by Isser Yehuda Unterman, Chief Rabbi of Israel
Translated by Jerrold Landau
During that era when I basked in the holy Yeshiva there, under the protection and influence of our rabbi, the Gaon and Tzadik, Rabbi Rafael Shapira, may the memory of the holy be blessed, approximately 55 years ago, the Yeshiva flourished greatly. A very precious group of great, excellent scholars, sublime young men and lads, were gathered there, occupying themselves in Torah with great diligence. A spirit of brotherhood and friendship pervaded them all. Among the adult scholars, there were some who were permanent residents of Volozhin, who lived there with their families. They served as a sort of connecting bridge in matters of the spirit between the Yeshiva and the city. There is no doubt that the spirit of the Yeshiva influenced the city in a recognizable fashion, causing the residents to aspire to raise their sons in Torah, and to choose husbands for their daughters from among the students.
In this manner, Volozhin merited to have a large number of scholars amongst its householders, raising the spiritual level of the city in general. I remember that an important guest, who was a respected merchant and quite learned, came at that time from Łódź to visit his sons in the Yeshiva, and he told great things about the wagon drivers of Volozhin. When he traveled to the city from the Polochany station, a journey of about three hours, he listened to explanations and sections of Biblical verses from the wagon driver as he was guiding the horses. This astounded him. This man had been accustomed to traveling from city to city in Poland on wagons, and within the previous decade, he had never heard so much Torah from wagon drivers as he head on that journey to Volozhin.
I wish to add something to the two points I mentioned above, regarding the spirit of diligence in Torah that pervaded in the Yeshiva at that time, and also regarding the feelings of brotherhood between the students. At that time, there was an active spiritual guide in the Yeshiva, the rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Avraham Droshkovitz of blessed memory, who had previously been the rabbi in the city of Shatt. (He also wrote a book entitled Shaarei Horaah to be used by those who are studying Yoreh Deah. At the end there are responsa
on halacha.) In essence, he was especially active as a principal in the affairs of the Yeshiva, and he did not act at all as a spiritual guide in the usual sense of that term. This was because there was no need in supervising the younger students to ensure that they do not waste their time. A spirit of diligence pervaded everyone, and each person was careful to sit and study. In addition, there were greatly diligent people, who excelled in their concentration in matters with which they were occupied. There was a tradition there that the spirit of diligence rested upon all who came the Yeshiva, as a legacy of the wonderful diligence imbued in that place by the founders and sustainers of the Yeshiva Gaonim of the generation, may the memory of the righteous and holy be a blessing. This also influenced the subsequent generations.
|Rabbi Avraham Droshkovitz|
Externally, there was a spirit of deliberateness and politeness in the life of the Yeshiva. Th prayer and of course the study were without external noise and enthusiasm, but the concentration of thought was recognizable, without the running and jumping that was common in a congregation consisting primarily of young people. The debates in matters of study were also without great noise, even though there were at times cases of clashes between various manners of study. Those who came from Telz made efforts to analyze the reasoning down to the minutest point, and those who were used to a different style of study could not tolerate this; however everything was without a great storm.
At times, we saw a small group standing in one of the corners, asking questions of each other in issues that required deep study. Reb Yaakov, a diligent student, of blessed memory, of Białystok, was an expert in deep questions in Orach Chaim. On the other hand, there were some who were more proficient in the laws related to Choshen Mishpat. At times, one could hear sharp and deep matters discussed during these deliberations. All this added urgency to the in-depth study of the Talmudic passage. One young rabbi was very well endowed in questions of what is permitted and forbidden, demonstrating a great breadth of knowledge. There were also those, on the other hand, who could derive points from the depths of halacha. The relationship between the young men was definitively friendly. They discussed amongst themselves with respect, for the urge for victory was not very prevalent, and they generally did not nullify each other. The good relations made the life in the Yeshiva pleasant.
