by Moshe Tzinovitz
Donated by Jerrold Landau
A. Rabbi Chaim HaCohen, the First Rabbi
The Jewish settlement of Smorgon first appears [documented] as an independent community in the State of Lithuania in the year 5412 (1652). From 5439 (1679) and onward, we see this Jewish settlement and its environs called by the name Smorgon and the region. Despite this [recognition], the name of the rabbis who served in the (Smorgon) community as heads of the rabbinical court or rabbis (Moreh Tzedek) have not been preserved for us.
One possible explanation [for the lack of rabbinical preservation] is because Smorgon and the region in those days belonged to the military district of Vilna during the kingdom of Poland. Since the Jewish community in Vilna began to be a chief community in the Council of the State of Lithuania beginning in the year 5412 (1652), similar to the older nearby communities of Brisk, Grodno, and Pinsk, the community of Smorgon may not have had its own rabbi and head of the rabbinical court, for it and its region were affiliated with the official rabbinical court of Vilna.
If Smorgon indeed had second tier rabbis with the title of Moreh Tzedek, Yeshiva Head, or Preacher of Righteousness, they were not considered important enough for their names to be registered and preserved for the generations. Our words are stated on the following authority: in the writ of appointment of the Gaon and rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel the son of Rabbi Avigdor as the final head of the rabbinical court of Vilna on 28 Adar II 5510 (1750) it is stated that he also has the authority as the Head of the Rabbinical Court of the Region of Smorgon (according to the book Kiriya Neemana by Rabbi Sh. Y. Fein).
Apparently, this form of precedence that was useful long ago, but was forgotten completely with the passage of time, and this last attempt of resurrecting it took place during the appointment of the aforementioned Rabbi Shmuel on account of the merits of his fatherinlaw, the author of the Yesod (Rabbi Yehuda the Scribe and Rabbinical Judge), an administrator (parnas) and intercessor in the community of Vilna at that time.
Around that time, we know that Rabbi Chaim HaCohen served as the Head of the Rabbinical Court of the District of Smorgon. Rabbi Chaim HaCohen was also known as the famous rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Chaim Cohen, the son of the great rabbi Rabbi Aryeh Leib (who was) the son of the Gaon Rabbi Kalonymos HaCohen, head of the rabbinical court of Nemirov. We have information about this rabbi of Smorgon, who was no longer alive in the year 5529 (1769), from his soninlaw, the husband of his daughter, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman (who was) the son of Rabbi Yehuda Leib (who was) head of the rabbinical court of Mir, in his booklet Darush
Hesped, which was published later when this rabbi was already serving as a rabbi in Konigsberg, the capital of East Prussia.
This booklet includes the eulogy delivered by the author (Moshe Tzinovitz), the rabbi of Mir, on three rabbis and Gaonim who died at that time in Germany: Rabbi Netanel Weil Ashkenazy, head of the rabbinical court of Karlsruhe (author of Korban Netanel on the Ro'sh); Rabbi Mordechai the head of the rabbinical court of Duesseldorf (author of Maamar Mordechai Responsa); and Rabbi Avraham Abosh, the head of the rabbinical court of Frankfurt am Main. In the booklet, the author eulogizes his brotherinlaw (brother of his wife) the bright, great, famous Rabbi David, the son of my fatherinlaw, Rabbi Chaim HaCohen who served as the head of the rabbinical court of Smorgon, may his memory be a blessing. From here we learn that Rabbi Chaim HaCohen was no longer alive in the year 5529 (1769), and certainly died several years before that since by 5529 his son Rabbi David had died, and Rabbi Chaim's soninlaw, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman, was already an elderly man. Zalman, according to the sources (Or Vilna by the Maggid Steinschneider) died just a few years later, in 5535 (1775).
We can state that Rabbi Chaim HaCohen died prior to the year 5510 (1750) since in that year, Rabbi Shmuel, the son of Avigdor, received his certificate of appointment, in which he was called the head of the rabbinical court of the District of Smorgon.
The reason that the rabbinate of Smorgon and its district neither passed to Rabbi David, the son of Rabbi Chaim, who was alive at the time, and nor to his soninlaw the rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Zalman who was at the time the head of the rabbinical court of Mir and was appropriate for that post since he was great in Torah and also a splendid orator, is from the power and strength of Rabbi Yehuda the author of Yesod. This issue caused a communal and social crisis in Vilna, and even led to the abolishment of the post of head of rabbinical court there until the final period prior to the Holocaust.
Regarding the state of the rabbinate in Smorgon during the era of Rabbi Shmuel of Vilna, with the worsening of relations between him and the new administrators chosen by that community, and also with the abrogating of government certification of the communal districts and the official power of the primary community (with the disbanding of the Council of the Four Lands of Poland and the Council of the State of Lithuania in the year 5524 1764), Smorgon probably became completely independent from Vilna, something that previously only occurred on paper.
From that time forward with respect to Smorgon, we find rabbis with the title Head of the Rabbinical Court whom we know by name. We also find second level rabbis, and at time rabbis who served on the rabbinical courts of these heads of rabbinical courts. These rabbis (Morei Tzedek, Magidei Meisharim) were at time replacements for the head of the rabbinical court between kings when the official position of head of rabbinical court was vacant. Thus, we know that in the year 5527 (1767) Rabbi Yosef BenPorat served as a rabbi (Moreh Tzedek) in Smorgon, and that year, his son, Rabbi Menashe Ish Ilya, who later became famous as a Gaon, researcher, critic and sage, was born in that city.
B. The second rabbi, Rabbi Eliahu
From sources, we know the name of this rabbi as Rabbi Eliahu from Volozhin, who served as the head of the rabbinical court of the community of Smorgon and the other communities. With respect to the other communities one was Zaskovich. (In the latter years, it was half village, and half small town, but in those days, it was considered an important community and a town full of sages and scribes.)
We do not have details regarding the history of this Rabbi Eliahu, but something remains in our hands thanks to the history of Gaonim Rabbi Menashe Mailia and Rabb Shmuel Strashon, who were both relatives of this rabbi of Smorgon.
Rabbi Eliahu is described in Kiriya Neemana of Rabbi Sh. Y. Fein as a Gaon and Tzadik, famous for his piety and character traits. Alongside him, Rabbi Yosef served as a rabbi (Moreh Tzedek) in Smorgon in the year 5527 (1767). From this reference, we can determine that Rabbi Eliahu was already appointed as rabbi in Smorgon before this date. We know that the young rabbi Menashe studied Torah from this uncle (brother of his mother) during his childhood in his native town of Smorgon.
The soninlaw of Rabbi Eliahu, Rabbi of Smorgon, was Rabbi Yosef (who was) the son of Rabbi Shmuel (who was) the head of the rabbinical court of Zaskovich. When rabbi Shmuel died in the year 5552 (1792), his inlaw, Rabbi Eliahu of Smorgon, filled his place in the rabbinate of that town, and died there eight years later, on the first day of Rosh Chodesh Tevet 5560 (1800).
We do not know the reason that Rabbi Eliahu preferred Zaskovich to Smorgon, even though the community of Smorgon was already larger than Zaskovich. Perhaps this preference was caused by conflicts with strongmen in Smorgon. However, it is possible that Rabbi Eliahu was attracted to Zaskovich because it was the hometown of his family. The family had been involved in commercial and economic life in this town, and maintained contact with the largescale landowners who owned estates next to this town. The town had many small Jewish settlements around it, so perhaps it was worthwhile for Rabbi Eliahu to move from Smorgon to Zaskovich. As support for our theory, after the death of Rabbi Eliahu, his grandson and greatgrandson: the father and son Rabbi Menashe the eldest son of his soninlaw Rabbi Yosef, and Rabbi Elazar (who was) the son of Rabbi Menashe followed him in this rabbinate.
Rabbi Yosef the son of Rabbi Shmuel lived for a period of time with his fatherinlaw Rabbi Eliahu in Smorgon, and moved with his fatherinlaw from there to Zaskovich. From there he moved to Vilna, to be with his son the Gaon Rabbi Shmuel. He died there in his prime in the year 5589 (1829). This Rabbi Yosef was also an honorable man, and he played a significant role among the important people of the Jerusalem of Lithuania. The following is written on his gravestone: The precious, prominent rabbi, a Gd fearing man, with an upright path. His name was greatly known among the graspers of Torah.
C. In Smorgon between Kings
Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel the Moreh Tzedek and Mara Mesivta
He came from central Poland. During his youth, he excelled as a great sharp person and would generate many new ideas through didactics. He took on the goal of answering all the questions of the Tosafos in cases where they were left with questions on the Gemara, and especially when the authors of the Tosafos had difficulty with Rashi in determining the straightforward explanation. However, his writings on many tractates in Talmud have been lost.
