Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

10 Cheshvan 5764 - November 5, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Without a Kezayis of Olom Hazeh -- Childhood Years Spent at the Chazon Ish's Table: An Interview with HaRav Meir Tzvi Bergman

by Rabbi A. Chefetz

15 Marcheshvon, 5764, marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of Maran the Chazon Ish. Many of those who have direct memories of him, are no longer with us. Yated presents this special interview with HaRav Meir Tzvi Bergman shlita, son-in-law of HaRav Shach zt"l (whose second yahrtzeit is 16 Marcheshvon), who slept with the Chazon Ish as a youth.

Sitting at HaRav Bergman's seforim-laden table, we found our perspective taking on greater depth and scope. In anticipation of the fiftieth yahrtzeit of the Chazon Ish ztvk'l, we had come to listen, to learn and to appreciate something of his greatness and of his times. And hear we did, about nights spent in the Chazon Ish's company, about the meager subsistence of bnei Torah in those days, about toil in learning and different approaches to learning -- in general, about an entirely different level of devotion to learning and a different outlook upon the material aspects of life, that were capable of producing a Chazon Ish.

The Only Way to Learn

The first point that we made to HaRav Bergman, which hung in the atmosphere throughout our discussion, was really our entire reason for coming:

YN: Although our generation did not know the Chazon Ish, there is still a tremendous thirst for every word about him that those who did know him are able to convey. We know that the Rosh Yeshiva slept in the Chazon Ish's room as a young boy and that subsequently, you ministered to him on many occasions. What should we, as editors of the paper, stress to today's bnei Torah, in order to provide a brief introduction to the Chazon Ish?

HaRav Bergman considered this for a few moments before deciding to refrain from responding. He was unwilling to undertake an evaluation of the Chazon Ish's breadth, depth and stature, for the general public.

YN: In that case, can we hear something about the times that you spent in his company?

HaRav Bergman was agreeable.

YN: We have heard that on one occasion, the Chazon Ish asked the Rosh Yeshiva to repeat a certain piece of Tosafos many times, intending to convey guidance about how to learn.

HaRav Bergman: I'm not sure exactly what you are referring to although I do remember one time that was something like what you mentioned. I was learning in Yeshivas Tiferes Tzion in Bnei Brak at the time and the Chazon Ish used to test me on the discussions of the gemora, Rashi and Tosafos in Bava Kama. At night, when I came to sleep in his room, he was good enough to listen to me repeat one daf after another of Bava Kama. He wanted me to know all the gemora's discussion by heart.

At one of these sessions, he wanted to spend time on a certain piece of Tosafos. He suggested that I explain what Tosafos intended to convey. What point was Tosafos making? I told him the way that I understood it but he asked me a second time. I repeated myself and he asked me again, "But what was bothering Tosafos that made them say this?" and he asked me to review the Tosafos again from the beginning: Tosafos' difficulty, their answer and their further comments. And then he wanted me to do it again.

Seeing that it was difficult for me, he said, "This is the only way to learn. If one doesn't understand, one must start again from the beginning and if it still isn't clear, then once more. If one wants to gain a clear understanding, one must review again and again."

Without a Kezayis of Olom Hazeh

YN: If we may ask, didn't you enter the room on tiptoes, so as not to disturb the Chazon Ish's learning?

HaRav Bergman: (Smiling) He didn't allow me to get into bed straight away. It was he who suggested that I sit down and learn at the table. I was a boy of twelve at the time but that was what he wanted. Obviously, despite my fatigue, I sat down at the table to learn (within his daled amos) until my head was dropping over the gemora. When he saw that I was sleeping, he would tap me lightly, with unparalleled charm and tell me to go to sleep in my bed -- if that was what it could be called.

The Chazon Ish slept on an iron bedstead and there was also an old sofa in the room which, owing to its age, was almost impossible to sleep on. When he saw the sorry state of my bed, the Chazon Ish suggested that I borrow one from the neighboring Beis Yosef yeshiva and from them I got an iron bedstead of the type that was usual in those days. On a similar bed, only bigger, the Chazon Ish lay, or sat and learned and of course slept, during those years.

I actually spent about two years with him, sleeping in his room. I want to point out that at that time, I did not have a comfortable place to sleep in Yeshivas Tiferes Tzion. I slept in the packing house at the edge of one of the orchards in the vicinity of Givat Rokach. We certainly didn't enjoy any olom hazeh there, yet, when I progressed to sleeping in the Chazon Ish's room, I realized that even our straitened circumstances in the yeshiva came nowhere near the frugality of the way he lived.

The Chazon Ish enjoyed not even the smallest particle of olom hazeh. I don't remember whether there was electricity in his room, or whether most of his learning was done by lamplight. This was during the Second World War. It's hard for the contemporary reader to imagine how the heiliger Chazon Ish lived, cleaving to Torah, without even a kezayis of olom hazeh.

A Ben Torah's Place

YN: Did you receive any other particular guidance in learning, besides your nightly discussions?

HaRav Bergman: The story about the bris miloh is already well known. My father-in-law [HaRav Shach] ztvk'l was fond of this story and the lesson it contains. I'll repeat it once more, because it conveys an important message.

The Chazon Ish wanted to teach me a lesson about the extent to which a ben yeshiva has to utilize his time for Torah.

That year I was already learning in the yeshiva of Petach Tikva but I hadn't forgotten the time I'd spent as a boy learning in Tiferes Tzion, or that during that period, Rav Yeruchom Karelenstein's family had helped me a great deal. I felt a great debt of gratitude towards them. The Chazon Ish was aware of my connections with the family and of my gratitude to them.

One day, I received a message that a son had been born to the Karelenstein family of Bnei Brak and that the bris was to take place the following morning, at an early hour. I was very excited because I felt close to the family and I decided to join them at the bris. The bris was supposed to be early because the Chazon Ish was to be the sandek and he always urged that a bris be done with alacrity, at an early hour.

I rose early, davened and, racing against time, set out on a journey that was not as smooth and quick then as it is nowadays. I boarded the bus that left Petach Tikva for Pardes Katz. From there I ran across the sand dunes and up the hill, until I arrived at the place where the bris was to take place.

I got there just a few moments before the bris was to begin. When I entered, the Chazon Ish already had his tallis on and they were waiting for the baby to brought in. I was very happy and a meeting with the Chazon Ish was an added delight. I immediately extended my hand to him in greeting.

The Chazon Ish asked me (in Yiddish,) "What are you doing here?"

I didn't understand what he meant, so I replied that I'd just arrived from Petach Tikva for the bris.

The Chazon Ish didn't allow me to look towards the door and wait for the call of boruch habo, like everyone else was doing. He asked me again, "What are you doing here?"

In those brief moments I didn't fathom his meaning. I thought that maybe he wanted me to explain what my connection was to the simchah, so I told him that I was very close to the family and that they had sent me a message about the bris, so I'd risen early and come.

I was fortunate; the baby had not yet been brought in. The Chazon Ish addressed me once again and repeated his question, "What are you doing here?"

I remained silent. At that moment, the baby was brought in: "Boruch habo!" The Chazon Ish did not leave me alone, "Voss tust du doh? (What are you doing here?)"

I shrank backwards and his meaning finally struck me. I immediately asked him, "Should I return to yeshiva?"

He responded in the affirmative and extended his hand in parting, as though ordering me not even to wait for the bris.

Leaving both the simchah and Eliyohu Hanovi behind, I turned around and returned the way I'd come.

Acknowledge the Truth!

HaRav Bergman recalled another incident that is instructive regarding the fundamentals of learning.

When I was young, I was tested every week by HaRav Reuven Bengis zt'l. As I was an orphan, he befriended me when I was eight and I would visit him every Shabbos. I remember that he wanted me, even as a young child, to be tested on all the weekly parshiyos, from Bereishis to Zos Habrochoh. When I knew them by heart, he wanted me to know the haftorah to each week's parsha -- such were the expectations from an eight or nine-year-old then. At any rate, he knew me well.

The years passed and as a bochur, I wrote some chiddushei Torah on masechteh Kerisus. Having written them down, I had them printed up as a small pamphlet that was not even bound (for the elevation of the soul of my mother, a'h).

