Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Teves 5761 - January 17, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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HaRav Alter Halpern zt"l
by Moshe Musman

Last week, London's chareidi community was in deep mourning over the petiroh of one of the city's most gifted and best known marbitzei Torah, HaRav Alter Shlomo Yitzchok Halevi Halpern zt'l. R' Alter was the youngest son-in-law of HaRav Moshe Schneider zt'l, founder and head of Yeshivas Toras Emes, and he took over the yeshiva and later the kollel which replaced it.

The levaya was attended by the cream of London's chareidi community, including rabbonim and dayanim, and followed by masses of bnei Torah from all over England who had come to participate in the levaya of one of the greatest talmidei chachomim of our times who lit up the skies of European Jewry with his Torah for nearly sixty years.

HaRav Eliyohu Halpern, the niftar's oldest son, said how difficult it is to speak about a man who was so humble and hidden in all his ways, and how much perception one needs in order to study his ways. He noted that no one ever heard his father speak negatively about his fellow, and that even though many sought his counsel, he never revealed their problems to anyone, not even to his immediate family. In a choked voice, he described the manner in which the niftar is surely being welcomed in Shomayim by the Ritvo and the Baalei Tosafos, whose chidushim he published, and as well has by his father-in-law, HaRav Schneider and his mentor of Rav Eliyahu Dessler.

From his home the levaya continued to the beis medrash of the Schneider's yeshiva where he studied and taught for sixty years. In the cemetery, hespedim were delivered by his sons, HaRav Binyomin Zeev, the head of kollel Kehal Beis Halevi, Lakewood; HaRav Yisroel Meir the rosh yeshiva of Mishkan HaTorah, Gateshead, and HaRav Menachem, the founder of the mechina for the Zichron Moshe yeshiva in London. They cited his outstanding qualities, and brought examples of his behavior and reticence. His subdued behavior, they said, was more influential than speech, as Chazal say in Megilla, `Milah beselah mashtika betrein (a word is worth a selah; silence is worth two)."

He is survived by his wife, sons, daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and many students who are following in his footsteps.

At the end of the shiva week, a his'orerus rally will be held in the study hall of Schneider's yeshiva in London.


Reb Alter Halpern was born in Duisburg, Germany. When he was about fifteen years old, he went to learn with HaRav Moshe Schneider in Frankfort. He and several other bochurim from his town arrived in the yeshiva because of a letter which HaRav Schneider had sent to the town, warning that the situation of the Jews was serious and that the only way "to extinguish the fire that was burning in the town" was by learning Torah. Reb Fishel Goldberg was the first talmid from Duisburg to travel to the yeshiva, and he was followed the next zeman by Alter Halpern, and then by Naftoli Friedler, zt"l, who later went to Gateshead and then to the U.S.A.

Prior to the beginning of the procession, hespedim were delivered by HaRav Sholom Friedman, a member of the beis din of the chareidi community of London and one of the niftar's students. In his hesped, he described the niftar's devotion to Torah and his subjugation to the yoke of Torah, which he expressed by his simple lifestyle. He described HaRav Halperin's conduct, by citing the Rashi and Chazal: "Vayar menucho ki tov, ve'ess ho'oretz ki no'ema, vayeit shichmo lisbol, vayehi lemas oveid," on his devotion to Torah study.

The niftar played a prominent role in the illustrious activities of his father-in-law, HaRav Moshe Yehuda Schneider, zt"l, especially by continuing his endeavors after him. The rosh yeshiva of Beis Yosef Gateshead, HaRav Avrohom Gurewicz, mentioned the Chazal that talmidei chachomim are the light of the world and the eyes of the community, citing the words of the gemora in Bava Basra (4a) which relates how Bava ben Buta told King Hordos to concern himself with the light of the world. Even after the light has been found, Har Gurewicz explained, there is still need for eyes to see it, and when there are eyes, but there is no light, and darkness prevails, even the eyes don't help. The niftar, he said had light and eyes, with his outlook on life and his clear and lucid way in Torah study.

In the preface to the edition of Chiddushei HoRitvo Hachadoshos, on Bovo Metzia, which he edited and annotated, HaRav Halpern acknowledged the sacrifice made by his parents so that he could continue learning. Although they had an opportunity to leave Germany, they decided to remain so that he would be able to remain in the yeshiva in Frankfort.

He never received clear information about his parents' fate. They were separated when his father was prevented from returning home after a day trip for business by the changing of the border which took place that day. Cut off from each other, with no direct postal link, the parents corresponded by sending letters to their son Alter in London via Red Cross, which he then forwarded. The uncertainty about his parents fate troubled him throughout his life.

His baggage was sent on ahead to England before he himself left Germany. When it was time to leave, he couldn't find his passport and he realized that it must be in his suitcase, which was waiting already in London's Victoria Station. Rav Moshe Schneider's son, Rav Gedaliah, was already in England and he was contacted. Rav Gedaliah's wife went to the station and they let her open the case, where she found the passport and visas. They were then sent back to Germany, enabling Reb Alter to leave.

