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.
Rabbi Dunner has already introduced us to Rabbi Ferber’s memoirs in his previous articles, allowing us to glimpse the life of this revered rabbi for the very first time since he began recording it in vivid detail in the year 1938. This is the third excerpt from the memoirs, and continues the story of Rabbi Ferber’s brother, Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Ferber, whose great scholarship and piety seemed to forestall a great future.
The translation is not a word-for-word rendition 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. The material has also been abridged where necessary, excluding details that disrupt the narrative, or expanded where more details are required.
PART 3 OF THE DIARY: THE LIFE AND UNTIMELY DEATH OF MY BROTHER, RABBI ELIEZER LIPMAN FERBER
When the time arrived for my brother to get married, he came to the attention of a wealthy, G-d-fearing man by the name of Chanan Barkovsky, who lived in Shaki. Barkovsky was so intent getting my brother for his daughter that he promised him 1,500 rubles – which was an absolute fortune in those days – to become his son-in-law. Barkovsky had four daughters in all, but no sons, and he was determined for all his daughters to marry only the finest Torah scholars. His first son-in-law was my brother. The second was also a great scholar, Rabbi Isaac Sapir, who later authored a number of learned books, and was the chief rabbi of Ratzk in Lithuania, although he eventually moved to Jerusalem, where he passed away.
Barkovsky’s third son-in-law was Rabbi Eliyahu Shalom Regensberg, son of Rabbi David Regensberg, chief rabbi of Shad. He later moved to London, where he became the rabbi at Great Garden Street Synagogue, in London’s East End district. Barkovsky’s fourth son-in-law was Rabbi David Kabinet, son of Rabbi Yehuda, who became chief rabbi of Lubova, near Kalvary.
After my brother’s marriage to Barkovsky’s daughter he began to travel around the country for business, while his partner looked after their finances. But in truth, my brother was far more suited to Torah scholarship than he was to business, and within a very short time he lost most of the money he had only just received from his father-in-law, and was left with about one hundred rubles, which he then used to marry off our sister, Feige Beila.
When my mother heard that my brother had lost all his money, she had a complete meltdown, but he consoled her, and told her how happy he was to be free of all that money, which had occupied all his time. Now that he had lost it, he told her, there was plenty of time for him to devote to his beloved Torah studies.
As soon as it became known that my brother was no longer able to support himself, he was headhunted by a number of communities and offered a range of distinguished rabbinic posts. In the end he accepted the position as chief rabbi of Koznitza, a small town near Grodno. The rabbi who preceded him there was a man called Rabbi Mordechai, a great rabbi who regularly corresponded with Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the acclaimed Netziv of Volozhin, and one of their exchanges was published in the Netziv’s halachic book, Meishiv Davar. But although he was a brilliant Torah scholar, Rabbi Mordechai suffered endless indignities in his role as the rabbi of Koznitza.
There was another rabbi who served in Koznitza called Rabbi Avraham Aaron Yudelevitch, author of the halakhic work “Beit Av”, who afterwards served as the rabbi of Kapolia, near Minsk, and later as a rabbi in Manchester, England, and then in New York, where he passed away and was buried. He was a celebrated scholar and a highly impressive orator, but he nonetheless endured terrible treatment at the hands of the Koznitza community.
There was, for example, one incident when a Kotzker Hasid slapped Rabbi Yudelevitch around the face. It happened during his public eulogy for the recently departed Rabbi Raphael Yomtov Lipman Halpern, chief rabbi of Bialystok, and author of the halachic responsa Oneg Yomtov, who had been known for his vehement opposition to the Hasidic rabbi of Radzyn and his controversial book on the Talmudic tractate of “Toharot”. The violent reaction by the Kotzker Hasid was prompted by Rabbi Yudelevitch’s public recitation during the eulogy of the “Dayan Ha’emet” (True Judge) blessing, including G-d’s name, which indicated his exceptional respect for the recently deceased rabbi.
I once heard from Rabbi Arye Bernstein, the rabbi at Bethnal Green Synagogue in London’s East End, who was previously a preacher in Grodno, which was close to Koznitza, that when my brother became the rabbi of Koznitza in around the year 1880, many people in the community dismissed and disparaged him, figuring that he was a feeble inexperienced novice from Lithuania with a prejudice against Hasidim, not worthy of their respect. He complained bitterly that he would never prevail against such hardcore opposition, but it did not take long for him to gain their respect, and it soon became apparent that those who antagonized him would never get the better of him. He was a powerful speaker and always made a strong impression, and soon enough everyone in the community began to take him seriously.
