The Ponevezher Rabbonim:
HaRav Itzele Ponevezher and HaRav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman
A monumental three-volume work on the life of HaRav Yosef Shlomo
Kahaneman, the Ponevezher Rav, zt'l, was published by the Mochon
Chayei Yahadus Lita of Bnei Brak. Written by the well-known author
Rabbi Aharon Surasky and the product of many years of research, it
sheds light on the life and times of this great leader of Torah Jewry
in Europe and Eretz Yisroel. The Ponevezher Rav was a major public
figure for more than twenty years in Europe, and then in Eretz
Yisroel, and a detailed account of his works gives important insights
into the state of all Jewry in his times.
The Rav was born on 28 Iyar, 5646 (1886) in the town of Kuhl, a small
town of about 500 of which about a third were Jews. At the age of 14
he went to the Telshe Yeshiva, where he learned until he was twenty.
He then spent a half year in Novardok, after which he spent three
years in Radin under the Chofetz Chaim. He married the daughter of the
rov of Vidzh, and took over there at the end of 5671 (1911), when his
father-in-law became the rov of Wilkomir.
During the upheavals of the First World War, he spent three years in
Coltinan cut off from his family, but not from the Torah. Eighty years
ago, HaRav Itzele Rabinowitz the rav of Ponevezh, passed away on
Friday 21 Adar I, 5679 (1919). Within a few weeks HaRav Yosef Shlomo
Kahaneman was appointed the new rav of Ponevezh, a major Jewish
community, at the relatively young age of 33.
His father soon passed away, on 28 Adar II in Kuhl. In honor of these
occasions, we present the following excerpts from this new major work.
These selections are but a small sample of the entire three volume
Intense Learning in Coltinan To HaRav Moshe Portman, a survivor of
Yeshivas Ponevezh in Lithuania and a close friend and assistant of the
Ponevezher Rav, he poured out his heart on a rare occasion: "Who can
bring back bygone days, those pleasant, good years that I lived in
Coltinan . . . I learned the entire Shas there . . . During the day,
we learned in deep friendship and had scholarly discussions, and at
night, I learned alone . . . There was no proper lighting, no candles
to be found, not even a drop of oil . . . All I could get was
kainelach . . . very thin, long, dried, wooden toothpicks that the
destitute villagers used to dispel a bit of darkness . . . These
kainelach are inserted into the wall, and before one burns out, [one
uses it to] light the second one . . .
It is impossible to describe the intense desire with which we learned
during those hours, when those kainelach were burning in front of us,
emanating a weak glow of light that flickered on the letters of the
gemora . . . Picture this: all around, everything was pitch black, a
thick darkness pervaded both outside and inside; there was light only
on the page of gemora that I held in my hand . . . The entire world
was enveloped in darkness; there was light only in the Torah . . ."
With these sweet words, he expressed the emotion that was stored in
his heart: "Now, like then, the entire world is plunged into a
dreadful darkness; there is light only in the Torah . . ."
In another conversation, he said, "Rabbenu Asher (the Rosh) lived in
Europe during a most difficult period for the Jews, and he did not
even hint to it in his chiddushim, as if it never occurred . . . as if
the terrible decrees did not affect him in the least . . . One sees
clearly how he lived in his own world, in the cocoon of Torah. Thus
all our gedolim lived through calamities . . . expulsions . . .
pogroms . . . the Jews of those times lived in another world, a world
that was completely theirs . . ." And as he spoke, the listeners felt
strongly how very applicable the words were to him.
