Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Rabinowitz • “The Rav of Ponevezh”

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the Rav of Boston, recounts that two Roshei Yeshiva worked effectively for Jewry in the last century: Rabbi Chaim of Brisk and Rabbi Yitzchak of Ponevezh. Both of these men opened up new horizons in Halachic thought, and both of them outlined special steps and new concepts in understanding a sugyah (Talmudic subject) in both Talmuds.

Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Rabinowitz (or as he was fondly known in the Torah world, Rabbi Itzele Ponevezher) was born in 5614 (1854). His father, a wealthy man by the name of Rabbi Shemuel Leib, was a great scholar who lived the final years of his life in Riga, where he was a famous businessman with a good reputation. We know little of Rabbi Itzele’s childhood; no wondrous stories have been transmitted to us about the boy who would become a great of Israel. However one thing is clear: He was a child prodigy who possessed exceptional gifts.

He was 14 years old when he married Chava, the daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Dov Eisenstadt. His father-in-law, who was very wealthy, supported him for 28 years, and during that whole time he remained in his village studying Torah day and night, to the point that he became a great Gaon. During the entire time that he stayed in this village, he was not at all known in the Torah world. It was only in 5649 (1889), when he was appointed as the Rosh Yeshiva of the Slabodka yeshiva, that the Torah world discovered a new star appearing on the horizon. During his lectures to the students of the yeshiva, he proposed a new approach to the study of Talmud. It was an intellectual delight to listen to his lectures, and he hypnotized his listeners with his marvelous commentaries and original explanations. The students of the yeshiva loved and admired him not only for his lively mind, but also for his kindness, for he acted like a brother and a friend with them.

Rabbi Itzele remained as the Rosh Yeshiva of Slabodka for seven years, and it was thanks to him that the yeshiva grew and attained great distinction. Boys from all across Russia came to Slabodka to listen to his lectures, and he had hundreds of disciples. Among these were individuals who would become the greats of their generation and leading figures in the Torah world.

For several reasons, Rabbi Itzele left the yeshiva and was named as Rav of the city of Gorzd, in the province of Kovno. There he also gave courses to young exceptional students who had traveled with him from the Slobodka yeshiva. He stayed in the Gorzd region for about two years, followed by which he became the Rav of the large and famous city of Ponevezh, whose name he carries (Rabbi Itzele Ponevezher).

Rabbi Itzele was greatly honored and cherished by the residents of Ponevezh. Having grown up in wealth, the rich did not impress Rabbi Itzele, nor was he biased towards them. He always did justice for the poor and needy, and he did not allow the rich to exploit their downtrodden workers. His goodness knew no bounds, and he gave others everything he had, whereas his family found it difficult getting by, even on his large salary. Seeing what Rabbi Itzele did with his money, the leaders of the city began remitting his salary directly to his wife. However the Rav found a new source of income for the poor: He sold his books and gave them the proceeds.

During his years as a Rav, Rabbi Itzele was in the habit of leaving his house a few hours before candle lighting on Friday and walking through town. When people saw him passing by, they would immediately close their shops. It happened that one merchant had a client enter his store from a back entrance. This grieved Rabbi Itzele, and when that merchant died Rabbi Itzele postponed the burial until the merchant’s son guaranteed in writing that he would observe Shabbat correctly from that time on. Rabbi Itzele acted in this way not only in his own city of Ponevezh, but brought his Shabbat customs with him everywhere he lived.

During the First World War, Rabbi Itzele was forced to exile himself in Mariopol, in southern Russia. One Friday as he took his walk into town warning residents to close their shops before Shabbat, it happened that someone refused to obey him. He entered that man’s shop and did not relent on his demand, speaking harshly to him and firmly insisting that he immediately close his business. The merchant, however, assaulted Rabbi Itzele and forcefully removed him from the premises. When news of the incident became known, the town was in turmoil. The merchant, upon learning who it was that he had assaulted, bitterly regretted his action and rushed to see Rabbi Itzele, throwing himself down at his feet and begging his forgiveness. Thus in recounting this incident, Rabbi Itzele would say that such an outcome made it worth being assaulted for Shabbat.

Rabbi Itzele also taught Torah to the Jewish population in Mariopol, and many were those who came to hear his lectures. He himself lived in great poverty, distributing the little money that he received from the wealthy to the students of the yeshiva.

Up until the year 5670 (1910), Rabbi Itzele did not get involved in communal affairs, and he spent the majority of his time responding to questions that were sent to him from near and far. Along with Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna, he founded an orthodox organization in Russia called Knesset Israel, which later merged with Agudath Israel in Frankfurt. He was continually traveling for the needs of the community, attending various meetings to deal with public problems and aptly defending the laws of the Torah and mitzvot. He did a great deal for the good of Jews by dealing with the Russian government, for Rabbi Itzele was the only rabbi who understood the Russian language well. He also knew how to speak with the authorities. Yet all this traveling undermined his health, and he aged prematurely because he was meticulous with respect to kashrut. He did not eat non-Jewish bread and he avoided milk and butter (and meat even more so). He took matzot with him and ate just matzah with tea. It’s therefore not surprising that his health suffered as a result.

In 5678 (1918) Rabbi Itzele managed to leave Russia, where he had been in exile during the war years, and returned to Ponevezh in a state of utter exhaustion. He found the city destroyed by the terrible war and nearly deserted, with the remaining inhabitants dealing with a typhus epidemic. The Rav, who did not take his own health into account, spent a great deal of time visiting the sick, until he himself was struck by typhus. On Adar 20, 5678 (1918), Rabbi Itzele’s lofty and pure soul ascended to Heaven.




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