Rav Lazer Shach – the Transmitter of Mesorah
Since Rav Shach’s yahrzeit is this coming Sunday, I am sending this article this week rather than our usual halachah article.
The yahrzeit of Rav Elazer Menachem Man Shach falls on the 16th of MarCheshvan. Rav Shach was the last surviving member of his generation of gedolei Yisrael, and as such was the link to gedolei Yisrael of over 100 years ago, whom he knew well and whose approach to Yiddishkeit he taught.
Rav Shach’s birth date is usually reported as Erev Rosh Chodesh Shvat, 5655/1895, although the exact year of his birth is uncertain. He was born in the village of Vaboilnick, Lithuania, at a time when all of Lithuania and Eastern Poland was under the rule of the Russian Czar. His family was wealthy in yiras shamayim, but destitute in worldly possessions.
Rav Shach would often point out that the gedolim of his generation developed because of the tremendous sacrifice they had for Torah and their lack of material wealth. Indeed, his early years are reflective of the tremendous difference between his generation and ours.
HIS FIRST YESHIVA – Ponevitz
Rav Shach developed a deep attachment to Torah at a very young age. When he was eleven years old, Rav Shach left his home and his hometown to go to the Yeshivah Ketanah in Ponevitz. At this period in history, it was very common for eleven-year olds to be apprenticed for work. Poverty among Jews in Czarist Russia was rampant. Government anti-Semitism made it almost impossible for Jews to earn a living. They were banned from most professions and trades, and generally tried to eke out a living from manual labor, small trade or farming, although a fortunate few had small businesses.
Out of necessity, children as young as eleven and twelve were often apprenticed to skilled and semi-skilled craftsmen. There was often not enough food at home to feed them, anyway. If they were apprenticed, they were at least fed and clothed, albeit poorly. A lucky, young apprentice might even earn enough money to buy a pair of shoes to help him through the harsh Russian winter.
Some dedicated youngsters ignored the financial security of apprenticeship and left home for yeshiva at a very young age. This usually meant going to the nearest large town or city where a prominent talmid chacham headed a yeshivah.
The conditions that Rav Shach and the other young talmidim endured in no way approximated current yeshivah conditions. Those old time yeshivos had no kitchens, dining rooms, or dormitories. The student body was comprised of bochurim learning in a local shul or beis medrash, guided and taught by a local rav, when he was not occupied with his Rabbinic responsibilities.
Many yeshivah bochurim came from very poor families that could not afford to send them any money. With no funds, they usually slept in the beis medrash, where they learnt day and night, or took work as night watchmen in unheated factories or warehouses. This at least provided a roof over their heads during the bitterly cold Russian or Polish winters and a little money to buy some food.
Bochurim with no money to buy food usually ate “teg.” Every day (tog) of the week they were assigned to eat with a family, who often did not have sufficient food for themselves. As a result, many bachurim went days on end without a proper meal. Rav Shach used to describe the embarrassment and deprivation he suffered during his yeshivah days.
STORIES FROM PONEVITZ
Rav Shach often told stories from his years in Ponevitz, thus preserving for our generation the mesorah of Ponevitz Yeshivah and the gedolim who lived and visited there. (The Ponevitz Yeshivah in Bnei Braq was founded by Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, who was the last rav of Ponevitz before it was destroyed by the Nazis.)
At the time Rav Shach arrived in Ponevitz Yeshivah Ketanah as an eleven-year -old, Rav Itzele Rabinovitch, who was known as Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, was the rosh yeshivah and the rav of the town. Rav Itzele was famous as the genius of his generation, a rather impressive title, considering that it included such Torah luminaries as Rav Chayim Brisker, Rav Dovid Karliner, the Ohr Somayach, the Rogatchover Gaon, Rav Chayim Ozer, the Chofetz Chayim, and the Aruch Hashulchan.
Indeed, Rav Itzele and Rav Chayim Brisker were chavrusos (study partners) for many years shortly after their marriages (in the 1870’s). Rav Itzele was a disciples of Rav Chaim’s father, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichek, the Beis HaLevi.
