THE REBBETZIN OF
by Rabbi Meir Berlin (son of the Netziv)
If the inner and outer life of the yeshiva students in Volozhin was different from that of the students in other yeshivas, this was due in part to the influence and dedication to Torah and kind deeds of the rebbetzin in Volozhin. The rebbetzin--or, more exactly, the wife of the chief rosh yeshiva--was not a passive figure, as is sometimes the case regarding famous woman, a decorative part of the environment, but she was active in the yeshiva leadership. In addition, she of course had not only extraordinary talent and intellect but also dedication and understanding in regard to the Torah in general and in relation to the yeshiva in particular. In addition, we need to evaluation the activities of my mother, who was indeed a rebbetzin and leader.
.... My mother of blessed memory worked in two areas: helping the yeshiva students and supporting those Volozhin residents who had anything to do with the students: that is to say, home-owners who rented out rooms to the students. As was mentioned earlier, the chalukah--the stipend that the yeshiva paid every two weeks to the yeshiva students--was given to them not directly but to their landlords (or, more frequently, to their landladies), who came and received payment every other Sunday. The money was distributed in the yeshiva office by the mashgiach. However, not all landlords or their wives came to pick up their stipend at that time. A large number received their money in larger amounts, in advance. They might need fifty or a hundred rubles, or sometimes even more, for the expense of housing the yeshiva students, and the yeshiva would make good these loans bit by bit [?].
This was no longer a
regular yeshiva matter. It belonged to the area of "higher finance"
operations. And all financial matters that in a broad sense involved income
and expense involved the activity of my mother.
With her inborn intelligence,
deep understanding and active spirit, she handled the yeshiva's financial concerns
with broad authority. She not only managed the money that was on hand, but she
also sought to make money that was not available. The entire financial burden
lay upon her. When it was necessary to borrow money--which very often was--and
when it was necessary to pay money that was not there, my mother carried the
burden of those concerns. She earned, borrowed, stretched things out--just as
was done in normal affairs--with ability, patience and, as must be done in such
matters, by "putting a good face" on things. The first concern was
to make sure that my father did not know of the daily difficulties, which can
overwhelm [tzureibn] even the greatest person.
Besides this, the fact
that the yeshiva accounts were in order and payments were made on time improved
the situation of the yeshiva students and the respect that they were accorded.
It was known in Volozhin that renting out rooms to yeshiva students would bring
in a steady, reliable income. The storekeeper received the necessary amount
of money he needed to borrow, the craftsman received the goods he needed by
putting up his chalukah. This was because the rebbetzin, my mother, stood behind
the loan and guaranteed that she would make sure that every two weeks she would
collect the sum and disburse it. As a result, the landlords and landladies had
respect for the yeshiva students. And when a student was exceptional in his
studies and thus received a correspondingly greater chalukah, he was more respected,
for the income was more certain in those homes where better yeshiva students
were housed, and the owners could receive money in advance in greater amounts
and more easily.
Naturally, this was
very tiring and stressful, as well as involving skill, for my mother took care
of all the bookkeeping herself. In the years following the fire, a great percentage
of the houses of Volozhin were rebuilt with the help of such loans, and many
stores that had been destroyed were in this way re-established. But none of
this was too difficult for my mother, when she knew that this involved the good
of the yeshiva as well as that of hundreds of individuals. And who was as capable
as she when it came to making the greatest sacrifices for the sake of the Torah
and extending kindness to others--particularly, when these two came together
When my mother came
to Volozhin in her youth, people marveled at her beauty and elegance in speech
and character. When she went into the street, people gazed after her, and when
she had to deal with someone, people talked about it. She combined in her extraordinary
persona an outstanding appearance and inner self. There were houses and families,
even of rabbis [beis harav], whom long years of argument and dispute had broken
apart. She, the "young rebbetzin," brought them together and brought
When she first came
to Volozhin, people spoke of her appearance and education. In those times, when
a woman understood Hebrew, spoke Russian, read German and took an interest in
worldly problems, this was considered a very high level of education. Those
who knew of her background, that she had foregone the possibility of becoming
a proprietor of great capital, of profitable earnings and comforts, luxury and
contentment, because of one goal--to be close to Torah and to have the spiritual
satisfaction of hearing the learning of Torah and of helping support Torah--spoke
of this with great wonder as well. Later on, her strong energy and her broad
heart, her interest in and helping everyone with the greatest intensity was
also marveled at. Under the most difficult circumstances, with the unshared
worry of how to provide for that day, she never ceased doing others favors with
the greatest patience, with the greatest friendliness. And when what was involved
was helping a Torah scholar, then one saw the pleasure she took.
