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Moshe Mordechai Epstein

Rosh yeshiva in Slabodka
Born March 7, 1866(1866-03-07) (20 Adar 5626 Anno Mundi)
Bakst, Lithuania
Died November 28, 1933 (aged 67) (10 Kislev 5694 Anno Mundi)
Jerusalem, Palestine (now Israel)
Education Volozhin yeshiva

Moshe Mordechai Epstein (1866-1934) was Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Knesseth Yisrael in Slabodka, Lithuania and is recognized as having been one of the leading Talmudists of the twentieth century.

Contents

Childhood

Rabbi Epstein was born in the town of Bakst, in the Vilna district of Lithuania, on the 20th of Adar, 5626 (1866), to Rabbi Tzvi Chaim and Baila Chana Epstein. His father, who served as the rabbi of Bakst, had been affectionately referred to during his days in the Volozhin yeshiva as "the Black Genius". Little Moshe Mordechai's genius was detected from a very early age. The child prodigy began studying in the Volozhin yeshiva at the age of 16, under the guidance of the legendary Torah giant Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik. There, he met his brother-in-law-to-be, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, and, in 1889, married Menucha Frank, the eldest "Frank sister".

The Frank sisters

Perhaps one of the most influential and illustrious Torah families of that era was that of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Frank, a wealthy fur merchant in Kovno, Lithuania, and a devoted follower of Torah and mussar. Rabbi Frank, who died of pneumonia at the age of 43, left four daughters yet unmarried, and in his will, he asked that his wife, Golda, marry off each daughter to a young man who showed the signs of becoming a "gadol b'yisrael" -- a true leader of the Jewish people, a colossus of Torah in its knowledge, thought, diligence, commitment, and values. Rebbetzin Frank took this mission very seriously, and she investigated every candidate thoroughly.

In the end, Rabbi Frank's prayer was realized. His sons-in-law became the pillars of Torah Jewry through the next generation, and its guides after the ashes of the Holocaust. When the European strongholds of Torah were replanted in America and Israel, it was the sons-in-law and grandsons of Rabbi Shraga Frank who cultivated it. These four leaders were Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer of Slabodka and Kletzk, Rabbi Boruch Horowitz of Slabodka, Rabbi Sheftel Kramer of Slutzk and later New Haven, Connecticut; and Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein.

Leadership

After his marriage, Rabbi Epstein moved to his wife's hometown, in Kovno, and was joined there two years later by Rabbi Meltzer, following his marriage to Rabbi Epstein's sister-in-law, Baila Hinda Frank. In Kovno, the two scholars studied under the renowned mussar master, one of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter's foremost disciples: Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, known in yeshivos as "Reb Itzele Peterburger". It was there that they became intrigued with the study of mussar.

In 1894, both rabbis started teaching in the famed Slabodka yeshiva, which was not far from Kovno. In 1897, the Alter of Slabodka (Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel; Slabodka's famed mashgiach ruchani, invited Rabbi Epstein to become the rosh yeshiva. Rabbi Epstein accepted the post, while Rabbi Meltzer moved to the town of Slutsk to lead the Ridvaz's yeshiva there. The Slabodka yeshiva flourished under the joint leadership of Rabbis Eptein and Finkel, and many of its students were crucial in nurturing the spiritual level of the Jewish people in subsequent generations. For a list of notables, see Slabodka yeshiva.

In 1924, Rabbi Epstein, the Alter, and most of the yeshiva, relocated to Hebron, in what was then British Mandate for Palestine. The yeshiva thrived for five years in Hebron as it had in Lithuania. In late August 1929, Arab mobs, incited by the antisemitic Mufti of Jerusalem, swarmed the yeshiva, killing 68 Jews and wounding many more, in an event now known as the 1929 Hebron massacre. In the aftermath, the British authorities evacuated the rest of the Jewish community. The yeshiva was relocated to the Geula section of Jerusalem. In 1975 Chevron Yeshiva moved to its current location in Givat Mordechai.

Legacy

Rabbi Epstein was known to share a warm relationship with Rabbi Finkel. The Alter later became Rabbi Epstein's mechutan, when the latter's daughter married the Alter's son, Moshe Finkel. Rabbi Epstein's other daughter married Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, who succeeded Rabbi Epstein as Rosh yeshiva of Chevron after his death. Rabbi Epstein had only one son, Rabbi Chaim Shraga Feivel, whom he named after his father-in-law. Rabbi Epstein authored the Levush Mordechai, which contains his chiddushim, or novellae, on the entire Talmud.

Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein died in Jerusalem in 1933, corresponding to the Hebrew date 10 of Kislev 5694.

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