It is not merely another sefer. Nor does it look like merely another sefer. It is a collection of notes taken in real time and collected in a drawer. And when that drawer was filled, the collection spilled over to a second drawer. This week, that collection of “tzetlach” became a sefer titled Besaaras Aish. Its subject: All the things that Rabbi Refoel Wolf saw and heard during the years he spent serving Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l.
For many years, Rabbi Refoel Wolf was one of the gabbaim of Rav Shach, rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh Yeshiva and chairman of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. Throughout the years, he saw many things and witnessed some of the most dramatic developments in the history of the Torah community of Eretz Yisroel. He escorted Rav Shach’s visitors into his home, he carried out many tasks with which the rosh yeshiva entrusted him, and he witnessed many historic events. He also observed Rav Shach’s personal impact on many individuals. The new sefer includes everything that he was able to publicize without causing harm or pain to the subjects of his accounts.
When the sefer arrived from the printing press this week, Reb Refoel commented to me, “When I was part of the rosh yeshiva’s household, I wasn’t very organized, and I didn’t keep notes in notebooks. Whenever something interesting happened, I wrote about it on a slip of paper. Those papers became the basis for this sefer.”
Can you give me an example of the interesting notes that you collected?
“Your father was the rov of Be’er Yaakov and the menahel of the girls’ seminary there. Girls from that school used to come to Rav Shach with various questions, and I kept the questions and the answers after their visits. In fact, it was very easy. The girls would come with their questions written on a piece of paper, and Rav Shach would dictate his answer to me, to be recorded on the same paper. In the end, the papers remained in my possession.”
What led to the idea to gather everything into a sefer?
“I dreamed for several years of making the notes into a sefer, but I wasn’t sure if I should do it. Over the past two years, some of the material was printed in the Israeli Yated Ne’eman on several occasions, and I saw that people enjoyed it very much. That gave me the push to follow through on my idea. It takes a bit of daring to do something like this. I also need to be prepared for the criticism that is bound to come.”
What is there to criticize? All you are doing is quoting Rav Shach. You are not saying anything on your own.
“True, but people might say that I shouldn’t have publicized certain things.”
Were there things that you were uncertain about publishing?
“Yes. I am not referring to the personal issues of specific individuals; in those cases, I always changed the identifying details so that no one could determine who the people were. But there were definitely many political and communal issues that I was very uncertain about. I am certain that you will not be pleased, for instance, with some of the things that are written about Shas. I remember the time when Rav Shach told me that he loved the Shas party, but I also remember the time that came after that. But I didn’t make it a big issue. I was very cautious; there is no chapter about Shas. I also didn’t make a big deal about Chabad.”
Were you ever surprised by Rav Shach’s answer to a question?
Reb Refoel laughs. “I was almost always surprised. Even though you would have thought that I already understood the way the rosh yeshiva thought, my head and his head were different. That is why he was the leader of Klal Yisroel and I was merely Refoel Wolf. Some of the things that he said never would have occurred to me.”
Tell me something that surprised you.
“The founding of Degel HaTorah surprised me, along with everyone else. We were all shocked. What surprised us the most wasn’t the fact that he established the party, but that he went against Agudas Yisroel. Throughout the years, Agudah was always kadosh. And there was also the fact that he agreed to the founding of the Shas party. In fact, not only did he agree to it, but he supported it as well. I remember Aryeh Deri standing on Rechov Raavad in Bnei Brak in his army uniform and not even daring to go into the rosh yeshiva’s home. [Before entering the world of politics, Deri was forced to enlist in the army for several months, as the law required for anyone who left yeshiva.] He simply waited outside the building for Reb Yechezkel Eschaik or me to come out and tell him what the rosh yeshiva had said. Rav Shach loved the Sephardim, and it pained him that they weren’t receiving proper representation. That is why he supported the Shas party.”
I am sure that the hashkafah portion of the sefer is going to make waves.
“That is one of the reasons that I published it. Today, every young person thinks he knows exactly what Rav Shach would say on any subject. It is as if there is no need for gedolim anymore. Everyone is confident that he knows Rav Shach’s opinion about everything.”
With that introduction, here are a few noteworthy excerpts from the sefer, which offer us a tiny glimpse into the thinking of a Torah giant.
Perspectives on Learning
Rav Shach was the ultimate authority on many communal issues. The entire country often waited to hear his decision on any of a wide range of questions. Yet the rosh yeshiva himself was perpetually immersed in learning. Even after he announced a momentous decision, he would return to his learning as if nothing had happened, as if the major issues of the day had nothing to do with him. He maintained his regular schedule in the yeshiva even while serving as the leader of Klal Yisroel. Amazingly, within the yeshiva itself, there wasn’t even the slightest indication that anything had happened. When Degel HaTorah was founded in 1989 and Rav Shach delivered an address on the occasion, he still delivered his shiur in yeshiva as usual. After the shiur, he commented, “There was nothing else on my thoughts during these days; I was thinking only about the shiur.” Immediately after he spoke at the opening of the Yarchei Kallah in 1991, Rav Shach sat down and began learning Maseches Zevachim, which he continued until the wee hours of the night.
Rav Shach once commented in a shiur, “You can tell this to Rav Akiva Eiger when you see him in Olam Haba.” When he heard a kushya or a teretz that met with his approval, he would also say, “I will tell that over when I get to Olam Haba.” In Olam Haba, he explained, a person who is deserving is permitted to expound on the Torah he learned in this world. He is even expected to share his own chiddushim.
Once, Rav Shach related an original insight and commented, “Believe me, I wanted to make a Kiddush over this sevara.” When he sat shivah after the passing of his wife, Rebbetzin Guttel, he said that according to halacha, he was inherently permitted, and even obligated, to deliver his regular shiur in yeshiva. However, it is forbidden to do something that others would find extremely peculiar. But despite his Torah greatness, before he underwent an operation in 1976, Rav Shach said, “What will I say when I come before the Kisei Hakavod? I don’t even know a single masechta!”
Rav Shach’s shiur klali in the yeshiva was delivered on Tuesdays, but every day was spent preparing for the shiur. He was perpetually preoccupied with what he would say in his next shiur. In a letter to one of his most prominent talmidim, Rav Shach wrote, “You know that all of my days are ‘erev yom shlishi,’ and you will certainly forgive me for not writing until now.” Once, when he prepared for a shiur that he had already delivered in the yeshiva and that had even been printed in his sefer, Rav Shach related, “For the past four days, I haven’t taken my mind off the shiur. I haven’t eaten or drunk a thing without thinking about the shiur.”
He once commented tearfully, “Throughout my life, I have always been careful to connect night and day with learning, but now I have become weak and it is difficult.” I saw that he was very weak, and I suggested that it would be a good idea for him to go to sleep. It was late, but he was struggling to stay awake. He said to me, “I have another daf of Gemara to learn in order to finish the third perek of Kerisos.” Then he added, “I am an old man, and I don’t know what will happen to me from day to day. Chazal say that a person will be asked, ‘Did you review this perek?’ I want to finish the perek in order to arrive in Shomayim with yet another perek of Gemara in my hands.”
When he was weak, Rav Shach was told that it would be healthy for him to eat. He replied, “Learning is also healthy.” I once overheard him performing a viduy of sorts and telling himself, “I don’t learn. I don’t daven. I am nothing. I am an am ha’aretz.”
Once, I asked him from a brocha. He replied, “I can’t give you a brocha. I didn’t learn today as I should have.” Then he turned to me and said, “You know the truth.”
Rav Shach’s doctor once told him that he should stop delivering his shiur in the yeshiva. Rav Shach told me, “The doctor doesn’t understand. For me, the shiur is life itself.”
Humility and Yiras Shomayim
Rav Shach used to write kabbalos for himself. One of them was “to distance myself from anger to the greatest extreme, and to answer every questioner in a pleasant way.” This was written in 1981.
When he became ill and I was davening with him at his side, he asked me to stand next to him and to listen to his davening. “If I fall asleep or I make a mistake in the middle of the tefillah, do not have pity on me. Pinch me,” he said. At that time, he didn’t have the strength to go to the yeshiva, but he said, “It seems to me that this is laziness.”
“Laziness that suddenly began today?” I asked him.
“The yeitzer hara is more intelligent than I am,” he replied, and he went to the yeshiva despite his illness, recognizing that he would thereby give chizuk to others.
Once, Rav Shach interrupted me when I was in the middle of speaking. Then he stopped and said, “You were in the middle of talking, and I disturbed you.”
Before the elections for Degel HaTorah, the party printed a picture of Rav Shach wearing a kittel and entering the yeshiva. Beneath the image was a caption that read, “May you be blessed from the source of brachos – our master, the gaon and tzaddik Rav Elazar Shach shlit”a.” When Rav Shach heard about this, he ordered for all the pictures to be discarded.
One year, after Yom Kippur, I asked him for a brocha, explaining that the seforim state that it is proper to receive a brocha after Yom Kippur. A yungerman who was one of his close talmidim then entered the room and Rav Shach said to him, “Refoel says that it is proper to receive a brocha on the night after Yom Kippur. Please give me a brocha…”
Once, someone suggested that he should go away for a vacation during bein hazemanim. He replied, “When I learn, I amass many mitzvos. I have never had olam hazeh, but now people want to give it to me. It is sufficient that I have enough to eat and drink today; there was a time when I didn’t even have that.” Once, Rav Shach began eating supper and then immediately stopped, explaining that he didn’t have an appetite. I told him that it is said that eating creates an appetite. He replied, “I am not looking to develop an appetite.” He spoke very rarely about food. He considered such discussions to be repugnant. He preferred not to eat at all rather than for people to discuss food with him.
Rav Shach once became short of breath while hurrying to the yeshiva. Someone asked him why he was rushing, and he replied, ‘The Shulchan Aruch says that a person should strengthen himself like a lion to rise in the morning to the service of Hashem. In Pirkei Avos, the Mishnah says, ‘Be bold like a leopard, be light like an eagle, run like a deer, and be mighty like a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.’ I didn’t see anywhere that an elderly person is exempt from this.”
Rav Shach once fell asleep over his Gemara late at night. His family urged him to go to bed, but he refused. “I am still pained by the nights when I slept in the past,” he added.
Clarity of Emunah
A yeshiva bochur once developed severe anxiety after a friend of his experienced a personal tragedy. He began to fear that the same type of tragedy would happen in his own life. He told me about the situation, and he asked me to write a letter to the rosh yeshiva that he would sign, asking for help dealing with his fears.
Rav Shach wrote back, “To the precious, gifted bochur … many greetings. You described the tragedy that occurred to your friend, which is causing you great anguish and worry. Know that when a person worries and ruminates excessively about something like this, it is a flaw in his emunah in Hashem. A person should believe that Hashem is as we describe Him in our tefillos: Avinu Av Harachaman – our Father and a merciful Father Who has mercy on us. Nothing that He does is blind chance. Everything is calculated by Hashem, and if He gives a punishment to someone, His intent is like that of any father. A father who punishes one of his children would not want another child to fear that the same thing might happen to him. All he would want is for the other child to learn from that punishment to strengthen himself. Therefore, a believing person’s obligation is to strengthen himself further, to be certain to daven and to beseech Hashem that no tragedy should befall him. Certainly, Hashem hears every person’s prayers, for His desire is for people to daven to Him and to strengthen themselves in emunah, Torah, and yirah. You must take your mind off the incident that is disturbing you, for it will cause you nothing but sadness. Hashem will certainly help you and hear your tefillos, and you will grow in learning and yiras Shomayim.” The letter was signed, “From the one who blesses you, Elazar Menachem Man Shach.”
In a shmuess dealing with a passage in Nefesh Hachaim (Shaar 1, ch. 2), Rav Shach once said, “I am speaking because Hashem said, ‘You, Elazar Menachem Shach, speak!’ Otherwise, I would not be able to speak.” On another occasion, he commented on the same passage in Nefesh Hachaim, “These things are as clear and obvious to me as my five fingers. Emunah in Hashem is so obvious. When a person doesn’t believe in Hashem, not only is he lacking emunah, but he is also a pere adam, a beast in the form of a man.”
