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Conversations of the Sages

by Eliezer Leoni

Translated by Jerrold Landau

(From the treasuries of Volozhin wisdom, experiences, sharpness)

The regular conversations of the sages of Volozhin, spoken in aphoristic-anecdotal style, contain treasuries of educational and instructional Torah of life. From this treasury, we have gleaned valuable pearls, pleasant in their sharpness and directness. They form wonderful reading material, enjoyable and educational for both youth and adults.

 

The Wisdom of Rivka, the Mother of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin

When the scholars of the city would gather in the home of her father, the rabbi of Piesk, to study together a chapter of Mishna or a page of Gemara, she would sit at the side and listen to the studies. Once, during the month of Elul, she heard them studying a Mishna from [Tractate] Rosh Hashana (23:b) “Even a wise one who comes to deliver…” The explanation of “a wise one” is a midwife. She stood up and asked politely and modestly: “Teach me, my rabbis. Why is a midwife called ‘a wise one’”? The listeners were quiet, but her father the rabbi responded that a midwife serves in place of a physician, and a physician is called chakim [a wise one] in the language of the sages (see Bava Metzia 86:a). Therefore a midwife is also called chachma [a wise one in the feminine].

She continued: “My revered father should forgive me if I state that in my opinion, a midwife is called ‘a wise one’ because it states in Tractate Tamid (32:a) ‘Who is wise? – One who can see what is to come’ [note: the terminology for ‘what is to come’ is nolad – i.e. what is born]. Since the midwife is the first to see the child who is born, she is called ‘a wise one.’”

(From Rabbi Maimon, Sarei Hameah, part II, p. 122)

 

A Sharp Response from Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin

There were times when lads from all parts of the world, even from the Caucasus, came to study in Volozhin. Rabbi Hayim loved his students, and had mercy upon them like a father has mercy upon his children. There were rumors that the lads from the Caucasus were talking to girls during the evenings.

When this matter reached Rabbi Hayim's ears, he asked the zealots: “And how do the lads from Volozhin and the nearby towns behave?” They responded: “They too stroll with girls during the evenings.”

“If that is the case,” Rabbi Hayim responded, “Then the lads from the Caucasus are no worse than other lads. Their only ‘sin’ is that they are studying in Yeshiva. That sin I take upon myself.”

(Naftali Gross, “Stories and Parables” pp 127-128)

 

“And the King of Egypt Died, and the Children of Israel Sighed” (Exodus 2:23)

Rabbi Itzele of Volozhin asked: “And before that, when the king was alive, was their lot any better? Their situation was better? – However, as long as the king was alive, they thought that only that Pharaoh was cruel

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to the Jews, and when the king would die and a new king would arise – they would be able to breathe a sigh of relief. However now “the king of Egypt died” and the situation did not improve Therefore – “The Children of Israel sighed and cried out.” They realized that their hope was for naught, for all the kings of Egypt are similar to each other.

(B. Joashson ‘From Our Old Treasury’; vol II, p. 21)

 

The Title Iluy [Genius] in Volozhin

In Volozhin, they referred to only those who excelled in unusual talents as an Iluy. However, there were also semi-Iluys, and that term also testified to a high level.

The following joke went around Volozhin: An Iluy is someone who has a sharp mind, a great deal of knowledge, and is slightly crazy. What does a semi-Iluy mean? – Indeed, he is crazy, but he does not know Torah.

(Ibid. Vol III, page 208)

 

The Sharp Explanation of Rabbi Zalmele

It is written: “And Machla, Tirzah, Chagla, Malka, and Noa, the daughters of Zelaphechad, married their cousins.” (Numbers 36:11). Rashi states: “Here they are listed by their age, and they got married in chronological order. Everywhere else in scripture, they are listed by their level of wisdom, to show that they are equal to each other.”

Rabbi Zalmele asks: What is the reason that they are listed by wisdom throughout the scripture, and only in this place “they are listed by age”? The Gemara states the following regarding the daughters of Zelaphechad: “Even the youngest of them did not get married when they were less than 40 years old” (Bava Batra 119), therefore it was not their desire that they be enumerated by age. However, here, in the Torah portion of Masai, they are mentioned after their marriage: “And Machla, Tirzah, etc…. married their cousins.” After the wedding, it was already permitted to reveal the secret of their ages…

(Ibid, Vol IV, p. 175)

 

The Deeds of our Father in Heaven and the Deeds of Man

A former student who rose to greatness and became very wealthy came to the Netzi'v (some say to Rabbi Yosi Ber).

“What are you occupied with?” the Netzi'v asked him.

“Thank G-d, Rabbi, I am healthy and whole, and I also have livelihood.”

The Netzi'v sat and chatted with his student about this and that. Suddenly, he asked him again, “What are you occupied with” – “Did I not answer the honorable rabbi that I, thank G-d, am healthy and also have a good livelihood?”

They continued their conversation. A few minutes later, the Netzi'v asked his student for a third time: “And so, what are you occupied with?”

“Let the honorable rabbi not get angry,” he expressed in surprise. “This is the third time that the honorable rabbi has repeated himself and asked the same question. I have already told our rabbi, thanks to our G-d that He has blessed me with physical health and ample livelihood.”

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“You are not answering me according to the question,” said the Netzi'v. “I have asked you: What do you do? You are currently answering me about your physical health and livelihood. All these are deeds of the Almighty, and not of your own. He gives health and He gives livelihood. Now I want to know: What are your own deeds? Do you set aside times for Torah? Do you give charity? Do you do acts of benevolence to the poor?…”

(Ibid., ibid. p. 236-237)

 

The Shadar'im (Shada'r = Emissary of the Rabbis) of the Yeshiva of Volozhin

When the Yeshiva of Volozhin was standing, the Shadar'im went out throughout the Jewish Diaspora to ask for donations for the needs of the Yeshiva. A Shada'r from Volozhin would go to the ends of the earth and the distant seas. There is a story of Shmuel Simchovich, who was a maskil and great in Torah, as he sat with a group of maskilim. The question was asked: Where are the Mountains of Darkness? Simchovich responded: “Sirs, it is known that the Mountains of Darkness do not exist and were never created. A proof: Had they existed, the Shada'r of Volozhin would have gone there.”

(M. Lipson, “From Generation to Generation” vol II, paragraph 1274)

 

The Life Wisdom of Rabbi Hillel Fried

There is a story of Rabbi Hillel Fried, the son-in-law of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, that he saw him on Friday Night walking with a lit lantern in his hand. He wondered. He followed after him until he entered a certain house, remained there for a little while, and left without the lantern.

“Our Rabbi,” they asked him, “What is this about?” Rabbi Hillel responded, “The essence of the deed is such. There is a dangerously ill person in this house, and the members of the household fear sin, and do not light a candle or do anything for the needs of the sick. I demonstrated the actual halacha to them: When there is a dangerously ill person, it is a mitzvah to violate the Sabbath for him…”

(Ibid. vol III, paragraph 2048)

 

The Sons-in-law of Rabbi Itzele of Volozhin

Rabbi Itzele of Volozhin had two sons-in-law: Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak Fried and Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netzi'v).

Once, on the night following Yom Kippur, after midnight, Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak said to Rabbi Itzele, “Tell me, my father-in-law, what is my duty and I will do it at this time, after the fast?”

“Come,” Rabbi Itzele said to him, “And I'll show you what to do.” They entered a second room of the Yeshiva. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda standing with his feet immersed in cold water, as he was diligently occupying himself with Torah.

(Ibid. ibid. paragraph 2237)

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The Response of Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak Fried to a Nice Parable

Once Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak saw one of the Yeshiva students reciting his prayers in rapid fashion. He invited him in and began to talk words of reproof to him regarding prayer. A person is required to pray in a leisurely fashion, as if he is counting money. A prayer without proper intention is like a body without a soul.

The Yeshiva student responded “I say to our rabbi, what is this compared to? To a person traveling in a carriage. When he drives slowly, shkotzim [gentiles] jump onto his carriage. It is not the same when he drives fast. They cannot ascend. Prayer is the same. If one prays quickly, the evil inclination cannot take hold of one's prayers, and foreign thoughts separate from him.”

“I suspect,” Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak said with a smile, “That you drive so quickly that even one shegetz, you yourself, is not able to ascend the carriage.

(Ibid. ibid. paragraph 555)

 

How Did Rabbi Zalmele Demand the Needs of his Body?

Thus was the way of Rabbi Zalmele of Volozhin: He never asked out loud for the needs of his body, such as food, drink, and sleep. If he was hungry, he would begin to recite by heart verses and adages regarding eating, and the members of the household would fulfil his will and prepare his meal. If he was thirsty, he would begin to recite verses and adages regarding drinking, and the members of his household would give him something to drink. It was the same with sleeping, bathing, etc.

(Ibid. ibid. paragraph 587)

 

The Innocence of Rabbi Zalmele

Rabbi Zalmele was a complete Gaon, Tzadik and pure. Once when he was in the bathhouse on the eve of the Sabbath, his cloak was stolen. Rabbi Zalmele did not say anything, and he returned home.

His wife asked, “Zalmele, where is your cloak?”

Rabbi Zalmele responded, “One of the bathers switched it with his.”

His wife responded by asking, “If so, where is that person's cloak?”

Responded Rabbi Zalmele, “It seems, that he forgot to leave his…”

(Ibid. vol III, paragraph 1825)

 

The Opinion of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin of his Brother Rabbi Zalmele

The Gr'a of Vilna was expert in the entire Torah, both written and oral. Rabbi Zalmele of Volozhin was also expert in all areas of Torah.

Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin said of them: What is the difference between our holy rabbi and my brother Zalmele regarding expertise [in Torah]? My brother Zalmele is expert in the entire Torah in a straightforward manner, whereas our holy rabbi is expert in all of Torah in a straightforward manner and backwards…”

(Ibid. ibid. paragraph 2516)

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Be Careful Even About a Dispute for the Sake of Heaven

Regarding the statement of the sages “What is a dispute for the sake of Heaven, this is the dispute between Hillel and Shamai”[1], Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin said: “Only people such as Hillel and Shamai themselves are permitted to conduct a dispute for the sake of Heaven. However, petty people such as ourselves, simple mortals – we need to avoid such disputes.

(B. Joashson, “From Our Old Treasury” vol. III, page 248)

 

The Rejoicing of the Water Drawing[2] in the Yeshiva

In Volozhin, Yeshiva students fulfilled the commandment of the Rejoicing of the Water Drawing properly: they would rejoice and be glad, dance, and also drink until a very late hour at night, sometimes until dawn. The Netzi'v also used to participate in the rejoicing of the Yeshiva students, and would stay awake with them all night. After the energies of those rejoicing and dancing weakened, and the joy was extinguished by weariness, the Netzi'v would open the holy ark, and the Yeshiva students would sing aleinu in the melody of the High Holy Days. When they reached “and we bend our knees” they would bend their knees, bow, and prostrate themselves along with the Netzi'v. Apparently this custom is based on the verse, “And when the rotation of parties was over, Job sent word to them to sanctify themselves… for Job said, perhaps my children have sinned” (Job 1, 5).

(Lists, vol I, 4685 [1825], pp 353-362)

 

Eating “Kodke Blintzes” on the Festival of Shavuot

During the years 5646-5649 [1886-1889] the students of the Yeshiva of Volozhin would go to the house of the Rosh Yeshiva, the Netzi'v, on the first day of Shavuot immediately after the morning services, where they would all be fed dairy pancakes and breads. These Volozhin pancakes were called “Kodke Blintzes” because they would be prepared in large number, so that there would be enough for all the Yeshiva students, and placed in barrels (Kodke is a barrel in Russian).

(Ibid. page 340, note 4)

 

The Passover Seder in Jerusalem

The large, eight-room house, the home of the Yeshiva head (the Netzi'v) was lit up with many candles. Tablecloths white as snow were spread over the tables, upon which there were bottles and tens of cups. The reclining couch of the Yeshiva head stood at the edge of the first table next to the bedroom, where the Rebbetzin sat dressed splendidly. Approximately 200 students sat around the tables, with festive appearance on their faces. Al were joyous and glad, speaking and discussing Torah matters as well as general chat.

Suddenly the Yeshiva head entered, wearing his silk cloak, with a snow-white kittel on top.

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On his head, he wore a white cap with a silver garland around it. He blessed the students with the blessing of the festival, and reclined on his couch. A deep silence pervaded in the house. The Yeshiva head surveyed all the tables to ensure that everything was in place. Then he recited kiddush and began to read the Haggadah. It was the Yeshiva head's custom to give each Yeshiva student his own Haggada with his Imrei Shefer commentary. The Haggadas were given as a present, as a memento. Each student read from their Haggadas section by section, and waited. The Yeshiva head would explain, comment, and translate each section based on sources from the Talmud, and the early and latter sages. The students would listen. A spirit of the holiness of the festival and of freedom of the soul pervaded the entire house.

The meal and the reading of the Haggadah continued until two hours after midnight. Then, the true joy began. The Yeshiva head, who was a good singer, began singing Ata Bechartanu[3], and all the students would respond in chorus. The faces were splendorous, the hearts were full of emotion, the voices were sublime, as were the feet. The Yeshiva head would stand in the middle, as his students would dance around him and sing. They would conclude Ata Bechartanu, and start singing Baruch Elokeinu. They would continue dancing and singing until dawn.

(Z. Heller, “The Volozhin Yeshiva”, HaIvri, issue 8, Rosh Chodesh Adar 5677, February 2, 1923)

 

The Tobacco Box of Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik

The Tobacco box never left Rabbi Yosi Ber's table. When he was talking with someone he would open the box, peer inside, and then start the conversation.

One of his relatives could not control his curiosity, and peeked into the box. He found etched therein: שׁפושׁמ”נ . He did not know the acronym, so he asked Rabbi Yosi Ber. Rabbi Yosi Ber explained that this is the acronym of the verse: One who guards his mouth and tongue, guards his soul from tribulations (Proverbs 21:23).

(M. Lipson, Midor Ledor, vol. 20, paragraph 1619)

 

Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin's “Faith” in Physicians

Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin did not believe in the new doctors, who were educated in [the spirit of Haskala] – or in their medicine. Once, he felt ill. His family members summoned the city physician, who was a gentile. The physician came, examined the ill person, and prescribed a course of medicine. Rabbi Hayim said to him, “Cures have nothing to them.”

The physician said, “Medicine has no benefit for the sick person unless he believes in the physician with full faith, like our lord Jesus.”

Rabbi Hayim smiled and said, “I too believe in the physician just as I do in Jesus, and the medicine is not effective for me…”

(Ibid. vol I, paragraph 152)

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What is the Difference between the Netzi'v and Rabbi Yosi Ber?

Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik was one of the stringent ones, whereas the Netzi'v was lenient. The Netzi'v said, “What is the difference between me and Rabbi Yosi Ber? I, when I recline at the Passover Seder and see a large bundle of matzos, I have fulfilled: the search for chometz, the eating of matzo, the four cups, the celebration of the festival. My heart is full of joy within me, and I bless, ‘He Who has kept us alive, preserved us, and brought us to this occasion.’[4]

“In contrast, when Rabbi Yosi Ber reclines at the Seder, he is full of fear and his heart was pained and full of worry, lest he has not fulfilled his obligation: lest he has not gotten rid of chometz completely, lest his portion of matzo had not been guarded in accordance with the law, lest the wine for the four cups was not complexly kosher – lest the bundle of mitzvot has turned, Heaven forbid, into a bundle of sins…”

(B. Joashson, “From Our Old Treasury” Festivals, Five Megillot, page 97)

 

Even G-d Has given Precedence to “We shall do” over “We shall listen”[5]

Rabbi Yaakov Aharon of Volozhin said, “The giving of the Torah was the marriage between the Blessed G-d and us. Every match obligates both sides. Therefore, we are also entitled to ask the Creator, just as we had faith in Him and preceded ‘we shall do’ with ‘we shall listen’ – that He too bestows upon us in that manner, and fulfils ‘we shall do’ by sending us help before the ‘shall listen’ – even before he hears our promise to fulfil his Torah.”

(Ibid. ibid. pp. 132-133)

 

The Response of the Netzi'v to a Certain Maskil

A certain Maskil was one chatting with the Netzi'v about politics and the Hebrew language. The Netzi'v responded to him “Certainly, I accept all these things. For we indeed recite during the festival kiddush, ‘and He chose us above all other nations.’ Therefore, we must be proud of our faith. ‘And He exalted us over all tongues’ – we must bless with our Hebrew language. However, that is insufficient. We must fulfil an additional thing, ‘and He sanctified us with His commandments.’ We must also fulfil the Torah and guard His commandments.”

(Ibid. ibid. page 164)

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Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik's Opinion about Chibat Tzion

Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik was a staunch opponent of Chibat Tzion and Zionism. He regarded them as a form of bringing nigh the end of times[6]. Furthermore, they were headed by people who were not fearers of Heaven.

He was asked, “Our rabbi, are they not occupied with the settlement of the Land of Israel and its upbuilding. Is it possible for the Land of Israel to be built up while those who keep the commandments are sitting and waiting for the arrival of the Messiah, in a form of ‘sit and do not act’[7]?”

Rabbi Hayim responded, “I say to you, it is the way of the world that regarding how the bride and the groom enter the wedding canopy. The brats ran before them, pass by the musicians, and come first to the place of the wedding canopy. The in-laws, the bride and groom themselves come last.”

(M. Lipson, Midor LeDor, vol. I, paragraph 65)

 

The Faith of Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik in the Upbuilding of the Land

One of the simple folk asked Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik, “Let our rabbi teach us, this mourning that the Jewish people observe ‘between the straits’[8] and on Tisha B'Av, what is the reason for it?”

Rabbi Yosi Ber responded, “I say to you, what is this like? It is like a fire that broke out in the city, and several householders emerge clean from their houses. Those that pay attention to the fire, dig through the mounds of ash and gather whatever they can, believing that they will soon rebuild their houses. Those who do not pay attention to the fire renounce ownership of the remnants, and it is obvious that they are not thinking about rebuilding.”

Rabbi Yosi Ber concluded, “This situation is the same. As long as we mourn over the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Holy Temple, we are assured that it will be rebuilt speedily in our days.”

(Ibid. ibid. vol III, paragraph 2142)

 

A Person is Obligated to See the Providence of the Creator Every Day

There is a story about Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, regarding one of the large-scale merchants coming to him and discussing his troubles: “Our rabbi, I am in great trouble. I have sent barges on the water to Prussia, and the border guards are not letting them pass. Now I will lose all my money and be cleaned out of my possessions.”

Rabbi Hayim told him, “Don't fret or be worried. G-d will help you.” In the interim, the price of lumber rose, and the merchant profited by several thousands.

He returned to Rabbi Hayim and told him with joy, “Our rabbi, your blessing has been fulfilled with me. Now I clearly see the providence of the Creator.”

Rabbi Hayim said to him, “Come and see the difference between a wealthy person and a poor person. A poor person sees the providence of the Creator every day, every moment, and every hour, whereas a wealthy person only sees it once in several years…”

(Ibid. vol II, paragraph 1740)

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“The Tribulations of Childrearing” of Rabbi Rafael Shapira

Rabbi Rafael sat and occupied himself with Torah all his days. He studied, taught, guided, and judged. His mind was not on the affairs of the home. His wife, the mistress of the house, was marrying off sons and daughters. Her dowry and livelihood ran dry, and Rabbi Rafael did not realize her difficulties. On the wedding day of a son or a daughter, they would come to him an hour before the wedding ceremony and inform him, “Our rabbi, the time has come to bring the groom and bride to the wedding canopy.”

Rabbi Rafael would close his Gemara, don his Sabbath clothing, and go to the ceremony. Once, when he was getting dressed in his Sabbath clothing for the wedding of his son, his hand got caught in the sleeve, and it was difficult to put on the garment.

“Oy,” groaned Rabbi Rafael, “How difficult are the tribulations of raising children…”

(Ibid. vol III, paragraph 1870)

 

The Preserved Cheese of a Villager…

When Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik, the great-grandson of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, brought his son Rabbi Hayim to the wedding ceremony, where he married the maternal granddaughter of the Netzi'v, the jester at the wedding feast was Elyakum Tzunzer, one of the greatest jesters in his time. He starting jesting, and joined several verses of Torah and the prophets with statements from the Mishna and Gemara, and forged them into rhymes.

When he finished, Rabbi Yosi Ber said to Elyakum, “You know, my sir, what your jesting is compared to? To the cheese of that villager.

There is a story of a villager who entered the Beis Midrash. He went to the bookshelf and began to remove books. He took out tractate after tractate, until he laid down the entire Talmud. He still was not satisfied, and he began to take out and place down books of Alfasi, Maimonides, Turim, and responsa. Those who stood at the side saw and wondered: How great must this person be in Torah. He uses so many books at one time. After the villager had amassed a pile of books, he stood upon it, reached the top of the bookcase, and took down preserved cheese…

(Ibid. ibid. paragraph 1868)

 

The Father and Child

Rabbi Naftali-Tzvi-Yehuda (the Netzi'v) said about Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik, the son of Rabbi Yosi Ber, “The power of the son is stronger than the power of the father. This one is a genius, and that one is a genius, but Rabbi Yosi Ber did not have the type of father that Rabbi Hayim has…”

(Ibid. ibid paragraph 1939)

 

Witticisms from Volozhin
  1. Is it your desire to be a rabbi among the Jewish people – and you Maimonides with Lechem Mishne [a commentary on the 14-volume halachic work of Maimonides];
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    and even if you are the Magid Mishne [another commentary on Maimonides – but here a play on words – a preacher] (a proper expositor) – in any case you still require the Kesef Mishne [yet another commentary on Maimonides – and another play on words, as Kesef means money] (to bribe the city activists).
    (Reshimot, vol I, 5685 [1925], page 389)
  1. Regarding one of the people of the Yeshiva, it is told that at the time when he came to the Yeshiva and told the mashgiach [Yeshiva supervisor] that he was 18 years old, the mashgiach responded, “I in your years was already 28.” One student aspired to be a great expert. Someone who loved witticisms said about him, “He is expert in two sections of the Talmud, but he does not know which of them…”
    (HaLevi Ish Horowitz, Derech Eitz-Hachaim)

The Power of the Dead is Greater than the Power of the Living…

When the Netzi'v went abroad for recuperation, he noticed to his surprise that all the worshippers were reciting kaddish. He called to the shamash and asked him whether, Heaven forbid, such a severe plague had befallen the city that all the worshippers had become orphaned, let it not happen to us.

The shamash laughed and explained to the Netzi'v that no plague had happened, but the explanation is as follows: the Jews have no great desire to come to worship in the synagogue. They only come when they are obligated to say kaddish.

The Netzi'v smiled and said, “Now the meaning of the verse in Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] is clear to me “Then I accounted those who died long since more fortunate than those who are still living;”[9]. Now I see that the dead are on a higher level than the living. The proof is that the living fathers do not have the power to bring their children to the synagogue, but the deceased fathers – they have the power…”

(B. Joashson, “From Our Old Treasury” Festivals, Five Megillot, pp. 201-202)

 

Anecdotes about Rabbi Rafael Shapira
  1. Rabbi Rafael Shapira was diligent in the study of Torah. He did not even go out to stroll outside his home out of concern for his time. Once, he was enticed through many words to go out and stroll a bit, for a walk is good for the body.
    Rabbi Rafael said with his simplicity, “What is the benefit? A person who goes for a walk ends up returning to his home.”
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  1. Rabbi Rafael was so diligent in Torah study to the point where he ignored the ways of the world. Once, a platter full of cherry fragrances was placed before him. Rabbi Rafael, who loved sweets, ate and did not leave anything over. He wiped his mouth and said, “How tasty were these beans.”
  2. Rabbi Rafael was quiet about the ways of the world. He barely opened his mouth amongst people. They said about him: Rabbi Rafael is very quiet. When he gets tired of his quietude, he rests – and then gets quiet again.” He would say, “People think that I do not know how to speak. It is not that, rather, it is that I know how to be silent…”
  3. Once Rabbi Rafael was at a rabbinical conference. He sat among them and was silent as usual. There was a difference of opinion regarding one of the items on the agenda. One said, “My opinion is so-and-so,” and the other said, “My opinion is so-and-so.”
    They asked Rabbi Rafael, “And what is your opinion?” Rabbi Rafael responded in innocence, “My opinion is regarding such and such tractate, such and such a page, and such and such a Talmudic discussion…”
  4. Rabbi Rafael would use the “common opinion” methodology with regard to Torah novellae. He joined together several statements from a single person regarding different halachot, and would blend them into a single logical unit.
    The following joke spread through Volozhin: “Rabbi Chisda was seen walking through the markets of Volozhin. They asked him, ‘Rabbi Chisda, what are you doing here?’ Rabbi Chisda responded, ‘Rabbi Rafael brought me here for the purpose of the “common opinion” methodology.’”[10]
    (M. Lipson, “From Generation to Generation” vol III, paragraphs 1844, 1845, 1846, 1847, 1848, vol. II, paragraph 1260)

 

The Mark of Recognition in Volozhin between a Kosher Book and a Forbidden Book

In the Yeshiva of Volozhin, they would prevent students from reading secular books. This was given to the hands of Hershel-Yeshaya the shamash, one of the common people who did not know Bible or Mishna. His eyes were on each and every student. He would even make the rounds to the hosts of the Yeshiva students and check through the windows.

Once, he was looking through the window and saw a student sitting and perusing Ahavat Zion. He had heard that Ahavat Zion by Mapu was one of the secular books. He hastened into the house, removed the Ahavat Zion book from the hands of the reader, and ran to the Netzi'v, the head of the Yeshiva. “See, my rabbi, what I found in the hands of such-and-such a student – Ahavat Zion by Mapu.”

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The Netzi'v looked and realized that the book was Ahavat Zion by the Noda BiYehuda. The Netzi'v told him, “This sign should be in your hand: A book the pages of which are marked by the letters of the aleph beit is one of the kosher books. If the pages are marked in the gentile numbers, it is one of the forbidden ones…”

(ibid. II, p. 963)

 

Very Important and a Small Thing

There is a story regarding Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik who was in a place together with one of the famous ones. That rabbi was talkative by nature. He sat and talked incessantly the entire time. Rabbi Hayim was silent more than he spoke.

After he left, those around the table asked Rabbi Hayim, “Our rabbi, why were you quiet the entire time, and did you let so-and-so speak incessantly?” Rabbi Hayim responded, “I say to you, so-and-so can speak 23 hours' worth in one hour, however, for me, I require 23 hours to speak one hour's worth.

