Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

14 Adar I 5765 - February 23, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Lubliner Rov, Reb Meir Shapiro and his mentor the Rebbe of Chortkov

by F. Avrohom

Part I

One of the most famous and beloved personalities of prewar Europe, was the Lubliner Rov HaRav Meir Shapiro zt"l. He was respected and venerated by senior gedolim twice his age and adored by the masses who looked up to him with great pride and deep admiration. In his life time he was already considered a living legend, and wherever he went the masses streamed to hear and see him. Over the decades much has already been written about this great rov and rosh yeshiva, who was famed for his unbelievable geonus, his tremendous ahavas Yisroel, his superb oratory powers and his undefeatable will and determination.

Thus, it is not easy to reveal a new facet of this famed leader. But it may be possible to find an angle with which to view this gaon and tzaddik which has not yet been fully explored, and to shed some new light on his personality and legacy, which can also serve to teach us and inspire us in our own lives.

In the non-Jewish world, the epitome of success is when a person becomes independent and self-sufficient. He has built himself up to the level that he no longer needs any outside help. He can manage on his own, and requires no guidance or any other assistance. Different however is the Torah view. Our Sages refer to a wise man not as a chochom but as a "talmid" chochom. No matter how great a chochom a person becomes, he must never lose the attribute of a "talmid," of always being able to learn from others and to accept from a higher authority.

Bound Deeply to His Rebbe

This attribute formed the core of Reb Meir's being. Even in his later years, when he was famed as a true godol who was revered by all, in his own eyes, he always remained a humble talmid and chossid of his Rebbe and mentor, the Chortkover Rebbe Reb Yisroel Friedman zt"l (1854-1933). The close bond between the Rebbe and his great chossid was already considered to be a legend during their lifetime. From Reb Meir's youngest years, the Rebbe had carefully watched and nurtured his progress until he eventually blossomed into a leader of Klal Yisroel in his own right. In his last years Reb Meir was heard to say, "The Rebbe is my Urim Vetumim. From my earliest years I have never lifted a hand or foot before I consulted him."

The mashgiach of the Lubliner Yeshiva Rav Shimon Zhelichover zt"l used to say that if one wanted to see what true chassidus is, he should watch how Reb Meir trembled in the presence of his Rebbe. Once at a tish in Chortkov, Reb Meir didn't have a seat. The Rebbe noticed that the Lubliner Rov was standing and said to him, "Meir'l sit down." Immediately Reb Meir crouched down. He remained in a sitting position until a chair could be passed through the crowds.

Once during a tish in Chortkov, the chassidim were singing a niggun to the words (from the tefilloh recited after Sefiras HaOmer): Ve'al yedei zeh yushpa shefa rav bechol ho'olomos — And through this will be spread blessings throughout the worlds." Suddenly Reb Meir became overcome with a fiery zeal. Jumping up from his place he pointed with his finger towards the Rebbe, and in a loud voice he sang "Ve'al yedei zeh" as if to say, "And through the Rebbe will be spread blessings throughout the worlds."

Reb Meir's awe for his Rebbe knew no bounds. The Potiker Rav related that he was once present when Reb Meir was walking together with a group of his talmidim. Reb Meir was expounding about the greatness and the kedushoh of tzaddikim when he suddenly stopped walking and, raising his voice, he exclaimed: "How can I adequately describe to you the true extent of the Chortkover Rebbe's kedushoh? The holy Zohar says that a person's fingernails possess a tumah and therefore need to be constantly cut. Yet by the Rebbe, even these fingernails are also Kodshei Kodshim!"

Reb Meir's whole being, his personality, his ideas dreams and hopes for Klal Yisroel were greatly influenced by his deep connection to the Chortkover Rebbe. The idea to build the large and grand Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin had its origins firmly rooted in Reb Meir's inner spiritual bond to the Rebbe and the majestic derech of Chortkov. In his biography (HaRav Hagodol) about Reb Meir Shapiro, his close talmid Reb Yehoshua Baumel wrote: "There was one path of Chassidus to which Reb Meir felt drawn from his earliest years, the way that was derived from the Kabbalistic concept of Hod ShebeTiferes — Glory in Majesty.

