Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Adar 5766 - March 22, 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 II

The first part described the Vilna of the early eighteenth century, around 5500. It especially focused on Rav Moshe Yitzchok, otherwise called "the rosh hakohol." Rav Moshe Yitzchok was the wealthiest man in Vilna and a very respectable talmid chochom, but clearly not among the elite of the Torah world of Vilna who were known as "Perushim." His wealth and Torah accomplishments secured his position as rosh hakohol and a dayan, but the final arbiters of the community were the true Torah elite who were not interested in any formal position of influence since it would certainly be a distraction from their Torah study. Thus, Rav Moshe Yitzchok was the titular head of community but it was recognized that final power rested with the Torah elite.

There was, however, another wild card. There were periodic troubles from the non-Jewish authorities, to which the usual answer was money applied in one way or another. Rav Moshe Yitzchok always footed the bill, and asked for nothing but a promissory note from the kehilloh in return. Since the community was extremely poor, it was understood that all these notes marked "Received" and with the community's seal and the signatures of all the prominent members could never be collected. Rav Moshe Yitzchok saved all these notes in a small safe, and no one gave much thought to that 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.

One of the Perushim of the time was HaRav Shlomo Zalman, who married an orphan named Treina from Seltz, a city in the Grodna district. Treina's family gave a very sparse dowry, and Rav Shlomo Zalman's could not afford much. However his mother gave his bride a simple gold necklace with one lone pearl. However, the true dowry was the story behind the necklace, which we were not yet told.

The young couple were blessed with a son, Eliyohu, who was an obvious Torah prodigy. By the time he was four, there was no one in Seltz who could teach him. So his mother decided that they should move to Stavisk, because a famous talmid chochom known as R' Nisan Stavisky lived there.

When they reached Stavisk, Treina dropped her husband and son off in the beis medrash while she took care of all the arrangements. When they arrived, R' Nisan was in the middle of saying a shiur to his students. When he spoke to them afterwards, the great talmid chochom immediately figured out who they were. The young Eliyohu, a tot of four, then asked a question that upset the entire approach that R' Nisan had followed in his shiur. 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.


Then he loudly declared. "This child is a veritable genius, and is destined to become like a Tana. It's not a disgrace, but a great honor for me to have been vanquished by a gaon who will illuminate Am Yisroel with the light of the Torah."

Then he added: "I am sorry, Reb Shlomo Zalman. I won't be able to teach your son — not due to my original reason, but because I don't deserve to teach such a gaon. I suggest that you place him beside a gemora and let him study Shas and poskim on his own, because there is no teacher in Am Yisroel better than he."

Afterward, Rav Nisan whispered to Rav Shlomo Zalman: "I have another reason too. Such a small child is liable to grow arrogant when he sees that venerable lamdonim cannot teach him. In addition, you will be causing him to stumble in the sin of disgracing elderly talmidei chachomim."

"Go to Vilna," Rav Nisan continued, "which is the Yerushalayim of Lithuania. There your son might find someone among the great Torah giants who live there, with whom he can analyze a sugya. You have nothing to look for elsewhere."

Rav Shlomo Zalman arrived at his new dwelling, as Treina was about to sign a rental contract. He told her briefly why Elinka wouldn't be studying with Rav Nisan, and added that the fact that they had already left Seltz indicated that Hashem wanted them to move to Vilna, where Eliyahu would find his appropriate niche.

The moment Rav Shlomo Zalman, his wife and his small son entered Vilna, a new sun began to shine over it, even though no one noticed it at first.

Rav Shlomo Zalman entered the first beis medrash he saw, the Tailor's Shul, and seated his small son in one of its corners. Then the two began to learn, without paying attention to their surroundings. In a city like Vilna, rumors fly quickly. The story about the four-year-old who stymied all of Lithuania's lamdonim had spread like wildfire.

