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8 Tishrei 5762 - September 25, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Tishrei in the Beis Medrash of Rabbeinu Chaim Volozhin

by Rav Dov Eliach

Part II -- Succos

The first part discussed teshuvoh and the yomim noraim.

Zeman Simchoseinu

There was one great principle upon which Volozhin - - the Mother of all Yeshivos -- was founded. That is, as Reb Chaim explains in Nefesh HaChaim, " . . .that if the world -- even for one split second -- would be devoid of talmud Torah, the universe would collapse entirely on the spot." Because of this, Reb Chaim set up shifts in the yeshiva, that there be continuous learning twenty-four hours, seven days a week! Even on motzei Yom Kippur, when everyone went home to revive themselves after the fast, Reb Chaim himself would sit and learn, reviving his soul with talmud Torah. As a matter of a fact, Volozhin Yeshiva did not have bein hazmanim over the yomim tovim. The zeman continued. "Shabbosim and yomim tovim were given to Klal Yisroel to busy themselves with talmud Torah" -- and Volozhin upheld that firmly.

Yomim noraim, Succos, Shemini Atzeres-Simchas Torah and all other yomim tovim, were celebrated together with the talmidim within the walls of the yeshiva. Every Yom Tov had its own signet which Reb Chaim impressed upon his talmidim. It continued thus throughout the years of Volozhin's existence.

As was the Vilna Gaon's custom, his closest talmid, Reb Chaim Volozhiner, celebrated Simchas Beis Hashoeva with great pomp and ceremony. Every night of chol hamoed Succos, the talmidim and their rebbeim would celebrate for hours on end.

They began by reciting the fifteen Shir Hama'alos posuk by posuk and then they would break out in dance, which would last until the wee hours of the morning. Divrei Torah be'inyonei deyoma were said by the roshei yeshiva.

During the term of the Netziv (son-in-law of Reb Itzele, the son of Reb Chaim), Simchas Beis Hashoeva would at times begin in the afternoon and stretch past midnight, or even until daybreak! At the peak of celebrations the talmidim would go out into the streets, dancing their way to the homes of the roshei yeshiva. Singing and clapping, they would escort their rebbeim to the beis medrash, where the festivities continued.

"One who did not witness Simchas Beis Hashoeva in Volozhin, has never witnessed true joy," said those who were indeed privileged to feast their eyes upon that remarkable sight. The oft-repeated songs were "Atoh bechartonu" and "Boruch Elokeinu," "Mas'eis Nafshi," and "Yoma Tova lecho, Rebbe." They would also sing the famous "Volozhiner niggun," and piyutim from the Yomim Noraim. When they got to the niggun of "Yachbi'einu betzeil yodo," they would break out in their famous chain-link dance, which was a sight to behold.

All the specialties for the occasion, such as the delicacies that gladden one's heart, and so on were seen to by select talmidim of the yeshiva's finest. They had been especially elected before yom tov at the general assembly of the talmidim.

Among the many things that Reb Chaim used to retell his talmidim, especially Succos time, was the contents of a precious letter which he held in his possession. It was a handwritten letter from the gaon, the Bach, av beis din of Cracow. He had written this letter to his son-in- law, the great gaon, the Taz, the rov of Ostrow. It read as follows: "Hashem has granted me the opportunity to have a new suit made especially for Yom Tov. However, I lack the sum needed to pay for its completion. I know that I have four gold coins that are in your possession, which I need at this time. I am therefore asking you to please send the money to me. Beforehand, however, please take off six pennies and give them to your wife, my daughter shetichye, so that she may buy nuts for Yom Tov and gladden her heart."

Whenever Reb Chaim read this letter to his talmidim, tears would stream from his eyes as he drew the following lesson: From this letter, one can appreciate how the geonim of the previous generation learned Torah. Amidst such poverty and privation they managed to be content with their little bit, and satisfied with their lot.

Rejoicing with the Torah

Simchas Torah too, with all the customs and practices of Volozhin - was patterned after the Vilna Gaon's hanhogos. At the hakofos, both Simchas Torah night and after Shacharis the next morning, the talmidim danced in honor of the Torah until their energy was spent. Thereafter, when they got to the tefillah of Oleinu Leshabei'ach, the Oron Hakodesh was opened and Oleinu was recited in the musaf niggun of Yom Kippur! At "va'anachnu korim," all the talmidim would bow, falling upon their faces, actually prostrating themselves on the floor, as was the Gaon's custom on Yomim Noraim.

A talmid of the yeshiva during its second era -- in the time of HaRav Rafael Shapiro (son-in-law of the Netziv), wrote the following: Even during his time, years and years later, this minhag was still adhered to. When he tried to research the reason for it he could not come up with any concrete answer, other than that it was the Vilna Gaon's custom. He also heard that in other communities which followed minhagei haGra, they did likewise.

The Gaon on Simchas Torah

On the topic of Simchas Torah, it would be in place to digress in order to briefly describe the great joy experienced by the Vilna Gaon on this day. It is worth retelling, although such madreigos are far beyond our comprehension . . .

One of the Gaon's talmidim tells over the following: The Gaon was intensely joyful on Succos, yet increasingly so on Simchas Torah. He would walk before the sefer Torah, displaying such ecstasy, with such vigor, that it was amazing to witness. When the sefer Torah was returned to the Oron Hakodesh however, the Gaon's intensified simcha was reduced to the ordinary joy experienced during the rest of Yom Tov.

Both simchas haTorah and simchas Yom Tov are opportunities for happiness, yet each unlike the other. The Gaon's fine-tuning was so perfect that he differentiated between the two types of simcha, setting each one at the degree he felt it should be. Obviously, this great level is far, far beyond most. Yet with the great gaon and chossid of Vilna, his evaluation of and ability to determine the degree of joy to be experienced was in proportion to his great stature. While the Volozhiner talmidim were taught to aspire to this madreigah, they could only yearn to climb to these lofty heights.

Getting back to Volozhin, it is not coincidental that every Succos night's festivities ended in the beis medrash. The celebrations would continue past midnight, and occasionally till the early hours of the morning. Yet, after hours and hours of true simcha, dancing, and exertion, the talmidim would immediately go up to the beis medrash and begin learning diligently! This occurred after every Simchas Beis Hashoeva, and on Simchas Torah as well. Even on Pesach -- after the Seder had ended with Reb Chaim's extraordinary niggun of "Chassal Siddur Pesach," the bochurim left Reb Chaim's home. Yet, they did not head to their lodgings, but turned towards the beis medrash instead. It had been hours since they had last seen their gemoras, and they fell upon them like starving men. Starving not for bread, "ki im lishmo'a es divrei Hashem . . ."

This was not unusual for the Volozhiner bochurim. It was simply another manifestation of joy, of Simchas Torah expression. And shouldn't it have been so? Didn't Reb Chaim exhort and demand that all Torah learning take place amidst joy?

He did so for two reasons: First, for the great purpose it accomplished: One who learns in a joyous state will learn and accomplish far, far more in one hour than he would have after learning for hours in a downhearted state. Second, for the learning in and of itself: "The Torah is the treasure of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and one should rejoice with this great prize," as Reb Chaim would say in his Pirkei Ovos shiur.

This interesting practice, which puts the priceless value of limud haTorah in a different light, was typical of Reb Chaim's beis medrash. Be it from days of teshuva and cheshbon hanefesh, as in the yemei hadin vehorachamim, or from days of happiness and exultation, as in Succos -- zeman simchoseinu, and Simchas Torah, Volozhin always returned to that principle of Truth; the principle which is so eloquently phrased in the Nefesh HaChaim: "One who is oseik beTorah . . . becomes a partner to Hashem Yisborach, the Creator of the Universe. For by his learning Torah he upholds the very existence of all the world."

The above appeared in the Tishrei, 5750 edition of the biannually published Kol HaTorah journal. The material was later incorporated into the author's two-volume, Avi Hayeshivos about Volozhin. This article has been translated with permission.

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