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Ḥayim ben Yitsḥak of Volozhin

(1749–1821), Torah scholar and rabbi; founder of the Volozhin yeshiva. Ḥayim was born in Volozhin, where his father, Yitsḥak, was a community leader. Ḥayim studied with Refa’el ha-Kohen and Aryeh Leib, author of Sha’agat Aryeh. At the age of 19, he was introduced to the Vilna Gaon and became his disciple. Six years later, Ḥayim was appointed rabbi of Volozhin, and remained in that position until he died, with the exception of one year (1790), during which he served as the rabbi of Wiłkomierz.

When the Gaon of Vilna died in 1797, Ḥayim was universally regarded as his heir and successor. But with respect to the controversy between the Hasidim and their opponents, the Misnagdim, Ḥayim adopted an approach entirely different from that of his teacher. The Gaon’s war with Hasidism was based on the assumption that the movement constituted a heretical sect. Ḥayim, by contrast, acknowledged that the Hasidim were not heretics and that their motives were pure. That being said, he still considered the Hasidic approach wrong and even dangerous.

More than anything else, Ḥayim feared what appeared to him to be a serious depreciation of the value of Torah study on the part of Hasidim. He therefore chose to deal with Hasidism on an ideological and educational level. His ideological response to it found expression chiefly in his book Nefesh ha-Ḥayim, which was first published in 1824, went through many editions, and is still considered a classic text in the world of Lithuanian yeshivas. The text contains a polemic notable for its restrained and pointed style. It is clear from what Ḥayim writes that he was very familiar with Hasidic literature and its conceptual foundations.

The polemic against Hasidism, however, constitutes but a small part of Nefesh ha-Ḥayim. The work is primarily dedicated to the elaboration of a comprehensive conceptual outlook that was intended to serve as a response to the Hasidic challenge. Ḥayim’s philosophy is characterized by its connection to Kabbalah—a connection expressed in his use of terminology, in the wealth of citations from kabbalistic literature, and in his reliance on kabbalistic ideas. In a way, this was a response to the fact that Hasidism also drew upon Kabbalah and benefited from its prestige.

Ḥayim’s teachings focused on his effort to reestablish Torah study as the highest value in Judaism, immeasurably more important than prayer and the observance of commandments. Torah study, he argued, brings about the divine profusion that sustains all worlds. In other words, the existence of the universe depends on orderly and uninterrupted Torah study, with the implication that those who choose this route bear the highest responsibility, and their occupation constitutes a mission of universal significance.

At the same time, Ḥayim taught that Torah study also serves as the most promising path toward the spiritual elevation of the individual Jew; it is precisely through Torah that a person is able to reach communion with God. The Torah is an embodiment of God with respect to His will, God and His will being one and the same. Therefore, the deeper a person delves into Torah, the more strongly he becomes one with the giver of the Torah (God). Furthermore, in the course of studying Torah, a person may attain divine inspiration, which expresses itself in an enrichment and intensification of intellectual abilities.

One pivotal issue addressed by Ḥayim is the proper balance between the value of Torah study and the value of yir’ah (literally, “fear” [of God]). In the literature of the period, the idea of yir’ah comprehends the entire body of feelings and actions that determine the moral-religious quality of a person. Defenders of Hasidism accused the scholarly elite of overemphasizing intellectual achievements while ignoring yir’ah. Ḥayim acknowledges that Torah study that is not accompanied by yir’ah is flawed. But Hasidism, he believed, erred in exaggerating the value of yir’ah, to the point of pushing Torah aside from its rightful place. According to Ḥayim, Torah study is the objective, whereas yir’ah is only a means, though without the latter, the student cannot reach spiritual elevation and communion with God.

Ḥayim was also troubled by what he saw as Hasidism’s overemphasis on the value of intention at the cost of action. In response to what he considered a radical position, Ḥayim insisted, for example, that even Torah study not undertaken for its own sake, or prayer offered without proper intention, is legitimate and endowed with religious meaning.

Two main sources of influence are evident in Ḥayim’s teachings. On the one hand, the personality and approach of the Vilna Gaon served as a personal example and source of inspiration. On the other hand, Ḥayim’s teachings grew out of his spiritual encounter with Hasidism. Moreover, his teachings constitute a synthesis of traditional values—headed by Torah study—and the values advocated by Hasidism, first and foremost of which was communion with God.

Ḥayim endeavored to apply the spiritual ideals formulated in his Nefesh ha-Ḥayim in the yeshiva that he founded and headed in Volozhin. In 1802, he sent out a letter calling on Lithuanian Jewry to support the new yeshiva. He thus established a means of sustaining rabbinic academies in Eastern Europe. Since the sixteenth century, it had been customary for every established community to maintain a yeshiva at its own expense. Yeshivas of this type, however, gradually disappeared over the course of the eighteenth century. Ḥayim’s turn to all of Lithuanian Jewry created a new mode. From then on, the maintenance of a yeshiva was based on the voluntary support of many individuals across Lithuania and beyond. Later, Ḥayim established a network of emissaries who collected contributions on behalf of his yeshiva throughout the area of Jewish settlement in Russia. The severance of the yeshiva from the local community, and the connection created between the yeshiva and its supporters over a broad geographical area, allowed the institution to become a national center for spiritual leadership.

Three principal qualities characterized the Volozhin yeshiva during the period that Ḥayim stood at its head. First was the emphasis placed upon the value of constancy in learning, which found expression in mishmarot (watches or shifts) of study in the main hall of the yeshiva 24 hours a day. Second, Ḥayim instituted an approach to learning based on an uncompromising striving for the “truth” in the elucidation of a Talmudic passage. He taught that the truth could be revealed through simple and straightforward explanations, whereas the pilpul style of argumentation impairs study. [See Talmud Study.] A third principle of the Volozhin yeshiva’s approach during Ḥayim’s tenure was to teach the value of yir’ah.

Ḥayim wrote many halakhic responsa, but most were destroyed in a fire in Volozhin in 1815. Some were published in Ha-Ḥut ha-meshulash (1882). Ḥayim also wrote a commentary to tractate Avot, Ruaḥ Ḥayim, which went through many editions.

Among Ḥayim’s principal disciples were several young men who later became important rabbis, including Ya‘akov of Karlin, author of Mishkenot Ya‘akov; David Tevele of Minsk, author of Naḥalat David; and Yosef Zundel of Salant. Ḥayim’s son, Yitsḥak of Volozhin, also stood out as a Torah scholar, and it was he who inherited his father’s position as head of the yeshiva and leader of Lithuanian Jewry. Ḥayim’s ideological and educational enterprise was an important cornerstone in the process of turning Lithuanian Jewry into the most important center of Torah learning in the nineteenth century.

Suggested Reading

Immanuel Etkes, The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (Berkeley, 2002); Tsevi Kaplan, Me-‘Olamah shel Torah (Jerusalem, 1974); Norman Lamm, Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and His Contemporaries (New York and Hoboken, N.J., 1989); Moses Samuel Schapiro (Shmukler), Toldot Rabenu Ḥayim mi-Volozhin (New York, 1999/2000); Shaul Stampfer, Ha-Yeshivah ha-lita’it be-hithavutah, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem, 2005).



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss