Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Adar II 5763 - April 2, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Chassidishe Askan's View of HaRav Shach, zt"l

Rabbi Mordechai Friedman of the United States shares his memories of Rabbenu Hagodol, zt'l

Maran HaRav Menachem Man Shach zt'l gave one of the central hespeidim for the Satmar Rov zt'l, opening with the words, "Ozal gavro demistafina minei [a man I fear has left]." He said everyone knew the great man who had passed away had been holy since birth and even in the womb, adding that it had been many years since Torah Judaism had such a mighty soldier to fight Hashem's battle, a man who was completely unafraid of anyone, unflinchingly waging battle for the sake of Torah Judaism in his generation.

"Do we have any conception of his greatness?" asked HaRav Shach. "Is there someone who even comes close to such greatness?" Today all of these words apply to the great man who passed away almost a year-and-a-half ago, Maran HaRav Shach, zt'l.

I believe that someone like me, or any other baal habayis, is unfit to speak about someone like HaRav Shach. I am also certain that hundreds and hundreds of hespeidim by gedolei hador have already been given and are yet to be given by gedolei hador, roshei yeshivos, admorim, rabbonim and speakers around the world. But I feel compelled, as a man who was close to our generation's leader for two decades, to share a few memories, impressions and stories that I saw and heard firsthand.


I had the merit of meeting the Rosh Yeshiva about 18 years ago when I came to Eretz Yisroel with the Admor of Skulen to take part in a cornerstone-laying ceremony for the new building of Chesed Avrohom on Rechov Ezra in Bnei Brak (built by the Wosner family). Afterwards I kept in touch with him several times per year, particularly every erev Shavuos since I would regularly spend the chag in Eretz Yisroel with Vishnitz.

As long as I live I will never forget my immediate impression when I first met Maran HaRav Shach. I had been sent together with several askonim from Skulen to ask for a letter of support for the new building and to invite him to take part in the cornerstone-laying ceremony.

When we arrived Maran Rosh Hayeshiva was preparing the shiur kloli he planned to give the next day. His grandson told us that it was impossible to go in to speak with him because nobody was allowed to disturb him while he was preparing the shiur. But I told the grandson that the cornerstone-laying was to take place the very next day and therefore it was urgent that we speak with him that day.

We all went into the Rosh Yeshiva's office and stood in the corner of the room in silence. He was so immersed in his learning that at first he didn't even notice us. He looked fervent; his head and entire being were engaged in preparing the shiur, although he may have already given that shiur many times . . . A large number of books were piled on his table and he was going from one to the next, glancing into one and then rushing to the bookcase to pull out another sefer. It was fascinating, an unforgettable scene of yegias haTorah.

Suddenly he noticed us, raised up his hands and burst out with indignation. Addressing his grandson in particular he said, "Don't you know this is not the right time? You shouldn't disturb me while I'm preparing the shiur."

I felt sorry for the unpleasant situation his dear grandson was put in, so at first I apologized for coming in, adding that we were shluchim sent by the Skulener Rebbe, shlita. When he heard the words "Skulener Rebbe," right away a gracious smile broke across his face. "That's a different matter," he said. "The Skulener Rebbe is a man of mesirus nefesh for the sake of Jews and his request must always be heard."

The Rosh Yeshiva sat down immediately and in his holy handwriting wrote out a very nice letter and asked me to apologize for him to the Skulener Rebbe that because the shiur kloli was held at exactly the same time he would not be able to attend the cornerstone-laying celebration in person.

Praise from the Brisker Rov and the Chazon Ish

How can simple Jews like us have any conception of the greatness of gedolei hador, even when they are already widely renowned? The only way, in my opinion, is to see how the gedolei hador of their generation related to them.

I indeed discovered this after my first meeting with him when I bought his set of seforim, Avi Ezri. I did not come to know him through his lofty chidushei Torah, but two letters that appear inside the sefer suffice--the letter of approbation for the section on Nezikin by the Brisker Rov zt'l, and a teshuvoh by the Chazon Ish zt'l, in the section on Kodshim. These two letters open one's eyes to the admiration and respect these two greats felt toward him and thus allow us to better appreciate the great loss we suffered through his passing.

