Rav Mordechai Shlomo Berman zt”l, or Rav Shlomka as he affectionally known, was a maggid shiur and rosh yeshiva in Ponovezh. But most of all, he was always a talmid. His rebbi muvhak was Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, and Rav Shlomo acquired his rebbi’s powerful derech halimud, which he infused into his own shiurim and seforim to. Beloved by the Chazon Ish, he was chosen by him to marry his niece, the daughter of the Steipler Gaon zt”l. He built talmidim into leaders of today’s Torah landscape in Eretz Yisroel. Later in his life, he suffered from a lengthy illness, which prevented him from saying shiur. He was niftar 13 years ago on Rosh Chodesh Teves, the seventh night of Chanukah, 5765.
I spoke with Rav Eliezer Kahaneman, rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh and son-in-law of Rav Berman, about his revered rebbi and father-in-law.
Can you tell me a little about Rav Berman’s background?
My shver was born in Russia in 1930. His father, Rav Yitzchok Berman, was a talmid chochom and mekubol. He came from a family of rabbonim. Rav Yitzchok learned in Ponovezh in Lita. However, most of the time in Russia, there were no yeshivos, so he learned with chavrusos, among them Rav Shmuel Wilensky, who was known as Rav Shmuel Charkover. In 1934, the Bermans moved to Tel Aviv. Rav Yitzchok would spend the entire week away from home learning in a beis medrash, engrossed in Toras haniglah and Toras hanistor.
Rav Shlomo’s mother was a Moshovitz, from a family of rabbonim. He was a first cousin of Rav Yaakov and Rav Gershon Eidelstein.
When he entered Ponovezh at age 14, he was immediately recognized for his tremendous hasmodah. One time, his mother wanted him to attend a chasunah of a cousin, Rav Elya Mishkovsky. The kallah, a yesomah, was the daughter of the late rov in Kfar Chasidim. The chasunah was going to be a joint celebration, as it was also the seudas hachtorah of the chosson, who was appointed to fill the position held by his late father-in-law. His mother wanted him to attend, but Rav Shlomka, not wanting to miss the shiur of Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, refused to go. The mashgiach, Rav Abba Grossbard, intervened, and only after he promised him that Rav Shmuel would repeat his shiur to him when he got back did Rav Shlomka agree to his mother’s instructions.
Who were his rabbeim?
Even though he was a ilui, he understood he had to learn by a rebbi. He was a talmid muvhak of Rav Shmuel Rozovsky. He did not miss a shiur, and he hung on to every word. He was close with all the roshei yeshiva, especially Rav Dovid Povarsky, who eventually became his mechuton. My brother-in-law, Rav Chaim Peretz Berman, married Rav Dovid’s granddaughter, the daughter of Rav Boruch Dov Povarsky.
The elder rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh, Rav Shach, also took a special liking to Rav Shlomo. Even though he was many years his junior, Rav Shach discussed important daily issues with him. He was respected by all the roshei yeshiva, and he considered them all his rabbeim.
He said over a lot from Rav Elyah Lopian and Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, who was the mashgiach in Ponovezh. He had a shaychus with the Brisker Rov as well. Whenever the Brisker Rov would visit Bnei Brak, Rav Shlomka made sure to visit him and speak to him in learning. He gained from everyone, and was always looking to learn.
One year, my grandfather, the Ponovezher Rov, mentioned to him that he did not find a lulav as mehudar as he would have liked. Rav Shlomo ran home and retrieved his own mehudar lulav, which was chosen after much effort, and presented it to the Ponovezher Rov. That Sukkos, he used another lulav, albeit not as nice as the first.
Did he have a special shaychus with the Chazon Ish?
Of course! The Chazon Ish was very involved in Ponovezh Yeshiva. He used to say a shiur in his house on his father’s yahrtzeit, which was attended by the bochurim from Ponovezh. When they arrived, he would ask them which blatt they were learning in yeshiva, and he would say his shiur on that blatt. Rav Shlomka always attended that shiur.
When the Chazon Ish was not well, he needed a bochur to tend to his needs, and Rav Shlomo was chosen. He slept in the Chazon Ish’s room for six years.
One time, my grandfather, Rav Yosef Sholom Kahaneman, went to speak to the Chazon Ish, and he met my shver outside. My grandfather asked Rav Shlomka for a chiddush, and he promptly told over a shtikel Torah on masechta keilim, one of the most difficult sugyos in Shas. My grandfather was duly impressed, and walked into the Chazon Ish exclaiming, “He will surely become a gadol!” The Chazon Ish replied, “Surely become a gadol? He is already a gadol! How many bochurim his age can say such a shtikel Torah?”
His kesher with the Chazon Ish eventually led to his shidduch, as the Chazon Ish suggested the young gadol who slept in his home as a shidduch for his niece, the daughter of the Steipler Gaon. They were married in 1952, and after learning for two years in the kollel in Ponovezh, my grandfather appointed him to be a maggid shiur.
What was his shiur like? Did he have a kesher with the bochurim?
His shiur was gevaldig! He said over his Torah based on the derech of Rav Shmuel. Even though he was brilliant, he brought his shiur down to the level of the bochurim. The bochurim loved him and had a kesher with him. Bochurim were drawn to him for his eitzos, and they would speak to him about everything, from personal problems to shidduchim. Despite his tremendous hasmodah, he always had time for everyone. There were many times he felt the need to speak to the parents of a bochur, and he would not hesitate to travel to their house to speak to them. He happily extended every effort to help a bochur.
He was also known for his chesed. My grandfather established the Botei Avos orphanage in Bnei Brak, mostly for children who were orphaned during the Holocaust. Every Friday, Rav Sholom would go visit, and he noticed that some of the children needed haircuts. He took the job upon himself, and returned every Friday to give haircuts to the yesomim!
He was a loving zeidy and father, and always had time for his children and grandchildren. He learned until late at night, but he was always available for us.
His impact was felt even beyond his family and the yeshiva. He would spread his Torah to ba’alei batim in the cities surrounding his hometown of Bnei Brak. He would say shiurim in Yesodot, Tel Aviv, Petach Tikvah, and throughout Bnei Brak.
What did you learn from your shver?
Everything! I learned with him every day, first as a bochur, then as a yungerman. He prepared his shiur with me. He learned with many bochurim throughout the day.
He was a big onav, and never looked for kavod. We are sure that he had chumros, but he kept them to himself. I remember a time when a group of people in Bnei Brak started to behave based upon a certain chumrah. He wasn’t happy. He told me, “This is not our mesorah! Through all the generations, things weren’t done this way.”
He put a lot of effort into his seforim, named Asher Leshlomo. Three chalokim were printed in his lifetime, one chelek on the yeshivishe masechtos, which were based on his shiurim in yeshiva. The other chalokim were on kodshim, moed, and other masechtos such as sanhedrim and shvi’is. A lot of the Torah in those seforim was originally said in his shiurim to ba’alei batim. His seforim, known for his brilliant chiddushei Torah which beautifully weave together the sugyos, were well received by the Torah world, and have already been reprinted several times.
The main theme of my shver’s life was that he was always “toleh berabosov,” Rav Shmuel, Rav Dovid, and Rav Shach. He knew his hatzlocha would come from following his rabbeim, and he always delivered that message.
Yehi zichro boruch.