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29 Shvat, 5784 - February 8, 2024 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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The Flask Of Mann: The Thirty-First Yahrtzeit Of HaRav Nochum Abba Grossbard zt'l

By Moshe Musman

This is HaRav Grosbard. Either HaRav Nochum Abba or his uncle HaRaV Avrohom Abba

This was originally published exactly 30 years ago in 5754, on the first yahrtzeit of HaRav Grossbard zt"l. This is the first time it is being published online. There is very little information available about HaRav Grossbard online.

Part II

For Part I of this series click here.

For Part III of this series click here.

Bitachon And Hishtadlus

Last week we posed the question of what practical relevance the level of bitachon of someone like HaRav Grossbard has for us today.

The correct amount of hishtadlus was a frequent topic of discussion between Reb Nochum Abba and his teacher Reb Chatzkel Levenstein, the mashgiach of Mir and later Ponovezh. If Reb Chatzkel felt that a certain step went beyond what was required, Reb Nochum Abba never gave it a second thought.

HaRav Levenstein

Finding one's own level is important but how is one to know what his correct level of hishtadlus is? One prominent teacher, a close talmid of HaRav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt'l, who ranks as one of the most famous of the baalei mussar of Kelm, offered the following guidelines.

Chazal tell us that doing complete teshuva for an intentional aveira converts it to a mitzva. The reason for this is that the aveira has acted as a spur to teshuva. By the same token, if the performance of a mitzvah is sincerely regretted, not only is the merit of the mitzvah lost but the person is in a weaker position than he was previously.

An example will make this clearer. If we wake up one day with a headache and decide to "have bitachon" and not take a tablet, it is very likely that the headache, far from vanishing, will interfere with everything we do in the course of the day. We may well end up bitterly regretting the morning's decision. In that case, there would have been no lack of bitachon in taking medication for that headache.

What for Reb Nochum Abba was quite sufficient hishtadlus, would, for us, amount to relying on something unnatural and therefore be wrong. If our bitachon were on a higher level, we would realize that Hashem had sent us the headache for a reason, have accepted it and, most importantly, had been able to function despite it.

According to this, the right amount of hishtadlus is the course of action that, even if it does not work out as we had hoped, will not leave us regretting that we hadn't done more to begin with.

Let us say a man is faced with a choice of how to divide his day. He can choose either to work half day and learn half day, to work full-time and learn in the evenings, or some arrangement in between. If he knows that living on the earnings of working half a day will lead him to regret the half day that he learns, then he would not be raising his level of bitachon by attempting to follow the first course.

If on the other hand, he feels ready to manage on a tight budget, secure in his bitachon that whatever he earns is what Hashem provides for him, the first course is for him. Even if after a time he found himself unable to continue, he would not have lost the level of bitachon he acquired. (Of course, in practice, such decisions take many other factors into account and no two people's situations are exactly the same.)

If we clearly need medication for a bothersome headache, what practical ways are there for genuinely raising our level of bitachon?

HaRav Dessler used to mention the following strategies. First, one should work on developing the traits of frugality and general contentment with what one has. If one can find things to consider optional instead of necessary, one can get more used to the idea that Hashem is providing enough for one's needs.

Second, working on tefillah, realizing that it is our tefillah that makes us worthy of receiving Hashem's blessing and thereby deepening our conviction that what Hashem provides does not have to be in proportion to the amount of hishtadlus we do.

Third, contemplating the teachings of chazal which relate to bitachon.

Fourth, realizing that the necessity for hishtadlus is not the ideal state of affairs—if we truly lived up to the spiritual levels we are supposed to be on, our needs would be met by the other nations.

Last but by no means least, is to remember the rule, "Make your Torah definite and your work casual." In other words, do not exchange bitachon for laziness.

Mourning In His Heart, Joy On His Face

While in the present context our discussion of Reb Nochum Abba's character must remain brief, one further aspect is especially deserving of our consideration. This is because of the common but mistaken notion that rigorous, demanding standards of avodas Hashem breed some kind of emotional blight or vacuum.

