Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

21 Adar I 5765 - March 2, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







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

by F. Avrohom

Part II

The first part discussed HaRav Meir Shapiro's deep relationship with his Rebbe and mentor, the Chortkover Rebbe Reb Yisroel Friedman zt"l. It also discussed his early years as a rov, and his proposal of the Daf Yomi.

In Pietrikov

In 1925, a year after the launch of Daf Yomi, Reb Meir left his homeland of Galicia to take up a position as rov of Pietrikov in Poland. Although the city had a tradition going back hundreds of years not to take a rov from outside Poland, Reb Meir was an exception to the rule. Everyone looked upon him as one of theirs; everyone regarded him as part of their group. Reb Meir belonged to all of Klal Yisroel and could not be classified as part of a specific group.

At the grand Kabolas Ponim which was arranged in his honor, Reb Meir was jokingly asked, "When Moshiach comes and there will be techiyas hameisim, all the previous rabbonim of Pietrikov will also come back to life. What will you do then?"

Without hesitation Reb Meir answered, "No doubt all the generations of Pietrikov will also come back and each rov will serve his community from his generation, and I will continue to be rov for my generation."

"But what will the Rov do if only the rabbonim come back to life and not their kehillos?" the questioner persisted.

"A rov who was not able to ensure that his kehilloh should be on the level to merit techiyas hameisim is not a rov," Reb Meir answered simply. Although this conversation was not meant to be a serious discussion, it still nevertheless shows the deep responsibility that Reb Meir felt for his kehilloh. He felt himself personally accountable for the well-being of every single Yid in his community.

Once again Reb Meir had to start from scratch to rebuild and fortify the many broken fences which had been neglected over the years. A major dispute which had broken out years earlier between various rabbonim in the city also split the community into two and the lack of cooperation between the two sides had hurt other affairs as well. The dispute also lowered the honor of the Torah in the eyes of the town. Everyone felt qualified to offer his opinion regardless of the rabbonim who opposed his ideas. Reb Meir had to work hard to assert his influence, to make them appreciate that there was a difference between a talmid chochom and a simple person.

At a meeting of the heads of the kehilloh of Pietrikov, Reb Meir was once publicly humiliated by one of the members. The others present were incensed by his chutzpah and demanded that the man apologize. "Why should I apologize?" the man retorted. "Because the Rov is a talmid chochom? Because he is a tzaddik? I don't believe in any of that."

Seeing that the rest of the members were at a loss what to answer, Reb Meir rose to his feet and exclaimed, "You know why you have to apologize to me? Because people like you are born by the thousands every night, whilst people like me are born only once in thousands of nights. . ."

Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin

For a number of years Reb Meir had been walking around with a plan that gave him no peace. The time had come, he felt, to build a modern yeshiva with all the facilities that were required so that bochurim would be able to learn in the way which befitted the holy Torah. No longer would they have to beg for a bed to sleep on or for a piece of bread, in the community. Not only would such a yeshiva improve the standard of their learning, it would also have a second vital role. It would uplift the honor of the Torah and its scholars across Poland and beyond.

Reb Meir envisioned a yeshiva that would be like no other. "I see in my dreams a yeshiva the likes of which has never been, not in size nor in splendor. No longer will talmidim sleep in dark damp cellars and look for food like beggars. I will build for them a yeshiva like a palace! In the yeshiva every bochur will have a comfortable bed with clean linen and room for all his needs. He will eat his meal in a special dining room where he will feel as if he is at home. No longer will he be looked down upon and be derided for being a yeshiva bochur. The yeshiva will house the best and the brightest heads of the Jewish people. The yeshiva will become a center for Torah like Nahardo'o and Pumbedisa in Bovel, a production line for the great neshomos of Klal Yisroel. People will exclaim about every talmid who learned in the yeshiva, `Ashrei yoladeto,' happy is the one who gave birth to such a son."

Reb Meir Shapiro was fully aware of what such an undertaking entailed. He knew that for many years he would have no day or night, he would have to sacrifice his every last second to make such a dream become a reality. But in his great love of the Torah, Reb Meir was willing to make such a sacrifice.

The first stage of Reb Meir's grand plan ran quite smoothly. During a visit to the town of Lublin in Cheshvan 5684 (1924), Reb Meir was shown around by one of its wealthy inhabitants, Reb Shmuel Eichenbaum z"l. During the trip Reb Shmuel showed Reb Meir a large plot of land in the center of the town that he had bought some years earlier. Despite its prime location, the land lay empty and Reb Shmuel did not know what to do with it.

Reb Meir thought for a moment and said, "Reb Shmuel, I'm going to offer you a business deal which far surpasses any deal you have ever been offered until now." Wondering what Reb Meir could possibly be referring to, Reb Shmuel told him that he was willing to listen.

"I want part of this ground," Reb Meir replied. "It would be just right for a yeshiva." Reb Shmuel's face shone with joy at the idea and immediately promised Reb Meir the ground.

Building Starts

On Lag BaOmer 5684 (1924), Lublin was flooded with tens of thousands of Yidden who came to take part in the hanochas even hapinah. Among the vast crowds stood out the many geonim and tzaddikim who had come from all over to take part in the celebrations which were headed by the Rebbes of Chortkov and Ger.

In a letter, one participant described the celebration: "Praise be to Hashem, I returned from Lublin full and satisfied with spiritual joy, having seen for the first time in my life such a public demonstration of kovod HaTorah. Approximately 50,000 Yidden took part, including all the major rabbonim of Poland. When the Chortkover Rebbe arrived, a royal division of police mounted on horses surrounded his carriage. They escorted him to the platform where he spoke to the assembled crowds.

"After he had finished speaking, the Gerrer Rebbe also spoke and then the Chortkover Rebbe laid the first stone. It is impossible to describe the atmosphere that prevailed here in Lublin, all the windows in the town were decorated and festooned. No one remembers such a great rejoicing as there was here this week."

Once the celebrations had finished and the crowds had gone back home, Reb Meir went back to work making his dream come true. The first part had been much easier than he had anticipated but the main job still lay ahead.

Reb Meir took to the road traveling the length and breadth of Poland. Wherever he went, he delivered passionate speeches begging people to have pity on themselves and their children and to help him to raise the huge sums of money needed.

After almost two years of hard labor, Reb Meir succeeded in raising over thirty thousand dollars. Although it was a tremendous amount of money, it was less than a third of the required sum. Reb Meir grew despondent and began to wonder if he had indeed taken upon himself the impossible. He would simply have abandoned the whole idea but he knew that if he did, it would be a terrible chilul Hashem, not to speak of the great disappointment that Yidden all over would feel. A letter written by the Chortkover Rebbe to his chassidim in America asking them for help, spells out clearly the predicament Reb Meir found himself in.

"The yeshiva whose cornerstone we laid two years ago is not yet completed. Thousands of Yidden are waiting desperately for the day that light will shine forth from its windows to dispel the darkness of the times, and to ease the heavy burden of raising their children in the way of the Torah, before they are influenced by the foreign winds that seek to topple them. The donations that the Yidden in Poland have contributed has already been used up, causing the askonim to give up their work in despair. We can already hear the voices of our opponents, who are mocking us and the Torah. They are saying that for secular studies there is plenty of money but when it comes to strengthening the walls of the Torah, we are not able to raise the required sum.

"At first when we saw the great joy on the faces of everyone at the stone laying, our hearts were full of hope that we would manage to complete the work from the contributions of those who reside here. But much to our dismay, times have changed and many have lost their wealth. Yidden have become poverty stricken and all work on the yeshiva has ceased.

"Therefore I request of you: not once and not twice have you assisted your brothers here, please assist them now again by helping my friend, the gaon Reb Meir Shapiro, to erect these great stones and to engrave upon them the words of the Torah. Let the gates of the yeshiva be opened already and gather in it the holy flock who are thirsting to taste its waters, before they are contaminated by other sources. The zchus of the Torah and its students should protect and shower upon all of us the goodness that Hashem has promised us."

Finally Finished

In Teves 5690 (1930) the building of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin was finally finished, almost five years after work first started. The building had room for a thousand bochurim to learn and dormitory facilities for 500. The yeshiva also had a large library, which contained over 30,000 seforim. The modern dining room and adjacent kitchen were also a novelty; each table was covered with a white tablecloth and set with plates and cutlery. A sick room and dentistry were also on the premises for medical treatment for the bochurim. And the yeshiva also had its own launderette so that the bochurim would not have to waste time washing their clothes.