My father zt'l, presented the booklet to HaRav Bengis zt'l and, as we shall see, he was not pleased with the idea of a young bochur putting out a booklet, even if the chiddushim it contained were good ones. He asked my father to call me. I made a special trip from Bnei Brak to Yerushalayim, which was a long journey in those days.

Upon arriving at his house and exchanging greetings, he immediately started to talk about the pamphlet. He asked me, "You wrote on Kerisus but how can one write on Kerisus before having occupied oneself with Zevochim? What about Zevochim?"

I replied, "I've already learned Zevochim."

"Good, if so then sit down," said HaRav Bengis.

I sat down and he started to ask me questions on Zevochim. He asked me four or five questions -- arguments between Rashi and Tosafos in a number of sugyos and so on and when he saw that I had indeed learned Zevochim his manner softened and he said, "Nu, good, I'll take a look at the booklet."

Several days passed I suddenly received a summons to the Chazon Ish. The Chazon Ish started to discuss a certain topic involving Pesach Sheini about which I'd written in my booklet, concerning the Rambam's view. He said to me, "You wrote that according to the Rambam's view, that something which is learned though one of the thirteen methods [of expounding Scripture] has the status of a rabbinical ruling, a number of other topics can be resolved and you discuss this opinion of the Rambam's at length. But how do you know all this? Is it possible to maintain that this is what the Rambam truly held?

"Next time you print the booklet," the Chazon Ish added, "note that it was pointed out to you that this understanding of the Rambam's opinion cannot be sustained (because beis din impose the death penalty even for something derived through one of these methods [which could not be the case with an enactment of the Sages] ). You don't have to remove that page from the booklet but it must be corrected."

When I left the house, as I was walking along, I thought to myself, "What did I write already?! The Ramban himself understood the Rambam's meaning in this way and he asks questions on him and takes issue with him . . . So what did I do that was so wrong?"

I decided to go back and that was what I did. I turned around and went inside and told the Chazon Ish what I was thinking. "The Ramban understood the Rambam that way, so why is it impossible and forbidden to say so? I noted that what I wrote was according to the Ramban's understanding of the Rambam!"

"No! One should not write that way! One should not write what you wrote," the Chazon Ish said.

Stubbornly, I tried again. "But the Ramban understood it that way!"

Our discussion repeated itself: the Chazon Ish said, "How can one write such a thing?" and I wanted to understand why not?

"I emphasized that I only wrote what I wrote according to the Ramban's understanding of the Rambam's opinion."

Suddenly, the Chazon Ish raised his voice and spoke in a way that I'd never heard him speak before. "A person must acknowledge the truth. That's the way to grow in Torah. That's the alef-beis -- only if one can admit the truth! Otherwise it's impossible to grow in Torah."

I was shocked by the expression on his face and by his words. The tension and the emotion of the moment brought tears to my eyes. The Chazon Ish saw how moved I was and he changed the tone of the conversation. He smiled lightly and in a friendly manner said, "Meir, I'll explain. In HaRav Bengis' view, in general, a young man should not print a booklet of chiddushei Torah. Therefore, he involved me in the matter. He told me that since you quoted me several times in your booklet, he understands that I have some connection with the booklet but that in his opinion, a youth should not be allowed to publish chiddushei Torah and that the proof that he is right is what you wrote about the Rambam's view.

"The truth is that as far as HaRav Bengis himself is concerned, I addressed the point that he made. I told him that in my opinion, it is not only possible but desirable to print chiddushei Torah even at such an age (because it leads to learning with great precision). That is what I told HaRav Bengis about the point of his concern. However, as far as you are concerned, Meir, you should know that when criticism of divrei Torah is offered, one must acknowledge the truth. You must know and understand that one should not write such a thing about the Rambam's view (even if the Ramban does write it with regard to raising difficulties with the Rambam's opinion). You should write that it was pointed out to you that one should not print such things."

HaRav Bergman then touched upon the Rambam's view itself and cited various proofs. He concluded: "The Acharonim write that the Rambam never intended to say that laws derived through the thirteen methods of expounding are rabbinical laws. He only terms them divrei Sofrim. Neither did the Ramban imagine that this was what the Rambam really meant. He simply shows at length that the Rambam's meaning cannot be what is suggested by his terminology in Sefer Hamitzvos."

