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[Page 69]

Il'ya as an inn off the Torah

A. B. AK

Donated by Florence Koplow

Translated by Milette Shamir

Although Ilya was a tiny and poor town, it served as a hostel and center for Torah. It's a fact that on its rabbinical chair sat famous, genius rabbis, who achieved glory there, and then moved on to bigger cities and their names became known throughout the Diaspora.

One should not credit mere chance with this phenomenon, since chance is usually a singular and exceptional event - and this is not the case here. This fact relates to almost all of Ilya's rabbis, with the exception of a few that due to modesty and humility refused it. We can suppose therefore that this is no simple matter; that this fact was probably deeply rooted in the town and its atmosphere. It seems to us that the close ties between the rabbis -- the spiritual shepherds of the town, and the Jewish population -- their herd, were ties of mutual fertilization. Jewish Ilya influenced more than a little the spiritual transcendence of its rabbis, whereas the rabbis bestowed their grandeur and splendor on the former. It follows that the rabbis found ample and convenient grounds in Ilya for their public and spiritual growth.

We do not have biographical and general details on all of Ilya's rabbis since its establishment, but the little that is known is enough to prove its singularity and our above claim.

We did not include in the list of Ilya's rabbis that famous Ga'on, Rabbi Menashe from Ilya, the late Ben Porath. Although this genius lived in Ilya most of his life and had great impact, he never occupied the rabbinical chair.

The second to be known and famous in the rabbinical world as a genius in Torah and morals, is Rabbi Leib Shapira rest his soul, who occupied the rabbinical chair in Ilya and managed to reach the rabbinical chair in Kubna and became famous in the world under the appellation - Rabbi Leibale Kubner. His descendants - sons, grandsons and great-grandsons, served and are serving to this day as glorious links in a chain of rabbis and heads of Yeshiva.

The third to be known in the rabbinical world as a marvelous genius, sharp and well-versed, is our Rabbi Reuven Halevi Levin rest his soul. As his predecessors, he too occupied the rabbinical seat in our town and when he became famous he was invited with much splendor to the big city Davinsk where he became famous throughout the diaspora under the name of the Ga'on from Dinburg.

The fourth, the Ga'on Rabbi Shmuel Ben Yehoshua Zelig rest his soul, occupied the rabbinical chair in our town, but served in a dual role: the town's rabbi and the head of its yeshiva. He became known in the Diaspora as a genius, and active and prolific creator. Like the disciples of the Ga'on from Vilna, he too the left that rabbinate, made aliya, settled in Jerusalem and published a few compositions known to this day.

The fifth is our Rabbi Moshe Shlomo Khari rest his soul, the son-in-law of Rabbi Leibale Kubner. He was a humble, pious, righteous man in everything he did, innocent, withdrawn, and many acts of miracle are attributed to him. The elderly told that he was interested in the mysticism as well, and our small town constituted a suitable place for him, from where he refused to depart.

The sixth is our rabbi Avraham Eli Remez rest his soul, a distinguished student, a gentle soul, a respectable and enlightened Zionist, a servant of the public, and widely educated, he was the last rabbi of the town and perished there before the eyes of his parish. May his soul be blessed.

The origins of the big yeshiva in Ilya are unknown as well, and some say that the seed was sown by Rabbi Menashe from Ilya. There are sources that testify that it was extant at the end of the 18th century, headed by the Ga'on Rabbi Shmuel Ben Yehoshua. In any cases, clear details are known only from the period of the 80s in the 19th century, when it was headed by the Ga'on Rabbi Moshe Yisrael Shapira rest his soul.

It is appropriate that we mention another fact typical of the wise students of Torah in our town, Ilya. They did not settle for turning the town into a fortress of torah, but went ahead to conquer important positions especially in the large cities in Lithuania: Minsk, Vilna, Bobruisk, and more. Among the known and famous as heads of yeshiva in Minsk: Rabbi Ya'akov Lachovski, known as Rabbi Ya'akov Zabrir, Rabbi Naftali Hertz, Rabbi Leib Akman, Rabbi Gronam Akman, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Parsafa, Rabbi Shlomo Yo'el, the great grandson of Rabbi Menashe from Ilya, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Sherman, Rabbi Moshe Chatan Kostsakres, Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf Broide, who served as the head of the Bobroisk Yeshiva and the Ga'on Rabbi Yitzchak Pines, head of the law court in Minsk.

