was granted to craftsmen and tradesmen of the first rank, and they needed a rabbi great in Torah. And not only that, but in this rich district on the banks of the Volga and Don Rivers, there was a big movement of conversion by Russians of pure birth. There were about 30,000 Russians who became Jewish and wanted to be stricter in performing mitzvot than … Jews themselves. Their conversion stemmed from their personal awareness which awakened mostly from reading the Bible. Tzaritzin was very happy to get a rabbi. Those who became Jewish would come to the rabbi in great numbers and present him with questions, some of which were strange and unique. Many of those who became Jewish didn't know how to perform mitzvot. My brother would teach them Torah, knowledge of God and the path they should follow in life. The choice of my brother, the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin - May the memory of the righteous be blessed - for rabbi of Tzaritzin was successful in many respects. There he was able to learn Russian thoroughly, which aided him greatly in teaching those who erred in their understanding as well as teaching Jewish youth who knew neither Hebrew nor Yiddish, and it mostly helped him in teaching converts to Judaism who came to his door early and asked to learn knowledge of God and the truth of Torah. Delegations of gentiles from the villages which were 200 km away from Tzaritzin would also come to him in order to understand and to become educated in God's Torah and Jewish customs. (A special book has been published regarding those who “became Jewish” in the Volga region). Until my brother came there, the vast majority of the villagers were only Sabbath observers, whereas once he arrived in Tzaritzin, they actually converted. The number of those converts grew constantly and reached about 100 families a year.

In his position as town rabbi of Tzaritzin, my brother was revealed, in the eyes of the community, as an exemplary spiritual leader, as an outstandingly gifted preacher and convincing explainer. He conducted regular lessons in Gemara. Anyone who came just once to hear the lesson took it for granted that he would be bound to the place and become a steady participant. The Rabbi's sermons were abundant sources of wisdom and knowledge. According to his wonderful studiousness in Torah, it was possible for him to err, for he remained secluded in the “tents of Torah”, far from the “real life” of the world. However, his knowledge of the world and its fullness around him aroused admiration on the part of others. They flocked to him from all sides asking for “judgments based on Torah law” and he, in the pleasantness of his ways, in the nobility of his wisdom and in the loftiness of his spirit, brought great credit to Torah and Judaism in that large city.

At the same time, my father-in-law, the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil l'Eitan, received a written document from the rabbinate of the town of Steibtz, offering him the position of rabbi of the community. Although Chaslovitz had a larger population than Steibtz, there was no upper level or elementary yeshiva in the entire district, and the glory of Torah began to fade. On the other hand, in the “Greater Lithuanian” town of Steibtz, which was close to Mir, a town of Torah, the light of Torah began to shine brightly. My father-in-law, the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil L'Eitan, decided therefore to exchange Chaslovitz for Steibtz, but he didn't live long in his position as newly appointed town rabbi. At the end of a eulogy he was delivering for one of the town elders, he became very excited, collapsed and died a painless death. The magnificent community of Steibtz then set its eyes upon the deceased's first son-in-law, the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin, president of the rabbinic court in Tzaritzin, who was a genius of tender years but old in wisdom, and the town of Steibtz chose him as rabbi. Despite the urgings of the Jewish community of Tzaritzin not to leave them and despite the various gifts they offered him so that he wouldn't leave, the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin chose Steibtz as the town of his next rabbinate, where he was received with great honor and was pleasing to all his brethren. In this district, which was a place of Torah, his wonderful diligence awakened and he was considered and numbered among the rabbis of genius with regard to his knowledge, sharp-wittedness and great expertise in all the secrets of Torah. He found ample opportunities for strengthening Torah and worked hard with lofty aims especially for the sake of the Mir Yeshiva.

