Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Av 5760 - August 23, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







We Knew The Steipler Gaon, Zt'l -- 25th Av 5760, His Fifteenth Yahrtzeit

by M. Musman

Introduction: Gone But Still With Us

Is there a need, now that fifteen years have passed, to describe the Steipler, zt'l? Our first reaction is: No! Does the memory of a godol of his stature, to whom all were bound, fade from our hearts and minds over such a short time span?! Those who were close to him, who are now themselves among the elders, recorded their impressions and conveyed his ideas at length. Others, amongst whom are the teachers and leaders of our generation, who had the opportunity to visit him, and who at any rate used to hear about him as one of the contemporary gedolim, have their own impressions to draw upon. He can never be forgotten by any of them as long as they live. However, the generation now reaching adulthood has no personal memories of him at all. For them, like it or not, he is part of history, albeit recent, but history nevertheless.

Yet, all of us without exception are living in a Jewish world that he played a major role in shaping. Although he held no public post or position, his was the last word on the myriad private and communal issues that were brought before him. All of us, to whatever degree, live our lives according to the ageless ideals which he passed on to us. He was one of the gedolim to whom Klal Yisroel are instinctively drawn, and upon whose head they thereby place an invisible but universally acknowledged crown of leadership. He was thus, and will forever remain, part of all of us.

His was a vital, pulsing yiroh, that struck a chord in the souls of Klal Yisroel's faithful, and bade them hearken. It was the stuff out of which the talmidim of Novardok, amongst whom he was numbered in his youth, built up an empire of yeshivos in prewar Russia and Poland. Although Novardok did not undergo the same degree of postwar regeneration by descendants and talmidim as the other mussar yeshivos did, the Steipler was one of the most powerful single forces that emanated from any of them, to impact on the renascent Jewish world.

His kedusha was palpable. He avoided anything that was in the slightest unseemly or whose permissibility was in the slightest way called into question. He distanced himself from all possible sources of uncleanliness. He sprang back, as though physically assailed, from any unexpected encounter with something Chazal taught should be avoided. The mere prospect of unwittingly transgressing an aveiro, though he was alerted in time to avoid it, caused him hours of discomfort and distress.

He loved his fellow Jew and gave freely of his time to all who came to him in search of advice, comfort, solace and guidance. He shared their pain and directed them as to how to achieve whatever relief or comfort that was possible. He was approached on all subjects from the most serious to the trivial, but as long as he saw that a petitioner was genuine, he would devote hours responding to whatever concerned him. Time and again, events unfolded according to the precise wording of his replies. Everyone knew that an answer from the Steipler was in truth a message from Heaven.

His humility extended as far as his greatness, and then some. To those entrenched in a world of falsehood, the way he wrote and spoke about himself might bring a smile of understanding to the lips or evoke a shudder of respect, but for him, every word of it was the utter truth. He was genuinely unable to understand what there was about him that made people want to accord him the honor that so greatly pained him.

Despite his perception of his own worth, he never faltered when it came to articulating a response to a challenge to the integrity of Torah and Torah leadership in Klal Yisroel. Together with ylct'a HaRav Shach, he worked to strengthen the growing Torah camp, to have its voice clearly heard, and to rebuff all attempts to sully its purity. His soul was repulsed by evil, even if it tried to disguise itself under the mantle of unity, compassion or some other worthy ideal. His heart swelled when truth was compromised, and the words which emanated from his throat and flowed from his pen in consequence were acknowledged by all faithful Jews to be those of the Shechina.

And the beginning and the end of it all was Torah. Torah was all he had ever had and Torah made him everything that he was. The stories of his total immersion in Torah study as a youth are legendary and he maintained the same level of commitment throughout his life.

His seforim became contemporary classics; his chiddushim on virtually every part of Shas are studied by bnei Torah the world over; his guidance and advice to aspiring talmidei chachomim, young and old, were circulated in yeshivos and are still widely publicized. He personally honored all bnei Torah, great and small alike. He taught that single-minded devotion to Torah study was both the path to personal growth and fulfillment as well as the only balm for the generation's many ills. He worked to see Torah grow and flourish, which it did in his lifetime and has continued to do since.

The Torah world that he left pained and bereft fifteen years ago is undoubtedly larger and stronger than ever, yet there is much that we still have to learn from him and his life. Reviewing his teachings and reexamining his life are the best ways of knowing what his advice to us would be today.

Glimpses of the Steipler

This article and its sequel could scarcely contain all that such a review ought to convey. The best places to find the Steipler's teachings and the story of his life are his own seforim, Sha'arei Tevunoh, Chayei Olom and Bircas Peretz and the numerous others that have been published about him in the last fifteen years. The first volume of personal recollections, Halichos Vehanhogos Mimoron Ba'al HaKehillos Yaakov, which was written by two talmidei chachomim who were close to him, appeared within a year of his petirah. It has been joined over the years by many other similar works such as Karaino De'igarto, a collection of his letters, the multi-volumed Orchos Rabbeinu, containing halachic rulings as well as stories and historical vignettes both from and about the Steipler and the Chazon Ish, the volumes of Peninei Rabbeinu HaKehillos Yaakov, the biographical Chomas Eish (translated into English as Pillar of Fire) and others.

To mark the tenth yahrtzeit, Rabbi Avrohom Yeshayohu Kanievsky, a grandson of the Steipler (and son of ylct"a HaRav Chaim Kanievsky), published Toldos Yaakov. Drawing upon his own memories, what he heard from his father, family members and other reliable witnesses, as well as the letters and published works of and about the Steipler, he wrote what is probably the most comprehensive and the most accurate book of all (though of course every individual adds his own unique perspective). In his introduction, the author notes that he wrote with great brevity (which greatly increases the impact), and tried to include only things that would be of educational benefit. A large amount of material was left out, he says, either because he was unable to vouch for its accuracy, or for its benefit to the reader.

The book certainly achieves its aim, to serve as a work of mussar. To open it and read any page is to be connected to a world of holiness, purity and love of Torah, that awakens a strong yearning within the reader's heart to strive to retain the connection.

For our articles marking the Steipler's fifteenth yahrtzeit, we present personal glimpses of him through the eyes of people who knew him at different periods of his life. The articles are rounded off with a more topical then ever selection of quotes from the Steipler on the differences between present day generations and previous ones, and on raising and educating children. Other material will also be included, as space permits.

Contemplating His Footsteps

By HaRav Ben Tzion Bruk, zt'l

Just seven weeks after the Steipler's petirah, on the fourteenth of Tishrei 5746, HaRav Ben Zion Bruk, who was some five years his junior, was also niftar. The connection between these two gedolim extended back to HaRav Bruk's childhood in Rogatschov. The Alter of Novardok had established a yeshiva ketana there and in 5678 (1918), he dispatched his talmid, Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, who was then just nineteen years old, to lead and guide the yeshiva. HaRav Bruk was one of the first talmidim in the yeshiva.

Years later, as an elderly man, HaRav Bruk used to spend Pesach in Bnei Brak, and he would visit the Steipler. On one of those visits, when HaRav Bruk was accompanied by his son, the Steipler remarked that the former's father had been, "one of the best and most distinguished of the bochurim." After the Steipler was niftar, HaRav Bruk would occasionally burst out crying and there was scarcely a mussar shmuess when he did not mention him. He told stories about him that were not generally known and many used to visit him to hear about the Steipler, regarding which HaRav Bruk remarked, "It's very important to recount and to reveal his worth." The following (very slightly rearranged) is part of the hesped which HaRav Bruk delivered for the rebbe of his youth:

At that time, it was customary even for senior bochurim to have their meals in the homes of the townspeople. Because he could not spare the time, our master, ztvk'l, would not go to the houses to eat. The householders would send a messenger to bring his meals to the yeshiva. We were thus witness to his tremendous application to learning, and the extent to which he attached importance to every moment of learning. Even when the messenger was late and didn't bring the meal on time, he didn't bother looking for it at all but sat learning, even though he was really hungry and even though he could have found the messenger in a very short time.

It was not just with food that we witnessed this trait of disregarding physical needs for the sake of Torah but with sleep as well. He was not particular where he slept and he had no fixed lodgings. He slept in the beis hamedrash near the door, even in the depths of the Russian winter.

I remember that we were then learning maseches Yevomos and he would deliver a shiur, following which he would spend a very long time in tefillah, his Shemoneh Esrei taking a whole hour. The Sharshover -- Reb Yitzchok Sharshever, zt'l, -- who was then in Rogatschov, explained that our rebbe was apparently afraid of stumbling by enjoying some pride after saying the shiur, and therefore underwent this submission in prayer.

While he was in Rogatschov, he would learn mussar for half an hour a day. If he missed any of his shiurim, he wouldn't go to sleep on erev Shabbos until he had made up what was missing. Years later, when I was in his home in Bnei Brak, he showed me a volume of Chovos Halevovos, whose pages had all come apart and he told me that it was that sefer that he used to learn from in Rogatschov.

His vigilance and righteousness were astounding. He would not light a cigarette from the candle that stood on the omud in the beis hamedrash (because he was afraid of making mundane use out of sanctified property), and similarly, when others used to take coals out of the oven to light cigarettes with, he would not open the oven because every time it was opened it lost a bit of its heat. He was especially careful about the mitzvo of succah, and would sleep there on Shemini Atzeres, even though it was close to freezing. He slept there alone and paid no attention to the cold and frost.

Our master and teacher, the Alter, ztvk'l, visited Rogatschov three times a year and he was glad to see the yeshiva's development under our master's influence.

Rogatschov and After

When he was caught and sent to Mohliev, it was chol hamoed Pesach. I was young, not yet bar mitzvah, and the Rav of Rogatschov [the author of Ne'os Yaakov, zt'l] therefore permitted money to be sewn into the lining of my coat and allowed me to travel by train to Mohliev on the night of Shevi'i shel Pesach. His incarceration provoked a great commotion and a large sum of money was collected to make his release possible and have him freed from the army. [In fact the Steipler had to spend an entire year in the Russian army.] When he was caught by the Russians and sent to the army in Moscow, I sent him small volumes of gemora (the Russians only allowed small booklets to be sent). I sent half the Shas in this way, and he learned it in depth.

Another occasion when the Rav of Rogatschov helped our master was when the latter was sleeping by the door of the beis haknesses, which disturbed the townsfolk who wanted to have him removed from there. The Rav prevented this and asked them not to disturb him since he was a great scholar.

Our master used to take part in the va'adim, and would speak to the young bochurim. His ideas were a combination of intricate thinking and innate understanding. To this day (some sixty-seven years later), I still remember one of the things he said:

The Chovos Halevovos (in Sha'ar Yichud Hama'aseh) explains that one of the ways that the yetzer hora attacks a person who has common sense is by bringing arguments which are founded on false assumptions and whose conclusions are therefore not necessarily correct. He explained that this was what happened with the sin of the eigel. When he ascended Har Sinai, Moshe Rabbenu promised to be back punctually. The yetzer hora argued that the sixth hour of the day had arrived, and he had not yet returned. He showed them Moshe Rabbenu's bier hovering in the air.

The eirev rav believed this and said that Moshe Rabbenu had died, while the tribe of Levi argued that the calculation was wrong. They said that the days should be counted from the day after he had left and accordingly, Moshe Rabbenu should not be expected before the following day. As for the vision of the bier, they said that that was mere imagination. The eirev rav said, "The sixth hour has arrived, so it must be true that he's died." We see here that one false argument is used to bolster another; this is the way the yetzer hora operates.

This is approximately what I heard from our master's lips in Bialystok.

When he was in Bialystok, he had a place in the beis hamedrash Moishe Melech. In the upper level, was a large collection of all kinds of seforim. He would sit closed up there learning day and night. He would deliver a shiur to the bochurim there as well, and several of the outstanding ones were close to him. In Rogatschov, our master wrote an entire sefer on maseches Nedorim, but it was hidden.

In Rogatschov they used to say that when our master had been in Homel, he learned for twenty hours at a stretch and then went to sleep. Due to his extreme weakness, he couldn't be woken even when they banged on his door.

I remember my bar mitzva in Rogatschov. Our master taught me how to tie the knot of the tefillin, and how to fold the tefillin after removing them.

I arrived in Eretz Yisroel at approximately the same time as he did. He was appointed rosh yeshiva of the Novardok yeshiva which our master HaRav Dovid Bliecher and the gaon and tzaddik HaRav Mattisyohu Shtiegal, ztvk'l, established. I was very happy to see him again, after he had been saved from the Russians. I could see how he still walked with youth, and that Chazal's words, "Everyone who learns Torah for its own sake merits many things . . . and it makes him grow and elevates him above all things . . . " had been fulfilled in him.

Torah Yearning

By Rabbi B. Yisraeli

We visited the home of one of the talmidei chachomim who wrote Halichos Vehanhogos Mimoron Ba'al HaKehillos Yaakov, and after some supplication on our part, he agreed to answer our questions.

Q. Surely there must be some more insignificant pitchifkes, which you didn't publish in Halichos Vehanhogos.

A. Pitchifkes?! Was there any such thing about the Steipler?

Q. We mean things that there was no point in putting on record in a book, but which you remember, or things that you saw during the time you spent with the Steipler, before the crowds started flocking to his door, before he needed to conceal himself and lock his doings away from the public eye. Thirty or forty years ago, when the talmidim of Yeshivas Beis Meir could watch him and when you, as one of the talmidim, managed to serve him more than others. We heard that you used to go into his room at least twice every day, to call him for mincha and ma'ariv. Most probably, there was something to see, at least in a brief glance, when you stepped into his chamber.

A. What a talmid in yeshiva saw, I don't know, because in order to "see" something, you first had to "be" something! However, even I could see pitchifkes, as you put it. I went into his room thousands of times and it was always with the same fear and respect. Always.

The rosh yeshiva HaRav Zalman Rotberg would wait for him to come for all three tefillos. Therefore, our teacher agreed that someone should come and call him when the time for tefillah arrived, so as not to burden the congregation, who were waiting for him. I would go into his house without knocking and I always had the merit of seeing how our teacher waxed with pleasure, entirely engrossed and bound to Torah, straining himself greatly as he learned in depth.

On many occasions, he had to be "aroused" from the gemora. Sometimes I needed the help of the rebbetzin, o'h. "Oi, mincha already," our teacher would exclaim in shock when we interrupted the pleasure of his protracted study that had been going on for hours. Once he smiled and said by way of excuse, "There are a number of clocks here and not one of them works" ([as if] that was the reason he didn't know what the time was).

On rare occasions, he wasn't there for shacharis. I would ask the rebbetzin whether our teacher was not feeling well and her answer would be, "He just went to sleep. He learned right through the night and davened early."

I once met our teacher at the minyan vosikin, and I asked his chavrusa if he knew whether today was something special? He said, "I asked our teacher already and he told me, `I closed the gemora to go to sleep and went over to close the blinds. I saw that dawn had already broken.' "

Oi (our host speaks with emotion) we would stand by the window of his room at night for hours in those days. We would watch how he paced up and down the room caught and bound up in some Torah thought, and how he would sit down and write a few words from time to time. With our own eyes, we saw the meaning of "lehis'aneig beta'anugim," to revel in pleasure.

Once, a friend and I stood there between one and three in the morning -- nothing could equal those hours, we couldn't get enough . . . a torch of fire burning with Torah, with deep Torah study.

Once it happened that our master arrived for tefillah at the yeshiva and commented, "Why do people look into my window?" From then on, we stopped.

By the way, it's worth mentioning the break on Yom Kippur. I had the opportunity to see him after shacharis and musaf. Everybody went out for a break. Our teacher weakly went over to the shelves of seforim, took out a gemora and started to learn. It was as though we'd seen him take a flask of cold water from the shelf, to refresh his tired and thirsty soul . . . He opened the gemora and learned with such joy and thirst, daf after daf, many dapim, with desire. That was an opportunity for everyone to see how Torah flowed in his blood, and that he and it were one. It's hard to describe it to someone who didn't see it.

Another incident that doesn't leave me -- I knocked on the door, and the rebbetzin's response was that he wasn't feeling well and had gone to lie down. "You can go into the room and give him a note." I entered and our teacher was lying down "resting" with a chiddushei Rabbi Akiva Eiger . . . He was resting, on his side, with a large volume of Rabbi Akiva Eiger in his hands. He was resting.

Q. You accompanied him when he went out into the street. You must have merited serving him.

A. No, no. We never managed. Nobody managed. I never even managed to carry his tefillin bag, for example. Under no circumstances would he agree to be served, as is known. It was simply catastrophic to try, to want to, or even to think of helping him. Once, when we took part in the levaya of the Sadigerer Rebbe, zt'l, which took place in the Nachalas Yitzchok cemetery in Tel Aviv, I tried to move someone who was in our teacher's way. I received a reprimand such as I'll never forget!

By the way, when we were leaving the cemetery, we tried with all our might to form a wall so that people shouldn't push the Steipler but we weren't successful. I immediately raised my voice and yelled, "Derech eretz! Derech eretz!" It was the Vishnitzer Rebbe, Reb Chaim Meir, zt'l, who stopped. He didn't continue walking and asked, "Why did someone shout `derech eretz?' " He invited our teacher to walk alongside him, and our teacher walked together with the Admor to the exit.

There was one thing that I could do to benefit the Steipler by way of helping and serving him, and I saw that he was happy about it and felt gratitude towards me for it. Because he was hard of hearing, he couldn't hear the chazan during chazoras hashatz. When we reached Modim, I used to go over to him and bow and bend down. He immediately jumped as though a snake had bitten him and said Modim happily together with the congregation.

It was the same for Uvo letziyon, when it was our custom to stand for the kedusha desidro. I stood by him at the beginning of Uvo letziyon, and he understood that we were beginning. He immediately readied himself and went to the omud to say kedusha desidro with everybody. With that exception, nobody could treat him with any of the customary honors of the rabbinate.

Once, we went into his room to hear havdoloh. There were some leftover pieces of challah. One of the talmidim of the yeshiva took a kezayis in his hand, intending to take some shirayim. The Steipler understood what he was about and admonished him with a yell of, "It's robbery!"

Once, we happened to see a ball belonging to a grandchild fall and roll under the balcony of our teacher's house (which was on the ground floor). It didn't occur to him to trouble anybody to get it out. He himself bent down on the sand and crawled inside to get the ball, to do a kindness for his grandchild.

In the yeshiva itself, when he wanted to know what the time was, he would go right up near the clock. Since he usually couldn't see (because his eyesight was bad), he made great efforts to strain his eyes in all sorts of shapes, sometimes getting onto a chair in front of the clock, until he made out what the time was. But to ask, to "bother" someone to raise his eyes to look at the clock and tell him what the time was, cholila, it was unheard of. His greatness in all this is known.

Q. How, as a young bochur, did you look at the Steipler? How would a ben Torah who saw him forty years ago have summed him up?

A. Actually, where I lived, I knew nothing about the Steipler. However, in the yeshiva ketana in Ramat Hasharon where I learned, we were fortunate to have the renowned gaon HaRav Shemaryohu Greineman, zt'l, as a maggid shiur (for one year), and he sent me to learn in Yeshivas Beis Meir which opened at that time. He told me excitedly that besides the rosh yeshiva and the gaon HaRav Reuvein Fein, there was "a great light," as he put it, "the Steipler is near the yeshiva; it's worth your while."

As to your actual question, we saw that our master's entire existence consisted of fulfilling the requirements of the Shulchan Oruch. His essence was fulfilling the Torah. That was the light in which the Steipler looked at everything in the world. That was how he examined every matter that was brought to him.

I'll never forget. There was a clock on the wall of the yeshiva. For years and years it hung on the west wall of the beis hamedrash. Thousands of eyes were lifted to look at it, and nobody had ever noticed anything special about it. Until the moment arrived when the Steipler needed to go over to the clock. He was alarmed and called to one of the maggidei shiur, "There is a small figure above the clock. It's nose, or some other part should be removed (so that it shouldn't be a complete human form)."

He could hardly see what the time was but he saw the halocho! A red light immediately lit up! A human figure! For that was his entire being.

Everyone who was close to him has plenty of wonderful anecdotes about our master on this theme and you don't need me and my ilk, but while we're on the subject . . . It happened several times that he came for tefillah and found that he didn't have his gartel. There was no time to hurry home and get it before the tefillah began but neither was it possible to daven without it. What was there to do? One of the talmidei chachomim in the yeshiva reminded me how he put his hands up, took off his tie, undid the knot and girded himself with it in preparation for tefillah. To do what had to be done; that was his sole criterion.

Once when he was without the gartel, he looked around quickly and found a long piece of flannel material, which he swiftly rolled up into a nice shape and wrapped around himself. And if we're mentioning tefillah, as it's close to Elul, it's worth noting something amazing that I noticed about him. The al cheit in the vidui on Yom Kippur which he sighed about most, groaning heavily from his heart, was al cheit shechotonu lefonecho be'azus metzach, for the sin of a brazen countenance!

I was present when a talmid chochom asked him something about honoring reshoim. There were several factors, such as gaining a livelihood, involved in the question, which led him to inquire whether maybe there was no real issur involved and it was permitted. He consulted our teacher, who told him, "I don't know what ruling to give you; however, I myself wouldn't do it even if I'd be offered a million." That was what everyone always saw about him -- his sole consideration was how the Torah wants people to behave!

We were once standing in the street after the levaya of a talmid chochom (the brother- in-law of the Ahavas Yisroel of Vishnitz). We were waiting until the very last of those accompanying the niftar were out of sight. Our teacher asked whether there were indeed no more melavim visible, and we told him that the buses carrying those of them who were going to Tiveriya could still be seen. The Steipler continued to wait until we confirmed that they were out of sight and then he turned to go home.

Just as he turned around, there was a woman standing next to us. He said nothing, but lifted himself with a mighty jump and yelled, "Oi!" as though he'd been bitten by a snake. The tzaddik Rav Dovid Leib of Vishnitz was standing by us, and was also shocked and amazed at the depth of our teacher's dread. And what was he afraid of? The holy Zohar says that one should be careful not to encounter women on the way back from a funeral (also not while accompanying the deceased), and this is brought in Yesod Veshoresh Ho'avodoh in Sha'ar Hacollel (see there for several details).

All these are just pitchifkes, for how is it possible to tell "stories" about a life that actually was Torah . . . the life of a living sefer Torah! His very being cried out to the generation, "Annul your own wishes before His!"

End of Part I


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