For most of the nineteenth century, the Volozhin (Bel., Valozhyn) yeshiva was the most important institution of its type in Eastern Europe. It was founded around the year 1803 by Ḥayim ben Yitsḥak, the leading disciple of the Gaon of Vilna. Ḥayim ben Yitsḥak’s fame attracted many youths to Volozhin, and when the small town could no longer support so many students, he established a yeshiva that provided subsidies to students. His success at dispatching fund raisers enabled him to build a private study hall that allowed the yeshiva to be both financially independent and physically isolated.
Study, as in a bet midrash, was for the most part undertaken independently, and participation in Ḥayim’s lessons was voluntary. Ḥayim’s son Yitsḥak succeeded his father as rosh yeshivah, and a few years after Yitsḥak’s death, in 1849, the latter’s son-in-law, Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin, became head of the yeshiva. His classes were characterized by a search for the peshat or plain meaning of the text.
Study in the Volozhin yeshiva took place 24 hours a day without vacations—a reflection of the view that the existence of the world depended on the study of Torah. Two heads of the yeshiva shared responsibilities, each lecturing three days a week. Ḥayim Soloveichik was the last and best known of these; he developed a very popular style of Talmud study characterized by deep analysis and a concern for basic principles.
With the decline in authority of the communal rabbinate in the course of the nineteenth century and the unwillingness of the authorities to allow free self-organization among Jews, the Volozhin yeshiva grew in prominence, and its heads became de facto spokesmen for the traditional community. Events at the yeshiva were followed with great interest by those outside it.
In the years after Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin’s appointment as rosh yeshivah, there were a number of challenges to his position. It was not clear who actually had the right to appoint a rosh yeshivah, and an ad hoc delegation of Lithuanian rabbis ultimately made the decision. In the late nineteenth century, the tsarist government pressed the yeshiva to introduce secular studies, especially in the Russian language, into the curriculum. Berlin was opposed, but he grudgingly agreed to a minimum of Russian-language study.
In the 1890s, Berlin tried to arrange for his son, a good administrator, to succeed him as rosh yeshivah. The students, however, for the most part supported Soloveichik for the post, and the yeshiva was thrust into disorder. This aroused concern among Russian authorities that the yeshiva could turn into a hotbed of revolutionary activity, and they ordered the closing of the institution in 1892, citing noncompliance with demands for secular studies as an excuse. The Volozhin yeshiva reopened a few years later but never recovered its preeminence.
Among the many well-known individuals who studied in the yeshiva were the rabbis Avraham Kook, Eliyahu Meisel, Shelomoh Polieshuk, and Barukh Leibowitz, and the writers Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik and Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski.
Samuel K. Mirsky, ed., Mosdot Torah be-Europah ve-vinyanam uve-ḥurbanam (New York, 1956); Shaul Stampfer, Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, forthcoming).