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The Volozhin Scholars

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Three Torah Pillars in Volozhin

by Eliezer Leoni (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Jerrold Landau


Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik




Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was one of the supporting pillars in the pantheon of Volozhin sages. He was the great-grandson of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin. He was born in Nesvizh in the year 5590 (1820). Already from his childhood, it became clear that he was created for greatness, that he was thoroughly sharp, that he had a deep power of memory, that he was diligent to the point where he knew no rest, and that he had the ability to penetrate the depths of halacha. All this portended that a bright star was passing through the skies of Talmudic Jewry.

At the age of thirteen, his father sent him to the Etz Hayim Yeshiva of Volozhin. AT first he studied Torah from the rabbinical judge Rabbi Shimshon Rodanski, and later from his rabbis Rabbi Itzele (his father's uncle) and his [i.e. Rabbi Itzele's] son-in-law Rabbi Eliezer-Yitzchak Fried. His hidden talents began to develop in the Yeshiva of Volozhin. He separated himself from the pleasures of life and strove day and night in Torah. By the age of fifteen he was renown as a genius with great knowledge. Rabbi Itzele predicted that he will become a Gaon in Israel, and through his sharpness, he would reach the level of the Shaagas Aryeh.

When the Gaon Rabbi Gershon Tanchum, the head of the Blumke Yeshiva of Minsk, became ill, he approached Rabbi Itzele with the request that he send him one of his greatest students to deliver the class to the lads. Rabbi Itzele chose his sister's grandson, the young Rabbi Yosi Ber, for this task. His classes in the Yeshiva granted renown to his name, and he became known as one of the Torah greats.

At the age of Bar Mitzvah [thirteen] he married the daughter of one of the wealthy people, but the match did not work out well, and his father-in-law forced his daughter to separate from her husband, even though she had borne him a daughter. Rabbi Yosi-Ber[i] left Minsk with a heavy heart, and set out for Brod to study Torah from the Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Kluger.

Rabbi Yosi-Ber set out without a coin in his pocket. He used various means to arrive at his destination without paying. When nothing worked, the young Gaon dressed up as the assistant of one of the wagon drivers traveling to Brod. Rabbi Yosi-Ber sat in the cabin of the wagon for three days, with the whip in his right hand and the reins in his left hand. However, since he was not expert in this trade, his work did not find

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favor with his boss, who denigrated him, cursed him, and even beat him. The Gaon accepted the blows and was silent. They arrived at a hotel at the border of Galicia, where a young man who studied at the Yeshiva of Volozhin was staying. He was very shocked at the sight before his eyes, seeing the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov driving horses. He disclosed the identity of “the lad assistant” to the wagon driver. The wagon driver approached him and begged forgiveness for the blows. Rabbi Yosi-Ber responded with his great wisdom: “Had I been beaten for words of Torah, I would have felt it unjust. However, you have beaten me over the theory of wagon driving. In that matter, you are my teacher and rabbi.”

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger was very astounded at Rabbi Yosi-Ber's depth of understanding, and drew him close. However, for various reasons, he did not stay there for long. He returned to Volozhin after much wandering, and married the daughter of the rabbi of Volozhin, Rabbi Yitzchak Efron.

After the death of Rabi Eliezer Yitzchak, the Gaonim of the generation decided to appoint Rabbi Yosi-Ber as his successor in the Etz Hayim Yeshiva of Volozhin. Rabbi Yosi-Ber had a writ of the rabbinate from Telz, but the community of Volozhin and all the people of the Yeshiva stopped him, and did not let him leave Volozhin. The two cities presented their cases before a rabbinical court of great rabbis, and the community of Volozhin won the case.

After Rabbi Itzele died, his son-in-law the Netzi'v was appointed as head of the Yeshiva, and Rabbi Yosi-Ber served as second in command. He disseminated Torah in the Yeshiva for approximately twelve years. He demonstrated his powers of didactics [pilpul] and sharpness, and the students drank his words with thirst.

Due to the dispute that broke out between Rabbi Yosi-Ber and the Netzi'v, he left Volozhin in the year 5625 (1865) and served as the rabbi of Slutsk. The dispute was based on the fact that Rabbi Yosi-Ber, as a grandson of one of the daughters of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, demanded the right to serve as the primary Yeshiva head, whereas the great rabbis determined that the primary Yeshiva head must be the Netzi'v. Rabbi Yosi-Ber did not want to serve as the deputy Yeshiva head, so he left the Yeshiva. However, he did not alienate himself from the Yeshiva. After a few years, his son, Rabbi Hayim, married the granddaughter of the Netzi'v, and was made deputy to the Yeshiva head.

It is told that on the day of the marriage of Rabbi Hayim, the Netzi'v invited his in-law Rabbi Yosi-Ber to dance the Kozak dance with him. In that dance, one dances opposite the other. Rabbi Yosi-Ber responded: “I already tried to dance opposite you one time, my in-law, and I did not succeed.”

Rabbi Yosi-Ber occupied the rabbinical seat of Slutsk for approximately ten years. He left the city in the year 5635 (1875) and moved to Warsaw. Many of the greats of Warsaw wished to choose him as the rabbi of the city, but for various reasons they could not actualize their intention. He was chosen as the head of Chevrat Sha's of Warsaw.

He left Warsaw in the year 5638 (1878) and was accepted as rabbi of Brisk, where he served in the rabbinate for approximately 14 years. He was laid to eternal rest in that city. He died through the death of a kiss[ii]. He left his house at the end of the Sabbath to perform the sanctification of the moon, and occupied himself with Torah until after midnight. He felt no pain. However, when he went to bed, he suffered a stroke. Rabbi Yosi-Ber died on 4 Iyar,

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5652 (1892) at the age of 72.

Rabbi Yosi-Ber's death was the cause of heavy mourning even in the community of Jerusalem. The Jews of the city conducted a eulogy for him in the large Beis Yaakov synagogue in the courtyard of Rabbi Yehuda Chasid. The place was filled to the brim.

Rabbi Avraham Abba Yaakov Senderovich was honored with delivering the eulogy for the deceased. He concluded his remarks with an explanation of the verse: “And David slept with his fathers.” (I Kings 2:10). “David, left behind a son to take his place, so his death was not felt to a great extent – therefore the term ‘and he slept’ was used. This tells you that he only went to sleep with his fathers. We can say the same about Rabbi Yosi-Ber, that he went to sleep with his fathers, since he left a son who can take his place – is that not the Gaon Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik.”

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein writes the following regarding the personality of Rabbi Yosi-Ber:

“ Aside from his greatness and excellence in Torah, this great man also excelled with a wise heart. He spoke with clarity and sharpness. His secular speech was spiced with wisdom of the heart, logic of the mind, and pleasant aptitude that attracted the heart, to the point that the ear of the listener was not sated by listening. Further, he was a man of friendship, with a good heart, a fine soul, and a proper spirit within him. These feelings were recognizable every place where he stood, walked, and sat. In general, he was a good man with a pleasant temperament. With all this, his company was beloved and pleasant to different people from a variety of factions…”[1].

Rabbi Yosi-Ber's intelligence and sharpness of mind became famous in the world. We will bring only two examples of this sharpness. One Sabbath, the challas were missing at the time of the third Sabbath meal, and two challas could not be found for the double loaves required for the meal. One of those near him said: “Is it not said that one can fulfil the obligation of the third Sabbath meal through words of Torah. If so, what is all the noise about? Can our rabbi not tell us words of Torah, and we will have double enjoyment from this. You will fulfil the obligation of the third Sabbath meal, and we will enjoy the pleasantness of your words of Torah.”

