Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Nissan 5762 - March 20, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Prince of Torah: Rav Shach and Limud Hatorah

by Arye Gefen

An Interview with Rav Shmuel Deutsch, one of the roshei yeshiva of Kol Torah and one of the closest talmidim of Rav Elazar Shach, ztv"l

In the wake of the great void in the Torah world created by the passing of the Rosh Yeshiva ztv"l Refoel Gartner and I went to see HaRav Shmuel Deutsch, one of the greatest talmidim of Rav Shach and one of those closest to him, to speak to him about the great loss we have suffered. We wanted to hear from one of his most senior talmidim about the Rosh Yeshiva's derech in Torah, about the deep imprint he left on the whole Torah world, which he created and maintained, and about this world, which was his whole world.

We spoke about other topics too, but we always came back to the starting point: the central theme of Torah.

Does the public have a share in the Rosh Yeshiva's Torah, and what characterizes his special strength?

The Rosh Yeshiva has a special place as far as limud haTorah and omol haTorah are concerned. His Torah had a special depth about it, he had a direct approach to the heart and essence of a sugya. He would concentrate completely on his learning to the point of literally divesting himself of his material existence. He would forget all the rules and conventions of olom hazeh, bumping into trees and so on, not knowing where he was until the sugya became clear to him. Once he became immersed in a sugya he would not relax until he had a clear picture of it, however long this might take: a day, two days, or several weeks -- as long as necessary.

Therefore his seforim and shiurim also have to be studied in depth. If they are studied this way one cannot overestimate their value in understanding the sugya, as talmidim can testify.

It is only natural -- and this has been proved in the past -- that people tend to learn the seforim of a rov more after he has passed away than during his lifetime. There are several reasons for this from the psychological point of view, and that is also why many gedolim made a point of arranging for their works to be printed after their lifetime.

The Rosh Yeshiva invested a lot of effort in his Torah. His brilliant sevoros are very profound; any slight deviation means that you have missed the mark. I remember that some people used to try to put his sevoros into writing. When he saw them he would sometimes be disappointed, saying that it was "not the same thing." It is quite difficult to put subtle and profound thoughts into writing, to find the precise words to express all the details and aspects of a topic.

The Chiddushei HaRim once spoke about one of the gedolim who had written many profound books. He said that because this godol had tried to hide kabbalistic ideas within the nigleh, his books are very lengthy, since he attempts to find words and definitions to give expression to his thoughts, making the text wordy and difficult to understand.

Once when I went to see the Rosh Yeshiva, he told me that for several weeks he had not been able to sleep at night because of a question he had on the Rambam in Hilchos Avoda Zorah. I looked at the Rambam and saw that the Kesef Mishnah asks the same question and also answers it. When the Rosh Yeshiva noticed my surprise he said, "Yes, there is a question in the Kesef Mishnah from the words of the gemora and also an answer, but I want to know why the Rambam learnt the whole gemora differently, having a mahalach in the pshat that is different from the pashtus."

Because of this he became sick for several weeks: "Why did the Rambam have an understanding different from the pashtus of the gemora?"

I remember how, when the Brisker Rov was alive, Rav Shach would travel to Yerushalayim to ask him a question and come back immediately. Sometimes the journey would take many hours, in fact almost a whole day would have to be set aside for the journey, but if there was someone to ask you had to go and see him.

He would not even always receive an answer. Sometimes he would come back with a decisive answer from the Brisker Rov: "I don't know." For the Rosh Yeshiva that was enough, and it made the whole exhausting trip worthwhile.

Even after he had obtained his heart's desire, a genuine and correct answer to his question, he would continue analyzing it again and again until he was convinced that this was what the Rambam meant.

Once during a shiur the Rosh Yeshiva quoted from the Galia Masechta by Rav Dovid of Novardok, the rov of that town, who writes, after having resolved a difficulty in the Rambam, that the Rambam was now sitting in the yeshiva shel maalo and saying, "The Novardok rov's explanation is exactly what I meant."

