Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Iyar 5766 - May 3, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








"We Moved During Bava Kama" — HaRav Abba Berman zt"l
His first yahrtzeit — 3 Iyar

by Rabbi Refael Berelson

Part I

The Chofetz Chaim's Advice

When Reb Abba was six years old the Chofetz Chaim visited Lodz for a meeting. Crowds turned out to catch a glimpse of the aged gaon.

Rav Shaul Yosef arrived accompanied by his young son, whom he wanted his rebbe to test in learning. The Chofetz Chaim questioned the boy on the gemora and Tosafos at the beginning of perek Hamafkid, where dovor shelo bo le'olom is discussed. He was very impressed by the child's knowledge and understanding and instructed his father not to let word of the youngster's abilities become public for it would have a harmful effect. He then added, "Even the Vilna Gaon could have become greater had he not become publicly known while he was young."

We Have Abba Lodzer!

Reb Abba was born on Tu BeShevat 5679 (1919). His father, HaRav Shaul Yosef was rosh yeshivas Toras Chesed in Lodz. Reb Abba would say that in his parents' home "they breathed Torah" and that his father used to speak a lot about his own great teacher, HaRav Naftoli Trop zt'l .

When he was born, the young baby was already completely mohul. It was such a rare occurence that in all of Lodz, there was no mohel who knew what to do for the bris miloh. They had to bring in a special expert mohel from Warsaw.

When Rav Shimon Shkop's Shaarei Yosher appeared, Rav Shaul Yosef would spend much time studying it and he told his young son that he should go to Reb Shimon to learn. Later though, when he heard that the best minds were to be found in Mir yeshiva, he decided to send him there instead. Reb Abba learned with his father until he was fourteen and attributed his method of learning to his father's influence during those formative years.

Once he had missed cheder quite a few times, and a test was approaching. So he learned 72 dapim of Bovo Metzia in three days. There was at one point some uncertainty whether it was three days or three weeks, but talmidim said that it really did not make much difference — both are impossible for most young boys. In fact it really was three days.

Rav Shlomo Tenne zt'l, related that a month before Reb Abba's arrival in Mir, word went around the yeshiva that a gifted young scholar would be coming from Lodz who would shake up the entire yeshiva — which was what happened. When he came to Mir, Reb Abba knew by heart four of the masechtos commonly learned in the yeshivos. He knew them so thoroughly that if he was shown the last word of the gemora, or of Rashi, Tosafos or Rabbenu Chananel on a page, without being told which masechteh it was in he could repeat that entire daf.

His memory was phenomenal. He once commented that until the Shanghai period (during which he suffered a series of misfortunes, besides receiving the news that his entire family had been martyred), he didn't know what it was to forget anything.

As soon as he arrived, the talmidim in Mir nicknamed the young genius "Abba Einstein." The name stuck so well that HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt'l remarked to his chavrusa, "A bochur has arrived with such an interesting name . . . Einstein . . ."

The chavrusa informed him that it was not his real name. Rav Aryeh Finkel ylct'a related that Reb Chaim, acknowledging the comparison, used to say, "They have Einstein — but we have Abba Lodzer!"

A Godol Blossoms

Notwithstanding his exceptional gifts, Reb Abba toiled over his learning with all his strength. He testified that for years he was the first bochur to arrive in the beis hamedrash and the last to leave. A talmid once found the nerve to ask him what would have become of him without his extraordinary abilities.

After a short silence Reb Abba replied, "You should know that my legs burn like firebrands (he suffered from several leg conditions), and my digestive system hasn't worked properly since Shanghai — I suffer from pain in my entire body. Yet when I start learning I forget about everything because I'm completely absorbed in learning."

And that, the message was, has nothing to do with a gifted mind.

In Mir, Reb Abba grew close to the roshei yeshiva, who befriended him and lavished exceptional praises on him. Reb Yeruchom once organized a scheme to reinforce the learning in the yeshiva, with bochurim undertaking to learn for twelve or fourteen hours a day. The Mashgiach said, "If I had ten like Abba Lodzer I wouldn't need to do this at all!"

