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[Page 278]

Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin and his Grandson, Yehalel

Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin, the student of R' Noach of Lichovitch and the Rabbi of R' Avraham of Slonim, was the grandfather of Yahalel, who mentions him, his meetings with him and his conversations. In a humorous way he also points out how happy he is that he was not educated in the house of the Rabbi as his mother requested. It is permissible presumably to assume that the impression of the old man was greater than the enlightened grandson wanted to admit and it would be appropriate to point to some touching points.

First of all, the issue of mercy and benevolence that the poet himself saw as a great and decisive element in his soul. See what he wrote in the dedication in a book: “If there is in me any good measure, if there is in me any more than the mercy and the forgiveness, if there are some moments that I feel completely for the supreme and the enlightened, all of these were given to me by my mother, who was a righteous and a Kosher woman.” His grandfather was a son of poor people and in his youth there was a hunger in Lita. Some hungry people came to the village and his mother ground by herself some flour in the grindstones and baked some bread and cooked for the poor people. But there were among them some insolents who cursed her that she did not hurry enough in what she was doing, and she started crying. So her son said to her, “Mother do not fear their words. You do your job and if they curse you, you do the job and do the commandment as it should be done.” One time he had a coughing disease and he coughed very badly and then in the next town there was a cattle disease. He came out and he fell and he said, “Oh God, with my fall, no cattle will fall anymore.” He fell on a pile of notes that his followers had given him and he cried out, “Let your hand harm me. This flock, what did they do?” When he was notified about a sick woman, he said, “It would have been better if you had struck me in my head before making me hear such bad things from you that are stabbing me in the heart.”

The grandson (Yahalel) saw the hurt caused by men's evil competition and, lo and behold, he saw the same characteristic in his grandfather. He said to a Jew: “I will promise you that you will have plenty of livelihood only when you see also your grocer neighbor making a good living. You should give thanks to God. Then I would promise you that you too will have plenty of livelihood. Although it is hard to say it wholeheartedly, you should first train yourself to say what is in your mouth and then it will be also in your heart. This is both in your mouth and in your heart to do.” Or what he said to a villager who worried that the Jew who came to his village would take away his livelihood. He said, “An evil man has a lot of heart, which means that when the Jews multiply, it only hurts the wicked person, but not the one who trusts in God. He who is surrounded by many Jews, he should be happy that he is living among the people of Israel.”

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The grandson made a distinction between the external and the internal of a person. He said, “I saw a man praying evening and morning and he looked like Solomon. To his wisdom there was no end, but I knew there was something hidden. He was making people poor, strong-arming them.” His grandfather would say the leper who was diseased had clothes which where torn. The person who was internally diseased would dress nicely and still he would be diseased inside. Or he said about Moses, “On the seat of the Rabbinate he was stern to control them, but inside of his heart he was more humble than anybody, more than all the rest of the people who called themselves humble and poor.” The grandson, his heart was given to the working people, and his grandfather, people would come to pray in his house and some Rabbi asked, “Who are they?” because he thought that these were Rabbis or important people. They said to him, “This is a tailor, this is a stockman, and this is another worker.” Or once he sat among the stage coach people. He didn't tell them who he was and they didn't know. Neither the local Rabbi nor his followers knew who he was, when he came and when he left.

And they also had some commonality of fate. The enlightened grandson among the Chassidim became alien to those around him, who were angry with him, and he was suffering. And his grandfather was a Chassid among the Mitnagdim, who opposed the Chassidism. His family was after him. His relatives tortured him, starved him, and he suffered a lot from their opposition. He didn't have anything to eat for days. There were also similarities that the grandson told. He said, “As much as I tried with my heart not to think foreign thoughts, they scared me until I found a saying about Yochanan, who was the great priest and served as a great priest for eighty years and then became a Tzadaki and this created a great turmoil in his soul, as I told and explained in the book Elchanan.” And his grandfather said simply, “Yochanan served as a great priest for eighty years and then he became a Tzadik,” which means that he himself felt that he was a Tzadik. Here of course is the difference, the difference between his grandfather who said, “And God's greatness has no explanation. You do not go and investigate God's work. Only believe with a simple belief.”

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And his grandson who, after a lot of doubts and tribulations, said, “Give me God. Give me my faith in Him and make it strong, and my belief in the God of my Father. As I was waiting for Him to come back, I will come back faithfully to be with Him. And my soul to my master as an infant to his mother.” His mother was the daughter of the Tzadik of Kobrin.

(This is from a supplement to the newspaper Davar.)

kob280.gif [25 KB] - A melody
A melody of R' Moshe of Kobrin to a song, “Ya Echsof,”
by R' Aaharon, the Rabbi of Karlin

[Page 281]

Yahalel the Grandson of our Master and Teacher Rabbi Moshe
and the Brother-in-Law of R' Noah Naftali

by M. Tzinovitz

Yahalel (Yehuda Halevi Levin) tells us in his autobiographical book, “Memories in a Book,” (Zitamir, 1910) that he was born in Minsk on the 8th day of the holiday of Succot in 1845. His father was R' Chaim, very much a scholar of the Gemara and other interpretations, and close to the family of R' Shlomo Chaim from Kvidanov. His mother, Miriam, was the daughter of R' Moshe from Kobrin. “After the death of my grandfather R' Moshe,” writes Yahalel. “His followers split. Some went after his student, R' Avraham from Slonim, and some of them went with my brother-in-law, R' Noah Naftali of Kobrin, who was the grandson of my grandfather R' Moshe and married my sister.”

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His parents had a store and aside from that his father had a construction business. Altogether he was a very important land owner and he had a house and some land on a street that was called the “Turkish Mountain.”

Both of them', the father and the mother, were somewhat different in their character. His mother was endowed with a very strong religious feeling and a poetic soul. He writes about her: “My mother was a righteous person. She prayed three times a day with fear and love. She read in her library and in the book of Psalms and she had a pure and delicate and innocent soul. If I have in me some good characteristics, the characteristic of mercy and forgiveness, if I have some moments in which I feel completely supreme and elevated, these were all given to me by my mother, who was a righteous, honest and kosher person, as I wrote on her tombstone (1872):

“It is more bitter to me than death, your death, my mother. A sea of tears says: I have no more weeping inside me.” These were not just words, but the truth.”
His father was a more practical person who took into account life and reality around him. He was a homeowner and also a scholar in the Torah and he had a lot of respect from all sides. He understood the heart of his enlightened son. He even enjoyed the fancy and picturesque way of his son and he helped him in his life. Of course, both the father and the mother were very, very religious and were very concerned about the religious education of that son of theirs. Yahalel also adds to the book that his righteous grandfather traveled twice a year to Minsk to visit the crowd of his followers. He stayed with his daughter, and this probably added to the distinctly Chassidic environment of the home of his parents. In his eighth year, Yahalel began to study Gemara and when he became thirteen he already knew 800 pages of the Gemara. His father took him to Kobrin for Rosh Hashana so he could start putting on tefillin [phylactery] at his grandfather's. On the day of the putting on the tefillin, there came to the house of his grandfather the greatest Chassidim of Kobrin.

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They looked at the Bar Mitzvah and the 800 pages and examined him in the 800 pages of Gemara and he answered correctly. When his grandfather felt that his grandson was doing well, he asked him, “Would you know where it says in the Gemara, 'You should not give me humility. Where am I then if you do not give me humility?'?” “Yes,” the youngster answered. “It is at the end of page 4 9, section 2.” And the grandfather asked him, “And what do these words mean?” And the boy said, “Yes I said already.” And the grandfather shook his head and said, “No, the explanation is such: When the person talks about the me of the person, myself namely, then there is no humility.”

According to the memoirs of Yahalel we see that his father put a lot of effort into seeing that his son stay in Kobrin and be educated by his grandfather. The grandfather, Rabbi Moshe, wanted it very much. But the grandmother did not want to hear of it and stubbornly said that she could not take care of him. Because of this he was forced to go back to the home of his parents in Minsk. When he took leave of his saintly grandfather, he cried bitterly and said, “Who knows if I will see you again,” because he was then seventy-three years old. And so it happened that after half a year, during the holiday of Passover, (1858) he died. Yahalel comments about the cries of his grandfather, “The cry that my grandfather cried in his love for me his followers remembered forever and when I became a little wild they mentioned it to me, that not in vain did my grandfather cry because he saw what was about to happen to me.”

In the year 1865, Yahalel became enlightened and already had a family. After his wedding he composed a book and became famous in Minsk as a Hebrew poet because in the same year his book, “The Wounds of a Lover” was published and Adam HaCohen saw for him a great future as a poet. His parents became bitter over the fact that he had become enlightened and tried to convince him to travel to Kobrin, if not to settle, at least to stay there for a little while. They still had the hope that perhaps his brother-in-law the Tzadik Rabbi Noah Naftali and the whole environment and the Chassidic surrounding in Kobrin would influence him for the better.

Yahalel agreed to the offer of travel and intended, before going to Slonim, to visit Rabbi Avraham, the pupil of his grandfather Rabbi Moshe. His reason was that his brother-in-law, the Rabbi of Kobrin, did not know how to answer some of his questions in matters of Torah and enlightenment as could the Rabbi from Slonim.

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Actually, the truth is that even then Yahalel was kind of re-thinking his idea to travel and was thinking perhaps he would go instead to Warsaw to make his living by giving Hebrew lessons and to study in general studies.

And so he stayed in Slonim and was visited by Rabbi Avraham whom he knew from before because while Yahalel was spending time with his grandfather, Rabbi Avraham was there too as a follower who came to his Rabbi for the days of Rosh Hashana. Yahalel writes in his memoirs that he was disappointed with this meeting with Rabbi Avraham and that his conversations with him did not help to remove from him the idea of enlightenment and he did not want to hurt his brother-in-law of Kobrin. It should be noted that in Yahalel's poem, “Elchanan”, which was published in Hashachar the 9th year, he describes the story of that righteous person in an extremely enlightened fashion according to the spirit of the day. Yahalel did not find what he was looking for in Warsaw and when he was convinced that there was no hope to establish himself in a Polish city he was embittered. But he travelled to Kobrin, and it should be noted here that Yahalel had then two suits of clothes, short and long. Among the enlightened people he would wear the short European style suit and among the Chassidim he would take out his long clothes and would put away the short modern suit. When he was already in Brisk he put on the long clothes that he prepared ahead of time and also saw to it that his earlocks had enough time to grow appropriately. In the same city, Brisk, Yahalel met his brother-in-law R' Noah Naftali who came back from his travels among his followers and they both came together to Kobrin.

For about five weeks Yahalel stayed in the house of his Tzadik relative in Kobrin but that visit did not rehabilitate him. About his stay in Kobrin, Yahalel wrote these words, “Those days in Kobrin until after Rosh Hashana were for me days of anger and discomfort because everybody would look after me. They shot at me with tongue arrows. My brother-in-law spent some time with me in his room and said some subdued things to me. In his praise I should say that he did not attempt to argue with me. He knew very well that my pinky was thicker than his waist, so he said, “It is not for me to convince you from authors and books since you know much more than I do from the Gemara and from Chassidism.” All his words were only begging to have mercy over the honor of our grandfather. And my sister, the righteous person, was crying bitterly. To their sorrow they could not find in me any sign of a vice that would give them at least a reason to harden their hearts and to cut off any love that they had for me because all my deeds were those of a true Chassid.”

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Yahalel tells us in his memoirs one episode that characterizes the court of the Rabbi of Kobrin in those days. He says, “I learned later that they checked his luggage and took out all that I wrote which they did not understand, which they believed were words of heresy and burned. They also stole to come and see what I do at night but they always found me seated and studying the Gemara or reading a book.” In connection to all this he writes about his somber and bad mood during the days that he stayed in Kobrin. He said that his soul was becoming impatient and tired of all the suspicions and the looks and that as soon “as the days of Rosh Hashana passed I hurried to go back to my house in Minsk without even waiting at least till the passing of Yom Kippur and without relenting to the begging of my brother-in-law and to the crying of my sister to stay with him.” The end was that when Yahalel came back to his birth place, the city of Minsk, he tried to go into commerce. He became a Hebrew teacher until he found his material success as a clerk in the famous store of the house of Brodski in Kiev and in Tomshapol.

The Blessing of R' Moshe Kobriner

by Shmuel Levinson

It was during the First World War. The Russians were retreating, the Germans attacking. A stream of refugees became greater and with that stream we arrived in Kobrin.

The city was filled with soldiers and refugees. The atmosphere was filled with fear of the retreating armies. Here and there the Cossacks raided and robbed stores and houses. In the air there was an echo of shots and screams of “Gevald!” On the last evening before their retreat, the Russian soldiers broke into the cellar of the house of Beirman. They took the wine that was kept there and they became drunk and rowdy. The whole town was full of fear and at night they set fire to the stores of the “Riad”.

The sky was red and the smoke filled the street. All of Riad became one giant torch. I snuck into the street to see the fire, a fire such as I have never seen before. By the light of the fire I saw a small wooden house. It looked as if the people inside did not know what was going to happen to them minute to minute.

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I knocked on the shutters and on the door and I screamed “Jews, the Riad is burning!” And then the door opened. A tall Jew with rolled sleeves peeked from inside. It seemed as though he was getting ready to say the morning prayer. In a quiet voice and in a Yiddish accent he said, “My house will not burn. R' Moshe Kobriner, may he rest in peace, has blessed it.” And he turned away to his prayer. As I learned later this was Yankel Lavo who was a merchant of pots and pans.

I left the place. The pale morning came by and the Germans started their last attack. On the following day the rule of Czar Nicholas in Kobrin changed into the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm. The town began to come back to a more regular “life” and I was tormented by the doubts who would triumph there in the corner by the stores: R' Moshele Kobriner or the army of Nicholas. I went out to see and I saw from the stores there was not one stone left. The houses had burned, including all the merchandise and the housewares inside, and only the little house of the Jew who had faith stayed. I knew that R' Moshe Kobriner had won.

kob286.jpg [35 KB] - The house that did not burn
The house that did not burn,
thanks to R' Moshe Kobriner

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