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24 Elul 5765 - September 28, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Kelm And Mir — Torah Excellence and Mussar Training, As Seen in a Loyal And Devoted Talmid, HaRav Shmuel Halevi Shechter, Zt'l

by Rabbi Dov Eliach

Ever since I met him, I had been urging HaRav Shechter to find the time for us to have a full discussion of the prewar Torah centers that he encountered and of which he was a part. Yet several years passed before the day finally arrived — in Av 5755 — five years before his petiroh, on the first day of Rosh Hashonoh 5760.

I first heard about Reb Shmuel from his fellow Mirrer, HaRav Menachem Manes Moore zt'l of Gateshead, who warmly recommended that I meet him while there was still time. They had escaped from Lithuania together, traveling through Russia and on to Australia, and they later took part in the establishment of the first kollel in America. Another member of their circle was HaRav Shechter's closest friend throughout his life, the gaon and tzaddik HaRav Nosson Wachtfogel zt'l Mashgiach of Lakewood Yeshiva.

I asked Reb Shmuel to tell me about his own "exile" from his home in Montreal, Canada, to the mekomos haTorah in Eastern Europe — in particular Mir and Kelm — which etched themselves so deeply into his soul. Their standards of Torah and mussar, their greatness and elevation of spirit, were discernible in him until the very end of his life. He was a talmid, in every sense, of both Mir and Kelm — and remained so all his life. He was a great man who succeeded in capturing the essence of both places and holding onto it.

Reb Shmuel saved me a lot of work. I didn't have to probe him or prod him to speak. A veteran educator, with a wealth of experience in expressing his ideas to Bais Yaakov students in New York, to young people in Eretz Yisroel and to his followers among the bnei yeshiva of Yerushalayim, he was well-prepared for our meeting. He began it with a fascinating and flowing account that was like one of his master lessons, relevant, orderly and well designed.

In the course of his talk, something of his extraordinary personality was revealed. It was clear that he stood on a higher level than others and was an exceptional yireh Shomayim. His ideas were crystal clear and his views firm, befitting a thinker endowed with a highly developed intuition. Reb Shmuel used to say of himself that he was "a gutteh shmecker (a good sniffer)."

Who could be more reliable and capable of faithfully conveying the ideas of Kelm and the atmosphere of the Torah empire of Mir? I have therefore tried to minimize my editing, to preserve the authentic flavor of Reb Shmuel's account, as far as possible.


In my humble opinion [Reb Shmuel began, when I showed him my book Avi Hayeshivos], there is a strong connection between Rav Chaim of Volozhin zt'l and the Alter of Kelm zt'l. Reb Chaim founded Volozhin Yeshiva which was the prototype for all the yeshivos that came after it. After Volozhin was closed, the yeshivos of Telz, Grodno, Kamenitz, Baranovitch and, last but not least, Mir, were founded. All of them were patterned on the example of Volozhin.

From the photograph, one could even think that the building of the Volozhin Yeshiva is the same as that of Mir. The difference between them is that in Mir there was no cellar beneath the building. The actual buildings themselves though, were of the same design.

There was something special in the way the Mirrer yeshiva building was built that enabled it to manage without any supporting beams or pillars along its entire length. The Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Leizer Yudel [Finkel] zt'l, put great effort into having it done that way so that the Mashgiach would be able to look out from his room, which was on the upper floor, and see the entire yeshiva, taking in all the bochurim in one glance and seeing how they were sitting and learning.

From Volozhin to Kelm

Rav Shechter: An important difference between Volozhin and the yeshivos that came after it resulted from the different periods. In Volozhin they learned all of Shas, right through, starting from Brochos and ending with Niddah. In the yeshiva world that followed, only what are known as "the yeshivishe masechtos" — eight masechtos from Noshim and Nezikin — were learned. In subsequent generations people were capable of less and if they had gone through Shas, they would not have managed to make the bochurim into scholars.

Four years were spent on those masechtos that were learned, with half-a-year being devoted to each masechta. Usually, the first part of the masechta was learned during the first seder of the day, and the other part during the second seder. Over four years all the masechtos were thus covered and the bochurim developed into scholars.

Once a bochur had attained that level of proficiency he was capable of learning all of Shas, but first he had to become a scholar. With a program to cover all of Shas that wouldn't have happened, it's obvious. That was one difference.

Another difference between Volozhin and the yeshivos that came after it was that they didn't learn mussar in Volozhin, meaning that mussar study wasn't part of the yeshiva's daily schedule as it is in other yeshivos, where it is learned for half an hour before ma'ariv.

They didn't learn mussar in Volozhin for the simple reason that their knowledge of Shas was so profound that gemora was enough for them and they didn't need mussar. Reb Chaim actually preferred that they didn't learn mussar. "Householders need to learn mussar," he said, but for bnei Torah, knowledge of Shas in its entirety and superior abilities were sufficient to ensure that "the beginning of wisdom is the fear of Hashem" would result just from studying Shas.

There was [also] another difference that led to this. Take [Rav Chaim of Volozhin's sefer] Nefesh HaChaim — much of it is Kabboloh, it's obvious. One sees the same thing in his [commentary to] Pirkei Ovos, Ruach Chaim — a large part of it is Kabboloh. In other words, where we learn mussar they learned Kabboloh. The Kabboloh that they learned sufficed for them, like mussar suffices us. On a high level of knowledge of Kabboloh, or with at least some proficiency in learning it, one doesn't need mussar to such an extent.

Although we consider Mesillas Yeshorim as being the most fundamental mussar work and no other sefer is its equal — in Mir, I remember, there were only two mussar works: Mesillas Yeshorim and Rabbenu Yonah's Shaarei Teshuvoh — in Kelm there was one more besides those two. There was Chovos Halevovos as well.

But we don't find any Kabboloh in mussar. In Mesillas Yeshorim for example, even though Rabbenu Moshe Chaim Luzatto was, I think, the greatest scholar of Kabboloh in his generation, with no equal, it still doesn't contain a single line of Kabboloh. Scholars of Kabboloh view it as the book but it isn't Kabboloh and they needed some means of passage from Kabboloh to mussar.

So the training that mussar provided in the yeshivos — Kabboloh filled that function in Volozhin. After that they needed some way of transferring [from one to the other] and this transfer was effected very successfully in all the yeshivos with the exception of Telz. There, there was a problem, and when Reb Yosef Leib [Bloch] wanted to bring in a mashgiach there was opposition, as you know. Telz apart though, there were no problems of differing outlooks or the like — not in Slobodka, nor in Kamenitz, Kletsk or Baranovitch — on account of the mashgichim being guides and mentors.

There were other problems in Volozhin, besides the terrible decree that resulted from the government's demand that they include secular studies that closed the yeshiva. When you ask someone why Volozhin closed, he replies, "Because of the government." In other words, because of Funye, whose ministers acceded to the demands of the maskilim that secular subjects be studied in the yeshiva. That is correct but the truth is that there were other problems, as is known. There were mashgichim in Volozhin too, but their job was [merely] to supervise the conduct of the bochurim [not to train them].

In Mir on the other hand, and in the other yeshivos too, the mashgiach conveyed Torah outlook on such a [forceful] level that we mocked the outside world and the maskilim. Thanks to the level of the Torah hashkofoh that the mashgiach conveyed, every aspect of the [students'] conduct was [modified] accordingly. All the great mashgichim of the yeshivos were Kelm alumni, who had learned either under the Alter or under Reb Hirsch [Broide, zt'l, the Alter's son-in- law] in the subsequent period and also under Reb Nochum Wolf [Ziv, zt'l, the Alter's son].

In Mir, Torah Reigns Supreme

In this respect, Volozhin's offshoots surpassed her, thanks to the Alter's talmidim, the mashgichim. I remember that in Mir, Torah was supreme and nothing outside was of any relevance. Even Mizrachi, who apparently were ehrlicher Yidden, as far as I remember, in a yeshiva of five hundred bochurim — five hundred, literally! — there were maybe two or three who identified with Mizrachi.

Once, before my arrival in Mir in 5692 (1932), there were some Mirrer householders who belonged to the Mizrachi and they met for a special meeting. They asked one of the bochurim, a talmid of Baranovitch who was a very gifted speaker, to address them on Shabbos and he spoke. When the Mashgiach found out, he spoke about it in the yeshiva and said that over something like this he was prepared to close the yeshiva. A yeshiva bochur doesn't speak about Mizrachi, because in yeshiva, Mizrachi is irrelevant.

And I'll tell you something else. Even Agudah was irrelevant in the yeshiva. During the four years that I learned there I didn't hear any Agudah affairs discussed. I only heard that such a thing existed. For in yeshiva the learning was so powerful that Torah ruled everything. It simply wasn't possible for Agudah to have a place in that scheme of things.

