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1 Sivan 5761 - May 23, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Shmuel Bekor'ei Shemo -- HaRav Shmuel Hillel Shenker zt'l

by A. Avraham

Forty-five years from his passing

Excitement filled the air. The small, humble houses took on a new sparkle. The streets of Kovna, still decorated with the last remnants of snow, prepared themselves for the big day. Preparation was something apparent in the house of R' Yaakov Moshe Karpas, a prominent balabos who revered Torah and mussar. This house was to receive the founder of the mussar movement, the kedosh Yisroel HaGaon Hatzaddik Reb Yisroel Salanter. In this house, Reb Yisroel was going to give a mussar shmuess to a select group of bnei aliyah.

And so, R' Yaakov Moshe's house was being transformed into a beis mussar. Benches brought from a nearby kloiz were placed in the large inner courtyard. The tables and beds were removed and it was prepared to absorb the thirst for mussar that Reb Yisroel's chaburoh had. A member of the group was posted at the gate to ensure that no young bochurim entered. This shmuess was only for select avreichim.

A murmur swept through the crowd -- Reb Yisroel had arrived! They pressed forward, trying to catch a glimpse of his radiant countenance. They gazed at him and stretched out their hands for a brocho of sholom aleichem. Many eyes longingly followed Reb Yisroel until he entered the house. The doors were locked, and only the chaburoh remained.

To be more exact, almost only the chaburoh remained. There was one boy, an eight year old boy, who managed to slip in with his father for the shmuess. This boy was Shmuel Hillel Shenker. His father was Reb Avrohom Shenker, one of Reb Yisroel's greatest disciples. The boy stood in the corner of the room, gazing at Reb Yisroel with shining eyes, and swallowed every word that came out of his mouth. He digested them and stored them deep in his memory to remember always.

He heard one shmuess and then stayed for another one. He stood in the corner, drinking in ruchniyus principles, goals and eternal memories. When the shmuess was over, R' Avrohom took his son by hand, approached the kedosh Yisroel and asked him for a brocho, to bench his child prodigy. Reb Yisroel placed his two hands on the boy's head and benched him to grow in Torah and yiras Shomayim. The boy, whose head was down during the brocho, lifted his eyes, looked at Reb Yisroel warmly, and answered amen together with his father.

Reb Avrohom Shenker and his son went home to nearby Slobodke with an exalted feeling. Shmuel Hillel now possessed a brocho that was worth more than all the treasures in the world.

A year later, Reb Yisroel Salanter was niftar.

The boy grew up under his father's watchful presence, and his father's image, which was like a mal'och Elokim, remained with him his entire life. Reb Avrohom was one of the closest disciples of HaRav Yisroel Salanter zt'l. His friends, Reb Yitzchok Blazer, Reb Naftoli Amsterdam and Reb Simcha Zissel Broide, the Alter of Kelm, treated him with utmost respect and a special admiration. He was born in Slobodke, grew up there and raised his son Reb Shmuel Hillel, who followed in his ways.


Reb Shmuel spent his early years in Slobodke, but unfortunately his father passed away. Orphaned at a young age, he was crushed by the tragedy and refused to be comforted. His only comfort was the desire to continue growing, to continue being uplifted in Torah and mussar. This is what sustained him during the difficult times. He traveled to the Talmud Torah in Kelm to absorb the Torah and mussar of the Alter, Reb Simcha Zissel of Kelm.

Kelm was fertile soil to develop his genius capabilities and bring out his potential in ruchniyus treasures and outstanding yiras Shomayim. The gates of wisdom opened for him, and he cleaved to his rebbe and his teachings with every sinew of his inflamed soul. He absorbed the Kelmer mussar approach in its entirety until all his limbs became tangible emunah and avodas Hashem. It was not for naught that he merited a close relationship with his rebbe Reb Simcha Zissel. He recognized his capabilities and the tremendous kochos hanefesh that would some day make him into a leader of the mussar movement in Eretz Yisroel.

