It is said that Torah scholars develop regal personalities. Rav Refoel Shmulevitz zt”l was a king among men. The sugyos of Shas were the provinces of his domain, and he was intimately acquainted with each of them. He had a command of every sugya, he was well-versed in the intricacies of every topic, and he was able to plumb the depths of every discussion in Shas. Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l once related that Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l davened for “respectable” children. Evidently, his prayers were accepted. Today, Rav Refoel is mourned not only by those who attended his shiurim and sought his genius, but by the Torah itself.
The announcement that reached the subscribers to the Mir Yedidim telephone service said it all: “The Heavenly realm has overcome the earthly sphere and the aron hakodesh has been taken,” it declared mournfully. “Torah, Torah, don sackcloth and wallow in the dust. With great sorrow, we announce the passing of our rebbi, the rosh yeshiva, Hagaon Hagadol Rav Refoel ben Maran Rosh Hayeshiva Hagaon Hagadol Rav Chaim Leib Shmulevitz zt”l, after he ascended to Heaven in a storm… The weapons of war are lost and the heroes have fallen. The time and schedule of the levayah will be announced shortly.”
It was a short, chilling message. The “aron kodesh,” Rav Refoel Shmulevitz zt”l, had been taken from our midst.
His talmidim and the many Torah scholars who benefited from his shiurim have now been plunged into mourning – and so has the Torah itself. In a sense, the Torah has donned sackcloth and is mourning the passing of the rosh yeshiva, a royal prince in its kingdom. His students are in shock, and the yeshiva is immersed in sorrow. Rav Refoel, a valiant warrior on the battlefield of Torah, has returned his sword to its sheath and is no longer with us.
The message was sent at 10:16 p.m. Just a few minutes earlier, Rav Refoel’s neshamah returned to Heaven, as he was surrounded by his family and close friends, the leaders of Yeshivas Mir and its royal family. Shortly after I received the message, I compiled a brief overview of some of the salient traits of this extraordinary man.
Everyone I asked told me that Rav Refoel was a man who simply defied description. Every single person, in their own words, asserted that it was impossible to isolate his defining traits. The reason was simple: He was everything at once. Rav Refoel achieved many things, because the Torah was his occupation in life.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos lists numerous qualities that are achieved by a person who learns Torah lishmah: “He is a friend, he is beloved, he loves the Omnipresent and he loves people. He brings joy to the Omnipresent and brings joy to people. It cloaks him in humility and fear, and it prepares him to be righteous, saintly, upright and faithful. It distances him from sin and brings him close to merit, and people receive counsel, wisdom, insight, and strength from him.”
“How can we define what he was, when he was everything?” I was asked time and again.
The Mishnah continues, “It gives him kingliness, dominion, and penetrating understanding of judgment. The secrets of Torah are revealed to him, and he becomes like a powerful spring and a river that flows without cease. He becomes modest, patient, and forgiving when he is offended.” This Mishnah, I am told, is a perfect description of Rav Refoel.
And then the Mishnah continues with a statement that is even more apropos: “It makes him great and uplifts him.”
A KING OF SHAS
If the Mishnah states that the Torah endows a person with “kingliness and dominion,” then we must understand what it means to be a king. A king is most commonly defined as the ruler of his domain, like the monarchs we have seen throughout history. Another understanding of the term is that a king is a leader or prominent figure – the best, most important, most outstanding, or strongest in his group or environment. In this sense, the lion is known as the king of the jungle.
Rav Refoel Shmulevitz was a king, whose “kingdom” consisted of the six sedorim of Shas. He was intimately acquainted with all the “provinces” of his kingdom – the many sugyos of Shas – and was well-versed in all their intricacies.
