Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Adar 5762 - February 27, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Master Of The Talmud: The Antwerpen Rov, HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth, zt'l

by Rabbi Aryeh Gefen

Introduction: Broadening Our Perceptions

When Rav Huna passed away, the bed he lay on was too big to fit through the doorway of the house. A suggestion to take it out through another exit and over the rooftops was vetoed by Rav Chisda, who maintained that a sage deserved the respect of being taken out through the front door. A proposal to transfer Rav Huna to a smaller bed was also turned down because, again, the respect due to a sage requires that he be taken out on the same bed upon which he expired. In the end, they broke the wall away to widen the front entrance (Moed Koton 25).

The maggidim of old used to give the following explanation of this incident: When Rav Huna passed away, it proved impossible to convey his greatness to the general public. His thought was so deep that during his lifetime, he had needed thirteen translators to transmit his teachings. When he died, the greatness which was recognized by those who had been close to him, could not be portrayed to the wider public. Rav Huna had simply been too great for the average person of his generation to fully appreciate. That is what was meant by saying that his bed could not fit through the door.

In order to convey something of his greatness, they considered speaking about him using terms and concepts which were slightly inaccurate or alien to him but with which the people were familiar. However, Rav Chisda objected. Rav Huna deserved the honor of being properly evaluated and not having his greatness modified or distorted. They would have to portray his full stature to the public, at the risk of people's lack of understanding and their failure to fathom it.

In the end, they "broke the wall and widened the main entrance." There was no choice but to break the limitations of people's existing ideas and to introduce them to worlds of greatness and infinite dimensions of Torah and chesed. They opened up people's minds, so that they would be able to grasp a new and different world.

HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth knew all of Shas, both Bavli and Yerushalmi, word for word, with Rashi and Tosafos. He was a master of the entire Talmud. Throughout his life, he continued reviewing and sharpening his knowledge, always with the same joy and vitality. He would review page after page of gemora, accurately quoting each statement together with its source, "Rovin bar Rav Ada said in the name of Rav Yitzchok . . . ", each support adduced from a posuk, each method of expounding the words, each way of learning, each different opinion, each of the gemora's bracketed mnemonics (to help memorize a series of questions or proofs), each beraissa brought as a support and each alternative presentation of a discussion.

He was often seen sitting by himself, his eyes either closed or only half open, reviewing gemoras by heart. Every now and then, he would put his finger to his lips. People noticed and eventually, they realized what he was doing. Whenever he reached the bottom of a page in his review, he would moisten his finger from force of habit, in order to turn to the next page!

Torah Acquired in Adversity

Rav Kreiswirth left his parents' home to go and learn Torah when he was all of eight years old. He celebrated his bar mitzva without his parents, because they lived too far away from his yeshiva and could not afford to make the trip.

Reb Chaim once remarked that nowadays, people go into debt in order to make fancy bar mitzva celebrations, whereas once, if parents didn't have the money and couldn't see how they would be able to repay a loan, they simply didn't travel to be with their son for his bar mitzva.

About his bar mitzva droshoh, Reb Chaim observed, "Nowadays, bar mitzva boys have their droshos prepared for them. Then, when celebrating one's bar mitzva, one would just say some chiddushim in public on whichever sugya one was learning."

Torah Learned Under Adverse Conditions

Recalling these years, when he learned Torah in poverty and suffering, he mentioned that he rented some tumbledown lodgings from an ailing man who suffered from depression. He was subjected to beatings on more than one occasion and was thrown out of the house several times, into freezing, snowy nights. Once, the landlord threw a can of food at Reb Chaim's head, almost killing him.

Following such disturbances, he would run to the beis hamedrash, forget his troubles and his warm bed, and spend the rest of the night immersed in Torah study. In later years, Reb Chaim would say that the Torah he had learned in suffering remained with him. "I remember what I learned in hardship and suffering better," he would say.