One day, the young men of the Yeshiva gathered in the library to deal with a practical issue. They recognized that there was a great need to delve into matters of lore, to expound publicly and to lecture before a large crowd. They decided to practice together, and then to
discuss manners of expression and appropriate oratory principles. The head of these speakers was Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin of blessed memory, who was referred to as the young man from Telz at that time. He later became the rabbi of Zhetl and Łuck, and became known as an excellent orator. In his introduction, he said something nice that became embedded in the minds of the community, and which is worthwhile to repeat here. He asked, why did Moses, peace be upon him, first give the reason to the Holy One Blessed Be He that he cannot speak to the Children of Israel regarding the redemption because they will not believe him; then when the Holy One Blessed Be He gave him a sign and portent to prove that G-d had sent him, Moses of blessed memory said: I am not a man of words which should have been his first excuse? The answer is that had the community not believed in and awaited the redemption, there would be no need for him to be a man of words. There would have only been the need for the simple statement, I am the emissary of G-d, who sent me to redeem you. However, when the faith was lacking and there was a desire to convince them that the redemption was nigh, there was a need for a man of words. It is the same with the rabbinate: in generations where faith is sufficiently strong, one has to say that you must do so and so in accordance with the Torah. However, when the generation is weak in faith we need the power of speech to convince the community to follow the path of Torah and the commandments.
It is worthwhile to mention one important note regarding the wonderful atmosphere that pervaded in the Yeshiva of Volozhin, especially during the time of the Days of Awe, which left a strong impression on those who did not go home for the vacation period, but rather remained in the Yeshiva. They dedicated their entire time to Torah study of issues related to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and they drew from the Torah itself an awakening to repentance and good deeds without any enthusiastic speeches from anyone else. I then understood the stories that I heard in Volozhin in the manner of the Gaon the Netziv, may the memory of the holy be blessed, and from the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, may the memory of the holy be blessed, that when they were advised to set times for the study of mussar (moral lessons) in the manner that the great students of the Gaon and Tzadik Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, may the memory of the holy be blessed, did; they claimed that there was no need for such in Volozhin. There, the Torah itself served as a source of moral lessons and reproof, purifying the thoughts of the students, and refining the recesses of their hearts. Indeed, I saw this with my own eyes, that also in their private lives and even when the young men and older lads went out to stroll for a bit, their thoughts were immersed in matters of Torah and the purification of their character traits. In this atmosphere, it was possible for each one of the older students to develop in accordance with their aptitudes and talents, without any spiritual pressure from anyone who might try to forge their spirit in accordance with their inclinations. Indeed, it is not in every place that it was possible
to forge such a pure spirit. Volozhin, which was a small town, with a large tradition of holiness spanning generations, excelled at this.
After Yom Kippur, I traveled home via Vishnyeva, where several of the heads of the town urged me to accept the position of Yeshiva head for the youths of their town. Prior to that, the scholars of the town deliberated together and decided to found a Yeshiva in their town for youths who were developed in the study of Torah. I accepted the offer, and I opened the Yeshiva at the beginning of the winter. It was very successful. It had precious, talented students who had already attained a significant level in their learning. On occasion, I meet some of my students from there. Some currently serve in the rabbinate, and in any case, continue with their Torah study. They are full of pleasant memories of the life in the Yeshiva there and their success in the study of Torah.
From time to time, I visited Volozhin, where excellent students remained with whom I had forged bonds of the soul until I accepted the rabbinical position in the town and left. The First World War brought deep changes throughout the entire district of Lithuania in Russia. Of course, the wellsprings of Torah in Volozhin came to a halt. After the interruption, when the land quieted and the area came under Polish rule, the Yeshiva was renewed. Then, the Gaon Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, may the memory of the holy be blessed, stood at the helm as the rabbi and Yeshiva head. (His father, Rabbi Rafael, died in Minsk, as is known.) The essence of the Yeshiva was renewed in accordance with its old tradition.
During the current time, those who lived there and participated in the life of the community and the Yeshiva have come forward and continued with the memories of those days. It is appropriate that this was done by those who studied there during that era. About 50 years ago, a Yeshiva was founded in the Holy Land by the son-in-law of the Gaon Rabbi Yaakov, may the memory of the holy be blessed, the rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Shimon Langbard, may he live long. It was originally in Tel Aviv, and then moved to Bnei Brak. There is no doubt that several large yeshivas that were established in various places were influenced to a large degree by the Yeshiva of Volozhin.
Written by Harav Moshe Zvi Neriya (Kfar Haroe)
Translated by Moshe Porat
The Volozhyn Yeshiva was established in the three-sons system: Rabbi Chaim, Rabbi Itsele, and Hanatziv. There were other great men, beginning with Rabbi Hillel from Horodno and Rabbi Avraham Simcha from Mietshislav, and ending with Rabbi Refoel Shapiro and Rabbi Chaim Soloveytshik. Each of these leaders of the yeshiva added a worthwhile element to the yeshiva's reputation. Nevertheless, the most significant aspect, the authentic yeshiva essence, was carried by the three. As fathers we name only three. The holy yeshiva's first rabbi, Rabbi Chaim, created the foundations, Reb Itsele increased its glory, and Hanatziv strengthened the walls.
Rabbi Chaim was an exceptional educator and a most erudite person; a mighty genius, and the wise man is valued more than the prophet; a man of deeds; an ingenious leader; a profound and brilliant thinker. Yet chiefly he was a pedagogue, a master at his profession. Rabbi Itsele resembled his father in many ways. He was a born leader brimming with wisdom, unique intelligence, and astute comprehension. He was also blessed with a golden heart, flowing with love for Jews far and near and with general concern for the entire community. He was prodigious and honest. He was not only the head of the yeshiva but also the leader of the entirety of the Diaspora. The Natziv had an iron will and a powerful character. He was a remarkable builder who established himself as a leader and the yeshiva as a prime Jewish center, with solid comprehensive ingenuity, with diligence, integrity, and devotion and love for the Torah, his people, and the Land.
Additional people shaped the totality of the yeshiva's image. Each one, from Volozhyn's great and famous down, contributed to her character and left his personal imprint at her gates: not only her leaders, but also the best of the students, the magnificent yeshiva boys who turned out to be the great sages of Israel. When they left the yeshiva, they left their imprint behind. Stories and facts, memories and traditions passed from mouth to mouth and were woven into the web of the great yeshiva. In addition, mysterious figures selected the yeshiva for residence. Many years later, stories circulated about the awesome and humble characters who passed by way of the yeshiva in silence, and the warmth of their breath hovered over and commingled with her ambience.
The yeshiva became the Torah center of the great Russian Jewry. She became a mighty power of Torah learning: of diligence, of love of Torah, of respect for Torah and for every good principle. From year to year the yeshiva grew; her frontiers expanded with students and more elevated learning. Thousands found protection in her shelter, drank from her sources, absorbed her spirit, and became intoxicated by her aroma. The Jewish lads, talented and strong-willed, scraped their feet walking from remote places to bask in the light of her Torah and to breath her scholarly atmosphere. There were brilliant prodigies and modest, yet diligent, students; virtuous souls clinging to the wings of the Divine Presence; broken spirits, suffering, skeptical of life; hidden tsadikim seeking the wonderful and educated scholars, with high aspirations, all of these flowed toward the Volozhyn yeshiva. Here they looked for an outlet for their raw brilliant talent, a holy place for searching souls, for enervating grieved hearts, a mystical place for their yearning psyches and for clarification of their questions.
There was a great concentration of the most outstanding people among this century's talents, wonderful and diligent disciples of Torah studying and laboring, a spirit of friendship, talent, and willpower. All of them joined in creating an extraordinary reality, a mighty workshop of spiritual richness and charming legends, captivating hearts and souls.
No man left Volozhyn empty-handed. Those who worked hard and laid the foundation departed with a great treasure. Volozhyn mended their image and strengthened whatever location they went to. Even the tired ones, those who did not find their way, did not leave empty-handed: they took the Volozhyn melody, which turned out to be their song of life. The light of Volozhyn's Torah illuminated their spirit. Far away, after many days and years, they remembered the yeshiva; her memory refreshed the soul and reinforced the heart.
The dignity of Torah increased and multiplied from the Volozhyn faculty and from the strength of their energy. It was accomplished due to the dozens of gaonim and hundreds of rabonim who illuminated the whole community by their dignity and the thousands of balabatim, the learned, outstanding scholars, erudite Talmudists, and virtuous persons with bright opinions, people carrying the Volozhyn Torah in their hearts and deriving their splendor from her. All of them expressed dignity. Above all, the core of the yeshiva's influence was the spreading of her essence far away from her borders and from the sphere of her disciples. The Volozhyn legend ascended above small burgs and large towns, above schools and yeshivas. She warmed and excited, encouraged and strengthened and many, many followed her method.
By Eliezer Leoni, editor
This Introduction appears in the original book in two versions, Hebrew & English -1970
Here we publish the English version edited by Eilat Levitan - 2001
What distinguishes Volozhin from other shtetls in Eastern Europe is obvious in this volume. It is not a single book, but an amalgamation of two. It is a description of a major Torah center and rabbinical learning academy; it is also the story of the Volozhin community.
The first section gives an account of those outstanding figures who were either born in the city, connected with the Volozhin dynasty, or the select few who helped to maintain the Volozhin tradition. The main sections of the book are: the history of the Volozhin community, the Volozhin sages and scholars, and tales of the wise, who preserved the Volozhin tradition. These sections intend to develop a universal Jewish cultural source. The Volozhin sages and their disciples' deeds, teachings and casual conversations were insightful and educational. They had shaped not only the Volozhin community but also the entire Eastern European Jewry.
This book has been written not only for the Volozhin natives and its Yeshiva students but also for the tens of thousands for whom the Yeshiva influenced their way of life from afar. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin wrote about this institution: The Volozhin Yeshiva is renowned from one end of the Jewish world to the other one. However, writing this book involved considerable difficulties. The enormous amount of materials forced us to make selections, to eliminate a great part of the material ,and to shape a version which would be comprehensible to those who are not familiar with the Talmud. We tried not to be excessively grave and dry; we preferred to stress poetic aspects. We had chosen to display the Agada (fable) rather than Halacha (law), because the Agada is nearer to the heart of the common reader.
Concepts in Judaism could be articulated in diverse styles; they could be expressed through a philosophical discipline or by scientific methodology. And it can also be explained by using literary techniques. Some ideas can be displayed in a drawing, other by pictures or symbols, yet another can be expressed by a fables or legends. Rabbi Yohanan told about Rabbi Meir: When Rabbi Meir expounded a Bible passage
|Eliezer Leoni, editor of the book|
he would dedicate one third of his exposition to the laws it contained, another to the legends, and the last one to parables. He also remarked that Rabbi Meir knew three hundred Fox Fables. Which goes to show that Rabbi Meir made full use of the fabulist art to make the legal side easier and more palatable to his students and listeners.
We adopted Rabbi Meir's method. Tales, anecdotes and legend were used to lead us to our objective: To understand the words, deeds and thoughts of the Volozhin scholars. We were very careful, Heaven forbid, not to write too much or too little, and not to misrepresent an entire spiritual world. Therefore, we hope that anyone studying our account on the Eytz Hayim Yeshiva will find it all praiseworthy and inspiring. It applies to all that was written about the three patriarchs --Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner; his son Rabbi Isaak Reb Itsele; his son-in-law Harav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Hanaziv; as well as to the sages of this spiritual center. We have done the best to tell our tale in an easy and simple manner, expressing their principles in a more popular style than the one they used.
