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Divrei Zikaron on Hagaon Rav Chaim Stein, z"l

Aug 1, 2011 by R Pesach Siegel

Rigshei Lev

 Li’iluy nishmas Moreinu Verabeinu Hagaon Rav Chaim Stein, z”l

The mind numbing sense of loss at the petirah of Moreinu VeRabeinu, HaGaon Rav Chaim Stein, z"l, is one of colossal magnitude. May it be the will of the Creator, yisborach sh’mo, that the following words serve as a true picture to the life instilling lessons the Rosh Yeshiva toiled to convey to this impoverished world.

 A Talmid to his Rebbeim

 We had before us a living example of bitul talmid lerabosav (self negation). Who could be so self possessed and delusional to imagine that one is big enough and can “graduate” from being a talmid? There stood before us one of the gedolei olam who proclaimed through his mesiras hatorah and his daily conduct that one is no more than a link in a chain, a vehicle to reveal Torah derech rav litalmid.

 When still a young bochur, his rebbeim sent him out, along with others, to address the dearth of yeshivos ketanos among Lithuanian Jewry. They worked under the aegis of Vaad Hafatzas Torah, and founded thirteen yeshivos ketanos. There were detractors who mocked them, “Telshe will produce am ha’aratzim by sending their bochurim out from the yeshiva.” As Rav Mordechai Gifter, in his profound respect for Rav Chaim was fond of saying, “The yeshiva ketana that I was responsible for (in Meretch) did not take root, but Rav Chaim’s was successful, and look what type of am ha’aretz Rav Chaim turned out to be.” One does not sacrifice gadlus batorah by following one’s rebbeim. On the contrary, gadlus is unattainable without hisbatlus.

 The revelation of toras rabosav was of paramount importance to him. During the war years, the hand written manuscripts of his rebbe, the Telzer Rov, Rav Avrohom Yitzchak Bloch, z”l, Hashem yikom damo, were deposited for safekeeping among members of the gentile clergy.  Although unable to penetrate the Iron Curtain, he left no stone unturned to try and recover the manuscripts, appealing to his talmid, Rabbi Ronald Greenwald, to do whatever he could to uncover them. He was involved in the search for decades, ultimately searching for them personally when it again became possible to travel to Telshe. Tragically, they have yet to be unearthed. The Rosh Yeshiva saw this as a sacred trust. The Telzer Rov’s illuminating words of Torah must come ligiluy (revelation).

 In the world of the Rosh Yeshiva, stam Rav Chaim, referred to Rav Chaim Rabinowitz, better known as Rav Chaim Telzer, z”l. The weekly pilpul shiur was a masterpiece, enlightening the minds and souls of a new generation through the lomdus of Rav Chaim Telzer.

 Miss a shiur? Impossible. The Rosh Yeshiva gave shiur every Sunday. It made no difference how well he felt at the time. He gave shiur when gripped with fever. He gave shiur (via a microphone) when stricken with a sore throat, when his normally hoarse voice was almost undetectable. And he expected no less from the talmidim. As he told us, he never missed or came late to a shiur of his rebbe’s, Rav Chaim Telzer. One time, due to circumstances beyond his control, he arrived late, only to find that Rav Chaim would not begin the shiur in his absence.

 And it is etched in my memory regarding a talmid who mirrored this conduct. Yet, one time he was not found to be present at the onset of a shiur … and the Rosh Yeshiva waited for him. We suggested to the Rosh Yeshiva, “Maybe, he is sick, and won’t be coming?” The Rosh Yeshiva replied with his patent smile, “Being sick would never prevent this bochur from coming on time to shiur.” He held up this mitztayen (excelled one) to us as an example of proper chashivus hatorah.

 When the Rosh Yeshiva would deliver the shiur, he would stand before a shtender draping his kapote over the shtender and then leaning on the kapote. He explained that his rebbe Rav Chaim used to give shiur in this manner. When asked the reason behind this practice, he replied, “I don’t know. It could be because of the kedusha of the shtender, or it could be in order to prevent the sleeves from getting worn out, but that’s how the rebbe did it.”

