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"Ish HaEshkolos"
He led world Jewry from Vilna

by Rabbi Aaron Brafman

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series. It is reprinted here with permission

Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky
5623/1863-5700/1939

In his hesped (eulogy) for the Chofetz Chaim, Reb Elchanan Wasserman quoted the Dubner Maggid's hesped for the Vilna Gaon: Our long history is a chain of tekufos - distinct eras: That of Tanaim, Amoraim, Savroim, ... Gaonim. What signals the end of one tekufa and the beginning of another one? The Dubner answered, Heaven dispatches a man who is so great in Torah that he lights up the world with his knowledge and wisdom. We can sense that he is not of our times, but rightfully belongs to earlier generations. When he passes away, a darkness, a void fills the world. We can actually feel the precipitous fall in the world's spiritual status: a heavenly signal that the end of a tekufa has arrived. Just as Rav Hai Gaon, the greatest and the last of the Gaonim closed his tekufa, so, too, did the Vilna Gaon, who was of a greatness of earlier generations, end his era ... and so, Reb Elchanan concluded, did the Chofetz Chaim belong to earlier times - can't we already feel the darkness of his absence?

The Sense of Loss

Such were our feelings at the funeral of Reb Chaim Ozer. The end of an era? We were witnessing the collapse of the entire world! It was the third blow Klal Yisrael had suffered in ten months. (For nothing rivals the death of a tzaddik as a blow to the Jewish People - see Devarim 28:61.) On 9 Cheshvan, we had lost Reb Shimon Shkop - who had been Rosh Yeshiva in Telshe for 25 years, then in Brainsk and in Grodno. Our beloved Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Boruch Ber Levovitz of Kamenitz, died on 5 Kislev. And now the Rav of all Rabbanim, the leader of all yeshivos, supreme authority over the poskim - Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky had left us.

Each individual was personally wounded, as was evident as old men cried like children. One hundred thousand weeping people!1

The political situation was dreadful: Nazi Germany to the West and the South, ready to annihilate us physically; the Soviet troops to the East and the North, poised to obliterate us spiritually. Who would protect the Jews? - the "mighty" Lithuanian bicycle Army?2 On October 10, 1939 the Soviets had forced the Lithuanians to grant them bases in exchange for returning Vilna to them as their capital: thus the Jews of Vilna were added to the existing Lithuanian Jewish community. Then with the German attack on Poland in September 1939, Lithuania became swollen with the yeshiva students plus thousands of other refugees fleeing Poland. Exactly nine months later, on June 14, 1940, the Soviets delivered an ultimatum to the Lithuanian government, and on July 21 they annexed Lithuania as a Soviet Republic. And now the leader of our generation was snatched from among us. Is there any wonder that we felt the very earth crumble beneath our feet?

The Final Hours

For four years, only he and his immediate family knew that he had cancer. He showed no visible signs of his terrible suffering; a smile was always on his face. He refused to enter a hospital, for he was ever aware of how world Jewry and the yeshivos in particular had rested on his shoulders for fifty-five years...how could he possibly spare time for a hospital stay? When he finally did enter the hospital, his klal work went with him - including the burden of answering the steady stream of sha'alos (halachic queries) from all over the world.

On the last Thursday night of his life,3 he issued orders regarding the dispersal of all the charity funds in his care. To the many visitors in his room he said, "Good night," then whispered, "Who can be zocheh to having a good night? Even so, I have no taynes, chas veshalom to the Ribono Shel Olam (no grievance to G-d)."

Friday, before noon, two men were at his bedside,4 Rabbi Yechezkiel Mishkovsky and Rabbi Moshe Shatzkes (Lomza Rav) - whispering, not to disturb the sleeping tzaddik, not realizing that he had already passed on.

The hospital was three kilometers from the city, but as soon as the news of his passing reached Vilna the entire length of the road was filled with people. B'nei Torah were assigned to transport his remains on their shoulders until the city limits, then to place them on a wagon, fearing the reaction of Soviet authorities to any unusual demonstration. He was placed in the room where he had studied Torah, rendered decisions on sha'ulos, dispensed chessed and tzeddakah, for fifty-five years. There, until Sunday, b'nei Torah said Tehillim (Psalms) and pored over his sefarim day and night.

