By Eliezer Leoni
It is a Tree of Life [Etz Hayim] to those who grasp it, and fortunate are its supporters. (Proverbs 3:18)
Rabbi Yitzchak the son of Abba says: Why is the Torah called a Tree of Life [Etz Hayim]? Because it is pleasant for all those who live. Rabbi Yudan says: Why is the Torah called a Tree of Life? Just as the Tree of Life is spread over all those who inhabit the world in the Garden of Eden so is the Torah spread over all those who are alive, and brings them to the World To Come (Midrash Tehillim, Psalm 1, paragraph 26)
The Era of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin
Translated by Jerrold Landau, based on an earlier translation by M. Porat zl
that was edited by Judy Feinsilver Montel
Volozhin in the 19th century was honored to fulfill a role similar to that of Sura and Pumbeita during the period of the Talmudic sages. This privilege was due to the Etz Hayim Yeshiva, founded in the year 5563 (1803) by its choicest son, Rabbi Hayim, born in Volozhin on Sivan 7th 5607 (1747) to his father Rabbi Yitzchak.
We do not have many sources on the life of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin. Rabbi Yehuda Yudel HaLevi Epstein writes the following in his letter to Rabbi Shmuel Yevnin:
And behold, to explain the greatness of our rabbi of the Diaspora, the Gaon Rabbi Hayim of blessed memory of Volozhin, the splendor of his genius, his sharpness, and expertise, righteousness piety, and pure discussions I
do not have the power at this point, in my old age, for I would have to compose an entire book, which indeed would be very worthwhile to leave for the last generation, and would also be very useful for Torah, mannerisms, as well as proper character traits. However, this matter is not for me. It is a wonder why his rabbinical and Gaonic grandchildren have muzzled their mouths and pens at a time when people of that generation are still alive.
Rabbi Hayim's life is enwrapped in many legends. It was told in Volozhin that Rabbi Hayim's father was son of the bartender, who used to sell alcoholic beverages in the town. He married a woman from Piesk, a shtetl near Horodno. The matrimonial relations were bad, and they separated. The woman returned to her parents in Piesk. The husband remained at his father's house in Volozhin. Both towns belonged to Count Tyszkiewice. Once, when the count was visiting his estates, he entered the tavern of Volozhin and encountered a sorrowful young man. He asked his parents to explain the situation, and they told him that their son was married to a woman from Piesk but could not live with her in peace. Therefore, he is sad. The Count decreed that the woman is obligated to return to her husband in Volozhin. Since he was also the landlord of the town of Piesk and its taverns, they had to fulfil his decree. The woman returned to her husband. The couple merited five children, one of them being Rabbi Hayim.
From the age of twelve, the child was taught by Rabbi Rafael HaKohen of Hamburg, who served then as the official rabbi in Volozhin district. Rabbi Rafael designated Rabbi Hayim to be the rabbi of Volozhin, as Rabbi Yehuda Yudel writes in his aforementioned letter:
From early on, the Gr'ch (Gaon Rabbi Hayim) studied with the great Gaon of his generation, Rabbi Rafael HaKohen, may the memory of the holy be blessed, of Hamburg, when he served as the rabbi of the district of Volozhin. He was appointed as the rabbi of Volozhin after the aforementioned Gaon Rabbi Rafael of blessed memory returned to Hamburg, in accordance with his [Rabbi Rafael's] directive to the community of Volozhin. This is what he said to that community and to the father of Rabbi Hayim: For the sake of G-d, see that your son Rabbi Hayim will be the rabbi in your city. Even as he was bidding his final farewell to Volozhin, when the wagon was already moving away from those who accompanied him, he stood up and issued the strong command once more: for the sake of G-d, Rabbi Hayim will be the rabbi in your city!
At the age of fifteen, he studied from the Shaagas Aryeh, who served as the rabbi of Volozhin at that time. His great thirst for study is described in the words of his son Rabbi Itzele in his introduction to Nefesh Hachaim:
From his youth, he bore the yoke of Torah with great diligence. When he was more than fourteen years old, he set his learning with his older brother our Rabbi Simcha of blessed memory and they would study day and night. Our grandfather told us that when the light of a candle was not available, the moonlight was sufficient for them to study at night. They received their ways in Torah from the rabbi of rabbis, the Gaon of Gaonim, the supernal lion, Rabbi Aryeh Leib, may he rest in peace, the author of Shaagas Aryeh.
Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin and his rabbi, the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna
Rabbi Hayim was the first among all the students of the Gr'a. The first was the Gaon and Tzadik, the luminary of the Diaspora, our Rabbi Hayim, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing, the head of the rabbinical court and head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin. He would wait and peer with open eyes at the beauty of the splendor of his Torah.
Regarding the great influence of the G'ra upon Rabbi Hayim, Rabbi Yisrael of Shkov writes the following:
More than seeing the sun in its strength, is that not his veteran student, the splendor of the generation, the crown of the times, the true Gaon, the pious and modest one, renowned in his generation both in the revealed and hidden Torah [i.e. kabbalah], the honor of his holy name, our rabbi and teacher, may his light shine, the head of the rabbinical court and Yeshiva head of the holy community of Volozhin. He is upright in his actions, and judging in his ways, as for a long time he stood before his rabbi the Gaon, who taught him his ways, so that he knew what is proper and what is not proper, for nothing is lacking from his table from the traits through which, according to the sages, the Torah is acquired[i]. He had already mastered the entire Talmud with all its commentaries by the age of 23.
Rabbi Itzele, Rabbi the Hayim's son, also wrote in his introduction to Nefesh Hachaim that during that period when his father stood before the G'ra, He illuminated for him the paths of the revealed Torah, as well as the wonderful paths of the hidden [mystical] Torah, and revealed to him tractates and the light of wisdom. When he began discussing Jewish law [halacha] and mentioned the name of his rabbi, his entire body trembled. Father collected the fine flour from the entire house of his rabbi of blessed memory.
Rabbi Hayim used to visit his teacher in Vilna three to four times a year regarding communal affairs of Volozhin. He would remain for about a month in order to confer with the G'ra about all his uncertainties and questions. He would first note them on paper, forming a full list. The Gaon Rabbi Hayim would say: I would read before him (the Gr'a) and he would respond. I would ask, and he would answer, until within a brief time he had responded to all of my questions that I had brought with me.
Rabbi Avraham, the son of the Gr'a, told that each generation has two kinds of sages. The first are like a fountainhead that flows from their inside.They can be compared to the sun, in the secret of Moses. The second are not able to create something on their own. They only have the power to receive a great day. They might be compared to the moon. Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin belongs to the first category. He was like an overflowing fountainhead, and his entire genius was of his own essence. Therefore, he was a student and comrade of the G'ra, and at times they would confer on matters of Torah. It is told that once arriving in Vilna Rabbi Hayim went to Vilna, and was informed that the G'ra was in a sad mood because of difficulties in clarifying an issue in the Jerusalem Talmud. Rabbi Hayim delved into the matter and found a way to explain it. He told it to the G'ra, whose face immediately lit up, and he was filled with happiness.
Rabbi Hayim considered the Gaon of Vilna as one of the early sages, the first and foremost of the sages of that generation, who mastered the essence of the mysteries of the Torah.
I have heard that the Gaon, Rabbi Hayim once stated in public: There are important people, whom, had my brother, the Gaon and Tzadik, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman, may he rest in peace, lived long would have reached the level of our rabbi our rabbi the Gaon, may he rest in peace. It is not
so. Rather, had he lived a thousand years twice over he would not have reached his ankles. I also heard that he said that his brother the Tzadik, Rabbi Zalman, cast off matters of this world completely to the point where he became like an angel of G-d dressed in human form. However, our rabbi, the G'ra, of blessed memory, even though he acted as a human being, his powers were so sublime to the point where they were like the powers of the angels of G-d. This was the intention of the creation of this world: to act like a human being, and to purify the material essence like a Divine angel.
Rabbi Hayim learned from the Gaon that Torah Study is a fruit of very hard toil of the mind. Once he expressed his grievance to the G'ra: Rabbi, I have reviewed the Order of Moed nineteen times, and I am still not expert in it.
Nineteen times, mused the G'ra, and you want to be an expert.!
So how many, Rabbi Hayim asked again.
The G'ra responded, A person must review and study again endlessly.
After the death of the G'ra, Rabbi Hayim felt orphaned, as he writes:
I have already been warned from my teacher, the holy one of Israel, our great rabbi, the Gaon and Chasid, Rabbi Eliyahu, may he rest in peace, of Vilna, to refrain from favoritism in issuing rabbinical decrees. Nevertheless, from my early days, I have been afraid of establishing the halacha in accordance with my poor and weak opinion. While the sun of our great aforementioned rabbi was still in this world at times I merited presenting my words before him, and he would enlighten the concept to me. After the sun of that Tzadik set, I do not have a rabbi in the city, and to which of the holy ones should I turn?
After the death of the G'ra, Rabbi Hayim took it upon himself to disseminate his Torah in public, as is written in Aliyot Eliyahu:
After the sun set (that is, after the death of the G'ra), his students spread out from their pastures and appointed a chief amongst themselves, the Gaon, the luminary of the Diaspora, our Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, a student of the Gaon, who began to disseminate his Torah and to draw from the wellsprings of his Torah that he had drawn from Eliyahu. He merited to raise up and disseminate Torah and fear of G-d to all of Israel, for the great ones of the generation, whose intention was raised to teach amongst the Jewish people, gathered and came to him to learn from his mouth, as well as to take moral lessons from the ways of Divine service. They grew, succeeded, and went out to teach amongst the Jewish people.
The Yeshiva in its First Days
Translated by Jerrold Landau, based on an earlier translation by M. Porat zl and edited by Judy Feinsilver Montel
The factors that moved Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin to found the Yeshiva are related to the poor situation of Torah study in those days. Rabbi Yosef, the head of the rabbinical court of Krynki and one of the greater students of Rabbi Hayim, describes the situation from the year 5625 (1865):
I observed that prior to founding of the House of G-d by the angel of G-d, our holy rabbi, neglect and chaos reigned in the world. Nobody even knew what a Yeshiva was and what takes place there. Nobody even knew the concept of public dissemination of Torah, for the world was desolate of Torah. Furthermore, no holy books, and books of the Talmud could be found in the world, other than with a few wealthy Jews of renown. There was not even a complete set of Talmuds in the Beis Midrashes of the large cities, for there was no demand for them because people did not occupy themselves with them. However, when our holy rabbi founded the Yeshiva, there was a demand for many Gemaras, and it was necessary to contact large towns and gather Gemara volumes for the purpose of the Yeshiva students.
When the rabbi and Gaon of Slavita, may he rest in peace, realized that Talmudic volumes were needed in the world, he printed several hundred sets of Talmud of both large and small size. Since they were precious, they were spread throughout the entire world. During the first year of the house of G-d [i.e. the Yeshiva] was functioning in Volozhin, I noticed that many merchants arranged their routes to be in Volozhin, so they could see what the Yeshiva was. When they noticed several tens of distinguished Torah students sitting and studying day and night, they were very astonished, as they had never imagined such. Many merchants remained for several days and did not want to leave.
As Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin was convinced that the world is based on Torah, he encouraged (with the support of several greats of that generation) the founding of a Torah center in Volozhin, which would illuminate the face of the Polish and Lithuanian Diasporas.
He did not undertake the founding of the Yeshiva lightheartedly. Although believing that Jewry risked peril if Torah study was not strengthened, he was not convinced that he was the man to reprove the Jewish people and shout out loud that Torah was declining rapidly day by day. He thought that this crown was not fitting for him, and that such an enormous undertaking requires forces larger than him. Even after the great ones of Lithuania saw that he was the person designated by providence to return the crown of Torah to its ancient status he did not easily accept this mission. Only in the year 5563 (1803), six
years after the death of the Gr'a, did Rabbi Hayim lay the foundation stone of the Ets Hayim Yeshiva in Volozhin[12a]. The legend goes that when Rabbi Hayim began to lay the cornerstone of the Yeshiva, he broke out in exceedingly great weeping and his hot tears were absorbed into the stone. The Yeshiva stood literally upon Rabbi Hayim's unforgettable tears. For generations, they protected the Yeshiva from all storms and tempests, and contributed to its magnificence.
With the founding of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Hayim was accepted as the Volozhin town rabbi at the young age of 25. This was in the year 5633-5634 (1773-1774). He served this position until approximately the year 5649 (1789). He was accepted as the Vilkomir town Rabbi in 5650 (1790) to replace the Gaon Rabbi Shlomo, called Rabbi Shlomo the Great, one of the students of the Gr'a. After Rabbi Shlomo they [the leaders of the Vilkomir community] put a black cover upon his chair in the rabbinical court, and refused to accept any rabbi to replace him, until Rabbi Hayim was accepted. Then, they removed the black cover, and placed him in the position of Rabbi Shlomo. He only served in this rabbinate for one year, because he refused to accept any salary for his service. He earned his living from his linen factory. Complaints were raised against him for this, causing him to leave the city and return to Volozhin. The residents of the city accepted him with great honor, and he serviced in that rabbinate until the day of his death.
The following is written in his writ of appointment as rabbi of Volozhin:
When the heads of the holy nation, and the entire holy nation gathered together, we all agreed as one person, we, the leaders, heads, chiefs of our community, may G-d protect and redeem it, together with the leaders and heads of the settlements of our community, we have all unanimously agreed to accept the honorable rabbi, the great, renowned luminary, our teacher Rabbi Hayim, may his light shine and
his name be praised, as the rabbi and head of the rabbinical court of our community and its environs from this day. All the ordinances and laws of the rabbinate will apply.
As a proof, we the leaders, heads, and chiefs of the community have signed, together with certain special people, and in conjunction with the heads of the settlements of our community, today, Thursday 4 Iyar in the year mevaser[i], which is 5542 , here in our holy community of Volozhin, may its Rock and Redeemer preserve it.
During the Ten Days of Penitence of the year 5563 [ii], Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin published his proclamation regarding the founding of the Ets Hayim Yeshiva of Volozhin. This aroused strong echoes in the Torah world:
I am the communal representative of the many, wholesome people, whose hearts are worried, and who moan and groan about the Torah that is being forgotten and diminished from the world. Heaven forbid that I speak against the nation of G-d, for indeed, they are not distancing from Torah due to rebellion or sacrilege, Heaven forbid. There are those who wish to study, but do not have a full measure of grain. Others wish to learn but they do not have a rabbi to teach them the true ways of logic, for already for a long time the Torah greats of our country each build their own room and state: I am saving myself as a unique one in the generation, for the learners do not find the Torah pleasant.
And now I hear a loud voice behind me saying that the time has come for Torah to be made pleasant amongst the studiers, and the nation of Israel is hungry and thirsty as their souls pine for the Torah of G-d, to go from strength to strength to hear the words of G-d. However, from the time that they stopped maintaining Yeshivas in this country, all those who seek G-d and His Torah have dispersed from here like sheep who have no shepherd to tend to the nation of G-d whose desire is to rest in the depths of halacha and the truth of Torah. It has been a long time since the people great in fear of G-d in this city have approached me to work towards this mitzva.
Truly, I am conscious of my small worth, for I have not reached the level where I can express my opinion in public. However, when I see that Torah is disappearing, Heaven forbid, and if I be silent at such a critical moment, it could be that our brethren of the House of Israel will be without a teacher, for if there are no young goats, there are no adult goats, and the walls of the Holy Temple will be locked, Heaven
forbid. Therefore, I could no longer restrain myself from those around me, and I said: Let us arise and arouse the hearts of the pure ones. I no longer wish to ignore the words of my friends who are urging me in this matter. I decided in my heart to no longer push off their words that are spoken in truth from the depths of their hearts. I have also said as follows: As a young servant summoning [people] to the synagogue, I now come to summon and arouse the hearts of our brethren the House of Israel, beloved and pleasant, so that they will hear the truth, of all that call to them in truth. And you who cleave to G-d and his Torah, may He be blessed, believers the children of believers, for our holy Torah is the life force of our souls, and the world is founded on the breath of our mouths as we delve into it, and especially from the time we were exiled from our Land and lost all that is good we have no measure other than the study of Torah, and the Holy One Blessed Be He has nothing other than the four ells [of halacha] in His world, etc. So how can we not be ashamed when we see that the Torah of G-d is placed in the dust, and that truth has been cast to the ground. The Holy One Blessed Be He weeps every day over the fact that we have abandoned the Torah, may His name be blessed forever, for he demonstrated his wondrous love for us by granting us his hidden delight, in which He, may He be blessed, enjoys every day. How could we have hardened our hearts an exchange enjoyment for weeping, Heaven forbid, for the Holy One Blessed Be He weeps every day over anyone who is capable of occupying [himself with Torah] but does not do so.
Our brethren, children of Israel! Perhaps the time has come to fence this breach and to return to maintaining G-d's Torah with all our strength. Who will volunteer to teach the students, and who will volunteer to finance the Torah [endeavor]? Everyone approaching the Holy Torah will live a life of eternity, for the shadow of the funds and the shadow of the wisdom will bring life to its owners. Let me be the first volunteer in heart and soul to be among the teachers, and with the mercy of G-d, Who guided me amply from the beginning of my life, in Him do I trust, and I anticipate that He will enable me to amply provide for the students according to their needs.
During the brief time since this started, I was able to gather a small group of the holy flock [i.e. Jewish children], praise to His Blessed Name. They tasted the taste of Torah and the vast majority of them took upon themselves the yoke of Torah in truth, blessed be G-d. And now that I have dared to jump in to be the first to volunteer to teach, I ask other men of my age to do as I have done, and even those older than me shall most certainly do so. Fortunate are the elders who heed the younger ones. I call you, Children of Israel, of holy seed, blessed of G-d, please accept the truth from he who spoke it, for at the end, truth is more precious than anything not to abandon the eternal life planted through the supporters of the branch of life, planted in the heart of the seas for if a person grasps on to it they will be raised from the deep waters, but if they do not grasp on to it, Heaven forbid, the deep waters will sweep them away, and they will be lost forever. Is there anyone in this world who would not grasp on to it? All of us, o brethren the Sons of Israel, we are not called alive unless we grasp on to the Tree of Life. If the students take upon themselves the yoke of Torah in truth, as an ox accepts a yoke and a donkey a burden,
if the supporters uphold the weakened pillar of Torah from both sides, about them it is said: Blessed are they who uphold the words of this Torah[iii], and the scholars and supporters of Torah are fortunate, and will live eternal life in peace. Blessed are they before the Blessed G-d, in their comings and goings, with the blessing of Zevulun preceding the blessing of Issachar[iv] and both together cleave to the canopy of life, and the blessing of goodness will come to them. According to their deeds will they eat in the World To Come, and together they will justly behold the pleasantness of G-d. These will see the Face of the Blessed Name through charity, and those will be sated with the fullness of the Face of the Blessed Name, for we have no life other than through those who occupy themselves with the light of the Torah, and through those who uphold and cleave to G-d. Let us just all be strong and strengthen each other, so that the scriptural verse will be fulfilled for us: Even though they hire amongst the nations, I will now gather them[v], speedily in our days, Amen, may it be His will.
The words of the proclaimer are with great embarrassment, as I speak with great subjugation before the nation of G-d. I do not believe that such a great merit will come through me. Nevertheless, I do not forgo the merit of the many, and I am supported with the trust in the Blessed Name, so that the Torah of G-d will not be forgotten by the true seed.
Sunday of the Ten Days of Penitence 5563 , here in Volozhin, Signed by Hayim the son of my master, my father Rabbi Yitzchak, may the memory of the holy be blessed for life in the World To Come.
When Rabbi Hayim founded the Yeshiva, he owned a cloth factory in Volozhin. He used to sign his responsa letters modestly Hayim B'MoHarYtz (Ben Moreinu Harav Yitzchak) [our teacher Rabbi Yitzchak's son], the Melamed (teacher of young children) from Volozhin. However, as rightfully noted by Rabbi Meir Bar Ilan in his book From Volozhin to Jerusalem even though Rabbi Hayim did not use the title of Yeshiva Head as his signature, he was still the head of all Yeshiva heads.
Initially a quorum [ten] of students were assembled in the Yeshiva, a nucleus of great talent. It was unusual for so many students with such great talent to be gathered in a single Yeshiva. We see from this how great Rabbi Hayim's name was in the world of Torah as a Gaon and a guide. Already from the beginning of the founding of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Hayim made an enactment that blocked entrance to the Yeshiva to people lacking talent. Every student who wished to be accepted to the Yeshiva had to pass a test to determine his level in Gemara. Therefore, the Yeshiva was comprised of talented lads.
Rabbi Hayim provided food and clothing for his students on his own account. Even when the number of students who were taken in from the area increased, he fed them amply, supervised their state of health, rejoiced in their happiness, and participated in their sorrows.
The following folktale demonstrates the extent of his care for his students: Once, Rabbi Hayim ordered a pair of large, peasant boots. When the shoemaker brought him the boots, his family members wondered: Why does he, Rabbi Hayim, need such boots?
He answered nothing. At an early winter dawn, he was seen wearing the heavy boots and pacing back and forth after a snowy night. As the Jews of Volozhin were going to the Shacharit service, they found Rabbi Hayim trampling in the deep snow.
Our rabbi, why are you walking and trampling in the snow? they asked.
I am forging a path for the poor Yeshiva students, responded Rabbi Hayim.
Out of his love and concern for his students, Rabbi Hayim abolished the custom of eating days[vi], which had a taint of denigration for the honor of Torah and its students. He ensured that the lads would receive a stipend from the Yeshiva coffers to provide sufficiently for their living expenses. He also made an enactment that the student would not be referred to as a Yeshiva lad but rather a Yeshiva man a term that raises the esteem of the student.
Rabbi Hayim's relation to the Yeshiva members stemmed from the rabbi to student relation. He regarded them as friends, from whom one could learn, as is stated in the Midrash on Psalms: As with water, where the great are not ashamed to ask the small for some water to drink; so too in Torah matters, the great should not be ashamed to ask the small to teach him a chapter, or a law. (Psalm 1, section 25). In order to hear something from the mouths of the students regarding their rabbi on the subject of teaching style and the orders of the Yeshiva he instituted, in accordance with tradition, the Purim Rabbi. Since no student was so brazen as to alert the rabbi to untoward matters, he designated one day a year, the day of Purim a day when even the sages permitted levity when one student will be free all day to freely express through words and deeds, and would be the sole arbiter of Yeshiva matters and conduct. On this day, the Single Day Rabbi would speak openheartedly about untoward matters relating the year-round rabbi. Rabbi Hayim took the words of criticism with great seriousness. He would then rectify the matters, and make sure to not stumble in the future.
When the number of students grew, Rabbi Hayim was no longer able to support them from the income of his factory. Therefore, he approached the great rabbis to declare an aid effort for the Yeshiva, so that the Yeshiva could be sustained. On the 15th of Iyar, 5664 (1804) an appeal was issued, signed by the great ones of Vilna, directed to the far-off communities outside Lithuania, calling for support of the Yeshiva of Volozhin. The signatories included Rabbi Avraham the son of the Gr'a. The appeal was written in the second year after the founding of the Yeshiva. Its content is as follows:
We have seen that many wholesome people have assembled for the holy task, to study Torah day and night and to take shelter under the great tree of the rabbi and Gaon, our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Hayim, the head of the rabbinical court of Volozhin, may G-d protect it. We have already supported him with our hands, and have become supporters of Torah, to provide support for him from within our country. Now that we see that G-d desires him to succeed we inform those far away that thus is the way of Torah, from afar one brings one's sustenance, and we must give thanks that such a great thing has happened in our times, in an orphaned generation
such as ours. We here, and you there shall come together to strengthen their hands, so they will not be neglected, Heaven forbid, and the merit of Torah will stand for us and our descendants forever. For we will do what is good and proper in the eyes of G-d, to strengthen the weakened pillar of Torah. May G-d grant us merit to magnify the Torah and make it more powerful.
