Rav Yisroel Isser, the son of Elchonon, was the rav and moreh tzedek in the Lithuanian town of Roush, located in the Grodno district, at the turn of the nineteenth century. The rav was well versed in all four sections of the Shulchan Orech, and he was known throughout the adjoining districts for his yiras shomayim and wisdom. He was often approached by the local Jews to resolve conflicts, adjudicate dinei Torah and arbitrate compromises.
The rav’s first two sons, Moshe Yosef and Avraham Aaron, were both graced with excellent capabilities and became great Torah scholars. Avraham Aaron died shortly after his marriage, and his older brother had to perform chalitza with his widow.
In 1817, a third son was born to Rav Yisroel Isser who he named Yitzchak Elchonon after the child’s two grandfathers. A fourth son, called Yaakov Dovid, was later born. He eventually made aliya and settled in Eretz Yisroel.
From his youngest years, Yitzchok Elchonon possessed a sharp acumen and a phenomenal mind.
Following the custom in those days, his father was his teacher during his early years and he imbibed his first knowledge of Torah and yiras shomayim from him. Although Yitzchok Elchonon was an obvious genius, his humble father did nothing to publicize his exceptional abilities and was content to continue teaching him.
Yitzchok Elchonon was orphaned at the young age of 10 when his mother passed away, an unfortunate tragedy which was not uncommon in those days.
The youth’s exceptional abilities first reached the wider public when he became acquainted with a travelling wealthy Jew called Reb Moshe from Keidan. A learned Jew who had written a commentary Imrei Moshe on Megilas Esther and Toldos Moshe on the Haggadah, Reb Moshe had been traveling for his business through Volkovisk and the nearby cities when he came across the young lad and perceived what a genius he was. He praised him glowingly to friends of his, Reb Eliezer Yezersky and his righteous wife Bluma, from the town of Volkovisk. As soon as they heard what Reb Moshe had to say about the lad, they hastened to make a shidduch between Yitzchok Elchonon and their daughter Sara Raizel.
A short time before, a different shidduch had been offered for
Yitzchok Elchonon with the daughter of another well-to-do householder from Volkovisk. Yitzchok Elchonon, 12 years old at the time, had been invited to the house of the man, where he was grilled for several hours by a panel of Torah scholars to see if he measured up to the proficiency in Torah study which had been claimed about him.
Various pastries had been set out on the table for the occasion, and due to the extreme pressure he was under, the lad ate them in a way less refined than the prospective kallah had expected. The young girl disapprovingly pointed this out to her mother, and they both agreed that a youth lacking such basic refinement was surely not worthy of entering their family! The shidduch was cancelled on the spot.
Reb Eliezer’s wife Bluma was aware of this mishap, but she negated it explaining that the lad was surely so occupied by his love for Torah that he probably hadn’t paid attention to how he was eating. Sara Raizel was similarly impressed with the young scholar. The negotiations were quickly concluded and Yitzchok Elchonon was engaged to be married to Sara Raizel at the ripe age of 13.
Many years later, when Yitzchok Elchonon’s fame had spread throughout the entire world and he was the famous rav of Kovno, he once passed through Volkovisk on his way to visit his father’s grave in Roush.
Thousands of Jews surged to the residence where he was temporarily staying to seek his blessing. Among them was an unfortunate woman who sought his blessing — and then discovered to her shock that the great rav whose blessing she sought was the young man whose hand she had rejected years before because of his table manners!
Yitzchak Elchonon married and moved to Volkovisk where his father-in-law comfortably supported him. In Volkovisk, he found new mentors with whom to study and to achieve further proficiency in his Torah studies. The rav in Volkovisk at that time was the illustrious Rav Binyamin Diskin. A great luminary in and of himself, he was also famous for his illustrious sons — among them the venerable Rav Yoshua Leib Diskin, the rav of Brisk, who later moved to Eretz Yisroel, and the famous gaon Rav Shmuel Avrohom, who later became the av beis din of Volkovisk. Rav Binyamin Diskin was a prince of Torah. Not only was his appearance extremely precise and distinguished, but his holy countenance was apparent to all.
