Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

28 Nissan 5760 - May 3, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Fifth Yahrtzeit: 5 Nisan
Pillar of Fire: The Life of HaRav Reuven Yosef Gershonowitz zt"l

By Rabbi Dov Eliach

He was born on rosh chodesh Tammuz 5675 (1915) in the town of Lapitsh which is in the Minsk area of the Ukraine. His father served as a ram in the town's Yeshiva for youngsters together with the town's rabbi HaRav Yisroel Isser Shapira zt"l (son of Rav Rephoel Shapira, av beis din of Volozhin).

Little is known about his childhood years. It was a time when Jewish communities were forced to wander from place to place because of riotous mobs which dominated that part of Europe during those war-torn years. The internal Russian battles added to the general upheaval of World War I. Civilians were forced to move often to stay out of the way of the fighting.

HaRav Reuven's family was not spared these wanderings. His father served as rabbi of some small towns in the Sovalk district, being forced to leave each place due to the events of the time.

In the winter of 5685 (1925) he became rov of Zhabinka, a small town situated between Brisk and Kamenitz, whose population consisted mostly of very religious baalei batim who sent their sons to yeshivos. Despite his heavy learning schedule, the rov was totally dedicated to his kehilla. All the town's residents knew that the rov's house was the address for all their problems.

That same year, in the summer, Rav Reuven was taken by his father to the yeshiva for youngsters in Lida, which was far from home. He avidly absorbed everything he heard from his rabbonim, HaRav Mordechai Shmukler zt"l, a distinguished gaon and tzaddik who served as ram in the yeshiva at the time (he was killed during the Second World War and has been totally forgotten, having left no descendants) and the rosh yeshiva HaRav Yaakov Neuman zt"l.

In those days it was customary for bochurim to be dependent on the hospitality of local baalei batim. Rav Reuven's delicate and noble nature made it difficult for him to feel at ease in this situation, especially when he was forced to witness the poverty prevalent in those households. Consequently he did not eat regularly at the homes of the townsfolk, and long periods would pass where his sole nutrition consisted of the frozen potatoes which were readily available at the yeshiva. For about half a year he stayed at the yeshiva, studying diligently.

After Lida he went to Kobrin to learn in the yeshiva of HaRav Pesach Pruskin zt"l. According to one his friends he also learnt for a period in Baranowitz with HaRav Elchonon Wassermann Hy"d, returning afterwards to Kobrin.

HaRav A. Y. L. Steinman shlita relates that Rav Reuven's diligence was so intense that except for his studies he spoke about nothing else, adding that even as his roommate in yeshiva he was sure that Rav Reuven did not know his name - - such was his single-minded dedication to his studies.

Rav Reuven was a young bochur when he arrived at Kamenitz in the summer of 5691 (1931) to study under HaRav Boruch Ber zt"l. Here he would spend days toiling in Torah without interruption, his sitting position remaining unchanged. Contemporaries from the yeshiva relate how the mashgiach called his beloved student a "locomotive" who worked nonstop creating his own chiddushim despite being only a young bochur.

A friend of his remembers an incident when the yeshiva was learning Yevomos one winter zeman. He noticed Rav Reuven about to finish the masechta on erev Chanukah. When he asked him about it, he said that he had decided it would be useful to learn the whole masechta through first with Rashi and Tosafos and afterwards to review it be'iyun. He continued this practice every zeman so that eventually he became fluent in all the masechtos he had learned in the yeshiva.

He was sent food parcels from home but he would distribute them among his friends, sustaining himself with the small amount of food available from the yeshiva.

He was greatly influenced by the personality of HaRav Boruch Ber zt"l, the author of the Bircas Shmuel, from whom he absorbed methods of in-depth reasoning. Rav Reuven quickly stood out amongst the yeshiva bochurim as a remarkable innovator, whose straight thinking was permeated with clarity. Friends from later years in the Lomza Yeshiva in Petach Tikva recall how apparent it was from his style of learning when he first came to the Yeshiva that he was a talmid of HaRav Boruch Ber, and he was even given the title "R' Boruch Ber'nik."

