Rabbi Yossef Peimer • “The Rav of Slutzk”

Rabbi Yossef Peimer, better known as Rabbi Yossel of Slutzk, was born to Rabbi Meir in Skudy, Lithuania in 5556 (1796).

At a young age, Rabbi Yossel went to study at the famous Volozhin yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim (the disciple of the Gra), became attached to the boy and showed great affection for him. Rabbi Yossel finished by becoming his main student, affirming that “everything I say, I have heard from my teacher Rabbi Chaim.” Not long afterwards, his fame spread throughout the country and he was known in his own right as a Gaon and Tzaddik, humble and pious.

When the rabbinical position in the city of Slutzk opened up, its inhabitants sought out a brilliant Rav. They heard of a certain avrech from the Volozhin yeshiva named Rabbi Yossel, a man who had all the characteristics of a Talmid Chacham. They went to see him with an offer to come and be the Rav of their city.

Rabbi Yossel was 32 years old when he became the Rav of Slutzk. It was a pious community whose Rabbis had been Torah giants for many generations.

People say that after the community leaders of Slutzk invited him to come and settle down there, he traveled to Slutzk by way of a small town located near Kapulie. At the request of the inhabitants of that town, he spent Shabbat there. The Talmidei Chachamim of Kapulie took advantage of his stay to come and speak words of Torah with him, and all marveled at his great knowledge in all areas of Torah. During one conversation, someone made an astute comment in the name of Rabbi Lipman, the Rav of Kapulie and author of Kedushat Yom Tov. Hearing this, Rabbi Yossef exclaimed in astonishment, “If in the tiny town of Kapulie there lives a Gaon like him, it is he who merits taking the rabbinical position of Slutzk, not I!” When he was told that Rabbi Lipman had already passed away, he accepted to become the Rav of Slutzk.

Rabbi Yossel’s arrival in Slutzk was very impressive. He was large of stature and had the head of a lion. His forehead was high and large, and his eyes looked like glowing coals, charming and alluring. He was well-built and exuded charm, drawing looks from people passing in the streets. His good looks became so famous that the government sent an artist to draw his portrait, and today we know what he looked like because of that.

During his first Shabbat in Slutzk, Rabbi Yossel went to pray at its great Beit Midrash. There an old teacher, eminent in Torah, approached the new Rav and said to him, “Rabbi, here you are appointed as our Rav. I would like to ask you a question concerning Tosaphot on Tractate Eruvin.” The old man then posed his question, and the young Rav briefly consulted some books and presented his response. The old man was surprised and said, “Now I know that you are a great sage of Israel and worthy of being the Rav of a great city like Slutzk. May you succeed in your task!”

Rabbi Yossef always evoked people’s surprise by recounting how he had been given Heavenly assistance to answer that particular question, for afterwards he worked hard to recall his reply, but could never remember it.

He was received as the Rav of Slutzk during the winter of 5589 (1829), and he immediately began to draw his focus on education. He had all the teachers in town come to the Beit Midrash, and there he explained to them how to instill a love for Torah in children. He warned them against corporal punishment, believing that it was better to verbally reprimand students and show them signs of affection. When a teacher asked him what to do in the event that words proved useless, he replied, “I order you to do the following: When you find yourself obliged to strike a student, do not do so with your hand. Rather, use a towel or strap, or something similar.” When he was asked the reason for this decree, he quite simply replied: “A teacher’s hands are always at his disposition, and when he becomes angry he may use them to strike a student. Now, however, I have ordered teachers not to use their hands. Rather, they are to use something else, which they will not always have with them. Thus during the time that they will look for these things, their anger will subside.”

Rabbi Yossef despised ill-gotten gain. He earned little and lived in tremendous poverty, and he detested gifts and never complained. After some years in Slutzk, the community leaders of Minsk asked him to be their Rav, and after incessant supplications, he sent them a letter expressing his acceptance. When the inhabitants of Slutzk learned of that, they came to him and begged him not to abandon them. The Rav accepted to stay, but only on condition that they intercept the letter that he had sent to Minsk, and that they not increase his salary. This he requested so that nobody could say that he had remained in Slutzk because of a salary increase. They did what the Rav asked, except that they repaired the roof of his house, for whenever it rained water leaked inside and ruined his books.

Rabbi Yossef’s greatness in Torah and the beauty of his character spread wide and far, and many young people gathered to learn Torah from him. He also issued many Halachic responses to those from around the world who asked him questions. He was extremely modest and always worried about forgetting his learning. One story has it that Rabbi Yossef once fell ill and was forced stay in bed for several weeks. After recuperating, he was sitting by his window one day getting a breath of fresh air, when then came Benjamin, the town fool, who in his youth had been well-versed in Torah. He passed by the Rav’s window and exclaimed the words of the Sages in a loud voice: “Rav Yossef fell ill and forgot all his learning” (Nedarim 41a). Rabbi Yossef was taken aback by the fool’s words, and he feared that he had actually forgotten his learning. He could not find peace before convening the Dayanim of the city and repeating all four parts of the Shulchan Aruch to them by heart.

Rabbi Yossef passed away on Friday, the first day of Iyar 5724 (1864). Rabbi Avraham Esofski, an elderly man who was the Gabbai of the Slutzk Beit Midrash in New York (whose Rav is Rabbi Moshe Shurin), recounted the following about Rabbi Yossef’s funeral: “I was a young boy when I attended the funeral of that Gaon and Tzaddik. Thousands of people followed his casket, and on that same day a great amount of snow fell, covering the streets of the city and forcing the funeral procession to move very slowly. The people of Slutzk had never seen so much snow in winter, and they viewed it as a sign that even nature was mourning the loss of the Gaon. In accordance with the wishes of the departed, the epitaph on his tombstone read, ‘Here lies Rabbi Yossef the son of Rabbi Meir.’ He had ordered that no tributes be engraved on it.”

Rabbi Yossef left behind many manuscripts on the four parts of the Shulchan Aruch. His Torah commentaries have been published of late, and his words rejoice both heart and soul.




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