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The Voice of Teshuvah

Rav Sholom Schwadron’s unrehearsed prayers became a staple of repentance

Photos: Mishpacha Archives

 

It was just 40 days after the massacre, the first night of Rosh Hashanah 5690 (1929).

The Chevron Yeshivah was in its temporary home on Rechov Haneviim in Jerusalem, a group of shattered survivors struggling to find strength to go on. Weeks earlier, Arab marauders had burst into the yeshivah in the city of Hebron and killed 24 people. In all, the slaughter claimed the lives of 67 Jews in the Chevron kehillah. The survivors were those who’d hidden under benches and in closets, and now, it was time for them to greet the new year.

It came time for Maariv and there was no baal tefillah, no one ready to stand before the amud and express the triumph and glory. The quiet in the hall added to the sense of melancholy and sorrow, each individual talmid lost in his own thoughts.

It didn’t feel like the Chevron-Slabodka yeshivah — its splendor and spirit were gone. They had lost friends, dear friends, seen blood spilled, heard the shouts of the murderers. It was too fresh, too raw. They were numb.

The mashgiach, Rav Leib Chasman, stood up and walked around the beis medrash and approached a bochur, Betzalel Shakovitzky.

“Please lead us in Maariv,” said the mashgiach.

The bochur demurred, feeling too young and unworthy. The other talmidim looked on as the mashgiach persisted — would a mere bochur really lead the tefillos in a yeshivah with such a rich tradition, a tzibbur of such respected talmidei chachamim?

Rav Leib insisted and the bochur hesitantly approached the amud. He donned the tallis, and, in a magnificent voice, called out “Barechu… es Hashem Hamevorach” in the traditional nusach. The voices of the talmidim joined in, everyone making an effort to bring in the atmosphere of the holy day.

It didn’t go, the anguish too overwhelming for the bnei yeshivah.

The second brachah, Ahavas Olam. The chazzan — young Betzalel — reached the words, “v’ahavas’cha al tasir mimeinu l’olamim — May You never remove Your love from us.” Choked with tears, he sang them out — the plea, the hope. The dam burst, and the entire tzibbur sang along, “v’ahavas’cha al tasir mimeinu l’olamim.”

There was a moment of silence and then Betzalel started again, “v’ahavas’cha al tasir mimeinu l’olamim,” the crowd repeating the words after him, in the very same niggun.

Again and again, they sang the words, investing them with the pain and grief of the previous 40 days. No one counted how many times they repeated the words that night, just as no one had counted the tears or the drops of blood that had flowed just a few weeks before.

Talmidim had a sense that this moment was when Chevron was reborn, on the strength of that tefillah, of those sublime minutes.

After Maariv, the mashgiach, Rav Leib, grasped the hand of the baal tefillah, young Betzalel, and shook it warmly.

“Dos hob ich gemeint, that was my intention,” he whispered.

 

This was Chevron, and these were its tefillos, each and every Yamim Noraim an echo of that one. Within a few months, the yeshivah had reestablished itself on Chaggai Street, the first yeshivah in the neighborhood and the center of Torah life. Along with the official talmidim of the yeshivah, there were many neighbors who felt connected — talmidei chachamim who learned under the Brisker Rav up on Rechov Press, and the growing ranks of local Yerushalmim drawn by this “new” derech halimud.

The yeshivah was marked by its focus on tradition, many of the customs and practices dating back to Slabodka, the yeshivah that had spawned Chevron. The Yamim Noraim had its own special mesorah, the tefillos, the nusach, the niggunim — all of them brought to the yeshivah by the baal tefillah, Rav Shlomo Zimbalist.

Reb Shlayme, as he was known, was a Chevron alumnus and the respected rosh yeshivah of Tiferes Tzvi. His voice was so closely associated with Chevron on the Yamim Noraim that the talmidim could conceive of no other baal tefillah. But on the first day of Rosh Hashanah one year, in the early 1950s, Reb Shlayme — who’d been baal tefillah for so many years — made his way over to the rosh yeshivah, Rav Yechezkel Sarna, and spoke to him quietly.

It was just before tekios, and most people were reciting Tehillim or learning mussar in quiet contemplation. A few sharp-eyed bochurim saw the exchange, and realized that their beloved Reb Shlayme was likely informing the Rosh Yeshivah that he could not daven.

Who would replace him? Who could replace him?

Rav Sarna looked around the beis medrash and approached an avreich, young Rav Sholom Mordechai HaKohein Schwadron. As the bochurim looked on, Reb Sholom lifted his hands, clearly protesting. Rav Sarna turned and walked back to his shtender.

One bochur told another, “Just watch. Reb Sholom will daven today. See how he’s already shuckeling back and forth, how frightened he suddenly appears!”

The voice that pierced the silence after tekios was a bit hoarse, but it was brimming with yiras Shamayim and love of Jews.

The Chevron Yeshivah had just entered a new era.

 

It wasn’t the voice. It certainly wasn’t the voice, because the voice wasn’t particularly sweet or mellow, not even that loud.

But it could melt the heart.

When Reb Sholom stood by the bimah and swayed, a picture of perfect humility and brokenness, there was perfect silence. Then the first words came out, “Hineini he’ani mima’as — Behold, I am impoverished of deeds,” and all around, people wept.

Because his voice was the voice of teshuvah.

Unlike most baalei tefillah, who rest their voices during the weeks of Elul, Rav Sholom completely exhausted himself, speaking and speaking, crisscrossing the country from north to south, speaking in yeshivos and shuls and kibbutz social halls, the great maggid exhorting the people to teshuvah.

He’d already been speaking each Leil Shabbos to an overflow crowd at Zichron Moshe for several years, the weekly derashah an injection of life and faith for residents of the Holy City.

There was a mashal Rav Sholom Schwadron used. He would paint a picture of neshamos, departed souls from the Next World, allowed to come back down for one hour, just one hour. He described the scene, how they would cherish each minute, fully aware of what each mitzvah in This World means in the Next: They would run to learn, to daven, to give tzedakah, to say a kind word and apologize to those they may have hurt.

“Just one hour,” he would thunder, and then look around the room. “And we”—his voice would drop—“we are here, right now. We’re the ones who are here. Let’s live like we have just one hour.”

This was Reb Sholom’s Elul, year after year, and it was this voice — the voice that had pleaded, cajoled, uplifted, inspired, encouraged, and taught — that filled the great beis medrash of the Chevron Yeshivah for Tefillas Mussaf.

 

There was also the posture. He would approach the amud as if he were about to deliver a shmuess, his body trembling. As he davened, he could dance, or wave his hands, or fall over on the amud weeping. He would roar, and he would krechtz and he would sob.

A chassid asked the Beis Yisrael of Gur for a brachah to experience true yiras Shamayim.

“Go to the Chevroner Yeshivah,” the Rebbe suggested, “when Reb Sholom is saying the words ‘U’mipnei chata’einu galinu mei’artzeinu,’ when he cries out ‘Avinu Malkeinu, galei kevod malchus’cha aleinu,’ you will be overwhelmed by a desire to do teshuvah.”

Reb Sholom filled the air with thoughts of teshuvah, dreams of gilui Shechinah — and in Chevron, sanctum of tradition, he innovated, changing, tweaking, adding — and eventually, teaching new niggunim, the tunes of lands far away from the Holy City. He had the ability to match the tune to the right words, so that it seemed the two had been born together.

 

The first niggun he introduced was for “V’chol Maaminim,” on Rosh Hashanah 1956. The tzibbur caught on almost instantly, and the entire piyut was sung, from beginning to end. The song had its roots in a remarkable moment.

A year earlier, Reb Sholom had been traveling in Europe as a shelucha d’Rachmana, collecting tzedakah funds, and he ended up having to remain there over the Yamim Noraim. He spent Yom Kippur in Switzerland, feeling very far from home, longing for his beloved yeshivah and its nusach.

At one point, the yearning was overwhelming. The roar from the beis medrash in faraway Geula filled his soul, and when he was asked to lead the Swiss tzibbur in Mussaf, he did so as if he were home, in yeshivah.

Reb Sholom reached into himself, managing to soar to a different sphere. He might even have been in Chevron — but then he heard a loud clang, and he was jolted back to his surroundings, suddenly very aware of where he was.

The peal of the church bells was a stark reminder that he was on alien soil, and he felt a moment of intense pain. Then he fought back, using the intrusion as fuel for davening with even greater intensity. This talmid of great baalei mussar began to sing a melody around the insistent ringing, answering the call with one of his own, using what was a disturbance and elevating it. That niggun would become the great “V’chol Maaminim — And all believe that He alone is Master…”

Rav Sholom infused the davening with such feeling that by the time he reached the Kedushah of Mussaf, the gentile cleaning lady, who couldn’t remember ever hearing so much sobbing on a holiday, peered into the beis medrash to make sure everything was all right. The mispallelim simply dissolved with emotion, and Reb Sholom himself later related that he felt almost as if he were at the amud back in Yeshivas Chevron.

Reb Sholom admitted to his children that he’d been hesitant to introduce new niggunim in the great yeshivah, but felt the tzibbur’s enthusiasm. “Not only did I not get criticism,” he would say, “but the mashgiach, Rav Meir Chodosh, even told me ‘yasher koach’!”

Another of the classics also came from a European trip. He’d been in Gateshead for a Shabbos and heard one of the great local baalei tefillah, Reb Hershel Goldstein, sing a niggun for Mimkomcha. Reb Sholom was very taken by it and brought it back to Eretz Yisrael.

At the festive Simchas Torah kiddush at the home of Rav Hirsch Paley, Reb Sholom challenged the Chevron bochurim to listen and see if they could appreciate a powerful tune.

“Who understands music?” he asked before teaching the niggun. They responded warmly, singing along with great emotion.

The next year, the slow niggun emerged on Leil Yom Kippur, to the words of “Ki Hinei Kachomer.”

The current baal tefillah in Chevron, Reb Sholom’s successor, is Rav Yerachmiel Toker, a brother of Rav Nachman ztz”l, a rosh yeshivah in Chevron who recently passed away. He was visiting America, and he was asked to daven before the amud. Wanting to give the tzibbur a taste of Yerushalayim, he decided to use the Chevroner “Ki Hinei Kachomer” for Mimkomecha. He was shocked when the entire shul seemed to be singing along, perfectly familiar with the niggun. Later, he learned that it’s very popular in America, the tune of Abie Rotenberg’s famous Sefer Torah song, recorded on Journeys 1 and used in many homes for “Chasal Siddur Pesach” at the end of the Pesach Seder.

The year Reb Sholom introduced the niggun for “V’ye’esa’u Kol L’avdecha,” it didn’t go as smoothly. He’d also learned this niggun from Reb Hershel Goldstein, and was as determined to share this one as well, but it wasn’t simple. Reb Sholom had gotten older, and the tzibbur was having trouble “getting” the niggun. It bothered him, and during the seudah, the maggid came into the yeshivah dining room. He sat with the bochurim and taught it, again and again, until they had mastered it. By Yom Kippur, several hundred voices rang out, singing along with Reb Sholom as he pleaded for the day when “the distant ones will hear and come, and give You the crown of Kingship…”

Much as the niggun would become part of the experience, there was no predicting its rhythm, because Reb Sholom would stop and start, weeping and sighing. He could stand in silent contemplation for a moment, then pull his tallis over his head and fall onto the amud before reaching the crescendo and shouting out the final words.

Another prime influencer of the Chevron nusach was a Lubavitcher chassid. Reb Moshe Mordechai Lichtenstein was Reb Sholom’s neighbor in Shaarei Chesed and was himself a celebrated baal tefillah at the Khal Chassidim shul. He would teach Reb Sholom chassidishe niggunim, several of them composed by the Rebbes of Chabad.

“Reb Sholom,” he would tease his neighbor, “you come from a chassidishe background, and whatever happened to you in Chevron, it can’t erase the passion of your soul.”

Reb Sholom would often use a niggun for “Areshes Sefaseinu” that he’d learned from his friend, and the “Selach Na” in Chevron was composed by the Mittler Rebbe of Chabad, Rav Dov Ber.

Perhaps the most moving niggun Reb Sholom introduced was the tune he used for “Amnam Kein,” on Leil Yom Kippur. Rav Sholom lost his father, Rav Yitzchak Schwadron, son of the gaon Rav Sholom Mordechai of Brezhan, when he was only seven years old. The grinding poverty in the house left his mother no choice but to send him to the Diskin Orphanage for a period of time. On the bench across from him in the orphanage’s beis medrash sat a boy with various afflictions, whose only relief came when he sat in front of his Gemara, singing a haunting melody as he learned.

Young Sholom Schwadron was captivated by the beauty of this niggun, and years later he brought it to the great Chevron beis medrash on the holiest night of the year. He remarked to his grandson that he would cry whenever he thought about that unfortunate child, who was able to express his pain only through the sublime notes of a niggun.

The nusach for “U’vashofar Gadol Yitaka” came from another of the giants of Shaarei Chesed, Rav Zalman Sender Kahana-Shapira, and Reb Sholom’s voice carried special undertones of reverence as he said those words.

In 1976, the yeshivah left Geula, relocating in Givat Mordechai. One of the main questions hanging over the beis medrash that first Elul was whether Reb Sholom would be coming. He’d gotten older, and the acoustics in the massive new beis medrash would call for more energy than ever before.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Reb Sholom, accompanied by his daughter Rebbetzin Segal and her family, came out of a car, and the talmidim rejoiced. The sound wasn’t the same as it had been on Chaggai Street, but the emotion was the same.

Rav Sholom passed away on 22 Kislev 1997, his niggunim accompanying him. Toward the end of his life, groups of students from the yeshivah would come to his home and sing his tunes from the Yamim Noraim davening, and the Maggid, who had inspired generations, was escorted by these precious tunes, uplifted one last time to go face his Creator.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 779)

Hear some of the songs referenced in this article:

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