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22 Elul 5764 - September 8, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Yom Kippur of HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk

As heard by HaRav Yitzchok Zeev Diskin zt'l from Maran HaRav Yitzchok Zeev Soloveitchik zt'l, the Griz, who was involved in the story.

The Griz once told his talmidim that they cannot know what the true desire of Heaven is. In this story, we see gedolei olom who spent much of the Yomim Noraim one year in strenuous efforts to save two simple Jews. For the most part, the circumstances were clear and the halochoh was clear. They acted as they did, without hesitation, according to the principles of Torah. The unfolding tale also illustrates how, sometimes, hishtadlus is one thing and success is another. Hashgochoh makes things happen in ways that are unanticipated, if we only do as we must.


This happened between 5666-5668 (1905-1908), years of popular unrest and discontent against the inept and autocratic Czarist rule over Russia. After the revolutionary movement's first attempt in 1905, the Czar Nicholas II signed the October Manifesto forming the Duma, Russia's parliament, which was to have power to confirm all legislation. This institution would have turned the Russian government into a constitutional monarchy.

The Czar patronized an extremist right-wing organization, the Union of the Russian People, which sanctioned terrorist methods and disseminated antisemitic propaganda. As a result, pogroms against Jews swept over the entire country, beginning in Kishinev and lasting for several years.

The prime minister of Czar Nicholas II's government, Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin, governed the country with an iron hand and, through firm measures and intensified police repression, managed to suppress the rising groundswell of popular unrest.

An atmosphere of terror seized the country. Military courts set up throughout greater Russia carried out swift and harsh sentences in an attempt to restore law and order. Capital punishment was meted out to many citizens suspected of disobedience and/or of belonging to revolutionary movements. In general, many Jews were sentenced to death upon mere unfounded suspicions and unsupported slander.

Injustice in Brisk

Two guileless, simple Jews of Brisk were arrested, found guilty and condemned to death. One of the young men was the son of a wagon driver, while the second was the son of a Jew who helped bind books. Both were married. The police charged them with taking part in robbing a feudal lord of the Grodno area and claimed that their act was politically motivated, making it much worse in the eyes of the law. They accused these two young men of organizing the robbery to finance a revolution against the Czar. Since this was an armed robbery they were condemned to be hanged.

The verdict had to pass approval on three governmental levels before being finally implemented. The minister of the Grodno district had to confirm it, afterwards the General Governor of Vilna had to certify it, and finally the General Governor of Volhynia in Warsaw had to agree. From 1793 until its occupation by Germany in World War I, Warsaw was under Russian control.

The two Russian rulers of Grodno and Vilna had already affirmed the death sentence, and the verdict was transferred for confirmation to Skolon, the governor of Warsaw.

At this point HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik, the rov of Brisk, interceded.

That year, Yom Kippur fell on Monday. On Shabbos Shuvoh the wives of the two men sentenced to be hanged went to R' Chaim of Brisk and burst into tears. They had returned from their last visit to their husbands at the Warsaw fortress called the Citadel. The two accused Jews were dressed in the red shirts of those condemned to death. Each prisoner was held in solitary confinement and both had almost lost their wits.

The son of the wagon driver was murmuring confusedly about his intention to ask the hangman whether the rope was soft or hard, and the son of the bookbinder was constantly screaming Shema Yisroel.

The two women told the Brisker Rov that they had found a local lawyer called Sugarman who agreed to travel to Warsaw and try new ways to free their husbands. He, however, demanded a hundred rubles for his services -- to be paid in advance. The women, after having sold all they could, had only half the amount and were short another fifty rubles.

Complete Mesiras Nefesh to Save Them

It was difficult for R' Chaim to obtain fifty rubles for the purpose of pidyon shevuyim. Requests for tzedokoh from Brisker Jews were nothing new; there were daily requests for charity. Brisker Jews were already paying for nursemaids taking care of the poor and abandoned Jewish children. Urgent needs in all possible areas were not lacking and the Jews living in Brisk were tired of hearing their Rov implore them to donate more tzedokoh.

What did R' Chaim do? He had to find fifty rubles quickly to save the two accused Jews. He requested the gabboim of the shuls to help him raise the necessary money.

On motzei Shabbos Shuvoh, the gabboim met R' Chaim. The Rov demanded that they hand over money in the treasuries of the shuls for this mitzvah. Eventually, with great difficulty, the gabboim agreed to give him the necessary money, but they adamantly opposed trusting Sugarman. They suggested sending another lawyer, called Mezritch who, although not as capable as Sugarman, was a frum Jew whom they trusted. Finally a compromise was reached to send both Sugarman and Mezritch to Warsaw.

On Sunday erev Yom Kippur, the two lawyers set off. R' Chaim spoke with Mezritch and stressed that he should not hesitate to profane Yom Kippur and that he should continually inform him via special telegrams of the proceedings.

The two women arrived early on Yom Kippur morning at the Brisker Rov's home, utterly terrified. They had received a telegram from Mezritch that someone called Possik could help them. He agreed to become involved in the affair -- but he demanded two hundred rubles!

