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Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro

by Shimon Zak (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

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A.

Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro was born in Volozhin on the second day of Sukkot 5640 [1879] to his father Reb Yeshaya and his mother Sara. During his childhood, he studied writing and arithmetic along with the religious subjects, but from the age of 12 and beyond, he only studied Gemara from expert Torah teachers, especially from his rabbi, Rabbi Ziskind.

In those days, a public school for Jewish children was opened in Volozhin by the Russian authorities, as was the case in other Russian cities. The child Moshe Shmuel, wishing to also become educated in secular subjects, registered as a student at the new school. However, Rabbi Ziskind summoned the child's mother and warned her that if Moshe Shmuel does not leave the school, he will be “removed from his cheder.” In accordance with the demands of his mother – a typical Jewish mother who excelled in her natural intelligence and love and reverence for Torah masters and students, and who played a great role in the education of her three sons in the study of Torah and the fear of Heaven – the lad left the school.

During his childhood, Moshe Shmuel witnessed all the difficulties that afflicted the famous Yeshiva in his native city, and the changes that took place in its leadership: the closing of the Yeshiva by the Russian government in the year 5652 [1892], and its reopening in the year 5655 [1895] when Rabbi Meir Levin, who had been the rabbi of Moscow, was accepted as rabbi in Volozhin. The lives of the residents of the city of Volozhin were connected with the life of the Yeshiva in many ways, and the closing of the Yeshiva was a cause for heavy mourning in the city. This event also greatly moved the heart and tender soul of the lad Moshe Shmuel.

In the year 5663 [1903], Rabbi Moshe Shmuel married Chaya, the daughter of the Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Avraham Abba Zak, may G-d avenge his blood, the rabbi of Olshad (Alsėdžiai) in the Lithuanian area of Zamot [Zhemaitiya]. Both in the time he studied in Yeshiva, and after his marriage, Rabbi Moshe Shmuel excelled in his diligence and dedication to the study of Torah. With this, he also felt himself comfortable in world culture and the new Hebrew literature. However, he would only peer into the Haskalah books incidentally, literally at a time that was not day or night[i]. His primary world was with the Talmud, and its early and later commentators. His true love of Torah burned inside him, and that was his entire

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interest, in accordance with the ancient poet: “Your Torah is my desire.”[ii] His broad and deep Torah knowledge was not a source of income, or a means of any practical application. He satisfied himself with a life of simplicity and modesty both at that time, as well as in later years. A desire for an expansive life was foreign to him. However, he was one of those who grasped a great deal in matters of the spirit: his occupation in such gave purpose to his life and was the source of his happiness. This is the sublime meaning of “Torah for its own sake” – if one says “Torah” – it says everything.

 

B.

After several years, Rabbi Yisrael Moshe traveled to Kovno and studied in the Kollel there for one year. There, he was ordained to the rabbinate by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh of Kovno and Rabbi Moshe Danishevski of Slobodka. Then, he studied for a period in the Kollel of Rabbi Hayim Ozer in Vilna. He collected material for his book “Our Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin” while he was in Vilna. Then, Rabbi Moshe Shmuel studied for about three years in the Kibbutz of Rabbi Itzele of Ponevezh. After his marriage, Moshe Shmuel fulfilled the words of our sages: “Exile yourself to a place of Torah”[iii]. Until his marriage, he had only studied in Volozhin. In the year 5674 [1914], Rabbi Moshe Shmuel was invited to give classes in the Yeshiva that was founded in the town of Aniksht [Anykštis]. However, the First World War broke out at the end of the year, and the Yeshiva was closed.

The Yeshiva of Volozhin remained his spiritual birthplace throughout all his wanderings to places of Torah. Even though at times he expressed his dismay over the lack of direction in the study paths of the Yeshiva heads during a specific period, it remains a fact that it was not only his fundamental knowledge in Talmud and its commentaries that he obtained from the Volozhin Yeshiva, which he later deepened and broadened through diligence and dedication throughout the years until he became one of the Torah greats – but this Yeshiva also forged his moral personality and his spiritual image. The years of his study and education in Volozhin were decisive years in his life, the light of which shone in him until his last day. The warmth that his soul absorbed during those early years of his life remained etched in the fire of love for the Yeshiva of Volozhin and its Torah. Its influence never ceased throughout all the days of his life. The physical uprooting from the world of Volozhin in the midst of difficult life conditions – and later also from the world of scholarly Lithuania – did not cause a spiritual uprooting from that world. He remained faithful to the tradition and spirit of Volozhin. Typical of his soulful connection to the Yeshiva of Volozhin is the fact that his Torah-oriented literary efforts began with his book “The History of our Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin,” and the final article that he wrote was about Rabbi Itzele of Volozhin (published in HaDoar approximately two weeks after the death of the author).

 

C.

The Jews of Lithuania were never pampered with enjoyments and lives of excess. They were satisfied with little. However, even this little amount was not readily available in every house. There were many whose lot was a measure of carobs from eve of Sabbath to eve of Sabbath[iv]. Many of the marred Yeshiva students, Torah scholars, and Yeshiva educated people in every city and town who managed to gain a role in the world of commerce, and found some source of livelihood for themselves and their families,

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were unable to get accustomed to the ways of commerce and awaited a rabbinical seat. If a rabbinical position became open, many would leap forward, and the competition was great among the young rabbis. This would be the case even in a small, poor town that could barely provide a meager livelihood for their rabbi. Furthermore, even in scholarly Lithuania, the bumptious ones who knew how to promote themselves had the upper hand over the more reticent, modest ones whose souls were disgusted by cheap, loud, publicity.

Rabbi Moshe Shmuel, with his generous traits and sublime character, with a noble spirit and refined soul, could not get accustomed to the demands of this cruel reality. After much doubt and hesitation, he decided to part from his family for a while and to move to the United States. With a heavy heart full of sorrow, his family members, acquaintances, and friends parted from him. This decisive step frightened them: would he succeed in overcoming the difficulties of acclimatizing to that far-off, strange world? Would he succeed in finding a firm basis under his feet in the new world, whose principles, lifestyle, and spirit were so different than what he was used to?

He indeed stumbled across many difficulties during his first period in America. Only after many difficulties was he appointed to the honorable position of principal of the Rabbi Chaim Berlin Yeshiva. He served in that position for approximately 25 years. However, that did not bring him to complete rest. There as well, there were petty, narrow-minded trustees who embittered his life, to the point where he was forced to turn to the Agudas Rabbonim [Rabbinical Union]to protect his rights. He endured much suffering throughout his life. However, his difficult experiences and bitter trials did not crush his spirit or affect his integrity. Those who came in contact with him benefited from his good spirit, the light of his face, and pleasant demeanor, and enjoyed his great knowledge and personal charm. He found his comfort in the study of Torah and in his literary pursuits. It seems that during the difficult moments of his life, he felt the need to distance himself from the environment and to unite with the spiritual world of the Torah great and luminaries, the sparks of whose souls also burned within his soul. From time to time, he would publish articles that exhibited great analytical depth and deep sharpness in the Torah of our sages of his generation and of previous generations.

In his article “One of the Superior People”[1], Dr. Yitzchak Rivkind of blessed memory writes about the great contribution of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel to Volozhin research.

“He was 29 years old when he published “The History of the Gaon Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin” in the year 5669 [1909]. This first work brought attention to the author and his research. Rabbi Moshe Shmuel had all the talents of the soul to become the historian of the supernal Volozhin. He was a native of Volozhin, and remained a man of Volozhin until his final day. Volozhin was in him, and he lived as Volozhin.”

He revered the greatness of the Yeshiva from his youth until his final day. His work

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“The Yeshiva of Volozhin During the Years of its Closing and its Opening”[2] concludes with an ode to the Yeshiva.

“Volozhin always had some sort of attractive force, lofty and hidden from the eyes of everyone, secluded and enclosed within the walls of the Yeshiva. The spirit of the Gaon Rabbi Hayim, may the memory of the holy be blessed, the founder of the Yeshiva, hovered within it always and adorned it with a unique charm, which never left it until its last day.”

