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11 Tishrei 5763 - September 17, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








From The Vilna Gaon's Beis Hamedrash: Some Lesser Known Stories About Two Of The Gaon's Most Famous Talmidim

By Rabbi Dov Eliach

New material about the Vilna Gaon ztvk'l, and his disciples is always of interest -- there is no need to wait for a round numbered anniversary or, for that matter, for any anniversary at all. Nonetheless, the Succos issue, coinciding with the Gaon's yahrzeit on the nineteenth of Tishrei, is a particularly suitable setting for such a presentation. (Incidentally, this year is the Gaon's two hundred and fifth yahrzeit [5558-5763, 1797-2002]).

This article contains several newly-discovered stories and anecdotes about two of the Gaon's most famous talmidim. The incidents involving the Dubno Maggid and some of those involving Rav Chaim of Volozhin zt'l are drawn from previously unpublished manuscripts.

In the Merit of Tzedokoh

This story of how Rav Yosef Sharshover zt'l, a son of Rav Chaim of Volozhin, was spared from murder at the hands of a band of thieves, was related by one of the talmidim of the Volozhin yeshiva:

"While I was in the Volozhin yeshiva, I heard a story from the godol hador, which took place in the year following the death of the great gaon Rav Chaim z'l, of Volozhin. Besides his son the gaon Rav Yitzchok z'l, Rav Chaim had a son named Rav Yosef, who lived in the town of Sharshov, in the Horodno province. (See the introduction to Nefesh Hachaim, where Rav Itzele quotes a chiddush in his brother's name.)

"When the gaon Rav Chaim died, his son Rav Yosef came to divide his possessions, from which he received one thousand silver rubles and some seforim and other items. When he had to return home, he hired a wagon driver from Volozhin to take him. While they were travelling, the driver lost his way and they were soon wandering away from the main route.

"Friday afternoon arrived and the two travelers wondered where they might spend the approaching Shabbos. They saw a man coming towards them and asked him if he knew where there might be a Jew living in the vicinity, with whom they could stay. The man replied, "I will go and show you where a Jew lives." Off the three of them went, until they arrived at a Jewish home. Rav Yosef asked the Jew whether he and the wagon driver could stay there over Shabbos, to which the householder responded, `Why not?! Aren't we all Jews?' So they stayed.

"The following afternoon, Rav Yosef prayed minchah, ate the third meal and lay down on his bed to rest, for it was the summer. His father Rav Chaim came to him in a dream and told him, `My dear son, you are in great danger, for there are people who want to kill you and take your money. If you can run away, do so.' When Rav Yosef saw his father in the dream, he awoke and arose from the bed. He waited a little, until it was almost nightfall and he told the driver, `Go quickly and harness the wagon and we'll leave this place because it's dangerous. There are murderers here who intend to kill us.'

"When the driver went to harness the wagon, an armed thief came over to him and told him, `Come with me to the room, because you're not going anywhere. You will die here,' and he closed the wagon driver inside with him. Rav Yosef was sitting in his room and he saw that three armed men had come in. He realized what was happening -- they had come to kill him.

He went to stand in the corner of the room and started to say vidui. As he prayed he said, `My father, my father, Rav Chaim z'l, I ask you, may your merit and the merit of the Torah protect me, for I have fallen into the hands of murderers who want to kill me.' So he called, bitterly and broken-heartedly, and he wept profusely.

"When the house owner approached the room and heard him calling, `My father, Rav Chaim!!' he said to him, `Whose son are you? Tell me!'

"He replied, `I am the son of the gaon Rav Chaim z'l, from Yeshivas Volozhin!'

The murderer said, `Who says you are telling the truth. Maybe you're lying?'

"Rav Yosef replied, `Come over here and I'll show you proof aplenty, for it's been four weeks since my father z'l, died.' The man came inside and Rav Yosef showed him his father's manuscripts, seforim and other objects, until he saw that he was telling the truth and that he really was Rav Chaim's son.

"Then the murderer began calling everyone and he told them, `Sit around the table for a trial. We'll judge whether we can kill him or not.' They did as they were told and sat down straight away and he told them the story of what had happened to him.

" `When I killed an entire family, nine people in all, in the Minsk region, I was imprisoned in Minsk. When I was being taken to Vilna to be interrogated by the investigator, I happened to be in the Volozhin jail on erev Pesach. When Rav Chaim z'l, heard that a Jew was in the prison he went to the governor and asked that the imprisoned Jew be permitted to come to him for the two sedorim.

