Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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22 teves 5761 - January 17, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







HaRav Dovid Luria -- Transcriber of the Gra's Teachings

By Binyomin Nehorai

5 Kislev 5616 -- 145 years

A crucial meeting was in session. Rabbonim, communal leaders and wealthy activists were trying to solve a weighty community problem. Mohilev's important and influential personalities were participating in the meeting.

Suddenly, the chief participant got up and left the table momentarily to speak to his students, who were standing nearby. His face shone with happiness. The meeting temporarily forgotten, he was in another world, the world of the gemora in Kiddushin daf vov, omud alef. He had just been mechadesh an explanation of those words according to the principles of the Zohar, each one according to the Esser Sefiros. He hurried to share this chiddush with his disciples. His joy was as if the Torah had just been given.

Every minute was precious. Even during a meeting, one can continue learning from memory and cover a few more dapim.

His Youth

His entire life, the Radal remembered the kindness Hashem did for him as a child. One evening when he was nine years old, his father entered his room with unexpected visitors -- the Duke of Biachov and the private tutor he had imported from France to teach his son. The Radal's father, who wanted to show off his son, had the French visitor test him in mathematics and engineering. The Duke was amazed at the boy's swift thinking and decided to grant him a prize. "From tomorrow," the Duke declared, "the boy will come to my palace every day for a private tutoring session."

It was impossible to refuse, if only because of kibbud av. It was a harsh decree. The time set for the tutoring was the hour in which he used to review the first nine masechtos of Bavli, which he knew by heart.

When the visitors left the room, hot tears streamed from the boy's eyes. He cried the entire night over his bitter lot. Who would review the nine masechtos instead of him? And how would he remember them?

In the morning, the teacher was found outside of Biachov, lifeless.

A sharp mind, swift grasp and extraordinary memory. These are a few descriptions of the Radal. When he was five years old, he knew the entire Tanach with Rishonim, clearly and precisely. A year later, at age six, he began to learn gemora. His father, a wealthy man who treasured Torah and its learners, hired special rebbeim for him. Three years passed and the boy was fluent in the first nine masechtos of Talmud Bavli. At age ten, he knew the entire mishnayos by heart, which he continued reviewing his entire life.

When he was twelve, after his engagement, he gave a shiur before the chachomim of Vilna. They were unable to hide their amazement at the young boy's wisdom and breadth of knowledge. Even the community that merited the light of the Gra only twelve years prior was highly impressed by the youth. Rav Shaul Katzenellenbogen, one of the famous geonim of Yerushalayim of Lithuania and Rav Abali Posboler, Vilna's famous more horo'oh were also amazed. The Radal learned under HaRav Shaul Katzenellenbogen, his relative, and merited finishing Shas with him twice.

When he was eighteen, the Radal returned to Biachov, to his father's house, where he had a set place to learn. Every morning, after he spent the night toiling in Torah, a minyan of men came to daven shacharis at neitz.

Zerizus and mehirus, a swift pen and a powerful memory, were faithful aids to his learning. His acquaintances related that he was able to look over an entire daf in a minute or two, grasp all the fine points and remember it. Every Shabbos he used to skim over the Zohar on that week's parsha.

His accomplishments were not just a result of his genius. He invested unceasing toil and effort, despite the fact that he had a sickly lung. He used to put down his head to rest for ten minutes (!) in the afternoon, and he slept one hour in the first half of the night and about two hours in the second half, in the winter. At midnight, he said Tikkun Chatzos according to the siddur of the Ari, his cries piercing the silent night. In the morning, which never found him asleep, he davened and said Shema at vosikin.

"My eyes saw," a disciple related, "when I was with him on Yom Kippur. One cannot fathom his heilege avoda on that awesome day, his heartfelt cries to Hashem and his tremendous weeping. During all five tefillos, when he realized the congregation had already finished davening, so as not to disturb them, he used to raise his voice in soulful crying, his wails flowed like water and tears streamed from his eyes. The entire congregation's hearts melted and became like water. A few days after Yom Kippur, his eyes always hurt because of all the crying. Despite everything, when he returned from shul, he tasted something after havdoloh, slept for about an hour and strengthened himself to get up to toil in Torah as usual."

