By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times
Every so often, individuals emerge in Jewish history who, by dint of their personality and intellect, are able to literally change the topography of Torah life.
One such person was Rav Yerucham Levovitz zatzal. Sunday night, the 18th of Sivan, marks the 81st yahrtzeit of Rav Yerucham HaLevi Levovitz zt”l, the famed mashgiach of the original Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland.
Almost all of us were shaped by someone, who was shaped by someone that came under his influence. It is somewhat strange, however, that very little has been written in English about this remarkable Mussar giant.
Rav Yeruchem was a close Talmid of the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l as well as the Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel. Indeed, one of the great Mussar giants of this past generation, Rav Shlomo Volbe zt”l once stated that a single mussar shmuess of the Mashgiach had given him the strength and fortitude to withstand the fearful years of the second world war. Rav Volbe zt”l had helped thousands of refugees in Sweden and was deeply involved in the rescue effort to save the bochurim of the Mirrer Yeshiva.
What follows is a brief overview of the Mashgiach’s life and some of his thoughts, sayings and practices.
Rav Yerucham was born in Luban in White Russia (next to Slutzk). His date of birth was approximately in the year 1873. His father, Reb Avrohom was a cheder Rebbe. His first learning was in Fahust near Minsk in the yeshiva of Bobroisk.
Somehow during this time, the young Rav Yerucham was sent on a very important task involving Pidyon Shvuyim deep in the heart of Russia. The person who was imprisoned was a Talmid Chochom and Rav Yerucham extended every effort that he could in freeing him. Rav Yoseph Leib nendik, an early student of Rav Yerucham, once said that his Rebbe attained greatness on account of this remarkable act.
Later, Rav Yerucham travelled to study in the great Yeshiva of Slabodka. The Alter of Slabodka recognized his enormous potential as a pedagogue and became close to him.
Rav Yerucham also developed a close relationship with Rav Yitzchok Blaser, one of the greatest students of Rav Yisroel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement. Rav Yerucham adopted Rav Blaser’s method of Mussar study.
In 1897, at the urging of the Alter of Slabodka, he left Slabodka to study in Kelm under Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv. He spent the next eight months with the Alter of Kelm until he passed away. His connection with the Alter of Kelm changed his life. The Alter of Kelm was in failing health but he still continued to give to his Talmidim. He had a special group of Talmidim with which he shared his remarkable insights. They were called Devek Tov and Rav Yerucham was a part of that. Indeed, later in his own teaching Rav Yerucham would share special ethical insights with his own Talmidim in a manner in which the Talmid was to realize that this ethical insight was something special. On erev Tisha B’Av, Wednesday July 26, 1898 – the eve of Tisha B’Av, shortly after Shma, Rav Simcha Zissel was Niftar. Rav Yerucham’s sense of loss was profound.
After learning in Kelm, Rav Yerucham married his wife Rivkah, a relative of Rav Simcha Zissel, from Ozovnet.
At that point, Rav Yerucham was offered several positions as a Mashgiach Ruchni to help students develop. He felt, however, that deep lomdus was a prerequisite to effectively leading others in the path of Mussar. He then returned to Kelm and studied Shas and Shulchan Aruch in great iyun for the next eight years.
Rav Yerucham then joined the Chofetz Chaim’s Kollel Kodshim in Radin. Soon, in 1903, he was appointed the Mashgiach of the yeshiva in Radin. His first Shmuess that he delivered to the bochurim in Radin was on the subject of Emunah. Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l was present at that shmuess. He later remarked that he never had hesech daas from that deeply inspiring Shmuess. At Radin, he and his good friend, Rav Naftoli Trop, molded and helped shape great Talmidim.
Rav Yerucham then became the Mashgiach at the yeshiva in Kelm. He would travel back to his home in Ozovnet for the Yomim Tovim. In 1908, a son was born to him. He named him Simcha Zissel after the Alter of Klem. In that year, he received a letter to come to Mir and be the Mashgiach with the new Rosh Yeshiva, the Alter’s son.
Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, the Rosh Yeshiva of Mir, appointed him as the Mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva. It was a position he was to retain for the rest of his life.
At first, the Mir yeshiva was not specifically a Mussar Yeshiva. Under Rav Eliyahu Boruch Kamai the yeshiva wavered as to whether to introduce Mussar into the Yeshiva system or not. But then in 1903, Rav Kammai’s daughter Malka married the Alter of Slabodka’s son – Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel. He joined the yeshiva faculty in late 1906. Rav Zalman Dolinski of Radin was appointed as the Mir’s first mashgiach followed by Rav Yerucham in 1908.
