This is a continuation of the memoirs of Reb Shmaryahu Sussonkin, translated and abridged from the original Hebrew version published as “זכרונותי”.
On the day before Sukkes 5662 (1901) I reached the age of Bar Mitzvah. In those days they did not make a celebration on the day of the Bar Mitzvah, they simply called me to the Torah, my father made the Brochah, “Boruch Shepotarani”, and recited the verse “behold I have given before you the life and the good… and you shall choose life”. I promised him that I would study in a Yeshivah, for I choose life and good, and there is no good aside from Torah.
Directly after the festivel I traveled [to Yeshivah] together with a few other youngsters who had already learnt in [the Yeshivah in] Amtzislav, during the previous semester. When I arrived in Amtzislav it became known to me that the founder of the Yeshivah is the scholarly genius Reb Elchonon Vasserman. He was the examiner and decision maker as to whether or not to accept students.
He opened up a Mesechtes Kesubes before me, pointed to a particular Toisfes and instructed me to study it and explain what was difficult in it [i.e. Reb Elchonon instructed him to uncover a difficulty with the explanation provided therein]. I easily found the difficulty. He then pointed to another Toisfes and said, “study it and find an answer to the question”. I easily worked out how the second Toisfes resolves the first and with that the test was completed.
Reb Elchonon was a distinguished personality and his face seemed to shine with wisdom. Apart from being a genius in learning, his wonderful genius and expertise was also reflected in the way he taught, such that I have never seen his like. He was also a very practical person. It was enough to hear his Shuir for the duration of one semester, in that short time he already enlightened your eyes and gave you a solid foundation in the study of the Talmud.
In general, Harav Vasserman ran the Yeshivah at a high level. While delivering his Shuir he knew how to provoke the students, ensuring that they would pay attention and listen well. It was his custom to expound the Gemoroh before the students with excellent explanation. He addressed only the unadorned rationalization of the Gemoroh, together with the commentary of Rashi, explaining with good reasoning the connotation of the cryptic text, with such lucidity that even a child could understand. So excellent and pleasant was his initial elaboration that the questions of Tosfos on the explanation of Rashi where automatically resolved.
It was his custom to pay close attention to how well the students listened to the Shuir; who listened intently, who without much intent and who didn’t listen at all. On concluding, he would turn to a student and require him to repeat the entire Shuir by heart, directing him to close the Gemoroh. Being that the chosen student had not been listening, he by default would not be able to go over what had been said. Reb Elchonon would let the first student be, directing another, who had been listening without concentration, to repeat the Shuir. Since the second student had been listening somewhat, he would be able to go over some of the Shuir, but would become confused and stammer as he repeated it. Reb Elchonon would help him out, clarifying his confusions until he had repeated the entire Shuir. Then he would again turn to the first, who had earlier been unable to go over the Shuir. If on this occasion he had listened and knew it well, all would be well; if not Reb Elchonon would rebuke him, saying that he is a student who does not want to listen, who turns his ears away from words of Torah. If on a third occasion that student did not know the Shuir well enough to repeat it by heart, Reb Elchonon would expel him from the Yeshivah. In this way he entirely uprooted the problem of students not paying proper attention to the Shuir, although it began through fear, subsequently all the students would become accustomed to concentrating well as he delivered his Shuir.
His method of teaching Toisfos was a follows: a student would read and explain the Toisfes, and when he arrived at a passage that required elucidation or clarification, Reb Elchonon would interrupt the student, and proceed to elucidate and clarify the concepts until they were illuminated and exceptionally lucid. He was keen to only address the unembellished explanation of the Gemoroh and the Toisfes, and he did not at all like the method of Pilpul.
Once we had finished learning a particular subject, sometimes covering seven folios of the Talmud or more, Reb Elchonon would announce that during the next two days there would not be a Shuir and that the students should spend the time reviewing the Gemoroh thoroughly. By the time the review was complete, on the third day, he would have a list of the all the students divided into small groups, classified according to their levels of ability and knowledge. Sometimes there were three students in a group, sometimes five or more. Each group would enter separately and ask them different questions, if they where fluent in the Gemoroh and the Toisfes that they had learnt they would be able to answer his questions with ease. Since the students realized that everything was dependent on fluency, they would compete to review what they learnt very well. Although with this method of study we were only able to learn a smaller amount relative to other Yeshivas, nevertheless, we knew the folios that we learnt well and they were fluent in our mouths. The concepts were completely clear to you and you would be asked something you would not be confused from answering correctly.
For a full year I learnt in the Yeshivah with diligence, and Reb Elchonon would guard the student like the apple of his eye. If a student G-d forbid became ill, he himself would take care of him, take him to the hospital and arrange devoted care. Once he traveled to one of the big cities and brought cloth for winter clothing for all the students of the Yeshivah.
During the third semester, the final summer during which Reb Elchonon remained in the Yeshivah, an unpleasant event occurred. During that period there where already a number of trouble-makers who attempted to convinced the Yeshivah students to learn secular studies. Unfortunately, they managed to draw some ten students after them who agreed to learn secular subjects; nevertheless, they also wanted to continue to hear Reb Elchonon’s Shuir. As soon as they arrived, however, Reb Elchonon sent them outside. In order to prevent an outrage from arising the Shuir was said behind closed doors throughout the next two weeks, until they gave up hope of being allowed to attend. Reb Elchonon announced that the Yeshivah would not tolerate secular studies and anyone who wishes to study secular subjects should leave the Yeshivah!
Indeed, all the students agreed with Reb Elchonon’s statements. However the devil’s work succeeded, for the trouble-makers found support among the laymen of the town who put pressure on the Rabbi of the City to take the students of the Yeshivah under his control and supervision. Then they telegrammed Reb Elchonon – who had traveled away to spend the festivals with his family – that he should remain at home and that hereafter the Rabbi would fill his old position. The Yeshivah continued to exist for only one more semester, after which it was closed down. When Reb Elchonon’s students heard that their teacher would not be returning, there was no reason for them to remain in the Yeshivah and they departed some to Telz, some to Slutzk, some to Velozhin and some to Radin. I went to Kremenchug.
Another memoir describing Reb Elchonon הי"ד is available here.