The Approach of Rizhin

Reb Meir felt attached to the revered Rebbe of Chortkov who followed this path, and from the first time Reb Meir met him he recognized that this is where he belonged. Under his Rebbe's influence, Reb Meir's inner ideas and visions of majesty began to take shape.

From our earliest years we had heard fantastic stories about the Chortkover Rebbe's zeide, the Rebbe of Rizhin. Amazing tales of how he lived in a palace surrounded with gold and diamonds, and how he was revered as a Jewish monarch. This was the world that Reb Meir grew up in and absorbed in Chortkov, and when he related to us these stories, he instilled in us an awe of the chassidic dynasty of Rizhin.

In Reb Meir's later years, the derech of Rizhin was evident in him for all to see, glowing brightly inside him. These feelings gathered force inside his mind and being, until they finally emerged in the guise of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, a true Torah palace of majesty.

Once during a visit to the yeshiva by the Sadigerer Rebbe, who was also descended from the Rebbe of Rizhin, Reb Meir took the opportunity to spell out clearly the link between the chassidus of Rizhin and the yeshiva.

"It is well known," he said, "that the derech of chassidus is itself comprised of a number of different pathways. The path of Rizhin is that of splendor and majesty. Its goal is to beautify the Torah and the mitzvos. Just as a diamond needs the correct setting to bring out its qualities, so each mitzvah needs its own special place and setting.

"The Rizhiner also demanded that the outer external trappings of the mitzvah must be beautiful and glorified. This is also the derech of our yeshiva whose source is rooted in this derech of majesty and whose purpose is to show the true splendor of our holy Torah."

This inner connection between the Rebbe and Reb Meir's yeshiva, was also stressed by Reb Zvi Hirshorn who was a well known rav in Poland and met a martyr's death during the war. In an article in the mass daily Dos Yiddishe Togblatt he wrote as follows.

"He who has a deep understanding in the holy path of the chassidus of Chortkov, where the Torah is housed in halls of luxury positioned in royal palaces, and once spent time in the glorious palace that is the Chortkover Rebbe's court, and felt the sudden fear of Heaven that aroused all who entered its confines — he can attempt to appreciate the meaning of a Mikdosh Me'att and try to imagine the beauty of our destroyed Beis Hamikdosh.

"He who once went in the Rebbe's glorious garden in the shadow of hundreds of tall erect trees and beautiful flowers and at the same time watched the Chortkover Rebbe walking in the garden, almost bent over to the ground under the weight of the daily sorrows of Yidden; He who saw the Rebbe with his Tehillim in his hand, and there between the trees saw him pouring out his heart over the long Golus and the sorrows of Yidden; Or those who saw his actions as he learned a paragraph from the holy Zohar — they knew that in this wonderful garden, hearts of stone were broken, and even frozen neshomos were instilled with a fear and love of Hashem.

"He who saw the holy Torah weeping in its royal palace — he was the one who could understand the inner connection that bonded the Rebbe's court in Chortkov with the palatial mansion of Torah and yirah that is the yeshiva of Lublin. He could appreciate why, despite his failing health and the long journey involved, the Chortkover Rebbe made such an effort to attend the cornerstone laying ceremony of the yeshiva."

First Years

Reb Meir Shapiro was born on the 7th of Adar 5647 (1887) to Reb Yaakov Shimshon who lived in the town Shotz, Bukovina. Reb Meir was sent to study under his grandfather the gaon Reb Shmuel Yitzchok Shorr, author of Minchas Shai on Tanach. The Minchas Shai was an illustrious chossid of the Chortkover Rebbe, and under his grandfather's direction Reb Meir absorbed the teachings of Chortkov.

