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A Window into the Chareidi World

28 Tishrei 5764 - October 13, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Lomzha and the Mir, the Yeshiva and the City

by Rabbi Dov Eliach

Intimate conversations with Rabbi Meir Roch, formerly of Lomzha

Part II

Rabbi Dov Eliach has archival treasures worth their weight in gold. In the course of his Torah-research-documentary work, in which he has produced unique publications which have earned him the highest place of honor in Torah literature, he has documented in writing and recorded on tapes the testimonies of those who can tell firsthand about the Jewish world in Lithuania as it once was, especially in terms of the lifestyle and yeshiva experience there.

The first part discussed HaRav Yaakov Neuman, the rosh yeshiva of Ohr Yisroel in Petach Tikva, and HaRav Moshe Rosenstein, the mashgiach of Lomzha. R' Meir Roch, who was the nephew of the rosh yeshiva of Lomzha, also told about his family and about some of his contacts with other Torah giants of the time, such as HaRav Yeruchom Levovitz at the Mir Yeshiva, HaRav Chaim Ozer of Vilna and the rov of Lomzha, HaRav Aharon Bakst.

(Editorial note: The following is a translated transcription of a live conversation, and we have left the text faithful to the spoken word.)

The last Rov, Rebbe Moshe Shatzkes

"The Gaon, Rebbe Moshe Shatzkes was a different type altogether. He was the brother-in-law of the Kriniki Rov, HaRav Chizkiyohu Mishkowsky and the stepson of HaRav Itzele Blazer. Rebbe Moshe was very close to R' Chaim Ozer, who nicknamed him, `Yismach Moshe!' He called him that because he was always happy.

"Even his chiddushim on the Torah were happy and lively, and I remember when he gave a Torah talk how much his audience enjoyed it and even burst into laughter. That was his approach, to speak of pleasant and joyous matters.

"As for him, he suffered terribly in his personal life. I wouldn't say he was a baal yissurim, but he definitely suffered. You could say about someone else that he was in a ideal situation and therefore was in a happy frame of mind. But he was different. Even when he suffered he was happy and full of joy.

"Ho, ho, his humor was really one of a kind," recalls Rav Meir, and bursts out laughing. "I could write books about Rabbi Moshe Shatzkes' sense of humor."

Nu, let's hear some of it . . .

"It is interesting that I actually saw something in print, but they marked it in someone else's name and confused the story altogether. His sense of humor was really something. Let me tell you a few of his gems.

"There was a small town near us whose rov was not a big lamdan. He was not a `batlan' either, but he managed to get into a quarrel with the butcher who was a violent man and once had the audacity to slap the rov on the face. To calm matters down and iron out the differences, members of the community brought in Rebbe Moshe Shatzkes.

"Along comes Rav Moshe and tells them: `As I understand it . . . ' -- that was his way of talking -- `As I understand it, you do not quite agree with your rov, or see eye to eye with him. Let me tell you, I am myself a Jewish rabbi and I must say you are right! Really! Do you always have to agree with what your rov tells you? Of course you don't! The rov is also a human being, is he not?'

"Naturally, when they heard this, the audience was moved and silence reigned in the beis hamedrash. He continued:

"`And this is really almost written in the Torah. It says `Ve'ohavto lerei'acho komocho,' which means, if you have a friend, you have to love him like yourself. That is with regard to a friend.

"`However, with regard to your brother it says, `Lo sisno es ochicho bilevovecho' (You should not hate your brother in your heart). [It only says not to hate him; it does not say to love him.] The reason is because you are with him 24 hours a day and grating against him constantly, and each one sees petty faults in the other, therefore it is enough if you `do not hate your brother in your heart.'

"'As for a rov, it goes even further. It says, `Nosi be'amecho lo so'or' (you shall not curse a prince among your people). That you should love him is not even in question. Even not to hate him is too much to ask. Therefore it is only forbidden to curse him. But to give him a slap, that's already well beyond a curse and for that I will not be silent . . . ,' ended Rebbe Moshe with a grave expression on his face.

"Anyone who knew him and Rav Aharon would understand right away, that this could only have been Rav Moshe speaking.

"There is a story written about the rav of Slonim, Rebbe Shabsai Fine, but it is not correct, it was not him at all. There was an elderly rov in Druskenik, Rav Gordon, who was niftar and various rabbis vied to get his position. In such cases all the prospective rabbis would come and give a hesped in the city at the end of the shloshim. The baalei batim would come to hear them, and that was the entry ticket to the city.

