On October 11, 1959, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Halevi Soloveitchik, scion of a great Lithuanian rabbinical family who had escaped the Holocaust and resettled in Palestine, died in Jerusalem a week short of his 73rd birthday.
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Soloveitchik, who was known to his followers as Reb Velvel (a Yiddish diminutive for “Zev,” meaning “wolf”), brought with him to Jerusalem the tradition of Talmud study that had been developed by his father, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik.
The Brisker method is named for the town Brisk, the Yiddish name of Brest, in present-day Belarus. That's where the Solveitchiks established themselves.
The method demanded a then-novel method of legal analysis that broke an issue down into its component parts in an attempt to identify the underlying principles defining it. Its intellectual rigor was accompanied by a stringency in religious observance that always preferred the more conservative path and that to this day makes the followers of Soloveitchik’s descendants among the strictest of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) groups.
Memorizing the Talmud, with commentary
Yitzchak Zev Halevi Soloveitchik was born in Volozhin, in the Russian Empire, on October 19, 1886. His father, Rabbi Chaim Solveitchik (1853-1918), taught at the famed Volozhin yeshiva that became the model for all modern “Lithuanian” yeshivot.
Yitzchak’s mother was the former Lifshe Shapira, daughter of Rabbi Rafael Shapira, the Volozhin yeshiva’s longtime head.
Yitzchak revealed extraordinary learning powers early on; it was said that he had committed to memory the entire Babylonian Talmud, with Rashi’s commentary, by age 16. His only teacher, however, was his father, who in 1892, when the czarist government closed the Volozhin yeshiva, moved to Brisk, where his own father, Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, was rabbi.
Rabbi Chaim succeeded Rabbi Yosef Ber on the latter’s death, and he made it clear that he expected Rabbi Yitzchak Zev to follow him as rabbi of Brisk. This he did, while also organizing around him a study circle that included the best students from the region. Some sources refer to it as a yeshiva, others describe it as less formal than that.
Trapped in the ghetto
When the Germans invaded Poland, in 1939, Yitzchak Zev was recuperating from an illness at a rest home. But his wife, the former Hendel-Hindel Auerbach, and four of their 11 children were trapped in what became the Brest Ghetto and were murdered in 1941.
That same year, he and his surviving children made their way from Vilna, where they had taken refuge in the meantime, to Mandatory Palestine.
In Jerusalem, Soloveitchik avoided playing a public role, deferring, at least formally, to the local rabbinical authorities. Only his sons established yeshivot here, while he continued to teach a circle of students from home.
Nonetheless, the rabbi was well known for his unyielding ideological opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state – on the grounds that a secular Jewish state in the Land of Israel was blasphemy. After Israel’s independence, he was noted for his stand against any cooperation with the secular authorities, not even accepting state funds for educational institutions. In this, his community of Briskers was allied with the city’s strictest ultra-Orthodox communities.
Soloveitchik was opposed when his colleague the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, met with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and when the premier came to his home to talk with him, it is said that Soloveitchik refused to receive him.
It was the sons of Rabbi Yitzchak Zev who went on to set up the two Brisk yeshivas that today exist in Jerusalem: the flagship institution in the central neighborhood of Zichron Moshe, which was established by his eldest son Yosef Dov (Berel) Soloveitchik (1916-1980), and a smaller institution in the Givat Moshe neighborhood, founded by Meshulem Dovid Solveitchik (born 1921).
One of Yitzchak Zev’s brothers, Moshe, was the father of Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, who emigrated to the United States in 1932, settling in Boston but teaching for many years at Yeshiva University in New York. In many ways, these two cousins were opposites – Joseph Dov was a Zionist and a believer in secular education – but they knew and respected one another, and Yitzchak Zev reportedly called his cousin the greatest Torah scholar in the United States, which was presumably intended as a compliment.