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5 Iyar 5766 - May 3, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








How The Maskilim Struggled to Destroy Volozhin

by Refoel Gartner

Correspondence from the period leading up to the closure of Volozhin yeshiva that lay in the State Archives in Minsk for a hundred and ten years but published a few years ago in Toldos Beis Hashem BeVolozhin, a book chronicling the history of the first and greatest of the Eastern European yeshivos.

Volozhin was the premier yeshiva of its day for many years, and the flagship of Torah Judaism, as it were. There was a struggle for the Jewish soul going on, and the prestigious Yeshiva was one of the main targets of the self-described "enlightened ones."

The letters afford a glimpse of the obsession with closing the yeshiva that gripped the maskilim. All means were fair to achieve their end, including denouncements and slanders as well as the accusation that the bochurim were dodging army service. The more things change . . .

We have slightly edited some of the documents, omitting out some of the stronger terms that the writers applied to the rabbonim of the yeshiva. (We have put in "***" where we have omitted these.) On the other hand, in the interests of authenticity, no honorary titles have been inserted, as the original letter writers certainly did not use them.

Letter #1: November 23rd 1891

Signatories: Twenty members of the Volozhin Yeshiva.

To: Mr. Steinberg, City of Vilna

Honored rabbi and chossid, respected linguist, morenu HaRav Yehoshua Steinberg! and rabbi and chossid morenu HaRav Feivel (? . . .) !

We write to Your Honors with a heavy heart and a groaning soul. Woe! Great troubles have befallen us, one disaster after another, one catastrophe after another . . .

Sirs, you surely know of the news in the yeshiva — that the Netziv has resigned his position and bequeathed it to his son, Rabbi Chaim Berlin *** who now wants to prove, to show the Torah scholars, that he absolutely hates the maskilim *** and that he is a worthy partner to his deputy Rabbi Ch. Soloveitchik, who is also known as one of the obscurantists [mordei-ha'or, lit. rebels against the "illumination" of the enlightenment-haskalah] and [he] has instructed the landlords of nineteen [bochurim] from those who are known to be maskilim - - in other words, who understand something of Hebrew and other languages — to drive them right out of their lodgings, not letting them stay a single night nor to give them a single meal.

And now — Woe! We have been cast into the streets in this season of rain and snowfall and freezing, bitter cold. Such cruelty has never been heard of even among the lowest elements, certainly not among the leaders of Yisroel . . . and by law too — the law of the land — it is forbidden. We are starving. Were it not for the remaining bnei yeshiva who call one of us each day for a meal, we would have perished choliloh, with no one having mercy on us. Woe, sirs, save us. Please write immediately to the Netziv [telling him] that he will be in trouble if he doesn't hurry to lift the ban and enable us to live like all the bnei yeshiva do.

We depend upon the delicate goodness of your hearts to help us. If you do not stand up for us, who will?

From your servants, who bow before you from afar and hope that you will come to their assistance very, very quickly,

The bnei hayeshiva,

Signed . . ."


The addressee, Yehoshua Steinberg, whom the writer refers to as a linguist, also served as an investigator. He had been appointed by the authorities to keep close watch upon what went on in the yeshiva. He was supervisor of the Beth Hamedrash for Teachers in Vilna and every inch a maskil to whom the yeshiva's existence was anathema.

Describing a visit from a government delegation, Rabbi Meir Berlin [the Netziv's youngest son] focuses on Steinberg's presence which, he writes, "was enough on its own to instill a degree of fear, for if the Director was bringing with him someone like Steinberg, an Otcheny Yevrei [a Hebrew scholar] who served as a high official and who by then was already an elderly man, it indicated that this time the visit was no simple matter . . ."

Steinberg passed on the letter in its original Hebrew, together with a Russian translation, to the correct official in the Czar's government, in whose archives both documents were preserved to this day. The only question we shall raise at this point is whether twenty Volozhin bochurim actually put their signatures to the letter.

The answer would appear to be negative. According to our sources, while the maskilim did have several "plants" in the yeshiva, there were nowhere nearly twenty bochurim who would have dared sign their names on such a vicious indictment (as mentioned, the worst expressions have been omitted). Possibly, the entire letter was forged in collaboration with Steinberg. At any rate this is the text of the letter that the authorities received.

Letter #2: Volozhin, December 20th 1891

There is a degree of sophistication and sophistry in the following letter. The authorities' struggle against the yeshiva centered on the issue of secular studies. The Government's main demand was that the yeshiva provide instruction in the Russian language. The writer played on this demand.


To the honored Supervisor of the Vilna region,

Don't be offended at our daring to write a letter that disturbs Your Honor with so many mistakes. Believe us when we say that we want to be cultured people who contribute something to the Fatherland. We are not guilty [that it is not so]. The Rosh Yeshiva, Chaim Berlin, is the guilty one for not making the yeshiva into a Seminary, like his father. Moreover, anyone who wants to acquire an education is [viewed as] doing something wrong. Chaim Berlin is a dreadful person and a great enemy of haskalah. Nothing [i.e. nobody] escapes him unharmed if he engages in haskalah or in Russian in general.

Before Your Honor came to us we wouldn't have dreamed of writing about everything that goes on in the yeshiva, for the new Rosh Yeshiva, Chaim Berlin, opens all the letters and alters everything that we write about him. But now your honor has promised us that you will receive all the complaints [directly] from us. We are therefore being so bold as to write now and in the future about everything that happens in the yeshiva.

Since R' Naftali Berlin, who served as Rosh Yeshiva, left his position because of old age and gave it to his son Chaim Berlin ***, we therefore earnestly request that you have mercy on us. Show us kindness in preventing him from being Rosh Yeshiva, for we are suffering, otherwise he will put us under a ban like he did [earlier] this month to nineteen students, most of whom he drove from Volozhin, while others subsist in severe privation.

Save us, save us . . .


The Russian translator noted that the letter was impressive in its construction, though the writer begins with an apology for "daring to write a letter that disturbs Your Honor with so many mistakes." Apparently the only mistakes in the letter are those the writer insists he is making and the entire section describing how the Rosh Yeshiva persecutes those who know Russian.

Letter #3: April 10 th, 1890

This letter is from the Mayor of Vilna and is written on stationery of the Ministry of the Interior, Vilna, Kovno and Grodno. In it, the mayor sets out the relationship between the authorities and the yeshiva over the years. We quote part of it.


To the Minister of the Interior

The Volozhin Yeshiva has existed since 1805 it was actually founded in 1802 but was closed in 1824 by government edict because of the increase in the number of students. Nevertheless, it has continued operating for many years, supported by Jewish communities. Later on, in 1880, despite a decision to close it, nothing happened, because of the yeshiva's importance abroad. Its closure would have given a negative impression about Jews in Russia and elsewhere, which was undesirable at that time. The heads of the yeshiva were therefore asked to accept the state's principles for institutions of learning. Refusal to do so would result in the Yeshiva's closure.

Ten years have since passed. Despite our attempts to arrange matters in accordance with the law of November 13th, 1844, there has been no indication from the Volozhin Yeshiva that it[s leadership] is ready to modify its position and agree to the laws of the country.

Things continued this way until 1887, when the Director of Schools in the Vilna region [Note: Steinberg] was sent to the Volozhin Yeshiva and enforced the study of Russian language in the yeshiva.

Two years have passed since the Director's visit and the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Berlin, who doesn't know any Russian at all, like all other roshei yeshiva, refused [to comply with] the decision to study Russian. He argued that it is impossible to study Russian while studying Talmud . . ."

Here the Mayor lists the reasons that he feels make the yeshiva's closure inevitable:

I feel that the existence of the Volozhin yeshiva is universally detrimental for the following reasons:

They train to religious fanaticism.

There are Jews there who are evading army service and the law.

The yeshiva's directors neither speak nor understand Russian. They permit neither the study of Russian nor of secular subjects.

