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10 Av 5764 - July 28, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Home and Family

The Aliya of R' Isser Zalman Meltzer
by Yisca Shimony

It was a cold and rainy Monday morning, Rosh Chodesh Shvat, 5685. At ten o'clock, a large crowd gathered in the Eitz Chaim Yeshiva, located in the courtyard of the Churva Synagogue in the Old City. When it was packed full, the doors were closed and many disappointed people were left outside.

The honorary guest arrived on schedule at eleven. The rabbonim kept praising the eminent new Rosh yeshiva, R' Isser Zalman Meltzer, who had arrived recently from the Polish town of Kletzk. Eventually, the introductory speeches ended and the new Rosh Yeshiva delivered his first shiur to the packed audience of Jerusalem's elite Torah scholars. It was clear that a new era had just begun and that a major change was taking place. This first shiur truly fulfilled the expectations of the many erudite talmidei chachomim of Jerusalem.

R' Isser Zalman Meltzer was a product of the Lithuanian yeshivos of Volozhin, Radin and Slobodka, and he was expected to create in Eitz Chaim a synthesis of the Lithuanian style of learning (of acquiring knowledge for the purpose of teaching others and of creating a continuation and lineage of pure Torah study in Klal Yisroel), on the one hand, and on the other, to combine it with the diligence of the talmidei chachomim of Jerusalem who devoted their whole lives to study in the beis hamedrosh.

It was obvious that the new synthesis of both schools was going to enhance the learning of the noted Eitz Chaim Yeshiva of Jerusalem, and the audience was filled with enthusiasm.


"Beila Hinda, there's a letter for you from your chosson," Golda Frank, the rich widow, addressed her young daughter, handing her a closed envelope. With a bright smile, Beila Hinda retired to the large library to read the letter in privacy. But the smile was soon wiped off her face - - the letter bore bad news, and as she continued to read, the tears began flowing freely unto the pages.

Mrs. Frank peeked in and was surprised to see her daughter crying bitterly.

"What happened in Mir?" she asked in concern.

"He is very sick," whispered the young bride.

"He will recover soon," promised the mother.

"He is sick with consumption," wept Beila Hinda.

For a moment, Golda Frank stood still. Then she walked over to the window and gazed out at the blooming flowers and the blue skies above. The world is celebrating spring as though nothing has happened. "When was the tuberculosis diagnosed?" she asked, finding it difficult to utter the word.

"Recently. My chosson suggests that under the circumstances, we break the engagement."

"It is your decision, Beila Hinda," said her mother. "What do you intend to do?"

"Had I already been his wife, I would do everything in my power to make him well again. Consumption can be cured. Now, however, it seems that I do have a choice..." She looked at her mother with tear stained eyes, shaking her head slowly from side to side. "But I am not going to make the choice myself. I shall travel to the Chofetz Chaim and ask his opinion."

The distance from Kovna, Lithuania, to Radin in Poland is great. Beila Hinda sat in the train, keeping her eyes glued to her Tehillim. The scenery outside did not arouse her interest. Eventually, she grew tired and closed her eyes, but couldn't fall asleep. She kept on thinking about her imminent meeting with the godol hador. She would tell him about her deceased father's wish that she marry a great talmid chochom. Her chosson -- and until, that is, if and when, she broke the engagement, that is what he still was -- certainly met that criterion. However, she was afraid of becoming a widow, herself. Being an orphan was difficult enough... Her emotions were all stirred up with these conflicting thoughts that raged behind her closed eyes.

She reached her destination and soon was pouring out her sorrowful tale to the tzaddik. He reassured her, saying, "There are two parts to your problem but they are not connected to one another. Longevity, you should know, has nothing to do with good health. Marry this young man and care for his well being, his health. I wish you both a long life together."

Isser Zalman Meltzer and Beila Hinda Frank were married. They lived in Kovna, where he pursued his studies diligently while his wife supported them by managing a factory of leather goods. One day, R' Isser Zalman told his wife happily that R' Nosson Tzvi Finkel, Rosh Yeshivas Slobodka, had offered him the position of maggid shiur. What a wonderful opportunity, they agreed.