Rabbi Yosi-Ber responded: “It is true that this is possible, but this is only possible and not certain, for it could be that one of the listeners will contradict my words. Then, I will be left without Torah and without a third Sabbath meal…”

Once, a Maskil said to Rabbi Yosi-Ber: “From such a great and intelligent rabbi as yourself, one might expect that you will be somewhat lenient in these laws, and not stringent.”[iii] Rabbi Yosi-Ber responded: “You have hit the mark. In my books that that I published, and in those that I have in manuscript form, I tend toward leniency and not to stringency. I am very happy that this Maskil has requested that Rabbi-Yosi Ber inform him the reason for these leniencies.” He responded, and read out the seven “leniencies,” which are as follows:

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  1. Some are stringent to limit the time of the Maariv service to midnight, but I am lenient, stating that it is possible to recite the service until dawn.
  2. Some are stringent regarding the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam[iv], saying that only Torah greats should don them. I am lenient, saying it is permitted for any person to don them.
  3. Some are stringent to not recite piyyutim [liturgical poetry] during the prayers, as this might be considered an interruption in the prayers. I am lenient, that is permitted to recite them, and this is not considered an interruption.
  4. Some are stringent with regard to the counting of the Omer, that if a person forgot to count one night, one can no longer count with a blessing. I have decided leniently that one is permitted to count with a blessing.
  5. Some are stringent to avoid studying Torah on the eve of Tisha B'Av that falls on the Sabbath. I have decided leniently, that is permitted to study.
  6. Some are stringent to not fast on Rosh Hashanah. I have decided leniently that it is permitted to fast.
  7. Some are stringent to not observe two days of Yom Kippur[v]. I have decided leniently that one is permitted to observe two days of Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Yosi-Ber was one of the first ones of Chovevei Zion, and worked a great day to disseminate the idea of the return to Zion.

In the year 5625 [1865], he published his first book, titled Beit HaLevi, which is a commentary on several isolated chapters of Choshen Mishpat [one of the four sections of the Code of Jewish Law] and on several sections of the Talmud. This book brought Rabbi Yosi-Ber fame. Rabbis from far-off places turned to him with difficult, complex questions of halacha.

He published his second book, also titled Beit HaLevi, in the year 5634 [1874]. In that book, he delved very deeply into the complexities of the Sea of Talmud, and he reveals great depth. Rabbi Ezriel Meir Braude writes , “We do not exaggerate if we state that no precious book, full of sharpness as this one, has appeared on the horizon of the skies of Talmudic literature since the days of the Shaagas Aryeh.”

The third section of Beit HaLevi, explanations on the books of Genesis and Exodus, was published in the year 5644 [1884]. Rabbi Yosi-Ber displayed his exegetical prowess in this book.

The final book of Beit HaLevi appeared in the year 5651 [1891]. In it, he deals primarily with the question of the Sabbatical Year [shmita] in all its details and nuances.



Chaim Dov HaLevi Lewicki: “Deep Mourning,” Hameilitz, 8 Iyar 5652 [1892], issue 90.
Chaim Dov HaLevi Lewicki: “The Tzadik will be an Eternal Memory,” Hameilitz, 4 Sivan 5652 [1892], issue 111, and Hameilitz, 11 Sivan 5652, issue 114.
HaAsif, 5654 [1894], pp. 150-152.

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Ezriel Meir Braude, History of the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, Hatzefira, 5 Sivan 5652 (May 19, 1892), issue 111.
Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, Mekor Baruch, Volume IV, chapter 38, Leil Shimurim, pp. 1703-1725.
Yisrael HaKohen, Hameilitz, 17 Sivan 5652 [1892], issue 119.
Regarding the intelligence and sharpness of Rabbi Yosi Ber, see Meshichot Chachamim. Regarding the dispute between him and the Netzi'v, see the chapter on the Yeshiva.



What is the straight path to which a person must cleave? Rabbi Eliezer says: a good heart. (Avot, 2:9)

A good heart, “for peace is the causative factor of all other powers, and the source from which all activity flows” (Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura)


Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik




Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik was born in Volozhin in the year 5613 (1853) to his father the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov, who was serving then as the deputy to the head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin. Rabbi Hayim was already noted for his intelligence in his youth. It is told that his mother once saw him with dirty hands. She reproved him, saying: “Hayimke, are you not embarrassed with such dirty hands? Did you ever see such dirty hands with your mother?” The child responded: “No, I did not see, but your mother surely saw…”

Rabbi Hayim was still a baby when Rabbi Yosi Ber occupied the rabbinical seat of Slutsk. He was alert and deft, and was not diligent in the study of Torah. Once, the elderly rabbinical judge was sitting with Rabbi Yosi Ber, and saw the child neglecting Torah. He began to reprove him: “Come and see, your father, whose soul desires

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Torah and makes his nights like days, has become a great person in Israel. Whereas you, as you do not occupy yourself with Torah, will eventually be an ignoramus[vi]. And what will you end up as? Hayimke responded with a stinging retort: “In the end, I will be a rabbinical judge in Israel.”

Rabbi Hayim's external appearance was unique, and also attracted the non-curious eye. His large head, out of proportion to his low stature, his wide forehead, and large, dark, prominent eyes, made a strong impression. Everyone immediately realized that they were standing before a great, unusual personality. He conducted himself modestly despite his great talents and extensive knowledge. When he went on an excursion, he would hide his peyos and wear a simple hat like someone from the marketplace rather than the broad hat that he wore in Volozhin. He would not study a book when he sat on a train, and he did not stand at the eastern side when he entered the synagogue. When he was sitting down to a meal with people he did not know, he would discuss their issues with them – business, trivial matters, and general conversation with people of the marketplace. Despite this, everyone, even those who did not know him, immediately recognized that one of the great ones of Israel was before them.

When he was about 20 years old, he married the daughter of the Gaon Rabi Rafael Shapira, who at that time was the deputy to the head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin, who was his father-in-law the Netzi'v. He set up his permanent residence in Volozhin. His great influence upon the people of the Yeshiva was felt immediately. In the year 5640 (1880) he was appointed as the deputy to the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva. From that time, he began to deliver his Talmud classes, which immediately gained him a great name in the world of Torah. He delivered his classes in the Yeshiva for twelve consecutive years. Thousands of students studied with him during those year, many of whom later became renown as great ones of Israel. The Netzi'v even involved Rabbi Hayim in the running of the affairs of the Yeshiva.

The words of one of his choicest students, the writer Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, testifies to the level of reverence afforded to Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik by the Yeshiva people:

“The brightest image of all the souls who are acting in our small world, is the countenance of the deputy Yeshiva head, Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik. From the day I met him, I saw him as one of the excellent sublime people whom the Holy One Blessed Be He places in each generation. This man has a very great, sharp, and deep intellect. He penetrates and delves into the essence of each and every issue. It is no exaggeration to state that I, who was already used to delving into the deep waters and resting in the depths of the minutest of minute concepts, to the point where the minutest matters of Spinoza and Kant did not confuse me – any time I heard him speaking and dissecting matters with his sharp, penetrating knowledge, it is virtually difficult for me to grasp his words and to understand the fundamentals of the matter in all its great minutiae.

“Our rabbi never dealt with books of logic. Nevertheless, when he delved deeply into major halachot, he uncovered connections through his very great natural powers of logic. I would be surprised if there is any genius like him in this generation. In addition to his clear, sharp intellect, he is a good man who does good. He is a great philanthropist, who speaks peacefully to every person and judges

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everyone favorably. I never heard one of the students or any other person complain about him.”

Rabbi Hayim's classes became an event in the life of the Yeshiva. They enthralled the students. His student M. Eisenstat writes:

“Rabbi Hayimke delivered his classes, and his words dripped like dew. All the students of the Yeshiva stood on their feet the entire time of the class, without touching arm or leg. There was silence in the Yeshiva. It seemed as if even the large, old clock of the Yeshiva was quiet, without sounding its tick-tock. Enchanted, people absorbed every word and expression that emanated from his mouth, that exuded pearls.

“There was a custom among the two Yeshiva heads, the Netzi'v and Rabbi Hayim, that if one of them was not present in the Yeshiva at that time, the other would deliver his class. Once, at the time of the conclusion of the tractate Baba Batra, it fell to Rabbi Hayim to conduct the concluding [hadran] ceremony. The next day, the Netzi'v snuck quietly into the Yeshiva, to the surprise of all the students, hid in one of the corners, and stood the entire time until the conclusion of the hadran. The students heard the Netzi'v talking to himself: “Indeed he relates to the Torah as one of the early sages – and I did not know!”

Another of Rabbi Hayim's students, Abba Blusher, rights about the analytical Rabbi Hayim and his unusual talents of analysis:

“Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik would dissect a difficult section of the Talmud into the minutest pieces with the sharp chisel of his mind. He would take apart each of its links, expose its limbs, sinews, filaments, and bones, turn it about and about, and demonstrate the foundations of its structure to the students – its main floor and attic, from ground to roof. He would then return each part to its place, join together all the separate links, sew up the tears, and reconstruct the Talmudic passage once again, as he explained its logic according to the halachic tradition that has been accepted for generations – the halacha as explained in the Yad Chazaka[vii]. He would resolve all the questions of the Raava'd[viii] and other commentators of the Rambam [Maimonides] and prove “That our Rabbi Moses is true and his Torah is true[ix]”. The students learned the art of analysis from him, the act of construction and separating, and the secret of creativity. The veteran students, those who were preparing to make Torah their profession, would constantly follow after him and surround him in every place to hear Torah from his mouth.”

The great fame of Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik in Volozhin and in the Torah world came to him through his great personality. He was not only great as a rabbi, but also as a teacher. From the day he began to teach in the Yeshiva of Volozhin, he was surrounded by many students who cleaved to the dust of his feet. He loved placing his hand on the necks of those who adored him, his sharp students, and take long or short walks with them.

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Rabbi Hayim did not provide many sources, and was not wont to say, “accept my opinion!” Rather, he would sit in a group as if the matter was not sufficiently clear to him. Thus, through mutual discussion, through cleaving to friends, the great teacher would join together word with word, rhyme idea with idea, and the complex, difficult matter would become self-clarified.

Day and night, at times also for entire weeks, Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik would occupy himself with a single issue until he clarified it well, and decided that the matter was already clear and understood through the truth of the Torah. It was said of him: What is the difference between Rabbi Hayim and such and such a Gaon who was famous for his novel ideas? It would make sense that the Gaon would also say what Rabbi Hayim said, but the greatness of Rabbi Hayim was that he did not say what he [i.e. the Gaon] would have said. All of his words were measured and weighed. He would not utter even a single syllable for naught. Not one sound was scattered in the wind. His words were cutting in their sharp logic and clear content.

As a great pedagogue, Rabbi Hayim expressed great love to children and toddlers. When he met a child, he would enter into conversation with him, ask him about his home, his family, his teacher, and his studies, and he would test him on the weekly Torah portion. He was great not only with older people, but also with young people. When he spoke to a child, he would find common language with him. He knew how to talk to children.

A fire broke out in Volozhin in the year 5646 [1886]. The Yeshiva building, the synagogue, and the rabbi's house all went up in flames. Almost all the people of the city went out to the fields. Suddenly, they realized that Rabbi Hayim was not with them. They went to search for him, and found him running while carrying two babies in his arms. He went with them from street to street until he brought them to a secure place.

We will not speak here of Rabbi Hayim as a genius in halacha, of his vast knowledge that amazed the masses, but rather of his dedicated personality, of his love of his fellow. First and foremost, Rabbi Hayim was a great lover of his fellow Jew. His entire way of life was to look favorably upon the deeds of people. He did not look for a person's sins, but he rather always tried to expose the good in the person, the light in him. He was also understanding of people who were sullied in sin. He did not look at their faults, but rather at their life conditions and the and the circumstances over which a person does not always have control.

Rabbi Hayim had mercy in his heart, boundless mercy, a good heart, a pure, soft heart, open always to anyone suffering difficulties or in a bitter, depressed spirit. Anyone suffering from melancholy, any forlorn, sighing soul found comfort, calm, help and assistance from Rabbi Hayim.

Once, scholars were sitting in his house and discussing the concept of “a head that has not put on tefillin.” Some were stringent and said that anyone who does not put on tefillin is not part of the Jewish people. Others were lenient and said: A Jew, even if he sins, is a Jew. They agreed to ask Rabbi Hayim. Rabbi Hayim responded: “I am surprised – is there really a Jewish man who does not put on tefillin?”

Here is an additional fact: They came and told hm that a Jewish lad had been captured by the government and was sentenced to hanging. Rabbi Hayim started to search for ways to save the lad from death. On the eve of Yom Kippur

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when the congregation gathered for the Kol Nidre prayer and everyone was standing with awe and fear as they recited Tefilla Zaka, Rabbi Hayim ascended the bima. Everyone looked at hm, for they thought that the rabbi would expound on issues of the holy day. However, instead of a sermon, Rabbi Hayim gestured to the shamash, who brought out a piece of paper, an inkwell, and ink. Rabbi Hayim signed his name and said to the congregation: “See what I did and do the same. Everyone must sign their name on this petition to the government to annul the verdict.” Everyone ascended to the bima and signed their names. In the interim, it became dark. Some members of the congregation began to grumble: Yom Kippur has already begun. However Rabbi Hayim did not pay attention to the noise, and he ordered the entire congregation to sign. Rabbi Hayim only began to chant Kol Nidre when the last one signed.[x].

In 1905, when a series of strikes broke out in all the cities of Russia, and the factory workers of Brisk approached the employers with various demands, threatening a strike, Rabbi Hayim became involved and influenced the factory owners to give in to the workers. They willingly accepted Rabbi Hayim's intervention.

When the Yeshiva of Volozhin was closed in the year 5652 (1892), Rabbi Hayim went to Brisk, where his father Rabbi Yosef Dov had served as rabbi. Rabbi Yosef Dov had died that year, and Rabbi Hayim was accepted as his successor. As the rabbi of the city, he made efforts to help and improve the situation of the poor. The community provided Rabbi Hayim with the needs of his household, including candles for light and wood for heat. Once, the administrators felt that the rabbi's household expenses for firewood were very large. They investigated and discovered that the woodshed in the rabbi's house was not locked, and the poor of the city would come and take what they needed. They locked the shed and gave the key to the shamash. When Rabbi Hayim realized this, he ordered that the lock immediately be removed. The woodshed was again wide open, and the poor of the city came and took what they needed. The city administrators complained to Rabbi Hayim: “The communal funds do not have the ability to provide wood to all the poor of the city.” “If so,” Rabbi Hayim responded, “then I will not heat my house either. How can I sit in warmth while the poor are freezing from cold?”

When the large fire broke out in Brisk in the year 5655 (1855), Rabbi Hayim did not rest and remain silent. Day and night, he gave all his efforts to restoring the ruins of those affected by the fire. Rabbi Hayim did not sleep in his home during all those days after the fire. Rather, he went to the synagogue corridor and slept on the floor there. All urgings from his household that he rest in his house and on his bed were for naught. He responded to them, “I cannot sleep on my bed when so many Jews do not have a roof over their heads.”

Once, two wealthy Jews came to him and gave him a sealed envelope with a sum of money. Those wealthy people joined their families together in marriage, and Rabbi Hayim conducted the wedding ceremony. Therefore, they brought him payment for serving as the officiant. In the meantime, a proper poor person entered his house and requested a donation. Rabbi Hayim took the sealed envelope and gave it to the poor person in the presence of those wealthy people, without even finding out how much was inside.

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Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik had great authority in the world of Torah. He participated in several large conventions and gatherings of rabbis in Vilna, Peterburg, Katowice, and other places. He was the chief spokesman in every place, not only through his speeches, but through his logical, sharp opinions and his remarks that hit the target. He disseminated the Torah he obtained in Volozhin in every place where he had influence.

He was recognized as the Gaon of the generation and the teacher of the generation. Many Yeshiva students would come specially to Brisk to benefit from his Torah and life wisdom. He served as the rabbi of Brisk for more than 20 years. When the First World War broke out, and the residents of Brisk were forced to leave the city, Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik went to Minsk. Despite the great material straits in which he lived in Minsk, he did not want to take benefit from any person, and he declined the offers of several wealthy people and communal institutions that wished to support in various ways. In the year 5678 (1918), he was given permission from the authorities to travel to Warsaw. From there, under doctor's orders, he went to Otwock. He died at the age of 65 on the 21st of Av of that year.



Rabbi Meir Berlin: “The Great One in his Generation” (HaIvri, 5678 [1918], issues 30, 31, 33).
Bar-Bei-Rav (Micha Yosef Berdichevsky), “A Bundle of Letters from Volozhin” (Hameilitz, 8 Nisan 5648 (March 8, 1888), issue 56.)[xi]
Abba Blusher, “Bialik in Volozhin” (Meoznaim, Tammuz 5695 [1935], volume IV, booklet II.
M. Eisenstat, “Rabbi Hayimke Volozhiner” (Hatzefira, 21 Elul 5678 [1918], issue 35)
N'M: “The Grandfather and Grandson” (Hatzefira, 6 Tishrei 5679 [1918], issue 37)

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Rabbi Hayim Berlin




Rabbi Hayim Berlin was the eldest son of the Netzi'v from his first wife, Rebbetzin Reina Batya, the daughter of Rabbi Itzele. He was a scion of the splendid Volozhin dynasty from his mother's side. He was born in Volozhin on 8 Shvat 5592 (1832).