(Ibid. I, paragraph 802)

 

The Response of Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik to a Certain Hassid

One Hassid came to Rabbi Yosi Ber and said to him, “Rabbi, I dreamed a dream in which groups of Hassidim made me a Rebbe.”

Rabbi Yosi Ber said, “Great fool, what benefit is there to your dream? Had the Hassidim dreamed about you, the dream would have been good for you. Now that you dreamed about them, these are only meaningless matters…”

Rabbi Yosi Ber would say, “The rabbis of the Hassidim greatly mislead the masses, and from now, there is a need for them…”

(Ibid. I, paragraphs 138, 195)

 

The Sharp Response of Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik to his Brother-in-law

During his childhood, Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik would neglect his studies, distract others, and burn them with his breath. When he left Volozhin, his brother-in-law, Rabbi Yitzchak, the grandson of the Netzi'v said to him, “Rabbi Hayim, let us write Torah novellae to each other.”

Rabbi Hayim responded, “No. you and I are not partners. I f I write my own Torah novellae, they will say that they are from Father (Rabbi Yosi Ber). If you write Torah novellae of Grandfather (the Netzi'v), they will say that they are your own…”

(Ibid I, paragraph 914)

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Regarding Poor Compositions that have Many Sources

Rabbi Yosi Ber was not pleased with authors who include a plethora of sources: look here and look there.

He would say: “As is customary in the world, one money changer issues a check to his fellow money changer regarding such-and-such a payment. The checks pass to the merchant and are as good as actual cash. Why all this? Because that money changer is wealthy, and he has money to support the checks. If he were poor, and had no coins to pay, his checks would be as a candle to a rock on top of a plate.”

Rabbi Yosi Ber continued, “This situation is similar. Sources are like checks. It is like each author issues a check against his fellow author. This can only work when the author himself has content to support the sources. This is not the cause with an author who is poor in knowledge and does not have his own content. Ins such a case, what is the value of the sources?…”

(ibid. I, paragraph 756)

 

Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik has Mercy on a Crazy Girl

‘Once a Jewish girl came to Rabbi Hayim and whispered to him with eyes lowered to the ground that she has a secret for him. When Rabbi Hayim removed all people from is presence, the girl burst out crying and said through her sobs that she had erred, and she was pregnant (and was due shortly, and had no recourse). Rabbi Hayim did not chastise or reprove her, but rather spoke to her gently, encouraged her, and calmed her. She did not leave him before he gave her money for her sustenance during her latter days of pregnancy. He asked her to bring the child to him when it was born. He himself would take the child from her hands, and nobody would know about it.

Not long after, at midnight, as Rabbi Hayim was sitting by himself studying Torah, he heard a light knock on the door. He went to the anteroom and saw that girl standing before him with a basket in her hands. He took the basket and brought it into the house. He woke up his wife the Rebbetzin and told her to take care of the baby. In the morning, he sent for a nurse. He paid her wages and gave the foundling to her to nurse and raise.

From that time, that was not the only foundling in the anteroom of the house of the rabbi. Rabbi Hayim would give over the foundlings to a nurse and pay the wages from his own funds.’

 

Rabbi Hayim – the Patron of Foundlings

Once, a foundling was found in the anteroom of a certain wealthy person. When Rabbi Hayim heard about this, he summoned the wealthy person and told him, “You should know that I have been taking care of this mitzva for some time. However, since you merited from Heaven, I wish to participate in the mitzva with you. The wages of the nurse should be paid half by me and half by you…”

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Rabbi Hayim Concerns Himself with the Wellbeing of a Foundling

Once, a nurse to whom Rabbi Hayim had given over a foundling came to him to demand her wages. Rabbi Hayim felt all his pockets and did not find a coin. He told a nurse to come back the next day, and he would give her. She, who was one of the lowly ones, got angry and shouted, “I will not move from here until I receive my wages. I cannot raise foundlings for free!”

Rabbi Hayim borrowed money from one of the rabbinical judges who was present and paid the nurse. After she left, Rabbi Hayim caught himself and asked her to return. When she returned, Rabbi Hayim said to her, “Be careful, woman, to not nurse the baby immediately after you return home. You were angry, and your milk will cause harm to the baby, Heaven forbid…”

(Ibid. I, paragraphs 794, 795)

 

The Netzi'v Honors Simple Folk

The Netzi'v was careful in honoring scholars. When he met Avrahamel Moshe Cohen's the water drawer on occasion along the way, who was a scholar, to appease hm, the Netzi'v would greet him first by saying, “And you shall draw water with joy…” [Isaiah 12:3]

(From one of the elders of Volozhin)

 

And “The People Were Sent”…

When a group of Yeshiva students began to publish a newspaper on Yeshiva matters called Boker Or [The Light of the Morning], and the Netzi'v saw that this was causing neglect of Torah, he called one of the directors of the newspaper and said to me, If you make Haboker Or, then I will do “And the People Were Sent” (A hint from the verse “The morning was light, and the people were sent, them and their donkeys” Genesis 44:3)

 

Rabbi Hayim On His Neck

The Netzi'v would constantly reprove the lads who were not overly diligent. He did not even exonerate the geniuses among them. His second in command, the Gaon Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik, loved to caress the necks of his favorite, sharp students, and go for long or short strolls with them. Even though only the excellent ones merited this honor, the Netzi'v still reproved them, saying, “Rabbi Hayim on his necks, and they are occupied with Torah”? (Based on the Talmudic statement, “With a millstone on his neck he shall occupy himself with Torah?” Kiddushin 29).

(Zichron Lachronim, by Binyamin Goldberg, pp 22-25)

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The Atmosphere of the Yeshiva Brings Wisdom

There was a wise man in the Yeshiva of Volozhin who excelled in his jokes and wise responses that he gave. The students decided that if he brought them empty letters, they would not give him anything, but if he gave them letters of money, they would give him a payment.

One day, he gave a letter with money to one of the students, but the student did not give him anything. A few days later, he met him in the marketplace and demanded his due. The lad told him: “I suspect that you drank three cups, and therefore you are making your demand in the marketplace.” He retorted, “I did not drink three cups, but four cups, therefore I demand like a donkey…”

(Ibid, page 24-25)

(This retort is based on what is written in Sanhedrin 65b: “One cup is fitting for a woman, two is a disgrace, with three she demands by mouth, and with four she demands even from a donkey…”[11])

 

The Netzi'v and Dr. Yehuda Leib Pinsker

When Dr. Yehuda Leib Pinsker died, the Chovevei Zion committee in Odessa sent a telegram to all Chovevei Zion activists in every place throughout the Diaspora.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netzi'v of Volozhin also received a telegram. There were two Russian words in the telegram: Pinsker finished.

“No,” said the Netzi'v, “This concept is a gentile concept. To them, the death of a person is his end and conclusion. To us, the death of a person is nothing other than his beginning and outset…”

 

The Netzi'v Has Mercy on Fowl…

The Netzi'v would not eat until the fowl were first given their food, in order to fulfil that which is written: “And I shall give the grass of your fields to your animals, and you shall eat and be sated.” (Deuteronomy 11: 15).

Once on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, the Netzi'v returned from the synagogue and waited to recite Kiddush until the fowl were given their food. They could not find the key to the coup in the house. They searched and looked, and the key could not be found. The Netzi'v ordered that the lock be broken by a gentile. They went to fetch a gentile from town.

In the meantime, it was getting late. Most of the day had passed, and the members of the household had not yet had anything to eat or drink. The Netzi'v, was elderly, and tired from the service of the day, but he would not make Kiddush. They waited.

When the gentile came, the lock was broken, and the fowl were given their food, the Netzi'v recited Kiddush and feasted at the table…

(M. Lipson, “From Generation to Generation” section III, paragraph 2184)

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The Modesty of Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik

Once, two of the excellent students of the Yeshiva were debating some Talmudic idea, and they could not compromise. It was the third hour of the night, and without thinking too much, they went to Rabbi Hayim's house to ask that he decide between them. Of course, the door was closed, and they knocked loudly. All the members of the household were perplexed to hear such loud knocks at such a late hour, and thought that some sort of disaster must certainly have occurred. How great was their surprise and anger when they opened the door and heard what they wanted. However, Rabbi Hayim did not get angry. On the contrary, he received them as usual in a pleasant fashion. After forging peace between the two disputants by explaining to them who was correct – they left with glad hearts.

(M. Eisenstat, “Reb Hayimke Volozhiner” Hatzefira, 21 Elul 5678, issue 35.)

 

In the Merit of the Torah

(A legend about Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin)

When the Gaon Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, of blessed memory, was ready to found his great Yeshiva, he went to the Gaon of Vilna of blessed memory to receive a blessing from him.

