R. Yisrael Isserl from Ponevezh
A Censored Work by a Student of R. Hayyim of Volozhin:
A few years ago (c2000) a fascinating sefer was reprinted called Menuchah u-Kedushah. The sefer was written by R. Yisrael Isserl from Ponevezh. Not much is known about the author except that he was a talmid of R. Hayyim of Volozhin. It's clear from the sefer that he was a very special person and a big talmid hakham. The haskamot that he received from the R. Naftali Zevi Yehudah Berlin (Neziv), R. Bezalel HaKohen and R. Avraham Eisenstadt, author of the Pitchei Teshuva, show that he was a very prominent, well-known person (for some reason these haskamot were omitted in the reprinted edition). R. Shlomo Elyashiv, the author of the Leshem, also writes that he was an Ish Kadosh, a Holy Man. It appears that he was a melamed [teacher], and (as we will see) it seems that he must have been an excellent one. In the recent reprint, R. Shmuel Auerbach writes that the sefer was famous in particular as a guide in raising children and many followed it and became true Ovdei Hashem. Interestingly, the sefer was originally published anonymously (Vilna, 1864).
In this post I would like to discuss this sefer a bit. The author in his introduction (which, oddly enough, was omitted in the newest reprinted version of the sefer) outlines very clearly what he had wanted to accomplish with this work. Divided into three parts, the first is called Sha'ar HaTefillah, an explaining as to what one should do in order for his tefillot to be accepted. Included are many explanations on different parts of Tefillah. The second part is called Sha'ar HaTorah, which is the way the author feels one should teach children. The third part is called Sha'ar Yichud HaMa'aseh which includes advice how to battle the Yetzer Hara in all different situations.
The sefer reviews many interesting things especially vignettes from R. Elijah Gaon of Vilna (the Gra) and R. Hayyim of Volozhin. Also, included are many beautiful explanations on different areas of Tanakh and Aggadah . Aside from the explanations, this the sefer also includes many halakhot and minhagim. The sefer begins with a nice collection of halakhot of kavod seforim including that the prohibition to use one sefer under another one to bring it closer to you, or leaning completely on seforim like a shtender. To list a few examples of Ta'amei Minhagim brought throughout the sefer: the reason behind the mitzvah to eat on Erev Yom Kippur (pg 51) and giving tzedakah (pg 204). He is very against talking at all during davening; even talking in learning between aliyot (pg 75). The author also wrote a lengthy discussion regarding the proper time to light the Chanukah menorah; opining to light after ma'ariv. The author states that the only reason why R. Elijah Gaon of Vilna lit earlier was because of concern that if he would have waited until after ma'ariv he would have this on his mind the throughout davening, similar to a groom who is exempt from kriat shema (pg 160) due to his preoccupation. When he discusses sitting shiva on ones parents he exclaims 'do not just sit there making the same mistake most do'; namely, they claim that since it is prohibited for a mourner to learn Torah, they leave a Sefer Iyyov on the stool nearby just to glance at from time to time and fall asleep. Rather, one is supposed to learn the topics that a mourner is allowed to so that one could give one's parent many merits; there is enough material to learn for three weeks (pp. 88-89)! He writes to his son any shiur that he goes to after he dies he should always say the kaddish de'rabbanan for him; not only the first year (pg 95-96).
Many interesting discussions on various topics, such as the Neshama Yetairah that one gets on shabbat (pp. 49-50) are found throughout the sefer. He also has a lengthy discussion on the now-famous topic (in light of all the biographies on the gedolim) that no great person achieved anything great in life without working very hard for it. The talmudic use of the term " Noch Nafshei" a term of resting, was not hapenstance. Instead, it was used to demonstrate that, in many instance, those persons did not have easy lives, and thus only after death is it approriate to use a term of rest - hence Noch Nafshei. This is in reference to Tana'aim and Amoraim; how much more so in regard to regular people (pp. 79-82). Elsewhere in the sefer he has a long discussion on chumrot, writing very strongly: "one should be concerned that the yetzer hara is bribing him and allowing him to do them so he will be too occupied to observe the ikkar." As an example for this he gives, he points out that in Minhagei Ha-Gra that he had eaten Matzah Shemurah the whole Pessach. Whereas the author realizes that if because of this chumrah he will have to eat separately from the rest of his family and not have proper simchat yom tov which is a de'oraita, he should not be makpid on eating matzah shemurah which is just a pious action (pp. 155-156).