The Funeral

Those responsible for arranging the funeral Sunday were haunted by an ugly experience with the Soviets at the funeral of Reb Lazer, Minsker Gadol: the Soviets arrested all the maspidim (eulogizers) as well as a number of mourners. Some suggested a quiet funeral for Reb Chaim Ozer, but that was rejected as impossible, for surely all of Vilna would come regardless of plans ... The authorities should be notified: but suppose they forbid a mass funeral? ... The decision: a public funeral would be held, without securing permission from the Soviets. Rabbi Yoseif Shuv, secretary to Reb Chaim Ozer, would take full responsibility if the Soviets were to challenge the proceedings.

Sunday morning, Vilna's entire Jewish populace gathered, joined by the yeshiva students and the refugees to whom he had been father and sole contact with the outside world.

The first hesped was delivered at his house by the Rosh Beis Din (head of the rabbinical court), the aged Reb Henoch Eigesh. The procession then moved to the big Shul, where Rabbi Shatzkes and Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (Lutzker Rav) spoke. The procession continued, stopping every few blocks. A makeshift platform would be raised and a Rav would speak, adding up to a total of forty hespeidim! Instead of interfering, as feared, the Soviets dispatched a battalion of militiamen to preserve order.5 No speakers had dared mention the political situation, until the Vilna Maggid at the graveside made references to "changes taking place" - and was forcefully removed from the platform and arrested. Literally thousands of tzetlach (pieces of paper) with all sorts of requests were thrown into the grave before it was closed - the soldiers made certain that they all reached their destination, not outside, for fear some might contain anti-Soviet propaganda.

Early Years

Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky was born in Ivye, a small town near Vilna where his father was Rav for forty years, preceded by his grandfather who had also served as Rav there for forty years. Reb Chaim Ozer was gifted with an infallible memory - never experiencing "forgetting," as he himself remarked, until his old age. Hence, when asked to deliver the customary drashah at his Bar Mitzvah, he refused, instead inviting guests to "open any page in the Ktzos Hachoshen or in the Nesivos Hamishpat (classic commentaries on one section of the Shulchan Aruch), and I'll recite it from memory." They took up the challenge and he responded - page after page - without missing a word.

At fifteen, he went to the world-renowned yeshiva of Volozhin. In spite of his tender age, he was immediately accepted in Reb Chaim Brisker's select group. When twenty, he passed through Vilna, his fame preceding him. He accepted an invitation to address a learned group there, and overwhelmed them with his shiur (Torah lecture). Soon, every father of an eligible girl and every shadchen (matchmaker) in Vilna was after him.6 He followed the suggestion of his father, a talmid of Reb Yisrael Salanter, who advised him to marry the daughter of the Vilna dayan, Reb Lazer, son-in-law of Reb Yisrael Salanter.

He had expected to engage full-time in Torah study in his father-in-law's house, but after two years Reb Lazer died, and the kehillah of Vilna requested him to take his father-in-law's place. Since the time of the Vilna Gaon, Vilna never had an official rabbi. Instead, a group of dayanim formed the rabbinate - all of them elderly and great lomdim (scholars) and poskim (authorities in Torah Law). Now the twenty-two year old dayan joined their ranks and over the following fifty-five years emerged as the unofficial Rav of Vilna - for it was apparent from the start that his vast Torah knowledge was complemented by great wisdom. Eventually, no convention of gedolim took place without his participation - usually as presiding officer. Soon it no longer seemed odd to see men great in Torah, old in wisdom, gray in years, bending forward to catch every word uttered by the young man with the jet black beard.

