Living Legacy: Rav Itzele (Blazer) Peterburger, zt”l
By: Yehuda Alter
11 Av marks the yohrtzeit of one of the greatest figures in the mussar movement that thrived in Lita since its introduction by Rav Yisroel Salanter. Rav Itze’le was his prize talmid, and continued his teaching in many ways. He was a ga’on and a kadosh, and today we profile his living legacy.
He was born in 1837 in the Lithuanian town of Shnipishok, near Vilna. From his earliest years, his great brilliance was apparent. At the age of fourteen, his father printed a kuntres that he wrote on bava kamma, filled with brilliant chidushim.
When he married, he went to learn in the Beis Medrah of Rav Yisroel Salanter in Kovno. Rav Yisroel Salanter showered him with attention.
In 1862, he was appointed as the rov of the great city of St. Petersburg, the center of the Haskalah movement. He dedicated his entire life to upholding Yiddishkeit—work that earned him the scorn of the secularists. Eventually, due to the great persecution, he left the city.
His greatness in Torah was vast, and he spent his time making his way from one great Torah center to the next, leaving his larger-than-life impression on the bachurim and gedolim alike.
Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, author of Seridei Aish, related an episode that attests to his incredible humility. “Once, in the city of Kovno, the Chevra Shas held a siyum on the entire Shas, and Rav Itze’le was honored to recite a hadran, a droshoh that would tie together all of the masechtos in Shas. But he asked that all the other ge’onim who were in attendance should precede him. He then rose, and related a simple mussar thought about the greatness and the joy of Torah learning… and then he sat down. This incident left a greater impression upon me than all the brilliant droshos that came before him: how a person who could have overshadowed all of them with his Torah brilliance so concealed his greatness.”
After the passing of Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, Alter of Kelm, in 1898, Rav Itze’le was called to assume his place at the helm of the famed Talmud Torah in Kelm. He remained there for six years, and in 1904, he fulfilled a lifelong dream of going up to Eretz Yisroel.
Here he was reunited with some of his old chaverim from the old home, and continued spreading his influence.
Following his passing, his vast seforim collection was given to Yeshivas Chevron, where it remained for many years.
Aside from his son-in-law Rav Chizkiyahu Yosef Mishkovsky, Rosh Yeshiva in Kfar Chassidim, he had numerous family members in America, with many Rabbonim among them. One of them was Rav Moshe Shatzkes of Lomza, a legendary marbitz Torah in America.
Prior to his passing, Rav Itze’le left clear instructions that no one should be maspid him—and this evoked controversy among the great tzaddikim of Yerushalayim. Some held that in such a case, the wishes of the niftar must be disregarded. But others, including Rav Shmuel Salant—the leader of the old Yishuv—ruled that, despite the great importance of eulogizing a tzaddik, his wishes must be adhered to.
A compromise was reached, in which Rav Chaim Berlin utilized the moments of the levaya to create a great awakening among all those in attendance. Accounts of the levaya relate that the wailing and the cries were overwhelming—a fitting tribute to this consummate ba’al mussar who spent his life awakening his brethren.