Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein
by D. Sofer
This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. ...Rav
Moshe Mordechai Epstein was born in 5626/1866 to Rav Tzvi Chaim
Epstein, an outstanding talmid
chacham who served as rav of the small
Lithuanian town of Bakst. His mother, Beila Chana, was the
granddaughter of Rav Chaim of Bakst. In his youth, Rav Moshe Mordechai
studied in Volozhin, where he became known as the illui of Bakst. He
was so diligent that by time he turned 15, he was well versed in half
of Shas. His genius is evident in his remarkable sefer "Levush
In 5649/1889, he married Chaya Menucha Frank, the daughter of the
philanthropist Rav Shraga Feivel Frank of Kovno. Rav Shraga Feivel's
love of Torah was so intense that he had once turned down an offer to
manage a thriving business because of it.
"If I become too wealthy, my daughters might not marry talmidei
chachamim," he remarked at the time. His hopes for his daughters'
future did, indeed, materialize. All of his sons-in- law were
outstanding talmidei chachamim: Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Boruch
Yehoshua Horowitz, Rav Sheftel Kramer and, of course, Rav Moshe
In 5654/1894 Rav Moshe Mordechai and his brother-in-law Rav Isser
Zalman Meltzer became maggidei shiur in the famed Slabodka Yeshiva.
1897, Rav Moshe Mordechai became the rosh yeshiva, while Rav Isser
Zalman left to lead another one of the yeshivos Rav Nosson Tzvi
Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, had founded.
The Alter had founded the Slabodka Yeshiva in 5644/1884 largely to
counter the threat posed by the Haskala and Lithuanian Jewry's
flourishing socialist movements. It eventually produced talmidim who
shaped the future of Torah learning on three continents: Europe, Eretz
Yisroel and the United States. They included such luminaries as Rav
Aharon Kotler, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, and Rav
Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman.
From the start of his leadership,
however, Rav Moshe Mordechai had to
contend with a major dispute.At that point, a large controversy had
erupted over the issue of mussar study. Fifteen years before the
Slabodka Yeshiva was founded, a group of talmidei chachamim had begun
attacking the intensive study of mussar that was fast becoming the
norm in Litvish yeshivos. They contended that mussar study was a waste
of time because they believed that the spiritual elevation it brought
about could be achieved solely through the study of Talmud. "Why
time away from the true ameila shel Torah?" they argued.
This opposition to the mussar movement had spread all over Lithuania
and eventually engulfed the Slabodka Yeshiva as well. In Slabodka the
mussar opponents were not only opposed to its study but also want to
go so far as to oust the Alter from the yeshiva's administration. But
Rav Moshe Mordechai remained a staunch supporter both of Rav Nosson
Tzvi's mussar approach and of his leadership, and he worked tirelessly
to maintain the status quo. His efforts, however, failed, and the
yeshiva split in two. Three hundred students who opposed the study of
mussar remained in the yeshiva's main building, while the Alter, Rav
Moshe Mordechai and 60 other students moved to a new yeshiva, which
was named Knesses Yisroel.
At first, Knesses Yisroel suffered serious financial difficulties
because its opponents persuaded Slabodka's main supporter, a Mr.
Lachman, to withhold his support from the Alter's new yeshiva.
Nevertheless, Knesses Yisroel soon recovered and just two years later
it boasted 300 students. Realizing his error, Mr. Lachman resumed his
support of the Alter's yeshiva.
Rav Moshe Mordechai never gave up in his attempts to make peace
between the two sides, and eventually the yeshiva managed to reunite.
Soon afterward Rav Moshe Mordechai was appointed rav of Slabodka as
well. When he was offered the prestigious post of rav of Kovno
sometime later, he refused to abandon the yeshiva.
Likewise, when the huge Bialystock kehilla made Rav Moshe Mordechai
similar offer, promising him a seven-room home as part of the deal,
turned it down as well. "I prefer living in a makom Torah to living
comfort," he declared.AS ROSH YESHIVARav Moshe Mordechai's humility
was legendary. Although the Alter had
invested him with total authority over the yeshiva, he would
invariably consult Rav Nosson Tzvi before making any important
decisions. "The yeshiva is yours," he used to declare.
Heading the yeshiva was fraught with numerous problems and
difficulties. One major problem was the lack of space. Rav Moshe
Mordechai refused to turn away students even when the building's
landlord threatened to evict the yeshiva from his premises altogether.
