Rosh Hashanah card from the Va‘ad ha-Yeshivot (Yeshiva Schools Council), with a message from Rabbi Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski, one of its founders and its longtime leader, Vilna, 1939. (YIVO)

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Grodzenski, Ḥayim Ozer

(Often Grodzinski; 1863–1940), religious scholar and community leader. “Reb Khayim Oyzer” (as he was widely known, using the Yiddish form of his name) was a major twentieth-century Jewish rabbinic authority and one of the most prominent leaders of Lithuanian Orthodox Jewry. Even in his childhood, Grodzenski exhibited superlative memory and Talmudic pilpul (casuistry) skills. He studied at the yeshivas of Eishishok (Pol., Ejszyszki; now Eisiskes, Lith.) and Volozhin (now Valozhyn, Bel.) and became known as the “prodigy of Ivya,” after his birthplace in Lithuania (Pol., Iwje). In Volozhin, he befriended Ḥayim Soloveichik of Brisk (Brest Litovsk), but was not influenced by the latter’s innovative methods of study.

Rabbi Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski (third from right) with other rabbis and students at a festive gathering in Vilna in honor of the visiting Rabbi Yosef Carlebach (second from right), chief rabbi of Hamburg, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

In 1883, Grodzenski married the granddaughter of Rabbi Yisra’el Salanter, and in 1887 was appointed as a dayan (religious court judge) in Vilna, where he was soon acclaimed both for his legal rulings and for his extensive public activity on behalf of Jews. After establishing himself as the city’s leading rabbinic authority, he was asked to be Vilna’s chief rabbi, a position that had not been filled since the late eighteenth century; however, he flatly refused to accept the title, clinging to the Vilna tradition against the nomination of any chief rabbi after the Gaon, Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman (1720–1797). In 1909, he was among the initiators of the conference that resulted in the establishment of the Orthodox Jewish organization Keneset Yisra’el (it ceased to exist shortly thereafter), and was one the founders of Agudas Yisroel in 1912. He also attended numerous public conferences on the interests of Orthodox Jewry in Russia.

While German troops were advancing toward Vilna during World War I, Grodzenski escaped to Gomel (Homel’) in southern Russia, and subsequently to Ekaterinoslav (Ukr., Dnipropetrovs’k). Even in exile, Grodzenski responded to questions on halakhic matters and remained active in public affairs. When a liberal government was established in Russia in February 1917, he helped to set up Orthodox organizations, though they ceased to operate after the Bolshevik revolution. In 1919, he returned to Vilna—located then in territory occupied by Poland—and resumed his position of leadership; there, he organized aid for numerous refugees who had returned from Russia. He also continued to respond to halakhic questions submitted to him from all over the Jewish world.

Grodzenski represented the well-established Lithuanian worldview, according to which “the foundation of our holy Torah and the very soul of our nation is the knowledge and study of the Torah, and that is the secret of our continued existence, Yavneh and its scholars, the survivors of Israel” (Aḥi‘ezer, introduction). In 1924, he was an initiator of the rabbinical conference in Grodno that established the Va‘ad ha-Yeshivot (Yeshiva Schools Council) to help sustain Jewish religious institutions in Eastern Europe. He was appointed to head the organization and remained actively involved in its operations until the end of his life.

From Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski in Vilna to the Board of Deputies of English Jews in London, 29 January 1938, asking them to help rabbis imprisoned and persecuted in the Soviet Union. English. Typescript with handwritten corrections. Polish and Hebrew letterhead: Rabin Ch. O. Grodzieński, Wilno. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

In the eyes of many, Grodzenski represented the embodiment of the doctrine of Daas Toyre (Heb., Da‘at Torah), a concept that gave prominent religious scholars the authority to rule on public issues in addition to halakhic questions. In this area, however, he maintained that the authority of rabbinical scholars stemmed not from their mastery of halakhic sources, but rather from their “common sense and experience.” In 1923, he was elected president of the Mo‘etset Gedole ha-Torah (Council of Torah Masters) of Agudas Yisroel.

Although Grodzenski was opposed to Zionism, he sided with Orthodox pioneering circles whose members immigrated to Palestine, and became noted for his pragmatic, compromising stands, particularly in comparison to those of his brother-in-law, Rabbi Elḥanan Bunim Wasserman (1875–1941). Grodzenski maintained good relations with Avraham Yitsḥak Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, and supported the unrealized plan of unification between Agudas Yisroel and the religious Zionist movement, Mizraḥi. However, Grodzenski’s docile, hesitant disposition prevented him from taking a firm stand and actually fighting for his moderate views. 

In 1929, Vilna's government-appointed rabbi (rav mi ta‘am), Yitsḥak Rubinstein, announced his candidacy for the post of head rabbi of Vilna and received the support of Mizraḥi. The protests against what was perceived as an insult to Grodzenski were extreme, and his admirers refused to accept any compromise. After Rubinstein had been elected, however, the status and prestige of Grodzenski were consolidated even further, and he began signing his letters “Chairman of the Rabbinical Council of Vilna.”

Many of Grodzenski’s responsa on halakhic matters and his theoretical interpretations were published in his three-volume book Aḥi‘ezer (1922, 1925, 1939; a forth volume was published posthumously in 1992). Contrary to the manner of many Lithuanian yeshivas of his era, Grodzenski rarely resorted to analytical disputes and often quoted the rulings of later scholars, either to cite them as references or to refute them. In his halakhic rulings, he explored numerous issues that pertained to coping with modern times, such as the option of stunning animals before they were slaughtered, the use of electrical power on the Sabbath and holidays, the status of marriages presided over by Reform rabbis, and the validity of a conversion to Judaism for nonreligious purposes (such as marriage with a Jewish spouse). In 2002, a collection of his letters “on public affairs and the strengthening of faith” was published in two volumes.

When circumstances for Jews in Eastern Europe worsened, Grodzenski devoted most of his energy to helping the public and individuals, despite his frailty and poor health; he even stated that in his old age he had come to believe that such activities were more important than writing Talmudic interpretations. He died shortly after the Russian invasion of Vilna.

Suggested Reading

Yeḥezkel Abramsky, ed., Sefer zikaron li-khevod . . . Ḥayim ‘Ozer (London, 1942); Gershon C. Bacon, “Rubinstein vs. Grodzinski: The Dispute over the Vilnius Rabbinate and the Religious Realignment of Vilnius Jewry, 1928–1932,” in The Gaon of Vilnius and the Annals of Jewish Culture, pp. 295–304 (Vilnius, 1998); Shimon Finkelman, Reb Chaim Ozer (Brooklyn, 1987); Aharon Surasky, Raban shel Yisrael (Bene Berak, Isr., 1970); Shelomoh Yosef Zevin, Ishim ve-shitot (Tel Aviv, 1952), pp. 167–202.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 1139, Abraham Cahan, Papers, 1906-1952; RG 116, Territorial Collection: Germany 1, , 16th c.-1932, 1946-1950s; RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945; RG 25, Vaad Hayeshivot (Vilna), Records, 1924-1940 (finding aid); RG 348, Lucien Wolf and David Mowshowitch, Papers, 1865-1957.



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann