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7 Av, 5782 - August 4, 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 I

This series of recollections of HaRav Arye 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 II of this series click here.

HaRav Arye Leib Baron (shlita,) was born in Horodok, which is near Volozhin. In his youth, he learned in the yeshivos of Baranovitch and Mir. Today he is 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 the following 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.


Rabbonim Like Malochim

I stayed in Baranovitch for five years, from when I was thirteen until I was eighteen. There I was close to the rosh yeshiva the gaon HaRav Elchonon Wassermann Hy'd, and the mashgiach, the gaon and tzaddik HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky Hy'd.

HaRav Elchonon Wassermann

Reb Elchonon would deliver two daily shiurim, to the yeshiva's fifth and the sixth levels. One shiur lasted from nine o'clock until eleven in the morning and the second shiur followed from eleven until one — together, the two shiurim lasted for four hours. Although they were on the same maseches, they differed in their standard and in the level of learning for which they were adjusted. The `kibbutz' (the highest level in the yeshiva) heard a weekly shiur.

In Baranovitch, a maseches would be learned in its entirety. Two zemanim were devoted to each maseches, one half of which was covered in the course of each zman.

Reb Elchonon used to explain the pshat, the straightforward meaning of the gemora. His elucidations were offered in the course of learning through the daf currently being studied in the yeshiva.

The mashgiach, at whose table I was a guest for many months, told me once that Reb Elchonon had been known in his youth as a sharp witted and sophisticated genius, and was known as the Boisker Iluy. He once met one of the gedolei hador and had repeated some of his own intricate, novel interpretations to him. That godol had reprimanded him and told him, "This is not the way. Learn the pshat!" From then on, Reb Elchonon changed course and began to devote himself to clarifying the depth of the straightforward meaning of the gemora.

Reb Elchonon's shiurim were famous throughout the yeshiva world. In our yeshiva, a commotion would ensue at the end of every shiur. The bochurim would form groups and argue enthusiastically, while the sound of Torah which they generated could be heard far away. I was one of the two who would officially review Reb Elchonon's shiurim.

The Rosh Yeshiva did not have a personal relationship with the bochurim, however the mashgiach did. It was a sign of great honor for a bochur if Reb Elchonon knew his name.

I remember that once, after the shiur, when we had been learning in Bava Metzia that Rabbah had asked Eliyahu Hanovi a certain question, I went over to Reb Elchonon and asked him, "We find many times in Shas that questions are left unresolved until Eliyahu comes. Why didn't Rabbah ask Eliyahu Hanovi all those questions?"

Reb Elchonon smiled and asked what my name was. That question of his was proof that he liked my question. "I'll look into it," he said to me.

He called me the next evening after ma'ariv and answered me, bringing proofs to show that Eliyahu only had permission to answer in special cases.

I took great care to record all of Reb Elchonon's shiurim regularly. When he decided to publish his Koveitz He'oros, his son Rav Naftali Hy'd — with whom I learned in Mir — came over to me and asked for my notes, as his father wished to prepare those shiurim for publication. My notebooks were in Reb Elchonon's house for around half a year, until the sefer was ready for printing.

Baranovitch was full of opportunities to learn the meaning of the love of pure, unadulterated truth. The gaon HaRav Dovid Rappaport zt'l, also used to deliver a shiur klali in the yeshiva.

Once, as we bochurim were going over a shiur of his on the topic of `One Beis Din Cannot Annul the Enactments of a Fellow Beis Din,' a certain difficulty arose with a Tosafos in Yevomos which was in apparent contradiction to the point that had been made in the shiur. We decided to go to HaRav Rappaport's room and ask him. I remember it as though it was yesterday. He studied the Tosafos for a few moments and said, "You are right. What I said was wrong!"

I needn't add that the author of Tzemach Dovid lost none of his stature in our eyes as a result of this admission. On the contrary, we learned yet another lesson from him — on admitting the truth — from the fact that he didn't even try to force an answer.

A Disciplined Army!

The running of the yeshiva was disciplined and strictly ordered. This went for the learning and the tefilloh, as well as the mealtimes.

For example, Reb Elchonon did not agree to the haphazard choice of a shliach tsibur for the tefillos. In a yeshiva where hundreds of bochurim prayed, the tefillos had to be led by someone who knew the proper pronunciation and would say them fittingly and perfectly. Fixed chazonim were therefore appointed, who would lead the prayers three times a day, on both Shabbos and weekdays, for many months at a time (with the exception of the Yomim Tovim, when the roshei yeshiva would lead the tefillos.)

One year, this was my job. There was remuneration for the work — the chazan received a salary of ten zlotys.

The gaon HaRav Meir Shapira of Lublin zt'l, conducted a tour of several yeshivos before opening his own yeshiva, in order to see the kind of life that went on within them and the way they were organized.

HaRav Meir Shapira

I remember the day he arrived [in our yeshiva]. The yeshiva was in the middle of mincha. HaRav Shapira came to the entrance to the beis hamedrash and stood transfixed at the sight of three hundred bochurim standing there saying `boruch Hu uvoruch Shemo; omein,' in unison. A yeshiva of this type, with hundreds of bochurim learning in one beis hamedrash, was not familiar to him from his native land. He stood in the doorway and said with admiration, "This is a really disciplined army!"

By the way, the roshei hayeshiva took the opportunity to ask HaRav Shapira to take part in a meeting that was to be held in the town, to raise funds for our yeshiva. Reb Meir was famous as a gifted speaker. The mere mention of his name on a notice was enough to draw crowds. That meeting was also attended by the author of Afikei Yom, who was a Baranovitch townsman and HaRav Avrohom Kalmanovitch zt'l, one of the roshei yeshiva of Mir, who was then the rav and rosh yeshiva in Barakov, where he had founded a yeshiva, among whose first twenty pupils I had been, when I was younger.

Order and discipline prevailed in the dining room as well. For a time, I was the yeshiva `waiter,' [whose job it was to serve the meals]. During that period, it was considered a great privilege to receive this job. Bochurim would pay for the privilege.

The mashgiach, Reb Yisroel Yaakov, would come into the dining room to make sure that there was no idle gossip and that the meal was being finished quickly with no time wasted. There was no need for him to utter a word — his mere presence was more effective than anything else. He would come in and pace up and down. Absolute silence would immediately descend, except for the clatter of cutlery on plates. To see hundreds of young bochurim sitting and eating so quietly was an amazing sight.

As I was the waiter, I would eat before all the other bochurim, in the home of Reb Chaikel Hy'd, who was known as Reb Chaikel Sofer. He was a distinguished man, one of the founders of the Baranovitch yeshiva, to which he was completely devoted. His righteous wife, Basha, was a sort of house mother cum cook, who helped her husband in the yeshiva's maintenance. While in her home, I would hear stories about gedolei Yisroel.

I remember that she once told me that she had just left the home of Rebbetzin Michle, Reb Elchonon's wife, who had related to her how her own father, the gaon HaRav Meir Atlas zt'l, had chosen Reb Elchonon as his son-in-law. It had been when Reb Elchonon paid his very first visit to HaRav Atlas' home and they had discussed divrei Torah. Rebbetzin Michle related that her father had been unable to contain his excitement. He went out to his daughter, who was standing behind the door and cried, "S'iz mamesh Rabbi Akiva Eiger'dik! (This is exactly the style of Rabbi Akiva Eiger!)"

Great Poverty

Great poverty was the rule among the bochurim. The hanholo took care of food only, while the bochurim had to bear the expenses of life's remaining necessities such as lodgings, clothing and so on. Some bochurim came from poor homes and they didn't have a penny to spare. All our appeals to the hanholo to take steps to collect money, were rejected. A letter was even written to Reb Chaim Ozer, informing him that the yeshiva was in dire straits.

Things grew worse — bochurim went without everything. Then matters came to a head. We decided to take action and close down the yeshiva! We presented the hanholo with an ultimatum: the bochurim would leave the beis hamedrash and go to learn in other batei medrash throughout the town until the situation improved.

We began the `strike.' First thing Sunday morning we were told that the mashgiach wished to speak to us. A delegation was chosen: Reb Avrohom Beret, Reb Moshe Galbert and myself. We went to Reb Yisroel Yaakov, who was taking the whole thing very seriously, as was evident from his expression.

"I know of a yeshiva where a strike was held and afterwards, the bochurim responsible were dogged by misfortune," he said.

