HaRav Eliezer Kahan, eighth of Tammuz, 5728: Novardok in Gateshead
This hesped for HaRav Eliezer Kahan of Gateshead was originally published in 1993 (5753).
"He, Damesek Eliezer, drawing and watering [others] from the Torah of his mentor."
Subservience to and mesiras nefesh for Torah, were the secrets of the man, and the driving force of the movement. The man - the gaon and tzaddik, R' Eliezer Kahan, zt"l of Gateshead, who developed and cultivated a "Novardoker reserve" within stately England. Twenty-five years since his demise, on the eighth of Tammuz, 5728.
He arrived in Vilna, the "capital," and like many other good Jews, headed directly for the home of the gaon hador, R' Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. The yeshiva's desperate material situation—its empty coffer, and the problems of its students—weighed heavily on his heart. Without a doubt, only R' Chaim Ozer could help!
The Rosh Hayeshiva reached the threshold of R' Chaim Ozer's home, only to discover that the gaon wasn't in Vilna, but in a not-too-distant vacation spa. Seemingly, this bit of information should not have posed any particular problem for him. If he had come so far, what was so difficult about continuing a bit further? However, he had not a penny in his pocket. In those difficult times, he had barely managed to secure enough money for a one-way ticket to Vilna. Even if he had wanted to return home, then and there, he couldn't have done so.
Without hesitating, R' Eliezer began to walk to the spa. Rain fell in torrents, and the cold intensified. A storm raged. Winds howled. Yet he continued to trudge on, mile after mile. It took him an entire day to reach his destination.
He reached the village in which the spa was located, after midnight. He knocked on R' Chaim's door, only to be greeted by the gaon himself. R' Chaim Ozer was stunned by the sight of the man who was drenched from head to toe, and in amazement, gasped: "Surely you are a Novardoker. Only Novardokers are capable of such mesiras nefesh for Torah."
The man explained that he had come to seek a loan for his yeshiva, which was tottering under its overwhelming financial burden. R' Chaim Ozer agreed to his request immediately, and added: "I am sure that you will return the money to me when the situation of the yeshiva improves. Someone with so much mesiras nefesh can only be a yirei Elokim."
That man was none other than the gaon and tzaddik, R' Eliezer Kahan, who later became the menahel ruchani of Yeshivas Beis Yosef of Gateshead, a position which he held for forty years. The above- mentioned episode occurred when he was a rosh yeshiva in the Polish town of Lubetsch.
In 5690, the friend of his youth, R' Nachman Dovid Landinski, asked him to help him found a yeshiva in Gateshead. Despite the many difficulties such a challenge involved, R' Eliezer responded affirmatively. However, he did so only after receiving the blessing of Maran HaGaon, R' Chaim Ozer. "Go in peace, and behatzlocho," R' Chaim Ozer blessed him. Then he jokingly added, "One kabtzen less in our impoverished region."
In his collection of discourses, Nachlas Eliezer, he explained why Yosef called Egypt "eretz onyi" even though he had acquired so much honor and wealth in that land. "Oni," he says, "refers to paucity of wisdom, and in a tainted land wisdom is in exile. Therefore it is eretz onyi—the land of Yosef's [personal] poverty."
Wasn't his move to England, for him, also a move to an eretz oni?
Mesiras nefesh and dedication to the mission one has undertaken, were the trademarks and daily fare of the students of Novardok in Russia, who were forced to battle an alien and antagonistic regime, and the unbridled attacks of the wanton maskilim. R' Eliezer was forced to use the very same war tactics in England that he had learned in Europe. However, his enemies were not the maskilim, or the authorities, but the no less dangerous apathy and indifference to Torah which prevailed there when he arrived. And in England, coldness towards Torah and its pursuers abounded.
In his younger years in England
If the concept "yeshiva" was merely not included in the lexicon of England's Jewish population at that time, than surely the term "ben yeshiva" was a nonentity for them. The difficulty involved in finding talmidim for the new yeshiva was unbelievable. When R' Eliezer arrived in Gateshead, a year after the shochet and tzaddik, R' Dovid Drayan, foremost champion of all that is sacred, founded the yeshiva, its student body consisted of only six boys barely in their teens. Some wanted to leave the yeshiva. However, R' Eliezer Kahan, persuaded them to remain, and then plunged full force into the task of recruiting additional students.
