Immersion In Torah
Rav Eliyahu Chazan zt”l was a marbitz Torah who worked for decades teaching thousands of talmidim in Yeshivas Torah Vodaas, in Mesivta D’Chasidei Gur and after the war in Yeshivas Mercaz Hatorah in Montreal. He was known for his brilliance and erudition, as evident in his phenomenal works, which have become cornerstones of Torah learning in every major yeshiva and beis medrash.
Everyone who knew Rav Elya attested that his hasmodah was his crowning attribute. Torah was his very essence, and he continued pouring all his energy into its study until the end of his life. Other great men were astounded by his boundless hasmodah, which they considered astonishing even by the standards of the previous generation.
At every time, day and night, and in every place, whether it was in his own home or on the streets of the city, he was perpetually immersed in learning. On Shabbosos and yomim tovim, during the bein hazemanim vacation, and even in his old age, during his illness and suffering, he would pursue his learning with all the vigor of a young man.
In The Shadow Of The Birkas Shmuel
Ameilus in learning was the essence of Rav Elya’s life. This is evidenced by a story told by Rav Abba Berman zt”l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Iyun Hatalmud in Yerushalayim.
In 1928, when Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt”l traveled to America to raise money to pay off some of his yeshiva’s debts, he was accompanied by his son-in-law, Rav Reuven Grozovsky zt”l. Together, the two managed to raise $57,000. When Rav Boruch Ber returned to the yeshiva in the middle of the winter zman, his talmidim gathered to greet him. Rav Boruch Ber noticed that Rav Eliyahu Chazan was not present, and he asked, “Where is my Eliyanke?” When the other talmidim told him that Rav Elya had left for Mir, Rav Boruch Ber was deeply distressed.
When Rav Elya learned that his rebbi had been distressed by his departure, he packed his belongings and returned to Kaminetz. He apologized to Rav Boruch Ber and explained that since he was older than the other bochurim in the yeshiva, and Rav Boruch Ber had been absent for an extended period of time, he had felt the need to join the yeshiva in Mir, where there were other older bochurim. Nevertheless, he invited Rav Boruch Ber to test him on his learning. “If it turns out that I have changed even one iota from the derech halimud that I absorbed from the rebbi, I will remain here in Kaminetz. That is why I have brought my belongings with me.”
Toward the end of his life, Rav Elya was once asked by a talmid how long he had learned under Rav Boruch Ber. “Two years and four years,” Rav Elya replied. The talmid was perplexed by this response; why hadn’t Rav Elya said simply that he had learned in Kaminetz for six years?
Noticing his talmid’s puzzlement, Rav Elya explained that he had originally gone to Kaminetz with the intention of remaining there for only two years. When he went to take leave of Rav Boruch Ber, though, the rosh yeshiva said, “I have given myself over completely to my talmidim. I wanted to learn the entire Torah, the Bavli and Yerushalmi, as well as the Sifra, Sifri, and Mechilta, but I focused mainly on Noshim and Nezikin, and that was entirely for your sake. Yet you want to leave after only two years?” As soon as Rav Elya heard this, he decided to remain in Kaminetz, and he continued learning in the yeshiva for another four years.
Rav Elya once related that during his time in Kaminetz, after the conclusion of one of Rav Boruch Ber’s shiurim, a heated debate erupted between the foremost talmidim in the shiur. Rav Boruch Ber approached the group and asked them what they were discussing, and they replied that they were arguing over how to interpret the shiur he had just delivered. Rav Boruch Ber listened as each member of the group offered his own interpretation, and then he said, “You are all correct; I had all of those things in mind.” He added that Rav Chaim Brisker had remarked that he envied the author of the Ketzos Hachoshen, since every person who studies his magnum opus has his own understanding of what it means; thus, in effect, every person has his own individual “Ketzos Hachoshen.” Rav Boruch Ber added, “The Rebbe, Rav Chaim himself also merited the same thing: Every person has his own ‘Rav Chaim.’”
To that, Rav Elya added that Rav Boruch Ber himself achieved the same thing: Every person has his own “Rav Boruch Ber,” so to speak, since his words can be understood in many different ways. In fact, Rav Boruch Ber once reviewed the work of a talmid who was preparing written versions of his shiurim, and he commented to the talmid, “You don’t have to write it in such great detail; it should be necessary for people to work hard in order to understand.”
