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[Pages 567-578]

R' Yitzhak Elchanan

Concerning Prof. Chaim Tchernowitz (Rav Tzair)
Completed for the book Lita by [Editor] Uriah Katzenelenbogen

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

[Editor's note: Prof. Chaim Tchernowitz (Rav Tzair) died in New York in 1949 at age 78. A longer chapter about R' Yitzhak Elchanan will appear in Professor Tchernowitz's autobiography that is being prepared for publication by the monthly Hebrew journal, bitzaron, which he founded. Part of this chapter was published in bitzaron, April 1946.]

On a cold spring morning in New York, I [Katzenelenbogen] visited Professor Tchernowitz to hear him speak to me, face to face, about R' Yitzhak Elchanan. Fifty years ago Professor Tchernowitz spent four years of his youth in Kovno in close contact with R' Yitzhak Elchanan and his environment. At the time, the later Professor Tchernowitz was some twenty years old and R' Yitzhak Elchanan was 75. The young Tchernowitz, the child prodigy from Sebeza [Vitebsk district] later known as Rav Tzair, who reached still higher in Torah and worldly erudition to become world renowned as a researcher and cultural historian of the Talmudic halakah [Jewish law], was shaped by Kovno, with its learning and enlightenment.

Holding a book in his hand, Professor Tchernowitz began to speak to me sharply: “From the time of the Vilna Gaon on, no rabbi or gaon [Talmudic genius] exercised as much authority and influence in this capacity among the Jews as R' Yitzhak Elchanan. What is the reason?” Professor Tchernowitz, speaking about rabbinic doctrine, about trends and the path of learning of 50 years ago, in R' Yitzhak Elchanan's time and back to the Vilna Gaon and earlier, draws the line to the present. I look into the shining eyes of Professor Tchernowitz and it seems to me as if the three – the Vilna Gaon, R' Yitzhak Elchanan and Professor Tchernowitz – were right there discussing Torah.

I look around Tchernowitz's study, covered with seforim [religious books] and modern books, periodical publications in several languages, proof copies (galleys) hanging down from the writing desk to the floor. Tchernowitz gives a quick shake of his white hands and responds: R' Yitzhak Elchanan did not float in the heavens of halakah, but held himself close to the real world. His inclination was to decide religious law for practical applications. He did not chase after innovations and splitting hairs, unless he saw a practical application. He was versed in Talmud and post-Talmudic commentaries. His knowledge of critical glosses on the Talmud was incomparable. He would explain a Torah matter very clearly both in his books and in his conversations, but all of the explanations were very short.

And Professor Tchernowitz told how he once went along on a visit by R' Yitzhak Elchanan to the Slobodker Rabbi. It was the time of the Days of Awe [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur] and R' Yitzhak Elchanan came to the Slobodker Rabbi to pay him his respect. Both old rabbis interspersed their talk with Torah–giving a hint from a religious book here, a Talmudic debate there, a tanna [Talmudic sage] or a gaon, with barely a hint at interpretation. The two old rabbis understood each other and spared the allusions and subtle argumentation, but, Professor Tchernowitz said to me, “I, a 24-year old young man, and all of those who were present, could not catch a thread of their Torah conversation. How could we understand anything here?”

Madame Tchernowitz [Editor's note: died in New York in 1947] occupied in a nearby room with her balebotishkeit [efficient running of a household], knowing, however, that her husband was talking about R' Yitzhak Elchanan, came in and sat for a while. Her hands placed together, she murmured, “Vey, vey [alas, alas], how are the Jews in Lithuania?” This was the beginning of 1944 and we did not yet know how great our destruction was. A minute passed in quiet and Prof. Tchernowitz described R' Yitzhak Elchanan, just as if the old Kovner Rabbi were standing there in person before him: “He refrained from perplexing anyone with a profound idea, did not want to cast any fear or sadness on anyone through musar [ethical teaching] and strict talk, did not seek to win anyone's smile by a witticism or joke. His face exuded goodness, his gentleness was reflected in every one of his turns or moves. He won the trust of the poor and the rich, from men of the Torah and from laymen, from the pious and the not pious.”

And I thought that R' Yitzhak Elchanan wept a prayer into the hearts of the three of us who sat here: “May salvation come for the Jews.” I think Madame Tchernowitz, as a cordial baleboste [mistress of the household], wanted to cheer us up and asked her husband to speak about the military parade that he and R' Yitzhak Elchanan encountered returning from Slobodka.

