A Woman of Worth
Deborah a Brilliant Torah Scholar.—Vitebsk In the Throes of Russo-Polish War,—Deborah's Influence In Vitebsk.—A Blessing of Life for Life.—A Yeshivah Bearing a Woman's Home.
Whilst he never at any time devoted himself to business directly, he understood it so well that he became the arbiter in all business disputes, and legal adviser to worried business men. That, in fact, was how he made his living.
Samuel Nachum had one daughter named Deborah, who was the sole survivor of his several sons and daughters, all having unfortunately died in their early infancy. It can readily be understood how precious Deborah was to her father and mother! They absolutely watched over her!
They were so terribly afraid that the same fate would overtake her as her poor brothers and sisters, that they thought of all sorts of things which might protect her.
They gave a great deal of charity in her name, and every year on her birthday, they used to present the cemetery authorities with new wood to strengthen the fence surrounding the cemetery.
They also nominally handed Deborah over to an old couple, friends of theirs, for "adoption." This couple had several children, all living, and Deborah's parents hoped that her life, too, would be spared by her "attachment" to this family.
Deborah was a most gifted child and her parents just adored her and absolutely lived for her! Her father began to teach her when she was still an infant, just five years of age. She made wonderful progress, and by the time she was eight, she was already learning Chumash and the Prophets!
When she was ten years old, she had a thorough knowledge of the whole Bible and began to learn "Mishnah" and "Shulchan Aruch." In addition, her father taught her to read and write the Polish language, as well as mathematics.
Samuel Nachum would not entrust her education to any teacher. He preferred to supervise her studies himself.
And well might he be proud of his pupil and of his tutoring, for when she was fifteen years of age she was studying Gemorro with Rashi!
At the age of eighteen she married a very fine young man, the son of a well-known and respected Jew in Minsk, and she was very happily married for ten years, during which time her husband made a good living at his business. Deborah was a happy wife and mother. She felt she was a lucky woman indeed to have such a devoted husband and such lovely children, two daughters and one son.
Then tragedy entered her life so completely, that were it not for her great courage and brave spirit, she could never have come through as she did.
Deborah's two daughters died during an epidemic amongst the children of the district, and to add to her full cup of sorrow, her husband became seriously ill and he, too, died within the year.
The poor widow, with her orphaned son, made their way to her parents' home, but death seemed determined to remain on her track, for three years later her only surviving child became sick and followed his two sisters to the grave!
Another woman in her place would surely have lost her reason, for had she not lost practically everyone dear to her? For whom was she to live now?
She tried so hard to hide her grief from her parents, for they were heartbroken because of her trouble. She therefore made herself appear calm whenever she was in their presence, and if she felt the strain was too much for her, she would go to her room and there give vent to her grief in a deluge of tears and sobbing.
She was a wise woman and saw that she must pull herself together and see what she now could do to live a useful life and really justify her existence.
So she threw herself more than ever into her studies and into social welfare.
She prayed to the Almighty to guide her aright, and begged Him to grant her strength and wisdom to teach all she had been fortunate enough to learn from her father, to her sister Jewesses in Minsk. Then she would not feel so lonesome and useless.
Deborah had two friends of her childhood who also had studied the same as she, but they were not as brilliant as she was. Now the three of them, grown women, used to foregather and study Torah together. They established study-circles amongst the young Jewish women of Minsk, and lectured to them on all the duties of a true daughter of Israel.
These circles became so popular and spread so greatly, that Deborah was kept very busy indeed lecturing here and there and everywhere. She was an excellent orator and it was a delight to listen to her clear, stirring voice, and to her lucid exposition!
Deborah found great solace in her work for, in helping others, she at the same time stilled the dull pain in her aching heart.
She was at this time studying the following three books: Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.
In the Book of Job Deborah learned about G-d's judgment and Punishment.
Ecclesiastes showed her the vanity of the world and man's so-called pleasures.
The Book of Proverbs taught her the true spiritual way of life.
These three Books were known to her with all their commentaries, and she found that she could study them continuously and always find something new and worthwhile in them.
Tzadok Moshe soon came to admire this wonderful woman, so full of courage and enthusiasm for the welfare and progress of her fellow-beings, putting away her own personal tragedies and associating herself with the hopes and ambitions of others.
He felt that she would be the ideal partner for hia master, the recluse Nachum, but how could he get these two together?
Two weeks prior to his leaving Minsk, Tzadok Moshe broached the subject to his host, Deborah's father.
He told Samuel Nachum all about his master, what a splendid man he was and, in his opinion, how suitable a husband he would be for Deborah. He said he must naturally speak to Nachum first before the matter could be gone into, but as he was here, he thought he would like to hear what Samuel Nachum thought of his suggestion.
Samuel Nachum was most interested, but said Deborah would have to be consulted before any proposition could be put before Nachum.
When Deborah was approached in the matter she was very sensible about it. She said she was interested to meet Nachum as he sounded such a fine personality, but she could not be expected to commit herself as to whether or not she would want him as a husband before she had even seen him!
It was agreed that nothing should be said about marriage but that a meeting between Nachum and Deborah should be arranged.
Tzadok Moshe was no great scholar, but he was sufficiently educated to follow the argument between Deborah and her father, and he was lost in admiration of her great scholarship.
Thus it was that Tzadok Moshe returned to Vitebsk full of enthusiasm about the idea of Nachum and Deborah getting together. He described Deborah to Nachum in such glowing terms, that the latter agreed to make the trip to Minsk in order to become acquainted with this extraordinary woman.
The visit was made and Nachum and Deborah found each other very worthy. They became engaged, and very soon after were married.
Tzadok Moshe suggested that Deborah should now take charge of her husband's affairs and accounts, and Nachum said he was in perfect agreement if Deborah wished it. He was only too pleased that it was not expected of him to spend his time on business matters.
Deborah quickly proved to be an able business woman with a good head for figures and, above all, a great understanding of her employees. They all just loved her for her kind manner and interest in their welfare.
Obviously Deborah had the greatest respect and regard for Torah-scholars, but in her contact with her fellow-beings she made no distinction and treated everyone, scholar or otherwise, rich or poor, with respect and cordiality.
Within a few months she had established herself as bead of her husband's business, but apart from this she had made a name for herself in the sphere of Jewish education amongst the men as well as the women. But naturally she concentrated her efforts more amongst the women, who had so much greater need of her.
She had been so used to the women of Minsk being educated, that the appalling ignorance displayed by the Vitebsk women quite shocked her, but at the same time evoked in her a feeling of pity that they had for so long been so sadly neglected. Deborah determined to change this undesirable state of affairs as soon as possible, and set about arranging study circles for women in the same way as she had done in Minsk. She also called attention to the lack of institutions for looking after the sick and the needy, and gave a lead in their establishment and support.
She was certainly kept busy and spent a very full life indeed! She was very happy at having such a wonderful husband, but felt that he lived too much apart from the world and its affairs, and that this was not right.
She spoke to him one day about this, but he said mildly:
"My dear wife, I am sure you are managing excellently without my help, so why bring me into these mundane affairs now? You know that I believe my duty to be to sit and study and pray, and there is no room in such a life for anything else."
But Deborah was not satisfied to leave the matter at that and began to bring examples of all the great Tanaim and Amoraim who found time to look after their material interests as well as their spiritual ones.
"Dear Nachum, surely you know that it is related in Taanith page 9, about Rabbi Daniel Bar Katina who used to go into his garden every day to supervise the day's gardening program. Also remember that in Nedarim page 62 we are told about Rabbi Ashi who did business even with people who worshipped fire, explaining that this was not against the Din.
Deborah mentioned the case of many Tanaim and Amoraim who amassed fortunes, or received them by inheritance, and wound up her arguments by quoting the saying of our Sages that "Torah without work ends in naught."
But Nachum said his own great teacher the Parush of Cracow contended that the word "work" meant "Service" to the Almighty. Nachum begged her to see that his way was the right one and that he be permitted to continue his life as before. Deborah persisted, however, as she truly believed her husband ought to participate to some extent in more material things and live a more complete life. So she tackled him from another angle.
"See now, do you know whether or not you are fulfilling the Mitzvah of giving Maaser (tithe) for charity? You should look at your accounts and only then can you know. "
Nachum had to admit that he had never done this but had just given charity in a haphazard manner. He protested, though, that it would take more time than he could spare to arrive at the exact figure of "Maaser."
Deborah assured him that she had the accounts in perfect order and completely up-to-date, and with but a little effort they could find out the amounts Nachum had paid out for charity since he inherited his father's fortune, and what the correct amount should have been.
Nachum was not merely astonished to find that his wife was such a capable manager of his business affairs, but her extensive Torah knowledge astounded him! He began to realize more and more what a treasure he had in such a wife, and his respect and admiration for her increased enormously.
Now that he thought of her and her station in life, he realized also what a change her coming had made, not only in his own home which had become a veritable "Open House and Council of Wise Men," but in Vitebsk at large, where her influence was felt and appreciated in every sphere of social and educational activity!
What he did not know was that Deborah found time every day to study the Talmud and that she was already studying the "Shass" for the second time!
During this time, the merchants of Vitebsk were kept busy supplying the government with necessary requirements to keep their army clothed and fed. In 5427 (1667) General Sheremetiev captured Vitebsk and arrested most of these merchants, sending them far away into the depths of Russia.
For three years they were kept prisoners before being finally released and allowed to return to their homes.
But nothing, not even this long protracted war, had affected Vitebsk and its Jewish community, as Deborah's coming.
When she first arrived she found material prosperity, but spiritual decadence. Especially amongst the women did she find a very low spiritual level.
But how different was the picture now! She had 'organized Torah institutions and charitable institutions and centers for the advancement of Jewish education.
Deborah saw that all her efforts to draw her husband out of his seclusion were unavailing, and decided there was nothing more she could do about the matter but accept the position with as good a grace as possible. For after all, she recognized and appreciated the exceptionally high moral qualities of her saintly husband.
Under the circumstances she understood and accepted the fact that he spent less time with her than other husbands did with their wives, but she knew how to make the best use of her leisure.
There was a most wonderful collection of books in her husband's library, which had come down from father to son for several generations, and here Deborah used to retire whenever she had time, and browse amongst the books until she found one which held her attention. There were all sorts of books on all sorts of subjects, and with the thirst that Deborah had for knowledge which could never be quenched, she was the happiest person in existence when left undisturbed in this feast of literature!
Deborah felt that these literary treasures of her husband's were worth a thousand times more than his material treasures. Yes, Deborah was a contented woman.
As we have already been told, Deborah's main activities were centered amongst the Jewish women of Vitebsk. She appealed in the first instance to their kind and womanly hearts to help her with her various deeds of charity.
They were very ready and willing to help her in establishing charitable organizations and institutions. This gave Deborah her further opportunity to influence them also in other directions.
All the women accepted her as their leader and guide, recognizing her superior qualities and abilities.
Thus it was that when they foregathered at their meetings, Deborah grasped the opportunity to talk to them also on religious matters. She told them stories from the Midrash, sayings of our Sages, "Dinim" of especial interest and significance to women, and they listened very readily and then thirstily, for Deborah had a wonderful power of oratory and it was sheer delight to listen to her! She spoke to them simply and everyone understood her without difficulty. At that time there was already the "Teitch-Chumash" (Chumash in Yiddish translation) printed specially for women, and Deborah read to them out of it and encouraged them to read it for themselves.
But Deborah was not satisfied to concentrate on one section only of the Jewish community. Her ambition was to see Vitebsk as a whole become a center of Jewish learning. And why not? It need only be a question of time if a beginning was made, before Vitebsk would become as "literary" as Minsk or any other famous Jewish city.
Since Deborah's childhood she remembered having Yeshivah students come to their house to eat "Teg" (days) and later she continued this practice in her own home. But here in Vitebsk, where there was but a small Yeshivah more or less for local students, it had not been found necessary to introduce such a practice, and even had the necessity arisen, the people of Vitebsk were not used to such an arrangement.
Deborah decided it would do the Jews of Vitebsk good to practice such an innovation, for it taught people the virtue of hospitality, so she had a talk with her husband to see what would be their best plan of campaign.