On one occasion, he shared a fascinating anecdote concerning Rav Boruch Ber. The famed rosh yeshiva once delivered a shiur in which he presented an explanation that he had developed for a passage in the Rashba. During the shiur, one of the bochurim asked a powerful question regarding his interpretation, and Rav Boruch Ber immediately closed his Gemara and went to discuss the question with Rav Chaim of Brisk.
Rav Chaim told Rav Boruch Ber that his explanation of the Rashba had been correct, and he resolved the question that the bochur had raised. Rav Chaim then told Rav Boruch Ber, “A maggid shiur must prepare every shiur so that it is absolutely clear to him. Not only must he be well-versed in the entire approach to the sugya, but he must also take into account any question that a talmid might ask him, and he must be prepared to answer every talmid in accordance with his level of understanding and intelligence.
Rav Boruch Ber returned to the yeshiva and delivered the shiur once again, this time adding Rav Chaim’s answer to the question that had been raised. Rav Boruch Ber then shared Rav Chaim’s admonition concerning the way a maggid shiur should prepare for his shiur. “That shiur left an indelible impression on all of his talmidim,” Rav Elya recalled.
At Rav Elya’s levayah, one of the maspidim shared a story illustrating the profound humility he exhibited even in his youth.
As a bochur, Rav Elya once traveled together with a friend to the city of Kovno, where they planned to meet the famous author of the Dvar Avrohom, the rov of the city, and discuss their learning with him. When the two bochurim arrived at their destination, Rav Elya was suddenly overcome by awe and asked his friend to enter the Dvar Avrohom’s home alone, while Rav Elya waited outside. When the other bochur entered the room, the rov of Kovno, who had been informed in advance of their arrival, rose to his full height, greeted the bochur, and asked, “Are you the bochur Eliyahu Chazan from the yeshiva of Mir?” The young man replied, “I am his friend; he is waiting outside for me to come out.” The bochur then returned to Rav Elya and exclaimed, “You are afraid to enter the rov’s home, but he is waiting for you to come inside! As soon as I entered the room, he stood up out of respect for you.”
Rav Avrohom Gershonowitz, a talmid of Rav Elya Chazan, once shared an anecdote that illustrated his rebbi’s absolute immersion in Torah. Rav Elya’s rebbetzin once left home for a trip to Eretz Yisroel, and informed her husband that she had prepared frozen meals for him to have in her absence. The meals had been individually packaged and organized in the freezer, ready to be heated and served.
A few days after her departure, Rav Elya arrived in the yeshiva in a visibly weakened state, to the point that he was unable even to open the door of the beis medrash. The talmidim immediately brought him a chair and asked if he had had anything to eat that day, and Rav Elya replied that he hadn’t yet eaten anything. When they asked if he had eaten enough the previous day, Rav Elya replied that he didn’t remember if he had eaten anything then either.
At that point, the talmidim realized that Rav Elya had been so absorbed in his learning that he had forgotten to eat the meals that had been prepared for him; that was the reason for his overwhelming weakness. They immediately brought him some food, and after he was satiated, Rav Elya went on to deliver his shiur with his usual intensity and joy.
During lunchtime in the yeshiva, the rabbeim were once discussing a question pertaining to the sugya that was being studied at the time. After a while, the conversation turned to more mundane matters. Rav Elya was actively involved in the entire discussion, and after they had finished their conversation, he immediately answered the question that had been raised at the beginning.
The rabbeim were surprised; Rav Elya had been an active participant in the entire conversation, and it amazed them that he could have come up with an answer to their question so quickly while they were discussing other issues. Rav Elya said, “They say that Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky was capable of thinking about several different subjects at the same time. In contrast, I can think about only one thing. Throughout the conversation, my thoughts were focused exclusively on learning, and I managed to come up with an answer to your question during that time.”
Rav Simcha Sheps zt”l, the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, delivered a hesped for Rav Elya in the yeshiva at the conclusion of the shivah. He commented that the greatest indication of Rav Elya’s complete immersion in Torah was the fact that everything else in the world was foreign to him; the Torah, in which he constantly rejoiced, was all he knew.
Rav Simcha related that in his own youth, his mother had once sent him to visit the Mir yeshiva to become acquainted with it. While he was there, he met Rav Elya Chazan in the street outside the yeshiva, and the two began a discussion of a specific question of the Boruch Ta’am regarding a particular sugya.