He related that as a child, he was tested on all of maseches Gittin by HaRav Meir Shapira zt'l, and he would lightheartedly add that he was prepared to test talmidei chachomim today on the questions that he was asked then, to see what they would answer. HaRav Shapira took a liking to Reb Chaim and took him along, seating him at the head of the table, at a reception that was arranged for him in the city.

When he was seventeen, he received a letter of approbation from the author of the Marcheshes, zt'l, for a work he had written on maseches Zevochim. But he was embarrassed to show the letter to anyone because of the extraordinary praises that it contained. By the time he was eighteen, Reb Chaim was delivering shiurim. When he gave shiurim in Warsaw, HaRav Menachem Ziemba used to come to hear him.

At eighteen he was giving shiurim and shmuessen in the yeshiva of the author of Chovas Hatalmidim in Pieschena. One of the talmidim from those days remembers how crowds of people used to come and stand in the windows and pack the entrances, in order to hear Reb Chaim's golden words.

Reb Chaim said, "The best thing to do in order to develop application to learning -- there are many people seeking specific ways of attaining such qualities -- the way to succeed in learning, that is borne out by experience, is simply to learn. Chazal have told us that unlike other pursuits, with Torah, `a full vessel can receive [more] but an empty one cannot hold anything.' "

He also said, "One must learn even when one doesn't have any desire to do so. I personally was never in a position when I didn't want to learn."

Someone who once heard him speak about learning Torah, describing the sweetness and pleasure that one experiences as a result of learning and actually dramatizing the spiritual delight that accompanies Torah study, told me that immediately following the droshoh, he ran to get a gemora and sat and learned for several hours.

Genius and Geniality

The Dvar Avrohom zt'l, the rov of Kovno, was especially fond of Reb Chaim. When the latter was twenty-two, the Kovner Rov wrote him a glowing letter of commendation in anticipation of his pending journey to the United States. He wrote, "Among the great Torah scholars who have been exiled among us from Poland, is a young man, of approximately twenty-two years of age, who is an amazingly wondrous prodigy, literally an outstanding genius, who is actually fluent by heart in the whole of Shas, with Tosafos and a majority of the halochos, in the Rambam and in other works of the Rishonim and the Acharonim.

"He is extremely capable and he also comprehends and delves deeply, and produces wonderful chiddushim. He is also a pleasant and charming person; easygoing and well-mannered. It is something unusual to find a young bochur who is also a true gaon. My esteemed friend knows that I am not given to exaggeration, and in fact I have not added anything extra but have actually removed much."

The Kovner Rov also remarked about Reb Chaim that usually, highly gifted scholars dismiss everyone else. Their sharpness and genius do not endow them with much patience for infirm opinions or feeble ideas.

Reb Chaim however, was also a genius in supporting and encouraging others. He could hear someone advance a fragment of an idea or an unfinished line of reasoning, and build an entire intricate and far-reaching edifice upon it. With a good natured, beaming smile, he would conclude, "This was surely what you had in mind."

The gemora tells us that when King Chizkiyohu used to see a talmid chochom, he would run to him and kiss and embrace him. In exactly the same way, Reb Chaim would extol and elevate any avreich or bochur in whom he found any particular distinction in comprehension or in Torah knowledge. He praised them publicly and, radiating good will, he would help them and support them.

One Shavuos, he visited the court of the Imrei Emes zt'l in Ger and members of the Rebbe's family took a liking to him. The Rebbe's son, who himself later became the rebbe, the Beis Yisroel, took him into his father's house, where the two of them spoke in learning. In later years, when Reb Chaim visited the Beis Yisroel in Yerushalayim, he reminded the Rebbe of the bygone days when they had sat and discussed divrei Torah in the corners of the beis hamedrash. In true Kotzker style, the Rebbe commented, "That's right, there were corners there."

Some of today's greatest and best known roshei yeshiva would remark that they would come away from every Torah discussion with Reb Chaim feeling faint at his awe- inspiring command of every part of Torah.