One day, a someone brought his son to the yeshiva, in order to register him. The father himself was a bit overwhelmed by the occasion, and apologetically said, "Of course, I would rather have him become a doctor but..." Then with a flippant movement, he tapped the boy on the forehead, as if to indicate that the lad wasn't very bright. Then, he continued to enumerate a long list of professions his son might have pursued, once more tapping the lad's forehead and saying, "But since he doesn't have an ounce of seichel, at least let him become a ben yeshiva!"
Money for yeshivos was a topic no one discussed in England at that time, for if there was no need for a yeshiva, why support one? In addition, England was still in the throes of a depression, and very few could afford to donate to a yeshiva. Although R' Eliezer had, undoubtedly, left an impoverished land, he had definitely not landed on prosperous ground.
There were times when the yeshiva was on the verge of starvation. Gateshead's students still recall seeing R' Eliezer leaving the yeshiva, a loaf of bread for his family under his arms. He had not been paid for two full years, and lived in dire poverty. Despite all this, the gates of the yeshiva remained open, and its administration would scrape together its very last pennies in order to provide food for its students.
In addition to poverty, R' Eliezer also suffered disappointments and disgrace. Many good Jews would nod their heads and mockingly tell him that every attempt to found a yeshiva in England was doomed to failure. One prominent Torah figure in London, a graduate of a Lithuanian yeshiva, would bare the palm of his hand and tell R' Eliezer: "When this palm grows hair, a yeshiva will be established in England!"
However, R' Eliezer Kahan was not one to be fazed by such remarks. After all, he was a Novardoker.
The Legacy of Novardok
The lesser known name of Yeshivas Gateshead—Bais Yosef—was chosen not only to commemorate R' Yosef Yozel, the Alter of Novardok, but also to serve as a signpost and example for the yeshiva, which, like seventy others, was referred to as "a branch of Novardok." The name Bais Yosef, which appeared on the official letterheads of the yeshiva during its earliest years, expressed its founders' hopes to perpetuate the Novardoker method on which they had been nurtured, and to impress their new yeshiva with Novardok's stamp.
A mussar seder and mussar discussions were established in the yeshiva. R' Eliezer insisted that these sessions be maintained, and personally supervised them, and others like them, so that they would not be disrupted. Years later, when the yeshiva became a veritable ingathering of the exiles, and students from all spheres of Orthodoxy knocked on its doors, R' Eliezer made sure that no group would initiate independent sedorim.
Throughout his life, he upheld Chazal's maxim, "divrei chachomim benachas nishma'im," and always spoke and conducted himself calmly and tranquilly.
One time, though, he behaved out of character. This occurred when one of the members of the community delivered a shiur for the yeshiva students in Tanya. It was held in his home, and was not only private, but also secret. The lecturer not only spiced his shiur with sippurei maisos, but also used it as a springboard to criticize and mock the mussar movement. News of the shiur leaked out, and R' Eliezer learned of it. Rising like a lion, he strode to the bimah in the yeshiva's Bais Medrash, and in front of the aron kodesh, defended the mussar movement and its illustrious founders. Vehemently, he protested the lecturer's criticism and sternly warned his students that whoever again attended that shiur had no place in the yeshiva, and would be promptly expelled.
It was the custom in Novardoker yeshivos, to hold a special shiur in Orchos Chaim of the Rosh after shacharis, during Elul, yemei harachamim vehaselichos. Bais Yosef of Gateshead was no different in this respect. One year, though, pressing circumstances caused R' Eliezer to ponder whether or not to temporarily cancel this shiur.
One day he visited London and encountered a former student of the yeshiva who had entered the business world. He told R' Eliezer that whenever he had tottered on the brink of sin, he would recall R' Eliezer's shiur in Orchos Chaim of the Rosh, and overcome his temptations. Then and there, R' Eliezer decided not to cancel the shiur! "If even one student will be saved from sin as a result of my shiur," he said, "it is worth my while to continue delivering it year after year."
What is Novardok?
"What is Novardok?" participants at fund raising dinner once asked R' Eliezer's great mentor, R' Avrohom Yaffen. "But be brief," they added.
He replied: "It is written: `Like an apple amidst the trees of the forest, so is my beloved amongst the lads.' Chazal said: `As the fruit of the apple tree blooms before its leaves sprout, so Yisroel prefaced na'aseh to nishma.' The leaves serve the tree in that they cover its nakedness. The fruits benefit people, who derive enjoyment from them. Israel is praiseworthy because she gave her fruits to others before she herself was covered by leaves. She accepted the Torah and brought its great light to the entire world, while she herself still wandered in the desert, with nothing for herself.