With the passage of time, we see that Rabbi Heshel settled in Lithuania and White Russia and established himself as a rabbi and author. During the years 55275542 (17671782), we see Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel as a Moreh Tzedek and Yeshiva Head in Old Bichov (District of Mohilev), and later filling this role in Minsk and Smorgon. (We know about his tenure in Smorgon from the book Toldot Chachmei Yerushalayim by Frumkin, Section 3). When Heshel was already in Lithuania and White Russia, this sharp man was influenced strongly by the school of learning of the Gaon of Vilna. In the book Aliyot Eliahu (by the Gaon Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel Levin), it is stated about Rabbi Heshel that he merited to see the face of the Divine Presence, the holy of holies, our Rabbi the Gaon of Vilna.
Through his closeness to the G'ra [Gaon of Vilna] and his group in Vilna, Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel departed from the path of extreme didactics and concentrated in an exacting fashion on the words of the early sages through studying their works in depth. This observation can be recognized from the two books that he wrote during that time. His first book was Matzmiach Yeshua (Nowy Dwór, 5542 1782), which is a commentary on Sefer Mordechai on the two Mishnaic orders of Zeraim and Moed, as well as on the laws of Alfasi. In his second book Yeshua Berosh, this author explains the words of the R'osh on the three tractates of Bava Kama, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra, and delves into commentaries on the difficult issues of the R'if and Maimonides (Rambam). These two books are adorned with approbations from the Torah giants of Lithuania and famous rabbis from other places, including Rabbi Avraham Katzenelboigen, the head of the rabbinical court of Brisk of Lita [Brest Litovsk] and Rabbi Yisrael Mirkin, the head of the rabbinical court of Minsk (grandson of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim HaCohen, the rabbi of the district of Smorgon). The rabbi who provided the second approbation knew [the author] Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel personally. As the Moreh Tzedek in Minsk, Rabbi Mirkin wrote about this author (in his capacity as a sermonizer) regarding his great prowess, that his lips drip myrrh and honey from a rock, and oil from a flintstone, as his mouth speaks great things. The rabbi who wrote an approbation, the Gaon Rabbi David Tebeli, head of the rabbinical court of Lissa (in Greater Poland), writes about this author that they left him a place in Heaven to close himself off with his novel ideas. We should also note that Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel was the scion of a great lineage
from his both his father's and mother's sides. He was named for after his ancestor Rabbi Heshel, the head of the rabbinical court of Lublin and Kraków. When Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel was a rabbi in Smorgon, he was involved with the group of the Gaon Rabbi Yisrael Parosh (the author of Peat Hashulchan) who made aliya to the Land of Israel in the year 5570 (1810) and settled in the city of Safed (where those who came with the first waves of immigration of the Perushim, the students of the G'ra from Lithuania, settled). After several years, this rabbi from Smorgon went to his final resting place there.
D. Rabbi Michel the son of Rabbi Feibish
We only know about this rabbi, who served as a Moreh Tzedek in Smorgon, from Rabbi Sh. Y. Fein in his book Kiriya Neemana. No other sources are left for us about him.
Rabbi Sh. Y. Fein tells us only that Rabbi Michel (the son of Rabbi Feibish) moved from Smorgon to Vilna, where he took an honorable place among the notables of that faithful city. His is buried among the notables in the old cemetery of Vilna. From the lists of other deceased people in the book Kiriya Neemana, we learn that this rabbi of Smorgon died in the year 5573 (1813).
Apparently, Rabbi Michel served as a rabbi in Smorgon after Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel, the author of Matzmiach Yeshua made aliya to the Land of Israel.
E. Rabbi Eliahu (who is) the son of Hillel HaLevi (AltzGut), the rabbinical judge in Smorgon until the year 5586 (1826).
The book Ir Vilna [City of Vilna] by Hillel Noach Magid Shteinshneider (Vilna 5660 1900) serves as a source for our words on this topic.
Rabbi Eliahu was born in the year 5546 (1786) in Vilna to his father Rabbi Hillel, who served as a communal rabbinical judge there. He got married in Smorgon to the daughter of the wealthy man, upright in his ideas Reb David Dnoszber, and served there as the communal rabbinical judge. Rabbi Eliahu returned to Vilna at the age of 40 and was referred to as the Smorgonie Judge by everybody, due to his former place of residence. Rabbi Eliahu filled the role of rabbinical judge in Vilna in a blessed manner for approximately 39 years and died close to the age of 80.
In the year 5623 (1863) he wrote the book Yad Eliahu (didactics and novella) that has remained in print. The author of Ir Vilna, who knew Rabbi Hillel at the time of his old age in Vilna, writes about Rabbi Eliahu that he was great in Torah, with immense knowledge, great content, and a splendid author [who wrote] in clear, pure language. He was the fourth generation of rabbinical judges, and his family name was Altz Gut.
The following fact testifies to the Talmudic greatness of Rabbi Eliahu. One of his students was appointed at a young age this student was the Gaon and wealthy man Rabbi Eliezer Landau of Vilna and Horodno, who later became famous for his outstanding composition Damesek Eliezer, on the commentary of the Gr'a of Vilna on the Orach Chaim section of the code of Jewish Law. Apparently, Rabbi Eliahu Altz Gut filled the place of the rabbi and head of rabbinical court of Smorgon around the year 5567 (1826), for one year later, in the year 5587 (1827), Rabbi Menasha of Ilya was appointed to this role. Only after intensive persuasion did the Gaon Rabbi Menashe agree to occupy the rabbinical seat in his hometown.
F. The Gaon Rabbi Menashe the son of Yosef Mailia
Rabbi of Smorgon 55875588 (18271828)
The talented writer and analyst Mr. Abba Gordin, the editor of this book, has written an interesting and important research work on the learned Gaon, researcher and critic Rabbi Menashe of Ilya, shedding light onto the spiritual image of this wonderful man and earning a special blessing in its own right.
I will therefore suffice myself within the confines of this article on the rabbis of Smorgon to matters that have direct relevance to the relations between Rabbi Menashe of Ilya and the Jews of his hometown, whom he knew from up close for more than 60 years. In Smorgon, as one of the householders of that city, he taught students, both during his short tenure in the rabbinate, as well as when he lived there at the end of his days as a private individual.
The most prominent thing regarding this relationship was that Rabbi Menashe was beloved and accepted by all the Jews of Smorgon who looked upon him as a sublime man, even from the perspective of a rabbi and religious leader. As a proof, they selected him to be their rabbi and head of their rabbinical court, which Rabbi Menashe agreed only after lengthy persuasion, since his desire was not for this position, as he distanced himself from benefiting from the crown of the rabbinate. This stance was despite the fact that Rabbi Menashe was estranged and even distant from the circles of the great rabbis of Lithuania of those days due to his fundamental ideas and unique approach to the study of Torah, as especially seen in his words published with regards to amendments to the understanding of the society and community, and preaching about deliberate, practical erudition
and imparting a profession to the next generation matters that were a daring innovation at that time. The brazenness of his sermons caused him great suffering throughout his life. Furthermore, these statements were made publicly by a Torah author and major scholar. Nevertheless, the Jews of Smorgon, who knew Rabbi Menashe closely, regarded him as a leader in the paths of belief as one of the most patriarchal Orthodox rabbis, taking interest in the lives of the workers and laborers, doing things for their benefit and concern about the education of their children. He would gather the fine students of the Beis Midrash and pay attention to their Torah accomplishments. All these fine traits of their fellow native, Rabbi Menashe, served as a faithful guarantor for the scholarly Jews of Smorgon, and the broad masses that this man, the son of the rabbinical judge, was appropriate to be the religious leader of their community.
Regarding the activities of Rabbi Menashe in Smorgon, we know from the writers of his story, that he would gather the masses of the city folk together on Sabbaths and teach them the principles of Hebrew grammar, so that they would be able to read Hebrew properly and would not be mocked by the scholars. On Saturday nights, he would invite all the townsfolk to teach them principles of morality, as he had formerly done when he lived in Ilya. He similarly later led the morality teachings in Smorgon when he served as rabbi and head of the rabbinical court, as well as when he lived there as a private householder (55875591 18271831).
Rabbi Menashe would also supervise the studies of the children and lads in the cheders, by taking interest in the level of their studies as well as the special abilities of the students with regard to their spiritual and professional futures. He got to know his students and consequently influenced and worked for the benefit of talented Torah youth with scholarly traits. He became particularly close with several of them and encouraged and guided them in everything related to their progress in Torah and spirituality. He mentored those who were fitting to be rabbis or Yeshiva heads in matters of leading a community, congregational relations, pedagogy, Talmudic methodology, as well as subjects related to deliberation and deciding Jewish law in interpersonal judgments and in communal and organizational edicts. This circle of instruction that was created by Rabbi Menashe in Smorgon (and previously in Ilya) can be regarded as a sort of Torah academy for independent study that was composed of young Torah scholars, with unique souls, who absorbed spiritual paths into their souls from the spiritual legacy of their prominent teacher and rabbi each according to their individual talents. This Torah academy had an indirect effect (from the perspective of the wind goes around and around) on the latter generations of rabbinics and scholarship in Lithuania, the land of classic Torah. All of this influence is thanks to the power, and power of power (through the students) of this pedagogue from IlyaSmorgon.
The following rabbis and Gaonim were among the students of Rabbi Menashe during the period of his activities in Smorgon: Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shapira, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ihuminer, and the youngest of the group, Rabbi Reuven HaLevi Levin, a native of Smorgon. In this article, we will include specific words of appreciation of these individuals.
As is known, Rabbi Menashe spent the end of his days in his native city of Smorgon during the period of 55875591 (18271831), and only spent about a year and a half in the role of head of the rabbinical court of that city. Most of his family lived in Ilya, for he had made his home there for decades. Several manuscripts written by Rabbi Menashe existed privately for more than 50 years with his family in Smorgon before finally being published. However, these manuscripts were burnt during the large fire that afflicted Smorgon in the year 5644 (1884). The few that survived remained in the hands of the author's greatgrandson, Rabbi Yitzchak Spalter, as a legacy from his ancestors.
Rabbi Yitzchak Spalter, who served as a second rabbinical judge and Yeshiva head in Smorgon, published these remnants in the year 5665 (1905) under the name Alfei Menashe (first volume), which includes Lifeproviding knowledge that is beneficial to the behavior of its possessors, and an opening to solve difficult matters in Agada, and explanations in Halacha. The second volume, which was published about 74 years after the death of its author, includes approbations from the great rabbis of Lithuania not only from Rabbi Y. Y. Reines of Lida, but also from Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, the pillar of mussar (moral teachings), and Rabbi Refael Shapira (the son of the Gaon Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shapiro), as well as the two primary rabbis of Vilna: Rabbi Shlomo HaCohen, and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski.
These rabbis who provided approbations already saw the light of outlooks that were different from those of the generation of Rabbi Menashe, and they knew how to positively appreciate the praiseworthy activities of Rabbi Menashe of Ilya regarding the books that he wrote in his time.
In his approbation to the book Alfei Menashe, Rabbi Y. Y. Reines writes the following: The author was among the excellent Gaonim and rabbis. Many of his generation did not appreciate his great heart at that time, but anyone who thinks carefully about the words in his few books that were published during his lifetime will see that his words are very precious, and there is no limit to their benefit.
Rabbi Shlomo HaCohen regards Rabbi Menashe as A wonderful Gaon and Tzadik, learned, and teaching knowledge to the nation, to lead them to understand wisdom, morality, and fear of Gd.
Even more typical are the words of the approbators Rabbi Chaim Ozer and Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, who were considered representatives of the extreme right wing of the rabbis of Lithuania during the latter two eras. Rabbi Chaim Ozer expressed his positive opinion of Rabbi Menashe with these words, In truth, it is not necessary to provide an approbation for this man, for the name of the Gaon Rabbi Menashe is known throughout the entire Diaspora as a mighty Gaon and researcher in every area. I cast light on this rabbi, (for aside from the preciousness and importance of his writings in of themselves), as his ideas and thoughts are also worthy of publication for the members of the current generation, and will provide proof that it was for naught that they hung empty people on the tree (he was referring to Rabbi Mordechai Flungian, who in his book on the annals of Rabbi Menashe Ilya, ‘Porat Yosef,’ portrays him as a progressive rabbi who diverges from the image of a Talmudic rabbi dedicated to the Code of Jewish Law
and ancestral tradition). When they see these writings, they will understand that they tried to darkened his great light for naught, and their attributed opinions to him that were not in accordance with his spirit.
The Gaon Rabbi Blazer, the student and spiritual heir of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, regards Rabbi Menashe as a Great Gaon, and all that he has published is 70fold refined silver. His holy words are fit to be published so that the masses can benefit from his light.
It must be noted that the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Abli Paswalier, the head of the rabbinical court of Vilna, served as a protector and shield for Rabbi Menashe against certain rabbis who cast venom at him. He was his relative and friend, and was content when the words of wisdom and thought of Rabbi Menashe were published. He also gave an approbation to the first book of Chaim Zelik Slonimski.
That these words of appreciation from the approbating rabbis regarding Rabbi Menashe were true and trustworthy can be seen from the fact that all his descendants remained within the realm of Torah heritage. Some of them were even famous rabbis and expert Torah giants. This is a situation that not all rabbis and Orthodox families succeed in.
According to the words of the aforementioned Rabbi Yitzchak Spalter at the beginning of the book Alfei Menashe (volume II), we know the following details about the descendants of Rabbi Menashe:
Rabbi Menashe had one son who was a great scholar and an honorable merchant. He drowned in the Neman River near Tilsit, East Prussia, where he is buried. This was the grandfather of Rabbi Yitzchak Spalter of Smorgon.
Rabbi Menashe had two daughters. The eldest married Rabbi Baruch Blidstein in Ilya, who was the fatherinlaw of the aforementioned Gaon Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ihuminer. Rabbi Baruch's son, Rabbi Avraham, was the one by whom a large chest of letters of Rabbi Menashe was burnt. (Rabbi Menashe was his maternal grandfather. Rabbi Avraham Blidstein married his two daughters to two great scholars: to Rabbi Yitzchak Pines, one of the first to serve the role as Moreh Tzedek in Minsk, and to Rabbi Yoel Shlomo Sherman, the head of the rabbinical court of the large community of Rovno in Volhynia.
The aforementioned Rabbi Yoel Shlomo is described by Rabbi Yehuda Leib HaCohen Fishman (Maimon), who knew him personally from when he was once his guest in Rovno: as one of the great ones of the generation, with a sharp mind and deep knowledge in Torah, the splendor of his community (Rovno) for all the time he lived there. He left behind a good name and a memory for generations. This rabbi, who was already elderly at the time, told him (Rabbi Maimon) about his wife's grandfather Rabbi Menashe of Ilya, and about his Torah and greatness.
Further details about this rabbi of Rovno can be found in the article Rabbis and rabbinical judges of Rovno in the Yizkor Book of that community published in 5717, edited by Aryeh Avitachi, and published by Yalkut Volhyn. It should be noted that the descendants of Rabbi Menashe also included three famous rabbis: Rabbi Yitzchak Eliahu Ginzburg, the official city rabbi
of Bialystok (died in 5683 1923), whose wife was the daughter of the Gaon Rabbi Aryeh Leib Adler (the son of the Gaon Rabbi Yisrael of Salant), and granddaughter of the Gaon Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heilprin (author of Oneg Yomtov) head of the rabbinical court of Bialystok; Rabbi Glidstein, the soninlaw of the Gaon Rabbi Zalman Sender Kahana Shapira, rabbi of Choroszcz near Bialystok, and previously the Mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) of the Yeshiva of his fatherinlaw the Gaon of Malcz; and Rabbi Simcha Zelig Reier, the chief Moreh Tzedek in the rabbinical court of Rabbi Chaim HaLevi Soloveitchik in Brisk (Brest Litovsk). Rabbi Reier was Rabbi Soloveitchik's right hand and assistant in all matters of rabbinical decisions and teaching, as well as one of the primary Yeshiva heads in the Yeshiva of Toras Chesed of Brisk.
G. The Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shapira
Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shapira is known in the rabbinical world as Rabbi Leibelie of Kovno, since Kovno was the location of his final rabbinical post (during the years 56095614 (18491854)). He was considered as one of the Gaonim of Lithuania and Reisin of his generation. His methodology of study and learning was unique: straight, clear depth without any abstruse didactics, combined with a significant spirit of research in his approach and outlook related to the understanding of the early sages as well as the greats of the latter sages. His second characteristic in learning came from a blend of the spiritual force of his teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Menashe of Ilya with his own individual personal characteristics. He forged his personal scholarly and spiritual approach through these attributes.
Rabbi Leibele expressed his Talmudic novella in brief prose that clarified and purified the Talmudic discussion under consideration, in a straightforward manner, as something that can be selfunderstood a form of a second edition of the commentary of Rashi. At first glance, an intermediate scholar would not understand the essence of the new ideas of Rabbi Leibele, as expressed with complete simplicity as if it was swallowed up in the storm of his studies. However, the advanced scholars from among his students would listen to the utterances of his mouth with suspense and deep concentration, regarding the terse words of their teacher and rabbi as feeding off the direct essence of the difficult words of the Gemara in a manner that made sense. He answered all questions through his brief explanations, and there was no room for didactics among the various commentaries on the essence of this matter.
In addition to his greatness in Talmud, this rabbi was held in esteem by the elders of the generation and considered great in both wisdom and sciences, including technology, engineering, religious research, as well as mysticism. It is said that the rabbi once expressed: From the time the Gaon of Vilna died there is nobody who understands Kabbala, and if someone says that there are such people, then I am among them. He would say, If only I had attentive students, I would give them lessons in technology and engineering. His
great knowledge in these areas would be exposed publicly when he would study sections of Gemara relevant to those fields.
Apparently, Rabbi Leibelie was born in Ivenets, where his father Rabbi Yitzchak Zundel served as the town rabbi. He lost his father at the age of six, and he was raised by his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Eliezer the head of the rabbinical court of Lyubcha, near Novhorodok. Rabbi Eliezer's father, the Gaon Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shapira, the scribe and rabbinical judge in Vilna, is known throughout the rabbinical world through his book Nachalat Ariel on Tractate Sofrim. Rabbi Leibel also took on the family name Shapira from his mother's side. The name stems from the great ones and martyrs of ShapiraSpeyer. His first rabbinical post came through the special recommendation of his teacher, Rabbi Menashe of Ilya. The appointment was unanimous because everyone knew that whomever Rabbi Menashe of Ilya nominates, is chosen. Rabbi Leibele served in this rabbinical post in Smorgon for eleven years, from 55885599 (18281839). From there he moved to Kalwaria until 5609 (1849), and then to Kovno, where he eventually died. Rabbi Leibele was the first rabbi of Kovno with the title Head of the Rabbinical Court since the earlier rabbis were only given the title of Moreh Tzedek due to their dependence on the rabbinate of nearby Slobodka. Their rabbinical authority was restricted, and only the head of the rabbinical court of the community of Slobodka could give direction on unique matters requiring special attention.
The Gaon Rabbi Leibele Shapira did not concern himself with publishing his Torah novella, and only bits of it are included in the works of other authors of his time. In the Mishna Berura commentary on the Code of Jewish Law by the Chafetz Chaim, it is brought down in his name that he annulled the custom of standing during the reading of the Ten Commandments in the Torah portions of Yitro and Vaetchanan, as well as on Shavuot. His reasoning was that it would seem that this is the main point, and the rest [of the Torah] is subordinate to it, as if it was not uttered by Gd like the Ten Commandments.
During the time of the rabbinical tenure of Rabbi Leibele in Kovno, the Gaon Rabbi Yisrael Salanter set up his Beit Hamusar [House of Moral Teachings], but the Gaon Rabbi Leibele, the head of the rabbinical court of the city, was among the opponents of this new idea. That rabbi of Kovno expressed his opposition by saying: In Hallel, it says ‘the House of Israel shall bless Gd, the house of Aaron, etc., fearers of Gd, etc.’ but it does not say ‘the house of those that fear Gd.’ There is a proof from here that there is room for individual fearers of Gd, but not for a special group of that nature…
Despite Rabbi Leibele's distance from special routines between man and Gd and between man and his fellow, he was accepted as a prominent rabbi among all the rabbinical circles, both as a Tamudic Gaon and also as a person who conducted himself with holy purity, very immersed in holy service. When he died in the year 5614 (1854), he was eulogized even in far off cities. The Gaon Rabbi Yosef Chaver, head of the rabbinical court of Dubno (near Łomża), in his special eulogy that he delivered in memory of his father, the Gaon and Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Izak, head of the rabbinical court of Tyktin and Suwalki, who died around
that time, mentions in his memorial, And from afar, we heard about the honor and splendor of the great and famous Gaon, Rabbi Aryeh of blessed memory, the head of the rabbinical court of Kovno, and my eyes fill with tears. For the flock of Gd was taken captive, the horn of Israel has declined drastically due to the (death) of these two prominent figures.
The Gaon Rabbi Leibele Shapira merited to be the ancestor of a famous rabbinic dynasty that wrote a bright page in the annals of the rabbinate of Lithuania in the patriarchal Orthodox fashion. One of them, the Gaon Rabbi Rafael, even joined the famous family of Beit Harav in Volozhin. This dynasty was established by six famous sons that Reb Leibele left after him: Rabbi Yitzchak Menachem Zundel, Rabbi Shlomo, Rabbi Chaim Avraham, Rabbi Levi, Rabbi Rafael, and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel, as well as one daughter who married Rabbi Moshe Shlomo Ginzburg. All of them had a direct connection with Smorgon having being born or raised and educated there. They were nurtured by their illustrious father, grew their wings in Smorgon, and were raised to the pinnacles of the rabbinate, earning a special recognition in this article. In this section about their father, we will note something about only one of them, Rabbi Shlomo, about whom only one fact is known to us: that he was a rabbi in the district city of Perm in central Russia, and died in the year 5646 (1886). His son Rabbi Zundel changed his family name from Shapira to Rabinovitch. We do not know any other details of Rabbi Shlomo or his descendants.
H. Rabbi Yitzchak Menachem Zundel
The eldest of Rabbi Leibele Shapira's sons, filled the place of his father in the rabbinate of Ilya after his father moved from there to Smorgon. He died in his prime, in the year 5601 (1841) during the lifetime of his father. His son, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov, lost his father at the age of nine, and was raised in the home of his grandfather in Kovno. He was nurtured by his uncle Rabbi Chaim Avraham in Smorgon, and was ordained as a rabbi at a young age by the Gaonim Rabbi Yosef Feimer of Slutsk and Rabbi David Tebali of Minsk. He served for some time as a rabbi in Ivenets as the replacement for the Gaon Rabbi Reuven HaLevi. From there he moved to Kovno where he served as a Moreh Tzedek for more than 20 years in the rabbinical court of the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector. Then he moved to Jerusalem where he was appointed as a Moreh Tzedek in the AshkenazicPerushim rabbinical court, headed by the Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Salant. He did not become involved in the issues of the city, but rather remained fully immersed in his studies and his service as a rabbinical judge and teacher roles he filled with dedication and faithfulness for a period of 18 years. When he died in the year 5688 (1919), an article about him appeared in Chavatzelet in Jerusalem. The husband of his granddaughter, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, a native of Kovno (husband of the daughter of his son Rabbi David of Kovno) took his place as a judge in the rabbinical court. Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank eventually became the head of the Ashkenazic rabbinical court of Jerusalem.
I. Rabbi Levi Shapira was famous as a Gaon
He was raised and educated by his father in Smorgon and Kovno. He married the daughter of Rabbi Avraham Rabinovitch of NeustadtSugintai in Zamot, where he lived with his fatherinlaw for several years. In the year 5624 (1864), he became the rabbi of Tryškiai, and later in Novoaleksandrovsk (a regional town in the Kovno district), where he died in his prime at the age of 42 in the year 5640 (1880). There is a memorial to that late rabbi in Hamelitz of that year. He is described there as a man who blended Torah and wisdom. In the book Nachalat Avot by Rabbi Levi Ovchinsky, it is written about him that he was a great and wise rabbi, expert, with splendid praises. Many years later (in the year 5673 1913), Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Shapira (the nephew of the aforementioned Rabbi Levi), the rabbi of Lapichi, wrote a book of responsa and Torah novella of his uncle, the rabbi of Novoaleksandrovsk, called Beit Levi. Rabbi Moshe Shmuel, the brother of this author (the father of rabbi Cham'ol) wrote about the late rabbi and author: the brother of the great, true Gaon, who was set to become the most prominent rabbi of the entire Diaspora had he not been cut off from the world while still in his prime, at the age of forty. His other brother, the Gaon Rabbi Shapira of Volozhin, described him as the Great Gaon, the famous Sinai and uprooter of mountains in his Torah and fear of Heaven. In his book Beit Levi (which contains only a small portion of his many Torah writings) Rabbi Levi Shapira discussed halachic responsa and novel Torah ideas with famous rabbis, including his two famous brothers, as well has his third brother, The sharp Rabbi and Gaon, expert as a Sinai and uprooter of mountains Rabbi Chaim Avraham, the head of the rabbinical court of Smorgon.
J. Rabbi Chaim Avraham Shapira
Rabbi Chaim Avraham served in the rabbinate of Smorgon for 33 years (56145646 18541886) following his father the Gaon Rabbi Aryeh Leib. He was born around the year 5581 (1821) in Ilya. He was raised by his father the Gaon of Smorgon, from whom he gained most of his Torah knowledge. He is described by those who knew him personally as a Gaon and a wise man with general intelligence. The wisdom of Rabbi Chaim Avraham, when he was 13 years old, is included in the book History of the Jews of Kovno. The story is as follows: One time, his father, Rabbi Leibele of Smorgon, traveled to a town and left the Moreh Tzedek Rabbi Meir as his fillin to respond to questions. Rabbi Meir was an irritable person by nature and stringent in his directives. As he was sitting in the Beis Midrash, a young girl entered and asked a question regarding [the kashruth of] a chicken. Rabbi Meir briefly glanced at her, and immediately decided: It is treif! [not kosher]
The lad Chaim Avraham was present at that time. When he heard the decision of the Moreh Tzedek, he ran after the girl, caught up to her, and told her, And I tell you that this chicken is kosher, and if you do not believe me, I am prepared to buy it from you with cash. Rabbi Meir nurtured a hatred against this brazen youth. When the Gaon Rabbi Aryeh Leibele returned home from his journey, Rabbi Meir went to greet the rabbi, and told him about the incident with Chaim Avraham. Rabbi Leibele summoned his son and asked him to explain his behavior, and about the basis that he gave a permissive answer to the question. The son answered, Based on such and such a place in the Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh Deah. Since that was the case, his father Rabbi Leibele answered him, Indeed you are correct, but you are still deserve a lashing. Rabbi Chaim Avraham, the rabbi of Smorgon, was not dependent on the community for his salary. He was a wealthy man, and his salary from the community of Smorgon was designated for charity. He also supported his sonsinlaw at his table, along with their families, for many years, until they were appointed as rabbis in Jewish communities. In the book Responsa Beit Levi by his brother the Gaon Rabbi Levi Shapira, a responsa of this author is included regarding the designation of the precise day of yahrzeit of their father the Gaon Rabbi Aryeh Leib, due to a dispute among his children as to whether the death took place on the 17th or 18th of Shvat (5614 1854), since the death took place at dusk. His brother, the rabbi, informed him in a decisive fashion that our father died immediately after the time of the Maariv service on the night of the 18th of Shvat.
