Remembering Rav Dov Schwartzman zt”l

Rav Dov Schwartzman was a giant in Torah, a throwback to previous generations, which boasted gedolim who possessed knowledge of the entire Torah, nigleh and nistar. Can the rosh yeshiva tell us a bit about Rav Dov’s early years and what contributing factor they had in producing such a rare gaon and talmid chochom?

You highlighted my shver’s gaonus in all areas of Torah. In truth, however, he was a totally different sug of talmid chochom.

Chazal tell us that it is appropriate to “forever” mourn a talmid chochom who passes away and does not leave anyone who can replace him. How can Chazal say this? Are there not halachos about how much we are allowed to mourn? Perhaps we can explain this Chazal with the Gemara that tells us that after Moshe Rabbeinu’s passing, when Yehoshua assumed the mantle of leadership, the zekeinim in that generation said, “The face of Moshe was like the face of the sun, and the face of Yehoshua was like that of the moon.” What were the zekeinim coming to teach us? Did we not know that Moshe Rabbeinu was greater?

Rav Shlomo Heiman zt”l explains that, indeed, everyone knew that there was a difference between Moshe and Yehoshua, but the zekeinim quantified that difference. They were saying that it wasn’t only that Moshe was greater than Yehoshua, but, rather, that just like the sun and the moon are two completely different entities, Moshe and Yehoshua were in two totally different categories.

My shver was a different category of talmid chochom. There was almost no one like him in his complete mastery of Bavli, Yerushalmi, nigleh, nistar and all seforim. His hasmodah and yegiah were unique.

What were the early influences on him?

My shver was born in Communist Russia and spent his first years there living under the oppression of the rabidly anti-religious Russian Communists. He was born in 1921 in the city of Nevel. His father, Rav Yehoshua Zev, was a great talmid chochom and a talmid of the Slabodka Yeshiva. Later in his life, after he went to Eretz Yisroel, his father served as a rov in Tel Aviv. His mother came from a Lubavitcher family.

In those times, it was a capital offense to teach Torah to one’s children in Communist Russia, but Rav Yehoshua Zev was moser nefesh to give a Torah chinuch to his son. My shver would recall learning in an underground cheder as a child, at a time when the Communists had declared war on Torah and were looking everywhere to root out those who were teaching their children Torah.

My shver remembered that in the basement where a melamed taught him with several other children, there were a number of wine barrels. Whenever there was a knock on the door, they would jump into the barrels and cover them. One time, however, an informant had evidently given their secret away and a government agent barged in and fished one child out of the barrel. The poor melamed was sent away to Siberia. These were my shver’s recollections from his early youth.

How did the family get out from behind the Iron Curtain?

That is a fascinating story of nissim and Hashgocha Protis. My shver’s father, Rav Yehoshua Zev, was the son of a great gaon, Rav Binyomin Menachem Schwartzman. Rav Binyomin Menachem wrote a sefer, Nachalas Binyomin, with haskamos from Rav Refoel Shapiro of Volozhin and Rav Itzele Ponevezher. He moved to Yerushalayim before the Communists took hold of Russia and was renowned in his time as one of the gedolei Yerushalayim. In the 1920s, he began to lose his vision and was slowly going blind. In a desperate move, he wrote a letter to Stalin’s secretary explaining that he was an old, blind man living alone in Yerushalayim and needed his son and family to take care of him in his old age and infirm state of health. He asked that his son and family be allowed to emigrate from Russia. Miraculously, Stalin’s secretary looked favorably upon the request and Rav Yehoshua Zev and his family were given permission to leave. Thus, as a boy of about ten years old, Rav Dov arrived on the shores of Eretz Yisroel.

Where did he learn when he arrived in Eretz Yisroel?

His father soon realized that Tel Aviv of that period did not offer any proper chinuch, so he sent his son to Yerushalayim, where he learned with his grandfather, Rav Binyomin Menachem, for about two years. Rav Dov would relate how despite being blind, his grandfather learned with him the entire Chumash, Nach and many masechtos of Mishnayos. His zaide was one of the gedolei Yerushalayim of his time and had a tremendous hashpa’ah on my shver.

After that, he learned for a period of time at Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Yerushalayim under Rav Chaim Mann, a distinguished mechanech. It was Rav Chaim who recommended that he go to learn in Chevron despite the fact that he was only 12 years old. He told the rosh yeshiva, Rav Chatzkel Sarna, that my shver was ready to be tested on the entire Maseches Bava Metzia with every Tosafos and every Rabi Akiva Eiger!

Thus, at the young age of twelve, my shver entered the great Chevron Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. He actually started putting on tefillin when he went to Chevron, even though he was only twelve-and-a-half, so that he would be looked at as a bochur and not a child.

Who were his main rabbeim in Chevron?

My shver told me that he had a shaychus with all of the roshei yeshiva, but the one who had the greatest impact on him was Rav Chatzkel Sarna.

In 1939, due to the fact that Yerushalayim was unsafe, he went to learn in the Novardoker yeshiva in Tel Aviv for an entire summer zeman. The rosh yeshiva of Novardok at the time was the Steipler Gaon and my shver heard a daily blatt shiur from him. During that time, my shver, together with Rav Avrohom Farbstein, later rosh yeshiva of Chevron, took the opportunity to go to Bnei Brak to talk to the Chazon Ish in learning.