He became totally fluent in the works of his rov, sparing no effort to fathom the depths of his Bircas Shmuel. Until his last days, whenever he wanted to encourage his students to acquire the desire to toil in Torah be'iyun, he was full of emotion when he conveyed to them something of his illustrious rov's personality and how he would put all his strength into Torah. He would tell them about the wonderful depth and clarity of his shiurim, his yiras Shomayim and his insistence on going to any lengths to understand the works of the rishonim properly and not give them a false interpretation, chas vesholom.

Once he related how, when his rov was young, some people thought it would be better for him to learn more beki'us instead of spending many hours delving into the depths of one statement of his own rov, Rav Chaim of Brisk. However in the end everyone realized that Rav Boruch Ber was right in his method of learning, since he had eventually became one of the greatest disseminators of Torah in his generation, producing disciples of incomparable quality.

Leaving Europe

At the end of 5695 (1935), Rav Reuven's father left the rabbinate and came to Eretz Yisroel, leaving his family behind in Zhabinka while he came to check out the country and to decide where they would live. During the time that the rov was away, some activists from the Mizrachi and other Zionist organizations wanted to open up a school called "Tarbut" for the local youth. Previous attempts had been made to start such a school but the rov had managed to forestall them by bringing in Rav Boruch Ber zt"l to speak to his congregants.

Rav Reuven had just returned home from Kamenitz yeshiva when he heard about the plans to open up the school. He called upon everybody to be present at the beis hamedrash on Shabbos afternoon, where he made a fiery speech. His sister, Rebbetzin Lefkovitch, remembers him shouting the following during the speech, "Every Jew wants his son to say Kaddish after him! You must realize that a Kaddish recited by a son who has been educated at the Tarbut school will not be received in Shomayim!"

His strong words had the desired result and the organizers changed their minds.

In 5696 (1936) the whole family came to Eretz Yisroel, only Rav Reuven and his oldest brother Rav Shmuel Dovid Hy"d staying behind. His brother was appointed to replace his father in the rabbinate, a position he held until he was killed al kiddush Hashem during the years of the churban together with his wife, daughter and the whole community.

Rav Reuven left for Eretz Yisroel at the end of 5696, becoming a talmid of Lomza Yeshiva in Petach Tikva where other immigrant yeshiva bochurim were learning at the time. He immediately endeared himself to the roshei yeshiva and students, being distinguished by his diligence, intellectual acumen and broad knowledge.

During this period Rav Reuven became close to the Chazon Ish zt"l who was very fond of him and praised him greatly. Rav Reuven would frequently present the Chazon Ish with chiddushim which were highly commended by him. Upon entering the Chazon Ish's room, the latter would turn to him and say, "Nu, `delight me with your dainties' [a play on words on Shir Hashirim 2:5], `the law of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul.'" This would be the invitation for Rav Reuven to commence the recitation of his chiddushim.

HaRav Chaim Kanievsky recalls that in 5700-5701 (1940-41) Rav Reuven would visit his father, the Kehillos Yaakov zt"l regularly on Fridays to talk to him about Torah topics. Each conversation would go on for several hours, the Steipler enjoying the experience of hearing R' Reuven's straight and clear logic.

HaRav Yaakov Edelstein (Rav Reuven's brother-in-law) remembers that already during this period Rav Reuven's noble personality shone through and complemented his intellectual capabilities. Those surrounding him during his tefillos could not help but be affected by the audible emotions accompanying them. No one, he adds, who witnessed the terrible weeping which was part and parcel of his tefillos during World War II when rumors spread about the slaughter of European Jewry, can forget that experience.

The younger talmidim at Lomza yeshiva gathered around him and were eager to be guided in the ways of in-depth analysis. He was more than happy to meet their requests and he taught them regularly.

In 5706 (1946) the rosh yeshiva HaRav Reuven Katz, rov of Petach Tikva, asked him to give "chaburos" regularly to the younger students of the yeshiva. [This was on the advice of HaRav Aba Grossbard zt"l, who was the yeshiva's mashgiach until that year.]

Many of those talmidim who today serve as ramim in yeshivos consider him their teacher who enlightened them in the ways of Torah understanding and logic. They also point out his comprehensive command of Shas and rishonim and of divrei Torah transmitted orally of the great roshei hayeshivos zt"l the Bircas Shmuel, the Sha'arei Yosher and others.

