The yeshiva was founded in 1875 in the town of Telšiai ("Telshe" in Russian or "Telz" in Yiddish) to provide for the religious educational needs of young Jewish men in Telshe and its surrounding towns.
The yeshiva was established by three important Orthodox rabbis and Talmudists—Rabbi Meir Atlas, later the Rabbi of Shavli (the Yiddish name for Šiauliai) and the father-in-law of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky; Rabbi Zvi Yaakov Oppenheim and, who later became the Rabbi of Kelm; and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Abel, the brother-in-law of Rabbi Shimon Shkop. They received financial assistance from a Jewish banker in Berlin, Mr. Ovadyah Lachman.
In 1884, Rabbi Eliezer Gordon was appointed as both the rav (head rabbi) of Telz and its rosh yeshiva ("dean/head of the yeshiva"). Rabbi Gordon was a brilliant Talmudist and expert in Torah law. A student of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, Rabbi Gordon had been appointed by Rabbi Salanter as a maggid shiur (lecturer) in Rabbi Salanter's yeshiva at a young age. He also served as rabbi in Kelm, and for a brief time in Slabodka (a suburb of Kaunas/Kovno known in Lithuanian as Viliampole). Although Rabbi Salanter strongly held that everyone required mussar study, he made an exception for Rav Laizer.
Rabbi Gordon was not satisfied with a yeshiva that served only the younger students in Telz and the vicinity, and set himself to the task of expanding it.
In 1884 Rabbi Gordon added his son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch to the faculty and in 1885 he acquired the talents of Rabbi Shimon Shkop.
Both Rabbi Bloch and Rabbi Shkop were innovators in the field of Jewish education, each pioneering new methods and approaches to the study of the Torah (Hebrew Bible), Talmud and Halakha (Jewish law). Together, their methodical formulae set down the foundation for what became known in the world of Torah study as the Telzer Derekh ( the "Telzer approach").
Rabbi Gordon instituted various innovations, which were cause for a rapid increase in the student body. Among them were designating lectures for specific student levels. Whereas other contemporary yeshivas provided one level of study for all students, Telz provided students with lectures commensurate with a student's age and understanding. When a student's standard had advanced, he would advance to the next shiur (class-level). The benefits of such a system are self-explanatory and this system was soon integrated into the structure of almost all yeshivas and remains the accepted structure in most yeshivas worldwide. There were five different shiurim at Telz; Rabbi Gordon delivered the highest shiur. Telz was especially noted for its ability to develop its talmidim in lomdus. Rabbi Laizer Yudel Finkel once stated that every talmud student would be best off studying at Telz, where he can develop his learning skills, for two years, and then studying in another yeshiva.
The yeshiva was originally housed in a building provided by the Telz community; however, student numbers increased so dramatically that larger premises were called for. Subsequently, in 1894 the yeshiva moved into a new purpose-built building. In the same year, the yeshiva added a new subject of study—mussar ("Jewish ethics"). Prior to this, the study of mussar had been a students' personal prerogative; now, it was a part of the yeshiva curriculum. A new faculty position was created: mussar mashgiach (teacher of ethics). The yeshiva's first mussar mashgiach was Rabbi Ben Zion Kranitz, a student of Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv. Rabbi Kranitz was very mild mannered, and did not force his students to accept the mussar approach. In 1897, however, Rabbi Gordon engaged a new mussar mashgiach—the dynamic Rabbi Leib Chasman, who instituted a very strict mussar regime in the yeshiva. Many of the students opposed this approach, which caused dissent among the student body. Rabbi Chasman later achieved world renown as the senior mussar mashgiach at the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
In 1902, Rabbi Shimon Shkop left the yeshiva to fill the position of rabbi to the community of Breinsk, Lithuania. In 1905 Rabbi Chaim Rabinowitz joined the yeshiva to fill the void left by Rabbi Shkop's departure. Prior to his appointment at Telz, Rabbi Rabinowitz had served as rabbi to the town of Meishad, and later as a maggid shiur ("lecturer") at the Knesses Beis Yitzchak yeshiva in Kovno, Lithuania. As with his predecessor, Rabbi Rabinowitz innovated a unique style of Talmudic analysis, which further added to the yeshiva's reputation.
In 1910, while fundraising for the yeshiva in London, Rabbi Gordon suffered a heart attack and died. His twenty-nine years as head of the yeshiva had seen a small town institution grow into a world-famous center of Talmudic study. He had stamped his imprint onto the lives of hundreds of young men, many of whom were great Talmudists in their own right. Among his students were: Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, Rabbi Zvi Pesach Frank and Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky and others who in turn left their imprint on Jewish society and culture.
Following Rabbi Gordon's passing, his son-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch assumed the mantle of leadership as both rabbi to the community and rosh yeshiva.
Not only was Rabbi Bloch an innovator in the realms of Talmudic analysis, he also possessed a unique approach to Torah study and Jewish philosophy. During Rabbi Gordon's lifetime, Rabbi Bloch had left the yeshiva's direction to him, however, with his elevation to dean of the yeshiva, Rabbi Bloch was free to guide the school in the direction and manner of his choice.
