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Rav Yaakov Berlin


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One of the great gaonim was Rav Yaakov Berlin, the father of the Netziv (Naftali Tzvi Yehuda of Berlin), the rosh yeshiva of the Volozhin Yeshiva and a leader of European Jewry at the close of the 19th century.

Besides being a brilliant Torah scholar, he was a wealthy merchant whose honest dealings were known far and wide. He lived in the city of Mir, in the province of Minsk, and his good name and deeds were known throughout Europe. His door was always open to the poor and his name was blessed by all.

Buys Expensive Glassware

Once, when Rav Yaakov was traveling outside Russia, he purchased a very expensive set of cut glassware. He spent over 100 gold coins (considered to be a very large sum in those days). His wife was overjoyed at such a valuable gift and she treasured it as one of her most valuable possessions.

When questioned about purchasing such an expensive gift, he replied, “Chazal have explained the meaning of the sentence in Shemos (15:2), ‘This is my L-rd; I will glorify Him to mean that we are to honor Him with beautiful mitzvos, such as a beautiful esrog (Shabbos 133b). The Talmud (Berachos 55a) teaches us that when we purchase new utensils we have to make the blessing of Shehechiyanu. Now isn’t it fitting that we make this blessing over the best of utensils?”

Champions The Underdog

One day, while the maid was cleaning this beautiful glassware, she accidentally dropped one item and it smashed to pieces. Rav Yaakov’s wife became angry and she severely scolded the maid.

Rav Yaakov interrupted her and said, “It is my fault. I deserve this punishment for not heeding the advice of Chazal who warned us (Baba Metzia 19b) that he who wants to lose his money should invest it in glassware. Also, you have no right to shout at our maid. She is also a daughter of Avraham, Yitzachak and Yaakov, and as such she deserves respect. If you have any complaints, summon her to a beth din and demand payment for your loss.”

“That is a very good idea,” replied his wife. “I am going to summon her to a din Torah.”

Putting on her coat, she called to the maid and asked her to accompany her to the court. When Rav Yaakov saw them preparing to leave the house, he, too, took his coat and made ready to accompany them.

“You need not come with me,” said his wife. “It is not fitting for a prominent person like you to appear in court to argue against a maid.”

“It is not to help you that I am going to court,” replied Rav Yaackv, “but to represent the maid. You are wealthy and are the wife of a prominent rav, but what shall be the fate of this poor maid, who has no one to represent her? Our sages narrate a similar experience in the Midrash Bereishis (chap. 48) that when the wife of Rabi Yosai would scold her maid he would take the part of the maid, quoting the sentence in Iyov 31:13, ‘If I disregard the cause of my servant or maid when they argue with me, what shall I do when G-d arises and He takes me to task. What shall I answer Him?’”

Could Not Embarrass His Debtor

Once Rav Yaakov assigned one of his holdings, worth a few thousand rubles, to his daughter for her dowry. The holdings were in the custody of an agent who resided in Slutsk. The following year, word came to Rav Yaakov that his agent had made some very poor investments and he lost all of his money, including Rav Yaakov’s. The agent had then filed for bankruptcy.

The members of Rav Yaakov’s family began urging him to travel to Slutsk to investigate this matter, but Rav Yaakov refused, saying, “What difference would it make? If the rumor is false then my investment with him is secure, and if it is true then what can I accomplish by visiting him? If it’s lost, then I may as well forget about it.”

But when his wife and children persisted in urging him to go, he agreed. He traveled to Slutsk and after a while he returned home.

“Well, what did you find out in Slutsk?” his family eagerly asked him.

“It is bad news, indeed,” replied Rav Yaakov.

But the family was not satisfied. “Did he at least make any promises of repaying you?”

“I didn’t see him, so I wouldn’t know,” replied the pious rabbi.

His family looked on in amazement. “You traveled all the way to Slutsk and you didn’t see him?”

“Yes,” replied Rav Yaakov. “When I arrived in Slutsk I made inquiries about him and I was told it was true; the agent had gone into bankruptcy. I heard this from many people so I was convinced of its authenticity. So why should I have visited him and embarrassed him by a personal confrontation? The poor man suffered enough.”

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“You speak foolishly, daughter, how is it possible for a man who has not eaten for 10 years to live?”

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