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5 Iyar 5766 - May 3, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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HaRav Moshe Shmuel Shapira zt'l

By S. Bruchi

In the Lap of Greatness

One of the elder contemporary roshei hayeshivos, HaRav Moshe Shmuel Shapira ztvk'l was born in Minsk, Russia, on the nineteenth of Av, 5677 (1917). His father was the gaon HaRav Aryeh Shapira, the dayan of Bialystok, Poland, a son of HaRav Refoel Shapira zt'l of Volozhin who was the author of Toras Refoel and a grandson of the Netziv of Volozhin zt'l (who was Rav Refoel's father-in-law) and of Rav Leibele Kovner zt'l. Rav Aryeh Shapira was thus a great-great grandson of Rav Chaim of Volozhin zt'l, whose granddaughter the Netziv had married. Rav Moshe Shmuel's mother was descended from the Oneg Yom Tov zt'l, who had served as rov of Bialystok.

Moshe Shmuel's family were living in Minsk at the time of his birth because the First World War was raging. His grandfather Rav Refoel Shapira and his uncle HaRav Chaim Halevi Soloveitchik zt'l of Brisk (who was Rav Refoel's son- in-law) were also in Minsk at the time. Some of the foremost gedolei Yisroel were thus present at Moshe Shmuel's bris. His grandfather Rav Refoel was sandak and Rav Chaim was honored with saying the brochos after the milah.

After the war had ended, the family returned to Bialystok, where Moshe Shmuel learned in cheder and in yeshiva ketanoh. His parents' home was filled with the splendor of bygone days, with the Torah traditions and noble character traits of past generations. He absorbed these, together with the holiness and purity with which the atmosphere was suffused. The city's leading Torah scholars would visit Rav Aryeh's house to engage him in Torah discussion. Rav Moshe Shmuel recalled that a young Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky zt'l (who later became renowned as the Steipler Gaon) was a frequent caller. Then a bochur learning in Bialystok's Novardok yeshiva, he would come to present his chiddushim to the Rov.

Baranovitch and Mir

In Cheshvan 5693 (1933), Moshe Shmuel left home to learn in the famous Ohel Torah yeshiva in Baranovitch. He studied under HaRav Elchonon Wassermann zt'l Hy'd who particularly befriended him. HaRav Shmuel Berenbaum, rosh yeshivas Mir New York, recalls the different, special attitude that Rav Elchonon displayed to the young bochur from Bialystok, treating him as one who was expected to become a godol beTorah and illumine the yeshiva world and Klal Yisroel with his Torah. The bond with Rav Elchonon did not weaken even after Moshe Shmuel left Baranovitch — rebbe and talmid continued corresponding.

Talmidim who learned in Baranovitch at that time attest that Moshe Shmuel's greatness was acknowledged even then. He was considered the foremost talmid in the yeshiva in his abilities, in his application and in every aspect of his conduct. While in Baranovitch he also developed a very firm bond to HaRav Dovid Rappaport zt'l Hy'd author of Mikdash Dovid.

In the summer of 5696 (1936) he moved to Yeshivas Mir, where he learned for several years. As soon as he arrived he was recognized as one of the leading students. Shortly after his arrival the Mashgiach, Rav Yeruchom zt'l, told him, "With you things are different than they way they are with others — you are destined for greatness."

Although it was usual for the younger students to be assigned both sleeping quarters and seats in the beis hamedrash together with their peers, Reb Yeruchom surprised everyone by seating Moshe Shmuel on the bench occupied by such senior students as Reb Yonah Minsker zt'l Hy'd. He also assigned Moshe Shmuel accommodations together with the yeshiva's senior and leading bochurim, who served as role models to the younger talmidim.

Moshe Shmuel began learning together with a fellow Bialystoker, Rav Leib Malin zt'l. When they returned home during bein hazmanim they continued learning together in one of the city's botei medrash with the same intensity and application with which they used to learn in Mir.

Arrival in Eretz Yisroel

When he reached the age for army service Reb Moshe Shmuel took every possible avenue in order to evade being drafted. When every attempt failed he was left with no choice but to flee Polish soil, little realizing that the hand of Hashgochoh was at work to save him from the impending cataclysm.

Arriving in Eretz Yisroel on erev Rosh Hashonoh 5698 (1937) he joined Yeshivas Lomzha in Petach Tikva where many outstanding bnei Torah who had left Europe had gathered. His arrival in Lomzha was a notable event, as is evident from a letter that HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l sent at that time. He wrote that a bochur named Moshe Shmuel Shapira had just arrived in Eretz Yisroel and that Klal Yisroel had high hopes from him.

Reb Moshe Shmuel had grown close to Reb Chatzkel in Mir, when he had succeeded Reb Yeruchom as mashgiach after the latter's petiroh. Reb Chatzkel expressed his high opinion of his talmid Reb Moshe Shmuel on several occasions. Once he remarked in public that anyone who wanted to learn Torah from a great man should go to Reb Moshe Shmuel. On another occasion he pointed Reb Moshe Shmuel out to his companion and said, "Look at his face and you'll see how a man looks who has a emunadik'e yiras Shomayim (genuine fear of Heaven that is suffused with faith)."

While Reb Moshe Shmuel was learning in Lomzha, HaRav Shach zt'l was appointed as a maggid shiur, and Reb Moshe Shmuel and HaRav Shmuel Rozovsky zt'l were asked to deliver weekly shiurim to the members of their learning circle. Many alumni of Lomzha, among them HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, HaRav Yissochor Meir and HaRav Chaim Sarna, thus consider themselves Reb Moshe Shmuel's talmidim. This period also saw the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Reb Moshe Shmuel and HaRav Shach. Their love and admiration was boundless and mutual; HaRav Shach would often extol Reb Moshe Shmuel's greatness.

With the Gedolei Hador in Eretz Yisroel

While Reb Moshe Shmuel was in Lomzha his first cousin, HaRav Yitzchok Zeev Soloveitchik the Brisker Rov zt'l, settled in Yerushalayim after escaping from Europe. (Reb Chaim's rebbetzin, the Brisker Rov's mother, was a sister of Rav Aryeh, Reb Moshe Shmuel's father.)

Reb Moshe Shmuel henceforth became attached to the Rov's Torah and to his approach to learning. He eventually became known in the Torah world as one of the Rov's foremost talmidim and transmitters of his Torah. Many of the Brisker Rov's chiddushim on Seder Kodshim that have become current in the yeshivos are based on the notes that Reb Moshe took of the Rov's Torah. In addition, he also absorbed an immense amount of the Rov's wisdom and general approach in dealing with both individuals and with communal affairs.

During this period he also became very close to the Chazon Ish zt'l, whom he would consult and talk to frequently. Whenever Reb Moshe Shmuel arrived, the Chazon Ish's blessing to him was, "Train many talmidim!" The Chazon Ish would also often praise "the Torah of truth" that issued from Reb Moshe Shmuel's lips. He would say that such a rounded combination of Torah greatness, fear of Heaven and outstanding character traits was encountered only rarely. He used to say that Reb Moshe Shmuel had a neshomoh de'Atzilus (a princely soul—may also mean a soul from the highest Heavenly reaches).

Members of the Chazon Ish's family remarked that the Chazon Ish would stand up to honor Reb Moshe Shmuel and that he used to accompany him out when he left. When Reb Moshe Shmuel's rebbetzin tblct'a entered, the Chazon Ish would stand for her as well, remarking that she was an eishes chover [the wife of an accomplished Torah scholar, to whom the honor accorded to her husband is also shown].

Reb Moshe Shmuel was authorized to give halachic rulings by the elder among the roshei hayeshivos of his day, HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l who, despite Reb Moshe Shmuel's youth, referred to him as being "like one of the seasoned gedolei haTorah and choicest [products] of the yeshivos."

The Wellsprings Burst Forth

In 5706 (1946) after his marriage to the daughter of HaRav Aharon Weinstein zt'l, rosh yeshivas Beis Yosef in Mezritch, Rav Moshe Shmuel spent a year learning in the Chazon Ish's kollel. He was then called upon to deliver a shiur in Yeshivas Kol Torah in Yerushalayim, where he served for three years.

The Chazon Ish then called on him to join the Mashgiach HaRav Shlomo Wolbe zt'l in establishing Yeshivas Be'er Yaakov, which was intended to restore the crown of Torah greatness after the decimation of the European yeshivos during the war.

Yeshivas Be'er Yaakov was no exception to the principle that Torah is only acquired through suffering. At first, the yeshiva occupied several rickety huts. Learning in the beis hamedrash was difficult and uncomfortable, and little more than bread was available to the bochurim for assuaging their hunger. Thanks to the dedication of those early years, the yeshiva went on to attain spiritual greatness and over the years conditions also improved. Thousands of talmidim drank deeply from the wellsprings of the Rosh Yeshiva's Torah. Many of them serve today as rabbonim and Torah disseminators all over the Jewish world.

When Rav Moshe Shmuel settled in the small settlement of Be'er Yaakov, which is near Ramle, local residents asked him to assume the mantle of rabbonus for the settlement in addition to serving as rosh yeshiva and he accepted. After a few years however, when the burden of the local shailos and the town's affairs had grown, Reb Moshe Shmuel became concerned that the yeshiva's affairs were suffering from his preoccupation and he traveled to Yerushalayim to consult his mentor, the Brisker Rov. Acting on the Rov's advice he left the local rabbonus and devoted himself fully to disseminating Torah to the bnei hayeshiva. He appointed his friend HaRav Moshe Menachem Jacobson zt'l, who had been serving as a maggid shiur in the yeshiva, to take his place as rov of the town.

The following story conveys some idea of the stature of the talmidim of the yeshiva during those early days. Several of the leading talmidim traveled to Yerushalayim to discuss various Torah topics with the Brisker Rov. After they left, the Rov remarked to members of his family, "Reb Moshe Shmuel's talmidim kennen lernen. (Reb Moshe Shmuel's talmidim know how to learn)."

His Torah Legacy

Rav Moshe Shmuel consulted his mentors, the Brisker Rov and the Chazon Ish, on all the yeshiva's affairs. He was with the Chazon Ish on his last day, on the afternoon of Friday the 14th of Cheshvan 5714 (1954), just a few hours before his petiroh on Shabbos. Rav Moshe Shmuel went in to speak to the Chazon Ish, but upon seeing his extreme weakness he expressed his doubts over whether this was the right time to visit. The Chazon Ish responded, "Some visits are tiring, others are refreshing. Yours is of the latter sort."

They spoke together privately for approximately two hours. The Rosh Yeshiva never divulged what they discussed in that conversation, except for the promise that the Chazon Ish had given him that Yeshivas Be'er Yaakov would continue until Moshiach's arrival. The Chazon Ish's family say that that was the last visit anyone paid to the Chazon Ish before he passed away.

In 5723 (1963), the first volume of Rav Moshe Shmuel's Kuntrass Habi'urim, on masechtos Gittin, Kiddushin and Nedorim, was published, containing shiurim that he had delivered in the yeshiva. Over the years ten volumes appeared, containing just some of the thousands of his chiddushim that are still in manuscript. His seforim Kuntrass Habi'urim and Sha'arei Shemu'os are learned throughout the yeshiva world. All over the world, Torah disseminators and talmidim alike discover deep and fundamental principles in them that elucidate many difficult sugyos. Many more of his writings, on every area of Torah and on all parts of Torah both revealed and concealed, remain to be published.

Around a year ago, the Rosh Yeshiva was delighted by the publication of a new edition of Kuntrass Habi'urim. In his joy he confided that he did not just pluck his chiddushim from the air. They were the fruits of tremendous toil and immense effort, that could be neither measured nor conveyed to others. He would go virtually without sleep for days at a time and only when the topic began to reveal its depth and take shape did he deem it ready for delivery in his shiur keloli and for inclusion in one of his seforim.