He used to say, "Why should we `talk in learning'? Let's learn!"

Another of Reb Chaim's comments was, "One should approach learning as though one was entering the Beis Hamikdosh, with fear, trembling and perspiring." He would quote Rashi (Eruvin 103) who explains that being lenient with a certain derabonon in a case involving the retrieval of a fallen sefer also has the standing of a shvus deMikdosh, "because it [the sefer] is holy," implying that a person conducts himself with the same heightened vigilance with respect to both these areas.

Recognizing a Person from his Speech

by R. Berlson

When Reb Chaim's illustrious father-in-law, HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky zt'l Hy'd, was enquiring about the bochur named Chaim Kreiswirth, he wanted to find out "how he speaks in learning." HaRav Grodzensky maintained that from the way a bochur spoke, one could tell whether he was of good character. Reb Chaim visited Slobodke at the time and the shidduch which resulted is evidence of the positive outcome of the examination.

Once, while conversing with a group of people, Reb Chaim advanced an explanation of his own. One of the group, a venerable Jew, denounced him as a megaleh ponim beTorah shelo cehalochoh. A number of talmidim were present and though they were pained on hearing this severe censure, they knew that Reb Chaim was not fond of people defending his honor.

One of them acted wisely and went and opened a gemora and discovered that Rashi said exactly the same thing that Reb Chaim has said. He hurried over to Reb Chaim's critic and asked him, "Would you say the same thing about Rashi?"

By this time, Reb Chaim had left the group, but later he heard about what had happened. He summoned the talmid and protested, "One must learn to let things go, not only in worldly matters but in learning too!"

What a lesson! Many people think that where Torah study is concerned, bad traits have no influence on a person. Anger is dismissed as rischa de'Orayso, ordinary jealousy as kinas sofrim, and the wish to win an argument as striving for the truth.

With the Gedolim of Eretz Yisroel

He would relate that the Chazon Ish zt'l once heard his chiddushei Torah on the topic of ba'al shemochal al kinuyov (a husband who forgoes a warning to his wife not to seclude herself with a particular man) and he nodded in approval. Later, Reb Chaim met HaRav Shraga Feivel Steinberg zt'l who was a frequent visitor to the Chazon Ish's home and who told him that the Chazon Ish told over Reb Chaim's chiddushim to him and praised them.

At one of the sheva brochos celebrating the wedding of HaRav Beinish Finkel zt'l to the Chazon Ish's niece, many of the Lithuanian gedolei Torah were present, among them, HaRav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel zt'l, HaRav Isaac Sher zt'l and the Chazon Ish. The company sought a guest who was a ponim chadoshos (lit. a new face, someone who had not yet taken part in any of the festivities), to enable them to say the sheva brochos.

One of the guests went outside and brought in a new guest whom he had met in the street. The Chazon Ish hinted that the ponim chadoshos has to be someone for whom something extra is provided at the meal. HaRav Isaac Sher immediately stood up and spoke about the innate distinction of every human being and how special every Jew is to Hashem and how each Jew deserves an increase of the celebration in his honor. When HaRav Sher finished, the Chazon Ish said, "Everything is fine and good but this should have been said in the kitchen, where the food is prepared and where something extra would be made!"

At one of Reb Chaim's meetings with the Chazon Ish, the latter told him that every time he wanted to quote a statement of Chazal's in a droshoh, he should quote the full text by heart from the gemora, for the words of the holy gemora are always true and the gemora's language has the greatest effect of all. With his typical sense of humor, Reb Chaim would add that he sometimes looks for a gemora so that he can see until where Chazal's words go and from where onwards the words are his own.

Reb Chaim kept many letters that he received from the Steipler zt'l, with whom he had a firm friendship. The Steipler refers to Reb Chaim as being, "affixed to the walls of my heart."

Reb Chaim helped the Steipler greatly with the publication of his seforim and with marrying off his grandchildren. In one letter there is mention of an esrog that was being sent to chutz la'aretz at the Chazon Ish's behest.

