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10 Cheshvan 5763 - October 16, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Sketch of the Ponevezher Rosh Yeshiva

by Rabbi Dovid Zaritsky zt"l, Yerushalayim.

This article, written by the celebrated author Rabbi Dovid Zaritsky, was published twenty-six years ago in the Yiddishe Tribune overseas, in Yiddish, on Friday 13th of Shvat 5735 (1975). A rare copy found its way from America to Yated Ne'eman and was translated. It provides a unique perspective on many aspects of the unique greatness of HaRav Shach, zt"l. The article was edited by Rabbi A. Chafetz.


When one writes about a godol beTorah one does not write to make him greater or to give him honor, because that would probably result in nothing but disgrace for him and an offense for the writer. One does not in fact write about the outstanding qualities of the godol, but really about our own weaknesses.

A Person

A day before HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer ztvk"l passed away (as we know he died suddenly), his niece, the wife of HaRav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach (ylct"a) zt"l, visited him and he said to her:

Listen my child, we are the sixth generation from the Ponim Meiros. And one more thing I would like to say to you: I repaid your mother the debt I owed her. When I was young I was very spoiled and I was scared to go to the cheder [by myself], and your mother took me there and back. Nu, I remained her in her debt and I repaid my debt every day by giving you your husband, Eliezer.

When Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer passed away, HaRav Shach said five words: "He was really [actually] a person." And you, dear readers, know what the word "really" means.

And HaRav Eliezer Shach is also "really" a person. Meaning -- in his essence. He is a human being with his two-hundred-and- forty-eight limbs and three-hundred-and-sixty-five sinews down to the smallest one, with every heartbeat and every breath. He is a person down to the marrow of every bone in his body.

Rav Eliezer Menachem Shach or, as he has been called for as long as I can remember "der Pavluniker" (the bochur from Pavlunik), is a slim short man. It appears to anyone looking at him that he is too shy to look you in the eye, and that he sees greatness in you. He looks at you with respectful awe as befits a representative of Hashem in this world. He was always like this: Full of derech eretz for people, especially if the person was a yirei Shomayim. Particularly if this yirei Shomayim Jew deemed it fit come to him, he, Rav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach, had to bow before him, like Avrohom Ovinu bowed before the Arabs.

Rav Yisroel Portnoy, my mechuton from Boro Park, once came to him in order to show his children the image of a godol. So he dressed for the occasion and told the children that with the money they wanted to spend on buying his books from him they could buy Rishonim and Acharonim . . . When this did not help, he himself packed the books for them. After that he went to get them refreshments and of course found nothing in the house, just a bottle of black beer. He grabbed his hat and ran out of the door to get refreshments for his important guests (at the time he did not know my mechuton at all). They begged him not to go and said to him: "We consider it as if we have received it." So he made a condition that he would escort them, that he would . . .

This was because he himself did not exist. There was the Rashbo or the Ran. There are such wonderful Rans and such incredible Tosfosim that there is no time to think of oneself. He himself is also a person, but another person? Your fellow man is everything.

When he is sick it is not so terrible. But when he can get off his bed after a difficult operation, and he is just a small person lying in a big room with other simple Jews. He does not lie in his bed but gets up each time for another patient:

He leans over him and speaks to him warmly in the questioning tone typical of him: Would you like some tea? It is good for the stomach, especially after surgery . . . And he runs (literally runs) to the kitchen and brings the patient, a young bochur, a cup of tea. He has a kind word for another patient, and helps the third to the bathroom, and personally brings the bedpan for the fourth or moves it under the bed.

Professor Sheba stands there, one of the biggest experts in Israel, not a great lover of chareidi Jews. He watches how the old man runs around the room and asks who this is. The Ponevezher Rosh Yeshiva. The patients do not have sufficient praise, and the nurses . . .

Rav Eliezer does not know what everybody wants from him. He also does not know that Professor Sheba became an enthusiastic admirer of his until the day of his death.

He runs to say Tehillim for anyone. He will cry and daven but when his wife was almost on her death bed and the bochurim asked whether to run and say Tehillim in the yeshiva, he said with trepidation: "No. How can one be mevatel a few hundred bochurim from the Torah? Ask them to say a few kapitelach Tehillim after Mincha."

