Tuesday, April 23, 2013


A fellow brought in to our store recently a Talmud volume printed in Vilna. As you can see in the photos above, the book came from the great Volozhin Yeshiva with an inscription at beginning and end of book "donated for the Yeshiva Etz Chaim in memory....."
On the front free-ends of the volume, there is 4 lines of a partial poem in Hebrew, reading somewhat like this"
כי מי מישראל חמד לראות ולהדר שמהלוכו האפשרות ולצאת followed by a few undeciphered words.
In addition, there are several large childish-like signatures in large letters Bialik and Chaim Nachman Bialik as well as one Hebrew signature written as חיים
Presumably, this is in the handwriting of the great Chaim Nachman Bialik. Bialik arrived at age 17 in Volozhin (1890) and stayed in the Yeshiva for about 1.5 years. The Yeshiva closed shortly after he left the Yeshiva, so we can safely assume that this volume was in the Yeshiva during his brief stay.
When comparing the writing of the partial poem to his known handwriting, the handwriting looks to be identical. What left me confused though, is his writing in the Latin Alphabet. Presumably, while still in Yeshiva, Bialik would not have been using the Latin Alphabet, as in his country of birth, the Cyrillic Alphabet was the one used. Could it be that he was studying German and practicing the alphabet while still a youngster in Yeshiva? Comparing the handwriting though proved very difficult. In general, handwriting in such large format does vary greatly from a standard signature, and presumably, at this time, he was just starting to learn the alphabet at most. It does not seem to match his known German signatures, but then again, should it be expected to?
The interior of the volume is very worn. The partial poem is written in pen and the names are written in pencil.
Anyone who can shed light on this matter please do. If it is indeed as we suspect, the very volume that Bialik used in Volozhin and perhaps even by the  "HaMatmid" we have a great piece of history in our hands.
The first title page is rather worn, but there is a title page in middle of the book for the Seder Zeraim, photos below. The date of printing, 1890, works out well chronologically for the young Bialik, the book being printed just as he got to Yeshiva.

UPDATE: 4/24
Here is some thoughts on the matter sent to me from the legendary S. of onthemainline. Thanks!

 "As for the German, there is no stira at all. The Enlightenizing (to coin a term) Russian Jews were always attracted to German, which was then the international language of culture and scholarship. Plus, the Latin alphabet was key to French, English, Italian, etc. This was true to a degree for educated Russians across the board (not dissimilar to how today an educated person invariably has or wants to acquire some English). In the 19th century Russia was first developing its own culture, and Russians were still looking to the West. For someone like Bialik who indeed moved to Berlin, we should hardly be surprised to see a youthful signature in the Latin alphabet. Also bear in mind that it is entirely possible that this signature does not date to his youth at all, despite looking somewhat childish. He could have scrawled it absent-mindedly one day as someone prattled on to him. I'm just saying, it's possible. 

Note the stamp inside: L. B. Cohen-Weismann. This is almost certainly a man named Lazar Benisch Cohen-Weismann, whom the internet reveals was naturalized in England in January of 1913. Not sure what to make of that, but apparently he was the owner at some point. 

UPDATE: 4/26
Some very helpful information supplied by Prof. Shnayer Leiman: Thanks!

There are may yeshivos called Etz Hayyim. The Volozhin Yeshiva had a rubber stamp with which they stamped each sefer in the Yeshiva library. This has no stamp. 
It's certainly possible that this was Bialik's gemara. If so, it was his personal gemara. 
It was the practice at Volozhin to distribute gemarot to the students. It's possible that Bialik brought his own masechta to the yeshiva, or that he turned the copy given to him into his own copy.
My good friend Meron Eren of Kedem Auctions visited today, he compared the Bialik Hebrew writing to his known handwriting and declares the writing in our gemara is in Bialik's hand as well in his opinion. The signature he feels though will be impossible to ever guarantee 100% due to our lack of comparable writing to match it to.


  1. I remember hearing from Rabbi Shmuel Shmidman that when he was a bachur at the reconstituted Volozhin yeshiva they found Bialik's old gemara there, and that he wishes he had kept it.

    You can probably find out more from one of Rabbi Shmidman ob"m's children (all 3 are in the NY area) or grandchildren (I would try R. Yaakov Werblowsky of YU and Prof. Avi Shmidman of Bar Ilan, both grandsons).

  2. Is there a way to know what Gemara the Volohzin Yeshivah was learning in 1890 and 1891? Bialik himself writes he was not much of a learner. Thus, presumably the Gemara he was learning was the official volume being studies that zman (semester) by the Yeshivah, and not a personal volume. If the yeshivah was learning Berachos in that time, I think it would clinch it.

    Would be a magnificent find indeed.

    1. As opposed to other Yeshivas, Volozhin had a cycle learning the entire Shas. Every Masechta was learned, not just the "Yeshivish" ones, so Berachot was definitely part of their cycle. It would be rather hard to figure out what they learned during that year and a half though.

  3. Would probably be more interesting to find a poetry book with talmudic musings by Bialik and a Talmud with poetry on the margins written by R' Shimon Shkop

  4. Shalom
    Thank you very very much for your interesting post.

    It is further proof how the supposedly 'nonreligious' Jews in pre-state Israel were in fact influenced and shaped by the jewish religion

  5. IIRC, I once saw a source that referred to a Masechet Nazir from Volozhin with Bialik's name in it. Has anyone come across this reference?