Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Iyar 5763 - May 7, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Igros HaNetziv MeVolozhin -- New Letters from the Netziv

by G. Safran

Some two hundred previously unknown letters of the Netziv (an acronym for [HaRav] Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin zt'l, the famed rosh yeshiva of Volozhin Yeshiva) were recently published in a sefer called Igros HaNetziv MeVolozhin. This impressive work includes informative letters about matters of Torah, chinuch, yeshivos, protecting our sacred Jewish values, social relationships and other diverse subjects. The collection is made up of letters from manuscripts, seforim and now-rare publications that were published during the Netziv's lifetime.

It is well known that Maran the Netziv ztvk'l was zocheh that almost all of the writings that he prepared for publication were eventually printed and disseminated throughout Klal Yisroel. He published most of them during his lifetime and the others, which were miraculously preserved, were published posthumously.

Igros HaNetziv MeVolozhin includes only a small part of the thousands of private and public letters Rabbenu sent throughout the Jewish world. The letters included in this new sefer constitute a wealth of crystal-clear Torah viewpoints that are as important and relevant today as they were then. Since a single newspaper article is obviously insufficient for reviewing all of the letters, we shall restrict ourselves to citing two instructive letters that illustrate the significance of the material included in Igros HaNetziv MeVolozhin.

Educational Guidelines -- Keep Yerushalayim Pure

An incisive letter about educational institutions and botei medrash not adhering to Torah values, was sent from Volozhin on the night of bedikas chometz 5642 (April 2, 1882). At this time, when all Jews--and the rabbonim and morei horo'oh in particular--are overwhelmed with matters of the approaching yom tov of Pesach, the Netziv found it necessary to steal from his valuable time to warn Klal Yisroel about a new breach in Torah observance.

The letter was sent to "my sister's son, my beloved, the eminent rov who is both sharp-minded and proficient in Torah study . . . my relative, Morenu R' E. Ziskind Shachor, the renowned rov who lives in the city of Hashem amidst the mountains of our G-d."

The Netziv expresses his concern about the attempt of European Jews to establish educational institutions in Yerushalayim that are based on new systems of education. "Since rich London Jews love the old Yerushalayim, they are yearning to rejuvenate it and to "adapt" it to today's time and age. They are planning to open a school for foreign languages and are not afraid that perhaps through this the students will discard the yoke of Heaven (and tomorrow they will desire to set up theaters as Hordos did in his times)."

The Netziv bolsters the G-d-fearing Jews living in Yerushalayim who had already declared an uncompromising war against that new initiative. "And the spirit of the elderly mother (Yerushalayim) who abhors [such innovations] breathed into the hearts of her sons the desire to scorn them vigorously."

The Rosh Yeshiva was apprehensive that the initiators appointed people with Torah backgrounds as heads of their new institution, and that this would mislead parents into sending their children there. "They wisely appointed the eminent person R' . . . , since they figured that since he too has studied Talmud as those who emigrated from Russia and Poland, and he is likewise skilled in science and foreign languages, he will be successful in founding a school of their liking. No one will be able to oppose him since he was also sent by the ministers (reference to people connected with Sir Moshe Montefiore) from the capital London."

The Netziv also warned against the attempt to justify this initiative by raising arguments against the chalukah (the organized distribution of tzedokoh money sent from the Diaspora to support the poor people in Eretz Yisroel) of those living in the old settlement. "How foolish are these Jewish ministers to think that through this [setting up a new type of school] they will beautify their old mother's face [Yerushalayim] so it will find grace before the other nations. They imagine that if [those of] the new generation act wisely they will wear French clothes and will not need the spoilt chalukah-bread of the old settlement.

"They cannot be blamed for their treachery against sacred Jewish values since they are totally unacquainted with them and their sin is unintentional. However the eminent . . . was raised on the study of Talmud and saw with his own eyes how Russian and Polish Jews declined spiritually in the schools of Vilna and Zhitomir [rabbinical colleges] and in all other places. No one who studied in those schools finished his studies with a true concept of the kedushoh in the Talmud, and some strayed even further away [from the Torah]. That person should have understood that this is not the way leading to the Tree of Life in the Holy Land upon which the eyes of Hashem constantly rest.

"True, not everyone comprehends why such a school caused so much hefkeirus. However, this is not the time to go into that question. Experience is wiser than any human being, and we must vigorously distance ourselves from this [initiative]."

