Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Adar 5766 - March 15, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The True Influencers

By Chaim Walder

This is a fictionalized story but it is based on facts and on true names. The author wishes to especially acknowledge the help of Rav Dov Eliach, author of HaGaon.

Part I


If you were to ask any Vilna resident you passed on the street, "Who is the wealthiest person in the city?" — nine of ten would have led you directly to the estate of Rav Moshe Yitzchok, otherwise called "the rosh hakohol." The tenth person wouldn't have led you there — not because he disagreed with the ninth but because he was surely one of the ascetic residents of Vilna who abstained from the pleasures of this world, and was occupied with Torah study day and night. In such a person's eyes, a question such as, "Who is the wealthiest man in the city?" is not a question one should bother to answer. For him, by his very question, the asker is declaring that he is the type of person who shouldn't be answered at all.

Rav Moshe Yitzchok behaved like the king of Lithuania's Jews, and as such, had a fine carriage hitched to a pair of horses and wore costly silk garments from the Orient. His hat and his shoes were made of velvet, and at times a pair of horsemen would prance before the carriage, as if to declare: "Make way," because there were no servants in all Vilna who would run before him on foot.

In order to complete the picture, Rav Moshe Yitzchok was outfitted with a record of his lineage dating back to Odom Harishon — of course via Dovid Hamelech and the gedolim of Bovel and others.

Vilna of those days was a vibrant Jewish city, a veritable kingdom of Torah. All who felt that Torah was the prime and sole pursuit of their lives, and all who sought to increase this "business," came to Vilna. In Vilna, the lomdei haTorah's opinion was ultimate and decisive, and no one dared dispute it.

In Vilna, no layman ever dreamed of expressing an opinion contrary to that of the great Torah sages, or to undermine it. Quite to the contrary, they sought the views of those greater in Torah than themselves, and regarded their being able to support them in one way or another as a priceless honor. In Vilna, the opinions which were heeded were not those of the wealthy — who were also not lacking in Vilna. However, they knew that anyone who expressed an opinion without being a genuine Torah scholar, would be ridiculed.

However every rule has an exception, and in this case Rav Moshe Yitzchok the gvir was the exception, and even he too was very careful every time he expressed an opinion.

If up until now, our readers thought that R' Moshe Yitzchok wasn't involved in Torah and halochoh, we must clarify the matter. Rav Moshe Yitzchok, all agreed, was an outstanding lamdan, otherwise his name wouldn't have been conspicuous in any way, not even in this story. If that wasn't enough, Reb Moshe Yitzchok was appointed chief dayan of the community — not because of his wealth, but despite his wealth.

Even if, as all agreed, there were greater lamdonim and greater halachic authorities than he, there was no doubt that Rav Moshe Yitzchok would not have been appointed to this position, if he hadn't been a very well-versed in Torah and halochoh.

If you want to know why those who were more learned than Rav Moshe Yitzchok weren't chosen to serve as community heads, then apparently you aren't familiar with those lamdonim called Perushim, who have absolutely no interest in holding any positions, not even — or especially — lucrative or prestigious ones, because they are constantly and overwhelmingly engrossed in their Torah studies.

If you're are afraid that this caused their influence to dwindle, don't worry! Davka those Perushim were the sole determiners in Vilna, without their intending to be so. Whoever tried to dispute them, would probably find himself cast out of Vilna forever. On second thought, no one would have gone to the trouble of casting him out because he would have understood on his own that he had to leave and would have gone of his own initiative. On third and final thought, he could have stayed in Vilna until his last day but would have been regarded as if he wasn't there.

But the question is: why wasn't Rav Moshe Yitzchok really the head of the community who determined the city's policy?

There are many answers to that question. The first is that he was the town's wealthiest man. This designation didn't disqualify him from being the head of the community or a gvir or whatever title of honor you wish to give him. But it did disqualify him from truly leading the community. In order to understand this point, you must understand the mind-set in Vilna of those days.

Ahavas Torah and kovod haTorah were the dominating factors in Vilna of those days. Nothing else had even the slightest importance there.

In Vilna one could either be detached from all the vanities or this world or influenced by them. If you were influenced, that meant that you had some sort of bias. But one who had such bias implying a possibility of ulterior motives could not lead, and it was doubtful whether he could even express an opinion that would count.

On the other hand the Perushim of Vilna did not stop others from calling themselves by honorable tiles such as "HaRav" "the city's rav" or "the dayan," as long as these titles did not really determine the community's viewpoint.

That is why R' Moshe Yitzchok enjoyed the position of rosh hakohol and dayan without any opposition. Quite to the contrary, the Perushim gave him the honor that he needed, and, as far as they were concerned, he could have been appointed rov of the city and even of the entire district, as long as he himself was aware of his true status and of the limits of his influence.

Despite all we have said, Rav Moshe Yitzchok had one means of true control: the steel safe in his well-guarded room.

Surely this assertion conjures up visions of a safe filled with invaluable golden coins or with bills worth thousands of rubles.

True, R' Moshe Yitzchok's wealth was much greater than the contents of hundreds of safes. He was a very rich man, and owned homes, estates and enterprises in a number of countries. But all that made absolutely no impression in Vilna.

The very small safe actually contained nothing more than a wad of papers, each of which bore the simple stamp: "Received."

Why did those frayed and scrawled pieces of paper make such an impact in Vilna?

As in every town and community, the Jews of Vilna were the constant victims of the persecutions and decrees of the poritzim and the estate owners with various titles. Each and every decree had its own price in taxes and graft necessary to nullify it. Who paid the price from his personal pocket and redeemed the community time and again, if not Rav Moshe Yitzchok?

When he paid the sum, he would ask Vilna's community leaders to sign a draft which described the decree in brief, the name of the issuer of the decree, the dangers involved, and the pidyon and of course — how not? — the name of he who had paid the pidyon, namely, Rav Moshe Yitzchok himself. Then all of the communal leaders would sign a statement in which the Vilna community confirmed that it "sort-of" owed Rav Moshe Yitzchok such and such a sum of money. The signing would take place at a gala ceremony. After the communal letters had signed the bill, it would be stamped with the kehilla's seal, accompanied by the word: Received.

Of course, the notes could never be collected and were not worth even half a crumpled ruble — and, truth to tell, not even worth the paper on which they had been written (very fancy and expensive stationery). The chances that Vilna's impoverished community would return even one percent of all those debts were like the chances that Rav Moshe Yitzchok would become a porush or even adopt the lifestyle of such a porush for half-a-month.

There was an unwritten agreement between Vilna's kehilla and its communal head which stated that the communal head was considered the wealthiest man in town and was even highly honored. However, the other side of the unwritten agreement stated that the only determining opinion in Vilna was daas Torah and that could only be expressed by those Perushim who devoted every moment of their lives to Torah, under the direst of circumstances. If one would insist on searching for another specific leader, it is nearly certain that you would not find any, since even if there were such a leader he certainly hadn't been elected or appointed, but was just one to whom the Perushim subordinated themselves naturally.

No one though gave much thought to the safe in Rav Moshe Yitzchok's room, or even considered the thought that someone who collected and saved such bills might very well one day demand that they be paid.

The Perushim

There was a kingdom not far from Rav Moshe Yitzchok's estate. On the surface, it seemed small. But in essence, it was the largest in the world — Torah's kingdom.

The concept "Torah's kingdom" surely suggests pictures of a city filled with shuls and crowded bottei medrash in which tens of thousands of lamdonim deliberate over various sugyos. But in fact this kingdom was situated in a number of modest shuls, which belonged to the tailors, the cobblers and the guilders. Only a few score of people belonged to this kingdom but — wonder of wonders — they maintained the entire Torah world from one end of the world to the other.

The word "porush" means abstemious, and these Perushim were totally detached from anything which smacked of this world, and were deeply attached to the sugyos of the Gemora and the Torah's commentaries. They disdained money and honor, and did not involve themselves in the problems of people around them. You could recognize a porush by his torn clothing, and you could see that for weeks he may not have eaten a decent meal. Nonetheless, his deep concern was about a svora of whose validity he hadn't managed to convince his friends.