For his part R' Abba always regarded R' Yeruchom as one of his major influences in life. He used to say that he adapted the methods of analysis that R' Yeruchom used in his shmuessim into his own regular learning.

During the last year that HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel zt'l was in Mir, Reb Abba would spend several hours a week repeating his chaburos on seder Kodshim to him. HaRav Finkel commented that never in his life had he heard chaburos to rival Reb Abba's in either quantity or quality.

On Shavuos, the Mir Rosh Yeshiva delivered a shiur to the top talmidim on the topic of "a kometz from which part was lost between separation and offering up" (Menochos 9), the topic of one of Reb Abba's chaburos. Noticing Reb Abba he said, "Reb Abba, Reb Abba, I'm going to speak about your subject! (. . . veggen dein inyan)"

Similarly, when Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l noticed Reb Abba at a shmuess he was delivering on Shavuos he cried, "Reb Abba, this is your Yom Tov!"

A grandson of HaRav Avrohom Kalmanovitz zt'l, rosh yeshivas Mir in America, mentioned a letter in the family's possession from Reb Chatzkel in Shanghai to their grandfather, containing a reference to a godol beTorah who was learning in the yeshiva — Reb Abba.

When the yeshiva was exiled to Vilna at the beginning of the War, food was very tightly rationed. Reb Abba was placed in charge of the distribution because, renowned as he was for his sterling honesty and purity of character, it was clear that he would be scrupulously fair to all. Despite the inevitable pressures he dealt fairly with all and even refused to accept a small addition to his own portion, though it came at no one else's expense.

Eventually the yeshiva settled in Shanghai. He rose above all the travails — the harsh living conditions, the constant dangers, and the emotional turmoil — and immersed himself wholly in Torah. This was Torah learned "in wrath," with the fierce determination that can overcome all obstacles and his accomplishments were correspondingly astonishing.

A single winter zman during this period can serve as an example. In the mornings he covered most of maseches Kiddushin in depth and in the rest of the time he completed maseches Nozir, maseches Ohalos with the commentaries of the Rash and the Rambam and all of the Rambam's Hilchos Tumas Meis with thorough knowledge of all one hundred and five of the Raavad's objections.

Between sedorim he managed to obtain the only copy of Reb Chaim Soloveitchik's chiddushim on the Rambam that was in the yeshiva. Cutting down on the time he spent at meals, he toiled over Reb Chaim instead until he'd finished the entire sefer. Thereafter he saw himself as a talmid of Reb Chaim and modeled the way he learned upon Reb Chaim's approach.

HaRav Reuven Fein zt'l once related that Reb Abba was known in the yeshiva as the master of Reb Chaim's Torah; anyone who had any difficulty with anything in the sefer would consult him. HaRav Nochum Partzovitz zt'l learned together with Reb Abba in Shanghai and he recalled the "tiefe Torahs (profound Torah ideas)" that Reb Abba would propound.

The strain of his constant toil made him ill. The doctors he consulted sternly recommended a few weeks of rest, without any mental exertion whatsoever. During that time he taught himself four languages and physics, including Einstein's Theory of Relativity. The knowledge of physics that he displayed throughout his life was based upon those weeks of study.

A grandson once asked him how he managed to study Einstein if the doctors forbade him all studying. Reb Abba didn't understand the question — how could one imagine comparing plumbing the gemora's depths with studying another discipline?

Disseminating Torah in America

After the war, many of the Mirrer talmidim from Shanghai settled in the United States, among them Reb Abba. He was one of the founders of the Mirrer Yeshiva in New York, where he delivered regular chaburos to the outstanding talmidim.

He married in America. His rebbetzin belonged to the Greenberg family, one of the few that clung determinedly to Torah observance in the inhospitable spiritual climate that then prevailed.

