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14 Av, 5782 - August 11, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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From Baranovitch To Mir: HaRav Leib Baron Recalls His Youth In Eastern Europe

As Told To Rabbi N. Zeevi


Part II

This series of recollections of HaRav Aryeh Leib Baron was first published by us in 1995. HaRav Baron was niftar in 2011. He had a remarkable memory for detail, and these memoirs of his are a fount of information on life in Europe.

For Part I of this series click here.

For Part III of this series click here.

HaRav Arye Leib Baron, was born in Horodok, which is near Volozhin. In his youth, he learned in the yeshivos of Baranovitch and Mir. Later he was the rosh yeshiva of Mercaz Hatalmud in Montreal, Canada and is known for his shiurim in both halacha and aggada, some of which have been published in his seforim: Bircas Reuven, Bircas Yehuda, Yishrei Lev, Nesivos Lev, Mesamchei Lev and Yismach Chaim, to give just a partial listing. We have published several of his essays on machshovo and hashkofo in these pages.

In these essays, based on an extended interview with HaRav Baron, he discusses the prewar European yeshiva world, upon whose approach to learning and to character development, today's yeshivos are patterned. Thanks to the magnificent memory with which he is gifted, HaRav Baron was able to describe his experiences in perfect detail, thus evoking living images of the life inside the great yeshivos of Baranovitch and Mir and of their roshei yeshiva and mashgichim.

The first part described the author's experiences in the Baranovitch yeshiva. In this part he describes the Mir yeshiva in Europe.

Guard Duty

Reb Elchonon and Reb Yisroel Yaakov would sometimes leave the confines of the yeshiva in order to protect Jewish observance in Baranovitch from those who attempted to weaken it. Every erev Shabbos, Reb Elchonon would go past the shops to ensure that they close up before Shabbos arrived. This was a custom he had received from his rebbe the Chofetz Chaim, who would extol the praises of the mazhirei Shabbos at length.

Reb Elchonon

Once, when Reb Elchonon passed the barber's shop, the owners greeted his requests with mockery. Reb Elchonon despatched one of the town's Slonimer chassidim, Reb Zeidel Bakker (the baker) was his name, to warn them once more. When he heard that they obstinately refused to close, Reb Elchonon said, "Mechaleleho mos yumos." The shop was owned by a father and son. The following Tuesday, the father died.

When I was already learning in Mir, I was told of another incident involving chilul Shabbos, which had shaken Baranovitch. All the Jewish owned stores used to be closed on Shabbos until the arrival of one lawless fellow from Vilna, who tried to end this state of affairs by opening a clothing store on Shabbos. The news reached the beis hamedrash in the middle of the tefillos of Shabbos.

When Reb Yisroel Yaakov heard, he went to the bimah and banged on it, calling upon everyone to go out and protest the dangerous breach that was liable to widen. The entire yeshiva went out, passing the shtiebel of the Slonimer chassidim on the way. The bimah was also banged over there and all the mispallelim joined the bnei hayeshiva. From there, the crowd made its way to the Beis Hamedrash Hagodol, which was known as the `Orlansky Shul,' where the gabbai, Reb Mendel Goldberg, a pupil of the Chofetz Chaim, issued a call to join the demonstration.

Around twenty thousand people gathered in this way. They cried, "Shabbos! Close the store!"

The storekeeper called the police and claimed that the demonstration was being held without a permit. Reb Elchonon and Reb Yisroel Yaakov were arrested but were released that day after the intervention of Reb Pinye Kaslan (one of the town's distinguished householders and a brother-in-law of the Afikei Yam.) During the demonstration, Reb Yisroel Yaakov said to the storekeeper, "Close while things are good, or you'll close when they get bad." Several weeks later it became known that the business had not lasted long — it went bankrupt.

I remember another incident involving Jewish youngsters who were Communists, from the Bund. The bochurim had celebrated Purim in the beis hamedrash. One of them, Yehoshua Brazher, had gone outside in disguise and started up with a passing group of irreligious youths. The next day, in the middle of the mussar session, a girl from the Bundists, burst into the beis hamedrash, accompanied by two Communist youths. We were speechless — to burst into the beis hamedrash [like that] was something totally unheard of.

The girl started to scream and, stepping inside with the two youths, began a search for the bochur. They walked from one bench to the next, while the bochurim were stunned by their audacity. A commotion ensued. Now and then the louts pointed to a bochur and the other bochurim shouted, `Get out of here!' In the meantime, Reb Elchonon had risen from his place, gone over to the ruffians and started pushing them towards the door with both hands. One of them had the gall to say scornfully, "No hands, Elchonon!"