The days passed. Reb Shmuel gained a respectable reputation. Talmidei chachomim and geonim in Torah spoke of his outstanding character with admiration.

To Eretz Yisroel

At that time, Reb Shmuel decided to go up to Eretz Yisroel with his relative, Reb Tzvi Pesach Frank, who later became chief rabbi of Yerushalaim. They wanted to walk on the dust of the eretz hakodesh and establish their lives in it. Reb Shmuel went to his rebbe, the Alter of Kelm, to ask his advice. When the Alter saw how much his soul yearned to go up to Eretz Yisroel, he benched him and said, "You have ruach chaim, courage and a strong haskomo."

Reb Shmuel stood before his rebbe and asked him to place his hands on him. Reb Simcha Zissel refused. Reb Shmuel, however, persisted. "When I was young and my father took me to Reb Yisroel Salanter, he benched me with his two hands on my head."

Reb Simcha Zissel was surprised and said, "Could it be? The Alter [referring to Reb Yisroel] really put his hands on you?" The Alter of Kelm also put his hands on him, benched him and sent him lesholom.

When they first came to Eretz Yisroel, they settled in the port city Yaffo, where they joined Reb Naftoli Hertz zt'l, rov of Yaffo and one of the tzadikim of the generation. He loved to discuss divrei Torah with him and praised Reb Shmuel very highly. He immediately discerned his brilliance and talents.

They stayed there just a short time and then decided to move to Yerushalaim.

When Reb Shmuel moved to Yerushalaim, his presence added another stone to the walls of Yerushalaim shel maalo. Reb Shmuel became an integral part of the spiritual scene.

He himself felt the city's holiness immediately and began to cling to its gedolim and tzadikim. He observed their actions and ways and clung to the life of kedusha and taharoh that prevailed on the entire surroundings. He found a corner in the beis medrash to continue delving into Torah, while accustoming himself to a life of histapkus and separation from havlei Olom Hazeh.

At that time, the great gaon, rabo shel Yerushalaim, HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, who highly admired him and recognized his great potential, proposed that he marry his oldest daughter. In 5655 (1895), Reb Shmuel Hillel married the tzadekes Laya Genendle. Immediately after his wedding, he went to a quiet corner and delved into the depths of Torah once again, constantly growing as his powerful neshomoh drew buckets of Torah and yiras Shomayim. His great abilities would one day shake the entire Yerushalaim. Sometimes, he used to go to Yaffo to learn Torah in perishus.

His righteous wife was happy with her pleasant portion -- a husband who was entirely Torah, a man who was constantly growing in kedusha and gadlus. One of her friends once asked her if her husband helped her in the house. The rebbetzin jumped up and said, "If Hashem granted me a golden vessel, would I use it for ordinary tasks?"

The Grach of Brisk admired and respected Reb Shmuel Hillel greatly. In 5671 (1911), when he went on a mission for the yeshiva to chutz lo'oretz, Reb Shmuel stayed in Brisk for an entire year at Reb Chaim Brisker's house. The Griz zt'l also enjoyed hearing stories of gedolei Yisroel from Reb Shmuel and said, "Reb Shmuel is very precise in his stories."

During that period, Reb Shmuel and the Griz once discussed the mussar method. Reb Shmuel, who was a proponent of the mussar method, said to the Griz about his father the Grach, "Yes mussar, no mussar. Everything I saw by my rebbe Reb Simcha Zissel, I saw by your father Maran HaGrach zt'l."

Reb Shmuel forged a special relationship with the gedolei Yisroel who admired him greatly. His footsteps are engraved on every page of the chronicles of Yerushalaim shel maalo.

When the Chofetz Chaim's son, Reb Leib zt'l, first visited Eretz Yisroel, the Chofetz Chaim told him to stay at Reb Shmuel Shenker in Yerushalaim, at his humble home in Botei Machse in the Old City. Although he was well-to-do and could have afforded a much nicer hotel, Reb Leib listened to his father's instruction; his father knew that Reb Shmuel's house was the best place to stay in the ir hakodesh.

