Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Av 5762 - July 24, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








"The Ikkar is Gutte Middos" -- A Glimpse into the Life of the Tzaddik Rabbi Benzion Rakow, zt"l

by a talmid Reb Zalman Hoff, shlita, plus excerpts from My Father, My Rebbe, Targum Press, 1998, by Chani Zahn

Rabbi Rakow was best known as rosh yeshiva of Chayei Olom Yeshiva, but he was also the rov of beis hamedrash Heichal Hatorah and a leader of Agudas Yisroel. To some he was "the Rebbe." To others "the Rosh Yeshiva" and to yet others "the Rov." To his friends he was "Reb Benzion." Everyone who knew Rabbi Rakow, found exactly what he needed in him.

Early History

Rabbi Rakow was born in Frankfurt, Germany, into a distinguished family of rabbonim. His father, Rabbi Yomtov Lipman, was one of the descendants named after the great Rabbi Yomtov Lipman Heller, author of the Tosafos Yomtov on mishnayos. Reb Benzion's father, a talmid of the great Volozhiner Yeshiva, became a rosh yeshiva in Frankfurt-on-Main. Later when he moved to London he was always preoccupied with learning and giving shiurim. He would say: "I am called Yomtov because each day that I learn Torah is like a yom tov to me."

Rabbi Benzion Rakow never forgot his illustrious background and he felt that this gave him the extra responsibility to carry on in the derech haTorah he had learned in his youth. After his father's petiroh Rabbi Rakow continued to give the shiurim his father had established.

As a young bochur Reb Benzion received his early Torah education from his father and in the Hirsch Realschule. After school hours he also received tutoring in the home of the rov of Frankfurt, Rav Horowitz.

When the family moved to London, Reb Benzion joined the Schneider's Yeshiva and came under the influence of its rosh yeshiva HaRav Moshe Schneider, a great friend of his father. During this time he became a keen admirer and close talmid of Reb Zeidl Semiatitsky zt"l with whom he studied for many hours, well into the night. Later, it was chiefly the influence of Reb Zeidl which encouraged the former talmidim of Schneider's Yeshiva to form their own beis hamedrash, "Heichal Hatorah," of which Reb Benzion became rov.

Some of the exceptional students from Schneider's Yeshiva continued their studies in the Gateshead Kollel founded by Rabbi Dessler. The Kollel only accepted the most promising and exceptional talmidei chachomim. Hence, it was a challenge and privilege to become a member.

When the question arose of either Reb Benzion or his brother Reb Bezalel (later to become the Gateshead Rov) joining the Kollel, it was decided that Reb Benzion should stay in London to look after his father. As Reb Bezalel prepared his few belongings for the journey to Gateshead, his brother Benzion laid them neatly in the suitcase. Rav Yomtov Lipman, noting this behavior, said to his son Reb Bezalel, "See what a tzaddik your brother Benzion is!"

After his wedding Reb Benzion continued learning in the Kollel which Reb Moshe Schneider had established.

His Life's Ambition

As a first step towards fulfilling his life's ambition to spread the study of Torah, Rabbi Rakow took up a position in chinuch, teaching children at the Yesodei Hatorah School in the early 1950s.

At that time Rabbi L. Warhaftig zt"l sought to establish a yeshiva in the Golders Green neighborhood of London. This was a district with a growing orthodox community but where nobody had succeeded in establishing a yeshiva. Rabbi Warhaftig could find nobody better than Rabbi Rakow for this job, and he invited him to head Yeshivas Chayei Olom.

The Yeshiva's beginning was very humble indeed. It began with only three bochurim who learned under Rabbi Rakow's guidance in the Sassover Beis Hamedrash. The first students soon moved on to other yeshivos. Instead of looking for another position, Rabbi Rakow was determined not to lose heart. Soon more new talmidim joined him.

The next two-and-a-half decades saw hundreds of talmidim join the Yeshiva to learn under their beloved rosh yeshiva and to absorb the atmosphere of a true mokom Torah. How did Rabbi Rakow achieve this success?

A new talmid would find in him a master of Torah and yiras Shomayim. But shining through these awesome first impressions, the talmid soon discovered a humble and warm personality who took a great interest in every individual. Although he was the rosh yeshiva, he would not hesitate when necessary to sit down and learn individually with a bochur who needed extra help to understand a difficult piece of gemora.

Derech Halimud

His derech of learning in his daily shiur was to work through Rishonim and Acharonim together with his talmidim. He greatly encouraged their participation and sometimes when one of them asked a good kashye or gave a good answer, he would write it down, later to be included in his sefer of chiddushim. Although his talmidim were required to know the gemora clearly and in depth, he also emphasized bekius and the importance of doing chazoroh of what they had learned. In later years he adopted the study of Daf Hayomi, as an effective method of chazoroh for himself.


Rabbi Rakow excelled in another aspect of the Torah: his mussar shmuessen. His own Torah and middos served as a noteworthy example to his talmidim, but in addition he delivered regular shmuessen through which he taught the bochurim how to look at the surrounding world through the eyes of the Torah and how to behave.

During these shmuessen, which were delivered sometimes in a sweet tone and at other times as a harsh rebuke, often each talmid felt that the Rosh Yeshiva was speaking to him as an individual.

He rebuked his talmidim harshly and this might have led to the students fearing him. However their deep feeling of love for his honesty and sincerity counterbalanced this. He was able to "sweeten the bitter pill" as one talmid put it.

If he needed to display anger towards a bochur, it was only superficial and for the benefit of the bochur. To prove this, after the bochur had accepted the rebuke he would ask a favor from that bochur. Naturally the bochur felt closer to the Rosh Yeshiva after being privileged to do a favor for him.

It happened once that Rabbi Rakow gave a talmid a telling off in front of others. This was done to leave a greater impression on all concerned. It later turned out that there had been a mistake. Rabbi Rakow promptly apologized to the bochur in front of the whole Yeshiva.

Once two gifted talmidim who were study-partners for three years decided to split up after a falling out. The Rosh Yeshiva was greatly disturbed by this. He called one of the bochurim to go for a walk with him to Hampstead Heath during lunch time. He asked him what the matter was and then explained to him, "The Soton has found just what he is looking for: a pair of talented bochurim whose chavrusa can be disturbed!"

The Rosh Yeshiva then concluded with a smile: "Do you want to give in to the Soton; do you want to give him pleasure?"

The Rosh Yeshiva then had the same discussion with the other talmid and soon they were learning together again quite happily.

Recognized by the Gedolim

As a personality in the Torah world, Rabbi Rakow was recognized by the gedolim of the generation. His seforim Yalkut Shiurim received wide acclaim and his correspondence with such gedolim as HaRav Elozor Shach zt"l and HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt"l illustrate the respect they held for him.

Even in the early days, before he became a well-known rosh yeshiva, the Brisker Rov saw greatness in him. In 1959 during a visit to Yerushalayim, Rabbi Rakow was walking with Reb Sholom Schwadron to see the godol hador the Brisker Rov zt"l. As they approached the house, Rabbi Rakow could see the Brisker Rov through a window and, not wanting to disturb the godol, was satisfied with a glimpse. However Reb Sholom persuaded Rabbi Rakow to knock on the door to give Sholom. As soon as the Brisker Rov saw him, he beckoned him to come in and sit down and began to chat with him about his family and various other matters. This was most unusual, because the Brisker Rov rarely received visitors and at best he would only spare them a few words.

Reb Sholom suggested to Rabbi Rakow that they should not disturb the Rov any more. To this the Rov retorted, "Let us chat a little more." Reb Sholom was amazed at this uncharacteristic reply. Clearly the Rov was anticipating something important which Rabbi Rakow had not yet discussed.