Reb Chaim related that he said over divrei Torah to the Brisker Rov zt'l, who agreed with what he said. He also recalled the Brisker Rov repeating the same dvar Torah time and again, to the many visitors who came to pay him their respects during Yom Tov. Why did he repeat exactly the same thing to everyone who came? Reb Chaim asked. Was the Brisker Rov short of divrei Torah? He concluded that one could learn from this that one can repeat a true Torah thought again and again, without any limit.

Reb Chaim did this too. On more than one occasion, he repeated a droshoh word for word before the same audience, even though he surely could have delivered an all- new talk. He would speak quite frankly and say, "You are surely wondering why I said the same things again. It was in order to demonstrate that one can hear the same thing a number of times.

"Rav Chiya bar Abba said in Rav Yochonon's name, `What is the meaning of the posuk, "He who guards the fig tree will eat its fruit (Mishlei 27:18)? Why are divrei Torah compared to a fig tree? Just as with a fig tree [whose fruits don't all ripen at once] whenever one looks one finds more [ripened] figs, so it is with divrei Torah. Every time one contemplates them, one finds flavor in them' " (Eruvin 54).

A family member recalled that he and Reb Chaim were once walking in the street together, and he pointed out someone who was known for his special fluency in maseches Eruvin. Reb Chaim approached the man and, with great friendliness, said to him, "I hear that you are fluent in maseches Eruvin. Perhaps you can tell me whether the halochoh, `Someone who walks on his teacher's right is a boor' (Chulin 91), also applies to someone who sits at his teacher's right?"

When the man failed to grasp Reb Chaim's meaning, the latter directed him to Rashi on Eruvin 54, who notes that after hearing a shiur in Torah shebe'al peh from Moshe, Aharon would go and sit on Moshe's left, giving the above halochoh as the reason and explaining that it applies even more strongly with regard to sitting on the teacher's right, so long as there is nobody to sit on his left.

It is said that HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l, once remarked, "They say that there is a young avreich visiting Yerushalayim, who reviews page after page of Yerushalmi by heart -- utterly amazing!" Even in Yerushalayim, with all its Torah giants, this was something rare.

During the shivoh, HaRav Eliashiv ylct'a recalled that sixty years ago, it was a novelty to see Reb Chaim standing and reviewing pages of Bavli and Yerushalmi by heart, learning with tremendous application, secluded in a beis haknesses. He also commented that crossing a road was dangerous for Reb Chaim, so immersed was he in his learning.

A talmid of Reb Chaim's from those years relates that when he began delivering shiurim in Chicago, "We were astounded at the way he first entered the beis hamedrash, without any ceremony or fanfare. He simply took a gemora and sat down to learn eagerly and in a loud voice, with vitality and tremendous enthusiasm and, principally, with application -- for six hours straight! This taught us [his] talmidim, more than any mussar shmuess."

Originality and Insight

As rosh yeshiva in Antwerp, HaRav Yehudah Trager, son- in-law of HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt'l, was close to Reb Chaim for decades. "Reb Chaim had his own Shas," HaRav Trager recalls. "He learned all of Shas, Bavli and Yerushalmi, differently from everyone else. With his own distinctive approach and the way he grasped the depth of every topic, he developed entire arrays of his own chiddushim in every area. For everything he cited a proof, or raised some difficulty from an explicit Rashi, or resolved a doubt from something Tosafos writes clearly. Many people went right past the Rashi and Tosafos without noticing the gems that they contained."

As an example, HaRav Trager cited an incident that took place in America, when Reb Chaim conferred semichoh upon a certain man and subsequently discovered that the recipient had behaved unworthily. Giving some excuse, Reb Chaim immediately took the document back. The recipient took Reb Chaim to court, claiming that what had been given could not be revoked and that he could not retract the semichoh after having given it.

Reb Chaim went to court and argued that there is a distinction between a permit and a diploma. A diploma is an earned title which, once conferred, cannot be retracted. This is customary the world over.