A few days later, the householder with whom I boarded asked me if I had heard what had become of the girl who had brought those louts into the beis hamedrash and who was responsible for the whole thing. Since the incident, she had been unable to speak properly. Whenever she opened her mouth, she emitted a strange, high pitched sound. (This story appeared in Or Elchonon in my name, but unfortunately it is not recorded there accurately.)

Fearlessly Fighting the Freethinkers

Reb Elchonon was never afraid of waging a struggle against the freethinkers. When the issue of avoda Ivrit was current, he publicized an article in the newspaper Tog Blatt, opposing the idea. He argued that mechalelai Shabbos did not take preference [over gentiles] and that there was no obligation whatsoever to make a point of hiring them.

At the time, nothing could have been less popular than expressing such views. The Polish Zionist leaders raised an uproar. They controlled two daily newspapers and they attacked Reb Elchonon bitterly each day. Reb Elchonon provided a crushing reply but they continued to stir up feelings [against him.]

When echoes of this storm reached Reb Chaim Ozer (who was Reb Elchonon's brother-in-law), his reaction was, `Reb Elchonon has forgotten one thing. HaKodosh Boruch Hu made us swear that we would not antagonize the nations. Yisroel is also a nation and one should avoid baiting them...'

I think, by the way, that this attitude is also at the basis of the opinions of the gedolim in Eretz Yisroel, especially those of Maran HaRav Shach, namely, not to demand things from the irreligious that are not within our power to achieve, for this only leads to further inflammation of anti-religious feelings. Yaakov Ovinu's admonition to his sons, `Why are you showing yourselves?' can be applied [to such unrealistic demanding policies].

The story is told of a rav who tried on a number of occasions to persuade a wealthy miser to donate to tzedaka. After he met with stubborn refusals, he arrived at the man's house, sat down and remained completely silent. When asked why he had come he replied, "I came to fulfill a mitzva — the mitzva of refraining from saying something that will be ignored!"

From Baranovitch To Mir

When I was eighteen, I decided to continue my studies in the Mirrer Yeshiva. Some bochurim left Baranovitch after the fifth shiur, in order to go on to other yeshivos such as Grodno and Mir. I was already in the sixth shiur and the kibbutz.

Getting accepted into Mir was by no means easy. Many of those who applied had to wait long months before they were accepted. I came with a group from Baranovitch and we were successful [immediately] thanks to a letter of recommendation from Reb Yisroel Yaakov which was sent in the mail, arriving in Mir before we did. Thanks to Reb Yisroel Yaakov's special standing, we were thus accepted immediately.

Reb Yeruchom

The Mashgiach

Many came to Mir because of the mashgiach, Reb Yeruchom. Many of those arriving in the yeshiva had already made great progress in learning and had heard the shiurim of the greatest roshei yeshivos. Some of the older bochurim in the yeshiva were already capable of saying their own shiurim. All were avid followers of Reb Yeruchom. It used to be said in the yeshivos that Reb Yeruchom was to mussar what Reb Chain Brisker was to lomdus.

Reb Yeruchom had tremendous understanding of the human mind. He was a psychologist, possessing a discerning and penetrating insight. Occasionally, bochurim who conversed with him would be afraid to speak unreservedly because they knew that in the course of the conversation he was probing their character and behavior.

In the yeshiva, it was known that Reb Yeruchom's brilliance enabled him to divine the hometown of new bochurim who had just arrived in the yeshiva. How was this? When a bochur from a particular town came to him, Reb Yeruchom would observe him and discover certain special mannerisms. When another bochur from the same place arrived, Reb Yeruchom would compare the two of them.

Sometimes we could actually watch this happen. A new bochur arrived in the yeshiva, Reb Yeruchom spoke to him for several minutes and then said, `You are from Lubotsch!' Although we are aware of characteristics that typify people coming from a particular country or continent — Reb Yeruchom could tell the difference between natives of different cities and towns.

I arrived in Mir after Succos and returned home for Pesach. I came to take my leave of Reb Yeruchom. In general, he was particular that bochurim not travel with an ordinary wagon driver. However, I explained to him that I was unable to pay to travel by train. "Have you already been to speak in Torah with the Rosh Yeshiva before you travel?" he asked. I answered in the affirmative.

Suddenly I heard him murmuring, as though to himself, "Baranovitch...Mir...from Baranovitch to Mir...Rabbi Zeira fasted for forty days in order to forget the Torah of Bovel so that he could absorb the Torah of Eretz Yisroel...Baranovitch, Mir...Bavli, Yerushalmi..." While he said this, he gestured with his fingers as though he was in doubt about something. Then, he gave me his hand and said, "For one zeman, it's not bad."

It was not hard for me to understand what he meant. He felt that the passage from Baranovitch to Mir also demanded undergoing some sort of special process — if not actual fasting — in order to become assimilated into the special atmosphere of Mir. After reflection, his verdict had been that for one zeman, it wasn't bad.