The students range in age from seventeen to forty; some of them are married and have families. All in all they number between four hundred and four hundred and fifty. The money donated annually for the yeshiva's upkeep amounts to fourteen thousand roubles, all of which is controlled by Rabbi Berlin with no supervision whatsoever. He awards the students all sorts of diplomas, without any supervision.

I propose closing the yeshiva for the above reasons. It attests to the influence of the Rosh Yeshiva over all of northwest Russia and it is an anti-government institution. This yeshiva's continued existence is damaging to the government and steps should be taken against those who lead it. They should be banished elsewhere, otherwise there is no point in closing it down for the yeshiva will continue to operate unofficially.

I would add that the council is incorrect in [its recommendation that] arrangements for secular studies and lessons being sufficient; it should be completely closed for it is not our concern. In 1873, the government absolved itself of all responsibility for the Jewish schools.

I request that you inform me of your decision in this matter.

Twilight Approaches

In the wake of the letter from the bochurim, the Director of the Ministry of Education decided to investigate and he appointed the Directors of Schools in Vilna to find out what was happening. Interestingly enough, while the authorities took the letter seriously, they were also suspicious of it, as the following document shows. However, they accorded it much deeper meaning than a simple forgery, appointing a committee to investigate, whose findings were, needless to say, damaging to the yeshiva, just as the maskilim intended. The document is long and we quote only a part of it.

From: The Supervisor of the Ministry of Education, Vilna

To: The Minister of Education


January 7th, 1892

At the end of last November, Supervisor Steinberg showed me a letter that he received from Volozhin Yeshiva signed by eighteen students. These students write that the Rosh Yeshiva declined to fill his position and transferred it to his son, Chaim Berlin. The new Rosh Yeshiva drove them from their accommodations and gave instructions that they should not be given food, because they know Hebrew and other languages . . .

I read the letter and instructed the Director of Schools in Vilna to gather information on this matter and investigate it. The Director has now presented me with the findings that he has collected from the Assistant to the Director of Police in Vilna, Captain Dubilet and the Schoolteacher in Volozhin, Yanovitz.

Here are the findings (excluding irrelevant paragraphs):

2. Chaim Berlin also delivers lectures *** Chaim Berlin decided to expel unruly students and to cease giving them a stipend *** They started making problems for Rabbi Soloveitchik as well, despite the great respect in which that they had previously held him. The roshei hayeshiva ultimately decided to expel the unruly students from their quarters. Finding no accommodation, these students went to Chaim Berlin's home. They slept there and demanded food. The following day they apologized and swore to correct their errors and be obedient students. Only one student left the yeshiva, under a ban — Joseph Matardok Lebovitz Glasenstein, who died at the end of October.

4. As to the letter that the students sent Mr. Steinberg, it is unclear whether they actually wrote it. This point has not yet been clarified. All we know is that among the yeshiva students whose identity cards have been examined by the Volozhin police, none were found with the names that are signed onto the letter. We therefore think that the students either signed fictitious names or that they [i.e. students with those names] are learning in the yeshiva illegally and have not been recorded by the police.

The custom in the yeshiva is to call students by their [first] names and by the name of their hometowns, for example Yankel Minski i.e. from Minsk. This is why it is difficult for the police to know the precise identities of those studying in the yeshiva — the yeshiva's lists have one family name and the police lists have another.

Studying Russian

The Netziv writes the following about the study of Russian for candidates for the rabbinate: "The amendments . . . were made with the consent of the Director (who is in charge of the certified schools, whose wishes regarding the avreichim who are about to leave we were compelled to fulfill . . .) a gentile teacher providing instruction in the Russian language for an hour-and-a-half, for the benefit . . . of the community when they find a rabbinical position . . . at any rate these studies were only for twenty and were not for the bochurim at all."

The government was displeased with the way the study of Russian was being handled. The Director's review continues, "Elian checked the Russian lessons and discovered grave irregularities. According to the list, approximately fifty students are listed but not more than fifteen to twenty students attend. Between the first of November and the eighteenth of December there were only thirty-three days of instruction. The students attainments are very meager. Most of them are unable to write their names and family names (in Russian). There is scorn for studying Russian and unwillingness for secular studies, possibly due to the atmosphere of religious fanaticism that has always pervaded the yeshiva."

