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[Page 21]


  On three things does the world stand:
On Torah, on Divine service, and on charitable deeds.
(Tractate Pirke Avot, chapter I, Mishna 2.)

Translated by Jerrold Landau


The spirit of the martyrs hovered over the atmosphere in our town: the spirit of Torah and Divine service, the spirit of charitable actions and good deeds, and the spirit of dedication for one's fellow. In this chapter we will discuss the spirit of Torah that prevailed there.

The Cheder

Fifty years ago, Ruzhany did not know any other education institution other than the cheder. A Ruzhany child commenced his studies at a young age. He was brought to the cheder at the age of four or five, where he started to study “Hebrew”, which meant the reading according of the style of “kometz aleph oh”[1]. How did the child come to the school on the first day? His father carried him enwrapped in a tallis, as is described in one of the poems of the poet Ch. N. Bialik. How did the child spend his first day of studies? The Rebbe would show the child the alef beis and say, “See, my son, this is an aleph, and this is a beis.” As this was happening, when the child would make efforts with his eyes to look at the strange letters, a coin would suddenly fall on the page of the alef beis. The child would lift his eyes upward in surprise to see from whence it came, and he would then hear the explanation of the Rebbe, “My son, an angel sent you the coin because he knows that you will learn well, and that it is worthwhile to reward you.”

The Talmud Torah

Most of the students of the town studied in the Talmud Torah, which was a government recognized educational institution. This institution had several classes at different levels. The child learned “Hebrew” in Grade 1. In Grade 2, he learned Chumash and Rashi, and in the higher grades, the student began to swim in the sea of Talmud. In that school, the children also learned to write a little, and they tasted a bit of the subject of arithmetic. The school supported itself by fundraising.

Sh. Shereshevsky, a resident of the city, described the situation of the Talmud Torah in the year 5661 (1901) in his article in Hatzefira 1901 (230). He writes as follows:

“It is also worthwhile to praise the local Talmud Torah for its good activities for the benefit of the students, the children of the poor, who number more than 300 souls. They are educated to Torah, the ways of the world, and good character. The superintendent of this educational institution is the philanthropist RA'L (Aryeh Leib) Pines, who concerns himself for the students and all other matters of the institution as a merciful father. Aside from the holy subjects, the students learn the vernacular language and other necessary subjects from the teacher Krupeni. The students were provided with all of their needs: bread, food, as well as clothing and shoes were provided for them.

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Everything on account of the philanthropists of our city, without receiving any assistance from the outside, as was the way with other educational institutions in other places. The principals did well by also teaching Hebrew grammar in the Talmud Torah. We know that the teachers of the school know grammar and language, so why should they deny the good and beneficial subjects to their students by not teaching them the principals of grammar at the time that they are teaching them Bible.

Private Cheders

Many students studied in private cheders, including the modern cheder of Avigdor Michel Goldberg (who later was the principal of the Talmud Torah), of Moshe Soltz, of Yaakov Reb Fitil's, Bashin, of Mordechai Aharon Ruchmis, and others. I took my first steps in Torah and secular knowledge in the cheder of Avigdor Michel.

The Teachers' Union was founded in Ruzhany in the year 5662 (1902) to ensure that educational matters would be conducted appropriately. The founding of such a union was very typical of that era. The purpose of that union and its charter will be discussed in the article by Tovia Yosef Shereshevsky in Hamelitz, 1902. We will copy that article later in this book.

ruz022.jpg [14 KB] - Meir Sokolovsky
Meir Sokolovsky

Meir Sokolovsky

The Teacher's Union

The purpose of the teachers' union was to organize and establish specific regulations regarding the organization of educational matters in an appropriate manner. These are as follows:

a) No teacher should go to the homes of the parents of the students in order to recruit students for each semester[2], as was the custom until this time.
b) A committee of three honorable, chief teachers should be established, which would choose an appropriate teacher according to the knowledge of the student.
c) The teacher must only conduct one grade in his cheder, and the maximum number of his students is to be established by the committee, unlike the former custom which was to have many grades.
d) To appoint a spiritual committee (supervisory) of three honorable people of our city, who would visit the cheders each month in order to examine the students to see if they are successful in their studies. They would also pay attention to the way the teacher conducts the class.

