Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Sivan 5765 - June 15, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Glimpses of the Mashgiach, HaRav Shlomo Wolbe zt'l

by Rabbi H. Helman

Giving The World An Idea of What a Genuine Mussar Scholar Is . . .(from the Introduction to Ho'odom Biyekor)

Part One

His Will and His Wishes

Many visitors, including many gedolei Torah, came to comfort HaRav Wolbe's family during the shivoh. One of the roshei yeshiva who came was HaRav Yonoson David, rosh yeshivas Pachad Yitzchok, with whom the family fell to discussing one of the Mashgiach's directives. In his will HaRav Wolbe wrote expressly, "I should not be eulogized, neither orally, nor in writing." How could this request be reconciled with the obvious need to provide some evaluation of the Mashgiach's life and work?

After some discussion HaRav David responded that to present stories from his life in a way that portrays his greatness would certainly not be to his liking. If however, the idea is to instruct and encourage bnei Torah, and provide them with guidance in life there can surely be no objection, for throughout his life, that was the Mashgiach's deepest yearning.

Members of HaRav Wolbe's family and many of his talmidim have put tremendous effort into assembling the material that is presented in the following pages (and that will be appearing over the following weeks). Their sense of loss and bereavement is apparent in every line.

No attempt whatsoever has been made at conveying the Mashgiach's lustrous and multifaceted character, for a writer capable of doing so has yet to be found. His life encompassed several countries and several very different worlds, bringing him into contact with countless different people. The gathering of these disparate threads and their weaving into a coherent whole to portray something of the breadth and nobility of his mussar personality would be a massive undertaking. Besides, the Mashgiach would be displeased by any attempt to do so.

Instead, we present fragmented glimpses of his life, each carrying a practical lesson, relevant to all. We have tried to capture some of the pearls of guidance that he provided for hundreds of bochurim, which changed them and shaped them by conveying the joy of Torah living. The Mashgiach radiated this joy at all times, as was evident to everyone around him and it found its way into the hearts of his talmidim.

He took nothing for himself; he didn't need to. He was like a wellspring that exists solely to provide for others. He spoke, wrote, traveled and dealt with thousands of people, implanting sparks of his life within them that enabled them to find their own way in life. Surely he would wish that these lessons be passed on to the many who never knew him.

With great care and awareness of the responsibility involved, we have thus attempted to extend his life's work of guiding and directing individuals onto the path of ascent, the path of Torah knowledge, self-knowledge and perfection.

While not primarily biographical, the material has been arranged according to the different periods in the Mashgiach's life, starting with Mir and Sweden, followed by Be'er Yaakov and lastly, Yerushalayim. This first article, which is largely devoted to his `golden' years in Mir with Reb Yeruchom, is appearing close to the Mirrer Mashgiach's fifty-ninth yahrtzeit, on the eighteenth of Sivan.

Early Yearning

As a child in Berlin, young Shlomo Wolbe's yearning for the spiritual, and his strong faith, were already apparent. In later life he related that he loved to pray and did not heed his teachers' occasional requests that he pray faster.

At the age of sixteen he wrote a book on the fundamentals of Judaism, which he published years later for the Jewish community in Sweden. Later on, he set out on his travels in search of a mokom Torah. He first learned in the yeshiva in Frankfurt, where he took the initial steps in his spiritual development. He later moved to the yeshiva in Montreux, where he began his growth in Torah but did not feel satisfaction. He experienced some inner doubts about his future path and voiced his concerns to a friend, Rav Dovid Yaakov Cohen Hy'd, one of the prominent figures in the yeshiva.

The yeshiva was then honored with a visit from Rav Dovid Budnick Hy'd, one of the pioneers and builders of the Novardok yeshivos. Reb Dovid delivered a shmuess that made a profound impression on HaRav Wolbe. Reb Dovid mentioned that he had recently been in Geneva and had seen the building that housed the League of Nations, wherein each of the member countries had its own room. If all those countries can inhabit one building, he noted, just imagine what Odom Horishon, who contained an entire world within himself, must have been like.

