MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN RABBI:
THE TROUBLED LIFE OF RABBI TZVI HIRSCH FERBER
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber (1883-1966) was a Lithuanian-born Torah scholar who spent most of his adult life as the spiritual leader of a small community in the West End of London. He remained there for over 50 years, struggling to maintain his dignity and his principles in a setting that was completely indifferent to the things he found important. His relationship with the lay-leadership of his community, as well as with his fellow employees, was fraught with difficulty and tension, as they were all people devoid of any sensitivity to Jewish ritual law and they tended to run the synagogue as a moneymaking operation, without taking Jewish law or the rabbi into consideration.
In the first three article of this series, Rabbi Dunner introduced us to the fascinating story of the memoirs and how they ended up in his possession. Having shared the story behind the memoirs, we now turn to Rabbi Ferber’s narrative, as Rabbi Dunner presents his memoirs, translated and published for the very first time since they were written. This first excerpt presented here was written in 1938. The translation by Rabbi Dunner is not a word-for-word translation of the original Hebrew, although Rabbi Dunner has stuck as closely as possible to the original, except when the Rabbinic Hebrew makes an exact translation difficult, or where ambiguities need to be corrected. Rabbi Dunner has also abridged the material where necessary, excluding obscure bibliographic references or marginal details that disrupt the narrative.
RABBI TZVI HIRSCH FERBER IN HIS OWN WORDS
PART 1: MEMORIES OF MY YOUTH IN SLABODKA
The early rabbis of Kovno and Slabodka
Slabodka, my place of birth, is an ancient town that existed before the neighboring city of Kovno. The first rabbis of Kovno were buried in the Jewish cemetery of Slabodka, as there was no Jewish cemetery in Kovno when they died.
The great rabbis of Kovno were Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who studied under Rabbi Yaakov Maggid, the preacher of Novardok. There was also Rabbi Arye Leib Shapira, father of the four great brothers: Rabbi Raphael Shapira, who was the son-in-law of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the “Netziv” of Volozhin; Rabbi Levi “Trisker”; Rabbi Shmuel Moshe of Korschan, who later became chief rabbi of Bobroisk, replacing his brother Rabbi Raphael Shapira when he was appointed dean of the Volozhin yeshiva, and chief rabbi of Volozhin; and Rabbi Avraham Chaim Shapira of Smargan.
In 1896, I witnessed the exhumation of these early chief rabbis’ remains after the government seized the old Jewish cemetery in Slabodka. They were all reburied in the new Slabodka cemetery. At that time I also witnessed the reburial of Rabbi Yitzchak Meir, the former chief rabbi of Slabodka, who had passed away in 1890.
I recall hearing from my esteemed teacher, Rabbi Hirschel, one of the teachers at Slabodka yeshiva, about a chief rabbi of Slabodka called Rabbi Shlomo, a great scholar who studied under Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. He was constantly studying Torah and was known to be a great Torah scholar. Despite this, the other rabbis in Slabodka were frequently confounded by his halachic rulings, and could not work out what lay behind his conclusions. Whenever they asked him to explain himself, however, he refused to respond. One time Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin visited Slabodka, and the other local rabbis complained to him about the chief rabbi. They explained that they couldn’t make any sense of his rulings, and Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin promised to take it up with him.
He spoke to Rabbi Shlomo, and saw immediately that he was a towering intellect, and that all his halachic rulings were correct, firmly based on Talmudic sources and the early halachic authorities. So he asked Rabbi Shlomo why he refused to share his sources with the other rabbis in town, to which Rabbi Shlomo responded: “let them work as hard as I do to come up with these rulings, and they will understand everything perfectly!”
Rabbi Eliyahu Rogoler
Another chief rabbi of Slabodka was the incredible sage and spiritual giant, Rabbi Eliyahu Rogoler, son of Rabbi Yaakov of Neustadt. He wrote an approbation for the book “Turei Even” by the author of “Shaagat Arye” in around 1836, and signed it “Chief Rabbi of Villiampole”, which is another name for Slabodka, as it is surrounded by the Villia River.
My teacher, Rabbi Hirsch, told me that Rabbi Eliyahu Rogoler once publicly declared that if anyone came to him knowing all six orders of Mishnah by heart, he would reveal kabbalistic secrets to them that would result in them being visited by an angel teacher from Heaven, just as it happened with the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the Beit Yosef.