A yungerman at Yeshivas Mir, who learned until his marriage in the Mir branch in Brachfeld, tells me, “In Brachfeld, Rav Refoel was the yeshiva’s foremost ‘weapon.’ In learning, he was ‘number one.’ That was clear.” The avreich apologizes for using such pedestrian language. “I am still in shock,” he explains. “Rav Refoel used to learn and teach everything in the best possible way. He would examine a sugya from every side and then reach the truth. It was impossible to argue with him and win – and not because he didn’t tolerate disagreement. On the contrary, he was extremely humble. You could argue with him, but there was no reason to do so. He simply knew everything and he always uncovered the truth. Anything he said was the final word on the subject. Once he had explained something in the yeshiva, there was no room left for debate.”
Rav Shmaryahu Yosef Finkel, one of the roshei yeshiva of Mir Brachfeld, was at Rav Refoel’s side during the shiurim he delivered in the yeshiva. He uses different words, but expresses the same sentiment as the yungerman. “I remember his shiurim. They were sharp and clear, and on a very high level. I attended his daily shiur in Mir Yerushalayim for an entire summer zeman. His analyses were discussed throughout the bais medrash.”
As we said, Rav Refoel was a king, a master of the entire Talmud, and especially of the sugyos studied in every yeshiva.
HIS FATHER’S GREATEST DISCIPLE
Mourning his older brother, the broken-hearted Rav Meir Shmulevitz is surprised at my request to describe Rav Refoel. “What need is there to say anything? He was a gaon and a marbitz Torah for decades, first in the Chevron Yeshiva and then in the Mir. He wrote many long shtiklach on every subject in every masechta.”
Did he absorb his style of learning from your father?
“He was our father’s chavrusah for many decades, and he absorbed a tremendous amount from him. He may have been the greatest of our father’s talmidim. It is difficult for me to assess which of my father’s students was the greatest, but there is no question that my brother learned from him the most. And he went on to perpetuate our father’s legacy and to be marbitz Torah.”
I ask Rav Meir to share some memories of Rav Refoel’s childhood, but he does not remember anything, or else he is incapable of discussing the matter at this time. He does add, “As a bochur, he used to deliver chaburos in front of our grandfather. Anyone who knew our grandfather, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel zt”l, will tell you that he was very demanding. It wasn’t easy to measure up to his standards, but Rav Refoel, as a bochur, used to deliver an entire presentation in front of him every week.”
REFUSAL TO SIT IN THE MIZRACH
Rav Refoel’s profound modesty is another dimension of his personality that has earned enormous recognition. His son, Rav Yaakov, related in his hesped that his father once went to a certain place to deliver a shiur, and someone criticized his hosts for failing to demonstrate proper respect for the rosh yeshiva in a certain way. Rav Refoel responded, “My job in the world is to teach Torah.” As far as he was concerned, issues of kavod had no bearing on his life.
His son-in-law, Rav Avrohom Segal, related in his own hesped that when people praised Rav Refoel for his modesty, he would reply, “I appreciate kavod, but I know what true kavod is.” People would point out to him, Rav Avrohom added, that the Gemara and Chazal attach importance to kavod in a number of areas, indicating that there is some importance to demonstrating respect to those who deserve it. “He thought about this for a long time,” Rav Avrohom concluded, “and he finally said, ‘I don’t know. I have no explanation for this.’”
Rav Shmaryahu Yosef Finkel adds that Rav Refoel was a living paradigm of humility. He adamantly refused to sit at the mizrach wall of the Mir. “When Rav Beinish [Finkel] passed away,” he relates, “my father [Rav Nosson Tzvi] and Rav Refoel were seated at the mizrach. After a few days, Rav Refoel relocated to one of the first few benches.
“Even though he was older than my father,” Rav Shmaryahu Yosef continues, “Rav Refoel never agreed to speak before him or even to allow his own name to appear first on a list. He was a paragon of self-effacement. He was careful to have no involvement in the yeshiva’s affairs, except in matters of learning. He always placed my father’s opinion above his own. His humility extended into every area. He was a beacon of modesty. He never wanted to make speeches or deliver drashos. He wanted to do nothing but deliver shiurim. He had no sense of self-importance whatsoever.”
A young talmid of Rav Refoel relates, “I once heard a group of older avreichim speaking about how great he was, and one of them asked, ‘How did Rav Refoel become so humble?’ I don’t know anything about the politics in the yeshiva, if there is such a thing, but Rav Refoel never made demands for anything. On the contrary, he fled from the limelight.”
SHARING THE PAIN AND JOY
Rav Refoel was a father figure and close mentor to all of his talmidim. His sister-in-law, Rebbetzin Mina Shmulevitz, describes his depth of caring and concern for others. Like everyone else, she first points out that it is “simply impossible” to describe Rav Refoel, explaining, “He was like the entire world encapsulated in one person – all the goodness and chessed in the world. And I am referring not to his greatness in Torah, but to his greatness as a human being.”
The rebbetzin relates that Rav Refoel excelled in sharing others’ burdens. “He was together with everyone in their times of pain and in their times of joy alike. But the pain came first. He couldn’t tolerate seeing others in pain. He would simply cry at the sight. He was a wonderful father and an excellent friend to every Jew. And everyone came to him for advice. He gave support and encouragement to dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of bochurim and avreichim.”
How did he know who needed his encouragement?
“First of all,” Rebbetzin Shmulevitz replies, “they came to him. Second, both he and his wife, who is a great woman in her own right, were blessed with a unique power of perception.”
Rebbetzin Mina Shmulevitz showers praise on Rav Refoel’s widow. “Rav Refoel built his talmidim,” she adds, “not only in learning, but in every sense. Speak to Rav Berel Witman, the avreich who learned with him and accompanied him with enormous devotion throughout all his medical treatments. He will tell you how Rav Refoel also helped build avreichim in their ability to learn.”
In response to my request, she shares her own perspective on Rav Refoel’s humility. “He was more than modest; he met the people on their own level. No one hesitated to turn to him for help or advice. He didn’t tell anyone about the sad situations he heard about. He would listen and remain silent, sharing the pain of those who were suffering. But he also shared their joys, and he was there to support and advise everyone all the time.”
The rebbetzin reiterates that it is beyond her ability – certainly now, and perhaps altogether – to provide a comprehensive picture of his personality. “He was beyond description. There was no one else like him in the world. Just seeing him was an incredible experience – even today, on the last day of his life. He exuded nobility and glory.”
Rebbetzin Mina Shmulevitz, like others in Rav Refoel’s innermost circle, remained in the hospital for many hours, feeling the need to stay at the side of her sister-in-law, Rav Refoel’s rebbetzin. “I couldn’t leave her here. And we all wanted to daven here as well.” With that, she adds, “Speak to Rav Yitzchok Ezrachi. He has been here since 7:00 in the morning. He davened and wept all day long. He has been Rav Refoel’s close friend for 55 years. He can describe him better than anyone else can. What I have said doesn’t do justice to him. He was like the father figure in all of our families. He was our advisor, our teacher, and our source of encouragement. His far-reaching vision and deep understanding were truly exceptional. He was an amazing person to speak with; he had some incredible adages, and he was a fascinating person. You may be interested to know that he encouraged many baalei teshuvah in their journeys. The very first families of baalei teshuvah benefited from his guidance.”
“KAVOD MEANT NOTHING TO HIM”
Rav Shmaryahu Yosef Finkel adds, “He was a gaon in middos. He saw only the positive in everyone and everything. He was a master of ayin tovah. He never begrudged anything to anyone, and he related to other people in an ingenious way.”
I ask Rav Refoel’s son, Rav Eliezer, about his father’s home being open to everyone in need. “Absolutely,” he affirms. “People came all the time to ask for his advice and to share their problems with him.”
Anyone was allowed to come?
Did he have specific hours for receiving visitors?
“No, that wasn’t his style. Any sort of kavod meant absolutely nothing to him.”
One of Rav Refoel’s married talmidim once told him that his wife was expecting a child and the baby was in a breech position. Rav Aharon Fisher had told him that there was a segulah to visit the Sataf spring and to drink from its waters. “I went to Rav Refoel to ask for his advice,” the talmid relates. “He said, ‘Instead of that segulah, perhaps I should give you the number of Rav Rosenfeld.’ Rav Rosenfeld is a well-known medical askan in Yerushalayim. He was hinting to me that he didn’t quite approve of segulos. I said, ‘I am looking for an answer. Should I go and do this segulah?’ Rav Refoel laughed and said, ‘Go. I feel that it will help you and your wife be calm, and it is worthwhile for that reason alone.’ Incidentally, the segulah worked!”
