The Chevron Massacre
Rav Chaim was born in Chevron in 1929. This was five years after Yeshivas Knesses Yisroel of Slobodka moved there under the leadership of his father, Rav Yechezkel Sarna. Rav Chaim’s mother, Pesha Miriam, was the daughter of Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Slobodka.
In the introduction to his sefer Be’er Lechai Ro’i, Rav Chaim writes about why the yeshiva moved to Eretz Yisroel. “The Saba of Slobodka moved the yeshiva to Eretz Yisroel after the Lithuanian government decreed military conscription for yeshiva bochurim,” Rav Chaim states. “Within three months of the yeshiva’s opening in Chevron, talmidim from Slabodka arrived together with some from Telz. Amazingly, as the last bochurim arrived in Chevron, the Lithuanian government suddenly annulled the conscription law, leading my grandfather, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, to write in his introduction to his sefer, Levush Mordechai, that this was clear proof the whole incident was a heavenly decree. We clearly saw that the Hashem wanted Yeshivas Slobodka to move to Eretz Yisroel. Think how the yeshiva world would look today had Slobodka not come to Eretz Yisroel.“
But why did the yeshiva move to the small, isolated town of Chevron? Ironically, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein was looking for a place where his bochurim could learn in peace and quiet:
“When I arrived in Eretz Yisroel I inquired about where to establish the yeshiva,” he explained. “I asked Rav Yitzchok Yerucham Diskin… and understood from him that Yerushalayim would not be a good place for the yeshiva due to controversy… We did not want to be drawn into any arguments. We also did not want to look like reformists with the modern clothing prevalent in the yeshiva. Nor did we did want the yeshiva to be in Tel Aviv because it was too modern… We chose Chevron where there was less chance of outside disturbances bothering the bochurim, and also to strengthen its Jewish kehilla that had decreased considerably.”
Rav Chaim described his small part in the Chevron catastrophe:
“Five years after the yeshiva’s founding came the great tragedy,” he wrote. “On Shabbos, the 18th of Av 1929, the Arabs of Chevron organized a pogrom, killing twenty-four bochurim of the yeshiva and wounding many others. Dozens of the town’s Jews were killed and many were wounded. Miraculously, my father, the Rosh Yeshiva, was in Yerushalayim for the Arab rioters were looking out for him, certain that as Rosh Yeshiva he was in charge of the yeshiva funds.
“Personally, I don’t recall what happened that terrible Shabbos as I was still a baby. I know that my mother fled with my sister and myself to her father’s house. As she was running there, Arabs threw a huge stone in our direction. It miraculously missed her and my mother took her two children in her arms managed to escape.”
Chevron Yeshiva moved to the Geulah neighborhood of Yerushalayim, retaining the name of the town hallowed by the blood of its kedoshim.
In his younger years, Rav Chaim learned at the Lomza Yeshiva in Petach Tikvah where his father hired two avreichim to learn with him, Rav Moshe Shemuel Shapiro (Rosh Yeshiva of Be’er Yaakov) and Rav Yosef Rozovski. He was also close to the Chazon Ish, and went to see him three times a week in the course of half a year.
In 1954, Rav Chaim married his wife Rochel, daughter of the philanthropist, Rav Malkiel Friedman of Memel, Lithuania, who was a brilliant talmid of the Saba of Slabodka. Her parents perished during World War II and she survived by masquerading as a non-Jew. For a while she even worked at the Zeiss optical company in Germany where a German woman cared for her when she was ill with tuberculosis and helped her reach Switzerland after the war. After the war, the woman told the rebbetzin that she and her husband knew all along that she was Jewish because of a similarity between her face and a Rembrandt painting of a Jew – and this was precisely why they helped her.
Although Swiss doctors were adamant that the rebbetzin would never survive for more than three months, she clung to life for seven years until the discovery of new antibiotics that saved her life. Rebbetzin Rochel’s two sisters also survived the war. Her older sister, Rishel, married Rav Shneur Kotler and is the mother of Rav Malkiel Kotler.
Despite the rebbetzin’s ill health and seniority in years, Rav Chaim was captivated by her incomparable character and penimiyus that he describes poignantly in the introduction to his sefer, Be’er Lechai Ro’i. Throughout their marriage, he always turned to her for inspiration and advice and even his father, Rav Yechezkel, wrote in a letter, “She helps me a lot in everything including public matters and I get much good advice from her.”
“She was the mother of the yeshiva,” Rav Chaim recalls. “Upon her shoulders rested the concern for every bochur of the yeshiva. She would stand next to the window facing the street to see them entering and leaving the building and derived much nachas from hearing the sound of Torah when they learned… If she saw a bochur with torn shoes, she would send money for him to buy new ones.”
After his marriage, Rav Chaim became his father’s right hand until his passing in 1979, helping him run the yeshiva and publish his many seforim. When Rav Chaim was thirty-three years old, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel of Mir said to Rav Yechezkel: “It’s time for your son to start giving shiurim in the yeshiva.”
“But he’s young!” protested Rav Sarna.
“On Sunday he is to start delivering shiurim in the yeshiva,” Rav Lazer Yudel repeated.
And so it was.
Back to Geulah
By 1976, the Chevron Yeshiva outgrew its building in Geulah and moved to a large, new building in the Givat Mordechai neighborhood. But Rav Chaim soon decided to move back to the old building.
