The Gadol of Sochatchov-Baltimore, Part II

Question #1: How was a chassidishe gadol instrumental in creating one of the most prominent Litvishe yeshivos?

Question #2: How did the same gadol make his parnasah during the Great Depression?

Question #3: Who was Rav Gifter’s first rebbe, someone with whom he kept an active correspondence for almost thirty years?

Last week, I began the biographical introduction of the life of an almost unknown gadol beYisrael named Rav Michael Forschleger, whose 57th yahrzeit falls on the fifteenth of Marcheshvan. We mentioned that although Rav Forschleger was asked to become the Rosh Yeshivah of well-known yeshivos, he never took a position in either rabbonus or as a Rosh Yeshivah, content to spend his life learning and writing his voluminous chiddushei Torah. Nevertheless, he was highly influential in his own original way. In last week’s installment, we began from Rav Forschleger’s birth in a small town in southwestern Poland, through his education in the Sochatchover yeshivah, and followed him on his travels to Baltimore, Maryland after World War I. There, he made his house into his beis medrash, while he was supported by his father, who had developed a successful real estate business.

Rav Forschleger was known for learning non-stop, sometimes forgetting to sleep. When he did sleep, he slept for only a few hours. There are several stories of gedolei Yisroel who came to Baltimore for fund raising and visited Rav Forschleger, and the two talked in learning through the night, without either one realizing the passage of time.

In 1930, Rav Avraham Yitzchok Bloch, the Rosh Yeshivah of Telz, Lithuania, came to Baltimore to raise money for his yeshivah. Rav Bloch stayed in the house of one of the rabbonim in the city, and, one evening, he had prearranged that he would return early. Rav Bloch did not return to the house that evening, and the host searched for him, to no avail, finally filing a missing-person’s report with the Baltimore Police. At 2 a.m., Rav Bloch returned to his lodging, unaware that he been the source of much consternation, but aglow with the Torah he had just heard from Rav Forschleger for hours. It was only then that Rav Bloch realized that he had been “talking in learning” with Rav Forschleger for eight consecutive hours!

Rav Forschleger never owned a telephone – even in the 1950’s  – because of the bitul Torah that owning one might entail. Once, he and Rav Yaakov Ruderman, the Rosh Yeshivah of Ner Yisroel, were discussing a matter in learning, and Rav Ruderman asked Rav Forschleger a question to which neither of them had a satisfactory answer. At 2:00 a.m., Rav Ruderman received a phone call from Rav Forschleger, with an approach to answering the question. When asked how he could make a phone call at that hour of night, Rav Forschleger responded that he could not wait until morning to tell Rav Ruderman, so he went to the nearest bar to use the payphone!

Rav Forschleger was sitting shivah for the passing of one of his siblings when Rav Ruderman came to be menacheim aveil, accompanied by his brother-in-law, Rabbi Naftali Neuberger and his son-in-law, Rav Yaakov Weinberg. Three hours later, Rav Forschleger was still discussing divrei torah with them, in the interim having forgotten that he was in aveilus and prohibited to learn Torah.

Appreciation for learning

In 1942, when Rav Chayim Zimmerman published his work Binyan Halachah, he came to Baltimore to sell his new sefer. Rav Forschleger purchased it from Rav Zimmerman. The next day, Rav Zimmerman came by Rav Forschleger’s house to discuss with him a topic in learning, and Rav Forschleger paid him a second time. “Last night I went through your sefer, and I found in it a profound observation. By thinking about your question, I was mechadeish an entire work of my own. I want to demonstrate my hakaras hatov for this.”

Rav Forschleger had a shitah in Torah that every thought, idea, of a great Torah mind will find its place. This means that even if one feels that an answer one finds is not accurate or relevant in the context cited by that particular gadol, one will find that the concept is applicable in a different area of halachah.

Rav Forschleger and olam hazeh

Olam hazeh held no interest for Rav Forschleger. There are several instances recorded when, while talking in learning with someone, he would pick up a sefer to show a point, and large amounts of dollars would fall out of the sefer. Rav Forschleger had no idea how the money got there, nor did he take notice or pay any heed to the money. After all, what permanent value does it have?

No one is certain where these moneys came from. The assumption is that during the years that he was without parnasah (to be explained shortly), members of the Baltimore community visited him to give him money, which he placed in the sefer he was then using, so as not to be distracted.

A seforim store once heard that Rav Forschleger owned a full set of the sefer Heichal Haberacha of the Komarna rebbe. At the time, the seforim were unavailable, and the store offered Rav Forschleger $5000 for the set, at the time enough money to purchase a small house! Rav Forschleger could not fathom how someone could part with potential olam haba for something related only to olam hazeh.

Influence

At the same time, he was well aware of how far the local Jews were from their Jewish roots. Once, when a questioner inquired how long he should say kaddish for his father, Rav Forschleger answered “twelve months.” Afterwards, a talmid chacham who was present asked Rav Forschleger why he ruled that one should say kaddish for twelve months, when the halachah is that one stops after eleven months? To this, Rav Forschleger replied: “Does it bother you that a Jew wears tefillin for an extra month?”

A proud Chassid

Proud of his chassidus, he would eagerly share with Litvishe talmidei chachamim pieces of Shem Mi’shmuel and other great works of chassidus, to show them the depth and brilliance of thought.

His library

In the course of his decades in America, Rav Forschleger built up a huge, private library of some 7000 seforim. As many people saw, he knew the contents of the works in his library by heart! There are numerous stories of people removing seforim at random from his shelves, beginning a quotation somewhere in the sefer, and him completing  the rest of the page from memory!

The founding of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel

In the 1930’s, Rav Forschleger was instrumental in laying much of the groundwork for Yeshivas Ner Yisroel. Rav Forschleger decided that the time had come for there to be a yeshivah gedolah in Baltimore, and he made a very large contribution to Rav Ruderman – specifying that the money was not for the kollel in Cleveland, with which Rav Ruderman was then associated, but to build a yeshivah in Baltimore! Rav Forschleger then arranged a position for Rav Ruderman to become the rav of a shul in Baltimore, called Tiferes Yisroel, with two goals in mind. The shul would provide the Rosh Yeshivah with an honorable livelihood, and the shul’s facilities would be used to house the nascent yeshivah that its rav would open.

The founding of Ner Yisroel did play an advantage for Rav Forschleger. Although he never held a position in the yeshivah and continued to do his learning at home, for the 26 years that the yeshivah existed until Rav Forschleger’s passing, Rav Ruderman encouraged talmidim of the yeshivah to visit him to discuss their learning with him and to understand and appreciate what a gadol batorah is. For his part, Rav Forschleger encouraged them to learn not only Gemara, but also to delve into sifrei machshavah and kabbalah, to expand their learning horizons and to develop their relationship with Hashem. Bear in mind that the talmidim who arrived in Ner Yisroel in his day were American boys from typical American homes – and many were from homes that were not even shomer Shabbos!

At the same time, he related to them that a young yeshivah bachur must have only one goal in life: to learn Torah. He said that in Sochatchov they did not allow the bachurei yeshivah to attend the tishin of the rebbe, since this would take away from their single-minded goal of growing in learning. The Sochatchover rebbe told the talmidei hayeshiva that the best preparation for yomim nora’im was to study during the aseres yemei teshuvah the mesechtos of Yoma and Sukkah, quoting from both Zohar and the writings of the Ari to demonstrate this.

A Purim story

One Purim, when talmidim came to visit him, he asked them for questions related to what they were learning. One talmid asked him a question about the laws of Pesach. Rav Forschleger proceeded to explain the topic, with new chiddushim on related topics, for over three consecutive hours without pause. Finally, his rebbitzen entered the room to remind him that they had as yet not eaten the purim seudah. He was so absorbed in this learning that he did not hear her! Five minutes before sunset, she succeeded in attracting his attention, and all the assembled washed netilas yadayim to begin the Purim seudah.

Parnasah

Rav Forschleger and his family were indeed supported by his father’s real estate business for many years after they arrived in Baltimore. However, the great depression that wiped out so many businesses also wiped out his father’s business. Once again, the Forschleger family was without support, and Rav Forschleger sought different possibilities of employment. He, of course, stood out with his beard and his demeanor. He consistently refused to receive gifts or to seek any rabbinic position for parnasah.

At this point, some local baalei batim asked him to give a daily Gemara shiur for them, so that they could provide him with some honorable livelihood. The shiur he gave was simply basic pshat in the Gemara. Later, he began giving a shiur in Mishnayos to baalei batim in a different shul. Here, you had a man who was sent halachic and hashkafic inquiries from the greatest gedolei Yisroel, and yet was content with giving shiurim in basic Gemara and Mishnayos to ordinary, non-yeshivah educated baalei batim!

Well over twenty years later, the “leadership” of one of the shuls in which he gave a daily shiur decided to remove the mechitzah and change its affiliation to Conservative. Rav Forschleger fought, unsuccessfully, to prevent this from happening, but when the congregation indeed proceeded, he stopped giving his shiur there. In a still extant letter, he wrote them, “After having been associated with you 26 years and over four months (sic.) I thought I would never have the difficult task of writing a letter such as this. I am writing this with tears in my eyes… as each and every one of you is imbedded in my heart… I know that every person… gave me the highest honor in all respects… Now, how can I do otherwise? And I believe that all… understand my feeling that I have to take this step, much that it grieves me. I know that I am hurting all in the shul to have to leave…

With all my blessings, your affectionate friend

Michael Forshleger”

The shul decided to provide him a pension in recognition of the many years he taught there, but he refused to accept money from a now-Conservative congregation. Eventually, the attendees of the shiur arranged that they would pay him from their own individual resources in a way that the congregation was not involved in any way. This pension he was willing to accept.

Epilogue

After having been in declining health for a number of years, Rav Forschleger passed away suddenly on Wednesday, the fifteenth of Marcheshvan, 5719 (October 29, ‘58), and was eulogized and buried in Baltimore.

Upon his passing, it was discovered that in addition to his library, Rav Forschleger had left approximately 50,000 pages of chiddushei Torah! The family donated his library to Machon Rav Herzog, on condition that they edit and publish some of his Torah. The volume that was produced was entitled Toras Michael.

Very recently, a full-length Hebrew book was published about Rav Forschleger, entitled Micha’el Be’achas. The first half of this book, from which most of the information in this article is drawn, is a biography based primarily on personal interviews, and the second half consists of correspondence that Rav Forschleger had on Torah topics with a wide variety of gedolei Yisroel.

Rav Michael Forschleger was indeed a multi-faceted gadol beYisroel. He demonstrated greatness in his learning, greatness in his serving Hashem, and incredible breadth in his Torah knowledge. And, although he was always deeply connected with the chassidus of his youth, he interacted with a host of great Torah leaders, many, if not most, from non-chassidishe approaches, and he was involved in the opening of one of the most influential Litvishe yeshivos in America. Yehi zichro baruch.

The Gadol of Sochatchov-Baltimore, Part I

Question #1: How was a chassidishe gadol instrumental in creating one of the most prominent Litvishe yeshivos?

Question #2: How did the same gadol make his parnasah during the Great Depression?

Question #3: Who was Rav Gifter’s first rebbe, someone with whom he kept an active correspondence for almost thirty years?

All three of these questions revolve around the life of an almost unknown gadol beYisrael named Rav Michael Forschleger, whose 57th yahrzeit falls on the fifteenth of Marcheshvan. Although on several occasions Rav Forschleger was asked to become the Rosh Yeshivah of well-known yeshivos, and he could have been the rav of a very prominent community, he never took a position in either rabbonus or as a Rosh Yeshivah, content to spend his life learning and writing his voluminous chiddushei Torah. Furthermore, through his entire life he refused even to sit in a prominent place (along the mizrach wall) in a yeshivah or shul, but always insisted on sitting together with the regular mispallelim.

However, notwithstanding his reticent nature, he was highly influential in his own, original way, and in every place that he lived there were individuals who asked him questions in learning. Many of these individuals subsequently became great gedolim and talmidei chachamim and viewed themselves as his talmidim for the rest of their lives.

Rav Michael Eliezer Lipman Hakohen Forschleger was born in 5644/1884 in a village named Leubitsch, in southwestern Poland, to a large family of Sochatchover Chassidim. Leubitsch was located about 25 kilometers from Sochatchov, the town whose name was made famous because the great gadol, Rav Avraham of Sochatchov, author of the classic works, Avnei Neizer and Eglei Tal, served as its rav and rebbe. “The Sochatchover,” as Rav Avraham was known, was a disciple, son-in-law, and successor of Rav Mendel of Kotsk, known universally and simply as “The Kotsker,” whose reputation was well established as a fearless leader of chassidus and whose pithy adages have become part of standard Jewish lexicon. The Sochatchover was respected by all talmidei chachamim and gedolei Yisroel, and his halachic works are studied in every beis hamedrash. In the chassidishe world, the Sochatchover was considered the posek of his generation. Completely unknown to the Litvishe yeshivah world is the fact that the Sochatchover was also the author of works on Chassidic thought.

Rav Michael Forschleger made his first pilgrimage to Sochatchov when only six years old. He continued to study in chadarim and with rabbei’im in his hometown until the age of fourteen, when he moved to Sochatchov to become a student in the Sochatchover’s yeshivah. He remained there as a disciple and later a chavrusa of the Sochatchover, until the latter’s passing in 1910. Rav Forschleger continued to be part of the yeshivah in Sochatchov until it disbanded during World War I.

At the age of 18, Rav Michoel married Sarah Reizel Fleischman of Sochatchov. His father-in-law, a devout Sochatchover chassid, was a successful businessman, and intended to support, indefinitely, his new son-in-law and his family, which eventually included seven children.

Already as a young man in Sochatchov, Rav Forschleger was known by the gedolim of that region and time as a mammoth talmid chacham. Among the great gedolim who knew him were: Rav Yosef Engel, author of Gilyonei Hashas and many other works; Rav Yoav Yehoshua Weingarten, author of the Chelkas Yoav and Kaba Dekash’yesa, and Rav Yehosha Kotno, author of Yeshuos Malko, all of them highly respected poskim and authors of well-known classics. On their visits to Sochatchov to consult with the Eglei Tal, they spent their free time “talking in learning” with the younger talmid and chavrusa of the posek hador, who, when not learning with his rebbe, could always be found in his place in the beis hamedrash. Rav Forschleger was, at this time, also the bochein in the Sochatchover Yeshivah, responsible for testing the attainments of the many talmidim, which he did without ever resorting to looking at a Gemara or commentaries, even to check a minor point in the Ran or the Tosafos that they were studying.

Already in Sochatchov, Rav Forschleger was involved in conferring semicha. As recorded by Rav Yitzchak Hoberman, who was later the rav of Raananah, Israel, “In 5671 (1911), in order to receive semicha from Rav Forschleger, I was required to know by heart and explain all of Mesechta Chullin with the commentaries, Rif, Rosh and Ran; and the Tur and the Beis Yosef on all of the topics covered in Mesechta Chullin. I also had to understand thoroughly the Shulchan Aruch with all its commentaries on those topics, and I was expected to present my own novel explanations (chiddushei Torah).”

Although most of Rav Forschleger’s disciples and talmidim from this era, unfortunately, did not survive the Holocaust, well-known talmidim of his from this early era of his life include the aforementioned Rav Hoberman and Rav Avraham Aharon Price of Toronto, who was viewed as the main posek of that illustrious city during his lifetime.

During this time, Rav Forschleger’s parents and siblings had all moved to the United States and settled in Baltimore.

When the Eglei Tal passed away, Rav Forschleger became a chassid of the Eglei Tal’s only son and successor, the Shem Mi’shmuel. The Shem Mi’shmuel requested Rav Forschleger to become the Rosh Yeshivah of the Sochatchover yeshivah, a position that he refused, as would become his approach for the rest of his life. (Decades later, after the passing of Rav Meir Shapiro, Rav Forschleger was asked to become Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, the most prominent yeshivah in Poland, and he turned down that position, also. The fact is that because he turned down that position, he was saved from the Holocaust.)

When the Shem Mi’shmuel passed on in 1916, only six years after his father, Rav Forschleger viewed himself as the chassid of the Shem Mi’shmuel’s son, the Chasdei Dovid. When, decades later, the Chasdei Dovid passed on, he wrote to the Chasdei Dovid’s younger brother, Rav Chanoch of Sochatzev, including a sizable pidyon donation, that he was accepting him as his rebbe. Rav Chanoch responded that since he had studied under Rav Forschleger as a student in the yeshivah in Sochatchov, he considered himself a talmid of Rav Forschleger, not his rebbe.

The Great War

Rav Forschleger and his family were supported completely by his father-in-law until the outbreak of the First World War. The area of Poland in which Sochatchov was located was under Russian rule and was located not far from the German border. When the war broke out, the eastern front between Germany and Russia passed right through this part of Poland, bringing with it financial ruin, starvation, deprivation and disease upon the Jews in the area. Tens of thousands of Jews were left homeless. The city of Sochatchov was completely destroyed and its Jews were scattered, left as destitute, starving refugees. The Shem Mi’shmuel moved first to Lodz, and then to a nearby town, Lezgerge. When he passed away in the middle of the war, they were able to bury him in Sochatchov next to his father, the Eglei Tal. However, the headquarters of the chassidus never returned to Sochatchov. The Shem Mi’shmuel’s son, the Chasdei Dovid, established his court in other Polish towns. The chassidus called Sochatchov still exists today in Eretz Yisroel, headed by descendants of the Shem Mi’shmuel, with batei medrash and yeshivos in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Yerushalayim and in Bnei Braq.

The Forschlegers during the war

The chaos of the war completely destroyed Rav Forschleger’s father-in-law’s business, plunging the entire family into extreme poverty. Rav Forschleger moved with his family to Warsaw. During the war years, the Forschleger family was without any structured support, and Rav Forschleger, a gadol baTorah, performed manual labor, while his wife and daughters did sewing work to try to provide some food for the family. Four of Rav Forschleger’s seven children died because of disease or starvation during the war years. When the war finally ended, everything in the area was in ruins.

Notwithstanding the hardships that he endured, whenever time availed itself, Rav Forschleger returned to the local beis medrash, where he learned and taught talmidim. Among his talmidim in Warsaw was Rabbi Alexander Zushia Friedman, the noted author of Mayanah shel Torah, who quotes insights from Rav Forschleger in his work.

Post-war and United States

After the war, Rav Forschleger’s attempts to support his family were unsuccessful, and his father, who had by now established a successful real estate business in Baltimore, implored Rav Forschleger to join him, noting that he could and would support Rav Michael and his family. At first, Rav Michael refused, realizing the spiritual galus that was America in those years; but, eventually, realizing that he had no choice, he accepted the move to America as a gezeirah min hashamayim. In 5881/1921, he, his rebbitzen and their three surviving children, Golda, Rivka and Yechiel Meir, traveled from Le Havre, France, via the S.S. La Touraine for the United States.

Notwithstanding the fact that he was aware of the spiritual desert that awaited him, Rav Forschleger was still shocked by the vast differences in priorities between the Jews of America and what he had left in Europe. Whereas prior to this time, he had always learned in a beis medrash or yeshivah, in Baltimore there was no such thing. He made his house into his beis medrash, investing all his time and energies into continuing his learning and, with time, accumulating seforim. As Rav Gifter described it, the house may have physically been located in Baltimore, but inside it were the Torah citadels of Warsaw. My Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Ruderman, described how he was a houseguest of Rav Forschleger in 1932. At that time, Rav Ruderman lived in Cleveland, where his father-in-law, Rav Sheftel Kramer, had a small yeshivah and kollel, and Rav Ruderman was visiting Baltimore to fundraise for his father-in-law’s institution. He said that Rav Forschleger’s command of kol hatorah kulo was unmatched in America. “At the time, America did not have a gadol in his league.”

Whenever Rav Forschleger would find a young man interested in Torah, he would devote all his time and energies to studying with him. Through this method, he developed a relationship with a young man, named Mordechai Gifter, born in Portsmouth, Virginia, whose family had fortuitously moved to Baltimore. Rav Forschleger studied with him until the young, aspiring man decided to attend yeshiva in New York and then in Europe. Rav Gifter maintained correspondence with Rav Forschleger, first from New York, then from Telz, Lithuania, later from Waterbury, Connecticut, and eventually from Cleveland. Whenever Rav Gifter had a question in Torah, whether it was in understanding a difficult passage, a major question to which he had found no answer, or a question in hashkafah, he wrote Rav Forschleger. Rav Forschleger did not save copies of any of this correspondence, but it appears that Rav Gifter saved every reply that he received from Rav Forschleger. I have read some of this recently-published correspondence. Rav Forschleger’s answers, brilliant, insightful and novel, run the gamut of learning, from explanations of passages of Yerushalmi to expositions of kisvei Arizal. Aside from his incredible bekiyus in both Talmudim and their commentaries, Rav Forschleger, himself, was well read in a vast array of machshavah and kabbalistic writings. Rav Gifter often repeated that Rav Forschleger would emphasize “it is not sufficient that one learn Torah. One’s entire essence should become Torah.”

Click here for part II of this article.