It says much about the personality of Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Reines and of his life’s work that he remains relatively unknown among some sectors of the Jewish people. However, his memory is very much alive and revered in other sectors, especially in Israel, where many streets and even entire communities are named for him.
Early Life in Karlin
For those not familiar with Rav Reines, known as the rav of Lida in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Lithuania (now Belarus), a brief biographical sketch is in order. He was born in 1839 (5640) to Shlomo Naphtali and Gela, in the city of Karlin. He was a ben zekunim, a child of “old age,” born after his father had lost his first wife and children in the tragic earthquake that occurred in Safed in 1837 (5697). Shlomo Naphtali was in Eastern Europe fundraising for the Safed community at the time of that catastrophe and never returned there; he remained in Lithuania, remarried and started a new family.
As a young boy, Rav Reines studied Talmud intensively, first with his father and then with a series of rabbinic tutors. One of them introduced him to the classic work Shaagat Aryeh, which the young Reines mastered and eventually adopted as his model for Talmud study. At fourteen, he began to commit some of his original essays on Talmudic subjects to writing, thus beginning his prolific output of hundreds of essays, monographs and eleven published books. He left behind a treasure trove of unpublished manuscripts that are currently available to researchers at the Mossad HaRav Kook Library in Jerusalem.
While still an adolescent, Rav Reines and his study partner became acquainted with a stranger who astonished them with his remarkable Talmudic erudition. This man, whom biographers of Rav Reines never name but refer to as a “mathematical wizard,” introduced the young students to the fundamentals of algebra and geometry, subjects with which they were previously unfamiliar; he insisted this would assist them in their understanding of the Talmud. Rav Reines related that his anonymous mentor also encouraged him to study Maimonides’ Biur Milot HaHigayon, a work that incorporates basic principles of logic and the precise definitions of philosophical terms. Rav Reines attributed the development of his Talmudic methodology to Biur Milot HaHigayon, along with Shaagat Aryeh.
In 1859, Rav Reines married the woman who was to be his wife for forty-five years, Elke Rachel, the daughter of the rabbi of Hordok, Rav Yosef Reisen. Rav Reines and Elke Rachel had three children. Their son Moshe was a prodigy who wrote several works on the Talmud before his tragic death at the age of twenty-one. Another son, Avraham Dov Ber, edited and re-published some of his father’s works. The couple was also blessed with a daughter, Gela Reines Rabinovitch. (In the course of my research on Rav Reines, I was privileged to meet descendants of both Avraham Dov Ber and Gela.)
Creating the Mizrachi Movement
Early in his adult life, Rav Reines became attracted to the Chovevei Tzion (Lovers of Zion) movement, then led by prominent rabbinic figures such as Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever and Rabbi David Friedman of Karlin. These men believed that the time was ripe for the Jewish people to return to the Land of Israel. Rav Reines initially hesitated joining this burgeoning movement. But after painstakingly studying the matter, he concluded that it was the right thing to do, and eventually committed himself whole-heartedly to the Zionist cause. Once committed, he became actively involved in the various Zionist Congresses and became close to Zionist leaders on the highest levels. He admired Theodor Herzl and worked with such men as Ahad Ha’aam, Menachem Ussishkin and Chaim Weitzman, despite the profound ideological differences that existed between them.
In an attempt to find a place for religious Jews within the heretofore almost totally secular Zionist orbit, Rav Reines founded the merkaz ruchani, or “spiritual center,” popularly referred to as the Mizrachi movement. He firmly adhered to the belief that religious Jews could cooperate with “free-thinkers” for the purpose of settling European Jews in the Land of Israel; this cooperation, he felt, could be achieved without compromising one’s religious standards. He labored hard, often in the face of vehement and even violent opposition, to encourage religious Jews to join the Zionist movement. In an effort to win popular and rabbinic support for Religious Zionism, he traveled widely. He addressed throngs of people throughout Eastern Europe, inspiring them with his famous eloquence, and arranged audiences, whenever possible, with many of the most famous rabbis, yeshivah heads and Chassidic rebbeim of his time.
