« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 120]

The Secret Societies “Nes Tziona” (“Netz”)
and “Netsach Yisrael”

Written by E. Leoni

Translated by Jerrold Landau, based on an earlier translation by M. Porat z”l that was edited by Judy Feinsilver Montel

The Netzi'v was devoted heart and soul to the “Chovevei Zion” movement, albeit the Yeshiva was the soul of his life. Therefore, he demanded one thing only from his students: to be devoted entirely to Torah study and not to divert their thoughts to other ideas. In one of his letters to the Chovevei Zion Committee in Warsaw, he appologized for not being active in the work for “The holy organization for the settlement of the Land of Israel,” because all his time and energy was dedicated to the holy Yeshiva, of which he was the living spirit, and for which there was nobody else to bear its burden. If the Netzi'v, the Yeshiva's head, could not find any possibility to refer his attention to national activities, all the more so could he not agree that his students interrupt their studies, divert their attention from their efforts in the Yeshiva, and immerse themselves in work for Chibat Zion.

In any case, the national revival ideas penetrated through the Yeshiva walls and were implanted deeply in the students' hearts. The Volozhin Yeshiva became the center of the national movement among the Beis Midrash attendees, from where the idea of Chovevei Zion spread out into the important Torah centers of the Diaspora. A clandestine organization called Nes Tziona was founded in the Yeshiva. There was no other organization like it. The center of the organization was in Volozhin, and its emissaries spread out throughout the country. It conducted a great deal of publicity amongst Torah oriented Jewry for the upbuilding and revival of the Land.

A meeting was held by seven Yeshiva students in utmost discretion during the winter of 5645 [1885]: Moshe Barshak, Ben Zion Dante, Shimon Zlotoybke, Yakov Flakser, Menahem Fridman, Yosef Rozenkrantz and Yosef Rotshtayn. They laid the foundation of “Nes Tziona” [Banner of Zion] Society and pledged allegiance to its aims.

[Page 121]

Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Levin

Sitting (right to left): Menachem Fridland, Menachem Mendl Nahumovski, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, Yaakov Mordechai Alperin
Standing (right to left): Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Flakser, , Yaakov Mordechai Zingman, Chaim Lerman
(The photo was received from the Russian Zionist Archives,
founded by Aryeh Rafael-Tzenzifer)


The goal of the organization was the settlement of the Land of Israel with the purity of holiness and Jewishness, and imbuing good, upright and sublime traits and feelings of charm and honor for everything good, effective, holy and precious to the House of Israel.

During the first year of its existence, the society listed more than fifty members. More members were added from time to time. Everything was conducted in complete secrecy. The organization also grew beyond the bounds of the Yeshiva. Its founders set their goal to educate diligent, faithful workers who would prepare to be dedicated to the movement of the settlement of the Land of Israel throughout their lives, and to accept upon themselves the role of disseminating the idea of the revival of the nation and its return to Zion through all the broad pathways of the nation throughout its Diaspora.

The organization found a broad array of willing human resources among the Yeshiva students. Most were young, and their hearts were alert to everything good and effective taking place in the community and in the nation. In order to protect their organization from the “evil eye,” to secure its existence, to ensure the trustworthiness of its members and to strengthen the connection between them throughout all the days of their lives and to bring them in to the yoke of reality, the founders found no

[Page 122]

other way to ensure proper protection than imposing an oath upon every member as they entered Nes Tziona. The oath consisted of two ideas: faithfulness to the organization, and dedication to work throughout life; and maintaining the secret, so as not to disclose anything that was seen or heard within. The oath was as follows:

“In the name of our Holy Land and in the name of all that is dear and holy to me, I am swearing this oath of allegiance to be faithful to our Society's purposes and to make every effort throughout my life to accomplish the idea of settling the Land of Israel, and to refrain from disclosing anything to anyone until they too enter into the covenant with an oath.”

One of the first activities of the society was to disseminate literature in praise of the settlement of the Land of Israel. The society disseminated the book Doresh Tzion [Inquiring about Zion] by Rabbi Ch. Y. Kramer, published in 5645 [1885], as well as other books. Hamagid and Hameilitz were also distributed by the members. In the year 5649 (1889), members of the society took the initiative of publishing a large anthology on the idea of the settlement of the Land of Israel. The anthology was supposed to include sections from our literature throughout all the generations relevant to the idea of the settlement of the Land of Israel and the love of Zion, aside from sections from the ancient literature, from the Bible, the Mishna, Talmud, and Midrash. Those involved also wanted to include items from the new era starting with Rabbi Kalisher and ending with the rabbis of Chovevei Zion of their generation.

However, the publication of the anthology never took place, because the existence of the society became known to the authorities at the beginning of the year 5650 [1890]. That year, a letter from a member of the society to a student of the University of Dorpat [trans: an old name for Tartu, Estonia], regarding the society in Volozhin was intercepted by the authorities. The police searched the student of the Yeshiva who had sent the letter and found with him the copying machine that printed the flyers. The lad was arrested. This matter disturbed the Netzi'v greatly. He had not known about the existence of the society. They did not do anything against the heads of the society, but the result was the disbandment of the society.

In the winter months of 5651 [1891], a second secret society “Netzach Yisrael” (The Eternity of Israel) was created inside the Yeshiva. Chaim Nachman Bialik played an active role in it. Bialik writes in his “Autobiographical Note”:

“It happened during the publication days of Ahad Ha'am's first articles. The best and the “enlightened” Yeshiva students formed a society and vowed to dedicate their talents and their entire life to working for their people. The foundational idea of the society was indeed glorious. It was stated as follows: The Volozhin Yeshiva is the center of the best talents that will ultimately spread amongst the Jewish world, penetrate to its midst, and be absorbed into it, and become its leaders, as rabbis, doctors, and scholars, as well as administrators, communal heads, publicists and writers. Therefore, it would be sufficient for us to establish among the Volozhin students a permanent incubator for lovers of Zion. These would later turn the entire world into lovers of Zion, etc.

“The society was based on the cream of the crop of Yeshiva students, and of those with clear intellect. Every

[Page 123]

person accepted as a member was tested thoroughly from every side. Only those who were deemed to become a benefit to the cause in the future were chosen as members. I was considered as a future writer (that is how I was known) and this was the reason for my acceptance as a fellow in their company. I was one the first ones. At this very time, I wrote an article, as requested by my colleagues of the society. This was my first literary attempt. It was titled “The Idea of Settlement.” It was published in Hameilitz of that year. That article was intended as a manifest of our society to publish its outlook to the world.”[38]

What aroused the enlightened students in the Yeshiva to found the society? There is a theory that the chief factor in this was the article of Ahad Ha'am “The Priests and the Nation.” In it, it is written that “Any new idea, whether religions, traditional, or social, will not stand and will not come to be unless there is a group of priests who will dedicate their lives to it, and work on it with their whole heart and whole personality.”

The purpose of the organization was: “The settlement of the Land of Israel with the purity of holiness.” The meaning of “purity of holiness” is not only the upkeep of the religion in its simple meaning, but also complete traditional renewal, rooted in all the praiseworthy traits of Judaism within the Hebrew nation. The settlement in the Land must be a national home in the traditional Jewish sense, to serve as a center for Jews and Judaism.