During this period HaRav Shach shlita was a ram at the yeshiva and the two of them would often speak in learning. HaRav Shach praised his brilliance to everyone. The close relationship between them continued over the years, with Rav Reuven always submitting himself to the authority of HaRav Shach. As HaRav Shach put it soon after Rav Reuven's petirah: "He was with me during all the periods and in all situations."

When HaRav Eliyohu Dushnitzer came to Lomza yeshiva, Rav Reuven developed a close link with him and drew from the wellsprings of his magnificent yiras Shomayim.

An Important Shidduch

During chol hamoed Pesach 5706 (1946) Rav Reuven got engaged to his Rebbetzin, the daughter of HaRav Zvi Yehuda Edelstein zt"l, rov of Ramat Hasharon. The Chazon Ish made an effort to attend the engagement meal which took place in Ramat Hasharon. He thus demonstrated the extent of his admiration and fondness for the young gaon. The father of the kalla was considered one of the most important rabbonim in Eretz Yisroel, well-known for his greatness in Torah and unceasing hasmodoh. He was close to the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rov both of whom greatly respected him. HaRav Zvi Yehuda's wife was from the famous Mowshovitz family and was the sister of the geonim Rav Yisroel, Rav Doniel and others, originally from Russia and later rabbonim in Tel Aviv and Herzelia. His brothers-in-law were HaRav Yitzchok Berman, HaRav Mordechai Shmuel Kroll, rov of Kfar Chassidim and others.

The kalla's uncle HaRav Yisroel Mowshovitz said at the seudas tenoim that it could be stated in all honesty that the chosson was totally fluent in Shas and rishonim. Rav Reuven's brother-in-law Rav Yaakov Edelstein relates that after the chosson finished his drosho about one of the complicated sugyos in Na'aro Hame'oroso, he heard his father saying softly, "He's a total genius." HaRav Zvi Yehuda was known to be especially particular about not giving undeserving compliments, so that his words were taken as a genuine reflection of his amazement.

After his marriage he continued his studies at Lomza yeshiva as well as teaching the younger students. In 5711 (1951) he started giving shiurim on a daily basis, dedicating himself totally to his students and guiding them in the paths of limud haTorah and mussar.

His students from that period recall how Rav Reuven would learn bechavrusa with each talmid individually. Naturally there was only a limited amount of time for each student, but it was sufficient to instill each one with qualitative "muscles."

He became a byword for hasmodoh in Torah. Despite the severe poverty in his home he did not allow himself to get distracted from his Torah studies, spending whole days in his room at the yeshiva toiling in Torah without interruption. He would spend many hours learning while standing up, holding a sefer in his hand.

In 5714 (1954) his father, HaRav Avrohom Yitzchok zt"l rosh yeshiva of Tiferes Zion passed away and his mother came to live with him. His practice of mitzvas kibbud eim was a wonder to behold. Due to the size of the flat and his economic situation he gave up his bed for her whilst he would sleep on an armchair in the kitchen. She lived in his house for eleven years until she passed away in 5725 (1965).

Rav Reuven spared no effort to relieve his mother of the intense pain from which she often suffered, everything being done with the greatest respect. Many incidents could be cited of Rav Reuven's scrupulous observance of this mitzva. We will bring one example. His mother was meant to receive a sum of money on a monthly basis from a certain source. They did not fulfill their obligations and months passed without the Rebbetzin receiving anything. Rav Reuven, knowing how upset she would be if she heard about it, used his wages from Lomza yeshiva to give her a sum of money once a month in such a way that she thought that she was being given her money from that source. That way he gave her the feeling that she had a sum of money with which to help her children and give tzedoko, whilst Rav Reuven himself supported his family with the utmost difficulty.

In 5725 (1965) he became rosh yeshivas Chemdas Shmuel in a moshav called Chemed. At first he kept his position at Lomza yeshiva, giving two shiurim be'iyun on two different masechtos every Monday.

