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[Page 76]

Institutions

 

Educational Institutions

by N. Chinitz

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

Slutsk excelled in its scholars, as a place of Torah study, its hadarim (plural of heder = a school where little children learned Torah), where they taught the Pentateuch [Humash] with RASHI commentary, the Bible and Talmud. Even the very poor made every effort that Torah would not be forgotten in Slutsk. Some of the melamdim (teachers) were well dressed and “learned in the ways of the world” and their teaching rooms were clean and nice, but these were few. We should mention “R'Welvel Prizivitzer”, a handsome Jew, who treated his pupils softly, taught them the Bible (TANACH) and the first pages of the Talmud.

The heder of R'Shmuel-Yosef Regelson was modern for its time. R'Pesach Karon, a short Jew, with a warm and sensitive heart, was attracted to Eretz Israel. He had a large library and would lend books for a small fee. This Zionist man and his library were famous. His body was bent, and through his glasses one could see two dreaming and smiling eyes. His library and his room filled his heart with love.

 


The Rav R'Berl Griboshthcik, Head of the Yeshiva in the “Karnayim” synagogue.

 


R' Zalman Zitin, head of the Yeshiva in the Ironsmiths' synagogue, member of the religious Court in Slutsk.

 

Rav Goldberg is telling:
“I was in the heder of R'Pesach Ezra's, one of the best melamdim in town. The rabbi was a short man, his head sunken between his shoulders, his face, with a white beard, radiating nobility, his forehead wrinkled like an old yellow parchment, his eyes shining with love and his lips smiling.

The rabbi made me sit on a bench near a long table, where several children already sat, their books open. He opened a prayer book and showed me the large letters, saying: “This is 'alef' – alef, child, and so on.” As I was repeating the words, some copper coins fell on the table from above. “See, child” – he said – “the angels are sending you a present from Heaven.”

In R'Pesach Ezra's heder I learned siddur (prayer book) and the Hebrew language. R'Pesach Ezra's had a library of children's story books and every Shabat eve he would lend his pupils little books that would capture the hearts of the children by their beautiful legends and charming stories.

In the rabbi's courtyard several fruit trees grew – how good and pleasant it was to play in their shade! His wife would gather apples or pears that had fallen from the trees and give them to the children playing around, who would find in them the “taste of paradise.”

The little Yeshivas were well known: R'Nehemia's, in

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The Talmud Torah in Slutsk. Its pupils, melamdim and teachers.
In the 4th row, the second from right, is “Kadish the melamed.”

 

R'Iserke's synagogue, the lower and the higher class. Who didn't know R'Nehemia, with his sharp mind!

The spacious courtyard of the synagogues – “the Big Bet Hamidrash, the Cold Bet Hamidrash, the Taylors' Bet Hamidrash, the Kloiz and the synagogue Karnayim” – served as a formal meeting-place for the students of the “Little Yeshivot”. R'Yashe Tritzaner, a great scholar and a quiet person, was loved by his students. In the women's section of the Karnayim synagogue R'Beril Gribentchik was teaching. He “had” two tables, a long one and a smaller one. He was a tall Jew, skinny and with large protruding bones, yellowish hair, long sidelocks and a small beard. He was honest and straight, with an appearance of a monk or hermit. His father was making combs, and he himself was an ordained rabbi from the Volozhin Yeshiva, a friend of the writer Michah Yosef Berditchevski. He was complaining about the writer, sighing and coughing: “Such a great scholar, and lost his right path”….

In the Taylors' synagogue, the great Yeshiva Etz Hachayim [“The Tree of Life”] was situated, relocated from the synagogue on Ostrova Street. Here the Gaon (genius) R'Isser Zalman Meltzer would give his lesson. The yeshiva employed two supervisors [mashgichim], R'Pesach and R'Sheftil Kremer, and later it relocated to the special building at the end of Shkolania Street. The supervisor was the Rav R'Asher Sandomirski, who served until the Yeshiva was closed by the Soviets. Rabbis, teachers, authors have graduated from the Slutsk Yeshiva: I.D. Berkwitz, Rav Prof. S. Asaf z”l, Dr. Nathan Klotz, the poet Lisitzki, Prof. Meir Wachsman, Rav Rubinstein from Vilna, Chief Rabbi Katz of Petach Tikva, the son-in-law of R'Isser Zalman, the scholar Kotler and others. Another small Yeshiva was situated in the Blacksmiths' synagogue, and Rabbi Pesach Mamosh was teaching there. It is worthwhile to see what the poet A. A. Lissitzki said about him. Later, Rav R'Zalman, a merchant in coals, was teacher there, a short Jew, full of Torah. Most of his trading was done by his wife, a true “woman of valor” – sometimes he would help her. At the synagogue on Vilna Street the head of the Yeshiva was R'Yitzhak Leib Rabinowitz

The “Modern Heder” had a special place in the community. It brought a ray of light by the method of “Only Hebrew” [lit. Hebrew in Hebrew]. We remember with a blessing its first founders-teachers: Kagan, M. Hazanowitz, the well-known writer Avraham Epstein (Aba Aricha), Yarkoni, Berger, Gutzeit, Sweidel z”l and, may he be inscribed for a long life, the teacher S. Nachmani (Nachmanowitz), who is now in Eretz Israel and was one of the first founders of the “Modern Heder”.

In 1914, a second Modern Heder was established in Slutsk by the teacher Yitzhak Katzenelson (Hazanowitz' brother-in-law) and Reuvke Altman,

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a great scholar, very knowledgeable in Hebrew Literature. Nahum Chinitz and Israel Aharon Sviranovski were also teachers in this Heder.

In Slutsk was known the “Old Talmud Torah,” where there was more shade than light, yet it educated an entire generation of poor people and laborers, who later headed several movements and institutions. Two of them I remember: Kadish the melamed with his thin beard, an honest and righteous man, who continued his holy work to the end of his days. He taught Talmud calmly and tried to make his pupils understand difficult passages. I shall mention also the director of the general studies Mishkovski, a Bund man, who opposed Hebrew and all that was connected with it. He was an honest man, was married to Klara Mironovna, a Zionist woman, who gave fiery speeches.

Another Jewish-Russian institution was the Jewish school “Evreiskvya Utchilishtza,” but this was a “Jewish School” only by name, since the instruction language was Russian, except very little “religion” and “Hebrew” and a few prayers. During vacation days and formal holidays, as the king's birthday and the like, the principal Levinsohn would appear in the synagogue with the School Choir and the officially appointed rabbi, Levinsohn would speak and the ceremony would end with the performance of the choir.

During WWI, as the flow of refugees grew, in 1914-1915 the Talmud Torah became full of children of refugees and a new branch of the local Talmud Torah was opened. The Rav R'Yosef Feimer introduced Hebrew and Bible [Tanach] as mandatory subjects of study. A girls' school, of four grades, also opened. The principal was Chaim Kagan, the language of instruction was Russian, but they taught the Yiddish and Hebrew languages as well. They also began to teach the girls Hebrew and Yiddish songs. Most of the teachers were members of the BUND and the Bundist spirit was beginning to rule, little by little.

The “Tarbut” School that opened at that time in Slutsk was soon closed by the Soviet regime, then was opened again during the Polish rule. Among its teachers were: Azriel Nakritz, Shemaryahu Barhon, N. Chinitz, Lipshitz and others. In the evenings they had “evening courses” in general education, Hebrew and various other subjects.

Slutsk had a wonderful Library, with books mostly in Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish and some other languages. Annexed to the library were a reading room and a club. The library played a major role in the cultural development of the youth and the laborers. For the Yeshiva students, as well, the library was an important source of development; they drank with great thirst whatever they read.