The Rosh Yeshiva would make special statements in the course of a shiur in order to increase the cheishek and taste for learning. For example, he would quote from the Or Somayach: "This sugya is only to be found here in the whole of Shas, there is nothing like it anywhere else." On other occasions he would utter expressions of joy such as, "This sevoro is worth a million" and so on.

It was not unusual for him to offer a large monetary prize for anyone who could answer his question, and there was no one happier than he was when a correct and genuine explanation was found as a result of the great efforts of his talmidim.

Did the Rosh Yeshiva tell his talmidim about his special connection to the Brisker Rov?

Towards the end of his life, during the last few months, the Brisker Rov would close himself off together with the Rosh Yeshiva and make a cheshbon hanefesh in his presence. He spoke to him for many hours about profound topics. Over the years the Rosh Yeshiva said that during this period he received instructions and methods of leadership for his whole life and solutions to most of the problems that commonly occur.

I remember those fine days when he would come back from Yerushalayim and repeat with great joy the divrei Torah he had heard from the Brisker Rov in Yerushalayim. In the yeshiva he would gather together members of the chabura and, as if tipsy from the wine of Torah, he would share with us his booty, with immense joy in a singsong manner. Some of these divrei Torah were subsequently printed in the Chiddushim al HaTorah of the Brisker Rov.

It is well known that once when the Rosh Yeshiva was living in the Kerem neighborhood (near Geulah) of Yerushalayim, he parted from the Brisker Rov with a big difficulty unresolved. At two o'clock in the morning the Brisker Rov thought of an answer. The Brisker Rov asked his son to go to the Rosh Yeshiva's house to call him to come over to his house so that he could tell him the answer and he could give his opinion on it.

His family tried to dissuade him, arguing, "Rav Leizer might be sleeping already." The Brisker Rov responded as follows: "I'm sure he's not sleeping. If he would have found an answer, he would have come back here to share his joy. And since he has not come back, he must still be delving into the sugya, expecting us to notify him if we find an answer."

His son went to fetch the Rosh Yeshiva, and it turned out that the Brisker Rov was right.

Despite his closeness to the Brisker Rov, the Rosh Yeshiva was very much in awe of him. I remember when they wanted to make a big protest on behalf of the Brisker Rov after somebody had insulted him in the press, Rav Shach rushed to Rav A. Barzel, who was about to give a speech at the protest gathering, and shared his feelings of awe with him: "Do you have any idea about the stature of the person you are going to speak about?" He made him afraid of [going into] the whole matter. In the end the whole affair came to an end when the Brisker Rov himself requested that no protests should take place.

When the Rov heard daily shiurim from the Rosh Yeshiva, how far did you get during the zman?

When we learned Bovo Metzia in the winter zman, we started Eilu Metzios after Chanukah and reached the sugya of ono'oh by the end of the zman (according to the notes on the daily shiurim). Sometimes during the shiur the Rosh Yeshiva would bring a question from R' Akiva Eiger or the Ketzos HaChoshen or the Pnei Yehoshua, adding some flavor to them and explaining them well. Then he would make a comment or add a clarification, and immediately move on to the next sugya.

I remember how, when we were learning the sugya on shtoros in Kesuvos 18, the Rosh Yeshiva brought R' Akiva Eiger's question, expounded on it at length for about 45 minutes, and then moved straight on. Nowadays there are yeshivas which literally spend three months delving into this sugya.

The Rosh Yeshiva would often repeat -- and anyone who wants to honor him and commemorate his memory must remember how important this was for him -- that one has to complete at least a few blat every week. This point too was connected to his general outlook that we have to follow in the footsteps of previous generations. As Rav Aharon Kotler said a generation ago, no talmid chochom worthy of the name would have come out of the type of limud that is customary today. The same applies today, since the situation has not changed.

When bochurim in a crisis came to see him because they were depressed, he encouraged them to learn with simcha and clarity, and he told them that it was not so terrible if they could not grasp all the words of the Rishonim and Acharonim in their younger years, because otherwise they would start thinking about other things and stop the intensity and continuity of their learning.

