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11 Tishrei 5766 - October 15, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Kelm And Mir — A Single Approach to Torah Excellence and Mussar Training, As Demonstrated by a Loyal And Devoted Talmid, the Gaon and Tzaddik HaRav Shmuel Halevi Shechter Zt'l

by Rabbi Dov Eliach

Part Two

First Be A Man

In his typically fascinating and impressive manner, HaRav Shechter zt'l, provided instruction about the fundamentals of Kelm mussar although as he put it, he was giving us, "the merest touch, the smallest amount, while balancing on one foot."

Rav Shechter: I made note of three main principles of Kelm mussar. Though there are more, I tried to place them in [broad] categories.

The first one, which is the starting point of everything, is: "First be a man." People understand the prayer [said following the morning blessings], Le'olom yehei odom yerei Shomayim, as meaning, "A person should always fear Heaven." But in Kelm they put a stop after the first three words, so that it means, "Always," or "first, be a man." Then they would start again and say, "A person should always fear Heaven."

The meaning of this is very straightforward. Rabbi Akiva said, "Man is precious because he was created in Hashem's image. As an extra token of endearment he was informed of this . . . Yisroel are precious because they are called Hashem's sons. As an extra token of endearment they were informed that they are called Hashem's sons" (Ovos 3:14).

Creation in Hashem's image refers to man's ability to think. "And man's advantage over animals is naught" — that exist without thinking, then — "for all is vanity" (Koheles 3:19). But with the ability to think, man is in Hashem's image. This is a separate advantage, distinct from that of Yisroel's being "precious because they are called Hashem's sons."

The common understanding of this is that on the level of "Yisroel are precious" there is no need for [developing] the [lower] level of "in Hashem's image" but this is untrue. Even a person who learns Torah and merits a connection to the level of "Yisroel are precious," still needs to relate to the fundamentals. In our context the fundamental level is "Derech eretz kodmoh laTorah — (Correct behavior precedes Torah)."

In what sense does correct behavior precede Torah?

In Kelm they viewed it as the foundation upon which the entire edifice [of a person's character] is erected. A foundation of derech eretz is something that Torah can be built on. If there is no derech eretz there can be no Torah. It's evident that this is what Chazal meant when they said, "If there's no derech eretz, there's no Torah (Ovos 3:17)."

Man's preciousness in being created in Hashem's image obliges him to refrain from acting on impulse, without forethought. The basis of this idea comes from Rav Yisroel [Salanter, zt'l]. "A man in his glory who does not understand" — what is he? — "[he] is comparable to animals and is like them (Tehillim 49:21). This was a basic and straightforward idea in Kelm. "A man in his glory" refers to his being a thinker, to having the ability to think. All the instruction about derech eretz kodmoh laTorah hinges on this ability.

But we're not talking about what the gentiles consider derech eretz [i.e. good manners]. Their code of derech eretz is based on the seven mitzvos of bnei Noach. Our derech eretz, which precedes Torah, is based on six hundred and thirteen mitzvos.

This approach points us in the direction of character refinement that results from reflection. In Kelm this [work] was part and parcel of the daily regimen, relating to the command to, "go in His ways" (Devorim 10:12, 11:22, 26:17).

What's more — I'll tell you briefly — in Kelm things were arranged on the basis of the assumption that it is impossible to engage in correcting all of ones' traits at the same time. They therefore proposed that one select a single central characteristic and pursue perfection in that area in particular. It might be the trait of deliberation — "Do not act rashly" (Orchos Chaim). Or it might be the trait of orderliness — being orderly in one's actions, speech and general affairs. Attaining perfection in a single trait would then lead to all round correction of character. Or, for example, one might choose the trait of acknowledging the truth, in which Reb Nochum Velvel [Ziv zt'l, the Alter's son] excelled, meriting perfection in all his other traits through that one.

Mussar Scholarship

The second fundamental [of Kelm] is: "Torah study is equal to all others." It is commonly thought that in Kelm they were absorbed in mussar and, while they might have learned Torah as well, mussar was their main occupation. It's not true! There were two learning sedorim in Kelm, one from eight-thirty until one- thirty and the second from three until nine, during which they learned gemora and poskim.

The big difference between Kelm and other yeshivos was that elsewhere they learned mussar for half an hour a day and in Kelm they learned mussar for an hour a day — but no more. They were busy learning Shas all day, following a certain plan, as was done in all the yeshivos.

