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7 Kislev, 5783 - December 1, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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"Keser Torah" —-HaGaon HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l 2nd Kislev 5753 The Thirtieth Yahrtzeit

By Yisroel Gellis, Shalom Meir and Moshe Musman

Reb Aharon is sitting on the chair

This extended appreciation of HaRav Aharon Kotler zt"l was first published in 1992. We are republishing it now for the 60th yahrtzeit, and also to make it available on the web.

For Part I of this series click here.

For Part III of this series click here.

Since it was felt that no description or appreciation of Reb Aharon can come closer to capturing his essence than one of his own shmuessim entitled "Kisroh Shel Torah," we have organized this series in honor of his thirtieth yahrtzeit to parallel the points developed in that shmuess. In the first part of this essay, Reb Aharon explained that every moment is an independent unit of avodas Hashem. In this part he continues, adding that as well as utilizing each moment, every one of a person's abilities must be channeled into his avoda.

Reb Aharon brings a medrash which makes the point that in the same way that we muster all our powers in pursuit of life's essentials, we can come to devote ourselves wholeheartedly for every moment that we spend learning by putting into action the knowledge that Torah is our life-force. Our portrayal of Reb Aharon then continues with the subsequent anecdotes which show how he himself lived exactly as he writes here.

Part Two: With Every Fiber

In the same way [that "each moment is an entity of its own"], avoda must involve each and every one of the many attributes in a person's makeup. This is what the posuk [Devorim 11:12] "and to serve Him with all your hearts and souls" conveys: with every part of the powers of thought, feeling and will [for "nefesh" denotes will, as in the posuk [Bereishis 23:8] "Im yesh es nafshechem" which means, "if it is your wish." Each of these areas: intellect, emotions and willpower, requires its own work.

To this end, they said in the medrash, [Bereishis Rabbah parsha 97:3] on the posuk, vyidgu larov — "and they should increase like fish," [Bereishis 48:16]: "Just as these fish (which even though they) live in the water, (nevertheless) when even a single drop falls from above, they receive it thirstily as though they had never tasted water in their lives, so too Yisroel, who live in water — the Torah — when they hear something new from the Torah, they receive it thirstily, as though they had never heard divrei Torah in their lives." The explanation for this — besides our great love for Torah — is that Torah is the embodiment of life itself, "for it is your life.." [Devorim 30:20], "and everlasting life..." [bircas haTorah].

The gemora says too in Makkos [10b] that if a talmid is exiled to a city of refuge, we make his rebbe go into exile with him. We learn this from the fact that the posuk tells us that the purpose of the exile to the city of refuge is "that he should live" and, in the words of the Rambam [Hilchos Rotze'ach 7:1], "For those who seek — and are masters of — wisdom, life is like death in the absence of talmud Torah."

Torah then, is life itself. Through its medium the passing moment becomes everlasting life, remaining for eternity. Just as spiritual perceptions of the Truth are called "or," light (as in "For a mitzvah is (like) a candle and Torah is light"), so too, the life of olom haboh is referred to as "oros," and as the "ziv," the aura, of the Shechina. All of these terms denote spiritual perceptions and attainments.

It follows that each new Torah thought or idea is nothing less than a new extension of life, for each new attainment or novel Torah thought is a portion of the eternal life and an addition to the forces of life.

An alternative approach to understanding Yisroel's great delight in chidush which the above medrash speaks of is due to the deeper impression made on the mind by hearing or seeing something new, as chazal said [Chulin 75:], "Something surprising is remembered." How much more is this the case for one who has love of Torah and is a seeker of understanding. This is the reason that chazal adjured us, "Every day they [divrei Torah] should be new in your eyes."

A Lifetime Of Renewal

Understanding Reb Aharon's love of chidush according to either explanation, answers the riddle of the great delay in the publication of his writings. Reb Aharon wrote down all his shiurim and most of his shmuessim, which fill masses of neatly ordered notebooks. He published none of his writings himself and all that has appeared to date, thirty years later, are two volumes of chidushim, two volumes of sha'alos uteshuvos and three volumes of shmuessim — a mere drop in the ocean. This is because of the great work involved in arranging and collating the vast amounts of material.

Throughout his life, Reb Aharon worked on his chidushim, deepening an idea, developing a concept, adding a new insight or examining it from a fresh angle. Every time he used a concept to answer yet another difficulty or found a new proof for one of his ideas, the scope and complexity of the edifice he was erecting became even greater. The job of collecting and arranging all his thoughts pertaining to any one topic (and he has left writings on virtually every area of Torah) is long, laborious and painstaking and understandably, progress is slow.

From every period of Reb Aharon's life have come stories of the ceaseless stream of chidushim which flowed from his powerful mind. At the age of thirteen Reb Aharon was learning in the yeshiva ketana of Slobodke, but he did not stay there long. When his superior abilities were recognized, he was moved up to the yeshiva gedola.

The custom there was that any bochur who composed a chidush on the sugya then being learnt would clap his hand on his shtender. At this signal the beis hamedrash would fall quiet and the bochur would deliver his thoughts aloud to all present. His conclusions would be met either by his friends' approval or their disagreement and objections.

Not long after Aharon Sislovitzer's entrance to the yeshiva gedola a clap was heard coming from the direction of his shtender. Everybody fell silent, although they found it hard to see the young boy until he was pulled up to stand on a table. His words were met with enthusiasm and amazement.

Shortly after the learning had resumed, another clap resounded from the same source. Again the young Aharon climbed onto the table and offered a new thought, one that required analysis and consideration. While still occupied with the previous chidush, the familiar clap was heard yet again, and again Aharon climbed onto the table, this time with a novel approach to the entire sugya. While all were unanimous in their praise of the gifted young talmid, it was decided to suspend therewith the practice of clapping!

On another occasion, a young Reb Aharon accompanied his friend Yechezkel Sarna, who later became rosh Yeshiva of Chevron, to one of the townlets that were popular for vacationing.

"As soon as we arrived," HaRav Sarna zt'l recalled, "Reb Aharon went for a stroll in the meadow. He returned three hours later, ready to deliver a shiur to us — which he did, for two hours, without interruption."

Rav Yitzchok Waldman relates that years later, he accompanied Reb Aharon on holiday. HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt"l was staying in the same area, as well as a number of religious baalei batim. On Thursday, Reb Aharon called Rav Waldman and asked him to post in the beis haknesses a list of sources for a shiur. Rav Waldman found this hard to understand — they were on holiday and in strange surroundings, and to post up mar'ei mekomos yet! But for Reb Aharon it was perfectly natural. Shabbos was approaching and on Shabbos he always delivered his shiur. This time too, the shiur was delivered, with more time than usual effort devoted to explanation, to ensure that all would understand.

One of the older buildings of Beth Medrash Govoha

Life Itself

"Torah then, is life itself, through whose medium the passing moment becomes everlasting life, remaining for eternity."

To the father of a masmid who complained to him, "Meila to learn, but with a limit. What about time for eating and sleeping?" his terse reply was, "Is there a limit to life?!"

In recommending a certain chavrusa to one of his talmidim, the Rosh Yeshiva described the young man as "gifted, a good bochur, despite the fact that he came from yeshiva so-and-so."

What was that yeshiva's shortcoming, his talmid wanted to know.

"Ah — by them, learning is stam a mitzvah!" the Rosh Yeshiva answered.

Torah and life were indeed inseparable for him. The yeshiva's timetable became his own personal routine. From his hospital bed, where he lay seriously ill, Reb Aharon sent a list of mar'ei mekomos to be posted in the yeshiva as the day of the shiur drew near.