An Important Shaaloh

At this point Rabbi Rakow mentioned a problem that he had on his mind. A certain bochur in the Yeshiva wished to combine his learning Torah with a few hours of limudei chol, to pursue a career. Could a bochur be allowed to study limudei chol whilst at yeshiva?

To this the Brisker Rov gave a very clear answer. He quoted the psak of his father Reb Chaim Brisker zt"l when faced with a dilemma. The Russian Government had issued a decree to all yeshivas: either introduce secular studies or face closure of the yeshiva. Reb Chaim chose the latter of the two evils. This demonstrated Reb Chaim's daas Torah that the study of Torah had to be pure, without any intrusion of limudei chol.

Although Rabbi Rakow was only a young man at the time, the Brisker Rov gave him encouragement for the future. The Brisker Rov later implied to a talmid that Rabbi Rakow possessed a neshomoh tehoroh, a pure soul.

Ahavas Habrios

In later life too, his kindness and care for others endeared him to all. He regularly used a firm of Jewish taxi drivers to transport him to Golders Green. After his petiroh the owner told the family how an argument would regularly develop amongst the drivers as to who should take Rabbi Rakow.

He used to sit next to the driver in the front seat, so that the driver should feel he was a true companion! He would take an interest in the driver, in his life story and his work. He was a good listener and in turn he would tell stories of gedolim, of people the driver knew or of one of his family. In this way he succeeded in making the driver feel important.

He had a marvelous memory for genealogy. He knew the yichus and remembered the ancestors of many people and he always had something good to say about them. Every person, whether a talmid, a friend or even a child, felt that Rabbi Rakow was closest to him, for such was the level of interest he showed in him. The elderly lonely shochet who received a daily phone call from Rabbi Rakow up until his last day was no exception.

It was part of his gadlus that whilst he had a most aristocratic character, he could easily mix with ordinary people.

Rabbi Rakow had a special way of convincing people to make peace even where it appeared difficult. When he walked in the street, he greeted and smiled even to the young children passing him. Once he called over a yungerman and asked him, "Why don't you greet?!"

Sever Ponim Yofos

When doing bikur cholim rounds on long Friday afternoons, he always managed to cheer up the sick person, reminding him of happy times. His face alone was often a cause for raising someone's spirits. He always wore a gentle smile and often quoted a saying from the Alter of Slabodke zt"l that a person's countenance is like a reshus horabim, a public possession.

Hakoras Hatov

He was very grateful to anyone who performed even the smallest of favors for him. Till his last days he used to pay regular visits to an elderly lady who used to cook the Shabbos fish for his father and himself after his mother passed away.

He was always grateful to Hashem for everything he possessed, but most especially his children and grandchildren. He often picked up a grandchild and said: "What brochoh does one make on you?"

Kovod Habrios

The Mishna states in Ovos: "Who is a respectable person? Someone who respects others."

His respect for even ordinary people showed itself in numerous ways. He never liked to keep someone waiting and even if a talmid came to see him in the middle of a meal, he would leave the table straightaway to see why he had come.

He taught his children respect for others too. If they ever laughed or made a disrespectful remark about someone he would say, "You misunderstood the person; he meant well."

He was constantly aware of his position as an ambassador of the Torah, and this required an appearance of tidiness and self respect. He made sure that all his family also looked clean and tidy, so as never to bring the Torah into disrepute.

Where required, the Rosh Yeshiva would order a new suit, arrange a ticket for someone, and all these things were done with no hesitation or fuss.


When one reflects upon how many fine middos this man possessed and in how many of them he excelled, how can one pinpoint which middoh was his finest? Perhaps we can find the answer in the gemora which states, Anovo gedoloh mikulom -- Humility is the greatest of them all.

