Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Ellul 5766 - September 20, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Memories of HaRav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, the Steipler Rov, author of Kehillos Yaakov

Memoirs of Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz

Chapter Twenty-Eight

I would like to preface with the fact that it is altogether impossible to encompass the greatness of the gigantic spiritual stature of Maran, the Kehillos Yaakov ztvk'l. Neither is it my goal, in these chapters of my memoirs, to do so. I have come here to describe the impressions which were engraved upon me by the various gedolei Torah with whom I came in contact over the course of seventy years, and the practical life lessons which we can derive therefrom to carry over into our own lives.

"If He Renders Himself Like a Desert, He is Granted Torah as a Gift"

One of the outstanding lines of character which made Maran so unique was that he "rendered himself like a desert." He totally nullified himself, making himself completely subservient to Torah and its scholars.

"More Than the Calf Wishes to Drink, the Cow Wishes to Suckle"

My first connection with Maran was upon the occasion of my first visit by Maran the Chazon Ish in 5700 (1940), immediately after I moved to Eretz Yisroel. At that time I had a long talk with the Chazon Ish, which I discussed in my first chapter on this great man.

Upon conclusion, he said to me, "My brother-in-law, the Steipler, is outside. You will find it worthwhile talking with him `in learning.' There is a great deal to be gained from talking to him in Torah."

From that time on, whenever I visited the Chazon Ish in order to clarify pertinent questions regarding communal matters, I tried to take advantage of the occasion to discuss Torah subjects with Maran the Steipler as well. It is superfluous to note that it was exactly as the Chazon Ish had promised: every conversation with the Kehillos Yaakov contributed worlds to help me understand a particular subject and to learn a clear-cut, straightforward approach to it.

Maran's name had already spread throughout the Torah world, even before the Holocaust. Even then, the Chazon Ish predicted that he would become "the R' Akiva Eiger of our generation." It is very understandable then, why the Chazon Ish did his best to gain him as a husband for his younger sister.

Maran the Steipler fulfilled the words of R' Akiva, "More than the calf wishes to drink, the cow wishes to suckle." He was eager to discuss chiddushei Torah with any and every one who came seeking to learn from this great master. He had a strong desire to train Torah students to study in depth and with a straightforward, unconvoluted approach. To this end, Maran invested much effort and labor in writing his works, placing special emphasis on clarity and cogency so that every Torah student could derive the most benefit from them.

Maran did not refrain from speaking in learning with young children and answering their questions. On one occasion when a young child came to him with a question, he first said, "Right now, I don't have the strength."

He immediately regretted his words and said aloud, "But I must encourage a child who comes to me with his questions. The very fact that he talks to me in divrei Torah will give him confidence and strengthen him to keep on learning. Also, the fact that he can boast that he asked the Steipler a question and the Steipler answered it will encourage him in his studies."

Boundless Patience

I myself was witness to the following: I was studying the subject of melochos on Shabbos and had clarified certain things which I wrote down for myself. I then went to the Steipler to further understand other things relating to the matter. Without realizing it, I spent over an hour and a half by him, engrossed in study. Maran explained everything with great patience, even up to the end of the session, as if we had just begun.

I apologized that I found it difficult to continue discussing the subject with him verbally since, as is well- known, Maran was hard of hearing and one had to talk very loudly for him to understand. Since it must surely have been very difficult for him, on his part, to strain himself to listen for a period of an hour and a half, I suggested that I put my questions in writing so that he could review it. Maran agreed.

The notes I produced were very lengthy, but Maran read them through from beginning to end and wrote his comments in the margin. Indeed, later these notes were published as a booklet bearing the name, "Milu'ei Shlomo," complete with the Steipler's comments and chiddushim.

I myself was surprised that Maran granted me so much of his time, both orally and in reviewing my writing. I ascribed this to his great love for Torah and his desire to encourage a person like myself, who is not a full-time scholar. But mainly to his limitless humility and self effacement, which was known to all.

Mesirus Nefesh for the Yeshiva Students

Maran's deep esteem and devotion for every Torah student was incredible. R' Shaul Katzberg z'l, who studied in Yeshivas Beis Yosef in Bnei Brak in 5696-7 (1937), where Maran served as a rosh yeshiva, told the following story:

"The financial situation of the yeshiva became critical at one point and for two days there was nothing to eat, not even stale bread. After two days, along came a philanthropist who had heard of the dire situation, and he donated bread for the yeshiva.

"Understandably, the first one to be served bread was Maran. However, he refused to take a portion, arguing that the donor had certainly intended that the bread go to the yeshiva students. The Rosh Yeshiva could only be eligible by virtue of his students. The bread must first be distributed among the students, he directed, and if any remained then he could also get a portion . . . "

A Ben Torah is Kodesh Kodoshim

Maran was asked by the founders of Moreshes Ovos, an organization established after the Six Day War for kiruv purposes among those secular people who had been aroused by the many miracles witnessed then, if it were proper to mobilize kollel students in their outreach efforts.

Maran replied, "How can you conceive of removing them from their study? It was in their very merit that all those miracles took place to begin with!" (In the name of R' A. Y. Wolf zt'l in the work, Rabboseinu)

Still, Maran would warn that together with study, one should not ignore or neglect one's duties towards a fellow Jew, and especially towards one's wife. This was his reply when asked by a very industrious Torah student if helping his wife was considered bitul Torah. Maran replied, "One must surely be careful not to overstep the bounds of bitul Torah, and one must surely limit it to the barest minimum. But on the other hand, he should be aware that a wife is not a slave."

And he repeated his words, "Your wife is not your slave!"

HaRav Mordechai Shulsinger asked Maran why some promising Torah students, who are truly outstanding as scholars, are not always successful in their marriages. Maran gave his famous reply, "These young men are accustomed to studying with their shtenders. A shtender does not react; it does not have a will of its own, nor feelings and needs. A shtender does not demand any consideration. So it is no wonder that their relation to their shtender poses no problem.

"A wife, on the other hand, has needs, feelings and thoughts. One must take them into consideration and not treat a wife like a hunk of wood . . . "

"Better Get His Punishment in this World"

We have already touched upon the amazing clarity which characterize his works. This lucidity was equally outstanding in his world hashkofoh and his daas Torah. In every matter that he was asked, he always presented a reply that was comprehensive, clear, firm and very solid, even when it might seem to be somewhat unconventional.

HaRav Binyomin Mendelson zt'l, rabbi of Kommemiyus, once approached me regarding a certain Jew who had committed some offense. He had been brought to trial and sentenced to a year's suspended imprisonment. He again committed the same offense and was again brought to trial.

R' Mendelson said he knew this man and that he was `one of ours,' a father to many children. We were duty-bound to help him avoid actual incarceration out of concern for the family and also because imprisonment under the same roof with out- and-out criminals would be detrimental to him in every way. The rov asked me to appear at his trial as a character reference, as is customary, since such testimony carries considerable weight if brought by a recognized public figure, and helps to mitigate a sentence.

I told the rabbi of Kommemiyus that I would surely consider his request for, as he already knew, I was always ready to do whatever he asked of me. In this instance however I feared that if I asked for leniency in the sentence, this would be publicized and it would turn out to be a chillul Hashem. It would be construed that I, as representative of the chareidi public, was condoning the sin of one of our community and was even aiding and abetting him. This is how it appeared to me, and I said as much. I added that in any case, I would have to consult with a godol hador and receive his permission.

The rabbi of Kommemiyus asked me whom I intended to ask; I replied that I would surely choose the Steipler and he agreed, adding that he suggested posing the question to the Vishnitzer Rebbe, R' Chaim Meir Hager zt'l, as well. I said I would do so but I would have to tell each one that I was asking the other too, for we have a rule that one does not generally ask the same question of two great men without their agreement.

