Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Nissan 5763 - April 9, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Torch is Burning in the Warsaw Ghetto

by A. Avraham

Pesach 5703 (1943). The rebels barricaded themselves on the rooftops. They had arsenals of weapons. Rumor had it that the morning following the first night of Pesach had been designated for the liquidation of the ghetto. The purpose: to give the Fuhrer a birthday gift.

And if the Warsaw ghetto were destroyed, it would include R' Menachem Zemba Hy'd as well. He stood his ground and protected the community with his spiritual wings until the very bitter end. The day that commemorates that cataclysmic event, 19 Nisan, 5703, is also the yahrtzeit of R' Menachem Zemba. While the entire city was going up in flames, his heart was flaming within. His thoughts were on his people. He thought of the Torah, of his works. And nothing was salvaged.

His personal history is encapsulated in the following lines.


The house on 34 Brokovi Street in Warsaw was a most typical one. The ground floor was occupied by a busy ironwork shop; above it were apartments. Had it not been for the unusual tenant it housed, a person might easily pass by and not give it even a passing glance. They were all the same, for all intents and purposes.

But it was its very anonymity that enabled the apartment on the second floor to produce one of the most fascinating figures of the past generation, HaGaon HaRav Menachem Zemba, Hy"d.

From the time of his marriage at the age of eighteen, R' Menachem was supported by his wealthy, philanthropic father- in-law, R' Chaim Yeshaya Tzederbaum. He lived under his roof, raised his family there and matured, to become the outstanding figure he was.

The ground level of the building housed a metalwork shop -- the "flour" that made the Torah of the second floor possible, the means that sustained R' Menachem while he developed his genius. If they dealt with metals and money below, in the room above the establishment R' Menachem delved deep into Torah and surfaced to rise up to great peaks. The deafening noise, the clanging and banging, did not disturb the young man who was encircled by a protective wall of tomes piled high on the table.

R' Menachem's intense hasmodoh knew no limits. He often lost all sense of time since he had no schedule for eating and sleeping. The eternal Torah transcended time. If food was brought to him, he would eat rapidly, enough to subsist on, and immediately return to his study, the sustenance of his soul. It hardly registered on him whether he ate or not; his existence revolved around study.

Neither did sleep have a set time in his daily routine. He would collapse only when he could no longer keep his eyes open.

R' Menachem's diligence bore fruit. The house at 34 Brokovi St. soon became famous, and not by virtue of the generosity of the wealthy R' Chaim Yeshaya alone, but because it was the home of R' Menachem.

The house was transformed into a meeting place for scholars. Budding Torah giants and young students came to acquire wisdom from him; veteran sages of Warsaw and its environs also gathered in this home. Here they would clarify and crystallize difficult topics and wage the Torah battle of wits, pitting their mental strength against -- and with -- that of the illustrious commander who was proficient in every area.

R' Menachem was like a magnet that attracted anyone whose soul longed to plunge into the mighty waters of Torah and fish out the pearls of Torah wisdom.

Important Torah and communal figures from all over the world also found their way to Warsaw and made it a point to visit the young iluy. They, too, talked with him in Torah and arrived at significant decisions in complex practical halacha. Having been illuminated by his brilliant clarity, they would return to their homelands with important spiritual baggage and wonderment at this spiritual giant who was fast rising above the horizon of the Jewish world.

R' Yehuda Leib Levine z'l describes such a scene with vivid color:

"Warsaw, 5673 (1913). In the teeming streets of Praga, the major suburb of the Polish capital, one can frequently see various Jews in traditional garb. These passersby include rabbis who are distinguished from the common Jew by their rabbinical attire, their hats black and round. These are rabbonim or roshei yeshiva from Lithuania.

"Then there are the Polish rabbis, whom the former approach with the identical, invariable question: `Where does R' Menachem live?' When men, children or old-timers see a stranger, they don't even wait for the inevitable question but instinctively point to Brokovi St. and say, `He lives at Number 34, on the second floor.'

"And so you go there and a rare scene unfolds before you. A short, thirty-year-old scholar is seated by the table, or perhaps standing by the window. The room is filled with scholars, rabbis or roshei yeshiva, all having traveled great distances to warm themselves by the fire of this Polish genius's Torah. R' Menachem is neither a rosh yeshiva nor a practicing rabbi. He is dressed simply like the Polish laymen, and wears a typical hat. He holds no official position, yet he wears the Torah crown of Polish Jewry upon his humble head."

