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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.

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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.

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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


Rabbi Yehoshua Dov Lieberman

by Zvi Stolovitzki

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

Rabbi Yehoshua Dov Lieberman– May the Lord avenge his blood! May the memory of the righteous be blessed!– was born in Steibtz in the year 5644 (1884). His parents were Rabbi Shlomo, ritual slaughterer and examiner (of lungs) and Chaya Golda. He was the oldest son in a family of rabbis: His brother, Rabbi Yosef, served as a rabbi in Bitan, near Slonim. Another rabbi, Rabbi Yaakov, who passed away in the prime of life, was a ritual slaughterer and examiner in Horodishtz. And– May he have a long life!– Rabbi Meir, who was a rabbi in Yalinova (Poland) and is now a rabbi in one of the communities in the USA. Besides them, there were two sisters, Sarah and Pessiah, whose husband, Rabbi Shlomo Ha–Ari, replaced his father–in–law as ritual slaughterer and examiner.

While still a lad, Yehoshua Dov was accepted at the famous Slovodka Yeshiva and learned Torah from the mouth of the well–known head of the yeshiva, the Gaon Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein and the righteous Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel, the “Grandfather” of Slovodka, the spiritual monitor and tone setter of the yeshiva.

After marrying Michala, daughter of a rabbi from Shidletz, he was appointed head of the yeshiva in the town of Houman[1], near Minsk. At the end of the First World War, when Rabbi Yoel Sorotskin left for Russia and Steibtz was without a rabbi for a few years, Rabbi Yehoshua Dov Lieberman took the reins of the rabbinate in his hometown of Steibtz.

It is worth pointing out that, in those very years when the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, “the rabbi from Kosov” who was later known as the Chazon Ish, was living in Steibtz as a war refugee, he rejected the urgings of the residents of Steibtz to accept the position of town rabbi for reasons of principle, to which he was faithful all his life.

 

His Character

As said above, the rabbi studied at the Slovodka Yeshiva, which was then in full glory. The “Grandfather” from Slovodka, who was a student of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar (ethics) movement, conducted talks and the teaching of Mussar at the yeshiva. There, at the yeshiva, the rabbi's character was formed and he tried to impart the outlook of his religious–ethical world which he acquired there to the members of his community in Steibtz.

It is obvious that his work was difficult. Influential people in the town, adults who were preoccupied with supporting their families, didn't have the free time or peace of mind to study Torah and especially to listen to the preaching about a system of morality. Therefore, like most of the great scholars of that generation, he began building from the foundation, placing brick upon brick, tile upon tile, and devoted himself entirely to educating children.

Coming to Steibtz as town rabbi, he found private cheders[2] belonging to the teachers: Rabbi Avraham Chayat (Vatnik), Eshkovitz and others. The Talmud Torah[3], which was located in the synagogue yard, was intended for children from poor families who could not afford the tuition and was in a run–down condition.

The rabbi placed the Talmud Torah under his patronage. He brought in expert teachers for teaching religious subjects and also a teacher for teaching secular subjects and the language of the country. He changed the name Talmud Torah to Chorev (Mt. Sinai) and after the reorganization bore fruit, respectable and wealthy residents, too, no longer hesitated to send their sons to study there. In the last years before the outbreak of World War II, the number of pupils reached 150. There was a need to add classrooms and, for the purpose, a second floor was erected and built for the school with the rabbi's initiative and with the help of activists such as Rabbi Shlomo Ha–Ari, Rabbi Yosef Miskov and others along with the development of a network of religious schools for girls called Beis Yaakov.[4] The rabbi put up a splendid building with the help of influential people and local generous residents, without any aid from outside and founded a Beis Yaakov school for girls. Together with these schools, he also established a low–level yeshiva for the continuing education of elementary school graduates.

He tried to “magnify and glorify Torah”[5] by also bringing in students from outside and by influencing important people in the town to take grooms for their daughters from among the students of the adjacent Mir Yeshiva and from other yeshivot and succeeded in this endeavor as well. And so they took Torah students for their daughters: Ber Strogovitz, Sheyna Bassia Shapira, Avraham Yaakov Charchorim, Shlomo Palei and others. It's no wonder, therefore, that he was always drawn closer to and surrounded by young people. He always mentioned this saying of our Sages of Blessed Memory, “Rebbi[6] brings rich people closer”. These were young people rich in years and whose future still lay ahead of them, with whom he would discuss words of Torah and preach at any suitable time, about any idea that flashed into his mind, either while standing in the study hall after the prayer service, or in the evenings at his home which was always bustling with young people.

The rabbi's home served, as the saying of our Sages of Blessed Memory goes, as “a house and meeting place for wise men ”,[7] and all the young people would feel in his house as though they were in their own home. There they would listen to words of Torah and read the newspaper Dos Vort from Vilna or the Tageblat, the mouthpiece of Agudas Yisrael[8] in Poland and would discuss world affairs and public and local issues. The rabbi's wife, Michala– May she rest in peace! – “who looketh after the ways of her household[9]” was a lovely and noble woman whose ways were quiet and pleasant, died in Warsaw in 1937 from a malignant disease in the prime of her life. May her soul be bound up in the bond of life of the righteous!

