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16 Shevat 5765 - January 26, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







A Mission for Tomorrow: HaRav Eliyohu Meir Bloch and the Rebuilding of Telz

An Interview With Rav Nosson Tzvi Baron, rosh yeshivas Mesivta DeCleveland, about his Great Teacher HaRav Eliyohu Meir Bloch zt'l, Rosh Yeshivas Telz, Marking Fifty Years Since HaRav Bloch's petiroh

By Rav Dov Eliach, head of Machon Moreshes Hayeshivos

Introduction: Master and Pupil

Rav Nosson Tzvi Baron was born in Tavrig, Lithuania and is named after his father's mentor, the Alter of Slobodka zt'l. As a young boy he was sent to learn in Telz and his life has been entwined with the world of Telz ever since.

Arriving in America after the war, he joined Yeshivas Telz in Cleveland and learned under HaRav Eliyohu Meir Bloch zt'l, who greatly befriended him. In time, he was entrusted with the task of publishing the writings of the Telzer roshei yeshiva and with the preparation of the famous Telzer Shiurei Daas for publication. This has been, and continues to be, Rav Baron's major literary contribution, though he also utilizes his writing talents for other yeshiva projects and for communal affairs. His latest sefer is the newly published Shiurei uPeninei Daas, which contains many wonderful ideas of HaRav Bloch's, based on manuscripts and shiurim, as well as important letters and articles that he wrote.

As we shall see very soon, Rav Bloch clearly articulated the sense of mission that he felt as one of the few survivors of the huge Torah center of Lithuanian Telz. He would invoke the words of Yonoson ben Shaul to Dovid: "Go, for Hashem has sent you" (Shmuel I 20:22). The clear implication is that even though flight may be imperative because of persecution, as it was in Dovid's case, in reality, it is a prompting from Heaven to undertake a mission of communal benefit.

Rav Bloch fulfilled his mission with energy and drive throughout his relatively short life — he was just sixty years old when he passed away. His activities to further Torah were manifold, raising thousands of talmidim — and articulating the message of Torah- true Yiddishkeit to further thousands — through his electrifying droshos. He has a large share in the development of the splendid world of Torah education that exists today in America.

One gets the feeling that Rav Baron has adopted this sense of mission of his rebbe's, channeling his every resource into fulfilling his duty as one of the last surviving talmidim of Telz, of arranging its Torah and its world of ideas for future generations. It is a mission that he carries out capably and with a discerning eye. There could be no one better to afford us a glimpse into the ideas and outlook of the man who carried Telzer daas to a new generation, in a new world.

The Third Departure

Rav Baron: When Russia invaded Lithuania with the outbreak of the Second World War, Russian forces overran Telz and requisitioned the yeshiva building. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Eliyohu Meir zt'l, entered the beis hamedrash to remove the sifrei Torah and said in a trembling voice as tears fell from his eyes, "This is the third time that the sifrei Torah are being taken out of the beis hamedrash. The first was at the time of the great fire in Telz in the lifetime of Rav Eliezer Gordon zt'l, and the second was during the First World War. Just as we merited to reestablish the yeshiva and return the sifrei Torah on previous occasions, may Hashem allow us to merit doing so this time as well."

Sadly, we didn't merit renewing the yeshiva in the same place but Rav Eliyohu Meir himself certainly had his wish granted, albeit not actually in Telz. He founded the yeshiva himself and reestablished it in Cleveland, America.

How was he saved? His wife and children remained behind. Why did he alone manage to escape? The story is not well known so here it is.

Deliverance and Destiny

Maybe you've heard about the barber who decided to breach the holiness of Shabbos in Telz by opening his shop on Shabbos? The heads of the yeshiva and the students went to protest in front of the shop and the barber came out brazenly and taunted them, "Benk-kvetchers! [i.e. bench pressers; a derisive term for bnei yeshiva] Go back to the yeshiva! I'm not closing my store!"

One of the protesters suddenly stepped over to him and slapped him twice on the cheek in public. To this day it's not clear whether it was Rav Eliyohu Meir who slapped the man or his brother Rav Zalman zt'l Hy'd. At any rate, Rav Eliyohu Meir accepted responsibility and the barber, whose name was [also] Meir, registered a complaint with the police. Rav Eliyohu Meir was sentenced to three days of house arrest.

When the Russians invaded Telz following the famous Molotov- Ribbentrop agreement, the barber rose to prominence in the town because he was a Communist. There was serious danger that he'd see fit to avenge himself on Rav Eliyohu Meir who could have been deported to Siberia had he spoken out against him. After discussing the situation, the family decided that Rav Eliyohu Meir should flee secretly before there was any trouble. Before the Russians had managed to take complete control of the local authority, he traveled by night to Kovno and managed to procure an exit permit.

He was accompanied on his journey by his brother-in-law, HaRav Chaim Mordechai Katz zt'l. I'm not sure why — apparently he went along to raise money for the yeshiva. Rav Eliyohu Meir thus escaped from the C ommunist's clutches. Eventually it transpired that by leaving on account of the holiness of Shabbos he'd been spared from the horrors of the war.

Once, when speaking about his rescue from the fearsome Holocaust, Rav Eliyohu Meir shared a beautiful insight. When Dovid Hamelech fled from Shaul Hamelech, he conferred with Yonoson, who arranged with him that if he'd tell the boy, "Here, the arrows are beyond you," then Dovid should: "Go, because Hashem has sent you" (Shmuel I, 20:22). The question is, Dovid was escaping from the danger that Shaul posed to him. Why did Yonoson say, "Go, because Hashem has sent you"? He should have said, "Run away and save yourself!"

In truth however, when danger forces a person to flee for his life he's not simply escaping whatever immediately threatens him. He's also embarking on a mission that Hashem has entrusted to him. [He should hear himself being told,] "You haven't survived just for the sake of your own life but to fill a role and carry out a task."

That was how he felt about himself. The danger from the Communists actually represented a mission from Heaven to leave to carry out a holy task to had been entrusted to him. It was a task to which he took himself with alacrity and to whose execution he devoted himself completely.

Redemption and Responsibility

You'll find many examples of this kind of thing in Peninei Daas — how Rav Eliyohu Meir bases his ideas and outlook on his interpretations of pesukim from Tanach and statements of Chazal.

Another instance is the idea he derived from the Ibn Ezra in parshas Bo (Shemos 13:13). "For every firstborn [of a clean animal] that is not offered on the Altar, or [human firstborn that is not] redeemed deserve to die, because all the firstborns in Egypt died, human and animal. Hashem only delivered them from the decree that He imposed on the Egyptian firstborns so that they should be ready for His service."

There is a lesson here for us. We were also spared from the war and must dedicate our lives to Hashem. Anyone who doesn't do so is liable to suffer [the fate of an unredeemed firstborn donkey] — "and you shall break its neck" (ibid.). In a note to this piece [in Peninei Daas], I point out how this short idea of Rav Eliyohu Meir's sums up his personality and the breadth of the activities in which he engaged ever since the war.

In eulogizing Rav Eliyohu Meir, Rav Mordechai Gifter zt'l, said that whatever lessons the Rosh Yeshiva derived from Torah could be applied to himself. He was always the first to fulfill anything that he said or taught publicly. A play on the words "Hu hoyoh omer (He used to say)" that often appear in maseches Ovos, renders their meaning, "His own essence is apparent from his statement."

Recreating Telz

Another idea that he would often repeat was based on the posuk, "And he sent Yehuda in advance to Yosef, to instruct him about [settling in] Goshen" (Bereishis 46:28), on which Rashi comments, "and [according to] the medrash aggodoh, to instruct in advance, to prepare a house of study (yeshiva) for him . . ."

What do the words "to prepare a house of study for him" signify? Yaakov did not want to adjust himself to the local conditions and set up a place of study that would be suitable for Egypt. He wanted it to be suited to himself, to his own level and standards.

In this vein, the Rosh Yeshiva would say, "We haven't come to establish a yeshiva here that will adapt itself to life in America and become an `American' yeshiva. We want `to prepare a house of study for him' — to bring our Lithuanian Telz with us and to establish it here, as it is, without any modification."

He racked his mind in order to arrive at ways of attaining this end. His main concern was that he should not compromise the integrity of what he was striving for in the slightest, even if that meant traversing a difficult and obstacle-ridden path. One of the examples of this is his important and intriguing proposal of conferring Semichas Chachomim.

In the immediate postwar years, the only two yeshivos in America that didn't permit any combining of secular studies with learning whatsoever were Lakewood and Telz. Even classes held just once a week were ruled out. We in Telz suffered from this greatly, through both low enrollment and difficulty in fundraising. Someone who had the yeshiva's benefit at heart suggested that a small group of bochurim — less than ten — might be permitted to attend college, if only so that it could not be said that we boycotted college completely. The Rosh Yeshiva rejected the idea out of hand and was firmly opposed [to any such proposal].

So much for the effects on fundraising. With regard to attracting talmidim, there was a difficult problem. There were parents who sent their sons to the yeshiva or who wanted to do so, but were very concerned by the fact that their friends' sons completed their studies with degrees in hand while talmidim of the yeshiva did not.

The Rosh Yeshiva had a wonderful idea — to award Semichas Chachomim "degrees" to good bochurim who were worthy of it. Parents would then feel that their son also had something in his hand. Whether or not he would ever serve as a rov, at least he'd have something concrete to his name. To qualify, a bochur had to be proficient in the masechtos that were learned in the yeshiva and also had to be sincerely G-d fearing.

A Change in Outlook

The Rosh Yeshiva shrewdly made use of the Semichas Chachomim scheme in the context of his campaign for proper observance of halochoh in one particular area. It's not so pleasant to dwell on, but it's a fact that during those years, there was serious laxity in the matter of married women covering their hair, even in some Orthodox and rabbinical homes.

Rav Eliyohu Meir fought to rectify this situation and made the award of the Semichoh "degree" to avreichim conditional upon their wives' observance of this halochoh. Moreover, he declared that even if someone had received a Semichoh as a bochur, if it later became clear that he wasn't scrupulous about his wife's covering her hair modestly, the Semichoh would be revoked.

This regulation is mentioned in the list of instructions and guidelines in training the talmidim that was issued to the yeshiva staff. This is how he formulated this requirement, in the section that deals with the Semichas Chachomim (Shiurei uPeninei Daas, Wickliffe, 5765, pg. 170).

" . . . And even if he himself, in his personal conduct, fulfills everything sincerely, he is still undeserving of the Semichas Chachomim unless he also instructs the members of his household and family to follow the above. If he is unable to influence his own household then he is unfit to be an influence upon the broader Jewish public and is unworthy of having the Semichas Chachomim conferred on him, or of retaining his existing Semichoh."

Rav Eliyohu Meir wasn't understood in those days. How could he fight something that was so widely neglected and so entrenched in the American way of life? Yet today things have done a complete about-face, to the point where it is, boruch Hashem, incomprehensible and incredible to us that prior to this determined struggle, the situation ever used to be so out of hand.

The great chassidic leaders also fought in those days to stamp out the phenomenon from among their followers but I'm talking about the years 5707-8 (1947-8), even before the Satmar Rebbe zt'l had a community. It was only then that they started building their own communities and of course they had no influence on the wider public regarding this matter.

The ones who fought fiercely and determinedly were roshei yeshiva like Rav Eliyohu Meir and Rav Aharon Kotler zt'l who, for example, made the taking of any educational position in any of the various institutions conditional upon this requirement. Today's situation just goes to show the degree of their success in their cause.

Guarding the Pure Cruse

One of the main focuses of Rav Eliyohu Meir's communal endeavors was Torah education for the broad public. He was an outstanding fighter for the integrity of traditional Torah education.

There were three main educational frameworks operating in the Jewish communities: the local communal schools, the Orthodox institutions and the Conservative ones. [Editor's Note: This probably refers to Sunday schools and afternoon, after school talmud Torahs that used to be common in Conservative synagogues.] The issue was, whether it was allowed to take teaching positions in Conservative schools. HaRav Aharon Kotler and HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt'l permitted this only in New York and only under certain conditions. For example, only as long as the school was located in its own premises and not in their synagogue building, and only if no heretical texts, such as those based on the ideas of Bible criticism were used, just an authentic Chumash.

Rav Eliyohu Meir forbade even this, arguing that it was forbidden to assist them in any way. He felt that teaching in their institutions lent them support and credibility, even if the teacher's intention was to rescue the pupils [through enabling them to experience authentic Torah learning]. This objection was not applicable to communal schools, which did not align themselves with any particular ideological or political body. Nonetheless, he didn't recommend that bnei yeshiva join the staffs of communal schools though he didn't prevent others from doing so.

He agreed to teaching in the Sunday schools, though he once commented that they had "a whiff of avodoh zara (avak avodoh zara)" about them. This remark was publicized when it was submitted to the Israeli newspaper Haboker where it was taken to mean that he implied that modern Orthodox Jews were idol worshipers. Rav Eliyohu Meir responded to this by sending the newspaper a letter of clarification.

Rav Eliyohu Meir had programs for everything, for both boys' and girls' education. In this respect, he followed in the footsteps of his father HaRav Yosef Leib Bloch zt'l who founded the Yavneh school for children and the Yavneh High School ("Seminar") for girls in Telz in Europe. Then there had been zealots who protested the "breach" that this represented and they sent off their complaints to the Chofetz Chaim, asking him to register his protest. The Chofetz Chaim's response however was, "If Reb Yosef Leib is behind it, it's okay; there need be no doubts about him."

Reb Yosef Leib went even further, opening a Seminary to train men as teachers as well. It was for young men who were not suited to continue learning, to enable them to train as teachers of secular subjects and to be able to teach in Orthodox schools. Don't forget that the Government required that mathematics and the country's language be taught in the schools by law. Until then, only irreligious teachers who had studied and obtained an official degree were able to teach these subjects. This in itself was problematic — when those who taught these subjects in the chadorim were irreligious, it led to educational problems.

Fighting from Within

Rav Eliyohu Meir was the pillar of Agudas Yisroel; its leaders had regular and frequent contact with him, among them Dr. Isaac Lewin z'l and Rabbi Moshe Sherer z'l.

In the introduction to Zichron Eliyohu, I wrote that even though there was more than one occasion when the Rosh Yeshiva disagreed with his colleagues the gedolei Yisroel on various matters, they nonetheless appointed him as their spokesman for he was a gifted speaker and a powerful orator. He would appear at gatherings, speaking in the name of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah and forcefully conveying his own daas Torah and that of the other great roshei yeshiva of the day.

He appeared at the Knessia Gedolah that was held in Eretz Yisroel — in 5714 (1954) I think, a year before his petiroh — and even spoke in Ivrit. He was honored with delivering the opening address and with speaking in honor and in memory of the martyrs who had been slaughtered in the Holocaust. By the way, the Prime Minister and several of his ministers attended that session.

With regard to the Zionist State, he was in favor of joining the governing bodies and conducting the struggle within the existing frameworks. He found support for his opinion in a comment of Rashi's in parshas Vayishlach. The posuk tells us, "and a man wrestled with him" (Bereishis 32:25), when Yaakov wrestled with Eisov's angel. Rashi explains, "Such is the way of two who are each trying to bring the other down, to embrace and to clasp each other by their arms."

We learn from here that it is not correct to stand apart and shoot poisoned arrows from afar, as is the approach of Satmar. One must embrace with the right arm and establish a slight connection, while delivering blows with the left arm. That was how he portrayed the desired method of campaigning for Judaism in Eretz Yisroel.

Personal relations among the Agudah leaders were very good and there was mutual admiration, for example, between Rav Eliyohu Meir and HaRav Reuven Grozovsky zt'l and, of course, with HaRav Aharon Kotler with whom he enjoyed a very close friendship.

As mentioned, Rav Eliyohu Meir had major disagreements with the Satmar Rov zt'l over their attitude to Eretz Yisroel as well as on other issues. Nevertheless, they openly admired each other. When the Rov first settled in America, before his community was well established, he came to Cleveland to raise funds. The Rosh Yeshiva accorded him honor and great respect and invited him to deliver a shiur in the yeshiva — it was on maseches Chulin.

Beforehand, Rav Eliyohu Meir introduced the Rov to us, employing a bon mot to elucidate a term used by Chazal: patish hechozok (the mighty hammer).

"When we convene the Moetzes Gedolei Torah to discuss timely issues," he said, "the sound of the mighty hammer, banging away in Satmar's quarter, echoes in our ears. Although our outlooks differ and we don't share the same opinions, we accord due consideration to the things he says."

Having differences over matters of principle needn't necessarily lead to estrangement and hatred, just as conversely, peaceful and friendly relations are no contradiction to differing outlooks and approaches to life.

End of Part I

!!!!!! Box:

Gems of Torah and Daas from Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch

Based on Conversations with Rabbi T. Lasdun

By Rabbi Dov Eliach

Rav Tuvia Lasdun of Washington Heights, New York, is one of today's foremost Torah writers, a talmid chochom and scholar and a faithful talmid of Telz Yeshiva. Born in Germany, he made his way to Telz, Lithuania, to absorb the yeshiva's Torah and its unique mussar approach — "daas." When he arrived in the United States, he gravitated naturally to the yeshiva's branch in Cleveland, where he continued to cleave to his teachers and imbibe the Telzer approach. Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch zt'l was his uncle.

We have held many conversations over the years, in which Rav Lasdun has shared his impressions and memories of his teachers and of life in Telz Yeshiva and from which the following Torah thoughts of Rav Bloch's and anecdotes concerning him have been extracted. Some have already appeared in the five-volume series Peninim Mishulchan Govoha.

A Leader for His Generation

My master and teacher Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch used to say that every age has new and special problems that must be solved according to Torah. However, the great earlier generations would not be able to understand contemporary problems and cannot contribute opinions towards their solution. Utterances of gedolei Yisroel that were made in relation to the problems of their times cannot be transposed to ours, and cannot provide solutions to the problems that face us.

Naturally, he based this idea on a statement of Chazal. The gemora (Menochos 29) tells us that at Har Sinai, Hashem showed Moshe Rabbenu various generations of Torah scholars, including Rabbi Akiva and his talmidim and their Torah discussion. Moshe Rabbenu could not understand it and he felt weak as a result. Rav Eliyohu Meir explained that even a giant like Moshe Rabbenu could not understand the problems of later generations, to which only the gedolim of the times can appreciate and find solutions.

Rav Eliyohu Meir excelled in this respect. He would examine every issue that came before him with his sharp and probing mind, whether communal or private, to determine the Torah's guidance for proceeding. He would seek answers in the Torah itself, both in the Written and the Oral Torah.

Here is a penetrating insight that demonstrates Rav Eliyohu Meir's approach. The posuk tells us that Moshe Rabbenu "saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man . . . and he looked this way and that . . ." (Shemos 2:11). He asked: how could Moshe Rabbenu have placed his entire future in Egypt at risk over such an incident? His prominence in Pharaoh's household afforded him a means of influencing the king to deal more leniently with bnei Yisroel, a salvation apparently of far greater dimension than saving one single Jew.

Clearly, for Moshe Rabbenu to stand by while a gentile beat a Jew to death would have resulted in him falling from his level and losing his special role. To reckon on saving Jews was certainly a worthy consideration but had he remained silent upon seeing a single Jew being persecuted, it would have contradicted his very being.


Here is another incident, related by Rav Lasdun, concerning leadership and Rav Eliyohu Meir's order of priorities in communal involvement.

I don't remember exactly which year it was — either 1934 or 1936 — there were Arab riots in Eretz Yisroel and Agudas Yisroel organized an appeal among Diaspora Jewry for the victims. Talented speakers were scheduled to address gatherings everywhere and elicit people's sympathy and support for the victims' cause. Rav Eliyohu Meir was invited to speak in Ponovezh.

The train journey from Telz to Ponovezh in those days lasted between twelve and fifteen hours. When Rav Eliyohu Meir arrived in Ponovezh it was time for minchah and he approached the gabbai and asked if he could lead the prayers as he had yahrtzeit. The gabbai expressed his amazement, "With yahrtzeit you travel by train — with the possibility of not saying Kaddish?"

