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14 Adar 5775 - March 5, 2015 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Sparks of Greatness
HaGaon Rabbi Refoel Shapira, zt"l Rosh Yeshivas Volozhin

In honor of his yahrtzeit, 23 Adar 5681

The rising sun and brightening sky exuded a warm calm air over Volozhin. But the morning's tranquility was only a delusion, belying what was to come.

A loud whooshing sound, followed by a deafening bang, broke the stillness all at once. Chaos reigned as all the townspeople alternated between running for shelter and swarming to the source of the sound to check it out.

What had exploded? Who had shot?

The time was long before explosives were common, even in warfare. Most people in Volozhin had never heard a noise such as that, and the reality was frightening.

It wasn't long before someone realized that the explosion had taken place close to the Beis Medrash.

Bursting in to assure that no damage had been done to the shul, he stopped short. Standing still in his corner, a look of intense concentration on his face, stood Rabbi Refoel. The words of the Shemoneh Esrei continued to pour from his lips, or rather from his heart.

The intruder could only stand open-mouthed and gape. Reb Refoel had not heard the earsplitting noise, nor the confusion that had followed it, so absorbed had he been in his own tefilloh.


An elderly rov, one of the most distinguished of the generation, decided it was time to start preparing for his ultimate journey to the World to Come.

In preparation for his "farher" in Heaven, he would learn one masechta so thoroughly so as to know it backwards and forwards.

Having learned his chosen masechta well, the rov tested himself and found that he still was not totally fluent.

Disappointment and self-doubt began to assail him. Perhaps he had grown too old and his memory was failing him.

Deeply troubled, he set out to Volozhin to the Rosh Yeshiva Reb Refoel. When he had finished describing his problem and anxiety he looked hopefully at Reb Refoel, anticipating a solution or at least a comforting answer.

Instead, a smile played about Rabbi Refoel's lips. A smile?

"How many times did you review the masechta," asked the Rosh Yeshiva.

Fifteen times!

Again a smile.

"When I learn," explained Reb Refoel, "after fifteen times I consider myself as having learned. After that begins the reviewing. Accordingly, the respected Rov has only learned the masechta. You have not yet begun to go over the material."


The Brisker Rov zt"l, a grandson of Reb Refoel, related:

After my chasunah I fixed my seder halimud to learn maseches Bovo Basra and in mishnayos maseches Terumos. The procedure went as follows: For most of the day I delved into Bovo Basra. When, from sheer intensity of my concentration I felt my head was going to burst, I stopped and began learning Terumos, until the depth of my own learning threatened to overtake me. At this point I would return to Bovo Basra.

When I finished learning the entire masechta Terumos, I met my grandfather and began talking to him about this sugya.

To my amazement, my grandfather, who had learned this masechta thirty years previously, began revealing to me chiddushim in the smallest details and profound depths of the masechta.

"Only then did I understand what it means to know masechta Terumos really well."


Another incident took place when the Brisker Rov was about six years old.

The excitement in the home was palpable. The grandfather, Rabbi Refoel, was coming to Brisk for a visit. This was a rare occasion and a special treat for everyone knew that Zeidy had no time to spare, being busy teaching Torah all day.

Everyone wanted to go to the train station to welcome the holy grandfather, including the six-year-old Velvel.

However Reb Chaim, son-in-law of Reb Refoel, put down the conditions: If Zeidy is arriving with the 12:00 train, then you may come to welcome him. However, if we find out that the train is only coming at 2:00 am, then you'll have to stay behind. A boy your age has to be asleep by then.

Then he added. And when the Zeidy arrives at our home, we'll wake you.

"Our inquiries showed that Reb Refoel would be on the later train, so I went to sleep.

"Upon his arrival, my father, Reb Chaim gently woke me.

"Come Velvele," he called. "Come and say Shalom Aleichem to the Zeidy, and tell him what you learned today."

"I got up and, for the next long hour, I poured out to my grandfather — then and there in the middle of the night — the chiddushei Torah that I had learned during the day."

While he was speaking, Reb Refoel asked for a gemora to be brought to him so that he could see the text inside. With a wave of his hand, Reb Chaim replied that that would not be necessary. "I know my son and rely on him. If he quotes from the gemora, it's correct word for word."

Concluded the Brisker Rov: "That was what was demanded of a six-year-old boy: that when he is aroused from his sleep during the night to greet his grandfather, he should be prepared to repeat the chiddushei Torah he had learned. This is the true meaning of learning Torah day and night."


Reb Refoel was known to be a man of few words. Once, he remarked of himself: The world thinks that I do not speak for I do not know how to speak. But the truth is that I do know how to speak. But I know too, how to remain silent, and that is why I stay quiet.


His love of Torah and its learners was boundless.

When a match was suggested for his daughter, the outstanding bochur Chaim (later to become Reb Chaim Brisker - the Grach), Rabbeinu borrowed large sums of money to enable his son-in-law to sit and learn without any financial worries.

However, immediately after his chasunah, Reb Chaim became aware of this fact — that the money given to him came from loans that his father-in-law would have to work hard to return — he went and used the money to pay off all the debts of his father-in-law.

Reb Refoel was duly upset. The whole purpose had been so that Reb Chaim could learn Torah undistracted and undisturbed. Where would he find parnossoh now?

However, Reb Chaim placated his father-in-law. When I was in possession of so much money I had no idea what to do with it. How can I learn if I have so much money? Should I invest it perhaps in a business? But when "one who increases wealth increases worries." This being the case, I'm far better off and a lot calmer and undisturbed when I have no money!


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