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14 Iyar 5764 - May 5, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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

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

Part I

Princely Origins

Reb Michel was born in Uzda, in the Minsk region of White Russia on the fourth of Tammuz 5667, into a family of noble lineage that extended back to the Maharshal, the Maharsha, the Tosafos Yom Tov and other gedolim.

His father, HaRav Avrohom Yitzchok Feinstein zt'l, passed away when Reb Michel was seven years old, in consequence of an act of utterly selfless generosity. Walking in the street one day in the subfreezing weather of the Russian winter, he met a relative who was making his way without any warm clothing at all. Rav Avrohom Yitzchok immediately doffed his warm fur coat and lent it to him. Later, he caught a cold and fell ill with pneumonia from which he did not recover. People said that it was on account of such selflessness that he merited having such a great son.

In the same vein, Reb Michel himself once remarked that witnessing HaRav Avrohom Kalmanovitz's tremendous self- sacrifice on behalf of Klal Yisroel, he could not imagine what his reward would be until he saw his son, who was a gaon -- then he understood.

Reb Michel's grandfather, the gaon HaRav Dovid Feinstein zt'l, had two brothers-in-law who were also renowned among the Lithuanian geonim: HaRav Yaakov Kantrowitz zt'l and HaRav Eliyahu Feinstein zt'l, who was known as Reb Elya Pruzhaner. Reb Elya's sons were Rav Avrohom Yitzchok and the geonim Rav Moshe zt'l and Rav Mordechai zt'l, Hy'd.

Once, when discussing a particularly complicated issue with Rav Yechezkel Abramsky zt'l, Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l commented in reference to Reb Moshe and Reb Mordechai, "In the depths of Russia sit two brothers whose command of Torah is on a par with that of the geonim of earlier generations!"

As a child, Reb Michel was known as a prodigy. He once smilingly remarked, "It seems that I was [a] gifted [youngster]." His grandfather Rav Dovid would allow the ten- year-old Michel to be present while disputes were being heard in Starobin. When the disputants had left, Rav Dovid would ask his grandson to identify the gemora that had been his source for his ruling. The child's replies were accurate and as a result, his views would be taken into account.

Reb Michel's first teacher was his uncle Rav Mordechai, who was the rov in Shklov. When he was ten, they learned Bovo Kama and Bovo Metzia together in just one year. Reb Michel would say that for the rest of his life, he learned Bovo Kama according to Rav Mordechai's approach. (Rav Mordechai's chiddushim have recently been published in Zecher Mordechai.)

To Slutsk

Reb Michel's mother lived in Slutsk and after his bar mitzva he moved there, joining his grandfather's household. His grandfather, Rav Yosef zt'l, was a grandson of Rav Mendel Slutsker zt'l, who had been the teacher of Reb Chaim Brisker zt'l. "When I [later] came to Brisk," Reb Michel related in later years, "and told them that I was a [great] grandson of Reb Mendel Slutsker it was considered a mark of distinction.

"And when I met the gaon Rav Boruch Ber zt'l, he told me that he had been rov of Halusk years after Rav Mendele had left the town, [yet] when he met one of the householders and spoke with him in learning, he could immediately tell that the rov had been Rav Mendele. `Indeed,' Rav Boruch Ber said, quoting from the gemora, `I didn't see the lion himself but I saw his lair.' "

When he was fourteen, Reb Michel joined the Slutsk yeshiva, immediately becoming a favorite of the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l of whom he once said, "Reb Isser Zalman was my guardian." To a talmid he also once remarked that "Reb Isser Zalman was my rebbe in good middos."

In Slutsk, Reb Michel also heard shiurim from Rav Aharon Kotler zt'l, and he began to write lengthy Torah discourses in Reb Aharon's style. Reb Isser Zalman called him over and warned him that if he continued writing this intricate and complicated type of reasoning, it would interfere with his comprehension of what he was learning. After a time however, Reb Isser Zalman told him, "I see that you are capable of following both my approach and that of my son-in-law Reb Aharon!"

When Bolshevik persecution grew intense and the yeshiva had to cross the border and relocate to Kletsk, Reb Isser Zalman told Reb Michel's mother, "He needs to stay in my home and I take responsibility for his health. Don't worry. He won't lack anything beneficial -- even bird's milk." The promise of something that doesn't exist was made to stress the good care that would be taken of him.

Reb Michel now moved to Reb Aharon's yeshiva in Kletsk. Some time later he had a desire to join the Mirrer Yeshiva. On his way to Mir, Reb Michel spent Pesach in Pruzhen with his uncle Reb Elya Pruzhaner.


New applicants to Mir were customarily examined by the mashgiach Reb Yeruchom zt'l. With Reb Michel's reputation, his examination was a mere formality. In later years, he related part of what happened at his meeting with Reb Yeruchom. The Mashgiach asked him, "We find that a child who was abducted by gentiles and raised without knowledge of Shabbos is required to offer a sin offering. He was held captive, so how is it possible to hold him responsible?"

Reb Yeruchom answered his own question. "[From here] we can learn what man is and what he is capable of . . ."

Reb Michel was seventeen-and-a-half years old upon his arrival in Mir. The Mashgiach arranged that he would learn with Rav Yechiel Michel Schlesinger zt'l (who later founded Yeshivas Kol Torah) despite his being Rav Yechiel Michel's junior by some ten years. He arranged that he would share lodgings with HaRav Dovid Povarsky zt'l. Later, Reb Michel learned with HaRav Yonah Karpilov (Minsker) zt'l, Hy'd. Reb Michel would later recall that the yeshiva was learning Nedorim at the time.

Towards the end of his life, Reb Michel posed a question on a certain sugya to a talmid and told him, "I discussed this with Yonah Minsker." He explained the sugya according to the approach that he had developed seventy years earlier.

In Mir, Reb Michel also learned with HaRav Leib Malin and HaRav Shlomo Chomsker zt'l, and with Rav Naftoli Beinush Wasserman, zt'l, Hy'd.

The geonim HaRav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg, HaRav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro and HaRav Shmuel Berenbaum all recall having had to wait long hours -- sometimes even at night -- in order to speak to Reb Michel in learning. He would often reminisce about his wonderful years in Mir and discuss the meaning of toiling and laboring in learning as he and his friends had understood and experienced them in those years.

Another recollection that Reb Michel shared in his later years was that the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel zt'l, would distribute money to the bochurim for purchasing bread and meat, while they had to find their own means of paying for their other needs. Reb Yeruchom therefore proposed that Reb Michel learn with an American bochur who had come to the yeshiva, for which he would be paid ninety zlotys -- an astronomical sum. The boy's head was not properly in his learning however and despite the sorely-needed money Reb Michel told the Mashgiach that he was unable to continue learning with him.

"You don't have to," Reb Yeruchom told him. "I'm responsible for him and I don't have any arrangement for him."

With Reb Yeruchom

He had a number of other stories about the Mashgiach. He related that he was once walking in the street in Mir with Reb Yeruchom when a gentile woman approached him and asked him something. Reb Michel did not answer her since he was with the Mashgiach. Reb Yeruchom told him, "Answer her. One must behave decently."

When copies of Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim Halevi of HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik arrived in Mir, Reb Michel showed the sefer to Reb Yeruchom and repeated the first piece to him, about being aware during tefilloh that one is standing before the King. Reb Yeruchom's reaction was, "This is what we always speak about in the shmuessen."

Reb Michel commented that the truth is one and the same. Whether one arrives at it through halachic discussion or through contemplating the fear of Heaven, one arrives at the same point.

For a year after Reb Michel's mother passed away, he served as shaliach tzibbur. Once before ma'ariv, he made his way to the amud somewhat hurriedly and Reb Yeruchom pointed out that this brought no honor to Torah. "Reb Yeruchom even made us aware of such delicate points, so that we'd know how a ben Torah ought to appear, and the distinction and honor that he should command."

When shechitah was banned in Poland in 5696 (1936), he recalled hearing from Reb Yeruchom that the Beis Hamikdosh had been destroyed because the cohanim had treated the service there lightly and that the decree against shechitah was the consequence of contemporary laxity with kashrus. Special devotion and sacrifice to the mitzvah in question were necessary in order to remedy the situation and have the decree annulled.

"If this is the case with mitzvos," Reb Michel concluded, "it is certainly true of Torah; if we treat it lightly, it is taken away from us."

This was how he urged his talmidim to learn: with all the toil and depth they could muster. Failure to do so would result in Torah's removal, and self- sacrifice would then be needed in order to retrieve it.

Reb Michel received semichoh as a bochur from HaRav Avrohom Tzvi Kamai zt'l, Hy'd, the rov of Mir. Once, one of his circle pointed out to the elderly Reb Michel that his semichoh qualified him to respond to people's halachic queries. With his characteristic humility, Reb Michel quipped that he was only given the semichoh because the rov of Mir knew that he wouldn't use it!

On what turned out to have been his last Rosh Hashanah, it was an awesome spectacle to see Reb Michel engage in accounting for his entire life. He suddenly asked that a Keil Molei Rachamim be said for the Mirrer Rov, towards whose rescue he felt that he had not done enough.

Off to Brisk

In 5689 (1929), Reb Isser Zalman arrived from Eretz Yisroel to attend the dedication of the Kletsk Yeshiva. When he heard that his rebbe was nearby, Reb Michel travelled from Mir to see him. Their meeting and the Torah discussion that ensued brought them both great joy. Afterwards Reb Isser Zalman remarked, "You've certainly advanced in your learning, but you need a teacher. It's worth your while going to learn from Reb Velvel in Brisk. He has a clear head (Er hot a reine kop)."

Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel was also present and he suggested that his son Reb Meir Hy'd accompany Reb Michel to Brisk. Reb Michel returned to Mir to consult with the Mashgiach, who would not consent to the idea at that point.

Someone once asked Reb Michel, "Wouldn't it have been possible to travel without the Mashgiach's permission?" and the response was, "Certainly not!"

After a time, he asked again, telling Reb Yeruchom, "In Brisk one learns how to think." That time the Mashgiach accepted his reasons and gave his consent.

Reb Michel arrived bearing a fine letter from Reb Isser Zalman listing his many virtues and the Brisker Rov zt'l began speaking with him in learning. Rebbetzin Feinstein tblct'a (daughter of the Brisker Rov) recalls that that very evening, she heard her father speaking to her mother Hy'd. "Did you hear the bochur who was here today?" the Rov asked his wife. "Did you hear how he was speaking in learning? We have to start thinking about him . . ."

Rebbetzin Feinstein adds that she was only around twelve years old at the time.

Rebbetzin Zochowsky relates that her father, HaRav Pesach Pruskin zt'l, came to the Brisker Rov and asked him to recommend a chosson for his daughter. When Reb Pesach inquired about Michel Starobiner the Rov told him, "Dos iz meiner . . . (He's mine)"

Reb Michel related that the Rov's shiur used to last for three hours, and that on Friday nights, he would discuss many different topics from all over Shas. Rav Yonah Karpilov and Rav Leib Malin also attended the Rov's shiurim, as did a number of bochurim who lived in Brisk such as HaRav Binyomin Paler, HaRav Abba Zions and others.

The Brisker Rov once explained something that his father, Reb Chaim, had said but the explanation was incomplete and it was Reb Michel who supplied the finishing touch. As soon as he finished speaking, the Rov got up and kissed him on his forehead.

In later years Reb Michel was asked whether the Rov's published shiurim were prepared from notes made during the actual shiur or not.

"Afterwards," he replied.

"Did the Rov forbid taking notes during the shiur?" was the next question.

"Nobody had even the slightest notion of doing so . . . there was such fear and reverence . . ."

In the summer in Europe, the Rov used to travel to the spa town of Otvock for his health and the bochurim would return to Mir. During Elul, the Mashgiach would anyway not allow anyone to leave the yeshiva. (Reb Michel once remarked that the fear of the days of judgment was visible in the paleness of Reb Yeruchom's face. On motzei Yom Kippur, his complexion improved.)

After two years in Brisk, the Rov's health deteriorated and Reb Michel returned to Mir. He said that prior to the period they spent in Brisk, the learning in Mir had followed Rav Shimon Shkop's approach, but that "after our return it changed and they began learning according to Reb Chaim's approach."

End of Part I

My Uncle, My Friend

Reb Michel's bond with his uncle Reb Moshe Feinstein, zt'l, was firm and lifelong. As a child, Reb Michel was raised in the home of his grandfather Rav Dovid Feinstein, zt'l. The Poles once overran Starobin and arrested Reb Dovid, taking him away in the middle of the night. They took him to the forest, where they planned to execute him, R'l. Reb Moshe and Reb Michel remained in the darkened house in order to avoid detection. Reb Moshe said Tehillim loudly and Reb Michel, who was a young child, repeated them after him, word by word.

They were not together in the following years, when Reb Michel went to learn in Kletsk and Mir. In 5696 (1936), when Reb Moshe received his permit to emigrate to the United States, he travelled via Vilna in order to meet Reb Michel, spending several days there so that they could delight in Torah study together.

In America

They met again in 5701 (1941), when Reb Michel succeeded in escaping to America. Reb Moshe invited his nephew to join him in disseminating Torah at Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim and Reb Michel, still unmarried due to his strong desire to learn Torah, accepted. He was also made a member of the Agudas HaRabbonim of America.

Rebbetzin Feinstein tblct'a recalls that many years later when they travelled to America she asked her father, the Brisker Rov, whether she could rely on Reb Moshe's rulings and he nodded his assent. She also said that when they were in America, she considered not keeping Yom Tov Sheini because they intended to return to Eretz Yisroel but Reb Moshe ruled that she should keep the second day. After they returned, her father told her that Reb Moshe was correct.

In Eretz Yisroel

Reb Moshe visited Eretz Yisroel in the summer of 5724 (1964). Reb Michel and his kollel went to receive Reb Moshe at the airport, from where he travelled straight to Reb Michel's home in Tel Aviv where they engaged in Torah discussion together. During the visit Reb Michel never left Reb Moshe's side and Reb Moshe whispered to those around him, "Eretz Yisroel is unaware of [the greatness of] who lives in it" (heard from Rav N. Einfeld).

Reb Michel once said that when Reb Moshe was away on vacation, the flies didn't go near him. He quoted Chazal's statement on the posuk, `When Hashem favors a man's path, even his enemies will make peace with him' (Mishlei 16:7) -- "this refers to flies and fleas."

In the years that followed, the two kept in contact, discussing divrei Torah by writing and calling each other, until Reb Moshe's petiroh on the thirteenth of Adar Sheini 5746.

A Lost Soul

by Chaim Sher

Reb Michel related that Reb Yeruchom once encountered one of the famous Zionist leaders at a crossroads and exchanged a few words with him. He later asked the Mashgiach what his opinion was of the man, who was well-known as a thinker and a very gifted individual. Reb Yeruchom said that in speaking to him, he'd seen that despite the fellow's great abilities, he literally lacked sense.

Reb Michel explained that understanding develops in a calm and tranquil mind. This is something that a person can only attain when he is in his natural environment, in his home etc. When a Jewish soul is far from the truth, from observance of Torah and mitzvos and from fulfilling Hashem's will, it is not at peace and thus lacks elementary common sense, even concerning mundane affairs.

It's Worthwhile Being Good

by Rabbi B. Yisroeli and B. Re'eim

In Retrospect

An impoverished man of good standing came into Reb Michel's kollel collecting. He passed among the avreichim holding out his hand. He then went up to the Rosh Kollel. Reb Michel had no money with him.

He asked the avreich sitting next to him if he could lend him something but he was also without money. With an effort, the elderly Reb Michel went over to another avreich, who was also unable to give him the sum he wanted to borrow. Meanwhile, the poor man felt embarrassed and began making his way out. Reb Michel didn't give up. He dragged himself over to another avreich and repeated his request. The avreich gladly took out the sum and gave it to him. By this time, the poor man was on the stairs leading to the street. Reb Michel asked if they could try and catch him and put the money into his pocket.