In the summer, on Shabbat afternoon before the Mincha (afternoon) service, the rabbi would expound upon Pirkei Avot[10], but he managed only to advance a few lines in the Mishna before branching off into distant worlds for about an hour or an hour and a half. Pearls of wisdom issued from his mouth. He presented the subject to his audience very clearly and his listeners were fascinated and held spell–bound by what their ears heard. One can suppose, judging by all the signs, that he didn't prepare his discussions ahead of time. His mouth was like a perennial fountain of water. He based his talks to a considerable extent on the great teachers of morals, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, author of “HaChafetz Chaim” and other rabbis. His discourses were in the nature of an intimate conversation. At the conclusion of his lecture, he moved on to current events in the life of the Jewish community. And that he did fearlessly, consistent and zealous

[Page 53]

for religion, and if he saw fit, he would attack phenomena and personalities. He was a fighter and zealot for the truth and held high the banner of Torah. In his sermons on the Sabbath of Repentance[11] and on the “Great Sabbath[12]”, he would reach the climax and hold the listeners spell–bound for two hours or more.

Many people were eager to turn to him for judgment in monetary affairs. He avoided accepting a fee for making a decision as other rabbis were accustomed to doing. He hated unjust gain and was uncorrupted. Therefore, Christians would often come to him when they had an argument with Jews. He would sometimes ask important people in the town to sit beside him and serve as arbiters to help reach a compromise.

The following incident will testify to his quality of honesty and his renown among the Gentiles: A Christian by the name of Pashke, who served as a water drawer for Jewish homes, deposited his savings – a considerable amount of money– with the rabbi. In time, this man died childless, without leaving any inheritors. The rabbi brought this deposit into the burgermeister's (mayor's) office. He was the Christian mayor of the town of Steibtz. He (the rabbi) was really disgusted with this money, which leads to sin and, at the end of the year 5699 (1939), when the Soviets came into Steibtz, he expressed some consolation to his close friends, saying that now, at least, the evil inclination leading to the worship of money and the Golden Calf would disappear.

Rabbi Yehoshua distanced himself from prominence. He didn't go to conferences and rabbinic conventions. His few meetings with rabbis and ultra–Orthodox leaders took place in Sofut, near Danzig. He would travel there for a vacation and bathing in the sea. In the later years, he lent a hand to setting up a branch of Agudas Yisrael in Steibtz, but he apparently didn't want to be identified at all with the movement's institutions. Therefore, he would claim that the operations of the Agudah in Steibtz were OK; that was enough for him. What the center did, didn't interest him.

The rabbi gave most of his attention to the educational institutions which he built from start to finish. He would visit them every week and sometimes every day, accompanied by his brother–in–law, Rabbi Shlomo Ha–Ari, the ritual slaughterer and examiner of lungs, or by one of the adult yeshiva students who were staying in the town. How happy and satisfied he was when he would go “from strength to strength”, visiting the Talmud Torah (Chorev), from there to Beis Yaakov and end up at the lower–level yeshiva. In each place he listened to the lessons and the way they were conducted by the teacher.

The pupils, on the other hand, merited his encouragement. He would sometimes pinch the cheeks of an excellent pupil. Sometimes, at the end of the lesson, he would enter into conversation with pupils, during which he would present examples of child prodigies and geniuses. He would frequently repeat the saying Vilner Gaon[13] in Yiddish. Vilner sounds like the Yiddish words “vil nor”, meaning “please want”: to be a genius – become a genius. After conversing with the teachers and receiving a report, he would continue his tour, like the head of an army reviewing his troops. This was his reward for all his toil and, at that time of satisfaction, it seemed he would forget the influential people in the town and the problems of the rabbinate and all the arguments.

As said above, he was a man of conversation and speech. Most of his lectures and sermons had to do with the spirit of the theory of ethics and its principles. Nevertheless, he frequently used sayings which served as guiding lights: for example, the maxim of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, in the tractate of Ethics of the Fathers (6:2), “Every single day a heavenly voice emanates from Mt. Chorev (Mt. Sinai) and proclaims and says: 'Woe to those people who insult the Torah'.” He (Rabbi Yehoshua Dov Lieberman) would also say: “There are 3 people who are sometimes mistaken: the butcher, the teacher of young children and the rabbi. The butcher is mistaken thinking that his customers were created in order to support him and not the opposite– that he was created to provide meat for Jews. Similarly, the teacher of little children wrongly thinks that his pupils exist to support their teacher and not the opposite– that he exists to teach them Torah. And also the rabbi, who is mistaken thinking that his town and the important residents exist to provide for the rabbi and to maintain him and not the opposite– that he exists to serve the community and to guide them in the ways of Torah and its commandments.” Another saying that served him as a great foundation and encouragement in life was: “A little light repels a lot of darkness”.

More than 20 years have passed since he died a martyr's death along with the entire community.

The writer of these lines is “a brand rescued from the fire[14]”. During these same years he (the writer) underwent various metamorphoses. He admits and confesses that hardly a day goes by that he doesn't think about, to some extent, Rabbi Yehoshua Dov and his behavior. Just as he (the writer) does, the rest of his few pupils who remained alive as survivors will remember his name and think about him.

The words of the Mishna in the Tractate Bava Metzia (33:71) have now become clear to me. (Comparing) “…the loss of one's father and one's teacher: that of one's teacher surpasses the other because his father brought him into this world, whereas his teacher, who taught him wisdom, brings him into the life of the world–to–come”.

*

Calamity descended upon the world bringing the days of the Holocaust, the likes of which were unknown to the Jewish people since it had become a nation. The rabbi's house was burned down together with most of the Jewish houses in our little town. The people closest to him: Rabbi Shlomo Ha–Ari, Rabbi Dovid Shmuelvitz, Rabbi Moshe Giteles and Rabbi Yaakov Domnitz– May their blood be avenged!– were seized by the Gestapo in the first weeks following the invasion and, after horrible tortures, were murdered together with 80 more residents of Steibtz.