Traveling back in the horse-drawn coach, R' Yitzhak Elchanan saw Tchernowitz on foot and took him by coach into the city. Arriving at the bridge, they happened to encounter a military parade. Kovno was a fortress city with large military divisions. The coaches, wagons and passersby had been stopped at the bridge and the regiments of soldiers with dressed up officers, with rifles and swords solemnly marched by, along with wagons pulling shiny cannons. It was a sunny, autumn day and the parade dazzled the eyes. The young Tchernowitz saw R' Yitzhak Elchanan smile, he thought, from looking down at the solemn parade. Then R' Yitzhak Elchanan bent to him and said: “A Talmudic commentary has become clear to me.”

R' Yitzhak Elchanan was known as a maskil [“enlightened” follower of haskalah movement]. In the years of hunger 1867-1869, he permitted the eating of peas and small beans during Passover. Other rabbis had given permission in the years of hunger of earlier times. And at the rise of the hibbes tzion movement [“Lovers of Zion,” also known as hovevei tzion, established in the late 19th century to promote emigration to the Land of Israel], would he not decide that land could be cultivated in eretz-yisroel [Land of Israel] during shmite years [the practice of allowing the land to lie fallow every seventh year]; would not other rabbis have done this? But for the poor butcher with a question about a cow, to a question about a pot owned by a poor woman–for them, R' Yitzhak Elchanan's ruling was the last resort. They saw his earnestness and how much time he was ready to give to the smallest question. He would be awake at night. They did not understand the intense workings of his mind, because how could they understand the concept of the sea of scholarship in which he swam, that his solution would be in agreement with Torah and tradition. However, they witnessed the pain that he bore when he could bring delight to the question bringers with a judgment of “kosher.” The older he became, the more of a maskil he became. With a further dip into a religious book, he also absorbed the sorrow of people and the fact that he could find relief for the suffering of great and small would flash in his sharp mind.

Short, concise sentences, rich with deliberation, fell from Professor Tchernowitz's mouth. “Why was he worthy to be accepted as an authority at all levels...? There were prominent rabbis in his generation who thought of themselves as great as he… and he considered himself less significant than they. However, R' Yitzhak Elchanan was a rabbinical authority… His scholarship did not cause him to soar to the level of messianic mysticism–to abstract hairsplitting. He possessed a great innocence and a good heart and was self confident… Great rabbis, who even disparaged him, then abstained themselves from deciding questions. They would tell people to ask him about halakhah lamesa [practical application of religious law]...”

And Professor Tchernowitz remembered how the old man, R' Yitzhak Elchanan, not only bent under the load of hundreds of questions with which rabbis from near and far flooded him, but, it seemed, felt fear because of being so embraced by everyone and having to take so much upon himself. He yearned for a little free time to give himself to Psalms and to shed tears about Jewish problems. He once dictated a telegram to the young Tchernowitz–he did not write in Russian himself–to answer an urgent question from a rabbi in Siberia: “Delaite (Russian: Do) as R' Shmuel has asked…” But the rabbi can look in a sefer [religious book] himself… With the smallest questions, they turn to him. Is it the intention that only he should take them on himself?... How will he have enough time to study? God forbid, should he step over the boundary?

And his house was filled with divorced men with getn [plural of get: Jewish bill of divorce] that had been casually thrown together or that had defects in their form, and halitzanitzes [women seeking halitza or release from Levirate marriage to the brother of their deceased husband]. A poor agunah [woman prevented by halachic reasons from receiving a get] was supported in the rabbi's kitchen for years, as she waited for him to find a [halachic] basis for granting her permission to marry again. She would also stop the young Tchernowitz so that he would ask the rabbi on her behalf because she “lived in misery.” Later, her husband was found somewhere in a nearby shtetl. A rumor spread that R' Yitzhak Elchanan probably had had “a wink from above” that he not give her permission to remarry.

He ruled that if the one who must give halitza is a convert, the woman is free of needing a release from a Levirate marriage. They smiled in Odessa, Professor Tchernowitz remembered, about a certain situation of halitza, which R' Yitzhak Elchanan explained in an answer to a rabbi as a halitza-mumer [a convert cannot be a witness in such a ceremony and therefore the halitza ceremony would be invalid]. (The woman's brother-in-law from whom she needed to receive halitza was away on the other side of the ocean, not informing her earlier so that she could insist on the halitza and, therefore, she was free of looking for him.) In this case, the brother-in-law had left Odessa for Nikolayev. Actually across the Black Sea, but not in another country and not far from Odessa. R' Yitzhak Elchanan did not know the geography of nations–his geography was the grieving hearts of people.