A chapter of great praise, filled with holy courage and spiritual strength, constitutes his enormous activity for the benefit of the Mir Yeshiva when its dwelling went up in flames. The Mir Yeshiva then moved from Mir to Steibtz, where it remained for two years until it was restored and replanted in its place of Torah. The two years the yeshiva remained in Steibtz were years full to overflowing with activities and deeds on its behalf both materially and spiritually, which are too numerous to mention and describe. He was the patron of the yeshiva. He took care of its maintenance and subsistence and did much physically and monetarily for the support of its rabbis and students. His thoughts and reflections were devoted solely to the yeshiva. He didn't spare his strength and ignored all difficulties and obstacles. He concerned himself with setting up a place of learning for the yeshiva in Steibtz and for the housing and support of the students. And above all, he didn't stop laying bricks of spirit for the splendid yeshiva building. He invested great effort in the yoke of Torah, from which he derived strength and inspiration for the survival of Torah. With him, the material and spiritual were found together in one partition. From the moment he was free from the worry of material things, he immediately turned to the care of the spirit. He would swim in the sea of Talmud with diligence and toil. The large community of students arose and elevated itself with him in the creativity of Torah and in the bastion of Torah.

His activity on behalf of the public was extensive and many-branched. He worked not only for the needs of the town and for the benefit of the Mir Yeshiva, but was also engaged in public affairs on the national level. As an example, I will cite one detail from the time he stayed at a convalescent home in San Remo, Italy. At that same time, the matter of prohibiting Jewish ritual slaughter was brought up by anti-Semites in the Russian parliament. There would be a vote by the end of the summer recess. One of the representatives of the Liberal Party, which was opposed to the prohibition of Jewish ritual slaughter, was in San Remo at the same time. This representative

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was seeking a rabbi who could explain and instruct him in the laws of ritual slaughter of cattle according to Jewish law so that he could manage to fight back when the issue was raised for a decision in the parliament. But, to his sorrow, he didn't find such a rabbi in all of San Remo, or found that the rabbis themselves hadn't learned the laws thoroughly, or those few who knew the laws were incapable of explaining their essence to the representative due to their lack of command of the Russian language. It was some kind of Divine Providence when the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin - May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing - happened to show up in San Remo. The representative to the Russian parliament immediately turned to the rabbi, who had learned the theory of ritual slaughter and its laws, and was able to explain them in fluent and elegant Russian. With the wealth of his knowledge and the sweetness of his lips, the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin succeeded in explaining that ritual slaughter as practiced by Jews is actually the most humane in the world and that anti-Semites are only seeking a pretext to treat Jews and their Torah unfairly. The representative to the parliament returned to Russia equipped with the best knowledge he needed with regard to Jewish ritual slaughter. And, indeed, when the battle over Jewish ritual slaughter began anew, this representative succeeded in taking up the struggle with his newly gained understanding and knowledge and aided considerably in cancelling the decree.

The holy work of the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin - May the memory of the righteous be blessed - went on without stop. When World War I broke out, the front against the Germans was set up for many days in the areas around Steibtz. Although the town itself, which remained in Russian hands, derived great benefit from the large army that was within its bounds, the Jews were in a state of being caught between the hammer and the anvil. In the eyes of the Russians, Jews were a suspicious element on account of the suffering and the harsh yoke which the czars enforced upon them during the centuries of their rule. The Russians feared that the Jews would now take revenge against the Russians in the war against Germany and would even be prepared to transmit useful information to the enemy, which might endanger their position and security. Therefore, the Russians decided to expel all Jews having influence and authority from the town. This decision also befell the town rabbi who was asked to leave for the town of Saratov until the wrath subsided. The war ended, but the district was not at rest. There was much tumult. The district passed from hand to hand, from the Russians to the Germans and from them to the Poles. In the confusion of the time and as a result of his ponderings, the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin didn't find a way to return to Steibtz, and like many Jews from country towns who feared pogroms and riots and moved to Moscow (there were half a million Jews in Moscow), my brother also left Saratov for Moscow and dwelt there until he could, at a suitable time, return to his town and rabbinate.

In this large city, the wonderful Gaon saw plenty of room to spread out in different directions. First of all, he began to give a daily lesson in the large study hall in Moscow. Some 300 hundred people, including a considerable number of students and even professors (who taught and lectured in Moscow) would come and be drawn to the lessons. In the sweetness of his lips, he succeeded in explaining difficult subjects and in imparting the fundamentals of Torah and Talmud (Mishna and Gemara) even to those who had never learned a page of Gemara in their lives.

