The Curriculum at Volozhin

On the April 6, 1858, the government ordered the closure of the yeshiva in Volozhin. There is no record that anyone from the government tried to implement this order. But on the 22nd, R’ Gershon Amsterdam led a delegation to have the ruling repealed. Among the things presented to the government was the curriculum at the yeshiva. Here is my translation (original found in R’ Dr Shaul Shtampfer’s HaYeshiva haLita’it Behit-havatah, pg 213):

First Year:

  • Tanakh: chumash and nevi’im rishonim according to Rashi and [Mendelsohn’s] Biur
  • Mishnah: [the orders of] Zera’im, Moed and Nashim
  • Gemara: Mesechtos Berakhos, Shabbos, Pesachim and Eiruvin with the [commentary of the] Rosh
  • Laws: Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim
  • Hebrew Grammar: the first two sections of Studies in the Hebrew Language by [Yehudah Leib] Ben Zev
  • Languages: Russian and German reading, and the beginning of grammar
  • Arithmetic: the four basic operators [addition, subtraction, multiplication division]

Second Year:

  • Tanakh: Nevi’im acharonim and Kesuvim according to Rashi and the Biur
  • Mishnah: Neziqim and Qodshim, with Biur
  • Gemara: Mesechtos Chulin, Niddah, Yevamos, Kesuvos, Gitin, Qiddushin with the Rosh
  • Laws: Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Dei’ah and Even haEizer
  • Hebrew Grammar: Completing Studies in the Hebrew Language”
  • Languages: Completion of Russian and German grammar, and writing
  • Arithmetic: fractions and decimals

A few things are striking.

First, contrary to legend, they did have secular studies in Volozhin. In fact, according to documents released after the fall of the Soviet Union, it appears the school was shut down when the arguments between those who supported R’ Chaim Brisker as the next Rosh Yeshiva and those who supported R’ Chaim Berlin grew into anarchy, with no mention of secular studies being an issue at all.

Rav Chaim Brisker did threaten to close the school rather than the 1892 edict, but it wasn’t over secular studies in particular. (Especially since they were already being taught.) According to R’ Barukh haLevi Epstein (the Torah Temimah) in Meqor Barukh (as translated in My Uncle the Netziv, pg 205-206), the edict required secular studies from 9am to 3pm, and closing the school at dark. This would leave no time at all for Torah study for much of the year, and very little during the rest.

As for the general attitude to secular studies in Volozhin, both in curriculum and in the students’ pursuit of ad hoc studies in their own time, the Torah Temimah writes (MUtN, pg 204):

…[T]he students of Volozhin were quite knowledgeable in secular studies: they took an interest in science, history and geography and knew many languages. In fact, those students who desired to pursue these disciplines succeeded in learning twice as much as any student at a state institution. In Volohzin, Torah and derech eretz walked hand in hand, neither one held captive by the other. It was the special achievement of the Volozhin student that when he left the yeshiva, he was able to converse with any man in any social setting on the highest intellectual plane. The Volohzin student was able to conquer both worlds — the world of Torah and the world at large. A well-known adage among parents who were trying to best educate their children was, “Do you want your child to develop into a complete Jew, dedicated to Torah and derech eretz? Do you want him to be able to mingle with people and get along in the world? Send him to Volozhin!

And in fact, R’ SR Hirsch wrote a letter to his community to aid the emissary sent from the Yeshiva to raise funds in Frankfurt. In it, he calls Volozhiner Yeshiva “fellow travelers on the path of Torah im Derekh Eretz“!

I am not talking about the Hebrew grammar, though. Given the age of the textbook (Talmud Leshon Ivri), published in Breslau in 1796, they were learning the diqduq necessary to really understand Tanakh and Chazal, not Hebrew as a living language. But both the local language (Russian) and the language that dominated international academia (German). Math wasn’t as impressive though, ending with material we learn in early grade school. On the other hand, I don’t know what the general population in Russia was learning. Clearly a liberal arts focus, though.

Second, they actually used Mendeslsohn’s Biur! (Their Hebrew textbook was also by a first generation Maskil, but it’s less surprising in a topic that is more religiously neutral than a commentary on Tanakh.)

