The Volozhin Yeshiva (Academy), which was the main yeshiva in Lithuania, was closed in 1892 by the Russian government. There were many reasons why the Russians did that, but the basic one was that as long as the yeshiva was open the Czar’s systematic plan to convert and assimilate Jews — and the attempts to undermine the Jewish religion, in general — could not succeed. Volozhin was literally a factory of Jewish leadership.
The Russians eventually realized that. Therefore, the drastic action of closing the yeshiva was perfectly logical in the Czar’s eyes. Nevertheless, the closing of the yeshiva in Volozhin did not lead to the end of the Yeshiva Movement. In fact, it led to the beginning of a new era of yeshivas.
There is a mythical creature which, when one of its tentacles is chopped off, renews itself many times over. Yeshivas are similar. They have a tendency to split and multiply. The forceful closing of Volozhin guaranteed that other yeshivas would replace it.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire
While the main activity of the Yeshiva Movement remained in Lithuania and White Russia, it would be a mistake to think that those were the only places where there were strong yeshivas. At the same time that Volozhin was beginning, a second yeshiva began in the Austrian border city of Pressburg, which today is Bratislava.
Pressburg was part of the Hapsburg Empire, whose emperors ruled for hundreds of years. Although the Austro-Hungarian Empire was not hospitable for Jews, compared to the Czar the emperors of Austria were righteous, fair and just people. One emperor in particular, Franz Josef — who ruled for over 70 years – held a title among the Jews: Melech haChesed, “The Kind Ruler.”
One should not get the impression that the fervently Roman Catholics Hapsburgs were not anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism came with the turf. Nevertheless, the rights that the Jews had in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were mainly protected, and the Jews found it to be more hospitable than other places.
Therefore, beginning in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, and throughout the 19th century, there was a mass immigration of Jews into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including Chassidic Jews from Poland and Russia, as well as Western Jews from Germany.
Many historians claim that this mass immigration is what caused the Austro-Hungarian Empire to become more anti-Semitic. The Jews who moved to the Austro-Hungarian Empire were in fact alien; they were different. This no doubt contributed to the spirit of anti-Semitism, which always existed under the surface in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Officially, however, the emperor was pro-Jewish, at least to the extent that he protected Jewish rights and allowed them opportunity to be economically viable. And, in fact, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was far wealthier than the Russian Empire. Whereas there was a very miniscule middle class in Russia, under the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century there was a large and powerful middle class.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire also embraced the ideas of the Western world. It was an open society in terms of ideas and culture. It was known for its art, music and architecture. Vienna was capital of the world for culture.
Because the non-Jewish culture was different, the Jews who existed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a different weltanschauung, a different view of life, than the Jews in Poland and Russia. And because the Jews were different, so were their yeshivas.
The Chasam Sofer
The singular Torah personality in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was Rabbi Moses Sofer, whose magnum opus, Chasam Sofer, became so popular that he is commonly call by its name. Rabbi Sofer wrote on every subject imaginable and left for posterity teachings that represent the pillar of Jewish law in the 19th century. His logic, knowledge — and his daring almost — in dealing with modern-day problems were legendary.
Rabbi Sofer hailed from Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany. He was a disciple of the great Rabbi Nosson Adler, one of the leading rabbis in Frankfurt. After a time, Rabbi Sofer left Frankfurt and took a position in an Austrian-Hungarian town named Eisenstadt. He quickly earned the love and respect of everyone for his knowledge and character.
Then he moved to the city of Mattersdorf, and from Mattersdorf to Pressburg. There are famous stories about how his congregants in Mattesdorf loved him so much that they made it emotionally hard for him to leave. He had to “leave” two or three times before he really left.
Finally, he came to Pressburg, which was the second most important city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire after Vienna, and later Budapest.
In additional to one-of-a-kind Torah knowledge, Rabbi Moses Sofer possessed great worldly knowledge, and spoke and wrote German very well. All these were needed in his monumental opposition Reform. In fact, he became the most determined foe of Reform that existed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and almost singlehandedly turned the tide against it.
Rabbi Moses Sofer not only became chief rabbi of Pressburg but started one of the most important yeshivas of the Yeshiva Movement. He instituted many things that today may not seem innovative but back then were. For instance, in Pressburg they taught speech. When the boys reached a certain age, then they had to take courses in public speaking.
By contrast, in Volozhin there was no course in public speaking. That’s not to say that great orators did not come from Volozhin. They did. But they were all self-made; nobody ever polished them. However, in Pressburg it was part of a course of study.