During his life, the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin - May the memory of the righteous be blessed - raised many students who became great in Torah and spirit and who were a main support for the existence of Torah, its study and clarification. His students were widely spread in all Jewish communities and many of them were influential in the world of Torah and the rabbinate. These pupils, some of whom are still living today in the United States, have carried and are still carrying in their hearts - with awe and reverence - the image and portrait of their great rabbi who was their teacher and master. I sometimes happen to meet with rabbis and well-known people, former students of the rabbi from Steibtz, and they express praise and esteem for his greatness in Torah.

He was a remarkable type of rabbi, in whom were embedded strength and qualities which derived their inspiration from the eternal and glorious treasures of the quarry of the Chosen People. In his eyes, Halacha [Jewish law] and its actual practice were closely connected and formed his personality throughout his highly praised life. He was diligent and toiled in Torah and studied Torah and Halacha. His deeds served as a shining example of a rabbi of the Jewish People and for the life of Torah which filled his being. He practiced what he preached. He required much from himself so that he could require the same from others.

His Torah was the Oral Law. He loved the Written Torah and knew how to impart the fundamentals of Torah, but he also had a Torah greater than the Written Torah. He produced in his writings many new interpretations of the Torah which were set for publication. These writings were treasures full of knowledge and spirit, logic and honest supposition. In his Oral Law and in his Written Law as well, he knew how to come down from the clouds and to make everything intelligible with his reason, and he knew how to penetrate the recesses of a subject and bring up pearls which were in the nature of turning the theory of Halacha into the actual practice of Halacha.

The Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin - May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing -didn't want to take advantage of his knowledge of Torah as a source of income the way other rabbis, who were also refugees in Moscow, earned their living and so he went into business. The same “forest merchant” who, as a young man, was surrounded and protected by Divine Providence, causing him to fail in business so that it would be fitting for him to impose the yoke of Torah on himself and prepare himself for the rabbinate, now, in his old age, was successful in business and became a very wealthy man. This brother of mine who, until then had studied Torah with amazing diligence, henceforth also became a supporter of Torah by making it possible for rabbis to engage in Torah. He generously distributed his money for the maintenance of yeshivot. He supported the wretched and those stricken by cruel turns of fate and extended aid to every misfortunate and poor person and he most often helped needy Torah scholars, heads of yeshivot and their pupils.

In those very days, he displayed initiative and multi-dimensional skill in the existence of Judaism and Orthodox observance. Those were severe and hectic times. With anger and fury, the Bolsheviks began persecuting observers of religion, but he wasn't afraid and did not recoil. He took up the fight to keep Judaism alive with all his strength and energy. He opened a cooperative for the slaughter and sale of kosher meat and, at the same time, watched over the building of a mikveh [ritual bath]. When the Ivaskim [Jewish Communists] would close a ritual bath in one section of the city, he would immediately hurry to open a ritual bath in another part of the city. He would respond to every act of destruction with an act of building. If Judaism was harmed in one part of the large city, he would do something right away for its existence and glorification in another quarter, for he was determined to keep the embers of Judaism and Torah glowing until God saved His People.

However, the period of relative peace and security for Jews in Soviet Russia in general and in Moscow in particular didn't last long. The governmental authorities confiscated the property of the “bourgeoisie” [middle class] and imprisoned the “wealthy”. The wheel of fortune also changed for the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin - May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing - with the coming of bad years. He and his family lived a life of suffering and poverty. There remained in his possession only some hundreds of thousands or millions of rubles which he disbursed for the maintenance of yeshivot and for the needs of the public and for charity.

[Page 51]

The Soviets were unable to steal this property from him which he had acquired for religious purposes and take it for themselves, but his life which was henceforth one of stress and hardship, did not in any way influence his holy work. He continued to take care of religious matters relating to kashrut [ritual suitability of food] and he continued dedicating his soul to the ritual bath in the city. He didn't get a salary from the community, but this work didn't prevent him from seeing himself as the "caretaker" of the community and its patron. He did everything possible, with enormous self-sacrifice, for the sake of Torah and to keep the embers of Judaism burning.

