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20 Adar I, 5784 - February 29, 2024 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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From the Heights of Torah Logic: On the One Hundred and Fifth yahrtzeit of the gaon, R' Yitzchok Yaakov Rabinowitz zt'l—R' Itzeleh Ponovezher, who died on the twentieth of Adar, 5679.

By Rabbi Yaakov B. Friedman


For Part II of this series click here.

Part I

That morning, melancholy prevailed in Telz. The main hall of the yeshiva, which had in better days bustled with the verve of Torah, was now enveloped in gloom. R' Leizer, the yeshiva's captain and backbone, paced the room, deep in thought. His arms, which had always instilled the yeshiva with life, were now stretched out, as if seeking to shatter a hidden and refuted point.

This was the most difficult hour of the long-suffering Telz. Its champion and pride, R' Shimon HaKohen Shkop, had recently left in order to preside as Rav of Maltsh, and every brick of the yeshiva's illustrious edifice felt his absence.

An alarmed letter was dispatched from R' Eliezer's room to distant Ponovezh, where R' Itzeleh Rabinowitz, the lion whose very name shook the foundations of the entire Lithuanian Torah world, lived. In that letter, R' Leizer pleaded, in the name of the Torah of his great yeshiva, which was now in distress, to come to Telz and revive its spirits. R' Leizer intended to forego his position as rosh yeshiva, in deference to R' Itzeleh.

R' Itzeleh contemplated the offer — and accepted it.

The Telz Yeshiva

When the news reached Telz, a wave of joy enveloped R' Leizer. His heart raged and burst with longing when he envisioned R' Itzeleh and the sweetness of his shiurim. That entire day, he paced through the aisles of the beis medrash, excitedly and ardently whispering to everyone he encountered:

"Yavneh is being rebuilt! In the days of R' Itzeleh, Yavneh and its sages shall be reinstated and reestablished. Yavneh is being rebuilt!"

The day that Telz later learned that R' Itzeleh had succumbed to the pressure of the parnossim of Ponovezh, who refused to let him leave them, was a bitter one. It was as if the sun had set in midday.

For R' Leizer and his yeshiva, the news of R' Itzeleh's resignation was critical enough to arouse mourning and bereavement. So perturbed was R' Leizer, that he decided to summon the Rav of Ponovezh to a din Torah.

Calling his student, R' Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, to his study, he asked him to represent the yeshiva in the din Torah and to present its claims. Before the hearing, the two attempted to predict the counter claims of the Rav of Ponovezh.

R' Yosef Shlomo said:

"R' Itzeleh will surly claim that a worker can resign even on half a day's notice..."

R' Leizer replied:

"He made a kinyan agav sudar [a binding agreement which is finalized by the handing over of an object] with me, and according to the Ritva, in such cases a worker cannot resign."

R' Yosef Shlomo protested:

"He cannot resign. But he will surely point out that he can send a replacement."

R' Leizer was startled by this final claim, and roared in anguish:

"Has reason eluded you? To send someone else? Another R' Itzeleh? An andere Reb Itzeleh?"

A Shiur From R' Itzeleh

R' Itzeleh of Ponovezh was not a man of words. His speech was laconic and disoriented. His ideas waged a steady battle with the routines of talking. Nevertheless, when he spoke, he captivated the hearts of his listeners and overwhelmed them like a storm.

R' Itzeleh's shiurim were not "heard." They were loved to the point of yearning. This love surges and is reflected in the descriptions of every single one of his students. In Bialystok, in Slobodke, in Grozad and in Ponovezh his students contracted covenants of love with his teachings.

A certain student used the concept "hypnotism" when he described the emotional impact of R' Itzeleh's Torah. A borrowed expression, indeed, but an apt and pointed one.

When one of his students sought to describe the magnitude of R' Itzeleh's writings on Zeraim, he said:

"He has drawn within the fragrance of the Holy Land and its holiness, and has grasped its inner secrets."

R' Itzeleh's shiurim fired the imaginations and sweetened the bitterness of the lives of Lithuania's Jews during the period of the Communist revolution. It is difficult to find fitting words to express so poignant a concept as Torah's sweetness.

When the great Torah sages of those days wished to describe the extent of the sweetness of R' Itzeleh's Torah, they would be sparing with their rhetoric and explain the matter in simple terms with an example:

"Sha'ar Hamelech, Chapter Six, of the Laws of Entering the Beis Hamikdash, asks on the Rambam who says that the past service of a Cohen who was discovered to be a ben gerusha or ben chalutza is kosher...