Believing that charity should begin at home, and that it was up to them to set an example, she suggested to her husband that he choose five or six boys from the local Ye-shiva and send them to one of the famous Yeshivoth at Cracow or Prague. They would remain there at his expense until their education was of a sufficiently high level to enable them to return to Vitebsk, and give the Vitebsk students the benefit of their higher education and learning. They would be the pioneers of a generation of Torah scholars!
As this would obviously take some years, Deborah proposed that Nachum should appoint someone to visit the great and well-known Yeshivoth at Minsk, Slutzk, Brisk, and Vilna, and there choose suitable teachers who would be willing to come with their wives and families to settle in Vitebsk, on condition that they agreed to live and teach in the districts allotted to them.
The purpose of course was that the whole area would be covered and the religious education of the whole community cared for.
Nachum readily agreed, and appointed Rabbi Moshe the son of his former teacher, the saintly Gaon Yekuthiel Zaiman of Cracow, as the most suitable person to choose the teachers required.
Nachum made it clear to Rabbi Moshe that he was undertaking the cost of all expenses, including the maintenance of the teachers and their families whilst they were in Vitebsk. He stipulated, however, that they must not know that Nachum was paying them their salaries. He preferred to remain their anonymous benefactor.
However, continued Nachum, should there be people in Vitebsk who would like to contribute towards the educational expenses, the money could be accepted and turned over to charity.
He wished quite definitely that he himself bear all the costs of the proposed scheme.
The plan took much time and thought, as was expected, and it was some nine months later that Rabbi Moshe completed his mission and returned to Vitebsk with ten teachers who conformed to the requirements demanded by Nachum and Deborah.
The coming of these teachers eventually attracted other scholars to Vitebsk, amongst them a certain Rabbi Ephraim Simchah.
Before very long, the sweet sound of Torah could be heard throughout the whole town of Vitebsk! "Shiurim" were arranged to enable all who wished to attend, to do so without having to go very far. The times, too, were fixed conveniently.
With everything done to encourage them, the Jews of Vitebsk began first to trickle in to the Shiurim, and then gradually the trickle became a constant stream as the "students" became more and more interested.
Very soon it became a matter of course for people of all ages, both young and old, to flock to hear a "word of Torah." Deborah's dream of making Vitebsk a centre for Torah was gradually becoming a beautiful reality!
All this takes less to relate than in actual happening.
It was now ten years since Deborah had first spoken to her husband about this plan, and the change in Vitebsk was very marked.
Although Nachum had been very reluctant to change his ways, he too had been influenced by his purposeful wife! Little by little he had emerged from his isolation and shown an interest in the life around him.
It was the teachers who had come from the various Yeshivoth who had first called forth his interest. He began to meet them and discuss Torah topics with them. This seemed to remove, to some extent, his spell of reserve. Occasionally he even enquired about matters concerning his business!
Deborah was delighted to welcome these scholars to her home and to see how Nachum enjoyed their company and the Torah "Pilpul" in which they indulged.
In the midst of this state of affairs, they had a very special visitor. No less a personality than the famous scholar, saint, and Cabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Gershon, a disciple of the Gaon Rabbi Eliahu, who was known at that time as "The Baal-Shem of Worms."
For many years Rabbi Moshe Gershon had studied under the well-known Rabbi Pinchas in Fulda, Germany.
Nachum was really thrilled to be host to such a distinguished guest, and he sought every opportunity of talking to him on Torah matters.
They found much to discuss, and Nachum felt so drawn to him that he found he could talk to him on every subject without reservation.
Thus it came about that he revealed to him the innermost secrets of his heart, and he told him of his hitherto undisclosed sorrow, tne fact that he had no child.
Rabbi Moshe listened to him with great sympathy and then gently said to him: "You know, my good friend, there is no one in the world who has everything his heart desires. There are three blessings that Man looks for in life. There is the blessing of having children, the blessing of wealth, and the blessing of long life.
"The Almighty has already blessed you with wealth and long life. You cannot also expect the third blessing, children.
"If, however, you are convinced that your preference is to have children, you must be prepared to relinquish one of the other two blessings."
Rabbi Moshe's words made a great impression on Nachum. Shutting himself away from everybody, he spent many days in silent contemplation of his problem, seeking to find the true answer.