On the other hand, a permit or license, such as is issued to a doctor, or a lawyer, can be suspended or cancelled. If any problem arises, the authorization to engage in a particular profession can be revoked. Reb Chaim proved from a sugya in Sanhedrin, that semichoh constitutes "permission to judge" and as such can indeed be revoked or limited where the situation demands it. The court upheld Reb Chaim's argument!

"Once, I was sitting with him on a beis din," HaRav Trager relates, "and the plaintiff was a learned man who had researched the subject of the dispute. He began to cite proofs to his case from the works of responsa, which showed that he was correct. Reb Chaim immediately silenced him and forbade him to speak in learning before the beis din!

"Later, he showed me several proofs of his contention that it was clear that disputants should not speak divrei Torah in front of the dayonim. One of his sources was the gemora that speaks about how the twenty three dayonim of a small Sanhedrin used to sit, and those who were sitting behind them did not voice their opinions so as not to confuse the dayonim."

Reb Chaim's conversation was also of an entirely different quality, permeated with quotes from the gemora and statements of Chazal. Basing himself on a comment of Rashi's, Reb Chaim would say that someone who is not fluent in all of Shas should not speak in public, because he can easily find himself contradicting an explicit gemora or mishnah.

He supported his contention with Chazal's comment (Tehillim 106:2, Megilloh 18), " `Who can pronounce Hashem's mighty deeds?' meaning, who should speak about them? [He who can] `voice all His praises,' meaning, only someone who can utter all Hashem's praises."

Some of Reb Chaim's comments are, "The rich say about their money, `It is hard for me to part with you'!" [See Rashi on Vayikro 23:36.] He would also cite the gemora (Eruvin 13), which says, "Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel differed for two-and-a-half years over whether it is better for a person to have been created, or whether it would have been better for him not to have been created."

"Notice," Reb Chaim would point out, "what they were arguing about for two-and-a-half years -- not difficult questions on the halochos of Negoim and Oholos, but about a simple issue of outlook, whether it is better for man to have been created, or not."

A Mitzvoh to Learn Yiddish

Once, at a meeting of Sephardic bnei Torah Reb Chaim declared, "The Rambam implies that it is a positive mitzvoh to understand Yiddish! You are probably asking yourselves, `The Rambam was a Sephardi himself, so how can he say that it's a mitzvoh to learn Yiddish?' In one of his letters however, he writes that it is a mitzvoh to cleave to talmidei chachomim, to marry off one's daughter to a talmid chochom, to speak the way talmidei chachomim speak and so on. Most of the talmidei chachomim in our generation speak Yiddish."

He would explain the well-known incident involving Domo ben Nesinoh (Kiddushin 32) from an unusual angle. As a reward for honoring his father, a red heifer was born in Domo's herd. The gentiles keep those mitzvos that make sense to the human mind, such as honoring parents. As a reward though, he received an animal that is necessary for observing a statute that is something only Yisroel observe and for the sake of which only they are willing to spend large sums.

Reb Chaim related that he once told his father, "Today I developed a chiddush that is absolutely accurate."

"Just a moment," his father replied. "If it is a true chiddush, wait a moment while I put on my hat and my gartel before I hear it."

Reb Chaim also once told his father that he had written a work on the mitzvoh of honoring parents. His father said, "Do you want to fulfill the mitzvoh with this, by paying lip service?"

When he wanted to consult someone about something, Reb Chaim would often ask the person to "lend him their head for ten minutes."

Once, Reb Chaim asked a relative whether his domestic harmony had suffered. The man squirmed and wondered what Reb Chaim might be meaning. Reb Chaim explained straight away that Chazal say that, "For the sin of vows, a person's wife passes away" (Shabbos 31). You promised such and such an amount to tzedokoh, and you haven't given it yet."

For almost fifty years, Reb Chaim remained silent on the subject of the destruction of European Jewry, in the course of which he lost all of his own family. He only began to speak about it in the past few years. "While the whole world spoke about it, I didn't need to speak," he said, "but lately, with voices being raised denying that it took place, it is correct to speak about what took place during the years of fury."

Reb Chaim remarked that although he had been speaking in public for tens of years, every time he had to address an audience he was as nervous as though he were doing it for the first time. He was not happy about speaking without preparation, as he felt that this did not display the proper respect for an audience. However, over the years, on more than one occasion when he arrived to deliver a shiur, he saw that people were involved in a different topic than the one he had prepared. After a moment's thought, he delivered a different shiur on the topic that the audience was then studying.

Conclusion: The Torah Bridge

He was a Torah bridge traversed by multitudes. He lifted them off the ground, conveying them safely across `the sea of the Talmud,' while directing their gaze upwards, away from the limitations of time and place, to higher and purer worlds. His bridge stretched from prewar Cracow, with its gatherings of Torah scholars, to the materialistic, hedonistic twenty- first century. It spanned worlds that have long since disappeared into the flames of the ovens.

On one side stood his teachers, the geonim of prewar Poland and Lithuania, while on the other, were the Torah leaders of the past few decades. In the middle stood HaRav Kreiswirth, supporting the weight of the bridge with his own hands.

Until just about two months ago, he could have helped anyone cross the bridge. One could have heard his whispered conversations about the world of Dvinsk, one could have heard divrei Torah from the home of the Kovno Rov, the Dvar Avrohom zt'l, one could have experienced the beis hamedrash of the Marcheshes zt'l Hy'd, one could have heard chiddushei Torah from the court of the Imrei Emes zt'l, in Ger, shiurim at the yeshiva of the Chovas Hatalmidim zt'l in Pieschena, questions from HaRav Meir Shapira zt'l, conversations with HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l, and a discussion with HaRav Elchonon Wasserman zt'l Hy'd.

One could have experienced the give and take of correspondence with HaRav Menachem Ziemba zt'l Hy'd, with the author of Mekor Boruch zt'l and with the Tchebiner Rov zt'l. Until just before he passed away, he was able to convey Torah traditions with such vitality and vividness. He connected an entire spectrum of generations and an array of gedolei Yisroel.

Now he has gone and the bridge has disappeared with him. We no longer have any way of peering back and viewing what once existed.

"When Abaye and Rovo passed away, the domes supporting the bridge across the River Diglas broke and touched one another," (Moed Koton 25). During their lifetimes, Abaye and Rovo constituted a bridge, joining the Written and Oral Torah, with their thousands of halachic debates. When they died, the bridge over the Tigris River broke and the path across was blocked.

In our times too, we had a bridge connecting separate river banks. It connected the past with the present and the future. It connected different communities and groups of Yidden with each other. It connected Eretz Yisroel with chutz la'aretz and Jewish communities all over the world with one another.

For decades, he forged deep bonds of friendship with virtually all the gedolei Torah in Eretz Yisroel and throughout the world. Admorim, rabbonim and roshei yeshiva were on familiar terms with him. They discussed divrei Torah and mussar with him and sought his counsel on a variety of problems and issues.

With the departure of HaRav Kreiswirth zt'l, the bridge has broken and we have lost our links to the worlds he knew. "The iluy of Cracow," as he was once known, is remembered with universal admiration and affection. His chiddushim and divrei Torah delighted all who heard them. His genius that belonged to yesteryear and his brilliant ideas and original thoughts, ranked him way above our generation. Past, present and future all came together within him, as did the worlds of the Lithuanian yeshivos and chassidus. He was the bridge; he maintained the connection.

In the person of the Antwerpen Rov, Written and Oral Torah were fused together, as were the Torah of life and the love of chesed. He was beloved by Hashem and by all who knew him. A special grace accompanied him in everything that he did and everywhere that he went. He was a living sefer Torah, filled with pages of Bavli and Yerushalmi -- a master of the entire Talmud.


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