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23 Sivan, 5781 - June 3, 2021 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Kelm: Reb Yeruchom Levovitz zt'l, Mirrer Mashgiach — 85th Yahrtzeit 18th Sivan 5781

By Moshe Musman


Originally published in our print edition in 5756 (1996) for the 60th yahrtzeit, we are publishing it now on the web in honor of the 85th yahrtzeit of the Mashgiach whose influence is still felt today. These articles are a serious appreciation of the legacy of that great man.

Part I

The War: Exile and Wanderings

Our sources do not give a detailed record of Reb Yeruchom's movements during the First World War. At first he stayed together with the yeshiva, travelling with the bochurim into exile in the Russian interior. Many of the other Lithuanian yeshivos also went into such exile.

Later, he decided to join his family, who had remained all the time in Ozvent, Lithuania, which had come under German occupation. Before the war's end and immediately afterwards, Reb Yeruchom served in several yeshivos, eventually returning to Mir in 5683 (1923).

Much about Reb Yeruchom's life is Torah shebe'al peh, (in its fullest sense). Information comes to us piecemeal, in the form of stories, and the testimony of talmidim or other gedolim, whose purpose is usually to teach a lesson, rather than provide facts and dates. Based upon the biographical chapters of HaRav Wolbe's Ho'odom Biyekor and an article containing the recollections of HaRav Dovid Povarsky, rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh, we have attempted to piece together a more comprehensive picture of those years.

HaRav Dovid Povarsky, zt"l, noted that for him the dominant lesson of Reb Yeruchom had been his powerful equanimity. The gemora (Yoma 9) interprets the pesukim of Shir Hashirim: Im choma hi, nivne oleho tiras kesef. If people establish their deeds as firmly as a wall, then we will build on it and save them. Ve'im deles hi, notzur oleho luach erez. If they are as unstable as a door, they will last only for a short time. The individual and the klal must we like a wall, to maintain themselves firmly in all circumstances, to face whatever happens with equanimity.

A Collective Miracle

One Rosh Hashonoh (probably the first, less than two months after the war's outbreak in 1914), while the yeshiva was still in Mir, a miraculous event took place. All the bochurim were gathered for tefillah in the yard of Mir's Beis Haknesses Hagodol, which was in the Shulhoif, a complex of a big shul and many smaller shuls. Suddenly, the place was completely surrounded by Russian soldiers searching for `deserters' from the Russian Army.

All the bochurim fit into this category since none of them had registered for military service. They were in grave danger of being conscripted there and then and being sent to the front. Some felt that the yeshiva should split into several groups, reasoning that if they stayed together in the Beis Haknesses Hagodol, and the Russians found them — an entire congregation of youths — they would all be captured at once. On the other hand, if the young looking bochurim were to mingle with the older mispallelim in the other, smaller botei knesses which were located there, they would be less noticeable.

Reb Yeruchom's decision was that they should remain together, be mispallel together with extra intensity and trust fully in Hashem to redeem them from their predicament. Both former and current talmidim of Mir, are familiar with the elevated spirit and the thundering sound of the tefillos during the Yomim Noraim. That year however, the tefillos were completely unlike anything the yeshiva had experienced. The enthusiasm and the transcendence were immense. The soldiers searched all the other batei knesses but they did not cross the threshold of the Beis Haknesses Hagodol, where the yeshiva was. The miracle was recognized by all.

The fighting drew nearer to Mir. A bochur was once walking in the town when he was seized by army personnel who accused him of spying. If his release could not be secured, he was in danger of receiving a death penalty. The Mashgiach was informed of this the same evening.

The next morning, all were amazed to see that the hairs of his beard had grown white overnight. This took place around 5675 (1915), when Reb Yeruchom was around forty years old.

Known as the Kelm Manor, this building is over 500 years old.

Exile in Poltava

The yeshiva went into exile to Poltava, in the Ukraine. This period is recalled by talmidim for the supreme devotion to the bochurim displayed by the heads of the yeshiva and the senior talmidim. Here too, a young bochur was arrested on suspicion of spying, on the basis of a letter he had written to a friend. He was taken away from Poltava and imprisoned in a different city.

His friends travelled across Russia in search of him, placing themselves in considerable danger (due to both their status as deserters and to the bands of Cossacks that roamed the countryside, thirsty for Jewish blood), by doing so. One of them, Reb Yosef Kossover Hy'd, located the bochur in a jail in a far off town. Reb Yeruchom went to incredible lengths in order to secure his release, including a personal appearance before the military judges who conducted his trial.

Once, when learning parshas Mikeitz in the daily shiur in Chumash which he delivered in Mir in later years, Reb Yeruchom remarked that on several occasions he himself had seen things in dreams that took place only later. He did not, however, consider this a sign of any distinction explaining that `it is an affliction of people with a nervous disposition,' and moreover, once a decree had been issued in Heaven, it could be relayed to anybody.

HaRav Dovid Povarsky, one of Reb Yeruchom's senior talmidim, related that Reb Yeruchom arose one morning in Poltava and said that Reb Nochum Zeev Ziv zt'l, the son of the Alter of Kelm, who headed the Kelm Talmud Torah, had passed away. During the war, the border between Russia and German occupied Lithuania was sealed and there was no way that the news could have been transmitted by any travelers or in any other way.

When the yeshiva returned from Poltava, bochurim discovered that Reb Nochum Zeev had indeed passed away on the very day that Reb Yeruchom had spoken. This took place in 5676 (1916).

It must have been around this time that Reb Yeruchom made the trip back into Lithuania, to be united with his family in Ozvent. Besides his concern for their welfare, his own health was not robust. As a young man he had been granted an exemption from the army because of a weak heart.

The future of the Kelm Talmud Torah

With Reb Nochum Zeev's petiroh, the future of the Kelm Talmud Torah began to be debated by the senior talmidim. HaRav Yechezkel Levestein zt'l once cryptically alluded to this period when he said, "In Kelm there was once an argument — such an argument that, had it been anywhere else, there would have had repercussions. Here though, there was nothing. Matters were settled however they were settled and all were immediately friends once again, as though nothing had happened."

The picture was later filled in by HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt'l. "I was young," Reb Yaakov recalled, "and I had a desire to learn in Kelm. I travelled there but was not allowed in. A conference of the talmidim was in progress in the Beis HaTalmud. This was after the petiroh of the gaon and tzaddik Reb Nochum Zeev Ziv zt'l, the Alter's son, who had continued his father's approach. The talmidim had gathered to discuss their future path.

"There were two views which stood out. On the one hand, the gaon and tzaddik HaRav Reuven Dov Dessler zt'l, called for the preservation of the existing framework of enclosure and insularity, of painstaking investigation of every candidate for admission, of selection of the choicest and most refined material. On the other side was Reb Yeruchom, the choicest of the talmidim. He sought to have the guards removed from the doors and the numbers of talmidim increased. He argued that now that both the Alter and his son were gone, there was no longer a reason to preserve the old order. It was time to spread the light.

"It was a harsh debate, deep and penetrating. The argument was so very hard since it considered the future of the Beis HaTalmud in which their conduct had been shaped, in which they saw the ultimate vision and which they called beis chayeinu without the slightest exaggeration."

On that occasion, HaRav Dessler's view prevailed. HaRav Dovid Povarsky recalled that Reb Yeruchom had been approached by senior Kelm talmidim to come to Kelm and head the Talmud Torah. (The following events presumably either took place at the same juncture as those recalled by Reb Yaakov, or at a different time. It is clear that there was more than one attempt during those years to get Reb Yeruchom to head Kelm, as will be seen.)

Reb Yeruchom had accepted the proposal to go to Kelm, and an agreement had been drawn up. At that time, Reb Yeruchom was staying in Bristan, a health resort, together with ylct'a, HaRav Dovid Povarsky, whom he had taken with him to recuperate from an illness.

One day Reb Yeruchom received a letter which he opened and read. His face did not betray the slightest change of emotion. His behavior for the rest of the day was also entirely normal.

The following day he asked HaRav Povarsky to send a telegram to Kelm bearing a two word message: Agreement Cancelled. HaRav Povarsky then understood what the letter's contents had been. It had informed Reb Yeruchom that one of the prominent Kelm personalities took issue with Reb Yeruchom's approach and consequently with his appointment as mashgiach of the Talmud Torah.

Reb Yeruchom had weighed matters and made his decision. It was a decision that shocked many of his talmidim in Kelm, who travelled to him to try to persuade him to reconsider and take up the position. Reb Yeruchom listened to their impassioned words but remained firm in his decision.

Reb Yeruchom attempted to return from Lithuania, where Kelm and Ozvent were situated, to Mir in Poland (perhaps the yeshiva had returned). Before setting out to cross the border he cast the goral HaGra to determine what his course of action should be. The posuk he obtained as his answer was, 'Do not pass through me, lest I come out to meet you with the sword,' (Bamidbar 20:18).

When he cast the goral again on the following day he received a similar answer. He changed direction and headed for Ponovezh, where he spent half a year. HaRav Povarsky heard that Reb Yeruchom was to assume a position at the head of the Kelm Talmud Torah and he decided to follow him there. Informing HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, the Mirrer rosh yeshiva of his plans, he set out for Kelm.

On his way, he arrived in Slobodka on a Friday afternoon and met none other than Reb Yeruchom, who was headed for Mir. Once again, the plan for him to head Kelm had not come to fruition.

HaRav Povarsky noted that throughout all these trials and reversals, Reb Yeruchom remained calm and serene as usual. He never showed the slightest sign of frustration or disappointment. HaRav Wolbe mentions that before the war's end, Reb Yeruchom did head Kelm for a short period.

Another Plan

However, the time had not yet arrived for Reb Yeruchom to return to his yeshiva. A new plan formed, for Reb Yeruchom to become mashgiach of the yeshiva of HaRav Yosef Shlomo Cahanaman zt'l, in Ponovezh and for HaRav Naftoli Tropp to become rosh yeshiva.

They arrived in Ponovezh and began work, but the arrangement did not last. Between all these travels, Reb Yeruchom stayed in Ozvent. Though he was far away from his talmidim, he conducted himself with the same noble bearing that was visible upon him when he was amongst them. When HaRav Povarsky travelled to Ozvent to attend the wedding of Reb Yeruchom's daughter to HaRav Yisroel Chaim Kaplan zt'l, he again witnessed Reb Yeruchom's constancy and steadfastness of character.

With the war over, the Alter of Slobodka turned to Reb Yeruchom with a request. His yeshiva, which had also been exiled to the Ukraine, to the town of Kremenchug, would be returning to Slobodka. The Alter asked Reb Yeruchom to travel ahead and prepare the ground for them, so that they would not have to reestablish the yeshiva from scratch. Reb Yeruchom acceded to his old teacher's wishes.

The story of Reb Yeruchom's arrival in Slobodka gives some idea of his magnetism and the popularity which he enjoyed throughout the yeshiva world. In his hesped for Reb Yeruchom, HaRav Movshovitz described how the former alighted from the train in Kovno and set out on foot for Slobodka, which was half an hour's walk away. Along the way, several hundred people gathered about him.

Upon reaching the empty yeshiva building, the large crowd entered together with Reb Yeruchom. Ascending the bimah, Reb Yeruchom delivered a shmuess, following which the congregation looked for gemoras and sat down to learn.

Reb Yeruchom spent a year and a half in Slobodka. When the Alter returned, Reb Yeruchom went to meet him and said, "I hereby return the yeshiva, with its senior, intermediate and young talmidim." He then left the yeshiva immediately.

Next week: Return to the Mir Yeshiva


The Root and the Branch

This is the first publication in English of the discourse delivered by HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l in Shanghai on Reb Yeruchom's sixth yahrtzeit, the eighteenth of Sivan 5602. Reb Chatzkel shows that the fact that something survives implies that it possesses a living root. With this in mind, he suggests that the survival of the Mir yeshiva community was linked to Reb Yeruchom's selfless devotion to the klal, which he traces back to its source in the example set by the baalei mussar of Kelm.