Yitzchak Elchonon was profoundly affected by this prince of Torah and his illustrious sons. From his part, Rav Binyamin Diskin was so impressed with Yitzchak Elchonon that he set up a special chavrusa to study with him Choshen Mishpot two hours a day. Yitzchak Elchonon became a member of the close study circle around Rav Binyamin, which included the scholars Reb Boruch Mordechai Lipschitz — later to become the av beis din of Novordok and Shedlitz — and the gaon Rav Shabsi of Piesk.
During the time he was living at his father-in-law’s home, a wealthy man to whom he had entrusted the 300 rubles of his dowry (a large sum in those days) lost the entire sum. Sara Raizel began to weep when she heard the news, and she pressed the businessman to return the sum. But the wealthy man sharply rebuffed her and said, “I don’t want to talk to you about this! Send your husband and I will respond to him.” The pensive woman went to her husband to plead that he rescue the remains of their fortune.
When she walked into his room, he was studying the gemora to a niggun. She interrupted his studies and pressed him to go to the man to try and recover at least a part of their dowry.
But Yitzchak Elchonon refused to consider it. Sara Raizel continued to weep and plead with him, and her loud implorings caught the attention of her father. Reb Eliezer gravely asked her what had happened. The poor Sara Raizel burst out the details of the sad turn of events. She hotly criticized her husband for refusing to relate to her pleadings and take the simplest action to try and salvage their money! Talking to her husband, she grumbled, was no better than talking to the wall!
“What!” Reb Eliezer lambasted his daughter. He gave his young daughter two stinging slaps on the face and said, “One second of his study is more precious in my eyes than the entire dowry!” Years later, when her husband had the most distinguished rabbinical position in the entire Lithuania, Sara Raizel would contentedly recount this story.
After several years of study spent in Volkovisk with the support of his parents-in-law, Yitzchok Elchonon received semicha from the gaon Rav Binyamin Diskin, who was then serving as the rav in Grodno, and Rav Eizik Tiktiner, the author of Responsa Binyan Olam.
Six years after his marriage, and shortly after the time that his own father passed away, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon concluded that he could no longer remain on his parents-in-law’largesse. In 1837, when he was 20 years old, he accepted the offer to become rav of the small village of Zebelen. His wage was fixed at five Polish gold coins a week, and with the time, it was raised to six Polish coins.
This was barely enough to keep body and soul together. At first, his parents-in-law in Volkovisk sent the young couple meat and challos for Shabbos. This food is what kept him alive since during the weekdays he basically fasted. But then his parents-in-law lost all their money and could no longer send him food or any other support.
During this period, his first son Chaim was born. Chaim was similar in appearance to him, and with the time they discovered that he was blessed with many of Rav Yitzchok Elchonon’s virtues.
During the two years of his tenure in Zebelen, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon suffered severe want and privation. He was later to say about this period, “During the difficult times in Zebelen, hunger afflicted me and my wife and family complained in my ears and begged me to supply their want — and I had nothing to assuage them or any idea what to do. It was then my manner to turn my face to the wall and with all my power immerse my thoughts in the depths of the great and holy sea of gemora. Thus did I vigorously and diligently study for 20 hours at a time without listening or hearing to what was happening in my house or around me. In this way, I forgot my privation and poverty, and the just complaints of my family.”
However, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon did not ignore his family’s sufferings and the pressure they were under for long. During his days of prosperity, when he recalled these early difficult years, a deep sigh would escape him.
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon knew he could not abide his family suffering such severe want. He furthermore understood that his Torah study would suffer if he didn’t have a more assured means of support. Therefore, he decided to act on the common practice of those times to make connections with influential Jewish rabbonim so he would be offered a more lucrative position. The way this was done was by visiting well known gedolim who would size up the visiting scholar and hopefully give a favorable impression of his Torah knowledge and wisdom. Then, if the godol was asked by parnessim of a kehilla to recommend a rav for their community, he might suggest the scholar he had recently met.
This was not as simple as it sounds. First Rav Yitzchok Elchonon had to decide which godol to visit. His choice fell upon Rav Yaakov Karliner, the av beis din of Karlin, a prominent Lithuanian community, and the author of Responsa Mishkenos Yaakov.
Once his choice was made, it was necessary to procure the proper garments to approach the rav and the money to pay for the travel fare, all of which was a monumental feat in his present destitute situation. The townspeople in Zebelen were kind enough to lend him decent clothes, but it was a far more formidable task to get ahold of a shtreimel, which was an absolute necessity before appearing before a distinguished rav. Finally, the Jewish owner of a large tavern that sold whiskey and alcoholic drinks near his town was kind enough to loan him his streimel for as long as he needed it.
Thus equipped, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon arrived in Karlin and took up his residence in a inn. He didn’t have a kopek with which to pay even for a lowly meal of vegetables — and it was erev Shabbos no less!
He quickly went to visit the Karliner Rav, and found him sitting on his rabbinical chair discussing Torah with two distinguished scholars of that time — the gaon of Antipoli, Rav Moshe Hirsch, and the gaon Rav Turdos, who was a moreh tzedek in Karlin. Both of them were known to be great lamdonim, and diligent, profound scholars. Rav Yaakov of Karlin showed them a passage in his book “Mishkenos Yaakov”, which had just been published, in which he had replied to a question by Rav Dovid Luria concerning a “petzua daka”.
The scholars were deeply engaged in a pilpul discussion about the topic, and they paid no attention to the newcomer who respectfully stood off at a distance. Rav Yitzchak Elchonon was somewhat embarrassed to push himself forward particularly since he appeared very young and his beard had not yet grown out. He felt unworthy of pulling up a chair and sitting with these well known Torah luminaries.
However, after he followed their discussion for a while, he summoned his courage and spoke up: “Why, the entire basis to this discussion is written explicitly in the Chelkas Mchokek Even Ezra, section 65!”
The scholars stopped their discussion and looked critically at the young unknown man. They then welcomed him and asked him to identify himself and thus they found out he was the rav in Zebelen. The Karliner Rav remembered that a few weeks before he had received a shaalah from the Zebelener Rav. He then opened the Chelkas Mechokek and they found the passage exactly as Rav Yitzchok Elchonon had said. Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was then offered a seat among them with great deference, and he was included in their lengthy pilpul. They eventually began to discuss a Tosfos, and with great skill, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon smoothly explained the difficult passages. They were thrilled to see such wisdom and proficiency in so young of a man. Finally, as an exceptional gesture of respect, the Karliner Rav asked Rav Yitzchok Elchonon to give him the pleasure o f beinghis Shabbos guest. The Rav’s two other distinguished visitors furthermore honored Rav Yitzchok Elchonon by accompanying him back to his inn.
These where the days when Torah scholarship was the thrill of the Jewish community, and Jews vied to discover and invite scholars to their homes. The rare sign of reverence shown to Rav Yitzchok Elchonon did not go unnoticed by the Karliner townspeople. The rumor quickly spread through the town that a young rav had been invited by their beloved rav to be his guest, and the young man had even been accompanied to his accommodations by two of Lithuania’s illustrious scholars! He quickly became the talk of the town.
“Imagine such a young rav,” people said to each other, “and he is such an immense gaon that the Mishkenos Yaakov was even impressed by his Torah!”
Within a short time, all the scholars in Karlin were knocking at Rav Yitzchok Elchonon’s room in the inn, pleading with him to honor them by joining their Shabbos table. In the end, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon decided to eat his Shabbos night meal at the home of the wealthy Reb Chaim Achshes and the two Shabbos day meals he would spend with the Karliner Rav. Inbetween the meals, the learned townspeople gathered to the rav’s house to engage in pilpulim and Torah discussions with the newcomer and to hear what he had to say.
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon ended up spending three weeks in Karlin with the Karliner Rav. He found himself very attracted to the style of the Karliner Rav’s lomdus. He did not suffer want during this time, since the wealthy Jewish homeowners outbid each other in hosting the young gaon. He amassed a sum of 40 rubles from all the presents he was given which sufficed to pay his rent for an entire year in Zebelen.