Rabbi Bloch did not regard his obligation to enhance educational standards as being limited to the yeshiva itself, and in 1920, he established in Telz primary schools for both boys and girls. In the same year, Rabbi Bloch added a mechina ("preparatory school" ) to the yeshiva. Previously, older students would tutor younger students who entered the yeshiva but were not up to the standard of the lowest class. The mechina was structured in the same fashion as the yeshiva itself with four levels of classes commensurate with the different levels of student advancement. At the time, the notion of a yeshiva possessing its own preparatory school was novel. Today, however, it has become an accepted norm, something Rabbi Bloch pioneered.
In addition to studying an easier version of the yeshiva curriculum, the mechina also featured secular studies, another innovation at the time. This was cause for opposition from the ranks of many rabbis, who were unaccustomed to the idea of secular studies occupying a position in any form of yeshiva. In 1924, however, the Lithuanian government announced its decision to accredit only those rabbinical colleges that possessed a secular studies department. The Rabbinical College of Telshe was the only such institute. It is to be stressed, though, that secular studies did not occupy a place in the yeshiva itself, but only in its mechina.
1922 saw the founding of a kollel ("postgraduate institute"), the aim of which was to train graduates for the rabbinate. Admission was not easy; a student had to display great promise and the institute soon became known as an exclusive school for higher studies. Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz, a son-in-law of Rabbi Bloch served as dean (rosh hakollel).
In 1918, a teachers training institute had been established in Kovno; however, the seminary did not achieve much success. The faculty of the academy turned to Rabbi Bloch, renowned for his pedagogical prowess, to take it over, and, in 1925 The Yavneh School for the Training of Teachers reopened in Telz under the auspices of The Rabbinical College of Telshe. This served as a postgraduate institute, with the charter of producing teachers for Jewish schools. The curriculum at the teacher's institute included educational skills, Hebrew Bible, Talmud, the Hebrew language and literature and mathematics. The school succeeded in supplying qualified and trained teachers of a high caliber not only to the communities of Lithuania, but also to those of greater Europe.
For many years the Jewish community in Lithuania had lacked a structured educational system for teenage girls. Rabbi Bloch felt that such a concept was called for and in 1927 a high school department for girls was established in Telshe. The school found immediate praise and support from many rabbis and community leaders who saw the immense value that such an institute had to offer.
In 1930, a sister institute to The Yavneh Teacher's Training Institute was opened, offering a two-year course to young women who wished to enter the field of education. Like its counterpart, the female division of the school succeeded in producing many high quality teachers who branched out across Europe.
These various schools were all incorporated as a part of The Rabbinical College of Telshe. Thus, under Rabbi Bloch's leadership, the yeshiva grew to include young primary school students through to qualified professionals, ready to embark on careers in the rabbinate and Jewish education.
A committee was established for the publication of the lectures (shiurim) delivered in the yeshiva and subsequently, the lectures of Rabbi Bloch and Rabbi Rabinowitz were circulated and studied in other yeshivas. The popular acceptance of their novellae in the yeshiva world today, is due much to their circulation in the pre-Holocaust yeshiva world.
In October 1930, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch died, and his second oldest son, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bloch succeeded him as both Rabbi to the community and rosh yeshiva.
At the time of Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch's passing, his son Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bloch was only thirty eight years old; however, he had been lecturing in the yeshiva since 1926 and had already acquired a name as one of the greatest minds in the rabbinic world.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bloch's two brothers: Rabbi Zalman Bloch and Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Bloch also occupied positions within the yeshiva. All remained dedicated to continuing with their father's educational methods and approach.
In 1931, a committee was established in the yeshiva for the furtherance of Jewish education. The committee's goal was to ensure that traditional Jewish education was available to as many Jewish children as possible. The committee saw the organization of schools in small towns where there had previously been little or no structured system of schooling. Older students in the yeshiva were selected to teach for periods of time at these schools, following which, they would return to continue their studies at the yeshiva. In addition to providing many communities at large with new educational options, these schools also gave Telzer students another opportunity for self-development and growth.
Exactly one year and a day after the passing of Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch, Rabbi Chaim Rabinowitz died. Following Rabbi Rabinowitz's death, his son, Rabbi Azriel Rabinowitz was appointed as a rosh yeshiva. Rabbi Azriel Rabinowitz was only twenty-six years old and was already an acclaimed illui ("genius").
In 1933, the yeshiva built a new building to house the mechina ("preparatory school"). Until the onset of World War II, the yeshiva continued to offer traditional Jewish education to all ages. The establishment of schools outside of Telz had furthered this goal.
In 1939 when the Russians entered Lithuania, they eventually closed down the yeshiva. Most of the students dispersed with only about a hundred students remaining there in Telshe. The learning was done in groups of 20-25 students studying in various batai medrashim ("small synagogues") led by the rosh yeshivas.