The rabbi, who remained childless, often visited his friend the potter Mordechai Feivel Kivovitz in his small, low house at the end of Potchtova Street, which was within the ghetto complex.

Because of the remoteness of the place, the difficulties of the subjugation, the troubles for the individual and the community and the existence of the military situation, which prohibited movement in the evenings even from one yard to another, I didn't see him often at that time, only once or twice. When I went inside, I found the rabbi dressed like one of the people. He had on a simple hat and wasn't wearing a rabbi's cloak. I was amazed… His appearance brought home to me our destruction and the low point of our situation more than other calamities. And although he was bearded, I compared him at that very moment to a Holy Ark in the synagogue, whose curtain had been removed on the night of the 9th of the month of Av[15].

The members of the Judenrat[a], led by Yirmiyahu Pras, continued secretly to come to the rabbi for advice and resourcefulness. However, he didn't have any encouragement and solace. He was still in this world only physically, but in spirit and in thought he was already beyond life. Apparently, he felt and saw that fate was decreed and what could be saved was only by eternal life. That idea occupied him in those days and he spoke to the people about this subject.

On the bitter and impetuous day of the 12th of the month of Tishrei 5703 (23rd September, 1942), he was taken out to be killed like one of the Ten Rabbis who were tortured and murdered by the Romans, wrapped in a prayer shawl, and died a martyr's death together with all the community.

May the Almighty avenge his blood and the blood of all the martyrs!


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Houman – It is unclear to which town this refers to. Possibly Kamen – 37.1 miles W of Minsk 53°54' N 27°34' E. (There are 8 places named ‘Kamen’ or ‘Kamien’ in Belarus). Return
  2. Cheder – religious elementary school. Return
  3. Talmud Torah – elementary school for learning Torah. Return
  4. Beis Yaakov – “House of Jacob” referring to women. Return
  5. Isaiah 42:21. Return
  6. Rebbi – Rabbi Judah the Prince. Return
  7. “Ethics of the Fathers”– Chapter 1:4. Return
  8. Agudas Yisrael – ultra–Orthodox organization. Return
  9. Proverbs 31:18– “A Woman of Valor”. Return
  10. Pirkei Avot – Mishna: “Ethics of the Fathers”. Return
  11. Sabbath of Repentance – between the New Year and Day of Atonement. Return
  12. Great Sabbath – before Passover. Return
  13. Vilner Gaon – the genius from Vilna. Return
  14. “a brand rescued from the fire” – a survivor, Zechariah 3:2. Return
  15. 9th of Av – anniversary of the destruction of the Holy Temple. Return


Footnote:

  1. Judenrat – Jewish Council which managed daily affairs in the ghetto. 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


Rabbi Yerachmiel Leizerzon

by Rabbi Elchanan Sorotzkin

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

Thus decreed the Divine Providence that he would be the last and the….. first. When he was young, his whole being gave promise of his greatness, that he would be a great rabbi, loved by God and man and that he would serve in the place of his forefathers who occupied the seat of the rabbinate in Steibtz. And behold! He, his house and town were destroyed and he was cut down while in his prime.

He received his Torah education from two teachers: Rabbi Aharon Kottler- May the memory of the righteous be blessed! –a genius of world renown, a brilliant scholar with an exceptional ability to develop logical arguments and an outstandingly gifted leader and also while engrossed in the “4 cubits of Halacha”[1]at the Kletzk Yeshiva. His second teacher was his father-in-law, the Gaon[2] Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin – May the memory of the righteous be blessed! – the greatest and most diligent of students in Volozhyn and a distinct student of Rabbi Chaim of Brisk –May the memory of the righteous be blessed! – a walking encyclopedia, great in deeds, full of energy and initiative, sharp-witted and erudite, bearing the yoke of the needs of the town, a rabbi who practiced what he preached. Both teachers shaped Rabbi Yerachmiel's spiritual character with their radiant personality, and under whose guidance he developed his strengths and exceptional skills to be a rabbi and spiritual shepherd of God's community when the time would come. His great father-in-law, Rabbi Yoel Sorotzkin –May the memory of the righteous be blessed! – after returning from exile in Soviet Russia, broken and exhausted, but with his indomitable spirit and soul, devoted his final years to Torah and service and when he married off his youngest daughter, a delicate soul, Rachel (Raychel) – May her blood be avenged! – to Rabbi Yerachmiel, he adopted him as his son and brought him into the counsel of the rabbinate and leadership of the town.

He was a native of Steibtz, son of the Gaon Rabbi Dov Ber, who moved his family far off to eastern Galicia, where he served as a rabbi in the town of Turka, an important community in this district, remaining faithful, however, to his Lithuanian roots and sent his son, Yerachmiel, to study at the magnificent Kletzk Yeshiva, where he studied diligently for 8 years and stood out with his pleasant manners and in the maturity of his thinking. He found a way to the heart of his fine wife –May she rest in peace! – a pupil at a school in Communist Moscow, to build together with him a home of rabbis among the Jewish people. He quickly succeeded in becoming endeared to the residents of Steibtz despite his young age and his being a “native of the town”- two serious obstacles, as usual, on the way to inheriting the position of town rabbi. Nevertheless, the residents of Steibtz considered him a suitable candidate after the longevity of his father-in-law, the Gaon, their adored and very popular rabbi.