Some time later, when Rav Simcha officially became a talmid in the yeshiva, he approached Rav Elya and asked if he remembered when they had met. Rav Elya admitted that he did not recall meeting the young man. Rav Simcha tried reminding him of where their conversation had taken place, but Rav Elya still did not recall the encounter. When Rav Simcha related that they had discussed the Boruch Ta’am’s question, though, Rav Elya remembered the conversation, and he grew enthused by the recollection of the ideas they had exchanged. He informed Rav Simcha joyfully that he had come up with an additional answer to the Boruch Ta’am’s question, and he immediately began explaining his approach.
Purity Of Transmission
In his daily shiur, Rav Elya generally quoted only the works of the Rishonim and the great Acharonim, such as the Pnei Yehoshua, Rav Akiva Eiger, the Hafloah, and so forth. His talmidim were aware that Rav Elya was also familiar with the teachings of the great roshei yeshiva, such as Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, Rav Shimon Shkop, and Rav Naftoli Trop, and they asked him to incorporate those chiddushim into his lessons as well.
Rav Moshe Breslauer, one of Rav Elya’s talmidim, recalled Rav Elya’s response to their request: “You should know that when I learned bechavrusa with Rav Boruch Ber for a period of two years, we learned straight through the Pnei Yehoshua, and we did not skip even one passage. Believe me, I have enough chiddushim on every masechta to fill an entire volume, but I refrain from sharing them because I want you to know the foundations of every sugya as we received them from our rabbeim.”
Rav Elya’s personal example of ameilus in Torah learning was no less instructive to his talmidim than his shiurim on the material they learned. Rav Elya was once invited to the wedding of a talmid whose shidduch he had arranged. When the talmid came to deliver the invitation to his rebbi, he added that he was aware of how deeply Rav Elya valued his time for learning, and he did not wish to burden his rebbi by insisting on his presence at the wedding. Rav Elya was overjoyed to hear that; he acknowledged that the opportunity to learn without interruption was indeed a great source of joy for him.
One of Rav Elya’s talmidim related that when Rav Elya first became ill and was hospitalized, the doctors did not permit him to learn with his usual intensity. Often, when his talmidim came to visit him in the hospital, the rebbetzin admonished them to refrain from engaging in intensive Torah discussions with their rebbi; such discussions had the potential to sap his strength and result in a threat to his health.
One day, Rav Elya was visited in the hospital by Rabbi Naftoli Rubin, a talmid with whom he enjoyed engaging in intricate Torah discussions. When the visiting talmid arrived, the rebbetzin warned him not to discuss his learning with her husband. However, as soon as the rebbetzin left, Rav Elya asked, “What are they learning in the yeshiva now?” The talmid evaded the question, but Rav Elya asked him again, several minutes later, “Where are they holding in the yeshiva?” At that point, Rabbi Rubin replied that the rebbetzin, at the behest of Rav Elya’s doctors, had expressly forbade him to discuss any subject in learning.
Rav Elya could not restrain himself. “I am asking you to tell me what sugya they are learning in the yeshiva!” he declared in a firm tone. The talmid saw no alternative but to answer the question, and Rav Elya immediately launched into a discussion of the sugya. For a long time, the rebbi engaged his talmid in a heated debate fueled by his immense passion for the Torah. Finally, Rav Elya glanced through the window of his room and spotted the rebbetzin heading in his direction, and immediately returned to his bed, smiling to himself all along. He warned his talmid not to reveal the nature of their conversation to the rebbetzin; he feared she might become concerned because he had not heeded the doctors’ advice, and did not wish to cause her anguish.
Despite the suffering he experienced, the joy Rav Elya derived from the Torah knew no bounds. Whenever he came up with a chiddush or a new understanding of a sugya, he would be filled with joy and vitality, as if he had just been awarded a fortune.
Rav Elya once delivered a shiur on the sugya of “talyuha vezabin,” which deals with a sale made under duress. During the shiur, he quoted the chakirah of Rav Chaim of Brisk as to whether a sale made under duress might be considered lacking in intent or in the act of acquisition. He then cited the Mordechai’s statement that it is incorrect to interpret the deficiency in the sale as a faulty act of kinyan. One of the talmidim asked him where the Mordechai’s statement appears, and Rav Elya said, “I asked the same question to Rav Boruch Ber, and he told me that he didn’t know.”
That talmid, Rabbi Yaakov Lipschutz of Yerushalayim, decided to take it upon himself to find the Mordechai’s statement. The talmid was certain that if Rav Chaim of Brisk had quoted that statement of the Mordechai, then it must exist. “I even looked through the kisvei yad,” Rabbi Lipschutz related, “even though it was unlikely that Rav Chaim would have quoted the Mordechai from a handwritten manuscript. Still, I thought that if I found it there, it might lead me to his source.” He examined the Mordechai’s commentary on all the relevant sugyos, but he was unable to find the passage. Finally, he located the comment, in the Mordechai’s commentary on Kesuvos 97b.
