Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

21 Iyar 5764 - May 12, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








From Starobin to Brisk: The Life of the Gaon HaRav Michel Feinstein, zt'l, His First Yahrtzeit, 16th Iyar 5764

Prepared from Notes of his Talmidim by B. Re'eim

Part II

The first part discussed R' Yechiel Michel Feinstein's early years. He was born in Uzda and orphaned at the age of seven. He went to the yeshiva in Slutsk, where he heard shiurim from HaRav Aharon Kotler, zt"l. Later he went to Mir where even as a bochur he became one of the important figures in the yeshiva. Younger bochurim used to wait in line to speak with him. His rebbe, R' Isser Zalman Meltzer zt"l, suggested that he go to learn under the Brisker Rov, and he did so along with a small group from the Mir. The Rov was impressed with him immediately. After two years there, he returned to the Mir.


At that time, Reb Michel received a conscription order from the army. Near Grodno there was a doctor who issued exemption papers and his only option was to travel there. On his way back to Mir, he stopped off in Grodno and learned there for approximately half a year. He would say that Torah's honor could be witnessed there. Half an hour before Reb Shimon's shiur was due to begin, everyone would be standing round the bimah waiting.

HaRav Shmuel Rozovsky, zt'l, who was a talmid of Reb Shimon Shkop, zt'l, related that a rumor once went round Grodno that Michel Starobiner was passing through the town and that his train would be waiting for a few minutes at the station. The rumor gathered momentum and the bnei hayeshiva went out to receive Reb Michel.

Reb Michel learned together with Reb Shimon's son, Rav Moshe Mordechai Shkop. One day they disagreed on a certain point and went to ask Reb Shimon. After hearing what each one had to say Reb Shimon said, "Die Brisker is gerecht (The Brisker is right)."

Once, Reb Michel said, he was with Reb Shimon during the summer in the town of Luna and wanted to speak with him in learning when Reb Shimon wanted to rest. (It was Reb Shimon's practice not to speak in learning while away on vacation.) Reb Michel went to stand behind Reb Shimon and repeated his piece of Torah in Reb Shimon's hearing without permission, leaving him unable to refrain from entering into the topic. Reb Shimon corrected him and then continued speaking to him in learning.

HaRav Kalman Gurvitz related that Reb Michel once sent him on an errand to Rav Yisroel Ze'ev Gustman zt'l. When Rav Gustman heard whose emissary Rav Gurvitz was, he rose out of respect and said, "The person who had all of Lithuania in a commotion, whom Reb Shimon asked to deliver a shiur in his yeshiva -- one has to stand for the messenger of such a man!"


Reb Michel's route to Grodno passed through Radin. When he went to see the Chofetz Chaim, zt'l they told the Chofetz Chaim, "There's a bochur here who has learned Kodshim!"

The Chofetz Chaim asked him, "Have you learned Noshim and Nezikin already?" to which Reb Michel replied in the affirmative, adding in later years that at the time he had also already learned Taharos but he didn't want to appear proud. He then asked the Chofetz Chaim to bless his attempt to secure release from army service with success.

The Chofetz Chaim told him, " `Whoever accepts the yoke of Torah is spared from the yoke of the authorities and of worldly affairs' (Ovos 5:5) -- ober m'darf vellen (but one has to want it and accept it willingly)."

Someone else who was present asked the Chofetz Chaim, "But bnei hayeshivos do get taken to the army!"

The Chofetz Chaim responded, "Isn't there a mishnah?" and he started repeating the mishnah, word by word, counting each word on one of his fingers, "Whoever. Takes. Upon himself. The yoke . . ."

Reb Michel also related that while he was in the Chofetz Chaim's room, a chair was brought in for the Chofetz Chaim to sit on and that he asked for another chair for Reb Michel to sit on. (This was why, to the end of his life, Reb Michel would always ask his visitors to sit down.) He would also emotionally recall the powerful impression that hearing the Chofetz Chaim's brochos on being called up to the Torah, made upon him.

After obtaining his exemption, Reb Michel returned to Mir. He once described what their daily timetable had been. By ten a.m., shacharis and breakfast were over. They then learned for five hours until three p.m. Then there was a break after which they learned for another five hours until ten p.m. which was followed by ma'ariv. They then continued learning and in this way, they grew and developed.