Reb Abba's mother-in-law always prayed that her descendants should be great Torah scholars. She raised funds for Kamenitz Yeshiva and once asked HaRav Reuven Grozovsky zt'l to bless her with grandchildren who would be talmidei chachomim. He asked her, "Why don't you ask for sons-in- law who are talmidei chachomim?" to which she replied that that was something that she didn't dare ask for.

In fact she merited two sons-in-law from Mir as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are talmidei chachomim and outstanding bnei Torah.

Her daughter, Rebbetzin Berman tblct'a, studied in one of the first classes in Beis Yaakov in America. From an early age she prayed constantly for a husband who would be a great Torah scholar. After her sister married a talmid of Yeshivas Mir, America, she began inquiring as to who the best students in the yeshiva were. When she heard about Reb Abba she wanted to make inquiries about him but her brother- in- law dismissed the idea telling her, 'Ah, you won't manage to catch Reb Abba."

That was enough to convince her that he was a bochur of exactly the caliber she was seeking. She selflessly supported him throughout his life, devoting herself both to his own Torah study and to its dissemination.

Once he was married, Reb Abba began delivering regular shiurim in the yeshiva. His new talmidim were younger than those who had been hearing his chaburos, and he had to adjust his delivery to a more basic level of clarity so that they could understand him. In no way did he feel that this held him back. He said that he felt that he gained from it, because he had to organize everything so that it would be absolutely clear.

After serving as a maggid shiur in Mir for seven years, he opened his own yeshiva, Iyun HaTalmud. A short time later he brought the yeshiva to Eretz Yisroel and the Steipler zt'l became involved in ensuring that it had financial support. Distinguished talmidei chachomim from Bnei Brak would attend his shiurim, among them HaRav Gedaliah Nadel zt'l. A year later however, budgetary constraints forced Reb Abba to move the yeshiva back to America, where it at first occupied premises in Boro Park and later on, in Far Rockaway.

Back to Eretz Yisroel

One motzei Shabbos Reb Abba decided that he and his family had to move elsewhere. Their neighbor had bought a dog and its barking was disturbing his learning. What was the value of a home where one couldn't concentrate on learning?!

That very same night he found a house for sale at the end of the street and signed a contract on it without making any investigations.

Several months later the neighborhood began to be invaded by blacks and the yeshiva relocated to Monsey. Although the yeshiva had debts, Reb Abba refused to sell the houses in Far Rockaway to blacks. Every such sale brought the prices in the area down further and he felt that were he to sell, people would say that the rabbi was damaging his neighbors, causing chilul Hashem. He held on to the houses for another two years until he finally sold them to Jews at a loss.

After spending seven years in Monsey, Reb Abba decided to move the yeshiva back to Eretz Yisroel, this time permanently. The yeshiva opened its doors in Yerushalayim in Elul 5739. Leading scholars flocked to sit among his talmidim to hear his shiurim, with the Friday morning shiur keloli becoming especially well known and attracting talmidim from outside the yeshiva.

He moved the yeshiva to Kiryat Sefer seven years ago and during his last years he also served as rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Knesses Yitzchok of Chadera-Kiryat Sefer.

A Life Spent in Pursuit of the Truth

His method in learning was to seek depth in understanding and then continue probing for yet deeper levels of profundity, with clear, straight thinking. This occupied his entire life.

On a number of occasions he told his rebbetzin that when the Mirrer mashgiach Reb Yeruchom zt'l died from a brain hemorrhage, it was said in the yeshiva that the cause had been mental overexertion. Reb Abba also feared such an eventuality because he too taxed his mind continuously and when his time came it was indeed a brain hemorrhage that caused his death.

He often remarked that he didn't want to have an "ordinary" life in this world. He wanted, he said, to live life to the fullest, which one can only do through Torah. He merited retaining mental clarity and occupying himself with Torah until the very last day of his life.

On the of Iyar 5765 he was snatched away while fully engaged in his holy labor — preparing a shiur on Pesochim with which to open the new summer zman.