MY BROTHER’S WISDOM IN HIS DEALINGS WITH PEOPLE
On one occasion a wealthy wedding party arrived from Warsaw to celebrate the marriage of their children in Koznitza. While at a local hotel, all of the bride and groom’s clothes were stolen, along with many other valuable items that they had brought with them on their trip. Evidently, they were completely devastated, and they came to see my brother deeply distressed by what had happened. He advised them to postpone the wedding until after the weekend, and invited them to his join him for all the Shabbat meals at his home – which was hardly surprising, as he was well known for his incredible generosity and hospitality, and for taking care of guests just like a father looks after the needs of his children, as well as concerning himself for widows and orphans, looking after all of their needs and giving them a Torah education.
That Shabbat in the synagogue my brother addressed the community, and expressed his deep disappointment at the tragedy that had been endured by this family from Warsaw, and while he made it clear that he was not suggesting anyone in the community was guilty of the theft, surely there was someone who knew something about this awful crime, and unless they did something to rectify the situation, they too would be guilty. His words generated a lot of unease among those who knew something about the theft, as they knew it did not bode well for them if they did nothing.
My brother informed the community that there would be a door open from his house into the adjacent alleyway on Saturday night after Shabbat was over, so that the stolen items could be returned in secret. That night all the stolen items were returned, and the parents of the bride and groom were overjoyed by this turn of events. The wedding went ahead with great festivity and elation, and my brother also attended and joined in the celebration.
MY BROTHER’S SCHOLARSHIP AND PIETY
As a young man, my brother’s diligence and concentration while studying Torah was exceptional — he studied literally day and night with complete absorption, and nothing whatsoever could distract him if he was in middle of his studies. Even when he became a full-time community rabbi, nothing changed. He was constantly engaged in his Torah studies, and there was no difference between night and day as far as he was concerned. He studied on his own, and he also taught others. Moreover, he was incredibly pious in his Judaism – I clearly remember his annual visits to my parents, and how he prayed the weekday evening services with such devotion — he was devout with every fiber of his being.
His public addresses cut deep into people’s hearts. Although all his speeches were themed around aspects of Jewish law, he would always insert ethical ideas into them that would resonate with the audience, an expression of his integrity and authenticity as a person. His words would reach deep into people’s hearts, even the toughest and most cynical of those who heard him, making an indelible impression. I recall his wondrous eulogy in Slabodka in 1883, at the old synagogue, for the leading rabbi of our time, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter – and despite the fact that he was a mere 29-year-old at the time, Rabbi Salanter’s primary student, Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, made sure to attend so that he could to hear my brother deliver his superlative tribute.
THE MILKMAN IN NOTTINGHAM
In 1913, while I was traveling through England, I visited Nottingham and stayed with a community member who was a milkman. I saw that he was a G-d fearing man, and that he observed the Sabbath properly. He was extremely respectful and polite, in a way that was quite unusual, and certainly unlike anyone else in that community. Out of the blue this milkman told me that when he was a young man he and some of his Jewish friends had been drafted into the Russian Imperial Army, and when it was almost Yom Kippur they had asked the commanding officer if they could be stationed in a city with a Jewish community for the holy day, and he had sent them to Koznitza.
On Kol Nidre night they had heard a sermon from the rabbi there, a young man, and his powerful words made a great impression. The entire community trembled as he spoke, and their tears flowed like a river. He would never forget that speech for as long as he lived, the milkman told me. When I then told him that the young rabbi he remembered was none other than my late brother, he was shocked, and then he told me that as soon as he saw me he thought that I reminded him of someone or something, but he just couldn’t figure it out. Now that I had told him that the same rabbi he heard in Kosnitza all those years ago was my brother, suddenly it all made sense. And from that moment on, the milkman in Nottingham treated me with the utmost reverence and respect, and did everything that he could for me.
THE UNEXPECTED TRAIN STOP IN KASHODAR
I once heard a the following story about my brother – when he went to Shavel in around the year 1889 for our brother Mordechai’s wedding, he was unavoidably delayed at the train stop in Kashodar, Lithuania. While he was there, with nothing else to do, he decided to visit the rabbi of the town, Rabbi Binyamin Meizel, who was later rabbi of Paneman, near Kovno. During their conversation Rabbi Meizel told my brother how upset he was about a vicious controversy that was then raging in the community, a dispute that looked likely to end up at the secular civil court, which would inevitably cause an incredible desecration of G-d’s name among the local gentiles.
My brother suggested to the rabbi that he should call the community together at the local synagogue, and once they were all gathered there, he began to address them in a soft tone, and spoke to their hearts, inspiring them to reconcile with each other, and restore peace, and to bring blessings back to their homes and their community. Before long there was not a dry eye in the room. Immediately after he had finished addressing them the warring parties resolved their differences, and everyone in the community, including the rabbi, was delighted by what he had achieved – at which point my brother went back on his journey to the wedding.
SOME OTHER RECOLLECTIONS OF MY BROTHER
Another recollection I have of my brother is of my father telling him that the cloth belt he was wearing was torn, to which he responded that the belt had very important sentimental value, as it had belonged to “Reb Yudel Sennier” (in other words, to Rabbi Yehuda Bacharach, the acclaimed rabbi of Seini, and author of the popular glosses published at the back of the Vilna Talmud), and he had purchased the belt from the aforementioned rabbi’s heirs.