The Wisdom of Yosef Shlomo During his exile in Coltinan, besides
dedicating part of his time to deliver regular shiurim to bnei Torah
and ba'alei batim, Rav Kahaneman found time for anyone who had a
problem and patiently listened to all requests. Jews from the
surrounding settlements, simple villagers, who were unable to flee at
the beginning of the war, flocked to him with their she'eilos, their
personal problems, their pain and sorrow. Sometimes, two or three Jews
would come together and ask him to resolve an argument that sprang up
There was a widow with small children in Lingmian, a small town ten
kilometers away from Coltinan, who required the Rav's assistance. Her
husband, a talmid chochom from Volozhin, was a well-to-do forest
merchant who died in his prime during the World War near Globoki. The
widow sold his share in the business to his former partners for quite
a respectable sum of money. She then lent the money to merchants in
Lingmian. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution occurred, the Czarist
government was overthrown, and the money lost all its value.
The merchants wanted to return the thousands of rubles in the same
form that they received it -- in money whose validity had expired. The
colored papers, bearing the large "Russian Eagle" and numbers, were
worthless. There was no rov in Lingmian. They decided, therefore, to
bring the case to the visiting rov in Coltinan. The widow was
extremely distressed. Her brother and brother-in-law were both
reputable talmidei chachomim; her brother was a rov and her
brother-in-law, a gemora teacher. They were fluent in halocho, and
they realized that there was good reason to worry.
It seemed that the borrowers were correct; where would help come from?
Having no other choice, they patiently waited for the rov of
Coltinan's verdict. (By the way, the Rov never took the customary fee
for judging a case.) When he heard about the case, Rav Kahaneman did
not ask them to come to him, but like Shmuel Hanovi, he got up and
announced, "I am coming to you." He traveled in a horse-drawn wagon to
When he heard the widow's story and the borrower's words, his heart
sank. An unfortunate woman, a destitute widow was standing before him,
and they were demanding a psak halocho. What could he do? It was an
explicit law "matbei'a shenifsal, omer lo harei shelcho lifonecho," a
coin that was disqualified, say to him here is yours. (One can return
the coin in its original form.)
After moments of deep thought, the Rov said, "I will contemplate the
matter, consult seforim, and in another week im yirtze Hashem, I will
know if I can give a psak." In fact, he did not tarry a whole week but
two days later unexpectedly returned to Lingmian. He summoned the
litigants and requested that they reiterate their claims. In the
course of the clarifications, he turned to the widow and asked, "What
kind of money did you lend them? Bank notes? Please specify the exact
denominations, how many thousand ruble notes, how many hundreds, tens,
fifties; please state the size and value of the money."
The widow clearly remembered and began to list, "X thousand ruble
notes . . . such and such hundreds . . . twenties . . . a purse full
of gold coins . . . such and such ten ruble notes . . . such and such
five rubles . . ." When the Rov heard her last words, his face lit up.
He asked the borrowers, "Is that true?" They acknowledged that they
received those amounts in notes and coins, exactly as the widow had
stated, down to the last coin.
Rav Yosef Shlomo declared, "If so, you have a psak din that is not
based on a sofeik: return the money exactly as you borrowed it. Give
the widow the amount she lent in bank notes (which are now worthless)
as well as the gold coins she gave you, and tell her harei sheloch
The gratifying news of the Coltinan Rov's wise psak din swiftly spread
through the Jewish community of Lingmian: The gold coins, inherently
valuable, that obviously became very expensive when the paper money
became worthless, covered the widow and orphans' entire fortune that
almost went down the drain.
Years later, when the widow's son who learned in Ponevezh reminded him
of the incident, he reacted with excitement. "Now you definitely
understand my situation then . . . After I heard the complaints, I
simply became sick from distress, and at night, I could not close my
eyes from a lack of peace and tranquility . . . And behold, Hashem
Hagaon Reb Chaim Ozer Foresees his Appointment as Rov of Ponevezh In
the second half of Adar, 5679, Rabbenu Yosef Shlomo began traveling as
a shaliach mitzvo and came to Vilna alone. When he reached the city,
he saw Bolshevik soldiers swarming in every corner. Rumor had it that
the commander, Leib Trotsky, had arrived.
The Torah observant Jews were terrified. They had heard stories from
the refugees that crossed the Russian border about the persecution of
religion and religious people, about libels and harsh decrees, and
about the war to annihilate yeshivos and Torah personalities.
All hearts trembled with fear. He immediately went to Reb Chaim Ozer
zt'l, the me'or hagoloh, who was alone in his house. He poured out his
worries: "I feel as if I am being suffocated by the Bolsheviks,
trapped by them . . ." He went on to disclose a plan that had been
forming in his mind, to flee across the Polish border. Reb Chaim Ozer
asked, "It is difficult today to get a wagon for travel; is the wagon
and the driver that brought you here, still outside?" The Rov zt'l
replied that he didn't know.
Reb Chaim Ozer said to him, with an inexplicable urgency, "Go out to
the street quickly and chase after them. You must return home
immediately. Don't wait even one more moment. Go back to Coltinan."
The explicit instructions of Reb Chaim Ozer were like a psak din for
him. He therefore hurried back to his temporary home in Coltinan.
Once there he received a telegram from the leaders of the Ponevezh
community inviting him to come to their city immediately! The thought
swiftly passed through his mind: the spirit of Hashem spoke through
Reb Chaim Ozer. It was because of his directions that Rav Kahaneman
returned at exactly the right time and did not miss the opportunity.
On that very day, Kovno in Lithuania gained independence and its
borders were closed. The roads from Vilna to here were now completely
sealed. If Reb Chaim Ozer had not urged him on, he would have probably
stayed there for a short time and then would have been forced to
remain for many more days. How Did He Know? About four and a half
years later, on 3 Elul 5683, the first Knessia Gedola of the world
Agudas Yisroel convened in Vienna.
At this exalted gathering, held in the presence of the Chofetz Chaim,
Rabbenu Yosef Shlomo met HaRav Chaim Ozer on his way to the hall, not
having seen him since the fateful meeting in Vilna. As he approached
him, R' Chaim Ozer joyfully greeted him with a wide smile and began
speaking as if he were continuing a conversation that had been
interrupted momentarily. "Now I will explain why I told you to return
In one breath, he continued, "I had received a telegram from Ponevezh
that HaRav Itzele had contracted typhus and that I should try to send
the Vilna doctor, Dr. Zemach Shabad. Then another telegram was sent
telling me that there was no need for the doctor, but it did not
mention the Rov's condition. I understood that R' Itzele was no longer
alive, and the Ponevezh community would need to appoint a new rov. If
you would have traveled further, as you intended to do, where would
the Jews of Ponevezh find you? That is why I urged you to go home
quickly . . ."
"Who is a wise man? One who foresees the future!" Who is wise like Reb
Chaim Ozer, who saw from afar the events unfolding and put all the
pieces together at precisely the right moment. To him, it was a
foregone conclusion that Rabbenu Yosef Shlomo was the one to inherit
the position of the great Reb Itzele. At the time, the leaders of the
Ponevezh community asked the Rov zt'l to speak at the large eulogy
that was held in honor of Reb Itzele at the end of the shiva.
Immediately afterwards, the seven city elders came to him, greatly
excited and, in the name of the entire community, asked him to fill
the position. The Ponevezher Rov When Rabbenu Yosef Shlomo was invited
to become the rov of Ponevezh, a large, bustling city, he began the
prime of his life. It was during this time period that he became known
throughout the Jewish world. After all, who has not heard of the
Ponevezher Rov? During this time -- twenty-one turbulent years from
5679 (1919) until 5700 (1940) -- he reached spiritual heights.
His tremendous inner strength and multifaceted talents were revealed
in their full glory, whether in the field of rabbonus and spreading
Torah, or in the field of communal affairs both in his own city and
for all of Klal Yisroel.
In a relatively short time, his unique triple position crystallized.
He was a creator and builder of the Torah world, a rosh hayeshiva; and
also the captain and leader of Lithuanian Jewry; and also one who
shouldered the yoke of world Jewry in general. But first and foremost,
he was the Rov of Ponevezh. Ponevezh was the anvil on which he worked
with his spiritual hammer. Over the years, many prestigious
communities exerted much effort to persuade him to become their rov,
but he declined all offers and continued as the rov of Ponevezh.
The leaders of Grodno, home of his teacher HaRav Shimon Shkop zt'l and
his yeshiva, came to him several times and offered him a signed shtar
harabbonus, but he did not accept it. In 5687 (1927), he was called
from Dvinsk to fill the position of HaRav Meir Simcha zt'l, author of
the Or Somayach and one of the gedolei hador, after his death on 4
Elul 5686, and he refused.
The Orthodox community of Frankfort, Germany, followers of Reb
Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt'l, greatly urged him to become their
leader, but he did not agree. In 5680 (1920), the Rabbinical Seminary
of Berlin, founded by Reb Ezriel Hildesheimer zt'l, wanted to appoint
him their dean and to make him the Rov of all the orthodox rabbonim in
Germany, but he declined and sent Reb Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan zt'l, son
of the Rakover Illui, in his stead.
During the later years, he even received a written and sealed shtar
harabbonus from the largest city in Eretz Yisroel, Tel Aviv, but he
stayed in Ponevezh.
The Ponevezh Rabbonus Numerous great talmidei chachomim, gedolei olom,
previously held the exalted the position of rov of Ponevezh, from R'
Avrohom Avli Yaffe zt'l (author of Mesek Sifasayim on maseches
Shabbos), followed by R' Yaakov Bar Yitzchok Halevi zt'l, R' Shaul
Shapiro zt'l (author of Chemdas Shaul), and R' Shmuel Bar Avrohom
Shapiro zt'l (author of Me'il Shmuel), to R' Moshe Iztel Segal zt'l
from Libau, R' Hillel Charif zt'l, to R' Eliyahu Dovid Rabinowitz
Te'omim zt'l, the Aderes, to R' Itzele Rabinowitz zt'l.
Not even thirty-three years old, Rav Kahaneman decided to fulfill the
dictum of the wisest of all men (albeit in a somewhat innovative
interpretation): "Ubimkom gedolim al ta'amod, do not stand in the
place of great ones" (Mishlei 25, 6). This posuk advises one in his
position: In a place that such great men served as rov, do not stand
still, do not rest on your laurels, but advance and elevate yourself,
grow . . . Rav Kahaneman did not become conceited from the glory and
honor. In his later years, he once told Reb Yehoshua Zelig Diskin in
Eretz Yisroel, "Because I dedicated myself to Toras Hashem, I had to
renounce all honors and other pettiness and weaknesses that the human
race is afflicted with."
The Chofetz Chaim was informed of his appointment when he was with his
Radin students, deep in exile in Russia. He stood up at the bima and
announced happily, "We get a mazel tov! Reb Yoshe Kular was appointed
rov of Ponevezh!" When the Rov zt'l later heard about the incident
from Rav Nisan Waksman zt'l, one of the students present at the time,
he tried to lessen its impact:
"The Chofetz Chaim was not referring to me, but rather to the talmidim
of the yeshiva to encourage and strengthen them, and to show them that
life will get back to normal and [as a sign of this that] Klal Yisroel
already needs rabbonim." R' Moshe Zinowitz a"h, the veteran historian
from Lithuania, used to tell how some of the elders of the Ponevezh
community, who had been used to the famous rabbonim, treated the young
Reb Yosef Shlomo with honor mixed with suspicion.
"Although he had an excellent reputation previously and the Rov of
Vidzh was known as a multi-talented activist, there were some older
ba'alei batim in Ponevezh who had their hesitations. Would his path be
strewn with roses even here? "Reb Yosef Shlomo succeeded unexpectedly,
and thanks to his personality, Ponevezh blossomed. He knew how move
mountains to benefit the community, and even the nonobservant factions
respected him." Rebuilding It was still a time of upheaval.
The Jewish community in Ponevezh, which was over two hundred years
old, almost completely disintegrated during the stormy days of the
First World War. The beautiful city, nestled on the banks of the
Nevizhe River, on mountains and plains, was passed from one hand to
another -- from the Russians to the Germans, from the Germans to the
Russians -- each one competing in their hatred for the Jews and
tormenting them to the utmost.
Now, at the end of the war, the Bolshevik revolutionists controlled
Ponevezh, and they cruelly aborted any attempt to revive traditional
communal life. In spite of everything, it was clear to Rabbenu Yosef
Shlomo from the very first day of his appointment, that he would
establish a yeshiva here, a large, respected yeshiva that would spread
Torah to Klal Yisroel.
The instructions of his rebbe, the Chofetz Chaim, that he should not
become a rov without establishing a yeshiva because his main purpose
in life was to be a marbitz Torah, was the deciding factor in all his
decisions. When he began contemplating how to rebuild the destroyed
Ponevezh kehilla, his first and foremost thoughts were about how to
renew Torah study. He frequently used to say: We find in ma'asei
Bereishis, that Hashem created light on the first day and did not put
luminaries in the sky until the fourth day. Why? Because first He had
to take care of the neshomoh of man and his ultimate purpose.
The light of the first day, as Chazal tell us, was the light hidden in
the Torah, while the luminaries on the fourth day served mainly for
chayei sho'o, for this temporary life. In his old age, Rav Kahaneman
wrote about his first activities in Ponevezh: "My first steps in
rabbonus were to build and restore the chareidi institutions in the
city, which would serve as a nucleus of unification and revival . .
. First I began to establish be'ezras Hashem the great yeshiva; I sunk
a good part of my strength and my very being into it, under the face
of and in spite of the incessant scheming of the Bolsheviks . . ."
In the Path of Reb Itzele Actually, Ponevezh had already been made
into a mokom Torah by his predecessor, Reb Itzele, who was a rosh
yeshiva in his own right and was considered one of the sharpest
geniuses in his time. Twelve years earlier, in 5667 (1907), he had
established his famous "kibbutz." Dozens of highly talented young men
and adolescents learned under his guidance in this kibbutz and were
supported by the Gavronsky Family Fund.
Mrs. Leiba Miriam Gavronsky a"h, a woman who loved Torah, established
the fund. She was the daughter of the famous R' Kalman Zev Wissotzky
of Moscow, founder of a worldwide tea business, and the widow of Reb
Asher Bendit Gavronsky a"h, who was known for the large sums of
tzedokoh that he gave to yeshivas and other worthy causes. In the
introduction to Mishpetei Hashem written by HaRav Shmuel Yaakov
Rabinowitz zt'l, av beis din of Yilok (Vilna 5677), she is praised
among other things for "founding the kibbutz of Torah study for young
men and adolescents in the city of Ponevezh, and she sends them over
five thousand rubles a year.
" Reb Kalman Zev Wissotzky originally served Rabbenu Yisroel Salanter
zt'l in his beis midrash Niviezer in Kovno, and even later, when he
became rich and famous and moved to Moscow, he continued practicing
his rebbi's teachings.
The sefer Tenu'as Hamussar (Vol. II, P. 61) describes him as "a man
outstanding in his sterling character and his numerous activities." It
describes how "when he first moved to Moscow, he would draw the
Cantonists closer to Torah. He himself would sneak into the Kazarktin,
teach them tefilla and dinim, celebrate yomim tovim, conduct a seder
on Pesach, and imbue them with the sweet scent of Torah and yiras
In the memoirs of Rav M.Z.A.H (Tel Aviv, 5696), it is told how Reb
Kalman Zev once came to consult him on how to distribute ma'aser from
his wealth, which was valued at half a million rubles at the time.
"When we finished our deliberations, he got up and walked to and fro
with his hands on his head crying out the words of Chazal, Oy lonu
miyom hadin! Oy lonu miyom hatochocho!" One of Reb Kalman Zev's
sons-in-law, R' Refoel Shlomo Gutz a"h, who enjoyed a good reputation
as a talmid chochom and generous person, is praised in the Achiezer of
HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky zt'l, and was included on a list of
candidates for the parliament of Russian Jewry in 5677.
When the family decided to establish a Torah institution, he went to
HaRav Chaim Brisker zt'l and asked him where to establish it: in Brisk
under Reb Chaim's tutelage, or in Vilna under Reb Chaim Ozer, or in
Ponevezh under Reb Itzele. Reb Chaim answered, "As to Brisk, the place
is appropriate, but the rov is not (referring to himself); Vilna, the
rov is worthy, but the place is not; but Ponevezh, this is the proper
place -- the rov is worthy and the place is also . . ."
Thanks to this decision, Ponevezh became an outstanding mokom Torah,
and Reb Itzele, in his kibbutz, raised and cultivated a complete
entourage of brilliant talmidei chachomim who lit up the world with
their Torah for generations to come. However after a mere seven years
World War I broke out at the end of 5674 (1914), and it almost
completely silenced the sound of Torah in Ponevezh.
During the crisis, Reb Itzele and a group of kibbutz men wandered to
the city of Aryopol, on the edge of the Ukraine. The Gavronsky Family
Fund continued to support them for another four years until the
Bolsheviks came into power. It was only then that the wealthy
Wissotzky family fled Russia, and the fund stopped functioning.
Reb Itzele, who did not foresee any future under the Bolshevik regime,
returned to Ponevezh with one, lone student, a survivor of his entire
entourage. While Reb Itzele was away from the city, the influence of
Reb Yosef Shlomo, then a young avreich, was apparent there. Although
he did not hold an impressive position there (actually, he served as
the rov of Coltinan), when he would occasionally visit to help the
refugees, he would do his utmost to ensure the continuation of Torah
With his assistance, around 5677 (1917), a small yeshiva for the
children of the city was opened under the tutelage of HaRav Moshe
Brenner zt'l, a former member of Reb Itzele's kibbutz. When the
Russians came, they expelled the Jews of Ponevezh which effectively
ended the Torah learning there.
A few weeks after Reb Itzele came back from Russia, his first step in
reestablishing the Torah center was his plan to reopen the cheder.
Immediately, the wrath of H. Gershonovsky, the Communist educational
Komisar, poured down on him. He summoned the elderly rov and told him
in no uncertain terms, " `Grazdanin' (citizen) Rabinowitz, you must
close the cheder immediately, for good. If you don't, we have explicit
instructions on how to deal with these situations . . .
" This incident put Reb Itzele into a depression. He was extremely
distressed by pain and fear of the enemies of Judaism. His health
deteriorated steadily until he returned his soul to its Maker on
Friday, 21 Adar I, 5679.
The Sun Rises and the Sun Sets Reb Itzele's death was a heavy blow to
the Torah world in general and to the Jews of Ponevezh in particular.
Most of the important members of the community were under lock and
key, imprisoned by the Communists for various pretenses. Like a ship
tossing in the heart of stormy seas cries out for a captain to guide
it through the turbulent waves, the Jews of Ponevezh desperately
needed a leader to guide them.
"The sun rises and the sun sets." Before the sun of Reb Itzele set,
the sun of Rabbenu Yosef Shlomo was already seen on the Ponevezh
horizon. He immediately went into action, with all his vigor and vim,
and with great momentum. He came alone to Ponevezh; his wife and
children temporarily stayed in Coltinan.
The Jews of Ponevezh felt that it was so necessary and urgent that he
become rov immediately, that they pressed him to accept the shtar
harabbonus even before the end of the sheloshim. This was contrary to
the opinion of R' Avrohom Riklis zt'l, one of Reb Itzele's esteemed
students and a respected member of the Ponevezh community, who
requested that they at least wait until the sheloshim on Sunday, 21
Adar II, 5679.
"The beginning of Torah is chessed." His first act before the upcoming
Pesach holiday was to organize "kimcha depischa" for the needy and the
prisoner's families, as well as to bake kosher matzos, two things that
put him into great danger in the Bolshevik regime. "I was young and
bold," the Rov related in his old age. "I did things that involved
risking my life, that according to the din, I was not required to do."
Thus he made all the necessary arrangements to sell Jews' chometz to
non-Jews on erev Pesach.
The Death of his Father Rabbenu Yosef Shlomo did not know that a
personal tragedy occurred during those days. Only a few short days
after becoming rov of Ponevezh, his father passed away in Kuhl on
motzei Shabbos, 28 Adar II, 5679 (1919) after a harsh disease.
Due to the circumstances and the unstable roads, it was impossible for
him to come to the funeral, and it was held without him. At the advice
of his father-in-law, the rov of Wilkomir, his friends concealed the
bitter news for a long time. Reb Leib felt that it was not appropriate
that he should be bothered now by the aveilus and everything it
He, therefore, advised that they should not tell him. It was only
three months later that he found out from R' Paltia, the shammash's
assistant in Ponevezh, who told him due to a misunderstanding. He,
therefore, only practiced the laws of a mourner who hears after a
relatively long time (shemu'o rechoko). In the short notes of
chidushei Torah on mishnayos that the Rov zt"l wrote by hand, there is
a small testimonial for his revered, beloved father.
These few short words speak volumes: "As a memorial, I will write what
came into my mind as I learned mishnayos lezecher nishmas my master,
my father, my teacher zt'l hk'm who ascended to the heavens on motzei
Shabbos kodesh parshas Shemini 28 Adar II, 5679 Ateres shehusra
meirosheinu, the crown was removed from our head.
The terrible news reached me on Sunday parshas Bolok 8 Tammuz here in
Ponevezh, and I immediately accepted upon myself bli neder to learn
each day of the year, in honor and in memory of his holy soul, the
seder of Zero'im and Taharos and chapters from the Rambam on these
laws, since my father zt'l toiled his whole life in Torah and
established the learning of mishnayos in the city he lived in, and he
himself taught Torah in public for thirty- three years straight in the
Chevra Mishnayos, Gemora and Orach Chaim that he established. Through
this I will honor him after his death by doing his will. And Hashem
should comfort us amongst all the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim,
The Mechiras Chometz Document Written from Memory After a Brush with
Death On the night before erev Pesach, the Ponevezher Rov sat in his
rented apartment, deeply concentrating on formulating a mechiras
chometz contract for the community. Due to the circumstances, he had
not had time to prepare a document in advance. Now, he could not find
a single form to copy from, nor did he have any sifrei halocho to
consult, and he was forced to reconstruct every detail in the document
Suddenly, loud knocking was heard at the door. Two armed Bolshevik
guards walked in. They asked if this was the address listed on their
form and asked what he was doing. After exchanging a few sentences,
the two motioned that the Rov should come with them. In the few short
steps between the table to the door, he whispered vidduy.
They took him down to the courtyard. One of the guards pointed a
loaded pistol at him, ready to kill him as per his superior's orders.
While his finger was on the trigger, the second guard, who was
apparently his commander, suddenly grabbed him. For some reason, he
had his doubts if this was the man they were looking for. He told his
underling to look in the other entrance of the building. Meanwhile, he
stayed to guard the Rov.
A few moments passed, and a two shots rang out in the courtyard -- and
then silence. The guard came back to report "mission accomplished."
The shocked Rov obviously did not open his mouth. The two left him in
the courtyard, and walked away. Although he had just barely escaped
death, Rabbenu Yosef Shlomo hurried up to his room and continued
working on his shtar mechiras chometz with a clear head, as if nothing
Unperturbed, he stayed up until four in the morning until he completed
his task. Later he related that he received an old shtar mechiras
chometz and compared the two. He saw that he had written the exact
thing by himself from memory and even erased a few words, enhancing