Buried treasure

Childhood tales of a famous relative lead to the discovery of just how great the man actually was, along with some newfound cousins

By: Juan-Paul (Paysach) Burke

To reimagine the past can be a challenge, especially the distant past with a dearth of ready information. So, to stumble across a relative who you never knew you had and to discover more about a rabbi of note that you share as a great-grandfather is a brilliant surprise and a present from above.

The Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy[1], comments and stories.

13 December 2007

“My name is David Shapiro, born… in Johannesburg, South Africa, now residing… in Cape Town…

My paternal Grandfather, Israel Shapiro came from Dokshitz…

As a child we were always told that my Grandfather’s father (ie. my great-grandfather), Rabbi Nachum Shapiro, was a very learned rabbi, and I read somewhere some time ago that he learned with the great Rabbi Israel Salanter (founder of the Musar Movement).

On my Grandfather’s tombstone is written: Israel Shapiro eldest son of “Dorsherster (Dokshitz spelt wrong) Ilu”…an Ilui is supposed to be a term used for a learned person.

…My Grandfather, Israel Shapiro, married Sarah (her maiden name also Shapiro) in the 1890s, as in the 1950s they celebrated their Diamond Wedding anniversary (60 years)…

David Shapiro, Cape Town, South Africa”

[Several years later Aaron Ginsberg, administrator of The Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy, received the following message]

19 October 2014

“Hi, I recently read a brief biographical sketch about the great Rabbi Nochum Shapiro from Dokshitsy who was a student of Rav Yisroel Salanter. He died in 1902, but I am unable to find the exact date of his yahrtzeit. Do you know that date or can you refer me to someone who might know? Do you know if there is a tombstone at his grave? It would be a shame if this great rabbi is forgotten.

Many thanks,

Ken Applebaum”

3 Nov 2014

“Dear Mr Ginsberg,

It was nice talking with you last Friday. Attached are the pages from the book Tnuas HaMussar (2d volume) that discuss the life of Rabbi Shapiro. I would be grateful if you would find out from the family the date of Rabbi Shapiro’s yahrzeit as well as any other biographical information they may have about him in written form (or letters that he wrote). In that regard, I would love to see a photo of Rabbi Shapiro if they have one or a photo of his tombstone. I believe he died in the town of Shat, but I am unsure where he was buried. Rabbi Shapiro seems to have been an unusually gifted person and it would be nice to preserve information about him and let others know more about him.

Thank you in advance.

Ken Applebaum”

[Realising that this could be the same Rabbi Nachum mentioned by David Shapiro in his 2007 comment, Aaron Ginsberg forwarded the biographical sketch about Rabbi Nachum to David, who sent a reply]

21 Jan 2015

“I asked my rabbi, Rabbi Kalman Green, to do me a favour and please translate the biographical sketch about my great grandfather Nachum Shapiro for me. His comments were: Rabbi Nachum Shapiro was obviously a genius (ilui), knowing most of the Torah at a very early age. He was a student of a famous Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Musar Movement.

David Shapiro”

[Aaron’s interest was piqued and he decided to do a little research which he reported online]

Facebook >Groups >jewishdokshitzy

23 Jan 2015

[A comment posted by Aaron Ginsberg]

“The 5 page story about him is written by someone called Zvi Yehuda Robinson or Robinzon, I am not sure when this was written, but have gone into geni.com and see that Zvi Yehuda Robinson is the son of Yosef Zundel Robinson, who must have been married to the daughter of Rabbi Nochum Shapiro. In other words, Zvi Yehuda is the grandson of Nochum Shapiro.”

“After thinking about it, I googled Zvi Yehuda Robinson. The tenth hit was from Congregation Aitz Chaim in West Palm Beach Florida:”



January 17, 2015

Vaeira 5775

Today’s Seudah Shlishit is sponsored by:

… and Joseph and Gail Robinson In Memory Of:

Yossi’s Father, Harav Tzvi Yehuda ben Harav Yosef Zundel Robinson.”

“At 9:00 am, I called the Synagogue and asked to speak with Yossi Robinson, who verified that he indeed was a great-grandson of the Dokshitzer Ilui, and later that day David Shapiro was able to speak with his new cousin, who had no idea that there were fellow descendants of Rabbi Nochum Shapiro in Cape Town, South Africa.

