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One in a Thousand

Dr. Pearl Herzog

When Rebbetzin Sarah Bayla Hirschenson arrived in Eretz Yisrael in the mid-1800s, she found desolation. With tenacity, ingenuity, and wisdom, she helped bring both spiritual and material sustenance to the people of theHoly Land.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

jerusalem “Ask Sarah Bayla” — it was an oft-repeated refrain during Rebbetzin Sarah Bayla Hirschenson’s lifetime. Whenever help was needed, she was there.

Born in Pinsk, Belarus, in 1816, Sarah Bayla earned acclaim for her innovative thinking, helped her husband establish yeshivos in Tzfas and Jerusalem, brought Jews back to Yiddishkeit, and hosted yeshivah bochurim and dignitaries alike.

A magnetic personality, Sarah Bayla also stepped in when intervention was needed between Jews and government officials in Eretz Yisrael, especially when tension arose because of the expansion of the Jewish community. The mother of two was the first Ashkenazic woman of her time to learn Arabic, giving her a unique ability to resolve disputes with local Arabs.

It is perhaps no wonder then that Rav Shmuel Salant, Jerusalem’s chief rabbi at the time, would stand up for Sarah Bayla when she entered his presence.


A Home of Torah

Sarah Bayla’s family tree is a veritable “who’s who” of Torah giants. She was a descendant of Rav Shlomo Luria, as well as Rav Yechiel Shlomo Heilprin, chief rabbi and rosh yeshivah in Minsk and author of Seder HaDoros. Her family was related to the Vilna Gaon and Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, as well.

Her father, Rabbi Yehudah Leib, was a venerated talmid chacham. Known for his generosity, he was a trustee of the philanthropies of the two wealthiest men inPinsk — Shaul Karliner Levin and Moshe Yitzchak Levin — who were known as the “Rothschilds of Pinsk.” (See sidebar)

From an early age, Sarah Bayla was given a complete Torah education. Like other girls at the time, she studied Menoras HaMaor, Tzenah Ure’enah, Nachlas Tzvi, and Nefet Tzufim. In addition, she was taught Tanach, Pirkei Avos, Chovos HaLevavos, and Sefer HaKuzari of Rav Yehudah HaLevi.

In those days, shidduchim were made at a very young age and Sarah Bayla’s husband —Rabbi Yaakov Mordechai — was handpicked by her father when he was only nine years old. Even as a small child, Yaakov Mordechai, an orphan, was known as an illuy. To encourage the boy’s growth in Torah, Rabbi Yehudah Leib engaged the services of a private rebbi — Rabbi Yaakov Meir ofPadua — and then sent him for a number of years to the yeshivah of Brisk.

Upon his return, Yaakov Mordechai married Sarah Bayla. After shanah rishonah, Sarah Bayla, following in the footsteps of Rabi Akiva’s wife Rachel, urged her husband to continue learning in Brisk while she remained inPinsk.

By the time he came back home, Yaakov Mordechai was acclaimed as a distinguished scholar and was offered rabbinic posts from large cities inRussia. He demurred because he did not want to uproot Sarah Bayla, who was active inPinsk’s charities and her father’s affairs. He chose, instead, to head the yeshivah inPinsk. Still, his fame spread rapidly.


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