Rabbi Chaim Avraham is described in the book Nachalat Avot as A great, wise, and renowned rabbi and who symbolized the splendor of the rabbinate in the most sublime fashion. When he died in the year 5646 (1886), the news was published in the Hebrew newspapers as well as the HaAsif of Nachum Sokolov, volume II (5647 1887) in the memorial section, where it is written: aside from his great expertise in Talmud and rabbinic decisions, the late rabbi was also a very wise in worldly matters. The soul of his community cleaved to him greatly, and that his rabbinical brothers came from various towns to eulogize and weep for him.
Regarding his activities as Rabbi of Smorgon, it is mentioned in HaLevanon in the year 5641 (1881) (number 19) that in that year, that the activists of that city decided along with the Gaon, the head of the rabbinical court, to impose a small tax on all types of grain for the purposes of charity in the city. They money was also designated to grant travel expenses to lads going to the army. The small tax along with the meat tax added up to a sum of 2,000 rubles.
K. The Gaon Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Litwin
Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Litwin was considered as a Talmudic Gaon with a great memory and depth of sharpness. The great rabbis were in awe when they met him, and none other than the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Shaul
Nathanson, the head of the rabbinical court of Lwów in Galicia, mentions him several times in his wellknown book ShoelUmeishiv regarding his clarity in matters of rabbinical decisions requiring special adjudication and clarifications.
Rabbi Chaim Yehuda went through a tense period in his personal life. According to the history of those times, when he arrived in Smorgon in the year 5646 (1886) he was known as the Rabbi of Brody of eastern Galicia. He was born in Bobriusk (White Russia) in the year 5600 (1840) and was known already in his youth as a genius [iluy]. He got married in Sośnica (district of Czernihów). From the name of this town, he gained his nickname The iluy of Sośnica, which stuck with him throughout his life. He was employed there in commerce and business through his wealthy fatherinlaw. When his fatherinlaw's situation weakened, he too lost his fortune. When he later resided in Minsk, the greats of that city, especially the wealthy scholar Rabbi Zusia HaCohen Rappaport, drew him near to assist. However, all of this comfort did not satisfy him. He became sick from all the anguish and traveled abroad to consult with physicians. He spent time in Germany, Hungary, and Galicia. In Lwów, he was approached by the rabbi of the city, the aforementioned Gaon Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson. He received spiritual and material support from Rabbi Nathanson.
At that time, in the year 5629 (1869), the Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, the head of the rabbinical court and rabbi of the splendid community of Brody, died. The Sośnicani who was a Russian guest, was appointed to take the place of the late illustrious leader of Brody, thanks to the special recommendation of the Gaon, the head of the rabbinical court of Lwów. He filled this role successfully for close to 18 years (until the year 5645 1885), and became the expert in responding on matters of halachic decisions for famous rabbis from near and far, as he expressed his opinion in serious elements of Jewish law.
Two family disasters overcame Rabbi Chaim in the year 5645 (1885). The wife of his youth, and his son, the young Gaon Rabbi Shimshon, the soninlaw of the Gaon and head of the rabbinical court of Stryj, both died. He left Brody because of these events, and returned to Russia. He married for a second time to the daughter of the Gaon Rabbi Eliezer Moshe Horowitz, the head of the rabbinical court of Pinsk. He waited to obtain an important rabbinical position, appropriate to his honor. He agreed to come to occupy the rabbinical seat of Smorgon and served there as the head of the rabbinical court for 17 years (56465663 18861903).
This Gaon and head of the rabbinical court of Smorgon died after a lengthy illness that left him bedridden for two years. Words of appreciation were published in the three Hebrew newspapers of that time: Hamelitz, Hatzefira, and Hatzofeh (of Warsaw). In the first newspaper it was written that during the funeral of this Gaon, as he was being brought to his final resting place, all the shops in Smorgon were closed and locked. All the workers in the factories and the tradesmen ceased their work, and that all of them took care to give final honors to their rabbi. It was also written there that six eulogizers delivered bitter (sorrowful) eulogies over the deceased and described the value of his greatness in Torah.
The name of this Gaon of Smorgon was perpetuated in his responsa book Shaarei Deah that was already printed in the year 5644 (1884) when he was the rabbi of Brody. This book includes many responsa from this author with significant content and scope on
various issues in the sections of the Code of Jewish Law, and especially in matters of marital law and the releasing of agunot which require expert scholarship. This great author took a place for himself in these difficult, thorny matters with his scholarly deliberations and decisive opinions.
His solutions in matters of matrimonial law were very appropriate and realistic in the community of Brody, a border city near the division between Austrian Galicia and Russia, at the beginning of the 1880s. During that time, thousands of Jewish refugees gathered in Brody. These refugees included men and women of various types who had no knowledge of their family pedigree with respect to marriage and divorce. This made it difficult to work out such matters in the court of the rabbi of Brody. Several matters required exacting and detailed deliberation based on the facts together with the Halachic clarification.
Rabbi Chaim Yehuda writes the following in one of his responsa: In the year 5642 (1882), our city of Brody was a gathering point for immigrant refugees from Russia who had been persecuted there. Many passed through here to America, the place of freedom and liberty in the human kingdom as well as the Kingdom of Heaven. In our great sins, many of the travelers cast off the yoke of Torah and proper behavior. Therefore, we deal with many gittin [bills of divorce] in our court on a daily basis, for the husband wants to travel afar whereas the woman does not or vice versa.
The painful points in these types of situations are the dangers of Jewish women becoming an agunah  because such husbands are trying to evade their wives as they travel afar, far from their acquaintances, townsfolk, and environment; as well as the concern of the large number of such women who know or do not know their status. Such questions kept Rabbi Chaim Yehuda very busy. He did the best he could with his deep expertise and sharpness. With his clear and wise deliberation, he knew how to decide such matters and determine a clear, incisive decision in such cases.
Regarding the unique realities that were created at that time in Brody and the region due to the waves of refugees that swept into the cities, we find a discussion in a second responsa in the book Shaarei Deah beginning with the following words: In the wake of the tribulations, disturbance, and persecutions of the masses of Jewish residents of greater Russia… These two sources are not known to Jewish researchers who concerned themselves and wrote about that era.
I will note one more interesting detail: during those times (after Passover of 5642 1882), the Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever came from Brody to Lwów with a unique focus to personally determine the status of these refugees in the two cities and to judge and clarify regarding the preparations and references for these refugees to immigrate to America or the Land of Israel. When he was in Brody, the Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever got to know the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Yehuda, head of the rabbinical court of the city. When they sat down together to deliberate over this actual problem in the city, Rabbi Chaim Yehuda supported the idea of the Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever to turn and direct
his personal activity in this matter for the good of the Land of Israel. However, their desire did not succeed fundamentally. The vast majority of the massive waves of immigration streamed to America for several reasons. From that time on, the activities and communal work of Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever [were no longer directed to resolving the refugee immigration problem] but now dedicated solely to the Chibbat Zion Movement and the principle of renewing settlement in the Land of Israel. We can relate this [change of direction] to that meeting in Brody with Rabbi Chaim Yehuda, the head of the rabbinical court o the community, who strengthened the opinion of Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever for the benefit of this matter. This was the final stroke of the hammer relating to this. (From A. Sh. Hirshberg of Bialystok).
Rabbi Chaim Yehuda himself found it difficult to become active in Chibbat Zion for personal reasons relating to his family situation and his weak health. His activities as rabbi of Brody and later of Smorgon were tied to the place itself, as well as to the fact that his personal nature was to sit in the tent. Nevertheless, he followed the development of the movement with great interest. He held the blessed activities of Rabbi Shlomo Mohilever in great esteem, and he considered him to be a praiseworthy Gaon in the field of Torah as well as in all matters relating to the development of the Chibbat Zion movement and the advancement of aliya and settlement in the Land of the Patriarchs. He would publicly declare his faithfulness to this movement and to the local expansion activities by the activists of Chovevei Zion in Smorgon. Through these efforts, they began to become a recognizable force in communal and social affairs in the city. The correspondence from Smorgon that appeared in Hatzefirah in the year 5659 (1899) (number 266) confirms what was stated above. It tells us about the largescale activities of the Chovevei Zion chapter in that city: About 60 regular members participated in the Odessa Committee (meaning that they paid monthly dues). Aside from this, many others pay periodically to that committee. The main point: the head of the rabbinical court of the city, the wellknown Gaon, may he live long, expresses his goodwill and great desire to increase the honor and might of the chapter.