The Brisker Rav always had a minyan in his house for Yom Kippur. He davened in a separate room and opened the door for Borechu and for chazoras hashatz. Before the chazoras hashatz of Shacharis, R' Chaim opened the door and ordered the tefilloh be stopped, as he had to save the two condemned Jews.

He sent his son R' Yitzchok Zeev to the two largest shuls in Brisk to request the gabboim to immediately -- on Yom Kippur itself -- bring him this enormous sum from the shuls' treasury.

R' Chaim told some of those who davened in his minyan to approach certain influential people and demand of them to bring money for the pidyon shevuyim on Yom Kippur. The people in Brisk were thoroughly shocked and they brought large sums of money to the Rov on Yom Kippur.

In a short time even more than the necessary amount was raised. R' Chaim decided not to receive any more and informed those still bringing money to hide it somewhere in his house and to take it back the next day.

Someone commented: "Perhaps more money will be needed tomorrow?"

The Rov answered: "I do not collect money for tzedokoh on Yom Kippur. I collected what was necessary and nothing more than that."

The required money was immediately wired and the minyan started krias haTorah.


The minyan finished krias haTorah and started Musaf. In the middle of the tefilloh the wives of the two condemned men came again. They told the Rov that the Deputy Governor of Grodno was staying in Brisk and asked that a special delegation be sent to him.

Sending a delegation to the Grodno deputy Governor appeared ludicrous on the face of things. The verdict was already confirmed by the Grodno Governor himself and the Vilna Governor too. What could the deputy governor possibly do to help?

But R' Chaim said: "When dealing with pikuach nefesh a person cannot do only what seems logical; he must try every possible way."

R' Chaim sent his son to two people who were deemed suitable for such a delegation and asked them to report to him immediately. The two people were: R' Mordechai Bark, who davened in the Hekdesh beis knesses and R' Yeruchom Shatz, who davened in the shul located in his private chotzer.

R' Mordechai Bark was an impressive-looking Jew who could also speak Russian and appeared to be a good choice for such a delegation.

The Rov told his son, R' Yitzchok Zeev, to go to these two influential Jews and ask them to come to him. R' Mordechai Bark took off his tallis and straightaway went to R' Chaim's home. But R' Yeruchom Shatz was at that moment in a shul filled to capacity and in the middle of Minchah. R' Yeruchom Shatz was one of the richest Jews in the city and was called the "City's gabbai." He was the head gabbai and the parness of the community. He was davening with enormous kavonoh and R' Yitzchok Zeev managed to reach him only with difficulty and tell him of his father's request.

R' Yeruchom gestured that he could not stop and must finish Shemoneh Esrei. The Rov's son answered firmly: "If my father sends for you, you must understand this is a serious affair and you must stop."

R' Yeruchom left the shul and hastened to the Rov's home. He found R' Mordechai Bark arguing with the Rov that the mission was senseless since the Governor himself had confirmed the sentence. R' Yeruchom agreed with this argument and said: "Honorable Rov! To argue with the Rov about a halochoh would be foolish imprudence, but about such a simple thing? This is against any logic."

R' Chaim was, however, adamant. Saving a Jew's life is above logic.

Meanwhile, night fell. They were all still fasting. R' Mordechai Bark and R' Yeruchom Shatz hurried to meet the Deputy Governor, who was staying at the Bristol Hotel. They arrived there but were told that the Deputy Governor of Grodno had already left. If they wanted to talk to him they had somehow to find him. They were told that he might still be at the train station. They both rushed over to the train station despite the fact that they were still fasting.

Straining and Clutching Any Lead

R' Chaim always ended his fast late at night after Yom Kippur. He broke his fast and laid down to rest a little while his son, R' Yitzchok Zeev, started studying. The Rov asked to be awakened as soon as any news arrived.

At midnight the delegation returned from the train station and told the Rov that the Deputy Governor had flatly refused to talk to them. They, however, happened to find at the train station a rich Jew called Lipshitz, who did not live in Brisk but had business near Brisk. Not far from the city was the estate of Senator Leshinsky, and Lipshitz owned a large glass- cutting factory on the estate.

Lipshitz expressed his surprise at seeing two distinguished Jews at the train station on motzei Yom Kippur, and they in turn told him the whole story. Lipshitz was visibly disturbed about the whole affair. He told them that had he known about it a week ago he could have persuaded Senator Leshinsky to try to convince the Warsaw General Governor Skolon.

Lipshitz said that Senator Leshinsky was now in St. Petersburg, the capital. Lipshitz was in a great hurry and could not ask Senator Leshinsky to try to stop the implementation of the sentence.

Meanwhile Lipshitz did agree to write a letter to Senator Leshinsky and ask him to have complete trust in the innocence of the accused Jews and to do what he could to save them from the death sentence. He advised them to send a special emissary to bring his letter of recommendation to St. Petersburg as soon as possible. Lipshitz also advised them to quickly prepare a detailed and persuasive appeal with the signature of witnesses to the fact that they saw the accused Jews at the time of the robbery in a completely different location.

The two members of the delegation told this to R' Yitzchok Zeev and added that there was no need to awaken R' Chaim since everything could be arranged the following day. They left.