After Slabodka Rabbi Eliyahu was chief rabbi of Kalish, and that community also witnessed him doing extraordinary things. But he very much regretted his move to Kalish, and wrote that his move to Kalish would result in an earlier death. He suffered terribly at the hands of the Hasidic community there, and he longed for his former position and home in Slabodka, where he had led a trouble-free life.
In Slabodka he had presided over a number of devoted students who went on to become great rabbinic leaders in their own right. One of them was my own relative, Rabbi Mordechai Eliasberg, who would later be chief rabbi of Boisk. He was the son-in-law of my great-uncle, the wealthy philanthropist, Markil Kadishsohn of Kovno, who built and set up the wonderful learning center known as “Reb Markil’s Kloiz”, a beautiful building with a fantastic library, where special individuals sat all day and studied Torah, and it is still active to this day.
Markil Kadishsohn was actually a devoted supporter of Rabbi Eliyahu Rogoler. Throughout the rabbi’s 14 years in Slabodka he was paid a salary of two rubles a week by the community, and Markil added a further two rubles a week throughout that time, and even after the rabbi left Slabodka he continued to give him this amount.
During his time in Kalish, Rabbi Rogoler was involved in an awful incident. The community owned a Torah scroll that was written by Rabbi Yehuda ben Nissan, author of the Beit Yehuda commentary on the Talmud, who had been chief rabbi of Kalish during the seventeenth century. The scroll was very fragile, and precious to the community, and they only used it once a year, on Yom Kippur.
One year, on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Rogoler was called upon to say a blessing over that Torah scroll, but when he saw the scroll close up he declared it unfit for use, and the community was very upset. Soon afterwards the rabbi fell sick, and the community’s leaders saw this as a proof that he had offended the honor of their former chief rabbi, and this illness was his punishment.
They demanded that Rabbi Rogoler send a quorum of men to pray at the late chief rabbi’s grave, to ask for forgiveness for having insulted his honor. But Rabbi Rogoler stood his ground, and responded that he would send a quorum to request that the late chief rabbi intercede on his behalf in Heaven, in the merit of having saved the community from using an unusable Torah scroll. And so it was, and his health improved. I heard later that thieves had rampaged through the town, broken into the synagogue, and torn that particular Torah scroll, which settled things once-and-for-all.
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Slabodka
Another chief rabbi of Slabodka was Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac, previously the rabbi of Lachowitz, and before him the chief rabbi was Rabbi Chanoch Henoch, who subsequently went blind. After them both, the chief rabbi of Slabodka was Rabbi Yitzchak Meir, previously the rabbi of Zaslav, who was known as the “illui” (genius) of Kreveh. I knew him – he was a tall man with an aristocratic bearing, and a long flowing beard. He had a wonderful personality, was extremely generous and kind, and he was also a fantastic public speaker. I can still vividly recall his speeches – the captivating singsong of his delivery, the perfect diction, and his powerful voice.
I heard from Rabbi Yosef Sharshevski that Rabbi Yitzchak Meir was born in Kreveh, where his father was a local medical expert. There were once rumors that his wife had been unfaithful. She was made to appear before the town’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Raphael Yomtov Lipman Halpern, the celebrated author of the book “Oneg Yomtov”.
Rabbi Halpern said he would not take any action against her, as there were no witnesses to the alleged affair, only rumors. Retribution would be from Heaven, he said. If she was guilty she would endure a terrible punishment from God. But if she was innocent of the allegations, she would not only not be punished, she would merit a son who would become a great scholar and rabbi – greater than him, he said – and Rabbi Yitzchak Meir was the result of this blessing.
He became a student of the famed rabbi of Brisk, Rabbi Yeshua Leib Diskin, and I remember hearing that when he was gravely ill before he died he cried out, “Why would you want me? My teacher Rabbi Yehoshua Leib is much greater than I am!”
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir’s brother, Rabbi Aron Rubin, was also a great scholar, and he stood in as rabbi of Slabodka for two years after his brother died, and then became the rabbi of Ratnitz near Grodno. I heard later that a wealthy old woman who was very fond of him left him her entire fortune when she died.
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir’s untimely death
In the month of Cheshvan 5651 (1890) Rabbi Yitzchak Meir became sick with kidney disease, and I recall that we gathered to pray for him. It was to no avail, and on the 11th of Cheshvan he passed away at the young age of 48 years old. I can still recall the thousands upon thousands of people from Kovno and Slabodka, and the entire surrounding area, who came to pay him their last respects.
