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27 Ellul 5762 - September 4, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Portraying The Past And Ensuring The Future: HaRav Yitzchok Isaac Halevi Rabinowitz, zt'l, Author Of Doros Horishonim

by Moshe Musman and Yated Ne'eman Staff

Part I


He was a gaon in every area of Torah. The intricacies of both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi, of all the midroshim of Chazal and of the works of the Rishonim, were spread open before him in all clarity. He wrote his magnum opus, the eight-volume Doros Horishonim, which contains thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of references to ma'amorei Chazal and statements of the Rishonim, without using any seforim. He wrote during the daytime, citing every quote from memory, "bereft of all good and lacking any seforim," as he himself put it. Only at night did he have the opportunity to check the accuracy of the sources that he had mentioned (as we will explain in greater detail later).

The breadth of his knowledge was matched by depth. Sharpness and penetration enhanced his comprehensive grasp. Contemporary gedolim referred to him as, "[Both] Sinai (a repository of the entire Torah) and an uprooter of mountains (possessing tremendous mental acuity)."

He also possessed a gift for leadership and for sensing the needs of the times. He was revered by the leaders of his time, whom he joined in the difficult task of navigating Torah Jewry through the increasingly serious challenges of the modern era. Whether sitting in his spacious room in Vilna, or by his small table in Hamburg, he was aware of what was transpiring across the lands of Jewish Europe, away to the farthest reaches of the Jewish world. He gazed both backwards, over thousands of years of Jewish history, and forwards, from the grave spiritual threats of the immediate present into the unclear and worrying future. He led, supervised and laid plans, calling upon gedolei Yisroel to participate in the measures that were necessary in order to save Klal Yisroel from the inclemencies of the times.

He is a hard figure for us to evaluate. Every godol beTorah is unique but he is unique even among gedolim. Our usual frame of reference for contemplating the life of a great rov or rosh yeshiva, is of limited use in his case. He was a pivotal figure in the Torah world, playing a crucial role in the fight to stop haskoloh from infiltrating traditional Torah chinuch yet his accomplishments were mostly achieved behind the scenes. For all his public involvement, his name rarely went on record.

There are few sources of information about him. In part, this is due to the fact that he did not occupy any public position and in part, to the loss of much of his own written material, such as chiddushei Torah and letters, in the course of the period of his enforced wandering around the cities of Europe. At different stages of his life he inhabited and was part of two very different Jewish worlds -- the world of the Eastern European yeshivos on the one hand and that of modern German Orthodoxy on the other. It is significant that in no way did his belonging to the first hinder his operating in the second.

If a single thread might be identified as running through his life, it would be his keen awareness of Jewish destiny and his ability to discern the tactics and measures that need to be adopted in order to retain fidelity to its goals. He was a visionary but also much more than that. His vision did not spring from his own ideas or emotions but wholly from Torah. He did not merely seek to inspire by evoking grand images of the past. He showed how past events were an integral part of the Torah that had shaped them and that was continuing to shape Jewish history. His vision encompassed the harsh realities of his times. He had the rare ability of divining the practical means of implementing the Torah's program for Klal Yisroel. Although this sounds pretentious, that is what it amounted to.

Son of Nobility

HaRav Yitzchok Isaac Halevi was born on motzei Yom Kippur 5608 (1847), in Ivenitz, a town close to Vilna, in the Minsk region. His father Rav Eliyohu zt'l, belonged to the famous Ivenitzer family, a noble family of distinguished lineage where Torah and extraordinary yiras Shomayim were united with wealth. The family traced its ancestry through great Acharonim, such as the Maharal, the Ramo and the Maharshal zt'l, to other earlier, illustrious forbears. The Vilna Gaon would send people to one of Rav Isaac's forbears, the righteous and holy Rav Avrohom Ivenitzer zt'l, in order to be blessed.