In fact, success in subjugating and reconciling the often capricious whims of human nature to a higher task—the ability to correctly evaluate oneself and the varying situations and to know which of two opposite extremes of any given characteristic to employ—is a source of profound, inner joy. Stemming from within, this happiness is not dependent on any external circumstances.

The Chazon Ish

In Kelm, the term "maskil," meaning one whose tool for evaluation was his intellect, was considered the highest accolade one could receive. It denoted the firm control of judgment over the continually shifting emotions.

The Chazon Ish greatly praised Reb Nochum Abba for this trait. Reb Chatzkel too, always addressed Reb Nochum Abba in his letters with terms such as "maskil al dvar emes" and "maskil el darchei Hashem," just as the Alter of Kelm had addressed his own son, HaRav Nochum Zeev Ziv zt'l.

Reb Nochum Abba was an example of the perfection of this trait, exemplifying the type of Torah Jew who came out of the great Lithuanian mussar yeshivos of the previous generation, and particularly the Talmud Torah of Kelm.

Those who had a chance to become acquainted with Reb Nochum Abba over a period of time noticed something that is only seen in truly great men, who have managed to refine their service of Hashem to a very high degree, purging it of personal motives. On the one hand he was full of strength and vigor in any matter concerning avodas Hashem. He brooked no deviation from the truth and was as exacting in the total dedication that he demanded from himself and he was in that which he demanded from his followers.

At the same time, he also possessed a warm and feeling heart which responded to the joys and sorrows of countless people and inspired him to make both small and great efforts to help others. He was gifted with the ability to penetrate the other person's feelings and understand their point of view. His advice, which was often sought on a range of matters of such as livelihood, medicine, education, and domestic harmony, was always tempered to the specific needs of the questioner and his particular situation.

The hospitality which he practiced went beyond mere consideration of his guests' physical needs. Already in their first home, in the United States, he and his rebbetzin would make a point of inviting people who, for one reason or another, did not receive invitations to other homes. Besides providing food and lodgings, he would spend time in conversation with his guests, inquiring about their general welfare and making sure that their visit to his home was pleasant in every respect.

The extent of his hospitality is apparent from the reaction of the landlady of one of the apartments he rented, who herself lived in a neighboring apartment. She cancelled the rental contract, claiming that she had rented her apartment out as a private dwelling, not as a hostel!

His sensitivity to the needs of others was keen, even when there was, or would have been, nothing at all reproachable in his own behavior, as the following group of stories demonstrates.

When someone passed away in Bnei Brak shortly before sunset on a Friday afternoon, he realized in the middle of Shabbos that since Shavuos fell that year right after Shabbos, there would be nobody visiting the mourners to comfort them. Since halacha does not forbid comforting mourners on Shabbos, he went then and there to the house where the mourners were staying. Years later they remembered the joy and consolation which his visit—and that of one other comforter—brought them that Shabbos. By the way, the other visitor was the Steipler zt'l.

The Talmud Torah of Kelm

The treasurer of a loan fund related how Reb Nochum Abba approached him once for a sorely needed loan. There was no cash available so he offered Reb Nochum Abba checks which other borrowers had left him in payment for their loans. To his amazement, Reb Nochum Abba refused to take them explaining that since the previous borrower was surely also in need of the money, he felt unable to draw money from the account for his own use. The treasurer's protestations that once the date on the check had arrived the money rightfully belonged to the loan fund, were to no avail. Despite his own pressing need, Reb Nochum Abba refused the loan.

On another occasion, when he was much older and walking was hard for him, he stumbled and fell to the ground when he was on his way out of the Ponovezh yeshiva ketana one morning after shacharis. After being helped to his feet, he continued on home without any complaint. On the way he told his son that he thought he had been punished for leaving the beis hamedrash in the middle of the shiur in halacha being given by the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz.

Although the shiur was held at one end of the hall and was meant only for the bochurim, he still felt that by walking out, he was slighting the respect due to the rosh yeshiva and from that day on, he either left the beis hamedrash immediately after the tefillah or he waited the full half hour or so until the shiur ended.

