The students, faculty, and building of the ‘Ets Ḥayim Yeshiva, Kleck, Poland (now Kletsk, Bel.), 1938. Photograph by Kurnos. (YIVO)

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The Yeshiva after 1800

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With the decline of the yeshiva as an institution, by the nineteenth century the traditional East European Jewish locale for full-time advanced study of Talmud by youths and young men (unmarried or recently married and living with parents-in-law—a practice known as kest) was the bet midrash (Yid., besmedresh). A bet midrash was a communal study house that functioned also as a synagogue and a place for study by local residents before or after prayers, individually or in ḥevrot (khevres; adult study groups led by a teacher). The full-time students were independent and chose the texts they studied, almost always from among the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, as well as the method of study (in depth or on more of a broad-scope basis, for example). There were no admission tests and no formal assessment of progress, nor teachers or formal supervisors. Students were generally safe from conscription, when it existed.

Students and staff of the Lida Yeshiva, established by Yitsḥak Ya‘akov Reines in Lida, Russia (now in Belarus), ca. 1905. (YIVO)

Unmarried students usually left home to study in a bet midrash in a different community; they were supported by the local community they had moved to and did not rely on parental contributions. At night, they usually slept on benches in the women’s section of the bet midrash. They would arrange to eat meals in the homes of local householders, the usual practice being to eat regularly on given days of the week at the homes of specific householders (esen teg). Therefore, in order for the students to eat every day of the week, it was necessary to find seven householders willing to host them regularly. On days when there were no hosts, which apparently were not uncommon, the students hardly ate. Study under such conditions of privation demonstrated students’ devotion to Torah study and shares many characteristics of initiation rituals in other societies.

This hard life was clearly limited in duration, however. The expectation was that once a student was recognized as a promising scholar, a rich man would choose him to marry his daughter—and this often happened.

There was little need for formal supervision of bet midrash students, as study took place in the presence of the males of the community; the achievements and character of the full-time students were public knowledge. A visible lack of devotion to study, or slackness in observance, would make it difficult if not impossible to find hosts for meals, while intense study and significant academic achievement would allow students access to the most desirable hosts. Unqualified students would not even attempt to start study in a bet midrash because of the impossibility of finding sufficient sympathetic hosts.

Thus the bet midrash system, though lacking systematic teaching, formal testing, or organized supervision, successfully produced generation after generation of learned and devoted scholars. There were towns, such as Eisheshuk (Eisiskes; Eiszyszki), that acquired reputations for hosting exceptionally gifted groups of students, but houses of study and groups of students were found in almost every Jewish community in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The Challenge of Modernity

Gathering at the Tif’eret Baḥurim yeshiva, located in the shulhoyf in Vilna’s old Jewish quarter, in honor of the departure of Rabbi Yeḥi’el Sreluv for Palestine (Hebrew banner, top), Vilna, 1930s. The Hebrew banner at front, center, reads: “The Glory of Young Men Is Their Strength” (Prv. 20:29). Tif’eret Baḥurim (The Glory of Young Men) was a common name for yeshivas and other Jewish institutions in Eastern Europe. Photograph by Sz. Wajsbord. (© Vilna Archive, Ghetto Fighters’ Museum, Israel)

The bet midrash system depended on the tacit acceptance by communities as well as students (and especially by potential hosts) of the importance of Talmud study, both as a religious requirement and as a means of advancement; students competed to be recognized for excellence and sought to imitate their most successful peers. During the course of the nineteenth century, however, the attitude among affluent Jews toward the importance of Talmudic knowledge eroded. Many elite families began to attach greater value to university study and secular knowledge and no longer sought to gain a rabbinic scholar as a son-in-law. It was the brightest students who were most sensitive to this shift, and as a result they often abandoned Talmud study. Combined with a dearth of charismatic teachers, this situation led to a rapid collapse of bet midrash study—though the shift took place at different times in different communities.

The decline of bet midrash study and the general breakdown of traditional Jewish society in the nineteenth century led to a sharp drop in the numbers of young people studying Talmud and to a corresponding lack of self-confidence in the traditionalist sector. Implicit in the sense of crisis was an awareness that the revered rabbinic leadership had failed to deflect the challenge of modernity. For an effective response, it was necessary first to explain what was happening and then to offer an appropriate course of action. Within Lithuanian Jewry, four explanations inspired responses that were reflected in the new venue for Talmud study: the yeshiva.

Study Methods.

One explanation for the crisis in Torah study holds that the common methods of expounding the Talmud did not provide the simple meaning (peshat) of the text. Even at the time of the Vilna Gaon in the late eighteenth century, there had been a call for a return to peshat, but each successive generation had a different view of what peshat was. In the late nineteenth century, the teachings of Ḥayim Soloveichik gave students a sense that they were for the first time achieving an understanding of peshat. Soloveichik emphasized the central importance of clear definitions and underlying principles in understanding the Talmud. His approach provided students with a great deal of satisfaction. In their enthusiasm, many concluded that the reason for the estrangement of others from Talmud study was that they had been studying it in an incorrect manner—thus implying that other scholars had missed the main point of Talmud study.


Another explanation for the lack of interest in Talmud studies attributed the problem to outdated organizational structures and behavioral norms in the yeshiva. Whereas schools had formal academic calendars with defined periods of study, vacations, graded classes, and modern dress for students, yeshivas traditionally operated without a break; students wore old-fashioned, often tattered clothes; and there was often just one class option, intelligible only to the more advanced students.

Rabbi Peysekh Golezynski, head of the Łomża Yeshiva from ca. 1885 until 1920, Łomża, 1923. (YIVO)

The third explanation found the collapse of the traditional educational system to be a product of a curriculum that dealt only with knowledge of the Talmud and ignored the development of an ethical personality among students. The logical conclusion to be drawn from this claim was that the teaching of ethics (musar) and an attempt to shape the personality of yeshiva students should be integral elements of the yeshiva program.

The final explanation found that in the realities of the modern world, secular knowledge and skills were necessary for advancement. Traditional education, according to this viewpoint, failed to provide a general education and therefore lost students. This approach suggested that adding secular studies alongside the study of Talmud would make it possible to stop the decline of traditional education.

The first modern yeshiva was established by Ḥayim of Volozhin around 1803. Shortly thereafter, a yeshiva was established in the town of Mir. These yeshivas were distinguished from earlier ones in that they were not communally funded. Instead, they sent fund raisers throughout Eastern Europe and beyond, seeking donors to grant monies out of ideological agreement rather than local pride. Study took place in a building that was intended for yeshiva use alone and that local residents rarely entered. Students received grants from the administration to enable them to rent rooms and pay for meals instead of being dependent on local householders. This new type of yeshiva did not gain popularity until the end of the nineteenth century.

In the early 1880s, a yeshiva was founded in Telz (Lith., Telsiai), in which a “modern” organizational structure was implemented. Students were assigned to classes on the basis of an entrance examination, and they advanced from level to level also on the basis of examinations. The students wore modern dress, and the administration established regular testing and formal vacation periods. The Telz yeshiva was financed not by East European Jews but by an eccentric German Jew, Emil Lachmann, who was ideologically committed to Orthodoxy and to combating what he saw as negative modern phenomena. The student body of this yeshiva believed that they had no need to feel old-fashioned or inferior to students studying in modern, secular institutions.

Ethics and Musar.

In Slobodka, a suburb of Kovno (Kaunas), a yeshiva was established about 1881, more or less at the same time as the Telz yeshiva and with the help of the same donor, Lachmann. This yeshiva was the first to systematically implement the theories of the Musar (ethicist) movement led by Yisra’el Salanter. The Musar movement called for devoting time and effort not only to Talmud study but also to conscious efforts at ethical self-improvement. The main tools for this work were considered to be introspection, the study of classical Jewish texts on ethics, and the guidance of scholars in ethics. Within the framework of a yeshiva, this meant combining the study of Talmud with a different body of literature, and having on the faculty both Talmud teachers and specialists in ethics. These subjects offered students a defense against charges that yeshiva students were neglecting the challenge of creating a better world while their peers, active in revolutionary movements, were giving their lives for a noble cause.

Photomontage of portraits of rabbis and students of the Yeshiva of Slobodka, near Kaunas, Lithuania, 1922. (YIVO)

In its early years, the Slobodka yeshiva was the scene of conflicts, among both students and staff, over the desirable proportion that the study of ethics should occupy in the curriculum. Many were of the opinion that Talmud study was enough. In the course of time, however, Talmud teachers were found who supported the study of ethics, and students who rejected this emphasis drifted away from the yeshiva, leaving a calmer institution behind.

Other yeshivas were founded as well, all characterized by the pattern that had already been set, of independence from the local community combined with charismatic leaders who could raise funds. The yeshivas had regular academic schedules; many incorporated the study of ethics; novel methods of Talmud study were popular; and students dressed in modern fashion.

A very different approach was adopted by Rabbi Yitsḥak Reines (1839–1915). His goal was to establish a yeshiva in which Talmud would be studied intensively but students would also receive a systematic secular education. An attempt to set up such a yeshiva in 1882 in Swienciany (Svencionys, Swieciany) was short lived due to lack of funds, but a later attempt to set up such a yeshiva in Lida in 1905 was extremely successful and was terminated only by the outbreak of World War I.

