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10 Cheshvan 5763 - October 16, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Transmission of the Torah from Generation to Generation:
An Interview with HaRav Zvi Markowitz

by Rav A. Chefetz

Part I

The building on Rechov Adoniyohu Hakohen in Yerushalayim refused to reveal the events taking place inside it. We knocked gently on the door and saw a modest home with an old bookshelf, an old table, and simple chairs. We sensed that serene tranquility that has always been the reserve of the gedolim: Toras Hashem temimoh, meshivas nofesh.

We waited several minutes for the arrival of HaRav Zvi Markowitz. We surveyed the worn-out volumes of Shas that were purchased after the War, when there was a severe shortage of paper in Eretz Yisroel and a great demand for a Shas. A Shas was printed in Germany, and on the illustrated title page the following posuk was quoted: "I was almost destroyed from the land, but I did not forget Your commandments."

We were awakened from our thoughts when the Rosh Yeshiva of Karlin walked into the room. His high, wrinkled forehead, which showed the sign of deep understanding, and his shining face immediately imparted a rare atmosphere: we were privileged to be in the presence of one of the oldest roshei yeshiva of our generation.

The Chazon Ish ztv"l considered the establishment of yeshivas in Eretz Yisroel to be the restoration of Torah to its own home. The face of the Chazon Ish -- who was one of the architects of the promise "it shall not be forgotten from his descendants" -- lit up every time he saw a talmid chochom who had plucked up the courage to teach Torah in a yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel after the destruction in Europe. This is how he started off a letter in 5709 (1949) addressed to "Our dear friend, Morenu HaRav Zvi [Markowitz] shlita from Yeshivas Slonim in the Holy Land in the town of Ramat Gan":

"For several centuries now the yeshivas of Bovel have been in exile paving the path for their return to the country from which they were exiled. They were destroyed in Bovel and rebuilt in the foreign territories of Spain, France, and Germany. Their names have disappeared, but not their souls. This is the Torah that went through ten exiles and built a home for itself in Eretz Shin'ar. It went into exile from Bovel to the Western countries. This is the Torah that is now returning from the desolate Western countries to the beloved and holy country that was given to our forefathers as an eternal inheritance, and which served as its home when it came from Sinai to appear with its shining rays amidst the Jewish nation."

We mentioned this letter to the rov but did not ask any unnecessary questions. "We have come to listen not to talk," we told the rov, and only asked one question: "Where does our generation stand today in terms of the chain of Torah tradition?"

The Rosh Yeshiva of Karlin, who himself is certainly part of the transmission of the Torah fortresses from previous generation in his capacity as a talmid muvhak of HaRav Shimon Shkop ztv"l rosh yeshiva of the Grodno Yeshiva and of R' Boruch Ber ztv"l from Kamenitz, and who before that had absorbed massive quantities of Torah and its ways in Slonim Yeshiva -- one of the first yeshivas founded after Volozhin -- under the guidance of his future father-in-law, the rosh yeshiva HaRav Shabsai Yogel ztv"l, was surely the right person to tell us about the Torah that had returned to the beloved Land, we thought to ourselves, and asked again: "How would he classify the current state of affairs? How has the Torah taken root in the study halls of the yeshivas today?"

The elderly Rosh Yeshiva of Karlin chooses his words very carefully. He is not one, chas vesholom, to make superficial statements. Because of this, and the serious atmosphere of our meeting, we cannot take full responsibility that we have faithfully rendered his statements, which were made in Yiddish, into English. However, we have tried our best:

"We can't guess what the Chazon Ish meant: the Rishonim already said, `If I understood him, I would be him.' And the same applies to understanding what the Chazon Ish meant with his statement about the transmission of our Torah from generation to generation. However, in my humble opinion, the reality is as follows:

"Those who learn Torah, toil over the words of the gemora with the Rishonim, delving into the depths of their statements. They comment on and clarify their intentions. How can we know whether we are following the right path? Is this what the Rashbo really meant? Did the Ramban have that in mind?

