Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Av 5763 - August 20, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Untouchable Clock-Tower -- A Biographical Appreciation of the Gateshead Rov

by M. D. Spiro

Part II

A unique era of rabbonus came to an end when HaRav Betzalel Rakow, one of the ziknei horabbonim presiding over a kehilloh full of rabbonim, moved his shtender to the yeshiva shel Ma'aloh. The Gateshead Rov had an almost unique opportunity to head one unified kehilloh with one shared hashkofoh as the one rov -- and he towered "untouchably" above even the most learned members of the Gateshead kehilloh like the clock of a city that must keep its own time and not be subject to the whims of every passerby.

The first part discussed the Rov's youth in Frankfurt and his move to England. We followed him through his years in the Schneider's Yeshiva, the Gateshead Kollel, to Montreux and then to his life's position as the Gateshead Rov.

Trustee for the Community

Over the years many thousands of pounds of tzedoko money flew through his trusted hands. Whilst he always stressed the great mitzvoh of supporting needy Torah- scholars, he was forever cognizant of the fact that many very noble ba'alei batim were struggling to make ends meet. In a discussion about a cost price shop for clothing to be sold without profit, he stressed that it would be quite unfair to limit access to Torah scholars. It was obvious that the ba'alei batim whom he taught and with whom he davened occupied a special place in his heart.

For himself the Rov was not in search of leniencies in halochoh. [In his healthy years he had the unusual and demanding custom to arise whenever he woke up after sunrise -- however early in the morning -- to don his tallis and tefillin and recite Krias Shema.] However despite his great yiras Shomayim and his serious punctilious approach to mitzvos, he could be quite lenient in a case of necessity. On occasion he took it upon himself to rule in matters of life and death -- where others feared to tread. His yiras Shomayim was palpable.

On the other hand he felt the responsibility to render a firm decision. Sha'alos were presented by a large spectrum of people, covering all sort of situations. Once an expecting ba'alas teshuvoh found herself looking after her mother's dog for a long weekend in Gateshead. He calmed her nerves and taught her all the halachos she needed to know. And then with foresight, he suggested that her husband walk the dog very early in the morning and very late at night to avoid being looked at askance.

There were occasions when he was shown poskim contrary to his psak. He was well-known for never insisting upon his psak simply because he had once rendered it. After about 70 years of not dancing at Kiddush Levonoh, he changed and decided to follow the minhag of the Ramo to commence a rekidoh after Kiddush Levonoh. Few are the number of outstanding talmidei chachomim who do not mind changing after decades of "being used to it."

Every minhag Yisroel was precious to him. He used to relate a story about an unusual minhag which baffled the Ramo when he became Rov -- but turned out to be a protector from pitfalls in halochoh. On Erev Yom Kippur he lay down to receive the customary "lashes" -- in accordance with the old-established Gateshead minhag. (See Mateh Efraim)

Takonos for Spiritual and Material Good

His leadership expressed itself in multifaceted ways, ranging from input behind the scenes and personal advice to open takonos binding upon the kehilloh.

On the one hand he demanded of every ben Torah to be ready to give up some time to learn with schoolboys. He determined at what time it would be reasonable for chassunos to finish (in the new kehilloh- hall).

On the other hand the joke made the rounds that the Rov was running the busiest real estate-agency in the North East! In order to prevent potential buyers bidding against each other for the limited supply of houses on the market, the Rov instituted and carried through a rule perhaps unique in Klal Yisroel: The first person who notified him about a house for sale had the right to enter negotiations -- without competition. If he lost interest in the house, a second person could take over.

In this way the Rov undoubtedly saved struggling young couples tens of thousands of pounds. Due to his involvement he was also able to dispense advice to prospective buyers about the state of the house. All this came at the expense of his most valuable possession -- time.

On various occasions he did not hesitate to speak out publicly. Topics ranged from the importance of using a bicycling helmet to the potential spiritual dangers of mobile phones.

He once said that he could not sleep at night when he thought of the temptations to which mobile phone users may fall prey. He stressed in public that local ba'alei batim who send their children to Eretz Yisroel -- often at considerable self- sacrifice -- do not want them to exploit the opportunity for touring the Land but for benefiting from its Torah.

