by D. Sofer
This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. and is reprinted here with their permission
The Telshe Yeshiva buzzed with activity, and the beis medrash where the rosh yeshiva, Rav Eliezer Gordon, also known as Rav Leizer Telzer, was giving shiur seemed more like a battlefield than a lecture hall. One student would ask a question, a second would offer an answer, while a third would passionately dispute it. Then Rav Eliezer Gordon would join the debate, sometimes stepping down from the bima into the middle of the shiur room and mingling with his students.
Once, the bochurim decided not to challenge Rav Eliezer in the middle of his shiur, but to maintain the silence that customarily prevails in yeshivos during the shiur klali. Rav Eliezer was stunned by the response - actually the lack thereof - and declared, "I'm not used to giving a shiur in a cemetery." Rav Eliezer's conduct during his shiurim was a by-product of his total absorption in Torah; Torah study was his greatest joy in life and when he was involved in learning, he was totally oblivious to his surroundings. When faced with a difficult kasha he felt saddened and wouldn't eat or sleep until he had resolved it. When he finally unraveled the difficulty, he would glow with joy.
Only a man with such enthusiasm and with so ardent a love of Torah could head a yeshiva like Telshe, whose bochurim spoke in Torah everywhere they went - even in Telshe's fields and alleyways. As rosh yeshiva, he was perfectly suited for them, and they for him.
SHAMAYAIM WATCHED OVER HIM
Rav Eliezer Gordon was born in 5601/1841 in the Lithuanian village of Chernian. His father, Rav Avraham Shmuel Gordon, had studied under Rav Chaim of Volozhin. Although Rav Avraham earned his living as a brandy maker, he spent every moment of his spare time studying Torah. Rav Chaim, who held him in high esteem, would often tell his students that although Rav Avraham looked like a simple tradesman, he was actually an outstanding talmid chacham.
Since there was no mohel in Chernian, Rav Avraham Shmuel took his newborn son by sleigh to the nearby town of Svir for his bris. On the way, the sleigh suddenly slipped, and the infant fell out.
The family, however, only realized what had happened once they had traveled quite a distance. Turning back, they began to search for the baby, finding him hours later at the outskirts of the forest between Chernian and Svir. They panicked when they saw a wolf standing beside him. But upon closer inspection, they realized the wolf hadn't harmed him; rather, it was guarding him. Obviously, the wolf had been sent by Shamayim to protect the baby, who soon had his bris and was named Eliezer.
As a youngster, Eliezer studied in the Zaretza Yeshiva in Vilna. From there, he transferred to Rav Yisroel Salanter's yeshiva in Kovno.
Among the yeshiva's outstanding students at that time were Rav Yitzchok Blazer, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, Rav Naftali Amsterdam, Rav Yerucham Perlman and Rav Yaakov Yosef.
Rav Yisroel Salanter realized that Rav Eliezer had the makings of a rosh yeshiva, and he trained him to one day assume such a position, appointing him a maggid shiur in his yeshiva. Rav Eliezer married the daughter of the wealthy and pious Rav Avraham Yitzchok Noveizer, who served as Rav of Kovno. Rav Avraham supported the young couple for a number of years, refusing to let Rav Eliezer assume any rabbinical position. In time, Rav Eliezer was offered a position as rav of the prestigious towns of Aliksot and Eishishok. But his fatherin- law refused to let him accept them, saying, "Who knows whether we are sustaining him with our financial support, or he is sustaining us with his Torah?"
After his father-in-law's petira, Rav Eliezer succeeded him as rav of Kovno. But he left after three months to accept the position of rav in Kelm, where he founded a yeshiva. From there, he headed to Slabodka, where he served as rav for about six months. After that, he proceeded to what would be his final destination: Telshe.
Telshe at that time had a small kibbutz, or study group, of outstanding talmidim, which had been founded in 5637/1877 by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. and Rav Eliezer Chavas. Among its students were Rav Meir Atlas, Rav Yaakov Tzvi Oppenheim, Rav Shlomo Abel and Rav Shimon Shkop. Rav Eliezer devoted all of his efforts to the development of this kibbutz, until it eventually grew into one of the most famous yeshivos in the world.
He also instituted a new learning approach in the yeshiva, based primarily on logic and the understanding of the Gemara. Until that time, its students had mainly analyzed the commentaries of the Acharonim, such as Pnei Yehoshua, Maharsha and Maharam Shif. Rav Eliezer, though, directed them to probe the works of the Rishonim, such as Ramban, Rashba and Ritva, who delve deeply into the Gemara's pshat. However, he also included some Acharonim in their course of study, among them the Ketzos Hachoshen, Nesivos Hamisphat and Rav Akiva Eiger, who employ the method of analysis he advocated.
