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Book Marks

Not only was Rav Ruderman’s genius invested in the Avodas Levi, so was his mesirus nefesh


Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, the towering rosh yeshivah of Baltimore’s Ner Israel whose 35th yahrtzeit is being marked this year on 14 Tammuz, was a self-described “shikkur for seforim.” Only someone thus intoxicated would pay one hundred dollars for the sefer Oneg Yom Tov, a staggering sum when he did so in 1938.

A favorite “liquor store” of his was Biegeleisen’s, when the famed bookseller was still on the Lower East Side, before relocating to its current Boro Park premises (with the iconic “J. Biegeleisen Hebrew Books” sign still out front in the window). When Rav Ruderman would return home after traveling to New York for a wedding, he would try to whisk his multiple newly purchased seforim past his rebbetzin’s gaze under his kapoteh.

Nor would he put a newly acquired sefer on the shelf until he’d gone through it first. Toward the end of the Rosh Yeshivah’s life, two bochurim would accompany him in the summer for a stay in Camp Agudah. Once, a vendor was selling seforim in the camp and the Rosh Yeshivah went to check out his wares. He bought three seforim, gave one to each of the bochurim with him, and kept the last one — a newly published volume of the Mishnas Rav Aharon — for himself. When he retired for the night, the bochurim helped him close the lights and put away his glasses, but one of them went back to check on the Rosh Yeshivah in the middle of the night and found him learning through the Mishnas Rav Aharon. Notwithstanding his extremely poor eyesight, he had found his glasses and arisen from bed in his eagerness to learn from the newly published sefer.

Rav Ruderman wasn’t just entranced by seforim in general, he authored a monumental Torah work of his own. Avodas Levi, on topics in Seder Kodshim, was published in Lita in 1930 and garnered haskamos from two of the prewar generation’s leading talmidei chachamim: Rav Avrohom Duber Shapiro, known as the Kovner Rav, and Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, Rav Ruderman’s rosh yeshivah in Slabodka. These approbations stand out in their effusiveness about both the mechaber and the sefer. Reb Moshe Mordechai, for example, writes these astonishing words about the then 28-year-old author: “Hineni l’hadiya b’shaar bas rabim ki gadol hu migedolei u’geonei hazman, v’chidushav heima ne’emorim b’geonus  — I hereby publicly declare that he is a gadol among the gedolim of our time, and his chiddushim are sheer brilliance!”

Not only was Rav Ruderman’s genius invested in the Avodas Levi, but so was his mesirus nefesh. The Rosh Yeshivah once told a talmid how two complete simanim (chapters) of the sefer came to be. Rebbetzin Faiga once became gravely ill, to the point that Rav Ruderman was informed by the doctors that his wife had two days to live. As a zechus for her recovery, he learned for the next 48 hours straight, and the chiddushim that emerged became those two simanim, which he said were the best ones in the sefer.

Outstanding as his sefer was, when Rav Ruderman once showed a talmid a letter he had received from the Steipler Gaon praising the Avodas Levi greatly and encouraging him write more such seforim, he remarked, “I have enough chiddushim to write another ten volumes of Avodas Levi. But instead, I am writing leibedig seforim [living books], and that requires single-minded focus. The Gemara compares a rebbi to a malach, saying ‘If your rebbi appears like a malach of Hashem, you can then seek Torah from his mouth,’ and a malach can only perform one mission at a time.”

Indeed, Rav Ruderman continued, his own rebbi, the Alter of Slabodka, also didn’t write his chiddushim. “After all,” said the Rosh Yeshivah, “the sefer Ohr Hatzafun, containing his mussar discourses, is a tipah min hayam (drop in the sea) of what he imparted to his talmidim. He would speak with various chaburos, for 12 hours each day. But his goal was to mold teachers of Torah, leaders of communities.”

We can spend many hours and expend many words speaking of the greatness of teaching Torah and building talmidim, but nothing can convey that with more eloquence than what Rav Ruderman didn’t do — the seforim he didn’t write — so that he could instead be marbitz Torah.

And there are other kinds of seforim, too. The Lodzer Rav, Rav Elya Chaim Meisel, an early-20th century gaon whose deeds of tzedakah and chesed for the needy of his city were legendary, was once approached by the mechaber of a sefer who wanted the Rav’s haskamah on his work. Assuming that the Rav must have written seforim too, the fellow asked to see his. Rav Elya Chaim took out the city’s tzedakah ledger and said, “Dos, dos iz mein sefer.”

When Rav Ruderman first arrived in Baltimore with the Rebbetzin — whose yahrtzeit is four days prior to her husband’s, on the tenth of Tammuz — many of the locals were not amenable, to say the least, to the idea of a yeshivah in their town. And so, to promote the concept, Rav Ruderman would give derashos to balabatim about the chashivus of Torah, while Rebbetzin Ruderman would give speeches to the ladies. One time, when she returned home after a speech with stains all over her clothes, her daughter, Rebbetzin Weinberg, asked her what had happened, and she responded that people had thrown vegetables at her.

If the Rosh Yeshivah’s multivolume set of “seforim” were his half century of harbatzas Torah in Baltimore, those splotches on the dress were the ink.  —


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 919. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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