There were some twenty members who composed the Society. Despite their small number, they considered each activity as very important. They planned to establish a cooperative settlement for religious youth in the Land of Israel, which would be a showpiece not only of loving work but also of morality and religious ethics. An important letter remains from M. L. Lilienblum to Bialik and his friends, dated 3 Sivan 5651 [1891], in which he informs them that he received their letter: “May G-d, the L-rd of Zion, be with the mouths of the Jewish lads, and grant them grace and mercy before the philanthropist, to have mercy upon them and upon our Land.” He blessed the writer of the letter, Bialik, with: “With all my heart that his good intentions become actualized.”

The Yeshivah was closed in the winter of 5662 (1892). The students dispersed and that was the end of that society in Volozhin[39].

Original footnotes:

  1. Ch. N. Bialik: “Autobiographical Notes” Knesset, Book VI, Tel Aviv, 5701 [1941], page 15. Return
  2. A. Droyanov published in “Writings on the History of Chibat Zion and the settlement of the Land of Israel” Volume II, pp. 797-799, a letter from “A group of students of the Volozhin Yeshiva” to K. Z. Wissotzki from the year 5649 [1889] regarding designating a plot of land for the founding of an agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel for students of the Volozhin Yeshiva. The letter is as follows: “The national movement is continually spreading throughout our brethren the House of Israel. Great is the commandment of actualizing the settlement of our Land, for the time of its mercy has come. The bitter situation of our brethren and their bad lot in their lands of dispersion also breathed into our hearts the idea of making aliya to Zion, of working its land, eating of its fruits, and satiating ourselves with its goodness. Approximately 100 people have forged a covenant and formed a society for the founding, with G-d's help, of a settlement in our Holy Land, so we can be tenders of vineyards and farmers upon the mountains of Israel. It has been acquired for us from our brethren, men of valor, who went out as pioneers and made aliya to Rishon Letzion to till its mountains and smooth outs its valleys. Their hope for the future, with the vine plantation, is that it shall blossom and bear fruit.”
    Later, they request from Wissotzky that he “Purchase the necessary land for our desire, stating that they are prepared to provide 5,000 rubles as an advanced payment, so that he would perhaps agree to give over the land, and they would pay interest according to an agreement.”
    The signatories: Reuven the son of Rabbi Dov Yaakov HaKohen Gordon, Eliyahu Aharon Milikowsky, Menachem the son of Tzvi Krakowski, Yaakov the son Rabbi Baruch Yosef Blidstein, Shalom Eliezer the son of Rabbi Y. Rogozin (or Rogovin), Yeshayahu Bunimowitz, Aharon Yaakov Perlman, Efraim Zamonov (the grandson of the Netzi'v, the husband of the daughter of Rabbi Hayim Berlin), Moshe Hayim… Yitzchak Yaakov Perski. Return

[Page 124]

The Dispute Between the Netzi'v
and Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik

Translated by Jerrold Landau based on an earlier translation by M. Porat z”l.

A leadership of pairs, consisting of the Yeshiva head and his deputy, has always been in effect at the Etz Hayim Yeshiva. During the era of Rabbi Itsele, his son-in-law Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak served as his deputy. After Rabbi Itsele's death, Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak served as the Yeshiva head, and the Netzi'v was his deputy. The Netzi'v was appointed as Yeshiva head after the death of Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, a great grandson of rabbi Hayim Volozhin through his daughter, was appointed as his deputy. It is written in the writ of rabbinate given to the Netzi'v: “And as his deputy, we have chosen to place the honor of the great, sharp, famous rabbi, Rabbi Yosef DovBer the son of Rabbi Yitzchak Zev HaLevi, a grandson of the Gaon, our teacher Rabbi Hayim, may the memory of the holy be blessed, to assist and support the aforementioned Yeshiva head by teaching halacha to the students – for he is good and effective in imparting his didactics [pilpul] to the students.”

These two Gaonim had different opinions as to the methods of Talmud learning. The Netziv's son, rabbi Meir Berlin, describes the methodology of the Netzi'v:

“The Volozhin Yeshiva introduced the method of study that can be traced to the Gaon of Vilna. Through this, the students of this Yeshiva differ from those who learned their Torah from other Yeshivas. This method of study is not based on sharp didactics, sectional expertise, or exactitude of wording. Rather, it penetrates into the Talmudic discussion and everything stemming from it. The aspiration for truth, efforts in preparation, and the will to understand the clear meaning – that is the learning methodology of the Rabbi of Israel (the Netzi'v) in his books, and that was the learning methodology of his Yeshiva and his students. The first approach is toward understanding and depth. To determine whether the understanding is correct, or whether the digging in depth is distorted, one must find support in the words of the great early sages, and especially from Talmudic sections that deal with the same concept in general, for there are cases where words of Torah are poor in one place, but rich in another place.”[40]

The Netzi'v fundamentally rejected pilpul, stating that “Just as it is impossible to discharge one's obligation of a set meal through delicacies and sweets alone, even if they are good and proper when they follow a full meal with bread, fish, and meat – similarly, sharp pilpul is good if it comes as

[Page 125]

accessories and sweet treats,” after the set study of Talmud, decisors, and books of the early commentators, after the student reaches the level of complete, true acquisition of the fundamental treasures and virtues of the Torah.

In the eyes of the Netzi'v, Torah study alone was important. And the more a man increased his Torah knowledge the more his spiritual power would grow. The Netzi'v would explain the matter with a parable from life: A studier can be compared to a machine in a factory. As long as you add coals for fuel, it works with greater diligence and complete purpose, and produces proper products. This is not the case of a meager quantity of coals are provided. The machine will then function lazily, without the spirit of life, and the products it produces will be without form or glory.

Such is also the complete man who has acquired his Torah. The more Torah he acquires from Talmud, decisors, and the books of the early commentators – for all of these demonstrate the clear fundamental of every law and area of research, like coals in a machine – the more he will be able to research and answer every Torah matter that comes his way. He will find the sources and basis in his Torah that he has studied in breadth and depth.

For this reason, the Netzi'v did not look positively at those who elongated their prayers, for overly extended praying interferes with the study of Torah. Torah learning demands that the student be dedicated to it totally and at all times. Regarding this, the Netzi'v relates that during the times of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, a certain scholar studied in the Yeshiva, and took a great deal of his time from his studies to recite Psalms. Rabbi Hayim was pained that his student took away so many hours from the study of Torah, and he reproved him for this. His student told him: “Our rabbi, indeed, it says in the agada [Talmudic lore] that King David requested that everyone who occupies himself with the recitation of Psalms will be considered as if he is occupied with [the laws of] leprous legions and [impurity transmitted by] coverings.” Rabbi Hayim responded: “It is indeed true that he requested, but we do not know how the matter was answered to him.”

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein describes the essence of the controversy between the Netzi'v and Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik in the following words:[41]

“As opposed to the Netzi'v, the Gaon Rabbi Yosi Ber considered sharp pilpul to be a precious tool to forge the young students' intellects, to sharpen their logic, and thereby to excite the rivalry of wisdom and to make them enjoy the competition.

The two methodologies, or two regimens, at opposite sides gave rise to a chasm between the Yeshiva students. Some followed the opinion and regime of my uncle (the Netzi'v) and revered his methodology as a true and sure path in the ways of Torah, and others enjoyed the path of sharpness of Rabbi Yosi Ber.