After citing a brilliant comment of R' Itzeleh on that same topic, his Torah quite naturally became clear.

"See, then, how brightly the sun of his Torah shines, and how sweet is the light to the eyes."

Memories of a Student

When the gaon, R' Tzvi Pesach Frank was still young, he left the Diaspora and ascended to Ir Hakodesh. Upon his arrival, he enrolled in Yeshivas Toras Chaim, which was headed by the gaon R' Yitzchok Winograd.

In the beginning, R' Tzvi Pesach pined for the sweetness of the shiurim of his mentor in Slobodke, R' Itzeleh. Surely, the pains these longings caused him, were among the absorption pangs one suffers in order to acquire Eretz Yisroel.

He described his feelings, during that period, in a letter which he wrote to R' Itzeleh, who had moved from Slobodke to Grozad:

"During my youth,...I did not take the trouble to transcribe his divrei Torah, so that they would benefit me in later days. Thus, only a few gleanings and clusters remain from those remarkable words of which I remember...a bit here, a bit there, but which are more precious to me than gold, and sweeter than honeycomb. May he be praised! Whenever I recall his sage words, I continue to yearn for him and for his teachings."

In reply to this letter, R' Itzeleh sent him a halacha shiur which he had delivered on the law, "Talyuhu vezavin." This shiur was printed in its entirety in the memorial journal, HaTzvi Yisroel, 112.)

At the time of the tragic closure of Yeshivas Volozhin, R' Itzeleh was attaining great spiritual heights in Slobodke. Knowledgeable people claimed that the fact that the giant of Torah was in the Lithuania's central yeshiva at that time, softened the crises. Some also found, after the fact, a positive point in the foreclosure, in that it strengthened the stature of Slobodke and its heads, and spotlighted R' Itzeleh's vast Torah knowledge.

Ponovezh in Lithuania

The Mind and the Heart

The members of his family persistently claim that R' Itzeleh, who was known as the "druftaki deOraisa"—(the personification of intelligence) was "by nature, a deeply feeling person who was filled with ingenuous wonder." These traits were channeled, full force, towards fulfilling the desires of pure and unadulterated reason.

His students composed remarkable definitions when they sought to portray R' Itzeleh's extreme desire for Torah. They describe the periods when he was unable to impart his teachings, saying: " [His Torah] would `wallow' in his mind with no outlet, and he would long to be `redeemed' from his chidushim."

An eyewitness describes R' Itzeleh's first shiur in Slobodke:

"At the first shiur, he captivated the entire yeshiva, and we felt that a flowing spring, which was in the process of gushing over, was standing before us. His remarkable chidushim, which had been imprisoned in his heart for years, were now cascading forth in great currents."

In Slobodke, they related with awe, that the most venerable godol of the era, Maran R' Yitzchok Elchonon of Kovno, graced this shiur with his presence.

It was the spirit of penetrating logic, the life force of Torah's reason and logic, the deep emotions which found expression in every one of R' Itzeleh's sevoros and chidushim, which caused the lion of mussar, the Alter of Slobodke, to invite him, to teach in his yeshiva, despite the fact that R' Itzeleh was one of the chief opponents of the mussar movement and never concealed his views about it.

The reason he left Slobodke (when the famous mussar conflict erupted) constitutes one of the most remarkable chapters in the saga of the Lithuanian Torah world. R' Itzeleh did not leave Slobodke because he opposed its mussar nature, and not because of differences of opinion with its founder, R' Nosson Tzvi...

To Save Mussar

Why did R' Itzeleh leave?

According to historians, R' Itzeleh's Torah captivated the hearts of his students and reigned supreme over their emotions. The heart of Slobodke was given over, without restraint, to his shiurim, a fact which quite naturally decreased the interest of its students in mussar study, which was still not firmly established.

It was a period in which the issue of mussar was at a crossroads, and the charismatic presence of R' Itzeleh and his teachings disturbed the development of the Slobodke mussar approach, which struggled from within for its very existence. R' Itzeleh refused to thwart the Alter's most cherished enterprise, and left the yeshiva after four burgeoning years. The yeshiva was his lifeblood, his marrow, his bone, his heart. Anyone who was familiar with the spiritual trauma which R' Itzeleh experienced after he left Slobodke, realized how much he had sacrificed by parting.

Regarding this remarkable chapter in his life, his biographers say: "After his departure, the Alter sent ten choice students to study with him, and they accompanied him to Grozad. This "gift," the Alter knew, was vital nourishment and life-giving sustenance for a man like R' Itzeleh.

One of the most amazing incidents in the life of R' Itzeleh occurred at the fork between Slobodke and Grozad. When R' Itzeleh left Slobodke, the other Alter, R' Yosef Yozel Horowitz, invited him to serve as Novardok's rav, and as a mentor in its yeshiva. R' Itzeleh, who opposed the mussar approach in general, feared accepting such a post and rejected it.

R' Yozel was familiar with the minds of Lithuanian Jews. He also knew why R' Itzeleh had left Slobodke. In addition, Novardok was a yeshiva which was totally rooted in the basin of mussar activity. Despite all this, R' Yozel, the greatest mussar guide of the generation, found it worthwhile to bind the fate of his yeshiva to the name of R' Itzeleh the misnaged. The invitation was also extended after the great mussar debate had distanced R' Itzeleh from Slobodke.

This fact is one of the most remarkable testimonies to the Novardoker's dedication to truth. R' Yozel probed issues to their core, and discerned the tremendous mussar impact of R' Itzeleh's pure and intense passion for Torah.

Ponovezh in the Early 20th Century

The Power of Pure Torah

R' Itzeleh imparted an aura of unrestricted reason—Torah reason.

Lithuanian Jews relate that one of his finest shiurim was delivered in the Neveizer Kloiz of Kovno. At this shiur, R' Itzeleh presented a hadran which stunned the entire yeshiva world. They said that it represented consummate Torah logic.

Lithuanian Jewry also reserved special definitions and expressions for his chidushim. His chidushim were never merely innovations or elaborations. Each chidush was an earthshaking invention, a brilliant revelation. Each word was a basic rule, and each chidush a penetrating definition. In Lithuania they said that his chidushim were sharp enough to split hairs.

His thoughts were never classified according to their origins. His Torah raged like a thundering waterfall. His great mind did not pause to arrange his words. They said that R' Itzeleh was the greatest mechadesh of latter times. They said, too, that there was not one word of the Torah, or one word in the entire sea of the Talmud and its commentaries, on which he had not formulated a chidush.

Every chidush which escaped his lips was followed by an awaiting gem of thought. His capacity to innovate waged a constant war with his power of speech. This detail, say knowledgeable people, was the only one which distinguished him from his great friend, R' Chaim of Brisk.

Even when he spoke on public issues, his great mind hummed with activity. An eye witness reports:

"He spoke in a conversational manner, without rhetorical devices. As he spoke, brilliant thoughts, which had just that moment blossomed, would clash in his brain, seeking an outlet..."

Early Stages in Learning

When he was still a child, he realized that Torah logic had to be regarded with awe. He would toil arduously to resolve the questions posed by the Tosafos, and refused to consult the Baalei Tosafos for aid. He maintained that Torah study demands maximal exertion of one's reason, one's mind of the logic of the heart.

R' Itzeleh's father, R' Shmuel Dovid, was a successful merchant from Sharshov, who had been blessed with a keen understanding of the inner capacities of his youngest son. He refused to send him away from home, and thus, R' Itzeleh, unlike the other youths of Sharshov, never studied in a yeshiva.

"A yeshiva," his father claimed, "is too institutionalized a framework for the stormy and turbulent mind of my little Itzeleh."

It is difficult to know from where the father drew so original a perception. However, in succeeding years, it proved to have resulted from a prophetic spark, thanks to which Knesses Yisroel merited the gaon of Ponovezh.

Indeed, R' Itzeleh's mind required expanses, and was never satisfied with little (in spiritual realms). He also did not recognize the concept of confinement, where Torah matters were concerned. When faced by iron kushyos, he refused to bind the halacha in question, and would not place it in a limiting framework, but would detach the kushya from its root.

When a sevoro was crystallized in his bais medrash, he would allow no foreign elements to cling to it, but would examine it in an instant, and purge it in his furnace, quickly revealing its delicate flaws.

His rapid pace and the swift flow of his thoughts made it very difficult for his students to grasp many of his ideas. This fact embittered him during many periods of his life.

When he was in Bialystok, the yeshiva's trustees realized that matters could not continue that way, and took urgent measures to change the composition of the student body. The problem was resolved by the establishment of the kibbutz in Ponovezh, which we shall soon describe.

It was very difficult for the average person to dwell in his presence for a long time. "In his company," people would protest, "one can say nothing worthwhile, which has not already been said..."

One who knew him once remarked, "Like most of us, I too did not fully understand his teachings. Each of us merited to taste a few of the crumbs of the exalted table. However, these crumbs, too, were worthy portions..."

His penetrating logic nullified topics which lacked the grandeur of reason.

In his youth, he once fell gravely ill. During that period, his doctors forbade him to pursue in depth studies. As a result, he attempted to read some of the Hebrew literature which was then popular in Russia, but was deeply shocked by their shallowness and frivolity. He was amazed, too, that adults could waste their time reading descriptions written only for rhetoric's sake. He threw those books away, and spent the remainder of his illness studying Russian, which was very important to know then, and reading Russian philosophy works, whose logic he highly esteemed.

His familiarity with Russian was a rarity in rabbinic circles of Lithuania, and caused people to cite the joking remark attributed to R' Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, who had said that he was "less jealous R' Itzeleh's Torah knowledge than of his familiarity with Russian. With R' Itzeleh's Torah, one cannot conduct a conversation with Russian officials, but his knowledge of the Russian language is quite effective to communicate with them..."

One of his close acquaintances would sometimes bring him Russian newspapers which, in the spirit of the times, were very philosophical and replete with allusions. Quickly, he would scan the editorials and the main points of the articles, mumble something about the contradictions they contained, and return to his thoughts.

It is said that he had reservations about mathematics and related subjects because, due to their total dependence on axioms that are only conventional. They may be rigorous, but they lack the full power of free reason.

It was said that one of the geonim of Lithuania once decided to enlighten the world with a magnificent composition on the Talmudic topic of migo, with the possibilities of ne'emanus and koach hata'ana. He secluded himself and worked for two years, probed Torah's depths, purged his soul with "scalding waters," to plumb the depths of the topic.

After the years of toil, during which he thoroughly clarified the issue, he set a date and invited all of his friends to view his new work. When the long anticipated moment arrived, he recalled, to his dismay, that due to his tremendous mental exertion, he had forgotten to record his conclusions in writing.

One cannot know whether this event actually happened. However, it aptly represents the Lithuanian rational approach to "minor" technical matters such as writing and printing.

Machon Yerushalaim, which has compiled many of the writings of the gaon, R ' Zalman Sender of Kriniki, possesses many of his manuscripts in which this strange phenomenon is apparent. In a number of them, the end of each line bears no relation to the ensuing one. In each line, there are words or a number of letters missing. When this phenomenon repeated itself in many of R' Sender's manuscripts, the matter was investigated and clarified.

When R' Zalman Sender wrote, his entire heart and mind were so wrapped up in his penetrating thoughts, that he would not notice that his pen had overstepped the bounds of the paper. As a result, he would continue writing on the table, not realizing that it was gradually being covered with chidushei Torah.

This fact surely explains why R' Itzeleh of Ponovezh, the greatest mechadesh of his time, and one of the greatest meshivim of the entire period, left behind very few transcripts from his magnificent legacy of Torah thought. Unlike other great meshivim, R' Itzeleh did not take the trouble to preserve copies of his responsa for posterity.

This, though, causes tremendous difficulties for anyone searching for his teshuvos. In order to locate them, one must approach the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those to whom they were sent.

We possess written testimony concerning his attitude towards his writings from someone who entered R' Itzeleh's home and found "a notebook which was lying in the corner of the room... which contained remarkable chidushim on Yerushalmi, Zeraim..."

Another reason why he did not write much, stems from the lack of coordination between his mind and his other organs. His mind buzzed with endless amounts of ideas, and it was very difficult for him to limit himself to writing which is, by nature, a restricting activity. Even when he wrote, waves of comments, refutations and new thoughts would engulf him, and the version which emerged would lack the natural organization of the written word.

This situation gave rise to a bewildering phenomenon. The very fact that R' Itzeleh's teaching flowed like a perpetual spring was what doomed his endless production to future oblivion.

After his death, one notebook, containing chidushim on Yerushalmi, Zeraim, as well as fifty-four chidushim on the topic, "petzua daka, was found. These, too, became lost over the years.

End of Part I


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