Torah study was the fabric of his life and the depth of his immersion therein was almost unimaginable. Rav Yosef Lis zt'l related that while learning in Yeshivas Mir he noticed how Reb Abba sat eating in the room where he lodged while completely wrapped up in the complexities of a sugya. Even after the plate was empty, Reb Abba continued putting the empty spoon into his mouth! (quoted in Hi Sichosi)

Rav Shlomo Brevda ylct'a, a talmid of Reb Abba's in America, relates that while walking in the street with his mind focused on learning, his rebbe would occasionally walk into a tree or other obstacle. To those who knew the Rosh Yeshiva, it is evident that it was not because he was an "absentminded professor" who could not free himself of his abstract thoughts. Rather the fact that he bumped into obstructions from time to time was probably the result of a deliberate choice: R' Abba probably decided that it was worth it to suffer an occasional bump in order to be able to devote all that additional time and intensity to Torah.

To walk around with his mind on learning was typical of Reb Abba. While engaged in one such walk he remarked that he had to deliver fourteen chaburos and shiurim over the coming week and a half.

His method of learning in depth was to examine the topic over and over again, while taking care to break his train of thought after a while. He would spend ten minutes thinking about a topic — and then switch to another one. His present walk therefore, on which he had fourteen topics to consider, took him over two hours. It was no problem for his powerful mind to change to an entirely new topic every ten minutes, in an orderly fashion. He would say that he composed his best pieces of Torah while walking in the street.

Family members relate that at times he might dwell on a particular idea for three whole days. He would often get out of bed in the middle of the night if he felt that an idea was insufficiently clear. He would pace up and down immersed in thought until he achieved clarity and only then would he lie down again.

His talmid HaRav Yeruchom Olshin, one of the roshei yeshiva of Lakewood, noted that Reb Abba's power and originality were by no means confined to the sedorim of Noshim and Nezikin that are commonly studied in yeshivos. He was forever developing new ideas and insights all over Shas.

Reb Abba himself once said that he'd composed chiddushim on every part of Shas, with two exceptions: part of maseches Keilim and the Rambam's calculations of kiddush hachodesh. He always regretted not having written down all of his chiddushim.

Though he learned in tremendous depth, the depth was not an end in itself; of primary importance was the quest for a genuine understanding of the topic. His goal was to correctly understand the comments of the Rishonim.

His Explanation of His Method

His explanation of how his method of learning led to attaining a fundamental understanding also showed how the Torah's profound wisdom differs from every other discipline.

He would point out that whoever studies Einstein's Theory of Relativity sees immediately that it is at variance with a simple understanding of how the world operates. For centuries, certain principles were accepted as fundamental — until Einstein came along and showed that they were based upon a mistaken understanding.

The truth is that Hakodosh Boruch Hu's world is not simple and its workings cannot be fully grasped. There is not even a small part of the universe that mankind has thoroughly investigated and understood. However, the moment that the underlying rules and principles that actually govern the world's operation are discerned, it becomes evident that the initial, simple understanding was flawed and that the very ideas that at first seemed strange and unusual are in fact the true ones.

Reb Abba would then continue, pointing out how everybody accepts that the laws governing worldly disciplines need not accord with what appears to make sense to the uninformed observer. In the case of Torah though, which is undoubtedly far deeper than any worldly knowledge, many people think that any deeper explanation must also fit their own simple ideas.

Chazal tell us that the entire world was created in six days, while Torah was given over a period of forty days. When one delves into the commentaries of the Rishonim and gains some understanding of the principles that govern the sugya, one experiences powerful illumination and sees that everything is in fact clear.

End of Part I

The Miracle that Cured the Stutter

When he was young Reb Abba suffered from a severe stutter. When he arrived in America with the other Mirrer bnei yeshiva, HaRav Avrohom Kalmanovitz zt'l applied to the Joint Distribution Committee on his behalf for assistance in treating the problem. Rav Kalmanovitz told them about the great young scholar who was also well-versed in physics (which he studied in the period that the doctors forbade him to learn Torah). The Joint agreed to sponsor a two-year course in speech therapy for Reb Abba.