Third, their Torah study focused on covering ground. All of Tanakh in two years? 5/6 of the mishnah, 10 mesechtos of gemara? 3/4 of the Shulchan Arukh? It seems that before R’ Chaim Brisker taught people his methods of analysis, there was no real attention on analysis altogether at Volozhin. It would seem they instead focused on deriving the halakhah from the gemara studied, as that is the focus of the Rosh’s commentary.

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24 Responses

  1. David Sedley says:

    Thank you so much for that. It is very interesting. I had no idea that the Yeshiva curriculum had changed SO much! Perhaps someone should try to reopen a modern Volozhin teaching such all-encompassing subjects (Oh wait – I think that is almost exactly what they do in places like Gush Etzion – oops!)
    Do you have a link to the original?

  2. Stuff like this is important to prevent the historical revisionists from carrying out their agenda.
    It’s also interesting that they used the Biur. People today think that Mendelssohn was a secular reforming rasha from beginning to end and completely forget the high level of observance and Torah learning he posessed.

  3. Mort Cohen says:

    Note that Yiddish is missing as a language. Is that because it was not a higher language (as opposed to German or Russian)? Was it not extant at the time?

    As for math, it may not have been formally taught, but they must have understood geometry based on the masechtas they learned.

    • S. says:

      Yiddish was not yet viewed as a language. It was a zhargon, and no more cultivated, loved or taught than Black American English (although even that is probably changing, as today we tend to take a descriptivist approach to language, and rightly so).

  4. Abe Kohen says:

    IMHO: Behit-havutah or Behit-havoota.

    Hag Sa-me’-ach.

  5. S. says:

    “I am not talking about the Hebrew grammar, though. Given the age of the textbook (Talmud Leshon Ivri), published in Breslau in 1796, they were learning the diqduq necessary to really understand Tanakh and Chazal, not Hebrew as a living language. ”

    That’s only partially true. Talmud Leshon Ivri was also trying to teach the use of Hebrew for modern composition which, before Ben Yehuda, was largely imagined as made up of melitza.

    And, of course, Ben Zev wrote it on shabbos. Wink.

  6. S. says:

    Also, I believe that it is possible and even likely that this curriculum was highly fudged for the government. What do you think’s “curriculum” looks like on paper? No Biur, but I bet it doesn’t resemble what they actually do.

  7. Dovid Levine says:

    I wonder how much credence you can give to such a government document. My children attend a yeshiva where they teach the entire 11th grade History and English curricula in one hour a week. The principal claims he presented his schedule to the state and they approved it. I can only assume he told the state the boys study for hours on their own, they do extracurricular work over the summer, and whatever else he needed to say do to get the condensed schedule approved. He likely filed documentation to that effect. We know that 11th graders in yeshivish places are doing nothing of the sort. However, one day, your grandson might find that document and write an article about how the best bochurim in the most yeshivish schools in Brooklyn spent their free time studying history and English. Then who will be guilty of revising history? 🙂

    I don’t believe the letter from RSRH counts for much evidence either. Truth has stretched much further in the name of collecting tzedokoh for yeshivos.

    I think I remember from The Making of a Gadol that Bialik heard he would find torah and the chochmos in Volozhin, but he was sorely disappointed when all he found was torah, torah, and more torah. When the inspectors came, the hanhalah appointed some of the brightest bochurim to learn Russian literature. (I think one was Rav Zelig Reuven Bengis, who recited the works of a famous Russian author forward and backward! The inspector realized Bengis was not the typical yeshivah talmid.) I don’t have the book with me, so I can’t avow for preciseness. Anyway, from these stories I gather most bochurim were NOT steeped in secular wisdom.

    I am not lobbying to go back to the “good old days” of ignorance. However, I am not sure bochurim in mainstream yeshivos ever studied secular knowledge more seriously than they do now.

    • “S.” suggested similarly (5/25 2:40pm). As noted in the post, though, RSRH and the Torah Temimah both believed Volzhin’s culture supported secular knowledge. It’s not just the report to the government or RSRH’s endorsement — the two are consistent with each other, and consistent with the Torah Temimah. Your contrary testimony is from someone who left in a huff — it’s Bialik’s perceptions I would question. Also, the notion that the curriculum was falsified to appease the government wouldn’t explain the inclusion of German or Ivrit, neither of which is required for the Czar’s goal of Russification of the empire’s ethnic minorities.

