Rav Chaim Itzkovitz (Volozhiner), whose 200th yahrzeit was last month, continues to be one of the most influential figures in the modern Torah world. His legacy can be felt through three main arenas: the yeshiva Rav Chaim founded has been the prototype for all such institutions in the modern era; he is the progenitor of the most distinguished Lithuanian rabbinic dynasty of the past two centuries; and his written work, Nefesh HaChaim, provides the ideological basis for the current yeshiva world.
Rav Chaim was born and lived his whole life in Volozhin, a small hamlet located between Vilna and Minsk in what is now Belarus. As a youth he studied with the rav of his town, Rav Aryeh Leib Gunzberg, author of the classic halachic sefer Shaagas Aryeh. Starting in 1768, at age 19, Rav Chaim became a talmid of the Vilna Gaon. For the next 20 years he would visit Vilna several times a year, for up to a month, and learn Torah from the Gaon.
Rav Chaim became the leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon, who published nothing during his lifetime. The Gaon’s sons required any talmid, publishing their father’s notes posthumously, to first get the authorization of Rav Chaim Volozhiner – everything from the Gra’s commentary on Shulchan Aruch to his more kabbalistic works were first reviewed by Rav Chaim.
Rav Chaim was appointed mara dasra of his hometown of Volozhin at the age of 24. Rav Chaim refused to accept a salary and supported himself by operating with his wife a very successful textile plant. Rav Chaim’s most significant accomplishment was the founding of his yeshiva in 1802.
Until then, yeshivos were ad hoc and temporary. The rav would give a shiur in the shul (beis midrash) to local young men who slept there and had to scrounge for food. When the rav would die or leave town, the yeshiva closed down.
In contrast, Rav Chaim established Volozhin Yeshiva as the national yeshiva for the Czarist Russian empire. It was a freestanding institution with its own building, separate from the local kehillah, and he refused to accept donations from the townspeople. Instead, Rav Chaim pioneered the use of fundraisers (meshulachim) who traveled throughout Russia to collect donations for the yeshiva. The yeshiva attracted top students from every part of the Russian empire. Eventually, to limit admissions, a quota system was established for each region of the country. So important was this institution that the decisions as to who would be the roshei yeshiva throughout its history were made by the leading Lithuanian gedolim, such as Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, Rav Yaakov Karliner, and Rav Yosseleh Slutzker.
The Volozhin yeshiva curriculum consisted of studying the entire Talmud Bavli from beginning to end, skipping nothing. Shiur was delivered six days a week with 70 – 80 dafim being covered in depth (b’iyun) each semester or zman. Rav Chaim rejected the pilpulistic Talmudic methodology and followed the Vilna Gaon’s methodology focused on pshat. Additionally, the rosh yeshiva gave a Chumash shiur every morning. The talmidim learned in shifts so Torah study would take place in the yeshiva 24 hours a day. All of the yeshiva’s talmidim received stipends to pay for room and board with local families.
Most of Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s voluminous Torah writings were destroyed in an 1815 fire. However, his most important literary contribution was Nefesh HaChaim, published posthumously. (Rav Chaim’s deathbed request to his son Rav Itzeleh was that he publish the sefer.) Nefesh HaChaim, which has been translated into English several times, is an articulation of “Yeshivishe hashkafah,” the ideology of the purpose of the yeshiva world. He emphasized the imperative significance of Torah Lishmah or Torah study for its own sake, as opposed to studying Torah due to other spiritual/kabbalistic motives. Torah Lishmah is the only reason why G-d created this world, he averred, and if a split second passed on earth without Torah study, this world would cease to exist. Torah Lishmah is the most effective way to achieve communion with Hashem. Nefesh HaChaim was a polemical response to Rav Schneur Zalman (the Lubavitcher Alter Rebbe) of Liadi’s exposition of chassidic ideology, Tanya. However, despite the Vilna Gaon’s vehement support of bans excommunicating the chassidic movement, Rav Chaim never signed any.
Upon Rav Chaim ‘s passing in 1821, the Volozhiner Yeshiva, numbering a then unprecedented 200 students, was renamed Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in his memory. Rav Yitzchak (Itzeleh) Volozhiner succeeded his father as both rav and rosh yeshiva of Volozhin. A leader of Russian Jewry, he spent much time responding to new antisemitic governmental decrees, including making appearances at the Czarist court in St Petersburg. Due to Rav Itzaleh’s necessary focus on communal matters, the student body had declined to 100 talmidim when he passed away in 1849.
Rav Itzaleh was succeeded by his sons-in-law, Rav Elazar Yitzchak Fried and Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv). Upon the former’s untimely passing in 1853, the Netziv together with a great-grandson of Rav Chaim Volozhiner, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik, became the roshei yeshiva. Due to the vast difference in talmudic methodologies of the two men, the setup did not work out well. A committee of four leading Litvishe rabbanim decided that the Netziv would be the senior rosh yeshiva and Rav Yosef Dov would be the associate rosh yeshiva. In 1865, Rav Soloveitchik left the yeshiva and became the Rav of Slutzk and then of Brisk. He authored the acclaimed responsa, Bais Halevi.
The Netziv’s son-in-law, Rav Refoel Shapiro, served as associate rosh yeshiva of Volozhin, in place of the Bais Halevi. In 1874, the Bais Halevi’s genius son, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, married Rav Refoel’s daughter and came to the Volozhiner Yeshiva. By 1880, Rav Chaim, who was already involved in disseminating Torah in the yeshiva, was worthy of also being appointed rosh yeshiva. However, the yeshiva was too poor to afford salaries for three roshei yeshiva. So, Rav Refoel selflessly left the yeshiva to become rav of Novo-Alexandrovsky and gave his position to his charismatic son-in-law, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. Under the leadership of the Netziv and his associate roshei yeshiva, the yeshiva grew to 500 students.
The Volozhin Yeshiva, referred to as “Eim hayeshivos” (the mother of yeshivas) remained predominant throughout its existence. It produced exceptional talmidim such as Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein (author of the Aruch HaShulchan) and his son Rav Baruch Epstein (author the Torah Temimah), Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, Rav Shimon Shkop, Rav Naftoli Tropp, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, among others.
In fact, all 19th and early 20th century Litvishe yeshivas were headed by Volozhiner alumni or disciples of its alumni, for example: Rameilis, Slabodka, Radin, Kaminetz. The roshei yeshiva’s talmudic methodologies, piskei halachah, and communal leadership dominated Russian Jewry. In 1892, the Czarist government forcibly closed the Volozhiner Yeshiva due to reasons beyond the scope of this article.
Rav Chaim Soloveichik innovated a new Talmudic methodology that took the yeshiva world by storm and has became the predominant talmudic methodology used today in 2021. Rav Chaim, who became rav of Brisk soon after Volozhin’s closing, was universally regarded as one of the world’s foremost Talmudic scholars, as was his son and successor to the Brisker Rabbinate, Rav Yitzchak Zev (Velvel) Soloveichik. Rav Velvel immigrated to Jerusalem at the start of World War II where he taught a select group of yeshiva students. Rav Velvel’s sons subsequently founded three Brisker yeshivos in Jerusalem. These institutions, currently headed by their sons, are among the most prestigious yeshivos in Israel.
Rav Chaim Soloveichik’s grandson, through his son Rav Moshe, was Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the Rav), the most prominent American maggid shiur (Talmudic lecturer) during the last couple generations. The Rav was also considered leader of Modern Orthodox Jewry, though he eschewed that term. Today, Rav Soloveitchik’s grandsons are leading roshei yeshiva in both the United States (RIETS, Torah Vodaas) and Israel (Har Etzion).