I remember an avreich who came to the Rosh Yeshiva with his son who had lost the cheishek for learning. After about an hour with the Rosh Yeshiva, the fourteen-year-old boy came out with a smile on his face and his father was wiping tears of joy from his eyes. The Rosh Yeshiva had simply taken out a gemora and learnt with the boy for a full hour, showing him that he was capable of understanding everything, and so giving him the motivation and desire to learn.

I once told the Rosh Yeshiva that I was giving a daf yomi shiur. He was full of joy when I told him this and said: "Ay, what a pleasure it is to learn gemora with Rashi! Is there any greater pleasure than that in the whole world?"

In his will the Rosh Yeshiva says, "I have dedicated myself to the talmidim." How did this express itself?

His dedication to talmidim was incredible. One talmid who had been referred by his Rosh Yeshiva was asked by Rav Shach to come to see him again after Pesach, because he felt that he needed to be talked to and given chizuk in emunoh. The bochur's rosh yeshiva relates that after bein hazmanim the bochur came to him and told him that Rav Shach had found out his address in Tel Aviv and, despite his advanced years, had visited him twice during bein hazmanim!

The Rosh Yeshiva dedicated himself to convey to his talmidim the correct approach in learning a sugya. For example, not to start looking at seforim straight away, but to first mull the matter over yourself.

So too with regard to all other aspects of life and its tests. Once, for example, he told me, "A person must live in a state of `You have elevated us above all other things,' to be above all other matters, always to be immersed in learning, making sure that any changes in a person's situation will not disturb his learning. That is how I have lived my life, and that is how one has to live."

The Rosh Yeshiva's dedication to his talmidim was not merely superficial or merely a matter of speech. It was real mesirus nefesh, taking into account every fine detail, giving chizuk where needed and assisting a talmid whenever possible. He once asked me to help him in a certain matter and said to me, "You know how much I was moser nefesh for you in the past and be'ezras Hashem I will be in the future. And so I have the right to ask this of you, even if it seems difficult or the reason for it is not so clear at the moment."

I once remarked to him, "The Rosh Yeshiva has not had any olom hazeh." He responded, "You don't know how true that is!"

He always lived with the tangible feeling of "who knows what tomorrow will bring." -- "The next shiur we will give here in the Yeshiva or maybe in the Yeshiva shel maalo."

In a certain Yeshiva there was some friction among the maggidei shiur. One of them came to ask the Rosh Yeshiva if he should worry about this. Rav Shach replied, "If you think that the yeshiva needs your shiurim, then give a shiur, and before each shiur say, `I am willing to be moser nefesh for the sake of the Torah hakedoshoh.'"

He said that one of the gedolim of the previous generation had told him that in his youth he had opened up a beis medrash and the Alter of Slobodka had told him to learn for one hour in the Beis Hamussar every day before going to the Yeshiva. That godol did not fulfill the Alter's request and when, after a while, his yeshiva was not successful, he attributed the lack of siyata deShmaya to not having obeyed the instructions of the Alter.

Whenever a yeshiva opened up the Rosh Yeshiva would say that it had to be established lesheim Shomayim, with mesirus nefesh for the sake of Torah. He assisted and encouraged new yeshivas, because he felt there was a special siyata deShmaya for those who establish Torah institutions and for those who assist them in doing so.

He would say that in each generation there is a special siyata deShmaya for the leaders of the generation. For example, the Kovna Rov, HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor, would easily find a book dealing with a matter at hand, and when he opened the sefer he immediately found the place he needed. So too with regard to public affairs, as soon as his opinion about a rabbonus or similar matters became known, the opposing party withdrew immediately. All this we also experienced first hand with the Rosh Yeshiva.

He once said that every generation had its roshei yeshiva and rabbonim, its own tzadikim and gedolim and above them all were individuals who understood the needs of the generation, and all of them let them lead [the generation].

"We have become orphaned from our father." Nowadays, orphans are not very deprived [financially]: organizations, funds, and activists take care of their needs, but a "father" figure is still missing, someone who understands their real needs and would see to them with mesirus nefesh (I have heard this pshat elsewhere).

I saw the special siyata deShmaya the Rosh Yeshiva was blessed with. In other places they would call this phenomenon mofsim. I remember one incident many years ago, which I was witness to. A yeshiva was going to have a dinner to collect funds, but it almost had to be cancelled and the yeshiva was in a desperate financial situation.

In their distress they asked the Rosh Yeshiva if he would be wiling to send a letter or the like. The Rosh Yeshiva asked me if a loan would help them. "Or maybe . . ." he thought for a while and then went to the closet, took out an envelope with money inside and said to me, "Ask the secretary of the yeshiva how much money -- exactly -- they need very urgently, and only afterwards give them as much as they need."

I sat and counted the money. It came to exactly $20,000. I arranged for an urgent meeting with the yeshiva's secretary, and I asked him for the exact sum that they needed on an immediate basis to get them out of their trouble. He told me to wait a little while, quickly made some calculations, and said, "$21,000." I took out the envelope and told him to count the money. He counted out $21,000.

It seems that I was in such a rush that I had counted $1000 too little, but the Rosh Yeshiva had given exactly as much as they needed! When we went back and told him what had happened he showed no signs of being amazed. We understood from his matter of fact response that he was used to such things.

Now I Feel at Ease

It was some eight years ago when Rabbenu had reached the age of 100. One day, when the time for Mincha had arrived, Rabbenu told one of his escorts, "Now I feel at ease. I couldn't sleep a wink all night."

In response to his talmid's question Rabbenu said that he had been fatigued for several days, to the point where he could barely walk, but the doctor who examined him said he was as healthy as a fifty-year-old man.

"So I thought to myself, `Why am I feeling tired and drained? It must be my laziness. And this thought upset me all night until eventually I realized there was no contradiction between my fatigue and the doctor's evaluation. It could be that I really am as healthy as a fifty-year-old, but at my age HaKodosh Boruch Hu takes away a man's strength. I am healthy, very healthy in fact, but I have no strength. If so, then I am not so lazy," he said.

Under a Different Light

When bochurim who had married went to ask his opinion regarding electricity on Shabbos, he would tell them to be stringent if they intended to settle in Bnei Brak. "Bnei Brak follows the Chazon Ish, therefore one should be stringent," he would say. In Jerusalem he would tell inquirers that if it presented a difficulty they could rely on the lenient opinions.

On one occasion he departed from this pattern. When a bochur got married and looked for an apartment for sale in Jerusalem he told him to use gas lighting (lux). This psak came as a surprise. That talmid was not known as the type who particularly needs the chumros of the Brisker Rav and the Chazon Ish.

One of Rabbenu's talmidim asked him to explain the psak. "Is that really what he needs: a lux lamp on Shabbos?"

Once again Rabbenu revealed his unique shrewdness, saying, "You're right. He doesn't need a lux lamp. But under a lux, he won't read Yediot Achronot."

He went on to explain that he wanted to provide the bochur with a sense of self-esteem and importance, a feeling that he, and only he, had been told by the Rosh Yeshiva not to use electricity on Shabbos. With such a feeling of importance, it would be difficult and unpleasant for him to wallow in the muck on Shabbos.

Put it In -- He Won't Notice

One of the bochurim at the yeshiva suffered from mental problems. Without his knowledge someone found out that pills would help him. But the bochur was not aware of any problem and he could not be told the truth. His friends came up with an idea: they would grind up the pills and put them into his tea or his soup. But they had one concern. Perhaps the bochur would detect the bitterness of the pills and the plan would fail.

They went to Maran the Rosh Yeshiva and presented the problem to him. One of them proposed consulting a chemist. Rabbenu could tell that their plans would become more and more involved without clear guidance. He asked to see the pill.

He took the pill and placed it in his mouth, feeling it with his tongue to taste it. Then he crushed the pill between his teeth, proceeded to chew it and even swallowed. "You can put it in. He won't notice. It's not so bitter," said Rabbenu, summing up the results of his personal analysis.