      In general, there were a number of yeshivos where the culture was that bachurim picked up secular books and learned things other than Torah. In Slabodka, where there were no secular studies, the culture was such that the students expected to pick up Freud (of much interest in a Mussar yeshiva), Marx, and the other major thinkers of the era, on their own time. See R’ AE Kaplan’s reminiscences in BeIqvos haYir’ah. (Down the street and slightly later in time, in R’ Baruch Ber’s Kamenetz, I’m sure they were far less open. Also I doubt R’ Elchanan Wasserman was too keen on talmidim opening secular books either.) I mention this to show that the whole Lithuanian Yeshiva experience didn’t expect as much cloistering as today’s yeshivos; the culture differs. Could you picture many of today’s yeshivish Rashei Yeshiva reading the local Federation paper? The Netziv kept up with the Haskalishe newspapers, reading them Friday night no less. There is no basis for extrapolating from today’s yeshivos or even those of Lithuania between the wars back to Volozhin. (Including extrapolation on willingness to bend the truth for a good cause.)

      I also think that in the attention paid in this comment chain to secular part of the curriculum, not enough attention is being paid to the difference in derekh halimmud and Torah curriculum between Volozhin and yeshivos today.

      • S. says:

        “. Also, the notion that the curriculum was falsified to appease the government wouldn’t explain the inclusion of German or Ivrit, neither of which is required for the Czar’s goal of Russification of the empire’s ethnic minorities.”

        I disagree. Both German and “Ivrit” were perceived by the Russian government as a means toward Russifying the Jews. Read up on the Uvarov-Lilienthal period. They knew that you can’t get from point A to point Z without incremental steps. They correctly realized that German was easier and more natural for Yiddish speaking Jews than Russian, and that education and assimilation would begin with German, not Russian. Why do you think the Czar kept paying for German translations of the Talmud (Pinner), the Vilna edition of the Biur and even the Mishneh Torah?

        All that said, I wholeheartedly agree that there seems to have been a very different intellectual environment in Volozhin (or, indeed, among much of the Lithuanian youth) then there is today among bochurim. How many bochurim today, for example, crave to know algebra or how to write beautifully in Hebrew? There are a variety of reasons, including economic ones, why much of this is different today, and of course there still are bochurim who want to know secular subjects and become autodidacts, etc. But certainly it seems that there were differences. Still, at the end of it all, it is hard to know why this curriculum should be taken at face value, especially where it is hardly matched by numerous first person accounts of what went on in Volozhin.

  8. I spent a good part of this past Shabbos reading the English translation of Stampfer’s book. (See

    First of all, I do not think that the letter you refer to from RSRH was written “to his community to aid the emissary sent from the Yeshiva to raise funds in Frankfurt”

    On page 198 of the bio of RSRH it says that Rabbiner Hirsch wrote a letter asking for support of the Kovna Kollel(Kollel Perushim of Kovna). (See footnote 20 on page 381 which refers to Mordechai Breuer’s book The TIDE of Samson Raphael Hirsch.

    Stampfer himself refers to this letter in his book on pages 343-344. There he gives the text of the letter followed by a comment from Breuer, namely,

    This institution trains young men destined to be outstanding scholars, while simultaneously providing them with education in the national language and other branches of knowledge important for their general enlightenment. This institution may be truly regarded as the salvation of the religion … this is the first, and so far the only, instance in which outstanding teachers, distinguished for their Torah and fear of Heaven, have decreed that study of the national language and general scientific enlightenment are permitted and indeed desirable. This confirms the principle upon which our community is founded … and behold, I declare it an illustrious exemplar beyond all doubt, and it is worthy of imitation.

    In publishing the letter, Mordechai Breuer added:
    It is not our responsibility to check how it happened that the Kovno kolel, which followed the classic Lithuanian yeshiva style of study, was described to R. Samson Hirsch and his disciples as an institution that also provided secular education. It is possible that there was some misunderstanding here, and that perhaps R. Hirsch was misled by his enthusiasm to add extra details to ambiguous hints given by R. Avraham Shenker.

    Also, WADR to R. Baruch Epstein, there are many who claim that one cannot always rely on what he wrote in Mikor Baruch. Stampfer writes this and I have heard this from others, so I would take the quote from MUtN with a very big grain of salt.

