In 1968, two rabbonim, one American and one Israeli,published Shomrei Hagacheles (Protectors of the Glowing Embers), a sefer that discusses “ritual responsa and Hebrew theological thought in the Soviet Union.” Its pages describe the Soviet union of fifty years ago, a place where aging rabbonim struggled to preserve Torah values that had been under attack for the past fifty years.
Rabbonim almost Extinct
The sefer has two introductions written by its two editors. Rav Dr. Tzvi Harkavy of Eretz Yisroel begins his by saying the sefer is the first compendium of divrei Torah by Russian rabbonim printed for the past forty years.
“It seems that since the publication of Yagdil Torah (Babroisk 1928) by Rav Yechezkel Abramsky and Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin (both now in Yerushalayim), there has never appeared a collection of divrei Torah of rabbonim in the Soviet Union who live and function there,” he writes. “Now they appear in this publication publicly and with their agreement. Things are changing. The heart yearns to see this as a good sign for the future. If only this was so.”
“The [Torah] persists,” he adds. “After fifty years of militant atheism, the Yevsektzia (Jewish section of the Communist Party), the terrors of wicked Stalin… there are still people who fight and there is still with what to fight.”
Rav Harkavy goes on to say that despite constant persecution, the publication of Torah literature in the Soviet Union never completely ceased during past decades:
“In the important bibliography Jewish Publications in the Soviet Union… 68 sifrei kodesh are listed as appearing in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1959… Also, in the shu”t literature that appeared in the last 50 years… there must be hundreds of shu”t related to the Jews of the Soviet Union and it would be worthwhile to collect them all.”
However, by the time the sefer was published in 1968, rabbonim in the Soviet Union were almost extinct.
“It is true and frightening that few rabbonim survive in the Soviet Union today and those still there – may they live long – are elderly,” Rav Harkavy continues. “Most were murdered by the Nazis among two million other martyred Jews… Dozens moved to Eretz Yisroel in the past (among the 100,000 who moved from the Soviet Union to Eretz Yisroel in the last 50 years). Some were liquidated during the Cult of Personality [Stalin purges] such as Rav Medalia, rov of Vitebsk and Moscow Hy”d, and others…”
“The voice of Torah is silenced in public and in private. The Kol Yaakov yeshiva [of Moscow] started off with 20 talmidim and ended up with two. Perhaps it will be revived next year. The rov of Kovno, Rav Verkol, a middle-aged talmid chochom who fought with a Lithuanian Brigade against the Nazis, left a year ago with his family to Eretz Yisroel. The last rov of Vilna, Rav Dr. Yehuda Rabinowitz, died last year in Odessa.”
Rav Harkavy makes it clear that the dearth of Torah he describes only applies to the regions of the Soviet Union where the Soviets persecuted religion violently. In other places it still flourishes: “Judaism is [still] strong in Georgia, Dagestan, and Bukhara together with their chachomim, some of them young men.” In Bucharest, capital of Romania, the kehillah was even publishing a bi-weekly paper that included Torah articles.
The American editor of the sefer, Rav Avraham Shauli, also analyzes the history of Torah publication in the Soviet Union. The first sefer printed in the Soviet Union was Ma’ayn Mei Nafo’ach (Pietrikow 1924), he writes. This sefer discussed a shailah that was typical of the times: “Concerning women whose husbands were arrested by order of the government and it was formally recorded that their husbands were executed by verdict of judges or officials. May they remarry.”
Sefer Tevunah, the first volume of chiddushim on the Rambam by Rav Yitzchok Isaac Krasilschikov was printed in 1926. Another publication at that time was Yagdil Torah, two chiddushei Torah journals published. One was edited by Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, Rav of Slutzk at the time. The other by a number of other rabbonim.
These three seforim, Rav Shauli writes,marked the end of printing halachah literature in the Soviet Union for the coming decades with one exception: a Jewish calendar printed in Zhitomir in 1927 that includes halachos of Rosh Chodesh, Shabbos and Yom Tov written by Rav Nochum Weissblatt the rov of Kiev, also known as the Godol from Mallin.
Incidentally, this seems to contradict the statement of Rav Harkavy cited earlier that “68 sifrei kodesh are listed as appearing in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1959.” It seems that Rav Harkavy is speaking of seforim in general, while Rav Shauli is discussing the publication of new Torah literature.
Issues of Communist Life
After 1927, Soviet rabbonim continued to publish their seforim outside the Soviet Union. Rav Dovid Katzenelenbogen, the rov of Leningrad, published a sefer of deroshas, Divrei Dovid, in Berlin in 1928. Rav Nosson Nata Olewski, the rov of Moscow’s second shul, wrote a halachah sefer that includes correspondence with Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky and bears Rav Chaim Ozer’s haskomah. This was printed in Vilna in 1931 when Rav Olewski was already a rov in eastern Siberia.
Many rabbonim dealt in their seforim or divrei Torah with problems of their place and time. For example, Rav Yisroel Shraga Kalish, rov of Belgorod and Kharkov, wrote an article titled, “Reciting the Wedding Blessings without a minyan in Russia” (Sha’arei Tzion, year 7 ch. 29, Yerushalayim 1928). One reason weddings were made without minyanim in those timesis mentioned by Rav Pesachyah Menkin, rov of Se’eni, who discusses “a chupah with no minyan for Jewish youngsters who are ashamed of [their friends belonging to] the Komsomol (a Soviet youth movement).” (Kerem Pesachyah, Yerushalayim 1932)
In Shu”t Chazon L’moed (Bialystok 1925, ch. 9 and 13) Rav Mordechai Dov Eidelberg, rov of Nikolayev, suggests that normal concepts of ownership may have been altered by the Soviet regime. Because the economy of the country had changed and private ownership was almost non-existent, what would be the status of a firstborn animal belonging to a kolkhoz (collective farm), he asks. “Would it be exempt from the laws of the firstborn? For we know that the Soviet government has issued a law that all animals under their government are considered as belonging to the public and thus, no Jewish ownership intervenes.”
A second question he asks involved “a non-observant person (a Communist!) who is in a hurry to leave and specifically wants to marry a woman on Chol Hamoed. He is concerned because he is traveling to a place where he will be afraid to marry her according to halachah.“
Rav Tzvi Makovski, rov of Melitopol in the Ukraine, wrote a whole sefer dealing mainly with issues of Communist life. For example, he asked how one could permit a man to remarry if his first wife is incapable of receiving a get due to illness when “it is presently impossible to collect the signatures of 100 rabbonim in Russia?” Also, he writes, “I was asked in Russia concerning a mikveh, whether it would be permitted to use a sunken bath and bring water through pipes… for regarding a mikveh made in this fashion it will be possible to receive a license from the government.” (Shu”t Yechaveh Da’as, Yerushalayim, ch. 7, 18, 19)
A well known shailah was analyzed by Rav Shimon Trebnik, rov of Sosnovosk in White Russia and later a Rosh Yeshiva of Moscow’s short lived Yeshivas Kol Yaakov. In his town Sosnovosk, members of the Yevsektzia(the Jewish section of the Communist Party) had asked the observant Jews to voluntarily hand over one shul of the three shuls in the town, and in return for this they noisily promised to not harm the two remaining shuls. Is such a thing permitted?
Many rabbonim delved into this question and decided that it was permitted. Others disagreed, arguing that handing over one shul was the same as the case where non-Jews ask a group of Jews to hand over one of them to be killed. The Gemara rules that in the latter case, all the Jews must die rather than cause the death of one of them.
Rav Trebnik sent one of his Soviet related shailos to Rav Moshe Feinstein who lived in the Russian town of Luban before moving to the United States in 1936. He asked him whether one may build a mikveh in the ezras noshim of a shul.
A question that still applies in our times was addressed by Rav Yitzchok Isaac Krasilschikov mentioned earlier. He was a tremendous godol who spent his daytime hours working as an accountant near the Kremlin, and spent his free time toiling in Torah and writing a vast commentary on the Yerushalmi whose last volume was only published last year.
“A tourist asked whether it is permitted to set one’s watch by the Spassky Clock of the Kremlin as it might be an accessory of idolatry,” he wrote. “I do not understand the question because nowadays it is a museum of old architecture and no longer a Church…. There is no reason to be concerned for they never served or prayed to the clock… [Also, the Rambam writes], ‘If an idol had a bathhouse or garden, one may benefit from them if one does not pay” (Avodah Zarah 7:17), and the clock is used without paying for it.”
Another teshuvah of Rav Krasilschikov related to an incident that happened on the first day of Sukkos in 1960 that fell on Shabbos. On that day, people from the Israel embassy bought a number of arba minim sets to the Moscow shul to distribute among the worshippers and the locals erroneously used them to fulfill the mitzvah. A few Russian rabbonim discussed whether the tzibbur had bedi’eved fulfilled the mitzvah or not. Rav Yitzchok Isaac Krasilschikov concludes in his teshuvah on the subject: “In my humble opinion, even though they committed a serious transgression by carrying out of and into buildings on Shabbos and also transgressed the decree of Chazal not to take a lulav on Shabbos, nonetheless, they fulfilled the mitzvah of lulav.“
Rav Eizik Ausband’s Shailos
Other shailos involved with Communist oppression were discussed by Rav Eizik Ausband, one of the great rashei yeshiva of the Telz yeshiva in Cleveland, after he moved from Russia to the United States.
“In 1942 we celebrated Sukkos in Bichovah, about two hundred miles from the Vitka River, where a group from the Telz Yeshiva were doing forestry work,” he wrote. “Before the Yom Tov, we went to ask permission from the authorities to use planks from the forest and were granted permission. But in order to use the planks for a sukkah we needed to shorten them and for this we obviously had no permission. Did we fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah, or was there a problem of using a stolen sukkah?” He concludes that the mitzvah was fulfilled as the planks remained in the full ownership of the government all the time.
The sefer finishes with the tefilla for Russia printed in the Siddur Hasholom printed in Moscow in 1955 and reprinted in 1966:
“He who blessed our fathers, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, who makes a path in the sea and a road in mighty waters, may He bless, guard, protect, and help, elevate, make great, and raise upwards, the government of the USSR. May the Holy One sustain it and guard it from all distress and misfortune, and make its enemies fall before it, and may it succeed wherever it turns. And let us say, amen.”
Rav Shauli ends his introduction to this sefer of the 60s with hope for a brighter future: “The ember of Torah and Judaism in the Soviet Union still glows beneath the ash of time. Will it rekindle? Time will tell. We may hope that when there comes an end to the Cold War, bridges will be established between the Jews of the Soviet Union and world Jewry. Would that we may merit this!”
(Rav Dr. Tzvi Harkavy, Rav Avraham Shauli, Shomrei Hagacheles, Ha’Eretz Yisraelit Publishers in Yerushalayim and New York, 6726)