Tell us about his hasmodah in Chevron.

My shver was a phenomenal masmid in a way that we can almost not relate to in our times. Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz zt”l once told me that he was my shver’s roommate in Chevron. He said that despite the fact that they were roommates, he never saw him in the room! “He always came in after me at night and left the room before I awoke in the morning,” Rav Michel Yehuda said.

My shver learned with such tremendous hasmodah in Chevron that he would remain awake for two nights straight, learning for thirty hours, and then, when he literally had no strength, he would collapse, falling asleep with his clothing and even his shoes still on. Upon awakening, he would again learn with a fi’erdiger bren for another thirty hours straight before collapsing into bed.

During those years in Chevron, he finished Shas b’iyun, as well as Talmud Yerushalmi. Rav Simcha Zissel Broide zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Chevron, told me that when they were bochurim in Chevron, they had a seder during which they learned nine hours every day, and they learned the entire Maseches Eiruvin together five times.

The children of Rav Yitzchok Kolitz, former chief rabbi of Yerushalayim, told me that their father, Rav Yitzchok, would learn 20 hours straight together with my shver.

He had a phenomenal memory, with virtually instant recall.

I remember that once, when he was here in America, he was invited to deliver a shiur at the “Sugyos in Daf Yomi Shiur” held in Flatbush at the shul of Rav Bentzion Avrohom Halberstam. He gave a phenomenal, in-depth shiur without any preparation whatsoever.

Rav Berel Povarsky, rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh Yeshiva, related that when he learned in Chevron, he heard from Rav Nosson Zachovsky how the olam in Chevron spoke with wonder about the legendary hasmodah of Rav Berel Schwartzman.

Even though he suffered terribly from powerful migraine headaches, he still learned with such intensity and for such long periods without hefsek.

Did his gaonus stem from his brilliance or from his hasmodah?

There is no question that he was an illuy, but there have been many illuyim throughout the years who have come and gone. It was his phenomenal hasmodah and ahavas haTorah that enabled him to utilize his illuyishe kochos and attain such a level of gadlus and gaonus in all areas of Torah.

His sevaros were extremely glatt. He didn’t engage in illuyishe pilpulim. His shiurim were classic, yeshiva-type shiurim. In the Mir in Europe, the shiurim of Rav Naftoli Trop were known for their glattkeit and clarity. My shver, it was said, had the glattkeit of Rav Naftoli.

You see from his seforim that he said shiurim on all areas of Shas, not just the classical yeshivishe reid. There are shiurim on areas of Taharos, Zeraim and Kodshim.

Tell us about his middas ha’emes in learning.

I will tell you something that I heard from Rav Berel Povarsky. He related that he came to Chevron several years after my shver, also when he was twelve years old. His father sent his tefillin with him to yeshiva, and that was the extent of his bar mitzvah “celebration.” His father did teach him a p’shetel during bein hazemanim before he went to yeshiva. When his friends heard that it was his bar mitzvah, they made him a small bar mitzvah celebration. My shver asked him if he had a p’shetel, because there could not be a bar mitzvah seudah without a p’shetel. Rav Berel was able to answer affirmatively and proceeded to relate the chiddush. My shver, however, did not agree with the shtickel, and what ensued was a spirited Torah argument.

Was it Rav Dov’s hanhogah to engage in argument and refute the sevaros of others?

No. His nature was not a combative one at all. But when it came to Torah, he simply could not accept something that he held was not la’amitah shel Torah, 100% accurate. He felt compelled, for the sake of the honor of the Torah, to dispute any sevorah that he thought was krum or not oisgehalten.

I remember that he once attended a sheva brachos for a son of a great rosh yeshiva. My shver and that rosh yeshiva began to talk in learning, and what ensued was pachad pechodim! There was such a rischa de’Oraisah as my shver felt compelled to argue with that rosh yeshiva because he felt the sevorah he was saying was not la’amitah shel Torah.

Rav Dov was known for his greatness not only in lomdus and halacha, but also in machshovah and Toras hanistar. These are unique areas of learning. How did he get to them?

I think it was just a byproduct of my shver’s tremendous desire to know Toras Hashem in all areas. He used his brilliant mind and his hasmodah to explore every area of Torah possible. He knew all of the sifrei Maharal with unusual clarity. He would often quote the Zohar, but interestingly, when referring to something in the Zohar, he would not quote it by name, but would say, “Chazal say.”

Did he have any rebbi in this area?

I don’t know. He was very close with Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, who was a giant of machshovah. (In fact, for a period in the 1950s, Rav Dov was a maggid shiur at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin). But I don’t think that it was only Rav Hutner.

A glimpse of the vastness and breadth of his knowledge can be gleaned from the fact that for more than thirty years, he gave weekly shiurim on Shabbos on the kappitel Tehillim of “Mizmor shir leyom haShabbos.” Throughout that period, he never repeated the same thought, always adding new insights and chiddushim on the same kappitel of Tehillim.