    In any event, there is no mention in either the bio of RSRH or Stampfer’s book about a letter that RSRH wrote asking for support for the Volozhiner Yeshiva. (It is interesting to note that Stampfer documents a rivalry between Volozhin and the Kovna Kollel.)

    Regarding the curriculum you gave, my impression from reading about half of Stampfer’s book is that there was no curriculum per se in Volozhin. Indeed, the emphasis was on learning for the sake of learning, and the bochrim could learn whatever they wanted. This is way students could be admitted at any time. While there was a shiur on a given daf each day, bochrim did not have to attend.

    BTW, these shiurim went through the entire Shas, starting with Brachos. In this way the yeshiva completed all of Shas in about 7 years according to Stampfer. So one might say that the Volozhin Yeshiva actually started the Daf Yomi! This is certainly not what is done in yeshivas today.

    One of the unique things about the yeshiva is that there were no vacations and learning went on for 24 hours every day! Again, not the practice in yeshivas today. (Some boys did go home for the Yomim Tovim, though.)

    Pages 160 to 165 deal with “The Yeshiva’s Stand on Secular Knowledge.” Stampfer concludes this section with the following:

    “In other words, R. Berlin supported the integration of general studies, presumably at the elementary school level, with the study of Torah. At the same time, he did not see general studies as an end in themselves and claimed that it was impossible ‘to be a great Torah scholar if one is also dealing with other topics’. This was the root of his opposition to involvement in secular studies at the yeshiva. In his opinion, ‘all the great Torah scholars who are also wise in secular matters received their secular education either before they devoted themselves entirely to the study of Torah or acquired their knowledge after becoming Torah scholars. However, to do this simultaneously precludes reaching the desired goal of study. This implies that it is possible to study secular studies in elementary school and nonetheless to become a great Torah scholar later in life. This approach to Haskalah and general studies was the norm and far from exceptional in Lithuanian rabbinical circles in his time.”

    Below is what Stampfer writes on pages 206 – 207 about the introduction of secular studies in the yeshiva as a result of pressure from the Russian government

    “The pressure exerted on the yeshiva to introduce secular studies eventually bore fruit. In 1890, apparently fearing that the authorities would in fact close down the yeshiva, R. Berlin decided to set up a framework for secular studies under the yeshiva’s aegis, and began to take steps to carry out his decision. This was a great innovation, of course, even though such study was not compulsory, did not take up much time, and did not take place in the yeshiva itself-though where exactly these studies took place is not clear. However, for the first time secular studies were given an official place in the study programme at the yeshiva. At first there were twenty-five participants and the number rose to fifty-which was about 20 per cent of the student body. Ultimately, fifty students were registered for the lessons, thirty-five in the beginners’ class and fifteen in the advanced class. According to the evidence of the son of one of these students, students ‘whose piety was more outstanding than their learning’ were chosen; they were regarded as ‘volunteers’ who would save the yeshiva by their participation. Even so, it seems likely that at least a few of the participants actually wanted to learn Russian, even if they did not admit it. R. Berlin made sure that the teacher was not Jewish, probably fearing that a Jewish teacher who supported the Haskalah might have a bad influence on the students, while anon-Jewish teacher would content himself with teaching Russian. This angered the local maskilim, of course. Secular studies were held initially once a week, in the evening, and lasted for about two hours. They were not intensive and the students did not always take them very seriously; attendance was irregular. It seems that, over time, the number of students attending rose. Their progress was not very impressive, as the authorities noticed, but it was progress. A demand was made that the number of students learning Russian should be raised to a hundred, but it was not implemented.

    “R. Naftali Berlin did not want the yeshiva students to study secular subjects as part of their studies at the yeshiva, but was prepared to submit to the demand that a few dozen students should engage in such studies once a week, for an hour and a half, in order to prevent the yeshiva being closed.”

    In light of this, I have to agree with the points made by S. and my son R. Dovid Levine, namely, that the Netziv was not forthright with the Russian government regarding secular subjects in Volozhin.

    For the record, RSRH also did his best to resist the control that the German government attempted to exert on his school regarding the amount of time spent on secular subjects, because it detracted from the time that could be spent teaching Torah subjects.

