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Berlin, Naftali Tsevi Yehudah

(1816–1893), head of the Volozhin yeshiva and one of the great Torah scholars of the nineteenth century. Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin (known as Netsiv) was born in Mir (Minsk district) into a distinguished family of merchants based in Shklov. His father, Ya‘akov, was a wealthy textile merchant, who at the end of his life sold all his property and settled in Jerusalem. At the age of 14, Berlin married Rayna Batyah, the daughter of Yitsḥak, son of Ḥayim of Volozhin, founder of the Volozhin yeshiva. For many years Berlin studied on his own with great diligence, but his father-in-law’s family remained unaware of his promise as a scholar.

Berlin’s status began to rise when his correspondence on Torah matters with David Luria of Bykhov came to light. Luria regarded Berlin as a genius in Torah study and had an influence on his methods. At the age of 23, Berlin began to work on a commentary to the tannaitic midrash known as the Sifre. In 1853, he was appointed head of the Volozhin yeshiva. The appointment was challenged by various family members, especially Yosef Dov Soloveichik, great-grandson of Ḥayim of Volozhin. After student unrest and the intervention of a number of great Torah authorities, the division of powers between Berlin and Soloveichik was settled. Berlin was named head of the yeshiva, and Soloveichik was appointed his deputy.

For nearly 40 years, Berlin assumed educational and financial responsibility for the Volozhin yeshiva; he was greatly admired by its students, who viewed him as a father figure and as a model of diligence and ethical behavior. Berlin also served as the rabbi of Volozhin. During his tenure, the Volozhin yeshiva attracted hundreds of students, certain features of whom are portrayed in Bialik’s poem “Ha-Matmid” (The Dedicated Student). In 1886, the yeshiva burned to the ground, and Berlin dedicated himself to its reconstruction.

Berlin’s approach to Torah study was exceptional in the world of rabbinical scholarship of his day. His preoccupation with the tannaitic midrashim and the works of the geonim, along with his scholarly approach based on manuscripts and an examination of alternative readings, was regarded as a continuation of the unique approach of the Gaon of Vilna, which had already been forsaken for some time by the Lithuanian yeshiva establishment. At a time when yeshiva study was becoming further and further removed from practical halakhic decision making, Berlin was also known as a decider of halakhah and wrote hundreds of responsa. His approach to learning may be regarded as an extreme expression of the rejection of pilpul, and as representing a decisive stage in the development of an approach based on the plain meaning of the text.

Berlin’s preoccupation with scripture was also exceptional. In the yeshiva, he gave a daily lesson on the weekly Torah portion; those lessons later served as the basis of his commentary on the Torah, Ha‘amek davar (1879). In his commentary, he established rules for deriving novel halakhic and ethical insights from scripture. His focus on scripture and grammar, his lofty Hebrew style, and his familiarity with worldly matters even evoked the admiration of Russian maskilim.

Berlin’s other writings include Ha‘amek she’elah, on the She’iltot of Aḥai Gaon (1861); his responsa Meshiv davar (1894); Metiv shir, on the Song of Songs (1891); Imre shefer on the Passover Haggadah (1894); and novellae on the Talmud, called Merome sadeh (1956).

In addition to administering the Volozhin yeshiva, Berlin was a public figure deeply involved in the affairs of Russian Jewry. Many communities sought his advice on matters relating to the rabbinate, ritual slaughter, and other communal issues. He joined the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement at its inception, though he was opposed to secular leaders heading the movement. He forbade Zionist activity within the walls of the yeshiva—though the clandestine societies Nes Tsiyonah and Netsaḥ Yisra’el were nevertheless active there between 1885 and 1890. During the shemitah (sabbatical year) controversy of 1889, Berlin adopted a stringent position; at the same time, however, he provided halakhic solutions for farmers working in the Land of Israel.

After the death of his first wife, Berlin married a much younger woman, the daughter of Yeḥi’el Mikhl Epstein (he was author of the ‘Arukh ha-shulḥan); she assisted him in the administration of the yeshiva. The yeshiva was closed in 1892 by the authorities; archival documents indicate that the government was anxiously following a student revolt prompted by Berlin’s intention to appoint his son Ḥayim Berlin as his successor. The government interpreted the students’ disturbances as anarchistic revolutionary activity and decided to close down the institution. In the wake of its closing, Berlin’s health deteriorated, and he died in Warsaw the following summer.

Suggested Reading

Baruch Epstein, Mekor Barukh (New York, 1953/54); Immanuel Etkes and Shlomo Tikochinski, eds., Yeshivot Lita: Pirke zikhronot (Jerusalem, 2004); Shaul Stampfer, Ha-Yeshivah ha-lita’it be-hithavutah (Jerusalem, 2005); Moshe Tzinovitz, ‘Ets ḥayim: Toldot yeshivat Voloz´in (Tel Aviv, 1971/72); Shelomoh Yosef Zevin, Ishim ve-shitot (Jerusalem, 1951/52), pp. 9–37.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945.



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss