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[Pages 653-662]

The Yeshibah in Radun
(Chofetz-Chaim Yeshibah)

54°03' / 25°00'

by A. Rivkes

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

A quiet shtetl–it did not even have a market until the First World War. There were small, low houses, many with straw roofs–blackened and moldy. This happened to be Radun (also called Radin), only a village. For generations, Jews had fields around it. Jews received permission for Radun to become a town; they would not be driven from there. The Jewish fields were occupied by the government and neighboring gentiles. Yet, the Jewish houses were not built one on top of the other. They were separated by little gardens that stretched behind the houses. Therefore, the straw and shingle roofs lasted and became old. An outbreak of fire could be stopped and did not immediately involve the neighboring roofs. The little houses were sunken with age, skewed to one side; the windows were small; in many houses the floors were made of lime.

The land around Radun is flat; there are no mountains to be seen. The shtetl has no river. There was a communal well on a small square. Jewish women would meet there while drawing water. Children who “still held onto their mother's aprons” would splash nearby. Arriving peasants would water their horses at the well, tying them near, leaving them with the wagons and going to shop in the Jewish stores. Thus, they drew water from the well–and also a livelihood.

There was no railroad in Radun. On the eve of the First World War, one could still meet Jewish men and women in Radun who had never seen a train. Later, dragging themselves as refugees in freight cars, they looked at the railroad with contempt; they shook no less than the Raduner carts and covered wagons.

Radun became stuck in overflowing mud during spring and summer. There were no paved cobblestone streets in this shtetl. When the wind blew, it seemed as if the small houses were swaying in the mud. It was said that once on Purim, the only day on which the young men in the yeshiva could go on a spree, a young man disguised as a Purim rabbi asked another of the yeshiva young men where so much mud came from in such a small shtetl. This “difficult question” must be explained in this way. The sages of blessed memory say that the Creator showed Adam all of the generations and their wisdom… When Adam saw Radun and heard that the Chofetz-Chaim [one who desires life] would grow up here, he spit, Whoa! Such a great gaon [Talmudic genius] and tzadik [righteous man] in such a small shtetele! From that spit came such great mud… However, the questioner began to argue: “If this were the reason, then there would be great waters in Radun, and, perhaps even an ocean. Adam's spit was a trifle!” And the Purim rabbi quickly answered: “In merit of the Chofetz-Chaim there was help that there would not be more than mud.” (Yosher, Moshe Meir, Rabbi, dos lebn and shafn fun chofetz-chaim [The Life and Works of Chofetz-Chaim]¸ New York, 1949, p. 110.)

At the beginning of the century there were one and a half thousand souls in Radun. However, more than half of them were Jewish. The non-Jews lived at the edges of the shtetl where their fields began. The shops were all Jewish and the craftsmen and wagon drivers also were entirely Jewish. There were Lithuanian and White Russian villages around Radun and the non-Jewish population of the shtetl itself was also separated. A church was two miles from the shtetl and on a holiday there would be a quasi-market around it. The shtetl, Radun, itself was completely Jewish.

Radun earned a large part of its income from the yeshiva with its 300 incoming students and they amounted to a third of the local Jewish population. They distinguished themselves even more in Radun because these were young men with prosperous parents. The yeshivah was the most beautiful building in Radun. Whitewashed walls with large windows. The entire shtetl appeared as an antechamber to the yeshivah. The coziness and quietness of the shtetl seemed to spring from the builder of the yeshivah–from the Chofetz-Chaim.

The yeshivah did not seek to implant any school of thought. But they demanded from the yeshivah students–and they demanded of themselves–diligence, fear of God and good character. Yet the pattern for this was the Chofetz-Chaim himself. In the Raduner yeshivah they studied many holy matters, hilchata korbanot [rules pertaining to sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem], which they could fulfill in the days of moshiach [the Messiah]. They would see the Chofetz-Chaim looking out of the small windows of his apartment and they would say that every day he waited for the coming of moshiach.

