HaRav Abba Berman zt”l, An Appreciation
This Shabbos is the ninth yahrzeit of Rav Abba Berman, zt”l. I decided to send the hesped that I wrote shortly after his passing.
Rav Abba Berman once explained that superficial learning is like watching the hands of a clock move around its dial. In-depth learning, which he felt is the goal of all learning, is like “opening the back of the watch to see what makes it tick.”
What did he mean by this mashal?
The goal of learning is to understand the ideas and concepts of Torah – in its totality, what its “parts” are, and how the parts integrate to produce the result. Rav Abba was vexed by those who gave over ideas without understanding the concepts thoroughly. He devoted himself and his shiurim to develop a deeper and broader understanding of Torah. His yeshiva and the seforim he wrote were called Iyun HaTalmud because that is exactly what his goal was; one must strive to understand why the concepts and ideas of Torah are what they are. Even a gezeiras hakasuv, a Torah decree, must be understood, according to Rav Abba, – what exactly is the concept that the Torah is introducing to us, how does it work, and what are its ramifications.
In his own words, his shiurim tried to define the mechanism of how Torah concepts work, to understand what “makes the din tick.”
In the words of a close talmid, “Two people look at and appreciate a beautiful flower. Although both of them appreciate the beauty, one of them may be able to appreciate the subtleties, intricacies and complexities of the flower, compare it to other species and varieties, and savor the subtleties of its fragrance. So, too, Rav Abba taught how to be a Torah connoisseur – how to appreciate the depth and breadth of Torah, how to understand its beauty and ramifications in greater and greater ways.”
With this introduction, we can begin to appreciate the greatness of HaRav Abba Berman zt”l.
AS A YOUTH
He was born on Tu B’Shvat 5679 (January 16, 1919) in Lodz where his father, Rav Shaul Yosef Berman, a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, was Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Chesed. Rav Abba’s rebbe was his father, whose influence lasted for the rest of his life.
Without any question, Rav Abba was a child prodigy, yet I hesitate to tell the astounding story of his meeting as a six-year-old with the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim tested the young child on all of Perek HaMafkid in Gemara Bava Metzia and then gave him a bracha and some advice to his father. However, in a way it is a disservice to relate this story because one might assume that Rav Abba was too brilliant a genius for us to learn from. This was the exactly the opposite of what Rav Abba desired in life, which was to teach people to toil attentively and honestly over a sugya of Gemara with common sense, constantly delving into a deeper understanding of the subject.
At the age of 14 he left Lodz to attend the Mir Yeshiva in Poland. He developed a close relationship with the mashgiach, Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l, possibly the greatest mussar personality of his generation. Although Rav Yerucham passed away when Rav Abba was only 17, he always considered himself a talmid of Rav Yerucham, whose worldview he absorbed.
SHANGHAI AND CHIDDUSHEI RABBEINU CHAIM
During the war years, Rav Abba was part of the Mir Yeshiva exile in Shanghai. Although he grew tremendously in learning during his years in Shanghai, those years took a tremendous toll on his health, which affected him the rest of his life. He had prodigious achievements in learning and teaching Torah despite the fact that he always suffered from medical problems that needed constant attention.
In Shanghai, he began developing his distinctive derech halimud (approach to learning). There he became absorbed with the sefer Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim HaLevi of Rav Chaim Brisker. Rav Abba drew upon and developed concepts from Rav Chaim and incorporated them into his understanding of the Gemara and Rishonim.
It was known in Shanghai that if you did not understand something in the works of Rav Chaim Brisker, the address to seek was Rav Abba Berman, then known as “Abba Lodzer,” after his birthplace, as was common in that era. In Shanghai he developed into one of the Gedolei Yisroel.
Due to his own profundity, his diligence, and his application, Rav Abba often recognized deeper concepts in the writings of Rav Chaim than others did. He considered himself a disciple of Rav Chaim, because studying Rav Chaim’s sefer deepened his own understanding of the concepts of Shas. One might say that the entire publication of the Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim was worthwhile just to make it available to Rav Abba Berman.
After the war, Rav Abba joined the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, married, and gave chaburahs and said shiurim there. After giving shiurim in Kaminetz and other yeshivos, he then opened his own yeshiva, Iyun HaTalmud, first in Brooklyn, then in Bnei Brak, Far Rockaway, and later in Monsey. In Elul 5739/1979 he moved the Yeshiva back to Eretz Yisroel, to Yerushalayim. Later he moved it to Kiryat Sefer. Although he was offered positions in many yeshivos over the years, he preferred (until his last years) having his own yeshiva where he could alone decide what, how, and where to teach.
He once told a talmid that he had considered naming the Yeshiva “Yeshivas VeHa’er Eineinu B’Sorasecha,” “Open our eyes in Your Torah,” which describes our goal to appreciate Hashem’s Torah in deeper and deeper levels. However, because the name was a bit long, he decided instead to name the Yeshiva “Iyun HaTalmud,” which emphasizes the method — appreciating Hashem’s Torah by utilizing our own efforts to delve into it deeper and deeper. His view was that man accomplishes his greatest purpose on Earth and fulfills ratzon Hashem by learning the concepts of Shas as deeply as he can.
A seasoned talmid chacham who came to study under Rav Abba found that it took him several years until he could understand Rav Abba’s profound shiur. However, during the same period of time he would regularly attend the chazarah shiur, which reviewed Rav Abba’s shiur in a simplified way, but for years he could not see what the chazarah shiur had to do with the shiur he had heard earlier in the day from the Rosh Yeshiva. After many years of hearing Rav Abba’s shiur, and as the depth of his own learning developed immeasurably, he began to understand Rav Abba’s shiur. After several more years, this talmid chacham began to give the chazarah shiur, although he relates that it took him approximately six hours to review Rav Abba’s 1¼ hour-long shiur until he felt ready to repeat the shiur! Yet he felt the investment of most of his day extremely worthwhile because that was how he achieved proper understanding of Torah.
A talmid once spent the month of Elul studying in Rav Abba’s yeshiva, but he missed the bekiyus (breadth of Torah knowledge) style of his previous yeshiva. He went to discuss the matter with Rav Nochum Pertzovitz, Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir, who advised him to remain learning in Rav Abba’s yeshiva, saying “What could be greater bekiyus than mastering the basic understanding of Bava Kamma.”
(One should not get the impression that Rav Abba was opposed to bekiyus. Quite the contrary, he himself reviewed Shas and Rishonim until most of it was in front of his eyes. However, Rav Abba viewed bekiyus as the foundation with which to understand Amkus HaTorah, the deep true understanding of Torah, which was his passion.)
To Rav Abba, all of Torah is one contiguous whole. It was anathema to develop an idea that was inconsistent with a principle elsewhere. Quite the contrary, a concept that elucidates one part of Shas might clarify a seemingly unrelated subject. In so doing, he developed his own nomenclature and his own system of understanding.
Rav Abba was a master of saying things punctiliously and was extremely careful in his choice of words when he gave a shiur. He only included a line of logic in a shiur if he was convinced that it was completely accurate. He once remarked to a talmid that he would think through a svara 30 or 40 times before saying it over in a shiur.
Rav Abba used the late commentaries and the published shiurim of the Roshei Yeshiva judiciously. Sometimes he began with their concepts and then developed the idea into a brilliant analysis of the concepts. At other times, he would spare no words in pointing out that he felt the true understanding of the sugya lay elsewhere.
GOALS OF LEARNING
It was not Rav Abba’s goal to have talmidim memorize his shiur; he wanted them to absorb his approach at analyzing the Gemara to its deepest concept.
In the week after his passing, two talmidim were discussing a shiur that one had delivered in the Yeshiva where he is currently a Rav. The Rav mentioned that he had given a shiur based substantially on a shiur printed in one of Rav Abba’s seforim, then added, “Assuming I understood the Rosh Yeshiva correctly.” The other talmid replied, “Either you told over Rav Abba’s Torah, or you explained what you thought is the correct understanding of the sugya. The latter is what Rav Abba wanted even more, and is a greater achievement of his goal.”
Rav Abba did not tolerate lazy thinking. One must fully understand what one says. A talmid chacham interested in joining Kollel Iyun HaTalmud told Rav Abba a shiur that he had delivered in his previous kollel. Rav Abba heard his shiur and then responded, “If you would learn by me, you would never talk like this.” The kollel scholar was baffled by the response, because the shiur had been well received in his previous kollel. He requested to share with Rav Abba a different shiur he had delivered and received the same response.
Ultimately, Rav Abba accepted this talmid chacham into his kollel. Years later, when he told me the story, he explained, “I thought that I understood what I was saying. But when I began to study under Rav Abba, I realized that this man REALLY knows what he’s talking about – and that I had been totally superficial in my understanding without realizing it. I may not understand him, but I know that he knows what he is talking about. After years of studying under Rav Abba I realized that my whole thought process had changed. Rav Abba taught me how to truly understand what I was learning.”
His talmidim usually spent many years studying in his yeshiva. His yeshiva was always small, but it included a very impressive group of top talmidim, who today are accomplished roshei yeshiva, roshei kollel, magiddei shiur, and dayanim.
HIS IMMERSION IN LEARNING
To say that Rav Abba was a tremendous masmid is not sufficient. It is more appropriate to say that he was totally immersed in learning and that he constantly applied himself to delve deeper and deeper into understanding Shas. He thought in learning constantly — his lips were constantly moving. Presumably, he was constantly thinking of a deeper way to understand the sugya that he was learning at the moment.
Rav Abba was a true talmid of the mashgiach, Rav Yerucham zt”l, and delved into hashkafah subjects with the same enthusiasm and analysis that he studied halacha and lomdus. He taught how to be deep in one’s hashkafah and how to intensify one’s avodas Hashem. For many years he gave chaburos on emunah, hashkafah, and philosophical subjects on Shabbos afternoon. In his younger years, he also gave mussar schmoozen in the Yeshiva. His schmoozen were not fire and brimstone, but shiurim on deep machshavah. He would devote a series of schmoozen to developing one’s thoughts on a specific topic.
He was also readily available and accessible to his talmidim to discuss any topic at all. Although his own world was totally devoted to understanding Shas better, he was a big pikeach in understanding people.
Five volumes of Rav Abba’s shiurim were published in his lifetime, under the titles Shiurei Moreinu HaGaon Rabbi Abba Berman or Shiurei Iyun HaTalmud. Technically the seforim were authored by his talmidim based on notes and tapes of his weekly shiur klali, but I was told that Rav Abba reviewed the shiurim before publication. This does not include the “blatt shiurim” that he gave, nor is it more than a fraction of the shiurei klali that he delivered, and certainly does not include notes on other parts of Shas. Hopefully, we will be zocheh to see the publication of many more volumes of his shiurim.
One of the five volumes is unique. Although all of his years as Rosh Yeshiva he gave shiurim only on Nashim and Nezikin, his personal favorite seder was Kodashim. At one time, a chaburah of advanced talmidim in his kollel learned Kodashim, and then he gave chaburos to them on Mesechta Zevachim. One volume of his published chiddushim is taken from these shiurim.
Rav Abba and his Rebbitzen, tichyeh, created a European-type home in the United States at a time when the prevailing environment, even among frum Torah Jews, was highly permissive. His daughters were taught to stand up for him as is correct according to halacha. They were taught to plan their schedules so as not to disturb his learning. They absorbed none of the liberal attitude towards Yiddishkeit of the “frum” world around them — and this is manifest in their own highly notable achievements.
Rav Abba had six daughters. In a humorous moment, Rav Abba once quipped to a talmid, “You get to choose your sons-in-law but not your sons.” His six sons-in-law are all tremendous talmidei chachomim, marbitzei Torah, magiddei shiur and roshei yeshiva in yeshivos in America and Eretz Yisroel. His daughters are all n’shei chayil, well-recognized and respected as top mechanchos.