"A certain rov, whose name I will not mention, also came to the little town. It was then summer, and Rebbe Moshe Shatzkes was vacationing there. This story is really true!

"The rov delivered a hesped and spoke with great emotion. Afterwards he went up to Rebbe Moshe and asked him, `What did you think of my hesped?'

"Rav Moshe, who had grasped that the rov was not as he should be, told him: `The gemora says that when a person sees a hesped in his dream, it is a good omen for him. But the question is asked, what happens if he sees a "dream" in a hesped . . .'

"That was Rebbe Moshe Shatzkes! So brilliant! I used to love watching him talk in learning. Aaaah! Anyone who never saw him talking in learning has never seen a lively sichoh -- lebedik -- in learning, like for example, Rebbe Shmuel Rozovsky. Did you every hear Rebbe Shmuel's shiurim? [They were] lebedik!

"During World War II, Rebbe Moshe traveled to America and became one of the heads of the Vaad Hatzoloh, and he served as a ram in New York. When I met him in Brooklyn, he described to me the type of shiurim there: `If ever there was a rosh yeshiva or rebbe who deserves his salary, it's me,' he said. `I don't know about other people, but I work so hard every day, trying to water down my shiur more and more. It is so hard to decide how to give over the words of the Rambam or the Ravad to the talmidim. How does one do it?' In this way he conveyed to me the vast difference between what he had experienced in Lomzha and what he experienced now in America."

The Mashgiach, Rebbe Yeruchom

What in particular do you recall from the period that you studied at the Mirrer Yeshiva?

"I came to the Mir in 5694 (1934) and learned there until the war. When the Mashgiach Rebbe Yeruchom passed away and Rebbe Yechezkel Levenstein took over from him, no real change was felt in the yeshiva, but the atmosphere was somehow different. I don't just mean in terms of the nature and type of their mussar sichos.

"Rebbe Yeruchom was less close to the bochurim. Even an alter bochur who was already a godol of the generation felt awe in his presence, so that there was no real closeness to him, only a feeling of tremendous awe and admiration. He himself was careful to keep his distance, and he used all kinds of other means to promote chinuch, to both distance and to draw closer.

"For example, he had a special shiur on the parsha of the week for the `aus lander' (residents from overseas), and when he wanted to boost someone's self-esteem, he would invite him to the shiur, which was not usually for a chutznik. He was a brilliant man, an outstanding educator.

"Rebbe Yeruchom was a person for whom, even if you did not know him, if you only looked at him, you felt admiration. On the other hand, even if you did have a personal connection with him, there was a certain stress on his part on keeping a distance, as if to say, `Know who you are and who I am.' Everyone has his own derech and each one acts in the way he sees as most effective in getting the talmidim to listen to and absorb the mussar messages.

"Let me give you an example. Rebbe Yeruchom would learn the morning seder in the yeshiva hall, at the `Mizrach,' with a yeshiva bochur who was called Yehuda Bass. There were two brothers, Yehuda and Herschel, two of the most choshuv bochurim in the yeshiva. But, since both of them were much older and they were still not married, they would refer to them jokingly, in the loshon of the gemora (Yevomos 15:1) `Mosai tovo leyodi tzoras habbass (the Bass) vo'eso'eno` . . . (A play on the words of the gemora referring to marriage of the daughter's (bas) sister-in-law applied to the troubles of the brothers named "Bass" who wanted to get married.)

"Rebbe Yeruchom learned with him chavrusa for three to four hours, and all that time Rebbe Yeruchom would be sitting in his seat while the talmid stayed standing! He simply did not dare sit down!

"This conduct was typical of the Mashgiach Rebbe Yeruchom's derech, and perhaps explains what impressed me more than anything else in the Mirrer Yeshiva--the unique discipline. Let me explain what I mean.

"The Mirrer Yeshiva was the largest center for bochurim from all the yeshivos -- usually the best ones -- who gathered and converged on the yeshiva from all over. These included some who became genuine gedolei hador even while they were still within the walls of the yeshiva. Eizel Charkover came from Radin, Eizel Vilner was raised by Rebbe Chaim Ozer as his own son until he was sent to the Mir and he was already famous even before he arrived there, and then there was Rebbe Elya Chazan and others.