He had the privilege of gaining all of this goodness and greatness in the home of his father-in-law, who kept his word and provided him with support over the years and continued to do so even when the family grew. He played an important role in R' Menachem's spiritual development, as he removed all financial cares including the needs of his wife and growing family.

R' Menachem appreciated his devotion and when his father-in- law, R' Chaim Yeshaya Tzederbaum, passed away on the 11th of Kislev, 5680 (1920), he published a comprehensive halachic treatise on the laws of carrying on Shabbos in his memory, calling it "Totzaos Chaim." The preface reads in part: "This kuntres is published as a memorial to my father- in-law, the esteemed rabbinical figure, who loved Torah and its scholars with heart and soul . . . "

To Learn

R' Menachem had a driving urge to make the acquaintance of the Torah leadership and to learn about various schools of thought in Torah and halacha, especially since he had learned mostly on his own in his youth. Whenever an eminent scholar came to Warsaw, he would rush to greet him. Upon being admitted to his presence, he would begin spouting questions in Torah. He was particularly interested in exchanging ideas with the Torah giants of Lithuania and Russia but identified most with the followers of the Gaon of Vilna and his Talmudic approach. And they, in turn, were overwhelmed by his genius, and returned to their homelands to spread his name and fame throughout the Torah world.

One of the first to recognize his greatness was Maran HaRav Meir Simcha Cohen zt'l of Dvinsk, the Ohr Somayach, and the Gaon R' Yosef Ruzhin zt'l, known as the Rogatchover, author of Tzofnas Panei'ach. It is told that when the Ohr Somayach once visited Warsaw, R' Menachem came to pay his respects. The two were soon deeply involved in heated Torah discussions. At one point, R' Meir Simcha was so beside himself that he cried out in wonder, "Warsaw! Do you begin to realize what genius is living in your midst?"

From that day on, the two were firm admirers of one another. They corresponded for years and their letters were replete with phrases of sworn friendship and heavy with shared brilliance in Torah.

One day, when R' Menachem went to visit his master, the Admor of Gur the Imrei Emes, the Rebbe said to him, "I posed a certain halachic question to several gedolim, but of them all, it was only your R' Meir Simcha who clarified the matter to my satisfaction."

The bond of friendship between the two soon branched out to include other Torah sages. R' Meir Simcha recommended him to his son-in-law, R' Avremele Luftbeer zt'l, one of the most learned scholars in the city who was the son of the famous chossid R' Leibel the mohel; he urged R' Avremele to go and sharpen his wits in halacha with R' Menachem Zemba.

This bond brought much blessing to the world. The frequent letters which they exchanged were later collated into the published collection Zera Avrohom, which is mainly made up of the letters in which R' Menachem replied to R' Avrohom's questions. The responsa are arranged in a marvelous order, each topic systematically dealt with, paragraph by paragraph, with amazing brilliance. These revealed to the world another small glimpse of R' Menachem's greatness.

Excerpts from R' Avrohom's letters show us how strong the bond of friendship was between them. For example: "I have been in Carlsbad for four days now, and have found no rabbis here. Please be so kind, my friend, as to inform me of your good health, for it will please me greatly."

And in another letter: "I request of you, my loyal friend, to write me some of your chidushim in the matters of Nezikin, a subject which you are currently engaged in."

When R' Avrohom passed away in 5578 (1918) still in his early prime and without leaving behind any progeny, R' Menachem published the Zera Avrohom in his memory, an outgrowth of the deep friendship that these two great men had shared.

He also became deeply attached to the Rogatchover Gaon. The latter was known for his acerbic expressions and sharp wit. Many accomplished scholars were afraid of being singed by his flaming tongue. He showed mercy to none. His mind spun at a phenomenal speed and often left even brilliant people panting in its wake. People verily trembled at the mention of his name.

R' Menachem was intrepid, and earned the Gaon's friendship. Whenever he came to visit, the Rogatchover would beam and ask, "What innovation have you brought me, young man?"

One time, R' Menachem launched into a question he had on one subject or another and followed it up with a barrage of other questions on the subject which had puzzled him, ranging the length and breadth of the Talmud, but he remained with the original question. The Rogatchover retreated in thought and his face grew serious. Finally, he said, "This Polish lamdan has what to say."

