Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Vilna Gaon, part 2 (Review of Eliyahu Stern, The Genius)

The Vilna Gaon, part 2 (Review of Eliyahu Stern, The Genius)
by Marc B. Shapiro

Continued from here.

Another reference by the Gaon to the Guide – in this case it is only attributed to him – is found in his comment to Bava Kamma 92b (commenting on (בירא דשתית מיניה לא תשדי בי קלא, which has been published in a number of different sources, most conveniently in the commentary Anaf Yosef to Ein YaakovBava Kamma 92b. The Gaon quoted the Guide as saying that if you find one good thing in a book you shouldn’t deride it for any other nonsense in it.[1]

This must refer to Maimonides’ comment in the Introduction to the Guide where he writes: “All into whose hands it [the Guide] fall should consider it well, and if it slakes his thirst, though it be only one point from among the many that are obscure, he should thank God and be content with what he has understood.”

When it comes to the Guide and the Vilna Gaon, there is also a reference in the Gaon’s commentary to Esther 1:18. Here are the pages from the Mossad ha-Rav Kook edition.

As R. Meir Mazuz pointed out,[2] the Gaon is referring to Guide 1:54. However, as you can see, the editor didn’t know this and thus didn’t provide the source.[3]

Here is another example where a learned editor did not know a source in the Guide. In R. Abraham Sofer’s edition of Meiri, Hibbur ha-Teshuvah, p. 170, the Meiri quotes Maimonides, and as you can see in note 4, Sofer comments, “I don’t know where.” Maimonides words are not in any of his halakhic writings, which is why Sofer didn’t know about them, but they do appear in Guide 3:8.

Returning to the Gaon and Maimonides, when it comes to sex the Gaon’s view parallels that of Maimonides in the Guide, although I don’t know if we can speak of influence. Maimonides famously spoke of the sense of touch as being a “disgrace to us.”[4] The Gaon actually had the same opinion in that he regarded sex as something to be loathed and a necessary evil. Only with regard to the spiritual elites did he see something intrinsically positive in it.[5]

שדברי העולם הזה בעצם מאוסים, כמו האכילה, שנוטל מאכל ועושה פרש ורעי וכן המשגל, אבל התכלית, מה שבא מזה הוא טוב, כמו תכלית האכילה שיהא חזק ללמוד תורה, ותכלית המשגל להיות בנים צדיקים וטובים, וזהו תכלית ופעולה. וז"ש בהצדיקים לא מיבעי שהתכלית מזה אצלם טוב, אלא אפילו הפעולה עצמה הוא לחיים, שהן מכוונין בזה ואכילתן כקרבן ממש. וכן בכל דבר.

Yet even when dealing with the righteous, one can only imagine how the Gaon would have reacted if he had seen the following text, from R. Solomon of Karlin, Shema Shelomo (Jerusalem, 1956), p. 96 (sippurim no. 59), in which we see how an unnamed hasidic figure said that he needed sex every day, a statement that shocked his bride to be.[6]


Here is another example where the Gaon’s has the same view as Maimonides in the GuideTamid 1:1 states: “The priests kept watch [throughout the night] at three places in the Temple.” Why? In the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Beit-ha-Behirah 8:1, Maimonides says that this is just a matter of showing respect to the Temple, since there is no fear that anything will be stolen. In his commentary to Tamid 1:1 (found in the Vilna ed.), the Gaon explains that the guards were there to prevent unauthorized entry. In Guide 3:45 Maimonides also offers this explanation (in addition to mentioning that the watch was for glory and honor).

Regarding Meiri’s Hibbur ha-Teshuvah, mentioned above, in Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox I mentioned the notes at the end of this volume by Louis Ginzberg, notes that have not yet been removed from newer printings. I neglected to mention this dedication to Ginzberg at the beginning of the volume.

As for Ginzberg’s notes at the end of Hibbur ha-Teshuvah, A reader sent me the following, which shows how Yeshivat Ner Israel’s beit midrash copy of the book is “decorated”.

Regarding Sofer’s edition of Hibbur ha-Teshuvah, there is one other important point I must mention. The volume first appeared in 1950 and was subsequently reprinted by Sofer, with no changes to the text of the Meiri or the pagination. This reprint is what appears in the multivolume Beit ha-Behirah that everyone purchases. However, this is unfortunate, because the 1950 edition is far superior. Here is the title page of the first edition, which was published by Yeshiva University.

This edition contains a lengthy and valuable introduction by R. Samuel Mirsky, which deals with various aspects of the Meiri. Furthermore, Mirsky included thirty pages of important notes, many of them textual, that are vital for anyone who studies the Hibbur ha-Teshuvah. (Mirsky also calls attention to the passage in Guide 3:8, which as I noted above, Sofer did not know about.[7]) Quite apart from the 1950 edition, in Talpiot 4 (5710), pp. 417ff., Mirsky published a number of chapters from Hibbur ha-Teshuvah and his notes often call attention to things not mentioned by Sofer. It would therefore be helpful if a new edition of Hibbur ha-Teshuvah was published and included the notes of both Sofer and Mirsky. This new edition should also include the many pages of notes by Yehudah Preis-Horeb and R. Dov Berish Zuckerman that appeared in Talpiot 5 (5712), pp. 880ff., which are also quite valuable.

I can’t explain why Sofer did not include at least Mirsky’s notes when he republished the book. Fortunately, the first edition is available on

Finally, here is an example where the Gaon’s position is not merely similar to that of Maimonides in the Guide, but is clearly influenced by the latter.[8] In Yahel Or the Gaon states:[9]
כי כל השמות אינן רק משותפין ומושאלין מפעולותיו . . . רק שם הוי"ה . . . והוא שם העצם שאינו מושאל מפעולה רק (מורה) על הויותו תמיד והיותו מעצמו

Here is what Maimonides writes in Guide 1:61 (Ibn Tibbon translation). It is obvious that the Gaon was influenced in this matter by Maimonides’ words.

כל שמותיו יתעלה הנמצאים בספרים כולם נגזרים מן הפעולות, וזה מה שאין העלם בו, אלא שם אחד, והוא יו"ד ה"א וא"ו ה"א, שהוא שם המיוחד לו יתעלה, ולזה נקרא שם המפורש, ענינו, שהוא יורה על עצמו יתעלה הוראה מבוארת אין השתתפות בה . . . להיותו מורה על עצמו יתעלה, מאשר לא ישתתף אחד מן הברואים בהוראה ההיא

P. 109. Stern mentions the report that after the Gaon’s death on Sukkot, when the hasidim continued to celebrate, three hasidim were killed by mitnagdim. It is hard to know whether there is any truth to this story, or to the report of hasidim killing a mitnaged.[10] Unfortunately, in our day we have seen haredi Judaism in Israel descend to a level unimaginable even ten years ago.[11] Harsh rhetoric, which on occasion has led to real violence, is now routine, and the rabbis who use the harsh, and often hateful, speech are never called to account for their actions.[12] It is only a matter of time before we see a religiously motivated murder, and we have already had close calls, including a stabbing at Ponovezh.

Seeing what has occurred in recent months, we can understand why some people might conclude that R. Akiva was right on target when he told his son, “Do not dwell in a town whose leaders are talmidei hakhamim” (Pesahim 112a). In a previous post I already quoted Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s comment that we know the Sages had a sense of humor since they stated תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם. Along these lines, many decades ago an unnamed rabbi explained why the blessing reads

הפורש סוכת שלום עלינו ועל כל עמו ישראל ועל ירושלים

The problem with this formulation is that there is no need for Jerusalem to be singled out after mentioning the entire people of Israel. The explanation given is that since Jerusalem has more disputes than anywhere else (and today we could add Bnei Brak) it therefore needs a special mention when asking God to spread over us his shelter of peace.[13]
R. Kook actually claims that the Jewish people are more apt to be involved in internal disputes than any other people. In Kevatzim mi-Ketav Yad Kodsho (Jerusalem, 2006), p. 43, he writes:

ישראל הם עלולים יותר לפירוד ומחלוקת מכל אומה, מפני שריבוי הצביונים שמתחלקים בעמים רבים, כלולים בישראל ביחוד.

I am writing these words not long after a man attacked R. Aharon Leib Steinman, which could easily have caused R. Steinman’s death. So as not to put all the blame on one side, does anyone have any doubt that if Degel ha-Torah was running the show that R. Shmuel Auerbach would right now be under house arrest or sitting in jail? I say this only because I assume that the rhetoric directed against him is hyperbole, because if is not hyperbole, then we should assume that if Degel ha-Torah was in charge he would have been executed by now. Can the rabbis who use this sort of rhetoric really claim that they are innocent when an individual decides to take their words literally and kill someone, even a great Torah scholar? Didn’t these rabbis learn the lesson of the Rabin assassination, that if you call someone a rodef (and thus hayav mitah), someone might very well take you up on this? As for throwing people out of kollels because they didn’t vote for Degel ha-Torah, any kollel that does so should be ineligible for Israeli government money.

Most disappointing in this matter is R. Chaim Kanievsky who seems to think that Torah Judaism has the equivalent of a papacy, and he can thus declare that all are obligated to follow R. Steinman, meaning that there is only one Torah path.[14] This approach first surfaced when R. Elyashiv was ill and R. Kanievsky declared that the torch of leadership had passed to R. Steinman whose word was now law. See here. Have we ever had such a thing in the Lithuanian Torah world where a sage’s unquestioned leadership is formally proclaimed in this manner, as if he were a hasidic rebbe taking over for his deceased father? In the non-hasidic world the people have always chosen their spiritual leaders, as the Sages tell us: עשה לך רב. Never have they been imposed on us from above.

In the booklet Kuntres Tikun Haderah, which is an attack on R. Yehoshua Ehrenberg, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Haderah yeshiva, one of R. Ehrenberg's great sins is that he declared that "the" gadol ha-dor is not something that can be proclaimed in papal fashion. Here are two of his statements that strike me as entirely reasonable, but which for the followers of R. Kanievsky are enough to turn him into an enemy of Torah Judaism.

ר' חיים החליט שהרב שטיינמן הוא הגדול. גדול זה לא דבר שאפשר להחליט עליו

לדעתי המושג ,הנהגה, הוא מי שהציבור בפועל שומע בקולו. כמה אחוזים צריך? ר' חיים חושב שמספיק מה שיש לרב שטיינמן. אולי לא

And here is another statement from R. Ehrenberg, which for his opponents is the height of chutzpah simply because he doesn't believe that there is currently one authority whose decisions bind everyone.

עוד התבטא בחוצפה עזה: "מאז שהרב אלישיב נפטר אין מנהיג אחד בעם ישראל. אין כזה מושג הנהגה. היום זה התבטל אין אחד שחייבים לשמוע לו

No one is saying that R. Kanievsky shouldn’t express his opinion that his approach is the proper one. But that is very different than what he and his followers have been doing. Declaring that supporters of R. Auerbach are behemot, invalid as witnesses, and should not be given aliyot is just the beginning. אחרי אלף גלגולי מחילות, some believe that R. Kanievsky’s language has unintentionally even verged on incitement to murder. He has followers who will do anything he says, and he has declared that R. Auerbach is a zaken mamre and deserving of sekilah (the death penalty of stoning) for not accepting the leadership of R. Steinman.[15] (Say what you will about R. Auerbach’s politics, he is certainly enough of a Torah scholar to have his own opinion on matters.) R. Kanievsky has also, playing on the word עץ which is how the Bnai Torah party is often referred to, said that its followers should be “hung on a tree”. I assume that this comment was said in a non-serious manner, but as a leader he needs to be aware that there are people who might not see it this way, and take it into their hands to fulfill his words. Was it this sort of language that led followers of Beit Shammai to kill followers of Beit Hillel, a fact attested to by the Jerusalem Talmud?[16] When vitriolic language was used in New Square, we saw how someone decided to take matters into his own hands, and his solution was to burn down a house which would have killed all the inhabitants. Unfortunately, it would no longer be a surprise if one of R. Kanievsky’s followers decided to use violence as part of this milhemet mitzvah.

Considering the shocking things R. Kanievsky has recently said, is it possible that he doesn’t really know the situation, and the people who are meeting with him and getting him to speak about certain matters are really manipulating him? R. Kanievsky has been meeting with people and providing advice for decades and until the last couple of months he never spoke like this. Is there any other explanation for his sudden change of tone? Here is the recording of R. Kanievsky referring to R. Auerbach as deserving sekilah and also referring to him as a zaken mamre and his followers as behemot. I ask the readers, does it sound like R. Kanievsky really understands what is going on? Do we have any idea what sort of information against R. Auerbach various askanim have provided him with?[17]

Let me take you back to an earlier era when we heard the type of rhetoric you can now hear. This is from the front page of the newspaper Davar, Nov. 29, 1972, and came after R. Shlomo Goren was subjected to death threats.

Should we be surprised if what R. Goren was subjected to is soon repeated with R. Auerbach? And even if it doesn’t reach this extreme, we have already seen how much damage can be caused by what the Lithuanian haredim call "השקפה", to which one can reply:[18]

אין "השקפה" אלא לרעה (ראה רש"י בראשית יח, טז)

Now is as good a time as ever to note that the falsehoods of Yated Ne’eman begin right with the title of this newspaper. The title is derived from Isaiah 22:23 which reads

ותקעתיו יתד במקום נאמן

This means, “And I will fasten him as a peg in a sure place.”

Yet if you look two verses later (Is 22:25) you find the following words

תמוש היתד התקועה במקום נאמן

We see from this is that the word יתד is feminine.[19] Furthermore, throughout rabbinic literature יתד is feminine and it is also feminine in modern Hebrew, meaning that the title of the newspaper should be Yated Ne’emanah.[20] I say this even though there is one biblical verse, Ez. 15:3, where the word is masculine, since I don’t think the newspaper was intending to adopt the usage of one verse in contradiction to the general “Masorah” (as we know how important Masorah is to them).

יתד is a feminine word along the same model – kametz followed by tzeireh – as the following words that are also feminine[21]: חצר, גדר, ירך, כתף

While I think that the newspaper’s title is probably just a simple error, I know some of you conspiracy theorists are thinking about how the people who run Yated don’t like to give the females among us their due, and won’t even publish their pictures, so maybe they see it as disgraceful to have something feminine in the title . . .[22]

Pp. 160-161: Stern records a few of the famous, and from a contemporary perspective, shocking stories about how the Gaon related to his children. “His children divulge that Elijah never once wrote a letter to any of them. Nor when he saw them, once every year or two, did he ever ask about their work or their well-being.” Stern refers to these stories as “painful memories.” I don’t think this is accurate. If they were painful memories, his children would not have recorded them. It might be painful for us to read the stories, but we have to be careful not to project our sense of how parents and grandparents should behave onto a different culture.[23[

Aryeh Morgenstern refers to R. Hayyim of Volozhin’s comment in the introduction to Sifra di-Tzeniuta that the Gaon never asked about how his children were doing and never wrote them letters or read letters from them. According to Morgenstern, this should be seen as a veiled criticism of the Gaon by R. Hayyim, since if he wanted to show people how great the Gaon’s ascetic attachment to Torah was, he didn’t need to bring an example illustrating how the Gaon related to his family.[24] I completely disagree. To suggest that R. Hayyim intended to criticize the Gaon regarding this matter, especially in the introduction to one of the Gaon’s books, is in my mind impossible. While moderns such as Morgenstern might find the description of the Gaon problematic, it was not viewed as such by R. Hayyim, nor by those of our contemporaries who continue to cite this description (and similar ones about other great Torah scholars.)[25]

In an earlier post, available here I noted that David Singer and Moshe Sokol advance the radical view that the Rav’s descriptions of his family members is actually designed to show his opposition to their hyper-intellectualism and pan-halakhism. They write
[T]here is something strange about Soloveitchik’s tales of the Litvaks. The behavior he describes is so radical, so extreme, as to make his presumed heroes seem grotesque. Who, for example, wishing to portray Litvak intellectualism in a positive light, would boast that his father and grandfather set aside all human sentiment and refused ever to enter a cemetery, because a stark encounter with death would have distracted them from the contemplation of the law. Or again, who would tell with pride the following macabre story about his maternal grandfather [referring to the story of R. Elya and his dying daughter]. . . . Stories like this, while ostensibly presented in order to glorify the Litvak, cannot help but evoke strong disapproval in the reader. And this disapproval, it seems safe to assume, is shared in part by Soloveitchik himself, specifically by that part of him which rebels against the Litvak tradition’s spurning of the emotions. The vein of anger that runs through the anecdotal material in “Halakhic Man” is not to be missed.[26]
Again, I find it impossible to accept that the Rav was actually criticizing his father and grandfathers. I say this not because of any pieties, but simply because the Rav’s connection to these people was not merely one of admiration but idolization. It is obvious that Singer and Sokol have a different vantage point than the Rav and traditional Lithuanian Jewish society in general. But why do they assume that what they see as “grotesque” must be shared by the Rav? All one needs to do is peruse haredi hagiographies to find lots of descriptions of what, when it comes to intellect triumphing over emotion, one can call rabbinic counterparts to Mr. Spock.

Returning to Stern, he  also quotes Aliyot Eliyahu’s comment that “to love the path of God and His Torah . . . he [Elijah] had to fight against his human instincts, pause, and let go of his own love for his own children.” Stern notes Solomon Schechter’s comment that Aliyot Eliyahu was “incapable of marking the line between monster and hero,” which again reflects a modern sentiment.

Incidentally, I am sure Schechter’s comment was influenced by what appears in Aliyot Eliyahu, note 51, which is not mentioned by Stern (perhaps because it refers to a segulah?):

סיפר לי גיסי המופלג מ' זלמן ז"ל נכד הגאון ז"ל, שאמו בת בגר"א היו בני' מתים כשהם קטנים ר"ל, וכשהיתה מעוברת ממנו [גיסי הנ"ל]., נסעה מביתה [מק' דיסנא], אל אביה הגר"א שיבקש רחמים שיהיה הולד של קיימא. ובבואה לפניו אמר לה במילים קצרים סגולה לקיום בנים . . . ויותר מזה לא רצה לבטל לדבר עמה.

R. Ephraim Kirschenbaum takes note of this passage and some similar ones and raises the question – which itself I find surprising in a haredi publication – is this proper Torah behavior?[27]

הנה מתיאורים הללו, מגדולים אנשי שם, מצטייר לנו הגר"א כאלו איש אשר מרוב השתקעותו בתורה דוכא כליל כל רגש כלפי ילדיו. האם האדם השלם אמור כך להיות?

The answer his gives, not surprisingly, is that there is a different standard for saintly figures than for the masses.
האמת היא שהגדולים הנ"ל בהלכות ביטול תורה וחומרתו קעסקי, ואין מדבריהם סתירה לפן נוסף.

Stern (p. 161) aptly quotes the Gaon’s suggestion[28]

that one should follow the Babylonian Talmud’s injunction (tractate Eruvin 22a) to “blacken” oneself toward one’s children as a “raven” does to her fledglings. The “raven” the Gaon explains, is “an allegory for the scholar who becomes cruel to his children [so that] he can spend all of his time studying the Torah.”

I would just add to this the quote from the Gaon in R. Samuel Maltzan’s Even Shlomo, ch. 3:4 (emphasis added):

שני מיני גבורה נמצא בעובדי ה', ונקראים גבורים ואנשי חיל. גבור הוא הכובש את יצרו בעת שבאה העברה לידו, ואנשי חיל הם אבירי הלב בשלמות הבטחון להגות בתורה יום ולילה ושלא להשגיח על בניו ובני ביתו הצועקים ללחם, וכמו שאמרו (עירובין כב ע"א) שחורות כעורב שמשים עצמו אכזרי על בניו כעורב. ומה עושה לו הקב"ה? מזמין לו אדם להחזיקו כיששכר וזבולון.

R. Yitzhak Zilberstein quotes the story found in the introduction to the Gaon’s commentary to Shulhan Arukh according to which the Gaon was so involved in his learning that he forgot about his ill son. Rather than conclude that this is something only for spiritual elites, he seems to regard this as something everyone should strive for. He writes:[29]

וזהו דרגת חשקת התורה, שהוא למעלה מדרגת אהבת התורה, שהחושק בתורה שוכח כל אהבותיו, אפילו ממה שטבע הקב"ה בבריאה, כדוגמת אהבת אב לבן, ויתכן שזה הכונה בגמרא בעירובין (דף כב ע"א) שהתורה מתקיימת במי שמשים עצמו אכזרי על בניו ועל בני ביתו כעורב. דהיינו שחושק בתורה, עד שמשכח כל אהבה אחרת

The removal of what moderns regard as a basic emotional connection to one’s children[30] is also seen the anonymous hagiography of R. Elyashiv, Ha-Shakdan.[31]

I, for one, was quite surprised that this was included in the hagiography, as it runs so much against how people today think about such matters. I also have to say that I find some of what appears in the book very difficult to believe. R. Elyashiv probably knew the entire Talmud by heart, so how are we supposed to believe that he didn’t even know the names of his children?[32]

When Ha-Shakdan appeared I went out on a limb stating that I was sure that this sort of material would never appear in English because of the shocked reaction it would create even among haredi readers in the U.S. It is always dangerous to make predictions about the future, which is why we historians usually stick to the past, but in this case it turns out that I was correct.

In February 2013 Artscroll published an English translation (“adapted and expanded”) of Ha-Shakdan.[33] Without discussing the book or the translation in any detail, let me just call your attention to some of the material that, not surprisingly, was deleted. Here is p. 69 of Ha-Shakdan and p. 123 of the translation.


Notice how in the translation most of the paragraph beginning with the words מעבר לזה have been deleted. I think the reason is obvious, as mentioned already. But is Israeli haredi society really so different when it comes to this sort of thing than American haredi society? That is, won’t Israeli readers be saddened to see sentences such as לא היו לו דיבורים עם הבנות and כשהם באים אצלו בביקורים או בתורנות, אין להם שיחה משותפת בכלל

Here is Ha-Shakdan, pp 62-63, and the translation pp. 105-106.

Notice how the first two paragraphs on p. 62 are not translated and also the first full paragraph on p. 63. Also, in the translation on p. 106, the second paragraph (“Rav Elyashiv’s lack of involvement . . .”) does not appear in the original. The translator obviously thought that this clarification was important for the English-speaking audience.

Here are two other passages from Ha-Shakdan, pp. 96 n. 69 and 251-252, that also don’t appear in the English translation.


Regarding the story on p. 98 n. 69, this should be contrasted with how it is told that R. Avraham Shapiro took up smoking as a way of dealing with the emotional strain of some of the cases he was confronted with as a dayan.

In general, when it comes to the stories reported in Ha-Shakdan, I have to say that I don’t accept the basic message the author is trying to get across. His point is that the stories he tells of R. Elyashiv regarding his indifference to people and events are a result of his complete absorption in Torah study. Yet it should be clear to anyone who reads the book, and knows something about R. Elyashiv, that all we have in these stories are an aspect of R. Elyashiv’s personality that really has nothing to do with absorption in Torah study. There have been plenty of great Torah scholars who were people-persons and conversationalists.

It is obvious that someone who by nature is extremely introverted, as R. Elyashiv was, will be more inclined to find his place among the books than an extrovert. But to describe R. Elyashiv’s personality as a complete outgrowth of Torah study is a distortion and shows a basic ignorance of human psychology. We didn’t need R. Nathan Kamenetsky’s Making of a Godol to realize that great Torah scholars encompass all sorts of personalities and one sort is not any more “authentic” than another. All we can say is that people, including gedolim, are different.[34] While haredim who are knowledgeable about the history of Torah figures love to talk about their different personalities, it is also the case that it is harder in that world to publish something that seriously analyzes a Torah sage’s personality. Yet without such an attempt, you will never get a real biography, only hagiographies.

Here are some quotations from Ha-Shakdan, vol. 2, pp. 246, 248, and plenty more could be added:

הגרי"ש לא מתייחס לכל אחד, וכאשר הוא כן מתייחס למשהו, הוא בוחן בעין משלו כל נושא. הכרעותיו בנושאים רגישים ביותר – ענייניות וחסרות רגש. גם עם צאצאיו, ואפילו הקרובים שביניהם, נוהג הוא באותה ידה של איפוק ואדישות.

כאשר ביום השלישי למלחמה פשטה השמועה שהצבא כבש את העיר העתיקה, והכותל המערבי בידי היהודים, הדבר עורר התרגשות גדולה מאוד. בשלב זה כבר לא עצר בעצמו בעל המעשה, וניגש לרגע לפינתו של רבינו לספר לו כי הצבא כבש כבר את כל מזרח העיר מידי הירדנים! הגרי"ש פסק מהלימוד והקשיב לו עד שכילה לדבר, ולא הגיב כלל. המספר המשיך בהתלהבות: והכותל המערבי גם כן משוחרר! רבינו שמע אותו עד הסוף באדיבות ותשומת לב כדרכו, ובלא שום זיק של התרגשות שב להתנועע ולהחזיר את עיניו בחזרה לגמרא הגדולה להמשיך מהמילה שפסק בה.

There are lot of further examples I can cite from other great rabbis. Here is how the Hafetz Hayyim is described by his son:

Father had no personal friendships with anyone all the days of his life, even though he loved every Jew and especially men learned in the Torah, whom he loved as his very self. Many times did I hear him tell how the daughter of the Vilna Gaon, who lived in another town, once paid a visit to her father. The Gaon inquired after her health and that of her husband and children and then immediately returned to his studies. The daughter began to weep at her father’s apparent indifference, but he declared, “I do not have the time” [in Yiddish, nitoh kein zeit]. So it is not surprising that father, of blessed memory, had no material friendships with anyone . . . . I once heard him explain the verse “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5) to mean that the heart should be so filled with the love of God as to leave no room in it for any other loves.[35]

R. Joseph David Epstein, who cites this passage, hastens to add that this sort of behavior is only intended for the spiritual elites.[36] הדברים האמורים לעיל, על הסתייגות מאהבה משפחה, ועל העלמת עין מצרכי בית, הרי אך לבעלי מדרגה וקדושי עלינו המה

What is one to make of the following story, found in Meir Einei Yisrael (Bnei Brak, 2004), vol. 1, p. 274?:

שמועה התהלכה בינינו שרבי משה לנדינסקי למד שמונה שנים עם חבר בוולוז'ין ולא ידע מה שמו של הבחור. הסיפור הקטן הזה מדגיש את אישיותו העצומה, שהיה בכל הוויתו רק מתמיד, ומעבר ללימוד לא נחשב אצלו שום דבר.

Quite apart from the fact that I don’t believe such a story is possible, I wonder why this is quoted as praise. Is this supposed to be a characteristic of a Torah personality, that you can learn with someone for eight years and never even take the trouble to learn the person’s name? I can’t imagine that the Hafetz Hayyim – R. Londinsky was the rosh yeshiva in Radin – or any of the mussar teachers would think that this is appropriate bein adam le-havero behavior.

Here is another story, found in R. Moshe Sternbuch, Ta’am ve-Da’at, vol. 1, pp. 244-245.


I don’t believe such a story is even remotely possible. R. Akiva Eger was a real person, with real feelings, and he loved his daughter. The idea that he could be at her house for an entire Shabbat, after not having seen her for years, and be so engrossed in learning that he didn’t even notice that a different woman had taken her place is simply not believable. Yet it is significant that the story is told as an example of praise, and R. Sternbuch concludes by pointing to it as an example of how gedolim so involved in Torah study forget everything else in the world.  If you would repeat such a story before a Modern Orthodox crowd they would be horrified. What would the haredi masses think of such a story? Would they be inspired by the commitment to learning above all else, or would they share the Modern Orthodox negative reaction?

R. Yonason Rosman called my attention to the following passage in R. Yitzhak Zilberstein’s Tuvkha Yabiu, vol. 1, p. 38, which describes how a yeshiva student was so involved in his learning that he named a newborn daughter with the same name as one of his other daughters, forgetting he already had a child with that name!

אחד האברכים המצויינים בבני ברק, העמל ויגע בתורה, קרא לבתו שנולדה לו בשם פלוני ורק לאחר מכן נזכר שאחת מבנותיו נקראת כבר בשם זה... המדובר במשפחה ברוכה ילדים עד כדי כך שהאב הספיק לשכוח שכבר נעשה שימוש בשם זה. והוא פלא!

Whether the story ever happened is not important. What is important is that it is being told on the assumption that people will be impressed with the yeshiva student’s total absorption in his studies

To be continued

* * * *

1. In recent years, books have appeared on every possible halakhic topic. This genre keeps expanding and here is the title page of a new book, Asurei ha-Melekh by R. Mordechai Agasi of Boro Park.[37]

I thought nothing could surprise me anymore, but this book certainly did. It is a large two volume set, and the first half of volume one deals with the halakhot relevant to one who is serving time in prison (or as I told a friend, “the halakhot of being in jail”). The rest of the book contains words of inspiration, stories, prayers, etc. all of importance for the prisoner. As the author explains in his introduction, the book is needed because of the increase of haredim in the prisons.

התרבתה, לדאבונינו, האוכלוסייה החרדית בבית הסוהר, וגדלה פי כמה.

It really is incredible when one thinks about this, since not too long ago it would have been simply unimaginable that such a sefer would have been needed.

2. Many people are interested in the Rogochover, R. Joseph Rozin. There is no question that he had a fascinating personality and there are many interesting stories about him. Yet very few people actually study his works because they are so difficult. Until now, nothing of significance has appeared in English on his halakhic thought. Therefore, I am happy to recommend R. Dovber Schwartz’s new book, The Rogochover Gaon, for those seeking to learn about this significant figure.

[1] R. Abba Mari of Lunel, Minhat Kenaot, ed. Dimitrovsky (Jerusalem, 199), p. 317 (ch. 23) wrote:

ואני לא על המחזיק בספרי היונים אני כועס ולא אחשבנו ככופר לא כמחליף חק ולא כעוזב ברית ומפר ואם נמצא בהם דבר טוב אפי' בדף אחד, מציל על כל הספר

See also R. Jacob Lorberbaum, Ma’aseh Nissim (Jerusalem, 2011), Introduction:

וכבר אמרו וידוע כי בדברי תורה אף אם ימצא דבר אחד טוב מציל על כל הספר כולו

In his Torat Gittin (Jerusalem, 2003), Introduction, he writes:

ואמר החכם כי דבר אחד טוב יציל על כל הספר כולו

See also R. Yissachar Tamar, Alei Tamar (Jerusalem, 1979), Zeraim, vol. 1, Introduction, p. 14.
[2] Or Torah, Iyar 5772, p. 741.
[3] R. Mazuz has more to say about the Mossad ha-Rav Kook edition of this commentary, which I will perhaps return to in a future post..
[4] See The Limits of Orthodox Theology, pp. 15-16.
[5] The quote that follows come from the Oxford ms. of the Gaon’s commentary to Prov. 10:16. See the Mossad ha-Rav Kook edition, p. 110, n. 56.
[6] The story originally appeared in R. Zvi Ezekiel Michaelson’s Pinot ha-Bayit, p. 78.
[7] R. Ovadiah Yosef, Yehaveh Da'at, vol. 5, no. 35, also provides the source that eluded Sofer.
[8] Credit for this example goes to R. Eliyahu Tziyon Sofer, Tziyon Eliyahu (Jerusalem, 2008), p. 273.
[9] (Vilna, 1982 ), vol. 2, p. 19a.
[10] See Mordechai Wilensky, Hasidim u-Mitnagdim (Jerusalem, 1970), vol. 2, p. 178. This report, contained in the early anti-hasidic text Shever Posh’im, includes names and places and was written not long after the event described. Nevertheless, I would not accept the story as historically accurate without confirmation from other sources, which as far as I know has not been found. See also S.'s post here which discusses another alleged murder by Hasidim. In Sippurei Niflaot mi-Gedolei Yisrael (Tel Aviv, 1969), p. 279, it reports that R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk thought that R. Shmelke of Nikolsburg made a mistake when he forced his "enlightened" opponents to leave the city. What he should have done, according to the Kotzker, is have them killed.
[11] One positive recent development is that at least some people in Bnei Brak have woken up to the sexual abuse problem. See here where parents are advised not to send children outside by themselves. In the letter it refers to incidents related to “kedushat and taharat Yisrael”. What exactly does this mean? The English translation speaks of kedushat Yisrael being “compromised” by certain “terrible incidents”. Does this mean that the kedushat Yisrael of the victims has been compromised? If so, this is an unbelievably offensive statement, since how can the kedushat Yisrael of a victim, who did no wrong, be compromised based on the evil actions of someone else?
[12] R. Zvi Yehudah Kook wrote (Sihot ha-Rav Zvi Yehudah: Bereshit [Jerusalem, 1993], p. 242):

ר' שלמה זלמן זצ"ל זקני היה אומר על סוג מסוים של קנאים: "הם חיות קדושות, חיות טורפות שקשה לסבול, אבל בסגנון של קדושה." אמנם קדושים הם, אבל בגלל שנאתם לישראל, מתעכבת אהבת ד' אליהם, כדברי הגר"א. ביחס לאף לא אחד מגדולי ישראל, לא מצאנו שבח שהיה שונא ישראל. נכון שלפעמים יש צורך במלחמה מעשית, אבל לא בשנאה, שהיא קטנות.

When R. Zvi Yehudah refers to the Gaon he has in mind the Gaon’s comment to Tikunei Zohar, 57b s.v. דבגינייהו where he writes:

דהש"י שונא מקטרג על בניו אף הקדושים

Elsewhere, R. Zvi Yehudah elaborates (Or li-Netivati [Jerusalem, 1989], p. 307:

חטא גדול הוא לקטרג על ישראל ובהרבה ספרים הוא מוזכר. הגר"א אומר :"ד' יתברך שונא את המקטרגים על בניו – אף הקדושים," הגר"א משתמש במילה נוראה זו "שונא" – אפילו על קדושים וצדיקים, אם הם מקטרגים על ישראל ח"ו.

See also R. Shlomo Aviner’s commentary to R. Kook, Orot ha-Tehiyah (Beit El, 2009), vol. 2, p. 175.
[13]> Moshe Aharon Perlman, ed., Mi-Pi Dodi (Jerusalem, 1935), p. 22.
[14] In opposition to this, see the continuation of the passage quoted above from Kevatzim mi-Ketav Yad Kodsho, p. 43:

שינויי דעות בכמה ענינים רוחניים וחומריים אינו מעכב, ואדרבא מועיל, מכל הטפוסים יצא הדבר הטוב הכללי. אלא שהכל צריכים להתאחד בנוגע לכללות קיומה של תורה

[15] See here where Chaim Shaulson asks why R. Auerbach as a zaken mamre is hayav sekilah. According to Sanhedrin 11:1 a zaken mamre is to be strangled (henek).
[16] JShabbat 1:4. See Tosafot, Gittin 36b s.v. אלא.
[17] In general, R. Kanievsky, whose unique greatness in Torah knowledge must be acknowledged by everyone, has made a number of astounding statements over the years. (A few years ago the internet was abuzz with his statement that Jews have a different number of teeth than non-Jews, and more recently we all heard about what he said regarding people who have iPhones.) These sorts of statements can charitably be explained by the fact that since his entire world is Torah he relies on intermediaries for knowledge about the wider world. But this raises the question of why he should be the address for questions relating to political matters.

To give an example of the problem I am referring to, here are two pages from R. Shmuel Baruch Genut, Iggeret ha-Melekh (Elad, 2013), pp. 3-4..

R. Kanievsky declares that there is no medical danger from smoking and the doctors don’t know what they are talking about. Despite his unquestioned Torah brilliance, such as answer shows a complete disregard of reality and encourages unhealthy living. I ask those readers from the haredi world, doesn’t this show that perhaps R. Kanievsky is not the best person to ask when it comes to matters outside of “pure” Torah? I don’t ask this to be disrespectful. I would really like to hear from people who follow R. Kanievsky how they see the matter.

Finally, let me say a word about askanim, since I referred to them. While in the case of the incomprehensible attacks on R. Auerbach I raise the possibility that the askanim have poisoned R. Kanievsky's view of R. Auerbach, I am not one of those who blaime everything on the "evil askanim" The first time I ever really heard the askanim blamed in a major way was when Making of a Godol was banned. In the first few days after the ban appeared, I remember seeing various people on the internet saying that it couldn't be true, that it was just the askanim, etc. In the last decade there have been numerous other statements and bans that upset many people, especially in the American haredi world, and we have heard over and over again that gadol x couldn't have said that which was attributed to him, and that it was a creation of the askanim. Yet in almost every case we have seen that American haredi apologists were wrong and the gadol indeed said that which was attributed to him. 
[18] This comment was originally made by R. Yehudah Naki in his note to R. Ovadiah Yosef, Ma’yan Omer, vol. 12, p. 145.
[19] See also Deut. 23:14: ויתד תהיה לך על אזנך.
[20] This was pointed out to me years ago by R. Nathan Kamenetsky.
[21] See Yitzhak Avinery, Heikhal Rashi (Tel Aviv, 1960), vol. 4, p. 436.
[22] When I pointed out the grammatical problem of Yated Ne’eman’s title to R. Meir Mazuz, he responded:

אבל הם כותבים ביום ששי מדור "יתד חָדָה". ולפי דעתם שהוא לשון זכר צ"ל יתד חָד (כמו קם, שב, רץ, מנחי ע"ו) אא"כ סוברים שהוא אנדרוגינוס, פעם זכר ופעם נקבה

 A few years ago it was reported that R. Mazuz was going to burn pages from Yated Ne’eman as part of the Purim festivities. See  here.
[23] Stern writes:
In one startling vignette, they recount that as their father was preparing to leave on a journey of self-reflection, his favorite child, Shlomo Zalman, fell gravely ill. Elijah refused to change his plans. Only after a month away “not thinking about his family or his children” did the Gaon find himself on the toilet one day wondering about the boy’s well-being (for one is not supposed to think thoughts of Torah then.) He immediately returned home.

This story comes from the Gaon’s sons’ introduction to his commentary on Shulhan Arukh, and Stern has accurately reported what appears there with one exception. According to the text, the Gaon was in the בית הרחיצה  when he recalled his son. While today people use the term “washroom” synonymously with “lavatory”, in this text the meaning is “bathhouse” not “toilet”.

