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October 3: The Volozhin Yeshiva

Lawrence Bush
October 2, 2016
The Etz Khayim Yeshiva in Volozhin, Lithuania, was called into existence by proclamation by Rabbi Khayim Volozhin, the most prominent student of the Gaon of Vilna, on this date in 1802. Opened four years later, the Volozhin Yeshiva became the model for Lithuanian yeshivas, where study took place “twenty-four hours a day without vacations,” according to Shaul Stampfer at the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, “a reflection of the view that the existence of the world depended on the study of Torah. . . . With the decline in authority of the communal rabbinate in the course of the 19th century and the unwillingness of the authorities to allow free self-organization among Jews, the Volozhin yeshiva grew in prominence, and its heads became de facto spokesmen for the traditional community. Events at the yeshiva were followed with great interest by those outside it.” The school and its community declined by the end of the century, however, as Russian authorities demanded a much higher level of secular studies and suspected yeshivas of revolutionary activity. They shut the yeshiva in 1892, and though it opened again several years later and endured until the Holocaust, it was never restored to its former glory. Among the many well-known individuals who studied in the yeshiva were Rabbi Avraham Kook and H.N. Bialik. “In order to attract scholars to the institution two wise rules were laid down: 1) only those should be admitted who had distinguished themselves in Talmudic study, and 2) the medieval custom of assigning yeshiva students each day to a different family, in which they received their meals free, should be abolished; the students to be either self-supporting, or maintained by the institution. Thus scholars, both rich and poor, flocked to Volozhin from all parts of Russia and the rest of Europe. . . . It was . . . ultraconservative, tolerating nothing that looked like an innovation, and strongly opposing all exoteric studies. For a long time it withstood the great wave of progress that swept over Russia in the middle of the 19th century. . . . fearing that secular studies would ‘poison the minds of the students and turn them away from the study of the Talmud,’ [the yeshiva’s leaders] stubbornly refused to introduce these innovations . . .” --Herman Rosenthal and Julius Gottlieb, The Jewish Encyclopedia

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.