The Life and Life's Work of HaRav Shimon Schwab
by Rav Yosef Fleischman
For Part V of this series click here.
For Part VII of this series click here.
Editorial note: The article was written and published in 1995/5755 in the months following the petiroh of HaRav Shimon Schwab zt"l. This year on Purim Katan was the 27th yahrtzeit.
In the first parts, we read about Rav Schwab's family and early education in Germany, as well as the eastern European yeshivos: Telshe and Mir. Then we were told of his experiences as a young rav in Ichenhausen in the early years of Hitler, ym'sh. Next was about his first job in the U.S.A. in Baltimore, Maryland. Also his support of Agudas Yisroel, while maintaining the Hirschean principle of austritt - having nothing to do with kofrim.
Rav Schwab's meticulous nature could be discerned at times. When traveling he would always take along a compass. While it is true that if one doesn't know which direction is mizrach, then bedi'eved one can simply direct his thoughts to the Beis Hamikdash, nonetheless, Rav Schwab wasn't one to let himself enter into a bedi'eved situation.
In the same spirit he would always travel with a cup, wine, matches, a candle and besomim, in order to be able to perform kiddush and havdoloh properly, should the need arise unexpectedly. In paskening sha'alos he would take pains to make sure he made himself understood. I remember that when I was young he would at times ask me to tell him over what he had said — just to make sure he was correctly understood.
As we mentioned briefly, even though the Baltimore of Rav Schwab's day was considered relatively good in a religious sense, it still didn't measure very high by today's standards. On many issues Rav Schwab was considered extreme, even among the frum Jews.
He once was walking with another member of the Baltimore rabbinate. When they passed a wood telephone pole, the other rabbi put his hand on the pole and said, `Look, we've taken a tree which is perhaps two hundred years old and made something modern from it. You want to take us back two hundred years.'
Rav Schwab replied, `Not two hundred but two thousand years.'
Rebbetzin Schwab was one of just a handful of women in Baltimore who covered her hair. His children had hardly any friends who were shomer Shabbos.
Classical Baltimore Row Houses
Concern for his Children
Even though there was a yeshiva in Baltimore for his sons, Rav Schwab was very concerned that they turn out to be ehrlicher, frum Jews. He saw many children of other rabbonim in Baltimore who had turned off the derech. Thus, he was davening day and night that his children all turn out properly.
He didn't just daven, however, he used other methods as well. During the week it was hard to spend much time with his family but on Shabbos he would devote much of his time to his children. He realized that in order to educate children one had to inject some ruach into their lives. He would have a Shabbos program for his children in which he would tell them stories and engage in other leisure activities.
Even his children were the subject of criticism for their religious standards. Rav Schwab tried to improve the situation from within the school but the hanholo was not comfortable with change. His children asked their parents not to give them sandwiches to school since their classmates would make fun of them for washing for nettilas yodayim.
Rav Schwab felt that it was improper to keep school in session until 5:30 on Chanukah since that would necessitate the children arrive home after the proper time to light. He argued with the school administration but it was to no avail. The best he could get for his efforts was permission for his children to leave early. Even that came with some more bizyonos; it was announced in school, beforehand: "School will end tomorrow at the regular time for everyone except the Schwab boys."
If it was difficult to educate boys properly it was even more daunting a task to ensure a girl's Yiddishkeit. In Rav Schwab's early years, there was no religious school for girls. His daughter was forced to attend public school.
Rav Schwab tried to compensate for this by organizing study sessions for his daughter as well as other girls of similar age, once or twice a week. The efforts bore fruit in the other children as well. A number of women owe their Yiddishkeit to Rav Schwab's groups of fifty years ago.
Eventually, Rav Schwab together with several baalei batim organized the Beis Yaakov of Baltimore. Rav Schwab was always very proud of the success of this endeavor. Today this Beis Yaakov is the biggest one outside of New York City and attracts girls from all chugim in Baltimore. However, it was too late for his own daughter. She had to attend the Beis Yaakov in Williamsburg.
