Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Adar 5761 - March 14, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Shoel Umeishiv -- R' Yosef Shaul Natansohn
In honor of his yahrtzeit -- 26th Adar

Known as the Shoel Umeishiv, after his sefer of that name, R' Yosef Shaul Natansohn was truly the shoel umeishiv of all European Jewry of his generation.

His father R' Arye Leibush of Berzhan was blessed with this special child in the year 5577 (1817) and brought him up to love and fear Hashem and His Torah. Yosef Shaul also learned with his grandfather, the HaRav Yitzchok Natansohn and with his maternal grandfather, R' Dov Berish Heilperin, in Berzhan.

At sixteen he married the Rebbetzin Sarah Eidel, daughter of R' Yitzchok Aaron Itinge of Lvov (Lemberg) who was the son- in-law of the rov in Lvov, R' Mordechai Zev Orenstein. Reb Yosef Shaul was supported by his father-in-law following his marriage, after which his wife took upon herself to earn a livelihood so that her husband could devote himself entirely to his Torah learning.

He became very close with his brother-in-law, R' Mordechai Zev, zt"l, and together they learned Torah and wrote teshuvos in halocho, corresponding with the geonim of their time: R' Mordechai Banet, R' Akiva Eiger and the Chasam Sofer, zt"l.

Together they wrote the seforim Mogen Giborim, Me'iras Einayim, commentaries on the Levush, Maaseh Ilfas, Ner Maarovi and more.

On the 13th of Tishrei, 5617 (1857), he was appointed rov in Lvov and on 26th Sivan of the same year, his Rebbetzin passed away. A year later, on 12 Adar, he married the Rebbetzin Shifra Buna, who brought him a large dowry, enabling him to live independently all his life without taking a wage from the community he led.

In 5622 (1862) he was asked to be rov in Brisk as we find in his haskomo to the sefer Yam Shel Shlomo, he writes that from 21 Shevat 5622, although he is still in Lvov, he is preparing to accept the Rabbinate in Brisk, Lithuania.

However, in the end the community in Lvov begged him not to forsake them and he acceded and remained their rov.

His responsa in halocho were sent to thousands from all ends of the world and these were printed seven times over in the early years. During his lifetime they were published twice and since they ran out of print and were in high demand, his Rebbetzin published them the other five times after he was niftar.

His other seforim include Divrei Shaul on the Haggadah, Divrei Shaul Yosef Daas, Eidus Beyosef, Yodos Nedorim, Divrei Shaul al Hatorah, and Divrei Shaul al Aggodos Hashas.

In Teves, 5638 (1878), he was taken ill and for two months he lay in his sickbed, continuing to write halachic responsa despite his weakness and ignoring the doctor's advice not to strain himself.

On his last day in this world, 26th Adar I, when his waning strength had almost left him completely, a halachic sheilo that had arrived that morning was read out to him. He requested that the Dayan R' Chaim Yosef Elinberg answer in his stead. An hour later his soul passed on.

According to the newspaper of the time, Der Israelit, an enormous crowd numbering over fifteen thousand people took part in his levaya.


It was during the period that the young R' Yosef Shaul was being supported by his father-in-law in Lvov, still prior to his appointment as rov there, that the word spread, "The gaon is going to open a yeshiva for bochurim who want to learn the sugyos of Shas in depth, to learn the gemora according to halocho."

The news spread, as though on wings, and the cream of bochurim whose souls yearned for new vistas in Torah streamed to the bais hamedrash of Reb Yosef Shaul.

The reason for his opening of a yeshiva was unknown until he revealed it in the introduction to his sefer Yodos Nedorim of the year 5611 (1851). There he writes: It's already ten years that I've noticed that true lomdei Torah are dwindling in number and the youngsters growing up are learning the culture of the gentiles surrounding us. My heart cries out for the future generations -- who will guide them? Who will pasken? So I decided that it's not enough for a person to concern himself only with his own learning. The time has come to spread Torah to many pupils. However, up till now I had various worries and concerns that deterred me. Until I saw that if not now, then when? Like Matisyohu of old, I spread the word -- Mi LaHashem Eilai! Whoever wants to delve into Torah in depth and pilpul should come to us -- and there gathered together a large crowd of talmidei chachomim ready to rally for the Torah, to learn and to teach."