At first, the chasm was mild and light, and was only hidden in the hearts of those sages, the mighty ones of their methodologies and paths. However, after the chasm broadened and entered the public domain of the Yeshiva students, it was no longer possible to confine the winds in the hearts of these youths, each of whom, with the heat of their souls and emotions, attempted to prove the superiority of their leanings, methodologies, and pathways that they had chosen

[Page 126]

Slowly but surely, the question turned into a dispute, and the logic became a conflict. Those close to each other grew apart; friends became ideological adversaries. It had become a storm of tribulations. Furthermore, as time passed, the dispute broke forth from the confines of the walls of the Yeshiva, and moved on to towns near and far from Volozhin. Several students and Torah giants began to take interest in the difference of opinion.”

To settle the controversy, four of the Torah greats of the generation were summoned to Volozhin: David Tevel, the head of the rabbinical court of Minsk, Rabbi Yosef from Slutsk, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan from Kovno, and Rabbi Zev Landau the preacher from Vilna. They were joined by the wealthy Rabbi Yehoshua Levin of Minsk.[42]

The following was their verdict from 4 Cheshvan, 5618 (1857):

“When we came together and gathered here in the holy community of Volozhin to investigate the issues of the great house in which Torah is nurtured for the masses by our rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda, may his light shine, and our rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Yosef Dov, may his light shine – the following is what we the undersigned agreed and have recorded.

  1. First of all, we decree that there should be peace between the rabbis, and that any Yeshiva student who impinges upon the honor of one of the aforementioned rabbis, and the matter becomes known, both of them must distance him or punish him as they see fit.
  2. The accepting of students into the Yeshiva is dependent on the will of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda, as it was until now. Only when a letter arrives specifically to Rabbi Yosef DovBer does he have the rights to accept him on his own.”
[Page 127]

After the verdict, Rabbi Yosi Ber did not see a place for himself in the Yeshiva. He left it and accepted a rabbinical post in Slutsk. Rabbi Rafael Shapiro, a son-in-law of the Netzi'v, took his place. Despite this, the two great ones of the generation forged bonds of marriage between themselves. Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik, the son of Rabbi Yosi Ber, married the granddaughter of the Netzi'v, the daughter of Rabbi Rafael Shapira.[43]

Original footnotes:

  1. Rabban Shel Yisrael, page 106. Return
  2. Mekor Baruch, Section IV, chapter 37, “Between Holy and Holy” page 1694. Return
  3. Rabbi Yaakov Halevi Lifschitz writes about the difference between the Netzi'v and Rabbi Yosi Ber, as well as the impression that the arrival of the delegation had on the Yeshiva students: “These holy Gaonim and Tzadikim were different from each other in the traits of their souls and their methodologies of study and delving into Torah, as well as their paths of life. Since they were different from each other, and could not agree on the methods of conducting the Yeshiva and methodologies of study, a dispute broke out regarding who was better in behavior.” (Toldot Yitzchak, chapter 16, Orach Latzadik, page 58). He writes about the delegation: “Regarding the controversy between the two Gaonim, heads of the Yeshiva of Volozhin, that caused a great breach among their students, a difference of opinion among the supporters of the holy Yeshiva throughout the country, a division in ideology – the great Gaonim of the generation called for an increase of peace among the scholars, who increase peace in the world, with advice of peace and truth, advice that they would deliver with their love of truth and peace. They would calm the opinions of the entire community. Are these not the chief Gaonim of that generation, Rabbi David Tevel of Minsk, the author of Responsa Beit David; Rabbi Yosef Behmer of Slutsk; the famous preacher of righteousness, our rabbi and teacher Rabbi Zeev, may the memory of the righteous be blessed, of Vilna; and Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan – to whom the Netzi'v of blessed memory traveled himself to visit in Novhorodok to request that he come to Volozhin to be counted among the elders of those Torah scholars in expressing his opinion, with holy awe and splendorous honor that no person can describe other than a person who has previously seen the honor of Torah in Israel. All the students of the Yeshiva with their variegated opinions, many of whom were wholesome in Torah and effectiveness, rejoiced and trembled. Some were sharp in wisdom and exacting in halacha, and later became luminaries among the Jewish people. All of them rejoiced and trembled upon the arrival of these great rabbis of Israel who had gathered together.” (Toldot Yitzchak, chapter 17, “In the Council of the Righteous,” pp. 61,62. Return
  4. See my article in the chapter “Sages of Volozhin” regarding Rabbi Yosi Ber and his son Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik. Return

Slander Oppresses the Netzi'v

Translated by Jerrold Landau

In the year 5639 [1879], a very difficult event took place in the Yeshiva, which grieved the heart of the Netzi'v greatly. One of the Yeshiva students gave over a bad report regarding the Netzi'v to the Russian authorities. This slander shook the foundation of the Yeshiva, and its echo spread afar.

I'sh Yemin'i writes the following in Hameilitz[44]:

“At noontime, many army men and captains in official uniforms and medals of excellence came to the quiet city of Volozhin. They set out for the sanctuary of Torah, and those who dwelled therein. Th army men surrounded the building, and the ministers (captains) entered. A deathly pall fell upon the faces of the shepherds and their flock. The captains searched all corners of the building, through all the crates and closets, through all the utensils. They confiscated anything they wanted. The took letters, and ledgers of income and expenditures from previous years, and placed them in a crate. They closed and locked it, and placed a government seal upon it, and sent it to the capital city. Only the money they did not take, although they checked the paper bank notes carefully to see if they were forged. When they finished their work, they interrogated the elderly Gaon: Why do you send emissaries to all ends of the earth to collect a great fortune? For what purpose is it designated? Is this done at the behest of the government? – and other such questions. After the interrogation, the minister took out a letter, turned to the rabbi, and asked him: “Do you recognize this signature? Is it your handwriting?” At first the rabbi answered him, ‘It is my signature and handwriting.’ But then he regretted his words and said, ‘It is not my handwriting. In truth it is similar.’ He did not understand everything that was written in the letter. All the responses of the rabbi were recorded in a notebook.”

The government emissaries left the Yeshiva and went to obtain testimony from the officials and Volozhin police chief regarding the activities of the Netzi'v. They responded unanimously that the Netzi'v is faithful to his country and king, and dedicates his days only to Torah. The went to summon the Netzi'v. They received him with great honor and showed him the letter again. The Netzi'v, who had somewhat calmed down from the search in the Yeshiva, looked again at the letter, and then realized to his great astonishment that the letter was forged. Some forger who had signed the letter with a forged signature of the Netzi'v, wrote

[Page 128]

a letter to Rabbi Yaakov Reinovich in London in the name of the Netzi'v, and sealed it with the stamp of the yeshiva. Apparently, the scoundrel knew that the Netzi'v maintained a correspondence with him regarding halachic questions and responsa. The contact of the letter was that the Netzi'v wrote that he had received a letter from Rabbi Reinovich along with 30,000 rubles, one third of which was given to the Yeshiva people, and a second third as a bribe to the judges and police of Volozhin so that they will remain silent, and the final third given to the ministers of the country so that they would avert their eyes from the deeds of the heads of the authorities in Volozhin. The letter further stated that the Netzi'v requested that Rabbi Reinovich send him forged bank notes. It also contained other similar falsehoods.

The Netzi'v came out clean in the judgement, for the investigators were convinced of his innocence. The Netzi'v suspected three Yeshiva students, one from Volozhin, one from Minsk, and one from Vilna, whom the Netzi'v had distanced from the Yeshiva.