His coffin was brought into the big yard in front of the synagogue, and it was packed from end to end. The yard was so packed that it was not possible for the great rabbi, renowned leader of the Jewish world, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, who was chief rabbi of neighboring Kovno, to get close and eulogize him, as he was standing quite far away and there was no way for him to get through the crowds. Instead they hoisted a large table over people’s heads until it reached the spot where he was standing, and the community leaders lifted Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor up onto it so that he could deliver the eulogy.
Two people stood alongside the rabbi on the table to keep him steady, as he was old and weak, and he delivered a heartrending eulogy in a tearful voice. He told the community not to appoint a new chief rabbi for at least two years, and instead they were to give the salary to Rabbi Yitzchak Meir’s widow, and also to put together a fund to marry off his children.
Other eulogies were delivered by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Hacohen, the itinerant preacher of Kovno; Rabbi Shabsi Marim, one of the rabbis in Slabodka; and Rabbi Binyamin Meisell, the chief rabbi of Paneman, who was a relative of the late rabbi.
Due to the massive crowds, it was impossible to eulogize the rabbi inside the synagogue, so after they had brought the coffin into the synagogue they brought it back out to the yard and eulogized him there. I never saw such a large funeral, with the exception of the funeral for the greatest rabbinic leader of them all, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor.
For two years the rabbinic leadership position of Slabodka was filled temporarily by Rabbi Shabsi Marim alongside the late rabbi’s brother, Rabbi Aron Rubin – a very educated man and fantastic public speaker, whose speeches the community loved to hear.
Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan helped the community raise money so that they could build a large house for Rabbi Yitzchak Meir’s widow, and they also married off his daughter to a flour trader, Gershon Opp, known as Reb Gershon Kalman’s, a decent man and the son of a community official. Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan came himself to perform the wedding. The widow’s eldest son was married off to the daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Meir Rogoler, and there was also another son, but I don’t know what happened to him.
The appointment of Rabbi Moshe Danishevsky
After the two-year period was over, the community leadership of Slabodka called together a big public meeting, which was attended by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan. At that meeting he recommended the appointment of Rabbi Moshe Danishevsky, who at the time was chief rabbi of Butrimantz, to the vacant rabbinic position in Slabodka. But there was pushback from the people at the meeting, some of whom claimed Rabbi Danishevsky wasn’t such a great speaker. Another group at the meeting pushed for the appointment of Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Rabinowitz, who was then teaching at the yeshiva and was known for his great knowledge and exceptional intellect.
Some of the people were suspicious that Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan was rooting for Rabbi Danishevsky because he did not want the chief rabbi of Slabodka to be a greater scholar than his own son, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch, who would eventually inherit the rabbinate of neighboring Kovno when he died. Others were of the opinion that his support for Rabbi Danishevsky was due to the latter’s wealthy relation in Kovno, the charitable and devout Shlomo Azinski, who was heavily lobbying for his relative’s appointment.
In the end Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan made it clear that he did not have any kind of secret agenda regarding Rabbi Danishevsky’s appointment. On the contrary, his support was motivated by his view that Rabbi Danishevsky was a superb choice, and an able halachic expert, someone who could rule on any halachic matter correctly. Personally, he said, he would be delighted to have someone like him in such close proximity so that they could discuss halachic issues together.
And the fact is – he was absolutely right! Even if it was true that Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Rabinowitz, who was later chief rabbi of Gorzhd, and eventually Ponevezh, was greater than Rabbi Moshe Danishevsky in terms of his intellect, when it came to halachic expertise Rabbi Moshe was probably a greater expert than him. He was the author of a book of halachic rulings, “Be’er Moshe”, and was extremely righteous and pure, constantly studying Torah. He died in 5669 (1909).
Rabbi Aron Kotler told me that he once heard from his father-in-law, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, that Rabbi Moshe Danishevsky had previously visited Kovno on a fundraising visit after his hometown of Butrimantz was destroyed in a fire. Before he left for Kovno he took with him a manuscript pamphlet he had written about an Agunah case he had recently presided over, so that he could reread and edit it during his trip. When he eventually arrived at his host in Kovno, he read through the pamphlet and corrected it.
Soon afterwards he visited Kovno’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, who by chance happened to be considering a difficult Agunah case. Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan asked his visitor to go through the details of the case with him, and when Rabbi Danishevsky heard that the issues were identical to the ones he had dealt with in the case recorded in his pamphlet, he informed Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan of every relevant opinion from the entire range of rabbinic literature. The chief rabbi was extremely impressed by his visitor’s vast knowledge, and from that moment on they maintained a close friendship.