The Value of Torah Study in the Ets Hayim Yeshiva of Volozhin
Translated by Jerrold Landau, based on an earlier translation by M. Porat zl and edited by Judy Feinsilver Montel
The main pillar of the Ets Hayim Yeshiva was the study of Torah, which is a tree of life for those who grasp it. The existence of all worlds depends on it, including the private world of a person. However, Torah knowledge alone is not the primary point, but rather the essence of learning and the effort in Torah study, and the constant cleaving to Gemara. It is impossible to complete the study of Gemara. Rather, a person should learn and learn endlessly. As a person becomes more proficient in Torah, it is a greater command to delve into it. Those who study more will know more.
His conviction that Torah study is the sublime essence of life was the basis of Rabbi Hayim's foreword to Sifra Detzniuta [The Book of Modesty] of the Gr'a. There, he includes an interesting story in the name of his great rabbi, who was offered by a messenger to have the secrets of Torah revealed to him, thereby becoming complete in Torah knowledge without toil or effort. The Gr'a pushed off the messenger:
Above everything is the strength and awesomeness of the Gr'a, for he did not see G-d for his soul other than in the effort that he expended in wisdom, knowledge, and aptitude. After his great efforts, and when he was granted mercy from Heaven and the wellsprings of the secrets of wisdom were revealed to him this to him was a gift of G-d. If not for this manner, he did no want these. Even if they wished to grant him from Heaven without an effort or toil the sublime mysteries and secrets via preachers of mysteries and princes of Torah he would not want this. For I have heard from his holy mouth that on many occasions, several preachers came to his door from Heaven with their request, imploring him that they wish to give him the secrets of the Torah without any effort. He did not pay attention to them at all. One of the preachers urged him greatly. Nevertheless, he did not look upon his lofty appearance, and he responded that he does not want his proficiency in the Torah of the Blessed One to come through any intermediary at all. My eyes are only raised to He, Blessed be His Name, for what He wishes to reveal to me and to grant my share in His Torah, Blessed be His Name, through my toil that comes through my effort with all my energy. He, Blessed be He, will give me wisdom from His mouth, knowledge, and understanding. My heart will understand, my kidneys will be like two wellsprings, and I will know that I found favor in His eyes.
I want nothing other than what comes from His mouth. Concepts via angels, preachers, and princes of Torah that are not through my toil and not through my wisdom I do not want them.
It once happened that I was sent to my younger brother Rabbi Zalman to tell him in his name that he should not accept any angelic preacher who might come to him. The main thing is what a person attains in this world through toil and effort through which he will give satisfaction to his Creator. He would often say that He, may His Name be Blessed, only created sleep for this purpose, for anything that a person cannot attain while the soul is bound to the body, even after the effort and toil of the body, which acts as a separating partition is revealed to him during sleep, when he is then separated from the body and cloaked in the supernal garb, the outfit of the sages.
Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin provides a theoretical basis for the necessity of constancy in the study of Torah:
It is written in the Scriptures: She is a tree of life for those who grasp her[vii], for a person must set in his heart and imagine in his mind that even if he was drowning in a torrential river and he sees a strong tree in the river, he would certainly expend energy to grasp and cleave to it with all his might, and he would not let go even for one moment, for his very life depends on this. Who is foolish and does not understand that were he to let go, Heaven forbid, even for one moment and release his grasp, he would immediately drown? The Holy Torah is called a tree of Life [Ets Hayim]. Only during the time that a person grasps it with love and occupies himself with it constantly does he live a true, sublime life, tied and bound, so to speak, with the eternal life of the Blessed Name, for G-d and the Torah are one. If, Heaven forbid, he would neglect his study, separate from its constancy, and occupy himself with the vanities and enjoyments of the world, he would be cut off from the supernal life, and would drown in the wicked waters, heaven forbid.
If, Heaven forbid, the world would be completely devoid, even for a single moment, from the treasured nation and chosen people observing and learning our holy Torah, all the worlds would be completely destroyed and nullified from reality, Heaven forbid. Therefore, even a single Jewish person has great power to sustain all the worlds and creation in general through his occupation and study of our holy Torah for its own sake.
We may conclude from above, that Torah learning is significant not only for the person learning it, but also for the existence of all the worlds, which only exist for the sake of Torah. Therefore, Rabbi Hayim made sure that the sound of Torah would never cease in the Yeshiva, even for a moment. The doors of the Yeshiva were not closed even for a moment.
The sounds of the students never ceased. Rabbi Hayim instituted night shifts every night. One shift would leave, and another would enter. The shifts would not be interrupted even on Sabbath and festival nights. He himself would visit the Yeshiva on Sabbath eves to ensure that the lads were not idle from Torah, Heaven forbid. At the conclusion of Yom Kippur every year, Rabbi Hayim would study himself until midnight, for he was concerned that at such a time, when every student was tired and weary from the great holy day, there would be nobody learning. Therefore, he took this effort upon himself.
Rabbi Hayim's learning methodology, instituted in the Yeshiva, was that of straightforward logic rather than didactics and twisting of the texts. In this sense, he followed the path of his rabbi, the Gr'a, who emphasized the straightforward meaning, and studied the scriptures in the literal sense, without intermixing hints and secret meanings. He also studied the Talmud in its straightforward sense, without all sorts of didactics and divisions. He would rely only upon the source.
This methodology of study took root in the Volozhin Yeshiva, as well as in other Yeshivas that were influenced from it. Many of the Yeshiva students who were used the methodology of didactics and divisions would come for to the Yeshiva of Volozhin for a specific term to enjoy the unique learning style.
R' Hayim of Volozhin as Yeshiva Head and Great Educator
Translated by Jerrold Landau, based on an earlier translation by M. Porat zl and edited by Judy Feinsilver Montel
The Ets Hayim Yeshiva was based on pedagogical principles. Rabbi Hayim was not only the Yeshiva head, but, first and foremost, he was a prominent educator. He dedicated the vast majority of Nefesh HaHayim to explaining the value of Torah study, which is the pinnacle of human wisdom. For all the philosophers admit that all the wisdoms are like a drop in a bucket in relation to the wisdom of the Talmud. (Ruach Hayim, page 52). Ruach Hayim is his work on his doctrine of morality and character traits. In this book, Rabbi Hayim teaches the proper path for a Jewish person to follow in order to attain moral perfection and sublime spiritual levels. This book also includes may ideas on the relationship between the teacher and the student.
One of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin's educational fundamentals was the trait of being satisfied [with less] and abstaining from worldly pleasures. He adopted this lifestyle from his rabbi, the Gr'a, about whom it was said that he did not wish to take benefit from this world, and he ate meager, cold bread dipped in water, of the size of two olives. He would eat this evening and morning, and would not taste them on his palate, but rather swallow it whole. (Aliyot Eliahu, 51)
Regarding the adage This is the way of Torah (Avot 6:14)[viii], Rabbi Hayim said:
For eating and drinking are the downfall of a person, as is explained from And the L-rd caused a slumber to fall upon the man (Genesis 2:21). Eating is similar. Therefore, to the extent that one minimizes the downfall, it is more praiseworthy, and he will have time left to study Torah. Even your eating should be such that you do not go immediately to eating, but rather delay it, and not set aside your learning for it immediately at the onset of your hunger. The day is still young, and there will be time to eat. Therefore, it says in the future tense you shall eat bread with salt, but in Torah you labor is in the present tense. For, in truth, the matter of eating is a great disgrace for a person, for one takes physical matter
and places it in one's entrails, and one's life depends on this; this is certainly an embarrassment for one's soul, the spiritual portion. Perforce, one should not be embarrassed. However, excess in eating is foolishness.
The trait of being satisfied with little brings with it the trait of humility, which takes an important place in Rabbi Hayim's educational teaching. Rabbi Hayim says regarding be of an exceedingly humble spirit (Avot 4:4): Do not think that the commandment of humility is filled by being of a humble spirit in one's own eyes, but rather one should think that in truth that he is nothing, that the hope of a human is the worm, and that there is nothing at all to be proud about.
As a pedagogue, Rabbi Hayim did not hold the view of autodidacticism. In this way, he diverged from the Gr'a who had only studied with a rabbi for six years, and then about another quarter of a year with the Gaon Rabbi Moshe, the author of Pnei Moshe[ix]. At that point, he stopped taking lessons from teachers. Rabbi Hayim held the view that one must study Torah from a rabbi, because the rabbi imbues the spirit of life into the written word. Torah is not acquired without listening with the ear[x]. The studier himself will have nobody to clarify his uncertainties. Therefore appoint for yourself a teacher, and avoid doubt[xi], so that you can ask him anytime a doubt arises, and thereby reach the knowledge of the truth.
Therefore, Rabbi Hayim would lengthen his explanations so that the matter would be absorbed. If the words of the Gr'a in comparison to Rabbi Hayim are compared to stars that appear small because of their distance from us the words of Rabbi Hayim are like large candelabras on the table.
Rabbi Hayim's secret of success as an educator is concealed in his knowledge of the student's soul. He understood that attaining his educational purposes requires care in order to avoid trampling the pupil's personality, but rather to preserve his personal freedom. Not only did he give room for questions, but he also encouraged the student through asking questions from his side in order to create a dialogue.
Regarding an impatient person cannot teach (Avot 2:5), Rabbi Hayim used to say If the pupil asks once and [the teacher] gets angry with him, then he will not ask anymore, for he will be embarrassed. Even that time, the questioner will not accept his words. The teacher must be happy with the questions of the students, and see them as a benefit for himself, for sometimes the truth is with the student, just as the small piece of wood may ignite the large one. It was not for naught that our rabbis enumerated didactics with students along with serving the sages and give and take with friends among the 48 ways of acquiring Torah[x], for the halacha becomes clear through their questions.
Rabbi Hayim took care to develop the self-opinion of his students, for A human being without an opinion is not worthy of compassion. People who are not pedantic and stringent with opinions and deeds, paying attention to all possible contradictions are mediocre and of small character. Moreover, they are lacking moral character, for moral principles are based on distinction of opinions and on fixing relations upon them. However, a person must not denigrate the opinions of his fellow, for the truth is a blend of various opinions. Therefore, one must listen to the opinions of one's fellow, analyze them and clarify them. Only after listening and research can one select the proper opinion.
Rabbi Hayim expresses this outlook in his explanation to the adage the more counsel, the more understanding (Avot 2:7):
There is an adage in the mouths of people: ask advice, and do according to your intellect. According to this, what is the apparent use of advice? However, one can understand simply that a person cannot understand the internals of the matter from the outside regarding the advice he received. He can only understand a little. It would be the same with a second advice giver. Only the person asking advice himself understands the internals of the matter completely, but he is lacking the intellect and understanding of them all. Therefore, when he collects the advice and intelligence of each of them regarding the matter then he can understand how and what to choose as common advice from amongst all the individual pieces of advice, from this one a bit and from the other one a bit.
In this way did Rabbi Hayim teach his students to regard every concept as a deposit, with the owner of the deposit liable to come and take it back at any moment. It is natural for a person to think flippantly of his achievement. A poor person desires wealth, but when he achieves his goal, his wealth becomes routine. He then treats it flippantly and desires more. However, if he knows that his wealth is not permanent, and that he might return to his former poverty at any moment he will be happy with his lot.
Rabbi Hayim says the following in his explanation of the statement Who is rich? (Avot 4:1):
It is forbidden for a student to accept the words of his teacher when he has questions on them. At times, the truth will be with the student, just as a small piece of wood can ignite a large one. This is what it means by let your house be a gathering place for the sages, and sit at the dust[xii], where it uses the same language as and a man wrestled with him (Genesis 32:25)[xiv], which is referring to battle, to war, for it is an obligatory war. Therefore, this is about our holy rabbis in the land, whose souls are in the heavens above, who write and publish books, and their books are with us. Indeed, through the books in our homes, our homes become a gathering place for these sages, and we are also adjured and we and permitted to struggle and battle with their words, and to answer their questions not to play favorites with anyone, but rather to love the truth. However, with all this, one should be careful to avoid speaking with pride and a boastful heart when one sees a place to differ, and it seems that a person might be greater than his teacher or than the author of a book that he
has obtained. For he should know that at times, he will not understand his words and intentions. Therefore, he should have extra humility. This is what it means by sit at the dust as stated above, but with the condition of the dust of their feet, meaning that one should do so with humility and submission, dealing with them on the ground.
Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin knew how to penetrate the interior of the soul of each of his students, and to know what aim he would choose in life. When students went to him to receive a parting blessing before traveling home, he would delineate the path of life of each one, stating how he would act in the future. His love for the students was very great. He would invite them to dine at his table each Sabbath. During the meal, he would tell them sublime adages of morality. He had mercy on them as a father has mercy on his children. He knew their pain of being distant from their homes, and therefore he attempted to comfort them in their loneliness. Rabbi Hayim regarding leaving one's parental home as an important factor in their success in their studies. Exile yourself to a place of Torah (Avot 4:14). In order to bring joy to their hearts, he would invite them to Passover Seders. He knew very well their longing for their homes all the days of the year, and the longing and sadness would be especially strong during the festivals, when everyone would normally rejoice in the company of their families. However, not only on festivals did he try to bring them joy, but also every day. He always knew that joy is one of the 48 ways through which the Torah is acquired. For one who studies in joy for one hour will learn much more than one who studies several hours in sadness.
The Moral Personality and Wisdom of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin
Translated by Jerrold Landau
The sublime moral personality of Rabbi Hayim is emphasized in prominent lines by his son Rabbi Itzele in his introduction to Nefesh HaHayim.
If he was insulted he would not insult. He was of humble spirit before any person. He was concerned about even the minutes amount of physical pleasure, and he conducted himself such that he would not feel any pleasure. When he reached old age and was afflicted with afflictions of love[i] he accepted them with joy in body and spirit (and with a joyous face, without uttering a sigh, and his spirit was happy all the years that he accepted the suffering). That Tzadik was only distressed that he was forced to nourish his body due to his illness. His eyes descended very deeply into mystery (and my eyes saw it, and it was not strange). Even though his heart was pained over this, he was happy in his suffering, which limited his feelings of pleasure to the point where he paid attention to neither pleasure nor affliction.
Anyone who sees the sun in its strength, witness and are astonished that with all of his bodily humility and lowliness of spirit regarding matters of the world, his heart was opposite with regard to Divine matters, clothing himself in strength and splendor to the nth degree. His heart was focused upon making a pleasant dwelling for Torah, Divine service, and performance of good deeds. His heart was very proud in the ways of G-d to fight the battles of Torah. Every mitzva that he began with the spirit of wisdom and strength, he concluded in the spirit of knowledge and the fear of G-d.
In all his ways, he minimized his personal honor in order to increase the honor of Heaven, regarding communal affairs, and especially regarding public issues. It is known that he cast his soul forward and put in far more effort than he had energies for. Even though he was elderly, he held his hands steadfastly until the sun set[ii]. Even when his energy was diminished, may G-d protect us, even when he was lying in bed with his illness, his thoughts were clear and his eyes were raised toward Heaven, to include the Divine Name in the pains of the public and the individual, with sighs, moans, and broken loins. His many sighs over this would break the body of anyone who heard. (He used to chastise me when he saw that I did not participate in the pain of my fellow.) He always told me that man was not created for himself, but rather to provide benefit to others to the extent that it is within one's power. He judged and taught: Love peace, pursue peace, love one's fellow, and draw them close to Torah.[iii]
Not only was Rabbi Hayim famous for his intelligence and sharpness among the Jews, but he was also renowned in the gentile world. It is told that in the year 5572 (1812), Rabbi Hayim was asked by a captain during a conversation, In the rabbi's opinion, who will win the war? Rabbi Hayim requested at the outset that he not become angry, and he told him the following parable: Once, a government official travelled by a horse-drawn carriage. The horses were the finest Italian horses. When the horses reached the area of a bog, they stopped and could not move. The wagon driver tried all sort of ruses, but for naught. A farmer was travelling behind the government official in a loaded wagon hitched to small, thin horses. Since the wagon of the government official was blocking his route, he turned his wagon to the side and crossed the bog without stumbling. The government official was astonished at what had taken placed, and asked the farmer to explain him the reason. The farmer responded: Indeed, your horses are better than mine in number and in power, but they have no friendly relations with each other. All of them are superior, and when you whip one of them, the others are happy, for the whip cannot whip them all at once. Therefore, only the whipped one makes an effort to continue on as a result of the blow, and the rest remain fixed in their places. My horses are not the same, for the grew up together from the womb and from birth. Their temperament and legs are similar. Every one of them feels the pain of his fellow. If I whip one of them, they will all gird their strength to pull the wagon. That is what gave them the ability to transport me across the bog in peace. The captain understood the parable very well.
Another trait of Rabbi Hayim's was his straightforwardness. Rabbi Hayim was a man of the people, who greatly loved his fellow Jew. One detail, which testifies to the popularity of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, is included in Orchot Hayim (final page):
An honest, righteous man in Volozhin had no children (may G-d protect us). Upon his death, he had made a request to ask our rabbi to study mishnayot on his behalf, for the elevation of his soul. The rabbi did so, for it is a mitzva to fulfil the requests of the deceased. When he concluded the [Mishnaic] order of Zeraim, he went to his grave and said to him: I have studied the Order of Zeraim for the elevation of your soul.
Rabbi Hayim's Death; The Wonderful Legend of his Love for the Jews of Volozhin
Rabbi Hayim was afflicted with difficult suffering and pain in his old age. Nevertheless, he was not bitter, and he did not curse the day he was born[iv]. He accepted everything with love. Legend states that on Rosh Hashanah 5591 (1820) approximately a half a year before his death, when he was given the honor of Hagba[v], the Torah scroll fell from his hands. Then he informed his acquaintances that his end was near.
His son, Rabbi Itzele, portrays the passing of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin in his introduction to Nefesh HaHayim, as follows:
Whomever has not seen (his) strength and humility on the day he was taken from us, has never seen strength and humility[vi]. You would hear the Shacharit service until his soul departed for Above. He renewed his strength at every hour. One moment he lowed his body with his words, when he felt that the dust returns to the ground as it was, and his face turned black as a raven. Then he girded himself with wondrous strength and devotion, and his face lit up as the face of a living king, binding his soul to his spirit that will return to the G-d who had given it in purity, until his spirit and soul were gathered up to the Blessed One Be He with a kiss[vii], and were bound up in the bounds of life with G-d.
R' Hayim passed away on Sivan 14th, 5581 (1821) at the age of 72. He was brought to eternal rest in the Volozhin cemetery[viii]. The text on the monument over his grave is composed in a manner that the first letters of each line form [his name]: Hayim the son of Yitzchak, of blessed memory.[ix]
Who was waved and lifted[xi], the crown of our head, the breath of our nose, my father, my father, the chariot and horsemen of Israel[xii], the great, living Gaon, pious, modest, in the honor of glory of G-d, our Rabbi Hayim, may he rest in peace, the head of the rabbinical court and head of the Yeshiva of the holy community
of Volozhin, who poured living water on the holy heavenly angel, the true Gaon, the light of the world, the rabbi of the entire Diaspora, in the honor and glory of G-d, our rabbi, the renowned, pious one, Rabbi Eliahu of Vilna. The brother of the head of the thousands of Israel, the holy Gaon, similar to angel, holy is said of him, our rabbi Shlomo Zalman, may he rest in peace. Departed from life on Thursday of the Torah portion of And when the Ark set forth[xiii], 14 Sivan, of the year Everything is written about life[xiv].
Legend tells that Rabbi Hayim refused to enter the Garden of Eden alone without the Volozhin Jews who had toiled and struggled on behalf of the Yeshiva. He desired to come inside with the entire People of Israel and the entire world. Fishel Schneerson relates this legend in his book Hayim Grobitzer:
Rabbi Hayim told the Heavenly Entourage: I no longer have the strength to bear the honor which I do not deserve. I cannot enter the Garden of Eden. I wish to stay here and await the days of the Messiah, the generation that will be worthy of it, to open the gates of the Garden of Eden for all mankind, for the entire world. Then I will merit redemption along with the entire People of Israel. Our Father in Heaven, in his great mercy, should permit me to remain here and wait.
The Heavenly Entourage acceded to his request, that emanated from the depths of his heart. To this day, Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin stands and waits at the border between Heaven and earth.
As for the tomb, Schneerson writes in his book:
(One of the elders relates) I was once at the Volozhin cemetery and I visited. There, over Rabbi Hayim's grave, there is a white stone cabin. On the inside wall of the cabin, holy words regarding Rabbi Hayim of blessed memory are etched in Hebrew. I looked and saw the drawing of the Polish eagle above the lines, hidden somewhat. I did not dare to ask anyone about the meaning of this but I had no doubt that Count Tyskiewicz helped build the white cabin over Rabbi Hayim's grave, just as he had previously helped to build the Rabbi Hayim's white house that stands in the market square.[xv]
The Eulogy for Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin from Rabbi David of Novhorodok
There are many who eulogized Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin. The most comprehensive and precise was the eulogy of Rabbi David of Novhorodok. The following are several sections of the eulogy:
It is appropriate to shed a river of tears and to mourn for, lament for, and eulogize a person such as he, who was equal in deeds and character to Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Chiya[xvi], who was known as sharp and expert at didactics, great and mighty, precise to the hairbreadth, and famous for his response that he responded to the far-off edges of the land and sea. He had the power and might to review the entire Torah, just like Rabbi Chiya, lest it be forgotten, Heaven forbid. In this way as well he did not desist from grasping the trait of Rabbi Chiya with his wonderful efforts to uphold the Torah students, and to teach them so that the Torah will not be forgotten from Israel, and also to provide them with all their needs… For his net was cast across all ends of the earth and the fullness thereof[xvii]. Everything he decreed he fulfilled. Even in his old age, when he could not gird the strength to give the class himself, he nevertheless increased his personal supervision to the community of Yeshiva students, in manners that cannot be fully described… Furthermore, every night they would set up watches of separate groups from among the Yeshiva students, so that there would be no gap in the learning, day and night, and so that there would be people learning at all times, day and night. I was told that, in truth, these watches did not stop even on Sabbath eves, and he himself would at times make an effort to come and go even on Sabbath eves, in order to ensure that it would not stop.
Yaakov Halevi Lifshitz describes the activities of Rabbi Hayim Volozhin at length, in the following words:
The works of Rabbi Hayim and the greatness of his Torah, his holiness and wisdom stand alive before the eyes of the nation, and his refined spirit walks in our midst today. There is no Beis Midrash without a novel idea from him, there is no holy idea upon which his name is not mentioned, there is no good suggestion and activity in our midst that is not etched with his nature and stamp. His book Nefesh HaHayim was accepted in the nation as a book from the earliest of the early sages[xviii]. His letters and adages are also still borne on the lips of all of clean intellect, like the mundane speech of holy purity. The greats of the generation said about him A scholar is better than a prophet. All his days, he dedicated his soul and resources only for his nation and its Torah.
In truth, it can be said about him that he created an epoch in the life of the nation, with a new style based on the methodology of our rabbi the Gr'a who established an order of study, with love
of Torah, to magnify it and make it mighty, with national feelings to revive the nation, so that everyone will recognize their obligation to be concerned for the benefit of the public.
These are the Books that Rabbi Hayim Left Behind
Beys Horav The Rabbi's house page 317. This picture shows the southern fašade of the Volozhin Rabbis' house, taken in the nineteen thirties. It was situated at the market square. Its northern fašade overlooked the Yeshiva and the main Volozhin Synagogue, the Beys Medresh. The house was built in stone for Rabbi Hayim by the Volozhin count Tishkevitsh. The big white house belonged during the first half of the 19th century to Ms. Malka Perlman, nee Itskhaykin, She was Eli-Zalman Itskhakin's granddaughter, who was Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner's grandson. The translator of the above article is Malka Perlman's grandson. Malka Perlman's house (Beys Horav) was nationalized by the Soviets in 1940. During the war the house burned out. Inside its reconstructed stone skeleton is situated now the Volozhin Univermag. Return
The Era of Rabbi Itzele and his son-in-law Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak Fried
Rabbi Itzele's personality, cleverness, and sharpness
Translated by Jerrold Landau, based on an earlier translation by M. Porat zl and edited by E. Levitan
After Rabbi Hayim's passing, the leadership of the Yeshiva passed to his son, Rabbi Yitzchak, who was nicknamed Rabbi Itzele. Rabbi Yitzchak was born in the year 5540 (1780). His father guided him in the revealed and hidden [Torah]. He also had the privilege of accompanying him to see the face of the rabbi who is compared to an angel of the L-rd of Hosts, that is the Gr'a of Vilna.