The Flawless Memory Bank

His mind was a storage place for all sorts of information - names of places and people from all over the world were deposited there, never to be erased. Hence countless communities, from far-off Jerusalem to my home town, Lomza, when in need of a Rav or Rosh Yeshiva would consult him7; and his choice was always superbly suitable.8

While Reb Chaim Ozer did have a yeshiva, it was not a yeshiva in the usual sense, for he could not give the talmidim (students) much of his time. The group studied independently, and only on Shabbos would the boys gather in his home for discussions. Thus the name - "Reb Chaim Ozer's Kibbutz." In spite of the limited hours he spent with his talmidim, he had vast influence over them and a number of great men emerged from this Kibbutz - among others, Rabbi Moshe Shatzkes, Rabbi Eliezer Silver (Cincinnati), Rabbi Avigdor Amiel (Tel Aviv), and Rabbi Yechezkiel Abramski (formerly of London, then in Jerusalem), Zichronom L'Vrachah.

Indeed, his concern - and his memory - encompassed all, great and small: The Minsker Gadol had a very promising student of Bar Mitzvah age, whom he recommended in a letter to Reb Chaim Ozer for acceptance in his Kibbutz. Reb Chaim Ozer told the boy's father that he was impressed with the recommendation but since his Kibbutz had no mashgiach9 (a faculty member who served as guide and advisor to the students), and he personally could not give the boy his full attention, he advised Slobodka which had a mashgiach and a mussar program (which concentrated on character development).

Six years later, the boy visited Reb Chaim Ozer at his datcha (summer house) near Vilna. Upon hearing his name, Reb Chaim Ozer, of course, recalled the letter, and was pleased that he had followed his advice and entered Slobodka. Then, as was his custom, he told the boy, "Zogt epes (Say a dvar Torah)." The young fellow explained that he was now deeply involved in the complicated subject in Hilchos Shegagos, and a famous Rambam on it. "If the Rebbe is not currently studying the subject it might prove difficult for him to discuss."10 The young fellow immediately realized the chutzpah of his remark, but it was too late. The words had been spoken.

Reb Chaim Ozer good-naturedly said, "Test me!" Once they entered the subject, it proved as fresh in his mind as if he had studied it that very morning. When they concluded their discussion, the young man still seemed terribly ill at ease for his hasty remark. To ease the pain, Reb Chaim Ozer set out to walk him back toward Vilna. After a half mile, when they were ready to part, the boy wanted to accompany Reb Chaim Ozer back to his house. Reb Chaim Ozer refused, saying: "Then I'll have to beglait you again, and we could continue in this manner all day."

When on another visit the same young fellow asked him a kushya (question), Reb Chaim Ozer pulled out ten sefarim from his vast collection, and showed him the same kushya in all ten.

Years later, the young man became a Rosh Yeshiva in a distant land, maintaining a Torah correspondence with Rabbi Chaim Ozer all the while. In one letter, Reb Chaim Ozer wrote him that the Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk, Reb Moshe Sokolowski (author of Divrei Moshe) had passed away, and he recommended the young Rosh Yeshiva for this position. Parenthetically, he added that he personally advises against the move, for the situation in Europe would eventually force him to leave. The young Rosh Yeshiva took his advice, and instead of joining Brisk founded a yeshiva of his own, eventually becoming a leading figure in Torah circles.



Rabbi Nissan Waxman, currently in Petach Tikva, recalls passing through Vilna with the Mirrer Yeshiva shortly after World War I. Reb Chaim Ozer helped him get to Slobodka where he studied for two years, followed by five years in Yeshivas Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan in New York. On his return to Mir he stopped in to see Reb Chaim Ozer, and he was introduced as an "Amerikaner ben Torah." Reb Chaim Ozer interjected: "What are you talking about? I only recently sent him to Slobodka" - remembering a passing encounter of seven years before.

Druskenik - Yeshiva Town in the Forest

Doctors in Poland often advised their patients to recuperate in Druskenik, a town surrounded by forests and blessed with "dry air". As it was close to both Grodno and Vilna, Reb Shimon Shkop and Reb Chaim Ozer used to vacation there. And so did Reb Boruch Ber of Kamenitz and Reb Aharon Kotler also spent summers there. (Thus all the photographs in circulation of Gedolim in Druskenik.) The local Jewish citizenry waited all year for the summer months when every house became a "hotel" and every bit of space was rented out. Nonetheless, a ben Torah in need of a datcha was never at a loss, for the local Rav and his son headed a committee to arrange free room and board for b'nei Torah. As a result, a "yeshiva corner" developed in the forest, away from the more vulgar goings-on.