Man's Uniqueness

Our conversation was taking place during the days preceding Rosh Hashanah and we mentioned a thought that we had heard in the Chazon Ish's name. The first mishnah in Bava Kama lists the four chief categories of agents of damages (ovos nezikin). The third term, mav'eh, is explained by Rav in the gemora (daf 3) as referring to man. Why then, did the mishnah take the roundabout route of referring to man with this term, necessitating an explanation? Why not simply mention "man" explicitly in the mishnah?

The Chazon Ish answered, "Is man an agent of damage? Is he one of the four categories of harmful objects, that he should be listed with them: ox, pit, man and fire?"

The questioner persisted, "But the mishnah later on says that, `Man is always forewarned [mu'od le'olom -- that is, must always be on guard against any damage].' Evidently man is considered liable to cause damage."

The Chazon Ish replied, " `Man is forewarned' not because of any shortcoming but because of his elevated status. He is always considered forewarned because of his elevation above all the others (i.e. his intellect and understanding)."

Hearing this, HaRav Bergman pointed to the gemora's comments. He mentioned the reason given by the gemora for the term mav'eh applying to man -- because of the posuk (Yeshaya 21:12), "The watchman says that morning is coming . . . if you seek greatly," using a cognate of mav'eh, be'oyu, which Rashi on the gemora explains as meaning, "If you repent."

Thus, the reason for applying this particular term to man is because of man's ability to repent, which is a virtue unique to him. Someone who is able to and who ought to repent, can be referred to with a term denoting repentance.

Delight in Learning

As our meeting progressed, our conversation with HaRav Bergman became closer and friendlier in a way that is so characteristic of him, and we shifted towards the topic of pleasure and delight in learning.

HaRav Bergman: I know of someone who left the Torah path. At first, he tasted [the sweetness of] Torah study and there were times when even our master the Chazon Ish enjoyed a little Torah conversation with him. However, his personality was unstable and he swayed first to one side and then to the other, until he left the path completely.

When the Chazon Ish was consulted about what to do about him he said, "A person can be drawn towards spirituality by giving him a taste of Torah, which he finds pleasurable. It will attract him to Torah's light and to eternal happiness. But this will only work with someone who has never been attached to Torah. For this bochur however, who has tasted and experienced the delight of learning and who nevertheless abandoned it for worthless values -- for him there is virtually no hope at all. I can't be of any help in this case . . ."

In passing, HaRav Bergman recalled an occasion when the Chazon Ish summed up the worthlessness of worldly values in one concise comment:

The devotion and concern of the Chazon Ish's Rebbetzin a'h, to her husband, so that he should be able to devote himself wholly to Torah, is well-known. I remember the winter evenings towards the end of her life when she was elderly, when I would return from yeshiva and sit down at the table to learn (for as I mentioned earlier, he did not let me go to sleep straightaway). The Rebbetzin sat on a small chair on one side of the room, next to the lit heater. At these times, there were many things that she used to tell me, as a young boy.

One evening she told the following story: "When Rav Herzog arrived in Eretz Yisroel and we went to meet him at Yaffo, there were people there who addressed him admiringly as, `Doctor Herzog.' When Rebbetzin Herzog heard the title that was being bestowed upon her husband she became angry and said, `We're not doctors, we're rabbonim!' It pained her, do you hear, Meir?"

Turning to me she then said, "Rav Herzog, who had seven diplomas, was not a doctor but he" -- indicating her husband, the Chazon Ish -- "who has no other interest in the world besides Torah, has his learning disturbed by women and children who come to him on medical matters, as though he were really a great doctor."

In my youthful innocence I asked her, "What is a diploma?"

"Don't you know what a diploma is?" she asked in amazement. "A diploma is a diploma! When you study and complete . . . "

The Chazon Ish suddenly interrupted, cutting her off and finishing her sentence: " . . . when you study and learn how to make a certain number of pairs of shoes, you receive a shoemaker's diploma . . . "

Just like that, with one short comment, he said it all . . .

