Memories of One of His First Students
Translated by Dr. Ida Selavan
Edited by Rabbi Shalom Bronstein
Among the many great scholars produced by Panevezys, there was a unique personality. I am referring to Rabbi Herzl Kretchmer, author of the book, Noam Hamitzvot , published in five parts, and both the direct and the indirect teacher of hundreds of students who are now spread all over the Diaspora. Reb Herzl was not born in Panevezys, but in Bialystok. He married a native of Panevezys and subsequently settled there.
After succeeding in commerce, he became a ritual slaughterer of fowl, which was then his source of income for the rest of his life. But this was really only a side occupation. His main work was Torah, piety and spreading Yiddishkeit. Reb Herzl was my teacher, and he left his impression on my whole life.
His career as a dispenser of Torah was begun almost by accident and on a small scale. He started with one student. In the courtyard of his house was a neighbor, Tsemah David, the baker, whose son, Nahum Barukh, was a fine boy, a good student. He was later renowned as Rabbi Nahum Barukh Ginzberg, one of the greatest rabbis of his generation in Lithuania. Later he was to serve as rabbi of Upyna, Varzhan [Veivirzenai], and afterwards, of Janova, where he succeeded Rabbi Hayim Ratsker, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Slobodke. Rabbi Nahum Barukh Ginzberg was also famous as the author of the rabbinic treatise Torat Hakedoshim and his name is often found in the Responsa literature of the younger rabbis [he means rabbis of the early part of the 20th century -- his contemporaries]. I corresponded with my first classmate for many years. Unfortunately, his end was the same as that of all the Lithuanian Jews.
Reb Herzl became interested in this baker's son and started teaching him privately. In a few days they discovered that it would be better if he had a suitable classmate. Reb Herzl let this be known in the Talmud class of the Talmud Torah, and the privilege fell on me, the son of Itsche the carpenter. Reb Herzl did not remain long with only two pupils. Before the year was up, he began to teach Torah on a large scale in Panevezys. A Yeshiva student under his supervision taught his first pupils. He also assigned us pupils to teach others what we had already learned. Reb Herzl began to study Torah with the masses. He organized groups to study Haye Adam, Shulhan Arukh, and other religious texts. Some individuals from these groups were eventually able to teach others, and thus, the net of Torah study, created by Reb Herzl, spread all over Panevezys.
Reb Herzl did not forget the boys who studied with the teachers under his supervision. Every afternoon, as soon as he finished his work at the slaughterhouse, he would motivate us to study with greater dedication. Quite often he would listen to us review our studies or he would have another of the town's scholars test us.
Not only was Reb Herzl concerned with his students' spiritual welfare; he also occupied himself with their material needs. Every Friday afternoon he would send his working students around town with sheets and tablecloths to collect bread and hallah for the poor boys under his supervision. In later years, he would send out boys with pushkes to gather contributions for the needy students.
Thus Reb Herzl became the central figure of Torah and piety in town for a score of years, until his premature death in 1913. He was the Jewish conscience of the town. When he would go out to the market on Friday afternoon and remind the storekeepers that it was time to close shop and take down the stands, they would immediately obey him. When he would walk by the homes of the poor in the Slobodke neighborhood and remind people that it was candlelighting time, lights would shine from the houses right away.
A rumor once reached Reb Herzl that in a house in one of the newer neighborhoods; boys and girls would come together on the Sabbath to dance. [He resolved to check it out] and before he reached the place, his approach became known to those already assembled there, and they all left in haste.
Reb Herzl was mainly concerned with good deeds and piety. The whole point of Torah study was to serve God. The more one studied Torah, he said, the fewer opportunities there were for one to sin. Thus, the neglect of Torah study was, in his eyes, the greatest offense. It was told that when he lay ill and some students came to visit him, he reprimanded them for neglecting their study of Torah.
His method of studying Talmud was an outgrowth of this belief. Since the main goal of study was to suppress the evil inclination, acuteness was not as important as expertise. As long as one studied and reviewed the Talmud, one was also serving God, whether one explored the depths of the topic or not. Therefore, he did not spend as much time with the study of the Tosafot or the Marhasha as did the other Talmud teachers of the are. He did not dwell much upon the topics, as long as we understood what the subject matter was.
He derived great pleasure from seeing us, his first students; find references in the Gemara (Talmud) [to a certain subject], which Rabbi Isaiah Pik's Mareh Mekomot had overlooked. It was proper for us to review the Talmudic treatise Kedushin , for example, in one day. Naturally, a 'working day' [of study] was not seven hours, but fourteen hours or more, with an additional whole night of study in addition.
The last time I saw Reb Herzl was in Panevezys in 1905 when I left Lithuania. New times had come to Russian-Lithuanian Jewry. The atmosphere in Panevezys had also changed in many ways, but Reb Herzl persisted in his task of spreading Torah until the last day of his life.
Reb Herzl was not fortunate in his personal life. He was not in good health. His wife Shosha [Sarah] was also sickly. His only child, Alter, died before his Bar Mitzvah. Reb Herzl was only in his fifties when he, too, died. His death is connected to an important event in Jewish life. On the day of his funeral, while Rabbi Itchele [Rabbi Isaac Jacob Rabinowitz], was eulogizing him, word came that Mendel Beiliss had been freed from the blood libel trial in Kiev. Those present saw in this the finger of God: "by virtue of the righteous man who had just died, the honor of the Jewish people had been vindicated."