On rare occasions, outsiders dared to speak with the Perushim on matters that had no connection to Torah study. In general such points would be answered with a dismissing gesture. These gestures were very meaningful. They not only hinted to the reckless guy who had dared to interfere with their learning to beat it, but much more than that.

The Perushim's manner of generally brushing away whoever tried to cause them bittul Torah only sharpens the impact of a situation in which the porush wouldn't just brush him aside, but would actually get up from his seat and begin to fight. In such a case, the target of the porush's anger would have been best off disappearing from Vilna as soon as possible, or changing his name and identity, because in those days the power of the Perushim — Torah's power — was stronger than any other power on earth, since they were not moved by considerations of money or honor.

If the Perushim decided to stop their learning for even a moment — learning on which the entire world is dependent — then the person who caused this danger ran the risk of being crushed.

Believe it or not, such a battle did not make the porush leave his four cubits. All he had to do was to say a four-word sentence — and two of those words even seemed extraneous and meant merely for the enlightenment of the illiterate masses — in order to terminate his battle almost before it started.

HaRav Shlomo Zalman and Treina

Harav Shlomo Zalman was one of those Perushim.

His lineage was illustrious by all standards, since he was the grandson of the rov of Vilna HaRav Moshe Kramer from one side, and of HaRav Moshe Rivkah's, author of Be'er Hagolah, on the other side.

Reb Shlomo Zalman was a genuine porush and the vanities of this world and matters of money and honor didn't interest him in the least. All that interested him was Torah.

Rav Shlomo Zalman had decided that he should marry only an orphan, after he had rejected a prestigious proposal to marry the orphaned daughter of the rov of Horodna. The reason for that rejection was that since the Rav of Horodna had already passed away at an early age, had Reb Shlomo Zalman married his daughter he would have had to take his place.

Since at that time the custom of establishing large funds for orphans and widows was not in practice, there was no difficultly in finding orphans for lamdonim who wanted to marry one. On the contrary, there was a severe shortage of lamdonim for orphan girls who wanted to marry one. Actually there was a general shortage of chassonim for them, even if they did not specifically want a lamdan. As a result, Rav Shlomo Zalman found an orphaned kallah very easily — and her name was Treina from Seltz, a city in the Grodna district.

Treina was a poor orphan who helped her mother run a grocery store. If anyone had inquired in Seltz about the likelihood of her marrying, very few would have given her any chance at all. All agreed that no shadchan would have based his livelihood on the fee he might have received had he made Treina a match. Thus when she suddenly became engaged, most people figured that the chosson's problem was worse than hers, and no one in Seltz even glanced at him.

Actually, Seltz's residents did not have the slightest notion who Rav Shlomo Zalman was, and no one fathomed that he was one of the greatest lamdonim in the entire world. This, though, delighted Rav Shomo Zalman, because he always tried to hide his greatness so that people would not disturb him while he was learning.

Treina got married without giving any dowry, except for a few tattered garments she brought from her impoverished home. If you think that Rav Sholmo Zalman brought some sort of a dowry, than you have no idea how poor his parents were. It's sufficient to say that his parents' situation was like Treina's mother's, minus a grocery store — not very promising, you'll agree.

Nonetheless, Rav Shlomo Zalman's mother did give Treina a dowry: a simple gold necklace with one lone pearl.

To an onlooker, and even to Rav Shlomo Zalman, it seemed as if the necklace was the dowry. However, the true dowry was the story behind the necklace, a story worth hundreds of millions of rubles — on second thought a priceless story.

After her future mother-in-law finished the story, Treina's first reaction was: "I can't accept the necklace, because I don't deserve such a gift, if only because of the great story behind it. I'm a simple girl without any yichus. How can I bear a burden like this on my shoulders?"

Rav Shlomo Zalman's mother smiled and said: "Although you haven't proved yourself yet, I know that you understand the importance of the dowry very well. I am entrusting it to you, and rely on you to safeguard it, as did my grandmother and great-grandmother. But I beg you: guard the story itself and do not tell it to anyone, expect in case of emergency when the family or the community is truly threatened with detachment from the chain which connects generation to generation."