When I heard this I began to cry. I was afraid of incurring his displeasure. Throughout my life I was always careful to avoid being scalded by the wrath of the two [outstanding] tzadikim of the generation to whom I merited being close: Reb Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky, the mashgiach of Baranovitch and Reb Yechezkel Levenstein, the mashgiach of Mir. I can only say that I had an awareness [of the severity] of the matter and accordingly, I was careful to afford them the proper respect. Others, who were unconcerned, suffered badly.

In brief then, I began to cry and to pour out my woes. Within ten minutes, the situation had been resolved. The bochurim ended the strike while the hanholo took certain steps to afford them some relief. From that day on, slips of paper were distributed to the bochurim. Some received vouchers for eight zlotys' worth of purchases, others, for nine zlotys' worth. The yeshiva's menahel, Rav Hirsch Gutman, signed the slips. The bochurim made their purchases on credit and the yeshiva redeemed the vouchers from the storekeepers.

HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky

Reb Yisroel Yaakov Lubchansky, Hy'd

I was very close to the mashgiach, Reb Yisroel Yaakov. I ate my meals with him for a long time. In my opinion, he was one of the greatest tzadikim in the world, one of the thirty-six [hidden tzadikim in whose merit the world is supported]. He was very humble and throughout his life, he attempted to conceal his greatness.

One Thursday night, in the middle of the night, one of the bochurim who was spending the entire night learning, went out into the yard of the beis hamedrash. In the yard was a latrine which was used by all the bnei hayeshiva. The bochur saw a figure bending over the hole, cleaning. From the back, it looked like Reb Yisroel Yaakov. The bochur couldn't believe his eyes. He stepped over to the other side and saw that it was indeed the mashgiach who was doing the job himself. When the mashgiach saw the bochur, he tried to hide himself but to no avail.

Fearing that the story would get abroad in the yeshiva and create a sensation, he called the bochur over and made him solemnly promise not to tell a soul of what he had seen as long as he, the mashgiach, lived. The story only became known after the mashgiach had passed away.

Throughout the town, the mashgiach was known as a wondrous tzaddik. During the time I served as waiter, I once went out of the dining room for a short rest and was witness to a strange sight. An old woman, one of the ordinary townspeople, was blocking the path of the mashgiach, who had just left the dining room after his regular visit. The woman, who was holding a fifty dollar bill, said that she had come receive a blessing that would annul a bad dream that she had dreamt. The mashgiach tried to avoid her, saying, "What do you want from me?" but it was no use. She stood in the doorway, her hands blocking his way and said, "If you don't give me a blessing, you're not leaving."

Reb Yisroel Yaakov smiled and said, "All your bad dreams should be null."

The delighted woman gave him the bill and went. The mashgiach turned after her and called, "It's for the yeshiva! It's for the yeshiva!"

The old woman quickly replied, "No, it's for you, tzaddik!"

But Reb Yisroel Yaakov was firm, "Not for me, for the yeshiva..."

When the gaon HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l, celebrated the dedication of the Kletsk yeshiva, all the gedolei Torah in the area gathered there. Reb Elchonon and Reb Yisroel Yaakov were dancing in the inner circle. Suddenly, Reb Yisroel Yaakov lay down and started rolling on the floor by the feet of the rabbonim!

One of them turned to Rav Fein from Slonim and asked him, "Is he crazy?" to which the Slonimer Rav replied, "You don't know him. He's one of the cleverest of all men but he's a tremendous tzaddik at the same time. He wants to fulfill the plain meaning of Chazal's injunction to, `Roll in the dust of the feet,' of the dancing talmidei chachomim." Such was his reverence for Chazal and for talmidei chachomim!

Reb Yisroel Yaakov was also known as a wonderful speaker. He once attended a meeting where his address was preceded by those of several other rabbonim, who were not as gifted speakers as he was. When the chairman announced that Reb Yisroel Yaakov was about to speak, an audible sigh of relief was heard from the audience, "Aha! Now we'll hear something!" But on that very evening, his speech was not arranged properly and the audience was disappointed. As I sat there, I heard someone whispering to his friend, "He isn't himself. Reb Yisroel Yaakov is deliberately spoiling his drosho, presenting it confusedly and unattractively so as not to put the others to shame."

End of Part I


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