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9 Adar I, 5782 - February 10, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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The Life and Life's Work of HaRav Shimon Schwab

by Rav Yosef Fleischman


For Part IV of this series click here.

For Part VI 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 will be the 27th yahrtzeit.

We are discussing Rav Schwab's experiences in America, and in particular his support of Agudas Yisroel, while maintaining the Hirschean principle of austritt — having nothing to do with kofrim.

Rav Schwab's support of Agudas Yisroel was also in keeping with the tradition of the Frankfurt Kehilla. Rav Yaakov Rosenheim, a prominent member of the Kehilla was one of the founders as well as the head of the World Aguda for many years. Rav Schwab's Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Breuer, as well as his other mentors, the Chofetz Chaim and Reb Chaim Ozer, were all leaders of the organization.

In America at the time of Rav Schwab's arrival, although Agudas Yisroel officially existed, it was hardly a national organization. It was so obscure that even communal leaders in Baltimore hardly knew that it existed. Rav Schwab tells (Essays 76-77) the story about when he first arrived in Baltimore. The president of Baltimore Mizrachi invited him to a melave malka which was to serve as the official kabolas ponim for him. Rav Schwab replied that he was not a Mizrachist which confused the president.

Rav Schwab recounts, "He asked me, `How is it possible that an Orthodox rav like you has become a General Zionist?' " That is to say, it was taken for granted that he was a Zionist, what was assumed is that if he's not from Mizrachi, then he's a member of the irreligious Zionists.

Rav Schwab continues, "When I said I belong to Aguda he cried out, 'Aguda? Oy vey. They are the meraglim of our time! They hate Klal Yisroel and they hate Eretz Yisroel! Zei habben feint Yidden!"

One of Rav Schwab's early activities was as the organizer of the second Aguda convention which was held in Baltimore. He later served as an observer on behalf of Agudas Yisroel at the United Nations Charter Conference in San Francisco, in 1945.


Even after severing his ties with the World Aguda in 1948 (because they joined the Israeli government), Rav Schwab supported the American Aguda and, in fact, saw in Agudas Yisroel the one organization that represented Torah-true Jews in America. Thus, he writes (Essays 79), "Today one of the many new baalei teshuva may ask, `Where is the Klal Yisroel to which I am supposed to return? Where is the authentic historical Am Hashem, the Am Segulah of old? We must be able to tell him that nowadays, he can find the mainstream of Klal Yisroel within the Agudas Yisroel. Look around you! Here in America, we are the Klal Yisroel. We are a nonpolitical movement [an oblique reference to Israeli Aguda] and only Torah MiSinai is our constitution."

Rav Schwab's activity with Agudas Yisroel also serves to illustrate another important character trait. At various times Rav Schwab was asked to join the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah but his reply was that it would be a mockery of the Moetzes to have him serve as a member! He said he was only a rav and not a rosh yeshiva who was marbitz Torah. He was constantly borei'ach min hakovod and we'll describe shortly what the word "kovod" meant to Rav Schwab.

Personal Kovod and Kovod Shomayim

He never liked to be introduced. He felt it was a form of being singled out and he just wanted to be one of the ordinary crowd. He was especially opposed to introductions which would first contain biographical detail. He considered it to be an aspect of chanufa which he detested. In fact, on one occasion the introduction overwhelmed him to such an extent that he sat through it with his hands over his ears.

When he called people for business purposes he would not call himself by the title of "rabbi," he would just introduce himself by his name. When signing checks as well he just signed his name without title. He said, "To the banker I also have to be `Rabbi?'"

In the introduction to his peirush on Chumash one can see typical self-effacement. Among other comments, he says, "If I wouldn't be afraid, I would be so presumptuous as to suggest to students of Torah as well to glance at the explanations which Hashem has granted me."

Thus, in Rav Schwab's earlier years in Baltimore, when he didn't have a chavrusa or talmidim, he paid an ordinary person to be his chavrusa. That way he was mekayeim what it says in Pirkei Avos, "Make yourself a rov and buy for yourself a friend."

Many others would not feel it proper for the Rav to learn with a plain person but for Rav Schwab if that's the will of Hashem then we must do our part.

