Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman

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Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, zt'l

Reb Elchonon Wasserman, zt'l, was born in 1874 in Birz, Lithuania. He studied in Telzer yeshiva under Reb Eliezer Gordon and Reb Shimon Shkop, zt'l. Thereafter he went to Velozin to learn under Reb Chaim Brisker, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yolozin at the time. In 1906 he went to Radin to study in the Kokkel Kodshim, founded by the Chofetz Chaim. In 1910 Reb Chaim Brisker called Reb Elchonon to accept being Rosh Yeshiva in Brisk. It was first in 1921 that Reb Elchonon returned to Poland, to Baranovitch, where he was asked to head the local yeshiva, Ohel Torah. He was to head the yeshiva till the war years when he, together with hundreds of his students sanctified the Almighty's name. Witnesses have recounted that dreadful day--eleventh day in Tamuz, 5701 when the murderers came in. He was in the midst of learning Tractate Nidoh. Reb Elchonon spoke quietly and calmly, as was his practice. Not even the sound of his voice was changed. On his face, his customary earnestness. His tone betrayed no feeling for self, and he did not attempt to say good-bye to his son, Reb Naftali. He spoke to everyone, to the whole House of Israel.

"In Heaven it appears that they deem us to be righteous because our bodies have been chosen to stone for the Jewish people. Therefore, we must repent now, immediately. There is not much time. We must keep in mind that we will be better offerings if we repent. In this way we will save the lives of our brethren overseas.

"Let no thought enter our minds, G-d forbid, which is abominable and which renders an offering unfit. We are now fulfilling the greatest mizvah. With fire she was destroyed and with fire she will be rebuilt. The very fire which consumes our bodies will one day rebuild the Jewish people."

In the summer of 1937 at the third convention of the rabbinical leaders of Agudath Israel held in Mariband, which included hundreds of rabbis, heads of yeshiva religious academies and grand rabbis of Chassidic communities from a number of countries, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman stood out from among all of them.

Rabbi Wasserman (left) with Rabbi Kotler and Rabbi Blau

At the convention in Mariband in 1937 Rabbi Shmuel Aharon Pardes of Chicago, the editor of the rabbinical journal Hapardes, who participated at this convention and who was present at meetings of the Council of Torah Sages that were held during the convention, describes Rabbi Wasserman as follows: “Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, who stood above all the other participants walked with his face towards the ground. His long beard has turned white, and his fear of G-d preceded his scholarly wisdom. He reigns supreme above all the other members of the Council of Torah Sages and the convention itself. He intersperses his speech with simple metaphors hidden with great wisdom that penetrates the hearts of each person according to his level. He is the major disciple of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, the author of the halachic work, Mishna Brurah, and every word he utters is spiced with teachings and wise metaphors from his teacher. When Rabbi Wasserman enters the meeting of the Council, everyone stands in respect, and he asked to speak before anyone else.

On Sunday on the evening of 16th of the Hebrew month of Elul [[August 23, 1937], the rabbinical leaders met to discuss the issue of a “Jewish State.” The meeting was stormy, and it dealt with the issue of the ((Three Oaths)). A great dispute broke out in the session, and Rabbi Wasserman expressed pungent words that shocked his listeners. The following is what he said:

“We must emphasize and declare the position of our holy Torah in order to banish any confusion of ideas. Inasmuch as there are Jews who are Torah-observant who say that a Jewish State would be the “beginning of the Redemption,” we must inform them of the position of our Torah that this is nothing less than the beginning of a new Exile! What do I mean? After all, Jews have been living in Exile for some two thousand years, so how can this be a “beginning” of a new Exile? My intention is to expose the so-called Jewish Communists. An Exile such as this has never existed until today. None of us can even describe such an exile, an Exile under Jews! Only Jews from Russia have a slight sense of this situation, even though the regime there is not a “Jewish” one. One of the great rabbis of this generation recently told me that the term “beginning of the Redemption” in reference to the Zionist movement makes his hair stand on end!

“However, it could be said that it does bring the Redemption closer. The great Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (who lived in the 18th century) stated (see Kol Yerushalayim, 22 Elul 1937) that effect of Jewish suffering is that it brings the Redemption closer, and because the misfortune of a “Jewish State” would bring greater suffering upon us, it could be said that this brings the Redemption closer, as was the case in Egypt, that the oppression of bondage hastened the Redemption.”

In Hapardes (Year 11, Issue 7) Rabbi Pardes describes what he saw at the Convention: “Rabbi Wasserman, Rabbi Kotler, Rabbi Rottenberg from Antwerp, rabbis from Czechoslovakia and Hungary were unanimous in rejecting any proposal for a “Jewish State” on either side of the Jordan River, even if it were established as a religious state because such a regime would be a form of heresy in our faith in the belief in the coming of the Messiah, and especially since this little “Jewish” state would be built on heresy and desecration of the Name of G-d.

The late Rabbi Shlomo Rottenberg (a historian and author of Toldos Am Olam and other works), who also attended the Convention in 1937 used to say that he could still remember what was discussed there, and the harsh opposition of these rabbinical leaders to a “Jewish State” that is a violation of the ((Three Oaths)) mentioned in the Talmud. (Rabbi A.L. Spitzer)

[[1] Hapardes, Chicago Year 11, Issue 6 (August 1937)

Has Destroyed More, the Arabs or the Zionists? (This essay was written by Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman zt'l after the disturbances in Hebron in 1929 which left some 50-60 yeshiva students dead and is very apropos the most recent events on the West Bank. Ed.)

In vol. 231 of Das Yidishe Tagblat from 9 Tamuz 1939, R. Elchonon Wasserman said the following when asked about the terror methods of the Zionists:

"They (the Zionists) should be considered as persecutors (rodfim) against the Jewish People. It is forbidden to use such methods".

He once said regarding the Zionists in his novella on the Talmud: "It is known that the Jewish People always suffer from two things:

1) Outsiders, and 2) Insiders with their false messiahs, with whom they promise to return to the Holy Land. Their ultimate end is the giving up of Judaism by thousands of Jews."

"And in the Holy Land it is beyond any doubt, that the land will vomit them from its midst, for it is the "palace of the King" and does not hold evildoers...I do not come to curse... but because, this is exactly what is stated in the Torah, against our will it will come to pass..."