On chol hamoed Sukkos of the year 5735, Rabbi Lipschutz met Rav Elya in Yerushalayim. “Rebbi, I know where the Mordechai is!” he exclaimed. At first, Rav Elya did not believe him. “We were standing outside a shul in Geulah,” Rabbi Lipschutz recalled, “and I asked him to come inside the shul with me. I showed him the Mordechai in Kesuvos, and he was incredibly excited. He became so exuberant that he kissed me on both cheeks. ‘If you had shown the Mordechai to Rav Boruch Ber, he would have kissed you as well,’ he told me.
“That happened on chol hamoed Sukkos,” Rabbi Lipschutz concluded, “and I felt as if Simchas Torah had begun in the middle of Sukkos.”
Torah And Yiras Shomayim
One year, when the yeshiva was learning Masheches Kiddushin, one of the rabbeim told Rav Elya that a bochur had asked him a powerful question, and that he hadn’t had an appropriate answer for it. He repeated the question, and Rav Elya responded immediately, “That is the Makneh’s question, and the Makneh answers it on the basis of his particular approach to the sugya.” Rav Elya then asserted that he did not consider it possible to deliver a shiur on Maseches Kiddushin if one is not well-versed in the Makneh’s commentary.
The maggid shiur asked Rav Elya to show him the question in the Sefer Hamakneh, and Rav Elya opened an aging copy of the sefer and immediately pointed to the spot where the question appeared.
Rav Elya then began searching for a siddur, and the maggid shiur asked him why he needed one. Rav Elya replied that he had to recite a brocha acharonah, and he was looking for a siddur to read the brocha from a printed text, rather than reciting it by heart. “Why does a person who knows the entire Sefer Hamakneh by heart need to use a siddur to recite a brocha acharonah?” the maggid shiur exclaimed.
Rav Elya replied, “If I omit a single word from the Sefer Hamakneh, nothing will go wrong. The most important thing is to convey the content of the sefer, and I am already familiar with it. However, if I omit a single word in a brocha acharonah, I will have failed to recite the brocha of me’ein shalosh. How can I do that before my Creator?”
One of Rav Elya’s distinguished talmidim related that in his youth, he once met Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l, the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, with whom he became involved in a Torah discussion. At one point, the young man asked a brilliant question, which impressed Rav Shmuel deeply. “Who is your rebbi in learning?” the rosh yeshiva asked. When the talmid replied that his rebbi was Rav Elya Chazan, Rav Shmuel exclaimed, “Do you know who your rebbi is?”
“Of course,” the bochur said. “He is an outstanding Torah genius.”
“Let me tell you about Rav Eliyahu Chazan, and about the great derech eretz that precedes his vast Torah knowledge,” Rav Shmuel replied. “I had a relative who went to learn in the yeshiva of Mir in Europe, and on his first night in the yeshiva, he didn’t know where he could go to sleep after his exhausting first day. At that point, he encountered Rav Eliyahu Chazan and asked him if he knew of an empty bed where he could sleep that night. Rav Eliyahu told him that he knew of a bed that was available, and he brought the new bochur to his own room and offered him his own bed.
“The bochur found out only afterward that he had slept in Rav Eliyahu Chazan’s bed. He felt uncomfortable about it, and he approached Rav Eliyahu afterward to apologize to him. Rav Eliyahu told him that he had decided to give up his bed because he didn’t want the bochur to think that he had nowhere to sleep on his first night in the yeshiva. That would be a very unpleasant way to begin his time in the yeshiva. Therefore, Rav Eliyahu offered the young man his own bed, so that he could begin his time in the yeshiva in the most pleasant way possible, without experiencing any distress.”
Rav Shmuel Berenbaum proceeded to share one more story. “One of the talmidim in the yeshiva was dangerously ill and had to be placed in isolation. There was a certain gentile who was supposed to collect his bodily waste, but Rav Elya feared that the gentile might not do his job. Indeed, he did not come when he was needed, and Rav Elya decided to take the daily responsibility upon himself instead, to help the talmid recover.”
Excerpted from a book due to be published soon. We would be very grateful if you could send us additional comments, documents, pictures, and additional stories about Rabbi Chazan ZT”L which we could add to our book. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-533158300.