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Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz ZT"L The Alter of Novardok

by D. Sofer

This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. and is reprinted here with their permission

"Imagine this scenario: A person decides that he wants to kasher his kitchen. But he claims, ‘Changing my dishes all at once involves throwing out an entire set and buying a brand new one. That’s quite an expense at one time. I’ll go about the kashering step by step. Today I’ll throw out one plate and replace it with a new one, tomorrow with a second and the next day with a third.’

“Of course, once a new plate is mixed with the old ones, it becomes treife like the rest. To kasher a kitchen, one must throw out all of his old dishes at once.

“The same holds true in respect to changing one’s character traits or way of life. One must change them in an instant because there is no guarantee that the anxieties and pressures that deter him on any given day will not deter him the following day, too, since anxieties and pressures are never ending. The time to leave one’s past and to devote oneself to Torah study is now” (Madreigas Ha’adam, Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz).

Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the Alter of Novardok, practiced what he preached. He changed his entire way of life in an instant – not once, but twice.

Rav Yosef Yoizel began married life as a textile merchant. But after a providential encounter with Rav Yisroel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement, he closed his business and devoted himself solely to Torah study, withdrawing completely from society.

Later, after another providential encounter, this time with Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm, he emerged from his seclusion and became one of the great disseminators of Torah of his time.

He founded the Novardok school of mussar and its network of Torah institutions, all the while seeking to reach the top rung of the ladder of human perfection.

BEGINNINGS

Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz was born in 5608 in the Lithuanian town of Plongian. His father, Rav Shlomo Zalman, was a dayan and rav in Plongian for many years. He later served as rav of Kurtovian, a position he held for nearly 20 years.

Rav Shlomo Zalman was so removed from worldly affairs that the only type of coin he was familiar with was the one he gave the mikveh attendant every Erev Shabbos. His wife, who was also very pious, was renowned for her kindness and hospitality.

Rav Shlomo Zalman personally taught his children. Despite his detachment from mundane affairs, he knew how to curb the lively Yosef Yoizel and channel all of his surplus energy into Torah pursuits.

When Rav Yosef Yoizel was still a youth, he became engaged to the daughter of Rav Yaakov Stein, a shopkeeper from Shvekesna. Rav Yaakov had promised Rav Yosef Yoizel a generous dowry, but a short while before the wedding, Rav Yaakov passed away, leaving behind a widow and eight children, the oldest of whom was Rav Yosef Yoizel’s kalla.

After the wedding, Rav Yosef Yoizel assumed the management of his father-in-law’s business, as well as the support of Rav Yaakov’s wife and children.

AS A MERCHANT

Before long, Rav Yosef Yoizel became a skilled merchant. But he was unlike other tradesmen. Between transactions at his textile store, he would learn from the Gemara he kept on the counter. And when he had to travel to the city fair to purchase wares, he would conclude his business quickly and rush home to deliver his daily shiur to baalei batim and bnei Torah.

Once, during one of his business trips to nearby Memel, a fellow merchant suggested that they daven at the local beis medrash where Rav Yisroel Salanter delivered shiurim prior to Mincha.

After the shiur, Rav Yisroel struck up a conversation with Rav Yosef Yoizel and then invited him to attend future shiurim.

Rav Yosef Yoizel, who was deeply impressed by Rav Yisroel’s talk, accepted the invitation, and whenever he was in Memel, he would attend Rav Yisroel’s shiurim and visit him personally.

During these private encounters, Rav Yisroel would encourage Rav Yosef Yoizel to make Torah study his primary pursuit. After attending a number of shiurim, Rav Yosef Yoizel resolved to close his business and devote himself solely to Torah.

On one visit to Memel, Rav Yosef Yoizel told Rav Yisroel that he had decided to leave Shvekesna for a certain period, and to study Torah full time.

Rav Yisroel tried to dissuade him from taking such a drastic step, but to no avail. When Rav Yisroel asked Rav Yosef Yoizel how his wife would react to the decision, he replied, “She has always understood me, and she will understand me this time, too.”

Before setting out for Kovno, where he planned to study, the 25-year-old Rav Yosef Yoizel visited his father in Kurtovian. His father was very upset with his decision and asked him how he could leave his family and eight children.

Rav Yosef Yoizel explained that he had saved up some money, which he would give his wife, and he would also send her his monthly stipend from the kollel in Kovno. In addition, he promised to keep in touch with his family by mail, and to supervise his children’s chinuch from Kovno, which wasn’t far from Shvekesna.

Like Rav Yisroel Salanter, Rav Yosef Yoizel’s father asked, “What does your wife say about all this?” Once again Rav Yosef Yoizel replied, “She has always understood me, and she will understand me this time, too.”

The exchange of letters between Rav Yosef Yoizel and his wife while he was in Kovno reflects her understanding of his need to detach himself from society for a period of time, despite his longings and concern for his family.

ALONE IN KOVNO

On the advice of Rav Yisroel Salanter, Rav Yosef Yoizel joined Kovno’s Kollel Perushim where he studied under Rav Itzele Blazer, Rav Naftali Amsterdam and Rav Avraham Shenker, some of Rav Yisroel Salanter’s greatest mussar students.

During that period, Rav Yosef Yoizel spent at least 18 hours a day – most of the time standing– studying Shas and poskim. He also attended mussar shiurim given by Rav Blazer and Rav Shenker.

After a while, Rav Yosef Yoizel brought his wife and children to Kovno, where he continued his rigorous study schedule.

In Kovno, Rav Yosef Yoizel’s wife gave birth to two more children. But then she died in childbirth.

This tragedy had a profound effect on Rav Yosef Yoizel, and it heightened his resolve to totally retreat from the world. With great sorrow, he divided his children among relatives. He then secluded himself in a room in the home of one of Kovno’s residents, a tinsmith by the name of Rav Shlomo, who was a simple but very pious Jew who loved Torah and talmidei chachamim.

Rav Yosef Yoizel remained in that room for a year and a half without emerging from it even once. In order to guarantee his solitude, he blocked the entrance to his room with a brick wall, which contained two small windows through which he maintained contact with his landlord when necessary.

If Rav Yosef Yoizel needed anything, he would leave a note for Rav Shlomo on the windowsill, return to his room, and ring a bell to indicate that he had left the note. Rav Shlomo would prepare what Rav Yosef Yoizel had requested and ring an outside bell to inform him that he had brought the item.

Rav Yosef Yoizel also had a mikveh on the premises, donated by the wealthy Rav E. Lachman, as well a Shas, the Shulchan Aruch and major mussar works.

Many people were opposed to Rav Yosef Yoizel’s approach of seclusion. But even Rav Yosef Yoizel himself didn’t believe that a man should detach himself from life permanently. His seclusion was just a stage in a longer process leading toward the attainment of his ultimate goal in life.

FORCED TO LEAVE

In 5642, the maskilim published a series of articles in which they ridiculed Rav Yosef Yoizel’s seclusion. Later, they threw a bundle of forged banknotes into his yard and then informed the police that his hideout was a base for the manufacture of counterfeit money.

That day, Rav Yosef Yoizel’s mother came to visit him. Noticing the suspicious looking bundle in the yard, she burned it. Soon afterward, the police stormed Rav Yosef Yoizel’s room and broke down the wall. Although they found nothing suspicious they forbade him to live in seclusion.

A short while after he emerged from seclusion, his mentors urged him to remarry. One evening, Rav Yosef Yoizel passed Rav Shlomo’s house and heard someone crying. The following day, when he met Rav Shlomo, he asked what had happened.

Rav Shlomo told him that the young man whom his daughter, Chaya Rivka, was supposed to marry, had broken the engagement. Rav Yosef Yoizel was very touched by Rav Shlomo’s plight and felt a deep sense of gratitude to him. He told Rav Shlomo he would marry Chaya Rivka, but only on the condition that he be allowed to isolate himself all week, returning to his family only for Shabbos and Yom Tov. Rav Shlomo agreed to this condition, and the match was finalized.

In time, Rav Gershon Chirinsky, a lumber merchant from Zushan, built a special forest retreat, where Rav Yosef Yoizel secluded himself for 12 years, visiting his family only on Shabbos.