During this later period of his life, in his consideration for others, Reb Nochum Abba made a point of removing any trace of tiredness or distress when he greeted or spoke to them. Arriving home after a long and exhausting walk from the yeshiva, followed by a tiring climb up the three flights of stairs to his apartment, he would stop for a moment to compose himself before going inside, so that he could greet his wife cheerfully.

When he was sick, towards the end of his life, his suffering and weakness were obvious to those around him. Nevertheless, when visitors arrived, he received them with a smile on his face and with such warmth that they were unable to detect just how weak he really was. With what must have been a supreme effort, he conversed with them in good spirits, enquiring after their welfare and trying to make them feel at ease.

Whenever he was approached for help with a problem, his involvement did not stop once he had given his advice. He personally did as much as he could, consulting, listening and discussing, to see the situation through to a successful conclusion. When he was the only one who could help in a situation, his devotion to the cause was complete.

Once, a lonely, single Jew was killed in Eretz Yisroel, leaving a large sum of money in Reb Nochum Abba's safekeeping. He made a special trip in order to speak personally with the man's heirs, irreligious Jews who lived in the United States, in an attempt to persuade them to devote part of the legacy to a worthy cause in memory of their deceased kinsman.

On another occasion, when he learned that a distant relative—an assimilated woman—of his had died, leaving instructions that her body be cremated, he travelled to South America and waged a long and expensive legal battle, arguing that as a family member he had a right to stop the cremation, to which he was opposed. Eventually, he succeeded and he was able to have the woman buried in a kever Yisroel.

As we have mentioned, his efforts on behalf of others complemented his self discipline. The demands he made upon himself were exacting. He was never satisfied with what he had already achieved; he always sought to reach further and higher in his level of avodas Hashem. When already an old man, he was still making demands on himself, like someone much younger.

Reb Nochum Abba maintained a constant degree of inner tension. One of his sons recalls that at home, he was never seen to relax with the air of having finished his work and being "off duty." He continually held himself in check, placing his intellect and the dictates of his spiritual level firmly in command of all his physical actions.

In all this, he was following the admonition of the Vilna Gaon (in Igeres HaGra) which was constantly on his lips, "...this is the entire [existence of] man, not to let himself [act according] to [the dictates of] his desires...until his last day, a man must reprove himself, not with fasts and self-mortification but by restraining his mouth and his appetites..."

It was incredible to see Reb Chatzkel in his eighties, berating Reb Nochum Abba—then in his fifties—about achieving yet more and more progress in his personal avodas Hashem. Reb Chatzkel once became annoyed with a bochur who was part of a group he was speaking to and wanting to lighten the mood, he said, "What does a person need talmidim for [if not] to demand perfection from them? From whom can I then demand perfection? I can demand it from Reb Abba Grossbard!"

Despite his continual striving and the palpable fear of sin which always rested on him, the atmosphere around him was pleasant and cheerful. His disciples and friends loved him and his company. This is because, true, inner joy is to be found only amongst those who serve Hashem with a pure, whole heart.

"For The Mouth Is Kodesh Kodoshim"

One further example of how he carefully controlled each of his traits, determining when to employ and when to refrain from employing each one, is his use of the power of speech.

Despite the fact that he was a gifted speaker, able to talk before an audience in a rich, lyrical prose for hours at a time, his son recalls that idle talk never passed his lips. He mastered the art of silence to the same extent that he excelled as a speaker, guarding the sanctity of the mouth and the power of speech with zeal. "For the mouth is the kodesh kodoshim," he used to say, quoting the Igeres HaGra.

When he felt that speaking would serve no positive spiritual purpose, would remain silent for hours on end. An explanation he once gave of a gemora in Chulin served as a basis for this behavior. "What craft should a man practice in this world?" asks the gemora. "He should conduct himself like a dumb person and stick his lips together like two millstones."

Since a dumb person lacks the ability to speak, Reb Nochum Abba pointed out, surely it would have been sufficient to mention the first piece of advice alone. He answered that not only should a man conduct himself as though he is technically unable to speak, he should feel that even if he could speak, it would be as difficult for him to pry apart his lips as though they were attached to two heavy millstones.

