In this shmuess, recorded by Rabbi Yisroel Friedman,
the Rosh Yeshiva describes the difficulties, the temptations,
and the struggles that bnei Torah once endured, and
those that we encounter today. The shmuess includes
instructive anecdotes about gedolei Torah, guidelines
to a ben Torah on behavior, the correct relationship
between a rav and a talmid, and how to acquire true
and solid Torah knowledge.
I once paid a visit to the Gaon of Teplik,
HaRav A. Polonsky zt'l who lived in a cellar in the
Beis Yisroel neighborhood of Yerushalayim. Rain seeped into
the apartment. The Gaon remarked that some people disguise
olam hazeh luxuries, such as having a plush and
spacious apartment, as kovod HaTorah.
"Some say that such things are kovod HaTorah. They
equate a life of luxury with the definition of kovod
HaTorah." I clearly remember how he categorically
rejected such an approach: "This apartment as it is,
with rain seeping in, is kovod HaTorah."
He cited the gemora (Sotah 49a) that "the
tefillah of a person studying Torah mitoch
hadechak, when in a state of material deprivation, is
answered . . . and is satiated with the ziv
haShechinah, as is written, `Your eyes shall see your
teachers' (Yeshaya 30:20)."
What connection can there be between a poor person studying
Torah and "Your eyes . . .."?
One who studies Torah despite suffering extreme financial
difficulties does so purely lesheim Shomayim. Such a
person has no personal benefits. His one and only concern is
to toil over his studies, to understand and reveal its
secrets and depth whose "measure is longer than the earth and
broader than the sea" (Iyov 11:9). Studying in such a
way, without searching for additional gain, is the study
accepted by HaKodosh Boruch Hu. When one studies that
way, the Shechina is with him, "For Hashem gives
wisdom; out of His mouth comes knowledge and understanding"
(Mishlei 2:6). He is zoche to "your eyes shall
see your teachers," meaning that he gains wisdom, receiving
it directly from the mouth of HaKodosh Boruch Hu as it
were, and is satiated with His ziv haShechinah.
The Tur in the beginning of Hilchos Shabbos cites the
gemora (Shabbos 118a), "You should make your Shabbos
as a weekday so you will not need the help of others." The
author of the Tur asked his father, the Rosh, if he is
included among those who must make their Shabbos as a weekday
so as not to need help from others, or perhaps he is
permitted to ask for help since he is even unable to make his
Shabbos as a weekday [i.e. he did not even have enough
money for that] without help.
How strained was the Tur's financial condition! Without
assistance, his Shabbos would not have been even like a
regular weekday! Under such conditions, Torah mitoch
hadechak, the Tur studied Torah, and Klal Yisroel
was zoche to the Tur to show them the psak
halocho stemming from the gemora and
rishonim. This is a blessed result of Torah studied by
someone who lives in poverty.
Today people have no connection to Torah mitoch
hadechak. When we were young we studied Torah despite our
severe poverty. We lived lives of "You shall eat bread with
salt and sleep on the ground" (Ovos 6:4). Ours was a
Studying Torah when in such difficult circumstances is
another kind of Torah study altogether; it is a Torah study
that is entirely for Hashem. The body does not exist. Only
the neshomo, the heart, and the nefesh
For example, every Sunday morning during the period when I
studied at Yeshivas Ramailles of Vilna we did not have any
bread to eat. Why? There never was a day when we bought bread
directly from the bakery. A gabai would go around from
one house to another asking for bread to feed the yeshiva
students. Every baal habayis would give a "note" to
the grocery store authorizing the owner to allot a certain
amount of bread for the yeshiva students. Armed with these
notes, the gabai would go to the grocery store and
bring bread to the yeshiva. He did not put the bread in the
dinning hall, but distributed a kilogram or two to each
talmid. On Sunday morning, right after Shabbos, there
was almost no bread to give the talmidim and each
talmid had to manage by himself.
Sometimes it was even difficult to put the food in one's
mouth . . . Nonetheless, we studied Torah. We suffered from
unbearably cold weather with inadequate heating in our rooms.
Sometimes we would wake up in the middle of the night and go
to the beis midrash to warm ourselves by the oven.
Other difficult material conditions existed too but we
studied Torah despite them all.
There was no such luxury as tea to drink in the yeshiva. We
received merely a few cubes of sugar each day. Yeshiva
bochurim once discussed their suffering with the
rosh yeshiva Maran HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky
zt'l (I believe they spoke about the lack of sugar or
something else), and I was told that he answered:
"Kinderlach, choshuva baalei batim in Vilna hoben dos oich
nicht" (Dear children, prominent residents of Vilna do
not have this either) . . . and it was no exaggeration.