At the age of nineteen Reb Meir married the daughter of Reb Yaakov Breitman, a well-known and influential businessman from Tarnopol in Galicia. Reb Meir settled in his wife's hometown and was soon besieged by young men wishing to be his talmidim. Although he held no official position, his reputation and his personality drew throngs of people who came to learn from him and to bask in his presence.

As the years went by and Reb Meir's name spread ever further, people couldn't understand why he didn't emerge from behind his seforim and start to lead a kehilloh. Reb Meir was opposed to the idea, as were his parents-in-law. He only wanted to learn in peace, to climb ever higher in Torah rather than to have to burden himself with the problems of others, at least not for several years. His talmidim and his followers refused to accept his decision and pressured him and his family to accept a position, hoping that they would finally give in.

Near Lemberg

Reb Meir turned to the Chortkover Rebbe for advice and counsel and asked him to decide about his future. When the Rebbe heard that people were already waiting for Reb Meir to assume a position, he ruled that Reb Meir should use his talent for the benefit of Klal Yisroel and take up the rabbonus.

Reb Meir's shver, however, wasn't able to come to terms with the decree and told the Rebbe, "But my son-in-law is really not interested in the rabbonus."

The Rebbe turned to Reb Meir and asked him, "Meir'l why don't you want to become a rov?"

"I really don't need it," Reb Meir replied. "I am happy as I am."

"If you don't need the position, then you are needed even more."

"Who needs me so desperately?" Reb Meir asked. "Is the city of Lemberg waiting for me?"

The Rebbe listened to his words and then answered him. "If that is what you want," the Rebbe responded, "you will be near Lemberg."

Hardly had a week gone by when a delegation arrived in Tarnopol from the town of Galina, which was situated next to Lemberg. The delegation wanted Reb Meir to become their rov. Seeing that the words of the Rebbe had been fulfilled, Reb Meir agreed immediately to their request. And so, at the tender age of 24, Reb Meir Shapiro assumed the rabbonus of Galina.

Despite his youth, he already then exerted great authority. His mere presence commanded respect and honor. In a letter written at the time, the new rov wrote, "It is impossible to describe the honor that the town gives me. All sections of the community, from the highest to the lowest, seek my counsel. Without my advice no one does anything. Blessed be the One who has given me the wisdom to know how to answer them all. Many new decrees have been enacted since I arrived here; the place has taken on a new look. Hashem should continue His blessing to me, that my words be heeded in His service all the days."

Reb Meir didn't hesitate to stand up and give rebuke when he saw that it was needed. During his first Yom Tov in Galina, he noticed that a number of Kohanim who were mechalelei Shabbos had gone outside to wash their hands in preparation for Bircas Kohanim. Immediately Reb Meir strode up the steps by the Aron Hakodesh and announced in a loud voice, "The Mishna says that a Kohen who has dirty hands may not recite the priestly blessings. Rabbosai, can there possibly be something more dirty than to stick out hands which are stained with chillul Shabbos?"

After Reb Meir had finished his fiery proclamation, not one of the Shabbos desecraters dared to take part in the Bircas Kohanim.

Although the new rov was very involved in every possible sphere of the community, his main interest lay in chinuch. At the time there was no uniform education in Galicia. Each family educated their children according to what they could afford and if they had no money to pay for tuition, their children were neglected. Reb Meir arranged that the kehilloh undertake to pay the wages of the local talmud Torah. No longer would the talmud Torah only be the domain of those who could afford its fees.

Rav of Sonik

For ten years Reb Meir lived in Galina during which time he succeeded in totally changing the kehilloh. When he had arrived, the community had been in a rundown state, neglected and abused. After a decade of hard work, Galina had one of the best and largest talmud Torahs in Galicia. The kehilloh was organized like a model community in which everyone was taken care of and everyone's needs catered to. His job completed, Reb Meir felt it was time to move on. There were other communities in need of his help.

