In Vilna of Old

In the Wake of the Russo-Polish War. The Outstanding Talmudists of Old Vilna. The "Rich Pauper."
Whilst he was in Lutzk, Zacharyah Yerucham became acquainted with a "wanderer" whom he recognized as a great Tzadik and scholar, despite the efforts of the latter to disguise the fact and his repeated refusal to disclose his identity.
Zecharyah Yerucham followed him wherever he went, and even after two months, still did not know his name.
About the first week in Nissan the Mystic had "Yahrzeit," and only then, when the Shamash asked him his name to be called to the Torah, did Zecharyah Yerucham learn that the man he had been accompanying for almost three months, was called Nachum Tuvya, son of Shlomoh. More than that he could not find out.
Both turned in the direction of Vilna, which, together with all the surrounding districts, presented a scene of ruin and devastation. It was soon after the war which had been waged between the Poles and the Russians.
The Russians had managed to capture the place with the help of the Cossacks, who had wrought utter destruction in all the towns and townlets in which they set foot.
Czar Alexei was then in power, and he showed a certain measure of friendliness towards the Jews. He was an enterprising and resourceful monarch and allowed them concessions. As a result Vilna, which had suffered from the war more than other towns, was rebuilt and rehabilitated within the comparatively short space of two years.
However, although the towns and townlets were taken care of, the villages were left to go to ruin. Particularly were the estates of the nobles allowed to sink into neglect and decay. The nobles had fled before the enemy, and their peasant workers had either been killed or captured in battle.
Seeing the danger of the land going to waste, the Jews rented large tracts which they cultivated. The government provided them with seed, in return for which it claimed a percentage of the produce at harvest-time.
There were also many orchards which the noblemen had planted with the aid of agricultural students and botanists. These too, the Jews rented from the government and shared the fruit which they harvested from them. The Jews employed the widows and orphans of the fallen peasants, to help in the work on the land and in the orchards, to their mutual benefit. Thus it was that this particular district began to "live" again.
The mills and breweries were also taken over by the Jews. In fact they took over the management of most of the property which had previously been owned by the noblemen.
The Rabbis of Vilna, as soon as they realized the position, called a meeting of the heads of the community and pointed out to them that should the noblemen ever return, they would blame the Jews for taking over their land and property.
They would probably overlook the fact that it was from the Government in power that the Jews had rented the lands, mills, etc., and had paid for everything they had taken over. They might even accuse the Jews of having been on the side of .the Russians during the war, helping them to capture Vilna and surrounding districts, with a view to reaping the benefits and favors of the victorious Russian government.
The Rabbis suggested, therefore, that whenever a Jew rented any property previously belonging to a Polish nobleman, he should set aside a certain percentage for the dependent of the said nobleman. And in the case where they were not on the spot at the time, the money could be put aside in their name, in the presence of witnesses. So that whenever these noblemen should return, they could never say that the Jews had swindled them.
This was a very important step indeed towards safeguarding the good name of the Jews, and obviating the possibility of libels against the Jews on the part of the defeated Poles.
But despite all that the Jews did to be fair and considerate towards their non-Jewish neighbors, there were still some elements amongst the Poles who wanted to make trouble for the Jews.
They were jealous of the Jews' success, and began to carry tales to the governing authorities and even sent a deputation to the Czar asking him to drive the Jews out of Vilna and district.
These mischievous trouble-makers also sent word to the noblemen, who had not dared to return to their homes, that the Jews had taken possession of their estates.
The Czar, fortunately for the Jews, refused to recognize the Polish deputation, and on the contrary, ordered the Governor of Vilna to make public acknowledgment of the benefits the Jews had brought by their constructive rehabilitation of the war-torn land. He further ordered the Governor to show public recognition to those Jews who had especially earned it.
Hearing that the sulky Poles threatened to take the law into their own hands and make trouble for the Jews if the Czar would not do so, the latter gave orders that all necessary measures were to be taken to see that the Jews were protected.