Afterwards, HaRav Wolbe went over to Reb Dovid Yaakov to discuss the shmuess and its rich content, which had made a powerful impression on him. Reb Dovid Yaakov understood what his young friend truly yearned for and spoke plainly. "You ought to go to Yeshivas Mir, where you'll be able to hear the shmuessen of the Mashgiach, Reb Yeruchom. I don't think that any other enjoyment in the entire world will equal your enjoyment from those shmuessen."

All his life the Mashgiach remembered his friend Reb Dovid Yaakov, who perished in the Holocaust. Years later he named a son of his Dovid Yaakov, acknowledging his debt to his friend for his subsequent spiritual development.

The Years That Shaped a Life

Reb Shlomo Wolbe was struck by the intensity of the yeshiva atmosphere as soon as he entered the Mirrer beis hamedrash and it quickly seeped into the very fiber of his being. He met the Mashgiach, Reb Yeruchom, and swiftly fell under the spell of his talks. One day, he fell to talking about the Mashgiach's shmuessen with another bochur. The bochur asked him, "How old do I look to you?"

After a moment's thought Reb Shlomo replied, "Twenty-five. Perhaps a little older . . ."

"You're wrong," was the response. "I'm three years and four months old."

Reb Shlomo was momentarily nonplussed. Was he joking? Then the bochur explained. "I came to the yeshiva three years and four months ago and got to know the Mashgiach. That's when I truly started living . . ."

It was a sentiment that the newcomer would fervently endorse.

The Foundation

In the beis hamedrash, Reb Shlomo learned together with Reb Shmuel Charkover (Wilensky) zt'l, one of the "lions" of the senior Mirrer chaburoh. They learned extensively together.

Speaking to a group of younger mashgichim in later years, HaRav Wolbe related that in Mir, he had deliberated over which of two options to choose. He could either record Reb Yeruchom's shmuessen or he could write down the shiurim and chiddushim that he heard from his chavrusa, Reb Shmuel. There was not enough time for both. In his notes he wrote, "It was clear to me that I gave preference to writing down Reb Shmuel's shiurim for the very reason that I was very partial towards our master and teacher's ma'amorim. That was the correct thing for me to do."

He would always stress that Torah study is the foundation of all spiritual elevation. Mussar instruction can only be properly absorbed when one is completely immersed in Torah. To demonstrate this he often quoted Reb Yeruchom's words (from a letter written before his petiroh to a chaburoh of Mirrer bochurim learning in Lodz):

"Who but yourselves know what the basic structure of our yeshiva is; the true meaning of `spending nights immersed in the depths of halochoh'; learning in depth, with the depth encompassing an ever broader range and sharpening the intellect; developing men who approach every aspect of life with intelligence and contemplation instead of living in an ordinary manner . . . influencing those who have never glimpsed the interior of the yeshiva."

The Shabbos Stranger

It was Tuesday when Reb Shlomo arrived in the yeshiva. He met the Mashgiach again the following day and then again on Thursday and on Friday. In later years he recalled that on his first Shabbos in Mir he noticed a venerable stranger coming into the beis hamedrash and sitting down in the Mashgiach's place. He was somewhat surprised and thought in all innocence that the yeshiva must have a special Shabbos mashgiach in honor of the holy day. It took some time before he realized that on Shabbos Reb Yeruchom's face had a special radiance that made him appear different from how he looked during the week.


Reb Shlomo would say that only in Mir did he learn the extent of what the trait of practicing kindness towards others involves. He was deeply impressed by the concern that the bnei yeshiva showed for each other and the help that they extended to one another.

He related that one Yom Kippur, he was standing in his place before Musaf, preparing himself for the approaching prayer. One of the bochurim with whom he shared lodgings was sick just then and had remained behind in his room. The baal Musaf — whom Reb Shlomo described as `a great man' — was on his way to the amud when he noticed Reb Shlomo and asked him how his roommate was faring. Was he feeling any better?

Reb Shlomo didn't grasp why the question was of such importance at that particular moment. Several minutes later though, after a number of bochurim had asked him the same question it began to occur to him that it would perhaps be the right thing for him to go and see how his roommate was faring, the intense holiness of the day notwithstanding. He went back to his room, where he witnessed a rare scene.