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Among the Russian important institutions stood out the classical Russian High-School, of 8 grades. The graduates of this school were known for their extensive general knowledge. The school was known through Russia, and many students were “externs” (studying elsewhere) and came only to pass the exams and receive the matriculation diploma. Those who passed the exams were happy – many failed. Sometimes an anti-Semitic teacher would ask a non-relevant question, only to be able to give the grade “failed.” The historian and writer Saul Ginsburg wrote in his book “Historic Writings” about the school:

“In the Slutsk region lived many Polish Calvinist estate owners, people of culture, who were free of the Catholic fanaticism and treated the Jews with tolerance. The contact with them influenced the Jews culturally and enlarged their spiritual outlook. Moreover: among the enlightened estate owners were often people who openly assisted Jewish young people who aspired to a good education, while the environment was in total opposition. In Slutsk there was a large Polish Calvinist community. Two of them, noblemen of the House of Domanski had business relations with Kaplan Yakov of Minsk, and they suggested helping him enroll his son in the Slutsk High School. Indeed, in 1840 Meir Kaplan was accepted as a student in the school, in the 4th grade. Most of the teachers were Calvinists. It is worth mentioning, that one of them, Vanovski (the Vanovski who was later the Russian Minister of War was from the same family) studied Hebrew with Meir. The high school was impressive: a large two-story building, long and wide, with a large entrance, on the “Boulevard Street”.

The Boulevard was always full of students, wearing coats with shining buttons. The teachers were well dressed, walking around proudly as if saying: Here we are the rulers, and everything is in our hands – good or bad.

A high-school for girls, of seven grades, was also opened. There was also an elementary private school, of six grades, headed by Rav Ashman and a commerce school of 8 grades, situated in a large and beautiful building, on the road to the train station. The building was well planned and had laboratories, reading rooms and meeting halls. It was headed by Ivanov, a liberal and respected man. The commercial school had a norm of admission – for every 10 Cristian students one Jew was admitted, and the other school admitted 2 Jews to 10 Christians. The Jews covered the cost of managing the school; otherwise it would have ceased to function. The town maintained also a 2 grades school by the name of Smena, for girls of poor families, where they taught Russian and arithmetic and very few other subjects.


A Center of Torah

by Rabbi Nissan Waxman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Edited by Jane S. Gabin

The Jewish community of Slutsk was one of the most important in the countries of Lithuania and Russia for hundreds of years. At the beginning of the fifth century C.E. there were already the origins of a community where. Large houses of worship and Beis Midrashes were founded and set up. The people of the city were known as benefactors of charity and benevolence to anyone who came to their midst, and “first for any holy matter in the world”[1]. There was also a large Yeshiva there, under the leadership of the Gaon Rabbi Yaakov, the son of Rabbi Uri Feivish of Tomaszˇw. The good name of Slutsk went before it and attracted the hearts of rabbis from the entire Jewish Diaspora.

The times were days of storms and horrors in the world. Powerful forces burst forth from near and far, as usual beating down on the skulls of the Jews first. The disturbances and tribulations in Ukraine and Poland drew near to the borders of Lithuania and White Russia, and the ire of the inimical Bogdan Chmielnicki, may his name be blotted out, reached the gates of Slutsk[2].

On the other hand, the Thirty Year War (5378-5408, 1618-1648) in the lands of Germany and Bohemia heavily affected our brethren who lived there, and forced them to escape and seek refuge from the rotating flaming sword[i] that was set against them. Many honorable families were cordially welcomed to Slutsk, and there found comfort for their souls[3].

The Gaon Rabbi Meir Katz-Ashkenazi, the father of the wonderful Gaon Rabbi Shabtai, the author of the Sha'ch[ii], one of the great ones of Frankfurt, and later the rabbi of Brisk, sent his young son Rabbi Yona (Menachem) Nachum to study Torah in the Yeshiva of the aforementioned Rabbi Yaakov in Slutsk[4].

The residents of Slutsk escaped from their city and communal life was interrupted only for a few years in the midst of the tribulations of Ta't ve Ta'ch[iii]. However, after the fury passed and the land quieted, the community of Slutsk returned to its original strength and honor. In the year 5458 [1698], the famous emissary from Chevron, the Sephardic rabbi, Rabbi Avraham the son of Rabbi Levi Kunki, passed through most of the countries of Europe. When he reached the lands of Lithuania and Reisen [White Russia], he found there “four goblets with almond blossoms[iv] standing for the four languages of redemption, that is: Brisk, Pinsk, Horodna, and Vilna. After that he adds and details: “And there is yet another holy community,

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Slutsk, filled with the satisfaction of Torah and greatness together!” – this is from the preface to his book Avak Sofrim, Amsterdam 5464 [1704].

The wonderful description of Rabbi Natan Nota Hanover and the end of his book Yaven Metzula, regarding the leadership of the communities in the country of Poland, is fully applicable to the splendid community of Slutsk. The tradition was maintained in Slutsk in a restricted manner during most times, that their rabbis of Slutsk, who were always from among the great ones of the generation, served in the dual role of “Head of the Rabbinical Court” standing at the helm of the rabbinate, as well as Head of the Yeshiva. Even during the first decades of the sixth century C.E., before the founding of the Yeshiva of Volozhin in the year 5564 [1804], at a time when Lithuanian Jewry was lacking in great Yeshivot, there were important groups of Torah scholars in Slutsk. They studied Torah constantly in the local Beis Midrashes – over and above the people of the city who filled the Beis Midrash and studied Torah alone or with the congregation. In general, the Jews of Slutsk were able to state with pride: “From the times of our forefathers, Yeshiva never ceased among them.”[5]

 


Rabbi Nissan Waxman

 

They would relate the following in Slutsk: When the rabbinical seat of the city became vacant around the year 5590 [1830], the leaders of the community of Slutsk approached the Gaon Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin to send them an excellent student suitable to serve as their rabbi. He recommended one of the best of his students, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Yalovker. When they came to inform him of the opinion of his rabbi, he responded that he had no intention of serving in the rabbinate. His mother was present a that event, and ordered him to accept.

Note: in the book Kol Yehuda by Rabbi Yehuda Leib the son of Rabbi Eliezer, the head of the rabbinical court of Zeleny (Jozepol, 5587 [1827]), we find a eulogy of him, referring to him as: the Lamp of Israel, a father in wisdom but young in years, who enlightened the eyes of his generation with the light of his Torah, and gathered to himself every orphan and every widow. He established tens and hundreds of students. (Brought in a note in his article on the Yeshiva of Volozhin, page 27), from Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Kalman Mirsky in his book “Torah Institutions in Europe” (New York, 5716 [1956]). It appears from this, that he served as the head of the Yeshiva in Jalowka.

Rabbi Yaakov Meir immediately told them: “I am prepared to forgo my opinion because of the honor of my mother, and to accept the yoke of your rabbinate. But give me one year so I can review the four sections of the Code of Jewish Law before I come to your camp.”They accepted this. At the end of the year, he died.

Then the city notables approached Rabbi Chaim once again, and he sent them his dear student, the Gaon Rabbi Yosef the son of Meir of Bohemia (Poymer), who spent a long period of 36 years in Slutsk.

When the Gaon Rabbi Yosef came to Slutsk, he called the prominent elderly Reb Avraham, the Shamash of the Chevra Kadisha for 50 years, and “[where does this quotation end?]asked that he show him the graves of the Gaonim Rabbi Naftali Hertz Ginzburg and Rabbi Yitzchak Binyamin Wolf, the author of the book Nachalat Binyamin, who were buried in the city cemetery. Rabbi Avraham showed him one burial canopy, and only the grave of the Gaon Rabbi Nachum Katzenelboign-Wahl, the grandson of the prince Reb Shaul Wahl[v] between them. The Gaon Rabbi Yosef groaned: These righteous people did not make peace with each other to this time. He told the Shamash the following:

With the passage of time, when the Gaon Rabbi Naftali Hertz, the rabbi of Slutsk, was very elderly, he took on many householders who had difficulty discussing religious matters with him. There were large fairs in Slutsk, and many people would come for the market days. When some dispute arose among any of them, even between gentiles, they would go to the rabbi to have the case adjudicated by him. They would accept his decision without dispute. Therefore, even the gentiles complained that it was hard to come to the rabbi on account of his great old age. The city leaders decided to choose a younger rabbi to direct the Yeshiva, to preach the word of G-d, to teach, and to judge any matter that came before him.

When the book Nachalat Binyamin was published in the year 5402 [1642], and the author made a great impression upon the Torah world due to his great sharpness, the leaders of the city of Slutsk approached the author, Rabbi Yitzchak Binyamin Wolf, and offered him the rabbinical seat in their city. But he refused, saying that he would not turn his ear toward them without the permission of the elderly rabbi. They interceded with the elderly Gaon and received a letter of permission from him. Then, the author of Nachalat Binyamin acceded to them. When he arrived in Slutsk, he immediately went to the elderly rabbi and told him that he relied on his letter, and came to the city with his agreement. The Gaon Rabbi Naftali Hertz told him: If your honor would have pondered my letter, you would have seen that it had dots in order to minimize that which was written[5a]. The Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Binyamin responded that he did not pay attention to the dots[vi].

In any case, he was accepted as the head of the rabbinical court and rabbi in Slutsk. It is unfortunate that these two luminaries both died in the year 5407 [1647]. They are buried on either side of the grave of the Gaon Rabbi Nachum Katznelboigen[6].

The legend continues that the Gaon Rabbi Naftali Hertz called upon the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Binyamin to a judgment before the Heavenly court. The Torah adjudication continued until Rabbi Yosele took over the rabbinical seat of Slutsk. Then, the Heavenly court decided that they should stand before the rabbi of Slutsk, the place of the deed, and he would declare the verdict. The legend continues that these two Gaonim came to Rabbi Yosele in a dream and he accepted to adjudicate between them. When the Shamash showed them their graves, he commanded [who? Rabbi Yosele to depart from there and to wait at the cemetery gate. But Rabbi Yosele tarried next to the

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canopy alone for several hours. When he returned to the Shamash at a late hour, his face was flaming, and he did not speak much. He only said, “Blessed be G-d, that the matter has ended properly, and now there will be peace between them.”[7]

In time, a large tree grew between their graves, spreading its branches over both graves. (The tree existed over their canopies until the time of the final destruction.)

Even though the legend was not appropriate at all, for the skeptical spirit of the Jews of Slutsk, several notable things can be learned from it. An important Yeshiva was flourishing in Slutsk in the year 5442 [1682]. In any case, it is clear that the primary condition for the Slutsk rabbinate was that the rabbi should preach the words of G-d at the Yeshiva. The official Yeshiva head at that time was Rabbi Aharon HaLevi Feinstein (the father of Rabbi Eliyahu, the head of the rabbinical court of Pruzhany) until around 5603 [1843], when he went to serve in the rabbinate of Starobin. After him, the Gaon Rabbi Menahem Mendel Epstein, known as Reb Mendele, was appointed as head of the Yeshiva, and served in that position for many years.

When the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik came from Volozhin to occupy the rabbinical seat of Slutsk in the year 5625 [1865], he was quite amazed with the learning methodology of Reb Mendele, to) the point that he gave over to him his dear son Chaim, aged twelve at the time, and asked that he study together with him. Reb Mendele conducted his work honorably, and the following year, the rabbi asked that he continue studying with his son and another lad named Yosef Rozen. The latter, even though he was several years younger than the rabbi's son, was already known as a wonderful genius, astounding everyone who knew him. Although the father of the lad, Reb Fishel, was a Chabad Hassid, he brought him from his home in Rogachov and gave him over to the oversight and supervision of the “cold misnaged,” the rabbi of “Chilly Slutsk.” This lad studied together with the rabbi's son for about one year. Rabbi Yosef Dov did not take his eyes off of them, and would test them from time to time. Chaim, the son of Rabbi Yosef Dov, remained in Rabbi Mendele's Yeshiva for several years, and we can surmise that Rabbi Chaim learned from Rabbi Mendele of Slutsk the foundations of his learning style, separating the principles and roots of the halacha into their primary factors. That was the methodology that caused wonders in the world of Torah and conquered most of its fortresses under its banner, the banner of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Volozhin and Brisk. Without doubt, Reb Mendele imparted his stamp upon his second student, albeit in a more restricted manner. That student later became known as one of the great ones of the generations, the Rogachover Gaon, the rabbi of the Hassidic community of Dvinsk [Daugavpils]. (He died in Vienna on 11 Adar, 5696 [1936].)

When the Gaon Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer came to Slutsk in the year 5657 [1897], bringing his Yeshiva with him, he thereby returned the crown of the splendid past of that Torah community to its former glory. His forced separation from there in the year 5683 [1923] marked the bitter end to a glorious period of the rabbinate in the Diaspora of White Russia. I was unable to repress those feelings when I was invited to give a greeting at the dedication of the Yeshiva of Slutsk in the city of Kletzk in the year 5690 [1930] at a gathering of several Gaonim of the region, headed by the Gaon Rabbi Isser Zalman, who came specially from the Land of Israel to participate in the dedication. As an alumnus of Slutsk, I felt myself as a mourner among the bridegrooms, and I expressed my thoughts in accordance with the dedication of the Second Temple: “And many of the Kohanim, Levites, heads of dynasties and elders who had seen the First Temple when it was standing were weeping” (Ezra 3:12).

 


A letter of Rabbi Mendele to the community of Kozlovich, stating that they should appoint Rabbi Aryeh Leib Charif of Slutsk as their rabbi. In section II of the Responsa of Rabi Aryeh Leib, he states that he refused to serve in the rabbinate.

 

Indeed, when the Gaon Rabbi Isser Zalman was in Slutsk, he succeeded in innovating something there and turning it to a bastion of the written Torah. He was the initiator and influencer of the publication of the Yagdil Torah Torah anthology, in which the Torah giants of the generation participated and considered as second in importance to Hatevuna, published a half century previously by the Gaon Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (Konigsberg, 5621 [1861]). The Gaon Rabbi Isser Zalman found a person equal to him in wisdom, fitting to his Torah, wisdom, and dedication to the goal – the Gaon Rabbi Moshe Binyamin Tomashoff, whom he appointed as editor and to whom he assigned the directorship of the anthology.

 

The Yagdil Torah Anthology and its Editor

Rabbi Moshe Binyamin Tomashoff was born on 7 Adar 5638 [1878] to his father Rabbi Alexander Yehoshua and his mother Basha. His father earned his livelihood honorably from the Russian bookstore in Slutsk. When Moshe Binyamin reached the age of Bar Mitzvah, he began to study in the Yeshiva of Rabbi Nechemia, which was in the Beis Midrash of Reb Isserke at that time. He studied there for about three years, and his name became known in the scholarly circles of Slutsk for his breadth and diligence.

During those days, the name of the Gaon Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz began to rise. He was also a native of Slutsk, or, more accurately, of Podlivtsi outside of Slutsk. Rabbi Boruch Ber married the daughter of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaLevi Zimmerman, the rabbi of Slutsk. His father-in-law Rabbi

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Zimmerman was appointed as the rabbi of Kremenchug, and then Rabbi Boruch Ber took his place in Slutsk.