Instead, Rav Moshe Mordechai launched a campaign to construct a new
Concerning this momentous decision, his son-in-law Rav Yechezkel Sarna
later commented, "When my father-in-law decided to construct that
building he was so destitute that he couldn't even buy postage stamps
for fund-raising. Yet with Hashem's help he managed to erect a
The new building was completed in 5660/1900 and immediately filled
But Rav Moshe Mordechai's
troubles were by no means at an end. Soon
afterward the military commander of Kovno sued the yeshiva and
demanded that its new building be razed to the ground, claiming that
it had been built larger than specifications. Government officials
began arriving to inspect the building. This caused a major upheaval
because establishing a new yeshiva was an illegal activity in
Lithuania at that time, and the new building had instead been
registered as a shul to be occupied by 10 Torah scholars. Now,
however, the yeshiva had hundreds of students, many of them illegal
residents who were liable to be fined and punished if they were
To escape detection, the students fled to nearby shuls or hid in their
lodgings whenever the inspectors were scheduled to arrive. But when
inspector arrived unexpectedly, the students were forced to make a
swift getaway through the windows. After five years of investigations,
thanks to the intervention of various askanim, the Lithuanian
parliament finally fined the yeshiva a mere 100 rubles and issued a
permit for the building. In 5670/1910 Rav Shmuel Salant, the Rav of
Yerushalayim, passed away and Rav Moshe Mordechai was asked to assume
his position. Even though Rav Moshe Mordechai longed to move to Eretz
Yisroel, he turned down the offer because he failed to find any
suitable replacement for himself in Slabodka.
With the outbreak of World
War I, nearly all of Lithuania's yeshivos
were shut down. On Tisha B'Av 5674/1914 the residents of Kovno and its
suburbs, including Slabodka, were ordered to leave the city. The
yeshiva quickly dispersed. Students below draft age returned home,
while those in danger of being drafted went into hiding. The Alter of
Slabodka was arrested at a health spa in Germany, and Rav Moshe
Mordechai fled to his daughter Faiga's home in Rechista.
In Rechista Rav Moshe Mordechai decided to reestablish the yeshiva in
nearby Minsk and immediately sent letters to the yeshiva's staff and
students requesting that they come there. Once the students arrived,
Rav Moshe Mordechai set up a beis midrash for them in one of the
city's shuls, and meals were organized in the homes of local
residents. The Alter managed to rejoin the yeshiva and shortly
afterward students from nearly all of East Europe's yeshivos,
including Radin, Brisk, Volozhin and Kaminetz, flocked to Minsk as
well. They were accompanied by many gedolei hador, including the
Chofetz Chaim; Rav Chaim Soloveitchik and his son Rav Yitzchok Zev;
Rav Eliyahu Boruch Kamai of Mir; and Rav Avrohom Yeshayahu Karelitz,
the Chazon Ish. With great mesiras nefesh, Minsk's residents assisted
all of the yeshiva students. Special committees were set up to collect
food and money to provide them with all of their needs.
Despite these difficulties, Rav Moshe Mordechai continued to deliver
his regular shiurim. Soon, however, the battlefront neared Minsk and
the yeshiva was forced to relocate in the Ukrainian town of
The largely Chassidic community
of Kremenchug dedicated itself to
assisting Rav Moshe Mordechai's yeshiva in every way, even when
bullets were flying, even when the town was being shelled, and even
when typhoid was raging in the streets. At that time a group of
Cossacks kidnapped Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, later to become the
rosh yeshiva of Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, and threatened to kill him
unless they received a sizable ransom.
In desperation, Rav Ruderman sent them to Rav Moshe Mordechai. He
offered them whatever money he had, but the sum wasn't large enough
for the Cossacks.
Suddenly, Rav Moshe Mordechai had an inspiration. He rushed outside
and screamed, "Gevald! Help!"Alerted by his shouts, neighbors
outside and began milling around in noisy confusion. Terrified that
the Bolshevik police might arrive any second to subdue the raucous
crowd, the Cossacks fled, leaving their prey - Rav Ruderman - behind.
Toward the end of the war, Lithuania's government and the Bolsheviks
signed a treaty establishing an independent Lithuanian state. The
yeshiva forged the documents for those who needed them and tried to
slip back into Lithuania. But they were caught red-handed at the train
station, and Rav Moshe Mordechai was arrested.
Miraculously, Rav Moshe Mordechai was soon released and the yeshiva
was permitted to leave. They finally returned to Slabodka during the
Aseres Yemei Teshuva of 5681/1921.
Back in Slabodka the yeshiva
began to flourish once more. Rav Moshe
Mordechai busied himself with many tasks aside from those immediately
connected with the yeshiva. World War I had marked one of the greatest
upheavals in Jewish history. Hundreds of communities were destroyed
and dispersed, and Torah Jewry in Europe was beset by internal chaos
of unprecedented dimensions, particularly in the area of chinuch.