For fifty years, Rav Refoel Shmulevitz taught Torah and showered his influence on the Torah world. His son, Rav Eliezer Shmulevitz, relates, “My father was a talmid muvhak of my grandfather, his father, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz. By the time he was married, he had heard two entire cycles of chaburos from his father, and he had recorded them all in writing. He learned the entire Shas with him, from Brachos through Uktzin. And everything that he learned with his father was recorded on paper.”
Another point of note is Rav Refoel’s breadth and depth of understanding. “He always absorbed the entirety of every sugya, in its length and breadth, and he knew how to get to the heart of a sugya. He was able to make all the relevant calculations in every sugya, leaving no stone unturned. That was the way his shiurim were. And his sevara, his reasoning, was invariably straight and flawless.”
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, a grandson of Rav Refoel, has only a few pithy words to say when I ask him to describe his grandfather, “It is very difficult for me to tell you who my grandfather was. In a word, he was a marbitz Torah in every area of the Torah for over fifty years.” Perhaps that is the most all-encompassing description of all.
For half a century, Rav Refoel Shmulevitz’s wellsprings of wisdom flowed ceaselessly. In the Friedman Bais Medrash of Yeshivas Mir, thousands of yungeleit and bochurim absorbed his teachings over the years. He was like a river of Torah that rushes constantly along its course, its waters rising onto its banks. For several years, Rav Refoel delivered a regular shiur klali in Mir Brachfeld and spent occasional Shabbosos in the yeshiva in order to speak in learning with the bochurim. This arrangement was the initiative of the late rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l.
Rav Shmaryahu Yosef Finkel, Rav Nosson Tzvi’s son, describes his father’s attitude toward Rav Refoel. “Abba held of him enormously. He was the prince of Torah. Abba grew up with him,” Rav Shmaryahu Yosef adds. “They knew each other since he came to Eretz Yisroel as a bochur. They ate together and shared a room. They were extremely close. They learned together and grew together throughout their lives.”
Do you remember any comments your father made about him?
“Comments? He used to speak about him with tremendous reverence.”
About what in particular?
“About everything. My father once said that Rav Chaim Shmulevitz davened throughout his life to have respectable children. That tefillah was definitely fulfilled. Rav Refoel was the personification of respectability. My father considered that description to be all-inclusive. He would always say that Rav Refoel was ‘respectable.’” This was the meaning of respectability in the eyes of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz.
The younger Rav Finkel adds that Rav Nosson Tzvi often praised Rav Refoel for his brilliance. “He talked about him all the time. He was deeply moved by Rav Refoel. For that reason, he asked him to deliver a regular shiur klali in the branch of the yeshiva in Modiin Illit. Rav Refoel had a very special standing,” Rav Shmaryahu Yosef concludes. “His breadth of knowledge and his shiurim were astounding. He was a remarkable conduit for the transmission of Torah.”
Our yungerman adds his own humble thoughts: “I derived so much from him in learning, both in Brachfeld and in the Friedman Bais Medrash in the Mir. Five years ago, I was a frequent visitor to his home. He would deliver a shiur in his home twice a week. I was learning in the Israeli group in the Friedman Bais Medrash, where the avreichim learned primarily from Rav Refoel, and those who wanted to hear more from him were invited to the shiurim in his home. For a few months, I attended those shiurim regularly. I felt that he truly built me in learning.”
Our intent here is not to deliver a proper hesped for Rav Refoel, but to give as much of an overview of his persona as time allows. Above all, our purpose is to mourn his passing.
Rav Refoel was a man who dedicated his entire being to the Torah. He was a man who brought out the light of the Torah, a rosh yeshiva who mastered the trait of self-effacement. With his loss, a gaping void has opened in our world.