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e) The teachers would receive their tuition fees each month from the central committee, in accordance with the obligation of the parents of the students to pay tuition every month.
f) If there is a complaint by the teachers against the students, that they are not behaving properly, whether in matters relating to their studies, or whether with respect to the honor of the teacher, then anyone interested in the matter should turn to the central committee, who would be responsible for punishing this errant child in an appropriate fashion.
g) At the end of every month, the spiritual committee must examine those students who excel in their studies and behavior.
    Yosef Shereshevsky
(Hamelitz, 1902)

The Cheder for Girls
(From the book “For My Descendents”)

There were also cheders for girls in Ruzhany. In her book “For My Descendents”, Itta Yellin, the daughter of Y. M. Pines, tells about the cheder in which she studied.

“The cheder. I still remember the cheder in which I studied, as well as the attendant who came every morning to take my older sister Sarah Rachel of blessed memory and me to the cheder, which was located at that time in the yard of the Beis Midrash. This cheder was long and narrow. The students sat around the table, listened to everything that the teacher said, and then repeated it. I cannot remember if I ever received a slap on my cheeks from the Rebbe, for I was only a five year old girl then. The Rebbe was always considerate of the well-pedigreed girls of the Pines family, repressed his anger, and put his hands on the table or in his pocket, so as not to give in to his inclination to hit us. The attendant brought us lunch, and at night accompanied us home with a flashlight in his hand, for we had to cross a bridge below which flowed a river, and which connected the city with the synagogue courtyard. There was a danger that one of the naughty girls would want to try to play in the water. However, he guarded us well until we arrived home peacefully.

How pleasant was it to return home and to sit in a warm, clean room after ten consecutive hours of sitting in a narrow, dark cheder. We were approximately ten girls, all of us from the wealthier and noblest families in Ruzhany. My sister and I always reviewed with our father everything that we had learned with the Rebbe… It was not easy for us to review before our father of blessed memory, for he always demanded correct explanations from us, and he was not always satisfied with those that we gave. After some time he decided to bring a tutor to our house who would teach us how to progress in our Hebrew studies.”

Itta Yellin

Tiferet Bachurim

Thus did a portion of the girls study Torah. For the boys, it was not a portion, but rather all of them. Boys who did not succeed in their studies turned to work. The “Tiferet Bachurim” organization assisted them, as Yitzchak Meir Gerber writes in Hamelitz 1893 (43):

The Tiferet Bachurim organization has sprouted up. Its purpose is to teach trades to the students of the Talmud Torah who are not successful in their studies, and to fill their lacks so that they would be able to earn their livelihoods through the toil of their hands.

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It was founded through the hands of the enlightened youths M. Y. Pines and M. A. Pines, fine youths in whose hearts G-d planted a spirit of volunteerism.

Yitzchak Meir Gerber

The Yeshiva in Ruzhany

When they concluded their studies in the cheder at age 12, many of the youths who had progressed well in their studies transferred to study in the Yeshiva in town. There were two centers of the Ruzhany Yeshiva. The most important was in the Beis Midrash of the Pines brothers, where Reb Itzele, Reb Avraham Leib Skolnik and Reb Shmuel Epstein taught. The second was the Yeshiva of Reiza Pines on the Nowy-Rynek alleyway, where Reb Natan taught. The Yeshiva of Ruzhany was known in the area, and youths from various towns came to study there.

The Yeshiva Youths

In those days there were many youths aged 12 and older whose souls desired Torah and knowledge. If the father of such a youth had the financial means and was able to provide him with clothing, transportation costs and board, how nice was his lot. He would go to a place of Torah to study. However, what does a youth do whose parents are caring for young children, and who barely have enough money for a morsel of bread for their children in the house? Such a youth would also go to a place of Torah, but his lot would be poverty, oppression, suffering and bitterness. He would eat on a rotation basis in various houses, and he would have many days of hunger. However, to them study was the wellspring of life. Torah and knowledge revived their soul that thirsted for the words of the Living G-d. Many of them came to Ruzhany where they studied Torah from the Rosh Yeshiva Reb Itzele and others. The wealthy people of the city came to the assistance of the poor youths to the best of their ability, seeing to it that they would not starve and not fail. There were some wealthy people of Ruzhany who provided daily meals for tens of Yeshiva students.

