Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin • “The Netziv of Volozhin”

The 5th of Shevat 5652 (1892) was a sad and bitter day, a day when the holy yeshiva of Volozhin was closed and its doors sealed shut by the government. With the closing of the yeshiva, Jewish communities saw something akin to the destruction of the Third Temple. This yeshiva was like a workshop in which the soul of the nation was forged, for from it had emerged great men of Israel, leaders of yeshivot and Torah scholars who had given light in the obscurity of the exile.

It is very important for yeshiva students to know who its founder was and what the yeshiva meant for Jewish communities.

The Volozhin yeshiva is justly considered to have been the principle yeshiva of Lithuania, and its founder Rabbi Chaim is called the father of yeshivot.

Up until the time of its founding, there were no yeshivot in Lithuania. In a city where there was a Rav, the young men would gather from all around to study with him. They would spend the entire day in the city’s Beit Midrash, and everything they found difficult to understand they would present to the Rav, who sometimes would also give a “general lecture” before all the people. The young men would eat with families in the town, and they would sleep on the benches in the Beit Midrash. The situation for these Torah scholars was very difficult, and the prestige of the Torah had fallen to very low levels. Then came the arrival of Rabbi Chaim, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, who established the first yeshiva.

It saw the light of day in Volozhin, whose name it always carried. In 5563 (1803), Rabbi Chaim wrote an open letter to the public to announce the establishment of a great yeshiva.

The day in which the yeshiva opened, our teacher Rabbi Chaim prayed from the depths of his heart, shed abundant tears, and fasted the entire day for having had this merit. In each town that heard of the yeshiva’s opening, joy reined supreme.

Not long afterwards, Rabbi Chaim had the chance to see the yeshiva in all its brilliance. Hundreds of youngsters from every town and city in Russia came to hear the Torah from his mouth. Youngsters learned with extreme diligence, and over the course of time many of them became Torah greats.

Rabbi Chaim was very devoted to his students and loved them with all his soul. He nourished them generously, watched over their health, and shared in their pains.

People say that on one winter day, Rabbi Chaim went to a shoemaker and asked that he make him some large boots. When he brought him the boots, Rabbi Chaim’s family was surprised. Why did he need them? Then, in the wee hours of morning after a night of snowfall, when the Jews of Volozhin went to pray the morning service, they saw Rabbi Chaim coming and going in the deep snow. “Rabbeinu,” they said to him, “why are you going back and forth in the snow?”

“I’m making a path for the boys of the yeshiva,” Rabbi Chaim replied quite simply.

After the passing of Rabbi Chaim, his son Rabbi Yitzchak replaced him as Rosh Yeshiva, and after him came his son-in-law Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (the first letters of his name form the acronym Netziv).

For 40 years, the Netziv was at the head of Torah leadership in the greatest of yeshivot. He was assisted by his son-in-law Rabbi Raphael Shapira, and afterwards by the amazing Gaon Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the Rav of Brisk.

It was a glorious era for the yeshiva. Its students were particularly gifted, and after leaving the yeshiva they shone of their Torah and wisdom wherever they went. It was Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski who then became the greatest of his generation, as well as Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook (the Rav of Eretz Israel), Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein (the Rosh Yeshiva of Slobodka), Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, and others.

However on Wednesday, the 5th of Shevat 5652, a high government official accompanied by soldiers entered the great hall carrying an order from the Minister of Education to close the yeshiva.

The students carried their holy books out with bitter tears, and the old Rosh Yeshiva lamented, “Torah, Torah, don sackcloth … the destruction of the Third Temple.”

Some Jews recounted that at midnight sounds of sadness and lamentation could be heard escaping the walls of the yeshiva. It was the melody that the students chanted when they studied, and which the walls had absorbed. Now that the voice of Torah students had been silenced, the walls of the yeshiva expressed their great sadness.

Which man had seen the Volozhin yeshiva both in full bloom and in ruin?

Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin was born on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Kislev 5517 (1817) in the city of Mir. His father Rabbi Yaakov Berlin was a businessman and great Talmid Chacham, a descendant of a family of rabbis and Torah personalities. Above all, he was known for his good deeds and pure heart.

We know nothing of the Netziv’s childhood; there are no fantastic accounts concerning the boy who was to become the Rav of Israel. It may be that he was not a “child prodigy” that amazed everyone by his natural talents, or it may also be that he was modest from a very young age. However one thing is clear: He had at least one great talent – his diligence. He studied Torah with great fervor, and it was this trait that enabled him to acquire universal renown. Still a boy, at the age of 11 he was sent to study at the great and famous Volozhin yeshiva, something completely unusual.

Rabbi Yitzale, the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, heard people speaking highly of the Netziv, and so he took him as his son-in-law, even though he was only 13 years old at the time. The Netziv came to live in Volozhin, and there he once again isolated himself in incessant study and made his nights into days of Torah study. Truly extraordinary stories are told concerning his diligence in study. For example, when he felt sleepy he would put his feet in a bucket of cold water to continue studying.

Once at the end of Yom Kippur, when his father-in-law Rabbi Yitzale was reciting Havdalah over wine, he suddenly realized that Rabbi Naphtali had not yet arrived. He went in search of him, only to find that he was in his room studying. In his old age, the Netziv also pushed himself to be in the yeshiva studying right after Yom Kippur, for he said that his students were certainly tired from the fast and would not come to study on that night.

In 5613 (1853), when he was only 36 years old, the Netziv was called upon to lead the Volozhin yeshiva. A new era was beginning in his life, and with all his soul he devoted himself to this task, one that he saw crowned with success. It was during his lifetime that the yeshiva reached the height of its growth, with 400 students studying there with great meticulousness. Twenty four hours a day – at all times and at every hour – the sound of Torah could be heard emanating from the students, and from their Rav the Netziv with them. “One must toil in Torah” was a saying that never ceased from his pure lips.

Because the home of the Netziv was close to the yeshiva, he was once asked how he could sleep, since the sound of Torah never stopped for a single moment. He replied with a smile, “A miller was once asked how he could sleep at night, given the incessant sound of the flour mill’s cogwheels. He replied, ‘You are mistaken, for I can only sleep tranquilly when I hear the sound of the cogwheels, and it’s that noise that puts me to sleep.’ The same goes for me,” he continued. “I’m in the same situation as that miller. It is only when I hear the sound of Torah being voiced night and day that I can sleep tranquilly.”

The Netziv was devoted to his students and loved them dearly. During all the years that he directed the yeshiva, the thousands of young students who studied there cherished and respected him for the great love he showed them. He behaved with them as a father toward his children, and he took care not only of their spiritual development, but also of their health. Several times a day he would enter the yeshiva and walk through its rows of benches, speaking to the students and observing which page of Gemara they were studying. Sometimes he would pat a student’s cheek and say, “Study my son. I am sure that you will become great in Torah.” Such moments were times of joy in the lives of his students.

Once a man came to him bringing his son to study in the yeshiva. He asked the Netziv to take good care of him, for he was his only son. To this the Netziv replied: “You have one only son, but I have 400 only sons!”

Negligence in Torah study was regarded as a serious sin in his eyes. Once his wife fell gravely ill, and the yeshiva students – who could see that his face was filled with sorrow and pain – came to him and suggested that they interrupt their studies for a moment to pray for the Rebbetzin’s health by reciting some psalms. He refused and said: “It is forbidden to interrupt the study of Torah!”

The Netziv wrote many important books, among them being his commentary on the Torah entitled Haamek Davar.

He greatly loved the land of Israel, and during his entire life he yearned to go there. Yet because of his love for Torah and the Volozhin yeshiva, he subdued these desires. After the yeshiva’s closure, however, he expressed his desire to go to the Holy Land and spend his last days in Jerusalem. When news of this spread, the inhabitants of Zion prepared to welcome him with great honor and joy.

However the Netziv fell ill in Warsaw as he was preparing to leave, and on Av 17, 5653 (1893), the great flame was extinguished and the soul of Israel’s Rav ascended to Heaven. Multitudes from every walk of life attended his funeral, and the mourning within Jewish communities was heavy.

Many years have passed since that time, but the venerated image of the Netziv and his yeshiva remain engraved on the heart of the nation, never to be forgotten.




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