Her soul contained such
a fullness of love and enthusiasm for Torah and those who learn Torah that everyone
could sense how, when she heard Torah learning, happiness and satisfaction stream
forth from her.
Her outlook was not
like that of many others, whether men or women, even those who are higher than
average, who are concerned only with one good deed, one particular person, one
particular circumstance, one particular time. Her interests went much further.
She always had great things in mind, she thought about communal matters--yet
at the same time she did not forget the individual, and endeavored to give help
that would solve problems at the core. When the crisis struck the yeshiva, even
before there was any fear that the government would shut it down, the financial
situation grew very difficult. Opinions were heard that "expenses must
be limited"--which meant sending away some yeshiva students, giving less
chalukah funds, or both.
At that time, my mother
stepped forward with her infinite energy and surprising optimism and helped
the situation. She introduced the system of promissory notes. Every other Sunday,
instead of ready cash, each landlord was given notes for particular sums to
be paid at certain times. These notes became known and they won the people's
confidence: not only in Volozhin, but in the surrounding area as well; and not
only among Jews, but also among the non-Jewish population. The village gentiles
took notes as good as money for their wood or food articles, and the nobles
took notes as though they were normal cash for their merchandise that they sold
Naturally, this multiplied
my mother's work and effort. She herself had to write out the notes, number
them, record them and keep the strictest control against counterfeiting and
to make sure that those which were issued should be paid exactly. But for her,
nothing was too hard when it had to do with the needs of the yeshiva. The same
dedication was apparent when letters would arrive in Volozhin, not only with
money for the yeshiva from the various meshulachim and individuals' donations,
but also money that many yeshiva students received from their parents or friends.
In order that the yeshiva students need not go to the post office and wait a
long time, and thus forfeit their learning, my mother did all this. When the
mail arrived two or three times a week, she went to the post office, took the
mail and disbursed its moneys. Nothing could prevent her from doing so, neither
snow nor rain, neither a fast day nor illness. How could she let a yeshiva student
wait an extra day when he certainly needed the money as soon as possible?
It was therefore no
wonder that all the yeshiva students, even when they left Volozhin, considered
my mother to be an important part of the yeshiva. Many yeshiva students, among
them famous gaonim and leaders, considered themselves her students in the love
of Torah--for in this, she herself was a gaon.
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Batiya Miryam nee Epstein Berlin,
The spouse of Hanaziv
By her son; Meir Berlin
Translated by M. Porat from VYB p. 476
Batiya Miryam, the Rabbi's wife, named in Litvak Yiddish "The Rebetzin Bashe Mirl", was the second spouse of HANAZIV. She was a vital and powerful woman in her nature, character and energy. She stood by her husband's side and was of most significant assistance both in his private life as well as in the Rabbi's public activities, for more than twenty years.
Long before her ascendance
to the Volozhin Rabbinical sphere she was already a remarkable person. As a
young girl she was very unusual and unlike most young women, she possessed an
intense enthusiasm and devotion to the Torah, thoughtful outlook on life and
extra ordinary energy.
Bashe Mirl was born
in Bobruysk to her father; Yekhiel Mikhael Haleyvi Epstein, the prodigious Rabbi.
She was brought up in Novozikow, where her father became the towns Rabbi.
When she arrived to the age of matrimony, several young Jewish men from the
wealthiest and most respected families asked for her hand in marriage. It was
not surprising since she was good looking, intelligent, well educated and with
good manners. She read and spoke Hebrew and knew in a certain measure the Russian
It turned out that those
men did not impress the young maiden. She told her parents that she does not
want a groom who will bring her richness, pleasures, beauty or bravery. Her
single desire is to marry a scholar who dedicates his life to the Torah and
Despite her pleas she
became engaged and married a decent young man, son of a very well off family
in the town of Tshernigov. He promised to dedicate all his time to Torah study
according to his young wife's demands prior to their marriage.
A short time passed
since the wedding and Bashe Mirl realized that her husband was reading some
times in the holy books, but he did not posses any real wisdom inside him, and
he had little ambition, he did not wish and maybe was unable to become a erudite
scholar. The young wife stood up and told her husband and her father in law,
that she is not ready to pass her life in house of richness and honor, but where
Torah is absent. So she has to ask for a divorce.