Thousands of children were being sent to modern Jewish schools...
At a public meeting Rav Moshe Mordechai convinced the assembled
parents that their children could never develop into as observant Jews
in the schools where they were currently learning. "But what
alternative do we have?" protested the parents "If I establish
proper cheder," replied Rav Moshe Mordechai, "would you send
children there?" "Of course," came the unanimous reply.Then
and there a cheder was founded. Enrollment soon swelled to over
100 children. Shortly afterward Rav Moshe Mordechai founded the Even
Yisroel Yeshiva Ketana and the Ohr Yisroel Mechina, which prepared
students to enter the Knesses Yisroel Yeshiva.
During the war years, secular
Jews had managed to gain control over
much of the Jewish community. To rectify this, Gedolei Yisroel, among
them Rav Moshe Mordechai, created Agudas Yisroel, the goal of which
was to unite Orthodox Jewry against the twin threats of Zionism and
secularism. In a letter to the founding convention in Katowitz in
5672/1912 he writes: "Unable to attend the Knessia Hagedola in
I send my heartfelt blessings. The secular elements of society have
wreaked much havoc on Klal Yisroel primarily because we are scattered
and disunited. Only by establishing a central organization can we
rectify the situation.
Therefore, strengthen your hands, mighty men of valor, and raise the
banners of Torah, yira and avoda!"
Rav Moshe Mordechai also
founded a Lithuanian branch of Agudas
Yisroel, and he was the driving force behind the estab- lishment of
Yavneh, an educational network that founded and supported dozens of
chadarim and yeshivos ketana in Lithuania's villages and hamlets.
A NEW HOME
In 5682/1922, the Slabodka
Yeshiva's desperate financial situation
forced Rav Moshe Mordechai to limit his Aguda activities, but he
continued to serve as a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. Finally
in 5683/1923, the yeshiva's financial situation became so dire that
Rav Moshe Mordechai had to travel to the United States to raise funds.
At this time Lithuania decided to conscript all of Slabodka's
military-age students, and as a result the Alter decided to transfer
the yeshiva to Eretz Yisroel.
In America Rav Moshe Mordechai raised $25,000 for this purpose, and
Rav Yechezkel Sarna traveled to Eretz Yisroel to choose a location for
the yeshiva and to secure immigration permits for its students. After
much effort he secured the first 100 visas.In 5685/1925, the first students
arrived in Chevron, the site chosen
by Rav Sarna, and they were soon joined by the roshei yeshiva as well
as additional students from Eretz Yisroel and the United States. A
short while later, the Lithuanian government had canceled its military
draft order, so on 8 Elul, 5685/1925 Rav Moshe Mordechai returned to
Slabodka to revitalize the yeshiva. Rav Eizek Sher, the Alter's
son-in-law, was appointed rosh yeshiva, while Rav Moshe Mordechai
assumed financial responsibility for the yeshiva in Slabodka as well
as the new yeshiva in Chevron.
THE ALTER'S PETIRA
The Alter of Slabodka, Rav
Nosson Tzvi Finkel, passed away on 29
Shevat, 5687/1927, and the following year Rav Moshe Mordechai settled
in Chevron permanently. The hasmada of its students was at its peak,
and the sound of Torah study reverberated through its halls day and
night. But then disaster befell the Jewish community of Chevron. On
Shabbos morning, 16 Av, 5689/1929, some Arabs rose up in the infamous
Chevron Massacre, murdering 69 Jews, including a number of the
yeshiva's students. Miraculously, Rav Moshe Mordechai and his family
The next day, the survivors of the massacre began to flee the city in
small groups. The last to leave were Rav Moshe Mordechai and his
family, who refused to go until every other Jew had escaped.
The Slabodka Yeshiva was
reestablished in Yerushalayim a short time
In an article written in their ( the students) memory he writes, "Can
one be comforted at the loss of those dear students who left warm
homes and comfort in order to delight in Torah study? What a Kiddush
Hashem they created! To forget them is beyond human capacity."
Rav Moshe Mordechai never recovered from the tragedy. Soon afterward
he fell seriously ill and during the last five years of his life he
suffered terrible pains. Nevertheless, he continued to study and
deliver his regular shiurim.
Rav Moshe Mordechai passed away on 10 Kislev, 5694/1934.
Although almost 70 years have passed since then, his influence still
pervades the Torah world, which he helped rebuild in war-torn Europe.
The famous Chevron Yeshiva in Yerushalayim also ranks among the most
famous yeshivos in the world, and other prominent yeshivos have
stemmed from it, including the renowned Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak.