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.