At a different time, Rav Shach said, “The posuk says, ‘Raise your eyes heavenward and see Who created these.’ But it isn’t necessary to look up to the heavens, for we can see Hashem in every step.”
He once went to visit a patient in the hospital. The patient’s cardiac surgeon heard that Rav Shach was visiting, and he went to meet the gadol hador. Rav Shach said to the doctor, “You see all the internal organs of a human being and you see the gadlus of Hashem. Isn’t there more wisdom in the human body than in the entire Ford car factory?” The doctor replied that even the microbes in the human body demonstrate more wisdom than the entire Ford factory. “Nu?” said Rav Shach.
“I never thought about it before,” the doctor admitted.
During wartime, when people from overseas asked Rav Shach if they should return to chutz la’aretz, he responded in the negative. “The same Hashem Who helps the bnei Eretz Yisroel will help the bnei chutz la’aretz as well,” he asserted. When a yeshiva bochur asked if he should return to chutz la’aretz because he was afraid, Rav Shach said, “I am willing to give you a handshake and sign a guarantee that if you sit and learn, nothing bad will happen to you.” He added, “The sinners have reason to fear, but those who keep the mitzvos have no reason to fear.” Regarding someone who did go to chutz la’aretz out of fear, Rav Shach said, “He should envy us, for we are not afraid.”
Rav Shach was once asked if he would be opposed if a bochur from a Litvishe family wished to learn in a chassidishe yeshiva. He replied, “There is no reason to pressure him to learn in a Litvishe yeshiva.”
Another talmid in a yeshiva once told Rav Shach that he wanted to remain in yeshiva, but his parents wanted him to transfer to a Hesder yeshiva and then join the army. He asked the gadol whether the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim required him to heed their wishes. “There is no mitzvah of kibbud av in this case,” Rav Shach replied.
There was once a bochur from France who was learning in a yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel, and whose parents demanded that he return to France in order to study in university. If he did not comply with their wishes, they warned him, they would cut off all contact with him. When he consulted with Rav Shach, the rosh yeshiva instructed him not to listen to his parents, assuring him that they would eventually come to approve of his choices.
Another bochur from chutz la’aretz wanted to continue learning in Eretz Yisroel, but his parents wanted him to return to chutz la’aretz and to marry there. In this case, Rav Shach ruled that he should attempt to persuade them to accept his point of view, but he should not do anything against their will, even if it would come at the expense of his learning. “You will need their help over the course of your life,” he explained, “and it is not worth alienating them over this.”
A bochur once consulted Rav Shach when he was asked to transfer from the yeshiva where he was learning to a different yeshiva in order to help the new yeshiva become established. While he understood the importance of the cause, he did not wish to leave the place where he was learning. “You should learn in the place where you desire to be,” Rav Shach told him.
A yungerman told Rav Shach that he had already gone through two full cycles of the masechtos studied in yeshivos. “The third round will also give you a sense of satisfaction from your learning,” Rav Shach replied, “but you should certainly begin learning other things as well.”
Another yungerman related that he had taken it upon himself to learn 30 blatt of Gemara a month, in addition to the sedorim of iyun in his kollel. Nevertheless, he said, he found that he did not remember the additional Gemara he had learned, and he felt that the system was not working for him. “You should not continue it,” Rav Shach replied.
A bochur from abroad had a dilemma over whether he should remain in Eretz Yisroel for the Elul zeman. While he felt that the month of Elul was put to better use in Eretz Yisroel, he knew that in the yeshiva he planned to attend overseas, chavrusos were chosen during Elul and it would be difficult for him to find a chavrusah if he arrived only in time for the winter zeman. Rav Shach told him, “Even if you will have more chizuk in Eretz Yisroel, it is more important that you not spend an entire zeman without a chavrusah.”
Another bochur told Rav Shach that he wanted to arrange to learn a different masechta with a yungerman in the afternoons, rather than learning a different perek in the same masechta, as is the practice in yeshivas. “That is a good plan lechatchilah,” Rav Shach replied, “but only with chazarah.” He added that they should not learn in an isolated setting, but rather in a bais medrash where there are other people learning, even if they were learning something different.