I have reason to hope that this method is the correct one. I sent the chapters dealing with the community and Yeshiva history to Dr. Nathaniel Katzburg, history lecturer at the Bar Ilan University, asking him to check and to verify facts and dates. In his letter dated 7th Tishri 5727, Dr. Katzburg wrote inter alia:
The work in general seems suited to its purpose to provide a succinct but comprehensive literary description, on the basis of the available sources
and literary material, while introducing passages from sources and memories, from which the intelligent reader and, particularly the younger generation, can obtain a comprehensive picture of this magnificent chapter in the Jewish history and Torah study during recent generations. Anybody who wishes to know more and to study the subject more deeply need only refer to the bibliography which you append.
In writing the Volozhin Community History we met distinct types of impediments. We had almost no one to assist us. There were no writers, rabbis, or scholars who would aid us to investigate the history of the community. Here lived some of the most outstanding figures of Jewry. They wrote about Volozhin for more than a century. Yet they were dedicated almost entirely to the Yeshiva and paid scarcely any attention to the congregation. And while the material on the Yeshiva is more than plentiful, there is next to nothing on what to base the general history essay. This forced us to engage in considerable research.
These features could be found in the second part, which deals with the ordinary life in the Volozhin community. It covers a period of 42 years, from the beginning of the twentieth century until the Volozhin entire Kehila destruction in 1942. Here we describe the ordinary Jews, their sufferings and struggles for existence. Here we find the intense background of the common Volozhin Jews. The Yeshiva left its spiritual impression on the shtetl inhabitants. Hanaziv, meeting the Volozhin water carrier would jokingly say, And you shall draw water from the salvation springs. The Rabbi knew that the Volozhin regular natives were familiar with the Torah sources.
The principal Volozhin figures and the ordinary people suited each other. Peretz the Balegole (wagoner) in course of the journey used to test the Yeshiva students on various Talmud tractates. Rabbi Yohanan Rodkes, who would complete the entire Babylonian Talmud's study in cycles of nine months an almost incredible feat. Freydele di Rebttzn (the Rabbi's wife), who knew the entire Bible by heart. It seems that the unique Volozhin qualities were found not only in Rabbi Hayim, his successors and disciples but also in Reb Peretz the Balegole. He was a real prodigy, swimming at ease in the entirety of the Talmud literature. However, financial circumstances compelled him to make a living with his horse and wagon. He reminds us of Abba the Builder, who could find an answer to the Greek philosopher Avnimos of Gadara, which demanded more acumen than the town Rabies could deliver.
The correspondence between the two parts of the book also finds a statement in this style. Here too are plenty of stories, tales and anecdotes from the lives
of simple folk. This freshens the text, brings the past to life, and helps to familiarize us with the community's daily existence.
Preparing this text we were guided by the epithet: multiple kinds of arts are good, except for those that are boring. We tried our best to avoid them.
Circumstances beyond our control compelled us to restrict our account to a few communal leaders and outstanding heads of households. We made every effort possible to obtain information that would enable us to extend the number of chronicles, but in many cases nothing could be done. Stories of other families have been forgotten and in many cases there is nobody left, to our knowledge, who could tell about them. And this we regret deeply.
of the Organization of Volozhin in Israel
Standing (right to left): a) Pesach Berman b) Fruma Zwebner c) Dov Lavit d) Chaim Potshanik
Seated (right to left): a) Bella Slitarnik b) Binyamin Shapir (Shishko) c) Shoshana Neshri d) Mendel Wlokowicz
We have tried to be brief where brevity was called for, in order to be more expansive wherever possible and also to increase the number of those whom we recalled. But we did not succeed. So those whom we were able to describe, let them be the representatives of the entire Volozhin community.