The roshei hayeshiva and the foremost talmidim were sitting around his friend's bed, inquiring after his welfare and attending to minor details. Reb Leib Malin and his brother Reb Isser entered into a discussion of the precise amounts that a dangerously sick patient is allowed to eat on Yom Kippur in order to sustain himself.

Recalling that occasion in later years, Reb Shlomo would remark that it was a different kind of Yom Kippur that impressed itself in his heart, particularly on account of that demonstration of kindness and concern. This introduction to a new dimension of caring for others was a lesson that he fully absorbed, implementing it throughout his life.

Six Uninterrupted Hours

Reb Shlomo shared a room with R' Hertz Bass Hy'd, who was known as one of the yeshiva's finest products and who learned together with Reb Yeruchom every morning. Reb Shlomo testified that the Mashgiach didn't raise his eyes from the gemora for six hours every day. He neither left his place nor stopped focusing on his learning, even momentarily.

Before his petiroh, Reb Yeruchom wanted to organize a vaad to discuss various aspects of avodas Hashem, which he wished Reb Shlomo to join. He did not manage however, before being taken from this world. It was R' Hertz who continued the project, delivering the talks after Reb Yeruchom's petiroh.

First Hatzoloh Work

Reb Shlomo extended crucial assistance at the time of the war when the bnei hayeshiva had to flee. The need arose to extend the validity of the passport and exit visa of every bochur in Mir and all the necessary paperwork — for each and every bochur — had to be completed within a few days. Reb Shlomo sat filling out the forms for three consecutive days, breaking neither to eat nor to sleep. His sole nourishment was a bar of chocolate. As a result, he suffered from a digestive ailment for the rest of his life.

Eating for the Sake of Heaven

In later life he would longingly recall his days in Mir in the company of other true seekers of Hashem. "I remember," he once told a grandson, "how bochurim would learn mussar and cry. They realized their situation by themselves."

"In Mir," he once said, "even the food was consumed with pure motivation. I remember how, on the last Shabbos of the year, everyone's actions were influenced by the need for perfection. That Shabbos nobody dared engage in idle speech and they learned more than usual. It was good preparation for the days of judgment."

He emotionally portrayed the atmosphere in the yeshiva on Yomim Tovim. On Simchas Torah all the bochurim danced and sang songs honoring the Torah, for a long time. When the tempo of the singing picked up, Reb Yeruchom would enter the circle and slow down the singers, ensuring that they did justice to the meaning of the words.

Following the dancing, the Mashgiach would deliver a rousing talk. His words moved the bnei hayeshiva to tears. Afterwards they would dance again while crying.

In the afternoon Reb Yeruchom held a reception in his home at which he allowed the bochurim to speak. "On one occasion," Reb Shlomo recalled, "I realized that he was going to ask me to speak but I had nothing ready to say to them, so I left the reception beforehand. Afterwards I heard that Reb Yeruchom had asked, `Vu is Wolbe? (Where is Wolbe)' and when they told him that I wasn't there he said, 'Zoll men em brengen! (Let them bring him)' "

Discussing the Shmuess

He would often express his dismay at the failure of today's bochurim to emulate the bnei hayeshiva in Mir. Once, Rav Yisroel Kleiner was discussing the heyday of Yeshivas Be'er Yaakov with him. It was a period of over thirty years during which the yeshiva produced legions of talmidei chachomim and Torah disseminators.

Reb Shlomo however remarked, "I remember when I was in Mir that after the shmuess everyone would collect in groups and discuss the topic of the shmuess that had just been delivered. When there was something they didn't understand they'd go to Reb Isser Malin and ask him what the Mashgiach had meant. Today I no longer see this."

Unable to Sleep

His talmid Rav B. Shenker related that Reb Shlomo once told him excitedly how he had encountered Reb Yeruchom pacing back and forth in the yard of the yeshiva very late at night. Reb Shlomo went over and asked what he was doing. Reb Yeruchom replied that one of the older bochurim in the yeshiva had traveled somewhere. Since he, Reb Yeruchom, did not know where he'd gone, he was unable to fall asleep.

