Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Av 5763 - August 13, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Untouchable Clock-Tower -- A Biographical Appreciation of the Gateshead Rov

by M. D. Spiro

Part I

One month ago a unique era of rabbonus came to an end when HaRav Betzalel Rakow, one of the ziknei horabbonim, presiding over a kehilloh full of rabbonim, moved his shtender to the yeshiva shel Ma'aloh.

HaRav Hutner zt"l once likened the task of a rov to a village clock-tower. What did he mean? He explained in his poignant way: Why is the clock fixed so high? Were the clock to be within easy reach of everybody, the ordinary man on the street would simply move the clock's hands so as to fit them in with his own schedule. It is essential that the clock be out of reach so that every man has to fit his schedule in with the clock -- and not vice versa! (Heard from HaRav Mattisyohu Salomon on the occasion of the Jubilee Dinner of the Tottenham Adass, London.)

No other parable could better sum up the Gateshead Rov's fulfillment of his task. He had an almost unique opportunity to head one unified kehilloh with one shared hashkofoh as the one rov -- and he towered "untouchably" above even the most learned members of the Gateshead kehilloh. He was the ultimate example of devotion to Torah, and devotion to chinuch. He set the tone, he took the decisions -- and the kehilloh followed the clock -- like clockwork.

One visitor (the present writer's father zt"l) used to travel the length and breadth of pre-War Eastern Europe and was well acquainted with pre-War rabbonim such as HaRav Chaim Ozer, the Lubliner Rov and HaRav Menachem Ziemba. He always remarked that Gateshead reminded him of a "vortzeitig Poilish shtetl" where the rov had absolute control over the kehilloh and the ba'alei batim were on his spiritual "wavelength."


Our guiding light in this biography will be the observation which the Rov made to one of his regular visitors in the hospital, Mr. Z. Sandler: Any biography of a godol depicting him as a virtual angel, a "mal'och" who had supposedly learned Shas countless times and so on, was so removed from our spiritual terms of reference that it was pretty much pointless and not worth the time it takes to read it. Much more inspiring was the story of little Yisroel Meir [later the Chofetz Chaim] who helped a widow pick up all the fruit that had fallen from her fruit stall.

In this vein this article will discuss a supremely "human" being, a young boy who was sent out of class for misbehavior, a boy who attended a school where secular studies figured most prominently and who took them seriously, a boy who by force of circumstance had to attend a non-Jewish school and lodge with a non-Jewish family for some time. That he grew up to be an outstanding talmid chochom despite his very normal side -- that is the most inspiring part of the story.

Youth: Frankfurt with a Difference

Shortly before young Betzalel's birth, his parents had moved to Frankfurt-am-Main, at first living far from the Jewish center of population in Bornheim near the Jewish Hospital on the Gaggernstrasse. Later, HaRav Yomtov Lipman (father of R' Betzalel) became rosh yeshiva in the Hoffman yeshiva and was able to move into a kehilloh house.

HaRav Yomtov Lipman was from Russia and had learned in Slutsk and Volozhin. He fled to Germany to escape the draft in Russia.

His erudition, rischo de'Orayso and unlimited devotion to Torah was an inspiration to the talmidim of the Yeshiva. He was an East European "import" to the Frankfurt Yeshiva. On the other hand the "German virtue" of punktlichkeit (punctuality) became part of his dictionary. Never did the rosh yeshiva, who was known to be "drunk" with Torah, come late to the beis hamedrash.

One day, in 1927, the unthinkable happened! The rosh yeshiva had come late! At the end of the learning sessions he excused himself: "I came late today because my wife gave birth to a baby. I waited until I was sure that my wife was all right and hurried to come here. As to whether the baby is a boy or girl -- I will have to find out upon returning soon."

That baby was his son Betzalel. It was this atmosphere of unbelievable devotion to harbotzas haTorah into which little Betzalel was born. The fact that he had been the root cause to show his father's talmidim how devoted he was to Torah may have been symbolic for the baby. Eventually this devotion became HaRav Betzalel's leitmotif.