The youngster who became Rav Shach was very close to Rav Itzele and learned much from him. Rav Itzele’s hasmadah (diligence in Torah study) was legendary. He would learn until his last ounce of energy was exhausted and invariably fell asleep with this boots on, even when they were covered with mud. (In this era, the streets of Ponevitz were unpaved.) As Rav Shach expressed, if Rav Itzele had enough energy to take off his boots before falling asleep, he would not have used the strength to remove his boots, but to learn more Torah!!
Rav Shach illustrated Rav Itzele’s tremendous fear of sin with the following story. When a Jew opened his business on Shabbos in Ponevitz, Rav Itzele resigned from his position as rav, explaining that he was petrified to go to the Beis Din shel Maalah (the heavenly tribunal) as the rav of a community where Shabbos was publicly desecrated. Eventually, the chevrah kadisha forced the storeowner to close on Shabbos by refusing to bury his father!
Rav Shach quoted this story to point out the awe of Hashem of earlier generations. How many modern day rabbonim would resign their position because someone in the city desecrates Shabbos?
Another aspect of Rav Itzele’s righteousness that affected Rav Shach was his tefilah. Rav Itzele would daven with a burning passion. This made a tremendous impression on the young, budding scholar.
Rav Shach pointed out that Rav Itzele’s innovative style of learning was praised by some and criticized by others. He quoted Rav Chayim Brisker criticizing Rav Itzele as being expert in three Talmuds, the Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, and Talmud Rav Itzele. In other words, Rav Chayim considered Rav Itzele’s approach to learning as more conjectural than analytic. Others disagreed with Rav Chayim, contending that Rav Itzele’s shiurim were total brilliance.
Unfortunately, very few of Rav Itzele’s brilliant chiddushei Torah were saved for posterity, other than a small sefer titled Zecher Yitzchak. Rav Itzele’s talmidim included Rav Naftoli Trop, who later became the rosh yeshivah of the Chofetz Chayim’s yeshivah in Raden, and Rav Boruch Horowitz, who later became a magid shiur (Talmud Lecturer) in Slabodka.
After several years, Rav Shach left the Ponevitz Yeshivah Ketanah for the Yeshivah Gedolah in Slabodka, which was the “mother of yeshivos” in those days. Most of the gedolei Yisrael of Rav Shach’s generation were educated in Slabodka.
Slabodka was a suburb of Kovno and stood on the opposite bank of the Vilaya River. Although Kovno was politically and economically far more important (between the two world wars, it was the capital and largest city of Lithuania), Slabodka was clearly the Torah capital of Eastern Europe. It was the home of not one, but two major yeshivos, at a time when there were very few large yeshivos. Surprisingly, both these yeshivos were created by the same gadol, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, always referred to as the “Alter from Slabodka.”
The older of the two yeshivos, Yeshivas Knesses Beis Yitzchok, (named after Rav Yitzchok Elchanan Spektor, the rav of Kovno and the posek hador when Rav Shach was born) was a non-mussar yeshivah. The yeshivah schedule was devoted exclusively to learning, and no official time was set aside for mussar and personality development. The yeshivah’s hashkafah (philosophy) was that a student immersed in Torah did not require structured mussar, and that, on the contrary, it might even stunt his growth in Torah learning.
When Rav Shach arrived in Slabodka, the rosh yeshivah of Knesses Beis Yitzchok was Rav Boruch Ber Levovitz. In addition to being a tremendous gaon in learning, Rav Boruch Ber was also a tzaddik who never looked up when walking in the street and was completely unconcerned with the mundane world.
The other yeshiva in Slabodka was the mussar Yeshiva, Knesses Yisrael, which was named after Rav Yisrael Salanter. Its rosh yeshivah was Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein. (It is interesting to note that both Rav Boruch Ber and Rav Moshe Mordechai had studied under Rav Chayim Brisker, when he was a magid shiur [a lecturer] in the yeshivah of Volozhin. Thus, Rav Shach absorbed Rav Chayim’s methodology through them.)
The two yeshivos of Slabodka were in excellent rapport with one another,
as one would expect when the yeshivos are run by great tzaddikim. Students of one yeshivah attended shiurim at the other and sought out its magidei shiur and roshei yeshivah to “talk in learning.” Thus, although Rav Aharon Kotler officially studied in Knesses Yisrael, he and others regularly attended Rav Boruch Ber’s shiur at Knesses Beis Yitzchok. The attitude of the great luminaries running these yeshivos was that the more Torah institutions there were, the more Torah would be learned. This attitude influenced many of Rav Shach’s later decisions about opening new yeshivos.
Rav Shach attended Knesses Yisrael, the mussar yeshivah, whose guiding spirit was its mashgiach, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the famed “Alter of Slabodka.”. (His title, the “alter” [the older mashgiach], distinguished him from the other mashgiach, Rav Ber Hirsch Heller, who was his junior by a few years. Rav Heller later became the father-in-law of Rav Yaakov Kaminetski, one of the yeshivah’s many talented students. Many decades later, Rav Yaakov and Rav Shach, who knew one another from their Slabodka days, renewed their acquaintance as gedolei and manhigei klal Yisrael when they met in Yerushalayim to discuss community concerns.)
The Alter held that a rosh yeshivah or mashgiach must devote all his energy to his talmidim. A wealthy man once brought his only son to study in Slabodka. As he presented his son to the Alter, he begged him, “Please take good care of this boy. He is my ‘ben yochid’ (only son).” The Alter replied, “Every talmid of the yeshivah is my ben yochid.” This was not rhetoric but the Alter’s way of life. For example, Rav Shach related that the Alter fasted when a bochur failed to learn or grow in his Yiddishkeit. This approach to chinuch influenced Rav Shach’s leadership not only of his talmidim but also his relationship to people who came to seek his advice.
To appreciate what Rav Shach absorbed in Slabodka, we need to understand the Alter, who was an indirect disciple of Rav Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement. The Alter developed the teachings of Rav Yisrael and his early disciples to meet the challenges of his time. Furthermore, he was brilliant at understanding talmidim and nurturing them to their greatest potential.
The Alter’s original contribution to the Mussar Movement was his emphasis on “Gadlus Ha’Adam” — that a person should develop with his own unique abilities in order to serve Hashem to the maximum.
The Alter nurtured an impressive list of gedolei Torah including Rav Shach, Rav Aharon Kotler of Lakewood, Rav Yaakov Kaminetski of Torah Vada’as, Rav Reuvain Grozovski of Beis Medrash Elyon, Rav Yaakov Ruderman of Ner Yisrael, Rav Yizchok Hutner of Chayim Berlin, Rav Moshe Chevroni of Yeshivas Chevron. As Rav Shach used to say, an entire generation of gedolei Yisrael, both in America and in Eretz Yisrael, was trained by one man: the Alter from Slabodka.
Each of these gedolim was a tremendous talmid chacham and a gadol in learning, leadership, and mussar. The Alter developed each one of them in his own unique way. Thus, Rav Hutner was a brilliant leader of men whose talmidim also excel in hashkafah, Torah machshavah (Jewish thought), and the writings of the Maharal. Rav Yaakov Kaminetski’s greatness as a gadol manifested itself in his unusual expertise and perception in giving advice. Furthermore, he was unusually gifted in poskim, Tanach, and dikduk. Rav Ruderman was a person who could quote verbatim virtually every early sefer ever published – and at the same time train a young talmid to think for himself. In addition to his lightning-fast mind and brilliance in learning, Rav Aharon Kotler became the community leader who motivated people to work for the kahal (community) in areas where no one else was successful. He has been described as “fire on earth.”
A common thread of the talmidim of Slabodka was that although they were totally committed to learning, when the need arose, they involved themselves in community responsibilities. Rav Shach, too, would have happily spent all his time learning and teaching Torah, but he unhesitatingly assumed community responsibility when it became necessary.
Following the Alter’s teachings, Rav Shach developed into the proactive leader of klal Yisrael, both collectively and individually. When the time came, he was totally willing to render decisions on any issue – political, religious, educational, kashrus, organizational. Although he always emphasized and demonstrated that nothing is more valuable than learning Torah intensely to the best of one’s abilities, he assumed the mantle of Torah leadership and made crucial decisions when it was necessary.
Slabodka had a tremendous effect on Rav Shach although he was only able to remain there for two years, until the outbreak of World War I. At the eastern front, between Russia and Germany, the war raged through the areas of heavy Jewish settlement in western Russia. All the yeshivos fled, mostly deeper inside Russia.
RAV ISSER ZALMAN AND RAV AARON
Details of Rav Shach’s travels during the war are unclear, but we know that he found his way to Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer’s yeshivah in Slutzk. Rav Issar Zalman had also studied under Rav Chayim Brisker in the yeshivah of Volozhin and then proceeded to develop his own style of learning. Rav Shach used to quote Rav Chayim as saying, “Had Rav Isser Zalman followed completely in my footsteps, he would have become the master of my style of learning. Instead, he became the master of his own style of learning.” Rav Shach approved highly of this approach and never insisted that talmidim should absorb his style of understanding Gemara. It was far more important to him that they develop their own derech in learning.
In Slutzk, Rav Shach became the chavrusah of Rav Aharon Kotler, who had married Rav Isser Zalman’s daughter, Perel. Eventually, Rav Aharon became a magid shiur in the yeshiva and later the rosh yeshiva.
In 5684/1923, Rav Shach married Gittel Gilmovski, Rav Isser Zalman’s niece. For the next five years, he continued toiling in Torah day and night. In the meantime, the Communists seized power in Russia and Rav Aharon moved the yeshiva to Kletzk, Poland, which was free of Communist rule.
In 5689/1929, Rav Shach became a magid shiur in Kletzk and began his lifelong career as a Torah teacher. He was a magid shiur or rosh yeshiva of several yeshivos until the Second World War broke out ten years later, first in Kletzk, next in Novardek, and afterward for four years as rosh yeshivah of the Chassidishe Yeshivas Karlin in Lunenitz. Subsequently, he returned to Kletzk.
Rav Shach related that shortly after the Second World War broke out, the invading Soviet army was approaching Kletzk from the east. It was obvious that the yeshiva needed to relocate quickly, and Rav Shach went looking for potential sites. In one town, he met an old Jew who was a grandson of Rav Yisrael Salanter. Rav Shach asked him whether the town had an appropriate beis medrash or shul large enough for the yeshiva, whether the local people would help support the yeshiva, and whether they could provide lodging for the talmidim.
Turning to Rav Shach, the old man retorted, “Why are you delaying? First come, bring the talmidim here, and set up the yeshiva. Do you think that the people will allow the talmidim to sleep in the street? You don’t need extensive planning, but you do need quick action!”
“From that yid,” said Rav Shach, “I learned a tremendous lesson. In times of emergency, don’t raise questions. Just do something!”
It was characteristic of a baal mussar like Rav Shach to tell a story in which he himself was the target of the message.
THE CHOFETZ CHAYIM
After Rav Isser Zalman moved to Eretz Yisrael in 5685/1925, he often sent inquiries to Rav Shach to bring to the Chofetz Chayim. Rav Shach used these opportunities to become well acquainted with the Chofetz Chayim’s world outlook.
Years later, when important communal matters came up, Rav Shach often said, “I don’t know anything about this subject, but I received a tradition from the Chofetz Chayim that this is what should be done,” or “I have not heard anything about this matter, but I have no doubt that the Chofetz Chayim would decide such-and-such. Since he is no longer alive, I must make that decision.” Thus, by sending Rav Shach to the Chofetz Chayim with his questions, Rav Isser Zalman was grooming a future gadol hador.
In 5701/1941, with the kindness of Hashem, Rav Shach escaped the inferno of Europe for Eretz Yisrael. Before he found his place in the Ponevitz Yeshiva, he was a magid shiur in several yeshivos in different cities, including Petach Tikvah, Rechovot, and Yerushalayim. During this time he lived in Yerushalayim and became very close to the Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchok Ze’ev Soloveichek (the son of Rav Chayim Brisker), who transferred the mesorah of Brisk from Europe to Yerushalayim. (The current rosh yeshivah of Brisk Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveichik, is the Brisker Rav’s grandson, while Rav Meshulam Dovid Soloveichik, also rosh yeshiva of a very prominent Brisk yeshivah, is his uncle, a son of the Brisker Rav. The “Brisk”-type yeshivos are headed by descendants of Rav Chayim Brisker or by their talmidim.)
The Brisker Rav was known for his meticulous observance of mitzvos. Rav Shach mentioned that while most people purchase new suits in honor of Pesach, the Brisker Rav would buy a new jacket to use at the table, in order to be absolutely certain that his clothes were chometz-free!
In 5711/1951, Rav Shach was invited by the Ponevitzer Rav, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, to become rosh yeshivah of Ponevitz Yeshivah in Bnei Braq, and he held this position until his passing fifty years later. During this time, he gradually became acknowledged as the gadol hador. Thousands of people sought his guidance, dozens of yeshivos asked him for direction, and he was the active leader of the chareidi world, directing thousands of issues that affect Torah life in a modern world. He charted the Torah path in dealing with a secular modern state. Never hesitant to issue decisions and opinions on public matters, whether popular or not, Rav Shach ruled according to the mesorah he had received from gedolei Yisrael. Torah is not a public relations tool but the seal of truth.
In 5708/1948, Rav Shach published the first volume of his sefer, Avi Ezri. This sefer is organized according to the order of the Rambam, although in many places it contains his chiddushei Torah (original ideas) on the Gemara. His approach is to answer difficult questions on the rishonim in a clear, deceptively simple way. Although the sefer is relatively easy to read, it should be used only by someone who has studied the subject matter in depth. Otherwise, he will fail to see the sefer’s greatness.
Unlike many other authors, Rav Shach did not collect numerous haskamos (approbations) for his sefarim. His first volume carried only one haskamah — from his wife’s uncle, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer. His second volume, published in 5716/1956, also, has only one haskamah — from the Brisker Rav (Rav Isser Zalman had passed away by then).
The sefer is built on intellectual honesty. Sometimes, in a later volume, Rav Shach will contend that what he wrote in an earlier volume is wrong. In his hakdamah (introduction) to the sefer he describes the extreme honesty that one must apply to learning — a manifestation of the training he received in Slabodka and from Rav Itzele.
In his hakdamah, Rav Shach questions whether one has the right to publish sefarim if he is not convinced that he has researched the subject thoroughly. How can one claim that he has studied the subject to its greatest depth? Furthermore, if one republishes a sefer (the first volume of Avi Ezri was published four times in Rav Shach’s lifetime), one should ostensibly relearn each sugya to see if one still agrees with what one wrote before – just as a rav may not paskin a shaylah that he has ruled on previously without reviewing the question once again.
Rav Shach closes his hakdamah with a realistic conclusion. If we published only those sefarim written totally lishmah, exclusively for the sake of Torah, we would never produce any sefarim at all, and Torah learning would be severely hampered. We are permitted to produce sefarim that increase Torah learning, which is our goal. Hesitating to publish a sefer would minimize Torah learning and leave more opportunity for the intrusion of non-Torah hashkafos.
A FEW VIGNETTES
Everyone finds much to identify with in Rav Shach’s stories and mussar. I will share with you some of the stories that I find particularly touching.
A well known talmid chacham was offered the position of magid shiur in a yeshiva where the previous holder of the position had been unsuccessful. Before taking the position, he came to ask Rav Shach for advice and a beracha. Much to his surprise, Rav Shach recommended that he turn down the position. Rav Shach explained that although it was permitted to accept the position, it was inadvisable to accept a position that will cause a talmid chacham to feel bad because someone else replaced him.
Rav Shach was annoyed at the common practice of yeshivah students setting aside time for a daily nap. “When you get tired,” he said, “put your head down for a few minutes. But there is no reason to devote specific time in the day for this purpose.”
He was once asked to be the sandek for one baby of a set of twins, while the grandfather was to be sandek for the other twin. Rav Shach insisted that he either be sandek for both twins or for neither. He pointed out that later in their lives, the two twins might compare themselves, and one would point out that Rav Shach had been his sandek and not his brother’s. He did not want to be party to something that could lead to ill feeling between two brothers.
Often, Rav Shach pointed out that the pace of learning in the European yeshivos that produced gedolim was much quicker than is common today. He noted that in Slabodka, they regularly studied ten blatt of Gemara a week. Rav Shach remarked, “Even if we did not understand the sugya properly at first, we would understand it better the next time around.”
Through Rav Shach, a generation of yeshivah students was connected to the mesorah of the Chofetz Chayim, the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Chayim Brisker, Rav Itzele Ponevitzer, Rav Yisrael Salanter and the Mussar Movement. Ye’hi Zichro Baruch.