Finally he emerged from his seclusion and sought out Rabbi Moshe, telling him he was willing and ready to give up either of the two things with which he was already blessed - wealth (his business had flourished exceedingly), or long life (he was at this time over sixty years of age).
When Nachum had told Rabbi Moshe of his choice, the latter gave him his blessing that it should be as Nachum wished.
Before a year had passed since the Rabbi's blessing, Deborah realized one day that she was with child, but she hesitated to tell her husband. She was worried lest the child would share the same fate as the unfortunate children of her first marriage.
When three months had passed by, Deborah decided she would not be able to hide her pregnancy much longer, so she might as well tell her husband.
She came to him and told him joyfully of her news, hiding her fears from him.
He too received the welcome news very gladly, although he knew this meant that he would soon die. He remembered that Rabbi Moshe Gershon had offered him a choice of three blessings: long life, wealth, or a child.
Well, his business was, if anything, more nourishing than before, and here was the promise of a child, G-d be praised. So obviously it meant that he would soon have to meet the Giver of Life and Death!
He said nothing of this to his wife, whom he loved and did not wish to pain, but again retired to his old ways, his life of solitude spent in prayer, contemplation, and study.
Nachum removed himself completely from the society of his fellow-beings and devoted all his time to "Teshuvah," in preparation for his departure from earthly life to meet his Maker.
Each day found him weaker and weaker, but whenever he came out of his room to Deborah, he tried to appear as if nothing untoward was happening.
His death came quickly, to the great grief of his devoted wife and to the sorrow of the whole Jewish community of Vitebsk, who all mourned the passing of this great personality.
In due time, Deborah gave birth to a girl whom she named Nechamah, after her husband Nachum.
According to his Will, his property and possessions were to be divided into three parts, the first part to go to charity, the second part to his wife Deborah, and the third to his child.
He also left a sealed letter which was to be opened when his child would reach the age of "Bar-Mitzvah," not before.
Deborah brought up her daughter along the same lines as her own upbringing had been, providing her with private teachers so that she should eventually become a Torah scholar like herself. She supervised her training generally, so that she should be a worthy daughter of Israel.
Meanwhile Deborah continued to manage her late husband's business with the same success as before, and she distributed charity with a generous hand.
It was now twenty-five years since her arrival in Vitebsk, and there was a vast improvement in the city's Jewish population in a spiritual and cultural sense.
There were many more Talmud Torahs now, and the number of pupils at the Yeshivah had increased enormously. They were mostly from the town itself and surrounding districts.
The town had also by now attracted a fair number of scholars.
Particularly noticeable, however, was the unbelievable change amongst the women of Vitebsk! Now they were all able to "davven," and with the help of the "Tze'ena-Re'ena" and other "Techinoth" in Yiddish, had acquired an increasing knowledge of important Jewish matters.
When the time of Nechamah's "Bar-Mitzvah" came, the sealed letter left by her father before his death was opened, and it was then they learned that Nachum had known that in receiving the blessing of having a child to continue after him, he himself would have to die.
The letter directed that Deborah should establish a Yeshivah in the name of their child, and that the cost and maintenance should be provided for from the funds of the child's inheritance.
Thus it was that in the year 5457 (1697) a Yeshivah was established in the part of Vitebsk known as "The Large Side," and called "Nechamah, Rabbi Nachum Tevel's, Yeshivah." The women, hi the main, called it "Nechamah Deborah's Yeshivah," in recognition of the widow Deborah's well-earned popularity.
Amongst the scholars of note who came to Vitebsk about that time, was Rabbi Simchah Zelig who was also known as "The Genius of Stavisk."
He had spent ten years in solitude, so that he could devote himself entirely and exclusively to Torah study.
He was appointed the head of the Yeshivah aforementioned, and in less than two years' time, there were a hundred and thirty scholars attending the Yeshivah, which was very satisfactory, under the circumstances.
Rabbi Simchah Zelig did not remain at the head of the Yeshivah for very long, however, as he felt he would prefer to return to his former life of seclusion, devoting all his time to Torah-study.
Despite the spiritual ascent of Vitebsk, it could still not compare with Minsk as a Torah-center; nor with Slutzk or Brisk, and most certainly not with Vilna, which was already at that time recognized as the leading center of Torah scholarship.