"There were world-renowned geonim there, like Rebbe Naftali Wassermann, Rebbe Shmuel Rozovsky, Rebbe Michel Feinstein, and others. And the self-effacement of these rebbeim, and everyone else, before Rebbe Yeruchom, was entirely without parallel. You couldn't find it in any other place.

"The change in me was even more acute, because I had come from Lomzha where we were used to a different reality. But even those who were not educated in Lomzha recognized the limitless control that Rebbe Yeruchom had. He was a real personality who radiated complete authority, take my word for it.

"Rebbe Elya Chazan, who was himself a very brilliant man, once told me something. Some friends were having a conversation at the Mir and one declared that it had never happened in the yeshiva -- not even once -- that anyone had ever disobeyed the Mashgiach. It was simply unheard of.

"Some of the bochurim during that conversation expressed their amazement at how such a thing could be since, after all, it was not as if he were a Chassidic Rebbe. How was it then that every word of his was accepted without any demur or second thought?

"Rebbe Elya Chazan answered as follows: `That in itself was Rebbe Yeruchom's brilliance, that he never gave an instruction that it was impossible to follow. That is to say, it was not a kind of issur that prevailed over everything, meaning that his word could not be crossed. He was just brilliant in knowing everyone and the extent of their capabilities, and he knew what he could ask of them and what he could not.'

`You Do Not Have Cancer'

There was a bochur at the yeshiva who for a long period of time had convinced himself that he was afflicted with cancer, Rachmono litzlan. It happened roughly during the years 5694-6 (1935-37) and he talked about it all the time, and drove everyone crazy with it . . . cancer, cancer, cancer, all day long.

The Mashgiach saw that there was no basis to it whatsoever -- apparently he had spoken to the doctors about it -- so he called him and told him: `Listen! I tell you, and I take full responsibility for it, that you do not have cancer! You are clear of all cancer!'

"The bochur argues: `But the Mashgiach, this one said such and such, and that one such and such . . . ' Apparently he had found several people who were in agreement with him.

"Rebbe Yeruchom says to him: `Look, I am not saying that I have any great power, but at any rate I am the spiritual principal of the Mirrer Yeshiva here and that does grant me some authority.

"`In connection with what the Rambam wrote in his sefer about there being no sheidim in the universe, the oilom says that he did not mean that demons had never existed. He only meant that since he said that there are none, then at all events there are no demons from that moment on. Similarly, I am telling you now that you do not have cancer! Perhaps it was there once, but from this day on it is not!'

"In the end he ordered that from then on there was to be no more talk on the subject. It was over! The bochur went out of the room and no one heard from him the word `cancer' again. (Incidentally, this Jew lived a long life and only passed away recently).

"If you ask me what impressed me most at the Mirrer Yeshiva, it was that: the tremendous control Rebbe Yeruchom had over the talmidim.

"He had a certain shittah in his way of presenting the sichos at the yeshiva, so as to gradually engender the right atmosphere to enable his talmidim to concentrate their thoughts on the contents of the material being given over.

"Thus, he would begin his speech in a barely audible whisper and would throw out one word, and then another one or two, and so it went on, until silence reigned in the hall of the beis hamedrash. Then his speech would get progressively louder and the words would join together in sentences, leading to a complete system of the deepest and most fascinating words of thought and mussar.

"In this way, he utilized the senses he had been blessed with to the utmost to ensure that his words would have the strongest impact.

"It is no surprise therefore, that he had such tremendous influence. The greatest talmidim, who had already truly become the gedolei hador, their reputations having preceded them in all the yeshivos, were by then 30 years old and more. Eizel Charkover, Eizel Vilner, and various others -- all of these people stood before him in complete submission, in total negation of their selves. I remember seeing them in front of him, hands folded behind their backs, heads bent forward so as not to miss a single word that came out of his mouth."

The Gaon, Rebbe Eliezer Yehuda Finkel

"There is much that I can say about the Rosh Yeshiva, Rebbe Leizer Yudel, for I had the zchus of sleeping in his house for a month when I arrived at the yeshiva. His son, Rebbe Beinish, was also living at the house with us at the time in Lomzha, in order to avoid conscription to the army.

"When I came to learn at the Mir, the Rosh Yeshiva hosted me at his home as a kind of exchange between two families until he was able to find me a room which fitted his special requirements, actually with the greatest talmidim. He obviously hoped that their good influence on me would settle my future, but I am not sure how much he succeeded in that . . .