For many years, he held a ta'anis dibbur from Rosh Chodesh Elul until after Yom Kippur. Only when it became difficult to maintain this practice at home, did he seek hatoras nedarim and stop this custom. When he was old and lay ill in bed, he did not participate in the conversation that was being held at his bedside. Nevertheless, if he heard the beginning of an empty exchange, he would reprimand his companions with a firm, "Stop!"

In idle chatter, he saw a debasement of the most sublime power of man. He would not even repeat stories of other gedolim or of his own experiences unless there was a positive practical lesson to be derived from the account or it demonstrated Hashem's miracles and His kindness, for which purpose he held the retelling to be a mitzva.

Similarly, he never employed his wide general knowledge or his ability to speak seven languages simply for his own diversion. Only when it was a question of helping, giving someone a piece of advice or settling a quarrel, would he speak as much as was necessary and for as long as necessary.

In the preceding paragraphs, we have tried to convey something of our understanding of certain individual aspects of the inner world of a tzaddik whose life recalls for us a high level of avodas Hashem (and there is yet much more that could be said that we have not touched upon). At once simple—yet complex, inward looking—yet interacting with his surroundings, he dealt with his fellow men while always standing before Hashem.

The next part of our appreciation of Reb Nochum Abba's life, will look at some of the events of his early life and his role in rebuilding Torah in surroundings that were both physically and spiritually distant from the Grodno, Kaminetz and Kelm of his youth.

Fascinating Stops On A Wondrous Journey

Reb Nochum Abba hardly knew his father, Rav Aharon Zeev Grossbard zt'l, a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim and of the great baalei mussar of Kelm. Nevertheless, it might be said that Rav Aharon Zeev exerted a decisive influence on the lives of his three sons through the request he made of his wife to raise the boys to be bnei Torah—a request which she more than fulfilled.

Apprehensive of the attention which her gifted sons were attracting amongst the maskilim of their small home town of Vizhian, the young widow closed down her business, shut up her house and moved with her three orphans to the nearby center of Suvalk. Here, the boys attended cheder. This was a cheder of the old type—when it grew dark, learning continued as long as the fuel in the lamps lasted.

One of Reb Nochum Abba's earliest encounters with the gedolim of his time took place when he was seven. On a visit to Vilna, he watched Reb Chaim Ozer making Havdalah on a cup of tea. In response to the child's amazement, the gaon explained that he held that tea was considered a standard national beverage (chamar medina) and was therefore fit for use for Havdalah.

He first arrived in Grodno at the age of twelve but he left after a year and a half to live in the home of his uncle, HaRav Avrohom Abba Grossbard zt'l, who later became the mashgiach of Ponovezh when that yeshiva was founded.

In 5691 (1931), the elder HaRav Grossbard lived in Riga, of the then-independent Latvia. He headed the yeshiva of that city's rabbi, HaRav Mendel Zak zt'l, (who published the seforim Ohr Somayach and Meshech Chochmah at the request of their famous author who lived in nearby Dvinsk). Reb Nochum Abba said that during this period, he would learn for fourteen hours a day. His uncle would remain awake waiting for him into the small hours of the morning, something Reb Nochum Abba deeply regretted in later years.

Few bnei Torah crossed the border into Latvia at that time and Reb Nochum Abba used the opportunity of being near Dvinsk to meet the famous Rogatchover Gaon, HaRav Yosef Rosin zt'l, who was the town's rav. The Rogatchover, who was well known for his brusque manner with aspiring scholars, would receive the young ben Torah with unusual cordiality and from these visits, a correspondence later developed when Reb Nochum Abba was learning in Grodno.

Once, when HaRav Grossbard and his young nephew were paying him a visit, the Rogatchover exclaimed, "Neither you, nor your rebbe, Reb Chaim know the pshat in this sugya!" ("Reb Chaim," of course, was HaRav Chaim Brisker, whose interpretation of that sugya had been published.)