[Page 71]

The renowned Il'ya Yeshiva

A. B. AK

Donated by Florence Koplow

Translated by Milette Shamir

It is well known that our town Ilya served in the past as an important hostel for the students of Torah. Many of Israel's geniuses and the masters of Judaism of Lithuania and Byelorussia in that period, learned there how to swim in the sea of Talmud. But now, when we are attempting to raise the forgotten, to light an eternal candle for our town, its personalities and actions, we unfortunately do not have reliable sources on its glorious and distant past, to describe the yeshiva that served as a lighthouse and shone forth with its Torah and wisdom. It is especially hard now to research and verify chapters of the past, since the community's book, where the important facts and events that happened in our ancient town were recorded - was destroyed along with the whole Jewish population. But from a few clues in the limited sources that we hold we can deduct that the yeshiva was established about 180 years ago, and had its ups and downs; periods of blossoming when she swarmed with students, and years of diminishment and decline. And again came days of ebbing and following them days of slump and destruction.

According to one version, the seed for the Yeshiva in Ilya was sown by Rabbi Menashe (Ben Porath) the Ilyite, when he established a circle of Torah students, in an attempt to root the studying of Talmud in the grounds of logic and action, rather than in the sophist method that was used in the past. Like his great rabbi, the Ga'on from Vilna, he too saw in the existing method of studying a method intended only for the talented few, but an obstacle for the widening of the circle of students that would encompass as large a mass as possible. In his opinion, it was crucial to heal and simplify the studying of Talmud. There were many among his students who, for the most part, later became famous in the Jewish world as distinguished rabbis and geniuses: Like Rabbi Leibale Shapira known as Rabbi Leibale Kubner, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Umner, Rabbi Reuven Levin, known as the Ga'on from Dinburg, and more. These facts have some support in the book “Beit Natan” by Rabbi Nachman Kornil from Jerusalem, which was published about 120 years ago. The list of patrons supporting the book - along with the Chief Rabbi of that period Rabbi Avraham Ashkenazi and others - includes also the Rabbi Shmuel Ben Yehoshua Zelig, who is presented as Ilya's Rabbi and the head of this yeshiva. More details on the Rabbi Shmuel are published in a series dedicated to the great rabbis of our town.

In a later period we find additional proof for the existence of the yeshiva in our town. In an article published in the newspaper “Hatzfira” no. 166 from the year 1891 we read: “in the last 10 years the Ilya yeshiva is blossoming and flourished and many of Israel's students go there to acquire Torah and knowledge. Heading the yeshiva is the Ga'on Rabbi Moshe Yisrael Shapira who raised its level and made its name known in public. The righteous and humble rabbi of Ilya Rabbi Moshe Shlomo Khari does much to satisfy the needs of the students. Although Ilya is a small town, it supports the yeshiva students almost on its own and supplies for their needs generously.”

Later in the “Hatzfira” article the event of the exploitation of the name of the Ilya Yeshiva is brought forth. It was made known to the community, that a certain man travelling in Russia was presenting himself as the messenger of the Ilya Yeshiva and was collecting money and contributions for it. The Ilya community thus issues a open request not to comply with the man's wishes, who presents himself as the messenger of the yeshiva, because no one has been sent to collect funds. The public is asked not to believe him, even if it sees a letter signed by the rabbi, for the letter is a forgery. One can presume that the “messenger” misled our humble and righteous rabbi. The writer adds: Ilya's small community is proud of its own ability and that of the generous Zaldovitz of Minsk - to provide for its students honorably, and does not need the alms of the public at large.

The reputation of Ilya's yeshiva began to decline after its head, Rabbi Moshe Yisrael Shapira, left its role as director and moved to the United States, to serve as the Chief Rabbi of Ilya's descendants in the New World. Details on the Ga'on Rabbi Moshe Yisrael are brought in the series on the Masters of Torah in Ilya.