The moment Rav Shlomo Zalman and his son sat down to learn, the members of the Tailor's Shul realized who they were. However, they decided to keep the matter a secret, lest the members of the Builder's shul draw them into their shul, which was very spacious and comfortable. (Nu, what do you expect? They were builders). But like all secrets, this one was eventually revealed, for how long can one keep such a secret?

Within a week, the tailors' wives stormed Rav Moshe Yitzchok's estate for financial aid, until he began to suspect that the women were sending their husbands to learn in order to squeeze him for money. (Rav Moshe Yitzchok was the wealth head of the community.) But suddenly, he recalled that he had been waiting for his private tailor to finish a frock-coat for him, but the tailor kept on postponing the due date.

In the end, the truth came out: Vilna found itself without tailors because they all had gone to their shul, to bask in the young Eliyahu's light, and to study day and night.

Rav Moshe Yitzchok went to the shul too. Of course, no one prevented Rav Moshe Yitzchok, the head of the community and the supporter of their families, from entering.

Rav Moshe Yitzchok scanned the shul and suddenly saw a small child, immersed in his learning and opening heavy tomes which children his age generally fear might fall on them. Rav Moshe Yitzchok had also heard about the brilliant child, who was roving Lithuania in the company of his father. Putting two and two together, he realized who the child was. Approaching him, he asked: "What is your name?"

"My name is Eliyahu," said the child, who would have preferred to continue learning, but answered out of respect for an elderly person.

"What is your father's name?"

"Shlomo Zalman."

"Where are you from?"

That was enough! The tot decided that he had wasted enough Torah-study time, and politely told the stranger. "Forgive me, sir. But please wait until I finish learning. Then I'll answer your questions."

"When will you finish?"

"Five hours before shacharis," the child answered.

Rav Moshe Yitzchok needed no more evidence to confirm that this was the gaon.

"Is this the gaon everyone is speaking about?" he then asked the tailors.

The deathly silence of the tailors was like an admission.

"If so, what is he doing in this beis medrash? Let him come to the beis medrash I built. It's worthy of such a lamdan," Rav Moshe Yitzchok boasted.

The tailors didn't reply. What could they say? They weren't the richest or the most influential people in town.

Coming to their aid, Rav Shlomo Zalman replied: "We're comfortable here and want to stay here."

Rav Moshe Yitzchok looked at the father and saw that his expression was as determined as his son's. His experience as the head of a community, a dayan and a gvir had taught him that this was the time to leave, and not the time to enter into an argument with one who a few moments beforehand had shown that he was firmer than the Perushim.

The moment Rav Moshe Yitzchok left the shul, Rav Shlomo Zalman and his son returned to their studies.

The young Eliyahu made rapid strides in his study of Toras Hanigleh and Toras Hanistar, yet still hadn't formed contact with anyone who wasn't involved in learning. By the same token he refrained from expressing his opinion, even though many had begun to seek it.

When he was twenty, he married Channa, the daughter of Reb Yehuda, a wealthy tycoon from Keidan. With his marriage the young gaon parted from his friends in the Tailor's Shul and from Vilna, and went to live beside his father-in- law in Keidan.

When he left, Vilna lost its glory, its grandeur and its radiance.


After a few years in Keidan, Rav Eliyahu returned to Vilna with his wife, and headed to the Tailor's Shul.

While Rav Eliyahu was in Keidan, his father-in-law had supported him. However, upon his return to Vilna he lost that support, and he and his wife lived in poverty.

Channa was very righteous and never demanded anything for herself. Her entire life focused on attending to her husband's needs, and she was an ezer kenegdo in all his efforts, even helping him to maintain his ascetic practices.

When the gaon decided not to savor the flavor of food, she baked him special bread which could be swallowed immediately. When he left home for weeks, isolating himself in shuls in unknown places, she waited for him without knowing when he would return.

Rapidly, Rav Eliyahu's name spread throughout all Lithuania. From the gedolim of the time unto the most simple wagon drivers, all related wondrous stories about the great gaon who had raised the glory of Torah and its lomdim. Without anyone noticing it, a new leader had arisen in Lithuania — the leader of the bnei Torah, the leader of the Jews.

Rav Eliyahu had no title and held no official position, because that was the form of Jewish leadership in those days — the form it still maintains today. Then as now, daas Torah is the determining factor in Jewish leadership and it needs no titles or official authorization from the government. It isn't and mustn't be indebted to anyone.

Many talmidei chachamim and famed geonim flocked to Vilna to study under Rav Eliyahu, among them Rav Aryeh Leib, the Shaagas Aryeh; Rav Chaim of Volozhin, Rav Yaakov of Dubna, known as the Maggid of Dubna; and Rav Saadya and Rav Zelmala, the sons-in-law of the gvir, Rav Michel Fashless. These Torah giants revered Rav Eliyahu as they would a Tana, and even the firm Shaagas Aryeh who never nullified his view even if he had to pay a heavy price for that, totally yielded to the gaon of Vilna, as did all the gedolim of that period.

Although Rav Moshe Yitzchok, who still presided as the head of the community, nullified his opinion in face of the gaon, he was disturbed by that fact that something had nonetheless changed. If until then he could at least think that he determined affairs in Vilna, he could no longer fool himself on that point.

There was still no contention between him and the gaon, because Rav Moshe Yitzchok knew his place. But all that changed on the night that the Rov of Vilna, Rav Moshe Yitzchok's mechuton, was niftar.

At the levaya, Rav Moshe Yitzchok wanted to declare that the son-in-law, the rov's son and husband of his daughter, would be Vilna's next rov. Suddenly, a verbal command from the head of the Perushim stating that the gaon disapproved of such an appointment was dispatched. Out of respect for the niftar, as well as for the son and for Rav Moshe Yitzchok, no reasons were stated. However, the Perushim made it quite clear that if the gaon' s will on that point wasn't honored, they would have to state the reason and that it would be better to avoid that.

The reason, though, was known throughout all Vilna. The son wasn't as capable as the father. He was young age-wise, and immature, personality-wise, and also wasn't considered a lamdan. The Perushim were also unable to converse with him, because what interested him didn't interest them, and what interested them didn't interest him.

Similarly, his decisions weren't made rationally, but were the rash products of his vacillating moods. He was also very quarrelsome and belligerent. If he heard of an argument taking place outside of Vilna, and even outside of Lithuania, he would pack his belongings and go there, or at least send the pertinent communities letters so that no one would say that he wasn't involved in one side or the other of the argument.

This quarrelsome nature is what particularly bothered the gaon, who avoided all contention and tried to prevent the well-known strife with the Chassidim from developing. If he hadn't felt that Klal Yisroel's existence was at stake in that issue, he would have avoided that argument too. Since the young rov had a penchant for Chassidus, it was feared that this might cause serious rifts within Vilna.

Rav Moshe Yitzchok tried to send messengers to the gaon. Rav Moshe had many arguments, but to outside observers, many of them actually validated the reasons for the opposition to the Rav's son.

So what if my son-in-law receives a bit of honor? Anyway the position of head of the community has never been a leadership one. If you're afraid that the public might be swept up by his personality, that's no problem either, because he has no personality. He's not a lamdan either, and he's also not in Vilna most of the time because he has to leave the city and the country to participate in arguments and fights.

The moment he understood that his son-in-law wouldn't be appointed Rov of Vilna under any circumstances, Rav Moshe Yitzchok was overcome by an anger which led to audacity, and for the first time in his life he decided to thrust Vilna into a predicament that it had never faced before.

Quickly, he sent messengers to the heads of the community subordinate to him and demanded: "Please pay up the sums you owe me — within a month."

This news spread throughout Vilna like wildfire, and all understood its implications: If Rav Moshe Yitzchok meant business, then the entire kehilloh of Vilna and all of its institutions would totally collapse.

Messengers were sent to Rav Moshe Yitzchok to plead with him to forgo his ridiculous demand. But he insisted: "If you can't honor me by appointing my son-in-law rov of the city, then pay your other debts."

It took a few days until the Perushim learned about the affair. Although they generally didn't show an interest in fights and quarrels, the ramifications of this fight would have had an adverse affect on all of Vilna's religious institutions, such as the mikvo'os, the rabbinate and the talmudei Torah.

This time, Vilna's Perushim did not brush the affair aside with invalidating gestures and were very concerned about it. Having no choice, the gaon's outstanding talmid, Rav Saadya, informed him of the threat made to Vilna by the head of the community, Rav Moshe Yitzchok, due to the opposition to his son-in-law.

R' Saadya waited for the reaction of the gaon. However, at first the gaon continued studying as if nothing had been said. Rav Saadya pleaded with the gaon to reveal his opinion, saying: "The decree which one of the wealthy men of the country has leveled on us now, is the worst our community has borne within the last few decades."

"The wealthy men of the country?" the gaon repeated after him.

"Isn't he one of the wealthy men of the country?" Rav Saadya asked. "He has a lot of money."

After rocking back and forth for a while, the gaon replied: "You have to ask my wife Channah. She understands money matters."

Then he gestured that the conversation on that topic had ended.

Rav Saadya was very confused. Turning to Channah of Keidan, the gaon's wife, he asked: "Do you know what the gaon meant when he said that you understand money matters? Are you familiar with that topic?"

"Ah, I know what he means," the righteous Channah replied. "Please hire a wagon and take me to Rav Moshe Yitzchok's home."

Rav Saadya was stunned, because Channah, the gaon's wife barely left her home. Apparently, she understood that the gaon wanted her to put an end to the gvir's threat.

Once in the gvir's home, Channah pointed to the safe and said: "Do you think that you are wealthy? Well, you aren't wealthy at all. My wealth far exceeds yours, including the sums of the bills."

Rav Moshe Yitzchok was surprised. Could Channah be one of the wealthiest people on earth, without his knowing it?

"I will show you my wealth, this very moment," she calmly declared.

While Channah delved into her pocket book, Rav Moshe Yitzchok expected her to come up with a diamond the size of an egg, or even larger than that. But what did Channah pull out, if not the gold necklace with the lone pearl, passed on by Treina, which was worth about a tenth of the smallest bill in the safe?

Rav Moshe Yitzchok heaved a sigh of relief. "She's naive, that tzaddekess," he reflected. "In a few moments I'll tell her how much the community owes me. I just hope she doesn't faint."

But she beat him to the punch, and cited the precise amount of the debts, plus the approximate sum of all of his assets. Then she added: "Nonetheless, my wealth is greater than yours."

Then Channah related the story of the necklace, a story she had been instructed to tell only under emergency circumstances.

"My husband's great-grandmother Rivka was the daughter of the wealthiest people in all Lithuania. This pearl which I am holding was one of thirty precious pearls which had been passed on by mother to daughter for many generations. Of course, despite its high price, the pearly necklace didn't constitute even one percent of the tremendous wealth passed on to Rivka.

"In the year 5408, Chmielencki and his Cossack accomplices invaded Jewish homes, killing many and leaving the rest poverty-stricken. People, who like you had been as wealthy as Korach, became paupers overnight, while others died of starvation in the streets.

"But a miracle occurred to Rivka and no one touched her vast wealth.

"Seeing the situation of her fellow townsmen, Rivka declared that from then on all of Vilna's residents could buy food on her account. Then she told the bakers and chefs to prepare tons of food, for which she paid with own her money. However the scope of this money decreased from day to day, because no matter how rich she was, she couldn't support an entire city for months on end.

"Rivka asked her husband to pasken whether the rule, `One who gives charity, should not give more than a chomesh' applied in this case. He replied that this rule pertained during peacetime and not wartime, when danger loomed over the heads of people.

"Rivka did her husband's will and from all her wealth, nothing remained except the pearl necklace she had received from her mother.