In the year 5695 (1934), when he was 24 years old, he married. as was said above, Raychel Sorotzkin-Carmel, who was the same age, and he moved to Steibtz (into the home of his father-in-law, the Gaon and president of the rabbinic court – May the memory of the righteous be blessed!) There he did not move from the “tent of Torah” and studied assiduously either by himself

 

Sto054.jpg
Rabbi Yerachmiel Leizerzon

 

or with his father-in-law, the Gaon –May the memory of the righteous be blessed! – until his last day and also when he (his father-in-law) was ill and was staying at a nursing home in Otvotsk and passed away on the 9th day of the month of Tamuz, 5698 (July 8, 1938). He began to preach in public and attracted crowds of listeners who came to hear his words spoken in good taste and with wisdom. He likewise took it upon himself to teach “religious studies” in the Steibtz public high school (replacing his ill father-in-law). Many of his pupils live in Israel today and talk with admiration about his lessons in Judaism which amazingly instilled in them a connection to the tradition of our ancestors and great respect for the saints of the Jewish people and its Torah. Two daughters were born in Steibtz (one of whom died when she was one year old.)

When his father-in-law, the Gaon – May his memory be blessed! – passed away, the residents of Steibtz accepted him as their rabbi and were consoled for their great and adored rabbi. They obeyed him and followed his advice and he led his community like a veteran.

He served in this position in peace and tranquility for only one year. The Second World War suddenly broke out and Steibtz was occupied by the Red Army and, while he still could, the Gaon Rabbi Yerachmiel left Steibtz with his family out of fear of the new regime and out of anxiety for the life of his wife, who had left Russia in her time.

They headed for Galicia, to the city where his parents lived, hoping they would be able to emigrate to the Land of Israel from there, but the border was closed and he, his wife and their little daughter perished in the Holocaust together with the entire House of Israel.

May the Lord avenge their blood!


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Halacha -Tractate Brachot- studying Jewish law as a substitute for the offerings once brought to the Holy Temple Return
  2. Gaon - “genius” - rabbinic title. Return


[Page 55]

Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz,
the “Chazon Ish”
[1]

by Getzel Reizer

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

During the First World War, in the little town of Steibtz, a man of rare character, a genius, walked humbly about.

He used to live opposite our house, which gave me the opportunity, in the days of my youth, to observe the behavior of this remarkable rabbi. I shall try, with my meager skills, to describe a few of his character traits.

For me, he was a symbol of perseverance. I remember one sleepless night after midnight. In the moonlight, I peeped into his room, and across from me was the image of this Gaon[2], the author of the Chazon Ish, walking about, his lips whispering…. A few minutes went by in this way, and then he walked over to his table, dipped his pen in ink and wrote his new interpretations.

Seriousness bordering on sadness was spread over his face. The sorrow of the world and its fullness touched his heart, but as soon as the holiday of Sukkot[3] and especially Simchat Torah[4] arrived, his face lit up - with the Hakafot[5] and Torah dances, his image conspicuous as he walked around the table with a Torah scroll pressed close to his heart, caressing it and clinging fast to it with sparks of joy and exultation in his eyes.

He loved quiet and although silence reigned all around him, and even the people close to him kept quiet. He was used to going around in silk sandals

 

Sto055.jpg
The “Chazon Ish

 

so that he would not awaken his wife, who was sleeping from the day's toil, with his lips silently whispering subject after subject from the Talmud.

In our town, he was given the nickname, “the newly wed yeshiva student from Kosova” after the name of his birthplace, Kosova, in the Grodno district. When World War I broke out, and Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya's little town, which was in the area of the front, was disrupted by troops, he moved to our little town. During these years, Steibtz was left without a rabbi. Some of the most influential people and mainly the scholars among them such as Reb Eliayhu, the ritual slaughter and inspector, Reb Meir Haimovitz and others, who had a chance to size up the “man from Kosova”, asked him to occupy the position of town rabbi, but he refused. The urgings of the town's residents were to no avail, nor was the fact that he himself was the son of the rabbi of the little town of Kosova. He remained steadfast in his refusal.

His wife, Basia, opened a small knitwear shop and bore the yoke of earning a living, and her husband, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya, who was immersed most of the day and night in studying Torah, also found time to help his wife in managing the shop's accounts, and so he remained in our town for five years from 5675 to 5680 (1914-1919).

Thirty years have passed after tribulations and the dreadful Shoah, which came upon the Jewish people in Europe. I arrived in our homeland as a “brand plucked out of the fire”[6] in the first year of the establishment of the State. During those years, I was engaged in training new workers in the construction professions. As fate would have it, it fell on my lot to work in putting up housing in Bnei Brak, and behold, one day one of the apprentices approached me and asked to be released from work one hour early, explaining that due to an illness in his family, he wished to visit a great and well-known rabbi by the name of “Ha-Chazon Ish“ to request advice and resourcefulness.

I was seized by an overwhelming curiosity to know who this remarkable rabbi was that many people turned to in times of distress, After researching the matter, I found out that the author of the Chazon Ish was none other than the “newly wed yeshiva student from Kosova”, who was living honorably in our city.

Shortly thereafter, I went to his house in the Zichron-Meir neighborhood of Bnei Brak. When I entered, he greeted me very cordially and brought up memories from the time he was a young man in Steibtz. During our conversation, he went over to his book cabinet and took out his book, Chazon Ish, opened it to page 11, column B (line 22) in the tractate Kaylim and showed me his words at the beginning of paragraph 7:

“With God's help, Sunday, the 15th day of Tamuz, 5675 (27th June 1915) (a year of war on the face of the earth, a war which the governments of Germany and Austria waged against the governments of Russia, England and France, a war which ruined cities and destroyed countries where Jews lived, and myriads of Jews were sent into exile without any support and rest, and young Jewish men were killed on the battlefields in many places, and study halls for teaching and studying Torah dwindled without support and maintenance and there was great confusion among all the Jews). (Written in) Steibtz (nearly the entire town was burned down on Monday, the 25th day of the month of Sivan (Monday, 7th June 1915) and all its inhabitants were left in stress and duress, without a house to live in and a place to spend the night).”