    PS. I find Stampfer’s book to be a wonderfully researched volume with copious footnotes an index and an extensive bibliography. It is a real piece of scholarly work and a far cry from the so-called “Orthodox history books” that are common fare today. The book is expensive, but, IMO, well worth the price. YL

    • Do you know which version of the Hebrew was translated: the 2nd version has this chapter amended to reflect the declassified documents in which the government claims they decided to shut Volozhin down over the infighting causing anarchy. It’s a very sad version of the story — bayis sheini to Volozhin without any real progress.

      Anyway, I didn’t read the book. Someone sent me just a few pages after I mentioned R’ Rakeffet’s version of the history. His shiurim on Jewish History are what you would expect from a YU rosh yeshiva with a PhD in the subject. Not as heavy as a class taken for a grade, but the intellectual integrity means you don’t get the whitewashed version.

      • You asked, “Do you know which version of the Hebrew was translated:” Actually neither!
        The following is from the Acknowledgements page:

        “When I first approached the Littman Library I proposed a translation of my book Hayeshivah halita’it behithavutah (The Formation of the Lithuanian Yeshiva), which had appeared in two editions in Israel, in 1995 and in 2005. As the work of translation proceeded I was the beneficiary of queries and comments from exceptional translators and editors. This led me to make innumerable corrections. I also added many sources and tried to sharpen my argument. Thus this is not a simple translation but a revised and expanded edition of the book.”

        So you see, what I have is the most up to date version.

  9. Regarding the accuracy of some of the things that R. Baruch Epstein wrote in MUtN and in the rest of Mikor Baruch, please see and the article by Dan Rabinowitz “RAYNA BATYA AND OTHER LEARNED WOMEN: A REEVALUATION OF RABBI BARLTKEI HALEVI EPSTEIN’S SOURCES” available at

    Rabinowitz writes in part

    “Many articles and books devoted to identifying women scholars have relied on a single source for their diverse material. That source is asection in Mekor Barukh (henceforth MB) by Rabbi Barukh Halevi Epstein, author of the well-known Torah Temima. R. Epstein’s rendition of the material is unfortunately not always faithful to the primary sources.4”

    Footnote 4 says in part

    “A cursory check would have revealed that there are troubling allegations concerning even such objective works as his Torah Temima. Many researchers have noted questionable quotes and unreliable sources.”

    “Besides inaccuracies in his own work, R. Epstein commonly explained apparent inconsistencies in the siddur by claiming they were the result of earlier printing errors. Other scholars dispute this.”

    In light of this and other criticisms of the accuracy of R. Epstein’s I personally doubt the accuracy of quote given above from MUtN about the secular knowledge of the students who studied in Voloshin.

    I do not see the basis for the assertion “Tanakh: chumash and nevi’im rishonim according to Rashi and [Mendelsohn’s] Biur” The only mention I could find using the index of Stampfer’s book in English to Mendelssohn’s Biur is on page 43 where it says

    “For example, he [R. Hayim] had given and approbation to R. Shelomoh Dubno for his commentary on the Torah. The latter had collaborated with Moses Mendelssohn, the great German leader of the Haskalah, in the writing of the Biur (the commentary on the Torah published with Mendelssohn’s German translation) though by the time R. Hayim was in contact with him, he had distanced himself from Mendelssohn.”

  10. One real difference between Volozhin and yeshivas today that Stampfer mentions more than once is that the following from page 123 about new students who arrived at Volozhin.

    “After arranging accommodation, sometimes even before, the student went to the study hall and began to study. There was no need to fit the student into a shiur, since there was only one shiur for all the students. He did not even need to look for a study partner, since most study was carried out individually.”

    This is a far cry from the system we have today.

  11. RJM says:

    R’ Micha,

    I would question the 3rd inference you draw here. Rav Chaim hardly invented the concept of learning b’iyun! I fully and wholeheartedly agree with you that the emphasis on beqiyut is sorely lacking in (Ashkenazi) Yeshivot today, but it seems highly doubtful to posit that there was no learning b’iyun in Volozhin!!!

    • micha says:

      Perhaps I should have just toned it down. My intent was that they didn’t have a day that centered around be’iyun, with one seder where you make time for beqi’us, as is the norm now. Rather, most of the day must have been beqi’us, and I don’t know if be’iyun time was even daily. I mean…. look at the ground they covered in just two years; it boggles the mind.

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