This evening Kenneth sent me the attached picture. His commitment to remembering Rabbi Shapiro includes sponsoring a learning in the rabbi’s honour.

And so, with Kenneth’s assistance, David’s message received at least a partial response…it could be, of course, that there are more descendants of Nochum Shapiro still waiting to be found.”

February 2015

“Before this saga had begun, I [David Shapiro] had, without knowing about Yossi [Robinson], planned to visit my brother, Joseph Shapiro, in Hollywood, Florida. And so before I left Cape Town, I had arranged for Joseph to also contact Yossi to arrange a physical meeting in West Palm Beach.

On Wednesday, 11 February 2015, both my brother Joseph and I rode the 1 hour ride from Hollywood to West Palm Beach to meet Yossi and his very charming wife Gail, spending more than 2 hours exchanging family stories. What a wonderful experience.

David Shapiro

Cape Town”

Here we see how honouring those who came before us actually brings us closer together, uniting unknown cousins, bringing out the kindness of strangers, and, as in this particular example, giving us an amazing glimpse of the greater universal orchestration of the Master Musician as he assists those who seek to honour someone long past. Is it not as it says in Pirkei Avot, “Who is honoured? One who honours others…”[2]?

Added to this is the honour given to Hashem and His Torah by way of remembering his Torah-entwined servants, such as Rabbi Nachum Shapiro ztz”l, and his son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Zundel Robinzon ztz”l, and his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Robinzon ztz”l.

So who was Rabbi Nachum Shapiro? Here is a fascinating summary and translation of the biographical sketch mentioned, written mostly according to the testimony of his grandson, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Robinzon, as found in the book Tenuos HaMusar[3].


Rabbi Nachum Shapiro was a formidable genius and one of the sharpest minds of his generation. He had great depth of knowledge in all aspects of the Torah, amazing speed of perception, and sharpness of mind. He was a truthful person, big-hearted, and honest.

Rabbi Nachum was born in Dokshits, which is located in the Minsk district. From the time he was a baby, he astonished people with his many talents. At the age of 6, he used to recite pages of the gemara by-heart, after hearing his father study them.

When he turned 8, his father sent him to nearby Minsk to study at the rabbi’s yeshiva. The yeshiva students looked at him mockingly, that such a young boy had such courage to attend a yeshiva of grown up boys. He waited for the lesson of the head of the yeshiva, the rabbi of the city at the time, and when the rabbi raised a question regarding the Rambam skipping an important halacha, the young Nachum was quick to interject and prove that the Rambam had, in fact, implied that exact halacha in a different place. The rabbi was astonished by the boy’s sharp intellect, and cried out, “He is an ilui!” (genius/prodigy). From then on, and for the rest of his life, he was known as “The Dokshitser Ilui”.

Rabbi Nachum studied at the Minsk Yeshiva for a short time only. Due to his sharp intellectual ability, he lacked the patience to stay for long in one place and found his way to many other places where Torah was taught. Meanwhile, his knowledge and expertise in Torah grew remarkably, both in depth and scope, and he became acclaimed as one of the most brilliant minds of the generation. He could fluently recite by-heart the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud and their chief commentaries, and his sophisticated discussions astonished all of his listeners. He got married, settled down in Kovno, and started to study at the Beit Hamedrash of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the father of the Musar Movement.

Rabbi Yisrael was very fond of Rabbi Nachum, and used to praise him frequently. It is told that once, during Simchat Torah, while dancing and singing around the bimah, Rabbi Yisrael put young Nachum (who was short in stature) on his shoulders and danced with him. Rabbi Yisrael jokingly said that he didn’t need to circle the bimah once more with the Torah scrolls, because he had already performed this duty by carrying Rabbi Nachum on his shoulders around the bimah.

Rabbi Nachum served as a rabbi in the following Lithuanian cities: Pokroy, Ligumai, Vegeriai, Tryskiai, and Shat. He settled down in the town of Shat, and remained there for the rest of his life. Although he was offered higher positions, Rabbi Nachum chose to settle down in this small town and devote himself to Torah studies. His amazing diligence was highly praised. He used to study nonstop, day and night, and often went without eating, explaining that it was a pity to waste precious study-time on eating.