[Page 74]

The genius Rabbi Reuven from Dinburg (Dwinsk)

A. B. AK

Donated by Florence Koplow

Translated by Milette Shamir

The Ga'on Rabbi Reuven Halevi Levin,
May The Memory Of The Righteous Be Blessed

Rabbi Reuvale Dinburger

Our marvelous Rabbi Halevi Levin was son to the rabbi of the town of Smorgon. While still young, he showed transcendent talents and exceptional studiousness. When he matured, he was sent to Ilya to learn Torah from the famous Ga'on Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shapira, who was the head of the court of the town of Ilya and was later known as Rabbi Leibale Kovner, when he was in the rabbinical chair in the town of Kovno.

His great rabbi, Rabbi Leibale, was the one to pave the way for him to the Torah, to honor and glory, and to bestow upon his the adjective prodigy. Indeed, he became known in public as the prodigy from Smorgon. When he was ordained a rabbi by his great rabbi and other Ga'onim, Rabbi Reuven departed from his distinguished teacher and served as a rabbi in many towns, but when Rabbi Leibale was invited to serve as rabbi in the big city Kobno, Rabbi Reuven returned and settled in Ilya, succeeded the chair of his rabbi, and glorified our town Ilya with his presence, and ameliorated its reputation.

It did not take long for his name to become famous throughout the Diaspora, and the city Dinburg-Dvinsk invited him to serve as a rabbi. The son-in-law of Rabbi Leibale Kovner, Rabbi Moshe Shlomo Khari, succeeded him in our town Ilya. Now began the important period in the life of Rabbi Reuven Halevi, and his name became known throughout the Jewish world as Rabbi Reuvale Dinburger: as a transcendent Ga'on, a well-versed and profound teacher, as one of the important pioneers. Rabbis and Ga'onim of his generation turned to him for all their difficult questions from far and from near, and his name rose to prominence throughout the Diaspora.

In his private life he was a humble, kind, congenial person, righteous in all of his deeds and pious in all of his actions. He was sharp, clever, and his rulings were celebrated for their logic and simplicity. He was very much loved by the masses of Israel, and accepted by all the generation's great. The name Rabbi Reuvale Dinburger was carried throughout the Diaspora with admiration and respect. In the last 8 years of his life he glorified the rabbinical chair of Dvinsk, and from hence was invited to the yeshiva up above at the age of 71, and the entire house of Israel mourned him.

[Page 74]

The genius Rabbi Moshe Shlomo Khary

A. B. AK

Donated by Florence Koplow

Translated by Milette Shamir

Our teacher Rabbi Moshe Shlomo Khari arrived in our town Ilya as the son-in-law of the rabbi, the Ga'on Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shapira, who was later known in the rabbinical and Jewish world as the Ga'on Rabbi Leibale Kovner ( From Kaunas) .

The main characteristics of our Rabbi Moshe Shlomo Khari were: genius, modesty, innocence and awe of God. When the honorable rabbi the Ga'on Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shapira was invited to gloriously serve as the chief rabbi of the town of Kovno, his son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Shlomo Khari, refused to occupy the vacant rabbinical chair, for reasons of humbleness and honor. He recommended that the rabbinate be passed on to Rabbi Leibale Kovner's distinguished student - the Ga'on Rabbi Reuvale Levin, later known in the world as the Ga'on from Dinburg.( Dvinsk/ Daugavpils) Only after Rabbi Reuvale was invited to serve as the chief rabbi of the town of Dinburg, did Rabbi Moshe Shlomo agree to succeed the rabbinical chair in Ilya.

Although Rabbi Moshe Shlomo was a genius in Torah and well-versed in Jewish Law, as was appropriate for the Ga'on Rabbi Leibale Kovner's son-in-law and for the famous brother-in-law of Rabbi Raphael of Volozhin, of a widely branched and deeply rooted rabbinical family of generations, it is his innocence and righteousness that made him famous in public. Different legends and facts circulated about him that demonstrated his innocence and integrity. Even miracles were attributed to him, and we will hereby examine some of them.

