Heavy mourning descended on Beis Yisroel with the histalkus Monday evening of HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz zt"l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ponovezh Letzei'irim and a member of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. Among the generation's preeminent roshei yeshiva and leaders of chareidi Yiddishkeit, he imparted Torah, yir'oh and Mussar passed onto him from gedolei Torah of previous generations to thousands of students over the course of seven decades.
HaRav Lefkowitz was also widely known for his exceptional writings: Minchas Yehuda on the Shas and Emek Hashaar on Rav Hai Gaon's Sefer Hamekach Vehamemkar, as well as seforim on hashkofoh and chinuch.
Since his first position at Yeshivas Tiferes Tzion he has taught Torah and yir'oh continuously for seven decades, including 60 years at Yeshivas Ponovezh Letzei'irim, which the Ponevezher Rav zt"l asked him to head the yeshiva together with HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman ylct"a.
To his thousands of talmidim HaRav Lefkowitz' shiurim stood out for the clarity and analysis. He illuminated sugyos with the teachings he received from his own rabbonim — HaRav Shlomo Heiman, HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer, HaRav Leib Chasman and HaRav Yechezkel Sarna zt"l.
HaRav Lefkowitz' health was in decline during the past several months. The country's top physicians treated his illness and prayers were said in many botei medrash. Despite the pain and suffering, he continued his learning throughout this period.
Last week, based on his doctor's advice, he went to Jerusalem for some rest, but during the afternoon hours of Shabbos Parshas Korach, he lost consciousness. Rescue workers resuscitated him and brought him to Shaarei Tzedek Medical Center.
After Shabbos word of his poor condition spread quickly. Ponovezh Letzei'irim students and alumni gathered to plead with Heaven for his recuperation. Monday afternoon his state deteriorated. His sons, grandsons and close talmidim gathered at his bedside, where they recited Viddui, Kabbolas Ol Malchus Shomayim and Shema Yisroel, and at 8:20 p.m. he returned his pure soul to his Maker.
Maran HaRav Yosef Sholom Eliashiv arrived at Shaarei Tzedek to accompany the mittoh as it set out for Bnei Brak. The levaya began late Tuesday morning at Yeshivas Ponovezh Letzei'irim.
After the petiroh his will to his descendants and talmidim was opened. He asked not to have titles such as "gaon" or "tzaddik" added to his name. He also asked that only his two sons deliver hespeidim so as not to impose on those who came to the levaya and that his mittoh be placed near the yeshiva but not inside.
Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz was born in Volozhin 97 years ago. The story of his birth was well-known in those days. His mother, Chaya, had been an agunoh for a long time who was eventually released and then decided to build a family with a man of exceptional yiras Shomayim. She married Rav Moshe Dovid, a 70-year-old widower, and gave birth to a son and daughter.
Their home in Volozhin was known for hachnosas orchim, including Jewish soldiers in need of kosher food. Rav Moshe Dovid spent two-thirds of his salary on special tutors for his son. Even before his bar mitzvah he was sent to the yeshiva ketanoh in Lida. When his 13th birthday arrived, his mother sent a cake, but it arrived only after he had celebrated with other yeshiva members.
Due to eye problems he went to Vilna to consult with doctors and decided to enroll at Yeshivas Ramailles, where he absorbed Torah and Mussar from HaRav Shlomo Heiman, who recognized the young man's great promise, grooming him for a bright future in the Torah and yeshiva world. HaRav Heiman eventually moved to Brooklyn and became rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas.
After three years he returned to his parents' home in Volozhin, where his father passed away. In 5696 (1936) he moved to Eretz Yisroel with his mother and sister, carrying letters of recommendation from his rov and HaRav Chaim Ozer which he presented to the roshei yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron. HaRav Ozer had warned him that at Jaffa Port he would be met by Zionists trying to persuade him to join them. "Don't speak a word to them," he told the young man. "Go straight to Yeshivas Chevron."
Michel Yehuda followed his instructions. At Yeshivas Chevron in Jerusalem he studied under HaRav Yechezkel Sarna, HaRav Aharon Cohen and HaRav Leib Chasman zt"l. He cleaved to HaRav Chasman most of all, later keeping his yahrtzeit throughout his lifetime.
Following instructions from HaRav Chaim Ozer, he learned once a week with HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer. During a shiur on Kodshim, Michel Yehuda said a brilliant sevoro. Very impressed, HaRav Meltzer told his wife to bring a lechayim, "The Volozhiner said a great sevoro."
On Lag B'Omer 5700 (1940) he married Chava Esther, the daughter of HaRav Avrohom Yitzchok Gershonovitz, the rov of Zhavinka. Leading him to the chuppah was the Chazon Ish, who had arranged the match.
Right after the Sheva Brochos, he began to serve as a ram in the yeshiva Tiferes Tzion which had been founded by his father-in-law and from then on he spread Torah for seventy-one years straight.
After the wedding he would travel every day to Petach Tikva in Kollel Eretz Yisroel, where he would study with HaRav Aryeh Leib Pomranachik, the author of Toras Zeroim and Emek Brochoh. He was also part of the founding core group of Kollel Zichron Meir — later known as Kollel Chazon Ish — and had his chiddushim published in the kollel's journal, Shimush Chachomim.
He gave a shiur to baalei battim at the Chazon Ish's beis medrash. The Chazon Ish, who was sometimes on hand, said he enjoyed listening to the shiurim, saying they were marked by clarity and a style suited to baalei battim and talmidei chachomim at the same time.
When the Chazon Ish passed away, the shiur moved to the home of HaRav Tuvia Shechter, and over the course of decades went through the entire Shas several times.
When Yeshivas Ponovezh Letzei'irim opened 60 years ago, the Ponevezher Rav asked him to serve as rosh yeshiva, a post he held until just a few weeks ago. He always took part in the yeshiva's tefillos. Every day after Shacharis he would give a halacha shiur based on the Chayei Odom, a sefer he drew on heavily throughout his lifetime.
For decades he gave a weekly talk at the yeshiva that attracted even avreichim and other Mussar seekers. On Shabbos he would give a shiur that reviewed the material studied during the course of the week.
Over the years he published a number of books: Chiddushei R' Shlomo, a compilation of his rebbe's teachings, Emek Hashaar, which he wrote at a young age and which includes glowing approbations by HaRav Meltzer and HaRav Sarna, and Minchas Yehuda, which includes letters exchanged with the Brisker Rov on Kodshim.
The Limudei Daat Institute is now hard at work preparing other writings for posthumous publication. Another book, Imrei Daas, features letters and Mussar talks, and one of his students, HaRav Tzvi Yabrov, wrote two books based on HaRav Lefkowitz' teachings on proper conduct for yeshiva students.
Throughout his lifetime HaRav Lefkowitz was outspoken in urging the Torah world to adhere to the guidance of HaRav Shach. He was also a staunch proponent of Degel HaTorah, Yated Ne'eman, Shearis Yisroel and chinuch unblemished by compromise.
He encouraged the study of Seder Taharos and in recent years helped set up Yeshivat Mishkenot HaTorah for Sephardic bnei Torah, naming his son HaRav Moshe Dovid to serve as menahel ruchani there.
HaRav Lefkowitz was among the progenitors of Yeshivas Beis Medrash Elyon, where his son HaRav Avrohom Yitzchok serves as a ram.
In recent months he was very weak. On the night of Taanis Esther he suffered a fall, breaking some bones. In Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood, where he spent last Shabbos, he suddenly collapsed after the seudah.
HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz zt"l is survived by his wife, Chava Esther; his sister, who is married to HaRav Shmuel HaKohen Rozovsky; his son HaRav Moshe Dovid, the rov of Chanichei Hayeshiva Heichal Moshe, a ram at Yeshivas Beis Dovid Letzei'irim and a mashgiach at Yeshivas Be'er Yaakov and Yeshivat Mishkenot HaTorah; his son HaRav Avrohom Yitzchok, a ram at Yeshivas Beis Medrash Elyon; a daughter married to the late HaRav Binyomin Korlansky, a ram at Yeshivas Ponovezh Letzei'irim; his son-in-law, HaRav Binyomin Dovid Eliashiv, author of Yad Binyomin; his son-in-law HaRav Moshe Eliyohu Schwartz, one of the roshei yeshiva of Yeshivas Meor Yitzchok-Chemed, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and thousands of talmidim he strengthened in ruchniyus.