Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Nisan 5766 - April 4, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








He Was a Father — A Conversation with HaRav Reuven Feinstein

by Rav Refoel Berlson

Twenty years after the passing of Maran HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt"l, author of Igros Moshe and one of the greatest poskim of recent generations, we asked his son, HaRav Reuven Feinstein, to share some of his memories and to tell us what was special about Reb Moshe's approach to halachic rulings.

What distinguishes the approach to halachic ruling in Igros Moshe?

HaRav Reuven Feinstein: "His approach was to extract the halochoh only after great omol in the sugyos of the gemora and the shittos of the Rishonim. The halochoh would emerge on its own through iyun. He didn't gather different halachic shittos but dug down to the foundations and from there drew forth the halochoh lema'aseh. This genius is reminiscent of the genius of HaRav Dovid Karliner zt"l.

"Father zt"l greatly admired HaRav Dovid Karliner. On one occasion, the President of Israel was staying in the US on an official visit and Father went to speak with him regarding the decree to draft women [into the IDF] in Eretz Yisroel. I joined him, but I wasn't present at the meeting itself. When the meeting ended Father told me the `Nosi' had shown him great respect. When he asked where he acquired this respect for rabbonim, he said he once saw HaRav Dovid Karliner zt"l and that brought him to admire rabbonim. Father said, `Indeed, if he saw R' Dovid Karliner, it comes as no surprise that 50 years later he stills admires rabbonim.'

"As I said, Father's approach was not one of gathering shittos. The act of gathering itself sometimes raises doubts. Father dug until he found the foundation of the halochoh. Few people can rule on questions for which no similar case is found in the seforim."


Reb Moshe's genius is beyond dispute. He is considered the quintessential example of a gaon from recent generations. His breadth of knowledge was astonishing. In the summer of 5729 (1969) the world held its breath as astronaut Neal Armstrong set foot on the moon. Millions of people debated whether signs of life would be found.

To Reb Moshe the answer was clear. "They won't find anything," he said unequivocally.

How could he know what took place on the moon? "Chazal make no hint of [life on the moon]," he stated flatly. Every word of Chazal was etched in his mind clearly.

This mastery was preceded by fabulous and uncommon hasmodoh. Every Shabbos he would learn all of maseches Shabbos and one visitor recounts being present when he completed the maseches for the thousandth time. Every day he would review 50 blatt of gemora. One of the leading rabbonim in the US recalled being on hand when he finished learning the Shulchan Oruch for the 700th time. One day Reb Moshe took out a bottle of wine and some mezonos, saying he had a simchah. His family members extracted from him that he had finished Shas 101 times — for the second time!

His power of perception was also amazing. "Once my nephew was walking with him in an area of tall buildings," says HaRav Reuven. "The nephew pointed out the soaring building to him. Father looked at the buildings saying, `Very nice, 20 stories. Look, that one's 50 stories,' and kept walking along, counting the number of floors at a glance!"

How did his rare genius mix with his rare humility?

"Moshe Rabbenu knew he was passing on the Torah and he was the most humble man on earth. The same is true of Yaakov Ovinu, the chosen one among the Ovos, the founder of the Twelve Tribes. On the words "kotonti" (Bereishis 32:11) he would say, "A man must know who he is, otherwise he won't do what he is supposed to do. But on the other hand, a person must know how far his level of obligation extends. Even if you have done a lot, you don't know whether you have fulfilled your personal obligation.

"The gemora says that Rav Yosef the son of Rebbe Yehoshua got sick and his soul nearly departed. When he recuperated his father asked him what he had seen. `Those on top [in This World] were on the bottom, and those on the bottom were on top.' You saw the world as it really is, his father replied (Pesochim 50b). People ask: We are ma'aminim, and it is obvious to us that in Heaven one's actions are weighed the opposite of how they are weighed in This World. So what is the chiddush?

"However, although this general principle is clear, we have no way of gauging what is demanded of a person relative to the results he actually obtains. The chiddush of Rav Yosef was that those on top can be on the bottom, i.e. even if someone is considered on top in This World in terms of ruchniyus, in Heaven he may have to answer for the dargos he could have reached — and didn't. On the other hand those on the bottom can be on top, i.e. someone who was not considered to be on a high spiritual plane in This World but did the maximum according to who he was, will be on top although here he was on the bottom."