The Course of Study in the Yeshiva

Mr. Yitzchak Gelber wrote the following interesting words in Hamelitz (1893) about the studies in Yeshiva.

Approximately 200 students listen to lessons from four teachers. Few of the students are from the city, and many are from other cities. The heads of the Yeshiva are the Ra'n and the Ł'Y [3]. They chose the straight path, preach chapters with wisdom and present before their students things which will penetrate the hearts of any listener. Aside from being proficient in all subjects of the Talmud and its commentators, they also know a great deal about the science of pedagogy…

The students eat on a rotation basis at the tables of the philanthropists of our people. The Yeshiva youths have set up a “Masbiei Reevim” (Satiators of the Hungry) fund for those who are short on their rotation.

A special teacher teaches the Russian language[4], arithmetic, writing and grammar for two hours a day. Only one thing was missing – the teaching of Bible and Hebrew to the youths…

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When Was the Yeshiva Founded?

We do not know the exact date of the founding of the Yeshiva, but the Yeshiva had already taken root in the life of the town as an established institution and was known in the surrounding area for some time already during the early childhood of Yechiel Michel Pines (who was born in Ruzhany in the year 5604 / 1843). According to the memory of the aforementioned scholar Yechiel Michel Pines, there were five grades in the Yeshiva, in which the youths started with Gemara and Rashi, and concluded with Gemara, Tosafot and the commentators. Young students from near and far towns streamed to it. Students even came from the area of Lomza in Congress Poland.

One of the supporters of the Yeshiva was the wealthy Reb Noach Pines of blessed memory (the father of Y. M. Pines) who died prematurely during his prime in the year 5632 / 1872. (Hamelitz 1893, written by Yitzchak Meir Gerber).

The Heads of the Yeshiva

We should especially note Rabbi Binyamin Zakheim from among the Roshei Yeshiva (Yeshiva heads). His broad knowledge in Talmud and its commentaries is demonstrated by the fact that this Rosh Yeshiva was accepted as the head of the rabbinical court in the large city of Yekatrinoslav in the year 5633 (1873). After his death in the year 5673 (1913), he was designated as a great in Torah and fear of Heaven by the newspaper Hamodia. He was praised and exalted in the community as a great and honorable rabbi…. who had many students when he was the Rosh Yeshiva in the city of Ruzhany.

The residents of the city also gave their honor to their Roshei Yeshiva. We read the following in Hamelitz number 20 from 1878:

Ruzhany, on the 13th of Tishrei 5639 (1879) the Gaon Rabbi Shraga Feivel Berman passed away. He had been the Rosh Yeshiva here and taught Torah with great wisdom. It has already been five years since he was forced to leave his post on account of the illness which afflicted him and prevented him from speaking. He was 48 years old at his death. The residents of our city extended great honor to him. All labor and commerce ceased, and he was accompanied to his rest with bitter weeping. The rabbi and head of the rabbinical court Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Yaffa and the renowned Rabbi David eulogized him appropriately.

Written with tears by Yaakov the son of the rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Shabtai Wallach.

Famous Students of the Yeshiva

We should note that two people who later became renowned as expert scholars studied in the Ruzhany Yeshiva during their youths: Rabbi Moshe Sokolovsky, later the Rosh Yeshiva of the Torat Chesed Yeshiva of Brest Litovsk and the author of the “Imre Moshe” book (died in 5691 / 1931); and Rabbi Meir Bessin, the rabbi of Shnipishuk near Vilna and the head of the Ramailis Yeshiva there (died in 5692 / 1932 at the age of 64).

From among the students from outside who studied there, we should mention the father of the poet Shaul Tshernikovsy[5] and Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, who was known in the Yeshiva as “The lad from Porozovo.”

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From Ruzhany he was accepted as a student into the central Yeshiva of Telz, and after he made aliya to the Land, he was chosen as the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.  
  (From various sources)
Meir Sokolovsky

Various Study Organizations

Thus was the atmosphere of the town filled with the breath of students of the house of the Rebbe; and the chant of Gemara of the youths who spent their time in the tents of Torah carried itself out to the main streets.

