Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Rabinowitz

Among the great Torah personalities of Russia, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Rabinowitz (the Rav of Kovno) occupies a particularly honorable position. He was a pleasant man filled with great character traits, who shone not only in Halachah, but also in his way of living. He loved truth and peace, and he never flattered anyone. More than that, he knew how to give his truth an aspect of caring and love.

Other than the fact that he was brilliant in Torah and an expert in all its fields, he was also someone very skillful and sociable, a man who perfectly understood the ways of the world. The poor were always warmly welcomed at his home, and the wealthy supported and helped him in his heavy tasks for the Jewish community. He also had a noble and handsome countenance that awakened the respect and admiration of all those who came into contact with him.

Rabbi Hirshel, as people would call him, was born in 5608 (1848) in Nischwitz, a city where his father, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan – the light of the exile – served as Rav.

He exhibited exceptional talents from early childhood, having a lively mind and great memory, and he was known as a child prodigy. His father apparently could not find a suitable tutor for him, so he himself taught the boy Torah. He enabled him to acquire a vast knowledge of the Talmud and the Poskim, and from an early age he was known as a Torah great.

At the age of 18 he married the daughter of a very wealthy man, Rabbi Meir Saltz of Slotznik, a small town near Vilna. For eight years he lived with his father-in-law, where he studied Torah day and night.

While still a young man, he was offered a position as Rav. However he was not inclined to use the Torah for personal gain, since by nature he had a delicate soul and a noble spirit, and he was very modest and fled from honor.

People say that as Rav of Kovno, he was once walking in the street and encountered a drawer of water who was carrying filled buckets on his shoulders. Rabbi Hirsh said to the person accompanying him, “Believe you me, I envy this man and his occupation, for he’s free and independent.”

In the meantime, his farther became the Rav of Kovno, and Rabbi Hirshel went to settle down and open up a factory there. Yet even when he was a hard working businessman, a period that lasted nine years, he devoted the majority of his time to Torah study. His office was constantly filled with rabbis and scholars who came to speak with him. In addition, he expended a great deal of money to support Torah scholars that were without means, and so it was not surprising that he was unsuccessful in his endeavors and that nothing remained of his business. The story goes that when Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan learned that his son had lost all his possessions, he was quite content and said, “Now I’m sure that my son will become a Rav.”

His first position as Rav was in the city of Mittov, in the province of Kurland (in present day Latvia). During the entire time that he stayed there, he maintained a steady correspondence with his father on subjects of Torah. There he was able to study in peace and tranquility, as he prepared himself to become one of the greatest Poskim of his generation.

In 5548 (1888), the leaders of the New York City Jewish community addressed themselves to Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh with an offer to be the Chief Rabbi of the city. However he refused, saying that he was capable of being a rabbi of a well-organized community that was built on ancient traditions, but not of a new community that lacked a religious tradition (brought by Rav M.S. Shapira, Talpiyot Vol. 3, Nos. 1-2). Yet when Rabbi Yaakov Yosef became the Chief Rabbi of New York City, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh replaced him as the rector and head of the Vilna Beit Din. In little time, he conquered the hearts of his listeners as a speaker, teacher, and leader in every field of study, knowing how to respond to each one’s individual personality.

After the death of his father Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan in 5656 (1896), Rabbi Hirsh became the Rav of Kovno. A new period of his life began there. During his time the city became the center of Russian Jewish life, and whenever a calamity occurred or an evil decree enacted, people came to him from all corners of the country. He became one of the greatest Poskim of his generation. From every stretch of Russia and Germany, people sent him all sorts of questions, and he replied to all of them.

On most Shabbats, the avrechim of the Kovno kollel gathered around him after the third meal, at which time he would expound on his commentaries and responsa. This gave his listeners tremendous pleasure, even though each one of them was great in Torah as well.

He worked extensively for the community, and he was chosen by Minister Dornova as the Chairman of the assembly of rabbis that took place in St. Petersburg, a meeting that brought together the most important rabbis and community leaders of Russia. He was extremely vigilant concerning the holiness of the Jewish people. When the Russian government decreed a law forcing Jewish teachers to be accredited in secular studies (which represented a danger to the Chadarim), Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh worked with all his might to have it annulled, a goal that he ended up achieving. In 5653 (1893), he greatly helped Dr. Demba in his famous fight against having Shechita banned by the Russian government.

In the beginning of the 1880’s, there was a decree expelling all Lithuanian Jews living in Kurland, which represented a danger for thousands of people who had been living there for many years. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh gave himself no respite before having gathered the signatures of Kurland high officials on a document expressing their view that this expulsion would have a tremendously negative impact the region’s economy. He himself traveled to St. Petersburg, where he went to great lengths to get this decree annulled.

Not only did Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh possess a prodigious mind, he also had a great understanding heart. He took great pleasure in doing good, and rejoiced when he succeeded in helping others who came to him. Rav Moshe Shemuel Shapira, director of the Rabbi Chaim Berlin Yeshiva, recounts the following: “Once an emissary from Rabbi Zalman Sender’s yeshiva came to see him. It was a very harsh winter day, and the man was trembling from head to toe because of the cold. He wanted to purchase some fur-lined shoes to warm his feet, but he didn’t know where to go. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh asked me to show the man where he could buy some, and when I returned he said to me, ‘You cannot imagine what a great mitzvah you performed. You really saved a life!’ ”

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh was content with little. He hated corruption and refused to accept gifts under any circumstances. When doctors told him to travel to Germany in order to recover from an illness, he was unable to do so because of financial reasons, but he didn’t tell anyone, not even hinting at his predicament.

He was among the greatest masmichim (those who give semichah [rabbinic ordination]) of his generation. After finishing their studies, the avrechim in the Kovno kollel were given ordination by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh, and it was considered a great honor to receive it from him.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh passed away on Shevat 2, 5670 (1910) and was buried in Kovno.




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