Another of his innovations was dividing the yeshiva into various classes, enabling students to proceed at paces commensurate to their ages and intellectual levels. In other yeshivos at that time, all the students learned in one general shiur.
The maggidei shiur during that period were Rav Shimon Shkop, Rav Chaim Rabinowitz and Rav Yosef Leib Bloch. Rav Eliezer himself delivered the highest-level shiur.
At first, things in the yeshiva proceeded smoothly. But in time, a fiery dispute shattered its esprit de corps. This dispute was sparked by the introduction of mussar study into the yeshiva's curriculum.
During his early years as rosh yeshiva, Rav Eliezer appointed special mussar mashgichim to supervise the students' spiritual development and to shape their characters according to Rav Yisroel Salanter's approach. Its first mussar mashgiach was Rav Ben Zion Kranitz, a student of Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm. Rav Ben Zion was very mild mannered, and he didn't force his students to accept the mussar approach.
However, in 5657/1897, when Haskala's venom began to seep even into the yeshiva, Rav Eliezer engaged a new mussar mashgiach - the dynamic Rav Leib Chasman, who instituted a very strict mussar regime in the yeshiva.
Many of the students, however, opposed this approach, and a major battle erupted. At times, the opponents of the mussar approach made various demands and went on strike until their terms were met.
Rav Eliezer was very upset by this discord, and once fell ill as a result. Nonetheless, he insisted on maintaining this regime and approach, and he expelled the leaders of the rebellion. On another occasion, he disbanded the entire yeshiva, and founded it anew without foregoing the yeshiva's mussar character.
One time, during the mussar controversy, the yeshiva's administration withheld the rebellious students' stipends. When their representative requested that the stipends be resumed, Rav Eliezer asked, "What are they doing now?" "They're learning well, but are starving," he replied. Rav Eliezer was shocked, and despite the conflict, he gave the representative a large sum to distribute among the recalcitrant students.
Rav Eliezer's son-in-law Rav Yosef Leib Bloch supported him in his efforts to fortify the mussar approach in the yeshiva. At one point, he decided to leave the yeshiva, hoping that his departure would cause the controversy to subside. He left Telshe in 5662/1902 and assumed a position as rav of Verna and Shadova. Rav Shimon Shkop also left the yeshiva at that time, and he was replaced by Rav Chaim Rabinowitz, formerly a rebbi in Knesses Yisroel and Knesses Beis Yitzchok of Slabodka.
Other outstanding talmidei chachamim who served as mussar mashgichim in the yeshiva were Rav Nesanel Yosef Graz, Rav Eliezer Luft and Rav Shmuel Fundiler. The latter two were sent by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, along with scores of the finest mussar talmidim of Slabodka, to strengthen the yeshiva from a mussar aspect. These students succeeded in planting deep mussar roots in the yeshiva, and even though rebellions still surged, the proponents of the mussar approach exceeded the opponents and overcame them.
Rav Eliezer's dedication to his students was legendary. While he was in Kelm, two of his students were drafted into the army, and a large sum of money was needed to secure their release. Rav Eliezer, who was unable to raise the necessary funds, gave the authorities the crowns of the local shul's Torah scrolls as collateral. When Kelm's communal leaders protested, he said, "The finest crown for the Torah scrolls is the Torah study of these students."
While in Telshe, he often had to go out on fund-raising missions himself. But nothing was too difficult for him when the welfare of his beloved students was at stake.
Prior to his daughter's marriage, Rav Eliezer received a large sum of money from his father-in-law, the wealthy Rav Boruch Brody, to cover the wedding expenses. At that time, however, the yeshiva was in dire financial straits and lacked money for food. Rav Eliezer used the entire dowry to provide the students with their basic needs, without taking his own family's needs into consideration.
FIGHTING THE MASKILIM
While still a young man in Kovno, Rav Eliezer was drafted into the war against the maskilim by none other than Rav Yisroel Salanter.
At Rav Yisroel's urging, Rav Eliezer and Rav Alexander Moshe Lapidus of Rasein successfully transformed the Halevanon newspaper into a sounding board for Torah-true Jewry in Russia.
In 5633/1873 the Russian authorities insisted that all melamdim complete an advanced course of secular studies by a certain date. As the deadline neared, the maskilim demanded that the decree be officially passed, and that every cheder whose melamdim hadn't met the requirements be closed.
Since not a single melamed had enrolled in such a course, it was feared that all of the chadarim in Russia would be shut down.
Although Rav Eliezer was still a young man at that time, Lithuania's Torah sages, among them Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, chose him to represent them before the government, sending him to Petersburg to try and annul the decree. Due to his success in this endeavor, too, the maskilim began to harass him when he became Rav of Kovno after his father-in-law's passing. The maskilim knew that Rav Eliezer no longer had someone to support him and needed an income. They tried to make him resign by influencing the town council not to pay him for his first three years as rav since his father-in-law, who had been very wealthy, had never taken a salary.
Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, however, was very eager to have Rav Eliezer serve as Kovno's rav. He had his secretary, Rav Yaakov Lipshitz, collect enough money to cover Rav Eliezer's salary for three years. Three months later, however, Rav Eliezer accepted a position as rav of Kelm, because it offered him a greater opportunity to strengthen Torah. Before leaving Kovno, Rav Eliezer returned all of the money he had received from Rav Spector.
COMMUNAL ACTIVITY IN TELSHE
In Telshe, Rav Eliezer was also deeply involved in communal affairs, and the amendments he instituted there are indicative of his greatness of spirit and his mussar nature. At that time, matza bakeries employed men, women and even children during the day and throughout most of the night. Deploring this situation, Rav Eliezer issued strict orders to close all of Telshe's matza bakeries by 11 p.m. His official reason for the order was that after that time the workers were too tired to maintain scrupulous kashrus standards. However, he told his family that his real purpose was to protect the workers from being exploited and overworked.
To enforce this order, Rav Eliezer ruled that any bakery owner who disregarded it would be deprived of his kashrus certificate. He disguised his true reason for issuing the law because at that time social welfare was not in vogue.
Seeing that storekeepers used worn and inaccurate weights and measures, he also issued an order requiring them to exchange their weights for new ones. To enforce this order, he personally inspected the weights of the market vendors, forbidding them to use the old ones even when non-Jewish customers made purchases. Rav Eliezer's son-in-law Rav Zalman Sorotzkin relates that when non-Jews came to Telshe's market, they would ask that their items be weighed on "the rav's scales."
The gentiles respected Rav Eliezer so much that they would also ask him to bless them. One time a gentile entreated him, "I want my enemy to die. Please curse him!" To this Rav Eliezer replied, "Pray, instead, that he will befriend you." Once, Rav Eliezer met the governor of the Vilna district and blessed him with success. Years later that governor became Russia's prime minister and he told his close confidants about Rav Eliezer's blessing.
On another occasion, Rav Eliezer protested the meat tax that Telshe's Jewish residents were forced to pay. Rav Eliezer insisted that this money not be used for churches or gentile schools, and he convinced the district's authorities to allocate large sums from these revenues for the building of mikvaos and for shul maintenance.
OUTWITTING THE AUTHORITIES
Rav Eliezer also knew how to outwit the authorities when necessary. His resourcefulness saved the yeshiva, which was officially illegal, many times.
One time, the maskilim reported the existence of the yeshiva in Telshe to the mayor, who in turn sent an inspector to investigate the matter. When the inspector entered the beis medrash, it was filled to capacity.
Naturally, the first person the inspector approached was Rav Eliezer, who at that time was wrapped in tallis and tefillin and was poring over his Gemara.
Looking up for a brief moment, Rav Eliezer said, "I can't interrupt my studies to talk to you now. But have a seat and begin filling out your report."
In the meantime, Rav Eliezer motioned to the students to leave the beis medrash quickly. By the time the inspector had finished writing, only 20 students remained. "Can I see your report?" Rav Eliezer asked him. "Sure," the proud inspector replied. After reading it, Rav Eliezer turned to the inspector in surprise and said, "The report states that the yeshiva has hundreds of students. Why not count how many are actually here? If you made a mistake your superiors will fire you."
Since a beis medrash with only 20 students could not be legally defined as a yeshiva, the inspector was forced to report that there was no yeshiva in Telshe.
In 5668/1908, a fire broke out in Telshe, destroying all of the wooden homes in the city, including the yeshiva. As a result, Rav Eliezer, who was nearly 70, traveled to Berlin and London to collect the money needed to rebuild these homes and the yeshiva. It was winter, and Rav Eliezer's doctors warned him that England's blustery weather was dangerous to his heath, especially since he had suffered a heart attack a few years earlier. However, Rav Eliezer could not be deterred.
London's rabbanim called a large meeting on his behalf and many of the city's wealthy Jewish residents were in attendance. At the meeting Rav Eliezer tearfully described the plight of the yeshiva and the hardships it was enduring.
However, the audience's reaction was lukewarm, and Rav Eliezer took it as a sign that his efforts to save the yeshiva would not succeed. In his sorrow, he suffered a severe heart attack that very night, 5 Adar I, 5670/1910.
The Jewish world was shocked by his petira, as well as by the circumstances that led to it. A large levaya was held in London, where he was buried. Until today, his grave is visited by Jews seeking yeshuos.
After Rav Eliezer's passing, his legacy was perpetuated by the illustrious Telshe Yeshiva and the many generations of outstanding students he produced.