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The Rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Reuven Kac of holy blessed memory

by Rabbi Zadok HakohenTranslated by Jerrold Landau

Our master, the Gaon Rabbi Reuven Kac of holy blessed memory, who was previously the rabbi of Stawiski and latter the chief rabbi, head of the rabbinical court, and Talmudic teacher in Petach Tikva [11], was one of the greatest rabbis of the previous generation. His methodology, his Halachic decisions, and his interpretations were based on the pillars of Torah, ethics, wisdom and knowledge.

He was one of the select group whose words had a recognizable influence upon the community, both within the Orthodox community and in the liberal community, including upon rabbis and the leaders of the people. His variegated personality, his extensive learning, his intuition and resoluteness along with the sharpness of his intellect all helped forge the image of the community of those that feared the word of G-d.

Whenever a difficult Halachic issue arose, when observant Jewry was caught up with problems and internal strife, or in strife between itself and the non-observant, they would turn to the rabbi of Petach Tikva to ask him to offer assistance, and solve the dilemma with his wisdom and understanding, so that he could present a clear, blessed solution.

He conducted his rabbinate with strength and rigor. Even during his old age, everyone would turn an ear to listen to the opinion of the “Rabbi from Petach Tikva� at rabbinical conventions and on the advisory council of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

He forged his path of life, not with storming and impetuousness, but rather through diligence, persistence, gradual development, and spiritual ascent step by step. His humble beginnings were upon the rabbinical seat of the small town of Sulevo, and his pinnacle was as one of the leaders of the previous generation.
{Photo page 102 – uncaptioned. Rabbi Kac.}

His birthplace was the small town of Olshany in the Vilna region. There he was born on the first day of the New Moon [12] of Iyar 5640 (1870) to his father Rabbi Shimon of blessed memory, one of the local scholars who worked in business. It was already evident during his childhood that he was destined for greatness. When he was about eleven years old, he was already expert on the Tractates of Shabbat and Bava Kama [13], and was known as the Genius (Illui) of Olshany. His Bar Mitzvah speech, delivered when he was a student at the Yeshiva of Ivye, included didactics that astounded the local Torah scholars.

From Ivye he transferred to the Yeshiva of Mir, and when he was 15, he was accepted in the Yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim of holy blessed memory in Radun [14]. After about one year, he went to the Yeshiva Knesset Yisrael of Slobodka, which was headed by Rabbi M. M. Epstein of holy blessed memory, and Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel of holy blessed memory. In the year 5657-5658 (1887-1888) he was numbered among one of the initial fourteen students of the Yeshiva of Slutsk, founded by the Gaon Rabbi Isser Zalman of holy blessed memory [15].

In the year 5663 (1893) he moved to Vilna. There, the Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Maskil Leeitan of holy blessed memory, the rabbi of Gicialaukia, chose him as the husband for his righteous daughter Reichel, may peace be upon her. She stood together with him as his partner in all of his activities until her last day upon the earth.

While living in his father-in-law's house, he became expert in practical Halacha, and was ordained by the leading rabbis of the generation. His first rabbinate was in the town of Sulevo in the Minsk region, and in the year 5669 (1899) he ascended the rabbinic seat of Amdur (Indura). He served as the rabbi of Amdur for fourteen years, and from there his net was spread out afar. As testimony of this was the request of him by the holy Gaon Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, who was known as the “Saba of Slobodka� [16] in the month of Adar of 5683 (1923) to our rabbi to go with him together with the head of the Yeshiva rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein of holy blessed memory on a special mission to the capital city of Petersburg in order to save the Yeshiva. According to words of the Saba, “the Yeshiva was floating between existence and disappearance, Heaven forbid�. There was a special condition upon this mission, for the Saba pointed out: “it is obvious that we must specify that the matter must be a secret, and should not become known to any of the aforementioned people until after it is completed�. There, he spent the years of the First World War with all of its tribulations: the Russian army police, the German occupation government, the transfer to Polish rule, and finally, the evil, cruel hand of the nationalistic Polish ruler. During these years of trouble, Rabbi Kac not only occupied himself with the discussions of Abaye and Rabba [17], but also with public activity. He protected the rights of the Jews with complete dedication with respect to the changing governments, and with the organization of self-defense. He saved thousands of Jewish souls from death. In the merit of his intercession, many difficult decrees were annulled, many people were saved, and many who had been accused were freed. He also did a great deal for the rehabilitation of refugees and those injured at war. He was the chairman of the local assistance bank, and the chairman of the “Joint� American aid committee in the Grodno region. During the time of transition from one government to another, when the hooligans increased in number and there were many attacks upon the Jews, he was strong enough to establish a unit of Jewish self defense, whose duty was the protection of the community. This organization assured the peace of the Jews of Amdur.