The person who wrote that article, under the name of Yehudi (Dov Ber Shimshelevitch) also informs us about the general meeting of the Chovevei Zion members on Rosh Chodesh Tevet in 5659 (1898), where the executive committee of the chapter in Smorgon was elected. The meeting included members as follows: Rabbi of the community (government appointed rabbi) Tzvi Fridensohn, Magid Meisharim (Preacher of Righteousness) of the city Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchak Schwartz, Shabtai Frankfurt, Chaim Bodnes, Moshe Levinson, Chalvina Kowarski, Idel Broda, Shmuel Mordechai Marsha'k, Avraham Yehuda Zuckerman, Baruch Leib Vinch, Rafael Parishtat, and Dov Ber Shimshelevitz (aforementioned).
The rabbi of Smorgon, Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Litwin, was already a follower of political Zionism
during its first years. His opinion on this subject was published by one of the Zionists of Smorgon, David Kopiliovitch, on the pages of Hamelitz, year 5660 (1900) (no. 72). In this article, Rabbi Chaim Yehuda reacts sharply to all those rabbis who oppose Zionism. He regards this as folly and a great evil. His heart is so bitter over this brazenness that he uses the term evil regarding those people who endanger the soul of the Israelite. He states that Zionism and Zionists are occupied in a great commandment and a major principle of religion, and that someone occupying himself in this movement fulfils the greatest commandment upon which our faith is founded, and establishes the abode of our life.
L. Torah Kibbutz in Smorgon during the years 56565669 (18961900)
Under the supervision of the Gaon and head of the rabbinical court, Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Litwin
During the period of the rabbinate of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Litwin in Smorgon, a Talmudic Kibbutz (Talmudic Gathering) was set up in the city for several years for talented lads and young married men, under the supervision of the rabbi and Gaon.
This Talmudic Kibbutz, which was not technically a Yeshiva, and did not follow the customary protocols of Yeshiva life as defined by Yeshiva heads under the supervision of the Yeshiva overseers set up its headquarters in one of the Beis Midrashes of the city. The Torah study was primarily based on imparting proper Talmudic knowledge in the rabbinic decisors and especially in the study of the Yoreh Deah section of the Code of Jewish Law at the level of a Moreh Tzedek so that ordination of Yoreh Yoreh and Yadin Yadin could be granted by the Gaon, the head of the rabbinical court.
In order to obtain a certificate of ordination from the Gaon, the head of the rabbinic court, students had to become close with him, and assist in the giving of rabbinic decisions for a certain period. Only those whose souls were fit for this assignment, and who amassed practical rabbinical knowledge in Halacha were able to obtain such ordination. Among the students of this Torah Kibbutz were a number of graduates of large Yeshivas, whose aim was to become expert in issuing rabbinical decisions. They accomplished their objective in Smorgon and over time became famous rabbis in important communities.
However, among this Kibbutz of Smorgon were students of other Yeshivas who were also attracted as the status of oversight was less stringent that in other, older Yeshivas. In Smorgon, they found a place that was comfortable for everyone interested in personal growth of knowledge as an extern (similar to a nonresident student). Some
succeeded in this objective after many searches and challenges throughout their journey. However, there were also students who did not succeed due to a lack of diligence or appropriate opportunity, and they remained bereft on all counts. Some of the maskilim of both types of students of the Kibbutz became attracted to Zionism, Socialism, or ideas of Tolstoyism that were disseminated by a Russian intelligentsia named Sinichki.
The following excellent students were among the Perushim (A term used in the cities of Lithuania for young men in the Yeshiva Kollels who were destined for the rabbinate and this term also became used for Yeshiva lads):
Socialist underground. Householders who were formerly committed to the physical upkeep of these Perushim became weary of continuing with this burden of oversight. A large portion of the Perushim left Smorgon which became known as a center of Socialism. New Torah forces did not come to this town to refresh those leaving. Therefore, this Talmudic Kibbutz disappeared on its own, without fanfare and undue scrutiny.
It should be noted that the most dedicated students of this Kibbutz, who made the Torah their vocation, entered the new Talmudic Kibbutz that was formed in Vilna, under the supervision of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. Rabbi Uri Gordin, Rabbi Mendel Danishevski (a native of Smorgon), and Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the son of Rabbi Bunim Tzemach of Dosiat (Dusetos) were among the Smorgon Perushim who transferred there. Rabbi Eliezer Silver, a friend of Rabbi Shaul Chuna Kook of Smorgon, later became one of the scholarly rabbis of the United States of America. He served at various times as the president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada. He was a founder of the Orthodox Rescue Committee of Holocaust Victims, and a leader of Agudas Yisrael in North America. Notably among the famous rabbis of America who served in giving rabbinical decisions in Smorgon under Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Litwin (as they were in the process of receiving their rabbinical ordination from him) were: Rabbi Nachman Tzvi Ebin, a rabbi in Brooklyn; and Rabbi Shmuel Tzvi Glick, a rabbi in the Bronx, a founder of the Rabbinical Committee of Greater New York and its chief secretary for many years. Rabbi Sh. Tz. Glick translated the Ein Yaakov book on the Agadaic sections of the Talmud into clear English, thereby earning recognition and appreciation among all the English speaking religious Jewish circles in America, Great Britain, and beyond.
M. The Rabbi and Gaon Yehuda Leib Gordin
Born in Rezitza (Vitebsk district), 5613 1853
Died in Chicago, United States, 5685 1925
He was the son of Rabbi Meir Avraham Abba, one of the notables of the city of Rezitza. He received excellent Torah education and was considered a genius (iluy) during his youth. He already knew the Talmudic tractates of two orders, Nashim and Nezikin, at the time of his Bar Mitzvah. Along with this knowledge, he knew how to speak and write in Russian, which later helped him greatly as a rabbi and communal leader in congregations in Israel and Russia. As a young man, he maintained correspondence in Torah matters with the Gaonim Rabbi Yosef Zecharia Stern of Šiauliai, and the Cohen brothers, Rabbi Betzalel and Rabbi Shlomo, leading Moraei Tzedek in Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania. (Clarify)
Later, when he was once in the town of Svir, he got to know the rabbi of Svir, the Gaon Rabbi Moshe Danishevski (later the head of the rabbinical court of Slobodka, the author of Beer Moshe on the Code of Jewish Law), and remained to study under his supervision. Rabbi Danishevksi guided his learning methodology and also served with him as a decisor of practical Halacha. In Svir, the young Rabbi Yehuda Leib studied with deep diligence the
Talmud and halachic decisions. He also completed his studies in Russian literature and general knowledge.
His rabbi and teacher matched him with the daughter of a wealthy Torah Jew, Reb Sender Miller, who owned an estate near the town of Svir. He spent several years immersed in the tents of Torah while supported by his fatherinlaw. At that time, he was already regarded as an expert scholar, and a man of fine mannerisms and politeness destined to be a great rabbi in a large Jewish community Indeed, all of these predictions came true.
In the year 5643 (1883), he was appointed on the recommendation of his teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Moshe, to be the rabbi in the nearby town of Michalishki. That town was small, but it was known as a town of Torah and erudition. It was a tradition in that town from past years that honorable rabbis were active there. Of note are the fatherinlaw and soninlaw Rabbi Baruch and Rabbi Leib Karelitz, whose son Rabbi Shaul Binyamin was known as the Rabbi Shikovitzai and who forged and broadened the primary education of the Old Yishuv in the Holy City of Jerusalem. The wellknown poet and Hebrew linguist Adam HaCohen Levinson also lived in that town. His name was also known as Reb Ber Michalishker on account of this town and this is the explanation of the mem in his literary name Ada'm i.e. Avraham Dov Michalishker.
The famous rabbi and preacher Rabbi Eliahu Sharazon was also a native of that town. He was an expert in the research of religious literature, as can be seen in his book Ugat Eliahu on Pirkei Avot. The previous rabbi of that town, Rabbi Aharon HaLevi, served as eyes for him in that matter.
Michalishki only served as Rabbi Gordin's first stop in his holy service. Later, during the years 56465647 (18861887), he served as the rabbi in Augustów, a regional town in the district of Suwałki. This community was partially LithuanianPolish and misnagdic (opposing Hassidism) from its foundation. Later, during the years 56575665 (18971905) he served as the rabbi of Ostrów, a regional town in the district of Łomża, whose vast majority of the community were Hassidic, following various Admorim, primarily Ger.
Rabbi Y. L. Gordin was also accepted by the Hassidim of this city. He received approval for his appointment from the most veteran Hassid of the town, Reb BenZion, one of the remaining students of Reb Mendel of Kock, and one of the first Hassidim of the Admor of Ger.
Despite all this support, when two of his sons began to stray from the path of belief, he was no longer content to remain in Augustów, and Rabbi Y. L. Gordin willingly responded to the invitation of the community of Smorgon to accept the city's rabbinical post which had become vacant in 5663 (1903) after the death of their previous rabbi, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Leib Litwin. In the beginning of the year 5770 (1909), Rabbi Gordin was appointed as the head of the rabbinical court as well as the official religious rabbi (as was the custom in Poland) in the district city of Łomża. He served that honorable community for about eight years, for the benefit of the members of that community and the tens of communities that belonged to that district, to the point where he was considered to be the general rabbi of all the Jews of that district.
Those days (56745682 19141922) were a time of emergency for the Jews of that area, for their city, a border city, was close to East Prussia, and was in a state of lawlessness
for the Russian units and the inimical (hostile)Polish population. Rabbi Gordin then dedicated his entire effort and power as a rabbi to save those Jews. He conducted those efforts to the best of his ability, and saved the Jews of Łomża and the area from the decrees and libels of individuals and the public.
When the RussianGerman front approached the fortified regional city of Łomża, there was the danger of expulsion as happened in the nearby cities of Jedwabne, Nowygrod, Wyżna, and Ostrołęka. At that time, Rabbi Gordin traveled to Vilna and appeared before the military commander. Thanks to his strong intercession, the Jews were able to remain in their place. Later, when the Jews of Łomża were accused of spying for the Germans, and the antiSemitic commander of the regional army demanded hostages, Rabbi Gordin risked his life by going straight to the enemy and requesting that the commander annul the decree. He was received coarsely by the commander, but the Łomża rabbi responded with pride, and without submitting to him. He presented his words to the enemy and offered himself as a hostage. His bravery influenced the commander, and the decree was annulled.
The Gaon Rabbi Yehuda Leib Gordin was also very active in the area of the local rabbinate and Torah education. As a Torah scholar, he was considered the expert rabbinic decisor, even in comparison to elderly rabbis of nearby towns, including such scholarly rabbis as Rabbi M. A. Miel in Grajewo, Rabbi B. A. Ramigolski of Stawiski, Rabbi Yosef HaCohen of Szczuczyn, Rabbi Yitzchak Bursztejn of Ostrołęka, Rabbi Avigdor Bialistocki and Jedwabne, and others.
Rabbi Gordin's primary concern was for the local Talmud Torah in Łomża, which served as a large house of learning for 600 students and for the upper level Yeshiva in Łomża which was famous throughout Poland and Russia. As the local rabbi, Rabbi Gordin invested a great deal of energy to renew this Yeshiva during the time of the first German occupation, and especially to free its principal and primary Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yechiel Mordechai Gordon, from the financial straits and economic burden which were especially heavy during those years. Rabbi Y. L. Gordin also concerned himself with the spiritual encouragement of the senior students in the Yeshiva. The students found an open house with the rabbi to discuss their situation. He would generously give permits for issuing rabbinic decisions to the most talented of them. He regarded this as a fine prize for the benefit of their physical and spiritual futures, and something that served as a guarantee that they would become firmly dedicated and complete their studies. In the year 5681 (1921), when the material (financial) situation of the Yeshiva worsened, he responded to a request from the principal, the Gaon Rabbi Y. M. Gordon, (today the main Rosh Yeshiva and principal of the Yeshiva of Petach Tikva, founded as a continuation of the Yeshiva of Łomża) to travel to the United States of America to conduct a collection campaign for the benefit of the Yeshiva.
The Gaon Rabbi Y. L. Gordin agreed to this and travelled to the United States. The collection was successful. Thanks to this effort, the Yeshiva of Łomża reestablished itself and maintained a strong physical and spiritual stand until the destruction of the community and the Yeshiva during the Holocaust period.
Thanks to the special intercession of the Gaon Rabbi Y. L. Gordin, the Łomża Talmud Torah was renewed. A large, threestory building was built, and this educational institution served
as the central educational institution for Torah and religion for the city of Łomża and the towns of the area until these communities existed no longer due to the great destruction.
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Gordin did not return to Poland. In the year 5682 (1922), he was accepted as the head rabbi of Chicago, a position that he occupied until the day of his death on 16 Nisan 5685 (1925). He succeeded in endearing himself and gaining acceptance in all the synagogues of greater Chicago, the largest city after New York. All the rabbis in this metropolis and the area consulted him and listened to his words in matters of religion, Jewish law, and topics of what is forbidden and what is permitted. He was also a principal force in the founding of the Bais Medrash L'Torah educational institution of Chicago, patterned after the Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Yeshiva of New York. This Torah institution educated rabbis and religious leaders for the Chicago area. It is today headed by Rabbi Y. L. Gordin's soninlaw, the rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Dr. Chaim Dov Regensberg, who serves as a Rosh Yeshiva and a member of the leadership committee. He was educated in Slobodka and Telz. He is the son of the rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Menachem David, may Gd avenge his blood, the head of the rabbinical court of Zambrów near Łomża.
Rabbi Gordin was also an active member of the leadership of the Union of Orthodox Congregations of the United States and Canada. Every difficult matter for this union in halachic, religious, social, or communal issues would be brought to him and his logical and wellreasoned opinions were considered (in high esteem) in such matters.
In accordance with his spiritual outlook, Rabbi Y. L. Gordin tended toward the Zionist movement. However, due to the unique conditions that affected the rabbis of Poland, he could not publicly support that movement, so he followed its progress and development from afar. The situation changed after the Balfour Declaration in 1917. He was already the head of the rabbinical court of Łomża, a fundamentally Misnagdic city and tended toward Zionism. Then he already found it possible to affix his signature on the collections for the Keren HaGeula and Keren Hayesod funds, and even to preach publicly for their benefit, and for the benefit of religious Zionism that was organized in Poland at that time under the flag of the Mizrachi organization.
In the year 5679 (1919), Rabbi Y. L. Gordin signed, together with the Łomża Moreh Tzedek, the rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Yosef Avraham Cinowicz, a proclamation from a group of rabbis in Poland to our brethren, the Children of Israel to organize under the flag of the Mizrachi movement. This movement aspired to the revival of the Torah of Israel, the Land of Israel and the People of Israel in truth and honesty. The movement raised the flag of Torah and commandments within the nationalist Zionist movement, and participated in all the activities of that the movement that have taken place to this point, with the help of Gd. (Hamizrachi weekly, 5779 1991, issue 18).
The Gaon Rabbi Y. L. Gordin left behind three important Talmudic works: 1) Divrei Yehuda (Warsaw, 5665 1905) including responsa on the Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim and Yoreh Deah, 2) Teshuvot Yehuda (Vilna 5668 1908) on all the sections of the Code of Jewish Law, and 3) Diglei Yehuda (Warsaw 5664 1904). In Teshuvot Yehuda, he outlines a Torah and halachic debate with the famous Gaon
Rabbi Avraham Bornstein, the Admor of Sochaczew. He describes his view on the debate with that Gaon with the selfconfidence and convention that emanates from the correctness of his opinion. Because of the opposition of the Hassidim of that Admor, Rabbi Gordin was denied the opportunity to accept the position of the head of the rabbinical court of Łódź after the death of the Gaon Rabbi Eliahu Chaim Meisel, even though he had every possibility to be appointed to that important office.
It is very interesting that the third book of the Gaon Rabbi Y. L. Gordin, Diglei Yehuda, includes two large sermons from the period when he served as the rabbi and head of the rabbinical court of Ostrava. Those sermons are Degel HaGadol for Shabbat HaGadoll, and Degel Hamishna on the occasion of the completion of the six orders of Mishna. In this composition, the Gaon Rabbi Y. L. Gordin displays his expertise in philosophy and comprehensive, encyclopedic general knowledge in all branches of practical and social sciences. He even demonstrates his knowledge of what took place in the issues of societies and movements among the young generation of Russian Jews at that time. A hint to his stance and outlook on that matter, which was not stated directly due to the conditions of censorship, can be seen in his first sermon, which reacts to some degree to the relationship between the Jewish community with regard to the awakening of new somnolent powers that began to change the color of progressive social life in a Jewish city.
However, the Gaon Rabbi Y. L. Gordin shows himself not only as an adjudicator of opinions and a great expert in general sciences, but also as an expert preacher, with a mouth that exudes pearls, both in form and in content. Every sermon of his was a communal event in the towns in which he served as rabbi. He attracted an audience from all circles. In Łomża, even people from the extreme intelligentsia circles of that district city attended his sermons.
He also excelled as a fine orator in the Russian language, with his public speeches and sermons on official festive occasions, with the participation of the Russian officials. He made a deep impression on these officials, sanctifying the Divine Name in public.
