Rabbi Yossef Dov Soloveitchik of Brisk • “The Author of Beit Halevi”

Rabbi Yossef Dov Soloveitchik of Brisk • “The Author of Beit Halevi”

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was truly one of the greatest and most amazing personalities that Lithuanian Jewry has given to the Jewish people. Stories concerning this Tzaddik and Gaon abound. People speak of his genius, sharp intellect, integrity, and finesse, and especially about his good heart, for he had a heart of gold.

The son of Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Halevi Soloveitchik (who was the grandson of the Gaon of the generation, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin), Rabbi Yosef Dov was born in 5580 (1820). From childhood, it was obvious that he was destined for greatness. People say that when he was seven years old, he already completely knew several chapters in tractates Nashim and Nezikin with the commentary of the Rambam.

He entered the renowned Volozhin yeshiva at a young age, and there he became famous for his keen intelligence. The Rosh Yeshiva and his great uncle, Rabbi Yitzchak (the son of Rabbi Chaim, the founder of the Volozhin yeshiva), rejoiced over his presence and said of him, “This boy is destined to become great.” In fact, sometime afterwards Rabbi Yosef Dov became very great in Torah, and while still young he was named as the Rosh Yeshiva of the Volozhin yeshiva. Several reasons forced him to quit this position after ten years, whereupon he was named as Rav of the town of Slutzk.

By nature, Rabbi Yosef Dov was a man of truth. He never demonstrated any partiality towards anyone, and he fought against every powerful and wealthy person who wanted to lord it over people. One day in Slutzk, it happened that a Reformer (a completely dishonorable man) was called up to the Torah. He ascended the Bimah and began to recite the blessing for the Torah reading with the intonation of a religious, G-d fearing Jew: “…Who has chosen us from among all the peoples and given us His Torah.”

Upon hearing this, Rabbi Yosef Dov began to laugh. He said, “He certainly did not recite this blessing in vain, for if the Torah had been given to the other peoples, he would have felt obliged to carry it out in its smallest detail so he could be viewed as a perfect goy! However since the Torah was given to Israel, he feels free to reject its yoke, and that’s why he said the blessing with such sincerity by emphasizing, ‘and given us His Torah’ – to us, not to non-Jews – because he doesn’t feel obliged to carry it out!”

In addition to his greatness in Torah, Rabbi Yosef Dov had a caring heart that was open to all who were poor or dejected. He faithfully cared for the needs of the community and did much for the city’s poor. During one year of scarcity, he established an organization called “Food for the Poor” which he himself directed. He went from house to house collecting money for the needy, and his home was open wide to the downhearted and every soul in pain. Even when he himself was lacking, he spent his last cent on Tzeddakah.

One day a very poor Rav from a small town appeared at his home. Rabbi Yosef Dov warmly welcomed him and invited him to eat something, during which time they spoke of Torah. After the final blessing, the guest arose and Rabbi Yosef Dov noticed that his shoes were torn. He then called one of his sons over and whispered in his ear, “Take off your shoes and give them to this Rav.”

Rabbi Yosef Dov also studied Torah in great depth and with razor-sharp acuity. He carried out the mitzvah of Tzeddakah with detailed aforethought and he treated the poor wisely.

Once before Passover, someone came to him with the following question: “Rabbeinu, can a person fulfill the obligation of drinking the four glasses at the Seder with milk?”

“Are you ill?” the Rav asked him.

“No,” the man replied. “Thank G-d, I’m in good health, but wine is very expensive this year and I have no money for it.” The Rav took out 25 rubbles from his pocket and gave them to him. However the man did not want to accept it, and he said, “Rabbi, I came to ask a question, not to ask for charity!”

“This money,” said the Rav, “is a loan until G-d helps you. You can pay me back after the holiday.”

The man took the money, thanked the Rav, and went back home. As soon as he left, the Rebbetzin asked her husband, “Why did you give him 25 rubbles? Enough wine for four glasses costs only one or two rubbles!”

Rabbi Yosef Dov smiled and said, “You heard his question: Is it permissible to fulfill the obligation of drinking the four glasses at the Seder with milk? If he was going to have meat during the Seder, he wouldn’t be able to drink milk. I understood from what he said that he had nothing for the holiday, so I gave him enough that nothing would be lacking for him.”

Rabbi Yosef Dov was a man who was very firm in his opinions, ones that represented the views of the Torah. The verse that states, “You shall fear no man” (Deuteronomy 1:17) was a guiding light for him in every aspect of life.

One day the leaders of the community of Slutzk came to him and complained about the deterioration of the town’s religious situation. The Rav replied that authenticity had the upper hand, for unbelievers truly do not believe, which is why they succeed. As for those who observe Torah and mitzvot, they don’t do so with complete sincerity, which is why the unbelievers have the upper hand.

His love for truth brought him much trouble and disappointment. He left his position as Rav of Slutzk, and for several years he devoted himself to Torah study in holiness and purity, without the rabbinate and without a livelihood.

After the departure of Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin (the Rav of Brisk) for the Holy Land, the leaders of the Brisk community came to ask Rabbi Yosef Dov to take his place as their Rav, to which he agreed.

Rabbi Yosef Dov was accorded great honor in Brisk, and his fame spread throughout the Jewish world as a Rav par excellence. In Brisk he found rest and tranquility for his disquieted soul, and he was able to study Torah in peace and also write his marvelous four-part collection of responsa, Beit Halevi, and a commentary entitled Yad Halevi.

After a brief illness, Rabbi Yosef Dov died on Iyar 4, 5652 (1892). He not only left behind his books, but also his children, who themselves were great in Torah. Among these was Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, who enlightened the world through his Torah and wisdom.

 

 
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