Years later, when he was hospitalized in Warsaw, R' Menachem came to visit. The first thing he uttered when he saw him was, "Listen, there's a very simple answer to your kushya."

R' Menachem once spoke about the correspondence he maintained with the Rogatchover, "A voluminous book could be written from these letters. But in order to properly explain them, I would have to free myself of all other matters for at least two years and I simply do not have the time. The day is short and the work is plentiful."

When HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik was staying in Warsaw towards the end of the First World War, it was only natural that R' Menachem would seek him out and spend time engaging in Torah give-and-take with him. In the gaon's last months, when he was staying in the resort town of Otbotzk for health reasons, R' Menachem would visit him frequently and they would take hours- long walks in the woods, delving in Torah without stopping for even a moment. When Chidushei R' Chaim Halevi first came out, his son HaRav Yitzchok Zeev, rushed off to personally bring a copy to R' Menachem who was then staying at the Krenitz spa.

Even the Chofetz Chaim, who had to come occasionally to Warsaw to print his works, would spend days on end conversing with R' Menachem in matters of halacha. The Chofetz Chaim was particularly fond of him and held him in great esteem.

In Kovetz Shiurim we find a voluminous correspondence which R' Menachem engaged in with Maran HaGaon R' Elchonon Wasserman, Hy'd.

The Ponevezher Rov zt'l once said to his disciples, "I first met R' Menachem at the Agudas Yisroel Knessia Gedolah that took place in Vienna in 5683 (1923). Within moments, we were already deeply involved in the give-and-take of halachic matters that were not completed before three days time. In the brief interludes, I completely forgot about the existence of the Knessia Gedola. I saw a bright luminary shining."

He was one of the esteemed and faithful followers of the Admor Imrei Emes of Ger ztvk'l, whom he visited regularly, but all circles and communities knew of him and revered him greatly. His reputation grew and spread until he was considered one of the main pillars of chareidi Jewry. He exerted an influence upon all aspects of Yiddishkeit and became a very central figure in all branches of Torah Jewry.

. . . And to Teach

His father-in-law R' Chaim Yeshaya Tzederbaum passed away in 5680. It brought R' Menachem to a crossroads in his life. R' Chaim Yeshaya had made it possible for him to devote himself wholly to Torah for close to twenty years, without any financial cares, but his death brought this period to an abrupt end.

Communal leaders in the foremost cities of Europe came to offer him the seat of rabbinate but R' Menachem declined. He felt that the burden of the public would be too great to bear and preferred to earn a livelihood in business. He decided to enter his father-in-law's business and managed the ironwork shop for fifteen years. He dealt with horseshoes, nails, locks and bolts, while his mind soared heavenward where holy thoughts in prayer and Torah became one bloc of sanctity.

He once explained with his characteristic charm of expression why he preferred business to the rabbinate. "My wife and children are able to assist me in the shop. This would not be possible in the rabbinate where I would become very involved, would waste much time and not have enough time of my own."

His customers also found it strange to see one of the leaders of the generation, whose mouth verily spouted gems, dealing with such mundane things. When he overheard a client remarking that between one customer and another R' Menachem tried to snatch another section of Talmud Yerushalmi, he said good-naturedly, "You are mistaken. Between one section of Yerushalmi and another, I manage to find time for a customer."

R' Menachem spent a few hours each day in the shop. His wife helped a lot in running it so that R' Menachem could retire to his study on the second floor. This is where his followers would gather to hear his wisdom and absorb his teachings. His shiurim would begin in the early evening and would continue for six and seven hour stretches. They sometimes even lasted until daybreak! It was not easy to become an accepted member of his elite circle, and one who was so privileged would be enriched by a wealth of Torah, vast in scope and profound in depth.

He never came prepared to his shiurim. Rather, he invited his students into the treasure chamber of his intellect where together they erected their mental constructions or roamed the vast plains of Torah, to pluck and gather the ripened fruits from the orchards which they had tended under R' Menachem's supervision. Together they blazed trails in truth, wending their ways after testing each hypothesis against the measuring stick of truth. Whatever they found to be good, they kept; what was unsatisfactory, they shoved aside.

There was no place for half-truths in R' Menachem's beis medrash. There was no brainstorm that could not stand the test of truth, no sevora that flitted about capriciously in the air. "Truth shall spring up from the earth." It had to be solid, well founded, impervious to challenge. Only the fruits of truth were harvested there.