He once asked a talmid, "Do you know when I learned perek Rabbi Akiva in maseches Shabbos? It was when I stayed in yeshiva over Pesach and after the seder with the Mashgiach, I went outside. I saw the moon and the night was pleasant and cool. I said to myself, `With such bright moonlight, shall I go to sleep now after the seder?' I sat down and learned perek Rabbi Akiva until the morning."

Flight to Vilna

The Second World War broke out with Germany's invasion of Western Poland, with the eastern part of the country being ceded to Russia. One night, Reb Michel heard that the Russians were planning to enter Mir. The following morning, he told the Rosh Yeshiva and the mashgiach, HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein, zt'l, that he was fleeing to Vilna which was still under independent Lithuanian rule. "I am from Russia," he told them "and I know what they are like."

When the bnei hayeshiva heard that Michel Starobiner was leaving for Vilna, they followed him there. The son of Reb Menachem Karkovsky, the son-in- law of his uncle Reb Elya Pruzhaner, supplied them with bread from the bakery.

In Vilna, Reb Michel became friendly with Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, zt'l. One day, he showed Reb Chaim Ozer his piece of Torah on the topic of "swallowed tumah" and Reb Chaim Ozer spent forty-five minutes going over it. Reb Chaim Ozer was in the habit of drinking tea piping hot. On this occasion he took three quarters of an hour to have the tea, while he studied Reb Michel's Torah. Afterwards, Reb Michel heard from Rav Naftali Beinush Wasserman that his uncle Reb Chaim Ozer had highly praised his Torah.

Reb Michel once remarked that it was generally thought that Reb Chaim Ozer was a worldly person but this was untrue. "He, ztvk'l, was a frummer," Reb Michel maintained, "and the proof is that at night he slept on a large wooden box. I thought, `Didn't our master Rav Chaim Ozer possess a bed?' but the reason he did it was because the box contained all the tzedokoh funds that had been entrusted to him. He wanted to guard the box physically because he was of the opinion that the only way to look after the money was by having it on his own person. He also engaged in other kinds of self-deprivation and followed other stringencies, on a very high spiritual level."

Reb Michel also got to know the Chazon Ish zt'l while they were both still in Europe (several years earlier). Once while sitting in Yerushalayim with his father-in-law the Brisker Rov, Reb Michel observed that in the Chazon Ish, one could see the fulfillment of Hashem's promise that Torah will never be entirely forgotten by the Jewish people (Devorim 21:31). "I remember that in Vilna he was an avreich who learned all the time and nobody knew who he was. I saw him in Drusenik on vacation, also learning all the time. And it was he who ascended to the Holy Land before the war to lead chareidi Jewry in Eretz Yisroel."

Reb Michel would always quote the Chazon Ish as having said that so long as Reb Shimon and Reb Boruch Ber remained alive, it was not possible for the Germans to overrun Lithuania. This, he said, demonstrates the power of toil in Torah study and its ability to shield an entire generation from harm.

Once, Reb Michel read some of the Chazon Ish's Torah and went to submit a correction on something he'd written according to the Rambam. At a later date, the Chazon Ish encountered Reb Michel again at a bris and told him that he'd put the point right. When Rebbetzin Feinstein visited the Chazon Ish, he stood up for her and commented that one ought to stand up for her twice, because she was both the daughter of a scholar and the wife of a scholar. When she asked him about a point of halochoh, he told her to ask her father for "every word of his is halochoh."

In Vilna at the beginning of the War, Reb Michel organized a kibbutz that met to hear the Rov's shiur. Among the members were Rav Elya Chazan, Rav Dovid Povarsky, Rav Noach Shimanowitz, Rav Hillel Kagan, Rav Chaim Milikowsky and others. Reb Michel was already a trusted member of the Rov's immediate circle. In Vilna, the Rov asked Reb Michel to arrange for the baking of matzos and gave him detailed instructions about what to do.

From Vilna, Reb Michel sent a letter to Rav Avrohom Kalmanovitz, zt'l, who raised and sent the colossal sum of a quarter of a million dollars so that the bnei hayeshiva could leave the country.

They travelled across Russia and sailed to Japan, arriving in Kobe on the sixth of Adar. In the course of his intensive work on behalf of the refugees, Reb Michel met the consul in Japan (who eventually converted) and did a great deal of rescue work on behalf of the bnei hayeshivos, organizing the dispatch of matzos and wine for Pesach 5701 through Rav Kalmanovitz.