In the year 5654 [1893], immediately after Sukkot, Rabbi Baruch Ber went to the Tomashoff residence in Slutsk to convince the father to send his son Moshe Binyamin to his Yeshiva in Hlusk, and promised to supervise him. Rabbi Boruch Ber fulfilled his promise, and he himself studied together with him each night until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. During the winter nights, they succeeded in going over only four chapters in the Choshen Mishpat section of the Code of Jewish Law (sections 39, 40,41, and 46). Only a person who knows the manner of Rabbi Baruch Ber's great depth and toil can believe such a thing.

After that, Rabbi Moshe Binyamin split his years of study between the Yeshivas of Slobodka and Slutsk until the time of his marriage in 5663 [1903] to the daughter of the Gaon Rabbi Tzvi Yaakov Oppenheim, the rabbi of Kelm in Lithuania.

After several years of study in the home of his father-in-law, he returned to his native city of Slutsk and was close to the Gaon Rabbi Isser Zalman, who already knew him from Slobodka. In time, the Slutsk Yeshiva grew as did its expenses, and there was no source of money, for in accordance with the law in Russia at the time, it was forbidden to send out emissaries to collect money for the benefit of the Yeshiva. The Gaon Rabbi Isser Zalman, who by nature was a visionary and a dreamer, did not rest, as he searched for ways of easing the difficult situation. On Purim of 5668 [1908], when he was in a jovial mood, and several of the illustrious students of the Yeshiva were feasting in his house, he turned to Rabbi Meir Binyamin Tomashoff and expressed his intention to found a weekly anthology for Torah and wisdom. This would have several purposes, first, as a collection for its own purpose, and second, as an opportunity for the emissaries of the Yeshiva to collect money under the pretext “for the anthology.” Therefore, he advised Rabbi Tomashoff to approach the regional minister in Minsk with a request for a permit to publish a Torah anthology in Slutsk in his[whose?] father's printing press.

These words resonated with Rabbi Tomashoff as timely, since he was already looking for a source of livelihood, and he regarded this as something fitting to his personality. However, at first, he accepted the suggestion of the rabbi as a Purim joke that came to the imagination of the genius at a jovial moment, for why would the governor in Minsk give such a permit at a time when the government was refusing to accede to the requests of people more famous than he, and of known institutions more influential than the Yeshiva of Slutsk? In any case, he sent a request to the regional minister after some time, and turned his attention away from this matter. To his great surprise, Rabbi Tomashoff received the permit after a few months, and dedicated himself to the preparations for publishing. He designed an announcement, which he sent to all the rabbis and Torah greats, urging them to take part in the anthology, which would be a “unique organ” in the field of Torah and rabbinics.

Most of the Gaonim of the generation gave him their blessings and promised to participate. Only a few did not understand the entire matter, and suspected that this might be a matter from which the “odor of haskalah” would emanate. The famous rabbi and preacher Rabbi Elyakim Getzel Leviatan, the preacher of righteousness in Brisk, asked innocently, “What is an organ? You do not have another word for this. Also, what is ‘unique,' for is there not only One who is unique?”

When the matter came to be carried out, Rabbi Tomashoff realized that he had to start everything from the beginning, that is: to acquire publishing machines and typography letters with all their accessories. He did the calculations and found that everything necessary would cost about 1,000 to 1,200 rubles. The Gaon Rabbi Isser Zalman gave him 100 rubles, and Rabbi Tomashoff took the rest from his dowry money. Even his parents helped him in purchasing the machines. Rabbi Tomashoff himself arranged the lettering, conducted the entire publishing task, corrected and edited the articles, and wrote his own Torah articles as well as notes on almost every article by the rest of the participants. He only had assistants for known tasks. Among them was Rabbi Moshe Aharon Poleyeff of Timkovichi, who studied at that time in Slutsk (currently he is one of the heads of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva of New York). He would transcribe most of the manuscripts of the participants into clear print, for a salary of three rubles per month. The headings for the issues were written by the young girl Chana Perl, the daughter of Rabbi Isser Zalman, on a voluntary basis. She later became the wife of Rabbi Aharon Pines-Kotler.

To the joy of many, the first issue of the Yagdil Torah anthology was published on Tuesday of the Torah Portion of Miketz, 28 Kislev 5669 [1908], “through the efforts of the editors and publishers: Isser Zalman Meltzer, the head of the rabbinical court and head of the Yeshiva of this place, and Moshe Binyamin Tomashoff.”

The cover page had a detailed table of subscription prices in the local currency: in Russia, 2 rubles and 50 kopecks, 1.50 for a half a year, 30 kopecks for a month. Abroad: for a year with monthly mailings – 2.50, weekly mailings, 4 rubles. For an individual edition, 5 kopecks. The price of advertisements: 25 kopecks for each small line. Indeed, no secular advertisements were even published in it. The cover page indicated that it was published in Slutsk, and its purpose was “novel Torah ideas, halachic didactics, questions and responsa in decisions of Jewish law, exegesis, mussar [moral lessons], and articles on issues of religion, Torah, and fear of G-d.” Under the title heading, the title and place of publication were printed in Russian. On page 2 of the issue, the Gaon Rabbi Isser Zalman wrote “A few words of introduction,” explaining the purpose of the anthology, and the reason for his participation in its publication. Among other things, he writes: “We will now illustrate a bit at a bad, bitter time, when the cold is very great, the house is full of holes and cracks, and the children stand shivering with cold, their clothing is thin and soft, their faces are white as lime, if we do not make an effort to obtain a bit of wood and kindling to make some sort of fire, some flame to bring a bit of warmth into the house, they will perish from cold and freezing.” After that he continued: “I know the weight of the task, and the difficulty in establishing the anthology, but I did not take upon myself all this work until my friend the Gaon Rabbi Meir Binyamin Tomashoff, may he live, told me he would take upon himself this task, and that his great powers are quite fitting to work on this – – and I see before me the conditions of the physical and spiritual situation of my honorable friend the Gaon Rabbi Meir Binyamin, may he live, that the periodical will be able to maintain itself for a long time with the help of G-d. Therefore, I have agreed to take this sublime periodical upon myself as well” – – –

The booklet was sent to five hundred subscribers, including about two hundred rabbis, and most of the Torah greats, who were to pay the subscription fee later.

Rabbi Tomashoff indeed did not disappoint. He fulfilled his task completely, and brought the anthology to a very high, honorable level, even though it did not meet his expectations from a material perspective. As has been stated, he would write notes and react to the articles of the writers. He became known in the Torah world as a serious editor and a sharp critic, who did not hesitate to reject those items that did not seem fit to print, even

[Page 83]

If they came from famous people. On the other hand, he brought in many unknown researchers, and encouraged and publicised them.

Rabbi Shmuel Yosef Zevin, who was the rabbi in Kazimirov (Minsk region), wrote a two-part article on the Yagdil Torah anthology in Hamodia, published by Rabbi Akiva Rabinovitch in Poltava. After Rabbi Zevin complained about the Gaonim of the generation, that they were not following in the footsteps of their predecessors and were not placing the fruits of their spirits into a book; he praised the anthology, which would preserve the splendor of the Torah of our generation in general, and the Torah of the Gaonim of Lithuania in particular, which succeeded in developing and broadening during the latter period in a special manner of “logic, explanation, clarity of feeling, and strength of reasoning, delving into the depth of each and every issue.” In his opinion, the anthology also fulfilled another task, important in and of itself, “to explain and delve into the questions that have arisen during the recent period on account of the new needs and realities.” At the end of his words, he gives a warm caress to the face of the rabbi who was the editor: “The proficient rabbi and Gaon, which is Mr. Tomashoff (even though he did not use that title), who knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff with his proper notes and clear responses. His diligent hand is recognized in all Talmudic subjects of the anthology.” (Hamodia, numbers 3-4, 12 Cheshvan 5672 [1912]).