He gave me the book as a memorial.

Since then, I had the privilege of visiting him a number of times. I would tell him about the organization of the residents of Steibtz and about the charity fund we established

[Page 56]

in the name of the martyrs of Steibtz. Likewise, I came to him on behalf of a resident of our town living in the USA to request a blessing for a sick person.

His home was always full of yeshiva boys, students of Torah, and also Jews who come to relate their problems and troubles to him. He welcomed them graciously, but it seemed to me that he extended special kindness to me on account of my being a native son of Steibtz. He once even told me that a boy from America, whose parents have a close connection to Steibtz, was studying at the adjacent yeshiva. He was a great man, but in his way of life, he remained humble, just as he was in the days of his life in Steibtz.

His modesty also persisted after his death - on his grave in Zichron-Meir in Bnei Brak, on the flat tombstone, the following words are engraved: Resting place of the Gaon, a true Chassid[7], Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu - May his memory be blessed for life in the World to Come - author of the Chazon Ish, son of the Gaon, the pious Rabbi Shmariah Yosef Karelitz- May his memory be blessed for life in the World to Come. His soul left him in purity on the night of the holy Sabbath, the 15th day of the month of Marcheshvan[8], 5714 (24th October, 1953).

May his soul be bound up in the bond of the living!


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Chazon Ish – Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya. His book of the same name, Chazon Ish, is mentioned in this chapter without quotation marks. Return
  2. Gaon – “Genius”- a rabbinic title. Return
  3. Sukkot - Festival of Tabernacles or Booths. Return
  4. Simchat Torah - the holiday of the Joy of Torah at the conclusion of Sukkot. Return
  5. Hakafot - carrying the Torah scrolls around the table where the Torah is read in the synagogue. Return
  6. “brand plucked out of the fire” – a survivor, Zecharia 3:2. Return
  7. Chassid – Hebrew: pious individual. Return
  8. Marcheshvan – Hebrew: the eighth month often shortened to Cheshvan Return


The Personality of the “Chazon Ish[1]

by Tzvi Stolovitsky

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

The author of the “Chazon Ish”, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed, was not a native of our town. In a time of distress, at the beginning of the First World War, he pitched his tent in Steibtz for a period of 5 years until the fury blew over, without serving in any capacity and walking around humbly all the days of his stay among us.

As has already been mentioned, he immortalised his stay in Steibtz with words saturated in sorrow and pain over the loss of life, the small amount of Torah study and the pressure on the town's inhabitants. These thoughts are manifest in his book, Chazon Ish, at the beginning of paragraph 7, in the tractate Kaylim[2]. The “Chazon Ish” succeeded with his great genius, in expressing in a few words, the dread of war in all its depth. He expressed all of this, as briefly as possible, in a book dealing with Halachah[3], in which there is no introduction and no indication of the author's name.

Therefore, it is our duty to bring forth in this memorial book for our community, some of the words written on the subject called the “Chazon Ish”, by great Torah personalities, who came to his house and listened to his lessons so that the residents of our town would have some idea of the life and work of this remarkable and righteous genius.

The Compiler…

Our Teacher, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya was born on the 11th day of the month of Cheshvan 5638 (18th October 1877) in Kosova. His father was Rabbi Shmaryahu Yosef Karelitz, the Rabbi of Kosova, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed. Our Teacher, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed, mentions some of his teachers, including his father, the Gaon[4], author of the book “Beit Talmud”, a commentary on the Mishnah[5] Chulin, in which inferences of the Gemara[6] are incorporated and on the Deciders[7] of questions pertaining to Jewish law – rules which can be put into actual practice in matters relating to this tractate. He also mentions his teacher, the Gaon Rabbi Moshe Tuvia, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed.

He married in Chavyadan and set up residence there. From there he moved to Minsk and then to Steibtz, where he lived during WWI.

From Steibtz, he moved to Vilna in the year 5680 (1919), where he formed close ties with the leader of all the rabbis and scholars from the Diaspora, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed. In the year 5693 (1932) he emigrated to the Land of Israel and settled in Bnei Brak, from where his light of Torah teaching, radiated throughout the world and where his pure soul returned to Heaven on the 15th day of Mar–Cheshvan 5714 (24 October, 1953). He was brought to eternal rest the next day, accompanied by myriads of observant Jews from the community.

In Bnei Brak, in his simple and modest room, furnished with meager furniture, he lay most of the day on his bed, a rickety, iron bed, reading a book with great concentration, or leaning on his shoulder, arranging sentences from the Torah in his notebooks, letter by letter, word by word.

Many people came into his room perplexed and filled with doubts and they left with solutions to their problems, in their hand. Many people came to him asking for a word of Torah and left with their request granted.

He was shy and retiring and did not desire leadership. He did not want to be conspicuous and refused to appear in public, but his outstanding personality turned him, unwittingly, into the leader of the generation. All his influence on the course of public affairs was indirect. Only toward the end of his life did he emerge from the boundaries with which he had enclosed himself and became directly involved in the issue of the conscription of girls into the army. He saw this as an action liable to harm the integrity and modesty of a daughter of Israel.

And when he met with one of the high–ranking government leaders, and the conversation turned to the possibility of finding common ground between observant Jews and those who had distanced themselves from a religious way of life, he gave the following analogy: When a wagon is passing on a narrow road and another wagon is coming from the opposite direction, the empty wagon[8] must leave the road and make room for the full wagon[9].