In reading the letter of approbation by the Brisker Rov one must understand that he was careful never to write even a single superfluous word in his letters and certainly not in haskomos (which he almost never gave). Yet in his haskomoh for Avi Ezri he writes, "The gaon Rav Elozor Menachem, shlita, does not need any haskomoh from anyone, for he is a very great man and his power in Torah is great, [together] with acuity, thorough knowledge and a profound understanding of the pshat, on the level of the gedolim of our generation."

These words, written fifty years ago, attest to the greatness the Brisker Rov attributed to HaRav Shach.

The Chazon Ish apparently had an even stronger impression of HaRav Shach, calling him a unique figure in his generation. In 5703 (1943) the Rosh Yeshiva wrote a chidush on Chagigoh in the monthly Shalmei Simchoh, associated with Knesses Yisroel. The Chazon Ish wrote a teshuvoh to HaRav Shach refuting his chidush. In his great humility HaRav Shach included neither the teshuvoh nor the chidush in his sefer.

Thirty-three years later the Rosh Yeshiva found that the Boruch Taam (the Divrei Chaim's father-in-law) learned the pshat just as he did, at which point he did print both the chidush and the teshuvoh of the Chazon Ish in newer editions of Avi Ezri, along with a note explaining why he had not included it previously.

A close examination of the Chazon Ish's teshuvoh of nearly sixty years ago is striking. "Although I normally do not engage in exchanges with talmidei chachomim," he writes, referring to chiddushim he comes across in Torah journals, "but since Kvod Toroso shlita cherishes truth, I have delved into it with him for the sake of increasing Torah."

The Steipler and HaRav Shach

Here I would like to share with the readers a quote from a letter also written by a famous godol from the previous generation, Maran the Steipler zt'l, author of Kehillos Yaakov. The titles he confers on HaRav Shach are worth noting: "Hadras Geono, Pe'er Hador, Goder Geder Ve'omed Beperetz" ("The glorious gaon, ornament of the generation, who makes fences and stands in the breach.")

The Rosh Yeshiva was sick at the time and Maran the Steipler was evaluating whether it would be better to perform mitzvas bikur cholim or not, but for the time being he wrote that he wished him a speedy recovery, "refuoh gemuroh lekol eivorov vegufo hatohor, ve'al mishmarto ya'amod leharbitz Torah borabim le'alofim ulerevovos veho'oretz to'ir mechvodo shlita."

Three of the great geonim of the previous generation showed this extraordinary degree of awe and respect toward him. Thus is it any wonder that thousands of bnei Torah around the world held such awe for him? The Steipler even called HaRav Shach the epitome of daas Torah.


HaRav Shach's last twenty years were the most turbulent of his lifetime. But the fact that he had reached a position of leadership over Klal Yisroel after 80 years of omol beTorah brought Torah-faithful Jews, particularly in the yeshiva world, to recognize his opinion as true daas Torah on all matters.

The Steipler's nephew, who was also very close to HaRav Shach, told me several things of interest. He and a few other members of his family, including HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, the Steipler's son, stood at the Steipler's bedside during his petiroh on a Friday before kabolas Shabbos. Rav Chaim did not take his eyes off of his holy father until the moment the doctor announced his neshomoh had already departed. Then Rav Chaim instructed someone nearby to cover him and said it was now Shabbos. "Until now we had two leaders," he said, "and now we have only one, Maran HaRosh Yeshiva. Abba said the Ribono Shel Olom would grant HaRav Shach arichus yomim to allow him to lead the generation."

HaRav Shach and the Chassidim

On several occasions the Rosh Yeshiva told me it pained him deep inside over the sheim ra he had acquired as a "hater of chassidim." This was "total sheker" he told me resolutely. "We are fighting against secularism in the yeshivas. Today, besiyata deShmaya people are learning Torah in both Chassidic and Lithuanian yeshivos. In my view there is no difference between them; all of them are important and dear to me. In fact, go ahead and ask your Chassidic friends with us at Ponevezh if I distinguish between Chassidic and Lithuanian bochurim."

Few people know that the Rosh Yeshiva served as rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Karlin in Loninitz before the War and was very successful there. In a sizable newspaper article to mark the 35th anniversary since the yeshiva's founding, a staff member in charge of the talmidim during the yeshiva's early years writes, "He continued to feel great love for the yeshiva."

And in a letter Maran wrote to mark the celebrations, the great love he felt for chassidim working hard to learn Torah was clearly apparent. The letter is full of nostalgia for those years. "And what a glorious sight it was when the Rebbe came to Loninitz. totally dedicated to the yeshiva in particular and to harbotzas Torah in general. The Rebbe was particularly happy when he came to spend a day with the members of the yeshiva. He inspired them with words of encouragement and was like a father to them, fulfilling all of their needs. He also sat down with them to eat," wrote HaRav Shach years later when he was already rosh yeshiva of Ponevezh and leader of the generation.

Recently I spoke with a prominent Chassidic Jew, R' Mordechai Leib Levine, who now lives in Jerusalem. He used to run the bookstore in Williamsburg. He told me HaRav Shach always showed great respect toward Chassidic bochurim who learned well. He would provide them funds for their basic needs (from money the Rebbe entrusted to him) and would sometimes give them a bonus saying, "You have another ma'aloh-- you're a warm, Chassidic bochur."

Overlooking Affronts

One of Maran's talmidim, an avreich whose wife was mortally ill, felt the calamity was due to a kepeidoh by the Rosh Yeshiva after the talmid had made inappropriate remarks against the Rosh Yeshiva during the election campaign. He went to the Steipler's nephew and asked him to ask the Rosh Yeshiva for forgiveness.

The nephew did go to speak with him, but Maran said, "Chas vesholom, nobody gets punished because of me because when I say Krias Shema Al Hamittoh I say, `Hineni mochel lekol me shechoto kenegdi,' and I have everyone in mind, even those who have smirched my reputation by saying I don't treat Chassidim nicely."

The Rosh Yeshiva asked the nephew to verify the sick wife's name and her mother's name so he could say a chapter of Tehillim for her recovery.

A few months later, before Pesach, the Rosh Yeshiva inquired about the woman's state of health and placed a large sum of money in the nephew's hands to give to the avreich as maos chitim without saying where the money came from. "The woman supported the household financially and they must be suffering severe financial problems," he said.

With the Admor, the Imrei Chaim

Rabbi Shlomo Lorencz, leader of Agudath Israel, told me a fascinating story that he witnessed and that demonstrates the genuine esteem Maran had for Chassidic leaders.

When his children married, Rabbi Lorencz would come to the Admor from Vishnitz to extend a personal invitation to the chasunah, but when it came time for his youngest daughter's wedding he felt it would not be right to trouble the Rebbe, who was already very old and weak by then. However, somehow the Rebbe found out about Rav Lorencz' simchah. On the day of the chasunah two shlichim arrived to inform him that the Rebbe would be attending even without an invitation, as a sign of appreciation for the efforts Rav Lorencz made for his chassidim every time the Rebbe sent people to him for help.

The crowd had already gathered for the guest reception preceding the chuppah. Among them was HaRav Shach, who always served as mesader kiddushin for Rav Lorencz' children. Suddenly a commotion was heard near the entrance: the Admor from Vishnitz had arrived and was being helped to the hall by his assistants.

When HaRav Shach saw that the Vishnitzer Rebbe had arrived, he rose from his chair right away and rushed to the door to greet him with warm words of welcome. "I am overjoyed to see the Rebbe after his difficult illness," he said, and as the two walked toward the table HaRav Shach continued, "Since we have merited seeing the Rebbe's recovery, he should be honored as mesader kiddushin."