As the decrees against the Jewish religion increased, the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin - May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing - began trying to obtain a permit to return to Steibtz. This was not an easy matter because the government of Poland had passed a law prohibiting the return of Jews who remained stuck in Russia. After years of hard work, my brother managed to get a permit for temporary entrance to Poland, which was known, as it were, as a transit country for emigration to America. The validity of the permit was limited to one month only.

This permit put the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin- May the memory of the righteous be blessed - to a great test which went beyond anything he had experienced until then during his entire life. The Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin - May the memory of the righteous be blessed - arranged to put Jewish ritual baths into gentile bathhouses, but these ritual baths were discovered and closed by the authorities. He therefore began secretly building ritual baths in one of the small synagogues next to the large study hall. The treasurers of the synagogue, who were afraid that the police would discover the construction of the ritual baths and then close the study hall as well, were opposed to building the ritual baths. But the Gaon Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin- May the memory of the righteous be blessed - did not recoil. His reasoning and argument were the following: If in a city of a half million Jewish souls there is not even one ritual bath, it would be better that there be no study hall in the city. And just at the very time he began building the ritual bath, he received a permit to leave for Poland for himself and for his wife. On one hand he was very happy, but on the other hand he was concerned that if he left while the ritual bath was still under construction, the synagogue treasurers would come and close it. And the question was whether to choose personal freedom and leave for Poland, or to stand guard and watch over Judaism no matter what. This righteous Gaon did not hesitate for long and came to a firm decision not to leave Moscow until the building of the ritual bath was completed. He rightly knew that this decision meant that he would lose the exit permit, for which he had waited and longed for so many years, and who knows if he would be given another opportunity to leave the “Valley of Tears”. It was a difficult and severe test which only righteous and outstanding rabbis would be able to pass, but the Holy One Blessed Be He saw his determination and self-sacrifice and rewarded him for the pain that the building of the ritual bath might cause him. Influential people were quickly found who were moved by Rabbi Sorotzkin's great sacrifice on behalf of the Jews of Moscow. They decided to meet with the Polish ambassador and explain the matter to him. Their request to extend the period of the validity of the permit so that Rabbi Sorotzkin would have enough time to complete the construction of the ritual bath was laid before him and indeed the Polish ambassador acceded to their request to extend the validity of the passport for one more month.

It is impossible to describe how happy the residents of Steibtz were when the rabbi and his wife returned to them. The community of notables accompanied by the general public went out to the railroad station. They encircled the town rabbi who merited to return to his town. The crown of the rabbinate was again placed on the head of the adored rabbi, but their happiness was mixed with sadness. The community requested ways to convert the matter of the rabbi's transit through Poland to a permanent stay. First they tried to arrange for the rabbi to be granted a stay of at least one week, but meanwhile they wired me to come and work with them together so that their beloved rabbi could stay and sit quietly and peacefully on the seat of the rabbinate in the town of Steibtz.

I traveled with my brother to the governor in Novarhadok [Novogrudok], who - they had already written him from Warsaw- would do everything possible for my brother. The governor received me very respectfully and I introduced my brother to him. I asked him to kindly grant my brother Polish citizenship again, of which he had been deprived by the temporary law, as my brother didn't know anything about this law while still living in Soviet Russia. After much coaxing and urging, the governor acceded to my request, but on condition that my brother pass a Polish language proficiency exam as soon as possible in accordance with the regulations for granting citizenship. My brother set himself a limit of a period of 5 weeks for preparing for the tests. And indeed, at the end of the appointed time, he stood before the deputy governor, passed the test successfully, received Polish citizenship and his selection as the town rabbi of Steibtz was officially approved by the government.