It is said about him that when he was 13 years old, he took it upon himself to study Torah for its own sake – and not for applause, not for honor or respect, nor for brilliance – but literally for its own sake. And as our Sages of Blessed Memory said: Whoever engages in Torah study for its own sake, merits many things[10]. He became a bastion of Torah, a fortified hill, to which people from all over the world turned, requesting instruction from him. Those who came were: Chassidic Jews and their opponents – the Mitnagdim, members of all the various communities, and people from all parts of the Diaspora, both men and women, yeshiva students and workers, rabbis and merchants. Anyone who had doubts or needed advice could go into his modest and simple house in Bnei Brak at any time of the day or night and leave with his doubts removed, and then, with encouragement in his heart, find direction for his path in life.

In one of his letters to an old friend in the Land of Israel, Our Teacher, the Gaon, the “Chazon Ish”, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed, wanted to know about the development of the Holy Land. From the time of the Balfour Declaration and the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews to the Holy Land, hope had been aroused for the revival of the desolation in the land and the restoration of the country to its splendor and beauty. He was so insistent about the fact, that when various people made excuses, material or spiritual, for not going to live in the Land of Israel, including members of his own community and Diaspora Jews, our Teacher, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed, wrote in one of his letters: “The situation of the land is exaggerated from afar, as is known, and is not worse than in the Diaspora, God forbid. The commandment to live in the Land of Israel was decided by the Rambam[11] and the Ramban[12] and by other Deciders of Halachah, and it is known how much the Chafetz Chaim[13], may his righteous memory be blessed for life in the World–to–Come– aspired to go and live in the Land of Israel".

Out of love for the Holy Land, he wanted to see the “Children of Zion”, who were distinguished in their observance of Halachah and Torah, settling in this desirable land and pitching their tent in it. And whenever he saw someone from abroad visiting

[Page 57]

the Land of Israel, and asking whether they should settle there, he encouraged and strengthened their determination to emigrate there. A young tourist from the USA visited him one day at the time when restrictions on coming to live in the land were in effect during the British Mandate period. The Gaon, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed, asked him: Did you come to settle in the country? The answer was negative. The Gaon said to him: You are not allowed to leave the Land of Israel. The guest was confused and said: I heard that if you come to the country with no intention to settle here, you may leave. The Gaon replied: You are taking pains to find a way to leave the country, at a time when we are all making an effort, on the contrary, to find ways to come and live in the land.

And Our Teacher, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed, went to live in the Land of Israel in 5693 (1932) while Poland was still a stronghold of Torah and custom, and settled in the small town of Bnei Brak. As soon as he arrived, his first concern was the excellent observance of the commandments that relate to the land. Our Teacher, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed, prepared a new Shulchan Aruch[14] full to overflowing, on this Torah subject. Few others devoted themselves to this study, for the exile from our country distanced us from our land and its commandments. The books written by Our Teacher, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed, dealing with the commandments of shmittah[15], trumah[16] and ma'asrot[17], kilay'im[18] and orlah[19] are books of fundamentals that encompass these laws in all their ramifications. These books and his instructions for putting the laws into practice, to a great extent, were given to farmers who followed his instructions and put his teachings into practice. These farmers were the pioneers of Po'alei Agudat Yisrael[20], under the leadership of Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim. They helped restore the crown of the observance of the commandments related to the land, to their ancient usage, among the faithful followers of the Jewish people. The efforts of Our Teacher and Rabbi, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed, on the matter of shmittah, restored the glory of the commandment to its proper place and saved it from being forgotten in our generation.

The teachings of Our Teacher, the Gaon, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed, were collected in his 23 books, the first one, titled Chazon Ish, appeared in Vilna in the year 5671 (1910) and the last one was published posthumously in Jerusalem in 5714 (1953).

In addition to his books, his works also appeared in several collections of Halachah and in various rabbinical publications, many of which were anonymous or had assumed names such as: A man from Kosova, A man from Vilna, T. Yashar (that is to say, a pupil of Rashi[21] – his father the Gaon, Rabbi Shmaryahu Yosef, may the memory of this righteous man be blessed) – and from hearsay.

(From the book, “Ha–Ish v'Chazono” by Rabbi Kalman Kahana)

When the book, Chazon Ish, dealing with Orach Chaim[22] in matters of holiness and laws of nidah (menstruation), was published for the first time in Vilna in the year 5671(1910), it was something of an innovation. A profound, deep and innovative book without an author's name –anonymous … From that time on, the Gaon continued to publish book after book and all were “published anonymously”. It was obvious that it was impossible that during all these years, that the community did not recognize the work of the famous Ish, even though the name of the author did not appear on his treatise or it could be the opposite: the power of the deed in practice. The author is called by the name of his treatise. The “Chazon Ish” – this is his name, and this is his legacy.

He was not a pulpit rabbi or head of a Rabbinical College, or one who “prolongs the life of the community” – and everyone knew: Torah will go forth from Bnei Brak. There, in some corner, sits the “Chazon Ish”. There, yeshiva students frequently come for a d'var Torah[23]. Rabbis come with questions and answers, and from there, new books are published chapter by chapter – and sometimes in close or regular succession on all subjects of Torah.

He published more than 20 books on most of the topics of the Six Orders of the Mishnah and Gemara as well as on the Deciders of Jewish religious Law, in which he deals with their areas of study or subjects. Who, like him, was engaged in the study of all 6 Orders of the Mishnah (Seeds, Festivals, Women, Damages, Holy Things and Ritual Purity)? And there was none like him, who wrote detailed books on the subjects of Vessels, Leprosy and other contagions, and Ohalot[24] and all the rest as far as Okatzim[25], and all inclusively. There is almost no Halachic subject which has not been pondered, or exact, in any of the books of the “Chazon Ish”. The great scope of the subjects arouses amazement.

The power of this Decider and judge, in his ability to outweigh all other scholars, is mostly revealed in two ways: in his going against the current, and his willingness to grant dispensation for something that is usually forbidden. And in both ways, we see the power of the “Chazon Ish”.

… Regarding “against the current”: his instruction, for example, to the Holocaust refugees in Kobe, Japan, situated 100° east of Jerusalem (135° degrees east of Greenwich) in the year 5701 (1940) was to fast one day later than the rest of the world on Yom Kippur. He held as valid the method of the Kuzari[26] and HaMaor,[27] that the boundary between East and West is 90° from Jerusalem, and the Sabbath day in Japan is Sunday, as it is called all over the world. He based his method in his book, “A Booklet of 18 Hours”, especially written for that purpose. The Gaon was not influenced by the fact that nearly all the rabbis in the country and abroad agreed that they should not change the Sabbath day or the Day of Atonement from the day of the week that the rest of the world observes them. He stood against everyone, firm in his opinion and method, and sent a brief and decisive telegram to Kobe, Japan: “Eat on Wednesday and fast on Thursday and don't be afraid of anything.” Here, before us, is not just an example of his going against the stream, but also of his tremendous willingness to grant dispensation.

We find his thorough and profound knowledge in astronomical calculations also in his clarifications and innovations regarding the laws of “Sanctification of the New Month”; and when he reached the Mishnah of “he who plants vegetables in a vineyard”, he opened his remarks in an introduction: “The Sages of Good Measurements have written…….”, and he explains the well–known rule of engineering called “Pythagoras's Law”, (without his mentioning it by name).

And his knowledge of the Sciences even spread beyond the borders of Halachah. He had a thorough knowledge of what we call “the science of surgery”, and the greatest doctors were often amazed at how precise his assumptions were, and that he did not err in his advice to those who were dangerously or not dangerously ill, those who would turn to him from near and far. Eye–witnesses even report some stories bordering on “miracles”, but it seems that even this was a rule of Halachah for him. Saving a life in danger, help and welfare, bestowing acts of kindness and the like – all these were essential parts of the Torah.

It is fitting to point out especially, one side of the coin of the “Chazon Ish” as a philosopher and a person with a poetic soul, full of emotion and vision. His little book, Chazon Ish, dealing with matters of faith and trust, which his pupils published after his death, is an important gem in the literature of thought. Likewise, much can be learned from two collections of his letters which have been published.

(From the book, “Personalities and Methods”, by the Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zavin –May he live long and happily– Amen)

Anyone who came to his house sad and worried would leave afterwards with a smiling face and a lightened heart. When people came to him requesting mercy for a dangerously ill person, whose doctors had already given up hope of healing him, he would say to them sternly: “A doctor has been given permission to heal, something we learn from our Sages of Blessed Memory, from what is written: “… he shall cause him to be thoroughly healed” (Exodus: 21:19). From here we learn that permission has been granted to the doctor to heal, but permission to despair, has not been given to him….

[Page 58]

The “Chazon Ish” gave a lot of help to yeshivot, kollelim[28] and Talmuday Torah[29] that were struggling to exist. He also helped young scholars who had difficulty supporting themselves and set up spacious living quarters for their sake. Through his connections, he arranged the marriages of hundreds of couples and provided them with needs for their marriage. Hundreds of thousands of lirot that were philanthropic donations from those who admired and respected him in Israel and in countries of the Diaspora, passed through his hands for these needs.

He himself lived very frugally. He earned his living from the sale of the books he wrote, that were sold for two lirot a book. If someone asked to add something to the price, he insisted on returning the change.

A few years before his death, an American philanthropist – one of his admirers – built him a small house, without his knowledge, that stood on a hill at the end of the Zichron–Meir neighborhood in Bnei Brak. When he heard about it, the “Chazon Ish” refused to live in that house, but when he could no longer resist the urging of his family and acquaintances, he agreed to move into the dwelling on condition that he pay the usual rent. After his death, his students established a Talmud Torah in this house, in his name. There is also a kollel bearing his name, “Chazon Ish” in Bnei Brak for newly married yeshiva students. It is one of the most splendid institutions of its kind in the country and is managed by his brother–in–law, the Gaon Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, may he live a long and happy life, Amen.

(From the book, “Yechiday Segula” by Rabbi Issar Frankel)