In 5683 (1923), when Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer came, all the chachomim and gedolim of Yerushalaim came to greet him. For the entire day, people knocked at his door. At night, when he was very tired, they closed the door and did not let anyone else in. However, when Reb Isser Zalman heard that Reb Shmuel had come, they opened the door for him. Reb Isser Zalman said, "Reb Shmuel is very dear to me. He is the son of the well known gaon and tzaddik Reb Abramchik Tanis of Kovna. Tzaddik ben tzaddik! Make room for him!"

Reb Shmuel exchanged many letters with Reb Nochum Zeev, the Alter of Kelm's son, who highly admired him as he knew that he was one of his father's prominent disciples. One of the letters that was published in the writings of the Alter of Kelm discusses Reb Shmuel's treasure -- thirty-eight of his father's essays. To quote the letter: Know my dear friend that you possess great riches and much treasure, enough for a few generations -- thirty- eight essays full of wisdom and mussar from the holy maran Abba zt'l. Behold the words of mussar wisdom are basically main principles, the little that contains much, innumerable details. They can be expanded on according to the readers' intelligence and the preparation of their hearts. I mentioned intelligence and heart because most people are given intelligence as a talent, but the heart is an acquisition [that one must acquire himself]. Therefore, true success is dependant only on both of them, on the condition that one goes in the proper order as the posuk states.

And You Shall Rejoice

His happiness sprung from the depths of his heart, the happiness of a servant content with his master and serving him with a complete heart. His expressions of rejoicing during times of simcha were famous. Reb Shmuel achieved spiritual heights and his feet lifted him to dance from the depths of his soul.

Once, the Gavad of Ponovezh stayed in Yerushalaim on chol hamoed Sukkos. He was in Yeshivas Chevron for the simchas beis hashoeva to see the simcha of the Torah and gave a drosho to the talmidim.

Reb Shmuel Hillel, who was an integral part of yeshiva life, was extremely joyous and danced wondrously. It left a deep impression on the talmidim who would later reminisce about it longingly.

When the talmidim of the Ponovezher Rov came to visit him in the convalescent home in Beis HaKerem on Simchas Torah, he immediately asked them, "Did you already see Reb Shmuel Hillel Shenker on Simchas Torah?" He immediately instructed them, "Go see what a true simcha is!"

A Man Who Was Zealous for Hashem's Name

The spirit of Hashem burned in Reb Shmuel Hillel's heart. He was not able to tolerate the fact that the city of Hashem was being devoured by reshoim who were trying to destroy everything holy. It pained him deeply that the "chofshim" were abound in the Eretz Hakodesh. It wasn't enough that they themselves were crude transgressors, but they came under the guise of nationalism and influenced many to follow their evil ways.

He also fought the government rabbonim with all his might. He once met one of these rabbis near the gate of Meah Shearim. He turned to him and said, "Rabbonim is the roshei teivos of reshoim bechayeihem nikro'im meisim."

The rabbi asked him, "And where is the yud?"

Reb Shmuel immediately answered, "Indeed, these rabbonim are missing the yud, the Yiddishe nekudoh."

In one of the small yeshivos in the middle of the country, they started learning English. The lessons were held privately, outside of the yeshiva building after school hours. Reb Shmuel found out. When he met the Chazon Ish at his grandson's wedding (they were related), he protested. The Chazon Ish immediately contacted the one responsible and told him, "Don't torture Reb Shmuel Shenker. Don't do it."

They once wanted to give a eulogy in Yeshivas Chevron for a rabbi who was not accepted by the gedolim. Who stood in the breach and did not allow it? Reb Shmuel Hillel. He went to the one responsible for the decision and showed him one of the chapters of Shaarei Teshuva of Rabbeinu Yonah. The matter was dropped immediately.