"The answer is that the Vilna Gaon serves as our assurance in this matter. His was a [or: he was a personification of] Toras Emes with regard to all the parts of the Torah and, as we know, the yeshivas in our day have their foundations in [the Torah of the] Vilna Gaon. Our very structure of learning -- [our way of] understanding and explaining [the material] originates from the Vilna Gaon. HaRav Chaim Volozhiner, who founded the Volozhin Yeshiva, was a talmid muvhak of the Vilna Gaon and our methods of limmud to this day are his methods."

We perk up our ears to hear more:

"The concept of the transmission of Torah is well known. It seems difficult to understand this concept, because it is clear that after the Talmud was concluded we were not allowed to add or detract from it, as the Rambam writes in his introduction to Mishneh Torah: `Ravina and Rav Ashi and their colleagues were the last of the gedolim amongst the chachomim of the nation who transmitted the Torah shebe'al peh.' Rabbeinu Yonah at the beginning of maseches Ovos writes that once all the chachomim who had received the Torah as transmitted from generation to generation met and they all made a joint decision to put the Torah shebe'al peh into writing and they wrote and finalized the Talmud currently in our possession, after this nothing was to be added or detracted from it.

"If so, what is there to be transmitted from rav to talmid other than what is already written in the gemora itself? What is it that is transmitted from generation to generation, if everything is already written in the gemora and the Talmud marked the conclusion of the process of transmission of the Torah?

"The answer is that what has been transmitted from the Rishonim to the Acharonim until our time is not what to learn but how to learn. The essence of the Torah shebe'al peh has not changed since the Talmud was concluded, but the structure of learning has been transmitted from the Rishonim to the Acharonim from generation to generation via all sorts of methods of limmud, and the Yeshiva world in our time learns according to the method handed down via the Vilna Gaon.

"In practice," continues HaRav Markowitz, "the institution of the yeshiva has taken on various shapes and forms over the generations. There were times in our history when the whole Jewish nation constituted one big yeshiva: every shul was also a beis hamedrash and every rov was also a rosh yeshiva of talmidim (our fathers still told us of such conditions even in recent times), but [when the spiritual situation of the nation] became weaker and Torah study in depth with toiling and diligence started to diminish, the gedolim -- in anticipation of future events -- decided to concentrate all the candles into one holy flame, and they created the yeshiva in its most recent format.

"The yeshiva in its current form was founded by HaRav Chaim Volozhiner under the instructions of the Vilna Gaon who was the main receiver of the Torah tradition of his generation and he established its framework and its manner of transmission for future generations. These are the yeshivas, which exist in our day.

"This is the system that is in place in Eretz Yisroel and in chutz lo'oretz. In most yeshivas, i.e. in the yeshivas of our brethren the Sephardim and in Chassidic yeshivas, they all learn according to this system. The transmission of Torah has been put back on the rails. The venues of Torah have changed over the generations, but the same Torah has been studied in all of them. In this lies the answer to your question where does our generation stand today in terms of the chain of Torah tradition.

"The Chazon Ish ztv"l kept a close watch on the development of talmidim and spoke a lot in limmud with the roshei yeshivos and with the talmidim. He examined them and listened to the way they were learning, and when he saw that the derech halimud of those who had absorbed the tzuras halimud from rabbonim before the Holocaust had taken root, he was very pleased. I myself was given a yasher koach by him when he heard divrei Torah from a talmid at our yeshiva who had heard shiurim based on what I had heard from [my] rabbonim in yeshivas [I attended]."

At this stage we interrupted the rov to ask him about the derech halimmud of the Chazon Ish himself.

The Rosh Yeshiva of Karlin answered as follows:

"The Chazon Ish with his geonus certainly also included the standard derech halimmud of the yeshivas, and in most of his written chidushim he includes in an abbreviated form the pshat of the sugya according to the basic derech halimmud adopted by the yeshivas. He once said that in the Chazon Ish on Bovo Kammo he expanded at greater length than what is customary in the yeshivas, intending this as a present to the yeshivas. When he talked to us in limmud it was along the same lines that we were used to from the yeshivas. As we know, it was the Chazon Ish who pushed for and encouraged the establishment of all the yeshivas in Eretz Yisroel and he saw in this how the Torah returned to its home. As he wrote in the letter on the yeshivas in our day: `This is the Torah that went through ten exiles and built a home for itself in Eretz Shin'ar . . . This is the Torah that is now returning . . . to the beloved and holy country.' "

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