Reb Shlomo added, "The bochur might simply have gone on a shidduch meeting or some similar errand, but Reb Yeruchom couldn't sleep. That was the degree to which he kept track of every one of the hundreds of bochurim who were then in the yeshiva."

We Stood by the Wall and Wept

One of the most wrenching moments, that Reb Shlomo never forgot, was Reb Yeruchom's petiroh. "We stood in the yeshiva saying Tehillim for his recovery, weeping copiously, until the Mirrer shochet came in and went over to the baal tefilloh and whispered in his ear that the Tehillim were no longer necessary . . . Then we understood that our master the Mashgiach had departed this world. I remember going to the Mashgiach's house. We stood by the wall of his room and wept and wept . . ."

From Hothouse to Desert

Some three years later, when the persecution of the Mirrer bnei hayeshiva began, Reb Shlomo's German nationality was discovered and he was expelled from the town by the Russian authorities who had taken control of the part of Poland where Mir was. At first he wanted to move over to Kelm but, as a German national, Lithuania's doors were closed to him as well. As he was used to doing, he placed his trust in Hashem and was confident that He would show him the path he was to take.

Several days later, Reb Shlomo received a request from Reb I. Lehmann, who lived in Sweden and was concerned about his children's education, to come to Sweden to teach them Torah and the fear of Heaven. At the same time, he was also offered a rabbinical position there. Reb Shlomo was fortunate to receive semichoh on the spot from the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel zt'l, and from the Alter's son-in-law HaRav Y. Platchinsky zt'l. He then left for Sweden to spread Torah and yiras Shomayim.

HaRav Wolbe was warmly welcomed by R' Lehmann, who arranged accommodation for him where he could also learn with his children. Some time later, Rav Binyomin Zeev Jacobson zt'l, arrived too. It was then that HaRav Wolbe opened a special beis hamedrash where he gathered any of the local Jews who had a spark of Jewish feeling and delivered Torah shiurim and mussar shmuessen. He was greatly assisted in these endeavors by the shochet, Rabbi Chasdan. His successful work in strengthening religion and bringing Yidden back to observance now began.

Years later, after delivering a shmuess in Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim in which he spoke about the contrast between bnei Yisroel's recognition of their Creator and the gentile nations' awareness of their Master and their intentional rebellion against Him, he remarked to his grandson, "Fardrist mir! (I am upset). When I opened the beis hamedrash in Stockholm the first people who learned there were baalei batim. I started saying shmuessen for them like the ones I'd heard from our master, the Mashgiach Reb Yeruchom. A friend told me that one couldn't speak that way to baalei batim who didn't know what a shmuess was. So I started delivering droshos. Now that I ought to say a shmuess here in order to explain the matter completely, I've already become used to saying droshos . . . If I would give it over like a shmuess it would take an hour-and-a-half and there's a chance that I might be able to explain it properly but as a droshoh it takes less time."

Mussar was All that Kept Me Going

In later years HaRav Wolbe related (recording it in his sefer, Hamitzvos Hashekulos) that none of those who held rabbinical positions in Sweden kept their original spiritual footing. "The only thing that maintained me in a strange land was mussar study. Not a day went by without my leaning mussar and that was what sustained me all the time . . . It is clear and obvious — exactly the same as a person surviving a famine because he has bread in front of him . . ."

A grandson who was close to him relates that towards the end of his life, when he was shown this written in his sefer he remarked sadly, "I don't understand what I wrote that for." He couldn't understand why he'd written something praiseworthy about himself.

Yeruchom and Stockholm

Many years later, on a visit to the town of Yeruchom in the Negev, HaRav Wolbe wanted to encourage the pioneers who were trying to make the spiritual desert bloom. He told them, "When I was in Sweden, alone with the shochet, how did we encourage ourselves? We told ourselves, `We are only two chareidi Jews here. Therefore, all the siyata deShmaya that Stockholm deserves will be divided between the two of us!'

"You too, have all the siyata deShmaya of the town of Yeruchom. Make sure you use it properly."

The Best Rosh Hashonoh

Not long ago, one of his grandsons approached him with a question. It had been suggested to him that he spend the Yomim Noraim in Vilna in order to strengthen the local minyan. Should he forgo his regular place of prayer on Rosh Hashonoh near his grandfather and travel to a spiritually barren land where the prayer would certainly not be what he was used to?

His grandfather replied: "After the War, there were hundreds of refugee girls in Swedish institutions who had come from lands of slaughter. They had been placed in absorption centers. Most of them were sick as a result of the dreadful experiences that they'd endured during the Holocaust. They couldn't even be gathered together in one place. Rosh Hashonoh arrived. I went up to one room after another and blew the shofar for them in each room. Sometimes there wouldn't even be anyone to return to after those tekios but I want you to know that I have never had a Rosh Hashonoh like that one."

The answer was clear. HaRav Wolbe's grandson credits his grandfather with the impression that he made on Jewish Vilna over the Yomim Noraim that year. As to leaving yeshiva over the Yomim Noraim however, it should be mentioned that a bochur who left the yeshiva for Rosh Hashonoh for reasons that the Mashgiach felt were unjustified earned himself a severe reprimand.

The Mirrer Mashgiach, HaRav Yeruchom Leibowitz, zt'l — An Interview With His Talmid HaRav Shlomo Wolbe, zt'l

Nineteen years ago, to mark the fiftieth yahrtzeit of the Mashgiach Reb Yeruchom Leibowitz zt'l, Yated Ne'eman visited HaRav Wolbe to hear about his venerated teacher. This interview was first published in Yated Ne'eman's Hebrew edition in 5746.

YN: The Mashgiach (HaRav Wolbe) has brought out a volume about his rebbe's life, entitled Ho'odom Biyekor. What is the reason for venerating him to such a degree?

HaRav Wolbe: A certain rosh yeshiva asked me why I'm such a fervent devotee of the Mashgiach. I replied by quoting the story in the gemora (Sanhedrin 92) about the amora who said that he was descended from the dead bones that Yechezkel brought back to life. I am one of the dead whom the Mashgiach zt'l, brought back to life. And I'm not the only one. He revived hundreds of talmidim!

YN: In what sense did he revive them?

HaRav Wolbe: His influence extended from the greatest among the talmidim to the smallest; from the most distinguished to the weakest. HaRav Michel Feinstein [ zt'l] was one of the foremost talmidim. He was twenty-six when he arrived in Mir. Nowadays a bochur at that age is not all that absorbed in his learning. Reb Michel told me that he'd grown as a result of hearing the Mashgiach's shmuessen. His profound ideas shaped an approach to learning. The Mashgiach imbued his talmidim with such a strong desire to develop in Torah that mature bochurim would sit down to learn with the intensity of young sixteen-year-olds.

YN: That the Mashgiach put stress on learning mussar is well-known, but it's something new to hear that he breathed new life into Torah study!

HaRav Wolbe: No distinction should be made between Torah and mussar; that was the essence of Kelm! The Mashgiach would say that the best commentary to Torah is man himself, with his [own] traits and the ideas that he can grasp. In the last ma'amar that the Mashgiach wrote, as a letter to his talmidim, he gives a precise definition of what a yeshiva is. "Who but yourselves know what the basic structure of our yeshiva is; the true meaning of `spending nights immersed in the depths of halochoh'; learning in depth . . ." One would have expected him to stress mussar study and working on oneself but [no,] Torah and mussar are one and the same. The Mashgiach himself sat in the beis hamedrash learning with a chavrusa for five hours at a stretch every day. He didn't take his eyes off the gemora.

YN: And how did he revive the weaker students?

HaRav Wolbe: The weaker students were the ones who came from abroad, principally Germans and Americans who came to the yeshiva. In Germany, Haskalah had eroded everything worthy and America was tainted by materialism — or, as the Mashgiach put it "Those [from Germany] were smitten with after your hearts' (Bamidbor 15:39) and those [from America] with `after your eyes.' " The Mashgiach made different people of them.

YN: How did the Mashgiach infuse new spirit in them: through the shmuessen in public, or in private vaadim?

HaRav Wolbe: First, the Mashgiach knew every bochur inside out. When he returned to Mir after the [First World] war, three months after his arrival he said that he had already got to know the virtues of every bochur and had grasped what the weaker points of most of them were. That is an astonishing feat of insight! He would step around a bochur, probing and searching.