He returned to the town amid many miracles. With redoubled energy and initiative, he began to conduct the rabbinate as he did previously, working very hard to improve the community, but he no longer had the strength he once possessed. Too many hardships and too many physical and mental agonies had come upon him in Soviet Russia. He was broken and exhausted. His strength began to leave him especially after the death of the wife of his youth, Chassiah Miriam- May she rest in peace - a daughter of the Maskil L'Eitan family of great rabbis.

Like a caged lion, he tried to fight his condition. His spirit was effervescent and full of life. He came up with new ideas and plans every day, some of which were a kind of momentum of strength for the building of Torah and Judaism, but his body grew weaker. The doctors ordered him to leave for a convalescent home in Otbutsk. While he was there, he felt ill and wired me to come to see him. During my visit, I saw to it that he was hospitalized in a comfortable place and I engaged a yeshiva student to look after him day and night. In those few days that I sat beside him, his lips mumbled a prayer of merit: “If I no longer deserve to live and the visitation of every man also comes upon me in the decree of holy angels, I implore you, Master of the Universe, to heal me temporarily so that I can go to our holy land, to see it and ask favor of its ground to die in it and to be buried in its land.”

He felt his death approaching, and he asked that if he should die in Otbutsk, he should be buried there “provisionally” until his children, who had escaped from Russia and were worthy of going to live in the Holy Land, would come and take his coffin for burial on the Mount of Olives. A few weeks later, his soul departed in purity. We carried out his will to be buried “provisionally” so that we could bring his coffin to the Land of Israel, but the Second World War broke out immediately afterwards together with the great Holocaust, which shook the world, and his grave remained “orphaned” in a foreign country.

There were eulogies full of weeping and bitter grief in Otbutsk, and he was likewise eulogized by famous rabbis who said that the loss could not be replaced. His passing left an empty space in the world of Judaism and in the world of rabbis. Everyone knew that, with his death, a splendid tree had been uprooted from the vineyard of the House of Israel, a tree in whose shade masses of Jews had found shelter and lived, and for whom the Rabbi's words and Torah were the elixir of life and healing.

[Page 52]

I left for Steibtz for the Sabbath to sit shiva [a week of mourning] among the members of his community and congregation. The grief and mourning in the congregation were heartfelt. They lamented and wept over the patron father who had left them. The awareness of being left as orphans and the grief of bereavement were penetrating. The town residents sought a way to perpetuate the rabbi's memory. The town notables crowned his son-in-law, the Gaon Rabbi Yerachmiel, as the new rabbi of their town. With his crowning, they sought to honor their former rabbi, who was great in Torah and who died an untimely death.

What a pity is the unforgettable loss. Woe to beauty buried in the earth. May my brother's memory be blessed and may his soul be bound in the bond of life of the rabbis, the “Gaonim” and the saintly ones of the world who shine like the radiance of the Heavens.


Footnote:

  1. The words in square brackets are not in the original text, but have been inserted, by the translator, to provide additional explanations of the meaning of some words and concepts. Return


[Page 54]

Rabbi Moshe Neifeld

by Yitzchak Lungin

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

 

He was born in Steibtz, the son of Rabbi Shimon the Teacher. He was educated in his father's cheder[1] until he was 13 years old, the age of performing commandments, and was then accepted at the Volozhin Yeshiva. He left for Minsk while still young, got married and remained there as a rabbinic judge and preacher in the study hall frequented by craftsmen. His family comprised a son and three daughters. He moved from Minsk to Lebedov in the environs of Molodtzneh.

In the early 1920s, when the residents of Steibtz offered Rabbi Yehoshua Dov Lieberman the position of town rabbi, Rabbi Moshe arrived in Steibtz. His numerous family members offered him a position as a rabbi and he chose his place in the new study hall, where he gave a class to the public on Eyn Ya'akov[2]. He remained with his youngest daughter, Golah, until the end of his life. He died at a ripe old age in 5694 (1933) and was brought to rest in the cemetery in Steibtz. His family erected a monument over his grave in his memory.


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Cheder (Hebrew): religious Jewish elementary school for boys. Return
  2. Eyn Ya'akov (Hebrew): a collection of non-legal portions of the Talmud by Ya'akov Ibn Chabib, 1433- 1516]. Return

 

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