Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Halevi • “The Author of Dorot HaRishonim”

Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Halevi was an exceptional figure whose name became famous both in Russia (his birthplace) and Germany. He made a great name for himself among the Torah personalities of Russia, and he was also known as a talented researcher and scholar in Jewish communities of occidental Europe. It was he who built a bridge between Jews of the east and the west, two different and distant worlds, for the great good of Orthodox Judaism.

The son of Rabbi Eliyahu, Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Halevi Rabinowitz was born in 5608 (1847) in Ivenets, near Vilna. His mother Rachel was the daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Eliezer Kovner, the author of Karnei Re'eim. While still very young, his father was murdered by soldiers. The little orphan Yitzchak Eizik was sent to live in Vilna, the city of sages and scholars, with his grandfather Rabbi Mordechai Eliezer.

At the age of 13 he was accepted as a student in the great Volozhin yeshiva, where he gained renown for his tremendous intelligence. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, was devoted to him with great affection. In fact many years later, when Rabbi Yosef Dov would write him a letter, he addressed him as “Friend of G-d, friend of my soul, and friend of all.” He stayed in the yeshiva for only a year, and after returning to Vilna from Volozhin, he enclosed himself in his room and studied Torah day and night. He acquired a great understanding in all fields of Torah, becoming an expert in both Talmuds (Babylonian and Jerusalem). He often consulted the works Mishneh LaMelech and Noda Biyhuda, once stating: “These books have enlightened the paths of my study.”

At the age of 18 he married Elke Kovner, the daughter of his uncle Rabbi Shaul of Kovno. Several communities offered him a position as Rav, but his family convinced him not to use the Torah to earn a living. Thus he began to do business in the tea trade, a business that his wife ran as he studied Torah, all while devoting himself to the needs of the community. It was during that time that he wrote his first book, Batim Levadim.

Several years later, Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Halevi held a very important position among the rabbis of Russia. At the age of 21 he was honored with the important role as Gabbai of the great Volozhin yeshiva. Only exceptional figures were crowned with this title. Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik once said, “There was only one Gabbai of Volozhin – Reb Yitzchak Eizik!” Thanks to this nomination, he became famous throughout the rabbinic world as one of its greats. Many rabbis addressed questions of Halachah to him, and his students in the Volozhin yeshiva sought him out with their requests for advice and guidance. When they arrived at the end of their studies, he tested their knowledge and gave them Semichah. Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik participated in the large gatherings that took place with the Gaon of the generation, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan of Kovno. One time he was delayed and showed up late for a meeting. When he finally arrived, a community leader greeted him with the words, “Blessed be your coming, Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik. We have been waiting for you, since we have been unable to make a decision.” In addition, Rabbi Israel Salanter wrote, “I discovered a great treasure in the city of Vilna – Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Halevi!”

In 5656 (1895), he was forced to leave Vilna and settle in Germany. His departure greatly affected Vilna, and many were those who regretted seeing their beloved leader leave. Rabbi Yitzchak Ponevezher declared, “What are we without Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik? We are like orphans – without fathers.” This Tzaddik was very distressed by having to leave Russia, yet in him was accomplished the verse, “Many designs are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the L-RD, only it will prevail” (Proverbs 19:21). His great accomplishments, his original book Dorot HaRishonim, and the founding of Agudath Israel all occurred after he left Vilna and settled in Germany, and everyone saw that this stemmed from G-d.

Not long after his arrival in Germany, he began to devote himself to the heavy problems that weighed on German Jews. With great courage, he fought against liberal rabbis who wanted to institute novelties into Judaism. Following his battle against various types of Maskilim, he decided to establish a worldwide organization of Orthodox Jews in each community, and he proposed that this new movement carry the name Agudath Israel. This organization would bring together all Orthodox Jewry and concern itself with the problems of all Jews. He managed to assemble all the Torah greats of Russia, as well as the great rabbanim and leaders of German Jewry, in the town of Kattowitz. It was there that Agudath Israel was founded, and Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi was justly crowned with the moniker “The Father of Agudath Israel.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Halevi believed that all those who wrote about Jewish history during that era were distorting the Torah of Israel and introducing deliberate errors into the written and oral Torah. This was particularly the case of Isaac H. Weiss, with his book Dor Dor Vedorshav. Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik considered himself to be an emissary sent by Providence to defend sacred Jewish values. With great fervor he wrote the book Dorot HaRishonim, showing everyone that Moses is truth and that his Torah is truth, and he restored the sanctity of Jewish history to its rightful place.

His love for Eretz Israel was great indeed. He provided considerable help to those living in settlements in Eretz Israel, and he contributed to founding educational institutions for Jewish children there, an educational network that he called Netzach Israel. In 5673 (1913), Netzach Israel included 10 schools, 40 teachers, and 1,000 students. Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik once said, “There is nothing that I would not do for Torah in Eretz Israel.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Halevi worked hard his entire life. One evening, as he was out taking his usual walk, he suffered a heart attack. The evening of Shabbat, Iyar 20, 5674 (May 15, 1914), he rendered his pure soul to his Creator. At his request, no eulogies were delivered at his funeral. However he was given a great honor at his passing: All those who accompanied the funeral procession traveled on foot from their home to the cemetery, and his body was placed in a coffin that had been made from the planks of the table on which he studied and wrote.




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