The Karliner Rav did not forget him after he returned to Zebelen. When the people of Baraze approached the Karliner Rav for a recommendation for a rav, he recommended that they take the Zebelener Rav.
When Rav Yitzchok Elchonon became rav in Baraze in 1839, he received a cool reception from some of the townspeople who felt that a 22-year old rav could not possibly be worthy of their town — the Karliner Rav’s recommendations notwithstanding.
One of these townspeople was Reb Yosele Leipziger, a serious scholar who was involved in many of the town’s charities. A few days after Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was instated in the town, Reb Yosele entered the rav’s house to pay his respects. While there, he asked him an extremely difficult question which Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was able to answer on the spot without even consulting a sefer.
“This question was raised by the Korbon Ha’Eda on the Yerushalmi,” he told Reb Yosele nonchalantly, and then proceeded to offer his own brilliant answer.
Reb Yosele was dumbstruck. Before he departed he said, “I have asked this question from many rabbonim, but I never heard a satisfying answer from anyone until this minute. Your answer alone has satisfied me.”
That week, Reb Yosele sent him several loaves of bread and chickens as a sign of his reverence. From then on, he never stopped praising Rav Yitzchok Elchonon and treated him with the utmost honor.
The sun began to shine on Rav Yitzchok Elchonon. His reputation from this point on was like the sun at dawn, growing consecutively brighter from minute to minute.
His fame further spread in the world in the wake of new economic developments implemented by the government in the region of Baraze. A modern stone road was being paved through the district to connect Baraze to other towns in place of the dusty, uneven dirt path which had served travellers until then.
The contractors for the government were all Jews who had obtained a measure of wealth, but at the same time, were all lamdonim who were proficient in Torah study. They had to spend weeks in the district to oversee the paving of the road — and what learned Jew could find himself in a new location without visiting the local Rav to size up his level of learning?
These were the days when every Jew in Lithuania and White Russia attended cheder, and the pride and joy of every Jewish family was to have sons who were well versed in Jewish learning. No one gave a care for the values and scholarship of the non-Jewish world. The Torah was still the pride and delight of the entire nation. A man’s true measure and prominence were determined only by the level of his Torah scholarship. The delight of the entire nation was its Torah accomplishments and only scholars of dimension received acclaim.
These contractors and businessmen frequently dropped in to Rav Yitzchok Elchonon’s house to speak with him in pilpul. Among the wealthy Jews who became acquainted with Rav Yitzchok Elchonon at the time was Reb Tuvya Bramson and Reb Edel Shereshevsky who had a network of workshops and stores.
Even more prominent than them was the respected contractor Reb Nochum of Kaltinen, from the Zamot district. He was an immense scholar and had a keen intellect. He was totally enamored with Rav Yitzchok Elchonon and praised him as being among a handful of true gedolim in the country. He would frequently say, “There are not many in the world who can understand the value of this young rav’s Torah.”
Reb Nochum frequently came to visit Rav Yitzchok Elchonon accompanied by his other business friends. As a sign of their reverence, they often gave him a coin of “platinum” which was equal to 3 rubles. He was given hundreds of such coins with the effect that his standard of living immensely improved. The attention they showered on him became known throughout the district and augmented his reputation as an outstanding rav whose future as one of the leaders of the nation was guaranteed. He was soon called to adjudicate difficult dinei Torah by litigants from the nearby cities of Maltz and Antipoli.
One din Torah which he wrote in Baraze was so praised that the gaon Rav Zalman of Razinaya and his father, the gaon Rav Elchonon, traveled to Baraze to praise Rav Yitzchok Elchonon on the clarity and truthfulness of his psak.
The psak on which he achieved outstanding acclaim, however, involved a get and a marriage permit document over which he had been at odds with the great gaon Rav Eizik of Shavel.
The details of the case were as follows: Reb Nochum of Kaltinen had asked Rav Yitzchok Elchonon to arrange a get for his brother-in-law which was then sent to Shavel. Since he was at that time totally immersed in studying Tur Even Ezra, he didn’t quote in the document the words of the Achronim which dispute the view of the Tur concerning the version of the permit document — even though he of course knew their reservations very well.
When the Shavel Gaon saw the permit document, he was upset and declared, “How does such a young rav get involved in arranging a permit document according to the Rishonim, without paying attention to the Achronim who dispute this version!” He irately sent the permit document back claiming it was written improperly according to the view of the Achronim, and he told Reb Nochum that the Barazer Rav doesn’t know from his right or left in laws of Gittin and Kidushin!
When the document arrived in Baraze, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon’s rebetzin received it and saw the sharp reaction of the Shavel gaon. She didn’t want her husband to suffer grief before the holiday of Shavuos which was a few days away, so she hid the document and didn’t tell him about it. She also worried that the Baraze townspeople would heard that the Shavel gaon had criticized her husband’s decision and perhaps decide to send him away.
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon saw the secret whisperings in his household and he soon realized that something was wrong. After confronting his wife and insisting to be told, he found out about the Shavel gaon’s reaction to his psak.
When he heard what it was about, he laughed. “Do you think that I didn’t know the reservations of such Achronim as the ‘Get Mekushar’and the ‘Beis Meir’?” he exclaimed. “However, I repudiated their reservations against the correct words of the Tur.” He sat down before Shavuos and wrote his reply to the Shavel gaon in which he explained away these Achronim’s reservations against the Tur. He wrote in the tshuva, “I am sending you my reply immediately so it might reach you before the holiday and add to your holiday joy, knowing that the rav who arranged this permit document was not ignorant of the laws of Gittin and Kiddushin.”
He later received a softly worded reply from the Shavel gaon headed with the title “The great rav” and worded in great respect. Despite his new esteem for him, the Shavel gaon continued to spar with him and dispute his decision.
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon then sent him a second reply. Replying to Rav Yitzchok Elchonon’s second letter, the Shavel gaon wrote with even greater respect, addressing him “HaRav Hagaon” which — unlike the latter half of the nineteenth century — was bestowed on only a very few.
To disciples of his in Shavel, the Shavel gaon remarked that he had become involved in an issue with a rav who is a mighty gaon, a true lion.
After receiving Rav Yitzchok Elchonon’s reply to his second conciliatory letter, the Shavel gaon sent him a letter of apology and appeasement asking his forgiveness for slighting his honor. It was after this event, that Rav Yitzchok Elchonon’s fame spread far and wide.
Shortly after this, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon’s friend and admirer, Reb Nochum of Kaltinen, was visiting the large town of Nishveze for treatments from the famous Jewish doctor Dr. Kisselevsky. This famous doctor had been sent specially by the Count Radziwill who owned the district to study medicine so he could be his court doctor. In the manner of those times, Dr. Kisselevsky was not only great in medicine but was also a considerable Torah scholar, a great giver of charity, and a beloved personality. He was among the leaders of the Nishveze community.
When Reb Nochum came to Dr. Kisselevsky for treatment, they also enjoyed a riveting conversation on numerous topics, as Jews from different towns are wont to do. Reb Nochum mentioned his veneration for Rav Yitzchok Elchonon and various stories of his greatness which were already circulating at the time. Upon hearing this, Dr. Kisselevsky spoke with the parnessim in the Nishveze community who were just then looking for a rav. They decided to send Rav Yitzchok Elchonon a k’sav rabbanus to become the rav of their town.
The Jews in Baraze were shocked when they heard of this development. They were angry at even hearing the suggestion and they resolutely declared that such a thing would not be! They would not allow their beloved rav to leave them under any circumstances!
Reb Nochum had to plot an underhanded scheme through which to steal Rav Yitzchok Elchonon away in the middle of the night using the services of his old melamed, at present the rav in the town of Opina. They waited for a freezing cold night and had Rav Yitzchok Elchonon walk out unattended to a set spot. Once they got Rav Yitzchok Elchonon to the outskirts of the town, a wagon suddenly appeared, pulled by fast horses, which was to transport him to Nishveze. He was taken through a side route winding through fields and forests so that if the Baraze Jews pursued after him, they wouldn’t be able to catch up with him.
It was the thick of the winter during the month of February. Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was starving and frozen to the bone when his wagon made a short stop at the home of a Jew located at the periphery of a forest.
He entered the small house hoping he would be able to warm his bones and have a bite. Seeing the young rav by himself, his host began to question him where he had come from, who he was, and what urgent mission was he on that brought him out in such a terrible frost. Rav Yitzchok Elchonon replied that he was traveling to take the position of Rav in Nishveze.
The host gave the young man an austere look and then began lecturing him for even thinking that a young man such as he could assume the mantel of the rabbinate in such a large, distinguished community.
Finally the shivering Rav Yitzchok Elchonon pleaded with him, “I’m about to die from hunger and cold! Do you have something I could perhaps eat? Then maybe I could pay better attention to your lecture.”
This host, who was somewhat of a scholar, later settled in Nishveze himself. Later on, whenever he would bump into Rav Yitzchok Elchonon, he would mention for the umpteenth time his improper tirade in the forest, and beg forgiveness for daring to rebuke Rav Yitzchok Elchonon without knowing what a prince of Torah he was.
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was accepted in Nishveze with great honor, although there were a few distinguished parnessim who did not look favorably at their community being led by such a young man. They sneered, “This young fellow, who hardly has a beard, should sit on the rabbinical seat of respected and ancient Nishveze!”
One of those who was against his appointment was a wealthy learned Jew called Reb Shemaya who refused to sign the k’sav rabbanus.
“What is Nishveze coming to?” huffed Reb Shemaya, “Shall I have to stand in front of such a youngster? This is unheard of in Nishveze!”
However, the town’s great scholars stood squarely behind Rav Yitzchok Elchonon, and they did their utmost to convince the wealthy men and the notables in town to agree to the appointment. “Let us test the Baraze Rav and see how well he holds his own in pilpul!” they suggested.
Their suggestion was accepted reluctantly by the parnessim. Even though Rav Yitzchok Elchonon had already been offered the rabbinical appointment, he had a well established reputation and had resolutely defended his psakim many times in the past, he was not insulted by the sudden challenge.
The greatest scholars in town engaged him in intense pilpulim for two long weeks. These were Nishveze’s keenest scholars, many of whom afterwards became gedolim and great rabbonim in Lithuania. After these two weeks of razor-sharp pilpulim and arguing, they were forced to acknowledge that Rav Yitzchok Elchonon had bested them. They proclaimed that despite his shining reputation, the world does not even know half of his great accomplishments in Torah.
When the wealthy Jews and notables of Nishveze heard this, they all proceeded to sign their names to the rabbinical appointment document. Even Reb Shemaya agreed to sign his name.
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon accepted the rabbanut in Nishveze in 1846. His salary was enough to comfortably support his family.
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon spent four happy years in Nishveze. The town prided themselves on having such a distinguished rav, and they fully submitted to his authority.
After four years, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was victimized by a informer, who slandered him to the authorities claiming that the rav had tampered with the censoring of certain works. In the wake of this attack, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon was forced to travel to the city of Kubrin once a month to be interrogated by the authorities.
Jewish communal leaders from Novordok came to his aid, and they promised to help rid him of this unfortunate burden — on condition that he kindly consent to become the Rav in Novordok.
The Nishveze Jewish community heard suspicious rumors that the Jewish community in Novordok wanted to whisk away their rav, and huge protests broke out. Sleuths were sent to shadow the rav 24-hours a day so he could not be spirited away. Any suspicious character who might be targeting their rav was unceremoniously chased from the city.
After investing huge efforts and laying numerous plans, a way was finally found by the Novordok community to steal the rav out of Nishveze. He was crowned the rav of their community in 1851 on 28 Iyar.
On this auspicious day, 13 years later, in 1864, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector became the rav in Kovno, the greatest and most prominent rabbinical position in all of Lithuanian’s Jewish communities. This position he held for 32 years until he died on 21 Adar, 1896.
This article, which originally appeared in Yated Neeman, was adapted by Miriam Samsonowitz from Toldos Yitzchak by Rav Yaakov Haleivi Lischutz.