" `The superintendent suddenly came to me and said, "Get up, with the chain" -- that was attached to my feet and hands -- "for the local rabbi wants you to be with him for two nights."

" `When I came to his house, he had the appearance of a heavenly angel and the members of the yeshiva were sitting around the table for the seder which was laid out, while I was tied with iron chains like a thief. The gaon said to me, "Sit down for the seder," and I sat down in mortal fear. This actually happened to me!

" `Can we, my sons and brothers, a man like this, who was not ashamed to sit at the same table with me, can we kill his son? Where is our fairness? Where is our justice? I put this to you, and you give a fair verdict!'

"Their chief spoke out and said, `According to our laws and our own sense of fair play, we cannot do anything!'

"When they heard this verdict from their leader -- that he would not be sentenced to death -- the man took Rav Yosef, with his money and the wagon driver and blindfolded them so that they shouldn't see which way the road was and he put them onto the main route. This is what I heard."

The Dead Man's Return

The following seems to be the story of the incident that was known in its day as "the affair of the yovom (brother- in-law)," which is mentioned in my book, Avi Hayeshivos (pp. 496-9). This version has certain changes and some additions that are of interest. This is the account as it appears in the manuscript, with some minor changes:

There was an incident that took place in the time of Rav Chaim z'l of Volozhin. In his day a question about a deserted wife was asked in the city of Minsk and the above gaon permitted [the woman to remarry], together with the beis din of Minsk. There was one opposing rov who forbade the woman to remarry. The woman remarried and bore her second husband children.

After a long time had passed, the woman's first husband came before the beis din of Minsk. He told them, "I am the husband of the deserted woman whom you permitted [to remarry]." The woman also confirmed that this was her first husband, as did witnesses. The entire city was shocked by this and was thrown into turmoil over the dreadful turn of events.

The dayonim did not know what to do. They held a meeting to discuss their next move and they agreed to send a representative of their beis din to the gaon Rav Chaim z'l to hear his opinion on the matter. A dayan was dispatched to Volozhin.

When the dayan came to Rav Chaim and showed him the letter from the beis din of Minsk, it was erev Shabbos. When Rav Chaim read the letter he said, "For Shabbos you'll be my guest!" and he didn't say a single word on the subject. The man was amazed. He had thought that Rav Chaim would question him about what had happened, while in fact over the entire Shabbos he didn't speak to him about it at all.

On Sunday Rav Chaim told him, "Here is a letter. Only open it in the beis din's chamber. And [now,] return to Minsk." He hired a wagon driver from Volozhin to travel to Minsk. When he arrived, he met the communal leaders and honourables and the beis din as well and they all asked him what Rav Chaim had said about the dreadful affair. He didn't answer a word but told the beis din, "I have a letter from Rav Chaim, which he instructed to open only in the beis din's chamber," which was what they did.

They all gathered in the beis din's room and they called the woman, the husband and the witnesses to come along, which they did. When they opened the letter and read it, it told them to do the following:

"My advice is, to place the husband and then the witnesses on a bench and to administer fifteen lashes, then the husband will tell the truth. The same should be done to the witnesses. The other side has arranged this. They paid a large sum to the woman and also to the man to tell this story, in order to demonstrate that the truth lies with their rov who forbade her. For this purpose, they hired all of them for a large amount of money. I therefore recommend that you do as I have written and that way, you will arrive at the truth.

They followed these instructions. They caught hold of the "husband," put him on a bench, gave him fifteen strokes and told him, "Speak the truth!"

He said, "What shall I do, for the other side hired me and paid me two hundred rubles." They then took him and put him in a room and closed the door. Then they took the witnesses and placed them on a bench and whipped them and they yelled loudly, "What shall we do, for we were hired and they gave us three hundred rubles. Leave us alone and we'll tell the truth."

This is the story that I heard when I was in Yeshivas Volozhin.

The Dubno Maggid Speaks about Rav Chaim

Ten of the Vilna Gaon's foremost and senior talmidim are listed by the Gaon's sons in their introduction to Biur HaGro on Shulchon Oruch. While not all of the ten are equally well known by subsequent generations, the Dubno Maggid, HaRav Yaakov Krantz, though not on the list, was extremely famous, both during and after his lifetime. He was called, "the Father of the Maggidim."