All schools in Pressburg were required to be licensed, and so was the yeshiva. It operated under the auspices of the Minister of Education of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And under the law, the school required that in the four upper grades — we would call it high school: ninth through twelfth grade — secular studies had to be taught. These secular studies were not taught in the yeshiva, but there was a Jewish school in Pressburg with religious teachers who taught secular studies, and in which the students attended and took exams.
It was unthinkable, under the Russian government in Volozhin or in any of the Eastern European yeshivas, that a representative of the Ministry of Education would be present to administer exams. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though, that was normal.
In Pressburg, in the yeshiva they would start prayers at 7:00 AM on the Sabbath, but stop midway through. Then they would break for Kiddush (the ceremony sanctifying the Sabbath over wine and pastries), return to their studies in the yeshiva for about an hour and a half or longer (sometimes they would learn until 11:00) and then they would go to the big synagogue to finish their prayers with the working class people and businessmen.
By contrast, in the yeshivas in Eastern Europe, yeshiva students would not stop their prayers and then finish them up with the working class people.
The big synagogue also was famous for its cantors. Some were so famous that people would fight over the seats to listen. In Eastern Europe, yeshiva students would not out of their way to hear a cantor.
The greatness of Rabbi Moses Sofer can be seen in a legend about the time that the Emperor Franz Josef came to visit the Jewish community Pressburg.
The Emperor arrived on the Sabbath and Rabbi Sofer came to greet him. The Emperor took out a cigar and as a sign of favor gave it to the rabbi. Rabbi Sofer took the cigar and put it in his pocket.
The Emperor, knowing full well that it was the Sabbath and that the Rabbi Sofer would not light it, then said, “Herr Rabbiner, you aren’t going to smoke the Emperor’s cigar?”
Rabbi Sofer responded, “Should the honor given to me by the Emperor go up in smoke?”
In Russia, the Czar would never give the rabbi a cigar, and the rabbi would not dare answer him that way if he did. But in Austria-Hungary it was a different relationship.
Rabbi Moses Sofer’s stature in the Empire, and in the eyes of the emperor, was such that the rabbis in the community needed a letter from him certifying that they were rabbis. This went a long way in establishing the supremacy of Orthodoxy in that area of the world.
Rabbi Sofer attempted to insert one of his disciples in every Jewish community in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was divided into two sections: the Oberland and the Unterland. In the Oberland, almost every Jewish community had a rabbi who was a disciple of the Pressburg yeshiva and Rabbi Moses Sofer. He told all of his disciples that the first thing they had to do when they get to a town was to build a yeshiva. Therefore, every little town in the area had a yeshiva.
The top students from those yeshivas were sent to Pressburg. Contrary to the way it was in Eastern Europe, where formal Jewish education usually ended at the age of 12 or 13, and then people went to work, here even in the smaller communities it continued until 16, 17, or even 18 before they left the yeshivas. And that made a great difference.
Since Rabbi Moses Sofer himself was German, and since Austria is basically German, the German influence and the German type of life existed there. They were neat, orderly, clean—things that Eastern Europeans were not known for. Eastern Europe reflected the Polish and Russian chaos and inefficiency. German precision, and German respect for time, could be seen in a disciple of Pressburg. It could be seen in his dress, its neatness and style. It could be seen in his courtesy and elegance. It was a different culture.
That also weakened Reform. In Germany, Reformers could point and say, “Look how dirty the Orthodox are. Look how they dress in tattered rags.” Many of those stereotypes had a basis in truth not because of Judaism but because they had a basis in truth in Eastern European culture. The fact that the conditions and cultural traditions of Jewish life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and especially in Pressburg, were not that way, gave Orthodoxy a tremendous defense; the ills of the other society could not be blamed upon them.
Two Yeshivas, One Goal
Although we have focused on two yeshivas, Volozhin and Pressburg, there were literally hundreds of others worthy of discussing. Yet, these represent unique approaches, each distinct in its own way.
Despite the differences and nuances that separated them, the common denominators were tremendous study and knowledge of Torah, adherence to tradition, and the ability to supply the Jewish people with a spiritual bastion that could withstand the pressures of the modern age. Each saved its area of the Jewish world. Each turned back the tide of assimilation that otherwise would have engulfed the Jewish people.
And not only did they provide a spiritual fortress for the Jewish people in the 19th century, but the rippling effects of the Yeshiva Movement that they began have been incorporated into the great yeshivas today, which remain the foundation rock of Jewish survival and spiritual prosperity.