Rav Eliyohu Halevi was murdered by a Russian policeman while still a young man in his twenties. His young orphaned son Yitzchok Isaac received his early education from his paternal grandfather, Rav Nochum Chaim zt'l, whom he greatly revered. A fire that completely razed the town of Ivenitz brought an end to the glorious period of the family's centralization there and led to their eventual dispersion across Russia.

While still a child, Yitzchok Isaac was taken to the home of his maternal grandfather, HaRav Mordechai Eliezer Kovner zt'l, author of Karnei Re'eim on Pesochim and of other seforim, who was one of the great scholars of Vilna. Rav Nochum Chaim, who had moved to Minsk, maintained his close relationship with his gifted young grandson, to whom he bequeathed his large and valuable library of seforim.

As a young child, Yitzchok Isaac's purity of heart and sterling character were already apparent. He began learning gemora when he was five and a half years old. When he was thirteen he entered the yeshiva of Volozhin, his mother's father providing him with a modest stipend for his personal needs. Because he was so young, the family entrusted the money to the owner of the home where Yitzchok Isaac lodged, to be given to him as and when necessary.

Unfortunately, this man betrayed his trust and regularly took part of the money for himself, leaving his young charge to suffer hunger and want. If he judged that Yitzchok Isaac would remain silent rather than cause him embarrassment, he was correct. Not only did the latter refrain from so much as hinting to him that he knew what he was doing, he also avoided giving others any suspicions. He would leave half a cheese out on his table all week, so that his roommates would think that he was well off. When a friend once asked him why he never ate meat during the week, he replied that in the Rambam's opinion, meat was hard to digest and it was good to minimize its consumption.

In later years, this landlord was a frequent visitor at Rav Halevi's home in Vilna. Rav Halevi always honored him and addressed him respectfully.

Growth and Development

From the day he arrived in Volozhin, he struck up a friendship with the Beis Halevi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt'l (who was then rosh yeshiva), whose close talmid he became. Their relationship strengthened the bond between the two families that had existed since the yeshiva's first days. A great-great-grandfather, Rav Isaac Ivenitzer, after whom Yitzchok Isaac was named, had supported Rav Chaim of Volozhin and donated the money that enabled the yeshiva to open.

Yitzchok Isaac's broad knowledge and sharp intellect endeared him to Rav Yosef Dov, whose door and heart were always open to him. Writing to his talmid as a grown man in later years, Rav Yosef Dov opened his letter with the greeting, "Sholom to the friend of Hashem, the friend of my soul and the friend of every man."

This period also saw the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Rav Chaim Halevi Soloveitchik zt'l. Of his bond with Reb Chaim he wrote years later, "It was known in Russia, that we were literally as close as two brothers. I was also responsible for his being appointed as a rosh mesivta in Volozhin during its heyday. Each year, he stayed in my home for several months."

After a year in Volozhin he returned to Vilna and continued learning there, together with the city's great talmidei chachomim. Prior to his departure from the yeshiva, he delivered a lengthy discourse in the presence of his teachers and the bnei hayeshiva, astounding them with his broad knowledge, sharpness and clarity of thought.

At eighteen, he married his cousin, a daughter of his mother's brother Rav Sho'ul Kovner. He was immediately offered a rabbinic position in a town near Minsk, apparently on the recommendation of his paternal grandfather Rav Nochum Chaim who realized that such a position would afford his gifted grandson the opportunity to sit and learn in peace and attain his full potential.

The townspeople were so eager to have him accept, that they agreed to wait for however long he needed in order to prepare himself for giving practical rulings. However, close family members were not in favor of his taking a rabbinical position. Ultimately, in the face of this opposition, he felt unable to do what he really desired to do. Even in the happiest periods of his later life he regretted that move. His heart's only desire was to occupy himself with Torah and wisdom, which sustained his spirit and soul. In later years, when business and other concerns took up his day, he would spend the nights immersed in Torah.

He apparently attained his mastery of Torah largely by himself. Except for the Beis Halevi, he never identified anyone as having been his teacher, even before his time in Volozhin. He used to say that his principal rebbes were the Mishneh Lamelech and the Nodah Biyehudah zt'l. In his youth, he would stand every erev Shabbos for six hours straight, studying the seforim of these two gedolei Yisroel.

A House of Torah in Vilna

His son recalls that despite his late night hours, his father would always rise early for shacharis. Upon returning home between seven and eight in the morning, he would spend two hours writing his chiddushei Torah, during which time he only took some tea to drink.

Not a day passed without his father receiving visitors, since Vilna was a regional capital and a center of local government. Rav Halevi always made time for his callers, the ordinary ones as well as the great and important. He would sometimes spend hours in Torah discussion with visiting gedolei Torah. His home was a meeting place for talmidei chachomim, where scholars would stay while they were in Vilna. Some were like members of the family, such as Reb Chaim, who came regularly to stay during the years he spent in Volozhin.

His communal involvement began when he was just twenty years old, when he was charged with the gabbo'us (corresponding here to stewardship or trusteeship) of the Volozhin yeshiva. While the yeshiva's external affairs were attended to by the Rosh Yeshiva, this post carried responsibility for maintaining the yeshiva's internal equilibrium and guarding its sacred trust.

It was a job to which he brought great abilities and which he performed very successfully. His close ties with several generations of the heads of the yeshiva lent special value to his assistance in running and guiding the yeshiva. He played a role in navigating several difficult stretches of its passage and in overcoming the various troubles that beset it with the changing times.

Years later, at a general meeting to discuss the founding of Agudas Yisroel that was held in Hamburg in 5669 (1909) attended by Reb Chaim Soloveitchik and dignitaries from Minsk who had been past gabboim of Volozhin, the former addressed the latter and declared emphatically, "There was only one gabbai of Volozhin -- Reb Yitzchok Isaac!"

Actually, the gabbo'us over Volozhin encompassed far more than the affairs of a single institution. Guarding and supervising the yeshiva's position at the pinnacle of Jewish life necessitated involvement in a broad sweep of communal affairs. In those days, Volozhin was the fulcrum around which all Jewish internal affairs revolved and it was connected with all the various communal problems over which the religious leaders deliberated. It was not merely the foremost Torah center of the time, it was the only one -- the heart and soul of Eastern European Torah Jewry.

In the struggle with Haskoloh, Volozhin was the key. Influence in the yeshiva meant influence over the wider community. No wonder it was a prize sorely coveted by the early maskilim, some of whom certainly were able to declare, in all apparent sincerity, that they felt that the changes which they wished to see introduced were purely for the betterment of religious Jewry. This made them particularly dangerous adversaries. Leaders with sharp penetration were needed to identify the threats, which were not always apparent to everyone, and to neutralize them.

Rav Halevi was such a leader. His qualities were widely acknowledged and from the time he became active in the yeshiva's affairs, no decision affecting the Jewish Orthodox community of Russia was made without his participation and consent.

During this period, he also forged ties with other gedolim, some of whom he remained close to all his life. He assisted Rav Yisroel Salanter zt'l in some of his communal endeavors. (Rav Yisroel wrote to the Beis Halevi that he "had found a great and valuable treasure in Vilna.") While he lived in Vilna, Rav Yisroel tried to have all the meetings over communal affairs held in Rav Yitzchok Isaac's home.

He participated in all the general meetings that were held in the home of Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector zt'l, the rov of Kovno, which was a three-hour train journey from Vilna. When resolutions were passed that required immediate implementation, the task was always entrusted to Rav Yitzchok Isaac.

In later years, he supported Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l in his many pursuits on behalf of the klal. When Reb Chaim Ozer was offered the position of rov of St. Petersburg, he consulted Rav Yitzchok Isaac, writing to him, "I would like to hear your opinion, weighed on the balance of your mind and your penetrating understanding, [realizing that] . . . a person's steps are directed by Hashem."