Attention to Details

The Radal treated sifrei kodesh with great honor. Because he was extremely careful not to put nevi'im on top of Torah, he had his Tanach rebound. He put Torah, Nevi'im and Kesuvim into three separate volumes so one would not be on top of the other while turning the pages.

He requested in his will not to mention the posuk "Tzedoko tatzil mimoves" at his levaya, so as not to say devorim shebikedusho in unclean places. It's enough to mention the word "tzedoko," he wrote. He also requested that the pallbearers not say pesukim but rather sentences a bit different than the pesukim.

The following story attests to his scrupulousness. A student once sent him a letter from Warsaw in which he mentioned Hashem's name. The Radal sent the student's letter back with his reply. "I am not obligated to inconvenience myself and save his letter so it does not become disgraced," he wrote and added a warning about the obligation to be careful in the future.

The Radal was one of the elite who transcribed the Vilna Gaon's teachings. Many of the traditions, customs, stories and facts that are attributed to the Gra, we merited through the efforts of the Radal who also began learning in the Gra's method.

"I already wrote," the Radal wrote to someone who was collecting facts from the Gra, "that in any case we should announce in the name of the moreh tzedek in the holy camp of Vilna that anyone who has something or part of something in the Gra's handwriting should inform the moreh tzedek, to compile a clear list of them. This would truly help in preserving the collection, and anything they put effort into, the zchus of the Gra will support them, etc. And perhaps through this, each one passing the word on, the new explanation on Zohar or Shir Hashirim of Rabbeinu HaGra zt'l, which disappeared due to our many sins, will be found."

One can feel the Radal's pain as he wrote that "because of our many sins, the first hand witnesses, who stood in front of our great Rabbeinu zt'l, are already lost in our lowly generation. Righteous and learned men are also lost and there are many versions of every story."

The Radal himself recorded many of these stories, which had been transmitted orally, for posterity. One such story is about an attempt to see the Gra's involuntary movements during sleep. The man saw unusual sights in which the Gra's face changed during sleep and even showed signs of great pain. When the man asked the Gra to explain the phenomenon, the Gra replied that "I cannot endure the pain of dead souls, especially those who died recently, whom we knew and spoke about."

The famous story that describes the Gra's last moments is transmitted through the writings of the Radal as well. "I heard," the Radal related, "that he grabbed hold of his tzitzis and cried, how difficult it is to leave this world of action, for through an easy mitzva like tzitzis a straight man will see the Shechina. Where in the world of neshomos can we find this, even if we invest all our strength into it?"

Passing on the Gra's Tradition

Reb Dovid Luria himself was not zoche to see the Gra as he was born in the year the Gra passed away. He heard stories and details about him from first hand sources -- the Gra's disciples, children and household members. The following tradition, for example, he heard from the person involved. "HaRav Hillel of Shkolv, son of HaRav Binyomin, disciple of Rabbeinu zt'l who traveled to the Holy Land and passed away there, told me that when he was once in Vilna, he visited Rabbeinu in his room. Rabbeinu was walking and reviewing his studies with amazing deveikus and did not even realize that someone was standing in front of him. A few times, when Rabbeinu zt'l was walking back and forth, he even bumped into him and had to turn and go around him. After some time (probably when he finished his topic) he noticed him and suddenly asked how he and his father HaRav Binyomin were."

The Radal's brother-in-law, Reb Zalman, was the grandson of the Gra. He heard a seguloh from him that his mother, the Gra's daughter, heard from her father. The Gra's daughter had lost a number of small children. In her distress, she traveled to her father during one of her pregnancies to ask him to daven for the baby. As he did not hold lengthy conversations, even with his relatives, the Gra answered concisely that as a seguloh she should give the baby two names, the second one being the name of the brother who had previously died. That was the end of the crucial conversation. The daughter, of course, did as her great father commanded.

The baby was named Zalman Ber. Ber was the name of the brother who passed away right before him. This boy was the brother-in- law of the Radal and he told him the story, which he had heard from his mother. The Radal attested that he heard from his brother-in-law that the seguloh was used by a number of parents who lost their children. Even today, this seguloh from the Gra is well-known, perhaps thanks to the fact that the Radal committed it to writing.