While in that forest, Rav Yosef Yoizel decided to continue living in seclusion for the rest of his life. But Hashem had other plans for him.

TURNABOUT

In 5654 Rav Yosef Yoizel began to visit the Alter of Kelm, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, in Kelm’s beis hamussar. During these visits, Rav Simcha Zissel persuaded Rav Yosef Yoizel that the times demanded that all those capable of influencing the masses should make an all-out effort to counteract the pernicious influences of the Haskala Movement.

Once more, Rav Yosef Yoizel made a drastic change in his life. He left his seclusion and soon became an ardent Torah leader and activist, founding kollelim and yeshivos throughout Russia and Poland. These institutions were financed by Rav E. Lachman and headed by Rav Itzele Blazer (Also known as Rav Itzele Peterburger).

The first kollel Rav Yosef Yoizel founded was in Lubatch, a city near Novardok. He then founded a network of kollelim in 20 Polish and Russian towns, among them Shavli, Dvinsk, Minsk, Warsaw, Berditchev, Novardok, Odessa, Lida and Zettel. These kollelim attracted some of Russia’s finest talmidim, who later became outstanding gedolei Torah.

Once a kollel was established, Rav Yosef Yoizel would urge his students to establish adjoining yeshiva ketanas and yeshiva gedolas. In that manner, the network began to spread, until it became a vibrant movement.

Rav Yosef Yoizel also founded a yeshiva gedola in Novardok, where the alumni of the many yeshiva ketanas he had established came to study. In a short time, more than 300 students were enrolled in this yeshiva.

THE NOVARDOK YESHIVA

At first, Rav Yosef Yoizel served as both the rosh yeshiva and mashgiach of the Novardok Yeshiva, delivering shiurim in Gemara and mussar. In time, though, he appointed renowned talmidei chachamim to deliver the Gemara shiurim, while he focused on developing the mussar aspect of the yeshiva.

One of the highlights of the yeshiva’s mussar program was its daily “mussar hour.” During these sessions, students engaged in fiery soul-searching.

Rav Yosef Yoizel also formulated a special program aimed at helping students break their negative character traits and acquire new ones. This program consisted of various exercises designed to provide students with “spiritual courage”, a courage that would embue them with the confidence to do whatever was needed to promote Yiddishkeit despite any deterrents that would arise. One such exercise called for them to act strangely in public, so that people would ridicule them. For this exercise, bochurim from the Novardok yeshiva would enter a shop and ask for a product not sold there, such as watermelons in a drugstore or screws in a bakery.

Other students would wear old, patched clothing in an attempt to break their pride, while all Novardok students would share their personal belonging with friends to rid themselves of their desires for worldly possessions.

‘AS THEY OPPRESSED THEM, SO THEY INCREASED’

When World War I broke out, Rav Yosef Yoizel decided to move the yeshiva from the border, to which the Germans were rapidly advancing. Some thought that it would be better to remain in Novardok and be conquered by the Germans who, during that period, were better to the Jews than the Russians, at least from a financial standpoint.

Rav Yosef Yoizel, however, reasoned that German rule was more spiritually dangerous than Russian rule, since Germany was the cradle of the Haskala Movement. As a result, he did not permit the yeshiva to remain in Novardok.

In 5675, Rav Yosef Yoizel set out for the Ukraine in search of new quarters for the yeshiva. Before leaving, he told his students that if the Germans neared Novardok, they should flee in the direction of the Ukraine.

Rav Yosef Yoizel soon arrived in the Russian city of Hommel and found quarters for the yeshiva there. In the meantime, the Germans conquered the area near Novardok, and the yeshiva students fled to Hommel.

In Hommel, they were greeted by Rav Yaakov Katz, who allowed them to live in his home. But it soon became so crowded that they had to move to a nearby beis medrash, and then to various shuls in the city.

By the end of the summer of 5675, 80 students had reached Hommel, and the yeshiva was reestablished.

Despite the grim wartime circumstances, the fervor with which the Novardok students studied increased in Hommel, and that period was one of the finest in the course of the yeshiva’s history.

In time, students from other yeshivos joined the Novardok yeshiva in Hommel, among them students from Slabodka, Radin and Mir, who were also fleeing the Germans. Soon, local youths who had never studied in yeshivos, as well as students of Hommel’s secular gymnasia, began to attend shiurim in the yeshiva, and eventually became bona fide yeshiva bochurim.

As the war grew fiercer, the economic situation of the yeshiva worsened, and there were times when the students had nothing to eat. This, however, this did not dampen their spirits or desire to learn.

Soon, however, pressure was exerted on the bochurim to enlist in the Russian army, and Rav Yosef Yoizel decided to scatter his students throughout various cities in Russia so that they wouldn’t be drafted.

Although this proved to be difficult, the forced dispersal had positive results, with the students founding yeshivos wherever they went.

Most of the students opened makeshift yeshivos in shuls where they taught Jews who were very distant from Yiddishkeit. As a result, many Jews were inspired to change their lifestyles and send their children to yeshivos.

During that period, the students also established yeshivos in Kiev, Kharkov, Vizny-Novogrov, Rostov, Zhitomir, Berditchev, Tsritsin, Saratov, Plogid and Tchernigov.

Wherever a Novardok yeshiva opened, a network of mechinas would spring up in nearby villages, attracting young boys. The Novardok students would also conduct outreach campaigns, encouraging Jewish children to enroll in yeshivos. The main emphasis in these yeshivos was on Gemara study, and they produced many outstanding talmidei chachamim.

The directors of these yeshivos were in constant contact with Rav Yosef Yoizel, who guided and visited them, spending nearly every Shabbos in a different town. Since he was quite elderly by that time, his closest students tried to dissuade him from making such journeys. However, he would respond by citing the verse, “And Avraham journeyed, continuously traveling,” on which the Malbim comments, “He went to sanctify Hashem’s name.”

One year, Rav Yosef Yoizel spent Rosh Hashana in Hommel, Shabbos Shuva in Kiev and Yom Kippur in Kharkov, cities which were very distant from one another.

DISCONCERTING NEWS

In 5678, wartime circumstances forced Rav Yosef Yoizel to transfer the yeshiva from Hommel to Kiev, where he founded four more yeshiva gedolas.

However, the Bolsheviks, who had seized control of Russia, soon began to terrorize its citizens, especially the Jews. Jewish refugees from Russia’s small towns fled to Kiev, hoping to find shelter there. But Kiev’s Jews were not spared from the Russian’s riots and rampages.

During Succos 5680, the Russians made pogroms in Kiev, killing hundreds of Jews. Many Jews in the area sought shelter in Rav Yosef Yoizel’s home, believing that they would be spared in his merit.

On Simchas Torah, the situation worsened, but Rav Yosef Yoizel instructed his students to conduct hakafos as usual. As the rioters passed Rav Yosef Yoizel’s house, they fired at its windows. Everyone dropped to the floor – except Rav Yosef Yoizel, who remained standing at the head of the table, kiddush cup in hand.

After Succos, a typhoid epidemic broke out in Kiev, taking the lives of thousands of its residents. Rav Yosef Yoizel’s home soon filled with invalids to whom he personally attended.

In Kislev, he contracted the disease, and he never recovered from it. While his fever raged, he would get off his sickbed to attend to the needs of the invalids who filled him home.

He was niftar on the 17th of Kislev 5680.

News of his petira spread like wildfire, and the Jews of Kiev and its suburbs streamed to his funeral. The last to eulogize him was his closest student Rav Dovid Budnik, who urged the Novardok bochurim to uphold Rav Yosef Yoizel’s spiritual legacy.

Faithful to their illustrious mentor, these students continued to spread Torah throughout the Diaspora.

Forty-three years after Rav Yosef Yoizel’s petira, his students transferred his coffin to Eretz Yisroel. In the summer of 5723, he was buried on Har Hamenuchos in Yerushalayim.

The Torah tells us, “Beis Yosef shall be a flame.” Indeed, the flame of Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the Alter of Novardok, continues to glow.

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

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