Reb Nochum Abba had made up his mind to return to Grodno at the end of Elul, 5693 (1933). On erev Shabbos, 24th Elul, the Chofetz Chaim was niftar in Radin. Although the bitter tidings reached Riga before Shabbos (the town's maggid even hinted at it in his weekly drosho), Reb Nochum Abba, totally immersed in his learning, had not heard. His uncle made no mention of the matter over Shabbos and only once night had fallen, in response to his nephew's wish to travel via Radin so that he could receive a blessing from the Chofetz Chaim, did HaRav Grossbard say that he should indeed go by way of Radin, however, not to receive anything from the Chofetz Chaim but to accord him honor at his levaya. Amongst the multitudes that converged on Radin that Sunday, 26th Elul, Reb Nochum Abba met Reb Yeruchom of Mir, who received him and the regards he brought from his uncle, with great warmth.

In Yeshivas Sha'arei Torah—Grodno

During his years in Grodno, Reb Nochum Abba developed a thorough and deep knowledge of the masechtos of Noshim and Nezikim.

Before he began contemplating the concepts which formed the basis of the sugya, he would repeat every step in the gemora's discussion dozens of times, perfecting his comprehension of each word used by the gemora and the rishonim. His delight in each gemora increased the more he learned it; after learning through a sugya twenty or thirty times, he found it hard to tear himself away from it. Lest his listeners imagine that their Torah was acquired by virtue of intellectual gifts, Reb Nochum Abba would give some idea of the efforts he and his friends invested in their learning by saying, "We vomited our mother's milk over every piece of gemora!"

Reb Nochum Abba used to recall the awe in which some of the older bochurim, who were proficient in all of Shas, were held by the younger members of the yeshiva. These bochurim used to learn next to the eastern wall of the beis hamedrash and Reb Nochum Abba remembered his awe at approaching them, even just to take one of the seforim that stood on the sill of the east window.

One of them befriended him and greatly aided his progress in learning. Another friendship he developed in those days was with HaRav Eliyahu Mishkovsky, later rosh yeshiva in Kfar Chassidim. The two arranged to learn during an odd half hour that usually went to waste and in a short space of time, they managed to complete maseches Kesuvos.

The Grodno masmidim were faced with a serious problem every Friday night during the long winters: the candelabra in the beis hamedrash could not burn all the way through the night.

The solution developed by the shammash was to arrange a series of candles in such a way that as soon as the first one burned out, a second one would be kindled and then a third, and so on. This arrangement was mounted on the bimah and every week, Reb Nochum Abba would hurry to finish the evening meal so that he could find a place next to the bimah, where there was enough light for him to learn almost until the morning.

The solid knowledge of Noshim and Nezikim which he acquired in Grodno, stood him in good stead until the very end of his life. Summing up the kind of application to learning that was typical in yeshivos at that time, Reb Nochum Abba would say, "Our shailos used to be about how we could take a haircut, and continue to learn at the same time!"

Reb Nochum Abba visited many great Torah scholars, with some of whom he maintained correspondence. Once, he sent a question to HaRav Aharon Kotler, then rosh yeshiva in Kletsk. He received no answer. One day, he heard that Reb Aharon was at the Grodno railway station and, rushing there, he found him in conversation with HaRav Eliyahu Faivelson of the Radin Yeshiva. After listening to the conversation, Reb Nochum Abba offered his own ideas and after asking his name, Reb Aharon said, "Are you the one who sent me that question?"

Affirming this, Reb Nochum Abba requested an answer. "Come to Kletsk and you'll get an answer!" was Reb Aharon's reply.

HaRav Faivelson exclaimed in amazement, "Is that how today's roshei hayeshivos go about catching the best students?!"

Reb Aharon, however, was serious. There would be no answer unless Reb Nochum Abba came to Kletsk!

HaRav Shimon Shkop

At The Feet Of Reb Shimon

A close bond developed between the gaon HaRav Shimon Shkop zt'l, rosh yeshiva of Grodno, and Reb Nochum Abba. In later years, Reb Nochum Abba would describe what a great tzaddik Reb Shimon had been, as well as having been one of the most important figures in training a new generation of roshei yeshiva.