The next stop for Reb Meir was the town of Sonik in Galicia. Sonik boasted one of the largest kehillos in Galicia, but just as in Galina, the community was drowning in a sea of troubles and affliction. When Reb Meir rode into the town for the first time he instructed the wagon driver not to take him to his new home. His first stop was the main shul. "I want to show everyone that a rov is not a private individual," Reb Meir explained. "A rov's home is his shul together with his congregation."

Despite his many commitments, Reb Meir didn't forget about his main objective: chinuch. When he accepted the post in Sonik, he made a condition with the kehilloh. They must agree to open and support a yeshiva for the youth of the area. For this purpose Reb Meir brought with him a number of his elite talmidim from Galina who would form the nucleus of the new yeshiva. Reb Meir stood at the yeshiva's helm and watched the progress of every bochur. From time to time he would also deliver shiurim in the yeshiva and test the bochurim.

Despite his youth, Reb Meir was already then considered by all to be one of the Torah giants of his period. Testimony to his standing among the gedolim can be seen from a letter written to him at the time by the Chofetz Chaim, who was old enough to be his grandfather. In his letter the Chofetz Chaim wrote, "To the great gaon who is famed for his geonus, who is Yirei Elokim be'emes, Reb Meir Shapiro, rov of Sonik. I received the pure letter of his honor with his comments on my sefer Likutei Halochos for which I thank him, and I was overjoyed to see that great men like himself look into my sefer, which will be a zchus for me."

The Chofetz Chaim ends his letter with a brochoh to Reb Meir that he be able to carry on serving Klal Yisroel, "for who else will help them if not the great leaders of our time?"

President of Agudah

In 1922, a conference of Agudas Yisroel took place in Warsaw attended by hundreds of rabbonim and lay leaders. The meeting was convened to try to work out a uniform strategy to strengthen Torah in Poland and Galicia. Although Reb Meir Shapiro was only 35 years old at the time, his personality and his brilliant speech at the convention electrified the audience.

His voice rolling across the hall, Reb Meir cried out, "The honor of the Torah and its rabbonim have been thrust to the ground. Any proud and haughty individual is free to open his mouth and deride and belittle us. It is not enough just to repair the broken fences. We must take upon ourselves to start from scratch, to totally rebuild. In years to come people are going to look back and examine our actions, what we have achieved. How ashamed we will be! The history books will be full of blank pages. . ."

Reb Meir's fiery drosho left a great impact on all who heard it. He was indeed correct! Someone must be found who could stand up in battle and would be able not just to protect but to build and strengthen Yiddishkeit in Poland. After deliberation the rabbonim of the Agudah came to the conclusion that there was no candidate more suitable for the job than Reb Meir Shapiro himself. And so the young rov came to be the president of Agudas Yisroel in Poland.

The Gerrer Rebbe gave his full support to the appointment. "There are those," he said, "who conjure up stories that Agudas Yisroel is controlled by Ger. Therefore I am especially happy that Reb Meir Shapiro who is known to be an unswerving chossid of the Chortkover Rebbe, has been elected president!"

The picture of Reb Meir standing humbly next to his Rebbe at the Agudah conferences was a sight not quickly forgotten. Reb Binyomin Zeev Jacobson from Germany was known as a distinguished rov and educator. In one of his books he writes:

"In front of our eyes still stands a glorious picture, a beautiful and magnificent picture. It is the image of the Rebbe of Chortkov zt"l as we saw him the last time, not long before his petiroh, and as we saw him the first time many years ago. The inner beauty, the beauty whose source is from the soul and spreads over the whole body. At the Knessia Gedola the Rebbe stood and, in a soft and gentle voice, blessed the assembled. Next to him stood Reb Meir Shapiro. The young and dynamic Reb Meir stood listening to his Rebbe, swallowing every word that left the Rebbe's mouth. The scene symbolizes the Rebbe's strength, a symbol of his inner strength over his chassidim."

Reb Meir used to say, "The gemora says, `In times of danger one takes the sefer Torah out of the beis hamedrash to the street.' We must take the Torah out of the beis hamedrash and spread it to the masses. We are obligated to reach every far-flung corner, to penetrate into every home."

To this end Reb Meir traveled up and down Poland speaking and meeting the local people. Wherever he went hundreds of people came to hear his fiery words and to learn what was expected of them. His words of promise and hope gave new strength to the many weary souls that he encountered. He urged his listeners to cast off their yoke of despair and start to take a pride in themselves and their religion. In an article, he wrote, "This is my life's aim, to see a strong and organized generation, fighting with all its strength for its values and its religion."

In 1923, Reb Meir was asked to become a member of the Polish parliament, the Sejm. Agudas Yisroel needed somebody who would also be able to defend Yiddishkeit from the lawmakers. This time however, Reb Meir refused. It was one thing to sacrifice his time and energy to help guide Yidden, but to sit surrounded by Polish antisemites was too much for him.

Nonetheless, in the end Reb Meir gave in to the pleas of Agudas Yisroel and against his will he took his place in the parliament. Although he hadn't wanted the position, once he was elected Reb Meir threw himself fully into the task and proved himself to be a formidable politician who was feared and respected by all the various factions in the parliament.

When Reb Meir was once interviewed together with one of the members of the Zionist party, Yitzchok Greenbaum. The journalist later wrote, "Although Reb Meir Shapiro is totally immersed in his learning and concerns himself with the problems of the chareidim, he is still extremely well-versed in the political situation in Poland and beyond. His ideas and his opinions are well thought out, with all the implications and the connecting problems. The fact that Rabbi Shapiro is an outstanding Talmudic scholar and a great politician is evident to all. But if Greenbaum is also able to explain a difficult Rambam, that is very doubtful indeed. . . "

A Person's Mission in this World

In 1928, elections took place in Poland and Reb Meir decided that the time had come for him to finally step down. Reb Meir consulted his Rebbe, and asked him for his permission to leave the job. The Rebbe's answer wasn't long in coming.

In a letter to Reb Meir, the Chortkover Rebbe wrote, "Every person has a mission in this world which Hashem requires him to fulfill. A person can work out what his mission is according to the talents and abilities that Hashem has given him. Hashem has given His Honor (kevodo) a sharp mind to delve into the sea of Talmud and to teach those who flock to him from the well of life, and indeed very special yungerleit have already emerged from his beis hamedrash. On the other hand, His Honor could do much good for the klal and bring a blessing to them as well. Therefore my advice is as follows: His Honor should not make any effort to remain in the parliament. If however, the committee of the Agudah should assert pressure that His Honor run for a second term, then he shouldn't refuse. Hashem should help His Honor to go on the correct way and to sit and learn and teach as he wishes and as I wish for him."

Much to his surprise and his delight, Reb Meir was indeed freed from the yoke of the Sejm and was allowed to return to his seforim and his talmidim as his Rebbe had blessed him.

Daf Yomi

Among the many achievements of Reb Meir Shapiro, one particular accomplishment stands out: the founding of Daf Yomi. On the 3rd of Elul 5683 (1923) at the 2nd Knessia Gedola in Vienna, Reb Meir announced his grand idea, that all over the world Yidden should unite themselves by learning the same daily daf of gemora.

"Just imagine," Reb Meir cried out. "A Yid is traveling on a ship from Eretz Yisroel to America. For two weeks he is on the ship and every day he learns a blat of gemora. When he arrives in America, he enters a beis hamedrash in New York and finds to his surprise other Yidden learning the same blat of gemora that he is learning. They join each other and learn together and thereby Hashem's Name is sanctified. Not only will the Daf Yomi unite Yidden worldwide, it will also ensure that all the masechtos in Shas will be learned. No longer will some of the masechtos be `orphaned' only being learned by the elite."

The first daf of gemora was to be learned just under a month later, on Rosh Hashonoh 5684 (1923). The new idea was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm. Unlike many other ideas which get off to a humble start and gradually gather momentum, Daf Yomi was eagerly learned by tens of thousands from its inception.

When Reb Meir Shapiro paid a visit some years later to the Chofetz Chaim in Radin, the Chofetz Chaim asked him how many Yidden were learning Daf Yomi. When Reb Meir answered him that over 150,000 Yidden had already joined the cycle, the Chofetz Chaim exclaimed, "I am envious of you, that you managed such a feat."

The Chofetz Chaim expressed his feelings that the learning of Daf Yomi would help to hasten the coming of Moshiach, and then he added, "People think that in the next world everyone will be called by their name, Reb Chaim, Reb Yankel, and so on. No, no, not at all! Everyone will be referred to by the masechtos they have learned: This seat is reserved for those who learned brochos and the next seat is reserved for those who learned Shabbos and so on. Until now, many of those seats have remained empty and unoccupied. Now however, thanks to the Daf Yomi. all these empty seats will finally be filled . . ."

A few days after Rosh Hashonoh 5684 (1924), Reb Meir received a letter from his sister who lived in a small village in Bukovina. In her letter she wrote, "On the night of Rosh Hashonoh I had a dream. In it I saw you in Shomayim surrounded by many tzaddikim with shining faces. You were standing among them and your face shone like the sun at midday. They were all smiling at you and were extremely happy with you. Please let me know the meaning of this dream to what it alludes . . ."

The sister had not been aware of the new idea that her brother had suggested and that on Rosh Hashonoh the first daf had been learned worldwide.

Although it is commonly accepted by all that the idea of Daf Yomi was Reb Meir Shapiro's brainchild, there are those who dispute this fact. Among a few of the elite Chortkover chassidim there was a closely guarded secret that in reality the Daf Yomi was not Reb Meir's own idea but that of his mentor, the Chortkover Rebbe.

Two of the great rabbonim of the previous generation, the Potiker Rov HaRav Shlomo Zalman Horowitz zt"l and HaRav Fishel Harling zt"l who was a nephew of Reb Meir Shapiro, were both privy to this secret. They both revealed that Reb Meir had told them on separate occasions that in truth the idea of Daf Yomi was not really his own invention.

Reb Meir told them that in reality Daf Yomi was the Rebbe's idea but he had commanded Reb Meir to present it as his own brainchild. "I know full well" the Rebbe explained, "that if I broach the idea it will not be greeted with the same enthusiasm as it would be if Reb Meir launches it. There are many people who are under the misconception that a Rebbe's ideas and decrees are intended only for his immediate circle of chassidim and followers. Reb Meir however regarded by all as a neutral figure and as such the idea has more chance of being accepted."

Therefore in order to increase its chances of success the Rebbe insisted that Reb Meir pass off the idea as his own and the Rebbe's name was not to be mentioned at all in connection with the Daf Yomi.

As long as the Daf Yomi was still in its teething stage and had not yet become a worldwide success, these rabbonim kept the secret to themselves in keeping with the Rebbe's instructions. It was only in their later years after the Daf Yomi had achieved international recognition and acceptance that they finally divulged what Reb Meir had revealed to them.

Besides the testimony of these two great rabbonim who were respected by all as truthful and G-d fearing Jews, their words can be backed up by circumstantial evidence (or rather the lack of it). The Rebbe wrote countless letters and proclamations concerning and promoting the many projects that his faithful chossid undertook. There is however, one blatant exception to this list.

Although the Rebbe constantly exhorted his chassidim both in writing and verbally to support every idea his beloved Reb Meir innovated, there is not a single mention anywhere about Daf Yomi. There is not even one letter or comment from the Rebbe in support of Daf Yomi. Similarly he never issued a request to his chassidim encouraging them to learn Daf Yomi or to take part in any event linked to it. It was almost as if he seemed to be trying to distance himself from the Daf Yomi as much as possible.

This glaring omission cannot be explained or reconciled in any other logical way, and is in itself the biggest proof that the Rebbe himself was involved in its formation and therefore sought to further himself from any connection that might link him with the Daf Yomi!


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