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Bobruisk, Minsk Gubernia


Upon three foundations stood the world of the old Bobruisk, which began to gradually disappear with the oncoming of the 20th century: on Torah, serving God, and acts of loving-kindness [lit.: interest-free loans]. The Bobruisk of the 19th century lived a fully Jewish life; religious traditions, Torah learning, observing mitsvos--this formed the shape of the Jewish world, which cherished its spiritual independence and particularity in a sea of gentiles, alien and hostile. This Jewry embodied in itself great wholeness and fortified internal strength, admired even by those who were estranged from it. Israel Kopilov, a Bobruisk Jew who emigrated to America in the 80's and was an active anarchist and militant atheist in New York, wrote in his memoirs out of longing and yearning about "that deep, pure soulful piety of our hometown Jews, who were always ready to be sacrificed before their God and their love of the people of Israel, and by whom this consciousness alone, they felt a certain arrogance and grandeur." With reverence he tells about those Bobruisk Jews, who used to "comfortably stroke their beautiful beards, caressing a single hair, and feeling during a story happy and frying themselves with enjoyment of it alone, in which one is privileged to be a Jew."

This Bobruisk of Torah and mitsvos was under the influence of two spiritual centers in Lithuania: on one side the influence of the movement of Torah learning for its own sake, whose centers were Slutsk and Volozshin, and, on the other side, the Hasidic movement, above all the Khabad stream, in which the leaders were seated in the villages of eastern Belarus--Liadi, Liubavitsh, and Kapust.

The carrier of this influence were the rabbis and scholars, the admorim [rabbis] and their khsidim, over all the sons of Bobruisk participated, in this or another measurement, in Torah-learning, in fulfilling the commandments, thus all were in the category of "all holy Jews." The forty bes-midrashim and shuln were chock-full of worshippers; from the talmid-toyres and khedorim carried all day the voice of Jewish children; groups of Torah students and tsedoke involved themselves with the greater part of the Bobruisk Jews.

The bes-midrashim [synagogues] were at that time the center of societal life in the city. There one prayed, there one heard the sermons of wandering preachers, there one studied Torah and joined "after prayers and between minkha and ma'arev, business owners free from their businesses or ordinary batlonim [those without regular jobs] in discussing politics."

Sabbaths were given over to prayer and Torah study. In the 19th century the shamesim [sextons] of the synagogues would habitually on Sabbath eves go into the streets and markets and knock on the doors of the houses and shops that "it's time to interrupt business to honor the Sabbath." In a later era a signal of the Sabbath's arrival was given through a whistle of one of the Jewish factories in the city, by which the owner took the opportunity to observe this mitzvah.

In those times, when in Vilna and Minsk the foundation of of this old world was already entirely shaken up, the foundation was not yet destroyed in the smaller city of Bobruisk.

The first of the city rabbis whose name comes to us, is R. Barukh Mordekhay Etingah, who was seated on the rabbinic throne of Bobruisk until he made aliyeh in 1851 to the Land of Israel; this rabbi, who was from Galicia and married the daughter of Rabbi Shmuel of Vilna, was a student of R. Shniur Zalman of Liadi--the founder of Khabad--and followed in his path. However, he was very much taken with the misnagdim in the city, also he was subject to their authority. Of the rabbi's sons, which carried forth the Etingah family name, some lived in Bobruisk and were ranked with the aristocratic and rich families in the city.

After the aliyeh of R. Barukh Mordekhay to the Land of Israel, there were established in Bobruisk two rabbis, one for the misnagdim and the second for the khsidim, but the good relations between the misnagdim and the khsidim were not disturbed, and if a feud broke out among the tsadikim in matters of religion and halakha [Jewish law], invariably there were found people among the distinguished business owners of the city, which made peace between the combatants.

The Internal Life of the Bobruisk Jewish Community in the 19th Century

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