In 1914, after the outbreak of the first World War, the yeshiva moved from Mir to Poltava, Ukraine and found itself wandering throughout the Ukraine. Rav Yerucham stayed with the yeshiva throughout its sojourn in the Ukraine and helped grow its Talmidim. Rav Lazer Yudel became its Rosh yeshiva in 1917 after his father in law had passed away.
One stop of the Yeshiva was in Stavitz – the town where a young Rav Avrohom Yishayahu Karelitz, the future Chazon Ish, had resided. Then he was in his thirties and Rav Yerucham and the Chazon Ish developed a relationship. The Chazon Ish (Kovetz Igros Vol. I #154) writes fondly about the Saba of the Mir Yeshiva – Rav Yerucham.
After the war, Rav Yerucham travelled to Slabodka in order to re-establish that great citadel of Torah until the Alter of Slabodka was able to return from the Ukraine. He also served as the Mashgiach of Ponovitch afterward.
BACK AT MIR
Rav Yerucham returned to the city and the Yeshiva of Mir in 1923. That year – 1923 marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Mir, where the greatest students of Torah began to gather. Bochurim came from all over – from Western Europe, from Chassidish families in Poland and Hungary, and from the United States. They grew and were shaped and molded into giants of Torah under the meticulous watch of Rav Yerucham.
Throughout his life, Rav Yerucham maintained a close relationship with the Chofetz Chaim. He would seek him out for deeper questions regarding the runnings of a Yeshiva.
In 1925, the Chofetz Chaim wished to immigrate to Eretz Yisroel. Rav Chaim Ozer realized that the Jews of Europe needed him in Europe. A delegation was sent to speak to the Chofetz Chaim to dissuade him. Rav Chaim Ozer asked Rav Yerucham to join that delegation. The others were Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, Rav Pesach Prusskin (Rav Moshe Feinstein’s Rebbe), Rav Elchonon Wasserman and Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel.
One of his Talmidim, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, married the Rav Lazer Yudel’s daughter in 1929. Six years later, he joined the hanhallah of the Yeshiva in 1935.
Soon the evil that was National Socialism rose. There were those in Poland that, although opposed to the Nazis wanted to show their anti-Semitic credentials. Among those was a woman named Janina Prystorova, wife of the Polish Senate’s president. On March 20, 1936, the lower house of the Polish Senate (the Sejm) passed an amendment restricting kosher shechita. A week later the Polish Senate adopted that bill.
This caused the Mashgiach great anguish. On the 18th of Sivan, Rav Yerucham passed away from complications of a stroke. The Yeshiva world had lost one of the greatest expositors of Mussar that they ever had.
RELATIONSHIP WITH TALMIDIM
Rav Yerucham had a wonderful relationship with all his talmidim. He thought of each Talmid as if he was his own child.
The Gemorah in Sanhedrin (19b) cites a statement from Rabbi Yochanan: Whoever teaches his friend’s son Torah it is as if he gave birth to him. The traditional understanding of this idea is that it refers to the reward that one gets for teaching another person Torah. The Slonimer Rebbe, however, gives a different understanding of the Gemorah. He says that the successful learning that the child experiences can only happen if the teacher displayed the love of a parent toward that student. Only then, can the child fully experience true learning.
Rav Yerucham once instructed a young man who was fearful of the Russian draft to register for that draft at a particular city. He contacted the doctor who was responsible for the medical exam and ensured that the Talmid receive an exemption.
He kept in touch with his Talmidim by letter. When Rav Shimon Schwab received his first shteler as a Rav and he subsequently became engaged – Rav Yerucham sent him a letter of Mazel Tov. [Letter courtesy of Rabbi Moshe Schwab of Boro Park]. He also travelled to be his Mesader Kiddushin.
The origins of the Yeshiva in Slabodka date back to the Kovno Kollel started in 1877, upon the return of Rav Yisroel Salanter to Eastern Europe. Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector had become Rav of Kovno thirteen years earlier in 1864. He passed away in 1896.