"Eight years passed and before the wounds of the people had begun to heal, an additional war broke out when in 5416, the Franciscan Jesuits incited the Lithuanians, who had always been virulent antisemites, to realize their gory desires and drink the blood of the Jews.

"Until then, her husband (Rav Moshe) had thought that Rivka should keep the necklace because she had received it as an heirloom from her mother. However, at that point he suggested that she sell the pearls and distribute the money she would earn to starving Jews. Rivka agreed with him and began to examine where she would receive a decent price for the necklace. One dark night, as her husband was making final corrections to his manuscript of Be'er Hagolah, the Lithuanians launched an attack on the Jewish homes of the city. Quickly, Rav Moshe picked up his sefer which in his eyes was more precious than any other treasure, and fled to the field.

"But then the marauders blocked his way and began to beat him. However, instead of shielding himself, he clutched his sefer with his two hands. Assuming that he was carrying a golden treasure, the marauders tried to pull it away from him. Although he stumbled and fell, no power on earth could wrench the sefer from his hands. Seeing this, the marauders decided to kill him.

"But Rivka, the eishes chayil, ripped the pearl chain from her neck and as she ran, held it up to the marauders. They understood that she was holding a large treasure and began to pursue her, while she scattered the pearls in all directions. While the marauders picked them up, she and her husband continued to flee. In that manner she managed to save her husband, and of course the important sefer which was his entire world. When they reached Zamut, the two of them were bruised and injured. To Rivka's surprise, in her clenched hand she still held one pearl, which she decided to keep forever — not because of its value but because of the memories and the message it bore, that there is no object or asset more precious than the sacred Torah, which is more precious than all commodities."

After finishing her story, Channah pointed to the copy of Be'er Hagolah on Rav Moshe Yitzchok's shelf and placed the pearl in front of it. "Don't you understand that all of the assets in the world aren't worth even one page of this monumental work? Tell me then, are there any assets in the world as significant as daas Torah, which is based on the entire Torah?"

Then she added: "What do you think you are doing? You're an intelligent person, and know that no threat in the world can persuade my husband and the other gedolim to alter their views. But suppose that they could be persuaded to do so, is that what you want to achieve? To subdue daas Torah? To rip the sefer Torah?"

Someone in the room began to weep bitterly. It wasn't Channah or R' Saadya. Rav Moshe Yitzchok was crying like a baby because, like all of Vilna's other residents, he valued Torah sages and knew the meaning of daas Torah. In this case, he had been seized by a foolish whim and Channah's words had succeeded in mitigating it.

Rav Moshe remained face-to-face with all of the good deeds he had done, face-to-face with the Torah he had studied, and face-to-face with his innate respect for daas Torah, and suddenly he knew that there had been no threat and no danger, only a foolish whim which had dissipated like the thought that his son-in-law would become Vilna's rav.

Rav Moshe Yitzchok fell to the floor and sought the Gaon's forgiveness. He promised that he would never again make demands which negated the Gaon's opinion, and tearfully pleaded that the Gaon pardon him in full.

To this Channah replied; "He will not only forgive you, but from now on you are a tzaddik in Hashem's eyes and in man's. In order to show you how amazed I am at your subjugation to daas Torah, and how much I esteem you for it, I am giving you the greatest gift of all, the pearl I received from the gaon's grandmother."

Rav Moshe Yitzchok was stirred to the very core of his soul, because he knew that he had never received such a gift in his life. After his shock had subsided, he reached a decision.

Opening the safe, he took out all of the bills and threw them into the fireplace.

Truth and peace returned to Vilna.

A while later, Channah was niftar and the Gaon instructed that this be engraved on her tomb: "She left no assets or wealth behind. There is no way to recount her praises."

Only two people besides the Gaon knew the extent of the truth of the words, "she left no assets or wealth behind." They were: Rav Saadya and Rav Moshe Yitzchok. They also knew that there was no way of recounting the extent of her praise.


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