Once on a trip to London, where his time was filled with meetings and appointments, his host's son asked if he could discuss something with the Rosh Yeshiva. Reb Aharon promised that on his return to the house late that night he would be available. When Reb Aharon finally arrived back, after a strenuous and tiring day, he looked at his watch and said to the young man,

"I have a request. I am a rosh yeshiva and I keep to the yeshiva's timetable. At this time, according to my watch and allowing for the time difference, it is seder in the yeshiva. Later on, the bochurim will go to eat. If you are agreeable, I will learn until then and while they are eating I will be free to speak to you."

If the extent to which Torah spelled life for him was discernible when he was away from the yeshiva, how much more so when he was immersed in the yeshiva's learning. When he gave a shiur, he appeared in all his glory, wielding his razor sharp intellect in defense of his chidush or sevora as if he were defending his life.

As a youth HaRav Yaakov Zaritsky zt'l came to Kletsk form Baranovitch, Reb Elchonon Wassermann's yeshiva.

"There," he said, "the shiur was both delivered and received in an atmosphere of calm and tranquility. I came to Kletsk and the beis hamedrash was seething during the shiur. The Rosh Yeshiva stood in the middle explaining something excitedly, while the bochurim argued with him. The Rosh Yeshiva overcame the opposition, shouting in anger at his opponent and taking hold of his tie and pulling it!"

During the shiur itself, the Rosh Yeshiva would advance a sevora, only to be attacked immediately from all four corners of the beis hamedrash. Even before the questioner had finished his sentence, Reb Aharon had understood what the question was and in a flash he had an answer ready which did away with the objection. He beat off other attackers in the same fashion and carried on with the shiur.

He was not interested in battling for a sevora merely because he had originated and said it. His was not the behavior of a man protecting his property, but rather that of a man fighting for his life. One of the maspidim at the levaya put it succinctly: "Reb Aharon defended a sevora in the same way that a man being strangled fights for air to breathe!"

After the shiur was over, the Kletsk bochurim would form groups to review. HaRav Kluft recalled one occasion when he was part of a group discussing one of the Rosh Yeshiva's analytical questions when all of a sudden, they heard the tremendous clatter of falling shtenders.

"From his place at the side of the beis hamedrash, the rosh yeshiva was able to catch what was being said in the various chaburos. What had happened was that he had overheard a "distortion" in a sevora coming from our direction, he had rushed over to explain it to us properly. In his haste he knocked over a row of shtenders!"

He would point out that when the Ravad argues with the Rambam, he often uses very strong terms. Reb Aharon would explain that he meant no personal slight by this: the Ravad has no quarrel with the Rambam. Rather he meant to show us that Torah is the center of our concerns — as precious as life itself. On hearing something unacceptable, we have to put all our feeling into opposing it!

Reb Aharon was once asked by a fellow rosh yeshiva for the explanation of his burning zeal while he gave shiur and why he attacked questioners so remorselessly.

"I have a tradition from Reb Yisroel Salanter," he replied, "az Torah muz men lernen giftig (that Torah must be learned with venom)!"

Rav Yitzchok Waldman recalls one occasion at a Shabbos meal — which the Rosh Yeshiva would eat together with the talmidim — when HaRav Yaakov Schiff of Yerushalaim, son-in-law of the Brisker Rov and one of Reb Aharon's closest talmidim, sat next to Reb Aharon.

As the fish was being served, he began, "About the sevora we were discussing yesterday...perhaps I was right? In other words..."

"No," the rosh yeshiva said briefly.

Against the clatter of knives and forks in the background, Rav Schiff tried again. "Still, maybe anyway...I mean to say, that side of the chakira..."

"No," was the curt reply.

But Rav Schiff didn't give up. "With the Rosh Yeshiva's permission, I will go over the two sides of the chakira...."

At that point, the dining room shook. All the glassware trembled when Reb Aharon brought his hand down on the table.

"No! no! no!" he roared "Stop talking about it! There is no such side of the chakira! A false chakira is like poisoned air. It should not be heard!"

Remembering Matan Torah

Reb Aharon would observe that there are so many mitzvos which the Torah tells us are a remembrance of yetzias mitzrayim: the twice daily mentioning of yetzias Mitzrayim, all of the sholosh regolim, Shabbos, the mitzvos of the seder: matzo and morror, Haggadah and heseiva to name but a few.

On the other hand not one mitzvah is given as a remembrance of matan Torah. Since the Torah explicitly states that the whole purpose of yetzias Mitzrayim was the receiving of the Torah [Shemos 3:12], "when you bring the people will serve Hashem on this mountain," we would expect to find some obligation reminding us of this.

While it is true that according to the Ramban, there is indeed a mitzvah to remember ma'amad Har Sinai [Devorim 4:9], "Guard yourself lest you forget the things which your eyes beheld...the day you stood before Hashem at Chorev..", the Rambam understands this commandment as applying only to the generation which received the Torah. How then, according to the Rambam, can there be no remembrance at all of matan Torah for all the subsequent generations? Even according to Ramban there is only one.


Answered Reb Aharon: because a remembrance is only necessary for something which no longer exists. If a thing is still with us and is renewed each day, it does not need to be commemorated — it needs to be lived! At matan Torah there was heard a "kol godol," — a great sound, "velo yosof", — which can be translated as, which did not continue [Devorim 5:19]. The Targum however, translates "velo yosof" as "delo posik" i.e. which did not stop. According to the Targum's translation, the sounds of matan Torah have never stopped echoing around the world, seeking entry to our hearts.

To imbue the talmidim with the realization of the true worth of divrei Torah, Reb Aharon would bring Chazal's words that the Torah was given in fire and is itself compared to fire. "Are my words not like fire?"

He would stress that this was not merely a comparison but was in fact the case. All who knew Reb Aharon could actually see the fire of Torah that burned within him whether it was in his learning, his shiurim or his public leadership.

When R' Yehoshua and R' Eliezer sat learning at the sholom zochor in the home of Avuya [Tosafos Chagigah 15, beginning "Shuvu bonim" quoting the Yerushalmi], a fire descended, surrounding them.

"Have you come here to burn my house down?" Avuya asked them.

They replied, "We were reviewing from Chumash to nevi'im and from nevi'im to Kesuvim, and it was as joyous as when it was given at Sinai."

The Torah was given in fire and so here too, when that event's sublime joy was relived, fire descended. When Yonoson ben Uzziel learnt Torah, any bird which flew over his head would be burnt [Bava Basra 134]. Tosafos asks what it was that actually burnt the bird and gives the answer that it was the fire of matan Torah.

In the middle of hakofos in Lakewood, amidst the ecstatic rejoicing with the Torah of a tsibur who were dedicating their lives to it, a sign was given for quiet. The Rosh Yeshiva was about to deliver a shmuess in praise of Torah. His face was ablaze and tears choked his voice. After he finished he motioned with his hand for the hakofos to continue.

Reb Aharon's opening phrase was the comment of the Sifrei on the words "eish dos": "If dos had not been given with it, no man would be able to grasp it."

We can only comprehend a fraction of the greatness of the Torah. The entire Torah consists of combinations of Hashem's names. All the upper and lower worlds were created from the Torah. The deepest secrets of the creation and of the ma'ase merkavah are contained in Torah, as well as all of the world's past, present and future events and the experiences of every individual that has, does and will ever exist. Our perceptions of Torah however, are extremely limited compared to all that Torah contains.

If we apply all our efforts to learning we are like a man who clings to one branch of a mighty tree. While it is impossible for him to encompass the tree in its entirety, he nevertheless has an attachment to the whole tree by virtue of the branch which he is holding onto. If not for the "dos", the laws of the Torah, in which form we are able to grasp onto something, we would have no understanding of Torah at all.

