Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky

Historian & Electronics Engineer

M.Sc.

Ph.D.

Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky

Historian & Electronics Engineer

M.Sc.

Ph.D.

 

The Merchant of the Czar Says Hadran 

 

One day in the summer of 2014 as I was going through some family letters I suddenly found an old piece of paper. I unfolded it and before me was my grandfather’s handwriting, my mother’s father, Abraham Yakov Langleben. It was a draft of the “hadran” sermon he gave for the completion of the study of the six orders of the Mishnah in the “Taharath Hakodesh” Synagogue in Vilna during the Soviet regime.[1] Several drafts of the sermons that my grandfather gave in the synagogue are in my mother’s archives, and therefore, I wasn’t surprised to find this one. Apparently, this was a traditional hadran. However, I had never seen this sermon before and I decided to read it.

 

The sermon started with a quote from Tractate Sabbath on performing the mitzvoth (commandments) punctiliously by the Babylonian Talmudic sages: “Rav Nachman said: May I be rewarded for observing three Sabbath meals. Rav Yehudah said: May I be rewarded for observing devotion in prayers… and Abbaye said: May I be rewarded for that when I see a disciple completing his tractate – I make a celebration for the scholars”.[2]

 

After my grandfather had discussed the essence of reward that the Talmudic sages were so proud of,[3] he began to admonish the audience: “when I saw that we were finishing the Teharoth Order[4] with just a ‘dry’ kaddish, and the same was surely done when the previous orders of Mishnah were completed, it was clear I couldn’t hold back and let things pass without giving them their due”.

From these words it is understood that this was the first siyum (completion) that my grandfather led in the Vilna Community. Why did he choose to emphasize that it was clear he couldn’t hold back? What is clear here and why did he admonish the spectators? The answer I discovered in the long and winding way he had travelled until this moment when he was at the aforementioned event in the synagogue in Vilna.

 

My grandfather was born in 1892 in the tiny town of Kinerishok in the Alexot District. At that time this district was a part of the Suvalk Province in the Congress Poland monarchy, and very near the city of Kovna, which was part of the Russian Empire. As a young adult, my grandfather learned accounting and began working in a large factory, owned by the Stein family, which sold products to the Russian army. A while later he decided to work as an independent wholesaler and he was quite successful. His substantial finances allowed him to join the First Merchants’ Guild, and at a very young age he became one of the primary produce suppliers to the Czar’s army in the northwest region of the Russian Empire.[5]

 
 

Abraham Yakov Langleben before the First World War

On August 1, 1914, World War One broke out. At the beginning the Russian army was successful but over time it was thwarted by the Germans. The army commanders made the Jews into scapegoats and blamed them with spying for the hated Germans. These plots became stronger as the war continued, and deportation orders were issued to the Jews who lived in the border towns of Poland and Lithuania. Eventually, a deportation order was issued to most of the Jews of Kovna Province as well.[6] My grandfather’s fate was better than most and he was saved from these evil decrees. Because of his sensitive role with the Russian war effort he was granted the license to stay put, and he was spared from the suffering and hardship which were the plight of many other Jews.

 

The wicked tricks of the Russians against the Jews didn’t help their strategic position, and the Germans attacked them on their front in the summer of 1915. The Russian army began to quickly evacuate from its bases and moved eastward. The officers liked and admired my grandfather, who was a gentle soul and did his work with integrity, and implored him to join them: “Come with us Abram Hayimovitch, and we will protect you!” However, my grandfather didn’t comply with their request. He preferred to stay home even though there were doubts about the nearing German army.[7]

 

Due to his business my grandfather settled in Kovna. Early in 1918, Lithuania declared independence and at the end of 1920, Kovna became its temporary capital city. My grandfather ran a large wholesale business for foodstuffs. He worked hard, and the effort paid off. He also studied Oral Torah and never neglected his learning. His morning routine is described by my mother in her book:

 
 
 

My grandfather was involved in the spiritual activity in Kovna, and amongst other things, participated in the daily Talmud lesson. These studies began during the German occupation, when the first exilees were returning to the city. The lessons were given by the rabbi of the “Tailors’ Synagogue”, Shmuel Hayim Yantchuk.

Rabbi  Shmuel Hayim Yantchuk

 

The large closing party of the Talmud was held in the Tailor’s Synagogue. It was glorious and impressive, and was one of the nicest and most distinctive events that our Jewish Kovna has seen. The ceremony was according to a planned schedule. Before the Sabbath, the synagogue was decorated with flags, pictures and banners. On Sabbath morning, the chazzan [cantor] led the services, many were called to the Torah reading, and they promised contributions to both the synagogue and “Etz Hayim” Yeshiva.[10]

Upon completion of learning the Talmud on Sunday morning, there was a ceremony with the participants, fifty men, and many guests. The audience, in holiday attire and in festive spirit, gathered around the tables. The rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Hayim, may his light shine, finished the Talmud and gave the honor of saying the hadran to the Ponevezh Rabbi, his excellency Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, who had been invited to the happy occasion.

The Ponevezh Rabbi said the hadran with devotion and expertise. The entire audience listened to him intently. For a long time the attendees will remember the profundity of the hadran. Afterwards, the Ponevezh Rabbi told Aggadah [Talmudic tales] that enriched the listeners’ experience...

At six in the evening, everyone gathered in the synagogue for the afternoon service and from there went to the home of Mr. Meisel for a mitzvah meal. The guests were greeted with large banners that read: “Welcome to the Siyum Festivities!”, and Mr. Meisel and his family welcomed the guests warmly, and ushered them to their tables which were heavily laden with food. The rabbi of the Nay-Plan neighborhood, Rabbi Bilitzky, said the hadran clearly and fluently and added words of Aggadah, and then the mitzvah meal began... Everyone felt a sense of spirituality, and festive songs and dancing lasted well into the night...

It is noteworthy to mention the mitzvah party organizers: Mr. Abraham Langleben and his wife, Mrs. Kirkel, Mr. Meisel and his family, Mr. Benjamin Kopelov and Bezalel Feldman, who invested great effort in order to make the occasion as pleasant as possible, and thank God it was very successful...

 
 

Page from Abraham Yakov Langleben’s calendar (From the Ends of the Earth, p. 97)

 

In late 1949 my grandfather managed to leave the Arctic Circle and move to the large Siberian city, Yakutsk, which was far more “humane”. However, even there, the climate was still incredibly difficult and sometimes even extreme.[13]

 

The final release from the Siberian exile was only in 1956. My grandfather moved with his family to Vilna. There he found a completely different atmosphere than that to which he had grown accustomed in Siberia. To imagine it, it is worth reading the letter of his son-in-law, my father, who described this new reality to his brother in Israel:

 
 

A month ago we eulogized him in the Study Hall and today I repeat that I am not worthy to eulogize such a great rabbi. We accompanied him to his grave… The closing of the coffin was a tragic moment. Everyone took one last look at the open grave... one of the last remnants of the great rabbis of Israel was taken from us. Unfortunately, there is no one meanwhile to fill his place, and we are left as sheep without a shepherd.[16]

 

The gravestone of Rabbi Rabinovitch in the Vilna cemetery 

Indeed, not a single Jew remained in Vilna who had rabbinic certification. Therefore, the congregation members appointed my grandfather as their Jewish Law leader. He gave lectures in the Mishna and in “Ein Yakov”,[17] and listened to their problems.

 

The day of the Mishna completion came. This was a very significant undertaking in the Soviet era of spies in every corner, informers who could be found everywhere and religion that was only allowed in the synagogue. Any Jew who deviated from the acceptable and the permissible was in danger of being arrested and even sent to Siberia. The local Jews therefore didn’t rejoice publicly and even the completion of the Mishna they intended to cover up just by saying the traditional Kadish Prayer.

 

Even though forty years had passed, my grandfather still remembered the large celebration in Kovna, and it is very likely that he participated in a few more since then. As mentioned previously, he not only was one of the students, but also one of the main donors and organizers of the 1924 celebration. It is not surprising, therefore, that in his hadran sermon for the Mishna completion in Vilna, he chose to focus on the words of Abbaye, who was mentioned as the last among the Babylonian Talmudic sages who were precise in the observance of the mitzvoth, and so my grandfather said:

 

We will discuss therefore the Abbaye’s last discourse of “May I be rewarded”. It seems from his words as though one who didn’t study all the time, but only at the siyum makes his contribution – will receive the same reward as the regular learners...

Abbaye, as a great Torah scholar who learned day and night, probably arranged many siyums while studying, and not just his own, but he wished to organize siyums also for others who finished learning a tractate. We see, therefore, that not only should we give a donation during a siyum, but we should also learn ourselves.

Abraham Yakov Langleben (From the Ends of the Earth, p. 225)

 

This hadran for the completion of the Teharoth Order probably took place in 1965. My grandfather chose to speak the words of his rabbi, Shmuel Hayim Yantchuk, who referred in one of his sermons to the demand of Jeremiah the Prophet “Set up road markers for yourself”:[18]

 

I want to tell you the sermon of my rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Hayim, of blessed memory, and by this also fulfill the commandment of “saying something in the name of the one who said it”: the allegory is about two prisoners, one sentenced to be set forth for a specific time period of 25 years [and the other – permanently]. In ancient times it was customary to lead [the sentenced] from prison to prison, city to city, and this would take a year until they reached Siberia, the place that was the ultimate destination. There stand the two prisoners. The one who was sentenced for a prescribed time is holding a paper and pencil and writes on it every city and prison he has passed through. The second stands and stares. He is asked: “Why aren’t you writing the cities and the prisons you have passed through”? And he answers: “I have been sentenced for life, and I won’t come back. Therefore, the prisons and cities aren’t important to me”. The same says the prophet: “Set up road markers” – when you finish a tractate, make a siyum. It is hard to imagine how many siyums there were in Vilna before the war, there were 123 synagogues and in each one there were siyums. But now that we have only two synagogues in all of Lithuania,[19] we are not allowed to disobey the order of the prophet, “Set up road markers for yourself”, and we have to learn and to make frequent siyums. In their merit we shall fulfill the prophecies “Renew our days as of old”, “And the Redeemer shall come to Zion”.

Unfortunately, my grandfather didn’t have the opportunity to organize another siyum. He died that same year.

From a personal perspective

* Friday, 2nd of Tammuz, 1965. Valakumpe [Valakampiai], a vacation suburb of Vilna, near the river.

 

I am playing opposite our wooden shed. My grandfather returned from bathing in the river. He entered the shed and changed clothes. Suddenly I hear a bang... a grunt...

 “Grandfather, what will I do without you?!” – I wept bitter tears.

 

Sunday, 4th of Tammuz, 1965. My grandfather’s funeral. My mother wrote about the funeral procession:

It was a very special funeral that the Jews of Vilna could not remember seeing since the War. Almost all the Jews of the city accompanied Father on his last journey. The Vilna synagogue was completely full, and many stood in the courtyard. During the eulogies, the adjacent street, which was usually a central artery into the city, was blocked. All traffic surrounding it stopped. The Christians were amazed and didn’t understand who this personality was, that so many people gathered around his body. “Apparently, it must be a prominent scientist,” they surmised...

And the Jews of Vilna really respected Father and loved him very much. He gave good advice and knew how to keep a secret and to offer assistance when needed. Many learned from him to read and write in Hebrew, as well as the foundations of Judaism and Jewish life. Here is how they were able to repay his many kindnesses in that they accompanied him to his final resting place.[20]

 

The gravestone of Abraham Yakov Langleben in the Vilna cemetery (From the Ends of the Earth, p. 226)

My grandfather was buried in the Vilna Cemetery, in the same row and close to the grave of Rabbi Hayim Ozer Grodzensky, the rabbi of Vilna before the war.

 

…..

 

* Thursday, 30th of Sivan, 2005. Vilna, next to the “Taharath HaKodesh” Synagogue.

 

I am sitting on a bench next to my son Abraham Yakov. The 40th anniversary of my grandfather’s death will be on the Sabbath. Tomorrow or Sunday we will go to his grave for a dedication. How will I find a prayer quorum? Is it even possible? There are so few Jews here. Maybe I can hire eight men for this important role... But will this be respectful to my grandfather to stand beside his grave with people who are only here because they are being paid to do so?...

…..

 “Trust without making effort!” “Trust without making effort!” this sentence kept playing over and over in my mind as I recalled that this was one of the key statements that the students in Novardok Yeshiva would say. This was what Rabbi Yozel Hurwitz had his students memorize – absolute trust in G-d. He was a strange man at the beginning of his path but became extraordinary as time went by. During World War One, he established a chain of yeshivas throughout Russia and the Ukraine,[21] and in all of them he would cast the immortal line “Trust without making effort”!

…..

And behold! I decided that I too would follow in his footsteps. Trust without making effort! – so I thought to myself.

Suddenly I saw a man enter the synagogue courtyard. He looked like a Hassid.

 “Sholem Aleichem” – The stranger greeted me.

 “Aleichem Sholem” – I replied – “from where have you come?”.

 “I arrived from a trip to Belarus. I came before the rest of my group”.

I told him about my activities in Vilna and I mentioned the dedication that I wanted to have in the Vilna cemetery.

“Our group, amongst them professors from Bar Ilan University, was supposed to visit this cemetery. I don’t remember which day. Here is the schedule. Check it”.

I looked at the itinerary: today, Thursday, the group was going to Volozhin, and then on to Vilna. On the Sabbath, they would eat their meals at Chabad House. On Sunday morning they would visit the cemetery...

 

…..

 

* Monday, 2nd of Tammuz, 2014. The beginning of the jubilee year of my grandfather, Abraham Yakov Langleben’s death.