Rav Eliyohu Meir replied, "I'm sure that my mother z'l, is not interested merely in my saying Kaddish for her but also in my taking action for the kaddish." In other words, raising funds to aid the victims of the rioting was more important than saying Kaddish.

This was the story that he told when he returned to Telz. He usually told us things about how he conducted himself so that we could learn how to behave. He was of the opinion that a rebbe has to teach his talmidim how to approach life, so that from seeing his demonstration they will know how to act.


Here is another, similar story that Rav Eliyohu Meir told. After the First World War, the Zionists in Telz were quick to open a Tarbut gymnasium, while the chareidim wanted to open a corresponding Yavneh institution which would offer a traditional Torah education. The problem was that Telz couldn't support two gymnasia at once — there weren't enough talmidos to fill two schools. Controversy and quarreling between the two camps got underway.

A meeting of the chareidim was scheduled one night to discuss the matter. Rav Eliyohu Meir, who was to be one of the main participants, had to deliver a shiur in the yeshiva the following day and he consulted his father, HaRav Yosef Leib Bloch zt'l, about what to do. His father told him, "You must take part in the meeting and in that merit, Hakodosh Boruch Hu will help you and you'll be able to deliver the shiur properly."

And that is what happened.

Peace and Truth

The Telz approach to communal affairs was to maintain both "peace and truth." They adopted clear and definite positions, and were bold and unyielding when it came to upholding religious standards. However, though they brooked no compromise, their tactics were peaceful. They wanted to see "the truth attained through peaceful means."

Rav Yosef Leib Bloch had very clear views and he was a great and a powerful leader, which understandably led to his having opponents who opposed his opinion of this or that project, but the opposition was always expressed peaceably. This was something that the Rosh Yeshiva built into the yeshiva's very essence and that he also passed on to his son, Rav Eliyohu Meir.

The medrash (Shemos 39) tells us that when the Mishkan was set up, all the craftsmen brought the various vessels to Moshe Rabbenu and told him that they had been unsuccessful in erecting it. Only Moshe Rabbenu was able to get the Mishkan to remain standing.

There are all kinds of people and ideas within Klal Yisroel, Rav Eliyohu Meir would say, but a great leader is needed to unite them all. Everyone knows how to make one of the vessels, using his individual strengths and powers but to bring all the strands together into one integral unit requires a Moshe Rabbenu.

There can be differing ideas and approaches within the Jewish people so long as it is understood that each idea is just one of the components that goes to make up the nation as a whole. No one who follows a particular ideology or belongs to one or another group — and we're only talking about those who follow the traditional Torah path — should think that they are the only ones that count or that only their leader's opinions are definitive and that he is the only one who speaks the truth.

In parshas Pinchas, Moshe Rabbenu asks that, "Hashem, G- d of the spirits" should appoint a man [to preside] over the community" (Bamidbor 27:16). Rashi explains that he requested Hashem to, "Appoint a leader over them who will tolerate each of them according to his individuality."

However, when Hashem tells him to "take to yourself Yehoshua . . . a man within whom there is spirit" (ibid. 18), Rashi comments, "as you asked, [someone] who can go counter to the spirit of each and every one." This seems to be contradictory. Going counter to the people's spirits means opposing them, while Moshe Rabbenu had asked for a leader who could tolerate each individual.

A Jewish leader needs to combine opposing qualities in the right measure. He needs to instruct the people to follow his path without being influenced or swayed by them. At the same time though, he must do so in a way that "tolerates each individual," leading each of them to the desired goal according to his individual capacity. He must not be overly strident, ignoring the character and opinions of each and every person as an individual.

As a mortal, Moshe Rabbenu stressed the human aspect of his request. Hakodosh Boruch Hu however, responded that it was right for things to be this way, so long as the leader knew how to "go counter to the spirit of each and every one," not being drawn after their opinions and giving in to them.

This was the type of leadership that Rav Eliyohu Meir demonstrated. When he spoke to others, he only made demands in areas that he himself had worked through and maintained the standards that he expected of them.


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