The Gr'a was happy to meet him, and told him, “Know, my student, that you are about to do a great thing that is of inestimable value. I see that evil winds will come to uproot the Jewish people, Heaven forbid. From one side there is the spirit of heresy, Heaven forbid, coming to destroy the supernal Jerusalem. From the other side is the spirit of folly that comes to sully the hearts. The equal side between them is that they all are coming to uproot the tree. However, as long as Torah is not forgotten from Israel, I am certain that all the winds of the world will not move it from Israel. From the day that I gained understanding, I realized that only Torah differentiates between Israel and the nations of the world. Therefore, Hayim my student, supervise your Yeshiva to ensure that they occupy themselves day and night with Torah, for is it not said, ‘Talmud Torah is equal to them all’[12].”

Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin guarded these matters in his heart for all his days. During the time of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, there were three students from among the excellent students in the Yeshiva, about whom it was predicted that they would eventually become great luminaries in Israel. One was a scion of good pedigree; the second had a good heart; and the third was an incomparably wonderfully diligent person. He sat and studied Torah day and night not interrupting his learning for even one minute.

Rabbi Hayim believed that these three were created for greatness, and he prayed about them: May it be His will that the evil eye not rule over them. However, Rabbi Hayim's hopes were for naught. After time, the three lads left the Yeshiva and went out to bad company, for at that time the intelligentsia of Berlin was passing through the camp of Israel, hunting for the best of the Jewish lads.

After many years, Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin investigated to see what was the fate of the three

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students who had strayed from the path. The first one arrived in a large city and had become a heretic. The second one studied philosophy and gave public speeches speaking folly about Jews. He eventually converted his religion and became an accuser of Jews. The third entered a Christian school where he studied all seven wisdoms, to the point where all wise people would come to his door to ask him questions.

A short time later, he was appointed as a professor. When he was lecturing from the podium, the hall was filled to the brim, and his name reached the court of the king. One day, two ministers came to his house and said to him, “There is none as wise and understanding as you in the entire country, and they are looking toward you to give the running of the country over to you. However, you would be required to abandon your religion.” He requested three days to deliberate over the matter.

That night, his sleep fled. The next day, he arose, escaped from the city, and decided to make aliya to the Land of Israel. On his way, he stopped in Volozhin, enter Rabbi Hayim's home, and told him everything that had happened. When Rabbi Hayim asked him, “What saved you from sin?” that student responded, “I passed by a Jewish home and the voices of Torah came to my ears. It seemed to me that the Torah was weeping. Thoughts of repentance immediately arose in my heart…”

(Ben-Eliezer, “Merit of the Torah” (from the conversations of elders) Hatzefira, 1914 ,issue 113, 6 Sivan 5674 [1914])

 

The Difference between Trust and Shelter

(a Midrash about Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin)

The issue is that there are two parts of trust. One is that G-d promises a person to give him great wealth, as we see that the blessed G-d promised Abraham that he would become wealthy. That is called trust [bitachon]. The second is that G-d does not promise, but a person himself places his faith in G-d. This is called shelter [chisayon], as is stated “the rock in which they took refuge” (Deuteronomy 32:37). The rock is what shelters a person from downpours and rain when he rests there himself, but the rock does not promise him to be his shelter.

(Shaarei Rachamim, page 40)

 

A Maskil in Volozhin Style…

There were still a large number of Yeshiva students with the character of Maskilim. The fundamental form and style remained with each and every such person. It is said that one of them studied in two weeks the entire Maarachei Leshon Ever by Steinberg with all the punctuation, dots, roots, and examples noted in the right place. From that time and on, this lad continued on and became a great, unparalleled linguist.

(M. Peker, “In the Yeshiva of Volozhin” Hator, 30 Sivan 5684 (July 2, 1924), issue 40)

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“The Minister of Routes” of Volozhin…

One lad, known for his great memory as a pitched cistern that does not lose a drop[13], also wanted to learn external wisdom. He went and absorbed the entire… instruction book of the railroad and their tracks throughout the entire expanse of Russia, with the schedule of hours and minutes of the departure and arrival of every transport in every city. From that time, they called him the Minister of Routes. If any Yeshiva student had to travel home, he would turn to this “Minister” who would explain to him the details of the route to even the farthest place. The “Minister” never erred or made the minutest mistake…

(M. Peker, “In the Yeshiva of Volozhin”)

 

The Acronym of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin

Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin did not institute from the outset the custom of partaking of meals on a rotation basis. He concerned himself with the needs of his beloved students. For this purpose, he circled the world to collect donations for the upkeep of the Yeshiva. Once Rabbi Hayim traveled with his assistant to Baron Edmund (Anshel) Rothschild. He entered the Baron's office during the morning hours and requested an appointment. The secretary asked him, “Who are you that you are requesting to see the Baron?” He responded, “I am Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner.” The secretary went into the Baron and told him that the rabbi from Volozhin has requested to speak with him. The Baron responded that he would gladly receive the rabbi, but he is not free at this moment, and he is prepared to meet him in the evening. The secretary informed Rabbi Hayim of the response of the Baron. Rabbi Hayim became despondent and requested from the secretary that he inform the honorable Baron that he wishes to tell him only one word. The secretary entered the office of the Baron and transmitted Rabbi Hayim's request. The Baron immediately sent out all the people who were with him in the room, and asked that the rabbi be brought in.

Rabbi Hayim entered and said “Gemara!” The Baron asked Rabbi Hayim if he wanted to teach him a chapter of Gemara. Rabbi Hayim responded that Gemara is an acronym for “Good morning Reb Anshel [Gut Morgen Reb Anshel]. “And what is the request of the Rabbi, that I may fulfil it?” asked the Baron. Rabbi Hayim responded “Gemara!” The Baron did not understand the meaning. Rabbi Hayim told him: “I will explain the secret to the honorable Baron: “Give Money Reb Anshel” [Git Maos Reb Anshel].

The Baron liked this acronym and directed his secretary to give a check for the Volozhin Yeshiva. The Baron noticed that Rabbi Hayim's face was exuding dissatisfaction. The Baron asked him once again to explain, and Rabbi Hayim responded again, “Gemara.” To the great confusion of the Baron, Rabbi Hayim responded, “This time, honorable Baron, the explanation of the acronym is, Give More Reb Anshel” [Git Mehr Reb Anshel].

(From Mr. Pesch Berman)

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How Did Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin Wait for the Coming of the Messiah?

Rabbi Nathan Friedland, the first Zionist orator in the era of Shivat Zion, related: “And it came to pass that there was a nobleman of the shepherds, a teacher, sharp, learned, and wise, who made sure to learn from the spirit of every person, and who studied in the Yeshiva of Volozhin during his youth. He stated as testimony that he had heard from Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing and may his merit protect us, that thus it will be at the time of the coming of the Messiah. That is, just as he sits in his room alone and studies, the Rebbetzin will suddenly enter and say, “O Hayim you are sitting, and learning? Behold the Messiah has come!” He would then become confused, spit three times, and tell her, “Who told you?” She would say, “Go outside and see that there is not even a child in the cradle left in the city, for all have gone out to greet the Messiah.”

(Reb Yitzchak Rivkind, “The Yeshiva of Volozhin and National Renaissance”)

 

Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin's Great Love for the Land of Israel

“And Judah said to his brothers, what profit will we have if we kill our brother and cover his blood. Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and our hand will not be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brothers heeded” (Genesis 37:26-27). The Sages state (Sanhedrin 6) that one who blesses Judah is cursing. Apparently, Judah's recommendation was better than Reuben's recommendation to cast him into a pit. “And the pit was empty, without water – but were there snakes and scorpions therein?”[14] Reuben, however, said to cast him into a pit in the Land of Israel, whereas Judah said to sell him to the Ishmaelites [to go] outside the Land. From this is a proof: a pit in the Land of Israel is better than being “free” in the exile.

(Shlomo Yahalomi (Diment), Pninei Torah, pp. 72-73.)

 

The Explanation of Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik on Urva Parach

“And he sent out the raven, and it went to and fro” (Genesis 8:7). From this we understand that which we find several times in the Talmud, when one Talmudic sage asks another about something, and the other has no response, he said “Urva Parach” [literally: the raven flew away].

This response does not make sense, but the meaning is: Just as the raven that Noah sent did not return with an answer, so you will not hear an answer from me on this matter.

(Shmuel Eliezer, Likutei Batar Likutei, page 26)

 

A Sharp Explanation of Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik

“And now do not fear. I will sustain you and your children. And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts” (Genesis 50:21). “Do not be afraid – I will sustain you,” that is, you need not be afraid that I will punish you for your sin against me, for the punishment of “I will sustain you” is sufficient. That is, the world is dark for someone who depends on someone else's table.

(Ibid. page 143)

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A Pleasant Sermon of the Netzi'v

Regarding the statement of our sages: “Poverty is good for Jews as is a red bridle for a white horse” (Chagiga 9b), the Netzi'v said: “Only then will be poverty be good for Israel, if it is “a red bridle” which everyone can see that they decorate the horse, and not when it is standing in the barn. If we are poor when we go out, and wealthy in our own tents, and all our honor is within our homes – only then will the evil eye not affect us. However, to our dismay, our Jewish brethren do not heed the advice of our sages of blessed memory and do the opposite of their words. Inside their houses – the teeth are clean and there is a lack of bread. Whereas outside, there is no call for help before the poor, and every is wealthy, everyone is dressed splendidly. This brings great, evil tribulations upon us and brings upon us the hatred of the nations amongst whom we dwell.

