Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Iyar 5759 - May 12, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







HaRav Weiss, the Minchas Yitzchok zt'l -- Ten years from his Petirah

by F. Avrohom

Part I

Chazal tell us that when Hashem was creating the world He saw that the tzaddikim would be only a small minority of the overall population and He therefore distributed them throughout the generations. One of these tzaddikim was HaRav Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss zt'l who is popularly known by the name of his sefer of she'eilos uteshuvos, the Minchas Yitzchok.

Even before the Second World War HaRav Weiss was famed throughout Hungary as a talmid chochom of repute and he was consulted by all sections of the community. In the years after the War, when thousands of women waited anxiously for a heter to remarry and release them from being agunos, Rav Weiss came to their rescue and took upon himself the tremendous responsibility to pasken. In his later years, when new technology brought all types of complicated sha'alos, about Shabbos, about ethics, about medical practices and indeed about almost every imaginable sphere of life, HaRav Weiss was consulted and his rulings were accepted throughout the world.

The initial role that the Minchas Yitzchok played in rebuilding Yiddishkeit and directing and deciding how to act, was perhaps best defined by HaRav Weiss himself. In a drosho given at a meeting of rabbonim in England shortly after his arrival there from Hungary after the War, HaRav Weiss spoke about an interesting comment of the Tana, Reb Elozor ben Azariah. The gemora relates that on three occasions after Reb Akiva had expanded on a certain topic in aggada, Reb Elozor ben Azariah stood up and said, "Akiva, why are you delving into aggada? Go back to Nego'im and Oholos." (Nego'im and Oholos have many difficult halachic sha'alos.)

Concerning this gemora HaRav Weiss asked, "What was so terrible if Reb Akiva delved into aggada? Surely the aggada is just as much a part of the Torah as any other section of the Torah?

"To understand Reb Elazar ben Azariah's complaint we have to remember the period in which Reb Akiva lived. It was a time of terrible suffering for Klal Yisroel, and the goyim persecuted the Yidden terribly with harsh decrees and edicts. Reb Akiva was the head of Klal Yisroel and he was the one who had to address all the difficult sha'alos of the time. Thus when Reb Elazar ben Azariah saw that Reb Akiva diverted his attention to something else, he straight away begged him to return to the halocho and not exempt himself from his obligation to rule on the complicated sha'alos which had to be decided.

"Similarly," ended Rav Weiss, "we are now living in a time of anguish, and the problems and sha'alos are many and complicated, but those who are able to pasken them are few indeed. Therefore anyone whom Hashem has granted to be able to pasken and to rule correctly has an obligation to do so. Not only has the war left in its aftermath many difficult issues that need to be solved, but the new inventions and technology has also brought many new types of sha'alos which are waiting for answers. Hashem should give us the siyata diShmaya that we not err."

His Youth

On the eighth of Adar 5662 (1902) Reb Yitzchok Yaakov was born to his father Reb Yosef Yehuda zt'l who was one of the respected talmidei chachomim of the town Delina in Galicia. As a young child he basked in the rays of the Zhiditchover Rebbe of Delina, Reb Yehuda Zvi Eichenstein zt'l. Despite the fact that Reb Yitzchok Yaakov was only seven years old when the Rebbe was niftar, he regarded him as one of his main rebbes and would often recount stories that he remembered from him.

In a haskomo written a year before his petirah, to a sefer from one of the Rebbes of the Zhiditchover dynasty, HaRav Weiss writes, "I remember days gone by from Delina, the town where I was born, and I remember that our town was a praiseworthy community, full of talmidei chachomim and true yirei Hashem. Most of them belonged to the Zhiditchover chassidus and acted and followed the blazing and holy light of the tzaddikim of Zhiditchov. I was still zoche to learn Torah from my master, the great gaon and tzaddik Reb Yehuda Zvi zt'l who was av beis din in Delina."

Reb Yitzchok Yaakov used to have a daily 3 hour chavrusa with his father, during which Reb Yosef Yehuda taught his son the derech that he had acquired from his Rebbe, the Arugas Habosem zt'l. In his introduction to one of his seforim HaRav Weiss lovingly mentions his father, "Who raised me in the path of the Torah and yirah, and spent nights like days to teach me and to guide me to understand the words of our holy Torah."

For many years the two continued their daily chavrusa, and when they were unable to learn together during the day, they would make up the time during the night.

To Hungary

For 13 years Reb Yitzchok Yaakov lived in Delina, until the First World War broke out in 1914 and difficult times came upon the residents of the town. The Russians laid siege to the city and subjected the city to heavy bombardment. Reb Yosef Yehuda decided to seek refuge in Hungary and left Delina for Munkatch, where he had lived until his marriage.

Munkatch was one of the few towns left in Eastern Europe in which the Haskalah had not managed to have much impact. Here, true and authentic Yiddishkeit flourished in every street and corner. The kol HaTorah rang out from its dozens of shuls and shtiblach, day and night. The town was ruled by the famed Rebbe and posek, Reb Chaim Elazar Shapiro who was popularly known by the name of his sefer, "The Minchas Elozor."

HaRav Weiss would often relate with emotion about his childhood years in Munkatch. He considered the town a model of how a kehilla should be. It was a community which had followed the same derech for hundreds of years without any outside interference or influences. In a letter, HaRav Weiss wrote, "The city of Munkatch was a city devoted to Hashem, a city of talmidei chachomim, full of chassidus and pious Jews. Amongst them I saw his holiness like the blazing sun, who was a fortress amongst his people, our master the Minchas Elozor zt'l."

Despite the turmoil in Munkatch from the thousands of refugees who sought safety in its roads and alleyways, Reb Yitzchok Yaakov sat and learned and refused to let anything disturb him. He started to record his chiddushim and even gave some to be published in a number of local Torah journals.

Many decades later HaRav Weiss found these chiddushim worthy of being included in his sefer and he prefaced them with the words, "I'll mention what I wrote regarding this matter, and it is from what has remained from what Hashem granted me in my youth."

By the time he was 15 years old, Reb Yitzchok Yaakov had already attracted the attention of the gedolei hador who predicted a glorious future for him. The Munkatcher Rov, the Minchas Elozor, bestowed semichah on the young boy. Soon after, he also received semichah from the famed posek Reb Meir Arik of Tarna. In addition he also became close to the gaon Reb Shimon Greenfield zt'l who taught him and showed him how to pasken correctly.

At the time Reb Yitzchok Yaakov loved the way of pilpul, and even composed an amazing pilpul in which he proved that all the sayings of Reb Shimon which are scattered throughout Shas have one connecting theme. When Reb Yitzchok Yaakov showed this masterpiece to HaRav Greenfield he told him to disregard the derech of pilpul and instead to devote himself to clarifying the halacha. Indeed HaRav Weiss would say that he owes his fluency in every Pri Megodim in Shulchan Oruch, to HaRav Greenfield who insisted that he become totally familiar with the Pri Megodim's every word.

After the First World War

The First World War left in its wake much misery and destruction. The fighting had claimed many victims and many difficult sha'alos arose: Sha'alos concerning agunos, sha'alos concerning inheritance and many other complicated matters. Although HaRav Weiss was only eighteen years old at the end of the war, he was already a talmid chochom of repute and was therefore qualified to take part in the deliberations which occupied the rabbonim at the war's end. Many years later he once commented to a 19 year old bochur, "You should know that when I was your age, I had already received semichah to be a dayan and to pasken sha'alos of agunos."

In 1922, when Reb Yitzchok turned twenty he received an order to report for military service. Reb Yitzchok Yaakov was hopeful that he would receive a deferment as many others managed, but to his dismay he was conscripted. The decision came as a shock to the people of Munkatch who had great expectations for him.

Reb Yaakov Yitzchok wrote a letter to a friend of his who was a grandson of the Belzer Rebbe, Reb Yissochor Dov Rokach zt'l and asked him to ask his grandfather to give him his brocho that he be saved from the evil decree. Reb Yitzchok Yaakov received a reply in which his friend wrote, "I mentioned you to my zeide the Rebbe shlita, and he inquired greatly about a possible solution how to save you and then he quoted the words of the Mishna, `Whoever accepts on himself the yoke of the Torah is relieved from the yoke of malchus.'"

Reb Yaakov Yitzchok left Munkatch for the neighboring town of Helmin where he "accepted upon himself the yoke of Torah," and he himself once said, "In Helmin I sat in the beis hamedrash for one and a half years, during which time I hardly saw the light of the sun and I learnt with great hasmodoh as I had been instructed by the Belzer Rebbe. I don't know what happened in Munkatch once I left. It seems that the army simply forgot about me!"


As long as the threat of military service hung over his head, Reb Yitzchok Yaakov was unable to get married. But as the years went by and it appeared that they had indeed forgotten about his existence, it was deemed safe for him to get married. And thus in 1928 he became engaged to the daughter of the gaon Reb Pinchos Zimetbaum zt'l who was one of the most prominent rabbonim in Grosswardein, Hungary (Transylvania). Rav Zimetbaum was overjoyed with his new son- in-law, and gave him a large dowry which he deposited in a local bank. Half a year after the chasuna, the bank suddenly declared bankruptcy and went into liquidation.

Concerning that episode, HaRav Weiss would say, "See what would have been if I had entered my shver's household only on account of the large nadin. I would have been left empty-handed! But since my main concern was to marry the daughter of a talmid chochom and to join a house where one can ascend in Torah, tefilla, chassidus and halacha, my gains stayed forever."

It didn't take long for Rav Zimetbaum to recognize the great potential of his son-in-law and he started to groom him for the rabbonus. At first he appointed him to give a drosho every Shabbos at one of the large shuls in Grosswardein. Later on he put him in charge of the kashrus of the mikvaos in the city, a job which required expert knowledge in hilchos mikvaos and also carried with it great responsibility.

HaRav Weiss didn't take his obligations lightly and he totally overhauled the mikvaos in the city until they conformed to the highest standards. He published a booklet (which he later included in his sefer Minchas Yitzchok) which he prefaced with the following words, "Since I have been placed in charge of the mikvaos here, and with the help of Hashem I carry out my job with all my strength, I decided to fulfill my obligation to the utmost and to issue a complete explanation and analysis of the local mikvaos, to clarify every detail according to the halacha."

In addition to the responsa that he wrote concerning local matters in Grosswardein, HaRav Weiss started to write further afield, to answer the many sha'alos which started to arrive from across the country. From his sefer, it is apparent that he already then conducted lengthy correspondence with many of the gedolim of the era, amongst them the famed Rogochover Gaon, Reb Yosef Rosen zt'l and the gaon Reb Aharon Walkin zt'l of Pinsk.

One incident in which HaRav Weiss's strength in halacha was seen by all was when a new eruv was installed in Grosswardein. The new eruv had been built using certain leniencies that not everybody was happy with and, as a result, a major machlokes broke out in the town. HaRav Weiss wrote a thick booklet in which he carefully outlined and explained how to make a few simple changes to the eruv which would then render it satisfactory to all. He sent the booklet to a number of gedolim, who all enthusiastically endorsed his idea.

The gaon and posek Reb Chaim Mordechai Roller zt'l of Romania sent a letter to the kehilla in which he wrote, "The great gaon R' Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss has arisen to calm the storms, has succeeded in issuing a clear ruling and has thereby rendered a great service. Through his great bekius and his deep understanding, he has managed to straighten the crooked and, in his booklet which is totally delightful, he has shown that the eruv is kosher according to all the opinions and even the most orthodox can rely on it without concern, for it has been made with wisdom and da'as Torah according to the halacha."

The Holocaust

By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, HaRav Weiss was already acclaimed as one of the major rabbonim not just in Grosswardein but also in Hungary as a whole. Many talmidim came to him to learn under his guidance and to receive semichah, others came to hear his shiurim which he gave daily in one of the large shuls in Grosswardein. In the kehilla, no matter large or small was decided without him first being consulted.

The outbreak of the Second World War however, brought the glorious and historic kehilla in Grosswardein to a tragic end. Although the Nazis only entered Hungary in 1944, the pro-Nazi government in Hungary did its best to make the lives of the Yidden there a misery even before. In 1941 they decided that any Jew who originated from Poland and was not a Hungarian citizen would be expelled back to Poland. Over 23,000 Yidden were rounded up and handed over to the Nazis who brutally murdered them all.

In Adar 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary and immediately started to erect ghettos into which they settled the Yidden. HaRav Weiss recorded and documented his harrowing trials and tribulations that he experienced in the war, and his miraculous survival, in the first volume of his sefer Minchas Yitzchok in a special section called "Pirsumei Nissa."

Miracles and Wonders

He starts off his account with the following introduction.

"I now prepare my mouth to thank and to praise my Creator with blessings of thanksgiving for the miracles and wonders that he performed for me. A thick book would not be enough to detail all that we endured and how Hashem saved us from the hands of the cursed enemy. Many times we were literally a hairsbreadth away from death, and I thank Hashem for every single step. The Sha'arei Teshuvah quotes the Zohar that whoever merited having a miracle performed for him, should every year remind himself of it and reflect on Hashem's kindness. I also saw that the Rambam would every year ponder and reflect on the anniversary of his own salvation and the following day he would rejoice, and so did other gedolim as well. Therefore I have decided to go in their pattern and to mention at least a small measure of Hashem's kindness and how he looked after me."

It is impossible to fully quote here the entire booklet that he wrote, and we will have to suffice with a few paragraphs. "Sunday the 27th of Adar the bad news spread that the Germans had entered Hungary. A few days later, because we were not zoche, the infamous S.S. entered our city and the evil decrees started immediately. The yellow star was the first decree, in order to identify the Yidden so that they could easily be rounded up for transportation. This decree went into effect already before Pesach. Also they sent around black trucks onto which they loaded whoever they caught in the streets. The seder night and the rest of Pesach we spent hiding in a cellar, for we heard that they were looking for us.

"On the 25th day of the sefirah a ghetto was erected with high walls. Any Yid found outside the ghetto walls was killed immediately. The Yidden from Poland told us that the purpose of the ghetto was to enclose all the Yidden in one spot to make it easier for them to kill us. The local Yidden refused to believe them, but I believed them and I begged Hashem to save me from the hands of the reshoim.

"I heard that the army needed people to cut down trees in the forests and after great efforts I succeeded in securing a place for myself and for my son. Although my son was still young -- only 14 years of age, and why should he have to do such backbreaking work? -- but since I understood what the meaning of the ghetto was, I relied on Hashem that wherever I go my son will also go.

"After a few days we noticed that they appeared very angry with us. The S.S. soldiers hit us with hard blows and we were all loaded onto a truck. We were very frightened and from their anger it appeared that they were about to kill us. We said vidui throughout the journey and davened to Hashem that if our time had come, at least it should be without too much suffering. Eventually we found out that some Yidden had managed to escape from the work unit and this was the reason for their anger. We were transported back to the ghetto in Grosswardein.

"Despite everyone's despair I did not give in. Their cruel and sadistic actions only increased my urgency to escape. I started to think of ways to escape.

"To leave the ghetto was impossible. It was heavily guarded by hundreds of soldiers who carefully watched the ghetto, day and night. The only other option was to remain in the ghetto hidden in a bunker and to put our trust in Hashem. We had nothing to lose. I revealed my plan to a number of people but none of them were very impressed. They didn't believe the plan was feasible. How long could we stay hidden? Where would we get food? Where would we go to afterwards? But I placed my trust in Hashem that He would help us for the best."

On Wednesday the 2nd of Sivan the transports from Grosswardein to Auschwitz began. The second transport was meant to include the block where HaRav Weiss was living and registered. HaRav Weiss decided that the time had come to enter their bunker. The bunker was almost full; only the owner of the cellar still had to come. As the owner and his family were creeping towards the hidden cellar, they were caught by the Germans. The Nazis immediately counted everyone in the block and found that a few were missing. They lined the owner and his family against the wall, cocked their rifles and stated, "If all those missing don't turn up now we will shoot these people immediately."

HaRav Weiss wrote, "You can't imagine the fear that gripped us. We decided that only those whose names were on the lists would leave and perhaps they wouldn't come to search the bunker to see if everyone had left. Our knees were knocking together and we davened until the noise quieted down."

Later that morning HaRav Weiss took his life in his hands and, together with his wife and son, walked boldly towards the gate which was guarded by the soldiers. Their orders were to send anyone in that area to Auschwitz but somehow HaRav Weiss managed to convince them that they didn't belong there and they were lost.

As time went on life in the ghetto became ever more unbearable and dangerous. The Nazis decided to finally liquidate the whole ghetto until it was totally Judenrein. HaRav Weiss and his family joined the bunker of Mr. Elchonon Rothbard (later of Manchester) which was situated in the storehouse of the soap factory that he had previously owned. It had no stores of food or water and depended on the good will of a goy. What's more, the loft was very small even for one family. Now, together with HaRav Weiss (and another family who also joined in), there were 28 people crowded in there without food or drink. During the day it was unbearably hot but it was too dangerous to venture outside. Often the goy on whom they depended for food was scared to come and even when he did come he was not able to bring too much food, thus they steadily grew weaker and weaker from starvation.

For six long weeks the 28 occupants of the bunker stayed cooped up in their tiny loft under inhuman conditions. In addition, they had to sit the whole time in total silence so as not to betray their existence.

HaRav Weiss described this difficult period: "After famine took a grip on us and everyone showed signs of weakness, we sometimes began to forget where we were, until arguments broke out over the smallest sliver of bread, and this endangered the whole bunker. On one occasion we even heard the goyim outside saying that they had heard voices and we had a great zechus that we were not found. With the help of Hashem I tried to keep the peace as much as was humanly possible."

Once the ghetto had finally been liquidated, the Nazis started to re-inhabit the ghetto. The Yidden realized that it would only be a matter of time until the soap factory would start operating again and then they would inevitably be found. They somehow had to leave the bunker and to flee Hungary. This part of the plan was the most risky, because the second they left the security of the bunker they would be instantly recognized as Yidden and killed.

Through the help of the goy who brought them food, they arranged for a taxi to drive right up to the factory where the bunker was situated and then, when they saw that the road was clear, they would dash out from the hideout into the taxi which would take them near the Romanian border. As HaRav Weiss left the storehouse for the taxi he was spotted by a soldier who called out to him to stop. In a panic he ran in the wrong direction and missed the taxi.

In desperation HaRav Weiss headed for the goy's house and hid there in the cellar, hoping that the goy would realize he was there and send the taxi to pick him out. Eventually, after many long hours, the goy realized what had happened and picked HaRav Weiss up.

After a brief stop at the border they were escorted by smugglers on the fifty mile walk through the high mountains that separate Romania from Hungary. On the way they were caught by border police, but through a miracle they did not shoot them as was the norm and contented themselves with just taking all their possessions.

Even when they finally arrived in the relative safety of Romania their troubles were not over and they were arrested by police and thrown into prison -- awaiting deportation back to Hungary. After much persuasion and a large bribe they were finally released and allowed to continue to Bucharest. From the deprivation and the terrible conditions of those months, HaRav Weiss's wife became seriously ill and was niftar on the tenth of Kislev 5745 (1944). From his whole family in Grosswardein before the war, HaRav Weiss was left only with his one son: Reb Berish shlita.

Next Week: Rebuilding after the war.


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