What the Director entertained as a possibility was certainly true! "The atmosphere of fanaticism" sabotaged the study of Russian. How could it be that after the thirty-three lessons the keen minds of the Volozhin students hadn't yet grasped how to write "Yankel Minski" in Russian? Our sources attest to the fact that these lectures were a laughing stock for the bochurim from the outset.

After further lengthy deliberations and complicated arguments about the yeshiva's directorate obeying the law, the Director sums up:

"The conclusion of all the above is that Volozhin Yeshiva is in the process of being dismantled. There is no hope that the present roshei yeshiva will be able to reestablish the yeshiva's life. The previous Rosh Yeshiva [i.e. the Netziv] gave promises repeatedly to carry out the Board's demands but at the end of his tenure he stopped carrying out rules that he had previously recognized. Rabbi Soloveitchik, who until a short time ago was a respected figure in the yeshiva, has brought hatred upon himself [because of his firm stand against the maskilim].

"According to your recommendation of the first of March 1888, number 3430, I request your order with regard to the closure of Volozhin. At the same time I think it would be beneficial if, when the yeshiva is closed, the Berlins, father and son, as well as rabbi Soloveitchik, be banished from the town. This suggestion has already been made by the Mayor of Grodno, Vilna and Kovno. I have already informed him of the plans and he has given his consent."

Sunset: Memo: January 22nd, 1892

"In consequence of the recommendation of the Director for Public Schools in Vilna of January the 20th, number 402, based on the order of the Director of Education in Vilna, of January the 20th, number 369, Director Augeivitz arrived in Volozhin at the yeshiva, with Police Captain Solentsov and with the Assistant of the Director of the Gendarmes Captain Dubilet and with Boitkevitz, in the presence of witnesses — farmer Bashkevitz and Persky."

The report continues with a description of how the ax was lifted and then brought down on the "Mother of the Yeshivos."

"They informed the Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Naftoli Hirsch Berlin, the teachers Solomon Dinkin and Chaim Fried and the yeshiva students who were present — two hundred and nineteen of them — of order of the Minister for Public Education of January 14th 1892, number 888, calling for the immediate closure of the Volozhin yeshiva.

"Augievitz gave orders to interrupt the studies immediately and took a document from the Rosh Yeshiva Berlin that he had received from the Directory of Public Schools in Vilna on June 24th, 1885, number 2855, which stated that he was the Rosh Yeshiva. He also took a document that had been given to Chaim Soloveitchik by the same Directory on the same date, number 2856, stating that he was the Assistant Rosh Yeshiva and deputy."

The regional officer announced the yeshiva's closure in the beis hamedrash, in the presence of the yeshiva's heads and students. They were all evicted from the building and a large, official seal was placed on the outer gate. It was red, symbolizing perhaps the lifeblood that the yeshiva's students had poured over the altars of the lecterns at which they had sat learning as well as the lifeblood of the Jewish nation that was now being spilled with the yeshiva's closure.

Reclaiming the Yeshiva Building

HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz is a native of Volozhin. In his letter of approbation to Toldos Beis Hashem BeVolozhin he reminisces about the town where he grew up.

"The Volozhin that I knew during the years of my childhood and youth was a tiny hamlet, sparsely populated and in primitive condition. I remember being shown the apartment where Maran, our teacher [Rav] Chaim Halevi of Brisk zt'l, lived during the years that he was in Volozhin when he served as one of the roshei yeshiva there. It was a cellar underneath the yeshiva building. It was mostly underground, with the windows at ground level, where everybody walked."

The yeshiva building was erected in approximately 5647 (1887), on the same site that had been occupied by the previous building, which had gone up in flames when a fire broke out in the town.

A proclamation entitled Modo'oh Rabboh Le'Oraiso (An Important Proclamation for Torah's Sake) that the Netziv published in the newspaper Hatzefiroh stated,

"`He kindled a fire in Tzion' ( Eichoh 4:11) — in the place that was outstanding [metzuyon] in Torah.

"Most of the town and the public beis hamedrash, as well as the yeshiva building that has served as a Torah Sanctuary for over eighty years, were burned down. Immediately after the fire we strengthened ourselves, Boruch Hashem, and began taking stock of what the building needed in order to restore the ruins of the holy yeshiva to their former standing. We also made a point of extending its length and height and beautifying and glorifying it in every aspect, at additional expense, for it is a Torah Sanctuary, as well as being a building that represents all of Yisroel. We are convinced that all Yisroel wish to accord honor the four amos of halochoh and to prepare its home in the most beautiful and fitting manner for the use of large numbers of people, in their masses."

In the course of the building, senior officials — the regional police commander and his entourage — paid a visit to the site. The commander asked one of the builders what function the room he was building would serve. The builder proudly replied, "This is where the women of the royal household pray" (i.e. the ezras noshim).

The commander took fright at the appellation "the royal household" as applied to the yeshiva women. Was this not an affront to His Honor, the Czar? Perhaps a revolutionary plot was afoot — a new royal household!

The innocent builder was immediately arrested and imprisoned. He was only released after much hard work and the payment of a considerable bribe. Go explain to a gentile that the Rov's house is a house of royalty!

The beautiful yeshiva building was something of a novelty in those days. One of the talmidim described it as follows. "The yeshiva is like a wondrous palace, built on three levels. There is a spacious [main] hall supported by four pillars. Its walls are as white as snow and as pure wool; the floor is clean and spotless. It serves as the study hall.

"There is also a large corridor where the students read during the summer months. There is also a fine room that houses the great gemach, from which every student can borrow money at difficult times. There is also a clean room where the menahel, Reb Lipmann distributes the masechtos that are needed for learning and a smoking room (because smoking is forbidden in the yeshiva). The Mashgiach and the Menahel sit on the lowest floor while the third floor houses the yeshiva's large library.

"Anyone out walking on the long winter nights can see a wonderful, sublime sight in front of the yeshiva's paved yard — the lights of the numerous chandeliers casting their rays over the surface of the snow. From one end of the lot to the other he will hear the thunderous sound of three hundred people learning with keen emotion and tremendous enthusiasm. Here, a pleasant looking youth walks with a measured step, a gemora under his arm, his feet hurrying him along because Torah is his soul's desire. Over there go several youths returning from their studies because they are weary; they are sad at having had to interrupt their learning. Here one witnesses Yiddishkeit in its true colors. It is no exaggeration to say, `Whoever hasn't seen this wonderful sight has never seen beauty in his life.' "


When the yeshiva was closed, seven years after the erection of the new building, the fire of Torah died out of it. A different fire was kindled there — the local bakery moved in.

Several years ago the place was abandoned and was purchased by a group of communal activists to be developed as a Torah center to serve the surrounding region. The cost of the building was five hundred dollars. Had the Russians known its true worth the price would have been far higher.


In paragraph 2 of the memo of the Supervisor for the Ministry of Education, mention is made of a bochur who insulted Rav Chaim Berlin and who passed away after having been placed under a ban. Here is a further shocking quote from the document.

"In Volozhin, after the death of Glasenstein who had been banished from the yeshiva by Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Naftoli Hirsch Berlin referred to the matter in a speech and mentioned the sons of Aaron, who died because they didn't listen to those in charge of them, likening the deceased to them."

The Supervisor sums up the Netziv's address in the following words, "This speech made a negative impression and was hard for the students because they had greatly loved the deceased."

Rav Aryeh Levine zt'l, related that one of talmidim at that time sent a message to Rav Chaim Berlin requesting his forgiveness. "I wish to ask His Torah Honor, the gaon, prostrating myself at his feet and begging forgiveness from his honor the gaon. At the time of the controversy in the yeshiva in Volozhin, even though I do not recall ever having actually done anything to distress his Torah honor, I certainly spoke [about him] and assisted those who caused him distress . . . I see that I have been punished to a very great extent indeed and I see it as fitting punishment, measure for measure, for my deeds."

This is Rav Chaim's reply. "I am dust and ashes and am not of such consequence before Hashem, yisborach Shemo, that anyone should be punished on my account. Besides, even during the period when they were causing me distress, every night I repeated Mar Zutra's words: `May my Master forgive all who have distressed me' (Megilloh 28)."

Rav Chaim later adds, "However there are two reasons why you have been punished by Heaven. First because of the great profanation of Hashem that you caused . . . and second, obviously, on account of the distress that you caused at the time to your principal teacher, my father, the gaon and light of the Diaspora, zt'l . A tzaddik of such stature, who supports the world, certainly deserves that `Hakodosh Boruch Hu should defend his honor' (Brochos 19). This is especially so in light of the possibility that the distress that you caused him brought on his final illness, from which he passed away. It is not in my power to pardon Father's distress. If you want to remedy this, the course to follow appears in the Magen Avrohom, siman 606:6, quoting the Yam Shel Shlomo."

The Shulchan Oruch states that, "If one sinned against a deceased person one brings ten men to his graveside and says . . ." The Magen Avrohom writes, "If he is further than three parsa'sos away he should send a messenger."

In this case, the Volozhin alumnus was in Yerushalayim, far from Warsaw where the Netziv is buried. Rav Chaim thus recommended that he send someone else.

The True Colors of Yehoshua Steinberg, Agent Provocateur

A reader sent us an excerpt from a book written by one Papirna, who lived at the time. Papirna had the "audacity" to criticize, in writing, Steinberg's father-in-law, who was none other than the infamous Adam Hacohen, one of the leading maskilim, whose influence was among the most destructive. (See Meir Eieni Yisroel for an account of how he attempted to lead a young Chofetz Chaim off the Torah path.)

In the course of publishing his critical articles about the man, Papirna encountered the full force of the domineering nature and wild fury of the "Glory of the House of Haskalah" (as Adam Hacohen was known) and his son-in-law Steinberg, the government censor. His experiences demonstrate just how "enlightened" this diabolical pair really were.

When he began gathering his articles for publication in booklet form, Papirna intended to publish them through R' Shmuel Yosef Fein, an adherent of haskalah and editor of the journal Hacarmel. Fein however informed him that he would only undertake publication if the sections criticizing Hacohen were dropped — since he was afraid of antagonizing him.

Papirna then decided to publish the booklet privately and, as required by law, he applied to the government censor's office where Hacohen's son-in-law Steinberg worked as chief censor. Steinberg read the articles and praised them but told Papirna that he was unable to publish them, out of respect for his father-in-law. Papirna notes that Steinberg, who was a cultured European gentleman, astonished him by exploiting his position for personal reasons, as though all literature was his private domain.

In a similar vein, M.L. Lilienblum relates that when he published his book Kehal Refa'im, Steinberg removed every section where the word adam appeared, lest readers think that there was an allusion to Adam Hacohen.

Papirna then turned to the editor of Hameilitz, who agreed to publish his book. As soon as it appeared, an article written in response was published, followed by a booklet by Steinberg, in which he took Papirna and his criticisms to task in a manner befitting a loyal son-in- law.

Papirna responded by proving his case and showing that what Steinberg had written was untrue. In conclusion he wrote, "So, readers will see that I said exactly the opposite of what Steinberg attributed to me. Had he been writing in a European language he would have been more careful and would have expressed himself in more respectful terms. At any rate he would have been ashamed to lie in public. However, he wrote in Hebrew, for Hebrews, in Hamagid and in a bathhouse the language used is accordingly . . . "

Writing elsewhere, Papirna comments on the contrast between Steinberg's written attacks and his verbal praise of his articles. ". . . but that he allowed himself to denigrate that which he himself had praised — that this wise and understanding man permitted himself to blaspheme in order to pervert what is correct? This, in all innocence, I am incapable of understanding."

Such was the true face of the man who played a central role in the destruction of the Volozhin yeshiva and such was the true nature of haskalah and the enlightenment that it brought.


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