 


Uncaptioned. The title page of Yagdil Torah, first year, issue 1. Tuesday of the Torah portion of Miketz, 28 Kislev, 4th day of Chanukah 5669 [1909].

 


Uncaptioned. The page opposite the title page (i.e., the copyright page). The text is as follows:

Notes from the Editors

  1. We hereby ask forgiveness from the writers if is necessary to change and fixe their words. They should forgive us if it is at times difficult, given the plethora of articles, to give them a place in a timely fashion, and that we are forced to delay.
  2. Articles that are not published will not be returned to their owners.
  3. At the end of one year, every subscriber will be sent a table of contents.
  4. The subscriber must prepay their subscription fees.
  5. The fees for the anthology can also be sent through the Russian postal system, but the writer must accept responsibility.
  6. Place will be allotted in the anthology for announcements on issues of Judaism, such as copies of rabbinical meetings in cities that ask for such, notices of new books, announcements from Yeshivot, etc.
  7. Out of respect for the rabbis, may they live long, in every place, we ask, aside from supporting and strengthening the anthology themselves if they can afford it, they should also try to support it from the book funds of the Beis Midrashes, for at the end of the year, G-d willing, they will belong to the library.


Agents will be granted their customary rights.


The address for sending money and letters:
Redaction, IAGDIL THORA Sluzk gouw Minsk
Editors and publishers; Isser Zalman Meltzer head of the rabbinical court and yeshiva head of the local city. Moshe Binyamin Tomashoff.

 

The Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna wrote a special letter to Rabbi Tomashoff, stating that in his opinion, the anthology stands at a level close to that of Hatevuna, which was published by the Gaon Rabbi Yisrael Salanter of blessed memory (Konigsberg 5621 [1861]).

When the Gaon Rabbi Boruch Ber came to America in the year 5699 [1939] and visited the home of Rabbi Tomashoff, he noticed the Yagdil Torah anthology, which stood bound in his bookshelf. He opened it and perused it with reverence and love. Then he turned to Rabbi Tomashoff and said, “Does your honor know why I am looking at it? It is because my rabbi, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, would also look into it, and appreciated it.”

Indeed, as has been said, despite the acclaim that was brought to him in the world of Torah by the anthology, the material situation of the editor did not improve on its account. Rather, it apparently declined further, and he was forced to take a hiatus on occasion and issue a call to the subscribers to pay their subscription fee. Later he was forced against his will to request “help and side support of certain sums on an annual basis from various benefactors.” When the appeals did not bring their desired results, the editor extended past his usual bounds with bitter words to explain the reason for the cessation of the anthology, that was caused only by his personal situation. In a main article called “A person does not know his time” Rabbi Tomashoff writes among other things: “Until this time I do not have a reliable source for my livelihood, other than from my parents, may they live, who are my supports at my right hand. However, now, they have taken from me, and almost stolen the narrow, meager flow, my publishing house, that we have succeeded in founding and creating through great toil and self-sacrifice. Now, my eyes are lifted toward the mercies of G-d, that He should prepare a source of livelihood for me. This is the reason that has prevented me from publishing Yagdil Torah in its right time.”

[Page 84]


Rabbi Moshe Binyamin Tomashoff (the Mabi't)

 

(See issues 12 and 24, year 1, and issues 20 and 23, year 2.)

With all this, Rabbi Tomashoff rose above is situation and continued to publish the anthology until issue 8 of the third year, 5672 [1912]. Then his illness became more serious, and he had to travel to a doctor in Berlin. There, he decided to immigrate to America, to where his parents had immigrated in the interim.

Rabbi Tomashoff was greeted with joy in New York by the great rabbis who knew him from his youth in the Yeshivas of Slobodka and Slutsk, and especially on account of the anthology that he edited, bringing fame to his name in the world. However, he was not able to continue to publish the anthology in his new place.

Rabbi Tomashoff attempted to renew the anthology in New York in the year 5676 [1916], and he succeeded in publishing several issues, with the participation of the Torah greats of the United States. However, they were lacking the vibrant living spirit that was present in all the issues published in Slutsk.

At that time, Rabbi Meir Berlin, who had arrived in New York from Germany, where he edited Ivri, met him. He told him, “As a brother in craft, I advise you to not conduct your editing here as was your manner in Slutsk. There, the rabbis of Israel occupied themselves in Torah and created novel Torah ideas, which they wrote down and sent to you to publish. From your side, you conducted yourself as per the custom of the wise people of Israel from generation to generation: ‘Even a father and his son, or a rabbi and his student, who are occupying themselves in Torah, and become enemies with each other’[vii]. You have hit them on the thigh as you have illuminated their words. Afterward, certainly the end of that [Talmudic] statement was certainly fulfilled: ‘they do not move from them until they become friends with each other.’ However, in this country, where the numbers who occupy themselves with Torah for its own sake are diminishing, and those who devise new halachic ideas are becoming fewer, if some day someone comes by chance to publish something, and you use your editorial powers to contradict his words, you will destroy him completely, and he will hate you thoroughly!”

In the year 5685 [1925], Rabbi Tomashoff made efforts to once again revive the anthology. After the First World War, several Torah giants arrived in America, including some who had participated in Yagdil Torah in Slutsk. Therefore, Rabbi Tomashoff felt that the time was ripe for this. However, rather than publishing it in a private manner as he had done to this point, it was now edited and published collectively by all the participants. The name of the anthology was also changed to Migdal Torah. In his introduction, the editor explains the reasons he used the segula[viii] of changing the name: “for no longer do we have any surrounding and separating wall. Breaches were made in the wall, and the air of the secular world has penetrated. The borders have become blurred, and the spirits have become intermixed. The secular air has become a stormy stream that uproots our limbs in its path. The holiness of Torah is evaporating from all the minds and secular cultures are coming and filling the space in the minds. When there is no wall, we must at least build a fortress [Migdal] to protect the status of the scholars who are sharpening each other in halacha, with live questions on deep matters of Torah, through which the debates themselves arouse is us the disappearing life force and the concealed light hidden within us.”

The booklet indeed made a great impression in the world of Torah, and many thought that the anthology will “return to its former strength.” But the “Mabi't” (as he always signed his introductions and notes in all issues that he edited, with the acronym of Moshe Binyamin Tomashoff) saw with his sharp eyes that this was merely an imaginary rally before its death throes, and that it would certainly not exist for long. After all the adventures that he endured in editing the anthology from Slutsk to New York, he was able to realize that he did not have the ability to continue that work at the level that he was used to, and he absolved himself.

After Rabbi Tomashoff decided to no longer continue as editor, he collected his numerous articles and novel ideas on halacha, and succeeded in publishing them. These include: Tikkun Gittin on the laws of Gittin [divorce], and his significant, three volume book, Avnei Shoham, on all areas of Talmud and rabbinic decisors. His books were accepted with love and reverence in all Torah circles, and the majority of rabbis use them for practical halacha.

After Rabbi Tomashoff came to New York, the publication of the anthology stopped in Slutsk, as is known, until Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky arrived during the 1920s to serve in the rabbinate. During those stormy years of fury, Rabbi Abramsky was inspired, together with Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, who was then the rabbi of Novozybkov, to renew the publication of Yagdil Torah in Slutsk, in order to blow a living breath among the other rabbis who remained in Soviet Russia. This period of self-sacrifice is indeed important, and it should be written about on its own. However, as far as our knowledge extends to the other side of that hidden [i.e. iron] curtain, it is possible to justly state that the Yagdil Torah anthology of Slutsk was perhaps the final one to utter a word of living Torah in that country, and also the first of its kind in the new country of America.