I particularly remember how happy everyone was to meet him at the marriage of our brother Mordechai, to the daughter of the saintly scholar and acclaimed man of G-d, Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv, celebrated author of “Leshem Shevo ve’Achlama”. Every time he found himself at the center of Torah discussions with family members, he dazzled them with his scholarship, resolving complex issues with just a couple of words – no one was a match for his intellect and scholarship.
My brother’s knowledge of Jewish monetary laws was phenomenal, as is clearly demonstrated in all the writings he left behind. He effortlessly judged the most complicated financial cases and resolved the densest money related legal questions, bringing about peaceful solutions for all the protagonists. He was regularly called upon by different communities to rule on the most complex and challenging financial cases, and everyone was astounded by his ability to grasp all the details and cut to the chase. I remember one particular case – a dispute between the well-known tycoon, Yosef Sharshevski of Grodno, and another party. No one had been able to draw a line under the matter until my late brother stepped in and sorted it out.
What was even more remarkable was that he never took any payment for his lawsuit related work – he was not interested in being compensated, or in any kind of financial gain. He was a man of truth and integrity, righteous and pious in everything that he did, driven by Torah ideals and a passion for justice.
MY BROTHER BECOMES SICK
The year 5753 (1892) was a terrible year – as it was the year that my brother passed away. As soon as the year began he had a weird premonition that his time had come, and he asked his loved ones to pray for him. Over the High Holidays he inspired the community with his wonderful sermons, as he always did, and on Yom Kippur he led the Neilah prayer at the end of the day. On the eve of the new month of Cheshvan, just a couple of weeks later, he fasted as he did every year, and prayed the mini-Yom-Kippur prayer recited by pious people before a new month begins.
But the following day, my brother suddenly felt unwell – and he was diagnosed with Typhoid Fever. Weirdly enough, my mother had fallen asleep that morning – she was in Slabodka, of course, while my brother was many miles away in Koznitza — and while she was sleeping she dreamt that my brother was sick, and that a doctor was standing over him. She woke up frightened, and wept bitterly, because she felt that it wasnt just a dream.
Just then a telegram arrived from my brother informing her of his diagnosis, and asking her to pray for him, as her prayers would surely be effective. I still recall how she prayed over the next few days with such devotion, particularly the penitential prayers of Mondays and Thursdays. I could hear her crying through the wall that separated our rooms, although when I went into her room she went silent so as not to upset me. As soon as the telegram had arrived my mother ran to the synagogue and prayed in front of the ark containing the Torahs.
My father also prayed fervently, as did all the members of our household – we cried what seemed to be rivers of tears, praying and pleading for my brother’s full recovery. My mother also made efforts to ensure that the world renowned rabbinic luminary, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovno, would prayed for him to recover.
In my brother’s town, Koznitza, and the surrounding area, everyone gathered together to pray for him as well. But it seems his fate had already been sealed, and the candelabra that had shone for 39 years, with the flame of mitzvot and the light of Torah, had already been extinguished. When my mother arrived in Koznitza to be with him a few days later, my brother told her that he knew his time was up – it had been revealed to him from the Heavens, and he had already encountered some of his friends who had passed away.
MY BROTHER’S PASSING
On the 11th of Mar-Cheshvan (November 1), 1892, my brother passed away.
When he was first diagnosed, they had summoned Dr. Zamkov from Grodno, and he had predicted that if my brother was able to make it past two weeks, he would be recover. Dr. Zamkov was a very famous and eminent doctor, but unfortunately he had returned to Grodno immediately afterwards, and my brother had been tended to over the next few days by a local doctor, who my mother later said was very young and inexperienced, which upset her enormously. My mother was also extremely upset that my sister-in-law, Chaya Gitel, had allowed her husband to fast on the eve of the new month of Cheshvan. And the truth is, my mother was right. Penitential fast days are not meant for a great scholar who spends his life immersed in Torah study, as the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, had explicitly told his disciple, R. Yaakov Yosef Katz of Polonoyye, author of the book “Toldot Yaakov Yosef”.
The tragedy of my brother’s untimely death totally devastated my parents, and they never recovered from the terrible blow of his demise for the rest of their lives. During the year of mourning that followed his passing, my father organized a daily prayer service at our home, and a righteous scholar delivered a daily Torah discourse to those who attended, and also ate meals at our table. During the initial mourning week the celebrated rabbinic scholar, Rabbi Zelig Tarshish of Kelm, taught Torah in my brother’s memory at our home – at that time he lived in Slabodka; he now lives in Jerusalem.
NEXT TIME: WHAT HAPPENED TO RABBI FERBER’S BROTHER’S FAMILY AFTER HE DIED?