Treina heard and hid the necklace, as well as the story, in a safe place, not imagining to whom it would be transmitted in the end and under what circumstances the story behind it would be revealed.

A "Simple" Home in Yisroel

Loyal and down-to-earth, Treina was familiar with her husband's nature, and was perhaps the only one in the world who truly knew the extent of his righteousness and scholarship. She would spread blankets on the windows of the house so that no one would see him studying Torah day and night.

Before giving birth, Treina constantly prayed for a son who would perpetuate her husband's legacy. In an effort to avoid all forbidden sights, and thus to increase the merits of the child she was bearing, she closed her grocery store and spent her time reciting Tehillim from morning until night. Rav Shlomo Zalman didn't ask her about this practice, either because he relied on her or because he didn't even notice that she had shut herself in her room in order to daven.

Treina gave birth on Pesach of that year. As soon as her child was born, Treina asked the midwife to close the window so that the sunlight wouldn't penetrate. However, because the window was already covered with a blanket, Treina then realized that it wasn't the sun's light which lit up the room, but Torah's light.

At the bris, which was held eight days later, the infant was called Eliyohu, after R'Shlomo Zalman's grandfather, the av beis din of Vilna and the son-in- law of R' Petachya the son of R' Moshe Rivkah's, author of Be'er Hagolah on the Shulchan Oruch.


Even before Eliyohu was three, his father noticed that he was unusually gifted. Indeed, he had never heard of a child that age who preferred to remain beside his father in the beis medrash rather than to play.

At three, Elinka began to study under Reb Shmuel Boruch a special melamed who was an expert reading teacher. A number of days later, the teacher asked Rav Shlomo Zalman why he had sent his son to study alef-beis when the child already knew all of the letters perfectly and didn't even confuse beis with veis. Raising his eyebrows, Rav Shlomo Zalman replied: "Nu, then teach him Rashi."

It took Elinka a day to catch on to Rashi script. After that, he began to press the melamed to study Chumash and Rashi with him.

But what do you think happened then? The moment the toddler heard the first Rashi on "Bereishis boro Elokim," he began to barrage the melamed with scores of difficult questions which took Reb Shmuel a long time to understand and which he was unable to resolve. Approaching Elinka's father, Reb Shmuel Boruch asked: "Can you answer all these questiona?"

Rav Shlomo Zalman began to reply. Suddenly he paused and asked R' Shmuel Boruch: "What's the matter with you? I hope you aren't planning to ask my little boy such questions."

"But Rav Shlomo Zalman," the melamed protested. I didn't ask them. Elinka did!"

The following day, Reb Shmuel Boruch told Rav Shlomo Zalman: "I can't continue to teach him. I don't deserve to be his teacher, but his student. I think I should ask a rov whether I have to pay Elinka tuition for the time he was in my class, because I learned no less from him than I learned from my own teachers."

By the end of the year, it became clear that there wasn't even one lamdan in Seltz who could serve as a melamed for the four-year-old Elinka. The day Treina realized that, she sold her grocery store, packed her belongings, and placed them on a cart. Then she informed her husband that they were moving to Stavisk, because a famous talmid chochom known as Nisan the Stavisky lived there.

Rav Shlomo Zalman furrowed his forehead. Nisan the Stavisky was a true genius, and none of his students were less than forty years old. He selected them very carefully, telling some candidates: "Better to be a simple brick layer than to be someone who builds empty svoros which have no purpose."

Obviously, such a saying didn't contribute to Nisan's popularity, and he had to be a bit careful in walking through the streets not to be struck by a brick "accidentally" dropped by a former builder of empty svoros. It is easy then to understand why Rav Shlomo Zalman thought that his wife had gone overboard in her current venture of selling the grocery store and moving from Seltz. But he didn't protest, because he trusted Treina, who had in the past proved herself over and over again, in respect to Elinka's chinuch.

When they reached Stavisk, Treina told the wagon driver to let her husband and son off beside the beis medrash, while she would take care of the minor arrangements such as renting an apartment and unpacking their belongings.