However, much as Rav Schwab would act with humility and would consider others to be much greater than he, bemokom she'ein anoshim hishtadel lihiyos ish (Avos 2, 5). If no one else did what Rav Schwab considered to be critical, then, although others were greater and chose to remain silent, Rav Schwab felt it was his duty to speak up. The gemora in Eruvin 63A says that even though it is a very serious sin to pasken in the presence of one's rebbe but if what is involved is preventing an aveira from being committed, then one may do so even in the presence of his rebbe and even though his rebbe has not spoken up.

The gemora deduces this from the posuk Mishlei 21), Ein chochmoh, ve'eyn tevuna ve'eyn eitzo keneged Hashem — where chilul Hashem is involved one doesn't need to honor the Rav. Thus even if others chose to remain silent, Rav Schwab, in spite of all of his humility, would feel that it was incumbent upon him to speak up.

He told us how he was once present at a bris where they were not going to have a sandak. The child was to lie on the table when the bris was performed. Rav Schwab created an uproar by insisting that someone serve as sandak. This he did in spite of the presence of a talmid chochom who was older and considered greater than he who did not say anything about the plans.

The practice of having a sandak is a minhag based on a midrash on Sefer Tehillim. To serve as sandak is considered a very desirable honor but not to have one nevertheless is not a severe aveira and would certainly not affect the validity of the mila. However to Rav Schwab, every traditional detail was important.

As we mentioned in our first article, he considered minhagim essential and thus, he considered not keeping a minhag Yisroel to be an instance of chilul Hashem where one needn't show respect for the greater rav.

He was not concerned about his own kovod and would humble himself in front of people who were not on his level, but for kovod Shomayim he would disregard another's kovod as well since kovod Shomayim is preeminent. This also enabled him to publicly retract an earlier stand where necessary, as he did in the case of Torah Im Derech Eretz, where he admitted publicly that his interpretation of Torah Im Derech Eretz in his treatise of 1934 was incorrect.

Rav Schwab himself (Speeches 238) writes that part of yiras Shomayim is to constantly review one's yiras Shomayim. This is an unusual interpretation of the posuk in Yeshaya: vatehi yir'asam osi mitzvas anoshim melumadah. Normally it is interpreted to mean that one must not do mitzvos by rote because if one does so, it is an infringement of his duty to have yiras Shomayim. Rav Schwab, however offers the explanation that one must constantly review his yiras Shomayim itself. Thus one must review his positions and if necessary change them according to what he knows to be now correct.

We find many times in the gemora that amoraim would say, "What I have told you is an error actually it says ..." However many public figures and even some rabbonim are afraid to admit that they erred. Some even reason that it will cause less kovod Shomayim if they admit mistakes, since now the laymen will say on another occasion that we see "the Rebbe" makes mistakes too so maybe this is also a mistake.

Likewise if we speak up in the place of the greater Rabbi then it will cause his kovod and henceforth the kovod of the Torah to decline. Rav Schwab however, felt guided by the gemora's teaching that one doesn't make such cheshbonos. It is in human nature to make mistakes and one must be most concerned not with his own kovod but with Hashem's kovod and the gemora tells us to what extent we have to worry about a person's kovod and to what extent to be concerned with Hashem's kovod.

Another story which illustrates the state of American Jewry and Rav Schwab's reaction to it is in the field of kashrus. In Rav Schwab's first year in Baltimore he once had occasion to check the knife of the shochet. (Shechita was one of Rav Schwab's duties as Assistant Rabbi in Darmstat and later he taught shechita to talmidim in Ner Yisroel). Rav Schwab felt that the knife was not smooth and he told the shochet to try again. After trying again to smooth it out he re-submitted the knife for Rav Schwab's approval. When Rav Schwab found it to still be unfit for shechita he told the shochet, "Since you can't feel a knife properly you're posul to be a shochet."

When he heard this, the shochet reached into his pocket and handed Rav Schwab two dollars, "for his tircha." Rav Schwab let the money fall to the floor. He then went to the other rabbonim and told them we must remove this man from his business. The other rabbonim consented. However, after about three months time, this man was still on the job. When asked, Rav Schwab explained that probably this man had found a rav who would take three dollars.