Tzaddikim and Their Belongings

YN: We once heard from a young man who spent a lot of time together with the Chazon Ish in those days, that the Chazon Ish was very careful with his belongings and would not even discard a used match straightaway. When they wanted to throw out the worn mattress that he slept on, he refused to hear of it. Is this correct?

HaRav Bergman: Those times cannot be compared with our own, yet this [conduct] certainly did not stem from miserliness, which is a highly negative trait. It was because they took great care of their meager possessions, which they had come by in an honest way. This was also how they had been trained in their parents' homes. I remember that my father-in- law HaRav Shach ztvk'l also used to save the string from a parcel that had arrived in the post, and so on. They were careful with their possessions.

In a related vein, I'll tell you of a profound incident involving the Chofetz Chaim, which I heard from HaRav Elya Dushnitzer ztvk'l. As is known, the Chofetz Chaim wanted to settle in Eretz Yisroel. His plans were made and the journey was imminent.

Here in Eretz Yisroel they had already prepared a house for him. It stands to this day in Petach Tikva. In Radin too, they were making the final arrangements for the journey. They had even finalized the distribution or sale of the furniture and other items from the house -- who would receive this piece of furniture, who would get that cupboard, etc.

In the yard stood a broken table that was so old that it could barely stand. It was so fragile and unsteady that it had been out at the side of the yard for a long time.

One morning, one of the gentile neighbors spoke to the Rebbetzin about this table. The Chofetz Chaim saw the Rebbetzin speaking to the gentile and he asked her what they had been speaking about. She repeated their conversation: He had asked her if, since they were travelling to Eretz Yisroel and would certainly not be taking that small, rickety table with them, whether he could take it after their departure?

"And what did you tell him?" asked the Chofetz Chaim.

"I replied, `Why not?' "

The Chofetz Chaim stood where he was and said in a pained voice, "That table, that table, at which I learned so much Torah . . . it should be given to a goy? No, don't give it to the goy."

There are tables and there are tables! There was certainly something special about the table of a Chofetz Chaim but the principle that, "Tzaddikim cherish their belongings . . ." (Chulin 91) is also because their belongings, their tables are different.

The truth is that our teacher the Chofetz Chaim himself makes a comment on the gemora which says that Resh Lokish had a kav of saffron left when he was about to die and applied the posuk, "and they will leave their wealth to others" (Tehillim 49:11), to himself (Gittin 47). Everyone asks what this gemora means.

The Chofetz Chaim explains that a person's belongings are part and parcel of himself. He devotes part of his life, giving up his valuable time and strength -- and time and strength are so precious, they're invaluable -- he is compelled to give everything in order to earn a little money.

If he then uses his money in order to serve Hashem, fine. If however, he has money left over with which he has not done anything, then the resources that went into obtaining the money have been wasted!

Resh Lokish, whose life was full of content, complained that since he left over this tiny amount of saffron, the posuk "they will leave their wealth to others" applied to him. He was referring to a tiny item, something minuscule. How much more so is this the case with a table at which Torah was learned, which is not just "a kav of saffron"!

YN: The Chazon Ish's bed was like the table and chair of the Chofetz Chaim because the Chazon Ish learned either sitting or lying on his bed. Did he always learn on the bed?

HaRav Bergman: He certainly did. On the whole, he also wrote while reclining.

Love and Veneration for Great and Small

Our conversation then touched upon the Chazon Ish's approach to learning and moved on to his close connections with those who learned Torah according to the approach that is traditional in the yeshivos.

The minutes were ticking by and the amount of time that HaRav Bergman had allotted for our interview was dwindling. We briefly mentioned the Chazon Ish's visit to the Brisker Rov zt'l when the latter was staying in Bnei Brak and the messages that HaRav Shach took from the Chazon Ish to the Brisker Rov. We noted, "It is said that HaRav Shach enjoyed a special closeness to the Chazon Ish."

HaRav Bergman: Certainly. What I remember from the time when I was a bochur before my marriage, was during his later years, when the Chazon Ish lived in his last apartment on Rechov Chazon Ish (which today is Talmud Torah Tashbar).