Rav Dov played an instrumental role in the baal teshuvah movement. How was that?

At his levayah, Rav Mendel Weinbach, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohr Somayach, was maspid my shver as “the father of the teshuvah movement.” Rav Notta Schiller, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohr Somayach, told me an important addition. He said that at the beginning, when the baal teshuvah movement was in its infancy, there was a difference of opinion as to what would be the best way to bring those estranged from Yiddishkeit back. My shver was adamant that the way to do this was by learning Torah with them, rather than by engaging in philosophical discussions. He adamantly felt that a blatt Gemara, the light of the Torah, was the main ingredient necessary to bring them back, and that Torah had more of a potent power than discussions about emunah, philosophy and the like.

From its very beginning, my shver was instrumental in guiding the budding baal teshuvah movement. In fact, the first home of Yeshiva Ohr Somayach was Yeshivas Bais Hatalmud, my shver’s yeshiva. He gave them space in the yeshiva, as well as food, and he became the final authority on all difficult shailos that the yeshiva heads brought to him.

He was officially rosh yeshiva of Ohr Somayach, and for decades he delivered regular shiurim there. He once said that he derived more pleasure from giving shiur in Ohr Somayach than in his own yeshiva, because the young baalei teshuvah have such a deep thirst for Torah.

He guided the baalei teshuvah, nurtured them, and loved them. From the small beginnings of Ohr Somayach, the yeshiva currently has more than 20,000 alumni. It is a tremendous zechus.

Rav Dov was such a genius and a giant. How was he able to come down from his exalted level and relate to talmidim?

He was a very warm person and extremely devoted to his talmidim. A close talmid once remarked that he mentioned to my shver that his wife was not feeling well. A short time later, my shver came to his house with hot chicken soup and heartfelt wishes for a refuah sheleimah.

I will tell you another remarkable story. A former talmid went to consult with him. The talmid, obviously extremely agitated and brokenhearted, told my shver that his wife had just been diagnosed with a terrible illness. After undergoing a battery of tests, the doctors determined that the best place to treat that particular illness was at a medical center in Toronto, Canada. My shver asked him how long he would have to be away in Canada with his wife. He replied that in the beginning, it would be a minimum of two weeks, and after the first round of treatment, they would be able to determine how to proceed.

My shver told the talmid, “I will go instead of you. I have lived in America and I travel there often. I know the language and I know the ways of the land, whereas you will have difficulty there. In addition, who will take care of your children if both you and your wife go? She will be nervous that the children are not being properly cared for. If you are home, you will be able to take care of them and oversee everything.”

The talmid could not believe what he was hearing. “Does the rosh yeshiva really mean it?” Was it possible that the rosh yeshiva, who never stopped learning, would take two weeks out of his schedule and be away from the yeshiva to go to Canada?

My shver unequivocally told him yes and convinced him to explain to his wife that he could be far more helpful for her and that he could better ensure that she would be properly taken care of because of his knowledge of how to get things done in North America.

Indeed, he accompanied her to Canada and, like a caring father, stayed in the hospital with her throughout the two weeks, ensuring that she got the best treatment. This is a glimpse into his devotion to and love of his talmidim.

Rav Avrohom Union of Los Angeles, also a talmid, recalled how my shver once went to visit a talmid in the hospital after he had undergone an operation. While there, my shver was asked if he is the father and he answered affirmatively. Later, he told Rabbi Union that what he had said was not a lie. He really is a father, he said, for a talmid is like a son.

One more story about his love and tremendous heart for others came to light during the shivah. There was a young Sefardi boy who was a fixture at the shivah. It turned out that he was a child from a poor, difficult background who lived in the neighborhood. My shver saw that there was no one taking care of the child and overseeing his needs and spiritual growth. He became like his surrogate father, learning with him every day. My shver went to the school for PTA to make sure he was progressing properly. The great gaon and rosh yeshiva saw a child who needed help and, with his anovah and pashtus, took on the task himself.

We have spoken about Rav Dov, the great gaon and rosh yeshiva, the devoted rebbi for talmidim. Can the rosh yeshiva tell us about Rav Dov, the father and zaide?

He was so warm and unassuming. When he was in America fundraising on behalf of the yeshiva, he would often come here to the house after a long day. He was so approachable and warm to us and to the ainiklach. He would play with the younger ainiklach and bring them presents, just like any zaide. He also bought tefillin, the most mehudardige tefillin, for all of the boys.

(One of Rav Olshin’s sons goes into a side room and brings out a beautiful picture of Rav Dov with a child sitting on his lap, a wide, expansive smile on his lips. “That is me,” explained the son, “sitting on his lap when I was a child.”)

During the last period of his life, when he was very weak, he spoke very little, but when my rebbetzin would come to visit, he would perk up and remind her of the zemiros that they sang on Shabbos when she was a young girl.

Even though he was a giant and a genius, he was able to come down to the level of children and relate to them.

His gadlus was gadlus in everything – in Torah, in humility, in middos, in devotion to others. As I said at the outset, he was a different category of talmid chochom, in a category that does not exist anymore.

Mi yitein lonu temuraso.