Our Rebbi

As longtime Telzer talmidim, we are well-schooled in the lore of Telshe of old. The history and mesorah of the yeshiva is discussed regularly and is an integral part of the chinuch. We are regularly reinforced with the fact that our rabbeim are talmidim of those who brought Telshe to these shores. They, in turn, were talmidim of the alter Telzer rov, and so on up the chain until the Vilna Gaon. We have been told of the passing of Rav Yosef Leib Bloch in 1930 and the hesped that Rav Chaim (Rabinowitz) Telzer delivered, and that exactly one year later, Rav Chaim passed away. The talmidim were in shock. The two senior roshei yeshiva left the world in consecutive years. How would they ever recover? We wondered what it must have been like to be there in those dark days.

Talmidim at Telshe Yeshiva Chicago are reliving some of those same sentiments this week. Just over a year ago, we were in mourning over the loss of our beloved rebbi, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin zt”l. But we were comforted in knowing that we still had one link left to the old chain. His brother-in-law and co-rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaim Dov Keller, was still with us. This week, we were saddened with the passing of Rav Chaim Dov, orphaned as the last of three builders of the yeshiva, including Rav Chaim Schmelczer zt”l, is now gone.

Rav Chaim Dov exuded ahavas haTorah. He was happiest when delving into a sugya. To him, that meant working through the language of the Gemara and focusing on the words of the Rishonim. He would work on clarifying what was meant by drawing inferences from individual words and letters of the Rishonim.

He would often talk about one day publishing a sefer on pintelach. He would get annoyed when seeing how printers created headlines vs. text in Rashi. If a given word or phrase can be found in the Gemara, the printer will separate it by dots, calling it a dibbur hamaschil, followed by the commentary. Rav Keller would explain how those words were sometimes part of the message that Rashi was trying to convey. He would then exclaim, “There’s another entry for my sefer on pintelach!”

In 1961, when Rav Keller left Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland to join the hanhalah of Telshe in Chicago, a seudas preidah was held in his honor. One of his chaveirim spoke about the mesirus nefesh required to go to Chicago. As he was wont to do, Rav Chaim Dov got up and gave a rejoinder. “If I’d be leaving yeshiva to go to work, that would be mesirus nefesh. I’m going to teach Torah. What more desirable thing is there to do? That is not mesirus nefesh!”

His style in learning, and in all of life, was driven by an innate desire to find the emes. He would say, “My Gan Eden is finding the richtige girsa in the Rambam.”

He would argue with all comers, clarifying a point here, elucidating an inference there. He encouraged give-and-take during his shiurim.

He learned this from his rebbi, Rav Elya Meir Bloch. He related that he felt that he once overstepped his bounds while challenging his rebbi during shiur. Rav Elya Meir told him to keep on asking. “Du darfst fregen und ich darf shrayen. You must continue to ask and I will respond back, even with raised voices. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask, and you should also not fear the way I answer.”

He challenged not only others, but himself as well. He was not embarrassed to step down from a vort. He’d argue with his talmidim and with his chavrusah. And he’d argue on himself, when reminded of a pshat he had previously suggested.  This was all part of his tremendous bikkush ha’emes.

Sometimes, he would get into strong debates with his chavrusah. Harsh words may have been said. When learning on Erev Yom Kippur, the chavrusah would ask mechilah for perhaps being disrespectful during the course of the year. Rav Chaim Dov would respond to his chavrusah – many decades his junior and a talmid to boot – with a request to be mochel him as well. Es vahev vesufa.

He had an immense amount of simchas haTorah. The toil in Torah, and the battle and debate with all comers, brought him such simcha. He would frequently break out into a niggun while learning. With his powerful oratorical voice, it would resonate all across the bais medrash.

Rav Boruch Hirschfeld told a yungerman who was Rav Keller’s chavrusah, “You are so fortunate. Rav Chaim Dov learns with the frishkeit of a yungerman!” He said this at a time when Rav Chaim Dov was past age 70.

Rav Chaim Dov delivered the bi-weekly shiur daas in yeshiva. A shiur daas is a shmuess in Telshe-style. It is a shiur in hashkofah. Maamarei Chazal are analyzed just as one would analyze a sugya in Shas.

On Rosh Hashanah night, he would frequently start quoting the famous Chazal, “Imru lefonai Malchiyos shetamlichuni aleichem, Zichronos, etc.” Every year, he would analyze it from a different angle, sharing a newly-conceived mehalech and an important life lesson drawn from that.

He would say shiurim in hilchos teshuvah. He explained that it is a serious halachic process and it is important for people to know that there is a halachic system and what it is all about.

While the shiur daas is an intellectual pursuit, he did not fail to bring out emotion when warranted as well. Who can forget Rosh Hashanah night in 2001, just days after 9/11?

“Even the youngest child can see that the whole world has changed. We will never be the same again!” he said. The words were delivered with such emotion and power that our hearts would absolutely never be as they were.

He was the baal tokeia on Rosh Hashanah in the yeshiva. His powerful and passionate chant of Min Hameitzar and the following six pesukim is something that no Chicago Telzer will ever forget.

We learned from him how one can be extremely devoted to his rabbeim. When he spoke about Rav Elya Meir Bloch, or Rav Mottel Katz, or his rabbeim from before Telshe, like Rav Yeruchom Gorelick and Rav Dovid Lifshitz, the emotion could be felt even many decades after their passing.

Rav Chaim Dov was exceedingly careful in mitzvos. Although in yeshiva fleishigs is served at a bris, as it is a seudas mitzvah, Rav Chaim Dov never partook of the meat. One time, many years ago while in England for a family simcha, he was served a tea with milk – an uncommon and unexpected combination for an American – before six hours had passed. He was so distressed over that incident that he was mekabel to never eat meat in the morning.

He kept a detailed count of his brachos every day to ensure that he would always reach 100. He never rushed during davening. He would frequently start his seder off in the morning sharing a new insight in tefillah that came to him that morning during Shacharis.

Rav Chaim Dov was a spokesman for the Torah view on a host of topics. He was featured regularly at the Agudah conventions and in the pages of The Jewish Observer. His skill in analyzing a topic as he would any sugya, plus his gift of communication in both the spoken word and written word, placed him at the forefront of many such struggles with ideologies foreign to the authentic derech haTorah.

The story is told that at the kabbolas ponim at Rav Chaim Dov’s wedding, Rav Elya Meir Bloch, Rav Leizer Silver and other gedolim were talking about the struggles the Torah world was experiencing with some of these elements. Rav Elya Meir declared, “This chosson has the ability and the skills to take a leading role in this struggle.”

As talmidim, we were honored when he was chosen as one of the speakers to represent the American Torah world at the Knessiah Gedolah in Yerushalayim in 1980. We knew his communication skills and were happy that the broader Torah world would have the zechus to be inspired by him.

He was sought after around the world, in South Africa, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and anywhere Jews wanted to hear the Torah viewpoint explained in a clear, well-thought-out manner. He was even sent on a shlichus to the old Soviet Union together with Rabbi EB (Bunny) Freedman in the early 1980s.

Back in the 1970s, a very dangerous piece of legislation was proposed.  The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was being promoted to be added to the constitution of the United States. The law, which mandated equal treatment based on gender, would have had devastating consequences for the Jewish community.

An amendment needs three quarters of all state legislatures – 38 out of 50 – to be added to the constitution. At the time, 35 states had approved of it. Illinois was poised to be the 36th, with a few more to follow almost naturally in its wake.

Rav Chaim Dov and some family members went to the state capital in Springfield. After an impassioned presentation to the legislature about the sanctity of our daughters, Illinois voted down the measure. Two states then rescinded their approval, and then the time for passage expired. The amendment fell by the wayside, never to be heard about again.

We have been told that Torah in America will only be built with simcha and positivity. We hope and daven that just as Telshe Yeshiva in Europe survived and thrived under the leadership of the successors, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok and Rav Shmuel Zalman Bloch and Rav Ezriel Rabinowitz, so will the new generation continue to lead us, fulfilling the mission of their rabbeim.