The issue of the libel greatly stirred up Erez, the editor of Hameilitz. Among other things, he wrote the following in his article “The Rotating Sword”[45] [i]:

“We have seen enough of this, that a Jewish person was so brazen as to forge a letter in the name of a great rabbi in Israel, elderly, and occupied with Torah, and to attribute to him slanderous words that stir up the heart, and could easily affect the refined soul of the rabbi, who holds back from issues of this world, and could, Heaven forbid, snuff out the wick of his life. The slanderer himself informed the ministers of the state to pay attention to that letter. No sufficient words exist to express all the feelings of our spirit regarding such a terrible travesty.”

Original footnotes:

  1. 3 Tammuz, 5639 (June 12, 1879). Return
  2. Mekor Baruch, Section IV, chapter 37, “Between Holy and Holy” page 1694. Return

Translator's Footnote

  1. Based on Genesis 3:24. Return

Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Levin's Rebellion

Translated by Jerrold Landau based on an earlier translation by M. Porat z”l.

Rabbi Eliyahu Zalman, Rabbi Itsele's son, married off his daughter to Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Levin, a grandson of the Maharsh'a (Our Teacher Rabbi Shmuel Eidels)[45a]. Rabbi Itsele was very pleased with him. He would say “This grandson shall have an inheritance in the Yeshiva along with my sons-in-law.”

Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel was very pretentious. He used to say that since he was a descendent of the Maharsh'a, he deserved to become president of the Yeshiva. There was no peace between him and the Netzi'v and Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak Fried. Things reached the point that Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel stopped visiting the Yeshiva, and set his regular place of worship in the Beis Midrash. Finally, he organized a minyan [prayer quorum] in his home. From then, he completely cut off his connection with the Yeshiva.

Word spread in Volozhin that Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel had started to give classes to those who came to worship at his house, and that the number of attendees continued to grow. Among them were students of the Yeshiva.

[Page 129]

Indeed, this was not a false rumor. Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel decided to forcefully remove the reins of leadership from the Netzi'v and Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak, and to take the presidency for himself.

In order to attract students, he began to give Talmud classes in his home every morning. Between Mincha and Maariv, he would teach a chapter of Bible with the commentary of Mendelsohn.


Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Levin


These classes aroused great interest among the Yeshiva students. They were greatly impressed by them. The number of attendees grew from day to day.

One night, a secret meeting took place in the home of Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel, with the participation of many of the Yeshiva students. At that meeting, Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel announced in public that the crown of Yeshiva head would come to him because he was a grandson of the Maharsh'a. On the spot, a detailed plan was hatched to began preparations for a transfer of the presidency of the Yeshiva.

The lads who participated in the meeting aroused a great tumult in the Yeshiva. This reached the point of an open revolt against the Netzi'v. The community of Volozhin was shaken up by this commotion, which placed the existence of the Yeshiva in danger. The communal heads called a meeting in the Beis Midrash in order to deliberate about what to do.

The matter reached the communal heads in Vilna and Minsk. Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel received a letter from Vilna, signed by several gabbaim, advising him, for his own good, to cease thinking about the presidency of the Yeshiva of Volozhin, for his glory would not come through that path.

One day, when those close to Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel gathered in his home for the shacharit service, they did not find him at home. He left Volozhin in haste, and set out in an unknown direction.

A legend spread through Volozhin that Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin appeared to Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel in a dream, and commanded him to leave the city quickly, for his actions were liable, Heaven forbid to destroy the Etz Hayim Yeshiva. Thus ended the revolt, which threatened to uproot the Yeshiva.

Original footnote:

  1. Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Levin was born in Vilna on 18 Tammuz 5578 (1817) to his father Rabbi Eliyahu Zev. In the year 5631, he was appointed as the rabbi of the Warsaw suburb of Praga, where he served for one year. At the end of his life, he served as the rabbi of the great Beis Midrash of the Jews of Russia and Poland in Paris. He died there on 15 Cheshvan, 5644 [1884]. Books that he authored include: “Glosses on Midrash Rabba,” Aliyat Eliyahu (history of the Gr'a), Maayanei Yehoshua, Tziun Yehoshua, Tosafot Tzion, Pleitat Sofrim, and Dvar Beito. Return

The Moral Sublimity
and Educational Excellence of the Netzi'v

Translated by Jerrold Landau based on an earlier translation by M. Porat z”l

On the eve of Shavuot, 5645 (1885), an event took place in the Yeshiva in which the Netzi'v was revealed as an exemplary moral-educational personality. During that period, the Yeshiva excelled with many prodigious students. However, the mashgichim [religious supervisors] began to look into them and to suspect that they were not fulfilling the commandment of public worship appropriately, and that many of them are failing to come for the Yeshiva for the Shacharit service. In order to suppress this “plague,” the Netzi'v nominated a special supervisor to serve as vice principal. His official role

[Page 130]

was to oversee the Yeshiva library, and to give the students the required Gemara volumes. Secretly, however, his job was to investigate the deeds and behavior of the Yeshiva students outside the walls of the Yeshiva. The Netzi'v gave this role to a certain zealot, who would bring the bad reports of the students to the Yeshiva head. The students hated this man with a strong hatred. They nurtured their enmity, and waited for the day when they would be able to take their revenge.

On the morning of that Shavuot eve, this spy informed that many of the Yeshiva students cut their peyos when they took their haircuts on the Shloshet Yemei Hagbalah[i], when haircuts were permitted. The prayer service passed peacefully until the end of the Shmone Esrei prayer. However, at its conclusion, the Netzi'v began to circulate among the students, directing an angry stare at them. He withheld his anger, and did not touch any student during the time of prayer, les the head tefillin be displaced and fall due to the slap, leading to a desecration of the holy object.

At the conclusion of the services, the Netzi'v delivered his class on the weekly Torah portion, as was his custom. When he concluded his class and left the Yeshiva, he met along the way a prominent, well-known student, who was very diligent and consistent in his studies, and was also one of the wealthy ones. He was returning from his residence with a Gemara in his hands. He had bathed, and his peyos were completely cut off. He had not worshipped in the Yeshiva that day, and knew nothing at all of the “hunt” for peyos that the Netzi'v had conducted. When the Netzi'v saw him, he poured out all his concealed wrath at him, and even hit the student. The student was astonished and surprised, as he did not know what this was about. The Gemara fell to the ground, and he stood there beaten, and shocked from the great shame.

This deed caused a storm among all the Yeshiva students, who decided to take revenge for the embarrassment of their friend. When the students took their places and began to study, they began to bang the tabletops incessantly. This served as a sign for the beginning of the revolt. All the students sat in their places studying, while their hands rose and fell upon the shelves of the learning tables. In addition, all the windows were open wide. The wind came through, and the windowpanes shattered.

The vice principal entered during the revolt. His appearance was like fire to wood. The banging grew stronger. Four Yeshiva students rose from their places, approached him, and said, “Get out of here, you scoundrel and slanderer! From this day on, do not dare to cross the threshold of the Yeshiva, for your end will be bitter.” They did not suffice themselves with this warning. They lifted him with their arms, placed him on their shoulders, and forcibly removed him from the Yeshiva.

At noontime, the Netzi'v came to the Yeshiva, as usual, to deliver his lesson. However, the students did not extend honor to their rabbi, and the tumult grew even stronger. He banged his hand on the small table many times, but it was for naught, as nobody listened to him. The Netzi'v circled the hall numerous times and asked the students to calm down, but to no avail. Angry and bitter, the Netzi'v left the Yeshiva without completing his class.

