“In Whispers, He Spread Torah”
By Heidi M. Szpek, Ph.D.
On arriving in Bialystok in 1880, the young A.S. Herszberg – soon to become the prominent historian, writer and educator in this city, encountered “a predominately Jewish city” where “the pacesetter of the intelligentsia was the Talmudic scholar, who possessed vast halakhic erudition and set a high moral example. The scholar spent his free time studying the Torah, distancing himself as much as possible from the alien technical culture of Western Europe … The scholar, therefore, not the rich man, enjoyed the greatest prestige within the Jewish community. Material possessions and economic power did not confer nobility; knowledge did, coupled with clean living based on Torah principles.” Less than 30 years later, Herszberg would write: “Jews did not seem to be interested in studying the Torah any longer. Religiosity among the laity was more external than real. Despite the rise of new Jewish educational institutions, the trend away from religion increased.”1 (Fig. 2)
Fig. 2 A.S. Herszberg (left) in Bialystok, 1939
The Jewish epitaphs still extant in Bialystok, Poland’s Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery, a cemetery that was used during Herszberg’s lifetime, pose query as to whether their words are a “more external than real” reflection of the religiosity of the deceased and the Bialystok Jewish community in general2. The language of these Jewish epitaphs proffers words that extol the Torah scholar and Torah consciousness in general. Frequently, we encounter such phrases as “the prominent scholar who engaged in Torah”, “one prominent in Torah”, “one who set aside time for Torah”, “in Torah he engaged and also in understanding”, and “one who studies Torah nights and days.” Among the epitaphs of the laity are also recorded such worthy character traits that derive from the biblical texts as “perfect and upright”- like the biblical Job, “a woman of valor” – like Proverb’s Eshet Hayil, and a fine repertoire of terms that embody the spirit of Torah: “worthy”, “honorable”, “kindhearted”, “charitable”, “faithful”, “trustworthy”, “compassionate”, and the most prolific “God-fearing”, i.e. reverent. Moreover, it is not uncommon to find a conflation of these qualities attributed to one individual.
The conflation of such epithets and their frequency of use led early Polish Jewish historians to describe Jewish tombstone epitaphs as “exaggerated clichés that have nothing to do with the dead person”, “a Baroque ornament composed from a wreath of words and phrases”, “pompous”, and “overloaded thus hard to understand.” Thus, such conflation and repetition may support Herszberg’s observation of the decline of the centrality of the Talmudic scholar and Torah consciousness. More recently, in defense of the sincerity of these attributes, Monika Krajewska commented that these words offered “the system of values accepted by the Jewish community” – values that would include the centrality of Torah to Jewish life3. The repetition of such phrases can indeed lull those who engage Jewish epitaphs – be they later ancestors of the deceased, the traveler who chances upon these Jewish epitaphs, or a translator such as myself, into not pausing to contemplate the sincerity and value of these words. As a translator of Jewish epitaphs, I am at times guilty of bypassing contemplation, assuming that the next inscription will offer yet another example of these stock phrases. Yet amidst this lull of expected repetition, unexpected phrases surreptitiously burst my complacency, offering words so precious and tender in tone to awaken in me a sense of the immense love of Torah that prevailed within the Jewish community of Bialystok, despite the changing winds of time that Herszberg recognized.
