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Rabbi Itsele Volozhiner — HagRIts

Hagaon Rabbi Itskhok

R’ Itsele, his personality, cleverness and sharpness

Volozhin Yizkor Book (code 7.1, page 99)

Translated by M. Porat

Soon after Rabbi Hayim departure, the Yeshiva presidency passed to his son, Rabbi Itzkhok, who was affectionately called by most people; "Reb Itsele". Reb Itsale was born in the year 5540 (1780).

Reb Hayim was his own son’s educator. He instructed him in "the seen and unseen". At one occasion the boy had the privilege to meet the Vilna Gaon, the HAGRA (Hagaon Rabbi Eliyahu). It came about when he accompanied his father to see the Rabbi "who’s face was compared to the Almighty Angel’s face".

Reb Itsele told one of his most prominent student, Rabbi Shmuel Salant, the story of the memorable visit: "Once when my father went to see the Hagra, I asked to join him. Taken aback, my father said in great apprehension: "You too? You desire to see the great man?" In my turn, I became a little frightened. But I was still determined and I said: "Yes I want to go". Father hesitated, but finally he agreed. When we started our journey I realized that my father’s face was pale from terror and fear, and as the cart approached the city of Vilna he became more and more drained of color. By the time we arrived to the town it was difficult to recognize him. He asked me again: "Are you sure that you would like to see the Rabbi?" I made a great effort and said: "Yes!" When we arrived at the front of the great man’s door, my father was so afraid that his feet and hands trembled. He repeated his question again: " For the last time, do you want to enter?" And then we entered the Gaon’s room."

Rabbi Moyshe Shmuel Shapiro tells that this visit had occurred when R’ Itsele was ten years old. Hagra suggested that his young guest would recite some Torah sayings. R’ Itsele clarify a complicated sentence from the Torah. Hagra was impressed by the child’s wisdom and his pleasant voice. He said to Rabbi Hayim: I’m sure that the boy would become an excellent orator and preacher.

Rabbi Itsele contemporaries named him "The Nation Rabbi", "Israel’s President", "The Jewish Scholar" and "The National Spokesman". He was greatly versed in the Torah and full of wisdom. He was also skilled in understanding human behavior and deeply involved with his people.

R’ Itsele was not restricted by the laws only. It is told that he used to enclose himself in his room, not to be disturbed during his studies by the any passerby. Once Rabbi Hayim knocked on his door and told him: "Do not isolate yourself, go out Itsele and take on your shoulders the public burden, the duties for which you were created."

A Volozhin legend told that when Rabbi Hayim set the Yeshiva-corner- stone, he turned to his entourage saying: "I’m investing in this building my son Itsele future" (in his words: "Yikh moyer do ayn mayn Itselen"). He said it because the young Itsele wanted to study abroad in a German town, which were at those times the symbol of freedom and religious reforms. Rabbi Hayim was full heartedly against it. He thought that the important yeshiva project would keep his son in Volozhin. Indeed, his hope was later realized

R’ Itsele was active in the Yeshiva management. His word was the final word that was said in many important decisions. R’ Itsele was devoted to his father’s instructions. He wrote in his introduction to R’ Hayim’s book "The Soul of Life": "My father, who dedicated his entire life to strengthen and to glorify the Yeshiva, ordered in his final testament that I should follow one command only: to gather all my strength and to do all that is possible to establish this school in order that the holy Torah would be preserved forever".

Reb Itsele was faithful to his father’s orders. His Yeshiva lessons became famous. Avrom Kopernik, R’ Itsele’s student, praised him: "I’ll never forget the pleasant feelings I had during the time I would attend the daily lessons of our great and genial teacher Rabbi Itsele".

Reb Itsele’s personality lives amongst the people. But nothing was left in writings. Apart for his introduction to "Nefesh Hahayim" (The soul of Life) and the accounts in "The Holy Mouth", which were published by Dr. Kopelovitsh, Reb Itsele did not write anything. Rabbi Borukh Epstein gave in his book "The Blessed Source" a character description of R’ Itsele: The ways of Hagrits (Hagaon Rabbi Itskhak), were ways of love and of dignity. They were based on the Volozhin ethical code model. His words were soft and polite, full of integrity, grace and modesty. For these qualities the people loved him and honored him. His sayings were Torah for his people and his opinions were sacred.

Reb Itsele would demand from his colleagues, Rabies, teachers and Yeshiva seniors to act moderately, to express themselves in decent language, in modesty and humbleness, according to the principled requirements. In particular he requested to calculate the words before speaking, to speak with care and caution and to respect every person’s honor and dignity. Reb Itsele would punish with harsh words students or teachers who transgressed those principles. He would not tolerate in any case indecent and crude behavior.

It was said by the eldest of that era, that the source of the politeness, modesty, morality and good manners, in which excelled the Volozhin Yeshiva people, had been Reb Itsele’s teaching and implanting.

And generally Reb Itsele was a man of great intelligence and felling. He loved and exerted to understand all what his eyes have seen and his ears have heard.

Reb Itsele knew languages. Like his father he spoke Russian and Polish fluently. He was Interested in medicine, he was able to read and to understand Latin. He would even check his students and tell them which medications to take. However he did not inflate his expertise. In the case of a serious eyes illness of his favorite student the writer Kalman Shulman, he sent him to Vilna to the renowned Professor Poritshinski with an introduction letter, where the patient eventually recovered.

Reb Itsele loved his Yeshiva boys and made sure that they lived a healthy life style. In summer days, after the afternoon Minkha prayer the students used to leave the Yeshiva and walk to the town outskirts, to breathe some fresh air and to enjoy the natural beauty. The outdoors walking refreshed them, strengthened and helped them in their Torah study. When Reb Itsele would see inside the Yeshiva walls students who remained studying, the Yeshiva head would personally approach each one, to extinguish his candle and ask each diligent boy to go outside to the fresh air.

As for his knowledge in medicine it is told, that once when one of his most valued student fell sick, a medical assistant, known as a diagnose specialist, was called from Ivianitz.. Reb Itsele listened to him and found that the assistants’ medical skill is very poor. The Rabbi said: I wonder how do you live in Ivianitz despite the saying that "a town without a doctor is prohibited to live in for a Talmid Khakham — a scholar". The other inhabitants they may stay in Ivianitz because they think that they have a doctor in shtetl, but you, knowing that this is not true, how can you live in, bypassing the sage’s instructions?

Reb Itsele was very careful not to offend someone by a hard expression. Once he described, an unreliable person in such words: "People are blessed with memory in many degrees. One remembers events that happened ten years ago, another may retain facts, which happened twenty years ago, but our friend has such a phenomenal memory that he remembers events, which never happened".

However on one occasion R’ Itsele did not control his anger and responded to a certain writer who asked him for endorsement with a grain of sarcasm. The writer brought him three essays; one on the Book of Job, a second on the Song of Songs and a third on the Book of Proverbs. He asked the Rabbis’ opinion of the three articles. R’ Itsele approved the work on Job but refused to approve the last two. The writer asked for the reasoning behind the decision. The Rabbi answered: "Job had multitudes of calamities and one more would not make a dent, however, what is the reason for which you attach one to king Salomon?