From among the participants in Yagdil Torah in Slutsk, under the editorship of M. B. Tomashoff, who are still alive, may the following rabbis and Gaonim live long (in alphabetical order): Eliyahu Yosef Henkin, Chaim BenZion Notelewitz, Yoel David Mozeszon, Yechezkel Abramsky, Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, Nissan Telushkin, Tzvi Pesach Frank, Reuven Katz, Shlomo Blazer, and Shlomo Yosef Zevin.

Editor's note: The sad news that Rabbi Binyamin Moshe Tomashoff died in New York on 6 Tevet, 5720 [1960] has reached us. May his memory be a blessing!

Original Footnotes

  1. Daat Kedoshim, page 228. Through the testimony of the author of Kaneh Chochma, Prd'a [Perhaps Pirkei Derabi Eliezer], 441. Return
  2. Yaven Metzula by Rabbi Natan Nota Hanover, page 58. Return
  3. Daat Kesoshim, ibid. Return
  4. Kiryah Neemana by Rabbi Sh. Y. Fuen, page 92, Vilna 5675 [1905] (in the book History of the Great Teachers by Shevach Knobil, where Lutzk is written in error instead of Slutsk. Return
  5. Tractate Yoma, 28b. Return
    1. (trans: there are two footnote 5 on this page, so I made the second one 5a) Shir Hashirim Rabba 87: “Every place where you find a large dot on what is written, capture the dot and leave what is written.” (trans: i.e. take an innuendo from the word or letters that have a dot on top.) Return
  6. Daat Kedoshim page 47. Return
  7. From the mouth of the elderly Rabbi Natan Kaplan, who learned in Slutsk during the times of Rabbi Meir the son of Rabbi Yosef, and the Ridva'z, and heard several statements on these matters from him. Return

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Based on Genesis 3:24. Return
  2. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shabbatai_HaKohen Return
  3. A term used for the Chmielnicki uprising and the destruction of Jewish communities in its wake. The term itself is the Hebrew acronym for the years 5408-5409, i.e., 1648-1649. Return
  4. Based on Exodus 32:20. Return
  5. See https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Wahl_Shaul Return
  6. The innuendo here seems to be that the letter from Rabbi Naftali Hertz may not have been written completely willingly. Return
  7. Tractate Kiddushin 30b. Return
  8. Roughly translates to “folk remedy” or “talisman.” Return


[Page 85]

The Head of the Yeshiva

by Rav Yosef Eliahu Henkin

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

The great scholar R'Isser Zalman Melamed z”l – all days of his life were one long chain of learning, teaching and acitivity. The days of his study in Volozhin were the days of the hunger for “enlightenment”; many of the students were attracted, but not this student. He continued studying Torah and was a good friend of the Rav, teacher in the Yeshiva, R'Chaim Soloveitchik z”l. When Volozhin was closed, he went to Radin.

After he married the daughter of R'Feivel Frank z”l from Kovno, his wife took upon herself the duty of providing sustenance, so that he could continue studying. He and his brother-in-law R'Epstein z”l were appointed heads of the Slobodka Yeshiva, without a salary.

At the time, the Sloboda Yeshiva was supported by the well-known donor R'Ovadia Lachman. During the great controversy concerning the study of “Morals” at the Yeshivas, according to the method of R'Salanter, the Kovno and Slobodka Yeshiva Heads were part of the opposition.

After arguments and changes, R'Isser Zalman had to decide whether to return to Slobodka or to settle in Slutsk. He was also busy at the time with taking to print his work on the Jerusalem Talmud.

After many hesitations, he decided to go with his family to Slutsk. Yet, the arguments between the rabbis in Slutsk deterred him from stabilizing the situation of the Yeshiva; therefore he took upon himself to take care of the ordinary physical needs of the Yeshiva as well – and he did both things with great success.

His lessons were liked and appreciated more than the lessons of the other teachers in the Yeshivas, and his talks on the subject of Morals made a huge impression, and I remember some of the talks he gave between the afternoon and evening prayers [between Mincha and Ma'ariv], which filled our hearts with the fear of God, in particular during the month of Elul and the “Ten days of repentance,” as he would often burst in tears. From 1897 to 1904 he served as teacher. He was also Head of the Religious Court in Slutsk, and was busy publishing his writings, as well.

After that, they appointed R'Isser Zalman Rabbi and Head of the Religious Court and the other rabbi remained only in the yeshiva in Zaretse Street and surroundings.

Since then, the Yeshiva developed more and more, until finally it built its own fine building, after having wandered from the synagogue on Zaretse, to Ostrover, to the Taylors, to the Kloiz, all in parallel to the well-known “exiles” of the Sanhedrin. Hundreds of students flowed to the Yeshiva of Slutsk and its name became famous. One of its branches became the Yeshiva of Shklow, as the scholar Fruskin z”l was sent there to serve as teacher. The Slutsk students opened a Yeshiva in Stołpce as well, with the help of the Head of the Religious Court there.

At the time the yeshiva was located in the Ostrova Bet Midrash, the “enlightenment” movement and secular studies spread among the students. The Yeshiva immediately prohibited secular studies and reading newspapers. Some of the students left and opened a new yeshiva. Rabbi Isser Zalman, firm and stubborn, fought against any deviation from the accepted ways of the yeshivas – only our holy Torah and its commentaries should be the guides of Judaism.

The Odessa Yeshiva was different from the others: its leaders introduced Torah and general Education together and it became known as a shelter for those who left Torah, and the name “Yeshiva” was kept only as a cover.

At that time, however, the Rav Reines z”l founded a yeshiva in Lydda, for the study of Torah and other studies, but his hopes that its level of Torah study would be high were not fulfilled and the students' bags were full of books by the new Hebrew writers and writers in other languages. The same was the fate of other yeshivas, founded next to older yeshivas, as that of Slutsk and some others. However, the Etz-Chaim Yeshiva, under the directorship of Rabbi Isser Zalman, grew, and hundreds of students from near and far came to study. During WWI, the worries of the Head of the Yeshiva were great: he had to watch and make sure that the students should not be mobilized and sent to battle and he was concerned with the city matters as well, as the chief rabbi: refugees from Poland and Lithuania filled the town and he had to take care of their needs. Epidemics erupted, and the rabbi fought like a hero to keep everything in order.

During the days of the Revolution and the victory of the Bolsheviks, he made every effort to keep the yeshiva and the Talmud Torah functioning and he was arrested and saved by the fact that he was liked and respected by the leftists for his deep devotion to the poor and the oppressed. Finally he was forced to escape to Kletsk, which belonged to Poland, and remained there several years; after his son-in-law the scholar Rabbi Kotler became the Head of the yeshiva, he made Aliya to the Holy Land.

In addition to his holy work at the Etz Chaim Yeshiva in Jerusalem,

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and printing his writings, he became the main authority in all religious matters and was a great help to his fellows. I shall not exaggerate if I say that thousands of letters asking for help for individuals and institutions were received from him in New York, most of them in his own handwriting. Only during the last year of his life somebody wrote the letters for him and he would sign them. Some of the letters reached our office after his death.

Here are described some of the ways of the scholar, who brought light to the children of Israel by his study, his deeds and his merits. He was the father of his students and the teachers who worked with him.

He supported me personally as well and helped me establish the yeshiva in Stołpce and sent me students from Slutsk.

May he rest in peace and may his eternal rest be of honor.

(From his book that appeared in New York 1951)


The Eitz Chaim Yeshiva

by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Meltzer

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Edited by Jane S. Gabin

 

 

This great wonder that is called the nation of Israel, in exile for two thousand years, is accompanied by unique phenomena that have no equal among any nation or language. Even its history, which developed in accordance with its own internal statutes, is almost wholly a concealed mystery in the eyes of the researchers of the world.

The personalities, which stem from this or that corner in a specific era of the history of the nation of Israel, did not have physical dominion, and had no power to actualize things. Nevertheless, their holy teachings were for all the members of our nation, and nobody would dare contradict their words.

Under such circumstances, a great person who makes history is not forced to serve in the rabbinate in a large city, in a splendid metropolis. It is possible that he is not even a rabbi at all, and is nevertheless a leader with high authority. Therefore, even small towns became famous for being the dwelling place of a prominent person. Torah and teaching would emanate from them to the Nation of Israel in each and every place.

Slutsk also belongs to towns of that type. It is a modest sized city in White Russia. Its name became synonymous for Torah and wisdom in the Jewish Diaspora. We have clear information about the beginning of the Jewish settlement in Slutsk one thousand years ago. I saw a family tree from Rabbi Aharon Kotler, may he live long, that details eighteen generations of rabbis, son following father. Sixteen of them are from Slutsk. Eleven generations ago, Slutsk also served as an administrative center, as one of the capitals of the Council of the Four Lands. Brisk, Litovsk, and Slutsk competed for that honor. This matter was decided in favor of Slutsk for the reason that the number of complete sets of Talmuds in Slutsk was greater than the number of individual tractates in the city.

 

Memories from My Childhood

Impressions of childhood are etched deep in the heart of the tender child, and are never erased. The adult recalls with awe his bright childhood days, connected to the home of Father and Mother with an abundance of affection and love that will never return, and will not be granted to an adult in his difficult struggles of life.

The image of Rabbi Shimon the Shamash is painted before me as if alive. His relationship to this position reached back to several generations of rabbis, all of whom served in faithfulness and respectful awe. He served the great Gaon, Rabbi Meir Feimer, the son of Rabbi Yossele Feimer, one of the primary students of Rabbi Chaim, the founder of the famous Yeshiva of Volozhin. After him, he also served the Ridba'z[1].

I also recall the stories of Rabbi Yosef Feimer, may the memory of the righteous be blessed. The glory of royalty was etched on his face. He was meticulous about manners. They said of him that he never changed the paved stones upon which he walked over the course of decades on the way from his house to the synagogue. His relationships with members of the community was one of mutual honor. The community revered him, and he honored the community.

Following him, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik served in the rabbinate. He was the complete opposite of his predecessor: a stormy soul, vibrant, dynamic, impulsive, triggered and prepared for the battle for principles and ideas. He arrived in Slutsk during the chilling era of snatchings for the army – the Cantonists – under the order of the inimical Czar Nikolai I. he fought against the accepted custom of giving over the children of poor people to the army, and decreed that the children of the wealthy be given in their place, for their parents could always find the necessary means to redeem them. It once happened that a poor child was snatched. The Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov risked his life, broke through the gate behind which the child was imprisoned, and saved him. When the lessee of the meat tax once approached him in the slaughterhouse to request a ban on outside meat, out of suspicion of obstacles, the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov ordered his wife to remove from the cowshed the cow that that lessee had previously given over for the needs of the family of the rabbi, and to return it to him. When she did not hasten to do so, he arose himself, untied the cow, turned to the lessee, and said: “I have already taken out your cow

[Page 87]

and now you can present your complaint to me”[2]. He did not show favoritism to any person, and there was constant friction between him and the wealthy people of the city.

His custom was to descend on the Sabbath from his place at the eastern wall, where the city parnassim [administrators] would be seated with their boxes of aromatic tobacco made of silver or gold, and to give the poor tailor, with his wooden box, the honor of a snuff of tobacco. It is clear that these steps were offensive to the stronghanded parnassim, and they made his life difficult to the point that he was forced to leave the city.

Rabbi Meir Feimer was appointed in his place. He had the image of his father, may the memory of the righteous be blessed, and peace between the citizens of the city and the rabbi was restored. However, the revolutionary kernel planted by the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov began to bear fruit. New ideas and different outlooks changed the status of the parnassim. This apparently caused Rabbi Meir to depart.

In accordance with his recommendation, the Ridba'z was invited to take his place. He was quickly exposed as a new edition of the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov, who went with the masses and did not subordinate himself to the statues of the strong-handed city parnassim. His stance moved a portion of the city leaders to invite Rabbi Meir Feimer to live among them, not as a rabbi, but rather as a resident of the city who would serve as their spiritual guide. He acceded to their urging. Relations between him and the Ridba'z were tense, and he once again left Slutsk, leaving behind his son to serve as rabbi for a portion of the residents of the city.

 

The Idea of Establishing a Yeshiva in Slutsk

During that period, the Ridba'z considered the idea of founding a branch of the Slobodka Yeshiva in Slutsk. For this purpose, he approached Rabbi Nota Hirsch Finkel “The Elder” may the memory of the righteous be blessed, and asked for his consent to that plan. His request was based on the fact that Slutsk was the gate to White Russia and the areas of central Russia that border it and have large Jewish populations. “The Elder” approved his recommendation, and sent a group of excellent students (they were called the Yad Hachazaka[3] because they numbered 14) to Slutsk to found the Yeshiva. My revered father of blessed memory – in whose beat[?] the pioneering spirit of disseminating Torah – was chosen as the head of the new Yeshiva. As he was young at that time, he was considered one of the excellent Yeshiva heads of his generation, and was revered by all his students. It should be noted that all those who moved to Slutsk with my father later became known as Torah greats of good repute, leaders of stature, and famous rabbis throughout the entire Jewish Diaspora.

 

The Development of the Yeshiva

When it was first founded, there were serious doubts about the possibility of maintaining this enterprise. The difficult pains of spiritual and physical absorption placed the issue of the existence of the Yeshiva into doubt. As it forged a new pedagogical path based on the Mussar [moral teachings] doctrine of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the Yeshiva encountered opposition in Slutsk and its environs, where the traditions of earlier Yeshivas with different pedagogical styles still pervaded. The struggle of the rabbinate between the Ridba'z and Rabbi Meir also left its mark. There was even an attempt by the followers of Rabbi Meir to establish a competing Yeshiva. Since the other Yeshiva was based on negative foundations, its founders lacked the enthusiasm and dedication required to direct and organize a holy task such as this. For these reasons, that Yeshiva was set up for quick failure, and it closed.

The situation of the Yeshiva was difficult because the Ridba'z, who had promised to bear the yoke of maintaining the Yeshiva, left Slutsk a short time after my father, may the memory of the righteous be blessed, arrived. The entire financial burden fell upon the shoulders of the Yeshiva head. The young Yeshiva head only took upon himself the dissemination of Torah, and was not prepared to bear the financial burden. The situation was difficult to the point that my father, may the memory of the righteous be blessed, lost his strength, and decided to return to Slobodka despite his great intentions. He said, “'And when the cloud was raised up, thy travelled… by G-d's word they camped and by G-d's word the traveled.'[4] It has disappeared, and we must travel and return to Slobodka.”

However, providence wished otherwise. A certain wonderful Jew named Rabbi Kushi (Rabbi Yekutiel) Izak Golda's hear about the decision of my father, may the memory of the righteous be blessed, and said to him, “I have the tradition that the Yeshiva is like the ark of the covenant, which bears its bearers, and there is no place for worry.” He gave himself over to the enterprise, found sources for the maintenance of the Yeshiva, and saved the enterprise from collapsing. My revered father, may the memory of the righteous be blessed, decided to remain. This Reb Kushi was merely a shopkeeper who devoted most of his time to Torah. The Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov said about him, “Would it be that I would merit to pray on the Days of Awe as Rabbi Kushi prays throughout all the days of the year.”

Such were the Jews of Slutsk, who worked and toiled faithfully. Their entire essence was given over to Torah and its preservation. For its sake, they knew no weariness or tiredness. Their work was without expectation of personal benefit or even the hint of honor. They were in the category of hidden righteous people. They themselves as well as the world at large did not know the magnitude of their righteousness.