Oyvei Hashem

"Sometimes even people who keep mitzvos and even carefully avoid all aveiros in word and deed may be included among son'ei Hashem, if their soul is wicked and their hearts harden when their friends engage in Torah and serve Hashem and fear Him. . . And even more so if they carry out their thoughts, diverting their peers from Torah and mitzvos, because they are son'ei Hashem. Furthermore, people who envy the honor accorded to righteous, upstanding talmidei chachomim and are upset at the wreaths of glory that adorn them or resent the control that they exercise . . . and if they love the honor received by reshoim and the latter's rule even if over dust. All of these people are truly son'ei Hashem and they do not wish Him to be worshiped and do not seek the holy splendor of fear of Heaven" (Sha'arei Teshuvoh, Part III, siman 160).

Maran the Rosh Yeshiva once cited this passage in Rabbenu Yonah, when explaining that personally he preferred the nusach of Velamalshinim that includes the word "amcho" ["vechol oyvei amcho meheiroh yikoreisu" and not "vechol oyvecho"]. He then went on to explain, "I, myself, am very concerned lest I may one day, choliloh, be among the `oyvei Hashem,' so why should I pray for my own destruction?"

Compensation for Listening

Every erev Shabbos he would tovel in the mikveh in Shikun Gimmel of Bnei Brak. His talmidim noticed that sometimes he would take cigarettes, a bar of chocolate or other small gifts. In reply to their query he explained that he would often start a directed conversation with the attendant in order to instruct him to encourage his wife (the balanit) regarding the holy task placed on her shoulders.

"I am not his boss and nevertheless I give him instructions and he listens to me. I though that I should compensate him," explained Rabbenu.

You Saved Yourself

One of the bochurim from shiur Alef was brought to Rabbenu's room. He complained that he had not been well received and that he did not feel comfortable in the yeshiva. Rabbenu sensed that the bochur might not be suited for the level of study at the yeshiva and that apparently this was what was bothering him.

"Are you able to follow the shiurim?" asked Rabbenu.

The talmid admitted that he did not understand them completely.

From the window one could see the large, impressive yeshiva building. It was clear that the talmid did not belong here, but to avoid insulting him, the Rosh Yeshiva had to present the situation in a way that would not hurt him. He pointed out the window toward the building and with compassion in his voice he declared, "See this building? Many amei ha'artzos have gone forth from there simply because they lacked your courage. You had the courage to come and tell the truth. You have saved yourself . . . "

(Musaf Shabbos P. Vayeishev, p.19)

A Governmental "Program" Formulated in Accordance with the Rosh Yeshiva's Advice

When Amnon Ashuri was the Head of the Housing Department in the Housing Ministry he was fortunate enough to have visited HaRav Shach ztv"l in his house to receive advice about governmental matters. The following is an excerpt from a letter he wrote not long ago, which portrays his impressions of these meetings:


13th Kislev, 5762

28th November 2001

When I was the Head of the Housing Department in the Ministry of Housing and Construction in the 80s I had the honor of working together with Rabbi Mordechai Lasker, who was the Chairman of the Public Appeals and Exceptions Committee. Although he was a representative of the public and not a professional of the Ministry, Rabbi Lasker displayed an understanding of and sensitivity and devotion to the housing issue, which is something of a rarity even amongst most regular Ministry employees.

Without it detracting from his concern for all the citizens in the country, Rabbi Lasker made a point of telling us about the unique problems of the chareidi population. The Ministry listened and provided not inconsiderable assistance to the chareidi public, without detracting from other population sectors. Once when we were discussing the issue of payments to civil servants I asked Rabbi Lasker to organize a meeting with Rav Shach.

I arrived at the rov's house accompanied by Rabbi Lasker without any notion of the huge gap between the rov's greatness in Torah, his immense standing and leadership, and the modesty of his house and behavior: his apartment was very small. In this one-room apartment there was a big table full of books, which was illuminated by powerful spotlights to help the elderly rov in his studies. There were a few simple chairs and an old bed in the corner of the room. There was no living room, sofas or decorations. This was the total content of the apartment.

