Our Sages teach us in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2, Mishnah 15): “Warm yourself next to the fire of the Sages, but be careful not to be burned by their coals, for their bite is like a fox’s bite, their sting is like a scorpion’s sting, their hiss is like that of a fiery serpent, and all their words are like burning coals.” This means that one must be extremely careful with the honor of Torah scholars, for if one disregards their honor, one may be punished quite severely. Although there is a Mitzvah to respect anyone who toils in Torah, the warning of this Mishnah applies primarily to actual Torah scholars.
The following incident occurred approximately two hundred years ago: Rabbi Moshe, son of Harav Pinchas of Koritz, and his sons Rabbi Shmuel Abba and Rabbi Pinchas were expert printers, as their father owned the printing house in the city of Koritz. They were advised to establish a printing house in the city of Slavita where they would proceed to print a beautiful edition of the Talmud, as the Torah states, “This is my G-d and I shall beautify Him,” and our Sages explain this to mean that one should beatify Hashem’s Mitzvot (Shabbat 133b).
Before beginning this holy task, Rabbi Moshe and his sons turned to a wide array of leading Torah scholars from far and wide in order to obtain an approbation which would prohibit anyone else to print the Talmud for ten years following the printing of the Slavita Talmud, as this would infringe on their business. Many great rabbis agreed to their request including Hagaon Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the Chatam Sofer, and others. Rabbi Moshe and sons then spent five years printing a truly magnificent edition of the Talmud. Many sought to purchase this beautiful Talmud, and within a matter of years almost all copies were sold out.
In the year 5594 (1834), Rabbi Moshe and sons sought to reprint another edition of the Talmud in their printing house, however, they were notified that a certain Rabbi Menachem Man of Vilna, head of the Rohm family (the edition of the Talmud we have today is a product of the Rohm family’s edition), together with his partners from the city of Horodna had also taken up the printing the Talmud in Vilna although ten years had not yet passed since the original printing of the Slavita Talmud.
The publishers from Slavita turned to the leaders of the generation, among the Hagaon Rabbeinu Akiva Eiger, and requested that they notify them that the printing of the Vilna Talmud was prohibited until the full ten years had passed as per their original approbation. Jews from all over waited anxiously to hear the decision of Rabbi Akiva Eiger. At the end, after hearing the claims of both parties, the Rav issued his final ruling that since at that point the original printed copies of the Slavita Talmud were almost completely sold out in addition to the fact that the printers in Vilna agreed to purchase all of the remaining copies, the Slavita printers could not prevent the printers in Vilna from printing their edition of the Talmud. The Rohm family would have the right to print the entire Talmud in Vilna for the great purpose of dissemination of the Torah. Although there were several rabbis who sided with the Slavita printers, the ruling of Rabbi Akiva Eiger weighed down the scale in favor of the printers in Vilna.
Nevertheless, upon seeing that several Rabbis sided with them, Rabbi Moshe and his sons erred by taking the advice of some unsavory individuals and proclaimed publicly that the ruling of Rabbi Akiva Eiger in favor of the Vilna printers was not to be relied upon since he was already advanced in age (the Rav was then over seventy-years-old) and most of his doings are based upon the wishes of his son, Hagaon Harav Shlomo Eiger, who convinced him to rule incorrectly. When Rabbi Akiva Eiger heard this, he became extremely incensed; these words had the power to change him from his usual humble manner out of honor for the Torah, for this accusation implied that he had been swayed to rule against the tenets of the Torah. Because of this, a large-scale argument ensued. Thus, he unequivocally expressed himself in a letter written on the fourth of Tevet, 5594 (1834), which read as follows: “My heart was very pained by the brazenness and audacity of the Slavita printers. Their words are slanderous not only of my son, the Gaon, may Hashem protect him, whom they claim swayed my view, but also of me, about whom they claim it is easy to coerce to rule against Torah law. The truth of the matter is that regarding all of the approbations the Slavita printers have sent me, I have not found any valid basis for their claim; not even one in a thousand! Regarding the fact that they wish to stand up firmly [against my ruling], I do not forgive them at all, for one cannot forgive the degradation of the Torah. Signed, Akiva ben Moshe Ginz z”l.” The Rabbi then proceeded up to the Aron Kodesh (the Holy Ark where the Sifrei Torah are stored) and sadly and bitterly proclaimed: “Master of the Universe! I study your Torah and based on it do I rule! Even if I forgive them regarding my own honor, You should not forgive them regarding the honor of your Torah!”
During this time, a terrible incident occurred: One of the workers in the Slavita printing house, whose job it was to bind the volumes of the Talmud printed there, became extremely intoxicated and hanged himself in the printing house. The Maskilim, who considered this printing house a thorn in their eyes since it was the cause for wide-spread dissemination of Torah among the Jewish people, used this incident to slander the Jews. The wicked apostate, Michael Bendarsky, who was known as an enemy of the Jewish people, informed on them to the head of the St. Petersburg Police Force and accused the Slavita printers of slaying the worker. Two other wicked apostates living in St. Petersburg, named Greenberg and Lipsky, added to this libel by saying that the Slavita printers were printing their Talmud without proper authorization from the local censor and this worker caught wind of it and wanted to inform the authorities, at which point the brothers hurried to murder him. The Russian government fell upon this news eagerly because of their hatred of the Jewish people and they quickly shackled the brothers in chains (they did not do so to their father, Rabbi Moshe, for he was already an elderly man). After an arduous trial that lasted every day for three years, during which time the brothers were left in prison with thieves and murderers and subjected to all sorts of terrible tortures, the Russian court issued its cruel ruling that the brothers were to pass between two rows of club-wielding Russian soldiers and would be subject to 1,500 blows. If they would still be alive after this, they would be exiled to Siberia for the rest of their lives. On Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5599 (1839), the evil verdict was executed in the city square. Two rows of club-wielding Russian soldiers faced each other, each row consisting of 250 soldiers. The brothers were to run between the rows three times and subject themselves to the brutal beatings. The officers stripped one of the brothers naked to leave his body bare to endure the beatings. The only thing they left on him was his white Kippah (skullcap), a request granted by the Russian authorities. Quietly, he deposited his soul in the Hands of His Maker, and he began his trudge through the rows. As his bare body was being beaten mercilessly, his Kippah fell off and being shackled and not possessing the strength to pick it up, he did not wish to continue without a head-covering; all the while the beatings continued. While being paused, one of the soldier’s clubs hit him square in his right eye; he sustained a heavy scar because of it for the rest of his life. One soldier understood what was going on at which point he picked up his Kippah and placed it on his head. Only then did he proceed forward. Three times did he pass between these rows and miraculously he remained alive. After being taken to the hospital for treatment, the second brother was then subjected to his 1,500 blows. This news served to cause their ailing father’s health to deteriorate rapidly and in the year 5600 (1840), he passed away. After much intervention on the part of the Jewish residents of Koritz and Slavita, the brothers received “pardon” from the wicked Czar Nikolai, which entailed Siberian exile being replaced with life-imprisonment in Moscow. Only after Nikolai died and was succeeded by Alexander II in the year 5616 (1856), were the brothers finally released. The brothers always accepted their fate obediently as atonement for compromising the honor of the great Rabbi Akiva Eiger. They would constantly reiterate the words of the Mishnah: “Warm yourself next to the fire of the Sages, but be careful not to be burned by their coals, for their bite is like a fox’s bite, their sting is like a scorpion’s sting, their hiss is like that of a fiery serpent, and all their words are like burning coals.”