On Behalf of the Klal

Rav Moshe Shmuel began his involvement in communal affairs over fifty years ago. As a comparatively young man in his forties he deliberated with HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin zt'l and the other gedolei haTorah over the affairs of Vaad Hayeshivos as a full member of its presidium. He used to bring the questions that arose concerning communal affairs to the Brisker Rov.

In 5728 (1968) he was invited by HaRav Yechezkel Sarna zt'l rosh yeshivas Chevron and the Gerrer Rebbe the Beis Yisroel zt'l to join the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. At first Rav Moshe Shmuel refused but after HaRav Sarna visited him at home several times, repeating his request, he consented.

His opinions on contemporary issues were always carefully considered; he was seen as the repository of the traditions of his holy ancestors of the Volozhin yeshiva and as the transmitter of the teachings of his mentors, HaRav Elchonon Wassermann, the Brisker Rov and other gedolim.

Despite the importance of involvement in communal affairs, Rav Moshe Shmuel firmly believed that the one and only key to vanquishing the yetzer hora and foiling its numerous stratagems lies in occupying oneself with toil in Torah and Torah dissemination. Absolutely nothing, whether it was of minor or major importance, was able to interrupt him from his immersion in learning or from delivering his regular shiurim, suffused with Torah's depth and sweetness.

He saw the light of Torah as the solution to the ever- thickening darkness pervading our times. Even a little of Torah's illumination has the power to banish much of the obtuseness and materialism that encroach to such an extent on every worthy realm of our lives.

For many years he was recognized as the standard bearer of the yeshiva world in Eretz Yisroel in particular and throughout the world. He was seen as a guide and mentor in how to approach learning.

One of the fundamental lessons that he transmitted to the yeshiva world, and one whose importance he repeatedly stressed, was the need to gain fluency in Shas through learning large amounts of gemora with the merest beginning of depth. This involves learning with enough depth to ensure a proper understanding of the discussion but without losing the momentum of fast-paced study. This method was adopted in many botei medrash.

Many talmidei chachomim developed following the principles that he laid down, as he received them from his own teachers, the gedolei Torah of past generations.

His distress and concern in recent years was deep over the attempts by all sides of the secular political spectrum to topple the foundations that support the yeshiva world and to breach the walls that earlier gedolei Yisroel erected for its protection, with their plans to limit the number of yeshivos. As he wrote in a letter though, "They say, `lest they multiply' and Hakodosh Boruch Hu says, `They shall multiply!' "

A Loving Father

HaRav Shmuel Berenbaum says that while geonim in Torah of the Rosh Yeshiva's stature could be found, if not in our own generation then in the preceding one, such greatness of character has not been seen for many generations. The love and warmth that he radiated to all who approached him were an expression of his nobility of character and the greatness of his soul.

Whenever he heard of someone else's troubles tears would fall from his eyes, as though it was happening to him. His talmidim responded in turn, returning the love he bore them. They all felt him to be their father, in the fullest sense of the word. The love of his talmidim and their closeness to him found expression in their great concern for his welfare and health. In the last three-and-a-half years, throughout his illness, his thousands of talmidim, belonging to several generations, prayed without respite for his recovery.

Recently, as he lay suffering and overcome by debilitating weakness, his lips continually murmured words of Torah. When he was hospitalized in the Asaf Harofeh Hospital near Be'er Yaakov, he murmured divrei Torah for three hours. His daughter said to him, "Father, what are you saying?"

He replied, "Mir halten yetzt in Bava Basra. (Right now I'm holding in Bava Basra.)"

He leaves a distinguished family of sons and grandsons who are accomplished Torah scholars and disseminators.

HaRav Eliashiv added in his own handwriting the appellation, "Crowning Glory of the Roshei Hayeshivos," to Rav Moshe Shmuel. The yeshiva world indeed saw him not merely as a rosh yeshiva but as their leader and as the crown of their world.

This pillar of Torah, of kindness and of fear of Heaven departed this world on leil Shabbos kodesh, Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5766, leaving behind a gaping void in the Torah world.


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