An Ally in the Ministry

In 5632 (1872), we find Rav Halevi, still only in his mid- twenties, acting as spokesman for the religious leaders of Russian Jewry in an appeal to two influential Jewish figures, Baron Y. Ginzburg and his son, regarding the deliberations of a governmental commission that had met to consider several issues pertaining to the Jewish community.

While the letters to the two are written in the first person plural and are not signed, the recipients were aware of the writer's identity with whom they were almost certainly personally acquainted. Written in respectful tones that nevertheless conveyed a serious message, the two were asked to be vigilant in preventing parties inimical to religious life from presenting members of the commission with a distorted picture of the Jewish community.

The Struggle for the Yeshiva

The longest and most tragic struggle in which Rav Halevi played a major role was over the Volozhin yeshiva itself. Jewish affairs were decided at the senior ministerial level, often by regional governors. Jewish intercessors required great skill and ingenuity in their dealings with these men, who could not simply be bribed. Rav Halevi was highly respected by these officials and he enjoyed singular success in his efforts on behalf of the community.

The President of the Russian Chamber of Education was a man by the name of Smirnov, who greatly admired and revered Rav Halevi whose home he frequently visited. The friendly relations between the two yielded many benefits. Rav Halevi was constantly on guard for interference by the government, or by the maskilim via the government, in Jewish affairs and he was fortunate in having Smirnov's ready ear whenever he needed it.

Smirnov often extended himself in order to comply with Rav Halevi's wishes. Many times, decrees were annulled in their embryonic stages as the result of a conversation between the two. Sometimes, Smirnov would do this on his own, if he perceived a future threat to Jewish education resulting from some new measure. However, he would take no action in matters whose interests Rav Halevi furthered before consulting him.

For ten years Smirnov's communiques to the Russian education ministry held back the order to close the yeshiva. Despite the ministry's fundamental antipathy towards Jews, even the highest ranking officials were favorably influenced by Smirnov's glowing depositions on Russian Jewry and the problems it faced, as they had been expounded to him by Rav Halevi. He himself became convinced of the truth of the latter's evaluation of his nation's holiest possession as being Torah and those who study it.

Adversaries from Within

The struggle over Volozhin was long and bitter. The maskilim began their efforts in the eighteen seventies, at first by attempting to infiltrate the yeshiva's student body. The young men whom they sent to Volozhin were not devoted to studying Torah but rather to swaying the minds of guileless talmidim who did not realize what their true aims were, R'l.

When the maskilim saw that this route would not attain the desired results quite as quickly as they hoped, they resorted to slandering the yeshiva to the Ministry of Education. The rays of enlightenment that they were radiating towards the yeshiva were trying to find a way inside, they complained, but the yeshiva's leaders were closing every crack and crevice in order to prevent them from gaining entry.

Basically, it was this charge that eventually closed the yeshiva. Since the beginning of the century, the law of the land had required that a broad curriculum of secular studies be taught in all schools. However, the authorities were not stringent regarding its enforcement and Torah education, which was not willing to comply with this directive, was able to continue undisturbed. As the flagship of Torah education, the yeshiva in Volozhin was very visible in its noncompliance. Rather than acknowledge that his own laxity was to blame for the state of affairs, the Minister of Education vented his anger on the Jews and instructed the Minister of the Interior to issue an immediate closure order on the yeshiva.

The order would have been implemented without delay, were it not for the fact that the Minister of the Interior, an evenhanded and honest man named Makov who had no agenda against the Jews, had also received derogatory reports about the yeshiva. Makov had been informed that the yeshiva was a revolutionary nest, where anti-government plotters found assistance. The report itself admitted that the yeshiva had already been operating for eighty years and that there were at least four hundred students studying there.

Makov pondered the matter and realized that the secret of the yeshiva's success and its elevated status in the eyes of the Jewish population was its tremendous contribution to the spiritual growth of the young generation. He advised the Minister of Education that rather than enforcing its closure, the government's interests would best be served by fully legalizing the yeshiva's operation, on condition that the law concerning secular studies was implemented.

