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Virtual Jewish World: Volozhin, Belarus

Volozhin (Polish, Wołożyn), is a city in Belarus. The city belonged to Poland before 1793 and between the years 1921 and 1945. Jews were living in Volozhin in the 16th century. They numbered 383 in 1766, 2,452 in 1897 (including the Jews in the vicinity), and 1,434 (54.5 percent of the total population) in 1921; out of 5,600 inhabitants in 1931, the large majority were Jews. They were mainly occupied in small-scale commerce, forest industries, flour milling, tanning, brickmaking, and crafts for the requirements of the agricultural locality. In World War II, on the eve of the Holocaust, according to estimates by survivors, there were approximately 3,000 Jews in Volozhin. They were "liquidated" in three Aktionen, the first following the German occupation of the town, the second on May 10, 1942, and the third in September 1942.

Volozhin acquired importance in Jewish life in Lithuania and Russia in the 19th century from its yeshivah, founded by Chaim ben Isaac and named Etz Chayim ("tree of life") in his honor. It was mainly established to serve as a barrier to the spread of Hasidism, especially among the youth when it became clear that the strong opposition to Hasidism had been unable to halt its advance. R. Chayim considered that it was the pilpul (casuistic) method of yeshivah teaching, divorcing study of the Talmud from its halakhic foundations, that was the reason for the dissatisfaction among the youth and that pushed many of them into the arms of Hasidism because of the religious stimulus and inspiration it offered. Hence the yeshivah he envisaged was to educate its pupils in the methods taught by Elijah b. Solomon Zalman , the Gaon of Vilna: analysis of the text and understanding of its plain meaning. According to one tradition, the yeshivah was founded on the instructions of the Gaon, although it was established in 1803, several years after he died.

Two yeshivot already existed in Vilna when R. Chayim decided to establish the yeshivah in Volozhin for reasons unknown – possibly to remove it from the influence of the Vilna community administration, then rent by severe internal discord, and so that he could guide it in accordance with his own views. His opposition to the students' boarding out and the responsibility he took upon himself for their gaining a means of livelihood (about the time the yeshivah was founded he called on the Jewish communities to support it), despite the heavy burden which this devolved on him, evinced his concern to prevent the students from coming under external influence. R. Chayim's endeavors prevented the yeshivah from becoming a merely local institution, and made it into a foundation supported by the whole of Jewry; it thus became a prototype for the Lithuanian yeshivot founded subsequently.

Teaching in the yeshivah began with only ten students, but it rapidly acquired a name among the Jewish public. It became so highly esteemed that the military governor of Lithuania in 1813, during the Napoleonic wars, issued a document of protection to R. Chayim instructing all military units "to safeguard the chief rabbi of Volozhin, Hayyim ben Isaac, his schools and educational insttutions… and to extend to the above-mentioned chief rabbi every assistance and protection…" The number of students had already risen to 100. In the meantime a special building for the yeshivah had been erected (of wood). The main lectures were given by R. Chayim himself, his son-in-law R. Hillel, rabbi of Horodono (Grodno), and his son R. Isaac.

After R. Chayim's death in 1821 his son R. Isaac served as principal of the yeshivah. Around this time (1824) the Russian authorities decided to close the yeshivah for reasons that are not clear. However, despite the official order prohibiting its existence, the yeshivah continued to function and expand. The number of students rose to 200 and its buildings were enlarged. The head of Volozhin yeshivah was considered at the time to be among the leaders of Russian Jewry, even by the authorities, and when in 1843 the government decided, in line with the recommendations of its "Jewish Committee," to convene a conference of rabbis to discuss problems of Jewish education, R. Isaac was invited to attend. He took this opportunity to obtain official recognition of the yeshivah through the record at the ministry of education of the letter of protection which had been issued at the time to his father. Since R. Isaac was then occupied with public matters and the administrative and financial affairs of the yeshivah, the task of teaching was principally delegated to his two sons-in-law, R. Eliezer Isaac Fried and Naphtali Ẓevi Judah Berlin (Ha-Neẓiv). By then a controversy had already begun in the yeshivah, because, in contradiction to the tradition laid down by its founder, R. Eliezer Isaac inclined to favor pilpul, and had a following among the students.

After the death of R. Isaac in 1849, R. Eliezer Isaac Fried was appointed principal of the yeshivah and R. Naphtali Ẓevi Judah Berlin the vice principal. R. Eliezer Isaac did not live much longer, and after his death in 1854, when both R. Berlin and R. Chayim's grandson, R. Joseph Baer Soloveichik , were both appointed principals, a severe disagreement broke out over the method of instruction, in which R. Joseph Baer favored the pilpul method, and had many supporters among the yeshivah students. When the controversy threatened to endanger the existence of the yeshivah, a delegation of prominent Lithuanian rabbis, including David Tevele of Minsk, Joseph of Slutsk, Isaac Elhanan Spektor of Kovno, and Ze'ev the Maggid of Vilna, went to Volozhin in order to settle the controversy. The committee ruled that R. Berlin should be the principal of the yeshivah while R. Joseph Baer should serve as his deputy. From then on the yeshivah was headed by two persons – the principal of the yeshivah and his vice principal. In 1865 R. Joseph Baer left the yeshivah to serve as rabbi of Brest-Litovsk (Brisk). R. Raphael Shapira, son-in-law of R. Berlin, was appointed in his place, serving in this position until 1881. His successor was R. Chayim Soloveichik , son of Joseph Baer and grandson of R. Berlin.

At the end of the 1850s the government renewed the campaign against the ḥadarim and yeshivot. It was helped by a number of the maskilim who sent memoranda to the state-appointed Jewish Committee requesting that the yeshivot should be closed down as "nurseries of fanatical rabbis." The government evidently considered that so long as the yeshivot continued, the graduates of the state rabbinical seminaries would not be accepted to rabbinical offices, and that the Volozhin yeshivah was the chief rival of these seminaries. Thus in April 1858 the yeshivah was closed down by order of the authorities on the ground that its syllabus had not been submitted for approval to the ministry of education. Prominent Jews in Vilna and Minsk sent a request to the authorities to permit the yeshivah to reopen since "the Volozhin yeshivah, because of the esteem in which its founder was held, had acquired a high reputation from its foundation. By faithfulness to its mission it had made a noteworthy contribution to the spiritual education of our people. We owe a debt of gratitude to the large number of rabbis in various towns, many of whom have become prominent as authors of important works in rabbinical literature." Despite all the efforts on the part of the Jews, the authorities did not rescind their decision. However, like the order of closure of 1824, it did not have noticeable practical effects.

R. Berlin proved a most able administrator, and he was assisted in this by his wife Batya Miriam. The number of pupils continued to grow, reaching 300 at the end of the 1870s and 400 at the end of the 1880s, by then also attracting students from outside Russia – from England, Germany, Austria, and even America. Berlin also considerably expanded the budget of the yeshivah, which in 1885 reached 16,675 silver rubles, of which some 6,000 were expended on support of the students (the juniors received two to four rubles monthly, and the seniors four to ten), and 3,618 rubles on teachers' salaries. At the end of the 1860s R. Berlin went to collect funds for a new building and library, and sent emissaries to all parts of the Diaspora. The appeal succeeded, and a stone building of three stories was built with the funds.

A daily program was established for the students. Prayers were held at 8 A.M., and they then took breakfast. Afterward the weekly portion was read and explained by the principal of the yeshivah. Study proceeded from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., during which the supervisor ensured that none of the students missed study. A lecture followed (delivered in the 1880s by R. Chayim Soloveichik, son of R. Joseph Baer, in the first part of the week, and by R. Berlin in the second) and then came the midday meal. The students returned to the yeshivah at 4 P.M., held Minḥah, and studied until 10 P.M. Ma'ariv was then held, preceding supper. Many would return to the yeshivah and study until midnight. They would sleep until 3 A.M. and return to study until morning. The atmosphere of the yeshivah was created by the study circle of young students devoted in their enthusiasm for Torah study. At certain periods the principal of the yeshivah would examine the students once in each term (zeman).

In the 1860s opposition began to be voiced in the Jewish press to the yeshivot. Only the extreme maskilim demanded that they should be closed down; others criticized their system of study and its contents and wished to introduce general subjects, as had been instituted in the rabbinical seminaries in Germany and in Western countries. R. Berlin adamantly opposed any changes of this nature. However, when the Pahlen Commission was sitting in St. Petersburg and discussing the Jewish question, a number of Jewish communal leaders regarded it necessary to demonstrate to the authorities that the Jews were ready to make changes. On pressure from them in 1887 a number of prominent rabbis, including Isaac Elḥanan Spektor, Joseph Baer Soloveichik, and R. Berlin, convened in St. Petersburg, and at this meeting it was decided on the appointment of a special teacher to instruct the yeshivah students in Russian and arithmetic, provided that these studies would not be conducted within the yeshivah, but outside it. Volozhin yeshivah refrained from translating this decision into practice.

