Saturday, November 17, 2012

Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l – the Early Years

5towns jewish times part 1   By Rabbi Yair Hoffman part 2    part 3

Every so often, individuals emerge in Jewish history who, by dint of their personality and intellect, are able to literally change the topography of Jewish life.

One such person was Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l – the founder of Beth Medrash

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 actually available. This is especially true for the English reading public. In honor of the fiftieth yartzeit of Rav Kotler, the Five Towns Jewish Times is presenting much new biographical material in this mini-biography in a three part series. The information was culled from a wide range of sources including new documents available now.

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 Sunday, January 19, 1892). There are actually two towns with the name Svisloch, one lies 154 miles west of Minsk, the other lies 66 miles east of Minsk.

Rav Aharon was the fourth child of the famed Pinnes family, having two older brothers who passed away at young ages, and an older sister Malkah. His father, Rav Shneur Zalman Pinnes, was one of two of the Rabbonim 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 amount 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’ 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 1700’s and early 1800’s with a population of between 200 and 300 people during these times.  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. 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 this 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, 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. As 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, who was soon developing a reputation as being a remarkable prodigy.


  1. Sislovitz, White Russia, 1900.

    A young masmid by the name of Aaron Pines spends his days and night immersed in Torah learning. He is an intellectual prodigy, an anomaly among his peers. He is also an orphan – his mother died when he was an infant, and his father, the Rav of Sislovitz, passed away when he was just 12.

    Having no home, Aaron thought to perhaps stay in the dormitory of a yeshiva, but first he had to be admitted - an impossible task for a child of 12. But he had little choice.

    So he walked into the great Yeshiva of Slabodka, and, approaching the great Tzadik, The Alter of Slabodka, Aaron lacked the nerve to request admission to the Yeshiva Gedolah at such a young age, so instead he just began speaking to the Alter “in learning.”

    After a while, the Alter said to him, “I know who you are and why you are here. You are the son of the Sislovitzer Rav, and you want to come to the Yeshiva.”

    “How do you know?” Aaron asked.

    “Such a genius like you could only be the son of the Sislovitz Rav, who was a similar genius, and only an orphan would travel alone to Slabodka at age 12. There would be no reason for you to do this other than you need a home here in the Yehsiva.”, answered the Alter.

    The Alter admitted Aaron into the Slabodka yeshiva. Aaron’s dorm room was 2 blocks away from the yeshiva, but being so young, he was scared to return to his room at night after his studies. So every night, the Alter of Slabodka would come back to the Yeshiva, to walk little Aaron the 2 blocks to his dormitory.

    Aaron’s name quickly spread far and wide as a truly amazing young Talmid Chacham. His brilliance had even impressed the tenacious Rogatchover Gaon ZT”L, a feat that few of even the greatest of the great of the generation could accomplish.

    But even in Europe, in the small town of Sislovitz, the winds of modernization blew. His older sister, a brilliant woman in her own right, and secularly educated, tried her best to convince her beloved brother Aaron to abandon the outdated idea of learning Torah all day and to dedicate at least part of his time to the pursuit of secular studies. “The world is changing”, she told him. “The old ghetto life will soon whither and die. You’re so bright, Aaron, you have such potential. I implore you, don’t waste your life with the ‘old’ way. You can really grow up to be something important. You can really make a difference. If you pursue the ‘old way’, you will disappear into obscurity. Nobody will ever hear of you in this world.”

    But Aaron was not impressed. He believed that just as Hashem does not change so too the Torah does not change, and the way of the Torah does not change. Cultures and civilizations rise and fall, but the Torah remains constant. Aaron ignored promises of fame and fortune, and stubbornly continued serving Hashem in the holiest way possible: dedicating his life to the splendor of His Torah.

  2. As a young Torah scholar, Aaron’s name spread far and wide, to some, as one of the greatest Torah scholars of his time; and still to others, as one of the greatest wastes of talent of his time. But Aaron knew what he believed in: it was the power of Torah to overcome all.

    In those days, all able-bodied young men were forced to serve in the Russian army. No freedom of religion was allowed, and so military service was like unto a death sentence for religious young men. There was, however, a military dispensation if you were an only child with no siblings. So in order to protect himself from the draft, Aaron adopted the family name of an elderly couple in his home town that passed away without any children. This way, he would appear as having no siblings, and be saved from serving in the army.

    From that day on, our young Torah scholar was known as Rabbi Aaron Kotler.

    Rav Aaron grew to be the greatest Torah gaon of his generation, and the most vehement fighter against Modern Orthodoxy on these shores. In Rav Aaron’s own words:

    “The Modern Orthodox claim that their path is the true path of Judaism, that it is the path that was followed by our ancestors throughout the generations, but that they only add some modernizations and insignificant changes in order to make the Torah appealing to the masses. But the truth is that this small point is the same as the point of the Reform, and it is at the heart of hearts of the great defection from Torah and religion in past generations. They [Modern Orthodox] change [our] ways and twist [our] concepts.” (Mishnas Rav Aharon III p.216)

  3. Rav Aharon taught that no matter people say or believe, there is no force in the world stronger than Torah. One word of the Torah contains more light and strength than all the galaxies put together. Torah is the force with which the entire cosmos was formed.

    Said a leader of Modern Orthodoxy about life in America. “We would be enveloped by a new economic order. . . society would be based on science, where “the sun and the moon and the eleven stars” will radiate scientific learning and technology.”

    Light? Sun? Stars?

