By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Although the name of Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l, is well known in Torah circles, very little biographical information of his earlier life in Europe is available. This is especially true for the English-reading public. In honor of the fiftieth yahrzeit of Rav Kotler, and using information culled from newly available documents, the Five Towns Jewish Times is presenting new material in this three-part mini-biography. Part 1 appeared in last week’s issue.
Yeshiva Knesses Yisroel
While in the Katzovisheh Shul kibbutz, both Rav Aharon Kotler and Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky were introduced to Rav Reuven Grozovsky. Rav Reuven spoke to Rav Shlomo Golovenchitz, a rosh yeshiva in Minsk, who got funding for the train tickets for the two young men. The funding came from R’ Yaakov Noach Oxenkrug. The two left for Slabodka after Pesach in 1906.
Minsk to Slabodka was a 180-mile train trip. Rav Aharon and Rav Yaakov decided to see Vilna on the way and got slightly lost while there.
Rav Aharon arrived in Knesses Yisroel in Slabodka after Pesach in 1906. He remained there for five years.
The origins of both yeshivos in Slabodka date back to the Kovno Kollel started in 1877, upon the return of Rav Yisroel Salanter to Eastern Europe. Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector had become Rav of Kovno thirteen years earlier in 1864. He passed away in 1896.
The administrators of the Kovno Kollel were Rav Avrohom Shenker and Rav Yitzeleh Blazer. Rav Blazer was with the kollel from 1880 to 1891. Rav Blazer brought in Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel as an unofficial administrator, not yet known as the Alter of Slabodka. Rav Nosson Tzvi argued that there could be four single bachurim for every married kollel man. Slowly the kollel members were replaced by bachurim, and by 1882, there existed a fully functioning yeshiva.
A year later, in 1883, Rav Yisroel Salanter passed away, deeply affecting both Rav Blaser and Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel had molded the developing yeshiva by further hiring kollel members to teach the bachurim. In 1889, Rav Yitzel Rabinowitz was hired to serve as the rosh yeshiva, and he remained there for five years until 1894 when he took a rabbanus.
In his stead, in 1894, two magiddei shiur from Volozhin were hired. They were brothers-in-law, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein.
Rav Blaser and Rav Finkel were strong adherents of the Mussar movement, which caused some tension within the yeshiva. In 1897, a year after Rav Yitzchok Elchonon had passed away, a meeting was held by Lithuanian rabbanim, presided over by Rav Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz. A ruling was issued that Rav Nosson Tzvi must remove himself from the Kovno Kollel.
Rav Finkel observed the ruling and announced to the 200 students in the beis midrash that he was going to open another yeshiva in the Butcher’s Kloiz across the river. Fifty bachurim joined him, as did Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein. Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, who was to eventually become Rav Aharon’s father-in-law, had been dispatched six months earlier to Slutsk to start a yeshiva there. When the Alter formed his new Yeshiva, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer returned to assist in the new yeshiva.
The new yeshiva opened in 1897 and was named Knesses Yisroel after Rav Yisroel Salanter, who had founded both the original kollel and the Mussar movement. The Alter planned to make mussar the essence of the new yeshiva. The original yeshiva took on the name Knesses Beis Yitzchok after Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, the gadol of the generation.
Knesses Beis Yitzchok had a number of roshei yeshiva before they ultimately engaged Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz. After the break, Rav Moshe Danishevsky, the Rav of Slabodka, served as the main maggid shiur. Afterward, Rav Chaim Rabinowitz, the rav of Myshad became the rosh hayeshiva. He eventually left and took a position as a maggid shiur in the yeshiva in Telze.
Slabodka technically means “suburb” in Slavic. It was originally called Vilyampoleh and was a suburb of Kovno, connected by a famous wooden bridge over the Vilaya River. The bridge cracked every year from the melting ice. The Alter used to say of this bridge, “It was always meant to be a one-way bridge—from the turbulence of Kovno to the spirituality of Slabodka.”
The seder in Slabodka began with Shacharis at 7:00 a.m. This was followed by breakfast in the stanzia, the dormitory, and seder began at 9:00 a.m. At 1:00 p.m. the morning seder was over and they davened Minchah.
At the time there were close to 400 students in the yeshiva. Some others in the Slabodka Yeshiva at the same time as Rav Aharon were Rav Avrohom Kalmanovitch, Rav Dovid Leibowitz, and Rav Chatzkel Sarna.
Rav Aharon left for Slutsk in 5672 (at the end of 1911). Slutsk was known as a city of die-hard misnagdim and was one of the few cities in Russia that did not develop a chassidishe contingent. In 1897, the Ridbaz, Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Vilovsky, had approached the Alter of Slabodka to open a branch of the yeshiva in Slutsk. Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer was placed in charge, prior to his coming back to Slabodka after the initial breakoff. The Alter sent 14 top students to Slutsk. Among them were Rav Laizer Yudel Finkel, the Alter’s son, who eventually became the rosh yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva; Rav Rafael Alter Shmulevitz, father of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz; Rav Yoseph Kanovitz, eventually the son-in-law of the Ridbaz; Rav Shlomo Pletchinsky, a future son-in-law of the Alter of Slabodka; Rav Moshe Yom Tov Wachtfogel, father of Rav Nosson Wachtfogel; Rav Pesach Prusskin, rebbi of Rav Moshe Feinstein; and Rav Reuven Katz, Chief Rabbi of Petach Tikvah.
Some 300 students studied at Slutsk at one particular time—many of them future luminaries. Rav Yoseph Eliyahu Henkin, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky, Rav Elazar Shach, and Rav Moshe Feinstein were among its students. In the early years, the Alter of Slabodka and Rav Yitzeleh Blazer would spend weeks at a time there as well.
In 1911, shortly before Rav Aharon’s arrival, the yeshiva obtained its own building. Each member of the town came and contributed to it. The entire city came out for the inauguration of the new building.
Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer wanted Rav Aharon for his daughter, Rivka Chana Perel. He was concerned that a wealthy gvir might take the initiative in taking this outstanding iluy as a son-in-law. When he heard that others had discovered the young Rav Aharon, he quickly returned to Slabodka to arrange the shidduch. Of note is that Rav Isser Zalman also sought a suitable young man for his niece, who was an orphan and whom he had raised as his own daughter. He married this niece to another young iluy, Reb Elazar Menachem Mann Shach, later to be known as the famed Rav Shach of Yeshivas Ponevezh.
Rav Aharon married and settled in Slutsk. One year later, Rav Isser Zalman asked his son-in-law to give a shiur in the yeshiva. Rav Aharon was 22 years old. Rav Isser Zalman said the shiur on Mondays and Thursdays, while Rav Aharon said the shiur on Tuesdays.
Although Slutsk was a fairly large Jewish community, the economic situation was weak, primarily because of poor transportation lines. In 1914, however, Slutsk did get its own railway station, which eased the economic situation.
Rav Aharon was 26 when his only son, Chaim Shneur, was born in 1918, in Slutsk, Russia. Only Rav Shneur and his sister, Sarah, survived infancy. Rav Aharon Kotler named his son after his first rebbi—his father, Rav Shneur Zalman Pines. However, as his father-in-law was named Isser Zalman, he left off the Zalman, naming him Shneur and adding the name Chaim, as his father had died when he was young. A few years later, the young Chaim Shneur became deathly ill and they added the name Yoseph, for a full name of Yoseph Chaim Shneur. v
(To be continued)
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