By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Every so often, individuals emerge in Jewish history who, by dint of their personality and intellect, profoundly change the topography of Jewish life. One such person was Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l, the founder of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey.
Interestingly enough, although the name of Rav Aharon Kotler 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 50th yahrzeit of Rav Kotler, the Five Towns Jewish Times is presenting much new material in this mini-biography in a three-part series. The information was culled from newly available documents.
Childhood In Svisloch
Rav Aharon was born in the town of Sislevich, or Svisloch, in Belarus on the 2nd of Shvat in 5652 (Sunday, January 31, 1892, although in the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time it would have been January 19, 1892). He was the fourth child of the famed Pinnes family. There were two older brothers who passed away at young ages and an older sister, Malkah. His father, Rav Shneur Zalman Pinnes, was one of the two rabbanim of this community, which was in the Grodno section of Czarist Russia, not far from Minsk. The other rav was Rav Mordechai Shatz, the son of Rabbi Meir Yonah, who had published a copy of the Baal HaIttur.
His father’s family had spent time in the town of Ilya, also in Belarus. It was a town that produced a prodigious number of Torah scholars. Rav Yitzchok Pinnes, Rav Aharon’s paternal uncle, became the av beis din in Minsk. They were both the children of Rav Moshe Pinnes. Rav Moshe Pinnes’s ancestor was Rav Yitzchok Pinnes, who was the av beis din of Minsk from 1819 until 1836.
Svisloch was originally a moderately sized small town in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with a population of between 200 and 300 people. The Jews of the town made their money primarily through trade of timber, grains, and some real estate. The town had fairs as well. In 1830, a great fire destroyed most of the businesses, and the Jewish community had great difficulty recovering financially, as the fairs were no longer held there. In 1850, there were about 970 Jewish residents in Svisloch. After four decades of economic stagnation, the Jews of Svisloch decided to specialize in the tanning industry. They invited German craftsmen, experts in the field, to assist them in setting up a tannery. It was very successful. Soon Svisloch had eight large tanneries and a number of smaller shops. The Jewish population more than doubled, and the Jews constituted two thirds of the residents of the town.
Jews came from the surrounding towns to work in Svisloch as well. Conditions in the tanneries were not ideal for the workers. There were tanners, tailors, shoemakers, and carpenters. Many of the Jewish workers were not paid well and the Bund movement soon developed in Svisloch.
Sometime in 1895, Rav Aharon’s mother passed away. Rav Aharon was just three years old. When he was a young child, many in his town sought to involve him in the new paths that were emerging in the society around them, and these individuals were not such a good influence on the young man.
He was developing a reputation as being a remarkable prodigy. Already in 1899, at the age of seven, Rav Aharon knew all of Tanach by heart and he was also learning Gemara. Sources say that he was proficient in two tractates with Tosfos—knowing them by heart. In the meantime, the Bund was to call the first strike in Svisloch in 1901.
Svisloch’s industry grew ever stronger and plans were made to bring the railroad to Svisloch. This was to happen in 1903.
On Monday, the 24th of Av 5663, (August 17, 1903; Julian calendar August 4), Rav Aharon’s father passed away. Rav Aharon was four months shy of his twelfth birthday. After his father’s passing, he remained in Svisloch for two months.
After the yomim tovim in 5664, Rav Aharon attended R’ Zalman Sender Kahana-Shapiro’s yeshiva, Anaf Eitz Chaim, in Krinik. Krinik was a small shtetl in a valley lying between two flat mountains in Belarus. Like Svisloch, its main industry was tanning.
Rav Zalman Sender (1851–1923) had studied under the Beis HaLevi in Brisk and was the chevrusah, learning-partner, of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. Rav Zalman Sender was both the rav and rosh yeshiva in Krinik. Previously he had been so in Maltch (where he had remarried) and he eventually settled in the Shaarei Chessed section of Jerusalem in 1921. His son was Reb Avrohom Dov Shapiro, the author of the Dvar Avrohom, the last Rav of Kovno. Other talmidim of Rav Zalman Sender were Rav Avrohom Yaffen and Rav Isser Yehudah Unterman. His seforim were published posthumously under the title Chidushei HagraZaS on Kodshim.