His great prowess in the Russian language and literature was utilized in the publication of three special booklets in that language, to shut the mouths of the accusers and antiSemites who stood up against the Jews of Russia during that period. In one of his Russian booklets, Nyet Tayn (No Mysteries), published in 1911 when he was the rabbi of Smorgon, he provides a response to one Russian enemy who published a booklet in Russian Tayni Talmuda (Mysteries of the Talmud) promising a reward of 1,000 rubles to anyone who would find fault in his accusations against the Talmud. Rabbi Gordin responded to him from Smorgon in his booklet, exposed his lies and forgeries, and demanded from him the 1,000 rubles which he would dedicate to the poor without differentiating by religion. However, the aforementioned antiSemitic author made himself disappear and evaded fulfilling his words. (See the HaYehudi weekly, London, 5771 1911, issue 33).
In his second booklet What is the Talmud published earlier, Rabbi Gordin disproves the libels of the antiSemites against the Talmud, starting from apostate Pfefferkorn, Eisenmenger, Rohling, all the way to the enemies of the Jews in the latter times. In his third booklet, What is Hassidism, Rabbi Gordin explains the theory of Hassidism in the proper light, and proves that it is
not a hidden sect, separate from the general Jewish community, as the antiSemites believed and acted upon (for this reason) during the wellknown Kiev blood libel of 1913 during the Beilis trial. The defenders of Beilis, who were the defenders of Judaism in general, used the aforementioned books of Rabbi Gordin to demonstrate and prove the justice of the Nation of Israel from the aforementioned libel, and the prohibition of Jews using blood for based on the sources in the Talmud and Hassidic literature.
While Rabbi Gordin was the head of the rabbinical court of Smorgon, he also maintained a correspondence with L. Tolstoy, one of the giants of Russian literature, regarding the editing of a special anthology in Russian that would include a choice selection of moral statements of the Talmudic sages. That great Russian writer Tolstoy wrote the following to the Rabbi of Smorgon, I would be greatly indebted to you if you would publish for me a selection of Talmudic adages. Not only I but also millions of readers would thank you for this favor for it would give them the opportunity to appreciate the great wisdom of the teachers of the Jewish religion.
This idea did not come to fruition due to the death of the aforementioned great writer.
Thanks to his genius in Torah, his ability to sermonize with his mouth dropping pearls of wisdom in general knowledge, and his excellent fluency in the vernacular both in speaking and writing, Rabbi Gordin attained great fame during the period as Rabbi of Smorgon. In the year 5770 (1910), things reached the point where Rabbi Gordon, the rabbi of Smorgon, was the second candidate from among the rabbis of the Vilna district to [serve as a delegate to] the general rabbinic conference that took place in the Russian capital of Peterburg (currently Leningrad). The first candidate was Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. RabbI Gordin was only short a few votes in obtaining a majority in this election. In his place, [another candidate] Rabbi Chanoch Henech Ages, the Moreh Tzedek of Vilna, was chosen. Incidentally, he was a friend and admirer of the rabbi of Smorgon.
It should be noted in his book Teshuvot Yehuda, the rabbi / author expresses his gratitude and blessing to those who excel in distribution of charity in the city of Smorgon and who support me in honor, and have taken care of all my needs for the past five years. Additionally about this famous rabbi, exemplifying his spiritual makeup with complete fullness, that a few weeks before his death, Rabbi Gordon sent a telegram of blessing from Chicago on the occasion of the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as follows:
Mazel Tov! I hereby declare on the occasion of the opening of the university on Mount Scopus in our holy city. I pray that the studies there will be appropriate with the scriptures of Judaism and traditions, and will not become involved in Biblical criticism and other such things. Then, the grace of Gd will be upon all the teachers and students. The university will flourish and rise to great heights in the spirit of Jewish tradition, and will become a source of glory for all humanity in general, and for our nation in particular.
Yehuda Leib Gordin, chairman of the rabbinical office in the community of Chicago.
We should also mention that a large crowd of thousands of people participated in his funeral in Chicago, and many eulogizers described the extent of the great loss with the passing of this Gaon.
N. Rabbi Menashe Yosef Ginzberg
Rabbi Menashe Yosef was born in the year 5611 (1851) in Kovno during the time that his father, the Gaon Rabbi Moshe Shlomo, was supported by his fatherinlaw, the Gaon Rabbi Aryeh Leib, the head of the rabbinical court of the city. Rabbi Yosef served his fatherinlaw by issuing rabbinic directives and answering halachic questions. Rabbi Menashe Yosef later served with his father in Ilya, the town where his father was the rabbi. He spent some time in the Yeshiva of Volozhin, where his uncle, the Gaon Rabbi Rafael Shapira, served as a head of the Yeshiva. He married the daughter of another uncle, the Gaon Rabbi Noach Chaim Avraham Shapira. After marriage, he became a constant resident of Smorgon through the rest of his life.
After the death of his fatherinlaw, the Gaon and head of the rabbinical court of Smorgon, in the year 5646 (1886), Rabbi Menashe Yosef submitted his candidacy for the office of rabbi of the city. The wealthy people of the city agreed to this on the pretext of chazaka, and the general rights of the former household of the rabbi from a financial perspective. These wealthy individuals regarded this candidate as an upright rabbi, immersed in the world of Torah and diligent in its study. From this perspective, it would be appropriate for him to fulfil the role of their rabbi. On the other hand, another group of Smorgon residents felt that they required a famous rabbi and Gaon, with great rabbinical experience in the world of the rabbinate, as well as a history of being active in the religious community in a manner appropriate to their city. The Smorgon scholar Rabbi Eliahu Leib Brodna joined the second group, who brought in the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Yehuda Litwin, who was known as the genius of Sośnica to occupy the rabbinic seat. That side was victorious.
At the outset, the first side separated from most of the city. Even after that time, they regarded Rabbi Menashe Yosef as their rabbi, and gathered around him in their own kloiz. They became known as the Poles due to their rebellion, as Poles were considered rebellious. However, this opposition eventually abated and then stopped completely. The Iluy [genius] of Sośnica was considered the rabbi of the entire city, and Rabbi Menashe Yosef served only as a Moreh Tzedek. Rabbi Yosef continued in that role throughout the tenure of the Gaon Rabbi Yehuda Leib Gordin, who followed the Sośnica rabbi as the head of the rabbinical court of that community (56655673, 19051913). When Rabbi Gordin moved to become the head of the rabbinical court of the regional city of Łomża in Poland, the Moreh Tzedek Rabbi Menashe Yosef served as the chief Moreh Tzedek of Smorgon between reigns. In the interim, the First World War broke out. Smorgon, which was close to the front, was destroyed, and its Jews were exiled to various points inside of Russia. Rabbi Menashe Yosef was among them. When a portion of the Jews of Smorgon returned after the war, and the Jewish community was reconstituted in a smaller fashion to its previous incarnation, Rabbi Menashe Yosef returned as well and served as the de factor rabbi, in the position of fill in for Jewish community of Smorgon in accordance with Polish regulations. The veteran rabbi, Moreh Tzedek of Smorgon, served in this role until his death in the year 5685 (1925). We should note his twovolume work Givat Olam (Vilna 5658 1898). The first volume includes novel ideas and didactics on various sections of the Talmud, and the second volume includes explanations and ideas on Agada (the lore portion of the Talmud).
News of the death of Rabbi Menashe Yosef was included in the rabbinical anthology Shaarei Zion (5685 1925), published in Jerusalem. In that document, he is described as the rabbi and Gaon, head of the rabbinical court of Smorgon.
O. Rabbi Shmuel Aharon HaCohen Plotkin
Rabbi Shmuel HaCohen Plotkin's father, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, was the head of the rabbinical court of Krievi, where he died in the year 5684 (1914). Rabbi Plotkin served as rabbi in Derechin in the district of Slonim for 20 years. He saved tens of people from death during the time of the emergency of 1920. He later spent some time in America and then returned to Poland where he became the rabbi of a suburb of Grodno (Behind the River), and then in Smorgon. He was only active there for a few years (following the death of Rabbi Menashe Ginzberg in 5685 1925), and he died in the year 5691 1931. After his death, a dispute broke out among the people of Smorgon regarding the appointment of a new rabbi. The bundle separated and two rabbis served: Rabbi Yitzchak Markus and Rabbi Zelig Slodzinsi. Rabbi Yitzchak Markus was a native of Zettel in the district of Slonim and was one of the excellent students of the Yeshiva of Radin. He obtained the rabbinate of Smorgon as a fillin for his fatherinlaw, the aforementioned Rabbi Plotkin. Rabbi Zelig Slodzinski was a native of Kobrin and equally one of the excellent students of the Mir Yeshiva, who served Rabbi Yerucham Leibowitz, the spiritual leader of the famous Mir Yeshiva, and one of the pillars of the mussar movement of the previous generation. Rabbi Markus was the soninlaw of Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Shuster, the rabbi of Sokółka, whose wife was the daughter of Rabbi Shlomo HaCohen, the first Moreh Tzedek of Vilna. Those two rabbis perished in the Holocaust in the year 5703 (1943), may Gd avenge their blood.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
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.
Smarhon, Belarus Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2019 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 20 Jun 2018 by MGH