In London he settled down to learning in Rav Moshe Schneider's yeshiva. He used to talk in learning with Dayan Abramsky zt'l, and he contributed several pieces to the Sefer Zikoron for Dayan Abramsky which he mentions having discussed with him.

He was also close to HaRav Eliyohu Dessler zt'l. When Rav Dessler opened Gateshead kollel, he took Reb Alter along with him for the second zeman; Reb Alter was the only bochur learning there.

It was Rav Dessler who actually arranged his talmid's shidduch with the daughter of Rav Moshe Schneider, the only shidduch which the Rosh Yeshiva made with one of the bochurim in his yeshiva. Rav Dessler wanted Reb Alter to come to learn in Gateshead Kollel for five years after his wedding, but Rav Moshe Schneider insisted that he come straight back to the yeshiva to deliver shiurim. He delivered the third shiur, which was the top level in the yeshiva.

When asked by Rav Dessler what he wanted for a wedding gift, Reb Alter replied that he would like a copy of Chiddushei Rabbenu Chaim al HoRambam, which was then very hard to obtain. Rav Dessler got him a copy at great cost and inscribed it. Rav Halpern later said that had he known how much it would cost Rav Dessler, he wouldn't have asked for that sefer.

One time, he wanted to travel to Kamenitz in order to learn from Reb Chaim's talmid, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt'l, but the outbreak of war made that impossible. However he was able to learn from talmidim of Reb Boruch Ber, such as HaRav Moshe Schwab zt'l, and he copied down those shiurim of Reb Boruch Ber which they had heard. In fact, Reb Boruch Ber's approach was noticeable in all of Rav Halpern's shiurim.

Rav Halpern was very close to Rav Dessler and was the recipient of several letters from him. In one letter, written while on the boat to Eretz Yisroel, Rav Dessler mentions the doubts that he still experienced about going to fill his new position (as mashgiach in Ponevezh yeshiva).

Rav Halpern and ylct'a Rav Aryeh Carmell brought out the first volume of Michtov Mei'Eliyohu together. Rav Halpern was a daily visitor at Rav Carmell's home during the period that they prepared the sefer, whose contents are more difficult than those of the other volumes, as those familiar with the work know. Rav Halpern's mussar training came mostly from Rav Dessler, and also from his own father in law, whom Rav Halpern referred to as "the Rebbe."

Rav Halpern learned and taught in the yeshiva throughout his life. Although the yeshiva closed about thirty years ago, a kollel remained, where he continued learning up until around two weeks before his petiroh.

Besides his teaching, he shouldered many other tasks to benefit the community at large. As well as a brilliant mind, he had a very good grasp of things in general and he was approached for advice on a wide variety of areas of life, particularly in guiding chasanim and in restoring domestic harmony.

He was also very practical and resourceful. Once he was walking in the street when he saw a gang of gentile hoodlums approaching him. He picked up a stone and threw it at the window of one of the nearby houses. The owner came out to shout at the members of the gang, whom he assumed had broken his window. In the ensuing commotion, Rav Halpern was able to escape safely.

On Sundays, when he didn't deliver a shiur in the yeshiva, he would travel to the famous university towns of Oxford and Cambridge and give a shiur there. He influenced many to draw closer to Yiddishkeit through these visits and they became fully observant, heimishe Yidden. Although there were those who felt that he should not engage in such work, he paid no attention to their opposition. It was characteristic of him that if he held an endeavor to be important, he didn't let the any opposition deflect him but he followed it through to the end.

He wrote children's literature for years, regularly contributing to the periodical Haderech. He saw that (forty or fifty years ago) there was no suitable literature available for English speaking youth and since he held that it was important to provide it, he did so himself in his "spare" time. For a while he even produced his own journal, Yeshurun, for which he wrote almost all the articles.

Besides the high quality of his English (which was not even his mother tongue) his renditions for children of well known aggodos and midroshim are suffused with chiddush. Without sacrificing dignity or delicacy, he made them as exciting as the best literature, while his interpretation afforded a deeper appreciation of the teachings contained in Chazal's terse comments. What was probably only discerned by adult readers is his utter familiarity with the broader context of the times he wrote about and the nature of the ideological conflicts that our nation faced at different periods of our history.

Another of his original projects was the publication of a pamphlet which demonstrated some of the glaring mistakes in understanding gemoras made by Dr. Marcus Jastrow, author of the then widely used Talmudic dictionary. The booklet's entries were arranged in exactly the same format as the dictionary. In one of London's shops for sifrei kodesh, it was sold together with the dictionary.

Rav and Rebbetzin Halpern's home was open to all. People would come to visit -- and stay. Once, a girl from a broken home came to them for Shabbos. She ended up staying for eleven years, during which time she was looked after and cared for. One family from Eretz Yisroel came for a Shabbos and stayed for nine months. R' Aharon Kotler zt'l, and R' Shneur Kotler zt'l, were both guests in Rav Halpern's home, as were many other rabbonim, travellers from all over the world.


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