One had to act very judiciously in order to educate children properly. Rav Schwab knew that one had to tread very gingerly (All for the Boss, describes another successful mechanech in a similar situation who used similar methods). One had to walk a tightrope since neither too much nor too little pressure would be proper.
Cholov Yisroel was a case in point. Until about twenty-five years ago, Baltimore did not have any organized cholov Yisroel. Rav Schwab himself never ate anything but cholov Yisroel. He would go to a farmer to obtain kosher milk for his family, but there were no cholov Yisroel milk products. Thus, while Rav Schwab himself didn't use any milk product that was not cholov Yisroel, he did not bring the matter up with his younger children. He felt it would be too difficult for younger children to keep.
As the children approached bar or bas mitzva age he would tell them that he himself was nizhar in cholov Yisroel and he encouraged them to do likewise. His approach worked. Sooner or later, all his children accepted it upon themselves. Even in 1952 when Rav Schwab's father Leopold came from England to celebrate the bar mitzva of one of his grandchildren, he was very critical of the education of his grandchildren. Rav Schwab replied that one had to be careful not to be too forceful.
More Modern Baltimore Row Houses
Money Is Not Everything
The gemora (Bechoros 26B and others) says that it's a big aveira for a Kohen to in any way engage in an activity that would entice people to give him their terumah or a bechor. Receiving terumah or the other matnos kehuna must not be made into a business. The reason for the severity of the crime and its punishment is that it cheapens the idea of terumah.
Even though it is not precisely the same, Rav Schwab felt that the honor and dignity of the rabbonus is diminished if a rav performs for money. It cheapens the standing of the rabbonus and the rabbonim themselves. Therefore, Rav Schwab's policy was not to take money directly for any rabbinic function. He would not take money for dinei Torah, selling chometz, marrying or hespedim. People would be surprised when they would ask him how much he charged for his activities and he replied that they were free.
He felt that taking money for anything would cheapen him in other people's eyes. A man once was a dayan in a case where he suffered much bizoyon as a result. When he exclaimed to Rav Schwab how he suffered because of his psak, Rav Schwab asked him if he took money for dinei Torah. When he replied affirmatively, Rav Schwab told him, "Now you have your answer. If you take money you cheapen yourself in people's eyes."
He attributed the universal honor which was his to this fact.
With regard to his salary for his duties as a rabbi, since it was fixed and steady it did not fall in the same category, but nonetheless it was not his custom to ask for a raise. If he was given a raise he would accept it but he would not initiate requests for additional remuneration. A result of this policy was that he often could not make ends meet, and he would be forced to borrow money.
This was a factor that entered into his final decision to leave Baltimore and take up the position in Washington Heights. He was saddled with debt and he calculated that were he to give up the job in Baltimore, he would be able to pay back all his debts with the proceeds from the sale of his house in Baltimore. Thus, when he arrived in Washington Heights he was debt-free but he had almost nothing left over.
In Washington Heights he kept his approach to remuneration, and when he was asked in 1958 how much of a salary he requested, he calculated that he required ten thousand dollars. That is what he requested and received. When years later the kehilla hired Rav Gelley, Rav Schwab went to the Board of Directors and asked to reduce his salary since his workload would be reduced. The reply of the Board of Directors was that his regular salary wasn't more than a retirement salary and, therefore, there was no need for a readjustment.
In his spirit of avoiding personal negi'os, when the time came to choose a successor, Rav Schwab didn't push any personal candidate. He thought that people would claim he was trying to perpetuate himself. Thus he saw his role as being an asset to the Board of Directors in choosing a successor.
The Derech Eretz that Precedes Torah
Another field that concerned Rav Schwab greatly was that of proper manners. He would give tochochos to students who didn't wish him "hello" on the street. He felt that the Jewish people would first have to be as good as the best of the goyim.
