Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Nisan 5759 - March 24, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly

















Home and Family
Seder by R' Elchonon Wasserman
English rendition: Sheindel Weinbach

Chapter Twenty-Eight is the second part of a translation done for Yated-English from the book "Halaila Einenu Ofel - The Night is Not Dark", a memoir of her grandfather's early years in the yeshivos of Europe, written by Yehudit Golan, published by Feldheim. [We recommend reading the original in not-too-difficult and very fascinating narrative.]

We previously found young Yitzchok'l (today the noted Rosh Kollel of Etz Yosef, R' Yitzchok Eliyohu Bernstein shlita) in a quandary. His hard-earned money had been confiscated by his brothers and he did not have the fare to return home for Pesach. He buries his woes in intensive study and his diligence is noted by the Rosh Yeshiva, R' Elchonon Wasserman Hy'd, who invites him to his seder. Yitzchok returned to his room, this time alone, to pass the remaining three days before Pesach in study, eating with friends who lived in Baranowitz, among them, Shlomo Levine, who also subsequently became a noted talmid chochom and Mendel Kaplan, today Rosh Yeshivas Heichal HaTorah in America.

Erev Pesach arrived. Baranowitz was transformed into a sparkling clean town in honor of the approaching festival. In all homes, people were bustling with last-minute preparations. Heady spring perfumes mingled with the smells of soap and here and there one could already detect the pleasant smell of food cooking: soup, meat, fish...

Yitzchok'l was anxious. Would R' Elchonon remember his promise? He had extended the invitation two weeks earlier, but nothing had been mentioned in the interim. What if he had forgotten?

Yitzchok'l did not dare ask, nor did he make any provisions for another place for the seder. He, himself, did not have a thing, neither wine nor matzos...

The sun slipped westward and in the yeshiva, maariv was on the threshold. Everyone looked magnificent, like angels. R' Elchonon also took his place.

Yitzchok'l's heart pounded. If R' Elchonon did not beckon to him, he would remain all alone, alone in this world of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and would have to rely on some householder's kindness in gathering him into his home.

The prayers were about to end. Yitzchok'l stole a sideward glance at R' Elchonon. They were already saying Adon Olom... R' Elchonon turned around, searching for someone with his eyes. Then, with measured step, he strode purposefully... yes, straight towards him!

"Yitzchok'l, gey mit mir." Yes, he explicitly said it. Yitzchok'l's heart, which had skipped a beat, now made up for it by pounding excessively. His soul was revived at this very moment. R' Elchonon had not forgotten!

The walk from the yeshiva, on Ovira St., took ten minutes. Yitzchok'l walked behind R' Elchonon, a wave of emotions engulfing him. He was the only one from all of the yeshiva students who was privileged to be invited this year to R' Elchonon's home! Who could compare to him!

They arrived.

Yitzchok'l stood in the doorway. The long table was covered with a snowy-white cloth, ironed stiff. Tall candles graced the table. Everything was so immaculately clean! Utter silence reigned. A fly in the room would have been disconsonately audible!

R' Elchonon's two young sons, Naftoli and Leibel, sat by the table in silence. The Rebbetzin, daughter of R' Atlas and sister-in-law of R' Chaim Ozer, also sat mute. Yitzchok'l took his seat, next to R' Elchonon's sons, waiting for the Rosh Yeshiva, who entered the room a few moments later. R' Elchonon, solemn and somber, took his place at the head of the table and began conducting the seder.

Yitzchok'l was expecting singing, like at home, all the children together, lebedik...

But R' Elchonon began in a severe, measured voice, in Yiddish, and announced: "It is exactly now three thousand, three hundred and... years since we left Egypt, and we are still celebrating this liberation and the joy which we were privileged to merit then, at the exodus."

He then immediately began the Kadesh and proceeded with the Hagaddah, adding and explaining very sparsely, in an even, unmodulated tone throughout.

R' Elchonon explained the Haggadah according to its simple pshat! He began with "In the beginning, our ancestors..." and continued on, according to the text, without dwelling on any points or interjecting any midrashim or commentaries. Wherever he noticed that something seemed obscure, he would add two words in Yiddish which illuminated the entire matter with amazing clarity.

And then he reached the words, "Rabboseinu, the time has come for kriyas shema shel shacharis." He paused and asked, "How can it be that these Sages did not know by themselves that the time had come to recite shema? Why did they wait for their disciples to tell them?"

He explained: "If one studies Torah, he is absolved of all other mitzvos until the very last minute that one can still perform them. Then, when one reaches the final moment, one stops Torah study to recite the shema."

Grandfather remembers the succeeding words as if he were hearing them at this very moment. "Shlomo Hamelech likewise said: `Whoever removes his ear from hearing Torah, his prayer is also despised.'

"What does this mean? That if Torah scholars are engaged in study, and one of those gathered says, `I must leave now because of the obligation for prayer,' then his prayer is abominated, because it is forbidden to interrupt Torah study for prayer."

He continued and said that the Vilna Gaon (and, incidentally, R' Elchonon's disciples also referred to their master by the acronym Gra) asks: "Why is his prayer abominable?"

He explained by asking, "How does it come about that someone does not wish to hear words of Torah? In a yeshiva, it can happen that students may have heard this shiur the previous year and don't wish to hear it repeated. In this case, their prayers are likewise worthless, for did they not pray yesterday? Why pray again, with the same words, today? What's the difference?"

He concluded, "This is why those Torah Sages assembled in Bnei Brak were in no hurry to interrupt their study."

This was the only dvar Torah which R' Elchonon said at that seder table.

The reciting of the Haggadah was conducted without singing, while those at the table listened in solemn silence, without uttering a syllable.

When the time came for shulchan orech, the Rebbetzin disappeared for a moment and returned with laden hands. Everything had been prepared in advance, as if angels had done the work. In a flash, the laden platers were placed on the table.

The singular seder of R' Elchonon would forever be engraved upon Yitzchok'l's memory. It was not a table of people who ate and drank; it was like angels partaking of heavenly fare. The family members sat opposite R' Elchonon in solemn awe, in holiness. And whenever they looked directly at him and how he bore himself, at his motions and nuances, they would shudder with sacred reverence.

The act of eating in R' Elchonon's home was conducted with extraordinary decorum (R' Elchonon came from Latvia, where comportment was precise and `Yekkish'). No one took a second portion. Everyone had a full setting of whatever was required, and they all ate in silence until they finished.

After the meal, they continued on with the Haggadah. They said birkas hamozon and recited Chad Gadya and Echod Mi Yodaia in unison, without melody, with R' Elchonon's voice leading in a measured tempo, "Chad Gadyo, chad gadyo..." until the end.

The entire seder from beginning to end did not take very long, perhaps two and a half hours. When it was over, R' Elchonon rose from his seat and retired to a small study.


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