When the Mashgiach [Reb Yeruchom] learned in Kelm, do you know who his chavrusa was? The gaon Rav Naftoli Trop zt'l! For ten years! And it was in Kelm that Reb Naftoli developed into a great rosh yeshiva.

Even though the Alter was the principal source of instruction, or [later] Reb Hirsch or Reb Nochum Velvel, the pattern of thought was one that could be applied to both Torah and mussar. It was one and the same approach. "Torah study is equal to all others," refers to Torah scholarship. The novelty of Kelm was scholarship in mussar as well.

Before the time of the Alter, and Reb Yisroel before him, people thought that mussar study was suited to the way householders learn. Any ordinary householder can open Ein Yaakov and learn Chazal's mussar teachings — that was what they thought. Then Reb Yisroel came along and showed that there is scholarship in Chazal's non-halachic teachings as well. Scholarly insight is as necessary for understanding the statement, "Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua" (Ovos 1:1), as it is for understanding the law of the "ox that gored a cow" (Bava Kama 46). It's needed for Pirkei Ovos and for every statement of Chazal's, for this is the method of study that leads to the truth!

That is what the Alter passed on to his talmidim who went on to become mashgichim in the yeshivos. That's why, when people heard the Mashgiach [Reb Yeruchom] it seemed as though they were hearing Reb Chaim Brisker.

I know Mirrer talmidim who developed into scholars and were later appointed as maggidei shiur in yeshivos gedolos in America, who told me explicitly that they received their profundity from the Mashgiach's shmuessen.

Do you understand? They acquired the scholarly skills for studying Shor shenogach es haporoh from the Mashgiach's discussions. I also know this and feel it to be the case.

In Old Age He Will Not Veer from It — From Self-Training

The third fundamental that I made note of is the idea: "Yisroel is a youth and I love him" (Hoshea 11:1). This is the foundation of [successful education], "Train the lad according to his way; even when he grows old he will not veer from it" (Mishlei 22:6). This posuk is usually explained to mean, give him a powerful enough education when he's young, whose effects won't leave him even when he's old. This is correct as well. In Kelm, though, they said, based on a principle of Reb Yisroel's, that the words, "even when he's old he won't veer from it," refer [not to his early education but] to the actual pursuit of training. In other words, ensure that he'll be involved in training himself throughout life. See that he retains [the qualities of] youth even in old age and that he never ceases adding to his knowledge and working on himself.

"And he equipped his disciples," ( Bereishis 14:14). Chazal say that this refers to Avrohom's servant Eliezer, who was already a mature adult who "drew upon his master's teachings and disseminated them to others" (Rashi, ibid. 15:2). Yet the posuk calls him a disciple. He was still occupied with self-correction and training.

This is the meaning of the posuk [in Hoshea], "for Yisroel is a youth and I love him." Don't grow old [and fixed in your ways]! When a person grows old he sustains himself solely from what he studied in his youth. Now his day has passed [and he no longer renews himself].

This posuk shows us how Klal Yisroel surpasses the other nations. Even in old age they continue learning and improving themselves like youths. This is what we saw in Kelm — freshness and the embodiment of [the posuk's words], "They will still give produce in old age; they will be lush and fresh" ( Tehillim 92:15).

This is how I explain the closing words of the Rosh's Orchos Chaim, "Do not become used to standing still, unless it's in the presence of a scholar and pay attention and listen to his words." A person's main task in this world is to spend his life in cheder learning.

Did You Set Fixed Times for Torah — With Your Family?

This is related to the theme of "treating one's fellow man like royalty." Just as man was created to carry the yoke of Hashem's rule, he must also bear the burden of other people. This is the source of the obligation to share the burdens of one's fellow men. In Kelm they would mention a statement of Chazal's in this connection: "Did you treat your fellow man royally, just as you crowned your Creator?"

By the way, when I wanted to put this statement into my sefer I couldn't find a source for it until I visited Rav Chaim [Kanievsky], from whom literally no part of Torah escapes, and he immediately showed me it in the medrash maseches Chibut Hakever, perek 4.

Have you ever noticed the existence of such a masechteh in your life? But Reb Chaim showed it to me, as well as the Reishis Chochmoh, who quotes the statement in Shaar Hayir'oh, perek 12.

Self-control was something else that was considered fundamental in Kelm. This was close in meaning to the Ibn Ezra's comment on the posuk, "For the nezer (the coronet) of his G-d is upon his head" (Bamidbor 6:7). A person who can control himself is like a king, for the posuk uses the word nezer, denoting a crown. Only once a person can control himself and his desires can he also control others.

To end with, I would like to quote from my sefer on the Orchos Chaim LehoRosh from a letter that Rav Doniel Mowshovitz wrote to me from Kelm. The Rosh writes (in section 44), "Set fixed times for [divrei] Torah before eating and drinking, and discuss them at your table. Admonish the members of your household, guiding them according to the Torah in all matters that require warning etc."

Here is what he wrote to me in his letter. "He [the Rosh] seems to understand that setting fixed times relates to training and teaching one's family and others [not, as is usually understood, to one's own study] as the posuk says, `And you shall teach them to your sons and discuss them when you sit in your house . . .' (Devorim 6:7). `In your house,' doesn't refer to the house of sticks and stones that you've bought or that you rent. It refers principally to the family circle . . . I have also seen gedolim who constantly spoke about emunoh and bitochon at their tables, about [the traits of] alacrity and tranquility and about love of Torah and mitzvos [in order] to banish the prattle and speech about the mores [and] vanities of this world and to instill love of Olom Habo."

He means that the question, "Did you set fixed times for Torah?" doesn't refer to the number of hours that one has spent learning oneself, but to what one's principal attachment was: to Torah or to other things.

I had the merit of receiving this letter after I came to America — I think that it was the last letter that left Kelm. I left Kelm straight after Simchas Torah 5701 (1940) and they were martyred on the fifth of Av that year. In the introduction to my sefer I record what we found out about how they were martyred, in holiness and purity. (This was published in Yated of parshas Nitzovim, 5761, in an article for HaRav Shechter's first yahrtzeit. The section was entitled, "The March to Slaughter through Kelm.")

Reb Doniel wrote me the letter in response to my having written to him telling him that we were establishing a kollel.

We indeed had the merit of opening the first kollel in America, which we eventually handed over to Reb Aharon [Kotler zt'l]. It was the Beis Hamedrash Govoha of White Plains and he later moved it from White Plains to Lakewood. Rav Nosson Wachtfogel and Rav Simchah Zissel Levovitz zt'l were there. Altogether there were close to fifteen avreichim there.

From Chochmah Umussar to Daas Torah

Rav Shechter brought the first part of our discussion — the highly instructive talk that he'd prepared in advance — to a close with these words. "So my friend, I've tried to briefly convey — and only briefly — a little from the vast ocean of the Beis HaTalmud of Kelm for wisdom and mussar."

The "little" that I'd heard gave me some idea of the breadth and magnitude of the memories that must still remain undisclosed. I decided to move from a monologue to a dialogue, in an attempt to steer our conversation towards further revelations.

YN: You mentioned the daytime timetable in Kelm. What used to happen in the evenings?

Rav Shechter: The second seder continued until nine o'clock, then mussar was studied until ten. Then we davened ma'ariv and went to eat the evening meal. Whoever wanted to go back to learn after that could do so but all in all, in Kelm they were particular about going to sleep on time.

YN: In other words, the second seder lasted from three in the afternoon until ten at night, without a break?

Rav Shechter: Yes, yes, without interruption. In Kelm they learned Rabbenu Yonah's Shaarei Teshuvoh, Mesillas Yeshorim and Chovos Halevovos. Another thing they had there were the collections of the Alter's talks entitled, Chochmah Umussar, single articles from which were given to individuals — not the entire sefer because it hadn't yet been published [in book form], just individual articles. A person would be given one article and when he finished, he'd be given another.

I was fortunate in something Reb Doniel said to me. He told his brother-in-law Reb Gershon, who was the menahel, that since it was wartime they ought to give me all the shmuessen to bring to America, even though we had no idea then of what would happen. Boruch Hashem, I published all the essays in the two volumes of Chochmah Umussar.

(Rav Shechter thus saved the priceless treasure of the Alter's shmuessen from oblivion. He also had a hand in the publication of the series of volumes of Daas Torah from the Mirrer mashgiach Reb Yeruchom, which were published by the latter's son Reb Simchah Zissel Levovitz incorporating Rav Shechter's notes.)

Reb Simchah Zissel arranged the material in the following way. The material that we learned in the shiurim [on Chumash] was not enough [by itself] to make up a lengthy sefer so he divided [the material that he had on] each parsha into two sections. One was biurim, explanations, which was what we learned in the Chumash shiur. The second section contained points [on the parsha] from shmuessen that he'd delivered during the year; this part was called maamorim, talks.