Because of this condition, that they were basically unwilling to meet, the promised license was never requested by the yeshiva. The yeshiva's leaders grappled with the problem of meeting the condition and they ultimately decided to leave things as they were (sheiv ve'al ta'aseh). This decision almost plunged the yeshiva into a crisis, from which it was only protected by events that Rav Halevi would in future always cite as an example of open Hashgochoh.

The existing neither-here-nor-there situation bothered Rav Halevi immensely, for it meant that the yeshiva was liable to be rocked by disturbances literally at any moment. Its existence had been brought to the attention of the highest echelons of government who, even if they acted with the best of intentions, were capable of sudden, arbitrary moves. Somehow, some kind of official document had to be obtained -- but how? After the initial deliberations, more immediate concerns had arisen that had pushed this question aside.

One night, the problem prevented Rav Halevi from falling asleep. He decided that it should be put off no longer and that he would consult Smirnov in order to try to find a solution. The following morning the two of them met and, after a thorough discussion, Smirnov agreed to issue the yeshiva a preliminary license, which acknowledged fulfillment of the condition albeit in a way that put no responsibility on any ministerial figures. The document was entrusted to the Netziv and could not have arrived at a more timely juncture.

Approximately a week later, the Chief Prosecutor of the Vilna region passed through Volozhin on an official search. Hearing the sound of the four hundred talmidim issuing from the yeshiva, he decided to pay a visit and to make some inquiries, the first of which was a request to see its license. The Netziv showed him Smirnov's document which satisfied him. If not for that paper, a closure order would have been issued on the spot.

The End of an Era

In the yeshiva's last years various factors threatened its stability but it was able to continue thanks to three parties: Smirnov with his intervention, Rav Halevi and his close supervision and Reb Chaim, with the merit of his Torah, who also headed it.

When the time came for all this to end though, not even Rav Halevi's ingenuity and zeal could save matters. With Smirnov's announcement of his departure from the local branch of government, his power to forestall all the attempts at sabotaging the yeshiva came to an end. Inner squabbles afforded the maskilim further opportunity to strike. With the defending angel in the corridors of power silenced, the inevitable order was soon issued and the yeshiva was closed in the winter of 5652 (1892).

"My brother Mordechai Eliezer z'l returned home," writes Rav Halevi's son Shmuel, "and the rest of the bnei hayeshiva also had to return home. Most of them passed through Vilna and I remember that they called at our house, shocked, stunned and broken- spirited. A depressing atmosphere hung about everyone, as though they had witnessed the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh."

The chadorim were saved and were even granted licenses without any conditions, because Smirnov had felt a strong personal affinity for their cause and had devoted himself to it. Several months after the chadorim had become licensed, a very dejected Smirnov approached Rav Halevi and asked him sadly, "What shall we do now? What is to become of all the months of toil and labor?"

He had heard that the ministry was requiring the rebbes to affix a photograph to their license documents. He believed that pious Jews refrained from having their pictures taken because of the very stringent prohibition involved. What he saw as the inevitable result -- the rescinding of the licenses -- made him truly depressed, as though it affected him personally. (It is unclear whether someone in the ministry had made the same mistake and that this was in fact the intended result of the requirement, or whether it was merely procedural.)

Rav Halevi reassured Smirnov that under such circumstances, the Torah study of children overrode the other consideration, in accordance with the principle of, "It is a time to act for Hashem's sake; they have annulled Your Torah." He assured him that the rebbes would comply with the order.

Even at the time, very few people knew that Rav Halevi carried the burden of Volozhin yeshiva. With regard to the chadorim too, only the foremost melamdim, who were involved in general affairs, knew that he was the one who obtained the official license. He was never concerned with his name being publicized or with surrounding himself with an aura of a distinction on account of his monumental deeds and achievements for his people's sake. Only a handful of individuals, the gedolim and communal figures who were actually involved in each episode and who worked alongside him, recognized his greatness of spirit and the power of his Torah, his wisdom and his deeds.