Young Betzalel attended the Volkschule (primary school). Although his father headed the yeshiva of the general community where Orthodox Jews and heretics joined together in the kehilloh framework, his personal outlook was close to that of the Hirsch-Breuer separatist community. In 1938 he sent his sons to the grammar school affiliated with that community, the Hirsch Realschule. It is interesting that he learned enough English in those few years to be able to communicate afterwards quite well when reaching England. Obviously, he had taken his language lessons seriously. [heard from the Rov]

Since school lessons only took place in the morning and secular subjects figured most prominently in the curriculum, his father sent him for extra limudei kodesh to a cheder. Together with the sons of the rov of the Austrittsgemeinde, HaRav Joine Horowitz, they learned in the Beis Hamedrash Ohel Nosson, Schneigrabenstrasse 12, amongst the hallowed walls where Reb Nosson Adler had once taught the young Chasam Sofer.

One day young Betzalel was fooling around in class. The Rebbe sent him out. Young Betzalel was very upset because they had just been asked a kushya from the Maharam Shif. Betzalel would now miss the answer. When he came home he was crying. When the melamed met his father, HaRav Yomtov Lipman, the latter told him that Betzalel had come home weeping bitterly because he did not know what the Maharam Shif had answered. The melamed remarked: "Fun eim vet eppes veren! (Something will come of him!) (My Father, My Rebbe by C. Zahn, p. 44)

When reminiscing about his youth, the Rov related that from this beis hamedrash he could see the window of the Schuetzenstrasse Shul, the original shul from the days of HaRav Hirsch. Those in charge had refused to sell it to the "Ostjuden" (the Jews who came to Frankfurt from Eastern Europe, whom they looked down upon). They had preferred to sell it to non-Jews. Now the boys' gaze was met by -- horses. The shul had been turned into a stable! Those responsible for this outrage did not live long.

With the rise of Nazism, young Betzalel and his friends' lives became anything but a bed of roses. Often they were beaten up by other boys. Nearby was a school for the mentally handicapped. They learned very little; but one thing they managed to absorb: Hatred for Yidden. In particular there was one very strong boy whom little Betzalel and his friends used to call the mal'ach hamoves. They always tried to look out of the window to check whether the coast was clear before going to school.

On one particular occasion, little Betzalel was suddenly surprised by the appearance of the mal'ach hamoves coming towards him from the other side. Only quick thinking by an older daring boy saved young Betzalel from a painful confrontation. Many years later, this kind boy, Chaim Stark, became one of the stalwart members of the Rov's community. [heard from the Rov]

The Rov's mother used to bake for needy widows who lived towards the center of town. Although the boys could run into painful encounters, they willingly delivered the packages.

Evacuation, Yeshiva and Kollel Years

After Kristallnacht the family moved to England. Young Betzalel had to attend a non-Jewish school for a short time. Eventually he was evacuated to Sheffield and ended up in a well-intentioned, but gentile, family.

Every day pork was served, until one day his host declared: Today you can eat with us. I took care to get hold of a chicken and was careful to kill it by squeezing its neck!"

Little wonder that soon young Betzalel "evacuated" himself from the evacuation. He joined Schneider's yeshiva in London which was no mean feat since he was really too young. He became bar mitzvoh as a yeshiva bochur! For the preparation of his droshoh his father provided him with source references and young Betzalel composed his own droshoh. He spoke at length -- at very great length -- until the "Rebbe," Reb Moshe Schneider, said: "Genug!" (Enough).

Among its elite bochurim were some who are today well- known Torah personalities: HaRav Tuvioh Weiss, HaRav Moshe and Dov Sternbuch, HaRav Ezriel Schechter and Mr. Yitzchok Kaufmann. These bochurim had the great benefit of being able to look up to and emulate a group of older bochurim of the highest caliber. Many of these also later became famous talmidei chachomim: HaRav Alter Halpern, HaRav Shamai Zahn, HaRav Naftoli Friedler, HaRav Fishel Goldberg, HaRav M. D. Gruner. The "Rebbe" Reb Moshe Schneider, advised the bochurim to view Betzalel as an example and "goalpost" despite the glaring age difference. The Rov would recall with great feeling the atmosphere of these bnei aliyoh and the prodding guidance of their Rebbe, HaRav Moshe Schneider.

The war was in full swing -- outside the wall of the beis hamedrash. Inside -- the milchamto shel Torah was fought with full force.

One of his chavrusas was HaRav Moshe Sternbuch. Every week they learned four blatt and chazered them five times. Every half-year the Rov would finish the masechta in its entirety. When fears of the nightly bombardments made it hard for him to fall asleep he used the nighttime hours to chazer what he had learned that day until he fell asleep.

Many years later the Rov asked the great rosh yeshiva HaRav Leib Gurwicz why the pace of learning had slowed down so considerably in yeshivos. HaRav Gurwicz explained that since many bochurim have been exposed to the attraction of deeper intellectual understanding of secular subjects -- chochmoh bo'umos ta'amin -- it was necessary to delve deeply into the sugyos and show them the sparkling diamonds of profound Talmudic insights. Although indeed this may not have been the ideal state of affairs, it influenced many to devote themselves with full energy to Torah-learning.

On the short walk from yeshiva to the dining room, the bochurim used to drink up the news of the day. But young Betzalel was not interested in anything except the sefer he had with him.

A contemporary remembers that HaRav Schneider used to say to them: "Follow the Chofetz Chaim's advice and take for yourself one good bochur as an example. I advise you," continued HaRav Schneider, "to take one of your youngest chaverim, the bochur Betzalel."

When his mother, Rebbetzin Rakow died, young Betzalel was profoundly affected. Though he had survived bombshell and V- Raketen without moving out of London (unlike many of the other bochurim) this "bombshell" persuaded the family that it would be best for him to change his abode.

When he applied formally to the prestigious Gateshead Kollel HaRabbonim his biggest problem in gaining entry was not his level of learning but his age. He was a mere 18 years old.

He joined the Kollel and threw himself with all his vigor into the demanding learning schedule. His exertion in learning was such that one Friday night, having been invited for the meal, he lost consciousness. His father found out about this and asked his son to cut down on his learning in order not to overexert himself. From then on he stopped with his evening chavrusa at twelve o'clock. On Friday night they went together around the large Gateshead park and discussed the gemora outside. This chavrusa was Reb Aryeh Grossnass [later the head of the London Beis Din].

The Rov's learning was always based upon the solid foundations of pshat. He learned the computations of a complicated sugya over and over again, and only afterwards he explored the rishonim and poskim. His amazing clarity and fluency in explaining quite difficult sugyos was actually the result of exertion in mastering the "bones" of the sugya well before "fleshing them out" with the acharonim and sevoros.

The Rov of Gateshead at the time, HaRav Shakovitzky, chose HaRav Betzalel as his son-in-law. After learning for about twelve years in Kollel, including several years before his marriage, the Rov accepted the invitation of Montreux Yeshiva, one of the very few functioning yeshivos in Europe of those days, and became a maggid shiur.


In later years the Rov would call the following seven years golus Montreux. Having grown up in the large kehilloh of Frankfurt, having been nurtured in Schneider's yeshiva in Stamford Hill and having spent many years in the Torah citadel of Gateshead, he now found himself in a Swiss town of exceptional physical beauty, but a spiritual desert.

He invested energy into his new task of molding fresh bochurim into bnei Torah. At one time the level of his talmidim was of such varying standards that he gave three different daily shiurim to accommodate the different levels in learning -- and spent the rest of the day in yeshiva. On Friday he would summarize the chiddushim from the week's shiurim. Unfortunately the Rov's house was a half-hour away from the yeshiva. This made keeping to his rigorous schedule more difficult.

While the Rov had the satisfaction of drinking -- and giving to drink -- the waters of Torah in this oasis, it is the Rebbetzin who must have felt the full extent of the golus. HaRav Dessler, the Rov's mentor in his Kollel years, used to say: A married ben Torah's gratitude to his wife should be endless. The avreich himself has the pleasure of learning the gemora, and its geshmack more than compensates for any lack of physical "extras." It is the wife who -- without the actual learning -- by dint of her ahavas Torah elevates herself above the mundane pursuit of extras. The Rebbetzin's stay in the spiritual desert was ample testimony to an eishes chayil's happiness in her husband's accomplishments in learning.

The Rov's hashkofoh was firmly grounded in the yeshiva world. Studying secular subjects within the hallowed walls of a yeshiva was out of the question. [Much later he explained his hashkofoh in an early issue of the Kol Hatorah journal.] He was steadfast in resisting pressures to the contrary.

Similarly, Zionism as a political ideology did not exist and did not deserve to exist, according to their Weltanschauung. In his opposition to the Mizrachi movement, the young maggid shiur was markedly different from some other older learned figures in Montreux. This led to severe difficulties and a bumpy relationship with people who had an input into his position at the yeshiva. Despite these problems, he refused to compromise and trade his principles in return for convenience and smooth relationships.

On one occasion a learned Mizrachi rov (later active in the Israeli Army Rabbinate) delivered a shiur. Towards the end, the Rov, who did not want the bochurim to look up to the visitor as an ideal Torah personality, interjected: Isn't all this found explicitly in a Rashash in Mikvo'os? (as indeed it was).

When discussing the issue of providing a religious framework for girls who volunteer for the Israeli army, the Rov was adamant that the Chazon Ish's psak is the absolute truth and binding upon everybody: That the proposal amounts to aiding and abetting problems in tznius [as indeed, sadly, experience has proven] and falls under the halachic rule of yeihoreg ve'al ya'avor.

In the great Gaon HaRav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg the Rov found a sparkling diamond. They often discussed Torah topics and some of the Rov's comments are quoted in sefer Seridei Eish. The present writer also heard the Rov quote some halachic rulings which he had been told by HaRav Weinberg.

Call to Gateshead and Harbotzas Hatorah

The Sunderland rosh yeshiva, HaRav Shamai Zahn, had selected him as rosh hakollel for the Sunderland Kollel HaRabbonim. This plan, however, did not come to fruition and the position was taken up shortly afterwards by HaRav Chanoch Ehrentreu [currently Rosh Beis Din of the London Beth Din].

Upon his father-in-law's petiroh, HaRav Rakow was then approached to accept the rabbonus position of rov of the Gateshead kehilloh. Using the Goral HaGra [by those well-versed in its use in Eretz Yisroel] the following posuk appeared: "Lemishpechosom leveis avosom." The Rov interpreted it as suggesting that he lead the "mishpechosom" of the Gateshead kehilloh.

Despite his relative inexperience in dealing with a general community (as opposed to kollel scholars and yeshiva bochurim) his candidacy was strongly supported by a group led by HaRav Moshe Schwab, the mashgiach ruchani of Gateshead Yeshiva. The latter considered it of paramount importance that the kisei horabbonus in a community of Torah institutions should be occupied by a towering talmid chochom of unimpeachable character.

HaRav Shakovitzky was niftar in Nisan and the Rov came for a trial on Shabbos the week of Parshas Noach. It is interesting that the final note at the end of the weekly sedrah (which includes a word having the numerical value of the number of pesukim of the sedrah) said: Betzalel!

Soon, the Rov returned from Montreux and assumed the mantle of the rabbonus in Gateshead. He was then 37 years old.

The demands upon a rov in Gateshead were multifaceted. On the one hand he had to be proficient in Noshim and Nezikin which were the main subject of study in the six local yeshivos. Furthermore he had to be well-versed in seder Mo'ed as the necessary background to frequent sha'alos. He also had to be familiar with all the poskim in order to answer the array of sha'alos which arise in a community of bnei Torah, of many different "askers."

Not only did the Rov have to be equipped to answer the busy housewife looking for a one-word psak, but he also had to be prepared to explain his ruling to the searching ben Torah who may be baffled by an intricate Chazon Ish. It would be insufficient to merely remember the "bottom line." As a rov he also had to find the right word to say at the many simchas over which he presided. Above all he had to be an example to the bnei aliyoh who looked up to him. All this had to be found within one person.

The great respect which the Rov never demanded, but inevitably received, was vivid testimony to the chochmas haTorah of this Ish Hoe'eshkolos. In addition to the above, many of his shiurim showed great familiarity with the lesser-known concepts of Kodshim.

It is well-known that in our generation not every rosh yeshiva could take up the calling of a rov. By the same token not every rov is qualified to take up the calling of a rosh yeshiva. HaRav Rakow possessed the combination of Talmudic scholarship with halachic knowledge that qualified him easily to handle either position.