Rav Aharon Feldman related at the hesped for Rav Schwab that it was well-known in Baltimore that one could rely totally on Rav Schwab for kosher food. If one had a question about kashrus they would say, "Follow Schwab." This was true his whole life.

When later he was the rov in Washington Heights he maintained the high kashrus standards set by Rav Breuer. Thus, his hashgocho was always known to be totally reliable.

The fact that Rav Schwab's hashgocho was so dependable was probably due principally to two character traits in which both he as well as Rav Breuer excelled. One trait we have already mentioned is monetary considerations. We have seen above how a shochet could continue at his job due to extraneous considerations. In other situations the monetary influence would be less obvious. However, Rav Schwab always put monetary concerns in their proper place.

Osher and Kovod

One example occurred during World War Two, when one could save Jewish lives if sufficient funds were raised, Rav Schwab tried to solicit funds. One of his activities was to conduct an appeal in shul on Shabbos.

In order to do his part and teach by example how important a mitzva was involved, Rav Schwab announced that the Sefer Torah which he had brought over from Germany and which was very dear to him, would be put up for auction on Shabbos with the proceeds to go to the cause. This made a great impression since it showed a person should be mekayeim Ve'ohavto ess Hashem Elokecho... bechol me'odecho: Rav Schwab who was not a man of means and he would part with his most valuable possessions in order to do his part. Moreover sale of a sefer Torah and business on Shabbos are both normally not permitted. It is only under very strict conditions (cf. Even Haezer 1:2 and Orach Chaim 153) that one may sell a sefer Torah (other seforim as well cf. Magen Avrohom and others ibid.). Additionally, under normal circumstances one may not sell on Shabbos, but Rav Schwab had his priorities in order.

Rav Schwab attributed his outlook on parnossa to his upbringing. We have already mentioned how his father, a man of limited means, would keep his business closed whenever the halocho prescribed it and even was machmir in this respect. Rav Schwab writes further (Speeches 62-63), "I was brought up as a child of parents, grandparents and great- grandparents who were all businessmen, yerei'im veshleimim, G-d fearing upright people.

"Until the age of twenty-seven (the age when he came to the U.S.), I was so naive as to believe that running a business for the sake of parnossa meant no more than to strive to make a decent living, to pay all debts on time, to put some funds aside for various contingencies and to give generously to tzedoko. As for the monthly tefillah for osher vekovod — riches and honor, it was never aimed at acquiring great wealth and public honor. Rather, wealth was defined in Bircas Hamozone — lo liydei matnas bosor vodom velo liydei halvo'osom... my business or profession was in keeping with the guidelines eizeh'hu oshir hasomeyach bechelko... And what type of kovod should I pray for? That I not suffer bizyonos, nor do anything shameful that will spoil my character or sully my reputation... that I remain all my life a decent, righteous and straight individual... that I be generous, a baal tzedoko, and never be the object of insult and embarrassment. This was the kovod I sought and nothing more."

He continues by recounting how in the U.S. he learned what the world's view of osher and kovod is, and how his earlier impressions were the correct attitude. We will see further illustrations of this contrast between Rav Schwab's view and the general view later.

However, this is a major insight into Rav Schwab's character and is something which would be a great zchus for Rav Schwab if we would absorb. Having been raised in the modern world, it is extremely difficult to not be influenced by the velt's view of osher and kovod.

We should note that the two approaches are totally opposite views. The general approach sees osher and kovod as being dependent upon others. We need to acquire money from other people, we need other people to honor us and so on. But in Rav Schwab's view osher and kovod are dependent upon ourselves alone (see a similar discussion in Alei Shur, Vol. 2, page 231-233).

We were forced to digress in order to partly understand Rav Schwab's attitude towards kashrus. Running a kashrus organization was not a business set up in order to raise funds but the prime purpose was to provide kosher food. If that is preeminent then of course one doesn't sacrifice the ikkar for the tofeil.

The second trait which was crucial to running a totally reliable kashrus organization is what is known as being a "yekke." (Rav Schwab considered the term a denigration, which it probably was in his youth, but in this sense Rav Schwab probably wouldn't object either.) Everything had to be done correctly, one can't take short- cuts and cut corners. We will illustrate these traits further b'ezras Hashem in the next article.

Continued ...


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