This essay is based on a biographical account by Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Rabinowitz z'l, among other sources.

End of Part I

The Fight to Preserve Shechitah in Russia

In 5651 (1891) shechitah throughout Jewish Russia was threatened. Motivated by antisemitism, an Odessa- based society for preventing cruelty to animals succeeded in gaining governmental support for banning the Jewish method of slaughter.

One of those who stepped forward to fight the decree was Dr. Yitzchok Dembe z'l who closed his flourishing medical practice in St. Petersburg in order to devote all his time to the campaign. Although intellectually gifted and possessing influence in government circles, Dr. Dembe had never received a solid Jewish education and he needed to be prepared with the necessary halachic and general information. At an important meeting in Kovno, chaired by Rav Yitzchok Elchonon, it was unanimously agreed that Rav Halevi was the only one capable of this task and that he was clearly duty-bound to accept it.

While the doctor travelled across Europe defending shechitah, Rav Halevi maintained a correspondence with him, guiding him in his handling of the campaign. Dr. Dembe, however, found that the written material did not satisfy him. He wanted to meet Rav Halevi in person so that the two of them could review the entire subject together.

"I was still a young boy," writes Rav Halevi's son, "but the image of this worthy man, with his yellowing beard and his face glowing with a gentle pleasantness and tremendous energy, still lives in my mind . . . Dr. Dembe spent eight days in our home in Vilna, debating with my father . . . from morning to night. I did not understand the arguments and the questions and answers but one detail [the gemora's words] "tzimchei, tzimchei . . . candei, candei . . . tinrei, tinrei" [types of lung adhesions] (Chulin 48) whose meaning many grapple with, became etched into my memory.

I also heard how impressed Dr. Dembe was with Shmuel's statement on Chulin 113 and, even though it was clearly relevant to him, to this day I can't say what he saw in it to get so excited about: "Shmuel said in Rabbi Chiya's name, `Someone who breaks an animal's neck before it expires, makes its meat heavier and steals from people and causes the limbs to absorb blood.' "

Only a narrow circle knew that it was Rav Halevi who prepared the material for Dr. Dembe's major and famous address to the public meeting of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that was held in the building of the Kovno municipality in April 1893. Government officials, doctors and veterinarians attended, as did the rov of Kovno, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon.

Ultimately the government decided not to ban shechitah and it instructed the Society to cease its efforts in that direction. While Rav Halevi's role in ensuring the campaign's success is not documented anywhere, Dr. Dembe himself noted on many occasions that he owed his success wholly to the comprehensive background information with which Rav Halevi equipped him.

Only when it was clear that the threat was over did Dr. Dembe return to his own medical practice. But he paid a price. His gentile patrons now avoided him.

Did the maskilim who caused the Russian government to close Volozhin actually mean to have the yeshiva closed down, or were they hoping that the threat of closure would convince its leaders to relent and introduce the studies that they desired? It is possible that they did not realize how determined a stand the gedolim would take in their insistence that if the yeshiva were to introduce even minimal secular study into its program, it would no longer be a yeshiva. On the other hand, it is likely that they would have gone ahead with their efforts, even if they had realized that they meant the closure of the yeshiva. The following passage from a letter by Rav Chaim Berlin zt'l is widely quoted.

"I remember what my father and master, the Netziv zt'l, commanded me, regarding his having sacrificed his life over the yeshiva in Volozhin in order to prevent limudei chol being introduced into Torah [study]. This was the reason that the yeshiva was closed, as a result of which he fell ill with his final illness, from which he never recovered. He commanded me and cautioned me not to agree to this under any circumstances, without any leniency whatsoever. He said that Hakodosh Boruch Hu alluded to this in the Torah, which says, "And to make a distinction between the holy and the profane . . . " (Vayikra 10:10).


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