Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Cheshvan 5765 - October 27, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Remembering Rabbenu -- Third Yahrtzeit: 16 Cheshvan

Anecdotes recounted by his talmid, Rav Eliahu Munk

On Translations of the Talmud

One several occasions Rabbenu expressed disapproval over English translations of the Shas with brief summaries of commentaries by the Rishonim accompanying the text. Even those closest to him did not always understand the basis behind his position on issues, especially when he did not provide any reasons or explanations for his position. This was also the case regarding this issue,

Over time, several reasons for his opposition to translating the Shas came to light. One of them was voiced when the president of the yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Kahaneman, was making preparations to travel abroad. Rav Kahaneman knew he would be asked to explain the Rosh Yeshiva's remarks on the subject. As the official representative of the yeshiva and of Maran, he knew he would be asked to expound on every nuance of his remarks. He decided to confer with Rabbenu to seek his advice.

"I am against it because I feel it's not right," Rabbenu said, and began to spell out his position on the matter:

Imagine Reuven presents one of Rebbi Akiva Eiger's tough kushyos to Shimon. Shimon listens to the kushya and, after considering it for a moment, he responds with a clear and simple answer. How can this be? Rebbi Akiva Eiger's kushyos are generally as solid as a cement wall. In yeshivos, it's generally said that someone who can handle such a kushya might as well write his own test questions! An observer of this incident sees that Rebbi Akiva Eiger is not as formidable as he once thought.

But perhaps Shimon does not rely on what Reuven tells him and elects to look up the original teshuvoh for himself. Osios machkimos. He may discover a slight addition that changes the whole picture. Not necessarily additional words that Reuven omitted, but rather sometimes a passage in the original language has a shallow meaning, like the one Reuven presented, as well as a deeper meaning, like what Shimon uncovered on close examination -- and which more accurately represents Rebbi Akiva Eiger's real intention.

Thus, while Reuven endeavored to reiterate Rebbi Akiva's remarks, he actually voiced his own perspective, reducing a great gaon from the heights and transforming his writings into simple words that any neophyte can answer.

What went wrong? Reuven translated the words based on his own understanding. Had we examined the original, we would see right away that the true meaning is somewhat different.

This, Rabbenu explained, is the danger involved in translating. The Rishonim's writings are concise and abbreviated. When we mold Rashi and Rabbenu Tam into our own language, we are liable to drift away from their true intentions, which are preserved in the original language alone.

Enduring Yissurim

One of Rabbenu's grandchildren needed medical treatment. Rabbenu spent hours in the hospital, plodding from the emergency room to the treatment room, from the treatment ward to the operating ward and then back again. The oppressive chamsin weather left all of the family members exhausted. Rabbenu looked very fatigued and his two escorts felt fatigued as well.

When it appeared that they could expect a long wait in the hospital corridors, Rabbenu's accompanying talmidim decided to provide him some slight relief by bringing him a chair to sit on. The chair was placed next to Rabbenu, but he made no response. One of the talmidim mentioned the chair, but Rabbenu said nothing. Eventually one of them asked why the Rosh Yeshiva continued to stand, at which point he made an unusual show of anger.

"What? You want me to cast off yissurim?" he replied.

"Rise up Like a Lion"

Rabbenu Hagodol had a sedate manner for learning iyun. He would sit entirely still behind his gemora, devoting his full powers of concentration to the words before him. Wholly unaware of what was happening all around, his mind was more in Pompedisa and Sura.

Sometimes this did not apply. Occasionally he would start swaying energetically, learning with youthful zerizus. Many observers assumed that he had arrived that day fully energized, but those who knew him well knew otherwise. This vigor actually showed how exhausted he was from the previous night. When fatigue seized him he would begin rocking back and forth as if he had just slept long and well. He looked well-rested and invigorated, but in fact he was shaking himself alert through great effort.

"Nothing's Going In"

"I went up to Rabbenu to ask him about a topic I was having trouble understanding. Rabbenu was sitting in his seat with a copy of Choshen Mishpat open before him, his eyes scanning a long passage in the Nesivos. All of his powers of concentration were focused on absorbing the holy writings of the Gaon from Lithuania. When the Rosh Yeshiva saw me he lifted his head from the sefer and asked me what I needed.

I laid the problem out before him. It was clear that he was having great difficulty detaching himself from the Nesivos, but still he tried hard to listen. When I finished speaking, the Rosh Yeshiva, with a look of defeat on his face, asked me to repeat my question. I tried again, but it was obviously not the right time to ask questions. The Rosh Yeshiva lifted his hands, with an expression of deep apology discernible on his face.

"I can't," he said imploringly. He smiled and pointed at his ears. "Nothing's going in."

"Another Beggar"

One day Rabbenu was giving his shiur in the yeshiva. On this particular day his shiur provided a whole new set of foundations that presented the sugya from an unconventional angle. The baalei trisim banded together in an attempt to counter the Rosh Yeshiva, but Maran zt'l held his ground. Again and again they tried to launch attacks from all sides, but Rabbenu would not retreat from his approach to understanding the sugya. Although it was quite unusual and difficult to digest at first, Rabbenu refused to budge.

During the afternoon seder one of the bnei aliyah at Ponovezh went up to the Rosh Yeshiva and asked him to take note of Rashi's comment on the sugya in question, which appeared to contradict Rabbenu's innovative approach. Rabbenu listened to what he had to say and then burst out, "A kamtzon" ("A beggar").

Taken aback, the talmid returned to his bench, not understanding what the matter had to do with begging nor what Rabbenu meant by his remark.

Later he discovered that another talmid had already pointed out Rashi's commentary to the Rosh Yeshiva, who remained unimpressed by the kushya and dismissed it as dikdukei aniyus--a very small point of interest only to one who is concerned with excessively small details, like a beggar who takes every cent he has into account. When he heard the same kushya, the Rosh Yeshiva thought some of the participants in the shiur had conspired against him, sending two different envoys bearing the same comment in order to prove that they were right.

Rebbi Akiva Eiger

Rabbenu greatly admired Rebbi Akiva Eiger. On one occasion he posited that we do not have license to dispute his opinions. In a letter written in 5739 (1979) he advised an inquirer, "When you have free time on Shabbos learn Teshuvos Rebbi Akiva Eiger one after the other -- bebekiyus. His daas and sevoroh are on the level of the Rishonim, and by doing so I'm sure you'll make great progress and le'ilano ravrevo tis'aved."

Occasionally when Rabbenu encountered a difficult problem in his learning his thought processes brought him to an understanding that differed from Rebbi Akiva Eiger's approach. A talmid who witnessed one of these incidents firsthand recalls, "We were learning about shlucho shel baal mammon. The Rosh Yeshiva presented it based on Rabbenu Akiva Eiger, but then shouted out that it could not be interpreted in such a manner. He kept insisting that it could not be interpreted according to Rebbi Akiva Eiger's approach, but once he had finished his barrage and calmed down he remarked, `Ask me who's right, Rebbi Akiva Eiger or me. He is, without a doubt!' Then a moment later he added, `But when all is said and done, how can you say that it's night when everyone can see the sun is shining?'"

Of Rishonim and Acharonim

It was Election Day and many people were missing. They were working on get-out-the-vote drives, making every effort for the sake of the spiritual future of Jews in Eretz Yisroel for the coming four years.

Rabbenu did not voice his opinion regarding all the empty seats in the beis medrash, but when a talmid asked him directly he smiled and said, "Nu, are you going out to vote? If so then it's OK to go work for an hour or two."

It was an auspicious moment. A group of bochurim stood speaking with Rabbenu--a sichas chulin of talmidei chachomim. The conversation developed into a discussion about the degree of authority the gedolim of our generation have in interpreting both Written and Oral Torah.

"When we learn gemora, are we allowed to dispute the meforshim?" one talmid asked.

"Mutar! Mutar!" Rabbenu replied, adding, "but not the major Acharonim like the Gra, the Shaagas Aryeh and Rebbi Akiva Eiger. We don't have license to dispute their rulings."

When the conversation reached the issue of the relationship between the Acharonim and the Rishonim, Rabbenu said that even the great Acharonim he mentioned, normally avoided arguing with the Rishonim. We have no understanding or conception of the greatness of the Rishonim, and even the greatest of the Acharonim cannot dispute them.

To support his assertion, Rabbenu recounted Rav Chaim of Volozhin's response when he heard someone say his revered rebbe, the Gra, was as great as the Rambam. Rav Chaim was deeply disturbed by the remark and replied, "Chas vesholom! Maybe as great as the Rashbo."

Lost in Mussar

Rabbenu would study mussar with the same calm intensity with which he studied gemora. He was always careful not to miss the Mussar Seder, a legacy from his youth in Kovno where he was among the young men who surrounded the Alter of Slobodka, in order to convey to the talmidim that without yir'oh there can be no chochmoh and that the Mussar Seder preserves the character of a ben Torah.

Once we saw the Rosh Yeshiva start to rock back and forth vigorously in the middle of the Mussar Seder, fully absorbed in his thoughts.

Suddenly he jumped up from his seat and strode quickly all the way to the southern wall of the beis medrash. No one could tell what had happened. He ran to the bookshelf and removed a sefer -- the Minchas Chinuch, if I'm not mistaken -- and stuck his lion's head between the open pages. Thus he stood, eagerly drinking in the small print, until Ma'ariv.