Even before the yeshiva opened its doors, long lines of hopeful candidates formed, hoping to be admitted to its ranks. But Reb Meir had one strict condition on which he wasn't willing to compromise. Every bochur must be tested on at least 200-blat gemora by heart. Through this condition Reb Meir insured that only the best and the elite would learn in the yeshiva. His plan was for the yeshiva to produce the future gedolim of Klal Yisroel. Here the greatest and the brightest bochurim would be groomed and prepared to lead their people.

The Yeshiva is Opened

The 28th of Sivan 5690 (1930) was a date that millions of Yidden throughout Poland and beyond were impatiently awaiting. On that day the yeshiva would be officially opened and Reb Meir would be crowned its rosh yeshiva and the rav of Lublin. As the date grew nearer, the suspense and excitement built to a peak. Never before in the history of Poland had such a massive public demonstration of kovod HaTorah taken place.

Two days before the grand opening, Reb Meir arrived in Lublin on a train from Pietrikov. Thousands assembled at the station to greet him and accompany him to his new home in the yeshiva building. The following day the same scene repeated itself when the Chortkover Rebbe arrived on a train from Vienna.

Reb Meir and the entire yeshiva went to the station to greet the Rebbe. Before the train pulled into the station Reb Meir begged his talmidim not to push when the Rebbe arrived. Such conduct was not the way to greet a Melech Yisroel. Rather, they should form two long rows and allow the Rebbe to pass through the center. In their eagerness to see the Rebbe many of the talmidim forgot Reb Meir's request and started to run and to push in order to gain a better view of the Chortkover Rebbe.

Reb Meir was visibly upset by their conduct and in front of all those present, he humbly begged forgiveness from his Rebbe for the disorder. The gaon Reb Tanchum Rubinstein zt"l who was a talmid of Reb Meir used to often recount the great impact that Reb Meir's apology made on his new talmidim. The sight of the great Rosh Yeshiva publicly apologizing in front of his young talmidim, was a much more powerful lesson in middos and humility than many a mussar discourse.

At three o'clock on the following day, the proceedings began as the choir started to sing Mizmor Shir chanukas habayis. Soon the vast crowd joined in the singing. The sound of one hundred thousand voices all joined together with praise to Hashem moved even the policemen watching the proceedings.

As the song came to an end, a respectful silence fell on the assembled. Reb Meir Shapiro had made his appearance flanked by the Rebbe of Chortkov on one side and the Rebbe of Ger on the other. Behind them came a long procession of rabbonim and tzaddikim.

From a platform Reb Meir blessed the assembled in an emotional voice, "Six years ago I greeted you all on an empty and desolate plot of land. Now however, I bless you all from the beis Hashem, from this magnificent building which stands completed in all its splendor. Anyone, who looked with a bit of his heart, was able to see the terrible situation that young bochurim find themselves in. The `pas bemelach' that the Mishna prescribes was a luxury for many who used to go hungry. The young Torah scholar was abused and ridiculed. Even if there were those who tried to help their physical situation, nothing has been done to elevate their social and emotional standing, and this is the novelty and the revolution of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin."

After Reb Meir had finished his droshoh, the Rebbe also addressed the crowds: "The gemora tells us that the simchah of the consecration of the Mishkan was like the simchah of a kallah under the chuppah. The simchah of marriage does not stop with the end of the chasunah. Rather the ending of the chasunah heralds the beginning of a long new existence for the new couple.

"Similarly, when the Mishkan was erected, the simchah wasn't limited to the completion of the building but rather extended to the avodoh which could now start to take place within its walls. Today the very Torah is rejoicing with its new home! With the completion of the building the Torah can take up its new residence. The start of the spiritual building can now begin.

"Chazal tell us that Betzalel who built the Mishkan knew how to combine the holy letters of Hashem's Name with which the heaven and earth were created. After the Yidden had sinned with the Golden Calf, the Shechinah in heaven became distanced from the earth. Betzalel used his wisdom to construct the Mishkan in such a way that the earth regained its former kedushoh and the Shechinah in heaven returned back to the earth. We are living nowadays in times of great spiritual darkness. I hope and daven that through this simchah the heavens will once again be reunited with the earth."