When Lomza yeshiva closed down he devoted himself totally to the yeshiva at Chemed. During the week he would be in the yeshiva on his own, his family coming to stay with him on Shabbosos. His apartment was speckled with cracks and holes, rain falling on his bed during the winter and the sun burning with intensity in the summer. In these difficult conditions he still managed to learn standing up for eight hours at a stretch with a gemora or Shulchan Oruch and Rambam in his hand.

Students who remained in close touch with him until his last days refer to his devotion and love for them and his endeavors for their success in Torah. Rav Reuven himself once told a member of his family off the cuff that he would fast a lot for his students' success in Torah and yiras Shomayim.

He also aimed to provide his talmidim with the tools for their self-improvement both intellectually and spiritually. In addition to his role as rosh yeshiva teaching Talmudic skills, he also imparted messages of mussar. This dedication to their spiritual welfare went hand in hand with his concern for their material well- being, and he made sure that everyone received enough food. Although they related to him as to an angel of Hashem, a close emotional bond developed between the talmidim and the rosh yeshiva, since they felt that he was like a devoted father and they turned to him with all their problems.

Talmidim from those days recall that he would spend whole nights learning consecutively, making sure that no one noticed what he was doing. Whenever rumors spread about the wonderful effects of his tefillos and brochos on individuals who had recognized his greatness and turned to him in times of trouble, he would beg people not to talk about it, belittling the whole matter. He had siyata deShmaya and for many years was successful in concealing himself so that apart from his students and close associates no one (including his family) knew the true extent of his wisdom and kedusha.

To Netivot

In 5736 (1976) Rav Reuven was called upon by HaRav Yissochor Meir to serve as rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Hanegev. He immediately devoted himself totally to the yeshiva and its talmidim. He would sit in the beis hamedrash for all three sedorim with a chavrusa like a regular bochur. The weekly shiur kloli was the outcome of seven chavrusas he had during the week during which the subject matter of the shiur would be laboriously analyzed. His demeanor when delivering the shiur was full of fire and you could feel that every fiber in his being was dedicated to the transmission of the shiur.

Rav Reuven was an example of the maamar Chazal, "Whoever learns Torah in secret, will be declared [a scholar] in public." Despite his modesty and attempts to escape public attention, he became famous as a gaon of stature, a brilliant disseminator of Torah and a saintly personality whose prayers and blessings were answered in Shomayim. Masses of people streamed to his house from all over the world seeking advice and a brocho. Each visitor was warmly received by the rov and made to feel special. He would kiss and hug bnei Torah who had never met him before, much to their astonishment.

The brokenhearted, widows, orphans, the sick and others who needed emotional and spiritual assistance all turned to him for succor and comfort. He was a source of solace and hope, patiently and devotedly boosting their emunah and bitochon in Our Creator, the Merciful Father. Many of these visitors benefited personally from his brochos and tefillos. He shed tears for the troubles of each person and beseeched his Creator for the salvation of both the community and the individual.


About thirteen years before his petirah Rav Reuven's health deteriorated and thereafter he was in constant pain the extent of which he kept secret even from those closest to him. With unparalleled effort he managed to keep his daily routine totally unchanged.

During the last few years he became very weak and his physical situation worsened. He was forced to stop learning in the beis hamedrash and instead to learn with chavrusas in his house during the time of the sedorim as had been his habit throughout the years. In addition, a minyan was organized in his house when he could no longer walk to the yeshiva.

It was during these years that the full force of his personality was revealed even more, since he could no longer conceal his behavior as he had managed to until then. Everyone could now learn from and witness his pure mesiras nefesh in kiyum haTorah vehamitzvos.

His mind remained immersed in Torah despite his terrible suffering. During difficult hours of his illness he would feel the pain of his fellow man and shed tears for the yeshu'o of the Jewish nation, whilst remaining totally oblivious to his own situation.

One of Rav Reuven's close associates who had the merit of spending time with him during the period of his illness kept a diary from which we shall quote some excerpts.