In the year 5682 (1922) he published his first book: “Questions and Answers Degel Reuven� [18], in which he demonstrated his expertise and sharpness in all areas of Halacha. He particularly displayed his ability to explain difficult and complex issues in a straightforward fashion. The book made an impression in the Torah world, and its publication was an important occurrence among the Yeshiva students, who saw the book as an aid to their studies. The publication of the book made a name for its author, and after a few months, he was invited to sit on the rabbinical seat in the city of Stawiski in the region of Lomza.

In Stawiski, he served as the rabbi of the city, taking the place of the Tzadik who was well known in his generation, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Leib of holy blessed memory. He was known by all for his greatness, and all the residents recognized his greatness, on account of his deep knowledge, his righteousness, his boundless love of Torah, and especially his love of every human created in the image of G-d, in accordance with the trait of Aaron the priest the head of his family, who “loved peace, pursued peace, loved people, and brought them close to Torah� [19]. In every place that he lived, he established Yeshivas for the young and study groups in the synagogues to delve into the depths of Torah.

As in Amdur, in Stawiski as well he expended effort to strengthen the institutions of Torah and education, and to improve the economic situation of the city's Jews. Through his efforts, a “Kupat Malve and Gemilut Chasadim� organization was established in the city to grant loans to help sustain the craftsmen and small-scale merchants, who were becoming impoverished due to the burden of government taxes. He also made efforts to establish elementary Yeshivas in the neighboring towns. He was active in the Yeshiva committee that was founded by the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna [20].

In the year 5685 (1925), his second book was published. It was called “Dudaei Reuven� and dealt with homiletics and explanations on the books of Genesis and Exodus. This book was also accepted with esteem in the circles of rabbis and sermonizers.

During the period of his tenure in Stawiski, in the winter of 5689 (1928-1929), he was requested by the elder of the Gaonim of the generation, the author of the Chofetz Chaim, to embark on a mission to the United States in order to save the Yeshivas of Poland, in particular the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva. The following letter, which was written by the holy hand of the Chofetz Chaim, is testimony to this.
“Blessed is G-d, the 9th of Cheshvan, 5689
To My friends the Gaonim and rabbis may you live long, and to the generous donors who love and respect Torah, the heads of the Jewish communities in America, may G-d be with you, and may you live.

I am hereby turning to you with a request for support for my holy Yeshiva, which currently, to my distress, finds itself in a situation of terrible pressure, burdened by deep debts that endanger it existence, G-d forbid. I have requested of my friend, the well-known rabbi and Gaon Rabbi Reuven Kac, may he live long, the head of the rabbinical court of the city of Stawiski, the author of the book Degel Reuven, that he take upon himself the great difficulty of travel to your country, in order to inspire the generous people of our nation to save the Yeshiva from its difficult situation, so that it can be set on its proper footing with the help of the Blessed G-d. I am requesting that you honorable people come to the assistance of the aforementioned Gaon in his holy work on behalf of he existence of the Yeshiva that has been spreading Torah for more than fifty years, for which I have toiled a great deal to ensure its existence, and in which more than three thousand young men, experts in Torah and the fear of Heaven study at the present time. The merit of the great Mitzvah (commandment) of strengthening our holy Torah shall stand with all those who assist and offer support, and may G-d bestow upon you much blessing and success in all of your affairs, to them and to all that bless and honor them.
Yisrael Meir Hakohen, the author of the Chofetz Chaim and Mishnah Berura, from the city of Radun.�

The communal leaders of Stawiski took pride in the request of the leading rabbi of the generation, and authorized their rabbi, Rabbi Reuven Kac, to take a one-year leave, from November 1, 1928 until November 1, 1929. During the period of his absence, his son Rabbi Shimon was appointed to fill his place.

His mission to the United States was crowned with success. While he was winning over souls to strengthen Torah in Poland, he received an invitation from the Jewish community of Bayonne, New Jersey, to sit on their rabbinical seat. Rabbi Reuven Katz [21] accepted their invitation and received the position. In the United States, he very quickly found an honorable place among the rabbis of the country. He was active in the rabbinical union, and did a great deal to raise the stature of Judaism. A short time after his arrival, during the annual rabbinical convention held in Iyar 5691 (1931), he was chosen as vice president of the Rabbinical Union.

After the tribulations of 5699 (1938-1939) [22], he said the following during a eulogy to the victims of the cruel murder: “If it is indeed His will to grant the enemies of our soul a complete and eternal response, and also to avenge the spilled blood of our holy martyrs, it is our duty to arise and make aliya to our Holy Land, which has now received an additional dose of holiness by virtue of the blood of our martyrs. We must have mercy upon its soil, support those that have fallen during the course of its conquest, and stand at the right hand of its sons and builders.�
{Photocopy page 105: The permit of travel of Rabbi Kac to America. (Note by translator: In Hebrew script, and not clear.)}
{Photocopy page 106 top: The permit of travel of Rabbi Kac to America, issued by the communal council of Stawiski: (Note by translator: Also in Hebrew script – this appears to be a continuation of the permit on the previous page, and concludes with several signatures of members of the communal council. Not all are clear, but I can partially make out the following, without attesting to accuracy: Chaim Bolinski, Sh. Smaul – chairman of the communal council, Meir Lim, ?, Sh. Szapira – secretary).}
{Photocopy page 106 bottom: The letter of the Chofetz Chaim. (Translator's note: the text of which is included in full in the text above.)}
{Photo page 107: Rebbetzin Reichel (Rachel) Kac of blessed memory.}

He was not only a good speaker, but he acted upon his words. When he received in 5692 (1932) a request to serve as rabbi in one of the most important settlements in the Land of Israel, Petach Tikva, he left the United States and made aliya to the Land of his desire and his childhood dreams. Many of his friends attempted to dissuade him from this, however his wife, Rebbetzin Reichel, who was famous for her intelligence and common sense, stood at his right side and insured the decision.

Rabbi Reuven Katz, who served as the head of the rabbinical court of Petach Tikva, was one of the judges upon whose crown was inscribed three great qualities that are fitting for a judge: men of valor, fearers of Heaven, and haters of reward [23].

New vistas of activity opened up for him in the Land of Israel in all areas of communal life, the rabbinate and the spreading of Torah. Technically, he served as the head of the rabbinical court and chief rabbi of Petach Tikva and the area; however in actuality he did much more than this. A short time after his arrival in the Land, during the days that the mighty Gaon Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook of holy blessed memory served as the chief rabbi, the rabbinate of our rabbi already broke forth from the bounds of Petach Tikva, and shone upon all areas of the Land. He became one of the pillars of the chief rabbinate and Orthodox Jewry in the Land. He was a citadel of teaching and Halacha. Rabbis and Torah giants streamed to him from all across the Land.

His influence was great not only in his city and in the region, but in all spiritual and public matters in the country. He participated in all meetings to strengthen the situation. He was always chosen as a member of various delegations to speak to the ministers of the State of Israel regarding matters of Yeshivas and the strengthening of religion.

He was one of the founders of the committee for Yeshivas in the Land of Israel, and he served as a member of the managing committee of that organization. During his old age, when he became weak, the chief rabbis along with all members of the rabbinate would come to his house to conduct meetings of the chief rabbinate.