Reb Michel did not continue to Shanghai with the rest of the yeshiva. With his uncle's help he managed to immigrate to the United States.

As soon as he arrived, he opened a yeshiva in Boston for refugees from Mir Yeshiva, where he remained for six months. Then he was called upon by his uncle Reb Moshe to assist him in his position as rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Tiferes Yerushalayim.

Reb Michel continued working untiringly on behalf of the refugees and was a member of Vaad Hatzolah. He also travelled to England and to France, where he opened a refugee camp. He was asked by the gedolei Yisroel to serve as a member of the Agudas HaRabbonim. Rabbi Menachem Porush remembers that when Reb Michel arrived late to meetings of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah of America, Reb Aharon, Reb Moshe and Reb Reuven (Grozovsky) zt'l, would stand up in his honor even though he was still a bochur.

Eretz Yisroel

In 5706 (1946) he settled in Eretz Yisroel and soon went to see the Brisker Rov. They spoke in learning. After their discussion, the Rov was soaked in sweat and he was very impressed with the Torah that he had heard from Reb Michel. He exclaimed, "I told you that there's nobody to speak with in learning in the Holy Land!" Rav Meir Soloveitchik recalls that when Reb Michel would come to his father's shiur, the Rov would say, "Today's shiur will be a yom tov [because of the fiery discussion]!"

Reb Michel married the Brisker Rov's daughter on the seventeenth of Av 5706. His rebbe Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer conducted the proceedings and at the meal, Reb Michel delivered a profound discourse on the topic of "toch tocho" (Zevochim 3). Rav Berel Povarsky recalls the glow of joy on the Brisker Rov's face while Reb Michel was speaking.

In the middle of 5708, Reb Michel returned to America to continue serving in Tiferes Yerushalayim. In 5712 he returned to Eretz Yisroel and the following year, he opened Yeshivas Beis Yehuda in Tel Aviv, beginning almost half a century of Torah dissemination in Eretz Yisroel.

One of the papers wrote the following about Beis Yehuda in the yeshiva's early days: "Since he opened the kollel, Reb Michel has abandoned his communal involvement. From nine until eleven a.m. the avreichim make thorough preparations for their great teacher's shiur. After two p.m. they daven minchah and then review the shiur until late at night. Few of the residents of Tel Aviv are aware that this Jew is a Torah giant, to whom young scholars flock from all over the world, to learn Torah from his lips . . ."

With the Brisker Rov

One of Reb Michel's talmidim tells the following two stories: "It happened while I was a bochur. One warm evening, I knocked on the door of Reb Michel's room in Tel Aviv, with a passage of Baal Hamo'or which I was having difficulty in understanding. Reb Michel was sitting and learning, with his two daughters on his lap. A bowl of water stood on the table and from time to time, he would wash the girls' faces to lower their temperature. I asked him about the Baal Hamo'or and when we'd finished another avreich entered and offhandedly asked him, "Does one receive reward for raising children?"

Reb Michel replied that he'd heard from Reb Yeruchom that the particular wickedness of Nevuchadnezzar had been his wish to cut off future generations. The reward for raising children might therefore actually be those future generations.

About a fortnight later he told us, "That's incorrect. I went to my teacher and father-in-law and put your question to him and he told me, `S'iz nisht richtig (It's not right) because "the world will be built through kindness" (Tehillim 89:3) and for that kindness there is no reward.' "

In the kollel it was customary that any difficulties in learning would be put to the Brisker Rov. On one of these visits to Yerushalayim, everyone saw Reb Michel's respect for the Rov and his trepidation at repeating the Rambam's words.

Rav Shmuel Rozovsky related that he was once speaking in learning with the Brisker Rov and the Rov told him his opinion. He then asked Reb Michel, who was present, to help by reviewing what he had said again for Reb Shmuel: "You have a rosh yeshiva's way of putting things. Explain to Reb Shmuel what I said."

The Shabbos sheva brochos celebrating Rav Meir Soloveitchik's marriage was held in Bnei Brak. Reb Michel had forgotten his own glasses in Tel Aviv and between kabolas Shabbos and ma'ariv he asked his father-in-law to lend him his glasses. The Rov told him that in Brisk they had paraffin lamps and it had been his custom to review a number of pages of gemora very quickly and he hadn't been concerned about tipping the lamp inadvertently. "In Eretz Yisroel I boruch Hashem have frummer kinder, who don't allow me to learn by lamplight. Take my glasses and learn."

