|Kovno Home Page|
|Kovno Stories Links|
Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna (1890 - 1969)
... was the successor to Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, as the spiritual mentor of that Yeshiva. He moved it from Europe to Hebron in 1925 and, following the Hebron Massacre of 1929 to Jerusalem, later assuming the position of Rosh Yeshiva.
Rabbi Sarna was born in Horodok, Russia, on the 28th Shevat in 1890. His father, Rabbi Yaakov Chaim, was the city's shochet and melamed, and later its maggid. He was known for his outstanding acts of charity, and he became particularly renowned when he aided his townsmen during a highly contagious epidemic.
Rabbi Sarna's mother, Aidel, was the daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Buxenbaum, author of Rechovos Ir, a commentary on Midrash Rabba, and a chassid of the Chiddushei Harim. She was also known for her exemplary character traits. Rabbi Sarna received his primary education from his father, as well as at the cheder in Horodok.
Slabodka, Moltshe and Telz
When he was 11, his father sent him to the Or Hachaim Yeshiva in Slabodka, headed by Rabbi Tzvi Levitan, a student of the Alter of Kelm. The mashgiach at that time, Rabbi Eliyahu Laicrovits, planted mussar roots in young Yechezkel's heart. Yechezkel remained in Slabodka for only a year.
In 1902, he journeyed to Moltshe, where he studied under one of the most famous Torah giants of the time, Rabbi Zalman Sender Kahana-Shapiro, who also presided as the Chief Rabbi of the city. Due to an internal conflict which occurred in the yeshiva, Rabbi Zalman Sender left Moltshe, and transferred to Kriniki, barely a year after Yechezkel had himself arrived. Without a mentor, he too left Moltshe and returned around 1903 to Slabodka, in order to study in Knesses Beis Yitzchok, headed by Rabbi Chaim Rabinowitz, who later on became known as Rav Chaim of Telz. He was very fond of the youth, who became bar mitzvah that year, and recognized his brilliance of mind and swift grasp.
When Rabbi Rabinowitz transferred to the Telz Yeshiva in 1904, he invited Rabbi Sarna to join a group of select students that he took along with him. At that time, Telz was in the throes of a controversy, with many of its students opposing the Mussar approach of its Roshei Yeshiva. When the yeshiva temporarily closed in 1906 as a result, Rabbi Sarna returned to Moltsh, studying under Rabbi Shimon Shkop. One year later, he returned to study in the Knesses Yisroel Yeshiva in Slabodka, where he felt he had finally found his spiritual home.
Although he was only 17 at that time, he was considered one of the yeshiva's most brilliant students. Recognizing his vast potential, the "Alter (elder) of Slabodka", Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, took him under his wing and played a major role in molding his spiritual character.
Describing his special relationship with the Alter, Rabbi Sarna once wrote, "Without the Alter, I would have been like a blind and a deaf person. He opened my eyes and my ears, and I acquired my entire approach to Torah study from him."
World War I
With the outbreak of World War I, the entire Slabodka Yeshiva fled to Minsk. Like all of the yeshiva's students, Rabbi Sarna secured forged affidavits in order to avoid the draft. However, he was caught and imprisoned.
Miraculously, he managed to escape from prison and flee to the home of a relative, Rabbi Yehoshua Zimbalist. Soon after, he escaped to Smilowitz where the Chofetz Chaim and his students had taken refuge.
Meanwhile, shortly after the Slabodka Yeshiva had arrived in Minsk, which was near the battlefront, it was forced to flee to a safer city, Kremenchuk . However, Rabbi Sarna chose not to join the yeshiva on its travels, but remained in Smilowitz, studying for a year and a half in an inn with the students of the Radin Yeshiva.
During this period, he developed close relationships with the Chofetz Chaim and Radin's rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Naftoli Trop. This brief period, Rabbi Sarna often said, was one of the most beautiful in his life. Recognizing Rabbi Sarna's unique capabilities, the Chofetz Chaim held him in high esteem. Thus, when the Chofetz Chaim was asked to travel to Memel to defend a student who had been accused of espionage on behalf of the Germans, he asked Rabbi Sarna to accompany and assist him.
Rabbi Sarna never revealed the details of this affair. However, he often related that when he informed the Chofetz Chaim that in the end, the student hadn't been condemned to death, but only to six weeks in prison, the Chofetz Chaim cried out, "Fools! Is the Czar's army certain that it will last even six weeks?" In truth, the young man had been sentenced to six years in prison, but Rabbi Sarna chose not tell that to the Chofetz Chaim so as not to upset him. Six weeks later, the Communist Revolution took place and the Czar was deposed. The student was freed a few days later.
Return to Slabodka
After the revolution, Rabbi Sarna returned to the Knesses Yisroel Yeshiva in Kremenchug, where he once again assumed his status as a top student. Two years later, he married Pesha Miriam Epstein, the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, one of the Yeshiva heads.
Shortly after World War I, the yeshiva managed to leave Russia and to return to Slabodka, which, after the war, was re-annexed to Lithuania. With that, a new chapter in the annals of the Knesses Yisroel Yeshiva began.
At one point, the Alter asked Rabbi Sarna to deliver shiurim (lectures) in the yeshiva, but he declined the offer, explaining that he preferred to devote the early years of his life to Torah study. Although Rabbi Sarna held no official position in the yeshiva, his influence there was keenly felt.