In a tribute written on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Rav Reines’ demise, and published as a pamphlet by the Religious Zionists of America, the late Rabbi Moshe Weiss quotes the following story in the name of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon (Fishman):
In the winter of 1905 (5665), after a decision was reached at the Zionist Congress regarding the establishment of Federations within the Zionist movement, Rabbi Reines suggested that the Mizrachi be changed from a faction to a Federation. . . . [One rabbi] felt that changing the status of the Mizrachi [would cause it] to become a completely separate unit. He [quoted] the famous words of Midrash Rabbah [(Vayikra 30)] regarding the “Four Minim of the Lulav.” The Etrog possesses a fine taste and pleasant odor which can be compared to people who possess Torah and good deeds. The Lulav has a taste but is odorless. . . . The Hadas has a pleasant odor, but not a pleasant taste. . . . The Arava is both tasteless and odorless. . . . Yet God commanded that all four items be combined and tied together. . . . Thus, [he argued], a Federation of the Mizrachi which would become a separate entity, should not be formed. Rabbi Reines however, made one observation which somewhat changed the entire picture. [He pointed out] that the Etrog which represents the Torah people and those of good deeds, such as the Mizrachi, is not in fact tied together with the others. It is true that the Etrog is brought close to the other minim, but nevertheless the Etrog remains [distinct]. It is an entity in itself.
How well this story epitomizes Rav Reines’ stance within the greater Zionist movement! It illustrates how deftly he combined his political acumen with his religious principles.
An Innovative Yeshivah
Rav Reines was a man of action and practicality who did not hesitate to undertake daring innovations in order to accomplish his objectives. One of these innovations was the yeshivah he founded, initially in the town of Shviciani, Vilna District, where he was appointed rabbi in 1869 (5629). Later, the yeshivah moved to the larger town of Lida, where Rav Reines served as rabbi for many years. Rav Reines’ yeshivah emphasized traditional Talmudic study, while also preparing students to meet the ideological and socio-economic challenges of the time. Students devoted seven hours a day to traditional religious studies, reserving three hours a day for other subjects. He hoped to equip his pupils with the skills necessary to (a) meet the standards set by the Russian government for official municipal rabbinic positions; (b) ready them to resist the competing ideologies, often of a politically revolutionary nature, which were then in full force, and (c) enable them to earn respectable livelihoods in a rapidly changing economy. He thus included in his curriculum Russian language and literature, mathematics, history and geography and practical business skills such as bookkeeping.
Stories about the Yeshivah of Lida abound. In numerous memoirs written by former students, the writers, without exception, describe an uplifting intellectual and spiritual experience. Rav Reines engaged the services of Rav Shlomo Polachek, known in the broader yeshivah world as the “illui [genius] of Meitshet,” to deliver lectures in Talmud to the older students. Rav Polachek was trained in the Brisker analytic approach to Talmud study by none other than Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the originator of the method.
Rav Reines also designated Rav Eliyahu Dov Berkovsky to serve as the mashgiach ruchani, or spiritual supervisor, of the yeshivah. Rav Berkovsky was a product of the Novardok Yeshiva, and exemplified its uncompromising commitment to ethical and moral perfection.
Students also testified to the progressive quality of the yeshivah premises—the spacious living quarters, excellent lighting and ventilation, a wide-ranging library and meticulously kept grounds that provided a “green space” for the student body.
Rav Reines was careful not to introduce his Zionist ideology into the curriculum of the school. He believed strongly that the yeshivah, like every other educational institution, was meant to educate and not to indoctrinate. “Politics,” he insisted, “even Zionist politics, has no place in an educational setting.”
Rav Reines was not part of the instructional faculty of the school, and limited his involvement to administration and fundraising. However, he did offer a lengthy lecture every Shabbat—on Friday night during the winter and on late Shabbat afternoon in the summer. Rav Reines would choose a specific halachic topic at the beginning of each semester, and expand upon it each week by drawing upon the particular Torah portion. He would combine halachic analyses with homiletic material, a basic technique in his approach to Torah study.
Death and Legacy
Sadly, Rav Reines’ ceaseless efforts to promote Zionism, as well as the stress involved in fundraising for his growing yeshivah, sapped his energy and caused his health to deteriorate in his final years.
Rav Reines passed away in summer of 1915 (5675), in the throes of the First World War. His funeral was conducted literally “under fire,” as the invading German army was about to enter the city of Lida. Many of the city’s residents fled for their lives, and those who stayed behind to pay their final respects to their beloved spiritual leader were panic stricken. Nevertheless, they arranged a proper burial for him and even managed to deliver several hurried eulogies.
Upon Rav Reines’ fiftieth yahrtzeit, plans to bring his remains from Lida to Israel were announced, but to date, those plans have not come to fruition.
At his funeral, one of the eulogizers hailed Rav Reines as an “oseh chadashot, ba’al milchamot,” one who “creates new things, [and] is a master of battles,” a phrase taken from the blessings prior to the recitation of Shema.
