Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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3 Shevat 5759 - Jan. 20, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







HaRav Meir Chodosh -- 10th Yahrtzeit 29th Teves 5759

By Rabbis Yaakov B. Friedman and Aharon Meir Kravitz with Moshe Musman

Introduction: A Vision of Slobodke

HaRav Meir Chodosh, one of the central figures in the yeshiva world in Eretz Yisroel for over half a century, was widely venerated as the senior mashgiach of the generation. A close disciple of the Alter of Slobodke, HaRav Chodosh, embodied the classic Slobodke approach to the study of Torah and of mussar, to character development and to life. He placed the imprint of the tradition which he faithfully transmitted upon the thousands of talmidim who grew and matured over the years in the Chevron Yeshiva and indirectly, upon the even larger numbers in the yeshivos that were founded by his family members and disciples.

To say that HaRav Chodosh was an embodiment of the Slobodke approach may seem to be an oversimplification. No system can be transplanted to a different country, to different times and to different generations and still be applied precisely as before; there has to be adaptation and modification. Yet, inasmuch as the Alter of Slobodke had expounded the fundamentals of his vision of man's innate greatness and the way in which man might realize his full spiritual potential, applying it to the yeshiva world of his day in prewar Eastern Europe, HaRav Chodosh did the same in the nascent yeshiva world of Eretz Yisroel after the war. Though many of the external manifestations of the Alter's approach were the same as the Alter himself employed, the element of innovation lay in the application of the underlying concepts to what was and is, for all intents and purposes, a new world.

Commenting on two seemingly contradictory ma'amorei Chazal about Rabbi Eliezer, one which says that Rabbi Eliezer would say innovative teachings that had never been heard before, while in the other, Rabbi Eliezer himself attested that he never said anything that he had not heard from his teachers, HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt'l, explained that a true talmid is not someone who simply repeats what he has been taught, but someone who can say what his rebbe would have said about a certain topic. If he has assimilated his rebbe's teachings to the extent that he can work out how his rebbe would have approached a matter, he is a true talmid. He may say new things, but he draws them all from his rebbe. Even as an elderly man, when Rav Chodosh began a shmuess with the words, "Ehr flegt zogen, (He used to say)," he was referring to the Alter, whose image and inspiration never left him.

HaRav Chodosh's fidelity to the Alter's teachings can be grasped from the following two anecdotes. The first took place very soon after the young Meir Paritscher's arrival in Slobodke, while the second happened many years later. Between the two of them, they illuminate what took place in the interim.

Arrival in Slobodke

Meir Paritscher arrived in Slobodke before his bar mitzva. On Shabbos afternoons, the Alter would deliver a shmuess for the older bochurim, which the new arrival desperately wanted to hear, despite the problem of his age. He used to enter the yeshiva's library, which adjoined the room where the shmuess was delivered, and when it grew dark, he would stand at the back and listen, thinking that the Alter did not notice him. When he spoke to the Alter at Succos however, the latter asked him to repeat what he'd heard during the Elul zeman, meaning in the Shabbos shmuessen that the Alter had seen him attend.

Summing up the central idea of all the shmuessen in one succinct sentence of his own, the young bochur replied that, "The service of Hashem contained within one's interpersonal dealings is even greater than the service of Hashem that one does by serving Hashem directly."

The Alter sharply rebuked him, "So, you've already become a savant and are formulating your own sayings! People will say that you're an heretic. You should stick to what Chazal say."

The Alter then asked him to repeat only what he actually had heard him say in the shmuessen. He expressed his great satisfaction with his new talmid's second response.

This experience left a deep impression upon the bochur and from that day on, he was very careful to repeat only what his rebbe had said, exactly as he heard him say it.

How He Would Behave

The extent to which HaRav Chodosh absorbed the Alter's speech, thought and method over their years together is evident from the second incident, which took place many years later. A group of Chevron talmidim were sitting once with HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt'l, another alumnus of Slobodke, who spent a long time describing the Alter and his teachings to them. Reb Yaakov even demonstrated the Alter's movements, his pronunciation, his manner of speech, his expression and his smile.

When they left Reb Yaakov, the bochurim expressed their utter astonishment; Reb Yaakov's portrayal matched the mashgiach's appearance and manner precisely! Reb Yaakov himself also made a comment to this effect after meeting HaRav Chodosh on one of his visits to Eretz Yisroel.

And when someone remarked to Rav Dov Katz zt'l, another Slobodke alumnus, and author of the work Tenuas Hamussar, that, "When one closes one's eyes and listens to the mashgiach, one really thinks that the Alter is standing in front of us!"

He responded, "As for me, even with my eyes open I see the Alter before me, in every respect!"

To those at all acquainted with the Alter's approach and personality, the very idea of his educational outlook being replicated probably seems utterly incongruous. Another close talmid, HaRav Yitzchok Yaakov Ruderman zt'l, rosh yeshiva of Ner Yisroel in Baltimore (on having occasion to defend his policy of nonintervention with a colleague's disciplining policy that differed radically from his own), recalled the following about the Alter. "The Alter taught that each person must be allowed to develop his own personality. If I force my opinions on someone else, he will lose his individuality. He will never realize his full potential. Instead, he'll become dispirited and will fade. The Alter said that many stars were extinguished only because others tried to impose on them patterns of behavior that went against their own unique personalities. It is impossible to ask everybody to fit into the same pattern. A person must become what he himself truly is, not what others would like him to be."

To employ this argument in the case of HaRav Chodosh however, and his apparent self-negation before the Alter's methods, would be missing the point. The Alter's admonishment to his precocious young talmid that he concentrate upon repeating exactly what he had heard from his teachers was surely meant as a means of enabling him to direct his gifts of mind and character towards a constructive end, rather than to quash the development of his own individuality. It was the talmid who subsequently cleaved heart and soul to his rebbe, not the rebbe who forced his own stamp upon the talmid. As the later paragraphs will show, the Alter himself came to regard Meir Chodosh as a truly faithful embodiment and expositor of his teachings.

It should also be pointed out that the Alter's comments to bochurim were carefully directed. The Alter sized them up with great accuracy and foresight, and his subsequent dealings with them reflected these judgments, as illustrated here by two stories which Rav Chodosh would tell.

An extremely gifted bochur once arrived in Slobodke, seeking admission to the yeshiva and bearing a letter of approbation from his rosh yeshiva. After speaking with him, the Alter asked the bochur to leave the room and said to Rav Chodosh, "How can someone write such a letter about him, when he lacks elementary understanding?"

"I didn't notice anything [untoward] about him," Rav Chodosh said.

"Didn't you see how he licked the sugar from the table? He has no understanding!" And ultimately, nothing became of that bochur.

On another occasion, another very gifted young bochur arrived in the yeshiva, and was assigned by the Alter to a va'ad of older bochurim. Rav Chodosh was despatched to the Alter to register the older members' displeasure at the youngster's inclusion in their group. The Alter told his talmid, "This bochur has incredible potential and he will develop into a very great man." And so it was. The young genius grew to become one of the gedolei Yisroel.

The vitality which the Alter's ideas had injected into his students thus yielded rich harvests in subsequent years, as each achieved greatness in his own way, each of them reflecting the brilliance of the Alter's illumination through his own soul. However, the voice and the message of the Alter himself continued to be heard from the lips of HaRav Meir Chodosh.

Years of Growth: From Slobodke to Chevron

Rav Meir was born on the twenty-seventh of Shevat 5658 (1898) in Paritsch, a town in the vicinity of Minsk. When aged eleven, he travelled to learn in the yeshiva of Shklov, returning home after a year. He was taken to Slobodke several months before his bar mitzva by a cousin who was learning there.

The mashgiach, HaRav Hirsch Heller zt'l was annoyed with the older bochur for having brought a mere child with him to the yeshiva. Nevertheless, Meir remained and spent three weeks reviewing maseches Kiddushin in anticipation of the test which would determine whether or not he would be accepted to the yeshiva. At the test, the mashgiach was very impressed by the boy's exceptional abilities and he accepted him immediately.

Rav Meir would say that because he was ashamed of his young age, he told nobody at the time he became bar mitzva. When the mashgiach found out about this a few days later, he rebuked Meir for his silence and honored him with an aliya.

It was not until some time after his arrival in Slobodke (how long is unclear), that he attained `full membership' status. Prior to this, he found accommodation at night in a shoemaker's workshop. Besides the use of his premises, in his later years Rav Meir would explain that he owed the shoemaker a debt of gratitude for making it necessary for him to develop his powers of concentration.

As the shoemaker was a poor man and had a large family to support, he had to work at his craft until late at night. The noise of his hammer banging and the sewing machine at work were enough to banish all sleep, but Meir trained himself to sleep there each night for as long as he needed to ensure that his head would be clear for learning the next day. Throughout his life, he retained the ability to ignore all kinds of noise and tumult around him and concentrate solely upon what he was learning.

The older bochurim were assigned a stipend from which they were able to meet their material needs. Despite his junior years, Meir was immediately allotted a stipend of one ruble, which was later raised to two rubles, quite an amount for his situation. He did not mention this to anyone however, for fear of arousing jealousy.

Even for a bochur who received two rubles, living conditions were vastly different from those in today's yeshivos. When HaRav Yitzchok Yaakov Ruderman zt'l, visited Eretz Yisroel, he called upon Rav Chodosh, with whom he had learned in Slobodke. In the course of their conversation, HaRav Ruderman pointed out that although bochurim complain about the conditions in yeshiva, things are far better today than they were then, when he remembered subsisting on a diet of bread and olives. Rav Chodosh commented that even that was only the lot of the fortunate few. Rebbetzin Chodosh recalled her husband having told her that he used to buy a loaf of bread and keep it a day before eating it, for when the bread was older, it better satisfied the hunger.

During his first zeman in Slobodke, Meir mastered Kiddushin, Bovo Basra and Shavuos. He liked describing how the "pastime" of bochurim then was the well known "pin test," where a pin was put through several pages of a gemora and the contestant's task was to recall the words that the pin pierced on subsequent pages after being told the word it pierced on the first page.

R' Meir's brother, HaRav Dovid Chodosh recalled that when they learned together, they agreed to cover twenty new blatt of gemora in a day, in addition to reviewing thirty that they had already learned. He said that Rav Meir had kept up the pace but that he had not been able to. Rav Dovid said that in those days, it had been expected that Meir would become a rosh yeshiva and he a mashgiach, whereas in the event, it was the other way around.

Rav Chodosh once related that on one occasion, HaRav Avrohom Grodzinsky zt'l, the mashgiach of Slobodke, spent seven hours discussing the topic of engaging in uninterrupted Torah thoughts with him. Following this talk, he said, he had indeed not removed his thoughts from Torah. Four months passed in this way until he was walking in the street when a great commotion erupted: a merchant had been caught trying to smuggle produce in his cart. Reb Meir looked on and after a moment checked himself. The posuk, `This one came to dwell and he has begun to judge . . . " suddenly came into his mind and he realized -- he was not to allow his thoughts to be diverted from Torah!

After learning in Slobodke for two and a half years, Meir returned to Paritsch to visit his mother. During the visit, she passed away. His father was away in America at that time. The First World War broke out, bringing with it bitter troubles for Eastern European Jewry. The burden of responsibility for his brother and sister (who at the time of Rev Meir's petirah ten years ago was still living in Leningrad), fell upon Meir's shoulders.

Because of the war, Knesses Yisroel was exiled to nearby Minsk and Meir was nonetheless able to rejoin it. He then travelled with the yeshiva to Kremenchug, in the Ukraine. Although the yeshiva endured many hardships and dangers during this period, the memory of those days remained among Slobodke alumni as a time of spiritual growth and flourish. It is said that Kremenchug acted as a refining crucible for the Slobodke yeshiva in the same way that Shanghai was later to do for Mir.

At the war's end, Rav Meir remained on in Kremenchug after the yeshiva had returned to Slobodke, in order to arrange his sister's marriage. During this time, Rev Meir learned together with HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt'l, whose yeshiva, Knesses Beis Yitzchok had also been exiled to Kremenchug because of the war. Reb Boruch Ber prepared his shiurim on Yevomos with Rav Meir and during that period, the two of them also experienced some of the hardest times the yeshiva world had ever known (due to the Russian Civil War which raged on until 1921).

His Closeness to the Alter

The deep impression made upon Rav Meir by the Alter's admonition that he repeat faithfully what he heard his teachers say, led him to attach himself to the Alter heart and soul. HaRav Yechezkel Sarna zt'l, (a son-in-law of HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, who headed the Chevron Yeshiva in Yerushalayim) likened Rav Chodosh's closeness to his great rebbe to the closeness of Yehoshua bin Nun to Moshe Rabbenu. The Alter reciprocated the attachment and in time, R' Meir grew to become his confidante and his emissary in running the yeshiva.

At one time, the two had a chavrusa to learn Tur together. As a bochur, Reb Meir once accompanied the Alter on a yom tov visit to HaRav Alexander Moshe Lapidus zt'l, rav of Rasein. A discussion got underway over whether, in an argument between a chorif (a sharp witted scholar) and a boki (one who possesses very wide knowledge) over a matter of pure conjecture to which no proof could be adduced from Shas, preference was to be given to the ideas of the former or the latter. Reb Meir pointed out that a conclusive proof to this question could be brought from Tosafos on Eruvin 40 (beginning, Ada'atah deculhu).

The Alter regarded Reb Meir as a prime specimen of the traits he sought to develop in his yeshiva. HaRav Zevulun Graz zt'l, who served as av beis din of Rechovot, related that a month after he had arrived to learn in Slobodke, the Alter came over to him and asked him, "Have you seen Slobodke?"

"Yes, I have," Reb Zevulun replied, somewhat baffled.

"And have you met unzereh (our own)?" the Alter continued.

Reb Zevulun gave the Alter a look of puzzlement. To whom was he referring?

The Alter said, "Have you spent time with Reb Meir?" as much as to say, "If not, then you haven't seen Slobodke!"

A Seed for the Future: Early Years in Eretz Yisroel

In the summer of 5685 (1925), Rav Meir accompanied the Alter on the journey to Eretz Yisroel, to join the yeshiva which had been founded a year earlier in Chevron. He waited to travel with the last group that left, so as to remain at the side of the Alter, who said that he wanted to defer his trip until after Rosh Hashanah, so that he could pray for their success before they set out.

Meir Chodosh was regarded as one of the most distinguished bochurim in the yeshiva and he even delivered his own va'adim. HaRav S. Greineman related that the Chazon Ish asked to see the notes he wrote of the first va'ad which Reb Meir delivered. After perusing them, the Chazon Ish remarked that a great mashgiach was developing before them.

Following a shmuess from the Alter, the beis hamedrash would buzz with discussion as the bochurim gathered in groups to debate what they had heard. In the middle, the largest and choicest group would gather around Reb Meir.

Those who learned in Chevron said that the yeshiva was run by three of the older bochurim: Meir Chodosh, Berel Yanover (Rav Dov Zochovsky) and Yitzchok Meir Patziner (Rav Yitzchok Meir ben Menachem) zt'l.

Reb Meir was one of the two bochurim who reported regularly to the Alter on the progress of the bochurim. The Alter only wanted to hear about the good points of each bochur; this sufficed to inform him of their general progress.

In Chevron, Reb Meir had a chavrusa with Yitzchok Meir Patziner, in which they learned Nego'im and Oholos, two of the hardest masechtos in Seder Taharos, in all of which Rav Meir was very fluent. When, as mashgiach of Chevron, he spied a bochur who belonged to a group that was learning Oholos leaving the yeshiva's library, he asked him which sefer he had. Upon hearing that it was one of the commentaries of the later acharonim on those masechtos, he remarked, "We did not need to use [such] a sefer; we were able to manage without it."

He repeated this position on other occasions: in his time, they had not found it necessary to use the seforim of the recent acharonim, for they had discovered the major points for deliberation and discussion in the course of their own learning.

In 5688 (1928), the year before the tragic pogrom in Chevron, Rav Chodosh married Rebbetzin Tzvia Leah, daughter of HaRav Naftoli Hutner zt'l, rav of Eishishok, who had made her own way to Eretz Yisroel. She had been living in the home of her uncle, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein zt'l, the rosh yeshiva.

After his marriage, Rev Meir was appointed as a maggid shiur in the yeshiva and served as one of the spiritual overseers, alongside HaRav Yehuda Leib Chasman zt'l. After HaRav Chasman's petirah, he was appointed mashgiach.

During the Chevron riot in Av 5689 (1929), Rav and Rebbetzin Chodosh took refuge in the home of Rav Eliezer Don Slonim. Their lives were miraculously saved when they hid beneath the bloodstained bodies of murdered Jews. The Arab marauders assumed that they too, were dead and left them alone.

Following the Chevron massacre, the yeshiva relocated to Yerushalayim. Rav Meir would relate that after the move there were some who told him that there were those who did not regard the newcomers favorably. Indeed, the yeshiva had not settled initially in Yerushalayim because of the great contrast between the dress and manner of the bochurim and the way of the life of the old yishuv. Amongst them were some of Yerushalayim's greatest sages, such as HaRav Alfandri zt'l, and HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld zt'l.

"The truth was precisely the opposite!" Rav Chodosh would maintain. "They would stand up for every Chevroner who came in to see them."

On yomim tovim, Rav Meir would go with a large group of distinguished talmidei chachomim to visit HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l and halacha and agadah would be debated, with Reb Meir posing questions and resolving them. When the visitors left, one of the great roshei yeshiva who was present said that Rav Meir had spoken better than any of them.

Several years after the yeshiva moved, Rav Meir was offered a position as rosh yeshiva of a new yeshiva in Warsaw, which HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel zt'l (the rosh yeshiva of Mir and a son of the Alter of Slobodke), intended to establish. Rebbetzin Chodosh was firmly opposed to this plan.

When she travelled around that time to Poland to visit her parents, the Chofetz Chaim zt'l, passed away and she went to his levaya. Following the levaya, she was called to come to the Chofetz Chaim's home, where she found a gathering of all the geonim of Poland and Lithuania, presided over by HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky zt'l. HaRav Mishkovsky zt'l, rav of Kriniki and one of Reb Chaim Ozer's confidants asked her to retract her opposition to her husband's departure for Poland. She, however, reiterated her position and would not agree. Years later, following the churban which befell European Jewry, the rav of Kriniki, who managed to escape, took up residence next to the yeshiva. He commented to the rebbetzin, "You were right, not we. You bested us."

End of Part I


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