When R' Chaim awoke in the middle of the night, he asked his son whether there was any news and was told about the report from R' Mordechai and R' Yeruchom. At that point R' Yitzchok Zeev, himself still weak from Yom Kippur, lay down to rest. He had barely fallen asleep when his father called him. "We cannot lose even one moment! Go and wake up the two shelichim and tell them to immediately send a telegram to Petersburg."

It was raining heavily outside and R' Yitzchok Zeev decided to hire a wagon driver to bring R' Mordechai and R' Yeruchom. He promised to pay the wagon driver the next day, since he did not have any cash at home.

R' Chaim had instructed his son that were he not to succeed in reaching R' Yeruchom Shatz and R' Mordechai Bark, he should try to call them up on the telephone. The problem was that the only phone in the vicinity was in Dr. Wolfson's home. It was customary for doctors not to live in guarded homes so when there was an emergency they could be reached, even in the middle of night. The two shelichim, however, lived in guarded homes and could not be reached in the middle of the night.

R' Yitzchok Zeev therefore went over to Dr. Wolfson's home and woke him up. The tired doctor, wearing pajamas, asked him what he wanted. R' Yitzchok Zeev was embarrassed to just say that he did not need a doctor and only needed his phone to reach the two shelichim so he explained to him the whole story.

At four a.m. R' Yitzchok returned home. At six o'clock his father, R' Chaim, woke him up and sent him to R' Yeruchom Shatz. The Rov's son found R' Yeruchom davening at the earliest minyan. R' Yeruchom stopped davening and told him:

"I arranged that testimony would be taken from non-Jews about the alibi for the two accused Jews. Meanwhile I heard that Mrs. Lipshitz is at the estate near Brisk and perhaps she will also join us in our efforts."

R' Chaim brought a lawyer to his house and they began to prepare the request for an appeal and arrange the testimony of the witnesses. R' Chaim thought about how to persuade Mrs. Lipshitz to travel to St. Petersburg. A distinguished woman living in Brisk and a good friend of Mrs. Lipshitz was capable of persuading her. The woman was summoned to the Rov's home, where the Rov begged her to help and promised her an enormous reward in Olom Habo for doing so.

The woman immediately traveled to the estate of Senator Leshinsky where her friend lived. She found Mrs. Lipshitz and brought her to R' Chaim's house. R' Chaim, after much effort, persuaded her to travel to Petersburg and instructed her to send a telegram with the name of her hotel, on arrival at St. Petersburg.

The woman set off and at the earliest possible opportunity sent a telegram stating that she was a guest at the George Hotel. Afterwards, another telegram from Mrs. Lipshitz arrived that she had succeeded in receiving a letter of recommendation from Senator Leshinsky to General Governor Skolon in Warsaw.


Meanwhile R' Chaim of Brisk heard from an activist in Warsaw that they had succeeded in transferring the case file back to Vilna to be reviewed again by the General Governor of Vilna. If so, there was no apparent benefit in trying to persuade Skolon in Warsaw at that time.

R' Chaim sent a telegram to St. Petersburg to Mrs. Lipshitz at the George Hotel to ascertain whether Senator Leshinsky had any influence in Vilna. After R' Chaim had sent the telegram, someone of his household informed him that Mrs. Lipshitz had already left the hotel in St. Petersburg and had sent a telegram from the train station that she was traveling to Warsaw. R' Chaim was, nonetheless, insistent: "We must try all we can. Perhaps we will succeed. This is a matter of pikuach nefesh and we cannot rely on reasoning. We must do all that we can. We cannot belittle any effort."

To everyone's surprise they received another telegram from Mrs. Lipshitz who was still in St. Petersburg. She wired that she had arrived too late for the train and had not left St. Petersburg. Now she was ready to try to help in Vilna.

R' Chaim sent a telegram to R' Chaim Ozer Grodzensky in Vilna and also special shelichim to Vilna.

How They Spent Succos

It was the first few days of Succos. R' Chaim Ozer sent a telegram on yom tov itself to the Brisker Rov that he should send telegrams to Vilna addressed to the official city rav, Dr. Kantur, and to Mr. Feivel Getz, the "educated Jew" of the district's governor. In these telegrams, R' Chaim must confirm his belief in the innocence of these two people and state his readiness to swear to the fact. The signature of R' Chaim must be certified by the head of the post office of Brisk.

R' Chaim immediately sent those telegrams.

On chol hamoed Succos the shelichim returned from Vilna to Brisk with good news: Dr. Kantur had been allowed an audience with the General Governor and showed him the telegrams. He told the General Governor that "he is not personally acquainted with the accused but has full confidence in the integrity of the famous Brisker Rov who for all the wealth in the world, or even threatened with death, would not utter a lie."

On hearing this the Governor immediately wrote in the margin of the file: "Change death sentence to life imprisonment with hard labor in Siberia."

Dr. Kantur tried unsuccessfully to save the accused from being sent to Siberia.


After the Russian Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, R' Chaim and his family were refugees in Minsk. Suddenly one of the condemned Jews, the son of the bookbinder, came to R' Chaim, kissed him, cried, and told him that after ten years of hard labor he was finally freed.


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