Rav Shach was once consulted by an American girl who was studying in a Bais Yaakov in Yerushalayim and was afraid to return home. She explained that her parents wanted her to study in a university, and she felt that she wasn’t strong enough to cope with the challenges there. Rav Shach replied that she had no obligation to obey her parents in this respect. Another young lady told him that she felt that she had a knack for special education and she wanted to study the field in a university. She felt that she could thereby obtain a degree that would allow her to earn a large salary, which would make it possible for her husband to learn without financial worry. Rav Shach replied, “There is no heter to study in a university.”
A bochur in yeshiva ketanah once asked Rav Shach if he should learn faster than the pace the yeshiva maintained, and if he should devote a portion of each day to learning a daf of a different masechta. Rav Shach responded that he should not deviate from the yeshiva’s schedule, and he should learn like all the other talmidim of the yeshiva.
Rav Shach once noticed that an invitation to his grandson’s wedding had been posted on the bulletin board in the yeshiva. As the grandfather of the chosson, he found his own name included on the invitation. Rav Shach immediately ordered the invitation taken down. “I don’t want to cause bittul Torah to the talmidim of the yeshiva,” he said.
When the rosh yeshiva of another yeshiva became ill, the talmidim organized an atzeres tefillah and traveled to the Kosel Hamaarovi to daven for his recovery. Rav Shach’s reaction was that they were misguided. “In a yeshiva, the most important thing is to continue learning and not to alter the schedule of the learning,” he said.
On the Kiruv Front
A baal teshuvah must take every possible precaution to avoid friction with his parents, even over halachic issues. One baal teshuvah related that he had become religious and he wished to begin a practice to which his parents objected. Rav Shach told him, “Sometimes, there are certain leniencies in halacha in cases of hefsed merubah, significant loss. Losing the ability to live in peace with your parents is a form of hefsed merubah.”
To a young baalas teshuvah whose parents did not observe Shabbos, Rav Shach said that it would be better, if possible, for her to live elsewhere in order to escape from the halachic issues and problematic atmosphere in her parents’ home and to visit them during the week instead. If that was not possible, he ruled that she was allowed to remain in their home on Shabbos, even though she would be benefiting from the electric lights and air conditioning that her parents turned on during the Shabbos day. Nevertheless, he ruled that it was prohibited for her to eat food that they cooked on Shabbos. He added that she should not make any comments to her parents about their own lack of Shabbos observance.
When baalei teshuvah expressed a desire to leave their jobs or their studies to learn in yeshiva or kollel, Rav Shach would advise them not to do so. It was sufficient, he told them, for them to designate set times for Torah learning. One baal teshuvah who was studying in a university and wished to learn in yeshiva instead was told by Rav Shach to continue pursuing his degree alongside his yeshiva learning.
A doctor once became religious and wished to leave his job and dedicate himself to full-time learning. Rav Shach told him that he could do so only if three conditions were met: His wife agreed to it, he had an alternative source of parnassah, and he would keep abreast of further developments in the medical field.
A well-known artist once informed Rav Shach that he wished to stop working and dedicate himself to Torah learning, since he no longer needed to pursue his trade in order to support his family. Rav Shach told him to continue his work at least partially, “not for parnassah, but for your own sake.”
A baal teshuvah from America once shared his financial woes with Rav Shach: He had been a teacher in America and had gone on to learn in a yeshiva for baalei teshuvah. He had succeeded in his learning to the point that he had even made a siyum on Maseches Bava Metzia, but he had no source of financial support whatsoever and he still owed money for the tefillin he had purchased on his own. Under the circumstances, he felt that he could not even consider marriage, since he would have no way to support himself. Rav Shach replied, “There is no question that in your situation, you are obligated by the Torah to earn a living in order to be able to begin a family. You should both work and learn.”
