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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.