When Adrianus boasted of his superiority to Moshe Rabbenu, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya suggested that he issue a decree forbidding the lighting of fires for three days. On the third day, the two of them went up onto the roof of the Emperor's palace and saw smoke rising from one of the houses. "Rabbi Yehoshua said to him, `You ought to be dismayed. Your decrees are null and void in your own lifetime, whereas from the day Moshe Rabbenu decreed `You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on Shabbos,' and even until today, no Jew lights a fire in his home.' "

This demonstrates a very fundamental principle. The Torah's eternity, its survival for all time, hinges upon those who receive it and pass it on. The Torah's survival is a proof that it issues from a living source. Moshe Rabbenu dedicated his entire life to the Torah and it is known as Toras Moshe, after him. In each subsequent generation, the Torah has survived because of those who gave their lives for it. It is called by their names and is inherited to us by them!

While I was in Moscow, a certain honorable individual told me that to keep Shabbos in our times is impossible. Chas vesholom! Everything exists through miracles. Nothing is impossible! No regime or pattern of national life can exist in the absence of fear of authority. What then is the secret of the religion's survival, with no earthly power to enforce it? It must be conceded that faith persists because it derives nourishment from its root. That root is matan Torah. That was when the realization of the promise `And they will also believe in you forever,' was implanted within us. That was the origin of solid, tangible faith. In the same way that the world arose as a result of speech — `By the word of Hashem the Heavens were made' — faith also arose through the words `I am Hashem your God.' Doubts as to the truth of prophecy are a sign that the feet of the ancestors of the man who entertains them did not stand at Har Sinai. They indicate that he is cut off from this root. For the root is tangible and whoever is connected to it does not doubt. Adrianus had to concede its existence when he saw its results. When he witnessed the fact of the Torah's preservation and that it is a living entity, he was forced to admit the greatness of its source — the power of Moshe Rabbenu.

Something which exists in reality can never fade from existence. Neither something which is rooted in kedusha, nor something rooted choliloh, in the opposite. The sitra achra also has a root. It also has a tangible existence. Spiritual impurity also has its receptacles and its transmitters, such as Bilaam and Amolek. When one is aware of this, our astonishment at the wonder of the Torah's survival increases several fold. We have witnessed the fate of our national centers in Russia and Germany. A truly Jewish presence can no longer be seen there. Someone who is mechalel Shabbos by transgressing a prohibition of the rabannan also places himself outside Klal Yisroel. How has Shabbos survived?! The answer is that Shabbos has its own tangible existence. It is firmly anchored in the real world! The Alter of Kelm said that were anyone to tell him that a nation could survive after undergoing the suffering of the tochacho, he would refuse to believe it. Yet look, facts are facts! How indeed? Because Hashem's word survives and lives on!

Not only is every mitzva a tangible entity possessing its own root but the manner in which it was originally accepted, the way in which it was transmitted, continues throughout the generations. `Every mitzva which they accepted joyfully' — milah for instance — `they still perform joyfully.'

The root, the source of all future transmissions, has to have involved dedication and self sacrifice. We do not know what merits have enabled this place, with all its organization intact, to survive in this place, at the present time, when everything lies destroyed and desolate. But everyone knows how the Alter of Kelm sacrificed himself. How his avoda continued until the last moment of his life, when he collapsed, unable to continue any longer, while saying the tefillah of Ezras. He had been dangerously ill for fifteen years yet no indication of it could be seen on him. He paid no heed to his body; he was a servant to his Master. Without explanations or excuses, he remained on guard like a soldier who does not let his rifle out of his hand. That was how the Alter was and it was also how his son-in-law the gaon HaRav Tzvi Hirsch [Broide] zt'l, (whose yahrtzeit is on the seventeenth of Sivan), conducted himself. To his last day, he neither interrupted nor relaxed his avoda. I remember he gave instructions that he shouldn't be left to walk unaided for he was liable to fall in the middle of the street. On his last erev Shabbos he said he felt as though his head was being cut with a saw. Before mincha on Shabbos he literally rolled with the last vestige of his strength to the door of the yeshiva and asked the bochurim to go inside for seuda shelishis, instructing them not to touch him, since he had the status of a goseis, who must not be moved on Shabbos. That was the extent of his faithfulness to his charge. It continued until his last breath.

The mashgiach, zt'l, was also his talmid. The things which he received were also transmitted with self sacrifice. That is why his wisdom endures, because it took on its own tangible existence, as does everything which becomes established through self sacrifice. They were the root. The yeshiva is the fruit. Whoever cleaves to them is connected to the tree of life and will survive forever!


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