Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Adar I 5763 - February 27, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








In Reb Maille's Courtyard

by N. Lavi

Maran R' Yisroel Zeev Gustman zt"l was a rosh yeshiva of Ramailles when he was still a young man in Vilna. When the Nazis invaded Vilna, he fled and was saved by a miracle. The yeshiva began in a courtyard known as "Reb Maille's Yard." A childless woman donated a number of houses in that yard for the purpose of founding a yeshiva. The heads of that yeshiva were great Torah personalities, among them HaRav Yisroel Salanter. HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky was one of its patrons. Netzach Yisroel Ramailles, which is currently located in Yerushalayim's Rechavia neighborhood, was founded in memory of its counterpart in Vilna.

In the Beis Hamedrash Hagodol deVilna al Shem Rabbi Eliyahu, talmidei chachomim who pore over their studies day and night are seated at tables laden with seforim. Near them are laymen who have come to study as much as possible after a long and arduous workday. Only the bochurim have no one who will teach them how to live and how to learn. No one, that is, until the day three of the baalei battim who studied in that beis medrash regularly - - R' Boruch ben R' Moshe Chait, R' Yehoshua Chait, R' Meir ben R' Aryeh Stemfaver -- approached R' Yoel Naftoli Hertz, and asked him to be the rosh yeshiva, promising him four zehuvim (gold coins) a week.

Slowly, bochurim from Vilna and its environs began to assemble in the Gra beis medrash, until it was too small to hold them all. And so, the young men who had come to imbibe the teachings of R' Yoel Naftoli Hertz moved to the beis medrash of the Chaits, in the Kreines yard in Jews' Street of Vilna.

In this courtyard lived a pious and G-d-fearing Jew named Shabsai ben R' Shabsai, who earned his living by sweeping the chimneys of Vilna's Jews. R' Shabsai was very excited over the idea, and made a special effort to find the group an apartment which would serve as a dining room for the yeshiva. In addition, he went from door to door, collecting bread, flour, salt and other food provisions for the poor bnei yeshiva. His righteous wife Devorah helped him, and even laundered the clothes of the bochurim.

Ramailles -- Named After Whom?

In the Jewish ghetto of Vilna there was a yard called "R' Maille's yard" after its first owner. In it were a number of houses which belonged to Mrs. Sorah Tobias who, as later noted in the yeshiva's ledger, had purchased them for four hundred rubles. Since she had no children, she bequeathed those houses to Vilna's gabbo'ei tzedokoh for the purpose of founding a yeshiva. The gabboim appointed three of Vilna's gedolim to oversee the bequest: HaRav Avrohom Abeli Poswoler (niftar 5596); HaRav Zalman ben R' Uri and R' Yehoshua Neishtetter.

When R' Shabsai heard that a number of homes had been earmarked for a yeshiva, he rushed to the gabboim, and persuaded them to give the houses to the recently-founded yeshiva. Reb Shabsai renovated a number of the houses, and then they were transferred to the yeshiva. A chanukas habayis was held on the 20th of Tammuz, 5591 (1831).

The next day, which was erev Shabbos kodesh, news spread throughout Vilna like wildfire, that R' Shabsai had suddenly passed away. Many of the talmidei chachomim in the city attended his funeral and a heavy mourning fell over the city. The rosh yeshiva, HaRav Yoel Naftoli Hertz, instructed that the following be inscribed on R' Shabsai's tombstone: "Upright and whole . . . a loyal shepherd. He was linked to Hashem with all his heart and all his possessions; he accepted the yoke of Heaven in purity. He seated Torah learners in his home and during his life he restored Torah's glory [in the form of] the new beis medrash. He collected much money and . . . did much chesed. R' Shabsai ben R' Shabsai zt"l who died on erev Shabbos kodesh, the 20th of Tammuz, 5591."

After the shiva, Vilna's askonim chose a committee of ten prominent leaders who resolved to continue to strengthen the yeshiva, which had finally found a residence in the yard of R' Maille. To this day, it is called Yeshivas Ramailles.