Once, the Mashgiach was not feeling well and a minyan of bochurim went to his house to pray with him. I was one of them. I stood facing the wall and prayed with everyone else. Suddenly I realized that there was silence. I turned around and found the Mashgiach opposite me, standing and looking at me. That was a look that I'll never forget!

Bochurim went over to consult him and he replied immediately. Several weeks later, the bochur would hear the shmuess and realize that it was directed to him. That is something amazing, something that can't be imitated today.

YN: What did a shmuess in the yeshiva look like?

HaRav Wolbe: In the introduction to the Mashgiach's shmuessen it says: "It was impossible to fully fathom the depth of the topic unless the listener had prepared his heart." The shmuess demanded full concentration of every faculty — a shmuess of an hour-and-a-half, crammed with profound ideas and with wondrous feeling. Half- an-hour before the Mashgiach's arrival, the bochurim were already rushing to reserve places around the bimah. Approximately four hundred bochurim crowded together in pin-drop silence. The Mashgiach was seated and he spoke softly, as though he was in another world.

YN: Did all the bochurim attend the shmuessen?

HaRav Wolbe: The entire yeshiva! And not only the entire yeshiva — people would come in from afar to hear the shmuessen. The Brisker Rov ztvk'l, sent his eldest son, Rav Yosef Dov zt'l, to Mir for Elul. He heard eighteen shmuessen, which he extolled all his life.

YN: When a yeshiva is so attached to its mashgiach, what is the role of the rosh yeshiva?

HaRav Wolbe: The Mashgiach used to say, "The rosh yeshiva straightens out heads and the mashgiach straightens out hearts."

YN: Why is it that roshei yeshiva develop nowadays but not mashgichim? Is it because mussar's day has passed?

HaRav Wolbe: No. That's not correct. That generation had its own weaknesses, whereas nowadays people flock after materialism and luxuries. There's a vaad in the Beis Hamussar every yom Sheini, where Reb Yeruchom's shmuessen are studied. Forty to fifty people are there, contemplating his Torah. Every yom Revi'i there's a shmuess in the Beis Hamussar that is attended by a large crowd.

YN: What was the job of the mashgichim? What did they produce?

HaRav Wolbe: They produced bochurim! They shaped personalities. When the Alter of Slobodka opened his yeshiva, he asked his teacher Rav Yisroel Salanter zy'a, what his task should be. Reb Yisroel replied, "To raise lowly spirits and to revive downtrodden hearts." And they did that. They uplifted the bochurim. They crystallized the way that they looked at the world. They taught them to think for themselves.

Today, bochurim can't shoulder any responsibility and that's terrible! A bochur who learns to think independently will also act independently. He won't imitate others. He won't go veering off in all directions. He isn't interested in what this one says, or in what that one does. That is how a person finds his own way in his avodas Hashem, in his actions and in building his world. That is how a man is built up!

As Long As His Talmid Lived . . .

Shortly after HaRav Wolbe's petiroh, Rav Yosef Asher Neumann, rov of Beis Hamedrash Shearis Yosef Asher in Har Nof, related that one year, on the eighteenth of Sivan, Reb Yeruchom's yahrtzeit, HaRav Wolbe was delivering a shmuess in the beis hamedrash in Yeshivas Mir, Yerushalayim. Off to one side sat the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Nochum Partzovitz zt'l and HaRav Aharon Kreiser zt'l, both of them talmidim of Mir Yeshiva in Poland. They remarked on the fact that Reb Shlomo had only been in the yeshiva for two years during Reb Yeruchom's lifetime, yet, seeing Reb Shlomo there was no doubt whose talmid he was, the rebbe-talmid relationship was so clear.

Reb Nochum observed that in fact, "Reb Shlomo has been living with Reb Yeruchom all his life!"

In a talk he delivered recently, HaRav Shmuel Birnbaum, rosh yeshivas Mir-New York said, "As long as HaRav Wolbe was alive Reb Yeruchom was still with us. Now, our master the Mashgiach, Reb Yeruchom has gone!"


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