Timeline of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk
1803: Founding of Yeshivat Etz Chaim by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin
1821: R. Yitzchak of Vollozhin becomes rosh yeshiva
1849: R. Eliezer Fried is rosh yeshiva together with R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin
1854: R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin is rosh yeshiva together with R. Joseph Baer Soloveitchik
1865: R. Joseph Baer Soloveitchik (Beit Halevi) moves becomes rabbi of Slutzk
1875 R. Joseph Soloveitchik moves to Warsaw.
1878: R. Joseph Soloveitchik becomes rabbi in Brisk (Brest-Litovsk).
1855: R. Hayyim Soloveitchik is born in Volozhin
1880: R. Hayyim Soloveitchik is appointed to the faculty of the yeshiva.
1882: Russian government shuts Etz Chaim Yeshiva. R Hayim moves to Brisk and succeeds his father as rabbi.
1895: Fire destroys much of Brisk
1918: R. Hayyim dies. Treaty of Brest Litovsk is signed in March, 1918
Lithuania, Liteh in Yiddish, was, from the late eighteenth century onward, an intellectual nerve center of Jewish life, an empire of the mind whose sway ran through the Russian Empire and touched the whole of European Jewry. In the streets of its cities - Vilna (Vilnius), Kovno (Kaunas), Dvinsk (Daugavpils) - and in its small towns and shtetls, the multiple currents of tradition and change met, fought, coupled, and remade themselves in a pecurliarly passionate kind of intellectualism, an icy rationalism ringed with fire.
That cerebral ardor coursed through rabbinic circles where high Talmudism exerted a powerful pull, not least through the educational influence and moral authority of the great yeshiva at Volozhin. Founded in 1802 by Chaim of Volozhin, the yeshiva, unlike a traditional beit midrash had no formal ties to the local community and fostered an intense youth culture of full-time Talmudic study. A pioneering and vastly influential institution, the yeshiva reflected the interests, passions, and contradictions of its time. Through its doors passed many young men who later left their marks on all sides of the Jewish ideological barricades. Its cultural hero and presiding spirit was Chaim of Volozhin's master, Elijah ben Solomon, known as the Gaon - the Genius - of Vilna. The Gaon held no formal rabbinic post and acquired magisterial authority by the sheer force of his scholarship and piety. His brand of fierce Talmudism, marked by a unique mix of intellectual independence, comprehensive knowledge of the whole of rabbinic literature, and adherence to the plain sense of the text was a departure from prevailing modes of study and religious practice. Of course, Torah study had been a staple of Rabbinic Judaism for many centuries. Yet through the Gaon's teachings, and perhaps more importantly through his personal example, relentless and ascetic devotion to Torah study as the supreme religious act burned itself into the minds of his followers...
Chaim of Volozhin, one of the Gaon's leading disciples, in an influential treatise titled Nefesh Ha-Chaim, endowed Torah study with unique spiritual power. Since, as the Kabbalah teachers, the Torah in its most spiritual form is the very blueprint of the world, only Torah study offers trasncendance, true escape from the jailhouse of this corrupt and fallen world. He sought ot put that vision into practice by creating at Volozhin in present day Belarus, a trailblazing yeshiva that would train, ina auniversity - like atmosphere, an elite corps of Talmudists, unencumbered by communal responsibiliteis. It was through the yeshiva in Volozhin and the new yeshivot it inspired that the reigning ideal of Mitnagdism - of Torah study as the supreme religious act - received its institutional articulation and exercised much of its hold over Jewish life in Lithuania and surrounding areas...
R. Joseph Soloveitchik (of Boston): Halakhic Man p. 91
Once R. Hayyim of Brisk was asked what the function of a rabbi is. R. Hayyim replied: "To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor." Neither ritual decisions nor political leadership constitutes the main task of halakhic man. Far from it. The actualization of the ideals of justice and righteousness is the pillar of fire which halakhic man follows, when he, as a rabbi and teacher in Israel, serves his community. More, through the implementation of the principles of justice and righteousness, man fulfills the task of creation imposed upon him: the perfection of the world under the dominion of Halakhah and the renewal of the face of creation. No religious cult is of any worth if the laws and principles of righteousness are violated and trampled upon by the foot of pride.