When the excitement over the establishment of the State reached its peak, he did not enable those who wanted to say Hallel to do so. In yeshiva, immediately after chazoras hashatz on 5 Iyar, Reb Shmuel went to the aron, opened it and started saying Tehillim: "Ya'ancho Hashem beyom tzoro." With that, he prevented saying Hallel for once and for all. The yeshivaleit still speak about it.

In Yerushalaim he was also one of the founders of a holy organization whose goal was to guard the kedusha and tznius of the city of Yerushalaim. The president of the organization was Reb Moshe Yosef Hoffman zt'l along with Reb Shmuel, Reb Yitzchok Shlomo Blau and Reb Shlomo Wexler. They watched over the city and any breach was met with a vigorous protest, which scared the transgressors.

In the Gates of Kabboloh

A few years after his rebbe, Reb Simcha Zissel of Kelm, was niftar, Reb Shmuel began learning the hidden Torah in light of a hint from the Alter. He selected a small group of talmidim to give a daily shiur in kabboloh and davened with them in his house everyday as well.

He also had a set shiur before sunrise on Shabbos morning to learn kabboloh with his father-in-law Reb Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld zt'l.

In 5701 (1941) when the Nazi ym's troops were at the southern border of Eretz Yisroel, he took ten of Yerushalaim's famous mekubolim and went from one end of the country to the other saying yichudim and sheimos kedoshim. The tzadikim of Yerushalaim in those days said that this procession saved Eretz Yisroel from the butchers yemach shmom. It was during that time that Reb Shmuel also arranged for the saying of Tehillim in all the mekomos hakedoshim.

On 9 Iyar 5704 (1944), his beloved son Reb Mendel Shenker passed away when he was only forty-six. Reb Shmuel, whose belief in the coming of Moshiach was a tangible emunoh, did not shed tears. Only the following words slipped out of his mouth, "Here he is . . . here is moshiach."

Another year passed and another son was taken from him. Reb Yisroel passed away in the prime of his life on 27 Teves 5705 (1945). Reb Shmuel was struck with the death of his youngest and most beloved son, who had been his comfort. He accepted the din with love and continued to serve his Creator with ahavoh and simchah.

A year later, on 26 Teves, the night before he was niftar, he was laying sick with pneumonia. He was extremely weak. His grandson said to him, "Zeide tomorrow is Tatte's yahrtzeit. It's a pity that you can't come with us to the cemetery."

"I will be in the beis hakevoros tomorrow," Reb Shmuel answered confidently.

"How could it be, Zeide?" the grandson asked. "How can you go?"

"You'll see. I'll be there tomorrow."

The next day Reb Shmuel's sickness flared up and his condition worsened. He asked his grandson to call Reb Meir Chodosh, the mashgiach of Yeshivas Chevron. He wanted to tell him the secret he heard from Reb Naftoli Amsterdam before he was niftar. He had heard it from Reb Yisroel Salanter who heard it from Reb Zundel Salant. Reb Zundel received it from Reb Chaim of Volozhin who heard it from the Vilna Gaon. Reb Shmuel wanted to transmit this secret to Reb Meir Chodosh, but he was unable to come because it was the day of his son's wedding. That night Reb Shmuel's holy neshomoh left him and he took the great secret with him to the grave.

Reb Shmuel fulfilled his word. He came to the cemetery on the day of his son 's yahrtzeit -- for his eternal rest. The day was 27 Teves 5716 (1956). He was given a great honor in his death -- his aron was brought to the courtyard of Yeshivas Chevron. All the talmidim and people of Yerushalaim stood outside as the rosh yeshiva, Reb Chazkel Sarna zt'l gave an emotional eulogy based on the posuk, "ubesiridim asher Hashem korei" in which sorid refers to a talmid chochom.

The First Beis Hamussar

As a faithful son devoted to the mussar method, he fulfilled the instruction of his great rebbe and opened the gates of the first beis mussar in Yerushalaim and Yeshivas Or Chodosh in Strauss. The beis mussar was zoche to encompass the Yerushalmim who were thirsting for a bit more yiras Shomayim.