 And when the Sefer Torah was removed from the ark, the Rosh Yeshiva would come close to kiss it. He would take a corner of the mantle and kiss, not the outside of the cloth, but turn it over and kiss the inside. Why? That is the way Rav Chaim Telzer did it. He didn’t know whether it was due to hygienic reasons or to the increased kedusha of the inside of the cloth, but that’s how the rebbe did it.

 Every time we would witness these hanhagos, over and over again, it was drilled into our hearts and minds the tzura of the kesher between rav and talmid.  The Rosh Yeshiva kept his rebbe alive within himself …. and within us.

 Dveykus BaTorah

 The Rosh Yeshiva was concerned and fully involved in all matters of chinuch within the yeshiva. And he was actively involved, not waiting for issues to come to him. The amount of hours he had to spend with stam puste na’arishkeit (utter nonsense) would astound the senses. But he did not consider it nonsense. He considered it tikun tzuras ha’adam. And throughout it all, his hasmadas hatorah remained apparent.

 On a constant basis, the Rosh Yeshiva patiently spent his precious time listening to those who came to him and poured out their hearts and troubles. There were also those who came with ta’anos, and those who he summoned for disciplinary purposes. It made no difference. Whatever the subject matter was, no matter how important, when the matter was concluded, the conversation would abruptly be turned to divrei Torah (even in the middle of a sentence). He wasn’t capable of having a conversation devoid of divrei Torah.

 I was blessed with a zechus. The Rosh Yeshiva owned a car but he didn’t drive. The Rebbetzin, a”h, was not always available to drive him. Baruch Hashem, I had attained a drivers’ license at an early age. Thus, I had the privilege of being the Rosh Yeshiva’s driver. The individual lessons in shimush talmidei chachamim that I learned “along the way” are precious beyond measure. Most noteworthy of them was, from the time we would leave his house until we would return, the entire trip was a blur. Whether we would go to the bank, the doctor, or to visit someone, the experience was the same. He would delve into the waters of the most recent shiur. It was as if we had never left the beis medrash. (I always took great care to drive cautiously, but upon occasion, I did miss a turn as a result).

 When I had the zechus to accompany the Rosh Yeshiva on his travels to New York, it was identical. From the moment we entered the car on the way to the airport, through the airport, waiting on line, and on the plane, he chazzered shiur with me. If some travel matter came along to distract him, or warranted his attention, he would deal with it, and return to where he had left off …. in the shiur. That is where he was. (Although I accompanied him, he didn’t allow me to be meshamesh or even translate for him. He would rush ahead to the ticket agent, informing him with a smile, “I want one seat for me and one seat for “my friend”, and please check on my kosher meal”).

 He was machshiv the Toras Hashem that he received through his intense yegia. It was inseparable from him. A tape of every shiur he delivered was made for him and filled the cases upon the wall of his study. His notebooks were filled with the photocopied notes of talmidim who wrote over his shiurim for him week after week, year after year, decade after decade. He arranged for a weekly rotating chabura to review the shiur among ourselves. The one chosen to give the chabura would have the zechus of first reviewing the shiur with the Rosh Yeshiva.

 It became our custom to “visit” the Rosh Yeshiva on those long, wintry Friday nights. Our discussions might have begun concerning the parshas hashavua, but inevitably he would involve us in the sugya under study. It was clear that he was tired, even close to exhaustion. In the middle his eyes would close. We would wait patiently until he roused himself, and continue. When this became too much, he would rise and continue on his feet, leaning against his living room wall for support. Then too, his eyes would close and he would drift off standing up. After this occurred two or three times, we sensed it was time to leave.

 If it was so important to him then, so too, it would be important to us. Imbibing Torah from a rebbe became our life’s blood.

 A talmid spent some time abroad in the Ponovizer Yeshiva. Upon returning he remarked that during the shiur of Rav Schach, z”l, he spoke, perhaps 15 of the 45 minutes allotted for the shiur. The free give and take amongst the talmidim during the shiur took the form of milchamto shel Torah. Most of the time was taken up with waging the “battle”. Upon hearing of this, the Rosh Yeshiva remarked, “This is the Telzer derech, halevay it would be like that here in Telshe.”  Thus, began a period where he would deliver a shiur, and in the middle of the shiur, at 12:30 p.m., he would pause to give the olam an opportunity to tumult in learning.

 Due to the rigorous strain of the learning schedule, an avreich felt that he was in dire need of a “break” from the yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva told him, that one cannot leave the yeshiva mitoch rifyon, from a point of weakness. “Take two weeks, get back into learning, then leave mitoch chizuk, from a point of strength.”  The talmid replied, “Rebbe, if I could get back into learning by remaining in the yeshiva, I wouldn’t need a break.” The Rosh Yeshiva was not fazed by the logic of his argument. He repeated, “One cannot depart from the yeshiva without a strong connection to Torah.” To a bochur on the verge of getting engaged he told, “Don’t get engaged yet. Come back to the yeshiva for two weeks. Get back into learning. Then your decision will be mitoch yishuv hadaas.”

 Dveykus BaTefilla

 The Rosh Yeshiva’s tefilla was legendary. Whole volumes could be filled with stories of his his’atzmus batefilla. His dedication to tefilla, and specifically tefilla betzibbur was outstanding in its consistency. He would daven shmoneh esreh at what would be considered a normal pace. When he would reach shma koleinu, he would rise up to a higher madreiga of intensity, his body shuckling powerfully, pleading a lengthy prayer before Our Father in Heaven. Who can forget his brow wrinkling in concentration upon being honored with sandeka’us. And he prayed just as fervently at a bris even if he wasn’t chosen to be the sandak, reciting Lamnatzeach bin’ginos al hashminis … by his seat or by the bima.

 When asked by a bochur in the parsha of shidduchim whether one may pray for a specific shidduch, he replied, “One doesn’t daven for a specific shidduch. The Ribono Shel Olam already has someone picked out for each individual. One is assured of that. One should pray that the shidduch should come bi’miyut bittul Torah” (the minimum amount of disturbance from Torah studies).

 When queried how to daven for someone who has contracted yenneh machla, rachmana nitzlan, he responded, “For this particular machla there is no human remedy. The Ribono Shel Olam, bichvodo ve’atzmo, is the only one who holds the refuah. Still one must do a hishtadlus, and going to a doctor is that hishtadlus. But, the doctors don’t treat the machla. They remove the affected portions. When someone is niftar, it is commonly not from the actual machla but from the effects of the treatment. One should therefore daven to Hashem that the doctors should do no harm.”

 And he had his own very personal experience with the machla. His beloved son, Rav Shalom Refoel Yehuda, z”l, was afflicted with a brain tumor at a young age. How many tefillos were offered on his behalf, as the Rosh Yeshiva fought for the life of his son. Tears would run down his face at the Kriyas HaTorah on Yom Kippur (a segulah that one’s children will not pass away during his lifetime). Every time the Rosh Yeshiva traveled to New York, he took a side trip to the abode of Rav Moshe Feinstein, z”l. When asked, Rebbetzin Feinstein revealed, that the Rosh Yeshiva beseeched Rav Moshe, each and every time, to daven for the life of his son.

 The following story I was zoche to hear from the Rosh Yeshiva personally.

 Rav Shalom Refoel Yehuda was in dire need of emergency brain surgery. At the time it was considered experimental. There were only a few hospitals that had experience in this particular surgery. As hashgacha decreed, Cleveland Clinic was one of them. One of the pioneers was a doctor in the clinic. There were two doctors apprenticing under him. Of the two, one was more proficient than the other. All efforts were directed towards procuring the services of the top surgeon, to no avail. His surgery schedule did not allow him to operate for so many hours in a row. The second one was scheduled to be out of town. Delaying the surgery was not an option. It was with a heavy heart that the Rosh yeshiva went to sleep that night. In the middle of the night, he woke up and could not go back to sleep. He rose and learned with intensity through the night, lizechus his son. The surgery was the next morning. As the surgeon emerged from the operating suite, he removed his mask. It was the top surgeon. The Rosh Yeshiva asked him, “How is this possible? The surgeon replied, “The one who was slated to perform the surgery was stricken with a tremendous thirst in the middle of the night. He tried to ignore it and go back to sleep, but it persisted. Giving up, he went downstairs to his kitchen to get something to drink. On his way down, he fell and broke his leg. The other surgeon is out of town. I had no choice but to operate. The operation was a success, excuse me please, I have to get some sleep, I have been operating for over 24 hours straight.”

 The Rosh Yeshiva saw the Yad Hashem in every step of his life, and he recorded special events of hashgacha pratis in the pages of a notebook.


 It was the custom of the Roshei Yeshiva to inspect the dormitory rooms at 9:30 in the morning. It was quite embarrassing to be found in bed at that time. The Rosh Yeshiva would enter the room, and upon seeing his beloved talmid in a state of slumber, he would say, out of his extreme sensitivity, “Ich hub gekummen mevaker cholim zayn” (I came to perform the mitzvah of visiting the sick). And he did this each and every time. It was a hanhaga kavua. This, despite the fact that rising for the shacharis minyan was so close to his heart. He didn’t display anger or annoyance. It just hurt him so when he saw a bochur struggling with shacharis attendance. And he would say to him, “You are a yoreh shamayim, A yoreh shamayim like you, how could you miss shacharis?”

 He would arrange chavrusos before shacharis among the talmidim in order to be mechazek tefilla bitzibbur. For one struggling avreich, he offered an irresistible incentive – a personal chavrusa in the Sefer Minchas Chinuch …. Before shacharis!

 To those who had yet to be blessed with children, he was an overflowing wellspring of chizuk. “Hakadosh Baruch Hu misaveh litefilasam shel tzaddikim. Hashem loves you. He wants to hear your voice. You will be a gehelfiner”. One, who waited for him to finish shmoneh esreh on Rosh Hashana, long after the Beis Medrash had emptied out, asked for a havtacha that he would be blessed with a child. He responded, “This is shnas tav shin mem vav which stands for teheh shnas marpeh veyeshua. You will be a gehelfiner”. And so it was.

 To a couple that was going through medical treatments (and failing miserably) he advised, “Do whatever you can to perform the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen. The Medrash Yalkut Shimoni comments. Shalach teshalach es ha’em, vi’es habanim tikach lach (send away the mother bird, then you will be blessed with banim for yourself). If the performance of the mitzvah evades you, study the perek of Shiluach Haken in Meseches Chullin in depth. Immerse yourself in the limud, write down your chiddushim.”  “Say kapitel 139 every day followed by kapitel 127. But study them first, bi’iyun, with the meforshim.”  “Say this tefillah at the end of shmoneh esreh. I photocopied it for you”, as he handed over a small piece of paper to the supplicant. The fatherly concern was all encompassing. 

My brother, Rav Dovid, was learning in Cleveland and the family was celebrating my Zaydie's 80th birthday in Chicago. The whole family was going to be there. My mother very much wanted my brother to come in. My brother asked Rav Chaim and he didn't agree that my brother should interrupt his learning. My brother said, "But my mother wants it". Rav Chaim had my brother come over to his house and call my mother from his phone. Then Rav Chaim spoke to my mother about how important my brother's learning was, and that the zechus of limud hatorah of his grandson would be of greater benefit to the Zaydie than my brother’s presence.  He asked my brother when and where the party was being held, plus the phone number of the place. When the date arrived, Rav Chaim called my Zaydie in Chicago to wish him Happy Birthday!!!

 A chosson made a request of the Rosh Yeshiva to travel to his chasuna. The Rosh Yeshiva responded, “Rav Mordechai (Gifter) will be there. You will have a Rosh Yeshiva by your chasuna.”  The talmid beseeched, “The rebbe is like a father to me, how can I get married if my father is not at my chasuna?” The words rang true. The Rosh Yeshiva came, even though he wasn’t the mesader kiddushin. He came because it was his own child’s chasuna.

 It was almost two years ago that I was zoche to be in the presence of the Rosh Yeshiva. I brought a tayere chosson to the Rosh Yeshiva to receive a bracha on the day of his chasuna. Upon entering, the Rosh Yeshiva asked us to wait. He, at the age of 97, rose up for the chosson and went to put on his kapote, lichvodo. Upon hearing that the chosson was not studying in a yeshiva at the time, he blessed him heartily and bade him to accept upon himself, when standing under the chuppah, that a day will not go by in his life that he will not be involved in Torah study at least 15 minutes a day. (It is well known, that for the talmidim, the amount he required was at least an hour). And then the Rosh Yeshiva turned to me and put me in charge of making sure that the kabbala would be made and kept.

 It was as if I were a child bringing a beloved einikel to his zaidy…..


Hachosem bidema al ha’aveida hanora. Mi yitayn lanu temuraso.





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