Most of his salary was given to the needy, and as a result he was frequently in debt. In the winter he left his wood store unlocked so that the poor might help themselves. The lay leaders complained they could not afford the cost involved, but he replied that he would have to instruct his wife not to light his fire since i twas impossible for hi to sit in a warm from knowing that the poor were freezing In 1895 Brisk was swept by a fire which destroyed many homes. All Soloveichik’s energies were devoted toward the rebuilding. He slept in the synagogue porch among the who had lost everything in the fire, and the stream of scholars and lay leaders who wanted to consult him came to him there. Stringent personally in the observance of religious precepts, he was always lenient when applying them to others.
Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik’s Essay on Chapter 4, Halacha 1
Translation by Jonathan Eskreis-Winkler
From the fact that Maimonides did not preclude us from assuming otherwise, he seems to be indirectly telling us that the law of kavannah is for the entire t’fillah and that kavannah is absolutely necessary (to the point that lack it prevents fulfillment of the mitzvah of t’fillah) to the entire t’fillah. This is problematic, though, from what Maimonides states in the tenth chapter (of Hilchot T’Fillah), and these are his words, “One who prays and was not m’kavven his heart, must go back and pray again with kavannah, but if he was m’kavven in the first blessing (the Blessing of the Fathers) then he does not need to repeat (even though he did not have kavannah for the rest of the t’fillah).” For here he states explicitly that the kavannah is not completely necessary except in the first blessing of t’fillah. Tzarich iyun (This needs further study).
It appears correct to say that there are two types of kavannah in t’fillah. The first type is a kavannah of the words’ explanation, and its basis is from the law of kavannah. The second type is a kavannah that he should be m’kavven that he stands in t’fillah before G-d. As it is explained in his (Maimonides’) words in the fourth chapter: “What is kavannah? That he should direct his heart from all thoughts and see himself as if stands before the shechinah (presence of G-d).” And it seems that this kavannah is not from an aspect of the actual principle of kavannah, but rather it is just the definitive act of t’fillah, and if his heart (mind) is not free, and if he does not see himself as if he is standing before G-d, and he prays, then this is not an act of t’fillah, and he is in the class of one who is mit’asek (doing an action by rote, while absorbed in another action) whose actions are not in the class actions. And we are forced to say that this kavannah is completely necessary in the entire t’fillah (as oppose to just the first blessing). For in a place where one was mit’assek his status is as if he has not prayed at all. And the words (that he prayed while in this status of mit’asek) are considered as if he had skipped them. And surely, for the basic requirement of t’fillah, all nineteen blessings require this kavannah. Only in a case where he is m’kavven to recognize his own actions, and knows that he stands in t’fillah, but he does not consider the explanation of the words, which is a specific law in the realm of t’fillah alone, does Maimonides add the (second tier) additional requirement of kavannah. In this level of kavannah the discussion in (the Talmud, in) Massechet Brachot is involved, page 34: “‘The one who prays must be m’kavven his heart in all the blessings and if he is not able to be m’kavven his heart in all of them, he should be m’kavven in one of them (the first one),’ Rebbe Chiya said that Rebbe Saphrah had said in the name of someone from the Academy of Rebbe in Avos.” And truly, in the law of kavannah (the basic kavannah that you are standing in prayer) there are two reasons in it: one is the law of kavannah that he is m’kavven to do the mitzvah and this is the same kavannah that is required in all the mitzvot (which is the second reason), with regard to which we hold that all mitzvot require kavannah. And in this there is no difference between the first blessing and the rest of t’fillah. This is because it is a law that is applicable to all mitzvot (and t’fillah is no less a mitzvah than the other six hundred twelve). And this is like all other mitzvot, where every single mitzvah requires kavannah and a partial kavannah is not enough. So too here in t’fillah, like other mitzvot, its entirety needs this kavannah. And Maimonides established the law this way, because he means to say that one needs to know that he stands in t’fillah, and this is a prerequisite for the entire t’fillah. This (necessity for a baseline kavannah for t’fillah) is because of two reasons (not to be confused with the two types of kavannah). First, because if he were not to be m’kavven he would be considered mit’assek. And second, because just as any mitzvah needs kavannah, so too does t’fillah. Both of these reasons show that kavannah would be a prerequisite throughout the entire t’fillah, like in all mitzvot. And only in the kavannah of explanation of the words themselves, for it is a specific law only to t’fillah (and not most other mitzvot), does Maimonides say that it is not a required kavannah except in the first blessing of the Fathers, as is explained in the discussion in Massechet B’rachot page thirty four.