The noblemen also refused to "take the bait" of the Polish peasants, and replied that they were very appreciative of the honesty of the Jews who, of their own accord, had suggested paying the noblemen a percentage of the profits of the estates. They also sent letters to the Jews who were in charge of these estates, thanking them and praising them for their work, and expressing the hope that they would continue with it in the future.
When Zecharyah Yerucham arrived with the Mystic Rabbi Nachum Tuvya in Vilna, the material position of the Jews there was quite good. Not so, however, their spiritual welfare. It is true that some of the great scholars who had fled when the Cossacks entered the city, had now returned to Vilna, but no one could quickly or easily forget that the Cossacks had, in the year 5415 (1655), killed 25,000 souls in and around Vilna.
During this time, the four great Vilna scholars of the period, Rabbi Moshe Rivkes (author of the "Be'er HaGolah"), Rabbi Ephraim (the "Shaar-Ephraim"), Rabbi Shabbathai Cohen (the "Shach"), Rabbi Shmuel Koidenaver, and others, had found refuge in other Jewish communities, and the Vilna Jews were now trying to induce them to return.
All these things were new to Zecharyah Yerucham and his companion the Mystic, and they heard much and learned more, during their four months' stay in Vilna.
They learned from the great scholars who were present, and learned too, indirectly, from the absent scholars. For instance, the two travellers swallowed with great interest, the comments of the aforementioned Rabbi Moshe Rivkes on the Tractate "Zevachim" and Tractate "Menochoth." These writings positively opened their eyes!
They heard much, too, about the "Shach," and two stories about him especially appealed to them. One was as follows:
The "Shach" was so oblivious to everything that went on around him when he was engrossed in his studies that once, when he went up onto the roof so that he could study in solitude, people saw him walking about as if he were on the ground. When he came to the edge of the roof, he just skipped over to the roof of the next house as if it were the most natural thing to "promenade" in this manner. The people below held their breath in horror, fearing some accident would befall him, but he continued his pacing to and fro unconcernedly, completely immersed in his own thoughts!
The other story was that when his son Moshe became seriously ill, the "Shach" naturally was very grieved. He prayed for his son's recovery but he only seemed to grow steadily worse. In fact he was just about nearing his end.
When the "Shach" realized the gravity of his son's condition, he implored the Almighty to spare the life of his beloved son, and promised he would pay with his "Chiddushe-Torah" of that day.
Immediately his son's health took a definite turn for the better!


Zecharyah Yerucham and Nachum Tuyva learned much during their stay in Vilna. They found veritable treasures of literature and rare manuscripts in the synagogues, which they had never seen before!
They also met many famous scholars in this city which was known throughout Jewry as "The Jerusalem of Lithuania."
Whilst they were in Vilna, there died there the well-known Jewish philanthropist Shalom Shachne Sorke's, the brother of Raphael Shlomoh who was known in Vilna as "The Rich Pauper." They were both sons of Abraham who was called "The Beloved Abraham," and he was the son of Shimon Doktorovitch of Cracow, one of the founders of the famous Vilna Synagogue, built in the year 5323 (1563).
This Shimon Doktorovitch, together with his partner Israel, used to pay the government for the right to build houses and shops all over Poland and Lithuania, which they used to rent out.
They did very good business indeed, but being both very fine Jews they always paid 10% of their profits to charity. In their case, a most substantial sum, but they gave it gladly.
Abraham was the only son of Shimon, and, as can be imagined, he had the best of everything. His father provided him with the best tutors obtainable, but somehow Abraham lacked the talents necessary to make a student.
Abraham's virtue lay in his good-heartedness and generous nature. He seemed to "nose out" everyone, be he in the most out-of-the-way corner of some narrow slum-street of Vilna, who was in need of help! Abraham lost no time in giving the necessary assistance with a generous hand!
When he was only fifteen years of age, his father Shimon made him his "Treasurer" of the money he had put aside for charitable purposes, and entrusted to him the apportionment of this money as he thought fit.
At the age of eighteen, Abraham married the daughter of the Gaon Rabbi Israel, the son of the Gaon Rabbi Shalom Schachne of Lublin, the pupil of the well-known Rabbi Jacob Pollak of Prague.
