Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

13 Tammuz 5761 - July 4, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Memories of the Chofetz Chaim

by A. Ben-Yitzhar

Musaf Shabbos Kodesh Pesach 5756

Part I

There are certain times and moments that cannot be described in words. Rather their contents speak for themselves. Hours, which by virtue of your having lived them, can take you back at any time to generations past. This was the feeling we had when interviewing one of the Chofetz Chaim's early talmidim.

His name is HaRav Kalman Farber. For ten years he studied under the tutelage of Maran, the author of Chofetz Chaim and Mishna Berurah, zt'l.--Ten years of life spent on a different plane, one of holiness, ruchniyus, otherworldliness.

This can be understood by those for whom the very name Chofetz Chaim elicits a certain tremor, for whom not a day goes by without reaching for one of the tens of his holy seforim. Are there any among us who can remain impassive when sitting in the presence of an elderly man, who retains a clear, bright picture, of his esteemed rebbe, Maran the Chofetz Chaim, and who is able to reenact his many conversations, sayings and mannerisms?

Rav Kalman Farber is more than willing to share his wellspring of memoirs; all one has to do is sit and absorb his every word uttered in his inimitable deep voice, a voice whose clarity has not been marred by advanced age.

"So it's the Chofetz Chaim you came to hear about?" Rav Farber opens the interview. "Ahh, three generations have passed since then. Three whole generations separate us from those days, that era. Today nothing is the same. Different concepts, a different generation!" He becomes lost in thought, but quickly shakes himself out of his reverie.

"O.K. I'll try to tell you stories that have not yet been published in all the books about the Chofetz Chaim," begins Rav Farber.

"For two years I had the privilege of participating in the limited minyan of yeshivaleit who davened Shacharis together with the Chofetz Chaim in his tiny room. When I had just arrived at the yeshiva, the Chofetz Chaim was still able to get around independently, albeit slowly, and with two bochurim supporting him on either side. Later on though, this too was difficult for him and he would come to the yeshiva with "Avrumke, the baal agola." [In eastern Europe at that time the main means of local transportation was a horse and wagon. Avrumke had a horse and would take the Chofetz Chaim wherever he needed to go.] However, he continued to daven at home and a steady minyan of bochurim was arranged.

Shemiras Hayodayim

"I noticed that whenever the Chofetz Chaim saw a fly or some other pest that he wanted to chase away he would hold the corner of his tallis or his handkerchief, but he would never use his bare hands. Also he never touched his face with his hands.

"For many years I could not understand the reason for this; the face is considered a naturally-exposed area of the body which one may see and touch. Recently, after having read the stories written by his son, HaGaon HaRav Leib zt'l I finally understood. Rav Leib told about the time that the Chofetz Chaim fled with the yeshiva and his family from Poland to Russia. It came time to daven Mincha and they entered a shul. `Before davening,' Reb Leib said, `I washed my hands as prescribed by the Shulchan Oruch but I noticed that my father began davening right away. Afterward I asked my father about this and he answered, "I guard my hands at all times!" '

"Now the reasons for the Chofetz Chaim's holy actions finally became clear to me," Rav Farber says. "The Chofetz Chaim was simply cautious that his hands remain tohor at all times and therefore he did not touch anything. Just as he guarded his tongue [from evil speech] he guarded his hands! Therefore, when he had to chase away a fly he would use something to cover his hands.

"From this we can gain an inkling of how the Chofetz Chaim became what he was; just as he guarded his hands he guards his eyes, his tongue-- everything!"

"Operation Rickshaw"

"If I already told you how the Chofetz Chaim would come to the yeshiva, then I will tell you something that is almost unprintable--but I'll tell you anyway. As I mentioned before, the Chofetz Chaim had a wagon driver called Avrumke who transported him to yeshiva at regular times. Sometimes, though, the Chofetz Chaim would let us know that he wanted to come to the yeshiva in the middle of the day. We were then faced with the problem of finding Avrumke and his horse.

"The Chofetz Chaim had his own wagon which stood outside his house. It was padded and constructed in such a way that he would be able to travel in relative ease and comfort. When we were unable to locate Avrumke, one bochur would simply take the place of the horse, while another would sit in the driver's seat with his back to the Chofetz Chaim. Other bochurim would then seat the Chofetz Chaim in his place in such a way that he would not be able to discern the nature of the "horse" or the identity of the driver!

"In this fashion they traveled the approximately 200 paces from the Chofetz Chaim's house to the yeshiva. When they arrived at their destination, a group of bochurim would block the Chofetz Chaim's view of the "horse" and "driver" as he was escorted into the yeshiva so that he would never suspect the truth. A few bochurim were in charge of this `operation'. "

They're Watching!

