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9 Shevat 5765 - January 19, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Yeshivas Lomzha and Its Torah Prince: The Fortieth Yahrtzeit Of HaRav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon, zt'l

By Rav E. Ozer and B. Re'eim

Part Two

The first part covered HaRav Yechiel Mordechai's youth and years in Europe at the head of the Lomzha yeshiva, founded by his father-in-law. This part is mainly concerned with his years in Eretz Yisroel at the head of the branch of the yeshiva that eventually, tragically, became the main yeshiva.

The Seeds of a Mighty Tree

In 5680 (1920), the problem of conscription into the Polish army began and many of the Lomzher talmidim received conscription orders. In an attempt to win exemption for the bnei hayeshiva, Rav Yechiel Mordechai traveled to Warsaw and went to see Dr. Noach Priluki, an elderly maskil in official employ. Dr. Priluki was prepared to exempt the talmidim from army service on condition that the yeshiva incorporated secular studies in its program. Stalling for time, Rav Yechiel Mordechai responded that he wanted to discuss the matter with the staff of the yeshiva back in Lomzha.

"Even though in the meantime, the bochurim will continue being conscripted and sent to fight?" Dr. Priluki asked him.

"Yes," replied Rav Yechiel Mordechai, "even at that price."

While still in Warsaw, Rav Yechiel Mordechai had a dream in which the posuk, "No leaven or sweetness shall be offered up . . . to Hashem" (Vayikra 2:11), appeared to him. As a result, the proposal was dropped.

By this time, Rav Yechiel Mordechai's father-in-law HaRav Eliezer Shulevitz, zt'l, was already living in Eretz Yisroel, where he had renewed a youthful friendship with HaRav Zerach Braverman zt'l that went back to when they had learned together bechavrusa in one of the towns near Lomzha. Rav Zerach, who was considered one of the talmidim of HaRav Yehoshua Leib Diskin zt'l, had been of great assistance to Rav Shulevitz in the original founding of Lomzha Yeshiva in 5643 (1883).

When news about the problems with the conscription reached Eretz Yisroel, it was decided that the yeshiva would open a branch in Eretz Yisroel. Rav Braverman was the patron and spiritual mentor of the settlement of Petach Tikvah and the two friends went there to look into the idea of establishing the yeshiva's new branch there. With Rav Braverman's encouragement, a committee of townspeople was set up and efforts were soon excitedly underway to erect a large building for the talmidim who were to arrive from Lomzha. That building serves as the beis hamedrash of the Lomzha Yeshiva in Petach Tikvah to this day.

The rov of the settlement at that time was HaRav Abba Cytryn zt'l, son-in-law of the Rogatchover Gaon zt'l. He also participated warmly in the preparations for receiving the Lomzher talmidim who were expected to reach Petach Tikvah in the summer of 5686 (1926). The first group of forty talmidim to arrive was led by HaRav Eliyahu Dushnitzer zt'l. From Russia, Rav Shulevitz's youngest son-in- law, HaRav Moshe Aryeh Ozer zt'l, also arrived to serve as rosh yeshiva and menahel.

The two branches of the yeshiva, in Lomzha and in Petach Tikvah, existed side by side for thirteen years. Throughout this period, more and more talmidim traveled to Petach Tikvah; nobody then could have any idea how many lives would be saved as a result.

Cornerstone of the Torah World

The Lomzher talmidim planted seeds of Torah in the soil of the fledgling yishuv in Eretz Yisroel. Even among the religious public there was little understanding of the Torah world and of the life of the yeshivos. Besides the yeshivos of the yishuv hayoshon, there were only two "Lithuanian" yeshivos: Chevron, also established at about the same time and then still in the city of Chevron, and Lomzha in Petach Tikvah.

The roshei hayeshiva of the European branch paid visits to Eretz Yisroel to consolidate the new institution. Rav Yechiel Mordechai came in 5687 (1927), on his return from a long trip to the United States. He was forty-seven years old at the time and his visit was a major event for the yishuv. Gedolei Torah came out to meet him and he was honored royally when he arrived in Yerushalayim and in Petach Tikvah. When Rav Eliezer Shulevitz witnessed the honor with which his son-in-law was received, he remarked, "Oy. I pity him. How can anyone bear all this?"

Two years later, in 5689 (1929), HaRav Yehoshua Zelig Roch zt'l Hy'd, visited Eretz Yisroel. He left behind him a reputation of not only being a great gaon but a gifted speaker, too. During his stay, he delivered a droshoh in Petach Tikvah's Beis Haknesses Hagodol that lasted for four hours; none of his listeners got up to leave until he finished.

Lomzha in Petach Tikvah was the prototype for the yeshiva world that later developed in Eretz Yisroel. The sedorim, the shiurim and even the tefillos of the Yomim Noraim in the yeshivos here are based on those that Lomzha brought over from its yeshiva in Poland. Rav Moshe Aryeh Ozer's shiurim "on the daf" were the first of their kind in the yeshiva world.

HaRav Zeev Edelman zt'l once related that he went to see the Chazon Ish and found him giving a yeshiva bochur a very thorough and extensive examination on what he had learned. After the bochur left, the Chazon Ish remarked to Rav Edelman, "It's evident that that bochur has a good teacher." The teacher was Rav Moshe Aryeh Ozer zt'l, whom many Lomzher talmidim considered their principal rebbe.

In 5692 (1932) HaRav Reuven Katz zt'l, who had been rov of Amdur, was appointed as rov of Petach Tikvah and Rav Yechiel Mordechai invited him to join the staff of the yeshiva. Rav Katz taught in the yeshiva for over thirty years, until his petiroh in 5724 (1964).

A Bitter Exile

In Elul 5699 (1939), just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Rav Yechiel Mordechai packed his suitcase and left Europe for a fundraising trip to the United States to provide for the yeshivos in Lomzha and Petach Tikvah. As a result his life was spared, but all contact was lost with his family and with the bnei hayeshiva that he had left in Poland. He lost his wife, three sons, his daughter and son-in-law and his talmidim in the war.

During the war years, Rav Yechiel Mordechai was one of the founders of Vaad Hatzoloh and one of the driving forces behind the efforts to raise funds for the organization's work. Rav Eliezer Silver zt'l, the president of the Vaad, would always stress the crucial role that Rav Yechiel Mordechai had played in its establishment and activities.

Rav Yechiel Mordechai himself would relate that when the idea of founding the Vaad was first broached, Rav Yisroel Rosenberg zt'l, head of the Agudas HaRabbonim — and also an alumnus of Lomzha in Poland — strongly opposed it. He argued that a new rescue initiative would draw support away from the important relief work being done by the Ezras Torah organization, which he also headed. A commotion arose and Rav Yechiel Mordechai, who was always present at the meetings of gedolei Yisroel in America, was asked to intervene.

"On the contrary, Rabbi Rosenberg," said Rav Yechiel Mordechai. "Fight Vaad Hatzoloh! — `When elders engage in demolition, it is constructive!' "

That immediately calmed the atmosphere.

Gedolei Yisroel supported and assisted Rav Yechiel Mordechai in all his efforts on behalf of Yeshivas Lomzha, with which he was occupied throughout his lengthy sojourn — of fifteen years — in America. He was admired and beloved by all; Rav Rosenberg once termed him, "Prince of the Torah Kingdom."

There were virtually no survivors of Lomzha in Poland. After Lomzha had been heavily bombed and the German army overran the town, the bnei hayeshiva, led by Rav Roch, escaped to Vilna, seeking the shelter and protection of HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l. They went into hiding but were martyred al kiddush Hashem. Eventually the handful of survivors sought out their rebbe and it was from them that he learned the bitter news of his family's fate.

Rav Yechiel Mordechai devoted himself to providing for his beloved talmidim, concerning himself with their every need and arranging respectable means of earning a livelihood for them, either as rabbonim or in other positions.

Rabbi Simchah Rosenberg zt'l was one of the survivors. Shortly after his arrival in New York, he was injured in a road accident. The lawyer who dealt with the case on behalf of the insurance company suggested to him that he add a certain detail — one that was impossible for anyone to disprove — to his version of the incident. Were he to do so, he stood to be awarded a fantastic sum.

Rabbi Rosenberg refused to change his story since the truth was otherwise but the lawyer would not accept this. "You are a refugee," he pointed out, "and you don't have bread to eat. Here I have an opportunity to obtain riches for you."

The matter was brought before Rav Yechiel Mordechai, who ruled out claiming an extra penny dishonestly, adding, "One derives no benefit from non-kosher money." The lawyer was astonished and fumed over their honesty.

HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt'l used to visit Rav Yechiel Mordechai every week during the years that they were both living in Brooklyn. Twenty years earlier it had been Rav Yechiel Mordechai who had taken the destitute Reb Yaakov into his yeshiva. Now the Rosh Yeshiva, whose life had been shattered by the war, was in need of comfort and support, which Reb Yaakov provided. He also hoped that seeing how highly the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas held her husband would demonstrate to Rav Yechiel Mordechai's third rebbetzin the true worth of the broken man she had married. Rav Yechiel Mordechai would seek Reb Yaakov's counsel, and noted that he was unique in there never being any trace of self-interest in the advice that he gave.

Homeward Bound

After spending years in the United States, Rav Yechiel Mordechai began planning his return to Eretz Yisroel, this time to stay. Among those encouraging him to move was the Chazon Ish zt'l, who had concerned himself with the yeshiva in Petach Tikvah and wanted to see it graced by Rav Yechiel Mordechai's presence.

Preparations for the move began in 5711 (1951). One of Rav Yechiel Mordechai's close friends, Mr. Kaufmann z'l of New York, donated a sizable sum to the yeshiva so that an apartment could be built for the Rosh Yeshiva.

The following year Rav Yechiel Mordechai's influence began to be felt once more in Eretz Yisroel. His many talmidim, first and foremost the yeshiva's staff, rallied to him and formed the Union of Talmidim of Yeshivas Lomzha. The talmidim in the yeshiva in Petach Tikvah were drawn to him in love and admiration as his shiurim and shmuessen opened up new horizons for them.

HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, who learned in the yeshiva for fourteen years, recalls that with Rav Yechiel Mordechai's arrival, the shiurim in the yeshiva shifted gear, as active participation on the part of the talmidim — by interposing their own questions and raising difficulties — was encouraged. This breathed new life into the yeshiva's atmosphere.

The Rosh Yeshiva's home became a lodestone for the bochurim. They felt they had somewhere to turn to and someone who cared about them. Just as it had been in Poland, each and every bochur felt as though the Rosh Yeshiva was thinking about him alone. The bochurim were permitted and invited to enter the Rosh Yeshiva's apartment at any hour that suited them and the impression of the minutes that they merited spending in his presence, basking in the glow of his boundless love and encouragement would remain with them forever.

Each vaad [level] in the yeshiva was assigned a day when they would all go in to the Rosh Yeshiva together. The arrangement was that the Rav Yechiel Mordechai would first ask to hear questions or ideas and after everyone had had his say, would weave all that had been said into one cohesive presentation. He did this in a way that gave each member of the vaad the feeling that the entire edifice centered upon his individual contribution.

Once, one of the vaad members nodded off right in front of the Rosh Yeshiva. His friends tried to arouse him unobtrusively but to no avail. Rav Yechiel Mordechai noticed what was going on and merely said, "He must have learned right through the night. We mustn't disturb his rest. Let's speak quietly so that we don't waken him."

His Delicacy and Concern

Rav Yechiel Mordechai's refinement and his consideration for others were boundless and were evident in every facet of his life.

For example, he found the physical handling of money repulsive. Although he administered huge sums for many years, when someone actually held out a coin to him, he asked that it be placed on the table, not into his hand.


This went hand in hand with his scrupulous honesty. One of the yeshiva cooks received instructions not to allow guests to dine with the talmidim. One erev Shabbos a guest arrived and asked if he could eat in the yeshiva's dining room.

"You'll have to get permission," the cook told him.

The guest asked one of the bochurim to help him and when he approached the Rosh Yeshiva, he received the necessary consent, together with a request that the bochur should return to the rosh yeshiva's home immediately after ma'ariv on motzei Shabbos.

On motzei Shabbos Rav Yechiel Mordechai explained to the bochur, "I am not allowed to feed strangers at the yeshiva's expense and if a guest comes, I really ought to host him properly at my own table. My wife is feeling unwell however, and it would have been difficult for her. So please, take this money, roughly the cost of the guest's Shabbos meal, and give it to the cook."


There was an eccentric fellow who used to wander around Petach Tikvah. He was a frequent visitor at the Rosh Yeshiva's home, where he would be welcomed by Rav Yechiel Mordechai's radiant smile even if he was calling at midnight.

Once he entered the beis hamedrash while Rav Yechiel Mordechai was delivering shiur. Interrupting the shiur, Rav Yechiel Mordechai went over to him and told him warmly, "It's hard for me to welcome you properly right now. I still have to finish. I'll wait for you after the shiur. Come in afterwards."