The eulogizer meant to laud Rav Reines for his innovations in the spheres of halachic discourse, Jewish thought, yeshivah education and Zionist activity. He used the appellation “master of battles” to convey Rav Reines’ great courage in the face of vociferous opposition. In a sense he was correct, inasmuch as Rav Reines himself wrote of the “great and powerful spirit that came and touched every corner of my heart,” alluding to the God-given inner strength that prompted him to embark upon new and solitary paths.
But in another sense this eulogy missed the mark. Essential to Rav Reines’ personality were his piety, his sterling character and the love and respect he had for all fellow Jews. With his legendary diligence in Torah study, he acquired vast expertise in the entire gamut of Jewish knowledge, an expertise that was acknowledged even by his fiercest opponents.
His commitment to the Zionist ideal was a result of his conviction that the return to Zion was justified by the sacred sources with which he was so thoroughly familiar. That ideological conviction was coupled with his concern for the millions of Jews then in Poland and Russia and the dire future he saw awaiting them. His visionary ideals and practical judgment consumed his prodigious energies. He would have much preferred to devote those energies to his Talmudic studies and to the many books he planned to write.
Similarly, his pedagogical innovations were motivated by his burning desire to relieve the spiritual and material plight of Jewish youth. In his writings, he paints a picture of numerous young Jewish men who were disenchanted with Torah study, and even with religious practice, because of what Rav Reines saw as the inadequacies of the Jewish educational institutions. He wished to elevate the spiritual level of alienated youth, and saw the innovations he proposed as the only way to assure success in this area. He was a rare combination of visionary and pragmatist.
Because of the circumstances of his funeral, most of the Jewish world outside of Lida remained unaware of his death until as long as a year afterwards. Eventually, he was widely eulogized by such luminaries as the noted maggid, or itinerant preacher, Rabbi Binyomin Shikuvitsky, who eulogized him in the beit midrash of the yeshivah in Radin in the presence of the great Chofetz Chaim. The latter requested that the entire audience sit on the floor as a sign of mourning.
Rav Reines was, of course, widely mourned within Religious Zionist circles in Eastern Europe, as well as in the United Kingdom and the United States. A more remarkable eulogy was delivered by Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, a famous Hungarian rabbi who eventually served as the spiritual leader of the Chareidi community in Jerusalem. In spite of their divergent views on Zionism and other matters, Rabbi Dushinsky praised Rav Reines with the following words, as recorded in a volume of his sermons entitled Derashah Mefo’arah.
On the occasion of the seventh of Adar we note that this year the rav and great gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines, may his memory be blessed, the rabbi and head of the rabbinic court of Lida, left this world. I knew him well in my youth, and I declare that with his greatness in Torah he was able to blaze a new path in the study of Talmud and posekim [halachic decisors], all of that knowledge being deposited in his heart, as if it was munach b’kufsa, contained in a package. Although many of the sages of his generation did not agree with all of his opinions, his intentions were nevertheless noble and pure.
The disagreements to which Rabbi Dushinsky refers remain unresolved today. Consulting the prolific writings of Rav Reines and evaluating them in view of contemporary circumstances would certainly be a worthwhile endeavor, and would go a long way towards resolving the crucial issues upon which Rav Reines bravely and brilliantly asserted his opinions.
May his memory be a blessing.
Readers interested in learning more about Rav Reines’ life and ideology will find the following publications of the Mossad HaRav Kook Library relatively accessible:
1. Geulah Bat Yehuda’s biography of Rabbi Reines, Ish HaMe’orot;
2. Rabbi Ze’ev Aryeh Rabbiner’s anthology Karne Orah;
3. Dr. Joseph Shapiro’s essay in Yovel HaMe’ah shel HaMizrachi.
4. Mossad HaRav Kook recently re-published Rav Reines’ halachic work, Edut L’Yaakov.
Sadly, Rav Reines’ many published works are now collector’s items, and his manuscripts are consigned to the Mossad HaRav Kook Library archives, awaiting their “redemption.” Some of his works can be viewed on hebrewbooks.org and similar web sites. (Please note that on hebrewbooks.org, Rabbi Reines’ name is spelled with one yud.)
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is OU executive vice president, emeritus. He thanks Mrs. Naomi Gordon, a great-granddaughter of Rav Reines (Gela Rabinovitch’s daughter’s daughter) for supplying him with much of the material used in preparation of this article, and for encouraging him to honor her great-grandfather upon the occasion of his 100th yahrtzeit.