At first the Rebbe refused, claiming the chosson was a talmid muvhok of the Rosh Yeshiva, but Maran insisted and the Vishnitzer Rebbe eventually agreed.

When the Admor from Vishnitz-Monsey came to Bnei Brak eight years ago, of course paying a visit to the Rosh Yeshiva, despite the latter's weakness he went outside to accompany the Admor to his car. He also paid the Admor a visit in his quarters, although by then the Rosh Yeshiva was already too weak to venture out except on rare occasions. The only reason that he made a special effort to do so was that he had heard that the Admor was a great masmid who exerted himself in his Torah learning and fought battles for the sake of Torah and Judaism.

Boundless Ahavas Yisroel

Anyone who had any tie to Maran HaRav Shach could see in every step he took his great love for Am Yisroel and the genuine fondness he felt for every single Jew. He was widely known for exerting the same efforts to help individuals in need as the efforts he devoted to chinuch and Torah institutions.

This practice has characterized almost all gedolei Yisroel; even when wholly absorbed in helping Klal Yisroel they do not forsake individuals. Despite their zeal in matters affecting all of Klal Yisroel, they reveal none of these concerns when faced with a matter that affects a single individual.

I clearly recall how several times he came out strongly against leftist kibbutzim, crying out and warning against how deep they had severed the ties to their religion. But those close to him say that when he heard about a terrorist attack in which kibbutz members were killed, he sobbed bitterly because after all they had been attacked for being Jews.

Citing two verses at the end of Shemos (23), the Rov from Lublin would say, "Hinei mokom Iti" [Behold, there is a special place under My dominion] applies in matters of kovod Shomayim, and then "nitzavto al hatzur" [you (Moshe Rabbenu) stand upon the rock], i.e. you should be firm as a rock, but "vehoyo ba'avor kevodi" [and it will come to pass while My glory passes by] and the issue is not one of kovod Shomayim. Then "vesamticho benikras hatzur" [I will put you in a cleft of the rock]. Then you should hide in the clefts of the rock (and do your best to avoid any friction).

This was HaRav Shach's way. I would like to illustrate his fabulous approach by relating an event in which I was closely involved.

The Talmud Torah in Budapest

In Budapest there is a school called Masores Avos originally set up by Talmud Torah Chesed Avraham--which I had the merit to help found--under the guidance of the Admor from Skulen. Over the years, it turned into a school for some 500 talmidim.

A loyal activist, R' Dovid Moskowitz, was appointed president of the school. He was a member of Chesed Avraham's nesius, a member of the directorship of Agudas Yisroel of America and a prominent askan in Siget-Satmar. The Council Chairman was the well- known speaker, R' Dov (Barry) Reichman of Toronto.

One year R' Moskowitz brought many of the children on a trip to Eretz Yisroel as part of a summer camp. While in Israel some of them were brought to meet HaRav Shach.

The Rosh Yeshiva was very excited over the fact that after the fall of Communism these children had the zchus besiyata deShmaya to receive a Torah education and to be ingrained with a love of Torah and Judaism. He spoke to them with great warmth.

During the visit, R' Moskowitz asked him to write a letter to encourage talmidei yeshivos to volunteer to work as mechanchim in Budapest and to Bais Yaakov alumni to volunteer as mechanchos there. The Rosh Yeshiva agreed right away, saying, "Chover ani lekol asher yerei'ucho." A nesi'us for the talmud Torah was then set up, including HaRav Shach, Rav Moshe Aryeh Freund and ylct'a the Admor from Skulen. Maran constantly inquired about the work being done at the school and when children from the school in Budapest or R' Moskowitz came to him, they always found the door open to them.