There were “mischievous young men” in the shtetlekh who would put a ring on a shrieking young girl's finger and recite the harey-as [words of betrothal]. A young girl once had written a letter and held up a finger; a young man quickly put on a ring and sanctified it. It would happen that the young man did not want to give the girl a get, because he wanted to marry her. But, others were drawn to money. R' Elchanan's mind worked so brilliantly analyzing books dealing with the laws about taking a wife in order that a “Jewish daughter” would not be abandoned, as he would express it.

He wandered through the shtetlekh quieting quarrels between rabbis and the clergy with the kehilah. He stopped the local rabbi in whatever shtetl he went through in a wagon, to visit and pay his respects and actually through this caused an “opponent” to be quiet. He felt the sorrow of a rabbi in a very small shtetl for whom one had to intervene against the local influential people.

In 1858 he was called to take part in the Voloszhiner conference of rabbis to straighten out the painful conflict between R' Naftli Berlin and R' Josef-Ber Soloveitchik as to who should be the head of the Voloszhiner yeshivah. He and R' Dov-Ber Meizels ended the quarrel between the head of the Mirer yeshivah and the local rabbi (in 1866). A few years later, at the request of the Kovner maskilim, R' Yitzhak Elchanan influenced the Wilkomir kehilah into stopping the Vilna persecutions of Moshe-Leib Lilienblum, whom they wanted to excommunicate and deliver [to the Russians for induction] as a soldier because of his enlightened ideas.

When someone was tormented or an abused woman turned to him, he interceded for them with his entire intensity. If it was an impoverished man, for whom merchants had stopped giving credit, or a young son-in-law who could not find a serious purpose and who was going to be provided with less support for room and board, or a city khazan [cantor] whom [same as above] they wanted to fire because his voice had become hoarse – he sought justice and pity for all.

I was with the Tchernowitzes before Passover; Madam Tchernowitz reminded him to tell me about the rolling pin that was stolen before Passover. A young girl worked in the Passover bakery from Purim to the day before Passover. She labored for 15 to 17 hours a day and her hands were swollen. However, she had saved 12 rubles. Nu, she kept the money in an apron pocket and went to a fabric shop on the eve of Passover to buy something. First, the money was stolen from her and she screamed in the street and tore her hair from her head. An older girl, with eyes red from crying, she was led into R' Yitzhak Elchanan's house so that he could do something for her. But it was just before Passover. It could have been R' Yitzhak Elchanan or someone else speaking, but it was immediately said: “Perhaps at the Seder we will be eating the matzoh that she had rolled out.” And immediately half of the stolen money was collected for her and a seller of cut-goods sent fabric for a dress for her. With heart moving blessings, she stood in the distance, blessing him and left. But R' Yitzhak Elchanan did not say a word more about it. He groaned–Kovno is such a large Jewish town, may there be a kosher Passover in the Jewish houses.

And when there was a fire in the shtetl, they ran to him shouting that he should organize aid for the victims of the fire. At his appeal and thanks to his effort, wagons of bread, clothes and linens were brought from nearby shtetlekh and from Kovno to dozens and dozens of burned shtetlekh. And the efforts he made so that the prayer houses, talmud-torahs [schools for poor boys], or a bathhouse or an old age home would be rebuilt. And when there was a blood libel against Jews, an evil decree–and such were never lacking–they ran to him asking that he save them, cry out and recite prayers for the unfortunate.

Unafraid and untiringly he interceded for the accused Jews of Shavel [Siauliai] in the blood-libel case in 1865 and they were freed. Jews were driven from villages by a lunatic lord because he wanted to get rid of a Jewish innkeeper, or a young Jewish woman had to be saved from a priest ready to convert her, or a “little writer” in a village agitated the villagers to set packs of dogs on the passing Jewish peddler and on Jewish wagons–and R' Yitzhak Elchanan stood in prayer before the great and small authorities. When he appeared with prosbes [written requests], he was accompanied by an interpreter because did not speak Russian, nor Polish. He spoke to others apparently in German, but actually in Yiddish, but he was not successful with words; the authorities themselves had no reason to know of the beleaguered Jews. However, they would see the stately person, the rabbi, in tears and they had to feel his simple and heated belief in humane honesty and mercy. Instantly, they would feel ashamed and their malice against the Jews would soften. The words “Ravvin plakal” [Russian: the rabbi cried] were repeated in the published Russian reports about R' Yitzhak Elchanan's intercessions.

