Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Elul 5765 - September 15, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Yeshiva World of Eretz Yisroel in the Nineteen Twenties As Recorded in the Diary of a Bochur from Slobodka- Chevron

by Rabbi Aryeh Gefen

Part II

This article presents fascinating excerpts from the diary of Rav Binyamin Yaakov Barkai zt'l of Kelm, who learned in the great yeshivos of Telz, Slobodka-Kovno and Slobodka- Chevron. Nachalas Binyamin is the name of the sefer that records Rav Barkai's years in these great yeshivos. It contains his own chiddushim as well as shiurim and shmuessen that he heard from his great roshei yeshiva, and the personal diary that he kept, in which he chronicled his experiences and impressions of those years. Though his impressions are in some respects far removed from contemporary experience, in essentials they reflect the inner life of a ben Torah that is independent of time and place.

This diary describes the learning in the yeshivos, while conveying the details and the rhythm of their internal life, as well as the effect on that life of the upheavals and suffering that the world underwent in that decade.

Pre-state Palestine was governed and largely populated by gentiles and, more importantly, living conditions for all were far sparser than those prevalent nowadays. Poverty and austerity were the rule. Day-to-day living involved grappling with serious problems that are virtually unknown nowadays.

Because the diary was written prior to Modern Hebrew's takeover of everyday speech while people still spoke to each other in loshon hakodesh and Yiddish, its Hebrew is slightly dated. We have tried to preserve the atmosphere of the original writing as far as possible, to help the reader experience the feel of the times. Owing to the diary's length and wealth of detail, the sections presented here are not continuous.

The first part dealt with HaRav Barkai's learning in Telz Yeshiva, and his subsequent path in Yeshivas Slobodka and attempts to go to Eretz Yisroel.


Celebrating the Yomim Tovim in the Yeshiva

Preparations for Yom Hadin are already very apparent in the yeshiva. Everyone is learning with great application and also learning mussar enthusiastically. In Eretz Yisroel, the flow of visitors to the holy places during Elul makes a special impression. It is customary here to travel to the mekomos hakedoshim every Elul and also during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvoh. Many Yidden from all over the country and many from Yerushalayim in particular come here to Chevron, to the Me'oras Hamachpelah. Almost all of the visitors to the Me'orah visit the yeshiva too.

Motzei Rosh Hashanah 5686 (1926) — This was the first time in my life that I've experienced such a Rosh Hashanah, in a quiet corner here in Chevron in our holy Land, far from the tumult of life. Virtually all the life in the town, in all senses, revolves around the yeshiva and "the King's glory is in a multitude."

The yeshiva was full of people. The talmidim themselves already number over one hundred and twenty, may they increase. Many visitors from towns all over the country converged, both householders and bochurim who had previously learned in the yeshiva, as has always been customary in Yeshivas Slobodka. Whoever feels an affinity for the yeshiva or who once learned there comes to daven there for the Yomim Noraim. There were approximately thirty guests and they brought a lot of extra life to the yeshiva.


Tu B'Shevat — We have already finished maseches Yevomos and I started learning maseches Shabbos with Yehoshua Bruck. We aim to complete all of seder Moed in a year or two. We tried to apply ourselves fully to learning.

This is the way we learn: each perek three times with most of the Rishonim and Acharonim on Shabbos. By Purim we'd finished the first two perokim in addition to perek Hazoreik.


Purim 5686 — Purim was celebrated in the yeshiva this year with extraordinary festivity. Generally, all the bnei yeshiva, with virtually no exceptions, learned outstandingly throughout the winter and for this reason, they all felt truly happy over Purim. They sang and danced almost without interruption during two days of Purim. Interestingly, the Arabs were also swept along by the bnei hayeshiva's current of joy and they were also dancing. In many places, the Arabs and the bnei hayeshiva danced the beautiful Arab dances together. In the course of the speeches, one Arab got up and conveyed a greeting in English, which one of the bnei hayeshiva then translated.


Erev Pesach 5686 — The winter zman finally ended this week. The learning in the yeshiva this winter was with extraordinary application. In all my time in yeshivos, I don't remember a zman like this when all the bnei hayeshiva, virtually without exception, learned with such tremendous application.