Another point of interest that he writes is that the Messilat Yesharim was written with ruach hakodesh so listen to what he says (pg 158). When he talks about the sefer Nefesh Ha-Hayyim from his teacher R. Hayyim of Volozhin, he writes "listen to his holy mouth as the sefer is exactly like its name 'life for the soul' and one should know that ruach hakodesh is in all the words in the sefer so that it should be accepted by its readers" (pg 69).
After reading all this it would seem to appear that this is a very good work and there should be no problems with anything written in it. However this is not the case. The people who printed it write that in the section called " Sha'ar HaTorah" we were advised by gedolim not to print some parts. This is very strange because as mentioned earlier he had very prominent haskamot from some big gedolim and as the Leshem writes he was a Holy Man, and he was also a known student of R. Hayyim of Volozhin. One is left wondering what in the world could have been wrong with what he had written prompting censor?
In the 1967 reprint of the original edition by Meir Kleiman, the missing pages are included, about five all together. In short, what the deleted material is as follows, he saw many people who had no business becoming teachers taking the job only for the money. He writes that he was a teacher and he would spend a few weeks trying to understand each student what was the best way to deal with him. Another thing he writes is the importantance that boys have a proper understanding of the Hebrew language; not that he has to be a baki in dikduk just to know the basics than it's easier to learn chumash. Once the boy knows chumash only than should you go on to learn Gemara. When he begins this limud, be careful to go slowly so as not to over burden him. The main point is not to learn enmass, rather emphasis on making sure the student fully understands everything before going further. Instead what happens is the boy only knows how to parrot what the teacher says and on shabbos he shows this off to the father; however nothing of value ever comes out of this. Another thing he writes is in regard to the failure to teach the boys tanakh; not only Gemara as the study of Tanakh is extremely important. Professor Simha Assaf brings much of this edited part in his Mekorot le-Toledot ha-Hinnukh be-Yisrael (vol. 1 Pg 607-613). R. Yitzchak Abadie discusses this whole section in his Teshuvot Ohr Yitzchak (pp. 444-450), available for download at www.HebrewBooks.org.
Reading all of the above, one can only wonder as to what was wrong with printing these parts; the author can not be accused of having haskalic leanings for a few reasons: One, if he did have haskalic leanings, then why allow the rest of the sefer be reprinted. In all honesty, the very thought is quite ridiculous; the Leshem writes he was a Holy Man and a reading of the sefer will show how true that is. Also he was very against learning philosophy saying that only the Rishonim were they on the level to learn it (pg 47).
What's interesting about all this is many schools in the United States would do well to follow this advice in their educational methods; I am sure it would help many. Not that it's the solution to all the problems with the children of today but it's certainly a good start. Interestingly enough R. Yakov Horowitz in a recent article in his column 'Chinuch Matters' in the English Mishpacha 143 (Pg 10) called 'It Doesn't Start in Tenth Grade ' writes the same point. R. Yakov Horowitz continues with this theme in the next issue in an article called ' Training Wheels'. Of course these columns have been met with opposition. One reader writes (English Mishpacha 145, pg 6) "Torah is acquired thru yegia through no other method can Torah become yours. Making torah easy at the beginning only makes it harder later on. The author mentioned that he is backed by various Achranoim who have suggested alternative methods for teaching torah. It should definitely be mentioned that these methods were unaccepted in Klal Yisroel. Mesorah means tradition passed on Midor Ldor not looking in seforim for unaccepted methods."
One only wonders what this reader is talking about as shown here a Holy Man and talmid of R. Hayyim of Volozhin wrote these same suggestions as R. Yakov Horowitz and received good haskamot from important known gedolim. Further more as I have mentioned R. Shmuel Auerbach writes that the sefer was famous, in particular, as a guide in raising children and many followed it and became true Ovdei Hashem.
Posted by Dan Rabinowitz