R' Yitzhak Elchanan was also well known among the local non-Jewish strata. At their appointments to Kovno or when they left Kovno, governors would visit him and bestow their portraits on him as a souvenir. It was a regular occurrence that when Lithuanian peasants were in a dispute with Jews, they did not seek justice in a state court, but came to the Jewish rabinas [Lithuanian: rabbis]. Nobles involved in communal disputes would also want to come before R' Yitzhak Elchanan, even if a Jew was only a third side [of the dispute]. And quarreling Jews in Kovno–he not only calmed them, but out of respect for him, [the disputes] were not even permitted to start.

When the young Tchernowitz came to the Kovno community of pirushim [pharisees; those who follow the Oral Torah] that had been founded earlier by R' Yitzhak Elchanan, Kovno, a small, poor Lithuania town, had long been elevated into a Jewish world center of learning and Jewish leadership by R' Yitzhak Elchanan. Kovno became the bridge between Russian Jews and Jewry from Western Europe.

It was known that during the French-German war of 1870, he had established aid for the suffering Jews of Strasbourg. He influenced the French Alliance Israélite in 1872 to aid the hungry Jews of Persia. After a pogrom against Jews in Corfu, he firmly proclaimed a ban that Jews no longer buy the Corfu esrogim [citron used during celebration of sukkos, the Feast of Tabernacles]. And Jews obeyed. In 1881, Kovno suffered a great fire. He traveled to Petersburg to collect money for the Kovno fire victims. When Alexander III created a commission under the chairmanship of Count Palen in 1884, ostensibly “to solve” the Jewish question, R' Yitzhak Elchanan learned that Count Palen, although a liberal for that time, had privately said that the Talmud had a “demoralizing” influence on the Jews and that the Talmud must be renounced. R' Yitzhak Elchanan secretly let the famous learned R' Samson Rafael Hirsch in Frankfurt know about this and asked him to write a work in German about the Talmud. The book was quickly published and a copy was presented to Count Palen who read German. The book served for a long time as a means of defense against those who attacked the Talmud. Agitation against Jewish ritual slaughter grew in Russia; R' Yitzhak Elchanan encouraged and supported the publication of Dr. Dembo's classic work in Russian about ritual slaughter. It is interesting that the then German quartermaster agreed with Dembo's depiction that showed that when a cow is dazed by a hammer before slaughter, as was greatly accepted by the non-Jews, and as they wanted to force the Jews to do, the meat spoils faster and the German quartermaster abolished dazing. Expulsions from Moscow and elsewhere took place and intercessions with the government did not help. He intervened with rich Jews to help those expelled. And if a Jewish family needed to go to America, if a Jew needed to go abroad for an operation, he helped with money or with a letter to a well known doctor. His still felt pain in his heart for each individual as for the community at large. He intervened with Baron Hirsch so that rabbis, ritual slaughterers and teachers might be employed in the colonies he founded for Jews in Argentina, and he obtained permission for Jewish girls not to be forced to write on shabbos in the Kovno government gymnazie [secondary school] for girls. Jewish girls from pious families traveled there from far and near and from towns larger than Kovno. He attended the larger meetings of community workers. His prestige and restraint quieted the mood of the debates and brought unity. In 1889, he was declared an honorary member of the Petersburg society, mefitze haskole [Spreaders of Education], although he had never taken part in its meetings. However, he brought prestige everywhere.

Professor Tchernowitz tells how R' Elchanan was always summoned to various delegations–he always visited ministers and high government officials with most of the famous Jewish intercessors in Russia, such as a Baron Ginzburg and Poliakow, to have edicts against the Jews revoked or moderated. He once arrived in such a delegation before the head of the Russian Holy Synod, Pobedonostsev. They let them wait for an hour in the anteroom. Then Pobedonostsev came out to them with a large golden cross hanging down on his heart and said only one word to them: “Krestites” [Russian: Be baptized] and left them. R' Yitzhak Elchanan and the rest turned away crying. While Professor Tchernowitz told me this, Mrs. Tchernowitz–an aristocratic woman–happened to be present–and she spoke up with American-Jewish irony: “He chose the right person; he told R' Yitzhak Elchanan to convert!” Professor Tchernowitz told me further how he once met R' Yitzhak Elchana in tears: What did they want of him? Why do they drag him everywhere? He did not have time to study and wherever he traveled, in whatever meeting in which he took part, his brain began to be hammered with various difficult questions about halitza [the release of a childless widow from the obligation to marry her brother-in-law] and religious divorces, about what is kosher and what is not, about the suspicion that something in not kosher for Passover, or the unanswered questions about the supplements to the Talmud.