Although Rabbi Rakow was the rov of his beis hamedrash, he never hesitated to do even the most mundane jobs in the shul when necessary. After davening in the morning he could often be seen gathering the siddurim, a job normally done by a shammos. He did not consider it below his dignity to take a broom and sweep the floor on Hoshanna Rabbah when the Beis Hamedrash looked untidy from the leaves of the Hoshanos.

This great quality of humility was exemplified by the deep respect he always showed for his younger brother, the Gateshead Rov ylct"a whom he recognized as a great Torah personality. During a visit to the gedolim in Eretz Yisroel, Rabbi Rakow would introduce his brother first, "This is the Gateshead Rov," as if he were a mere personal assistant.

Although he would readily offer his advice at all times, if the Rosh Yeshiva felt unsure he would ask a higher authority. He would often write to the Steipler zt"l, HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt"l, and Rav Shach zt"l.

Several times Rabbi Rakow asked a talmid to deliver his Monday night shiur to baalei batim when he travelled abroad. Once a successful shiur produced a very positive response from the participants. In his modesty, Rabbi Rakow commented to his talmid, "They said you gave a better shiur than I do . . . ."

When his illness took a turn for the worse, his talmidim organized a taanis and extra tefillos for his refuah sheleimoh. When he heard about this, he said to a talmid, "Why should you have to suffer for my aveiros?"

Mekorvon LaTorah

During one of his stays in hospital he discovered that one of the nurses was Jewish. She told him she was engaged and soon getting married, and when he asked her if she knew any of the laws she answered in the negative. The patient next to him, who was also a Jew, called the Rebbetzin and said, "Your husband looks such a saintly man. I am a Jew but know nothing."

The next time Rabbi Rakow paid a visit to hospital for a checkup, he had difficulty in breathing and walking but he was determined to get to the ward. Once there he handed over a book of dinim in English to the nurse and an English Chumash to the elderly Jew.

In the early years of raising funds for the Yeshiva, the Rosh Yeshiva was often confronted by baalei battim arguing against the value of setting aside years devoted solely to an "easy life" of Torah-study, first as a ben yeshiva and later in kollel. The Rosh Yeshiva would say with a smile, "Alright, you try it! To sit all day applying oneself single- mindedly to learning is a terrific avodoh, truly very hard work -- try it for yourself!"

They would readily agree that it would be difficult for them.

These discussions took up his valuable time, exhausting him physically as well. However, many of these baalei batim became great admirers of his and increased their hours of Torah study. Eventually many of these same people supported their children in full- time learning.

Upon returning home after such visits, he would comment that the fundraising had proven to be a double job. Like his father before him, he invested much effort in instilling the local baalei battim with the importance of being kovei'a itim laTorah, a goal towards which he worked tirelessly. The Rosh Yeshiva too would demonstrate by his own example and conversation the spiritual heights one is able to achieve by being a full-time ben Torah. He would also stress the importance of remaining a ben Torah even after leaving the walls of the yeshiva or kollel.

He once personally invited the European roshei yeshiva to his house for a meeting. After the meeting one of the roshei yeshiva said to Rabbi Rakow, "You make me feel good with your openness and honesty regarding your work with yeshiva bochurim. I now realize that all yeshivos have similar problems which need addressing."

When a rosh yeshiva phoned Rabbi Rakow to discuss a personal matter concerning his Yeshiva, he stated: "You are the father of all Yeshivas, father of all bnei Torah."


His love for learning Torah knew no bounds. His life was spent delivering shiurim to his talmidim at the Yeshiva, to baalei batim in his shul and to many individuals at different levels of Torah- learning. This program lasted till late at night.

When his children were young, they hardly saw their father from one Shabbos to the next because they were asleep by the time he came home and still sleeping in the morning when he left home for shul. When they called him "Shabbos Tatty," he would smile!

One deep and lasting impression imprinted itself on his children. It seemed whenever they woke up in the night they could hear the sweet humming of their father learning. Often they could hear it at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, and even after a day laden with shiurim and other public duties. The same was true early in the morning: from 6.00 a.m. again the sweet humming of their father's learning could be heard.