It is through the limud of this world, which, compared to the secrets of Torah is like learning alef-beis, that in the next world, we will attain all the depths contained in the Torah we now learn. (See the shmuess, "Eish Dos", said on Simchas Torah 5723, the last shmuess Reb Aharon delivered, printed in Mishnas Rebbi Aharon, III, pg.63.)

Although the secrets of Torah are currently beyond our grasp, the Torah of this world is itself is a source of boundless delight. Reb Aharon would point out that chazal have two different droshos on the posuk, "and He gave to Moshe, when He finished speaking with him..."

One is that the Torah was only given to Moshe, "kichloso", at the end of the forty days, for until then, Moshe would forget what he had learned each day, until it was given him as a gift on the fortieth day. The second drosho reads "kechaloso", telling us that Torah is beloved to those who learn it as is a new bride.

The two droshos are one, he would say. The present given to Moshe Rabbenu was the delight of divrei Torah, ever fresh and new.

Reb Aharon's grandson remembered one occasion while on holiday, that his grandfather tried to explain to him a difficult and intricate answer he had found to one of R' Akiva Eiger's questions. In his excitement, Reb Aharon would pull his grandson's arm or tug his shoulder as he was speaking. Then, when he had almost finished the complicated preliminaries and was about to repeat the answer itself, he began to laugh from sheer joy and was so full of mirth that he could not continue!

Giving Shiur — Getting Strength

Winter in Kletsk, recalls Rav Yaakov Zaritsky, was bitterly cold. The beis hamedrash had an oven with which to keep the freezing cold of the snowy Polish winter at bay. It happened one day — while the shiur was in progress — that the oven's chimney became blocked and the smoke was directed back into the beis hamedrash. All the windows had of course been closed and shuttered to keep out the cold so the smoke soon began to sting the eyes and nostrils of the talmidim, the more sensitive of whom had to leave.

The Rosh Yeshiva continued with the shiur as those who remained creased their foreheads and struggled to keep track of the involved arguments. The pace was ordinarily fast and it was especially hard to concentrate with watering eyes, a sensation of choking and difficulty in breathing. As the air in the beis hamedrash became more and more hazy from the smoke that continued to come from the oven, the talmidim drifted out one by one, coughing and spluttering. Only a small group remained, and the Rosh Yeshiva, seemingly oblivious to what was going on, continued the shiur at full speed. Finally, someone plucked up the courage to say, "Rebbe, we can't continue. The smoke is suffocating us!"

"You don't understand the shiur!" Reb Aharon yelled at him. "If you would be living it, you wouldn't notice the smoke!" The shiur went on, until it was finished.

Once HaRav Eliyahu Lopian zt'l, the mashgiach of Kfar Chassidim, was invited to say a shmuess at Lakewood while he was on a trip to the United States. The beis hamedrash was filled to capacity and the Rosh Yeshiva was there too. Rav Elya delivered his shmuess and, having reached the end of a subject, when the usual time for a shmuess had elapsed, he turned to the Rosh Yeshiva and asked him, "Noch? Should I speak some more?" Reb Aharon nodded his agreement.

Rav Elya carried on, developing his theme and broadening his explanations. When he reached another convenient stopping place he again asked the Rosh Yeshiva, "Noch?" and received the same positive answer.

He therefore continued, bringing proofs for his ideas, from time to time bending over to ask if he should continue. The shmuess lasted for two whole hours, and ended with a chapter of Tehillim as was Rav Elya's custom.

A few days later, the Rosh Yeshiva was informed that Rav Elya, who was then in his eighties, had fallen ill as a result of the great effort and excitement of saying such a long shmuess.

The Rosh Yeshiva opened his piercing blue eyes wide and said, "Sick? From saying a shmuess? How can that possibly be? It is the shiur which gives me life! Sometimes I arrive to say the shiur when I'm sick and burning with fever and by the time I'm finished, I feel in perfect health!"


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