I was present once when HaRav Shach was in the room. I don't know whether they were conversing in learning or other matters -- I think they were debating some point of learning then as well -- and as he left, I noticed that there was a car waiting for HaRav Shach -- it might have been a taxi, which was a rarity. When he was at the door, the Chazon Ish went out to accompany him to the street. (The Chazon Ish's house was surrounded by a large, sandy area that was fenced in. There was quite a distance from the entrance to the yard to the entrance to the house.)

The Chazon Ish started to accompany him when he suddenly hurried back inside, came into the room, grabbed the blanket, wrapped it around himself and quickly walked outside and continued accompanying him to the outer exit.

The Chazon Ish had connections with young bnei yeshiva, that were sometimes even closer than those he had with rabbonim. He was like a father to us. I remember from my time in Tiferes Tzion, the self-effacement and love that he bore towards every ben yeshiva.

A certain bochur came to him with an ingrown toenail. The Chazon Ish asked him to remove his sock and he studied the foot carefully, slowly, and with special, fatherly tenderness -- not just like a father but like a mother, too.

The Stunting Effects of Plenty

YN: It is said that the Ponevezher Rov ztvk'l once remarked in public, "We will never have another Chazon Ish."

People asked HaRav Shach, "Is he a prophet, that he knows that we'll never merit another Chazon Ish?"

HaRav Shach replied, "You tell me, in a generation that enjoys such abundance and so many luxuries, is it a simple matter to be a Chazon Ish?"

We repeated this anecdote to HaRav Bergman and he responded with a pained smile.

HaRav Bergman: Today there is also perhaps a degree of making do with little but the "little" of today is completely different.

In those days, in Yeshivas Tiferes Tzion's early years, there was no dormitory. We slept in the packing houses of the Bnei Brak orchards. There was no dining room.

Later, when they provided a little room for use as a kitchen opposite the yeshiva (which was situated in Bnei Brak's Beis Knesses Hagodol), there was an additional, adjoining room, where bochurim who were sick could recover.

There was a daily rota among the bochurim. Two students would make the rounds of the stores -- the vegetable store and the bread store -- asking for donations. That was how we obtained the leftover bread (from the previous day, or the day before) and the remaining vegetables. The two bochurim would cut the vegetables up into a salad. This was at the beginning of the Second World War and sugar was a very costly commodity.

There was a sack of sugar in the house of Rabbi Yaakov Shneidman zt'l and the pair of bochurim would go there to fill a small box with sugar, to divide among the bochurim.

YN: A meager subsistence . . .

HaRav Bergman: No. Then, we didn't dream of anything else. That wasn't even called a meager subsistence.

HaRav Bergman's eyes reflect his longing for those days. He attempts to describe the nights spent in the Beis Knesses Hagodol (where they used to learn), the leilos shishi spent learning through the night, the objections of one of the neighbors, a tough fellow, and the wisdom of the Zhebinker ztvk'l in preventing the disturbances. He adds a few further recollections about Torah learned in the straitened circumstances of those times, when he was wholly immersed in Torah and yir'oh and was close to gedolei Yisroel.

HaRav Bergman: At the beginning of Rechov Herzl (known today as Rechov HaRav Shach), there was a tannery. The owner was a wealthy fellow and whoever had a regular day for having a meal at his house was very glad. I think his name was Reb Glatzer. He agreed to have two bochurim to eat with him every day.

There was a time when I ate with him every Tuesday and he gave just one meal. In the evening, since he was unable to serve food, he would give half a grush with which to buy something to eat. Naturally, we didn't eat anything that night -- we kept the money. I would save each week's half grush in order to be able to buy things such as a piece of clothing, a hat, a suit and the like.

"Before a person prays that divrei Torah should enter his innards, he should pray that delicacies should not enter." Then, there were no delicacies whatsoever. There were no delicacies to pray about not entering one's innards. (With a smile) When we ate with Reb Shmuel Chortkov zt'l (the famous "Ehrlicher Yid" who was the gabbai in the Chazon Ish's minyan) we received a slice of cake.

In those days, in this respect, it was possible to grow and flourish to a greater degree. The Torah was different. One could isolate oneself and learn to one's heart's desire.


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