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8 Kislev 5760 - November 17, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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HaRav Chaim Ezra Barzel -- Hashem's Loyal Soldier
by C. Zilberman

This appreciation is being published on the occasion of HaRav Chaim Ezra Barzel's first yahrtzeit, 17 Kislev, 5760.

The gabbai had no problem finding someone to do hagbohoh; his problem was with gelilah, a mitzvah usually given to young children or at any rate to someone of less standing than the person taking hagbohoh. No pre-bar-mitzvah boys attended this minyan, so the gabbai had to find someone quickly who would not be offended by a lesser honor. HaRav Chaim Ezra Barzel, who was then well advanced in age and a renowned talmid chochom, instantly discerned the gabbai's dilemma and offered to take gelilah. Afterwards he whispered to the gabbai that he could always give him gelilah, since it was a big kovod for him.

This was HaRav Ezra Barzel zt'l's essence: a selfless soldier in Hashem's army, a warrior ready for every mission, big or small, a fighter who did not wait for explicit orders but found his own original ways to become a better man- at<196>arms and to please his Commander-in-Chief.

His Parents

His father, R' Moshe Zeev, was a spirited oveid Hashem, a Boyaner chossid, well known for his impassioned avodas Hashem and tohoroh. After R' Moshe Zeev davened in his regular minyan, at which time he could not answer omen to the brocho of "go'al Yisroel" immediately before Shemona Esrei (since one is forbidden to speak at that point), he would go and stand near the chazan who led the next minyan, just to listen to "go'al Yisroel" and to answer omen. He did not want to lose the zechus of answering omen to even one single brocho.

R' Moshe Zeev revered every mitzvah and every tefillah. His son R' Ezra, although a Torah scholar and masmid, a person for whom every second was important, would also go from one minyan to another just to hear yet another Kaddish and yet another kedusha. His warm and pure heart wanted, as his father's had, to absorb as much kedusha as he could.

R' Ezra's mother, Brocho, zealously protected her family from any possible decline in mitzvah-observance. On one occasion the family was invited to the wedding of very close relatives: it was the sort of occasion where it was beyond all question that they would attend. But Rebbetzin Brocho knew that irreligious relatives would be attending this wedding. What did she do? She blocked the doorway of the house with her own body and physically prevented the children from going! Her unyielding determination to fulfill Hashem's will formed the future guideline for R' Ezra in all his ways.

Formative Years in Yeshivas Hevron

Besides hasmodoh and exceptional power of perception, R' Ezra was renowned for his yiras Shomayim. On Simchas Torah, together with his lifelong friend HaRav Sholom Schwadron, he would insure that no women mixed with men during the hakofos. They did not allow even young girls who had reached the age of chinuch to be together with the men.

He would gather everyone together to sing with unfeigned deveikus the song, "Ho'aderes veho'emunah tzu vemen, tzu vemen," and everyone would answer with simcha: "Lechai olomim!"

During the shiva for R' Ezra, R' Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, a rosh yeshiva of Hayeshiva LeTzeirim of Ponevezh and a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Degel HaTorah, said with teary eyes: "You cannot imagine how much yiras Shomayim your father added to Yeshivas Chevron during the hakofos and Simchas Beis HaSho'eivah."

R' Ezra was a chavrusa of HaRav Sholom Schwadron at Yeshivas Chevron, and from the middle of Shevat until Erev Pesach -- only two months! -- they finished all of Bovo Basra, a gemora of 171 dapim! R' Sholom told his family, "We finished the gemora not once, but four times." That gives us something of a picture of their incredible hasmodoh.

HaRav Menachem Porush, former Agudath Yisroel MK, wrote to the family: "He was a giant, one of the greatest gedolim I was zoche to know, and I have been acquainted with many gedolei olom."

His Avoda in Tefillah

In his last years, because of his acute weakness, the Rav prayed near his home on Ra'avad Street in Bnei Brak, in the house of the tzaddik HaRav Moshe Mandel zt'l. R' Ezra made an all-out effort to come to the davening there. Neighbors in the nearby building reported that, although in regular conversations he could be heard only with great difficulty, when he received an aliya you could hear his brochos from afar.