Rabbi Itzele told one of his students, the Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Salant, about his visit to the Gr'a:
Once when my father was about to travel to the Gr'a, I told him: ‘I too wish to travel to the rabbi.’ Taken aback, my father said with apprehension: ‘You too desire to travel to the rabbi.’ In became frightened myself, but I was still determined, and I responded: ‘Yes I want to go.’ Father hesitated, but finally he agreed, and we set out. When we started our journey, I noticed that my father's face was pale from terror and fear. The closer the wagon got to Vilna, father's face became more and more drained of color. By the time we arrived to the town it was difficult to recognize him. He asked me again with trepidation: ‘Are you sure that you would like to enter to the rabbi?’ I made a great effort and said: ‘Yes!’ When we arrived at the front of the room of the Gr'a, my father's knees literally knocked together from the awe of his rabbi… . Quaking, he repeated to me again: ‘Do you to wish to enter?’ Thus did we enter the Gaon's room.
Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro describes that visit. He states that this took place when Rabbi Itzele was about ten years old. The Gr'a suggested that his young guest recite some words Torah. Rabbi Itzele recited a brief explanation of one of the verses. The Gr'a was impressed by the child's wisdom and his pleasant words. He said to his father: I am certain that the boy would become a great preacher in Israel.
In his generation, Rabbi Itzele was known as the rabbi of the entire Diaspora, and was nicknamed The Leader of Israel, The Rabbi of the Nation, and The Spokesman of the People. He was greatly versed in Torah and wisdom. He was skilled and expert in the ways of the world, and had pleasant relations with people. He gave his approbation to the commentary and Torah translation of Ben-Menachem, published by Yitzchak Aizik the son of Yaakov and the poet Adam HaKohen Lebensohn, regarding which all the Gaonim of that generation battled, headed by the Gaon Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz of Frankfurt, the author of Haflaah.
Rabbi Itzele did not restrict himself to the four ells of halacha only. It is told that Rabbi Itzele once sequestered himself in his room so as not to be disturbed during his studies. His father, Rabbi Hayim, came, knocked on his door and told him: It is not appropriate for you, Itzele, to isolate yourself. Go out and take on your shoulders the public burden, the duties for which you were created. Therefore, Rabbi Itzele took the running of the Yeshiva upon himself, and all of its needs were determined through him. He guarded his father's staff to ensure that their lives were primarily dedicated to strengthening and glorifying the Yeshiva. He wrote in his introduction to Nefesh HaHayim: I was only commanded about this clearly on the day that he ascended to Heaven, with strong words, to gird myself with all my energy and to strengthen his educational institution, so that Torah shall not be neglected, Heaven forbid.
Indeed, Rabbi Itzele fulfilled the command of his father, and his classes in the Yeshiva became famous. One of his students, Avraham Krupnik, describes Rabbi Itzele with the following words of praise and accolades:
To this day, I will not forget the feelings of enjoyment when I saw the great, holy, enlightened Gaon, lofty over all the people of his generation, our teacher Rabbi Yitzchak, may he be remembered for life in the World To Come, of Volozhin, as he explained to us each morning a section of the weekly Torah portion in its straightforward manner, attracting the heart. Anyone who never saw the face of the aforementioned Gaon, whose countenance was like that of an angel of G-d, and anyone who never heard his words dripping like dew and rain, cannot imagine the pleasure of the soul and the feelings of a pure heart that G-d has created for us.
The personality of Rabbi Itzele lived among the people, but not in writing. He did not leave behind writings, other than his introduction to Nefesh HaHayim and Peh Kadosh from his statements and discussions, published by his student Dr. Yaakov Koplovich in the year 5650 . Rabbi Baruch Epstein describes aspects of his personality his book Makor Baruch:
In general, the mannerisms of the Gri'tz (the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak) were defined by love, honor, and glory. He spoke well, with pleasantness, purity, and politeness. Grace was upon his lips, and the mannerisms of kindness, modesty, and humbleness were upon his lips and in all the ways of his soul. Therefore, he was beloved and admired by all the people of the country to them his words were Torah and his opinion was holy. Rabbi Itzele was so dedicated and faithful to his soul's path through the traits of morality and a modest way of life, to the point where he requested those close to him to grasp on to moral, proper behavior, to be measured in their words, and to speak with clean language and in the style of modesty, humbleness, simplicity, and politeness, with thinking in advance and organizing of what one is to say, and being careful and cautious with the honor of all people. Further regarding the traits of the soul, fine, refined traits such as this adorn their owners and cast their splendor on the human race in general. Anyone who bursts through the fences of such traits is
punished harshly with difficult matters, so he will repent and attempt to fix the traits of his soul. He would not accept any excuse or pretext for breaking through the fence of refining and elevating the human soul. He said that excuses do not cover the sin of coarseness of the soul and disgusting traits, for anyone whose soul is clean and his traits are fine, will generally not come to a crooked path, and will therefore not need any excuses. Anyone who offers excuses testifies regarding himself that his soul has a weakness and he has a moral blemish.
It was accepted by the elders of the generation that the ways of politeness, honor, morality, propriety, modesty, humbleness, and other traits of the spirit and the soul with which the Yeshiva students of Volozhin excel in were saplings of the Gri'tz, who planted them and made them took root. When one grasps this principle, which is upheld by several clear-minded sages, that ‘advancement in character precedes advancement in opinions,’ one would have a united, sharp view of the mannerism of all of the Yeshiva students regarding the traits that we have noted. Anyone who is not refined with them, and even further, anyone who does not want to be refined with them, that is to say, to take hold of them and to live according to them his soul will be wrenched from him, and his friends would also shun him. Therefore, he would find it necessary to force himself to be accustomed to living according to these traits, and slowly ‘habit will become nature.’ Later, when he will be satisfied with the positive change his soul, he will take hold of them and not let go of them throughout his entire life. In the Yeshiva, the acquisition of these traits flows from generation to generation to this day.
In general, Rabbi Itzele was a man with high opinions and great feeling. He loved and tried to understand that which his eyes saw and his ears heard. He was eager to explore, research, think, know, compare, and evaluate every matter and idea at its source, so as to ensure their value and be able to approve them. His broad knowledge and strength of spirit enabled him to forge opinions on nations, on people, on countries, on regimes, on life values, on worldly ways, and on anything that took place in the larger world in general, and the Jewish world in particular. In general, he was a superior and excellent visionary in his time, and the honor and glory of the House of Israel was upon them.
There was a tradition amongst the Volozhin elders that when Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin laid the cornerstone of the Yeshiva, he said to those standing around him: I am investing the soul of my son Itzele in this building (in his words: Ikh moyer do ayn mayn Itzelen). This is because Rabbi Itzele wanted to accept a rabbinic post in one of the cities of Germany, which was in those times a symbol of freedom and religious reforms. Rabbi Hayim was opposed to this with all his soul. Therefore, as he laid the cornerstone of the building, he hoped that this project would keep his son in Volozhin. Indeed, his prediction was realized.
Rabbi Itzele was also a very active communal servant. His knowledge was great in secular matters as well. He knew languages and sciences, and medical knowledge was not foreign to him. He knew how to read Latin, and at various times, he also tried to be involved in practical medicine. Since he considered himself as knowledgeable in medical books, he would give medication to his ill students. This was often effective, but there were cases where this alone was not efficacious, and even made things worse. A situation such as that took place with his beloved student, the writer Kalman Shulman. Shulman had a problem with his eyes, and the Gri'tz tried to heal him with various medications. However, instead of helping, this harmed him. When he realized that his student's eyes were in danger, he advised him to travel to the well-known professor in his time, Purichinski in Vilna. Shulman arrived in Vilna in 1838 with a letter of introduction from his rabbi, and he was healed there.
Regarding his medical knowledge, it is told that once, one of his students became ill. They summoned and brought from nearby Ivyanets the medic who was known as an expert in all types of illnesses and symptoms. Rabbi Itzele investigated him and discovered that he was not an expert in medicine. Rabbi Itzele said: I am surprised about yourself, that you live in Ivyanets, but are not concerned with the adage: ‘a scholar is not permitted to live in any city that does not have a physician.’ It seems that the residents of the city themselves rely on you and believe that there is a physician in their city. But you, you certainly know that there is no physician in your city, so how can a Jewish man transgress the words of the sages and live in a city that has no physician?…
His dedicated care for Kalman Shulman was not an isolated incident. The Gri'tz loved his students with all his soul. During the summer, the custom of the Yeshiva was that the students would leave the Yeshiva after the Mincha service and scatter to all four corners of the city to breathe some fresh air and enjoy the natural beauty, so that they could be refreshed for the next day. Indeed, if any students remained in the Yeshiva to continue their studies, the Gri'tz himself would approach them, turn out the lights, and send them outside to breathe some fresh air.
Rabbi Itzele was very careful with his words. He guarded his tongue even from a taint of derogatory language. Once he had to say that a certain person was a liar, and that one should not rely on him. He did not want to utter a derogatory word, so he circumlocuted and said: So and so has a wonderful memory. Some people remember what took place ten years ago. Above him is a person who remembers what took place twenty years ago. People with exceptional memories remember what happened fifty years ago. This person, on the other hand, remembers things that never happened…
However, once Rabbi Itzele did not maintain his composure, and he responded sarcastically to one author who brought him a commentary on Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Job, requesting his approbation. He gave the approbation for Job, but refused to give an approbation for Provers and Song of Songs. The author was surprised, and asked the reason. Rabbi Itzele responded: Job had a multitude of calamities, so there is makes no difference if one adds one more trouble. King Solomon, however, why are you dealing with him?…
Dr. Max Lilienthal his Expedition to Volozhin
Rabbi Itzele inscribed a splendid page in the history of Volozhin and in our own history of the latter years through his ardent opposition to Haskala (the Enlightenment movement). In so doing, he managed to thwart an inimical plot of Czar Alexander I.
In the 1840s, the Czarist government decided to make fundamental reforms in the Jewish education methodologies by establishing primary schools and rabbinical schools, which would replace the existing Cheders and Yeshivas. The Russian education minister Uvarov[ii] said that one must not annihilate nations, especially the Nation of Israel, whose modern history began under Mount Golgotha. The minister considered that it would be possible to draw the Jews to the religion of Golgotha through other means: namely, by opening schools for secular education.
Uvarov held the Jewish Haskala writers in esteem. Ryb'l (Reb Yitzchak Ber Levinsohn) wrote an epigram in his honor as follows:
Frightful clouds cover the sun of wisdom,
But at God's order the mighty savior came
Fresh winds had blown to bring light
And the people called: The cloud has passed [Uvar Av], the cloud has passed.[iii]
In order to prepare the Jews to absorb the sun of Haskalah, Uvarov decided to send a Jewish preacher to the Pale of Settlement to inform this stiffnecked people of the serious intentions of the government. The young Dr. Max Lilienthal was sent there for this purpose.
Dr. Lilienthal was born in Munich in 1815. He was educated in a German university and was a typical German-Jewish Maskil, fighting for moderate religious reforms. After graduating from the University of Munich, he was invited by a group of Maskil im in Vienna to serve as their preacher and to direct the Jewish school in their city. Within a short time, Dr. Lilienthal succeeded in raising the level of Hebrew studies in the school to the levels of the new times.
