Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman • “The Rosh Yeshiva of Baranovitch”

Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman was born in 5635 (1875) in the Lithuanian city of Birz. When he was 13 years old, his parents went to live in the tiny Latvian city of Boisk, and he went to study in the famous Telshe yeshiva. The young Elchanan become the favorite student of two great Rabbis: Rabbi Eliezer Gordon and Rabbi Shimon Shkop Zatzal. He quickly became known as one who was exceptionally diligent in study, being careful not to waste a single moment of his time. Each hour was devoted to a certain task, and everything went according to the clock. He was never the least bit late, nor was there ever a time in which he had nothing to do, not even for a single instant.

“How will I be able to explain idleness in the future, when I will have to stand before the Celestial Court and explain what I did at that point? Am I not going to give an accounting for every moment in my life?”

The Rav of Ponevezh recounts that when they were studying together in the Radin yeshiva, a telegram was brought to him stating that his wife had just given birth to a son. He then arose, recited the blessing HaTov VeHaMetiv, and immediately returned to his studies and continued to delve into his subject as if nothing had happened. Similarly, he was once about to leave for the United States, but since he still had an hour before his train was set to depart, he went to the yeshiva with suitcase in hand and gave a course to some students.

In 5659 (1899), Rabbi Elchanan married Michle, the daughter of the Gaon Rabbi Meir Atlas, the Rav of the Lithuanian city of Shavli. After the wedding, he went to Radin to infuse himself with the teachings of the Chafetz Chaim.

Rabbi Elchanan spent three years in Radin and became attached to his Rav, the Chafetz Chaim, with all his soul, to the point of resembling him. He devoted himself to acquiring his character traits – the same simplicity, the same integrity, the same fervent faith, both profound and simple, and the same attitude concerning the problems of the hour. It is therefore not surprising that after the passing of the Chafetz Chaim, many people recognized his successor in the person of Rabbi Elchanan.

From Radin, Rabbi Elchanan was called upon to become the Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk. He was happy with the prospect of finding himself in the shadow of the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik.

After the First World War, Rabbi Elchanan went to the city of Baranovitch, where he directed a great yeshiva that flourished and attracted many students. He loved his students dearly and was devoted to them as a father to his children. Rabbi Elchanan did not wish to be a Rav, and instead he chose to become a Rosh Yeshiva and live in poverty. After the death of his father-in-law, the great city of Shavli invited Rabbi Elchanan to succeed him. His wife the Rebbetzin saw in this proposal an end to the terrible poverty that reigned in their home, however Rabbi Elchanan – faithful to the path that he had always trod from his youth – absolutely refused to become a Rav. His wife therefore decided to travel to Radin and ask the Chafetz Chaim for his opinion. When the carriage arrived to bring her to Radin, the Rebbetzin saw that her husband was standing in a corner and weeping, for he feared that his teacher would order him to take the position. Seeing the magnitude of his grief, his wife changed her mind and did not go.

After a certain time, Rabbi Elchanan became the recognized leader of Jewish Orthodoxy, and his opinion was accepted as that of the Torah’s. He wrote articles in Yiddish and Hebrew on numerous subjects, and every article that he signed carried tremendous weight. Even when he was in the United States, he published a brochure entitled Ikveta DiMashiach (“The Heels of the Messiah”), in which he called upon Jews to return to G-d. Rabbi Elchanan was accepted by all groups – Chassidim, Mitnagdim, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews – and everyone heeded his word because of his Torah and great integrity.

When the Second World War erupted, Rabbi Elchanan fled with his yeshiva to Vilna. Before the Germans entered Vilna, he once traveled to the city of Slobodka, near Kovno, thinking to return to Vilna where he was then living. The Germans, however, quickly seized control of Lithuania and he was forced to remain in Slobodka.

On the 11th of Tammuz, 5701 (1941), the Nazis suddenly attacked the Jews of Slobodka and executed them. Before being murdered, Rabbi Elchanan addressed his friends, rabbis, and all Jews. He spoke softly, with the same inner calm that normally characterized his speech. These were his last words:

“Apparently they consider us Tzaddikim in Heaven, for we were chosen to atone for Klal Israel with our lives. If so, we must repent completely here and now. Time is short. The road to the Ninth Fort [where the Slabodka-Kovno martyrs were massacred] is rapidly approaching. We must realize that our sacrifice will be more acceptable when it is accompanied by repentance. We will thereby rescue our brothers and sisters in America. We are now about to perform the greatest possible mitzvah! ‘You destroyed it by fire, and with fire shall You rebuild it.’ The fire which will now consume our bodies is the very same fire which will give rise to the rebirth of the Jewish people.”

With the cry of Shema Israel, his soul ascended to Heaven.

Rabbi Elchanan left us many books, such as Kovetz He’arot on Tractate Yebamot, the three-volume work Ohel Torah, and others.

The world of Rabbi Elchanan was indeed destroyed, but the words of his pure soul flew off and reached us even in America. His books can be found in every yeshiva, and students study the great Torah that he wrote in holiness and purity. May G-d avenge the spilled blood of His servants.




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