The administrators of the Kovno Kollel were Rav Avrohom Shenker and Rav Yitzeleh Blazer. Rav Blazer was with the Kollel from 1880 to 1891. Rav Blazer brought in as an unofficial administrator Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, not yet known as the Alter of Slabodka. Rav Nosson Tzvi argued that there could be four single bochurim for every married Kollel man. Slowly the Kollel members were replaced by Bochurim and by 1882, there existed a fully functioning Yeshiva.
A year later, in 1883, Rav Yisroel Salanter had passed away, deeply affecting both Rav Blaser and Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel had molded the developing Yeshiva, by further hiring Kollel members to teach the Bochurim. In 1889, Rav Yitzel Rabinowitz (Ponivitzer) was hired to serve as the Rosh Yeshiva, and he remained there for five years until 1894 when he took a Rabbanus. In his stead, in 1894, two Magiddei Shiur from Volozhin were hired. They were brothers-in-law, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein.
Slabodka technically means “suburb” in Slavic. It was originally called Vilyampoleh and was a suburb of Kovna connected by a famous wooden bridge over the Vilaya River. The rickety bridge cracked almost every year on account of the melting ice. The Alter used to say of this bridge, “it was always meant to be a one-way bridge – from the turbulence of Kovno to the spirituality of Slabodka.”
Rav Yerucham, like the other Yeshiva boys, relied upon the essen teg system where they ate their meals at the homes of various host families. Some lived in Slabodka itself, while others lived in Kovno.
The trip to Kovno was never difficult during the summer, however, during the winter it was often quite hazardous. The bridge would weigh down with ice and the top layer of the river would freeze as well. Boats that wished to cross would need ice cutting oars. To eat in Kovno during the winter meant staying there over Shabbos. The boys that did so would sleep on a bench in one of the local shuls.
The essen teg system on Shabbos was not particularly glorious. The bochurim would often wait in shul until the shamash would be able to procure a host family. Those that did not get chosen would go to the Water-Carrier’s Shul in Kovno where Challah and fish were distributed for free.
The Seder in Slabodka began with Shacharis at 7:00 AM. This was followed by breakfast in the Stanzia, the dormitory, and Seder began at 9:00 AM. At 1:00 PM the morning Seder was over and they davened Minchah.
The Alter saw greatness in him and helped shape and mold him into the eventual Mussar giant that he was.
Rav Yerucham was also a repository of the great teachings of Rav Yisroel Salanter, Rav Yitzchok Blaser, the Sabba of Kelm, and the Alter of Slabodka.
He would quote the Sabba of Kelm. Chanoch lanoar al pi darko gam ki yazkin lo yasur mimeno. Rav Simcha Zissel asked, “And when he gets older will the chinuch he received as a child suffice? Rather, the meaning of the pasuk is in regard to self-mastery and self-education. If he does so in his youth then even as he ages he will grow in that manner.
Talmidim of the Mir who became Rabbonim and had taken other positions of Torah instruction would often return to the Mir Yeshiva for Elul and or the Yomim Noraim. They would arrange for lodging and then come to the Yeshiva.
Rav Yerucham would give a moshol from real life incidents. He explained that when he had visited the spas at Marienbad Czechoslovakia, the new arrivals would come bathe in the mineral rich and curative waters of the spa and then they would arrange for their lodgings. By Torah it should be no different.
Rav Yerucham had a desire that the Yeshiva should be run in the time-tested manner of the Yeshivos of old tzu halten a yeshiva oif a fartzeitigen oifen..
Reb Yerucham, a product of Kelm, kept meticulous records of how he spent his days. He kept a log of what time he arose each day, how long it took him to dress, how long it took him to bathe, eat, take care of daily activities, how much time he learned in the Beis Midrash and when he went to sleep. In this manner, he could better have his saichel control his actions.
Rav Tzvi Hirsch Broide, the Alter of Kelm’s son-in-law explained that Rav Yerucham was his Shver’s greatest Talmid.
His Talmidim included such giants as Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, Rav Aryeh Leib Malin, Rav Dovid Povarsky, Rav Abba Berman, Rav Zelik Epstein, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, and Rav Shimon Schwab.
His son, Rav Simcha Zissel, published his shmuessim and thoughts in nine seforim entitled, “Daas Chochma U’Mussar” which are found in virtually every Yeshiva library in the world.
Rav Yerucham was niftar on the 18th of Sivan in the year 1936 – at the age of sixty-three. He is buried in the town of Mir, Belarus.
In this week’s upcoming edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times an overview of his writings and thoughts will b’Ezras Hashem be presented.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org