"Such is the way of Novardok: to care for others before attending to one's own problems and needs. And even more: to give others fruits, and to be satisfied only with leaves for oneself," concluded R' Yaffen.
R' Eliezer was referred to as "hamenahel", for that is what spiritual deans [mashgichim ruchaniyim] were called in Novardok. From his very first day in Gateshead, he devoted himself solely to the yeshiva's welfare, and nothing on earth concerned him more than the yeshiva and the needs of its students. He himself, though, made do with the barest essentials.
Quite often, the yeshiva's funds did not suffice to cover the salaries of the maggidei shiur. However, R' Eliezer, always paid them first, and took his own salary only when the yeshiva's financial situation had improved.
Money was of no consequence to him, and did not impress him. He was willing to forego all his worldly possessions in order to benefit his fellow. During the Russian Revolution, when he was still a youth, he and two more people found a large sum of money which they divided amongst themselves. R' Eliezer gave his portion to the yeshiva in which he was studying, and the yeshiva sustained itself on this money for a long time.
His wife related that when R' Eliezer learned that his father-in-law was in dire straits and unable to marry off his youngest daughter, her husband returned his entire dowry. Although this occurred shortly after R' Eliezer's wedding, he still did not hesitate to return all that he had received for himself.
During his illness, his sole concern was the welfare of his wife, until it seemed that she, and not he, was the invalid. His daughter once sat beside him in the hospital after he had suffered a heart attack. When he regained at least some of his strength, he displayed no signs of concern for his own condition. Instead he told his daughter: "Poor thing, I am sorry you had to be present at such a distressing time."
Once he lost consciousness. The doctors said that his situation was hopeless. Nevertheless, Hashem decreed otherwise, and R' Eliezer recovered. The first thing he said when he regained his consciousness was, "Don't forget to make sure that the needy students receive their regular stipends."
When his children matured and left home, he asked that his salary be cut, for he had never taken more than was necessary for his subsistence. He explained: "Now I need only support myself and my wife. Let the remainder of my salary go towards the needs of the yeshiva."
He displayed concern not only for the general needs of the yeshiva, but also for the needs of each and every student. He always sought to benefit his students, individually, and to provide for their most personal needs, especially during the troubled war years when they had left their homes or had fled the valley of death and had lost their families. During those periods, R' Eliezer fed them, encouraged them, and invited them into his home for Shabbos and weekday meals. Drawing them closer, and treating them as his own, he would go out of his way to rejoice them, even reciting rhymes and jingles which would put them in a good frame of mind.
One student, a survivor of the Holocaust, had left the yeshiva for a full year. When he returned, he was not rejected or berated. On the contrary, R' Eliezer perceived that it was necessary to give him twenty British pounds, quite a large sum in those days. The student hadn't asked for the money. Yet, it had come at an opportune time, precisely when he was under tremendous pressure and in dire need of the money.
The following story, told by the student to whom it occurred, is characteristic of R' Eliezer: "One night, I came late to ma'ariv. When I finished davening, I discovered that I was the only student left in the Bais Medrash. R' Eliezer Kahan, who was engrossed in a particular sefer, also remained in his place. When I finished my prayers, R' Eliezer approached me and asked me to climb up and close a nearby window, lest the wind shatter it. `You should know,' he told me, `that it is not the cost of a new window which worries me. It is just that I am familiar with such things, and know that if the window breaks, it will remain unrepaired for quite a while, and I pity the students who will have to bear the wind and the cold during that time.'"
A Vacation In The Beis Medrash
When bein hazmanim arrived, his close friends would plead with him to go on vacation, and to rest up from the burdens of preparing shiurim, supervising students and attending to the needs of the yeshiva. Yet he would always refuse. "For me, the best bein hazmanim treat is to be able to sit beside the gemara, and to study undisturbed."
Even his daily shiurim in gemara and his weekly sichos in the yeshiva were geared to the concerns of his students whose welfare was uppermost in his mind. One golden thread ran through them all: Toras emes. They were not based on elegant pilpulim, but contained constructive guidance and direction on how to study a blat Gemara, and how to analyze and probe the words of the rishonim. In his sichos, he taught how to explain a parsha of the Chumash and a stanza of Midrash.