Abraham's bride was named Sarah, and she was as good-hearted and hospitable as her husband. She became known throughout the whole area for her generosity, charitableness and hospitality. They were, in truth, followers of their namesakes in the Torah, Abraham and Sarah.
When King Sigmund August made Vilna his town-residence, he gave orders that the city was to be beautified with buildings worthy of his regal presence.
It was then that the two partners, Shimon and Israel, came to Vilna and, in addition to their other places of business, established here a new office.
They began to build houses and shops and rented them out. They also procured orders from the government to build houses and mansions for all the ministers and high government officials who would now wish to settle in Vilna.
The two partners showed their spirit of enterprise by bringing from abroad the best architects and builders to be had, and the result was most gratifying. They made a mint of money out of their venture. It was at this time too, that they built the famous Vilna Synagogue.
After a few years, the two partners decided to dissolve partnership, which they did according to the conditions prescribed by a "Beth-din" of three.
Shimon was over sixty years of age when he handed over his business to his son and two sons-in-law, and devoted himself entirely to Torah study and social service.
Because of his most valuable connections with the highest government officials and even with the King himself, the Vilna community invited him to become their "intercessor," their mediator between themselves and the government whenever necessary.
Shimon was very successful in his communal work and the "Council of the Four Provinces," (under whose auspices he was elected), a body representing all matters of Jewish interest and concern, were delighted with their choice of a leader.
He made the fullest use of his privileged position and was able to do many favors to his fellow-Jews. When the seat of government was later moved to Cracow, he too followed, so that he should be able to continue with his communal work on behalf of his co-religionists.
Abraham was now a busy and successful business man, but this did not deter him from carrying on with his work of charity which was as dear to him as life itself. People used to say of him that not only did he distribute charity in the form of money, but he at the same time distributed love, which often meant more to the poor and lowly than the financial help of which they were so badly in need. Thus it was that Abraham earned for himself the name, "The Beloved Abraham."
And as lovable and kind as Abraham was, his wife Sarah was ten times more so! She put her whole life and soul into her charitable work amongst the poor and needy, and was to them a "mother" and "sister."
She used to spend hours every day in the poor slum houses of Vilna, tending the sick, encouraging the troubled ones, and doing everything for the poor women who lay in confinement.
Abraham and Sarah had two sons, the elder named Shalom Shachne, and the younger Raphael Shiomoh. When Shalom Shachne was fourteen years old, his mother took him with her when she went to the houses of the poor, for she felt he ought to see how the majority of the Jews lived, in poverty and suffering. She often bade him change his clothes with some poor child, saying: "You know my child, he is much more learned in the Torah than you, and as our Sages say: "Take care of the children of the poor, for they disseminate the Torah!"
Sarah brought up her second son also in the same spirit of consideration for the poor and care of them.
Abraham and Sarah kept an open house for everybody in need, and it was indeed a refuge for the poor as well as a center for the learned.
They had a house specially built as a guest-house for wayfarers, and many people, scholars in particular, readily made their way towards it.
Despite their great wealth, Abraham and Sarah always dressed simply and in no way did they ever give anyone the impression that they thought themselves superior in any respect.
Because of his father's connections with the government officials and officers of high rank, Abraham, too, made their acquaintance and they came to him with their business affairs. Thus he was able to be the mediator between his fellow-Jews and these nobles. This was a good thing for the Jews, for they were then able to do business with them or rent from them their inns, mills, or rivers and lakes for the purpose of fishing. They also rented from them plots of land for cultivating gardens and orchards.
And through Abraham's mediation, hundreds, even thousands of Jews left the large towns where they had to struggle to make a living, and went with their families to the country-towns and villages, where they found it much easier to make ends meet.
There arose, however, a new problem out of this emigration into the country: the problem of supplying these Jews with a sufficiently Jewish environment, as well as seeing that their children had an adequate Jewish education, and, in general, to avoid the danger of these Jews losing contact with their fellow-Jews in the larger Jewish communities.