When I was a student in Baranovitz, I asked the Mashgiach for permission to vacation in Druskenik, adding that I had a relative there, so I would not be a burden on the committee. He granted me permission for a two week datcha. One morning while I was there, news spread that Reb Chaim Ozer was coming. The local Rav always had difficulty finding a suitable house for him, for although Reb Chaim Ozer claimed to need only a bed for himself and a bookcase for his sefarim, the Rav knew better. Reb Chaim Ozer not only headed Polish Jewry, he was the leader of world Jewry. The hundreds of daily letters with all sorts of questions and problems had to be answered - even in Druskenik. Nor did the lines of visitors, dignitaries and government officials stop because it was summer. The Rav finally selected a house of suitable stature, close to the "yeshiva corner."

A group of b'nei Torah kept a vigil on the house, waiting for the tzaddik's arrival. Finally the local Rav and his son brought him from the station, and we found his bearing striking - a rather short man with an unusually large head ... I was reminded of a description of the Sha'agas Arye, as possessing a large head, out of proportion to his body. His face seemed to glow with wisdom, his eyes full of goodness. Reb Chaim Ozer and the Rav entered the house while we remained outside. When they came out, we could hear him saying to the Rav, "I cannot accept the house. First I must check with her."

Someone whispered that the local Rav was out of step, and should have shown the house to the Rebbitzin. - But isn't Reb Chaim Ozer a widower?11 whispered another bystander. - Then, who is this "her"?

It turned out that Reb Chaim Ozer had been referring to his cook. The kitchen was a distance from the dining room, and he feared it would prove too tiring for her for serving. In Eastern Europe, no decent man would eat in the kitchen ... Eventually, the cook arrived, loaded down with her pots and pans, and she gave her approval to the quarters.

Source of Chessed

His house was wide open day and night. No appointment was required. His house was thus always full of people - the sick, widows, orphans, Rabbanim, Roshei Yeshiva, visitors from all over the world. One wondered when he had time for study, yet he published three volumes of his Responsa in his monumental Achiezer.

More amazing was his spiritual stamina. His only child, a girl of seventeen, became ill, was bedridden for three years, and died at twenty. Throughout this trying period, his Klal activities and his writing of his Achiezer did not diminish.

He personally handled funds for any number of charities. Thus to people the world over, the Joint Distribution Committee, Vaad Hatzala, the Haffkine Fund12 all had but one address, for both givers and receivers: Reb Chaim Ozer's.

A young orphan girl came to him for financial help just before her wedding. He asked her, "Tell me, my daughter, did you learn the halachos regarding family purity?"

No, she did not.

He asked her to come into his office and be seated. He sat in his own chair and stared out the window while telling her in detail all the pertinent laws, never once averting his gaze.

He was, indeed, a father to all Klal Yisrael as well as to every individual member.

Agudath Israel

Reb Chaim Ozer was one of the founders of Agudath Israel and the pillar of the movement throughout his life, participating in every Knessia Gedolah as long as health permitted. When the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) was established, he was the first chairman and remained so throughout his life. When his talmid Rabbi Eliezer Silver became the founding president of Agudath Israel of America, he sent personal greetings. More, he instructed Rabbi Shlomo Heiman, revered Rosh Yeshiva of Mesifta Torah Vodaath, to participate in the first American Agudath Israel Convention in Far Rockaway in 1937, and to accept the vice-presidency of the budding organization. Reb Shlomo customarily shied away from public affairs, but Reb Chaim Ozer urged him to make an exception for "to associate with Agudath Israel in any way possible is a Kiddush Hashem. "

The Chofetz Chaim would not initiate any public action, or sign any public document, until he consulted with Reb Chaim Ozer. The Chofetz Chaim considered him as a living embodiment of Torah and showed him the utmost respect.

Once when they were both to sign a public proclamation, the Chofetz Chaim refused to sign first, claiming that Reb Chaim Ozer personified Kavod HaTorah (the honor of Torah).

Reb Chaim Ozer in turn deferred to the Chofetz Chaim, claiming that he encompassed both "Kavod HaTorah and venerable old age."

The Chofetz Chaim then counter-argued that Reb Chaim Ozer was more than Moreh De'asra of Vilna; he was the Moreh of Klal Yisrael, as well. He should sign first.

Finally Reb Chaim Ozer won the "argument," backing his claim with "Vekidashto - you shall sanctify the kohen" - even over his protest - and the Chofetz Chaim was a kohen. The Chofetz Chaim yielded, providing that: Reb Chaim Ozer sign alongside his signature, not on the following line.

The Sha'alos Uteshuvos - His Responsa

Reb Chaim Ozer's brilliance as well as the scope of his leadership are reflected both in the sha'alos (halachic queries) that were sent to him from all parts of the world and in the teshuvos (responsa) he sent in return. He would write each responsum personally, not entrusting this to a secretary. His mind was so disciplined, that he would simultaneously write a responsum in halachah, give orders to two secretaries, and speak on the telephone.

His psak (decision) often reflected a concern far beyond the immediate question posed ... He was known to use an electric bulb in place of a havdalah candle; "people think that electricity is not a fire, and thus they permit themselves to put on electric lights on Shabbos," he explained. "So I make a point of saying the blessing 'Borei me'orei ha'eish - He created the lights of the fire' on an electric bulb to demonstrate that electricity is, indeed, a fire."

His last three p'sakim were typical:

A number of talmidim of the Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin who had escaped to Vilna wanted to join Yeshivas Mir.

His psak: No! Every Yeshiva has a rightful place in Klal Yisrael, he explained. No one has the right to dissolve a Yeshiva; especially one like Chachmei Lublin.13



A number of visas to leave Vilna had been granted and the question arose: who is more entitled to them, the old Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva, or the young ones? (He personally could have gone to the country of his choice, but he refused to abandon Vilna.) This was a she'eila in dinei nefashos - a matter of life and death - for it was expected that sooner or later everybody would fall victim to either the Russians or the Germans.

His psak: The older rabbis should get the visas, for the older men would work tirelessly to see to it that those left behind would also get visas.


His final recorded teshuva (he submitted it to the Lutsker Rav, Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, for review before mailing it) was to the Swiss Rabbinate. Shechitah (ritual slaughter) had been forbidden in Switzerland for many years. This proved no hardship for Swiss Jews, for they relied upon imported meats. When the Nazis occupied all countries surrounding Switzerland, however, the rabbis asked Reb Chaim Ozer if it were permissible to stun the animal with an electric shock prior to shechitah, to conform with Swiss law.

His reply: No. After citing numerous sources, he ended his psak with the following words: "The Jews are an ancient people - old and gray from tzaros and enemies. Yet all its enemies of the past have vanished and the Jews are still in existence. In times such as these every one is called upon to demonstrate mesiras nefesh (to put his life on the line) even for a rabbinical ordinance - most assuredly in our case, when a Torah prohibition is involved. My decision, thus, is that the proposal is prohibited. "

He was called "lsh Ha'Eshkolos - The Man of Clusters." The Talmud explains the term: "Reb Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: (it refers to) a man who has everything in him." Rashi enumerates: "True understanding of Torah, without falsehood, without forgetfulness, nor is he argumentative" (Sotah 47b). What a perfect description of that giant called Reb Chaim Ozer! With his passing, a tekufah came to an end, as the Dubner Maggid had explained.

What, then, can we call our present tekufah, which followed? Reb Elchanan Wasserman, among so many others, described it aptly: "lkvesa Dim'shicha" - the chaotic era immediately preceding Mashiach's arrival.


