Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin • “The Rav of Brisk”

At the gates of the old city of Jerusalem, lying on the side of a beautiful hill, stands a great and imposing building that shelters orphans. This house is known as Beit Hayetomim Diskin. Who was the man whose name this institution carries?

He did an enormous amount for Jewish children in Eretz Israel, as well as for Jewish settlements in the Holy Land.

Our Rav, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, was born on Kislev 10, 5579 (1818) to the Gaon Rabbi Binyamin, the Rav of Grodno and later of Lomza.

From his youth, Yehoshua Leib was known as a child prodigy, a boy who marveled everyone around him by the keenness of his intelligence, his incredibly comprehension, his capability for diligence, and his fear of Heaven. People say that all he required was a quick glace at a wall in order to tell you how many bricks it contained. At the age of nine, he heard people saying that his father was a Tzaddik, and so in his heart he decided to walk in his father’s footsteps, thus acquiring many sterling character traits.

At the age of 18 his father called to him and said, “My son, today you are 18 years old. The moment has come for you to completely take on the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.” These simple words of his father penetrated his heart and made a powerful impression that he would never forget.

At the age of 25, after the death of his father, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib was called upon to replace him as Rav of Lomza. Already at that time he was known as an incredible genius, an expert in all fields of Torah, and all the great Torah figures esteemed him tremendously.

Rabbi Chaim Halevi Soloveitchik considered four great men of Israel as being comparable to the Rishonim: Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the father of Rabbi Chaim), the Malbim, and Rabbi Israel of Salant (heard from Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the Rav of Boston).

By nature, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib was a man of truth who held very firm views. He did not allow himself to be influenced by the wealthy or the brutal, and he feared no man. The verse, “You shall fear no man” (Deuteronomy 1:17) guided all his steps and his way of life.

Upon becoming the Rav of Lomza, he learned that one of the members of the community had the intention of opening his business up on Shabbat, given that he had allowed himself to have it operated by a non-Jew. This man was very wealthy, greatly honored, and quite stubborn. The Rav, however, did not hesitate for an instant, quickly running to the man’s home and reprimanding him, “Fool! Rasha! You crude being – you want to desecrate the holy Sabbath?” The wealthy man stammered, “But Rabbeinu, what have I done already?” The Rav thundered back: “What? Am I to wait until you desecrate G-d’s Name in public? I am not leaving,” he exclaimed with full voice, “until you vow to the G-d of Israel that you will not open your business on Shabbat!”

After a certain time, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib was thrown out of town.

He then began to travel from town to town, without finding any rest for his turbulent spirit. He became the Rav of some large and important cities, namely Mezritch, Kovno, Shklov, and finally Brisk (in Lithuania).

Rabbi Yehoshua Leib did not find peace in Brisk either. An insolent resident of that city set a trap for him that risked landing him in a Russian prison. The lawyer defending the Rav invited him to his home to speak about the case, which they discussed for two hours. During all that time, however, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib kept his eyes closed, prompting his surprised layer to ask why he refused to look at him.

“It is a Halachah,” replied the Rav. “It is forbidden to look at the face of a wicked man, and you told me that you do not observe Torah and mitzvot.” Taken aback in astonishment, his lawyer said, “I’m sure that the Rav is clean of all sin and that the accusation brought against him is a lie. A man who conducts himself according to his sense of truth – not allowing himself to be influenced even by his lawyer – it is clear to me that such a man can do no wrong.”

While Rabbi Yehoshua Leib was declared innocent, he was nevertheless forced to leave the country. He rejoiced upon hearing this verdict, which allowed him to fulfill his dream of leaving for Eretz Israel.

In 5638, our teacher arrived at the gates of Jerusalem, and all the great men of the city welcomed him with considerable honor, saying that a lion had arrived from Babylon.

Rabbi Yehoshua Leib remained in Jerusalem for 21 years. He established the Ohel Moshe yeshiva, and gave amazing lectures there. He also set up courses given by exceptional Torah figures on tractate Zeraim (laws dependant on the land). People put great effort into their work, such that in a month they only managed to study one chapter.

His disciples recounted that when they sometimes had difficulty understand a passage by Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura (a commentator on the Mishnah, who was among the pioneers in settling Eretz Israel in the 16th century), the Rav of Brisk had the custom of saying: “We are forced to explain the words of the Rav according to his Halachot, for he was the Rav of Jerusalem.” During the dry season in Jerusalem, he sent a minyan of Talmidei Chachamim to pray by the grave of Rav Ovadia Bartenura on the slopes of the Mounts of Olives (taken from the book Betuv Yerushalayim).

Rabbi Yehoshua Leib helped many of those who were building the first settlements in Eretz Israel. In 5641, heaving learned that the village of Petah Tikva was going to be destroyed, he put all his energies into supporting those who went to settle there.

The Rav of Brisk was a great Tzaddik, one whose every gesture was dictated by Halachah. He was attentive to everything concerning Judaism, such as the observance of Shabbat, Kashrut, Shechita, Jewish education, and modesty.

His influence on the public at large was extensive. G-d enabled him to succeed in all his ways and endeavors, and never was he the cause of something that was improper.

People say that he was once writing a get (divorce) at his home, when all of a sudden he stopped writing. The next day people realized that the woman asking for the divorce had lied, and that the man she had claimed to be her husband was in fact not him. Rather, she had brought some other man in place of her husband. His family said to Rabbi Yehoshua Leib, “The Rav doesn’t believe in miracles, but is there no greater miracle than this?”

He replied, “It was not a miracle, but rather the intelligence that G-d gave to man to deduce one thing from another. The couple that came to me to receive a get had a young dog. When I was writing, I saw that the dog was going back and forth from the man to the woman. This surprised me, for was it possible that the dog was familiar with both of them? Before they had decided to divorce, they had surely separated because they could not get along, and so the dog must have remained with only one of them. If the dog had remained with her, why would it run to him? And if the dog was his, why would it come to her? I therefore understood that it was not her husband, and that the dog was familiar with both of them. That is why I stopped writing the get. Later on my suspicions were proved well-founded.”

Rabbi Zerach Braverman, the Rav’s disciple, tells the following story: “My Rav once sent me to one of the great men of Jerusalem to reprimand him in the Rav’s name.” Now since Rabbi Zerach was a Tzaddik, it was difficult for him to do this, and upon learning of his hesitation the Rav of Brisk got up, took Rabbi Zerach by the hand, and led him to a drawer by his desk. He then opened it before him and showed him his books of Mussar, books that he studied every day. The Rav made him understand that he didn’t undertake even the smallest step without thoroughly thinking things through, and that in this case as well he had properly weighed the matter that he had charged Rabbi Zerach with.

Nevertheless, it was in the field of education that Rabbi Yehoshua Leib invested all his strength. He was absolutely adamant that no modifications, nor any foreign cultural influences, be allowed to penetrate Jewish schools. When he learned that the English missionary hospital was stealing Jewish souls – those of poor and starving children above all – he founded an institution for these neglected children, which is the shelter that is today called Beit Hayetomim Diskin.

Rabbi Yehoshua Leib lived a long time. At the end of Shabbat, on the evening of Tevet 29, 5658, the perpetual flame of the Lomza Beit Midrash was extinguished, and at that very moment Rabbi Yehoshua Leib’s pure soul departed from him in Jerusalem.




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