The Rov once told Reb Michel that he knew two baalei mussar, one from Lithuania and the other from Poland: the tzaddikim Rav Eliyahu Lopian and Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l. When Reb Michel's talmidim [heard this they] asked him, "What about Reb Yeruchom?" and he told them, "Reb Yeruchom belonged to an earlier generation. The Brisker Rov made Reb Yeruchom's acquaintance when the latter came to Brisk to visit his son-in-law Rav Yisroel Chaim Kaplan, zt'l, who served as a rosh yeshiva there. On that occasion, he surveyed all his talmidim who were in Brisk and, after praising them all, on his return home he noted his particular satisfaction with Michel Starobiner.

Reb Michel related that it sometimes happened that the Brisker Rov dozed while giving shiur and when he awoke he continued from the very word where he'd left off. Even while he slept, he was immersed in learning.

The Rov once told Reb Michel that his father (Reb Chaim) had been a "wise man who saw what was going to happen" while he himself, although not on that level, could see what was actually happening. Others, he observed, don't even see what is happening in the present.

In 5697, when shechitah was banned, the Brisker Rov mentioned his father's having quoted the Rambam's response to someone who had written to him with certain questions, that his questions arose from the spiritual coarseness that resulted from eating meat from animals that had been improperly slaughtered. The Rambam recommended examining the slaughterer.

In Eretz Yisroel, when they founded the Shomrei Shabbos burial ground, they wrote that it was for those who "observed Shabbos and who ate kosher food." This was shown to the Brisker Rov and he said that it was because those who eat non- kosher food defile their souls. Reb Michel found an allusion to this in the posuk, "Those who sanctify and purify themselves [preparing] to go to [worship the avodoh zara that was placed in] the gardens . . . who eat the flesh of the swine, the abomination and the mouse . . ." (Yeshayohu 66:17).

Heart and Soul: His World of Prayer

Rav Michel's prayers were known for their emotion and intensity. As the moment for beginning the Amidah prayer approached, he would button his coat and move away anything that was in his immediate vicinity. It was obvious that he was clearing both his surroundings and his mind in preparation for standing before his Creator in exceptionally close prayer.

He began the Amidah gently, pronouncing each word with deliberation. He was like a child standing talking to his father in an otherwise empty room. Watching him, one saw that although there were other people there -- other mispallelim or family members -- it was as though none of them existed. Even a child could appreciate that the Rosh Kollel, Reb Michel, was immersed in conversation with his Maker.

He said one brochoh after another. When necessary, he added particular requests. He prayed for the coming hours of night or day, for his talmidim and the members of his family, for assistance with spiritual challenges and for the resources of character to cope with material ones, for individuals and for his people as a whole. All this would be followed by a burst of weeping, as he shed pure tears of closeness to Hashem.

When saying the brochoh of Refo'einu, he would take out numerous scraps of paper and mention the names that were written on them. Every Shabbos he would make a mi sheberach for the sick and mention them all. He remembered most of their names by heart.

Towards the end of his life, his recital of Elokai netzor after the Amidah resembled the sharing of a confidential secret. Whatever he said then was inaudible. He whispered private longings and yearnings, as fresh tears coursed down his cheeks, until he took three backward steps.

So much for the Amidah itself. In shacharis and ma'ariv there was a long road to traverse before getting there. His talmidim say that they didn't wait for him to end Krias Shema but to begin it! He would sit in intense concentration for several minutes before beginning and people saw him counting something on his fingers. Nobody knew what he was doing and the secret was only discovered after his petiroh when one of his talmidim related that he'd once had the nerve to ask Reb Michel "what sign he was making with his hand."

"I'm thinking about the Aseres Hadibros," Reb Michel told him. He would go through the commandments one by one, accepting each of them.

He often said that when one Jew prays sincerely and wholeheartedly on behalf of another, without any personal motives, his prayer is close to Hashem even if he is not a great tzaddik.

One of Reb Michel's talmidim once came to give him the good news that his daughter had become engaged. "It is the Rosh Yeshiva's miracle!" he exclaimed. Just a month before, the father had asked Reb Michel to pray for them and had received a blessing that he find his daughter's match quickly.

Reb Michel played his "achievement" down. "I'm neither a tzaddik nor a miracle worker" he insisted, "but when you came to see me, I took the matter to heart and was very distressed. I thought to myself, `What a terrible thing for a someone to have a grown daughter still at home,' and I put all my soul into the Tehillim that I said. Because I blessed you wholeheartedly, your daughter found her match. You should know that Hashem fulfills the request of any Jew who gives a blessing wholeheartedly!"

