Ten things you didnt know about Hayyim of Volozhin on his 200th yahrzeit – The Jerusalem Post

Posted By on May 29, 2021

The 14th day of Sivan, May 25, was the 200th yahrzeit of Rav Hayyim Ben Yitzhak of Volozhin (7 Sivan 550914 Sivan 5581).

Born in Volozhin, Lithuania (today Valozyn, Belarus), he studied at the age of 12 with R. Raphael Hacohen of Hamburg (who was head of the beit din in Minsk at the time), and at age 15 with R. Aryeh Leib Gunzberg, (the Shaagat Aryeh). R. Yisrael of Shklov claims that R. Hayyim finished all of Talmud with the commentaries by age 22. At age 19 he met the Vilna Gaon (Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gra) whom he visited several times a year, often for a month at a time. The Gaons sons, considered R. Hayyim to be their fathers most important student.

He founded the Volozhin Yeshiva in 1802, which became the prototype for all Lithuanian yeshivot in the 19th century and eventually for all yeshivot until today. After his death, the Volozhin Yeshiva was called Eitz Hayyim in his memory. R. Hayyim wrote one book, Nefesh Hahayyim, which his son Yitzhak had published after his fathers death in 1824. His commentary to Pirkei Avot, called Ruah Hayyim, was collected by his students and published by R. Yehoshua Heschel Levin in 1859. Another work, Hut Hameshulash, published by R. Hayyims grandson R. Hayyim Hillel Fried, contains 22 of his responsa in addition to responsa from his son-in-law and grandson. There are also few surviving letters.

In addition, there is a large collection of questions that the students of Volozhin asked R. Hayyim in the later years of his life. These questions and answers, regarding Jewish law and philosophical outlook (Halacha and hashkafa), are found in six different collections, some published and some not, the most popular of the published ones are found in a work called Keter Rosh published in 1917.

I have researched this latter material and the fruits of my labor will be published in Hebrew by Idra, in a book called Rav Hayyim Volozhins Conversations with Students of the Yeshiva.

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Our Rabbi said to one of his family members who was inclined to hassidism, at least be careful about three things:

a.) To study Talmud and its discussions and make this the main service of God in your eyes.

b.) To keep all the laws of the Talmud.

c.) For heavens sake [lemaan Hashem], to not to talk about our Rabbi, the Gra. (Sheiltot 88, Ms. London-Podro 44). This tolerance was despite R. Hayyims ideological differences. (see my article on the Polemic with Hassidism in Moreshet Yisrael, 18,2 pp. 269-298.)

2. R. Hayyim saw Torah study as the main service of God, the main way of repentance, and said that even ones prayer depended upon it.

3. R. Hayyim did not don tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam.

He [the Gra] answered: If you want to be exempt from all the opinions you must don 24 pairs of tefillin.

He [R. Hayyim] was surprised . How can one find 24 possibilities?

He [the Gra] answered: Check and see.

He checked and found them.... Then our Rabbi [Hayyim] said [to the Gra]: But in the holy Zohar it says that the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam is [on the level] of the world to come, and the Arizal also said to put them on.

He [the Gra] responded, I do not concern myself with the world to come, and those who are mehader [concerned, or strict about] the world to come can put on Rabbeinu Tam tefillin. But the simple meaning of the Zohar is not like this. From the day that our Rabbi heard these words from the Gra he never put on Rabbeinu Tam tefillin. (Ms. London-odro 72)

4. R. Hayyim said the Zohar and the Talmud do not conflict.

Our Rabbi said in the name of the Gra of blessed memory that the Zohar never differs with the Gemara on any issue. What people say [that it does], is due to their not understanding the meaning of the Gemara or the Zohar. Only in one case do I follow the Zohar, not to pass four cubits around one who prays, whereas the Gemara mentions only in front of them, and this is not a dispute just a stringency. (Keter Rosh Maamarim uMaasiyot 15)

5. R. Hayyim told his students to study Zohar.

He [R. Hayyim] was in charge of the tzedaka [charity] money for the poor living in the Land of Israel. (Jacob Lifshitz, Dor veSofrav, Hakerem 1888 p. 180)

R. Aryeh Ben Yerahmiel, who was a member of the Kolel Haprushim (of the Gaons students) and made aliyah in 1813 wrote, In 5560 since creation, God remembered the Holy Land and aroused a pure spirit in the heart of the saint, the true genius, our rabbi and teacher Hayyim of Volozhin of blessed memory, student of our teacher and master rabbi of all the exiles Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna... and sent from among the students of the saintly Gaon, our teacher Rabbi Mendel, the memory of saints for blessing, student of the Gaon in Kabbalah, he and his son.

In a letter from R. Yisrael of Shklov to R. Avika Altschul, who was close to R. Hayyim, R. Yisrael advised him to meet with R. Hayyim before making aliyah: If you take my advice, you should not go without the agreement of the light of our eyes... our teacher and Rabbi Hayyim, may his candle continue to shed light, the Rav of Volozhin.

R. Hayyim Told R. Yisrael of Shklov that if he prays with a minyan of Sephardim (in Israel) he should not change from their custom: He [R. Hayyim] commanded his student R. Yisrael of Shklov who went to live among the Sephardim [in Safed] not to change from their custom and to pray like them. (SHaarei Rahamim 9A)

I heard from our Rabbi on the verse: She fell and will not rise again, the maiden of Israel, [Amos 9] that our sages interpreted in the Gemara [Brachot 4B] She fell and will not [fall anymore]. Arise again Oh maiden of Israel, and he [R. Hayyim] said that the maiden of Israel is called falling just like the sukkah of David which is called falling. For every day she falls further for there is no day whose curse is less than the previous one. Therefore she is referred to as the falling one, for she will continue to fall until she shall reach the lowest level and from there cannot fall anymore. And now we have reached the time of Arise oh maiden of Israel. (Keter Rosh and Sheiltot)

We know for sure from the holy mouth of the Gaon, and Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin of blessed memory, when they asked him concerning money sent for holy purposes here [in Israel]. He said, The Torah and [Divine] service done there [in the land of Israel] even for a quarter of an hour, is more dear to God than the study of your yeshivot every day in the impure lands. (Letter of R. Yitzhak Kahana from Jerusalem on Rosh Hodesh Kislev 1858 to Rav Zvi Hirch KalisherArchive A9/55)

10. R. Hayyim ate soaked matza (sheruyah) on Passover. (Kneidelach and Farfel, Sheiltot Ms. London-Podro 70,71)

Quotes to remember

The Gra said that a persons main labor should concern [avoiding] the transgressions between man and his fellow in all its details. (London-Podro 2, 34)

If a person performs a mitzvah and their body is overly excited and enthusiastic to perform the mitzvah quickly, its probably a ploy of the evil inclination. (Commentary to Ruth 1,18)

He [R. Hayyim] said that he would exchange all of his prayers for even one new understanding [concerning Jewish law] in the Gemara. (Keter Rosh 48)

Studying Torah is the main thing, attaining knowledge is secondary. (Ruach Hayyim, 3,18)

People say that studying poskim without the Gemara is like eating fish without spicy peppers, and our Rabbi [Hayyim] said, like eating spicy peppers without fish. (Sheiltot 62)

Our Rabbi said, at the place where philosophy ends, from there begins the wisdom of Kabbalah, and from the place where the Kabbalah of R. Moshe Cordovero ends, there begins the Kabbalah of the Arizal. (Sheiltot 110).

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Ten things you didnt know about Hayyim of Volozhin on his 200th yahrzeit - The Jerusalem Post

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