The story recorded with the Gaon might also have a connection to Maimonides’ Guide, as Maimonides writes, Guide 3:51, that the time to focus on worldy things is “while you eat or drink or bathe” (emphasis added). This connection was noted by R. Meir Mazuz, Darkhei ha-Iyun (Bnei Brak, 2012), p. 194.
[24] Mistikah u-Meshihiyut me-Aliyat ha-Ramhal ad ha-Gaon mi-Vilna (Jerusalem, 1999), pp. 258-259.
[25] See ibid., where Morgenstern shows that a statement about the Gaon by his grandson was omitted from the introduction to a book. Although this statement refers to how the Gaon expressed no interest in his grandson or his family, I do not believe it was omitted because of a fear that others would regard this as criticism of the Gaon, but rather due to a general concern of how the Gaon would appear in readers’ eyes.
[26] David Singer and Moshe Sokol, “Joseph Soloveitchik: Lonely Man of Faith,” Modern Judaism 2:3 (October 1982), p. 259.
[27] “Peninim be-Mishnat ha-Gra,” Yeshurun 18 (2006), p. 890.
[28] The Gaon’s comment is in Peirush al Kamah Aggadot (Vilna, 1800), pp. 3b-4a (Stern mistakenly gives the reference as pp. 5-6.)
[29] Hashukei Hemed: Sanhedrin, Introduction, pp. 6-7.
[30] R. Yaakov Moshe Harlap describes R. Kook as having such concern for the kelal that his own relationship with his family was not in any way special to him, and he mentions an episode with R. Zvi Yehudah that illustrated this. See his letter in Me-Avnei ha-Makom 11 (2000), pp. 51-53 (part of the letter is found here):

ואף גם בצער קרובי משפחתו לא היה מרגיש בהם יותר ממה שהרגיש באחרים, שכן בכל מבטו ובחוג ידיעתו לא היה נמצא מושג של פרטים כי אם כללים, ומאי נפקא מיניה בינם לבין אחרים

R. Harlap's description of R. Kook stands at odds with so much else we know about the special relationship between R. Kook and R. Zvi Yehudah.
[31] 3 vols. (Jerusalem, 2010-2013). All references in this post are to volume 1 unless otherwise noted.
[32] See Yeshurun 28 (5773), pp. 349ff., for three letters from the 1950s from R. Elyashiv to R. Chaim Kanievsky. In the greeting at the beginning of these letters he is careful to mention not only his daughter but also his granddaughter.
[33] The English title is Rav Elyashiv: A Life of Diligence and Halachic Leadership. This translation is also noteworthy, in that as far as I know, it is the only time that Artscroll has allowed material explicitly degrading Torah scholars to appear in its books. One does not find this in the works of Jonathan Rosenblum, Aharon Sorasky, or any of the other writers published by Artscroll. While the following sentence is typical of haredi works published in Israel, it is quite shocking that Artscroll included it, while at the same time deleting other parts of the book. P. 176 n. 5: “Rav Yoel Kluft, av beis din of Haifa, once remarked to his students, ‘If I would be offered a job today as a plumber, I would leave dayanus.’ This sharp statement expressed the bitter feelings of Torah-true dayanim toward the establishment that employed them.” So I guess the many dayanim who didn’t (and don’t) feel this way about being part of the Israeli government-funded batei din are not to be regarded as Torah-true.
[34] Yechezkel Moskowitz was kind enough to send me the booklet "עניני השקפה: Notes of a תלמיד" which appeared in 2004 and records various teachings from R. Henoch Leibowitz. The following is relevant to the matter we are discussing (nos. 5 and 24 from the booklet).
No שיחת חולין? We can't live like that, so לשם שמים we need to keep our שמחת החיים. Some גדולים of the previous דור were able to be serious, but that may have been because of their personality. חפץ חיים did make some jokes occasionally. [RH (Rosh ha-Yeshiva) told us R. Chaim Ozer joked a lot but R. Elchonon rarely ever.] 
As a young man, R' דוד [R. Dovid Leibowitz] was by the חפץ חיים when a man came in and began complaining to the ח"ח about a certain גדול that he felt had hurt him in a certain way. R' דוד was sure the ח"ח would reprimand the man for speaking such about a גדול! But the ח"ח just said "Nu, that's the גדולים of our דור!" R' דוד learned 2 things. 1) It's שייך for גדולים to do something wrong. 2) He's still a גדול! The ח"ח said "that's the גדולים of our times" meaning he's still a גדול but he has more faults. In our youth, we think a גדול is by definition perfect -- and if he's not then he's not a גדול. It's not so.
See also R. Yitzhak Dadon, ed., Rosh Devarkha (Jerusalem, 2010), p. 548, where R. Avraham Shapiro is quoted about a certain Torah scholar (not R. Elyashiv, so I have been informed by the source of the story). Yet the message is also applicable with regard to Ha-Shakdan and R. Elyashiv, i.e., there isn’t just one path, and devotion to Torah study doesn’t create one identical personality.

בשיחה שהיתה לכמה תלמידים עם רבינו זצ"ל, הוזכר רב פלוני מרבני דורנו, ואחד הנוכחים הוסיף ואמר באזני הנוכחים: הוא צדיק גדול! רבינו ששמע זאת, פנה אל זה ששיבח ושאל בסקרנות: איך אתה יודע? אותו תלמיד השיב: הוא תמיד בכובד ראש, עם פנים רציניות, אף פעם לא ראיתי אותו צוחק . . . מיד דיבר [הגר"א שפירא] בשבח אותו תלמיד חכם מצדדים אחרים שהכיר בו, והוסיף באזני התלמידים ואמר: שלא תחשבו ש"צדיק" זה דוקא מי שלא יודע לחייך, לזה יש לפעמים סיבות אחרות שאינו יודע לחייך, ואפשר להיות צדיק אמיתי עם מצב רוח טוב.

[35] Mikhtevei ha-Rav Hafetz Hayyim (New York, n.d.), Dugma mi-Darkhei Avi, no. 68 (p. 37), translation in Louis Jacobs, Holy Living: Saints and Saintliness in Judaism (Northvale, 1990), p. 51.
[36] Mitzvot ha-Bayit (New York, 1972), vol. 1, p. 138. 
[37] I wonder about the title of the book, which is derived from Gen. 39:20. אסורי is the ketiv, but אסירי is the keri, so why isn’t the title Asirei ha-Melekh?

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