The terrible fire in Slabodka
During the two-year gap between Rabbi Yitzchak Meir’s passing and the new rabbi’s appointment a terrible catastrophe occurred – most of the town of Slabodka was destroyed in an appalling fire. The houses in Slabodka were all built of wood, and before the firefighters were able to get to Slabodka from Kovno the raging fire had already destroyed everything. The houses were also built very close to each other, in addition to which it was in the middle of the summer, and the houses were very dry from the heat of the sun, which resulted in the fire advancing very rapidly.
Among the buildings that were destroyed was the beautiful old synagogue, as well as the synagogue where the Hasidim prayed, the Kirzner prayer house, and another two prayer houses. The devastation was utterly catastrophic, and I remember it very clearly.
Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan wept bitterly when he visited the town, and saw the destruction and devastation. It wasn’t clear who was responsible for the fire, which meant that everyone affected was left both homeless and penniless. Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan immediately launched a campaign to raise money to assist those who had been affected by the fire, and he offered to help in any way he could.
No words can describe the kindness of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, a man who completely devoted his entire life to the welfare of the Jewish people.
The town of Slabodka was rebuilt after the fire, but it was now much smaller than it had been before the fire, and would never return to its former glory. Sadly, the synagogues and prayer houses were never rebuilt.
The passing of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor
In Adar 5656 (1896) – about a month after the passing of Rabbi Yerucham Yehuda Leib Pearlman, the “Gadol” of Minsk, whose eulogizers in Kovno had hinted that Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan was too weak to deliver a eulogy, adding that the community should pray for his health – news emerged that the great rabbi was suffering from a life-threatening kidney disease.
Bearing in mind his advanced age, and the fact that he was already so weak, everyone was extremely worried by the news, and it set off a panic throughout the Jewish world, and particularly in Kovno and Slabodka. I remember that Purim, before the Megillah was read, we recited psalms in a very mournful voice, and mentioned his name – Harav Yitzchak Elchanan ben Rachel.
Medical professors were brought in from Berlin and St. Petersberg, to see if they could do anything to help. People constantly milled around outside the rabbi’s house, desperate to find out how he was doing, and notices were regularly posted on the front gate to report on his condition. But the gates of Heaven were closed, and on Friday Adar 21, 5696 (1896), splendor left the House of Israel, and Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor was summoned to the Heavenly realm. I remember that bitter day very clearly.
I attended his funeral. The crowd in attendance was gigantic. Everyone was crying. Tears flowed like a river as we all mourned the loss of the Prince of Torah. There was no need for eulogizers, and in fact they were utterly superfluous, as everyone felt that they had personally been orphaned, and they were able to cry and eulogize this tragedy no less than any professional eulogizer.
As it was a Friday, and it was also raining, it was not possible for there to be numerous lengthy eulogies. The few eulogies that there were began at the old synagogue in Kovno, where the late rabbi had prayed daily for 32 years. His son Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch delivered the first one, and after he was done, Rabbi Moshe Danishevsky gave a eulogy, delivered in a weeping, bitter voice.
At the cemetery, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch eulogized his father again. It was a remarkable eulogy, and revealed his profound wisdom in every sphere. Each word was brilliant, and his voice was pure and clear. I can still remember each and every precious word he uttered. Among the other eulogizers were the saintly scholar, Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer; Rabbi Tzvi Yaakov Oppenheim, chief rabbi of Kelm; and Rabbi Binyamin Meisell, chief rabbi of Paneman.
Rabbi Shabsi Marim spoke inside the cemetery chapel where the “Chevra Kadisha” ritually cleansed the bodies before burial. “Rabbi, rabbi,” he cried out, “in exactly this spot you once ruled that an Agunah was free to remarry!”, recalling the occasion when Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan was at a funeral at the cemetery and suddenly remembered that he needed to respond to this urgent Agunah question. He had immediately entered the cemetery chapel and composed a response on the spot, so that the matter was dealt with.
Another eulogizer was Dr. Feinberg, the rabbi’s personal physician, who delivered his address in classical Hebrew. A representative of “Kovno Kollel”, Chaim Tchernowitz, also eulogized the rabbi; he was the one who later drifted away from traditional Judaism and became known as “Rav Tzair”.
After the week of mourning was over, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan’s son, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz, was appointed to replace his father as the rabbi.
NEXT TIME: THE CONTROVERSY THAT SPLIT SLABODKA YESHIVA & MY LIFE AFTER SLABODKA