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27 Adar, 5781 - March 11, 2021 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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A Firsthand Account of the Chofetz Chaim's Final Years

By A. Ben Yizhar


Part II

First published 25 years ago in 1996, this is an interview with Rabbi Shlomo Epstein, chairman of the Chevra Kadisha in Kfar Chassidim and an alumnus of the Chofetz Chaim's yeshiva in Radin. Reb Shlomo knew many of the gedolim of prewar Europe, among them HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt'l, HaRav Shimon Shkop zt'l, and HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l, in whose home he was a frequent visitor. Reb Shlomo's notebooks were the source of some of the printed shiurim of HaRav Naftali Tropp zt'l, who taught in the Radin yeshiva. This conversation was devoted to Reb Shlomo's recollections of the Chofetz Chaim.

Since the Chofetz Chaim was niftar in 1933, now 88 years ago, recollections like these will probably not be composed now or in the future. These are firsthand memories of someone who lived through those bygone times.

What Is This World?

There was one experience I had involving the Chofetz Chaim — its memory has never left me — which had to do with the allowance which I mentioned earlier. It took place on the night following motzei Yom Kippur. A friend and I were about to go to the yeshiva's secretary to ask for our allowance for that zman. Just then, the Chofetz Chaim called for bochurim to come in over his house for ma'ariv.

My friend and I were the first ones to enter his room and we beheld a sight: the aged Chofetz Chaim was sitting next to a table, wrapped up in his thoughts. By his side sat his talmid HaRav Elchonon Wassermann Hy'd, bent over and straining to catch every syllable his teacher uttered.

Suddenly, without any preparation, the Chofetz Chaim began to speak slowly, as he usually did. He repeated the account at the end of the ninth perek of Bava Metzia, when Raba bar Avuha met Eliyahu Hanovi in a gentile graveyard and asked him how he had entered and was he not a Cohen and so on. The gemora relates that Raba bar Avuha mentioned that he was poor. Eliyahu Hanovi took him and brought him into Gan Eden. He told him to remove his outer garment and to take some of the leaves that were there. Raba bar Avuha took some but as he was leaving he heard a voice saying, `Who else wants to consume his spiritual reward, like Raba bar Avuha does?' Upon hearing this, he immediately shook off his garment and cast the leaves back into Gan Eden. The gemora relates that nonetheless, some of the leaves' fragrance remained clinging to his clothes and he sold them for twelve thousand dinarim, dividing the money among his sons-in-law.

The Chofetz Chaim told the story slowly and deliberately, taking about half an hour over it. As we listened to his narration, we experienced a tremendous feeling of distaste and condescension towards all aspects of olam hazeh. So deeply did the awareness that taking handouts in this world results in a diminished spiritual portion in the next impress itself upon us, that in the end my friend and I did not go to get the allowance for that zman!

To this day, that image has never left me. I still carry around the recollection of the Chofetz Chaim's narration as clearly as if I had just heard it — as though the Chofetz Chaim was sitting in front of me, with Reb Elchonon at his side, recounting the story softly and slowly.

Recently discovered news film taken of the Chofetz Chaim arriving at the first Knessia Gedolah in Vienna in 1923

Weak in Body, Strong in Spirit

Despite the Chofetz Chaim's advanced age during the time Reb Shlomo was learning in Radin and the fact that he was no longer able to take as active a part in public affairs as he had once done, he was aware of everything that transpired in the Jewish world. His greatness of spirit made him concerned over Klal Yisroel all the time, assisting, as far as he was able, in the implementation of any corrections and the prevention of any breaches. There were times when we were amazed by the power of the spirit of such an old man, who was barely able to get around on his own feet.

Reb Shlomo Epstein has his own recollections of the Chofetz Chaim's well-known journey to the Polish Prime Minister Bartel, in 5680 (1920), in an attempt to effect the cancellation of a governmental edict to introduce the study of the Polish language and other secular subjects into Jewish educational institutions. In the course of the famous forty-five minute meeting, the Chofetz Chaim recalled seeing a group of Polish prisoners being taken through Radin sixty-four years earlier. They had been in chains and were being led by the Russian Czar's Cossacks and policemen, who beat them and exiled them to Siberia. `I gave them my blessing that they should swiftly gain their freedom,' remarked the Chofetz Chaim. `Do you want me to revoke my blessing?'

This forceful message had the desired effect and the Prime Minister immediately undertook to have the edict revoked. He fulfilled his promise. Reb Shlomo notes that when it was suggested to Bartel that the Chofetz Chaim's speech be translated for him from Yiddish into Polish his response was, `The sage spoke from his heart and that is a language which is understood by all.'

He Wanted to Go Up to Eretz Yisroel

Neither had the Chofetz Chaim's lifelong desire to go up and settle in Eretz Yisroel left him, even at the end of his life, the period when I learned in the yeshiva. Once, the Chofetz Chaim again expressed his wish to ascend to Eretz Yisroel to one of his associates.

The man responded, `Does the Rav not remember what happened to the rebbetzin when you wanted to be oleh to Eretz Yisroel?' (A number of years earlier, the Chofetz Chaim had been about to depart for Eretz Yisroel when his wife had fallen very ill and the trip had been postponed.)

Upon hearing this, the Chofetz Chaim trembled and said to the man, `I will never forgive you for that!' The man's comment had implied that the Chofetz Chaim's wish to go to Eretz Yisroel had somehow been instrumental in causing the rebbetzin to take ill.

The Chofetz Chaim's Kollel Kodshim no longer existed when Reb Shlomo came to Radin. However, the Chofetz Chaim still encouraged bochurim to study this area of Torah.

I remember that before one Nisan recess, the Chofetz Chaim instructed every bochur to learn one perek of Kodshim during bein hazmanim. `Moshiach will be arriving very soon,' he told us. `Won't you know the laws of Kodshim?'

To this day I remember with what application I learned that perek!

Life Viewed Through Torah

The Chofetz Chaim's life was filled with Torah and only Torah. I remember that once, towards the end of his life, his close talmid HaRav Shmuel Greineman zt'l, came from America to visit him. It seemed that the Chofetz Chaim did not remember him well for he had no more than a quiet greeting for him.

The Torah was read the following morning and Reb Shmuel, who had read for the Chofetz Chaim in earlier years, read also then. In the middle of the reading, the Chofetz Chaim's face suddenly lit up and he eagerly went over to Reb Shmuel, squeezing his hand warmly and saying, `Reb Shmuel, Reb Shmuel, sholom aleichem, sholom aleichem, what's news?'

We were astounded to see how the only memories which roused the Chofetz Chaim's recollection of his talmid were those of his Torah reading. Torah and the Torah reading were all he had retained from bygone years and only through them had he identified and remembered his talmid!

The Chofetz Chaim insisted that the bochurim go to sleep at a reasonable hour. He saw to it that the lamps in the beis hamedrash would be dimmed so that the bochurim would have no choice but to go to sleep and would thus be able to get up the next morning for tefillah and be in time for krias Shema. During the period that some of the bochurim slept in his home, the Chofetz Chaim would ask the members of his household to be quiet so that the bochurim above would be able to sleep peacefully and rise in time for tefillah.

The Family of his Later Years

At the end of our conversation, Reb Shlomo told me an interesting anecdote, of which he may be the sole source today. Around two years after the Chofetz Chaim's first wife o'h, passed away, a second match was proposed to him, with the woman he eventually married. Reb Shlomo heard from the rebbetzin herself how the match came about.

"A match with the Chofetz Chaim was suggested to me," the rebbetzin related, "after I had lost my husband, who had been the rav in Bialystok. The Chofetz Chaim was then around seventy, while I was only thirty-five. When I heard the suggestion, I was in no hurry to agree to it, for it seemed to be unrealistic and impossible, despite the fact that he was the Chofetz Chaim. However, I agreed to a meeting.

"It took place in a small tavern at the station between Bialystok and Radin, from where wagons left for Radin. When the Chofetz Chaim arrived, he sat down and said [in Yiddish], `Dear lady, I have nothing to promise you. There is just one thing that I can promise you — that whatever a Jewish woman receives, you will also receive.'

"The simplicity with which his words were uttered and his shining countenance influenced me to the point where I agreed to the tremendous match — then and there."

As Reb Shlomo conjures up a living picture of how the Chofetz Chaim's home looked, he notes something interesting. He points to the well known photograph in which the Chofetz Chaim is sitting at the entrance of his home with his son Reb Leib, who had come to visit him, while the rebbetzin stands behind him.

Here on the left was the living room, if such it could be called. Further inside was the bedroom and here, to the right of the entrance to the house, was the rebbetzin's corner. The Chofetz Chaim bought her newer furniture for her corner than he did for the other parts of the house. The rebbetzin survived the Chofetz Chaim by many years and she passed away in America, as did Reb Aharon, the son she bore the Chofetz Chaim.

Business card of the Chofetz Chaim's youngest son

I remember that when I came to learn in the yeshiva, I was told that the Chofetz Chaim would take his little son Ahare'le in his arms and ask him, `Ahare'le, Ahare'le, when you grow up will you also go essen teg in the homes of baalei batim?' That was the story that went round the yeshiva.

The main surviving branch of the Chofetz Chaim's family is the one which stems from his daughter Feige, whom his second wife bore him in his old age. Feige married HaRav Menachem Mendel Zacks zt'l who raised a fine family of distinguished roshei yeshiva and grandchildren, enabling the continuity of the generations to remain intact.

Taking Leave

"While I was learning in the yeshiva," continues Reb Shlomo, "the shiurim were delivered by HaRav Avrohom Tropp zt'l, son of HaRav Naftali Tropp, and his brother-in-law HaRav Boruch Yosef Feivelson zt'l, and of course, the Chofetz Chaim's son-in-law HaRav Mendel Zacks zt'l.

I arrived at the yeshiva after HaRav Naftali Tropp had passed away. When I made aliya to Eretz Yisroel, I decided that I could not possibly go to Eretz Yisroel without taking HaRav Tropp's shiurim with me. Before I left, some of the yeshiva's members who had heard his shiurim and made notes of them, volunteered to copy them for me. Each of the bochurim copied the shiurim on a different masechta. They were all bochurim upon whose writing HaRav Tropp had relied, for he didn't rely on everyone when it came to recording his shiurim! With these notebooks, I went to Eretz Yisroel.

"In Elul 5693," Reb Shlomo recounts sadly, as he draws to a conclusion, "the Chofetz Chaim grew very weak and his final days began. His death was slow. He remained at death's door for a whole week! On Thursday night, the twenty second of Elul, the night of Friday the twenty third of Elul, which was his last night, I waited at his bedside until three o'clock in the morning. As I was very tired, I went to my room in the apartment where I lodged. At five o'clock they came to tell me that the Chofetz Chaim had passed on to the next world. Explicit instructions arrived from Reb Chaim Ozer in Vilna that the levaya was to be postponed until Sunday. For the sake of the Torah's honor, people were to be allowed to gather to pay their master their last respects. Many thousands indeed converged upon Radin on the Sunday for the levaya, after which the Chofetz Chaim was buried in his own plot in Radin."

Recovering from these recollections, Reb Shlomo returns to the present. "Today people are different," he says, "and they seek something else in a godol. Today people are fascinated by the miracles and revelations which the gedolim perform. In chutz la'aretz, among the real Lithuanian Jews, there was no such fascination. These things were not what interested us. We weren't looking for wonders when we went to a great man. Of course, we knew that we were in the presence of the godol hador and a genuinely holy man. We took shelter under his all- encompassing greatness. We found refuge in his righteousness. But we weren't seeking miracles. Even when we heard about them, there was no fuss made. They weren't spoken about. They certainly weren't what kept us busy! The entire phenomenon of flocking after these things and becoming excited over wonder working, is a development confined to the present generation in Eretz Yisroel.

The Chofetz Chaim did not even allow discussion of the well known story of his encounter with the dybbuk. The truth is that throughout my stay in the yeshiva, I don't recall it being spoken about. Nobody besides Reb Elchonon knew the full story but the Chofetz Chaim did not allow it to be discussed.

Naturally, there were some who came to ask the Chofetz Chaim to bless them and then, his assistant Reb Leib (Broide z'l, from Petach Tikva) would go inside with them."

Reb Shlomo suddenly remembers one such occasion. "For example, a bochur who had received a conscription order once came to ask for a brocho that he should be released by the army. Instead of blessing him, the Chofetz Chaim started to teach him the things that were necessary for someone in the army to know. As though it had happened today, I remember how he left the Chofetz Chaim's presence crying and sobbing. He came over to me and told me himself what had happened. `In that case, I will certainly be conscripted,' he said. `There's no question about it.' And he was right.

"Of course, there were many other such cases, which gave the Chofetz Chaim a reputation for performing wonders by virtue of his greatness. But that wasn't what was important. In Lithuania, we weren't looking for such things and we didn't get excited over them. Today's generation is looking for that," Reb Shlomo concludes. "It's a different generation. It's a different age."

I departed from my companion with a new appreciation of the distance between his and our generation. It is a distance whose vastness cannot be understood or appreciated by someone who has not experienced it. Here is a man whose life has spanned three generations — a man who actually saw and heard the Chofetz Chaim!


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