Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin

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The "Netziv"

Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, (b. Mir, Russia, 1816 - d. Warsaw, Poland, August 10, 1893), also known as Reb Hirsch Leib Berlin, and commonly known by the acronym Netziv, was an Orthodox rabbi, dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva and author of several works of rabbinic literature in Lithuania.


Berlin was born in Mir, today in Belarus in 1816[1] into a family of Jewish scholars renowned for its Talmudic scholarship. His father Jacob, while not a rabbi, was a Talmudic scholar descendant of a German rabbinic family; his mother was directly descended from Rabbi Meir Eisenstadt. According to some sources, Berlin initially was a weak student.[2] Legend has it that he applied himself to his studies after overhearing his parents debating whether he should pursue a trade.

His first wife was the daughter of Rabbi Yitzchok of Volozhin, the son of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin. His second wife was his niece, a daughter of Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, the author of the Aruch haShulchan. A son from his first marriage, Chaim Berlin, became the rabbi of Moscow, a daughter married Rabbi Refael Shapiro, and his son from his second marriage was Rabbi Meir Berlin (later Bar-Ilan).

The Volozhin yeshiva

Berlin led the yeshiva in Volozhin (in what is presently Belarus), then the largest institution of its kind, from 1854 to its closure in 1892. Despite the destruction (twice) of the town and the yeshiva building in large fires, its enrollment increased steadily under his leadership, and the yeshiva would produce a number of prominent rabbinic figures who led Eastern European Jewry until World War II. Amongst them was Rabbi Shimon Shkop.

In Volozhin, his leadership was contested by the popular Rabbi Joseph Dov (Yoshe Ber) Soloveitchik, whose style of Torah study differed substantially from Rabbi Berlin's. Rabbi J.D. Soloveitchik ultimately became rabbi of Slutsk, Warsaw and Brisk, where he founded the rabbinical dynasty that still carries his name.

In 1892, the Volozhin yeshiva shut down. Russian authorities (influenced by Haskalah elements) sought to introduce secular studies into the yeshiva.[3] Berlin was willing to initially accept some secular studies.[3] However, the requirements became more and more onerous with the government eventually stipulating that "All teachers of all subjects must have college diplomas ... no Judaic subjects may be taught between 9 AM and 3 PM ... no night classes are allowed ... total hours of study per day may not exceed ten." Faced with these restrictions, Berlin chose to close the Yeshiva.[3]

Final months

Ohel of Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and Chaim Soloveitchik, Jewish cemetery in Warsaw

After the closure, Berlin traveled to Vilna and other cities, trying to clear the yeshiva's debt.

In the last few months of Berlin's life he suffered from diabetes and the consequences of a stroke. While he intended to travel to the Land of Israel, his medical condition made this impossible. He spent his last weeks in Warsaw, and died there on August 10, 1893.[4]

Views and influence

Berlin had a traditionalist approach to Torah study that was at odds with the highly analytical style of lomdus ("learned intellectual analysis") that was pioneered by Soloveitchik.

Politically, he favored Jewish settlement of the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael), then under the control of the Ottoman Empire; he was initially a member of the Chovevei Tzion movement (founded by his contemporary Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher), but later distanced himself from them.


  • Ha'amek She'eila ("Delve into the Question", the title playing on a verse in the Book of Isaiah that hortatively reads, "Delve, question"), a commentary on the She'iltoth, a geonic work of halakha by Achai Gaon;
  • Meishiv Davar ("Response [in] Kind"), a collection of his responsa.
  • Ha'amek Davar ("Delve into the matter"), a Torah commentary; see Oral Torah #The Oral Law in Rabbinic literature and commentary, the title resonating off his previously published commentary on the She'iltoth (listed above).
  • A commentary on the Song of Songs.
  • Meromei Sadeh ("Heights [of the] Field", used as a reference to the tribe of Naphtali by Deborah in the Book of Judges), comments and insights on selected volumes of the Talmud.
  • Dvar Ha'emek commentary on Nevi'im and Ketuvim.
  • Imrei Shefer commentary on the Haggadah
  • Commentary on the Mechilta
  • Kidmas Ha'amek [She'eila], being the introduction to his commentary on the She'iltoth (listed above) and also entitled Darkah shel Torah by his son Rabbi Chaim Berlin. Translated into English by Rabbi Elchanan Greenman according to the latter title, as "The Path of Torah" (2007), it treats of the rabbinical history of Oral Law from Joshua until the early Middle Ages. Less well known is a similarly entitled but shorter introduction, Kidmas Ha'amek [Davar], contained in his Torah commentary and focusing more narrowly on the history of Scripture.



  1. The year of Netziv’s birth is often mistakenly listed as 1817. According to his son, Meir Bar-Ilan, he was born on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Kislev in the Jewish year of 5577 which is November 20, 1816. See Meir Bar Ilan, Rabban Shel Yisrael (New York: Histadrut ha-Mizrahi ba-Amerikah, 1943), p. 13.
  2. Gil S. Perl (2012). The Pillar of Volozhin : Rabbi Naftali Ẓvi Yehuda Berlin and the world of nineteenth-century Lithuanian Torah scholarship. Brighton, Mass.: Academic Studies Press. p. 11-14. ISBN 978-1-936235-70-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Schacter JJ (1990). "Haskalah, secular studies and the close of the Yeshiva in Volozhin in 1892" (PDF). The Torah U-Madda Journal. 2: 76–133.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Bar Ilan CD-ROM