Two such epigraphs recently burst my complacency. The first inscription is that of R. Aaron Lewin who passed away in 1936: "Here lies a man dedicated in charitable deeds, compassionate and engaged in Torah of God, prominent in Fear [of God] and wisdom, intelligent regarding truthful words and [one] who spread Torah with whispers all his days amidst the need, R. Aaron son of R. Meir Lewin. He died in a good name 11 Kislev 5697 [25 November 1936]. May his soul be bound in the bond of everlasting life." (Fig. 3)
Fig. 3 Tombstone of R. Aaron Lewin
R. Aaron’s attributes of charitable, compassionate, scholarliness and reverence are repeated in inscriptions of other men still extant in the Bagnowka Beth-Olam in Bialystok, Poland. But that R. Aaron “spread Torah with whispers” is unparalleled. Such words give me cause to pause and contemplate: What does it mean “to spread Torah with whispers”? Did R. Aaron literally whisper words of Torah into the ears of his students, fellow scholars or family? Was the ‘need’ (ha-dahaq) which compelled him to spread Torah in whispers due to religious laxity or personal proclivities?4 Or was R. Aaron simply soft-spoken? Moreover, do such poetic words support Herszberg’s declaration? After all, until his death, R. Aaron’s lifetime spanned that of Herszberg’s observations. Another inscription that also burst my complacency may offer a hint to the potential meaning of this phrase – “to spread the Torah in whispers”, the inscription of the young scholar, Abraham Pinhas son of Shalom Liker Segel, a student of the yeshiva of Slobodka, who was “plucked up in the violence of his days”, in November of 1933. (Figure 4)
Fig. 4 Tombstone of Abraham Pinhas
The Yeshiva of Slobodka, where Abraham Pinhas studied, was located in what is now present day Kovno, Lithuania. In the yeshivot of Slobodka the Musar movement began in the mid-19th century, attributed to Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter.5 On moving to Bialystok, Abraham Pinhas may have continued his study at the Musar yeshivah of Beit Yosef which embraced an even more rigorous program than that originally advocated by Rabbi Lipkin6. The Musar movement arose from traditional circles (mithnagdim) in response to the social changes of the Haskalah (Enlightenment). With its emphasis on ethics, the Musar movement embraced a philosophy that sought to gently return the Jew to an ethical life centered on living quietly in accordance with the teachings of Torah, a life that seemed to be almost imperceptibly disappearing as the bustle of new social engagements and commitments overwhelmed their daily life. The Musar movement was especially directed at guiding young people such as Abraham Pinhas. As its founder R. Lipkin wrote in his first letter to the Vilna community in 1849:
"The busy man does evil wherever he turns. His business doing badly, his mind and strength become confounded and subject to the fetters of care and confusion. Therefore appoint a time on the Holy Sabbath to gather together at a fixed hour... the notables of the city, whom many will follow, for the study of morals. Speak quietly and deliberately without joking or irony, estimate the good traits of man and his faults, how he should be castigated to turn away from the latter and strengthen the former. Do not decide matters at a single glance; divide the good work among you-not taking up much time, not putting on too heavy a burden. Little by little, much will be gathered ... In the quiet of reflection, in reasonable deliberation, each will strengthen his fellow and cure the foolishness of his heart and eliminate his lazy habits."
I emphasize with italics those words which characterize the tone of the Musar movement – at least according to its founder R. Lipkin: “speak quietly and deliberately”, “in the quiet of reflection”, phrases that one envisions as the antithesis of the pilpul dialectic of a traditional yeshivah (Fig. 1). Perhaps the “quietness” as well as the philosophy of the Musar movement is what brought initial opposition from the Ashkenazic traditionalists (mithnagdim), the intellectuals (maskilim) and the bustling activism of Zionists, socialists and industrialists that marked the early 20th century in Bialystok. However, by the time of the passing of Abraham Pinhas, the young scholar of Slobodka (1933), and the passing of the mature scholar R. Aaron Lewin “who spread Torah with whispers” (1936), opposition to the Musar movement was less intense in the cosmopolitan Bialystok and co-existed with its initial opponents.
Both R. Aaron’s and Abraham Pinhas’ epitaphs along with more than half of the extant 2100 inscriptions suggest that contrary to Herszberg’s observations interest in Torah study and a life lived in accordance with its principles still prevailed. Herszberg’s words, however, do prompt intense reflection on the changing times within Bialystok and the value of Jewish epitaphs in respect to these times. Were such words as Torah “whispering” in R. Aaron’s epitaph just nostalgic words in remembrance of a lone, quiet voice in the wilderness of cosmopolitan Bialystok? Did the young scholar from Slobodka, imbued with Musar philosophy, become disillusioned once living among the bustle of urban Bialystok? Are the designations “the prominent scholar” or “one who engaged in Torah” merely laudatory clichés? In response to such questions it is imperative to acknowledge that these epithets and phrases need not have been composed. Other words of remembrance could have been engraved upon the tombstones. Indeed, Bagnowka Beth-Olam still preserves hundreds of inscriptions that offer admirable character traits such as “important”, “modest”, and “pleasant” without association to Torah or Talmud study, as well as hundreds of inscriptions that mention just a name, paternal line and date of death. Yet the language of Torah study and of Torah consciousness was intentionally chosen for more than half of the 2100 remaining epitaphs, whose dates span the years in which this cemetery was in use (1892-c.1950). This variety in epitaph content offers epigraphic evidence for the co-existence of diverse religious, philosophical, intellectual and social movements that would come to characterize Jewish Bialystok from the early 20th century until its annihilation under the Nazi Regime. Herszberg saw a cost in the growing diversity of Jewish Bialystok – the visible decline of the Talmudic scholar and religiosity in general. The Jewish epigraphs of Bialystok’s Bagnowka Beth-Olam recognize this diversity. The Talmud scholar may no longer be the sole “pacesetter” of Bialystok, but accord for Torah and the Talmudic scholar was not extinguished. The Talmud scholar and Torah consciousness still prevailed, whether in the brief epithets that too easily we disregard as cliché or those unexpected poetic bursts of love for Torah “where Torah is spread with whispers” and inspiring to the young scholar from the Slobodka yeshivah.
Heidi M. Szpek, Ph.D. is a Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Central Washington University (Ellensburg, Washington), currently writing a book on the Jewish epitaphs from Bialystok, Poland. Her most recent journal articles on Jewish epitaphs include: “Esther of Bialystok” in The Jewish Magazine (February 2010); “In the Bloodshed of Their Days” in The Jewish Magazine (January 2010); “Wooden Matzevoth” (with Tomasz Wisniewski) in The Jewish Magazine (October 2008); “He Walked Upon a Wooden Leg: Epitaphs and Acrostic Poems on Jewish Tombstones” Legacy of the Holocaust Conference 2007 Conference Proceedings. Jagiellionian University Press. Krakow, Poland (May 24-26, 2007), 2008; “‘And in Their Death They Were Not Separated’: Aesthetics of Jewish Tombstones.” The International Journal of the Humanities. Vol. 5 (2007): 165-178; and “Oh Earth, Do Not Cover My Blood!”: Eastern European Jewish Identity and the Material Culture.” The International Journal of the Humanities. Volume 4.4 (2006): 7-18.
David Sohn, editor, Bialystok Photo Album (New York, 1951): 80, 121 (Figures 1, 2); Heidi M. Szpek (Figures 3, 4 photographed by Tomasz Wisniewski).
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1 A.S. Herszberg, “Review and Overview” in Pinkas Bialystok. Vol. 2. (New York, 1950): 349-352, and “One Hundred Years Ago” in The Bialystok Memorial Book (New York: Bialystok Center, 1982): 6-9. Available online at http://www.zchor.org/bialystok/yizkor2.htm#hundred
2 This cemetery, called Bagnowka Jewish cemetery after the district of Bialystok in which it is located, was established in 1892. It lies adjacent to a Catholic cemetery which in turns rests beside an Orthodox cemetery. Bagnowka Jewish cemetery once covered nearly 45 acres and was divided into 100 sections, which cradled the remains of nearly 45,000 Jews from Bialystok and surrounding smaller towns. Today, due to the ravages of Jewish material culture during the Holocaust and further devastation under Communism, the cemetery has been reduced to about 30 acres. Approximately 2100 matzevoth (tombstones) remain, in various states of disarray. The tombstones were photographed by Polish historian and journalist Tomasz Wisniewski beginning in 2006 until just recently and translated by Heidi M. Szpek. Wisniewski’s study of this Jewish cemetery in Bialystok began in the late 1980s, documented in journal and magazine articles, a site survey, a book Jewish Bialystok and Surroundings in Eastern Poland and an extensive photographic record. Today, all images and translations of Bialystok-Bagnowka Jewish cemetery can be found at www.bagnowka.com, along with thousands of images and translations from other Jewish cemeteries, predominately in present day Poland. In addition, www.bagnowka.com contains thousands of old images, postcards, maps and documents related to the now lost world of Eastern European Jewry, especially in northeastern Poland.
3 Monika Krajewska’s Tribe of Stones: Jewish Cemeteries in Poland. (Warsaw: Polish Scientific Publishers Ltd., 1993): 38, where she reviews the thoughts of early Polish historians. See also: M. Balaban, Dzielnica Sydowska. Jei dzieje i zabytki (Lvov, 1909), and Przewodnik po Sydowskich zabytkach Krakowa (Cracow, 1935); C. Dawidson, “Epitafia.” In Stary cmentarz Sydowski w Lodzi. Dzieje i zabytki. (Lodzi, 1938); and I. Schiper, Cementarze Sydowskie w Warszawie. (Warsaw, 1938).
4 The term ‘ha-dahaq’ “the need” could also be translated “the emergency” or “the oppression”, a reference to the anti-Semitic actions that marked many a year of R. Aaron’s life, such as the 1905-1906 pogroms under the Tsarist regime, the August 1920 pogrom under Independent Poland, and ongoing actions prior to World War II and his death in 1936.
5 “Musarniks.” Jewish Encyclopedia Online. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1018&letter=M&search=Musar
6 Sara Bender, The Jews of Bialystok During World War II and the Holocaust (Brandeis University Press, 2008): 37.