After the Rebbe had finished speaking, the Gerrer Rebbe also delivered his short blessing after which came the great moment that everyone had been waiting for. Reb Meir took a mezuzoh out of his pocket and handed it to the Chortkover Rebbe. In front of one hundred thousands pairs of eyes the Chortkover Rebbe took the mezuzoh and fixed it to the front door post of the yeshiva. The yeshiva doors were opened with a specially made golden key and a beaming Reb Meir called out, "Just as the gates of the Yeshiva were opened, similarly may Hashem open the gates of salvation for the Yidden."

Inside the Yeshiva

It didn't take long for the yeshiva to make a name for itself; many of the bochurim were accomplished talmidei chachomim before they even joined the yeshiva. The task of the yeshiva was to teach them and to show them how to use their knowledge to the fullest, to train them how to properly analyze what they had learned and to draw the correct conclusions.

Reb Meir instituted a program of limud that was divided into three sections. Each section took two years to complete. The first two years were spent learning the gemoras of Brochos, Shabbos, Pesochim and Beitzah with the relevant halachos in Shulchan Oruch. The bochurim would also have to know all the various midroshim connected to the topics they were learning plus the commentaries of the classic meforshim on the Torah. Besides all the abovementioned masechtos, the talmidim also had to learn masechtas Yuma, Tomid, and Middos with all the relevant halachos in the Rambam.

During the second stage of the yeshiva, the bochurim would learn for semichoh. They had to acquire a deep knowledge of all the necessary parts of Yoreh De'ah which was learned together with Chulin and Bechoros. In addition, they also had to be fluent in hilchos challah and hilchos mikvo'os and the halochos pertaining to the kashrus of sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzas.

The final stage in the yeshiva was intended for those who would take up positions as rabbonim. During these last two years, the bochurim learned hilchos gittin, chalitza, and takonos agunos, which was followed by Chosen Mishpat which deals with all the various monetary sha'alos. The talmid also had to review the whole of seder Noshim and seder Nezikin with the commentary of the Rosh. At the end of the six-year course, the talmid was clearly ready to assume a position as a rav or rosh yeshiva.

Looking at this unbelievable Seder Halimud, it is clear why the yeshiva was intended only for iluyim. Such a heavy and exhaustive program could only be tackled by the elite. Reb Meir's talmidim did not let him down, and many of them completed the program without a problem.

The bochurim from the yeshiva became known as true geonim, despite their youth. Many of them were fluent in all of Shas. When one of the bochurim — Reb Yosef Boim — published a sefer of his own chiddushim on the Rambam, Reb Meir gave him a haskomoh in which he wrote, "These lines serve to testify about the great rav and boki Reb Yosef Boim from Itbitza. From when he arrived in the yeshiva he has mastered a thorough knowledge of the whole Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi and the many commentaries on them. He is like a well, overflowing with chiddushim, and in our generation is a rare and precious wonder."

Reb Yosef Boim wasn't the only one in his league. There were many others like him too. They would no doubt have been amongst the gedolim of Klal Yisroel had the accursed Germans not destroyed them all.

Reb Meir's involvement in the progress of his talmidim was a 24-hour-a-day job. In a letter written in support of the yeshiva, the Boyaner Rebbe Reb Moshenu Friedman zt"l wrote, "The rosh yeshiva Reb Meir Shapiro doesn't limit himself just to giving a shiur to the talmidim. He guides them and shows them how to improve their middos. He davens with them and eats with them and he knows how to instill into the heart of every bochur that he must one day be a godol beYisroel."

Indeed Reb Meir acted not just as a rebbe to his talmidim but also as a father. If a bochur fell sick Reb Meir would go immediately to visit him. On one occasion when Reb Meir went to visit a sick bochur, the boy suddenly became overcome with trembling and convulsions at the sight of the Rosh Yeshiva. Reb Meir was rather taken aback and after he managed to calm the bochur, he asked him what caused the convulsions.

"In my previous yeshiva, "the boy explained, "It was unheard of for the rosh yeshiva to visit a sick talmid. Only if the talmid was desperately ill would the rosh yeshiva make a visit. Seeing the Rosh Yeshiva, I suddenly became worried that really I have a dangerous illness which the doctor hadn't told me about."

The Rov smiled at his words and said, "To me every talmid is like a son, a father doesn't wait to visit his child until he is dangerously ill, he goes on the first day. . . "

On the Way to Chortkov

Even after Reb Meir became rosh yeshiva and his every moment was dedicated to the yeshiva and the bochurim, he still managed to make time to travel often to Chortkov. Every few months Reb Meir would leave the yeshiva in order to spend a Shabbos in the company of the Rebbe. Each time Reb Meir would take along with him a group of his talmidim so that they could taste for themselves the meaning of a Shabbos in Chortkov.

A description of one such trip was highlighted in the paper Dos Yiddishe Togblatt by one of the participants. "The Shabbos after Shavuos 5691 (1931) is engraved in my mind as one of the most memorable Shabbosim of my yeshiva life. The Chortkover Rebbe had come from his home in Vienna to his court in Chortkov, and our rosh yeshiva the Lubliner Rov, Reb Meir Shapiro, was taking fifteen talmidim along with him to see the Rebbe.

"We left the yeshiva in high spirits and made our way to the train station. Very soon the train was on its way towards Chortkov. The Rov launched into a conversation about the topic of the day, namely divrei Torah and stories that centered on the Rebbe of Chortkov. His voice full of awe and respect, the Rov related each story with such reverence that it evoked in him new feelings of wonder and veneration towards his Rebbe. Only now did we finally begin to understand the concept of `a true chossid.'

"So the journey continued whilst we sat open-mouthed, hungrily devouring every word that left the Rov's mouth. From time to time the Rov switched topics and reverted back to the gemora we were learning. One pilpul followed another and then he suddenly changed the conversation back to Chortkov again and then back to the gemora and so on. Throughout the journey the Rav kept us captivated and enthralled. One minute he was speaking as the `humble chossid', the next minute as the `great rosh yeshiva.'

"We arrived in Chortkov refreshed and invigorated. After a short rest we went to the Rebbe's home to greet him. One cannot describe the great joy with which the Rebbe and the Rov greeted each other. The Rov introduced us to the Rebbe with the words, `I have brought the Rebbe a tithe!' At that point 150 boys learned in the yeshiva.

"The Rebbe showed great interest in us and inquired about conditions in the yeshiva. Even the minutest details were of concern to him.

"Friday night after davening, the Rebbe recited Kiddush in front of his chassidim. The whole assembly stood transfixed watching the Rebbe's every move and action. We felt elevated, almost like in another world. This was especially true of the Rov. Throughout the tish he did not remove his gaze from the Rebbe. His normally confident posture was replaced with one of humility, as he absorbed his Rebbe's every nuance.

"After the Rebbe had recited Kiddush and given a dvar Torah, the short tish ended. The Rov accompanied by his talmidim returned to his accommodation where a joyous seudah soon got under way. During the course of the night many other chassidim came in to join the Rov and hear his divrei Torah and stories. The sounds of the zemiros and singing carried on until the early hours of the morning."

Sustaining the Yeshiva

As the years went by, the difficulty of paying for the daily running of the yeshiva kept on growing. Once again Reb Meir took to the road and traveled up and down Poland to raise funds for the yeshiva. No one knew about the financial worries of the yeshiva. Reb Meir didn't want the news to leak out. He was afraid that it might affect the happy atmosphere amongst the bochurim which was important for their learning. Only when the local council switched off the water to the yeshiva did the secret get out.

In a letter written at the time, Reb Meir writes, "What can I tell you? We are drowning in a sea of troubles; the situation is terrible. The yeshiva is hovering between life and death, struggling to stay open, and we have no one to help us. Despite our wish to increase the amount of bochurim, we have decided that such a step is impossible. If only we could manage to sustain those already here."

In the meanwhile, help came for the yeshiva from a rather unexpected corner. The giant insurance firm Prudential opened a branch of their firm in Poland. In order to attract customers, they approached well-known public figures and offered them a life insurance policy with their firm. Prudential promised Reb Meir that if he agreed to take out a life insurance policy with them, they would lend him the money to cover all the yeshiva's debts. Reb Meir agreed to the deal and thus the yeshiva was saved — at least for the time being.

On a few occasions Reb Meir said bitterly, "It seems that only through my death will the yeshiva be saved," a statement that was later borne out. Indeed when he was asked how he intended to pay back the loan when it was due, Reb Meir answered, ominously quoting the Zohar Hakodosh, "Some people pay with their money and some people pay with their bodies."

To Prepare the Way

Just as in his lifetime Reb Meir was regarded by all as unique, so was his death regarded as a unique culmination to such a special life. And just as during his lifetime Reb Meir was totally bound to his Rebbe, so in death did he remain inextricably linked to his Rebbe.

On Hoshanoh Rabbah 5694 (1933), Reb Meir revealed to his talmidim a dream he had had that night. Although the talmidim were quite taken aback by the dream's message, Reb Meir retold the dream in a calm and accepting tone.

In his dream he found himself face to face with the Alter Chortkover Rebbe and his son Reb Yisroel, the present Rebbe. The Rebbe introduced Reb Meir to his father and extolled his many praises. "If he really is so great and so capable," the Alter Rebbe responded. "We should summon him here in Heaven." Reb Yisroel of Chortkov tried to intercede on behalf of Reb Meir and asked that he be spared, for he was still needed in this world. Nonetheless, two weeks later the dream became a reality.

After Succos, another puzzling development occurred. Reb Meir suddenly announced that very soon he would be moving to Eretz Yisroel. In fulfillment of this wish, Reb Meir started to deliver a daily shiur concerning the halachos of Eretz Yisroel. He kept on repeating to his talmidim: "Very soon I am going to move to Eretz Yisroel to prepare the way for my Rebbe, the Rebbe of Chortkov, in fulfillment of the posuk, `Ve'es Yehuda sholach lefonov, And he sent Yehuda before him.' " (Reb Meir's full name was Reb Yehuda Meir.)

When Reb Meir was niftar on the 7th of Cheshvan 1933, the family of the Chortkover Rebbe refused to let him know for fear that it would affect his poor health. The Rebbe however, felt by himself that his faithful chossid was no longer alive and when he also quoted the same posuk, "Ve'es Yehuda sholach lefonov," everyone understood the meaning. Reb Meir had gone ahead to prepare the way for the Rebbe! And indeed, just five weeks later on the 13th of Kislev, the Chortkover Rebbe was also niftar.

Only with Joy

Tuesday the 4th of Cheshvan 5694 (1933) the bochurim were rather surprised when Reb Meir didn't turn up on time for the early morning shiur. Normally, he was the first one there. As the minutes ticked by, they realized that something must have happened.

When Reb Meir didn't turn up for shacharis either, the bochurim went to his home to see where he was. Reb Meir was lying in bed with a bad cold. The doctor who was by his bedside said there was no cause for worry. The Rosh Yeshiva simply had a bout of flu.

The following day Reb Meir's condition worsened, a swelling had developed in his throat making it difficult for him to breathe. Other doctors were summoned to his bedside but they also said that there was no cause for worry and in a few days he would be better again. By Thursday, Reb Meir had no strength left to even talk, as the hours ticked by, he grew gradually weaker but still the doctors remained unperturbed.

Late Thursday night it became clear that Reb Meir's remaining minutes were limited. On a piece of paper he wrote an instruction to the talmidim around his bed, "Everyone should drink lechayim." In a flash a bottle and cups were produced and the bochurim drank lechayim.

Reb Meir stretched out his hand and shook the hand of each and every bochur. After they had all gone around, Reb Meir made a sign that they should sing one of his niggunim to the words, "Becho botchu avoseinu." In the middle of the song he beckoned to them to form a circle around his bed and then on a scrap of paper he wrote his final two words, "Rak besimchah."

The bochurim danced around his bed singing and crying whilst in the middle lay Reb Meir, his face shining like an angel. With his hand he beckoned to them to go faster, to sing louder, until suddenly, Reb Meir's holy neshomoh flew upwards to meet the gedolei hadoros who were waiting to greet him.

Zechusom yogein oleinu


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