The Roshei Yeshiva

As we noted, the rosh yeshiva was R' Yoel Hertz, who served in this capacity from the day of the founding of the yeshiva in 5591 until the day of his death on Shabbos kodesh, 2 Sivan, 5618 (1858). Joining him were, HaRav Abeli (who served as the yeshiva's president) and HaRav Eliezer Teitz, a student of R' Akiva Eiger. The name Teitz stemmed from the fact that he had arrived in Vilna in Ashkenazic dress. After a number of years, he left his position in Ramailles and, for various reasons, moved to other cities. He died in Brodt, on the 7th of Kislev 5614 (1854).

However, foremost among the yeshiva's roshei yeshiva was, without a doubt, R' Mordechai Meltzer, who assumed that position a little after the establishment of the yeshiva. R' Mordechai was born in Vilna in 5557 (1797), in the last year of the life of the Gra. His father was R' Osher Kletzky, a great talmid chochom who passed away on rosh chodesh Cheshvan and is buried in Vilna's Jewish cemetery next to the author of the Chayei Odom, who was niftar a month earlier, on Tishrei 4, 5581 (1821). As a child, his unique talents, memory and diligence were evident.

Vilna's elders used to relate: The brilliant gaon R' Mordechai Marshus, the av beis din of Paritsk and author of Bei'ur al Sefer Hamaraham Schiff, had lodged at the home of the tzaddik R' Leibli the son of R' Berish, who was both a gabbai tzedokoh and the parness of the city. R' Leibli accorded the gaavad Paritsk the honor of speaking in the old beis medrash of Vilna, and all of the city's greatest scholars came to hear his brilliant discourse. Among them was R' Osher Kletzky and his son R' Mordechai, who was twelve at the time. In the middle of the brilliant droshoh, the young child rose and asked a question from the Maharsho, to which the gaavad could not reply. From that time on, all Vilna praised the young Mordechai.

When he came of age, he married the daughter of the gvir Reb Leib Meltzer and, as a result, took the family name of his father-in-law and became R' Mordechai Meltzer. Immediately, he established a yeshiva in the beis medrash of the wealthy Reb Dovid Strashon ( the father-in- law of HaRav Shmuel Strashon -- the Rashash). Even then, many flocked to learn with him.

However what really made him well-known was his appointment as the rosh yeshiva of Ramailles. When this occurred, his students followed after him lovingly. He produced many students, among them famous gedolei Torah.

He headed the yeshiva of Ramailles for twenty years. At the end of that period he was offered a rabbinic position in Kolvaria. During Aseres Yemei Teshuva of 5612 he left the yeshiva. In 5624 (1864) he was appointed gaavad of Lida, where he became known as a worker of wonders, to whom many turned for help. (Hameilitz, Volume 28, the edition of Tuesday, 21 Nisan 5648.)

A Young Ram

In 5600, the staff of elderly and brilliant roshei yeshiva was joined by a thirty-year-old avreich: Maran, the gaon, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter.

Even though he was very young at the time, Reb Yisroel, who resided in his father-in-law's house in Salant, had become known throughout the country and many important rabbinical posts were offered him. But he firmly rejected them all, personally fulfilling Chazal's dictum: "Despise the rabbonus."

When Ramailles's trustees heard about him, they sent prominent emissaries to him, with the following writ of appointment: "We the trustees of the yeshiva gedola in Vilna, located in Reb Maille's yard have, along with the prominent rabbonim and mashgichim of the yeshiva, convened in order to supervise the yeshiva and to spread Torah's glory. We have agreed to appoint kevod HaRav Hamaor Hagodol, Chorif Uboki, Hamefursam, Morenu HaRav Yisroel miSalant ben HaRav Hamaor Hagodol, Morenu HaRav Zev Wolf, av beis din deTelz, the first rosh yeshiva of our yeshiva, for a period of five years starting today. [His task will be] to study with the good students whom the trustees will select. [He will] head the yeshiva and deliver a daily shiur in the beis medrash of the yeshiva. We, the trustees and the mashgichim, are fully obligated to support him and to pay him a weekly salary of four rubles. For a week in which a holiday falls, his salary will be eight rubles. We will also pay his rental from the funds of the yeshiva and are fully obligated to do so throughout his entire term of office here. This writ of appointment may be used for his benefit throughout his entire term of office.

With the hope of fulfilling all that is hereby stated, we sign: Binyomin Wolf ben R' Zalman Kletzky, Moshe ben R' Zerach, Avrohom Mordechai ben R' Shabsai z'l, Yitzchok ben R' Nechemia, Gershon ben Morenu HaRav Moshe of Amsterdam, Moshe Yehoshua ben R' Binyomin Beinish."

R' Yisroel Salanter accepted the offer of the heads of Yeshivas Ramailles. Towards the end of 5600 (1840) he arrived in Vilna and began to deliver shiurim there. But quite soon R' Yisroel began to feel that the fact that he had been appointed rosh yeshiva at so young an age offended the honor of HaRav Mordechai Meltzer. When certain people even began to provoke fights, R' Yisroel resigned from his position as the rosh yeshiva of Ramailles and founded a new yeshiva in the Zaretzi lot in Vilna. It was fully supported by the wealthy R' Chaim Baskess.

With the opening of the new yeshiva, many students from Vilna and its environs streamed to R' Yisroel Salanter. Nonetheless, a strong bond continued to exist between the rabbonim and students of the Ramailles yeshiva and R' Yisroel's yeshiva throughout that entire period.

When he was still the rosh yeshiva of Ramailles, R' Yisroel founded the Beis Hamussar. It was located near the yeshiva, in the courtyard of the tzaddik R' Zalman R' Uris. It was there that he taught the Mesillas Yeshorim and Chovos Halevovos. At his initiative, Cheshbon Hanefesh of R' Mendel Satnauer was published during that period, as well as Goren Nochon of the Rashbag, a work on character improvement.

In 5608 (1848) a cholera epidemic, which claimed many lives, broke out in Vilna. R' Yisroel marshaled his courage and convened many public meetings, at which he aroused the people to do teshuva sheleimoh, and to extend financial aid to the victims and their families.

On erev Yom Kippur 5609, he hung announcements in all of Vilna's shuls and botei medrash instructing the people not to fast, to shorten the piyutim, and then to go to the outskirts of the town to breathe fresh air.

After shacharis of Yom Kippur, R' Yisroel himself went up to the bimoh, recited a borei minei mezonos, and ate in full view of the entire congregation, so that all would follow suit.

That very same year, an edict was issued by the government to found Rabbinical Seminaries in Vilna and Zhitomir. The communal leaders of Vilna sought to appoint R' Yisroel as a gemora teacher in the new Beis Medrash, while he who had recommended him, Kalman Shulman, was appointed a Tanach and Hebrew grammar teacher.

R' Yisroel of course refused this appointment and, after the heads of the community began to pressure him, left Yeshivas Ramailles in secret, and moved to Kovno where he founded the Beis Medrash lePerushim, which was financed by the wealthy R' Hirsch Neviezer.

Other Luminaries

Throughout the years, Yeshivas Ramailles merited ramim of the highest caliber -- the city's greatest geonim and tzaddikim. A survey of the various archives and records of the yeshiva mentions some of them.

R' Alexander Epstein passed away on the 11th of Av, 5623, at a ripe old age in Vilna. His place as the rosh yeshiva of Ramailles was filled by his only son, HaRav Yitzchok Epstein, who held this position until his death on rosh chodesh Teves, 5642 (1882).

During R' Alexander Epstein's tenure as the rosh yeshiva of Ramailles, HaRav Yitzchok ben R' Binyomin Beinish, the grandson of R' Tzvi Hirsch the gaavad of Zazmor, served as a ram. He occupied this position for fourteen years and died when he was only fifty-two, on the 13th of Adar Sheini, 5624, a year after the death of the Rosh Yeshiva R' Alexander Epstein.

For a few decades, Ramailles was called Yeshivas Yaakov Piaskin, in honor of its later rosh yeshiva who directed it with a strong hand and stamped it with his unique seal.

R' Yaakov was the grandson of HaRav Yisroel, the gaavad of Piask, the brother of the author of Chamudei Daniel of Horodna. He was one of Vilna's greatest talmidei chachomim and was zoche to both wealth and Torah scholarship. Throughout most of his life he pored over his Torah studies, studying along with HaRav Abeli. Earning a livelihood was his incidental pursuit and Torah was his main one. He founded the Hebrew printing house in Vilna which functioned during the years 5595-96.