"Kislev 5754 (1993). Erev Shabbos. Hadassah Hospital. The Rov is lying in his bed next to two other patients. One is a young immigrant from Yemen who has some connection with religion, the other a lonely beggar. Upon my arrival, the Rov greets me cheerfully and immediately asks me to see to the needs of the latter fellow-patient who had lost his kippa. I find one, much to the Rov's delight. Then I am told to make sure that he will receive a proper Shabbos meal and various other things. You would think that I had come to assist the beggar. After Shabbos came in, he made an effort to sit in his chair and davened kabolas Shabbos and ma'ariv enthusiastically. After nightfall he asked me to make sure that all the patients on his floor could hear kiddush, only relaxing when I assured him that everyone was taken care of. He then made kiddush and with great difficulty managed to eat a kezayis, the minimum quantity required to be eaten for the Shabbos meal, all the while insisting that I and the other patients eat properly. He encourages me to go and get more food for everybody, saying, `A lot of chessed can be accomplished here.'

"During Friday night excruciating pain prevents him from falling asleep, but he doesn't complain or say anything. He lays on his bed learning parsha with Rashi for several hours then put down the sefer. It looked as if he had fallen asleep, but then I notice him murmuring to himself, reviewing his learning. The next day he again gathers his strength and sits up on his chair to learn for a number of hours.

"During the day the news spreads that the Rov is staying in the upper floor of the hospital and many patients come to him to receive a blessing. The Rov, using the remainder of his strength, comforts and blesses them. He asked one secular patient who came to receive a blessing whether he kept Shabbos. When he saw him stuttering, he said to him, `If you don't keep Shabbos how can I give you a brocho!'"

After his release from the hospital he straight away went back to his daily routine. With apparently superhuman strength he continued his shiurim with the customary clarity, so that the talmidim could gain fully from them. After each shiur he would return to his house totally exhausted but profoundly happy at having managed to give another shiur. On Erev Rosh Hashana 5755 (1994) Rav Reuven gave a shiur in the yeshiva. At the end of it he delivered words of chizuk for the upcoming yomim noraim, blessing everyone present with a shonoh tovah and adding, in a voice choked with tears, that a lot of tefillos had to be directed to Hakodosh Boruch Hu that we should all stay together during the coming year in health and happiness.

He strained himself to keep the mitzvos of the yomim tovim personally without making use of an agent. Thus he built his own succa, put on sechach, chose a set of arba minim by himself and so on. These activities were the source of his vitality.

After the yomim tovim, increasing weakness and pain forced him to be readmitted to the hospital. His only distress during this period stemmed from the fact that he could not learn be'iyun, but only gemora with Rashi, the doctors having forbidden him to exert himself. When they noticed Rav Reuven's distress, they permitted him to learn for half an hour with his regular chavrusa. However, each time he would continue beyond that time until he reached the stage where he said that any further study would be bordering on pikuach nefesh, and with a heavy heart he would stop learning. His chavrusa relates that even during these difficult situations when Rav Reuven was hardly able to speak, he would read and explain the words of the gemora and hold the gemora in his hand as was his habit.

In the last Kislev of his life, the doctors discovered that he was suffering from a terrible disease and decided that he had to be operated on. We will cite a few more paragraphs from the above diary.

"Friday 22 Kislev 5755. The Rov is in Hadassah hospital. The doctors have decided that he has to be operated on urgently after Shabbos. As soon as I arrive he asks me if I know any details about a certain young man who is in need of help and what his situation is. That was his "Sholom Aleichem." On Friday night the Rov is forbidden to eat or drink. His whole being is focused on prayer and study. No strength is left in him and he speaks little, but he is totally relaxed and at peace.

"On Shabbos afternoon he starts complaining that he can't learn regularly, that he is bedridden and that he can't daven properly, especially during this period of Chanukah, days of Hallel and thanksgiving. He quotes the gemora that there are two levels of yissurim. There are yissurim which entail no bitul Torah, for `those whom Hashem loves He reproves,' . . . `but now I have yissurim which involve bitul Torah!' Then there is the level of those who accept yissurim with happiness and love, of whom the posuk says, `They that love Him shall be as the sun that goes forth in its might.' It is written that this level was achieved by Avrohom Ovinu and it can be attained by those who are happy to receive yissurim. This calmed him down.

During the day he asked me about the welfare of some other patients and was happy to hear about the ones who were doing well. In the afternoon he was visited by some people who had health problems. The Rov said to one of them, `Of course, you have done everything, you have davened, given tzedoko and increased your Torah studies, but I think that there is one thing you haven't done yet that perhaps you should start to do now: start davening for others that Hashem should help them and then you yourself will have your problems solved. However, don't pray with that purpose in mind, just daven earnestly for your friend's welfare and your own problems will go away on their own.'

"The Rov's family was astonished later on to find the Rov -- who had been up all night and hadn't slept during the day -- lie with his eyes closed davening for the recovery of that visitor, for hadn't he told him that you have to daven for your friend's welfare?"

"Sunday 24 Kislev. The operation was scheduled for 8:00 a.m. but the doctor arrives late unexpectedly. All those around him are tense, but the Rov is calmness itself. He is happy that the operation will be delayed until the evening, since this will give him a chance to light the first Chanukah candle in his room. During one of the nights after the operation a family member sat next to the Rov and noticed his lips moving. Moving his ears closer he heard him say, `Boruch Hashem, we have had the merit of analyzing and summarizing this sugya.'"

When he returned home, he used all his remaining strength to deliver the shiur kloli in the yeshiva, saying it was his "korbon todah." He gave a few more shiurim but then at the end of one of them after being helped home by some talmidim he said, "That was the last shiur".

Even during these difficult days he still received people suffering from problems. When the Rebbetzin suggested that visitors be restricted from seeing him, Rav Reuven responded, "It says in Mishlei, `He that turns away his ear . . . even his prayer is an abomination.'" and he repeated the end of the posuk, "even his prayer is an abomination".

On one occasion during Adar I, when he was already bedridden, someone asked him to daven for a childless couple in chutz la'aretz whom he did not know at all. As soon as he heard about the couple, Rav Reuven asked to be helped to his table and with great effort sat down to write them a letter. By this stage he was so weak that he found it difficult to hold a pen in his hand. Nevertheless, he wrote some words to reinforce their emunah and added his advice that they should secretly donate a chomesh of their income to chessed institutions which give out food to needy families and to babies whose families could not afford to buy them healthy and nutritious food. "I am confident" -- so the letter concluded -- "that HaKodosh Boruch Hu will grant you salvation very soon."

Three days before his petirah he heard from them that the woman had become pregnant.

During his last days he became so weak that it was difficult for him to speak, but when it came to tefillah he found the strength to raise his voice and daven with great enthusiasm. He davened only from a siddur, turning the pages with great effort even for chazoras hashatz so that his finger could follow the shliach tsibur. During the last month, despite intense pain and weakness, he would not listen to anybody's remonstrations and insisted on being taken down for kiddush halevono. Remaining oblivious to his suffering, he was just happy to be able to perform the mitzva.

When his brother Rav Moshe shlita from the United States came to visit him, Rav Reuven's extreme weakness did not prevent him from sitting in his chair as normal so that his brother would not get upset at seeing him in his real state of distress.

The last time he left the house was for the hesped on HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l. He was carried by his talmidim, saying that, "it was all worth it," for kovod haTorah and strengthening the yeshiva and how happy he was to hear that the yeshiva had adopted some chizzukim because of his illness.

On his last day he still had the merit of saying Bircas Ho'ilonos in the presence of many others.

During the last night he turned to the Rebbetzin who had looked after him with supernatural powers and said, "I have to get dressed and go." He did not explain what he meant.

5 Nisan 5755. Sunrise. Rav Reuven wakes up, washes his hands, makes a shehakol and has something to drink. One senses a special, majestic sort of tranquility on his pure face. His son-in-law recites the bircos haTorah and bircos hashachar in order to be motzi him. Rav Reuven, who is no longer able to utter a sound, somehow builds up the strength to answer omen excitedly. However, with each brocho he becomes weaker.

His students and members of the kehilla stand behind the door getting ready to join tefillas shacharis . . . an urgent phone call to the doctor . . . a blood test . . . I feel no pain, he hints to the Rebbetzin -- and then suddenly Rav Reuven closes his pure eyes. The family present, suspecting that he had been taken into heaven, shout out Shema Yisroel, Hashem hu Ho'Elokim, followed immediately by the talmidim standing behind the door, who cannot believe that the pillar of fire who accompanied them by day and by night is no more. They tear their clothes for their father and their rov.



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