And Professor Tchernowitz remembered well how the entire bureaucratic administration that was created around him, with emissaries and accounts and money collections, was of no concern to R' Yitzhak Elchanan. R' Yakov Lifshitz, a Jew, a clever man, a scholar and a steadfast nature, who was referred to as R' Yitzhak Elchanan's “Bismarck,” was responsible for this. He presented the “appeals” and letters to sign to R' Yitzhak Elchanan and was himself trusted to sign on behalf of R' Yitzhak Elchanan. He ceded these matters to R' Yakov Lifshitz since how could he become involved with bureaucratic administrative matters and the “small politicking” of the office of gabbai and matters of giving that naturally came to him? He gave the authority over all of this to R' Yakov Lifshitz. He set himself against R' Yakov Lifshitz in only one thing, when the other wanted to use R' Yitzhak Elchanan's authority against rising modern hibbes tzion movement [“Lovers of Zion,” also known as hovevei tzion, established in the late 19th century to promote emigration to the Land of Israel], whom R' Yitzhak Lifshitz bitterly fought as an ostensible danger to religion.

Professor Tchernowitz remembers also that R' Yitzhak Elchanan strongly grieved over the fanatic path of musar-limud [moral and ethical learning] which the Slobodka yeshivah had taken. He certainly was for planting morals and ethics of diligence and good behavior in the yeshivah students, but he did not like the torments which the Slobodka yeshivah students took upon themselves–voluntary hunger, exhausting sleeplessness and standing, or exaggerated silences. He himself ate normally and took care of his health. Doctors would come to him, when, God forbid, he was ill. He was taken outside the city, near the forest, to a dacha [Russian: country house] because he needed fresh air. So he could not bear the good Slobodka yeshivah students tormenting themselves intentionally.

Professor Tchernowitz speaks about the sadness that enveloped Kovno when R' Yitzhak Elchanan was near death. People refrained from riding by his house so as not to disturb his rest. Jews pressed around the entrance, to hear, perhaps, that the rabbi was improving. Quietly, everyone barely murmured. Psalms were said day and night in all of the prayer houses in Kovno. And once during minkhah-maariv [afternoon and evening prayers], the synagogue was packed, and suddenly, the magid [preacher] came onto the bima and cried. Everyone understood what had happened and a cry and wail from everyone started. With the speed of lightning, everyone in Kovno knew about the rabbi's death. Without words, with a sad shake of the head, one informed the other. Tens of thousands of Jews from Kovno and the surrounding cities and towns came to the funeral in the morning. Hundreds of rabbis also came. Whoever pushed themselves onto the bima in the street in front of the rabbi's house, or at the cemetery before the grave, eulogized him. The crying and the laments were so strong that it did not occur to anyone to provide water. Other rabbis barely said a few words and could not stop crying. Others strengthened themselves and said sad words of Torah and even went deep into subtle argumentation about R' Yitzhak Elchanan's books. But the crowd did not disperse. The man who would become Rav Tzair [Professor Tchernowitz] was the last to arrive. He spoke on behalf of the young people of the community, explained what R' Yitzhak Elchanan had given his students and described what he would be to the coming generations.

The eulogy by the Sebezer genius was very successful and he was invited to repeat the eulogy at the Choir Synagogue. R' Yakov Lifshitz and other zealots could not bear that Tchernowitz was going to speak to the followers of the Enlightenment and apikorisim [apostates], but nothing, God forbid, was done to him. New winds blew and the Kovno Jewish intellectuals, who were grouped around the Choir Synagogue, did not want to pick a quarrel. However, for Tchernowitz, the eulogy he gave was an appearance before the wider world. Right after it, he was welcomed to Odessa and became Rav Tzair.

The three of us–Tchernowitz, his wife and I–are convinced that perhaps at the same time that he gave his eulogy, Avraham Reisen, a soldier, wrote his elegy on R' Yitzhak Elchanan's death: der yidishe trer [The Jewish Tear]. This was the first small book by Reisen that was published, although he had earlier published songs. Reisen was also a little afraid when the small book was published because he did not have permission from his commander as required of a soldier. Professor Tchernowitz laughs that he and Reisen got along well. And he says: the wise men in Odessa, from Mendele [Mendele Moicher Sforim, a pioneer of Yiddish and Hebrew literature] to young Bialik [Chaim Nakhman Bialik, the Hebrew poet], loved to hear about R' Yitzhak Elchanan and there were none among them who did not ask him to talk about the great Kovno rabbi, the leader of his generation.

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