Rav Shach was an unlikely candidate to lead the new army of bnei Torah who emerged with the rebirth of the yeshivah world. But his wisdom and multifaceted understanding of society made him the most sought after dispenser of wisdom in the last generation
edolei Yisroel, Chazal teach us, don’t fall into an era by chance. They are planted — “shaslan” — at various historical junctures. Just like a farmer plants seeds at different locations, depending on conditions, soil, or weather, so too does the Ribono shel Olam place them exactly where they can have the greatest effect.
The era: the postwar rebirth of the yeshivah world in Eretz Yisrael. The emergence of the new army of bnei Torah called for a general.
Rav Eliezer Menachem Shach was an unlikely candidate. Diminutive in stature, his speeches were difficult to follow, and with the high litvishe yarmulke perched on his head, he looked like a relic from old-world Vilna.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Although the Rosh Yeshivah was born only nine years after the first automobile was invented and three decades before the first transatlantic flight, he displayed an uncanny understanding of the generation for which jet travel was a standard part of life. Few could match his grasp of contemporary events and political intrigue, or his three-dimensional vision. But they followed his advice, the bnei Torah and politicians, the Americans and Europeans, the Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and so many others who sent their thorniest and most complex issues to the little apartment across from the Ponovezher Yeshivah.
He was well-trained in leading a nation in difficult times: he had learned from the gedolei Yisrael before him. When the young Rav Shach, one of the respected talmidei chachamim of Vilna of the1930s, lost his daughter, Rachamah litzlan, it was his neighbor Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky who served as babysitter for his other child, little Ephraim, during the levayah.
When Rav Chaim Ozer came to menachem avel the distraught father he clapped him on the shoulder. “Rav Shach,” he said, “remember what Dovid Hamelech said: Lulei sorascha sha’ashuai az avaditi b’onyi [had Your Torah not been my preoccupation, I would have perished in my affliction)]”
Thereafter, whenever Rav Chaim Ozer — who had himself sustained the loss of his only child, a girl — would meet Rav Shach, he would repeat the gesture, patting his shoulder and saying “Remember … Lulei sorascha sha’ashuai….”
The words of the pasuk would become a life-song, accompanying Rav Shach through privation and hunger, through exile and anonymity, and ultimately, to the Holy Land.
There, that great builder, the Ponovezher Rav, sought the right leader for the yeshivah he’d conceived, and he went to visit the scholar, living in squalor in Yerushalayim. Rav Shach welcomed the Ponevezher Rav, inviting him to sit. It was a hot day, and the Rav, having traveled from Bnei Brak, waited for his host to offer him a drink.
The two men spoke, but no offer was forthcoming.
Suddenly, Rav Shach arose, excusing himself for a few minutes. When he returned, he offered his illustrious visitor a drink, which was gratefully accepted. Later, the Rav learned what had occurred.
There were some chickens that lived in the courtyard, and Rav Shach would feed them each day. He wanted to offer his guest a drink, but felt it improper to do so without having a drink himself in order to put the Rav at ease.
But the chickens hadn’t yet been fed! The halachah that their needs take precedence caused him to rise and attend to them first. It was this, said the Ponovezher Rav, more than Reb Leizer’s mastery of Rambam and deep yiras Shamayim, that convinced him that he was the right choice to tend to his bochurim.
That episode would, in a way, encapsulate all which followed. His leadership would always be based on the Rambam, its every nuance instruction for life itself, but at the same time, his heart was opened wide, room within it for all sorts of Yidden.
Room for Everyone
Seats in the Ponovezher Yeshiva are at a premium come Yamim Noraim, and one year, there was simply no more room in the beis medrash for all the talmidim and alumni. Yeshivah administration wanted to solve the problem by splitting the women’s section down the middle and add spaces in the balcony for men.
The women, suggested the administrator, didn’t really participate in most of the davening, so the space would get maximum use from the men.
Rav Shach rejected the idea.
