Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein • “The Author of Torah Temimah”

Among the great men of Israel who lived before the First World War, the name of the Gaon Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein stands out. He is especially known for his great work entitled Torah Temimah, a commentary on the Chumash.

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein was neither a Rav, nor an Av Beit Din, nor the leader of a community. Instead he was just an “ordinary” resident of the Russian town of Pinsk. He was perhaps a simple homeowner, but he was truly a master of the entire Torah, possessing a complete grasp of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. He was exceptionally versed in Tanach and Hebrew grammar, and very educated in all Talmudic literature.

Rabbi Baruch remained faithful to the customs of the Volozhin yeshiva and its spirit. In Volozhin, people would combine the study of the written Torah with that of the oral Torah, for each day began with the study of the weekly parsha. This was the method of Rabbi Chaim, the founder of the Volozhin yeshiva, and it was continued by all the Roshei Yeshiva that followed him. It is therefore not surprising that Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, who studied in Volozhin during his youth, followed the example of his great teachers and wrote his magnum opus, Torah Temimah, by combining the written Torah with the oral Torah. His goal was to “demonstrate that the written Torah is the twin sister of the oral Torah.”

Rabbi Baruch was born in Babroisk in 5620 (1860), on the 5th of Shevat. His father was the Gaon Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, known for his work Aruch HaShulchan.

From his youth, Rabbi Baruch started gaining recognition because of his photographic memory, for he was like a cistern that did not lose one drop. What was especially amazing, however, was his great diligence in study. He wrote, “Even when I was on break from cheder, time was precious to me, and I remained immersed in my studies.”

At the age of 13 he went to study Torah at the great and famous Volozhin yeshiva, whose Rosh Yeshiva at the time was his uncle the Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin). The very fact that he was admitted into the yeshiva at such a young age caused a great stir, and many found it hard to believe that this boy could find a place in the illustrious yeshiva where so many students were already Torah geniuses.

He continued to study with tremendous diligence in Volozhin. He was so immersed in his studies that he completely forgot the world around him, and for several nights each week he would fall asleep in his clothes, too exhausted to change. Over the course of time he acquired great knowledge in all fields of the Talmud, as well as the works of the Poskim, Rishonim, and Acharonim. During his time at the yeshiva, his character became more and more refined, to the point that he attained the greatest levels of generosity, kindness, and love for others.

Even in his youth, Rabbi Baruch knew how to plumb the depths of the written Torah and draw forth theoretical and pragmatic solutions from it.

The Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, the Netziv, was once sitting down surrounded by several high-caliber students – avrechim versed in Torah, wise, and filled with knowledge – who taught and knew how to reason deeply. The Rosh Yeshiva and his students were at that time dealing with a difficult problem, one that, as it turned out, the young Baruch Epstein provided an answer to.

The problem was as follows:

Two brothers shared a business for many years, and their relationship with one another was friendly and loving. However a dispute once arose between them, and the friction that it created led one of them to swear that he would never see his brother again. After several years, the second brother died, and the surviving one regretted the oath that he had taken. He wanted to return and see his dead brother and beg his forgiveness. He then came to see the Rav and asked whether his oath was valid now that his brother was dead. The Rav and his students began to discuss the matter, and some ruled that it was still valid while others ruled that it was not, yet they could not reach a definitive conclusion. It was then that the young Baruch, who was sitting among them, turned to his uncle the Rav and said, “There is a very simple solution to this, and it is explicitly written in the Torah. It states in Exodus, ‘Moses said to the people, “Do not fear…for the Egyptians you see today, you shall never see them again” ’ [Exodus 14:15]. Yet afterwards it is written, ‘Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore’ [v.30]. From this we have a clear proof that viewing a person after his death is not called seeing, and therefore the brother’s oath does not apply to his dead brother.” Upon hearing this, the Rav arose, placed his hand on his nephew’s head, and said: “Happy is your youth.” This experience encouraged him to write Torah Temimah (from Rabbi Baruch’s memoirs: Mekor Baruch, Ch. 48, Par. 3).

Rabbi Baruch married the daughter of Rabbi Eliezer Moshe Halevi, the Rav of Pinsk. Known by the name Rabbi Eliezer Moshe Pinsker, his father-in-law was a tremendous Gaon who wrote several commentaries on the Talmud. Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk said, “I apply the title of ‘Elder of the Gaonim’ only to Rabbi Eliezer Moshe” (as heard from Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky Zatzal). It is also said that Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik considered four Torah greats of his generation as being comparable to the Rishonim: Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, Rabbi Israel Salanter, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, and the Malbim. He added, “If you want to include one more, you have Rabbi Eliezer Moshe Pinsker.”

At his father-in-law’s home, Rabbi Baruch studied Torah with great diligence and became known as one of the greats of his generation. At first his goal was to perpetuate the dynasty of his father and father-in-law by taking upon himself the crown of the rabbinate, and he was given semichah both by the Netziv and the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik of Brisk.

After the passing of his father-in-law, the town of Pinsk tried to appoint Rabbi Baruch as their new Rav. However Rabbi Baruch took a decision not to earn a living in this way. He had the habit of saying, “In the same way that I do not want to control others, I do not want to be their slave. How much more do I not want to be a Rav, who must both control and be enslaved by others.” Since Rabbi Baruch was a skilled accountant, he took a position as such and went on to become the director of a bank.

Even though Rabbi Baruch fulfilled the teaching of the Sages, “Love work and detest the rabbinate,” he loved the work of the rabbinate – Torah study – and was always pursuing it. After a long day of work at the bank, he would return and settle down in his small room and immerse himself in study.

He welcomed everyone warmly and behaved humbly with all. He had a sterling character and was filled with nobility, with a handsome face and bright eyes full of charm and purity. Because of his finesse and natural goodness, he was adored by all who came into contact with him.

Rabbi Baruch devoted himself to his literary works in Pinsk for about a year. He wrote a great deal of material in his lifetime, publishing his memoirs in a four-volume work entitled Mekor Baruch. In it he describes the leading personalities of the previous generation. Also entitled Mekor Baruch was a commentary that he wrote on the Jerusalem Talmud, published in the 5688 (1928) Brothers Romm edition of the Vilna Talmud. He wrote Tosaphot Beracha, a commentary on the Chumash and the five Megillot, and Baruch She’amar on the prayer book. Although he also wrote other books and articles, his magnum opus was Torah Temimah, which was well received throughout the Diaspora from the moment it first appeared. There was hardly a Jewish home that did not have a copy of the Chumash along with his Torah Temimah, and to this day this work has been republished time and time again.

Rabbi Baruch spent some time in the United States, where he directed the offices of Ezrat Torah. When Rabbi Baruch left, he was replaced by the Gaon and Tzaddik Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henken Zatzal.

Rabbi Baruch lived a long time, more than 80 years. When the Germans entered Pinsk at the start of July 1941, he was already old and sick. He was then brought to the Jewish hospital in the city, and two days later, during the month of Tammuz 5701, he rendered his soul to his Creator. May his memory be blessed.





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