The time for the Mincha service approached. All the students came to the Yeshiva dressed in festive garb. The Netzi'v

[Page 131]

arrived and the service began. They recited the silent Shmone Esrei as if nothing had happened. However, when the prayer leader reached the word kadosh in the kedusha, the students pronounced the sh sound for a long time, until it sounded like an uninterrupted sound: sh sh sh. Furthermore, many students tossed onions and potatoes into the women's gallery.

On every Sabbath and festival, when things functioned normally, the students would approach the Netzi'v one by one after the services to wish him “Gut Yom Tov, Rabbi.” However, when the service concluded that Shavuot eve, they did not move from their places, and stood as if mute. Silence pervaded in the Yeshiva hall.

When the Netzi'v saw all this, he decided to put the cure before the affliction, and began to shout out many times, one after another, “Gut Yom Tov, children!” However, the students stood silent, and did not return the greeting. The Netzi'v realized the extent of the stubbornness of the students, and the extent to which they were continuing with their revolt. He was afraid and perplexed lest this revolt lead to a neglect of Torah study on that Shavuot night, for on Shavuot, the Yeshiva students were accustomed to study all night. He sought a way to put an end to this terrible revolt, the likes of which had not taken place in the Yeshiva since the day of its founding.

He felt that this time, the students would not give in. A deep battle broke out in his heart, a battle between the love of Torah and his own conscience. This internal battle lasted several moments, until the love of Torah won out, and he submitted.

He banged his small table several times and said: “Wait, do not leave until you listen to my words!” He ascended the bima, and, with a frightened voice, began to deliver a lecture on the events of the day. The content of his lecture was that the students must also forgive the rabbi. He felt that he had erred. He begged forgiveness and pardon from the beaten student in the presence of the entire congregation. “Forgive my sin,” he called out at the end, “Even though it is grievous.” When he finished his words, the pillars of the Yeshiva shook from the voices of the students, calling out “Gut Yom Tov, Rabbi!”

Through this act of begging for forgiveness, the Netzi'v rose to a very great height as a great pedagogue, and a man of wonderful morality.

Translator's Footnote

  1. Literally “three days of setting boundaries” – referring to the virtual boundaries set around Mount Sinai prior to the giving of the Torah, to prevent the people from ascending the mountain. This is a term for the three-day period of preparation prior to Shavuot. The time period is considered as festive in anticipation of Shavuot. Haircutting, forbidden during the Omer period, are permitted by all customs (customs vary as to the portion of the Omer period during which some mourning observances apply). Return

The big uprising at the yeshiva

In the last years of the Yeshiva's existence the Hanaziv felt his force and abilities leave him. The Rabbi decided to pass the Yeshiva management to his son, Rabbi Itsele's grand son to R' Hayim Berlin. The students strongly opposed this decision. They claimed that the son's power is not like his father's. They rose up and conducted a bitter struggle. The old man's weapons were tears and pleadings. The students attacked with angry screams and hard anonymous letters, written with rude coarse hands. They reached the Rabbi at home, in his bed, in the Synagogue Ark, in the bag of his praying shawl and his pockets. The youngsters chased the old weak Rabbi with heartless cruelty. They caused him major suffering and hurt his honor severely.

The Zhitomirer, which was Bialik's nickname, describes the uprising in his “The Night of Uproar”:

The yeshiva turned to a reptiles cave
God's armies fought ferociously
Imprisoned powers broke out like tyrant winds…
A hundred hands released the chains
Detained anger was sent to freedom
They shattered windows, extinguished candles
And overturned benches stands and tables
Bialik was not with the fighters. He did not interrupt his learning.
Suddenly the Old Man woke up
A lean hand touched the thoughtful boy's shoulder
And tears like a stream flew through silver threads.

The shocked youngster turned his head
Ho my teacher and Rabbi – Ho my lovely son
And the boy's eyes rose up to the Rabbi's eyes
Like a child's to his father's.

Had you seen what they've done?
They did not honor my age
They violated my sanctities
For which I sacrificed my entire life

The gloomy old eyes looked
At the young boy
The pupil forever will remember
The Teacher's look penetrating deep into his soul.

[Page 135]

The persecutions of the Yeshiva
and the minister's decree

External troubles joined the internal problems. The government authorities increased the pressure. They understood that the existence of the Volozhin Ets Hayim Yeshiva was a major obstacle to introducing religious reforms in the Jewish life. They sought arguments to close the famous institution.

Mr. Makov was nominated as Interior minister of the Russian Empire in1879. Reports about the Yeshiva were submitted to his office by informants. They claimed that the Yeshiva had existed for 80 years while the authorities knew nothing about its functioning and the management might be suspected of conspiring against the Tsar. Makov examined the Yeshiva functions with sympathy. He said that Volozhin Religious School was founded by a genial and righteous Rabbi eighty years ago, it became the highest Academy for the Russian Jewry and it is not a place for conspiracies and intent to revolt. After scrupulous examinations the Yeshiva was certified to function in the Vilna authority's curatorial frame.

An important Vilna supervising team inspected the Yeshiva in 1887. They verified students' documents to discover youngsters evading army services. All papers were in order. The living conditions regarding sanitation and nutrition were inspected. The supervisors found it compatible to the governor's demands. Every student was interrogated as to his past and origin. Everyone was examined as to his knowledge of Russian language. The commission compared the students' actual number with the number written in the management's notebooks. All was found satisfactory. The supervising team members separated cordially from Hanaziv and left for Vilna. But the Rabbi was very anxious. He anticipated calamities that this visit would create in the future.

Mr. Delanov, the Education minister, confirmed the teaching program for the Volozhin establishment on December 22, 1891 and this was submitted to Hanaziv. It contained four paragraphs.

1) Introducing secular studies every day from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon.

2) The learning hours should not exceed 10 hours per one day and night.

3) The learning should be interrupted in the evening and the building should be closed at night.

4) The Yeshiva head and all the teachers should be certified with diplomas.

The 3rd paragraph limiting learning hours was the worst. As per Rabbi Khayim's spiritual heritage the Torah Study shall be implemented night and day without interruption. If Torah learning were to be interrupted, God forbid, even for one minute only, the world might be ruined.

Some Jewish leaders supported the government program. Mr. Erez, the “Hamelitz” editor, in its December 1880 issue suggested teaching the Volozhin Yeshiva students to correctly speak and write in the State language and to understand it perfectly. He also suggested teaching them arithmetic and the history of the countries of the world. Knowing these disciplines is obligatory for a grown man to live decently.

Among the important opponents to the government's methods was Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveytshik. He required conducting the Yeshiva as it should be and if it's not possible he preferred closing the institution. The answer was that Torah study cannot be disturbed at all by secular learning. One may learn secular objects prior to or after he invested his body and soul in Torah and Talmud studies, but never together. General studies are surely useful but they will contaminate the pure Torah learning when mixed under a common roof.

[Page 138]

The Yeshiva Closure
– “The Destruction of the Third Temple”

“It was an ordinary winter morning. Little Volozhin woke up and saw its angry scenery enveloped in snow on a frosty January day. Deep snow wrapped its hills and slopes, the wooden over bent roofs of the house's and even the near pine forest was wrapped in white furs. The grey skies were low almost touching the Yeshiva roof that rose proudly over the shtetl's little houses with some wise scholar's arrogance. At the Yeshiva's feet spread the renowned local swamps, still frozen. Horse harnessed sleighs arrived from Molodetshno near the rail station at a wonderful speed. Inhabitants came in and out of the Synagogue. Shops were opened. Peasant sleighs with rural products appeared at the market place. Jews were walking about, scrutinizing the products and bargaining the price of a dozen eggs, a pot of milk, a piece of poultry. Around Yossi Zelig's inn, new Yeshiva students were loitering, the famous institution's secret legends looking from their eyes and Balabatim from all around Russia who came to see the Great renowned Yeshiva.”