Time was the most valuable possession to him and he tried to use every hour to the fullest. He taught his children the value of time, and even when he was ill his sons had to find a good excuse to take time off from their learning to visit him.

Somei'ach Bechelko

When his children were young he and his Rebbetzin shetichye were not able to give the children much material wealth, but they provided them with their needs and above all, they taught the children to be happy with what they had. Sometimes his young daughters would go to play in a friend's house and when they returned they would describe to their sisters the friend's "elegant" house, or that the friend's father had taken them out to the park on Sundays.

To this Rabbi Rakow would reply: "The finest and nicest house in the world is 53 Fairholt Road (the house they lived in at the time). The nicest park is 53 Fairholt Road's garden." He taught the children to appreciate which room was really the most beautiful in the house, the "learning room" which contained many seforim.

When yet another of his files of chiddushei Torah appeared on the shelf, neatly typed out after many almost sleepless nights, his eyes would twinkle and the simcha evident on his face was that of Simchas Torah. Then his children would appreciate the concept of omol baTorah.

Children's Chinuch

He was involved in every detail of his children's education and would carefully scrutinize their school reports. However, he always told them that: "The ikkar is gutte middos!"

He did not believe in birthday parties and presents, nor in Chanukah presents, but when it came to Afikoman presents he rewarded the lucky finder with a worthwhile visit to the local seforim shop.

For the children's reading material he spared no money or effort to buy them Torah books and publications so that they should not feel the need to read books from the secular library.

He used to relate fascinating stories of gedolim, at the Shabbos table. Someone just happened to mention the name of a sefer, and he could enrapture his listeners with the life story of its author. His purpose was, of course that they should learn from the tzaddik's middos and maasim tovim.

His children looked forward to going away with their parents on summer holidays. He loved the quiet peaceful countryside, good fresh air and beautiful scenery. He loved walking and he walked for miles.

One day they passed an open air orchestra. He watched all the instruments working in harmony, and pointed out to his family that if one instrument plays out of tune, the whole orchestra is affected. So too, he explained, are the bnei Yisroel like one orchestra. If one person does something wrong it affects everybody.

He loved his children and grandchildren dearly and when they left home for yeshivos or seminaries, or after they got married, he wrote to each one every erev Shabbos. When he went abroad on a trip he used to write to the children about his journey from the beginning to the end. He would make copies of the letter and send them to each one separately.

Concern for Talmidim

On Friday afternoons he would spend time writing to his former talmidim. He would correspond with them in learning, giving advice, sharing in their simchas or in their sorrow. He helped many a talmid find his partner for life, and would honor the talmid by travelling to his wedding. He helped them find careers, assessing each talmid according to what he was capable of. If he did not hear from a talmid for some time, he would contact him.

In Money Matters

In his attitude towards earning money he showed tremendous bitochon. He believed that his job was to spread the Torah and even if this meant hard times, he had bitochon that Hakodosh Boruch Hu would help him. Despite hard times he always gave generously to tzedokoh.

At one time a good friend advised the Rosh Yeshiva that since it was a good time to invest in property he would lend him a small sum of money. He refused the offer, explaining that any investment in business would surely disturb him from his learning.


He would keep a cheshbon of his bills and debts, which he was meticulous to pay off. On Seder night when the children admired the beautiful Seder plate and other items of silver, he reminded everyone that the Seder plate and some silver was not his, but had been entrusted to his care by a family in Germany when he left to come to England. There were no survivors of that family.

"Remember," he would say, "when Moshiach comes we have to give it back."

His Concern for the Klal

Matters of Klal Yisroel took up a great deal of his time. To promote the interests of Orthodox Yiddishkeit he joined the Agudas Yisroel, of which he became a Presidium Member. He spoke on many Aguda platforms, including the Sixth Knessia Gedolah in Yerushalayim, always giving his listeners a clear picture of daas Torah. He was involved behind the scenes in many activities of Pirchim, Zeirim and the Jewish Tribune, for which he felt a great sense of responsibility.

One wonders: How could one man engage in so many activities with so much success? The answer must be habo letaher mesay'in oso. Hashem saw that this tzaddik took up all those ventures purely for the sake of kovod Shomayim and for that he deserved and received great siyata deShmaya.

Kiddush Hashem

Rabbi Rakow arrived one winter day at the Yeshiva. As he stepped out of the taxi he slipped in the snow. Upon noticing what happened, the non-Jewish cleaner came out of the building and offered his assistance. He carried Rabbi Rakow's briefcase into the Yeshiva, and the Rosh Yeshiva went on in the taxi to the hospital. In appreciation for his help the Rosh Yeshiva presented him with a check.

The following letter of condolence was written by that cleaner.

Dear Mrs. Rakow and Family,

I was heartbroken when I heard the news that Rabbi Rakow had passed away. As you know, he was a great man and I loved him and all he did in his life on earth. He has been like a father to me since I lost both my parents -- always giving me advice when I wanted to know the right way in life. Since I started to work at the yeshiva almost thirteen years ago, my life and outlook on life have changed, with the help Rabbi Rakow and others have given me.

I have not told anyone, but you may remember that in February 1981, Rabbi Rakow gave me a check and a card for the help I gave him in a time of trouble. When he gave it to me, he said, spend it wisely.

When I got home that night . . . I asked the Almighty what I should spend it on. I was going to give it to the Yeshiva, but in my mind a message said "You should always keep it" (i.e., the check), which I have and always will, as it will mean all the money in the world to me, just to have a treasured gift from a great man. . . .

Love to you all, G-d bless you all,

John (the cleaner), Maureen, my son Aron

My Beloved and Revered Teacher

by Rabbi A. Forta, Jewish Tribune, Av 5746

This week's "Viewpoint" is dedicated to my beloved and revered teacher, Rabbi Benzion Rakow, zt"l, whose yahrtzeit was yesterday.

There is no doubt in my mind that I echo the feelings of all his talmidim when I say that we loved him dearly. But then that is understandable -- he loved all of us. His love came across in every encounter, whether in discussing an intricate piece of gemora or a chance meeting in the street. I can honestly say that I never once heard him raise his voice in anger.

I recall the first time I met Rabbi Rakow. I came to the yeshiva in Golders Green to be interviewed as a prospective talmid. I entered the gate not knowing that it was lunch break, and was more than a little surprised when three or four bochurim came dashing out of the front door, laughing and shouting. They began chasing each other round the front garden, pulling leaves off a tree as they went.

At that moment Rabbi Rakow appeared. I expected him to yell at the boys for their wild behavior.

But no. On his face was that half-smile I would come to know so well. He raised one hand and said in a quiet voice, "Loz," leave it alone. The boys stopped immediately and, without another word, went back inside.

I remember feeling a little uneasy. What sort of a tyrant was this who could command such instant obedience with a single, quietly spoken word? Very soon I was to learn that this man commanded not through tyranny or fear, but through love.

Of all his remarkable qualities there is one in particular that stands out in my memory. No matter how busy he was, if you came to him with a question or a problem, he was always ready to listen. And not only that, he had a way of making you feel that he had nothing else to do in the world but sit and listen to what you had to say. How often I experienced this, sitting with him in his office at the yeshiva or his home in Fairholt Road. How well I remember his total patience, how he would sit with head slightly to one side, his chin resting in the palm of his left hand -- a pose so characteristic I shall always associate it with him -- and listen, question and give advice. He was much more than a Rosh Yeshiva; he was a father to his talmidim. . . .

Talmidim not only learn from what their teacher says, but most of all by what their teacher is. We, who were talmidim of Rabbi Rakow, all know that we have shared a rare privilege -- we have stood in the presence of greatness.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.