After a particularly successful day at the factory, not long after, Beila Hinda came home in good spirits. She had made a huge profit, and she found her husband also in a very happy mood. She served him a glass of milk and waited while he recited the blessing slowly and carefully and then drank it down. She waited expectantly to hear what news he had to impart.

"The Rosh Yeshiva called me over today and said that the Ridbaz, Rov of Slutzk in Russia, had requested that he send him a core of excellent students in order to create a new yeshiva in his town. The Rosh Yeshiva asked me to head this new establishment and to handpick the students I wished to take along."

The room was quiet as Beila Hinda digested the news. R' Isser Zalman did not register her hesitation for he began praising the Ridbaz and waxed enthusiastic about the venture.

When he finally paused for breath, she asked, "And did you give the Rosh Yeshiva a definite answer?"

"Of course I did! I was even able to provide him with a list of fourteen excellent students I would like to take to form the base of the new yeshiva."

"Oh. But you didn't ask my opinion, yet. I know how important it is, what a tremendous challenge it will be for you to head your own yeshiva. But I am afraid for your health. It involves too much exertion. A yeshiva does not only mean studying with the boys. It means caring for all their needs, finding housing facilities, making sure they are fed and so many technical details. This is too much of an ordeal and I am afraid it is not for you..."

R' Isser Zalman was bewildered. Could it be that my wife is reluctant to leave Kovna? he suddenly thought.

But Beila Hinda did have her husband's welfare primarily in mind and suggested, "Why don't you go to Slutzk and try it out? If you are satisfied and things are working out, I'll join you there. If not, you can always come back here..." She felt she must leave him an opening to back out of this difficult undertaking. But it proved to be within his capacity and some time later, the entire family moved to Slutzk.

The yeshiva in Slutzk flourished. The Ridbaz, R' Yaakov Dovid ben Zev, was very helpful in financing and administering the yeshiva. When, in 5663, the Ridbaz left Slutzk to go to Eretz Yisroel, the vacant rabbinical office was offered to R' Isser Zalman.

By now, he knew how difficult it was to be a Rosh Yeshiva and was reluctant to accept the additional position. He consulted his mentors, R' Chaim Soloveitchik of Volozhin, and the Chofetz Chaim. Both heartily endorsed his accepting it.

World War I brought hardship and chaos to the world. Hunger, misery, disease and death were rampant. The situation in Russia was compounded by the Bolshevik Revolution. The poverty that settled in the rabbi's household was intense. Beila Hinda divided up their apartment and rented out half. She baked rolls and sold them to the army. As the rabbi's wife, she had the franchise for the sale of yeast and candles as well. But all this did not suffice to feed the family.

Worse was the Bolshevik persecution of religion. R' Isser Zalman was arrested several times for the `crime' of teaching Torah. One night, the students escaped and crossed the border to the Polish town of Kletzk. R' Isser Zalman remained behind and was warned that soon he would be sent to Siberia, which in his weakened health, meant sure death. And so he fled Russia and joined his students in Kletzk.

A letter had been sent from Jerusalem to Slutzk, inviting R' Isser Zalman to become the Rosh Yeshiva of Eitz Chaim, but he was not prepared to leave his yeshiva, yet. Again, in Kletzk, a letter arrived repeating the offer. It took two years for him to finally see the writing on the wall. When, on Simchas Torah, 5685, the local police raided the yeshiva in search of `illegal attendance,' he decided that the time had come to make aliya. He packed up and went to Eretz Yisroel, with his wife and family joining him in Jerusalem some time later.

They settled in Jerusalem in a small apartment where they lived for the next twenty-nine years. The yeshiva flourished and R' Isser Zalman found the time to author his famous work, Evven Hoezel. Unfortunately, even in Eretz Yisroel, religious decrees were passed and women were called up to the army. R' Isser Zalman felt greatly distressed by the situation, as well as helpless to do anything. An acute sadness settled upon him and in 5714, at the age of 84, his heart stopped beating...

As the Chofetz Chaim had blessed Beila Hinda, she had a long, fulfilled life by the side of her illustrious husband, whom she tended faithfully as he steadily climbed the ladder of Torah. Zechuso yogein oleinu.


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