I went to the Steipler, told him the story, and conveyed the request of R' Mendelson that I testify as a character witness on behalf of the accused. He immediately shouted, "A Jew who sinned and sinned again should rather be punished in this world than in the World to Come!"

Here he began describing to me the difference between a punishment meted to a person in this world, which is relatively easy, as compared to one sentenced by the Heavenly tribunal and served in the Hereafter. He said, "If you free him from imprisonment, he will stumble again and again! Far better that he suffer his punishment and perhaps learn to control himself. Furthermore, if you appear in public on his behalf, you can be sure that all of the secular papers and media will publicize the fact and this will be, as you feared, a source of chillul Hashem."

I told Maran that on the request of the rabbi of Kommemiyus, I would like to pose the same question to the Vishnitzer Rebbe. Maran agreed that I go and ask him as well.

When I came to the Rebbe, I told him what the Steipler had said to me. He said, "The Steipler is certainly correct in every word he uttered. I concur with it perfectly and wholeheartedly. But there is the element of lifnim mishuras hadin, extra leniency beyond the letter of the law. A Jew must also be compassionate. In my opinion, there should be allowances to show mercy to his wife and children. There is one thing that I find difficult, the matter of chillul Hashem which the Steipler mentioned. But I rely on you to find the proper way to avoid desecrating Hashem's Name."

I told the Rebbe that I must return to the Steipler, report what he had said, and come to a definitive conclusion as to what to do.

Maran heard my verbatim report of what the Vishnitzer Rebbe had said; he sighed deeply and said, "Go and do what the Rebbe said, despite the fact that I think it is wrong, and it is not the right thing for this person. But you must do it on condition that it receive no publicity, so as not to cause any chillul Hashem, G-d forbid."

Having heard both sides, I contacted the judge who was presiding over this case and told him that I would like to meet with him privately. I emphasized that I knew this was not the accepted manner, but I could not allow myself to appear in public in this case. I had strict instructions from our gedolei hador to avoid any chillul Hashem by being associated with this case.

The judge said that while it was, truly, an unconventional request, since he knew me well he would make the exception and he agreed to see me for a private session.

At that meeting, I conveyed to him what Maran had said, as well as what the Vishnitzer Rebbe had suggested. I pleaded that he be lenient with the defendant and not sentence him to an actual punishment but to a suspended sentence. The judge replied that even if he wanted to comply, it would be impossible since the law stipulated that once a person committed a crime, was given a suspended sentence and then committed the same crime, he would have to serve his time and even have it extended.

Then the judge added, "Does it not seem logical that, as the Steipler Rov said, if this man does not undergo a punishment, he will persist in his evil ways? How then, can I allow such a man to circulate in public?"

I replied to his second argument, quoting the Rov of Kommemiyus, that the rabbis would already punish him in the way that was the norm in such situations, ordering him to fast forty days and so on. In his opinion, it would help more than actual imprisonment alongside hardened criminals. The judge said that even if he accepted that solution, what could he do regarding the law?

I replied that I was not a judge and had no knowledge of legal affairs so that I could not advise him in that area, but I trusted him that if he was convinced of the justice of our solution, he would find some legal loophole to reconcile his decision with the law. And on this note, we parted.

"A wise man is preferable to a prophet."

In the end, the judge did, in fact, find a way to avoid imprisoning him. He simply increased the term of his suspended sentence. I truly don't know how he was able to get away without complying with the law and actually putting this man behind bars. But as ill luck would have it, the man could not resist temptation, committed the same sin/crime, just as Maran had predicted, and this time, he was forced to serve his sentence. That man ended his life in jail . . .

I have brought this story in full detail which is not my usual custom, because I see in the development of events a very important lesson. It serves especially to strengthen one's emunas chachomim. It is an important opportunity to see our leaders' far reaching wisdom and deep understanding, as well as the highly developed sense of compassion of our gedolei Torah.