Dr. Lilienthal was a straightforward man, and he did not realize the hidden intentions of Minister Uvarov. Therefore
he accepted this mission very willingly. First, he visited Minsk and Vilna, but he failed badly in both places. Therefore, he decided to try his influence on one of the great Jewish religious leaders of the generation, on the person who all of Russian Jewry relies on for matters of religion Rabb Itzele, the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva. He knew that if he gained the support of this Gaon for educational reforms for Jewish children, he would know that he fulfilled his task. Therefore, he arose and traveled to Volozhin.
Dr. Lilienthal arrived in Volozhin some days before Yom Kippur. Rabbi Itzele received him with great honor and even hosted him in his home. For three days and three nights, the two men discussed the topic of the proposal of the Russian government. The Holy Day arrived. On the eve of Yom Kippur after partaking of the final meal, the Jews of Volozhin assembled inside the synagogue, which was illuminated by hundreds wax candles. Everyone was enwrapped in their tallises and wearing their kittels. They stood crowded, and waited for Rabbi Itzele to arrive for the sermon that he would deliver annually prior to Kol Nidre. The Rabbi arrived with his guest and began his speech:
Concerning the preparations of the High Priest for his Yom Kippur services in the Holy of Holies, we learn from the Mishnah of Yoma (chapter 1:5): The elder judges delivered him to the elders of the priesthood, who took him up to the House of Avtinas, and made him take an oath: Sir High Priest, we are the emissaries of the court, and you are our emissary and the emissary of the court. We adjure you by He Who caused His Name to dwell in this house, not to deviate in any way from anything we told you. He would leave and weep, and they would leave and weep.
Is it not strange, gentlemen asked Reb Itzele is it not our sages, the sages of the Mishna and Talmud, who constantly warned us to not think evil about a person without any reason? Did they not say, ‘One who shames his fellow in public is as if he spilled his blood,’ and such a person has no share in the World To Come: They also stated ‘Those who cast suspicion on innocents will be physically stricken.’ There are many more such statements in the Talmud and Midrash. And this Mishna is teaching us the opposite of all the aforementioned warnings, that during the time of the Holy Temple, the elders of the priesthood cast suspicion and upon whom? The High Priest, the anointed of G-d! And of what did they suspect him? Of the heresy of the Sadducees, which is a denial of the Oral Law and the concept of reward and punishment. And where? Inside the Holy Temple! And when? On the eve of the great, frightful Judgment Day!
He asked and he answered: Indeed, it's true. When it concerns a private person and his private deeds, we are forbidden to suspect someone without any foundation, and until he is accused, he should be considered as innocent. The case of a public persona, an emissary of the people, is completely different. Not only is suspecting such a person permitted, but have an obligation to inspect carefully, to determine if his intentions are for the sake of Heaven, or whether his actions will, Heaven forbid, lead to a mishap amongst the Jewish people. Such a person, even if he would be the High Priest, must be examined
over and over, and must be made to take an oath before the community to ensure that he not act as a Sadducee, and that his behavior not negatively affect our holy Torah and the traditions of our father.
Dr. Lilienthal understood the allusion. He mounted on the stage and turned to the worshippers: My masters, the sermon of the honorable rabbi was not directed to you, but rather to me. I took on myself this communal task at the behest of the government. Every Jewish person has the right to think about myself, and my thoughts and deeds. I swear: he added turning to the Holy Ark and removing a Torah scroll In the name of He Who invested His name in this sanctuary and in this Torah scroll, that my intentions in this work are for the sake of Heaven and for the good of the nation of Israel. I further swear that if it becomes clear that I was mistaken, and it becomes evident to my eyes that Uvarov is affecting our religion in any way I will withdraw my hands from this work.
On his return from Volozhin, Dr. Lilienthal wrote to Nisan Rosenthal of Horodno the following words of wonder regarding Rabbi Itzele: I met in Volozhin the renowned Gaon, our teacher Rabbi Yitzchak. I found in him a bright, wise, enlightened man who investigates the Divine. Upon him rests the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of council, knowledge, and fear of G-d[iv]. I have done all that I could to be accepted by him as a beloved son, for I called out My father, my father, chariot of Israel and its horsemen[v].
In his memoirs, Dr. Lilienthal gave over a fine parable about the Gri'tz: A villager came to one of the large towns of Germany. Suddenly, a fire broke out in the town. There was a custom there that they would beat a drum to gather together all the people to come and extinguish the fire. In his naivete, the villager thought that the drum was the sole implement for extinguishing the fire. When he returned home, he purchased a drum as a remedy for fires. Eventually a fire broke out in his courtyard. He began to beat the drum, but all his efforts were for naught. The flames spread further and further, and burnt everything in his courtyard.
The villager did not understand the simple matter that the drum was indeed useful as an alarm to summon the people to extinguish the fire. However, it is useless without water. This is like what happens on Yom Kippur: The prayers and the beatings of the heart are only like the beating of the drum to arouse the person to repentance. If true remorse does not follow they are for naught.
Rabbi Itzele's Journey to the Rabbinic Conference
Since Dr. Lilienthal's visit did not yield the desired results, the government changed its tactics, and summoned a Rabbinic Conference in Peterburg in the year 5602 (1842). The delegation was composed of Rabbi Itzele, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch, Yisroel Halperin the manager of the bank in Berditchev, and the principal of a school in Odessa Betzalel Stern.
They set out to the capital city to discuss matters of Jewish education with the government leadership.
Deep trepidation amongst the people accompanied their delegates to Peterburg. They engaged in many fasts and prayers. The delegates were faithful to those who sent them, and the efforts of the authorities were in vain. Rabbi Itzele's stance to the recommendation of the authorities was expressed in his pointed response to Uvarov's question: From what age, in his opinion, should the religious education of a Jewish education begin? Rabbi Itzele responded: Twenty years before his birth.
During the Petersburg convention, Rabbi Itzele sat with a long tallis katan [ritual fringed undergarment], with long fringes that were quite visible. Uvarov asked Rabbi Itzele: Why do you where a large tallis with long fringes? Is it not possible to observe the religion by wearing a small tallis with short fringes? Dr. Lilienthal is also observant of the religion, and is a Jewish rabbi and his tallis with fringes is not visible externally.
Rabbi Itzele replied: The commandment of tzitzit [ritual fringes] was given to us as a reminder, through which to remember the commandments of G-d, as it says: ‘And you shall look at them and remember’[vi]. And not everything is equal regarding memory. Dr. Lilienthal is well-educated, with a good mind and a good memory so he only requires short fringes. I, however, am only a simple rabbi, and my memory has weakened with old age. Therefore, I require a large tallis with large, long fringes, in order to remember and fulfil the commandments of G-d.
Rabbi Itzele's sharpness and intelligence found expression in his felicitous answers to Uvarov and the anti-Semitic priest. During the gathering of rabbis, Uvarov conducted a discussion of wisdom, and said to Rabbi Itzele, among everything else: I protest against you, Jews, for preaching hatred against the Gentiles, and instilling jealousy between yourselves and the nations of the world, for you recite the blessing every day ‘Who has not created me as a Gentile.’
Rabbi Itzele responded: No, sir minister, it is not because of hatred that we recite this blessing. The proof is that we also daily recite the blessing: ‘Who has not made me a woman,’ and is there any Jewish man who hates his wife?
It is told that during his stay in Peterburg, an anti-Semitic priest approached him and said: It seems that the Jews suspect their daughters, and for this reason marry them off before reaching the age of majority, and you rabbis quietly overlook this.
Rabbi Itzele responded with a smile: Indeed, for generations we marry off our girls before the age of majority, and the reason is, approximately 1,800 years ago, there was a Jewish girl who had come of age and was not married to a man. She caused us so much difficulty that we still feel it to this day…
The priest was stung by this piquant response, and began to debate matters of religion and faith with Rabbi Itzele. Wanting to challenge and irritate him, he pulled out from his pocket a tobacco box, one side of which was engraved with a Jew on its other side, a dog. He began to rotate the box from side to side before the rabbi. Rabbi Itzele responded: Apparently, you think that you have showed me some novel secret. However, even our young schoolchildren know: a Jew, when he ‘turns about’ and becomes a Gentile is a dog…
That rabbinic conference ended with compromise: For the time being, the cheders would not be affected, but the government schools can compete openly with them. Aizik Meir Dik tells in one of his letters that Rabbi Itzele was satisfied with the results of the conference: The Rabbi of Volozhin has arrived today in Vilna in joyous and content spirits for all the good that was done to his nation. What and how he did not tell.
Rabbi Yaakov Halevi Lipschitz[vii] relates the words of Aizik Meir Dik differently. According to him, Rabbi Itzele was immersed in depression after he returned from the convention. Rabbi Lipschitz writes that when Rabbi Itzele returned from Peterburg, he spent one Sabbath in the city of Vilkomir. The city notables asked the Gaon to tell them about the conference.
The rabbi responded: Believe me that there is nothing at all to tell. One does not respond to a downfall. No salvation was granted to the land. Would it be that no further multitude of evil decrees are hatched. A new destructive spirit pervades and is blowing over our nation. We are required only to pray for mercy. I have nothing more to tell you, my brethren.[30a]
According to Rabbi Lipschitz, Rabbi Itzele was very afraid of the results of the convention, to the point that he asked that a woolen cloak be packed with his belongings, lest he, Heaven forbid, not be successful at his mission, and be exiled to the Siberian wasteland, where the woolen cloak would shield him against the cold. (Zichron Yaakov, Section I, page 101)
The government did not give up on its intention of assimilating the Jews. A secret order was disseminated, stating, The purpose of educating the Jews is to draw them near to the Christian religion and to uproot their faulty views influenced by the Talmud. This secret directive reached Dr. Lilienthal's ears. He then began to understand that there was a basis for Rabbi Itzele's concerns. He escaped Peterburg and immigrated to the United States at the end of 1845. He served as a Reform rabbi in New York until 1850. That year, he left his position and founded a school in Cincinnati. He also published a newspaper in the German language called Devora. Dr. Lilienthal died on April 5, 1882 at the age of 67.
In the meantime, Rabbi Itzele's life was reaching its end. Legend states that Rabbi Itzele went to be healed in Minsk. He passed away on his way home, and the wagon carrying his body reached Ivyanets on the eve of the Sabbath. A dispute broke out between those accompanying him and the people of Ivyanets regarding where the Gaon should be laid to eternal rest. The judges issued a verdict that since the Gri'tz never traveled on Friday after midday, he should not be carried further. He was therefore buried in Ivyanets. Rabbi Itzele died on 26 Sivan 5609 (1849).
In order to show the esteem of Rabbi Itzele's personality we will bring the words of Rabbi Yaakov HaLevi Lipschitz:
My brethren and my people, we have known and still remember the Gaon, the eminent sage, the leader in Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak of Volozhin, may the memory of the holy be blessed. His memory is still engraved on the hearts of every person of Israel, as are his love and dedication to his people, his pure sentiments, and positive thoughts. The generation will still tell of he shrewd, firm, and sharp responses to his opponents at the meetings at which the deliberated regarding what to do to rectify the nation. His sharp, sublime adages will remain etched in the history book of Yeshurun[viii] until the final generation.[30b]
Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak Fried
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Still in his lifetime, Rabbi Itzele appointed his son-in-law Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak Fried as vice Rosh Yeshiva, and included him in his work. Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak was the son of the daughter of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, who was married to Rabbi Hillel Fried of Horodno. After the death of his great son-in-law, Rabbi
Eliezer was appointed as the head of the Yeshiva, as the following letter of ordination testifies:
Since the leader, the crown of our heads and the diadem of our glory, our late rabbi, the renowned Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak the son of our master and teacher the great, renowned Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Hayim, may his memory be blessed for life in the World To Come, has been taken to Above from our community who was the head of the rabbinical court in our community, it is fitting to appoint his descendent or relative in his place. Therefore, we were diligent, and we found his son-in-law, the great, renowned luminary Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak the son of Rabbi Hillel, may he be remembered for life in the World To Come, who, with the help of the Blessed G-d, will take the place of his late father-in-law in all matters relevant to the rabbinate.