"If we are already discussing Avrumke the wagon driver, I recall an interesting meeting I had with him, many years later, in Eretz Yisrael. Once on Shabbos between Mincha and Ma'ariv, I walked into a shul, here in Tel Aviv, in the Kiryat Shalom section. I saw a group of elderly men sitting around the table listening to one old man telling them about his personal experiences with the Chofetz Chaim: `Once I was driving the Chofetz Chaim to the train station, and I saw an orchard on the side of the road. One of the trees' branches, laden with apples, extended over the road. Nu, so I stepped down from the wagon and went to take some apples, when all of a sudden I heard a shout from behind me, "They're watching! They're watching!"

"`Needless to say I hurriedly jumped back on the wagon and drove away as quickly as I could. I could get in deep trouble for taking those apples. As I drove away I looked all around, but there was not a living soul in sight! I turned to the Chofetz Chaim and said, "Rebbe, what did you mean, they're watching? There's no one around!" "Ahh," answered the Chofetz Chaim, "of course they're watching, they're watching from Above!"'

"I was understandably very curious to know who this old man was," continues Rav Kalman, "so I edged closer to the table, and I was amazed to see that it was none other than Avrumke, the Chofetz Chaim's wagon driver! He was sitting there recounting stories of his travels with the Chofetz Chaim. He continued:

" `On one of his trips the Chofetz Chaim said, "Let's learn a perek mishnayos Reb Avrumke."

" `Nu, so how do you think we learned? The Chofetz Chaim would recite the mishna by heart, word for word, and I would repeat after him. "You see?" the Chofetz Chaim would say after a while. "We learned a perek mishnayos!"'

Rav Kalman interjects, "He would treat these plain people with such simplicity and so naturally that they felt he was one of them. I remember, that when I would return to the tiny village where my parents lived for bein hazmanim, they would ask me, `Nu, so how is Reb Yisroel Meir doing?' That was how close they felt to him. On the other hand, there is no denying the great admiration they had for him. All the villagers would crowd around me waiting to hear any story, or saying or hanhogah from the Chofetz Chaim. They wanted to hear more and more.

"His humility and simplicity were absolutely incredible," Rav Kalman continues. "In his house there were no chairs, just some long, rough-hewn benches and a plain, long table that opened out at both sides. That was the extent of his furniture.

"Now, when his son-in-law, Rav Mendel Zaks, zt'l was appointed rosh yeshiva of Radin, an unpleasant situation developed. Rav Mendel lived on the second floor of the Chofetz Chaim's house. Now that he was rosh yeshiva, bochurim wanted to come to him to talk in learning, but there was nowhere to seat them. Not everyone felt at ease sitting on the benches shoulder to shoulder with their friends; they wanted a degree of privacy when speaking to the Rosh Yeshiva. So, they ordered twelve chairs. Some were put in the kitchen, some on the ground floor where the Chofetz Chaim was, and the rest upstairs by Rav Mendel. That's what was missing in the house--chairs!

"Then when the Chofetz Chaim came home and saw all the "new furniture," he was aghast. `What is all this doing here?' he asked, whereupon his family explained to him the reason for the purchase.

"The Chofetz Chaim was still incredulous. `Twelve chairs? Twelve? One I can understand, for the head of the household. A second chair is also necessary for the lady of the house. Let's say a guest comes, so, okay, the guest also needs a chair. But twelve chairs? For what? "Hashem's Name is not whole, and His throne is not whole." The Ribono shel Olom doesn't even have one whole chair, and here there are twelve chairs?!' The Chofetz Chaim was simply unable to comprehend the purchase, and you must know that every word of his was spoken with absolute truth and sincerity, with no embellishment or exaggeration."

Faith That Can Be Felt

"Along with his tremendous astuteness and remarkable genius, the Chofetz Chaim possessed a simple faith that is almost impossible to describe. Everything was obvious and simple to him, with absolutely no chochmos. He would speak to Hakodosh Boruch Hu as if he were speaking to a king who was standing right in front of his eyes, like a son speaking to his father. Whatever happened to him, or whomever he met -- he deemed nothing as coincidental or without cause. For him, all events had their root in spirituality, and he was able to learn a lesson from them. Whatever he heard held deep significance for him, and he did not believe that there existed anything that was devoid of meaning.

"When he was in Russia, during the time that he fled with the yeshiva from Poland, a certain Jew came to him to ask for a brochoh. The Chofetz Chaim placed his hand on him and asked, `Reb Yid, where are you from?' `From Minsk,' was the answer. `And what is your occupation?' the Chofetz Chaim continued to inquire. `I deal in animal hides,' the Jew replied. `And how's business? Is it going well?' The Chofetz Chaim asked. `Boruch Hashem business is very good,' he answered.