Only later when bochurim married and took up rabbinical positions or became important householders in their communities and needed an organizational framework — only then did they establish Agudah branches. They made use of its organization within which, in fact, the most outstanding bnei Torah were brought together.

In Mizrachi on the other hand, there were no bnei Torah. What did they have? The yeshiva [of Rav Reines] in Lidda, which was not considered a success. It wasn't in the same league as the other yeshivos at all.

I, at any rate, feel that the transition from Volozhin to the yeshivos that followed it and were its continuation, was carried out by the Alter of Kelm, which essentially means by Rav Yisroel [Salanter]. Rav Yisroel, however, wanted to implement the mussar program for householders as well, and he opened mussar rooms everywhere for householders to come and study mussar. But he wasn't successful in that. The mussar rooms remained the province of the bnei Torah. Householders there were, but they were bnei Torah at the same time, not ordinary householders.

As far as the yeshivos were concerned though, I think that the Alter of Kelm made the transition through his talmidim who were in all the yeshivos gedolos. Mir had Reb Yeruchom, who was a talmid of the Alter of Kelm. And what Mir was in its heyday, Slobodka also was, in its day [fifteen to twenty years earlier]; the Alter of Slobodka was also a talmid of the Alter of Kelm.

YN: But what about the well-known incident when the Alter of Kelm didn't want to receive the Alter of Slobodka?

Rav Shechter: Just a moment and I'll tell you.

The Alter of Kelm opened a yeshiva in Grobin, a yeshiva ketanoh, for boys aged between twelve and seventeen. It was an excellent yeshiva and, by the way, there was between an hour and an hour-and-a-half of secular studies each day. Rav Yisroel said that only the Alter of Kelm was capable of doing such a thing, though he never gave it his seal of approval because nobody else would be capable of running the secular studies while maintaining the yeshiva on its level of holy of holies.

The Alter had several tutors and maggidei shiur. The Alter of Slobodka was one of them for a number of years, during which time he was the talmid of the Alter of Kelm. Afterwards, when he left and opened the yeshiva in Slobodka, he wanted to return to Kelm and the Alter did not accept him. He told him: Since you've already struck out with a new approach I can't accept you.

Kelm, Slobodka and Telz and their Differences

The same thing happened to Rav Yosef Leib Bloch. You know that he was originally a talmid of the Alter of Kelm. Eventually he went to serve in Telz after he married the daughter of the gaon Rav Eliezer Gordon, the Telzer Rov and Rosh Yeshiva. When he afterwards wanted to return to Kelm, the Alter told him, "I'm not taking you; you've already struck out with your own approach and it's not Kelm."

The Slobodka approach and the Telzer approach [also] differed from each other. Slobodka's approach was also mussar- based but it stressed one particular aspect. Both these aspects of mussar were based on the pesukim, "What is man that You should mention him . . .[yet] You have made him just short of the angels . . ." (Tehillim 8:5- 6).

The first approach says that man is inconsequential. The student of mussar needs to bear in mind [the mishnah's observation,] "What was your origin? A putrid drop" (Ovos 3:1). In other words, you started as a putrid drop and that is what you still are.

People make a mistake in understanding this statement and can't understand how it prevents a person from feeling proud. It seems to encourage quite the reverse. Why, from such humble origins he's now become a great man, a Shas Yid! Surely he's entitled to feel very proud of himself.

But that isn't what the mishnah means. Its message is that you are a putrid drop right now, as well. You still carry around your ignoble origins.

The second mussar approach stresses, "You have made him just short of the angels."

The only question is, which is the main message? Is it the first part, "What is man?" or the second, "Just short of the angels"?

This was the difference between Kelm and Slobodka. In Slobodka they spoke virtually exclusively about "just short of the angels," while in Kelm, though they mentioned that as well, priority was given to, "What is man?" and "What was your origin? A putrid drop."

In other words, the only difference between Kelm and Slobodka was which aspect was given priority. In Telz however, the entire approach was different, not just the stress. In Telz, primacy was given to reasoning. That was the method of study that was applied to every branch of learning — reasoning. I'll give you an example.

Halochoh requires that there be two witnesses to the contracting of a marriage or divorce in order to effect the actual change in status. This is in contrast to monetary transactions, where witnesses are only necessary in order to furnish proof.