So describes “Sheen” the Yeshiva Closure in “Hatsofe” 1942.

That day in January 1892 the students were learning as usual. The governor, the town mayor and a group of policemen entered the Yeshiva. The commission speaker asked the students to cease their learning. When silence took control, he read the authorities decisions: The Yeshiva shall be closed, the students and teachers shall be expelled from Volozhin. They had to leave town within three days. Hanaziv sat as if he had fainted, when hearing the declaration translated to Yiddish

Everything possible was evacuated from the building. The Yeshiva was empty and the ruin became evident. All the inhabitants of Volozhin, old and young, men women and children assembled near the Yeshiva. Praying and weeping they kissed the holy scrolls. Many of them called “The third Temple is ruined”. The great 100 years old Torah institution is destroyed and there is no one to save it.

After the functionaries found out that the building was completely abandoned they locked the entrance doors and sealed them with a huge government stamp. They threatened that opening the doors would be punished severely.

The Volozhin Yeshiva's closure made a terrible impression not only Rabbis and scholars of Judaism - people to whom the Torah was their art, but also every Jew. Every one understood that the Yeshiva's destruction was a blow to Jewish culture - a national disaster.

[Page 140]

Midnight mourning beside the Yeshiva

Yeshiva men, depressed and humiliated, left town to return home in little groups. Peasant horse-harnessed carts gathered from the entire region to convey those expelled to the railroad station. Bitter frost reigned outdoors. A wild blizzard covered the entire world with snow.

The Minha-afternoon prayer was carried out for the first time in another place, not in the Yeshiva. The Rabbi stood in his corner. He prayed his way clearly pronouncing every word as threading pearls. Arriving at “Blessed be He” he could not restrain himself. Looking through the windows he saw the abandoned Yeshiva seeming in his eyes the dead body of his people. Hanaziv interrupted the praying, and raising both arms he recovered and justified the judgement: “God is righteous in all his ways and charitable in his deeds”.

But Hanaziv was not calmed; he did not cease to mourn the holy institution. On this winter day; Volozhin was wrapped in heavy snow. The Yeshiva windows which had spread light for ninety years stood dark and projected fear. The local inhabitants did not approach the “dead sanctuary”, they were afraid to profane its holiness. Only Hanaziv was permitted to stay some weeks in Volozhin. One morning, threads in the snow on the passage to the Yeshiva were discovered. Late in the night, when the market place was deserted and nobody would leave his warm nest the Rabbi used to sneak out to stand near the locked door and there read midnight mourning prayers. Snow tempest, heavy frost, authorities' prohibition nothing could prevent the old man from standing before the building which became his second soul and to cry.

“Alas for the children of Israel, expelled from their living place and wandering over seven roads”.

The old Rabbi could not depart from his nest, which he had cultivated for forty years. His footsteps were also on the way to “Beys Harav” tents where Reb Hayim was interred. Here he used to prostrate himself on the Prodigious tomb in his trouble and sorrow.

Hanaziv left Volozhin after the Yeshiva closure. He went through Pinsk to Warsaw. He had planned to go and to end his life in Jerusalem. But he was too old and sick for the Journey. In addition he had many debts to pay. On August 1893 a telegram arrived in Volozhin. Ms. Batya Mirl Hanaziv's wife asked the Kehila to say Psalms and to ask the God Almighty for her husbands health, because he was very ill. Volozhin inhabitants assembled in the Beys Hamidrash to fulfill the Rebetsin's demand. The Psalms were said crying with great intensity.

On August 29, 1893 it was announced in Warsaw that Hanaziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin who was for thirty eight years Head of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva died at seven in the morning one and a half years after the institution was closed.

[Page 145]

Chapter IV

The Era of Rabbi Rafael Shapira

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The Yeshiva was closed for approximately three years. The Jews of Volozhin, and the Jews of Russia in general, did not make peace even for one moment with the decree of closure. Rabbi Hayim Hillel Fried[59], the son of Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak, was especially active. Several people of action and special individuals in Vilna and Minsk interceded through many avenues to soften the harshness of the decree, and to reopen the doors of the Yeshiva once again. Even Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan of Kovno, who was seriously ill, entered the thicket. On Monday, 3 Adar 5656 [1896], one of his friends, a great and famous rabbi, came to consult with him regarding opening the Yeshiva. Even though the rabbi felt very weak, he girded himself due to the preciousness and holiness of this matter, and wrote a letter to his acquaintances in Peterburg.

Rabbi Hayim Berlin, the son of the Netzi'v, who went to Amsterdam to collect money to cover the debts that were upon the Yeshiva and his father, wrote to Erez, the editor of Hameilitz. Among other things, he wrote the following[60]:

“Regarding the matter of the doors of the holy sanctuary that were closed, our hope strengthens us, the strong hope in the merit of the holy Torah, that G-d will help us through the rabbis, the Gaonim of the generation, may G-d protect and save them, and the gates will once gain raise their heads, and the everlasting doors will be raised[i], and a great, wise rabbi who knows the language of the state will go there, and the ministers of the government, may its glory be raised, shall give permission. Then the crown of Torah will be restored to what it was, under conditions that will also be acceptable to the government ministers. The good G-d will conclude it for good on our behalf, in the merit of our holy father and grandfather, the holy Gaon, our Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing, will stand for it, that it will be rebuilt upon its ruins, for renown and praise, forever, Selah.”

The news about the reopening of the Yeshiva aroused precious memories, memories of holiness and spiritual loftiness in the hearts of its students. One of its students describes this well[60a]:

“I hereby close my eyes, and voices emanate from the mouths of the studiers awaken

[Page 146]

within me memories from the past, precious memories, memories of Volozhin. Those days were days of spiritual pleasure in the full sense of the term. The love of Torah and the love of Zion joined together in the heart of our elderly rabbi (the Netzi'v), and his spirit was imbued upon the best of the students, who also bore Nes Tziona [literally: the banner of Zion]. How pleasant were the hours of study in the Yeshiva after hours of discussion at a meeting that warmed the heart, after hours of study that sharpened the mind. At time, life was wholesome, a life of development of emotions and intellect. The heart, the mind, the hopes, and the imaginations – how did the grow, how high they were raised! We studied with enthusiasm, and we debated with excitement. Life hummed along, bustled, and flowed around us in the marketplaces, but we lived a completely different life. Our head was in Babylonia, and our heart in Zion. That was the reality of Volozhin. Volozhin, how pleasant you were to me, and how great are my longings for you!”

The intercessors succeeded in having the decree revoked, and received a semi-official permit to open the Yeshiva. As a foundation for the reopening of the Yeshiva as a Beis Midrash of a Talmudic kibbutz [gathering], the institute functioned in the form of a Kolel [institute of high Talmudic study] for young men, named for Brodsky, which was founded already during the 1800s as a special branch of the Yeshiva of Volozhin. Through all sorts of memos and intercessions, the Russian authorities agreed that the decree of closure of the Yeshiva from the year 5652 [1892] did not apply to the “Avreichei Brodsky” group,[ii] ten in number, for this group was not subsumed officially under the Yeshiva. Rather, it was funded by a private individual, a wealthy Jew from Kyiv. At this opportunity, a second group of young men, consisting of thirty individuals were sent to Volozhin, under the auspices of Tomchei Torah [Supporters of Torah] of Minsk, which was headed by Rabbi Avraham Gershon Brenner. In order to more firmly root this renewed Talmudic kernel in Volozhin, these two groups of young men, among the known Torah greats, assisted greatly in raising the profile of Volozhin.