Reb Moshe's humility affected everyone who laid eyes on him. "He held one could learn mussar from the way a Jew conducted himself," says HaRav Reuven. "Uvi'arto horo — mikirbecho means others will learn how to behave from the example you set, that is from what is within you, and this will root out the evil. His personage radiated morality and at our yeshiva his influence permeates the very walls of the beis medrash to this day. Avreichim under the age of 35 did not learn under him, but the older men pass on to the younger men what they saw with their own eyes. And boruch Hashem the students at the yeshiva are known for their good middos, their refinement and their ability to help others without feeling ga'avoh as a result. There are talmidim who, boruch Hashem, know many gemoras by heart and when they meet other people they do not boast about their Torah knowledge.

"A rosh yeshiva once came to speak with Father. In the middle of their conversation, a woman rushed in saying someone was trying to kill her. Father listened to her tragic story and I realized right away that it was an imagined story by a woman who was mentally unsound. Father kept listening and listening, but I could tell he was busy with something. Perhaps he was learning mishnayos by heart. It took her about two hours to finish her story and later Father explained that to listen to her was a great chessed."

The essence of the story is chessed, but without humility it could not have taken place.

A talmid once asked Reb Moshe how he attained such a level of humility. "I worked on this middoh for 36 years," he replied. Nevertheless, in Igros Moshe, one can find strong language attesting to the storm winds raging inside him as he wrote.

"When was a question of uprooting halochoh, he expressed himself in stark terms and without bias. Once there was a din Torah between two brothers from a reputable family. When Father ruled against one of the sides, he refused to accept the ruling. The man's wife came to Father's room with all of her children and tried to stir his pity to prevent him from writing a ksav siruv, which would harm all of the children. `That's what will happen!' said Father. `There is only one option: accept the judgment!'"


"Although I cannot render a final decision on how to conduct oneself in any matter discussed by our rabbonim," wrote Reb Moshe, "there are certain matters in which one cannot fulfill all of the shittos and one must provide answers to those who inquire, and do not know who to else to turn to . . . The chachomim of this generation have the authority, and an obligation as well, to make practical rulings as they see fit after toiling to clarify the halochoh in the Shas and poskim in accordance with their energy, with a clear head and fear of Hashem Yisborach" (Igros Moshe O.C. Vol. 4, 11).

"The greatest thing I saw in Father," recalls HaRav Reuven, "was how he would write halachic responsa over the course of ten hours straight without tiring. He remembered everything by heart, and when he had to refer to a book he would walk over [to the bookshelf] take the book and read in it standing up for about one minute. When someone came into the room with a question he would stop writing and make himself available. The conversation might last for five minutes, ten minutes or even an hour, but as soon as the conversation was over he would resume writing immediately from the place where he had stopped. Most people have to stop and concentrate before continuing with what they were writing, but not Father.

"Father didn't like chumros," says HaRav Reuven. When someone claimed he was too lenient in his ruling he would retort, "What do you mean by `meikel?' I learned the sugya in depth and this is how I brought forth the halochoh lema'aseh. Should I lie to myself and rule lechumro when the halochoh is lekuloh? Then in this case I would be guilty of misrepresenting the halochoh — megaleh ponim beTorah shelo kehalochoh!"

On one occasion somebody pointed out his ruling contradicted the opinion of R' Akiva Eiger zt"l. "I know," he replied, "and in the World of Truth I intend to continue to dispute him on this point!"


Reb Moshe was like the father of the Jewish people. Many anecdotes describe the warmth he showed toward every Jew. Nevertheless can you tell us something about Reb Moshe as a father?

"He was a very good father. When I was a boy he . . . would play with me. When we lived on the Lower East Side we had an icebox rather than a refrigerator. When I was three we left the Lower East Side and in the new apartment we had a gas refrigerator much like today's electric refrigerators. One day I came home and found Father lying on the floor on sheets of paper. I walked over to him quickly and saw he was checking something under the refrigerator. He asked me to lie next to him, explaining he was checking how the refrigerator worked in order to decide about its use on Shabbos. At the age of three I couldn't understand much but I won't forget how he shared his doubts with me and in the end together we decided there was no problem using the refrigerator.

