Rabbi Hayim's life is wrapped in many legends. One of them told that his father was son of the bartender, who used to sell alcoholic beverages in Volozhin. He married a woman from Piesk a shtetl near Horodno. The matrimonial relations were bad and they divorced. The woman returned to her parents in Piesk. The husband remained at his father's house in Volozhin.
Both towns belonged to Count Tishkevitsh, the Polish magnate. Once visiting his possessions the Count encountered in the Volozhin tavern a sorrowful young man. Asking for the sorrow reason he has been told the divorce story. The Count, landlord of both shtetls', decided to help the bartender's family. He ordered the woman to leave Piesk and to renew her family life in Volozhin. She came back. The reconciled couple had five children, one of them Rabbi Hayim.
At the age of 12 the child was taught by Rabbi Refoel from Hamburg who served then as the official rabbi in Volozhin district. At the age of 15 Rabbi Hayim's teaching passed to the great and famous Rabbi Shaagass Arye (The Lion's Roar).
HagRA (Hagaon Rabbi Eliyahu) from Vilna
Rabbi Hayim was the first among all the students of Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Genius.
Rabbi Hayim was very much inspired and influenced by the great man. He used to visit his teacher in Vilna three to four times a year. He used to spread before the Gaon the multiple questions he had gathered and noted on a list. The questions were clarified and answered one by one.
Rabbi Avrom the Gaon's son told that each generation has two kinds of sages. The first are like a fountainhead, they spread intelligence from their inside and might be compared to the sun. The second are not able to create something of them, only to receive and they might be compared to the moon. Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner belongs to the first category; all his multiple ideas and thoughts were born in his brain.
R' Hayim was in many ways equal to his luminous teacher. Often The Gaon consulted Rabbi Hayim in Torah problems. It's told that once arriving in Vilna R' Hayim found his Rabbi in a sad mood, because of problems in clarifying a chapter in the Jerusalem Talmud. Rabbi Hayim deepened his study into the difficult issue and discovered the correct explanation for it. Rabbi Eliyahu's face lit up upon hearing Rabbi Hayim's interpretation.
Rabbi Hayim learned from the Gaon that Torah Study is a fruit of very hard brain toil. Once he complained that he repeated his lecture nineteen times and was still not skilled in this matter. The Gaon asked and answered And do you want to reach skill in nineteen repetitions? To reach it should a man learn infinitely!
I observed that prior to founding of God's House by our sainted Rabbi; chaos reigned in the Jewish world. Nobody knew what a yeshiva is and nobody had heard about Torah study in public. Torah, Mishnah and holy books were accessible to elected and very rich people only. Even in town synagogues a complete set of the six Mishnah and Gemora Books were lacking. There was no demand for them, they were not in use. But when the Yeshiva started acting, a demand for Mishnah and Gemora Books arose. The books were gathered in multiple towns and sent to the Yeshiva students. A printing house in Slaviata, seeing that the books were in use, printed hundreds of them. Many Mishnah and Gemora books dispersed among the Jewish congregations. During the first year of the Volozhin Yeshiva functioning I saw many tradesmen coming in Volozhin to see what's going on. They were astonished to see dozens of distinguished scholars learning Torah day and night.
As Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner was persuaded that the holy Torah is the basis of the world, and encouraged by the most outstanding men of the time he decided to establish in Volozhin the Yeshiva to spread the Torah wisdom in the Poland - Lithuania Diaspora. He did not undertake the assignment lightheartedly. Although believing that his people risked peril if Torah study was not strengthened he was not convinced that he was the man to bear this crown and be strong enough to accomplish this enormous work.
Rabbi Hayim lay the cornerstone for the Yeshiva in the year 5663 (1803), six years after Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon died. The legend goes that laying the stone, Rabbi Hayim broke in tears and his hot tears were absorbed into the stone. The Yeshiva stood literally upon Rabbi Hayim's tears. During generations they protected the Yeshiva and contributed to the institution's magnificence.
R' Hayim was accepted as the Volozhin town Rabbi at the age of 25 and served this office during the years 5633-5649 (1773-1789). He was accepted as the Vilkomir town Rabbi in 5650 (1790) to replace the genial R' Shlomo called the Great, one of the prominent students of the Vilna Gaon. After R' Shlomo died the leaders of the Vilkomir congregation put a black cover upon his chair and refused to accept anyone to replace him. In their opinion only R' Hayim was worthy for this honorable function. R' Hayim left Vilkomir refusing to receive any salary, earning his living from the linen factory in Volozin. He returned to his birth-town, where he was honorably and heartily welcomed. R' Hayim served as the Volozhin Rabbi until his last day.
Rabbi Hayim published his appeal about the Eyts Hayim Yeshiva foundation in the ten penitential days between New Year and Atonement day in 5663 (1803).
As representatives of the people, we are sorrowful to see the Torah estimation diminishing from day to day. In no way may we say our public estrangement from the Torah is due to sacrilege or rebellion. There are many who desire learn, but they lack a piece of bread, and those who have it and want to study do not have teachers. The reason for it is our region's great men. Each one of them builds a Heder (Room) for himself thinking: I'm saving myself, because our public does not like learning.
And now I hear people saying that time for Torah study arrived. The children of Israel are hungry and thirsty, their soul is longing for the holy Books. But since the days when keeping Yeshiva-Houses in our regions ceased - the learning of Scriptures stopped, Yeshiva students dispersed like sheep without herdsmen.
Many eminent men approached me asking to accomplish this Mitzvah...
Truly, I'm conscious that the value of my brain is too small to raise this giant project. But when I see the Torah's value lessening I understood that if we do nothing, our brothers, Heaven forbid, may remain without teachers and the temple doors might close.
I could not remain silent. I decided not to refuse the pleading voices. And just like the least of the synagogue beadles who calls the congregation to prayers so am I asking you, my brothers to hear my message.
And all of us who are attached to the Almighty, blessed be his name, believers children of believers who believe that our Holy Torah is the vitality of our spirit and that the entire world is established on our faith, particularly since we lost all our goods when we were exiled from our Holy Land since this time we have nothing except our Torah study. We must be ashamed seeing our Holiest Torah thrown on soil.
Brothers, children of Israel! The time has come to fence the breach and to hold to God's Torah with all our strength. I call volunteers to teach and volunteers to finance. Everyone approaching the Holy Torah will live forever. And let me be the first volunteer in heart and soul to be among the teachers and with God's help to maintain the students according to their needs.
During the little time since this started I was able to gather a small group of Jewish children. They tasted the Torah taste and took upon them the Torah Burden.
And now that I have dared to jump into the teaching leadership I ask men of my age to join the sacred duty. I call you, Children of Israel, please hold to the truth not to abandon the Tree of life planted in the high seas, Because one who ceases his holding on this Tree branch would be swept by the stormy water and lost forever.
Signed by Hayim son of our teacher R' Itskhok blessed be his memory, here in Volozhin at the first of the ten Atonement days in 5663 (1803).
When Rabbi Hayim founded the Yeshiva he owned a cloth factory in Volozhin. He used to sign his letters modestly Hayim BMoHarItz (Ben Moreynu Harav Itzkhak- our teacher Rabbi Itzhok's son), the Melamed (tutor) from Volozhin. However, as commented rightfully by Rabbi Meyir Bar Ilan in his book From Volozhin to Jerusalem even if Rabbi Hayim did not use the title of Yeshiva Head as his signature, he was still the Head of all Yeshiva Heads.
Initially a dozen students were assembled in the Yeshiva, a nucleus of talent and capability. It was an unusual event to gather so many big talents in a single small town Yeshiva yeshiva. A rule Rabbi Hayim fixed at the beginning blocked entrance to the Yeshiva to people lacking talent. Every one before entering the institution had to pass a test of Gemora understanding. Only the best were accepted.
The Rabbi fed and dressed his students, took care of their housing and health .He was happy in their happiness and sorry in their pain.
A folk-tale demonstrates the Rabbi's care for his students: Rabbi Hayim ordered a pair of heavy coarse peasant boots. He answered nothing when questioned about their purpose. At an early winter dawn he was seen wearing the heavy boots and walking back and forth in the heavy snow. What are you doing so early Rabbi? asked to prayer-going inhabitants. I'm pressing the snow to make an easy path to the Yeshiva for my poor students.
Rabbi Hayim abolished the humiliating habit of eating days which sent the student to eat his meals each day at the table of another Volozhin resident. From now the student was paid an allowance sufficient to his living. Rabbi Hayim cared for his student's honor; he introduced the name Yeshiva-Man replacing the usual Yeshiva-Boy nickname.
Rabbi Hayim referred to his students like equals, from whom he could learn. He followed the Psalms Song's writing: As for water, the great should not ashamed to ask the small for some water to drink; so in Torah ways the great should not be ashamed to ask the small one to teach him a chapter, or a law.
And to know what the students thought about their teacher he used to act according to tradition. Each year at Purim Holiday a student as Purim Rabbi was chosen by the students to replace the Yeshiva head. The Rabbi chosen for one day had the right during this single day to tell in public openheartedly the students' and his opinions about the institution's functioning and its management. Rabbi Hayim regarded seriously the students' suggestions and during the coming year he would repair all that required fixing.
With time passing the students' number grew. The cloth factory's income became not sufficient to support all of them. Rabbi Hayim turned to the generation's leaders asking for help. At the 16th day in the month of Iyar 5563 (1804) a manifesto was signed by the great Rabonim (among them R' Avram the Vilna Gaon's son. It was sent to distant congregations outside Lithuania asking support for the Volozhin Yeshiva.
We see many diligent believers and Torah lovers assembled in the shadow of our Master and teacher the prodigious Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner to learn the Holy Torah day and night. Now when we found out that God Almighty is blessing his ways we dare to call our distant brothers to help us to reinforce the Volozhin Yeshiva economically. We will do the big work jointly, we from here and you from there. Together we shall strengthen the Torah study and hold the weakened Torah Pillar
The conviction that Torah study is the essence of life was the basis of Rabbi Hayim's foreword to Rabbi Eliyahu-the Vilna Gaon's Book of Modesty.
I heard Rabbi Eliyahu saying that many times he was offered to be enlightened in Torah secrets by a messenger and to appropriate ultimate knowledge without effort. The Gaon refused the preacher's implorations. - I do not want to attain achievements and knowledge through any medium. I ask the Almighty, blessed be His name, to reveal and to give me my part in Torah knowledge through hard work. He will accord me cleverness, wisdom and understanding. I do not have any use of achievements and knowledge delivered by messengers and Torah-ministers I desire to attain them only by hard labor.
Rabbi Hayim describes in his Book The Soul of Life the theoretical basis for the necessity of continuous Torah study.
It is written in the Holy Scripts: - Tree of Life for its Holders - every one shall imagine himself as drowning in stormy water and revealing a strong tree. He surely would hold the tree and hug on it. He would not lose the grip even for a second, because his very life depends on this grip. Immediately after letting go he'll die. So the holy Book is called Eytz Hayim Tree of Life Only when one is beholding our holy Torah in love and he deals and thinks about it permanently, only than he may live a true, a perfect life. If, Heaven forbid, would he neglect or abandon the Torah study and prefers dealing with mundane pleasures, he should be cut from the supreme life and drown in malicious waters.
If, Heaven forbid, the world had been completely free, even for a single moment from observing and learning our holy Torah by the chosen people, in such circumstances the whole world would be destroyed. A single son of Israel might have the power to save the world and the whole creation when deepening in our holy Torah study.
We may conclude from above, that Torah learning is significant not only for the person learning it, but it's most important for the existence of entire cosmos. Rabbi Hayim implemented this theory. He took care that in the Volozhin Yeshiva the Torah study would not be interrupted even for a moment. Its doors were never locked. The Gemora learning melody was never hushed. Reb Hayim arranged study night shifts, every day and even at Shabbats and Holy days. He would visit the institution by night to check the learner's vigilance. Every year, at the end of Yom Kippur Reb Hayim would himself study inside the Yeshiva until midnight. He worried lest there would be a single student able to pass the evening after the most tiring fast day alert in learning, so he accomplished this mission himself.
Rabbi Hayim's learning method was the Straight Thinking, not the pilpul casuistry. He followed Rabbi Eliyahu's from Vilna ideology, which put significance on the literal meaning to understand the problem simply from the origin without mixing hints and secret signs.
The Straight method took root in Volozhin, whence it spread widely to other institutions. Many students from different schools where the learning was based on pilpul used to pass a certain time in Volozhin to feel the perfume of the special Volozhin learning way.
His Life Spirit is a book of ethics, which shows ways to attain moral perfection.
One of the origins of his learning is the abstaining from world pleasures. He adopted this life style from R' Eliyahu the Vilna Gaon; about whom it was told that his meal consisted from bread, water and olives, the last ones he used to swallow without chewing in order not to feel the pleasure of their taste.
R' Hayim argued that learning shall always be prior to eating. It is written Bread with salt you will eat (in future) but Torah you're laboring (in present - Now). Because, eating, i.e. stuffing the body entrails with something substantial is a must, without which you cannot live. But luxurious additions are obsolete and therefore stupid. On the contrary abstemiousness is the basis of modesty.
R' Hayim as opposed to R' Eliyahu from Vilna did not support self-taught learning. He was persuaded that hearing lessons given by a teacher is more efficient, because the master inserts life in the written word. The autodidactic student has not an authority to remove doubts. That's the reason for Asse Leha Rav Make for Yourself a Teacher. And therefore he lengthened his lessons, entered in details, multiplied explanations until the subject was completely understood and comprehended.
R' Hayim's teaching success was concealed in his knowledge of the student's soul.
He understood that attaining his educational purposes requires carefulness in order not to depress the pupil's personality and to preserve his intellectual freedom. Not only did he answer questions, but he used also to encourage asking them in order to create and to revive a dialogue.
About the sages' sentence Not meticulous shall be the teacher he used to say If the pupil asks once for explanation and he's answered ridiculously or with anger, for a second time he will not ask. The teacher shall enjoy the questions and find in it a utility for himself, because sometimes the truth is with the student, and the small tree may ignite the big one.
R' Hayim took care to develop the self-opinion of his students A human being without an opinion is not worth compassion.
People not pedantic with deeds and opinions, accepting all possible contradictions are mediocre; moreover, they are lacking morals. Moral principles are based on distinction of opinions and on fixing relations upon them.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Volozhin, Belarus Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2019 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 23 Sep 2006 by LA