Despite the vigilance of the supervisors and the severe discipline in the yeshivah, external influences began to infiltrate there. At first the influence of the Musar movement had begun to be felt. Study of ethical works like Hovot ha-Levavot and Mesillat Yesharim won acceptance by many. This opened the doorway to a religious awakening in the musar spirit despite the reservations of the heads of the yeshivah. On the other hand the ideas of Haskalah were increasingly disseminated in the yeshivah and in the 1880s the Hovevei Zion also attracted many students. R. Berlin's sympathy with the latter helped to propagate its ideas in the yeshivah.

However, the spiritual excitement raised by these influences did not end there. A growing number of students read Haskalah literature in Hebrew and other languages despite the energetic opposition of the principal. The maskilim began to demand changes in the yeshivah's regime, which finally brought intervention by the Russian educational authorities. On Dec. 22, 1891, the Russian minister of education published the "Regulations concerning Volozhin Yeshivah," which defined the yeshivah as a private open educational institution, and its pupils were required to study general subjects to elementary school standard. The regulations stated that any digression from them would lead to the closing down of the institution. R. Berlin did not agree to the regulations, and on Jan. 22, 1892, the authorities announced the closure of the yeshivah. R. Berlin and the students were expelled from Volozhin.

However, a few years later the yeshivah was reopened. In 1895 the government permitted use of the yeshivah building as a place of prayer. The students reassembled and laid the foundation for reviving the yeshivah. It continued to expand and develop until World War I (from 1899 under R. Raphael Shapira as principal). When the battle zone reached the vicinity of Vilna, the heads of the yeshivah left Volozhin with the rest of the Jewish refugees for the Russian interior (Minsk). The yeshivah did not resume activity until 1921. It existed, though with reduced numbers and influence, until the liquidation of the last 64 students in the Holocaust. The last to head the yeshivah were R. Jacob Shapira (d. 1936) and his son-in-law Hayyim Wulkin, who perished in the Holocaust. Many of the students of Volozhin yeshivah distinguished themselves in Hebrew literature and public leadership, including Hayyim Nachman Bialik, who left an enduring monument to the yeshivah in his poem "Ha-Matmid" and M.J. Berdyczewski

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

A.A. Sh-n (Sirotkin), in: Ha-Shaḥar, 8 (1877), 112–9, 161–9; Ha-Meliẓ, 15 (1879) nos. 28, 32, 35; 16 (1880), no. 36; 25 (1885) no. 9; 32 (1892) nos. 46, 47, 50; M. Berdyczewski, in: Ha-Asif, 3 (1887), 231–42; idem, in: Ha-Kerem (1887), 63–77; M.M. Horowitz, Derekh Eẓ Ḥayyim (1895); Z. Epstein, Kitvei …, 1 (1904), 117–26; M. Shmukler, Toledot Rabbenu Ḥayyim mi-Volozhin (1909); S.L. Citron, in: Reshummot, 1 (1925), 123–5; B. Epstein, Mekor Barukh, 4 (1928), 1766–74, 1813–22, 2019–28; I. Nissenbaum, Alei Ḥeldi (1929), 40–46; I.I. Rivkind, in: Sefer Turov (1935), 232–9; M. Berlin, Mi-Volozhin ad Yerushalayim, 1 (1939), 1–119; M. Rabinowitz, in: Koveẓ al Yad, 15 (1951), 221–33; I. Schapiro, Ge'on Ya'akov (1953); S.K. Mirsky (ed.), Mosedot Torah be-Eiropah be-Vinyanam u-ve-Ḥurbanam (1956); Sefer ha-Partizanim ha-Yehudiyyim, 1 (1958), 478–98; Yahadut Lita, 1 (1960), 206–13; J. Katzenelson, in: Voskhod, 13 (1893) no. 6; M. Ryvkin, ibid., 15 (1895) nos. 1, 3, 5; Yu. Hessen, in: Perezhitoye, 1 (1908), 19–22; ibid., 2 (1910), 281–5; I. Tenenbaum, in: Yevreyskaya Letopis, 12 (1924); A. Leoni (ed.) Sefer Volozhin (1970).