Word spread very quickly through Poland and Lithuania that the Yeshiva of Volozhin has reopened. The Yeshiva was once again bustling through a large stream of new lads, most of them from the Yeshiva of Telz, and the minority from Slobodka. Their numbers reached twenty. Regarding the character of these students, “Yehudi” writes in his article “Hosts of Torah”: “It is said that the students of the Yeshiva are primarily Zionists.”

The day of the opening of the Yeshiva was a day of unusual festivity and joy, which encompassed all the Jews of Volozhin, from young to old. This joy is described in the words of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapira in the following words:


Yisrael Brodsky

[Page 147]

“Today, the day that the Yeshiva has opened, was a day of great festivity for all the residents of the town. Young and old women from all strata hastened to come to the Yeshiva with jugs full of water and sponges in their hands to clean and scrub the floor and the windows, which were covered in dust. All the windows were opened to ventilate the building, which was full of mildew and stifling air. The Yeshiva was full of visitors throughout the day, one leaving as another arrived. Everyone wanted to see with their own eyes whether the Yeshiva was left in its complete state, and whether the internal appearance had been damaged after having been closed for three years.”[61]

The question of a Yeshiva head arose several weeks after the opening. At the time of its closing, they turned to the Mashgiach [spiritual overseer], Rabbi Shlomo David Dinkin, whom the Netzi'v recommended on the day of his departure from Volozhin. Nevertheless, they hesitated to appoint him as Yeshiva head, for the seat of the rabbinate in Volozhin was considered prestigious, and the householders of Volozhin desired one of the Torah greats who would be fitting to fill the role of the previous Gaonim.

Finally, the appropriate candidate for this position appeared. This was Rabbi Meir Noach Levin, the rabbi of Moscow. In those days, he had been deported from Moscow along with the general expulsion decreed upon the Jews of that city. Since he remained without a rabbinic position, his brother-in-law, Rabbi Hayim Hillel Fried, recommended that he be accepted as the rabbi in Volozhin. His recommendation received general agreement, but the tenure of Rabbi Meir Noach Levin only lasted for three years. In the year 5658 [1898], he left Volozhin for Vilna.


Rabbi Meir-Noach HaLevi Levin


After the departure of Rabbi Meir Noach Levin, the trustees of the Yeshiva convened in Minsk and Vilna, and decided that the time had come to restore the crown of the Yeshiva to its former situation. To this end, they sought a rabbi, a famous Gaon, whose name would attract a large conglomerate of students, and the appearance of the Yeshiva would be restored to what it was in former years. They decided to invite Rabbi Rafael Shapira, who served as the rabbi of the Misnagdim in Bobruisk.

Rabbi Rafael was not a new face in the Yeshiva. He had become a son-in-law of the Netzi'v at the age of fifteen. When he was supported at the table of the Netzi'v, he continued his work in Torah, and assisted his father-in-law in several places in his work Haemek Sheela and the She'iltot of Rabbi Achai Gaon. In the introduction in Kidmat Haemek, the Netzi'v mentions this son-in-law among those who assisted him in his work, stating “He sits with me in a group. His power is fine in Torah,

[Page 148]

and his opinion is clear to deliberate in halacha and clarify it. He also added several glosses with a great deal of research.”

Rabbi Rafael gave classes in the Yeshiva from the year 5625 (1865) until 5650 (1880) alongside his father-in-law the Netzi'v. He became known in the world as an expert in delivering classes. Aside from that, his appointment formed a continuation of the dynasty of Beit Harav [The rabbinical family] in Volozhin.

From the time that Rabbi Rafael left Volozhin until his return about twenty years later, he occupied the rabbinical seat in two cities: first in Novoaleksandrovsk, and later in Bobruisk, where he arrived in the year 5646 [1886]. He served as the rabbi of Bobruisk for thirteen years, and merited the love of everybody. Even the Hassidim loved him. The day of his departure was a day of mourning for the Jews of Bobruisk. Many of them shed tears, for the departure of their beloved rabbi was difficult for them.

The character of the Yeshiva during the era of Rabbi Rafael Shapira remained as it was formerly. When requests came to him at times for various changes and innovations in the Yeshiva, he would respond: “Just as I received from my fathers, so it is my will to give over to the next generation.” He regarded himself only as the guardian of a pledge. However, with all the conservatism that pervaded in the Yeshiva during the period of Rabbi Rafael, the Yeshiva students were very different from the students of other Yeshivot. Their horizons were not as restricted. They were familiar with what was going on in communal life, and they took proper interest in all current events.

During the period of Rabbi Rafael, the Yeshiva was disturbed by the attempt to institute the mussar methodology[iii]. One of the mussar greats came to Volozhin, sought to settle there, and to institute the mussar methodology in the Yeshiva. The Yeshiva leadership acceded to the request. However, when the students heard this, they immediately gathered in the Yeshiva library and decided to send this man away and save the Yeshiva from the mussar methodology. They presented their decision to Rabbi Rafael Shapira. When rabbi Rafael saw the bitterness and stormy spirits of the Yeshiva students, he acceded to their demand and dismissed the man from Volozhin. Thus, the spirits were calmed, and the students returned to their studies.[62]

The image of Rabbi Rafael was portrayed by one of his students in a few, meager lines. This survey also illustrates the image of the Yeshiva during that period.

“He would worship in the Yeshiva with a loud voice and enthusiasm ever day, morning and evening. He would elongate his prayers, especially the recital of the Shema, which he would recite with special enthusiasm. He pronounced every syllable separately “Shema Yis Ra El” all the way through to the end. All of the lads, even those who were late in their prayers, had already concluded the recitation, whereas he had still not reached Vehaya Im Shamoa[iv]. The voice of the elderly rabbi, standing near the Holy Ark, echoed in the complete silence that pervaded in the Yeshiva hall at that time. His entire body was trembling, he was breathing through his nose, and splicing syllable after

[Page 149]

syllable: “Uke – tav – tam… veli – madi – tem… leda – ber bam.” All the worshippers stood with holy feelings, aspiring to learn the ways of awe from him. Even his prayer alone was a form of declaration: Yes, there is a Yeshiva head in the Yeshiva of Volozhin, and everyone feels his presence. Rabbi Rafael bore the burden of the Yeshiva on his shoulders even from a material standpoint, and even during his old age. On several occasions during the winter, he would dress himself in his long, broad, winter furs, direct his heart heavenward, and travel to cities near and far to influence the Jewish communities to send their support to the Yeshiva. His efforts bore fruit. He was known as a Gaon and Tzadik.”[63]

Rabbi Rafael Shapira was a continuation of the dynasty of great Yeshiva heads of the Ets Hayim Yeshiva of Volozhin. His knowledge was wondrous in its extent and precision. He was diligent in his Torah study all his life, and his mouth never stopped learning. He would never even go for a stroll outside his house lest it cause a neglect of Torah. Once they urged him to go for a short stroll, since such is healthy for the body. However, since he was concerned about a neglect of Torah, he responded with the wise retort: “What is the benefit in this? For someone who goes out for a stroll eventually comes back to his house…”

Rabbi Rafael adopted a methodology of studies that was called “in accordance with its theme” [leshitato] – that is, a connection between various halachot and opinions of a specific Mishnaic or Talmudic sage, to prove that all those halachot and opinions are based on a common foundation, relate to each other, and have an internal connection to each other.

