Chaim Ozer Grodzinski
Chaim Ozer Grodzinski
Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (right) conversing with Rabbi Shimon Shkop
|Born||24 August 1863 (9 Elul 5623)
|Died||9 August 1940 (5 Av 5700)
|Known for||Leader of Lithuanian and European Jewry|
Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (Hebrew: חיים עוזר גרודזנסקי) (24 August 1863 – 9 August 1940) was a pre-eminent Av beis din (rabbinical judge), posek (halakhic authority), and Talmudic scholar in Vilnius, Lithuania in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During his 55 years of community service, he was recognized as the leading posek and spiritual guide of his generation, fielding halakhic queries from all parts of the world and being consulted on every Jewish communal issue. He played an instrumental role in preserving Lithuanian yeshivas during the Communist era, and saved the yeshivas of Poland and Russia during the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, when he arranged for these yeshivas to relocate to Lithuanian cities.
Chaim Ozer Grodzinski was born on 9 Elul 5623 (24 August, 1863) in Iwye, Belarus, a small town near Vilnius. His father, Rabbi David Shlomo Grodzinski, was Rav of Iwye for over 40 years, and his grandfather was also Rav of the town for 40 years before that.
From infancy, Chaim Ozer was weak and sickly. However, he was gifted with a tremendous memory, never forgetting anything he had ever read or heard. He was also a deep thinker who developed clear explanations for every Torah topic he studied. At the age of 9, he was tested by Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who asked the boy a question in halakha along with his own answer. Chaim Ozer refuted the Rav's thesis and cited a different one from the sources, astounding the Rav.
When he was 12 years old, his father sent him to learn with the peirushim, a group of the finest Lithuanian Torah scholars assembled in Eishyshok. Chaim Ozer celebrated his bar mitzvah there. He declined to deliver the usual bar mitzvah pilpul, but demonstrated his fluency in the Ketzos Hachoshen and the Nesivos Hamishpat by asking his guests to recite a few words from these seforim and he continued for them, quoting entire pages word for word and clearly explaining each topic.
At the age of 15, he decided to learn at the Volozhin yeshiva. Despite his young age, he was accepted into Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik's shiur and became his close disciple for the rest of the latter's life.
By the age of 20, when he passed through Vilnius, his fame preceded him. Both Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Grodnenski — the leading Rav of Vilna and the son-in-law of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter — and Rabbi Elinke Levinsohn of Kretinga desired the young Torah prodigy for their own son-in-law. The two went to Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovno to decide which family would merit this honor. After hearing each one's position, Spector asked to meet Grodzinski, and spoke at length with him on various Torah topics. Afterward, Spector told the two prospective fathers-in-law: "The truth is that if I had a daughter to marry off, I would take him and leave you both out in the cold. Since I have no such daughter, however, I have decided in favor of the Rav of Vilna".
Two years after his marriage, Grodzinski's father-in-law died and the community of Vilnius asked him to take his place. Thus he became the leading Rav of Vilna at the age of 22. He was immediately accepted by all the older rabbis. When people remarked, "But he's so young for such a lofty position," Grodzinski humorously replied, "Don't worry, it's only a temporary blemish. I'll get over it with time". Any lingering doubts about his fitness for the position were put to rest when Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik and Rabbi Alexander Moshe Lapidos came to the city and first went to call on the Rav of Vilna, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski.
Grodzinski dedicated his life to world Jewry for the next 55 years. In addition to his communal work, he maintained a strict schedule of Torah learning, producing his monumental, three-volume work Achiezer even as he was fully involved in communal affairs.
He did not have his own yeshiva per se, but assisted in the management of the Rameilles Yeshiva of Vilnius. He also established a kibbutz (group) of elite young Torah scholars, all known as iluyim (prodigies), and gave them profound shiurim on the most obscure Talmud topics. His students became future Torah leaders; they included Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky, Rabbi Eliezer Silver, Rabbi Moshe Shatzkes, and Rabbi Reuven Katz.
With the death of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonon Spector in 1896, Grodzinski became the undisputed leader of European Jewry. He was consulted regularly in the fight for traditional Torah education in the Russian empire and to counteract the ban against shechitah (ritual slaughter) of kosher meat. Eventually his influence was so strong that no Rav or shochet could be appointed anywhere in Poland or Russia without his consent. Thanks to his phenomenal memory, he remembered names of people and places from all over the world, making him a valuable resource when communities far and wide sought to appoint a new Rav or rosh yeshiva.
Both the communities of Jerusalem and St. Petersburg offered him the position of chief rabbi, but he declined, saying that he was needed desperately where he was. In gratitude for his dedication, the Jewish community of Vilnius wanted to name him the official chief rabbi of Vilnius, but he refused this honor, too, saying that he had not come to change the city's long-standing tradition not to have a central rav. When the community offered him a pay raise instead, he agreed, on condition that all the other rabbis in Vilnius would receive one, too.
Grodzinski was an extremely dedicated public servant. When his daughter lay in the hospital on the verge of death, he ran to his office to answer all the halakhic correspondence waiting on his desk, since he knew that he would not be able to research and answer these pressing questions during the week of shivah.
Grodzinski died of cancer on 9 August 1940 (5 Av 5700). His death was closely preceded by the deaths of two other leaders of Lithuanian-style Orthodox Judaism: Rabbi Shimon Shkop, rosh yeshiva of the Grodno yeshiva, who died on 22 October 1939, and Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Kaminetz, who died on 17 November 1939.