    Every time a little child in 5th grade raises his hand to ask a question on his chumash lesson he ignites the entire universe in a display of flame and fireworks that outshines ten thousand suns!

    Every time a Kollel yungerman learns another page of gemora, worlds upon worlds are created, enough power is unleashed into the Shamayim that Hashem Himself, kav’yochel, gets nachas from it, and proudly proclaims to the all His heavenly hosts, “Look! My dear children are abandoning everything else in the world to learn My Torah!” (Zohar Vayera).

    You’re worried about the “light” of technology? Then LET THE LIGHT OF TORAH BURN BRIGHTER, ever brighter, and watch as the glitter and glamour of the world disappears like a single candle in a blazing universe.

    If the energy of secular America and the energy of Talmidei Chachamim learning Torah do collide, just watch as America gets swept away like dust specs in a hurricane.

    If America is a spiritual wasteland incompatible with pure torah, then let Torah shine, and watch as America bows, for the entire universe is subservient to Torah.

  4. Rav Aharon taught that to say Torah stands no chance of survival against of the “powerful forces of America” without “integration into the social and economic culture” is wrong! To think that any forces mustered in this world, in this universe, can “swallow up” the light of Torah scholars is an insult to Torah and the Creator of the world.

    No, said Rav Aharon. If it is difficult to be frum in America, the solution is more Torah, not less; what will give us the spiritual strength and the siyata d’shmaya we need is increased dedication to Limud HaTorah, not to secular studies.

    So Rav Aharon set up a Yeshiva where there will be no secular studies, where there will be no tests, no “smicha” programs (although if someone wanted smicha he could receive it), no “degrees”, no “certifications”, nothing. Nothing except the learning of Torah for the sake of learning Torah. Not learning Torah as a means to any end, not even to become a “rabbi” or “teacher” (although if one wanted to that would be altogether proper) but rather as the greatest end in the world. That’s what I will do, Rav Aharon said. And let’s see. Let’s see whose light shines brighter.

    Torah only. For Torah’s sake. “L’shmah”, it was called.

    Here’s what happened:

    In April, 1942, Rav Aharon started a yeshiva in a small town called Lakewood, NJ, with 12 students. Not necessarily the best or the brightest, but 12 boys willing to learn Torah l’shmah, 12 little flames lighting up the universe, while others were busy “integrating into America’s socio-economic culture”.

    Rav Aharon’s Yeshiva grew, but it was a struggle. Rav Aharon himself went collecting to ease the financial burden of supporting the students. Rav Aharon said it is worth walking up 5 flights of stairs for even one dollar to support the Light of Torah.

  5. When Rav Aharon passed away, 20 years later, in 1962, Bais Medrash Govoha of Lakewood had 150 students. And two more Torah L’shmah Yeshivas were opened by students of Rav Aharon, in Missouri (St. Louis) and Pennsylvania (Philadelphia).

    But despite Rav Aharon’s success, people were not deterred from preaching the imminent dousing of the “separatist” flames of Torah in America. Indeed, the words quoted in our “Modern Orthodoxy” boards about the vital necessity of creating a “new type” of Talmid Chachamim and the necessity of integrating into American society were said in the 1960’s, not the 1940’s!

    But Gedolim Tzdikim b’misasan yoser mib’chayehen, “Tzadikim are greater in their death than they are in their life.” By 1980, Beth Medrash Govoha was not only a flourishing Torah institution but the largest Yeshiva in the history of America, the largest in the world, with over 1,000 students.

    Today, BMG boasts over three thousand full time Torah-only students, the largest Yeshiva Klall Yisroel has seen in thousands of years. Literally thousands of new students apply for admission each year, and the number of students accepted is limited only by the physical constraints of available facilities. Dozens of branches of BMG have opened up all over the USA and the world, as far as Australia.


    1999, New York

    “Of late, there seems to be no end to articles in learned journals and the daily press lamenting the impending demise of Modern Orthodoxy “ – Rabbi Dr. Walter S. Wurzburger Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University and Rabbi Emeritus of congregation Shaaray Tefila, Lawrence N.Y. He served as president of the Rabbinical Council of America and of the Synagogue Council of America.

    "To be a modern Orthodox Jew today is often to feel lonely, to be without a community in which to ask ideological questions," said Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, Headmaster, pluralistic New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass ordained at Yeshiva University. Quoted in a JTA article titled, “1,500 modern Orthodox converge to define identity”

    “Modern Orthodoxy needs a new rabbinical school committed to combining the best in Jewish scholarship with the best in Western cultural studies and progressive thinking, argued Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, headmaster of the New Jewish School of Greater Boston. His alma mater, Yeshiva University, has long been recognized as an institution that synthesizes traditional Jewish values and modern culture. But Lehmann called it "a generation behind intellectually. . . We need to be honest," Lehmann said. "We are the left of Orthodoxy." - “Conference probes challenges of modern Orthodoxy “ By JULIA LIEBLICH ASSOCIATED PRESS, 2/99


    "Every single word of newly stated Torah rises straight up to Hashem's Kisei Hakavod. Hashem Himself embraces it, kisses it, crowns it, and holds it dearly. These single words are the material from which the worlds of the future are made". - Rav Chaim Volozhen, Nefesh HaChaim 4:20.


    Rabbi, I'd love to see what you think of this story.

  7. Recipients and PublicityNovember 18, 2012 at 7:03 AM

    Part 2 mentions how Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer too Rav Aron Kotler as his son in law, and also took Rav Shach for his niece:

    "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."


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