 

My ability to learn basic Talmud I acquired from two of my teachers – my father who was a student at the Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania and my teacher Rabbi Shimon Friedlander, a student of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland. However, my love of Torah and studying it I apparently got from my grandfather, who would place me on his knees while learning his Talmud lesson in our home in Vilna.

 

Return

[1] Mishnah – the major collection of the Oral Torah, consisting of six orders. Hadran – a scholarly discourse delivered at a completion of each order study.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath, 118b–119a.

[3] “The first questions is why all the Talmudic sages prided themselves on the fact that they kept the aforementioned mitzvot (commandments), doesn’t it seem as though they kept them in order to reap rewards? We learn in Ethic of the Fathers (1, 3), “Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward”? The answer is that they carefully observed the laws and asked as their rewards that G-d Almighty will also help them in the future not to fail, like the Sages’ words, ‘If one comes to be purified – he is helped’ (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma, 38b)”.

[4] Teharoth Order the sixth and the last order of the Mishnah that deals with ritual purity.

[5] Being part of the first guild allowed one to be able to sell wholesale and get government contracts without any limitations. In 1897, in the Suvalk Province to which Alexot district was affiliated, there were only 382 merchants in the first and second guilds (Alfred J. Rieber, Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia, California 1982, pp. 84–93).

[6] See my article ‘Deportation of Jews from Lithuania in the Two World Wars’ [Hebrew], in Gitta Langleben-Klibansky, From the Ends of the Earth: The Struggle for Survival of a Jewish Girl from Lithuania on the Banks of the Arctic Ocean, Elkana: “History of the Lithuanian Jewry”, 2013, pp. 68–80.

[7] The German army under Field Marshal Paul Von Hindenburg captured Kovna and its surroundings on August 18, 1915.

[8] See Langleben-Klibansky (note 6 above), p. 29. As a means of comparison, see the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer in his book: “Finished his prayer, he said Psalms for the Day and studied a chapter in Mishnah as the way of the mithnagdim [non-Hasidic Jews]” (The Mushkat Family, translated by Yakov Eliav, Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1953, p. 348).

[9] Idisher Lebn, June 20, 1924, p. 5.

[10] “Etz Hayim” Yeshiva was located in one of the auditoriums in the Tailors’ Synagogue. Its spiritual head was Rabbi Yanchuk (1855–1937). After he died, his role was assumed by his son-in-law, Rabbi Yakov Pakelnishky (another son-in-law, Rabbi Dov Zvi Bilitzky, is mentioned later in the article). For memoirs of a young man about the Tailors’ Synagogue, see Yitzhak Elhanan Gibralter, Yasor Yisrani, I, Bnei-Brak 2007, pp. 73–95.

[11] On the circumstances surrounding the deportation and life in Southwestern Siberia and the Arctic Circle see Langleben-Klibansky (note 6 above).

[12] Ibid., pp. 95–96.

[13] E.g., 60 degrees Celsius below zero in the winter (ibid., p. 176).

[14] The letter is dated October 7, 1956 (from the Yiddish).

[15] According to Hayim Shoshkes, The Complete World of Reb Hayim, Tel Aviv: “HaMenorah”, 1964, pp. 279, 281.

[16] A quote from the eulogy draft (from the Yiddish).

[17] A compilation of legends from the Talmud. It was edited by Rabbi Yakov Ibn Haviv (1450–1516), who added a commentary of his own.

[18] “Set up road markers for yourself; make yourself guideposts; consider well the highway, the road by which you went. Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities” (Jeremiah, 31:21).

[19] This refers to the choral synagogues in Vilna and in Kovna.

[20] Langleben-Klibansky (note 6 above), pp. 226–227. The last mass Jewish funeral that took place during the Russian regime before the War was for Rabbi Hayim Ozer Grodzensky (on September 8, 1940), which was described in the article ‘The Last Days of Our Rabbi of Blessed Memory’: “At 12 noon the funeral began from the home of the deceased. There is no describing the congestion... It’s just a miracle that people were not crushed by the crowding. They didn’t take out a permit. Not only did the government not bother them, but they also sent a militia to preserve order. During the funeral all the shops were closed. The traffic came to a halt on all the streets where the funeral procession passed... Afterwards, they brought the coffin into the Great Synagogue, and there they eulogized him... along all the streets the windows and balconies were full of people...” (Meir Karelitz [editor], Beit Midrash Anthology, Tel Aviv: Yeshivat Geonei Volozhin, 1941, p. 271).

[21] About this see my book, “Ke’tzur Ḥalamish”: The Golden Era of the Lithuanian Yeshivas in Eastern Europe [Hebrew], Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2014, page 95–99.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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