The meeting with the rov was scheduled for 1 o'clock and was originally meant to be devoted to only two topics. However, we ended up discussing other topics and another meeting was arranged at which I asked some more questions, the answers to which astonished me.

The first topic was the Population and Housing Census undertaken by the Central Bureau of Statistics, which had been put into cheirem by an important chareidi rov. Members of the Bureau asked me to intervene with Rav Shach to have the cheirem lifted, and I acceded to their request. Rav Shach said that he could not lift the ban, which had been imposed by a godol beTorah, but he offered his personal assistance as well as that of his aides in the discussions about certain changes in the text on the questionnaires, which would make it possible to reconsider the topic.

I asked the rov for his opinion on many topics. The most interesting were education and the settlements.

I knew the rov's opinion about the settlements in advance. He wanted new chareidi settlements, but only within the green line. He explained his position during our second meeting. According to Rav Shach, maintaining the settlements beyond the green line had no strategic value in view of modern military technology and the world political order. War and peace in our region are not dependant on our military might or the distance to the Jordanian border, but on the political and strategic considerations of the Great Powers. In his opinion, therefore, the settlements were inadvisable and he was unwilling to support them.

The main topic in which Rav Shach displayed an astounding grasp was a painful issue in those days in the Housing Ministry after the collapse of bank shares on the stock exchange in 1982. Until the abrupt drop in share values, many citizens invested all their savings in shares. Many people sold their apartments, invested the proceeds in shares, and after a while managed to purchase bigger and more expensive properties with the profit made on the shares. However, many others sold their apartments and invested in shares but lost their money and were no longer able to buy an apartment with the little money that remained, which was spent on temporary rent that became permanent, since there was no possibility of getting out of this cycle. These people, in their distress, turned to the Housing Ministry for assistance.

The Ministry in those days had rules for assisting people without [owned] housing, with overcrowded housing and people who had been vacated from maabarot (transit camps), as well as other categories. However, there was no assistance available for those who had owned apartments and had sold them. The Ministry's approach, in brief, was that someone who had acted irresponsibly by trying to make a fortune through speculative activities that failed, should not turn to the State for help, since State funds originated from other taxpayers who had not given in to the temptation to gamble on the stock market, knowing that the family home was an asset belonging to their family that could not be put at risk. At the same time, we on the Public Committee could not stand aside and refuse to assist families suffering hardship due to lack of accommodations, even though they had erred in deciding to sell their apartments.

Rabbi Lasker and I asked Rav Shach for his opinion. The rov's answer was clear and decisive. He had no doubts about the matter at all (and this was before the Beilski Committee): The Government of Israel was responsible for developments on the stock exchange at the time. The government had encouraged trading and investments in bank shares. It had represented the stock exchange as an institution which benefited the public, and the nation had acted accordingly. According to the rov, it was the government which had created and encouraged the public's feverish and speculative activities on the stock exchange, and it therefore had a responsibility towards those who had suffered from this process and to help extricate them from their troubles.

Rav Shach stressed another interesting point in this context:

One of the tasks of the government and its agents is, of course, to ensure that its citizens have adequate housing, but it should not use its powers to educate the public on how to act with its property. From the day a person buys an apartment, the rov said, it becomes his property and he has the right to do with it as he sees fit, without any directives, instructions or conditions from any governmental authority.

We presented Rav Shach's standpoint to Minister David Levy and to the Director General Asher Wiener z"l who approved a special assistance program. We also convinced people in the Finance Ministry based on the approach of Rav Shach. Thus a special program of assistance for "Apartment Sellers of 1982" was born. This program, with some changes which had to be made over the years, is still in place today.

Several years have passed since our meeting, but I cannot forget the rov's friendly and kind manner. Despite his soft tone, his slow speech, and the Yiddish accent, his statements were easily understood, clear, and unforgettable. Wisdom, as Rav Shach said about himself, is the ability to learn and the ability to teach others. The exciting experience of these meetings with Rav Shach proved the accuracy of this statement.


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