The course did not significantly improve Reb Abba's speech. The Joint told him that with such a severe speech defect he would be unsuited to serve as a rabbi or rosh yeshiva and would remain without any means of support. They suggested that he graduate in physics and offered to pay for his studies. This would have given him a lucrative career with only a minimal input of time. With his powerful mind, he could have mastered the necessary studies quickly, leaving most of his day free for learning.

Reb Abba conceded that logic supported the Joint's viewpoint. All of his family had been murdered in Europe and he was completely on his own. His future prospects looked bleak indeed. Nonetheless, he only thought about the whole matter for a short time.

He asked himself: Is this what Hakodosh Boruch Hu gave me my abilities for? He also remembered the sacrifices that his father had made so that he should learn Torah and therefore resolved to remain in full time learning.

Several years later Reb Abba suffered from a back condition which caused him great pain. His doctor prescribed a medicine that did nothing to relieve the condition — but it did bring about a marked improvement in his stutter! He remarked that he had merited such a miracle because he hadn't succumbed to the temptation to become involved in science and had instead remained immersed in Torah.

Is Torah My Private Business Concern?

At one point, Reb Abba's yeshiva was in very dire financial straits. He approached several well-to-do individuals to try to elicit support for the yeshiva but his efforts met with no success. One morning he was under great pressure because a mortgage payment was due and he had no means of paying it. That evening he arrived home happy and relaxed. Seeing his good mood, his rebbetzin asked him whether he'd managed to meet the payments.

Reb Abba told her that wasn't the reason for his joy and he explained what had happened. There was another yeshiva on the same street as his. Earlier in the day the second yeshiva's directors had come to him and asked him to approach some wealthy donors on their yeshiva's behalf. "You are acquainted with the wealthy people," they told him. Reb Abba accepted the undertaking and visited several homes for their yeshiva. He had been successful and had collected a large sum for them. That was why he was so happy!

His rebbetzin listened and expressed her amazement. In approaching the donors on behalf of the other yeshiva he had done himself a disservice! Now they would donate even less to his yeshiva!

His response was "Dan iz Torah mein eigene gesheft? (Is Torah my private business concern?)"

Shiurim That Were Abstract, Deep — and Extremely Rigorous

by Mordecai Plaut

Usually when we think of first class lomdus we think of originality, brilliance, and creativity, but rigor is not always part of the picture. To be sure, there is no discipline—secular or sacred—that can boast results more solid than those of HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik in his chiddushim on the Rambam, but it is their novelty and insight that make the first and strongest impression on the reader, and not their rigor which is much harder to appreciate.

In fact, Rav Chaim's ideas were really developed from a deep appreciation and understanding of Torah that was borne of fantastic diligence, and not only or mainly from brilliant insight. Edison's famous pronouncement that genius is 1 percent inspiration but 99 percent perspiration was said from his understanding of the physical sciences, but it is kal vochomer true of limud Torah where omeil is crucial.

It is still easier to perceive the originality and brilliance of Rav Chaim than to appreciate the way his ideas integrate into the general context of Torah. To realize the brilliance of the ideas, it is only necessary to understand what Rav Chaim said. To appreciate the rigor and solidity of his innovations within the general framework of Torah, one must have a prior and independent knowledge of the framework of Torah itself. To grasp his ideas it is only necessary to work on his ideas for a few hours. To get a good overall grasp of Torah itself in order to fit in his innovations, is a work of years.

As soon as one began to hear the shiurim or R' Abba, he could see that they are creative and elegant—and that there is nothing that refutes them. Yet to appreciate how he ensured that what he said was true, took much longer. He was very careful with how he used words, and he gave precise definitions to terms that are commonly used without much thought to what they mean exactly.

Whatever was said on one masechta was fully integrated with the rest of Torah. Sometimes when one asked for a clarification about one of the points, the Rosh Yeshiva would say, "Wait until we learn masechta so-and-so, where those concepts are clarified." The ideas that he used to explain the material in one place were a part-and-parcel of the total store of concepts which he carried with him throughout Shas. This consistency and comprehensiveness of approach lend a further dimension to the sense of responsibility with which the Rosh Yeshiva constructed his shiurim. He knew that, regardless of the memory of his talmidim, he himself would have to live with each yesod throughout Shas.

When the Rosh Yeshiva said a shiur he did not set out to say only something that might be true. The Rosh Yeshiva always spoke from a firm conviction, based on his yegi'a beTorah over the years, that what he was saying was 100 percent true. As he once said to me (in a slightly different context), "If it were possible to be 110 percent true, it would be 110 percent true. But of course it is not possible to be more than 100 percent true."

For HaRav Abba Berman, truth was the goal that he set for himself. As the Ramban explains in his introduction to his Milchamos Hashem, .".. All who learn our Talmud know that there is not, in a machlokes between its expositors, conclusive proofs, nor, for the most part, absolute questions, ... " Nonetheless, the boldness of the goal, and the seriousness and responsibility with which it was pursued, have produced results that are clearly evident to any serious student of his work.

Rav Abba's personal goal in learning was truth. His goal in educating his talmidim was to teach them to think. He used to say that the biggest yetzer hora for laziness is to be too lazy to think. Thinking is hard work. People have to be educated to know how to do it, and they have to be inspired to do it with exertion — omeil.

In his shiurim, the Rosh Yeshiva often dealt with concepts others do not — perhaps in part to show his talmidim that they must think deeply about everything. In approaching a sugya, Rav Abba often asked and answered questions such as: What is the nature of the transaction between man and woman that results in marriage? Why is it called "kinyan"? How does it compare to other kinyonim such as hekdesh, buying material possessions, or avodim? In what ways is it similar and how is it different?

The shiur keloli was often constructed along classical lines: the Rosh Yeshiva would ask a number of questions and then carefully build up a conceptual framework that would answer them. But the talmidim did not only take away the yesodos that he developed. They were also developed in that they acquired skills in analysis and understanding ideas that they could later apply by themselves.

Dedication to Talmidim

by Mordecai Plaut

Although R' Abba was never blessed with masses of talmidim it can be said that he made up in quality what he lacked in quantity. This is true both of the quality of his talmidim and the quality of the Rosh Yeshiva's relationship with his talmidim.

Among the roshei yeshiva and marbitzei Torah of our generation, talmidim of R' Abba occupy a very respectable place, both in America and in Eretz Yisroel. He was self-consciously engaged in building talmidim, as is evident in the following story told by R' Meir Hertz of Lakewood.

When R' Meir was learning at the yeshiva, there was a bochur in whom the Rosh Yeshiva seemed to be investing a lot of effort. To Meir, that bochur seemed to be a baal ga'avah, and in view of that serious character flaw he did not understand why the Rosh Yeshiva was spending so much time on him.

He approached the Rosh Yeshiva and asked him about it.

The Rosh Yeshiva explained, "If you are building a house, it takes maybe six or eight months and then it is finished. You see exactly what it is. But when you are building a skyscraper, sometimes even after two years all you have to show is a pile of steel and concrete. It does not look like much for a long time. In this case, I am building a skyscraper."

R' Meir says that in subsequent years the career of that bochur as a prominent marbitz Torah bore testimony to R' Abba's efforts.

See the Truth

by Mordecai Plaut

HaRav Chaim Malinowitz recalled that the second seder of the yeshiva was spent reviewing the shiur of that day. They would spend hours thinking about and discussing a sevoroh that the Rosh Yeshiva had said. They would work at it until it was perfectly clear to them.

How clear did it have to be? The Rosh Yeshiva had also given guidance about that. He said that we have five bodily senses. We can talk about smell ("I smell a pshat"); we can talk about feeling that something is correct; sometimes we say that we can taste a sevoroh or that we hear what is being said. But, explained the Rosh Yeshiva, until you can actually say, "I see it," it is not clear enough to you. In fact, the Rosh Yeshiva taught his talmidim to actually visualize even an abstract sevoroh, until it was real to them.


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