A Humble and Withdrawn Man

1) One day it became known in Ilya that a resident of the town, a Jew known as Berale Bashas, was arrested by the Russian police, accused of stealing horses. The rumor spread quickly in town. One of the landlords thought it right to bring this to the Rabbi's attention, Rabbi Moshe Shlomo, and to deliberate as to what is to be done. When our Rabbi heard the story, he became very angry, and admonished the teller harshly for crossing one of the explicit “Do Nots” of the Torah: “Do not gossip,” “Do not bear false witness,” “Do not embarrass your friend in public,” etc. Of course, Rabbi Moshe Shlomo did not believe the teller. “Such a story is impossible,” he continuously claimed: “it is explicitly written: Do Not Steal.”

2) As mentioned, our rabbi was an innocent man, withdrawn and distant from worldly events. When his name became known, he was invited to participate in a rabbinical convention in the town of Dolhinov, at a distance of about thirty kilometers from our town. The only means of transportation between the two towns was of course the horse and wagon, and it took about 4 hours. After the honorable rabbi passed about half the distance, he turned to the driver and asked: is this still Russia? To the driver's response: “yes,” our Rabbi muttered: it is indeed, then, a huge country.

3) As a withdrawn man he was deeply absorbed in his Talmud studies day and night, and did not feel at all what was going on around him. One night he studied in his room by candlelight, and did not hear at all that his little child was crying and wailing. His father-in-law Rabbi Leibale, who was woken up by the howling, went to calm the child down, but was extremely surprised to see his son-in-law awake and studying Talmud, not hearing what was going on around him. In order not to interrupt his studies, Rabbi Leibale turned to calm the child down himself. After an hour, the whole situation repeated itself. The child burst out crying and again Rabbi Leibale went to the baby to calm him, although Rabbi Moshe Shlomo was still awake and studying the Talmud in front of him.

The following morning, Rabbi Leibale turned to his son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Shlomo, and demanded that he grants his wife a divorce, since he does not participate in the burden of raising their son. To Rabbi Moshe Shlomo's amazement, Rabbi Leibale told him the incident of the crying at night, but Rabbi Moshe Shlomo apologized and explained that he did not hear nor feel the baby crying. To that extent he was deep in his studies of Torah.

The Righteous shall Live by his Faith

In the year 1905 when rioters made pogroms in the Russian Jewry, encouraged by the government to plunder and kill, rumors reached our town that conspiring peasants decided to take advantage of the weekly market day, when tens of thousands of peasants gather for market exchanges, to rob the property of the town's Jews.

Shocked and sorrowful, mourning, their heads bowed down, the Jews walked about upon hearing this intelligence. Their first deed was to go to the town's Rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Shlomo the righteous, the knower of the visible and the hidden, to tell him of their misfortune.

When the rabbi heard of this, he declared a small Yom Kippur. All the Jews from old to young gathered in the synagogue for public prayer, and the rabbi himself passed in front of the holy ark in order to eradicate the evil of the verdict. At the end of the prayer the rabbi turned to his flock and encouraged them to trust in God's assistance, that will arrive instantaneously.

After these consoling words, the spirits calmed down a bit, and the belief in the strength of Israel overpowered the hesitation and fear of danger. The public dispersed to their houses, and with relief the grocers opened their businesses. At the very same time the leaders of the conspirators gathered in the Jewish bakery, to get drunk and cheer them up toward the operation. Although this was winter and it was cold and snowy, loud thunders were suddenly heard. One of the bolts went into the bakery, where the conspirators were gathered, hit the leg of a small Jewish girl, and tore her shoe off without hurting or scratching her leg at all. On the other hand, this thunder bolt cut off the right hand of the head of the conspirators.

On hearing the thunder, the peasants who were about to plunder were frightened, and they embarked on a quick retreat from town, accompanied by their shouts: “The Jews are throwing bombs.” Indeed, the hoped for miracle, that the Rabbi Moshe Shlomo promised, occurred.

Many years after his death, the elderly still insisted on his mystical force, and his holy name was uttered by all with awe and respect.

[Page 77]

The genius Rabbi Shmuel ben Yehoshua Zelig

M. Z.

Donated by Florence Koplow

Translated by Milette Shamir

The Ga'on Rabbi Shmuel Ben Yehoshua Zelig, Rest In Peace

At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, the Rabbi Shmuel Zelig, rest in peace, served as the rabbi and the head of the Yeshiva in our town Ilya and its vicinity: Khachenchitz, Viazin, Sosenka and more. Rabbi Shmuel was a hard-working student, an active public servant, and a capable writer. This we gleaned from his book “Minchat Shmuel,” that was published in the year 1802 in Vilna.

As a talented pedagogue and a student of the Volozhin Yeshiva headed by Rabbi Chaim, he tries in the aforementioned book, that constitutes an interpretation of the “Brachot” tractate, to use the method of the Ga'on from Vilna. That is, to explain the chapter simply and succinctly, in order to demonstrate to the young Torah scholar how to get away from endless sophistry, that would confuse him and distant him from the core of the matter. Rabbi Shmuel hopes that his thesis on the “Brachot” tractate will serve as precedent for his generation's scholars, encouraging them to publish other books in that spirit, which would make swimming in the sea of Talmud easier for young students.

As was appropriate for his generation of the school of the Ga'on from Vilna, he left the rabbinical crown in Ilya and made aliya to Israel and settled in Jerusalem. Here too Rabbi Shhmuel continued to serve the public with faith and devotion. According to Mr. Pinchas Graveski's book “In Memory of the First Chovevim” Rabbi Shmuel published another book in Jerusalem, in 1809, called “Gates of Tears.”

Apart from his being a scholar and a believer he also handled the public affairs of the community. He especially struggled to provide for the poor and unfortunate among Jerusalem's Jewry. The many who lost their property received secret gifts from him without ever knowing who the anonymous giver was.

Rabbi Shmuel's name was made known in Jerusalem as a master of Torah, and among his many close friends was also the chief rabbi of the Ashkenazi community in this period. He was famous, much loved, and popular among the Jerusalem community, and his name was blessed by all its Jewish residents. In the year 1818 Rabbi Shmuel died and found a place of rest in The Mount of Olives.

May his memory be blessed.

[Page 78]

The genius Rabbi Wolf Broide

M. Z.

Donated by Florence Koplow

Translated by Milette Shamir

The Ga'on Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf Broide Rest In Peace

Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf was born in 1851 in the city of Minsk that is nearby our town. As was the custom these days, the youth turned to the Torah Hostels, distinguished himself there by his wonderful dedication and by his rapid and clear comprehension abilities. At the age of 18 he was ordained a rabbi by the Ga'on Soloveitzik, the head of the court of the city of Lutsk, and later the rabbi of the town of Brisk.

He was 19 when he reached our town looking for a hostel for Torah and for the right atmosphere for studying. In our town Ilya he married Ms. Yachne of the house of Hotner. His wife was the one to carry the burden of providing for the household, and thus allowed her husband to study and teach Torah uninterrupted. And indeed Rabbi Wolf climbed from stage to state and became famous as a master of Torah.

Since his marriage and throughout his residence in Ilya, he would allocate time for Torah with the local Rabbi, the righteous Rabbi Moshe Shlomo, and they would both learn together laws and especially the “Shulchan Aruch” tractate.

At 30 he was already well known and accepted in wide circles of Torah in Lithuania and Byelorussia, and was thus invited to head the Brisk yeshiva and during his 25 years of service he brought forth many distinguished students.

During the First World War Rabbi Wolf returned to the city of his birth, Minsk, and along with his colleague the Ga'on Rabbi Leib Rubin from Vilkomir in Lithuania, he established a yeshiva and continued to teach Torah. The end of the First World War and the stabilization of the borders between the states left him in Minsk in Soviet Russia, whereas our town Ilya, a distance of only 60 kilometers from Minsk, where his family lived, was considered a part of the state of Poland. This situation saddened his spirit and drew near his end..

On Passover 1931, when he was 80, he was suddenly called to the yeshiva up above, and a letter from an anonymous writer, who risked his life and crossed the border for that purpose, told his son, Ben Zion Broide, that his great father was no longer alive.

May his soul be blessed.

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