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The Rosh Yeshiva Remembers

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Rosh Yeshiva Remembers

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The Rosh Yeshiva Remembers
Stories that inspire the Yeshivah world
By Rabbi Asher Bergman
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
ISBN: 1-57819-459-8

Chapter 12: Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovna, from The Rosh Yeshiva Remembers

Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovna

The Rosh Yeshivah once heard an eyewitness account of the following incident, which offers us a glimpse into Rav Yitzchak Elchanan’s mastery of the Talmud. The story was told to him by Rav Lechovitz, who had learned in the famed Kovna Kollel, in the same building where Rav Yitzchak Elchanan sat and learned.

Rav Yitzchak Elchanan was known throughout Europe and held in high esteem by misnagdim and chassidim alike. Once he was approached by representatives of the chassidic community in Luninetz, who asked him to recommend someone to be their new rav. Rav Yitzchak Elchanan suggested a chassidishe fellow from Tochov who learned in his beis midrash. This talmid chacham was particularly suited for a position in the rabbinate, as he had reviewed Yoreh Deah with all its attendant commentaries no less than eight times and knew it thoroughly. Yet, for some reason, the young man had never obtained semichah. To remedy that defect, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan sent him to be examined on the section of Yoreh Deah dealing with Issur V’Heter, and told him that upon receiving this semichah, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan himself would examine him on Choshen Mishpat and give him semichah as a dayan.

In those days, the granting of semichah was taken very seriously. Typically, the examining rav would have the candidate sit with him for an extended period of time. When the rav was presented with a sh’eila, he would refer it to the candidate to see how he dealt with it. Between questions, the rav would subject the candidate to a very comprehensive examination.

After several days, the yungerman under consideration returned to Kovna with semichah in hand and approached Rav Yitzchak Elchanan to be examined in Choshen Mishpat. In Rav Yitzchak Elchanan’s beis midrash, there was a daily Gemara shiur given between Minchah and Maariv, at which time the young men learned individually rather than with chavrusos so as not to disturb the shiur. Taking advantage of this “break,” Rav Yitzchak Elchanan stepped out into the courtyard of the beis midrash with the young man and tested him as they strolled around. The examination methodically covered the entire Choshen Mishpat, with Rav Yitzchak Elchanan testing the yungerman on disagreements between the authorities throughout the entirety of the book. It was obvious from Rav Yitzchak Elchanan’s familiarity with the various topics, and from the fact that he was able to cover the entire huge gamut of subjects of the book in such a short period of time, that the entire Choshen Mishpat was at his fingertips, in crisp, pure clarity.


A tense situation once arose in a particular community between the rav of the town and some of the local talmidei chachamim. As often happens in such cases, the “opposition” began to cast a highly critical eye on all of the rav’s halachic rulings. They seized upon a previous ruling of the rav which they considered to be mistaken and attempted to use it to testify to his alleged incompetence. The rav continued to insist that he was in the right and the conflict intensified.

The rav’s adversaries sent a telegram to the leading halachic authority of the time, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovna. Both sides eagerly awaited his reply. Almost immediately, a return telegram was received, in which Rav Yitzchak Elchanan agreed with the rav’s opponents. The dissidents had already begun to celebrate their victory with unbounded joy when a second telegram arrived in which Rav Yitzchak Elchanan reversed his previous position and admitted that his first ruling was mistaken. The rejoicing of the rav’s opponents came to a quick halt, and they were forced to acknowledge the rav’s halachic expertise.

The Rosh Yeshivah observes that the story is hard to understand. Surely Rav Yitzchak Elchanan, the leading authority of the time, had seen immediately which position was the correct one. Why, then, did he first send a telegram siding with the rav’s opponents? It appears that Rav Yitzchak Elchanan recognized that the seemingly innocent query was really a trap to prove the rav’s incompetence. And he realized that it would not be enough to show that his opponents were wrong in this one instance, as a single setback would not be sufficient to discourage further attempts on their part to undermine the rav’s position. In order to bring a quick halt to a dispute that could only diminish the honor of the Torah in the eyes of the masses, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan devised a strategy to silence the rav’s adversaries once and for all. By pretending to err with respect to the question sent to him, he showed the rav’s opponents that the question was one about which even the gadol hador could make a mistake. That the rav had ruled correctly on such a difficult question was then testimony to his status as a great scholar. Moreover, by pretending to err, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan indicated that even if the rav were someday to rule incorrectly that would be no justification for embarrassing him before his congregation.

Rav Yitzchak Elchanan was prepared to forgo his own honor as gadol hador in order to preserve the kavod haTorah of another rav. The nobility of this action can only inspire awe and amazement!


One time the wicked czarist regime issued an edict that threatened dire consequences for the entire Jewish community. In an effort to have this decree rescinded, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan organized a delegation of the most distinguished Jews of Kovna to plead for mercy from the Czar’s minister. Rav Yitzchak Elchanan’s command of Russian was not adequate to make the plea himself, so it was agreed that Rav Yitzchak Elchanan would speak in Yiddish and his son would translate into Russian.

After the minister heard the Russian translation, he said to Rav Yitzchak Elchanan’s son, “I want you to know that your father’s speech in Yiddish, a language of which I am totally ignorant, convinced me much more than your rendition of it into Russian. Even though I could not understand a single word your father said, I sensed that each and every word emerged from a powerful inner truth that burns inside him. Words that come from the heart penetrate into the heart, without any need for a common language.”

Used by permission, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications

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