Rav Yechiel Mordechai would check what day the cleaner was to come and would switch on the heater the day before so that she would have warm water for squeezing out the washing rags.


Once, while staying in a hotel, Rav Yechiel Mordechai was sitting with several acquaintances and a waiter approached to serve soup. A bowl of soup spilt on Rav Yechiel Mordechai's leg. The waiter blanched; the soup had been very hot — hot enough to cause a burn.

Rav Yechiel Mordechai calmed him down, telling him to continue his work and not to trouble himself because nothing had happened. After the waiter had moved away it transpired that Rav Yechiel Mordechai's leg had indeed been badly burned. His main concern though, had been to prevent the waiter from feeling distressed.


One day, Rav Aharon Kotler zt'l arrived to visit Rav Yechiel Mordechai.

"How did you get here?" Rav Yechiel Mordechai asked his guest.

"By cab," Reb Aharon replied.

"And where's the driver?"

"Waiting in the car."

Rav Yechiel Mordechai asked someone to go and fetch him. He sat the driver at the table with Reb Aharon and himself and, though the man could have understood little if any of what the two sages discussed, he must have felt every bit of what was probably the greatest honor he could receive.


On another occasion, one of the gedolei hador was staying in Petach Tikvah and came to visit Rav Yechiel Mordechai. Because his Rebbetzin was not at home at the time, Rav Yechiel Mordechai asked his distinguished guest to come and visit again when she would be there. On a different occasion, when another such guest arrived, Rav Yechiel Mordechai was heard telling his wife, "We have an important visitor."

Upon returning from a trip he would sit down with his wife and relate everything he'd done, giving a thorough accounting as a sign of his estimation and of his consideration for her.

Beyond the Yeshiva

Upon arriving in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Yechiel Mordechai was invited by HaRav Meir Karelitz zt'l and Rav Asher Werner zt'l, rov of Tiveria, to join the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. However he declined the offer as he was unwilling to become involved in politics. When Chinuch Atzmai was established however, he became its patron and did his utmost on its behalf. Despite his reluctance to become involved in communal affairs, he was consulted on every issue.

During bein hazmanim he would rest in Yerushalayim. One year he was staying at a guest house in the Talpiyot neighborhood where he met the religious author, S.Y. Agnon z'l. Rav Yechiel Mordechai approached Agnon and encouraged him to direct his talents to writing articles that would draw others closer to Torah and heighten people's appreciation of Torah and Torah scholars. Agnon's response is already on record. He said that he had sold all his rights to Shocken Publishers and that they were not interested in that sort of literature.

Next to the yeshiva in Petach Tikvah, Rav Yechiel opened a beis hamussar that was named after his father-in-law, HaRav Eliezer Shulevitz. Many would gather there to study mussar works at the set times and Rav Yechiel Mordechai would also deliver mussar discourses. On Shabbos, many would attend the shiur that he gave in the beis hamussar. He would speak at sholosh seudas as well, and many people would crowd into his house to hear his Torah.

Always, wherever he was, his face radiated calm and tranquility, despite the succession of tragedies that he endured in his personal life. For himself, he never complained.

Once, a tragedy occurred in Petach Tikvah and a ben yeshiva drowned. Upon arriving at the hospital, Rav Yechiel Mordechai burst into bitter tears. To his brother-in- law Rav Ozer's questioning he responded, "I didn't even merit giving my children a Jewish burial!"

That is My Consolation

Sadly, Rav Yechiel Mordechai's sorrows did not end with the war. He once remarked that in his youth, he had not known what it was to forget anything and that he did not start experiencing forgetfulness until his cup of suffering overflowed when his youngest and only surviving son was murdered in Eretz Yisroel.

His talmid HaRav Yaakov Naiman zt'l, rosh yeshivas Or Yisroel in Petach Tikvah, related that Rav Yechiel Mordechai was in America when it happened. Rav Yaakov Kalms zt'l, av beis din of Moscow, met Rav Yechiel Mordechai and, unaware that the terrible news had been deliberately withheld from the bereaved father, began to speak about the tragedy. He realized immediately that the news had not reached him and changed the subject.

Several hours later, Rav Yechiel Mordechai arrived at Rav Kalms' home and said, "I understand why you felt that news of the calamity should be concealed from me but I want to know whether he was still occupied with Torah study during the last days of his life. If he was still attached to the learning in the yeshiva, the tragedy is not so great, for his life was a spiritual one — of attachment to Torah — and he is bound to the "bundle of the living" of our sublime martyrs. If though, he chas vesholom interrupted his learning and was then taken from us, it is indeed a terrible catastrophe!"

Rav Kalms replied, "To his last day he was attached to the holy yeshiva."

"That is my consolation," said Rav Yechiel Mordechai.

Even when he fell ill and lay suffering, his face radiated hope and he received every visitor joyfully.

A chosson came to see him and told him that he was about to marry but that he had nothing whatsoever. Rav Yechiel Mordechai comforted him by telling him, "It is written, `Your beginning will be slight but later you will be exceedingly mighty' (Iyov 8:7). Why doesn't Hakodosh Boruch Hu bring the stage of `exceeding might' right away? Apparently, after a `slight beginning,' one appreciates the later benefit all that more."

This provided the bochur with the necessary encouragement.

When HaRav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, the Steipler zt'l, came to see him, Rav Yechiel Mordechai was visibly shaken. Was his situation already public knowledge? If so, a bigger miracle would be needed to save him. That thought troubled him.

Rav Yechiel Mordechai's life drew to its end in the same way that he had lived it until that point. His illness attacked him in a particularly vicious way, choking his throat — but his face shone until the very end. As long as some life remained in him, he radiated warmth and closeness. Throughout his eighty-three years, he never ceased his song to Hashem, "[In both] kindness and judgment I shall sing to You . . ." (Tehillim 101:1).

On erev Shabbos, the thirteenth of Teves 5725, the radiance in which Yeshivas Lomzha and Petach Tikvah had basked for twelve years, dimmed and faded. At the levaya, HaRav Yechezkel Sarna zt'l declared that Rav Yechiel Mordechai had been the greatest of his generation in the fulfillment of the halochoh of, " `and you shall transmit them with precision to your sons' — these are your talmidim" (Sifrei).

Bowed and broken, multitudes of his talmidim accompanied the beloved rebbe, who had been a living sefer Torah and their source of warmth and illumination throughout his life.

Yeshivas Lomzha has continued along Rav Yechiel Mordechai's path. Today, a large student body of avreichim, graduates of the country's finest yeshivos, continue their advance in Torah and yiras Shomayim within its walls. Over the years, many of those who learned in Lomzha have gone on to serve as roshei yeshiva, mashgichim, rabbonim, dayanim and mechanchim.

A Letter from Rav Yechezkel Sarna to Rav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon on the Publication of His Sefer, Nesiv Yam

Much blessing and peace to his honor, my close friend . . . the gaon Rav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon, Rosh Yeshivas Lomzha, Petach Tikvah . . .

I received your great and splendid sefer with great joy — on the days when we are commanded to be joyful — and it helped me in fulfilling the mitzvah. How precious is every new sefer that appears, especially now . . . After the dreadful Holocaust, every author is one survivor out of many thousands of authors.

They are recalling the Holocaust at this particular time [i.e. the twenty-seventh of Nisan, marked by secular Israelis as Holocaust and Heroism Day], although the way they commemorate it is a spiritual holocaust, for here too they associate it with "heroism," in other words, "my strength and the might of my hands." Instead of remembering what this commemoration ought to bring to mind they are absolutely oblivious to the fundamentals and are comatose, without any spiritual arousal whatsoever.

Moreover, the very fixing of memorial days during this period [i.e. the month of Nisan] is contrary to halochoh and to universal Jewish custom . . . and I am amazed at the participation in this of great rabbonim, as the notices in the newspapers announce. Has the Government's power grown so great as to render the rabbonim its permanent lackeys, even with regard to things that contravene Torah customs? Is there any place at all for rabbonim to take part in such a non- Jewish type of ceremony? I am staggered.

In contrast to profanation of Torah's honor and of the honor of our holy martyrs, it is encouraging to see Torah's honor heightened through the labors of great Torah scholars and disseminators, for "all we have left is this Torah." I was also happy to see the alef marked on the sefer, indicating that be'ezras Hashem it will be followed by volumes beis, gimmel and so on. I bless my friend with being able to disseminate Torah in their [i.e. the martyrs'] memory. I would very much like to have enjoyed your precious and great writings but I am at present exceedingly preoccupied and I only managed a superficial glance. However, the time will yet come be'ezras Hashem yisborach.


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