His Love for Every Jewish Child

One day R' Dovid Moskowitz received a phone call from Rav Shmuel Deutsch on the Rosh Yeshiva's behalf. Rav Deutsch told him that the Rosh Yeshiva was very upset by an article people had brought him from a religious weekly published in Jerusalem that said that at Masores Avos, which was officially under the Rosh Yeshiva's guidance, 51 children with non-Jewish mothers were enrolled, in addition to 5 children of priests, Rachmono litzlan, who wanted their sons to learn Tanach from the original source. HaRav Shach asked R' Moskowitz to come to Eretz Yisroel immediately to clarify the matter.

R' Moskowitz took the first flight he could catch and rushed straight to HaRav Shach's home. Maran greeted him with a "Sholom aleichem" and asked him to take a seat. R' Moskowitz thought that to receive a patch--which he understood to be the purpose of the visit based on his conversation with Rav Deutsch-- he could stand as well. But Maran again asked him to sit, saying a meeting and a discussion should be held sitting down. At this point R' Moskowitz relaxed somewhat.

The Rosh Yeshiva took out the article and asked, "Could I possibly have agreed to something like this?"

R' Moskowitz did not lose his composure. "If the reporter who wrote this article really had good intentions, shouldn't he have come to Maran to ask him whether this was true before going to print?" (The reporter was born in Hungary and had become a chossid. He wrote for two newspapers, one of which was published in New York and had never been sympathetic to Maran or to the yeshiva world.)

R' Moskowitz continued, explaining that there may be 51 questionable children in the school, but the same applies in the US. "Unfortunately everyone knows the painful statistic of 50 percent intermarriage. At any school in towns outside the main Jewish population centers, as many as 25 percent of the children might be of questionable background. In Hungary the intermarriage rate is definitely above 50 percent, so there could very well be 51 children of questionable mothers. The Rosh Yeshiva did not tell us to check up on the children's mothers, saying just that if a Jew brings a child to the school we should accept him. But there is one thing I would like to ask the Rosh Yeshiva: Regarding the five `sons of priests,' as the article charges, certainly they have names. I would appreciate it if the names were passed on to the Rosh Yeshiva -- if indeed such children exist."

The Rosh Yeshiva reacted with surprise: "It's hard to believe this is all complete nonsense (stam bilbul), but among Jews who think only what they do is kosher, anything can happen."

He summoned his grandson and another avreich, instructing them to write a letter of rebuttal. He added, "If they print the letter in full then perhaps they made a mistake. But if they edit out parts of the letter I'll know what they were aiming at."

They did, indeed, edit out parts of the letter.

Maran then had a notice printed in his name in Yated Ne'eman and Hamodiah saying it was a great mitzvah to travel to Budapest in order to support Jewish education there. As this story demonstrates the Rosh Yeshiva felt tremendous love for all of yaldei Yisroel.

Messenger of Hashem

The Haftorah for Parshas Toldos ends, "Toras emes hoyeso befihu ve'avloh lo nimtzo bisfosov; besholom uvemishor holach Iti, verabim heishiv mei'ovon. Ki sifsei kohein yishmeru da'as veSoroh yevakshu mipihu, ki mal'ach Hashem Tzevokos hu." ["The Torah of truth was in his mouth and iniquity was not to be found on his lips. He walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and turned many away from sin. The priest's lips should keep knowledge and they should seek Torah at his mouth, for he is a messenger of the L-rd of hosts."]

The following anecdote shows how much these verses from Malachi (2:6-7) could very well have been said of the Rosh Yeshiva, for people heeded him like a mal'ach Hashem.

In Jerusalem there is a talmud Torah called HaMesorah, a splendid institution with hundreds of talmidim and managed in the true yeshiva spirit. Yet few people know that around 15 years ago the principal wanted to make it a mamlachti-dati institution and not to leave it under the auspices of Chinuch Atzmai, against Maran's stated opinion. When Maran was unable to persuade the principal to change his mind, he published a letter asking all bnei Torah to take their sons out of the talmud Torah and to enroll them in the new HaMesorah talmud Torah that had been set up. Ninety-nine percent of the parents complied with the Rosh Yeshiva's request within days, heeding his word immediately, ki mal'ach Hashem Tzevokos hu.


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