To relate the story of the Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein is to relate the story of the Slabodka Yeshiva of Lithuania, the forerunner of the renowned Yeshivas Chevron of Yerushalayim.
Rav Moshe Mordechai and the yeshiva were synonymous from the day he joined its staff until the day he died – brokenhearted from his students’ murder in the infamous Chevron massacre.
Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein was born in 5626/1866 to Rav Tzvi Chaim Epstein, an outstanding talmid chacham who served as rav of the small Lithuanian town of Bakst. His mother, Beila Chana, was the granddaughter of Rav Chaim of Bakst. In his youth, Rav Moshe Mordechai studied in Volozhin, where he became known as the illui of Bakst. He was so diligent that by time he turned 15, he was well versed in half of Shas. His genius is evident in his remarkable sefer “Levush Mordechai.”
In 5649/1889, he married Chaya Menucha Frank, the daughter of the philanthropist Rav Shraga Feivel Frank of Kovno. Rav Shraga Feivel’s love of Torah was so intense that he had once turned down an offer to manage a thriving business because of it.
“If I become too wealthy, my daughters might not marry talmidei chachamim,” he remarked at the time. His hopes for his daughters’ future did, indeed, materialize. All of his sons-in- law were outstanding talmidei chachamim: Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Boruch Yehoshua Horowitz, Rav Sheftel Kramer and, of course, Rav Moshe Mordechai.
In 5654/1894 Rav Moshe Mordechai and his brother-in-law Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer became maggidei shiur in the famed Slabodka Yeshiva. In 1897, Rav Moshe Mordechai became the rosh yeshiva, while Rav Isser Zalman left to lead another one of the yeshivos Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, had founded.
The Alter had founded the Slabodka Yeshiva in 5644/1884 largely to counter the threat posed by the Haskala and Lithuanian Jewry’s flourishing socialist movements. It eventually produced talmidim who shaped the future of Torah learning on three continents: Europe, Eretz Yisroel and the United States. They included such luminaries as Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, and Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman.
From the start of his leadership, however, Rav Moshe Mordechai had to contend with a major dispute.
At that point, a large controversy had erupted over the issue of mussar study. Fifteen years before the Slabodka Yeshiva was founded, a group of talmidei chachamim had begun attacking the intensive study of mussar that was fast becoming the norm in Litvish yeshivos. They contended that mussar study was a waste of time because they believed that the spiritual elevation it brought about could be achieved solely through the study of Talmud. “Why steal time away from the true ameila shel Torah?” they argued.
This opposition to the mussar movement had spread all over Lithuania and eventually engulfed the Slabodka Yeshiva as well. In Slabodka the mussar opponents were not only opposed to its study but also want to go so far as to oust the Alter from the yeshiva’s administration. But Rav Moshe Mordechai remained a staunch supporter both of Rav Nosson Tzvi’s mussar approach and of his leadership, and he worked tirelessly to maintain the status quo.
His efforts, however, failed, and the yeshiva split in two. Three hundred students who opposed the study of mussar remained in the yeshiva’s main building, while the Alter, Rav Moshe Mordechai and 60 other students moved to a new yeshiva, which was named Knesses Yisroel.
At first, Knesses Yisroel suffered serious financial difficulties because its opponents persuaded Slabodka’s main supporter, a Mr. Lachman, to withhold his support from the Alter’s new yeshiva.
Nevertheless, Knesses Yisroel soon recovered and just two years later it boasted 300 students. Realizing his error, Mr. Lachman resumed his support of the Alter’s yeshiva.
Rav Moshe Mordechai never gave up in his attempts to make peace between the two sides, and eventually the yeshiva managed to reunite. Soon afterward Rav Moshe Mordechai was appointed rav of Slabodka as well. When he was offered the prestigious post of rav of Kovno sometime later, he refused to abandon the yeshiva.
Likewise, when the huge Bialystock kehilla made Rav Moshe Mordechai a similar offer, promising him a seven-room home as part of the deal, he turned it down as well. “I prefer living in a makom Torah to living in comfort,” he declared.
AS ROSH YESHIVA
Rav Moshe Mordechai’s humility was legendary. Although the Alter had invested him with total authority over the yeshiva, he would invariably consult Rav Nosson Tzvi before making any important decisions.
“The yeshiva is yours,” he used to declare.
Heading the yeshiva was fraught with numerous problems and difficulties. One major problem was the lack of space. Rav Moshe Mordechai refused to turn away students even when the building’s landlord threatened to evict the yeshiva from his premises altogether. Instead, Rav Moshe Mordechai launched a campaign to construct a new building.
Concerning this momentous decision, his son-in-law Rav Yechezkel Sarna later commented, “When my father-in-law decided to construct that new building he was so destitute that he couldn’t even buy postage stamps for fund-raising. Yet with Hashem’s help he managed to erect a magnificent edifice.”
The new building was completed in 5660/1900 and immediately filled with students.
But Rav Moshe Mordechai’s troubles were by no means at an end. Soon afterward the military commander of Kovno sued the yeshiva and demanded that its new building be razed to the ground, claiming that it had been built larger than specifications. Government officials began arriving to inspect the building.
This caused a major upheaval because establishing a new yeshiva was an illegal activity in Lithuania at that time, and the new building had instead been registered as a shul to be occupied by 10 Torah scholars. Now, however, the yeshiva had hundreds of students, many of them illegal residents who were liable to be fined and punished if they were caught.
To escape detection, the students fled to nearby shuls or hid in their lodgings whenever the inspectors were scheduled to arrive. But when an inspector arrived unexpectedly, the students were forced to make a swift getaway through the windows. After five years of investigations, thanks to the intervention of various askanim, the Lithuanian parliament finally fined the yeshiva a mere 100 rubles and issued a permit for the building. In 5670/1910 Rav Shmuel Salant, the Rav of Yerushalayim, passed away and Rav Moshe Mordechai was asked to assume his position. Even though Rav Moshe Mordechai longed to move to Eretz Yisroel, he turned down the offer because he failed to find any suitable replacement for himself in Slabodka.
With the outbreak of World War I, nearly all of Lithuania’s yeshivos were shut down. On Tisha B’Av 5674/1914 the residents of Kovno and its suburbs, including Slabodka, were ordered to leave the city.
The yeshiva quickly dispersed. Students below draft age returned home, while those in danger of being drafted went into hiding. The Alter of Slabodka was arrested at a health spa in Germany, and Rav Moshe Mordechai fled to his daughter Faiga’s home in Rechista.
In Rechista Rav Moshe Mordechai decided to reestablish the yeshiva in nearby Minsk and immediately sent letters to the yeshiva’s staff and students requesting that they come there. Once the students arrived, Rav Moshe Mordechai set up a beis midrash for them in one of the city’s shuls, and meals were organized in the homes of local residents.
The Alter managed to rejoin the yeshiva and shortly afterward students from nearly all of East Europe’s yeshivos, including Radin, Brisk, Volozhin and Kaminetz, flocked to Minsk as well. They were accompanied by many gedolei hador, including the Chofetz Chaim; Rav Chaim Soloveitchik and his son Rav Yitzchok Zev; Rav Eliyahu Boruch Kamai of Mir; and Rav Avrohom Yeshayahu Karelitz, the Chazon Ish. With great mesiras nefesh, Minsk’s residents assisted all of the yeshiva students. Special committees were set up to collect food and money to provide them with all of their needs.
Despite these difficulties, Rav Moshe Mordechai continued to deliver his regular shiurim. Soon, however, the battlefront neared Minsk and the yeshiva was forced to relocate in the Ukrainian town of Kremenchug.
The largely Chassidic community of Kremenchug dedicated itself to assisting Rav Moshe Mordechai’s yeshiva in every way, even when bullets were flying, even when the town was being shelled, and even when typhoid was raging in the streets. At that time a group of Cossacks kidnapped Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, later to become the rosh yeshiva of Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, and threatened to kill him unless they received a sizable ransom.
In desperation, Rav Ruderman sent them to Rav Moshe Mordechai. He offered them whatever money he had, but the sum wasn’t large enough for the Cossacks.
Suddenly, Rav Moshe Mordechai had an inspiration. He rushed outside and screamed, “Gevald! Help!”
Alerted by his shouts, neighbors rushed outside and began milling around in noisy confusion. Terrified that the Bolshevik police might arrive any second to subdue the raucous crowd, the Cossacks fled, leaving their prey – Rav Ruderman – behind. Toward the end of the war, Lithuania’s government and the Bolsheviks signed a treaty establishing an independent Lithuanian state. The yeshiva forged the documents for those who needed them and tried to slip back into Lithuania. But they were caught red-handed at the train station, and Rav Moshe Mordechai was arrested.
Miraculously, Rav Moshe Mordechai was soon released and the yeshiva was permitted to leave. They finally returned to Slabodka during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva of 5681/1921.
Back in Slabodka the yeshiva began to flourish once more. Rav Moshe Mordechai busied himself with many tasks aside from those immediately connected with the yeshiva.
World War I had marked one of the greatest upheavals in Jewish history. Hundreds of communities were destroyed and dispersed, and Torah Jewry in Europe was beset by internal chaos of unprecedented dimensions, particularly in the area of chinuch. Thousands of children were being sent to modern Jewish schools that were totally opposed to the spirit of the Torah.
At a public meeting Rav Moshe Mordechai convinced the assembled parents that their children could never develop into as proper Jews in the schools where they were currently learning. “But what alternative do we have?” protested the parents “If I establish a proper cheder,” replied Rav Moshe Mordechai, “would you send your children there?” “Of course,” came the unanimous reply.
Then and there a cheder was founded. Enrollment soon swelled to over 100 children. Shortly afterward Rav Moshe Mordechai founded the Even Yisroel Yeshiva Ketana and the Ohr Yisroel Mechina, which prepared students to enter the Knesses Yisroel Yeshiva.
During the war years, secular Jews had managed to gain control over much of the Jewish community. To rectify this, Gedolei Yisroel, among them Rav Moshe Mordechai, created Agudas Yisroel, the goal of which was to unite Orthodox Jewry against the twin threats of Zionism and secularism.
In a letter to the founding convention in Katowitz in 5672/1912 he writes: “Unable to attend the Knessia Hagedola in person, I send my heartfelt blessings. The secular elements of society have wreaked much havoc on Klal Yisroel primarily because we are scattered and disunited. Only by establishing a central organization can we rectify the situation. Therefore, strengthen your hands, mighty men of valor, and raise the banners of Torah, yira and avoda!”
Rav Moshe Mordechai also founded a Lithuanian branch of Agudas Yisroel, and he was the driving force behind the estab- lishment of Yavneh, an educational network that founded and supported dozens of chadarim and yeshivos ketana in Lithuania’s villages and hamlets.
A NEW HOME
In 5682/1922, the Slabodka Yeshiva’s desperate financial situation forced Rav Moshe Mordechai to limit his Aguda activities, but he continued to serve as a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah.
Finally in 5683/1923, the yeshiva’s financial situation became so dire that Rav Moshe Mordechai had to travel to the United States to raise funds.
At this time Lithuania decided to conscript all of Slabodka’s military-age students, and as a result the Alter decided to transfer the yeshiva to Eretz Yisroel.
In America Rav Moshe Mordechai raised $25,000 for this purpose, and Rav Yechezkel Sarna traveled to Eretz Yisroel to choose a location for the yeshiva and to secure immigration permits for its students. After much effort he secured the first 100 visas.
In 5685/1925, the first students arrived in Chevron, the site chosen by Rav Sarna, and they were soon joined by the roshei yeshiva as well as additional students from Eretz Yisroel and the United States.
A short while later, the Lithuanian government had canceled its military draft order, so on 8 Elul, 5685/1925 Rav Moshe Mordechai returned to Slabodka to revitalize the yeshiva. Rav Eizek Sher, the Alter’s son-in-law, was appointed rosh yeshiva, while Rav Moshe Mordechai assumed financial responsibility for the yeshiva in Slabodka as well as the new yeshiva in Chevron.
THE ALTER’S PETIRA
The Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, passed away on 29 Shevat, 5687/1927, and the following year Rav Moshe Mordechai settled in Chevron permanently. The hasmada of its students was at its peak, and the sound of Torah study reverberated through its halls day and night.
But then disaster befell the Jewish community of Chevron. On Shabbos morning, 16 Av, 5689/1929, the Arabs rose up in the infamous Chevron Massacre, murdering 69 Jews, including a number of the yeshiva’s students. Miraculously, Rav Moshe Mordechai and his family survived.
The next day, the survivors of the massacre began to flee the city in small groups. The last to leave were Rav Moshe Mordechai and his family, who refused to go until every other Jew had escaped.
Chevron was to remain without Jews for the next 38 years.
The Slabodka Yeshiva was reestablished in Yerushalayim a short time later, but Rav Moshe Mordechai was deeply affected by the death of so many of his beloved students.
In an article written in their memory he writes, “Can one be comforted at the loss of those dear students who left warm homes and comfort in order to delight in Torah study? What a Kiddush Hashem they created! To forget them is beyond human capacity.”
Rav Moshe Mordechai never recovered from the tragedy. Soon afterward he fell seriously ill and during the last five years of his life he suffered terrible pains. Nevertheless, he continued to study and deliver his regular shiurim.
Rav Moshe Mordechai passed away on 10 Kislev, 5694/1934.
Although almost 70 years have passed since then, his influence still pervades the Torah world, which he helped rebuild in war-torn Europe. The famous Chevron Yeshiva in Yerushalayim also ranks among the most famous yeshivos in the world, and other prominent yeshivos have stemmed from it, including the renowned Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak.
This article by D. Sofer originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY.