Reb Berisch Weiss relives the harrowing days in a bunker with his father, the Minchas Yitzchak
Photos: Aryeh Rechnitzer
wo years ago, Reb Berisch Weiss, the longtime rosh kahal of Manchester’s Satmar community and only child of Dayan Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss ztz”l, the Minchas Yitzchak, took his family on a trip back to his roots in Grosswardein, Romania. Reb Berisch himself was already elderly, but his recollections as a teenager — first growing up under the wing of his illustrious father, then escaping the Nazis in a miraculous flight of salvation, and finally returning to rebuild a shattered kehillah — were part of the essential legacy he wanted to leave them 70 years later.
The Minchas Yitzchak (taken from the name of his ten-volume set of teshuvos, heavily relied upon by modern poskim and batei din), who served as head of the Eidah Hachareidis rabbinical court in Jerusalem following a two-decade tenure as av beis din of the Manchester Beth Din, passed away 30 years ago, on 11 Sivan 5749. But for Reb Berisch, his larger-than-life persona still lives on — and it was time for his children and grandchildren to connect on the ground.
They visited the grave of his mother, Rebbetzin Rivkah, who passed away at the end of 1944 after suffering extreme physical privation during months of hiding and then fleeing to Romania. They then continued to the house where the Minchas Yitzchak and 15-year-old Berisch had lived after the war, when they returned to Grosswardein in an effort to salvage the remnants of a once-thriving Jewish hub. In the small courtyard stood a small wooden square — the platform of a chuppah. “In this courtyard, on Lag B’omer of 1946, my father stood and was mesader kiddushin for 30 couples,” Reb Berisch told his family. Because if anyone could reinvigorate the broken, penniless young survivors, and if anyone could resolve the heartbreaking questions of the stream of agunos looking to remarry, it was the Minchas Yitzchak.
A major halachic authority whose decisions were revered around the Jewish world from the time he was a young man, the Minchas Yitzchak, who’d served as a dayan in Grosswardein before the war, returned to the city where many survivors had gathered in order to reestablish some normative Jewish life. In 1947, when it had become clear that the Communists were in Romania to stay, Dayan Weiss moved to Manchester, England, where he helped nurture a tiny group of chareidi Jews into a thriving Torah community. He remained in Manchester until his retirement from the beis din in 1970, when he was appointed to join the Eidah Hachareidis beis din in Jerusalem. With the passing of the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, in 1979, he became gaavad of the Eidah.
itting in the family’s warm, heimishe Manchester seforim room with Reb Berisch Weiss and his wife and daughter, he’s happy to take us, too, on a journey back in time. His memories as the cherished only child of Dayan Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss and Rebbetzin Rivkah are as sharp as ever so many decades later. He was raised in the secure atmosphere of that bastion of Hungarian Orthodoxy: known in Romanian as Oradea, in Hungarian as Nagyvarad, and to its Jews by the German name Grosswardein. (Grosswardein — pronounced Grossverdan — is in Translyvania, which, although originally Hungarian territory, had been part of Romania since the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon. But in 1940, Germany and Italy brokered a deal that split Transylvania in two, handing the northern part, which included Grosswardein, as a gift to Hungary. The area was returned to Romania in 1947.)
The Minchas Yitzchak served as a dayan on the town’s beis din, where his father-in-law, Rabbi Pinchas Zimmetbaum, was the rosh beis din. Dayan Weiss’s fame had already spread, and he started to write responsa to the many sh’eilos that began arrive from around the country and further afield. He also conducted extensive correspondence with many of the gedolim of the era, including the Rogotchover Gaon.
Reb Berisch remembers Grosswardein of the 1930s as a “leibedige kehillah” with a full roster of Jewish institutions. The undercurrent of anti-Semitism was just an accepted part of life. “There were plenty of shkotzim,” he says. “If I came home from cheder without getting a potch from a goy on the way, it was a good day.”
The Zimmetbaum family originated from a shtetl named Kreinitz in Galicia, and Reb Berish recalls traveling to visit relatives there until around 1940, when he was ten years old, and German aggression closed the borders and the Jews of Eastern Europe began to be rounded up.
The official kehillah of Grosswardein was led by “Ashkenazishe Yidden” — central European and non-chassidic Jews, followers of the tradition of the Chasam Sofer. The rav of Grosswardein, Rav Moshe Binyomin Fuchs, was a disciple of the Ksav Sofer, and the largest shul in the town was the Ashkenazishe Beis Medrash, which davened nusach Ashkenaz. The rav carried both the responsibility of official functions and representation to the municipal authorities. Reb Berisch’s grandfather, the rosh beis din and one of the city’s most prominent rabbanim, was actually an outsider. “My grandfather was a Galicianer Yid, who didn’t speak Hungarian, but he was invited to Grosswardein to take the post of rosh beis din,” Reb Berisch explains. The other dayanim of the beis din were Rav Moshe Nuchem Blum and Rav Zimmetbaum’s son-in-law, the Minchas Yitzchak. When Rav Fuchs passed away in 1936, Rav Zimmetbaum took over complete responsibility for running the community.
Alongside its Ashkenazishe community, Grosswardein hosted a hub of thriving chassidic life. Rebbe Yisrael Hager, the Ahavas Yisrael of Vizhnitz, had fled to Grosswardein during World War I, and his court was based there during the interwar period. Reb Berisch remembers the large Vizhnitz beis medrash and the visits of the Ahavas Yisrael to his grandfather, Rav Zimmetbaum, on Erev Pesach, to sell his chometz. There was also a Sanzer kloiz and a Satmar shtibel.
The Satmar Rebbe’s court was based in Satu Mare, which was around an hour’s train journey from Grosswardein in those days. “When I was eight or nine, the Satmar Rebbe visited Grosswardein, and he was invited to Kiddush in our house. Crowds of chassidim accompanied him, and the house was packed, although my mother hadn’t prepared Kiddush for the whole town. The Rebbe made Kiddush and sat down, and I think there was fish served. Then he turned to me and said, ‘Breng a leidig teller — bring an empty plate.’ I ran and brought it, and the Rebbe covered the fish with the empty plate and told me to take it out of the room.” (The Rebbe didn’t want the chassidim to make a mess in his host’s home while grabbing for shirayim.)
The Reform elements, known as Neolog communities, also had many adherents in Grosswardein. Yet Reb Berisch says that by the 20th century, the schism between Orthodox and Neolog had existed for so long that it had settled into the background, and in Grosswardein at least, there was no longer any sparring between the groups.
The “Askenazishe” children attended the town’s cheder, while the chassidish children tended to learn in small groups with private rebbeim. “A rebbi would go around to ten families and ask them to send their sons to learn with him. I learned in such a ‘private cheder,’ which met in the veiber shul (women’s section) of the Vizhnitzer beis medrash. It’s interesting, but I recall that Reb Mottele [son of the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz who later became the Vizhnitz-Monsey Rebbe], attended the Ashkenazisher cheder.”
One Step Ahead
he outbreak of World War II slowly brought the kehillah of Grosswardein to its tragic end. Although the Nazis didn’t enter Hungary until 1944, the pro-Nazi government did its best to make life miserable for the Jews (most of whom assumed the clouds would eventually pass). The rumbles of disquiet were felt gradually, in rumors and terrifying reports from relatives across Europe. “The real problems started in Grosswardein at the time of my bar mitzvah, in 1943,” Reb Berisch recalls. People became increasingly nervous, although they did not fully believe that the horrors recounted by the Polish refugees could happen in Hungary.
Reb Berisch recalls Succos of 1943, when the Satmar court moved into Grosswardein for Yom Tov. “Chassidim spending the Yamim Noraim with the Rebbe in Satu Mare were disturbed by unrest and increasing anti-Semitism and were too afraid to have crowds there over Succos. After asking permission from the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe’s court and his followers relocated to Grosswardein for Succos.” But the situation was deteriorating rapidly, the clouds gathering over the Yidden even as Yom Tov was celebrated.
Reb Berisch shares his memory of the arba minim shortage of 1943. “Because of the war, it was impossible to import arba minim. Five esrogim were smuggled in somehow from Greece, and were given to the Belzer Ruv, the Satmar Rebbe, Reb Shulem Leizer’l [of Ratzfert, the son of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz] and the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. The fifth was kept by the rav who arranged the smuggling. In Grosswardein, everyone had a ticket to stand in line and shake the Vizhnitzer Rebbe’s arba minim. I got a ticket and I stood in line to bentsh esrog — but by the time so many people had held it, it didn’t look like an esrog anymore. On some days of Succos we didn’t bentsh esrog at all, because the esrog was sent to the provincial communities.”
At the very beginning of 1944, when Dayan Weiss learned of the petirah of his father, a learned rabbinical arbiter named Rav Yosef Yehuda Weiss, he made the dangerous journey to his home town of Munkacs to take care of the matzeivah. Whenever he mentioned this in later years, he expressed gratitude that he had merited to do this mitzvah despite the danger — he was nearly thrown off the moving train by fascists thugs.
In March 1944, the Nazis invaded the territory of Hungary, their erstwhile ally, and Grosswardein became the site of one of Hungary’s largest ghettos. Deportations to Auschwitz began during May 1944, with scenes Reb Berisch will never forget.
“Once the Germans came to Grosswardein, they cleared all gentiles out of one area of the city and set it aside as a ghetto. On the 25th day of the Omer, May 3rd, 1944, I was herded into the ghetto together with my parents. Not so many people wanted to admit it, but my father realized that concentrating all the Yidden in the ghetto was a step toward rounding them up for deportation to Auschwitz. The walls were ten feet high and the entrances were guarded — you couldn’t get out of there. But Jews were allowed to leave the ghetto in order to go to work.”
Work meant hard physical labor, hacken holtz (chopping wood), in the nearby forests, to supply the German army. Reb Berisch was only 14, but he was tall. The Minchas Yitzchak asked the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz if he should take his only son with him to work in the forest. “I went along to ask the Rebbe. The Imrei Chaim was crying, his beard shorn. He replied that we should make every hishtadlus to get out of the ghetto, including taking me along.”
The illustrious band of “woodcutters” whom the Nazis escorted out of the Grosswardein ghetto on Wednesday, May 10, 1944, included the Imrei Chaim himself, and his son-in-law Reb Yiddele, the Vishever Rav, the Liminoiver Rebbe, as well as the Minchas Yitzchak and Berisch. After a few days’ work in a forest clearing, it was Shabbos. The group told their supervisors that they were unwell, and began to daven Shacharis, then prepared a Shabbos meal of eggs and onion — but they had not rested for long when gendarmes and Gestapo men arrived. “Raus, raus!” they screamed, herding everyone out onto a large truck.
Beating the Jews and screaming insults, the Germans drove the crammed truck back to Grosswardein, where the men were ordered out at the Great Synagogue and searched. For five frightening days, the prisoners, together with other men from the ghetto, were forced to remain crowded in the locked sanctuary. Decades later, Dayan Weiss would bemoan the desecration of the shul during this siege, as there were no facilities. [The Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz, whose daughter many years later married the Minchas Yitzchak in Eretz Yisrael, hid among the trees in the forest and did not return to the ghetto. He was eventually smuggled out to Romania].
When allowed to return home, Dayan Weiss and Berisch found that provisions in the ghetto were almost all gone. Jews from surrounding towns and villages had been herded into the ghetto and were sleeping in every corner, even in gardens and courtyards. The only food available was from a lone functioning soup kitchen.
Before long, though, the lines outside the soup kitchen shrunk. Overcrowding was relieved in the worst way — by deportation to Auschwitz. On the first day of Shavuos, Rav Zimmetbaum, Dayan Weiss’s father-in-law, was crammed into a cattle car together with his kehillah members and they were shipped off to their deaths.
Reb Berisch becomes emotional as he relives how his grandfather took leave of his beloved seforim on the day of Matan Torah.
“The Nazis didn’t want people to know about Auschwitz,” says Reb Berisch,” and most people didn’t understand where they were going. But my father understood from the warnings of the Polish refugees that we had to avoid the transports to Auschwitz at all costs. So although we had no plan of escape, my father kept moving us to different parts of the ghetto to avoid being rounded up.” The Dayan made every possible effort to outrun the Gestapo, even if it meant living just one more day.
The entire Grosswardein ghetto had been emptied in a span of just three weeks. Now that the town was officially Judenrein, the only Jews that were left slipped into their prepared bunkers.
“Logically, the idea of bunkers didn’t make sense,” Reb Berisch points out. “You had to trust someone to provide food, and in the end, after all the money they were paid, the goyim often informed the Gestapo of the Jews’ hiding places. How long could one stay hidden, and how could one leave the bunker?”
But eventually, when no opportunity of escape presented itself, Dayan Weiss had no choice. “The ghetto had ten districts, and my father went around looking for a safe hiding place. We went to the bunker belonging to the Vizhnitzer Rebbe’s family and chassidim, and we stayed one night. The crowd was mechazek each other, but with approximately 50 people in the bunker, my father felt it wasn’t a safe place to remain.” The larger the group was, the more likely it was that outsiders knew of the place, and the more comings and goings there were to endanger the hideaways.
Late on a Friday afternoon, the Minchas Yitzchak, together with his frail and sickly Rebbetzin Rivkah and Berisch, stood in the courtyard of the Vizhnitz shul, with nowhere to hide in the Judenrein city. Suddenly, the Rebbetzin saw someone they knew named Mrs. Rothbart, running by with her two young children.
Back in 1940, Admiral Horthy’s Hungarian government had forbidden Jews to own businesses, and so countless Jewish businessmen had to take one of their non-Jewish employees on as a partner, to avoid confiscation. One of Grosswardein’s upstanding Jewish families, the Rothbarts owned a soap factory, which had now been handed over to the ownership of a loyal gentile manager named Kalman Appan. The Rothbarts had planned to hide in the chimney stack of the factory, trusting Appan to bring them food and conceal their presence.
“Rebbetzin, what are you doing here?” asked Mrs. Rothbart.
“We don’t know where to go,” the Rebbetzin said simply.
Mrs. Rothbart looked at the Rebbetzin again. The Weisses were a small family, only three people. And the esteemed Dayan! Surely the presence of a great talmid chacham would be a protection. She made a split-second decision: She would take them to her own family’s bunker. “We followed her to the soap factory that now belonged to Appan the gentile, up the ladder to the attic, then through a narrow passage to the chimney stack. It was around the size of this room,” Reb Berisch gestures to the small, comfortable seforim shtub, with its desk, shelves of seforim, potted plant, and a few pieces of silver. There are five of us present and it’s pretty tight. “There were about 40 people in there,” he says.
What was Mrs. Rothbart doing walking around in the officially Judenrein Grosswardein ghetto with two young children? “It was Erev Shabbos. The bunker in that attic was full of soot, and she had suddenly decided to take the children to the town’s mikveh in order to bathe them.” Her husband didn’t want her to leave the bunker, but her instinct to honor Shabbos wound up being the seed of the Weiss’s salvation.
ppan, his wife, and three loyal female factory workers were the only ones who knew about the Jews hiding above the factory. All other employees were fired. With written promises from the Rothbarts of huge payments (a villa plus an income) when the war was over, these righteous gentiles were prepared to keep their mouths shut, and their wits about them, to create decoys in case of any German suspicions.
“We were petrified to speak and be heard below or outside,” Reb Berisch says. “My father learned silently. He had a Mishnayos with him. Maybe he gave a shiur in a whisper. Otherwise, we spoke little.” During the day, the sun burned down into the chimney stack, and at night, mice scuttled all over the cramped quarters. Searched by the Nazis at the entrance to the ghetto, Appan and his workers could only bring food that appeared to be for their own consumption. Plus, the Rothbarts had not even told him about the additional Jews whom they had allowed to join the family hideout. To the best of Appan’s knowledge, he was supplying sustenance for only eight people. All he brought the dozens of Jews in the bunker was some bread and onions every few days. Dayan Weiss had the unenviable task of conducting dinei Torah over the minimal amount of food and the people’s rights to it.
“The Rothbarts made up a code with Appan, that if he yelled at his dog three times, it was safe for us to open the door into the attic of the factory,” Reb Berish explains. “There was running water in the soap factory, but we could only go down at night. One person had brought a single package of beans, another had candles, and we held the beans in a can with water over the flame, to cook them — like cholent.” Confined in near silence and constant terror of discovery, seven weeks passed, with several narrow escapes from German raids. The group, which included several young children and the ailing rebbetzin, became weaker from severe malnutrition.
One of the men in the bunker, Reb Moshe Leib Friedman Mendlovitz, had taken it upon himself to go out at night and try to make contact with smugglers who could get the group to Romania. His efforts were eventually successful. A few at a time, dressed in peasant clothing, the Jews in the bunker slowly left, relying on members of the Hungarian underground to transport them across the border. The smugglers were paid by a Jewish woman in Arad, Romania. Tragically, Reb Moshe Leib himself was caught and murdered by the Nazis on one of his missions.
Reb Berisch remembers leaving the bunker one Thursday evening with his parents. Disguised in farmers’ clothing, they breathed fresh air for the first time in eight weeks. A car supplied by Miklos, a local Communist party member, took them to the spa town of Felix, where the Rebbetzin’s brother lived, masquerading as a Christian. On Friday night, the Dayan was in the middle of a quiet Kiddush when their guides arrived to escort the Weisses over the border to Romania. Although they successfully reached Arad, then Bucharest, the toll was too much for Rebbetzin Rivkah, who passed away in Kislev of 1944.
he war was over. Letters from the survivors who had returned to Grosswardein reached Dayan Weiss in Bucharest. Their request for the Dayan’s return, and their need for his counsel and leadership, could not be ignored, and soon Reb Berisch and his father found themselves on the train back to Grosswardein.
“My father wanted to recover his seforim and his handwritten Torah folios, so we came back. Our home was still standing and no one was living there. But the shelves in my father’s study were empty, and the safe, where he had kept his kisvei yad, was gone. We found one lone sefer left behind.”
The thriving kehillah of Grosswardein was gone forever. Yet survivors streamed into the town. “Of those who had been deported to the camps, it was mainly men who came back,” says Reb Berisch. “The Germans had kept them alive to work. The survivors had no idea where to turn, but there was some hope that maybe if they went back home, they would find relatives.” Among many efforts to rehabilitate broken youths, the Minchas Yitzchak opened up a small yeshivah together with Rav Schneebalg, the Vizhnitzer Dayan. Meanwhile, distribution centers set up by the American Joint Distribution Committee provided the homeless and penniless survivors with their basic needs.
Then there were the agunos, casualties of the Nazis’ brutal policy of tearing families apart. Reb Berisch still has his father’s records — large, black, bound notebooks filled with Yiddish handwriting in faded ink, which tell the stories of hundreds of women who arrived at the postwar beis din in Grosswardein, unsure whether their husbands had survived. “Blima Ganz… Moshe Aharon Indig… a called Breindel … her father Baruch Avraham… her mother’s name…” Every single circumstance was different; it took Dayan Weiss’s untold reserves of patience and empathy as well as his halachic expertise to unravel the details, hear testimonies, and come to a psak.