Students at the yeshiva established by Mosheh Sofer in 1806, Bratislava, 1907. Many became well-known religious leaders later in life. (YIVO)

At the same time that yeshivas were first established in Lithuania, they also grew in importance and visibility in Hungary. The best-known one was led by Mosheh Sofer in Bratislava (Pressburg). Upon his appointment as rabbi of that city in 1806, Sofer took responsibility for the local yeshiva, and it soon became an educational center with hundreds of students. Yeshivas were strengthened or founded in a number of other Hungarian communities, often at the behest of Sofer’s students; these were communal institutions and many were small, with only a few dozen students. The Hungarian yeshivas concentrated more than the Lithuanian ones on promoting the broad mastery of Talmudic texts, and they also emphasized the study of halakhah. The institutions played a crucial role in socializing young traditional men in Hungary and therefore had a major impact on the long-term strength of Hungarian Orthodoxy.

Another important innovation at the end of the nineteenth century was the establishment of kolelim—a framework of advanced study that ensured the financial support of young married scholars so that they could devote themselves full time to Torah study. The kolel replaced the fathers-in-law of a previous generation, who had once supported young scholars. The first kolel was established in Kovno in 1880 but the framework was quickly copied in other communities.

The Challenge of the Interwar Period

During the interwar period, most yeshiva study was concentrated in independent Poland and Lithuania. In the USSR, underground yeshivas existed after the Bolshevik revolution, many under the auspices of the Lubavitch movement, and were maintained despite constant persecution. They were slowly eliminated, however, and had little influence on the broader Jewish community; most Jewish youth followed the path of integration into Soviet society. The last important yeshiva in the Soviet Union, in Nevel, was discovered by the authorities and closed in 1929.

A classroom at the Slonimer yeshiva, Vilna, 1930s. Photograph by A. Sapir. (YIVO)

In countries that retained religious freedom, the process of modernization and secularization continued unabated and even intensified. Study in yeshiva came to be perceived not as an activity necessary for the religious or scholarly elite but as the only way to shield youth from the influences of an increasingly untraditional environment. In independent Poland, groups that had previously dispensed with yeshivas, notably Hasidim, now established them. Such places were generally attached to specific Hasidic courts: Ger, Bobov, Slonim, Aleksander, Lubavitch. A notable exception to this pattern was Yeshivat Ḥakhme Lublin, founded in Lublin in 1923, which served all of Polish Jewry.

Non-Hasidim also continued to educate young men in yeshivas. During the interwar years, the practice spread of yeshivas establishing branches and functioning as networks, a format that offered financial and organizational advantages. For example, the Keter Torah network sponsored by the Radomsk Hasidic dynasty set up yeshivas in many locations, welcoming students from a variety of circles.

The Holocaust and After

After the Nazis entered Poland, most of the yeshivas relocated to Vilna, which had become the capital of independent Lithuania (the Mir yeshiva was moved to Shanghai, where it continued to operate until after the war). Underground yeshivas existed in the ghettos, though information about them is limited and there were few survivors.

The fate of most yeshiva students was the same as that of all Jews in Eastern Europe. Yeshivas were prohibited by the Nazis, and their continued existence is testimony both to the commitment of the students in these extreme conditions to Torah study and to the importance that traditional Jewish circles ascribed to these institutions.

Viable yeshivas were not set up in Poland after the war, due to the steady out-migration of survivors and the unsupportive environment of the Communist regime. In the USSR, a very small yeshiva was founded in Moscow in 1957 to train religious leaders, but it operated on a small scale and was not long maintained. After the fall of communism, yeshivas were established by Orthodox activists from different Western Jewish communities in various republics of the former Soviet Union. Many of the students in these yeshivas emigrated, settling in Israel, the United States, and elsewhere.

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Breuer, Ohale Torah: Ha-Yeshivah, tavnitah ve-toldoteha (Jerusalem, 2003); Immanuel Etkes, ed., Yeshivot u-vate midrashot (Jerusalem, 2006); Armin Harry Friedman, Major Aspects of Yeshivah Education in Hungary, 1848–1948 (New York, 1971); Abraham Fuchs, Yeshivot Hungaryah bi-gedulatan uve-ḥurbanan, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1978–1987); Samuel K. Mirsky, Mosdot Torah be-Eropah be-vinyanam uve-ḥurbanam (New York, 1956); Shaul Stampfer, Lithuanian Yeshivas (London, forthcoming).