Rabi Moshe Shmuel died in Brooklyn (United States) on 9 Cheshvan, 5623 (November 6, 1962)[v].

Original Footnotes:

  1. HaDoar, 7 Kislev 5623 [1922], and in the anthology of writings of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel, “Rabbi Moshe Shmuel and his Generation” pp 23-31. Return
  2. HaDoar 5622 [1922], issue 36. Return

Translator's footnotes:

  1. A common expression for devoting a very small amount of time to something. Return
  2. Psalm 119:92. The ancient poet is King David. Return
  3. Pirkei Avot 4:14 Return
  4. A Talmudic expression for a meager amount of food, based on Tractate Taanit 24b. Return
  5. For more information, and his gravestone, see http://kevarim.com/rabbi-moshe-shmuel-shapiro/ Return


Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan (Berlin)

by Shimon Zak (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

 

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“The nobleman of the house of Volozhin” – Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan was called that by his acquaintances and those who appreciated him. He was born in Volozhin on 29 Nissan 5640 (April 10, 1880). The unique methodology of the Yeshiva of Volozhin found its full, sublime expression in his personality. A wonderful blend of broad Lithuanian scholarship, Israelite intelligence, populist simplicity, trappings of nobility, paternal tenderness and warmth, the strength of a spokesman and leader, the flame of a deep soul, and the sharp depth of analytical skills consolidated within him. He also studied in the Telz Yeshiva for a certain period during his youth. This Yeshiva greatly strengthened his vitality, which was embedded within his soul already from his early youth.

After his marriage, he worked for a short period in business. (His father-in-law Reb Tovia Rabinowitz was one of the large-scale merchants in the Zamot district of Lithuania – a wonderful character of a Lithuanian Jew who merged Torah and greatness). He settled in Vilna during his period of business. However, Rabbi Bar-Ilan did not find satisfaction for his soul in the world of commerce. He was a man of vision and internal drive, and he aspired to a different field of endeavor that would find release for his great aspirations and many talents. He moved to Berlin after a brief period and founded the HaIvri weekly, which became the mouthpiece of the Mizrachi organization. The newspaper continued to fill that role afterward, even when its editor moved it to New York at the beginning of the First World War.

In the United States, Rabbi Bar-Ilan became known as a talented leader and first-class organizer.

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He travelled the length and the breadth of the United States, and with his enthusiastic, fiery speeches, he agitated religious Jewry and the circles close to it in America. He was received everywhere with love and reverence. His audience of thousands was influenced by his enthusiasm, and was drawn by him to Zionist national activity. He literally reeducated our Orthodox brethren in America. He aroused them from their frozen state and indifference, and exposed them to the path of the renaissance movement, which was strange to them to that point. The Mizrachi organization, which was founded in all Jewish communities of the United States through his influence, attracted many who had previously been far from issues of Jewry. Throughout many years, it served as the most vibrant and active foundation of the Zionist movement in America, both from a national-cultural perspective, as well as from a practical perspective. From that time, a bridge was formed over the abyss that separated American Jewry from that of the old world. The feeling of common fate between American Jewry and the Jewish nation in general was implanted in the hearts of our brethren in America. Their hearts were opened to help their brethren in the Diaspora, and toward the building of the homeland in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Bar-Ilan played a great role in this revolution, which took place at that time within American Jewry and continues to that day .

 

His Literary Activities

“From Volozhin to Jerusalem” – this was the way of life of Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan. This was a long path strewn with obstacles, but it was completely filled with activity and deeds, and illuminated by the ancient lights. In his memoirs between the two volumes of “From Volozhin to Jerusalem” Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan brings to life an entire era, and presents to us a long row of rabbis, Gaonim, activists, scholarly householders, mighty in Torah and with many deeds, wonderful characters revered in the eyes of the people, with whom the author felt himself at home in their company already during his youth. With a faithful hand, he portrays the people of that era, with their temperaments, essence, and talents. Through this, we become familiar with the environment in which they acted, and the place that each of them took in the Israelite world. The research abilities of the author, developed already from his early youth, are astounding. His portrayals testify to a fine sense of psychology, which enabled him to penetrate into the nature and understand the character of anyone with whom he came into contact. Light, hearty humor can be sensed between the lines, as well as a relationship of honor and reverence toward the personalities he describes. The personal weaknesses of some of them is also not lost upon us. Rabbi Bar-Ilan's memoirs will serve the historian as a valuable source of Jewry of the 70 past years.

Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan's literary activity over 35 years was broad and variegated. He published hundreds of articles on the issues of the times in periodicals published by himself, as well as in those published by others. There was no cultural, political, or communal issue within our world that was not subject to his analysis, via his clarifications and explanations according to his unique methodology, and fitting with his weltanschauung. A small portion of his articles and essay are collected in the Bishvilei Hatechiya [On the Paths of the Renaissance] anthology, published by the “World Covenant for the Torah V'Avoda Movement” on the 60th birthday of the late author. Aside from articles on current events, some of his essays on personalities were also published in that anthology. These essays excel in deep analysis of

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the personalities of many of those who laid the foundation of our revival movement, especially from the world of rabbis and Torah greats, the chief spokespeople of the Chovevei Zion era, some of whom later stood at the right hand of Herzl

Rabbi Bar-Ilan's third book is Rabban Shel Yisrael [Rabbi of Israel], a comprehensive biography of his father the Gaon, the Netzi'v of Volozhin – his personality, influence, and activities in the fields of Torah and the Chovevei Zion movement.

His style was fundamental and influential. He would create and forge his own sentences and connections with a wonderful voice. Their root was from the Bible, which lived inside him, and gave expression to his thoughts, moving his lips voluntarily and involuntarily. The words were flavored and spiced with adages from our sages from the world of halacha and Aggadah. Rabbi Bar-Ilan did not like the concise, summarizing style. Rather, he loved to expand broadly. He would add many accompanying statements, and connections and comparisons from the world of thought and culture, over and above the central matter. However, these “additions” were a form of “from issue to issue in the same issue.” They were not of the form of “extraneous material detracts,” but rather the opposite: they enlightened the eyes of the reader and broadened his knowledge and outlook.

The crowning achievement in his Torah-literary efforts was the publication of the Talmudic Encyclopedia, which he edited along with Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin. This significant Torah endeavor was carried out from that time, according to plans, by Rabbi Zevin, may he live long. Twelve volumes have already been published.

Rabbi Bar-Ilan's literary work and national-communal activities were like two sides of one coin: the thought and deeds blended inside him in a full, harmonic blend. He was not only the greatest innovator in the ideology of Mizrachi, the explicator and commentator of the fundamentals and ideas of the movement that he headed, but he was also the decisor in all practical matters. The great enterprise that clothed his ideas and opinions in the form of a multitude of literary and nationalist activities, the concern for the spiritual and moral situation of the people in the Land and the Diaspora, and the internal impetus for unceasing activity, accompanied by a deep internal flame, did not permit him to restrict himself to the world of study and ideas. They took him out to the expanses of life that demanded his responses and reactions day by day and hour by hour.

“The obligating situation that we should be active, that we should at least feel ourselves that our days do not pass idly… we have lost a great deal as long as we ourselves do not sense the constant activities, unceasing achievements, whether small or large – as long as we do not stop progressing and going from task to task, from deed to deed.” (Bishvilei Hatechiya [On the Paths of Revival], page 147)

 

His Educational Activities

For many years, the heads of the Zionist movement displayed an attitude of indifference to the questions of Hebrew culture, and ignored issues of Hebrew education and the need to develop such. The unfortunate results of this attitude were assimilation, national denigration, and the distancing of a significant portion of the younger generation of Jews

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in the Diaspora from Jewish values and national appreciation. This situation aroused fear in the hearts of the leaders of the nation. This was deliberated at the conventions and Zionist Congresses of recent years, and resolutions were accepted obligating the Zionist movement to dedicate its finest powers and energy to the strengthening of Hebrew education and nurturing Jewish consciousness.

Rabbi Bar-Ilan was one of the prominent personalities of Mizrachi who delved deeply into questions of education. He even reached set, firm opinions in this realm. “Study is not the main thing, but rather education” – Rabbi Bar-Ilan stressed in his speech at the convention a few days before his death, “to clarify the educational questions of Mizrachi. We must educate toward Torah and its commandments. And what are the commandments of the Torah if they are not fulfilled? The question comes to the fore today especially, can we rejuvenate life, and not a slow rejuvenation, but one with great energy and fire; our aspiration is not only to continue with what we have, but rather to renovate values and habits.” (Hatzofeh, 16 Nissan, 5709 [1949])

 

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The Kirya (Campus) of Bar-Ilan University

From right to left: 1) The Stollman Administration Building.
2) The Wurzweiler Library.
3) the Goodman Tower and the Polak Building

 

Rabbi Bar-Ilan regarded the crisis of the generation as the crisis of education, which misappropriated its role. In our educational efforts, we must especially pay attention to improving the moral makeup and composition of the generation. This task is much more difficult than the imparting of knowledge. “In recent years, we have seen how entire nations, millions of people can turn crazy: humans can become worse than beasts of the field…”

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“This is not only because of wantonness and coarseness in the world, not only because of errors and crimes around us, but rather travesties in the full sense of the term.” (Bishvilei Hatechiya, page 172).

Rabbi Bar-Ilan saw the vision of everything within the Torah, in accordance with the adage “Turn it over and over, as everything is in it”[i]. Simultaneous with his national and Zionist activities, he toiled and worked all his days to raise the splendor of Torah and its students. For this purpose, he founded Mifal Hatorah [Torah Project] to provide assistance to the Yeshivot and to publish a complete Israeli set of Talmuds, as well as the institute for Torah research. He also participated in founding the Yeshiva of the New Settlement, the agricultural Yeshiva, and others. Rabbi Bar-Ilan merited to have the religious Bar-Ilan University named for him.

The Hebrew village was not only a strong physical fortress in Rabbi Bar-Ilan's eyes, but also a shelter and eternal stronghold of the spirit of Israel and love of the Land. How great was Rabbi Bar-Ilan's joy when he lid the cornerstone for the agricultural Yeshiva in Kfar Haroeh. He regarded this blend of Torah and agriculture as a blend of two fundamental values of great influence from an educational and moral perspective.

With great sharpness and words filled with agony and pain, Rabbi Bar-Ilan spoke out against those who permitted themselves to display an indifferent and hesitant attitude toward the State of Israel because the outlooks of its heads and leaders were not on par with those of Mizrachi. “It is forbidden to bring such thoughts to mind. I stand by my opinion that the State of Israel is an obligation regarding the Torah and commandments. The State of Israel is a Heavenly phenomenon, the footsteps of the Messiah and the beginning of the redemption. With the founding of the State of Israel, we must also introduce the study of the laws of citizenship into the school curriculum. We must instill into the hearts of the students the spirit of the state and a recognition of national consciousness, not only of the past, but also regarding that which we are doing in the present. We are creating history at every moment…” (From the concluding speech at the convention of educational matters – Hatzofeh, 30 Nissan 5709 [1949]).

Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, the spokesman for religious Jewry, the leader and statesman, the talented writer, the man of vision and deed, the wonderful orator, who brought news of the renaissance to the dispersed of Israel in the many countries of the world, the initiator and creator of many varied literary Torah and national endeavors in the United States and in our country – embodied with his personality an image of great glory and splendor, overflowing with light and wisdom. This was the noble image of the “family of the rabbi”[ii], and the last Mohawk of the splendid Volozhin tradition.

He died in Jerusalem on the 19th of Nisan, 5609 (April 18, 1949)

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Pirkei Avot 5:22. Return
  2. Beit Harav – a term for the rabbinical family stemming from Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin. Return

 

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