“This is a yeshivah. Which type of woman comes to daven in a yeshivah? It’s not the ones with little children, since they can’t leave their homes. It’s the older women, and the single girls — and the ones who must recite Yizkor.
“In short, it’s those broken in spirit — whose tefillos are most precious in Heaven. Perhaps all of our tefillos, hundreds of men, only ascend to Heaven in their merit? Please leave their space intact!”
There was space for everyone — not just a large group of unfortunate souls, but for each in Klal Yisrael who sought his counsel, no matter how unimportant their issues seemed to others.
Once a young woman came to discuss some fundamental points of emunah with the Rosh Yeshivah. Her questions could have been answered by a typical Beis Yaakov teacher, but she came to the gadol hador. Sensing that this woman was troubled, the Rosh Yeshivah devoted extra time to her, answering her questions.
Fifteen minutes after she left, there was a knock at the door. “I was afraid that I would forget what the Rosh Yeshivah taught me,” the woman explained, “So I brought a notebook and pencil. Can the Rosh Yeshivah write it down?”
Rav Shach took the notebook and wrote down what he had taught her.
Fifteen minutes later, she was back again. She couldn’t read some of the words. “Could the Rosh Yeshivah rewrite them?” she asked.
Every fifteen minutes another knock, until finally a family member grew exasperated and asked Rav Shach why he kept letting her in.
“She’s obviously fraught with tension,” he explained, “and besides for the anxiety she imposes on herself, can you imagine how much her husband suffers? The least I can do is give of my time to calm her down.”
For more than a century, that heart continued to pump lifeblood into Klal Yisrael as a whole, and to the thousands who would come yearly for counsel as individuals.
Ten years have passed since the beacon of light on the hill in Bnei Brak dimmed. Dimmed, but not extinguished. For in the course of those years, some of what Rav Shach shared during his decades at the helm of Klal Yisrael have been recorded, some letters have been catalogued, shedding light and clarity into an increasingly dark and unfocused world. These snippets are just a small sampling — certainly not a definitive study — of that wisdom.
The Child as the Great Critic
“You should be aware that a young child possesses a sharp eye and has the best grasp of his teacher’s nature. If there is even the slightest flaw in the teacher’s personality, even as insignificant as the scratch of a fingernail, the child will recognize it instantly, even while adults do not pick up on it so easily. I am telling you this from my own personal experience; I have seen it dozens of times.” (from an address to educators)
Seven Hours of Sleep
“Heaven forbid that one should skimp on his eating and sleeping. A bochur must sleep seven hours and not eat sparingly. The most important thing is his learning. He should review everything that he has learned and learn faster, covering more ground.” (Letters and Essays, letter 713)
How to Learn for Seventy Years
Rav Shach once voiced his own theory as to why he had become the Rosh Yeshivah of Ponovezh while others had not been appointed to the position. “I learned for seventy years, while they only learned for fifty years.” He meant that over the course of seventy years, he had utilized the entire period of time for learning, while the others had made use of only fifty out of those seventy years. In other words, they had not learned on Fridays and Shabbos, while Rav Shach had made use of that time, thus amassing an extra twenty years of Torah study.
Bava Kama One Hundred Times
There is no way to acquire Torah study other than by fulfilling the first form of acquisition of Torah that the Mishnah mentions: “talmud,” i.e., dedicating oneself to constant study and review. One should review every daf twice and every perek twice. After completing a number of prakim, one should review them all twice, and on completing the masechtas, one should review it twice. This will yield a total of eight reviews. Rav Shach related that he adopted this method in his youth, and he succeeded in completing Maseches Bava Kama one hundred times.
Rav Shach would often repeat that students should not invest time and energy into formulating their own novel insights. Rather, at a young age, one should learn in order to develop knowledge of Shas, reviewing it repeatedly in order to cement his knowledge. Rav S. Deutsch, a maggid shiur in Yeshivas Kol Torah, once bemoaned his lack of chiddushim in his youth, and the Rosh Yeshivah replied that he envied him. “You can learn and cover ground, but I get stuck on various difficulties and things that I don’t understand, and I simply can’t proceed.”
Gemara Without Rashi – A Delight
One Shabbos, as Rav Shach traversed the beis medrash, he passed by the seat where his colleague, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky ztz”l was sitting. Rav Shmuel commented to Rav Shach that he customarily used Shabbos as an opportunity to learn in a way he enjoyed, studying the Gemara with Rashi’s commentary alone, with no other commentaries. Rav Shach replied, “For me, even studying the Gemara alone without Rashi is a pleasure.”
In a letter, Rav Shach once wrote, “For you, in your situation, it is sufficient to study only the Gemara with Rashi’s commentary and to review it several times. Then, over the course of the winter zman, you will certainly come to know several dozen pages of Gemara with Rashi. That is the main growth associated with learning. When you listen to a shiur, even if you do not understand it in its entirety and you understand only a small part of it, that is also good.” (Letters and Essays, letter 289)
Fighting a Breach in Tradition
The staff members of a talmud Torah in Yerushalayim, all of them prominent and distinguished individuals, once wanted to deviate from the traditional order of study and begin teaching Chumash from Parshas Lech Lecha, rather than from Parshas Bereishis as was customary. They reasoned that small children were unable to comprehend the Torah’s account of the creation of the world, and if they began by learning Bereishis at such a young age, they would remain with a five-year-old’s perspective on those lofty matters for the rest of their lives. Rav Shach instructed one of his close associates to notify the administration of the school that their intended course of action represented a violation of the foundations of Yiddishkeit and destruction of the very foundations of the Torah. If they did not renege on their plans and reinstitute the traditional order of study, he warned, he was prepared to do battle against them.
A short time later, Rav Shach came across a midrash that states that the difference between the Jewish People and the nations of the world lies in the fact that even a small Jewish child learns about the creation of the world, even if it is beyond his comprehension.
Giving Praise to Students
“The solution is to care for him more, to show him more affection and love, and to praise him effusively. I know of several situations like this. You should not be worried, nor should you deal with him angrily or strike him. On the contrary, treat him with kindness and love, and Hashem will certainly see to it that he will be a good boy and will become great in Torah and yirah.” (Letters and Essays, letter 311)
“I Resign – I Have Failed”
One of Rav Shach’s close students once approached him with a question after shiur, but to his surprise, Rav Shach announced that he would not be answering any further questions because he was resigning from his position as a maggid shiur in Yeshivas Ponovezh! The talmid pressed for an explanation, and Rav Shach explained, “Today, after the shiur, a student approached me and wanted to ask something ‘about the dispute between Reb Elchanan and the Avnei Miluim.’ If a student of mine could make such a mistake and say that there is a ‘dispute’ between the Avnei Miluim and Rav Elchanan Wasserman, it is a sign that I have failed in my task and I must resign from my position.”
The Responsibility of a Ben Torah
“The responsibility that rests on every ben Torah in our age is tremendous. We have remained few in number, and if, chas v’shalom, we are negligent in fulfilling our task then the entire existence of Klal Yisrael will be imperiled.” (Letters and Essays, vol. 3, p. 7)
Don’t Overwork a Student
“I feel that it is a tremendous chesed not to weigh a girl down by overloading her with more work than she is capable of doing.” (Letters and Essays, vol. 3, p. 48)
Middos over Money
“The main thing is to choose the girl with the best hashkafah and the best middos. Even if there are other girls who are in a better financial position, the most important factor is the person herself. Of course, one must be careful not to take on excessive debts, which can be disruptive to one’s learning afterward.” (Letters and Essays, vol. 3, p. 126)
A Daughter’s Insight
One of Rav Shach’s close disciples was interested in marrying off his daughter to a bochur who learned in the yeshivah and had acquired an excellent reputation. The entire faculty of the yeshivah spoke highly of him, but after their first meeting, the girl felt that the boy was not necessarily deserving of all those accolades. On the date, she explained, she had sensed that there was something improper about him.
The father made another attempt to look into the matter, but the information he received was identical to what he had already heard. By all accounts, the boy was an excellent, even exceptional, bochur. His daughter, however, remained adamant, insisting that there was something rotten about the boy. Left with no choice, the father turned to Rav Shach, who replied that he did not personally know the bochur but he would investigate the situation again.
Several days later, an emissary of Rav Shach came to the father and told him to cease pursuing the shidduch. Rav Shach did not wish to explain why, but he praised the girl’s wisdom.
Stay Out of It
“Someone who is unfamiliar with the nature of the questioner should not dispense advice. I would consider it a sin for myself to become involved in this question, on which the person’s entire life and even his future generations depend.” (Letters and Essays, vol. 3, p. 47)
“I feel that you have no need to hesitate. If you have already made all the necessary inquiries, you should go forward. You should not be concerned that you might not be fit to pursue this. They certainly have also investigated you, and if they have decided to approach you,, you are certainly fitting.” (Letters and Essays, letter 90)
Good Middos Are Everything
“You should know that the most important thing is for you to seek a girl with proper middos. That trait encompasses everything else.” (Letters and Essays, vol. 6, p. 127)
Look Out for Yourself
A bochur once approached Rav Shach with a dilemma about a shidduch. He had gone out on three dates, and the girl seemed to be prepared to close the shidduch but he was still uncertain. Yet he feared that it would be problematic if he said that he was not ready to move forward. Rav Shach told him, “A shidduch is the only situation in which it is forbidden to be considerate of others. You must look out for yourself only, and don’t worry about anyone else’s concerns. This is not the time to be a baal middos. Think only about what is good for you.”
A bochur met with a girl once and saw that she was not an appropriate match for him. He asked Rav Shach if it would be better to agree to a second date so that she would not be offended by an immediate rejection, or conversely, that she would be even more offended if he rejected her after a second date. Rav Shach responded that there was no clear answer to his question, and in such situations it is preferable not to take action. Consequently, he should not agree to a second date.
“Since you have written that he observes the Torah and mitzvos — in other words, that he keeps Shabbos, eats kosher, and davens every day — I do not feel that you should reject this suggestion.… But certainly, if a boy is suggested who is learned, he would have priority.…” (Letters and Essays, vol. 3 p. 127)
Stick to Your Department
A young, newly married woman once came to Rav Shach demanding a divorce from her husband, a yungerman who studied in kollel. Her complaint was that he devoted his night seder, which he spent at home, to the study of halachah, rather than learning iyun as she expected.
Rav Shach asked one of his family members to bring her two pieces of cake, each a different kind, and told her to taste one.
She felt awkward but complied with Rav Shach’s instructions. After she had tasted a crumb, Rav Shach insisted that she finish the piece of cake, then waited patiently while she ate the other one.
When she was finished, Rav Shach asked her, “How were the cakes? You must have tasted a difference between them. Can you explain to me the difference between them?
The young woman stammered in reply, “I-I think that one of them had more chocolate, and the other one tasted like vanilla.”
Rav Shach replied, “I see that you have expertise in the kitchen. Keep your focus on what is done there, and let your husband decide for himself what he wants to learn and when.”
Problems and Solutions
Rav Shach was once approached by a young couple who customarily alternated spending Shabbos with the wife’s parents and the husband’s parents. One week when they were supposed to spend Shabbos with the husband’s parents, the husband became ill and they had to remain home for Shabbos. The following week, a fierce argument erupted. The wife maintained that the husband had “lost his turn” on the preceding week, and they should spend Shabbos with her parents in accordance with the original plan, while the husband argued that the previous Shabbos should not be counted and they should spend Shabbos with his parents.
Ultimately, the “dilemma” was presented to Rav Shach, who devised an original solution to the problem. He suggested that the couple spend an additional Shabbos in their own home. Then they could spend the following Shabbos with the husband’s parents, in accordance with their original plan.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 383)