His derech in learning was well-paved and clear cut, and modeled the method of the Russian-Lithuanian yeshivos: understanding the pshat according to the roots and foundations of the text. He prepared his shiurim so that they would be palatable and pleasing to his audience, and he would interlace them with parables and vivid illustrations. In this manner, he would arouse the interest of the students in Torah study, and provide them with a taste of its sweetness. He would encourage them to pore over their studies and to delve deeply into the words of the gemara and the rishonim.
In order to illustrate the success in learning which results from shekeida and hasmada, he would tell his students about R' Elchonon Spector of Kovna, who once rejected a young man who had come to him for smicha. R' Elchonon had seen that the man was not upright, and not deserving of smicha. He asked him to explain the words of the gemara, "Tanu rabbanan", and the young man replied simply, `rabbanan lamdu' (our rabbis have learned.)
But R' Elchonon retorted: "Aha! This is the root of the evil. Your explanation constitutes the source of the false assumption that it is possible to become rabbanan first, and to learn afterwards. The gemara explicitly says `Tanu rabbanan' indicating that one must first learn, and only then become a rav. One must apply the lesson taught by the language of the gemara to his own life. First he learns; afterwards, he can become a rabbi. Such is the correct order."
Equally as impressive as the shiurim he delivered, was his personal example. His conduct served as the greatest book of orchos chaim. Whoever saw him, immediately recalled a halacha. He was a walking mussar sefer, who radiated kedusha and imparted it to his entire surroundings. His relationships with his students were those of a loving father to his sons. He would embrace them with his arms, and caress them with his words. His influence on them was great.
The fact that he was a perfect role model runs like a golden thread throughout the entire fabric of his life, beginning in Novardok, where he was known as R' Eliezer Dvinsker, and until his final day. Although the Steipler Rav and R' Eliezer Kahan did not study in the same branch of Novardok, the Steipler Rav still knew him very well in those days. On a number of occasions, the Steipler Rav lauded R' Eliezer's greatness and piety, and said that he was a true yirei shomayim, and a highly esteemed and beloved figure in the Novardoker yeshivos. The Steipler Rav also made special efforts to honor and draw close R' Kahan's family.
The Spirit of The Yeshiva World
In his desire to impart some of the aura of yeshiva world to his British-born students, he brought the customs of the Russian-Lithuanian yeshivos with him to Gateshead. He would daven with special yeshivishe niggunim, especially on the yomim noraim when, to the delight of all, he would stand before the amud. In his first years in Gateshead, he and the rosh yeshiva, R' Nachman Dovid Landinski, would strive to create an atmosphere of yeshivishe simcha, especially on Simchas Torah and Purim, when they would dine together and compose grammen-rhymes. Together, they would mount the table and dance, regaling their students.
His rare blend of qualities traits and excellent middos were channeled towards one purpose: Torah and chinuch. Nevertheless, it was asked: What is the secret of R' Eliezer Kahan's success in harbotzas Torah, for fifty years, from Poland to Gateshead? What is the secret of the great impact he had on the thousands of students who so loved him and were so attached to him?
R' Moshe Yemini, zatzal was asked this question. This was his reply:
"Twilight in the Beis Hamussar in Warsaw on a Shabbos in Elul. We had gathered to hear the words of our mentor, R' Avrohom Zalmans, the greatest student of the Alter of Novardok. With penetrating words, he aroused us to repent and take stock of our deeds. It was then that something occurred. That moment was the turning point of R' Eliezer's life. At the end of the lecture, R' Eliezer Dvinsker approached R' Avrohom Zalmans. He was exhilarated and aglow from the discussion which had ended with deep and penetrating words of mussar. With tears in his eyes, R' Eliezer told him that he had decided to submit himself to R' Avrohom Zalman's guidance, and to accept every form of conduct he would dictate.
"At that decisive moment, R' Eliezer reached his full spiritual height. It was if he had been born anew. This moment forged the path which brought him to his present level: that of leader and mechanech to thousands of talmidim. Chazal said: "There is no man who doesn't have his hour," and "there are some who acquire their world in one hour." That moment was the hour of our mentor, the menahel of Gateshead, R' Eliezer Kahan, zt'l. Therein lies the secret of his greatness and the secret of his everlasting deeds, which have remained forever."
The rav, R' Avrohom; the talmid, R' Eliezer. As Eliezer served Avrohom, ""Damesek Eliezer, drawing and watering others from the Torah of his mentor," (Yoma 28.1). Yes, that is the secret: submission and attachment to one's, rav, and mesiras nefesh and dedication to others.