In 5758, a year before his petirah, despite his enfeebled body, he was, surprisingly, the person who prompted all the others to dance on Simchas Torah and made everyone feel freilich.

People who passed by his house outside could hear the brochos he said loud and clear. Once at a bris he received the kibbud of saying the brochos, and as usual said them with incredible kavono and deveikus. One of those attending the bris expressed his bewilderment over hearing a Yom-Kippur-style tefillah at such an occasion on an ordinary day of the year. His remark suggested criticism of R' Ezra's sincerity. Someone who knew the Rav promptly answered: "He is R' Ezra Barzel. Even in the middle of a desert he would say brochos like that." He was a real oveid Hashem, someone who constantly served Hashem without any breaks.

The Rav was shliach tzibbur for many years on Rosh Hashanah in Kollel Ponevezh which, as an outstanding mokom Torah, takes only the best and most proper person to lead its bnei Torah in their tefillos on such a solemn day. R' Ezra's krias Shema, even during the rest of the year, moved a person's heart; as he said it tears dripped from his eyes. People were simply awestruck by his tefillah.

Accepting Yissurim With Love

In the final years before his petirah the Rav's hands and entire body shook terribly. R' Ezra remarked that this was a sign from Heaven: "They are showing us how a Jew should look when standing before his Creator."

HaRav Reuven Karlenstein, a maggid meishorim in Bnei Brak, once gave R' Ezra a brocho for a refuah sheleimo. R' Ezra answered in a somewhat disturbed tone: "Do not take away from me the matonos that HaKodosh Boruch Hu has granted me. Just give me a brocho that I will be able to accept my yissurim with love."

Work for Klal

Whenever R' Ezra met his friend R' Sholom their first question to each other would be: "What can we do for Hashem's honor?"

R' Ezra was an entrepreneur who set up "factories" for Hashem, factories of Torah that were spread not only all over Eretz Yisroel but in Chutz La'aretz as well. These factories were the shiurei Torah he instituted, the kollelim he founded, the Jews he brought closer to Torah, and the many Torah institutes that he cultivated.

HaRav Y. Wassermann told about a certain shelichus he and HaRav Gedaliah Nadel carried out for the Chazon Ish, who sent them to HaRav Yitzchok Zeev Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rov. After the two told him what the Chazon Ish had instructed them, the Brisker Rav sighed: "Who do we have left in Yerushalayim? I have only two people to rely on: HaRav Chaim Ezra Barzel and HaRav Sholom Schwadron."

Once on Yom Kippur night the Rav walked barefoot (he was machmir not even to wear sneakers) to Ramat Amidar, quite a distance from his house, to say a drosho to awaken those living there to do teshuvah.

After a session of harbotzas Torah R' Ezra found himself in Petach Tikvah. To get back to Bnei Brak he got on a van taking kollel students from Petach Tikvah to Bnei Brak, a twenty minute ride. To his shock he saw that during this time the avreichim were just talking and not utilizing their time for Torah. He urged them to study Torah together on the way, and that an avreich should read aloud from some mussar sefer. His straightforward request could not be resisted. Many years have passed, and these young men still study mussar seforim on the way to and from the kollel.

He founded the popular Daf Hayomi shiur in the Yarchei Kallah shul of Bnei Brak and afterward handed it over to HaRav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger. R' Ezra always felt the need to conquer new territories for Hashem. When this shiur was well established he could move on.

A remote relative, a cousin of a cousin, arrived in Eretz Yisroel to study in a yeshiva. R' Ezra befriended him and told him that whenever he wanted, he could come for Shabbos. All he needed to do was to call up beforehand so they could prepare for him. The boy enjoyed the warmth of this home, the lively zemiros, the abundant divrei Torah, the encouragement he needed so badly, and the wise guidance. He now had a home away from home. Also, whenever this relative visited HaRav Barzel he knew he had to prepare some really good kushyos and vorts to tell over. This was demanded of him. R' Ezra kept an eye on this boy's advancement in Torah, and eventually was even his shadchan.

It is not easy to disseminate Torah in a Leftist kibbutz, where the kibbutz members are indoctrinated from childhood against religion, but R' Ezra did it! This almost impossible task was done in Kibbutz Tze'elim in the Negev during the early 70s. He explained to the kibbutzniks the significance of tefillah, gave speeches about Torah and mitzvos, and changed the kibbutz so much that by 5731 (1971) seventy members fasted on Yom Kippur and the shul was packed with men, women, and children. A year later two-thirds of the members fasted and a group even started studying Tanach at night.

An interesting part of R' Ezra's life was his stay in Australia from 1965-1966. In Sydney he was the rav of a kehilla and founded a daf hayomi shiur, a shiur in Mishnayos, and shiurim in halocho and mussar. He opened a talmud Torah in the city, run al taharas hakodesh. To start such a talmud Torah was a daring move for that time, and many people tried their best to persuade him to forget about his "wild" idea, but the "soldier" was inflexible.

Dr. A. Hietner, who lived in Sydney then, told the family during the shiva: "When your father arrived in Sydney I was a young man, a student at the local university in the Faculty of Medicine. My parents were religious but did not find any contradiction between the way they lived and their son's studying in a university. It was my good luck and theirs that your father made us feel like Jews. He founded special shiurim for the Jewish students, besides the other educational enterprises he had set up. We saw in him a real Jew, a Jew without any compromises. The first wedding in Sydney with separate seating for men and women was mine. It was amazing that during the meal HaRav Barzel talked about taharas hamishpocha! It was also impossible to believe that in Sydney your father spoke in Yiddish -- but people somehow understood what he wanted. How could that be? It was because your father spoke the `international' language of Jews throughout the world: He knew how to speak from his heart.

"What made the strongest impression on us was the personal example he set. He fulfilled what he demanded from others -- and he demanded quite a lot. He would criticize when needed, but also knew how to draw people near. We were attracted to him as to a magnet. Even after he had left Australia we retained a connection with him."

R' Ezra's way of kiruv was never to demand a change from a person, no matter how necessary that change was. He would slowly but surely show the person the alternatives before him, and any serious person would understand by himself what he should do.

Concern for Sephardic Jewry

During the period immediately after the State was established, many parents were tragically unaware of the need for their children to continue studying in Torah institutions after a religious elementary-school education. Parents (mostly desperately poor) preferred that their offspring go to work and thereby help the family to earn its livelihood.

R' Ezra and R' Sholom, and later joined by R' Chaim Aharon Torcszin and R' Moshe Shimon Weintraub, founded anew the Yeshivas Mekor Chaim in southern Yerushalayim, which was the forerunner of many other institutions to save Sephardic <%- 2>Jewry.

At Mekor Chaim, R' Ezra paid a father one lira monthly (at that time a considerable sum) so that he would allow his son to study Torah instead of helping him in the market. On one occasion the Rebbetzin made a talmid's only tallis koton on her own sewing machine.

One talmid, who later became a well-known talmid chochom in Yerushalayim and has built a splendid Torah family, said: "When I was a young boy I wanted with all my heart to own a watch, although considering my parent's income such a thing was preposterous. At that time even at one's Bar Mitzvah not everyone received such a precious gift as a watch. When R' Ezra saw how I was bent on having a watch, he probably was afraid that this thought would disturb my studies, so he took off his own watch from his wrist and without any hesitation gave it to me. I must admit, sadly, that not only did I accept that watch from him, I played with it and broke it.

"Do you think that R' Ezra did not buy me another watch? He surely did!"

When HaRav Moshe Tzadka, the rosh yeshiva of Porat Yosef and one of the former talmidim of Mekor Chaim, came for nichum aveilim, he said: "Your father and HaRav Schwadron saved Sephardic Jewry, since the first yeshiva set up specifically for young boys was Yeshivas Mekor Chaim."

Teaching Soldiers

During the War of Liberation in 5708 (1948), despite severe economic difficulties and the terror of Arab bombardments, R' Ezra decided to teach Torah to the soldiers stationed near his home in Yerushalayim, in the Schneller army camp. What connection did he have with soldiers? R' Ezra answered: "I also am a soldier, a soldier in Hashem's army."

He somehow introduced himself to the soldiers, gained permission to enter the camp, and started to teach them a daily daf hayomi shiur. Between mincha and ma'ariv, even under heavy shelling, and despite his responsibilities at home, the Rav went to the army camp.

Once when he was in the Schneller Camp heavy enemy shelling caused severe damage to his hearing. This impairment became steadily worse, and since it was impossible to carry out the intricate operation necessary to correct it in Eretz Yisroel, he was advised to have it done in the U.S.A.

In the U.S.A.

While he was in America, many Torah institutions, aware of R' Ezra's exceptional rhetorical capabilities and power of persuasion, begged him to raise money for their cause. He decided, however, to work to strengthen taharas hamishpocha, so that the olim chadoshim placed in new moshavim and settlements would have sufficient and kosher mikvo'os.

Between one medical treatment and another, before his operation and afterwards, our "soldier" founded shiurei Torah for ba'alei batim, was marbitz Torah, and concerned himself with Torah observance in general. This R' Ezra did despite his not knowing any English at all. He spoke with his warm and understanding heart.

The Revolution in Zichron Moshe

Zichron Moshe is the famous shtiblach in Yerushalayim near the Geula neighborhood. It is a shul where there are nonstop minyonim and shiurim on all levels and at all times. This was not always so, though.

R' Ezra is the one who started the shiurim there. He saw the baalei batim wasting their time between Mincha and Ma'ariv with idle talk and decided to do something about it. His shiur reached an audience of more than seventy people. He planted a tree that yielded the many fruits we see today. The Rav started the shiurim on leil Shabbos and later handed them over to HaRav Schwadron and urged him to say his droshos during that time. This later turned into his famous leil Shabbos droshos, which were a well-known attraction in Yerushalayim.

Concern for Family

It must be pointed out that his concern for Klal Yisroel did not, cholila, in any way diminish R' Ezra's deep involvement with his family. R' Ezra knew exactly what was happening with every member of his sizable family: children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The family visited him frequently and sought his advice on all matters. No warmer scene can be depicted than when R' Ezra would be sitting at the head of his Shabbos table with his family around him, singing zemiros and talking divrei Torah and hashkofo.

Naturally, throughout the years they were equally devoted to him. During R' Ezra's many stays in the hospitals they faithfully visited him and took care of all his needs.

R' Ezra's Humility

When he was a young avreich he became a maggid shiurim for talmidim in the yeshiva ketana of Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi in Yerushalayim. Then, unexpectedly, he left his position in favor of someone else. Later the reason was found out: R' Ezra was afraid that his presence was liable, perhaps, to disturb a certain person, since that person thought the position rightfully belonged to him. If someone might be hurt, that position was not for him. A good soldier only helps the war effort; he does not interfere.

Many times he actually gave up respectable positions which insured a steady income, something he badly needed. HaRav Nosson Zochovsky heard from HaRav Yechezkel Sarna, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, that only HaRav Ezra Barzel was capable of such selfless relinquishing of his position for others. Also HaRav Lefkowitz stressed: "When HaRav Barzel had but the slightest doubt that his job would somewhat hurt another, he fled from it as from a plague."

R' Ezra accepted on himself the spiritual leadership of Ze'irei Agudas Yisroel of Yerushalayim. Although Ze'irei Aguda was a political youth group, he did not feel this duty to be beneath his dignity. A soldier of Hashem does whatever he can to elevate the ruchniyus of others.


The Rav was instrumental in founding Pe'ilim, the dynamic organization that encourages new olim to embrace Judaism, prompts already religious immigrants to strengthen their Torah observance, and engages in general kiruv and anti-missionary activities.

It all started like this: HaRav Ezra and HaRav Sholom were walking down Kikar Hayeshiva in Bnei Brak, near Yeshivas Ponevezh. R' Sholom saw HaRav E. E. Dessler across the street. R' Dessler had just arrived from England to become the mashgiach of Ponevezh Yeshiva. R' Ezra crossed over to him and began telling him in detail of the shmad being done to the new olim in the State's immigration camps. After HaRav Dessler heard R' Ezra's concerned talk he said, "I won't go to sleep this night until I do something to correct the matter."

That same night HaRav Dessler hastened a group of boys over from the yeshiva to meet him and discussed with them how to combat the spiritual holocaust that was taking place. This meeting eventually led to the formation of the famous Pe'ilim organization.

Many years later the two good friends met on a street in Bnei Brak, and R' Sholom mentioned to R' Ezra: "It seems to me that you were a central catalyst in forming Pe'ilim. Because of you HaRav Dessler entered the picture and afterwards things started moving. If so R' Ezra, you. . ." Before R' Sholom could manage to end what he wanted to say, R' Ezra, full of simcha, picked up his hands and feet and started dancing. This happened at midday and before all those walking on the street.

The Move to Bnei Brak

HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin, the head of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, asked R' Ezra to be the principal of the Sinai Talmud Torah in Tel Aviv and in addition to open a yeshiva ketana in Tel Aviv that would be a continuation of that Talmud Torah.

The Rav started by organizing a tefillah betzibbur for all the classes in the Talmud Torah. It was a typical fervent yeshivisheh davening, and three times a day R' Ezra showed the students how to implore Hashem, what is deveikus in Hashem, and what is a genuine tefillah. He spoke at length to the talmidim about studying Torah both diligently and in depth, and how to acquire yiras Shomayim. R' Ezra succeeded in winning them over and even making them enthusiastic soldiers of Hashem.

In the beginning of 5717 (1957) R' Ezra decided to move to Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, since the daily trips to Tel Aviv from Yerushalayim were tiresome and he also felt that leaving his precious children at home a whole day without their father's guidance was not tolerable any longer.

However, just three months after he had started his position as principal R' Ezra, surprisingly, resigned. The reason: "Higher authorities" had "directed" him to fire one of the teachers. Despite the orders, he recoiled against carrying them out. To fire a teacher? He could not agree to do such a thing. He immediately resigned and replied to the numerous requests for him to change his mind, "I will not remain here even if there is a justified reason to discharge a teacher. I will not sign my name to a letter telling a teacher such bad news."

This happened just after he had moved his whole family to Bnei Brak and the family was settling down there. Now they were left without a livelihood, and it seemed that they had made the whole difficult move in vain.

Harbotzas Torah In Bnei Brak

But in Bnei Brak too R' Ezra filled a long line of positions in prestigious institutions. He served in Yeshivas Tiferes Tzion, Yeshivas Or Kedoshim (Bobov), and Yeshivas Karlin, and was the spiritual supervisor of the children's institution Botei Ovos of Yeshivas Ponevezh.

A former student of Botei Ovos told us the following: "One night, after all the children were in their beds ready to go to sleep suddenly, without any previous warning, HaRav Barzel appeared in the dormitory hallway. He called out to us: `Get up! Get up! Quickly! I have a big surprise for you.' We did not understand what the Rav could possibly want from us in the middle of the night, but the Rav prodded us to get up. Since we loved him so, we swiftly got up. You can imagine how this looked: Dozens of children jumping out of their beds, putting on their shoes quickly and running toward the Rav with their shoelaces untied. Some ran out while still wearing pajamas and others put on anything they could find. What was the reason for this race against time?"

The reason was that it was winter and the tenth day after the new moon, but they had not yet been zoche to be mekadesh the levonoh because of the cloudy weather. Now the heavens were clear, without any clouds, and they could make kiddush levonoh. Who knew whether they would have another chance this month to make kiddush levonoh? This was an inspiring scene: Dozens of children saying the brocho in the middle of the night and afterwards dancing together under the new moon. This spectacle remained in their hearts forever.

Hod HaSharon

Hod HaSharon is located near Hertzeliah in central Eretz Yisroel, just north of Tel Aviv. In this small town the Ska'at family, of Yemenite origin, founded and continue to sustain, a kollel. They traveled to Kollel Ponevezh in Bnei Brak and asked for someone to help them raise the unfortunate condition of Torah observance and study in the Hod HaSharon area. They were immediately advised to ask R' Ezra for help.

A burst of activity started. R' Ezra founded a central shul, a kollel for avreichim to study and teach others, and many shiurei Torah. He gathered children from the neighborhood, brought them to the shul, and taught them Torah. In that way he caused dozens of families to do teshuvah.

A former Communist Party member, a renowned writer, lived in the Hod HaSharon area. He was once a devoted Communist, completely attached to its spurious ideologies. After immigrating to Israel, Labor Party heads even offered him a job as a district party secretary on the condition he leave the Israeli Communist Party. He flatly refused.

Years passed. The Communist met HaRav Barzel and was overwhelmed by his character and power of persuasion. R' Ezra, who was overflowing with ahavas Yisroel, talked to him at length and made him, at the tail end of his life, into a true baal teshuvah.

Outside the kollel building mothers would wait with tears in their eyes to take their children home after their special shiur with HaRav Barzel. They would regularly ask the Rav to give them brochos. R' Ezra would always concern himself with the children's material and spiritual needs. When there was a need he would even buy tefillin for a child who could not afford a pair.

One time he brought a group of eight children to one of the famous mesivtos in Bnei Brak to be tested for acceptance. The mesivta agreed to accept seven of the children but not the eighth. The mother cried and said that she would prefer to die if her son will not study Torah. HaRav Barzel worked hard and succeeded in getting that child into a chareidi institution. The child grew up and now is a ben Torah with a family devoted to Torah and is himself involved in kiruv.

R' Ezra loved these children, and interested himself in their advancement. On Shabbos and during the week his "children" would come and visit him. Everyone felt as if he was their father or grandfather: their spiritual guide.

Once a uniformed policeman walked into the kollel. The rosh kollel began talking to him about Torah and mitzvos, and afterwards asked R' Ezra, the founder of the kollel, to try to motivate the policeman to become religious. Eventually the policeman and his family all became baalei teshuvah.

One day R' Ezra walked up to the policeman's house on the fourth floor, despite the difficulty he had in walking, and helped him sort through the books he had in his library. HaRav Ezra removed a large number of books that contained kefirah and promised the man that his library would soon be full of sifrei kodesh.

Not long afterwards, after only two weeks, a local pharmacist came over to the policeman and offered him a large number of seforim that he had at home, since there was no one there to study in them. The policeman saw tangibly that HaRav Barzel's promise was completely fulfilled. His library was filled up as before. To his amazement, the policeman found among the many seforim a Sefer Chareidim that was dedicated by HaRav Barzel as a present to that pharmacist! Even HaRav Barzel's Sefer Chareidim arrived in the policeman's library.

Concern for Others

One Shabbos some nine years ago, acquaintances invited R' Ezra to a sheva brochos. The Rebbetzin, knowing his precarious state of health, objected to him attending. HaRav W. M., his loyal talmid, visited the Barzels that Shabbos and ate cholent at their table.

After the meal the Rav said to the Rebbetzin that it was hot and he wanted to go outside with W.M. to take a walk. She suspected that he intended to go off and say a drosho at the sheva brochos, but could not think how to stop him. The Rav and his talmid walked the couple of blocks to the affair, being forced about fifteen times on the way to stop for the Rav to rest. R' Ezra was perspiring profusely and breathing with difficulty. When he finally arrived he was soaked with sweat. W.M. asked him why it was necessary to make such an effort. The Rav answered that there were several mitzvos deOraisa and derabonon that he was fulfilling by going there, and he did not want to lose out on them. When he arrived the mechutonim were so appreciative of the chesed that R' Ezra had done, despite his yissurim, that they kissed his hand.

Around that time, a pidyon peter chamor took place not far from R' Ezra's home. He requested HaRav W.M. to accompany him to see this rare mitzvah. His legs were in bad shape and he suffered immensely when walking. The Rav arrived at the jam-packed pidyon and people quickly brought him a chair. Children were running back and forth many times and some stepped unintentionally on R' Ezra's feet. W.M. saw the Rav cringe with pain and pushed the children away so as not to hurt the Rav. R' Ezra told his talmid: "Don't bother them. They are children and must have fun."

A true soldier looks at the whole war picture. Not only did R' Ezra help Klal Yisroel with his harbotzas Torah and kiruv, he looked at children as also doing their share in Hashem's army. Later they would be His faithful officers. He must be concerned, therefore, with their normal development too. R' Ezra took everything into consideration. He was not a person who cared about himself. He was the paradigm of a loyal soldier for Hashem.

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