Traffic Offenses Are Terrible Crimes

Similar to the above story is the one that took place with a driver who was summoned to court for a traffic offense and went to the Steipler beforehand to receive a blessing. The driver told him that he had been driving very fast, at 140 kph instead of the required speed limit of 80 kph.

Maran shouted at him, "Rosho! Don't you know that you are endangering lives?" He refused to give him his blessing.

In Our Permissive Society, One Should Not Let Women Visit Other Homes

In the Yom Kippur War, many heads of families were drafted on Yom Kippur itself, leaving their families without a source of livelihood. My wife o"h suggested that women of the N'shei Agudath Israel visit these homes and see to it that the families were provided with whatever they lacked.

Even though I saw nothing questionable about this humanitarian gesture, as was my custom I went to ask the gedolei hador, as I always did before taking any action even it appeared to me as if nothing negative was involved. This time, I went to the Steipler in my wife's name and told him of the initiative. Maran gave me his blessing and said that this sounded like a good idea.

As soon as I arrived home however, we received a visit from the Steipler's daughter, Rebbetzin Barsam, who bore a letter from her father. He wrote: "I thought about the idea and regretted having endorsed it. I really wanted to come in person to tell you of my decision and the reason behind it, but I am suffering from weakness and cannot come. I have, therefore, sent this letter via my daughter."

I went to Maran at once and asked him why he harbored second thoughts on the matter. What was negative about the idea of going to homes and trying to provide necessary help to needy families?

"I was reminded about the sad moral deterioration of our generation and have decided that we cannot permit the women of our community to visit strange homes."

I was surprised. We were talking about mature married women like my wife and her friends; we were talking about visiting chareidi homes!

But Maran declared emphatically, "You are not familiar with the terrible depravity that has invaded even some of the homes of our own camp. In such matters, we are obligated to be very stringent and machmir to the utmost. One who values his soul will distance himself from this and the blessing will come from not carrying out this initiative, even though I endorsed it to begin with."

Even in His Final Illness, He Was Wholly Halochoh

When Maran fell ill with his final illness, he refused to consult doctors. Even when a famous specialist was summoned for him especially from London, when he arrived Maran refused to be examined by him. At this point, Maran fell silent and deeply introspective and became oblivious to everything surrounding him.

When I visited him, I turned to him and, without pinning much hope on the success of my request, said to him that I knew a Professor Rachmilevitch from Jerusalem. The Brisker Rov, R' Yitzchok Zev, had testified that he was a specialist, and I asked if he would agree to see him if I brought him. The Steipler opened his eyes with the clarity of former times and replied, "Yes, I agree. Bring him."

When I came accompanied by Professor Rachmilevitch, Maran addressed him, "Do whatever must be done. Examine me as you would any patient; everything is permitted."

The specialist gave Maran a very thorough examination and when he was finished, he went outside and said to the gathering of people awaiting his pronouncement.

"I do not see that there is anything that we can do for him," he said.

The members of the household and the gedolei Torah who had gathered, were very surprised. They began arguing among themselves.

"What has caused the change?" they asked, "Why is it that up until now, Maran adamantly refused to let anyone examine him or even touch his little finger? And now he has permitted the doctor to make a thorough examination and allowed him to do whatever is necessary?"

They continued to wonder about this and no one was able to solve the enigma.

I thought about it and then said to myself, "Maran knew (as Professor Rachmilevitch later testified) that his end was nigh and that there was nothing that the doctors could do at that point. But since Maran was wholly and purely a man of halochoh, when he heard from me that the Brisker Rov had determined that Professor Rachmilevitch was a specialist in his field, he arrived at the halachic conclusion that he must permit himself to be examined."

I offered my conjecture to the gedolei hador who were then present and my words were accepted as plausible and probable.


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