Even at the end of the zman, from Purim onwards, when the bein hazmanim atmosphere is always in the air, they learned exceptionally well. Until this week of erev Pesach, no trace whatsoever of the end of the zman was apparent.

A Tragic Incident

Bein Hametzorim 5686 — With the advent of Av, a month that has long been a time of sorrow and mourning, the yeshiva suffered fresh pain, concern and mourning. On yom Shlishi, news arrived from Yerushalayim that the patient Aharon Posen was in critical condition. His hand had become poisoned (gangrene) and besides the danger to his limb, his life was in danger too. Virtually all the doctors said that conventional medicine could do nothing more for him.

This news was a terrible blow to the bnei hayeshiva and to the townspeople as well. The town was in despair. Extra prayers and Tehillim were said all week at Me'oras Hamachpeloh, in the yeshiva and at all the mekomos hakedoshim in Yerushalayim.

The Tehillim in the yeshiva made such a powerful impression that anyone passing by the yeshiva stopped. On yom rishon, at two in the afternoon, the news arrived of his death, after having struggled in his final suffering at death's door all through Shabbos. Tehi nafsho tzeruroh bitzeror hachaim.

Almost all the bnei hayeshiva went to pay him their last respects but not everyone managed to arrive in time for the levaya, which started at five, because it was hard to find enough places in motor cars. I too, only managed to get to Har Hazeisim. They wept at his grave for a long time after it had been covered. It left a fearsome impression.

Once there, many of the bnei hayeshiva stayed on in Yerushalayim for Tisha B'Av so that they could go to the Kosel Hama'arovi and weep over the Churban as the people of Yerushalayim do every year.

Early on Tisha B'Av night it was impossible to get to the Kosel because of the crowding. All the Yerushalmim, without exception, go to visit the site of the Kosel. Even the (Zionist) pioneers turn out in force. One can imagine an estimated crowd of thirty thousand people visiting the Kosel.

I and several other bochurim went to the Kosel at eleven. By then, all the youths had left the place and were engaged in making their customary circuit of the Old City walls. Only the elderly pious Yerushalmim remained, saying Tikkun Chatzos. Then we said kinos. I was there until three o'clock at night. It made a powerful impression on me and I will never forget it.

Days of Awe and Rejoicing

Yom Revii, Rosh Chodesh Elul 5686 — Preparations for Yom Hadin: As usual, a great change is always discernible in the yeshiva during Elul. So it is this year too, even though many of the talmidim have been away from the yeshiva in Tel Aviv over the past few days. With Elul approaching, however, they have begun collecting and arriving, one by one. The members of the board also returned yesterday from Tel Aviv, where they'd gone for the bathing.

Learning in the yeshiva strengthened, and what makes the main impression at the moment is the mussar learning. The enthusiasm and earnestness make a positive impression even on those who just glance.


Rosh Hashonoh 5687 — As is customary, the tefillos were lengthy and were uttered with great concentration, making a tremendous impression. This year too, many visitors came here for the Yomim Noraim from other cities and yeshivos around Eretz Yisroel. Generally, in the yeshiva, one can feel the judgment and the reckoning tangibly . . .


Yom Kippur 5687 — Like Rosh Hashonoh, Yom Kippur also saw a large crowd "which is the King's glory." The yeshiva was packed. Before Kol Nidrei people started asking each other for pardon and forgiveness, as is customary. Afterwards, we went to the Alter as is customary every year, but this time all the bnei hayeshiva went over to the Alter's place. Apparently, owing to his weakness, it would have been difficult for him to receive everyone in his home, which would have taken a long time.

The Alter blessed each and every individual and spoke to some in greater detail about various things, telling each of them the mussar expectations that he had from him. Just before Kol Nidrei, people were learning mussar and readying themselves for the day of prayer and mercy. I have never experienced a more powerful urge to do teshuvoh than I did in those moments. Afterwards, the gaon HaRav Leib Chasman delivered some words of arousal and he did so again on the following day. Thus passed Yom Kippur, amid prayer and repentance.

On motzei Yom Kippur there was rejoicing and festivity. Among the other customs of Eretz Yisroel that have been newly adopted, the yeshiva has also added the following one.