The Challenges of Chinuch

The Rov was consulted by outstanding talmidei chachomim as well as by rabbinic leaders of the wider segments of Anglo- Jewry. While his hashkofos were firmly entrenched in the uncompromising weltanschauung of the yeshiva world, it was, surprisingly, his kehilloh which started the first SEED Program for men and women in the country.

It is also his kehilloh where there is not a single married lady with uncovered hair or a nonobservant family, and which is host to a very active educational center for youngsters from the wider community. In his mind there was only one thing that really mattered: Is it emes? Will it help Yidden in their level of Torah and mitzvos?

As a yeshiva bochur, the Rov was once suspended from yeshiva for not doing sufficient "avodas hakodesh." [Learning with younger bochurim was called "avodas hakodesh" in Schneider's Yeshiva.] He had preferred to learn on his own level rather than spend hours in assisting younger talmidim. The "Rebbe" -- as the Rov used to call HaRav Moshe Schneider -- did not hesitate to send him out of yeshiva [but was persuaded to take him back after a few days -- taking into account the caliber of the bochur]. Many decades and countless "Reb Akiva Eigers" later this "yeshiva bochur" -- still possessed of the same burning zeal for learning as in his yeshiva days -- devoted much of his time to learn with young school boys who were not at the top of their class -- and those only! HaRav Moshe Schneider's talmid had learned his lesson!

His concern for the aliyoh of boys who could profit from one- on-one coaching was always at the top of his agenda. Warm tefillos, deep thought and much money were invested in the furtherance of their hatzlochoh. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Gateshead is home to one of Europe's few yeshivos with tremendous siyata deShmaya that catered to those who profit from a more specialized approach to learning Torah.

The Rov--apparently "tucked away" in his daled amos shel Halocho -- was most supportive, where others may have feared to tread: In setting up the Lechu Vonim Organization. Whether it was their endeavor to create a mokom tefilloh more congenial to youngsters or the hatzlochoh in taking boys out of the streets into geshmake surroundings for learning and playing -- it was all close to his heart.

The Challenge Of Self-Control

He worked hard on himself. When his youngest son, Nosson Tzvi, was niftar from one minute to the next while a madrich in a camp out-of-town, the bitter news reached him and his family on Friday before Shabbos. Over Shabbos the family members were onenim.

On Friday night a member of the family, unsurprisingly, was dissolved in tears. The Rov came in explaining that it is Shabbos! The Halocho controlled him -- rather than the dictates of the hour.

When sitting shiv'oh after this tragedy, he suggested that one of the visitors should move away from the window because of the draft. There were occasions when he had to suppress his own problems in order to celebrate the simchos of others.

Then there were the small points which make up the tapestry of life. One ba'al tefilloh noticed that he was slow in giving the customary nod to start ma'ariv. Later he worked out that a prominent elderly member of the kehilloh was coming from the shiur-room and would take a bit longer in reaching the shul. The Rov waited for his entry into the shul before the kehilloh said Borchu.


The Rov's hallmark was his hasmodoh. Whoever came to the Rov, no matter when, almost invariably found him either bent over his gemora or busy answering a sha'aloh.

One night a relative who stayed at the Rov's house decided to get up in the middle of night -- or rather the very early hours of the morning -- in order to peruse the Rov's interesting collection of seforim. To his "dismay" and surprise he found the Rov learning in the front room -- with his legs in a bowl of cold water to keep him awake! In a way, the Rov remained a yeshiva bochur for all his life.

The normal distractions of bringing up a family of nine "normal" lively boys were covered to a great extent by the Rebbetzin, who was totally devoted to her husband's quest for Torah. In addition there was the "normal" number of duties as a Rov and mentor of mentors and advisor to heads of educational institutions. Yet nothing could lessen his burning thirst for the sparkling waters of Torah.

On one occasion visitors to the hospital -- despite his feeble condition -- were treated to a shiur explaining various sha'alos connected with the value of the kesef Kesuboh in contemporary times.

The Responsibility of Rabbonus

However, despite the unquenchable thirst for "the blat" he shouldered the time-consuming burdens of rabbonus without any short cuts. Every set of daled minim brought to him was subjected to the same slow, searching scrutiny -- including each hadass. It made no difference whether the sho'el was a prominent ba'al habayis or a young boy.

Siddur Kiddushin commenced, as a rule, by learning the meaning of the Kesuboh with the chosson so that he should know what he was undertaking. Even when confined to the hospital, the Rov attempted to continue and teach the Kesuboh to chassanim.

Incidentally, the Rov was particular that chuppos should start on time. Visitors from out-of-town sometimes would have to be warned that the chuppah-time on the invitation was to be taken literally. The sole occasion where the Rov insisted that the chuppah be delayed was a case where it had mistakenly been scheduled for twilight; this would have caused halachic problems in the dating of the Kesuboh.

The visit to the Rov for the purpose of selling chometz was not a quick matter or a perfunctory procedure, but took its time. The actual sale on erev Pesach to the goy took a very long time. Many years ago the present writer watched as the Rov explained to the buyer -- an elderly shopping assistant in the local Jewish food store -- all the details of the sale. The whole procedure took well over an hour.

Everybody knew that all sha'alos received the same treatment -- whether posed by a prominent, well-to-do ba'al habayis or a child. In general it was well known and came through "between the lines" that the Rov's highest degree of respect was reserved for talmidei chachomim. Indeed the gemora related that Rebbi honored rich people -- for the immense good which they can accomplish with their money (Me'iri) -- yet the pride of place in the unwritten roll of honor was always reserved for the ben Torah.

One Kollel scholar (now a rosh yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel) once remarked that he felt a unique distinction of the kehilloh in that the fully devoted ben Torah was truly considered more important in the eyes of the local kehilloh member than a wealthy individual -- however righteous and generous he may be. This perception filtered down from the top.

His feeling of responsibility as the Rov and posek of the town was very great. Many years ago the Rov used to stay for holiday in a flat without a telephone. Mobile phones did not exist. There was a notice in the Gateshead Shul posting the hour that the Rov would be available on a certain telephone number for sha'alos. How, indeed, could he be contacted? Local gentiles in the holiday location could have explained it. They watched as every day the visiting Rabbi was "hanging about" in the local phone box, a good walk from his flat, for a full hour -- his eyes glued to a Hebrew book!

Such was his feeling of responsibility towards the kehilloh. There is never a holiday from Rabbonus!

Relationship with Gedolei Torah

His respect for gedolei Torah was a guiding light in his life. In fact as a young maggid shiur in Montreux he went to visit the Brisker Rov who was recuperating in Schulz, a small holiday resort in Switzerland. First he spoke in learning to the sons and eventually was "admitted" to Reb Velvele Brisker himself.

On more than one occasion the Rov quoted what he heard that time from him in reply to his sha'aloh about doing melochos in twilight between two days of yom tov.

Later, as Gateshead Rov, he also visited Dayan Abramsky zt"l, the former head of the London Beth Din, HaRav Yoshe Beer Soloveitchik zt"l and ylct"a HaRav Eliashiv shlita. While access to such talmidei chachomim was not always easy, all gates opened for the Gateshead Rov. In fact he was merely a Rov of a local provincial kehilloh in a modest English town -- but HaRav Eliashiv titled him in one letter as the "Nezir Horabbonim."

When HaRav Scheinberg decided to visit Gateshead, the Rov was visibly moved that a godol of such stature and advanced age would come. In front of hundreds he recited the brochoh reserved for seeing distinguished talmidei chachomim. In a written communication to somebody who questioned this, he stressed that he had seen such conduct by his Rebbe, perhaps referring, to HaRav Weinberg's brochoh on the occasion of HaRav Elchonon Wasserman's visit.

Hardly a visit to Eretz Yisroel went by without going to HaRav Shach zt"l in order to "talk with him in learning" and consult him for advice. He venerated him not only as an outstanding talmid chochom but also as the transmitter of true, unadulterated Torah- leadership. On one occasion when HaRav Shach resigned from a leading position in an organization, the Rov asked him whether he too should leave that organization (but was told not to do so and indeed later he assumed an active role in it).

As one of the ziknei horabbonim the Rov was a member of the nesi'us of Agudas Yisroel in England. He valued the consultation and discussion with other rabbonim which took place during Agudah conventions. In fact the day after surgery to enlarge his heart arteries, he wanted to get up in order to travel to the convention.

He was also one of the two rabbonim charged with ultimate authority over the Agudah newspaper. While he himself was not keen on reading English articles, there were several occasions where he insisted upon following his instructions. It was for him a matter of kovod talmidei chachomim and kovod of pure halochoh.

In general he preferred that discussion of vital issues should not be aired in a public forum by laymen -- however well-meaning and understanding. His humility and respect for rabbonim and talmidei chachomim who were often many years his junior was obvious. On more than one occasion he was prepared to help younger rabbonim in the pursuit of what he perceived to be the truth -- even to the detriment of his own kovod.

Beyond Personal Interest

It was known throughout the length and breadth of England -- and beyond -- among Yidden with all levels of commitment to Yiddishkeit and all types of drochim in avodas Hashem, that the Gateshead Rov was not interested in anything but the simple halachic truth and pure hashkofas haTorah. Neither furtherance of organizational aims nor considerations of friendship are allowed to influence the outcome of a sha'aloh or din Torah. Thus on one occasion of a large-scale din Torah, a world-famous Chassidic Rebbe advised his Chassidim to listen to the psak of this typical old- time "Litvish" Rov.

In a town where less than a handful of ba'alei batim wear streimelech, a prominent and fervently Chassidic ba'al habayis was asked -- not surprisingly: "How can you manage to live in Gateshead?" He replied: "What do you mean? I have my Rebbe here on the spot! For close to 40 years I consult him on everything, big or small."

The Rov once said: "I am a menschenfreund. I cannot bear that some negate a whole way of avodas Hashem. The Ribono shel Olom has a large army. Every army has different types of regiments."


The Rov could be quite original and entirely independent in his advice and rulings. But such was his stature that not only halachic rulings but also advice were invariably followed.

When a reporter of a non-religious newspaper arrived in town many years ago in order to write a detailed report about the "Jewish Cambridge," he soon realized that nothing would get underway without the Rov's support. To the surprise of many, the Rov gave his encouragement -- and to the surprise of many and the benefit of Anglo-Jewry the resulting report was quite positive.

On another occasion a prominent person arrived to visit Gateshead. Some talmidei chachomim had severe hesitations in according him an elaborate welcome. The Rov brushed aside these hesitations. One of the kollelim wanted to present him, as a mark of respect, with a booklet about Hilchos Krias haTorah. Again some had serious objections to this. The Rov, however, issued clear instructions (to the author of this booklet, the present writer, and to the director of the institution) that the visitor was to be accorded a respectful welcome, and that it would be correct to honor him with presentation of the booklet. Indeed several institutions gave VIP-treatment to the visitor in the wake of the Rov's instructions.

Not long after, public criticism of this prominent personality was issued -- by none other than the Rov who had been so supportive in honoring him! What had happened? A rov of an Anglo-Jewish community had presented the Rov with passages of a recently-published book written by that very visitor. The Rov considered them to be fundamentally flawed in their outlook on emunoh. In fact, the Rov paid for an advertisement containing his statement, in a newspaper which he had never let into his home -- because only in this way could Anglo Jewry be reached.

In actual fact this book would never have reached the shelves of any member of his community or similarly-minded families in other communities -- due to its academic scholarly style. Why was the whole matter of concern to the Rov -- after he had invested so much in giving that person a positive image of Gateshead educational institutions?

However, here the Rov's leitmotif came to the fore. He was not only obliged to look after his own flock. In the footsteps of the sagacious Ponevezher Rosh Yeshiva whom he followed and admired, he felt a responsibility towards all segments of English Jewry.

Such a public step ran against his grain. It overturned all the good which the respectful welcome had done. It could have potentially harmed the financial basis of Gateshead's institutions, which depend on the good will of the community. All this did not carry weight in the face of truth.

The mantle of rabbinical leadership beyond the confines of his town had evolved upon him as one of the independent fearless ziknei horabbonim. He was miles removed from trying to advance his own honor at the expense of another public figure -- on the contrary, he was prepared to give up his honor for the honor of Hashem. Indeed the author concerned agreed with the fundamental tenets of emunoh and eventually deleted the problematic passages.

On a personal level the Rov never spoke a sharp word. He took care not to insult anybody, and greeted all -- in particular a certain non-Jew who disliked the kehilloh.

Twilight: Illness, Petiroh and Levayoh

About five years ago the Rov was diagnosed as having a most serious condition in his blood. His kidneys were also not functioning properly. The bone marrow examination was very painful. Eventually he suffered from great pains in his legs. Problems with his heart arteries gave rise to frequent breathing problems. As a result he could not sleep for any length of time without being beset by angina attacks. Yet he did not complain.

Some kehilloh-members were initially surprised that he went home early from the chasunos after delivering his droshoh. The Rov did not complain; it was "business as usual" in following all his rabbinical duties, so people could not fathom how ill he really was. In fact upon discovery of the blood disease, doctors estimated his life expectancy at about two years. But man proposes, Hashem disposes. One doctor said to him rather bluntly: "You are pushing off the end quite well! He carried on for another six years."

About eight weeks before his petiroh he underwent a heart procedure. His kidneys failed, apparently due to the underlying blood disease. The doctors expected the end would come within a week. Seven weeks later, on motzei Yom Menuchoh, the heart which had beaten so fiercely for 76 years with ahavas Torah and ahavas Yisroel, stopped forever. Forty years of a uniquely respected Rabbonus had come to an end.

The honor given to him by thousands in attending levayos in five different locations -- Gateshead, near Manchester, Stamford Hill, Golders Green and Yerushalayim -- was overwhelming. Those who attended came from the entire spectrum: The rank and file of many Ashkenazi kehillos, Chassidic Jews, bnei Torah, outstanding talmidei chachomim and dayonim and rabbonim of Anglo-Jewry. Considering the fact that he was neither a rosh yeshiva with hundreds of talmidim nor officially more than a local rov of about 300 families, the outpouring of kovod haTorah was astonishing.

Perhaps we can find the answer in the Rov's own explanation (on the sidroh of the week of his petiroh):

Why does a person who murdered by mistake have to find refuge in a city occupied by Levi'im?

Many years ago the Rov explained it as follows (perhaps in the name of Rav Dessler): Levi'im derived their parnossoh mainly from the donations of others. It is they who most appreciate the very life, the very existence of other Yidden. Where else can a person learn the true value of a Jewish life, he who obviously did not take the necessary precaution before endangering other people's lives so callously? Surely by living with those who benefit so much from others!

Gateshead may have one of the largest concentration of Jewish educational institutions in Europe. By the same token, Gateshead is also a major beneficiary of European Jewry's largesse. Just as Shevet Levi had a task to be "yoru mishpotecho," to disseminate Torah in exchange for material support, so Gateshead too has this two-way exchange on a small scale.

The Gateshead Rov, as the ultimate head of all these institutions, was not only a Torah disseminator par excellence. He was also the great connoisseur in appreciating every member of Klal Yisroel. Thus it may simply have been a natural reaction that this respect has shown itself to be mutual.


The Maharal asks why maseches Shabbos commences with meleches hotzo'oh which is really the last of a long list of melochos later given in the mishnah? He explains that in order to capture the essence of a subject, one has to highlight its unique aspects.

HaRav Hutner, in his discussion of HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz's achievements, points out that a true description of a personality must stress in what aspect Hashem made his path in life unique. The uniqueness of HaRav Rakow lay undoubtedly in the rare combination of the qualities of rabbonus with deep Talmudic scholarship, a rov who had the ability to be a rosh yeshiva of the very highest caliber, a rov whose personal outlook and that of his entire kehilloh was totally identical with the outlook of the great local roshei yeshivos and who was held in the highest esteem by them.

The Rov's father used to say: "Why am I called Yom Tov? Because every day is for me a yom tov! Every day that I can open my gemora and learn a Reb Akiva Eiger is for me a day deserving of celebration, the most exquisite pleasure!"

His son, the Gateshead Rov, lived a life of yomim tovim despite periods of high pressure: From growing up in the shadow of Nazism to the war-years in England, to "golus" Montreux, to the loss of a beloved teenage son who was suddenly niftar in his bloom and finally, the last four decades of carrying the yoke of rabbonus. Yet his simchas haTorah was palpable to all! It carried him through it all, reducing the vicissitudes of life to mere nuisance value.

Chaval al de'abdin velo mishtakchin.


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