Many years ago -- in the early seventies -- for some time he gave a regular advanced shiur which attracted the older yeshiva bochurim of high caliber. The clear delivery and content did not fall into his lap by dint of geniality. It was the result of painstaking preparation. It was primarily diligence rather than brilliance.

The Rov was a strong but selfless leader and influenced the kehilloh by his personal example. His advanced level of scholarship did not cause him to be blind to the needs of the public.

Some of his shiurim were quite straightforward. Just like the Vilna Gaon encouraged the setting up of very straightforward shiurim, he too traveled to a business located on the outskirts of Gateshead in order to encourage them to set up a short lunch time mishnayos shiur. When the firm finished a masechta, he would often come to celebrate with them.

In his 40 years of leadership, the mosdos HaTorah of Gateshead have multiplied many fold: from one to six yeshivos and from one to four kollelim. Indeed when many were hesitant about opening a second kollel, the Rov encouraged it and even assumed a large share of the financial burden. He also gave occasional chaburos to the kollelim and administered the Yoreh De'ah examination while granting semichoh only to married scholars who had learned in kollel.

His shiur schedule included mishnayos, regular shiurim on two masechtos, a weekly shiur on Yoreh De'ah and shiurim on Chayei Odom and the seforim of the Chofetz Chaim.

His most popular shiur was on Pirkei Ovos on Shabbos afternoon. However, the Rov was neither a dramatic orator nor a spellbinding storyteller. Why then was the shiur so popular? In a town of Torah scholars people learned to value the quality of the content!

Somebody once explained about HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz's mussar discourses: If a person is an outstanding Torah scholar, his chochmas HaTorah will shine through even in the simpler homiletic shiurim. In this case too, the Rov's thorough treatment of pshat, his command of the meforshim and the tapestry of explanations were vivid testimony to his general scholarship.

The Rov almost never delivered a shiur without preparation. The present writer attended his shiurim on Yoreh De'ah for four years. Only once was the shiur unprepared -- and this transpired because the Rov had forgotten where we were up to.

In those shiurim too, the pshat figured prominently. Every line of the Shach was explored, word for word and every printing error in Hilchos Vestos was corrected. Nothing of the nitty-gritty was glossed over, although it required toil without great intellectual stimulation. Only after the pshat had been clarified did the Rov proceed to present the array of poskim and discuss the practical sha'alos.

Every Shabbos Shuvoh and every Shabbos Hagodol droshoh contained a novel insight into the sugya. The entire array of maggidei shiur from HaRav Leib Gurwicz zt"l down to the laymen of the kehilloh crammed into the modest structure of the Gateshead Shul -- a great mark of respect. These shiurim had to pass the critical perusal of the entire array of talmidei chachomim who followed the droshoh. The Rov was only too willing to discuss any questions after the shiur.

In line with the Rov's approach to gemora these shiurim always started with a thorough lucid explanation of the pshat of the sugya in all its stages. Only after that would he "take off" into its problems and the rishonim's comments. Often he presented not a novel sevoro, but a novel insight into how to learn a Rishon which changed the whole understanding of the sugya. The sugya-part of these droshos was never very long. He had learned from his Rebbe, Reb Moshe Schneider, who stopped the self-made bar mitzvoh droshoh after he had spoken for well over one- and-a- half hours.

Most of these shiurim were later published in his sefer Bircas Yom Tov. As a rov involved in day-to-day halachic sha'alos and the general ol horabbonus, he was almost unique in that he published a sefer on the Rambam replete with deep insights.

In general he kept his droshos at simchas brief. Most interesting were his droshos to the youngsters at Chumash parties. He adapted the content exactly to the need of the child; and made sure not to speak beyond their ability.

He spoke regularly to the noshim of the kehilloh and to the talmidos of the Seminaries especially during yomim tovim. As a rule he was not in favor of presenting deep, searching concepts to women. Though fluent in English he, as a vortzeitig Rov, very much preferred to speak in Yiddish. However, when the occasion called for it, he did not hesitate to speak in English. On some occasions, when a foreign lady came to him for advice but could not understand either English or Yiddish he fell back upon his childhood German. He considered language a means of disseminating Torah, not an end in itself.

End of Part I


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