Therefore, we accept the aforementioned Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak to become the rabbi and head of the rabbinical court in our community, and also to be the rabbinic decisor in our community and for all who belong to our community. We are not permitted to refuse him or refute him, Heaven forbid, regarding anything that affects us as a rabbinical decision. We, our community and all who belong to it, are obligated to accept, observe, and perform any rabbinical decision that comes our way.
We also accept upon ourselves to fulfil all details of things that are obligations of the public to fulfil regarding the rabbi, in accordance with that which is explained in the writ of the rabbinate that was given by our community to his father-in-law, the aforementioned Gaon. On the other hand, the aforementioned rabbi is also obliged to fulfil that which is required of him. The tenure of the rabbinate of the rabbi that we are accepting as per the above extends throughout his entire life. May the Blessed G-d extend his days and years.
The writ of appointment was signed by thirteen rabbis. It was signed in Volozhin on 28 Iyar, 5609 (1840).
His son, Rabbi Hayim Hillel wrote about him in his introduction to Chut Hameshulash:
Sir, father, the Gaon and Tzadik of blessed memory, the depths of whose diligence is known and renowned to everyone. During the period of mourning for his father the Gaon and Tzadik of blessed memory, he would review the entire Talmud every 30 days. All the Gaonim of his time deliberated over various questions with him already from the time of his youth,
in accordance with the extent of his sharpness and expertise that he demonstrated when he would deliver the class in the holy Yeshiva here in the holy community of Volozhin. Many wholesome people followed in the light of his Torah. He was cut off while still in his prime. He ascended to Heaven at the age of 44 (on Thursday, 19 Elul 5613 ). He became ill with a severe illness, Heaven protect us, approximately 14 years prior to his death. Even though his health situation was very bad and the weakness was severe, his love and desire for Torah grew, and he did not leave its tent. He spared no effort to preach his words in the Yeshiva twice a week. Each time, the Beis Midrash was not without a novel idea in sharpness and expertise, for he always responded to his questioners with words relevant to the question at hand. Many of his novellae remained in the hands of his students who poured water on his hands. Even those that were not written down were still organized in the appropriate order as would be needed for publication. There are also some that he was not able to complete, and that were written in several versions.
The details of the life of Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak are sparse, but his sublime moral personality, his internal spiritual world in matters of character traits and morality we learn from his wonderful sermon that he delivered in the Beis Midrash of Volozhin on the eve of Shavuot 5607 (1847). The main idea was the greatness of the concept of performing acts of kindness. This sermon was rich in ideas, and aroused the soul to abandon perverted paths, and to cleave to the good, fine, moral, and sublime. It has words that can arouse our generation to their precious light.
Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak asks why we read the Book of Ruth specifically on the Shavuot, which is the festival of the giving of the Torah? His response is:
For the main idea of the book is to publicize the greatness of acts of kindness, which is the main principle in fulfilling the Torah. Therefore, when Ruth knew in her soul that she had already acquired those traits that are the beginning of the approach to our holy Torah she then became a proselyte. Therefore, our early sages enacted that we should read this book on the Festival of Shavuot, the time of the giving of our holy Torah, so that we will recall the greatness of acts of kindness as we read it. This is in accordance with the words of Rabbi Zeira: This Megilla [scroll] does not deal with the concepts of impurity and purity or the concepts of what is forbidden and what is permitted. Why was it written? To teach you the great reward for acts of kindness.
Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak taught that before one comes to study Torah, one must prepare the heart. This preparedness is only forged through acts of kindness and charitable deeds. A person who is unable to ascend to the moral level of doing good for his fellow, of helping his fellow during times of difficulty such a person renders the Torah into a fraud and is denigrated by it. A person cannot approach Torah if he does not cleave to these traits, just as one cannot built a building before laying
a strong foundation below. These traits are the basis of Torah to be merciful and gracious .
A person reaches the level of a moral individual by acting in the ways of G-d, through performing His deeds:
Just as He clothes the naked, as is written: And the L-rd G-d made cloaks of skins for Adam and his wife to clothe them. (Genesis 3:21) so you too should cloth the naked. G-d visits the sick as is written: And G-d appeared to him in the Terebinths of Mamre (Genesis 18:1)[i] so you too should visit the sick. G-d comforts mourners, as is written: And after Abraham died, G-d blessed his son Isaac (Genesis 25:11) so you too should comfort the mourners. G-d buries the dead, as is written: And he buried him in a ravine in the Land of Moab (Deuteronomy 34:6) so you too should bury the dead. Rabbi Simlai expounded: The Torah begins with an act of kindness, and concludes with an act of kindness. It begins with an act of kindness, as is written: And G-d made cloaks of skin for Adam and his wife to clothe them. It concludes with an act of kindness, as is written: And He buried him in a ravine.
The teaching of Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak is the rock of grace in the forging of the Gaonim of Volozhin. Aside from disseminating Torah among the nation, they desired to disseminate Jewish morality and to raise the spiritual level of the person. Volozhin also bequeathed to us books and wonderful people of morality, for truth and justice were the foundation of their lives and the candle at their feet throughout all the days.
The Text of the Gravestone of Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak[ii]
א It will be called a foundation stone, this place is very awesome, here is buried the ark of G-d
ל The hearts of all passers-by will be torn, for this place is a home and grave, and the fear of G-d will descend
י The violin and the organ turn to mourning, song and the harp turn to sorrow, let there be the fear of G-d
ע A dirge on all lips, agony from all corners, all sons of G-d shout out
ז Screams and wailing to the heavens, and tears as a stream of water, come from the house of G-d
ר See and believe, the flask of manna, has been taken and hidden, and is no more for G-d has taken him
י His fear and wisdom lit up the faces, all who saw him recognized that the honor of G-d shone upon him
צ The beloved of Israel, the diadem and crown, exacting to the hair, when a person asks about the word of G-d
ח He wore out his life in the tents of Torah, he is praised with might, a Tzadik who rules with the fear of G-d
ק He was holy to G-d all his days, he had many students from his younger days, whom he taught the book of the Torah of G-d
ב The sun set at noon, darkness from the skies above, on the day that the candle of G-d was extinguished
נ It fell, wisdom and its persona, its foundations melted, when the leader of the House of G-d was gathered in
ה He went to his rest, to enjoy in the pleasantness of the G-d of the winds, in Eden the garden of G-d
ל To teach the nation the righteous statues, ha! Who will fil the breach? To teach them the laws of G-d
ל Israel is no widower, for it will be redeemed at the time of the end, and all flesh will see visions of G-d
ז This Tzadik, the pride of our strength, Eliezer Yitzhak our master, he was a prince of G-d in our midst
ל Our eyes will be illuminated by the light of his wisdom, the splendor of his stature will comfort us, and we will be desired as one who sees the face of G-d
The Era of the Netzi'v, Rabbi Yosef Dov, and Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik
Translated by Jerrold Landau, based on an earlier translation by M. Porat zl and edited by Judy Montel
This period was the longest in the history of the Yeshiva. It lasted for around forty years and was different from the two earlier periods. During the time of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin and his son Rabbi Itzele, the Yeshiva heads were well-known in the Jewish world, both in the area of Torah study and dissemination in public, as well as with respect to their blessed efforts in matters relating to the nation in general (especially Rabbi Itzele); whereas the students, aside from their diligence in the study of Talmud and its commentaries, were not active in any other activities. They did not become involved in the management of the Yeshiva. Their lives were quiet with their [faithfulness to] tradition. This changed during the period under discussion. The Yeshiva students began to display their energy and initiative, leaving their stamp on the life of the Yeshiva and its future development. The Yeshiva students, with their problems, life situations, questions, and struggles, began to take their appropriate place in the Yeshiva alongside its directors, and at times even in opposition to them.
The Torah and man are connected to the candle of G-d in the land. Torah is the flame that separates the spark of the dwellers from Heaven. Man, with his two parts, is the flame that draws its light His body is the twisted wick, and his soul is the pure olive oil. With their agreement and connection, the house will become full of its light.
From the history of the Netzi'v
(Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin)
The Netzi'v was born to his father Rabbi Yaakov Berlin in Mir, District of Minsk on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Kislev, 5577 (1816). He was approximately ten years old when his father brought him to the Yeshiva of Volozhin. He was married to Rayna-Batya, Rabbi Itzele's daughter, about a half a year after he became Bar Mitzvah.
After his marriage, the Netzi'v continued to study with great diligence day and night in a small room within the Yeshiva. There were legends about his diligence in learning. It was said that he was able to study 20 hours a day. He would dip his feet in cold water to stay awake. He himself denied the story years later, saying: I only studied 16 hours a day. He added, I did this on Sunday, as well as Friday, the Sabbath, and festivals. This continued for 25 consecutive years. The diligence planted in his heart during his youth did not leave him even in his old age. It seemed that he never slept, because in the evening, in the middle of the night and at daybreak he could always be seen entering and leaving the Yeshiva.
One of his choicest students, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, may the memory of the holy be blessed, writes about his rabbi the Netzi'v:
Already from the time of his youth, it was apparent that this man was created for greatness. His deep diligence, his distance from all pleasures of life, his wonderful persistence, and his straightforward inclination to delve deeply into any aspect of Torah, to turn away from the methodology of convoluted didactics [pilpul], and to delve into and know the proper truth in Torah all this gives testimony that the future of this scholar is to be the illuminator of the ways of the Torah, and the forger of paths of Torah for many of his age. In those days, all those who grasped Torah made efforts to place all their efforts into didactics within Talmudic discussions, with novel ideas in Gemara, decisors, Tosafot, and the Maharsh'a (Rabbi Shmuel Eidelish), which were the interest of all those who delved into the Talmud.
At the age of thirty-six, twenty-five years after his arrival in Volozhin, the Netzi'v was nominated as the Yeshiva head. The following is written in his writ of appointment:
According to the authority and permission that we have from the rabbis and Gaonim, the heads of the communities in our country, and as their words have reached us in their letters, we have gathered together to appoint the great rabbi, our honorable rabbi and teacher Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh-Leib Berlin, the son-in-law of the Gaon Mohari'tz (Our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak), may he be remembered for life in the world to come, to be the head of the Yeshiva in this Beis Midrash, for we have seen him fit and capable for this, for he toiled greatly in the Torah of G-d with wonderful diligence, to the point that he is expert in the entire Talmud, and he can discuss halacha in accordance with his will to direct to true goal. It is said regarding him: He who guards the fig tree will eat of its fruit' (Proverbs 27:18). Furthermore, he has been G-d fearing from his youth, and he already presented halacha to students during the time of the Gaon Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak (E. Y.) may he be remembered for life in the World To Come. He is obligated to teach halacha to the students, and to watch over them with a watchful eye,
that they will be diligent in their studies, and will not be engaged in other matters. He himself will be the final authority in all matters of the Yeshiva, in the acceptance of students, to decide whom to draw near and whom to keep away, as well as with all matters of expenses, both regular and occasional, usual, and unusual all in accordance with what is required by the times.
Although the Netzi'v was occupied with Torah study day and night, he nevertheless found time to read secular Hebrew literature. All the editors of the Hebrew newspapers that were published in Russia and abroad would send him their weeklies or monthlies for free, and ask that he donate the fruits of his spirit whether words of Torah or research into the Hebrew language. He would regularly read Hamagid and Halevanon. Hamagid would arrive at the home of the Netzi'v every Friday toward evening. The Netzi'v would not read it at night, for he dedicated every Sabbath night to reviewing the Mishnayot of Shabbat and Eruvin by heart. He read Hamagid on the Sabbath day. If Hamagid was ever late on the eve of the Sabbath, the Netzi'v would say that he felt as if something was missing on that Sabbath, just as a Jew feels on Shabbat Chazon [the Shabbat prior to Tisha B'Av] for one goes to the bathhouse every Sabbath eve other than on the eve of Shabbat Chazon. He would say that the newspapers were very important to him, for they brought him greetings of peace from the entire world.
Similarly, the Netzi'v loved Hebrew grammar. He once stated in jest: It is not fitting at all for the Holy Tongue to be studied from Ben-Zeev, but one can one do? Talmud Leshon Avar is the final fundamental book on that subject. To our dismay, the only book authored by a kosher Jew, Hamaslul, is not of the better ones.
