Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, the Rav of Kovno

Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, who was known as the Rav of all Israel, was the Rabbi of Kovno. He was born in 1817 (5577) and died in 1896 (5656). He led various communities, amongst others the city of Novardok from 1851 to 1864 (5611 to 5624). Yet his renown in the Jewish world comes essentially from the last place where he served as Rav, the city of Kovno, where he remained for more than 30 years.

He became the leader of his generation, and regardless of the domain, be it communal good or individual life, nothing was done without his advice or his consent. Questions were asked of him from all corners of the world, and a great part of his thousands of responses were compiled in his books Beer Yitzchak, Nachal Yitzchak, and Ein Yitzchak.

The Natziv (Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Judah Berlin) of Volozhin said that Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector had merited all this because of his exception diligence in Torah study. “He is the greatest matmid [diligent one in Torah study] of our generation,” said the Natziv, who was also known for his exceptional diligence.

Indeed, when we read the story of his life it is impossible not to marvel at the great work ethic that he demonstrated from his earliest age. To give an idea of the attention that he drew, even in the eyes of the greatest of matmidim, we shall give a few examples.

It goes without saying that from his earliest youth, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan was plunged into study practically without any stop. Even when, for whatever reason, he had to leave the Beit Midrash, he would begin leaving the hall while still reading a book, continuing to do so until he approached the table closest to the exit. There he would lay it down open to the page that he had been studying. When returning to the Beit Midrash, he would pick the book up and once again begin studying where he left off, without the least delay.

When he arrived early at his father-in-law’s for lunch and the meal was not yet ready, without losing a moment he would wash his hands and quickly eat a piece of dry bread left on the table. Even before those of the household had the time to ask him to wait for the meal, he was already off to the Beit Midrash.

At the end of Yom Kippur, he would leave synagogue running. He would then arrive home, perform Havdalah without waiting, and then eat something and run out once again to the Beit Midrash – even while the last of the faithful still hadn’t had time to leave!

These are but a few examples that point to the nature of his study, which allowed him to become a great teacher in Israel.

Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan was the greatest authority of his generation. People the world over addressed themselves to him. One of the areas for which he was most sought was that of agunot (married women whose husbands had disappeared, and who could not remarry without proof that their husbands were dead), where he worked wonders. The pain of women in misery, whose husbands had disappeared without leaving a trace, shook the heart of the Rav of all Israel. In order to find a way to liberate these women in accordance with the law of the Torah, he invested all of his energy into every question brought before him, without leaving himself any time to eat or sleep. And when G-d allowed him to find a legal allowance to allow a woman to remarry, his joy was very great. In numerous cases involving agunot, the strength of his Torah demonstrated itself and everyone could see that Heaven was in agreement with him.

When he was still leading the community of Novardok, he was presented with a question concerning an agunah whose husband was presumed to have drowned in the Mediterranean (“waters without end”). He was asked to see if there existed any doubt as to whether the husband could have managed to reach the coast on the other side of the sea. He remained studying this question for days and nights, and came to the conclusion that the husband was in fact dead and that the woman had the right to remarry without hesitation.

It happened that on the following day, people found the body of a man who had been washed ashore. In carefully examining his clothes, a set of keys was found that definitely belonged to the missing man.

In another case, there was an agunah whose husband had disappeared, and the Rav of the city where this woman lived had not found a way to liberate her from her status. The question was brought before the Rav of Kovno, and he examined it for a long time. In the end he allowed the woman to remarry. When the Rav of the woman’s town found out about this decision, he expressed many doubts. He even went to Kovno to challenge the decision itself. Rav Yitzchak Elchanan listened with great patience to this Rav, who himself was great in Torah, yet in the end he said, “I gave this woman complete permission, and I do not want to come back to it.”

When the Rav returned back to his home, it happened that his city decided to excavate certain areas around town. During this operation, the body of a man was discovered at one of the excavation sites, and it was later identified by its clothing as being that of the missing man.




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