Only then did it become apparent that his iyun had overcome him to the point where he forgot it was a Mussar Seder. Keen observers could see that for him he became confused when he got involved in the Mussar Seder with the same kind of omol he normally reserved for talmud Torah.

Stick to It--Bli Neder

Once a young woman who had studied at Or HaChaim was brought to his office. She had made a neder to keep a certain tsnius chumroh, but on second thought she realized that it would be difficult to maintain her new practice in the presence of her family members, who were lax in keeping mitzvos. She explained to Rabbenu that perhaps she had been a bit hasty, even though she had acted with only good intentions and based on the advice of her teachers.

After listening carefully, Rabbenu agreed that she had made an unwise decision. He called two bochurim into the room and performed a hatoras nedorim on the spot.

Only after the neder had been nullified and the anxiety had dissipated did Rabbenu express his opinion on the kabboloh itself. "But the idea is a good one," he said. "A very good one. Try to keep it."

The Boy with the Bell

An interesting question from a well-known yeshiva was sent to Rabbenu. At that yeshiva the bochurim were woken up in the morning by the sound of a handheld bell. One of the bochurim would walk down the dormitory halls going from room to room, from one floor to the next, making sure everyone woke up. The task demanded dedication, willingness to wake up on time day after day, and the tireless patience needed to ring the bell over and over again. Although it was a paid job, few rushed forward to take it, particularly since it entailed waking up half-an-hour early.

Thus the rov responsible for the morning reveille was noticeably disappointed when his "bell boy" informed him of his intention to resign from the post, explaining that the task robbed him of precious sleep and that the monotonous ringing bore into his head until his temples started to throb. The rov tried to dissuade him, saying it would be very hard for him to find a replacement. "Please, do me a favor," he asked. The good-natured bochur agreed to remain for the time being, but periodically he would approach the rov to see whether a replacement had been found. The answer was always no.

The rov, who was known to have a heart condition, warned that he might have a heart attack if the post was left unmanned. The fear of causing such an incident deterred the bochur from taking action and he carried on unhappily, day after day.

Soon the dreary ringing convinced him to take his moral dilemma to a higher authority. He went to Rabbenu, laying out the problem and all of the circumstances before him.

"You can quit," Rabbenu told him right away.

"But what about his heart?" inquired the talmid hesitantly, as if he suspected Rabbenu did not comprehend the seriousness of the situation.

"What does that have to do with you?" Rabbenu replied, his tone indicating that he failed to see the relevance of the question. "If you find the job to be unappealing, you have the right to quit," he repeated.

An Unblemished Creation

Once when he learned about a terminally ill patient about whom the doctors had given up all hope of saving, Rabbenu traveled to Jerusalem and went to the Kosel. Standing beside the remains of Beis Hamikdosh, he pleaded for the recovery of the sick man.

On the way back his talmid Rav M. Heisler accompanied him.

"I'll tell you what I prayed for," the Rosh Yeshiva said. He cited Rav Chaim of Volozhin who writes, "Every [Shemoneh Esrei] effects new tikkunim in the order of the worlds and various forces, and also draws other new thoughts; from the time it was formulated until the Redemption, no single tefilloh can resemble another one before or after . . . or from one day to the previous day or the next day. Therefore Chazal said that the phrase me'uvos lo yuchal liskon (an uncorrectable problem) applies to someone who failed to say Krias Shema or Tefilloh" (Nefesh HaChaim Part II, Chapter 14).

The reason, explained Rabbenu, is because the creation at this minute is distinct from the creation in the past and in the future. Every single moment HaKodosh Boruch Hu sustains all of the worlds and creates them anew, as Anshei Knesses Hagedoloh indicate in Bircas Yotzer Or: Hamechadeish beTuvo kol yom tomid Ma'asei Bereishis (see Nefesh HaChaim Part I, Chapter 2). Since the tefilloh is the sustenance that provides life for all of the worlds and for the individual himself (ibid., Part I, Chapter 2), every tefilloh is unlike every other tefilloh, for it is the sustenance of a new creation.

"I prayed," concluded Rabbenu, "that the new creation Hakodosh Boruch Hu creates in the next moment will be an unblemished creation."

Avrohom Bequeathed us the Power to Resist the World

"The world stood amazed. What power preserved the faith of the Jewish nation? What is the secret of this great miracle?

"Our forefather Avrohom the Ivri was unique: the whole world was on one side and he was on the opposite side, standing steadfast against the whole world, against the idolatrous spirit prevalent throughout the world. And he, our father, bequeathed us this method, he blazed the trail for his descendants to this day, until the Chofetz Chaim zy"o and the Chazon Ish zy"o. Until today this derech determines the halocho on every topic, the rulings of halocho as transmitted from person to person. This is the secret of the survival of Knesses Yisroel, [which has remained steadfast to] its faith to this day."

(From a speech given at a gathering in Bnei Brak, Cheshvan 5749 (1988)

Daf Hayomi: To Learn Gemora and to Still Remain with False Opinions . . . is not the Purpose [of Learning]

"Please listen. Besides the immorality, tumo, and treifus there is in the newspapers, one cannot even hold them any more because they are full of false opinions (dei'os). All those newspapers like "Erev Shabbat" and "Chadashot" and others similar whose names I do not know. [Editor's Note: Maran was referring to publications put out by religious people in his day.] A person brings them to his home [and thinks] everything is kosher. Using the viewpoints he finds in there, he develops his character and his hashkofos. This becomes the sum total of his aspirations.

"It could well be that this person comes to the Beis Medrash on Shabbos or twice a week -- and maybe even every day of the week -- where he takes the gemora, learns or hears a gemora shiur or a Daf Hayomi shiur. It was not intended that people should only learn the Daf Hayomi. The paramount intention was that the Daf Hayomi should teach the person.

"It is not enough to simply hear a Daf Hayomi shiur, because it is done for social reasons, or because of the set- up of the association or an obligation towards his party -- but, did the gemora also teach them something, or are they simply learning the words of the gemora?

"To learn gemora and remain with false opinions and meaningless assumptions is not the aim; this is not the purpose!"

("Yarchei Kallah" speech 5744 (1984), Letters and Essays 4)

There Needs to be an Understanding

"Dear Yidden, it is wonderful to daven, and it is wonderful to walk about the streets wrapped in a tallis, it is beautiful to learn gemora. But an understanding of the Torah is lacking. Precious Yidden, who are willing to listen, who desire to understand -- let us really and truly strengthen ourselves. Each person should strengthen [himself] and correct the maladies of his heart, but in general -- to truly learn. And the main thing: that the limud should teach the person Torah and da'as, yir'as Shomayim and middos tovos. Chas vesholom do not look at the `street.' Only then is there a chance of Hashem guarding and saving us."

("Yarchei Kallah" speech 5744 (1984), Letters and Essays 4)

"Without Noticing It -- Kefirah and Minus are Absorbed"

"Torah and yiras Shomayim are both things in need of constant chizuk, and even one hour's distraction can bring about deterioration, as the Chovos Halevovos writes, `For you sleep and he is awake for you.'

"Although you may become distracted, the yetzer does not divert his attention away from you, all the days of your life, especially in our times. Everywhere you turn he entices you with all sorts of temptations and distractions. Also when you are on the road, you hear and see the sounds of the radio and the corrupt and smutty papers. A stone will cry out from the walls, from the signs posted on them without any embarrassment or shame. And the papers full of heresy and apostasy, they make bad out of good and good out of bad, and without a person noticing, these penetrate his heart and are absorbed."

(A letter from Thursday 5th of Kislev 5741 (1981), Letters and Essays, 1 and 2)

Learning Other, Non-Torah Subjects

[The phenomenon of] those who have studied other wisdoms and remained with their yiras Shomayim intact -- this is one of the yetzer's tricks in order to entice others.

"And although in recent times there have been some who have learned other wisdoms and remained with their yir'oh intact, this is one of the yetzer's tricks and cunning. [He can use these cases] to show an example, [to prove] that it is not so terrible, and it is not as bad as made out, thereby enticing innocent youths. [He argues that], on the contrary, [if they study these things, they] will be able to manage better in life, to live a Torah life and keep the mitzvos.

"But they are mistaken. There is great danger in this. And just like water and fire will not mingle in one vessel, so the wisdom of Torah and its understanding cannot be combined with secular wisdoms. One cannot take an example from Chazal hakedoshim and the Rishonim, because their holiness made [all their actions] come within the category of, `The counsel of Hashem is with them who fear Him' (sod Hashem liyerei'ov) they needed all this [knowledge] for learning the Torah and for understanding its secrets.

"All this is not relevant to us. All the proofs, evidence and examples which are cited about another person who has acquired other wisdoms, and is still a yirei Shomayim, chareidi and a talmid chochom and maybe even a gaon.

"You should know, my dear friends, there is an explicit mishna in Ovos (Chapter 6) that contradicts them. The Torah is acquired by forty-eight things, and only these forty-eight things are the factors for Torah and yiras Shomayim, and therefore it must be that what they say about him is not as it seems."

(Letter from 19th Shvat 5738 (1978), Letters and Essays, 1 and 2).


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