If the Netzi'v sometimes opposed the reading of secular Hebrew literature, he did so from the concern of impinging on Torah study. When a group of yeshiva students began to publish a journal on Yeshiva issues called Boker Or [Morning Light], and the Netzi'v saw that this took away from the study of Torah, he called one of the directors of the newspaper and said calmly: If you produce Boker Or [Morning Light], I will make And the People were sent away… (An innuendo to the verse At the morning light, the men were sent, they and their donkeys (Genesis 44:3)
The Netzi'v Sets up the Building of The Holy Yeshiva
The building established by Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin in the year 5567  burnt down on July 27, 1886, eighty years after it was built. The Netzi'v understood that in order to grow the Yeshiva and make it more prominent, a fitting building must be built, which could house the hundreds of students. To this end, a large announcement regarding Torah was published, requesting world Jewry to help him build a new building on the ruins of the burnt building.
The Netzi'v became personally involved in fundraising for the Yeshiva building. A story is told regarding this, demonstrating his intelligence and sharpness. Once, he was working on behalf of the Yeshiva and there was a very wealthy but miserly man there who wanted to get away with a meager donation. The Netzi'v said to him: I, for example, am called Rabbi and Gaon by people. Therefore, I do what I do: I teach, respond to questions, write books, uphold the Yeshiva, and disseminate Torah so that at least there will be a bit of truth in the term. You are called Gvir [wealthy person]. Therefore, we are required to act as befits a Gvir, to be first of those asked and of those who give, to give charity generously for any purpose. If you do not act in that manner, it appears that you are misleading people…
After about three months, the school was already standing. During those months, the Netzi'v demonstrated all his mighty power. He abandoned his personal issues and toiled day and night to renew the honor of Torah.
The Yeshiva building was a stone building with two stories, a basement, and large hall. It was spacious, supported by four pillars. The rich library of the Yeshiva was in the basement. Anyone who strolled in front of the Yeshiva on long winter nights would witness a wonderful sight the light of many lamps shining upon the snow. The voices of hundreds of Yeshiva students studying with great enthusiasm could be heard from one end of Volozhin to the other. An awesome reverence would overtake the passer-by and leave him feeling in his heart that here, Judaism could be felt in its strength and purity.
During this period, the Yeshiva expanded greatly. The number of students approached four hundred. Students from Britain, Germany, Austria, the United States, all parts of Russia, Finland, Kurland, Kovkoz, and Siberia studied there. Volozhin became a great Torah center, with a beating heart, full of life and creating life. The central heart of Volozhin was The Holy Yeshiva, which was the life of the spirit and the source of joy of the Netzi'v. He had nothing in his world other than the four ells of this great house in Volozhin from where Torah was disseminated.
The Great Dedication of the Netzi'v to the Yeshiva Students
Translated by Jerrold Landau
The Netzi'v lived in the Yeshiva building from the time it was built until the house of the rabbi was built. The top floor was designated for the Yeshiva, where hundreds of students occupied themselves daily with Torah and prayer, as well as mundane conversation. Their voices wafted from one end of the Yeshiva to the other. The lower floor served as the residence for the Netzi'v and his family.
The Netzi'v was asked: Tell us, our rabbi, how can you tolerate noise such as this above your head. What about your sleep and your rest?
I will tell you a parable, responded the Netzi'v. What is this like? It is like someone grinding with his mill. A person passes by the mill and hears a loud noise. The wheels turn around and around. The millstones grind. The sifter sifts. The passer-by wonders and asks: ‘how can the miller tolerate the noise of his mill? How does he sleep, and how does he rest?’ However, what does that miller say? This noise is good for my sleep and rest. The more noise the mill makes, the sweeter is my sleep. When the mill is silent, and the wheels stand still my sleep escapes my eyes and I have no rest.
We can deduce from this response the great love that the Netzi'v had for the people of the Yeshiva. It is said that one father brought the Netzi'v his only son and asked him to specially supervise him. The Netzi'v responded: To you, he is your only son. To me, the 400 Yeshiva students are all like only sons to me. When the Netzi'v reproved his students, this was outward reproof and hidden love.
He was connected to his students with his full heart. He had mercy upon them as a father has mercy upon his children. He took interest in their concerns and needs. He even outlined the path that they should follow in the present and the future, for their benefit. He would be informed immediately if any student became ill, for he ordered the householders with whom the Yeshiva students lived that in any event of illness even if a Yeshiva person simply does not feel well he should be informed immediately. The Netzi'v would immediately visit the sick student, even twice a day if necessary. He did not stop taking interest the illness. He would discuss the situation with the physician and tell him to make sure he attends to the sick person properly and in a timely fashion. He would even instruct the host to provide the sick person with everything needed for him to recover. The Netzi'v did not suffice himself with his visits. He would also send a special emissary to concern himself with his situation. Even after the student would start to get better, he made sure that the host would ensure his full recovery. The Yeshiva paid for all medical and health expenses.
The Netzi'v would free himself from his various pursuits in order to enter the Yeshiva and look and his beloved students. In the winter, he would visit the Yeshiva two or three times during the latter half of the night. On weekdays, he would take a nap in his room in the Yeshiva, lying partly on the couch with his feet resting on the adjacent chair, and a small pillow under his head. He would barely spend two consecutive hours sleeping. He would visit the Yeshiva on Sabbath eves a half an hour after midnight and again before dawn. Anyone who has never seen the Netzi'v standing in the Yeshiva and peering at the rows of students as they were sitting bent over, connected to each other, and his eyes were radiating with joy has never witnessed the joy of Torah in his days[i]. He would pace with vigorous steps along the rows, take note of those seated there, at times look at what they were learning, circle the entire Yeshiva, and then exit. Due to his great love of his students, he did not take kindly to afflictions and displays of extremism among the students. He would say: Who is a diligent student? A diligent student is one who eats at the right time, sleeps at the right time, and studies at the right time.
This is how Chaim Nachman Bialik portrays the devotion of the Netzi'v to his students in Hamatmid [The Diligent Student].
|There is only one ear that is nearby to hear
The hum of the lad who gets up early, the diligent one who remains late
Is alert to be attentive to the bitter sighs
That arrive to it on the wings of morning
He is the Yeshiva head, mighty and majesticv Who, with the call of the rooster the voice of the first diligent one
It defines the purpose of his weakened body
The chirping of his birds does not let him sleep.
And when he hears the voice of the diligent one arising in the morning
He loves to listen attentively in silence,
|And he hears the echo of the voice of his youth, and he remembers
The long chain of life of the soul.
And he remembers and two tear drops fall
And are absorbed into the silver gate of his white beard,
The diligent one trembles in the light of the dim candle
As two stones of fire from the golden squares.
Greater than Netzi'v's concern for the physical wellbeing of the students was his concern for their souls and future in life, so that they would not regard the Yeshiva as a passing period of life, but will rather continue teaching and disseminating their wellsprings outward. He would warn his students about going beyond their personal boundaries. The Netzi'v would say: There are two types of going beyond boundaries: one can impinge on the boundaries of others, and one can go beyond one's own boundaries. Impinging on the boundaries of others is known to everyone it refers to someone who breaks through the bounds of his fellow and damages his livelihood.
However, there is also going beyond one's personal bounds. Every country has military schools. We all know in our souls that a military person who has graduated from this school and has reached the rank of general he has studied a great deal, and worked hard with serious diligence, and is known to everyone for his talents. However, after he reached that level, if he suddenly removes his uniform with all the medals of honor and splendor, and dons the garb of a simple person, the garb of a person of the market, and becomes a merchant, a shopkeeper, or an agent this is what we refer to as ‘going beyond his personal boundaries.’ This is what the Netzi'v called out greatly.
The Netzi'v's feelings of love and dedication were not restricted to his students, but applied to all people. He was never exacting, and was tolerant to all who turned to him. He always attempted to help to the extent that he could. He did not regard this as a going beyond moral expectations, but rather as something self-evident, something that was required by the letter of the law. Our sages have defined the level of patience required by a communal leader as follows: To what extent must a parnas [communal administrator] bear the yoke of the community? To the extent that a nursing parent carries the suckling child[ii]. When a mother carries her suckling child on her shoulders, and, as happened with babies, he dirties her and her clothes, and he also become dirty and stained himself what must she do? Should she cast her child off her shoulders in anger for something unseemly? Heaven forbid! Rather, she washes him with love and patience, cleans him and changes him into clean clothing. After that, she cleans her own clothes. She again takes the child into her arms and kisses him with love. She speaks softly and pleasantly to him, and calms him. This is the same with the Netzi'v. Even if someone from the community bothers him and causes him anguish, Heaven forbid that he should chase him away. On the contrary! His duty was to draw him close and respond to his issues.
The Order of Studies in the Yeshiva
Translated by Jerrold Landau, based on an earlier translation by M. Porat zl
The school day in the Yeshiva would begin at nine in the morning. The Netzi'v would teach his students the weekly Torah portion each day. The following story indicates the importance of this lecture. Once, one of the students arrived from Pinsk, the city of residence of the brother of the Netzi'v, Rabbi Avraham Meir Berlin. The Netzi'v asked the student if he had heard news from his brother. The student hesitated and did not answer. This happened a short while before the class. The Netzi'v did not inquire further. He entered the Yeshiva and began his teaching. After finishing the lecture, he sent for the student and continued to question him about his brother until he understood that his brother was no longer alive and he must begin the period of mourning. He removed his shoes, rent his garments, and sat on the ground. Already at their first encounter, hearing the student stammering, he understood what had happened; but until he heard it clearly, he was not obligated in the laws of mourning. He did not want to hear it explicitly until the end of the lecture, so as not to cancel the study of Torah.[i]
The Yeshiva students were not obliged to learn specific topics. Each one could make his choice regarding which Talmudic tractate to study. After the Netzi'v's daily lecture, they would study until 1:00 p.m. Then they went to their boarding houses for lunch. They returned at 4:00 p.m. prayed the afternoon Minchah service and studied until 10:00 p.m. Then after the evening Maariv service they went home to have dinner. The great majority returned to the Yeshiva to study until midnight. Some even remained until dawn. The Netzi'v, like Rabb Hayim of Volozhin, was careful about ensuring that the Yeshiva was not devoid of studiers for even one moment.
The Netzi'v did not look kindly upon solitary study. The study was to be with others, not only because of the [Talmudic] statement: When two scholars sharpen each other in halacha, G-d grants them success, as is stated ‘and the path will succeed’ (Psalms 45:5). Don't read ‘path’ והדרך [vehaderech] but rather ‘you will be sharpened’ [vechadrach] וחדרך (from the term חידוד [chidud] ‘sharpening’ Tractate Shabbat 63a.) but because it says regarding us who can discern his errors[ii], and it says regarding the gentiles error is a human matter. There is a minimum of error to which we accept with patience and understanding. However, anyone who studies for himself, anyone who clarifies halacha for himself without communicating with friends, it is close to certain that he will stumble and err a great deal more than the natural level of acceptable error. This is because there is nobody to catch him if he errs, so he wallows in his error and mistakes. Often, one error will lead to further error, and a minor error will lead to fundamental errors. This is not the case with someone who studies and clarifies halacha together with friends the dialog will help clarify and purify the matters.
The thirst for study was very great among the Yeshiva students. Bialik writes about himself in Hamatmid that he stood like a hammered nail, not moving from his place for an entire day and half the night. They studied with great interest and consistency, as they derived pleasure from the broad sea of Talmud, streaming and flowing in all directions, without beginning and without end.
Even though Y. L. G. [Yehuda Leib Gordon] was one of the great fighters for Haskalah, he could not close his eyes from seeing the great dedication of the Yeshiva students, and he wrote a poem about them:
How you became great, how you became strong, the desire for knowledge
In the hearts of the youth of Israel, this is the nation of the worm![iii]
An eternal light on the burning altar!
If they study Torah, Gemara, and rabbinic decisors
Or if they occupy themselves in secular wisdom
Their desires will overcome every obstacle and stumbling block.
Stand on the streets of Mir, Eishishok [Eišiškės] or Volozhin
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