The poor man was very moved and he came back inside, went over to the eastern wall, bent down and whispered in Reb Michel's ear, "Reb Michel, you are a good man, very good. Thank you. But be aware that someone who is so good suffers in the end . . ."

Reb Michel parted from the man warmly and after he'd left he told the talmid sitting next to him, "The posuk says, `The more understanding, the more pain' (Koheles 1:18).

"The Kotzker Rebbe commented, `It's true that the greater one's comprehension the greater pain one suffers but it's still worthwhile to deepen one's understanding!'

"I also say, the pained words that man uttered may be true . . . But! It's still worthwhile being a good person and then becoming even better."

This is how Rav Chaim Feinstein ylct'a summed up Reb Michel's good- heartedness when he eulogized his father.

Starting Out

In the old Mir, there was always a line of bochurim waiting to speak to Michel Starobiner. Reb Michel's reputation spread throughout the Lithuanian yeshiva world but he showed no pride or haughtiness. Whoever had dealings with him was gratified by his goodness of heart, his warm smile and his sharing of others' burdens.

Even the youngest bochurim, when putting a kushye, a Torah thought or an idea to him, first received a few words of praise. Then Reb Michel listened calmly until the fellow had finished speaking. He would then review what he'd said and rearrange the thoughts, viewing and discussing them from different angles, in a way that left him with a wonderful feeling, even if Reb Michel ultimately rejected the original idea.

There were four hundred talmidim in Mir, all of whom were accomplished scholars, some fifty of whom were tremendously great talmidei chachomim and a handful of whom -- Reb Michel among them -- were gedolei Torah. Everybody knew that even the youngest bochur could approach Reb Michel. Rav Yonah Bromberg recalls that on the whole one couldn't ask the most gifted among the senior bochurim. Even if one mustered up the courage to approach them, one usually forgot what one's question was. With Reb Michel it was different. His smile dispelled all the tension and nervousness about speaking to the top student in the yeshiva.

Sharing Others' Joys and Burdens

He was literally like a father towards his talmidim. He rejoiced with them on happy occasions and any grief they experienced was his too. There were several talmidim who he continued supporting for a long time after they left him because he knew that they were in need.

He once related that when he was in Warsaw in 5696 he had gone to visit Reb Shimon Shkop who was in the hospital there following an operation. He asked Reb Shimon what the doctors' attitude towards the patients was like, and Reb Shimon replied, "If the doctors treated each patient like we treat each talmid in yeshiva, things would be good!"

He would attend simchas that his talmidim made even when it was difficult for him. When going to a simchah he would change into his Shabbos clothes to honor the celebrants. Once, a car came to collect him from yeshiva and take him to a simchah and he asked the driver to take him home first so that he could change. When others tried to dissuade him, arguing that his very attendance was the greatest possible honor he could give, he insisted, repeating that, "Me darf mechabeid zein mentschen (One must show other people respect)."

On another occasion, he asked a driver who was taking him to a simchah to first turn back and take him home because he had forgotten something. He explained that because he'd changed into Shabbos clothes, he'd forgotten to bring along money to give the collectors who made the rounds of the wedding guests. He felt it was improper to tell them that he had nothing with him.

Consideration for Others

Here are just three of the many examples of Reb Michel's appreciation of others and what they did for him. When he was hospitalized, his Rebbetzin tblct'a stayed with him all the time, refusing to go home. After his release, he inquired how much it would have cost to hire a private nurse for a fortnight and he went and spent that amount of money on a piece of jewelry for her.

Following the tefilloh on Rosh Hashanah, extra tekios were blown, according to other opinions. Once the baal tokei'ah made an interruption in the middle and Reb Michel remained silent. When asked about this later on he replied, "I don't trouble others because of my own stringency."

He went to a tailor to have his frock coat altered and told him, "The coat is heavy."

Then he quickly corrected himself and said, "It's heavy on me. It's very good for younger men but I am elderly and for me it's heavy."


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