She never wore the jewelry
and she did not touch any of the beautiful dresses she received as gifts. When
she was asked she perpetually claimed that she has nothing against her husband
or his family, she was simply unable to live with an unlearned person. Her husband
refused to grant her a divorce. Batiya Mirl decided to leave his house
and his town, and one day she did it.
The Russian law at that
time allowed the husband to find and bring home his runaway wife accompanied
by police escort. The husband with his father used this law and the police began
a search for the rebel wife. She did not return to her parents' home, and she
was hiding out for months until she had obtained the divorce. The parents were
looking at their daughter behavior as very abnormal.
Why are you leaving
a fortune and a house full of worldly goods without a sufficient reason?
Her parents and relatives
asked What will your prospective be as a runaway bride?, Her answer
to them was;
- I would rather
marry poor, undistinguished person or even an old man, but never someone who
would neglect the Torah studies, because such a person, though he might be honored
by some other people, I, Batia-Miryam, despise such people.
In those days HANAZIVs
first wife passed away. A Yeshiva emissary from Volozhin, rabbi Dov from Slutsk,
happened to visit the region where Bashe Mirls family lived. He was acquainted
with the parents of the now famous divorcee.
Rabbi Dov from Slutsk
heard the amazing story of the young woman whom despite her beauty, her youth
and her intelligence, would prefer a life of poverty with Torah learned and
God- fearing pauper instead of affluent and honored life with a Torah ignorant
man. He immediately went to her parents' house to speak with them. He especially
pleaded with her mother Mikhla who was the younger sister of the proposed groom,
Hanaziv. He laid out his suggestion that their daughter should be married to
the renowned Yeshiva head. Both of them, Mother and father became angry hearing
the proposition of a match for their beautiful young daughter and an old man,
thirty years older than the would be bride. However such a negative opinion
on the subject was only expressed in discussions that her parents had.
She had never seen her
old uncle, but his knowledge and erudition was renowned over the entire Jewish
World, so she knew about him. "I should be dust at his feet; I will be
his daughter and servant, should he only spread his wings over me. There cannot
be more happiness for me as to be wife of this prodigy. Old age and hard life
would do no harm to me if I only had the chance to be this Giant of the Torah
partner in life".
The emissary returned
to Volozhin and suggested the marriage before the Rabbi. He did not finish to
describe his proposition when he was interrupted by Hanaziv: Is it possible
that a woman 30 years younger than I, and accustomed to the life of a big city,
would consent to come to me?. I do not want to embark on fresh and altered way
of life, and how could I do such evil did to the blood from my blood, to my
But the emissary was
very tenacious; he didn't stop to travel from Volozhin to Novozikov back and
forth until a meeting was held in Molodetshno. And that is how a wonderful woman
became the wife of a Rabbi of Volozhin the "Volozhiner Rebetzin",
As immense as her love
for the Torah, equal became her love for charity work and justice. She was able
to seat for many hours without a move hearing the voice and melody of the Torah
study. She herself would persevere on the Holy Scriptures. Despite her continuous
occupation with her house hold affairs and especially with the Yeshiva, she
never subtracted her "day" of Psalms, and at the Shabbat days she
would read two pages "Mikrah" and three "Unklos" Translations,
also in Russian and German languages.
The Rebetzin was aware
of all the troubles that the Yeshiva students encountered. She would always
search for solutions to their problems. And when they complained she would comfort
the young men by telling them of the bright future that awaited them when they
would be rich in spirits and in Torah knowledge.
In case of serious illness,
she would invite physicians' specialists from a big town and bring them into
Volozhin to cure the sick Yeshiva students. So it's not a surprise that the
young woman became renowned for her benevolence and energy.
The affection for the
Rabbi's wife was fully demonstrated during her malady. The alarmed doctors could
not find a remedy for her ilness. Hundreds of Volozhin men and women mingled
with the Yeshiva students in a gathering . They cried, prayed and asked the
Almighty who possessed healing gifts to save the beloved woman. A new name was
added to her birt name; she was now called Haya-Batia-miryam. The crisis passed
during the same evening. Healed she rose up that night.
Soon after their marriage
Hanaziv asked her if she would consent to go with him to the Land of Israel.
She agreed with enthusiasm, she would go not only to die there but to live in
the Promised Land side by side with her great husband.
She came to Erets Israel,
but not with him. Bashe Mirl ascended to the Holy Land years after her husband
passed away. She lived there surrounded by her children and grand children.