From his childhood, he was raised in the atmosphere of Torah – the atmosphere of his father the Gaon and the atmosphere of the Yeshiva. His father educated him in accordance with his spirit until the age of nine, when he became expert in three orders of the Mishna: Moed, Nashim, and Nezikin. Similarly, he knew the Bible thoroughly – something unusual in those days. The genius began to attend the Yeshiva at the age of nine, and heard classes from his maternal grandfather, the Gaon Rabbi Itzele. He studied in the Yeshiva for six years. During that period, he completed the entire Talmud and began to write Torah novellae and responsa to rabbis.

Rabbi Hayim was handsome. When he walked with his father the Netzi'v through the streets of Volozhin after the third meal of the Sabbath, the gentile passers-by would stand and be astonished at the beauty of the father and son. They would say to each other in amazement: “Ati Rabini” (these are rabbis). He also excelled from his youth as a great preacher. The Beis Midrash in Volozhin was filled to the brim when he would deliver a lecture. Many of his statements and adages served as topics of conversation for the masses.

The name of Rabbi Hayim was praised as wholesome in all traits. When he was 15 years old, the very wealthy people began to seek him out as a groom for their daughters. Out of all of them, the Netzi'v chose a well-connected family from Shklov, and made a match with the wealthy activist Reb Moshe Zeitlin, whose daughter Rivka was beautiful and intelligent. This match helped a great deal in Rabbi Hayim's spiritual development. Since he was the son-in-law of wealthy people, he was able to amass a large library of approximately 10,000 volumes, from the earliest of the early sages to the latest of the latter sages. Since he was free from worries of livelihood, he lived years of happiness in the study of Torah. His mouth never desisted from learning. His knowledge of Talmud became so deep that Rabbi Kook, may the memory of the holy be blessed, said of him: “His powers are like the powers of the father.” (See “Head of the Etz Hayim Yeshiva”)

Rabbi Hayim became renown as one of the great ones of the generation. Emissaries from communities came to him to offer him rabbinical posts. However, he pushed them off due to his modesty, saying that he must still

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learn much Torah before he would be fitting to serve as a rabbi in Israel. In truth, however, Rabbi Hayim was not attracted to the rabbinate. He wanted to live as a private individual, only under the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and to only bear the burden of Torah.

However, with time, the financial situation of his wealthy father-in-law weakened, and the source of his wealth dwindled. Rabbi Hayim reached the point of material straits. Then he was forced to search for a source of livelihood, so he responded to the community of Moscow, to serve as a rabbi there. He was accepted as the rabbi of Moscow on 26 Adar 5625 (1865).

Rabbi Hayim did not find his appropriate place in that community. The charm of the place was not upon him. Ignorance pervaded there, and the community did not need such a great rabbi as he. Therefore, he restricted himself to the four ells of halacha and rabbinic decisions. His wife of his youth died on 23 Cheshvan 5643 (1883). Her death, along with the feelings of loneliness that eked at him when he lived in Moscow, affected him greatly. This attempt that did not succeed aroused in Rabbi Hayim the desire to separate from rabbinical service and live as a private person in the shadow of Torah and wisdom. He regarded his post as “forsaking the eternal life and living in temporal life.” Then, a match with a wealthy person from Biała, district of Siedlce, was proposed to him – Tila the daughter of Rabbi Yitzchak Izak Shachor of Mir. Rabbi Hayim left Moscow in the year 5644 [1884] and moved to Biała – to live in the shadow of money and in the light of Torah. With him, the opposite of the adage of sages was fulfilled – it is hard to ascend the stage and easy to descend.

His exit caused a great storm amongst the Jews of Russia. Biała was known as a firmly Hassidic town. His father-in-law, Reb Yitzchak Izak, was Hassid of Kock and Gur. This seemed like a match with a different kind. Erez, the editor of Hameilitz, wrote the following about this period: The rabbi and great luminary, our Rabbi Hayim Berlin, the rabbi of the Misnagdim and deputy rabbi of government appointment, is it correct to leave this community, and to follow the wife whom G-d had designated for him in Biała? Since she refused to be a Rebbetzin, he removed from his head the crown of the rabbinate, in which he had served for 29 years. All the communal notables with whom he was in contact were sorry over the desire of the rabbi to leave their midst, since they had already become accustomed to him. He knew how to travel through life and to make peace with all factions. There was peace between him and the government rabbi.

“A man such as he, who had the tradition of his fathers with him, the great-grandson of the rabbi of the generation, the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva, Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner who was known as sublime, and in whose heart was rooted a feeling of strangeness to the Hasidic way, and he pursued them all his life – he will be one of the righteous converts of the Gerrer Tzadik and will worship in the long kloiz in Biała named for him? He will exchange the crown of the rabbinate with the holiness of Hassidim in the Sephardic rite?”” (Hameilitz, 28 Tishrei 5644 [1884], issue 80).

Rabbi Hayim lived in Biała for five years, until the year 5659 [1899]. Tila, his second wife, died in the month of Nissan. He returned to Volozhin to be the assistant of his father, the Netzi'v, in his old age, and delivered the classes along with his brother-in-law Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik.

The Netzi'v, who sensed that his energies were dwindling and disappearing, concerned himself with a successor while still alive.

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He designated his son Rabbi Hayim as his successor. This decision was fateful in the existence of the Yeshiva, and led to its closing in the month of Shvat 5652 [1892][*] The students rebelled against the Netzi'v (see the details of the revolt in the chapter on the Yeshiva), and did not want to accept upon themselves Rabbi Hayim as the head of the Yeshiva. They indeed admitted to his greatness, but claimed that not every rabbi who is great in Torah is able to be the head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin, which at that time was at the pinnacle of its development.

The outrage that took place in the Yeshiva spread outside its walls, and turned into a matter of public adjudication. Rabbi Mordechai the son of Gamzo was among those opposed to the decision of the Netzi'v. He writes as follows in his article in Hameilitz: “Is there room for a judgment of the inheritance of Israel in this matter as well? The Misnagdim fill their mouths with laughter regarding the Hassidic Tzadikim who pass on their Tzadik status to their children after them. And now it affects them, and they are confused. They grasp on to the cloak-tails of Rabbi Hayim, saying ‘You are the son of a Yeshiva head, so it coming to you that you will be our captain, the head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin.’

“I do not wish, Heaven forbid, to cast aspersion on the honor of Rabbi Hayim Berlin and state that he is not fitting for that position. However, the appointing of a Yeshiva head is not one of the things done without deliberation, behind the oven and stove, during the course of a single night. It is known that everything follows after the head, and the honor of the entire Yeshiva is dependent on his honor. Therefore, we must appoint a Yeshiva head about whom the entire people can state that this is he, and that all our brethren in the Diaspora can recognize that he is chosen from amongst all the sages of the era.” (Hameilitz, 7 Adar II, 5651 [1891], issue 54).

We have sources stating that it is not the Netzi'v alone who designated his son Rabbi Hayim as his heir. Rather, this was based on a decision of the Torah greats who gathered in Minsk to deliberate over the question of a successor for the Netzi'v. “After a long period of deliberation, his son the Gaon Rabbi Hayim was chosen unanimously by all those gathered as the head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin.” (Reb Eliezer Bron, Hameilitz, issue 45, 26 Adar I, 5651 [1891]).

Rabbi Hayim married his third wife Eiga after he returned to Volozhin. She was

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formerly the Levin-Epstein widow who was famous for book publishing. However, she died suddenly on a Friday night a few months after the wedding. At that time, Rabbi Hayim Belin was in Vilna for Yeshiva business. All of Volozhin including the Yeshiva was immersed in mourning. The only one who did not feel it was the Netzi'v. The spirit of the Sabbath pervaded him. He was filled with internal joy and his face radiated holiness. When one of the family members, moved by the tragedy, shed a tear, the Netzi'v scolded him, saying: “Today is the Sabbath. There is no mourning on the Sabbath!” However, after Havdalah, the Netzi'v entered his room, wept out loud, and could not be comforted. (See “From Volozhin to Jerusalem,” 54, 55).

In 5652 [1892], after the closing of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Hayim Berlin left Volozhin and was accepted as the head of the rabbinical court of Kobrin – a completely Hassidic city. There as well, he did not find the peace in his soul to which he aspired all the days of his life. Rabbi Hayim lived in that city until the year 5655 [1895]. That year, he was accepted as the rabbi of Yelisavetgrad[xiii]. Rabbi Hayim arrived there on August 15, 1895. All the gabbaim [trustees] of the synagogues came to greet him at the railway station. From there, they went to the Beis Midrash which was filled to the brim. Rabbi Berlin preached about issues of the day and the purpose of his coming.

In that city, Rabbi Hayim was also active in issues of Chibat Zion. He signed his name on the announcement of the placing of charitable plates in every synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur for donations for the benefit of the workers in the Land of Israel. Thereby, he helped firm the foundations and the development of Chovevei Zion in the place he was serving.

He lived in Yelisavetgrad for about ten years. During those years, he decided to abandon rabbinical service completely, to leave the Diaspora, and to make aliya to the Land of Israel. He made aliya to the Jerusalem in the year 5666 (1906), and married Rebbetzin Matlia, the daughter of the Gaon Ephraim Rokach. He lived in the Land as a private individual. He brought a portion of his large library with him, numbering about 4,000 volumes. Rabbi Hayim sought to rest from the work of the rabbinate that he had borne all the days of his life in various communities in Russia. However, his wish was not to be. The Gaon Rabbi Shmuel Salant, the rabbi of Jerusalem, concerned himself during his lifetime with a fitting successor, and he chose Rabbi Hayim as his partner in the running of the Jewish community of the Holy City. He took this task upon himself against his will, as he wrote to Rabbi Ben-Zion Eisenstat in the year 5670 [1910]: “Due to the softness of my nature and my temperament, I cannot refuse the heads of the community.” After the death of Rabbi Salant, all the needs of the Jews of Jerusalem were placed upon Rabbi Hayim. Even though he did not serve officially as the rabbi of the city, he headed the general committee and directed the Talmud Torah and the hospital.

He conducted this communal work, imposed upon him in his old age, with love and dedication. He was admired and loved by all circles of the Jewish community of Jerusalem. He excelled with his tender temperament, his love of his fellow, and in promoting peace between people. He was given the nickname Zaken Harabanim [the Elder of the Rabbis] and Saba Deara Kadisha [Grandfather of the Holy City].

Even with the burden of communal activity, Rabbi Hayim occupied himself with Torah novellae, and left

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The gravestone of Rabbi Hayim Berlin
in the Mount of Olives Cemetery in Jerusalem

Text of the gravestone is as follows:

In the year
Woe that a scion of the root of the Gaonim of the world[xiv]
The famous rabbi
Rabbi Hayim, may he be remembered for life in the World To Come, Berlin
The son of the great Gaon, the Admor
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda, may he be remembered for life in the World To Come
The head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin
A Descendent of the luminary of the Diaspora
Rabbi Hayim, may he be remembered for life in the World To Come
Head of the rabbinical court and head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin.
Born in Volozhin on 5 Shvat of the year
And thus you were born[xv]
Died here in the Holy City on the evening of the 13th of Tishrei
Of the year 5673 [1912] at the age of 80, 8 months and 7 days.

May his soul be bound in the bonds of eternal life.

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behind many manuscripts of that nature. He also made efforts to establish a large Torah library in Jerusalem. He bequeathed his private library to the Etz Hayim Yeshiva of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Hayim did not live long in the Land. He died on 13 Tishrei 5673 (September 24, 1912), in his 81st year. The residents of Jerusalem gave him his final honor without eulogies, as per his desire and his will.

Rabbi Hayim Berlin was a very tragic figure. He went through a long journey in his life. With everything, he remained at the outset. This tragedy was expressed by Rabbi Moshe Shapira in the following words: “There are great people who are granted talent and spiritual riches by Divine providence, and could influence their generation to give over to them something of their spiritual treasure. However, it is as if some sort of evil angel accompanies them on their journey, and disturbs them from publishing their great thoughts. It is only when they reach old age, when life becomes more difficult, that they find the task that is appropriate for them, and for the attributes of their soul. But then, the works are not done with the appropriate, required wholesomeness, for they are lacking the power and freshness of the days of youth. One such tragic soul was the Gaon Rabbi Hayim Berlin, may the memory of the holy be blessed (See “Moshe Shmuel and his Generation” page 65).


  1. Levi Ochinski, Nachalat Avot, Vilna 5654 [1894], point 8, page 22.
  2. Shmuel Noach Gotlieb: Oholei Shem [Tents of Shem], Pinsk 5672 [1902], pp. 493-494.
  3. Avraham Moshe Luntz: “The Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Hayim Berlin, may the memory of the holy be blessed,” Luach Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, year 19 (5674 1913/14), pp 161-162.
  4. Rabbi Moshe Shapira: “Rabbi Moshe Shmuel and his Generation” New York 5724 [1964], page 65.
  5. Rabbi A. Y. Bromberg: “The Gaon Rabbi Hayim Berlin” Areas of Religious Jewish Thought, booklet 5727 [1967] (25), pp 110-116.
  6. Ben-Zion Eisenstat: “Latter Generations” New York, 5673 [1913], Book I, pp. 71-73.
  7. Ben-Zion Eisenstat: “The Gaon Rabbi Hayim Berlin” the full life story of the great one of the generation, his life and activity as rabbi and as communal activist. Der Amerikaner, 1912, Volume I, number 40.
  8. Rabbi Meir Berlin: “From Volozhin to Jerusalem”.
  9. Erez: “A Writing from Moscow,” Hameilitz, 28 Tishrei 5644 (October 17, 1883), issue 80.
  10. Mordechai Bar Gamzu: “Who is at the Head?” Hameilitz, 7 Adar II 5651 [1891], issue 54.
  11. Shmuel David the son of Reb Zeev Zaks (Shkod, Kovno District), Hameilitz, 19 Adar II 5651 [1891], issue 63.
  12. Eliezer Bron of Minsk, Hameilitz, issue 45, 26 Adar I 5651 (February 22, 1891).
  13. Hameilitz, 26 Tishrei 5656 [1895], issue 212.

Original Footnotes:

  1. Mekor Baruch, Section IV, page 1720. Return
  2. [footnote on page 217, not designated by a number] Rabbi Ben-Zion Yadler (the Maggid of Jerusalem) writes that Rabbi Hayim Berlin told him, in the name of his father the Netzi'v, the true reason for the closing of the Yeshiva. These are the words of Rabbi Hayim: “ In memory of what my father, the Gaon, may the memory of the holy be blessed for life in the world to come, behold I am the atonement for his soul – told me before his death, that I should not bring into it (i.e. the Yeshiva) any secular studies. It was for this reason that the Yeshiva was closed. This is the heritage from his sickness, from which he did not arise, as he commanded me with a warning that I do not agree under any circumstance, without any leniency in the world, for the Holy One Blessed Be He hinted to all this in the Torah, where it says, “to differentiate between holy and secular”[xii]. That means that when any secular matter mixes with holy, not only do the secular studies not obtain holiness, but furthermore, the holy studies are ruined by them. Therefore, it should not seem bad to you, my son, that this matter caused me to exit the world and to close the Yeshiva, for it was worthwhile for me to give up my soul for this matter.” (Rabbi Ben-Zion Yadler (the Maggid of Jerusalem), in Tuv Yerushalaim (Memoirs from the life in Jerusalem and its greatness in the previous [i.e. 19th] century), published by Netzach, Bnei-Brak, page 373. Return

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Generally pronounced “Rabbi Yoshe Ber.” I preserved the pronunciation of the spelling used in the original Hebrew – Yosi. Return
  2. Referring to a sudden, painless death, as per the deaths of Moses and Aaron in the Torah. Return
  3. It is generally considered more intellectually difficult to find a leniency in Jewish law than a stringency. Return
  4. Rabbeinu Tam tefillin [phylacteries] are made slightly differently than other phylacteries. Some have the custom of using both sets of phylacteries every day, to remove the doubt regarding which is the correct form. Return
  5. All other biblical festivals are observed for two days in the Diaspora. Return
  6. The term here is somewhat ambiguous. Am Haaretz – literally “a person of the land.” It can be used with a neutral connotation for a regular, non-scholarly individual. It can also be used with a derogatory connotation (to varying degrees depending on the circumstance) to refer to an unlearned individual, a boor, or an ignoramus. Return
  7. The 14-volume halachic work of Maimonides. Return
  8. A commentator on the Yad Chazaka of Maimonides, who often points out inconsistencies in the text. Return
  9. Here referring to Rabbi Moses Maimonides, and not the biblical Moses. Return
  10. Although it is forbidden to write on a holy day such as Yom Kippur, the prohibition is pushed aside in situations where life is at stake. Return
  11. The secular date is too early for 8 Nisan according to the Gregorian Calendar. As this was the Russian Empire, the Julian Calendar would have still been in effect. Return
  12. Leviticus 10:10 Return
  13. Today https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kropyvnytskyi Return
  14. The numerology [gematria] of the Hebrew letters of this phrase add up to 673, which would correspond to the year 1912 (he died on September 24, 1912). Return
  15. The gematria of this phrase is 592, corresponding to 1832, the year of his birth. Return

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The Gaon Rabbi Hayim Hillel Fried[1]

by Chaikel Lunsky of blessed memory
(Librarian at the Strashun Library of Vilna)

Translated by Jerrold Landau




Rabbi Hayim Hillel Fried was born in Volozhin on 25 Cheshvan 5593 (1833)[i] to his father Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak the son of Rabbi Hillel of Horodno (Rabbi Hillel was the son-in-law of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin). Rabbi Hayim Hillel's mother was also a granddaughter of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin (the daughter of his son and successor as head of the Volozhin Yeshiva, Rabi Itzele Volozhiner). Already in his youth, Rabbi Hayim Hillel excelled with sublime talents. He studied in the Yeshiva of Volozhin and became known as a genius. His father died when he was 17 years old. His mother married him off to Sara Beila, the daughter of Rabbi Shmuel Landau (of the family of Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, the author of the Noda BiYehuda, and son-in-law of Rabbi Itzele[ii]) .

The Land of Israel was the desire of the soul of Rabbi Hayim Hillel. After he married, he decided to actualize this. His mother and wife were opposed to such an imaginative journey. The seat of the Yeshiva head was awaiting him (as the heir of his father Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak who served in that role), and he should have been preparing for it. However, they acceded when they realized that they could not budge him. Rabbi Chaim Hillel set out for Odessa and waited for the ship to transport him to the Holy Land. However, this ship sunk. Rabbi Hayim Hillel regarded this as a portent from G-d, and returned to Volozhin.

When Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik left to serve as the rabbi of Slutsk, Rabbi Hayim Hillel ascended to his seat as the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva. The state of his health forced him to give up this role after a few years, and he earned his livelihood from his wife's manufacturing shop. She conducted business, and he studied Torah day and night[2]. In addition to his genius, Rabbi Hayim Hillel excelled in his understanding of interpersonal relationships. He was also important in the eyes of the government, and people turned to him to work on annulling decrees against the Jews. Even the prince of the city, Tyskiewicz, related to him with honor and acceded to his requests to do good for the Jews of the city.

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The residents of the city would often ask for his advice in communal and individual matters: business, marriage, etc. His words would also often be heard off the stage. The man was very modest and pious. He did not wear a rabbinical hat (streimel), but rather a simple velvet hat. He stood behind the bima in the synagogue. When he would come to Vilna for communal matters, he would worship in the Zanvil Synagogue behind the bima. The gabbaim would say that Rabbi Hayim Hillel would transfer the “eastern wall” to near the door.

From when he was 14 years old, his life was dedicated to helping the poor and tormented, especially with benevolent acts. His house was filled with peddlers every Saturday night (this was the most common source of livelihood in Volozhin) who had come to request loans for merchandise for Sunday. He gave to all of them with a pleasant countenance and good wishes. He extended an appropriate blessing to everyone. His house was open to visitors. There was no meal without guests. Rabbi Hayim Hillel fulfilled the commandment of visiting the sick in the literal fashion. He would bring amulets that he had inherited from his grandfather Rabbi Hayim to women in difficult labor.

He was completely dedicated to helping others. When a fire broke out – a common occurrence in Volozhin – Rabbi Hayim Hillel hurried to save the babies and elderly people. From his own house he would only save the Torah scroll that he inherited from Rabbi Itzele, and the “Jewish symbol” – the tzitzit garment that Rabbi Itzele had worn when he stood before the heads of the state of Russia to deal with the problems of the people. Therefore, when the great fire consumed most of the buildings of the city, including the Yeshiva, and Rabbi Hayim's house remained standing – some elders regarded this as a reward for his dedication in saving people during the times of fires. After this fire, the Yeshiva moved to Rabbi Hayim Hillel's house.

His behavior toward G-d was as meticulous as his interpersonal relationships. He would get up early to immerse himself in a ritual bath before prayer, and he bathed in the bathhouse in honor of the Sabbath.

Sabbaths and festivals in the home of Rabbi Hayim Hillel were very nice. The table was surrounded by a quorum of guests, and he was meticulous about reciting the Grace After Meals with a minyan, and with a cup of wine. Rabbi Hayim Hillel broke out in traditional melodies and hymns, a heritage from his grandfather Rabbi Itzele. The occasion of the baking of matzos mitzvah[iii] on the afternoon of the eve of Passover was a celebration unto itself. Rabbi Hayim Hillel himself poured the flour. Others from the rabbi's family poured the “water that had stayed overnight”[iv]. His daughters-in-law would roll the dough. The rest of the tasks were given to scholars. The house bustled with the chant “for the sake of the commandment of matzo” and “crumbs are considered ownerless” (for it was after the time of the burning of the leaven, and it was necessary to nullify any crumb that might have become leavened)…

It was the custom in Volozhin that on the eve of Yom Kippur, the entire city, from young to old, would come to receive a blessing from Rabbi Hayim Hillel[c]. On Sukkot, he slept in the Sukka together with his children. Once, when Rabbi Hayim Hillel was sick,

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the doctor forbade him to sleep in the Sukka. Rabbi Hayim Hillel was distressed. The doctor saw his distress and permitted him to do so, lest he come to harm from the agony. Indeed, the mitzva did not injure him. He recovered quickly.

Rabbi Hayim Hillel had the finest etrog, and those meticulous in commandments recited the blessing only on that one. Simchat Torah was observed as a day of gladness, in accordance with tradition: The home was full of light. The prayer services took place in his home. The participants were the people of the Yeshiva and important people of the city. During the hakafot, Rabbi Hillel, surrounded by the crowd of worshippers, would dance with sublime enthusiasm. He himself would read the Torah with a holy melody. At the conclusion of the festival, Rabbi Hayim Hillel would change his clothes as they were full of sweat.

All the people of the Yeshiva participate in his Purim feast. The joy took place in the dwelling, bustling with song and dance. When Rabbi Hayim Hillel was old, he would take out the book Chut Hameshulash: Novel ideas on Torah from his ancestor the Yeshiva heads – Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, his son-in-law Rabbi Hillel, and his grandson Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak. His modesty ensured that his name would not be explicitly mentioned in the book, but would rather be hinted to as follows: “And as long as Hillel is alive”[v]. He wrote the introduction to the book himself. His style was fine and modest. He expressed a prayer to G-d that he would send him a full recovery, so that he would be able to publish the rest of his father's books – for he was acquainted with sickness and pain all his life.

Rabbi Hayim Hillel died on 3 Kislev 5671 [1902] at the age of 78. He was not eulogized, for he had commanded thus in his will. He was buried in the grave canopy of his father Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak and his grandfather Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin.

Original Footnotes:

  1. This article was published in the Vilna Weekly Dos Yiddishe Vort, 2 Tammuz 5697 (June 11, 1937), number 657, translated to Hebrew by Yonah Ben-Sasson. Return
  2. His Love for the Yeshiva, the forging house of the nation and the forger of the life of his ancestors never diminished. He wandered and toiled a great deal in order to have the decree of the closure of the Yeshiva repealed. It was reopened thanks to his efforts. – a note from the translator [the translator to Hebrew in the original – not the translator to English – JL] Return
  3. I was told by a certain great person in Jerusalem who used to frequent the home of the grandfather when he studied in the Yeshiva of Volozhin, that anyone who did not see Rabbi Hayim Hillel recite the Grace After Meals on the eve of Yom Kippur has never witnessed emotion, love, and awe. He would drown in a sea of tears. – a note from the translator [the translator to Hebrew in the original – not the translator to English – JL]. Return

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Cheshvan 5593 would actually correspond to 1834. Return
  2. The son-in-law of Rabbi Itzele would be Rabbi Shmuel Landau. Return
  3. The matzos to be used for performing the commandment of eating matzo at the Seder. Some have the custom of baking these matzos on the afternoon of the eve of Passover, at the time the Passover offering would have been brought during the time of the Temple. Return
  4. Matzos are baked with water that had remained overnight (mayim shelanu) to ensure that the water would be somewhat chilled (pre-refrigeration era) so as to not hasten the leavening process. Return
  5. The word “alive” is Hayim in Hebrew. Thus, the name Hayim Hillel is hinted to in this phrase. Return

[Page 224]

And indeed your lives – the best of your visions
And your splendor – the essence of your being;
You are the faithful guardians
Of the image of G-d in the world!

(Chaim Nachman Bialik: May My Portion be with You)

The Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Rafael Shapira,
may the memory of the holy be blessed

by Yitzchak Rivkind of blessed memory[1]

Translated by Jerrold Landau

(The last of an era)




One by one, the last of the Mohawks, the Gaonim of the generation, the bearers of the banner of the Torah, the luminaries of Judaism the noble spirits, pure hearts, soulful individuals, and paradigms of morality have been leaving us.

During the years of evil, the years of the world war, destruction, and eternal revolutions, the Tzadikim of our generation have been gathered in, and the remnants of the hearts of our great ones and rabbis have been burst. Long is the list, the list of those who have died, the loss of the Gaonic personalities, holy and pure, cedars of the Torah in the latter era. Not only is their loss a loss for a portion of the nation, the Torah studiers, but it is a loss for the entire nation, for they were the guardians of the heritage of the nation, the bearers of the Torah and spirit of Israel. They were creative through the essence of their being. They influenced through their essence and discussions – they were the lengthy song of the soul of faith and purity, sublime and supernal, in glory and holiness, great splendor, spreading holy, modest light to their surroundings like the stars.

In recent days, we have added one more to that list of great losses. The sad news arrived from Minsk that our elder rabbi, the head of the Volozhin Yeshiva in its final period, Rabbi Rafael Shapira, is no more!

Again, we weep over a loss that will not return. We stand with bowed heads before a new grave, of a great and holy person, the grave of the Tzadik of the generation, the pure one of the generation, and the chaste one of the generation.

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With the death of our late rabbi, we, his students of the orphaned generation, weep not only over the death of the unique, excellent personality among the great ones and Gaonim of his period, but we also feel like it was the death of our second father. We see this as a severing of the golden chain of the Volozhin dynasty that continued for five successive generations. The final scion of the ancient root of the Etz Chaim Yeshiva has been cut off.

A distance of only 100 years separates the first creator and the final concluder. The death of the latter also marks a full century since the death of the first. However, the thread that connected two jubilees of years was a single thread, the unique Volozhin thread, that continued and was woven through these generations without interruption, and without a change of hue, style, and quality.

In his spiritual image and his traditional essence, our late rabbi was the faithful spiritual heir of his fathers who preceded him. He was an appropriate link in the golden chain of “the rabbinical house.”

With the personality of Rabbi Rafael, Lithuanian Jewry consolidated in a practical manner in decisive wholesomeness. The weltanschauung [worldview] of the Volozhin Beis Midrash, the creation of the spirit and fruit of the thought of the author of Nefesh HaHayim, came to fruition. The primary principles and fulcrum of this outlook was: the Torah of Israel “that only it imparts the influence, the life, the holiness, and the light of all the worlds because it is above everything.” (Nefesh HaHayim, section IV, chapter 26). “The holy Torah is called the tree of life, for only at times when a person grasps it with love and occupies himself with it and studies it regularly does he live the true, sublime life, connected and bound, so to speak, to the eternal life of the Blessed Name, for the Holy One Blessed Be He and the Torah are one” (Nefesh HaHayim, section IV, chapter 33).

Here perhaps is the secret of the essence of the founding of the Yeshiva, the source of devotion and dedication of its leaders to the study of Torah, the secret of their exemplary consistency and Volozhin style diligence.

All the days of the life of our rabbi were a life of study, a devotion to learning, to fulfil that which is said “and you shall occupy yourself with it day and night”[i]. He was not, however, as consistent in study as his father-in-law the Netzi'v, the author of Sefel Hamyim, with the wax candle glued between his fingers. Similarly, he did not reach his level of scholarship or fame. This was not only because he was by nature modest amongst the great ones of his times, but rather that that he was different from his father-in-law in his character, temperament, talents, energy, and will.

Above all, the Netzi'v was an exemplary Yeshiva head, as if he was created for that purpose. More that being a Yeshiva head, Rabbi Rafael, at the time of the “pairs” when he was the Yeshiva head along with his father-in-law from the years 5630-5641 (1870-1881), and when he was the sole Yeshiva head during the latter period – he himself was the archetype of the eternal Yeshiva head, the diligent Gaon.

Every generation has its Yeshiva heads. The Volozhin Yeshiva had many Yeshiva heads during its period of existence. Furthermore, for almost the entire period from the founding of the Yeshiva until its closing in the year 5652 [1892], aside from brief interruptions, its heads were pairs: Rabbi Hayim and his son-in-law Rabbi Hillel; Rabbi Itzele and his son-in-law Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak; the Netzi'v and Rabbi Yosef Dov Ber; the Netzi'v and Rabbi Rafael and afterward Rabbi Hayim of Brisk, Rabbi Hayim Berlin – and each personality had a unique form of influence, through which his spirit

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soul, and the beauty of his traditions was imparted to the institution. Rabbi Rafael was a unique Yeshiva head. He was – “the toiler.”

His letterhead, “a worker for the labor of Torah in Volozhin,” accurately notes the character of his soul, the foundation of his essence, and his spiritual composition. He gave the impression of “a worker in the labor of Torah” also through his personality and external appearance. “Torah and service” in the normative sense of the term – “the service of Torah” was the style innovated by Rabbi Rafael.

His fundamental Torah novellae were also fitting for his style. They had more of the creativity of a worker than that of an initiator. The creation was the essence of the form. The style was fundamental, and the internal content was all about labor. In general, his learning style was appropriate to his outlook, with sharpness, breadth of expertise, and quantitative depth, and was not in sync with the usual outlook of the Volozhin style. His high quality novellae had the simplicity of a “Sinai”[ii]. In contrast, the fundamental Volozhin learning tradition, the style of the Gr'a, stresses straightforward investigation. The source itself, through the wellspring of creativity, exposes the genius in simplicity. The Netzi'v, the creative Yeshiva head, was faithful to this style. He was the teacher, the educator, the guide, the leader, and the spokesman. The era of Rabbi Rafael was merely a continuation of the tradition, the tradition of the fathers, the guarding of the existence of the essence. But it did not have the novel creativity or development and progress. He was a faithful guardian of the treasures of his fathers, the forger of the spirit and soul of the Yeshiva. He considered himself as a guardian, and nothing more. When he was approached with a demand for some rectification or innovation, his response was: “just as I received from my fathers, I wish to give over to the coming generation.” This response highlights for us his conservative essence in general. Rabbi Rafael utilized this character strongly until his last days…”

He excelled in one thing over and above all the other Gaonim of his generation – in his integrity [perhaps simplicity or innocence]. He truly had the paradigm of integrity of the generation. His integrity was a form of beauty of the soul and pureness of the spirit and heart. The trait of integrity in his personality was especially prominent at light-hearted moments. He loved to laugh, and I never have seen such pure-hearted laughter as that of our late rabbi.

Several episodes exemplify his integrity. It is told that on the day of the wedding of his daughter to Rabbi Hayimke, Rabbi Rafael sat in his room, occupying himself with Torah as was his custom. All the needs of the wedding and the couple fell upon the Netzi'v and his wife. They toiled and prepared all the needs of the wedding. When the time of the chupa [wedding ceremony] came, they sent for him to come to the wedding of his daughter. In his haste to get ready, the buttons of his cloak fell off as he was getting dressed. He groaned and said: “Oh, the agonies of raising children…”

Another episode: “Once, when he was sitting in his house studying Torah, he wished to eat, but there was nobody home. He searched around and found a pot filled with seeds. They appeared doubled – a food that he liked very much. He made a blessing, ate, and enjoyed. When the Rebbetzin returned, he said: “The beans that you cooked today were very tasty.” The Rebbetzin said: “They were almonds!” The rabbi responded: “If that is the case, I made an error and recited the improper blessing”

During the time that I was studying in Yeshiva, Rabbi Rafael traveled to Vilna to participate in a rabbinical convention, that took place in the summer

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of 5669 or 5670 [1909-1910]. I recall that the Yeshiva then found out about another typical episode. However, I cannot verify whether it was true or it was the fruit of the imagination of the Yeshiva students. An important question arose regarding the order of the day, which was dependent on the fluidity of the opinion of each participant. They asked Rabbi Rafael: “Rabbi, where do you hold?”[iii] He responded innocently: “I am holding in such and such a tractate, at such and such a page.”

As is known, the Yeshiva was open in an illegal manner during the time of Rabbi Rafael. Some time after the final closing, during the time of the Netzi'v, great efforts were made to open the Yeshiva with government permission, but only as a Beis Midrash and not an educational institution. The “Yeshiva” existed during it final era as a Beis Midrash. The city policemen and government officials knew of its existence, of course, and the hundreds of young students who came from the entire Diaspora were not unknown to them, but they received remuneration for “not doing anything” as was the custom in those days…

In the summer of 5672 [1912] the district supervisor came to investigate and find out about the activities of the Yeshiva. He visited the house of the rabbi, and sat there for a period of time, interrogating, and asking him questions. The rabbi was not fluent in the Russian language, so a Yeshiva student translated. Among other things, the supervisor asked: “Why do so many people come to study in Volozhin?” The rabbi told [the translator] to respond: “Everyone who studies in Volozhin sees a blessing in his studies..”

Such were many of the general conversations of Rabbi Rafael, showing the great level of his integrity.

Indeed, during the period of his leadership, there were also disputes and arguments between the leadership of the Yeshiva and the students, some of which led to strikes and disruptions in the protocols of the Yeshiva. However, these conflicts were the fault of the mashgiach [spiritual supervisor of the Yeshiva] who was a follower of “Musar[iv], and used the integrity[v] to conquer the “Volozhin fortress” for “Musar.” He began with a ban on reading newspapers and literature, which was against the traditional internal freedom that pervaded in the Yeshiva of Volozhin. This “enactment” was reenacted in 5667 [1907] and led to a dispute between the Yeshiva students and the leadership. Rabbi Rafael then saw it as his duty to publish a letter clarifying the situation[2]. The mashgiach renewed his “enactment” in the year 5672 [1912] and further added that every Yeshiva student must sign on to the writ of ban, stating that they must not read newspapers or books from the new literature. Then, a strike broke out lasting for about three months. The Yeshiva students demanded the repeal of the writ and proposed from their side a “writ of obligation” to be signed by the mashgiach. The battle was heavy. Suddenly the rabbi left the city together with the mashgiach and went to the baths [i.e. spa] in Duvlin. The Yeshiva students publicized their opinion in the Hebrew newspapers. At the end, the Yeshiva students won. The mashgiach was forced to sign the writ of obligation.

The behavior of Rabbi Rafael at that time was very characteristic, for all the winds were

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storming, and the ferment was growing from day to day. The Yeshiva students came to him en masse. He was silent and they were silent. Finally, the Yeshiva students presented their complaint, and proposed their demand and claim. The rabbi was silent. The students murmured, lamented, and complained – and he remained silent. He only uttered some word or some truncated phrase on occasion. The “negotiations” continued in this manner for several hours until the rabbi rose and said: “The time for the Mincha service has come.” He walked between the rows of students and repeated in a remonstrating voice “and you should fear your G-d, and you should fear your G-d”… – for not only was he a man of great integrity, but he was also taciturn. They said of regarding him: he was silent until he got tired of all the silence. He then rested a bit and continued with his silence…

Rabbi Rafael was born in Smorgon the 5590s in accordance with our counting[3]. He was educated by his father the expert Gaon Rabbi Leibele Kovner until the age of 15. At around that age, the Netzi'v took him as a groom for his daughter Sara Rasha. He spent his nights and days studying Torah being supported at the table of his father-in-law.

In his commentary Haemek Sheeila on the Sheiltot of Rabbi Achai Gaon (5521 [1761], the Netzi'v mentions his son-in-law in the introduction to Kadmat Haemek among those who helped in the effort. He states that “He sat with me in the group. His power is great in Torah, and his intellect is clear to delve into the depths of halacha and clarify it. He also added several glosses with great research depth.” In his introduction to the second part, Vayikra, he again emphasizes the contribution of his son-in-law and notes his great help in organizing the book, in making corrections and refining the style of language: “And also to fix errors in places where his eyes saw it appropriate, and he dealt intelligently with the matter so it will also be understood for others.” This was aside from many additions, Torah novellae, notes, and pointers that came from him in all of the volumes. He was young at the time of the publication of the book of the Netzi'v. At that time, his first wife died, and he married the Netzi'v's daughter Dreizel in 5625 [1865]. They [i.e. he and his first wife] had lived together for two years, and then she died during their wanderings in Minsk[vi].

He was appointed as the Yeshiva head, second to his father-in-law the Netzi'v, in the year 5630 [1870], replacing the late Rabbi Yosef Dov Ber Soloveitchik, who had been accepted as the rabbi in Slutsk. He served in this position for about ten years, until the year 5641 [1881], when he ascended the rabbinical seat of Novoaleksandrovsk. He became the rabbi of Bobruisk in 5656 [1886]. His son-in-law Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik was appointed in his place as Yeshiva head. It is told that this was on the recommendation of Rabbi Rafael, who once told the Netzi'v: “The competency of my son-in-law (Rabbi Hayim) is superior to the competency of your son-in-law (referring to himself).”

He was accepted as the head of the rabbinical court and Yeshiva head of Volozhin in the year 5659 [1899], after making great efforts to reopen the Yeshiva, and to return Torah to its rightful place. He would give his class

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on rare occasions, and only in his home, for it was forbidden by law to do so at the Yeshiva. However, the Yeshiva students would come to his home and discuss Torah and halacha with him. The married students who were in the process of becoming rabbis and wished to receive the ordination of the rabbi would visit him frequently. Despite his old age, he bore the yoke of the Yeshiva. From time to time, he would go out on a journey for several weeks on Yeshiva business to collect money and strengthen its situation.

On festivals, the Yeshiva students would greet their rabbi in his home, as was the custom in Volozhin. He would come to join in at the public celebrations that the students arranged in the Yeshiva, especially at the Simchat Beit HaShoeva. The Yeshiva students extended great honor to him. They danced in his honor, and he, with his pure smile, stood in the middle clapping his hands.

He would worship only in the Yeshiva. If on occasion he worshipped in the Beis Midrash, he would go to the Yeshiva after the services to greet the people. His room was lit all night as he sat and studied, delving into the Torah, or writing a novella. Thus did our elderly rabbi live his holy, peaceful life until the year 5674 [1914], the year the First World War broke out. Then, he and his family went into exile, and the Yeshiva was exiled with hm. They went to the same place where his father-in-law the Netzi'v went after the closing of the Yeshiva in Volozhin – to Minsk. His son-in-law Rabbi Hayim was with him in exile because of the difficulties of the time and the weight of the war. Thus began his terrible period of wandering, and years of agony and tribulation. The Rebbetzin died in Minsk. Then, his son-in-law Rabbi Hayim died. He remained alone, abandoned, and forlorn. He suffered very greatly toward the end of his life… During the latter days, they tried to encourage his spirit with the hope of reestablishing the Yeshiva and setting it up again in Volozhin – the source of his life. However, in the interim, his great, pure, holy soul departed to the G-d of the spirit, and he was laid to rest in the city of his wandering.

Original Footnotes:

  1. Published in HaIvri, 25 Nisan 5681 (May 6, 1921). Return
  2. The letter was published in Aspaklaria by Ben-Zion Eisenstat, booklet IV, 5669 [1909]. Return
  3. According to Oholei Shem, he was born in the year 5597 [1837]. In “The Generations of our Rabbis and Scribes” (Vilna 5660 [1900], page 49), Ben-Zion Eisenstat states that the year of his birth was later, in 5598 [1838]. According to his brother-in-law Rabbi Meir Berlin, he was born at the beginning of the 5590s, around the time of the birth of his brother Rabbi Hayim Berlin on 5 Shvat 5592. Return

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Joshua 1:8 Return
  2. This refers to one of the two styles of Torah study: A “Sinai” stresses breadth at the expense of depth, and “an uprooter of mountains” stressed depth at the expense of breadth. Return
  3. Meaning, “What is your opinion?” Return
  4. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musar_movement Return
  5. The term may refer to integrity to the point of naivete. Return
  6. Rabbi Rafael's first wife Sara Rasha and his second wife Dreizel were sisters. Return


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