"The Chofetz Chaim couldn't understand how a Jew could be prospering under the tyrannical rule of Czar Nikolai, and he voiced his puzzlement. `I work with the royal ministers, they buy my hides,' the Jew explained. `Oy, you work with the Czar's ministers?' the Chofetz Chaim asked. "How can you work with them, they're murderers! How do you manage?'`I bribe them,' the Jew explained simply. `Bribe?' continued the Chofetz Chaim. `And without a bribe they won't purchase your merchandise?' `Rebbe, if I wouldn't bribe them they would start checking every single piece, finding all kinds of flaws and defects, and in the end they might not even agree to buy anything. What would I do then? So, I bribe them and then everything goes smoothly; they take everything without checking or examining too much.'

"The Chofetz Chaim immediately answered, `Aha, that's exactly how things work with us! A person davens, does mitzvos, but the prosecuting angels begin to testify against him: Here his prayer was not the way it should have been, there, while learning he fell asleep or chatted, etc., in short, everything is blemished. So what does HaKodosh Boruch Hu do in order to help this Jew? He calls over the good angels. They immediately begin to defend him saying, `What do you want from this Jew's prayer, look how steeped he is in suffering! His wife is ill, his son was conscripted to the Polish army, he has problems with his parents. What do you want from him? This man also does chessed, he gives charity to those who are alone and destitute!' `And then,' continued the Chofetz Chaim, `HaKodosh Boruch Hu takes this Jew and saves him from all the prosecuting angels. This is the "bribe" that we give to HaKodosh Boruch Hu! The charity we give and the chessed we do -- that is what saves us!' concluded the Chofetz Chaim.

"Whenever you walked into the Chofetz Chaim's house you would hear a chiddush about some posuk or other. Every day after davening we would hear from him a gutte vort -- after Shacharis and also after Mincha and Ma'ariv.

"He knew the entire Tanach by heart, backwards and forwards. As soon as you would walk into his house you would acquire a treasure: an interesting explanation on a posuk. Afterwards the bochurim would come to the yeshiva and tell over what they had heard: such and such a commentary, or some story or interesting fact. Some of these vertlach I remember till today," says Rav Kalman Farber.

"One of the Chofetz Chaim's famous adages was: `People worry about having with what to live, and I ask, do they have with what to die?'

"Another one of his pet sayings was his commentary on the verse, Mi ho'ish hechofeitz chaim, oheiv yomim liros tov, `Who is the man who desires life, loves days to see good.' Whoever really loves his days, must make sure that he has good days. For we will meet our days [from this world again] in Olam Haboh when everything will be shown to us, and we will see for ourselves exactly how we spent our days. We will be shown all the days in which we wasted our time and did not learn, spoke forbidden speech, looked at what we were not allowed to see -- everything will be displayed to us as we undergo judgment. So the person who really wants life and loves his days, and indeed wants his days to be good ones, that person must see to it that his days are good -- so that they will be good for him!

"He would quote: `In olam habo who jumps first? Theft jumps first. Who is the prosecutor? Theft is the primary prosecutor' (Bereishis Rabba, 80).

" `Why theft, of all sins?' asked the Chofetz Chaim and answered with a story. `There once was a successful merchant who had a store but went bankrupt. Those who had supplied him with merchandise came demanding the money he owed them. The merchant said that he had no money left since he went bankrupt. As long as the merchant continues arguing with his creditors all is well and good, and no action is taken. But what if one of the creditors is bold and impudent? He will demand his money back and when he sees that the merchant is not able to pay up, he does not continue to negotiate with the merchant as the others did, but rather simply takes whatever merchandise he can seize from the store shelves.

" `As soon as he begins, all the other creditors follow suit until the merchant is stripped of his last belongings. This is how it works with us,' the Chofetz Chaim explained. `When a person arrives in Olam Haboh he is met by all the sins he committed during his lifetime, but none can do anything yet to harm him. Theft, however, jumps to the forefront and begins to accuse and prosecute, because the angel that is created from a person's sin has the same attribute as the sin itself. Since the nature of theft is such that it is done with force and chutzpah, naturally this is the sin that jumps forward to prosecute. It shouts and does not give any peace, and then as soon as it begins, all the other sins immediately begin to shout as well.' "

Reb Kalman is quiet for a moment as he becomes immersed in his thoughts and memories. "The Chofetz Chaim's approach to everything was with total simplicity, but with a profound understanding. When he would speak, his words were palpable."

Do You Think that with a Brochoh you can create a Ben Yeshiva?