“I also moved with my family to live in one of the apartments at the new Givat Mordechai campus,” Rav Chaim recalled. “But after a while… my wife decided we should move back to the building in Geulah and revitalize the old yeshiva… We returned to the old buildings in Geulah that my father was very distressed about when it was decided to move the yeshiva elsewhere. He was concerned that they might remain empty…
“‘We are not going back to Givat Mordechai,’ my wife said. ‘With Hashem’s help we will try to establish a new yeshiva in the old building. If we succeed, well and good, and if not, we’ll stay there without a yeshiva.’ So we did, and, baruch Hashem, we saw success in our toil. Through her efforts, my wife established the yeshiva on a firm footing and it nurtured hundreds of talmidim… My wife provided them and myself with encouragement and support. About her it can be said without reservation, ‘Mine and yours, is hers.'”
Rav Chaim was famous for his ge’onus and his unique way of learning based on his extreme erudition in the Yerushalmi, and the Shas and Poskim. He insisted that a broad basis of knowledge was the foundation not only of successful learning, but also of psychological wellbeing. Indeed, during the two years before his bar mitzvah he completed Bava Kama, Gittin, and Kiddushin thoroughly.
“People don’t learn properly nowadays,” he complained recently. “The modern derech halimud is not good; there is a ‘new Torah’ in the yeshivos. They learn Gemara with all sorts of pilpul and sevaros. With us, there is no such thing as iyun and beki’us. One must learn Gemara, Rishonim, and Rambam until the end, not sevaros… A bachur must learn Gemara and Rishonim, even ninety times, just Gemara and Rishonim.“
Indeed, he was convinced that a correct derech in learning could also play a part in solving the problem of noshrim (dropouts).
“One needs to try something else to make them want to learn Torah,” he said. “I think that my suggestion of learning Gemara with Rishonim is suitable for everyone. This is how they learned in the time of the Rishonim, and it is suitable for us as well. This gives a different ta’am in learning.”
He also insisted that bochurim continue the Slabodka mussar heritage.
“We need to learn more mussar!” he said. “We don’t appreciate it enough! Rav Itzele Peterburger said that although my uncle, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer was renowned worldwide for his good midos, it was possible that even he, Rav Isser Zalman, needed to learn mussar. How much more must we, in our orphaned generation, learn mussar. A person can become a true ben aliyah through mussar. I don’t understand how someone who doesn’t learn mussar can even be a human being.”
In recent years, Rav Chaim occasionally gave a klop on the bimah and announced that for a bochur to demand excessive sums of money from a prospective father-in-law was similar to murder. A few years when a father-in-law collapsed at a wedding, he stormed to the bimah the next morning and yelled: “A bochur who demands an apartment is a murderer; you can end up killing someone!”
Sufferings of Love
In the 1980s Rav Chaim began to suffer from head tumors that tormented him for the rest of his life. Thereafter, he underwent a series of surgeries that left him 100 thousand dollars in debt.
“Health insurance paid some of it, but I was left a hundred thousand in debt,” he recalls. “This [borrowed] money was deposited in the hospital under my name and the name of my friend, Reb Ze’ev Rozengarten, and I had to pay it. The righteous Reb Ze’ev argued that since I had been traveling worldwide for thirty years on behalf of the yeshiva, the yeshiva should cover fifty thousand of the cost. I said I would mention the idea to my wife. She opposed his suggestion, saying she would use compensation she had received from Germany rather than touch money that belonged to the yeshiva. Such behavior was very typical of her!”
Back in his father’s home in Geulah, Rav Chaim and his wife lived simply, barely adding anything to the apartment’s old furniture. The chairs, bookcase, and weren’t changed. Anyone passing his home would see him seated in the chair his father had used when learning, studying and writing from morning till night. After one of his head surgeries, Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach asked him, “Nu, have you got back to your chair yet?” to which Rav Chaim answered, Vadai uvadai.
Besides learning and nurturing his talmidim, little else interested him.
“You have no doubt noticed that you almost never see me anywhere,” he pointed out. “I barely leave the house. You don’t see me in the paper or on the bill boards. My father always told me, ‘Keep off the walls.'”
Indeed, Rav Chaim’s devotion to the yeshiva was legendary.
“Everyone in the yeshiva knew that whenever Rav Chaim took a loaf of bread from the yeshiva dining room to his apartment, he immediately wrote it down in order to pay the yeshiva back,” a bachur recalls. “The same happened even with disposable cups that he took to give a drink to visitors or talmidim. He didn’t take a cent from the yeshiva. He wrote everything down and paid.”
“On one occasion when I was traveling with him on a bus,” a talmid relates, “I noticed that his ticket was marked with various signs. When I asked him about it, he told me that he was marking which trips were for the yeshiva and which for his personal needs for which he would repay the yeshiva.”
“I once phoned the Rosh Yeshivah to tell him that a philanthropist in Bayit Vegan wanted to give the yeshiva a large donation,” a bochur recalls. “‘I suppose we can expect him to arrive soon by taxi,’ the gevir said to me. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘He won’t be here for another hour; he’ll be coming by bus. He would never take a taxi at the yeshiva’s expense.'”
Late one night a talmid met Rav Chaim carrying a garbage pail.
“I’m going your direction,” said the talmid said, hinting he could take it for him.
“You’re welcome to come along with me for a stroll,” replied Rav Chaim, “but I’ll dispose of the garbage myself.”
For the past few years Rav Chaim was no longer able to head the yeshiva due to his debilitating illness. After his passing last Thursday morning, thousands attended his levaya where he was eulogized by, among others, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, Rosh Yeshiva of Mir and Rav Dovid Cohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron. He was interred on Har Menuchos next to his mechutan, Rav Moshe Soloveichik of Zurich.
Rav Chaim is survived by his daughter, Sarah Yehudis, who is married to Rav Baruch Soloveichik (son of Rav Moshe Soloveichik), Rosh Yeshiva of Toras Ze’ev in Yerushalayim, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Yehi zichro boruch.
(Some information is from Shlomo Kook’s 2008 interview with the Rosh Yeshiva published in Shteigen)