Rabbi Yaakov David Wilovsky • “The Ridbaz”

Rabbi Yaakov David was born to the Tzaddik Rabbi Zev in the Russian town of Kobrin on Shevat 30, 5605 (1845). From his earliest years, the young Yaakov excelled through his extraordinary diligence. Besides his breathtaking memory, he studied Torah day and night and exhibited an extreme dedication to work, so much so that his eyes swelled.

Rabbi Yaakov David recounted how his father had instilled a love for Torah in him. In Kobrin, parents would normally entrust their children’s learning to a personal instructor, who they paid with money that would normally have been used to buy food.

It happened that the financial situation of his father became critical, and several months passed in which he could not pay for the boy’s studies. The personal instructor, who greatly cherished the marvelous little Yankel, said nothing to the boy, nor did he send reminder notices to his father. Yet the boy himself felt uncomfortable, for how could he continue to study without his teacher being paid?

It was wintertime, and the snow and intense cold penetrated to the bone. Now the furnace in the Beit Midrash where the children studied was broken, and new fire-resistant bricks were needed to repair it. Yet where could these be obtained in the dead of winter? People agreed to pay a hefty price to purchase these bricks, but the problem was finding them. Much talking was done, but a solution was never reached. In the meantime, the children sat in the Beit Midrash with their winter coats on and shivered with cold.

The father of the young Yaakov heard what was happening, and he came up with an idea. He went home and gathered his entire family, then he said to his wife, “We want our son to study Torah, and thank G-d he is learning well. Although we have no more money to pay his personal instructor, an idea has come to mind. Although it’s bone-chilling cold outside, that’s of minor importance if can give our Yankel the chance to continue studying Torah, which we can do by providing the Beit Midrash with bricks from our own furnace.” His wife, tears of joy in her eyes, said, “Of course!” Yaakov’s father then took their own furnace apart and brought the bricks to the Beit Midrash. No one knew where he had obtained them, yet the Ridbaz recounted that his family, as they were trembling from cold at night, learned to appreciate the study of Torah more than anything else in the world. He was in the habit of saying, “This lesson stayed with me for my entire life: That the study of Torah is more precious than anything else; that it is worth suffering for.”

It is not surprising that in such an atmosphere, the child grew in Torah and became well-known, eventually attaining a full understanding of both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud.

At the age of 23 he was appointed as the Rav of Izballin (1868), then as the Rav of Bobruisk (1878), the Rav of Vilna (1881), and finally the Rav of the large city of Slutzk, which merited that he was called by its name: Rabbi Yaakov David Slutzker.

Rabbi Yaakov David’s restless soul did not find peace in any of the towns he lived in. By nature he was a man of truth, being guided by the verse: “You shall not tremble before any man” (Deuteronomy 1:17). He was strict with himself and with other, and he possessed great integrity and was as unyielding as iron. He never gave in on his views, and he behaved firmly with his teachers.

A great controversy erupted around him in Slutzk, causing him tremendous problems and suffering. People say that prominent members of the community once asked him, “Rabbeinu, if Slutzk does not please you, why do you remain here? Why not leave and go elsewhere?”

“I received a tradition,” Rabbi Yaakov David replied, “that there are seven rooms in hell. Since terrible suffering occurs in the first room, why the need for seven? Is one room one enough to punish the wicked? You should realize, however, that when a wicked person becomes accustomed to his room and the suffering therein, he does not feel it with as much intensity as at first. This is why he is brought from one room to another, as each room brings new suffering.” He then added, “I too am like that. For me Slutzk is like hell, but I’ve become accustomed to it and its suffering. Yet this would not be the case in another city, where I would experience new hell and suffering.”

All the hardships he endured did not detract him from his studies, and they may have even encouraged him to completely immerse himself in Torah to forget the vanities of this world. He devoted the main part of his life to the Jerusalem Talmud, which very few scholars are fully versed in. It was apparently his love for Eretz Israel that encouraged him to remain in the Talmud of Eretz Israel.

Rabbi Yaakov David wrote many books, but he is primarily known for his commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud, a work that he published with his two commentaries: Chiddushei Ridbaz (containing his explanations on difficult passages in the Gemara), and Tosaphot Ha’Rid (containing discussions on the Jerusalem Talmud along the lines of our teachers, the Tosaphists).

His publication of the Jerusalem Talmud cost 28,000 rubles, a virtual fortune at that time. He committed himself to paying the publisher 40% of the costs, which forced the Ridbaz to travel to the United States to sell his books. He left for the United States in 1900, and there he managed to gather the necessary funds to pay his publisher. This is why he dedicated Order Nezikin to his American patrons.

Rabbi Yaakov David returned to Slutzk, but in 1903 he once again traveled to the United States. He was appointed as the Rav of Chicago, but he did not remain there long, for he quickly realized that he would not be able to institute the changes he wanted in the areas of Kashrut, Torah study, and education. He therefore resigned and decided to move to Eretz Israel.

In Chicago he published Nimukei Ridbaz, a commentary on the Torah. In the introduction, he proves to be almost prophetic as he describes the precarious situation of Jews at that time (1903), drawing a terrible picture of their condition “so as to be an eternal reminder in American Jewish history.” Among other things, he wrote: “In the time of the Ridbaz, Kashrut did not exist, education was at the lowest of levels, and Shabbat was desecrated in the most blatant ways.” He cried out from the depths of his heart and said, “Assemble yourselves and hear, O Children of Jacob, and let your hearts be broken!”

At the same time, however, he predicted that the United States would one day become a dwelling place for the Torah: “We find an old responsum given by a Rav in Germany to a Rav in Poland, who had written to him concerning a question on which he was inclined to rule leniently. Yet he added that lenient rulings should not be taught in Poland because they are not Bnei Torah. This responsum remained in Jewish history, while the entire Torah moved from Germany to Poland. Perhaps one day the Torah will take up residence in this country, doing so by the will of the One Who knows all that is hidden.” The Ridbaz knew whereof he spoke when he made his predictions, for America has become a large and magnificent abode for the holy Torah, which was exiled from Europe and traveled there.

The Ridbaz traveled throughout the United States, giving lectures wherever he went and making G-d’s words heard. His remarks left an indelible impression on all his listeners.

In 1905 he left the United States and settled in Eretz Israel. Upon his arrival, he decided to live in a tranquil area in Sefat, where he founded the Torat Eretz Israel yeshiva.

The Ridbaz remained in Eretz Israel for less than a decade, passing away on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, 1913. He acquired the World to Come by his famous work on the Jerusalem Talmud. As for the name Ridbaz, which he included in the title of his books, it is an acronym for Rinat Yaakov David Ben Zev (“Sing joyously of Yaakov, son of Zev”), after the verse: “Sing, O Jacob, with gladness” (Jeremiah 31:6). His great soul will remain forever connected to the ray of light emanating from those who study the Jerusalem Talmud.




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