This great and many-sided problem was taken up at a meeting of "The Council of the Four Provinces" in Cracow, and it was decided to appoint suitable supervisors who would undertake to look after these new villagers and be the con-necting-link between them and their "father-communities" in the towns. Abraham's father Shimon gave a large sum of money for this purpose, considering it a very worthy cause, which it certainly was.
Abraham took every opportunity of doing a good turn for a Jew, and whenever a "Poretz" (landowner or squire) approached him for a loan, he made one of the conditions of granting the loan, that the "Poretz" in question promise to appoint a Jew as one of his overseers in his estate.
In every case the appointment proved a great success, to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.
The "Poretz" found that his Jewish employee brought him in substantial profits, and was therefore more than ready to accept Abraham's "condition" in the future. He, the "Poretz," also told his friends what good workers the Jews were, and what fine fellows, so that a double purpose was served: the Jews were provided with jobs, and the nobles acquired a good opinion of Jews.
Gradually more and more Jews settled in the villages, and little by little, small communities were formed which grew and developed into larger communities, when their spiritual as well as material welfare could better be taken care of.
When Abraham's sons were still young children, he established a kind of "loan-fund" to assist poor Jewish stall-holders in the market-place, who were in need of ready cash. He trained his sons to see the importance of this form of charity so that they should always continue in the philanthropic path he had trodden out for them.


The great philanthropist and intercessor Shimon died at the age of eighty-five. In his Will he stated that one quarter of his wealth should go to charity, and, with the consent of his son Abraham, the money should be distributed by "The Council of the Four Provinces" as they thought fit.
The remaining three-quarters he left to his son and daughters. The son, who was the eldest child, was to receive two-thirds of this amount, but his wife very generously suggested to her husband that the third which he was to receive because he was the eldest child, should go to charity, particularly for the advancement of Torah-study: By having houses of study built, Sifrei-Torah written, supplying the scholars with all the books they needed for their libraries, and in general helping Yeshivoth and Talmud Torahs with their requirements.
When Abraham's two sons Shalom Shachne and Raphael Shlomoh grew up to manhood, he married them to wives who were ready and happy to follow in the path of philanthropy of their husbands and parents-in-law. Their house had ever open doors, offering a welcome to scholars, and a refuge to all who needed it.
Little by little the two sons took over the management of their father's business affairs, leaving him more and more free time to devote to Torah and charity.
Still, however busy they were kept by business matters, they never failed to devote some of their time to charitable causes. And their wives were always happy to join them in their good work, encouraged greatly by their mother-in-law's shining example of unselfish devotion to the needs of the poor.
Thus it was that the whole family, old and young, gave themselves up to the great work of charity.
The two brothers dispensed charity in individual ways, each according to his point of view. For instance the elder brother Shalom Shachne could never allow himself the luxury of staying at home, in comfort and warmth during the cold winter nights, when he thought of the poverty and discomfort of the poor Jews of the town. He would therefore wrap himself up well and, arming himself with a bag filled to capacity with cash, would set off for the poor quarter of Vilna and make his "round."
In one place he would notice that the wind was blowing through a chink in the wall of an old house, in another he would see that a new oven was wanted. Here he would observe that the roof was leaking, and there be would find that the people were in need of food and clothing. And so it would go on.
In every case he would give the poor folk the money for the things they needed, with a kind word of encouragement which would cheer them out of their misery. And if he found that he had not brought enough money to meet the requirements of his "round," he would return home and immediately send along the amount he had been short of.
Now his brother Raphael Shlomoh used to say that it was not enough that a person was charitable and gave money to the poor. He maintained it was necessary to see that others also gave charity. And so, in addition to his own very generous contributions, he would arm himself with a box and go from door to door asking for money for the poor.
He would knock at the doors and when the house-holders came out he would greet them, saying: "Forget that I am the rich Raphael Shlomoh! Imagine that I am a poor man who comes to you because he is in need of your contributions for the poor, and give as much as ever you can spare! And may the Almighty reward you for your generosity!"
And so, because Raphael Shlomoh always used to say when going collecting with his box that he was "the poor Raphael Shlomoh," he earned the nickname the "Rich Pauper."