"He was so open and spoke at great length, seemingly effortlessly. He would tell us about incidents that happened to him and then teach us the lesson to be learned. Once he told us about a Jew who had come to him from the farthest reaches of Poland for a brochoh. This man had a son whom he wanted to see grow up to be a good Jew, a ben Torah. `That is a wonderful thing, a truly wonderful thing,' responded the Chofetz Chaim. `And what did you do in order to realize this desire of yours?' `That's exactly why I came, to ask for a brochoh,' the Jew answered. The Chofetz Chaim was annoyed. `What?! You think that with a brochoh you can create a ben yeshiva? Don't you know, that these days you must be moser nefesh?! Chinuch today demands mesirus nefesh! Not brochos. With brochos you won't get anywhere!' "

When You Cry Out to Hashem You Will Be Answered

"Another time he told us that he was walking in the street when he saw a man with a wagon full of apples, hawking his wares in order to attract customers. The Chofetz Chaim noticed, though, that not a soul came to buy from him. `I came back two hours later,' the Chofetz Chaim continued, `and I saw that the man was still standing in the same place crying out to people to come and buy, but still no one came to him. I went over to him and asked what he was shouting about since he was not making any sales. The man answered me, "Look Rebbe, it's true that I shout all day, but when I come home in the evening and make an accounting of what I have earned I see that boruch Hashem I have with what to live."'

"`Do you understand?' the Chofetz Chaim asked. `A person must cry out. When we cry out to Hashem once, twice, three times, and then once again and yet again, Hakodosh Boruch Hu answers! There is no question about it. We are certainly no worse than that Jew. All we have to do is cry out, to beg Hashem to answer us.'"

The Essence of Teshuva

"He was known to say, `What do you think a baal teshuva is? Do you think a baal teshuva must put on sackcloth? A baal teshuva does not need to put on sackcloth. When a witness stands under the chuppah he must be a kosher witness. How is this done? The rov says to the witness, `You must do teshuva.' And what does the Jew do? He turns to the side and says: `I regret the past and request [Heavenly assistance] for the future.' And that is what teshuva is all about, with no chochmos or odd exterior trappings. A person who knows that he is lacking in a certain area must work on himself to rectify this. No more. That is teshuva.' "

Heavenly Reckoning

"In those days paralysis was extremely prevalent and many people fell victim to it with no relief in sight. I remember how the Chofetz Chaim would relate to this when speaking to us: `Where does the disease of paralysis originate?' he would ask rhetorically. `Why has this disease spread to almost epidemic proportions during the last few years? If we would examine it we would observe that this is indeed a very strange affliction: A person has a mouth, a palate, lips, a throat, everything, but he cannot utter one word from his mouth! What happened? Paralysis! A person has legs, knees, feet, everything, but to walk? Not even one step. What happened? What does Hakodosh Boruch Hu want from us?

" `Every human being has an account, an allowance of sorts. For example, a person might be allotted a million steps in his lifetime. After he has used up those million steps, there are no more! Finished! And from then on the person can still have feet and all the rest -- but to walk? Not one more step. His allowance is depleted. Moreover, this person must know that each and every footstep is written down. Every step is reckoned. Guard your steps. Don't go to places of wrongdoing. Don't waste what you were given.

" `A person has a mouth. Hakodosh Boruch Hu gave a person a certain number of words in his lifetime. As soon as he has used up all his words -- finished! He can have all the organs of speech but not one word will he be able to pronounce. Keep this in mind and guard your speech! Know that every word is written down; each word is subtracted from your allowance. Don't waste them!

" `The same goes for the eyes, the hands and all the other organs of the body.'

"This was the Chofetz Chaim's explanation to us regarding paralysis. And he said everything with such conviction and vitality; you could see that he felt the truth of his words with all his senses, and you could not remain indifferent.

"When he spoke of the gentiles, of [idols of ] wood and stone, he would literally laugh out loud at avoda zora and you could really feel what he was saying."

Ruach Hakodesh

"Whenever he spoke of yeshivaleit he would say, `When will we receive true gedolim? When? Rabbonim we have plenty of, but who will bring us the genuine gedolim?'

"He wanted and demanded that bnei Torah be true gedolei Torah. Even from the older students he constantly demanded more and more.

"HaGaon HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l was once speaking to HaGaon HaRav Elchonon Wassermann Hy'd and told him that once he spoke to the Chofetz Chaim when all of a sudden, in the middle of the conversation the Chofetz Chaim said, `When you begin a maseches you must always finish it. Don't leave it in the middle.' Rav Aharon later thought about what the Chofetz Chaim had said and realized that he was actually guilty of doing just that. On many occasions he had begun a masechta, learned a little, and then left it there. `How did he know that?' Rav Aharon asked Reb Elchonon. Reb Elchonon answered, `The same thing happened to me! I was discussing something with the Chofetz Chaim when suddenly he interrupted me and said that after beginning a maseches one must finish it. `Genuine ruach hakodesh!' both Rav Aharon and Reb Elchonon agreed."

End of Part I


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.