On another occasion, the Radal related what he heard from a great disciple of the Gra in Toras hanistor, HaRav Yitzchok Aizik Chover-Vildman from Suvalk. He saw a manuscript of the Gra at his grandson in which the Gra explained the difference of opinion between beis Shammai and beis Hillel in the first mishna in maseches Kiddushin, an explanation in which he cites what he heard from Eliyohu Hanovi.

The Radal's father-in-law's father was zoche to be one of the elite group who was invited to a seuda when the Gra finished his peirush on Safro Detzni'uso. During that meal, the Radal related, the participants ate a fattened chicken that the Gra had obtained from heaven. The baal korei of the Gra's beis medrash also spoke about that holy meal, as he was also one of the participants.

The Radal's entire being spoke of the atmosphere of the Gra's beis medrash. He was especially happy when he obtained a sefer or manuscript in which he found some chiddush of the Gra. His face would shine, his disciples attested, and he was as happy as someone who found a great treasure.

Like the Gra and his disciples, the Radal devoted his entire life to knowing all subjects of the Torah -- revealed and hidden, Chumash and gemora, Zohar and midroshim, Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, tikkunim and writings of the Arizal. "One does not make monuments for tzadikim, because their words are their memorial," he wrote in a letter pertaining to the sefer, Aliyos Eliyohu. "Only to arouse the readers' hearts, to inspire them to desire even walking on the edge of Eliyohu's exalted and princely ways. As Chazal say, `A person is obligated to say when will my deeds reach the deeds of my forefathers.' "

Reb Dovid Luria did indeed endeavor his entire life to reach the deeds of his forefathers.

In our large, active world many natural wonders could remain hidden for generations. Many pass them by without noticing until someone comes and reveals their uniqueness. Mankind is indebted to that person, for if not for him, the discovery could have been lost in the oblivion of history.

This is also the lot of a sefer Torah in the Aron Hakodesh. And this could have been the lot of spiritual works of art such as the Ha'amek Dovor, Ha'amek Sheilo, Meromei Sodeh and the rest of the works of HaRav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, who was known as the Netziv of Volozhin.

The Netziv

The one who presented the Netziv to the Torah world was Rav Dovid Luria.

While traveling by carriage from Volozhin to the nearby train station in Molodzhna, the Netziv once told someone about one of the saddest periods in his life. A young talmid from the yeshiva, Boruch Epstein, was sitting next to him. (The bochur later became famous for his work, the Torah Temimoh.) He was traveling to his parents in Novardok for a family simchah. The elderly rosh yeshiva had a warm relationship with his young talmid, who was also his brother-in-law and nephew. The Netziv had married the daughter of HaRav Michel HaLevi Epstein, rov of Novardok who was known for his Oruch HaShulchon. Boruch Epstein was a ben bayis of the Rosh Yeshiva who gave him special attention, and he absorbed much wisdom in the house that illuminated the Lithuanian golus. This bond enabled the talmid to uncover much of what can be learned from the "ordinary talk" of talmidei chachomim.

The young bochur used the opportunity on the short trip from Volozhin to Molodzhna to inform his rebbi about a member of the yeshiva who was ignored by his peers because they considered him a weak student. Reb Boruch Epstein had a sensitive soul and he cared. The Rosh Yeshiva was surprised and felt the student's pain. The bochur was a masmid, and the Netziv considered hasmodoh to be more important than any other attribute.

In the course of the conversation, in which the Netziv promised to encourage the bochur when he returned to yeshiva, the Netziv related how he himself was a victim of estrangement from the lamdonim. He was quite young when he married the daughter of Reb Itzele of Volozhin. He did not have an outstanding reputation and was considered to be of only average intelligence. Because he was not known for his talents or sharp thinking, he was distanced from the elite group of lamdonim in the yeshiva. "I myself began to believe," the Netziv related, "that I was not destined for greatness and that I knew but little."

Lack of social recognition weakened his spirit and despairing thoughts overcame him. Sometimes, he related, "thoughts of despair overtook me and I almost decided to join the world of simple Jews."

During these dark days, when sad thoughts disturbed the learning of someone who was later considered the biggest masmid of his generation, succor arrived in the form of Rav Dovid Luria. The young avreich and the veteran gaon exchanged letters in which Reb Naftoli Tzvi (Reb Hirsch Leib) disclosed his story. The Radal tried to comfort him and to encourage him. More importantly, he rebuked two of his former students who then gave the young avreich special attention.