Footnotes

1. Vilna had close to 80,000 Jewish residents, plus 20,000 refugees. To this add the delegations from all over Lithuania. [return to text]

2. Liberating their capital city Vilnius, the Lithuanian Army marched in, in full force: A dozen small tanks, followed by an army on bicycles, wearing white gloves, with rifles hanging from their shoulders. That was the extent of their "crack troops" - the motorized division.[return to text]

3. Most details are adapted from an article in Hapardes, 1940. [return to text]

4. Reb Moshe Shatzkes was the stepson of Reb Itzele Blazer (Peterburger). Reb Yechezkiel Mishkovsky was Reb Itzele's son-in-law. [return to text]

5. Apparently they appreciated how the Jews had valued their Rabbin. Or, perhaps, because their occupation was only three days old, they did not want to risk stirring up the population.[return to text]

6. A din Torah actually arose regarding Reb Chaim Ozer, and was brought before Reb Yitzchak Elchanan, revered Kovno Rav. One claimant argued that since he gave him his "derech in lernen," he holds a spiritual claim over him. Reb Lazer argued that he had a physical claim, for Reb Chaim Ozer would have been a soldier in the Czar's army - since he had arranged Reb Chaim Ozer's "green billet" (exemption slip). After Reb Yitzchak Elchanan had a Torah discussion with the young man, he said, "If I had a daughter I would want him for my own son-in-law." Neither of them knew that, under his father's guidance, Reb Chaim Ozer already made his own selection. [return to text]

7. This follows the practice recorded in the Gemara: the city of Semunya asked Rebbi to recommend a dayan and darshan (preacher) for them - (Yerushalmi Yevamos 60:2). [return to text]

8. For Dvinsk he recommended an unknown young man who was learning in his father-in-law's house in Bialystok, Reb Meir Simcha, later known by the name of his sefer - the Or Same'ach. For Lomza he recommended his talmid, the Rav of his hometown Ivye, Reb Moshe Shatzkes. When Rabbi Shatzkes arrived in Lomza, my father greeted him with a "vort" relating to the Gemara in Baba Basra 12a. "Ameimar said, 'A chacham (wise man) is superior to a navi (prophet), as it says 'Venavie l'vav chachma' (may we bring to ourselves a heart of wisdom)" Tehillim 90, 12. My father asked, "How does this prove wisdom's superiority? - Simply because we pray for it? We pray for many things!" My father answered, "Tefilla l'Moshe ish Ha'Elokim - If Moshe who reached the highest level of prophecy prays for the attainment of l'vav chachma,' then wisdom is certainly higher than prophecy." [return to text]

On Rabbi Shatzkes's next trip to Vilna, he repeated the vort to Reb Chaim Ozer. Reb Chaim Ozer excitedly exclaimed: "This is l'amita shel Torah - the true intent of the passage! Is that typical of your ba'alei batim in Lomza?" He then listed dozens of cities and their Rabbanim, the quality of their ba'alei batim, and how such ba'alei batim make it obligatory for a Rau to ever advance in his Torah scholarship, to qualify as their Rav.

9. As Reb Chaim Ozer remarked to Reb Yeruchem Levovitz, mashgiach of Mir, "A yeshiva without a mashgiach and mussar is a bor bir'shus harabbim - an open hazard in a public place." [return to text]

10. Reb Chiya said to Rav, When Rebbi (Rabbi Judah the Prince, who compiled the Mishna) is studying one Mesechta do not ask him about another Mesechta. Perhaps it's not [clear] in his mind at that moment (Shabbos 7b).[return to text]

11. He was a brother-in-law to Reb Elchanan Wasserman through his second marriage.[return to text]

12. In the beginning of the century, millions of people in Europe and Asia, particularly India, died in a cholera epidemic. Dr. Haffkine invented a serum that arrested the epidemic.

The Indian Government honored him by naming a university after him. When he returned to Paris, he became a ba'al teshuvah and left his entire fortune for yeshivos. The building of the Yeshiva in Kaminetz was in a great measure built from the Haffkine Fund. Hence Reb Chaim Ozer's remark: "Dr. Haffkine devised not only a serum against cholera, but also a serum for Klal Yisrael - that is, for the yeshivos." [return to text]

13. While Reb Chaim Ozer did appoint Reb Moshe Shatzkes Rosh Yeshiva for the Grodno yeshiva when its talmidim arrived in Vilna, he did not appoint anyone for Chachmei Lublin. Apparently he did not know a qualified chassidic gadol in Vilna and this was essential to preserve the character of the Yeshiva. [return to text]

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

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