Sometimes, a witness was located who had seen the woman’s husband shot, beaten to death, or sent to the left side in Auschwitz. Such testimonies were written down word for word in the Dayan’s notebook and signed by the witnesses. Hundreds of women were freed to marry on the Minchas Yitzchak’s broad halachic shoulders, and often, they remarried other survivors, right there in Grosswardein, under his aegis.
There were also “agunim” — married men whose wives had disappeared. Dayan Weiss dealt with many of their questions regarding remarriage, and also penned a famous teshuvah regarding a man who wishes to marry his wife’s single surviving sister (common in those days) but his wife’s fate cannot be determined.
Meanwhile, Grosswardein once again became part of Romania, and the cold Communist grip soon crushed any hope of rebuilding Yiddishkeit there. Most survivors awaited visas to America. The Minchas Yitzchak, now remarried to the widowed Rebbetzin Malka, a daughter of the Vasloi Rebbe of the Ruzhin dynasty, and Reb Berisch, had applied for visas too. But during the long waiting period, Berisch turned 18, necessitating another application for his own visa. “We were in Prague for a few months, waiting to go to America. But when I turned 18 and needed my own visa, we were afraid to wait under the Communists any longer.”
One day, Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld, chaplain in the British army, arrived at the door of their accommodations in Prague, looking for the Minchas Yitzchak. He had been sent by a cousin of the Dayan’s, the Lieger Rav, who headed a yeshivah in Staines, near London. The paperwork was readied, and the Weisses moved to England, intending to continue to the States as soon as visas would arrive.
“While in Staines, my father went to visit Rav Yecheskel Abramsky, the av beis din of London. They spoke in learning — Rav Abramsky enjoyed a chassidishe Yid who had a great bekius in all areas of halachah. Rav Abramsky felt that if we had come to England, it was a sign that we should stay there.” So they did. And it wasn’t long before the Orthodox community in Manchester heard of the Dayan’s presence and offered him the position of av beis din of their city.
“My father asked the Satmar Rebbe, who advised him to take up the post in Manchester. Although my father didn’t speak any English, he went straight to head the beis din, where there was another dayan who knew Yiddish.” Reb Berisch remembers those early days, and also the better times to come. The Minchas Yitzchak played a key role in building up Jewish Manchester: Besides his responsibility to the wider, more Anglicized Jewish community, he provided leadership to the tiny group of Torah Jews, many of whom were refugees from Europe. He built a first-class mikveh, encouraged local youth to attend yeshivah, and became nasi of the high-level Kollel Harabbanim. And in an interesting twist, the Rothbart family, who had been the agents to save the Minchas Yitzchak from the fires of Auschwitz, also moved to Manchester.
No More Skeptics
t was 1969. Rav Pinchas Epstein, who had served as Raavad of the Eidah Hachareidis for 20 years, had just passed away, and the Yerushalmi community was seeking a new leader. A senior member of the beis din, Rav Dovid Jungreis, was appointed raavad, but he was already an elderly man. The Satmar Rebbe himself held the chief title of gaavad, but lived in faraway Williamsburg. A younger, more active rav was desperately needed locally, in Jerusalem.
The Satmar Rebbe was not long after his own stroke, but the void in leadership was on his mind. He called in a gabbai and instructed him that the Eidah Hachareidis should invite “der vus shrabt de gitte teshuvos — the one who writes those good teshuvos.” He could not recall the Minchas Yitzchak’s name. The gabbai offered various names — until he said “Rav Weiss?” and the Rebbe indicated that that was whom he had intended.
The saintly Manchester Rosh Yeshivah Rav Yehudah Zev Segal, who was extremely close to the Minchas Yitzchak, encouraged him very strongly to take up the post, and in 1970, Manchester lost one of the jewels in its crown as Dayan Weiss left for Jerusalem.
For Reb Berisch, the parting was very difficult. His children recall that when they were growing up, the Minchas Yitzchak stopped by their house every day on his way home from the beis din to spend time with them. Now the Zeide was far away.
“My father wrote regular letters to his father, and traveled to Yerushalayim every few weeks to visit him. In addition, he made an overseas call almost every day to speak to him,” says Reb Berisch’s son, Reb Chaim Weiss. The cost of a daily international call was astronomical in the 1970s, but nothing could stop Reb Berisch from maintaining his close kesher with his revered father. Whenever he arrived to visit the Minchas Yitzchak’s new home on the corner of Rechov Press and Rechov Yeshayahu (where the Badatz beis hora’ah, which bears his name, stands today), the Dayan was overjoyed. For his part, he continued to visit Manchester for all his grandchildren’s simchahs, and sometimes for a much-needed rest. On the first day of every visit, Rav Segal would hasten to stop by to see the Dayan and ask him for detailed reports of happenings in Eretz Yisrael.
Reb Chaim Weiss once met the gabbai of Rav Dovid Jungreis of the Eidah Hachareidis, who told him the following: “On the way to the reception to welcome the Minchas Yitzchak, Rav Jungreis admitted to me, ‘I would have chosen a different rav, but I defer to the Satmar Rebbe.’ There was some feeling among the Yerushalmi community that Rav Weiss was too soft a personality for the role. But just a few weeks later, Rav Jungreis called me back: ‘I misjudged him. Dayan Weiss is the perfect person.’ Within a few weeks, the initial skepticism of the Old Yishuv community had melted away.”
Just a year later, with the passing of Rav Jungreis, Dayan Weiss was appointed raavad, presiding over the Badatz beis din. During his tenure, he broadened the scope and reach of the Eidah Hachareidis, moving it from exclusively serving the Old Yishuv community to connecting with other communities, and extending the hechsher that had supervised only basic products to cover a wide range of items. The Dayan also encouraged the involvement of younger rabbanim in the organization. He provided the impetus for Rav Meir Bransdorfer to take an active role in supervising shechitah, and the stringencies that they developed became the gold standard in this area. Another notable addition to the Eidah Hachareidis rabbinate was Rav Yaakov Blau, rav of Sanhedria and an expert in halachic intricacies of money matters, who had gone to work in a bank and was persuaded by Dayan Weiss to join the Badatz instead.
In 1973, the Minchas Yitzchak absorbed a blow with the passing of Rebbetzin Malka. His remarriage a short while later to the daughter of the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz closed a long-ago circle as he became a member of the Vizhnitz family, with whom he had shared a close connection from back in Grosswardein.
With the passing of the Satmar Rebbe in 1979, Dayan Weiss assumed the post of gaavad. For the next ten years, until his passing at age 88, this meant he no longer went to sit on the beis din regularly; instead, the dayanim came to him periodically to consult on their most difficult cases. His was the final word on all halachic issues that reached the Eidah, including shemittah observance. He also played an active presiding role in the protests, during his tenure, against autopsies and destruction of graves. His close connections to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and to Rav Shmuel Wosner are evident from the many letters and halachic opinions they exchanged. Today, most batei din rely on the verdicts of the Minchas Yitzchak especially regarding modern quandaries about technology and medical ethics.
During his later years, the Minchas Yitzchak also offered extensive shimush and guidance to younger rabbanim, which included his own grandchildren — Reb Berisch’s sons and sons-in-law, Rabbi Leibel Weiss, head of the Eidah Hachareidis Vaad Hakashrus, Rabbi Menachem Meyer Weissmandl of Nitra in Monsey, Rabbi Pinchas Weiss of Chernobyl in Manchester, and Rabbi Shulem Weiss of London.
Nurtured in prewar Europe and developed during a sojourn in a small British kehillah, eventually to shine forth in Jerusalem, the leadership of the Minchas Yitzchak left an indelible impact on tens of thousands of halachic decisions that are reckoned with and acclaimed throughout the Torah world until today.
ayan Osher Yaakov Westheim, Rav of Agudas Yisrael of Manchester and Dayan of Badatz Igud Harabbanim, is a disciple of the Minchas Yitzchak. He shares some memories of the rav who taught him most about psak.
How did the Minchas Yitzchak impact your life?
“When I arrived in Manchester in 1968, the Kollel Harabbanim was learning Yoreh Dei’ah. When some of the yungeleit complained that it was taking the kollel three-and-a-half years to learn Yoreh Dei’ah, Dayan Weiss smiled. ‘When I was a young man, we learned Chullin and Yoreh Dei’ah for four years, eighteen hours a day,’ he said. And so it was that you couldn’t catch him out on anything. The teshuvos of the Minchas Yitzchak on Yoreh Dei’ah Chelek Hei were based on shiurim given in the kollel. Dayan Weiss put up a tzettel with a real question that had come to him and we each had to answer. Then he’d mark our answers with a red pen.
“When he moved to Eretz Yisrael, his knowledge of the mitzvos pertaining to Eretz Yisrael was a great surprise to the rabbanim there. Although he was over 70 and had never lived in Eretz Yisrael, he had great bekius and in-depth grasp of the halachos. He was right on the ball in absolutely every area. I spent time with Dayan Weiss in Eretz Yisrael when I visited, and he also returned to Manchester several times for simchahs, which were opportunities for further shimush. Today it’s rare to have the opportunity for such a close shaychus with a great posek.”
What most characterizes the teshuvos of the Minchas Yitzchak?
“He guided us on how to approach halachah. No such thing as ‘It seems to be’ or ‘It’s probably so.’ He taught us in his shiurim that absolutely everything ‘darf huben a ra’ayah’ — it has to have a proof, otherwise it’s not valid. He built everything up with solid proofs.
“The teshuvos in his sefer Minchas Yitzchak are not easy to understand. It’s written specifically for talmidei chachamim, while a layman can pick up the Iggros Moshe — which includes more simplified explanations as well — and understand the question and answer on a very basic level. But the Minchas Yitzchak felt that anyone who wants to look up a sh’eilah should be able to learn it through from the sugya and the Rishonim.”
Can you share some instances in which the Minchas Yitzchak stuck to his opinion regardless of pressure or other opinions?
“Dayan Weiss was once visiting from Eretz Yisrael and I was with him when three yungeleit from Antwerp entered. They had traveled over from Belgium to gain his support against using sugar cubes, since the molds get smeared with non-kosher animal fat to help release the sugar. Immediately, the Minchas Yitzchak asked, ‘Do the molds get smeared each time, or just for the first batch?’
‘No, just for the first batch.’
‘So what’s the problem? It is completely batul in all the thousands of cubes. Kosher!’
“I once asked the Minchas Yitzchak about different hot water boilers and their use on Shabbos. I showed him one with a thermostat and one with a simmerstat. Although the Dayan could not boil himself an egg, he grasped the technology so quickly and precisely. He asked me to get him one of those so he could take it back to Eretz Yisrael to show the experts there.
“Another example: The Minchas Yitzchak, together with London Av Beis Din Rav Henoch Padwa, was of the opinion that yellow cheeses, such as cheddar and gouda, are considered hard cheese, and one has to wait six hours before eating meat. In America, many poskim ruled that such cheeses do not have the full waiting period. It’s a complicated halachic issue, but he was strict about it.
“In some areas, such as mikvaos, the Minchas Yitzchak’s innovation was both halachic and practical. The hiddurim and design of the mikveh that he built for Manchester in the 1950s were groundbreaking at the time and later imitated by communities worldwide.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 763)