Here in the fourth chapter (halakha fifteen), regarding the class of kavannah that he should know he is praying, Maimonides writes: “What is the nature of kavannat ha’lev (kavannah of the heart)? (Statement 1--)Every t’fillah which is not with kavannah is not t’fillah, and (Statement 2--) if one prayed without kavannah one must go back and pray with kavannah. (Statement 3--) If one found his thought mixed-up or his heart absorbed in other matters he is forbidden to pray until his thoughts settle.” And in the tenth chapter, Maimonides only wrote one statement “One who prayed and was not m’kavven his heart must repeat the t’fillah with kavannah,” (equivalent to statement 2) and there are not found (in chapter ten, here) two ways to measure one’s concentration if he is possible to be m’kavven, and also (in the tenth chapter), he leaves out that which “if one does not have kavannah it is as if he has not prayed at all.” It seems that the opinion of Maimonides is that there are two aspects of kavannah with regard to t’fillah: these are the kavannah that one is m’kavven and recognizes that he stands in t’fillah, and this is because of the class of mit’assek (which one would be included in if he lacked this baseline kavannah) and because of the law that all mitzvot require kavannah. This is the requirement and prerequisite that is pertinent in all the Torah and in each individual mitzvah. But the explanation of the actual words is a separate matter unto itself. And these are two types of obligation in t’fillah—the obligation to be m’kavven that he stands in t’fillah because t’fillah is no different than all other mitzvot and the obligation to be m’kavven the explanation of the words themselves because of the kavannah obligation which is specific to t’fillah. These two obligations are not prerequisites to each other (that is, one does serve as a blockage towards completion of the other), rather their relationship exists naturally from their respective conceptual definitions, for if he is mit’assek or he is lacking the class of kavannah which is pertinent to all mitzvot, if so, he has nullified (or overlooked) the central point of the mitzvah, and it inevitably leads from this that he is considered like he never prayed (though he may have translated the words of t’fillah as well as the most impressive Cambridge scholar), and if one is not able to be m’kavven, one should not pray, because it (his t’fillah) is not considered t’fillah at all. Subsequently, in the obligation of kavannah of explanation of words, since it is a law related to t’fillah alone (and not all mitzvot), certainly then, we can say that, although he is not able to truly fulfill his obligation of t’fillah in its fullest potential, one certainly has an obligation on oneself to do it (t’fillah) as one does all other mitzvot (with the same level of kavannah), and therefore this one (who prayed without a kavannah of the explanation of the actual words) has the status of t’fillah.
And this explanation (of the discrepancy of statements between chapter four and chapter 10) is enough without an additional reasoning. But we can add more. According to the opinion of Maimonides, the obligation of t’fillah and its mitzvah is a law from the Torah (as oppose to a purely Rabbinic edict), and even according to those who argue with Maimonides with regard to the obligation of the mitzvah of t’fillah, nonetheless agree that the fulfillment of t’fillah and its general character is a concept from the Torah. (Now consider how the two levels of kavannah will effect this Biblical obligation). Someone doing an act while they have the status of mit’assek is problem according to the Torah (a Biblical concern, and not just a Rabbinic concern) in every matter in the entire Torah, and also in that which mitzvot require kavannah, which is a necessity in all Biblical mitzvot (as oppose to Rabbinically established obligations). Then we must say that the problem of mit’assek is also a Biblical blockage (as oppose to being merely a Rabbinically ordained blockage) towards fulfillment of any Biblical mitzvah. So t’fillah while one is considered mit’assek would not attain a Biblical fulfillment of t’fillah. This leads to the conclusion that one should not pray (in this condition of not attaining the baseline kavannah). This is not true with regard to the requirement of kavannah towards explanation of the words which is a concept specific only to t’fillah. For in t’fillah itself, this requirement is nothing but a takannah (ordinance) of the Rabbis. And if so, then we may say that, since his action is Biblically considered t’fillah, then he should pray even though he cannot be m’kavven this (the explanation of the words kavannah). If, however, he can pray with kavannah (of explanation of the words), but nonetheless prayed without this kavannah, he should return and pray again because of this kavannah that the Rabbis obligated from their words. And for this reason Maimonides wrote only that he should “go back and pray again” (he only rewrote chapter 10) and no more.