Chevrat Shas (Talmud Study Group)

It was not only the students of the cheders and the Yeshiva who dedicated their hearts and souls to Torah. Almost all of the town directed their steps in that direction. Many of them studied in the synagogue on the Sabbath after services, and continued with that commandment in the afternoon of the Day of Rest. Many people delved into the Torah even on weekdays, every morning after the Shacharit service. Those whose business affairs forced them to leave the synagogue on the weekdays right after the services returned to the sanctuary for the Mincha service. They did not leave right after that service, but rather sat down to study Gemara as members of the Chevra Shas. There were many studiers especially in the winter, when it would get dark at 3:00 p.m. The class in Gemara was delivered by the rabbi as well as by Torah scholars from amongst the laymen. No small number of the townsfolk possessed rabbinic ordination but did not use the Torah to earn their livelihood. Thus did they fulfill the words of the Mishna: “Love the work but hate the rabbinate.” Yudel Berl, Meir Gerber, and others were among these. These people donated their time to teach Torah to their townsfolk, without expectation of renumeration.

The Mishna and Psalms Organizations, and the Like

There were many people in Ruzhany who did not possess the ability to study Gemara. These people joined the Mishna, Ein Yaakov[6] or Psalms groups. The sounds of Torah broke forth from the windows of the Beis Midrashes of the town between Mincha and Maariv. Whomever entered would see a long table surrounded by heads who are directing their gaze toward the person explaining, listening to every word that emanates from his mouth; or following along in a book to the words that their teacher is speaking.

The Beis Yaakov Organization

The various organizations were founded by the townsfolk or by emissaries that were sent there. Hamelitz from 1898, number 201, tells about the founding of one such learning organization in the town by an emissary.

“Ruzhany (Grodno District), 26 Elul. One additional organization has been added to the organizations that sparkled gloriously in our city, whose holy purpose was Torah and knowledge. This organization was founded by a rabbi who was sent by the author of the Chofetz Chaim[7], Rabbi Asher Herman, may he live, of the community of Dvinsk. This organization was called 'Agudas Beis Yaakov' and 'Tiferet Bachurim'.

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Each evening crowds of our brethren gathered together. These were people who earned their livelihoods through the toil of their hands, and included the elderly and the youths, old and young together. They came together to study Shulchan Aruch (The Code of Jewish Law) which their rabbi and teacher taught them. How pleasant is it to see at the time of Mincha, at the conclusion of the workday, people streaming to a place of Torah. On their holy days and Sabbaths, they do not stroll in the roads of the town with the crowds, they do not spend their time in laughter, foolishness and idleness, the chief of all sins; but rather these sons of Jacob gather together in one place – to listen to the word of G-d. Oh would it be that this organization, dedicated to such a sublime goal, would instill in the hearts of their members who identify with them the love of Torah and of proper conduct, to grant us the stamp of wholeness. We must extend our blessings and gratitude to the emissary rabbi. May his strength in Torah increase!”

The assistant government rabbi, Eliahu Nota Halevi Berman [8]

Shmuel Itche the Wagon Driver [9]

The Gemara and Mishna students, as well as the Psalms readers, came from all strata of the people. Tradesman such as Shlomo the shoemaker and others would come to the Aguda Synagogue every day between Mincha and Maariv to hear Torah from Moshe Reuven Wilensky, an honorable man and a scholar. However, there were also teachers from amongst the simple folk. For example, were you to have followed after the wagon of Shmuel Itche as it was dragged by his thin horse in the afternoons, you would realize that he was not at this time filling up sand or mortar for the oven builders, as in all hours of the day. The thin horse could go faster, but he was not doing so. What happened? His owner did not direct him to the stable, but rather to the Gershonovitz Synagogue. He tied him to a post, and the poor horse knew that he would remain tied in that manner for several hours as he waits for Shmuel Itche to come and untie him, so that he could go to his stable and enjoy his meager meal. What was his owner doing during those hours? He was reading Ein Yaakov or Chayei Adam before 50-60 Jews, who were thirstily soaking up his words.

Ruzhany is Known as a City of Torah

The extent to which Ruzhany was renowned as a city of Torah is demonstrated by the article of Shlomo Zaltzman about that topic: “Chol Hamoed Pesach” in the Haboker newspaper from April 13, 1944. Among everything, it states.

