Three Accounts of Elul in a Bygone World
In a letter written to HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld
zt"l, HaRav Naftoli Yosef Silverberg zt"l told
about his experiences in Slabodka over Rosh Hashonoh in the
year 5664 (1903). "Elul in Slabodka" was a special concept
that all alumni of that great yeshiva remembered. This letter
was first published last year in the Hebrew edition of
Yated, having been generally unknown until it was
discovered erev Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5763, almost a
hundred years after it had been written.
With the onset of Elul, new faces materialized day by day in
the yeshiva. Every train that arrived in Kovna would spew
forth dozens of youths and young married men, come to deepen
their awareness and the trepidation of the pending Judgment.
They came to prepare themselves for a soul-searching
reckoning and truly, with every passing day, this
apprehension was felt more and more in the air of Slabodka.
The study of mussar, which was an integral part of the
daily schedule throughout the year between mincha and
ma'ariv, was doubled now and took place at two set
times, before mincha and before ma'ariv.
Most of the year, the study revolved around the gemora
and its commentaries, and sometimes it was difficult to
wrench the scholars away from their energetic polemics even
by a well-placed pounding on the table that announced the
time for mussar study. During these days, however, the
study was concentrated upon Mesillas Yeshorim, Chovos
Halevovos, Sha'arei Teshuvoh and other such works. The
whole atmosphere in yeshiva was permeated with the spirit of
mussar which percolated even through the pages of the
The nature of the mussar study changed during Elul.
The text and the dwelling upon the deeper meaning of the
words served mainly as a means to open the gates of the heart
for meditation and self-examination against the illumination
of the ideas set forth. During this time, it seemed as if the
soul was transcending the body and somehow merging with its
source, its Creator, and making its own personal reckoning of
cosmic parameters, a calibration of relationships, of acts
between man and fellow man, and man and his Creator.
At one end of the yeshiva courtyard, stood the home of the
Alter (the Saba of Slabodka, ztvk'l). Here he would
sit and contemplate deeply, and hold forth, his mouth gushing
out streams of wisdom and mussar like a veritable
fountain. About him stood youths and young men, huddled
close, trembling with awe, their ears cocked to catch every
precious dewdrop that issued from his mouth, all holding
their breaths so that an utter silence of holiness suffused
The Alter would speak about the sanctity of the upcoming Day
of Judgment, of repenting through love of Hashem, which is
far greater and more exalted than repentance from fear, for
it generates an inner spiritual revolution. From time to
time, he would spice his words with teachings from Chazal
and, wonder of wonders, the selfsame familiar sayings would
receive new meaning, and an innovative illumination would
shine forth. He would shuck off the outer peel to reveal the
mussar- related core therein, through his power of
analysis and his penetrating understanding in life, until
even the elder disciples, the scholastic pride of Yeshivas
Slabodka, would stand gaping in amazement at his brilliant
One group would go and another would take its place, all day
long. The Alter's house hummed with activity like a beehive,
as each group came, remained for the two-hour session of pure
mussar, and were succeeded by the next in line, with
no breathing space in between. You watch this, overwhelmed by
the sheer power of the soul that is latent in this man.
I remember one Shabbos Shuvoh in Slabodka. I was pacing the
floor, engrossed in a personal cheshbon haneffesh, but
my reckoning was somehow coming out all askew. I was
embittered and depressed and decided to seek out the Alter in
order to find some solace and encouragement in his
I came at Sholosh Seudos time. The room was filled
from wall to wall, the men standing elbow to elbow, avidly
and reverently drinking in every word. The Alter spoke about
sin and repentance, explaining the mishnah that reads,
"Whoever says, `I can sin and repent, sin and repent,' is not
given the opportunity to do teshuvoh. [And one who
says,] `I will sin and be pardoned on Yom Kippur' -- is not
forgiven on Yom Kippur."
Suddenly, he stopped and announced that the Rosh Yeshiva,
HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, would be speaking in the
yeshiva immediately and that we must all go there. [We
Unlike the delivery of the Alter, whose words were said
gently, reflectively and with measured logical sequence, the
Rosh Yeshiva's words flowed smoothly, but forcefully and with
great vigor. He would impose dread and fear upon his
audience, rouse them and fire them, exhorting them to be
prepared for the awesome Day of Judgment. He used to conclude
with a sudden direct appeal to the listeners: "Let us now
unanimously declare, in unison, with hearts aligned together:
`Return us, Hashem, unto You, and we will return; renew our
days as of yore!'" And thereupon, all dispersed to their
regular places, and simultaneously from five hundred mouths
would burst forth in the sweet but lugubrious mussar
melody that penetrated deep to one's inner core, to one's
heart and keloyos.
When one of the students finally went up to the omud
and began a mournful, very moving rendition of, "Vehu
rachum yechappeir ovon," my heart was suddenly suffused
with joy and confidence. All the bitter desperation simply
melted away and I felt as if a heavy boulder had been rolled
off of my chest. I felt atonement, cleansing, renewal and a
sense of deep happiness and peace.
Many years have passed since. Yeshivas Slabodka in Kovna went
up in flames and smoke, but whenever Elul comes around my
heart yearns for those holy and dear ruins and for the pure
souls that were buried there. Those souls knew how to rise
above the mundane, the meaningless things in life, and to
attain sublime and exalted levels. They were versed in the
art of rejuvenating their hearts and spirits each year. They
were able to eject from within them all hatred and envy, and
fill the void with a love for all creations. And my lips
murmur a prayer: "Create for us a pure heart, O Hashem, and a
knowing spirit renew within us."
There is another description of Elul in Yeshivas Slabodka
-- Elul 5673 (1913), Elul some ninety years ago. It was
written by HaRav Avrohom Eliyohu Kaplan, zt'l, one of
the leading spiritual thinkers, disciple of Maran the Alter
Carefree and exultant, I sprang from the iron steps of the
train, happy at the thought of having arrived in Kovna-
Slabodka. As I crossed the bridge, I looked about me with
wide-eyed curiosity, hoping I might meet one of my friends. I
traversed the entire bridge without encountering as much as
one acquaintance, and felt irked. I wanted to accost at least
one familiar person; this was some kind of Slabodka egoism.
But I proceeded until I stood at the very gateway leading to
C.M.'s courtyard. I was about to open the gate when the door
of the house opened and before me stood, stooping and
smiling, none other than Yechezkel (HaRav Yechezkel Sarna
"Aleichem sholom. Is the rov here?"
"He hasn't come yet," replied R' Yechezkel. "He will come
The following day was a great day for Slabodka. The Rov (the
Alter of Slabodka) arrived! When I went in to see him,
something interesting happened. He stood amidst a circle of
young men who stretched out their hands in greeting but did
not kiss his. Without even being aware of it, I bent forward
to kiss it. He returned the gesture with a kiss of his own
upon my hand. I was so embarrassed that I had to hide behind
some tall shoulders, which greatly marred the usual pleasant
impression that always gripped me whenever I met the Rov
after a long separation. I stood there hiding, while
listening to the dialogue between him and the others. . .
"You are coming from a physical recreation to a spiritual
recreation, from the months of Tammuz, Av, spent in the midst
of forests and fields, to the month of Elul in the precinct
of the yeshiva. What is the difference between the two? We
all admit that just as the body needs rest and rejuvenation,
so does the soul need invigoration. Even more so, since every
soul is like an ill person when it comes to Elul."
I hear the conversation and I don't know what to do. Should I
continue to listen, to pay attention, to examine my deeds
straightaway? Am I a true Elul-seeker? A true G-d-fearing
person? What then? Am I not an Elul-seeker, one who claims to
be G-d-fearing? . . . How ridiculous it is and how sad to be
asking these two questions, one after the other! Even so,
they are not contradictory.
The Rov continued to speak, adding to his train of thought,
speaking some more until he began to worry: "What shall we do
about our prayers on Rosh Hashonoh? How will we presume to
even open our mouths?"
And I stand there, listening, my heart feeling the truth of
his reflections and my thoughts keeping pace with his
footsteps and mindsteps. I feel myself wholly captivated by
him, and I wholeheartedly accept the sublime ideas that are
already familiar to me from his past teachings.
Soon, I hope to become a full-fledged baal mussar.
Elul 5694 in Slabodka
The Pesach edition of Musaf Shabbos Kodesh of 5757
published a talk with HaRav Simcha Zissel Broide zt'l,
Rosh Yeshivas Chevron. It told about a visit in Slabodka in
5694, which includes following the account of Elul in
We were in the yeshiva in Elul and I heard talks from R'
Isaac Sher ztvk'l and R' Avrohom Grodzensky
ztvk'l, may Hashem avenge their deaths. It was a
unique atmosphere that permeated the depths of one's very
soul, stamped indelibly with the hallmark of the Mussar
movement. R' Avrohom delivered a talk every day, and
their impression carried for a long period afterwards.
What was Elul like in Slabodka?
"I was very young, then; the other yeshiva students were
older, full-fledged Torah scholars. The solemnity was deep.
The atmosphere was completely different. It was a special
kind of Elul, with the seriousness of mature men of spiritual
weight. There was an exalted feeling in the air, a spiritual
elevation, a reverence . . . [it is apparent that R' Simcha
Zissel remembers experiences that he finds difficult to
Later on, he quoted a mussar saying which he heard
from HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky, who delivered an hour-long
talk every single day. His theme was repeated each time: A
person must try his utmost to think and to question. A person
should not remain static and lethargic, without contemplating
and rousing himself.
R' Simcha Zissel quoted one source: When Do'eig Ho'edomi
enumerated all of the good qualities that Dovid possessed, he
included the trait of "knowing how to ask." To this, Shaul
had no rejoinder. From here we can learn the tremendous
advantage inherent in knowing how to ask, to question and to
inquire. By constantly asking and seeking, a person will
always aspire to progress and improve.