Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Krasilschikov • “Commentator of the Yerushalmi”

Rabbi Israel Meir, the Chafetz Chaim, said: “When a man sets out to do something, he should not ask himself if he is capable of doing it. He must act and work with all his strength, and the Holy One, blessed be He, will help him to succeed in his undertaking so that his plan materializes.”

This idea came to mind when I saw the first volume of Tractate Berachot in the Jerusalem Talmud, along with the commentary of Yitzchak Isaac, the Gaon of Poltava. It is a living example of this idea.

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac, the author of the commentaries Toldot Yitzchak and Tevunah on the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), lived in a virtually sealed apartment near the Kremlin in Moscow. It was there, in solitude and obscurity, that he wrote his marvelous commentary on the Yerushalmi. Of course, on many occasions he asked himself a terrifying question, “I lift my eyes to the mountains. From where will my help come?” (Psalms 121:1). Would he succeed in what he had set out to do? Could he hope that one day his commentary would be published? However he did not despair concerning G-d’s help, and deep down he felt that he would be rewarded and that there was hope for the future. In the introduction to his book, he wrote: “When I prayed to our merciful Father, asking Him to take pity on me, I had steadfast confidence that He heard my voice and supplications, which came from the depths of my heart, and that He would come to my help, for ‘My help is from the L-RD, Maker of heaven and earth’ [Psalms 121:2].”

G-d indeed heard his prayer and sent him a man to preserve the fruit of his work, that man being the faithful Rav Tzvi Bronstein, President of the Al Tidom (“Do Not Remain Silent”) Association. It was Rav Tzvi who loyally recovered his manuscript and published it so that the lips of its author could move in the grave, and so that future generations could know how to study Torah in utter destitution. This too is Torah, and it must be studied.

The history of the manuscript’s rescue is quite moving. Rav Bronstein describes it in his own words:

“On the morning of Iyar 10, 5725 (1965), I found myself in the office of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Levine, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow. The Rav whispered in my ear, ‘Hurry to the hospital. There you will find the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac on his deathbed, for his time is short. You must leave immediately, lest you arrive too late.’ Naturally, I immediately took a taxi to the hospital. The Rav was already very weak by that time. I approached his bed and told him who I was. A slight smile appeared on his pale lips, and with great difficulty he murmured, ‘Good. It’s good that you came. I need you now.’ He opened his eyes and looked all around to see if anyone was watching, then turned to me again and whispered, ‘Listen. These last years I have been working day and night on writing a complete commentary on the Yerushalmi. It contains thousands of pages on the Jerusalem Talmud, and it will make its study easier because it is clear and simple.’ He told me where the manuscript was, and he insisted that I promise to do everything in my power to have it published, which I did. The next day, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac rendered his soul to his Creator, and his burial took place one day later.”

The manuscript that he entrusted him with was the second part of his book Tevunah. The first part had appeared in 5856 (1926), and it was the last Torah book ever published under the Communist regime in Russia. Rav Bronstein kept his promise, giving himself no rest until he had found the manuscript of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac’s commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud, which was eventually published by the Mutzal Me'esh (“Saved from Fire”) Institute under the auspices of the Al Tidom Association.

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac, the son of Rabbi Dov Ber Krasilschikov, was among the last vestiges of Jewish orthodoxy in Russia. Born in 5648 (1888) in the small White Russian town of Kritchev, he studied in the Mir Yeshiva with the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch Kamai, and it was from him that he learned the main part of his Torah.

Before the Communist Revolution in Russia, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac was the Rav of Heditz, then the Rav of Poltava, the town from which he earned recognition as the “Gaon of Poltava.” It was there that he printed the first part of Tevunah, which he had written when he was but 23 years old.

When those who studied Torah began to be persecuted by the communists, who vented their anger primarily against the great rabbis of Russia, he left the rabbinate and settled in Moscow, where he took a job as an accountant.

He lived with his wife in a modest little apartment, and after each day working for the government he retuned home to immerse himself in Torah study during the night. It was there that the last rabbis of Russia came to hear the Torah emanating from his mouth. He ate only dry foods, for there was also a non-Jewish woman who cooked non-Kosher food in his kitchen (it was a communal kitchen, shared by those in the apartment complex). He did not cease wearing his rabbinic-style clothes, and throughout his life he acted like a Rav from a generation of long ago.

In his final years, he worked on his marvelous commentary on the Yerushalmi. Under such difficult conditions, while the fear of the regime gripped everyone in the apartment, for him the study of the Yerushalmi was a consolation. The verse, “Remember the L-RD from the distance and let Jerusalem come up in your hearts” (Jeremiah 51:50) was fulfilled in him. During the last years of his life, the Rav of Poltava lived in the Jerusalem of Heaven.

When an orphan prays by the grave of his parents, he recites Kaddish. He does not pray for himself or mention the terrible tragedy that has befallen him, but instead implores the Creator to rebuild Jerusalem. The Rav of Poltava stood by the grave of Russian Jewry and prayed: “Our Father, merciful Father Who takes pity, have pity on us and give our hearts the ability to understand, to discern, to listen, to learn and teach, to observe, to perform and accomplish all the words of Your Torah, the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud.” Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac’s main concern was the Torah of Eretz Israel, the Yerushalmi, and the great Rav of Poltava will forever remain connected to the light of those who study it.

We end with the words of the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv of Jerusalem. In his approbation to Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac’s commentary he wrote: “May this man of action be blessed, the Rav Tzvi Bronstein, who devoted himself to him [Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac] and succeeded in rescuing his manuscript from the furnace and publishing it. In this way he proved and demonstrated his kindness to the deceased during his lifetime, enabling the name of the Gaon to become known, whose writings he left as his heritage. This too was an act of kindness to the living, for it gives those who study Torah an important work on the Yerushalmi.”




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