The phrasing of the Rishonim was sifted through seven times for nuances and additional meanings. What else lay hidden between the lines of the Rashbo, among the spaces in the language of the Rambam, in the seemingly redundant word of Rabbenu Gershom or Rabbenu Chananel? Surely entire worlds were enfolded therein!

And the students could verily see the thunder in their yearning to understand. Their master showed them how one dismantles a question, resolves a problem, clarifies an enigma and how the brilliance of Torah penetrated through the darkness of all ignorance with its beauty.

R' Menachem felt that it was as important for a rosh yeshiva to explore all the lanes of possibility, as it was for him to arrive at the goal. "Perhaps" and "maybe" and "ostensibly" were important pathmarkers to reach the truth; without them, the final solution would lack in its real value. The student must know that he is obligated to weigh every side of the halochoh on the scale of justice and hone every aspect of his theory on the grindstone of truth; only if it withstood all tests could he declare that his approach rang with truth.

He would sometimes struggle all night long in Torah, delving deeply and energetically, throwing himself almost bodily into the battle and, if he did retire briefly, he would again review the topic in his mind. Inevitably, on the morrow he would come and declare that what they had innovated the previous day was null and void since it was not sufficiently founded on proof. And so, the group would begin afresh. The topic of "R' Chanina the Segan haKohanim" (in Pesochim 14a) was reviewed for several hours a day throughout an entire year!

R' Menachem built students. He established a world of followers who learned to understand Torah in depth. He did not permit them to dabble in loose hypotheses or weak similarities and comparisons. No din was ever stated unless it had been tested at the root and its sources thoroughly analyzed. Once this approach was established, he was able to produce many disciples who adulated him and were forever grateful for his having set them on the right path of understanding and guiding them to their right place.

Your Deeds Shall Draw You Near

R' Yitzchok Yedidia Frankel zt'l once related, "I left Lintshutz and went to Warsaw to study in the Mesivta at a young age. In answer to the menahel ruchani's question if I had a recommendation from any rabbi, I said, `All I have is the recommendation of Akavya ben Mehalalel' (who says in maseches Eduyos, `Your deeds shall draw you near and your deeds shall repulse you'). Someone slapped me on the back from behind and asked, `From where do you know Akavya ben Mehalalel?' It was R' Menachem Zemba, though I did not know it at the time. I summoned up my courage and parried boldly, `From every place in the Talmud where he is mentioned.' In a flash, I began rattling off the places where he appears, since I was familiar with them all. This seemed to be enough for him to get an idea of what I was like and he immediately asked, `Do you have any relatives in Warsaw?' I shook my head. `I am called Menachem Zemba,' he said. `I live in Praga, at 34 Brokovi St. Come to me this evening.'

"This dialogue was enough to get me accepted in the Mesivta and I soon became a virtual member of his household. I had no means to rent a room and so I slept in the shop as did many others my age. I suffered want and hunger. After a few days, R' Menachem singled me out and asked why I looked so poorly. He questioned me about my eating habits and lodging facilities until I finally came out with my true living conditions. He was appalled, and quickly found a room for me to rent under more normal circumstances. He paid my rent and board from his own pocket and continued to do so every month."

His compassionate heart, the selfsame heart that during the days of calamity went out to every single Jew as if he were his very own son, bemoaned and commiserated their situation with intense pain. He was a man who overflowed with love towards his fellow man. He was a poignantly sensitive, feeling person and empathized with every living creature.

A small example illustrates this: during his period of wandering, when he was sent great distances as a communal emissary and shuttled between the various big cities of the world, he would always remember the children awaiting him at home and always brought a small souvenir home for his little daughter to show that he had been thinking of her.

During the days of wrath, when the Germans doused Warsaw with rains of fire and blood, some hundred and fifty people huddled around him, men, women and children, eyes expressing deep terror and helplessness. Death stalked the streets; where could people hide? They found sanctuary and safety in his shelter and felt secure in his presence. They felt protected by his stature in Torah; surely they would be safe with him. Interestingly, the houses all along the street were razed by bombs; only his remained standing erect, and its occupants safe and sound within. As they clustered about him, they not only felt that he had opened his doors to them, but that he had verily opened his heart and let them in. That heart was really never closed, for it overflowed with love that could not be contained, and with this love he attempted to encourage and hearten them not to fear, but to trust.

Great in the Warsaw Ghetto

It was in the beginning of the winter of 1940. A group of German officers stormed into R' Menachem's home, determined to arrest him. His wife pleaded for him, but she was shoved brutally aside and fainted.

They took R' Menachem to a building at the far end of the city and tortured him to make him reveal the names of the rich Jews in Warsaw. If he remained silent, they threatened to keep him imprisoned indefinitely. R' Menachem staunchly maintained that he was only familiar with scholars, not with the rich people. They clubbed him until he bled profusely and forced him to write a note to his wife to give over all their money and other sums entrusted in their care.

They arrived at the same time as a group of his adherents, who had gathered a large sum in order to bribe and ransom him. The officers returned to the house where he was imprisoned and released a bloody, broken R' Menachem. He made it back to his house only a few minutes before eight, the curfew, and collapsed on his bed.

He remained bedridden, suffering from his maltreatment, for several weeks under the constant care of doctors. They advised him to move, and from his recovery onwards he was constantly on the go, never remaining long in any single spot, so as to evade the Germans. He existed like this until the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto in 1941.

He traveled light, taking along a minimum of belongings. But there was one possession that he guarded with all his might: his writings. He concealed large cartonfuls of his manuscripts in the attic of the house on 15 Kremlitzka St. A wall was plastered across, rendering them invisible and safe.

There was one work that he refused to part with: Machazeh Lamelech, a thousand page commentary on the Rambam's Yad Hachazokoh, that had already been prepared for printing. He took it along wherever he went.

He also kept his copy of the Rambam close by. Those large volumes had thousands of his comments jotted neatly in all the margins in tiny script. This was the personal baggage that he took wherever he went.

His relative R' Avrohom Zemba z'l, once dared to ask him why he was so concerned about his writings. "Isn't your life much more important? If you succeed in keeping alive, you will be able to produce many more works!"

R' Menachem raised his eyebrows and retorted, "What are you talking about? To rewrite these works? These are the product of forty of my best years, my youthful prime, of thousands of sleepless nights! How can I repeat or replace these?"

R' Menachem's prolific mind continued to produce and innovate even during the days of wrath, when Jews were being rounded up and sent off to the concentration camps. He saw the death transports gathering up his relatives and neighbors, the members of his community and, finally, his wife and two daughters. He was left broken and alone and refused to be comforted.

Ninety percent of Warsaw Jewry was put onto trains to be annihilated. Only one tenth remained alive. R' Menachem miraculously was among these. He was appointed as a clerk in the community archives and succeeded thereby in remaining in Warsaw.

He wrote and wrote, throwing himself bodily into his chidushim to maintain his emotional sanity, for "Were it not for Your Torah, my pastime, I would have been lost in my misery." At the top of one of the pages, he stated, "Whatever I was able to innovate, with the help of Hashem, during the days of wrath, under the heat of the oppressor, on the subject of kiddush Hashem according to the Rambam and the Ravad, on the day when my dear wife was taken -- she who sacrificed her life to raise our children in the path of Torah and yir'a, to enable me and them to persevere in our study of the holy Torah."

During the days of selichos, when the remaining Jews of Warsaw poured out their hearts in weeping and pleading that the harsh decree be mitigated, R' Menachem continued to seek and find solace in the holy Torah. He continued to produce chidushim. Heading one of his pieces is a notation: "What I was able to innovate, with the help of Hashem Yisborach, in the days of wrath and annihilation. Do You intend to wipe out Jewry to the finish? [Dated] the second day of Selichos, `To Your judgment they stood today, for all are Your servants, in judgment . . . "

R' Menachem found it difficult to make peace with his loss, but neither did he lose courage and become uselessly idle. "Even if a sharp sword is poised at your throat, do not despair of Heavenly mercy." He continues, and quotes the commentary of the Sefas Emes on the verse, "And I shall remove you from under the suffering of Egypt." Suffering with the connotation of bearing in patience. One must not bear Jewish suffering with hopeless resignation and make peace with the situation. One must pray and continue to hope and trust.

Concurrent with his toil in Torah, R' Menachem continued to be active in rescue work to the utmost of his ability. He was prepared to lay down his life for every Jew. When askonim came to seek his advice, he would say: "Do whatever you possibly can to save each and every Jew. Perhaps one can still save another soul before the train pulls out. Rescuing lives overrides every personal interest."

End of Part I


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