Many of the chachmei Yerushalaim joined this wondrous group of bnei aliyah and became part of the beis mussar.

Reb Shmuel joined this holy group and secluded himself entirely in the daled amos of Torah and mussar.

The letterhead of Or Chodosh contained the following statement: "Founded in 5657 beruach Yisroel Sabbo kadisha rashkebehag Gaon Yisroel Salanter zy'a by his disciple hagaon zy'a chochom umekubol eloki Reb Simcha Zissel of Kelm zy'a." The connection between Reb Simcha Zissel and the yeshiva is quite apparent. He gave his blessings and urged the founding of a beis mussar in the ir hakodesh. He sent many letters praising and encouraging its mussar methodology.

His father-in-law Reb Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld was also a partner in this mokom Torah and mussar. He even obtained a haskomo from Reb Yehoshua Leib Diskin for it. Reb Yosef Chaim had gone to the Brisker Rov holding the newspaper, Hatzefira, which contained sharp articles against the mussar approach. He was intending to show it to Reb Yehoshua Leib when the Brisker Rov saw the infamous newspaper and cried, "A tomei newspaper in my house!"

He immediately commanded Reb Yosef Chaim to go four amos out of his house and read him the newspaper from there.

A short time later, the Brisker Rov published an enthusiastic letter supporting the beis mussar.

The beis mussar produced gedolei Yerushalaim who constantly grew under its auspices on Chevron Street in the Old City. It bustled with Toras hamussar. Talmidei chachomim and tremendous geonim entered its walls including Reb Mordechai Leib Rubin, the famous Yerushalmi ravad, Reb Leib Turos, known for every good middo and who never said an idle word; Reb Chaim, the veteran melamed of Eitz Chaim, Reb Eli Memkes (Landau), descendent of the Gra, Reb Yosef Neiman, father of the Gedulei Shmuel. Reb Yosef Shimshulevitz is still there, a man who is a yirei Hashem and fluent in Shas, who was so scared of the final day of judgment that he fainted when he heard someone say that the mikve is boiling like Gehennom.

On 21 Cheshvan 5659 (1899) the members of Or Chodosh requested that Reb Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld accept the presidium of the yeshiva. "We, the members of the exalted yeshiva, kollel avreichim, perushim, Beis HaTalmud and Yeshivas Or Chodosh in Yerushalayim ir hakodesh turn to hadar geono shlita that he please fulfill our desire to crown us with his glorious presence and be our rosh mesivta. Torah we will seek from his mouth and Hashem should desire that he succeed in strengthening Torah and glorifying it. Hashem Who dwells in Tzion will show us wonders from his Torah and as his soul desires he will expound it for good. The signers: fourteen of the best learners of the yeshiva kedosha."

A Letter from R' Chaim

Reb Chaim of Brisk zt'l also wrote enthusiastic letters supporting the beis mussar. This is one of them:

"The beis medrash, kollel avreichim and outstanding yeshiva Or Chodosh in Yerushalaim t'v according to the preference of the rebbe and light of Yisroel, HaRav Yisroel Salanter zy'a, which is under the auspices of the gaon Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and his son-in-law HaRav Shmuel Hillel Shenker, son of the gaon and tzaddik Reb Avrohom Shenker-Tanis of Kovna. It is a large, powerful institution of talmidei chachomim who are great in Torah and yirah and crowned with all the middos that Chazal enumerate through which the Torah is acquired. The existence of the yeshiva depends only on the spirit of the nedivei ho'om . . . It is one of the most necessary and honorable institutions and it contains chachomim yerei'im from the best of Yerushalaim. Fortunate is the lot of those who act on behalf of this yeshiva, a treasure house of Torah and yir'oh in the ir hakodesh. He will be blessed with all good and the brochos said about those who support the Torah and its learners. It is understood that it is done according to the laws of the government.

(signed) Chaim HaLevi Soloveitchik Brisk, Lithuania


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