He became famous for his sharp mind, and people from all parts of the region would travel to him to consult about Torah law. He was especially consulted in matters of forestry disputes, because he was quick to grasp all the calculations and business transactions, and quickly resolved the most complex and difficult disputes. He would advise the merchants, and would develop and teach them marketing tactics that helped them gain tremendous profits. The merchants paid Rabbi Nachum large sums of money for his arbitration. He himself paid no heed to money, but his wife was a practical woman and saved it up, little by little, until they became wealthy.

He used to make large contributions to charity and would give away all the money that came into his hand. Many stories were told about this characteristic. Once, when he arrived to conduct the marriage ceremony of an orphan girl who had worked as a maid in his house for some time, he discovered that the groom was refusing to go under the chuppah unless paid a dowry of 200 roubles. Rabbi Nachum immediately rushed home, took the cabinet keys from his wife, removed a large stack of bills, and without even counting them, handed them all to the groom, saying that it was not worthwhile that the poor orphan girl should remain wretched just because of money.

Rabbi Nachum was also well-known for his righteousness. He made a point of beautifying his mitzvot. He also stood out as being kind-hearted and well-mannered. He hated flattery immensely, and told the blunt truth to everyone.

In view of his sharpness and love of truth, he would reject many longwinded arguments and new interpretations by the great Torah experts of his generation. Torah experts could not stand up to him, and therefore they avoided debating about questions of Torah in his presence.

Rabbi Nachum was aware of this trait and would sometimes express regret about it. But being so sharp-witted, he could not hold himself back and would interrupt and point out the worthlessness of notions that seemed unfounded and absurd to him.

Rabbi Nachum was a staunch follower of Rabbi Yisrael and his Musar Movement[4]. He would visit him whenever he could and listen to his Musar lessons. Likewise, Rabbi Yisrael would sometimes visit Rabbi Nachum, who, because of his great admiration for Rabbi Yisrael, would escort him far on his way, walking with him for many miles. People were amazed at how Rabbi Nachum subjugated himself in relation to Rabbi Yisrael, which was contrary to the way he usually was. Once, Rabbi Eizel the Sharp asked him why he never criticised Rabbi Yisrael the way he used to criticise all the other geniuses of his generation. Rabbi Nachum replied, “You and the other rabbis like you have expertise in your specific fields, but Rabbi Yisrael is an expert on the whole Torah.”

Rabbi Yisrael was Rabbi Nachum’s mentor in all his affairs and used to admonish him for his habit of undermining the honour of the other learned rabbis. Once, Rabbi Yisrael heard a rumour that Rabbi Nachum was being disparaging towards Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, the Rabbi of Kovno. Rabbi Yisrael called for him, and said he had come across a very difficult passage in the Talmud which he couldn’t resolve, and thought that Rabbi Nachum was the only one with the ability to clarify it. He presented Rabbi Nachum with the passage and the question he had on it.

After looking deeply into the matter, and examining the problem from all angles, Rabbi Nachum gave up and concluded that there was no solution. Rabbi Yisrael then explained his resolution of the question, and Rabbi Nachum was amazed, and expressed deep astonishment at his depth of insight and his solution of the problem. Rabbi Yisrael then immediately disproved this solution, and he did this over and over again, repeating it 6 times. After he saw that the attitude of Rabbi Nachum had become weakened, he said, “Now you understand that there are greater experts than you, so be careful not to underestimate them!”

Rabbi Nachum lived into old age. When he reached 80 he lost his eyesight, but his body was still strong and his mind clear. He would lie down and recite by-heart the whole Talmud, in order, together with its early and later commentaries and his own novel ideas. He did this for the next 4 years, until he suddenly informed his family that he had received an invite from the heavenly court, and a few days later he passed on.


Juan-Paul Burke is currently researching South African Rabbis, Reverends, and Cantors pre-1941. To contact him email: paysach12@gmail.com. If you have information about Rabbi Nachum please contact him.

  1. jewishdokshitsy.org
  2. Pirkei Avot 4:1
  3. A written translation was made by Rabbi Shapiro’s descendants Joan & Abigail Gelfand by request of another descendant, David Shapiro, Feb 2015, which the translation here is mostly based on; several edits were made by the author.
  4. One could surmise that Rabbi Nachum’s eldest son, Yisrael, was named after his chief teacher, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter.

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