Living Legacy: Rav Chaim Berlin, zt”l
By: Yehuda Alter
One of the great gedolim of the turn-of-the-century Lithuania, Rav Chaim was a great-grandson of Rav Chaim Volozyner, and would eventually succeed him as the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozyn.
Rav Chaim was born in the year 1832 to his father, Rav Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, who was a grandson-in-law of Rav Chaim Volozyner. He was named for his great ancestor.
He spent his youth learning together with his father, the Netziv, gaining a wide-ranging command of Tanach and Mishnayos. At the age of nine, he entered the yeshiva of Volozyn, where his grandfather, Rav Yitzchok of Volozyn, was the Rosh Yeshiva.
He married the daughter of Reb Moshe Zeitlin, a renowned gevir from Shklov. He spent seven years in the town of Shklov learning Torah, while supported by his wealthy father-in-law. During this time, he assisted his father in the publication of Ha’amek Sheilah, a commentary on the She’iltos of Rav Achai Ga’on.
Eventually, his father-in-law’s fortunes took a downturn, and he was forced to cease supporting Rav Chaim, who answered the call of the Moscow community to come and serve as their rov. In this capacity he made many improvements to Jewish communal life in the city, and worked closely with influential Jews who were close to the Czar.
In this position, he was also able to raise funds for the Volozyner Yeshiva, and through his efforts they were able to erect a grand new building in the place of the dilapidated wooden structure. However, with the ascent of Alexander the Third, there was an edict of expulsion for the Jews of Moscow. During this time, his Rebbetzin also passed away. He relocated to the city of Biala, and remarried.
In the early 1890’s, the Netziv was preparing to ascend to Eretz Yisroel, and appointed his son as his successor. The Netziv never did make it to Eretz Yisroel, but the yeshiva was shuttered by the Russian government a short time later.
Following this, he became the rov in Kobryn, which had a large Chassidic presence. Although he hailed from a thoroughly Misnagdishe family, he was admired and accepted by the chassidim as well.
In 1905, he was offered the rabbonus of Yaffo, in Eretz Yisroel, but he declined (this position eventually went to Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Hakohen Kook). He soon came to Eretz Yisroel and settled in Yerushalayim.
From the beginning, his home was a central gathering place for all the great men of the city. He would deliver shiurim, primarily in the Torah of his father, the Netziv, to the ge’onim of Yerushalayim. As the years wore on, he took on more and more responsibility of the Yishuv in Yerushalayim, its charities, communal organizations, and the Yeshiva Etz Chaim.
He was beloved and revered by the entire kehillah in Yerushalayim, and he was niftar on 13 Tishrei of the yesar 1912, and interred on Har Hazeisim.