These were the feelings of his pure heart when he opened a yeshiva for the sake of the young generation.

Since he did not merit to have children of his own, he treated his talmidim as though they were his offspring, as the posuk says "Veshinantom levonecho," and Chazal say, "These are the talmidim."

He was concerned for them as a father for his sons, investing all his efforts so that they grow into talmidei chachomim. Even those talmidim whose futures he knew lay not in their being steeped in Torah learning, but would enter the business world before long, were led by their rosh yeshiva, R' Yosef Shaul, to love Torah so that when the time would come for them to leave the yeshiva world they would still set aside regular times for learning.

In return, the talmidim felt a deep love towards him, reflecting his feelings towards them like a mirror. One of his talmidim, the gaon, R' Uri zt"l, rov of Samber, related that he so yearned for his Rebbe's Torah lessons that in the days of the Polish revolt in Lemberg, he risked his life many times, braving the dangers of being caught in the crossfire on the streets to reach his Rebbe's house and learn with him.

Since the purpose of the yeshiva was to train dayanim and rabbonim for the next age, Reb Yosef Shaul stressed the learning of Shas and poskim, Tur and Shulchan Oruch, mentioning a number of times in his responsa that he is learning with his talmidim practical halocho. Upon receiving sheilos, he would encourage his pupils to participate in looking up the answers, asking their opinions and training them how to pasken.

Naturally after being treated almost as an equal by this godol hador, each of his talmidim became great talmidei chachomim, experts in halocho.

Not only did he teach them how to learn the Torah, but also how to live as a ben Torah, the Rosh Yeshiva himself being their prime example.

It is told that although he was well off, Reb Yosef Shaul did not even recognize the different coins of the currency used. It was customary in his times at a chuppah or bris to hire a chazzan to sing in honor of the occasion and a shamash to organize the proceedings. At the end of the meal, the guests would give each of them a tip for their work, obviously giving the chazzan more than the shamash.

One day the chazzan complained to his friends that the Rov always gives him a coin of little value, unsuited to his talent. Furthermore, to the shamash, who merely has to organize a little, he gives a coin of much greater worth. "Does the Rov not like my singing, or does he perhaps have some personal complaint against me?" he wondered.

After investigating, the confusion cleared. It turned out that the Rebbetzin would give him two coins, one for the chazzan and one for the shamash. The Rov, not recognizing the difference in worth of the coins, gave the larger coin, which was of less value, to the chazzan, and the smaller one, of greater value, to the shamash.

Despite his greatness, or perhaps because of it, his humility prevented him from publishing his teshuvos until he found a gemora that says that Rovo found no morei horo'oh in Yisroel except from the tribes of Levi and Yissochor. Reb Yosef Shaul writes in detail in the introduction to his sefer Shoel Umeishiv, listing many gedolim who were Kohanim and Leviim -- the Sma and Shach were Kohanim, the Turei Zohov (Taz), the Remoh, and the Shloh were Leviim, the Ketzos HaChoshen was a kohen: "And although their magnitude is so much greater, since I am also of Shevet Levi, I will follow in their footsteps and publicize my chiddushim.

In his concern for the hungry, poor people, he set up a communal kitchen by the name of Beis Lechem Yehudi -- the Jewish bread house, where all the impoverished were fed and sustained. Likewise, the less wealthy pupils of the yeshiva could also have a good meal there, whenever they wished. Reb Yosef Shaul himself would trek around town collecting from the wealthier Jews donations for the kitchen despite the fact that this was an arduous undertaking and, according to his pupils, he had always been a weak person, suffering many an illness.

These personal examples had a strong influence on his pupils, who learned from their "living mussar sefer," in turn becoming much sought after rabbonim.

Their great name reached to Paris as can be found in the Parisian newspaper HaMagid of 20th Sivan 5635. ". . . during the times of the Chochom R' Yosef Cohen Tzedek of Lemberg, who came to town to give droshos on Shabbos and the festivals. We were all astounded by the breadth of his knowledge as it was clearly apparent that the words of his great rabbi, R' Yosef Shaul Natansohn were emanating from his mouth!"


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