He disseminated Torah to his students during all his years, particularly in the Yeshivas of Petach Tikva. One of his prime students described him as follows: “.. In particular when he appeared before us in the hall of the Yeshiva to deliver his regular class in Halacha, when word spread that the rabbi was arriving to deliver the class, the atmosphere became electric. A deep feeling of sublimity, awe and honor enveloped all of the students of the Yeshiva, young and old together. We regarded the Rosh Yeshiva (Head of the Yeshiva) as a man of stature, as is befitting in the world of Yeshivas.�

His multifaceted work in the rabbinate did not detract one drop from his dedication to his Yeshiva, the large Yeshiva, in which he saw the crowning role of his life, whether in the spiritual realm, in raising the level and character of his students, or in the physical realm in ensuring the existence of the Yeshiva, and in the meeting of the needs of the students. Indeed, the Yeshiva of Petach Tikva was not only the prime Yeshiva in the “mother of settlements� [24], but it was also the “mother of Yeshivas� throughout the modern settlements of Israel.

Our rabbi dedicated a great deal of time and effort to the issues of the religious education of elementary students. Already in the year 5693 (1933), one year after he arrived in the Land, a large meeting of all of the great rabbis and Rosh Yeshivas of the Land took place in Petach Tikva through his efforts. The deliberations focussed on the subject of religious education. At that meeting, a network of all of the Talmud Torahs throughout the land was established, which flourished as time went on and served as the basis for independent education [25]. He served as the chairman.

In the year 5700 (1940), he published the second volume of his book Degel Reuven. This volume contained several answers regarding practical Halachic issues of laws that relate to the Land, such as: the applications of orla, leket, shichecha, and peah in modern times [26]. In the year 5709 (1949) he published the third volume of this work, in which he elaborated upon various Halachic discussions with the Jerusalem Gaonim Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, the rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap the head of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, and other leaders of the generation. One responsa was regarding the issues of aguna [27] , was from the Gaon Rabbi Shlomo David Kahana of blessed memory, who was originally the rabbi of Warsaw, and served in glory in the old city of Jerusalem towards the end of his life. Rabbi Kahana asked about his opinion regarding women who became “agunas� during the years of Nazi murder. His fundamental understanding of issues surrounding this difficult problem astounded even the expert Halachic decisors who attempted to deal with it. This volume of Degel Reuven won the Rabbi Kook prize from the municipality of Tel Aviv, and has already been published in three editions.

In the year 5714 (1954) he published the second volume of his book Dudaei Reuven, with explanations and sermons on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. He appended the small work “Ohel Rachel� to this volume, which contained words of eulogy and appreciation for his wife the Rebbetzin Reichel, may peace be upon her, who died on the 20th of Shvat 5714.

With the establishment of the state, his duties increased as did his responsibility for dealing with difficult, thorny issues that had not been present prior to the establishment of the state. In particular, after the passing of the chief rabbi Gaon Rabbi Y. A. Herzog and the Jerusalem Gaon Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, duties of Halachic decisions fell upon him. Our rabbi recognized his great responsibility to Heaven and also to the people in whose midst he dwelt. He would delve into the depths of the law in order to find reasons for leniency. This was not always possible, however whenever he found reasons for leniency, he rejoiced greatly that he was able to repair the bridge that connected the Land of Israel to the People of Israel through the Torah of Israel.

With his passing, honor departed from Israel.

Our rabbi and Gaon of holy blessed memory left behind the children: Rabbi Shimon Katz, who dealt with matters of agunas within his leadership duties in the rabbinic court system of Israel; Professor Dr. Avraham Yitzchak Katz, the president of Dropsie College in Philadelphia, U.S.A.; Rabbi Aharon Katz, a member of the regional religious court of Jerusalem; Nissan Katz, a manufacturer in the United States; Rabbi Eliezer Katz, the chief rabbi of Clifton, U.S.A.; Rabbi Yechiel Michael Katz, one of the heads of Yeshiva University in New York; Dina Harkavi, the wife of the writer Tzvi Harkavi; and Chasida Sorotzkin, the widow of Rabbi Yisrael Sorotzkin of blessed memory, who was a member of the regional religious court of Tel Aviv.
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