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Brilliant Mind, Golden Heart

 A tribute to my Saba, Rav Moshe Dovid Tendler

Photos: Family archives


This is the tribute I hoped I’d never write: “Remembering Rav Moshe Dovid Tendler, born 27 Av 5686, died Shemini Atzeres 5782.” He was so many things: brilliant, elegant, regal, sharp, intimidating., unflinching. But to me and my siblings and cousins, he was Saba. Saba was a force, a legend in his own time; he was everything to our family. And now he’s in a better place, and we are heartbroken. Saba, you were always so proud of my writing but admitted you weren’t a fan of fiction. So this time, Saba, a piece of real life


Back in the day, young Moshe Dovid Tendler was what today would be called a “golden boy” — handsome, blessed with extraordinary intellectual abilities, athletic, and fearless. When an Irish gang was bothering a classmate of his, Moshe Dovid strode over to the gang leader and said, “Touch him again and I’ll churn you into butter.” Taking one look at Saba’s calmly set face, the leader called his gang off.

He was born on the Lower East Side on August 7, 1926. He once referred to it as “a Jewish shtetl in every way, full of first-generation immigrants, who dressed, talked, and behaved as they did in Europe. But observing them and learning from them proved to be extremely valuable to me, as I had contact with authentic Judaism from an early age.” His group of peers, friends, and neighbors grew up to be renowned roshei yeshivah and rebbeim, the next generation of leaders.

His father, Rav Yitzchak Isaac Tendler (Zeidy Isaac), an immigrant from Poland, was a talmud muvhak of the Chofetz Chaim yeshivah back in Radin, and later, one of the roshei yeshivah of the Rabbi Yaakov Yosef yeshivah and rav of the Kamenitzer shul, the largest shul of the Lower East Side. His mother, Rebbetzin Bella Baumrind Tendler (Bubby Bella), was a mechaneches: She gave her famous Pirkei Avos shiur on the radio for many years and then continued them in person in her home for decades. She also possessed a correspondence degree in law that permitted her to act as her own attorney in real estate transactions, and she was a baalas chesed who organized funds, food, and clothing for the poor on the Lower East Side.

Moshe Dovid attended RJJ through elementary school and then began his more than 80-year association with Yeshiva University when he entered its high school. He then attended Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s shiur for the next seven years and considered Rav Yoshe Ber and his own father-in-law, Rav Moshe Feinstein, to be his primary rebbeim.

In order to learn two full sedorim in yeshivah, he opted to attend college at night, receiving his BA from New York University in 1940, semichah at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan in 1949, and a master’s degree in biology in 1950. In 1957, he got a PhD in microbiology from Columbia University.

Upon receiving semichah, he started giving ninth grade shiur and was progressively promoted to a higher shiur until in the ’70s when he was asked to give the semichah shiur, the highest level.

He’d been fascinated by biology since he was a child, and YU hired him as a biology instructor in 1952; he eventually became chairman of the department. He was later named one of the roshei yeshivah, a title he honored until his death. When Covid struck, he switched his shiur over to Zoom, learning the technology despite his advanced age, and was still teaching up until five months ago, at age 94. Hours after hip surgery, there he was in the ICU, white shirt buttoned, propped up on pillows, Gemara open in front of the computer screen, surrounded by doctors looking on in awe and listening in on his medical ethics shiur. Saba lived for Torah, and eventually, he died for it. Anxious to begin his shiur, he hurried to the screen instead of waiting for his aide. And that’s how he fell, broke his leg, and eventually died of infection five months later.

Before my first shidduch date, I swung by Saba’s house for some dating advice. My Aunt Russi was visiting her father at the time, and she laughed when she heard the reason for my visit. “Don’t ask Saba for dating advice — he never dated!” I did ask for a brachah though.

It was no surprise that the young star of the Lower East Side would marry the princess of the community, Rav Moshe Feinstein’s brilliant and lovely daughter Shifra. One afternoon, Moshe Tendler met Shifra Feinstein in the library, and the rest, as they say, is history. They were together for the next 59 years.

I remember sitting in the shul on West Maple in Monsey, New York, on a cold October day, 14 years ago, as Saba stood up. He’d aged in the last few months, and I barely recognized him beneath his grief.

“Eishes chayil mi yimtza?” he said brokenly to those gathered. “I’d found her… And now I lost her.” And there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Later, at the cemetery, a fierce rain pounded down, and we huddled under umbrellas, watching the Heavens themselves cry over the loss of our Savta, a daughter of royalty, and a queen in her own right. As we slowly walked away from the freshly dug grave, Saba turned back. “How can I leave her there?” he croaked. “She hates the cold....”

For years afterward, when I’d ask him how he’s doing, he’d say, “I’m keeping busy so I don’t find out.”

He was half a person without her, and he missed her terribly every day. And so, it was only fitting that he passed away on her birthday, Shemini Atzeres, only five days before her own yahrtzeit. Their neshamos were entwined, both in life and in death.

Rav Moshe and Rebbetzin Shifra Tendler started out their married life in Washington Heights. In 1960, they moved to the small suburb of Monsey to raise their growing family and became instrumental in the growth of Monsey into what it is today. In 1966, Rav Tendler was chosen to be the first and only rav of the small fledgling Community Synagogue of Monsey, for many decades the largest frum shul in Rockland County. He refused to take any salary and accepted the position “on the condition that my first obligation is to the yeshivah.” Over the years, the shul grew to include hundreds of families who all viewed Saba as their moreh derech.

He had thousands of talmidim and hundreds of rabbanim throughout the world who turned to him for advice. A man came to shivah, sat down with the mourners, and then said, “Remember what your father did? He saved my daughter’s life.” Thirty-five years ago, when his wife was expecting, the doctors told her she needed to end the pregnancy. She called up Rav Tendler, he listened to the medical and halachic facts, and then unequivocally told her she must not terminate. She listened to him, and for the next 35 years, they were grateful to Saba every single day.

He was a baal chesed in the most quiet and unassuming way. A man in need once received an appointment with Saba; he broke down and sobbed about his financial woes. Saba, comfortable but not wealthy, took out his checkbook and wrote him out a check for $10,000.

Saba had many opinions, and not all of them made him popular. But if he believed something was true, there was no way he was going to sugarcoat it or flatter others and change what he thought. And while that sometimes left him politically incorrect, his natural chein and brilliance more than made up for it.

Saba was a chacham gadol and an illui, known for his opinions on matters of life and death, kashrus, halachah, birth, pregnancy, marriage, and medical ethics. He included us grandchildren in many of these discussions, even as our own little children would be running cars over the floor or dripping sticky lollipop puddles on the table. We’d listen as he’d explain his point, including us in the discourse as if we were just as smart as he was.

You couldn’t sway him with haughtiness or flattery. The US Navy once asked him to give a lecture to their officers. Saba stood in front of them all, unintimidated, and proclaimed that any unethical behaviors occurring in the Navy stemmed from following a rule book other than the Torah.

People would call with sh’eilos all hours of the day, and he took every single call to heart — and there were many, many calls. But Friday was Saba day, grandchildren and acquaintances from around the world would call to wish him a good Shabbos, to hear his hearty, “Hiya dolly, how are you and my grandson doing?”

When I was younger, my siblings and I — living nearby in Monsey — would traipse over to Saba and Savta every Friday afternoon for lunch of potato kugel or French fries or the occasional tater tots, as well as to deliver the homemade gefilte fish my mother would make weekly. We also brought any other goodies my sisters baked and thought had turned out well enough to withstand Saba and Savta’s critique, which was as honest and sharp as any cooking-show judge. Thinking over it now, I’m left wondering which other grandparents would invite eight children to have lunch in their clean, orderly home Erev Shabbos?

And then, as my sisters grew up and married and left the nest, my brother went off to yeshivah, and Savta left This World, it was just me — driving over on Fridays to deliver the gefilte fish, eat a little something, give Saba a big kiss on his cheek, and wish him a good Shabbos. How I wish I could turn back time, to go sit at the speckled kitchen table once more, to laugh as he shares with me a sharp comment he had for this one, and listen as he answers the phone calls from my cousins with genuine appreciation and cheer. Even if he was in the middle of writing a shiur or cooking with the precision of a scientist, he was always truly happy to hear from those who loved him. Once I moved to Israel, I too joined the Friday phone calls. And now, as the Fridays pass, I hear his rich, warm voice fill my mind as I race the clock to shkiah: “Hiya, dolly!”

As a son-in-law of the posek hador, Rav Moshe Tendler quickly became a major figure in Rav Moshe Feinstein’s positions on Jewish law and bioethics, writing many articles in prominent medical and Torah journals alike. He was also a past president and posek of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, as well as chair of the bioethical commission of the Rabbinical Council of America and the Medical Ethics Task Force of UJA-Federation of Greater New York. For a time he worked in cancer research, even developing a drug he dubbed Refuin (a play on the word refuah). He wrote the book  Pardes Rimonim: A Marriage Manual for the Jewish Family, and coauthored, with Dr. Fred Rosner, Practical Medical Halachah, a​​ guidebook of Jewish responsa to medical issues.

It was easy to be intimidated by him. One of the favorite categories of “Saba” stories were “What did he critique you for? How cleverly was his criticism worded? And what did he say about your latest cooking feat?”

Yet he was also warm, loving, and accepting. And he loved us so much, we were all genuinely convinced that we were the favorites — and honestly, we all were. It didn’t matter who wore a black hat or kippah serugah, who was an avreich and who was an accomplished academic. If you were his grandchild, he loved you, he boasted about you, he was proud of you. He showed up at every simchah, often traveling many hours; he visited Eretz Yisrael every January and every summer for decades, giving the Israeli branches of the family the opportunity to share their nachas at crowded noisy “Saba parties” that he loved attending.

I gave birth to my eldest daughter on July 7th. An hour after moving to the recovery room, who was there to hold the baby and exclaim over her almost 11-pound birth weight? Saba. Who came to Maalot Dafna for Shabbos for the kiddush? Saba. And one year later, who showed up for her one-year-old barbecue dinner? Saba. My brother-in-law graciously drove him back to my Aunt Sara’s home after the party, and Saba regaled the passengers with stories of the shver until my nephew finally leaned over to my sister-in-law and whisper-shouted, wide-eyed, “Do you realize who ‘the shver’ is??”

When I was 17, Saba’s brother Shalom was flying from L.A. to a simchah in Baltimore for just one day. Saba couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit his younger brother who was within driving distance and decided to head off to Baltimore for the day. The family was naturally concerned about him driving alone, four hours each way. And so the next day, there I was, bag of snacks at my feet, SAT prep book in my lap, accompanying Saba on his drive. Oh, how I wish I had that time now, when I would use it well, instead of studying. I would schmooze about everything and anything, or maybe I’d just place my hand on his chestnut brown arm and watch him as he drove. But 17-year-old Ariella studied, occasionally sharing a tricky problem with her brilliant grandfather. Still, I learned more than SAT vocab words that day; I learned about how far one goes to make family feel special.

One summer when Saba was in Jerusalem, and we heard that he needed a ride from my aunt in Bayit Vegan to my cousin in Arzei Habirah, my husband and I snatched the opportunity for some rare quality time with him. Before he left the car, I pulled out a Tupperware. “Saba, I made you your favorite biscotti.” Saba leaned on the car and smiled. “Thank you, dolly, but I can’t bring my own food into someone else’s home. It’s just not right.” And just like that, I learned a lesson for life in the Arzei Habirah parking lot.

I never saw him indecisive or unsure of himself. At my wedding, as the videographer came around with a microphone, my father urged Saba to give me a brachah. Saba took the microphone. “I daven for Ariella three times a day. I won’t do it a fourth.” And he handed the microphone back.

Saba, please, please keep davening.

With Saba, there was no differentiation between the great moments and the mundane. We would call him for advice about all and sundry. My sister remembers calling him in second grade to ask if she could attend school the next day if she has fever. We called him when our eldest lost his first tooth. When my son woke up with one eye swollen, we naturally called him, panicked, before rushing to the hospital. After updating our parents that it was actually the result of a cavity, my sister forwarded me Saba’s voice message: “Hiya Tzipora, Saba here. I’m just waiting to hear about Ariella’s little boy and the dental emergency. If you hear anything, please let me know. Kol tuv.”

During shivah, someone discovered a list in the back of Saba’s Gemara. It documented the births of every single one of his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. From his first daughter’s birth when he was 26 years old, to the last documented baby when he was 94, he kept a meticulous record of each baby’s Hebrew birth date, English birth date, hospital they were born in, and full Hebrew name. “It was like Hashem counting the stars to show His love for them,” said my sister Tzipora.

Almost two years ago my only brother got married, and for the first time ever, the entire family spent the Shabbos of the aufruf together, with Saba holding court as each of his children got up to speak.

And now, each one of his sons and sons-in-law got up to speak again — at his levayah in Community Synagogue.

“The thing is,” my husband mused after the levayah, “that if Saba had known by the aufruf that he had only two years left, he wouldn’t have done a single thing differently with the remaining time.”

He loved life fiercely and used every second of it to the utmost. Saba, please keep davening for us. Be proud of us. Be a meilitz yosher for us. And we will try to continue your legacy of yashrus and truth.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 883)

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