When Rav Shlomo Zalman and Elinka arrived in the beis medrash, Rav Nisan was in the middle of delivering a shiur to his students, and they were all involved in a soaring debate which ended in his obvious triumph with clear support for his position. During the shuir, father and son stood in a corner, unnoticed. When Rav Shlomo Zalman realized the extent of Rav Nisan's depth and sharpness, he felt like running away from the shul, and perhaps even from the city. However Elinka asked him to stay until the end of the shiur.

When Rav Nisan finished the shiur and saw the father and son, he sensed that they wanted to speak with him.

"Where are you from and what do you want?" he asked them.

"We're from Seltz," the father replied, but dared not continue. How could he ask a gaon like Rav Nisan to teach a four-year-old?

But what do you think Rav Nisan said, if not: "Was it wise to come to Seltz thinking that I would agree to be a simple melamed for your son?"

Rav Shlomo Zalman looked at him dumbfounded. "Is Nisan also among the prophets?"

But no. Rav Nisan wasn't a prophet or the son of a prophet. He was wise, and a wise man is better than a prophet. As Rav Nisan spoke with them, he gave them a once-over and, with his sharp mind, had already figured it out: He had heard about the small child who, in Seltz, is considered a genius. He had also heard that all of the lamdonim of Seltz gave up on teaching him. He had already privately concluded that if a city can't find a lamdon capable of teaching a four- year-old, it could not deserve to be called a Torah city.

Now, since a father and a small child had never before come to him, and had surely not listened attentively to his shiur, Rav Nisan concluded that this child was none other than the gifted four-year-old from Seltz. Then he reached the final conclusion: "Hmm . . . . When Seltz's melamdim give up, they came to Rav Nisan!"

All this took no more than a moment's thought. Rav Nisan finally asked: "Do you really think that I'll agree to be a melamed for small children?"

Rav Shlomo Zalman didn't answer. He was still stunned by Rav Nisan's sharp grasp that he had seen in the shiur, and felt that this time, the good Treina had made a real mistake. He decided not to comment to her about that, but wondered how he would tell her the bitter news without causing her harsh disappointment. He knew how sincerely she had begged Hashem to give her son the opportunity to study Torah from a genuine talmid chochom.

Bidding Rav Nisan goodbye, Rav Shlomo Zalman turned around and began to head towards the door. Suddenly, Elinka piped up: "Can I ask a question on the shiur of kevod Toraso?"

Those standing nearby, felt that the walls of the beis medrash were about to collapse when the tot asked that question. Nonetheless, they remained standing. The tot's resolute expression also indicated that his request was serious.

"Yes you may ask, my little one," Rav Nisan replied.

"According to what I understood, kevod Toraso based his claims and reasoning on a Rashi in Sanhedrin."

"That's right."

"But Rashi seems to say precisely the opposite in Chulin."

"The Rishonim have deliberated over this question, and they solved it by making a clear distinction between the two sugyos," Rav Nisan replied calmly.

"But for some reason, they didn't consider the additional four sugyos in which Rashi cites both interpretations, one after the other, and in at least three of them it is clear that the chiluk cannot hold up." Elinka then cited all of the sugyos and with much confidence shattered the chiluk brought in the Rishonim, and with it the entire structure upon which Rav Nisan had built his shiur.

Rav Nisan took the various gemoros, and examined them. Suddenly, he recalled an additional Rashi which resolved all of these chilukim anew.

"Ah, that's the answer," the tot affirmed. "But look at the continuation of that Rashi, where he expresses assent to the opinion which the students in the shiur presented. It totally negates kevod Toraso's svoro which does not conicide with what is expressed in that Rashi. Kevod Toraso must therefore choose between giving up the basis for his shiur and settling the chiluk between the various sugyos which is part of the same Rashi."

A hush descended over the beis medrash. Rav Nisan examined all the sugyos, and afterwards in his photographic mind leafed through the entire Shas and all the Rishonim, and knew that he couldn't find another way to solve the chiluk at that moment. But whoever thinks that Rav Nisan's spirits fell because a four year old child had vanquished him, has no idea what a true lamdan is.

Rav Nisan picked up the tot and kissed him on his forehead.

End of Part I


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.