"In any case, based on my acquaintance with him, I can vouch unequivocally that he was a tzaddik nistar, and a nistar in general as well. Whatever he did was done in a hidden and secret way, to `shtille reid.'

"When I saw how he would bargain with the bochurim over the amount of the chalukoh, I came to the conclusion more than once that one of the reasons he bothered to do this was to conceal himself and his good-heartedness and his great generosity.

"When the bochurim would talk with him in learning, he would scrutinize their words carefully and attempt to ascertain their truth by always presenting the ipcha mistavra (that the contrary is correct). As he would put it: `Aderabbo, exactly the opposite!'

"They used to joke that when a bochur went to complain about the amount of the chalukoh that he had been given, the Rosh Yeshiva would answer in the same coin: `Aderabbo, exactly the opposite!' that is to say, you even got more than you deserved.

"There was for sure a chinuch message involved here. It was a kind of `shot' to encourage learning and especially reinforce the iyun learning and the discovery of new interpretations on the Torah, since whoever came forward to give over a chiddush once a week was treated to a special bonus.

"But as a ben bayis at his home, one thing I noticed was that it took a certain amount of effort to conceal himself. He wanted to be tzonu'a and to keep himself hidden from people. And the proof of this can be seen in the fact that most of the talmidim never knew, even to the end of their days, how lavish were his contributions to uphold Torah in the Mir, Poland, and until his last days in Yerushalayim. In terms of the rest of the world, it goes without saying that he was and has remained, to a large degree, anonymous.

"It is truly amazing to consider the extent to which he supported Torah. It was not only in his own household and in his beis hamedrash, but he also sent money to other yeshivos as well. And I know this from being inside his home, how he would send money to other yeshivas which were in difficulties to save them from starvation and bankruptcy.

"Who was it who launched and supported the kibbutz of Torah learners under the Gaon, the Brisker Rov? Rebbe Leizer Yudel himself would dispatch bochurim from his yeshiva to the Brisker Rov and support them through all their years of study there, just as if it were his own yeshiva. All that mattered was to glorify and increase Torah learning. With the bochurim at the Mir he would haggle over the chalukoh money, I would even call it, `fighting over every last penny.' But it was just a cover up, to conceal his true conduct.

"In public he would argue, and in secret dole it out . . . He had a list of names of those to whom he would give money in secret. There were many who did know, but he never wanted them to know. With the bochurim he would bargain over the chalukoh, a zloty more, a zloty less . . . but then he would distribute enormous funds. He had his policy with the chalukoh funds. His love for Torah was boundless and when anyone would give over a chiddush in Torah it gave him endless joy, and he supported it.

"I have another recollection from the time I spent in the gaon Rebbe Leizer Yudel's house: The bnei bayis would eat breakfast at different times but at the evening meal, which was the main meal of the day, everyone would eat together. And then the Rosh Yeshiva would make sure that one of the participants at the meal, usually one of his sons, would give a dvar Torah. When he wanted to hint to that effect, he would begin the words from the mishna in Ovos, `Shelosho she'ochlu ve'ein beineihem divrei Torah, . . . (Three who eat and do not share divrei Torah . . . ).

"I remember something else from those first days after my arrival. It was the first time I had ever been away from home and I tried to behave with a higher level of derech eretz than was natural for me. So at the end of the meal I turned to the Rebbetzin and told her, `Thank you very much for the meal.' But the Rosh Yeshiva corrected me: `First it is proper to thank the One to Whom the world belongs, and make an after brochoh. And then, if you want, thank the hostess as well. That is the correct order.'

"The Rosh Yeshiva would spend most of the day in his home learning in his cheder haseforim, as they called it, so that anyone who wanted to talk with him in learning and give over his chiddushim would go over to his house. In Lomzha the yeshiva building included a special room for each member of the staff. But in the Mir only the Mashgiach had such a room, which was on the same floor as the beis hamedrash its window overlooking the entire hall of the beis hamedrash.

"Incidentally, the Rosh Yeshiva had to push for the beis hamedrash to be constructed to large proportions in length and width and, furthermore, without any pillars, in order to achieve the purpose of that room of the Mashgiach. And all this was done only to enable the Mashgiach to look out of the window of his room to the entire beis hamedrash and to see what the bochurim were doing at all times."

End of Part II


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