A yungerman in kollel once asked Rav Shach if he should participate in kiruv efforts, including the campaign to persuade secular parents to enroll their children in religious schools. Rav Shach replied, “A person who wants to be immersed in learning should not become involved in that.” Another yungerman, who was learning in a kollel in Teveria, asked if it was permissible for him to set out to engage in kiruv, as the situation in the area seemed to demand. Rav Shach advised him not to interrupt his usual learning schedule. He advised him only to devote an hour to kiruv from time to time, rather than making a regular commitment. A third yungerman was asked to begin working in kiruv in the evenings and Rav Shach gave him a similar answer: “Do not leave your regular learning schedule. You should engage in kiruv only on an occasional basis.”
Matters of Hashkafah
Rav Shach predicted that there will come a time when the people of this country will be so far removed from Yiddishkeit that they will erase the word “Israel” from the name they invented for their country, “the State of Israel.” He added, “What they want is a state, not ‘Israel.’ We are living through a ‘sweet inquisition,’ which is being conducted through meetings between Jewish and Arab youths and through Reform ‘conversion.” This comment was made during a period of time when the education minister, Yitzchok Navon, poured all of his energy into encouraging meetings between Jewish and Arab students, even advocating that each visit the others in their homes. “Over time,” Rav Shach said, “this will lead to the destruction of the nation. Their intent is to uproot everything.”
When the Knesset considered banning pork, chiloni protestors handed out pork sandwiches on the street in Yerushalayim. Rav Shach asserted at the time, “The distribution of dovor acheir on the streets of Yerushalayim and the operation of public transportation on Shabbos in Tel Aviv are more dangerous than the threats of Saddan Hussein.”
When a conflict over the construction of a stadium in Yerushalayim came to an end, one of the chareidi politicians thanked the mayor for agreeing to a compromise. Rav Shach rebuked him, “How can you thank a person who caused such pain to all of Yerushalayim and all of Klal Yisroel? He does not deserve any thanks!”
Regarding the situation in Eretz Yisroel in general and the success of the left, Rav Shach said, “How can a person live in Eretz Yisroel in this sort of situation? It is a disgrace to live here. Does this state really deserve to be called ‘Israel’? This state is a source of shame for the Jewish people.”
A frum member of the municipal government of New York City once asked Rav Shach whether he should combat a certain repugnant form of immorality that was the subject of a major controversy, but that did not affect the observant Jewish community. Rav Shach replied, “You must fight it. What they permit today in America will be permitted tomorrow in Eretz Yisroel. If they outlaw it in America, it will be outlawed in Eretz Yisroel as well, but if they allow it there, it will be legalized here.”
He commented that while the chilonim thought they were building “Klal Yisroel,” this was untrue. “They may be building a klal,” he would say, “but it is not ‘Yisroel.’ They thought that the idea of Zionism would eradicate anti-Semitism, but the exact opposite occurred: The hatred grew more intense. The Torah was given in a desert, without our having a country or even a piece of land beneath our feet, because the Torah is not dependent on land or a state.”
Rav Shach also addressed the secular Israelis’ mockery of the chareidi community. “They always deride us, calling us ‘shnorrers,’ but I ask: Isn’t the entire existence of the State of Israel based on financial aid from America? Doesn’t that make them ‘shnorrers’ as well? They are like arrogant paupers who have no real reason for pride. Without the money from America, this state would not be able to exist for even one day.”
When a group of kannaim plastered notices on the walls of the Yeshiva of Chevron, people demanded, “What happened to the issur of ‘lo sigzol’?” Rav Shach answered them by voicing his own disapproval: “They have a different Torah.”
Regarding those kannaim, who claimed that they were following the views of Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin zt”l, Rav Shach asserted, “They don’t respect him or his gadlus in Torah. If he had said things that didn’t conform to their actions, they wouldn’t listen to him. And the statements that they quote were made based on his views at the time. Who is to say that that is the proper way to act in our times as well?”
When Begin was elected, Rav Shach told the chareidi parties to join the governing coalition, since it was the least of all possible evils. Nevertheless, he did not agree to show respect to Begin and his associates by allowing them to visit him in his home. Once, when he was told that Prime Minister Begin was planning to visit him in his home to talk to him about joining the coalition, Rav Shach said, “If he comes, I will flee from my home.”