Compiler, Zvi Stolovitsky


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Chazon Ish” – Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz was known by the name of his magnus opusChazon Ish”… His book of the same name, Chazon Ish, is mentioned in this chapter without quotation marks. Return
  2. Kaylim – Vessels. Return
  3. Halachah – Jewish religious law. Return
  4. Gaon – “Genius” – a rabbinic title. Return
  5. Mishnah – compilation of traditional laws. Return
  6. Gemara – discussions and clarifications of the Mishnah. Return
  7. Deciders – arbiters. Rabbinical scholars who pronounce on disputes and halachah questions. Return
  8. empty wagon – secular Jews. Return
  9. full wagon – Orthodox or traditional Jews. Return
  10. Ethics of the Fathers, 6:1. Return
  11. Rambam – Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon – Maimonides. Return
  12. Ramban – Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman. Return
  13. Chafetz Chaim – Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan. Return
  14. Shulchan Aruch – Code of Jewish Law. Return
  15. Shmittah – letting the land lie fallow in the seventh year of a cycle of years. Return
  16. trumah – contribution of a part of one's crop to the priests. Return
  17. ma'asrot – tithes. Return
  18. kilay'im – mingled seeds. Return
  19. orlah – prohibition of eating fruit growing on a tree during its first three years. Return
  20. Po'alei Agudat Yisrael – ultra–Orthodox workers movement. Return
  21. Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, paramount Bible and Talmud commentator of the 11th century. Return
  22. Orach Chaim – one of the 4 sections of an important Halachic code (Arba'ah Turim) or a section of the Shulchan Aruch. Return
  23. d'var Torah – Biblical discourse. Return
  24. Ohalot – a tractate of the Mishnah. Return
  25. Okatzim – Stems – the final book of the Mishnah. Return
  26. The Kuzari – book of philosophy by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi. Return
  27. HaMaor – probably relates to the Torah journal HaMaor –The Light (Brooklyn). It was published in New York from the early '50s of the 20th century. It is “dedicated to the Torah and to all matters of the people of Israel and its daily problems.” Return
  28. kollelim – institutes of higher Talmudic learning for married men. Return
  29. Talmud(ay) Torah –elementary school(s) for learning Torah. Return


The Gaon[1] Rabbi Reuven Katz of Blessed Memory[2]
(His Connection to Steibtz)

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

He was born in Ulshan in the district of Vilna on the second day of Rosh Chodesh[3] of the month of Iyar 5640 (13th April, 1880). He was the son of Rabbi Shimon Katz – May the memory of the righteous be blessed! – a scholar and expert in Torah, a Chovev Zion[4], an activist who earned a living from trade. His mother, Golda – May she rest in peace! – was the daughter of Rabbi Yechiel Michal Potashnik, of blessed memory.

From the time of his childhood, he gave evidence of possessing skills of a genius and at the age of 11, when he was already an expert in knowing the Talmudic tractates of Shabbat and Bava Kama by heart, he went off to study Torah at the yeshiva in Oshmana, where he became Bar mitzvah, accepting the yoke of the commandments upon himself, and from there he transferred to the yeshiva in Ivya, where he amazed the local scholars with his hair-splitting argumentation in developing his new interpretations. From Ivya he went to the Mir Yeshiva and when he was 15 years old, he transferred to the Radin Yeshiva, which was under the direction of the author[5] of the “Chafetz Chaim” – May the memory of the righteous be blessed! At the age of 16, he came to the “Knesset Yisrael” Yeshiva in Slovokda, near Kovna, headed by the Gaon, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein – May the memory of the righteous be blessed! In the year 5663 (1902), he joined a group in Vilna under the direction of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski – May the memory of the righteous be blessed! It was here, in 5663 (1902) that he was given the honor of becoming the son-in-law of the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil l'Eitan – May the memory of the righteous be blessed! – who was then president of the rabbinic court in Chaslovitz (earlier in Smolovitz and finally in Steibtz), when he married Reichel, the daughter of the Gaon.

He continued to study diligently in his father-in-law's home. He developed an expertise in teaching the practical application of Halacha[6] and was ordained to “teach and judge” by great rabbis of the generation, including Rabbi Yaakov David Vilovski, the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch Kamai from Mir, the Gaon Rabbi Rabinowitz, rabbi of the city of Minsk – May the memory of the righteous be blessed! – and others. In their ordinations they praise his genius and testify that he is worthy of the title of rabbi and that he will be among the great rabbis of the generation. When his father-in-law, the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil l'Eitan –May the memory of the righteous be blessed! – moved from Chaslovitz to serve as town rabbi in Steibtz, where he was received in the awe of majesty and with great love, his son-in-law also moved there with his wife. The Gaon quickly endeared himself to the groups of students in the town, and raised up many pupils, some of whom became great rabbis among the Jewish People in the course of time. With the sudden death of his father-in-law, he took upon himself the yoke of the rabbinate in the town of Slov, in the district of Minsk and from there, in 5668 (1908) moved up to occupy the seat of the rabbinate in Amdur, renowned for its great rabbis. He served honorably in the rabbinate in Amdur until 5683 (1922). It was here that he spent the war years which were accompanied by hardships and suffering, taking an active part in various kinds of public service.

 

Sto058.jpg
The Gaon Rabbi Reuven Katz
May the memory of the righteous be blessed

 

In the year 5692 (1931), when he received an official invitation to serve as a rabbi in Petach Tikvah, “Mother of the Settlements”, a dream of his youth which he had carried as an obligation throughout his travels was realized: to serve in a holy capacity in the Holy Land, uniting the Jewish religion and the Land of Israel in his activities.

He accomplished this as president of the rabbinic court and chief rabbi of Petach Tikvah, the town and “Mother of the Settlements” and its district – as well as serving as the administrative head of the upper-level yeshiva in the town, the Yeshiva of Petach Tikvah.

May his merit protect us!

(From the book, “Sha'ar Reuven”)[7]


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Gaon - “Genius” - a Rabbinic title. Return
  2. Tzvi Harkavy, Foreword, pages 5-11 in: Sha'ar Reuven. An anthology of articles by R' Reuven Katz (in Hebrew). Eretz-Israel Publications, Jerusalem, 1952, 338 pages. Return
  3. Rosh Chodesh - New Moon. Return
  4. Chovev Zion - “Lover of Zion”, a movement to rebuild the Land of Israel, precursor of Zionism. Return
  5. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of the Musar Movement. Return
  6. Halacha - Jewish law. Return
  7. Sha'ar Reuven – Clarifications on Halacha & Aggadah. Return

 

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