The Yeshiva continued to develop, and the size of its student body grew. At the outset, it moved from place to place, from the synagogue on Zarece Street to the Ostrowa Synagogue at the edge of the city, and from there to the Tailors' Synagogue in the center of the city. Only after several years did it merit its own splendid building.

 

The Yeshiva and the City

Hundreds of Yeshiva students became an inseparable part of the landscape of the city, because the lads were not housed in dormitories, as is the custom in our times, but rather, rooms were rented for them from various householders in all sections of the city {Stancia}. They took their meals with them, or with various families in the city for a fee – and a small portion of them for free (Yamim)[5]. The distribution to various places to sleep and eat in all areas of the city ensured that their presence would be noticed in every corner. They filled the city with their bustle and appearance.

Lads gathered in the Yeshiva from all areas of wide Russia. They came from Moscow, Petersburg, and even the far-off Caucasus. Their influence is noticeable in the Caucasus to this day, for the Yeshiva educated its students for pioneering and for the dissemination of Torah. Its former students established Yeshivas even in the Caucasus. The elderly Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu Henkin, currently, the director of Ezras Torah in the United States, was among the first students of the Yeshiva of Slutsk, and he was also the first to reach the Caucasus and found a Yeshiva there.

After him, the Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Asher Sandomirski, may he live long, made aliya to the Land of Israel. He lives with us in Tel Aviv. With a delegation of rabbis from America, he tells us about the religious life that developed among the Jews of Dagestan in the Caucasus. One can state with certainty that this matter was to a large degree the fruits of the diligence of the students of Slutsk, who knew how to establish an educated generation in a far-off land – a generation that could stand proudly and strongly against the obstacles of the times and the strong pressure from the area and the rulers of the country.

[Page 88]

The Yeshiva gave forth a significant number of rabbis who served in important communities. Many of them are currently found in the entire Jewish Diaspora, especially in the United States. In Slutsk itself, the students actively participated in the organizing of cultural life, and they played an active role in various communal endeavours. Many of them bore the flag of Chibat Tzion, and the connection to the Land of the Fathers, in the spirit of the Yeshiva head, whose influence upon his students was strong.

As is known, my revered father, may the memory of the righteous be blessed, was imbued with a deep, boundless love of Zion. In his time, he was a member of the secret Nes Tziona organization in the Yeshiva of Volozhin. He invested his entire dowry into purchasing land in the area of Hadera.

Even though Zionism was not preached in the Yeshiva in the usual sense of the term, the aspiration to a return to Zion was the lot of the majority of the students.

 

The Role of Slutsk in the Maintenance of the Yeshiva

Just as the tabernacle [Mishkan] in its time, so it was with Slutsk; every man and woman brought their contribution to the building of the Yeshiva, from the screen to the rafters. The day of the dedication of the building turned into a great festival for all the residents of the city. In addition, the residents of the city concerned themselves with the Yeshiva students, and demonstrated their connection and love in various ways. Indeed, other Yeshivas existed in Slutsk, but this was “the Yeshiva” and the pride of the residents.

 

Its Objective and the Reason for its Success

The success of the Yeshiva of Slutsk can be attributed to several factors. However, the reason for its flourishing and influence is based on the principal that it had a clear objective in the eyes of its founders. It forged new, daring ways in understanding the light of the Torah and its dissemination among all strata of the people: it came to the point where the methodology of Torah study endangered the essence of Torah life. Along with other Lithuanian Yeshivas, the Yeshiva of Slutsk took a revolutionary step in the long tradition of Yeshivas. It had the good, unwavering support of the halachic giants, who stressed the essence of halachic depth.

This approach arose with the new winds in Europe that began to burst through the wall of Jewish separatism. New problems demanded their solutions before they would break and overwhelm the ancient structure. The time came to broaden the horizon, to deepen the understanding of Torah, and to expose points of contact that would strengthen its influence in day-to-day life.

The first one to take a step to realize this plan was Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. Following him, other Yeshivas recognized the need to educate the students in public affairs, and toward the responsibility of Torah studiers to forge the spiritual image of the generation of tomorrow, to fortify it against negative influences that might shake the castle to its foundations. Static thinking without new methodologies is bound to fail. The new Yeshivas, the Yeshiva of Slutsk among them, saved the foundation by creating new vessels for the youth who were fighting the battle for the existence and uniqueness of the nation. Students of those Yeshivas placed themselves as a fortified wall against the attempts of assimilation, whether from the side of the Berlin school, or from the side of the various socialist movements, all of which led to the path of spiritual, religious and national destruction.

 

Words of Conclusion

We are dutybound to admit and to beat our breasts in confession that Yeshiva education did not succeeded in bringing a decisive negation of the exile. Perhaps this was expressed through the desire and necessity of fighting against the worrying phenomena in their own locations. Due to the need to fight against the danger of spiritual annihilation, they did not sense the collapsing of the ground of the Diaspora beneath the feet of the Jewish nation, and they did not enlist in the battle against indifference to the idea of the return to Zion. This tragic episode is deeper than the abyss, and we cannot define it or judge it. The ways of Providence are hidden from us. “As the Heavens are higher than the earth, thus are My ways loftier than your ways, and My thoughts loftier than your thoughts, for My ways are not your ways, and My thoughts are not your thoughts, says G-d”[6].

We do not understand why the awakening for the redemption that began with the Baal Shem Tov and the Gr'a [Vilna Gaon] did not take hold with their students, and their students' students. Indeed, the Yeshiva of Slutsk will remain as a memory until the victory of the spirit and will over the various obstacles. Its contribution to the golden chain of the Jewish nation will be thought of as a firm possession. All the creativity of the great Yeshivas, even in their destruction, has recognizable influence in all aspects of our lives from generation to generation.

The Yeshiva of Slutsk-Kletzk also merited to strike roots in the Land. As is known, the Yeshiva moved from Slutsk to Kletzk during the time of the Bolshevik rule in Russia. The Yeshiva continued in Kletzk for approximately twenty years as one of the great Yeshivas of Lithuania and Poland. It was headed by the Gaon Rabbi Aharon Kotler, may he live long. However, destruction also overtook it during the time of the terrible Holocaust. The Yeshiva head, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, succeeded in arriving in the United States, and he immediately established a splendid Yeshiva in Lakewood. My revered father, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing, actualized his aspirations during his youth: When the Yeshiva moved from Slutsk to Kletzk, he remained there for about two years, and then moved to the Holy Land to disseminate Torah in the old Eitz Chaim Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He raised up hundreds of students, some of whom disseminate Torah in the Holy Land. This period was among the brightest in the life of my revered father, may the memory of the righteous be blessed, who aspired to education students who would be teachers of the children of Israel.

The Yeshiva of Slutsk also merited a second incarnation. Immediately after the great Holocaust, a memorial to the Yeshiva of Slutsk-Kletzk was set up in Pardes Chana. From there, the Yeshiva moved to Rehovot, and it is known today as “Yeshivat Hadarom” founded upon the Yeshiva of Slutsk-Kletzk. That Yeshiva takes an honorable place among the new Yeshivas in the Land, and it is developing with great speed.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Rabbi Yaakov David Wilovsky. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaakov_Dovid_Wilovsky. Return
  2. He did not want to be influenced by the favor that the lessee did to him. Return
  3. Yad Hachazaka is the title of the 14-volume Mishne Torah of the Rambam. It literally means “Strong Hand.” The word Yad יד has the numerical value of 14. Return
  4. Based on Numbers 9:15-23 Return
  5. The terms Stancia and Yamim are the known terms for the concepts described. Yamim literally means “days“=8; and refers to the idea of Yeshiva lad eating meals at various householders on a rotation basis. Return
  6. From Isaiah 55:9-8 [i.e. in reverse order] with slight paraphrasing. Return

 

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