With the unpleasant topic of anti-Semitism in national headlines once again, our readers will not be surprised that my thoughts turn to the Netziv of Volozhin. But instead of focusing on his analysis, which is still very relevant, I would like to share a fascinating story about how the Netziv and his yeshivah were spared from a very dangerous attack.
It is well known that Yeshivas Volozhin had many foes who sought its downfall. The most nefarious tactic was to fabricate rumors that the yeshivah was involved in illegal activities that undermined the Russian government. In 1879, one such allegation resulted in a surprise raid by officials. This harrowing incident is described in several places, one of which is the book My Uncle the Netziv, authored by Rabbi Baruch Epstein, the Torah Temimah.
Interestingly, despite the severity of the charges, the Netziv was exonerated. How was this perilous situation resolved so quickly? My research on the Netziv led me to the memoirs of Rabbi Eliyahu Milekovsky, a student in the yeshivah at the time, who later went on to become the rabbi of Kharkhov, Ukraine. In 1929 he moved to Eretz Yisrael, where he was appointed av beis din of Tel Aviv, a position he held until his petirah in 1929.
Following is Rabbi Milekovsky’s firsthand account of the entire incident.
One bright day, the chief of police of Vilna Gubernia, surrounded by other officers and policemen, appeared at the entrance of Rabbi Berlin’s home and informed him that they had come to search his home. They explained that this was due to information about him that had come to the attention of the authorities. After posting guards at the entrance of the house, the chief of police began his search. All the rooms, the basement, the nooks and crannies, the bookcases and desk drawers, and the like were searched.
First, all the letters on the rabbi’s desk were taken, letters that were signed and sealed, ready to be taken to the post office. Then they gathered into sacks all of Rabbi Berlin’s handwritten manuscripts—of which there were many—and all the ledgers listing the yeshivah’s income and expenses, the registry of students, and miscellaneous letters. The sacks were bound and sealed with the official seal of the governmental authorities.
After the chief of police finished his search, Rabbi Berlin asked him what this was all about. The officer removed a letter from the cuff of his sleeve and covered its content, leaving only the signature exposed. He asked Rabbi Berlin, “Is this your signature?”
Rabbi Berlin examined the signature and said, “Yes, that is my signature.” (That is how masterful the forgery was!)
The officer said to the rabbi, “Read what you wrote!”
Rabbi Berlin read about how he had allegedly informed someone in London that he had received forged Russian currency that had been sent from London…and asked for more to be sent. If I remember correctly, the letter also mentioned students who had dodged army service and were now in yeshivah, and other bizarre matters.
Rabbi Berlin told the officer that although the signature appeared to be his, he had never signed such a letter. The officer said that the matter was under investigation and that the rabbi was under house arrest, and he turned to leave.
Rabbi Berlin then reminded himself of something that could prove the letter was a forgery. He reminded himself that he always signed his first names, Tzvi and Yehuda, with only one yud in between; the final yud of Tzvi served as the opening yud of Yehuda. The letters that the officer had gathered from his desktop would prove this. Rabbi Berlin suggested that the signatures be compared.
In the presence of all who were standing in the room, the officer removed the letters from the sack and compared their signatures to the letter in question. In the letters from the sack, there was only one yud, and in the letter in question, there were two!
The officer prepared a report indicating that the anomalous spelling would doubtless play an important role in the investigation. Clearly, Heaven had interceded to expose the forgery.
Rabbi Milekovsky describes the tense atmosphere in the Netziv’s home for the next few months, until he was summoned to the capital several hours away. As he awaited judgment, the Netziv’s demeanor did not change; he continued to study Mishnayos from the small volume he carried with him. He was soon greeted warmly by the chief district officer, who informed him that he and the yeshivah were cleared of all charges, and that all of his belongings would be returned immediately.
In addition to the vast number of Torah writings that were returned to their owner, generations of Jewry can be grateful for a slim volume called She’ar Yisrael, a critical guide to understanding anti-Semitism throughout this long galus.