Yeshivot in Belarus

Yeshivot were the highest Jewish religionís established educational facility where people learned Talmud with commentary and rabbis were taught. The Yeshivot were the center of Jewish thought and focus of the intellectual and spiritual elite of the Jewish people. Their existence and popularity depended on the existence of Rabbi-sage who taught Talmud and Halakah, giving his explanations of religion sources. The youth of thirteen of years who had finished Heder could be admitted to a Yeshiva. The teaching was free. The charity of Jewish Community and of individuals subsidized Yeshivot. Two to three times per week there were lectures where teachers introduced and explained Talmud and Halakah. As for the rest of time, the students studied themselves. Yeshivot were known in Belarus beginning in the sixteenth century. The oldest known yeshiva was in Brest. The largest ones were in Volozhin, Lida, Mir, Slonim, Klutsk, and Radun.

The most famous was the one in Volozhin, established by Haim ben Itzhakam in 1802 and called Etz Haim in his honor. The rabbis teaching there were Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Iosef Ber Solovejchik, Haim Solovejchik, and others. In the second half of the nineteenth century, four hundred students from the Russian Empire, England, Austria, Germany, and South America attended. Tsarist authorities tried to close the Volozhin Yeshiva three times in 1824, 1858, and 1892. The last time, they sent the teachers and students out of the town. Some years later, the yeshiva began to function again and existed until 1942 when the German Nazis killed the last sixty-four students. Jewish poet Haim Nachman Byalik (1873-1934), who studied in Volozhin Yeshiva, showed the image of its student and its atmosphere in the poem "Padvizhnik."

These yeshivot were the model for other Talmud schools. In 1815, in Mir, the shopkeeper Tikimski established a world-renowned yeshiva with students from around the world including Europe and America. The students numbered approximately five hundred. After the unification of West Belarus with the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1939, the Mir Yeshiva moved to Vilna. In 1940, the students went to China, then later to Jerusalem and then to New York where another yeshiva was established. Even now, they are called Mir Yeshivot in New York and in Jerusalem.

In 1869, Radun Yeshiva was established. The teacher of Talmud and Halakah was Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (Pupko). These Yeshivot, in general, were of Orthodox origin and did not permit learning of secular disciplines. In 1905, Itzhak Yakov Reines, with the financial support of Baron Ginzburg, reorganized the yeshivot educational system. He opened reformed Yeshivot with six years intervals of teaching in Lida. Besides Talmud, the curricular included Hebrew grammar and other subject as in the technical colleges. In Belarus, there were until 1930-1940. Some of the buildings still exist as in Volozhin and in Mir.

Sachenka B. I [editor], Encyclopedia of the History of Belarus. Volume 3, Minsk: 1996, Page 359.

Compiled by Ellen Sadove Renck
Copyright © 1999, Ellen Sadove Renck

Lida District Page