After the declaration of the State, when the Arabs bombed Yerushalayim and dozens of people were killed and badly injured, Rav Eliezer would run through whizzing bullets and falling bombs to Shaarei Tzedek with a little pot to bring some fresh milk and eggs for his rov, HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer and the Brisker Rov. But for himself . . . nothing . . .

Because when a man is great, everyone is great, besides one little man.

The Ponevezher Rosh Yeshiva moves amongst the boys and if he sees that one of the bochurim's shoes are torn he gives him a few liras: "Run, buy yourself a pair of new shoes."

And he himself relates that during the First World War when he was a young bochur, he slept on the bench in the beis medrash and he was extremely cold and, as you know, he was a batlan and could not push himself to be near the oven. Therefore he would lie by the wall and freeze, his pants falling apart at the seams and toes protruding from his torn shoes. He tells this to his students dozens of years later.

He runs to a levaya. The Rosh Yeshiva of the largest yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel. They ask him: "Why does the Rosh Yeshiva tire himself and not go in a car? The Rosh Yeshiva is ill and weak and it is very hot!"

Rav Eliezer sits down half fainting and breathing heavily, but he has to walk to the levaya and not drive.

Do you not understand why? Because long ago when he sat in the beis hamedrash and froze, a Jew came in and gave him an old coat. Of course today no one would glance at such an old piece of clothing. Now this Jew has passed away. So does he not have to run to the levaya? To actually run and not drive.

As we said, Rav Eliezer is a mentsh with no blemishes.

He races in and takes a mussar sefer sitting down to learn with great enthusiasm. What happened? They told him that someone had spoken against him. So, as he sees it, if someone spoke loshon hora [against me] it is a sign that I am also guilty of this trait, so I must purify myself a little.

A person with no blemishes is a person with no negios (personal interests). He himself has no problems. He lies ill in the hospital, before a difficult operation, which even the doctors give only a fifty percent chance of success. He hears people in the next room speaking endlessly with the doctors. Who are they talking about? He asks the bochurim.

They answer him that they are conferring with each other. He becomes upset, what about stealing from the public? Doctors are responsible for dozens maybe hundreds of patients, some of whom are seriously ill, and because of me they are wasting time and in the meantime other patients are waiting for them. I do not want gezel . . . He himself is seriously ill, but after a day or two in a convalescent home he returned. He said he could not learn there.

He is too weak, but here a distraught women comes in, a young lady who wants a brochoh for success in her examination, others come to him for advice about a shidduch, a brochoh for a sick person . . . And when anyone comes to him, whoever it may be, he wears his hat and kapoto and sits down to receive the person with a warmth which spreads throughout the house, with menshlichkeit that brings a smile to the poor man's face which opens the heart, which wipes away the tears . . .

And when the person, a regular person, sees the honor given to him by the Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevezh, he becomes strengthened and begins to appreciate himself, blood flows to his face and he begins to feel the will to become a better person. His attitude to people is already famous. It is the attitude of a ordinary person to the godol hador. He honors others with every movement, brings refreshments with anything in the house, asks and inquires, and each person feels his complete devotion to himself. This is one of the reasons dozens of people come to him to receive his blessings, ask his advice, ease their emotional burdens, to ask which yeshiva to enter, to speak about shidduchim, to request help, and he helps.

He gives hundred times more tzedokoh than either you or me can imagine. He gives to anyone who comes. No one knows from where he has the money, but his charity is out of the ordinary. Maybe he distributes all his money he receives from his books, for he himself does not need anything, what he receives from the yeshiva is more than enough.

He becomes a fortress, maybe because he runs away from himself, his incredible fear of kovod, his unlimited love for every person, and because of who he is. As far back as anyone can recall -- his entire being is Torah.

What are yissurim? Are you thinking: pain, surgery, poverty? You are mistaken! Yissurim means that when learning gemora, Rambam or a Rashbo you cannot in any way understand. You run in the room, you run in the beis hamedrash, you run and your body perspires, and you still cannot comprehend. One of the talmidim recalls: Once I came to the house and the Rebbetzin said to me: "He feels bad today, you cannot even speak to him, he is ill!"

I was shocked. "What is wrong with him?"

"I do not know," the Rebbetzin replies. He is running to and fro between the house and the yeshiva and from the yeshiva to the house, in both places he looks green and yellow, and does not know what to do with himself, he keeps on running back and forth and sighing . . . The talmid, one of the hundreds who are devoted to him, goes in search of his rov. He is nowhere to be found.

He returns to his home and the Rebbetzin happily informs him that the Rosh Yeshiva is boruch Hashem feeling well again. "What did he take?" the talmid asks.

"Nothing. I saw him stand on a chair take out a sefer, looking at it once or twice, and his color returned to normal immediately. He even smiled and had something to eat. He has not eaten -- and he has recuperated, Rav Eliezer is healthy and well, his face shines."

Why my friend? To understand the Torah is his life, and not to understand -- these are unbearable yissurim. What is the meaning of not understanding? Not understanding? How can one survive, how can one eat? How can one sleep when the Tosafos blocks your vision like a huge cloud above your head? This is all of life. For him there is no life [but this], one becomes ill. One cannot live without understanding the Tosafos or the Rashbo.

Not only the Ran is worth a million, but also the Rashbo, who just now gave the shiur is worth a million and sometimes two million. And the Rashbo or the Ritvo or the Rambam flow in his veins, and have penetrated into the marrow of his bones. It is said about him:

If they would cut pieces of his flesh, no blood would flow, only passages of Rashbo!

It is worthwhile standing by him when he learns. His body disappears, only a hunch remains, his head stuck between his shoulders, bowed, bent over the gemora, or the rishon or the acharon. One eye in the gemora and one in Rashi or the Tosafos. Nothing else exists in the world but the gemora or Rashi -- nothing.

Ten bochurim stand around him and he does not notice them! A talmid who is discussing the shiur with him stands by him! He summoned him to come to him at that time! But he does not see or hear! The holy letters envelop him! From head to toe! Until a talmid moves the shtender he is leaning on . . . the talmid knows he is permitted to do this. He arouses himself and gives his familiar smile, an innocent child's smile.

What do Jews like us, for example, do when we hear a kashe? We say that from a kashe one does not die. But Rav Eliezer becomes ill when he has a kashe, really becomes ill. Because the meaning of a kashe is not understanding and the meaning of not understanding is -- but this we have discussed already.

So he grabs the gemora or the Rashbo and runs to the beis hamedrash, catches a bochur he knows because he comes to discuss limud with him, calls him, puts the gemora or the Rambam or the Ran on the shtender and says to the bochur, his talmid -- I do not know, I do not understand, let's discuss it, let's talk about it.

As Rabbeinu Yonah says on Pirkei Ovos: This may be compared to someone who loses a precious object. Will he be embarrassed to run to everyone, even a child and ask him: Did you happen to see my precious treasure?

And so Chazal tell us, Rabbeinu Yonah explains, "And most of all from his pupils," I have learned from all those whom I taught, for when we do not understand, we are missing a treasure, therefore there is nothing to be ashamed of, one has to run from one person to the other, maybe he, the small talmid, has found my treasure . . .

And Rav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach runs to every talmid, even to a regular Jew in Bnei Brak, and stops him with his typical innocence:

The gemora or the Tosafos or the Rambam is difficult for me, could we discuss this matter . . . Because if I don't understand . . . If the day has passed without his comprehending, he genuinely complains to his talmid: Today I had a very difficult day, mamesh sakonas nefoshos. Only his closest talmidim know how difficult the Rosh Yeshiva's day was.

If so, there is nothing standing in the way of comprehension, not surgery and even not an anesthetic.

I ask you, can one live without comprehending a pshat in the gemora and Rambam on the sugya of "Pirchei Kehuna took him out . . . and smashed his head . . . There is a Rambam there. But it is difficult and he cannot live, without exaggeration, one cannot survive under such circumstances. So what if it is half an hour before an operation and you are under anesthesia! When the Rambam does not let you alone and the sugya is crying "Gevald Reb Eliezer, understand me!"

His students stand around him while he is under anesthesia and he suddenly begins to make motions with his hands. The weak hands of the Rosh Yeshiva, without an ounce of strength, and he murmurs: "`Smashed his head' -- what is the meaning of this here?" The arms are waving and with them the whole broken body. Anesthesia is able to silence the pain. Even surgery pains are not felt under anesthesia. But when his life is dependent on a teirutz, anesthesia does not help Reb Eliezer.

The doctors cannot believe what they are seeing, but their eyes are wide open. There is no choice but to tie him down, because his hand movements open his wound and interfere with the operation.

Because of this sugya he had a terrible Pesach, but this was only by the way.

When the Rebbetzin was terminally ill, he sat by her day and night. The talmidim who escorted their rov saw him run back and forth in the room, his head bent on his chest and he was pacing back and forth, thinking as usual, a little bent, only listening to what the doctors had to say, running every few minutes to the bed, and then resuming his pacing around the room.

Towards evening he returned to his home wet, perspiring, weak. He could barely utter a word, but he ran to the cupboard, took out a large piece of paper and began writing furiously. A talmid who saw this was so surprised that his recollection of the subject the Rov was writing about stayed in his memory -- perek 25 of hilchos Eidus of the Rambam. And he stood there, Rav Eliezer Menachem Man and wrote rapidly and still more rapidly. The sheet filled up then another one and again one . . . All this he was mechadesh during his wife's yissurim. He cannot die with her and without Torah one dies . . .

He was mechadesh even then.

When he finished writing, he sat down, fell and told the talmid: "Oy, I feel faint in my heart, my heart has weakened." Then he ate something. Until he had completed writing his chidushim his heart did not realize it could become weak.

"To understand" means understanding thoroughly, no doubt should remain, to imbue the truth into one's limbs. For this, one has to toil until the end of one's strength. And after a whole night of toil he gives a shiur and he has to change his clothes from head to foot because they are all wet with perspiration.

"For by the sweat of your brow . . ." -- This is, after all his bread: the Torah.

Rav Chaim zt"l said about Rav Isser Zalman zt"l that he was capable of saying brilliant chidushim but because he had such yiras Shomayim he would often hesitate to say them for fear they did not contain the true essence of Torah.

And Rav Eliezer Menachem Man, his talmid, was the same: the truth in limud. He gives a difficult shiur on the Rashbo. Everyone thinks it is wonderful. Suddenly a boy of sixteen, a genius, has another pshat on the Rashbo. Rav Eliezer stands a moment and then smiles and says to the group of elite bochurim: "My pshat on the Rashbo is good, but the true pshat is what this young bochur said."

This is the meaning of "I have learned from all those who have taught me," the young bochur found the treasure.

He says to some of his close students: You ask questions on the shiur. I have answers, one can find an answer, but to answer is not a kuntz when one feels the questioner is right.

Rav Isser Zalman did not say this about him for nothing: His limud is my amulet. Even the Communists were amazed by this young bochur and imitated the way he learned. When they succeeded in the Revolution they would investigate Yeshiva bochurim. One day they saw a bochur running and running. They followed him to see where he was headed until they saw him entering the beis medrash, grabbing a gemora and beginning to sway at the same moment, like one gulps down a drink when one is very thirsty.

The thirst for Torah never left him, not until this day, not at Reb Isser Zalman, not in Kletsk, not in Mir, not in Loninets next to Pinsk, where he was the rosh yeshiva of Karlin, to eat or not to eat, a tiny room, a straw mattress, not to travel home an entire zman, only to learn, day and night on Yom Kippur and during the breaks on Simchas Torah between one dance and the next, on the night of Pesach before the seder, always.

Do you know what chibut hakever is?

When you lie on leil Shabbos in the hospital. There is no light, there is no gemora, but you have a kashe on Tosafos in Eruvin. The gemora is not within reach and you cannot peruse it, and you cannot sleep, because there is no way you will fall asleep with this difficult Tosafos in Eruvin. So you thrash about from side to side in your bed and you have no peace all that long night. This is chivut hakever.

Once they asked him to fly to America for shlichus for one of the large educational institutions in Eretz Yisroel. They promised him that he would not chas vesholom have to go to all sorts of people. He would just be a guest in a hotel and people would come to him. They were sure that if people would come a large sum of money would be collected.

He blushed with shame and complained, Why am I deserving of such humiliation? How will I be able to endure so many people staring at me . . . If you wish, take my hat and kapote and send them, but I would not be able to endure the humiliation . . .

Once they wanted him to receive an award for one of his seforim. It pained him greatly, why should they give me money for the Torah? For Torah?

I have already said: If we had written these lines about Rav Eliezer Menachem Man, he would most probably be makpid about the mention of his name, but these lines were written for us to slap ourselves in the face.

We have not written who Rav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach (shlita-zt"l) is; we have only written what we are not.

Editor's comment: the end of this article is not complete due to the fading of the last few lines.


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