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RSholom Eliyahu Vilenkin ah was born and raised in a home saturated with Torah and Chassidus. For many years he learned assiduously in secret yeshivos Tomchei Tmimim. Despite the fear, hunger and enormous difficulties, he devoted himself to Torah study. He later began teaching Torah, despite the great danger involved. * Twenty years since the passing of this Chassid.


R’ Sholom Eliyahu Vilenkin’s parents were Shneur Zalman and Rivka. He was born in Dnepropetrovsk (Yekaterinoslav) in the Ukraine, on 8 Cheshvan 5677/1916.

In his youth, R’ Sholom attended farbrengens that took place in the home of the rav and mekubal, R’ Levi Yitzchok Schneersohn a”h. For years to come he would describe with enthusiasm the great joy at the hakafos on Simchas Torah that took place in the Rebbe’s father’s house.

He was once sent by his father to ask R’ Levi Yitzchok a halachic question: was it permissible to use an iron vessel for mayim sh’lanu? R’ Levi Yitzchok chose to respond based on the teachings of kabbala and said that according to kabbala, we do not use an iron vessel. This is because barzel is an acronym for: Bilha, Rochel, Zilpa, Leah, with the maidservants listed before the Imahos, and this is the opposite of the idea of matza which represents bittul.

The communist revolution began the year he was born. When he was a child, many shuls were shut down and the communists began persecuting those who learned Torah and kept mitzvos. In order to educate the young generation in the spirit of communism, the government forced its citizens to send their children to government schools.

The Rebbe Rayatz fought this decree and ordered his Chassidim not to send their children to communist schools even if this entailed mesirus nefesh. This was an extremely difficult test but R’ Zalman Vilenkin, who was the Rebbe’s melamed, withstood it and did not send his children to school. His daughter Rivka points out that her father, despite not having attended school, knew Russian better than many others who finished university.


In his childhood, Sholom Eliyahu studied at home and his special gifts and talents were already apparent. When he was fifteen, in 1932, despite his young age, he traveled to distant Kursk in Russia where there was a secret branch of Tomchei T’mimim. His older brother Yosef learned there too. Among the talmidim who learned in the yeshiva in Kursk in those days were R’ Meilich Kaplan, later rav in Shikun Chabad in Lud, and R’ Michoel Teitelbaum, founder of Oholei Torah in Crown Heights.

Spiritual life in the yeshiva was wonderful but material life was extremely difficult. This can be seen in the requests for aid that the talmidim sent the Rebbe Rayatz. In a coded letter from 24 Teves 5694, a bachur by the name of Shimon Steinbok wrote:

“Since six workers are working here [six talmidim learning] in holy work [learning Torah], in a proper structure as before, eight hours of Nigleh and four hours of DaCH (Chassidus), as is known to his honor, and our material circumstances are on the lowest level and we are suffering starvation, may Hashem have mercy. Therefore, I ask of his honor with double and redoubled request, to make efforts on our behalf in every possible way and send means [money for food].”

In another letter, Yosef Vilenkin wrote:

“And we request their honors to please try and send to us, since we need it greatly. Another worker joined from Kiev because the other workers took ill, may G-d have mercy V’Dal [at that time, the police closed the yeshiva in Kiev and the talmidim dispersed to other cities and this is what he meant by ‘the workers took ill’]. May G-d protect us from all evil, heaven forfend.”

Despite the starvation prevalent in the yeshiva, the talmidim studied diligently. Testimony to the spiritual state of the Vilenkin brothers can be found in a letter that a Chassid sent to the Rebbe Rayatz, but first the background:

The Vilenkin brothers returned home for Pesach 1934. The Chassid, R’ Moshe Malchin, a Chabad Chassid from Dnepropetrovsk, noticed these talented and elevated T’mimim. He went to their house a few times in order to engage them in discussion in Torah and Chassidus.

A short while later, he wrote to the Rebbe Rayatz:

“I inform the Rebbe that your children, talmidim, the T’mimim in Kursk, the children of R’ Zalman the shochet here in Dnepropetrovsk were here for Pesach. Although they live far away from me, I did not refrain from going to see them four times. Their Torah and avoda are wondrous. May Hashem allow that they increase as such.”

Sholom Vilenkin was gifted and his outstanding diligence and remarkable memory turned him into a scholar and big baki (one greatly knowledgeable). Not surprisingly, when a teacher was needed in Krivoy Rog, he was the one called upon to give shiurim there, as he related many years later:

“While learning in Kursk, I was asked in a letter by the melamed, R’ Yisroel Levin (Lipovitzer), to go to Krivoy Rog since he had to be away for several months and wanted me to take over. So I went to Krivoy Rog and taught the T’mimim.” This was before he turned eighteen.

When he finished his job as a substitute, he went back to learning in Kursk.

In the summer of 5695/1935, another division of Tomchei T’mimim was opened in Voronezh that was meant for older bachurim. Michoel Teitelbaum, Sholom Vilenkin, and Shaul Steinbok learned there. The rest of the talmidim, who were younger, continued to learn in Kursk. R’ Yisroel Levin, who arrived at this yeshiva after Tishrei 5796, related in his memoirs the reason that this division for older bachurim was opened:

“After the holidays, 5796, I went to Voronezh because R’ Yona [Cohen, menahel of the underground Tomchei T’mimim in the Soviet Union in those days] wanted the older bachurim, who would soon be looking into shidduchim, to first receive hashpaa from the Chassid, R’ Betzalel Wilschansky. We learned in Voronezh and R’ Wilschansky farbrenged with us often.”

R’ Betzalel’s influence on the talmidim was powerful. R’ Sholom would refer to him as mori v’rabi for years to come. His son, Berel Vilenkin, said, “My father considered him his primary teacher and described him as a wise Chassid who was expert in Nigleh and Chassidus, a maven of chazanus as well as in worldly matters. The two of them met many years later in Eretz Yisroel.”


On 19 Cheshvan 5696, R’ Sholom wrote to the Rebbe Rayatz about the situation in yeshiva. Parts of the letter were written in code. He said he was learning the laws of sh’chita, among other things (it is interesting to note that his family has no recollection of his ever working as a shochet).

At the end of the letter he wrote that he was learning short maamarim by heart. In those days, there was a severe shortage of s’farim and usually each yeshiva had only a few. This was true for sifrei Nigleh and all the more so for sifrei maamarim which were usually copied by hand. The maamer “V’lokachtem 5683” was the only one he had.

His mother became sick at the end of 5696. He went home for a short visit for Tishrei. When he wanted to return to yeshiva, his mother pleaded with him to stay a bit longer but he wanted to return to his learning. That was the last time he saw his mother for she died on Isru Chag Simchas Torah 5696.


The communist persecution of klei kodesh (religious functionaries) intensified. Within a short time, many of the magidei shiurim and mashpiim were arrested; the situation was dire. The families of those arrested were left bereft of their husband and father, with no spiritual and material support. When things grew worse, R’ Yona Cohen decided to hire older, unmarried students as teachers rather than married men with families.

These older bachurim were called to special meetings with R’ Yona Cohen and R’ Mordechai Eliezer Laptovsky, the menahalim. They informed the bachurim of their new jobs, on the front lines against the winds of heresy.

R’ Sholom attended a meeting that took place in the home of R’ Moshe Katzman (“An impoverished person whose home was open to the T’mimim,” is how R’ Sholom described him).

At the meeting, the bachurim were told that now they would be the magidei shiurim and would also have to look out for the students’ material well-being. They would have to travel once every six months to Malachovka to get money from R’ Zalman Schneersohn or R’ Avrohom Maiyor Drizin. With the little bit of money they would receive, they were told, they would have to take care of food, clothes and places for the bachurim to sleep.

Shortly after the meeting, the bachurim – “Chayolei Beis Dovid” – went to the yeshivos which they would now be running. R’ Sholom was sent to teach in the yeshiva in Odessa.


When R’ Sholom arrived in Odessa, he saw the difficult conditions the bachurim were enduring. Many years later, R’ Sholom was willing to talk a little bit about the yeshiva he ran back then:

“In Cheshvan, the beginning of winter, it became unbearable. I had no money, the talmidim’s shoes were ripped and they filled with water when it rained. I could not bear their suffering although it did not break their spirit.

“Instructions came from the Rebbe Rayatz that every talmid ought to learn the first twelve chapters of Tanya by heart. Despite the cold and hunger, and despite wearing rags and having torn shoes, they all learned the twelve chapters by heart!

“I sent a letter to R’ Elchonon Morosow [the Rebbe’s secretary] in Leningrad and I wrote some sharp things. I described the situation and said we had no money even for bread. A week later, we received 1000 rubles by express mail.”

Obviously, his role entailed great mesirus nefesh, for if the talmidim would be caught, the main punishment would be meted out to him, the one who ran the yeshiva.

The persecutions did not stop; they increased. Following the arrests in the yeshiva in Zhitomir in Adar 1938, the talmidim there transferred to Voronezh. Among the talmidim in the yeshiva in Voronezh at that time were: R’ Moshe Aharon Geisinsky, R’ Berel Kievman, R’ Hillel Pevsner, R’ Michoel Teitelbaum, R’ Moshe Binyamin Kaplan, R’ Moshe Morosow, R’ Yeshaya Gopin, and R’ Tzvi Hirsh Slavin.

R’ Berel Vilenkin told about the arrival of Tzvi Hirsh Slavin to the yeshiva:

“His father was a Misnaged and he lived then in Voronezh. Since there was no Litvishe yeshiva in the area, he wanted to send his son to the local Tomchei T’mimim. Father and son arrived at the shul where the bachurim learned. When they walked in, they saw my father sitting and learning Gemara. At that moment, my father scratched his head with his sleeve. Tzvi’s father saw this and was favorably impressed. He said to his son, ‘See how he learns with holiness and purity, being particular not to touch his head while he learns.’

“R’ Tzvi learned in the yeshiva and became a Chabad Chassid.”

In the summer of 1938, he went with three talmidim, Sholom Ber Pevsner, Refael Wilschansky, and Sholom Morosow to Grafskoye near Voronezh where he learned with them.

For ten years, R’ Sholom learned in various yeshivos Tomchei T’mimim. He immersed himself in learning and rarely visited home. Mesirus nefesh was routine for him but he spoke little of it.

His son Berel explains:

“My father did not talk about himself. He once said that the bachurim walked in the street with t’fillin in their pocket so that if they were arrested, they would be able to put on t’fillin in jail.

“My father had a beard as a young bachur despite the great danger, as having a beard was enough of a crime to be sent to prison.”


In Iyar 5701/1941, R’ Sholom became engaged to Fraida Mariasha, the daughter of Chaim Elozor and Chaya Doba Gorelik of Malachovka. The tenaim were held on Lag B’Omer.

Just one month later, at the end of Sivan, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Within a short time, they had conquered vast sections of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people who feared for their lives, escaped in any possible way. The goal was to flee the burning front.

On 8 Elul, the Goreliks along with the new choson, boarded a train which they rode to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. Thousands of Jewish refugee families, including many Chabad Chassidim, fled there during the war from countries in Eastern Europe.

The connection between R’ Sholom and his family was cut off during the war. He was unable to find out about his father and his family. Two sisters were already married: Chana was married to Lipa Shapiro and Deena was married to Meir Dubroskin. The sisters lived in Leningrad, but when the war broke out they were both vacationing outside the city near Dnepropetrovsk with their father. Meir had been drafted when the war began and Lipa managed to get to Samarkand where he met his brother-in-law Sholom.

Not having any connection with his father, older brother and sisters, his thoughts swung between hope and despair. After a few months of waiting, his father-in-law decided that for reasons of tznius, the choson and kalla could not live in the same city. It was decided that they must marry despite the choson not having any family with him.

R’ Sholom married on Zos Chanuka 5702 with his brother-in-law Lipa representing the choson’s side. The joy of the wedding was tinged with sadness, for both the bride and the groom had relatives and acquaintances in the war zone. In addition, the terrible economic situation did not help matters. The wedding meal consisted of ten Uzbeki pitas, half a kilo (a little over a pound) of meat, and a kilo (2.2 pounds) of rice.

His daughter, Rivka Gorelik, describes the wedding meal as she heard it described:

“During the war, starvation prevailed and bread was rationed. Every citizen had a ration card in exchange for which he could receive a small daily portion of bread. Anyone caught with more than one card, or who had a large quantity of bread, was severely punished.

“Before the wedding, my father somehow managed to get ten Uzbeki pitas. He carried them in the street, hiding them well under his jacket, and hurried home. But he was stopped by a policeman who wanted to see his ID. Then the policeman decided to search him. He soon discovered ten, warm, fresh pitas. My father pleaded with him not to confiscate them since he was getting married that day and this was all he could serve the guests. Miraculously, the policeman believed him, had compassion, and let him go.

“At the wedding, Grandfather R’ Chaim Elozor lit a Chanuka candle over which he said the bracha, ‘l’hadlik ner Chanuka.’ It wasn’t the first night of Chanuka, but due to the scarcity of candles and oil he had only been able to obtain one candle.”

Guests who were refugees from the war attended the wedding. Although the food was limited, they all tried to rejoice. The dancing lasted all night even though most of them did not know the groom. One of the guests, who did not know the groom, heard that the family name is Vilenkin.

“Is your father’s name Zalman?”

“Yes,” said the surprised groom.

“Does he have a son and two daughters?”

The groom said yes.

“I recently saw them in the village of Chamkhaleh in the Caucasus (now part of Iran) on the coast of the Caspian Sea,” said the refugee to the astonished groom.

As soon as the week of rejoicing was over, R’ Lipa Shapiro went to the Caucasian village where he met his wife, father-in-law, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law. He told them that Sholom had just gotten married and he helped them get to Tashkent where the family reunited.


The young couple, Sholom and Mariasha, lived near her parents. They barely eked out a living by textile piece work which they did at home. Despite living with privation, their home was always open to guests.

Their daughter Rivka relates:

“During the war, many Jewish refugees came to Tashkent who had no one to help them. Many of them died of starvation. My parents shared their bread ration with the refugees even though they did not know most of them. There were times they gave away the food they had prepared for themselves and they had nothing to eat that day.

“Once, when I was in 770, a Lubavitcher woman came over to me and hugged and kissed me. She said to me, ‘Your parents saved me. I was starving and on the verge of dying and your parents saved me. I ate with them many times and thanks to them, I was saved.’”

The Vilenkin couple had two children, Rivka and Berel. The war ended in Iyar 1945 and Europe began to lick its war wounds. Russia and Poland signed an agreement in which all the refugees who had fled Poland during the war for the Soviet Union could return to Poland. Many Jews, including many Chassidim, sought documents that showed they were Polish citizens in the hopes that they would be able to leave Soviet Russia for Poland and from there go to Eretz Yisroel or other countries. The Chassidim set up a counterfeiting industry which produced forged documents stating they were Polish citizens.

The border city of Lvov (Lemberg) was the transfer point and many Chassidim went there in order to try and cross the border. R’ Sholom also wanted to go to Lvov with his family. He left Samarkand with his wife and two children and his in-laws.

They traveled through Moscow and then R’ Chaim Elozor suddenly became sick. The family had to tarry in Moscow. Sadly, he passed away on Monday, 9 Kislev 5707.


After the shiva was over, the family traveled to Lvov. When they arrived there, they found out that the night before a train full of Chassidim had left for the border. It turned out that this was the last group of Chassidim who snuck across the border. A short while later, the government uncovered the plot and made numerous arrests.

Mariasha’s family members were arrested one after another: her brother Mendel, her sister Tzipa, and others.

One night the police came and arrested Sholom. Mariasha hid with her baby Berel in a closet. The policemen, who conducted a thorough search of the house, found them and they were taken out. The parents and baby were taken to the headquarters of the secret police where they were ordered to wait.

After hours of waiting, an officer appeared who began yelling at the policeman: What’s going on here? Is this a birthing facility? Why do you bring babies here?

The officer ordered the policeman to help Mariasha take the baby home. She declined his assistance and went home on her own.

Sholom remained under arrest. The interrogator who faced him and threatened him was a Jew named Schwartz. Sholom consistently claimed that he was a citizen of the Ukraine for he came from Dnepropetrovsk, and that he wanted to return home. The interrogators tried to orchestrate a meeting between him and another Chassid who had been arrested for trying to cross the border, in the hopes that they would glean incriminating information from their conversations.

The Chassid, R’ Berel Rickman (who learned with the Rebbe by R’ Sholom’s father, and since they lived in the same town, they knew one another well), told the following in his account of his arrest:

“Once, when I was thirsty, I asked the guard for some water. He brought me water. A few minutes later, the guard opened the door again and there was someone else behind him.

“‘See this man?’ said the guard. ‘He wants water to drink. Give him from the water I just gave you.’ I recognized the man. It was Sholom Vilenkin. As soon as I saw him, I said in Yiddish, ‘I know no one.’ I meant that I would not reveal any names under interrogation. The guard did not understand Yiddish and did not react to what I said.”

Sholom was released a short while later. It was an open miracle.


Chernovitz was the next station in R’ Sholom’s life. He heard that some Chassidishe families had fled from Lvov to Chernovitz in an attempt to escape the long hand of the secret police. He left for Chernovitz with his wife, children and mother-in-law.

For the Chassidim, life under Stalin became unbearable. The persecutions continued to intensify.

For a short period the Vilenkins stayed in the home of the Chassid, R’ Zalman Lebenhartz. Then they moved in with Mrs. Mussia Katzenelenbogen, Mariasha’s sister. Since her husband Shimon had been sent to Siberia, R’ Sholom was a father to his own children as well as to Faiga, Mussia’s daughter.

His daughter Rivka relates:

“We were little girls and my father raised us both as his daughters. I still remember how we would watch the man who always stood on the small hill near our building. We didn’t know who was his prime interest, us or one of those living in the apartment beneath us who had a Zionist son. The latter was exiled to Siberia after he derogatorily joked about the communists to his fellow students.

“The fear that prevailed in those days was palpable… My younger brother Elozor was born. At the bris, my mother was very worried lest we be caught. The fear was so great that she fainted.”

Despite the danger, when Elozor grew older his parents sent him to learn Torah. For a while, the mashpia, R’ Moshe Vishedsky came to their house and taught Berel and Elozor. He was their melamed even though he had just returned from a long exile in Siberia.


In those days, it was hard to find work that enabled one to refrain from showing up on Shabbos. Not surprisingly, there were hard times in which R’ Sholom had no income. For this and other reasons, he and his family returned to Samarkand in 1958. He found work with some Chabad Chassidim who ran a small factory.

Aside from his official work in the morning, he would teach Torah in the afternoon to children of Anash. R’ Sholom would go to their homes and teach Nigleh and Chassidus.

There were occasional farbrengens which breathed life into the Chassidim, even though they were under constant surveillance. The farbrengens took place in a different house each time in order to make it more difficult to uncover them. Still, there were times that the neighbors noticed the unusual gatherings.

Rivka relates:

“One time, when the farbrengen was held in our house, the neighbor said to my mother that she was insulted that a celebration was being held and she wasn’t invited. The Uzbeks are very hospitable and it was only natural, when you made a party of any kind, for you to invite the neighbors.

“My mother simply said, ‘My daughter became of age and a groom was suggested. Last night, the young man and his relatives came to see my daughter and decide if they want her. That is what we do.’ The neighbor accepted this, understanding that she did not belong at such a gathering.

“I was young,” smiled Rivka, “and boruch Hashem, there were many shidduch suggestions, i.e. farbrengens.”

Three years after arriving in Samarkand, the Vilenkin family moved to Tashkent. R’ Sholom had an offer to work in a small factory which his brother-in-law, Mendel Gorelik, ran. This factory made warning signs for factories. All the people who worked there were Chassidim. And of course, they did not work on Shabbos. However, the government occasionally held inspections and the Chassidim had to show up. They found original ways of refraining from working on Shabbos. For example, one time, one of the men on the inspection team asked the workers why they were resting and not working. They said they were waiting for the signs to dry.


A group of bachurim regularly learned in the Vilenkin home in Samarkand. The learning began at seven in the morning and ended at ten at night. They sat in a back room and learned. When a stranger knocked at the door in the middle of the day, Mariasha would greet them loudly, “It’s good you came. You haven’t been here in a long time.” This was the cue for the bachurim who pulled a long string that lowered a thick curtain which covered the entrance to their room. They continued learning quietly until the danger passed. When they weren’t learning, they hid their s’farim in a storage place in the yard.

In the afternoon, R’ Sholom would come home from work, tired but full of chayus. He immediately sat down with the bachurim and began teaching them. One could see that he was energized solely by Torah study. They enjoyed this Chassid who was knowledgeable in Nigleh and Chassidus, for he was proficient in many tractates of Gemara and maamarei Chassidus. His way of learning was through p’shat (the simple meaning).

His son Berel explained:

“My father did not tolerate exegetical acrobatics. He first learned the p’shat with Rashi. He found every word of Rashi important and precious. There was no superfluous word in Rashi. He gave an analogy for this: Reuven sees Shimon take apart his watch and put it back together. On the table some tiny parts remained. ‘Did you lose some pieces?’ asks Reuven. Shimon says no. Reuven smiles and says, ‘If one gear is missing, the watch won’t work because every piece has a function.’

“The same is true for learning. Every word of Rashi is significant. My father taught the talmidim that they first had to know the p’shat and only then could they study the commentaries. With Chassidus too, my father did not appreciate the tendency to materialize Chassidus. He held that in Chassidus there are spiritual concepts and that not everything had to be materialized.”


For many years, R’ Sholom Eliyahu tried to obtain an exit visa from Russia for Eretz Yisroel but was always turned down. His son-in-law (who was also his nephew), R’ Sholom Ber Gorelik, also often asked permission to leave with his wife’s family (sometimes he asked together with his parents) but he was also turned down.

Then finally, they received the authorization for passports with which they could travel abroad. However, they had to pay a lot of money to get the visas. That night, R’ Sholom Ber obtained the necessary money, but when he went to pay, he found out that only the Vilenkin family had received visas.

After a few more weeks of travails, R’ Sholom and his wife, their daughter Rivka, her husband and children, left the Soviet Union. They arrived in Eretz Yisroel on 10 Elul 5731/1971 and settled in Nachalat Har Chabad.

R’ Sholom found a job in a factory in Kiryat Malachi. Work began at seven in the morning but R’ Sholom wanted to learn a lot of Chassidus followed by a slow davening. He would arrive at work at eight even though his salary was decreased accordingly.

For many years, he went on Mivtza T’fillin regularly and enabled many Jews to put on t’fillin.

In 5737, the Rebbe urged the appointment of mashpiim in Chabad communities. He was appointed, along with R’ Michoel Mishulovin, as mashpia in Nachalat Har Chabad. Although at farbrengens he sat in the center, he would rarely speak and when he did, it would be brief.

He was very particular about attending the various shiurim in Kiryat Malachi. Even when his vision deteriorated and he could not read, he continued to learn. R’ Moshe Lerner relates:

“R’ Sholom Vilenkin was a refined, noble person. I attended a Gemara shiur with some others and he sat with us and learned by heart. Nevertheless, he always knew what was what and he even gave his own explanations for the topics we were learning.”

R’ Yosef Yitzchok Friedman adds another perspective:

“I got to know R’ Sholom after I married his sister’s granddaughter and settled in Nachla. For years we learned Chassidus together. His shiurim opened vistas for me since he knew a tremendous amount. He knew what every source on a maamer or sicha was about. When it stated the beginning of a verse from any part of Tanach, he would always complete it.

“Aside from our regular learning during the week, we regularly learned the weekly ‘likut,’ and in later years, the D’var Malchus. When the Rebbe started talking about Moshiach with a big ‘koch’ in 5751, he would sit and learn the sichos with great chayus. R’ Sholom, who was generally a calm, quiet type, was very excited by what the Rebbe said regarding inyanei Moshiach.”

His son Elozor tells the following:

“My father was no longer seeing well and he once came home and said it bothered him that he couldn’t read the signs hanging in shul. These were signs announcing a farbrengen, simchas, and various events. I told him, ‘Ask one of the bachurim standing there anyway and reading the ads, to read them for you.’ He said, ‘Who am I to bother a bachur because I want to know what it says on the signs?’”


Eight months before he passed away, he broke his leg and was confined to bed. It was only after months of suffering that he was able to sit in a wheelchair. Even during these months, he did not waste time and while lying in bed he recited T’hillim by heart.

His daughter Rivka describes his sudden passing, for she was with him:

“He was going to go and daven Mincha. I helped get him ready when I suddenly heard him cry out, ‘Oy,’ and then was silent. I looked at him and was frightened. He had lost consciousness and his color had changed. The doctor who arrived could only inform us of his passing.”

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