The yeshivah system of Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century suffered great hardship during the economic crises in Europe and the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States. As institutions with no independent source of income, the pre-war yeshivos were dependent on donations from Jews all over Europe, the United States, and from more distant communities within the Russian empire. Even this source of support diminished as a result of the political, economic, and social changes that took place after the First World War. A number of yeshivos opened offices in the US and established networks of m’shulachim (emissaries) there and in other countries, and these were able to bring in some additional financial support. Nonetheless, despite these various sources of income, the budgets of the yeshivos were always in deficit.
At one point, the distress of the Polish/Lithuanian yeshivos became particularly great, and a delegation of foremost rabbanim and contemporary sages traveled to Warsaw on a mission to raise awareness – and sorely needed funds – to save those yeshivos. A conference was held in a large hall, and the press was invited to attend in order to report and publicize the goals of the delegation. One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Rav Zalman Sorotzkin zt”l, the renowned Magid and author of Oznayim LaTorah. He delivered a powerful oration on the dreadful plight of the yeshivah students.
When he finished, one of the Jewish journalists present asked him how Rav Meir Shapiro zt”l, the Lubliner Rav and Dean of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, had been so successful in building a majestic yeshivah edifice and garnering great financial support. Would it not have been better, he asked facetiously, to feed the starving families of students in existing yeshivos?
Rav Zalman sensed that the questioner’s intention was to publicly negate the importance of the drive. Unflustered, he answered the man in the time-honored Jewish tradition: with a question of his own. “Tell me, why did Hashem command the collection of voluntary donations for the construction of the Mishkan, when everyone, even the poor, had to give a half-shekel for korbanos? In fact, if this contribution was not given, collateral was taken to ensure payment. Why didn’t the Torah rely on philanthropists to supply the communal sacrifices, as it did regarding the construction of the Sanctuary?”
“The answer,” explained Rav Zalman, when the journalist was not forthcoming, “lies in the Torah’s understanding of the psychology of philanthropists. They hasten to contribute to edifices, yet often refuse to support or maintain the cause for which those edifices are constructed. When considering which is more precious, the building in which the sacrifices are brought or the sacrifices themselves, we must conclude that the end surely justifies the means. This is proven by the fact that the korbanos, be it the Tamid or Musaf, nullify Shabbos restrictions, whereas building the Temple does not. Despite this, we see that in one day the people brought so much silver and gold for the construction of the Mishkan that it was necessary to make a public announcement asking them to stop. Only then did the people cease to bring donations.
“Hashem, Who understands the human mind, was well aware that the people would bring more than was needed for the construction of the Mishkan, and there would be no need to tax them or take collateral. However, regarding the purpose of the building, the communal sacrifices, Hashem knew that they would not give until they were promised that the money would ‘atone for their souls.’ In addition to this, Hashem commanded that those in arrears of the tax must give a collateral.”
In the same pleading tone in which he implored people to take pity on the yeshivah students, Rav Zalman concluded, “It is the same with the yeshivos. The buildings are only a means, a place to study. Even so, while people give abundantly for buildings rooms, doors, windows, or bricks, they contribute little to the support of the Torah scholars themselves. Some Jewish philanthropists specifically desire a room dedicated to them, a brick that will become an integral part of the building. Providing food, however, which is consumed immediately and is gone, does not interest them. My friends, this is wrong. I am certain that when the construction of the huge Lubliner Yeshivah is completed, Rav Meir Shapiro will have as much difficulty covering ongoing expenses as any other rosh yeshivah” (which later proved to be true).