After years of dedicated endeavors by all the members of the editorial committee, we raised a memorial to the Etz Hayim Yeshiva and to the Volozhin community. Being engaged in this holy task the late Dr. Issaac Rivkind, blessed shall be his memory, was taken from us. He, who had helped us with his advice, guidance and discovery of sources, who considered Volozhin as his spiritual birthplace and home, he wrote me that every house, every tree and every Jew in Volozhin were dear to him, because they reminded him of the wonderful world which had enlightened his entire life. Dr. Rivkind looked forward to seeing the book and asked me about it. We regret his going from us, not seeing our work completed. But his memory is engraved in its pages.
The book deals also with the destruction and eradication of the Volozhin Kehila. The Volozhin Jews were burnt to death. In their reminiscences the survivors have tried to describe those horrors. Yet all we had succeeded to get from them is no more than a drop in the ocean of suffering. What really happened was far more blood curdling than has been told here. Those who were not on the spot; those who never saw how the life dried up and died away in the ghetto; those who never heard their moans and groans from evening to morning and morning to evening; those who never saw their sufferings; those who never experienced life lived at the risk of death at any moment; those who did not go along with the doomed; those who never heard the shots and the cries of the fallen; those who never saw the bleeding and dead; those who never saw them being hurt to death those who never saw all of these things can never comprehend the depths of the tragedy.
It is generally said that a memorial volume is a monument in memory of a city or a small town. But this does not apply to Volozhin. Neither the editor nor the editorial committee members have regarded themselves as a Burial Society performing the last kindness to all those who have gone. We have not raised a memorial, for that would reduce our book's value. A memorial is something lifeless which may be indeed respected but from which people keep away. People remember a memorial on occasions for mourning and weeping. Memorials are remembered on the Ninth day of Av and during the Elul Month, when Jews go to the graves of their kinsfolk.
The Volozhin Yizkor Book is not a graveyard or the mark of the last kindness. It sets out to record life, it sets out to be a source of pleasure, of inspiration and of physical exaltation. The words and thoughts of the Volozhin sages deserve to be drunk with thirst all the year around.
The warmth they engender can warm us in all times. Let us stand in awe before their Torah! And let us dedicate ourselves to the study of their teachings, go back to it again and again, even though we cannot claim that we give it all. For anyone who studies the Torah according to the Volozhin method the whole world will have a meaning. His life will have a flavor of its own. It will raise him high above the drabness of life. Or, to quote the words in the Father's Chapter: When a man passes away he's not taking with him money, pearls or gold but only Torah and good deeds.
It is my pleasant duty to thank everyone who helped us to accomplish this holy task, by providing us with literary sources and material. Particularly I need toe mention Mr. Yehiel Lavie, the Ahad Haam Library Director, who did not spare toil in providing all the material that we required.
Similarly, we thank Mr. Moshe Ungerfeld, the Bet Bialik director, for his assistance in order to find all necessary sources for the Bialik in Volozhin chapter. I owe special thanks to the management and director of the Rambam library, Mr. Abraham Goldrat, and his staff. They provided me with familiar and unfamiliar sources to describe the Etz Hayim Yeshiva history. I am particularly grateful to them for supplying me with the photos of the Yeshiva students from the library's ample material. Finally, heartfelt thanks to my friend, Mr. Moshe Morgenstern, who provided me with much interesting material from his colorful and rich library.
Though helped by so many scholars and having done our best to ensure the accuracy of our work, we would be less than truthful if we claimed that the book is completely without errors. And may it be the Holy and Ancient One's will to allow us to atone for any faults due to error, and may we never do wrong for a vicious purpose. Forgive the errors created for Thy sake.
We submit this book to the public for consideration with our full knowledge of its deficiencies. We have tried to satisfy the demands of many people to whom the name Volozhin is very dear due to its historical, spiritual and scholarly associations. The members of this public will treat us as strictly as the subject calls for. Yet, we hope that we have succeeded in presenting the inner spirit and essence of Volozhin sufficiently well to gain the approval of them all.
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