In 1924, the Lithuanian government tried to enlist the majority of Knesses Yisroel's students into the army, threatening the very existence of the yeshiva. Since Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein was in America at that time, Rabbi Sarna tried to have the decree averted, but to no avail. After consulting the Alter of Slabodka, the decision was made to transfer the yeshiva to Eretz Yisroel. Immediately, the Alter sent a telegram to Rabbi Epstein, asking if he approved of the plan. Rabbi Epstein wired back his consent, and promised to make every effort to raise the funds necessary for the yeshiva's relocation.
That same year the Alter sent Rabbi Sarna to Eretz Yisroel to choose a site for the yeshiva and to coordinate its establishment there. He also charged him with securing visas for the students. After evaluating various options, Rabbi Sarna chose the city of Hebron as the yeshiva's new home. Consequently, Knesses Yisroel became the first Lithuanian yeshiva to transfer to Eretz Yisroel.
During that year, Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Finkel arrived in Eretz Yisroel. They were joined the following year by the yeshiva's mashgiach, Rabbi Leib Chasman. It was at that point that Rav Yechezkel assumed a significant role in the yeshiva's leadership, delivering shiurim and coordinating study schedules. The Alter approved of his efforts and praised him highly.
In the beginning of 1927, the Alter fell seriously ill, and Rabbi Sarna began to deliver mussar discourses in the yeshiva. That same winter, Rabbi Finkel died. At the funeral, Rabbi Sarna told Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, "Two types of builders contribute to the establishment of every spiritual edifice. The first are "yotzrim," "masterminds and planners," while the second are "otzrim," "keepers and guardians." Now that the "yotzrim" have left us, we must don the mantle of the "otzrim."
In the course of 1929 Palestine riots, 67 Jews had been murdered, including 24 of the yeshiva's students. Many others were injured.
Although Rabbi Sarna was greatly pained by the tragedy, he did not plunge into despair, but rather directed all of his energies toward rebuilding the yeshiva. It wasn't easy to reassemble the yeshiva's survivors, many of whom had suffered traumas as a result of their experiences. Nonetheless, Rabbi Sarna succeeded in reestablishing the yeshiva in Jerusalem. He renamed it "Hebron", in memory of those who were massacred in that city. While Rabbi Leib Chasman, the yeshiva's mashgiach, dedicated himself to encouraging the students, the task of raising the necessary funds for the yeshiva and ensuring its smooth functioning fell on Rav Yechezkel's shoulders. He traveled extensively to raise funds, even making a trip to the United States.
In a letter to Rabbi Isaac Sher of Slabodka, he wrote, "The first weeks were very difficult, since the students were both destitute and despondent. But by the 15th of Elul, they returned to themselves, and by Rosh Hashana, the yeshiva began to function in full force."
As the yeshiva grew, he was once again forced to travel to America to raise funds. At times, the yeshiva's financial situation was so dire that debtors issued orders confiscating Rav Yechezkel's property. But even when the Rav himself lacked food for his family, he made certain that the yeshiva students didn't go hungry.
When his father-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai, died in 1934, five years after the Hebron Massacre, Rav Yechezkel was officially appointed Rosh Yeshiva of Hebron.
World War II
As tragedy struck with the start of World War II and the Holocaust, Rav Yechezkel expanded the scope of his activities far beyond his own yeshiva.
He was among the founders of the Vaad Yeshivos, and was also active in the Vaad Hatzalah, alongside Rabbi Chizkiyahu Yosef Mishkovsky, the head of the Beth Din of Krinki. After the founding of the State of Israel, Rav Yechezkel played a vital role in the spiritual rescue of immigrant children, and he served as one of the leaders of the Chinuch Atzmai Torah School Network.
Although he shunned political involvement, Rabbi Sarna had a strong affinity for Agudas Yisroel, and he was an active member of its Council of Torah Sages.
Commentary on the Masechtos of the Talmud by R' Yechezkel Sarna, Rosh Yeshivas Chevron
Despite his deep involvement in countless community and Jewish projects, raising and improving the spiritual and learning level of the students at Hebron Yeshiva remained Rabbi Sarna's lifework. He delivered shiurim in halacha and mussar every week at the yeshiva, as well as shiurim in his own home. For seven years, he also delivered discourses on the laws and meaning of Shabbos. His students still fondly remember these shiurim, which were unique in their content and style.
Over the years, Rav Yechezkel functioned in complete harmony with the yeshiva's mashgiach, Rav Yehuda Leib Chasman. With Rav Yehuda Leib's passing in 1936 , Rav Yechezkel assumed that role himself.
As rosh yeshiva and mashgiach, he acted warmly toward his students, who brought him great joy. This attitude is apparent in one of his letters, in which he wrote, "Yesterday, I entered the yeshiva close to midnight, and found thirty students studying with exceptional fervor. At that time, I thought, 'Fortunate is the generation which has merited such young people. May Hashem protect them and bless them.'"
Over time, his brothers-in-law, Rav Aaron Cohen and Rav Moshe Chevroni, were appointed roshei yeshiva of Chevron, while Rav Meir Chadash was appointed mashgiach. Later, Rav Hillel Paley, Rav Simcha Zissel Broide and Rav Avrohom Farbstein were also invited to become Roshei Yeshiva there.
During the last few months of his life, his extreme weakness could not deter him from davening in the yeshiva, or from delivering his shiurim.
In 1969 Rav Yechezkel was taken to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital for intensive treatment. Two days before his death, he was reported to have said, "It is Elul and the students are surely studying with added hasmada. My illness won't disturb their Elul mood." He died on 6 Elul and was buried beside his father-in-law R. Moshe Mordechai Epstein, on the Mount of Olives.
Over the years, he produced thousands of students, many of whom became prominent roshei yeshiva and Rabbis in Eretz Yisroel and abroad.