Another point — the Mashgiach would always leave the yeshiva during Tammuz and travel to Marienbad, on doctors' instructions. He would stay there until Elul. We therefore wouldn't learn with him from parshas Pinchas to parshas Ki Seitzei, so Reb Simchah Zissel only put out maamorim on those parshiyos. The section on Chumash Devorim nevertheless still fills two volumes.

Chumash Devorim is indeed the greatest mussar work in the world — die grester mussar sefer. So we learned in Kelm and it's really self-evident. There are awe- inspiring lessons in each and every parsha.

I was friendly with the Mashgiach's son, Reb Simchah Zissel. When we used to meet in America I would tell him some new insight of mine and he'd remark, "What do you say? Father says that! Father says that!"

The first time [it happened] I kept quiet. The second time he said the same thing to me again. The third time I told him, "Listen! Your father said it but now I'm saying it as something of my own. I don't want to delay the Redemption [promised in the gemora (Megilloh 15) for attributing sources] but since I don't remember and on the other hand it's become my own — as the posuk says, "For Hashem's Torah is his sole desire and he dwells on his Torah day and night" (Tehillim 1:2). Chazal say that to begin with it's Hashem's Torah but afterwards it becomes his Torah, in other words it's eigene, it's his own, his very own."

We Had a Teacher!

Through Heaven's kindness, boruch Hashem, we had good fortune. People speak about seeing a teacher. Rav Yisroel Salanter would say, "The chassidim think that they have a teacher; the misnagdim think that they don't need a teacher. And they're both wrong!" In Mir I was fortunate enough to see what a teacher is! And what's more, it was in a yeshiva of great men!

YN: Was it at all possible to establish a personal bond with the Mashgiach?

Rav Shechter: Sure, sure!

YN: Even though there were five hundred talmidim in Mir?

Rav Shechter: Yes, and what's more, the bond was still very strong even though he only spoke to you once a year. There's another reason why the bond was so powerful. The Mashgiach usually spoke in the yeshiva three times a week, on Friday night after kabolas Shabbos, in the yeshiva, or at home when he caught cold, as he was very sensitive to colds. That was one shmuess, lasting for a minimum of an hour-and-a-half.

He spoke again on Shabbos after seudah Shelishis, because in those parts during the summer there was at least an hour-and-a-half between sunset and nightfall and [though twilight was shorter] in winter the arrangement stayed the same.

The third shmuess was on Wednesdays. Each shmuess lasted for at least an hour-and-a-half, multiplied by three and you get to five hours!

In addition, he would teach us [the overseas students] Chumash on Friday nights after the meal — even on the short summer nights — for a minimum of two hours and sometimes for longer, and again on motzei Shabbos and again in the middle of the week. In other words, we would listen to the Mashgiach teaching Chumash for a minimum of six hours a week, besides the shmuessen.

That's why we were so close to him. It was no casual relationship but like father and son, a real, genuine mentor. We knew what a teacher really is. We would approach him with every problem that we had, small or great and he would solve it.

End of Part II

Full Circle

The gaon and tzaddik Rav Shmuel Shechter zt'l managed to escape from vale of slaughter in Eastern Europe together with other subjects of the British crown, which ruled over Canada, the country of his nationality. The British government paid for their passage on the Trans-Siberian express and thus transferred them to the eastern edge of Soviet Russia, from where they continued to Australia and onwards. The main points of the story appeared in the interview that we published with Rav Menachem Manes Moore zt'l, of Gateshead, who was with Rav Shechter on the journey.

They boarded the train in Kovno, capital of Lithuania, on Shabbos. Rav Shmuel Shechter related:

"The Kovner Rov, author of the Dvar Avrohom, was the godol hador of the time after Reb Chaim Ozer and we went to ask him about traveling on Shabbos. He answered us with a question: "A shaila fregt ihr? (You're asking questions?)" He was amazed that we'd come to ask about such an obvious question that related to danger to life. Then he gave us his blessing and also came to accompany us when we left.

"We spent several months in Australia and one of the things that we did was assist our friend Rav Chaim Dov Silver to open a cheder. Our journey to Australia was paid for entirely by the British, while our passage from Australia to America was paid for by the Australian Committee of Reform Jews, which presided over all the Jews there. Listen carefully to understand why this was.

"When they saw us when we first arrived, they thought we were collecting money, like others who'd been there. But when they saw us speaking English they began to worry that we might settle there and that we might cause them `problems.' They therefore offered us some `good advice.' `You can't stay here because there's nowhere for you to learn. Go to America and we'll pay for your trip.'

"And they indeed paid for all our traveling expenses from Brisbane, Australia to New York. That was Hashgochoh at work, my friend! They didn't want too much Yiddishkeit in Australia and we gained our passage to America, where we started a new era in building and disseminating Torah. Since then, faithful Orthodox communities have been founded in Australia too."

Rav Shechter and his friends made history in America when they opened the first Beis Hamedrash Govoha LaTorah — a kollel in White Plains, New York — for the avreichim and bochurim who had escaped from Europe. When Rav Aharon Kotler arrived in America they put the kollel into his hands and he transferred it to Lakewood, making it the nucleus of his yeshiva gedolah.

Several years later, after the war had ended, Rav Shmuel returned to Europe, this time at Reb Aharon's behest, on behalf of the Vaad Hatzalah which was run by the gedolei Yisroel in New York under the protection of the American armed forces. Reb Aharon wanted the group that went to Europe to engage in rescue and relief to include a ben Torah of stature, and he chose Rav Shmuel as his emissary.

This period demanded particular dedication and sacrifice. Rav Shmuel was alone and far from his family, involved in intensive rescue and rehabilitation work among the survivors, principally in Frankfurt, Germany. What did he do in order to preserve his mussar spirit and to keep the embers of Kelm glowing within him?

"That year, 5706 (1946), I would travel once a month to Gateshead, England for Shabbos, where I was the guest of Reb Elya Leizer Dessler zt'l. We were very close to the family from our days in Kelm. Moreover, when we had traveled to Kelm, Rav Dessler's wife and daughter were there, visiting their family. When the war broke out and travel became impossible they remained there, and they joined us on our journey to Australia where they stayed until the war ended. It was simply impossible to get to England then because of the state of emergency. One could only reach America, which had not yet joined the war.

"I was together with Reb Elya Leizer again in 5707 (1947) when we traveled together from England when he went to serve in Yeshivas Ponovezh in Bnei Brak. At that time the Ponovezher Rov wanted to put me in charge of the preparatory school and the yeshiva ketanah in Botei Ovos but as Hashgochoh had it, it didn't work out because my wife wasn't willing to come to Eretz Yisroel while there was a state of war there.

"I went in to the Chazon Ish and asked him how much pressure I was allowed to put on her to make her agree to come. He told me, "Chas vesholom, no pressure, because everything that will go wrong she'll tell you, `Nu, I told you . . . there's no milk, other things are unavailable.' "

"I was left without any leverage and seeing that I was very despondent as a result, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, `You'll yet come to Eretz Yisroel, don't worry!'

"That was in 5708, when there was a war going on here and my wife therefore refused to come. Boruch Hashem, we did merit coming later, with our family as well. I have two sons and two daughters in Eretz Yisroel and two daughters in New York. All of them have families of bnei Torah, and are occupied with Torah, through Heaven's kindness and in their ancestors merit," Rav Shechter concluded with satisfaction.

"Correct Behavior Precedes Torah" and the Consequent Stringency of Mitzvos that the Intellect Endorses

Rav Shechter conveyed to us one of the most prominent and fundamental ideas in the edifice of Kelm thought.

In all the yeshivos they would say Orchos Chaim Lehorosh after prayer during Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvoh. This was also taken from Kelm, but in Kelm itself they said it all year round. Every day following prayers the shaliach tzibbur would remain in his place and continue with [reading out] the Orchos Chaim.

On Wednesdays for example he would make the sound for a new sentence — Ssst! — and would begin [at the set place for that day] in a loud voice, with a particular chant, and was followed by the congregation [reading it after him]. Each week they would complete all one hundred-and- thirty-one paragraphs of the Orchos Chaim.

In his commentary to the Orchos Chaim, Rav Shechter points to an important principle which he read out to me. He told me that gedolei Yisroel have agreed with him that this forms the correct introduction to the sefer's contents. The idea is connected to the Kelmer principle concerning Derech eretz kodmoh laTorah (Correct behavior precedes Torah).

"There are several pieces [in the sefer] where even though the [proscribed] action is clearly forbidden by halochoh, the Rosh nevertheless warns against it on the grounds of the human mind's realization that it's wrong. [This is] akin to [Chazal's statement], `Something dangerous is more stringent than something [that is just] forbidden by halochoh.' This is the great principle: Something that the mind determines to be correct is included in derech eretz. Chazal said, Derech eretz kodmoh laTorah, meaning that the Torah [i.e. the dictates] of correct behavior take precedence; this is because of the stringency of an obligation that is dictated by the intellect."


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