How was this explained in Telz? It was said there that when a person carries out a procedure in the absence of witnesses, he doesn't give it his full attention or reflection. When he appoints witnesses to stand and watch what he's doing though, he acts with full responsibility.

That is pure reasoning! There's no way that Reb Chaim Brisker wouldn't have stood for such an idea! The validity of a marriage or a divorce is conditional upon the presence of two witnesses [simply] because that is what the Torah says [in the approach of other yeshivas]. It is learned from pesukim — without witnesses, nothing takes effect.

I have a fine story on this point, about the difference between Telz and Mir. It's not for now but remind me to tell it to you! At any rate, in Mir the mashgiach was one of the foremost products of Kelm and the Kelm mussar approach was similar to Reb Chaim's approach to learning.

The Mashgiach, Reb Yeruchom

I'll tell you one story briefly. Reb Yeruchom refrained completely from speaking outside the yeshiva. He was very insistent about this.

Once there was a meeting of all the Tiferes Bochurim groups from the surrounding towns. Most of the group leaders were talmidim of the Mashgiach, from their yeshiva days. The general meeting was held in Baranovitch and the organizers asked him to make an exception and to come to speak because they were his talmidim. He agreed.

He spoke for an hour-and-a-half or two hours, as he used to do in yeshiva. In Baranovitch lived one of Reb Chaim Brisker's foremost talmidim. He was one of the town's great men. When he heard that the Mashgiach was coming, he went to listen to him. Some bnei Torah went over to him after the shmuess and asked him — as a talmid of Reb Chaim — what he thought. I don't remember what his name was.

His response was, "I closed my eyes while he was speaking and for an hour-and-a-half or two I listened to everything he said. It seemed to me that my Rebbi was speaking here." That was what he said.

Everyone knows that the Mashgiach never delivered shiurim — neither about tzvei dinim nor drei dinim [classical analytical tools in gemora associated with Reb Chaim's approach]. And Reb Chaim never gave a mussar shmuess. He meant, then, that their thought processes were similar.

The way people thought in Mir was totally different from how they thought in Telz. Even Reb Shimon Shkop zt'l, who engages in reasoning to a considerable degree, can't be compared to Reb Yosef Leib of Telz. There was still a bridge connecting Reb Shimon with Mir, Kamenitz and other yeshivos.

The Mirrer Melamed

Mir took in the cream of the yeshivos; after learning in other yeshivos for several years, the best made their way to Mir. The rebbi, the Mirrer melamed was the Mashgiach! Even though Reb Leizer Yudel was one of the greatest of the roshei yeshivos, he recognized the Mashgiach's power and he placed all of the yeshiva's internal affairs into his hands.

Reb Leizer Yudel bore the burden of supporting the yeshiva on his own, while giving the internal affairs of the entire yeshiva over to Reb Yeruchom. Only Reb Leizer Yudel, in his greatness, could have done such a thing. The Mashgiach was in charge of everything in the yeshiva and even bochurim who were great men in their own right accepted his authority.

When Reb Yonah Minsker ztvk'l [author of Yonas Ileim] delivered a chaburah in the yeshiva — he was one of the foremost bochurim there — there were three or four hundred bochurim standing to hear him. That was more than took part in the Rosh Yeshiva's shiur.

There were bochurim in Mir who were great Torah scholars, [who] literally [could have served as] great roshei yeshiva. All they lacked were beards and wives who were daughters of roshei yeshiva. In other words, all they needed in order to be called Rosh Yeshiva were beards and yeshivos [of their own].

And these very men would stand before the Mashgiach like servants in front of their master. I remember how they would stand in front of him, in fear and awe.

Yes, that's how they stood before him and that's how they stood before the Alter of Kelm. It's also how they stood later before Reb Doniel [Mowshovitz zt'l, Hy'd] even though he didn't adopt the conduct of a mashgiach. He wanted to behave like an ordinary person. But when they stood in front of him they stood in awe, quaking and trembling.

The linchpin of this entire transition was the Alter of Kelm. The pillars supporting all the Lithuanian yeshivos were the Alter's talmidim. He was the one who created the transition that I mentioned earlier from Volozhin to the yeshivos that came later.

"And besides everything else," adds Rav Shechter, "all the traditions came from the Vilna Gaon and the whole way in which the yeshivos were administrated came from the Gaon. The Gaon was the rebbi of all the yeshivos and the father of them all."

End of Part I


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