“It is known that salted fish wafts from the mouth of people of Brisk; from the people of Pruzhany – flakes of fat; from the people of Ruzhany – the aroma of Torah; and from the people of Bialystock – knowledge and wisdom. Jews of Bialystock felt that it was a lowering of their honor to forge a marriage match with a resident of Brisk. Similarly, people of Ruzhany almost considered it to be beneath their honor to forge a marriage match with a native of Pruzhany. It is difficult to delve into the source of and reason for these nicknames, just as it is hard to understand why the Jews of one city felt superior to their brethren in a similar city. This appraisal was a tradition from several generations. Ruzhany among the towns and Bialystock among major cities were known as the most honorable.”

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The Concluding Ceremonies (Siyum) for the Study of a Book

When it came time to conclude a book, one had to arrange a feast. The entire group prepared for the feast, which was like wheat in the place of Torah. In the Synagogue of the Tailors, for example, Tzolis the Tailor would prepare a feast of rice porridge and bean soup for the siyum. He used to say that rice and beans strengthen Torah implies two things: the strengthening of the spirit of the Mishna and Ein Yaakov groups, and the literal strengthening of the body of the group of studiers.

The Conclusion of the Writing of a Book

There were occasions where one group made a celebration, and occasions where a different one did but there were other occasions where all of the groups of the entire town rejoiced together. When did such a thing occur? On the Jewish holidays and also when a new Torah scroll was dedicated in one of the synagogues. Different people commissioned the Torah scrolls. Once it was Yaakov Chaim the Shada'l who was childless. The Torah served for him as the “Kaddish” after his death. One another occasion it was a wealthy Jew who wished to perpetuate his name by adding another Torah scroll.

When it was time to conclude the scroll, men and women gathered in the house of the writer. Everyone, including women, purchased a word on the final column, so that they would have a portion in the scroll that was about to be finished. The person concluding the book brought a chupa canopy. Musicians appeared. All of the residents of the town, from young to old, gathered to accompany the scroll to the synagogue. The Torah was carried under the chupa by people who took turns in sharing the honor of carrying the precious, holy Torah scroll one after another. The men danced and leaped. Even though the natives of the town were primarily Misnagdim, their dances on such an occasion had the enthusiasm of the Hassidim, or perhaps even more so.

In this manner did the Torah scroll progress toward the synagogue like a groom under his chupa. When the procession approached the synagogue, the most honorable members of the congregation went out with all of the Torah scrolls of the synagogue in order to greet the new Torah Scroll with holy splendor, to the sound of trumpets and shouts of joy of the crowd. Rich and poor, Torah studiers as well as Psalms recitors – the community was united, with their hearts beating together as one person.

Thus did the natives of the town live, choosing the Torah over materialism[10]. They ate sufficient food to strengthen the body, so that it would be possible to occupy themselves with Torah and rejoice in its joy. Lives of Torah and wisdom, of uprightness and righteousness, of honor and dedication to every Jewish holy matter were the desires of the souls and the portion of fate for all of the natives of the town.

  (From various sources.)
Meir Sokolovsky


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A rote, phonetic form of teaching Hebrew letter recognition and reading. return
  2. There is a text footnote here, as follows: Every half year was known as a semester. The two semesters were from Sukkot until Passover, and from Passover until Sukkotreturn
  3. I assume that R'Y is Reb Itzele and R'N is Reb Natan. return
  4. There is a footnote in the text here: Since the government mandated the study of Russian, the supporters of the Yeshiva said to teach this language to the point of proficiency in writing (from A. Leviatan). return
  5. There is a footnote in the text here: Mr. Yosef Abramovich once asked the poet Tshernikovsy if the fact mentioned in one of his stories (he was referring to the story “Shaatnez” which is brought down later) that his father was a native of Ruzhany was indeed true? The poet answered that he meant that his father had studied in the Ruzhany Yeshiva. return
  6. Ein Yaakov is an anthology of the aggadaic (lore) material of the Talmud, as opposed to the halachic (legalistic) material. return
  7. The Chofetz Chaim was one of the most illustrious rabbis of the period, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan. He died in 1935 at the age of 95. return
  8. There is a footnote in the text here as follows: Yaakov Berman, who was one of the leaders of the democratic People's Republic of Poland until prior to 1957, is one of his descendents. return
  9. There is a footnote in the text here as follows: From the mouth of Abba Leviatan. return
  10. Literally – wheat. return

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