Rav Shach’s Dread of Gehennom
Rabbi Refoel Wolf says that he earned the tremendous privilege of being the right-hand man of the gadol hador by virtue of his being, in his words, a batlan. “I was a yeshiva bochur,” he relates. “Rav Shach was ill, and the convalescent home of the Vaad Hayeshivos in Netanya was opened for him, but he needed someone to help him. Rabbi Yechezkel Eschaik, who was a close friend of mine in Ponovezh, recommended me. I went to the convalescent home and Rav Shach asked what I was doing there. I told him that the doctors had ordered me to rest, and he said, ‘Then come and share my room.’
“Rav Shach hardly ever asked for anything. He was very independent. He didn’t allow others to serve him. Even at the end of his life, he never let anyone help him put on his shoes, not even his grandchildren. He also insisted on making his own tea until he was no longer able to do so. He always insisted on doing things on his own. He wouldn’t even accept help putting on his coat.”
You are indignant about the fact that people claim to know what Rav Shach would have said today. Why shouldn’t they do that? Didn’t Rav Shach himself always say that he always tried to imagine what the Chofetz Chaim would have said in response to every question he was asked?
“That is exactly the point,” Reb Refoel replies. “Rav Shach was able to do that, but neither you nor I – nor anyone else – is capable of it now. True, he used to ask himself what the Chofetz Chaim would have said, or what the Brisker Rov would have said. But he was able to do that. I remember that he once said that he wished he could bring the Chazon Ish back from his grave in order to ask him a question.”
What was the question?
“It was a personal question of a yeshiva bochur, and Rav Shach said that he couldn’t answer a question of that nature. It was a question involving proper education within a yeshiva.”
Rav Shach was always hesitant to allow a bochur to be expelled from a yeshiva, wasn’t he?
“Very much. It barely ever happened. I know that he had a kabbolah from the Chazon Ish about it. Rav Shach used to say in Yiddish, ‘A rosh yeshiva has to endure a bochur as long as he doesn’t cause harm to anyone else. It doesn’t matter what he does; the rosh yeshiva must tolerate anything.’ I once observed such a situation taking place. Rav Shach heard something negative about two bochurim who were learning in Ponovezh; they were both from highly distinguished families he knew. On his own, without speaking with the mashgichim or with anyone else, he called them aside and told them to go home. That was despite the fact that he was close with both families. A few days later, he sent someone to notify them that they could come back. Today, they are both renowned roshei yeshivos.”
He was also very suspicious; he didn’t automatically believe things he was told. I remember how he used to press for all sorts of information about the Shas party.
“That is true. He always wanted to hear the opinions of other people about things he had heard. If I was in his home and I had an opinion that was different from that of Rabbi Yechezkel Eschaik, he wanted to hear from both of us. Sometimes, he also called Rabbi Shraga Grossbard and Rabbi Shlomo Lorintz to solicit their opinions. He did whatever he thought was correct, but he insisted on hearing other people’s opinions first. He was also very careful about keeping secrets. He said that one of the reasons the Brisker Rov had shown him such favor was that he knew that anything he told him would never be relayed to anyone else. Confidentiality was of the greatest importance to him.”
You mentioned Rabbi Shraga Grossbard, who was the director-general of Chinuch Atzmai. There is a story about a father who came to Rav Shach to tell him about his son’s difficulty being accepted to school. According to the story, Rav Shach immediately got up, asked for his coat, and said, “Come, let us go to Reb Shraga together.”
“That is certainly possible. I was with him once when something similar took place. It was the beginning of the school year and Rav Shach was informed that six children had not been placed in schools. They were all Sephardim. Rav Shach, Reb Shraga, Yechezkel and I visited all the talmudei Torah in Bnei Brak, and he asked each of them to accept one of those children. Rav Shach made these requests personally. It is possible that Rav Chaim Shaul Karelitz joined us as well. He was the most involved in arranging placement for children in schools, and he often was asked to serve as Rav Shach’s emissary.”
Rav Shach established yeshivos for Sephardim. All the yeshivos in the south were under his aegis.
“He was the father of all the yeshivos – not only the ones that he founded or encouraged.”
Did you ever see him cry?
“In his final years, he cried very often. He was terribly afraid of Gehennom and of his final judgment.”