SELETS YZKOR BOOK
HISTORICAL CHRONICLES OF SELETS IN THE BOOK
ROSH YOSEF (JOSEPH, THE LEADER)
By Mordechai Bernstein
It very often happens that a book becomes a source for historical fact or biographical information. It is not only the book itself; it is also the preface, which is of secondary importance. For example, the title page of the book, “Rosh Yosef” states that the author is Rabbi Yosef, the son of Yaakov who was the Chief of a Court of Justice and the head of the Yeshivah of Selets and, temporarily, was the head of the Judges “Dayonim” in Tiktin.
Inasmuch as the book was, for the first time, printed in 1700 in Amsterdam (and later reprinted in Kitan in 1717 and again reprinted in Amsterdam in 1727) and the approval to publish it was given at the same time. It is clear that there was a Yeshiva in Selets at that time.
This book had the approval of a succession of great scholars of that time, such as:
Reb Judah Leib from Brisk
Reb Dode Oppenheim, the chief Rabbi from Behmen in Prague
Reb Moshe Zav Wolf from Minsk
Reb Wolf Shapiro from Prague
Reb Abraham Bruda from Prague
Reb Yaakov, son of Reb Yosef, from Worms
Reb Eliah Schpiro from Tiktin
Reb Yechiel-Michael, son of Reb Yehudah-Leib from Berlin
Reb Yosef-Yitzhak, son of Reb Gershon, from Dessau
Here is not the place to portray the great ones who gave individual consent for the book. Interestingly, there is a collective approval, which was given the author from a succession of participants, from the session of the Council of the State of Lithuania in the year, 1700. That really was the 12th session of the Council in Seltz, concerning which I brought up in the chapter earlier, about the sessions in Seltz of the Lithuanian Council. Concerning that collection of approvals, the signatures of the great participants of Lithuania are included:
The young Saul (Chona) from Krakow and chosen at that time as the director of Brisk-Dalita Simcha; the “Koyen” (Cohen, descendant of the priests) Rappaport, the “Dayen” (judge) of the holy community of Grodno; Yitzhak-Meir of the holy community of Pinsk; the young Hillel Halevi (Levite) of the holy community of Vilno; The young Shlomo Mazalkovi from Slutsk
Rabbi Yosef, the son of Yaakov
Printed in Kitan and Amsterdam
By Isroel, the son of Avraham
In that agreement it says, among other things, that the author is a son-in-law of a great man, the Gaon (genius) Rabbi Moshe, son of David, the head of the Rabbincal Court and head of the Yeshiva in Vilna. Rabbi Moshe, son of David, was Rabbi Moshe Kremer, the eminent person in his generation.
It is interesting that Selets is again tied to the Vilna Gaon, since that Vilna Rabbi, Moshe Kremer, was the great grandfather of the Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon’s father, Reb Shlomo Zalman, was the son of Rabbi Issachar Ber, and the grandson of Aryeh, the Righteous. (because of him actually, the Gaon became a name) and the great-grandson of the referred-to Rabbi Moshe Kremer. But that is only in passing.
But this is only incidental. The most important thing that I want to bring out here is that the preface or preamble) of the book, “Joseph, the Leader” presents us with a succession of interesting historical details and events from Seltz, going back about 250 years. We will really shiver (with delight) from that preface.
He writes thusly:
Learning Torah, in the splendid Holy Congregation in Vilna, where my father-in-law was the great Gaon (brilliant man), Rabbi Moshe Kremer, I also, from time to time, told surprising Torah tales to the students from his Yeshiva. When my father-in-law died in 1688, three months before a son-in-law went to his eternal rest, they welcomed me as head of the Rabbinical Court and head of the Yeshiva in Kossovo in the State of Lithuania. After that, they welcomed me in the Rabbinical Court and head of the Yeshiva in the Holy Congregation in Seltz. But it didn’t last long when evil decrees befell the whole State of Lithuania. These decrees did not bypass us either. We were punished with the sword, flogging and hunger, but miracles happened to us. While I was a step from death, I really felt my duty to tell of miracles and wonders.
In the year 1702, I was forced to become homeless from my place, because of the fear, robbery and violence which descended upon us, the inhabitants from Poland and Lithuania, and I was like a wandering bird, until I arrived in Germany, to the respected Congregation of Hamburg. There I was welcomed with great friendship by the Congregational leadership, who showed great kindness to me. I remembered however the pain of my wife and children, so I didn’t enjoy the goodness, because I left my family alone, and my wife was always repeating: “When will I see my husband? I want to live to see my wish fulfilled and die one hour afterwards.” And so it is, to our great sorrow, that I came back, on the eve of Rosh Hashana in 1706, I found my wife sick in bed, and when we saw each other, she died in front of me. That pious Deborah of mine, who was virtuous and had no equal! She was the daughter of the famous Gaon whom I earlier mentioned (Rabbi Moshe Kremer). There was not even one month in which another five souls from my family didn’t die, and later, there spilled over me the cup of gall. I also fell ill. But God helped me. I was at the threshold of death, and with miracles I was saved. And later, in the month of Elul (August-September), 1710, the firestorm burst into flames in our congregation, and we fled into the forest. A further disaster happened to us. On the eve of Yom Kippur (1711) in the evening, my second wife, who was also of great heritage, passed away.
I started wandering in the forest, actually without bread for a few days. On the 27th day of Tishre (the end of September 1711) when with my son, Rabbi Yaakov and I went into the little towns to get something to eat, a group of Russian soldiers who took us to a house. With their swords unsheathed, they had the house spread with bundles of hay and straw, and wanted to burn us, but God saved us... However, later, the 4th of Heshvan (a day in October), when we came back to the forest, to our hiding place, again, in the dark night, a military group, which threatened us with death, attacked our camp. They demanded money from us and threatened us with death. They search all over my belongings and broke all my boxes looking for money, silver and gold. We returned to our home where they plague still ran rampant. Almost 100 virtuous souls had passed away. A part of my writings was lost during my wanderings in the area of Mazi (Mazovie). On my way a box of my books and writings was stolen. I had not seen them for 1½ years afterwards. Literally miraculously, I received a part of my writings when I lived in Berlin. They were brought to me in the synagogue.
I gave the book the name, ‘Rosh’ Yosef because the numerical value (or equivalent) of ‘Rosh’ (501) is the same as the combined total number of the names of my parents, Masha (345) and Joseph (156).
The preface is written thus: Joseph - Jacob (may his memory be for a blessing) from Pintshuv, great-grandson of the great Gaon, Rabbi of all the children of the Diaspora, Jacob from Poland.
Again, a new biographical analysis, the friend is not only a witness to the well-known, famous Rabbi Moshe Kremer, he is also a grandson of the authority, the Polish Rabbinate, the Rabbi from Krakow, Lublin, Rabbi Jacob Pollack.