Maran the Netziv ztvk'l also explained that the establishment of institutions that include secular studies will prevent yerei'im usheleimim from living in the Holy Land, since they will not want to risk being exposed to the contagious disease of atheism and its ilk.

"It will be like bnei Yisroel said in the time of Coresh who wanted the Jews to immigrate to the Holy Land. They refused because, `I have washed my feet, how shall I soil them?' (Shir HaShirim 5:30). The Medrash Shir HaShirim teaches us: `I washed my feet from the filth of avodoh zorah. I know that the dust of that place seduces me to engage in avodoh zorah.' If they refrained from immigrating to the Holy Land as Hashem truly wanted, because they feared being influenced by the yetzer of avodoh zorah which was so powerful at that time in Eretz Yisroel, what can we possibly say? We most certainly must distance ourselves from a place that seduces to apikorsus, which is halachically and logically worse than avodoh zorah."

He teaches us a rudimentary principle that the Holy Land and the Holy City are liable to be a sought-after target for the sitra achra (i.e., the Divine powers of evil) whose ability to wreak damage is far greater in holy places because Hashem tests us more there, and thus makes such places more dangerous to live in.

"The nature of the Holy City of Yerushalayim is that the sitra achra resides there. Hashem has caused both the intensive power of kedushoh and of the yetzer hora to concurrently exist there.

"The Midrash Shir HaShirim teaches on the verse `Surely just as I have done to Shomron and its false gods, so shall I do to Yerushalayim and its idols" (Yeshaya 10:11) that there was no avodoh zorah in the world that was not worshiped in Yerushalayim. Likewise, in the time of the second Beis Hamikdosh the spirit of apikorsus spread by the sect of the Tzedukim, as we know, was very prevalent. In contrast, Jerusalem was the residence of marvelous zealots, who endangered their lives to devotedly fight for Hashem.

"The justice of this is not up to us to decide or comprehend, but our old Mother [Yerushalayim] is accustomed to kicking at her children who want to adorn her with the beautiful things of non-Jews. Because Herod loved his old Mother [Yerushalayim] he established theaters there. It is well known how many Jews forfeited their lives because they opposed that king's ideology. They opposed him, although Herod was wise enough to benefit also those adhering to values of kedushoh by building the Beis Hamikdosh with abundant splendor, and doing other benevolent acts. Nonetheless, when he did such things they opposed him fiercely . . . as history teaches us.

"Why should we seek wisdom from the zealots of the `new age,' those whom Yerushalayim is unfamiliar with, who come in the name of the London ministers? He wants to set up in Yerushalayim a school that will lead to hefkeirus, and at any rate will decrease the diligence of studying Talmud in the most holy city in Eretz Yisroel, the guardian of our religion . . . It is hence not surprising that there are zealots in Yerushalayim who act in the manner of the old mother who kicks at her son who tries to cause her to forsake the Torah. She does so since her life is dependent upon it, and does not worry about being held responsible for her deeds by those who presume themselves to be wise.

"Now your eminence should understand that I blame that scholar . . . who jumped into a pot of boiling-hot water. He did not check out properly what he is getting into and did not act like the clever person, cited in Bereishis Rabboh (6:6) who saw a bear decorated with precious stones and said to those around him, `You are looking at what is on it, but I am looking at its teeth.' He should have thought this over before he agreed to the noble Jewish ministers in London who have the wealth to enrich Jews but whose teeth are disgusting to those living in the Holy City.

"It may be said in his defense -- and I am well aware -- that he is not going there before he wants to become rich but because he lacks a livelihood and, `for a loaf of bread man will have become a sinner' (Mishlei 28:21), and also a wise person . . . and with regard to the matter in question, I want to tell you that this person was never instructed in Torah and certainly not in derech eretz by me, but nonetheless, at this bad time perhaps he will accept my view and as a result will be blissful in this world and will benefit in the World to Come. He should have enough sense to see that he will not find peace and tranquility through debating with others, nor will he find grace and honor in the eyes of Hashem and His nation by means of the blatant words that he or the journalists, `the big rebukers,' write.

"If he wants to live at ease and enjoy a secure life, he should strengthen himself as much as he can and transfer the school from the Holy City of Yerushalayim. He should distance himself from this ugliness and anything similar to it. That school is good neither for Ashkenazim nor for Sephardim. If he is clever enough, he should be able to convince the Alliance Israelite Universelle and ministers of London, and he will live in Eretz Yisroel with the explicit aim of increasing kedushoh for Hashem and intensifying the study of Talmud in Yerushalayim. If he does this he will find many friends, and he will also find rest for himself from the bother of dealing with knotty community matters.

"Although all Jews are wise and know how to analyze problems, he should act in a way that will cause Hashem's Name to be engraved on his actions . . . It seems to me that he would not be disgraced by helping the Orphan House founded by the gaon and tzaddik R' Yeruchom Leib Diskin. The real honor for a person is [not when he defeats others but rather] when he defeats himself, and I shall write if it will be needed."

Torah Study and Misguided Love of Hashem

In an additional letter Maran the Netziv explains the great importance, especially today, of setting aside fixed times for studying Torah and the great benefits that such study brings.

"Studying Torah through organizing laymen in groups lessens quarrels among Jews and increases Torah supporters. Doubtless there are many who only began to rebel against the Talmud, our mentors the Rishonim and what is explicit in Shulchan Oruch, because they were themselves removed from studying Torah. Because of their being detached from Torah study, they started being lenient with stringencies, minhagim and warnings, because of what they [mistakenly] understand that mussar seforim teach us. If they engage in Torah they too will become knowing.

"We should not consider these people as minim or apikorsim, chas vesholom. When they become united in Torah study, they will think of ways to strengthen the Torah and to overcome those who deny the Talmud. The larger the group is, the more they strengthen themselves and will search out ways to help. They should consult together and Hashem will hear and help them to completely protect their children from minus."

In the same letter he writes at length explaining a cardinal principle that is cited in several places in his writings, but is expounded here more clearly and at greater length. This is the need to seek yiras Hashem and deveikus to the Creator solely in the way the Torah directs us.

He writes that only Torah study will save us from a potential error that we might commit precisely because we want to elevate ourselves in yirah and deveikus.

"An additional benefit from Torah study by the public at large is that they will learn how to behave according to Chazal, the Talmud and the Shulchan Oruch. [In general] we do not change the way we act, because of some person who reckons we should do something else that is more proper for avodas Hashem.

"At the time of the first Beis Hamikdosh, true Torah- observant Jews who didn't serve idols, [nonetheless] brought sacrifices on private altars (bomos) even though doing so [is a very serious sin that] incurs a koreis punishment. They did so because the priests who ran the bomos were eminent people who told them that by doing so they can more easily attain love and deveikus to HaKodosh Boruch Hu, and as a result they will not need to bother traveling to Yerushalayim [to the Beis Hamikdosh].

"Since they thought this aveiroh to be a mitzvah, the righteous kings of Yehuda like Assa and Yehoshofot could not prevent them from committing this sin. `The people still slaughtered and burnt sacrifices on the bomos' (Melochim I 22:42). They thought this to be a mitzvah to such a degree that, when Chizkiyohu Hamelech annulled all the bomos, Ravshokeih said [to everyone], `And you will tell me, We trust in Hashem our G-d'--is He not the One Whose bomos and altars Chizkiyohu has removed? And he [then] said to Yehuda and Yerushalayim, "Only before this altar may you prostrate yourselves, in Yerushalayim?" (Melochim II 18:22).'

"We see that Ravshokeih thought that Chizkiyohu had sinned greatly. This is because Ravshokeih was a mumar and in his youth he had heard in his father's house that it is a sin to prevent people from deveikus and love of Hashem. However, the truth is that sacrificing on the bomos is punished with koreis.

"Profound insight into the reason why Chizkiyohu succeeded in abolishing the nation's mistaken habit as opposed to the failure of Assa and Yehoshofot in this respect, shows that he derived his power from his extensive dissemination of Torah. Even though the masses studied Torah only because they were afraid of being punished by Chizkiyohu's sword, it helped prevent sin and caused people to behave strictly according to daas Torah rather than to follow popular opinion.

"Similarly, today many Torah-observant and yirei Hashem act according to what they think is proper in order to attain ahavas Hashem. They do so even though it is against what the Talmud and the Shulchan Oruch teach us, because they rely on a saying of Chazal (Sanhedrin 106b), `Hashem wants the heart.' Because of this, they come to do many aveiros and claim they do so for the sake of Heaven so they can attain love of Hashem.

"However if the masses study Torah, and they do so in order to fulfill what is written in it, they will be protected from improper opinions. A person will not worship Hashem the way he himself likes, chas vesholom, but will do everything according to the Talmud.

"It is an ironclad rule that if we truly want to preserve Torah observance, the only way to accomplish this is through making Torah study the main objective in life, and it does not matter if that study is lishmoh (without subjective ulterior motives) or not.

"Only Hashem knows a person's intention. It is HaKodosh Boruch Hu Who knows how to make someone who studies Torah successful in his study. We do not know anything about this.

"In this way Torah studies will increase significantly. And even those who think themselves wiser than everybody will realize that the fulfilling of the Talmud is the wall that protects us."

The Sefer

As we said above, a newspaper article is inadequate to cover all the subjects included in this treasury of daas Torah. Talmidei chachomim who have seen the sefer commented that the enormous benefit from reading the Netziv's letters is obvious even from merely skimming over them.

Careful perusal of this Torah treasury provides one with insight into the author's most intimate thoughts, his way of dealing with others, and his manner of action in matters outside of the four cubits of halochoh.

Besides the wealth of halachic knowledge one gains from these letters, they provide a testimony and commemoration of the history of that period seen through the spiritual eyes of one of the giants charged with bequeathing Torah to generation.

As previously mentioned, the editor put particular emphasis on letters of the Netziv ztvk'l which shed light on complicated topics involving the Torah perspective and ways of dealing with current problems. In these letters are interwoven Torah principles and halochos, together with explanations of pesukim and midroshim as the Netziv was accustomed to doing. In almost every one of his letters he made an effort to either add some chidushei Torah or to insert notes and clarifications of the teachings of Chazal.

Historians have pointed out that the Netziv wrote dozens of letters each day, all without secretarial assistance. The ability to read numerous letters addressed to him and to immediately reply to them in writing is remarkable, in particular since the topics of his correspondence were many and varied. These included matters concerning the Volozhin Yeshiva proper, Jewish community problems, piskei halochoh, discourses in divrei Torah, advice and guidance for individuals regarding their personal matters, responses to authors who sent their seforim for him to peruse and to award his respected approbation, responses to critical comments on his own seforim, as well as letters to Torah organizations and institutions, to Jewish newspapers and to relatives.

This deluge of letters to him demanding his attention came from the entire Jewish world, because of the fame of the Volozhin Yeshiva of which he served as rosh yeshiva, because of the respect in which he was held for his true Torah greatness, and because of the knowledge that he dedicated his time and attention to every letter, and scrupulously answered each one within a short time. The number of his correspondents grew over the years because of his prompt and comprehensive answers. All this did not interfere with his separate efforts to disseminate his latest halachic teshuvos throughout the Torah World.

HaRav Yaakov Kosofsky-Shachor (the son of HaRav Shaul zt'l, the author of Dvar Shaul) undertook the enormous work of gathering together all this copious material and preparing it for publication.

HaRav Kosofsky-Shachor is descended from the family of the Netziv. The head of his family , HaRav Chaim Arye Shachor zt'l from the town of Mir, renowned as a gaon in Torah and proficient in all its different fields, was married to the sister of the Netziv. The Netziv mentions his sister in Teshuvos Meishiv Dovor at the end of part II: "These are chidushim in hilchos aveilus that I thought of during the mourning for my mother and older sister."

The editor of this collection has extensive experience in collections of this kind, having published the writings and letters of HaRav Chaim Ozer ztvk'l and HaRav Chaim Berlin zt"l (son of the Netziv), and having edited the letters of HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon and those of the author of the Oruch HaShulchon. This, coupled with the great effort put into gathering this voluminous material, boruch Hashem, resulted in a sefer brimming with unknown letters of the Netziv, the architect of the "mother of yeshivos" who headed the Volozhin Yeshiva for more than forty years. He was the son-in-law of HaRav Yitzchok Volozhiner who in turn was the son of Rabbeinu Chaim of Volozhin ztvk'l founder of that great yeshiva. With the passing of his father-in-law in 5608 (1848) he was appointed second- rosh-yeshiva, and with the passing of his older brother- in-law five years later he was appointed rosh yeshiva, a position he held until the yeshiva closed in 5652 (1892).

The Volozhin Yeshiva serves, until this very day, as a model that is emulated and followed. Its uncompromising stand against introduction of secular subjects into the yeshiva's curriculum, ensuring that its talmidim will study Torah with complete tohoroh, is the blueprint for yeshiva studies all over the world.


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