During Reb Shimon's later years, he grew very weak and remained at home, hardly delivering any shiurim. Even on one of the rare occasions that he gave shiur the doctor forbade the talmidim to interrupt with questions so as not to heighten the level of tension, thus further taxing Reb Shimon's strength. So that Reb Shimon would not notice this, however, two of the top talmidim were given permission to ask.

Reb Nochum Abba often went into Reb Shimon's house to speak with him in learning. The Rosh Yeshiva was almost always to be found learning from a single volume of mishnayos incorporating in the mishna a review of the major points of the topics dealt with in the gemora. He remembered all the gemora's discussion by heart, only occasionally opening the gemora itself to study something.

Once, Reb Nochum Abba asked Reb Shimon about a difficult passage of the Rashbam's commentary to Bava Basra. Although he had labored hard, he had not yet found a satisfactory interpretation. Reb Shimon said to him, "When I was a bochur, I too had difficulties with this piece of Rashbam. I came to my teacher the Netziv and presented him with my problem. He said to me, `You want to know the explanation of this piece of Rashbam? How many tears did I shed as a bochur, in order to understand it, and still I was unsuccessful!' "

Often Reb Nachum Abba would accompany Reb Shimon on the latter's daily walk. He would carry a folding chair so that his rebbe could take a rest and they would discuss various difficult sugyos. He made notes of all Reb Shimon's shiurim, as well as the divrei Torah that he heard from him personally. He was forced to abandon all his notebooks, however, including those which contained his own chidushim, when he crossed the border during the war.

Despite his closeness to Reb Shimon, he stood before him in awe. When speaking with his teacher in learning, out of respect, Reb Nochum Abba refrained from making any of the accompanying gesticulations that are customary in yeshivos.

At the outbreak of World War Two, Reb Nochum Abba was staying in Vilna. He went to consult Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky about plans for escaping. On motzei Yom Kippur, 5700 (1939), Reb Chaim Ozer instructed him to leave Vilna and he decided to try to reach Grodno. Reb Nochum Abba had left Reb Shimon's yeshiva some time before in order to help his mother. The yeshiva, together with the mashgiach, HaRav Shlomo Harkavy, had already left Grodno for Vilna. Reb Shimon however, was too weak to travel and he had stayed behind, tended by a small group of bochurim.

Arriving in Grodno, Reb Nochum Abba spent much time together with his old rebbe, receiving instruction in worldly matters as well as Torah. The yeshiva had left behind substantial debts with suppliers and the like and its financial situation was bleak. Rebbetzin Grossbard decided to show her gratitude to her sons' teacher by donating a large sum of money towards defraying the yeshiva's debts.

When Reb Shimon received the money however, he refused to accept it out of concern that she had no right to give so large a donation from property which really belonged to her sons, who were heirs according to Torah law. Only when he had hinted at this problem and Reb Nochum Abba had hastened to assure him that there was no problem whatsoever, did Reb Shimon agree to accept the money.

On the morning of the ninth of Cheshvan, Reb Nochum Abba spent several hours with Reb Shimon. As he left, his teacher instructed him to return at two o'clock, as there was something important that he wanted to tell him. This cryptic request surprised Reb Nochum Abba.

Just then, a message arrived that his aunt, the wife of HaRav Avrohom Abba, was waiting at the railway station in her attempt to escape to Eretz Yisroel. Apparently, she had encountered some difficulty which he would be able to help her solve. Weighing up his decision carefully, as he used to do even then, he decided that his first obligation was to his aunt. He would go to Reb Shimon later. As soon as his task at the station was completed, he set out for his teacher's home.

He arrived at four o'clock to find that Reb Shimon had passed away. His death had been sudden; he had fallen down while praying mincha. This greatly distressed Reb Nochum Abba for the gemora says that, "If he fell down and died, it is bad omen."

He was only comforted after he found out that shortly before then Reb Shimon had reached the age of eighty. That same gemora continues, "This is only if he had not reached his eighties."

In the concluding part of this series, we follow Reb Nochum Abba to Kaminetz, Kelm, Shanghai and New York.


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