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[Page 7]

The Power of Volozhyn

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, cogently unearthed [?]– 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.

[Page 11]

The story of Volozhin


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 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.

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.

[Page 19]

The Volozhin Jewish Community Origins

By E. Leoni

Translated by M. Porat

Edited by Mike Kalt

According to our sources, Volozhin was founded in the 15th Century. The Volozhin estate belonged then to the Volozhin counts. The village was a part of the Oshmiana district in Vilna guberniya.

The creek Volozhinka crossed the town from north to south. The stream's name probably became the town's name. It is also told that oxen flocks encamped here on their way from Minsk to Vilna. It is claimed that “Vol” is the origin of the name of the town – “Vol” in Russian means Ox. The shtetl is situated 80 km from Minsk, and 112 km from Vilna. The Volozhinka stream pours out into the Islotsh River.

Jews settled there during the second half of the 16th century. 383 Jews lived there between 1764 and 1766, 590 in 1847, 1900 in 1893, and 2452 Jews lived there in 1897.

Fishl Shneurson describes its topographical shape: “Volozhin, a small little town, dwells on the Minsk to Vilna way. It is surrounded on all sides by low mountains, which immerse some measure of importance to the town. It seems that the mountains summoned the town to superior actions. The shtetl is divided in two parts; the upper one is situated on the hilltop and is called “Arooftsoo” – Up Hill. The second part is positioned in the Volozhinka Valley, and it's called “Aroptsoo” – Down Hill.”

The way from the Minsk Mount

The way from the Minsk Mount descends into the
Volozhinka streambed and then ascends to the town center.

The Yeshiva is seen among the buildings. (taken September 1998)

The Volozhin soil was excellent to raise cattle and horses and to cultivate flax. Those were the main products to sell at the bazaars that gathered 4 times each year at the town markets, one of them uphill at the Market Square in the town center, the second one down hill at the Horses Market on the right shore of the Volozhinka. At the end of the 18th century there existed in Volozhin a linen factory, which was built by R' Itskhak and inherited by his son Rabbi Hayim Der Volozhiner

The Volozhin estate, including its vicinity land including 81 villages and hamlets, passed into the possession of count Yoozef Tishkevitsh in 1803, the same year that Reb Hayim founded the Yeshiva.

Yoozef Tishkevitsh transformed Volozhin from a big hamlet to a little, but nice, town. He also assisted in building the Jewish academy. The relations between Reb Hayim and the count Yoozef, as between Reb Yitsele and Yoozef's son count Michael, were excellent. It's told that a beautiful portrait of Reb Yitsele was placed inside the Polish count's palace. The Volozhin born R' Khayim and R' Itsele used to speak Polish and Russian languages fluently.

The writer Fishl Shneurson wrote about the good relations between theVolozhin Rabbis and Counts. Three solid, high, white colored, beautiful buildings stood on the southern side of the Market Square in the Graph's estate. All of them were built by Graph Tishkevitsh in Belvedere style. A similar building stood on the Northern flank of the market, among Jewish shops. This house was built by the Graph for Rabbi Hayim.

The first Volozhin Community head was R' Itskhak, Rabbi Khayim's father. The Itskhakin family had settled in Volozhin in the 16th century, and were among the first Jews who settled there. R' Itskhak's spouse Rivka descended from the famous Rapoport family. She was the daughter of Rabbi Isroel Hakohen Rapoport.

The general opinion is that the uniqueness of Volozhin is due to the Eyts Hayim Yeshiva. Without the Yeshiva, Volozhin would be a shtetl like all the shtetls in the Lita-Yiddish-Land. The historical truth does not justify this version. The town of Volozhin possessed its particular advantages. The Eyts Khayim Yeshiva was built on sound foundations. It was formed by town-born scholars and leaders, and by outside-born prodigies who developed their ideas here.

Volozhin was renowned many years before the Yeshiva establishment. Mikha Yossef Berditshevski succeeded in defining it: “Rabbi Eliyahoo the Vilna Gaon chose this little town because it was appreciated by most of the Lita Jews. There lived the prodigious “Shaagass Arye”, who created the model of literally simple Torah study; there was born the genial Reb Zalmele, who knew by heart the Pentateuch, the six books of the Mishna, the Rambam writings, the Zohar and many others. The Vilna Gaon knew also that the Volozhin congregation was managed by its talented Chairman, the elevated Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner, the son of the righteous Rabbi Itskhak.”

Rabbi Khayim certified his father's behavior in his public functions: “Our sages of Blessed Memory taught us that a community leader who is proud of his Kehila for God's name only will be blessed to have a son, a true scholar. It is known that public servers refer differently to different population layers, honoring the rich and strong, dishonoring the weak and poor. My father of blessed memory, the town head, was leading his community according to Torah commandments and the state laws. He was attentive to the needs of the little Balabatim and the poor inhabitants. He helped and honored them in every possible way. He was proud of his congregation but for God's name only. And God Almighty blessed him with a son, a prodigy, who would be appreciated even by our sages and ancient Talmudic interpreters. Such a Genius was my brother Zalmele”.

[Page 35]

Hashaagass Arye (The Lions Roar)
– Volozhin's spiritual father

By E. Leoni

Translated by M. Porat

Edited by Mike Kalt

Hashaagass Arye

Rabbi Leyb, son of R' Asher Gintsburg, was born in Minsk in 1695. He was known as “Shaagass Arye”(”The Lion Roar”), from the name of the book written by him. He became head of the Minsk Yeshiva at the age of 38. Due to his hard character, he was obliged to leave Minsk.

R' Itskhak, the Volozhin congregation leader, invited the famous “Shaagass Arye” to serve as the Volozhin town Rabbi He came to Volozhin in 1750. He performed his services from 1750 until 1755 (5510 – 5515). The “Shaagass Arye” opened there a Great Yeshiva. He was called by the inhabitants “Reb Leyb the Yeshiva Head”.

He introduced his method of simple Torah study, and developed and spread it through his students.

The Volozhin congregation did not have enough resources to provide Talmud learning books. Those books were extremely expensive. Only the very rich who also loved Torah study were able to acquire them. Rabbi Itskhak, the Kehila head, at his wife Rivka's request, bought on one of his business journeys a complete edition of the Mishna. The demand to read them was great. R' Itskhak asked his spouse to manage the guarding and lending of the holy books. The first Hebrew library in Lita-Yiddish-Land was created. Rivka welcomed everyone who would come in her house to learn the books. Among them was also Shaagass Arye, who was not rich enough to own them himself. Rivka could not bear to see the honorable Rabbi crush his feet making the way to her home. She offered to send him the desired books every time he needed for his study or for teaching his students. Hashaagass Arye was thankful for it,and blessed Rivka to raise her sons to be great scholars. His benediction was fulfilled. Rivka's sons R' Hayim and R' Zakmele were his best students, and became prominent scholars.

Shaagass Arye gathered all his innovations in Torah and Talmud studies. He intended to print a book of it. But there were not any printing presses in Lita in those days. He left Volozhin after five years of service and went to Frankfurt on Oder to fulfill his intentions. In Frankfurt he and his wife spent their nights in a hostel for poor Jews. As accustomed, he studied loudly a chapter from Rambam by candlelight. The surrounding sleeping paupers woke up and cursed the sleep interrupter. Shaagass Arye extinguished the candle, got out from the dormitory and continued his study by the moonlight. With daybreak, when the hostel manager woke up, he saw an elderly Jew dancing joyfully outside and with him his wife. “What is the cause of your happiness?” he asked. The Shaagass Arye responded: “A great miracle happened this night, and I'm thanking the Almighty for it. For many days I could not resolve a big problem in the Rambam book, and this night, God, bless his name, opened my eyes and I found the right answer, and this is the reason of our happiness”.

After printing the book, he returned to Russia. He passed a year in Volozhin, left to Vilna, and then he went to Metz. Here he found rest and richness. At the age of 90 he passed away and was buried in Metz on July 3, 1785.

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