At one period, R' Chaim Ozer himself would travel with
another Jew by coach to request contributions from baalei
batim for the yeshiva's upkeep. It once happened that R'
Chaim Ozer visited a baal habayis who did not
recognize him, but since the baal habayis saw a person
with such a noble countenance he contributed twenty-five
zlotys. After he heard that the "gabai" to whom he
contributed was none other than HaRav Chaim Ozer, the baal
habayis sent an additional contribution.
The boys suffered so much that they once complained to R'
Chaim Ozer of the freezing cold in the rooms. After hearing
this, R' Chaim immediately sent the yeshiva a few wagonloads
of fuel to stoke up the ovens. The problem was that the ovens
were broken and the rooms filled up with smoke that caused
the boys headaches. The result was that either they suffered
from headaches or from cold -- but in either case they
The yeshiva did not launder the students' clothing. A non-
Jewish woman would come and take the dirty clothing and each
boy had to finance this luxury himself. The hardship we
suffered was unbelievable!
Nevertheless, no one became depressed because of these
conditions. Those who were zoche to study Torah
despite the grinding poverty felt that studying Torah filled
their life with satisfaction and they did not feel their
I think that today we would not be able to endure such trials
since we are too spoiled. Parents spoil their children. When
I was a talmid in yeshiva gedola who ever
thought of buying a suit? Who thought of buying a hat? We
were satisfied with whatever we had. Actually we had nothing,
but we did not demand anything, and therefore did not feel
Children are educated differently today. At home children are
pampered and enjoy endless luxuries. This is true even in
chareidi homes. Although our generation has improved
tremendously in ruchniyus and many talmidim
study in yeshivos, and in general more gedolei Torah
emerge from the yeshivos, the gedolei Torah of that
age were different.
For example: On an erev Shabbos afternoon I went to
look for a room to rent in Vilna. I knocked at one home and a
bochur wearing a large yarmulke (initially I
was not aware that he was a bochur) sat at a table
overflowing with seforim. Later I found out that he
was R' Itzeleh of Vilna.
(There were two R' Itzelehs in Mir: one was R' Itzeleh of
Vilna and the other R' Itzeleh of Charakover. Later R'
Itzeleh of Vilna became the son-in-law of HaRav Yechiel
Michel Gordon zt'l and served as a rosh yeshiva
in Lomzah Yeshiva in chutz la'aretz. Those were
two eminent bochurim of that time.)
Nowadays we do not have such bochurim. Our present
concepts of gadlus, greatness in Torah, have
diminished; we have other concepts of gadlus.
But also in these times when Torah mitoch hadechak is
missing, it is still possible to study Torah in a way that
will resemble Torah mitoch hadechak. What is vital is
that a person not hold material matters in high regard. When
Torah study is a person's main aim in life, when he aspires
to enjoy his Torah study, this is similar to studying Torah
Modern society offers a wealth of pleasures. Society promotes
indulging in pleasures, enjoying oneself, and satisfying
one's desires. A person must work hard to uproot the
impression of what he sees, so that material matters will not
be his main objective in life. In America there is a popular
expression: tzu machen a leben (to have a great time).
This can be done in several ways, either by looking for only
the best and tastiest food, roaming around candy stores and
restaurants, running after the last fashion: buying a suit, a
hat, or a yarmulke of the latest style. Such a life is
one of studying Torah while also enjoying oneself and
fulfilling one's desires. Divrei Torah will not
remain, writes the Rambam, by someone who lives like that.
It is necessary to discuss these topics at length. Not to
indulge in pleasures is a forgotten concept. People just do
not understand what that is! One does not recollect that all
material matters are only of secondary importance and the
most important value in life is ruchniyus. The
Midrash Tehillim teaches us on the posuk, "The
tzaddik eats to satisfy his soul" (Mishlei
13:25), that a tzaddik eats merely a little to sustain
himself for avodas Hashem. Although he dresses cleanly
and eats all he needs, he does all this only to sustain
himself. On the other hand, the rosho and the fool eat
for their own enjoyment, to fill their bellies, and do not
care how much it costs them.
The gemora in Chulin (91a) tells us that Yaakov
Ovinu returned to Nachal Yabok to fetch his small pots since
tzaddikim are careful not to forfeit their material
possessions even when they are worth only a prutah. A
kosher prutah is difficult to come by!
Does anyone in this day and age have such concepts? We are
accustomed to squandering money and being pampered, which of
course necessitates having much money. People chase after
money and are preoccupied in searching for it high and low
and devising various plans to attain it. Under such
conditions can one possibly be engrossed in Torah study?
One becomes terribly confused. If not for this decline in
understanding and perception of the value of life that we see
today, many more talmidei chachomim would become
gedolei Torah. They do not emerge gedolei Torah
because material luxuries and pleasures disturb their
laboring over Torah.
I heard a story from the Ponevezher Rov zt'l about the
Chofetz Chaim. When the Rov studied in Radin, the town of the
Chofetz Chaim's yeshiva, he once needed to look up a matter
in a certain sefer. Since the Rov was a frequent
visitor at the Chofetz Chaim's house, almost a family member,
he remembered once seeing the Chofetz Chaim looking in that
The Rov went to the Chofetz Chaim's house and asked
permission to look some matter up in that sefer. The
Chofetz Chaim answered that he only had borrowed the
sefer and had already returned it. Afterward the
Chofetz Chaim turned to the bookshelves and began thinking
about what he had just said. "These are my seforim.
They became mine because I bought them. With what did I buy
them? With money. I exerted myself and with the money I
received for my efforts I bought these seforim. Money
is exerting oneself. One's efforts take time. What is time?
Life! For seforim I gave part of my life!"
This is the real hashkofo of how to value life. We
must realize what is our main objective in life and what is
secondary. It is difficult to talk about such topics since at
present all aspects of establishing oneself in life are
defined as being unquestionable necessities.
When we want to define the greatness of an odom godol
we sometimes say he was a talmid of a certain godol
beTorah. We all know that today only a few truly deserve
the honor of being called talmidim.
Rabbeinu R' Chaim of Volozhin zt'l was considered a
talmid of the Vilna Gaon. Our history is replete with
other such examples, such as talmidim of the Chasam
Sofer, and HaRav Elchonon Wassermann zt'l, who was a
talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. In Chazal we find that
some tannoim and amoraim were classified as
being talmidim of a certain godol beTorah.
Actually the entire transmission of Torah from one generation
to the next is according to the tradition handed down to us
from Moshe Rabbeinu a'h, from a constant chain of a
rav giving over the Torah to a talmid.
Similarly, the method of understanding the Oral Torah, how to
analyze the give-and-take of the sugya until the
psak halocho, must be according to our tradition as
taught to us by our Torah mentors. Each generation must study
according to the manner understood from its mentors.
We know that in the period after the Talmud was finished, the
rishonim were talmidim of the geonim.
Throughout our history, yeshivos existed in Klal
Yisroel to continue teaching and transmitting Torah to
their talmidim according to the kabolo they had
received, until our latest period, the period of the
I heard from a talmid of HaRav Boruch Ber Lebowitz
zt'l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Kamenitz,
that he once remarked to an acquaintance, another godol
beTorah, that it is now our duty to produce
talmidim who can continue teaching Torah to the future
Jewish Nation. He emphasized that this is a part of "studying
Torah for its own sake" to which each one of us is required
Because of this feeling our mentors dedicated themselves to
produce talmidim and bring them nearer to Torah.
When I studied with the Rebbe zt'l in Vilna (the
gaon HaRav Shlomo Heiman zt'l who was later a
rosh yeshiva in Yeshivas Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn) we
saw in him an exceptional image of a Jew from whom the
sweetness of the Torah radiated. This sweetness brought each
one of us nearer to studying Torah. HaRav Heiman exemplified
how to forge relationships with talmidim, and would
speak to each one of them as if to a prominent person. We
never heard from him any criticism about a talmid and
if a talmid offered a piece of unsound reasoning, he
would correct him in such a way that the talmid would
not even realize he was being corrected. For example, he
would review what was said and say: "This and this is how the
talmid explained." This despite the fact that the
talmid himself did not intend to say that. The Rebbe
weighed each word. I remember that at the time the
bochurim did not have food because the yeshiva was
poverty-stricken, the Rebbe would also fast even though he
had food at home.
We also saw by HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l, the
father-in-law of HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l, a special
relationship to each talmid. We felt his sincere love
and extraordinary satisfaction from us. For example, when he
would say a public shiur and one of the audience would
comment that we can understand the pshat of
Tosafos in such and such a way . . . HaRav Meltzer
would value it immensely if it was true and based on
acceptable reasoning. He would stop the shiur many
times and would emphasize: "That talmid made a good
comment, a true comment." Even when he would later finish the
shiur and would be at the front door ready to leave he
would again review what that talmid had said. When he
needed a sefer from the bookshelf he would rise
eagerly and fetch it himself.
End of Part I
HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz is the rosh yeshiva
of the Yeshiva LeTze'irim of Yeshivas Ponevezh in Bnei Brak
and a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Degel