Thursday, November 09, 2006

A Typical Lithuanian Shtetl - by Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg

From "L'Frakim", a collection of biograhphical sketches, essays, and Aggadic novellae of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg
"Pilvishki (the town where Rav Weinberg was Rav before WWI) was a typical Lithuanian town in the make-up of its inhabitants, in its customs and mannerisms, in the clothing of its people, and their manner of speech. Before WWI Pilvishki belonged to congressional Poland, but only administratively-officially, and therefore it had the special privileges of the Polish Jews, who were allowed, even during the time of the Russian rule, to purchase land for themselves and to live in villages. Commercially and culturally, Pilvishki was in the Kovno district, Kovno served as the commercial center for Pilvishki, supplying all the goods for the Pilvishki stores, and all the produce of the Jewish field-owners was diverted to Kovno, and even in the lifestyle, public organization, and the customs of the Shuls, its men turned their eyes and hearts to Kovno, which served as a metropolis for Lithuanian Jewry.

Most of its inhabitants earned a livelihood from stores and retail, from travelling to the nearby villages for the sake of commerce and trade of the products of the village for domestic needs. However, a significant portion of the town dealt with agricultural labor. Many of the Baalei Batim had large estates around the city, and they were among the prominent and wealthy of the town. The fields were worked on by non-Jewish day-workers. The non-Jews preferred to work for the Jewish landowners, both for the good wages and the excellent treatment by the employers. On Shabbos work was stopped in the fields. The non-Jewish workers wondered about their employers not allowing them to work the fields on Shabbos. The Jews explained to them that they do not wish to derive benefit from work on Shabbos Kodesh. This custom made a great impression on the non-Jews, and out of a sense of admiration for their employers they made up, during the week, what they missed on Shabbos.

Generally, there were peaceful and friendly relations between the Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. There were no signs of tension between the Jewish employers and the non-Jewish employees. The non-Jewish villagers related to the Rav of the town with particular admiration, and they even brought him gifts from the produce of their land. During my service as the Rav of the town, it happened a few times that the non-Jews involved in commercial disputes with the Jews wanted to bring their case particularly before the Jewish Rav, and not before the civil court.

In Pilvishki there was a concentration of a special area of commerce - the goose business. Many of its inhabitants dealt in buying tens of thousands of geese in Russia, for the purpose of selling them in Germany. Pilvishki was the depot for the many carriers that were brought from distant Russia; they stopped there to feed and rest the geese. The town was a ruckus of the deafening honking of the geese. At the end of the commercial season, the businessmen gave gifts of geese to the Rav of the town and the other Klei Kodesh, and they distributed them among the poor of the town.

Generally, Pilvishki was a quiet town. Its people lived in tranquility without animosity, and there were no social differences among the its inhabitants. The masses related to the leaders of the town with respect, and with holy admiration to the Lamdanim of the town. The matters of the town were decided by the leaders and Lamdanim of the town, and the masses listened to them without contesting anything, as long as there was the consent of the Rav. There were many great Lamdanim in the town who could have served in the Rabbinate in the large cities, but they preferred life in a small town where the atmosphere was soaked with a spirit of love of Torah and an obligation of respect toward those who learned it. The spiritual life centered around the Beis Medrash. Every day, laymen gathered around the 'Gemara table', to hear a Shiur in Gepa"t from the Rav of the Chevra Shas. The Maggid Shiur during the time that I served as the Rav was R' Zalman Dov Rashigolsky z"l, a Gadol BaTorah U'BeChochmah who ran from the Rabbinate and did not want to derive benefit from the crown of Torah. He supported himself from a small grocery store that his wife ran, and he helped her for a few hours during the day. At the end of his life, when his source of livelihood was destroyed, he immigrated to America and accepted a Rabbanus there. He published two important Sefarim there, in Halachah and Aggadah. 'Chikrei Leches' in Halachah, and Hegyonei Lev in Agadah.

R' Zalman Dov Rashigolsky was one of three sons-in-law of R' Shlomo Aushpitz. He was a man of means, a Lamdan who married his daughters off to great Talmidei Chachamim. One was the aforementioned, the second - the Rav and Tzaddik R' Avraham Pinchas Klivanski, who was a man of wondrous piety and in his toil in Torah. Among the Jews in the area he was called "the Chafetz Chaim of Pilvishki", and among the non-Jews, "the holy Jew". R' Yosef Yoizel Hurwitz z"l, the Alter of Novhardok, was his Mechutan, and he would come to Pilvishki every winter (for many years) and stay there for a number of weeks. Every evening he would come to my home to speak in words of Torah and Mussar, and to discuss Torah with the Bachurim of the 'Kibbutz' which was in Pilvishki under my leadership for years.

The third was R' Yitzchak Flansberg...

The aforementioned were not the only learners in the town. There were some people there who were very great in Torah and were ordained Rabbis. The wealthy Baalei Batim married their daughters off to excellent Talmidei Chachamim and took it upon themselves to support them for many years. I'll mention a few of them: R' Mordechai Godzansky, who for many years served in the American Rabbinate, and then returned to Pilvishki and learned diligently, day and night, in the Beis Medrash. 'R' Yitzchak the small' (short and scrawny), adorned in Tallis and Tefillin all day long and learning Torah. R' Menachem Mendel Apriasky, a wealthy merchant and a great Lamdan. Every evening, after he closed his store, he would go to learn in the Beis Medrash until a late hour. R' Gedaliah Grodzan, a famous Gadol BaTorah, publicized Torah novellae in the Knesses Yisrael periodical of the Slabodker Kollel. R' Zev Friedman, a wealthy businessman who had set times for Torah study. R' Tzemach Weinberg, and many others.

These were the elite of the Talmudic intelligentsia of the town. Almost a majority of the laymen were numbered among the members of the Chevra Shas, Chevra Mishnayos, Chevra Ein Yaakov. In the last row, the simple folk, the wagon drivers, village-goers, laborers. There were only a few, but they also joined the 'Chevra Tehillim' and would get up in the wee hours of the morning and recite a few chapters of Tehillim, Passuk by Passuk recited alternately by one of the members. On Shabbos, they would come at 4 AM and say Tehillim until the morning prayer. It was interesting that it was difficult to stop them, and even the scolding of the Gabbaim was ineffective in stopping their song, and only when the Rav entered to start Shacharis did they finish their 'recital'. On Shabbos and Yom Tov there was a loud din in the Beis Medrash from the voices of the learners. The Beis Medrash was full to capacity. Besides the Chevras mentioned, who learned at designated tables, there were Yeshiva boys who returned to their fathers' homes, and also Bachurim and Prushim (married men who had separated from their homes), who had exiled themselves to a place of Torah, in Pilvishki, and were supported by the townsfolk...

Even the 'big Lomdim' acted respectfully toward the Rav of the town. There was no room for factions and sides regarding the Rav and the other Klei Kodesh. All submitted to the dictates of the Rav and noone second guessed his decisions in Issur V'Hetter or his other religious decisions. There was one exception in a family that was jealous of the honor of the Rav and his tremendous influence. One of the members of this family falsely accused the Rav of reading newspapers on Shabbos. Some of the masses ganged up on him and beat him severely, and the Lomdim hurled insults and epithets at him and rejected him from the Tzibbur.

Once, the Gaon and Tzaddik R' Yitzchak Blaser (R' Itzele Peterburger) visited the town, to participate in the wedding of one of his relatives. The townmen carried him on their hands and the accorded him honor worthy of royalty, literally.

In the year before WWI, the economic situation of the field owners deteriorated, and there were some who beseeched me to allow them to work the fields on Shabbos through their non-Jewish workers, relying on a 'bill of sale' similar to what is used in the sale of Chametz before Pesach.

In the city Volkovishki, which was proximate to Pilvishki, this Hetter was used by the Gaon R' Tzvi Mah-Yafis, with the consent of the Gaon R' Eliyahu Klatzkin z"l, who was then serving as the Rav in Marinpol. However, in Pilvishki this was forbidden by my predecessors because of a simple reason, that this sale was essential a fiction. I was also hesitant in incorporating this in a town that excelled in its traditional religious life, and I was also concerned about the ridicule of the young folk who were involved in secular Haskalah, that they would say: 'Go and see that the religious Jews are deceiving and circumventing the duty of maintaning the sanctity and observance of Shabbos. In the dire strait that I was in, I travelled to Radin to ask the advice of the Gaon and Tzaddik the Chafetz Chaim z"l. He avoided giving me a clear response, he just told me in his sweet way, placing his hand on my shoulder: "His Torah eminence gets a salary for his Rabbinate, and you want to roll the severity of this decision on a simple Baal HaBos?" I understood that he was not comfortable with this Hetter, just he did not want to say that explicitly, so as not to impinge the honor of the Rabbis who allowed it.

When I returned to Pilvishki, I informed the Baalei Batim that the Chafetz Chaim was not happy with this Hetter Mechirah. Immediately, they all accepted the prohibition with trepidation, and there was not one person who opened his mouth against it."

At the conclusion of his touching description of his town Pilvishki, Rav Weinberg says,

"The description of the life in Pilvishki comes to underscore the distinct uniqueness of the Lithuanian town... The primary strength of the Lithuanian town was in the creation of an atmosphere completely permeated with spiritual values and lofty aspirations for human perfection in acquisition of the wisdom of the Torah. The air of the Lithuanian town was filled with love of Torah, and everyone, from the great Lamdanim to the simple folk, saw in Torah learning the purpose of life,and the essence of life. This love, is what motivated the Baalei Batim to marry their daughters off to Talmidei Chachamim and to support them at their table, and what propelled even the poor people of the town to cut a slice of their meager bread for the Bachurim of the town who spent their time in the Beis Medrash.

This philanthropic support, the likes of which we have not seen in any other nation, did not come only for the sake of the Mitzvah of supporting Torah and granting aid for those who lacked bread, but, primarily, for the sake of the creation of a spiritual, Torah, atmosphere, for the sake of direct connection to Bnei Torah and in order to be in the presence of lofty spiritual life. The Beis Medrash was something of an earthly Gan Eden, where the men of stature sat and benefited from the light which bursts forth from every page of the Gemara. The Torah study of the great toilers had none of the Nazir-like tendencies, detached from reality, which despises life and seeks escape in the world of fantasy.

The Lithuanian Jew was, by nature, full of energy and a lover of life with every fiber of his soul. He simply sought a life which was worthy, life which grants satisfaction to the demands of the heart and spirit. The desire for Torah learning was the source of the yearning of a refined life. In the Torah, he discerned the appearance of everything, in it he saw the only path to perfection, to enrichment of the mind, to purification of Middos and to the strengthening of positive inclinations. In a word: To a life of an advantage of Man over beast.

The love of Torah of the Lithuanian Jew was a firm foundation in his soul and was absorbed in his blood and all of his limbs. And, as a result, Lithuanian Jewry merited what it did: To create Torah values and values of outlook, through which it was sustained, and, in turn, the entire nation is sustained."