Over the years, several anecdotes about the time which the Maggid spent with the Gaon have been retold. His close relationship with the Gaon was described in Hagaon (pgs. 328-36), where a number of testimonies about the firm, master-pupil relationship that existed between them were quoted. The Maggid himself mentions the Gaon several times as being his master and teacher and, moreover, the only name that appears in the Maggid's writings, when quoting his divrei Torah, is that of "the gaon Rabbi Eliyohu of Vilna."

In the following story, in which the Maggid related an incident involving the greatest of the Gaon's talmidim HaRav Chaim of Volozhin, we can discern an echo of the bond that existed between the talmidim themselves. Our source relates:

It is said that the great Dubno Maggid z'l, related that in his time it happened that a father and son were travelling together in a wagon during the winter to one of the great fairs. It was bitterly cold and they only had one coat between them with which to protect themselves from the freezing weather.

The father said to his son, "You are young and I am afraid that you might catch cold, choliloh. Take the coat and use it to cover your chilled body."

The son refused however and told his father, "I don't need the coat, for I am young and my blood is warm but you, dear father, take the coat and wear it, for I am afraid that you might catch cold, choliloh."

Since neither of them was prepared to accept the other's argument, they decided to approach the gaon Rav Chaim of Volozhin. They came before him and presented their points of view. The father said: "I have no need for the coat. I am already old and am not afraid of catching cold," while the son argued that no, he was still young and the cold wouldn't injure him, so it should go to his father, who is older.

When Rav Chaim heard their unusual arguments, he gave his opinion: "The arguments that you are presenting leave me no choice but to take the coat away from both of you, for you both say that you don't want it. In my view however, your arguments are incorrect; you should have argued differently, as follows:

"The father should have said that even though it is very cold and the coat is necessary to him, since his son is young and is at the beginning of his life, and `Everything depends on Heaven, except for colds and chills' (Kesuvos 30) [from which a person can take steps to protect himself, leaving him undeserving of protection if he fails to do so] he therefore agrees to give the coat to his son. The son should have said that while he indeed needs the coat to warm himself, he has an obligation to honor his father and protect his health and that he therefore wishes the coat to remain with his father.

"If those are your arguments," Rav Chaim concluded, "I will try, im yirtzeh Hashem, to obtain a second coat for you, so that both of your arguments can be upheld."

Parable and Metaphor

The Dubno Maggid, who was famed during his lifetime for his greatness in Torah and yiras Shomayim, and especially for his pithy and relevant parables which always brought the point of his discourse soundly home, suffered from extreme poverty. For years he had to go from city to city, delivering his discourses to the crowds and to support himself from the contributions that he received from the public in return.

Several anecdotes, relating to his dealings with others, are recorded in an old, hitherto unpublished manuscript. The sharp retorts which the Maggid delivered on these occasions testify, as do his fascinating parables, to his keen wit and his mental acuity.

It is said that during his early years as a maggid in Dubno, he received a very meager salary. On erev Pesach, Reb Yaakov abstained from following the usual custom, whereby the maggid checked the town's beis hamedrash for chometz. He did not conduct the bedikah; the shamash did it instead of him. When asked about this the following day he replied, "Once upon a time, when the town's maggid had bread, there was a reason for him to check. As for me though, who does not have any bread anyway, why should I check?" This reply found favor in the eyes of the officiants and they immediately raised his salary.

While he was a bochur learning in yeshiva, the maggid had his meals in the home of a certain wealthy but miserly fellow, who only gave him a small amount to eat. Once, the host scoffed at him, "What benefit will you already see from your learning? If you wanted to become something, you could be with me."

Reb Yaakov replied, "Certainly I wanted to be `something' with you but you don't let me . . . "

His host asked what he meant and the youth explained, "I wanted to be satisfied in your house but you don't let me."

The Man with the Million

A certain wealthy individual once asked the Maggid, "Why do you always go to the homes of the wealthy but we don't see the wealthy coming to you?"

The Maggid responded, "I know that I lack money, so I go to the wealthy mens' homes to ask for it. The wealthy men however, are unaware that they lack wisdom, so what should bring them to me?"

On another occasion, the Maggid was the guest of an extremely wealthy man over Shabbos. At the third meal, the assembled drank wine very liberally. When the Maggid felt that he could take no more, he refused his host's offer of more drink. The man pressed him again to have a little more wine and would not leave him alone until he agreed. The Maggid saw that there would be no respite and he told the man to pour him another glass.

The wealthy man was glad and he filled his glass with wine. The Maggid then instructed him -- Pour more! The man continued pouring and the wine overflowed the glass, into the plate placed under it. The Maggid however, insisted that he continue pouring, until the wine was about to spill onto the table. The host thought that his guest was unable to see properly in the growing darkness and he said, "Rabbi, even the plate is overflowing."

The Maggid responded, "See? Even this inanimate plate can't hold more wine than it has room for. How is it then, that you want me, a human being with common sense, to keep pouring wine into myself beyond my capacity?"

A Parable of a Parable

The Maggid was especially famous for his wonderful and wise parables, which he employed to explain many Torah topics and to resolve numerous difficulties in understanding pesukim. This was the distinctive feature of his discourses and it aroused his listeners' curiosity. He was often asked to reveal the idea and the technique behind his unique style.

In my book Hagaon, I mention that in one of his conversations with the Gaon, the sage asked the Maggid how he always managed to find a suitable illustration with such swiftness, for any given lesson, and use it to elucidate pesukim and statements of Chazal so cogently. The Maggid responded immediately with a parable about his parables:

One of the king's ministers once wished to master the art of archery and learn how to shoot a bullseye. He travelled to the special academy where the subject was taught and studied there for a number of years, by the end of which he could shoot an arrow and get it fairly close to the center of the target.

On his journey home, he passed through a small country village and he noticed an open area for shooting practice, where each arrow was dead in the middle of the its target. He was amazed. How can it be, he wondered, that after such a long time and after having learned so much in the academy, these ordinary country folk could shoot better than he? The minister went in search of the master marksman and asked him to teach him the secret of his tremendous success.

The villager explained to him, "My method is first to shoot the arrow at the board, then to draw a circle around the spot that it reaches. In this way, all my arrows are bullseyes -- I don't miss a single one!" he concluded with a broad smile.

"I am the same," explained the Dubno Maggid. "First, I shoot off the arrow and give the posuk's true explanation. Only then do I compose a parable around this explanation. That's why the parable always fits the lesson so well."

Columbus and the Dubno Maggid

It is said that admirers of the Maggid once provokingly asked him, "What is the great novelty in your parables? Each one only illustrates one particular lesson and anyone can do the same."

The Maggid replied with a story. The famous explorer Columbus argued in his day that logic dictated that there had to be hitherto undiscovered lands. He made this claim before kings and ministers but none would listen to him, until years later the king of Spain agreed with him and placed ships and a large crew at his disposal. Columbus departed on his search and sailed until he found America.

Upon his return, the Spanish king held a lavish banquet in which the royal princes participated. They began to discuss the event. Some were amazed at Columbus' wisdom, while others argued that he had not really achieved anything out of the ordinary, for common sense said that if one kept on sailing, one would eventually reach some continent or other.

Columbus pretended not to hear them. He took a boiled egg from a plate in the middle of the table and asked them if they could stand it on its end. Some tried standing the egg on one of its ends, while others tried to stand it on the other but they all failed. Columbus took the egg, cut off one end and stood it up, in which position it remained. The members of the party looked at one another sheepishly. How had such a simple solution escaped them?

So it is with us. Although the parable seems extremely simple, the fact is that nobody thought of it by himself. Only after I tell you, do you all wonder how you didn't think of it by yourselves.

I Open my Mouth with a Parable

Once, two of the greatest maggidim of their day met. One was the Dubno Maggid and the other was Rav Yehudah Leib Edel of Slonim zt'l, author of Afikei Yehudah, who, incidentally, was befriended and esteemed by the Vilna Gaon. This maggid's approach was deep and penetrating, employing speculative and philosphical questions discussed by the Sefer Ho'ikrim, the Cuzari, the Moreh Nevuchim and other works. This was perhaps the reason that the crowd that was present preferred that the Dubno Maggid be the first to speak.

Rav Y. L. Edel commented lightheartedly to the assembled, "The posuk (Tehillim 78:2) says, `I shall open my mouth with a parable; I shall express riddles of yore.' In other words, there is a difference between a discourse based on parables and one based on theoretical questions. When `I open' the discourse with `parables,' it is `my mouth' alone that speaks, with no qualifying description of the maggid who is speaking, to distinguish him and accord him honor. It is not so when, `I express' the contents of the discourse as `riddles' and perplexing issues. In the latter case, the speaker is described as being, `of yore,' an [honored] speaker of the old, well known school."

The Dubno Maggid listened, and responded in kind: "The explanation of this posuk seems to me to be different, but also in keeping with the language. When `I open' my discourse `with a parable,' then everyone acknowledges that it is `my [own] mouth' that is speaking. Not so when `I express riddles' and profound issues; then people immediately say that what I am saying is taken from `of yore,' from earlier works."

Rav Chaim of Volozhin's Seventieth Birthday

We shall end with the moving story of one of the many meetings between Rav Yechezkel Feivel zt'l, the Vilna Maggid and author of Toldos Odom and Rav Chaim of Volozhin. The description is from the writings (still in manuscript) of the former's son, Rav Shlomo Zalman Ze'ev Wolf zt'l, who also served as Vilna Maggid.

According to Rav Shlomo Zalman, this meeting took place on Rav Chaim's seventieth birthday, when he asked the Maggid to give him a blessing on his birthday, to which request he acceded. It should be pointed out though, that the narrator describes Rav Chaim as sitting in tallis and tefilin, while his birthday was on the second day of Shavuos. Probably then, the incident did not take place on his actual birthday but before the yom tov.

Here is the account, in the original, lyrical style:

"Concerning that which my father . . . z'l told me. Once, the gaon . . . Rav Chaim of Volozhin . . . ztvk'l, was here in our community. It is well known that the gaon was literally like a friend and brother to him and they would delight in each other's company, each having great pleasure from the other.

"Once, my father . . . came to him and the gaon was sitting adorned with his tallis and crowned with tefilin. Everyone knows that the posuk, `And all the nations of the world shall see that Hashem's Name is called over you,' was fulfilled in him; his voice was splendid in fear of Hashem and his appearance was that of a heavenly angel . . . When my father arrived, he saw that the gaon's countenance was beaming and that he was wearing his Rosh Chodesh apparel. He said to him, `Welcome, come in peace.'

"My father said to him, `Our teacher, may his honor illuminate and shine for the good, as his heart desires, nevertheless, `love distorts fairness.' Allow me to ask, `I see that your appearance has changed and that your countenance wears a new expression and that your mind is at ease. Although you are wearing tallis and tefilin, what is special about today?'

"By way of reply he said, `A wise man's question contains half the answer. Your Torah honor can congratulate me; today is my seventieth birthday! I ask your honor, owing to the strength of our friendship, to proffer a cup of blessing, that Hakodosh Boruch Hu should lengthen my days pleasantly.'

"When my father heard this righteous man's words, emanating from the font of his heart in purity and wholeness, he said, `My words contain a three-fold blessing, from the father of the pious, master of singers, Dovid Hamelech o'h."

Then the maggid Rav Yechezkel Feivel expounded an explanation of several statements of Chazal, closing with Dovid Hamelech's words in Tehillim (71:17-8), "Hashem, You have taught me from my youth and hitherto I relate Your wonders; even in old age and hoariness, Hashem, do not forsake me, until I tell a generation about Your strength". This means that while Hakodosh Boruch Hu determines the extent of everyone's life, it is fitting that someone who provides the public with merit should live longer, since the public needs him.

"This is what Dovid Hamelech requested: `Hashem, You have taught me since my youth, and hitherto I relate Your wonders.' I therefore ask that, `even in old age and hoariness . . . do not forsake me.' May I merit old age and live on for many years. Why? `Until I tell a generation about Your strength,' relating Your wonders and teaching everyone, as one of those who merits the public. Since the public need me, I should live longer for their sake."

This is how he explained and he concluded, "And lo, our teacher, may Hashem assist you since you are the teacher of Yisroel who illumines the eyes of the sages in halochoh, in his exalted and elevated yeshiva which is a cornerstone and a foundation and a house of Talmud.

"How many halachic arbiters are among his talmidim, who drink in his words?

"Who is a teacher of halochoh like him, a prince of Torah, its glory and beauty, whose Torah waters many have drunk and many shall yet drink?

"How is it possible to say of him, `The days of our years are seventy years' (Tehillim 90:10), for he needs to live on for the sake of the many who wait him and his Torah?

"May he yield a bountiful harvest in old age and may old age and hoariness give him impetus.

"May his soul be greatly satiated with this pleasant life."

"He continued in this vein, with the pleasing language with which his lips were endowed and the gaon responded with a blessing of his own, `May he blessed from his own blessing, and may he who blesses be blessed by the faithful Hashem, and may he also . . . merit all the above etc.' "


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