On Shabbos Reb Michel would receive maftir and would read the haftorah together with the baal koreh. When reading pesukim that spoke about Klal Yisroel's past and future, Reb Michel's shoulders would tremble. Later, he would always speak about what he had felt during the reading.

He was careful to thank the Cohanim warmly with a hearty yasher koach after they had blessed the tzibbur. He often mentioned the care that the Brisker Rov had taken over Bircas Cohanim, following the opinion of the Chareidim, that it is a mitzva both for the Cohen to bless and for the Yisroel to be blessed. He would also observe that people go to receive blessings from tzaddikim, for which they pay money while here one gets a blessing from Hakodosh Boruch Hu for free!

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein recalled the time he was presented with a query concerning a terminally ill patient in a serious condition, who very much wanted to see the chuppah of her engaged daughter. It was chol hamoed Succos and he deliberated over how a chuppah might be arranged (since halochoh prohibits marrying on chol hamoed). Rav Zilberstein consulted Reb Michel who told him, "Why look for leniencies? Let's pray that the mother has a long life!"

Reb Michel prayed and the mother lived to see her daughter's wedding, which was held during Chanukah. She passed away the day after the sheva brochos ended.

In recent years, with the waves of terrorist attacks, he would weep while beseeching Hashem to end our exile and bring the final redemption. Once after tefilloh he recalled that at the time of the pogroms that ravaged Russian Jewry, his grandfather Reb Dovid Feinstein zt'l, would cry over the common suffering. Today, Reb Michel remarked, because of all our troubles and because of the materialism of the world at large, we've become hardhearted to a degree. We don't shed a tear over the fresh tragedies that each day brings. We have lost the feeling of brotherhood that binds Klal Yisroel together.

By Word of Mouth: Little-Known Anecdotes About Gedolei Yisroel

As told by Reb Michel to his talmidim -- arranged by A. Chefetz

I Hate Them Completely

In Vilna, the Communists erected a beautiful gateway in honor of the first of May. Reb Michel commented on its beauty to the Brisker Rov. The Rov wondered how it was possible to find anything beautiful about people concerning whom the posuk says, "[For I shall hate those who hate You, Hashem . . .] I hate them completely; they are my enemies" (Tehillim 139:21-2).

On another occasion, Reb Michel mentioned that it is known that as a young child, the Communist leader Trotsky was thrown out of the cheder where he learned. He commented that if he wouldn't have been sent away, he might not have grown up to become what he did.

He also noted that one day, the Chofetz Chaim asked what the name of Trotsky's mother was and immediately afterwards, Stalin had Trotsky killed. They told the Chofetz Chaim that he should pray that Stalin should also be killed. His response was that, "We have no control over goyim".

Nothing Gained

HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor, zt'l, did not speak Russian but whenever he had to intercede with the Russian Governor he always achieved his ends. His efforts on behalf of Klal Yisroel were blessed with a very high degree of success. His son, on the other hand, could speak Russian yet his communal endeavors did not succeed as his father's had done. The Governor also told him, "Your father didn't know Russian yet I understood him better than I understand you."

Reb Michel explained that drawing close to gentiles does not foster closeness and is purely destructive. He pointed to the Targum Yonoson of the posuk, "And you shall be a source of wonderment . . ." (Devorim 28:37), which clearly says that merely wanting to follow avodoh zara earns the gentiles' scorn.

Reb Dovid Karliner, Zt'l

Reb Michel related that Rav Dovid Friedman of Karlin, one of the greatest geonim in Lithuania in Reb Chaim's time, once napped for a while. After this he undertook to prevent a recurrence by eating very little -- a small amount in the morning, just enough to sustain him, and another small amount in the evening. Reb Michel would use this story to show that a person should only eat as much as he needs and no more.

He also repeated Reb Chaim's comment about Reb Dovid, which Reb Chaim conveyed through a parable. Tailors use needle and thread to sew cloth into a garment. A master tailor makes his own needles, sharpening the point and making the hole. Only then does he begin to sew. Reb Chaim said that in learning, Reb Dovid wasn't satisfied to work with what had already been prepared by others. He made his own needle. In understanding each sugya, he built everything anew, from the beginning.


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