There’s much truth to the idea that a sefer can have a soul
There’s an old saying that “sefer bli hakdamah k’guf bli neshamah,” a sefer without an introduction is like a body lacking a soul. I don’t know the source for that epigram and I’ve wondered if it was perhaps coined by someone who just wanted license to write a really long hakdamah to his sefer, or perhaps just liked the way hakdamah rhymes with neshamah.
But whatever one may say about the importance of a hakdamah, people who love seforim know there’s much truth to the idea that a sefer can have a soul. And the longer the sefer has been around and the more warm Jewish hands it has passed through, the more keenly you can sense it.
Human souls experience gilgulim, the mystery-shrouded process of transmigration of a neshamah from its home in one body to another in a later generation. And perhaps a sefer, too, must sometimes undergo its own rite of passage in order to end up in the possession of its destined owner.
Here, then, is one such story. About 17 years ago, Rabbi Yisroel Chanowitz and family, who had lived for some years in our Bayswater community, decided to move upstate to Monsey, New York. Our good neighbors, the Krugers, were very friendly with the Chanowitzes and planned a farewell kiddush in their honor in shul. But the Chanowitzes didn’t want all the attendant fanfare and so instead, on their last Shabbos in town, a kiddush took place at the Krugers’ home.
During the course of the kiddush, I indulged a bad habit of mine, sauntering over to peruse the seforim on their bookshelves. Never mind that I’d done this on numerous prior occasions in my friend Reb Mordechai Kruger’s home, so that I already had a good working knowledge of what his collection contained (I seem to recall an instance or two in which he has called me up from somewhere outside his home asking me if he owns such-and-such sefer).
Opening a visibly vintage volume of Tevuos Shor, an important halachic work on Yoreh Dei’ah, specifically on shechitah and treifos, I immediately noticed a stamp on the sha’ar blatt (opening page) and did a double-take. I squinted more closely at the lettering to make sure it said what I thought it did: That the sefer had once belonged to “Reb Ben Tzion ben Yisroel Chanowitz, of Vilna, shochet ubodek of Glubokaye, in the Vilna region.”
I knew what needed to be done. Heading straight past the tables enticingly laden with herring platters and vegetable dips, I hung a right at the schnapps table and, handing Reb Mordechai the open sefer, said insouciantly, “You’re going to return this, aren’t you?” He wasn’t sure what I meant, since the sefer had been sitting quietly on his shelf for years — until I pointed to the stamp.
Reb Mordechai had summoned Reb Yisroel Chanowitz over, who confirmed that although he had never seen the sefer before, it must have belonged to his zeide — Rav Ben Tzion ben Yisroel Chanowitz — who had indeed been a shochet in a city near Vilna, making his ownership of a Tevuos Shor a near-certainty. The owner of this particular copy, in fact, had made extensive use of it, as seen from the fact that it was heavily annotated and even featured a handwritten index of topics.
That Motzaei Shabbos, Reb Yisroel went to see his elderly father, Rav Gershon Chanowitz, who like his father and grandfather before him, was a shochet. Wordlessly, he placed the sefer in front of him. The elder Chanowitz immediately recognized the very neat, precise handwriting and said, “That’s my father’s Tevuos Shor.” He had last seen his father for a fleeting moment before fleeing Europe in 1940 for Shanghai, where he spent the war years, and he now had this single memento to cherish of his lost family.
But the big mystery remained: How had the sefer found its way to the Kruger home? Reb Mordechai’s memory traveled back to 1996, when he had returned to his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, to sit shivah for his father a”h. When Mrs. Lerner, a friend of his parents, paid a shivah visit, she mentioned that while cleaning out her home, she’d come across a box of Jewish books that had belonged to her father, a cantor in Columbus, Ohio. She didn’t want to donate them to her Conservative synagogue where, she said, they’d just gather dust. Instead, she asked Reb Mordechai, “Would you please give them a home?”
For a lover of seforim, that’s the very definition of an offer you can’t refuse. Unfortunately, however, much of the box’s contents could not be saved. But there were a few seforim in there too, including a well-worn Tevuos Shor.
Reb Mordechai already owned the sefer, but one never knows when he’ll need an extra Tevuos Shor, and so it found a temporary, seven-year-long home on his bookshelf, waiting for its chance to return to its permanent home (or, if a sefer could sing, to “the place where I belong”).
The mystery, however, was only half-solved; indeed, the plot had only thickened. For the sefer to have traveled northward several hundred miles from Norfolk to Bayswater was one thing. But from Vilna to Virginia?
Reb Mordechai called his long-ago neighbor, Mrs. Lerner, and after ascertaining that she had no relatives named Chanowitz, he asked her if she had any connection to Vilna. “Why, I was born in Vilna!” she exclaimed. The thought that this all-American lady without a trace of an accent, a member of a Conservative congregation in down-home Norfolk, turned out to be a “Vilna geboirener,” was downright disorienting.
She went on to explain that her father had trained in the famed Lithuanian city as a shochet and a chazzan, and in 1933, had emigrated with his family to Columbus, Ohio, taking a position as the cantor in a synagogue there. Upon her marriage to a Norfolk man, she moved to Virginia. And although Mrs. Lerner knew nothing of the sefer in question, Reb Mordechai surmised that back in his Vilna days, her father had known Rav Ben Tzion Chanowitz — perhaps having even trained under him — and that upon hearing that his newly minted young colleague was moving to America, he had gifted him his own personal copy of Tevuos Shor, which would be important for a practicing shochet to have and likely impossible to come by in the goldeneh medineh.
Imagine, a 70-year journey from Vilna to Columbus to Norfolk to Bayswater, until finally returning home once again, giving a special Torah family its only remaining tangible link to previous generations so cruelly snuffed out — quite a migration, even if not quite a transmigration. What lessons are there to learn from this little true tale (other than not to let guys like me near your bookcases)? Maybe none. But if nothing else, stories like these are the whispers from Above, the faint intimations sprinkled throughout our lives that there’s more to our time here than we can see, other dimensions to our lives beyond what we can touch.
And that’s lesson enough.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 842. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com
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