(Nachman HaLevi Levitan, Hameilitz, 17 Av 5651 [1891] issue 178)

 

Several Pearls of Wisdom from Rabbi Hayim Volozhin
  1. “Anyone whose deeds are greater than his words” (Avot 3:9) – some study for love of wisdom, for all philosophers know that all wisdoms are like a drop in the bucket compared to the depth of the wisdom of the Talmud (Ruach Hayim, page 52)
  2. “Very much be lowly in spirit” (Avot 4:4) – and one should not think that he fulfils the commandment of modesty by being of lowly spirit in his own eyes. Rather, he must think that he is nothing, “that the hope of man is the worm” and he has nothing in which to take pride. (Ibid. page 64)
  3. “And if he does not add, he detracts” (Avot 1:13) – everyone must go higher and add to his perfection, and anyone who wishes to remain at his level and not to aspire to something higher – will end up falling. (Ibid. page 67)
  4. “Everyone who occupies himself in Torah for its own sake” (Avot 6:1) – to the extent that one continues to learn, one should desire to learn more. He should become crazy and think, would it be that I would not need to sleep or eat, and only delve into Torah day and night, and drink its words with thirst. (Ibid, page 87)
  5. Rabbi Hayim said: Whomever is careful to study Torah for three hours a night for its own sake – all of his sins are forgiven, with the exception of sins between man and his fellow, for the energy of the soul does not return and become rectified other than through the study of Torah. (Avraham Tzvi Hirsh Katzenelbogen, Shaarei Hayim)
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  1. Our sages have already said in Avot, “All their words are like fiery coals” [Avot 2:10], that just like only a spark of fire is seen in a coal -- if you make the effort to turn it over and blow it – the more you blow it the more it will flame and the spark will spread, until it fully burns and you can derive benefit from it, use its light, and warm yourself near it. Similarly, all the words of the sages are like this, for even if the words seem short and simple, they can break things like a hammer. For the more that a person turns them over and delves into them – his eyes will be lit up from the flame, and their light will be great, for deep matters will be found within them. (Nefesh HaHayim, section III, chapter I).

A Nice Parable About Rabbi Itzele

Every person can reach his level if he finds his hidden abilities. Rabbi Itzele expressed this idea with the following parable: A wealthy tycoon, a large-scale merchant came to a town where the people were poor and indigent and asked for several people to help him with his merchandise, and they would become successful like him. However, due to a lack of self-confidence and laziness, they did not respond to the tycoon. There was a wise person among them who said to the tycoon, “Here I am, for you called me.”

After a few years, that townsperson became very wealthy. The two of them, he and the large-scale merchant, came to that town. When the townspeople saw their towns-fellow who rose to greatness, they hid their faces from shame, and were embarrassed to look at his face.

He asked them, “Why are you embarrassed, but you are not embarrassed in front of my master, who is a thousand times wealthier than I?” They answered him, “The level of your master is a gift of G-d, and we cannot reach it. However, we could have reached your level, as you did, had we not been lazy and lethargic.”

(Ruach Hayim of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, chapter I, page 8 (in a footnote), published by Kerem Shlomo, Jerusalem, 5718)

 

Rabbi Itzele's Opinion on Colored Patriots

Rabbi Itzele once went to the city of Ustronė (Vilna District) and spent the Sabbath there. Following the Sabbath morning service, before the reading of the Torah, a melancholic woman burst into the synagogue and began to weep bitterly: “Merciful ones the children of merciful ones, have mercy on a poor widow. My only child has been snatched for the army due to the fault of the head of the community of Ustronė.”

The head of the community, who was present, rebuked the woman, “The law of the land is the law.” The head of the community apologized to Rabbi Itzele – we are obligated to be faithful to the government.

Rabbi Itzele recognized the head of the community and knew that he was childless. Therefore, when he ascended the bima to deliver his sermon, he opened by saying, “All my days, I did not understand that which is written in the Book of Kings (II

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4, 13-14) that when Elisha asked the Shunamite ‘Shall I intercede regarding you to the king of the captain of the army?’ she responded, ‘I live amongst my people.’ Gehazi completed her statement by saying, ‘But she has no child.’ The response of the Shunamite cannot be understood. The words of Gehazi are also a mystery, for what connection is there between the fact that she has no child to the question of Elisha, regarding whether he should intercede on her behalf to the king of the captain of the army?”

Rabbi Itzele continued his words, “However, from the events today, I have come to understand these versions. Elisha asked the Shunamite, ‘Shall I intercede on your behalf to the king or the captain of the army?’ That is, perhaps they have given your child over to army service, and you wish that I intercede to the king or the captain of the army to free him. To this the Shunamite responded, ‘I live amongst my people,’ and I must be faithful to my nation and my country and fulfil the obligations of the king.' Gehazi came and elaborated upon her words, ‘But she has no child.’ She is speaking words of patriotism and faithfulness to the regime because she has no child. Were she to have a child, she would have spoken differently.”

(Rabbi Yehuda Leib HaKohen Maimon, Sarei HaMeah, section IV, page 23)

 

Rabbi Itzele Wishes to Give a Blessing to Those Who Have No Bread in the House…

When Rabbi Itzele prepared for a trip frin Volozhin to Brody, he took leave from all the students of the Yeshiva with a blessing and warm handshake. He said to them, “I request of you that, during the vacation time, when each of you will return to your cities and your families, that you give my blessing to all those who have no bread at home…”

The students did not understand Rabbi Itzele's meaning. He wanted to explain his intention to them, but his father, Rabbi Hayim, preceded him and told the students, “The House of Israel bless G-d… The House of Levi bless G-d, those that fear G-d bless G-d[15]. It is that those who fear G-d have no bread at home, and it is to those that my son sends a blessing through you before his journey…”

(Ibid, page 211)

 

“Wonder of Wonders…”

All the time that Rabbi Itzele lived in the city of Brody, several authors from Galicia would come to him to receive an approbation for their books. However, it was not the way of Rabbi Itzele of Volozhin to give approbations to new books, so he would deflect the authors with various excuses, and would not give his approbation.

Once, an author from a small town came to him and did not give him any rest. He requested that he peruse his book, and express his opinion in writing, or at least orally.

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Rabbi Itzele could not free himself from him, so he took the book, leafed through several pages, and read here and there some verbose novellae and meaningless didactics.

Rabbi Itzele told the author, “I cannot give you an approbation, for I have vowed to myself to not give approbations to books. However, after reading several pages, I recommend that you call your book ‘Wonder of Wonders.’”

The author rejoiced in his heart that Rabbi Itzele considered his book to be a wonder of wonders, but he acted modestly and said, “I do not know if my book is worthy of such a praiseworthy title.”

Rabbi Itzele responded to him, “This is the meaning of my words that I said: To this point, I knew that paper is made of rags, and it was a wonder in my eyes. Now I see that the pages of paper can be returned to their original source, and can be made into rags once again. This to me is a ‘wonder of wonders’”…

(Ibid, pp. 212-213)

 

The Works of Man and the Works of the Creator

Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin based Divine providence in the following manner: The ways of G-d are not like the ways of flesh and blood. As a parable, when a man builds a building of wood, the builder does not create the wood of his own power. Rather, he takes wood that had already been created and forms it into a building. After he already arranges the wood and builds the house according to his will, the building exists even though he does not continue to supervise and care for the house. The works of the Creator, Blessed Be His Name, are not the same. Since he created them all[16] at the time of the creation of the world, they depend on the energy of the Creator. This is the way it always was, literally every day and every moment – their entire force of existence and order is dependent solely on what He Blessed Be He bestows upon them with His Blessed will – a new influence at every moment. Were He Blessed Be He to remove His force of influence from them for even one moment – everything would turn to naught and nothingness within a moment.

(Nefesh HaHayim, section I, chapter II)

 

The Coming of the Messiah in the Eyes of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin

Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin once sat with his students and spoke about the redemption and the coming of the Messiah. One student said to him, “Our rabbi, I looked into Avkat Rochel and saw that tribulations and disasters will eventually come upon the Jews at the time of the birth pangs of the Messiah, and I wonder whether a person will be able to withstand them.”[17]

Rabbi Hayim smiled and said, “Do you think that during the times of the Messiah, the Holy One Blessed Be He will stand and leaf through every page of Avkat Rochel?”

(M. Lipson, Midor Ledor, volume IV, paragraph 2728)

 

An Ignoramus in the Entire Talmud…

Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik said about a certain person who made himself out to be a scholar, “So-and-so is a complete ignoramus.”

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They asked him, “Our rabbi, this person has studied the entire Talmud.”

Rabbi Hayim smiled, “That is the way it is. Had he only completed one tractate, he would only be an ignoramus regarding that tractate. However, now that he completed the entire Talmud, he is an ignoramus regarding the entire Talmud.”