"Later I came to realize how Father made every effort to see to it that I received ahavas Torah, making sure there was no situation in matters of keeping Torah and mitzvas that would cause me to feel the opposite, choliloh. At the age of six we were on vacation near a cattle ranch. Every morning he learned with me at a fixed time and only afterwards was I allowed to go watch the cows. One day I would have missed something interesting because of our learning session and he let me stop in the middle. He worried that if I stayed and learned it could create negative associations toward learning, choliloh. I went and when I came back we continued to learn.

"I remember that in the winter, Father would warm my clothes before he put them on me. This was at 6:00 in the morning. Once they were warm he would dress me under the blankets so I wouldn't feel the cold. Why did he go through all this trouble? Years later I realized he wanted to take away the I'm-cold excuse. He did all he could so nothing would prevent me from wanting to go and learn."

Can you tell us more about Torah and his approach to learning?

"Father said that when he was seven he played chess [reportedly by this time he already knew Bovo Kammo, Bovo Metzia and Bovo Basra] but he stopped right away when he saw how much time and focus went into it at the expense of Torah study. Father was careful not to lean against the back of the chair, saying it took away energy that could be invested in Torah learning. That's the reason why there are no shtenders at the yeshiva — so the lomdim don't lean and are focused on their learning.

"His shiurim were always new. He didn't repeat the shiurim from the previous cycle. In his shiurim he would ask simple kushiyos other people were afraid to ask. In his seforim you can also see simple questions are presented, but they are important questions because in the terutzim important points are raised. Another point is that Father held that in Ma'ariv the verses said in chutz la'Aretz (Boruch Hashem le'olom . . . ) should not be said because it creates a hefsek between geulah and tefilloh, yet in the yeshiva he issued instructions to say the verses because a yeshiva is maintained for Am Yisroel and not as a private institution."

What was his daily schedule while on vacation?

"He would drive to the mountains to rest and there he would always sit and write responsa. Efforts were made to keep his vacation spot unknown to the public, but it didn't help . . . Questions regarding Klal Yisroel of course continued to come to him during this period, but individuals also managed to come in and pose their questions.

"Once a certain Jew decided to keep track of Father's daily schedule while he was a guest at someone's home. At 2:00 am he noticed that Father got up to learn. Four hours later, at 6:00 am, a little girl came into the room. The man was astonished to see how he played ball with her for a while . . . Unable to contain himself, he asked Father why he felt it necessary to play with the ball. Father explained to him that until his arrival the girl had received a lot of attention. But the moment the guest arrived all of the attention was shifted to him. `I don't want her to hate rabbonim,' he explained."

Did he ever explain why he stood perfectly still during Shemoneh Esrei?

"While still in Russia he was jailed and once they made him stand in front of a group of soldiers. He said this taught him what it means to `stand before the King.' Therefore his practice was not to move during Shemoneh Esrei."

How many hours a day did he devote to sleeping?

"On Thursday night he would get up at 2:00 o'clock and on other nights at 4:00 o'clock. In the afternoon he would rest because he suffered from a medical problem and a doctor told him he had to rest. On average he would sleep five hours a day. This hanhogoh is not suitable for everyone. When people ask me if they can cut down their sleeping time I tell them to sleep five minutes less and note whether it does any harm. If not one can continue to reduce his sleeping time, but he should keep noting how it affects him."

What were the Shabbos meals like in his presence?

"The seudas were packed with divrei Torah and there was something special: Father didn't prepare a dvar Torah for the table. Rather he constantly talked about his limud. It wasn't planned out — "Now it's time to say a dvar Torah" — but divrei Torah were part and parcel of the seudah. Every topic mentioned at the table eventually led to divrei Torah. Father would recite the zemiros more than sing them. He didn't sing on key but the melodious way he would recite them was heart- stirring."

In response to one question HaRav Reuven said, "That's hard for me to answer. For me Father was Father. I didn't keep track of his conduct the way many people keep track of the hanhogos of an odom godol. Nevertheless at home we treated him with the respect due to an odom godol. When I started speaking to him in a more formal manner, in the third person, he asked me to address him directly. I said that even when a father forgoes his honor it is still a mitzvah, and he agreed."