In 5617, the gedolim of Vilna appointed HaRav Yaakov Piaskin rosh yeshiva of Ramailles, where he had a strong impact. R' Yaakov Piaskin was niftar on rosh chodesh Adar Sheini, 5635. He left behind many unpublished chidushim. During his life he published Tumas Yeshorim on aggodoh and mussar, as well as Yad Hachazokoh on the Haggodoh. When he was niftar, he was replaced by his eldest son HaRav Shmuel Piaskin, who was a great talmid chochom and who taught in Ramailles for fifteen years and produced many students. He died on Taanis Esther, 5650 (1890).

After R' Shmuel Piaskin's passing, he was replaced as rosh yeshiva by R' Shmuel Isser Hachohen who had been a ram in the yeshiva for scores of years. R' Shmuel Isser was the son-in-law of R' Eliezer Diveger, who was known as a great masmid who had studied in the beis medrash of the Gra day and night for his entire life. R' Shmuel Isser was niftar at the age of eighty on the 20th of Teves, 5652, after having taught Torah and serving as a rosh yeshiva in Ramailles for thirty-eight years.

From Baranowitz to Ramailles

In Sivan 5697 (1937), HaRav Shlomo Heiman, one of Lithuania's great ramim from the pre-Holocaust generation, was appointed rosh yeshiva of Ramailles. R' Shlomo Heiman was born in Paritsh, a city in the Minsk region of White Russia, to R' Michel in 5652. From the age of twelve he studied in the Halosk yeshiva (Kaminetz) under R' Boruch Ber Leibowitz, who was very fond of him. He remained there until 5678 when he married the daughter of R' Yochonon Rudensky of Volozhin (the brother-in-law of R' Simcha Zelig Riger of Brisk, as well as R' Nechemia the av beis din of Butkov, and R' Eliezer Yitzchok the great sage of Krementchug).

During the First World War, R' Shlomo was drafted into the Russian army for a brief time. While on the front, he managed to review the entire tractate of Kesuvos from beginning to end, while serving in the trenches.

After his marriage, his great mentor R' Boruch Ber appointed him ram in his yeshiva Knesses Beis Yitzchok-Kaminetz. At that time, the yeshiva had wandered from Slobodka to Krementchug. From then he gained renown as one of the gedolim of the Lithuanian yeshiva world. After the First World War he began to deliver shiurim in Ohel Torah of Baranowitz, headed by HaRav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy"d.

At the request of R' Chaim Ozer of Vilna, who was the patron of Yeshivas Ramailles, R' Shlomo became its rosh yeshiva, a position he held for nearly eight years from 5687 to 5695 (1927-35). In 5695 he was invited to head Mesivta Torah Vodaas in the United States, founded by Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz and his colleagues. With the approval of R' Chaim Ozer he accepted that position, and in that way, Hashgochoh spared him from the valley of death. He was niftar young at the age of 52 in 5705 (1945).

Netzach Yisroel

In 5690, while R' Shlomo Heiman was still a rosh yeshiva in Ramailles, the twenty-two year old gaon HaRav Zeev Gustman was appointed as a ram there. HaRav Yisroel Zeev, who at that time was a member of the beis din of R' Chaim Ozer in Vilna, had already gained wide acclaim.

With R' Shlomo's departure from the yeshiva, the image of R' Yisroel Zeev Gustman grew stronger and many of the bnei yeshiva flocked to his unique shiurim.

Even with the outbreak of the Second World War, the studies in Ramailles continued as usual, and the quality of the learning as well as the number of students -- some of whom had come from other yeshivos, increased. When the Nazis invaded Vilna, they stormed the yeshiva and invaded R' Zeev Gustman's private dwelling. Brutally they beat him until he collapsed. By a miracle he was spared, and he fled for his life.

After many wanderings, R' Yisroel Zeev reached Brooklyn, where he founded Netzach Yisroel-Ramailles in memory of the illustrious yeshiva in Vilna, and began to deliver regular shiurim there.

In 5721 HaRav Gustman moved to Eretz Yisroel and transferred his yeshiva to the Rechavia section of Yerushalayim. Today its rosh yeshiva is his son- in-law, R' Michel Berniker.


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