After some time, one of the Radal's letters fell into Reb Itzele's hands and he was surprised at the tremendous recognition that his son-in-law merited from one of the gedolei hador. Reb Hirsh Leib's reputation began to rise. Later came the Radal's enthusiastic haskomo of Ha'amek Sheilo, the Netziv's work on the She'iltos. What became of the Netziv afterwards, is certainly well known.

A Libel

Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Shelach 5598 (1838)

The day almost cost him his life. On that day, many people went the same way but not all of them came back safely. For many, it was their last trip, whether in that city or in this world.

The national gendarmes burst into his house and, without advance warning, told him that he was arrested. The reason for the arrest: revolutionary articles against the government found in his writings. He was brought under heavy guard to the capital city, Petersburg, where he was put under investigation in the office of Minister Bekindartz and his assistant Graf Dobalt.

Unfortunately, the libel had solid backing. Revolutionary sentiments were discovered in the large manuscript he was working on then, a peirush on Pirkei deRabi Eliezer. The informers had hidden a revolutionary document in the manuscript.

Rav Dovid Luria was taken to the Shlesselburg prison where he was kept for three and a half months. Further investigation revealed that the handwriting on the revolutionary document was forged. It was not the same handwriting as the rest of the manuscript. Nevertheless, the investigation continued.

Due to tremendous efforts on the part of this friend, Reb Itzele of Volozhin, Rav Dovid was permitted to keep his tallis and tefillin and even to daven daily.

The following is an interesting anecdote about one of the Radal's interrogations. The interrogation was conducted by a number of powerful nobles in Czar Nicholas's government. During the interrogation, they began to speak French among themselves, the language of the elite. They were talking about Rav Dovid.

Rav Dovid suddenly began to move to the other side of the room.

"Stand in your place and don't move," one of the nobles barked at him.

"Sir," the Radal answered in French, "I saw that you were speaking French, so that I would not understand. However, since I understand French and did not want to deceive you, I moved away so I would not hear."

It's hard to know what kind of impression this answer made, but it must have softened the complaint.

Meanwhile, the great work on Pirkei deRabi Eliezer, which many consider the Radal's crowning achievement, was completed. The forty-second chapter and on were written behind bars of the Czarist prison. One who contemplates it and sees its breadth can only be amazed at the conditions under which this great work was written.

The millstones of justice ground slowly but in the end justice prevailed. As the Radal stood before Graf Dobalt, he heard him say, "The innocent is freed from pain and the guilty will come in his stead."

"In the name of the merciful Kaiser may he live forever," read the official writ of release, "I hereby inform you that you are innocent of any misdemeanor." At the meeting, they hinted that those behind the libel would be brought to court and punished to fullest extent of the law.

On erev Shabbos parshas Ki Sovo, the gaon hador arrived in Mohilev, where the residents held a welcoming ceremony outside of the city. On motzei Shabbos he continued on to his own city. Biachov and its nearby villages came out to greet their rov with torches. His first stop was the beis knesses, where he gave a speech of thanksgiving before the thousands who came to see him.

From the beis knesses, he went to his elderly father, Rav Yehuda Luria, a wealthy merchant whose tzidkus deserves an article in itself, where a festive seudas hodo'oh was held.

After the first moments of freedom passed, Rav Dovid was free to fulfill his promise. He had to review Rif on Shas another forty times in order to finish one hundred and one times. He had vowed not to speak to his family until he finished this review. Reviewing the Alfasi forty times took him four months.

It was as if he knew that that year, 5615 (1855), would be his last, the last of fifty-eight years of toil and effort. That's the only way to understand why he separated himself from people specifically then, from motzei Yom Kippur. He was preparing himself for his final day by reviewing and organizing his learning.

His main learning then was in chochmas ho'emes: Zohar, Idros and Safro Detzni'uso.

In his last days, he was very weak and sickness overcame him. His disciples related that his were yissurim of love and did not interfere with his learning and tefillah.

Even on his last day, nothing changed -- neither tikkun chatzos at midnight nor shacharis at vosikin.

On the fifth of Kislev, his soul left in taharoh. It was the parsha of "Vayifge'u vo mal'achei Elokim, and angels of Hashem met him."


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