Reb Moshe's Cheshbon Nefesh

HaRav Reuven Feinstein recalls: "Father had a heart attack in the middle of the Shabbos Hagodol droshoh. ["I felt as if my heart was being held with tongs and taken out of its place," Reb Moshe would later say.] Despite the pain he continued delivering the droshoh. When he arrived at the hospital it was decided to implant a pacemaker. They told him there was a top cardiologist who was on vacation and he should wait for him to return, but Father held there was no need to wait for the senior cardiologist, saying that HaKodosh Boruch Hu heals the sick. However since everyone asked him to wait for the expert, he agreed. In the end the senior cardiologist was the one who implanted the pacemaker and a week later it was found that the treatment had failed and would have to be performed again.

"Father immersed himself in a penetrating cheshbon nefesh, wondering why these yissurim were visiting him. Why had something akin to a chiyuv missoh been decreed against him? He searched through his past until he arrived at the conclusion that once when he was a boy the rebbe once asked a tough kushiyoh. His friend made a reply whereas Father made a different reply. The rebbe preferred Father's answer over that of his friend. Father thought he may have felt pleased at the time, and if so this was a sort of halbonas ponim of his friend! Mother heard his explanation but said no, the punishment was because of us since we had pressured him to wait for the big expert as if the cure were not in the hands of HaKodosh Boruch Hu."

Anecdotes Told by Reb Moshe's Nephew, HaRav Michel Feinstein zt"l

After the Communist Revolution in Russia the Bolsheviks fortified their rule in all of the cities of Russia and Byelorussia while the Yevsektsia boosted its efforts to uproot Judaism on every front. As part of their persecution of rabbonim, they evicted Reb Moshe and his family from their apartment. With no other option, they moved into a side room at the shul. Living in extreme conditions in one room with a dirt floor, Reb Moshe sat and learned for nine years with great hasmodoh, writing his chiddushim continuously.

At Yeshivas Tiferes Yerushalayim in New York (on the Lower East Side) on the night of Simchas Torah one of the shamoshim would go from one person to the next making a Mi Sheberach for each individual. The practice was considered degrading to the beis knesses and someone tried to put a stop to the custom. When Reb Moshe sensed what was happening he objected staunchly, saying the shamash gets a bit of money from every Mi Sheberach and by stopping him they would be depriving him of his income, choliloh.

Reb Moshe had great power in rendering halachic rulings, even from the Tanach. Once, during the campaign against autopsies, the late R' Chaim Ozer Sheinfeld, who was active in attending to public affairs lesheim Shomayim, found a sack of desecrated organs in the refuse section of Beilinson Hospital. He went to HaRav Michel Feinstein to ask whether the dead must be buried immediately or whether the burial could wait for a few days until a large demonstration could be organized to protest the doctors' conduct, which would have a greater impact on the public and help in the campaign against autopsies.

HaRav Michel referred R' Sheinfeld to his uncle, Reb Moshe, who gave a psak based on the incident of Pilegesh beGivoh involving the concubine whose corpse was cut up into twelve parts and sent through Eretz Yisroel to make an impression on the Jewish people and bring the perpetrators and accomplices to justice (Shofetim 19:29). From this we can learn it is permitted to delay the burial in order to make an impression on the public to cancel the decree. The only question is whether the man was an upstanding Jew whose deeds can serve as an example.

Reb Moshe stood at the watch to protect the sanctity of Shabbos. He battled fiercely against proposals to set up an eruv in New York. He felt that now that everyone knew carrying in the public domain is a Torah prohibition, if an eruv was set up it would be perceived to be less serious and once again the masses would start carrying, even in places where an eruv could not be made.

On a visit to Eretz Yisroel Reb Moshe was a Shabbos guest at HaRav Michel's home in Tel Aviv. After the seudah HaRav Michel walked Reb Moshe to the hotel where he was staying, which had a Shabbos elevator. "We didn't permit this!" said Reb Moshe.

(These anecdotes where said when the gravestone for Reb Moshe zt"l was erected on 7 Menachem Av 5746 (1986) at the request of HaRav Michel zt"l by his son, HaRav Chaim ylct"a.


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