The Raduner proprietors closed off special rooms in their homes to rent to the yeshivah students. A young man would usually pay 80 kopeks a month in board for a place to spend the night. Several young men would take a small room together. They came to Radun from various areas; young men would also come from Hasidic homes in Hasidic attire. It would happen in other yeshivahs that Hasidic yeshivah students would immediately dress as the Litvaks. However, there was a special rule in the Raduner yeshiva that those coming from afar should not change their usual clothing. The needy yeshiva students would receive support from the yeshiva–six rubles a month. For 10 select yeshivah students, all married, they created the kolel kedoshim [holy community]. These were the best of all of the good students and they studied in a separate building. The support for a community member amounted to 35 rubles a month. From this, they would often send more than half home so that their wife and children would not suffer from need.

The Raduner yeshivah did not have any envoys to solicit funds but before the First World War was supported by individuals–actually emissaries of the Chofetz-Chaim–from Moscow, from Petersburg, from Kiev. A wealthy person from Warsaw, Yakov Broyder, left 35,000 rubles in his will for a fund for the community. (Batei broide [houses of Broide] were also built in his name in Eretz-Yisroel.) However, before the Raduner yeshivah had a worldwide reputation and donors were moved to support it, Radun itself showed its readiness to support the students.

At first, at the founding of the yeshivah they had gegesn teg [“eating days” provided by local households for the students]. Later, this was abolished so that yeshivah students would not be embarrassed at “strange tables” and not be distracted at any time. The shammes of the beis-midrash [house of study], R' [Reb–a title of respect] Gedalyah, would go to each proprietor and bring food for the young men in special pots. Old Raduners would relate… “The shammes would hang the pots around his gartl [belt]–one side was for meat and the other for dairy.” (Yosher, Moshe Meir, Rabbi, “dos lebn un shafn fun chofetz-chaim,” p. 76.)

It would happen that a young man was overlooked; the Chofetz-Chaim himself would bring a little pot (actually a hot one) under the skirt of his garment. The young man would not even know from where the little pot of cooked food had come. And when a yeshivah student would learn of this and not hurry to the food that had been brought, the Chofetz-Chaim would stop him and urge on the young man: “Eat, eat, while it is still warm.” They later established a kitchen at the yeshivah. They would gather products from the Raduner proprietors and from surrounding settlers and the Chofetz-Chaim's wife and daughters would themselves cook and serve the food.

While the yeshivah in Radun seemed to evolve so naturally, as if by itself, it in fact was the result of the toil and effort of the Chofetz-Chaim. A wretched case of disease in the Chofetz-Chaim was transformed into the greatest blessing in Radun. As s 22-year old young man in Vilna, he was invited to Minsk (in 1860) to give lessons in Talmud there for young men who were good students and scholars. He was troubled, concerned about the income he was already earning in Vilna. He was receiving 16 rubles a month for teaching the children of a rich family several hours a day. The wages were not only enough for his expenses, but he was also able to save a little money to send to his wife in Radun. He also had enough free time to study by himself. Vilna was also dear to his heart with its great scholars and with the treasure of books in the houses of study and in private libraries. Still, he hurried to Minsk, although he knew that he would suffer from want there. He traveled there so that he could spread learning and through this, with even more zeal, study himself. In Minsk he did study day and night and his brain did not rest. He studied by himself and thought over everything, such as the new ways with which he could approach the sages, for whom he recited his Talmud lessons.

He slept in the beis-hamidrash. However, he did not allow himself enough rest; he ate from hand to mouth until he became ill. He was struck by a headache that would not leave him. He could not read any books or think about a Torah matter. At times the wall clock had to be stopped because he could not bear its ticking. A great doctor from Minsk told him that he must abstain from any spiritual exertion for at least a year. He returned home to Radun and complied with the doctor's advice with an iron will. He did not even open a book for a year, did not study and avoided thinking of difficult Torah matters.

With the passing of the year he did feel stronger, but he was afraid that he would forget what he had once studied. He began with the Torah. He studied with others to make more progress in learning. He brought Raduner members of the community together, mostly craftsmen, and studied khumash [Five Books of Moses or the Torah] with them. Then he assembled a group to study khayei adam [The Life of Man by Avraham Dantzig]. Later, he created the group tiferes bokhirim [splendid young men], who occupied themselves with gemara [discussions of the Talmud]. “At first the Chofetz-Chaim would study with particular friends in private houses, such as, with R' Menasha Pesakh the tailor, R' Moshe the blacksmith, R' Itse Herskl the shammes, with the bookbinder … Only later did he lead all of the friends into the beis-hamidrash and into the anteroom of the beis-hamidrash.” (Pliskin, Shmuel, der chofetz-chaim, Warsaw, 1939, p. 50.) He did not want to become the rabbi, fearing the quarrels and factions, and did not want to take part in the kehillah [Jewish community]. The small shop that his wife maintained yielded little. The students from the groups with whom the Chofetz-Chaim studied occasionally gave his wife ten gilden that they would collect among themselves. In need, literally a very poor man, he tired himself out for several years. During that time, the neighboring shtetl, Vasilishok, opened a yeshivah and they invited him to become the rosh yeshivah [head of the yeshivah] there. It should be understood that from the 50 rubles a semester he received in Vasilishok, he supported himself and his family. But here luck favored him. His wife's earnings from her shop increased and he was able to return to Radun. He studied in the beis-hamidrash, but from the neighboring shtetlekh, from Eishishok, Lida, Ivye and others, scholars came to discuss Torah with him. He recorded his new interpretations at home and during the course of several years both of his most beautiful aspirations were fulfilled. He founded (in 1869) a yeshivah in Radun and completed his first book under the name, chofetz-chaim [one who desires life] (Vilna, 1873). His book was very successful with all of the gaonim of his time and they wrote enthusiastic approvals. He published his book anonymously due to modesty, so that the name of the book became the name of the author. He traveled around selling his book and supported the yeshivah in this way. Traveling around to sell his book was compared with a sort of exile of suffering. He avoided the ceremonial receptions where they wanted to honor him. In many places, he did not even reveal himself as the author of the book he was selling.

Isolated in Radun, he studied tirelessly alone, gave his Talmud lessons in the yeshivah and with self-sacrifice cared for the welfare of the students. His own previous illness led him to warn the yeshivah students not to study beyond their strength. As his book become widely circulated, it was felt that much could be learned from the author himself. R' Elhanan Waserman (rosh yeshivah in Baranovich) expressed this about the Chofetz-Chaim: “If he wants to hide from us with his brilliant mind, we will, with our small minds, find him” (Pliskin, Shmuel, der chofetz-chaim p. 4), and R' Yisroel Salander said about the Chofetz-Chaim: “God had prepared a leader for the coming generation” (ibid, p. 40).

Photograph caption:

R' Yisroel Meir ha-kokhen (Chofetz-Chaim) (1838-1933)

The charm of his personality consisted in this, that he endeavored with all his strength to uphold what he taught others. The book, chofetz-chaim, was a discourse about the sinfulness of loshen-hara [speaking ill of others] and slander. He relied on the Torah, on the Talmud and various commentaries. His seriousness, his thoroughness, the insight that he exhibited, glowed in his sedate words that would burn out this sin in men's hearts. His shemirath ha-lashon [Guarding of the Tongue] (Vilna, 1876) was a sort of second part to chofetz-chaim. He showed there how sharply loshen-hara is judged and deplored in the aggadah [illustrative stories and anecdotes in the Talmud and rabbinic literature]. It should be understood that other moral matters for human conduct were also intertwined in both of the books. He wrote more books–machaneh yisrael on how a soldier could maintain yidishkeit [Jewish way of life] and not violate the military regulations. He devoted about 20 years to writing his largest works mishnah berurah [Clarified Teaching] and orech chayim [one of the four sections of the shulchan orech–the codification of Jewish law]. He authored over 30 books (others were only in manuscript]. However, he is identified with his first treatise, chofetz-chaim, because he was careful with his speech. He never spoke loshen-hara and never even listened to it. The yeshivah students sincerely wanted to emulate him in this respect and this certainly had a good impact on the students in living together and in the relationships between them and the rosh yeshivah.

His books were valued by scholars, but in them he spoke to the heart of the people. Several of his books were translated into Yiddish with the Yiddish under the Hebrew text. His book makhaneh yisrael (published in 1894) was considered one of the most respected works of the latest religious literature in Yiddish. He wrote the book for those who were emigrating to America, so that they would have a book of the most necessary laws of yidishkeit in the faraway land.

On the book's title page the author says: “We have translated this book into simple Yiddish so that it will be useful for reading by many people so that they will be able to look into it when important matters are discussed about our sacred religion that every Jews must know and keep. Here are discussed many Godly laws from the orech chayim and yoyre deye [first and second parts of the shulchan orech] and many other lofty subjects that every Jew must know, particularly those living so faraway.” (Cited according to Zalman Reizen's Lexicon, second volume, pp. 8-9). The Chofetz-Chaim was assisted in the Yiddish translation by Ben-Tzion Alfs and the Chofetz-Chaim's son-in-law, Hirsh Levinson, who was the Raduner rosh yeshivah and its director for 36 years until his death in 1921. Incidentally, he provided the name “Chofetz-Chaim yeshivah.” (About the Chofetz-Chaim, also see Ben-Tzion Eizenshtadt, dor rabanav ve-sofrav [Generations of Rabbis and Scholars]).

The popularity that the Chofetz-Chaim achieved among the masses through his books also spread to the Radun yeshivah and thanks to the example of the Chofetz-Chaim, little separation was felt by those at the yeshivah from the masses of the people.

Photograph caption:

The Chofetz-Chaim yeshivah in Radun

The Chofetz-Chaim was born in the shtetele Zhetel [Zdzieciol], (Slonimer District). His father brought him to Vilna to study as a nine-year old boy; he had a reputation there as a child prodigy. When he was 11 years old, his daughter father died. His mother married a scholar from Radun, a widower who had a daughter, and a match was made with 17-year old Yisroel Meir. This was how he became a Raduner. The Chofetz-Chaim lived nearly 80 years of his blessed 96 years of life in Radun. I do not know if there is another such case in the long history of Jewish yeshivus (all the way back to Babylon) that the founder of a yeshivah (and its rosh yeshivah) should remain connected to it for so many years as was the Chofetz-Chaim with the Raduner yeshivah–over 65 years. In the years 1915-1921, as a very old man, he and 200 yeshivah students went through three exiles in all: in Smilovichi (Minsk province), Semiatichi (Mogilov province), and then in Snovsk (Chernigov province).

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the yeshivah was moved to Vilna, but soon the trudge through Russia to Japan began. In 1944, Rabbi Zaks, the youngest son-in-law of the Chofetz-Chaim, whom he had always strongly befriended, and Rabbi Londonsky, the youngest son of R' Moshe, the Raduner rosh yeshivah, were engaged in the establishment of the yeshivah in America. Meanwhile, it was learned in New York that R' Avraham Trop, the son of the long time rosh yeshivah, R' Naftali, was in Siberia with a number of yeshivah students, and he secretly was teaching them lessons in the Talmud and was giving morality talks in the manner of Radun. The local Chofetz-Chaim yeshivah sent whatever help was possible to Siberia through Iran, Eretz-Yisroel, and in other ways.

In 1945-46, the Chofetz-Chaim yeshivah in New York (with the help of the Joint [Joint Distribution Committee]) succeeded in bringing approximately 100 students from the former Radun and they began to study under the leadership of the rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Zaks and Rabbi Trop.

In order to draw American born students of 13 years and older, a high school was finally established by the local yeshivah, so that the students would be able to receive their worldly education undisturbed. However, the high school young men followed the Raduner traditions literally in the heart of New York. They were taught gemara and moral teachings and they sought to enculcate the guarding of the tongue [not to speak ill of anyone] that was so dear to the Chofetz-Chaim. The rosh yeshivah and the rabbis had all been Raduner students who had a reputation as good students in Radun.

And, perhaps, it happens that a rebbe or a teacher, draws a map of Radun on the blackboard for the students: where the yeshivah was located, where the communal well was found and the later market, where the house of the Chofetz-Chaim was and where the dirt roads led to Vilna, Zhetel and Lida. And the recent history of Jewish communities that were horribly exterminated comes alive for the locally born Jewish children.

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