Since Rabbi Rafael was a great expert, he would demonstrate that the novellae of the most important authors were already published in the books of sages of old. He would show that a certain matter was written in a certain book, and that a certain novel idea was already written in other books. He would speak at length of the need to conceive of novel Torah ideas that had not yet been revealed in the world of Torah.

Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro was involved in describing the value and image of the Yeshiva during the period of Rabbi Rafael Shapiro. Among other things, he wrote:

“During the period of Rabbi Rafael Shapira, the Yeshiva was lacking the glory and splendor of previous years. Even the number of students was smaller. It was missing the two great luminaries: The Netzi'v and Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik. The seders on Passover eves, which brought great light to the Yeshiva, were also not renewed. However, after all this, many lads and young men, great in Torah, gathered under the banner of Rabbi Rafael. These included Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman and Rabbi Y. L. Zlotnik (Avida). Volozhin always had some form of attractive force, secret and hidden from all eyes, concealed and hidden

[Page 150]

within the walls of the Yeshiva. The Spirit of the Gr'ch [Gaon Rabbi Hayim], may the memory of the righteous be blessed, the founder of the Yeshiva, always hovered over it, and graced it with a special grace, which was not absent from it until the final day.”[64]


A handwritten note, sealed with the seal of Rafael the son of the Gaon Rabbi Leib Shapiro of blessed memory, who toils in the work of the Torah in Volozhin


A letter of ordination in the handwriting of Rabbi Rafael Shapira, given to Rabbi Nachum Avraham Golobnochich, a student of the Yeshiva: “with this, the Rabbi and Gaon, sharp and expert, fully and even more so, Mr. Nachum Avraham the son of our teacher Natan Yitzchak of the local holy community, whom I recognize to toil in the labor of Torah, fulfilling the word of G-d in Gemara and halachic decisors, delving deeply into halacha, with a sharp intellect, behaving properly with G-d and his fellow. We hereby place our hands upon him, that he can teach and judge. With the help of the Blessed G-d, he will teach and judge appropriately. A city that chooses him will be satisfied with him, and G-d will be with him. I sign, Monday, 11 Kislev, 5661 [1900], here in the holy community of Volozhin. Signed Rafael Shapira.”

Rabbi Rafael's study room was illuminated for most of the night, as he sat and studied, delving into

[Page 151]

the Torah or writing his novellae. He produced many Torah novellae, which he organized in writing during the time he lived in Volozhin. These Torah novellae were on sections of both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, the early and later sages, on all sections of the Code of Jewish Law, and even on novel ideas in agada [lore] and Midrashim of our sages. His book Torat Rafael, which was published by his two sons Rabbi Aryeh and Rabbi Yisrael Isser Shapira, in the year 5703 [1943] (in Jerusalem). He was one of the effective writers of Talmudic literature in the latter era.

The major events that took place in the second decade of the 20th century uprooted Rabbi Rafael from Volozhin. The Yeshiva was closed. The First World War also affected Volozhin, just as it affected the other Yeshivas of Poland and Lithuania. Many lads left Volozhin. Only a small group gathered around the Yeshiva head, Rabbi Rafael Shapira.

Volozhin became a very important strategic point when the front approached, and the city was flooded with the Russian army. The army expropriated many houses in the city, including the residence of Rabbi Rafael Shapira, which was the largest of all. The central military command stationed itself there. The army related politely to Rabbi Rafael, and left two large rooms for him and his family.

It is told that when Rabbi Rafael once stood up for the Shmone Esrei prayer, a bomb fell upon a nearby house. The explosion caused a panic in the city, and everyone was astonished when they found out that Rabbi Rafael was so immersed in his prayers that he did not hear this bomb. The Russian captains believed that as long as the rabbi was in the city, no disaster would happen. However, when a bullet once flew through the Yeshiva room, and Rabbi Rafael realized that it was dangerous to remain in this place, he left with his family for Minsk, the place of residence of his father-in-law Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik at that time.

Rabbi Rafael lived with the hope that he would return to Volozhin at the end of the war, and re-establish the Yeshiva. However, he did not merit such. He died in Minsk on 23 Adar 5681 (March 3, 1921).

We will conclude our composition on the Ets Hayim Yeshiva with a legend told by Rabbi Yitzchak Rivkind of blessed memory:

“At the conclusion, it is worthwhile to relate one fine legend that went around Volozhin in the name of the Gaon Rabbi Hayim, which had the future redemption dependent upon the fate of the Yeshiva.

“The legend states that Rabbi Hayim, the founder of the Yeshiva, said that if, Heaven forbid, the Yeshiva of Volozhin shall cease to exist, the redemption would begin within two years.

“Apparently, the Volozhiners belied that only powerful world events and significant wars, from which the redemption would ensue, make the destruction and nullification of the Yeshiva possible.”[65]

Original Footnotes

  1. Regarding the death of Rabbi Hayim Hillel Fried, and on the impression it made on the Jews of Volozhin, we read the following sad words that move the heart: “Two days ago, the elderly Gaon Rabbi Hayim Hillel Fried died. He was one of the descendants of the Gaonim of Volozhin (the son of the Netzi'v's brother-in-law), who was of course connected to the Beit Harav.
    “What terrible sadness pervaded in the town and the Yeshiva. The entire large congregation of Yeshiva people accompanied him to his final rest, and eulogized him. When I returned home on the way back from this funeral, I drew in my imagination a large, thick tree, from its roots to its canopy, however the few leaves that covered it were turning yellow and falling. No new buds were yet seen beneath them, still not seen…” (M. Peker: “In the Yeshiva of Volozhin” Hator, Jerusalem 30 Sivan, 5694 (July 2, 1924), issue 40). Return
  2. Hameilitz, 23 Tammuz, 5652 (July 7, 1892), issue 151. Return
    60a. Yehuda, “Hosts of Torah” Hameilitz, 28 Cheshvan 5660 (October 20, 1899), issue 229. Return
  3. Rabbi Moshe Shmuel and his Generation, An anthology of essays and letters, page 70. Return
  4. See Hatzofeh: “In the Yeshivot of Torah,” “Echo of the Times.,” 12 Tammuz 5670 (July 6, 1910), issue 150. Return
  5. Gedalyahu Pomerantz: “The Last Strike in the Yeshiva of Volozhin” Hadoar, 14 Shvat 5623 [1963], Year 42, issue 15. Return
  6. “The Yeshiva of Volozhin During its Years of Closure and Opening.” From an anthology of essays and letters of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapira. Return
  7. Yitzchak Rivkind of blessed memory: “The Yeshiva in Volozhin and National Revival,” Hatoren, Kislev 5683 [1922], booklet 10, 9th year, page 54. Return

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Based on Psalms 24:7,9 Return
  2. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel_Markovich_Brodsky Return
  3. A methodology stressing teaching of morality. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musar_movement Return
  4. The beginning of the second of the three paragraphs of the Shema. Return


« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.

JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Valozhyn, Belarus     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page

Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Lance Ackerfeld

Copyright © 1999-2024 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 08 Dec 2022 by JH