Raphael Shlomoh would explain at the same time that "he who induces another person to do a good deed is worthy of greater credit than the doer." He felt he was doing the best he could by working for charity as well as giving it.
He used to tell his "customers" that the Almighty welcomed the pence of the poor more than the golden coins of the rich.
His mother Sarah had asked him to total up each day's collection and himself add an equal amount for charity. Later, his mother also added a similar amount from her own pocket, so that the "box-collection" total became considerably swelled.
The proceeds of the "box-collections" were put aside by Raphael Shlomoh for "Pidyon-Shevuim" (ransom of prisoners). For this was the period when the Catholic priests brought libels against the Jews, and it required vast sums of money to pay for the defense of these innocent victims against the false charges that were brought against them, and to obtain their release.
Abraham and Sarah lived to a grand old age, and when they died, they lived on in the charitable deeds of their children and grandchildren who all carried on the family tradition of good deeds and philanthropy.
When Vilna became the center of battle between the Russians and the Poles in the year 5415 (1655), the two brothers were already advanced in age. Their businesses were spread all over the country and were carried on by their sons and grandsons.
As the Cossacks advanced nearer and nearer, the brothers arranged for the Jews of Vilna to be provided with wagons so that they could pack their belongings and remove with their families to a place of safety.
The scholars and their families were given "priority." 
In all their rescue work, the brothers had the help of the Russian landowner Wolkoff, who owned a large estate near Shvintzian. This estate was formerly the property of a Polish nobleman, and the transfer of ownership had been arranged by the two brothers. They also advanced him a loan on easy terms and, as was their custom, they had at the same time prevailed upon the Russian 1,0 engage a Jew to manage his estate. The latter had so pleased Wolkoff, bringing him in substantial profits, that he had ever since been very grateful to the two brothers Shalom Shachne and Raphael Shlomoh. On the 22nd day of Tammuz, a day before the Cossacks entered Vilna, wagons and carriages arrived from Wolkoff to bring the two brothers and their families and what they could take along, to the safety of his estate. The two brothers were most reluctant to leave the city whilst there still remained some Jews in Vilna. But the Gaon Rabbi Mohe Rivkes and the Gaon Rabbi Shabbathai Cohen told them it was their duty to take advantage of this opportunity and take refuge where refuge was so readily offered them.
When the two brothers returned to Vilna in the middle of Elul, they found the city in ruins; the major part had been destroyed by fire which had raged for seventeen days!
As if by a miracle, the homes of the two brothers were untouched! As though their good deeds had protected them. They quickly set about rebuilding the desolate city. They donated a large sum for this purpose, beginning with homes for the poor.
The first of the brothers to die was Shalom Shachne, and his funeral was attended by tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews, who came to pay their last respects to their great benefactor and philanthropist.
Raphael Shlomoh the "Rich Pauper," carried on with his work of charity until he felt he could do so no longer on account of his age and failing strength. So he called a meeting of the heads of the community and the people of means, and told them that the time had come when he must give up his task of going collecting money for the poor and needy.
He told them he would only "sell" the privilege of taking over the "box-collection" to the highest bidder; the proceeds, of course, to go to charity.
The "buyer" was the wealthy Yerachmiel Cohen who stipulated, however, that he was only prepared to contribute out of his own pocket, a fifth of the daily total of his collections.
Raphael Shlomoh refused to accept this condition until six other people, who were present at the moment, bound themselves to contribute the remaining four-fifths.
Yerachmiel Cohen carried on with the collections for thirteen years, going through the streets of Vilna and knocking at the doors from house to house, with the collection box in his hand bearing the words "The Rich Pauper."
He kept a full account of all the daily totals, which he wrote into a ledger. He added the fifth which he had promised to contribute himself, and at the end of each week the other six people who had committed themselves to making up the amount of the collection total, came along and contributed the sum in question.
The death of the "Rich Pauper" was mourned throughout Vilna. The two visitors, the Mystic Rabbi Nachum Tuvya, and the young genius of Nemerov, Rabbi Zecharyah Yerucham, were astonished to learn of the philanthropy of this Raphael Shlomoh, and of all his family!
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© Iosif Vaisman
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