In Eretz Yisroel the night after Yom Kippur is considered a virtual Yom Tov. The yeshiva also observes the custom of Eretz Yisroel in this respect and immediately after ma'ariv on Yom Kippur we started singing and dancing. The excitement was so great that the Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yechezkel had to interrupt the dancers. Otherwise who knows? — they might have gone on dancing until midnight.

After the meal, the sounds of singing and dancing could be heard from many houses until late at night. After the meal, I also took part in a party that we made in honor of Yosef Rabinowitz — a son of Rav Chaim Rabinowitz of Telz — who had become a chosson. Many of the bnei hayeshiva were there until late at night.


Succos — In the yeshiva, the days of Succos were spent in rejoicing and excitement. The joyful mood continued virtually throughout the festival. Each evening there was a simchas beis hashoevoh. Truth be told, this was despite the fact that it was hard to get everybody into a truly joyful mood because of the difficult position that the yeshiva has recently been in. There are both material difficulties — no money has been distributed for the past nine months — and other kinds too. These have led to a feeling of hopelessness among many of the bnei hayeshiva.

A large factor in this depression is the fact that the yeshiva is situated in Chevron, a desolate place that has virtually no Jewish community. This means that we are constantly among thousands of wild Arabs. [The existence of the problem] is borne out by the many rumors that have recently been circulating about Yeshivas Chevron moving elsewhere. There have already been detailed reports about moving to specific places such as Tel Aviv or Rechovot. I don't know if these rumors have any real validity but they say a lot about the mood that is prevalent in the yeshiva.

Despite all this, once Succos arrived everything was virtually forgotten and the joy and excitement almost completely banished the sadness and hopelessness that has recently been felt among the bnei hayeshiva.

Subtle and Not So Subtle Changes

The Beginning of the Winter Zman 5687 — On yom Shlishi, the twenty-seventh of Tishrei 5687 the new zman began and all the bnei hayeshiva settled down to learn. This zman they were learning maseches Chulin and since it has great practical value, everyone settled down to apply themselves to intensive learning.

One can generally point to a great difference in the attitude of the bnei hayeshiva over the past zman, especially here in Eretz Yisroel; [they have adopted] a practical outlook. There are many talmidim whom nobody would have thought much about a few years ago or would have had the slightest idea of them becoming rabbonim. Recently, we ourselves have witnessed how, in a few cases, these are the very ones who have been the first to leave as rabbonim trained in Yeshivas Chevron. To this end they have traveled to various countries, to America, Africa and elsewhere. The difficult situation in Eretz Yisroel is also a large factor in this. It is very hard to manage here in business or any other financial pursuit, especially for a ben yeshiva.


Purim 5687 — This year, Purim passed virtually without any celebrations because the impact of the yeshiva's great loss, of its teacher and director, the Alter, the gaon Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztvk'l, is still fresh and raw. No celebrations whatsoever were held in the yeshiva or with the yeshiva's leaders, as is customary every year. Only in the private apartments was there a bit of celebration, mostly with the chassonim but on a very small scale.

Only in the Sephardi Beis Haknesses Avraham Ovinu was there rejoicing and dancing. On yom Shishi in the afternoon, Mr. Shleim from India donated a sefer Torah to the beis haknesses and on Purim it was brought through all the streets of the town to the beis haknesses with singing, music and dancing. Many of the bnei hayeshiva participated too. That was the whole extent of our Purim.


Yom Shlishi, the twenty-fifth of Nisan 5687 — Today a new zman began in the yeshiva. This zman they're learning Sanhedrin. At the moment I'm learning Sanhedrin in both sedorim — during the first seder with Yehoshua Bruck and during the second, with Yitzchok Lipkin, one of the younger students whom they asked me to learn with.

After ma'ariv each day I learn mishnayos, seder Taharos, regularly with approximately ten talmidim. This was arranged by the Alter's family — that there should be learning throughout the year following his petiroh.

It should be mentioned that involvement with Sanhedrin is not as extensive as is usual for the maseches currently being learned in the yeshiva. This is because a new spirit has penetrated the yeshiva of learning new topics, and Sanhedrin is among the subjects that have been pretty much exhausted by almost all the bnei hayeshiva. Many of the bnei hayeshiva have already started learning other masechtos besides Sanhedrin. Mostly, Zevochim is being learned this zman.


Yom Rishon, the tenth of Tammuz 5687 — This afternoon the Gerrer Rebbe, HaRav Avraham Mordechai Alter, paid a visit to Chevron, together with a large contingent of his chassidim. He visited the Me'orah and the other ancient and holy places in Chevron and then he came to the yeshiva. All the bnei hayeshiva went out and greeted him. Then he came inside, said a dvar Torah and returned to Yerushalayim. He made a very favorable impression upon all who saw him. He is short and broad with a white beard but his movements are wonderfully eager and full of life. His face glows with sharp-wittedness and good- heartedness. He is also renowned as a Torah giant.

Earthquake in Eretz Yisroel

Yom Sheini, the eleventh of Tammuz 5687 — A powerful earthquake shook the entire country. At approximately a quarter past three in the afternoon, while I was lying on my bed resting after the midday meal, I suddenly heard a great commotion. For a split second I noticed that the whole house was swaying and that pieces of plaster had begun falling from the ceiling.

I went out of my room into the second room. There, the water barrel had fallen down, spilling the water all over the ground. I wanted to go out of the house but I couldn't leave the wife of the Alter ztvk'l alone. Interestingly, when we told her that it was an earthquake she wasn't terribly frightened and she asked which brochoh one should make.

The earthquake lasted for approximately half a minute. Later, we found out that in many houses the walls had cracks, that several houses had collapsed and that there had been a few cases of landslides. Four Arabs had been killed in Chevron.

Later on, news arrived from the rest of the country, where things had been worse — mainly in Shechem, Lod, Ramle and Yericho — hundreds of houses having collapsed. Across the country, more than a hundred people had died and hundreds more had been injured.

It should be mentioned that the Jews suffered virtually no damage from the earthquake, neither physical nor financial. It was strongest in the areas of Arab population.

On the following night most people went out to sleep in the fields. This continued for several weeks and in fact there was a second, lighter tremor on yom rishon, the seventeenth of Tammuz, at eleven o'clock in the morning. There was yet another on yom rishon the twenty-fourth of Tammuz but these were lighter and didn't cause any damage.


On the first day of Succos I was in Chevron, in the yeshiva. We spent the time joyfully, as always on festivals. I spent chol hamoed in Yerushalayim. I went to Yerushalayim on yom Revii, the first day of chol hamoed. I found it very interesting because this was the first time that I'd been there during a Yom Tov and over Succos in particular, when it is very joyful in Yerushalayim.

We had an excellent time. Many [bochurim] from Yeshivas Chevron were there over the festival, about half the yeshiva.

In the evening we were at the Simchas Beis Hasho'eivah that was at HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld's. Here I experienced the truth of the statement, "Whoever has never seen the Simchas Beis Ha'shoeivah has never seen joy in his life." It was extraordinarily joyous; I have never merited seeing anything like it in my life.

From eight o'clock in the evening until midnight there was dancing, singing and music. The enthusiasm was very heartening and extremely interesting. There were players, with flutes, trumpets and a drum but most impressive were the dances. Children eight or ten years old performed dances that were a spiritual joy to behold. We Chevroner bnei yeshiva who were there also played a large part in this rejoicing.

It should be noted that for their part, [the Yerushalmim] highly and pleasingly respected us. The crowning glory of the celebration was the procession on the return from Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld's beis hamedrash [in the Old City] up Rechov Yaffo with large circles of dancers dancing the hora accompanied by the orchestra and the entire gathering singing, Meheiroh yishoma be'orei Yehudah uvechutzos Yerushalayim . . .

Whoever was fortunate enough to be there during those moments should be happy . . . It's only a pity that the police intervened towards the end, interrupting the procession on the pretext that it was disturbing the peace of the city at a late hour.

At the end, they went into Yungreis' house in Meah Shearim and the celebration continued until three o'clock at night, with melodies and dances and good cheer. It was very happy and very interesting.


Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 5688 — After Rosh Chodesh they settled down to learn in the yeshiva. They're learning Bava Kama in yeshiva this zman. I also started maseches Zevochim. I'll just learn Bava Kama until Chanukah during one of the sedorim and afterwards I'm thinking of learning Zevochim all day.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.