The Curriculum at Volozhin
On the April 6, 1858, the government ordered the closure of the yeshiva in Volozhin. There is no record that anyone from the government tried to implement this order. But on the 22nd, R’ Gershon Amsterdam led a delegation to have the ruling repealed. Among the things presented to the government was the curriculum at the yeshiva. Here is my translation (original found in R’ Dr Shaul Shtampfer’s HaYeshiva haLita’it Behit-havatah, pg 213):
- Tanakh: chumash and nevi’im rishonim according to Rashi and [Mendelsohn’s] Biur
- Mishnah: [the orders of] Zera’im, Moed and Nashim
- Gemara: Mesechtos Berakhos, Shabbos, Pesachim and Eiruvin with the [commentary of the] Rosh
- Laws: Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim
- Hebrew Grammar: the first two sections of Studies in the Hebrew Language by [Yehudah Leib] Ben Zev
- Languages: Russian and German reading, and the beginning of grammar
- Arithmetic: the four basic operators [addition, subtraction, multiplication division]
- Tanakh: Nevi’im acharonim and Kesuvim according to Rashi and the Biur
- Mishnah: Neziqim and Qodshim, with Biur
- Gemara: Mesechtos Chulin, Niddah, Yevamos, Kesuvos, Gitin, Qiddushin with the Rosh
- Laws: Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Dei’ah and Even haEizer
- Hebrew Grammar: Completing Studies in the Hebrew Language”
- Languages: Completion of Russian and German grammar, and writing
- Arithmetic: fractions and decimals
A few things are striking.
First, contrary to legend, they did have secular studies in Volozhin. In fact, according to documents released after the fall of the Soviet Union, it appears the school was shut down when the arguments between those who supported R’ Chaim Brisker as the next Rosh Yeshiva and those who supported R’ Chaim Berlin grew into anarchy, with no mention of secular studies being an issue at all.
Rav Chaim Brisker did threaten to close the school rather than the 1892 edict, but it wasn’t over secular studies in particular. (Especially since they were already being taught.) According to R’ Barukh haLevi Epstein (the Torah Temimah) in Meqor Barukh (as translated in My Uncle the Netziv, pg 205-206), the edict required secular studies from 9am to 3pm, and closing the school at dark. This would leave no time at all for Torah study for much of the year, and very little during the rest.
As for the general attitude to secular studies in Volozhin, both in curriculum and in the students’ pursuit of ad hoc studies in their own time, the Torah Temimah writes (MUtN, pg 204):
…[T]he students of Volozhin were quite knowledgeable in secular studies: they took an interest in science, history and geography and knew many languages. In fact, those students who desired to pursue these disciplines succeeded in learning twice as much as any student at a state institution. In Volohzin, Torah and derech eretz walked hand in hand, neither one held captive by the other. It was the special achievement of the Volozhin student that when he left the yeshiva, he was able to converse with any man in any social setting on the highest intellectual plane. The Volohzin student was able to conquer both worlds — the world of Torah and the world at large. A well-known adage among parents who were trying to best educate their children was, “Do you want your child to develop into a complete Jew, dedicated to Torah and derech eretz? Do you want him to be able to mingle with people and get along in the world? Send him to Volozhin!
And in fact, R’ SR Hirsch wrote a letter to his community to aid the emissary sent from the Yeshiva to raise funds in Frankfurt. In it, he calls Volozhiner Yeshiva “fellow travelers on the path of Torah im Derekh Eretz“!
I am not talking about the Hebrew grammar, though. Given the age of the textbook (Talmud Leshon Ivri), published in Breslau in 1796, they were learning the diqduq necessary to really understand Tanakh and Chazal, not Hebrew as a living language. But both the local language (Russian) and the language that dominated international academia (German). Math wasn’t as impressive though, ending with material we learn in early grade school. On the other hand, I don’t know what the general population in Russia was learning. Clearly a liberal arts focus, though.
Second, they actually used Mendeslsohn’s Biur! (Their Hebrew textbook was also by a first generation Maskil, but it’s less surprising in a topic that is more religiously neutral than a commentary on Tanakh.)
Third, their Torah study focused on covering ground. All of Tanakh in two years? 5/6 of the mishnah, 10 mesechtos of gemara? 3/4 of the Shulchan Arukh? It seems that before R’ Chaim Brisker taught people his methods of analysis, there was no real attention on analysis altogether at Volozhin. It would seem they instead focused on deriving the halakhah from the gemara studied, as that is the focus of the Rosh’s commentary.