By the way, years later I gave the following explanation of the difference in styles between the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi. In the Yerushalmi, a discussion opens with the words `toh chazi — come and see.' The corresponding expression in the Bavli is `toh shema — come and hear.' The Talmud Bavli is an amalgam of many diverse components. It is full of dialogue and Torah argument. In an argument, the parties do not hear each other so the gemora must begin, `come and hear.' This [process of discussion] is unnecessary in the Yerushalmi [due to the clarity of the Torah tradition in Eretz Yisroel]. It is enough to say, `come and see — just take a look and you will understand.'

There were bochurim who came to Mir from Germany, where some had studied for years in university and earned diplomas. Reb Yeruchom gave these bochurim a special shiur in Chumash. I remember that they used to come out of that shiur full of amazement at the depth of his understanding of human nature and his ability to express abstract and delicate concepts. They would say that in one shiur, he was able to cover what it had taken them years to learn.

He Should Have Noticed

Foreign talmidim (i.e. from America or Germany), were in need of some extra help. The Mashgiach would pay bochurim to learn with the weaker ones among the foreign students and to bring their learning up to standard. I learned with one such bochur, a boy from Hamburg. I received payment through the Mashgiach's associate Reb Isser Malin, a brother of HaRav Leib Malin.

One day, Reb Isser passed me and called me over. He said, "Do you know that the bochur with whom you learn is crazy?"

I stood there stunned. "I spend three hours each morning learning with him and haven't noticed any problem. And you are telling me that he's crazy?"

He smiled knowingly and said, "Laible, you should know — he's crazy!"

I left him thinking that perhaps he, not my chavrusa, was the one whose mind was unsettled. That same day, Reb Yeruchom also called me over and said, "Your chavrusa is crazy!"

I repeated what I had said already — that I hadn't noticed any problem. Everything was normal. Reb Yeruchom said, "Wait and you'll see."

That afternoon, I returned to the beis hamedrash and saw the bochur with whom I learned standing and laughing. He laughed and laughed, with no apparent reason. A bochur said to me, "Something seems to be wrong with him."

I took him for a walk outside the town in the hope that he would calm down. Afterwards I took him to his room and asked the owners of the house if they had noticed anything strange in his behavior. They told me that he used to shout in the middle of the night. I saw that Reb Isser had been right.

Later, I found out that the bochur had gone to Reb Isser and told him that he had decided that he was the Moshiach. I returned to the yeshiva with Reb Moshe Yehuda Blau, who was in charge of the foreign talmidim. I went over to the Mashgiach and said, "Yes, it's true. I saw him behaving like an idiot with my own eyes."

The Mashgiach gave me a piercing look and asked, "Why didn't you notice it until now?"

He felt that I was somewhat to blame for not having had the insight into my chavrusa's character, despite the fact that his behavior towards me was absolutely normal. In my confusion, I blurted out, "He never chose me as the address for his delusions. What does the Moshiach have to do with the sugyos of Nezikim? He chose the yeshiva's mussar scholars, like Reb Isser Malin, when he wanted to speak about Moshiach...he knew that I have nothing to do with such topics."

Reb Yeruchom listened to my hasty reply with a smile and he concluded our discussion with a chuckle on his lips.

The following day, Reb Yeruchom came over to us and called the German bochur, who stood up. Reb Yeruchom flung the accusation at him, "Do you know that you're crazy?"

I was shocked. How could he say such a thing to a bochur, face to face? It was only years later that I heard that there exists a concept of shock treatment, which entails bringing a person face to face with the unabashed facts, in order to test his reaction and see whether he can still be reached.

When Reb Yeruchom fell ill, we were unaware of the seriousness and danger of his condition until one day, the rebbetzin came to the beis hamedrash, opened the aron hakodesh and wept. I remember that when a doctor was summoned to the Mashgiach and gave orders forbidding the Mashgiach to strain himself, Reb Yeruchom asked him whether he was allowed to think and contemplate. The town doctor, who did not understand what he meant, was annoyed at this troublesome question. "What will your thinking achieve? What will your thoughts help you?"

After Reb Yeruchom passed away, it was decided to appoint the gaon and tzaddik HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l, as mashgiach. Reb Yechezkel was already part of the yeshiva. He learned there as one of the avreichim. He had left his post as mashgiach of the Kletsk yeshiva after a difference of opinion with HaRav Aharon Kotler concerning a certain bochur whom Reb Chatzkel had wanted to have removed from the yeshiva on account of his improper conduct. Reb Aharon objected. The bochur was particularly gifted and Reb Aharon loved bochurim with brilliant minds more than anything else. I remember that at the time, Reb Yeruchom said, "In this case, Reb Chatzkel was right. That is the mashgiach's concern. It is his area of expertise."

End of Part II


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