During the early years of World War II, Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch and Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz were in the United States on a fund raising mission. As the war broke out, their only option to ensure the longevity of the Yeshiva was to transfer the whole yeshiva to American soil. In October 1940, a group of students led by Rabbi Chaim Stein escaped from war-ravaged Lithuania as it was overrun by the Nazis. This daring flight took place on the Sabbath. While travel is ordinarily prohibited on the Sabbath, one must transgress this prohibition in order to save lives and escape great peril. The original faculty, their families and most of the student body who chose to be left behind in Europe, were killed in Lithuania by Nazi forces and Lithuanian collaborators. Escaping to Russia as the war ravaged Eastern Europe, another war was taking place in the Pacific- the very direction that the students led by Rabbi Chaim Stein were headed. The students achieved safe passage via the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the Far East. The group had somehow acquired visas from the renowned Chiune Sugihara, and became beneficiaries of his admirable action to risk his life so many persons from war-torn Europe were given the opportunity to seek refuge elsewhere in the world. Shortly after, the students traveled to Australia. Being that there were some students that were British subjects in possession of British passports- such as Rabbi Shlomo Davis, their visas were granted. Upon arrival in Australia, they were greeted by the small but vibrant Jewish community in Brisbane. As they planned out their next course of action, the group of students reached out to improve the Jewish quality of life among the native Australians. Among this group was Rabbi Chaim Stein, who later became Rosh Yeshiva in Wickliffe, Ohio, Rabbi Shlomo Davis who became a teacher and later a senior administrator for the students registrar (retired and living in Lakewood, New Jersey), and Rabbi Nosson Meir Wachtfogel, who later became mashgiach ruchani of Beth Medrash Gevoha in Lakewood, New Jersey. The local Jewish community, afraid that these scholars would cause a flourishing of orthodoxy, paid for their transit to the US. This group found their way to the United States in early 1941. Once reunited with their Roshei Yeshiva, Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch and Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz, they eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio.
The yeshiva was opened in Cleveland in the house of Yitzchak & Sarah Feigenbaum on 10 November 1941.
In Cleveland, the yeshiva is officially titled the Rabbinical College of Telshe. It consists of a high school, college and post-graduate school. The yeshiva is a non-profit and is accredited through the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools. The yeshiva has a department of secular studies that grants a high school diploma.
In the United States, the yeshiva was led by a faculty including the late Rabbis Elya Meir Bloch, Chaim Mordechai Katz, Boruch Sorotzkin, Mordechai Gifter, Chaim Stein, Aizik Ausband, and Pesach Stein, and now by Rabbi Dovid Goldberg.
Among the well known alumni of the yeshiva are:Ezriel Carlebach (1909–1956), Israeli journalist and editorial writer
Naftoli Carlebach, Orthodox Jewish rabbi and accountant
Nachum Zev Dessler, Cleveland, Ohio
Azriel Goldfein, founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg
Chaim Dov Keller, Chicago, Illinois. Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe Chicago
Zev Leff, Moshav Mattityahu, Israel
Moshe Leib Rabinovich, Brooklyn, New York City. Rebbe of the Munkacz Hasidic dynasty
Chaim Yitzchak Hacohen Bloch, Chief rabbi of Bausk and Plunge
Shlomo Rechnitz, Founder and President of TwinMed
Telshe Chicago. In 1960, the yeshiva opened a branch in Chicago, Illinois. Within 10 years the branch in Chicago became independent of the yeshiva in Cleveland and no longer has an official formal connection to the yeshiva in Cleveland, although informal ties remain close.
Kiryat Ye'arim (Telz-Stone), Israel. In 1977 Rabbi Mordechai Gifter brought a group of 20 students from Cleveland to open a branch of the yeshiva in Kiryat Ye'arim (Telz-Stone), Israel. Classes took place in several apartments. In 1979, when Rabbi Baruch Sorotzkin died, Rabbi Gifter was asked to return to Cleveland and the Israeli branch closed.
Yeshiva of Telshe Alumni. In the early 1980s, Rabbi Avraham Ausband, a grandson of the Telzer Rov Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bloch, was sent to open up the Yeshiva of Telshe Alumni in Riverdale, New York by his Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter.
Birchas Chaim. In 2001 Rabbi Chaim Stein's son, Rabbi Shmuel Zalman Stein, opened Yeshivah Birchas Chaim in Lakewood, NJ.
Mesoras Mordechai. Founded in 2004, this branch is located in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, Israel and headed by Rabbi Tzvi Feuer, a grandson of Rabbi Mordechai Gifter. The Yeshiva has approximately 25 students from the United States, Canada, England and Israel aged 17–21. Mesoras Mordechai has published two issues of its Torah journal, "Kovetz Mesoras Mordechai", containing Torah novelae of previous Telshe Roshei Yeshiva, newly published novelae from Rabbi Gifter, and essays of the yeshiva's teachers and students. Closed in 2009.