He explained this in his explanation of the posuk in Vezos Habrochoh: ve'ato al bomoseimo sidroch. He says that since this is the final statement of Moshe Rabbeinu's nevu'o, we would expect it to contain an essential message. He interprets the words as being the message that the task of Klal Yisroel begins at the apex of goyim's achievements. Thus, first one has to reach the pinnacle of worldly achievement. Not being friendly was a chisoron which is recognized even by goyim and thus was basic to our avoda.
He explained that this was required of both Avrohom Ovinu and of Klal Yisroel. Before they were given the Torah they had to first achieve shleimus on the level of a goy. Avrohom Ovinu first had to do all that was required of a goy and then Hashem gave him the mitzva of bris mila. Similarly before Bnei Yisroel left Mitzrayim to set out on their mission they had to reach a level where the Mitzri'im respected them as a people.
He would quote the words of the Sforno on Devorim (4, 7) where he explains that if the goyim don't have respect for the Jewish people and don't exclaim how the Jews are an extraordinary nation, then one is causing a chilul Hashem. He would always be very careful for himself and exhort others that it's our task to ensure that goyim hold Jews in high esteem.
The following story also illustrates Rav Schwab's hakpodo on having proper manners. When Rav Schwab was the rav of the shul but could no longer walk to shul on Shabbos, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt'l ruled that a goy could wheel the Rav to shul on Shabbos. However, when Rav Gelley took up his duties as rav, Rav Schwab ceased to attend shul on Shabbos. He would have a minyan in his house on Shabbos. He was always careful that mincha in his home start ten minutes before it started in shul in order to enable the participants in his minyan to attend Rav Gelley's divrei Torah between mincha and ma'ariv in shul.
On one occasion a guest attended the mincha minyan and asked if Rav Schwab would speak about Pirkei Avos between mincha and ma'ariv. He declined since he wanted people to go to listen to Rav Gelley in shul. He said when he was the rav he was disturbed by the fact that some people did not attend and, therefore, he felt he should be equally careful for Rav Gelley. The gabbai of the minyan saw that the man was disappointed. He, therefore, lingered around to make sure the guest would leave after mincha. As they left together, the man turned to the gabbai and remarked contentedly, "The Rav did speak on Pirkei Avos."
For himself, Rav Schwab didn't just say hello. Unless he was particularly upset with someone, he was always mekayeim: hevei mekabeil ess kol odom beseiver ponim yofos. He would give people a very warm hello. When one finished speaking with him, even talmidim who learned with him in his house, he would walk him to the door. Even when he was immobile, he would excuse himself for not walking one to the door.
Much as he respected ordinary people, he had a special love for sincere people. This is similar to Hashem as we can see from the following story told once by Reb Yitzchok Blazer and recorded in the Tnu'as Hamussar (Vol. 2, pg. 272).
There was once a simple couple. The husband once heard a drosho from the rav which described the importance of the Lechem Haponim. The man told his wife, `We're just ordinary people, but we can get close to Hashem by bringing Lechem Haponim.'
The woman agreed and every erev Shabbos she would bake twelve challahs which the husband would then place in the Aron hakodesh. The shamash discovered the challahs and, figuring they were left for the poor, took them for himself. On Shabbos the simple man arrived early in shul and, seeing his challahs gone, was very happy since he saw it as a sign min haShomayim that Hashem accepted his offering.
So it continued until one Friday the rav was present in shul when the man arrived with his challahs. The rav asked in amazement what were the challahs for. When the man explained, the rav explained that this isn't real Lechem Haponim. Thus the couple stopped their avoda.
That night the rav was told in a dream that for stopping this couple from their avoda he would die within a year and that since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash Hashem hadn't been so pleased with anyone's avoda!
So it was with Rav Schwab as well. He would go in the summer to his son-in-law's camp for baalei teshuva in Moodus, Connecticut. He loved the sincerity of baalei teshuva. He felt that his tefillos at the camp were davened with even greater kavono due to the inspiration of the baalei teshuva. He loved being asked questions even from the simple, most humble Jew.