There were approximately 80 students in Rav Zalman Sender’s yeshiva. It seems that Rav Aharon remained there for two zmanim. Then Rav Aharon returned to his uncle’s home in Minsk.
Minsk was a vastly different city than any other that Rav Aharon had known. At the time there were about 40,000 Jewish residents in Minsk, and it was known as the Jerusalem of White Russia, with numerous synagogues. The majority of Minsk’s residents were Jewish.
Rav Aharon began to study in the Katzovisheh Shul (the Butcher’s Shul) in Minsk and there met Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky, zt’l, who would become a lifelong friend. This was in September of 1904. Reb Yaakov was ten months older than the young Rav Aharon, and invited him over to his home in Minsk for meals and an occasional game of chess.
Reb Boruch Ber’s Yeshiva
Rav Aharon did not return to Krinik after the yomim tovim in 1904 and instead went to Yeshiva Kneses Beis Yitzchok in Slabodka, where Reb Boruch Ber Leibowitz had just been appointed the rosh yeshiva. He was a talmid of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. He remained there for one zman, where he made the acquaintance of talmidim in the other yeshiva in Slabodka, Knesses Yisroel. Among those talmidim was Rav Yaakov Yechiel Weinberg. Rav Aharon remained in Rav Boruch Ber’s yeshiva from after yom tov of 1904 until Pesach of 1905.
The Katzovisheh Shul
After the one zman learning in Kneseth Beis Yitzchok, Rav Aharon returned to his uncle’s house in Minsk and learned in the Katzovisheh Shul for twelve months. This was probably from Pesach of 1905 until Pesach 1906. Rav Aharon was 14 years old.
The Katzovisheh shul used to give the talmidim learning there a monthly stipend of 2 rubles. The better students got 3 rubles a month. Rav Aharon was given 5 rubles per month. The buying power of one ruble in 1905 Russia was about five dozen eggs or two chickens.
Rebbitzen Rachel Chadash recorded the following words about this remarkable shul:
The synagogue of butchers (the Katzovisheh shul) contained a “gathering” (Kibbutz) of youths. A “gathering” refers to a yeshiva of youths and adults, aged 18 and older, who study Torah themselves, without the tutelage of a head of a yeshiva. A volunteer from among the rabbis of the city or a guest who was learned in Torah would visit there and deliver a class to the youths of the “gathering.” Many people of the city studied in the “gathering.” It was presumed that someone who studied in the “gathering” was great in Torah.
Some of them studied Yoreh Deah in order to study for the rabbinate, and others studied Torah for its own sake. In general, this was not considered beneficial for obtaining a marriage partner. In most of Lithuania and Belarus, young scholars had an exceptionally difficult time finding marriage partners. The youths who came from nearby or faraway towns had their food provided by the butchers. They lodged in the synagogue.
The Culture Of Minsk
Minsk at the time was a hotbed both for Jewish culture as well as for Hertzl’s movement in Russia. Achad HaAm was invited to the town and a huge conference was held in Minsk in 1902 where he spoke about Haskallah. This speech was the high point of his career—packing every seat in Minsk.
Rav Aharon’s sister, Malka, also in Minsk, traveled in different circles in Minsk than her uncle, the dayan. Other family members tried influencing him and even registered him in a religious haskalah school. Of course, he did not attend.
While in the Katzovisheh Shul Kibbutz, as it was called, both Rav Aharon and Rav Yaakov were introduced to Rav Reuven Grozovsky. Rav Reuven was a student of the Alter of Slabodka, who had heard of the child prodigy known as Aharon Soslovicher. Now that he was no longer studying at the other yeshiva in Slabodka—Knesses Beis Yitzchok—and was in the active hotbed that was Minsk, getting Rav Aharon to come to Knesses Beis Yisroel in Slabodka was an imperative. Rav Reuven spoke to them in learning and convinced them of the intellectual growth that the two could achieve in Slabodka. His goal was to get them away from the influences seeking to distance them from Torah study. He recruited other Slabodka talmidim from Minsk, Asher Kerstein and Zalman Yoseph Baininson, to assist in convincing them.
He also 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. v
(To be continued)