(Ibid. ibid. paragraph 2926)

 

Who is Exempt from the Tribulations of Raising Children?

There is a story regarding Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik that a person once came to him and complained, “Our rabbi, the tribulations of raising children are difficult for me. There is no day in which the concerns and worries are not more than the previous.”

Rabbi Hayim responded, “You know, who is a person who does not have the tribulations of raising children? Someone who is childless, may it not befall us…”

(Ibid. ibid. paragraph 3323)

 

“And all the Magicians of Egypt Did So” (Exodus 7:22)

Rabbi Itzele expounded on this verse: The sign was to turn the rivers to blood. The magicians of Egypt knew to wait for the contemptible thing. The Jew haters excelled in these matters from time immemorial. This is their ancient expertise…

(B. Joashson, “From Our Old Treasury” section II, page 46)

 

Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik Denigrates Neutrality…

A great dispute broke out during the period that Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik served as rabbi of Brisk. Rabbi Yosi Ber approached several of the city notables whose opinion was acceptable to the community, asking them to influence the disputants to quench the fire of controversy. However, they refused the request of the rabbi, claiming that they do not want to enter into the foray, and therefore they would take a neutral stance.

Rabbi Yosi Ber told them, “This neutrality reminds me of the neutrality of the dogs of Egypt. For our sages have said, ‘If dogs cry, the Angel of Death is coming to the city. If dogs play, Elijah the Prophet is coming to the city.’ (Bava Kama 60b) Since the Angel of Death was in Egypt at the time to smite the firstborn in the Land of Egypt, as was Elijah the Prophet the redeemer, who came to redeem Israel – the dogs did not know what to do. Therefore, ‘and not even a dog made any noise amongst the Children of Israel’ (Exodus 11:7). The dogs decided to be ‘neutral’ and did not open their mouths…”

(From B. Joashson, “From Our Old Treasury” volume II, page 64)

 

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Changes the Name of his Book

Rabbi Yosef Dov called his first book Yad HaLevi (Y'D is the acronym for:

[Page 270]

Yosef Dov)[18]. He sent this book to the printing house of Yitzchak Goldman in Warsaw, who was considered to be one of the maskilim.

The typesetters had already begun their work. Once, the author went to the printing house. When he saw the printer, he said to him that if he finds any errors in the language, he is permitted to fix them. Goldman then said to him, “If the rabbi permits, I will first fix the name of the book.” “Why?” called out the rabbi in astonishment. The printer replied, “For the words Yad HaLevi appear only once in the Bible, with regard to the Statue of Micah (“Micah inducted the Levite, and the young man became his priest and remained in Micah's shrine.”, Judges 17:12[19]).

Rabbi Yosef Dov agreed that he was correct and called the book Beit HaLevi.

(Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum, Alei Cheldi, page 86)

 

The Sharpness of Rabbi Rafael Shapira

Once, one of the wealthy people came to Rabbi Rafael and placed two rubles and 70 kopecks on the table before him. Rabbi Rafael lifted his eyes and looked at the man, asking, “What is this money for?” The man understood the glance and responded, “I recited the Mi Sheberach for my sick son, and pledged 18 gold coins for charitable purposes. Now I have brought this money to the rabbi to do with it according to his will.” Rabbi Rafael shrugged his shoulders and said, “There is destiny for Israel! For the Jews, in Hebrew, Chai means life, and Met means death. This wealthy Jew exempted himself with the smallest sum of life: 18. Had Chai meant death, and Met meant life – he would not have been able to exempt himself with this sum…”

(Ibid. ibid. page 67)

 

Every Good Prayer Was in the Eyes of Rabbi Rafael

When Rabbi Rafael came to sit on the rabbinical seat of Bobruisk, he attempted to erase the traces of the dispute that broke out in that city several years previously between the Misnagdim and the Hassidim.

He went to visit Rabbi Shmarya Noach Schneerson, the rabbi of the Hassidim, in his house. Rabbi Shmarya honored him with words of Hassidism, the essence of which was that the prayer “O L-rd, grant us success” is at a higher level than the prayer “O L-rd, save us”[20].

Rabbi Rafael sat, listened, and was silent. When the Rabbi of the Hassidim finished his words of Torah, he asked Rabbi Rafael when he thought of it. Rabbi Rafael shrugged his shoulders and responded innocently, “The prayer ‘O L-rd save us’ is also a good prayer.”

(Based on Alei Cheldi, pp. 67-68)

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“When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their army enrollment, each shall pay G-d a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” (Exodus 30:12)[21]

Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik said: When Moses our Teacher heard that the Holy One Blessed Be He commanded him to count the Jews, he became worried in his heart. It is a minor matter! Sixty myriads of Jews will hasten to “enter the records” [Exodus 30: 13] and fulfil the commandment. Everyone wants to be first. They will push and shove each other, and this is liable to end in a tragedy, Heaven forbid.

The Holy One Blessed Be He comforted him: Calm down, my servant Moses. When the Jews will hear the end of the commandment “each person… a ransom for himself” – that will cost a half a shekel, and they realize that the census will cost money, I will then promise you “and there will be no plague.” They will not run, hurry, or hasten, and will not trample each other. The commotion will not be so great…

(From B. Josefson, “From Our Old Treasury” Part II, page 195)

 

What is the Difference Between the Grave of Misnagdim and the Grave of a Hassidic Rebbe

An elderly Hassid came to the cemetery in the city of Brisk to supplicate over the grave of the Maggid of Turisk. Incidentally, he also visited the grave of Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik. He noticed that the grave of the Maggid was clear on all sides. The other graves were a distance away. However, the grave of Rabbi Yosi Ber was surrounded on all sides by other graves, right next to it.

That day, the teller [of the story] was together on a train with the Ridba'z (Rabbi Yaakov David the son of Zeev Wilovsky – who is known for his commentary Peirush Haridva'z on the Jerusalem Talmud) and told him what he had seen with his eyes in the Brisk cemetery.

The Ridva'z, who was an enthusiastic Misnaged, told the elderly Hassid, “In this matter, you Hassidim are above us Misnagdim. With you, as long as your Rebbe is alive, you cleave to him and come close to him, whereas after his death, you distance yourself from his grave. With us Misnagdim, it is the opposite. As long as the rabbi is alive, we keep away from him, and only after his death do we come close to him and wish to be buried next to him…

(Yitzchak Nisenbaum, Alei Halevi, page 213)

 

“The People Sat Down to Eat and Drink, and then Rose to Revel.” (Exodus 32:6)

Once, Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik said when he was in a jocular mood: Everyone knows that there is a big difference between the Misnagdim and Hassidim. The Misnagdim fast on the yahrzeit of their rabbi, and on that day, they are in a mournful mood. On the other hand, Hassidim drink liquor on the anniversary of the death of their Rebbe and organize celebrations and festivities.

However, there is nothing new under the sun “it has been like this forever.” This difference already existed when Israel was in the desert, as we learn from that which is written in the Torah: Before the giving of the Torah, before the Jews

[Page 272]

knew how to study – they maintained the custom of the Hassidim. When Moshe went up to the upper heights and they thought – as the sages teach – that he was no longer alive, they conducted a feast “And the people sat to eat and drink.” However, when “And Moses died there” [Deuteronomy 34:5], when Moses really died, and this was after the giving of the Torah when the Jews already knew how to study – they acted in accordance with the custom of the Misnagdim: “And the Children of Israel wept for Moses” (Deuteronomy 34:8).

(From B. Joashson, “From Our Old Treasury” Section II, page 207)

 

“Anyone who appoints over the community a judge who is not fit, it is as though he plants a tree used as part of idolatrous rites [ashera] among the Jewish people” (Sanhedrin 7a)[22]

Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik asked: Why is a judge who is not fit compared to an idolatrous tree? When a statue, an idol, one can immediately see that this is idolatry, and there is no room for error.

This is not the case with an idolatrous tree [ashera]: From the outside, it is beautiful in appearance and pleasant to look at. However, from the inside, it is nothing other than idolatry. This is the same with a judge who is not fit…

(B. Joashson, “From Our Old Treasury” Section IV, page 272)

 

Righteous People of Sodom

Rabbi Itzele once spent some time in the medicinal springs outside of Russia. [He was concerned] lest they tell about the famous “son of holy ones” that he plays the role of Tzadik in his home, but in another country, he casts off the yoke of the fear of Heaven, and that people would spread rumors about him.

Rabbi Itzele responded, “Now the meaning of the verse ‘Fifty righteous ones in the city’ (Genesis 18:26) is clear to me. Apparently, the righteous ones of Sodom were G-d fearing only in their city, but when they left their city, not a shred or memory of their righteousness remained…”

(Ibid. Volume I, page 91)

 

“You shall say, It is from your servant Jacob, a gift sent to my master Esau” (Genesis 32:19)[23]

“A gift – to Esau” Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik was once traveling in a train car in which several Jews were sitting. When the time for the Mincha prayer arrived, they checked to see if there was a minyan [prayer quorum], so they could conduct the service with a quorum. Two “progressive” youths were sitting in the car, and they were asked to join the minyan. However, they responded that they are not connected with “such matters” and disappeared from the car. They returned to their places when they finished praying. Rabbi Yosi Ber said out loud so that the two youths will also hear, “You know, sirs, now you have answered a difficult question for me. In the gift[24] that Jacob sent to Esau, there were flocks of he-goats, she-goats, ewes, rams, camels, she-asses and he-asses. I have always had the question: why did Jacob not also send several dogs to guard the flocks? Now, as you see,” said Rabbi Yosi Ber, pointing to the lads, “The question is no longer a question. The nature of dogs is that when they detect the aroma of “Mincha” [which also means a gift] – they immediately disappear…”

(ibid. ibid. Section I, page 180)

[Page 273]

The “Permissible Ruling” of Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik

Once, a Jew entered the home of Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik on the eve of Passover, with the question: “Our rabbi, is it permissible to fulfil the commandment of the four cups with milk?”

“Are you sick, Heaven forbid,” Rabbi Yosi Ber asked him.

“I am healthy, praised be G-d,” responded the Jew. “ But the wine, as the honorable rabbi knows, is very expensive this year, and I am unable to purchase it.”

Rabbi Yosi Ber told the Jew that, in accordance with the law, it is permissible to fulfil the commandment of the four cups also with milk, and he placed a check for 25 rubles in the hands of the asker.

When the Jew left his home, the Rebbetzin asked in surprise, “Why did you give the Jew a cheque for 25 rubles? Two or three rubles would be sufficient to purchase [wine for] the four cups.”

Rabbi Yosi Ber answered her, “From the question of the Jew regarding whether it is permissible to fulfil the obligation of the four cups with milk, it is obvious that he was not only lacking wine. He was missing ‘something else.’ He was missing chicken soup and a piece of meat. For if he had soup and meat, how would it be permissible for him to drink dairy for the four cups?…”

(From B. Yoashson, “From Our Old Treasury” Festivals, Five Megillot, pp. 101-102.)

 

“And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land” (Genesis 41:34)[25]

During the years of the drought in Russia, a heavy famine pervaded, from which the Jews suffered especially. Aid committees were set up in every city and town, the effectiveness of which was not apparent at all. As the number of committees increased, so did the famine.

Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik said, “From here, the trust in the words of Josef ‘And seven years of hunger will come’ (Genesis 41:36) are clear to me. Did not the asker ask: From where did Joseph have the faith that in truth there will be ‘seven years of hunger’? Is not G-d omnipotent, and if He wished, He could annul this decree, and there would not be famine in the land of Egypt.

“However, it is fitting to realize that his words were not for naught. Joseph advised Pharaoh: ‘And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land.’ When he would start immediately to appoint committees and councils, he would appoint a legion of officials, accountants, and secretaries to gather all the food of the good years and store up grain as a guarantee for food assistance for the needy when the time comes. Then, he was certain that ‘and seven years of hunger will arise’ – that indeed, there will be a famine in the land.

(Ibid. Vol I, page 232)

 

“Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel” (Numbers 11:16)

Rabbi Yosi Ber Soloveitchik was invited to a town to settle a dispute that broke out regarding

[Page 274]

the choosing of a rabbi. Each side wanted their own rabbi, and the fire of dispute burned and became a godly fire.

“Now,” said Rabbi Yosi Ber, seeing that the entire town was immersed in the dispute of the choosing of a rabbi, “Now, answer the following difficult question for me: Why, after the children of Israel complained about the manna and the quail, did the Holy One Blessed Be He suddenly say to Moses: ‘Gather for me seventy men’? Apparently, this is a complete mystery. What does this have to do with the complaint that the Children of Israel complained to Moses, ‘And now our souls are parched, without anything other than the manna before our eyes’? (Numbers 11:6) How is this an answer to Moses' question, ‘From where will I get meat to give to this entire nation, for they cried to me saying, give us meant to eat’ (Numbers 11:13)?

“However, if we think about this matter well,” said Rabbi Yosi Ber, “we will prove that this was the only result. When the Holy One Blessed Be He saw that the Jews were complaining and arguing amongst themselves regarding matters of livelihood, and Moses, Heaven forbid, was wearing himself out for the matter was too difficult to give the Children of Israel the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic [based on Numbers 11:5] – He offered him advice, ‘Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, etc. take them to the Tent of Meeting, and let them be there with you.’ Prepare a list of 70 new leaders of seventy rabbis and find out of the Jews will be happy. The Jews will begin to argue amongst themselves, and they will immediately forget the worries of livelihood, the worries of the manna, the worries of the quail, and other mundane concerns…”

(From B. Joashson, “From Our Old Treasury” Volume IV, pp. 50-51)

 

How Did Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin Behave Toward his Students?

The great rabbi, the famous Hassid, Rabbi Meir Shalom the son of Rabbi Shmaryahu HaKohen, may the memory of the holy be blessed, a native of the city of Karelitz, one of the students of the Gaon Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin of blessed memory, served with him in holiness and purity for close to 14 years. After that, he sent the aforementioned rabbi to Vilna to supervise the Yeshiva building of great scholars. He was first and the head of them all, where they established students who became luminaries amongst Israel.

Many of the students of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin were jealous of this honor, and they sometimes defeated him in halacha, as they did not know his lofty value. When our rabbi, the Gaon, found out that he was immersed in agony regarding this, the Gaon Rabbi Hayim of blessed memory traveled to Vilna himself and remained there for about two months. During those days, our teacher the Gaon of blessed memory remained enwrapped in his tallis and tefillin, as was his custom always, leaning and standing in the Yeshiva of his aforementioned great student, discussing halacha with him, asking questions like one of the students. Rabbi Meir Shalom of blessed memory would discuss didactics with him, teach, and explain every difficult matter to him.

(Aryeh Leib Frunkim, “History of the Sages of Jerusalem” Part III, chapter V, page 176)

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Pirkei Avot 5:17. Return
  2. A type of celebration on the nights of Sukkot commemorating the water drawing festivities during the time of the Temple. Return
  3. “You have chosen us” – the opening words of the middle section of the festival amida, which is often put to a variety of melodies. Return
  4. The Shehecheyanu blessing. Return
  5. See Exodus 24:7. The common interpretation is that the Children of Israel agreed to fulfil the mitzvot even before fully understanding them – and this was considered meritorious. Return
  6. In opposition to the notion that one should wait for G-d to bring about the Messianic era and do nothing to artificially hasten it. Return
  7. A halachic concept of being instructed to refrain from fulfilling a positive commandment. Return
  8. The term for the period between 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. Return
  9. Kohelet 4:2. Translation from Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Ecclesiastes.4.2?ven=Tanakh:_The_Holy_Scriptures,_published_by_JPS&vhe=Miqra_according_to_the_Masorah&lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en Return
  10. Rabbi Chisda was a Talmudic sage. The methodology leshitateha [literally, ‘according to his opinion’] brings together disparate Talmudic statements from a single individual. Return
  11. There is an error here in that the Talmudic quote is not from Sanhedrin 65, but rather Ketubot 65a: https://www.sefaria.org/Ketubot.65a.7?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&vhe=William_Davidson_Edition_-_Vocalized_Aramaic&lang=bi Return
  12. Mishnah Peah 1:1: https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Peah.1.1?ven=Mishnah_Yomit_by_Dr._Joshua_Kulp&vhe=Torat_Emet_357&lang=bi Return
  13. Pirkei Avot 2:8. Return
  14. Based on Rashi's commentary on Genesis 37:24 Return
  15. Psalm 135:19-20. Return
  16. i.e. the raw materials. Return
  17. According to tradition, the period prior to the coming of the Messiah will be a period of great tribulation. Return
  18. Yosef Dov is the Hebrew version of the Yiddishized Yoshe (or Yosi) Ber. Return
  19. Translation from Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Judges.17.12?ven=Tanakh:_The_Holy_Scriptures,_published_by_JPS&vhe=Miqra_according_to_the_Masorah&lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en Return
  20. Both prayers are from Psalm 118:25, which is part of the Hallel service. Return
  21. Translation taken from Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.30.12?ven=The_Contemporary_Torah,_Jewish_Publication_Society,_2006&vhe=Miqra_according_to_the_Masorah&lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en Return
  22. Translation taken from Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.7b.8?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&vhe=Wikisource_Talmud_Bavli&lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en Return
  23. The original says this is Genesis 32:15, but it is actually 32:19. Return
  24. Mincha is the name of the afternoon service, but it can also mean ‘a gift’, and is the word used in the verse. Return
  25. Translation from Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.41.34?ven=The_Contemporary_Torah,_Jewish_Publication_Society,_2006&vhe=Miqra_according_to_the_Masorah&lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en Note, the original had an error in the reference. It said Numbers 11:16 rather than Genesis 41:34. The incorrect reference from Numbers was evidently copied from the subsequent vignette, where it is correct. Return

 

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